The word “resistance” has been central to political, intellectual, and, for that matter, moral life in the past two years, as policies of a sadistic fury and bullying remarks to match have issued from the seat of American power. Resistance takes many forms, including cinematic ones. But the cinema of resistance isn’t necessarily overtly political (though it may well be that, too—as in many of this year’s best films). Movies of resistance offer, foremost, aesthetic resistance: they resist the making of images and the telling of stories that take their own power for granted. They resist clichés of audiovisual thought, which are as desensitizing to the individual mind as they are deluding in the forum of social debate. They challenge received ideas of what stories and images are, and challenge their makers’ own artistic practices; they expand viewers’ imaginations, deepen and sensitize their emotional responses, and create forms of perception that go far beyond the events depicted in the movies to become enduring experiences in themselves, enduring incarnations of their time.
By contrast, in the rush to be of the moment, in the self-conscious and vain exertion to capture the times, filmmakers often make movies as disposable as an op-ed, a commentary that converges with the averages and approximations of prevailing attitudes rather than the intimate specificity of experience. It’s easy for filmmakers to treat political matters as cynically as they might approach any dramatic subject—perhaps even easier, because they’re easier to tailor to the expectations of a targeted audience. Many of the year’s most ostensibly “political” films have earned critical praise, they’ll likely get awards, and they can be counted on to have as little effect on current-day politics as they’ll have on the history of cinema.
This is all to say that 2018 has been a banner year for movies, but you’d never know it from a trip to a local multiplex—or from a glimpse at the Oscarizables. The gap between what’s good and what’s widely available in theatres—between the cinema of resistance and the cinema of consensus—is wider than ever. I’ve played a little game with my list this year: after composing it, I rummaged through the box-office numbers to see where each of the films ranked among the six hundred and eighty-two films released to date this year, how much money each took in, and how many theatres each one was released in. Three of the year’s best were shown in more than a thousand theatres (and one on the list is the biggest box-office hit of the year) but the others had releases that ran from limited to virtually nonexistent. Some of the best movies in the year don’t register at all in terms of ticket sales; they may have played at only one venue for a week, and reported no numbers for their brief runs. Though this came as a shock, it should be no surprise: because of the conceptual and sensory extremes that the best new movies offer, they’re also often a tough sell in theatrical release.
In some cases, streaming has filled the gap. Several of the year’s best movies, such as “Shirkers” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” are being released by Netflix at the same time as (or just after) a limited theatrical run. Others, which barely qualified as having theatrical releases (one theatre for a week), are now available to stream online, on demand, and are more widely accessible to viewers (albeit at home) than films playing at thousands of multiplexes. Yet an impermanence, a threat of disappearance with the flick of a switch, hangs threateningly over independent films that are sent out on streaming (a problem that came to the fore this fall, with the shuttering of FilmStruck, which made a hefty batch of Criterion and TCM films available to stream).
This crisis of access has taken new forms in the era of streaming, but it’s in many ways old news; because of changing availability, one generation’s classics are another’s obscurities. But there are also signs of progress. The increasing diversity and originality of artistic ideas in movies is a result of the increasing (though not sufficiently rapidly increasing) diversity in the range of filmmakers, actors, and other collaborators working today. The ostensibly great cinematic eras of the past (like the New Hollywood of the seventies) went hand in hand with the virtual silencing and the invisibility of many of the most original filmmakers of the time—many of them, unsurprisingly, women and people of color. Today, along with a more varied group of filmmakers working, there is a more varied range of possibilities for their work to be seen and also a more varied range of critics (with a more varied range of platforms) who are likely to bring such work into the spotlight.
The current cinema is built on the absences of the past—and their ghostly emanations are also now taking cinematic form. 2018 has been a year of phantom cinema, of film traces that were lost in time and are only now, finally, finding their embodiments. Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” (which is on Netflix) and Sydney Pollack’s (rather, Aretha Franklin’s) “Amazing Grace” were shot in the nineteen-seventies, completed only recently, and released this fall. The late Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah: Four Sisters” was shot in the seventies, and he supplemented and edited those interviews recently (he died in July; it’s his last film). Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers” brings together the recovery of her unfinished film from the nineteen-nineties with the lives of its makers and its complex course to its present form. These belated projects are representatives for the voices, past and present, that haven’t come to the fore yet, the rediscoveries—or, rather, reparations—still awaiting their enactment.
P.S. There are still some movies awaiting their year-end releases that I haven’t been able to see yet—plus, of course, I haven’t seen all of the year’s nearly seven hundred new releases—so this list may well have some additions.
With ferociously intimate images, tensely controlled performances, and a spare sense of drama, this début feature, about two young drug addicts in Nova Scotia, conjures a state of heightened consciousness.
This giddily imaginative reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale stars Isabelle Huppert as a science teacher whose identity is changed, along with her teaching style, when she becomes a subject of her own experiment.
The South Korean director condenses a grand melodrama of work, love, and art into a brisk roundelay of chance meetings and intimate confrontations, set amid the Cannes Film Festival; Isabelle Huppert stars.
Melissa McCarthy brings passion and poignancy to the role of the real-life Lee Israel, a biographer who, in financial distress, convincingly fabricates letters in the names (and voices) of famous writers and sells them.
An intimate documentary portrait of the playwright María Irene Fornés, whose bouts of memory loss prove to be the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Barry Jenkins)
A virtual essay on the crushing legal mechanisms of racism and a first-person vision of the enduring force of history are interwoven with a piercingly romantic dramatic adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel.
This documentary, about the violent repression of a 1917 strike in the copper-mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, is also a work of fiction in the conditional tense, featuring local residents in a reënactment of the historical events.
This exquisitely stylized drama is set in New York, in the present day, but it’s redolent of the tones, moods, and conflicts of earlier times—of a hothouse intellectual city and its enduring mythology.
A documentary about Srbijanka Turajlić, a Serbian opponent of Slobodan Milošević’s repressive and genocidal post-Yugoslav regime, directed by her daughter and centered on the political history of the family’s home.
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