Ah, yes. The glory of awards season, when it seems like all the wrong movies get bolstered with undeserved praise and the nuances and joys of some of the best films get lost in the shuffle. What better way to combat all that than with a massive reconsideration of what we watched over the past 12 months.
Now, ranked movie lists are funny things, and they proliferate around this time. Yes, they’re intended to offer a chance to look back and champion the movies we loved, but within that simple aim, chaos can ensue. Usually, that takes the form of arguing over the rankings (though this only tends to happen when either the critic or the reader believes their opinion is an objective fact). But of course, it’s all completely subjective. These aren’t the best films of the year. I may not have even seen the best film of the year. These are simply my favorites. And they offer a unique opportunity to talk about what was interesting in this year of cinema.
There are three things to note about how I approach these types of lists. The first is that I generally like to talk about a lot of movies, so I usually break it down into categories like “favorite popcorn films” and “best performances” before saving room for a final ten or so. The second is that I have some friends who work in Hollywood, and it would be improper for me to include their release in any list. But not including certain movies also feels weirdly disingenuous. So any time there’s a personal connection with a movie, I’ve marked it with an asterisk. It’s completely up to you how you view these entries. The last thing to note is that I don’t go to critics’ screenings and I pay for my movies, so that sadly means there are a lot I don’t ultimately get to see. Yes, that vexes me, but I have to draw a line otherwise I’d still be writing this list in 2024. So without further ado…
Movies I Didn’t Get to See, I’m Sorry I’m Sorry I’m Sorry:
If Beale Street Could Talk, The Rider, Minding the Gap, A Star Is Born, Vice, Shoplifters, Support the Girls, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Favourite, The World Is Yours, Incredibles 2, Mandy, Destroyer, Thoroughbreds, Skate Kitchen, All About Nina, Blockers, Cold War
Favorite Popcorn Films
*The Old Man and The Gun
We’ll start with a gentle movie that didn’t get the attention it deserved, possibly because of that gentleness. But that’s part of the point. The Old Man and The Gun is a fitting send-off for Robert Redford’s nuclear-powered movie star charm. The man is walking teflon. So of course his latest film is about a raconteur bank robber who can talk his way into anything. The result is a little light on drama, but you’ll be too busy basking in the warm sunbeam of what else it has to offer to notice.
This was one of my favorite surprises early in the year. It takes an absurd, illogical premise that’s too complicated to explain, and somehow is able to craft scenes that flip between pointed suspense and comic dramatic irony. I point this out because that’s incredibly difficult to pull off on a writing level. Seriously, watch this movie and then imagine trying to craft a scene that conveys those complicated layers of plot and tonal juxtaposition. Every scene seems to be trying to do a triple-backflip and I’m shocked the creators pull half of them off. Granted, part of what helps is that it is one of the few action comedies that actually understands how to use the language of tense action for comic effect, often stopping and starting those aforementioned juxtaposed tones on a dime. It results in one of the most subtly ambitious movies of the year.
A Quiet Place
John Krasinski has quietly been looking for a post-Office identity for a few years now, but he has really found a foothold with this one. It’s a pure “fundamentals” effort: taking a neat horror premise and grounding it in layers of careful character work, all while ratcheting up the tension with textbook scares. Ultimately, I could pick apart a couple big story issues (like how the metaphor of keeping the daughter out of the basement only works thematically, not within the actual story conflict) but these are only concerns that hold it back from “best of the year” status. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I unabashedly love this movie. Yes, it’s tremendously silly, but it’s not the free-wheeling, nonsensical sketch-fest you might assume would result from something that started as a sneaker commercial. Uncle Drew’s got a beating heart and surprisingly earnest core. But what else could be expected from Charles Stone III (Drumline!), who walked in and began delivering the kind of broad, wholesome movies you feel like Hollywood forgot how to make. And performance revelations abound in this one: Kyrie Irving is a good actor! Lisa Leslie is a really good actor! And somehow Chris Webber is an amazing actor! I love when a movie surprises me with endless competence, and this film was full of it.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Simply put, no one is doing action like Christopher McQuarrie. No one. And it all starts at the fundamental writing level; he creates clear goals, sets the stakes and then unleashes the dramatic results. When you break down the sequence of events, you quickly realize the plot is filled with essential bits that other action films don’t bother with. Which is probably the reason those action scenes gently waft over you like a warm breeze, while these Mission: Impossible films have you sweating and holding the edge of your seat. Of course, I’m underselling the technical marvels that go into them. Their collective commitment to real-life stunt work is an oasis in the modern landscape. Because when we know something is “real” in that old-school movie way, the audience can look at everything as a performance. That’s how jaws drop. And now, we’re getting two more…I genuinely hope Tom Cruise survives.
