To me, good art transcends what it is literally. I can point out a superb sentence, share the behind-the-scenes production details, break the plot down like a Wikipedia article, discuss the layers of authorial intent, but in the end, it’s always an attempt at articulating the ineffable qualities. Good art touches something inside us and rouses up emotion that feels bigger than ourselves. It’s an all-consuming, personal, and holistic experience that’s beyond simple explanation or lesson.
Maybe that’s why praising things I like in an isolated, non-fandom context can feel so flat. I always feel a combination of incoherent in trying to match the artistry of what I’m describing and embarrassingly simple of pointing out what seems obvious to me. Does this plate of food taste good? If it is, then why, how? It just is. There’s useful words like flaky, tender, sweet, etc. but it won’t be the experiences themselves, and that irks me, even when I’ve read critics I like, even when I know better.
But I want to practice. I want to tell others about the things I like just as well as I can tell other about the things I dislike. I want to share what art has made me feel greater than myself. I want to talk about good art that’s looked out for me, looked through me, and looked at me. That’s why I make these lists, when when they’re fairly late.
So let’s dive right in.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Watching this movie is like wrapping myself in the softest, warmest blanket on the cushiest couch with a perfectly, pleasantly hot cup of cocoa, topped with marshmallows and whipped cream, and not worrying about spilling it anywhere. There’s a deliberate indulgence in its mixture of classic and modern; a plucking of the best of both worlds, from its colors, to its costuming, to its tropes. To All the Boys I’ve Love Before wants to have its cake and eat it too, and it all works somehow. Lara Jean (Lana Condor)—the relatable, teenage romantic dreamer—is shown perfectly. You understand her personality not only from her internal narration, but her body language, her fashion, her room, and so on. She deserves the world and more. (Also extra big shout-out for not only an Asian American protagonist in a romantic comedy, but also an actress who’s a transracial adoptee.) Meanwhile, Peter (Noah Centineo)—the handsome, cocky, popular, most unlikely romantic interest jock—is full of himself, but not too much. There’s a sweet sincerity to his charisma that pulls you in. And when their chemistry blooms into mutual, tender vulnerability while they’re supposed to only be a pretend couple? It’s absolutely delicious.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Very few times in my life have I been moved to tears just because of a film’s sheer beauty. I would recommend If Beale Street Could Talk just based on the brilliant visuals and moving score alone. However, the technical prowess shown off here isn’t just to stun, but to immerse you in the main couple’s enduring, vibrant love. When Tish (KiKi Layne) pinpoints the moment she realized Fonny (Stephan James) was “the most beautiful man on Earth,” you don’t just believe her, you know she’s right. That’s what makes the strife they go through over Fonny’s unjust arrest by a corrupt cop even harder to watch. There’s a different version of their blossoming relationship that deserves to exist, unfettered by bigotry. Systems of injustice have always been more than just issues on a macroscopic level. Also, though the main focus is on the romantic love between the two, there are wonderful, heart-wrenching displays of familial love as well. True love can’t win out against everything, but it’s the hand that supports you through the worst.
Sorry to Bother You
I’m not sure if I’ve seen as creative and unique of a film as this, especially one so mired in our current politics. There’s no way this film won’t endure for decades to come. It’s an incisive exploration of the modern state of capitalism, labor, and race in the US. It’s also fucking buckwild. There’s just nothing like it right now. I could go into more detail, but the more it’s a surprise, the more thrilling of a ride it is. Sorry to Bother You a reflection of ourselves right in a fun-house mirror; distorted and weird but ultimately present, which makes the anxiety and shock of it even greater. It’s a messy movie that trails off sometimes, but those are easily forgiven stumbles when its ambition is so electrifying and explosive.
Crazy Rich Asians
Even as more and more people are taking the conversation of representation in mainstream pop culture seriously, it feels silly to admit how important this film was to me. I suppose it’s because it means admitting that what others, masses of others, think of myself actually does matter. It matters in a way that both has nothing to do with me as an individual person and has everything to do with who I am as an (Asian) American. So I can’t emphasize enough how much it means to me that this film not only did well financially, but was good.
