2018 in Review: The Best Films of the Year

From top: Won't You Be My Neighbor?, A Star is Born, The Favourite, American Animals, Roma,
Isle of Dogs, Suspira, BlacKkKlansman,
and Destroyer are the year's best films
It pretty much sums up 2018 in a nutshell by saying that my two favourite films of the year are the Mr. Rogers documentary about the value of kindness and the movie where Nicole Kidman mercilessly beats the shit out of everyone. What a mood.

2018 is the year of “movies we need right now” and, in many cases, the sense of timeliness often lets lesser works overshadow better films. Yet this sense also inspires my selections of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Destroyer as the best films of 2018. The films remind me of the refreshing pleasure of living in a world where kindness is the norm and what happens when we lose sight of our humanity. My top ten for the year is a mix of light and darkness, and I think it simply reflects the climate. Movies are inevitably products of the times in which one experiences them and, for me, the best films this year resonated because they either spoke to the restlessness in the environment or provided some much-needed clarity and air.

I also want to backtrack on a comment I made in the previous post. While recapping the best performances of 2018, I called the year a “so-so” one for movies. That isn’t fair. I can’t slight the movies because 2018 was also a better year for me professionally, and I really want to thank the filmmakers who made writing about film so pleasurable. There might not have been as many great movies, but the great films we had made up for the smaller field. In a year where I got to interview people like Bart Layton (American Animals), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), Cristina Gallego (Birds of Passage), Bruce Sweeney (Kingsway), Shasha Nakhai (Take Light), Michael Pearce (Beast), KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Tom Volf (Maria By Callas), among others, I don’t in any way want to diminish the joy it was covering movies this year. The best films in the field were so rewarding. Having the chance to talk with people about their work and their experiences was enlightening and gratifying, continually informing my work, my appreciation for films, and my understanding of the world.

While creating the list of the best films of the year, spot #10 flip-flopped numerous times. In fact, of all the (far too early) ballots I submitted in various polls throughout December, each one had a different film in the tenth spot. Between second screenings, second thoughts, shuffles to highlight films that weren’t accounted for elsewhere (ex: the list of best performances), and other considerations, the list was in constant flux. Those films that were on this list at some point or another, in alphabetical order, are First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk, Private Life, A Private War, and Sweet Country. Let’s call them a tie for #11.

Here are my picks for the best films of 2018:

10. BlacKkKlansman

(Dir. Spike Lee, USA)

Spike Lee’s most masterful stroke is not the inclusion of the riots in Charlottesville that arise at the very end, but in a tour-de-force monologue delivered by actor and Civil Rights Icon Harry Belafonte that bridges past and present as the great actor tells a story about Jesse Washington, who was lynched in 1916. Lee intercuts the monologue with a congregation of the KKK as the don their cloaks and hoods and unite in a chorus of “America First.” BlacKkKlansman asks audiences which side of history they want to be on as Lee cuts between parties fighting for and against change. BlacKkKlansman is the mark of a master. Lee delivers his best film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing with this wickedly funny and bold work that calls out the racism of the contemporary USA. Spike isn’t one for subtlety and he whacks the White House with a hammer by using the true story of Black cop Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man on the phone. A deadpan funny ensemble mixes the old and the new as the screenplay unabashedly appropriates the language of Donald Trump and his supporters to illustrate the lack of progress in the USA when, in 2018, its leader is an openly racist parasite showing us the very worst aspects of humanity.

(Dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy/USA)

I love Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic Suspiria for its bat-shit crazy style, music, colours, and terrible acting. That Suspiria is a product of its time though and Luca Guadagnino’s contemporary re-imagining exceeds the original without stepping on its toes. Stripped of the vibrantly cartoonish red and blue colour palettes and the iconic score, Guadagnino’s desaturated Suspiria moves inside the heads of its characters where Argento’s film was more outwardly violent. The result is a masterful dance with the devil as the girls of the Helena Markos Dance Company bust a move under the spell of a coven of scheming witches. In the vein of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Suspiria features intricately choreographed dance sequences as the camera moves elaborately with the bending and snapping of the girls of the floor, led by a captivating Dakota Johnson. The hypnotic choreography interconnects the dancers’ movements with aspects of possession and puppetry, and the dancing helps Suspiria cast us under its spell.  This artful and suspenseful masterpiece haunts with its evocative music and songs by Thom Yorke—whose work is every bit as memorable as Goblin’s music in the original—and sinister performances by Tilda Swinton and company. Suspiria is the kind of horror movie we need more these days as it preys upon the mind and evokes the sense instead of simply slathering on the blood and gore. But don’t worry—there’s plenty of that too.

