MIDWEST FILM JOURNAL 2018 ROUNDTABLE — PART ONE

Although each member of the Midwest Film Journal is encouraged to publish an individual Year in Review, we thought that the structure of a traditional list or top 10 alone was limiting. Every year, there are at least half-dozen movies that everybody wants to include on their lists and some additionally interesting choices get left by the wayside.

So here is the first part of this year’s Midwest Film Journal Roundtable where questions selected through discussion are answered by every member of the team who has an answer.

Tomorrow we will present the second part of the Roundtable, featuring short essays from past contributors about movies they found moving and memorable from 2018.

BEST NETFLIX RELEASE

Is this one cheating? Yes. Do I care? Absolutely not. A reimagining of the classic haunted house novel by Shirley Jackson, Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of the rare Netflix limited series that is perfectly constructed from start to finish (something few of the streaming service’s 90-minute movies can claim). Within its 10 episodes are two of the best hours of television of the year — “The Bent-Neck Lady” and “Two Storms” — and no other horror movie in 2018 takes its genre conventions the way Hill House does and uses them to amplify and contextualize universal human experiences to their most emotionally impactful effect. I went into this series expecting ghosts and jump scares, and while Hill House certainly provides the spooks, it also contains a thoroughly profound treatise on grief, mental health and parenting. The last one took me especially by surprise and at just the right time: I was just out of my first trimester when Hill House hit Netflix. Those first few months are frightening and unpredictable even on the good days, and I watched Hill House right when I needed something to show me that terror and hope are not mutually exclusive. I’ve already revisited this series once since its initial release, and if you let me, I could probably talk (and cry) about tiny adorable bespectacled Luke Crain ad infinitum, but suffice to say: This one was it for me. This was the one Netflix got entirely right. (Aly Caviness)

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The assumption, I assume, for many who haven’t seen it will be that Springsteen on Broadway is a concert film. But those who couldn’t get to — or afford — the high-ticket blockbuster show in New York may be surprised to see that it’s actually more of a storytelling event than an evening of music. Yes, there are songs in the mix (including a reclamation of his much-mocked “Dancing in the Dark”). But this is hardly a greatest-hits collection or a presentation likely to earn repeat viewings. This isn’t The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Sure, audiences would have been happy — ecstatic, rather — with an evening of the Boss’ greatest hits. Hell, even an evening of his B-sides. But Springsteen opted for something different and riskier. Well beyond merely setting up songs with pithy anecdotes, he committed himself to earthy, poetic memories, mixing weariness and joy, determination and fatality. It’s a tightly written, very literary performance piece offered by a master in which he admits, right off the top, that his music is a combination of observation and imagination. He accepts that a great band is more than just a collection of quality musicians. And he wrestles with some big ideas and personal matters — in a way perhaps only a guy who grew up working-class can. It adds up to a mature work — one accepting that with maturity comes a sense of loss for youth, for friends, for sounds and smells and for a far-away horizon that age brings closer. Springsteen on Broadway is an act of faith, for both himself and his fanbase, and it pays off. (Lou Harry, Jersey-born and raised)

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The anthological structure that simplifies your path to pick-and-choose rewatching would be enough to give the edge here to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But the amped-up artificiality of the home-theater experience — wherein most people plug in their TV and go with whatever blinding, clanging color scheme comes out of the box — also works in Buster’s favor. That distance is part of the point in hammering home how an entire genre has romanticized notions of manifest destiny when the only real destination is the big ugly in the sky. Maybe that’s giving the Coen Brothers too much credit. But come on, they’re the Coen Brothers. If anyone deserves a high credit line, it’s them. (Nick Rogers)

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Classic Netflix move to release a God-level martial-arts flick and not tell anyone. Well, I suppose The Night Comes For Us is less of an action movie than a full-borne slasher. Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto is no stranger to either genre, and here he creates a martial-arts film that leaves more piles of limbs and intestines on the floor than an overcrowded slaughterhouse. Tjahjanto’s latest could (and likely has) be criticized as pointless sadism if it weren’t for the jaw-dropping inventiveness in its onslaught of fight sequences. People are pulverized, dismembered and gutted in ways I didn’t realize were possible, and it’s all filmed with refreshing fluidity and respect for the stunt people involved. This surpasses Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2 as the most hardcore piece of action to come out of Indonesia. Watch this around midnight with some friends and a couple of drinks for maximum impact. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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BEST THEATRE EXPERIENCE

