After a five-year apprenticeship as a producer for the pioneering documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, Joe Berlinger launched his directorial career with Brother’s Keeper. Made in tandem with another Maysles employee, Bruce Sinofsky, the documentary did something near-revolutionary for the time: It used fiction-film techniques to tell the true story of two isolated rural brothers, one of whom was being tried for the other’s death. In the 25 years since that influential debut, Berlinger has continued to make waves with films like the Paradise Lost trilogy, which covered the trials of three young men in West Memphis, Arkansas accused of the ritual killings of three boys and uncovered evidence that led to their release from prison.
I recently spoke to Berlinger at his Radical Media production company in downtown Manhattan about Intent to Destroy, a documentary about the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Turkish government’s century-long campaign to deny that it happened. Self-assured and voluble, Berlinger talked about the new wave of documentary filmmakers that he has been part of, what Turkey’s denial of the genocide has in common with President Donald Trump’s “alternative facts,” and why audiences have responded much better to Intent to Destroy than distributors have.
You’re part of a kind of movement of documentary filmmakers who’ve made documentaries more popular than they used to be by making them more like fiction films. Do you feel that you paved the way for that?
I do. There was a school of documentarians, I think in the late ’80s, early ’90s, who were really trying to push the envelope in terms of what a documentary means, each of us in our own kind of way. Errol Morris was using artful, tasteful recreations. When The Thin Blue Line came out in 1988, a lot of documentarians said, “You can’t do recreations!” Michael Moore—
He used that very personal first-person approach.
Right, with Roger & Me, people were like, “You can’t put yourself on camera!” And I think what Bruce Sinofsky and I did, with Brother’s Keeper, even though we were on the one hand doing classic-’60s cinema vérité, capturing reality as it was unfolding, we pushed the envelope a little bit in the sense of trying to give documentary all the good qualities of narrative film—without, obviously, being untruthful. Of course, you don’t want to make things up.
The classic cinema vérité filmmakers, who we revered, people like the Maysles brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, and Robert Drew, believed there was no such thing as a director. They thought they were capturing an objective reality. And Bruce and I felt differently, even though we learned the most important thing you learn from the Maysles brothers, which is the belief you can jump out a window and hope there’s a mattress on the other side to catch you—faith in present-tense filming of a story and not knowing where it’s going to go. Where I think we differed is that I do believe all films have a director, that all films are subjective. A film is a thousand subjective decisions. So if a documentary is as subjective as a feature film, then why can’t you use all the good qualities of narrative filmmaking to make your film cinematically satisfying?
Brother’s Keeper had this amazing musical score, which back then was actually criticized. We had a very cinematic title sequence, which back then was kind of unheard of. We had this beautiful cinematic style to the shooting. And, most importantly, we chose a subject which had natural dramatic structure. A murder trial is the classic definition of drama. You have a beginning, middle, and end. You have an antagonist and a protagonist, each vying for the truth. There’s conflict and a resolution, and the murder trial was chosen very intentionally because we were trying to imbue dramatic structure and narrative filmmaking technique into a documentary. We even eschewed the word “documentary.” When we brought Brother’s Keeper out into the world, we were very careful to say “No, it’s not a documentary. It’s a nonfiction feature film.” In many ways—I know this sounds really highfalutin, but you asked the question—kind of invoking Truman Capote.
In Cold Blood?
Yes, In Cold Blood, the nonfiction novel where he was synthesizing nonfiction technique with novelistic technique. We felt, with Brother’s Keeper, that we were doing the filmic equivalent. We weren’t the only ones who did this—we didn’t invent it—but it was a well-known example of that school of filmmaking. So I feel like, yes, I was part of a school, and I think there was a lot of fertile activity. Jennie Livingston, with Paris Is Burning, I think her contribution—and Brother’s Keeper did this too—was putting people on the screen who you don’t normally see: “What? You’re gonna put these drag queens on screen?”
