I believe, I believe, I believe I’m falling in love with these movies.
Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the final part of this here countdown for My Top 20 Films of 2018. On Friday, we sped through the first 10 entries (go here for a refresher), whilst yesterday, we looked at the first half of the Top 10 (head here if you’re needing to get caught up). Today, we’re ending it all with The Final Five, a Final Five I had definitively locked in since mid-October which I feel says something although I’m not entirely certain what exactly. Anyway, WHAT YOU WANT, baby I got it!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dir: Ari Aster
Star: Toni Colette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro
When it comes to the upper echelons of my yearly Top 20s, they are nearly always made up of films that I have seen multiple times, especially the Top 5. Whether they’re late-year releases that I just loved so very much that I had to go back again the following week in order to have a second taste, or a film from the earliest days of the year, if they’re in a higher slot then it’s because I saw them several times. This is especially true with films released prior to August, mainly because I’ll have hunted them down again near Listmas season for a rewatch in order to refresh my memory and better determine where they belong on the countdown. You may therefore attempt to yell RECENCY BIAS at me and question whether such films are actually all that great if they require another viewing at the year’s end to cement their position. To which I respond that a year is really bloody long, I see A LOT of films within that time, a lot happens, and at least I’m putting in the effort to give films not solely released in the last three months of any given year their due. (Please mail that subtweet to your chosen awards body, they’ll be devastated by it.)
I needed no such rewatching for Hereditary, a film I first saw at the very beginning of October and which has been impossible to shake since then. Regular followers of my work will know that I scare incredibly easily and, therefore, am an easy mark when it comes to horror movies giving me the willies – and also, therefore, am a perennial latecomer with regards to seeing them since I wait until I can view them in the safety of my own home with a pause button on standby – so may find something a bit cry-wolf when I join in on the chorus preaching the bone-chilling terror of Ari Aster’s debut feature. But this really is something else. Aster’s Hereditary is truly frightening in the way that so many horror movies, even in this little creative renaissance for the genre we’re going through, could only dream of being, marrying so-called arthouse horror’s prioritisation of theme, atmosphere and metaphor with so-called mainstream horror’s follow-through and intensity, and wedding that concoction to Japanese horror’s complete disregard for audience comfort and the ‘rules’ of the Western genre for a nasty, blood-pumping, unforgettable experience. No matter how hard one may try.
Many of the people I’ve talked to about the film, both friends and strangers, end up being split fairly evenly along the lines of whether the film loses something after the halfway mark once the explicitly supernatural elements start coming in, which I feel speaks to how inherently terrifying Aster’s story is. Grief over the death of a family member is a difficult subject primarily because of the ways in which our society has played down or warped ideas about how to respond to it, and Aster’s harrowing portrayal of its potentially destructive capabilities when otherwise repressed or unaddressed – and the uniquely human performance that Toni Collette provides, particular as she becomes more unhinged and repellent the further into the narrative we get and the more we learn about her past; it’s the best performance of the year bar none – is distressing in its believability. But the latter half of the film, no matter how visually crazy it gets with Aster going for broke in visceral scares and an obsession with decapitation that operates on both a primal and thematic level, is still informed by the groundwork of the first half and the mundane fears of a family’s existence.
Grief often involves the search for meaning in one’s reaction to an event, whether that was ambivalence or gutting despair, based upon one’s feelings towards the person who died; resentment or adoration, a desire for answers and sense regarding a parent’s abusive treatment or to simply be reunited even briefly with a favourite child. Aster’s cruellest trick is in playing said search as both destructive, in terms of self (as with Annie’s psychological unravelling giving way to demonic possession) and outward (as the Graham household falls apart one by one), and inherent, a poisoned family tree whose fates were sealed long before our story started and that none of our characters could meaningfully act against. Whether the demon at the centre of the story is specifically a metaphor for the Graham family’s history of mental illness, manifesting in Charlie’s obvious autism and Annie’s borderline bipolar behaviour, or for the selfish choices that elder generations make to ensure their’s like-minded friends’ social and financial standing which consequently destroy the following generations, here represented by the deceased Ellen and the demon Paimon, is honestly irrelevant when in reality both inform each other. The mundane fissures in a family grappling with hereditary illnesses being battered around by a selfish uncaring world; generational abuses being passed down and repeated under the misguided belief that the one causing the abuse is in actuality being selfless for the betterment of others; scared children being powerless in the face of their disintegrating parents’ outward and at times malevolent destruction.
