Sunday, February 24, 2019

My Top 15 Films of 2018

            It has been awhile. 2018 was a great year for movies, not so much in finding the means to watch them all at once, admittedly. Some films I regret missing out include: Minding The Gap, Free Solo, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Capernaum, Madeline’s Madeline, The Tale, Vice, A Quiet Place, MI: Fallout, Mandy, Isle of Dogs, Suspiria, Blindspotting and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. The year was an embarrassment of riches, with too many to see, and too many that were just too good to ignore.
With this in mind, here are my Top 15 Films of 2018:

15. Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts
            In a year with a surprising number of films revising the western genre—from Lean on Pete to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts stands out as one of the most unique takes of the year. Part surrealist horror, deadpan comedy, and grisly murder drama set in the sun-scorched Sumba, Indonensia; the film is just as inspired by the post-modern genre twisting of Quentin Tarantino as it is with John Ford westerns. These stylized flourishes however reveal a cathartic feminist skewering of the kind of culture that normalizes rape and toxic masculinity that has gone for too long. It also has one of the most conflicting and stressful endings of the year.

14. Eighth Grade
            Speaking of stressful, ever try to ask your crush out on a date during a school shooting drill? Well in Eighth Grade, that is the least of these kids’ problems in this hell known as junior high. This is the directorial debut of comic Renaissance man Bo Burnham and the onscreen debut of Elsie Fischer, they synergize a telling image of modern adolescence that is hilarious, awkward, and sometimes genuinely horrific, without ever failing to lose the tone. While not as escapist as John Hughes best high school comedies, Eighth Grade is a sharper, more honest and compelling film about school life by a country mile.

13. Widows
            Forget Ocean’s 8, this is the only 2018 all-female heist film that matters. Maybe that’s too narrow of an appraisal, but one could count with one hand the number of thrillers made this year that had the level of intensity and cinematic richness that Widows provides, let alone such an unbeatable ensemble. From Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifyingly villainous gaze to the desperate wit of Elizabeth Debicki to the calming presence of Olivia the West Highland terrier, there is not a forgettable performance in this film. Also, lets not forget director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), who elevates what could have just been an exciting but minor genre exercise into a shotgun blast of every anxiety of living in America today.

12. Western
            As the title might suggest, Western is in fact another western, however it is far from typical genre fair. For one the film revolves around a German construction crew hired to build a hydroelectric plant for a Bulgarian town. Tensions flair up as one of the Germans, Meinard (played by first time actor Meinhard Neumann, who out-grits Clint Eastwood’s grittiness), befriends the locals over a horse that wanders into the construction site. If anything, Western is a slow burning bit of fly-on-the-wall realism that almost threatens to go guns blazing, but always remaining a ceasefire. While director Valeska Grisebach is disinterested in typical action, she shows clear understanding in the potential majesty of a western, providing sweeping landscape shots of Bulgarian wilderness—soon to fade away via modernization like the American prairie.  She is also rightly critical of colonialism as the German workers harass the town under a violently false sense of superiority, all because they are providing modern infrastructure. Western is a cold creeping allegory of modernism that is liable to make one mad and wistful.

11. Shoplifters
            Very few films can warm your heart whilst slowly tearing it in half, and even less can do it as elegantly as Shoplifters.  The story begins in a wintery Japan as with a father and son on their routine of stealing groceries, who pull off the discreet yet cool sleight of hand of an Ocean's 11 film—albeit without the clever gadgetry. As they return home, laughing over their successful bounty, they find a little girl locked outside her home. She is cold and hungry, so they take her with them. After that moment, we see them join the rest of the family for dinner, and at that moment it is too late, they take your heart as well. The rest is lovely, light, tragic, yet well earned drama about how, as Sakura Andô puts it, “sometimes it's better to choose your own family.”

10. The Death of Stalin
            “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”—Mel Brooks.
            By its stark title, one might wonder what is so funny about The Death of Stalin? Well, apart from witnessing Stalin lay dying on a puddle of his own urine, Armando Iannucci’s film is a layered and hysterical master class in political satire. Having flexed his comic muscles with Veep and In The Loop, Iannucci uses every trick he has learned in order to outright desecrate Stalin’s regime. The result is setting so violently oppressive and paranoid that one can’t laugh at the absurdity of it all. Add an all-star cast of the most bumbling, bewildering, and bug-eyed characters actors playing as Stalin’s cabinet and of course this would be a riotous good time. It is a shame, however, that only one man died in a puddle of his own urine.

9. Happy as Lazzaro
            Huh. Sometimes a film can make people think that they have  it all figured out before the story even ends, only to blindside them in a way only a great film can, Happy as Lazzaro is one of those films. It is a bright, provocative, and beautiful slice of Italian neo-surrealism that is just indescribable. So lets leave it at a call to action: check it out.

