My Favorite Films of 2018
Listed below are my favorite movies of 2018. This is not necessarily “the best” films of the year, but rather the ones that appealed to me and my tastes more than any others. Fortunately, I have pretty good taste (it’s a joke. Chill.). With that said, I believe that anyone who watches these movies will learn something about the storytelling, about cinema as art, or about themselves. Many of them are not easy, turn-off-your-brain viewings, but as Kafka said, fiction should be an “axe for the frozen sea within us”.
Sorry to Bother You
Spike Jonze meets Spike Lee. Perhaps simply describing Sorry To Bother You as a meeting of the Spikes is a bit reductive, but apt nonetheless. Boots Riley comes out swinging in his directorial debut with one of the most brazen films of the year. Equal parts a harsh satire and oddball comedy Sorry To Bother You holds a funhouse mirror up to contemporary society to show us an outlandish yet sadly honest near future. The racial commentary is apposite and feels an integral part of the ever-shifting narrative. Heading into the final act, there’s a horrific twist, and there’s nothing that can prepare you for it.
I used to watch Bo Burnham YouTube videos in high school. He was a funny, awkward, witty kid that I never thought I’d see again. A decade later I hear he’s releasing a feature film. “How the hell could this kid, who has been doing standup musical comedy and filming his own videos for years, possibly make a good movie?” I asked. But seeing Elsie Fisher’s pubescent, acne-ridden face talking to a directly to the audience through a webcam, it all clicked. There is nobody more qualified to make a movie about how isolating and greuling modern teen life can be than Bo Burnham. This was his life. This was my life. This was probably your life. Watching Eighth Grade brought me back to those days watching YouTube (or Ebaumsworld) videos at my friends’ houses. What’s most impressive about this assured debut is Burnham’s ability to create nostalgic pathos through nuance. It’s the little things that truly make this film relatable – the kid turning his eyelids inside out, the band kid with the rat tail, the pool party where you don’t want to take your shirt off, the obsession with being “cool”, and ever-shifting moods.
Ready Player One
I saw a lot of people feeding this one to the dogs when it came out. I also thought the trailers looked rather...uninspired. But it’s Steven Fucking Spielberg so I had to see it. And I am sorry I ever doubted him. Ready Player One offers classic Spielberg transported to the future. The fact that Spielberg, who is 72 years old, can make a movie set in a VR world that doesn’t feel like my dad made it is incredible alone. That the world is a rich amalgamation of pop culture references from multiple decades and still feels novel, is proof that Spielberg remains one of the greatest living filmmakers. The Shining recreation sequence is worth the price of admission alone. It’s stunning and allows Ready Player One to show how even with all of modern technology’s distraction techniques, there’s still nothing quite like the magic of classic cinema. It’s a beautiful melding of old and new.
A psychedelic dark fantasy revenge tale with a momentous Nicolas Cage performance. What more could you as for? Panos Cosmatos’ follow up to Beyond the Black Rainbow is a sly treat for your eyes that will end up feasting on your brain. The setup and plot are as simple as revenge stories get, yet the viewing experience is a jackhammer to the senses. Cosmastos has a unique ability to drag you into nightmarish planes, and he’s content to let you gestate in a state of looming discomfort. Despite its rudimentary narrative structure, the execution is artful and precise thus elevating it above its foundations. The use of neon colors, film grain, and crossfades all go toward crafting a relentless viewing experience that’s 80’s inspired without derivation. Combine Cosmatos’ knack for fazing visuals with Nic Cage’s expressionistic performance, and Johan Johansson’s metal-fueled score (sadly his final soundtrack) and you get a movie unlike any other this year, and probably unlike any until Costmatos’ next outing.
I don’t need to say much about this one other than it’s written and directed by Gareth Evans who made The Raid and The Raid 2. Throwing some of his action tendencies out the window, Evans delivers a masterclass in tension with just the right amount of supernatural oddness.
