In years when I saw a ton of films, I’d post a year-end top ten films list. For the past several years it’s been a bit more complicated. Where I live now, it isn’t always easy to see many of the year-end critically acclaimed movies, and by the time I catch up and could craft a top ten list, It’s knee deep into the summer of the following year.
For one reason or another, I was able to see a good chunk of 2018 movies, and I feel confident enough to throw down a top ten list. Films are subjective, and lists are arbitrary. Even in my final decisions, the order changes daily. Sometimes my initial reaction to a movie I’ve seen increases days after the viewing, and other times it wanes. Talk to me in a year from now, and two or three films I’ve yet to catch up on might easily replace titles on the list you are about to receive. I’ll start with number 10 and work my way down.
10. A Star Is Born / Dir. Bradley Cooper
I know, how many times are they going to remake this sucker? I feel guilty even putting it on my list. There is no way this film should be as good as it is. The songs should have been terrible; they weren’t. Lady Gaga should have been a head-scratching embarrassment of an actress; she wasn’t. Bradley Cooper should have been a director who didn’t know how to compose a shot, never mind know how to successfully take a retread of a story and breath fresh air into it; somehow, he did. I was caught off guard by how much I enjoyed this film. When Hollywood delivers a package that can run me through a series of emotions I will forgive it for running out of a bit of steam by the end. I will not apologize for this choice.
9. Mission Impossible: Fallout / Dir. Christopher McQuarrie
What was the plot of this movie? Honestly, I can no longer tell you. I don’t think I could adequately tell you ten minutes after I left the theater. But it doesn’t matter. Mission Impossible: Fallout delivers the most thrilling adrenaline rush of any film I saw in the theater this past year. Stunts so incredible, and so realistic, I don’t know where the real began, and the CGI finished. In previous installments, Mission Impossible could guarantee one to two stunning set pieces with Tom Cruise doing something ridiculous. This film is like that from beginning to end. From a crazy high altitude plane jump in the middle of an electrical storm over Paris to one of the most jaw-dropping, race against time, action climaxes I’ve ever seen, Mission Impossible beat every action film Marvel could muster in 2018.
8. Sorry to Bother You / Dir. Boots Riley
One of the most original ideas forged onto moving pictures this year, Boots Riley’s satire of corporations, and inherent racism oozes with the same gonzo urgency films of the late 60s to early 70s used to possess. At times this movie bites off more than it can chew, but for sheer audacity, I saw no other American film this year that took the kinds of risks this film does.
7. Mandy / Dir. Pantos Cosmatos
In just his second feature film, Panos Cosmatos, son of journeyman director George P. Cosmatos, creates an insane homage to those bloody splatter revenge films of the early 80s but dialed up to a level even Spinal Tap couldn’t fathom. It takes its time getting going, but once it does this movie takes you on a thrill-ride like few others. Nicolas Cage splattered in blood, snorting cocaine, and swigging high-powered LSD, while watching cheddar goblins barf up mac and cheese, all in the name of sweet revenge is my idea of a guilty pleasure. Oh, and did I mention the awesome chainsaw battle? This film is not for most people, but if you thrive on cult midnight films from the 80s, you’re going to have a great time with this one.
6. Can You Ever Forgive me? / Dir. Marielle Heller
Melissa McCarthy proves she is not just a comedic actress. In director Marielle Heller’s follow up to Diary of a Teenage Girl, Melissa plays real-life author, Lee Israel, a down on her luck, borderline personality alcoholic who believes writing talent should be enough to get ahead, but is brought down by the reality; being likable is more bankable. She teams up with an unlikely ally, and equally down-on-his-luck alcoholic cad, the brilliant Richard E. Grant, and together they cook up a scheme that makes for diabolically delicious entertainment. McCarthy gives my favorite female performance of the year, and this film reminded me of the kinds of movies they made plenty of in the 80s and early 90s, but now are in short supply. I hope people will discover this gem when it hits their television sets.
5. The Rider / Dir. Chloe Zhao
On any given day, this film floats in different positions on my top five. It’s a quiet movie, a character piece. It’s an American story, but a slice of American life rarely put on screen. It possesses the gritty realness of a documentary, and it features nonactors playing fictional versions of themselves. It’s the story of a rodeo rider named Brady, who is battling back from a devastating riding injury. His pain is real, and we feel it, as we go along his journey to find fulfillment, self-worth, and to make a living when the thing you are most talented in, is something you may not ever be able to do again. The movie is a powerhouse statement in trying to succeed in today’s America. There are moments in this movie that pierce with such authenticity, I felt on the verge of tears more than once. Director Chloe Zhao showcases directorial brilliance with her ability to craft a work of fiction based on the non-fiction lives of its actors and make it believable without it feeling like a reality show. When movies like this exist in the same year Bohemian Rhapsody gets nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture; I know something has gone wrong.
4. The Favourite / Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
After I finished watching the Favourite, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. That reaction is par for the course with a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. His films take a bit to digest. Yorgos does things in a way that is unique from most filmmakers. He has a style that is all his own, and with each subsequent film, he’s honed his craft. The Favourite refused to leave me for weeks after viewing, and it forced me to seek out and watch two of Yorgos’ earlier films, Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Alps to get a better sense of what drives this director.
