2018 in Movies

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2018 was not, by several reckonings I’ve read or heard, a great year for movies. There was a good bit of dreck, but a lot more sameness. Even the prestige Oscar-bait movies all look similarly tortured, similarly target the same progressive boogeymen, and look similarly self-congratulatory. And Lord help you if you’re pretty well burned out on superheroes. I’m getting close. I saw Black Panther, which was apparently a civic duty, but couldn’t muster the gumption to see Infinity War until this week. Still underwhelmed.

But there was good stuff mixed in there—and if you enjoyed the things I was just complaining about, more power to you! Seriously. I try not to begrudge people their entertainment, but I do wish we got more movies like the ones below.

Here are the five movies, in roughly ascending order, that I enjoyed most this year, along with a few honorable mentions and—to keep things positive—movies that looked good, that trusted friends recommended, but that I just haven’t had the chance to see yet.

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in  A Quiet Place

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place proved the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. I’m not much for horror—and apparently neither is John Krasinski,* the writer, director, and star of the movie. I think that’s a strength. Krasinski’s entry in the genre emphasizes character over gore, relationships over creature effects, and atmosphere over cheap jump scares, the things a talented outsider can bring to freshen up a genre piece. As it happens, the few horror films I like are the ones that slowly build dread—a more powerful emotion than horror, I think—through character and atmosphere.

It helps that Krasinski has fashioned a classically cinematic movie. With the dialogue mostly stripped out, A Quiet Place has to rely on that ever rarer of commodities—visual storytelling. It’s a spectacularly well made movie, visually and technically, with an excellent sense of place (always an asset in horror, c.f. The Shining), and evocative sound design. But the real strength, what gives the technical accomplishments life, is the performances. Krasinski and his wife, Emily Blunt, portray a committed, nigh desperate couple trying to raise a family in a world controlled by unstoppable monsters with powerful senses of hearing. Krasinski and Blunt are excellent, as are the kids—almost always a weak point in this kind of movie.

A Quiet Place’s depiction of a family also sets it apart. The nameless family we follow through the movie is intact, led by a husband and wife who need and rely upon each other, as stable as can be expected, and attempting to carry on in the face of a situation in which other people would give in to despair. Indeed, we see exactly two other people in the film, one of whom has reached that point. The easy Hollywood route—the cliched route—with a screen couple in a situation like this would be to emphasize preexisting rifts and have plenty of screaming matches, maybe an adultery subplot, but Krasinski and Blunt emphasize—touchingly, movingly—the ordinary: a husband and wife looking after their kids and preparing for the arrival of another in a hostile world. Which is what men and women have been doing since Eden.

I think the film also does something interesting in exposing a philosophical fault line among its viewers. The people who asked, bewildered, “Why would you have a baby in a world like that?” don’t get it. The answer is Because life is worth it, utilitarian arguments be damned. It’s a terrifying and starkly beautiful vision. I’ll refer y’all to this outstanding piece by Sonny Bunch for more.

*I can’t talk about this movie without reflexively referring to Krasinski’s character as “Jim.”

The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in  The Death of Stalin

Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria in The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin could have gone wrong in so many ways, it’s amazing it works so well. Trickiest of all is its premise. This film stages the aftermath of the death of one of history’s greatest mass murderers—a man whose war against reality took the lives of at least twenty million of his own people; who oversaw one of the largest and most brutal concentration camp systems in the world; who led his country first into an alliance with and then in a war against Hitler, a war that killed another 11,00,000+ of his soldiers and as many as twenty million of his own civilians; who enslaved over half of Europe in a campaign of political suppression, ethnic cleansing, and murder—as a comedy.

There is a lot to laugh at in socialism or communism generally and even the Soviet Union specifically—the Russians under the Soviets had a famously mordant sense of humor—but the risk is that turning these events into effective comedy will trivialize Stalin’s unbelievable evil. Astonishingly, the film manages this tightrope walk brilliantly.

The director, Armando Iannucci, is also the creator of Veep, and so knows a thing or two about political satire. His approach to the humor of Stalin’s death is to play it straight—no one in The Death of Stalin is laughing about anything, and yet it is uproariously funny. The absurdity of life under communism, of the violent ideological whiplash caused by sudden reverses of supposedly infallible policy, of the grotesque toadying of Stalin’s subordinates even as the Man of Steel lies in a puddle of his own urine, of the comically self-serving narcissism of virtually every character—all factor into the comedy, not to mention the dark zingers the characters shoot back and forth and the Office-worthy awkward moments that ensue.

