The most important films of 2018

Annual top 10 list are boring and dumb and stupid and dumb and boring and, and, and dumb. At Reel Entropy, we aspire to track movies over time, and as such, instead of bringing you personal picks for the best movies of 2018, we’re going to put together a list of what should be the most influential.

Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Paramount Pictures, RLJE Films, Sony Pictures Releasing, Warner Bros. Pictures and Netflix, respectively.

1) Black Panther

Here it is! Black Panther, the first broadly recognized black superhero to get his own feature film.

Black Panther was outrageously successful on its release in February, quite literally eclipsing everything else that came through theaters for two months. Everything about the film, from its comic book roots to its visual design to its challenging plot, is a wild celebration of blackness, and the film completely eradicated any doubt about the viability of films lead by black actors.

Of course, that doubt had already been completely unreasonable for decades.

That’s why the idea that Black Panther is going to lead directly to greater on-screen representation for black people is a little dubious. Every argument against casting black actors and leads this film proves wrong were already demonstrably wrong a long time ago, but persisted as convenient excuses for institutional racism, which does not go away with its smokescreens.

Much more important than on-screen representation, to me at least, is representation behind the camera – having black writers and black directors bringing authentically black stories to life on the big screen, and oh boy did we get those in 2018.

Much like Wonder Woman last year, Black Panther is getting a “for your consideration” campaign that is probably more of a publicity stunt than a genuine attempt at Oscar gold, but for everyone whom these movies made a real difference to, it’s important to understand what they are to the studios that made them – fashion statements. These movies got made because and exclusively because, as Warner Bros. was announcing its slate of movies for 2016-2020 and Disney was countering with its Phase III announcement a few months later, more and more people were asking where the black and women superheroes were, and each studio recognized that it would be profitable to have an answer. Always remember that studios are not driven by a desire to do the right thing, and if it looks like they are, it’s because it’s currently fashionable to look so.

2) Annihilation

Again, this isn’t about top films, and this isn’t about why the listed films are good. So as much as I’d like to go on about the way Annihilation advances science fiction as a genre or it’s all-time sound design, which you’d already know about if you were one of the lucky few to see it in theaters, instead we’re going to talk about Paramount and Netflix.

In late 2017 when Paramount released Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, an aggressive, graphic biblical allegory that drew extreme backlash, Paramount’s worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan told everyone who had a problem with it they could fuck right off

“This movie is very audacious and brave. You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”

But the commercial failure of mother!, which owed significantly to the fact that it released into the shadow of Warner Bros.’ massively successful It, seems to have marked a disturbing shift in the company’s philosophy. Paramount started shaking up its executive suite, which included an ugly divorce with Colligan herself just a month and a half after these comments. Reportedly, chairman Jim Gianopulos sat down and personally culled the studio’s release slate of movies he thought wouldn’t do well with modern moviegoers, which included the much-derided Cloverfield Paradox because it was too bad, and also Annihilation because, apparently, it was too good.

The story goes after a poorly received test screening, Paramount executive David Ellison decided the film was “too intellectual” for a wide release and demanded several changes, including the removal of Lena’s infidelity and some sort of change to the film’s jaw-dropping, utterly perfect ending. Fortunately, producer Scott Rudin, who had final cut, refused to take notes from Ellison, but the impression that Annihilation wouldn’t connect to mainstream audiences was entrenched, and Gianopulos axed it internationally.

And so, just two years after the studio’s best performers were a Cloverfield sequel and an audacious, adult-oriented sci-fi masterpiece from an acclaimed director – Arrival – Paramount had sold off for pennies on the dollar, in full or in part, a Cloverfield sequel and an audacious, adult-oriented sci-fi masterpiece from an acclaimed director – this time Annihilation – to Netflix.

Several threads of this story trail into the future. Netflix has made a lot of enemies in not a lot of time as it has entered the movie distribution fray, serving as both a producer of original work, a competitive bidder for festival releases and a graveyard for studio castoffs. There are a lot of questions that come with every individual deal along these lines – is a given studio really getting more money by pawning a movie off to Netflix than they would with a release? Are more people seeing that movie than would have otherwise? Does having Netflix as a fallback plan embolden studios to take more risks? Will an increasingly symbiotic relationship with theatrical distributors allow Netflix to be more aggressive on other fronts, ultimately hurting studios in the long run as Netflix produces more original content and grabs more prestige pieces?

