Next Door to Prestige 2: A Year in Search of a Center

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It was the stuff P.R. disasters are made of: a move that was intended to accommodate everybody and ended up pleasing no one. That about sums up the Academy’s decision, back in August, to announce a new “Best Popular Film” category. The internet became a hornet’s nest. If you were the sort of fan upset that Nolan’s Batman movies got shut out from top honors, creating a new category looked condescending. If you didn’t care for blockbusters, it looked like a vulgar concession. If you knew Oscar history, it looked absurdly unnecessary (JawsStar WarsE.T., and Avatar were all nominated). And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about the Oscars at all until they start recognizing Claire Denis and Tsai Ming-Liang, the transparent, ratings-hungry desperation made your eyes roll even harder.

The decision was reversed following a public outcry, but more followed. Kevin Hart was set to host—withdrawn, due to ugly Tweets. The Academy said it would cut down on the broadcast of some of the awards to save time—withdrawn, due to backlash from the film community. (Though IndieWire has admirably compiled an oral history of how that decision wasn’t exactly what we all thought it was). The corker was that the new “Best Popular Film” category was yanked before they even announced what, exactly, a “popular film” is—never mind that the definition of “a popular film” (hell, of “a film” in general) is increasingly worth debating.

The Oscars are in no small part about symbolism, and I’ve gone back and forth about how much that symbolism should mean, especially since the Academy follows rather than leads. The 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy drew attention to the very real uphill battle of ethnic minorities and women filmmakers to get their due in Hollywood. If the numbers had gone a different way, and Ava DuVernay and her cast had gotten nominated for Selma—surely no less deserving than, say, The Imitation Game—it’s impossible to imagine the same firestorm. But would their nominations have actually fixed anything? Would it have just been optics? Or, for this annual pomp-and-circumstance of What Our Movies Mean, are optics enough?

It’s fair to say that anyone who thinks the Oscars matter, or wants them to, has an Oscars of their own. Should it be more populist? More cinephiliac? More youth-oriented? More inclusive? The Academy has one foot in advertising, one foot in inside baseball, and one foot in aesthetic judgment, which is already more feet than a person can handle. Early in 2018, when The Shape of Water was the frontrunner, Bill Maher’s panel on Real Time took a moment to tweak the Academy’s choices. “The movies are not what America is watching,” said Maher. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson nodded along, pointing to the snub for The Dark Knight and adding, “What Hollywood thinks are the greatest movies—they’re not what my family goes to see.” And the sense I get is that, rather than telling them to fuck off back to their respective media outlets, the Academy takes such criticism very seriously.

So given that the Oscars are symbolic, and that the nature of its symbolism is fleeting, hyperbolic, and overdetermined, I still can’t think of a more evocative symbol for Hollywood cinema in 2018 than the Academy’s string of controversies: the old-school tribute to What Our Movies Mean cycling awkwardly through ideas to try and keep people from going away. The Oscars are Hollywood P.R., that much has always been true—but it’s hard to do P.R. when it’s uncertain what you should be doing P.R. for.

This was a weak year for movies, people keep telling me. And you should take that with a grain of salt because a) anecdotal evidence means little, b) my sample size is small, and c) people in Hollywood tell me that almost every year. Is it true? I don’t think so, no—2018 was just a year when you had to keep your ear to the ground to find your cinema. It offered a wealth of worthy titles, especially for international films and documentaries, which are where some of the snubs sting the most. American movies were no slouch, but for what it’s worth, eight of my top ten of 2017 were English-language American productions or co-productions. For 2018, that number is four—one of which is the completion of a much older movie, and two of which were released by Netflix.

Indeed, 2018 should go down as the year when Netflix truly came of age as a studio, even if there’s still a major question mark over what it can be. There’s Roma, yes, but don’t miss that Cuaron’s sensation—getting flattened by hype, as all good Oscar contenders are—is just one of at least a half dozen worthy films that went straight from prestigious festivals to your TV. Many reliable prognosticators are predicting Roma for Best Picture, which would be historic on two major counts. It would be the first time a streaming service has won Best Picture, which is something I’d assumed would happen eventually. And it would be the first time that Best Picture has ever gone to a foreign language film, which is something I’d assumed would never happen at all. Even a Best Director win, which looks like more of a lock, would be unprecedented—but then, precedent isn’t exciting people in the LA bubble as much as it has before. So with no regrets about spending 2018 at the movies, and as someone who thinks the Oscars can/should matter (if not in the way they intend to), I look forward to tuning in Sunday night—intrigued by how we just might have year so messy that a safe bet can be placed on something that has never happened before.