Normally, I see Marvel movies twice in theaters. With Black Panther, it was four. I can’t really point to any one showing as “the best,” because they were all the best. Every viewing was an intensely emotional event, from experiencing Ryan Coogler’s uncompromising vision of an uncolonized African country to going through T’Challa’s journey itself, and every viewing gave me something new to think about that I previously missed. I’ve never wavered in my faith in Marvel movies, but this one truly felt like a breath of fresh air after all the Peters and Steves and myriad quippy white boys. I’ll never forget what it felt like to watch Black Panther on the big screen. It was like nothing that came before, 2018 or otherwise. (Aly Caviness)

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2018 was a year of great theatrical experiences. Seeing The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Indiana State Museum IMAX with my Dad really put those films into the right perspective (namely Lee Van Cleef the size of my house). In terms of new movies, when Nick and I travelled to Missoula, Montana, we found ourselves in the city a day early, staying on a Sunday night in a Motel 6 without much in the way of TV options or functional WiFi. Naturally, the best way to pass the time was seeing a movie, and Mission: Impossible — Fallout was the best option. Particularly because we’d just driven through Idaho listening to a six-hour podcast interview about the film with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. The interview dives into incredible detail behind the making of the film, right down to the way they threw Tom Cruise off a motorcycle face-first without killing him. Watching the year’s best action film in the middle of a strange city, in a large theater with only four other people present was great enough; watching it with all the behind-the-scenes knowledge of what I was watching made it even cooler. (Evan Dossey)

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Quite possibly the dumbest film of 2018, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is incompetent on nearly every level. There’s nary an ounce of personality or a worthwhile set piece to be found in this stunningly moronic sequel. I’m pretty sure it fried parts of my brain that will never fully recover. Still, I can’t for the life of me recall laughing harder in a theatre this year. Some of the idiocy here must be seen to be believed: like the moment when a raptor smirks into the camera right before eating a dude. That actually happens in this movie. Watching it alone would have been unbearable, but sandwiched between fellow MFJ writers Evan and Nick, it was a delirious experience that had me cackling out of sheer disbelief. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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For all its celebration of Fred Rogers’ progressive approach to broadening the emotional perspectives of children, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? acknowledges that his ideals are gradually eroding today. Even the purest aspects of his ideology are being perverted into dumbass talking points in the medium where he was a master. Thankfully, this documentary’s conclusion invites your own introspective, cosmic contemplation of — and, more importantly, appreciation for — the people who have helped you arrive where you are today. There’s little that gives me hope about the future of things these days. But to sit in the dark with 30 or so other people — in a dead-silent acceptance of this invitation to initiate something new and nourishing every day while engendering decency among us — made me think we’re not hopelessly screwed just yet. (Nick Rogers)

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Members of the company in Timon of Athens. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I used to get defensive about my attraction to filmed plays. I’m not talking about movie adaptations of stage work but rather shot-from-the-stage presentations. Film folks passed them off as pedestrian and many theater folks knocked them (including, shockingly, the great director Hal Prince when I interviewed him). But the stage-shot Sweeney Todd is still more intense than Tim Burton’s cinematic adaptation. The recent London Gypsy far surpasses the 1962 film. And the screened-in-cinemas work being offered by the Stratford Festival (including the harrowing King Lear and a joyful, music-infused Twelfth Night) surpasses just about every Shakespeare play ever put on film. To its credit, Stratford isn’t just offering the established classics. This year, it included the relatively obscure (by Bard standards) Timon of Athens. I only knew the basics of the plot going in and found myself caught up in the drama of a man whose popularity proves to be tied to his generosity; when his money runs out, so do his alleged friends. The advantages of such first-class, in-the-moment productions are many. You get actors who have rehearsed and performed the work for months. You get a crack team of filmmakers adapt at finding just the right reaction shot (see my interview with the Stratford folks), you get clarity of language thanks to sharp sound design and you have a live audience to add to the immediacy. At this point, I’ll happily see anything the Stratford folks decide to shoot. (Lou Harry)

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This year, in honor of its 50th anniversary, 2001: A Space Odyssey was re-released in glorious 70mm. I’ve always wanted to see this masterpiece on the big screen. In September, I got to see it on the biggest screen in Indy — the Indiana State Museum IMAX. It was my girlfriend’s first time seeing it, and I’m glad she was with me because the kid in me was scared to watch the iconic “stargate sequence.” That hypnotic trip through the furthest reaches of space and time has haunted me since I first experienced it as a little boy. The thought of sitting in the dark and watching it on the largest screen possible gave me flashbacks of seeing an eel slither across the IMAX screen when I had to review an ocean documentary playing at the museum a few years ago. (Yes, I have a phobia of eels.) Anyway, rather than turning away from the psychedelic images, I held my eyes open Clockwork Orange-style and let the kaleidoscopic wave of colors wash over me. It was immersive and awe-inspiring. This 50-year old spectacle is more mesmerizing than many of the special-effects blockbusters out right now. Seeing it in IMAX is a moviegoing experience I’ll never forget. (Sam Watermeier)

