Portland Film Review’s Best Films of 2018
We, the writers at Portland Film Review, watch too many films throughout the year to write full-length reviews of all of them, but we figured it would be unfair to our readers to keep some of these gems hidden. Collected below are a handful of our favorite films from 2018, films we discovered for the first time this year, and a few other things we’ve been watching.
Best Films of 2018
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s directorial debut is one of the most batshit crazy movies I’ve seen this side of Mulholland Dr. (1999), but in all the best ways. Telling the story of aspiring telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), the movie is a blistering satire of the racial, economic, and cultural dynamics that inform American life. Stanfield’s performance as Green may be the focal point, but the supporting cast features unforgettable turns from Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer that give the story a depth you can only achieve through a stellar ensemble. It also gives us a handful of the most chilling and memorable images shown on screen this year, be it Hammer snorting what seems to be a foot-long line of cocaine, or Thompson putting on an extreme piece of performance art where she is covered in goat’s blood and broken electronics. It is quite a note for Riley to begin a film career on, and I cannot wait for whatever comes next.
Paddington 2 (2018)
Adapting children’s books into movies is a tricky business. The main audience for them is usually the children who are reading them, but those children require adults to take them to the movies and therefore sit through the movie as well. Many movies disregard that second part of the audience, and I believe that dismisses a central part of beloved children’s books; they are a family affair that should be meaningful for adult and child alike. In this way, Paddington 2 is not a ‘children’s movie,’ it is a ‘family movie’ because it is about family, is for families, and is moving no matter your age bracket. Equal parts meditation on the importance of love and a refute to the xenophobia inherent in post-Brexit England, Paddington 2 hits on many of the same topics as the equally phenomenal Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) and reminds audiences of another stalwart of kindness and wonderment alongside Fred Rogers to guide us through these difficult times.
(Read Devin’s full review here.)
A Star is Born (2018)
In the era of the remake, revival, and reboot, there is no shortage of reworked stories and ideas. These tend to split into two camps: one being the project that mines nostalgia or familiarity without reinventing what it remakes, and the other being a piece that uses existing material as a starting point to tell a moving and individual story. Thankfully A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s bid to be the next great writer-actor-director, fits nicely into the second category. Watching as Cooper pulls triple duty is a feat to behold, and for any other movie it would be the biggest story coming out of it, but this is not any other movie for it has Lady Gaga. Inhabiting the role of rising star discovered by fading has-been, one that both Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand made their own, Gaga is electrifying. We all knew she could sing, but for those of us that did not watch her on American Horror Story: Hotel, this proves she can act also with the best of them. I laughed, I cried, and I have not ceased thinking about the movie since I left the theater. My favorite of the year.
(Read Devin’s full review here.)
Free Solo (2018)
My review describes the awe I felt while watching Free Solo in more depth, but in essence the film just makes you feel incredibly alive. Your palms are sweating and your heart is pounding as you watch free solo climber Alex Honnold dangle off a cliff. The sweeping vistas and wide shots evoke a sense of panoramic natural beauty that makes you want to go hiking. Watching it, you not only feel closer to death (it becomes much more imminent when you are scrambling up a sheer rock face depending only on half a thumb hold to save your life), you also feel stronger, empowered by the amazing feats humankind is capable of. It’s the sort of film I could watch over and over again and never get tired of.
(Read Jane’s full review here.)
The Rider (2018)
The Rider, which focuses on a rodeo cowboy recovering from an injury, feels less like a film and more like a documentary. Each of the characters is not an actor but an actual cowboy or person playing themselves. This might sound like a recipe for disaster since these people don’t know how to act, but the beautiful thing is that they don’t need to. We’re simply following them along as they go about their lives. The film is slow but steady, the plot undefined, the narrative climax muddy. Yet it’s all fascinating because these people and their struggles are real and intricately portrayed, so we care about how they turn out.
