Every year around the end of November, I start to ignore the actual writing and work I have to/should get done and spend far too much time catching up with all the movies I missed earlier in the year. There’s really no reason for me to do this because
A. I could just watch movies I want to see whenever it’s convenient, you know, like a normal person and
B. I’m literally making a year end list for nobody but myself, unlike a normal person.
I literally have no idea how critics and pundits can find the words to describe the year in film every December and try to make it sound fresh. Even writing about films, no matter how different they are, can feel pretty redundant. So 2018 was another year with an abundance of superhero movies, prequels, origin stories and remakes and some were good and most were unsurprisingly pretty bad.
“People talk about the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It wasn’t that the films were better or the filmmakers were better, it was the audiences that were better.”
Paul Schrader’s right. Admittedly, a little pretentious and cranky, but he’s right. But it’s also not entirely audience’s faults. We’re spoon-fed crap every day from media outlets all around us that try to define what we want and how we want it. Disney has monopolized the entire industry and is now preying on audiences’ nostalgia for their lost childhoods to make billions every year. Then you have film nerds online dissecting every single thing a director does, because nobody can live with ambiguity.
We’re an impatient, needy audience ready to tear everything apart at the seams if it doesn’t line up with our expectations or we’re left with something to reflect on, instead of definitive answers. We’re told what to think and when to think it, so it’s no wonder audiences aren’t ready to embrace difficult films from difficult people with uncompromising visions in 2018.
None of this is to say all art has to be that. Sometimes we need something to comfort us or just make us laugh. I put on Netflix’s ’90s rom-com throwback “Set It Up” and was utterly charmed by the entire film and everyone in it. Is it groundbreaking? Absolutely not and it doesn’t want to be, nor does it need to be.
Maybe I’m not doing myself any favors in this piece, but I do try to take myself less seriously as I get older (I swear). In the past I’ve talked up films that I thought were “important” at the end of the year because I felt like I needed to. I’m a lot more comfortable now admitting when I don’t get something or I think it’s pretentious bullshit.
I’m also trying not to sneer too much at the love for films that I simply do not get. It’s fucking hard because I’ll always be a grumpy, pretentious snob in some ways, but it’s also a lot harder to just admit something didn’t work for you and you’re happy it worked for someone else.
Film isn’t defined by what a mega media conglomerate puts out on a monthly basis, no matter how hard they try to monopolize everything in their path. It’s also not defined by what indie hit makers like A24 put out or what the Oscars tell you is deemed award-worthy. It’s personal. That’s what’s always been so great about film to me. The way things can speak to you when you least expect them to, even if you’re the only one in the room who feels it. I don’t write year-end lists because I feel like my opinion is warranted or necessary, but because I love talking about films. I love recommending films that might have gotten lost in the shuffle for some people. I love stumbling upon films that writers and critics I admire recommend. Sometimes they end up being the best thing I saw all year and sometimes they make me question their sanity.
Anyway, here’s my list.
(Yeah, there’s ties. Sue me.)
30. (tie) “Cam”
I threw this on in the background while I did some work around the house, expecting a mindless Blumhouse thriller and within the first ten minutes, found myself glued to it. As fun as any horror film about a cam girl meeting her digital doppelgänger should be, the film is anchored by a sensational, game lead performance by Madeline Brewer and a rare authenticity for the world its portraying. Thrilling in execution, darkly funny in its portrayal of desperate men and their hatred of the women they digitally pursue and refreshingly positive about sex work. The film never stigmatizes the world it’s portraying and thankfully never turns it into a cautionary tale.
30. (tie) “Unsane”
Steven Soderbergh’s latest digital experiment, shot entirely on iPhones, is a deceptively layered and intelligent film that uses the ’80s inspired woman-in-peril genre to simultaneously tackle the horrors of health care and being a woman in 2018.
There’s a scene towards the end of Sebastian Silva’s micro-budget, dudes on a getaway comedy “Tyrel” where a group of inebriated white guys are singing R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, while burning a painting of Jesus in the fireplace. It’s the most frightening, unnerving sequences I’ve seen all year. A piercing, cringe-inducing exposé of “woke” white dudes and modern racial anxiety that plays out like a more self-aware, depressingly realistic version of a Todd Philips movie.
This year’s second time viewing revelation for me. A straight-faced, hard boiled LA neo-noir that uses a conventional story to probe the underlying pain of its furious, wearied protagonist. It may not appear to at first glance, but Kusama’s film has way more on its mind than illusive criminals and brooding cops. It’s about a complicated, heartbroken woman seeking redemption in a man’s world. It’s about the way women are forgotten and passed over by men in power. A film like “Roma” is praised for its contrived female empowerment, but “Destroyer” actually pays tribute to the endurance of women without manipulating its audience. It’s a powerful portrayal of the endurance and determination of women. We’ve had plenty of hardened male antiheroes seeking redemption in a cold, unforgiving world, so it’s refreshing to see a character as complex and raw as Erin Bell get her due.
