This has been a weird year for movies.
The promise of so many arthouse favorites remained unfulfilled or never came to the meandering towns that most of the folks at Unwinnable call home. Bigger budget films from reliable franchises crashed like inglorious rubble, hopefully to be forgotten. Studios reconsidered, pulled back slates to re-evaluate what the coming years would bring. They released a Spider-Man movie that was universally, critically loved. Someone tried to remake a 1970’s Dario Argento classic and then forgot to color it anything other than a deep ruby red. It’s been a weird year for movies.
There are many articles out there that will swell with admiration for this year. They may even try to sell you on the idea that Mission Impossible: Fallout was actually a good film. This is not one of those lists. Last year I came to you full of fire and anger because so many of the movies featured on our best of the year list were middling super hero films. This year, I have no such anger. There’s a sense of muddled disappointment, not in my phenomenal writers, but in the output of the film industry that gives us the promise of something good and then goes out of their way to slay all excitement and hype in the final act. Who makes it impossible to see the years best films if you live in flyover country.
What I appreciate the most about film is its opportunity to show different viewpoints, and this list is full of that balance of perspective. From a quiet film about religion and ecology to an Indonesian action film so full of splatter you’ll wander where a person would store so much blood, this list is as diverse as the year’s offerings will allow. (Amanda Hudgins, Curator)
The Anthropocene isn’t just distressing because it’s terrifying, but because it’s disappointing, a failure for us to own. In First Reformed, Paul Schrader may wear his influences on his long clergical sleeve (most blatantly of which is his own Taxi Driver) but it’s all slicked in a weighted, contemporary dread. The 70s shellshock and bottomless New York isn’t what drives people to radicalism anymore: it’s centrism. Moderates unable to produce answers answers to the biggest questions and prefer to parrot norms. When Ethan Hawke’s priest Ernst Toller is confronted by climate change anxieties he can’t address, that his superiors can’t address, he fails to save a soul. 40 years after the fact, Schrader has created a more compelling Travis Bickle, one that exists in a life more ordinary and whose violence isn’t beget by a violent world but a lack of alternatives. And as alternatives continue to seem incapable in our way of life, First Reformed will be a movie that’ll haunt the soul for unending years to come. (Zack Kotzer)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
You remember that feeling you had as a kid the first time you saw a Spider-Man cartoon or comic? The awe of watching him swing across the city on impossibly thin webs, contorting himself into mesmerizing positions as he punched, kicked, and quipped his way to victory? The visceral fear you had for him against enemies that clearly had him outgunned and outmanned?
That’s what this movie gave adult me.
It’s the joy of seeing acrobatics executed as only animated films could pull off. It’s watching all the spider folks across a variety of universes get pulled into a fresh catastrophe and just roll with it, because that’s what you do as a Spider-something. It’s humor juxtaposed with heartbreak as you watch Miles Morales learn to be Spider-Man in the wake of another hero’s death. The music is enthralling, the art is gorgeous; it’s incredible. Go see it. (Gingy Gibson)
KILLMONGER WAS RIGHT (Unwinnable Staff)
If you’d like to read more on Black Panther from Unwinnable, I recommend Yussef Cole’s phenomenal piece in Issue #1 of Exploits.
Shirkers is a dream, a nightmare pressed between candy colored film of a promising movie that could’ve maybe defined a scene – if the men involved had ever let it happen. Documentaries are fraught with authorial intent – the camera able to point blame and hide culpability with equal intent but the strength of Shirkers is that it wears this intention well. The story of three young filmmakers from Singapore who just wanted to make the kind of movies they loved when they were kids hijacking David Lynch films from Floridian cousins, Shirkers tells the kind of horror story that can only exist if you love something as much as Sandy Tan and her friends loved this movie, a summer diversion that turned into a lifelong pursuit over stolen footage. If you see only one documentary this year, see Shirkers. (Amanda Hudgins)
In a film filled with countless powerful emotional moments, one scene in Shoplifters stands out prominently to me. After bringing home the young child Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who had been left out in the cold by her neglectful and abusive parents, the family central to Shoplifters’ narrative lightheartedly bickers over whether she should be taken back. Osamu (Lily Franky) asks his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) her opinion. The camera spends this exchange situated in the small dining area along with most of the characters, while Nobuyo sits partially obscured by a screen back in the kitchen. She first responds with a playfully stern admonishment to take Yuri home, lest they run up against the law for what is essentially a kidnapping. As Osamu turns back to the others and the focus of the scene returns to the dining area, the camera, and the audience’s gaze, stays a moment on Nobuyo, who furtively takes a glance at the young Yuri, the conflicted maternal desire behind her gaze blazing up in the empty, unspoken space between shots.