That both the comedy and tragedy work is due to the performances, which Iannucci’s documentary-style, improvisatory camerawork and editing allow to shine. Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin is an excellent Molotov, the most self-deluded true believer among the Soviet inner circle. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy) proves a delightfully crass and bro-ish Marshal Zhukov, the man who captured Berlin. Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough stand out in small roles as Stalin’s children, Vasily, who surely never forgot that his father refused a chance to exchange for him when he was captured by the Nazis, and Svetlana, who eventually defected to the United States. But the film’s strongest performances are the central three: Jeffrey Tambor as Georgi Malenkov, Stalin’s weak, malleable heir apparent*; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD and a true devil in his own right, a serial rapist and mass murderer; and Steve Buscemi as a surprisingly great Nikita Khrushchev, a resentful, put-upon brute simultaneously chafing at and fearful of Beria’s power now that Stalin is dead.

While these magnificent bastards kiss butt, comically debase themselves, and jockey for a chance at greater control of the post-Stalin Soviet Union—and, to reiterate, this is all hilarious—The Death of Stalin never loses sight of the horrible, ironic tragedy of the story it’s telling. When Beria orders an end to political executions, one unlucky prisoner is shot after the order to stop is given and his executioner doesn’t quite catch it. While Beria plots against his rivals with an underling in the basement of the Lubyanka, prisoners are shot, tortured, and rolled down the stairs tied to logs behind him.

On a grander scale, The Death of Stalin portrays a system proclaiming peace at perpetual war with itself, that, in its pursuit of pure equality, has created the zero-sum game it accuses capitalism of creating. But it’s not just an indictment of a system, our culture’s current default critique of everything: The Death of Stalin depicts the rot of people, the moral decay of little daily choices, from Stalin and his lieutenants down to radio station managers and the lowliest Red Army privates. Everything in this film—everything—comes at someone else’s expense. It’s a nasty object lesson, but one we need more than ever.

The film does take historical liberties, but this isn’t the place for hashing that out. It’s worth watching, not only as a politically canny satire or historical comedy, but as an indictment against ideology, the abandonment of truth, and the worship of man in the place of God.**

*I watched The Death of Stalin for the second time while reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life a week or two ago. Afterward, I read this in his Rule 11: “And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of.”

**The reaction of Khrushchev and company to the arrival of formerly exiled Orthodox bishops at Stalin’s funeral is worthy of a gang YouTube comment atheists, a subtle point of satire of its own.

Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in  Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible—Fallout

The best action movie of the year doesn’t feature any superheroes. Mission: Impossible—Fallout* is both a great new entry in one of the most consistently excellent series yet running and a solid sequel to the last one.

Since III but certainly since IV (Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol), the Mission: Impossible series has done two things exceptionally well: stage impressive practical stunts and make them matter to the plot. Far from the extraneous, time-wasting chaos of Transformers or self-indulgent cool of The Fast and the Furious franchises, Mission: Impossible’s action scenes advance the plot and are mostly real, refusing to lean on CGI as a crutch.

Fallout takes this to even greater extremes, with Tom Cruise doing scores of sunset parachute jumps to film the HALO dive sequence, racing against traffic in Paris for a motorcycle chase, doing his own helicopter flying, and actually dangling from a cliff over a Norwegian fjord (standing in for Kashmir) in the climax. The much ballyhooed shattering of Cruise’s ankle comes during a pretty standard footchase through London that, to the producers’, director’s, and Cruise’s credit, is far more exciting than it has to be.

And that’s what sets Fallout—and its predecessors—apart: the filmmakers care. You can’t take that for granted in our era of lazy cashgrabs and paint-by-numbers sequels.

It helps, of course, that Fallout has a good plot, with interesting development of the previous film’s villain (Sean Harris) and femme fatale (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson). Ving Rhames has an expanded role, as does Alec Baldwin, whose sinister bureaucrat from the previous film has an important role to play here. Henry Cavill, with his Justice League-wrecking mustache, is a physically imposing, resourceful, intelligent—and therefore threatening—villain. The film also resolves the Mrs. Hunt situation introduced in JJ Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III, explaining what happened to that hastily introduced and abandoned love interest, both paving the way for Hunt and Ilsa Faust to have something going on in future installments and giving the franchise a bit more of a solid footing, continuity-wise.

Well plotted, solid acting by a veteran cast (even Simon Pegg’s relative newcomer Benji has been in four out of six of these now), and exciting, believable action—you could do a lot worse for pure entertainment.