First Reformed (2018)
I’m not used to seeing Ethan Hawke play such somber, quiet characters, but after watching First Reformed it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. As a minister undergoing a spiritual crisis, Hawke seems born to play the role. Outwardly, his demeanor matches the white facade of the church and the clean slate-colored sky of the film’s first shot. But inwardly, he’s struggling with a variety of demons, many of which are completely unexpected, and it all leads to an entirely peculiar and thought-provoking conclusion. His ragged outbursts against such an austere background seem all the more out of place. I hesitate to say more because the film is really worth watching without knowing much more about it.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
What do you do as a director when you’ve already mastered every genre from bro-comedy to Western, and from tense thriller to musical? Well, if you’re the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, you turn to something new, expanding the traditional linear film narrative just a bit further. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a short story collection in cinema format: each of the six vignettes, which seem to be drawn from the pages of Poe and Kafka, tells a unique story set in the American West. Each captures a vastly different mood, but from the diverse parts emerges a brilliant whole. Although anthology films have been made before, they are few and far between, and this is one of the better ones. Each story in this film seems to stand out on its own, demonstrating a different set of skills, and each viewer will probably have his or her own favourites. The second vignette, “Near Algodones,” is a tightly-constructed story starring James Franco as an ill-fated cowboy. Since I’ve spent most of my life in the Willamette Valley, I particularly enjoyed the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a tale of a young woman on her way across the Oregon Trail. The sixth story, “The Mortal Remains,” showcases the Coen brothers’ exceptional screenwriting abilities, as it rests entirely on the dialogue of a wagon ride. Overall, the collection isn’t my favourite of their films (Fargo  still holds that lofty honour), but it well merits a mention in the list of best films from 2018.
Black Panther (2018)
I won’t pretend that Black Panther was the best film released in 2018, but I do want to applaud its success in expanding the previously monochromatic superhero franchise. For me, Black Panther did what Wonder Woman (2017) could not, creating a hero who breaks from the mold, while also reinforcing that character’s background. Black Panther also had my favourite Marvel villain to-date, as the bad guy, “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), had essentially the same motivations as the good ones, leading to a far more interesting ethical dynamic than in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Move over, power-hungry evil space monsters, it’s time to explore the personal psyches of human villains.
Worst Films of 2018
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)
Before seeing Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald I happened across an article in The Atlantic (read it here) titled “J.K. Rowling Enters George Lucas Mode With the New Fantastic Beasts Movie.” I went into the theater thinking, “it can’t be that bad.” I was wrong. It was. It was even worse than that. It is truly incredible that Rowling, who is the single credited writer on the screenplay, and director David Yates, who directed the final four installments in the Harry Potter film series, could muck it up so badly. I found Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) underwhelming but not actively inept. It was half-baked but decently entertaining fluff which is less than I wanted from a Harry Potter story, but it was the kind of pointless prequel I expected. The Crimes of Grindelwald is shockingly devoid of entertainment. It is the cinematic equivalent of a stale fruit cake: bits and pieces that have no business being cobbled together that are peddled well beyond their expiration date. There is a near constant hopping around between characters and plot lines in a way that lends the story not a modicum of coherence, and most of the cast, with the exceptions of Jude Law and Claudia Kim, seem to have no idea what it is they are supposed to be doing. So, Ms. Rowling, please, I beg you as a lover of your books and their cinematic counterparts, please pull the plug before these prequels further poison the Harry Potter well of magic and wonder.
Destination Wedding (2018)
It is not every year that we get a movie so awful it has potential to go down in history with such bad movie greats as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) and The Room (2003), but 2018 blessed (cursed?) us with Destination Wedding, a movie so bad it may just join the ranks. The movie is an almost rom-com starring Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves as misanthropic complainers who are both at the destination wedding of a man they do not like. Reeves’ part could very well have been played by a cardboard cutout, and for much cheaper I imagine, for he has about the emotional range of a pizza box without any of the promise of something worthwhile inside that a pizza box provides. Ryder imbues her character with so much frenetic energy I couldn’t help but think of a bobble-head strapped to massage chair whenever she was on screen. Not helping their cause is the fact that Victor Levin, pulling double duty as writer and director, shoots the movie without any sign that he has the power of creative thinking; it is very nearly completely composed of medium shots of Reeves and Ryder. Furthermore, there is, and I double-checked, not a single line spoken by anybody in the movie other than Ryder and Reeves, unless of course you count the growl uttered by a mountain lion they come across at one point. There is nothing worth watching, which seems to be just the qualifier that makes it a contender for future midnight screenings and devoted fans.
