Jim’s Top Ten of 2018
For a long time my relationship with 2018’s cinematic offerings resembled that of the protagonist of a romantic comedy who fell in love with his best friend: I was always looking for something that would sweep me off my feet until eventually realizing that what I had always wanted was in front of me the whole time. The “I’m still looking for something to blow me away” comments that I was making as late as November had, by the time of compiling this list, gloriously evolved into revelations of the “holy shit—I’m having trouble narrowing this list down to just ten!” variety. Any year in which I’m leaving out titles like Annihilation, You Were Never Really Here, The Death of Stalin, and BlacKkKlansmen (for which my girlfriend will never forgive me) is a great year for cinema. As I am wont to do, I’ll also preface this list by saying that the exclusion of some of your favorite titles—First Man, Blindspotting, Cold War, most of Scott Nye’s top 10—has nothing to do with their quality and everything to do with not having seen them.
I’m a sucker for a horror film that foregoes superficial scares for the sake of telling a story that speaks to larger cultural and/or societal horrors. “Godzilla never scared me. Mothra never scared me. It’s people that scare me,” the late Tobe Hooper once said. While I agree that what people are capable of is a far more horrifying thought than the question of what might be lurking in the dark corner of a ceiling, I must admit that I had largely adopted Hooper’s opinion because it’s frankly just getting harder and harder to be scared by a horror movie on both an intellectual and visceral level. Then I saw Hereditary. This story of a family suffering the emotional fallout of their matriarch’s death is saturated in grief and despair and anchored by the standout performances of Toni Collette and Alex Wolff as reluctant mother and put-upon son. As the story unfolds, we discover that the late grandmother’s influence over her family extended far beyond emotional oppression. Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography and Colin Stetson’s score craft a visually and aurally ominous atmosphere that always hints and builds towards the ultimate evil reveal. Along the way are plenty of legitimate frights—including the biggest gasp moment I experienced in a theater last year—all of which are so jarring and effective because of how writer/director Ari Aster frames the family both literally and emotionally. It’s only Aster’s first feature, but as was the case with Robert Eggers (The Witch) and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) before him, he’s proven to be a director whose forthcoming work will be eagerly anticipated. Luckily, with Midsommar coming out in August, we won’t have to wait long.
9. The Favourite
The Favourite was a film that I had to sit with for a while before I eventually realized how I much I appreciated it. The piercing yet parched humor of Yorgos Lanthimos didn’t really connect with me in either Dogtooth or The Lobster and I initially left The Favourite feeling just as disconnected from the Greek filmmaker’s cynicism. But the more I thought about the film, the more I realized that his cynical, dark humor was a perfect fit for Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s screenplay, which explores the inherent absurdity of power and those who yearn for it as viewed through the lens of a love triangle between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest advisor, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and new, ambitious servant Abigail (Emma Stone). All three of them have rightly received Oscar nominations for their performances of petulant, insecure children masquerading as adults. Lanthimos crafted a film that simultaneously makes us understand the motivations behind their actions while also maintaining with great clarity the ridiculousness of their shallow pompousness. Supplementing Lanthimos’s satirical approach is the bold cinematography of Robbie Ryan, whose static and often exaggerated fisheye shooting style emphasizes both the interior loneliness of the three main characters as well as the absurdity of the emotional battles they’re waging.
8. Leave No Trace
Last time Debra Granik dropped a feature on us, it was the Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone, which introduced us to a stellar, relatively unknown young lead in Jennifer Lawrence, whose performance was supplemented by oft-overlooked veteran actor, John Hawkes. It only makes sense then that her latest offering, Leave No Trace, is equally stellar thanks in large part to the chemistry between relatively unknown young lead, Thomasin McKenzie, and oft-overlooked veteran actor, Ben Foster. The screenplay, written by Granik and Anne Rosellini (adapted from a novel by Peter Rock), is sparse, devoid of flashy speeches and melodramatic scenes. But the emotional truth and resonance of the relationship between the self-sufficient pair of the PTSD-suffering father and his teenage daughter remains consistently strong due to how assuredly McKenzie and Foster live in their characters. While the film alludes to larger societal problems such as America’s treatment of veterans, and inflexible, societal views about what it means to be a caregiver, the primary narrative focus is on an intimate relationship between two people who are slowly realizing that the best way to care for both themselves and each other may require separation.
