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Top Movies of 2018

Well, 2018 was quite a year. While I didn’t have a hard time picking my top five favorite films of the year, what I was surprised by was the “big middle” of everything I saw this year. Of the hundreds of movies I saw between theaters, film festivals, and originals thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, my average for everything I rated was a 3.461765 stars (out of 5). And while I only had a single 5 star movie (spoiler, it’s my #1), my most common rating for the year was a 4.5 (15 films) and a 3.5 (14 films). In terms of raw scores, my #36 isn’t that far off of my #6. That’s all to say we had a lot of really good movies– mixed with a few truly greats.

Because of that (call it indulgent, IDC) I’m giving you my Top 40, just like Casey Kasem back in the day.

The Top 40- 11:
(if you skip these to get to the top ten I won’t be offended)

40. Operation FinaleOscar Isaac leads a Mossad team to take down Adolf Eichman (Ben Kingsley) are you kidding me?!? Had to see this. File under: Jews kicking ass.
39. Overlord – the corollary to #40, but a black paratrooper taking out crazy Nazi scientists doing superhuman experiments. Reminds us Nazis are the bad guys.
38. The Rachel Divide -A Netflix documentary about Rachel Dolezal, mostly in her own words, the activist who claims she is trans-racial. It’ll make you think.
37. Ready Player One – This was my 13 yr old daughter’s favorite movie of the year. It reminds us that fun Spielberg is fun.
36. Ralph Breaks the Internet – It makes the list just for the Disney princess scene and “A Place Called Slaughter Race.”
35. A Simple Favor – Heavy on style, Anna Kendrick plays up the fun angle with director Paul Feig as a mommy blogger whose new best friend disappears. There’s a fun sort of “true crime” type mystery with the comedy here.
34. Mandy – this movie feels like a relic of another time — specifically, the 80’s with definite hints of Heavy Metal — and feels like it was made under the influence of a lot of drugs as Nicholas Cage takes revenge on a crazy cult who murdered his wife.

33. BlackkKlansman – I should’ve loved this movie more, but its weird tacked-on ending sort of blew it, and only in one shot in the entire movie did it feel like this was the same Spike Lee who gave us Do the Right Thing.
32. QuincyRashida Jones gives us the most intimate look at her father, master composer Quincy Jones. A great watch on Netflix.
31. Deadpool 2 – It’s a Deadpool movie. It’s great.
30. Widows – It’s a high stakes, high concept heist movie with an amazing female cast and political intrigue. It’s great.
29. Mary Poppins Returns – I love Mary Poppins. And Lin Manuel Miranda. It’s not as immediately classic as the original, but who expected it to? Emily Blunt is still amazing. And it’s great.
28. Hereditary – This is the movie that stuck with me the longest. Still, thinking about this movie makes me want to turn on all the lights in my house. Also, an amazing acting job by Toni Collette.
27. Number 37 – A movie you probably never heard of! I caught this gem at SXSW and fell in love. A South African slum gangland take on Rear Window by a first time black female director. Yes please.
26. RBG – This was a great year for documentaries. This one on the Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg checks all my boxes.
25. Incredibles II – This sequel to one of the greatest animated movies of all time (and one of the greatest superhero movies of all time) did some really amazing things thanks to director Brad Bird,, but the ending took it down a few notches. But the fact that this ended up at 25 tells you just how competitive this year was.
24. BlindspottingDaveed Diggs and Rafael Casal‘s tale of police violence, Oakland, and hip hop was a little too pat in its ending, but was otherwise masterful. A main reason Oakland ended up on my list of “Who won 2018?”

