New Year’s Tradition (At a New/Old Location): The Movies That Made 2018 For Me

2018 was a weird, transitional year for me. I stopped writing about movies for a huge chunk of it to focus on editing and on the job that actually pays the bills. But that’s dumb because, you know, I still have some free time I can put toward this. So I am. I’m shaking off the rust in 2019 by commemorating some of the great movies I saw the year previous, as has been my New Year’s Day tradition these last several years. My moviegoing took as much of a hit as my movie writing, so bear with me as I still haven’t seen stuff like Hereditary, Roma, Suspiria, and tons more.

Top 10 (In No Particular Order)

Sorry To Bother You

Dir. Boots Riley


As a former call center employee who was considered “talented,” I knew this would have a special place in my heart before I went in. I came out thinking this is a contender for the satire of our era. The Coup’s Boots Riley creates a candy colored fantasia out of class, gender, and race struggles to show how our corporate overlords will never, ever stop trying to wring more out of us, to use and abuse the bodies of people they deem no better than animals—so they may as well literally turn the poor into livestock. Oh, and it’s funny. Like, really funny. Who says socialism and class war has to be humorless?

Eighth Grade

Dir. Bo Burnham


Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is in her last week of eighth grade and she’s out to sea. Her friends are mostly nonexistent, her single dad (Josh Hamilton) is a loving but often unhelpful sad sack who looks like if Stephen Malkmus got a job in some company’s accounting department instead of writing “Cut Your Hair,” and her YouTube advice channel isn’t getting the traction she hoped—probably because the ums and uhs that dominate her anxious speech don’t make for good TV. Over the course of comedian Bo Burnham’s first movie, she learns to say “no” to the shitty peers she has long wanted to impress, and we learn how to be proud of a fictional character.

Minding the Gap

Dir. Bing Liu


While I’ve never met documentarian Bing Liu or his group of skateboarding friends personally, I know them—deeply. The skaters and drunks and addicts and dropouts in the Chicago suburbs were my pals pretty much every other weekend from the age of 14 on. This doc’s setting of Rockford isn’t far from where my best friend relocated at the start of high school, and where I spent a lot of weekends maintaining that friendship. The DNA of these areas is practically identical, from the generational abuse cycles (physical, emotional, chemical, you name it) to the Rust Belt blight to the complicated racial politics of an area where to be a minority means that you’re verrry much in the minority—sure, you’ve got white friends who love you and think they have your back, but will feel empowered to embrace casual racism in your presence because they’re “enlightened” or some other bullshit excuse. These kids are lost, repeating the mistakes of their parents, and in one depressing case, showing how the next generation’s attitudes toward women might not be any better than the ones that preceded it if we don’t call it out clearly and bluntly the way Liu does to his friends and subjects. It’s brave to be this honest about your loved ones’ serious faults in public, and I’m grateful for him.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen


It would not be a lie for me to say I greatly admire how the Coens’ anthology of western stories features every conceivable tone with masterful pivots between each section (save for the only bum note: the James Franco story). But let’s face it: This movie is on the list because no casting has ever been as perfect as Tom Waits as a gold panner.


Dir. Alex Garland


I self-destructed in many ways in 2018, so I am grateful this low-down, rotten year at least gave me Annihilation as a roadmap to reframe my failures and evolve the way Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, does throughout this horrific science fiction film. Her marriage is in shambles by the time her husband goes missing into the Shimmer, a blob of extraterrestrial goo that doubles as a metaphor for the constantly shifting elements in a troubled mind. Lena winding her way through mutating landscapes and nightmarish amalgamations of once-recognizable creatures (the bear screaming with a mauled woman’s voice is the scariest thing I’ve seen in years in any context, cinematic or not) is therapy on a big screen. It grows more extraordinary every time I think about it.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman


When it comes to the year’s big superhero movies, Black Panther is probably a more important cultural moment. It’s amazing, and it can be seen in my honorable mentions below mostly because other, more qualified writers can express its importance to representation, power, and Hollywood’s potential for a sea change of multicultural storytelling better than I can. Instead, I want to say that a movie with a cartoon pig named Peter Porker: Spider-Ham whacking bad guys in the head with an oversized wooden mallet is the greatest representation of comic books I’ve ever seen. That last sentence may sound like a joke, but it filled me with the kind of joy that’s usually reserved for making a baby giggle. On a more serious note, the movie’s recontextualization of the Spider-Man mythos to include biracial teens, girls, and extradimensional noir detectives is such a great way to say that sharing the cultural wealth makes things great for everyone.


