Longer Takes on the Year That Was

On Film / The Daily — Jan 8, 2019
Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

We lost the Village Voice last August, and at the end of 2018, the other shoe dropped. The Denver-based Voice Media Group, which still publishes a handful of alternative weeklies including Westword, the Phoenix New Times, and the Dallas Observer, shuttered its film and television department. A few days after clearing his desk, editor and critic Alan Scherstuhl, who’d also been the Voice’s last film editor, tweeted a link to a document outlining the advice he’d give to the Voice’s new writers. There’s plenty to take to heart here, including the point he’s highlighted himself on Twitter: “Do not forget that it is your job to highlight what is important and memorable and unique, whether good or bad, and to dash the rest to the rocks.”

As Girish Shambu reminds us with a string of links to work by ten writers “who gave me much reading pleasure and taught me many new things last year,” despite the shutdown of so many publications, the state of film criticism is strong. There was a lot of great writing throughout 2018, and toward the end of it, a lot of great writing about 2018, some of it spilling over into the first week of the new year. On January 1, Dana Stevens opened the Slate Movie Club, a lively online conversation about the year in movies that wrapped just yesterday. It turns out that both she and, in one of his last pieces for Westword, Scherstuhl have latched onto the ending of Avengers: Infinity War as a fitting encapsulation of our current moment. The supervillain Thanos, you may remember, has been threatening to do some pretty severe housecleaning throughout the space-time continuum. “One snap of those begloved fingers, he warns petulantly as he scours the cosmos for a handful of craft-store gemstones, and half the universe’s living beings will vanish in an instant,” writes Stevens. “What clearer or more nightmarish image could there be of the powerless public space so many of us feel ourselves to inhabit right now?” As Scherstuhl points out, no one believes that Marvel won’t revive the lucrative superheroes blown away in the final moments of Infinity War. “But there’s something appropriate for these times of ours about making us wait for it,” he writes. “About letting us imagine, for much longer than usual, the possibility that things won’t work out, that the forces of good can’t quite measure up.”

Stevens invited three critics to take part in this year’s Movie Club, Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, former Voice critic Bilge Ebiri, and former MTV News and LA Weekly critic Amy Nicholson. Ebiri notes that many of 2018’s movies, such as Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma as well as documentaries like RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, “seemed to bask in mysteries they weren’t always able to solve, and I loved them for it.” Nicholson argues the cases for David Gordon Green’s Halloween and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. And Collins, as always, is brimming with fascinating ideas, among them the argument that “the ideal theatrical experience is, itself, a class fantasy, and that we’re wrongly touting it as an aesthetic necessity.”

Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott’s latest conversation in the New York Times about 2018’s movies opens with an appreciative nod to the final scene in Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls and wanders through a few films that pander to self-satisfied liberal audiences—Golden Globe winners Green Book and The Wife are called out here—before landing hard on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Dargis argues that this highest-grossing solo superhero film ever “introduces ideas and characters that are so strong, so in excess of what we normally see—African-American identity, Afro-futurism, Michael B. Jordan’s performance and the very figure of Killmonger—that they become bigger and more important than the Marvel brand and story beats.” Scott has a problem with the movie, though, and it “has to do with its commitment to monarchism and to Wakanda’s appropriation of Silicon Valley techno-neoliberalism as its guiding ideology. Superheroism remains a profoundly anti-democratic undertaking.” Perhaps, he playfully suggests, Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) or Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu) could “direct a stand-alone Killmonger adventure, one that rescues that misunderstood villain from the condescension of comic-book history. The next phase of the dialectic is surely the synthesis of Marvel and Marx. A fellow can dream, anyway.”

Latest Lists

A fellow can also read and watch voraciously even while knocking out a couple of films and producing a television series or two. Steven Soderbergh has posted a list everything he saw or read from the first through the last day of 2018.

To return to the Voice, or rather, a delightfully unreasonable facsimile, Mike D’Angelo has taken it upon himself to imagine what the weekly’s storied critics’ poll might have looked like this year—and then actually create it. “It’s almost certainly not ‘accurate,’” he writes at Slate, adding that “for one thing, I heard from or found published top ten lists for only eighty-five of the 112 folks who participated last time—but it should at least be in the ballpark. If it isn’t, there’s no one left to complain!” At his site, you’ll find 169 titles, all ranked according to the Voice’s point system, and even better, you can wander from any one of those titles to the list of critics who voted for it, and from a name there, to further lists, and so on. Number one, by the way, is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a film that K. Austin Collins has pretty much nailed at the Movie Club: “I don’t think it’s a pro-environment film; I think it’s a film about the slippery axes of belief, the miniature distinctions between grace and damnation, radicalism and enervating conservatism.”

Reverse Shot, the outstanding online journal now entering its sixteenth year, has polled its writers to come up with an annotated top ten. Zama, which coeditor Jeff Reichert calls Lucrecia Martel’s “most elliptical and approachable work to date,” tops the list. Contributors to In Review Online write about twenty films, counting down to their number one, Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, “a meta mea culpa by a once-powerful man now clearly at the end of his tether,” as Daniel Gorman puts it. At Kinoscope, ten critics look back on one memorable viewing experience each, three of them reveling in repertory screenings. You’ll also find top tens from the staff at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, the editors of Fireflies, and contributors to the Toronto Film Review.

For both Dario Llinares and Neil Fox, hosts of the Cinematologists podcast, You Were Never Really Here was last year’s best film, and they discuss more than a dozen further titles over the course of the two-and-a-half hours of their latest episode. More lists worth more than a once-over come from Philip Concannon (plus fifty repertory screenings!), Lillian Crawford and Madeleine Pulman-Jones (Varsity), Hossein Eidizadeh, Tim Grierson (who also reflects on the experience of seeing one of his tweets go viral), Jim Healy (director of programing at the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival), Robert Horton (Seattle Weekly), Darren Hughes (cofounder and coprogrammer of the Public Cinema in Knoxville), Mark Kermode (Observer), Ryland Walker Knight, Alicia Malone (TCM), Alan Scherstuhl (Westword), Michael Smith, Tanner Tafelski, Scout Tafoya, and filmmaker Blake Williams.

Contributors to VCinema each take a look back at their personal highlights of the year in Asian cinema, and Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee.Ma.Yau tops the annotated lists of 2018’s best Indian films from Aseem Chhabra (Rediff.com) and J Hurtado (ScreenAnarchy). Another Gaze editor Daniella Shreir writes about “the best feminist films of 2018” for i-D; Pamela Hutchinson presents the results of her poll of Silent London readers who’ve revisited the highlights of the year in silent cinema; and we naturally couldn’t be more pleased to see Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema topping both Sight & Sound’s and DVD Beaver’s polls of critics and curators who’ve voted for the best Blu-ray and DVD releases of 2018.

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