23. Searching – We’ve now seen several of these movies where they’re told only through what we can see on the screen of a computers. Like found footage, there are good and bad, and this is a good one. John Cho and Debra Messing deliver powerful performances in a story about trying to piece together the mystery of a missing daughter through her social media footprint, intertwined with a father losing touch with his daughter in the age of screens.
22. Bad Times at the El Royale – This might’ve ended up higher on the list if it had delivered more on substance over style, but this was still pretty amazing. And that soundtrack!
21. Minding the Gap – An amazing documentary about young adults growing up as friends in a rust belt town as skate punks and how life and domestic abuse has kept them back. Fascinating and maybe a bit too real.
20. A Quiet Place – Wow. Nothing quite shocked audiences as much as this, as well as exposed the worst theater-goers in America. Shut up or the monsters win! One of several reasons why I said Emily Blunt and John Krasinski won the year of 2018.
19. Leave No Trace – Props to writer/director Debra Granik and to amazing performances by Ben Foster and breakout star Thomasin McKenzie in this heartwrenching look at a dad dealing with PTSD who lives a solitary existence off the grid in the woods with his young teen daughter. Of course, when Child Protective Services finds out. . . well, you’re not exactly allowed to do that. And drama ensues.
(18.- tie) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – There’s a debate as to whether this is a movie, as it is currently being presented by Netflix, or a tv miniseries, which was how the Coen Brothers originally pitched it. This is peak Coen in all their forms, but if this is a movie, this is where it would fall.
18. Mission Impossible: Fallout – Finally it feels like writer/director Christopher McQuarrie leveled up his directing to the level of his writing ability. The perfect summer movie, even if I liked a few other movies from the summer of ’18 a little more.
17. Annihilation – Along with Hereditary, this was the movie that stuck with me (in my nightmares). Astounding visuals and an amazing ending, and an amazing cast.
16. Avengers: Infinity War – We knew we’d get to this eventually, right? There isn’t much more to add. Bring on 2019’s conclusion and Captain Marvel.

15. Upgrade – Done on a tiny budget, this movie packs a punch of a $150 million blockbuster. Brutal, fun, and thoughtful.
14. Vice – Dear Writer/Director Adam McKay, Don’t lie– you made this movie just for me to enjoy, right? Built to my tastes? The fact this isn’t in my top 10 (it would be in any other year) says a lot about the other films on this list.
13. The Favourite – Dear Writer/Director Yourgos Lanthimos, Same Question. Also, thanks for bringing back the fish-eye lens.
12. Crazy Rich Asians – I haven’t wholeheartedly loved a romantic comedy like this in ages. Just pure fun, and its stellar cast is amazing.
11. Won’t You Be My Neighbor – The movie most likely to make me cry in 2018. This is just sheer goodness. Again, how is this not in my top 10?

The answer is because those movies in my top 10 are just so great themselves. Here you go, without any further ado:

10. Roma

Roma

“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” A beautiful film by one of the best directors working today, Alfonso Cuaron. An ode to his maid, growing up in an upper-middle class house in Mexico City, this has some of the most beautiful and thoughtful cinematography of any film. The fact that it’s in black and white should also be telling. Even more importantly, the fact that Netflix is going to be in the mix for a Best Picture this year should have every movie studio quaking in their boots. If you watch this at home in your pajamas instead of in a theater, no one will think less of you, or at least I won’t. Just watch it.

9. Hearts Beat Loud

Hearts Beat Loud

Without a John Carney movie musical around for me to adopt this year as one of my favorites, I went with this one. Nick Offerman owns a record shop and tries to connect with his daughter who is about to leave for college through playing music together, when she falls in love with her first serious girlfriend. She writes a great song, they put it on Spotify, it gets some notice… and more. Just beautiful performances, great music, and a movie about love and family. Also, Ted Danson as a bartender.

8. Las Sandinistas!

Las Sandinistas!

Wait, what? Who? This documentary about the women behind the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is one of my favorite documentaries of the year in a year with amazing documentaries. (This isn’t the last one in my list) I first saw this at SXSW and fell in love. You will too if you can find a way to see this.

7. Paddington 2

Paddington 2

There isn’t a better word for this film than just “charming,” or perhaps “nice” or “good.” This is comfort food you didn’t think you needed. It will heal your soul and fill you with good cheer. Also? Hugh Grant for Best Supporting Actor.

