It was a year of many exceptional films. The following three are my top picks, the best of the 373 features (including documentaries) I saw in 2018. (Yeah, I know, get a life.)
Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, director & co-writer) This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and finally inspiring story of Zain, a tough 12-year-old boy, struggling to survive in the slums of Beirut, who takes his useless parents to court for having been born. It’s brutal to watch, but worth it for the smile at the end.
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, director & writer) This film, set in the Roma district of Mexico City, is close to the director’s life. It tells an intimate family story that has epic implications. Shot in razor-sharp black & white and wide screen, with an intricate sound design, Roma is best seen on a theater screen, but most will probably watch it on Netflix (just not on an iPhone, I beg you). There is a scene near the end in the surf at a beach that is like nothing I’ve seen before. A rising feeling of life in the balance is truly frightening.
The Rider (Chloé Zhao, director & writer) When I first saw this film last Spring, I was knocked back by its beauty and quiet power, and by its feeling and humanity. Here’s what I wrote about it last July: For me, this is the best film of the year so far. I responded more strongly to The Rider than anything else I’ve seen to date. It concerns a promising young rodeo rider, Brady Blackburn, who suffered a near-fatal injury when a bull stepped on his head before the film begins. He’s told he can never ride or rodeo again. The Rider shows how he struggles to deal with this. Chloé Zhao is a Chinese filmmaker who was born in Beijing, attended boarding school in London, finished high school in Los Angeles, and studied filmmaking at NYU in New York City. Like her first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), The Rider was shot on and around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It has a documentary aspect that reinforces the reality that’s created here. All of the characters are convincingly played by non-actors. Brady is played by Brady Jandreau; his father by his real father; his sister by his real sister. Brady had the same injury as his character has in the film. His friends in the film are his friends in real life. One doesn’t need to know this to appreciate the film, but it adds to the authenticity you feel. The Rider doesn’t go the way you’d think it might, given its premise. It’s truer than that. It’s also, as has been pointed out by others, visually stunning and deeply moving.
Here are the rest of the best of what I saw last year, in alphabetical order. I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. When movies work for me, it’s an interactive experience.
Note: I wrote about eight of these titles last July (“Seen Anything Good Lately?“) and one of them last October (“NYFF 56 — What I Saw the First Three Days”). I’m recycling those entries here (indicated by an asterisk), with slight edits.
Black ’47 (Lance Daly, director & writer) This is essentially a familiar vengeance tale we’ve seen played out across many genres, but placing in the context of the Great Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 sets it apart. Its story of one wronged man, Martin Feeney, wreaking havoc against multitudes is very well done. Hugo Weaving is especially good as a conflicted British soldier sent to track Feeney down.
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, director & co-writer) This film became a cultural event and raised the bar on the superhero genre. Excellent all around.
Blaze (Ethan Hawke, director & co-writer)
Burning (Lee Chang-dong, director & co-writer)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, director; Nicole Holfcener, co-writer) Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are wonderful in this. I’ll never forget Grant in the phenomenally alcoholic Withnail and I (1987). His character here has some echos of that film. Melissa McCarthy’s surprising performance shows a greater range than I would have expected, based on what I’ve seen her in before. Guess I shouldn’t be too quick to typecast people.
Cold War (Pawel Pawlikowski, director & co-writer)
I love the following scene of Joanna Kulig dancing with abandon to “Rock Around the Clock.”
The Day After (Hong Sang-soo, director & writer) This prolific director keeps delivering film after film several times a year, each one a polished gem. They all seem like the same film, in a way, but they’re great. There’s a lot of talk and not a lot seems to happen, but that’s deceptive.
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, director & co-writer) I was surprised to find out after that this extremely funny, very black farce follows the sequence of events around Stalin’s death quite closely. Dark and nasty and a total hoot. The entire cast is excellent, Steve Buscemi especially.
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, director) * This was the opening night film at the New York Film Festival and I loved it. The following description on IMDb is from Fox Searchlight Pictures: “Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.”
This film is quite nasty, and very funny as well. The performances are exceptional. There’s a hilarious dance scene that a friend of mine said “seemed to be a sort of Monty Python spoof of the era’s courtly dances.” The Favourite also reminds me a bit of Richard Lester’s wonderful Three Musketeers films. I’ve had mixed feelings about the previous Yorgos Lanthimos films I’d seen. The Lobster (2015) was off the wall, but I liked its bizarre premise. I had an aggressively negative reaction to The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), so I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Favourite. But like I said, I loved it. It’s steeped in period detail. I don’t know if that detail is totally accurate, but everything looks amazing. You can overdose on the production design, which made me think of Barry Lyndon (1975). Lanthimos also makes extensive use of extreme wide-angle, fisheye lenses. These shots have a surreal, panoramic quality suggestive of dioramas in museums.
First Reformed (Paul Schrader, director & writer) * Throughout his career as a director and screenwriter, Paul Schrader has been concerned with protagonists — often anguished and doubting — who have been boxed in by their struggles to find meaning in their lives and beliefs. They frequently find expression through violence, as with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, or, as with Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, by being crucified. In First Reformed, the Reverend Ernst Toller, strongly played by Ethan Hawke in a tightly contained, claustrophobic performance, continues Schrader’s exploration of this kind of character. Even his first name, Ernst, makes a tight and constricted sound when you say it, as opposed to Ernest, which is what I initially thought the name was. Toller is the minister of the First Reformed, a small church with a shrinking congregation in upstate New York. The church is an historical landmark, significant for being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Toller gives tours of the church to handfuls of people, which end at the gift shop. He’s also involved in preparing for the 250th anniversary of First Reformed, a celebration to be attended by the mayor, governor, and other dignitaries. Then there’s the parishioner (played by Amanda Seyfried), concerned for her husband, a fanatical environmentalist, who has a suicide vest in the house. First Reformed is a rigorous film, and deadly serious. There aren’t many laughs. None, actually, and no easy answers. At a Q&A at the Walter Reade Theater last May, Schrader explained the absence of a music score by saying he didn’t want music cues to tell the audience how to feel. He said, rather poetically, “You can’t hold the hand of the viewer when you’re asking them to walk into the mystery.”
Green Book (Peter Farrelly, director & co-writer)
The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois, director & writer) * I really loved this film. I saw it twice and it was just as strong the second time. The Guardians is set in a farming community in France during World War I. Most of the men are away fighting, so it’s left to the women to do the farming. There are frequent scenes of farm work — plowing, planting, harvesting, etc. These are lengthy and mostly wordless. Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, I appreciated the time and respect the filmmaker gave to this activity. Husbands and sons return on leave, then go back to the front again. During church services, the priest reads he names of those who’ve been killed. Seasons pass and life goes on. It’s a great movie.
The Guilty (Gustav Möller, director) * In this riveting Danish film, police officer Asger Holm (played by Jakob Cedergren) has been assigned to an emergency call center. The entire film takes place inside this center. We hear the voices of the callers, but we never see them. The focus is tightly on Asger as he handles each call. The film kicks into gear when he gets a call from a woman who may have been kidnapped by her ex-husband. In a series of calls, Asger attempts to help the woman without alerting her kidnapper. By the end of the film, things have flipped a couple of times as Asger (and the audience) learns more. The Guilty is terrific. It’s a thriller that never leaves Asger, a cop on the phone at a desk. It reminds me of another film I like a lot, Locke (2013), which takes place entirely inside a car with Tom Hardy as he drives through the night, constantly calling people and taking calls. That was a thriller, too.
Hearts Beat Loud (Brett Haley, director & writer) * This is another film I love. It is, as the poster proclaims, a “feel good” movie, but it earns it. Frank Fisher (wonderfully played by Nick Offerman) owns a vinyl record store in Brooklyn. His daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemmons) is about to leave for California and pre-med study at UCLA. Frank had been in a band when he was younger. He and Sam are talented musicians; they write songs and jam together. In a great sequence, we see them as they record a song that goes viral after Frank puts it on Spotify, unbeknownst to Sam. Frank feels he and Sam are now a band (which he calls We’re Not a Band) and wishes she would delay college to work on this with him. The cast includes the always great Ted Danson as a bar owner and Frank’s friend, Sasha Lane as Sam’s girlfriend, Toni Collette as Frank’s record shop landlord, and Blythe Danner as Frank’s mother. There’s not a lot of big drama, and things don’t work out the way they might in a more conventional film with this premise. It feels very natural. This is a really, really good movie.
Hotel by the River (Hong Sang-soo, director & writer)
Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, director) * It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since the first Incredibles movie. That’s an unusually long amount of time to wait for a sequel, but I have to say, it was worth it. I loved the first one, and this is even better. It’s one of those infrequent cases where a sequel surpasses the original, as did The Godfather: Part II (1974), Aliens (1986), and Terminator 2 (1991). Advances in animation technology since 2004 raised the quality of Incredibles 2 to a very high level. Plus it’s impossible not to get swept up by the momentum of the storytelling. Brad Bird‘s work is exceptional. He directed The Iron Giant in 1999, an animated film with a lot of heart that transported me back to my childhood. His live-action feature debut, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), is the best of that seemingly inexhaustible series.
