Monday, December 31

Emery’s List – A Recap of The Best* of 2018

The Best* of 2018




What a wild year we’ve had. Especially if you’re like me and have spent an unhealthy amount of time following American politics. We’ve seen this country ramp up its adherence to tribalism amidst debates on gun control, immigration, media coverage, women’s rights, etc., etc., etc., And all of this is happening amid the most serious allegations ever levied against an executive administration. I’ll leave the majority of my political rants to my Facebook page but, I will say one thing. We live in a country that was founded upon the notion that the presumption of innocence is paramount in a free society. This presumption certainly does nothing to grease the wheels of justice. It’s a slow process. But the truth always comes out. So, I’ll remain patient and hopeful. In the meantime, our institutions, designed to serve as checks against overreach, are being constantly tested. And they are consistently working.

It’s important to remember that along with voting and the media, art is one of those institutions. Artforms like cinema, television and music have the ability and responsibility to speak out. Empathy is the greatest tool of storytelling. And the byproduct of empathy is the destruction of tribalism and polarization. Nothing breaks down proverbial walls quicker than the ability and willingness to look, listen and learn from those who differ from you. Lest we forget, punk-rock and hip-hop were born of protest, mistrust and disenfranchisement.

These are the things that I’ve tried to keep in mind as I consume and appreciate the movies, tv and music of our modern world. And 2018 proved to be a rewarding year, especially for me. I fell in love with hip-hop music in ’93 and skateboarding in ’94. I spent many of my teenage hours skating at a closed elementary school or various underground parking lots with Gravediggaz or The Pharcyde on an old boombox providing the soundtrack. My love for movies came later. Somehow, this year’s cinema seemed to fuse together these three passions that informed my most informative years. We had three films that centered around skateboarding and two films made by amazing hip-hop recording artists. I have three teenage boys of my own now and this year has given me the opportunity to bond with them over some really cool stuff. Overall, 2018 was a banner year and I’m very excited about the years to come. So, here’s a glimpse into what I did, what I liked and what I loved.

Best* On-Air Television



Atlanta – Season 2 – FX


I think season one of this show was the most innovative and unique thing on television. Season 2 did not disappoint at all. Triple threat, Donald Glover has consistently shown his commitment to artistic experimentalism. I think this is working out far better in his television career than in his music as of late. So, I’m hoping that this ends up a long running series. 

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – Season 13 – FX


I’ve heard some explain this season as a surprising turn for a show that has always remained apolitical. I don’t see it that way. I feel that this was the logical progression of a show that has kept its social commentary on the more subversive side. This is a show that’s more engaged in the ‘long-con’ of wokeness. And “Mac’s Dance” is the most fitting completion of this thesis.

Stan Against Evil – Season 3 – IFC


I guess I was a lot less broken up about the cancellation of Starz’s Ash Vs. The Evil Dead series. This show is the reason why. It’s a horror/comedy series created by Dana Gould. It feels like it could have been the lovechild of Matt Groening and Sam Raimi. John C. McGinley produces, and stars and his character’s daughter Denise is played hilariously by Deborah Baker Jr. So, if you feel like your life is less complete now that Ash has retired, check this one out while it’s still around. 

Best* Original Series by Streaming Network



Ozark – Netflix


This show may be kind of trashy, I’ll admit. And I’m not really sure how any single one of the characters is still alive. But I guess it’s my kind of trash. Julia Garner is someone to watch and I hope this trashy show puts her on the map.

Castle Rock – Hulu


This wasn’t a perfect series by any stretch of the imagination. I did however find it to be a very inventive use of a fictional universe. Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård both do great work.

The Core – Shudder


I know all my horror friends have been really into The Last Drive-In. Admittedly, it’s a lot of fun. But if you’re into the genre, I can’t really recommend The Core enough. It’s a half-hour long talk show hosted by Mickey Keating that gives us in-depth interviews with a who’s who list of horror scene movers and shakers. If you’ve ever wanted to get involved with the finer details of making scary movies, there’s a ton of information to be gleamed from this series. And it’s so much fun that it doesn’t even feel like homework.