Yorgos Lanthimos is almost impossible to classify as a filmmaker. I’d compare him to Kafka but his work is too comedic. I’d compare him to Palahniuk, but his work is less objectionable. The only filmmakers I’d dare compare him to are...maybe Kubrick and Lynch, but it’s less self-serious and less outright surreal. The Favourite is Lanthimos’ least bleak and most approachable work to date, but it stays far out of reach of cheerful. The film takes place in 18th century England, following the Queen and her right-hand women in the midst of a war with the French. Under any other filmmaker this would run the risk of becoming the same drab period piece we’ve seen a hundred times. But Lanthimos imbues it with his trademark cynicism and transforms the subject matter into a lambasting of power struggles in all their forms. Tremendous performances all around but Olivia Colman, who plays Queen Anne, delivers one of the year’s best. Under a different director this likely would have been an ostentatious work, but Lanthimos revitalizes the period drama, displaying his distinctive, idiosyncratic voice that marks him as one of the most important filmmakers of our time.
The strangest movie I saw all year, Border is part Swedish crime thriller, part fairytale, part romance, and part body horror. It’s an eccentric mix that shouldn’t work, but the script from Isabella Eklöf (director of Holiday) and John Ajvide Lindqvist (writer Let The Right One In) manages to weave these elements together for an uncompromising experience. There’s so much I have to say about Border, but the less you know going in, the better. A must for genre fans.
If Ingmar Bergman had a brain-baby with David Lynch and it were raised by Shakespeare, it might turn out like November. Beautifully photographed in black and white, November is a loose adaptation of an Estonian folktale that features everything from wandering ghosts, to a snowman poet, to crude hand-made machines with souls. It’s as if director Rainer Sarnet is daring you into an attempt at classifying November. For me, it was a mixture of so many of my favorite filmmakers that I never thought I’d see. It’s the kind of film I strive to make. A tragic, avant-garde picture that feels from another era entirely.
Gaspar Noe delivers a frenzied dance horror movie that’s disorienting and energetic, horrific and hopeful, riveting and disturbing. Climax comes with Noe’s typical trappings of fluid oners, base characters, pulse-pounding music, and human ugliness. However, Climax is more confined than some of his other outings, takings place in one location over the course of several hours. It’s fascinating to see a director with a penchant for sprawling narratives pull back and restrain himself this late in their career, but the film is a success because of that. It’s fitting that the final 30 minutes of a film titled Climax are some of the most intense in recent history, loaded with daft fun, Daft Punk, and unsettling horrors in equal measure. It’s the kind of movie that that feels like a mental workout, constantly testing your brain’s ability to reconcile complex and contrasting images. Surprisingly, Climax isn’t the only dance horror movie on this year’s list.
Easily the most beautiful and heartfelt film of the year, Roma is as masterful and intricate as filmmaking gets. Alfonso Cuaron takes a vast departure from his previous film, Gravity, doing a deep dive into his own memories to tell the semi-autobiographical story of middle class Mexican a family through the eyes of their meek but caring maid whose own life is a series of turmoils. I’ve seen complaints online that the film is “lacking story”, but I believe that’s a misguided diminution caused by various factors I won’t get into, but namely resulting from the act of watching it on a small screen. It’s a Netflix original, for better or worse. I had a the pleasure of watching this on the big screen and given that 90% of the film is shot in wides, I understand why elements of its richness are easy to miss. Every single frame bleeds story, you just have to be looking for it, or able to look for it. Cuaron allows you to bask in silent conflicts between the background and foreground, rather than tell you what is happening every moment. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that uses the frame and mise-en-scene so expertly. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it ranks up there with masters like Fellini and Antonioni.
