Much like the past few years, 2018 felt far longer than a single year filled yet again with extreme socio-political absurdity, strife, and turmoil but then all came to a seemingly abrupt and unceremonious end. Playing catch up with all the releases in December to January was certainly a task, but I now feel more than comfortable with my choices in another outstanding year for movie-going. Mainstream big-budget cinema even had its major tent-poles that carried some real bite but yet again it is the works from the independent circuit that absolutely shined the brightest month-to-month. Bringing together many diverse filmmakers and their stories to build another great year for cinema. Below are my picks for the ones that resonated stronger than the rest, and as always feel free to agree or respectfully disagree.
- Eighth Grade: Bo Burnam and Elsie Fisher take us into the world of that wonderfully awkward time whether you’re ready for the cringe or not.
- Capernaum: Not for the faint of heart but devastating Lebanese drama on children left to fend on their own in a downtrodden community that cannot provide for them.
- Blindspotting: The screening with the strongest audience reactions I experienced gets a strong recommendation for its equal parts satirical and serious exploration of Oakland gentrification, racial identity, and police brutality.
- The Hate U
Give:The Young Adult novel adaptation that rose above the rest to give crucial social commentary on finding an identity and voice for change in a world built to ignore you and your community.
- Black Panther: The aforementioned blockbusters with serious bite finds one of the behemoth’s that is Disney-Marvel studios finest efforts in comic book adaptations. Not coincidentally with the best villain in their huge ever expanding lore with Michael B. Jordan’s Kilmonger.
25). 22 July, Dir. Paul Greengrass
Kicking us off on the countdown is finds the three-time Jason Bourne series helmer and his docudrama approach in depicting the July 22nd Massacre in 2011 at a Norwegian island camp for young politically-active students and the aftermath from the government, the terrorist’s trial and the recovery of one of the severely injured survivors. Managing to carefully sift through the unimaginable tragedy the filmmakers seek to find the real human story(s) of survival and recovery after the carnage. While also posing an ever more daunting question: Is there such a thing as justice for victims and survivors of the vilest and inhumane who seek only a platform by any violent means for their worldview of hate?
24). The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Through six western
23). Leave no Trace, Dir. Debra Granik
Finally giving Ben Foster the lead role he has more than deserved over the past 10 years of being a great supporting player Granik portrays as unique a father/daughter relationship as any in recent memory. Unable to live in populated places for very long Will and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie, a natural every step of the way) find shelter in the wilderness of the pacific northwest setting up camp where they can. Acting as an allegory for parenthood of imparting and teaching a whole lifestyle to children until they are of age to begin to make their own path in life.
22). Bad Times at the El Royale, Dir. Drew Goddard
Twisting, turning and revealing this 1969 set mystery thriller finds that behind every door at a bi-state hotel may just be another puzzle piece to a grander story mosaic. Out of the huge cast, Cynthia Erivo steals the show from many A-listers as a talented but badly exploited singer. Goddard evokes the socio-political turmoil of the 60’s all converging into a single location for unique character dynamics and interactions.
21). The Sisters Brothers, Dir. Jacques Audiard
Much like Ballad of Buster Scruggs Audiard’s English language debut re-contextualizes the traditional Western genre with an irreverent and satirical edge. An outstanding cast, including John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed, help to bring this unique Western to life while questioning and challenging the past portrayals of masculinity on the frontier.
20). First Reformed, Dir. Paul Schrader
Schrader’s take on a crisis of faith this side of Silence has Ethan Hawke as a Reverand Toller who begins to see the environmental ills of the world and the causes thereof who then takes it upon himself to do something about it. As the internal monologue of Toller becomes more erratic and disjointed the audience bears witness to the collapse of carefully cultivated faith, philosophy, and life outlook in today’s absurd upended world. Scarily captures the damaged psyche of a vast majority of disillusioned people right now.
19). The Tale, Dir. Jennifer Fox
Preemptively labeled “Important” films have often capitalized on the current zeitgeist dominating the talk of the day, most fade into the background never able to quite capture or understand what makes the particular social movement relevant. Documentarian Jennifer Fox reflects back on her experience to carefully depict the ways past buried childhood trauma never really remains in the past. The process to draw strength from said trauma is a long and personal undertaking and Fox was committed to letting her own journey serve as a starting point for others.
