Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What 2018 movie was everyone else wrong about?
People did not pay enough attention to “Bad Times at the El Royale”. Drew Goddard’s sophomore film is a moody piece of Lynchian dread, not quite horror but not quite thriller, which is perhaps why it flew under the radar and didn’t cause much of a stir–it defies easy, audience-friendly expectation. But it has one of the best ensemble casts of the year, some of the most memorable scenes, and while Cynthia Erivo is great in “Widows”, she is UNBELIEVABLE in “Bad Times”. And Jeff Bridges starts out doing a riff on The Dude, only to pull out on his better, emotional performances in recent memory. It’s just fantastic performance after fantastic performance, set in an amazingly art-directed 1960s roadside motel.
This movie is a pleasure from top to bottom, a pleasure to look at, to absorb, to think through, to ruminate. It’s dark but not nihilistic, atmospheric but substantive, a thriller that takes the time to contextualize the players caught up in its trap. I won’t say “Bad Times” is underrated, because the people who saw it generally like it, but not nearly enough people saw it. Hopefully, like Goddard’s previous movie, “The Cabin in the Woods”, it will grow a cult following over time because this is a movie that deserves to be seen.
Though not exactly maligned (it holds a 93% RT score), Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Sundance-opener “Blindspotting” appears to have been completely erased from any year-end lists, awards conversations, or the collective consciousness regarding the best films of 2018. No nominations at the Gotham Awards, a single mention from the Independent Spirit Awards, and absolutely nothing else thereafter. Judging by most reviews and the aggregating sites, the film seems to have been more than generally liked, but clearly not enough to be remembered now. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s audacious take on racial biases, gentrification, and police brutality is as engaging as it is timely, but somehow fell victim to indifference as shiner product came along.
The same can be said about other projects involving Latinx creators or telling Latinx stories like Rudy Valdez’s heartbreaking doc “The Sentence,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men,” and even Jeremiah Zagar’s “We the Animals,” a marvelous work that prior to topping the Spirits’ nominations was relegated to the same land of apathy. Again, like “Blindspotting,” reviews for all of these movies were mostly positive, yet their achievements don’t seem to qualify for recognition.
The lack of sizeable awards campaigns on their behalf is perhaps part of the reason why they faded into the back of people’s minds when the fall gem starting to pile on, but also, there is a, perhaps unconscious, lack of interest among critics and audiences for Latinx stories when they are not done by an Oscar-winning director and in the awards chatter, especially if those stories pertain Latinos in the US and not Latin America.
There’s been plenty to take in throughout the year with films and performances getting widespread praise or dings from critics but nothing has made less sense than Steven Caple, Jr.’s “Creed II” not being acknowledged as a far more superior effort to Coogler’s predecessor in every way imaginable. On the more muted side of “support,” the film boasts two Oscar-worthy performances in Michael B. Jordan and especially Tessa Thompson and features the real best “Rocky” performance given by Sylvester Stallone since his 1976 original.
“The Endless” was a terribly inert film. I read rave reviews by so many of my most trusted peers and went in (foolishly) expecting greatness only to discover half-baked garbage. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead wrote, directed, edited, produced, and photographed the film, which is undoubtedly a professional feat.
But, there is literally no other positive thing I can say about this movie. The screenplay is contrived and empty. The social and theological concepts explored within are elementary at best. The cinematography is genuinely hideous, an amateur’s attempted vision of a smoky, hazy hill country that just barely clears the bar of student film standards. The performances are cringe-worthy and unnatural. The direction is plain and uninspired. It has a sickening sense of self-importance. The special effects made me chuckle on several occasions. The editing is average. The lack of quality filmmaking here is endless. I would love to pick some peoples’ brains about this because I’m confounded at all of the praise it received. And please don’t excuse the film due to its budget. David Lowery made “A Ghost Story” for $100,000 and it 1) takes place in the country 2) addresses cosmic themes 3) is perfect.
