I don’t usually say this, but I really feel fortunate to have seen so many great films this year. With the stresses of work, family, and weekly calamities, the unfortunate reality is that I often end up bemoaning the lack of new releases I have time to see. Obviously, being a critic helps. Five of the films on this list I reviewed. Four are in the top five. The resounding pattern this year is race relations, and three of the films here center around the topic. Others, such as The Hate U Give, are among those that I have yet to see (although I did read and thoroughly enjoy the book). The progressivism comes not unexpectedly, due to the stranglehold of bigotry infecting politics and a rise in extremist hate groups. Much of the films have been bleak, but they also inspire hope, because it shows that there are still those willing to confront the world’s problems, even in controversial ways when necessary. Luckily, these kinds of statements go hand in hand with original, well crafted cinematic quality. Therefore, this has been an exceptionally strong year for socially important and culturally significant films. One that I hope will remain in the public consciousness.
There came a certain point in my life where I reluctantly had to admit to being a bit of a horror-movie geek. The genre has never been about gratuitous violence and nudity for me. Nor have I been one to set foot in the fan culture, with signed Dawn of the Dead posters and Nightmare on Elm Street memorabilia filling my bedroom. Instead, I find myself drawn to the visceral feeling of fear which cinema can generate more faithfully than other media, and how the universal and transcendent can be revealed by doing so. Director Ari Aster uses his craft to sustain an atmosphere of dread and paranoia throughout, but also creates lone images which inherently reach to the core of horror. Facial expressions, movements, and stagings range from unsettling to outright ghastly. Hereditary is well made, but its manner and precision shrouds a much more feral, instinctual evil. Even the choice of music for the end credits, Judy Collins’s version of “Both Sides Now”, betrays a certain sincerity and glee in the macabre, beyond that of simple irony (although ironic music choices in films, admittedly, always get me). That feeling of delight in the song defies expectations, sure, but also best illuminates what’s so disturbing about Hereditary. Rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air. Multiple beheadings and possessed children. Hereditary looks at clouds that way.
- The Favourite
Hereditary speaks to me. It’s what I want in a film, not just on a horror level but in the sense that cinema has the capability to achieve ecstatic, sometimes inexpressible truths and Hereditary successfully did that for me and resonated intimately. If not for it, The Favourite would have made Yorgos Lanthimos’s film my #1 for the third year in a row. As I have been a fan of his since the release of Dogtooth in 2009, I felt especially taken with The Favorite, as it deviates from a pattern I’ve known him so far to staunchly maintain. And yet, shaking up his style did not feel like it came at any sacrifice. The toxicity of social control arose stronger than ever, just under a much prettier and more fanciful banner. Not all directors succeed when they step out of their element. Not only did Lanthimos meet the challenge, but he went above and beyond.
Brutal, vivid, tender, humourous, and tragic, BlacKkKlansman stands out as the most well-rounded film of the year, and one of Spike Lee’s best, acting as a spiritual successor to his powerhouse Malcolm X in 1996. With father and son Denzel and John David Washington leading both films, the parallel messages and execution comes perfectly orchestrated. Documentary footage at the end of both snatches us out of the safety of film narrative and subjects us to the real image that, up until now, we had only seen through the mirror of the big screen. The Charlottesville footage, in particular, is devastating, chaotic, and unrestrained. Not like the well directed action scenes you were enjoying before. To see Topher Grace’s pitiful David Duke being dressed down near the end, only to see the real David Duke back on his platform and rallying white supremacists while, some blocks away, a car rams into hundreds of protestors, is like waking up from a fun dream and into a grim reality. Lee knows the placating power of cinema but also knows its powers of aggravation.
- If Beale Street Could Talk
I had trouble deciding if this would come before or after BlacKkKlansman, but ultimately decided on the latter in another case of admiration versus personal connection. However, that shouldn’t imply a sort of impersonal approval, since If Beale Street Could Talk was far from impersonal. It did exceed the others by, perhaps, being the coziest film of the year, full of lush scenery and smooth, rhythmic editing. The lyrical quality of Barry Jenkins’s films never fails to swaddle the viewer in a dreamy, Wong Kar Wai realm of rumination and evocative imagery. Likewise, James Baldwin’s story acts as the perfect backbone for a story as melancholy and bittersweet as this. Jenkins has the perfect sensibility to bring his resplendent literary voice to life. Vibrantly brooding and jazzy, this may be one of the best films to catch in the theater. Like a Mark Rothko painting, you can’t really appreciate the magnitude of color by looking at a shrunk reproduction. The real thing has no substitute.