(Dir. Bart Layton, UK/USA)

American Animals spins the phrase “based on a true story” on its head. This innovative and exhilarating docu-drama hybrid from the director of The Imposter masterfully straddles genres and art forms while examining a crime gone wrong. As with The Imposter, American Animals is a fast-paced and electrifyingly stylish film that puts the art of storytelling at its core as multiple speakers and perspectives create a kaleidoscopic portrait of a bizarre tale of true crime. American Animals infuses its true crime fable with the emotional weight of the consequences of the boys’ crime. Interviews with the real life subjects intersect with the dramatization of the incident. Where The Imposter left one’s jaw hanging with its twists and reveals about a French-Algerian migrant who convinced an American family he was their long lost son only to become the object of a doubly-deviant duping, American Animals uses its dialogue of drama and documentary to reflect upon the lines seemingly ordinary citizens are willing to cross. The slick dramatizations of the boys’ crimes are not at all heartless and messy escapades they turned out to be. The reflections by the men involved in the heist, as well as those of their parents and victims, create a fascinating study of the rifts between expectations and reality, potential and success, and truth and fiction. This one’s for the lost boys.

(Dir. Wes Anderson, USA)

Junk-filled cinemas.
Old dog teaches some new tricks.
Please give Wes a bone.

From the whimsical mind of Wes Anderson comes one of the year’s most ingenious films. The haiku-filled Isle of Dogs was best in show amidst a dearth of originality. Clever, inventive, and with an impeccable eye for detail, Anderson’s meticulously researched and crafted animated lark calls upon the Samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa and the aesthetics of classic Japanese art to transport audiences to a magical world of cherry blossoms and anti-feline heroics. Driven by Alexander Desplat’s imaginatively enchanting score and a cavalcade of spirited vocal performances, the stop-motion pooches of Anderson are ingenious feats of comedic timing. Above all, Anderson’s film shares a great affinity for the non-human animals who provide us with daily companionship. Isle of Dogs is a touching moral fable about the responsibility we owe to our four-legged friends.

(Dir. Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra; Colombia/Denmark/Mexico)

Birds of Passage delivers a sweeping, suspenseful, and visually awesome epic that reinvigorates the cartel genre. It’s an explosively riveting film from the team behind the Oscar-shortlisted drama Embrace of the Serpent that not only delivers on the promise of the Colombian odyssey, but also exceeds it. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra transport audiences to the land of the Wayuu clans in northern Colombia where an ambitious entrepreneur Raphayet (José Acosta) gambles on the growing international drug trade, much to the concern of the tribal matriarch, Úrsula (Carmiña Martínez in the year’s #1 supporting performance). Birds rewrites the genre of drug epics along tribal lines as alijunas, or outsider, clash with the Wayuu ways. The parable sees capitalism as the new colonialism as waves of greed and power have devastating consequences for the Wayuu as they fuel the white man’s habit at the expense of their culture. Birds of Passages injects the story of the tribe’s downfall with aspects of folklore and heritage as Indigenous customs and rituals become central to the riveting tense atmosphere. Úrsula’s superstitions pay especially close attention they to the birds that fly or wander through the family home, and a viewer’s eye should keenly note every feathered friend or foe that passes by. The birds are symbols of good luck or omens of misfortune—they’re allegorical creatures that fly together to sing an elegy for flocks that lose their way.

5. Roma

(Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico)

Watching Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma with a packed audience at TIFF, I couldn’t help but imagine that this is what it felt like to be among the audiences seeing Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura for the first time. The innovative fusion of slice-of-life realism combined with a near-experimental attention to space and time allows viewers to see corners of their own life they might overlook. Although Roma invites comparisons to such classics of international art cinema, there has never been anything like Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping yet intimate portrait of Cleo, the nanny to a Mexican family in 1971. Cuarón’s follow-up to his ambitious VFX extravaganza is exactly the kind of film one can make only after winning an Oscar and it’s a beautifully personal film told with the highest order of craftsmanship and care for its characters. The film is based on Cuarón’s own nanny and gives a portrait of domestic life that rarely makes the screen as Cleo devotes herself to the children as if they are her own. It’s also a masterfully told film that poignantly conveys how women like Cleo move almost invisibly through the cities that depend upon their work to afford privilege to a select few. Cuarón’s oft-moving camera uses elaborately composed long takes to give an immersive glimpse into the world Cleo inhabits, while the spectacular sound design and precisely choreographed shots situate audiences alongside Cleo on the streets of Mexico at a time of change. It is a film of great heartfelt humanity as Cuarón uses his gift to honour a woman who made him the man he is today.

(Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA)

The year’s best love triangle comes in the unholy trinity of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone in The Favourite. None of these performances would be complete without the other. They are deliciously excellent as the mother of all catfights ensues whilst Weisz’s Lady Sarah Churchill fends off chambermaid Abigail to be the best friend and confidant of Colman’s Queen Anne. They are a hoot as Weisz’s perfectly composed and calculated cunning contrasts with Stone’s vulgar Americanness, while Colman’s mercurial mood swings constantly have one shifting allegiance between the players as favour changes direction like the wind. It helps, too, that the actors have the year’s best screenplay at their disposal with some ingeniously penned dialogue that mixes history with anachronisms and spins costume drama convention on its head. Director Yorgos Lanthimos masterfully handles tone and perspective to create a darkly funny satire that honours the meticulous research and attention to detail in the screenplay yet gives the middle finger to stuffy period dramas and prestige Brit pics. The Favourite is also a deliciously funny smorgasbord of food-on-film hijinks as the men of court race ducks or throw oranges at one another while Queen Anne eats cake until she pukes. There will be food fit for a queen on Oscar night.