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BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Green Book is garbage, and I knew that going in. My disappointment has less to do with the movie itself (which is garbage) and more to do with the fact that this movie came out in 2018 at all. Everything about Green Book is disingenuous and regressive. This is the kind of movie we got in the 1980s (and 1990s, and 2000s …) about racist white men befriending wise black men and realizing, hey, black people are people, too! What a revelation! Meanwhile, the more you learn about the actual story of Dr. Donald Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, the more garbage this movie becomes. Why is director Peter Farrelly still insisting that Green Book is a “true story” when it is based on the secondhand anecdotes of a self-proclaimed bullshit artist? Why was Vallelonga’s son allowed to write a script about his father’s “friendship” with Dr. Shirley and position it as a “true story” without any input or permission from Shirley’s living relatives? Why are we talking about this movie as an awards contender at all? That last one is easy — because white audiences and filmmakers and critics love revisionist history about race relations. Because this movie is easier to consume and to reckon with than the vastly superior films from Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) or Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk) this year. Because this movie makes them feel better about their parents’ racism, or their grandparents’ or their own. I’m disappointed that movies like this still get made and get rewarded for their laziness. Green Book reflects a part of the Hollywood Oscar bait machine that puts a bitter taste in my mouth. I’m disappointed this movie exists. (Aly Caviness)

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My political leanings are no secret, and my disdain for the Bush II administration and its place in the overarching rise to power of authoritarian politics in the United States over the course of the late 20th century knows no bounds. I’ve read a few books, and lived through it, and I’d hoped Vice would follow The Big Short’s lead in being a funny, sharp synthesis of the scary and difficult-to-summarize American predicament of the present day. It wasn’t. It’s somehow over-simplistic, a nasty movie that attacks Dick Cheney personally in a way that just doesn’t feel honest. It has no control over itself as a biopic or a satire, instead weaving in and out of both modes with no coherency. I think Christian Bale does a fine impression of Cheney (and Steve Carell is great as Donald Rumsfeld), but nothing about the project gelled. I hope we can continue to see films that explore the first decade of the 2000s, particularly in their relation to Trump (and the previous three decades of right-wing rising), but this missed the mark. (Evan Dossey)

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Here’s the truth, as much of the whole truth as I can fit into a long paragraph, and nothing but the truth about my experience with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg early-years biopic On the Basis of Sex. Duly sworn in, I’ll admit my hopes were up having watched, earlier that day, the terrific documentary RBG — which not only proved historically insightful but also told a damn good love story. These hopes were further raised by an opening sequence that smartly spelled out, visually, the odds that the woman-who-would-be-Supreme-Court-Justice faced when she entered the field. And there was more core belief that what Ginsburg achieved in her life — and her influence today — matters in a big way. All of which got compounded by frustration when Basis turned into a cram-in-everything, forget-about-an-arc sub-Lifetime film that seemed — in spite of being written by Her Honor’s nephew (a screenwriter with no other features to his credit) — to have no interest in illuminating the real woman I saw in RBG just hours earlier. Instead, it offers clichés, obvious talking points and isn’t-she-clumsily-cute moments that border on I Love Lucy. None of it is helped by a wildly miscast Felicity Jones forced into awkward hesitations before delivering formula speeches. And why, oh, why, must so much be mansplained to her? Side note: The film geek in me was further bugged that the hairy hand case discussed on day one of law school here is the same case discussed in The Paper Chase, the Harvard law flick best remembered for earning John Houseman a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Homage or laziness? I’ll leave that to the jury to decide. (Lou Harry)

