Veronica's Favorites of 2018: A Year of Quiet (And Not So Quiet) Desperation
I’m going to do things a little differently this year in regards to my yearly ranking. This has been a different year in many respects, and it seems only fair to honor the weird ambiance we have created for ourselves in how I list my favorites of the year. To simply rattle off the movies I enjoyed, and the reasons why, would be too safe and too shallow; no real regard for the overarching theme that saturated every inch of our collective consciousness, including cinema. Or perhaps they are one in the same. It feels to me like a disservice to keep my answers simple, shallow, and safe.
What follows is not a list of my favorite movies this year but rather an examination of one obvious, omnipresent theme: desperation. Throughout this examination, my favorite movies that I saw this year will be mentioned and their rank will be noted, but they’ll appear as they fit the into the discussion, not in numerical order. What is still a bit puzzling to me is that, while all films were new-to-me this year, not all of of the films listed were from this year. Which begs the question: is desperation just the most common human emotion?
It also begs the question: is this chick maybe just noticing desperation in movies because everything around us feels so desperate and she goes to upsetting movies that are bound to feature people struggling and panicking? You’ve got some attitude, mister.
Desperation, like many of the intangible and often indescribable things we get the privilege of experiencing in this lifetime, assumes many forms. We can all think of examples when we were or someone else was desperate, and how different each reaction was. It can involve pleading, crying, or utter silence. The last one is the true expression of 2018: quiet desperation.
Quiet desperation is akin to resignation. There’s less fire, less fight. It’s the broken prisoner who would bolt out the door if given the chance, but who knows the door will never open. It’s fatalism without the sweet release of death; nihilism without the freedom that comes from understanding you mean nothing. A sorely needed lesson for a character, and my number six pick: First Reformed.
I have written about this movie previously so I’ll skip to just talking about the thick vein of quiet desperation that wraps itself around Ethan Hawke’s character, Ernst Toller. What makes Toller such a desperate character is a combination of helplessness, loss, and a need to feel punished. He blames himself for the death of his son, but we all get the sense that if this wouldn’t bother him as much if he was able to actually make a difference–which, of course, he cannot. With these two elements combining, he himself brings the last one into the mix, believing himself unworthy of happiness. He finds no comfort even in his connection to God as we watch him doubt the purpose and goodness of the church. It’s not a surprise that the thread of domestic terrorism, specifically with explosives, runs through First Reformed. Toller is a man who has more in common with The Unabomber than with Jesus.
The saying “ignorance is bliss” echoes throughout history. For the minds that hold the darkest of knowledge, happiness can be hard to cultivate. What connects a man of faith to a hired gun?
You Were Never Really Here (number four on my list) stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hitman-type who specializes in finding young girls who have been abducted and trafficked. In that line of work, he sees a world that few of us (thankfully) are ever immersed in, and we feel it destroy him. Lynne Ramsey is a uniquely feminine director; I often call her the “arthouse Katherine Bigelow” as her movies feature what are thought of as commonly “male” stories, but with a specifically (and I would even argue purposefully) feminine perspective. In You Were Never Really Here we witness violence and bloodshed, but the core of the movie is about someone’s emotional state. It’s about how trapped and traumatized one brain can become over time. Joe doesn’t wipe clean after each person he saves. He scars and suffers, he can’t find a way out of it that doesn’t involve ending the clicking mechanism of his mind.
For numbers nine and five, we’ll visit the female side of desperation, which comes off as less than quiet. The Favourite (number nine) and The Florida Project (number five) both center on the oft-sought concept of escaping one’s circumstances. In The Florida Project, a movie that might not seem wracked with desperation at first glance, we witness two groups making the best of what they’ve got alongside each other: children and adults. Inevitably, reality hits and how the children deal with reality is escapism. Meanwhile, the adults can’t do anything but scream and cry. Much of the movie features genuinely enjoyable moments, not people who are suffering in poverty as we are often led to believe. In a perverse way, desperation comes from external forces as CPS arrives and subsequently loses the child they’re supposed to be rescuing. The final word from the adult side is the child’s mother Hayley, shrieking at the top of her lungs; the final word from the children (and final moments of the movie) a fantasy trip through Disney World.
The Favourite features Abigail (Emma Stone) as a smart, ambitious young woman whose unfortunate circumstances come from the actions of her absentee father rather than herself. Living at the bottom of the food chain for so long, Abigail knows opportunity when she sees it, and finds ways to cozy up to those in better standing than herself, like Queen Anne played with sublime grimness by Olivia Coleman. I have never envied a royal so little. Abigail seeks out employment from her cousin Lady Sarah (Rachel Weiss), quite possibly the least desperate character in the movie. The central action is a power play between all three women, but Lady Sarah is the only one who knows what she actually wants and how far she’ll truly go. The other two are hollow (Queen Anne), terrified (Abigail), and desperate to not face their fears. Like the flipside of Toller from First Reformed, they are characters that keep the darkness at bay by escaping punishment for as long as they can.
Too much of human history is written and constructed by warfare. In order to discuss how wars and violence shaped where we are today, a lot of humanity gets jettisoned, and we wind up discussing actions and the large scope that they encompass. The individual as anything of importance gets dissolved as is the case with number seven: Overlord (1975).