Dir. Carlos López Estrada


This film is full of good humor, affecting drama, terror, and some of the best closeups of 2018. But mostly I’m grateful that, in the year of criminal justice reform at the federal level, we got a character like Collin (Daveed Diggs), an ex-con who makes no bones about the fact he did the crime and is still a great and improving person worthy of love, respect, and peace of mind. That’s truly radical storytelling.

You Were Never Really Here

Dir. Lynne Ramsay


This movie feels like it resides in a monsoon. Water pummels everyone, chokes them, envelopes them. No strand of hair appears the screen un-dampened, there is no such thing as a single drop of blood, only buckets. It is only when protagonist Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) enters a dry area—a diner—that he can feel a tiny amount of peace—that is, if he can keep himself from raining his own viscera all over the place. Lynne Ramsay’s 90-minute peek into the worlds of sex trafficking, corrupt machine politics, and clinical depression hurts you in a way you need to be hurt, so you can recognize the seedy world that lives beside us. It reminds you that to be a hero in a world like this doesn’t mean smiling, wisecracking, and parades for accomplishment. It means you lose your humanity. And you do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do.

First Reformed

Dir. Paul Schrader


If I learned anything from my own serious mental health issues in 2018, I learned it from First Reformed: Never retreat from everyone and everything. You’ll only find despair. If you run toward others, you’ll still find despair—but a smidge of hope too. And that smidge feels like salvation.

20 Weeks

Dir. Leena Pendharkar


It’s the most human thing in the world to dwell when things seem like they’re about to go horribly wrong. We cycle through our thoughts, pore over every action we took, and fret over every minute detail of our lives to find some meaning and a person or event to blame—and we perversely call it self-reflection. It’s the most socially acceptable form of torture. But here’s the thing: Sometimes things just don’t break your way. You can’t control it, and if you think you can, you’ll drive yourself to madness. Leena Pendharkar’s 20 Weeks, about a couple unraveling over the potential for their unborn baby to have a host of developmental disorders, reveals the weaknesses in men when we grow fearful, and the resilience of women who have to deal with weak men. It’s a show of female strength and a plea for male maturity, and a kick in the ass I need more often.

Honorable Mentions

Black Panther, Springsteen On Broadway, Nanette, Saturday Church, First Match, A Quite Place, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Cam, First Man, A Star Is Born, and probably more that I’m forgetting. Every year is a good year for movies. Remember that. Happy 2019.


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Tonight’s Assignment: The Feed at Schuba’s

I’m heading with a couple other Halfstack staff members tonight to Schuba’s on Southport to see St. Louis power pop band The Feed.  They sound a bit like Brendan Benson’s solo stuff, with a lot of hand claps and “woo-woo”s.  Summer calls out for acts like this.  I’ll post my review and interview with them as soon as I’m done with it.

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Here’s My Interview with The Deltaz

I teased this yesterday, and the following is my conversation with roots band The Deltaz, who are playing again in Chicago at Moe’s Tavern on Milwaukee Ave. tonight.  They have an open, austere sound with real dirt to it, and lyrics that recall the demons of country’s past.  Plus they were gregarious and a blast to interview.  Here’s singer-guitarist Ted Siegel on their recent trip to New Orleans.

“We saw two guys get jumped in New Orleans, like, bloody. That was kind of strange. It was horrific. We were coming out of a gig in New Orleans. We’d heard about how New Orleans is kind of crime ridden with violence. We didn’t think too much of it. You know, you can be kind of ignorant when you’re in a new place. We were coming out of a show and all of a sudden these two big guys, big touristy looking guys, come running up to us and they were covered in blood. It looked unreal. They were like, ‘Oh my God, we were just jumped and robbed. Someone call the police.’ They were covered in blood. It was actually kind of a frightening experience.”
Read the rest of the interview at Halfstack Magazine.