*They need to find a better way to punctuate these titles. I shouldn’t have to use order of operations to remember what goes where.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in  Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado

I love the last few Mission: Impossible films, but if you want that kind of thrilling action with a bit more real-world gravitas and ethical exploration, Sicario is the franchise to beat. Sicario proved a surprise hit when it came out three years ago, with an intriguing look into a complicated, morally dicey world given life by excellent writing and plotting. The writer, Taylor Sheridan, has emerged as one of most interesting talents in the last few years, with both Sicario films to his credit as well as Wind River and Hell or High Water. The performances were excellent as well, with Josh Brolin’s cagey CIA operative Matt Graver and Benicio Del Toro’s former cartel hitman Alejandro offering black and gray contrasts to the white morality of FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, outstanding again). Thanks to the writing and performances and Denis Villeneuve’s direction, I’ve seldom been as tense as long as I was when I first watched Sicario.

This year’s sequel, originally simply titled Soldado, further complicates the world of the first film, first by expanding its scope, with events driven by terror attacks in middle America and Graver operating as far away as Somalia, and second by removing the first film’s conscience, Kate Macer. This film revolves around Graver and Alejandro, with side stories following an aspiring teenage sicario (Elijah Rodriguez) and the spoiled daughter (Isabela Moner) of a cartel don the US government has decided to take down. I don’t want to explain much more about the plot, but its tense blend of immigration politics, the war on drugs, government corruption on both sides of the border, the power of money, and the personal stakes involved in this kind of amoral Realpolitik challenge the characters to deal with the consequences of their actions. Even in a world already driven by revenge, Graver and Alejandro rely more and more on force—the only tool left to them, the laws all being flat. They ultimately choose different paths. I’m not sure either ends up happy about it.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado features a new director (Italian director Stefano Sollima) and cinematographer (Dariusz Wolski, replacing the legendary Roger Deakins) but the film is perfectly matched stylistically and especially tonally to the first one. If you’re looking for an engaging action drama that poses some hard questions about chaos, the line between good and evil, and our relationship to a government that increasingly solves its problems by killing people, Soldado is the next film you should check out.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh in “The Gal who Got Rattled,” the fifth story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is my favorite film of the year. Hilarious and moving, beautiful and bleak, eerie and warmly romantic, this film shows Joel and Ethan Coen at the height of their powers, masters of the film medium. And they not only demonstrate their virtuosity technically and artistically, but they show that, coupled with their storytelling skill, they have something to say. This is not just art for art’s sake.

This film is an anthology, a collection of six short stories—presented literally so, with a hand opening and turning the pages of an illustrated book of Western stories as the film progresses. Each is markedly different from the others in style and tone. The first, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is almost a self-parody—intentionally so. Its verbose, aw shucks protagonist wends his way across a stereotypical Old Hollywood Western landscape, singing and engaging opponents in banter that shows off his vocabulary but that almost immediately descends into comical violence. The cherry on top is a country musical number with a tinge of the supernatural.

“Near Algodones,” about a hapless bank robber who isn’t hanged for a crime he committed but is for one he didn’t, is essentially an extended joke, complete with punchline, but it features a pinch of pathos at the end that prepares the way for the later stories. “Meal Ticket,” the bleakest of the set, is a mood piece. It follows a pair of traveling performers, an armless man who recites long passages from the classics (Harry Melling) and the man who cares for him (the great Liam Neeson, in an almost wordless performance). The story creates such a powerful sense of pathos and sadness, such a keen sense of the long years of this pair’s sad routine, that there’s almost no way it could have ended satisfactorily. It’s the most overtly tragic and least humorous of the six.

My two favorites come sandwiched in the middle. “All Gold Valley,” based on a short story by Jack London, tells the story of an old prospector (Tom Waits) seeking out and, despite some rather serious obstacles, finding a rich vein of gold. In this story the Coens show off their underappreciated skill of making people going through processes—just working on stuff—not only interesting but gripping (c.f. Llewellyn and Chigurh preparing their motel rooms in No Country for Old Men).

The longest, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” based on a short story by Stewart Edward White, is the most sincerely moving. The story of a star-crossed man and woman on the Oregon Trail, it carefully builds a warm and involving relationship between two lonesome people who find, in each other, hope for something more. The landscapes—western Nebraska prairie—are stunningly shot and flat out beautiful. The performances by the leads—Zoe Kazan as Alice and Bill Heck as Billy Knapp—are wonderfully subtle and understated, as is that of Grainger Hines as Mr. Arthur, another in the Coens’ fine lineage of taciturn men who, when the crisis comes, get crap done. And Alice and Billy’s dialogue, in a sincerely presented religious conversation, introduce what I think is the heart of the whole film: the uncertainty of the ephemeral, fleeting world we travel through (what better image could you hope for than a wagon train?), an uncertainty that means our only hope can come in the world of the transcendent. The story tragically and movingly underlines the point at the very end.