For Paramount’s part, the culling can’t exactly be said to have benefited them. The studio only saw two movies, Mission: Impossible — Fallout and A Quiet Place, break $100 million in 2018, though they will likely be joined by Bumblebee, which is still in theaters. Noted flops include Overlord and Sherlock Gnomes. Their entire slate of future films, which includes a Terminator movie set for release Nov. 1 that still doesn’t have a title, are undermined by the decisions to hawk Annihilation, and it’s extremely unlikely that the film will bring eight Oscar nominations to the studio like Arrival did.

To be fair, Annihilation did tank, earning only $32.7 million domestically against its $40 million budget – which was still good for Paramount’s seventh best performer this year. That’s less because it was “too intellectual” for moviegoers and more because, like mother!, it released just a week after a cultural phenomenon in Black Panther — maybe stop taking those release dates and blaming the movies themselves for doing poorly?

And that’s a damn shame. There are very few movies that really lose something when translated from big screen to small, but Annihilation is clearly one of them. There’s actual objective evidence to support that– many viewers who saw the trailer theatrically became obsessed with the musical cue at 0:55, but those who only watched the trailer online didn’t seem to understand.

In writer/director Alex Garland’s words, “We made a film for cinema.”

3) A Quiet Place

A major front in the war between theaters and Netflix is over water cooler moments – when viewers find the most talked-about moments in entertainment media, the moments our shared culture are built and re-built on, will they be in a theater or on their computer?

2018 was a strong year for theaters in terms of these moments, but one film that captured viewers for its entire runtime – A Quiet Place. Half-movie, half-sensory depravation tank, the film silenced audiences nationwide. It’s one of the year’s most memorable experiences in a way that’s independent of its success and quality.

4) Avengers: Infinity War

Talk about water cooler moments.

The financial accomplishments of Avengers: Infinity War seem almost perfunctory. It immediately took the opening weekend box office record both domestically ($257.7 million) and worldwide ($640.5 million), and sits at No. 4 on the all time box office charts, again both at home ($678.8 million) and abroad ($2 billion and change).

Interestingly, though Black Panther was the year’s highest performer domestically with $700.1 million, which is good for No. 3 on the all-time domestic chart, Infinity War beat it by more than $700 million on the international chart, where Black Panther sits at a perfectly respectable No. 9.

But Infinity War will always be remembered for its big moment, the apocalyptic ending in which Thanos destroys half of all life in the universe. The ending, and its inevitable reversal in the sequel, was telegraphed years ago – as soon as Disney announced the MCU’s Phase III in 2014 with the third and fourth Avengers movies called Infinity War Part 1 and Infinity War Part 2, anyone could guess what was about to happen – but it still took a majority of viewers by surprise, perhaps because the standard pattern of narrative beats is so ingrained at this point that it’s shocking when a movie deviates from it, even if that movie has told you when and how that deviation is going to happen.

What really was surprising and praiseworthy about Infinity War was the way this ending was handled as though it really is the end. In this culture of endless sequels, one that was started and perpetuated largely by this series, directors Joe and Anthony Russo worked to make sure Infinity War works as and feels like its own narrative, with the only hint of a larger world coming after the credits. Perhaps the only other Marvel movie that can say that is the first one, Iron Man, 10 whole years ago.

It’s also remarkable how the immense scale of this movie series affects the comic book tropes it’s now dealing with. It feels like characters die and come back to life on a weekly basis in the comic book format because of how fast they publish, but because movies exist in terms of weeks at the shortest and much more often in terms of years, we’ve spent an entire year with the characters who died in Infinity War still dead.

Avengers: Endgame, which was filmed in conjunction with Infinity War, releases April 26, of course.

5) “This is America”

David Lynch gave a quote to The Guardian about his films and television series in June

“A film or a painting – each thing is its own sort of language and it’s not right to try to say the same thing in words. The words are not there. The language of film, cinema, is the language it was put into, and the English language – it’s not going to translate. It’s going to lose.”

It makes a ton of sense for describing Lynch’s body of work, which is probably the most consistent attempt to directly translate films as dreams, nonsensical patchworks of imagery with emotions and the strong impression of an underlying feeling idea.

In the wake of 2017’s Get Out, 2018 was littered with movies that, in Lynchian fashion, strove to impress the feeling of being black in America – Black Panther definitely falls into this category, though that movie was much more about the fantasy of an Africa unmarred by the Atlantic Slave Trade. Directly on this topic were Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, Carlos López Estrada’s pulse-pounding Blindspotting and Spike Lee’s Black Klansman.

But in terms of sheer disturbia per-minute, the most harrowing and least explicable expression has to be the music video for Donald Glover’s “This is America.” The four-minute nightmare of casual violence, intentionally dysmorphic dancing and out-of-focus horrors in the background held the country in shocked dismay for weeks upon its release.

In addition to the ambition and aggression required to fit meaning into a four-minute video that’s comparable to a feature-length movie, it’s worth noting how much more broadly seen the “This is America” video was than comparable films. The video was seen 12.9 million times in the 24 hour period after its release and was up to 450 million views by December. Black Klansman, which is the most successful of the movies I’m comparing it to by an order of magnitude, grossed $48.3 million in the U.S. A movie can only be influential if you see it, and in that sense, the format of “This is America” allowed it to completely crush the competition.

6) Solo: A Star Wars Story

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, they promised that there would be an annual Star Wars movie from now until the end of time, for better or worse. Solo: A Star Wars Story bombed so badly that all of those plans are now on hold.

Well, it didn’t exactly bomb. It made $392.9 million worldwide. The problem is that was against a budget of almost $300 million because Disney decided to stop and make almost a completely new movie in the middle of production. There’s also a feeling it probably would have made more money if they had put together a vaguely competent advertising campaign and had not thrown the lead actor under the bus.

There are plenty of problems with Solo, but problems isolated to this movie don’t matter nearly as much as the way Disney handled them, which reflect several alarming long-term problems with the way the company is handling its movies.

They fired the director again. This happened with Rogue One. This happened with Ant-Man. This is currently happening with the as-yet untitled Episode IX. Disney has a disturbing track record, specifically with Star Wars but with other projects as well, of agreeing to bold takes tied to name directors and then turning back partway through the process.

They spent $300 million making one movie. Some of the best movies of the year, technical marvels, were made for a fraction of the cost — Annihilation cost $40 million to make. You could make seven and a half Annihilations for the price of one Solo.

Disney’s 2018 lineup is littered with films that cost far, far more than they should have. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms cost $120 million. Christopher Robin spent $75 million on puppets and fog machines. Mary Poppins Returns dropped $130 million on green screen, pretty dresses and some fucking fishing line.

And now Disney needs to reassess its budget and marketing for future Star Wars movies? Based on Solo? What lessons are being learned here, exactly? Who supposed to look at this train wreck marketing process during which absolutely nothing went according to plan and figure out a plan that would have accounted for it?

What are they going to find here? Is some genius going to figure out that maybe they should release the first trailer more than three months out from release? A lot of people have already figured that one out. Are they going to decide to not switch directors halfway through production? Most people already know that’s a bad idea.

There’s something to the idea that Star Wars fatigue has set in, but the numbers don’t bear that out. Star Wars movies spent three consecutive years sitting pretty atop the domestic box office chart before this disaster in 2018, and the idea that one horrendously compromised movie doing merely OK business represents all that coming to a screeching, permanent halt is just silly.

But what Solo does represent quite clearly is Disney’s extremely bad long-term habits catching up with them in a big way.

7) Mandy

It’s extremely rare for a movie to become a cult classic while still in theaters, but 2018’s most memorable film, Mandy, is a very rare movie.

 

Part of the requirements for becoming a cult classic is commercial failure, and Mandy guaranteed that for itself with an extremely limited 75 theater release Sept. 14. It was also sent to on-demand streaming services the same day, which locks it out from any Oscar contention.

Normally, cult classics gain popularity some years after they’ve been through the release cycle, but Mandy seemed to have skipped that step, being hailed as a future midnight movie immediately on its release, a prophecy that’s come true just a few months later.

8) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

In 2015, we – or, just me – were laughing at Sony for its handling of the Spider-Man property and its plans for a Spider-Man centric film universe. After stories leaked about their goofy ideas for future spin-offs and their extraordinarily poor financial planning, the company mercifully agreed to license the character to back to Marvel Studios for incorporation into the MCU, and that would be the end of their madness.

