*Updated 3/8/19 for posterity to account for new films seen after initial publishing*
It felt wrong crafting a Top 10 list last year before everything had reached the Richmond, Virginia area or even the usual online renting platforms, and in as many respects it feels wrong now. Last year, my retrospective of its best pictures included The Killing of a Sacred Deer, John Wick: Chapter 2 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and while I have no regrets including any of those films – The Last Jedi especially – I don’t deny that I wish I could have had the opportunity to evaluate Thelma, The Post and Phantom Thread before January 1st, as they have since publishing my hierarchy ousted the former three films from the upper echelon. This time, strong potential contenders such as Suspiria, Cold War, Burning and Shoplifters among many others have, thanks to release strategies that annoyingly, though understandably favor larger markets, temporarily eluded consideration, granting the general totem pole a sense of partial emptiness.
Nonetheless, the films that have earned their way into this year’s Top 10 deserve their moment in the spotlight, even if they too will soon lose their place with the passage of time. It’s why writing year-end lists such as these are a terribly imperfect, though no less fun science, and as I’ve previously mentioned, this year will likely be my last meticulously filling each beaker to the precise measurements. Like last year, before going straight into the list, I’d like to briefly highlight the films that either almost made it or are at least good or interesting enough for a recommendation. In alphabetical order, if you haven’t, I strongly – or mildly, in some cases – suggest you check out:
American Animals / Annihilation / Apostle / Bad Times at the El Royale / The Ballad of Buster Scruggs* / Beast / BlacKkKlansman / Black Panther / Blindspotting / Cam / Cold War / Crazy Rich Asians / Disobedience / The Death of Stalin* / Eighth Grade / The Endless / A Fantastic Woman / First Man / Gemini / Golden Exits / The Guilty / Hearts Beat Loud / Hold the Dark / The Incredibles 2* / The Kindergarten Teacher / Lean on Pete / Leave No Trace / Like Me / The Little Stranger / Love, Simon / Mandy / Minding the Gap / The Miseducation of Cameron Post / Mission: Impossible – Fallout / On Body and Soul / Overlord / Private Life / A Quiet Place / RBG / Revenge / Searching / Seeing Allred / Shoplifters / A Simple Favor / Sorry to Bother You / Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse / A Star Is Born / Support the Girls / Thoroughbreds / Three Identical Strangers / Tully / Upgrade / Vox Lux / We the Animals / What Keeps You Alive / Widows / Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Enough stalling. Closing out this project won’t get any easier by dilly-dallying. What’s deserved a chance for the highest honor?
10. Hereditary, dir. Ari Aster
When your debut film earns both critical acclaim and financial success (in this case, nearly $80 million against a $10 million budget, marketing and whatever sum A24 paid to acquire it), you’re possibly more deserving than most to have a second feature very quickly green-lit. Such is the case for Ari Aster, whose Midsommar arrives next year and whose Hereditary I cannot detach from my memory. It’s the first of a few Oscar candidates occupying this list, and though it was the only one which I felt required a quick, subsequent viewing to solidify strong opinions about, it’s second impression was nonetheless thorough in its steadfast declaration that it deserved a chance to confirm my horror movie biases and claim the crown reserved for King Paimon. Also, as it turned out, twice in the same weekend was enough viewings for my now permanently scarred little brain before it could take any more terrifying, soul-maiming input. Yes, I have long beaten this drum since its June release – long after the lucky few had already beaten it following its January Sundance appearance – but not only is Hereditary one of the most phenomenal feature-length debuts in recent memory, it is one of the most blood-curdling, scariest horror flicks to ever grace CinemaScore with a bullshit D+ rating – though to be fair, all CinemaScore ratings are bullshit.