(Read Devin’s full review here.)
A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Admittedly, this choice may be a little unfair as A Wrinkle in Time has much more going for it than quite a few major releases of the past calendar year (I’m looking at you The Happytime Murders ), but this is a case of anticipation and expectation resulting in extreme disappointment. Ava Duvernay is an incredible director. Her work on Selma (2015) and 13th (2016) revealed a rousing voice for the next generation of American filmmakers. Paired that with a cast that includes Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, and Oprah Winfrey, just to name a few, and the chances for Madeleine L’Engle’s magnificent book getting the adaptation it deserved seemed quite high. And yet, for all the special effects and impressive production design, the movie seems devoid of imagination or energy. I place most of the blame for this on screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell who turned in a story so convoluted and rushed that there is hardly a scene without murky character motivations, questionable pacing, or clunky dialogue; usually all are markedly present. A Wrinkle in Time seems to be the result of Ava DuVernay being packaged in a major studio release that had no interest in letting her tell a compelling story. It is a true shame and results in a painfully dissatisfying movie.
Life of the Party (2018)
I wouldn’t say Life of the Party is actually one of the worst films of 2018; I just expected more from this one. Of course, it’s fun and funny in a classic Melissa McCarthy way. But it just felt very fluff, even from a movie that you know going in is going to be fluff. After her husband leaves her, McCarthy’s character decides to go back to college and finish her degree. While her daughter is there finishing her senior year. And the daughter is just fine with it. I’m not saying I would ignore my mom if this were the case, but I wouldn’t be taking shots with her at frat parties. The whole friend group just seamlessly accepts McCarthy into their clan as if she were a 20-something student, which she certainly is not. Also, there never really seems to be much conflict in the film. Little issues flit by and are easily vanquished without much trouble or compelling plot. McCarthy deserves better films for her talent.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
Solo: A Star Wars Story is for me what Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is for Devin: disappointing at every turn, a film that we really wish we could like because we grew up with and loved the original stories, but can’t help but feel is slowly destroying our love for those classics. These films are like pretty but invasive species: they sound like a good idea at first, but slowly eat away everything you love. After enjoying Rogue One (2016) and the most recent Star Wars films with a renewed childlikeness, I found myself bored and annoyed by this prequel. The acting was bland and unmemorable, the characters were unconvincingly thrown into a space Western plot, and the Star Wars references seemed, well, as forced as this pun. Ultimately, this is a film that will be forgotten from the canon.
(Read Nathan’s full review here.)
Films We Discovered This Year
Pablo Larraín had a big year in 2016, breaking through to American audiences with his genre-defying biopic Jackie (2016) about the events of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and their impact on First Lady Jackie Kennedy. It was a modest box-office success, a critical darling, and garnered three Academy Award nominations. However, Larraín also released the Spanish-language biopic Neruda (2016) about the legendary Chiléan poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda had been on top of my watchlist from the second I heard about it, as Neruda is easily my favorite poet, and the movie focuses on one of the most interesting parts of his life: when he was a politician and had to go on the run as a result of being a Communist. The resulting movie is part character study and part crime caper, and altogether a meditation on the way that we tell stories about famous figures. It is funny, touching, challenging, and divisive, all qualities that can be readily applied to Neruda and his work.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men had long been one of my major embarrassments, namely because it was one of those universally lauded and adored movies that I somehow had not gotten around to watching. With the release of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), and having loved True Grit (2010), I thought it was necessary to have the totality of the Coen brothers exploits in the Western genre at my disposal before watching their newest movie. So, with an enormous amount of hype and expectation, there was a glimmer of fear that No Country would disappoint, but I am happy to report that it is just as good as anyone has told you. This is in no small part because of a trio of incredible performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem. Jones plays Sheriff Bell, a lawman struggling with the ever intensifying violence and crime around him, an issue personified by Bardem’s bone-chilling hitman Anton Chigurh who pursues Brolin’s thieving Llewelyn Moss. Whereas other Coen Brothers entries like Fargo (1996) and A Serious Man (2009) blend humor and darkness, No Country is predominantly dramatic, with more than a fleck of horror. It is a truly deserving Best Picture winner.