All those words and I haven’t even touched on Pawel Pogorzelski’s fussed-over and suggestion-prone cinematography, Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston’s considered editing, Alex Wolff’s properly disturbing performance due to its upsetting accuracy, Aster’s suffocating atmosphere, the dinner argument – why, oh why, did I not write about the dinner argument… Writing about Hereditary only makes me want to watch Hereditary again despite the fact that doing so would mean watching Hereditary again and, as you can tell, I still have not fully recovered from watching Hereditary. Fuck, maybe I’ve put this too low on my list…
04] Black Panther
Dir: Ryan Coogler
Star: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o
The Film of 2018, everybody. Infinity War deliberately aimed to be the big global Event Movie of the year, and some could argue it succeeded in doing so given its ballsy (not actually that ballsy) ending and the fact that it outgrossed Black Panther worldwide to the tune of $700 million, but both in the moment here and now and in decades time when cultural historians look back on 2018, they’re going to go straight to Black Panther. Special charity screenings for underprivileged Black kids, cosplays the world over, extensive sociological debates over the moral arguments put forth by the film’s instant-classic villain, praise and criticism for its portrayal of African culture and heritage, demolished box office records and a months-long streak of dominance that arguably only ended once Infinity War hit the scene, memes (so many memes), the mere sight of a Black superhero leading his own nine-figure mainstream blockbuster as part of the biggest entertainment series on the planet… When looked at like that, with all those achievements lined up in a neat little row, it really is hard to argue with Shaun King’s statement that Black Panther is “one of the most important cultural moments in American history.”
But movies don’t just make my list for being culturally significant and they definitely don’t break into the Top 5 solely for being unavoidable topics of conversation – again, see: War, Avengers: Infinity. No, and despite what the depressingly-inevitable contrarian contingent would have you believe, Black Panther is on here and this high because it took until the back half of the year for me to see anything else remotely of its calibre. This is one of the best superhero movies of all-time, a relentlessly entertaining and irresistible blockbuster of the first degree. It is also one of the most insightful examinations of life as a Black person to come out of the mainstream Hollywood system… actually, you know what, scratch that “one of” part, especially in a year that’s shunted out Green Book. Black Panther is the most insightful examination of what it means to be Black, to carry the warring dualities of keeping one’s head down and rising up as best epitomised by Spike Lee’s still-essential Do the Right Thing, ever to come out of the mainstream Hollywood system (an avenue I’ll leave this phenomenal Film Crit Hulk essay to explain). But, most all of for me, Black Panther is the official crowning of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler as our great Black hope for the future of blockbuster storytelling. He’s 3 for 3 and aced every single one of those with flying colours, therefore he is one of the best storytellers working today.
Even if you took away the film’s deep exploration and deconstruction of an Afrofuturist utopia whilst the rest of Black civilisation suffered outside of it – and, admittedly, you can’t because that’s all deeply ingrained into every facet of the movie – Black Panther would still be an excellent time at the movies thanks to Coogler’s attention to detail in world and character-building. In a landscape where Warner Bros. have spent six different DC movies across at least 14 hours trying and failing to get me invested in a single one of their cast members, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole manage to craft a group of instantly compelling characters whose lives, beliefs, and wants are understandable and enjoyable, and whom I want to see more of. I want to spend more time in Wakanda, so fully realised is Coogler’s world with a breath-taking visual design and rich tangible history, lovingly shot by Rachel Morrison, that feels real every time I view the movie. Black Panther effectively lets Coogler apply the same sharp instincts in character studies and adaptation that he displayed in both Fruitvale Station and Creed to the broadest canvas one could possibly have, but he’s not forgotten the details that properly make character portraits in that jump. Shuri’s propensity for brilliantly lame jokes, Okoye’s conflicted yet affectionate smile when she’s licked by W’Kabi’s war-rhino in the final battle, Killmonger’s single tear when he’s reunited with his father on the ancestral plane betraying a brief moment of vulnerability that is quickly quashed once he returns to Earth.
