Grain of Salt: Matt's Top 10 Films of 2018

 
 

What defined the cinema of 2018? Can it be encapsulated into a single concept, a defining moment, a phenomenon, a quote, a buzz word? Years from now, what will trigger the Proustian response that brings the last 12 months of movies flooding back into our collective memory like some kind of polyphonic reminiscence? Netflix, Black Panther, MoviePass, Roma, “Shallow,” Thanos, “Numnum Cookie,” Spider-Ham, the Oasis, the Shimmer, Bird Box, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” “I just wanted to take another look at you,” BlacKkKlansman, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Henry Cavill’s mustache, Cynthia Erivo’s sprint, Ted Sarandos’ leer, the Cheddar Goblin..? Maybe it will just be Milly Shapiro’s guttural clicking noise from Hereditary... One thing’s for sure- 10 years from now when we’ve allowed the tumultuous state of the world in 2018 to fade from memory we will still look back fondly at this last year as being one that not only privileged us with an embarrassment of cinematic riches but also one in which movies proudly proclaimed: “Netflix or not, here I come! Regardless of the venue in which you care to meet me, I have something to show you that you’ve never seen before. I’ll learn to play by the new rules. But I’m not going anywhere.”

I watched 366 films in 2018 and 99 of those were in theaters. These are the 10 that represent the quality that stood out from the quantity:  

10. HEREDITARY

 
 

In a year in which terms like “prestige horror” or “high horror” were getting thrown around far too liberally and many culture critics qualified their reactions to genre films with condescending generalizations like “I usually don’t like horror but…” or “it’s not really my genre but...,” Ari Aster’s Hereditary emerged as a true “crossover” phenomenon- arriving fully-formed and existing virtually without precedent. For 130 white-knuckle minutes in which the sense of looming dread and inevitable devastation reverberates beneath the surface like a tell-tale heart, Aster turns the screws on his fated familial ensemble (an, by extension, us) with calculated, incremental terror. Plunging the four members of the Graham clan down a rabbit hole of blood-curdling scenarios–in which the lines between naturalist familial melodrama and high-octane nightmare fuel blur to the point of allegorical dovetail–Aster’s relationship to his characters never feels cruel or abusive, distinct from Darren Aronofsky’s method in Mother! (a much more unwieldy and self-satisfied approach to domestic terror). Rather, Hereditary emerges as something like group therapy or an “airing of grievances” for the Graham family (anchored by a career-best turn from Toni Collette), in which their deep-seated resentments, anxieties, and fears of one another are literally and figuratively decapitated, exorcised, and burned alive. I was one of those annoying gadflies who marched into Hereditary under protest, declaring myself “not a horror guy,” while resenting the endeavor as homework. I emerged from the theater shaken, disturbed, inspired, and impressed- feeling that I had just witnessed the birth of an important new cinematic voice, and certain that I would never listen to Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” again without feeling an icy cold shiver race up my spine.      

9. DAMSEL

 
 

The Western has been declared “dead” more times than any other genre. Its obituary has been written so often, in so many languages, and with such misplaced certainty that the idea of a genre in perennial postmortem has become the Western’s defining characteristic. But news of its death has been greatly exaggerated. The Western cannot be killed. It is an undead genre that will never go away because it’s just too cinematically fruitful to ever abandon. In 2018 the Coen Brothers even inverted this scenario by making a Western that was principally about death with their wildly uneven anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But the best Western of 2018 was neither the Coen’s high-profile Netflix exercise nor Jacques Audiard’s execrable The Sisters Brothers. Rather it was David and Nathan Zellner’s beautifully absurd and little-seen road trip diptych Damsel. Like a cross between Slow West and Meek’s Cutoff, with a dash of McCabe and Mrs. Miller peppered in for stylistic seasoning, Damsel works as both an uproarious frontier comedy of manners as well as a way-homer indictment of toxic masculinity as filtered through a prairie-prism. Featuring another eccentric performance from Robert Pattinson as a pioneer driven by his misplaced affections, Damsel really functions as a showcase for a never-better Mia Wasikowska- the film’s only female character (save for the diminutive, blonde pony “Buttercup”) who arrives at the halfway point and emerges as the true protagonist. I would advise reevaluating the implications of the film’s title before and after the first, second, and third acts to appreciate how truly sophisticated and complex the Zellners’ dramatic intentions are. Because to reductively compliment Damsel as “unexpected” or “unpredictable” would be like referring to The Wild Bunch as “violent.” There’s an enormous wealth of thematic complexity bubbling beneath the film’s affectionate and faithful Western aesthetic surface. There’s gold in them thar hills, to be sure.            