27. (tie) “The Sisters Brothers”
A dryly funny, surprisingly sensitive western that thoughtfully deconstructs the tropes of the genre. A meditation on masculinity and personal growth set against the backdrop or a constantly changing and evolving country. It seamlessly leaps from one tone to the next, allowing the actors room to create their own interpretations of the world they inhabit, while Audiard’s direction is remarkably restrained and unhurried. Even when it feels a bit aimless, it’s constantly intoxicating, heartfelt and brimming with a jovial spirit that Audiard has rarely tapped into. And, it gives John C. Reilly (one of the most underrated actors in the game) a much deserved lead performance that doesn’t ask him to be a complete buffoon.
27. (tie) “The Old Man & the Gun”
A breezy, criminally charming caper that plays off of Robert Redford’s infinite charm and the on-screen persona he’s crafted for half a century now, Lowery’s film was unfairly overlooked this season for the very same qualities it was championed. Yes, it’s breezy and light, but it’s also achingly beautiful and melancholy. It gets harder and harder to get films like this made and it’s even harder to pull them off as well as Lowery does. So just because a film doesn’t arrive on the festival circuit with an air of self-importance and cultural significance, doesn’t mean it’s any less of an achievement.
A striking meditation on the paradoxes and pointless atrocities of war that seamlessly transitions from tragedy to deadpan absurdity and back again over the course of three powerful acts. Maoz evokes the surrealist absurdity and humanity of Yorgos Lanthimos and Jarmusch and the modern Shakespearean tragedy of a Kenneth Lonergan drama. Like Lonergan, Maoz knows that even though the world is crumbling for some of us, life goes on whether we want it to or not.
25. (tie) “Minding the Gap”
A decade in the making film that originally set out to document the lives of director Bing Liu and his two best friends, became a powerful examination of how we define our closest relationships and more importantly, the way toxic masculinity and abuse can integrate themselves into our lives. Three men, going in very different directions, all united by abuse and loss. The film powerfully examines the roots of abuse without villainizing its subjects, no matter how reprehensible their behavior becomes. Liu is interested in cause and not pointing the finger. How we do we become the people we are? What does it mean to be a man? Do people change or do they end up exactly where they were always destined to? It’s moving, thought-provoking and tragic.
25. (tie) “We the Animals”
Jeremiah Zagar’s 16mm adaptation of Justin Torres’ novel is a raw, deeply intimate portrayal of adolescence and masculinity. By focusing on gender dynamics in a predominately Latino household in the ’90s, Zagar is able to transcend Sundance clichés, delivering a film that feels deeply authentic. Like “Minding the Gap”, the film probes the roots of toxic masculinity, vis-à-vis the way archaic gender standards can alienate us from our sexuality. It’s exhilarating, heartfelt and honest indie filmmaking at its best.
24. “Let the Sunshine In”
Claire Denis is hard to pin down. There’s themes of colonialism and isolation in her work, but every film offers something a little bit different. She’s one of a kind and “Let the Sunshine In” is no different. When it screened at Cannes last year, it was overlooked as a minor work in Denis’ filmography. That’s shocking to me. It’s not Denis operating in “Beau Travail” masterpiece mode, but how often can you replicate that? It’s still a radiant, intimate film from a director who’s cynicism can sometimes overshadow her romanticism. It’s also insane that Binoche can quietly turn in one of the best performances of the year and her career and barely make a peep in any year end lists or award circuits.
23. “A Prayer Before Dawn”
Getting extremely stoned and ordering a Domino’s Pizza before watching this on my living room couch was probably not the way Sauvaire intended his gritty Thai boxing drama to be seen. Unfortunately, that’s how I watched it. Fortunately, I was fucking mesmerized by it. Telling the true story of an English boxer who’s sentenced to a Thai prison where he battles a meth addiction, Sauvaire made a film that was astonishingly introspective and hypnotizing. The harrowing, almost balletic approach to violence was like watching Claire Denis’ take on “Midnight Express”. It’s undeniably brutal and features more than a few truly upsetting sequences, but where other filmmakers might have turned the film into “Rocky” in a Thai prison, Sauvaire appears to be more interested in the quiet, physical psychology of masculinity and addiction. It also never indulges in racist stereotypes and features a rare romantic subplot between a cisgender man and trans woman that doesn’t feel opportunistic or exploitative. A truly underrated film that slipped under the radar.
Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers” is a love letter to cinema as much as it is a ghost story. An indelible recounting of a painful memory that ended up defining a young woman’s entire life. Watching the film feels like opening up a box of photographs in your closet you haven’t seen in ages. A cathartic sensation of nostalgia that only opens up new wounds as you seek to understand the person you were and the life you ended up with. Like a great mystery novel, Tan’s occasionally painful recounting of the past unravels in surprising ways, taking us on a journey of discovery and loss that left me shaken.
21. “Happy as Lazzaro”
“The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”
Not to harp on the “Roma” thing again, but here’s a prime example of a filmmaker successfully making a modern day neorealist film that tackles poverty and class manipulation in 2018. Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro” is magical and hopeful without compromising its politics. Where Cuarón never dared to criticize the family that employed its pregnant servant, Rohrwacher makes a bold decision to shift the tone from the undeniably charming preciousness of its first half to a much more tragic, painful examination of classism and corrupted innocence. It’s a sobering, surreal tale of the way capitalism exploits and punishes the poor.
