The Best Documentary of 2018 Resisted Easy Messages and Found Beauty in the Everyday

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 4.

A hand covers a boy's face as water rains down.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Louverture Films.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Dear friendos and weirdos,

Dana, one of the reasons why the movie year feels so damn long is, of course, because there are so damn many movies nowadays. That’s one of the reasons I find it increasingly hard to come up with a year-end Top 10 list, or for that matter a Top 20, which has become my preferred number in recent years. I still haven’t published mine, but I’m sure I’ll do it soon, perhaps even over the course of our Movie Club exchange. Titles that are sure to be on there: The Rider; You Were Never Really Here; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?; The Green Fog; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; First Man; Where Is Kyra? … and on and on and on. Once upon a time, we were told it deeply devalued one’s critical brand to say stuff like this, but: There are a lot of good movies out there. There certainly were in 2018. And in 2017. And 2016. And I’ve seen enough films set for release in the coming months to assure myself that there will be in 2019 as well.

Will people see them? Who the hell knows? I saw them, and last I checked, I was still a person.

I’m always reminded of the arbitrariness of doing these things by year whenever older titles show up on my year-end lists. This year has a few more than usual, not least among them the incredible Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace, which was shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, who has since died; it was supposed to screen at two different points over the past seven years but was held up by Franklin herself. And now it’s finally premiered, and we get to discuss it as if it were a “2018 film.” (Even though a wider theatrical release, I’m told, might not happen until next year.)

Speaking of which: If 2018 did give us one trend, it was perhaps the spectacle of all these unfinished and/or lost dream projects finally reaching some sort of fruition. As Amy mentioned, there’s Shirkers, which is somehow enthralling and tragic and heartwarming and infuriating all at the same time, not to mention Terry Gilliam’s by-now-mythic film maudit The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Chief among these lost films, of course, is Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a movie that seems to make a lot of people mouth-frothingly angry for some reason. Though the published reviews for the film have been mostly respectful and measured, privately I’ve heard complaints that it is self-indulgent, that it’s misogynistic, homophobic, filled with clichés, an embarrassment. I’m not sure that the film isn’t those things, because it’s in part about those things: It’s a movie about an old, out-of-touch guy making a desperate, maybe-not-very-good movie, and Welles’ intention was clearly to create a conceptual hall of mirrors to go with the literal hall of mirrors he once so memorably gave us in The Lady From Shanghai. At the same time, as to whether The Other Side of the Wind is actually successful at these things, I myself haven’t decided yet. So much of Welles’ artistry in his later years lay in his editing, and not having him around to finish this one in particular really hurts, despite the heroic efforts of Bob Murawski and Peter Bogdanovich. But the notion of treating a film shot in the 1970s by an aging director who died in the 1980s according to today’s standards of technique, or representation, feels like a fool’s errand. Still, let’s also not forget that Welles films weren’t exactly getting rapturous responses when he was alive either.

Maybe it’s because I had Welles on the brain for so much of the year, and unknowability was his great theme dating back to Citizen Kane, but over and over again, I saw pictures in 2018 that seemed to bask in mysteries they weren’t always able to solve, and I loved them for it. You Were Never Really Here turned the very unknowability of its protagonist into a governing aesthetic, constantly cutting away from him and mixing up its timeline into brief flashes that hinted at the pitch-black corners of his mind but yielded little actual information. And I am definitely on the side of those who believe that Roma was a conscious exploration by Alfonso Cuarón of the limits of his own vision.

Even on the political movie front, where didacticism usually reigns supreme, we got some refreshing attempts at opacity: Not many people liked The Front Runner, but I enjoyed its portrayal of Gary Hart as more enigma than would-be savior. Vice—not a good film but a fascinating one nonetheless—tore itself to pieces trying to find a way to explain Dick Cheney. And what about The Favourite, which gets about as up close and personal as possible with its scheming aristocrats but ends on a powerfully, beautifully ambiguous note?

Meanwhile, RaMell Ross’ documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening—76 minutes of the most captivating filmmaking I have ever seen anywhere, in any form—pushed back against the concept of the totalizing, years-in-the-making longitudinal doc by seeking a new language with which to immerse us in a world without ever trying to explain it. It’s a look at the lives of two black teenagers in small-town Alabama, and it was shot over five years, so we get to see a lot of changes, and yes, a lot of heartbreak and disillusionment. But Ross builds his film out of poetic little fragments—a bead of sweat, a moving shadow, an angle on a shoulder, or a leg, or a landscape, the kinds of images other documentaries reserve for cutaways or throwaway details—so that we’re always in this very lyrical, elusive space. And it feels like we get a better sense of the textures and rhythms of this life as a result—at the expense, maybe, of some kind of socially relevant, easily digestible message.

Hale County was my No. 1 documentary of the year and is certainly one of my favorite films of 2018, but very close behind it is Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, in which a white director sets out to uncover the details of his great-grandfather’s murder of a black man back in 1946, in Dothan, Alabama. (Kam, I’m so glad to see it on your Top 10.) Wilkerson interviews his own family and interrogates the few home movies he has of his great-grandfather. The story of the murder remained frustratingly unresolved, but Wilkerson’s journey exposes harrowing truths about his own family, and the film becomes in some ways an impressionistic look at racist violence and white privilege. In this sense, the story’s very lack of closure—almost no documentation or trace exists of the man his great-grandfather killed, or of his family—winds up saying more than any great revelations about the incident in question ever could.

To step back for a moment, though, from the films of 2018: Kam, you brought up a good point about the importance of catching up with older titles. (Although I will fight you on Short Cuts, which is one of Robert Altman’s best!) We are in a media climate now that utterly disdains the idea of viewing, or even discussing, the work of the past—unless it’s to condemn it as being out of touch with our times, or to bask in some kind of cheap nostalgia. We undermine the very concept of cinema when we ignore its past and focus always on the new, the bright, the shiny, the so-called Movies We Need Now. (I seem to recall somebody once wrote something quite astute about this phenomenon.) The best films, even the once-timely ones, have a lasting power that goes beyond the momentary readings we impose on them.

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.