Coogler has an obvious affinity for Shakespearian drama which becomes immediately obvious in Black Panther’s tale of feuding siblings and familial tragedy over royal power, but Coogler also includes the Bard’s sense of empathy and depth of character which adds greater emotional resonance to his narrative. It’s a small, personal tale just like the best entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, unconcerned with anything outside of its characters’ orbits because fate of the world stakes are far less interesting than those of Wakanda’s soul. A country in a time of transition, that’s spent centuries stubbornly clinging to an isolationist policy which breeds its own worst enemies, unable to remain staring at the crossroads it’s found itself at but also fighting to reconcile the two potential approaches it has for how to go forward into world. Killmonger is not just one of the best villains the MCU has yet produced, but one of the best blockbuster villains of the past decade, both in Coogler & Cole’s nuanced and frequently multi-faceted writing of him and in Michael B. Jordan’s career-best performance, ultra-charismatic yet seething with resentment and a sadistic streak capable of batting audience sympathies around like a cat does a toy mouse.
If this entry has seemed a little disjointed, it’s only because I am very self-conscious about what little I could possibly bring to the conversation at this point, after the last 10 months of people far more qualified than I saying it all far better than I ever could. Black Panther is a masterwork, but it is also Ryan Coogler fully seizing his moment, the next great American filmmaker ascending to his biggest form yet in front of our eyes and deserving every last scrap of credit thrown his way. He has earned this.
Dir: Spike Lee
Star: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
The last time I encountered Spike Lee, he seemed to have completely stopped caring. He had directed the long-gestating, thoroughly unnecessary, and point-missing American remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, and he seemed utterly bored. Spike Lee had made many bad films before Oldboy, primarily post-Bamboozled as his 2000s output varied wildly in quality, but never had he seemed so utterly checked-out as a filmmaker. He was a hired gun, plain and simple, interchangeable with any hundred anonymous journeymen, cashing a paycheque so clearly that he wouldn’t even title the film “a Spike Lee joint” like he had everything else of his up to that point. It was depressing to witness since even Lee’s worst films at least had a sense of passion and urgency to them. But somewhere in the near five years separating Oldboy and BlacKkKlansman – I must confess to having not seen Chi-Raq yet due to the extensive delay in its UK distribution, followed by a bungled release, causing it to come and go sans any fanfare – Lee has managed to revitalise himself. It’d be tempting to put that down to current political situations, or hooking up with men-of-the-moment Jason Blum and Jordan Peele, or going back to somewhat basics, or having a fire lit under his ass with something to prove… whatever the reason may have been, it gave us BlacKkKlansman, an essential work of film and a revitalisation for one of our most powerful filmmakers.
And what an absolute punch to the gut BlacKkKlansman is. Sold as a comedy, yet the only real comedy in the film lies in its premise: a Black detective (Washington immediately proving himself to be a true star talent just like his father) infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 70s by being himself on the phone and having a White man (Driver continuing to have the most eclectically brilliant filmography of any actor working today) impersonate him when the Klan want to meet face-to-face, even fooling Grand Wizard David Duke (Grace perfectly channelling today’s “respectable” faces of the White Supremacy movement). But though Lee does play at times to the audience, his film indebted as it is to the Blaxploitation movements of the 70s – the merits and harmful perceptions they can potentially cause towards Black people naturally being subject to debate between two characters in-film, for this truly is a Spike Lee joint – and a decent number of scenes do have passages counting as jokes, BlacKkKlansman is a deeply uncomfortable film whose depiction of the Klan primarily as ineffectual, easily-fooled dumbasses blustering their way into their own graves arguably only makes things even harder to stomach.
