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


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.


25

Roma

Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

[Netflix]


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.


24

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.


23

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.


22

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.


21

Eighth Grade

Dir. Bo Burnham

[A24]


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.

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.

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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