It is the cinema which chronicles the passions, nightmares and dreams of an era. To look back at the movies of any given decade is to peer into the very fabric of an age’s consciousness. We are currently living through a period of historical transition, a moment Gramsci would recognize as a moment when an old world is beginning to die and what will come forth we do not yet know. Paris is burning, new parties worship the cult of blood and land. This helps explain why much of the year’s defining cinema obsesses itself with the past, the present and an aching uncertainty over what is to come. Yet some movies were also full of hope and tenderness, wisdom and the reverie of romance. I spent much of this year in darkened screening rooms all over Los Angeles. Whether in a hidden corner of Rodeo Drive or in some distant multiplex in Burbank, I found myself moved, exhilarated or challenged with despair. Here are ten offerings which defined the year in film, and crystalize our place in this current passage of time.
- First Reformed
No other film captured the spirit of the times like this one. A return to form for legendary screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke in one of his great roles as the Reverend Toller, who undergoes a radical awakening after meeting a doomed environmentalist and his pregnant wife, played by Amanda Seyfried. Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Martin Scorsese, both films which explore restless souls, explores faith, love and sincerity in a darkening world with a meditative, transcendental style reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. It is a film about a heart unchained and made dangerous when it becomes aware of a world nearing cataclysm. Schrader is himself the product of a Calvinist upbringing, which has always fueled the fascination with fanatical commitment in his works, from Mishima to The Last Temptation of Christ. In First Reformed, Schrader uses a fierce poetry to evoke the battle between the flesh and idealism, hope and despair. There is an eloquently radical message at the heart this film, more dangerous in a sense than a Molotov cocktail. It is all embodied in a stunning moment where two people kiss, the camera turning and turning around them in a crescendo, as if to say that the most revolutionary act is found in loving authentically, beyond the superficial, deeply and truly.
A Proustian evocation of memory. Alfonso Cuaron reaches back into his childhood to deliver this hypnotic, cinematic reverie. Filmed in a crisp black and white, Roma is told from the point of view of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid of a middle class family in 1970s Mexico City. Cuaron brings to life the sights and sounds, political clashes and social realities of an era. As the façade of the home Cleo works for cracks, we also follow her into the bowels of the monster city, where young men are trained to be paramilitaries and protests can transform into bloodbaths. Cuaron applies the haze of memory to surreal moments where the Mexican upper class go shooting in dreamy valleys, the heads of their former pets mounted on their walls. For Cuaron this is also his most personal work, visually poetic and as intimate as a remembered dream. Cuaron fills every inch of the frame with a richness of detail that is breathtaking. This filmmaker who has conjured the feeling of being marooned in space with Gravity, and predicted quite accurately our trajectory as a civilization with Children of Men, here crafts a film that has the power of remembering the sensations of a moment in time, from the way sunlight illuminated a kitchen to how she looked when you found her alone and sad in a balcony.
Oh what Shakespeare would have written about our modern-day tyrants. Vice takes the life of former Vice President Dick Cheney and transforms it into an epic study of power. Director Adam McKay reveals himself to be a great iconoclast, almost in the tradition of Gore Vidal. Cheney becomes a vehicle to explore the last 40 years of American imperial history. His rise from rural drunkard to power player moves hand in hand with the rise of Nixon, the age of Reagan and neocon hubris following 9/11. Christian Bale disappears behind the character, becoming a large, hulking political animal who changed history more than we could ever imagine. Amy Adams is a virtual Lady Macbeth as Lynne Cheney, driving her man in a thirst for power for its own sake. Sam Rockwell is pure frat boy corruption as former president George W. Bush. Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld prowls like a rat, laughing when asked what he believes in. This is politics elevated to a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. When Cheney plots the invasion of Iraq, McKay cuts to scenes demonstrating what the actual effects of an air bombing are, in all its horrific bloodshed. Like a young Oliver Stone, this film combines a fevered craft with an urgency to tell us about this man and his times. McKay transcends the exhilarating visual style of his previous opus, The Big Short, which somehow put into clarity the mechanics behind the 2008 crash. Having chronicled the modern downfall of capitalism, now McKay steps into an arena as bold and ancient as the Romans. Indeed, even the music score by Nicholas Britell storms like an imperial march. There stands at the entrance to the Oval Office Cheney, casting a long and menacing shadow over the republic, unleashing the Furies now devouring the system itself.