There are a lot of actors I could mention here, but I’ll make special note of other great performances in the discussion of the movies themselves. This space is for singling out distinction that just wouldn’t get mentioned elsewhere.
Jesse Plemons, Game Night
If you had told me that Landry from Friday Night Lights would one day turn in one of the great random, weirdo performances I…well, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But as the quietly disturbed neighbor, Gary, Plemons crafts a pitch-perfect, off-kilter human from another planet who is so much more than a fun surprise. He actually provides the weird tone that is the most crucial element for making the entire damn film work. And I love him for it.
Cynthia Erivo, Widows
Sometimes people show up on screen with such presence and distinction that your immediate reaction is to simply wonder, “Who the fuck is that???” Unsurprisingly, these people often come from theater and, like Erivo, they make you ready to watch everything they ever do.
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Fifteen-year-old Elsie Fisher is undoubtedly amazing in Eighth Grade, embodying the exact kind of reality of youth that rarely gets shown with such blunt honesty. She didn’t receive an Academy Award nomination (though she has received a plethora of other awards and recognitions for the role), and that’s a good thing, because it’s my personal opinion that anyone under 18 (or even 21) shouldn’t be allowed to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s not that they’re undeserving, nor that they lack the maturity to handle it. It’s the fact that throwing them to the wolves of awards season is cruel, even for people comfortably in adulthood. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a closer look at the ugly process full of journalists behaving with inappropriate malice. It’s interesting that putting any teenager in that situation, with all the pressure of what they’re “supposed” to do, actually taps perfectly into the issues the film raises.
Miranda July, Madeline’s Madeline
I love Miranda July’s work so deeply, but it was in viewing this film that I realized how little I’ve seen her effectively “play it straight” and get away from the abstract permutations of her own art. As Madeline’s mother, July is actually the most grounding force in the entire film. She is wide-eyed, vulnerable, loving and yet uniquely terrified while trying to grapple with the moment-to-moment realities of her daughter’s mental illness. The result is deeply powerful, and to my point, completely surprising. And yet I’m not at all surprised that she was capable of it.
Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
I’m not kidding when I say this is probably one of my favorite performances of all time. It’s not just that Grant is obviously funny and capable of providing all the tangible delights of the film’s farcical nature, it’s that maybe no one but Hugh Grant could have pulled it off quite like this. Grant’s in an interesting position, far from the glory years where his foppish good looks and impeccable timing made him a romantic comedy legend. It seems he’s slowly been seeping into roles that depict different angles of a man whose best days are behind him. But in that very space, he’s creating his best work. He’s barreling through with the same charm as ever, while offering his own foibles up on a plate. And as the acting-obsessed weirdo villain of Paddington 2, he gives us so many gifts: endless characters and voices all dripping with ostentatious flair and a palpable, thin-skinned humanity. He’s showing us good and bad acting at the exact same time, often in five different permutations. This is incredible stuff. And in a just world, it would be recognized for exactly what it is.
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther
We’ll talk about Black Panther more in a bit, but Michael B. Jordan’s work as Erik Killmonger is too sublime not to mention. It all starts on the page with one of the most fully realized psychological portraits of a villain I’ve seen in recent memory. But Jordan brings those human dimensions to life with such veracity in his depiction of a boy full of rage, assuredness and hunger. At the same time, he is full of weakness, seething misogyny, and an unrelenting vulnerability sitting in the pit of his stomach. Erik’s ready to rip things apart, but really, like most boys, all he really needs is to be able to find the space to cry. Because like all rage, it comes from a wound—the valid, gushing emotional losses that fill life. But our inability to heal those wounds all build to a catharsis of impasse. And so, his most haunting final lines are left to ring in our ears, “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” The wounds being explored in this are everywhere. They are deep. They are archaic. And they must be healed the same.