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Star Wars has never been one of my cinematic passions, but after Rian Johnson delivered one of the most daring and original blockbusters of 2017 with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, my interest in the franchise had piqued once more. Set aside all the pre-production issues for a minute; Solo: A Star Wars Story has a high-enough pedigree to warrant lofty expectations. Ron Howard is a sturdy, if unremarkable, craftsman and Alden Ehrenreich had charm for days as a lovable dimwit in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! back in 2016. The end result, however, was a prequel so bland and pedestrian it already felt like an afterthought mere days after its release. Solo seems to have been made by a machine required to provide an origin for every character trait that made Han Solo so memorable back in 1977. (Were you curious about how he got the name Solo? No? Well, here’s an incredibly lame explanation anyway!) Now imagine two hours of that. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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This site’s cohorts sling a lot of shit my way for my continued defense of 2015’s Jurassic World. I still think it’s an undeniably slick, quick crowd-pleaser, a damn-fine example of dinosaurs eating people, and a smart examination of what it might take to truly wow someone in an era of omniscient distractions and digressions — asking if reverent wonder in a world of indifference is even possible. In the foofaraw sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, what we have here is a failure to communicate, titillate, captivate and a failure to “ate.” Precious few people are chomped on here and the ideas, such as they are, are so dumb that even the dinosaurs literally interrupt a scene where they’re expressed with a rampaging stomp. With the ferocity and strength of its dinos’ genetically altered talons, Fallen Kingdom easily swipes from Jurassic Park III the crown for this franchise’s worst effort yet. (Nick Rogers)

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FAVORITE CHARACTER

My love for Solo: A Star Wars Story is well documented here on MFJ, so I’ll keep this short: Qi’ra is such an interesting addition to the Star Wars film mythos because we’ve never gotten anyone like her before. Putting a femme fatale into Star Wars is not a huge stretch, but between Emilia Clarke’s heartbreakingly subtle performance and some truly excellent character tropes, Qi’ra feels as if she’s straight out of a classic noir like Out of the Past, and I just love that. She’s not a villain but a survivor, and the way she moves in the galaxy is completely unlike any other major female character we’ve previously seen in Star Wars. She’s old and new all at once … just like Solo, in fact. I could talk about Qi’ra all day, but instead I’ll just say this: The next time you watch Solo, pay extra attention to her. You might see something that you missed before, and you know why? She wanted you to. That’s how she survives. (Aly Caviness)

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“If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” Paddington Bear first appeared in his current Ben Whishaw-voiced form back in 2015 (stateside at least), but he came into his own in Paddington 2, the best movie in the history of cinema. This time, Paddington wants to buy a pop-up book as a gift for his dear Aunt Lucy’s birthday. Lucy’s still in Darkest Peru, living at the Home for Retired Bears, and never fulfilled her dream to see London. Paddington takes up some odd jobs and ends up in prison. His optimism never truly falters as he faces his problems and makes the world around him better simply by caring and listening to other people. I love Paddington. He is my dearest, most wholesome friend. (Evan Dossey)

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I like edginess as much as the next moviegoer and I’m second to none in my appreciation for a cold, hard look at the real world and our inner demons. In fact, most of my favorite films this year had pretty dark over- and undertones. But maybe that’s why I took such joy in the bright-light of Maci, the big-hearted waitress in Support the Girls. It’s easy, cinematically, for filmmakers to confuse optimism with stupidity, but Haley Lu Richardson (very different in last year’s Columbus) makes Maci’s positivity feel like a choice and not a default — a way of dealing, in a productive way, with the slings and arrows of the world. It’s not a major role, but it’s a delightful, inspiring one in a film packed with terrific roles and performances. (Lou Harry)

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Unreliable narrators from whom you can’t believe a word are a dime a dozen. Rarely are they such endlessly fascinating assholes as Reverend Ernst Toller in First Reformed. Toller has tired of his timidity as a glorified museum docent at a historic New York State church that’s dwarfed by its megabrother down the road. He’s tired of the way people seem to have forgotten, as they have the Iraq war itself, the son he lost there. He’s tired of making his sales pitch in the gift shop (“The caps are great, though. They’re one-size-fits-all.”) Thus, Toller takes to his journal for 12 months of long-hand reflection in which he will spare no dark thought. No revisions, no mercy. Of course, he’s soon tearing out words he finds vulgar. In turn, we can believe nothing but the most selfish things that spill forth from Toller’s mouth, especially as he takes up the maniacal ecoterrorist mantle of a parishioner whom he counseled to no avail. And by placing that unreliable narration in the context of faith, First Reformed feels all the fierier. As Toller moves ever closer to making a mandala of his very existence on this earth, we question just how righteous his indignation really is … or whether he’s just tired of being the flimsy, frayed doormat upon whom the people around him walk. (Nick Rogers)

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Like his host, the parasitic Venom is kind of a loser on his home planet. When he enters the body of provocative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), he not only gains strength and confidence but finds a new friend as well. No, I’m not kidding. Venom emerges as an engaging buddy action-comedy. Thanks to slick visual effects and Hardy’s go-for-broke vocal performance, the lizard-like comic-book creature springs to cinematic life. Oddly enough, I haven’t stopped thinking about this character since I saw the film, which I expected to be a bloated mess. It ended up being one of the most entertaining movies of the year. (Sam Watermeier)