Best* Release on Home Video



Passion of Joan of Arc – The Criterion Collection



In recent years, we’ve seen more and more boutique home video studios continue to step up their game. This is actually a great time to be a collector. Because of streaming services, these home video studios are catering much more specifically to collectors. Box sets and collector’s editions with beautiful transfers and all sorts of neat special features have been finding their way onto my shelf. Shout! Factory and its offshoot, Scream Factory’s awesome collector’s edition releases of Joe Dante’s THE BURBS (’89) and Bernard Rose’s CANDYMAN (’92) were both great. And I’m ever so grateful to have seen so many films from my beloved Seijun Suzuki get Blu-ray releases from Arrow over the past two years.

But still, with all of this taken into consideration, The Criterion Collection remains the gold standard of physical media. And this was a great year for their collectors. 2018 was the year that Criterion treated us to a beautiful restoration of George A. Romero’s independent masterpiece, THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (’68). We also got Blu-ray upgrades to classics like Welles’ THE MAGNIFICIENT AMBERSONS (’42), Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY (’69) and Reiner’s THE PRINCESS BRIDE (’87). And of course, the release that most of my contemporaries would put at the top of their list, the Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema box set. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Bergman and this set is stacked and gorgeous. But if I’m being honest, and I was in some sort of desert island situation, I would use it as a floatation device, just so I could ensure that I never have to live in a world without Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece.

I discovered this film on DVD when it was first released by Criterion. I immediately fell in love. The expressionistic camerawork combined with Renée Falconetti’s unforgettable performance creates what I believe to be the pinnacle of silent cinema.

I was floored by it. And then around 2010, news came out that Portishead’s Adrien Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory had collaborated on an original score for the film. You see, the film had been thought lost to a fire for about 60 years. And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, no accompaniment was ever composed specifically for it in the 20’s. The DVD came with an amazing piece called “Voices of Light” by Richard Einhorn. I love it but I’m a huge Portishead fan from the mid 90’s and when news of this new score came out, I was hyped. I was sure that a new edition of the film, updated to Blu was just around the corner of the middle-of-the-month announcements of upcoming titles by Criterion.

Eight years later…. I’m not sure what took so long but the release is fantastic. It contains three different audio tracks, each one adds something unique to the experience. There are great special features including an especially nerdy, passionate and in-depth frame rate discussion. And the job they did on the transfer is amazing, especially considering the state it was in when the reel was found.


Best* Soundtrack/Score




LOWLIFE – Kreng


Do yourself a favor and put this on anytime you’re doing some mundane chores around the house. It will make the whole experience very intense and your clean kitchen will feel like much more of an accomplishment.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU – The Coup


It had been a long time since I listened to The Coup’s Pick A Bigger Weapon. I threw it back into my regular rotation earlier this year when I found out that the band’s charismatic front man, Boots Riley had written and directed this new film. I actually didn’t even know that they were still a group. This soundtrack features guest vocals from Janelle Monáe, Killer Mike & E-40.  

BLINDSPOTTING – Daveed Diggs & Rafael Casel


After watching the film, I’ve spent the last couple of months listening non-stop to the double EP from Diggs and Casel…. I’m basically from Oakland now. 


Best* Original Films by Streaming Network





HOLD THE DARK – Directed by Jeremy Saulnier – Netflix


Jeremy Saulnier is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. I started watching his work when he became more widely known with 2013’s BLUE RUIN. As it turns out, BLUE RUIN is my least favorite of his work thus far. GREEN ROOM is still my favorite film of 2015, so I was stoked to see this one. He composes his shots in a very specific tone that you just don’t find elsewhere. It’s thoughtful, meditative and slow but not in a clinical way. Your patience will be rewarded.

APOSTLE – Directed by Gareth Evans – Netflix


About 20 minutes or so into the first RAID film, there is a shot of a machete being pulled out from under a table. The angle of the shot, the lighting and the deliberation of the action made me immediately think that Gareth Evans should make a horror film. Maybe I like this one a little bit extra just because it proved me right… Sorry, not sorry.

ROMA – Directed by Alfonso Cuarón – Netflix


Scroll down… More on this later…

MINDING THE GAP – Directed by Bing Liu – Hulu


Keep reading

Underseen & Underrated



THE NUN – Directed by Colin Hardy


The newest entry into the “Conjuring” universe has a 26% Rotten Tomatoes score and a 5.5 on IMDB. I think it’s my 2nd favorite of the series. This was much better than I had expected. I like the atmosphere and the cinematography. There was a lot of jump scares, but they paid off in the end. It was not your typical religious centric ghost story where the scares play out in the background. The horror was much more in your face and personal. It was more like a religious iconographic creature feature in the same vein as Marion Baino’s DARK WATER (’93) or Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH (’89).