18). Suspiria, Dir. Luca Guadagnino
This “remake” or complete re-imagining or common only in title horror release changes up the story, setting, and tone for a whole new cinematic experience. In other words, my kind of ‘Remake’. Guadagnino reteams with Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as a talented dance student and demanding teacher respectfully at a prestigious Berlin dance studio. A more visceral and macabre tale of ambition this side of Black Swan ensues, go forth viewer if you dare.
17). Widows, Dir. Steve McQueen
It will always puzzle me about the very mediocre Box Office reception for McQueen’s mainstream appeal Chicago-set heist thriller, perhaps rentals and streaming will be far kinder to this expertly crafted genre piece on the corrupted political machine, race, class, and female empowerment. Until then I can enjoy so much from the Director’s hugely ambitious unfiltered vision on my home city.
16). BlackKklansman, Dir. Spike Lee
Well, you knew the opinionated filmmaker was going to get in his signature damning politically-charged statement on our current turbulent socio-political times. Centering on an African-American cop (John David Washington) in Colorado Springs infiltrating the KKK by means of talking to the leadership on the phone while sending a White Cop to go to the meetings. Providing necessary commentary on the rancid allure of normalizing racial hatred. It’ll always be up to each viewer how receptive they are to the director’s style of framing and unsubtle in-your-face messages but don’t deny the man the opportunity to show you his unfiltered perspective on the dangerous state of things back then and right this sec.
15). The Rider, Dir. Chloé Zhao
Blending real-life and fictionalized drama Zhao follows her naturalistic and resonating Songs my Brother Taught Me with a powerful story of family, rediscovery, and recovery. Brady Jandreau channels his own personal experience to render a purely naturalistic performance mirroring his own life. Zhao’s camera consistently finds universal humanity in a community largely ignored and glanced over by society at large.
14). We the Animals, Dir. Jeremiah Zagar
Independent coming-of-age dramas are in no short supply, but Zagar manages to find a unique voice while depicting the convergence of a broken home, rampant imagination, and sexual awakening. The grainy filmstock helps to add to the atmosphere of remembering memories through the haze of childhood worldview.
13). Good Manners, Directed by Marco Dutra & Juliana Roja
This Brazilian import is a modern fairy tale this side of Shape of Water using the lore of an old fashioned legend but updating it for contemporary audiences to respond in new ways. Isabél
12). Cold War, Dir. Pawel
It’s still the same old story-‘As time goes by’ Hupfeld Herman
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by
The director of Ida returns to craft bittersweet musically-infused romance desperately trying to reach across the politically imposed boundaries of the Cold War. Based loosely on the experiences of his parents Pawelikoski beautifully portrays two ships passing in the night at various intervals trying to maintain a semblance of a relationship torn apart by post-WWII Eastern vs. Western state-ideologies.
11). The Favourite, Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
With his works quickly becoming a staple entry on my ‘
10). First Man, Dir. Damien Chazelle
Rarely has such a historic and hugely monumental event been made so deeply poignant and truly captures the moment as it happened not as it is nostalgically instilled in our memories, textbooks, and online resources. Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong portrays the stoic astronaut’s and NASA’s race to the moon as it was in the moment: dangerous, perilous, and without predetermined outcomes. Not as we all would like to frame it or sensationalize it today. Chazelle presents the reasons why the public went and idolized these men years later honestly depicting their endeavors and sacrifices.
9). Beast, Dir. Michael Pearce
And my relegated slot for least appreciated and talked about work by year’s end goes to a slow burn mystery thriller that delivers from the tension building pace by the knockout final frames. Jessie Buckley absolutely shines as Moll, a Young Woman living on an isolated English island who starts to fall for the new-to-the-island loner Pascal (Johnny Flynn). It’s a common story to be sure; however, where it goes is anything but.
8). Never Look Away, Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Coming in at the last minute to change to the final makeup of the list is an epic portrait of an artist coming-of-age in bleak and violent socio-political times. Tom Schilling plays Kurt Barnert a young aspiring painter in Berlin who tries to find his vision upon reflecting on his tragic personal history. Don’t let the 3hr runtime deter you from seeing this one, the filmmakers always keep the viewer fully engaged with gorgeous compositions, fluid pacing, powerful acting and surprising humorous touches throughout.
