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In a year that began with “Fire and Fury”, which saw national boarders rise and patience wear thin, cinema offered a pulpit of expression. From primal screams to jaded sighs these pictures articulated the wounds of the world through flickers of pain and everlasting warmth. It was a year for the outsiders, filling our screens with faces of resilience that refused to be forgotten long after the credits rolled.
As 2017 ended, a conversation began. Revelations of mistreatment, rape and everything in between plagued an industry built on the suspension of disbelief. With prominent media figures disgraced and departed it seemed Hollywood was regressing back to the days of studio moguls, tight-fisted and fueled on gin and terrorism. #TimesUp was a call for change, for inclusivity on and off screen. Far more than fitting feminism with a crowbar or plastering posters with token ethnicity, the movement urged an industry to its knees in laying down the foundation of a new vision for the future, wide angled and in focus.
Indeed, the industry’s abuses of power were symptoms of a global disease: Controversial elections and national votes caused a seismic shift in attitude and highlighted a growing culture of isolation and tension. It was in 2018 where these political tremors crept inside the cinema screen.
Seen rumbling the nursery walls of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, protagonist Cleo surveys the aftermath of a different kind of earthquake, a literal one. Ceilings caved, windows rattled and nurses pouring in to save wriggling infants. But left behind, an incubator doused in rubble houses the most helpless of newborns, bandaged with lungs fluttering for survival, here the fragility of humankind is encapsulated into one shot. With this, Cuarón evokes the true measure of any society: how it treats its most vulnerable, and no where is that more evident than in a time of chaos.
But like the eye of a storm, Roma centers around an interest of quiet power. Cuarón often places Cleo in crowded places, busy streets and noisy households. Yet as the film continues distraction peels away, inching us ever closer to our heroine. After the film’s most traumatic scene, where one would expect to find Cleo guarded in numbers or hidden from view, we’re finally given a close up, on eye level, a servant shot like a queen. It’s in these quiet moments where her power lies, a fearless compassion matched with a steely resolve conjure a wordless wonder of deafening strength.
The idea of summoning power from pain can render itself in subtle ways too. It’s a theme literally sewn into the fabric of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther in which our hero’s suit weaves a sci-fi world into a richer context. A bodysuit designed to convert pain into power marks a creative touch embodying a history of oppression and struggle. The black experience as told by Coogler is one skewed by western ignorance. For most of the characters on the outside, Wakanda is a third-world country but as we fly into the African plains, pierce through its hologram projection and emerge into a shimmering metropolis, our understanding is forever redefined.
And like Coogler, both Spike Lee and Jon M. Chu strive to reshape identity by shattering mainstream myths. Crazy Rich Asians gives us a nuanced representation of Asian Americans where Hollywood’s vision evades the usual cultural clichés and racial stereotypes. Furthermore, the lasting images of BlackKklansman are not that of fear but the defiant faces of African Americans: In a scene where a Black Power speech charges the room, members of the crowd are singled into empowering closeups. It’s as if the film takes a breath between the static of terror to share a moment of bliss for characters we’ll never see again.
‘Infiltrate hate’ is Lee’s slogan with love being the weapon of choice. And like many love stories, the couple in Cold War must negotiate human desires within doomed circumstance. Pawlikowski’s swooning soviet saga is one of bitter heartbreak, a seeming hopelessness in stark contrast to Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. A warzone of racial politics, Jenkins imbues his frame with a lush variety of colour, the use of light radiates an optimism soaring between the invisible forces of horror. But while Jenkins’ characters find hope in a hopeless world, Cold War’s Wiktor and Zula share a love that transcends the physical. In a final act of defiance we enter a spiritual realm untouched by society’s fate.
Snarling against a faceless future, Rev. Ernst Toller too seeks salvation from an imploding world. First Reformed, like many of Paul Schrader’s films deals with a lost soul in a body shaking, thrashing, pounding against a city slumped in a capitalist comatose. The Trump era is one of total dissonance and like many of us in 2018, Toller has become disillusioned with humanity as a result. Perhaps his cure lies in the edges of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, here faith resides within the kindness of strangers, truckers and makeshift communities rebuilding a broken America from the outside in.
If 2018 taught us anything, it’s that there is no power greater than a community’s will to survive. Think of the ‘family’ from Shoplifters, or the pack of button nosed mutts from Isle of Dogs. Societal outcasts cobbled together from a landscape of disarray these characters unearth a global vulgarity beneath a veneer of civility. Intriguingly it’s the live-action characters who have their lives controlled by unseen hands until finally torn apart. As though an afterthought needling its way back into the conversation, Kore-eda reminds us of the forgotten families desperately trying not to slip through the cracks of existence.
But cinema never forgets, and in 2018 a spotlight was hijacked and thrown upon Hollywood’s crowded periphery. Blurred extras on the fringes of interest were now beelining for closeups, clearing their throats while the mechanics of history stuttered. A protest in panorama whose heroes and heroines drew upon cinema’s greatest weapon – the human face – found expressions of strength, love, spirit and survival in dismantling defunct regimes of hate. And as we tiptoe into a new year we take with us these faces, forever printed onto memory, they reel through our thoughts, illuminating the silver screen of our future.