8. SHOPLIFTERS

 
 

To look at the poster or read the synopsis of Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2018 Palm d’Or winner is to pass a knee-jerk judgement about the film’s Dickens-meets-Ozu tonal approach. As outlined by its IMDb page: “A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold.” Fair enough. Those of us relatively unfamiliar with Koreeda’s work might have naively felt, sight unseen, that we knew what we’re getting into with this flavor of Japanese melodrama, particularly the kind that wins awards at the Cannes Film Festival. But I’m delighted to admit how wrong I was about Shoplifters. It’s neither saccharine-sweet, alienatingly-artsy, nor punishingly-ponderous. Instead it stakes a claim as one of the most extraordinarily-entertaining, narratively-thrifty, and tonally-consistent films of the year. Koreeda’s titular grifters–living a hand-to-mouth existence on the societal fringe of Tokyo–have forged a surrogate tribe in which four generations of outcasts cozily cohabitate, look out for one another, and share every meal. Through a combination of mutual desperation and ethical malleability, the six members of the group (including tiny “Yuri,” whose discovery and adoption into the “family” represents the film’s inciting incident) form irrepressible bonds of compassion where no legitimate blood relation exists. Examining each of these individual connections, Koreeda investigates and litigates the fundamental definition of the familial unit- asking difficult questions about common law, neglect, adoption, surrogacy, and welfare. But for a film that traffics in such complex melodrama it is never dour nor bleak. Instead, it’s fleet-of-foot, pacey, and streamlined. There is not a wasted relationship, scene, word, or moment in its lean, two-hour running time. It’s harsh when it needs to be, heartwarming when it needs to be, harrowing when it needs to be, and [unexpectedly] sexy when it needs to be- never forgetting to prioritize character above all else. Always compassionate, never cloying, Shoplifters is the kind of film we need more of- relatable, humanist fables that don’t neglect their responsibility to the cinematic.

7. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

 
 

It seems to me that there are two approaches that can be undertaken when attempting to cinematically deconstruct a genre. The first methodology involves leaning heavily into trope and the undermining of tenets, which is usually an indication that the filmmaker has only a tertiary interest in the philosophy and academics of a given genre. The other methodology; which I would generically refer to as a “love letter” deconstruction, requires expert-level understanding of genre elements and indicates that the filmmaker is attempting their cinematic investigation based on an overwhelming affection or fascination- like a curious child who wants to take a watch apart and put it back together so as to understand what makes it “tick.” Writer/director Drew Goddard most certainly falls into this second category and while I believe he’s a talented enough filmmaker that he will eventually make successful films beyond the deconstructionist aesthetic, he has now made two films in a row that follow this mandate quite successfully. But while The Cabin in the Woods only really functions as an indulgent (if clever), winking paean to horror films, Bad Times at the El Royale is equally successful as a genre exercise as it is a clear-eyed, character-centric crime thriller. Working within a mold that suggests the delightful thematic marriage of Quentin Tarantino and Agatha Christie, Goddard has also positioned his byzantine tale as a way of eulogizing the death of the 1960s. The filmmaker manages to effectively comment on race, class, religious fundamentalism, politics, PTSD, dementia, surveillance, capitalism, and even the hospitality and music industries. But through it all, Goddard’s miraculous, fractured, thrilling little puzzlebox never loses its way or its priorities, remaining anchored by Goddard’s clear affection for his intricately-drawn characters- particularly de facto protagonist Darlene Sweet, portrayed in a star-making, standout performance by the revelatory Cynthia Erivo. Her voice–whispered, shouted, and sung–cuts through the noise with brilliant clarity and intimidating dramatic confidence.        

