Sunday, December 30, 2018

Best of 2018: The Top 10 Movies of the Year

On June 18, I was angry and depressed. This is not an uncommon state since Trump became president, but I felt it acutely that day as more information was becoming available regarding the administration's "children in cages" immigration policy. Looking back at my social media posts from the period, it's clear I'd been in a funk for days, but I was especially frustrated by how meaningless my sadness and rage were. I was furious about the country's direction, but I was also powerless. What was the point of getting so worked-up if, ultimately, I couldn't do anything about it? I'm not someone who's comfortable being angry; I don't like how it leaves me feeling out of control. As best I can, I usually try to push past those emotions in order to focus on a constructive way of handling the problem. But Trump is a toxin, and my usual workarounds were insufficient.

So that night I was sitting at home alone, utterly at loose ends, when I decided to just blurt something out on Twitter.

Within 30 minutes, I could tell that something was happening. The tweet was being retweeted like crazy, helped by the fact that Stephen Kinsella, an associate professor of psychology, gave it a signal boost by cleverly noting, "Siri, describe 2018 in one tweet please." Pretty soon, Kinsella and I were being inundated by commenters, who were offering suggestions about the best way to handle my dilemma.

Anybody who has a tweet go viral will soon experience the worst of Twitter, but I was pleasantly surprised by how generally positive and thoughtful the responses were. For the most part, people were letting me know that they felt the same way that I did -- and they weren't sure what to do, either. (That said, the comments I probably most appreciated were from people of color, who politely chided me for just now being aware that lots of folks have to learn to live with impotent anger.)

I write many things throughout the year: movie reviews, profile pieces, essays, lists. It is very likely that nothing I wrote in 2018 was as widely read as that tweet, which took me about 30 seconds to compose. That's an odd realization. On the one hand, I'm touched that anything I put out into the world could strike a chord with total strangers. But it's also a bit bittersweet to witness something of yours become so embraced by the culture that it stops being "yours." I've seen people online reference that tweet like it was a common expression -- it's now just something on the internet that's used as a shorthand to describe a specific mood. (I've never been to Portugal, but my words have. It's also the subject of a chapter in a forthcoming book.) And with each new global turmoil -- Brazil's election of Jair Bolsonaro, the ongoing Brexit debacle -- the tweet would find a fresh wave of visibility. My words were depressingly timely, over and over again.

Because that viral tweet has been part of my life for six months now, I've spent a lot of this year trying to figure out exactly why it resonated and what, if anything, I've learned from the experience. I'm not sure I have any good answers. All I know is I'm pleased to have heard from so many responders who essentially said, "Thank you for expressing how I've been feeling." I'm glad to have been able to help others in some small way. Futility isn't as crippling when you know there are others out there like you.

What I'm less proud about is that I haven't solved the conundrum I articulated. And by that, I mean I didn't do a lot to affect change in the world. I voted, to be sure, but compared to my incredible wife (and many of her friends), who went out and canvassed for Katie Hill, successfully flipping California's 25th district blue, I was too consumed with work to be as politically active as I should have been. I'm ashamed of that and need to do better in the future. I put out a feeling in the world, but I didn't act on it. I'm still not sure what to do with my anger.

* * * * *

Since my principal job is to write about movies, not bemoan the state of the world -- although it's funny how often those two interests intersect -- let me now offer my picks for the best films of 2018...

1. Burning
2. You Were Never Really Here
3. Annihilation
4. Widows
5. Cold War
6. Life and Nothing More
7. Roma
8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
9. Makala
10. Let the Sunshine In

Looking at my picks, what stands out most strongly is that five of my Top 10 films are foreign-language, the highest total since 2015. And I've included links to Life and Nothing More and Makala's respective home pages since they're the two movies I imagine are the least well-known on my list. They're both remarkable, saved from distribution oblivion thanks to awards. (Makala won the Grand Prize at Cannes Critics' Week in 2017. Life and Nothing More took home the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards.)