At once, it is a somber meditation on the nightmarish intersections of mourning, mental illness and existential futility, and then the next thing you know, the scariest sound becomes a preteen girl’s clucking (wow, that almost came out as another word) and the most dread-inducing inanimate object becomes not a pair of scissors, but a utility pole. It’s not the type of horror that compels you to scream, but rather the kind that slowly sucks out every drop of oxygen from your lungs so your brain forgets how to scream at all, transporting you into a state of nihilistic paralysis consuming the vitality of your soul. Stiffly controlled pacing anchored by standout performances from Toni Collette and Alex Wolff, in particular, intriguing cinematography and deft slow-burn storytelling are all wonderful bonuses, but this is the sort of film that in retrospect will always distract from its technical achievements with how it makes you feel; the total emotional sum each moving part engendered, which even after one viewing can be succinctly described in two words: fucking horrified.
And to think, this isn’t the highest-placing horror film on this list, though my subsequent pick and explanation for it will no doubt piss off many a purist.
9. If Beale Street Could Talk, dir. Barry Jenkins
So, it’s fair to say as many already have that Barry Jenkins is no longer allowed to retire from filmmaking. I don’t throw that d-word that is ‘destiny’ around lightly, or at all truth be told, but when it was announced shortly after Moonlight enchanted audiences and soon-to-be embarrassed Pricewaterhousecoopers employees that Jenkins’s next project would be adapting James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” that sort of combination of prose pros – one literary, one visual – contained its own sense of fate, if also expectation. Moonlight may have been Jenkins’s second feature, but to many of us, it was his introduction, partially of who he was aesthetically as a cinematic craftsman, but also of his storytelling approach, dominated most by profound intimacy subtly belying, in its own way, his ability to create rich tapestries out of background details, adeptly bouncing back and forth between concepts of scale while also slyly manipulating our perceptions of them from both narrative and visual perspectives.
None of that has changed with If Beale Street Could Talk, a classically inclined, gorgeously conceived love story irrevocably altered by the history of institutionalized racism and all that it has wrought, from the criminalization of black men to uphold racist judiciary standards to economic inequality to the struggles particularly faced by Black and other minority women. With a narrative structure spending equal time in past and present, switching back and forth between the two as it exponentially communicates the true depths of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny’s (Stephan James) love, it takes as many strides doing such as it uses minor characters and details to illustrate a variety of issues at the heart of its righteousness. And while it touts these ambitions unabashedly, never once does the story itself feel disjointed, or Jenkins’s direction unfocused, always coming back around to Tish and Fonny as if to defiantly proclaim that love can conquer all enemies, no matter how great. Not only is this as powerful a sentiment as it can be in this climate and delivered from these particular hands, it’s a reminder of what makes film a supremely captivating medium – one in which Jenkins has swiftly named himself an unofficial king.
8. The Tale, dir. Jennifer Fox
There’s a phantom sadness still lingering from two viewings that we won’t get to celebrate Jennifer Fox’s remarkably personal and haunting The Tale as we will all of the other Oscar hopefuls come March, because had it not sold to HBO and went to any other hungry film distributor ready to grant some sort of distribution, it’d be a shoo-in for a number of categories – it was nominated for three different Spirit Awards, but it just isn’t the same. But such is the nature of a constantly shifting cinematic landscape, with a myriad of new avenues opening up for filmmakers and producers to have their works seen, and successfully challenge traditional distribution methods in the process. The Tale certainly isn’t the beginning of this change, but rather a potent sign of its growth; a symptom of a continuing phenomenon seeing creators shrewdly consider the potential of these new methods to increase the viewership collectively consuming their stories, ideas and messages.