Movies I Loved That Just Didn’t Make the List Somehow
*You Were Never Really Here
At its core, Lynne Ramsay’s gun-for-hire story is achingly familiar: a hitman has to find and rescue a young girl. But even if you think you’ve heard this tale before, you’ve never seen it quite like this. For it is in the “how” that the real story is explored. From the compositions, to the edits, to its creeping sound scape, nothing is random. They’re substantive. And in the end, I think Ramsay has crafted one of the few violent films that feels like it genuinely doesn’t glorify or relish in it. In doing so, she gives us a rare film that breaks apart your understanding of how a movie should guide you through its story like an egg being smashed on a countertop that somehow still ends up with its yolk intact. Honestly, I haven’t felt this thrown by a film’s constructional proceedings since Gordon Willis shot Klute. So even if the film itself ends up suffering an unfortunate thematic comparison to Pizzagate, it also stands as one of the most vital films of 2018, and one that must be seen.
I think that Steven Soderbergh always delivers on the movie he’s aiming to make. No, he doesn’t always make a transcendent classic, but he rarely slips into the category of outright misfire (though Kafka and Full Frontal are possible examples). I know some find the texture of his work “cold,” but when you really sit there and ask the central questions: Is this effective? Does the film fulfill its intention? Then I feel like he always gets his movies where they need to be. Unsane is sort of the perfect example of this. Part of his new run of “iPhone features” (including the upcoming High Flying Bird, which got raves at Sundance), Unsane gives us a tight, paranoid thriller about stalkers, misdiagnosis and the medical industry. But the film actually gets better when it dips away from its vague mysteriousness and dwells in straight suspense. That’s exactly where Soderbergh picks his spots and cuts deep.
All my criticisms of Widows ultimately just come down to little bits of plot and tact. And while that may matter when it comes to the way we talk about constructing tight thrillers, they matter very little when compared to the bigger things Widows is concerned with.
The characters here exist in the shell of a heist movie while dealing directly with issues of race, gender, class and the intersections of all three. If you’re expecting pure pulp, you’ll be quickly reminded that this is a Steve McQueen movie, complete with brutal, unblinking treatments of violence (which are bookended by two of the most interesting action scenes of the year, both of which left me wanting more from him). But the real power of Widows is delivered in showing the toxic parts of our lives we can learn to leave behind and the selfhood we create when we forge ahead.
The Death of Stalin
For a film that’s so damn funny, The Death of Stalin is actually one of the most difficult watches of the year. Occupying the space of The Death of Stalin means occupying the space of that very moment, where the parallels to horrific Trumpism could not be more clear. But the film knows that it deals with themes that touch history and time eternal, where humans fall into these abusive power traps again and again without fail. And with that understanding, the film paints a disturbingly accurate portrait of Stalin’s fall and the chaotic vacuum that followed. It reveals an ugly stain that takes up the view of everything before us now. The Death of Stalin doesn’t cut to the bone. It doesn’t even stare at the void…It is the void. You’d probably laugh more if you weren’t too busy watching with transfixed horror.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I feel like I say it every year, but we really do take the Coen brothers for granted. But it’s because they’re just so insanely good at what they do that I’m not sure anything else could happen. Here they give us six tales that all center on the topic of death, but within that theme, they bounce around the spectrum of the brothers’ now familiar tones—all the way from Looney Tunes violence to sobering existential dread.
It would be very easy to argue about which shorts are better than others, but in the same spirit of this year-end list, I feel like each entry contains its raison d’être. And so I can’t help but feel that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, like all their work, features nothing that will ultimately be considered minor.