The other thing that Brother’s Keeper did that’s also our contribution to pushing the definition of what a documentary could be was to embrace and celebrate ambiguity. The film isn’t about some topic that we’re educating you about; it’s a portrait of this trial and this community. Nothing made us happier than when people would debate whether Delbert Ward was guilty or not. To me, that’s a cool way to make a film: Treat the audience like a jury and let them make up their own mind. And that’s the thing the film was most criticized about, in its day, by the documentarians of that era.
“So what’s your conclusion?”
Exactly. “What’s this film about?” It’s about life, the human condition.
Since you rejected that voice-of-God point of view and incorporated narrative film techniques in your films, what is it now that makes you want to do documentaries rather than fiction films? What differentiates the two?
First of all, with Brother’s Keeper, the social activist gene in me hadn’t been awakened. Brother’s Keeper was purely a cinematic exercise. I loved film and wanted to make one, to create a kind of film that had the best qualities of narrative technique grafted onto a cinema-vérité documentary. That was purely an aesthetic goal, and we carried that same aesthetic goal into Paradise Lost, which started off, ironically, not—even though we wound up doing three films over two decades about trying to bring relief to these guys—
You thought they were guilty when you started.
Right. We started off thinking they were guilty, because of all the press out of Arkansas, and the police. Nobody was saying these kids might be even remotely innocent. We went down there thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers, and once again it was purely an aesthetic decision: Let’s create this ambiguous portrait of why kids kill. Halfway into the film, before the trial started, we realized they might be innocent, and then we became convinced of their innocence, and as they’re being chained up and led away, to death row for Damien Echols and life without parole for Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. at the end of the film, that moment in real life, it hit me like a ton of bricks. We were just emotionally devastated that we sat through five weeks of, really, a modern-day witch hunt, and these kids who we felt were innocent were being sent to their deaths. That’s when the social-activist gene, or whatever, awakened in me, and that’s when I realized that documentary can be used to help change things.
Your film played an instrumental role in getting the West Memphis Three’s sentences overturned. Is part of you now always looking for another film that could have as profound an impact on people’s lives?
That was a career highlight. We walked the red carpet at the Oscars with the West Memphis Three, and though we didn’t win that night I went home really being proud and deeply moved that here I was walking the red carpet with guys who were on death row or life without parole only seven or eight months before. I have younger filmmakers come up to me and say “Paradise Lost made me want to be a filmmaker,” or that “Brother’s Keeper made me want to be a filmmaker.” That kind of impact on people is almost as fulfilling as changing the outcome of a situation.
I appreciate Intent to Destroy because its main focus isn’t the facts of the genocide. You establish those, for viewers who don’t know about it, but then you move on to your real subject, which is the campaign of denial that’s suppressed those facts over the decades. What made you choose that angle?
There are other films out there that have covered the genocide itself, but for me what’s most interesting is the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of denial—and American complicity in that denial. Everyone thinks that Hollywood is just this liberal environment where people can tell whatever story they want, but the fact is that as early as 1935 Irving Thalberg was being shut down [when he tried to make a film of the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh]. It’s basically taboo in Hollywood to tell this story, because whenever a project is mounted, the Turkish government complains to the state department and the state department twists the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project. To me, it’s mind-boggling that a foreign country that gets billions and billions of dollars in aid from us can intervene in our internal artistic output, let alone lobbying congress to not pass resolutions about the genocide and funding alternative-facts “studies.”
There are parallels to the times we’re living in today. For Turkey, to have mounted this century-long campaign of obfuscation to the point where, at one point, helping the Armenians was America’s greatest moment of generosity, the Near East Relief effort was the largest relief effort mounted up until that point, and there were 146 articles in the New York Times—it was a well-known story—yet today most Americans have no idea that the genocide happened. I think stories like that, that are swept under the rug, are a parable for much larger issues, particularly in these perilous times, where alternative facts and fake news are bandied about, where Trump just bombards you with an alternative version of reality, until people just get so tired they tune out or they accept the other version of reality.