The second psycho dance horror movie on the list. When I first heard they were remaking Dario Argento’s Suspiria I was “Lonnie angry”. How could you possible improve on one of the greatest horror films of all time?!?! Then I heard Luca Guadagnino was directing it. Then I heard Thom Yorke was doing the score. Then I heard Tilda Swinton would star. Then I heard Sayombhu Mukdeeprom would shoot it. Despite my impulse to disregard before the film was even made, with every new detail revealed, my anticipation grew. Guadagnino’s Suspiria is less a remake and more so cover (as he describes it). It’s inspired by the original while manipulating elements to deliver something fresh. Guadagnino cast aside the vibrant chaos of the original in exchange for a calculated desaturated nightmare, a metaphorical experience that is somehow also grounded in real-world issues. While the original Suspiria was just about hidden evils, the new one manages to explore everything from contemporary gender roles to the dark and lasting shadow of history all through dance. From the first frantic scene, I knew I was in for something special, and Guadagnino delivers a ride that honors the original while treading its own path. If remakes must exists, this is what they should all strive for.
On the topic of remakes and reboots, how rare is it that we get original big-budget genre films these days? They don’t come by very often and when they do a surprising amount of them end up as failures, making it all the more difficult for new ones to see fruition. With Annihilation Alex Garland unleashes a science fiction horror films for the ages that I believe will/should be regarded on equal footing with classics like The Thing, The Fly, and Alien. While so many films working with the genre do their best to strive for the greatness of their predecessors, many fall short. Why? Because in their effort to capture the same magic, they too often retread the same ground, thus delivering stale imagery and cliched story beats. Annihilation doesn’t give a fuck about what came before. It never tries to be something other than itself. It is unabashedly weird, imaginative, and truly terrifying both in subject matter and the questions is asks the audience. The finale that is utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the history of cinema and begs us to ask, “What truly defines us as individuals? What defines us as a species?”. We need more artists like Alex Garland working in genre cinema. Artists who are fighting to deliver innovative stories and heady themes that call into question our place in the universe. These are the films that linger long after the credits have rolled.
Thank god for A24. Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, returns to form with one of the most stunning pictures of the year. Every aspect of First Reformed comes across as effortless though its narrative structure and characters are anything but. It’s a film that feels completely unified. Ethan Hawke, who plays an increasingly despairing pastor, owns the screen. You feel his pain. You feel his struggle. You feel every step of his descent into subtle insanity. Schrader has tamed his medium just as a lion tamer masters its beast.
The House That Jack Built
Ever the provocateur, Lars Von Trier delivers his most controversial film to date. The House That Jack Built is not a film I would recommend to most people. If you haven’t seen his other work (and enjoyed it) you should steer clear. I’ve been a big fan of Von Trier’s since I watched his Kingdom Hospital miniseries and every film of his I’ve seen since functions like a chainsaw to your moral compass. The House That Jack Built sees Matt Dillon playing a vicious serial killer on a mission to create a truly great work of art through his chosen medium: murder. The film is devilishly funny. And the very fact that Von Trier is able to make us laugh at such atrocities says as much about him as it does about us as viewers. What elevates The House That Jack Built above its disturbing content is its self-aware and metatextual nature. The film feels like Von Trier is having a conversation with himself, but also with his critics and with audiences, taking into question all his previous work, criticisms against him, and his worth as an artist. It’s refreshing (and yes, more than a little masterbatory) to see such a controversial figure so aware of his flaws, and bold to put them on screen for us all to see, and for some to scorn.
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay never spoon feeds her audience, but instead demands that you piece together a puzzle with a guiding hand. I admire this about her work because it turns the passive medium of film into a more engaging one. Her films take on a poetic, musical quality that distinguishes her an essential voice in contemporary cinema. You Were Never Really Here marks her first foray into full-fledged genre territory (though We Need To Talk About Kevin is arguably a thriller). Ramsay’s ability to draw emotion out of the smallest, most human of moments is elevated by Joaquin Phoenix’ evocative, powerhouse performance. It’s a raw look at hidden violence, its prevalence, and its lasting effects on individuals and our current culture at large. I loved the film so much that I read the novel it’s based on right away, and the film improves upon it in almost every possible way. It’s Ramsay’s best film to date and my favorite film of the year.
Honorable mentions (mostly TV): Sharp Objects, Kidding, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Leave No Trace, Holiday, Burning.