But I must admit I’m also left with another lingering feeling. And that is about how the ugly, archaic depiction of Native Americans in this film stands as another unfortunate example of the Coen’s problem with the intersectional realities of our present day. For a duo that is so good and finding empathy and hilarity in the world of human beings, the difference of these depictions is glaring. I just want to shout back, “Avoid it completely or get with the program, fellas!”
The Non-Movie Movies
Joe Pera Talks With You
Sometimes you have a friend who won’t stop talking about a show or movie (Hi Andrew!) and they do it so much you finally break down and watch. But then, boy howdy are you glad you did. This was my experience Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You, a series that’s almost impossible to describe.
Each episode focuses on Joe, our deeply-awkward protagonist, as he takes us through a litany of sheepish Midwestern interests: rocks, breakfast foods, even the church announcements. But then it often opens up and breaks into ponderous and sentimental flights of fancy. I would say these are more short films than episodes of comedy, but they’re also tremendously funny. More importantly, they’re never mean in that pursuit. Pera is much less pointing at Americana than he is revealing his feelings about an earnest version of it that doesn’t get talked about much these days. And to his credit, he’s not trying to romanticize it. Even if he’s keenly aware of the fragility of that world, he’s not attempting to preserve it with some kind of conservative glee. Pera is merely trying to let you into it. Just as he let you into his home, his brain, his heart and even his insecurities. All I’m left with is a simple realization: there’s no one I enjoy talking to more.
A Very English Scandal
This is an amazing three-episode series about the 1970s scandal involving Jeremy Thorpe and his sexuality. The result is not just Stephen Frears’ best work in years, but showcases a sublime pairing with Russell T. Davies and John Preston that I hope leads to more years of collaboration. A Very English Scandal delivers a deliciously funny portrait of power structures and their deeply unfunny results. It’s all there—the damning view of systems, privilege, class—wrapped into a story about the ways we run from the shame of being gay in a society that does not view it kindly. The abuses are everywhere. But within those same spaces, the shows carves out the tiny victories among the losses that somehow make living in this world bearable.
If this were a narrative movie, it would be the best of the year. I turned it on late at night, half-interested in a comedy special I had heard raves about. But when it ended I just sat there, shaking, wide-eyed and unmoored. The power of Hannah Gadsby’s story is both heartbreaking and evident in and of itself. What is less evident is the masterful way she brings it to life. First it’s through misdirection of the comedic parts themselves, then it’s through the metaphors that upend the annals of art history (she does this!), all before cresting into the unveiling of her own truth. She comes at us with the most deserved, unshakable rage, before sliding down into the most powerful and beautiful of pleas. As a result, there’s a lot of inane conversation about what Nanette “isn’t” in the world of comedy, but those conversations reveal nothing but the defensive, thin-skinned hearts of those who aim to deride the simple truths that Gadsby so profoundly lays at our feet. The power of Nanette is undeniable.
And Finally, the Favorite Movies
13. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
For most of its running time, this documentary presents a simple and forthright portrait of the great Fred Rogers—the kind and gentle soul who came into kids’ television sets and offered them safety and understanding. The insights of this film may seem like not much if you already understand why Rogers was so revolutionary. He came about right when society was first starting to care about the psychology of children and showed an intense respect to their interiority and feelings (something I now realize the value of beyond anything).
But after all the heartbreaking insights into Fred’s own doubts and capacity for love, the film’s big coup comes when it finally turns around on the audience and asks for our own introspection. As all the talking heads do the same, we’re left in the silence of our thankfulness. I watched this with one of my best friends and we just instant grabbed hands, sobbing, feeling just so thankful for the few people in our lives who had given us so much. It sounds silly to say out loud, but I mean it when I say that the film really reinvigorated my soul. And in doing so, it reminded me what it means to be a neighbor.
12. *Blindspotting (tied)
It may seem strange that after writing an article about the range and resonance of this years African-American films, that I would suddenly group the two amazing films of Blindspotting and BlackKklansman together for a single ranking. But the intent of this comes from same idea: there simply is no reason to pit these amazing films against each other. Nor any reason to argue why one is better than the other. They’re both amazing for completely different reasons. First, with Blindspotting, we get the journeys of Collin and Miles, two young movers struggling with rapid gentrification in their home of Oakland. It shows us what it’s like to live in a world that will quickly usurp your home and identity, and explains how that all becomes doubly problematic in a world that will see the criminality of black skin before it ever sees its humanity.
