What a year. Seriously, with so many things going on in life politically, culturally, and personally (it’s been a damned exhausting few months…), I really needed the comfort of the cinema this year. I got some escapist films, but the majority of what I saw skewed more toward the beautifully tragic and I think I’m all the better for it. The things I experienced in film were legion; they were stories that ate at me for days and became a constant part of my life. We got some seriously great stuff this time around. It took me days of agony to compile this list, and what made it worse is that I know if I saw things like Burning and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse I would have included them on this list. What also ate at me is…what would I have bumped for them? Hell, this was a year when I actually stopped and wondered how in the world a DC film, Aquaman, felt like it could have been a contender.
I was pained to leave off things like Halloween because of what a good sequel it is, and fun-as-hell schlock like The Predator or The Meg just couldn’t make the cut due to how many other good things there were to discuss. Hell, I left off one of the only rom-coms I’ve enjoyed in the last decade: Crazy Rich Asians. I’ve got a few honorable mentions, though, and I’ll let you know what those are at the end of the list.
Family is batshit insane. It is, seriously. The concept baffles me, and this film gets that on such a basic level that I was bound to enjoy it. Familial mental health issues being passed, whether by nature or nurture, fascinates me. Bind that up with an incredible performance from Toni Collette, a score to die for, one of the most harrowing final sequences I’ve seen in a modern horror film, and you have something that might just go down as one of the best offerings in years. Family is a bond that holds us but…to know that it can affect us on such a depraved level, tearing away from our lives all that we hold close, is so important to me. Ari Aster, director of Hereditary, has crafted a story around that and in doing so has made something that sends a warning about how far we should or should not chase the ties that bind us to our blood relatives. We live under the shadow of our predecessor’s mistakes, whether it be personally in the home or professionally at a job or intellectually in a think-tank of idea, the issue is the same. Our hand-me-down problems can cause unwelcome gifts to those who come after us, and mediating these issues to cut them off at the root is something I think Aster was exploring here. Also Collette does the piano wire thing in the film and that freaked me out beyond any comprehensible measure. I nearly held the hand of the random man sitting beside me and I think he would have welcomed the comfort because both of us were experiencing something innate, a thing that dug into that inner pocket of fear, that displays how personal this film about family matters was to us. His quiet, terrified exhale of, “…the fuck?” as the credits rolled explained everything to me about how he felt. And he was right. “…the fuck,” indeed.
9. The Endless:
Cults scare me, but they’re also something I can’t stop exploring out of a macabre interest. The Endless follows two brothers that got out, but wind up going back for a visit. What follows is a strange story about the line between faith and reality, about time and temperament, and about family in the face of an invasion on that binding unit. Charisma and culture carry a lot of weight in these small, cobbled-together communities, and the brothers’ dedication to escape is tested in the face of more than they can truly comprehend, in the wake of freedom from the ego that marinates each of these little communities. I’ve seen one other film by Bensen and Moorehead (2014’s Spring) and it was also an intriguing, Lovecraftian work of mastery within the weird fiction genre. While that film was a romance, this one is a family drama edging up against horror. It’s a stunningly crafted, intimate little film that speaks to what one can do with a great idea and a little budget. I’d honestly love to see more of this kind of film, something that is able to take raw human connection straight off the vine and throw it into a stew of existential dread and shattered reality. Oh, and it’s streaming on Netflix.
Damnit. Seriously, deep breaths before this one. At one point my friend paused it and shouted, “I’m sorry, I need to pee!” before sprinting from the room. The tension was so high that he felt bad for breaking it, and the strain is the least interesting part of this film. Let that sink in. I’d heard great things about this coming out of Fantastic Fest and then it hit Netflix where I just…put it off. I don’t know why, but I did. You, however, definitely shouldn’t. I’m glad I got this in before the end of the year because leaving it off this list would be an absolute disservice to the film. CAM follows a few days in the life of a webcam girl that has her identity stolen. That’s the basis of the plot, but the film encompasses everything from online and IRL identities to family entanglement and the creative process. Performance is heightened for an audience, and because of this the film needs to give you something about this culture that you can’t get from a documentary or ordinary online show. First-time-writer Isa Mezzei, herself a former webcam girl, has crafted something that feels personal and liberating in its brutal honesty and desperate need for an attention that comes not only for a price, but with one. And the girls in the film, like the profession itself, build their lives around an audience and their rankings but have to remain aware of the kind of people that they are opening themselves up to. Trimmed, with no fat, it’s a lean and mean little movie, and as with The Endless I want more of this.