7. A Star is Born
Hollywood is a congratulatory and referential ouroboros, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that Bradley Cooper decided to make his directorial debut by remaking A Star is Born, a film with three previous iterations – starring Hollywood royalty Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand respectively – that have collectively garnered 12 Oscar nominations. If Bradley Cooper was aiming to get noticed with his directorial debut, then adapting a Hollywood mainstay was a bold gamble. But as a director, Cooper wasn’t content to rest on Hollywood’s laurels. He injected the script he wrote alongside Will Fetters and Eric Roth with enough heart and brains to induce the audience to both care about and be surprised by familiar story. Aiding Cooper is Lady Gaga, a revelation as Ally, and Matthew Libatique, who provided the sure and steady hand that was needed from a DP who could take advantage of the single opportunity they had to shoot each live performance. The apex of their collaboration occurs in the breathtaking first performance of “Shallow,” during which Cooper wisely decides to stay on the edges of the frame, giving the literal and metaphorical spotlight to Gaga, who commands the rest of the film from the very second she triumphantly sings out the chorus for “Shallow” for the very first time: “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in / I’ll never meet the ground. / Crash through the surface where they can’t hurt us / We’re far from the shallow now.”
6. I Think We’re Alone Now
And I think I’m the only one who liked this movie this much. Outside of the handful of people who saw Meadowland, the most likely place that audiences would have seen Reed Morano’s work was her cinematography on Beyonce’s Lemonade or her direction of the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. I Think We’re Alone Now, the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize-winner for Excellent in Filmmaking, is only the second feature film from the director/cinematographer, released early in September to few theaters and little publicity. It’s a quiet, meditative film starring Peter Dinklage as Del, a solitary man in upstate New York who is seemingly the only survivor of a nebulous, global apocalypse. His life has since become routine, which involves the systematic cleaning of houses and clearing of bodies that the epidemic has left behind. That repetitive life is upended by the arrival of Grace (Elle Fanning), a girl whose mere presence throws his entire universe into chaos. The philosophy of the characters are subtly yet effectively explored through Morano’s skilled camera work, opting for wide angle lenses and dead center blocking to express isolation and disorientation that would be otherwise on the nose if talked about incessantly. It’s a simple film that starts out from a cynical perspective, but slowly and wonderfully reveals the beauty of letting others into your world.
5. First Reformed
“Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” This is one of the many internal musings from Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a sparsely populated, historic upstate New York church who deals with both mounting despair and spiritual and intellectual awakening when confronted with the doubt of a congregant who doesn’t want to bring a child into a world that is teetering on the brink of irreversible climatological collapse. In First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader puts forth the belief that God is found in nature utilizing the blocking and staging within his 4:3 aspect ratio to make the framing seem cramped and inescapable indoors, yet expansive and orderly outdoors. The Oscar-nominated screenplay is honest about how fear and doubt metastasized by larger systemic forces can be countered by the intimate beauty that comes from one person loving another. There are no easy answers or conclusions in First Reformed, but it’s the acknowledgment of the struggle and the beauty that can still be found amongst a spreading taint that makes the film resonant. As Toller says, “there’s something growing inside Mary, something as alive as a tree, surely. As an endangered species. Something full of the beauty and mystery of nature.”
4. Eighth Grade
Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) was born in the same year that The Ataris sang “being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up,” but were she graduating eighth grade at the time their song “This Diary” was released, I’m sure she’d vehemently disagree that there’s anything fun about growing up. Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, is not the first film to explore the awkwardness and self-consciousness that comes with being a young teenager, but it’s an instant classic because of how it explores these emotions through the lens of a demographic growing up in an age in which social media perpetuates the illusion that a person’s value comes from the numbers of likes on an Instagram picture or views on a YouTube video. Burnham’s work as a stand up comedian has always explored the hypocritical and contradictory nature of what it means to both be true to one’s self while also seeking acceptance for it. He seems to have arrived at certain conclusions and peace as a 29-year old, but it is as admirable as it is important that he is able to so honestly explore what it means to be a youngster who’s still navigating the line between self-acceptance and peer approval. It’s a crime that Elsie Fisher hasn’t won every award possible for her work as the lead, and Josh Hamilton also deserves praise for his performance as Kayla’s dad, whose awkwardness and uncertainty about how to raise a teenage daughter as a single father is matched only by how confident he is in his pride and love for her.