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FAVORITE ORIGINAL CONCEPT

Cheating again! The brainchild of Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer is less a film than it is a 48-minute long narrative compilation of music videos from her album of the same name, but who cares? She calls it an “emotion picture,” and that’s close enough for me. Monáe wears her sci-fi influences on her sleeve to create a musical dystopian future that is somehow both terrifying and optimistic — so, not exactly original, but in Monáe’s hands it feels that way. By expanding the concept of what both an album and a film can be, she curates an experience unlike any other — and one that helped me get through this awful year without totally succumbing to existential despair. Seeing Monáe live this past July proudly singing “I am not America’s nightmare / I am the American cool” in spite of the bigotry and injustice this country has been wearing like a badge of honor for the past two years filled me with a kind of hope I can’t really explain, but you can feel some of it in Dirty Computer. And bonus: Tessa Thompson stars as Monáe’s star-crossed love interest. Can’t go wrong with that. (Aly Caviness)

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Bodied is a movie that started getting hype back in 2017 when it played at Fantastic Fest, and the hype is well deserved. The movie follows a white academic boy trying to make his way in the world of battle rap, but it’s much more an exploration of how language is used as a weapon — both in competition and in society. It’s not the movie you expect to see, diving deep into what it means to have a white guy participating in rap battles that heavily involve racist language and stereotyping. It’s fast-paced, a pleasure to listen to and a thorough, thoughtful film. You can watch it on YouTube Premium (available for a a free trial). (Evan Dossey)

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There’s something enormously pleasurable about having absolutely no idea where a story is going to go and then being satisfied by the terra incognita it reveals to you. That’s one of the reasons I like seeing new plays, even if some don’t ultimately satisfy. It’s one of the reasons I try to avoid watching movie trailers, the better to add some aspect of the unknown even to what turns out to be the most familiar of material. And it’s a big reason why Sorry to Bother You was one of my favorite movies of the year — and one I’m glad I did not have to review, since I might spend so much time dodging spoilers that there would be nothing left except “It’s the story of a man who goes to work for a phone bank.” Unlike the inherent boredom in such a job, Sorry to Bother You is filled with “What the …?” moments, “Did I just see that?” scenes, and “Well, I didn’t see that coming” revelations. It proved most welcome in a world where movies tend to comfort rather than truly surprise.  (Lou Harry)

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OK, I’m lending “original” all the elasticity of decade-old sweatpants for the try-hard Die Hard of The Hurricane Heist. You’ve never heard such majestically indifferent or indecipherable gobbledygook about meteorology or malevolent hacking in all your life. That crap might as well be in Minion. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here for hurricanes and heists, the sublimity of stupidity, and boy do you get it from director Rob Cohen in the year’s most convincing plea for movie-jail parole. (Let the man out, I say.) Call this San Andumbass. Or Dante’s Leak. Whatever pun you toss its way will be rooted in true affection, for you will never, never look at hubcaps in the same way again. And if that’s not original vision … (Nick Rogers)

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A family strives to survive in a post-apocalyptic world riddled with creatures that hunt by sound. With that concept, A Quiet Place makes everyday objects horrifying. A boy’s toy airplane leads to tragedy. A fallen gaslamp sends shivers up your spine. The sound-driven concept also creates moments of intimacy, such as when the parents share earbuds and dance to Neil Young or when the father and son howl under a waterfall. The film radiates with a Spielbergian warmth, but it also feels like something I haven’t quite seen before. (Sam Watermeier)

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FAVORITE PERFORMANCE

What did we do to deserve Natalie Portman? I will proudly admit she’s been a favorite of mine since I was 9 years old and I first saw her in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and it’s really through a combination of sheer luck and talent that Portman has remained firmly at the top of the acting pool for me. This year was a particularly good year for her with Annihilation and Vox Lux, if only because both films are so wildly different that her capacity as a performer is truly able to shine through. In Annihilation, she plays a woman consumed by guilt and grief; in Vox Lux, one who is corrupted by fame and trauma. Both women are broken, but they are not the same, and no one besides Portman could have played them so excellently. She is haunting in Annihilation and morbidly fascinating in Vox Lux. Oscars and Globes are out of the picture for these performances this year, but that’s OK. Natalie Portman will always be the queen of my heart. (Aly Caviness)

