2018 has been a hell of a year, and in many ways has felt like an eternity. In that eternity, we’ve gotten a huge variety of great films. Here are some of my favorite elements and moments from film in 2018. This will be mostly [spoiler-free] unless otherwise noted.
Best Opening Scene: A Quiet Place
John Krazinski’s horror thriller is a master class in tension throughout, and in my opinion its strongest elements are all set up in its stunning opening sequence. The opening plays out as a short silent film, with all communication in either sign language or simply conveyed through facial expressions. Krazinski has the confidence to establish his bleak, post-apocalyptic world in which any sound means instant death without any dialogue exposition.
Not only does this sequence communicate the dangers of the world and condition the audience to fear every single sound cue, but it also establishes the character motivations for each of the primary characters. Lee (Krazinski) is overly protective of Regan (Millicent Simmonds) because he fears her disability might put her in peril, and Regan feels an overwhelming guilt about what happened to her brother. The conflicts set up by the death of Beau create the stakes and emotional heart of the film, and it’s such smart, efficient storytelling that keeps the audience on-board for what comes next.
Best Ending Scene: BlacKkKlansman
2018 was yet another year of fantastic endings, but none packed quite the gut-punch of BlacKkKlansman. I’m going to have to get into [spoilers] for the film, so skip to the next section if you haven’t seen it.
BlacKkKlansman opens with footage from Gone With The Wind which portrays the end of the Confederacy, and juxtaposes that with the creation of the Klan. At the end of the film, while Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has won a victory against David Duke, it becomes clear that the war against the KKK rages on. Spike Lee makes the bold decision to end the film in a completely bold direction: with archival footage of the Charlottesville rallies of 2017, complete with tiki-torch intimidation tactics and violence between white supremacists and protesters.
This shift to archival footage really shouldn’t work narratively. And yet, because Spike Lee has taken such a bold approach with the rest of the film, the transition to real footage becomes a harrowing reality check as the ideas of the films’ antagonists are realized in modern times.
I Didn’t Get It: Mandy
Maybe you haven’t heard of the recent Nicholas Cage psychedelic thriller Mandy, but it’s come up on a huge number of top 10 lists across respected film journalists. The TL;DR of the plot is that Red’s (Nicholas Cage) wife, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), is kidnapped and brutally murdered by a cult, pushing Red to his breaking point. Red goes on a rampage and murders, well, everyone. So first, I will admit that this movie is incredibly well-shot and frequently surrealism at its most beautiful. The story completely loses me though. Every character feels extremely shallow and simple. Sometimes the tone feels campy, sometimes horrifying, sometimes simply insane, and those tonal shifts were just too jarring for me. What really through me off, however, is that at no point can I connect or care with any character in the film, and without that the entire two hour runtime feels like nothing more than a self-indulgent (though well-constructed) “Midnight” festival flick with very little to say on a meta-textual level.
I Didn’t Get It (runner up): Widows
I feel somewhat guilty choosing this; after all, Widows is a good movie. Actually, it’s a really good movie. What I don’t “get” about Widows is how it transcends “good movie” and becomes one of the best of the year, according to some critics. While I found the film extremely technically well-made, and the performances pitch-perfect, the tone and plot of the film are just so dour to me. I’ve heard some say that Widows is a really funny film, and I just do not get that at all. At no point did I feel anything other than stressed for what these women were seeking to accomplish, and had trouble latching on to rooting for certain characters because of the moral ambiguity that director Steve McQueen is deliberately introducing. I see Widows as an extremely well-executed genre film with some subtext about race and the nature of trust, but have trouble connecting with it on an emotional level.
They Didn’t Get It: Mortal Engines
Hmm. When I put this and my previous pick back-to-back, it feels ridiculous; to be clear, Widows is a much better film than Mortal Engines. The reason I pick Mortal Engines here is that the film came and went with hardly even a whimper, as Universal made one of the most baffling release-date decisions that I’ve ever seen. Mortal Engines is bonkers, with cities capable of driving across land (hunting down villages that drive across land at a much slower pace), sentient robots with attachment issues, and a scenery-chewing Hugo Weaving. I’m not going to pretend this film is good, but it’s really fun, embraces its campiness, and envisions a unique world that we’ll never see again. My biggest complaint: there’s only one Mortal Engine! Where’s the Boston Behemoth, Tokyo Tank, or Paris Panzer?? In a movie called “Mortal Engines,” I really expect multiple mortal engines.