- The Favourite
Oh what absurdities lie behind the pomp and pageantry of empire. Greek enfant terrible Yorgos Lanthimos brings his absurdist knife to the period piece genre in this rousing dark dramedy. The Favourite travels back in time to 1700s England where a deceptively victimized Emma Stone engages in a savage battle of wits with a cold, calculating Rachel Weisz. Olivia Colman is decadent fun as a plump, tantrum-throwing Queen Ann. Lanthimos basks in the absurdity of aristocratic power as the Lords race ducks, the ladies threaten each other with gold-plated muskets and gossip becomes currency. The cinematography evokes classics like Barry Lyndon but with a wicked edge. Lanthimos remains true to his Dadaist exuberances, but here applies them with a fresh refinement. He has dabbled in horror (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and romantic dystopia (The Lobster), but The Favourite is Lanthimos gleefully distorting history to display the raging human jealousies hiding behind fine silks.
- The Death of Stalin
Again the cold and bloody heart of power’s unforgiving wheel. Armando Iannucci directs this dark comedy with the spirit of a Mikhail Bulgakov. The sudden death of Soviet overlord Josef Stalin (played with titanic fury by Adrian McLoughlin) provokes a scurry for power among his minions, now left without an idol issuing instructions. Like all great satire it transcends its sources, becoming a general farce about the allure of absolute control. Iannucci uses superb exaggeration in the writing and performances to evoke a world ruled by fear, where one wrong word can get you killed. One imagines the court of Gaddafi or the Saudi royals to operate in the same fashion. Like The Favourite, Iannucci mocks the pageantry of power, in this case the stylings of totalitarian dictatorship. Soviet iconography is as farcical as the Politburo officials who refuse to disagree with Stalin, even after he is but a corpse. This film plays like a chess game where everyone wants to the throne, and only the most cunning will survive. Steve Buscemi is a smart but cautious Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale is a power-hungry Beria and Jeffrey Tambor is a superbly bafoonish Georgy Malenkov, as clueless in suddenly being proclaimed head of a revolutionary state as Nicolas Maduro is today in Venezuela.
- If Beale Street Could Talk
Director Barry Jenkins adapts James Baldwin in this lush, emotionally stirring romance. Set in 1970s New York, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two young lovers, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) who attempt to build a life together in a harsh world of inequality. Their love is fully tested when Fonny is accused of a horrible crime. Jenkins preserves Baldwin’s fierce language while evoking the world of this movie with a poetic combination of elegant visuals and atmosphere. It is a love story about the social realities of contemporary America. Jenkins announced himself as a director of eloquent force with Moonlight, about a gay man’s journey from an uncertain childhood to an adulthood of personal discovery. It was a film of such human intimacy that it is not surprising that Jenkins would be attracted to adapting James Baldwin. While Baldwin was a master of fiery prose and devastating critical insights, If Beale Street Could Talk is one of his more tenderly sentimental works. Its fierce social commentary is nestled within a luminous love story. Jenkins flows in and out of the haze of a romantic past and the coldness of a despairing present. Tish’s dreamlike memories are filmed with a lushness of color reminiscent of Douglas Sirk. But Jenkins does not strive for melodrama, instead, like Cuaron, he wants to use the elements of cinema to summon powerful senses. With a masterful use of close-ups and editing that takes on a poetic cadence, Jenkins produces the sensation of what it feels like to look upon a face you realize you are in love with, or how holding someone’s hand during a quiet walk through the city can say so much. The lovers’ affection forms a cocoon that is shattered by a racist cop and a cruel system. Jenkins and Baldwin are encouraging us to love, but to realize that such an act is radical in a darkened world. I encourage readers to do a double of this film and Raoul Peck’s brilliant documentary about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.