12. BlackKklansman (tied)
With BlackKklansman, we get a fiery reminder that Spike Lee is still Spike Fucking Lee. Here he lobs up a fearless and hilarious film that has no interest in the lies of subtlety. The film makes it clear: there is genuine hate in this world, just as there is genuine love. We all know the difference. And when people try to split hairs to find the gray areas it just obscures the clarity of those distinctions (and betrays the gray-seekers’ own motives in mitigating the heinous actions of horrible perpetrators).
When looking at both movies, you can see how Blindspotting is about the hurtful way that things change and BlackKklasman is the mic drop about the hurtful way some things stay the same. And yet each manages to highlight the cost of the battle in the fight for humanity to be seen beyond its surface.
Truth be told, I feel like I’m still unpacking this one. Maybe it was odd to begin with that Luca Guadagnino set his sights on remaking a horror classic, but he does the brilliant thing of only taking the loose framework of the conceit (a coven of witches in a ballet school) and delivers something so very different. I could talk endlessly about Luca’s trademark kinetic style, but there’s so much more meaning in this movie’s nooks and crannies, from the historical parallels of fascism that haunt us daily, to the way the coven blithely torments their students.
But in the end, I find it deeply curious that Suspiria seems to uphold a complicated message of forgiving the appeasers of fascism and I’m not sure it’s one that I entirely agree with (or at least, something I find difficult to forgive in the current climate). But I’m also not even sure I’m unpacking it right. Which is all part of what makes the film so damn compelling. It’s alive and contradictory, dripping with a powerful essence of gender dynamics that can seemingly be tapped into from any perspective. It does this while unravelling itself with imagery so visceral and charged that I’m still shaken by it. So what if it might be inscrutable? I’ll take undeniable any day of the week.
Like the children depicted within this story, Mirai crawled up into my lap wanting to be coddled. And boy did I ever let it. This animated film from Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) takes on a familiar premise. A young boy named Kun has his life upturned by the arrival of his new little sister Mirai, which he doesn’t handle with much grace. But instead of giving us a straight dramatization, the film instead takes on a Christmas Carol-like structure, as Kun is visited by the grown-up versions of his sister, as well as the childlike versions of his parents and even the full-bodied manifestation of his pet dog. These vignettes provide one of the most nuanced looks into the rich tapestry of childhood psychology that I’ve ever seen. The result is a remarkable film about all the ways we “discover” empathy as children and finally learn to put on our big boy pants.
Bodied is one of many movies this year that felt like a tiny miracle. It would be easy to look at Bodied from the outside, seeing this tale of taboo-breaking battle rappers, and assume it’s some kind of snide, anti-PC, South Park-ian tale on the first amendment. But instead, this film looks at every conceivable angle of its story with focus and forethought. Yes, the academic characters of of the film are theory-driven navel-gazers, but they’re also constantly cluing into prescient racial power dynamics. Though those same dynamics get ignored and brushed off in the arena of battle, they are again brought to life with very non-theoretical realities.
The film is so completely disinterested in who is “right,” and concerned with what is humane. It layers powerful contradictions on top of each other just to tell us something much simpler: all words have meaning, consequences and context. And they are are simultaneously indivisible and perfectly divisible depending on the intent behind them—it’s simply our own to navigate. But also, if you’re gonna spit fire, be ready to take responsibility for what gets burned.
8. Eighth Grade
The most intense and stressful movie of the year had nothing to do with nuclear bombs or ticking clocks. It had to do with the humiliation and social angst of middle school, all of which is catapulted into the stratosphere by the oncoming horror of high school. But while much of the brilliance of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade lies right there on the surface, the film’s biggest mic drop comes with the more meta revelation that the feelings young Kayla is describing again and again are actually the calling cards of undiagnosed anxiety. Burnham’s talked about his own battles with clinical anxiety before in public, which just means the omission of the word in this film is meant to lead to a greater truth: Enduring the trials and tribulations of growing up is a thousand times harder when you don’t understand why it really is a thousand times harder for you.