7. A Star is Born:
Bad ideas, saved by outstanding execution, are sort of special to me. Superior Spider-Man, the return of Darth Maul to the Star Wars universe, things like this always tug at my heartstrings because they just shouldn’t be that good. Remaking this film for the FOURTH TIME is a bad idea, but there are indeed instances where those poor decisions turn out to be excellent choices. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born, is one of those instances, and the notes are played to absolute excellence in a remake that was as ill-advised as it is stunningly pulled-off. Performances are pitch-perfect, the music is addictive, and the last sixty seconds (which I’ve harped on about, no apologies) are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in film this year. I chuckled, I cried, I felt, and so many of those engulfed me in such that I was in a daze as I left the theatre. Not a perfect film, but damn close. Seriously, I walked out of the theatre in an actual daze (forgot my tablet on my seat and had to drive all the way back for it), stumbled around the parking lot looking for my car, and had to pull over before I even got to the street because I realized I was weeping profusely and was not okay to drive yet. That last sixty seconds is beautiful on a level that is hard to describe and it isn’t because it’s new or innovative, it’s because it’s executed so damned perfectly. I think it reminds me a lot of a couple in my life that love each other beyond measure, fitting together like two pieces of one of those adorably silly puzzle-piece lockets, and the sheer awe at seeing love like that overwhelms me. I felt that again at the end of A Star is Born, no apologies made and none truly necessary in the face of something so pure.
Check out my review here.
It’s not often that I get to review a Palme D’Or winner (or…you know…ever), but to also love it enough to include it on my top ten list feels like I’m being spoiled with something that strikes me so personally. A story about chosen family, the damage done by those with less than kindly intentions (and what is done by those with the more positive intentions), all hangs out in the open here but the complications of chosen family are layered and nuanced. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has a steady, personal camera to follow this cast of characters that span age ranges from early childhood to a woman living her last days and it speaks to his abilities that he accurately portrays real feelings and raw emotion from each stage of these lives. It took me weeks to digest this one and I finally had a revelation about it’s personal impact on my emotional span in a run of exhausting festival showings and beer-induced hangovers. It’s so critical to me that a film hit me on a deep level, something that shakes me (I know, that isn’t fair to a lot of excellent films but thems the breaks), and this shook me.
Check out my review here.
5. Bathtubs Over Broadway:
Steve Young, ex-television writer for The Late Show, is now the subject of an incredible documentary that began with bargain bin records and ended with triumphant discovery of an epic show about bathroom fixtures. I had no idea what this was going into my screening (it was the opening film of a festival, I just went on principle), and genuinely spent part of the film trying to figure out if I was watching a real doc or a faux doc: it’s that bizarre. The film follows Young as he goes out to discover odd, interestingly strange singles at record stores for The Late Show and accidentally discovers the hidden American culture of the “industrial musical,” an art devoted to taking a brand and crafting an artistic stage performance out of it. One of the most flattering things I’ve experienced writing in film has been having Young contact me online, offering corrections and requesting I redact a statement in my review to preserve an emotional moment and I could not have been more thrilled to hear from him. The strange, weird subculture he’s stumbled on might just be the most fascinating in Americana, a true piece of a larger pie that is wholly unique to the US stage performance and this film encapsulates our weirder loves. No matter what your fascination, follow it down the rabbit hole and see where it leads you because few things are as incredible as becoming a part of it.
Check out my review here.