One thing Yorgos experiments with is the short, or wide-angle lens. Sometimes it feels purposeless, almost showy, but that is too easy an answer. Yorgos has a plan, and in the Favourite, he executes his wide-angle photography to reveal the nuances of his actors and define the space of the lonely and claustrophobic walls of Queen Anne’s palace. The Fisheye lens, which Yorgos experimented with in Killing of a Sacred Deer, goes off the rails in The Favourite, creating a bizarre macabre feel to the settings of this absurdist take on the monarchy. While I have a few issues with how some of the plot points were executed, especially in the third act, no film this year provided more juicy dialogue. The story’s feminist twist on political social climbing was both refreshing and inspired. I am a sucker for historical, political chess-piece intrigue, and this movie fulfilled my needs. Three great female performances dominate the screen, and Yorgos is a director smart enough to let them take it over.
3. Cold War / Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
Cold War is a treat for any true lover of the film medium. It’s not only a look back at the past when American audiences craved the voices of international cinema to show them something new and different on screen, but this film is a reminder that great cinema can exist anew. Sparse in its dialogue and running time, director Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, create one of the most powerful love stories of the past 18 years, through a visual feast of black and white images, shot in the classical 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Every camera movement has a purpose, and the framing is deliberate.
When I left the theater, perceived flaws in the story-telling kept me from loving this film as much as I wanted to. But in the hours, and days that have past, the culmination of jaw-dropping moments, and powerful filmmaking, have only increased my assessment that this movie is a true masterpiece. Talk to me in a year from now, and this film could top my list of best of the decade. Cold War drops on Amazon Prime on March 22. If your plans that night don’t include watching this film, change them.
2. Roma / Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Like the other films I’ve already mentioned, Roma is another film I’ve reassessed many times since my initial viewing when it premiered on Netflix in late December. I’ve often heard ‘I respected Roma more than I loved it’ from more than one person. I get that. I understand that review. It is kind of how I felt after watching it. The movie wasn’t quite what I expected. It is not plot-heavy. Similar in many ways to Cold War, Roma is the memory impression a filmmaker has on a time long gone, in this case, the Mexico City of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. The movie is a slice-of-life of a particular period in Alfonso’s childhood. And like Cold war, it is shot in B&W. Instead of the delightfully boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Alfonso explodes his canvas in 2.39:1, and unlike so many directors who do not know what to do with the large horizontal frame, Alfonso does. He examines every nook and cranny of his family living space. He recreates, to an exacting degree, Mexico City of the early 1970s. Utilizing the best digital movie camera available, the Alexa 65, Alfonso creates a cinematic marvel the likes we have never seen before.
At times, I found the camerawork a little too self-aware. Alfonso is such an amazing master of the visual form, it felt, to me, at times, as if he were showing off. And who can blame him? Alfonso is showing off because he can; he knows how to create stunning camera shots a select few could pull off. He has learned from the best, Emmanuel Lubezki, and when Emmanuel wasn’t available to shoot Roma, Alfonso did it himself.
I found many similarities between Roma, which I saw first, and Cold War, which bind these two stories together, including visual moments that will stay with me for years. What Cuaron does, is create some set pieces that may live on for years as some of the most striking in a film. I won’t spoil those surprises for those who haven’t yet seen Roma, but there are some standout moments that, as a film lover, I’m grateful. I have flopped Roma, Cold War, The Rider, and The Favourite’s positions around several times now, and I may do that again several times in the future. They are all that good.
1. First Reformed / Dir. Paul Schrader
I will state for the record; this is not an enjoyable movie, and it is one I would not recommend to many people. The subject matter is painful to watch, and I know some people will see this at number one on my list, watch it, and then yell at me afterward. But a polarizing film can be powerful, and if you find yourself on the pro side of such a movie, you are probably going to love it. For me, this is the most audacious, daring, and compelling film of the year. Cold War and Roma both had more craft than First Reformed, and I enjoyed watching the other nine movies on my list more, but First Reformed punched me in the gut.
This film is about the hypocrisy of religion tied in with big business; what is man’s place on God’s earth when it is busy destroying that earth with pollution? Can a man overcome a lifetime of demons and reconcile himself and his conflicted views about religion? Dominant themes and ideas are going on in this stunning return to form for Paul Schrader. And it features the single most significant piece of acting in 2018, Ethan Hawke. How he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award this year will go down as one of the great shames of the Oscars.
Paul Schrader is working in minimalist forms, like his directorial inspirations, Bresson and Ozu. He photographs this film in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and barely moves the camera. There are only a few selected moments in the movie when the camera moves at all. This decision forces the viewer to pay attention to what is going on in the frame. Anything Paul is directing the audience to pay attention to is what he gives them within that boxed space. There are no movements or zooms; you have to do the work. I loved the experience as much as I enjoyed watching a film that forced me to think throughout its run time. It is a tough movie because it makes you grapple with things you may not want to. That is both a challenge and a reward. For me, First Reformed is the best film of the year.