In 1994 I began writing movie reviews for a Kearny, New Jersey newspaper called The Hudson Press. It was “the other paper” in town. The pricks at The Observer wouldn’t give me the time of day.
Then I went to work at Blockbuster Video, where I was canned for playing Glengarry Glen Ross – instead of the company’s promotional video featuring an obnoxious Jamiroquai track – on every monitor in the store. Glengarry has a few curse words. Corporate didn’t care for that, apparently.
Then I went to New York University and got a degree in Cinema Studies. What is Cinema Studies?Imagine an English Literature degree but movies instead of books. We didn’t make em. We studied em. This was a degree that meant sitting through all eight hours of Warhol’s Empire and dissecting every frame of Brakhage’s Songs cycle. But it also meant discovering Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Italian Neorealism and great documentarians like Wiseman and Pennebaker.
Yes, I’m way more qualified to write about movies than football. So if you have interest in such things, go over to @HughesReviews on Twitter and give a follow. Eventually I may start writing more than once-a-year about movies again. Eventually. This year I re-committed to the whole deal, seeing 80+. (In my heyday I sailed by triple digits.)
I decided to put all that effort down on digital paper.
Thoughts on Relevant Pictures
- Who knew oral hygiene would create some of the more memorable sequences in American cinema this year? John C. Reilly’s tooth brushing in The Sisters Brothers and Christian Bale’s mouthwash sequence in Vice were both pretty incredible.
- Alexander Desplat’s score for Operation Finale was terrific. But somehow one of the most compelling events in the history of the world was turned into a dud of a film.
- Regina Hall is marvelous in Support the Girls.
- Three Identical Strangers was an uneven documentary, too obsessed with the stardom of its main characters and less with the dark underpinnings of the story. Still, everyone should see it.
- Ruth E. Carter’s costumes for Black Panther were unlike anything I’d seen on screen before. But I lost interest in the movie halfway through. Most compelling argument I’ve heard for the film is “it’s good for a comic book movie”. Great. But what if you don’t give a shit about any of these comic book movies?
- You Were Never Really Here and Leave No Trace are movies that would have found an audience in the mid-90s. They would have sat in little art house theaters for five or six weeks. People would have seen the covers in the video store and thought, “Oh, I like that actor, let’s give it a shot”. (Thomasin McKenzie gave the breakout performance of the year in Trace.)
- I thought my initial response to Roma – best described as, eh – was maybe unfair. So I gave it a second viewing. No change. It may be the most beautifully shot film of the year. But so was The English Patient and I didn’t much care for that either.
- I know I’m the only person thinking these things but my thought watching Ethan Hawke’s brilliant work in First Reformed was he should give Hamlet another shot. But on stage this time. That restraint creates a palpable tension that will absolutely rivet a live audience.
- Did anybody not love that moment in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again when Andy Garcia’s name is revealed to be Fernando and then Cher starts singing “Fernando”?
- A Prayer Before Dawn is a movie to be endured, not enjoyed. But it’s worth enduring.
- Both A Star is Born and First Man felt, in their initial 30 minutes, like they were going to turn tired formulas inside out. Then both films wallowed in that tired formula another two hours.
- Wasn’t there a better way to make The Wife without giving the game away in the first fifteen minutes? This would have made an interesting premise for a two-hander play by David Hare. It’s a bore of a movie. (Let’s be honest, it would have been a boring play too.)
- Sorry to Bother You is a mess at times but it’s a formidable first feature from Boots Riley. Make more movies, Boots. Original and audacious are traits American cinema desperately needs.
- It’s obvious watching Free Solo that the filmmakers are brilliant chroniclers of this remarkable craft. The climbing portions of the film are magnificent. But there’s a major difference between an IMAX Experience and a fully-developed documentary: character. This film would have been better served as the former.
- Shoplifters is a lovely, interesting little movie but it’s so obvious that American film critics give leeway to any picture with subtitles. What’s really in this film that hasn’t been handled with more ruthless honesty throughout Shameless on Showtime?
- Daniel’s jump shot sequence in Hale County This Morning This Evening might have been the most transfixing three minutes of film all year.
- Trying to stay away from negativity but Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the twenty-five worst movies ever made.
- The first half hour of Green Book played like a Fred Armisen/SNL sketch called The Italians. Some of the most embarrassing stuff I’ve seen in a major motion picture in a long time.
And you can’t see EVERYTHING, even though I certainly tried. So apologies to the following films: Monrovia Indiana, Bisbee ’17, Capernaum, The House that Jack Built, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and Stan & Ollie. These are films I wanted to see and, for one reason or another, never got to.