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Dakota Johnson gets a bad rap for the Fifty Shades movies, all of which I watched and mostly enjoyed this year. The perception that she’s a bad actress is because the material is bad; in that first movie, though, she engages with her character as a camp fantasy. The second movie was so bogged down and humorless that she had nothing to work with, but in Fifty Shades Freed the fun returns and you can hardly blame her for going all-in. However, her best turn in 2018 was Suspiria, a movie that plays our expectations of Johnson as a hot, hesitant innocent with a porny side against us. Her take on Susie Bannon, much more than simply a quiet woman who wants to dance, unfolds slowly (like most of the movie, I’ll admit) but surprises during the major climax. (Evan Dossey)

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Arriving in the final minutes of Mary Poppins Returns, Angela Lansbury can’t do anything about the previous close-but-no-magic two hours. When she does show up as the Balloon Lady, though, the movie takes flight even before the cast is literally lifted off the ground. Every delightfully articulated syllable, every knowing glance, every glimpse of those wonderful eyes hint at a movie that might have been. It would be glib to say that, by the time she appears, the movie has nowhere to go but up (the title of her song). That would be exaggerating. But Lansbury — and also late-to-the-party Dick van Dyke — give master classes in movie musical entertainment in just a few short minutes of screen time. (Lou Harry)

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Given the parade of horrors that dominated headlines these past couple years, it’s perhaps appropriate for grief to be a dominant theme in the films of 2018.  Everything from Mandy to First Reformed touched on the subject, but despite Nicolas Cage’s reliable mega-acting, no performance better embodied grief’s raw desperation than Toni Collette in Hereditary. Collette is in a downward spiral of misery from the opening frame without ever succumbing to showy displays of overacting, and as the film heads into decidedly supernatural territory, Collette’s performance never loses its human authenticity. If there is (and there should be) an awards conversation around Hereditary, she deserves to be at its center. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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From the first seconds of The Hate U Give, it’s evident that this won’t be your everyday YA adaptation. It’s a story in perfect command of its understanding that the characters — like the person behind the songwriting source of its title — are imperfect and conflicted, creative and destructive. That its milieu is not a subculture, but just the way humans are wired. There is no better embodiment of this movie’s power in this regard than Russell Hornsby as Maverick Carter, father to the lead character, whom we meet making her sign a pledge to never believe she’s smarter, or sassier, than the police. Maverick’s gang ink may have faded, but his ire can still go up in moments as teachable as they can be troublesome. Through Hornsby’s unfussy work — hard-edged but never stereotypical, patient but never saintly — he undergirds the movie’s message: Words and decisions made with integrity still matter in this world and that we can avoid the annihilative domino effect that would happen if that integrity fell. (Nick Rogers)

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FAVORITE SOUNDTRACK

Call it recency bias, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s soundtrack is one I can’t get out of my head. Much like the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther soundtrack earlier this year, Spider-Verse is an excellent example of Marvel embracing the culture it depicts in its movies through music, which only makes the experience of watching these films that much more invigorating. Not to mention the last time Marvel tried to release an original soundtrack to accompany a film was for The Avengers and Iron Man 3. I dare you to look through those tracklistings and not die from secondhand embarrassment. The Favourite also gets an honorable mention here because the score by Johnnie Burn is so similar to Gene Moore’s for Carnival of Souls. Who knew that gothic organ music could be an aural go-to for power struggles of a distinctly female nature? (Aly Caviness)

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The score to Annihilation by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is an integral element of the movie and the reason why it stuck with me for an entire year. (Evan Dossey)

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Excuse the tired phrase, but the films of director Barry Jenkins are pure cinema — meaning that it’s difficult to imagine them existing in any other medium. Nicholas Britell’s aching string score is one of many tools Jenkins uses to make his latest effort, If Beale Street Could Talk, radiate warmth and intimacy. Brittell’s music helps Beale Street balance a tricky tone with such ease — one that mourns racial injustice while celebrating young love. It’s lush and melancholy, without ever losing sight of hope. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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Sure, A Star is Born seems like the easy pick here. Of course, this presumes that you think the mere catchiness or tunefulness of pop songcraft is all there is. The film’s bounty of songs is penned by a murderer’s-row of multiple-genre mavens (Jason Isbell, Diane Warren, Mark Ronson) as well as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper themselves. Like the movie, they understand the ways that songs age into eulogies for euphoria or suicide notes for security. They die. They’re reborn. Over and over. They stand alone and in symbolic lockstep with how they’re presented in the movie — “Black Eyes” capturing the decidedly uncool chaos of Jackson Maine’s stage experience, “Always Remember Us This Way” playing out over Ally Maine’s face giant on a projected screen while Jackson is comparatively dwarfed and, of course, “Shallow” — in which it is no coincidence that the killer hook speaks to the serenity of — and possible preference for — the way these two people could so easily choose to drown far away from the din. Death. Rebirth. Over and over. (Nick Rogers)