At its heart, Crazy Rich Asians is a decadent film. It has some light critique of wealth and what that does to the people swimming in it, but it’s ultimately basking in the luxurious glamor of everything. It’s so much fun! However, what I love the most about this film is how it embraces the nuanced duality of being Asian American. Rachel (Constance Wu) is not only an outsider for her lack of experience around wealth, but for her American upbringing by a working class, immigrant mother. While it may be a point of contention for others, in the end it’s an blessing, one that she proudly asserts. Like Joy Luck Club, it’s a truly Asian American film, not simply one that’s one or the other, and that makes a world of difference in the complexities of cultural identity and representation. Of course, this film only covers a sliver of the Asian American identity, which is already an immense umbrella term. It also isn’t an unblemished Holy Grail (the biggest low point being a “oh my god, scary brown men in turbans” joke). However, I’m still so pleased with its presence in the Asian American film canon.
Roma snuck up on me in ways I didn’t expect. It’s a slow one, at a little over two hours. The movie follows the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper to a middle class family in 1970s Mexico. The most it has for plot are the intertwining threads of her unexpected pregnancy and her employers’ struggling marriage. Gradually, you’re let into her life, especially paradoxical nature of her work: she’s employed by the family for cooking, cleaning, dressing the children, and so on, but she’s also intimate with the family in ways that stretch beyond knowing their daily rhythms. In return, they consider her one of their own, and value her well-being, but only to the extent of what’s relevant to their own lives. Roma also shows Cleo outside of her job, but it’s clear how much of that job takes up her life in both physical and emotional labor. Because of this, there’s no separating Cleo between a “housekeeper” Cleo and a “true” Cleo. This doesn’t mean her humanity is closed off; it shines through in every scene, often in ways that display how her situation is complicated, tender, and precarious. It’s a gorgeous marvel of a movie.
Shirkers feels like something completely new. It follows Sandi Tan as she recounts the road movie (also titled Shirkers) that she and her friends made decades ago in their teenage youth. That film should’ve been a messy and charming classic in Singaporean film history, but the footage disappeared in the hands of her older, American mentor, Georges Cordana.
Nothing about Shirkers feels “objective” or is meant to be. Tan is always present, in the montages, the interviews, and the footage (quite literally). This means you get more than a glimpse at her youthful missteps: her self-centered drive to make that movie, her uncritical trust in a man who disrespected his students. Tan’s conspicuous perspective is key though. With her at the helm, Shirkers is someone reclaiming her agency and narrative. The journey she takes in reconstructing her own and others’ memory of filmmaking and finding out what happened is funny, vivid, and heartbreaking. It’s a wrong that can never be righted, but maybe she and the rest of the film’s crew can find some closure. Currently, we’re only beginning to understand men’s roles in the stolen and crushed potentials of women in creative industries, particularly in their early career stages. Shirkers is vital for anyone who’s interested in that question of loss and empty possibilities.
Talking about Black Panther is difficult when it feels like everything about it has already been said to death. Regardless, I can’t pretend this movie wasn’t an incredible experience. As I said before, positive representation of the marginalized in mainstream media on its own is nice, but it’s huge relief when it’s genuinely very good. The vision, the politics, and the characters are so refreshing. The intersection of power fantasy and real world struggles is thoughtfully explored. Women are written as full human beings with different personalities!
In some ways, Black Panther shows the seams of MCU formula, the thresholds it can’t break out of. (This especially becomes apparent when its participation in Avengers: Infinity War robs us of any meaningful exploration of its established theme of anti-colonialist globalization for Wakandan society.) But still, it’s been fun to see an amazing director flex his imagination in fun ways, very much like Thor: Ragnarok. MCU at its best provides an expansive, comfortable playground for filmmakers to experiment within.
I’m always weak for the found family trope, especially when it’s one that lives on the margins. Shoplifters tells a tender story of one made up of people just getting by, whether it’s unstable, blue-collar work or, well, the titular practice. Initially, the movie is about this family taking in an abused, neglected girl. You watch as her life becomes fuller and richer from receiving genuine care from others. The contradiction of their kidnapping and her newfound home seemingly appear as a simple, romanticized irony. “Those who behave in mildly morally grey ways can still have hearts of gold,” or “Those who are poor are better at caring for others.” However, as the movie goes on and snippets of their lives come to forefront, unanswered questions—ones that you may never even think of—begin to bubble up until they boil over in layered, surprising reveals. Shoplifters‘ heart is very real and tender, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still deep complications and pain to contend with.