20. “Vox Lux”
I’ll take shoot for the stars, overly ambitious films over most of the shit we’re fed by studios and major indie labels alike. It’s exciting to watch a director with sky high ambitions make bold choices, even when they strike out. “Vox Lux” is by no means a film that strikes out, but it is laced with undeniable flaws and questionable decisions. But that’s part of what makes it so audacious and fascinating. Brady Corbet, clearly influenced by the European directors he’s worked for over his career, set out to make a film about the intersection between pop music and tragedy in the 21st century. And for the most part, he did it.
Corbet’s film is largely successful because it understands the appeal of pop music, but seeks to understand our cultural attachment to it. The way we distract ourselves from the misery of the world through escapism, whether that’s reality television, video games or just a catchy pop song. The film opens with the most disturbing and unflinching sequence of violence I’ve witnessed all year, using a school shooting in the late ’90s to catapult the story of an exploited teenager with a glimmer of talent and her meteoric rise to the top of pop fandom. Corbet asks a lot of questions, occasionally overreaches, but the fact that he was willing to make a film about the exploitation of a teenage girl after a school shooting in this climate is admirable and honestly, necessary. We turn other peoples tragedies into our own and in turn, invalidate the trauma they’re experiencing. “Vox Lux” holds a mirror up to the zeitgeist and the lives we exploit for profit and entertainment.
It’s the most ambitious film of the year and one that I hope to continue to revisit over the years.
19. (tie) “Game Night”
“Game Night” is the rare R-rated, visually dynamic and smart mainstream comedy with a huge ensemble that actually works. Trading in the mean-spirited faux-dark comedy of the “Horrible Bosses” franchise, John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein have crafted a film that’s as original and inventive as a studio comedy is allowed to be. It’s moment to moment hilarious, exciting and unpredictable. It also features what is hands down one of the best performances of the year in Jesse Plemons’ lonely, socially inept divorcée who just wants to be included in game night. It’s the kind of performance that reminds you of a young Philip Seymour Hoffman and gives an already hilarious and crowd-pleasing film an extra jolt of sincerity and eccentricity.
19. (tie) “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”
There are three types of films from my childhood that I will never tire of:
1. Meta, self-referential teen horror films, preferably under the Dimension Films banner.
2. Adam Sandler comedies circa 1995–1999.
3. Big, dumb, earnest action films with big casts, usually produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, may he and his collagen injected lips rest in peace.
“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is not a big, dumb, earnest action movie. Well it’s big and it’s fairly earnest. But it’s a far cry from the “Broken Arrows” of yesteryear. Being a sucker for well-crafted explosions and chase sequences, plus an infinite admiration for Tom Cruise, the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is extremely my shit. In fact, I would argue that outside of the lackluster third installment, it’s the best franchise… ever? Yeah, it’s the best franchise ever. It’s a rock solid, hire-wire extravaganza that ups the ante every few years by finding new buildings for Tom Cruise to scale and modes of transportation for him to barely escape death from. I mean, the guy jumps out of a fucking airplane in real time and manages to hit all of his marks and still act his ass off… in one unbroken take. He’s a goddamn national treasure.
“Hereditary” might be the first wholly successful art-house horror movie of the decade. Following on the heels of some truly dour, humorless horror experiments in misery, Ari Aster came out blazing with a genuinely disturbing horror movie that actually had a sense of humor. Aided by two of the best performances of the year in Toni Collette’s already iconic portrayal of a grieving mother and an extremely underappreciated turn by Alex Wolff, who gives one of the most authentic horror film performances I’ve ever seen. Like a Gregory Crewdson photograph come to life, “Hereditary” is a visually arresting nightmare that strikes the perfect balance between meditation on grief and bonkers house of horrors.
17. “Winter Brothers”
I’m not really sure how to write about “Winter Brothers”. It’s a confounding experience that defies immediate critical examination. I saw it a month ago and I still couldn’t properly explain to you what it’s about or how it managed to make my heart swell, yet leave me feeling cold and hopeless. I wish I saw it in a theater and had a chance to properly experience its textured, gritty 16mm cinematography and immersive sound design. Pálmason’s photographic understanding of composition and the way faces sometimes tell us more than words can is perfectly suited for a story about isolation and the indescribable agony of loneliness. He’s a major talent and someone worth keeping an eye on.
16. “A Star is Born”
When I first about the fourth incarnation of “A Star is Born”, I could not imagine thinking it would be successful, let alone be one of my favorite films of the year. But then that trailer hit and it looked… really good.
Then I saw it. And folks, it’s good. Like, enviously good.
Forget about it being a great first film. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first film, but it’s also just a straight up fantastic film. It breathes new life into a story that’s been revived by every other generation and somehow manages to make it personal. This is a movie where you watch from the audience and wonder how the fuck he pulled this thing off. There’s only so many ways to direct the rags to riches story and the downfall of the tortured artist, so it’s a miracle that it never falls apart.
