So, as a favor to myself, I have elected to forgo a stringent ranking system this year, proving readers instead with a more general list of some great films I managed to see this year. Not only does this free me from having to pit unlike films against one another (most films aren't necessarily comparable in any empirical sense), but it also allows readers to explore more freely the enormous gaggle of excellent features released in 2018.
And 2018 provided a lot of excellent films. William Bibbiani, in winnowing down his own personal list, had to cut himself off at 20. I will stop at around that number as well. If you feel cheated by my lack of ranking, or feel that it was lazy not to define my list, I remind you that these end-of-the-year lists often function as glowing recommendations. The below titles I encourage you this heartiest to consume.
2018 was a year that was strong for wise films about racial tension. A large proportion of female directors provided some amazing work, and we can only hope this trend continues. If there was a theme for 2018, it was an attempt to reclaim known archetypes from their clichéd nature, giving them new life and humanity, revealing complexity and depression previously unconsidered.
1. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (dir. Boots Riley)
We start with my pick for the absolute best of the year. Riley's impish, feisty, subversive punk rock sci-fi social critique is energetic and enervating in a way few films are. It's a film bursting with ideas, all of them critical of the money-driven status quo and the open exploitation of modern black working force. It has so many ideas, they spill out and stain the carpet, but it's own eagerness outstrips any sloppiness.
MANDY (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
A revenge thriller set inside a death metal album cover, “Mandy” is an emotionally intense, slow-moving roller coaster of mythic proportions. Everything is heightened and strange and feels like an ancient Jungian fable culled from deep within the brain of a loving, complex metalhead high schooler from 1983.
FIRST REFORMED (dir. Paul Schrader)
Taking its thematic cues from classics like “Winter Light” and particularly Robert Bresson's “Diary of a Country Priest,” Schrader's latest is a modern dwelling on the nature of faith and the dwindling cognitive spaces for progressive religion in modern America. Ethan Hawke gives an excellent performance as a minister who wrestles with his own inner demons as he learns, more and more, that answers aren't easy or even available.
ROMA (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
“Roma,” like “First Reformed,” is similarly evocative of some of the great international classics, this time of “Nights of Cabiria,” and the works of Ozu. Cuarón's exquisite photography evokes a place and an experience that is deeply textured and unique, giving humanity to a type of character – the long-suffering “help” – that needed desperate rescuing from the saccharine trash bin of its own placid archetype.
ANNIHILATION (dir. Alex Garland)
A group of scientists is sent into a mysterious, city-sized bubble to investigate the mysteriously evolving world therein. What they encounter is a world of fear and uncertainty, sprung directly – and metaphorically – from their own self-loathing. Garland expertly explores a very real facet of humanity – our tendency toward self-annihilation – and constructs a thrilling and scary sci-fi mood piece. The women at the center of the film, additionally, are excellent.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (dir. Orson Welles)
It's baffling to me that 2018 was treated to the long-awaited final project of one of America's most celebrated directors and most critics and audiences reacted with a resounding “whatevs.” Orson Welles' final piece, a hate letter to 1970s Hollywood, pretentious critics and reporters, and to his own self-defeating bluster, is a thrilling look at the conversation we had about films some 45 years ago, and a stirring reminder of the traps we can fall into as artists, as consumers of art, and as lustful human beings.
SHOPLIFTERS (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Most all of Kore-eda's films could perhaps be described as gentle tales of discarded people. “Shoplifters,” about a family in Japan that must shoplift to make ends meet, is a meditation on the elusive nature of family, depicting the heart and love – and the emotional risks – that can exist on the precipice of extreme financial hardship. Just because they have been discarded doesn't mean they can't feel familiar affection.
LEAVE NO TRACE (dir. Debra Granik)
Another film about discarded people, although this time it is by choice. A wounded father (the excellent Ben Foster) is raising his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) in the woods, off the grid by design. While the film starts out siding with the father's cynicism toward the system, it eventually begins focusing on his daughter and her need to assimilate with... well, something.
I AM NOT A WITCH (dir. Rungano Nyoni)
A tragic, comedic satire, “I Am Not a Witch” follows the dark plight of a young girl as she is accused of witchcraft in modern-day Africa, paralleling true stories that the director took from her research in Zambia and Ghana. For much of the film, the accusations of witchcraft are absurd, but soon the silly white ribbons used to tether the accused “witches” to the earth (lest they fly away) become a potent symbol for the bondage modern women are kept in every day.
HEREDITARY (dir. Ari Aster)
Featuring one of the best performances of Toni Collette's career (which is saying something), “Hereditary” is a slow-burn family drama wherein the supernatural may – or may not – merely be a symbol for familial anxiety. Are the children inheriting your melancholy? Whether or not ghosts are responsible is less important than that horror.
THE FAVOURITE (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
A wonderfully acidic satire of human behavior, just as Lanthimos previously explored in films like “The Lobster” and “Dogtooth.” This time, he sets his eyes on the dark, ambitious, sexually aggressive, and wholly spiteful world that is the court of Queen Anne, all with his usual eye on the absurdity of existence. You can't help but laugh at the pettiness of it all.