4. First Reformed:
There are very few times I get to look at a performance and call it perfect. Ethan Hawke has achieved something amazing here, something that I honestly did not think he’d do, because he’s already put in a lot of really wonderful performances over the years. This is another level of what-the-fuckery though, a composition of the quietly contemplative moral ambiguity of a grimy individual that might or might not have better motivations in mind while succumbing to that which calls to all of us. There is such a depression here, so many sensations that lead to an understanding of a man who has given up, that I felt so deep inside myself. I’m a misanthrope by nature, distrustful of humanity at large and often concerned with the individuals that I meet. I am also a borderline atheist, mistrustful of organized religion and the issues it has created within American culture. To see that all grappled with, alongside issues of sexual tension and desire for that which is forbidden, all took me to a place that I could not escape and it stuck with me for weeks. A great film on all fronts, but I cannot stress enough how perfect of a performance that Hawke has given and it cannot be ignored. It must not be ignored, because Hawke is everyone that has seen more than the comfortable, easy views expressed publicly by most – he’s seen the thin layer of ugliness that lies under the skin of humanity and is ultimately saved by a bright spot, a solar flare that leads him to view the whole as more than just the blissfully happy idealization of the majority. He sees the open wound, and he loves it for what it is. That’s so beautiful.
With all the weird films this year I’m having a hard time picking and choosing from them but this is one of the most appetizing feasts I’ve been subject to in a while. Alex Garland hit the director’s chair in 2014 with Ex Machina and it shattered expectations, meaning his follow-up was heavily anticipated. This was a pleasant surprise from me, a completely cracked-off and disturbing film that deals with the themes of identity and personal motivation seeping so deeply into my brain that I wound up seeing it multiple times just to digest all of it. This homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker isn’t perfect, but between weird screaming skull-bears and people who have exploded into plant life, even some with slithering and eel-like intestines, I just couldn’t get enough. I’ve struggled my whole life with determining what I am, who I am, and what the hell I’m supposed to do with it. Seeing people offered a a direct answer, one that they can only truly understand deep inside of their own psyche, spoke to me on a personal level and you all know how much I love that personal shit. Hell, a film dealing with mental health as a whole and depression specifically speaks to the heart of me. I have always suffered from it, and I self-medicate to cope (I know, I know, it’s not how I should be handling it), but that’s life and it’s real. To have such a weird little story bring that into the equation was very important to me, as well as to a subset of viewers that I believe is bigger than people think.
2. Eighth Grade:
Middle school blows. Seriously, everything from 6th grade to high school graduations is awful despite some beautiful instances, but few that put it to film ever nail it. Bo Burnham is another first time director this year, stepping up alongside Bradley Cooper to show off just what he’s made of in a way that puts style and substance on display together. This thing is a beast of a film, mixing an anxious score with the camera work of an independent horror film to recreate the fearful environment of navigating puberty and social interaction at 13 years of age. A boy in a car, predatory and sporting glinting eyes like Mephistopheles; a classmate that bullies without the ability to grasp why she acts like that way; an innocent young boy who sets up an adorable chicken nugget date; these are all pieces of a larger world that weaves throughout our heroine’s life to navigate her towards an unknown future that relies entirely on embracing herself as a unique individual. It’s a modern film, but it feels like an excellently-structured homage to terror while at the same time maintaining its “coming-of-age” roots. Elsie Fisher has leaped onto the main stage as a wildly talented performer and her moments as Kayla created a character that is resonant throughout the age group depicted in the film (and who would have benefited most from seeing it).
This is my absolute favorite film of this year, and don’t fret – I’ll feed you sweet little baby ducks some bread on this one. Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 original, is a landmark work in the genre of horror and has become a cult mainstay. I love it, and what I’m about to follow that with is my opinion and I expect most to disagree with it. Luca Guadagnino’s film is better on almost every level. It doesn’t quite match on the batshit insane color scheme, but the sober tone and methodic plot (PLOT, something Argento’s film lacks to an astonishing degree) more than makes up for it. From performance to makeup to score, I enjoyed this more in so many ways that I have trouble describing without it all devolving into word vomit. Maybe “enjoy” is the wrong word; “appreciate” might be better. This film has been very polarizing and a lot of that can be attributed to it’s nearly three-hour runtime, but moving through the scope of an epic isn’t easy. Instead, we are subjected to a hellscape of brutality, emotional torment, and physical manipulation that will honestly destroy many viewers. This isn’t an easy film, but it’s one worth watching if only to devote the time to one of the purest instances of “art” that I saw this year. And I loved every second of it. Tilda Swinton’s three performances are meant to encompass that of Freud’s three pieces of the psyche – the ego, the superego, and the id. Then we get ideas of Jungian psychology in archetypal characters that twist genre convention to show an idealization in the madness of embracing the inner power of a reborn witch-mother. Then there is the contemplative nature vs. nurture debate that permeates the film, with Susie eschewing her Mennonite upbringing to dance the wild dance of the Volk. There is personal and cultural appropriation and devastation, destructive and forceful in its desire to ask the question of “what do we truly mean against the power of psychological dread?” This is, without a doubt, my favorite film of 2018.
