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The Spiciest Film Controversies of 2018

From legal battles to nationalistic concerns, misrepresentation to cultural appropriation, resurfacing tweets to Netflix sticking its nose in everything, 2018 has had some peppery problems in the film world.
Rewind Spice
By  · Published on December 21st, 2018

From embittered, but brief Twitter feuds to patriotic scandals that reeled in the orange one to grand charges of elitism-that-breeds-supremacy to our sudden inability to see whatever we want when we want (you know what I’m talking about), 2018 carried its weight in film-related controversy. Everyone’s concept of what was controversial, at what level of intensity, and how long is subjective to their media usage and personalization, social habits, and individual research. The following is—from our perspective—13 controversies separated into 5 levels of spice that represent how hot the controversy was from a pop cultural perspective.

1 alarm controversies were short-lived, mild, and altogether forgettable. But they still happened. 2 alarm controversies had a little bite. They survived through retweets, passive argumentation, and sometimes piqued mass interest, all of which were swept away with the wind at the introduction of more complex (legal) terminology, debunking of rumors, or the rare case of agreement on all sides. 3 alarms were the kind that surprised us. They came out of nowhere and flared up a hefty portion of Film Twitter, or captured everyone’s attention without sparking endless debate like a 4 or 5 alarm might have. They typically divided cinephiles into two or three camps of thought and shirked simple conclusions.

You felt the burn of 4 alarms almost immediately. Some might have infuriated you or slightly punctured your soul. They rendered broader, long-lasting conceptual conversations in their wake. Or, to stay within the metaphor, you felt it burn on its way out the next morning. They are either still in heat or always in flux with a new subject. These are controversies our personal comments sections hated us for engaging. By taking any side, you almost guaranteed new enemies. 5 alarms were spicy enough to genuinely hurt all of us. They weren’t really sides in these controversies. Everybody was burned. They are timeless. They are the controversies and events we will be referencing in five years, if not ten because they seriously changed aspects of the industry. They have issues at their core that expand way beyond the realm of the controversies themselves. They have framed larger questions about film and its social culture that have led us to reflect on the future of the medium and its role in an ever-changing global society with sincere depth. Months later, you might still be feeling their sting.

To avoid race and gender wars breaking out spontaneously, they are not ranked within their league.

First Man’s lack of flag-planting 🌶️

Damien Chazelle’s latest film First Man followed astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his pre-NASA days to his landing on the moon with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). Apparently, a particular political party (I’ll let you guess) went to see it solely to bathe in the deep sense of nationali—uh, I mean “patriotism” that the planting of the flag on the moon conjures. But! It turns out $60 million was not poured into the film to give audiences a jingoistic orgasm. In other words, there was no scene in which the boys planted and worshipped the American flag while an overlaid Lee Greenwood roared an American anthem. Instead, Chazelle and co. crafted a beautiful, heart-breaking film that focused on the tragedies and losses attached to one of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements, as Gosling so appropriately deemed it. But to think of all humanity as a peaceful, united global community does not leave room for violent national obsessions, so that didn’t fly. Marco Rubio called it “total lunacy.” Tramp [sic] said something incompetent. Aldrin got involved with some heavy hashtagging. Conservative media that doesn’t ever comment on film (“Fox and Friends”) hopped in on the slander. Little did they know, they were all practically screaming “I haven’t watched the movie!” Because, quite frankly, the patriotism of First Man is overt, yet fair and far from elitist. Enter: liberals. What carried this laughable controversy over the 72-hour mark was the sudden and belligerent retort by liberals that it was too patriotic, an obvious and embarrassing attempt to have something to be angry about, too. Their arguments could be summed up in the fact that the movie was historically accurate and took place in the US. Without any grounding to the silly claim, that trend died off almost immediately. People must have actually watched the movie only to realize that both parties were egregiously overprotective of whatever values they thought were being violated that weren’t. A couple months later, it’s just a really good movie.