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LEAST FAVORITE FILM

Aquaman is two-and-a-half hours long. It has approximately 45 plots. It plays out and looks like a video game. The majority of the cast has to pretend to move underwater by elegantly flapping their hands in front of a green screen. I hated every minute of it. (Aly Caviness)

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I walked out of three movies this year, but Red Sparrow was the worst of them. I bailed only 10 minutes before it ended because I simply couldn’t take it anymore. The Jennifer Lawrence “sexy Russian spy” vehicle was meaninglessly boring, lacking in action and emotion. I’ve never been a big fan of Lawrence as an actress and this movie did nothing to convince me otherwise. (Evan Dossey)

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I get it. He’s a genius. He made Citizen Kane. He wasn’t allowed to do everything he wanted to do. Studios suck. But for me, The Other Side of the Wind — the film created from the cinematic pile of footage left when Orson Welles died — was about as compelling as a string of Paul Masson wine commercials. And the way critics seemed to fall over themselves to find things to praise in it bordered on cult-like. Hell, Robert Altman made some of my favorite films. But that doesn’t mean I have to act like Quintet does anything but suck. Ditto here. It’s not speaking ill of the dead to say that some of their work is borderline unwatchable. I’m glad Welles and other filmmakers take risks and try to reinvent cinema in interesting ways. This one failed. It happens. I’ll go rewatch Chimes at Midnight now. (Lou Harry)

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Ay! It’s me, John Gotti, king of the five boroughs and star of the hit film Gotti. You know, the one those gamook critics put out a hit on. But for once, those fuckin’ gavones got it right when dey took the movie Speed Kills and gaves it a talkin’ to, if you catch my drift. This thing nearly put me and a couple of my paisones to sleep! It’s about dis goombah named Ben Aronoff (no Sicilian blood in those veins!) runnin’ some shipments on a little speedboat like some fanook. I’d like to see that cornuto last a day workin’ the docks here in the Bronx! And then get a load o’ this: Dat mutt ends up rollin’ over for the FBI! Pathetic. Us Gottis, we had our own way of dealin’ with rats. Those boat-racing sequences, too, fuhgettaboutit! The green screen looks like one of those pornos my cousin Paulie used to make in ‘83! (Mitch Ringenberg)


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I am trying real hard to be the shepherd, Ringo, in not bitching too incessantly about Ben is Back. Consider it my New Year’s resolution for 2019, I guess. It was a review I wrote late, late into the night after driving an hour home from the screening in an attempt to so quickly exorcise from my body this twaddle that actually evoked a physical reaction of bile in my throat. It’s a drug-addiction drama reliant on plot turns, character decisions and clichéd symbolism so distasteful, unpleasant and deleterious to any meaningful opioid-crisis conversation that I retract all of my knocks against Beautiful Boy and retroactively bump that one up a half-star. (Nick Rogers)

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My mom likes Liam Neeson and action thrillers, so I took her to see The Commuter. When the lights came up, she turned to me and said, “That was some silly shit.” Yes, it was, Mom. Yes, it was. I like how Neeson’s character reads all of the books his son is assigned in high school. That’s sweet. But his knowledge of classic literature also leads to a goofy revelation about the code name of the commuter he is paid to find. So that’s stupid. I’m sure the screenwriters thought the connection was clever. Whatever. This flickershow is a clunky mess. Speed makes The Commuter look like a slow ride to Grandma’s house. (Sam Watermeier)

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MOST UNDERRATED MOVIE

I can’t speak highly enough about Destination Wedding, the grumpy rom-com starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. It’s not for everyone: The movie has one speed and is basically 90 minutes of the two ’90s heartthrobs saying scathing stuff to each other as they each attend the same tacky destination wedding … and inevitably fall in love. It’s rare, at least to me, to see a movie about two misanthropes who are allowed to be downright hateful and whose eventual softening doesn’t feel completely contrived. The two stars — who are known for not having much range but uniqueness within those ranges — are delightful. (Evan Dossey)

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Even at 10, I knew that Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were superstars and that Papillon — one of the first grown-up movies I went to see on my own — was a prestige picture. But, this time around, for the remake, I’m glad I was unaware of the work of stars Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek (yes, this was prior to Bohemian Rhapsody). I found it refreshing to see the still-familiar story played out by actors who, for me, didn’t carry any history into the film with them. The remake is a bit shy on the epic quality of the first. I could have used a bit more of original director Franklin J. Schaffner’s willingness to let scenes linger. But new helmer Michael Noer brought a believable sloppiness to this world. A shower fight, a solitary-confinement stretch and treks through muddy jungles felt authentic, and the sense of danger was captured in the eyes of just about every extra. Best of all, the herculean efforts of Henri Charriere never seemed superhuman. Ultimately, that’s what makes Papillon a moving piece of moviemaking. True in the original. True here. And it’s a shame it vanished so quickly. (Lou Harry)

