This year was a big year for movies about pop and/or rock music. I wanted to say “...for rock musicals,” because I thought that terminology distinguished movies about musicians in which music is realistically integral to the storyline and performed by characters from proper musicals whose songs signify a linear break in reality, but then I read on Wikipedia that “rock musical” just means “a musical theatre work with rock music.” There should be a word or label for the kind of thing I’m talking about, though, these movies that rock.
Anyway, there’s a single perfect movie to be Frankensteined out of the ideas, performances, and songs in Vox Lux, A Star Is Born, and Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s so rare that any year gives us a perfect movie, so even if it took three of 2018's offerings to merely suggest all the parts that could make one, this counts as progress. What a year!
Big year for horror movies, that is undeniable. An actual horror movie, last year’s Get Out, won a major Academy Award—not a “thriller,” not a gritty war picture, not a sadistically twee flick about Hollywood that shows how up their own ass the Oscars are. A Quiet Place’s high concept works well until you start thinking about why the family just doesn’t live by the babbling brook full time, what it would take to keep a newborn infant quiet for an extended period of time, and how it is that no one in this family has ever farted loudly in their sleep?
The Nun scared people because nuns are scary, and teens did stupid things in Truth or Dare because they are teens in horror movies. The First Purge and Halloween dealt with “social issues,” but people’s undying pleasure in watching brutal depictions of murder weren’t examined in any meaningful way, just catered to. That’s the way love goes. While fun enough to discuss, I thought Suspiria was a pretentious slog (and let its ultimate underperformance show that a great first-week average predicts absolutely nothing other than everyone who wanted to see that movie lived in New York, rushed out, and didn’t look back or tell anyone they knew to see it). Hereditary was wonderful.
Big year for superhero movies, but what year isn’t. Avengers: Infinity War asked you to retrieve things from your memory of the 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that preceded it. I am living proof that if you failed to do this, you went right on existing. (I gave up in the middle of the movie and took a nap. I was not sad when the superheroes died because I heard they would, I knew they would be back, and also because they are superhero characters in a movie.) I didn’t see Ant-Man and the Wasp, but I’m sure it was snarky. I saw Deadpool 2, and I’m sure it was snarky. The Incredibles 2 was less than incredible, too—I found none of the voice work particularly convincing (how can Holly Hunter ever be anything but Holly Hunter, chewin’ on the side of her face?) so instead of feeling immersed in that world, it was more like watching a masquerade party while standing against a wall.
I liked Black Panther while it built its world in its first half, liked it less when it had to do the things it had to do to be a superhero movie in its second half. But who am I? No superhero, for sure. A superhero movie is a superhero movie, and at least this one came on a tide of real-life excitement. After seeing the box office returns (highest grossing superhero of all time domestically, No. 3 highest domestic gross of all time), you think execs are embarrassed that it took them so long to release a superhero movie of this scope centered on black characters? I don’t! I’m sure they love their money and probably are proud that they starved audiences so long to create a feeding frenzy.
Do you think they’re embarrassed that, similarly, the wild success of Crazy Rich Asians also proved that there’s a large, underfed audience eager to see Asian people... in... movies? I don’t! Really seems like such a simple concept (“representation”), really seems like such a win to engage in it, really seems like a fucking travesty that very powerful people with tons of money waited so long to do it.
Big year for teen movies. And it’s not just enough to be some kinda teen with some kinda crush and some kinda petty teen problems that threaten no one’s future existence. You gotta be a teen with anxiety (Eighth Grade) or a teen who witnessed an unarmed black man get murdered by a cop (The Hate U Give) or a teen who is gay but not, like, too gay either in affect or behavior (Love, Simon). Incidentally I loved all of those movies (Eighth Grade is my favorite movie of the year). Incidentally redux: I loathed Assassination Nation, another teen movie, which rarely didn’t feel like some self-righteous lecture from someone who hadn’t read very much throughout its duration. That is to say, it replicated what it feels like to scroll through Twitter, so perhaps the film will have posterity value.
(I still think all the time about the part in Eighth Grade when Kayla’s rude classmate walks by to pick up her end-of-year superlative for Best Eyes and Kayla tells her, “Good job.”)
Speaking of Love, Simon, it was a big year for gay movies. Well, no, that’s not true. But there were two major conversion therapy movies this year, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased, the latter being far better than the former. Movies like The Favourite, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and Green Book had queer major characters whose sexuality wasn’t always the focal point of their films, which seemed to confuse some people. I’m interested and have participated in the debate over covering and how much queerness is too much queerness for a general audience to sit through comfortably, but I don’t know about those three... I think it’s kind of cool that, like people, more and more movies nowadays are at least a little bit gay.
Big year for documentaries, which probably has something to do with Netflix, the true crime boom, and/or reality TV. Even though they were nominally authorized by respective estates, both Whitney and the Fred Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor both contained revelations that exceeded what we expect from softball docs—the former regarding alleged sexual abuse at the hand of her aunt Dee Dee Warwick that Houston suffered as a child, and the latter, an extended exploration of Rogers’s politics regarding homosexuality that, while mild-to-progressive for their time, didn’t necessarily square with his all-accepting image. I thought Whitney was maybe too gritty—its joylessness struck a skewed portrait of an ebullient public persona. Meanwhile, Three Identical Strangers, the movie this summer that was most likely to be name-checked by culturally engaged urbanites at the end of sentences that began, “Have you seen that movie....?” was riveting but overlong by 30 minutes. Regardless, it was one of those stories that was clearly crying out to be told and would have made a great podcast.
Big year for prehistoric monsters, who featured in hits Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom and The Meg. You know what I think about a lot after reading Steve Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs were on Earth for more or less 150 million years. Humans have only been on the planet for some 200,000 years, six million if you want to lump in our closest ancestors. If we are actually on the brink of extinction, we are huge embarrassments! All that self-consciousness and technology and we couldn’t even last as long as the dinosaurs who are known for being dead! The scariest thing about them coming back (or never having left) would be to have to face our failure as a species staring at us with their giant lizard (and fish) eyes.
Big year for horses. Well, maybe not a big year, but there were two movies released in rather close proximity that featured horses as vehicles for men having to build or rebuild their conception of masculinity, Lean on Pete and The Rider. I still get choked up when I talk about the final scene of the latter, and it’s just a shot of a fuckin’ guy on a fuckin’ horse. Chloe Zhao is a genius.
Big year for Spike Lee. The electrifying BlacKkKlansman became his highest grossing film since 2006's Inside Man (and the second highest-grossing of his career). I felt like putty in his capable hands. On top of everything wonderful, hilarious, terrifying, and disgusting that happens in that film, I had the sort of tangential thought about it that I hope is perfect for this kind of pithy, informal writeup: I wonder if Lee took any personal satisfaction in sonning the hell out of Quentin Tarantino (with whom Lee has been feuding for years) by making a better blaxploitation flick than Tarantino ever has and for filming a script that is filled with the n-word with more justification than Tarantino has ever come up with.
Big year for Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Both I Feel Pretty and First Act used plot elements found in the 1991 cult teen flick (in the former, a “normal” person gives the company she works for key consumer insight, and in the latter, a résumé is falsified to land a dream job). I haven’t seen First Act (just the trailer) but we can assume that no one in either movie said, “I’m right on top of that, Rose,” which means a full-on DTMTBD revival has not come to pass as yet. But there’s always 2019.
First Man was the biggest garbage bin I waded through for two and a half hours this year. Thanks for listening.