6. FIRST REFORMED

 
 

In a career that spans more than five decades, Paul Schrader has written scripts for Sydney Lumet, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Weir. He has been a film critic, authored books and essays about Transcendental Cinema and Film Noir, and written plays. He has also directed 20 feature films, 12 of which he wrote himself. Yet despite his myriad accomplishments, to most who have heard of Schrader (even his acolytes) he is first and foremost the artist who created Travis Bickle- the vigilante Vietnam veteran of Taxi Driver. Schrader would go on to create lesser echoes of Bickle’s particular brand of self-destructive, urban, male alienation (maleienation?) in films like American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and The Walker. But at the age of 72, with his impressive legacy already intact, it appears that Schrader may have finally created his masterpiece- or at least followed up Travis Bickle with a character who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. First Reformed–Schrader’s stylistic love letter to his heroes Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson–concerns a minister who is not only suffering from alcoholism, disillusionment, and a crisis of faith, he also might be considering moonlighting as a violent crusader for a cause that has radicalized his political beliefs. But considering the fact that this is a film explicitly about religion and politics, it is never preachy. And this is a particularly admirable achievement in understatement considering that it comes from the filmmaker responsible for Hardcore and The Canyons. First Reformed is a film about restraint, or, if you like, repression- repression of memory, repression of emotion, repression of action, and repression of belief. Of course, as was the case with Taxi Driver, bottled frustration and anger usually leads to dangerous or violent reprisal. As such, First Reformed’s harrowing ending is as suitably dark and traumatic as one would expect from this material. But it does not resolve in quite the manner I had expected. The ending is elliptical without being complacent and open to interpretation without being frustrating. The overall resonance of the film–aided largely by a career-capping star turn from Ethan Hawke–achieves what Schrader has clearly always strived for- existential catharsis and spiritual transcendence. Done and done.           

5. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

 
 

Don’t get me wrong. I like a Jedi, a Hobbit, an Avenger, a teenaged wizard, or an ethnically-ambiguous convict who lives his life a quarter mile at a time as much as the next guy… But when it comes to franchise heroes whose ongoing adventures represent appointment viewing at the multiplex, there are three characters who sum it up for me: a bullwhip-wielding archaeologist, a martini-swilling secret agent, and an intelligence spook whose principle physical proficiency is his ability to run, jump, and hang off of things. The Indiana Jones series lost its fastball a decade ago and the 007 franchise, for all of its longevity, is defined by inconsistency. 22 years and 6 films in, Ethan Hunt and his Mission: Impossible series is not only on the ascendency, it has emerged as the most consistently inventive, entertaining, and audacious action franchise of the 21st Century. The characteristic that distinguishes Mission: Impossible - Fallout (the longest, deepest, smartest, most fun, and most awe-inspiring installment yet) from the previous films is also its greatest strength (with all due respect to Tom Cruise’s capacity for risking physical harm to his person). Christopher McQuarrie, the first man to return to a series that had previously been defined by a revolving door of directors, leverages the perfect blend of self-awareness, narrative convolution, and ante-upping set piece design to assure us that we’re not only in the hands of sophisticated technician on the level of John McTiernan or Kathryn Bigelow, but also a master scribe on the level of Steven Zallian or David Peoples. After Cruise performs the second most impressive on-screen maneuver of 2018 (for the first, see the documentary in the number four spot on this list), he commandeers a helicopter and repeats a cogent refrain into the radio: “I won’t let you down. I won’t let you down.” It’s as if Cruise is speaking for himself, McQuarrie, and the series as a whole- reminding us that he’s aware of the high expectations that we place on these films. There will come a time when Cruise actually does age out of the series or attempts a stunt so dangerous that his devotion to his craft finally kills him. But for the time being, the Mission: Impossible series exists in a peerless stratosphere in which the cinematic possibilities appear limitless and the hunger for further installments has never been higher. In the film’s giddily self-referential pre-credits sequence, Cruise stares down an adversary and insists, with steely resolve: “What’s done is done when WE say it’s done.” I feel Cruise talking directly to me and I believe every word. I want to believe in the power of the “popcorn picture.” Mission: Impossible - Fallout makes me a true believer.

4. FREE SOLO

 
 