(Read Nathan’s review of No Country for Old Men here.)
As I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone who has talked about movies with me for any length of time, many of my favorite movies are works that feature a thrilling or suspenseful plot that is used to critique or comment on some facet of culture. These are movies like Gone Girl (2014) or The Babadook (2014) which use mysteries to examine ideas of perception and grief respectively. Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat is one of these movies, in my eyes. It focuses on the parallel narratives of Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro), the latter a career criminal whom the former is tracking down. In a similar way to how BBC’s The Fall (2013-2016) would later explore the dynamic between the hunter and the hunted, Heat sees Hanna and McCauley as cat and mouse. Yet, unlike The Fall or The Silence of the Lambs (1991) the law enforcement figure emerges as the less likeable, and so throws into question issues of morality and empathy. It is also a masterful heist movie that has not seen an equal until this year’s Widows (2018) which goes toe to toe with Heat in terms of character study, tension, and filmmaking prowess.
A History of Violence (2005)
I had seen clips of A History of Violence growing up (my dad is fond of showing me scenes from movies over and over again), so when I finally sat down to watch it, I felt like I sort of knew what to expect, but the film surpassed my expectations. Despite the violence, gore, and shootouts, the film remains grounded in believable, well-developed characters. They are complex and flawed, doubting each other and coming to terms with complex emotions. The film goes beyond the drama of the main character Tom (Viggo Mortensen) to include his family as well, and the richness they add creates a satisfying film.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Watching Fruitvale Station is like watching an era begin. I had already seen Creed (2015) and Black Panther (2018), so going back to director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s first film together felt like coming full circle. The film begins with footage of Oscar Grant, who was a real person, being beaten by policemen on a subway platform and then shot. The film begins with this premise and then goes backwards to build a picture of Grant’s life (played by Jordan). Watching the film, it is easy to notice the trust between Jordan and Coogler (or at least, it is now. Hindsight is always 20/20). Jordan appears relaxed around the camera, and he moves throughout the scenes with ease. Coogler builds a narrative around Grant and the importance of his life, and Jordan performs beautifully, exhibiting all the flaws and grace of an actual human being, not as if Grant were merely a character.
Wings of Desire [Himmel über Berlin] (1987)
If you’ve followed my reviews for very long, you probably know how much I like German cinema. Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, one of the absolute classics, has been one of those films I’ve pretended to know about for a couple years, but only recently gotten around to watching. Bruno Ganz, famous now for Downfall (2004) and The Reader (2008), stars as a guardian angel in Soviet-era Berlin. Wings of Desire is touching and personal, but also removed from our world. At first it seems to be a Christian film in its message of divine incarnation, but it is also an inverted rethinking of Greek mythology, especially of Icarus. Here, it is not the humans who desire to be angelic, and there is danger in drawing too close to the earth and its passions.
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
My single favourite film era/genre/movement (or whatever you want to call it) is the Nouvelle Vague [French New Wave]. And while I can rattle off lists of Truffaut and Godard films I’ve seen, my knowledge of Varda, Resnais, and Rohmer has been limited to a couple films. Thankfully, this now includes Alain Resnais’s frustratingly incomprehensible Last Year at Marienbad, a film that seems to either be a dream or a dream-within-a-dream, in which the characters insist that they are not dreaming. Flashbacks, voiceovers, and unnamed characters add to the confusion, but this is the film’s strength, not its weakness. Even in 2018, when the nonlinear, paradoxical worlds of Christopher Nolan and Tarantino are household phenomena, Resnais’s Marienbad still manages to defy all expectations. If you’re looking for Aristotle’s unities of action, place, and time, this is the wrong place to find them.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
This is another film I probably should have seen several years ago but somehow never got around to. John Keating (Robin Williams) takes on the role of an English teacher at a traditional New England boys’ boarding school. For me, Dead Poets Society was highly reminiscent of another of Robin Williams’s performances, Good Will Hunting (1997), in its inspiring look at learning. Williams is the soft-spoken, passionate teacher here, one who brings light and life to the classroom but is also flawed and personal. He is not a genius, but a person, and that is what allows him to understand the poetry he reads. I was reminded of one of my English teachers, one who bears little resemblance to Williams but inspires one to read for the sake of reading and love. For me, Good Will Hunting was actually a stronger film; Dead Poets Society felt dated and it was just a little too hard to believe that so many rich teenage boys would simply abandon years of sports and emotionlessness in such a short time span. At the same time, the film speaks to something real in all of us: it only takes one person’s caring and love (and I do truly believe that Keating loves his students as much as he loves Whitman and Keats) to change a life.