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Tonight’s Assignment: The Deltaz at Uncommon Ground

I’ll be covering Los Angeles roots rock band The Deltaz tonight at Uncommon Ground on Chicago’s north side for Halfstack Magazine.  They’re no-frills types, a straightforward group.  Hollow guitars and ramblin’ man story songs.  They go on at 8.  I’ll sit down for an interview with the guys afterward, but otherwise I’ll be flying solo.  Anyone in the Chicago area who wants to get a beer with your favorite up-and-coming culture journalist, come say hi and let’s talk about the show.

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WAT-AAH Chicago Art Exhibit

As I wrote here almost two months ago — wow, I’ve been lazy around these parts — I have been working for Halfstack Magazine lately.  I’ve been getting up the gall to go full-on backpack journalist by being my own photographer, working from home, emailing the editor, etc.

Anyway, I attended an event Friday for WAT-AAH, a bottled water company with a neat marketing strategy of using street and graffiti artists to design their labels.  They expanded to Chicago after art exhibits in New York City and Washington D.C. in recent months.  My piece for Halfstack, “Using Street Art to Get Kids to Stay Hydrated,” has the run-down on everything, but here are the photos I didn’t have room for in the writeup.

There’s some gorgeous work in here.  There’s nothing monochromatic to be found.  Everything is bright, vibrant, and has the rush of passion instead of the rush of impatience.  Every brushstroke is fluid and athletic.  As WAT-AAH expands to other cities — CEO Rose Cameron told me Philadelphia, Miami, some Texas cities, Los Angeles, and others are in the offing — you should go and get your kids to drink more water by showing them how cool the labels are.
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July 22, 2014 · 11:22 pm

Read Me At Halfstack Magazine

I have joined the blogging team at Halfstack Magazine.  I will continue to post here, but there will be more Chicago entertainment and nightlife content from me over there.  My first post, a review of the Goodman Theatre’s production of The White Snake, was posted yesterday.  Go read it, comment, and if you’re in Chicago, go see the show before it closes on June 8.

I’ll post links here to any Halfstack articles I have coming up.  Stay tuned.

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Support Solar Roadways

This video has made the rounds on social media lately.  The idea to replace all existing American roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways with smart, durable solar panels is an ambitious one.  It may even be ingenious.  It’s certainly worth more investment, which you can do at the engineer couple Scott and Julie Brusaw’s Solar Roadways Indiegogo page.

For all the entrepreneurial spirit described, and the gigantic, world changing effects of approximately tripling the United States’ energy output from non-carbon sources, this is not likely to be the silver bullet that solves climate change.  It will take years, maybe decades, of political wrangling, extreme investment from private, local, state, and federal funds, and it will face fierce opposition from people who stand to lose profits — namely, those in the carbon emission industries like oil and coal.

But, as should always be kept in mind, the good can not be the enemy of the perfect.  This will be a tremendous pain in the ass, with unprecedented construction, cost overruns, bitter and petty disputes, and any unforeseen consequences my small mind can’t currently fathom, but the benefits outweigh the headaches.

People like me in the polar north (Chicago) will no longer worry about the roads collecting traffic-slowing snow and sleet.  Expensive paint will no longer be needed to create medians because of the LED lights installed in the solar roads.  Power lines will be buried underground rather than subject to weather-related damage.  Electric car refueling ports can be installed at even intervals so nobody runs out of electricity on long road trips.  Other industries, like fiber internet, could join the effort to speed communication lines across the nation.  The job gains would be humongous for the initial construction and many could be sustainable for upkeep and repair.  Those repairs could be electronically monitored by the roads themselves, which would then alert repair crews.

And the big one: 100 percent energy independence from foreign oil and carbon (industries, not counting things like cattle flatulence) in general.  The United States would be world leaders in energy and our technologies and manufacturing would again be the most in demand in the world.

I’ve put down a meager investment, and you should, too.  It’s the best climate change solution I’ve seen for its utilization of economic growth, Jetsons-style futurism, and flexibility in helping to improve other industries.

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Gordon Willis Is Gone

Much will be written about the passing of cinematographer Gordon Willis in the coming days, about his contributions to cinema, his impeccable sense of lighting and composition, and the legends he helped create.  But none of it will do his work justice.  It won’t properly contextualize what he meant to the visual medium.  His greatness can only be experienced viscerally.

