2018 was an especially great year for films. I can recall no other year in recent memory that featured as much daring, bold and experimental filmmaking that pushed the parameters of cinema as an art form. It was also a year in which the film industry really tapped into the zeitgeist by rediscovering the power of the avant-garde, the spiritually probing, the politically relevant. Suffice to say, it was not easy gathering this list together. Many of the honorable mentions would have been in the top 10 of most other years. Without further ado, the best cinema had to offer in 2018:
10. BlacKkKlansman (Dir. Spike Lee) (USA)
No other film of 2018 tapped into the hot-button political zeitgeist like Spike Lee’s return to form. An outrageous true story of the FBI infiltrating the KKK in the 1970’s, this film used a piece of history to tap into the current era and the racial strife that the nation can never seem to shake. Honest, raw, and confrontational, Spike Lee’s latest is a call to vigilance and the politically distressing film we deserve for these politically distressing times.
9. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) (USA)
The most inventive, original and joyous comic book film in years. Pulling from the deep well of Spider-Man mythology, the filmmakers work to create a world that dazzles the imagination and tickles the eyeball. This is some of the most innovative, fresh, radical and eye-popping animation in years. Mutli-dimenional timelines, a stellar cast of voice actors, visual imagination to spare and a relatable hero in the Afro-Latino, Miles Morales, make for a remarkable piece of pop escapism. Spider-Verse accurately captures the fun of reading a comic book in a way that no other film has ever been able to pull off.
8. The House That Jack Built: Director’s Cut (Dir. Lars Von Triers) (Denmark/France/Germany/Sweden)
The latest from Danish provocateur, Lars Von Triers, is a self-reflexive piece of auto-critque; a darkly satirical examination of violence in our diseased culture, dressed in the clothes of a serial killer picture. The film serves as a meta-commentary on Von Triers’ deeply controversial career and marks the first time the director has looked inward to examine the origins of his work and themes. Matt Dillon’s work as the eponymous Jack is one of the most impressive feats of acting of the year. Dillon, like the film itself, manages to be charismatic, terrifying, creepy and funny all at once. The unrated cut is NOT going to appeal to most mainstream audiences and is bound to offend normal sensibilities. For those more adventurous and jaded film-goers, the film is a darkly entertaining work of an artist grappling with his inner demons.
7. Mandy (Dir. Panos Cosmatos) (Canada/USA)
A red-blooded, fist-pumping, acid trip of a movie. The latest from Panos Cosmatos is a surreal piece of horror that recalls Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and the films of David Lynch, filtered through the lens of psychedelics. Featuring a maniacal Nicolas Cage in top-form as a broken love-struck avenger, the film reaches a fever-pitch of intensity that both engages and overwhelms the senses. The film’s depiction of Jesus freaks, violence, acid-soaked imagery and bone-crunching soundtrack make for a bracing film experience that will leave viewers alternately dizzy and exhilarated. It may be the first Heavy-Metal art film.
6. Suspiria (Dir. Luca Guadagnino) (Italy/USA)
Luca Guadagnino’s wild reimagining of Dario Argento’s classic film should have been a failure in every regard. Argento’s masterpiece is such an original and uniquely idiosyncratic film experience that only a fool would attempt to remake it. Lucky for us, Guadagnino is a brave filmmaker who revels in taking chances. Against all odds, he’s emerged with one of the most unique horror films in years, one that gets under the skin in ways so few films manage. Featuring a score by Thom Yorke and a bevy of impressive performances from Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth and Jessica Harper, Guadagnino’s Suspiria manages to be a both a batshit insane horror film and a political treatise on 1970’s Berlin.
5. Roma (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron) (Mexico)
Cuaron’s love letter to his hometown in Mexico recalls the European art films of the early 1960’s, particularly the Italian Neo-Realist movement. Shot in gorgeous black and white and unfolding at a sedate, languid pace, Roma tells the story of a Mexican maid with the soul of an angel. First time actress, Yaltiza Aparicio, delivers a performance that the most seasoned of actresses would have a hard time pulling off. Tapping into personal experience and nostalgia, Cuaron emerges with a lovely, deeply artful film. Brimming with humanity, warmth and political undertones, Roma takes us back into a different era of movies and in the process taps’ into the viewers sense of compassion and humanity. A truly gratifying, humane experience.