6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Dear Sony, THIS is what you should be doing with your extended Spider-Man universe instead of. . . well, Venom. Every single one of your spider-personas in the film was perfect, but especially Spider-Gwen and Miles Morales. Peter Parker means a lot to so many of us. But it’s great that there are others who can take up that mantle: Spider-Man isn’t an everyman unless literally anyone could be him, regardless of age, gender, race, or species. This new, fresh take is so important, but so so is this animation. I’ve never seen anything like this, and I can’t wait to see more. More Miles and Spider-Gwen please! And Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir. Ok, just all of them.

5. Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade

This was another movie I adopted as a favorite ever since seeing it at SXSW. I can’t state this enough: as a father of a 13 year old girl, this is the most true depiction of what her life is like that I have ever seen. The rest of my favorites don’t seem to be getting much notice for major awards, so I’ll be pulling heavily for writer/director Bo Burnham and especially breakout star Elsie Fisher.

4. First Reformed

First Reformed

I sadly missed this at SXSW, and only recently caught up with it. I wish someone had grabbed me by the lapels sooner and made me watch it. What I dreaded as homework and maybe another stolid but off-putting performance by Ethan Hawke I instead found a complex narrative about faith, pain, moral imperatives, and a Christian view of our responsibility to take care of the earth. That REALLY checks a lot of boxes for me. “Will God forgive us?” Not if you don’t see this movie, she won’t.

3. Black Panther

Black Panther

Here it is. The big kahuna. The mothership. The single largest, most important piece of pop culture phenomenon in America for 2018. I literally de-friended a few fellow critics on Facebook because they didn’t like this movie, and when I pressed them for why, their reasons were bull$#!t and a cover for racism. If you can’t appreciate the filmmaking prowess on display here by Ryan Coogler, you have no business calling yourself a film critic.No other Marvel film has ever felt so little like it came off the assembly line. No other feels crafted quite so carefully, so deftly, with precision in every shot, in the delivery of every line. And to that, we have to give credit to this amazing cast. Michael B. Jordan is the greatest Marvel villain, and when he demands to see the Wakandan sunset, and die rather than live in chains, my heart breaks every time. “Show them who you are!” You did, Black Panther, you did.

2. Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical Strangers

This documentary came out of nowhere and astounded me. Sold to me as a story of three identical triplets adopted by different families who reunite by happenstance seemed like it would just be a fun little romp. Oh, cool! Nature vs. nurture– look at all the similarities between these boys even though they were separated at birth. And then. . . you find out what’s really going on. There’s a crazy twist that I still won’t reveal because not enough people have seen this. But once you find out, it will challenge everything you think you know about nature vs. nurture, no matter which side of the debate you are on.

1. Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You

This is the best movie of the year and the only film I gave 5 stars out of 5 to. Is it, in fact, a perfect movie? No. But, it’s so audacious in what it is trying to do that I will forgive any small problems it may have. And what this tries to do is skewer the intersection of class and race, delivering a stunning repudiation of Bay Area neoliberalism and technocracy. This is about the closest we get to Terry Gilliam, Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry doing a woke black power narrative, and it is fantastic. I heard from a lot of folks that liked this movie ok, until the ending, which they hated. To me, the ending was perfect and what made this so audacious– I, usually silent in most movie screenings, literally gasped, “What the f@$%?!!?!” As crazy as it was, it fit with the film’s themes and made me love it even more. For being that willing to reach for it — no compromises — this was my favorite of the year.

Fin.

So, that’s it. What do you think? You may have noticed some pretty big snubs in there. Some of those were intentional, some of those I never got around to see. Tell us what you loved and what you think I missed, overrated, underrated down in the comments.

And also here’s my list of the worst movies, and my Top 5 of Everything, along with “Who Won 2018?”