Did you know Steve Rubell coined the phrase “bridge and tunnel” to describe the people he didn’t want inside the legendary midtown nightclub? There’s nothing cutting edge here but the 54 story has almost exclusively been told from the drugs and celebrity perspective. Here’s a film that intimately details how the legacy of the famed club was built and ultimately destroyed.
A Quiet Place
Thrilling from start to finish. And the concept wouldn’t work without Emily Blunt’s brilliant, grounded performance.
The Sisters Brothers
It’s borderline impossible to make an original Western because the genre is about 120 years old. But Jacques Audiard’s film is every bit that. There’s a scene with John C. Reilly, Allison Tolman and a shawl that you won’t soon forget because it’s just too fucking weird to not remember.
A Private War
Rosamund Pike’s performance is a hell storm. Her Marie Colvin is devoured by booze and mental illness and whatever drives those willing to risk spilling their own blood to reveal the truths of others. She is rage. She is desperation. But Pike is always pulsating with a stinging, almost uncomfortable clarity that prevents even this character’s more exaggerated moments to reach the level of cartoon. (With the eye patch, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult.)
The Top Ten
#10 Widows / Blockers (tie)
My favorite line of the year? From Blockers. “Thank God it doesn’t taste like Mounds. I’d rather eat ten dicks than one Mound.” It’s the use of the singular. Mound.
MY favorite last line of the year? From Widows. “Alice…how ya been?” The subtlety of that moment after the half hour that preceded it was perfection.
I don’t know what Hollywood movies are anymore. Is Amazon “Hollywood”? NetFlix? But these felt like the two best Hollywood pictures of the year. They are both going to be running on the premium cable channels for years to come and I’m never turning either off because they’ve got Robert Duvall screaming racial slurs and Gary Cole and Gina Gershon walking around nude and blindfolded. (You should be able to figure out which has which.)
Not high art. But high entertainment.
#9 Eighth Grade
Josh Hamilton arrived on the movie scene at the same time I started taking my seat on the aisles of cinema houses across north Jersey. At eleven, I saw Alive at the Franklin Theater in Nutley. A year later I saw With Honors at the Lincoln Cinema 5 in my hometown of Kearny. As my taste moved away from big Hollywood fare – which 1994 did to a lot of young film fans – so did Hamilton. Kicking and Screaming. The House of Yes. When I moved to New York City at eighteen, Hamilton was a fixture on the off-Broadway scene, primarily with Ethan Hawke and the folks at Scott Elliot’s New Group.
In 2018, he gave the movie performance of the year.
Yes, this is the story of 13 year-old Kayla Day, a shy girl who is far more comfortable and confident posting motivational videos to YouTube than interacting with her fellow classmates. (In fairness to her, those classmates seem to have very little interest in interacting with anyone.) But it’s Hamilton – as her father – who anchors the entire picture. As desperate as Kayla is for attention and acceptance from those perceived to be “the cooler kids”, her father is just as desperate to let his daughter know how proud he is of her. While that may sound cheesy on the surface, Hamilton’s sweet, subtle and multi-dimensional performance makes it anything but.
In many ways this felt like the film for right now and films for right now tend to not have lasting power, especially when technology plays a key role. But for me there’s no way to tell the story of Cinema 2018 without inclusion of this sparkling debut from writer/director Bo Burnham.
#8 Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen a single episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Even writing this I had to Google what the actual show was called.) I would come home from school, even as a little kid, and watch game shows like Press Your Luck, Love Connection and reruns of Match Game ’76. No Big Bird. No Fred Rogers.
That’s why I was so shocked to be so moved by what was in this documentary. I didn’t know Daniel Tiger from Tiger Woods. The only “Weekend Song” I knew was by Loverboy. I had never heard of Rogers’ appearance before Congress, begging for public television support. This was all new.
There’s nothing thrilling in the storytelling here. This is not an Errol Morris or Alex Gibney or Werner Herzog picture. Director Morgan Neville relies entirely on the strength of Rogers and there is more than enough strength there to go around. The film is an inspiration.
#7 The Favourite
If you don’t go, I will start kicking you and I will not stop.
You will dismiss her.
I don’t want to. I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.
…selling my asshole to syphilitic soldiers.
Those lines are actually said aloud in The Favourite.
About halfway through this film Emma Stone’s Abigail is reading quietly beside a tree. The man courting her sneaks up and for the next several minutes chases her on the autumn leaves, diving at her ankles and absorbing punches directly to his dick. I’d say it is a scene that belongs in one of the sillier Shakespearean comedies but Benny Hill didn’t perform much Shakespeare and this sequence felt like it could have been underscored with Yakety Sax.