Many thanks to The Roxie Theater for showing this movie. It felt particularly salient in a modern age where everyone rides an uncomfortable juxtaposition between being the all-important narrator of their own story and also just another face in the crowd. Overlord is set in an armed forces training facility just shy of D-Day, or Operation Overlord. I did not know that was the British name for the Normandy invasion but I applaud the honesty in the title. We Yanks tend to lean towards the triumphant and considerably less ominous names. This truly is a film about quiet desperation as the main character Tom (Brian Striner) spends most of the movie contemplating his place in the world, the war he was thrust into, and being preoccupied with a vision of his own death. It’s a movie that goes from desperate to sad to grim to blackness, and in a distinctly British way suggests that such is life.
Identity is a truly human concept, and one that is clung to with a fervor that dislikes being questioned. This has become a particularly contentious point in many interactions lately because of the prevalence of identity politics and the deconstruction of traditional narratives. Madeline’s Madeline (number ten) brings the debate of who gets to tell what story to the common artistic desperation of wanting to create something meaningful. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a mixed race teenager who involves herself with a theater troupe in the process of making a new show. The director Evangeline (Molly Parker) starts using Madeline’s life and relationship with her mother (Miranda July) as the center of their show, despite the fact that the rest of the troupe feels this is exploitative. One character even points out in no uncertain terms that the director (a white adult) using the discomfort and frustrations of a black teenager, who for the record is not faring well with the whole process, doesn’t look good.
Madeline and Evangeline are connected in their desperation to find direction, but experiencing it in distinctly different ways. Madeline struggles to fit in, is on medication, and has a fractured dynamic with her overbearing mother. Evangeline wants to make a mark; she wants to create something meaningful but for some reason can’t find the meaning internally. Most of the movie is an awkward (intentionally so) ballet of three different women weaving their anxiety, hopelessness, and uncertainty around each other.
Number three on my list is Let the Corpses Tan. Perhaps the least yet still really desperate movie on this list. It’s a crime drama, and there’s no lack of desperation in crime dramas. In an updated spaghetti western/caper hybrid, a group of criminals hide out together in dilapidated housing, having shared quasi-religious hallucinations about a woman on a cross peeing gold. Claustrophobia builds slowly as the police get closer to the hideout, and then they all start to question why exactly they’ve become who they are.
Like the concept of our history being nothing more than a musing on desperation so is any attempt to apply human morals where they don’t belong. Nothing is as desperate as learning how little control we express over the creatures we raise.
Good Manners (2018) is number eight and a movie I have already written about. It displays the perfect balance between female and male quiet desperation. Clara is certainly the model of quiet as she moves stoically and silently through the first act of the film. She even falls in love and has sex in a hushed manner. As she starts to take care of the orphaned Joel, a role she never really signed on for, her desperation takes more intense, yet no less quiet, strokes. Her attempts to protect Joel from his own nature follow a fear-based thought pattern of lying and locking him up. She knows in her heart that eventually this will be out of her control but she clings to the hope that this is something that can be contained, that she understands a monster in a child’s body.
The top two movies volley back to female (and loud) desperation and have a similar sense of what it means to be a woman. On the surface, A Fantastic Woman (number two) and Vox Lux (number one) don’t seem like they have that much in common. A Fantastic Woman is about a trans woman trying to survive in a world that is trying to destroy her. Vox Lux follows a rise to fame and a climate of pop culture that cares little for personal autonomy. But most of all, these movies center on women who believe they deserve better while also feeling they’ve brought this on themselves.
A Fantastic Woman is a movie I’ve previously brought up in regards to how the main character reacts to being perceived as both male and female by society. While its colorful lighting and glitzy fantasy sequences might distract some viewers into thinking this is a cheerful movie, make no mistake that this is a movie about the desperation to survive on one’s own terms in a world that won’t allow for the slightest deviation. Marina is a character who alternates from knowing exactly who she is to pondering if she’s a pernicious aberration; all this while mourning the loss of her lover and facing the threat of homelessness. It’s a female anxiety movie coated with the distinct desperation that follows any person who feels so radically out of step.
The response to Vox Lux has been mixed, and if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then I’m not about to tell you to give it a chance. The last thing I would ever call Vox Lux is flawless; its erratic pastiche style might wear thin for some. Some details in the film like having the narrative broken into sections and marked by chapters were completely overwrought and unnecessary. (In fact, I’d argue that the chapter structure is always unnecessary but maybe I’m just fast to hate a style I suspect can be traced to Wes Anderson.) For Vox, it added nothing but the meat of the story is perhaps the most quiet and not so quiet desperate movie of the year.
Vox Lux incorporates every type of desperation covered in the other movies. There’s the artistic desperation and all the stress that comes along with success in the age of social media, then the desperation of being at the whim of forces we don’t understand. Finally, the desperation of growing up in a world going mad. The movie opens with a school shooting that will propel and haunt pop star Celeste for the rest of her life. By the time the movie ends, with its narrator’s cryptic story of Celeste believing she met the devil when she hovered between life and death, we truly don’t know what to make of anything or anyone we’ve just seen. All we know is that everyone in this film spent much of its runtime failing to repair themselves, communicate with each other, or approach happiness no matter how hard they tried to do all three.
This isn’t even a comprehensive list of all the movies that fell into the “Quiet Desperation” category. 2018 was absolutely rife with the anxiety and frailty that comes with navigating frantic, madcap times. Whether it’s a reflection of our current human condition or just me seeing what I want to see, it made for undeniably captivating (if not perfect) viewing.