For Fox, such business savvy cannot overshadow her film’s additional, and undoubtedly most integral purpose behind maximizing its eyeball count, particularly at a time when women’s voices and the voices of all victims of sexual harassment and assault are being given their overdue platform speaking truth to patriarchal power. Not only is The Tale spectacularly written by Fox, this being her debut feature-length work of narrative fiction, and performed by the likes of Laura Dern, Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki, as well as an intriguing meta-work blending memoir and documentary techniques with traditionally cinematic, mysterious storytelling, but it is also a perturbing, yet enlightening examination of the complexities of memory and the tendency of many sexual assault survivors to compartmentalize their trauma, covering it up out of sheer survival instinct, and thus the film is Fox courageously, unblinkingly granting us a view into how she essentially rewrote the stories her memories told inside her own mind – “We tell ourselves stories to survive,” Dern’s Fox tells a class of documentary students. It is a harrowing watch, but nonetheless vital for its heartbreaking reflection and honesty.
7. Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino
There’s an ingenious simplicity and perhaps even understated obviousness to David Kajganich’s approach to writing Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, one that would theoretically allay the outcries of Dario Argento Suspiria purists and separate itself from the original to form its own identity without disregarding core concepts. In other words, why not approach material like this as such: Step 1. Recognize that the original film took place in Germany and was released in 1977, Step 2. Ask oneself, maybe even educate oneself about what was going on in Germany during 1977, Step 3. Thematically tie those events into the primary narrative, Step 4. Profit. Well, actually, putting the word ‘profit’ anywhere near this remake in either a critical or financial context is generous enough to qualify as metaphorically bankrupting oneself, but among those whose steadfast approval it gained, the haunting historical parallels implicitly woven into the proceedings might have been what set this Suspiria over the top, to say nothing of its brilliance in direction, cinematography, editing and gleefully wavering tone among other facets.
Now half a year on from its Venice debut, it’s difficult stating what Suspiria was really about this whole time without treading on any other writer’s toes, but in an age when international powers continue flirting with and even electing in the quasi- and fully fledged authoritarianism once thought relegated to history books, it feels all the more vital communicating Kajganich’s deftly imbued themes of national guilt, societal and philosophical divisions and the dangers of ideological extremism and isolationism, as well as the competing dualities inherent in the latter two ideas – especially considering the understanding that Europe’s history of fascism was a consistent, if symptomatic presence in many a classic giallo production. Even so, it contextualizes the narrative’s various happenings and the relentless, intensely felt melodrama flavoring its horror’s throwback aesthetic without butting in on the action, especially during disturbing sequences whose visual and aural content speaks for itself. Like the “Schuld und Scham” Dakota Johnson speaks of in the film’s penultimate scene, it simply lingers in the background like a spooky something obfuscated by dark shadows just before it pounces, yet it’s just visible enough to keep us confined to a heightened state of paralysis dreading the unpredictable moment it decides to inch closer.
Yes, it’s over-indulgent in just about every conceivable respect, but in some cases (this being one of them), I don’t head into a movie theater expecting or even wanting restraint. In fact, personally, more often than not, I prefer it when filmmakers completely indulge themselves of every creative impulse driving their vision, because odds are regardless of whether individual audience members like myself come away liking it, hating it or falling somewhere in between, the end result is a project undeniably brimming with passion, verve and identity that’s always interesting at the very least; a welcome chaser to the franchise-saturated, producer-driven, financially-dependent, cynically soulless geek marketing apparatus that is much of modern Hollywood. Movies like this Suspiria and its nimble balance of shocking terror, gentle beauty and grounded melancholy are why I love movies at all, and I can’t imagine wanting that to change.
6. The Favourite, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
In all of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films of the absurd, the sinister never lurks too far behind. Particularly in The Favourite (as an American, it’ll always feel strange spelling that with a ‘u’), for every frame of 17th century characters performing anachronistic dance moves on the Hatfield House/Hampton Court Palace floors and each sequence of noble diplomats uncharacteristically, at least according to our romanticizing of British nobility and class according to high status, sputtering out foul-mouthed insults like spoiled children, there are as many dramatic angles and close-up long-takes of scheming characters accentuated by ominous, almost Kubrickian score cues. More and more, the sinister shone and eventually took over in the likes of Dogtooth and The Lobster and was intentionally all-consuming in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but with The Favourite, it intriguingly comes in intervals, one wave of absurdism signaling the crash of devious suspense only to be followed by the next wave greater in size and power. Part of such could be down to Lanthimos directing from a script neither he nor usual partner Efthymis Filippou touched, yet in many ways it still feels like a picture of their creation.