- You Were Never Really Here
Joaquin Phoenix’s intense and stormy performance and Ramsay’s smart direction yield a riveting and powerful genre experiment, reaching deep into Hitchcock’s mouth and turning him inside out. Her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, came out in 2011 and established her as a consummate female filmmaker with a profound sense of empathy as well as toughness and grit. She can delve into worlds entirely different than her own, including the masculine psyche. Her experimentation with the revenge genre adds a refreshing angle that likely wouldn’t have come from anyone else, as Phoenix’s tortured mercenary both deepens and subverts the male savior and antihero archetype into a more humane, fragmentary figure.
- First Reformed
Influenced by Robert Bresson’s spiritual work from an early age, Paul Schrader has long shaped actors after the French auteur’s trademark isolated protagonists. The most obvious allusion, here, would be Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, injecting Claude Laydu’s idealistic and downtrodden clergyman into Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke. Additionally, Schrader borrows from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, the story of a disenchanted priest who advises a troubled man with apocalyptic fears at the behest of the man’s wife. This premise is nearly copied exactly, but has a different permutation. The film holds both ideological queries and a transcendental quality, while also ratcheting up compelling emotional drama and suspense. If First Reformed stands out among the other films on this list, it’s due to the much talked about and divisive ending. Ambiguity never bothers me in its own right, and so I found the film wholly satisfying and cathartic in total, and one I’m eager to revisit.
- Happy End
While Happy End does not reach the heights of distress and opaqueness of Michael Haneke’s more infamous films (like Caché or Funny Games), there still exists within it a provocative, challenging sense of stillness. What makes Haneke a radical filmmaker is not a countercultural style or particularly unconventional stories, but the extreme sparing of illustration and embellishment. There’s no music, no voiceover, practically no montage to guide you through the relationships of events, no camera moves to tell you where to look, and no expressionistic lighting to tell you how to feel. Haneke tells stories using negative space. He shows you a vase so that you might see the profiles on either side of it. He also stays topical in peculiar ways political, cultural and sociological. Key scenes come from the point of view of a smartphone, others a laptop screen. Subtly popping up in the background of this vague bourgeois family turbulence, Muslim refugees act out an even more invisible drama. While Haneke has and hopefully will continue to make even more beautiful, frustrating, haunting work, he consistently remains a provocateur of the rarest kind.
Broadway star Daveed Diggs plays Colin, a black mover on probation who witnesses a police shooting of an unarmed black man, and childhood friend Rafael Casal plays Miles, a father and husband and ruffian whose skin color lets him fly under the radar. Due to trauma from the police shooting and the growing fear of Oakland becoming more gentrified and more policed, Colin struggles to resume his old life bouncing around from assignment to assignment with Miles, occasionally stopping to hawk their wares and start a beatdown with an oblivious hipster. Diggs and Casal are masters of tone, balancing hilarious antics and quotable dialogue with nightmarish dream sequences and heart stopping plot turns. Most impressively, the study of these two characters eloquently articulates hard-to-express and harder-to-accept truths about race. There have been stories on black imprisonment and white supremacy, but Blindspotting zooms in a little farther to examine more intimate and nuanced race relations that still, nevertheless, speak to a large issue.
- The Rider
Low-key character studies of this kind don’t often grab me, but an undeniable magnetism exists in Brady Corbet’s sensitive, natural performance. Taking place in the badlands of South Dakota, director Chloe Zhao has no trouble capturing beauty. The photographic potential nearly qualifies as automatic. The rest of the cast, Brady’s real friends and family, complete the picture in a thoroughly authentic way, drawing from personal experiences and truly held emotions. In some ways, The Rider is a documentary, depicting a lesser known walk of life and humanizing the members of a small and particular demographic (not only westerners and rural folks, but Lakota Sioux descendants, as well). When it comes to more experimental documentaries, The Rider stands even closer, as the near indistinguishability between actor and character represents a reenactment and a healing, one that can’t be viewed without creating a stirring sense of compassion.
- Bisbee ‘17
Like Joshua Oppenheimer did in The Act of Killing, Greene collaborates with locals to reenact a past atrocity. While mainly an examination of the past and its current political echoes through reenactments and a film within a film, Bisbee ‘17 incorporates several more layers to resonate on the individual and societal level. We meet politicians, defenders of history, condemners of history, and rival folks from the nearby Tombstone, Arizona. Local artists show us their work on the subject and fleeting individuals invite us into their home so that we not only hear their perspectives but become informed by the context of them. All of this culminates in an electric climax where the people of Bisbee find themselves performing an amalgam of public commemoration, community art, and a variant of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The multifaceted approach acts as a sort of illustration and containment device, capturing subjectives and objectives in a variety of areas so as to cover a subject from all angles while tying it together with a cohesive thread. You don’t often get such a wide intersection of art, history, and present reality.
2018 is not yet over. Judging by the amount of remarkable films yet to viewed, my 2018 in film may just keep going for the next few months! | Nic Champion