Best-of-year lists are made because they’re click bait and because they’re fun. Perhaps a little self-indulgent too. As if one critic’s favorite films are any more important than another. With a vast swath of content these days, I find it helpful in guiding and prioritizing my viewing. So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Since Wandering Reel focuses on the power of film to effect positive change in the world, instead of listing my favorite films of the year, I offer what I perceive to be the most important films of the year. For anyone who’s attended a Wandering Reel event, you’ll likely know that importance in our estimation is not limited to a factual documentary on climate change or political narrative about social injustice. Films can shed new light on important problems and events in the world, and they can also have lasting impact on how we perceive the world, our community and ourselves, how we view art and how we prioritize our cultural experiences.
Without further adieu, the most important (feature) films of 2018:
Spike Lee’s return to master filmmaking. I find all of Lee’s films interesting and important if not always particularly great. He’s at his best serving the cause of racial justice and BlacKkKlansman is a return to that form. He does it with sly, satirical humor and a few moments of pure cinematic genius worthy of dissection in any film school classroom.
More now than ever before, the theatrical movie-going experience really hinges on the success of blockbuster films, with the Marvel Universe as the screws of that hinge. After two decades of increasingly more comic books movies, fatigue for the genre has been stewing like a bad case of mono, if box office numbers not exactly dwindling. Here, director Ryan Coogler and his team have assembled something truly special. In world building within the confines of the vast Marvel Universe, they have created a world that has never been seen before, one that embraces African and African American culture, brings Afrofuturism into the mainstream, and gives something to communities of color that no major studio film has really done before via Wakanda. I think Oprah Winfrey put it best when she said, “[it] makes me tear up to think that little black children will grow up with ‘Wakanda forever.' It's game-changing, it's pride-making, it's dazzling, it's phenomenal.”
Crazy Rich Asians
This smart, funny film brings the Asian American experience into the mainstream spotlight showing how it is very different from the Asian experience. Long. Over. Due. And extremely well executed in a relatable and fun genre. Directed by Jon M. Chu.
Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is a view into adolescent struggles of 2018. I’ve always been a huge fan of the coming of age genre, particularly as it has portrayed teen life. I studied youth culture via film in college. But that was over 15 years ago. This film made me feel old and disconnected while connecting me to the youth culture from which I have slid so far in the 18 years or so since I was a teen. It’s accurate and brutally honest and crosses all generations while stamping out an insightful impression of what it’s like to be a 13-year-old-girl in the era of smart phones and social media and how important and dangerous those mediums are to youth today. But mostly, it’s just a universal horror film about the importance and dangers of being thirteen in any era.
Paul Schrader’s transcendental look at crumbling faith and the relationship between the Church and catastrophic climate change, anchored by Ethan Hawke’s career performance, will make you think and hopefully make you care. For me, its central question of why the Church (in a general sense, all religious leaders) hasn’t embraced the fight to save the planet alone makes this film worthy of this list. In a politically divided country, where so many people of faith have found themselves on the wrong side of the aisle when it comes to an issue so important to the future of humanity, we must broaden this discussion and push until the religious right crosses the aisle.
If Beale Street Could Talk
I Am Not Your Negro, the bold and invigorating biography of James Baldwin, was, in my estimation, the most important documentary of 2016. Only fitting that Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Baldwin’s novel would turn out to be one of the most important films of 2018. The colors, the light, the music—this film has such a beautiful, tender feeling to it. Perfect for its romantic core and in stark contrast to the larger elements at work; the hardships of being black in America. Aside from being yet another incredible portrait of the African American experience and a timely lens into racial injustice, it also touches on the problem of mass incarceration with a moving picture of how this issue devastates families.
Minding The Gap
At first glance, Minding the Gap appears to be a lesser version of Jonah Hill’s Mid90s dive inside 1990’s skate culture. But as the film proceeds it slowly peels back layer after layer to reveal a poignant, touching true story about friendship, family, poverty, and abuse. It’s a remarkable achievement and the fact that the filmmaker is also one of the main subjects of the film makes it all the more incredible. Bing Liu is able to use the filmmaking process as a therapeutic exercise for both himself and his childhood friends. Because of his care for the subjects of the film (despite and because of their flaws), the audience is taken along this very intimate and personal journey of discover and catharsis, and for some viewers, I imagine, will experience some catharsis of their own by seeing it.
Ralph Breaks The Internet
An animated film that addresses toxic masculinity and cyber bullying for the Internet age? Yes, please! I love kids films that offer important moral lessons, not only for children, but for the parents as well. The way the film uses Disney Princesses to poke holes in a dangerous stereotype the genre helped mythologize (that princesses must be saved by men) is just perfect. While it touches on these very current issues, its strongest message is that to love is to support your people to their full potential, even if that means letting them go. Directed by Phil Johnston and Rich Moore.
Not the most stylish documentary of the year. And more of a tribute to its subject that a deep dive into the complexities of Ruther Bader Ginsburg. But still a great reminder of the importance of the Court in this country and how just one brilliant and compassionate woman can help bend the arc of history towards justice. Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
It may seem funny pairing perhaps the best film of the year with one of its most mediocre. For all its accolades, I don’t want to talk about the content of Roma (even though it’s unfortunate so much conversation around this film is about how to see it, not why to see it) so much as the dueling success of these films as streaming movies, because I think they will mark a major turning point, for better or worse, in how we watch film. Bird Box was reportedly viewed by 45 million Netflix accounts in the first week alone. It’s difficult to calculate how that may compare to the opening week of a theatrical blockbuster such as Aquaman, but it appears that this film will be viewed by far more people than most theatrical films this year. Roma on the other hand has not had its streaming numbers shared by Netflix as of yet. The likelihood of a two and a half hour black and white art film entirely in Spanish receiving nearly as high numbers is very low to say the least. The film has generated perhaps the best reviews of the year and is poised to be the film to beat at the Academy Awards after garnering a huge number of critic’s awards thus far. The dueling success of these two very different movies will lure more and more filmmakers to Netflix and other streaming companies. You will see more and more simultaneous releases where the viewer can choose to have the theatrical experience or stay at home and stream the film in the comfort of their own home. As someone who regards the theatrical movie experience as essential, this is sad. As someone who wants a film like Roma to be seen by as many people as possible, this is inspiring. Roma is directed by Alfonso Cuaròn. Bird Box is directed by Susanne Bier.
Sorry To Bother You
Boots Riley’s directorial debut is the best, boldest political satire in years. With an African American star and director, you may think this is a film about race. And it is. And about so much more. Above all, I find that it is a film for all working people, a film about the struggles of the blue collar class against much larger corporate forces. It’s a film about the relationship between greed and humanity and how slavery has only taken on new shapes a century and a half after its supposed abolishment, a searing take down of the many injustices born from capitalism.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
A reminder that what the world really needs is more kindness and compassion. Who better an example of how we can all do better than Mr. Fred Rogers? Directed by Morgan Neville.
My biggest regret on this list is that it doesn’t recognize many women directors. Sadly, I still haven’t seen The Rider, Leave No Trace, Happy As Lazzaro and You Were Never Really Here. A few other films I didn’t consider because I haven’t seen them yet are (most eagerly): Monsters and Men, Burning, The Shoplifters, and Blindspotting.
Honorable mentions (perhaps because I don’t consider quite as important, but loved none-the-less): The Favourite (maybe my favourite film of the year), Annihilation, Game Night, Can You Ever Forgive Me, Mid90s, Hereditary, and Isle of Dogs.