My picks of the litter in a particularly great year in film.
18. The Tale
Jennifer Fox’s cinematic memoir is an unflinching investigation into the sexual abuse she endured as a child and later re-worked in her memory, until a childhood story resurfaced, throwing everything back into the light. A typically excellent Jennifer Dern acts as the Fox stand in, a reluctant participant in her own quest for justice, presenting a complex portrait of victimhood often overlooked in media. Fox interweaves her documentarian roots into the fabric of the film, working in interviews with her “subjects” that become disturbingly stark. (Elizabeth Debicki, as her childhood riding instructor and aide to her abuse, is particularly astonishing here.) In a year full of tough watches, this is one of the toughest.
Perhaps the most divisive film of the year, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Giallo classic is gorgeous, unholy, and radical. Set in 1977 Berlin, Susie Banon (Dakota Johnson) joins a dance company where she quickly realizes that everything is not what it seems. It is horror, yes, and beautiful, too. Guadagnino is known for his attention to detail, and in Suspiria he found the perfect canvas. But the real star of the show is the great, great cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom; the images he conjures are so powerful, so potent, they could only have come from witchcraft.
16. Lean on Pete
Andrew Haigh, the British filmmaker behind Weekend and 45 Years returned in 2018 with his greatest yet. Lean on Pete centers on Charley, a young, earnest kid trying to do right by everyone around him. When he meets Lean on Pete, a mediocre race horse on a fast track to the dumping ground, he takes the matter into his own hands, and embarks on a journey across the America rarely seen. Haigh is a master of quiet moments, and Lean on Pete is full of them. Don’t be fooled; this is no War Horse. It is a horse movie drained of sentimentality, replaced instead with realistic, weary humanity. Even when the world is against us, we can still push forward.
15. The House that Jack Built
I must confess: I have not seen the original, unrated cut of Lars von Trier’s newest derangement (following controversy over its disturbing violence, only an R-rated cut was allowed into public theaters, with the original version that critics saw set for physical distribution in June). That didn’t stop me, however, from enjoying the hell out of it. It centers on Jack (Matt Dillon), a serial killer who reminisces on his most prized kills as he converses with an unknown entity (the great Bruno Ganz). The House that Jack Built is the controversial Danish filmmaker at his most playful and self-damning, juxtaposing the act of killing with the creation of art. It also contains two of the best music cues of the year in David Bowie’s Fame and a second song that I won’t dare spoil (though you could probably guess).
14. Private Life
Tamara Jenkins’s stunning new film, her first in nine years, follows a bougie Manhattan couple, played with rockstar emotional acuity by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giomatti, as they struggle to have a child. What could’ve been everything we’ve seen countless times becomes something else entirely, in part due to the gorgeous lead performances and the attuned cinematography. Private Life was definitely worth the wait, but here’s to hoping the turnaround is faster next time.
You know it’s been a great year for cinema when Roma doesn’t even crack my top 10. Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to his Mexico City childhood and the woman who shaped it is a technical marvel (Cuarón, just showing off at this point, also did the cinematography). Every frame in this black and white epic is a miracle; it is nearly impossible to count all the shots that took my breath away. If anything, it’s the meticulous technicality that left it further down on my list (all the focus on the external left me a little cold to Cleo’s internal life). But that’s a complaint that hardly puts a dent in this gorgeous achievement. Here’s to hoping it cleans house at the Oscars come February.
Paul Dano’s directorial debut is a stunner of a family drama. Set in 1950s Montana, we follow a young boy as he watches his parents marriage crumble. The great Carey Mulligan hits a career-high as Jeanette, the restless matriarch of a life that’s slowly spinning out of control, and Jake Gyllenhaal turns in typically excellent work as the father who has left home to fight the growing wildfires. Dano, known for his acting work in the likes of There Will Be Blood and Love and Mercy, brings a natural confidence to the camera. And the script, co-written with his wife and fellow actor/playwright Zoe Kazan, is the best of the year, a work that is unflinchingly human and profound.
11. You Were Never Really Here
Joaquin Phoenix, Lynne Ramsay, Johnny Greenwood. Need I say more? You Were Never Really Here, about a veteran who makes his living tracking down missing girls, is a 21st century Taxi Driver, and the weirdest thriller of the year. Ramsay, the auteur behind Ratcatcher and We Need to Talk About Kevin, is back operating at full power, capturing the vast loneliness of trauma with bravura flashback sequences that highlight the way memory penetrates the present. There’s also a healthy dose of bone-crunching violence, might you worry that this thriller is a little too contemplative to deliver on the thrills. Because deliver it does, and with enough finesse to spare. You’ll be thinking about this one for a long, long time.
Oh, Mandy. Panos Cosmatos’s gorgeous, buck-wild second feature is a revenge movie for people who don’t like revenge movies. Starring Nicholas Cage and Andrea Riseborough as Red and Mandy, it centers on their idyllic life in the enigmatic Shadow Mountains before a religious cult irreparably changes everything. It was billed as a resurrection of the midnight movie, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. It is insane, yes, and gory as hell, but it’s also deeply melancholic and very, very sad. Nicholas Cage does his thing, as is expected, but it’s perfectly at home in Mandy, as is Riseborough’s wispy, sombre performance as the titular woman. Watch this one on the biggest screen you can find.
9. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The blockbuster we all deserve. Christopher McQuarrie’s second outing in the Mission: Impossible franchise is the kind of action movie that puts all others to shame. The fun, air-tight set pieces are impeccably crafted and breathless in their execution, and the stakes are real without dipping into self-seriousness. And all the while, Tom Cruise gives a physical performance so good, it conjures images of Buster Keaton (in one particularly insane shot, you can see where Cruise broke his ankle). The most fun I had watching a film in years.
After films like Hunger, Shame, and the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, you’d forgive someone for being skeptical when hearing that Steve McQueen’s latest was a heist movie. But ultimately, it was the natural next step. Widows, based on a television drama of the same name, surrounds three women (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez) who lose their husbands in a heist gone wrong. Left to deal with the aftermath, including the man their husbands stole from, they decide to pull off a job of their own. As a pure heist thriller, Widows is excellent, grounded in reality and full of tightly-wound suspense. But as it goes along, it proves to be more expansive, an Altman-esque portrait of a city rotting from the inside out.
7. Happy as Lazzaro
Equal parts fairy tale and fable, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro follows a pure-hearted teen named Lazzaro as he lives and works as a sharecropper in rural Italy. This whimsical and surreal film is never what you expect it to be, all the way up to its tragic, inevitable conclusion. Rohrwacher’s direction is the stuff of magic, and cinematographer Hélène Louvart captures every moment with undeniable grace. Out of all of Netflix’s offerings this year, this one comes out on top (sorry, Roma).
6. If Beale Street Could Talk
So, that Barry Jenkins guy is pretty good at making movies, huh? If Beale Street Could Talk, the director’s follow-up to the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight is a gorgeous and tragic adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name. It centers around Tish (a breakout Kiki Layne), a pregnant young woman shouldering the impossible as she tries to prove her fiancé’s innocence in an unjust world. It is as relevant as films come, while also not letting the message distract from the beauty. It is a harsh, unforgiving place that Tish and her family navigate, but it is also a beautiful one, and most importantly, a place capable of redemption. Jenkins’s weapon is his empathy, and he wields it in every close-up. The warmth and love he bestows upon his subjects could light up New York City, and then some. If you thought Barry Jenkins was heading for a slump, think again. He’s just getting started.
5. Minding the Gap
The most affecting, effective documentary since The Look of Silence, Bing Liu’s film is an impossibly intimate exploration of the ways trauma infects our past and informs our future. Centering around a trio of friends in their Rust Belt hometown, Minding the Gap follows them as they grow up and grow apart, and the discoveries they make along the way. It is both depressing and inspirational, and essential viewing in an era finally reckoning with the destructive power of masculinity. If you see one film from 2018, make it this.
4. First Man
The film that got the rawest deal of 2018. After the sensation that was La La Land, you’d think Damien Chazelle’s latest would be a certified hit. It’s a biopic about Neil Armstrong! Everyone loves heroes in space! And yet, First Man fizzled into obscurity, and went entirely ignored come awards season. Which is a shame, because it is Chazelle’s best film so far. A deeply sad exploration of the limitlessness of grief, Ryan Gosling turns in one of his finest performances as the titular astronaut, so consumed by the death of his daughter that hurling his body into space seems the only possible way to heal. (It also contains the best score of the year by Justin Hurwitz.)
3. The Favourite
If you had told me in 2017 that the funniest film of the year would belong to Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director behind such gruel-fests as Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet here is The Favourite, a period film starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone as they struggle for power under Queen Anne’s rule. It is, like I said, a laugh riot, so gloriously mean that it’s hard not to feel dirty for enjoying it. But that doesn’t mean Lanthimos has entirely changed ways; The Favourite is wildly weird, surreal, and a little sad, too. All three leads give powerhouse performances, but the trophy belongs to Colman, who is so good it’s almost unfair. If you like your comedy black and your sex uncomfortable, this is the one for you.
There are multiple ways to describe Burning, the latest from South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. It is a a thriller, a romance, a mystery, class examination, social commentary. It is sharp as a knife, and slippery as smoke. It is the kind of film that is impossible to talk about, because to do so reduces it to a graspable object. But of course, we must talk about it, and to talk about it is to talk about Steven Yeun’s transformative performance as Ben, a terrifying enigma of cool who smolders in every scene. Burning might be a long one (it clocks in at 142 minutes) but its runtime doesn’t compare to the days you’ll spend discussing it after it ends.
1. First Reformed
A transcendence on screen. Paul Schrader’s return to cinema has been gnawing away at my brain since the moment its rapturous ending flickered before my eyes. It is an unshakable thing, the kind of movie that has long been thought dead, and the most welcome surprise of 2018. Ethan Hawke turns in a career-best performance as Reverend Toller, a deeply conflicted pastor who becomes obsessed with the ideas of an environmental terrorist. It is a relevant film, and also a timeless one; the ideas it carries are as eternal as the world that contains them. There is no better film this year.
- Paddington 2
- A Star is Born
- Madeline’s Madeline
- The Rider
- The Little Stranger
- Support the Girls
- Leave No Trace
- The Death of Stalin