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


10

Hereditary

Dir. Ari Aster

[A24]


Hereditary, the first feature from writer-director Ari Aster was more than just the spiritual descendant of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Psycho. It was not just the latest addition to the A24 family of slow-building, well-crafted horror films. Hereditary was about the unavoidable legacies that our families leave us, and for this it bore an uncanny resemblance to the bleak family dramas of Bergman or Haneke. Annie (played by Toni Collette in a career performance) said and did unforgivable things to her son and husband (Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne), and we squirmed. First out of angst, then disgust, and finally fear. And after being emotionally worn down with 90 minutes of this, the film fully committed to its supernatural heritage and delivered some of the best frights of the year. We loved it because it was an assured first step from a new director and a further commitment to excellence from an exciting young distribution company. We loved it because if the first two-thirds were painful to watch, then the last third offered us the voyeuristic release of a horror film. But most of all, we loved it because it married the visceral and the cerebral, giving birth to an unholy experience that stuck with us, like a tick.


09

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

[Annapurna]


The last two decades have had their share, but 2018 was a proper trifecta of spirited, inventive Westerns. Audiard’s Sister’s Brothers was the bitter pill rendered unexpectedly sweeter; Damsel was a triumphant anti-romance (a nice thematic companion piece to 2015’s Slow West); and this anthology gave us a perfectly-blended fun, dark, and heartbreaking (namely the beautiful, merciless “Meal Ticket” segment) genre classic. The tone shifted wildly, well heralded by the eponymous opening tale (cartoonishly musical and silly, but cleverly undermined with graphic violence and grim meta-commentary). We had our requisite rich characterization native to a Coen Bros. film, with strong turns from Zoe Kazan, Stephen Root (natch), Harry Melling, Grainger (“DOG HOLES!”) Hines, and Chelcie Ross, for a start (Brendan Gleeson almost does “The Unfortunate Rake” as well as Ian McShane, but not quite). But there was also a curious, world-weary current fusing the episodes, one of exhausted sadness and a dread-dodging sort of hindsight. Life and its lore as a turgid tangle we’re a little too anxious to leave behind. A long goodbye to the “the meanness in the used to be.”


08

The Other Side of the Wind

Dir. Orson Welles

[Netflix]


For all the excitement that it stirred, there was a fear among cinephiles that Orson Welles’s final film, completed 33 years after his death, wouldn’t live up to the story of its own production. These fears were unfounded. Suffused with moments of staggering brilliance, The Other Side of the Wind was a dense, multivalent, sometimes maddening film, one that we are lucky to have in any form. Much like Henri-George’s Clouzot’s Le Prisonniere (and its ill-fated precursor Inferno), The Other Side of the Wind evidenced a master filmmaker pushing himself in his late period to fully explore the visual representation of aberrant psychology through abstraction, deconstruction, and exaggeration. Both Clouzot and Welles amplified color to impressionistic, oversaturated heights, but whereas Clouzot’s experimentation was primarily formal, Welles upended narrative, creating a mise en abyme that was at once hagiography and self-assassination. Even what was clearly intended as pastiche (Hannaford’s film, also titled The Other Side of the Wind, was essentially the De Düva of Antonioni’s then-recent work) was utterly riveting, with balletic mise-en-scène that presaged and rivaled the best of Brian De Palma and Dario Argento. Most impressive, however, was the juxtaposition of the aggressively stylized film-within-the-film and the faux-vérité surrounding it — Hannaford’s film was all propulsive jump-cuts on action in a self-consciously auteurist mode, while the frame story comprised a messy collage of film stocks, focal lengths, and framing styles meant to suggest a polyphony of perspectives, or perhaps a fracturing of one’s psyche; editor Bob Murawski, working from Welles’s extensive notes and workprint, sutured it all into a kinetic rhythm both jarring and cohesive. This was absolutely essential viewing, an invigorating testament to the medium itself and a reminder of how much further it can still go.


07

Shirkers

Dir. Sandi Tan

[Netflix]


Shirkers was, among other things, a portrait of young creativity, folklore, fragile egos, self-discovery, DIY practices, and the cultural impact that a film can have on a country. The documentary told the story of Sandi Tan, a Singaporean teenager who set out to make the country’s first notable road movie in 1992. With the help of the “established” Western director Georges Cardona, a gang of dreamy-eyed college kids put their lives on hold for the film (also named Shrikers) in an attempt to write their country’s film history. However, in the final stages of the process, the footage disappeared with Cardona. What followed was a decades-long search for a rebellious movie that was supposed to blow Singapore wide open, its creator, and the man plagued with an imperialistic obsession for fame. It was a real-life story that could only happen in a movie.