My Nos. 11-15 were almost as beloved, with each film, at one point or another, seemingly a lock for my Top 10. Alas, there just wasn't room for (in order of preference) Private Life, Hereditary, If Beale Street Could Talk, Lean on Pete and Amazing Grace. (And if The Tale had gotten a theatrical release instead of airing on HBO, it probably would have landed on my Top 10.) Why didn't your favorite movie make the list? Because I am a bad person.

* * * * *

Professionally, 2018 was a year where I did my best to be grateful for all the terrific places where I get to write. I'm extremely lucky.

Take Screen International. Once again this year, I covered Sundance, Cannes and Toronto for the publication, including getting to write about Burning after its premiere. Also at Cannes, I wore a tux to see Lars von Trier's The House That Jack Built; amusingly, my review ended up being Screen's most-read of 2018. (People can't get enough of Matt Dillon serial-killer flicks, apparently.) I adore the entire team over there, especially my wonderful editor Finn Halligan, and it's an honor to be their Senior U.S. Critic.

Over at Paste, I got to write one of my favorite annual pieces, which is a deep-dive overview of True/False. This year's festival was especially strong, and I tried to do it justice, which required more than 6,200 words.

MEL continued to see its profile rise in 2018, which makes me incredibly happy. The staff and its freelancers are writing smart things on a daily basis, and I was thrilled to cross off some bucket-list interview subjects. I got to have a long conversation with Steve James. I interviewed Frederick Wiseman from Paris while he sat on a park bench and looked back on his career. Andrew W.K. was remarkably open about his struggles with mental health. Morgan Neville and I chatted about Won't You Be My Neighbor?, and the amount of traffic that piece generated suggested just how much viewers hungered for a film like that. And I talked to a bunch of sportswriters about the legacy of Jerome Holtzman and the save stat. I am eternally grateful to my editor and friend Josh Schollmeyer for giving me the latitude to write about so many different things over at MEL. (Being given the opportunity to write about Cannes entirely from the perspective of what it's like to watch nothing but subtitled movies for a week was a real blessing.) Looking forward to seeing what transpires for MEL in 2019.

And David Fear remains such a pleasure to work with over at Rolling Stone. I started the year spending time with Sebastián Lelio and Daniela Vega to discuss A Fantastic Woman, which ended up winning Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. (I was so glad I asked Lelio about that Alan Parsons Project song.) From there, I praised Annihilation and our era of trippy sci-fi films, and then proceeded to hang out with Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix (during an earthquake) to talk You Were Never Really Here. (I'll always treasure the moment Phoenix introduced me to Ramsay by saying, "He didn't like our movie." You damn liar, Joaquin.) Other highlights: speaking with F. Murray Abraham after the passing of Milos Forman; dissecting the themes and allusions in Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer film; losing my mind over the Academy's brief flirtation with Best Popular Movie; interviewing Tilda Swinton and Olivia Colman (not at the same time); and revisiting Dogville.

My old pal Will Leitch and I spent another year hosting our weekly film podcast. Our collaboration didn't end there: We very much enjoy doing Debate Club over at SyFy when we're not contributing epic lists for Vulture. (We have a couple coming out in 2019 that are especially major and will definitely not elicit any argument online.) And don't forget: We even have a shirt.

I was tickled to contribute to the Los Angeles Times in 2018, examining the strange case of Bohemian Rhapsody, The Other Side of the Wind and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: three movies with muddled directorial authorship. (If we had waited a little longer, I could have included Amazing Grace in there as well.) And over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I spent some time with John Cho to talk about fatherhood and Searching.

In terms of unexpected treats, AM New York asked me to write about the significance of Paul Simon's farewell tour, which gave me an excuse to interview smart music writers about the man's legacy. Oh, and there was the time John Carpenter sorta did an interview with me for Revolver. (He was more interested in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.) And I did some Q&As I was pleased with, including speaking to the Boy Erased team and Morgan Neville for his other documentary, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead.

And that's enough. I hope you all have a great 2019. Thank you for reading what I write. And may someone look at you the way Kristen Stewart looked at Cate Blanchett at Cannes this year.