The Top 5 of Everything in 2018

While I also have a top and bottom list of the movies of 2018, I love things outside of movies, too. Indeed, so much of what has happened in 2018 has been outside of movies, or blurring the lines between what movies and television even are with Netflix bringing us things like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the first of whach was originally planned as a tv miniseries, and the latter is just. . . well, what even is Bandersnatch?

So, regardless of medium, here are my Top 5 favorites of everything.

5. Educated: A Memoir

This book hit a lot of lists of the top books of 2018 (including culture critic Barack Obama’s), but it hit especially close to home for me because, like author Tara Westover, I attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her story of growing up kept out of public education was too familiar to me, as survivalism and mistrust of public schools were something I encountered too frequently. This is the same anti-intellectual stew that spawned Glenn Beck and the Bundys’ ranch standoff/takeover of the Malheur Bird Refuge. But Westover’s memoir is a testament to what happens when this is taken to the extreme, to the point that as an adult she had never heard of the Holocaust. It’s a great read and my favorite book of the year.

4. Detroit: Become Human

Ok, there may have been “better” games than this in 2018. (God of War, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption II) But this story of a near-future where androids begin to gain sentience and their struggle for equality was my personal favorite. It almost wasn’t a video game– it was an interactive movie.

This is one of those games where the choices you make affect the outcome of the game, and you get to choose the fate of a revolution. Will your quest for equality for androids be violent, or non-violent? What are the consequences for the other characters you’re playing as?

This hit me right in my social-justice and robot-loving heart, and also had beautiful gameplay featuring a spectacular cast of actors.

3. Sorry to Bother You

Spoiler Alert: this was my favorite movie of 2018. First time director Boots Riley delivers a searing indictment of capitalism and racial expectations, exposing a sort of gonzo form of racial exploitation that is a perfect intersectional skewering of the nexus of race and class.

It’s very rare for a movie to surprise me, and this made me literally say to the screen, “What the f@#$?!?!

This was the only film I gave five stars to all year, and it’s something you have to see to believe.

2. Hannah Gadsby – Nanette

I had never heard of Australian comic Hannah Gadsby before this year, so imagine my shock in watching a Netflix special in which she announces her retirement from comedy and then proceeds to deconstruct what comedy is, blow it up, and put it back together again– all told against the backdrop of a heartbreaking childhood story of coming to terms with her queer identity. I never thought anything could make me feel such a rainbow of emotions over such a short period of time. This wasn’t just a comedy special — in the same way Childish Gambino’s “This is America” wasn’t just a music videos. Those were pop culture grenades tossed into the heart of the beast that blew everything up.

1. The Good Place

More than anything else this year, The Good Place ruled my heart and mind. I have not anticipated a broadcast television show like this in a long time, and in between seasons and episodes so many binges of previous seasons.

The best thing about this show that is sorta about the afterlife but kinda mostly about ethics but really just about us dirtbags here on earth and how we treat each other is how it keeps reinventing itself almost every six episodes or so. The show’s writers seem to be laboring under the idea that at some point the network is going to figure out the scam they’ve been running and pull the plug, so we’d better get through as much of this plot as possible. Where most shows would drag out their premise, this races through multiple setups in a single season. It’s refreshing, it’s smart, but it’s also stupid.

You put the Peeps in the chili pot and mix it all up, You put the Peeps in the chili pot and add some M&Ms, You put the Peeps in the chili pot. . .

This season’s episodes “Jeremy Bearimy” and “Janets” deserve ALL THE EMMYS, especially for acting from Janet herself, D’Arcy Cardon. If you saw them, you know why. If you didn’t see them, what are you waiting for?! To Netflix! To Hulu! Begin the binge now!

It’s the best show on tv– fight me. It’s the best thing from 2018– let’s be friends and watch it together, will you please? It will make you laugh and feed your soul. Also, it has its own official podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays Shawn, who ends every episode asking, “What’s good?”

The Good Place. It is good. And the best for 2018.

So, Who Won the Year?

I also like to look back at the year look for threads, throughlines, trends that indicate something. Invariably there are big winners and losers in the year. I want to quickly celebrate the top winners.