(Dir. Bradley Cooper, USA)

The only fault I can raise against A Star is Born is that it’s not original. It might be the fourth rendition of a well-trodden classic (whose plot and themes far doubtlessly inspired even more films), but it deserves to go down as the definitive version of A Star is Born. This take on the classic introduces two born talents, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, in lights we haven’t seen them before. Cooper proves to be a natural director with a perfectly honed eye for the cinema, a great sense of how to set up a scene and play it out to its full potential. His directorial debut is even more impressive considering he does double duty not only while starring in the film, but also while delivering the richest and most Oscar-worthy performance of his career. Cooper finds his best co-star since Jennifer Lawrence in Lady Gaga, who has a magnetic presence with the camera and knows how to work the dramatic power of a musical performance to ensure that every note and word of each song hits the highest note possible. Breakthrough performances are rarely as good as this one is. A star is born in Lady Gaga, who deserves to be taken seriously as an actor. Even established actors could hardly claim to outdo performances by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand—three of the best actors of all time—yet Gaga eclipses them all in her first screen credit. A Star is Born is beautiful music and a note-perfect anthem to love found and lost.

2. Destroyer

(Dir. Karyn Kusama, USA)

Nicole Kidman easily gives the performance of the year in Destroyer. She has never taken herself to such dark territory and disappeared so terrifyingly beneath the skin of a character. Her fearless work as Erin Bell in this L.A. noir proves that protagonists don’t have to be “likable” in order to be great or interesting. Seeing Kidman play a woman who is bad to the bone and seemingly void of mercy is jarring, but this dynamic makes Destroyer so captivating as Bell goes on a brutal rampage of revenge with hopes of setting her soul free. Every frame of Destroyer pulses with brooding, simmering rage as Kidman makes Bell a powder keg of wrathful, unforgiving fury. In the hands of director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body), Destroyer is a dark and violent tale about the consequences that arise when one forgets one’s own humanity. The script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi dexterously plays with time and chronology as the clock ticks on Erin’s own fate as she forges ahead on a death wish, intent on settling old scores at any cost. Kusama envelopes Erin’s vendetta in the darkness and grittiness of Los Angeles’s streetscapes where coyotes and predators prowl on the most vulnerable citizens, but the film culminates with unexpected catharsis as Bell vows to prepare her relationship with her daughter while settling old scores. The scene where Kidman reconnects with her daughter and reflects upon her mistakes is a stirring reminder that people are innately good—they just do bad things when the right temptation arises.

And the best film of 2018 is...

(Dir. Morgan Neville, USA)

A fitting bookend to BlacKkKlansman on the list of 2018’s best films, Morgan Neville’s beautifully crafted Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the most effective and quietly political film of the year. Its portrait of square children’s television icon Fred Rogers reminds audiences of a time when kindness was the status quo. Neville draws upon snippets from an extensive range of archival material to pay tribute to the man who was the first teacher for generations of children. The images of Mister Rogers Neighborhood illustrate how the man in the folksy sweater taught America’s youngest to grow up with open minds, empathy, and tolerance. The footage is carefully selected to reflect a contrast with the leaders of today, most notably an all-too funny snippet where the tyrannical puppet King Friday XIII builds a border wall around his kingdom, and Neville’s deceptively simple analysis of Rogers’ career asks viewers what kind of world they want to create for others. Equally strong are the new interviews that Neville conducts with Rogers’ widow Joanne, his surviving collaborators, and other people he inspired.

These interviews feature direct addresses that have the subjects speak to the viewers with an eye-to-eye relationship. The result reminds viewers of the soothing value of connection and the concern that as our world becomes increasingly impersonal with technology and social media, an art of humanity is lost as we often forget that there is another person on the receiving end of our words. For all the talk about the social impact of documentaries, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? truly is the one film that can change the world. Too few documentaries present a problem to which audiences can easily take the first step towards finding the solution. Neville’s doc asks us to take a lesson from Mr. Rogers and simply treat our neighbours with the same respect we expect and deserve from them in return.

Best unreleased films or best films coming soon in 2019: Blind Spot, Gloria Bell, Heartbound, HerSmell, Hotel Mumbai, The Innocent, Kingsway, Wildlife.

Also in 2018 in Review:

Thank you to all the editors, fellow writers, filmmakers, publicists, festival programmers, and other colleagues for their continued support. I really enjoyed working with you this year and I appreciate your efforts in facilitating coverage and helping this movie lover share his passion with anyone willing to read!

Happy New Year!