7. Leave No Trace
I’ve talked about my own experiences with suicidal ideation before, and in the name of de-stigmatizing, I won’t stop any time soon. But I will say that in going through that experience, one of the things that becomes starkly clear is that some people actually understand the genuine feelings and nuances of suicide whereas others merely use it as a trope. But it is safe to say that Leave No Trace understands what suicide “is” in its bones.
It all starts with Ben Foster’s remarkable performance, where he fully embodies the walking contradiction at the center of all this. He’s a “survivalist” who can rough it all day and stay completely off the grid, but at the same time, you see what lies underneath every second: the endless and constant need to end his life. It’s the survival instinct reversed, pushing us into the deep desire to literally disappear despite and all of the tangible love and powerful relationships that exist right beside us. And all of this angst is brought to life with both care, power and dramatic verve by Debra Granik. Her direction is as sparse as it is deliberate, organic as is it is assured. To say it’s not one of the best directed films of the year is to not understand directing whatsoever. Perhaps someone should tell the DGA.
6. Black Panther
I keep shaking my head, hearing people call Black Panther “just another Marvel movie” or delivering some other dismissive remark. Because the power of Black Panther goes so far beyond the (still incredibly important) issue of representation. This film is a semiotics lover’s dream, built with layers of depth that put most Hollywood offerings to shame. And that’s not just because of its grand elements like the film’s radical reimagining of an African nation untouched by colonialism, nor the complicated analysis of Killmonger’s Americanism I touched on above. It rests in the little details, too. Like the way Andy Serkis’ bad guy, Klaue, appropriates black culture. Or the way someone on Twitter found deep kinship in M’baku’s worship of Hanuman. It’s impossible for a movie to be everything to all people, but the way this film genuinely tries to engage with both culture and identity across the spectrum is jaw-dropping in its ambition and joyful in its empathy. There’s a reason it was the clear zeitgeist-tapping film of the year.
Everyone talks about Alfonso Cuarón’s penchant for long-takes, but no one ever talks about the evolution in the cinematic language of how he brings them to life. From the wistful hand-held days of Y Tu Mama Tambien, to the stomach-churning elongated dread of Children of Men, to the disorienting free-floating approach of Gravity, Cuarón constantly changes his technique in ways that never feel gimmicky. (To wit, I’ve always argued the genius of Cuarón is not that he knows how to make a shot longer, it’s that he knows exactly when to cut). And now in Roma, he evolves yet again, elevating the simple gesture of the “camera pan” in order to make an intimate story of a young Mexican nanny named Cleo feel like the grandest epic of the year.
We watch Cleo as she quietly traipses about the house. She cooks, cleans and cares as the other people in the frame talk about her, for her and toward her. The camera provides the room to consider both the distance and intimate understanding between her and various members of the family. But it also gives special credence to the two central women of the story (Cleo and the family’s mother), at once completely articulating their interiority, while showing the way the world around them ignores that same interiority. Mother says it plainly, “We women are always alone.” But some are more alone than others. And all around them, the world of men hisses, snarls, philanders and flaunts while it simultaneously seems to dissolve into an apocalypse illustrated with drunken gunplay, riots and revolution. It would seem easy to look at all this blatantly symbolic imagery of birth, death, marriage and divorce and find broad meaning, but luckily it’s all grounded in the emotional immediacy of Cleo herself.
No, she never says the things that need to be said. She never gives a treatise on class and the heartbreaking reality of growing up poor. She never yells back about the way she’s taken advantage of, nor the way she has to work through clear depression and grief. She doesn’t say a word about the sad contradiction of living with people who “care” about her but never have to bother to learn her birthday. Cleo doesn’t articulate any of this, but for us, she doesn’t have to. The movie presents those realities with every frame and gesture, which turns her silence into a damning portrait of humanity unseen. And in doing that, Roma offers up all a film can: a story that is at once the most heartfelt apology and the deepest thank you.