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As I get older, my ability to distinguish between trash and fine cinema has continued to blur. Look, I’m not going to tell you that Venom is a good movie. It follows the generic superhero template to a near-comical degree: The villain has no real plan, the origin story is completely perfunctory, and it contains one of the laziest post-credits scenes in recent memory. And yet, Tom Hardy injects life into Venom with one of the year’s most bugnuts performances. Of course he chooses yet another bizarre accent for his character, but he also waddles, twitches and screams his way through the film’s scant runtime. The action is serviceable, and the banter between Hardy and his parasitic symbiote goes to some truly odd places. It reminds one of a simpler time, like 1997, when a superhero movie could just be mindless garbage instead of the year’s largest tentpole release. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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You know it’s hard out here for an R-rated comedy. Although Blockers did better than expected, that it wasn’t a runaway hit depresses me. It’s raucously funny, thoughtfully reflective and one of the best mainstream sex comedies in years — demystifying teenage intercourse, poking holes in the gender-based double standards of how cool it is to lose your virginity and, generally, encouraging kindness and empathy among everyone at the story’s center. It also lets John Cena, Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz play to strengths you know and subtleties or gusto you don’t. They all cheerily embarrass themselves, but they all spike veins of paternal concern and anxieties about friendship. It’s one I will be recommending for a long time. (Nick Rogers)

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WORST THEATRE EXPERIENCE

As I noted in my review, it’s not really Mary Poppins Returns’ fault that I was bored out of my mind the entire time. It’s also not really the movie’s fault that the theatre at which I saw it had something weird going on with the volume. The movie was so loud that halfway through my left ear started buzzing and I had to hold it closed to keep it from, I don’t know, popping like a balloon? I’m only 28 years old, and sure, my headphones were always way too loud when I was a teenager, but something like that should definitely not happen at a regular movie theater, one I’ve been to several times throughout my life (and two days in a row that very week). The extremity of the volume made what was already a less-than-ideal viewing experience even worse, so it’s no wonder this is the one that sticks out as the worst of the entire year. I had a better time at a CHVRCHES concert two weeks before when a drunk dude dumped his whole-ass beer down my back. That kind of says a lot. (Aly Caviness)

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It’s a point of pride for film critics to say the walked out of a movie — as if to say, “This was so risible even I couldn’t tough it out.” I walked out of three movies this year, thanks to the power of using MoviePass to get my tickets, but only one of those movies was bad. Red Sparrow was mentioned earlier in this article. I walked out of that one 10 minutes before the conclusion because I just couldn’t take it anymore (I witnessed numerous others walk out, too.). A Private War and The Miseducation of Cameron Post were my other two walkouts. I’m sure that they are fine films if taken in the right mood, but 2018 was the year where I came to realize it’s perfectly fine to just leave a movie if it isn’t working for you … as long as you let an incredibly stupid venture capitalist app failure pay for your ticket. (Evan Dossey)

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It’s been a tough year for the Eastside 9 multiplex in my town of Lafayette, Indiana. First, they had some sort of electrical issue that zotzed their system in early January, right around the time Oscar hopefuls were hitting. And by the time people thought to go back after it reopened, they were planning to close again — now in the throes of a remodel that will render what once was Lafayette’s oldest theatre now its most opulent, with a full bar, kitchen food, reserved seating, an (eventual) IMAX and recliners. Oh, recliners. You plush-leather bastards, you — luring Nick Rogers in with your deep-fold luxuriousness … and the fear this will only encourage people feeling emboldened to behave as they would in their living room, which is to say like assholes. Anyway, long way around to saying Greater Lafayette’s two still-standing theatres got a lot more crowded this year. People here like to talk (see my epic adventure at The Beguiled in 2017), and no movie suffered more for it than First Man, during which not even the majesty of a moon landing could shush them. One particularly dumb asshole wondered aloud, as Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong was packing, why he’d take pajamas; did she believe he was literally going straight from his house to the celestial heavens? I fear that 2019 will only increase my inverse relationship in this town between the price of a ticket and my patience. (Nick Rogers)


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Administrator of Midwest Film Journal. Previously a staff writer for TheFilmYap.com, Evan has been writing film criticism in the Indianapolis area for over half a decade. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He also reviews Oreos.


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