Gone may be the stilted dialogue and reliance upon affected performances communicating perceived, disarming deficiencies in humanity (welcoming in affected performances collectively measuring the breadth of humanity’s cunning and cattiness), but the cinematographic tendencies, pacing and overall bleakness of the story remain, with the latter revealing itself in more covert ways than usual. And perhaps in some ways because this is a film bearing Lanthimos’s fingerprint instead of his entire hand, it ultimately represents him at his most controlled with the actors and mise-en-scène and controlling over the audience he so gleefully relishes at spearing in the ribs. While The Killing of a Sacred Deer was maybe Lanthimos at his most sadistically indulgent, The Favourite is him at his most refined, but in no way adulterated.
And speaking of Kubrick, there’s quite the Dr. Strangelove-esque air to how the director, as well as writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, portray the dehumanization of the lust for power, instead of power in and of itself. Partially apparent in the occasional banality of it all – a tone that doesn’t get to rear its head in this film very often – and mostly visible in the seamless weaving of comedy, devilish drama and the rewriting/re-envisioning of period spectacle, there’s nowhere to go but down for the core protagonists, and when you think they can’t possibly sink any lower, they find a level past rock bottom. Such may be characteristic of Lanthimos, but it’s especially in the subtlety of this film’s concluding sequence, accentuated by the culmination of fantastic performances from Olivia Coleman and Emma Stone in addition to their respective characters’ nuanced examinations, where he finds the pinnacle of both this thematic arc and his own demented skill; making clear the pessimistic themes and symbolism expressed in the final shots and editing with precision cuts instead of blunt force, much like his last two films. This is truly Lanthimos’s best work to date, and it’s exciting to think about how he’ll depress us next time.
5. You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsay
As we grow older, wiser and more attuned to genre and convention, violence doesn’t always shake us the same way as it might have while discovering, say, any Quentin Tarantino film for the first time as a teenager. It isn’t necessarily because we’ve become numb or desensitized to it, rather that its presence becomes expectation, softening the blow while nonetheless colliding with our senses with some kind of impact. That being said, the violence of Lynne Ramsay’s near-perfect You Were Never Really Here consistently hurts – not to watch, necessarily, in a plebian shock provocateur gross-out sense, but to grapple with when associating with it the greater context of the protagonist generously handing out one heavy blow after the other (extra points go to this film’s editing and sound personnel, though). In one of his more startling turns, Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hired gun who specializes in retrieving trafficked girls from their captors, using uncompromisingly brutal methods, and while the physicality he doles out would be enough as the film’s attention-drawing centerpiece, it’s the films focus on the tragedy beneath his stoicism and its representation that truly haunts the proceedings.
His own more likeable (yet still relatively menacing), less delusional Travis Bickle, Joe’s traumatic past, his subsequent reclusiveness in his personal life and trouble with suicidal thoughts grants even deeper meaning to the film’s title. Though the film itself isn’t one to take a political stance on either how some veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, among other psychological and physiological ailments, are mistreated by the system that promises to return the favor once they’ve finished serving, or how the voices of those who’ve suffered from domestic violence have traditionally been drowned out, it’s difficult not to think of these real-world complications imbuing Phoenix’s character with a more resolute sense of pain. Thus, his infrequent eruptions palpitate with purpose and stinging catharsis, and as the nuances to his persona expand, the more they simply hurt. There’s too much to like about this film, and we haven’t even touched Ramsay’s direction or Jonny Greenwood’s score.