8. First Reformed
            Whether one directs their faith towards a deity, the Earth, or just other people around them, 2018 was a trying year, and if the news is anything to go by, it is only going to get worse. If there was a film that truly captures that feeling, it is First Reformed, a story about a Reverend Ernst Toller whose faith in God is tested when humanity seems to have conspired against him and God’s creation. It has the kind of existential dread that one might expect from Paul Schrader—who cut his teeth by writing Taxi Driver—meaning it plunges in it further than any horror film this year could even muster. Something entirely unexpected however is Ethan Hawke, whose performance as Reverend Toller is so great, one could replace the brilliant austerity of the film with sheer incompetence and it would still be on this list.

7. The Favourite
            Speaking of great performances of the year, here is a great problem to have, how does one define the lead performance of The Favourite? It not only has Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone tearing up the palace (as Lady Sarah and Abigail respectively) in this glorious farce. They gloriously snipe and claw at each other, taking down every foppish man with them, in order to gain a little bit more power and do so with the sharp sardonic aplomb one expects from Yorgos Lanthimos film, and then some. However, Olivia Colman just comes out of nowhere as Queen Anne, the gouty, royally distressed royal caught in the center of their attention. It is not just that she plays Anne as a tragic-comic adult child but with a tired gaze she reveals weight of decades of pain, depression, and incalculable losses that only feels more gut wrenching with every passing thought. It is disgusting to see her eating cake until she vomits, but after witnessing the pressure, the power plays, and manipulations she deals with everyday, can we blame her? Like The Death of Stalin, The Favourite is morbidly brilliant farce that is fully aware for the despair caused by those more concerned about gaining power and the pineapples that come with it. Also, the duck race… it is just perfection.

6. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse
            Just as super hero films and 3-D animation are fast tracking into the same creative dead-zone hosted by westerns and film noir—where familiarity is favored to the point of homogenization—Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse comes along and gives both the kick in the pants that they need. This film is more than hyper formal action spectacle but a mind-altering sensory assault that defies every idea of what it means to be both a super hero but also an animator. From mixing 2-D and 3-D characters together to something subtle as animating at 12 drawings per second, these filmmakers are just straight up rewriting the code of modern animation to create its incredible imagery. All this passion and intuition is utilized perfectly into to a simple tale about how not only can anyone be a superhero but also that giving those the means to have, and inspiration to use such power is a just cause.

5. Roma
            Memory films or semi-fictional biopics are a tricky to make with honesty, as nostalgia and specificity can easily become narrow-minded sentimental tripe. So it is easy to be skeptical about Roma, a black and white period drama loosely about director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood maid, yet this film defies every expectation. The lead character, Cleo (by first time player Yalitza Aparicio), is an indigenous woman who suffers against an inescapable number of indignities and attacks due to her race and social background—both inside and out of the house—whilst her well meaning but self-centered employers remain oblivious. The film portrays her turmoil with brutal honesty, never exploitative but never cutting away either, forcing the viewer to experience every second of it all with her. Cleo’s strife seemingly echoes back into Mexico City, which portrays moments like fires, riots, and a hospital haunted women in labor with the neo-realism and sweeping scale of a Luchino Visconti epic. Again, never cutting away from the simmer anger and unrest that 1970 Mexico City endured on a daily basis. If there is another thing Cuarón shares with Visconti is his sense of graceful empathy and respect for his subjects. Even at the worst of times, Cleo is never filmed like a punching bag, but as a human with desires and aspirations, trying to navigate life. Moments like when she is does a foot race or lays under the sun with one of the children are shot with a sense of elegance, innocence, and admiration, which is the most telling emotion of the film. Roma is the kind of film that is hardly ever greenlit anymore, let alone gain traction in North America, a maximalist art-house memory poem made with the personal and self-awareness storytelling that only Cuarón could provide. It is a cinematic apology at its most yearning.

4. You Were Never Really Here
            On the surface Joe is another neo-noir protagonist, a depressed hitman seeking redemption over past failings by violently rescuing kidnapped girls. Of course, Lynne Ramsey is no ordinary filmmaker. A visual poet with an uncanny knowledge of montage as storytelling, she distills and twists every expectation of this anti-hero in the most intense thriller of the year. You Were Never Really Here is a 90-minute long panic-attack that—through concise editing and visceral sound design—intimately delves into the psyche of its protagonist that is too close for comfort. Almost immediately we see Joe (played perfectly by Joaquin Phoenix) covering his face in a plastic bag, haunted by images of himself as a child and the phrase “I must do better, sir.” It only gets cheerier from there as film alternates between Joe on a seemingly typical rescue mission and memories of violence against women that he witnessed, which haunt every moment of his life. A less elegant filmmaker would relish in the exploitation elements of this premise but Lynne Ramsey and editor Joe Dini deliberately take a sharply abstract approach, either setting the action at an alienating distance (like surveillance footage), silhouettes, or cut it out altogether but show the aftermath. You Were Never Really Here is not about delivering violence but about the consequences of violence. It hammers home how violence and misogyny destroys women’s lives, slowly destroys children surrounded by it, and about how society can easily conform to it. This film is one of the most, if not the most, vital and succinct tone poems of this modern era.

