The year in movies had several themes running across them that we are actually able to neatly fit into our current time and place. First, the failure of men in their positions of power and influence, something reflected in the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has seen the fall of multiple powerful figures who have taken advantage of those they were in charge of leading. In Widows, Shirkers, and Roma women must survive the mistakes and the intentional abandonment of the men in their lives, scraping by in a world whose powerful have screwed them over. Minding the Gap follows the lives of children whose fathers abused and left them behind, asking what it takes to break the cycle they find themselves in. Those movies find empowerment in showcasing the scrappiness arriving from these difficulties.
Elsewhere, the powerful are mocked in The Death of Stalin, Zama, and The Favourite, exposed as power-hungry individuals whose desires for personal gain outweigh that of patriotism. With a president on the verge of being charged for corruption, who refused to release personal tax records, is persistently lying about his own achievements, and followed by a rotating circus of subservients trying to get in his good graces, this satirization of the powerful feels particularly prescient.
Have yet to see (in order of how likely they are to make my list): If Beale Street Could Talk; Cold War; Let the Sunshine In; Madeline’s Madeline; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; A Star is Born; Mary Poppins Returns; Bodied; Mandy; The Old Man and the Gun; Wildlife; The Hate U Give; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Bad Times at the El Royale
15. Lean on Pete
This movie has been described as the anti-Black Stallion; a film that upends the horse hero worship that’s present in the midst of so many horse movies. Any time this movie starts feeling sappy it twists itself into fits of existential dread (some literally made my jaw drop), beating you again and again like you’re Job and the devil and God are currently engaged in making bets over your soul. Like that story, there’s grace here too and when it comes it’s the breath of fresh air you desperately needed.
14. The Tale
A movie for our era that was missed by many because it was bought by HBO and is only playing there for now, The Tale offers a surprising amount of inventiveness in telling a story of horrific abuse. This story is in fact director Jennifer Fox’s own story to tell, blatantly digging into the details of her own life and things she misremembered from her childhood. It’s a tough watch, but one in which Fox uses the film medium and her own experience as a documentarian to examine personal histories and how we distort reality to fit into easier narratives.
Hirokazu Kor-Eeda is one of my favorite filmmakers. He creates small portraits of families, depicting their struggles, joys, and the events that bond them and tear them apart. In Shoplifters he uses this idea to kind of question the idea of family, bringing together a ragtag group of poor and desperate individuals and showing the ways in which humanity can come together. In the film’s final third he questions a lot of what we’ve bought into in the previous portion, blurring the line between what we think about this family and other larger ideals we may hold.
A deeply personal documentary that slowly unveils itself across its hour and a half runtime, Shirkers follows Sandi Tan and her history in Malaysia as a stalwart counter cultural young filmmaker. Her movie Shirkers, is hyped as the film representative of a small but growing youth movement in the country. When the film is lost due to influences (mostly) out of her control, she does an inventory on what it meant to her at the time, what was lost, and where her life headed from there. There is spoiler-ish content in this doc, so I won’t get into everything that happens, but it’s an excellently scored, reflective, and haunting at times documentary.
11. Happy as Lazzaro
A quiet little film that’s also one of the most twist-laden movies of the year. Alice Rohrwacher uses Lazzaro, a young man whose innocent perspective glides him through the world to comment on a world where the haves only seem to be increasing what they have over the have nots.
10. Game Night
The biggest surprise of the year is the Jason Bateman/Rachel McAdams venture that for some reason decided to base an entire movie around the concept of game night and absolutely crushed it. The film is kind of a satire of The Game (again, why did they decide to make fun of a movie released 19 years ago!?), with Bateman and McAdams thinking they are a part of an intense game, when in actuality they find themselves interacting with a real-life drug gang, using their skills to try to save Bateman’s brother (played by Kyle Chandler). This confusion makes for comedy gold with McAdams legit giving one of the best performances of the year and somehow proving herself to be the greatest working comedic actor. This thing should not be this good, but throw in a wonderful performance from Jesse Plemons as a bitter neighbor whose been excluded from game night and the charm of Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), Sharon Hogan (Catastrophe), Kylie Bunbury (Pitch), and Lamorne Morris (New Girl) and you’ve achieved greatness.
9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Another total surprise is this movie, the seventh Spider-Man film in 16 years, that managed to not only be the best of that bunch, but one of the best superhero movies ever. Into the Spider-Verse uses groundbreaking animation techniques that blur the lines between old-school cartoons and 3-D effects to make something that looks like a comic book. It features Miles Morales, the second most famous version of Spider-Man, grounding him in a New York that is vibrant and lifelike, before throwing him into a Spider-Man story that features multiple mentions of the multiverse while never feeling convoluted or confusing the stakes. It’s both funny and touching, stuffed with jokes and reverence for the comics that have come before it, it’s the kind of movie that Disney/Marvel might be able to make if the $$$ weren’t clouding their vision.
8. The Death of Stalin
Who could have predicted that a comedy about 50’s Russian politics could be the most politically poignant movie of the year? But that’s the world we currently live in; a world where wealthy men bumble about making decisions based on their strange whims. Armando Iannucci has long satirized our political systems with The Thick of It; Veep; and In the Loop, and here he continues his streak, offering a screwball take on the filling of the power vacuum upon Stalin’s death in 1953. Simon Russell Beale and Steve Buscemi lead a star studded cast in a film bursting at its seams with jokes.
Alfonso Cuaron’s deeply personal tale of growing up–a tribute to those who raised him in middle class Mexico amidst personal and political turmoil. Roma is told from the perspective of Cleo, a Mixtec housekeeper played brilliantly by Yalitza Aparacio who helps hold her employed family together, just on the fringe of being a part of the family as they experience a quiet turmoil. Roma is beautifully photographed by Cuaron himself, capturing life in Mexico–the small Oaxacan villages, the family home, New Year’s parties, the class warfare, and Cuaron’s main passion: the movies. Roma features a transcendent specificity, focusing on specific moments that must have existed in Cuaron’s mind for years, while capturing humanity in all its complexity.
6. Minding the Gap
Bing Liu’s debut documentary is the culmination of years of casually videoing his friends as they skate around his rundown town of Rockford, Illinois. The film captures skateboard culture with mastery, as Liu skates around himself, camera in hand. But it’s the desperation that Liu is able to capture in his friends and in his own story that makes Minding the Gap such an astonishing work. As each character gets a chance to tell their story, rhyming patterns of brokenness–both humanity’s and America’s–appear. Liu directly confronts his own past and the futures laid out for his friends while drawing a tattered picture of working-class American life.
5. The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos’ fourth feature is a rip-roaring period comedy about two women (Emma Stone, in her best role yet and Rachel Weisz), vying for the influence of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, playing the most powerful woman in the country with a toddler’s temperament). What results is a hilarious, yet cruel and twisted power struggle between these three women and the lower level parliaments trying to keep the country afloat. Does anyone have the country’s best interest at heart or is politics all a fickle struggle for personal gain? This is a prescient question for our modern era, one that Lanthimos has deliciously and gorgeously executed.
The most deadpan piece of comedic work this year, in which Lucrecia Martel satirizes colonial Argentina (at least I think that’s what’s going on here) with long expressionless takes and sly jokes as lead character Don Diego de Zama attempts to get himself transferred out of the country. The film devolves into an almost Apocalypse Now sort of madness with Zama entering into a journey to find a dethroned leader’s brother, before ultimately succumbing to an apathy that’s been haunting him all along. I still don’t fully understand everything that Martel is trying to say here, but it’s the sort of movie that’s so picturesque, visually complex, and stuffed full of droll jokes that I could watch it back to back to back and never get bored.
3. Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham’s debut captures the awkwardness of junior high almost too perfectly; using in a set of cringe-inducing scenes and moments that flared my personal social anxieties. Underneath the terrifying representation of being a teenager figuring out their place in the world is a kindness, grace, and unrelenting love for the film’s lead Kelsie (played to perfection by Elsie Fisher). Without this tenderness the film falls completely flat, luckily Burnham treads that line and executes an ending that leaves me weepy just thinking about it. Gucci.
The title is an apt description of the pace of this film which slowly burns to its grand conclusion. It’s a foggy movie both on screen and in the way it plays with truth and what we read into things. I’ll admit, I bought into the movie’s hints at what’s going on a bit too much, it was only after leaving the theater and conversing that I realized I may have been duped, like Jong-soo, into wanting a grander story–an economic and romantic justice that was never there.
1. First Reformed
These lists are arbitrary and in the end the number one should be something symbolic–ceremonially representing the year. That’s what First Reformed is for me; there are days when the hazy beauty of Burning or the sweet overflow of emotions that is the ending of Eighth Grade hang around in my memory, arguing their case for being #1–but they don’t capture 2018 in all its desperation the way that First Reformed does. Tackling faith and doubt and what it means for personal despair to collide with a world increasingly on the brink of destruction. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a character that will be referred to for years to come, a Presbyterian minister of a historic church with minimal attendees, nearly swallowed by a neighboring megachurch. A conversation and the subsequent actions of a concerned partitioner send Toller further into the brink of despair. In a year that featured children being separated from parents, more people turning their back on refugees, and more environmental warnings than ever before, it’s easy to wonder if God will punish us for what we’ve done. What is our response to an overwhelming evil? Is violence a justified means toward justice? In the end does God wrap us in grace as we lament the world? These questions lay heavy in my heart throughout the year and First Reformed cut right to my core, doing what art does at its best.
Honorable mentions: You Were Never Really Here; Black Panther; Mission: Impossible – Fallout; Support the Girls; Skate Kitchen; Widows; Blindspotting