Perhaps his best known work was on The Godfather.

He caused a sensation throughout Hollywood with his lighting techniques in Klute.

He shot Woody Allen’s most beautiful film, Manhattan.

He changed film forever.  He darkened it, yes, but also made it a place where the austere could be more beautiful than the busy.  Understatement became overwhelmingly gorgeous in his eye.  The way a low-watt lightbulb’s glare filtered through his lens lent more to a scene’s power than any performance.  His figures were relatable but unknowable, lit just so to give them the power of myth.

And now that talent is gone.  It will be missed, but the transformative body of work that is left will forever be dissected, studied, beloved by cinema lovers.

Thank you, Prince of Darkness.

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No, the Blackhawks Will Not Win the Cup Because Patrick Kane Won an Earlier Series

Comcast Sports Net Chicago’s website ran an infuriating piece yesterday entitled “Why Kane’s game-winner may foreshadow another Cup for Hawks.”  Consisting of only 115 words of copy, it suggested the Chicago Blackhawks might be primed to repeat as Stanley Cup champions because their most talented player, forward Patrick Kane, scored a series-clinching goal in overtime against the Minnesota Wild the night before to send his team back to the Western Conference Final for the second straight year.

Their evidence was thus:

In 2010 Kane scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime of game six against the Philadelphia Flyers.  In 2013, he completed a hat trick in double overtime against the Los Angeles Kings to send the Hawks back to the Final.  And on Tuesday night, he did this.

CSN stupidly adds, “Notice a trend?”

No.  It’s not a trend.  If it were a trend, there would be more than two pieces of evidence.  Also, Patrick Kane is a top 10 player in the NHL, maybe even top three.  He is not some good luck charm who magically creates a universe in which his team is guaranteed its league’s highest achievement for something he did weeks before.  He is in almost all cases, the best player on the ice, juking, faking, spinning, and able to score seemingly at will when he’s at his best.  If he continues his career in a Blackhawks sweater, it stands to reason he will score several more series clinchers on top of the normal boatload of scoring he provides.

But to suggest that a goal scored in one series means the team will win it all is asinine.  It’s fan baiting.  It creates a delusion to suggest that, because it’s in the media, it must be true and that the CSN staff are experts on the subject when they clearly don’t understand the fundamentals of logic.  It must always be repeated that correlation does not mean causation, but in sports writing, that logical fallacy is everywhere.  “They did it before, so they’ll do it again!”

That’s the same as saying, “I sneezed the day my grandpa died.  Achoo!  Quickly, go check on grandma!”  It’s lazy and people get paid to do it.  They get respected by fans because they have the cloak of legitimacy provided by their position at a network with “Sports” in its name.  But it’s not legitimate to throw false information to people, pat yourself on the back, and call it a day.  It’s misleading, bad journalism.

Now, sports journalists being misleading about the correlation-causation problem isn’t the same as spreading propaganda about real problems like, say, climate change, but it takes the fun out of talking about hockey with other people.  If they don’t have a Woody Allen-style tendency to overthink every aspect of life, they are more likely to ignore the slight cognitive dissonance given them by a writer who didn’t think for a second about what they were writing.  As a journalist, if you mislead people — be it willfully or because you’re stupid — in any milieu, you’re doing a disservice to the job.  You make yourself look like an idiot, or, more likely, you are one.

So please, CSN staff, do your job better.  Or hire someone who can do it better for you.  Either way, stop spewing drivel to the masses that ends up in my Facebook feed without my asking for it.

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Evangelicals Probably Aren’t the Ones Climate Advocates Need to Worry About

Chris Mooney at Slate has a feature on Katharine Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian who happens to be a climate change advocate and science advisor on the new Showtime global warming series, The Years of Living Dangerously.

Her research today, on the impacts of climate change, flows from those early experiences [with her scientist father]. And of course, it is inspired by her faith, which for Hayhoe puts a strong emphasis on caring for the weakest and most vulnerable among us. “That gives us even more reason to care about climate change,” says Hayhoe, “because it is affecting people, and is disproportionately affecting the poor, and the vulnerable, and those who cannot care for themselves.”

