Alibi V.27 No.51 • Dec 20-26, 2018 

Year in Review: Film

A Bunch of Favourites

The top 10 films of 2018

Why beat around the bush? There was a year. It had films in it. Many good (see below), many bad (see “Reel World”). As usual, the movies that stuck with me this year had virtually nothing in common with one another. They ran the gamut from American to foreign, big-ticket to low-budget, comedy to drama. The one thing that did unite them? A feverish commitment to the stories they told. If you didn’t see these in theaters, feel free to hunt them down now and see what all the fuss is about.

The Favourite

Eclectic though it may be, the résumé of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has established him as an indie film auteur with a taste for surreal humor and Kafka-esque situations. This historical dramedy, about two cousins (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) battling for the attentions of Queen Anne (an incredible Olivia Colman) in turn-of-the-18th-century England, is actually his most mainstream effort. But it still contains a wealth of bravura camerawork, uncomfortable situations, oddball humor and the nastiest backstabbing in a royal setting since Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons.

Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade

Internet famous multi-hyphenate Bo Burnham writes and directs his first film with a startling amount of empathy. Elsie Fisher is so perfect as our middle school anti-heroine—drowning in a sea of anxiety, loneliness and self-doubt while burying it all under a meaningless layer of social media distraction—that you forget she’s playing a role. Her lived-in performance combined with Burnham’s spot-on dialogue make this feel less like a coming-of-age dramedy for the iPhone age and more like an ethnographic study.

Black Panther

Marvel can always be counted on for a rousing good time at the box office. And this record-breaking superhero saga was certainly that. But it looked and felt like so much more. Director Ryan Coogler’s epic take on the ’70s-era superhero now stands as the most high-profile example of Afro-futurism, hopefully inspiring others to investigate and expand the artform. Meanwhile, the film’s smart script and memorable characters give future generations of black kids the same sort of cultural touchstone that so many of us growing up in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s took for granted. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, colors and genders and Hollywood finally is starting to prove that.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy shed her normally boisterous comic persona for this prickly, blackly comic character study (based on an incredible true story). The result is easily the finest performance of her career. The story about a once-celebrated, now-washed-up biography writer who turns to forging letters from famous people is a loving ode to misanthropy. Pairing up McCarthy with Richard E. Grant as two bitterly witty alcoholics and enablers is inspired casting. It also results in one of the best queer films of 2018. In a year when films like The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased wore their sexuality on their sleeve, Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers not one but two gay protagonists in a quiet, unremarkable and perfectly presented manner.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

Fred Rogers was and always will be the best of all of us. He should already be a deeply ingrained personal hero to every former child with access to a television set on the planet. And yet now seems like the most appropriate time for this documentary about the educator/TV personality to remind us of his unflagging humanity. There’s a reason to put kindness and empathy above hatred and divisiveness. From here on out, this film should serve as a real-world version of Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test. If you can get through this film without shedding a tear, you shouldn’t be allowed to serve in public office, teach, work customer service or otherwise interact with human beings in any meaningful manner.

The Rider
The Rider
The Rider

While researching her first film, Chinese director Chloé Zhao stumbed across a talented young horse whisperer named Brady Jandreau. The young native of South Dakota struck her as a singular character. Months later, she got news that Jandreau had suffered a career-threatening head injury at a local rodeo. That horrible accident led Zhao to create The Rider, a suspiciously biographical story starring Jandreau as a young horse whisperer named “Brady Blackburn” living amid the pot-smoking, cell phone-slinging cowboys of South Dakota’s impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation and finding a life out of the saddle an impossibility in the wake of a career-threatening head injury. The result is a shaggy, low-budget, decidedly indie drama that is “probably 40 percent entirely fiction”—yet feels brutally, painfully real.

Mandy
Mandy
Mandy

Writer-director Panos Cosmatos has only one other film on his résumé, 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow—which is as accurate an acid flashback to ’80s direct-to-video horror movies as anyone has ever produced. This impossibly arty, heavy metal fever dream of a cult film is the perfect follow-up. It traces the trippy, brooding, Iron-Maiden-album-cover-come-to-life tale of a tightlipped logger in the Pacific Northwest whose wife is kidnapped by backwoods LDS cultists and their demonic biker minions. This allows, in the film’s manic second half, for star Nicolas Cage to do what he does best—go bat-crap crazy! For all its artsy doom-and-gloom, this dark fantasy is a sneaky story about the repercussions of grief. Not to mention the emotional satisfaction of killing demons with a hand-forged vengeance ax.

We the Animals

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar turned his history with documentary films into this impressive, impressionistic narrative film about three young Puerto Rican boys growing up in semi-rural Pennsylvania. It takes its cues from other unhurried snapshots of youth like Boyhood, Moonlight and The Florida Project. In the midst of what looks like an endless summer vacation and unburdened from such social niceties as school, the boys tear through the woods, living shirtless and making up silly children’s games. But when their Paps takes off and their Ma suffers an emotional breakdown, they’re left to fend for themselves. Though the film meanders like a parade of gauzy, half-recalled memories, it coalesces into a powerful tale of masculine self-discovery.

The Death of Stalin

The rapid-fire walk-and-talk political satire of Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, “Veep”) is a bit like like that of Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”), but in a much more cynical, foul-mouthed and bitterly funny mood. This historical comedy about the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the subsequent power-grabbing by his “loyal” advisors would seem like an odd diversion from that path—until you realize that Iannucci and his decidedly Western cast (Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin among them) aren’t at all interested in playing this straight. This is anachronistic, sitcom-level farce, delivered at a blistering and blackly comic pace. And hey, if we can laugh through The Great Terror, there’s a chance we can smile our way through our current political woes.

Burning

This South Korean offering counts as a mystery, mostly because the actual story remains so elusive for so much of its runtime. To reveal its inner workings would lessen the impact of its icy punch of an ending. But even when you don’t know where its heading, this tale of a quiet, lonely, barely employed millennial (Ah-In Yoo), who crosses paths with a dimly remembered middle school friend (Jong-Seo Jeon), sleeps with her and ends up roped into looking after her cat while she’s away on vacation, is gripping stuff. The fact that it’s based on a short story by gritty surrealist Haruki Murikami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles) gives you some idea of how offbeat tense this one secretly is.