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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: Bodied

Prepare to be offended. The rap battle comedy/drama Bodied, executive produced by Eminem, is likely to push anyone’s buttons who watches it. While it gives an interesting look at the underground world of rap battles, it unfortunately is somewhat shallow and nihilistic in its views, It seemingly prefers to be about nothing other than how savage your rhyming bars can be as you put another person down. This is certainly entertaining, but those looking for a broader social commentary might want to look elsewhere. And any members of the PC police should leave their badges at the door.

Our main character is Adam (Calum Worthy), a college student and the son of famous Berkeley professor Merkin (Anthony Michael Hall) who is a darling of the literary criticism world, desperately trying to find his niche. He thinks he has found this in an academic study of underground battle rap, where he partners with a top battle rapper named “Behn Grymm.” (Jackie Long) Yes, that is a coded Fantastic Four reference, as he is a solid giant rock monster wall of the rap world. He IS The Thing. There are other incredibly nerdy references sprinkled throughout this film, as should be expected remembering that Eminem has repeatedly rapped about Superman, appeared as Batman and Robin in his “Without Me” video, and even contributed a Venom theme song to the recent film. Ok, maybe that last one we should forget.

Adam eventually finds himself pulled up onstage to participate in a rap battle rather than just studying it — and finds he’s actually pretty good at it. As he falls deeper into the rap world, he’s faced with ethical dilemmas along the way, from whether or not “the n word” is off limits to whether he should lie to his disapproving girlfriend. He joins a motley rap crew that includes Korean Prospek (Jonathan Park), Italian/Latino Che Corleon (Walter Perez), and female rapper Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) and it is fun to see this film’s take on what “diversity” means.

Unfortunately, the film falls into a (likely unintended) trope. Ever see a kung fu movie, tv show, comic book where a white person discovers they are somehow better at the ancient martial art than the people who invented it? Karate Kid, Iron Fist, The Matrix? This view shows up all over popular culture, and in this case, it’s the white person who is better at battle rap than all the people who came up with it. Ugh. Welcome to Orientalism, and specifically the “Mighty Whitey” trope.

And cue the discussion of cultural appropriation, which gets dissected plenty in this film. However, like most of the hard charges and questions the film puts out, none of them are ever satisfactorily answered. Which begs the question, what is even this film’s purpose? Is it just to be offensive? And is that, therefore, the essence of battle rap: there is no deeper meaning, it’s just insult comedy set to beats?

This film is the antithesis of political correctness. It celebrates how it insults people based on the race or background, but at least is equal opportunity in this, saving its worst put downs for white people. One rap battle between Adam and Prospek, he’s impressed that Adam correctly identified him as Korean with references to Korean food and comparing him to Kim Jong Un. “By rap battle standards, that’s politically correct,” he says.

There’s also a great conversation between Prospek and Devine where they both complain that the only insults they ever get are about their race and gender, respectively. They turn this on its head in one of the most satisfying parts of the film– however, in context of the critique of “self-deprecation as comedy” presented by Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, this film might want to rethink its choice here.

Its strongest critiques it saves for white liberals, and this is actually the heart of the film. Set largely between Oakland and the campus of UC Berkeley, our main character spends as much of his time trying to justify to his white friends why rap battle is worth serious inquiry. Interestingly enough, much like when he goes into rap battle mode to decide what put-downs are the best for his opponents, we see the group of white liberal students all sitting around trying to put each other down based on how racist or homophobic they are, using all of the buzzwords of political correctness. It’s a really great take on PC/ SJW culture– that essentially we’re just battle rappers in a different context. They’re not entirely wrong.

But, so PC police white liberals are too uptight. This we knew. And?

It’s really unfortunate that the film doesn’t seem to have a broader point of view than that. But maybe it’s just meant to be enjoyed, rather than thought about. It presents its subject as serious, but not really that serious. It, however, still hits hard, and should be taken seriously, if not literally.

3 out of 5 stars