7). Monsters and Men, Dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green
On to another completely unfairly overlooked work that should’ve gotten more buzz is the three-part multi-perspective narratively connected anthology on the Police shooting an unarmed black man and the fallout in the community at large. Taking multiple perspectives from all parties involved Green gives a complete story of this crucial systemic issue that weighs all the arguments but takes a firm stand by the end.
6). Shoplifters, Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
The internationally-acclaimed Japanese filmmaker wonderfully depicts an impromptu family unit made up of cast-offs, misfits, and the lonely simply trying to make it together from day-to-day. Sharing their meager resources, and yes shoplifting from time-to-time, with one another they would be easily mistaken for a family bound by blood. Koreeda seeks to depict both the advantages and limitations of the families we choose for ourselves.
5). You Were Never Really Here, Dir. Lynne Ramsey
Ramsey’s visceral filmmaking evokes Scorsese’s masterpiece on alienation and isolation Taxi Driver while also feeling like a 70’s gritty independent NYC psychological drama. Phoenix gives a stunning portrayal of the effects of PTSD, his Joe here is one of his very finest performances in a career full of them. Johnny Greenwood’s marvelous score shows that the Radiohead band member continually ups the game on each of his film scoring work.
4). Roma, Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Cuarón’s delicate visual masterwork relies on memories built upon fragments of lives so often portrayed on the fringes of society. Photographed in lush and vibrant Black and White Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo has to deal with sudden and unexpected life decisions while maintaining her job as nanny to a well-to-do, at least on the surface, middle-class Mexico City family. The world-building focused filmmaker has yet another jewel to add to his already outstanding filmography.
3). Annihilation, Dir. Alex Garland
The earliest contender for best of the year remains an eerie Sci-fi “Heart of Darkness” that sublimely reveals what lies within us is always more frightening and disturbing than what lies ahead of us. Garland takes his audience on a creepy journey into the depths of the unknown that resides both outwardly and personally for us.
2). Madeline’s Madeline, Dir. Josephine Decker
A star is born, at least in the independent cinema world. Helena Howard gives a powerful, breathtaking and harrowing performance as the titular Madeline an NYC teen who attends an Avant-garde theater performance group run by Molly Parker’s ego-fueled Director Evangeline. Madeline finds it hard to express herself by other means in her daily life coping with various social disorders and a mother (Miranda July) trying her best but not quite understanding what her Daughter is going through. It’s a remarkable achievement of empathetic story-telling to help make Madeline’s perspective palatable for an audience.
1). If Beale Street Could Talk, Dir. Barry Jenkins
It’s so hard to live up to the hype. Audience’s unrealistic hype has derailed so many initial receptions to many a film that it is in the filmmaker’s best interest to not have any buzz whatsoever going for your work before the wide release. That was part of the critical momentum behind Jenkins’ sophomore feature Moonlight a few years ago seemingly coming out of nowhere and made its game-changing impact felt all the way to the Academy Awards. How could the man possibly follow it up? By powerfully and achingly adapting the timeless James Baldwin novel ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’
Jenkins’ dedication makes the iconic author’s words sing in perfect harmony visually while giving his audience an onscreen romance between Tish (Kiki Palmer) and Fonny (Stephen James) to treasure and ache for along with the characters as they are torn apart by a fraudulent rape charge. The immediacy of the ’70s set novel on systemic injustice and racism is all too regrettably apparent today. But the true focus is what rises to face the struggle for justice: community. In Tish’s case her supportive to a fault family, especially from her strong-willed determined mother played marvelously by Regina King. All aspects of filmmaking from Nicholas Brittle’s sensual score, James Laxton’s vibrant color cinematography, and Mark Friedman’s detailed production design are in an upper echelon of craft and peak performance to render an eternal message of finding inner and supportive strength through painful and trying times. Sometimes, very rarely, the hype is met. It’s always a welcomed sight
There you are, my book on 2018 cinema is closed. Here’s to the films of 2019 and where I will be chronicling the best of 2010’s! Look forward to that see where the films I’ve highlighted and talked about since 2012 stack up after upon reflection years later.