Directors We Discovered This Year
In the case of Bo Burnham, my discovering of him as a director coincides with everyone else discovering him as a director, this being because Eighth Grade (2018) is his directorial debut. Primarily a stand-up comic and sometime a writer, Burnham seemed an unlikely candidate to deliver a poignant and hilarious meditation on the fraught transitional period between middle school and high school, but that is just what he did. Featuring a (hopefully) star-making turn from Elsie Fisher as the embattled-eighth-grader Kayla Day, Eighth Grade is that rare movie that perfectly captures a common experience in a way that feels immediately timeless; much of the plot may be rooted in issues of social media and cyber-bullying but in a way that makes it hard for someone, such as me, who grew up prior to their rise to relate to the underlying emotions. Burnham shoots and stages his story with a creativity and tenderness that lets his performers own the space, and while it features some truly impressive shots, the cinematography is never so flashy that we lose sight of the characters. I cannot wait for his follow-up.
Morgan Neville is having a great year. The director of the documentary smash hit Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), he also has the much anticipated Orson Welles documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018) coming down the pipeline. I first heard Neville’s name when many people did, when his documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) about backup singers won the Academy Award. I never got around to watching it, but after seeing and loving Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I wanted to see what else of Neville’s was around and available. 20 Feet is an incredible documentary, distinct from the way Neville told Fred Roger’s story in Neighbor, but with the same knack for combining archival footage and interviews in a way that invites the viewer into the story without feeling like a history lesson. Over his career, he has turned his lens onto subjects as varied as Johnny Cash and Keith Richards to Gore Vidal and Sidney Poitier. Discovering his filmography has been a wonderful experience. No matter the subject, he latches onto the quirks and features of people in a way that makes them relatable and engaging without being overly pious. Neighbor may just help set him on a path to join Ken Burns as that rare breed of documentarian who achieves the status of household name.
A lot of my new film discoveries come from classes I take. This fall, I was in a course in which we watched every Tarkovsky film, from the short The Killers (1956) to his final film, The Sacrifice (1986). Tarkovsky is a bit daunting at first, since many of his films are well over two hours and feature long takes, silence, and sepia…lots of sepia. Generally, during the films, I found myself a bit distracted until the last few minutes, then blown away by the final sequence, or often even the very last shot. Tarkovsky’s films have a way of growing on you, and they take a few days to process. Eventually, all you remember are the tropes: beautifully saturated landscapes, apocalyptic waterworks, and slow Bach pieces while people look out the window. A few of my favourites include Ivan’s Childhood (1962), one of his most accessible films about a young boy in World War II; Andrei Rublev (1966), the longest but possibly most rewarding film I’ve seen (be prepared for a thirty-minute sequence about bell-making); and the Sci-Fi thriller Stalker (1979), one of the most visually stunning, genre-defying films I’ve had the pleasure to witness.
Every once in a while, I’ll be looking through a list of films or an IMDb page and realise that I somehow managed to completely avoid films by a certain director or actor entirely. This year, that happened with Woody Allen, but I quickly remedied the problem by watching a few of his films over the year. These were pretty hit-or-miss: Annie Hall (1977) was the most interesting, as its investigation of the naiveté of a young New York couple felt genuine. Midnight in Paris (2011) was cute but predictable, and as ingenuine as I found the protagonists, I couldn’t help but smile as they strolled through the streets of the Rive Gauche, trading inside jokes about Scott Fitzgerald and Dali. Shadows and Fog (1991) didn’t do much for me: it was an interesting idea with a poor presentation. The Woody Allen paradox is that you always know exactly what you’re going to get, but you don’t quite know if it will be good or not.
(Read Nathan’s full review of Shadows and Fog here.)