Most Disappointing: The Cloverfield Paradox
The Cloverfield Paradox was probably my most anticipated film of 2018, so imagine my excitement when it dropped by surprise when Netflix dropped it right after the Super Bowl. I cannot stress enough just how bad this movie is. After an opening montage that does breezes past the most interesting moments of the story, we’re introduced to a cookie-cutter cast of characters, none of which are given any personalities beyond stock types. Perhaps the biggest sin that The Cloverfield Paradox commits is that not only is it the first bad entry into a previously stellar franchise and concept, but it manages to drag any other entries with it by proposing a canonical explanation that unites the films. My suggestion? Skip this film entirely, and just pretend that A Quiet Place is the third entry into the Cloverfield franchise.
I Can’t Believe They Pulled It Off: Searching
Searching should really feel like a gimmick. With the exception of the Unfriended films, there hasn’t been a successful attempt to tell an entire 90 minute film within a computer screen. What Searching gets right is that, for the most part, the computer screen is the best way to tell this particular story. In this day and age, the best way to do any amateur forensic work is online, and that’s exactly what David Kim (John Cho) does when his daughter goes missing. Through his actions in various apps and screens, we get a window directly into David’s thought process, including both his breakthroughs and missteps. As David becomes more and more frantic and paranoid, the audience can completely empathize with him, because he has walked us through every step he took to get there, and they aren’t much different than what we might do. The gimmick wears a little thin towards the end, but for most of its 90-minute runtime, Searching pulls off something truly unique.
Scenes of the Year
Mahjong Faceoff – Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians is easily one of the most fun films of the year, and arguably one of the most important from the perspective of representation. The moment that really sticks out to me is the climax of the film. Spoilers for the end of Crazy Rich Asians. As Rachel (Constance Wu) accepts her fate and chooses to leave the love of her life behind, she requests one final meeting with Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), the antagonist of the film. The meeting is set at a Mahjong parlor, and the two sit down and begin to play. Rachel explains her thought process and the reasons that she has given up Nick: she found herself in a lose-lose situation, where game theory told her that what was best for Nick was for her to choose to leave on her own accord. She explains that she was not, in fact, beaten down, but instead was choosing willingly to “lose” so that Nick might find happiness and peace. All throughout the conversation, the two continue playing, until finally Eleanor wins. Rachel reveals that she had manipulated the game all along, such that they both could win.
What I love about this scene is how the game mirrors the conversation, and is shot in such a way that the symbolism is made clear without explanation. The majority of the film’s western audience (myself included) do not understand the rules of Mahjong, and no clunky attempt is made to explain it to them. Instead, the film has the courage to trust its audience, and the storytelling intelligence to visually explain the connection. It is subtle and easy to overlook, but results in a powerful climax that delivers the pathos the audience has been craving throughout the entire film.
The Shallows – A Star is Born
A Star is Born seems to have somehow become the awards film that everyone forgot. Personally I find the film itself exquisitely crafted and incredibly well shot and directed. I think the movie suffers a bit towards the ending, as it becomes less of a two-hander and emphasizes only Jackson Maine’s (Bradley Cooper) troubled story. However, when the movie is firing on all cylinders, it really gets there, and in no sequence is that more true than the emotional peak, Ally (Lady Gaga)’s first time on stage. Everything the film has been setting up builds to a crescendo as Jack convinces Ally to take the stage, with all fear, excitement, and anticipation laid bare on her face. All of the tension in the scene is released as Ally enters the song and belts the chorus as only Lady Gaga can. For me, few scenes in 2019 can compete with the emotional climax of The Shallows.
Dancing the Lead – Suspiria
Suspiria is a fascinating movie – read 10 different reviews of the film, and you can find 10 different metatextual takes, each as valid as the last. It’s a film that requires chewing… and chewing… and chewing in order to make sense of what is what in Luca Guatanino’s intellectual horror film. The most affecting moment of the film comes early in the film, as the new American dancer Susie (Dakota Johnson) suggests that she is willing to take the lead of the dance after the previous lead steps down. As Susie begins the dance, we see her shift and sway her body in ways that, while physically possible, appear extremely unnatural and disturbing. Meanwhile, however, we cross-cut to the former lead, Olga (Elena Fokina), alone in a practice room, somehow being supernaturally flung in a multitude of directions, as though her body was being inhumanly contorted by an invisible force. Perhaps most disturbing is that while Olga is in horrendous pain, her body mangled, each shift is not mortal but only causes more pain, with no hope for release in death in sight.
Those are just a few of my favorite movie moments and elements of 2018! Be sure to check out my Top 10 films of 2018, coming in a few days.