REVENGE – Directed by Coralie Fargeat


I'm not sure if you should say that this film subverts the male gaze exactly. It was more like the intent was to flip the perspective around to show us just how ugly the other side is. We men should take note and be concerned if this how women see us.

LOWLIFE – Directed by Ryan Prows


This is a non-linear, Tarantino-esque underworld ultra-dark comedy about a ring of sex slavery and black-market organ transplants. Mayhem and hilarity ensue. This film features a lot of great practical effects and a flawlessly cast ensemble of characters. I'm sure this movie has its faults. But between its frenetic pacing and off-kiltered humor, you won't likely notice them, at least the first time around. I'm sure I'll be revisiting this one in the years to come and it's possible that it will grow on me even more.

DIRECTOR’S CUT – Directed by Adam Rifkin


This is probably the most meta film I've seen since Spike Jonze's ADAPTATION (2002). This film actually constructs multiple artificial 4th walls, just to tear them down. I wrote a full review when I caught it at the Phoenix Film Festival earlier.

NOVEMBER – Directed by Rainer Sarnet


I’m not completely sure how to classify this Estonian film. Is it a beautiful costume drama arthouse? Or, is this a bizarre midnight-movie just waiting for its anointment into cult classic status. Most cult films do not showcase such crisp, innovative and strikingly beautiful black and white cinematography. But then again, most arthouse films don’t have this many oozing fluids and fart sounds. It doesn’t matter. This flick works on both levels quite well. Sit and watch it by yourself and marvel at the gorgeous scenery. Double feature it with Ciro Guerra’s underappreciated masterpiece EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (’15). Or get some friends together and watch it with Lynch’s ERASERHEAD (’77). Maybe the best course of action would be to triple feature these three films, using NOVEMBER as the bridge between the two cinematic worlds. Either way, see it. The most surprising thing about this film I found was the lack of buzz around it. I can only assume this is because it’s thus far, fallen through the cracks.


Best* Films


10. BLAKKKLANSMAN – Directed by Spike Lee



I’ve heard a lot of people call this film Spike Lee’s best since 25th HOUR (’02). I guess I was the only one that loved CHI-RAQ (’15)… But I digress… I’ve heard the critiques on this film and I understand them. But I still really responded to it. It was timely and appropriate for our current culture. There is a certain attitude that I always look for in Lee’s work. I found it here in abundance. 

9. THE FAVOURITE – Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos



It’s been interesting to watch Lanthimos’ career over the past decade. He came out of the box hot in 2009 with the critically acclaimed DOGTOOTH. I wasn’t a big fan of that one, but I feel that since then, every film has shown his craftsmanship progress. And as such, this turns out to be his greatest technical accomplishment. Great performances have become a staple for him since 2015’s THE LOBSTER so I wasn’t surprised to see such amazing work from this film’s three leads. The visual style here is what surprised me. This was the first time Lanthimos worked with cinematographer Robbie Ryan. I’ve been keeping an eye on his work since John Maclean’s very underrated SLOW WEST (’15). He also did great work in Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY (’16). His work here combined with the costumes and set design is what elevates this film in my opinion. I’ll be very interested to see if they work together in the future. 

8. MID90s – Directed by Jonah Hill



I’m actually surprised at this film’s somewhat lukewarm reception. I feel like this one just reeks of blood, sweat and heart. If you were a skater in the mid-90’s, you feel right at home in the world Hill created. Before skate parks and video games, before Adidas and Nike began exploiting the sport, being a skater, meant sharing water out of the gallon jug, sitting around a broke-ass sofa at a skate shop watching videos, and a healthy dose of trespassing. I took my 3 teenage boys to see this one and it was like opening up a 20-year-old time capsule. It was one of the year’s most honest films.

7. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU – Directed by Boots Riley



This is probably the best cinematic indictment of capitalism since Robert Bresson’s L’ARGENT (’83). Riley relies on a healthy cocktail of absurdism and magical realism to construct a social commentary on the slave trade nature of an economy based on the almighty bottom line. Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson are standouts here, but the film is full of great smaller rolls by Danny Glover, Armie Hammer and Terry Crews. This is Boots Riley’s first film and I haven’t heard whether he’s going to be working on anything in the future, but I’ll be very intrigued if he does. 

6. THE DEATH OF STALIN – Directed by Armando Iannucci



This was my most anticipated release of the year and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ve been a big fan of Iannucci since ‘09’s British comedy take on the lead up to the Iraq invasion, IN THE LOOP. I’ve eaten up everything he’s put his name on since then. He makes dark political humor. But then again, I think by nature, any political comedy will always be dark. Because the context in which the buffoonery takes place, will always have far reaching consequences. Iannucci has always embraced this context and pushed it further than most would. This may never get put on the same lists as Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (’64) or Nichol’s CATCH 22 (’70). But I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it often.

5. ANNHILATION – Directed by Alex Garland



At the risk of sounding like a broken record, science fiction has a very special place in my heart. When it’s done poorly, I tend to take personal offence to it. This is not one of those time. It’s more explorative than expositional. And that’s very refreshing. It’s not really interested in making sure you have time to keep up. You just have to enjoy the journey and try to figure it out later. This makes repeated viewings very rewarding.

4. ROMA – Directed by Alfonso Cuarón




This was the prettiest film to look at in 2018. This isn’t unique for the director of 06’s CHILDREN OF MEN or 13’s GRAVITY. The difference is that prior to ROMA, I was always hesitant to give Cuarón the credit for this. Cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki worked on both GRAVITY & CHILDREN OF MEN and I’ve always considered their visual style to be more or less in his wheelhouse. This film however, was shot by Cuarón himself and it’s beautiful. It’s very deliberately paced and meditative. I think this is my favorite thing about this movie. It rewards the patient viewer. Long shots that begin abstract, slowly inform the audience with substance and context. 

3. MINDING THE GAP – Directed by Bing Liu





This was my favorite documentary of the year. It’s an absolutely harrowing look at the struggles of poverty, toxic masculinity and the ascension into adulthood in a small impoverished Midwest town. It centers around three friends who form a bond over skateboarding and it spans several years. It was shot, edited and directed by one of the three, Bing Liu. This is the epitome of personal filmmaking and I feel gracious to them for letting me into their world. 

2. FIRST REFORMED – Directed by Paul Schrader



Paul Schrader once called Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET (’59), “the most influential film in my creative life.” You can watch the interview on Criterion’s website here. This knowledge has always informed by viewing of Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (’76). His newest film however seemed to draw inspiration from a different Bresson masterpiece, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (’51). The messages explored here about environmentalism and social responsibility are used magnificently as vehicles to tell a tale that at its heart, is about the interconnection between faith and human suffering. This is Ethan Hawke’s best* performance and I think the best* performance of the year. I’m also very happy to see some filmmakers embracing the 4:3 aspect ratio, when appropriate. It can be beautiful, especially when our characters are looking to the heavens for answers.

1. BLINDSPOTTING – Directed by Carlos López Estrada



2018 was the year that Disney gave us a delightful sequel to a 1964 film that taught us how “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. But it was Carlos Lopez Estrada’s feature debut that properly embodies this phrase. Hip-hop artists, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casel starred in and penned what turned out to be the most provocative film about race in a year that certainly had no shortage of provocation in the matter. While other films of the year did well to speak out to more overt and institutionalized forms of bigotry, this one challenges even the most “woke” of white “allies” (myself included). The friendship of Collin and Miles can be seen as a stand-in for the relationship between POC in this country and those of us who, in spite of best efforts, can never fully appreciate the weight of another’s skin tone. This, along with and embroidered into its take on police, gentrification and masculinity is the story’s medicine. But that’s only the half of it. This also turned out to be one of this year’s most entertaining, funniest and sweetest films. This, coupled with the best* soundtrack of the year added at least a spoonful of sugar.


Best* Footnotes


* - “Best” is an entirely subjective term. Criticism is subjective and art is not a competition. Don’t @ me*.
* - I actually greatly appreciate constructive criticism. You can @ me if you want to*.
* - Please @ me. 



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