Hayhoe mentions five strategies she has used to convince Christians like her to become stewards of the environment, including the linguistically obvious “Conservation is conservative” — a line of thinking that has always screamed “blatantly evident” to me that I’m shocked it is not used as a starting point in every argument over what strategies to employ for any climate policies.

But the money quote comes at the end:

“If you believe that God created the world, and basically gave it to humans as this incredible gift to live on, then why would you treat it like garbage? Treating the world like garbage says a lot about how you think about the person who you believe created the Earth.”

Throughout the piece, Hayhoe reminds Mooney and readers that Evangelicals are capable people with minds, able to discern data in front of them.  Blasting them for thinking differently than you is not a way to get them to listen to you.  These are people who believe the world is a gift from a powerful, benevolent being, but one with a penchant for some wrath if He/She/It sees His/Her/Its creation being messed with by those gifted with the power of free will.  Climate change is as biblical as you get in that sense.  If you frame your conversation in a way that fits their worldview, like Hayhoe’s showing them climate data from only the last 6,000 years, they will eventually accept your premise a majority of the time.  There will always be a portion of any group that falls into the trap of epistemic closure, but after a certain point, you can no longer worry about them so long as you have a majority accepting the overwhelming evidence in front of them.  One should never, ever forget that 97 percent of people who dedicate their professional lives to studying the climate agree that it is changing due to carbon emissions from humans; they’re not out to cause alarm, just report on the data they find.  When you keep hammering that point home, reasonable people, a group not mutually exclusive with Christians, will look to help in any way they can.

Accepting this, though, leads to the question: Why do only 44 percent of Evangelicals accept climate change?

Mooney points out that, on the whole, they are politically conservative on top of their social views.  This puts them firmly within the Republican coalition.  The problem with the Republican coalition as currently constituted — and all gigantic coalitions (the Democrats are far from exempt here), which brings up the need for more than two parties, but that’s a discussion for another time — is that there are four main, sometimes competitive fixtures.  You have the libertarians (excuse me for being brief, but they essentially boil down to fiscally very conservative, socially liberal people with a strong aversion to governmental surveillance and a relaxed foreign policy; retired Texas congressman Ron Paul is the stereotype here), the business people (the Mitt Romneys of the world who probably don’t care as much about social issues so much as running a tight fiscal ship), the neoconservatives (you’ll recognize the strong defense, muscular foreign policy with less regard for fiscal restraint from the previous administration), and the social conservatives (Evangelicals like Mike Huckabee who are focused on fixing perceived social ills derived from the Bible).

One can see that these fixtures are not necessarily compatible with each other.  It’s impossible to be all things to all people at all times, and yet that’s what politicians of any expansive coalition must do to preserve their support.  As one might expect, none of them do it particularly well when examined with any critical eye.  A Republican senator who denies climate change may be trying to help any number of people.  Maybe he represents a state rich in the oil or coal industries, which, as carbon-based pollutants are the primary cause of climate change.  They have a financial stake in what happens, so the senator has a duty to serve his constituents.  But as money is not the only motivation in the world, serving that part of his constituency is not enough.  He must bring in other supporters from other parts of the coalition, and this is where the Evangelicals can be called upon.  If the senator can get people with preaching experience to start talking about how God wouldn’t want to hurt the world or wouldn’t let us hurt it, it makes his job a lot easier in trying to appease everyone he represents.

Of course, when the lives of billions of people, animals, and entire ecosystems are at stake, appeasing one state’s — or collection of states’ — constituents is not of primary concern for humanity as a whole.  When people like Hayhoe start convincing Evangelicals, people just trying to be good in their God’s eyes, of the dangers of climate change — she mentions in the interview that the number of Christians whose acceptance of climate change has risen 10 percent in the last six years — they can raise their objections to their elected officials.  If those officials have strong parts of their coalition against the business side, those oil and coal company officials, perhaps they will convince the oil and coal people to start diversifying their businesses by experimenting more with nonpolluting energy sources like solar, wind, biofuels, or, fingers crossed, fusion one day.  Climate change is a problem that requires all hands on deck, and the free market — that supreme tenet of conservative ideology — will have a field day figuring out how to make money from saving the world.

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