Going off of the current 95% Rotten Tomatoes percentage from the film festival circuit, my answer is “Girl” — for all the reasons that I go into in this piece. From what I can tell, nobody with reviews on RT is looking at this film from personal lived experience as a member of the transgender community. While I appreciate those critics who took this film to task for its casting a cisgender male as a transgender female, it doesn’t change the fact that films like these are dangerous and harmful to the transgender community. I’ve yet to see the film because I don’t live in NY/LA/SF/London where Netflix is holding FYC screenings nor was the film included in the Netflix awards screeners that were mailed out.
I’m not particularly invested in positioning my own disagreement as someone else being wrong, but I do think there are certain cases where acknowledgement is necessary. Sometimes it’s a matter of perspective and lived experience. “Girl” for instance, Belgium’s submission to the 2019 Oscars and its Golden Globe nominee, has been the subject of recent outcry from transgender critics, a dividing line whose nature may not have been apparent to cisgender viewers until trans voices were added to the mix. In a climate where trans folks are marginalized, in film journalism, in films themselves and in the general political sphere, a film about a trans girl starring, directed by and written by cis men needs proper context, the kind that those outside the transgender experience may not be equipped to articulate.
You can read the film’s overwhelmingly positive reviews on Rottentomatoes to get an idea of the general response. To my knowledge, none of the 19 listed reviews are by transgender writers, so I’d like to link to a handful of pieces on the film by the few trans/nonbinary critics who have seen and written about it, and whose concerns don’t seem to have been addressed by most of the cisgender voices determining the film’s place in critical discourse and award season 2019.
Cathy Brennan at BFI touches on the lens through which the story is told; Tre’vell Anderson at Out discusses the responsibility of telling trans stories on film; Oliver Whitney at THR contextualizes the film’s framing of trans trauma; Danielle Solzman at Slashfilm elaborates on the divide between cisgender and transgender critics and viewers. (Entertainment Weekly also sat down with several trans critics to discuss this further). If you believe a central tenet of criticism is to help widen perspective, these are absolutely worth reading, and if you believe it’s possible to be wrong about a film, this is a great way to figure out why.
“Green Book.” Certain other critics have often condemned “preachy” films with a “message,” and overwhelmingly those movies confront racism and are told through the gaze of an antagonist of color. But what I’ve found is that when it’s the other way around, when racism is seen through the eyes of a white antagonist–often in a more sanitized, “inspiring” way–it’s considered a hit, a “feel good movie,” if you will. “Green Book” is the most recent case in which it simultaneously highlights racism while it also sympathizes with its white racist protagonist (played by Viggo Mortensen), to the point where the black protagonist (played by Mahershala Ali) exoticized in his own story. The movie has been praised by multiple critics groups and awards committees, proving once again that the white gaze is victorious even in a mediocre movie.
I found myself confused and astounded by the lukewarm reception “Hotel Artemis” received when it came out in May. Drew Pearce’s debut film had a crackerjack cast (Jodie Foster! Jeff Goldblum! Sterling K. Brown! Charlie Day!), a suspenseful and thrilling plot, and addressed contemporary social concerns of class-based injustice and violence in a compelling way, making the movie a perfect double-bill with “Snowpiercer.” It wasn’t a perfect movie by any means, but it was a strong first film from a new director with an original story (amazingly not a remake, reboot, or adaption of an existing IP) and a strong sense of style, and it should’ve gotten more love.
I don’t want to throw “Mandy” under the bus, but I’m going to throw “Mandy” under the bus. I heard great things about this out of Sundance, but wasn’t able to catch it there. Since it was released by RLJE Films, there was no press screening, and I watched it with excitement on screener as I loved Panos Cosmatos’ first film, plus I’m a big fan of the underrated Andrea Riseborough and I always want Nicolas Cage to make a comeback. I’m afraid I have to spoil the movie a bit because the fact that Riseborough’s title character dies less than an hour into the movie and it’s almost an hour before we actually see the movie’s title as “Mandy,” I thought this one was just too weird for its own good, particularly the cult leader character played by Linus Roche. I’d go into more details but I just want to forget the experience watching it… and meanwhile, it’s being revived and shown in local theaters as a midnight cult classic less than a month after it debuted. (And I generally like weird midnight movies, too).