Shows We’ve Been Watching This Year
House of Cards [U.K.] (1990-1995)
After the disappointing final few seasons of the Netflix adaptation, I decided it was time to turn to the original BBC program. Doled out in three parts, each consisting of 4-5 episodes, House of Cards (1990), To Play the King (1993), and The Final Cut (1995) offer a more coherent and satisfying narrative that is supported by the late Sir Ian Richardson’s magnetic performance as the devilish and scheming Chief Whip Francis Urquhart. It has its fair share of issues, just as the Netflix version did, and has no performance other than Richardson’s that is nearly as compelling as the work Robin Wright did stateside, but it is frightfully fun. Plus, with the way that Margaret Thatcher works as a motivating factor, I wonder what an updated version that places the narrative in the world of Brexit negotiations might look like….
Sharp Objects (2018)
The novel Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn is one of my favorite pieces of written work. It is a gothic neo-noir that features some of the sharpest writing I’ve ever encountered, a staple of Flynn’s books which all blend aspects of the literary thriller and psychological study. Brought to the screen as an HBO limited series, the adaptation, in my eyes at least, equals the book as a disturbingly compelling piece of storytelling. Both focus on Camille Preaker, played flawlessly by Amy Adams, a journalist who returns to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of two little girls. Yet, the real darkness comes in Camille returning to her childhood home, a Victorian monstrosity that is the realm of her wealthy farm-baron mother, Adora, played to blood-chilling perfection by Patricia Clarkson. It is a difficult season of television to watch, but it is easily one of the best things I saw this year, be that movie or series.
Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
By virtue of writing my undergraduate thesis on Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), I have re-watched the series three times over the course of the last few months. I was blown away during my first viewing when it originally aired on Showtime, and more than a little perplexed and frustrated by its complexity and opacity. Yet, as I thought about, wrote about, and re-visited the 18 episodes, I discovered so much more than I had noticed the first time. It is the definition of a show that must be re-watched to be understood, one of the many reasons that compelled Sight and Sound magazine to list it as the second best movie of the year in 2017, seeing it more along the lines of the classical definition of film. No matter how you choose to categorize or consider it, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s continuation of a story they introduced over a quarter-century ago is a triumph of storytelling. I see it as a testament to the artisanship that, even after all this time studying how it critiques American masculinity, I feel I have only analyzed a sliver of what it has to offer.
The Office (2005-2013)
I don’t tend to watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I’m one of those people who just re-watches The Office over and over and over and over. It’s still hilarious the 27th time. 😉
The Crown (2016-)
I started 2018 off by watching The Crown with my family. I’ve been impressed with Netflix’s shows recently, as it seems that they’re successfully merging the feature-film’s encapsulated format with the creative possibilities a longer series can offer. In my opinion, one of The Crown’s many successes was bringing the historical drama to a wider audience. Claire Foy’s portrayal of young Queen Elizabeth II is a nuanced and fresh glimpse into the life of a ruler many of us know only as the appearingly four-foot-tall ancient monarch, but the the show’s driving force seems to shift around from the haughty and naughty Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) to John Lithgow’s overbearing Winston Churchill to the father-son tensions of Philip (Matt Smith) and Charles (Billy Jenkins).
It’s rare for me to binge-watch serious TV; I tend to prefer my shows light and funny and my films dark and mysterious. After the release of Narcos: Mexico (2018-), I read a few reviews and decided to give it a shot, mainly due to Diego Luna, whose performances in Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Rogue One (2016) stood out as particularly memorable. Although Netflix marketed Narcos: Mexico as a standalone series––i.e., you don’t have to have seen Narcos to understand what’s going on in the newest season (which is true)––I decided to go back to the original seasons, and I’m glad I did. Although the show runs out of steam a bit in season two, when the plot and cinematography start to repeat in every episode, it still kept me on the edge of my seat. I’ll be starting Narcos: Mexico sometime this week.