3. If Beale Street Could Talk
There’s something ethereal about how the cinematography of If Beale Street Could Talk when Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are together. Though the story, told non-chronologically, informs us that the doomed lovers will ultimately struggle with trying while Fonny sits in prison wrongfully accused of rape, their scenes together indicate that nothing outside of their immediate proximity is as important or as beautiful as the connection being shared between them. When they face each other, gazing longingly and lovingly directly into the camera, the screen pops with light and color and a halcyon haze. This consistent aesthetic connects them emotionally whether they’re expressing their love on the bustling streets of Harlem or through the division of prison glass. Jenkins trains the viewer’s mind to revel in their love and to feel interrupted when an outsider dares to breach their frame or usurp their direct-to-camera stare. Fonny and Tish are no less victims of societal oppression at the conclusion of the film then they were at the beginning, but the certainty that they have found in each other is a victory that cannot be touched. “Love brought you here,” Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King) advises her. “If you trusted love this far, trust it all the way.”
My elderly parents watched Roma on Netflix before I was able to catch it in theaters, so when I texted my mom that I had seen and loved it, I was tasked with “explain[ing] why it was so great since when it was over Dad and I looked at each other wondering what all the hype was about.” And you know what? I tried. I tried to explain that Alfonso Cuarón’s films are never only just about what we see on the surface. I tried to explain the political and social context at play watching our indigenous protagonist, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), work as a servant and a caregiver for a wealthy, middle-class Mexican family as it falls apart at the seams. I tried to talk about how Cuarón layers the action in his shots and how tension can peak through contrast, such as when shopping for a beautiful event like the birth of a baby occurs while violent riots erupt on the streets in the background. I tried to explain what emotions are evoked by having Cleo framed separately and distantly when involved in scenes with her employer, Sra. Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and how that changes after the figurative baptism on the beach when the entire family embraces her. I even tried to explain how effective sound design can be, such as when a bustling, overcrowded E.R. is contrasted with a scene where the only dialogue comes from that of a doctor futilely performing CPR out of focus in the background. I tried to explain it all, but Roma is not a film that can be explained – it’s a film that needs to be felt. “Well, that makes sense” my mom said to me. She understood it, but she didn’t feel it like I did.
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The best theatergoing experience for me is one of being completely and pleasantly surprised. It was my girlfriend’s idea to see Into the Spider-Verse, one to which I eventually agreed because, as she highlighted, “a lot of people are saying good things about it.” I thanked her for proposing that we see it as soon as the credits began rolling because seeing it was an experience of pure joy from beginning to end. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is obviously far less sombre than Roma and is aiming to please people far more than First Reformed, but that doesn’t mean that the offering from Sony Pictures Animation is any less worthy of praise than 2018’s most critically acclaimed indie offerings. It’s a rare film indeed, one that is as whip smart with its comedy as it is emotionally engaging with its narrative. The comedy never undermines the emotion and the emotion never derails the comedy; both compliment each other as the narrative progresses and the stakes increase. The animation pays homage to classic comic print style of decades past while also being exciting and kinetic. This fusion of past and present works symbiotically with the film’s hip-hop soundtrack to bring to life and highlight New York City and what makes it so eclectic. But at the end of the day, the film’s ultimate victory is in emphasizing the progressive tide of a society that recognizes strength and growth come from embracing and celebrating the artistic and cultural influences of its diverse population. Miles Morales is not just Spider-Man; he is a young, intelligent, and driven Afro-Latino whose value is not derived from emulating another Spider-Man from another universe, but in being the exact hero needed for this universe. It’s an absolutely delightful watch and one of the finest examples of the excitement and joy of which cinema is capable.