06

Zama

Dir. Lucrecia Martel

[Strand Releasing]


Look: Don Diego de Zama has come unstitched in time. He stands at the edge of earth and sea. Waves are undertow, proof that the future is unfolding somewhere. But time has ripped itself up and away from him. He turns from the waves and walks up the shore, still in frame. He pauses, walks back, trapped. He is not entitled to languish; his days are spent running ruined bureaucracies. He appeals to a succession of fat governors to be sent away or home or anywhere else. But he is here. He is casually cruel and pathetically hopeful that he will be rendered reverence. He will not be. Lucrecia Martel, the master, adapted the fevered anti-history of Antonio Di Benedetto’s prose into transformative euphoria. Her cinematography was for freeing bodies. Zama didn’t represent colonialism so much as it canceled the notion that belonging has a place anymore. By pinning her hero to the same useless hope as he decayed through the years, Martel created a world of unwavering indigenous bodies and mocking llamas. She papered over Zama like an unmoved fungus, reducing him back to ephemera to be fertilized. She said no to his hopes. The corregidor, the man who can’t be king, remained in frame.


05

The House That Jack Built

Dir. Lars von Trier

[IFC]


Lars von Trier’s movies are not easy to watch, but past the gruesome violence, the fucked-up interpersonal relationships, and the heady themes, there’s always something there. Case in point: The House That Jack Built, a pitch-black film in which a serial killer explains five “incidents” from his life to a mysterious companion. And unsurprisingly, with its aggressive depictions of the macabre, the film enjoyed about as divisive a public response as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring did at its riotous 1913 premiere. At Cannes, von Trier’s film reportedly moved over 100 people to walk out; yet, when it ended, it was met with thunderous applause and, indeed, a standing ovation from those who remained. Yes, it was shockingly violent, but it was also incredibly funny, and as its protagonists traveled through their Dantean hellscape, they offered profound and unique meditations on art, time, and history. In other words, the film’s brutality was in service of something, not just an end in itself. Today, people are obsessed with talking about how everyone should and should not behave, what people should and should not think and say. But they’re far less interested in examining the pathological reasons why we have those urges to say or do the “wrong” thing in the first place. Some would argue that this is the exact reason art exists, to examine ourselves at a deeper level. And this film asked big questions: Can destruction be art? Can murder? Is depicting something the same as validating it? If you don’t want to subject yourself to this movie, my opinion is that that’s exactly why you should watch it. If you get through it, you may learn something about yourself. I did. Lars von Trier isn’t afraid to channel and complicate humankind’s darkest, most sadistic desires, and that’s a good thing. In fact, isn’t that one of the essential roles of the artist?


04

Mandy

Dir. Panos Cosmatos

[RLJE]


Words like psychedelic, hallucinogenic, revenge, rage, and insane got tossed around liberally by those attempting to summarize Mandy, the sophomore directorial effort by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) starring Nicolas Cage in all his nouveau-shamanic glory and then some. But those were understatements. Mandy was a maximalist assault, a new death yarn whose title screen didn’t even arrive until an hour and 15 minutes in, when protagonist Red went hunting for Lysergicenobites and Jesus freaks. Like antagonist Jeremiah Sand, Cosmatos, Cage, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, and late scorer Jóhann Jóhannsson all weaponized complete sensory overload to mesmerize and capture their audience. But unlike the Mandy character, we could hardly muster a laugh past “Erik Estrada from CHiPs” — we merely watched in wide-eyed, slack-jawed awe at the un(adulte)rated, undefinable phantasmagoria — the bathroom scene, the chainsaw scene. OK, so maybe that wasn’t what Roger Ebert had in mind when he rightly called Nicolas Cage one of the greatest actors of his generation, but then Ebert probably also wouldn’t have imagined the actor spending two nights in his underwear, tied to a fence in a Belgian forest to prep for a scene (apparently, yes, that happened). That’s the point, though. The hype was realer than real. Mandy was a masterpiece beyond what any of us could ever have imagined.


03

Sorry to Bother You

Dir. Boots Riley

[Annapurna]


Every day, they take a little bit more. For months, we’ve heard about how Amazon runs its warehouses like sweatshops. A couple weeks ago, it was Facebook selling your private messages. If WorryFree were to step forward tomorrow with a unique, 21st-century approach to living debt-free, would any of us be surprised? For all its detours into the surreal and the absurd, Sorry to Bother You never felt that far removed from the world we inhabit. The questions it asked and dilemmas it presented touched on everything from the changing face of corporate power in the age of tech startups, the challenges of navigating predominantly white spaces for non-whites, and the complicity of individuals in larger systems of oppression. Moving through the world today is an act of gliding from one outrage to the next, and Riley shares our outrage, but he coupled it here with a sense of playfulness and hope that rendered Sorry to Bother You one of the most important films of 2018.


