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

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


20

Suspiria

Dir. Luca Guadagnino

[Produzioni Atlas Consorziate]


In 1980, during Italy’s “years of lead,” Bologna Station, built in neoclassical style during the Fascist era, was bombed by neofascist terrorists — 85 died. Today, despite the coffee-drinking herds pouring through it, the station retains a bleak and melancholy atmosphere. Luca Guadagnino captured something of this in his remake of Suspiria. Set in the German Autumn of 1977 (the release date of the original), the poisonous and paranoid atmosphere of Cold War Berlin, when Leftists turned to violence in the face of failed denazification and a conservative establishment, bubbled in the background. To its cold occult decadence, the film added stylized and unforgettable body horror. The whole built to an over-the-top conclusion, which was perfect both as a nod to the campiness of the original (and the giallo genre) and because Guadagnino’s deft melding of physical and emotional horror was a slow-burn that demanded combustion. It was a wyrd companion piece to surreal works grappling and playing with similar legacies, from Bruce LaBruce’s The Raspberry Reich (a.k.a. The Revolution Is My Boyfriend) to Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany. The personal was also political: the original was a masterpiece of style and ambiance marred by subtle misogyny, but in Guadagnino’s vision, this became an exploration of the fraught heat and darkness of dynamics between women in their exercise of power and community. Dakota Johnson lacked fire in the belly, as did Thom Yorke’s anaemic soundtrack, but a subplot some thought needless served up the film’s most appalling moment: a sickening portrayal of the pain of lost love regained, then once more ripped away with casual malice. This was more than a memorial suspiria; it was a wholly worthy rebirth of the Mater Suspiriorum.


19

Lazzaro Felice

Dir. Alice Rohrwacher

[Netflix]


Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature, the Cannes-celebrated Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro), was built on the many tensions it engendered &mdash namely, between a humanistic premise and the layers of dejection it was buried underneath, the timeless aspirations of a fable and a cynically bitter view of modernity, and the rustic realism of its form and the story’s fantastic detours. The film followed the threadline that, like the wolf, men will exploit men in all spaces, times, levels, and situations: A Marquise keeps a group of peasants working for her in near slavery; they in turn abuse and overwork the titular Lazzaro, a young peasant whose innocence and goodness paint him into the archetype of the “holy fool.” He roams through the story in a perplexity recalling the Christ-like dispossessed of classic Italian cinema. His mission on this earth, it would seem, is to prove that even the lowest of the low, the wicked and the perverse, are capable of gestures of kindness. How enduring, truthful, and integral these were to their characters, to the essence of their humanity, was something Lazzaro must discover at his own expense, paying ever higher costs in this beguiling yet disturbingly recognizable modern parable.


18

Night Is Short, Walk On Girl

Dir. Masaaki Yuasa

[Toho]


You wake up after a long night out. You aren’t hungover at all — it’s a miracle, truly a miracle. What do you remember from last night? Not names, certainly. Maybe not even places. It’s all like a strange fairytale, one of glowing neon and drinks that tasted better because you didn’t pay for them, of hilarious characters and absurd triumphs. Did that bouncer really let you in, even though you were $9 short of cover? You feel fantastic. This feeling was alive in Night Is Short, Walk On Girl: an insensible, overwhelmingly jubilant, and optimistic perspective on “a night on the town.” Pulling trade tactics from films like Amélie, El Futuro, and A Town Called Panic, the movie was full of humor, bliss, and no pulled punches (friendship punches or not) when it came to devilish winks. With not a single frame lacking in humor or joy, the film left us feeling like hangovers are something we’ve never experienced, like each night is full of mystery and romance, like our next big moment is waiting just around the corner. Perhaps we’ll make this a big weekend — go out on Friday and Saturday? — who knows…


17

If Beale Street Could Talk

Dir. Barry Jenkins

[Annapurna]


Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel was perhaps the most aesthetically accomplished and jaw-droppingly beautiful American film in years. It’s difficult to avoid hyperbole or rampant name-checking when confronted with an opening crane shot and a sumptuous autumnal wardrobe straight out of Douglas Sirk, or with a bracingly musical, time-shifting sense of montage that conjured numerous titans of contemporary Asian cinema, or with a swelling score by Nicholas Britell that exquisitely captured the film’s oscillating currents of unabashed romanticism and great melancholy. Despite the film’s sweeping, sexy, earnest depiction of the bond between pregnant teenage shopgirl Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), a sculptor in jail accused of rape, Jenkins’s adaptation was clear-eyed and anguished about how they have to navigate lives of subjugation, a theme brought to the fore in alternately haunted and agonized performances by Brian Tyree Henry and Regina King. As such, Jenkins remade Baldwin in his image, trying with all his might to conquer fury with love.


16

Burning

Dir. Lee Chang-dong

[CGV]


Deep under the delicate melodrama of a love triangle, the noir-ish mystery of a disappearing woman, and the moody male rivalry that plays out in its final act, Burning was charged with the same currents that power our defining social divisions: rural against urban, men against women, working class against dubious wealth, connected against isolated. Director Lee Chang-dong’s comeback thriller was a Trojan horse stocked heavy with political anguish, a dense, angular ballet of themes erupting just out of sight under a sensitive character drama that forced three young people of clashing identity and privilege into a pressured environment of overlapping interests and dark secrets. What stood out about Burning was how it probed not these ideological struggles themselves, but the existential uncertainty they inspire, as well as the insidious psychological toll they take on the individual. In all its discomfort and beauty — aided by subtle performances and distinctive cinematography — Burning served as both a careful portrait of a quietly revolutionizing South Korea and an uneasy study of the antagonisms and paranoia gradually tyrannizing the youth of today’s globally tainted age.


15

Madeline’s Madeline

Dir. Josephine Decker

[Oscilloscope]


From the very start, Madeline, and by extension the audience, was told that performance is not identity, that the emotions an actor renders are borrowed from someone else. This warning was not heeded. We met the eponymous 16-year-old (Helena Howard) as she shuffled through roles: a cat, an actress, a daughter, a sea turtle, an assailant, a pig on the run, a prisoner, a confused young woman of mixed race. Some of these identities played out on the stage of her experimental performance troupe, managed by maternal — and directorial — surrogate Evangeline (Molly Parker), though they inevitably bled through to her “real” life and back onto the stage, forming a tight, indiscernible tangle as this feedback loop began to dominate the production. Driven by the tension between the neurotic, controlling impulses of her mother Regina (Miranda July) and the haphazard psychic excavation spearheaded by Evangeline, the film, cut to the rhythms of a psychological thriller and as improvised as the troupe’s performances, unreeled with disorienting, balletic, colorful, and oftentimes invasive cinematography. Madeline’s Madeline was a complex film of blurred and appropriated identities, one concerned, reflexively (as it is in some sense a retelling of how Decker and Howard came to collaborate and make this very film), with self-authorship, self-ownership, and the power dynamics inherent in representation. “I’m really interested in people who are out of control of their circumstances,” stated Evangeline at a dinner party. But what do we owe these lenders of emotion and what does it mean to tell a story that is not ours? As we move through psychic strata leaving our own fingerprints everywhere, inhabit or direct bodies that look and experience differently than our own, what are our responsibilities? Where is the ethic of storytelling? Of course, no film could satisfactorily answer such questions, but Madeline’s Madeline grappled with them in a dense, dizzying, hyper-expressive, sometimes frustrating, and self-castigating manner that spoke to the immense trust between actor and director.


