Juliette Binoche in 'Let the Sunshine In' (2018) | Curiosa Films
Curiosa Films

“Cat Person” went viral in December 2017. That’s the augury under which the year began: a reassessment of form, popular contagion, and our collective sense of what constitutes, or is silenced by, a bad date. In 2018 we knew “men are trash,” yet your Facebook could still be suspended for lamenting this publicly. We knew plastic straws were unforgivably trash. We knew every practice’s place in the matrix of labor: caretaking, adjuncting, freelancing, socializing; even hotly debating what counts as “self-care” was a volunteer job without credit or compensation. We knew cycles of demands and critiques; momentum and setbacks; call-outs, cancellations, reboots. We knew a sublime expansion of inclusivity, alternatively terrifying or exhilarating depending on where you chose to stand. We knew the function and limitations of equality and representation. We knew we were tired but not what we were worth.

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In 2018, I co-taught a global cinema survey, 1898-1960. I took the bus to New York to watch Isabelle Adjani “fuck the air” in dappled 35mm. I carried a 13-inch tube TV to my dissertation defense when the only affordable copy of The Entity I could find was VHS. I moved, from a city whose independent cinema infrastructure is tragically evaporating, to one where you can still buy an art house membership, and in the months before and between semesters I saw a lot of movies by myself. Alone, I found I had a lot of time for performances that verged on maudlin, and often felt moved by unexpected sources, though perhaps more surprising is the notion that one could forecast the conditions of being moved. In December, for his birthday, my best friend and I got tattoos. The fine script invitation above our left elbows doubles as a rejoinder to caution and a cipher for the planet’s apocalyptic mood: let’s die.

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Was it a good year for movies? Was it a good year? Are the conditions of life changing? Are they changing in time? Every year becomes, at our convenience, a bad date: something that ends, finite and disposable. According to this notion, continuity can be threatening. Things appear to stand a greater chance at being different if they’re new. Much of what I saw in 2018 reflected a related range of anxieties—about difference, catastrophe, isolation, belonging. Maybe that’s every year. Likely it’s too soon to tell. But among the things I saw, in a year of personal and political upheaval and ambivalence, these are the moments that solicited my attention most memorably.

Honorable mentions: Viola Davis’ unanswered Stella Dallas-y close up in the final frame of Widows. The two times Dakota Johnson prepares to dance in Suspiria by taking her shoes off and tossing them, one at a time, to the wall. The gory opening gambit of Cam. The little girl in Skate Kitchen twisting around to watch a tide of women float by.

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Trapped in the closet

Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018)—Record-breaking earnings aside, the defining accomplishment of Green’s Halloween is managing to indiscriminately ape the mechanics of John Carpenter’s original while remaining oblivious to what makes its vision meaningful today. What follows is a potpourri of citation (the startle of Michael Myers grabbing a boy, the composite vulnerable babysitter, a line of laundry rippling in the wind) alongside absurdly underdeveloped signals of the “now” (see: overdressed British podcasters, whose practice of extemporaneous narration without regard for microphone placement comes from a future we’ve yet to inhabit). When Laurie Strode’s plucky granddaughter Allyson shows up at her school dance as the suspendered Clyde to her boyfriend’s Bonnie, and when Laurie, not Michael, falls from a balcony only to disappear in a subsequent shot, we’re meant to be hip to the film’s knowing feminist angle. Slashers: not just for female degradation anymore! Except subversion requires more than switching costumes, and 1978’s Halloween got that; it was already about believing women and children—about the obliviousness of fathers and cops, and the way conditions of vulnerability produce punishing visions of a world exactly as scary as it is.

There is one moment when the film does something more evocative with its source material. At the top of the final act, Laurie searches the second floor of her booby-trapped house. Rifle-first, she backs down halls, peers past corners, and scans each empty room, tripping automated gates to close off what’s been cleared. The entire space is wood-clad, and together the blinds, doors, and paneled walls comprise an insane proliferation of the slatted bedroom closet in which a teenaged Laurie hid from and blinded Myers. More than Laurie’s drinking or bleary paranoia, it’s here that Halloween best envisions trauma, dispersing the claustrophobic scene of hide-and-seek to literalize a life lived in fear.