4. First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader
Here it is, purists: my favorite horror film of 2018 (I’ll give you a moment to stop frothing at the mouth and flailing your arms like frightened Muppets). I don’t humbly qualify that statement with quotation marks, either, because as it was presented to me, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a horror film plain and simple, albeit in the lower-capital, liberally post-modern sense of the term. Admittedly, in terms of tone and overall identity, the film spans across several genres, and so pinning it down to a singular descriptor is both counterproductive and reductive of the masterstrokes Schrader performed behind the lens and on the page, but leave it to this Ethan Hawke-led masterclass in anxiety to provoke the same full-body tremors come its conclusion that Ari Aster achieved with Hereditary – and then consider that while such was anticipated from Aster’s project, it most certainly was not with Schrader’s. It’s fair to say many of the films on this list are of the kind not easily shaken off, and First Reformed is certainly one of the most difficult.
Yes, part of that rests in how Schrader gradually blurs the distinction between drama, suspense and horror the further Hawke’s Reverend Toller spirals, but also in a not so insignificant chunk of the film’s intellectual musings on the role and sustainability, at an individual level, of faith in the modern world of rising extremism. Should we fall victim to the new influential, yet destructive ideology of the day, do we abandon faith altogether or conveniently adjust the terms of our commitment to make space for these new thoughts? Schrader’s new ‘man in a room’ scenario terrifies with its character study of the latter instance, all while expertly demonstrating how the mere threat of violence can be as affecting for an audience as the act of violence itself, and yet it doesn’t repel us from wanting to dig further into its implicit humanist core, anchored by a sympathetic, if unnerving performance from Hawke. Much like You Were Never Really Here, cut from the same Taxi Driver cloth, First Reformed is, above all else, a chilling examination of loneliness, troubled masculinity and the dark psychological need for cathartic, corrective violence, and though this film finally edged out Ramsay’s to place one slot higher, let’s be honest in admitting their places were always interchangeable. Watch both back to back for maximum discomfort.
3. Assassination Nation, dir. Sam Levinson
So, this is embarrassing. Remember when I wrote a review for this film with my first perfect rating of the year and boldly proclaimed that all other films and filmmakers need not bother trying to please me, because there was no possible way anything else could make me think this wasn’t the best picture I’d witness all year? Yeah, please forgive that past version of myself, if you will, for that was a time long before I could comprehend the two films that ultimately surpassed this one. That doesn’t mean I love this film any less, Neon, but rather that I’ve made room in my heart for more than just one, which if you think about it, is a much healthier means of expressing and feeling love. From the look on your face, I can see you aren’t buying that. Well, then I hope the next couple of paragraphs let you know I’m telling the truth.
This was always going to be a film where you understood going in, like many other genre movies, that what you got was what you got and there was no dancing around that, and I acknowledge that I’m certainly in the minority that what we got was damn perfect. I still don’t care (though I also acknowledge that we need more stories like this told from a woman’s perspective instead of a man’s – sorry Sam Levinson, you still did a phenomenal job), and neither should anyone else responsible for this work.
2. Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
It hardly gets more personal in filmmaking when any given project’s chief creator is the director, writer and cinematographer, as well as one of its editors and producers, justifying the auteur tag journalists and high-minded audiences love to attach to them. Like many an auteur, Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t make many films or deliver them with either a moderate or consistent frequency, but for one reason or another, the films he does put out are spectacular examples to marvel at and debate over both qualitatively and thematically. Not only has he potentially made Donald Trump’s least favorite film of the year as well as his magnum opus with Roma, a semi-autobiographical take of his childhood in Mexico City focused upon a live-in maid, he’s made one of those films that shines as one of the great examples of accessible art, more than deserving its place on the Academy’s shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film. Every calculated frame, camera movement and section of blocking radiates with poignancy, humanity and occasionally tragedy in addition to their simply being technically beautiful, and it’s the woman at the center of many shots and the various details around her that makes the film so compelling.
