This has been a tumultuous, but rewarding, year for films. Despite all the hoopla that we are living in dire times for moviemaking, the last 12 months have proved the naysayers wrong yet again. In fact, every year it’s the same story. Film critics will lament a doom and gloom overview of the year at the movies, how Hollywood doesn’t produce original stories anymore, how the multiplexes are filled with reboots, sequels, and prequels galore. Those assessments may not be wrong, but we now live at a time when so many options are at our disposal. Forget about Hollywood; seek stuff on the indie and foreign circuits and you’ll be rewarded with treasure upon treasure of cinematic delights. Much of the quality came from films that had originally premiered at film festivals.
Sundance was a gift that kept on giving all year long with insightful new visions (“Sorry to Bother You,” “Eighth Grade,” “Leave No Trace,” “Hereditary,” “Mandy” and “Blindspotting“) and their usual impressive crop of documentaries (“Won’t You Be My Neighbour,” “Minding the Gap,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Shirkers,” “Bisbee ’17”). And don’t get me started on Cannes, which, despite the complainers saying that it just isn’t what it used to be, managed to produce more than a handful of the best movies of the year.
This was also the year that Netflix garnered the street cred it was craving all these years. Its acquisition of Oscar contender “Roma” was a stroke of genius for the streaming giant, but they also managed to premiere new films from the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen, Alex Garland, Tamara Jenkins, Jeremy Saulnier, Duncan Jones, Nicole Holofcener, Paul Greengrass, Alice Rohrwacher and, perhaps most importantly, Orson Welles, whose “The Other Side of the Wind,” a film 45 years in the making, was finally released and managed to school the young kids into how avant-garde cinema is really done. In fact, “Other Side” could easily contend with the year’s best, with its daring originality ahead of its time, even by today’s standards. After painstakingly narrowing it down, I came up with these ten films as the cream of the crop of 2018.
Lee Chang-Dong‘s “Burning” is a damn-near miraculous achievement. An omnipresent mystery, it’s enigmatic, but captivating, simmering with ambiguity, but in turn grandiose. An unrecognizable murder-mystery, it torches genre clichés and leaves a lasting, scorching blister. The achievement of “Burning” lives with the unspoken, the darkness that looms within each interaction, and yet, “Burning” also acts as a thriller. The subtlest of shots are infused with virtuoso insinuations, as Lee Chang-dong holds the audience in the palm of his hand with a final reveal that stuns. In tackling the relationship between three South Koreans, and the sudden disappearance of one of them, the director of 2010’s “Poetry” confirms his world-class talent by making a whodunnit, without the audience really knowing who did it, what it was, and if it even really happened.
#2: “The Favourite”
A synchronized mix of tragedy, drama, comedy, and satire, “The Favourite” is director Yorgos Lanthimos‘ sixth feature-length film and his first foray into period-drama. There’s a comic perversity that recalls Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” but it’s not just the dramatics, it’s the style as well; the wide-lensed shots, the natural lighting and the obsessively delivered period details that the master was known for are all here. Set in the early 1700s, the film is about a pair of shrewd, ruthless schemers — Rachel Weisz‘ Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham — that compete for the favor, and the love, of a powerful, health-stricken-ed and emotionally unbalanced Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). The hijinks of these three dames reaches screwball heights. Despite being set in the 18th century, this tall tale about the incalculable strides a person would go to attain power, feels like the kind of statement that could have only been made this decade. It all culminates with an ambiguously masterful final shot.
After the technological breakthrough of “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron decided to bring his camera back to his native country of Mexico to shoot a near-plotless black and white ode to the maid who raised him and his siblings. Yalitza Aparicio stars as Cleo, the woman who raised Cuaron back in the ’70s and who became a central part of his childhood, especially after his father abandoned the family for a mistress and his mother Sofia went into depression. The film is seen through the eyes of Sofia, as she navigates a Mexico stuffed with social unrest, and there are scenes that stay etched in your memory; that is what “Roma” is about, memory. It’s not interested in narrative constraints that come with a feature-length film, as much as by immaculately detailed moments, whether it’s an incredible reenactment of the 1971 Corpus Christi riots, pulse-pounding waves threatening children at sea, an earthquake in a hospital with rubble landing atop a baby’s bin, or an excruciating birth scene.
#4: “Cold War”
Viktor (Tomasz Kot) is instantly taken by Zula (Joanna Kulig), a beauty who he takes under his wing and promotes as the face of his musical troupe. Not too long after, they fall in love, yet they can never quite achieve the stability needed due to their differing opinions on government.Tackling 15 years in the life of a tumultuous relationship, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is inspired by the story of the director’s parents. Between communist blocs and the warfare of love, “Cold War” paints a picture of a man and a woman, enslaved to both desire and to history. The bet is audacious and aims at brevity and acuteness, which it achieves, especially in subsequent viewings of the film, which are compensated by tiny details that are hidden in the cracks and can easily be missed initially. The film was shot by cinematographer Lukasz Zal in a black-and-white palette and 1.37:1 aspect ratio that just makes you want to lick the screen in cinematic envy.