Isabelle’s boots

Let the Sunshine In [Un beau soleil intérieur] (Claire Denis, 2017)—Adapted from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Let the Sunshine In is an aptly fragmentary study of dating as a two-stop ferry between hope and disappointment. Juliette Binoche is irresistible as reluctant passenger Isabelle, but irresistibility—like career accomplishment, or good judgment, or instructive life experience—gives little protection from romantic temptation, which is to say, romantic disenchantment. Thigh high patent boots haven’t looked so natural since Julia Roberts’ prostitute cosplay in Pretty Woman. Ticking promisingly across the floor or sticking awkwardly to the skin, they’re emblematic of the double-edged aspiration that keeps Isabelle trying at love, even as relations swerve from promising to doomed within the span of one virtuosic bathroom sink confession.

Laughing at men

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018)—I reserve a healthy grain of skepticism for immersion as the superlative condition of spectatorship, but watching Mandy in the theater was as pleasingly transporting as being pitched backward in a planetarium. Yet, like any good horror movie, under its syrupy slow motion and dueling chainsaws, Mandy explores everyday monstrosities—namely the violence of male entitlement, via rangy cult leader Jeremiah Sand and his septic followers. 2018 got considerable mileage out of the Margaret Atwood-credited aphorism that men are afraid women will laugh at them, while women are afraid men will kill them. The quote typically functions as a not-hyperbolic heuristic for the discrepancy between gendered sources of threat. But as Mandy’s titular heroine, Andrea Riseborough embodies a fully weaponized form of female laughter. When Sand strips to the tune of his own failed folk record, not even otherworldly tranquilizers can suppress her explosive ridicule. You don’t need to have been kidnapped by Satanists to know the experience of cautiously, even fearfully, feigning interest; Mandy’s defiance is scary, excessive, emancipatory, and a high point in the film’s sustained study of laughter detached from amusement.

“Daddy’s going to die!”

Killing Eve (“Don’t I Know You?,” dir. Jon East, 2018)—Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2016 series Fleabag takes shape around the destructive nature of its protagonist, contemplating whether this quality makes Flea not only a bad feminist, but a bad woman: the villain of her own life. Killing Eve also pens a love letter to the bad woman, a figure multiplied through stalled MI5 officer Eve Polastri, her boss Carolyn, and assassin Villanelle, who sums up the trick to being bad to her handler’s kidnapped daughter: “It’s easier if you practice.” We meet Villanelle in Vienna imitating an ice cream slinger’s friendly smile. On a treadmill in Paris, she parrots a peal of laughter from the radio. Contrary to these empty, tactical simulations of warmth is one key moment of expressivity—it’s episode three, and Eve and colleague Bill have tracked Villanelle to Berlin. While Eve attempts to squeeze information from a source (whose googly-eyed reaction to her restaurant entrance—“You look crazy”—deserves its own commendation), Bill follows Villanelle underground and eventually into a strobing club, where she teases him deep into the crush of dancers before slowly turning back. Pitched straight into the camera, her serene, slow smile says two things: I don’t care if you know what’s coming, and, look how happy this makes me.

Cake

The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018)—There’s so much to admire in Lanthimos’ interpretation of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script, in part because there’s simply so much: exploding pomegranates, candles candles candles, falsely chastened expressions, pulsing cleavage, the honeycomb patterns that migrate from the ceiling moulding to the lace tied around Emma Stone’s throat, the final frame’s kaleidoscopic implication that everything, from one’s wedding night to financial security, is, or requires, a “job.” Things are fun until they aren’t, in the movie and in the movie’s terms, and nowhere is this more succinctly (/hilariously/abjectly) expressed than in Anne alternately eating layer cake by hand like a slice of pizza and puking it up, with Wedgewood icing leaving blue spatter hanging in her hair.