My 10 favorite films of 2018:

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10. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy)

During the opening of Alice Rohrwacher’s dreamy new film, you may find yourself wondering what year it is. Hang onto that thought. The fantasy that unfurls from there is like a tour through a half-century of Italian history—and Italian cinema—with the eternal Holy Fool at its center and both magic and realism impinging around the edges. Its ending is simultaneously too direct and too metaphorical to suit me, but that’s a small quibble in the face of a pilgrimage with such entrancing textures and compelling ideas. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes and was picked up by Netflix. Sadly, they never gave it much of an offline push. Happily, it’s available to watch right now.

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9. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)

Like Herzog filtered through the eye of Jacques Tati, Martel delivers an absurdist historical portrait of “the new world”, full of tart, frustrated irony. Is it about colonization? An emasculated warrior? The lives of men and women? The values of an invented country? Yes, yes, yes, and yes—and its sense of politics and adventurism builds to a line that a freshly “conquered” continent deserves: “I do for you what no one did for me. I say no to your hopes.”

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8. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, US)

The unlikely repertory event of the year: the restoration of a notoriously unfinished film, released by a streaming service that isn’t exactly known for cinephilia, and arriving with the hype of a filmmaker who has a greater stature in death than anyone could possibly have among the living. There is a lot to unpack from this kamikaze film, and its accessibility to any cineaste with an internet connection can speed up years of debate on what is, at first glance, impenetrable editing chaos. It’s a work of acidic contempt for movies and the whole frenzy that surrounds them: the money, the fans, the myths, the endless doomed attempts to stay relevant. But “contemptuous” is not the same as “unfeeling”, and this mockumentary’s paranoid number of cameras snap plenty of pure, honest emotions—which is part of its warning. Its arrival is like the Hollywood ghosts of bygone eras rattling their chains at you.

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7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, US)

What starts out looking like one of the Coen brothers’ most pointless films turns out to be among their most purposeful: a Death-and-the-West compendium from pop culture junkies and natural born storytellers who shine to the mythic potential of the American heartland. Stick with it. It expands and enriches as it goes along, adding soul, casting doubt on fatalism, combining philosophy with cheek, and making clear at the end that, for the Coens, the thrill was always in the telling.

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6. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, US)

Aside from a comedy, a thriller, and the best script Lee has had in years, this is something else: a movie about movies, from the open racism of Birth of a Nation to the Confederate nostalgia of Gone with the Wind to the rumblings of blaxploitation. If you take it as a straight comedy/thriller, it’s solid if imperfect. As a pastiche of politics, pop culture, and varying degrees of (un)reality, it achieves a lucid agitation about the pleasures that movies offer and the pitfalls in trusting them too much. Funny, frightening, and rousing, willing to bait controversy and deserve it. No American film of the year is as worth debating.

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5. Dead Souls (Wang Bing, China)

Of our major documentarians, Wang Bing is the most uninterested in hooking you with technique. No montages, no music, no reenactments, no stunts, no jazzy editing, just a dedication to testimony that’s as pure and potent as anything in cinema today. For a filmmaker so intent on bearing witness to political sins, Wang comes off not as a firebrand, but simply as a humanist, which is radical enough on its own. This one is heavy lifting: at eight hours, it was the longest film to ever play Cannes, and I spent much of it fearing that Wang was using an extreme duration for sheer volume rather than scope. But his method is to create form out of formlessness, and the interviews he saves for last make it hurt even more. It played at the Hammer Museum in LA for one illuminating, emotionally draining day, and will be more widely available soon (I hope) however eight-hour documentaries are.

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4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)

This comedy-drama about a family of petty criminals struck a chord in Japan (where it outgrossed Infinity War) and with the Cannes jury (who gave it the top prize) before landing in the States as a hot ticket at the arthouse. Kore-Eda wouldn’t make a film with just one idea, but the spirit of Shoplifters is closest to the jocular father figure, who seems aware of every human shame and hardship and is willing to forgive it all. It’s beautifully drawn, warm in its view of people but critical of their circumstance. It makes you wonder how long outlaw humanism can last without betraying itself. And it’s determined to find a way to forgive it anyway.

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3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/US)

Lanthimos hits Oscar gold by finding the juicy spot between familiar prestige and batshit insanity. But what’s most surprising about the film is that, beneath the viciousness and gleeful obscenity, lies a tenderly felt sympathy for the pains of female competition. Colman is the heart and soul of both a satire and a love story. No comedy or drama of 2018 has a sadder final act—you yearn for them to all be happy together.

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2. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea)

In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning say anything about the plot: better to let the viewer start the film, with the camera tailing the main character, and then follow along wherever it goes in terms of texture, theme, and even genre. Lee’s mournful, literally incendiary thriller about a lost generation is rich in unsettled mystery, but lucid and impassioned in its view of a system that can swallow people up and leave no trace.

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1. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)

Cuaron’s use of the long take continues to conjure a world spreading out in all directions, and it allows the simplest of plots—an unwanted pregnancy, an imploding marriage—to find a social and personal context with fragments of lives criss-crossing through the frame. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this for a decade. A streaming service has produced the year’s best film, and in doing so has proved how much we still need theaters.

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