Paulo Branco and Terry Gilliam’s ongoing legal battle over The Man Who Killed Don Quixote 🌶️🌶️

Terry Gilliam’s passion project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, has gone through so many iterations of production: turning over entire casts, donning completely rewritten screenplays, rifling through producers and studios like a buffet. But not because Gilliam wanted it that way. Reading through the history of his attempt to make this film is genuinely painful. This has been going on long enough for us to have a documentary (Lost in La Mancha) about the years of plagued production. And that came out in 2002. After 28 years of trouble, the film finally wrapped in June 2017. A year later it premiered at Cannes to mixed responses. However, its premiere isn’t its top 2018 story. Paulo Branco is. The tyrannical once-attached Spanish producer has taken Gilliam to court an ungodly amount of times, claiming full ownership of the finished product, and demanding millions for his contributions. In effect, he is nothing more than a bully. And rich bullies have good lawyers. Despite screening, the film wasn’t able to compete at Cannes because of Branco’s legal accusations, but so far the battle seems to be leaning in Gilliam’s favor even with a frustrating loss in Parisian appeal courts in June. This is one of those stories that lingered throughout the year, but never garnered enough outrage most likely due to the confusion over endless legal jargon and public confusion. We can all relax and celebrate the film’s announced 2019 distribution as of this week, but Gilliam will likely have to drudge through some settlements before he can put Quixote’s legal worries to bed once and for all.

Jason Blum being an utter fool 🌶️🌶️

Film producer and CEO/founder of Blumhouse Productions, Jason Blum said in a Polygon interview, “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror.” Shocker: this is not true. So, everyone let him know. Critics and publications lambasted his inaccurate, misguided comment. His Twitter feed exploded with lists of great and upcoming directors that are women. Within the same week, Blum publicly apologized, “Thank you everyone for calling me out on my dumb comments in that interview. I made a stupid mistake…Over 50 percent of our audience is female. Over 50 percent of Blumhouse execs are women…The way my passion came out was dumb. And for that I am sorry. I will do better.” This is one of those rare cases where someone messes up, gets called out, realizes they are dead wrong, humbles themselves to an apology, and the issue is resolved within the week. We don’t usually get to say this, but well done social media, well done.

Boots Riley calls out Spike Lee 🌶️🌶️🌶️

Newcomer writer/director Boots Riley came out swinging this year. His breakout film Sorry to Bother You wowed audiences with its stellar cast, absurd sensibilities, and ambitious plotline. Likewise, veteran of all veterans Spike Lee received almost universal critical acclaim for his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, an adaptation of the memoir of black Colorado undercover police officer, Ron Stallworth. But Riley, feeling his newfound mass appeal in words, took to Lee’s adaptation with an accusatory essay that he posted on Twitter. The accompanying tweet “Here’s [sic] are some thoughts on #Blackkklansman…” did not wear the warning of attack that became one of the hottest film controversies in August. Not only did Riley call out Lee for twisting the story to falsely glorify the police department, but he took shots at Stallworth for actively infiltrating white supremacist groups in the 70s in order to intimidate and threaten radical civil rights groups (the opposite of what the movie suggests he did). On top of that, he suggested that the film was an orchestrated, prolonged ad campaign (referencing Lee’s reported $200,000 check from the NYPD) meant to improve relations between law enforcement and minority communities, not to report accurate history. Whether Riley is right or not about any or all of those things remains mostly unseen, but he made some very strong points while also showing some shocking unawareness regarding Spike Lee’s history as a filmmaker. Needless to say, Twitter was ablaze with commentary, and the conversation soon grew into a much larger discussion about Stallworth’s history, cover-ups and conspiracies, the state of black filmmaking, and police relations with minority communities.

The Other Side of the Wind, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Netflix 🌶️🌶️🌶️

With Netflix’s announced completion of Orson Welles’ (supposedly) final unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind, in 2017, cinephiles’ mouths were watering for what would certainly be a Cannes premiere (given Cannes’ historically close relationship with Welles). But last year’s Okja and Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) drama pitted Netflix against the holy grail of film festivals. The stalemate between the two is as such: after last year, Cannes decided to stick hard and fast to the rule that every film must premiere in French cinemas to be in competition at Cannes. That’s probably something Netflix could get down with. The problem: French law requires a minimum of three years in between a theatrical release and its streaming availability, which, for Netflix, would be like cutting of an entire limb in French profit. Thus, it was announced in the Spring that The Other Side of the Wind would not compete at Cannes. And, in a bout of childishness, Netflix refused to even play the film out of competition, much to the displeasure of the Orson Welles Estate and cinephiles across the globe. Although this controversy carries singular implications for the particular film in debate given the nature of revival and legacy, the conversation around it flung open the doors to much larger conversations about the evolution of distribution, at-home streaming, and the future of festivals, among other things.