4. Annihilation (Dir. Alex Garland) (UK/USA)
Alex Garland’s follow-up to Ex Machina is a visually gorgeous, thematically-probing, ‘hard’ science-fiction film that recalls such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Solaris. Featuring a stellar, predominately female cast led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Garalnd’s latest probes uncomfortable topics such as sickness, death, decay and cancer with an unnerving sense of efficiency. Some of the imagery is beautiful, some of it horrifying, all of it is hard to shake.
3. Hereditary (Dir. Ari Aster) (USA)
The feature-length debut of the year, Ari Aster’s chamber drama of a horror film is the rare movie that gets under the skin on both a human and subhuman level. Hereditary manages to function as a supernatural horror mystery in the vein of genre classics like Rosemary’s Baby while delivering the year’s most damaging and emotionally painful drama. It is an intense, soul-crushing exploration of grief and one of the most genuinely unnerving horror movies of the decade. Toni Collette gives the best acting of the year, delivering a performance so intense that it looks painful. Collette takes her grief-stricken mother to devastatingly raw and uncomfortable places. Ari Aster’s work is one that inflicts emotional trauma on the audience, creating a work of art that is bound to go down as one of the supreme classics of the horror genre.
2. The Favourite (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) (Ireland/UK/USA)
The latest from Greek wonder kind, Yorgos Lanthimos, is the best comedy of the year. A British period piece in the mode of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’, The Favourite is a gorgeously shot film with hilariously malicious undertones. Satirizing 16th century European opulence, the film rejects historical accuracy in favor of a vicious lampooning of the mores and social codes of Queen Anne’s reign and the genteel facade that masked a darwinian brutality. The film boasts a stellar trio of actresses (Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz) that deliver some of the finest work of their careers. The Favourite is shot through with some of the most visually stimulating, spatially distorted and experimental cinematography ever to be featured in a mainstream period piece picture. The film hilariously turns oscar-bait, stuffy, period dramas on their head and exposes them for how truly gutless most of them are.
1. First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader) (USA)
The best film of the year. Paul Schrader, the scribe behind such Scorsese classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, delivers his finest work as a filmmaker. By tapping into the current era of anxiety, political unrest and societal collapse, Schrader delivers a pointed social commentary that digs under the skin and asks uncomfortable questions. Ethan Hawke, in the best performance of a distinguished career, plays Ernst Toller, a Calvinist pastor living out an unhappy routine in an anguished state of mind. Toller is searching for a sense of purpose when his life is shaken up by a couple of environmental extremists, fueling his fear of a planet consumed by rapid climate change, political extremism, and scientific statistics that spell doom for the future. The young couple leaves Toller feeling traumatized, useless and inconsequential. Frustrated by his church’s apathy and indifference to these issues, Toller decides to take matters into his own hands, finding a new lease on life, one that might have dark and troubling consequences.
A quietly haunting work and an exquisite piece of cinema, featuring a complex and probing script, elegant cinematography, powerful acting and timely themes. ‘First Reformed’ is a ‘Taxi Driver’ for an era fueled by political extremism and societal anxiety. Destined to be dissected, analyzed and cherished by cinefiles for years to come. Paul Schrader, after all these years, still has his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist.
You Were Never Really Here
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Isle of Dogs
White Boy Rick
The Neon Demon is destined to become a cult classic. Directed by popular indie/arthouse auteur, Nicolas Winding-Refn (Drive, Bronson, The Pusher Trilogy) with a visually dazzling and vaguely surreal panache, this is one of the strangest mainstream releases of the past couple of years and a must watch for lovers of pure cinema. It’s a stinging satire with a vicious bite.
Keep in mind, this film will not appeal to everyone. The Neon Demon basks in its’ none-to-subtle juxtapositions of the macabre and the beautiful, the glamorous and the gory, eroticism and graphic violence. The style will leave less jaded moviegoers feeling uneasy and might be a turn off for those less accustomed to Refn’s unique style. For the more jaded and adventurous filmgoer, this one is a fascinating descent into the hell of the modeling industry.