Honorable Mention: Nicholas Cage

Despite being somewhere between an internet meme and a pariah, Nick Cage still gets some pretty amazing work this year. His starring role in Mandy is like a cocaine-fueled horror fantasy made in the 80’s and then set to age for three decades soaking in LSD. But then he also showed up in the cartoons in some of the most unexpected places: as Spider-Man Noir in Into the Spider-Verse and as Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. We’re glad to see him working.

Other honorable mentions: Donald Glover, Streaming Services, Steve Carrell, Mahershala Ali, Dolph Lundgren, Michael B. Jordan

5. Cults

This was a good year for cults in movies and tv. Mandy, Bad Times at the El Royale, Wild Wild Country, and Hereditary. Also, the bizarre stories about real life sex cult NXIVM that involved Smallville‘s Allison Mack. So, way to go, cults? At least you have some diversity here– Jesus, Satan, new age, but all of them were big on sex, So, sex cults. Way to win 2018.

4. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski

These two not only had an amazing year, but they did it together. Blunt killed it as Mary Poppins, Krasinski brought Jack Ryan back, and then you have their on-screen duo in A Quiet Place. That movie was such a revelation– mostly about how terrible mainstream movie audiences are at making noise. But in a year when almost every top-grossing film was a sequel, franchise, or remake, A Quiet Place was a true original. Thanks to both of you. You won the year.

3. Comicsgate and the Alt-Right

Now hear me out. I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but the alt-right actually accomplished a decent amount this year, and it’s completely unacceptable. James Gunn is still fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3. Chuck Wendig was fired from Star Wars/Marvel comics. And, they raised a lot of money through crowdfunding for various ventures.

These guys aren’t playing around. And as long as they keep weaponizing things like offensive tweets, we will lose great creators from our favorite genres.

2. Asian Movie-going Audiences

Look, America, we need to understand that most movies aren’t being made for us anymore. We can decry as braindead anything like The Meg, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Skyscraper, Aquaman, Rampage, or Venom, but those movies kill overseas. There are very specific motifs and types of shots that work there that we as American audiences just aren’t picking up. This is going to have reverberations for years to come.

What’s the major difference? You can make a strong argument for diverse casts and female leads — giving us hits like Black Panther or The Last Jedi — but those movies generally just sort of do ok overseas while overperforming in the US.

That says something comforting about our country and culture at this time. But it says some things that should maybe be concerning that we won’t get complex stories like these in the future while we spit out more Venoms.

Perhaps the biggest irony in all of this is the alt right crusaders who don’t want diversity in our movies, shows, and comics will find common cause with the globalists who will continue to churn out lots of braindead action movies starring heroic dudes. Sigh.

[tie] 1. Disney

The Walt Disney Corporation had an amazing year, which caps off some pretty incredible past few years and is likely to continue into 2019. Why? Disney+ streaming service. The Fox merger. This isn’t necessarily good news for us, but is great news for corporate profits and creeping oligarchy. But, they gave us Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Mary Poppins Returns, Ralph Breaks the Internet. . . even the supposedly underperforming Solo: A Star Wars Story ended up making 393 million dollars worldwide. And that was considered by some a failure, even though 18 of my top 20 films of 2018 would love to have sold that many tickets.

But let’s talk about Black Panther for one moment. It’s arguably the most culturally salient and important piece of pop culture of the year, with Infinity War not far behind. For all their evils as a corporate overlord, we got something truly important for a lot of people to see — an authentically black superhero story that deals with identity, a history of violence and oppression towards the African diaspora, and that leaves us remember that “in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.”

When the box office receipts went off the charts, you gave back– founding an actual charity to do the work of STEM education and scholarships like T’Challa and Shuri wanted. Thank you, Disney. For an evil corporation, you sure gave us a lot of what we loved this year. You win.