02

The Favourite

Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

[Fox Searchlight]


Early on, Duchess Sarah admonished her lover, Queen Anne, that love has its limits — to which the queen replied, “Well it shouldn’t.” The story proceeded through a delicious series of political and bedroom maneuvers to prove the queen utterly and tragically wrong. Yorgos Lanthimos has always taken a perverse glee in sticking his movie knife into the banal, received wisdom of Western right-thinking. His trajectory from Dogtooth forward had increasingly tightened the thumbscrews on his audience; The Killing of a Sacred Deer was as muscle-bound and torturous to watch as it was incisive. But The Favourite turned that sensibility inside out, exploding with bright and colorful production design, brilliantly mining 18th-century courtly fashions for visual comedy. Rouged, powdered, and highly wiggy men ponced about like overbred poodles through all the absurd ornamentation, as a raging battle of wills played out among the film’s three towering female protagonists. The script was nastier than Dynasty and invented a patois of 18th-century Queen’s English and contemporary colloquialisms that somehow felt organic, but it had a Shakespearean heft at its core that played out in a perfectly odd and dissonant finale.


01

First Reformed

Dir. Paul Schrader

[A24]


2018 was filled with days when hopping from one social media platform or news network to the next resembled a modern-day Stations of the Cross, with each subsequent click offering something that was somehow more terrifying, depressing, and enraging than the last. With the massive sprawl of readily available information, staying informed was more effortless than ever, yet it could easily, almost imperceptibly, transform from a desire to remain dutifully cognizant of our ever-shifting global landscape into a form of unabated and isolating self-flagellation. In Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, it was this hyper-awareness of earthly perils that plagued Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young environmental activist who believed it immoral for his pregnant wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to bring a child into this crumbling world, when he desperately met with Ethan Hawke’s already jaded, world-weary Reverend Toller for counsel.

Despite telltale signs of suicidal thinking, Toller found their discussion not troubling, but “invigorating.” And when Michael blew off his head with a shotgun, the good reverend reacted not with sorrow or regret, but by taking on Michael’s all-too-real concerns of potential global disaster, bearing them like a cross upon his shoulders as he confronted the duplicitous evils that have infiltrated both his tiny, sparsely attended church and the superchurch that funds the relic he was keeping alive after 250 years. In this year’s cinema, there was perhaps no greater metaphor for the failure of American institutions to serve the public in any meaningful way (as many have slowly been reduced to thinly veiled money-laundering schemes for the wealthy) than the fact that Toller was stuck in a historically famous church with a broken organ, forced to hawk cheap souvenirs merely to keep the doors open.

First Reformed deftly tackled this notion of the individual vs. implacable global forces, with an acute focus on the unsettling merging of ecclesiastical forces with those of an unbridled and amoral capitalist system. Schrader’s ascetic vision, informed most explicitly by Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and Yasujiro Ozu, offered the perfect aesthetic framework through which traditional systems of belief could collide haphazardly with the ruthlessly unfeeling, profit-hungry, hyper-modern business models that dominate both corporate and institutional cultures.


Schrader’s camera was almost exclusively immobile, yet this stillness presented a deeply perceptive gaze and compositions as stark as the cold New England winter. It was a vision of the world as unwavering as that of Toller, who lived a life virtually sealed off from the real world, indulging himself with the sort of small rituals we all tend to hold onto to provide a semblance of order and meaning in an increasingly chaotic world. But for all of Toller’s pain (often self-inflicted), First Reformed offered a vision of grace and tenderness in the heavily symbolic Mary, who prevented the film from tipping into the complete and utter despair that Toller found himself in.

In one of the year’s most remarkable sequences, Mary arrived at Toller’s office and together performed a ritual that she often did with her now-deceased husband. As she laid on top of the priest, making as much body-to-body contact as possible and matching his breathing patterns, the two achieved a temporary sense of communal transcendence, slowly rising from the floor as they began to travel over vast mountains and beautiful oceanside vistas. But Toller’s thoughts couldn’t remain fixed on utopic ideals for long before visions of city life and landfills of untold sizes took over. Such incessant and uneasy wavering between hope and despair, sensuality and violence, love and rage, faith in the future and the fatalistic acceptance of our environment’s demise filled First Reformed, which stands as the most eloquent yet soul-shattering microcosm of the world that we saw all year.

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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