And yes, Lady Gaga is an absolute revelation in it. She’s fantastic and deserves all the recognition she’s receiving, but it’s Cooper’s film. Cooper’s always been one of the best actors of his generation, but this is on another level, even for him. You can practically smell the whiskey on his lips in every scene. But it’s never inauthentic or performative. He doesn’t play dress up and pretend to be a drunk rockstar. He pours every ounce of his being into his character and leaves no vulnerability untouched. It’s a devastating portrayal of alcoholism and self-sabotage. He shows you the life behind his eyes, the effortless charisma, the raw talent he possesses, but the pain always remains. No matter how much success or love he’s showered with, he simply can’t be. He doesn’t know how to live a life sober. He feels too much and he doesn’t know any better at this point.
I hope we can all truly appreciate the work Cooper has done here, before the inevitable Oscar frontrunner backlash kicks into overdrive and a million think pieces on how “A Star is Born” is overrated start piling up. It’s really hard to make a crowdpleaser on this level and still maintain its artfulness and humanity. Cooper knocks it out of the park.
15. “The Rider”
The most sympathetic, quietly mesmerizing film about America to come out in 2018 is Chloé Zhao’s modern western “The Rider”. Zhao seamlessly immerses you in Brady’s world, giving you a deeply intimate look at his battle with himself and his dreams. With a stunning mixture of gorgeous landscape shots filmed almost entirely at magic hour and intimate moments exploring Brady’s physical and emotional wounds, DP Joshua James Richards captures the world inside and outside of Brady’s head. We get a sense of the world he loves so deeply, one that he doesn’t know how to turn his back on. It has shades of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”, in that it seeks to understand the physicality and psychology of a very American subculture and the men that risk their bodies for it. A powerful tale of American stubbornness, determination and heartbreak that finds ways to reinvigorate what the American Western can be.
14. “Private Life”
Several excellent female directors made a return this year with their first films in nearly a decade. It was a welcome return, but also unfortunate that so many extraordinary voices in cinema have battled as long and as hard as they have to see their films financed. Premiering at Sundance alongside Debra Granik’s superb “Leave No Trace” was Tamara Jenkins’ first feature since 2007’s underrated “The Savages”. So it’s a blessing and a curse that “Private Life” was given the half-hearted Netflix release this past fall. It might put more eyes on a Tamara Jenkins film than a theatrical release could, but it also seemed to all but disappear among a bevy of studio and mini-major awards contenders.
An understated stunner that captures the lives of white, literate New Yorkers without turning them into miserable caricatures or even worse, indulging in their narcissistic behavior. Jenkins’ story of compromise and missed opportunities is a rare indie these days that doesn’t feel the need to overcompensate. The sharp, relatable script and the ace performances by the actors are enough to take us to the finish line. A film imbued with empathy for all of its characters and a profound honesty that packs an unexpected emotional punch, leaving us with a bittersweet ending that couldn’t feel more true to life.
Here’s hoping it won’t be another 10 years until we see Jenkins again.
13. “Eighth Grade”
When I was 13, I went up to a girl I really liked in the library and nervously tried to make small talk. She suddenly looked nauseous and repulsed. Then she turned to her friend and laughed. I walked away completely humiliated only to realize I was sweating profusely and my arm pits were soaking wet and smelled like a stinky 13 year old boy going through puberty. It was horrifying. That summer, another girl I liked told me she liked me too but she couldn’t date me cause my tooth was too crooked.
Being thirteen is fucking brutal.
I can’t imagine being a thirteen-year old girl, let alone a thirteen-year old girl in 2018. When I was 13, I felt that overwhelming self-consciousness we all do, but I didn’t have Instagram or Facebook. I barely had access to AIM. I got excited to go to friends’ houses because they all had AOL and I didn’t. Social media was a foreign concept to me and I only really began engaging with it heavily in my 20’s. So trying to imagine the sweaty, movie obsessed, socially awkward 13 year old that inexplicably told everyone Jason Lee was his brother-in-law, having an Instagram account sounds like a fucking nightmare.
Bo Burnham is only two years younger than me and he somehow found a way to channel all of his own anxieties and insecurities into a thirteen year-old girl living in 2018. It’s actually astonishing how authentically he conveys the world we live in now through the eyes of a teenage girl, played with fearlessness by Elsie Fisher.
In fact, “Eighth Grade” is the only movie I’ve ever seen that has accurately portrayed what those mortifying moments of adolescence feel like. Being a kid is really fucking lonely and most kids suck so it’s important movies like this get seen, especially by the kids it’s portraying. I wish I had a movie like this when I was a super emotional teenager listening to Death Cab for Cutie in my bedroom and not “American Pie 2”. But thankfully, it’s been 17 years since then and I could care less what people think of me.
Not really. I still care. Too much.
The good news is I can be a sweaty, awkward 30 year old sitting in a theater on a Friday night smiling and laughing through tears, still reminding myself that things aren’t always going to be how they are right now.