[tie] 1. The City of Oakland

Speaking of Black Panther, one of the most important pieces of the film is how director Ryan Coogler brought his Oakland roots into the film. That moment when you realize the voiceover from the beginning of the film is of young Erik and his dad N’Jobu (“Tell me a story of home.”) and the entire basis for Killmonger’s wrath is based on the economic oppression of being raised in poverty in Oakland and what he had to do to escape it. It ends with a hopeful note in the same building, that future children will not have to face such hardship. “Who are you?”

I already mentioned my love of Sorry to Bother You, but that film is not possible without Oakland as a backdrop. The same is true of another of my favorites, Blindspotting, which takes a similar look at poverty, gentrification, and violence. And then we have Bodied, the rap battle movie produced by Eminem, which plays a major part in the film, but whose setting is split between Berkeley, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Still, Oakland as a force is in that film.

And then there’s real life. The Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship. A white woman calls the cops on a black family having a cookout at an Oakland city park at Lake Merritt and becomes known as “BBQ Becky.”

And then heartbreak. The Oakland Raiders plan to leave for Las Vegas looking for more corporate pork and handouts.

To understand what is going on in Oakland in film and culture is to understand a microcosm of what is happening in so many cities across the country facing gentrification and economic pressures that are displacing historically black populations. It is why I recommend to everyone they see each of these films I mentioned here and think about what is actually happening.

To 2018, the year of the Oakland Renaissance.

Movie Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

bad times poster largeBad Times at the El Royale might tread some familiar territory, but it’s also not like anything we’ve quite seen before. Much like director and writer Drew Goddard’s previous film, Cabin in the Woods, this is both an homage and new classic in the canon of “strangers meet at a hotel” noir thrillers.

The basic story is quite simple, and don’t let anyone spoil any more than this for you. Four strangers check in to the El Royale Hotel which sits on the border between California and Nevada, with half of the motel in each state. The old place has seen better times, once the hay day of licentiousness in 1960s Rat Pack Nevada, it has now, for one reason or another, fallen into disarray and ill repute. However, these four strangers, a priest played by Jeff Bridges, a singer played by Cynthia Erivo, a vacuum salesman played by Jon Hamm, and a California hippie played by Dakota Johnson, all check in one fateful afternoon. Each has a secret, or multiple secrets, as does the hotel itself. And wackiness ensues.

The film also includes great turns by a supporting cast that includes Chris Hemsworth, who reunites with Goddard after Cabin in the Woods as a would-be Manson family/cult leader, and also a brief any-shorter-and-it-would-have-been-a-cameo appearance by Nick Offerman. A lot of the hotel’s secrets are also held by the El Royale’s only staff person, played by Lewis Pullman, who has a bunch of secrets of his own.

One of the best things about the film is its structure, revealing the backstories of each of our main characters one-at-a-time as it explores them in their individual hotel rooms, identifying them by their rooms (Room 4, Room 5, Room 1) rather than their names. It’s the setting-as-character basics that make an atmospheric film like this so much fun, especially as it relies on a late 60’s R&B heavy soundtrack to establish its feel. And, oh my gosh, that soundtrack. In this way — its structure and reliance on soundtrack — it’s easy to make comparisons to Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, this film bears a lot of resemblances to Tarantino’s own take on “strangers meet in a hotel” The Hateful Eight. But Bad Times at the El Royale is so much more, especially in shedding much of Tarantino’s problematic racial commentary/edginess for a better social conscience that is far more incisive. Royale also retains Goddard’s interest from Cabin in the Woods on themes like voyeurism and its counterpoint, paranoia about people watching you.

The film really rests on three main performances — Bridges, Erivo, and Hemsworth. Jeff Bridges for the last many years has been largely coasting, with most of his performances ranging mostly between mixes of his personas as The Dude and his Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart. Even his most compelling recent roles, such as in True Grit and Hell or High Water are really just mixes of those two. Finally in Bad Times at the El Royale we see him stretch his acting muscles and doing something wholly new and interesting.