The House That Jack Built at Cannes 🌶️🌶️🌶️

A controversy that has been rehashed over and over again since the 1990s, the debate around Danish writer/director Lars Von Trier’s punishing brand of stark, cruel, and darkly comical cinema found itself ablaze once again in 2018. His most recent film, The House That Jack Built, follows a serial killer played by Matt Dillon. The film unfolds in five “incidents,” complemented by an eschatological final act. In one of the incidents, the composed killer snipes two children in front of their mother, props their dead bodies up on sticks and makes the mother feed them, eventually kills the mother, and carves a smile and a wave into one of the boy’s postures so that the boy’s body acts as a friendly welcome each time he enters the freezer where he keeps all of his dead bodies. That didn’t go over too well at Cannes. It immediately prompted a horde of walkouts and a wave of condemnation from critics and attendees. The following incident, which involves Riley Keough’s boobs getting cut off, certainly didn’t help its case. That was in May, yet here we are in December with the recently released and slightly censored version playing in theatres, and the debate about Von Trier’s ultra-violent and crude tendencies rages on. Those on the other side also find it repulsive, but it does not offend them or cause concern for the state of film because of the commentary and context within it. They cite Von Trier’s self-awareness (which is, explicitly, a major theme of the film) and alternative philosophical understandings of art as their defense. This is one of those controversies that has no right or wrong. It’s philosophy. Since it’s public release, a much larger group than before has come out in the film’s defense (myself very much one of them).

Isle of Dogs & cultural appropriation 🌶️🌶️🌶️

Perhaps the controversy over whether or not Wes Anderson’s 2018 stop-motion picture, Isle of Dogs, is a prominent example of cultural appropriation belongs in The Minors, but the debate at large certainly does not. Several Asian and Asian-American critics expressed concerns over Anderson’s film for its appropriation, misunderstanding, and misuse of Japanese culture while still being appreciative of the art of the film. It was a very sober and respectable controversy in comparison to the bombastic nature of most controversies surrounding representation and race in the film world. There was certainly a fissure as to who considered it appropriation and who didn’t, and reasonable explanations on both sides came from all different kinds of people, making it incredibly difficult to declare any side more “ethical” than the other. It was so mutually respectable that it didn’t even feel like there was mal intent involved. Below the belt shots were scarce, bullying was at an all-time low, and racial slurs were almost entirely absent. It’s as if both parties treated the other with dignity, agreed to disagree, and moved on in agreement that, regardless of whether Isle of Dogs was or not, cultural appropriation is not good. This larger conversation occupied most of the discussions that followed the original claims of cultural appropriation, and necessarily so, as it is a topic ripe for discussion and necessary for future filmmaking. In a strange way, it stands as an example of how best to treat any public controversy from all perspectives.

James Gunn & Guardians 3 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️

James Gunn has written and directed the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films to much acclaim. However, he will not be directing the third. After jokes made on Twitter about pedophilia and rape from his more provocative days resurfaced in July, Disney pulled the plug on him immediately. Gunn apologized, recognized the jokes were in poor taste, said it was a matter of his past self, and laid low. Given that the tweets were written upwards of over a decade ago and that they were all clearly jokes (even if they were vulgar and disturbing), many came to his defense. The entire main cast of Guardians wrote and signed a letter that expressed support for re-hiring Gunn, asking everyone to “ease up on the character assassinations and stop weaponizing mob mentality.” In mid-August, after Marvel had tried to persuade Disney to re-employ him, Gunn met with Walt Disney Studios Chairman, Alan Horn, to be civilly informed that he would remain fired. The production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is currently on hold, but Gunn’s tear-jerking script is still going to be used by Marvel/Disney whenever they lock down a replacement director. In the wake of the continuing support for re-hiring Gunn, the question remains: when is it fair to gut someone’s career based on their past online presence? What’s the ceiling? What lines are uncrossable?

