Favorite 25 Films of 2018 From Cageian phantasmagoria & 18th-century mischief to a world-weary Western and a stolen Singaporean road movie

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Once upon a time, Derek Smith wrote: “2017 was a year endured rather than lived.” But all due respect to the past, because here we are creeping into this new 2019 and things are so much better than we thought they’d be!

True, the year probably felt like 37 years or whatever removed from Rick Deckard’s squared-off tie and malfunctioning memory. And truth be told, the political crisis unfolding in the gray hallways might seem more honest if it resembled the light-starved, gnarled noir of Blade Runner. At least Schwarzenegger and The Running Man promised that 2019’s only choice would be “hard time or prime time,” even if its presentation of a neon capital, corporate-owned world seemed, you know, subtle. And for all the (dead) kids in cages and bodies bleeding out on street corners here and abroad, Michael Bay and The Island had a perfectly-drooped Buscemi diagnosing our humanist crisis: “I mean, you’re not human. I mean, you’re human, but you’re not real. You’re not a real person, like me.”

A lot of people were told they weren’t humans in 2018. This isn’t a writerly evasion or poetic epithet designed to elicit righteous ire/compel you to read another year-end list. Because what else could you call the concentrated attempt by some humans to discourage the freedoms of other humans? Our narrative didn’t turn science-fiction to let us off the hook: these non-humans weren’t clones or replicants or estranged Atlantean denizens returning to claim their kingly right. They just weren’t human enough (or the right kind of human) to matter in the eyes of louder, more powerful humans. All of our past’s proposed images of our worst futures pale in comparison to this denial of basic humanity that we see out our windows.

It is unsurprising, then, that cinema, our most volatile cultural mirror, began to show the stretch and strain in its images of our species. But what is surprising is that cinema in 2018 retained nuance and compassion as it mediated the cruelties and depravities of its age. Unlike this slab of prose, movies in 2018 moved beyond mediating good and evil in simple, monolithic terms. They attempted to sketch the boundaries of real freedom in an unjust world (BlaKkKlansman). They investigated, more acutely than ever before, the responsibilities of what it meant to keep (Shirkers) and tell (Madeline’s Madeline) another human’s story (If Beale Street Could Talk), especially in remembrance (Roma). They presented distorted genealogies (Hereditary) and fisheye-lens histories (The Favourite) to track the human body’s motion (Suspiria) in and out of comradeship (Support the Girls) and trauma (Burning). In 2018, we hurled our betrayed humanities up against foreign corpses (Zama), scorched country (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), alien twins (Annihilation), and incongruent voices (Sorry to Bother You). We began to see, in everything, something like a way through the darkness. Why else keep watching the past (The Other Side of the Wind) if not to plot something we’d never imagined before (The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl)?

Our moving images in 2018 proposed that real love (Eighth Grade) and genuine care (Lazzaro Felice) could stretch impossibly across time to add up to a life steeped in both nuance and compassion (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). Our love would not look the same (Leave No Trace) nor could it resound in strictly-feasible tones (Mandy), but we would recognize its absence; we could see that sometimes humanness looks like something we’ve never seen before (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).

More than anything, as one derelict theory proposed, “Through the negative you could see the real, inner, demonic quality of the light.” In laying the responsibilities of the filmmaker and artist at the feet of a murderer, The House That Jack Built came perilously close to endorsing our worst demons. Those demons shook and raged and hissed at us, urging us to give in to despair and make a world in their image. How did we let it stand? Thomas Merton was a central figure in a figurative, feral lens for our year, and he wrote that “despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.” To levy our humanity so close to inhumanness, suggesting that our better angels are distortions, is dangerous. To know, as these 25 films know, that there can be nothing without despair until there is love is to actually be human. To look, as we did, through our ruinous year and resist the despairs of all our oppressors and lowest urges, to shout, in image and montage and light and shadow, that this is how I deny you is to attain, beyond our humanity and into the future, a new kind of prayer.