3. Paddington 2
            Okay, forget about the memes, the jokes, and the dogmatic chants of “I’d die for Paddington” that have infected this movie since last January; if one focuses on its own merits, Paddington 2 is still the best comedy of the year. Hands down. The film’s unbeatable slapstick comedy alone would make this film worthy; every gag is built upon classic physical sketches that would make Charlie Chaplin proud yet the have a modern sense of dynamism that keep them from being musty. However another element of Chaplin that director Paul King and crew borrow is his ability to elicit enriching contemporary themes with a sense of absolute sincerity. They make no qualms that not only is Paddington’s story is that of an immigrant, but also one that passionately states how immigrants only improve our society. The filmmaking is also just beautiful in its childlike charm, where moments as simple as opening a pop-up book or a birthday wish are played with such unexpected cinematic grace that they earn genuine tears. Yes it is absurd that a sequel to an animated bear is one of the best movies of the year; then again who thought that great feature length films could be made on an iPhone, or that the fourth Mad Max movie would be a decade defining masterwork? Art is absurd, and life is too short to ponder over what is proper cinema. Treat yourself to this cinematic jar of marmalade.

2. If Beale Street Could Talk
            How does one even follow up from a film as exceptional as Moonlight? For Barry Jenkins, it would be an ambitious, tragic, and enthrallingly romantic adaptation of James Baldwin’s story of Tish and Fonny, two young lovers separated by a false accusation. With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins forgoes any traces of neo-realism of Moonlight and plunges deep into the kind of bold melodrama that made Douglas Sirk household name. It is no mistake that Fonny wears red plaid flannel like Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows. Visually it is highly formal as a classic Technicolor film, but Jenkins heightens it even further, using tricks like slow motion, subtle long takes, and a ton of smoke effect to perfection, just to emphasize every emotion. The film feels exactly like it looks, utterly timeless. Like a Sirk film, sadly, the lustrous sheen thinly veils sharp critique. The melodrama of Beale Street gently guides the viewer into the daily lives of its characters and as the inevitable reality of a racially biased justice system withers their hope dry. A scene where Fonny meets his old friend Daniel (played by the massively underrated Brian Tyree Henry) for a beer accumulates the themes in microcosm as their conversation slowly reveals the old friend horrific stay in prison. The light in his eyes fade, revealing a young man so scared that he trembles just thinking about it. The story could easily focus on this mode of near unbearable tragedy, but once Tish returns home and the light returns to Daniel, the film reveals it truest strength in its transcendent sense of love and empathy by the characters. The core cast of characters face these obstacles together; even as the inevitable happens, they do not break under pressure and face it all as family. If Beale Street Could Talk is a bittersweet film that does not mince words about what needs to be said but also finds the act of living the best life that one can in a systemically racist society as a pure form of rebellion.

1. The Rider
            The romantic dream of the western is defined by the image of a cowboy riding towards the sunset on his trusty horse. The Rider is about what happens when the cowboy can no longer climb on the saddle. The story of Brady Jandreau is a sad yet remarkable one, an aspiring bronco rider from South Dakota, fell into retirement after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2016, no longer able to ride in the rodeo. This accident became an inspiration for film director Chloe Zhao, who met Jandreau a year before the accident whilst filming Songs My Brother Taught Me. The result is a film that blurs the line between documentary and fiction, where Brady Jandreau, his actual family, and local rodeo legends playing fictional versions of themselves as they re-enact their lives after his accident. This feat of using non-actors is not inherently special—as the actors of Western and Roma can attest—yet the Jandreau family strikes an astonishing and personal chord that is just unmatched. Their stern, raw, and nuanced approach to communicating with each other reveals an intense level of introspection, bonding and regrets that is utterly disarming. This film is less a group therapy session but cinematic prayer for growth.
            This is not even going into the filmmaking itself, which is just heavenly. The film could just be a montage of landscape shots and it would still be the best film of the year. Western film landscapes, even in contemporary ones like No Country For Old Men and The Revenant, tend to have a sense of polish that makes them look like a Norman Rockwell painting, but just as flat. Chloe Zhao takes a more Malick and Herzog approach, in that she does not just display the environment but allows the environment to breathe. Simple moments like the sun rising upon a field of dying grass swishing from the wind give The Rider a sense of life and majesty that is steadily fading from the western, which is very much the point. The Rider is a portrait of a man taking one last look at a fading dream and finding purpose after it. If the western went the way of the dodo, at least it went out on a fitting note. 

So that's that. Feel free to share this or comment below, but be kind, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment