If pop culture is a reflection of how we're all feeling (and it is) then we're coming off a pretty monumental, and tumultuous, year. I'm not just talking about the endless Trump-related drama of the United States either. In a year that, from this vantage point, seems to have lasted a decade, it's easy to forget all the huge moments that happened, so let's walk through it real quick: South Korea's disgraced president Park Geun-hye was sentenced to prison in a massive corruption scandal, Najib Razak, the ousted prime minister of Malaysia, was charged in his own huge scandal, and China's Xi Jinping, through a constitutional amendment, was allowed to remain in power indefinitely. There have been assassinations, natural disasters, victories, and defeats. So much has happened that this article could just be a list of the big moments of 2018.
But it isn't. It's a story about how this global feeling wormed its way into some of the stuff we watched in 2018. What kinds of movies and series am I talking about? Let's start.
1987: When the Day Comes
South Korean cinema has never been shy when it comes to the darker chapters of the country's history. I mean, this is the country that once made a black comedy about the assassination of authoritarian president Park Chung-hee (the darkly hilarious The President's Last Bang). So when that Park's daughter, Park Geun-hye, found herself in the midst of one of the biggest graft scandals in Korean history, the cinema industry reacted with a series of films exploring some similar themes. The trend started last year with A Taxi Driver, a moving look at the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 and a powerful statement on the power of the press. It continued into 2018 with 1987: When the Day Comes, a tensely paced political thriller about police torture and the pro-democracy protest movement—called the June Struggle—that birthed modern-day South Korea.
It's the kind of movie that both captures the importance of a historical event as well as the mood of the times. It's also a movie that still wouldn't be made in some of South Korea's neighbors, where similar kinds of protests and state repression occurred in recent decades but conversations like this remain relatively taboo.
When it comes to monumental moments in human history, stepping foot on the moon is right up there with, I don't know, the invention of the internet as shit that changed everything forever. Sure, it's been more than a minute since any human has been back to that giant gray rock in the sky, but the fact that we even got there in the first place is pretty amazing (unless, of course, you're one of those people who think we never did make it to the moon, which, if you are, I don't know, fuck you?).
First Man tells the story of NASA's Apollo 11 project and Neil Armstrong, the first man to ever walk on the moon. It's not the first movie to try to tackle this subject, but where First Man succeeds is its dedication to the personal and deeply dangerous task that early Apollo astronauts had to undergo. Sure, the movie was dogged by some insane non-controversy, but honestly, in a few years' time no one is going to remember that some headlines hunting conservatives fired off some stupid tweets. We're all going to remember the powerfully human performances of Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy and the awe that comes with succeeding in a task so audacious that it is a huge step not for NASA, not even for the US, but for all people everywhere.
OK, so The Endless technically came out in 2017, or at least that's what IMDB says, but it didn't get a wide release until this year when it hit DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming sites so I'm counting it as a 2018 release for the purpose of this article. The Endless is also the first movie on this list about a big moment that didn't actually happen, but it captures the idea of how personal revelations can fit into a bigger, more terrifying, picture so well that it has to be here.
The Endless is a piece of artfully done mid-budget sci-fi/ horror that successfully rises above its meager budget with an A-grade story and direct, believable acting from its two leads, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who also wrote and directed the film. The movie follows two brothers who attempt to return to a small-self contained community they used to live in that may, or may not, be a cult. It's a film that leaves you guessing the entire way through and raises some interesting questions about how we would feel about some of the more insane ideas out there (Scientology, Reptilians, Flat Earthers) if they were somehow proven to be true.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Would you call a series about the time in every young woman's life when she has to decide between living the typical high school life or pledging your soul to the almighty Satan and heading off to study at a witch and warlock school a big, life changing moment? Sure you would. Netflix's remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch succeeds in ways it, honestly, shouldn't. The original was a piece of peak-late '90s fluff, a sugary sitcom that is probably a lot better in our collective memories than it would be if anyone tried to actually sit down and watch it.
This remake trashes everything but the core concept and (thankfully) Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as Sabrina's aunts and then builds a new, seriously complex and creepy world for the characters to inhabit. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is just as much a product of our times as Sabrina the Teenage Witch was of its own, but I guess today we're into stuff that's a bit more complicated and mature. That doesn't mean this new Sabrina isn't fun—it seriously is—but mixed in there with all that lightness and teenaged drama is a remarkably well-done show that I couldn't help but love.
You Were Never Really Here
Is there a better movie about violence and it's impacts than You Were Never Really Here? Not one that came out in 2018. Joaquin Phoenix goes all-in as a grizzled, quietly scarred veteran who makes a living tracking down young girls who've gone missing. There's a simmering intensity to Phoenix's performance here, and a nightmarish unreality to much of the proceedings. But it's also a movie about a trouble man's one shot at a potential redemption, and the lengths he's willing to go to protect that shot.
And it's a movie where a seriously massive Phoenix absolutely obliterates a bunch of guys with a ball-peen hammer so, you know it's not a film that's concerned with pulling any punches.
A movie we loved so much that it's on at least two of our "best of" lists this year, Shirkers is a movie about a film that was never made all the way back in 1992. It's a documentary about the making and then loss of what would've been Singapore's first (and only) road movie—a strange idea when you consider that it takes, at most, two hours to drive the entire city-state end-to-end. Director Sandi Tan uses footage of the partially recovered film to create a documentary that's a love letter to the Singapore of her youth and a deeply personal look at a specific moment in her own past. There's no doubt that Tan's life could've gone quite different if the footage of her original film hadn't gone missing, and this exploration of lost possibilities feels like a worthy redemption of what could've forever been a missed shot.
There are times when Maniac, a series by Netflix, feels a bit too on the nose—and I mean that in the most-positive way possible. The series is set in a weirdly out-of-place time that's both right now and not now at all. The technology is strangely familiar but antiquated and the motivations and characterization all too recognizable. Then it spends the entire second half jumping wildly between genres and settings, all of them pastiches of other movies, series, and periods that I can't help but feel a bit nostalgic about.
In the end, nearly every character has a big moment of realization, whether it's the endlessly depressed Jonah Hill, the stuck-in-the-past Emma Stone, or the deeply messed-up Justin Theroux. To explain how would give too much away, but just trust me and watch it when you're recovering from a too-late New Year's Eve if you missed it earlier this year.
It's a movie about a moment in everyone's young life where everything feels like it's about to change forever. That alone should be enough to secure it a spot on this list. But, honestly, I never watch this movie, so rather than fake it, I'm just going to assume it was good enough to earn it a spot somewhere on this list.
This was a helluva movie, one that effortlessly mixed the sensibilities of teen horror, grindhouse excess, and black comedy into an endlessly quotable package. But it's already on another list we wrote this year, and I can't think of anything else to say about it here.
Featuring a strong performance by John Hamm and a script that delivers on the promise of a tense, political thriller, Beirut should be right at-home on this list. But alas, it's more about the aftermath of big moments, both national (the Lebanese Civil War) and personal (the loss of a loved one), then it is about a big moment itself.