There’s a moment near the end of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s white knuckle mountain climbing documentary when a camera operator standing on the floor of Yosemite, thousands of feet below El Capitan, can’t bring himself to look into his viewfinder any longer. His camera, equipped with a bazooka-length telephoto lens, is pointed at the figure of climber Alex Honnold, who is scaling the sheer face of El Capitan without a rope. The operator has been recording Honnold’s movements for hours. But the anxiety of watching the climber–who at any moment may slip and fall to his death–finally causes the operator to look away in fear. A few minutes later, when Honnold achieves something that no other human being in history has ever accomplished, the camera operator bursts into uncontrollable tears of relief and elation. That’s exactly the reaction I had at the climax of Free Solo in spite of the fact that I knew perfectly well how the film was going to end. Something about watching a human being finding their apex, achieving their fullest potential, realizing their pipe dream, painting their masterpiece… it never fails to cue my waterworks. This is actually a pretty common occurrence in movies. I’m reminded of Neo finally “seeing” The Matrix, of Speed Racer hitting terminal velocity in the checkerboard cyclone, of Cobb and his team completing a successful Inception, of Andrew Neiman performing his face-melting drum solo at the end of Whiplash… These kinds of transcendent moments are what feel-good cinema is all about. But what’s particularly effective about witnessing a misanthropic outsider and borderline sociopath scale Earth’s greatest wall without a rope is that it’s simultaneously a visual chronicle of one of the greatest athletic achievements in human history as well as a cathartic, dramatic representation of an artist realizing a lifelong goal by “painting” his masterpiece in the achievement of something that has never been done before. Honnold is complex, flawed, occasionally quite selfish, and often downright unlikeable. In other words, he’s a fascinating and complex protagonist. His physical and psychological journey–rendered by Chin and Vasarhelyi’s incisive yet empathetic storytelling style and photographed by their army of cliffhanging camera operators–is deeply human, remarkably inspiring, and as breathtakingly exciting as any action film ever made.      

3. ROMA

 
 

Few directors have been able to function virtually without artistic compromise for the entirety of their career while also finding success in both the studio system sandbox as well as the independent milieu. In this regard, Alfonso Cuarón’s career trajectory is unprecedented, considering that he’s managed to make personal projects in the Spanish language back to back with mega budget franchise films. But what really makes Cuarón such a distinct auteur and why he continues to be one of the most critically beloved working filmmakers is his unique ability to function as both a technical visionary and an old school, classical humanist. Is it any wonder that his masterpiece Roma emerges as such due to the fact that it is the ultimate confluence of his seemingly disparate cinematic powers? Like Fellini, he dreams big and designs large while also finding hidden whimsy within his often-bombastic set pieces. Cuarón has a way of injecting staggering intimacy into his expansive frames, staging miniature dramas within a larger dramatic context as if he’s designing his own mise en abyme. Yet his characters never get lost in his crowded canvases even as they may become overwhelmed by the detail, activity, and depth of his compositions. The magic of Roma lies in the periphery and this is crucial because it’s simultaneously a cultural examination of one of the world’s largest cities while also being a love letter to a solitary individual whose life is so modest that she functions in a state of virtual invisibility. The character of Cleo is the periphery of Mexico City- occupying the fringe, rarely attracting attention, and universally ignored even as her emotional journey renders her both deeply tragic and stunningly heroic. Cleo exists on the edge of the social structure yet she is often at the center of Cuarón’s frame, which gives him the opportunity to invert the relationship- allowing the historical context of the sprawling metropolis to frame Cleo’s actions. The ubiquitous airplanes that keep finding their way into Cuarón’s compositions throughout the film develop into an aesthetic motif that comes to define Cleo’s relationship to Mexico City. From the perspective of the planes, Cleo would be an inconsequential speck, and she has no cause to acknowledge them since she will likely never be able to board one or leave the family she has dedicated her life to. It’s no wonder that the film begins with a plane below Cleo’s feet (reflected in the water from her bucket) and ends with one high above her head (in the sky over her apartment). She doesn’t notice either and instead goes about her business.

2. FIRST MAN

 
 

Most of Damien Chazelle’s films are principally or tangentially concerned with the myopic, even dangerously-obsessive pursuit of a goal. As such, First Man is the logical next step for the filmmaker–thematically-speaking–despite the fact that it’s the first film he’s directed from someone else’s script. The journey of Neil Armstrong from the Earth to the Moon and the dogged pursuit of NASA to complete its mission before their Russian counterpart, forms the narrative backbone of the film. But the emotional stakes hinge on Armstrong’s unspoken goal- namely an internal reconciliation of his grief over the death of daughter Karen. Armstrong–as examined in First Man and personified by another intricately-calibrated, closed-mouth performance by Ryan Gosling (the actor who excels at closed-mouth calibration)–is the ultimate cipher of emotional consternation. He lacks the words or the capacity to express himself to his wife or sons, let alone the press or politicians. So he channels his angst and anxiety into his work, which–in a turn of tragic irony–puts him a position to be surrounded by an ever-increasing body count of people close to him. But Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer never use the deaths of Armstrong’s NASA cohort (tragedies that viewers with even a passing knowledge of the Apollo program are already anticipating as a dramatic inevitability) as means to an emotionally-manipulative end. Instead these deaths represent the mounting expense of a government-subsidized program that the film takes pains to look at from both the side of those passionate about reaching the moon at all costs, as well as the side of those counting every dollar and life invested. Gosling’s stoic portrayal seems to have alienated many viewers who found the film vexing. But I’m a firm believer that Gosling’s instincts as well as Chazelle’s intentionality are crucial to the eventual payoff once Armstrong finally arrives on the lunar surface. The inevitability of his moon walk acts a particularly impressive piece of misdirection, distracting from the film’s true dramatic agenda until the moment it is cathartically unveiled. That moment, my vote for the most emotionally transcendent sequence of 2018 (underwritten in no small part by Justin Hurwitz’s theremin-rich barnburner of a score), is further proof that Chazelle’s unique understanding of how to most effectively “land” a film, further cements him as a cinematic polymath.