#5: “The Tale”
“The Tale” is Jennifer Fox’s first narrative feature, after winning the grand jury prize at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival for her documentary “Beirut: The Last Home Movie.” However, anyone who thought that this would be a by-the-books movie would be sorely mistaken. The film is driven by a soulful, brave performance from Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox; she has to give so much of herself here that this damn near qualifies as one of the bravest female performances ever given onscreen. This is a messy and ambitious effort about the traumatic sexual experiences Fox had when she was just 13-years-old, raped by a man she thought she was in love with. The trauma buried deep in Fox’s subconscious has been there for many years, and blurred memories make this bold and brave movie always a step ahead of us. It feels like a confessional from someone who is discovering herself through art. Sure, the film has relevance due to today’s #Metoo and Time’s Up-driven zeitgeist, but the artfulness that comes with this movie is second to none. This is a film that is indescribable, something that is all too rare these days, which is why it was by far the best movie I saw at Sundance 2018. “The Tale” is a masterpiece.
French writer/director Xavier Legrand‘s “Custody” is the unsung masterpiece of the year. This film, about a mother and her child fleeing a violent and abusive husband, is as relevant a statement as any this year. Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet play the dueling parents, and Thomas Gioria plays the son caught up in the war of words. “Custody” stands out regarding tension due to the way Legrand manages to depict the ever-growing threat of violence surrounding mother and son. It’s not just about the physical, but also the psychological, assaults of man. Legrand tries to shape his narrative in a way that shows a claustrophobic atmosphere befalling mother and child, where the film ends up feeling like a story of survival and escape. The indescribably frightening final scenes reveal the violent rage that can come out of masculinity
#7: “Leave No Trace”
Eight years ago, director Debra Granik along with a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence premiered “Winter’s Bone” to a stunned Sundance audience. Granik has given us another outstandingly talented young actress here by the name of Thomasin McKenzie. She plays the teenage Tom who, along with her dad Will (Ben Foster), tries to live off the grid in a state park in Oregon. The 17-year-old cinematic debutante has so much talent that she carries this film in the palm of her hands. The charisma, authenticity, and grace she displays is incredibly mature and restrained. “Leave No Trace” is a lovely film to behold, unspooling very much in the tradition of David Lynch‘s humane, good-hearted Americana masterpiece, “The Straight Story.” It is about characters rarely depicted on screen. They are the lost voices of America, and they make “Leave No Trace” a universal, unforgettable experience.
#8: “Eighth Grade”
Bo Burnham‘s “Eighth Grade,” an altogether impressive debut from the comedian, follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher), whose constant self-reflectiveness is familiar enough to make you cringe at every stutter as she has to contend with entering the most awkward and uncomfortable phase of her life. What Burnham tries to give us with this movie is a snapshot of history in the making. This is a generation like no other, one that will most likely grow up to be very different adults from what anyone could have ever imagined. The zombie-like student body in “Eighth Grade” are slaves to technology, almost robot-like in their movements. What makes this film so unique and different from “Superbad” or “Mean Girls” is the fact that this is a whole new generation of kids. Gone are the in-your-face bullies of the Plastics and in are the self-absorbed, glued to their smartphone millennials who don’t even bother spewing verbally abusive words because, well, they’d rather look at their phones. The bullying is the lack of attention Kayla receives from her classmates. She’s a ghost wandering the hallways of the school, feeling like she’s nothing, and yet, she might just be the most humane and genuine person there. The constant anxious thoughts and mannerisms she displays separate her from the rest; she’s constantly aware of her surroundings, always on high alert
Spike Lee‘s “BlacKkKlansman” is his best film since 2002’s “The 25th Hour.” It’s an unequivocally joyous attempt to entertain in every which way possible. Set in 1972, this is an undercover cop movie, based on Ron Stallworth’s 2014 novel, “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime” and tells Stallworth’s too-crazy-to-be-true story as the first black undercover investigator for the Colorado Springs Police Department. He joined the Ku Klux Klan by masquerading as a bigot on the phone, he even spoke to KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace) and formed a bond with him. Stallworth was eventually asked to join “The Organization” which is code for the KKK, he accepted and launched an investigation with his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) doing the dirty work by going on the front-lines as Stallworth. The current political climate has rejuvenated Lee, given him a new purpose if you will. This is a funny, moving, vital, messy, and ambitious statement that cannot be ignored. It’s an edgy provocation that reminded me of why I used to love Spike Lee’s films so damn much.
Sometimes a horror film comes along that you just feel will change the game. Ari Aster‘s “Hereditary” is just that movie – a spooky, hypnotic film that feels like the culmination of the last 50 years of horror. Aster gives us a melange of “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” three of the greatest of the genre, and creates his own masterpiece in the process. This is a remarkable, triumphant, and confident picture by Aster, who gives the film an almost meditative-like sensation, as you feel every space you’re in, every emotion, every moment of grief. “Hereditary” refuses to employ cheap thrills, creating its cinematic scares with atmosphere, and continuously reinventing itself at every turn. Best of all, it’s anchored by an incredible performance from Toni Collette who is so good and deserves Oscar consideration.