Leave No Trace (Deborah Granik, director & co-writer) * This is a very strong, deeply affecting film that doubles down on the promise of Debra Granik’s previous feature, Winter’s Bone (2010). Just as that film provided a breakout role for Jennifer Lawrence, Leave No Trace does the same for Thomasin McKenzie. She’s excellent as Ben Foster’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Tom. Foster plays Will, a former soldier with PTSD. They’ve been living off the grid deep in the forest on public land in Oregon. Their struggle to maintain this way of life forms the crux of the film. Leave No Trace is very understated, free of the more conventional drama you might expect. The film respects all of the characters; there are no villains per se. Foster is excellent as Tom’s father. But he’s almost always excellent, as his work in The Messenger (2009), Hostiles (2017), and especially Hell or High Water (2017) will attest. Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz has described him as “one of those actors who make even a bad film worth seeing.”
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, director) I liked this much more than Boy Erased, which has a similar premise. I’m not sure why, but this film felt more even-handed and more authentic.
Museo (Alonso Ruiz Palacios, director & co-writer)
A Private War (Matthew Heineman, director) Rosamund Pike gives a great performance as celebrated war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed under fire in Syria in 2012. I’m more impressed with her every time I see her. This is the first narrative feature from Matthew Heineman. His previous work has been in documentaries, notably the powerful City of Ghosts (2017), which was about anonymous citizen journalists in Syria documenting the struggle against ISIS. He knows the territory.
Searching (Aneesh Chagantry, director & co-writer) Told entirely via images and sounds on screens — iPhones, computers, televisions, security cameras, and so on. A bit of a stunt, but effective and clever. A reveal near the end is a letdown, but otherwise I was with it all the way. John Cho is excellent as a an increasingly anxious father trying to locate his missing daughter.
Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, director & writer) Another great film from Kore-eda, who specializes in stories of families and groups. He is a true humanist.
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, director & writer) * Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job with a telemarketing company in Oakland, California where he’s encouraged to use his “white voice” to increase his sales. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. This film is insane. The white voices are dubbed by actual white voices. You could say the film is social satire, but that doesn’t begin to convey the anger that runs through it. It’s also a comedy, a farce, a horror film, and probably a thousand other things. Plus it’s great. Something is revealed in the latter half of the film that will have your jaw on the floor. I don’t dare say anything more about that, though I’d like to. I can only hope that in the wake of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, we’ll see more films that are this full-throttle.
The Spy Who Dumped Me (Susanna Fogel, director & co-writer) I had my doubts going in, but this really worked. It’s quite violent, but since it’s R-rated, the violence has some consequences, which is different for a comedy. Kate McKinnon has been the guiding light on Saturday Night Live the last several years. She’s brilliant and fearless. She and Mila Kunis are great together. The story is obviously absurd, but they go to great lengths to sell it, and as far as I’m concerned, they succeed nicely.
The Third Murder (Hirozaku Kore-eda, director & writer) This is a departure for Kore-eda in terms of subject matter. He draws you into a story that slowly reveals itself, up to a point, though it never quite removes the aura of mystery and sense of unease that pervades the film. The tone and method also reminds me of the films of Kyoshi Kurosawa, another great Japanese director.
The 12th Man (Harald Zwart, director) This is an epic tale of survival against overwhelming odds, based on a true story.
24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, director) From one of the world’s great filmmakers. He left a monumental body of work when he died in 2016. I don’t even know how to classify 24 Frames. It’s not exactly a documentary. It’s not a narrative feature. What is it? An essay? Whatever, it’s a film that makes you really look. And it’s beautiful. There’s something Zen about it. Here are notes I made when I saw it last February. “Saw Kiarostami’s final film, 24 Frames, today. The trailer doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. Comprised of 24 scenes, each 4 1/2 minutes long, fixed frame, but with a lot slowly going on inside it. I think this is an important piece of work, though I’m now sure how or why (too soon, need to process). Suffice to say, it’s quite extraordinary. Definitely see it when you can.”
Wildlife (Paul Dano, director & co-writer) Adapted by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan from a novel by Richard Ford, Wildlife is set in 1960 in Great Falls, Montana. The story is told in a straight-forward style that has a literary feel, rendered in carefully composed shots that make the streets and landscapes seem like paintings. But it’s very much alive; there’s nothing static about it. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal have gotten most of the attention. They’re great, but Ed Oxenbould is also outstanding as their son. He’s really the heart of the film.
Most, if not all, of these films are available for streaming from sources such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and countless others. And that about covers it for now. See you next time. — Ted Hicks