Hollywood has a racism problem. Specifically, it has a major problem with treating racism as something tangible, explicable, born from some past experience that makes for easy, effective drama but comes with the added effect (intentional or otherwise) of making racism something it is not: logical. Yeah, it’s been internalised into generations of us thanks to an inherently racist system of civilisation that we all must participate in, but that still doesn’t make it logical. This is how your pseudo-intellectualists like Jordan Peterson and, yes, David Duke worm their way into mainstream conversations, because they try to rationalise their illogical hatred via intelligent-sounding statistics and studies of dubious distinction to peddle their bullshit by making it sound like it has some basis in fact when, in reality, it obviously does not. And I think that’s something Lee is trying to communicate via Flip Zimmerman, the in-person stand-in for Ron Stallworth. In much the same way as Ron is being forced to grapple with his Blackness due to the operation catching him between two worlds – those of the otherwise all-White police force that he’ll always be an outsider to even with his childhood desire to be a detective, and the revolutionaries of the Colorado Black Students Union and its militant leader (Harrier captivating even with limited material) whom Ron is falling for but doesn’t fully agree with – Flip is being forced to grapple with his Jewishness thanks to constantly denouncing his faith whilst undercover. It causes him a lot of inner turmoil…
…but he never appears to have a problem with tapping into virulent racism and homophobia whilst undercover. And Flip slides into it really well, expressing some truly horrifying sentiments with the Klan brethren ostensibly as part of the character. It’s a guise he can flick on and off like a light switch which we’re theoretically supposed to be comfortable with because he’s undercover and Ron never pulls him aside to mention any reservations, but Flip and his fellow detectives are fairly non-PC even outside of the investigation. I get the sense that Lee is trying to draw attention to the blurry lines between performative or ironic racism and just straight-up racist behaviour, how there’s precious little difference separating “acceptable” racism (such as Flip’s in-character performance and Duke’s efforts to drag the Klan towards a respectable public face) and the thuggish racism displayed by piggish imbeciles like Felix and Ivanhoe. How we can explain it away however we like but that, in the end, racism is a choice based upon illogical behaviour. It very much eats away at Ron, too, particularly in his duality between being a Black man and working for a law enforcement agency built and bred to foster a sense of blindness when it comes to the appalling behaviour of their own, as in Flip’s dismissal of the gleefully racist Officer Landers as just “a bad cop” no one wants to do anything about. All of this visualised through some of Lee’s most forceful filmmaking in a long time, images and sequences designed to turn stomachs and rattle minds even before the Charlottesville tag brings us painfully up to date.
Said tag is powerful, but it’s also arguably unnecessary since, unlike other far lesser films on this subject, Lee never acts like we’ve left the issues of BlacKkKlansman in the past in the first place. Early in the film, Ron infiltrates a Black Students Union meeting where Kwame Ture (a magnetic Corey Hawkins who deserves to be a proper Movie Star already) is speaking and Lee just lets the scene run. This is a favourite technique of the director, of course, letting soapbox speeches run long, but here it takes on a special resonance. Ture’s words about Black beauty and Black pride, combined with the adoring way Lee shoots him and intercuts beautiful Black faces enraptured in reverence, echo just as loudly today as they did back in the 70s. It’s a speech of love, of eloquence, and it contrasts magnificently with those provided by Klansmen, of hatred and of sputtering incoherence. A moment of light inside the darkness, a mantra to push forward into the new day, a vital reminder of Lee’s virtuosity as both a filmmaker and a provocateur.
Dir: Steve McQueen
Star: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo
Widows is the best film of the year. It was a pure dogfight between this and my #1 pick so make no mistake: though Widows is in the runner-up slot for my Top Films of 2018, it is the Best Film of 2018 and it ain’t even close. I saw Steve McQueen’s latest masterpiece three times in the space of a month, I would have seen it even more had it not bombed spectacularly and been swept away in the flood of lesser tripe that consumed the end-of-year box office, and with each and every viewing I found that I adored the film even more. It is damn-near perfect, a relentlessly engrossing crime drama with not a wasted second, not a superfluous line, not a cut out of place. It’s a forceful reminder of just what a once-in-a-generation talent McQueen is, a brilliant visionary apparently incapable of making even just-great movies and a preternatural ability to force audiences to collectively hold their breaths throughout. But his adaptation and update of Lynda LaPlante’s iconic 1980s television series also sees him stretching his wings, taking his typically-insular and singular character studies and applying them to an ensemble, transplanting the internal intensity of his prior character dramas to more traditional genre filmmaking, and arguably even loosening up and having something resembling fun with the material.
That last part is something which has become most clear in additional watches since Widows can still be a dour and heavy film, befitting the director of Shame and 12 Years a Slave but also a narrative that takes in grief, abuse, racism, political corruption, and the varying intersections of each. Typical for a McQueen work, he doesn’t downplay any one of these aspects in order to make his audience feel more at ease because that would clash with his commitment to naturalism in his narratives – witness the traffic stop that gets the Rawlings’ son killed, which makes fine usage of McQueen’s penchant for tightly-composed shots, once again lensed by the fantastic Sean Bobbitt, occurring over longer-than-average takes in service of a coldly sudden act of violence. Theoretically, that would make him quite the clash with Gillian Flynn, a writer who is slavishly devoted to trashy airport thriller material (and I mean that in the best possible way) that’s the polar opposite of McQueen’s attitudes towards story. But she too has an iron will when it comes to refusing sanctuary for her audience, and her frequently noted fascination for morally-complex and “difficult” female characters is all over Widows’ cast: Veronica’s often callous front that masks a deep pain, the frayed relationships between the quartet due to this being an arrangement of necessity, even the brief moments where Jack’s campaign manager, Siobhan, gets to speak reveal somebody with potential agendas of her own.