But this scene is not anathema to the proceedings of The Favourite, a genre-flipping blast of fresh fucking air. The picture looks and sounds like something the Merchant Ivory folks would toss our way during their heyday of 1985-1993 (A Room With a View, Howards End…etc.) but the emotionally expressive lives of these characters bare no resemblance to those stilted figures. These are not humans restrained by societal mores. They are bawdy (verbally and physically), vulgar, honest and original. And they are thrilling companions for those two glorious hours.
#6 They Shall Not Grow Old
When I saw Peter Jackson’s game-changing World War I documentary it was accompanied by a thirty-minute, on-screen session with the filmmaker. He explained every single technical aspect to the captive audience, enthralled by the 90 minutes experience. Colorization. Adding an accurate soundtrack. Adjusting frames to create the sense of a moving camera. This landmark piece of restorative cinema – a genre I just invented – may not be seen by the numbers taking in the year’s higher-profile documentaries but it’s influence will outlast the whole crop.
#5 If Beale Street Could Talk
The music brought tears to me eyes.
And the music wasn’t alone.
This is the kind of movie that made me love movies. Director Barry Jenkins does what so few filmmakers these days are willing to do: allows his characters to sit together and speak for extended periods of time. They used to call them “scenes” and they’ve been AWOL from Hollywood cinema for a few decades. Beale Street has these old-fashioned movie scenes in abundance; set pieces with extraordinary writing and even better acting. Some of the dialogue – written by Jenkins from a book by James Baldwin – is as good as any August Wilson exchange.
And there’s voice-over. A lot of voice-over. And while normally this cinematic device bothers me right out of the film – I call it being Vicky Christina Barcelona‘d – when the words being voiced over come from Baldwin they feel far less like a device and far more like a poetic choice. Baldwin’s words are not so much used to move the plot as they are to add another layer of beauty onto the screen.
#4 Minding the Gap
Marketing did Bing Liu’s stunning directorial debut no favors. This documentary is as much about skateboarding as Amadeus is about music composition.
Gap is a small film – the story of three young men (including the filmmaker) in Rockford, Illinois, struggling to overcome abuse, addiction, loss and the general hopelessness that engulfs the portions of this country where “The American Dream” refers to hitting the snooze button and rolling back to sleep. Liu’s ability to draw big, emotional moments from his subjects is the mark of a potentially-great filmmaker and he shoots the skateboarding sequences with a sort of whimsy that keeps the film from being dragged down by the weight of its subject matter.
This is the most impressive debut effort of 2018.
#3 Cold War
Paweł Pawlikowski’s black-and-white cinematic serenade is about love, about music, about addiction. It is a film of near-indescribable beauty. So I won’t bother trying to describe it.
#2 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
As Stephen Root sprints from the rear of an isolated Tucumcari bank, attempting to thwart James Franco’s robbery attempt, he answers every bullet to his metal-laden exterior with a wildly-old timey “pan shot!” (See video below.) Why am I telling you this? To quote Tevye, “I don’t know.”
These six Coen Brothers’ western fables are funny AND sad, optimistic AND hopeless. They are all about death but they’re as alive as anything put on screen this year. (See what I’m doing?) The Coens are great filmmakers at the top of their game and Scruggs cozies right up to Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and No Country For Old Men at the top of their artistic table. (One day I’ll put Big Lebowski here too but all the diehard fans of that film have to die first.)
#1 Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel asks Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock, “Can you keep a secret?” She’s asking if she – a prideful and private person – can share the scheme that drives this story.
He responds, pithily, “I have no one to tell. All my friends are dead.”
In that moment Marielle Heller’s film became more than a fascinating character study, flawlessly told and perfectly performed. Instead it joined the ranks of iconic, jaded New York classics by allowing the spectre of the AIDS plague – ravaging downtown in 1992 – to lurk in the film’s sidewalk shadows.
The audience is not made overtly aware of that context until the picture’s climactic conversation. Israel is defeated. Hock is ill. Their conversation is muted. But the hopes, dreams, lies, pain and loneliness of early 90s NYC are there, just buried underneath every word.
This was a great scene.
This is a great film.
And If I gave out the Oscars…
(Based on the terrible nominees)
Picture: The Favourite
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Actor: Christian Bale, Vice
Actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Supporting Actor: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Documentary: Minding the Gap
Original Screenplay: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite
Adapted Screenplay: Nicole Holofcenter and Jeff Whitty, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Cinematography: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis, The Favourite
Foreign Film: Cold War
Original Score: Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Song: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” by Willie Waton and Tim Blake Nelson, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Animated Feature: Didn’t see any of em.
Costume Design: Ruth Carter, Black Panther
Makeup and Hairstyling: Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dehaney, Vice
Production Design: Eugenio Caballero and Barbara Enriquez, Roma
Sound Editing: Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, A Quiet Place
Sound Mixing: Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Ai-Ling Lee and Mary H. Ellis, First Man
Visual Effects: I have no idea what good visual effects are anymore.