Hello, readers! Welcome to the end-of-year-list, where I consider the features and documentaries I experienced that were released in cinemas and online in 2018 and choose a few to highlight. Of course, there are still plenty of films I’ve yet to see that came out in the past 12 months— on social media I promised I’d wait until I’d seen the Nicole Kidman picture Destroyer, but really, who knows when that will arrive? I hope it’s terrific, either way.
I’ve seen a few that have opened elsewhere in Canada but haven’t yet arrived in cinemas in Halifax (such as If Beale Street Could Talk and Vox Lux )—my reviews aren’t live yet, but I’ve considered them for this list.
A few things about my Top 10 list criteria:
As always, rewatchability is a big thing for me. I might love something I’ve seen in cinemas, but if the life of the picture doesn’t invite me to experience a second time, or more, I’m less likely to choose it for my years’ best. My priorities are visual impact, characters and plot, direction, acting, and production design, in mostly that order. If the picture has a special emotional resonance, or relevance, I’ve got my eyes and heart open for that, too.
If I’ve seen a film I like at a film festival but it hasn’t yet opened locally in cinemas or isn’t available on VOD or DVD, I save it for next year. This is why Cold War, which was the best thing I saw at FIN Atlantic International Film Festival, isn’t on the list for 2018. Look for it in 2019. It’s also why A Fantastic Woman, which I watched in 2017 at the festival, appears on this list. It got a theatrical release in the spring of 2018.
Last year accompanying my Top 10 was a separate list of 10 Under-The-Radar pictures that I also thought worthy of celebration, even though those titles didn’t get much of a release or cultural profile. In this year where VOD and Netflix really upped their game, it’s a lot harder to recognize what qualifies as under-the-radar.
Instead, I’ve gathered together a separate alphabetized list, below: Honourable Mentions. These are pictures that at one time were contenders for my Top 10, a few of which might’ve crept in on a different day. At the end I save space for a few Disappointments and Stinkers.
Annihilation Alex Garland only took a suggestion of what was in the book, but still generated a unique science fiction vision. It’s something that has stayed with me since I first saw it, and I’ve warmed to it more as a result of the conversations I’ve had around what it did, and didn’t, accomplish.
BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee’s best picture in yonks.
Black PantherThe Afrofuturist epic was another solid achievement for Marvel, though somewhat let down by ropey CGI (as so many of Marvel’s films are), and killing off the series’ best and most sympathetic villain. What it proved was a superhero epic could be both popular and important.
Colette I compared Keira Knightly in this to Glenn Close in The Wife, but much preferred this based-on-true-story tale of a woman taking on the man of letters in her life. Next to The Favourite, the best period film to deliver a wallop of contemporary resonance.
First Reformed Great work from Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver fame, and further evidence to Ethan Hawke’s stature as one of American film’s great actors. He can have a hate-on for Marvel all he wants if he keeps doing work as good as this and Juliet, Naked.
Mandy Art directed up the wazoo, the film delivers a whole lot of style. Whether it also delivers substance is debatable, but it did prompt multiple think pieces on whether Nicolas Cage is the greatest actor of his generation. For its sheer balls-out, crowd-pleasing, crowd-befuddling nerve, it rules. It also offers another harrowing performance from the under-appreciated chameleon, Andrea Riseborough.
The Old Man & The Gun If Robert Redford has truly left the acting profession, this is a fine last feature for him to have chosen, a lovely tribute to his body of work as well as being a fun little bank robber movie featuring the second-best Tom Waits performance of the year. (And, yes, I enjoyed The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, but not nearly enough to have it qualify here.)
Paddington 2 The return of the marmalade-loving bear makes for an utterly uncynical family picture.
A Private War A jarring, difficult look at the human suffering related to reporting human suffering, with a terrific, vanity-free performance from Rosamund Pike.
A Simple Favor This year’s most delightful Hitchcock pastiche. Just keep casting Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick in stuff together, and I’ll be first in line to see it.
A Star Is Born A front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, and more than half the accolades are deserved. It reminds us how Hollywood routinely used to make us fall in love with characters while they fell in love with each other. Nice to see a movie do it again. Watch the earlier versions of the film (from 1937, 1954, and 1976) to see what Cooper really accomplished.
Thoroughbreds Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke shine in a teen thriller about empathy and murder, and I’ve seen nothing like it since Heathers.
Three Identical Strangers It’s not often I include documentaries on my lists, mostly because I see too few of them, but this one in particular jumped out at me this year. The trailer, which reveals the central premise—three young men discover they were separated at birth and subsequently become minor celebrities—is but the first part of a much larger conspiracy and, to some degree, tragedy, in their lives and in the lives of their families.
Tully Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman team up again for a surprising, darkly funny treatise on the sacrifices of motherhood and age.
TOP 10 OF 2018:
The summer’s best R-rated genre picture, a welcome update on dystopic, police-state themes that made Robocop a classic, now with added Artificial Intelligence. The script is what really wows, a twisty, terrific collection of set-pieces and reveals. Longtime science-fiction watchers might piece together the final denouement before it arrives, but it still delivers. Also, terrific handling of the AI-driven hand-to-hand combat scenes.