Jonah Hill’s “mid-90s” skateboarded in on a wave of hype (… I’m sorry), with a ready-made narrative about how Hill was now a proper director, how he called all of his male director friends like Martin Scorsese and Joel and Ethan Coen for advice, how the young actors were unfiltered and genuine, and yet the movie itself never seemed to capture the authenticity Hill so desired. This was a movie meant to shock with its young characters’ jarringly homophobic language, its depictions of neglect and child abuse, and its very questionable sex scene between a young teen boy and an older teenage girl, but for what? Is “mid-90s” an excuse for its young characters’ behavior? A picture of young, competitive, sometimes violent friendship? An analysis of the ways we hurt ourselves so others won’t?
Hill’s “mid-90s” sidestepped the very questions it raised and ultimately overshadowed this year’s other young-people-skateboarding film, Crystal Moselle’s “Skate Kitchen,” which followed a group of female skaters in New York City as they try to build their online following and clash heads with the boys who disrespected their presence in the scene. Every compliment paid to “mid-90s” was more deserved by “Skate Kitchen,” which analyzed the intragroup dynamics of a cadre of young women working to support each other and prove themselves against resentful male rivals, and it’s a frustrating sign of the uphill battle still required for films centered around the experiences of women and girls that Moselle’s film received barely a fraction of the attention that Hill’s did.
In a very good year for mainstream comedies (“Game Night,” “Blockers”), I was a little surprised that Ike Barinholtz’s ‘The Oath” didn’t make more of a splash with either critics or audiences. It seems like everyone either thought it was too political or not political enough. I thought it hit a perfect sweet spot between of-the-moment political commentary and broad, bloody farce, using the current political tensions that almost everybody feels at the workplace or the dinner table as a springboard for some inspired, cathartic comedy. One to catch up on on streaming or DVD.
It’s not a matter of feeling everyone was wrong, but I’m just not in the camp that felt “A Quiet Place” set a new high bar for horror or did much in the way of ambitious filmmaking. It has a fine high concept to work with, and John Krasinski certainly stepped it up as a director. However, I never saw much more than an above average B-monster movie. The performances are strong, and the sound design is obviously an important element, but it felt like the film was missing something for me. I’m not one to pick apart plots, however, if my mind is wandering, I have to think it’s because the film isn’t thoroughly engrossing me in some way. As a result, I look at things like a chalkboard full of plot details in capital letters, or question things about how this world works. Given the massive success of this modestly-budgeted film, I guess the sequel may answer some of these questions, and I only hope I feel more impressed that regretful for wanting to examine this interesting premise further.
One of the most bizarre criticisms of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” is that Lady Gaga’s character doesn’t have enough agency, or that Gaga herself doesn’t receive enough big moments. While Ally (Gaga) does indeed follow Jackson (Cooper) at times, it’s because there’s a personal, romantic and artistic connection. Ally’s a natural go-getter — a personality trait that complements Gaga’s real-life hustle. And as Jackson spirals out of control and Ally begins her ascent, Cooper effectively underlines the pros and cons of both characters’ life decisions. It’s a partnership — Ally isn’t immune to criticism because she’s *not* the alcoholic, and Jackson must be held accountable for his decisions, too. Both Cooper and Gaga have big on-stage moments, and their characters have real-life problems.
But imagine if Ally came from the Midwest rather than a metropolis. How much agency would she have then? According to most directors, young Midwesterns are naive and always ready to be the pragmatic follower rather than a leader. Like most critics, I appreciate Chloé Zhao’s 2018 film “The Rider” for the visuals, the performances and the story, but the viewing experience led me to further contemplate Midwestern agency in cinema and how moviegoers (and critics) cling to strong emotional story beats in Midwest-based movies rather than the underlying truths. In 2015, many critics slammed “The Revenant” because the most raw aspects seemingly didn’t align with personal values, whereas a classic film like “Fargo” entertains audiences with its over-the-top character portrayals. Dumb people from the Upper Midwest? Now that’s fun! As a Fargo native, I want to see the Midwestern-based film that’s timely, gritty, raw, polarizing and fueled by a character with true North Country agency; an antihero that’s forced to sift through red and blue politics, whether it’s in the country or in towns like Fargo, Sioux Falls, etc.
