The Year in Review

wakanda Setting aside 2018’s global turbulence, what did the year mean for movies? I suppose African-American film fans have more reason to be of good cheer than they might have had a year ago. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther finished domestically with $700 million, far and away 2018’s top grosser. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time got mixed notices and just barely made back its cost worldwide, but it was still the first film directed by an African-American woman to hit a $100 million domestic gross (and was definitely the first movie so directed to boast a nine-digit budget). Spike Lee had his biggest hit in years with BlacKkKlansman, whose domestic earnings tripled its cost. Other success stories include Charles Stone III’s Uncle Drew ($42m gross against $18m cost), Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (cost $3 mil, grossed $17 mil), and Malcolm D. Lee’s Night School (made back four times its budget globally).

Add in some wins for Asian-Americans (Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians and James Wan’s Aquaman) and gays (Bohemian Rhapsody is the top-grossing movie about an LGBTQ+ person in history despite its attempts to straightwash Freddie Mercury) and you have a better-than-middling year for diversity. What you don’t have, for the tenth year running, is cinema for grownups. 2008 gave us a sea of blockbusters pointed mainly at teens, and it’s been the same story every year since. Now, some movies aiming higher on the age spectrum finished just outside this year’s top ten: A Star Is Born, say, and the aforementioned Crazy Rich Asians. But even the triumphant Black Panther, despite its sky-high level of craft and imagination all around, is finally just another brick in the Marvel/Disney wall, and I can imagine Paul Mooney chortling ironically at the fact that the big-deal black superhero got finger-snapped into nonexistence just one movie later, in Avengers: Infinity War.

Nobody seriously believes any of those superheroes won’t be brought back next April in Avengers: Just Messin’ With You, We Ain’t Killing Off a Dude Who Made Us $1 Billion Worldwide. Disney isn’t exactly hurting (it can brag about 2018’s top three grossers, tossing in The Incredibles 2), but it got stung a little with the relatively weak grosses of A Wrinkle in Time and also Solo: A Star Wars Story, the first movie in its historically lucrative franchise to come out in the red column domestically (even though it wound up at #9 on the top ten). Warner’s Fantastic Beasts sequel is showing some Potterverse fatigue (or maybe newfound audience wariness about Johnny Depp). Universal has Jurassic World, The Grinch and Halloween to dry its tears over Skyscraper, Pacific Rim Uprising, and the one-time Oscar hopeful Green Book, a meant-to-be-heartwarming road-trip drama much criticized for its retro approach to race relations, which stalled badly in theaters.

Yes, I said Halloween. Finishing at #17 on the year-end list, the reboot/sequel opened huge and ended up the biggest-grossing film in the history of its franchise; even adjusted for inflation, it only came in about $20 million behind the 1978 original. A sequel to this sequel is already planned, though I wish they wouldn’t go ahead with it — people came out for this one because it promised closure and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, and a follow-up would just be more of the night he came home … again. In general, horror remains strong as a genre; A Quiet Place (#12) was this year’s Get Out in terms of word-of-mouth success (no pun intended), if not in terms of social relevance. Threats to the nuclear family, whether visually challenged monsters or disgruntled white males, were the main boogeymen in 2018’s films; the year’s “Look out! Brown people!” movies, Sicario 2 (#53) and Peppermint (#75), performed barely above their costs and will not likely be asked back for a third or second dance.

It can be instructive to look at what scares moviegoers, but it’s just as useful to consider what makes us laugh (Deadpool 2, at #5, is essentially a meta-superhero comedy, perhaps bespeaking the first rustles of superhero fatigue) and what makes it dusty in the room (A Star Is Born remains stubbornly effective tearjerker material after eight decades). The popular myths of the day tell us where our heads and hearts are at. Of course, the big breadwinner of twenty years ago was Saving Private Ryan; of thirty years ago, Rain Man. It has been a while (fifteen years, in fact) since a #1 grosser, like Rain Man, was also crowned Best Picture at the Oscars (for those playing at home, it was The Return of the King). Will Black Panther break the streak and join the ranks of Titanic and Forrest Gump? We’ll see in February, I guess.

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