These 2018 Movies Were the Little Indies That Could

The Movie Club: Entry 16.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bleecker Street.

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

Damn you, Amy, for making me write a bad poem about The Mule.

I just saw The Mule and must say I’m surprised
To see some exaggerate Eastwood’s demise
He shot in two blinks
Warners had no links
But the old crank’s work was both gentle and wise.

You do not want to know how many pathetic hours I spent on this monstrosity! I have no understanding of meter. Does it even count as a limerick if it’s not dirty? I figured Amy already broached the topic of Clint’s multiple threesomes in the movie—which are hilarious but work overall because a lot of it plays as a bizarre wish fulfilment fantasy. (All I could think about was Diedrich Bader as Lawrence, the “two chicks at the same time” guy from Office Space.)

I know the movie review in verse form has become something of a fond tradition, and I always love reading this stuff, but my own tendency is to just write in outright gibberish. Give me a right proper keyboard smash over a delicately rhyming couplet any old day.

Reading these posts as they’ve gone online, I will say that all my crabby grousing about audiences not responding to movies I loved, or me not responding to movies audiences dug, yadda yadda yadda … reminded me that there were far more examples this year of the opposite: Many films I loved, even some truly strange ones, did resonate with others. All too often, those of us who go to festivals and come back excited for this or that title are accused of having “festival brain,” the key symptom of which is wild overpraise of decidedly mediocre work. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t fallen prey to this illness now and again. But this year, I was happy to see that people actually responded to the following, even though I’d feared they wouldn’t:

Leave No Trace. Back during Sundance, I thought for sure that the mighty return of Debra Granik to fiction filmmaking—eight years after her triumphant Winter’s Bone got a Best Picture nomination and made Jennifer Lawrence a whole thing—would disappear quickly once it opened theatrically. Winter’s Bone had some subtle thriller elements that perhaps made it an easier sell, while Leave No Trace, about a veteran and his teenage daughter willingly living on the margins, was a drifty, subdued affair. But it not only won plenty of critical acclaim, it had a nice theatrical run. I realize that $6 million in box office doesn’t sound like much at a time when movies are breaking records left and right, but that’s actually quite good for a little film like this; in fact, it’s how much Winter’s Bone made back in 2010, and that was considered a hit.

The Rider. My favorite film of 2018 was all set to be my favorite film of 2017 when I first saw it, right before that year’s Cannes Film Festival. And as it awaited release over the past couple of years, I got a nervous feeling that it might never see the light of day. It’s such a small, delicate picture—no stars, no big-name director, no high-concept subject matter, and nothing particularly au courant. Directed by Chloé Zhao, it’s about a young, part-Sioux rodeo rider wrestling with a career-ending injury, shot among and starring the real people the story happened to. Who would go see that?? Its box-office take wasn’t huge, to be sure, but it’s a movie that hung around for months, and I could see and hear and read people talking about it and responding to it. And I was definitely happy to see it pop up on so many year-end best film lists, including Barack Freaking Obama’s. (And it was just awarded Best Picture by the National Society Of Film Critics!) Even Marvel noticed, apparently—they tapped Zhao to direct the feature film version of The Eternals. (I’m still not sure how I feel about that, but hey, that’s quite a journey for a little picture.)

First Reformed. Again, if we’re looking strictly at numbers, $3.5 million may not seem like much. But Paul Schrader’s sincerely despairing look at how we face our doomed future seemed really to resonate with viewers. And despite the fact that it opened way back in May, it has remained part of the discussion all through the year—so much so that it seems like a good bet that the film will net some Oscar nominations come Jan. 22. And maybe even a win or two, for Ethan Hawke or Schrader himself.

Madeline’s Madeline. I mean, Madeline’s Madeline, man. One of the craziest, most indescribable movies of the year, Josephine Decker’s collaborative whatsit—a deeply physical, mesmerizing three-way tug-of-war among a troubled teenage actress, her neurotic mother, and a seemingly compassionate but possibly duplicitous experimental theater director—didn’t seem remotely sellable when I first saw it at Sundance, even though it was my favorite film at the festival. But it came out! And it did well! And critics liked it, too. And its young star Helena Howard seems bound for bigger things, too. And maybe Marvel will get Josephine Decker to direct the She-Hulk movie or something.

Documentaries! Allow me to interrupt Sam’s very fine interruption about the record year that documentaries have had, to say that the docs that made bank this year, while maybe not the best of the bunch, were still worthwhile in their own ways. True, I too wasn’t crazy about how RBG leaned into hagiography more than biography, and at times I felt like I was watching the movie equivalent of an RBG coffee mug. But the film was pretty fascinating whenever it looked at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s methodical building up of her vision of equality through the specific cases that she chose.

The Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is perhaps softer than it needs to be—but isn’t that also a way of embodying the spirit that it glorifies? I did think director Morgan Neville made an even better film this year, with his Orson Welles doc They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, but that should in no way detract from his accomplishment with Neighbor.

Meanwhile, the triplets mystery-doc Three Identical Strangers, I think, is one of the best documentaries of the year. And I don’t find the film’s reveals to be all that manipulative, because they mostly adhere to the timeline in which the subjects themselves experienced these events. (Full disclosure, it was on my year-end nonfiction list until I remembered that Amazing Grace is technically a 2018 film.)

I didn’t see the Michael Moore movie, and I don’t feel like I missed much, but it did get some intriguing reviews that will probably make me check it out one day.

And the best thing? All of these movies outgrossed Dinesh D’Souza’s idiotic Death of a Nation, so there is hope for the world still.

Yours in bad poetry,

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.