Combined with their shared interest in richly-drawn character studies, McQueen and Flynn turn out to be ideal partners for one another. He brings the deeply-shaded racial and political side of the coin, exploring how political systems are rigged to serve as unofficial family businesses and the way in which that fucks over everybody not considered a (often rich and often White) friend to those in charge, how Black people are effectively pitted against each other and forced into crime to survive (and how some take a sadistic liking to that world), and bursting the myth of a post-racial society on the home front through White masculine guilt in the implosion of the Rawlings’ marriage through Harry’s selfish actions. She brings her eye for complex female characters and explorations of how men and society constantly undermine, prey upon, and underestimate women, plus her predilection for superfluous (but never unwelcome) usage of the word “cunt.” In addition, she even manages to get McQueen to relax and have some fun. There are actual jokes, here! Not a lot, granted, but way more than your average Steve McQueen picture!
More than that, he throws himself willingly into the narrative’s pulpier turns, embracing the British television crime drama roots of the source material rather than thinking he’s somehow above it all. His intensity invests the eventual heist with a breathless quality to it on par with the finest of thrillers, and despite it being a sprawling narrative encompassing lots of individual plot threads and even more characters he still makes every scene propulsive and enrapturing, pushing forward with singular drive and determination in a manner that makes the 130-minute runtime soar by. Seriously, McQueen turns out to be such a natural at relatively straightforward genre pictures that I’m quietly incensed he’s taken this long to put his talents towards one. Which is what makes Widows kind of a miracle, because it manages to be a rip-roaring time at the movies with a truly crowdpleasing ending stretch without diluting its sombre tone or sacrificing its additional thematic heft in order to do so. McQueen somehow manages to make it work both ways. Condescending critics could call it “a blockbuster with brains,” but McQueen never once gives off the impression that he ever thought the two ideas, “blockbusters” and “brains,” were mutually exclusive. He and Flynn – plus a murderer’s row of career-best or near-career-best performances from the likes of Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo – just tell the story they want to tell with no compromises, following it down what rabbit holes it may naturally lead.
I didn’t put anything from Widows on my Top 20 Scenes of 2018 list from a couple of days back, which I simultaneously look at as a gross oversight of pure negligence and an intentional decision. There were tens, multiple tens of little individual moments and scenes throughout Widows that are amongst the very best moments I had in a cinema all year: the pre-title chase, Veronica’s scream of grief, Alice buying the van, Belle charging for the bus, Jamal’s threat, the bit at Amanda’s which hasn’t yet failed to send a collective “oh, SHIT” running through the audience, Jack’s limo ride back to his house, the heist itself, Veronica at the very end of the film… All of these scenes are individually brilliant, but combined they gain an additional power thanks to the storytelling and filmmaking linking them together, plus the nine-dozen or so other exceptional scenes I hadn’t listed. It’s like listening to an Album all the way through, where the individual tracks are great but that experience and arc which comes from listening through from start to finish is somehow even greater because they just sing harmoniously in unison. Widows is the best film of the year and as perfect a piece of filmmaking as one could possibly ask for. This is not up for debate.
Dir: Boots Riley
Star: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, David Cross (voice)
The thing that finally convinced me to give this year’s honours to Sorry to Bother You over Widows had nothing to do with my own feelings towards the film. In a way, that’s actually rather untrue because this thing did replicate my feelings to a degree and further reflection allowed me to work through why this one thing stuck with me the second I heard it, but it’s not something I think I would have fully appreciated had I not heard it from another source. It occurred at the conclusion of my third and final viewing of the film, although it’s not like the first two viewings hadn’t already sent the film on its way to this point. My first viewing was at the London Film Festival, packed from top to bottom with critics and industry professionals dying to see what all the fuss was about (the film hadn’t yet opened in the UK because racism) before, no matter how ready any of us thought we were going on, Boots Riley’s debut film proceeded to blow our minds clean out the back of our heads. That viewing was a trip, because all first-time viewings of Sorry to Bother You are trips, and the film became one of the talks of the Festival (second in my conversations with others only to Widows) regardless of what people thought of it.