But flash forward to 2019, and it looks like Sony’s suddenly gotten everything it wanted. The Venom movie they were talking about all those years ago came out last October and grossed more than both of the Webb-Garfield Spider-Man movies, and now they’ve got an animated movie that went from an under-the-radar release to a major Oscar contender.

Moreover, the concept of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse lends itself very deliberately to a host of other Spider-Man movies, introducing the concept of distinct protagonists and art styles and eliminating the need for any wide-spanning continuity.

The Spider-Verse sequels, which are already in development, could be just as delightful as the film itself, but franchise fatigue comes built-in here.

9) Aquaman

Will Aquaman save the DCEU?

It’s doing quite well. It won Christmas weekend, which was the last weekend to see major releases for some time. Heading into the first weekend in January, it’s expected to spend its third weekend at the top of the box office, and I dare say a fourth will follow with a weak slate of releases Jan. 11 before 2019’s first major try, Glass, hits theaters Jan. 18.

But even before its spends the first half of January as the default big frog person in the pond, Aquaman has already passed Justice League’s domestic and international grosses, making it the most successful film in the DCEU in just 17 days of release. It currently sits at No. 7 on the 2018 domestic chart, and could overtake Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch at No. 6 with a bit of luck. A strong showing, to be sure.

But will Aquaman save the DCEU?

I don’t really know how to answer that question. What does “saving the DCEU” mean? Does it bringing dignity back to the franchise? Sadly, Man of Steel and Justice League can never be unmade.

Does it mean enabling future films? Well, after announcing its slate of movies through 2020 way back in 2014, DC has never publicly backed off these intentions, despite obviously missing several marks by this point. The Flash movie that was supposed to release last March is still supposedly on the way, as is the Cyborg movie nobody wanted, though they thankfully aren’t talking about Justice League Part II.

BUT WILL AQUAMAN SAVE THE DCEU???!

Look, the story of the DCEU is one of overcorrection and easily abandoned plans. You can see this play out over the course of the series, but most acutely in the trailers for Suicide Squad, which were sequentially designed to appeal less to DC’s Dark and Gritty aesthetic and more to look like a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel when they realized nobody wanted to watch another sad, grey-ish brown-ish mess.

So just because Aquaman finally got Marvel’s extremely simple formula right, released in the middle of the first Christmas season in three years where it wouldn’t be eclipsed by a Star Wars movie and then held at No. 1 for a month because nothing else took advantage of the early-January dead zone, that doesn’t mean, well, anything. Warner Bros. has demonstrated time and time again that the only thing important to them about these movies is that they make money, and the studio will bend over backward to make sure they cater to the broadest possible audience.

So even if Aquaman finally represents an unmitigated critical and commercial success story for the franchise – I’m not counting Wonder Woman because that had a lot of cultural pressure going for it – it doesn’t mark a real change of direction. Whether by the self-interested appeals to auteur theory that defined the early part of the series or by simply copying Marvel’s homework like they’re doing now, this is what they’ve always been trying to do.

10) Bird Box

If Annihilation is the story of the increasing symbiosis between Netflix and Hollywood, Bird Box represents their increasing hostility. While Aquaman has remained at the top of the box office, Bird Box has resoundingly won the battle for cultural relevancy with its flood of memes.

For a movie to be influential, it has to be seen, and Bird Box was that. Just seven days after its release, Netflix announced that 45 million accounts had watched the movie. The company says that’s a new record, which may explain why it released viewership information in the first place – it generally doesn’t.

But to put 45 million accounts in context, if 45 million people had gone to the theater and paid the average ticket price of $9 and change to see this movie, it would have made more than $400 million on its opening weekend, and that’s not counting the extra children and dates who probably shared accounts.

Obviously far, far fewer than 45 million people would have gotten off their couches to see this movie if they needed to go to a theater and spend extra money to do so, but the point is this movie got more eyeballs in less time than anything releasing in theaters ever has by several orders of magnitude. It’s to the point that star Sandra Bullock, the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning actress who was a household name as far back as the mid-‘90s, is being referred to as “the lady from Bird Box” because so many people who go to the movies so rarely they don’t know who Sandra Bullock is have seen and are talking about this movie.

Netflix has, with a significant degree of luck, produced a cultural phenomenon that is in some ways even bigger than hits like Black Panther and Infinity War, and no theater sold a single bag of popcorn to viewers on the way to see it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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