There’s a sequence about a quarter of the way into Steve McQueen’s stylish throwback heist thriller “Widows” where a corrupted aspiring politician takes a chauffeured car ride through Chicago’s 18th ward with his wife. The camera never moves from the outside of the car. An important, crucial conversation between Colin Farrell’s ethically compromised Jack Mulligan and his wife/silent campaign strategist plays out over the course of two unbroken minutes, behind closed doors. It transports us from one pocket of Chicago to another in minutes. As the conversation carries on, mostly consisting of Mulligan berating his wife with questions about her desire to fuck black men, we see two different worlds. The world politicians pretend to represent and the world they live in. It’s the best shot of the year and one of the many reasons “Widows” is able to transcend its genre as well it does.
Beneath its twisted narrative of sleazy politicians, deceased criminals and the widows left to pick up the pieces, lies a film about the institutional corruption of marginalized women. Like other female dominated genre exercises this year, the film uses the heist genre to explore the tenacity of women pushed against the edge. It brilliantly infuses its sinuous narrative with a timely social context, taking powerful white men to task for their exploitation of disenfranchised communities and discarding of women.
“Widows” is about the corruption of our country and a rigged system that fails nearly anyone who isn’t white or wealthy. The tragedy at the heart of the story is that the women on the margins, the wannabe politicians on the outside looking in and the communities they live in never stood a chance. In a capitalist society, only the cruel and the rich can thrive. McQueen understands the cost of the American dream as well as he understands the mechanics and pleasures of the genre he’s operating in. Through the perseverance of women backed into a corner, he offers us a glimpse at retribution.
11. “First Man”
Wunderkind director Damien Chazelle was put in the rare position of being able to do whatever he wanted after becoming the youngest director to ever win the Oscar for directing. Proving he was more than a one-trick-pony by stepping out of his musical comfort zone, Chazelle sets his sights on a much more ambitious story: that of Neil Armstrong and America’s complicated journey to the moon. “First Man” opened the 75th Venice Film Festival riding a wave of hype so large, it’s muted response felt sadly inevitable. Diverting expectations of an inspiring space epic in the vein of “Apollo 13,” Chazelle instead made a film that was too challenging for mainstream audiences, but not unconventional enough for critics to rally behind. It’s a subdued, surprisingly mournful examination of mid-century masculinity and America’s soulless capitalistic quest for innovative domination. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer are far more interested in the complex nature of Armstrong and the messiness of space travel, than in the triumph of the human spirit. Like other Chazelle protagonists, Armstrong is an obsessive driven by the very American concept of greatness at all costs. Here, Chazelle puts that obsessiveness under a microscope and examines it through the lens of grief. Taking a bit of creative license, Chazelle uses Armstrong’s grief as a catalyst for his workmanlike obsession with a remarkably tactful and honest perceptiveness. Ryan Gosling is deceptively brilliant as Armstrong, deftly capturing the reticent masculinity of the era, while never imbuing Armstrong with a warmth he notoriously lacked. It’s always difficult to predict the shelf life of a film, but “First Man” feels like the ideal candidate for a film that future generations will watch and wonder how the hell we ignored such a masterful achievement.
10. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
I tried to see catch RaMell Ross’ slice of life documentary for months, but because LA is tragically devoid of art house theaters that aren’t Laemmle’s, this movie was nearly impossible to find. Finally, it showed for a one night only show at Now Instant in Highland Park and I’m so fucking grateful I caught it.
I had a feeling from the trailer alone I was going to love this film, but man, is it special. In a year jam-packed with socially conscious, opportunistic films about black lives and police shootings, it’s a miracle to get a film like “Hale County”.
A film of indescribable beauty and grace, that captures the lives of a small Alabama community and the black families and friends that inhabit the town. It addresses the modern day concept of being black in America without punishing its subjects or rousing white viewers with harrowing images of racial prejudice. Ross lets his camera linger on everyday black lives, allowing their environment and behavior in the most intimate and mundane of moments to tell their story and a paint a picture of small town life in America. It’s a languid, poetic approach that proves no matter what kind of camera you’re working with or how much money you have, there’s natural beauty to be found all around us.
9. “Madeline’s Madeline”
There’s only a handful of moviegoing experiences that have given me a healthy amount of anxiety and left my head spinning. “Punch-Drunk Love”, “The Tree of Life” and “Synecdoche, New York” all fucked me up in similarly profound ways. That feeling where you’re aware that you’re watching something but its rhythms, editing and sound design create a sort of out of body experience where you’re left disoriented and floored. You’re still processing and absorbing what you just witnessed and you’re not really sure if you want to laugh out of sheer nervousness or cry because you feel overwhelmed by the sensory ride you’ve been on.
Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” most definitely falls into that group of rare filmgoing experiences where you’re just sort of discombobulated and fried in the best way possible. It’s without a doubt one of the most unique and original pieces of filmmaking to come out in a long fucking time. A 90 minute hurricane of emotions with so many fascinating layers that’s it’s impossible to pick apart after one viewing. It feels autobiographical and raw while putting you inside the head of somebody who’s talent is constantly battling with their mental illness. It challenges your senses and your own interpretation of film, performance and art as a form of therapy.
And my god, Helena Howard is the definition of a revelatory performance. It’s rare you get to see a young actress get the opportunity to tap into so many different levels of performance and she’s downright sensational. It might be the performance of the year.