Frankly, how could it not? Riley’s film is one of the most urgent, inventive, and audacious works of cinema to come along in a long, long-ass time. A communist manifesto disguised as a horror movie which itself is disguised as a surrealist comedy, Sorry to Bother You translates the free-wheeling rebellion of Riley’s work in cult hip-hop groups The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club effortlessly into the medium of film, depicting an alternate-universe present day Oakland that’s honestly only a barely-heightened version of our own late-Capitalist dystopia. He does not play around in the slightest, equating modern production jobs to prison slave labour (perhaps because the penal system that America’s privatised prisons have been engaging in for decades is exactly that) that exacerbate wealth inequality within the first 10 minutes of movie and only goes further from there. He literalises capitalism’s ceaseless attempts to improve efficiency and profits in a manner that literally dehumanises bodies on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, primarily Black ones unsurprisingly. He takes aim at a White corporatized culture which will gladly absorb, subsume or outright steal Black and progressive culture from its origins and then sell it back to the well-off middle-class in a safe and non-threatening manner, without actually giving a fuck about the causes and meanings behind them – not to mention how it trains people who may feel they’re above such a system to cash out their principles at the first opportunity to set themselves up for life.
And, much like with the most politically-charged Spike Lee works – one of the many obvious influences alongside stylistic cues taken from Michel Gondry, Hype Williams, and arguably even somebody like Satoshi Kon in the dreamlike horror with which the story progresses – Riley is wholly uninterested in going for anywhere but the throat. His funniest gags, and please don’t forget that Sorry to Bother You is an absolutely fucking hysterical movie, simultaneously function as his most pointed knives, designed to elicit belly laughs and uncomfortable “jeeeeeeeeeeez” reactions from alternating subsets of any prospective audience. His approach is most embodied early on by a pan to one of WorryFree’s many billboards selling their lifetime contracts which depicts a smiling Black man slouched on a sofa with a beer in one hand and a remote in the other plus the phrase “be a responsible baby daddy!” in big bold letters. Sorry to Bother You is a film powered by righteous fury, a truly dangerous subversive streak that acts like this will be everyone’s only shot to make a movie so better cram every last idea and thought into this one just in case, that’s exhilarating to witness but which also, somehow, does build up to a coherent thesis statement. Even with its habit of taking detours that don’t fully go anywhere and dropping characters and plot points the moment they become irrelevant, it all still feels necessary and vital. Like a longform essay that theoretically could have been pruned down but in practice does need to cover every last base in order to make its point – the exact opposite of my works, obviously.
Then, no matter how totally it may sound like the film hit me upon that initial viewing as evidenced by my utterly breathless praise for it on the accompanying day’s LFF write-up, it somehow grew and grew on my emotions, and kept growing still. The vitality in the film, how it so perfectly reflects the existential misery and terror of living in this societal hellscape as a member of the lower class regardless of your race, even whilst still coming from an explicitly Black perspective with Black rage and Black fears. Cassius’ selling-out is based heavily around how he keeps giving up his race and culture to White people in an effort to ingratiate himself more with the wealthiest slave masters at the top via his being a non-threatening and compliant Black face; Detroit’s art based around Capitalism’s origins resulting from White traders stealing Black folks from Africa for enforced labour. How excited viewing the movie had made me, leaving the screening with a spring in my step that would return whenever I thought back to the film (along with its irresistible theme song). How daring it felt, to see a wide-release movie utterly unafraid of being so confrontational, so singular, so weird that clearly answered to no notes from anybody. Despite this, I still had Sorry to Bother You down as my #2. Widows was just a better-made film in many respects and similarly gave me the butterflies and goosebumps when I thought back to it over the fortnight I spent in London.
My second viewing was in early December, the weekend of the film’s UK release, with a pair of friends (and some of their acquaintances) who had been dying to watch this based on their own personal life experiences and philosophies. In many ways, I wish I could have turned my cinema seat to face them all and only watched their reactions instead of the film because, my God, was it something to be sat in between the unsuspecting and witness them having their minds utterly and completely blown; they were damn-near ready to riot at certain points, in a good way. But doing that would have caused me to miss so many details that only become obvious on a second viewing: how the in-universe news media always describes the peaceful unionising protestors as “militant,” how Squeeze’s standing as the potential moral centre of the film is continuously undercut by his blatant trying to get into Detroit’s pants, the hilarity of Detroit’s ridiculous performance-art piece, how the ending reflects the impossibility of escaping from the machinations of Capitalism and its highest echelons without having fundamentally and irreversibly changed for the worse.