The Turks were very effective at suppressing evidence of the genocide from the start, making it difficult for people to take pictures or to get film developed or shipped out of the country. There were a lot of newspaper stories published at the time, but there aren’t a lot of archival images, right? Did that make for challenges in making a documentary about the events?
There’s not a ton. It’s not like the Holocaust. But there’s enough. The museum in Yerevan has a lot of documentary material. We had to dig deep to get some footage and photographs. And then there’s that survivor testimony footage, some of which is in the film. Using The Promise as the glue, so it’s not just talking heads and archival footage, was very helpful to allow people to have a picture of what these things looked like, but in terms of finding material to support the truthfulness of the genocide, it’s not that hard to find.
I wasn’t thinking about needing to prove the truth of it, just about making a film that’s cinematic enough to be interesting and not just, as you say, talking heads and a little archival footage. I read that you didn’t want to make Intent to Destroy until you were granted access to the filming of The Promise. Is that because you though you needed those images to supplement the archival photos and film?
Most of my films are cinema vérité, where you film things in the present tense, so my comfort zone is following a story as it’s unfolding. And if you remove all the Promise footage and you just have talking heads intercut with archival footage, that’s not the type of filmmaker I am. I think that would be just a lot of information bludgeoned over people’s heads, so therefore it won’t be effective. Experiencing the making of the film and illustrating certain moments, I think, helped the film breathe and work on a couple different levels. But I also wasn’t interested in just telling a story of what happened in 1915, because that’s been done, and I’m not a historical filmmaker. The making of The Promise, for me, was the window into the other parts of the film that I think are more interesting than just the facts of the genocide, which is denial.
Have you experienced any kind of pressure while making Intent to Destroy?
I haven’t. I think the threats today are less physical. They’re more about trolling on the internet. For example, no one had seen The Promise when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September, but the night before there were already 5,000 negative reviews on IMDb, and by the end of the week, when maybe 5,000 people had seen the film, there were 85,000 negative reviews. So the lobbying is more behind the scenes, more cyber.
What kind of interest have you found in this documentary, from film festivals and journalists and distributors, compared to your other documentaries?
To be honest with you, the festival and popular response has been very strong, but I think the distribution response has been disappointing. I don’t want to name names, but I’ve had a number of people that I’ve done business with in the past be concerned that, “Well, we’re a global company and we do business in Turkey.” Or “Are we going to get threats and intimidation if we air the show?” Stuff that just boggles my mind. The film will get out there. It’s being released by Abramorama and we have a television deal that we’re negotiating. But a number of people who I thought would be interested in the film haven’t embraced it. So one can draw their own conclusions as to why. I can’t say, but I find it interesting, because what’s a good documentary? One that takes you into a world that you don’t know, necessarily, anything about. This film does that. It’s an important, little-known story.
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.
The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani
20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”
There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani
19. Rosalía, “Malamente”
Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp
18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”
The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani
17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”
Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins
16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”
Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud
15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”
Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud
14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”
Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp
13. Flasher, “Material”
The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani
12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”
The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp
11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”
One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins
10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”
Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins
9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”
The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp
8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”
The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins
7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”
The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins
6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”
The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins
5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”
Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani
4. Jack White, “Corporation”
Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud
3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”
Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins
2. The Carters, “Apeshit”
The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud
1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins
The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.
This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
Sakura Ando, Shoplifters
As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray
Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In
For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole
Emily Browning, Golden Exits
Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen
Toni Collette, Hereditary
Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard
Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen
Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built
It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson
Adam Driver, BlackKklansman
Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen
Hugh Grant, Paddington 2
Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole
Regina Hall, Support the Girls
It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz
Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen
Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk
For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen
Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline
The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray
Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf
Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen
Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits
The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen
Jason Mitchell, Tyrel
Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard
Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?
Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund
Jesse Plemons, Game Night
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson
Steven Yeun, Burning
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen