We continue to live in a divided world, with the current political landscape in the United States a seemingly endless hotbed of tumult and acrimony. Issues of racism, bigotry, diversity and gender equality drive the creative players as well, with Oscar-nominated films parlaying said themes into compelling, thought-provoking cinema. To analyze 2018 in big-screen entertainment, Variety called on its top editors and critics to answer three probing questions about this past year in film:
1. How do you rate the 2018 slate against those of previous years?
2. What was the biggest scandal or most talked-about issue of the year?
3. What aspect of film this year made you stand up and cheer?
Chief Film Critic
1. Comic-book fans will almost certainly look back on 2018 as some kind of golden age. When fully half of the year’s 16 top-grossing films featured “incredibles” of some form or another, I suspect we may have reached spandex overload — or saturation point, at least, maybe even a “superhero movie bubble.” And yet, there was so many great, grounded, grown-up dramas to offset all that CG escapism, I can hardly complain.
2. Politics being what they are these days, there were certainly more important issues, but I found the rise and plummet of MoviePass especially telling, although I don’t think the industry is analyzing it correctly. Exhibitors happily enjoyed the spike in admissions without confronting the truth: While they continue to inflate ticket and concession prices, audiences are clearly demonstrating that they expect to pay as little as possible for movies — and that is yet another reason they’re turning to Netflix and home subscription services instead. As someone who cherishes the moviegoing experience, I want the theater owners to find a model that will keep them in business.
3. Representation on both sides of the camera. Slowly but surely, the industry is coming to terms with the idea that mainstream audiences can and will turn out for movies about characters far different from themselves. It should have been obvious, considering how everyone else has had to adapt to stories by and about able-bodied, straight white men for the better part of a century. In its unique capacity as a tool for empathy, cinema offers us the opportunity and privilege to experience stories different from our own — as movies including “The Rider,” “Leave No Trace” and “Crazy Rich Asians” exemplified. But that’s nothing new. What this year has demonstrated is that it’s equally important for those who seldom or never see themselves represented onscreen to find themselves reflected up there as well.
Chief Film Critic
1. By any standard, it was a fantastically bold, dynamic and exciting year. AMPAS truly did pick the wrong year to try to float its (TV-ratings-driven) notion of a “popular” Oscar category, and the reason that idea died on the vine is that it proved to be so utterly unnecessary. As it stands, 2018 gave us a healthy handful of iconic films — “Black Panther,” “A Star Is Born,” “Crazy Rich Asians” — that were epic crowd-pleasers and, at the same time, galvanizing works of popular art. That’s called owning the sweet spot: having your popular, beloved and highly acclaimed cake, and eating it, too. But in addition, there were dozens of extraordinary and adventurous films swimming around the edges. “Roma,” the most critically lauded motion picture in probably two decades, is nothing less than a phenomenon. “Sorry to Bother You,” “Eighth Grade,” and “The Hate U Give” were inspiring indie breakouts that crossed over onto the mainstream radar, and a number of the best films of the year were documentaries, including such artful nonfiction smashes as “RBG,” “Free Solo,” and “Three Identical Strangers.” Even some of the go-for-broke megaplex blockbusters were damned enthralling, from the surprisingly dark and potent “Avengers: Infinity War” to the pop-art bravura of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” to the rapturous nostalgia of “Mary Poppins Returns.” All in all, I’d call that a year worth celebrating.
2. I think it had to be the firestorm over Viggo Mortensen’s use of the N-word during a panel discussion on “Green Book,” and the general controversy over the movie itself. There’s no debating the N-word flap — it was deeply wrong of Mortensen, and he wasted no time apologizing in a heartfelt and progressive way. Yet even as the “Green Book” team struggled to put the scandal of that moment behind it, and (against all odds) seemed to do so, the essential debate about “Green Book” (was it a vital and enlightened liberal drama? or a creaky retrograde buddy movie out of step with the era?) continued to flare. And what that debate demonstrates is that movies, more than ever, can — and increasingly will — become lightning rods in the culture wars of our time.
3. If you focus on national politics (and who doesn’t these days?), we seem, at times, to be living in an all-talk-and-no-action era. There’s more huffing and puffing than ever, but less seems to get done. Yet in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein reckoning, and the revolution that came to be known as #MeToo, the focus that began (quite rightly) on the issue of sexual harassment has now spread, like wildfire, over to the issue of inclusion. And it’s heartening to see that concrete progress is already being made. The number of women directors at this year’s Sundance Film Festival stood at 45%, and that is no small thing. Yet a great deal of work — let’s be honest, a mountain of it — still needs to be done. What I stand up and cheer about is that these issues have now, at long last, been placed front and center in the cultural dialogue. They are not going away, and that in itself is a seismic victory that can, and will, only lead to more victories.
Senior Vice President, Features Award Editor
1. I’m not sure that overall it was a great year, but there were plenty of films with great work. Throughout award season, there has been no consensus about a best picture Oscar winner, which is a positive sign. Plus there’s the good news/bad news that 2018 saw a lot of other terrific films, even if they didn’t get enough awards attention, such as “Leave No Trace,” “The Front Runner,” “22 July” and “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
2. There was a lot of online chatter about the proposed new Oscar category, the lack of an Oscar host and the distressing mudslinging directed at “Green Book” and other films. But in the big picture, those things are far less important than ongoing industry concerns about bullying and inclusion problems. However, I feel like American and global politics stirred up even more concern in 2018 than any film-industry problems.
3. “Vice,” “Front Runner,” “BlackKklansman” and “22 July” should be included in any time-capsule about life in 2018. It’s great that those filmmakers found backing. And “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther” showed that filmmakers can make a personal statement in a genre film, being both thoughtful and totally entertaining.
Freelance film critic
1. From a critical perspective, I don’t think this year’s best picture Oscar slate is one for the ages — and if you look at the general spread of reviews for nominees like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Green Book” and the admittedly polarizing “Vice,” I’m obviously not alone in that. However, as a snapshot of where the industry stands at this moment in time, I think it’s pretty on the money, from the inclusion of a boundary-breaking pop phenomenon such as “Black Panther” to the internationalization (and acceptance of alternative industry models) signified by 10 nominations for Netflix’s “Roma.”
2. Same as last year, really: Hollywood’s continuing struggle to reckon with, and appropriately curb, the toxic masculinity that still powers so much of the industry. We’ve seen this in everything from the Academy’s hesitant, uncertain response to protests over proposed Oscar host’s Kevin Hart’s homophobic statements to the ongoing paradox of the Bryan Singer controversy. The industry’s stated embarrassment over multiple allegations of sexual abuse against him hasn’t stopped his film “Bohemian Rhapsody” from being celebrated at the box office and Academy Awards alike: we can’t have it both ways for much longer.
3. Even if they were given short shrift by awards voters, this was a banner year at the movies for female filmmakers taking substantial creative risks and reaping stunning artistic rewards, both in America and abroad: Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama,” Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers,” Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro,” Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and so on. These were among the best films of the year by any measure; if the strong showing for women in this year’s Sundance and Berlin lineups is anything to go on, 2019 should build on that.
Deputy Awards and Features Editor
1. I think it’s one of the strongest years in recent memories. When you have powerhouses such as “Black Panther” changing the game as early as February, the bar is set pretty high. And yet so many films, big and small, came along throughout the year that restored my faith in filmgoing and made the rising prices of concessions seem worth it. And it’s not just the Oscar movies. From heartfelt raunchy comedies like “Blockers” to the thoughtful horror of “Hereditary,” there seemed to be something for everyone. I never expected the most pleasant surprise of the year to be an animated superhero film, but “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” proved to be a bold, funny, thoughtful movie to close out the end of the year.
2. Probably the same things we talked about in 2017 — men behaving badly — except said men refused to go away. From Kevin Spacey’s bizarre homemade video as his “House of Cards” character to Louis C.K. returning to the standup stage less than a year after admitting to sexual misconduct, it continually begged the question of who — if anyone — was advising these people. Harvey Weinstein stayed in the headlines, while Bryan Singer stayed front and center in minds as he maintained a director credit on 2018 release “Bohemian Rhapsody” and used social media to denounce a potential article investigating him that still has yet to emerge. And at the end of 2018 John Lasseter was rumored to be looking for a new job — it was announced in early 2019 that he was joining Skydance Animation.
3. While it makes Oscar prognosticating difficult, I couldn’t be happier about the quality and quantity of amazing roles for women. From newcomers like Yalitza Aparicio in “Roma” and Lady Gaga headlining her first major feature with “A Star Is Born” to beloved vets like Glenn Close in “The Wife” and Olivia Colman in “The Favourite,” women were commanding the big screen. And they were allowed to be complicated, layered, and even — gasp! — unlikable at times. (See Melissa McCarthy’s wonderful turn in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” or Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the indie “All About Nina.”) When you look at your lead actress line-up and realize how many amazing performances didn’t make the cut, including the likes of Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns,” Viola Davis in “Widows” or Elsie Fisher’s stunning breakthrough in “Eighth Grade,” you know it’s a great year for female representation.
1. I thought 2018 was exceptional if you were looking in the right places. It because de rigueur to chalk it up as a weak year, but that complaint seems to pop up every year lately. There’s no accounting for taste, after all, but from brilliant and critically adored populist entertainment to transcendent art-house fare, it’s hard to make a case that 2018 wasn’t the whole package.
2. You name it. It feels like this year was a particularly sensitive one for a great many people. Virtually every major Oscar contender met with controversy, from “Green Book” to “Bohemian Rhapsody” to even “Roma” and “A Star Is Born.” Folks were mad in 2018. And it all came to a head with Kevin Hart bowing out of the Oscars amid the furor. Here’s hoping for better vibes in 2019.
3. “Black Panther” summarily dismissed a lot of long-held “wisdom” about the industry and that was fantastic to observe. Marvel or not, $700 million in U.S. box office dollars is a massive achievement, and what the international numbers (hopefully) mean for filmmakers of color looking for a sizable budget going forward — hard to undersell that.