But even still, I wasn’t quite sure about putting Sorry to Bother You in the top spot. Not even after my third viewing – no other special circumstances or other passengers or anything like that, just me and the film – was I completely sold, mainly because both of these other times I was growing more conscious of how awkwardly lit the vast majority of the non-daytime scenes are and it was bugging the shit out of me. It wasn’t until the end credits had finished rolling, which I’d sat through because I wanted to groove along to “OYAHYTT” in a cinema screen one last time, and I was on my way out that I heard the phrase which cemented the film as my #1 for 2018. Two rows behind me were a group of White women who spent the credits roll sat discussing the film they had just saw (which I actually think is considerate etiquette in certain circumstances for those who wish to talk about what they’ve seen without accidentally spoiling it for those waiting outside) and, as I found out once the theatre went quiet after the music finished, they hated it. As in, utterly baffled and blaming the friend who’d picked the film for wasting their time and money. But rather than making me do this out of spite, one of them actually said something that really did stick with me in a positive way: “I was expecting to be, like, bored or something, y’know?”
As I mentioned back in the pre-amble to this entire countdown, I am of the belief that 2018 was a pretty bad year for movies. Unlike in years where people would normally say that, though, I don’t think the films were actually all that bad, which has been quite the problem. At least if there were a bunch of interestingly bad films, I’d have lasting memories of some description and strong feelings. Instead, movies by and large didn’t matter in 2018, many didn’t even try to. Except for Black films. Black films mattered a whole heck of a lot. If a film felt vital and current and designed to last in 2018, chances were it was by a Black filmmaker. And, look, I absolutely hate lumping in Coogler, Lee, McQueen, Riley, George Tillman, Jr. – and, since If Beale Street Could Talk is a 2018 film regardless of when it gets released on these shores, Barry Jenkins – together for some grand statement about Black Film in 2018, like it’s a trending moment in our culture, because Black Film has been great for decades before now, just stifled from mainstream dissection thanks to a racist goalpost-shifting film industry propagating the myth that Black films don’t sell (duh), and hacky White pop culture critics love to stigmatise Other cultures as suddenly being trendy before dumping them a short while after. But I also cannot deny that, in 2018, the films which left a serious lasting impact upon me were either horror films (like Annihilation and Hereditary) or by Black filmmakers (like almost the entirety of this Top 5). If only one of these films came along this year, they’d still feel special and important; together at once, as timing has so fortuitously bounded them, they collectively feel like the start of something.
So… why Sorry to Bother You? Simple: in a year where the movies largely washed over me and often by intentional design, I appreciate a film like Sorry to Bother You more than ever before because Sorry to Bother You is impossible to feel ambivalent towards. Like, Widows is the best film of the year, no question; if you come away from it without at least an appreciation for its impeccable craftsmanship, then I believe you just do not appreciate movies period. But I also understand how someone might come away from it otherwise non-plussed, maybe even a little bored (as both of my non-LFF screenings had audience members who voiced their complaints less quietly than they probably imagined they were doing) because it’s a serious crime drama with many moving parts and a deliberate pace to itself. But I cannot envision the kind of person that would walk out of Sorry to Bother You going “eh.” Riley’s shot across the bough is designed to provoke, for good and ill, and to enforce a lasting conversation by being utterly impossible to ignore and shake off. You may adore it, you may despise it, you may even be with it until the Equisapiens show up then be totally lost, but you absolutely will not under any circumstances exit the movie shrugging your shoulders and going “eh.”
That’s why Sorry to Bother You. We need more films like this in 2019 and beyond. Both in their desire to be brilliant in a manner that lasts and means something, and in their fearless desire to fuck with some heads irrespective of what anyone else thinks. Sorry to Bother You, to utilise another hacky White critic cliché, is the film we need right now. So, thank you, Random White Woman Upset About Her Friend’s Viewing Choices! You were the catalyst that realised this result! Sorry this film bothered you, but not really.
Tomorrow: a personal look back on my own 2018.