Something Old, Something New: 2018 First-Time Favorites

If there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that my brain can only hold so much information; for the rest of it, I need lists. (But really, I knew this already.) Through classes, festivals, rep houses, and a glorious transition from Moviepass to AMC A List, I was able to see a fair amount of new-to-me movies this year, both from 2018 and earlier, and thanks to Letterboxd I was able to actually remember what I’d seen. Since I wanted to highlight both this year’s films and past years’ films, in making my “first-time favorites” list, I decided to pair them up—and because I apparently respond to the same types of themes no matter when the movie came out, that task was surprisingly easy.

So without further ado, my favorite films I watched in 2018:

María Candelaria (1944) and Roma (2018)

The nobly suffering indigenous woman is a well-worn trope of Mexican cinema, and Dolores del Rio as María Candelaria is one of its most iconic (and tragic). Throughout the film, she remains stoic despite constant setbacks and abuses, and ultimately, she becomes an innocent martyr for her village’s prejudices. It’s a supremely effective tearjerker, complete with a classic romance with Pedro Armendáriz, a deadly illness, and devastating piglet-murder. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma follows the similar, classical path of melodrama, tracing the daily life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio), a nanny and maid in 1970s Mexico City. She also faces a series of misfortunes, but continues to move forward in spite of her traumas—in part, because she has to. Both stories evidence the uneasy tension of Mexico’s racial politics, as a majority-mixed nation that often still discriminates against indigenous populations, though Cuarón allows for a more human portrayal through her imperfections, elevated by Aparacio’s performance.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and The Favourite (2018)

Leave Her to Heaven was one of those movies I knew I would love, so I waited until the perfect opportunity presented itself: this year’s nitrate print at TCMFF. “Scheming bitches” are perhaps my favorite character type (more to come on this list, in fact), and Gene Tierney as Ellen Berent is perhaps the diva supreme of them all. Several images (taking off her sunglasses in the boat, her foot nudging out of her slipper, etc.) have remained with me for all these months, as has the emotions of pure delight at seeing how low she could go. The Favourite is full of these moments, as Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) face off for the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Again, I get to delight in their conspiracies and attempts to undermine each other, and wishing I had their wardrobe. I appreciated that while The Favourite set the two women against each other, both of them were equally scheming, and neither was ever punished for their evil ways, like Ellen is in Leave Her to Heaven—only for failing to scheme hard enough.

That Man of Mine (1946) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

I had the pleasure of watching That Man of Mine as part of my internship at the Academy Museum this summer, and it’s a delightful putting-on-a-show musical that features an all-black cast, including a confident, stunning performance by a young Ruby Dee. While most of the movie is padded out with (great) musical performances (such as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women WWII-era big band), the connecting storyline contains some surprisingly heady discussions about the additional pressures facing black creatives in the industry. Boots Riley’s inventive Sorry to Bother You also explores what it takes to make it in a hostile/white world, through creative use of voiceover and some more speculative elements.

The Heiress (1949) and Eighth Grade (2018)

Hey daughters, did your father ever tell you that he loved and supported you no matter what? Or did he tell you that you’re ugly and nobody could ever love you? Because according to these two films, that might have had some sort of effect on your life. Olivia de Havilland is so, so great as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, in her depiction of a delayed coming-of-age—from shy “old maid” to confident single lady, by way of major cad Montgomery Clift. I love how the shift in her character is demonstrated in part through women’s crafts—I highly doubt there is a more effective movie climax out there that hinges on the completion of a needlepoint. Eighth Grade edges much more closely to the “too real” side of the spectrum, but, like Catherine, I also want to protect Kayla (Elsie Fisher) from the world and fight anyone who would wrong her. Luckily, she has a much more supportive dad on her side, and thus hopefully less likely to fall prey to more lame dudes.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and Shirkers (2018)

The connection here might not be immediately obvious, but in both films three women reflect on their lives following the revelation of a man’s betrayal—so I’m saying it works. In A Letter to Three Wives, Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, and Jeanne Crain receive a mysterious letter from a woman saying she has run off with one of their husbands. The majority of the film is told in flashback, as they each reckon with the possibility that it is their husband that is gone. As an audience, our sympathies are torn—with each story’s progression, you don’t know who to “root” for, because it means another woman would have to suffer. Shirkers is a fantastic documentary by Sandi Tan, detailing the production of a film she shot with her friends as a teenager, creatively using footage from the film, home movies, and present-day interviews to round out the story. Her film teacher Georges emerges as one of 2018’s most contemptible movie villains, as the women come to terms with his betrayal. Clearly the message between both films here is: don’t trust men.

Aventurera (1950) and Support the Girls (2018)

In Aventurera, the captivating Ninón Sevilla stars as Elena, a woman forced to become a dancer in a cabaret, who later becomes embroiled in a scandal after marrying a well-to-do young lawyer. It’s full of noir-ish twists and turns, but all of her struggles stem from the fact that as a woman, she has very limited options. If she doesn’t live up to society’s standards (especially if she shows any hint of sexuality), she loses all capacity for sympathy or forgiveness. Support the Girls proves foremost that we, as a society, have been failing Regina Hall for decades; here, she plays the manager of a Hooters-esque sports bar constantly beset by emergencies and requests, each one chipping away at her slightly until the cathartic end. While in Aventurera, Elena is in fact largely persecuted by other women, Support the Girls depicts a world where women are the only ones looking out for each other.