There is not a single moment I’ve spent in a theater this year that can replicate the feeling I had when watching the final act of “Annihilation”. I wasn’t prepared for it. The last time I had felt that way was watching the Big Bang sequence in “The Tree of Life”. I felt outside of myself. It was that rare sensation that creeps up on you when you’re witnessing something truly marvelous. Something unspeakable that can only be communicated through images and movement. To be a pretentious asshole, it’s what cinema is supposed to be.
Film has the power to transport you. The final act of “Annihilation” does that. It’s bold and electrifying. It pins you to your seat and mystifies you with its audacity. With it’s uncompromising willingness to alienate and transcend all expectations. It’s within these moments that the entire film came into place for me. The strangely wooden and hackneyed flashbacks were all but forgiven. It wasn’t always an easy road, but Alex Garland had made a film that would be talked about and picked apart for years. It would be dumped by its studio, dismissed by audiences and divisive even among cinephiles. All the makings of a future cult classic.
It’s reductive to limit an entire film to a single thesis, and “Annihilation” is about many things, but what resonated with me the most was its depiction of depression and self-destruction. Like many great genre films, “Annihilation” uses a deceptively simple premise — the men on a mission story (or in this case, women on a mission) — to mine much more complex themes. With traces of everything from “Stalker” to “The Thing” to “Under the Skin”, the film, like the Shimmer itself, begins to morph into something wholly unique and profound.
Garland himself confessed that the film is about the difficulties of being a person. It’s about facing ourselves, reckoning with our mistakes and the inescapable existential crises we all face: What does it mean to be alive? Are we our own worst enemy? It’s about the inevitable ways we change and transform into different versions of ourselves over time. We can bury the darkest aspects of our being as deep as we want, but they always surface. That’s part of being human. The flaws of our design are part of who we are.
It’s fitting that the film begins and ends with a fairly standard sci-fi set-up with Portman’s character being interrogated by scientists and government officials. They want concrete, easily digestible answers. The film isn’t interested in them. It’s an enigma. It’s also a masterpiece.
“Shoplifters” is a film that’s hard to talk about without giving away some of its key revelations, so I’ll keep it relatively simple.
A mini-masterpiece about the definition of family that emotionally entangles you in the characters lives without resorting to saccharine contrivances. Quietly devastating. The best ensemble of the year. Kore-eda fills every frame with so much detail, you hardly notice how rarely he cuts or covers a scene. Even more affecting under the context of the current political and sociological climate in Japan, where poverty is being ignored to the point of being practically non-existent in the media.
One of three Cannes masterpieces this year on this list, but by far the most emotionally restorative and healing of the three.
Another film that’s nearly impossible to properly discuss without revealing key plot turns and character development, but one whose ambiguity allows for deeper reflection. This was my first Lee Chang-dong film and I went in with the anticipation of the masterpiece I kept hearing it was. What I got was a film that simultaneously intrigued me, transfixed me and frustrated me. It’s opaque approach to the mystery at its core gives new meaning to a slow burn thriller. There was undeniable great work in the film, but it hadn’t quite settled in my mind yet.
Then, I found myself thinking about it all the time. Seemingly casual conversations and interactions began to play back in my head, their elliptical nature unraveling in a way I hadn’t quite felt with a film before. I know I’ve used this word pretty fucking frequently in this piece, but it was haunting. More so than anything I’ve seen in a long time. The way the film plays tricks on you is a part of its mastery. It plays into the central mystery of the film and the way Jongsu’s paranoia begins to seep into his every waking moment.
I’ll stop there because I know most people still haven’t caught up with this one, but what I realized the more I sat with the film is that it is in fact, a stone cold masterpiece. An atmospheric, chilling film that engulfs you in its mysteries and allows you to untangle them in your mind. It’s the rare film that welcomes conversation and theories without ever offering a definitive answer.
Lucrecia Martel returned after a 10 year absence with the masterful, enigmatic political allegory “Zama”. Under the guise of a slow burn costume drama, “Zama” slowly reveals itself to be an uncompromisingly bleak comedy about colonialism and one cog in the system whose miserable existence is tested by more powerful men. It takes the darkly comedic, meaningless existential approach the Coens brought to “A Serious Man” and slowly twists the knife into the protagonist and the viewer. The first thirty minutes were so inscrutable, I almost gave up, but it’s a film that reveals itself in surprising ways and I’m so glad I stayed with it.
It’s hard to make a film about something as ugly as colonialism look as beautiful as “Zama” does, but Martel and DP Rui Poças find a way to masterfully juxtapose barbaric and racist men and naturally gorgeous environments that have been stolen and destroyed. The repetitive image of Don Diego waiting for word by sea begins as a beautifully languid and almost poetic moment, only to become increasingly more akin to a punchline. Nobody is coming. This land he has stolen is purgatory.
Relentlessly bleak and disarmingly funny, “Zama” is a singular vision like no other I’ve seen this decade. A masterpiece that sneaks up and stays with you.
