Film & TV

The 14th Annual Better-Than List

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick (Claire Folger)
The art and politics of 2018 movies

It was the most politicized movie year since World War II. Hollywood confused propaganda with entertainment, and filmgoers were offered little choice between indoctrination and discovery.

The only great films were the re-releases of Visconti’s 1973 Ludwig and Cocteau’s 1949 Les Parents Terribles, beacons from a more stable past. The Visconti was visually lavish and psychologically penetrating, an empathic look at the Bavarian King whose personal aspirations contrasted the political dictates of his social position — a surprisingly timely epic about private ethics. The Cocteau, an ingenious domestic farce, traced the young generation’s foundering to the selfish folly of its immediate forebears — a surprisingly timely, intimate epic about the two-way moral responsibility of family and society that’s been lost. No way Netflix or Amazon will ever finance comparable achievements. As long as movie history survives, cinema is not yet extinct.

So that leaves this year’s Better-Than List to highlight our moral and political gains and losses by juxtaposing some of 2018’s few good films with ballyhooed atrocities that betray what Visconti and Cocteau knew audiences desperately needed from the art and pleasure of the movies.

Mom and Dad > Ready Player One / Isle of Dogs / The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Brian Taylor’s uncanny update of Les Parents Terribles is an audacious domestic comedy that advances from its source in cult-movie idiosyncrasy to outpace the tired mainstream exertions of Spielberg. Anderson and the Coen Brothers, formerly great artists, now at their most confused, manic, and depressed (respectively). Fun vs. exhaustion. Insight vs. capitulation. Exhilaration vs. sullen nihilism.

Vox Lux > A Star Is Born

Director Brady Corbet and star Natalie Portman present the personal horror within millennial pop spectacle, investigating spiritual trauma — Ludwig for the millennium. while Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga root for idiotic celebrity worship in a cliché-ridden, big-screen version of The Voice for losers without a voice.

Ray Meets Helen > If Beale Street Could Talk

Alan Rudolph’s seasoned love story, starring Keith Carradine and Sondra Locke, evaded social justice warrior clichés such as Barry Jenkins pilfered from James Baldwin. Humanism vs. Baldwinetics. Spiritual authenticity vs. cornball racial sentiments.

Loveless > Crazy Rich Asians

Two family tragedies — one moral, one monetary. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s divorce drama has spiritual depth and national reflection, while race-hustler Jon Chu celebrates bling, unearned class privilege, and global insensitivity. The year’s most heartfelt film vs. the year’s very worst.

The Mule > Green Book

Clint Eastwood’s comedy of ethnic and ethical crisis expands Americanism to all — a rich, humane vision unlike the dated civil rights era clichés of Bobby Farrelly’s salt-n-pepper brotherhood life lesson.

Uncle Drew > Black Panther

Charles Stone III continues his genuine feeling for American culture (black basketball stars as social ideals), while Ryan Coogler uses childish fantasy and buppie cynicism to exploit Black Lives Matter susceptibility. Patronizing race defines Hollywood’s post-Obama mode.

Double Lover> Mary Poppins Returns

Francois Ozon’s doppelganger love story compares and contrasts Marine Vacth and Jeremie Regnier’s psychosexual histories against their perplexed adulthood. Disney and Rob Marshall pervert pubescent fantasy into stale nostalgia and Broadway-Hollywood liberal propaganda, featuring inadequate singers and dancers. 

Chappaquiddick > Vice / On the Basis of Sex

Director John Curran (casting actor Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy) replaces cynical smartness with ethical sympathy — a political movie advance over trite partisanship as in Adam McKay’s irredeemably ugly attack on Dick Cheney and Mimi Leder’s simple-minded partisan cheerleading of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

How to Talk to Girls at Parties > Eighth Grade / Mid-90s

John Cameron Mitchell hits on the essential communicative needs of adolescents that Marvel trivializes, whereas Bo Burnham and Jonah Hill patronize youth — they’re as distant from the ethics of Punk and Comics as Parkland puppet David Hogg. (As Mitchell’s Boadicea, Nicole Kidman wins MVP for drop-kicking the anti-progressive line “I’ve had twelve abortions and nothing to show for it!”)

The 15:17 to Paris > A Quiet Place

Eastwood looks beyond genre-movie form to innovate and salute post-9/11 citizen-heroes and American exceptionalism. John Kransinski’s dumb horror movie and political allegory pays tribute to American banality — for morons.

The House That Jack Built > First Reformed / BlacKkKlansman

Lars Von Trier turns “dark, wicked” serial killer clichés inside out in the year’s most surprisingly moral satire. Craven Calvinist manqué Schrader and race-hustler Lee mix genres and accept nihilism.

Museo > Roma

Alonso Ruizpalacios explores Mexican nationalism and finds its cultural heart, while Alfonso Cuaron petitions white liberal condescension, remaking The Help as a Latin American turdscape.

The Misandrists > The Favourite / Suspiria

Bruce LaBruce parodies the gender confusion of post-Hillary feminism and its threat. Yorgos, Lanthimos, and Luca Guadagnino settle for ugly chaos as a Millennial’s ideal politics.

Bodied > Sorry to Bother You / BlacKkKlansman

Nonstop savvy saves Joseph Kahn’s neo-hip-hop race satire. Its audacity far outpaces Boots Riley’s wokemare and the unfunny griping of Spike Lee’s ahistorical screed which uses racism to excite anti-Trumpers.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc > First Reformed

Bruno Dumont updates Christian faith in modern pop music terms; Paul Schrader continues to backslide in his political parable for agnostics who don’t know Ecclesiastes 1:17

At Eternity’s Gate > Bohemian Rhapsody

Willem Dafoe’s actorly visage focuses Julian Schnabel’s emanation of Vincent van Gogh’s sensibility; the sexphobic bio-pic of Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury relies on the band’s beloved catalogue to please uncritical fans. Music video colorist Hype Williams might have equaled Schnabel’s aesthetic empathy.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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