The Dissenter’s Top Films Of 2018
Once again, here are some films from the past year that made an impression and/or pushed boundaries. Some may carry social importance. Some may be purely entertaining.
I have compiled an annual list since I started publishing “The Dissenter” column in 2011. As with previous lists, these films from 2018 are not ranked in any order.
Collin (Daveed Diggs) is a black convicted felon in his final days of probation. Miles (Rafael Casal) is a white childhood friend who is a constant source of trouble, partly because of how he emulates black culture to survive. The two characters drive a truck for a moving company. When Collin witnesses a police officer, who shoots and kills a black man, it affects him but his priority is getting through the next few days so he can be free again.
Diggs and Casal, who star in the film, spent ten years developing the story for “Blindspotting.” They created a simple buddy comedy in the complex ever-gentrifying world of Oakland, California. Casal called it a “comedy in a world that won’t let it be one,” and they smoothly use moments of comedy to lower viewers’ defenses so they are forced to contemplate an unjust system.
Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is in her last week of eighth grade before high school. She attempts to express her feelings about life at school in YouTube videos, yet around fellow students, she is very rarely comfortable in her own body. Her peers are mean, making her anxiety over fitting in even worse. Her father (Josh Hamilton) is a nuisance simply for being present, clueless about what to do.
Director Bo Burnham, a stand-up comedian, succeeds in showing how the ubiquitous nature of social media amplifies the pressures of growing up and school. The dialogue between Kayla and her father is natural but consistently awkward, leading to funny moments and bittersweet truths. It is painful for its realistic depiction of what technology can do to youth, who prior to the rise of social media were already hard-wired to behave in this manner but rewarding to see Kayla’s evolution.
Filmmaker Michael Moore returns to Michigan, where he first produced his award-winning documentary “Roger & Me,” and creates a stirring indictment of the United States and its political system with rampant injustice in Flint as a focal point. He opens the film with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and connects the rise of Trump to the rise of politicians like Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a former CEO who forced Flint residents to drink poison water and exposed nearly all of the children to lead and other toxins that stunted their development.
It puts responsibility on all who deserve to be blamed for the country’s present nightmare. He also highlights resistance led by teachers unions, Parkland students, and candidates inspired by hope for a people’s agenda. Altogether, Moore paints a portrait of a country ruled by Republicans and a Trump administration, which pose dangerous threats, and a craven liberal and Democratic establishment that hesitates to confront this nightmare. It dispels any illusions one may have about who is on the side of the people.
Leave No Trace
Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), Will’s thirteen year-old daughter, live what they consider to be an ideal existence outside the urban center of Portland, Oregon. They are off the grid and in the forests. However, when they are discovered by authorities, Will and Tom are briefly separated. Social services scrutinizes their way of life and then attempts to force them to exist how most humans do.
Director Debra Granik’s film excels because she is less concerned with dwelling on a bureaucratic system insensitive to Will and Tom. They never lose their agency. In fact, they are even more captivating as characters as they figure out what is best for them on their own without the intrusion of state services.
The Night Comes On
When Angel LaMere (Dominique Fishback) turns 18, she is released from a juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania. Her father was charged with murdering her mother. She has a 10 year-old sister, Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), who is in foster care. She seeks revenge against her father for what he has done, but she has to find him first.
Jordana Spiro’s directorial debut flows smoothly, held together by the aesthetic poetry of how Angel seeks solace in her mother’s comparison of the night and the beach to survive. It revolves around a young black lesbian character, who most of society would view as disposable. Angel internalizes all the ways society sees no self-worth in her as she seeks to claim control over her life by confronting her father. Yet, Angel matters to her sister, Abby, and Angel can either deny it or recognize that she does not have to let the past define her.
Aneesh Chaganty’s film is a basic story about a widowed father (John Cho) whose daughter, Margot, goes missing. As he goes through his wife’s computer and then his daughter’s computer, he slowly realizes how little he knows about Margot’s 16 year-old life.
What makes it memorable is the way in which the story is told entirely through computer screens, phone and laptop cameras, news clips, and surveillance cameras. It creates some distance between viewers and the characters, however, it also invites viewers to discover where Margot went as her father clicks and uncovers clues. Then, when the search for Margot becomes public, the way in which social media can make tragedies even harder for family members pulls into focus.
In Japan, Shota Shibata and Nobuyo Shibata are working poor, who can barely survive. They turn to shoplifting and other schemes to keep food on the table. One night, the couple takes in a girl who is abused by her parents. They don’t want her. But soon it is in the news that the girl went missing, and the couple must decide whether to return her to her parents.
Director Hirokazu Koreeda does a magnificent job of methodically revealing the different aspects of the lives of this family until it is clear they may not be what they seem. The crimes of survival and attachment the couple develops for a child, who is not their own, only makes them seem more big-hearted. The stark despair created by capitalism gives the story layers of ambiguity that make the film an emotionally rich experience.
Sorry To Bother You
This is fearless, inventive, and offbeat independent filmmaking. The characters in Boots Riley’s debut film routinely speak about how to rebel and bring systems that oppress them to a halt. The main character, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield), is unemployed and needs a job. He is hired to be a telemarketer. There he learns what it takes to rise to the top, but he must decide how much he is willing to sell out to be rich and well-respected.
The film satirizes many ugly aspects of late-stage American capitalism while at the same time giving each main character space to express themselves and grapple with their role in exploitation. It finds the humor in struggles for dignity and human rights while championing resistance. We need more films like “Sorry To Bother You.”
Adam McKay’s ensemble film about Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise to power represents another valiant effort by McKay to help audiences understand something dry and complex. It worked marvelously well with “The Big Short,” which was about what led to the 2008 financial collapse. Here McKay turned to something called unitary executive theory to educate Americans about how Cheney was able to amass great power and abuse it to such a devastating extent.
It may be a bit uneven in the first parts of the film, but once the setup is completed, the payoff comes in the series of scenes showing how Cheney responded to the 9/11 attacks. In a world where the Iraq War is rarely treated as one of the most massive atrocities and acts of evil ever committed, the dark comedic treatment of Cheney righteously undercuts all the casual indifference or support among elites for what the U.S. government did.
You Were Never Really Here
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) survived an abusive childhood, joined the U.S. military, became a killing machine, and brought the war in Afghanistan back home with him. He manages his post-traumatic stress disorder by killing more people—particularly predators who hurt little girls. Yet, no matter what he does, it can never heal his wounds.
Creed II • A Quiet Place • Roma • Sollers Point • Widows
Films I Wish I Had Seen Before the Year Ended:
Amazing Grace • If Beale Street Could Talk • Zama