4. “The Favourite”
Extremely happy that Yorgos Lanthimos, one of the most brazenly original and divisive contemporary directors, managed to make a crossover hit with Oscar voters and the public alike, without ever losing sight of his deeply cynical view of humanity.
A flawlessly performed, aesthetically adventurous, madcap romp with the blackest of hearts and along with “First Reformed”, the best ending of 2018.
It’s kind of tragic that Olivia Colman is about to lose best actress to Lady Gaga or Glenn fucking Close.
This is Emma Stone’s best performance. They should’ve given Isabelle Huppert her Oscar and waited to give it to her for this.
Just thinking about this movie makes me want to watch it again. I’ll probably rank it higher than this in a few months.
That last shot.
Also, very horny movie.
3. “Cold War”
An engrossing, utterly romantic lesson in economic filmmaking. A rapturous 85 minute epic that like, Kore-eda’s work in “Shoplifters”, packs more into a single scene than most films can into entire acts. I saw this film on a Sunday morning with no expectations or knowledge of the film outside of its director and was instantly hooked. Pawlikowski grabs you and absorbs you in his world from the very first striking black and white frame, impeccably crafting one scene to the next, slowly peeling back the layers of a tumultuous romance.
Blending classic American cinematic conventions with undeniably European formalism, Pawlikowski has crafted a film that’s haunted by memories of the past and an uncertain future. Brimming with the kind of unbridled passion usually reserved for a Nicholas Sparks novel, “Cold War” is unapologetic in its romanticism of its two leads, but laces the film with a sense of foreboding that hangs above the characters in nearly every scene.
Joanna Kulig injects the film with the volatile energy of a young Gena Rowlands and is phenomenal, playing the character from a teenager to her mid-40s, without ever missing a beat. It’s a devastating performance in a film that flies by so quickly, its power sneaks up on you long after you’ve left the theater.
2. “You Were Never Really Here”
Lynne Ramsay is the best director not working today. Why doesn’t Lynne Ramsay make more movies? Well, like a lot of female directors that returned to the big screen this year, she can’t seem to find the financing for her projects. That, and she’s been smacked with the career killer label of being “difficult”. You know, that thing that most big male directors are called “uncompromising” and “auteurs” for. Whatever the reasoning is, Lynne Ramsay is one of the finest directors we have and “You Were Never Really Here” is a cinematic gut-punch.
A deconstruction of the lone wolf genre, as well as the “man with a set of special skills” action subgenre Liam Neeson has popularized over the last decade. Like Nicolas Winding Refn did with “Drive”, sans the ironic pop songs and flamboyant visual style, Ramsay takes a familiar action movie plot and breaks it down to the bare bones essentials.
Filmmaking at its most economical and visceral, Ramsay shows you just enough, keeping most of the violence off screen. Images of mental and physical abuse that are all the more effective for their restraint and unwillingness to indulge in or fetishize violence. The decision to view what would’ve been a hyper-stylized fight sequence in any other modern day action film, through grainy security cameras is still one of the boldest, funniest choices I’ve ever seen in a thriller.
And then you have Joaquin Phoenix, arguably the best actor alive. Ramsay’s an instinctual director and she trusts her actors. There’s no better actor to have by your side than Phoenix when you’re looking for spontaneity and deeply felt humanism. Phoenix conveys the inexorable pain that trauma and abuse have on us through the physicality he so effortlessly inhabits in all of his roles. We’re never allowed too close to Joe, but Ramsay trusts her audience and more importantly, Phoenix, to tell us all we need to know.
Ramsay’s one of the best visual storytellers we have and the mise-en-scène she employs here is the best of the year. A series of masterfully staged compositions give us an insight into a world of broken men and abused women. A young woman hanging over the edge of her seat in a plane’s boarding area like a figure in a Renaissance painting. A bruised and battered woman watching Joe from afar as he waits for his train to arrive. The surreal image of a tourist screaming as she asks for a photo. Images that haunt Joe’s every waking moment. Painful reminders of a traumatic childhood and the trauma he inflicted on others at war.
Finally, the climactic lake burial is the most galvanizing moment of the year. It’s a scene that other directors might have ignored altogether, but Ramsay builds an entire set piece around it. It’s a cathartic moment of release for Joe and the audience. I still cannot believe they shot that scene in a few hours with a skeleton crew a week before the film made its Cannes debut. It’s a testament to Ramsay’s instincts, confidence and unparalleled talent.
1. “First Reformed”
When I think of the best film of the year, it’s usually a battle between what appealed to my own personal tastes and what is just undeniably the film of the year. Last year, it was an easy call. “Good Time” was love at first sight. It was my own personal box checker of a movie, appealing to all of my senses and desires in a film. This year was harder. Any of the films in my top 10 could have easily been a contender in any given year. “Annihilation”’s third act rocked me to my core. “Shoplifters” moved me like few other films. “Cold War” had me at “hello”. “Burning” is a modern day masterpiece that in retrospect, might be the best film of the year. For most of the year, “You Were Never Really Here” felt like the film to beat. But when I really think back at the film that had the biggest effect on me, that embedded itself so deeply into my consciousness that it was impossible to ignore, I think of Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”.