Who will host the Oscars? 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️

Lovable comedian and recent movie star Kevin Hart was announced on Dec. 4 as the next Oscars host, a winning move from the Academy who has been under fire for their lack of POC and queer host choices in the 21st century. However, the Academy’s celebration of a pop cultural win for the first time in ages was quickly struck down after reminders resurfaced that Hart has a professional history of anti-gay commentary. He was given the opportunity to publicly apologize and retain the role, but he declined due to the fact that he has already addressed the topic several times in the public sphere with apologies and promises of change. Ironically, he apologized again in his decline of the Academy’s ultimatum, but he also reasoned that he didn’t want to be the heart of controversy on what is supposed to be a celebratory night. So, here we are, no Oscars host, a couple months to figure it out. People have thrown out hot names like Tiffany Haddish and the Nick Kroll/John Mulaney comedic duo that nailed the Spirit Awards last year. Veteran Whoopi Goldberg pitched herself to host a fifth time. Ken Jeong sarcastically said he would consider his life a failure if he wasn’t given the job. Patton Oswalt’s name is hovering in the air. Hell, even Tom Green came out of the woodwork to brand his name. If you’re feeling lucky and want to bet on it, massive online sports book, Bovada, currently lists Ellen DeGeneres as the most likely choice, followed by Kimmel again, Neil Patrick Harris, Key & Peele, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. But, let’s be real, the most fun any of us have ever had at the Oscars was during the brief glimpse of the brilliance that was Haddish and Maya Rudolph last year. Fingers are crossed.

Scarlett Johansson and misrepresentation 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️

ScarJo has had a stellar past couple of years as far as forgetting what she looks like goes. After the outrage over the whitewashing of the live adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017), in which she was cast to play what was originally an Asian cyborg in the anime version, she has returned for more in 2018. Teaming up with Shell director Rupert Sanders again for back-to-back poor decision-making, she assumed the role of “Dante ‘Tex’ Grill” in the upcoming Rub & Tug. In real life, Gill was a trans man. In real life, Johansson is not. Whether or not the fault should be placed on her agent, some supporting cast of PR folks, solely herself, or some combination is unclear, but she did not appreciate the backlash. In a sassy response, she pointed her accusers to the likes of Jeffrey Tambor, Felicity Huffman, and Jared Leto, all of whom have represented trans folks on celluloid in the 21st century to much acclaim despite not being one themselves. Leto and Huffman were both nominated for Oscars for their performances—Leto actually taking home the little gold man at the 2014 awards ceremony—and Tambor received three Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations as recently as 2017, collecting two of the Emmys and one of the Globes. She made a good point, but not necessarily a winning one, and certainly not one that defended her choice. The outrage grew and within two weeks of the announcement of her casting, she bailed. The conversation inflamed in the wake of the controversy, piquing the mass’s interest in the question over who can play who on screen. Perhaps the trans community has been unsupportive of cisgender people being cast in trans roles for a long time, but this has only recently become an issue in pop culture’s eyes (as evidenced by the awards referenced above). While most of us can obviously agree that trans folks should play trans folks on screen, there’s a lot more to discuss. The larger concept of fluidity in art becomes questionable. Scales of gender and sexuality (opposed to oppressive binaries) suddenly seem to contradict other justice-driven concerns around representation. And the theoretical question about how far we are willing to go as a society when it comes to limiting what roles any actor can take (trans folks included) starts to smell slightly dystopian. At the end of the day, there are some simple truths to take away: 1) no whitewashing, SCARLETT 2) trans people deserve to be treated equally and represented accurately in Hollywood 3) things are changing, and hopefully for the better.

Roma in theaters 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️

I don’t know if you heard but writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men) came out with a new film this year. It’s called Roma and you can watch it anywhere…which is a huge problem. Critics have armored up with essay pitches, their longest podcasts to date, and Twitter threads for days to protest the watching of Roma on Netflix, its primary home as of December 14, in lieu of a visit to the movie theater. “If you’re not watching it in a theater, you’re not watching it at all.” Why? In theatres, it is essentially projected as 70mm film, despite its digital composure. But I won’t get into the technical aspects. In essence, it’s gorgeously shot and your computer or TV will not do it justice. Also, the sound design is an absolute trip that your computer speakers will obliterate with banality, the immersive and un-pause-able experience of a theatre cannot be replicated on a laptop, and Cuarón has explicitly asked people to see in on the silver screen for good measure. Its availability on Netflix also threatens the viewing of the film on a phone, which, as far as cinephiles are concerned, is the equivalent of spitting in Cuarón’s face, kidnapping his children, and taking them to a tr*mp rally to boost attendance numbers (take no offense aspect-ratio and film-grain obsessives for I am one of you and it’s healthy to laugh at ourselves). Of course, there are other brands of film lovers and one in particular who has emerged in the Roma debate. These are the kind who will watch the film on a broken iPhone 4 with the brightness down and glitchy Wi-Fi just to prove a point: watch it however the fuck you want to. Although I despise their methods of spite, they do have several good points: 1) some can’t afford theaters or don’t have access to a movie theater playing Roma and there’s no use in shaming those folks 2) some people flat out hate movie theaters (I will never understand this, but I concede that it is true) 3) some people find movie theaters triggering for one reason or another—perhaps because of a traumatizing experience or something along those lines. So, the relatively agreed upon conclusion so far has been to go see it in a theater if it is reasonably within your means. And if not, at least watch it on your laptop in a dark room with headphones in. It’s for your benefit.  The larger conversation here is one that will continue indefinitely, as streaming services like Netflix put film lovers in a tough position. They’ve started financing prestige projects like Roma and are the reason they can exist at all, but they—for some—undermine the transcendence of great art with their mass, convenient streaming capabilities, which will undoubtedly result in plenty of people who have the means to watch in a theater lazily watching at home. My take-aways: 1) caring about cinematic experiences is good when its considerate and lacks elitist form 2) it’s always a case-by-case scenario 3) film bros still suck.