Dir. Alfonso Cuarón


Roma was Alfonso Cuarón’s excursion into simplicity, a self-imposed challenge that drew back from his earlier, more extravagant films. Cuarón told his simple allegory in a monochrome treatment, but while wearing multiple hats — he also produced, shot, and edited the film. The choice to go black and white not only focused the elements of filmmaking to its barest essentials, but it also emphasized its nostalgic underpinnings. Though it made use of elaborate staging for its more chaotic events, Roma paradoxically found fascination in the quotidian and the mundane. The film was dedicated to the maid that the Cuarón’s family employed when he was a child — realized as the previously unknown Yalitza Aparicio, who brought an indelible humanity to her role — but the story itself was secondary. It was presented more as a series of tableaus, culminating in a climactic sequence at the beach. Here, Cuarón’s camera lingered, unedited, in a harrowing scene that illustrated Aparicio’s undying devotion to the family and revealed the film’s true heart.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Dir. Morgan Neville

[Focus Features]

With no dirt to dig up on his subject, director Morgan Neville tended to accent the blue-tinged notes heard throughout the Neighborhood in his Fred Rogers documentary. The director’s seamless cardigan scene-weaving stitched together instances of cluster chords and doubting puppets into a portrait of vulnerability that reinforced one of Rogers’s core motifs: It takes a person, not a hero, to protect children. Not a pie-in-the-face kind of guy, we watched Fred McFeely Rogers ponder in the tall grass in between changing shoes and tackling hard topics like grief, death, and terrorism. Demonstrations of his honesty, inclusivity, kindness, patience, listening skills, and unconditional love revealed the subject as the archetype for a timeless paternal figure. Although his ministry athwart sensationalism took place in the era of broadcast television, we imagined that any younger generation in the history of the world could connect with and feel empowered by his carefully worded and well-tempered mission.


Leave No Trace

Dir. Debra Granik

[Bleecker Street]

Few directors are as curious about or sensitive to alternative modes of existence as Debra Granik, who followed Winter’s Bone and the documentary Stray Dog with this tale of a father and daughter willfully attempting to live off the grid in the present-day Pacific Northwest. Leave No Trace was quiet and deliberate, but not remotely uneventful: Granik showed Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) moving through a handful of makeshift, scrappy, and industrialized communities. With minimal embellishments, Granik made each change of scenery feel at once seismic and utterly authentic. Moreover, she guided her two lead actors through agonizing psychological arcs without a whiff of cliché, as a daughter gradually discovered that her life and well-being will be enriched by community, while her PTSD-afflicted father confronted the fact that he can’t abide by the obligations and niceties of modern civilization. Granik’s film had a Bressonian bleakness, but it was entirely heartfelt and so convincing in its particulars that it couldn’t help but realign our sense of the world.


Support the Girls

Dir. Andrew Bujalski

[Magnolia Pictures]

Your workdays don’t end with you back home ready to decompress; they are your back-home and your decompress. Maybe you slept or something like that (scrolled? drank? had a crisis?), but you aren’t really awake till the first table is seated, and you better leave everything else at the door (lol). Your customers are guests, your wage is nil, and your smile is forced by uninvisible hands. Your coworkers are either No Face or your own flesh and blood, the only ones keeping your head from falling off and bursting into flame at the foot of the heat lamp. They get it! They get you. Or they get the gist, which is about as much of you as you get anyway. Because if you actually stopped to think about… No need to pretend: You hate this place, and you find yourself doing anything for it, for each other, because you all know the conditions are absolutely fucked and fuck that. Your favorite regular is here; you’re in a good mood for some reason. You act certifiable, you scream, you screw your head back on. The POS is down. You’re short. You make it. Your coworker says, “[That manager] can suck my dick.” Or, “I am going to murder this couple.” Or, “Y’all come back now!” You loved her for that. This movie loved her for that, through all of it, and it loved you too. A double whammy: Regina Hall et al. returned the workday to life itself and transformed working class unity into grace (laughter), something we could use. You have nothing to lose.


Eighth Grade

Dir. Bo Burnham


In an interview with NPR, former YouTube star Bo Burnham said he wanted to make a story about the internet and how it feels to be alive right now. OK, sure, he succeeded in doing that by having 13-year-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) create and upload vlog entries on how to best navigate the social anxieties of being a young teen. However, by the end of the film, what this angle really emphasized with great nuance (perhaps unintentionally?) is that children of every generation — regardless of the gap — suffer from the same anxieties, sexual insecurities, and self-blame. Identity has always been a fluid performance; the internet has simply made it more permanent. To star a young girl currently living the same age IRL that she portrays brilliantly in the film is in large part what made Eighth Grade not only one of our favorite films of 2018, but also one of the most genuine coming-of-age films, period. This casting decision made it impossible for Burnham to project his experiences and memories onto the story, which fortunately meant it was not biographical or about nostalgia. Rather, Eighth Grade was simply a present-day story about a complex experience that has always transcended the outlets through which they’ve been mediated.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series

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