And Hemsworth, known best for his blockbuster performances as a leading man does something wholly new and interesting. He’s beautiful and charismatic and menacing and quixotic and everything you expect a cult leader to be. What’s really interesting is he seems to be basing at least some of his vocal cadence and performance on the unlikeliest of people — Bill Murray. While that shouldn’t be in itself surprising since Murray also has straddled comedy, action, and serious drama extremely well, but it’s that he sounds just a little bit like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack. . . so he’s got that going for him.  You almost forget he’s in this movie, as he doesn’t really appear until the third act, and when he does he comes in like a heretofore unseen movie monster straight from the pits of hell. And yet, he also provides the explanation for a lot of what’s happening in the film thematically.

However, Erivo is the real star of the film as Darlene Sweet, whose singing performances provide both soundtrack and commentary to the film. Her singing literally has to carry several of the scenes and it is intense and soulful. This is a star-making performance and I can’t wait to see more of her in a few weeks in Widows. There is something to be said for the film’s commentary on race and expectations both in its late 1960s setting and today. [Minor spoilers for the first 10 minutes of the film, so skip if you must] Her reveal of her story and background are one of the most important. When she checks in, several comments are made by other characters that imply she is checking in to do sex work. She is dismissed. She is invisible. She is assumed to be less than she is.

Later, she provides some of the film’s best commentary as she skewers Hemsworth’s Billy Lee by deconstructing exactly who he is and what he is doing. Unbeknownst to her, she beats him at his own game, hoisting him on his own pseudo-intellectual/spiritual petard. She’s the center of the film, its Rosetta Stone to understanding it. And it’s a slamming indictment of racism both in the 60’s and today that we’re sort of tricked into a stealth lead role by a woman of color. Three white men top the bill for the film when she is, in fact, the key character. This says everything about the subtle ways white male supremacy clouds almost everything into a cultural landscape where black women are largely made to be invisible. There’s also a moment where she does this great character reveal that changes her appearance– and it says so much about (white) beauty standards and the expectations for women of color to change in order to pass in (white) society.

The film is violent and brutal. Even from its opening moments which provide some fairly shocking, and, in retrospect, amazingly aware, cinematography. There are moments in the film where the camera placement and shot composition is so on point. You could frame some of these images and put them on a wall, or composite them into a movie poster.

The script is also fairly smart, full of quippy dialogue that never seems to take itself quite so seriously. At times, the script seems to want to make a point about the nature of duality — Heaven and Hell, good and evil, California and Nevada — but it’s never quite as smart as maybe it thinks it is. However, I doubt Goddard ever meant for the script to be all that smart. While offering some imagery and symbolism, it doesn’t seem that there is any greater grand meaning or design behind any of it. While there is duality, Goddard isn’t really making any statements about the nature of Good and Evil, etc. It’s mostly just a fun thriller which is character-forward rather than symbolism-forward.

And while the visuals in the film and its methodological approach are beautiful and masterful, it’s also an incredibly slow burn. The only downside is that the film clocks in at 2 hours and 21 minutes, and it sometimes feels it. There were likely places that could have been cut from this, and it’s possible some of the material is just dealt with a little bit too preciously. Goddard seems to feel the need to let his cast really chew some scenery and have fun with the script, rather than push the film along. It’s very possible though that this is a feature, rather than a bug. It’s sort of like ordering the “cowboy” bone-in ribeye steak instead of the more basic cut. Yes, you have much more gristle and fat, but even though you won’t necessarily ingest those parts, they give you something flavorful to gnaw on that adds to the experience. So just make sure as you go in that you don’t order the largest soda or you have a steel bladder and are ready to sit through the entire run time.

This is one of the best films out there right now though. It’s a lot of fun if noir-thrillers strangers-in-a-hotel is your sort of movie. Well maybe not as good as Cabin in the Woods, it does offer some great thrills and is worth treating yourself to on a big screen so you can enjoy the visuals and colors as well as the performances by some great actors at the top of their game.

4.25 out of 5 stars