A Place in the Sun (1951) / All That Heaven Allows (1955) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Three romances featuring lovers kept apart by circumstance (albeit in one case, a bit more deservedly so, Montgomery), whose connection is enhanced through heightened formal elements—particularly through the use of close-ups (in Place in the Sun and Beale Street) and color (in Heaven and Beale Street). And, apparently, plaids! Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, from the novel by James Baldwin, is a lush, dreamy film that, despite its at times overt political references, never seems cynical—and I love that Jenkins is, like Sirk, unafraid to be earnestly, unflinchingly romantic.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Blockers (2018)

Three young women know what they want, and engage in hijinks as they try to get theirs. In How to Marry a Millionaire, it’s rich husbands; in Blockers, it’s losing their virginity on prom night. For both trios though, their friendship is never questioned, even if it means sticking together over a struggle-meal of hot dogs and champagne (the hugest mood). Ultimately, in spite of conniving lotharios and meddling parents, they mostly all get what they want—even if it wasn’t what they thought when they started.

A Face in the Crowd (1957) and BlacKkKlansman (2018)

I watched A Face in the Crowd for the first time in a class on civic engagement, and the (mostly non-film studies) students were astounded at how eerily prescient this 60-year-old movie could be on cults of personality. A Face in the Crowd follows the accidental creation of a media/political superstar/menace, portrayed in terrifying fashion by Andy Griffith, while Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman features a black cop (John David Washington) posing as a member of the KKK. Both films are also about the performance of personas, and how to play off what people expect to hear, what they want to hear, and what they need to hear.

The Devils (1971) and Hereditary (2018)

On a surface level, of course, these are two films that deal in the horrors of religion. The Devils tells the story of rogue priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who is accused of bewitching a convent of nuns and making deals with the devil. This is a supremely weird, distasteful, sacrilegious movie, but there’s also a bizarre kinetic energy to it. Hereditary is also weird movie (though nothing untoward happens with any crucifixes in this case), and I remember my excitement when That Thing happens—because it meant that whatever I thought the movie was going to be about, it wasn’t anymore. And that’s a feeling that happens pretty rarely nowadays.

Lady Snowblood (1973) and A Simple Favor (2018)

Lady Snowblood was another future favorite I’d be saving, and I think it marked the first time I’d ever immediately given a 5-star Letterboxd rating to something on my first watch. Yuki (Meiko Kaji) is literally vengeance incarnate; her mother conceives her in prison so that her daughter might someday avenge her against the men who raped her and murdered her husband. Things, somehow, escalate from there, topped off with a brilliant orange-red sheen of blood spatter. A Simple Favor might have less blood, but it’s no less of a wild ride, as Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) tries to solve the disappearance of her mysterious, glamorous mom-friend Emily (Blake Lively), but seems to find more questions every time she gets deeper. I refuse to say anything more because that’s half the fun of the movie, but it culminates in some truly bonkers and delightful reveals.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Widows (2018)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was another TCMFF favorite, and of my highlights of the festival. When four hijackers in disguise somehow take a NYC subway train hostage, transit authority officer Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) has to try to stop them from completing what seems to be the perfect job. In Steve McQueen’s Widows, a heist-gone-wrong unites the widows of the killed members of the gang, led by Veronica (Viola Davis), who set out to complete the robbery together. I love the concept for the film and Davis, alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Ervio make for a fun joyride. These are two tightly wound heist thrillers that play with our expectations and sympathies, and Pelham, of course, has one of the most memorable and satisfying final lines EVER.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Leave No Trace (2018)

These two might not be similar in terms of genre, but they’re spiritual pairs for sure. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which I think most people on the planet other than me had already seen, follows a squad of soldiers in their attempt to save the titular Private Ryan from behind enemy lines in WWII. In Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, a father (Ben Foster)—a veteran with PTSD—and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) attempt to live off the grid. Both films deal with war and, perhaps most fundamentally, the question of: Was it worth it?

Marie Antoinette (2006) / A Serious Man (2009) and Zama (2017)

I made up two major auteur-ish blind spots this year and finally caught up with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. These are both fascinating films that explore people desperately trying to hang onto an imagined way of life while the world around them slowly crumbles—for Marie, that means trying to retain her own identity within the French court at the precise moment that’s about to become meaningless; for Larry Gopnik, that means hoping that one damn thing in his life—family, tenure, religion?—will go right but knowing that it won’t. In Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, Spanish corregidor Don Diego de Zama is stuck in an undesirable colonial location in the Americas, and putters around hoping for a transfer while still having to put on the airs of his own superiority. I especially appreciated the Martel’s eye for the absurdities of colonialism, which makes for some moments of pitch-black humor that also unites these films.

Here’s to 2019!

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