BLACKkKLANSMAN (dir. Spike Lee)
The true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is a harrowing one; in the 1970s he, the only black cop in his precinct, attempted to infiltrate and uncover the local branch of the KKK. Spike Lee, not interested in mere mechanics, expands his film past the boundaries of a rote cop thriller, using the case as a direct damnation of modern racism and the rise of white nationalism in 2018. It's one of the most important films of the year.
BLINDSPOTTING (dir. Carlos López Estrada)
A blast of poetry from a frustrated soul, “Blindspotting” looks directly at racial tension in Oakland, CA, a neighborhood that is gentrifying, but not necessarily evolving. Daveed Diggs gives an intense performance as a recently-released-from-prison working stiff who lives in the shadow of a police shooting he witnesses. He drifts through his day trying to stay in good spirits, but he will eventually have a reckoning.
BLACK PANTHER (dir. Ryan Coogler)
Although the 18th or 19th film in a long-running series, “Black Panther” feels like an action film apart. Striking Afro-futurist visuals, a stalwart and adult lead character, and relevant questions of political isolationism (most certainly timely in 2018) make “Black Panther” one of the better superhero films in recent memory.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (dirs. Bob Persichetti, Jr., Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)
The most visually exciting animated film in many years, and one of the most narratively creative, “Spider-Verse” takes a concept that teeters on the edge of obnoxious fan-service (it's all the Spider-People in one universe! Crossovers! Who Would Win in a Fight?) and makes it electric and exciting and fresh. It's funny, absurd, and wiggles with life.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Few filmmakers are willing to delve into the mindset of suicidal depression, but Lynne Ramsay does so with knowledge and sensitivity. Joaquin Phoenix plays a character who, on paper, would be a typical action movie badass – he's an assassin for hire – but depicts him as the type of emotionally wounded man such a job would actually require.
THE MISANDRISTS (dir. Bruce La Bruce)
When it comes to smashing the patriarchy, why hold back? In this openly hateful critique of masculinity, La Bruce depicts lesbians as the future's warriors for social change, eager to commit acts of sexual terrorism to get their way. Which is awesome and punk rock. The film is unwilling to compromise, taking feminism to a refreshingly extreme degree. You go, girls! Murder the patriarchy right in its stupid, fat face!
EIGHTH GRADE (dir. Bo Burnham)
In excising all nostalgia from his film, Burnham has managed to make a universal drama about the tiny dramatic and personal moments of a 13-year-old girl that can feel universe-annihilating at the time. It's a wise film about awkwardness, emotional health, and sexual survival that can reach deep into the heart of anyone who has ever survived that time.
BLOCKERS (dir. Kay Cannon)
Hollywood comedies have long been ignorant about teenage sexuality, and tend to feature dippy dads who are hellbent on “protecting their daughter's honor,” whatever the fuck that means. “Blockers” refreshingly throws that ignorance back in the face of its dumb parents, allowing their kids to be more sexually open than they ever were, letting them be responsible and interesting in their own right. John Cena deserves an Oscar nomination for playing a clever inversion of an Adam Sandler-type.
SUSPIRIA (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
A trippy, scattered meditation on feminism, art, and 1980s German politics (???), Guadagnino's messy, gorgeous and seemingly unfocused horror freakout somehow burrowed its way into my consciousness. I'm happy to let it baste for a few. Its ides may not seem to gel, but the mixed-up soup was a quiet and fascinating experience to behold.
A SIMPLE FAVOR (dir. Paul Feig)
Not only a clever and serpentine thriller of the highest order, but also – once again – an attempt to reclaim the “supermom” Hollywood type from its own archetypal trash bin. Rife with sexual tension, stress, clever wit, and no small amount of wicked humor, “A Simple Favor” is the thriller done right.
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (dir. Barry Jenkins)
What a sweet, quietly glorious film. Jenkins looks at 1970s Harlem as the world entire, exploring the injustice and strength within, pushing his characters to extremes, but observing in relaxed awe as they merely survive. The women of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” (in particular, KiKi Layne, Regina King) are the guides of the world. The survivors. The unsung heroes.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (dir. Jacques Audiard)
Is this how a previous generation felt when watching “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?” I dislike the western classic (yes, yes, I know; give me grief accordingly), but I did enjoy the affable meandering of Audiard's film.
The following films may count as honorable mentions, but they are all striking and great in their own right, and could easily take a place on the above list. I encourage you to see them all.
VICE (dir. Adam McKay)
GEMINI (dir. Aaron Katz)
VERÓNICA (dir. Paco Plaza)
THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT (dir. Johannes Roberts)
APOSTLE (dir. Gareth Evans)
THE RITUAL (dir. David Bruckner)
THE HATE U GIVE (George Tillman, Jr.)
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen)
PADDINGTON 2 (dir. Paul King)
SUPPORT THE GIRLS (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
DID YOU WONDER WHO FIRED THE GUN? (dir. Travis Wilkerson)
GAME NIGHT (dirs. John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein)
Top Image: Annapurna Pictures