In “A Star Is Born,” both Cooper and Gaga effectively communicate the ebb and flow of life; the ups and downs, the transformative moments that emerge from a strong partnership. Their characters feel like real people. But if we’re going to talk about agency in cinema, I think it’s time that filmmakers begin telling more original stories about life in the Midwest, and the truths about real people that aren’t merely good or bad, that aren’t purely naive and/or set in their ways.
It’s no surprise when mediocre movies win acclaim. Rather, I’m dismayed by the lack of sympathetic interest in movies that haven’t won prizes at major festivals and that come and go in a week but are of enduring interest beyond the vagaries of release schedules and awards—exactly the kind of movie that depends on the attention of critics to reach their audiences. Nonetheless: “Roma,” for many reasons (including this one).
A longtime admirer of the work of filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, I at first found much to love in his latest film, a loosely autobiographical romp through his childhood years. Here, he not only writes and directs, but also shoots (and co-edits), making of “Roma” a deeply personal movie on many levels. Unfortunately, while the black-and-white visuals are sumptuous and the mise-en-scène impressive, the story at the center disappoints. What starts out full of promise becomes, by the end, an empty exercise in nostalgia. Even worse, Cuarón’s proximity to the subject makes him blind to the way he glorifies the sacrifices of domestic servitude, a tone-deaf paean to class-based hierarchies that I found difficult to stomach. His vague attempts at era-based context do nothing to mitigate his oblivious worship of his long-ago housekeeper. Yes, she appears to have been wonderful, but at a huge cost to herself.
Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio delivers a moving lead performance as Cleo, that servant, and deserves an award for the role. I would also be happy to see Cuarón rewarded for his cinematography. But the narrative, despite the Fellini homage implied by the title, lacks the wit and insight into human nature of the great Italian master. Cuarón sets the filmic stage for a profound examination of race, gender and economics, then gives us, instead, scattershot scenes that merely skim the surface of what could be, The images are truly breathtaking to behold, but cinema requires more than mere beauty. There is no there there.
For all of the luster and style on the surface, including some Oscar-worthy costume work, I find Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” to be a mess despite its generally positive reviews and ratings. I feel it wasted a golden opportunity to build a proper and invigorating erotic thriller with a headiness beyond crap like “Fifty Shades of Gray,” complete with a dreamy cast and pulpy source material. Instead, the “Bridesmaids” and “Ghostbusters” comedy specialist and “Nerve” screenwriter Jessica Sharzar couldn’t help themselves. What fails this fascinating combination of Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick are the extra preposterous ingredients that fizzle and stifle the matters at hand rather than combust their potential heat. Infusions of humor can be effective at disarming tension with sinister glee, but it can also, quite frankly, just be weird, especially when applied to dramatized themes of true crime or eroticism. Starting with engaging intrigue and then devolving into a DIY gumshoe territory of incompetence, “A Simple Favor” is problematically uneven because the lampooning humor dulls its thriller edge and source. Satire is their aphrodisiac and they brought it to the wrong bedroom. Kinky and quirky can be fun, but that mix is tenuous at best. Here, it’s more like pouring chocolate sauce over a sizzling steak.
Call me heartless, but I didn’t much care for “A Star is Born.” Other versions delved into the tragedy of self-destructive impulses so powerful that they caused a man to throw away the world. But since Bradley Cooper was directing and playing fading singer Jackson Maine, this one became more of a showcase for him, rather than giving equal attention to Lady Gaga’s Ally, the star on the rise. Her background and struggles are not only under-explored, they always take a backseat to Cooper, who can’t even seem to let her take center stage during the end credits. Nor does Cooper ever allow Jackson Maine to risk audience sympathies by becoming truly unlikable. Good thing Lady Gaga has enough talent to infuse this character with enough life and energy so Ally emerges as a force akin to the woman playing her.
I don’t understand why so many people, including a lot of knowledgeable horror buffs, were so dismissive of “The Strangers: Prey at Night.” Director Johannes Roberts made a good old-fashioned slasher flick with great, inventive style. Just look at the pool attack, which is lit with neon-colored light-up palm trees and scored to Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The eerie atmosphere in that sequence rivals anything in the more widely praised “Hereditary.” It’s a masterfully-executed scare scene. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” has several more of them. It deserved a lot better than a 40% Rotten Tomatoes score and a box office take of $24 million.