Check out my review here.
There are always a few films that spark my interest and wind up getting left off of my top ten list. A few, though, really do deserve a mention because they are films that should be seen but just didn’t hit me in that perfect way, that high timbre that pitches through the background noise that is my constantly ticking brain. I’m sorry if I left anything you really love off of this list but that’s just how it goes sometimes. In no particular order, they are as follows:
A Quiet Place: Way to go, Jim from “The Office,” you’ve been one of few people to demand that the audience shut the hell up and silence their damn phones during a movie. I applaud you for that, but the fact that you made an excellent family drama on top of everything else is a beautiful thing. This got knocked out of the top ten because the last five-to-ten minutes turned into Resident Evil at the finish line and after the pure, raw emotion of the climax that just felt like a misstep.
Unsane: Soderbergh, you have joined the ranks of cellphone directors and I love it. Is every shot in this movie perfect? Hell no, but that’s the beauty of what you tried. I had a blast with every minute of this wild and insane (unsane?) movie about the loss of identity to a corrupted medical system in America. Bravo, because I not only thought about healthcare and the feelings of the women in my life but I enjoyed the world you crafted. I had to leave this off of the top ten list because it was just not all I wanted it to be. Part of that was the way it was filmed, part was minor quibbles with the writing, but it really was a damn good little movie.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout: I know, I know, there are so many of these things now and we’re getting sick of SWEET JESUS, DID HE JUST CONTINUE SHOOTING WITH A BROKEN ANKLE!? In all seriousness, this is one of the few perfectly crafted action films and it’s a masterwork of new imagery and camera tricks that work perfectly with the performances, heightened beyond measure. Tom Cruise is going to die doing these one day and honestly…we’re encouraging it. He’s going to die for our entertainment, and while Scientology’s vile stain will have gained one less spokesperson I have to say…I’ll be there to watch. Also we get to see the majesty of Henry Cavil reloading his fists. This got pushed out of my top ten only because there were so many other incredible films this year, otherwise it would have gotten solid placement. I have not enjoyed any other action-based film on this level since…well, since the last entry in this franchise.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor: You cried. Admit it. You don’t have to admit where you cried, but you did and you know it. I, among many Americans, grew up watching “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” and we learned so many valuable lessons about how to interact with humanity because of it. In a world where we’re literally living under the shadow of a James Bond villain it was nice to remember that there is good in this world. I’m fairly misanthropic and distrust most people instantly, but seeing it all laid bare this way was a journey that reminded me of the beautiful people in my life (and looks fade, so thank goodness that isn’t the kind of beautiful I was talking about). This only gets edged out of my top ten because I feel like it glossed over a lot for the necessity of runtime. It could have been four hours long and people would have watched it. I sure as hell would have.
The Last Suit: I’m such a sucker for a good tale about an elderly gent. It’s a fate I hope to achieve one day, and I think this film captures some of the beauty that can be gained in the winter years. Learning about new, updated cultures and recreating links with those we loved in our youth is a powerful medicine to the aging process. The struggle to hunt down and locate Abraham Burzstein’s childhood best friend, his WWII rescuer, is filled with small character studies, and each one works to pursue a part of Abraham’s hidden self. Whether it is learning that Germany has moved on from the horrors he survived or learning to interact with his children, these smaller roles are part of his greater narrative and it culminates in one of the most beautiful finales I watched in a year packed with photo finishes.
Check out my review here.