4. Madeline’s Madeline
From the very get-go, this film makes you feel both uneasy and unsure. Madeline’s Madeline uses a shaky, dream-like, paranoid tone, while quietly reassuring you that it’s all just a metaphor. Yet you worry that maybe it’s not. And this is how you are let into Josephine Decker’s brilliant, sometimes abstract film about the trials of young Madeline.
At first, we think we’re being treated to a daring formal film about the way acting can bleed into reality and alter our behavior. But soon we realize we’re actually in the very real, very confused brain space of a young girl suffering from mental illness and trying to keep her life on track. That becomes more complicated with the suggestion that her teacher is maybe using her young student’s illness to facilitate her own art. But is that really true? It’s hard to think of a film that rides the hazy line of reality as brilliantly as this one. And within that sphere, Helena Howard is a revelation. Not just because she fully embodies one of the most accurate depictions of manic-depression I’ve ever seen, but because she unearths the desperate need to cling to humanity that lurks underneath it. We see her navigate sheepish confusion, a lust for belonging, and even the discovery of her own sexuality and the way it can puncture terrifying holes in the adult world (along with the way it can be taken advantage of in turn).
Put simply, Decker is after every aspect of her protagonist’s personhood, including her own complicity in telling the story. And in doing this, she crafts the most self-flagellating, yet empathetic portrait of how our depictions of mental illness can inherently trivialize it. But maybe in recognizing that, we can work toward finding something more honest.
I remember the sense of dread—the most palpable, endless, pulsing dread—crawling up into my skin and hollowing me out as I sat there, taking in Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The driving conceit of this film seems simple enough: A mysterious “shimmering” bubble has arrived on the coast and is slowly growing in size. What’s inside? Well, every research team that’s gone in has never come back. After a bizarre encounter with what seems to be her husband, Natalie Portman’s scientist character, Lena, wants to go to see what’s inside. Spoilers, I guess, but the entire thing is one mutating, cancerous growth that turns animals, plants and our bodies into nightmare beasts of metaphor. As they journey to the lighthouse, Lena and each member of her team are forced to confront their deepest demons while facing the shadow of irrevocable doom. Which just means the film is constantly layering nuanced metaphors about depression, angst and suicide over the journey of our heroines.
If all of that sounds like a downer, don’t worry, you’ll be too distracted with terror during this viscerally hypnotic film. Because you won’t forget the bear, just as I can’t forget the bear. Like so much of this movie, it leaves a scar. But also like this film, it all provides a space for reflection and transcendence. Sure, the terrors of the world will break us apart, turn us inside out, and change us, but we can always come out the other side. There will just be no doubting that we are different now, too.
2. Sorry to Bother You (tie)
If I had one word to describe Boots Riley’s dark and hilarious debut farce it would be “uncompromising.” But what else could be said about a film that takes dead aim at the intersectional hearts of the race, class and economics in modern America? But please understand that Sorry to Bother You is not just a raucous middle finger pointed at an absurd system, it actually cuts to the bone with furious anger. Especially with the late WTF third act turn. In truth, it’s just a starkly clear metaphor about the dehumanization of the prison system. You might throw up your hands and find it absurd, but that’s all a part of Riley’s genius point: the horrors of the world are right in front of us, acting with impunity in plain sight. Hell, in the landscape of run-amok capitalism, those same horrors are celebrated as wins. So I don’t know what you think of Riley’s politics, nor his solutions. And quite frankly, I don’t think the film really cares what you think about it either. It’s too busy aiming its bright, shining light on the abuses that are too large to ignore. Sorry if that reality bothers you.
2. Paddington 2 (tie)
It feels reductive to sit back and call Paddington 2 “delightful,” but that’s in the DNA of the damn thing. It’s just too good at its light-hearted jokes, its assured buffoonery, and its whimsical set-pieces that I can’t say call it anything but that. Still, there’s something more substantial to the beating heart of this little one. We watch on as that good sweet bear navigates his life with the sort of humble kindness so many have forgotten, while it imbues us with something that seems a rarity these days: the hope of kindness itself.