Here and elsewhere in the film, the art and the power of Shoplifters lives in the faces of its actors, and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s deft direction of them. Their words have hefty meaning too, but they are employed more as textural evidence of the family’s close-knit lifestyle. It is their emotive expressions which are the focused laser beams of the film’s repeated emotional gut-punches; they express the power of having a family and contain the pain of losing one. (Yussef Cole)
The cut in film is a delineation in time: the audience understands the transition because there’s a logic we’ve agreed to interpret like this. When Annihilation starts playing fast and loose with these rules, the crew in Area X are just as disoriented as the audience. Missing time and false memories and a space where everything is overgrown and slick with biofilm. One of the most notable details about Alex Garland’s film is the way it resembles an 80s action classic like Aliens or The Thing. Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel is much less literal, and is written from a much more distant perspective. The film sets itself apart with its retro plot structure and sweaty closeups, but it’s equally as discomforting and delightful as the book. The fractal cellular effects and the final wordless conversation between Natalie Portman and Sonoya Mizuno are spectacular and powerful in strange new ways. (Dan Fries)
Widows is a richly dense and textured film, like a chocolate cake full of bullets, black tank tops and frustrated, angry tears. On the surface it’s a gender-swapped heist film, something like this summer’s lackluster Oceans 8, which accomplished little that its predecessors hadn’t already (which wasn’t much to begin with). Widows, however, quickly pushes past genre expectations, and explodes in so many different, new directions that I left the theater reeling at the sheer thematic ground that had just been covered in under two hours. There’s its intersectional exploration of race and class: the way Viola Davis’ Veronica Rawlins can’t help but look down on the women she enlists to help her, how they don’t naturally become a magical nurturing sisterhood, but are driven together out of financial desperation and social pressures. There’s the way the characters and story map out along Chicago’s segregated political fault lines, in a manner reminiscent of The Wire, a show about another corrupt and segregated city. There’s the character, Alice, who goes from seeing herself primarily through the points of view of the men around her, to her own; a stunning transformation to witness, and it’s only a subplot. The film’s main plot is a heady mix of political commentary and intricate character work, and well worth watching, if only for getting to see Davis’ emotional grimace repeatedly matched up against Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifying sneer. (Yussef Cole)
The Night Comes for Us
The “action movie” as a distinct mode barely exists in 2018. A twenty-year deluge of MCU-style superhero films from the US – expensive slideshows for the shareholders which demand no craft and contain minimal visual interest – has obliterated domestic action movies outside the franchise mill. The DTV action scene offered a few guys who could put together a suitably hard fistfight, but the biggest splash in recent memory came from Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais’s The Raid (2011). However, Evans has shit the bed with the meandering, bloated Raid 2 and this year’s dismal Netflix joint Apostle, while his sometime collaborator and friend Timo Tjahjanto has been on an upward swing. Tjahjanto’s 2016 Headshot smothered its brutal fight scenes in overbearing melodrama, but 2018’s The Night Comes for Us trims all the fat. It is two hours of relentless, whiplash action with characters who define themselves through their violence, not outside of it. Tjahjanto is an unabashed gorehound, and he treats his splatter effects with the same evident glee as Lucio Fulci. The result doesn’t turn your stomach so much as amplify the superhuman physical toll his characters put themselves through – on some level this is a film about atoning for the stains of an immoral physical existence through ritual mortification. If that doesn’t help your snooty cinéaste friends get in the mood, I don’t know what will. (Astrid Budgor)
I love horror, and this movie fucking terrified me. In the tradition of Rosemary’s Baby, The Babadook and most of the genre’s truly frightening films, Hereditary picks at the scabs of horrors we see every day: family trauma, grief and mental illness, to name a few. Toni Collette plays an artist with a complicated relationship to her recently deceased mother, who had ties to some Seriously Dark Shit. This darkness passed on to other members of the family, which becomes quickly apparent as Collette’s teenage daughter (in a genuinely scary performance by Milly Shapiro) snips the head off a dead bird to make her own art. Familiar family dynamics – guilt, blame, teenage rebellion, marital strife – morph into monstrosities until it’s unclear whether your full-body panic started because a line of dialogue hit too close to home, or because the jerk sitting behind you clucked his tongue like Milly Shapiro. Either way, get ready to lose some sleep. (Deirdre Coyle)
For more on Hereditary, I recommend Carl Lewandowski’s piece on gender and horror in relation to Hereditary.
The Best Movie of 2018: Sorry to Bother You
The film Sorry To Bother You, written and directed by musician and activist Boots Riley, is maybe the most 2018 movie to be released in 2018. It tackles the very current issues of institutional racism and abusive labor practices and incorporates depictions of labor organization and revolutionary action as integral parts of its plot in a way that makes it look easy, even fun, to talk about these difficult things in art. Though I would recommend you let it into your home rather than stop it at the threshold, it is also a very enjoyable movie on a surface level. Sorry To Bother You is filled with captivating performances, excellent use of color and wardrobe design and the kind of humor that wrenches pained laughter from somewhere deep within you. I need to see it again to decide if it sticks its landing, but it’s definitely the start of something new. (2 Mello)
For more on Sorry to Bother You, I recommend Jake Pitre’s article on Leftist film for Issue #7 of Exploits.