The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” uses the Coens’ skill for humor and dialogue to cast the themes of mortality and the brevity of life in pretty stark relief, showing us out the door—quite literally—with a pair of closing doors, not to learn what happens on the other side in this life.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs offers not only a great set of varied but thematically unified stories, but it’s also a cinematic delight. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, working with the Coens for the second time (after Inside Llewyn Davis) composes the vast deserts and grasslands beautifully. Look for the lone trees on the horizon in “Near Algodones” or the beautifully untouched, Edenic “All Gold Valley.” The standout is probably “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” with its gorgeous twilight wagon circle (see above) and a genuinely exciting and terrifying action scene—comparable to Rooster’s showdown in True Grit*—at the end. Carter Burwell’s score is also excellent, incorporating folk songs and western motifs while being wholly original and appropriate to the tone of each short.

I can’t speak highly enough of this one. If you haven’t seen it, go out and watch it as soon as you can. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again—it rewards reviewing.

2018 may not have had a lot of good movies, but its good ones were great.

*There are a couple of True Grit Easter Eggs—such as an appearance by Mattie Ross’s boarding house nemesis Grandma Turner—sewn throughout Buster Scruggs. It’s a lot of fun.

Honorable mentions:

first+man.jpg

First Man—A solid, unexpectedly emotional depiction of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. I saw this film with several other dads and there wasn’t a dry eye among us at the end. The depiction of mid-1960s NASA is great and should deepen our appreciation for the men who flew to the moon on the power of vacuum tubes and reel-to-reel tape, and Ryan Gosling’s intensely interior performance is Oscar-worthy. Ignore the completely fabricated controversy—something I hope the trolls who ginned it up will suffer consequences for—and watch this when you get the chance.

Crazy Rich Asians—Romantic comedies, as a genre, have been in rough shape, torpedoed if not completely sunk by the deconstructive, improvised Apatow comedies of a decade and a half ago. Crazy Rich Asians stands to revive the genre. It’s light, fun, and follows interesting characters in an interesting and unusual locale. Its subtle explorations and affirmations of family, marriage, and fidelity are also welcome.

The Incredibles II—A worthy follow up to the original. If it lacks somewhat in freshness that can only be because of the flux of superhero movies that have arrived in the intervening years—something these characters probably helped make possible.

Outlaw King—The okayest historical epic in years. I eagerly anticipated this one and liked it, but couldn’t overlook some of its glaring problems, particularly in terms of pacing and characterization. And while it does have a few serious historical blunders, the film has its heart in the right place and is a more authentic depiction of the medieval world than we’ve gotten in years, and so I still appreciate it for what it is. You can listen to Coyle and I discuss the movie on City of Man Podcast here.

Ant-Man and the Wasp—Here’s my nod to Marvel. Ant-Man is a curiosity to me: I never look forward to an Ant-Man movie, and so far I haven’t made it to a theater for one, but I enjoy them a lot when I finally see them, and I enjoyed the heck out of this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Maybe the low expectations are the key.

2018 films I missed but hope to catch in the new year:

  • Ralph Breaks the Internet

  • Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

  • BlacKkKlansman

  • Annihilation

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

  • Der Hauptmann (The Captain)

And finally…

Older movies I just saw this year:

Here are a couple of solid movies I saw this year and want to say a word or two of praise for. They are, by pure coincidence, all World War II movies, but pretty drastically different from one another.

1944—Perhaps the most unusual movie I saw this year, 1944 is an Estonian film that depicts both sides of the war, changing sides and perspectives completely at the halfway point. Estonia, one of the small, vulnerable Baltic states, was the object of Soviet aggression well before World War II, and when the Nazi-Soviet alliance broke down Estonian volunteers found themselves in both the Red Army and the SS. The film explores one of the war’s side stories—how a small country caught between two evil superpowers picks its poison. It’s a moving, unromanticized look from the vantage of a nation that will be defeated no matter who wins.

Talvisota (The Winter War)—One of the best war films I’ve ever seen. This is the story of a fictional squad of Finnish reservists called up to defend their country against Soviet invasion during the Winter War of 1939-40. Harrowing and unromantic. I wrote a lengthy Historical Movie Monday post on this film if you want to know more.

Darkest Hour—This technically came out last year, in late December, and I’ve already blogged about it, but I’d like to get one more good word in for it before the year is out. It’s great—a brilliantly cinematic drama with powerful performances. Watch it if you haven’t.

Looking ahead

I hope y’all have had a great year and a blessed Christmas holiday, and that you’ve enjoyed some good movies along the way. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope y’all have a happy new year!