Sub-Categories We’ve Gotten Into This Year
My viewing habits in the past year have been rather dominated by the classes that I’ve been in. This isn’t new, but I have found it was more pronounced in 2018 than in past years. One result is that I have watched a lot more horror than in past years. I wrote last month about my well-documented love of the horror genre, but it was last spring while taking a class called “Gothic and Horror” that I went all-in on watching all the horror I could get my hands on. This led nicely into preparing for my undergraduate thesis on Twin Peaks: The Return which saw me thinking a lot about the same aspects of 20th century American culture that “Gothic and Horror” considered. My thesis also compelled me to watch a lot more television than in past years, a trend that I see continuing. I have always been more of a movie-focused film and media major, but I hope to achieve a better balance between movies and television series. Finally, after loving documentaries like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) and Three Identical Strangers (2018) I’ve made it a goal to fill in my admittedly lacking knowledge of the documentary genre.
This year, I tried to watch more films that were recently released rather than older films (two summers ago I watched almost exclusively Scorsese films). This practice didn’t necessarily lead me to a particular genre but to a wide variety of films, from Black Panther (2018) and Hereditary (2018) to Love, Simon (2018) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018). I’m hoping this will better prepare me as awards season rolls around… Also, like Devin, I watched a couple of documentaries, RBG (2018) and Three Identical Strangers (2018), that were still in keeping with my theme of newer films.
(Read Jane’s review of Hereditary here.)
Like Devin, my film-watching trends often follow my film classes. Like I said above, this means that I watched nearly every Kubrick and Tarkovsky film, but I also noticed a few other specific trends. Throughout the year, I spent some time in the Noir and Neo-Noir genres, rewatching some of my favourites like Godard’s (late) Noir, Breathless (1960), and Polanski’s Neo-Noir classic, Chinatown (1974). From classes and thesis, I also came across Welles’s The Stranger (1946) and The Trial (1962); Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Killer’s Kiss (1955); Tarkovsky’s The Killers (1956); and Woody Allen’s less-than-satisfactory, vaguely-Neo-Noir Shadows and Fog (1991). Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) also made it onto my list of films to be rewatched.
Films We Watched Because of Someone Else’s Reviews
One of the great bonuses of writing for Portland Film Review is that I feel connected to movies even when I have not had a chance to watch them yet. With so many new releases every year, and countless movies already circulating, it can feel a tad overwhelming to try and stay up to date on trends and important releases. Reading and editing Nathan and Jane’s reviews acts as a primer of sorts for giving some logic to my seemingly-never-ending watchlist. As a part of my previously-mentioned pivot towards watching more documentaries, Jane’s review of Free Solo (2018) convinced me to bump it up the list. I wasn’t disappointed. A similar thing happened after reading Nathan’s review of Coco (2017). It was on my list among the many other movies and shows people have recommended I watch, but reading more about it inspired me to sit down and watch it with my family. I was also on the fence about watching Loving Vincent (2017) before reading Jane’s review. I knew I wanted to see it, if for nothing else than the paint-on-glass technique of animating that it pioneered, but thought it would go on the list of ‘some-day’ titles. Jane’s review was by no means a glowing compliment for the movie, but did enough to make me think I should see the technique sooner rather than later. I don’t regret any of the choices, and I look forward to all the future reviews I can use to give a little more structures to the chaos that is my watchlist.
Oftentimes, no matter what other reviews say, I will wait to see what Devin or Nathan think of a film to determine I should watch it. While we don’t always agree (*cough* Baby Driver  *cough*), they know what I like, and I trust their judgement. I have watched many films after reading their reviews, but some of the more recently-released films include Coco (2017), The Florida Project (2017), and Wind River (2017), all of which I enjoyed. A good review from one of them will encourage me to watch a film sooner than I otherwise would have and helps me streamline my film watching process.
I’ll have to confess that I’m often very hesitant about watching new releases, frequently choosing to watch a classic rather than a newer possible gem. Simply put, with new films coming out every other day, there’s far too much out there to watch or choose from. Thus, I get most of my newer film suggestions from Devin and Jane and decide to watch these based on their reviews–usually about a year late. This year, most of the “new” films I watched were because of one of their reviews, and I’m very glad that I did. I probably never would have seen The Florida Project (2017) but for Devin’s review, nor The Phantom Thread (2017) if Jane hadn’t praised it. But the one that steals the spotlight for me is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). I’ve rarely had such an emotional response to a film before, and Devin’s review perfectly sums up my reaction to the mix of fury and grief that is the core of Three Billboards. If you haven’t seen it: what are you waiting for?