- Eighth Grade
Let us now move away from social furies and acknowledge one of the year’s great generational works. Eighth Grade will survive into the future as a chronicle of how the kids were living here and now. Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a visually energetic take on those pre-adolescent years where the little things mean a lot, and when we begin to learn some of life’s early harsh lessons. Elsie Fisher is luminous as Kayla, who is preparing for high school while worrying about looks, YouTube and other hassles made larger in a digitally-obsessed world. But while it feels very much about today, this is a film with a universal power about how growing up is never easy. Because he originally hails from the world of comedy, Burnham is perfectly in tune with the painful absurdities of adolescence, when simply walking out into a pool can feel like a walk of shame. Even a 90s New Age standard like Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” becomes something more profound and endearing because of how Burnham lays the track over images of Kayla surfing the only world she truly knows- the one found in her little screen.
Spike Lee remains a radical, this can simply never change. It has taken a radical turning of the world to bring Spike back into form with this funny, politically scorching tale of an undercover cop (John David Washington) who via phone infiltrates the heart of Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan, getting chummy with its head, the still nefarious David Duke (Topher Grace). But while there is much humor in this film, it is a radical statement on both the absurdities of racism and why its stupidity makes it dangerous. When anti-Semites, anti-immigrant groups or any other bigoted lot get together and stew in poisonous delusion, the results can be a threat to all. Lee mocks the language of the Klan, contrasting it with powerful speeches by Black Power leaders and a particularly stirring cameo by Harry Belafonte. Set over 30 years ago, the potent relevancy of this film is in how the language it mocks is now part of the national discourse, emanating out of the White House itself.
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I always try to include one documentary in an end of the year list. We are still living through a renaissance of the genre producing works often better than most dramatized movies. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is about the radical act of being kind in a mean world. It chronicles the life and times of Fred Rogers, who would raise generations on his Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood with its puppets, sweaters and basic life lessons. The director is Morgan Neville, who made one of my absolute recent favorites, 2015’s Best Of Enemies, about the 1968 television rumble between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Neville uses the story of Fred Rogers to look back at how much American culture has changed in half a century, and how much it hasn’t. This documentary is both a nostalgic trip back in time and a revelation. Things which one simply accepted as a child gain a new relevance here. It is impressive to see just how socially radical Rogers’ show was. Premiering in 1968, the first episode had a clear antiwar message as Vietnam dominated headlines. Neville shows footage from the broadcast, where the famous King Friday XIII puppet Rogers used for the show’s fantasy section sports a military helmet, ordering his minions to build “a wall” around his castle. Messages of peace are parachuted into the fortress, forcing King Friday to accept and declare peace. As explained by those who worked on the show, such skits were meant to explore the idea of rich versus poor, the rulers versus the ruled. The rest is a portrait of a man who indeed had his warts, but firmly believed until the end in the power of tenderness against barbarism.
I shall reserve the 10thslot on this list for something that stands as the wild mythological creature you would never see paired with any other title on this list. Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is a hallucination and blood-soaked crusade against evil. Nicolas Cage plays a rural man whose wife is murdered by a demented cult. Vengeance will be his as he seeks to cleanse the neon-lit land of this plague. Imagine if David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Guy Maddin basked in a drunken evening together and decided to make a movie. This would be the result. With textures hinting at 80s culture cinema in the décor, music score and cinematography, Cosmatos has made an exhilarating gesture. Nicolas Cage’s madness is finally channeled into a proper vision of holy war set in a world where planets illuminate the night sky. When he beholds the wind-strewn ashes of his dead wife, Cage gives life to the scene with the power of Greek drama. In a sense this film speaks to the times just as much as any of the others mentioned above. Are these not times of extreme views and vengeful furies? Isn’t a part of the political process taking on a cultish air, in particular around a blonde demagogue? When he fashions his weapons to fight the demon cult, Cage is almost a walking metaphor for the wanderers in our demented planet.
And so this year closes, and 2019 slouches towards the Babylon of our screens to be born.
Alci Rengifo is Cinematics Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.