The Death of FilmStruck 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️

We all want to know who is going to host the Oscars, but perhaps there is a more important question we should be asking about the night of February 24, 2019. Will FilmStruck be featured in the “In Memoriam” portion of the ceremony? At the end of October, WarnerMedia announced that they would be shutting down the ever-beloved streaming hub of TMC and Criterion Collection films that movie zealots have been worshipping for the past year. Notorious preservers of film history Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg publicly asked Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. Chairman, to revive the one-of-a-kind streaming service to no avail. In scant reparation, they left a month for everyone to scour its last drops. The single event that sent Film Twitter into its greatest shock this year, it reinvigorated debates about the value of physical media, the scarcity of great films available online, and the future of film history preservation if it is left in the hands of mass conglomerates (such as WarnerMedia) and cloud-storage techies. However, there has been promise of a Criterion streaming service to come in the spring of 2019 so we can rest somewhat easy. Regardless, the conversation around all connected topics is still burning bright because even if we are guaranteed a streaming service in the next few months, we now know the powerless feeling of the looming eminence of a total shutdown, and it carries a crippling weight.

The Collapse of MoviePass 🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️🌶️

2017 was the year of discovery, loosening expendable income budgets, and newfound film lovers who would have never known themselves otherwise. It was the Year of MoviePass, quite possibly the greatest thing that had ever happened to entertainment industry consumers. It was our rock, our religion, our President, our hope, our everything. 2018, on the other hand, was the year of audibly screaming “What the fuck?!” in line at the box office when we saw how much it actually costs to go see a film in theaters. It was the year of trying to put a positive spin—e.g. “I’m reliving my college years!”—on the fact that all you could afford was Maruchan ramen if you wanted to watch two movies a month. It was the Year of the Collapse of MoviePass. Honestly, we all saw it coming. It was just a matter of when. The business model was shaky as hell. No one could quite put together how it was making any money. News flash: it wasn’t. They were never terribly transparent about their business dealings. And they obviously got much larger than they ever anticipated. The disaster came in waves. In the Spring, they rid us of the ability to see a movie more than once. Surge-pricing followed. On the weekend of Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s release, they announced that blockbusters wouldn’t be available for their first two weeks. Suddenly, MoviePass’s supposedly curated selection only included six different movies available per day. Subscribers started dropping like flies. Like a clingy, emotionally abusive partner that doesn’t understand the phrase “leave me alone,” MoviePass didn’t let them (which incited class action lawsuits). Then 30 films a month turned into 3 films a month. The price increased. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood launched a securities fraud investigation. For all we know now, it’s probably $250 a month for one viewing and it’s always the most recent Transformers film. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter. MoviePass as we knew it is gone forever. And although we all want to give it the ol’ Office Space printer treatment, we should actually be thankful. In the end, MoviePass has brought more people to the theaters than we could’ve have imagined, and in doing so, it has revived theater-going culture and pressured independent parties and theatre chains such as AMC to roll out their own subscription services, which haven’t been too bad. Ultimately, now that moviegoing subscriptions are a commodifiable product of our capitalist economy, Zuckerbergs will be dropping out of Ivy League institutions like flies to invent the next best thing. And those people are smart and rich, so, for better or worse, they probably will. Of course, nothing will ever be what once was, but we should jettison all hopes of a 2017 MoviePass equivalent forever if we want to stay sane.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.