I’ve said it before, and my jaw continues to drop when I see what Marvel Studios are doing. It’s an accomplishment in managing both a massive and complex level of continuity and a mostly consistent level of blockbuster quality across the (so far) 20 features has never been done, and Avengers Infinity War is the most ambitious, most grandiose effort yet, which has totally totally paid off. Now, of course, every Hollywood studio is trying to create its own shared cinematic universe, and Marvel’s success can be measured in the rate of most of those other efforts. As far as this franchise goes, we know that the heroes must find a way to triumph in Avengers Endgame following the galactically catastrophic conclusion to Infinity War. Can they pull it off? In the meantime, let’s just take a moment to enjoy the suspense.
I’ve thought a lot about Steve McQueen’s thriller since it came out—I’ve picked it apart in my head. On one hand it’s too distractedly brainy to be entirely satisfying as a pulp heist movie—this is not a caper, after all. And yet it’s too implausibly thrilling to qualify as a straight ahead arthouse drama or political potboiler. By most measures it’s a complicated mess, but hold on: McQueen has infused his every directorial choice with intelligence, his every shot carries a thoughtful mandate. Even as I deconstruct the picture and wonder if it doesn’t meet the sum of its parts, I rave about those parts. This is a film I’m looking forward to seeing again and again.
My affection for this picture grew exponentially after I listened to the hours-long interview with Christopher McQuarrie on the Empire Magazine Podcast, the filmmaker revealing the multi-level awareness of what works for this franchise, and what they were trying to pull off to improve it. I was a little more critical after first seeing it, but as Haligonian cinephile James Covey likes to say, a film lives twice; once when you see it, and then in the hours and days afterward, and this one lived in my head. I thought they couldn’t top Rogue Nation, but they absolutely did.
Sebastian Lelio’s picture from 2018 isn’t his only on this list. The Chilean filmmaker took a gamble for his first English-language feature, adapting a novel by Naomi Alderman set in London’s orthodox Jewish community, a story of same-sex love. This could’ve gone bad in about a dozen ways—it takes courage and imagination to tell a story outside your own culture and respectfully do it justice—but the film shone, with Oscar-worthy performances from Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams that no one is talking about. If it strays into melodrama in a few moments, it’s never less than compassionate.
If there’s one backhanded lesson of this Netflix revolution we’re living through is that when it comes to films painted on a broad canvas, the small screen leaves a lot to be desired. Every film on this list should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and most will be diminished on a TV or computer screen. None more than Roma. It’s an intimate, personal story told by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron, a picture that at first wowed me with its beauty and palpable nostalgia early on, and then, later, crushed me with the human story in the final act.
For awhile this was a frontrunner for the best of 2018, though it fell a few places when I watched it a second time on the small screen. The hypnotic, visceral impact of the film in the cinema didn’t quite translate to the streaming service (Prime, as it happens), especially the final act, but I still was wowed by Lynne Ramsey’s gift for unpacking the single-man-of-action genre tropes, and with Joaquin Phoenix creating the most vulnerable, damaged, and moralistic hero in a thriller this year.
Another from Lelio, the Best Foreign Language Film for 2018. I’m not sure who said it, but if cinema is an empathy machine, A Fantastic Woman was the biggest and more effective machine in 2018, a simply essential film. Look for Lelio’s next feature opening early in 2019, an English-language remake of his 2013 drama Gloria, entitled Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore.
Was fucking gutted me to see this potent film, a clear-eyed look at loneliness in the big city, disappear from theatres after only a few weeks back in October. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Oscar nominations in the writing (Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty) and acting (Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant) in January, and the triggering of a second run. It’s so worth seeing in the cinema, where you can’t look away.
Clever, satiric Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos ejects his usual writing collaborator Efthymis Filippou and with new screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara brings home a caustic and hilarious movie about friendship, about loyalty, and about power, and the way women wield it in a world run by men. More’s the treat that the men in the story are peripheral, their foppish ways and needs are things just to be managed for tactical advantage.
The film’s storytelling was so deft, and so well performed by all three leads, it brought an experience at the movies this year that was fully unique, that met and then superseded my high expectations. That’s why it’s the top of the pile for 2018.
Disappointments and Stinkers
Book Club I’m not at all opposed to films aimed at an audience of seniors, but come on. They don’t need to be this insipid, especially with a congregation of talent like this assembled in front of the camera.
First Man Was just reading a collection of Tweets about how this film is an unsung masterpiece. Nope. It impressed as a technical exercise—all the rattling rivets, then feeling of claustrophobia, and the descent to the moon were impressive feats of production value—but as a workplace and domestic drama, which is most of the film, half of the time is spent on earth where our taciturn hero is revealed to be a terrible dad. First Man then expects us to forgive him for it because, despite personal tragedy, he does “great things.” I call bullshit on that, and instead go watch The Right Stuff again.
The Party (2017) Generally, I’m not a fan of the theatrical adaptation, especially when the filmmaker makes no effort to open up the story, to offer anything beyond the basic staging. Combine this format with a host of massively unpleasant characters, and I’d rather have my teeth pulled out through my nose.
Robin Hood (2018) A panache-free effort to franchise-build, the only good thing about it is it prompted me to go back and watch many of the other Robin Hood movies, and they’re all better.
Thanks for reading this blog. Happy New Year. In 2019, see you at the movies!