Perhaps like Hereditary, Roma is the kind of film that you’ll remember most over time for how it made you feel than its stylistic and thematic achievements, but with its somewhat minimalist approach, Cuarón communicates so much about economic disparity, colonialism, issues of race and feminism just to name a few topics, all while focusing upon Cleo’s (Yalitza Aparicio) day-to-day doings and struggles while caring for and looking after the home of a well-to-do white family. Told as a film of moments rather than a traditional dramatic narrative arc, we are generously given an intimate glimpse of who Cleo is and are allowed to empathize with and attach ourselves to her and her daily life, tumultuous as it often is while maintaining a sense of hope, possibility and love. Throughout its 135 minutes, it is often clear that this is the work of a filmmaker genuinely trying to understand the hidden details of a life of which he only knew a single portion and perspective, and it very easily hooks and reels you in because of that ambition. It’s a film that breaks your heart and lifts you up asking for your utmost sympathy and understanding, and only the cruelest among us could possibly deny it that.
1. Madeline’s Madeline, dir. Josephine Decker
I once wrote in a review for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that only those films that successfully alleviate the pressure between simultaneously enjoying a film for its simple pleasures and technical prowess and excavating its varied themes, meanings and subtexts, coalescing the two often separate experiences into a seamless whole, are deserving of either a 4.5 or perfect 5/5 rating. What separates a film, in my mind, from 4.5 to 5 is often solely based upon an arbitrary feeling rather than an objective criticism. Thus, there is another criteria I consider when adjudging whether or not to apply any given picture a 4.5 or 5/5 rating, and that is whether or not I felt as though I’d been stylistically, narratively and/or thematically slapped in the face, like an ice bath wake-up call invigorating every nerve exposed to its impact. From there, what separates a film being either 4.5 or 5 is dependent upon whether they slapped in one way, any combination of two ways or effortlessly did so all three ways. Each of the top three films in this list performed the latter, but I can’t escape the feeling Madeline’s Madeline slapped the hardest.
More than just some plucky indie film wowing Sundance audiences, Josephine Decker’s film is its own expressionist, even somewhat surrealist powerhouse about the psychology of performance and its inevitable connections to the self, i.e. the authentic self versus the inauthentic self. Which feels in and of itself like a fairly taboo concept when it comes to performance – at least, my limited understanding of it – as actors and performers of all types are so often encouraged to imbue a portion of themselves into any fictitious, potentially unfamiliar role or persona. On its own, that is an incredibly interesting dialogue to watch the film provoke, but it’s then how this undercurrent ties into not only the narrative, but also Decker’s uncompromising, improvisational style and the principal actors’ performances themselves that throws the viewer into a constant whirlwind of artistic ambition and chaos.
Slowly but surely, the storytelling techniques transform from the experimental to the intriguingly conventional, morphing from avant-garde expressionism about the day-to-day life of a talented teenager (Helena Howard) asked to play herself in an upcoming production to a recognizable, yet wholly unexpected game of psychological cat and mouse between her and her mentor (Molly Parker), curiously obfuscating genre distinction and what type of narrative Decker is even aiming for. Given Decker’s background as a performance artist, Madeline’s Madeline feels like an intensely existential project through which one must navigate rather thorny subject matter about personal truth, identity, commitment to craft and recognition of its limits, and it surprisingly ebbs and flows with an admittedly minimal amount of accessibility that keeps its themes and subtext from coming across as muddied or disjointed. Put simply, Madeline’s Madeline slaps, and that’s all I have to say about that.
So what were your favorite movies of the year? Let me know, and I’ll see you all again next yea- oh wait…
*Like last year, I’ve put asterisks by the films I’d recommend which happened to have at least one person associated with them who’s had serious charges of sexual misconduct laid against them, and ethically, if you don’t feel comfortable supporting a film because of that, all the power to you. Additionally, I would continue to recommend the website Rotten Apples as an excellent database of films and TV series for easy research in this regard.