Reverend Toller’s sunrise

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)— The first thing I did after streaming First Reformed was Google “first reformed ending” and devour Kevin Lincoln’s terrific reading of the film through its competing influences: Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, which models what Schrader describes to Lincoln as a “burst of carnality through this austere surface.” I responded to First Reformed because I like austere surfaces, deceptive symmetries, and Ethan Hawke’s face. I’ve believed Hawke in basically everything since Gattaca, that queer First Man where he doesn’t save anything for the swim back. There, too, Hawke’s performance under surveillance requires a sublimation of his usual twitchiness; flat surface, churning depth. Lincoln links First Reformed’s ending to the film’s trippy levitation on the basis of shared mystery, but the movie likewise catalogs quieter moments of transcendence: smaller, or more subtle, like Pepto-Bismol flowering in a full glass of whiskey or the sunrise before a funeral service, where we watch the sky shift from deep Turrellian blue to Lisa Frank purple. Treating these images as events, First Reformed invites us to be attentive to all the ways eruption can look, so narrative inevitability does nothing to subtend our eventual surprise.

“But this time forever.”

Cold War [Zimna wojna] (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2018)—As stormy singer Zula, Joanna Kulig plays an enterprising young woman, a celebrated musician, a spiteful drunk, a mother—but as much as Cold War depicts a time-traveling romance, its potency resides not in what changes, but in what remains the same: the painful misalignment of feelings and circumstances. Like a Communist-era “sometimes love just ain’t enough,” Cold War depicts exile as Zula and Wiktor’s search for a space amenable to their magnetization, from cramped dressing rooms to a defenseless open field, a smoky bar to a detainment cell, all the while stockpiling moments when things may have changed: if Zula had fled Berlin with Wiktor, if he hadn’t followed her back to Poland, and so on. After Zula exchanges the incarceration of marriage to apparatchik Kaczmarek for Wiktor’s freedom, she summons her lover to the bathroom and sinks to the floor, damp wig in her lap, a sequined strap loose around her shoulder. “Take me away from here,” she says, and then the crucial refinement: “But this time forever.” Cold War’s ending may feel bleak, but there’s mercy in imagining a forever that lasts longer than we do.

Ben’s metaphor

Burning [버닝] (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)—When Hae-mi asks her two boyfriends what a metaphor is, Ben smoothly passes to Jong-su: he’s the writer, ask him. Ironic given that Ben’s whole thing is being what a ‘90s detective thriller might call the Metaphor Killer, an inexplicably posh operator who says he sets fire to neglected greenhouses but means he’s in the habit of murdering women. We know what Ben’s about when Jong-su stumbles on the trophy drawer in his immaculate bathroom, so the mystery inheres instead to what Jong-su will do about it. Given that we see him typing away in Hae-mi’s vacant apartment before his final confrontation with Ben, is the film’s blazing conclusion just a scene in his story? It doesn’t matter. What does: the way Burning unspools in deliberate increments, making us look at a prism of light on a wall for as long as it takes to understand that that’s what’s happening. It maximizes every gesture for optimum suggestion, pulling cruelty from Ben’s conspiratorial eyebrow raise and stifled yawn, and wretchedness from Hae-mi’s rambling (excitement to tears to snoring) description of the sunset. Like an exquisite metaphor, Burning selects and understands its subjects so precisely that, once articulated, they can’t be imagined otherwise.

“Je suis désolé.”

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)—Watching the new M:I on a transatlantic flight, then watching it again on the return, I was struck by its weird, sad fixation on apologia: Ethan dreaming of ex-wife Julia in danger, anguished in the moments before they’re crushed by a dream typhoon. Ethan gently reassuring an injured cop in stilted, accentless French: Je suis désolé. Ethan holding Julia a moment too long at the medical camp—I’m sorry—and her eyes closing in reply. The repetition brings to mind an alternative homophonic meaning of “fallout,” as in [to] fall out with someone, to suffer a transformation of relation or intimacy whose correction likely requires, among other things, an apology. This is an Ethan Hunt whose prevailing condition and expression is regret; that’s what makes his physical vulnerability (his ankles extending to counterbalance the motorcycle through a jigsawed Paris, his hands on his knees as he struggles to breathe in the shattered bathroom; I could go on, but Fran has) feel operatic. People are quick to permit appreciation for a movie like this by conceding “it’s fun”—and it is!—but insofar as it lingers with the wish that things were different, Fallout is the movie of my year.