14

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman

[Sony Pictures Releasing]


In an arena that seems to be getting more overstuffed with each passing year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse surprised us just by being the most fun superhero movie we’ve seen in ages. From the second it revved its engines, Into the Spider-Verse hit a breakneck speed as exhilarating as a web-slinging joyride through the city, its mesmerizing 2D/3D graphics illustrating each thought, sound effect, and surreal set piece with an eye-popping neon panache. Each character was sketched with just the right mix of sympathy and self-awareness, whether it was our immediately relatable hero Miles Morales, the cynical, sweatpant-clad Peter B. Parker, or the wounded, monstrously gargantuan Kingpin. Even down to the music, Into the Spider-Verse kept its pace relentlessly fresh, washing us in waves of Swae Lee and Juice WRLD as we journeyed across alternate Spider-Man histories and dimensions in search of a way to once again save the world from destruction. It all somehow added up to a movie as unexpected and experimental as it was unabashedly pop — a classic, trope-skidding superhero tale that you’ve got to see to believe.


13

BlacKkKlansman

Dir. Spike Lee

[Focus Features]


In BlacKkKlansman, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was a man caught between two worlds. Too black to be taken seriously as a police officer, too loyal to his duties as a police officer to be taken seriously as a proponent of Black Power. Naturally, Stallworth did what anyone would do in this situation: become the first black detective in Colorado Springs, infiltrate his local Ku Klux Klan chapter by posing as a disgruntled white supremacist on the phone, enlist his Jewish colleague (Adam Driver) to pose as him at Klan meetings, catfish David Duke himself, and foil a deadly bomb plot. The KKK, as portrayed in this Spike Lee Joint, could be best described as a gang of bumbling idiots. Just literal morons who blow themselves up. If the events of the film weren’t based on a true story, they would seem almost too absurd to be true. As racism today threatens to tear the country apart from the inside, BlacKkKlansman did all it could to call out white supremacists and serve them a modicum of justice. But the film also recognized just how dangerous the ideas of these people can be and how imperative it is to keep fighting to bring them down.


12

Annihilation

Dir. Alex Garland

[Paramount/Netflix]


There is a common fundamental misconception that Nirvana is either a place, like Heaven, or a state or period, like Peace. In reality, Nirvana means something like “blowing out” or “extinguishing.” Attaining Nirvana, then, isn’t an attainment at all, because it isn’t a summit or a destination or really even a “thing.” It is not, however, synonymous with Annihilation, but just as Gravity housed symbols that could be appreciated as “Buddhist,” Annihilation beckoned us into life’s terrifying glimmer of impartial consequence so that we could assess our way out of it. In The Shimmer, karma accrued, leaving behind not moral threads, but matter in forms as disparate as flowering corpses and a bear made of screams. Locating Buddhist imagery in film is often a sign of clumsy analysis, but witnessing these women worn by this violence of culmination grapple with their own threads of being was like witnessing a hierophany, a horrifying refraction of sacred DNA in a profane plane. It’s enough of a reminder of why we even started making existential art. Awfulness irrupted through Annihilation in that old-school religious studies sense, because it refracted what many of us associate with being human: self-destruction. And whether or not we could explain what we saw when we faced ourselves in that lighthouse, we left changed in a way that only prayer or film could catalyze.


11

You Were Never Really Here

Dir. Lynne Ramsay

[Amazon]


Adapting a book by Jonathan Ames, writer/director Lynne Ramsay upends the thriller/character study by making a brilliant film about violence without showing the actual violence onscreen. It was a choice born of necessity — the filmmaker didn’t feel comfortable shooting action sequences — but it was completely within the spirit of this bold and haunting look at a man (Joaquin Phoenix) whose sole gift of violence and pain followed him like a heavy shadow. By focusing more on the consequences of violence that weighed deeply on him as he navigated a path of righteousness, Ramsay depicted a compromised world, shattered long ago by a trauma that reverberated louder with every new transgression. The film was angry, mournful, and frightening, but it also pierced through the oppressive darkness without sugarcoating the ordeal. Propelled by Jonny Greenwood’s incredible score, You Were Never Really Here was a gorgeous movie that waded into bleak territory without feeling like tragedy porn, a beautiful tale — even amongst the grotesque — about the inherent need for salvation that drives us forward.

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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