I genuinely can’t believe anybody would put “Infinity War” at the top of their list for this year, but that seems like too obvious a target so I’ll let it off for now. As a lifelong horror fan, there was no bigger disappointment this year than Luca Guadagnino’s listless, dull, and completely uninspired “Suspiria” reboot. The ecstatic response to the movie, from critics and normies alike, is baffling. The original certainly isn’t perfect, but it could never be accused of being boring.
Guadagnino, a talented filmmaker, takes a story with the already-established potential to be frightening and lumbers it with ill-advised and heavy-handed references to 1970s German politics (and, er, the Holocaust). He drains “Suspiria” of life, right down to the beige color palette and performances pitched so low on the register it seems certain actors are about to fall asleep on the spot. Even the dancing is terrible — at least the otherwise execrable “Climax” had great dance sequences going for it.
With a cast this good, it’s criminal nobody makes an impact in Guadagnino’s “Suspiria.” The sole character with any agency also happens to be the only man onscreen and, in a desperate attempt to solidify the film’s supposed feminist leanings, he’s very distractingly played by a woman. But that doesn’t change the fact the movie’s female characters are given absolutely nothing to do. Even Susie is a non-entity here, when she should be the powerhouse of the story.
Most egregiously for a horror movie, “Suspiria” isn’t in the least bit scary. The two standout set-pieces are horrifying, but they’re lost in the mush that is the other 100-odd minutes of screen-time. In a year that’s given us “A Quiet Place,” “Revenge,” “Hereditary,” “Assassination Nation,” and “Mandy,” among many others, this just feels like a complete waste of our time.
If I’d known this prompt was coming, I’d have saved my defense of “Tag” for this week – that definitely suffered from audiences (and critics) failing to see the movie’s deeper charms. But since I spent a lot of online real estate defending that one, I’ll champion another movie people were a bit too dismissive of, chiefly because of its genre’s all-too-dim track record: the recent reboot of “Tomb Raider.” Video game movies don’t get the best press, and the mediocrities of the two Jolie movies from the aughts are still burned into our collective memories. That being said, Roar Uthaug’s grimy, immediate treatment was a flawed, but fun re-adaptation of the game series’ own 2013 re-invention of Lara Croft from a busty, effortless Indiana Jones clone to a mud-soaked action heroine who struggles as much as she triumphs.
A lot of this comes down to casting Alicia Vikander as the lead, her CrossFit-tinged version of the explorer leaner and more athletic – it’s a joy to watch her throw herself into every knock-down, drag-out fight sequence and intricate bicycle chase. Her Lara’s an adrenaline junkie, a character who expresses herself best through pure action physicality. The film itself is no great shakes, rehashing everything from the ’99 “The Mummy” to cribbing entire sequences from the 2013 game reboot itself, but Uthaug manages to coast by on Vikander’s pitch-perfect central performance and some decently executed action sequences. There’s no sense in throwing the baby out with the bathwater – just give Vikander’s version of the character some interesting stuff to do (and for God’s sakes, 2018, stop wasting Walton Goggins in thankless villain roles!), and you can sign me right up for “Tomb Raider 2: Athleisure Edition.”
While I agree with most critics that “Searching” is the best 2018 movie in which the action unfolds on a computer screen, I’d like to say a word for the largely ignored (if not overtly disliked) “Unfriended: Dark Web,” the second film in the “Unfriended” series. Casting aside its predecessor’s supernatural elements, it evokes effective chills by reducing the franchise’s premise to its most basic essence: this is a horror movie where the characters’ situations originate from interactions on the familiar websites and mundane online activities (social media, Skype, text messaging, etc.) that we easily recognize as well-worn elements of our daily lives. It seamlessly blends its simulated online universe with the human characters using it, and makes it that much more believable for the audience. In turn, since we as viewers instantly recognize many of these virtual reference points, it’s all the more frightening when the film’s villains exert their power and lead the protagonists to their gruesome fates without ever being seen in person. I didn’t know it was even possible for Facebook to feel any more distressing than it already does in real life.
Going through Rotten Tomatoes, the biggest mistake was seeing ‘28%’ next to “Venom.” In an age where every month or so we get a new ‘critics vs audiences’ thinkpiece or a ‘we did it for the fans’ answer at a junket, “Venom” does feel like the film most critics got wrong. When so many blockbusters are forgiven for their lack of originality, their poor writing, and bad characters, it is surprising when a film as fun and weird as this gets slammed.
We’re talking about the first superhero film in which the main character is in a queer relationship with an alien parasite, leading to the best on-screen kiss of 2018, and the best relationships in a Marvel film. Is “Venom” poorly written? sure, is the tone all over the place? Of course. Is it as fun, entertaining, and exciting as any of the best-received MCU films? You bet your ass it is.
“Pile of heads, pile of bodies.” When I first saw “Venom” at a press screening in one of the grossest theaters at the AMC Empire, I definitely hated it. Dumb, lazy, just a total mess — it felt like the kind of bunk superhero movie desperate studios tossed together in the early aughts for the love of IP. But a funny thing happened since then: I kept thinking of Tom Hardy’s go-for-broke performance as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter turned space monster. I quoted this movie often, with friends and with my wife, Kase, who hadn’t even seen it yet. (“You’re a loser, Eddie!” and “Food!” are two well-worn classics.)
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, we went to a theater to see “Venom” — paying actual human dollars for our tickets. It was money well spent. Everything I hated about “Venom” the first time around was pure bliss on second viewing. It’s a masterpiece of trash (a trashterpiece?), the kind of big swing blockbuster everyone talks about wanting to see and then mocks when it finally appears in front of them. (How foolish I was the first time!) “Venom” is equal parts the best rom-com of the year not named “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and the best comedy not named “The Favourite.” Hardy, meanwhile, gives what might be — other than Bradley Cooper — the best lead actor performance from the last 11 months (give me Hardy twice before Christian Bale in “Vice”!). The actor is unhinged in this one, and I can only assume his enthusiasm was infectious to the rest of the cast, all of whom chew through their parts as if they’ve never had so much fun before. (“Hey, I’m sorry about Venom.” Michelle Williams, I salute you.) For its risk, Sony made a ton of money and it’s assumed “Venom 2” will be in theaters within the next couple of years. Why not? Just let Tom Hardy direct it next time too.
I tend to be drawn to lesser-loved movies so I have anywhere from 10 to 15 answers for this, but I’m going to stump for “Vox Lux,” a movie that I genuinely adore and admire. It’s strange, it’s imperfect, and it’s borderline camp, but I love every bold, brash moment. I’ve seen the film maligned for its perplexing plot and questionable acting, and while I can’t exact defend it from those criticisms, I can say that to me – someone who enjoys shoot-for-the-stars-even-if-its-crazy art – I found a lot of complex beauty and intentional bravado in those “faults.” “Vox Lux” is a sharp critique on the American pop industry, an industry that eats its young.
Natalie Portman’s turn as Celeste, the survivor of a Columbine-like school shooting whose pain is exploited by a seedy manager (Jude Law) who makes her a pop star, is a high-wire act; she yells, she whines, she drones on in a bizarre east coast accent. But her theatrics are a portrait of pain; the pain of a woman whose career was crafted by money-hungry execs, who copes with booze and drugs and whatever else might dull the pain, who deflects love because she never felt it. I found the film profoundly sad, especially in its final act, when Celeste struts on stage, going through the flashy motions while exposing the emptiness of the career she’s landed in. I wish more people could get on its wavelength; they’re missing one of the better, and more brutally truthful, stories of child stardom in the social media era.
For some reason, “The Wife” passed along unnoticed. Focused almost entirely on the internal struggle of a renowned writer’s wife, played brilliantly by Glenn Close, after he wins the Literature Nobel Prize. The film explores the theme of professional recognition and legacy, while presenting uncomfortable questions on (American) women’s literary work that still echoes today. Close’s performance is worth the ticket.