Admittedly, it is that same feeling that gives me pause. Paddington relays the lesson to us, “If you are kind and polite, the world will be right,” but that’s something desperately hard to believe among the ugliness of the world today. Especially in a world where “polite decorum” is often used to mask the fascistic intentions of people who mean genuine ill will. And it leaves me feeling hollow and unsure. It even makes me want to ask dumb questions like, “Can Paddington’s good nature honestly reform the prison system?” Of course it can’t. But that’s also not the point. Paddington 2 is just trying to show us how kindness has to start within our own hearts. And in that space, it understands the simplest of gestures, like getting someone a thoughtful birthday present, can carry so much weight. For in all the worries of the crumbling globe, what greater measure is there than the way we let someone know that we love them?
Now, this is where I sheepishly admit that I had a whole plan to close this list out with a big talk about why these movies were my two favorites of the year. And I could talk all about how Sorry to Bother You’s righteous anger and Paddington 2’s optimistic heart come together to form a necessary perspective on the human condition. But then another movie came along that made me realize I not only had to reevaluate my silly list, but I had to think about the larger messaging behind my point. Ergo…
1. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
Why superheroes? I’ve spent a lot of time on that question over the last 20 years. Our fascination with these characters goes so far beyond merely what’s on trend. But perhaps the appeal of superhero films has always been the same from the get go: they make good on our deepest, most alluring power fantasies: the innate belief that we can do the impossible, save lives and be larger than life. Naturally, this fantasy aspect makes me think really carefully about who and what we empower as “super.” And that is part of the reason I’m hard on the MCU. For every Black Panther-esque bright spot, there’s a new character “arc” that basically devolves into “I’m awesome! Why won’t you let me awesome!?” What more can be said about a series that turned Spider-Man, possibly the most iconic, impressionable working class hero in the Marvel roster, into a kid who is waiting for his billionaire dad-figure to give him a cool internship right now, dammit.
If that sounds harsh, it’s because the reality of that messaging is harsh. And what’s worrying is the fact that incredibly charming films are being constructed around those messages. That’s probably the most dangerous thing in superherodom that I can think of. But it turns out that in this exact environment, a film can come along and give me everything I’ve ever wanted, and everything I didn’t know I needed.
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse might be a mosaic of everything that has come before in the genre, but that’s exactly its strength. This movie takes the many endless myths and permutations of this one character and blends them all together into a remarkable, crashing collage. In doing so, it confirms the most important possible point we could make for the genre: superherodom is actually scary. It’s filled with devastating loss and sadness. But your charge in this fight is not to be Altas and take that all on your shoulders. You actually aren’t the lone savior. You aren’t singular. You aren’t alone. And it couldn’t be more fitting for a movie that was brought to us through the power of collaboration to be the bearer of this message. Along the way, Spider-Verse gives us a story that has the capability to be laugh out loud funny, all while having the courage to stay grounded and emotional at its core. Miles’ story fully allows us to explore what it means to be a young person who wants to be their best possible self, but has no idea how to engage with that which is truly difficult. He learns that he does’t have to be special, that anyone can wear the mask and make the choice. And it is an evocation that gets summed up beautifully in a single moment.
That would be the climactic “What’s Up Danger” sequence in which Miles decides to finally take on the responsibility of his convictions. He is no less terrified than when he started. Even as he makes his final “leap of faith,” the glass literally has to be ripped from the building because it’s still clinging to his fingers. He falls downward toward the city. But in the shot of the year, this fall is shown upside-down, revealing how this very terrifying action is the only way we can really soar. And for a generation of kids to come, I hope this scene characterizes a moment of soul-rendering transformation that articulates adulthood exactly as it is: a continuous, ever-long, leap of faith.
When Miles finds his footing, runs as fast as he webs, and finally earns his own “cover moment,” it elicits the most intense goosebumps moment possible. I’ll admit I don’t really rewatch movies all that much, let alone certain sequences (there’s always a new movie to watch). But I’ll happily own to the fact I’ve watched this clip about 20 times. And every time I do, I can’t help but tear up with the swell of emotion as I feel the magnitude of what Miles has earned. The only other film I am able to say that about is the “superman” moment in The Iron Giant.
There is no higher compliment.
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