The two Fyre Festival documentaries of 2018 have been discussed as condemnations of “influencer culture.” It’s a kind of destructive, aspirational chase that’s universal and timeless, but unique to the capabilities and manipulation of social media. Everything about Fyre Festival elicits a queasy combination of schadenfreude and shock at the culmination of people with way too much money and too little integrity. Eighth Grade is the other side of that coin.
While it’s not directly about influencers in the sense of paid sponsorships and supermodel selfies, the Eighth Grade tackles social media’s role in our lives as a tool to present and image while observing ourselves and others, especially for youth. There’s no influencer, vlogger, or celebrity that Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is trying to mimic, but she tries so hard to become a certain kind of person that she sees online: someone who’s relatable but charismatic; someone who has life experience but whose mistakes are all just consumable learning experiences. Eighth Grade makes it clear that children who grew up on social media aren’t air-headed sheep, but profoundly and painfully human. What they see and do online has a symbiotic, intrinsic relationship to “real life,” because it’s all real life. Nothing about her adolescent insecurities are new but the times she’s experiencing them in are. Transmitting teenage awkwardness through a story, without being cruel, condescending, cliche, or just plain wrong, is a true feat.
Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse
Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is a movie I could never get tired of watching. (For what it’s worth, I saw it four times in theaters in the span of two months.) It’s such a wonderful, breathtaking coming-of-age story with incredible visuals, amazing acting, and tight writing that manages to be funny and self-aware without dipping into tired, ironic snark. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a movie in years. There’s so much I could say about this movie (a day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about it), but I’ll just stick to one point: animation.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about Spider-verse reinvigorating superhero movies, a tough feat in a MCU and DCEU-saturated landscape, but especially so given that the titular hero has been adapted for film three times within my lifetime (to varying success). That is all extremely true but I’d also like to add that Spider-verse has reinvigorated full feature animation, particularly CGI. While I wouldn’t say that the stylistic tendencies of the Disney/Pixar are tired, they are the standard, one that most other major CGI animation studios aspire to. While I’ve noted that there have been other CGI movies carving out unique, interesting styles, Spider-verse poses the strongest challenge to the Disney/Pixar standard. It has its aim higher than looking great. It brims with love for superheroes, love for comics (embracing both its wonders and cliches), love for animation, and love for its characters (which is even more evident if you even just look at the crew discussing their work on Twitter). While its effect on artists can already be seen, its larger impact on the film and animation industries is too far out to see yet, but I’m excited.
Even after the adrenaline of its volatile ending wore off, First Reformed still haunts my mind. I’m not a religious person, but I find deep catharsis in stories that explore crises of faith, particularly if they’re on the bleak side. They often hold parallels to dealing with depression; there’s not only a loss of identity, but also of the simple drive to exist. When I was a college freshman, I was hit with a major depressive episode lasted for about two years. It was a struggle but I sought treatment and then eventually, I coped with it. I’ve never had an episode quite that bad since but it’s something that’s permeated the rest of my life. So I have a soft spot for media that explores these kind of feelings in all their brutal ugliness. (My most immediate comparison for this movie by the end was the very stylistically dissimilar End of Evangelion.)
Given the past several years of what seems like an inevitable train to the apocalypse of our own making—whether it’s wealth inequality, fascism, climate change, or all of it—it’s almost “nice” to have a movie that confronts the anger, the guilt, and the terror of it all in very human terms. Optimism is not in the vocabulary of First Reformed, but despair and self-destruction cannot be the only answer. It’s a tricky line to walk but I think it’s done perfectly. In some ways, it feels bizarre to persuade people to see First Reformed, as it was such an intensely personal experience. It’s one I feel like I can talk about forever. I can’t guarantee someone will get even close to what I got out of it, when it’s such an uncomfortable, grim film. But I think it’s a truly phenomenal, beautiful film too, one that’s worth your time.
The Favourite, First Man, Game Night, Leave No Trace, Mirai, Paddington 2, A Star is Born, Venom
Burning, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Hate U Give, Madeline’s Madeline, Minding the Gap, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Searching, A Simple Favor, Support the Girls, You Were Never Really Here
First Time Favorite Not From 2018
Big Eden (2000)