1. COLD WAR

 
 

Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski has directed 6 narrative feature films in total over the last 20 years of his career. The running times of those films are (in order from oldest to newest): 88, 73, 86, 84, 82, and 88- for an average of about 83.5-minutes. Pawlikowski makes films about star-crossed lovers, political asylum, sexual awakening, Holocaust trauma, and, in the case of Cold War, about the kind of epic romance that spans decades, defines personalities, and ruins lives. Yet in spite of the fact that he appears to be interested in examining the full breadth of the human condition, he always seems to manage to bring his stories in under 90 minutes. Is brevity the defining characteristic and qualification for cinematic success? Certainly not. But there is something instructive to be gleaned from Pawlikowski’s specific brand of narrative efficiency and aspiring filmmakers would do well to study the ways in which he gets into each scene as late as pragmatically necessary and gets out as early as dramatically possible. Like Cuarón, Pawlikowski possesses the uncanny ability to divine the intimate from the epic and the specific from the sprawling. Appropriately, Cold War–the crowning achievement of Pawlikowski’s career–is simultaneously his most epic and intimate work yet. It’s also his most ravishingly beautiful (lensed by Lukasz Zal, one of Pawlikowski’s monochromatically-inclined collaborators from Ida) and sexiest film. This latter superlative is particularly fascinating as the director has claimed that the film is a relatively faithful account of his late parents’ torrid, on-again, off-again romance. As portrayed by phosphorescent blonde beauty Joanna Kulig and smoldering, stubbled beanpole Tomasz Kot respectively, the characters of Zula and Wiktor are properly star-crossed though somehow never tragic, even as they march, hand in hand, toward their Tarkovskian fate. Genuflecting at the altar of the epic romance, with nods to everything from Doctor Zhivago to Reds to Last Tango in Paris, Zula and Wiktor swoon, fight, smoke, drink, make love, make promises, and emotionally torment one another across Eastern, Western, and Central Europe over the better part of the titular mid-century period. But what really defines the torrid romance and develops into the film’s enduring visual motif is the reliance on looks between the lovers- looks that connect and orient them regardless of whether they’re across a crowded ballroom, on opposite sides of a Gulag fence, or face to face in bed. I’m a sucker for a film like Cold War. I’m a sucker for Polish cinema, for shimmering black and white, 35mm cinematography, for lovers smoking post-coital cigarettes in tiny Paris flats, and for beautiful blondes dancing on bar tops to “Rock Around the Clock.” But what I’m mostly a sucker for, cinematically-speaking, are those lingering looks in which a lifetime’s worth of emotional context is delivered in a single moment. Cold War is 88 minutes’ worth of those kinds of magical moments and Pawlikowski doesn’t waste a single one.

Honorable Mentions:

BLOCKERS
CRAZY RICH ASIANS
EIGHTH GRADE
THE FAVOURITE
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
ISLE OF DOGS
MINDING THE GAP
THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
WIDOWS


Oscar’s Top 10:

10. FREE SOLO
9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT
8. VICE
7. COLD WAR
6. ROMA
5. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
4. FIRST REFORMED
3. THE FAVOURITE
2. SHOPLIFTERS
1. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Honorable Mentions:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
CRAZY RICH ASIANS
EIGHTH GRADE
FIRST MAN
LEAVE NO TRACE
THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN
A STAR IS BORN
THOROUGHBREDS
WIDOWS

 
 

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