This was a film that, like “Burning”, sort of mystified me the first time I saw it. I knew it was great, but I couldn’t quite get a read on it. I also saw it at the Landmark in West LA on a Saturday night with a sold out crowd of predominately senior citizens, which I can assure you, is not the way you want to experience any movie, but especially not one as quiet and slow burning as this. But after a second viewing at the Los Feliz theater with a much more respectful crowd, I knew I was witnessing what might very well be the film of the year.
Every year, it feels like more and more films are chomping at the bit to be the defining, socially relevant film of the year. It’s also a title that is often unfairly placed on unsuspecting films that had no intention of even entering the cultural conversation. This year, we got Spike Lee’s entertaining but politically murky “BlacKkKlansman”, the “can’t we all just get along?” neoliberal fantasy of “Green Book”, a seemingly never-ending onslaught of dubious “Black Lives Matter” inspired films attempting to capitalize on a very real movement with mixed results, and Adam McKay’s scathing, but messy indictment of the American political system. Every one of them met with think-pieces and critical dissections that deem them either the film for our times or the film that’s dangerous for our times.
But man, for my money… “First Reformed” is the film that defined 2018 the most for me. It’s strange because on one hand, Schrader’s film is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but that’s also kind of the point. And on another hand, it never directly mentions or references Trump or acts as some kind of obnoxious “resistance” tale. What it does is capture the energy of our times. It captures the bleak outlook we all share, regardless of political affiliation. We’re either living in fear of the future or an invisible enemy and it’s helped create a culture of fear and paranoia that Schrader is keenly aware of.
It’s also a meta reflection of Schrader’s own works, essentially using the same narrative device as “Taxi Driver”, updating it to 2018 with a much purer protagonist. Schrader is a guy who’s partially responsible for some of the best films ever made, but his directorial work has been a hit or miss affair. With “First Reformed”, Schrader seems to finally have found his groove behind the camera. It’s the kind of film only an old man with no fucks left to give could really make. Scenes play out far longer than they normally would. The concept of redemption disappears further and further into the background as the film progresses. It’s the first film I’ve seen by Schrader behind the camera that feels like he is completely and utterly in control of the films tone.
Some people would argue he loses sight of the tone and the bigger picture as the film goes on, but I’d argue the complete opposite. To pull off something this bonkers, this fucking darkly funny and self-aware, relies on a director that is confident and absolutely in control of every slow-building moment of dread. The films gradual shift from Bresson inspired morality tale into the now infamous Magical Mystery Tour sequence might be the most insane disregard for audiences’ needs and desires I’ve seen a major American director make in years. Like, at that point, you’re either on board or you’re not. I was extremely on board.
And then there’s the ending. Fuck. I mean, who the fuck else would try to pull off an ending that batshit? It can be read in so many different ways too. Is it a glimmer of hope? A delusion? A full throttle mental breakdown?
It’s literally shot, framed and performed like the ending of a romantic comedy where the girl doesn’t get on the plane. It’s so good.
So for the first time in a while, I didn’t carry on a best of the year list as I went along. I just waited till I saw nearly everything I wanted to and really thought about what was the defining film for me this year. I had to go with my heart and say “First Reformed”. A modern day masterpiece simply because of its audacity.
What other film are you gonna see that merges eco-terrorism, Pepto-Bismol laced cocktails, levitation, Cedric the Entertainer, suicide by Drano, and the darkest crisis of faith ever captured on film?
Best Restoration “Wanda”
Barbara Loden’s forgotten classic got the revival treatment this year in New York and Los Angeles and it was every bit as glorious as I had heard. It’s getting a proper Criterion backed release later this year, so please give it a watch if you haven’t caught it yet. An instant favorite.
Best Short Film “Observatory Blues”
I’m not being hyperbolic when I tell you that “Observatory Blues” is one of the best short films I’ve ever seen and hands down, the hardest I’ve laughed in maybe a decade. I was not prepared for its brilliance. Just watch it.
Most Mesmerizing Viral Video
”We’re in the Jackpot”, the Terry Collins Meltdown
The closest thing we’ll get to a Cassavetes film in 2018. Just fucking insane camerawork here. I’ve never felt so emotionally engaged and mesmerized by a viral video
The Best of the Rest
“The Guilty”, Gustav Möller
“If Beale Street Could Talk”, Barry Jenkins
“Leave No Trace”, Debra Granik
“Support the Girls”, Andrew Bujalski
“Thoroughbreds”, Cory Finley
“Western”, Valeska Grisebach
Lynne Ramsay, “You Were Never Really Here”
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Helena Howard, “Madeline’s Madeline”
Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”
Sakura Ando, “Shoplifters”
Jesse Plemons, “Game Night”
Alex Wolff, “Hereditary”
Steven Yeun, “Burning”
Paul Schrader, “First Reformed”
Lee Chang-dong & Oh Jung-mi, “Burning”
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”, RaMell Ross
“Cold War”, Paweł Pawlikowski
“Hereditary”, Ari Aster
Jonny Greenwood, “You Were Never Really Here”
James Laxton, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Joe Bini, “You Were Never Really Here”