Justine Smith: 2018 was a great year to be a film fan in Montreal. On top of the usual selection of blockbuster hits, great local films and usual festival gems, two new cinemas opened up in the city. Cinéma Moderne and the Cinéma du Musée provide two new ways to see films in the city. While I am of the mind that nearly every film year is a great one if you look far enough, 2018 felt especially fresh. It was a really fabulous year spent in chilly, darkened rooms.
In recent years, Cult MTL’s film editor Alex Rose and I have done a rundown of the best and the worst of the year. We are fortunate to be able to see a large number of new releases every year, generously an average of about two to three new films a week. We attend local festivals and have a unique opportunity to see new Quebec films, a luxury that the rest of the world often has to wait for. And yet, in spite of all these opportunities, I wonder if it really makes a difference?
Alex Rose: I think you bring up a good point in that seeing movies is always going to be an unwinnable uphill battle. Even though I spend a considerable amount of time at the movies, I have massive blindspots when this time of the year rolls around. I can see 20 movies at a festival, catch up with someone I know who attended the very same festival and only have one or two films in common. This year was particularly insane in that there were sometimes so many screenings that I got so backed up I couldn’t review everything I saw. Two of my favourites of the year, If Beale Street Could Talk and Shoplifters, simply got passed over in the year-end glut.
JS: For our lists and our conversation, we abide by just one vague rule: the movie had to have premiered in Montreal or on a streaming service for the first time in 2018. That rules out some festival favourites from TIFF and American markets, while also giving a leg up on a large number of movies that won’t likely appear on lists from your average American or Canadian publication.
AR: This rule knocked out my Top 2, both of which I saw at TIFF; while Laszlo Nemes’s Sunset is set for release at some point in the new year, Paul Dano’s Wildlife simply didn’t get Quebec distribution at all. On the other hand, this allowed me to give First Reformed some love — I first saw it at TIFF in 2017. That having been said, this is one of the only years in recent memory where I could easily make a Top 20 and where the bottom 10 of that Top 20 could easily sneak up. I think it was an incredible year for “really good” movies, for lack of a better term; though I don’t particularly like assigning grades to movies in general, it was a great year for 7s and 8s!
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JS: As great as 2018 was for film, it’s hard not to despair a little over the clickbait culture and reactionary thinkpieces that dominate the industry. It always seems that you have to write and make decisions of taste based on a greater moral current. And even if you don’t have that in mind, is it really possible to completely break free from the dominant cultural conversation? Does it matter that most critics only ever highlight the same 20 films?
AR: It’s definitely something that smooths out over time. I’ve never revisited or reconsidered a list in the past but I imagine that if I went back and reviewed, say, my list from 2014, it would look different. Some movies fade from memory faster than others; some movies you catch up with much later. There is, I think, some futility to this exercise — even if it’s a lot of fun! That’s one of the things that really solidified First Reformed at the top of my list — seeing it twice, six months apart.
JS: Part of the magic of putting together a top list of the year is the idea that over time it will change. Looking back at some of my lists from a few years ago, my impressions of some movies have completely shifted and I’ve also had time to see more films. I see year-end lists as a way of capturing a specific moment in time, rather than an accurate portrayal of the best and worst of the year. One of my favourite time-wasting hobbies is to go back decades and look at lists and awards for festivals and large publications and measure how many of those films are forgotten. For most years, unless you are really invested in the exact details of film history, there will be many films you’ve never even heard of.
AR: Sometimes this even happens within the same year! I think it’s pretty easy to overrate or underrate something based on the circumstances of seeing it. I love festivals, but they’re absolutely the worst way to digest and process a film!
JS: Reflecting on the films from this past year, we can see certain patterns. It’s been a big year for so-called screen life movies like Cam, Profile, Searching and Unfriended: Deep Web. As our lives move increasingly online, the movies we watch work to replicate that experience. I am really invested in the “sub-genre” and am curious as to how different filmmakers tackle the challenges of narrativizing our online lives. There are examples of these movies going back nearly a decade, but this feels like a real banner year. I’m curious about what the future will hold and how some of these films will hold up.
The other major trend would be the reflection of contemporary anxieties. I can’t imagine movies like First Reformed, Cam or If Beale Street Could Talk being made at any other point in time. They deal with questions of the environment, privacy and race that feel especially modern. They are not just modern in how they discuss and treat topics of national conversation, but the sense of anxiety that we are not moving forward. If Beale Street Could Talk, a film that narrowly missed my own list is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel written and set nearly 50 years ago, but is still “of the moment” in its treatment of representation and autonomy of the black community on screen.
This ties into the idea that we are living in a new apocalyptic age. Whether or not you believe the planet or the human race is facing down the end of days, it is clearly a serious preoccupation in culture. Many of the best films of the year — First Reformed, Annihilation, Relaxer and Sorry to Bother You — deal in some way with the end of times. I don’t think any of these films have particularly bright visions for our future either, but I am reluctant to call them cynical. Even as they deal with the landscape of spirituality and fantasy, they seem to reckon seriously and realistically with the possibility of The End. If that’s the case, this might be among the last ever year-end lists in human history.
AR: I find these end-of-times movies more comforting than I would generally care to admit — seeing other people express this anxiety actually makes it feel more manageable. That said, I’m pretty sure that 2019 has something even bleaker than First Reformed in store for us.
- First Reformed
- Black Mother
- The Rider
- Birds of Passage