Diversity represents in 2018
TTV film critics look back on the year in movies
Jeff Huston: It’s the end of the year and, for movie lovers, it’s awards season. With it comes a deluge of prestige films, but it’s also time to reflect on the entire year in movies. Before we do that, though, let’s not bury the lede: what’s getting buzz right now?
Of films that are, two stand out the most. The first is “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to “Gravity.” This Spanish-language passion project is set in the 1970s Mexico City of his youth. (It’s new to Netflix, and you can find my review of it on thetulsavoice.com.) The other is Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the powerful adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel that proves “Moonlight” was no one-off fluke. “Beale” is a timely lament for two relevant issues—charges of sexual assault, and racial injustice in our legal system—while also being a soulful, spiritual love story and stunning achievement of film craft.
Charles Elmore: I absolutely fell in love with “Beale Street.” With his follow-up to “Moonlight,” writer/director Jenkins cements his place as one of our most vital American storytellers. The tale of this young African American couple finding love in ‘70s Harlem was so beautiful yet heartbreaking, and Jenkins handles the James Baldwin material with such deftness and maturity.
Interesting aside: This year saw the follow-up films from both Jenkins and his contemporary, Damien Chazelle, who took the best director statue the same year “Moonlight” won Best Picture. Chazelle’s biopic about the stoic, determined astronaut Neil Armstrong (“First Man”) was technically masterful and ambitious, blending various formats including IMAX, yet the film felt a bit underwhelming.
Even so, as we wrap this year up, I can’t help but feel we’ve been gifted with a multitude of cinematic riches, and not just the prestige pics typical of awards season. Throughout 2018 there was an abundance of great movies. As I try to assemble my year-end best list, I find myself overflowing with choices. Are you finding yourself in the same boat?
Huston: “Overflowing” would be a stretch for me—but yes, as with virtually any year, the great films are out there to be found, almost too many for the average person to keep up with, especially for discerning cinephiles. They even came from Hollywood which, for its part, stepped up its game.
Setting aside that dud “First Man,” when you consider how Ryan Coogler turned Marvel tentpole “Black Panther” into a parabolic rallying cry for African American agency; or that Bradley Cooper somehow turned the fourth version of “A Star Is Born” into a film that felt deeply personal (marking an auspicious directorial debut along with his best acting to date, all while guiding Lady Gaga’s big-screen breakout); or seeing the year’s runaway rom-com crowd-pleaser “Crazy Rich Asians” with its all-Asian cast completely upend a lot of old Hollywood assumptions about what the American public will embrace (while also escaping a Netflix purgatory)—well, Tinseltown gave us some richly rewarding pop art.
Plus, Tom Cruise continues to defy age, gravity, and most other laws of physics with a “Mission: Impossible” franchise that still dares to do the most audacious, insane stunts—for real, on camera—rather than having them digitized and comped by some computer.
Elmore: I agree wholeheartedly! This year seems to be such a standout because it really seemed like our pop entertainment was just as enjoyable as the more serious, art-house driven offerings. Tom Cruise not only defied our expectations by delivering one of the most satisfying action films with “M:I–Fallout,” the sixth entry in a franchise that easily could’ve been stale by this point, but he practically killed himself in the process!
I’m glad you brought up “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” This year felt like such a groundswell of films that featured diverse subjects and representation. In 2018, we entered a golden age of African American cinema. After “Moonlight” won Best Picture for 2016 and then Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” gained critical success and Oscar screenplay gold a year later, the floodgates for diverse cinema have fully been opened and, in 2018, we reaped the harvest of that wave.
Along with “Black Panther,” which adhered to the Marvel style while delivering a powerful discourse on African American identity, films like “Blindspotting,” “Sorry to Bother You,” and “The Hate U Give” (even “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse”!) gave us glimpses into modern-day life in Black America, while films like “Beale” and Spike Lee's “BlacKkKlansman” delivered up moving throwbacks to a different time while still feeling very much of our time. Lee delivers a masterclass in bluntness and style while showing us he’s not quite ready to pass the baton to the next generation just yet.
Add to that the variety of films that featured strong Asian-centric stories and characters like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All The Boys I've Loved Before,” this was a great year for diverse films that really felt reflective of the rich tapestry of our culture and society.
The past 12 months were almost like a response to the oddly tone-deaf offerings from 2017, where out of the nine Best Picture nominees almost all featured the struggles of white people or pescaphiles! Call it our film culture catching up with our current culture, but this year felt more representative of the multitude of issues we’re working through in this country while also adorning it in some highly entertaining dressing.
Huston: Yeah, Blaxploitation went both art house and mainstream in 2018. Meanwhile, some liberal white filmmakers remain a bit predictable (again, “First Man”)—namely Adam McKay’s “Vice,” the Dick Cheney biopic that’s little more than red meat for blue voters, or the palatable Civil Rights formula of “Green Book.” Even so, there’s also “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a true story starring Melissa McCarthy as a 1990s literary forger; it doesn’t reinvent any wheels but, under the incisive direction of Marielle Heller, it feels like peak Woody Allen.
Art-house horror can’t be ignored either. From “Hereditary” to “Mandy” to “Suspiria” and even “A Quiet Place,” the genre continues to elevate in the hands of serious visionaries. Smaller, under-seen portraits like Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” (shot in Oklahoma), Lynne Ramsey’s Joaquin Phoenix PTSD indie-thriller “You Were Never Really Here,” and Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” were three that also landed devastating impacts (Zhao’s Native American rodeo elegy especially).
Elmore: These all proved more effective than the nihilistically brash “The Favourite” from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Stars Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone (all likely Oscar nominees) are riveting in this satirically sinister period piece, but the escalating sadism ends up playing like an elaborate, sociopathic fetish.
Other gems that slipped by were genre-benders, like the narrative/documentary hybrid “American Animals,” a true crime thriller, and “Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s trippy, feminist sci-fi (starring Natalie Portman in a nearly all-female cast) gets under your skin and into your psyche in more ways than one.
Huston: Two of the year’s biggest risk payoffs came from a first-timer and a legend: Bo Burnham’s low budget “Eighth Grade” palpably delves into middle school anxiety in the social media age, while “First Reformed” is “Taxi Driver” screenwriter Paul Schrader’s first foray into slow-burn transcendentalism. It could garner star Ethan Hawke an Oscar. (It’s available now on Amazon Prime.)
Speaking of what’s available at home, that brings us back to Netflix. Along with “Roma,” the streamer also gave us “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a darkly comic and quietly sobering Western anthology from the Coen Brothers (with Tulsan Tim Blake Nelson in the title vignette) and “Private Life,” director Tamara Jenkins’ raw dramedy about a New York couple struggling to conceive a child. Being exclusive to Netflix kept its stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti outside the Oscar conversation, unfortunately, because they—along with newcomer Kayli Carter (also in Netflix’s “Godless”)—have us laughing through gut punches in the year’s most searing emotional gauntlet.
In the end, diversity has been a hallmark of 2018, a virtue that we can only hope is a watershed for years to come rather than some short-lived halcyon anomaly.