The film revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), a beautiful teenage waif from Tennessee. Jesse has just arrived in Los Angeles to pursue a career in the competitive and vicious world of super-modeling. She possesses a soft, natural beauty, the type that most women would kill for. She manages to get modeling jobs with ease and rapidly becomes the talk of the town, much to the chagrin of the older and more experienced supermodels. She is the envy of every model she comes into contact with. Every model Jesse meets relays stories and details about their plastic surgeries and the way they cut and carve their bodies and faces just to look like what Jesse is naturally gifted with. They gaze upon her with a rapturous envy, their faces exposing deep-seated jealousy. In one of the most unnerving and effective scenes in the movie, a beautiful rival model grabs Jesse’s arm (gaping open with a wound from broken glass) and attempts to suck the blood out of her freshly punctured flesh with an animalistic hunger. She looks as if she believes that she’ll absorb some of the beauty and “It” factor from Jesse’s body.
The film is a vicious and biting satire of the shallowness and ugliness of the modeling industry. The girls in this film may be beautiful on the outside but their pretty exteriors belie an ugly interior life compromised of hateful vindictiveness and utter emptiness of depth. Their personalities are shallow, their motives rotten, their beauty phony and manufactured. The photographers and agents are no different. They use the models as they would meat and treat them with very little regard. The models are in constant panic mode about aging and reaching what they call their “expiration date”, the time when they are no longer a useful commodity (their mid-20’s). To avoid this, they spare no expense on plastic surgeons and a litany of other procedures.
The Neon Demon is filled with striking and bizarre imagery that is simultaneously ghastly and beautiful. There is something patently artificial to the beauty on display and the way it overwhelms the essentially ugly and obscene tableaux that populate Refn’s miss-en-scene; perfect for a film about the fake, manufactured exteriors that mask an ugly, inner core. The use of color is bold and experimental, the lighting is perfect. The movie is filled with imagery that leaves a forceful impression on the brain and subconsciously reinforces its themes in the mind of the audience. The chosen visual style perfectly complements the diseased modeling world it portrays.
Refn fills the widescreen with colorful, glossy images that look like they belong in a fashion magazine but populates the space with ugly, insidious details. The opening shot perfectly establishes the film’s visual style: Jesse posed as if for a glamorous fashion spread: suggestively sprawled on a couch, neck slashed, gushing profuse amounts of glittery, glossy blood. The highly sexual position in which she is posed, in conjunction with the liberal use of blood and gore, establishes a visual motif that reappears throughout the film and is intimately tied with the movie’s themes. The Neon Demon is obsessed with sex and violence and the deep connections and similarities the two share. Both are deeply inlaid animal instincts and both require a certain sort of compromise of body and soul. Both require a mental and physical penetration. The film’s visual style perfectly communicates the themes and reinforces the queasy and uneasy connection between sex and violence in the viewer’s mind.
While not necessarily a “horror” film, Demon vibrates with a sense of unease and constant tension. Much of this attributable to the soundtrack: A retro synth score that would have been right at home in any one of John Carpenter’s 80’s chillers, combined with 80’s style synth pop. The unusual and jarring score greatly enhances the unsettling imagery.
Elle Fanning makes for an excellent lead. She possesses a soft, childlike beauty and is blessed with a face that looks virginal and innocent. Her soft voice and unassuming demeanor makes her an easy target for the vicious women she is surrounded by. Through the course of the movie, we watch as Jesse makes the transition from sweet-natured girl to vain, callous supermodel. All of the undue praise and adulation goes to her head as she proclaims “I don’t want to be them. They want to be ME!,” with a vain narcissism that belies the sweet girl we’ve seen throughout the film. The industry rots her to the core as she absorbs the values of the modeling community.
Demon culminates in a gruesome, shocking climax that combines grand guinol excess, over-the-top gore and gallows humor into a conclusion that stings the viewer with its clear disdain for the modeling industry. It takes the phrase “the industry will eat you up and spit you out” to obscenely funny new heights.
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