2018 was a great year for film: I don’t see everything that comes out, so if even I can say that, and have to make tough choices to narrow my favorites down to a top ten, while still having missed out on some of the most acclaimed films of the year, then it must have been good. Still, I did see more contemporary films than in previous years, nearly fifty from 2018, a third or so of them in the last month alone as I played catch-up. As always, the rankings given below are so subjective that even I may not agree with them tomorrow, but at least they give me a chance to organize my thoughts and explore common themes that run through the year’s cinema. You will also note that I am sometimes using a film’s entry to draw comparisons with a similar or complementary film: this isn’t necessarily to say that one is “better” than the other, even if I make clear why I prefer one over the other. Perhaps it is simply an opportunity to write about more than the arbitrary limit of ten films during this rich year. (My selection of films is based on U.S. release dates; some of these films were released earlier in other countries or sat on the shelf for a while.)
10. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Oakland native Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) rockets to the top of his telemarketing job when an older African-American colleague advises him to use his “white voice” to connect with potential marks. From this already whimsical conceit (Green’s nasal “white voice” is dubbed in by comic David Cross), Sorry to Bother You goes in increasingly bizarre directions as Green is admitted to the “Power Callers,” where he cold calls dictators and corporate CEOs to sell them weapons, indentured labor, and other unsavory products, while struggling to keep it real with his performance-artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) and working-class friends. Not everything works in this scattershot comedy, but the righteous anger at the dehumanizing elements of our society and economy are refreshing and necessary, and the Gondryesque production design is a delight.
9. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor)
I’m as surprised as you to find this on my top ten instead of the year’s other big Nicolas Cage vehicle, Panos Cosmatos’ instant cult favorite Mandy: Mandy has a lot going for it, and I would have liked to have seen it on the big screen, but it ultimately felt a little hollow beneath its fog- and synth-drenched surface. Mom and Dad is a lot messier, and its premise–a mania of unknown origin causes parents all over the world to turn violently on their own children, setting up a confrontation between Cage and wife Selma Blair and their two kids in their suburban home–is so ugly that I almost didn’t watch it. The seams frequently show, and Cage seems unhinged from the get-go, making his turn to homicidal maniac less than surprising, but there’s some honest examination of the frustrations of aging and parenthood beneath the provocation. A sense of clever gallows humor pervades the action, with some of the film’s biggest laughs courtesy of Zackary Arthur, who plays the couple’s young son. A gauzy soft-focus opening-credit sequence set to a maudlin ballad suggests an homage to issue-driven ’70s horror, but that’s a stylistic feint, and the film proper has a hyperkinetic, chronology-twisting sensibility that is clearly contemporary; it has gotten under my skin and stayed with me in the weeks since I saw it.
8. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail)
The animated series Teen Titans Go! is essentially the Looney Tunes of superhero media, treating its heroes as the punchlines to absurd jokes and extended gags: putting the emphasis on “Teen,” the Titans would rather hang out and play video games or eat pizza than fight crime, much to the chagrin of their ambitious leader, Robin. In their first cinematic outing, the Titans deflate the rest of the DC universe–and superhero cinema in general–in similar fashion, setting their sights on the current crop of big-screen comic book adaptations. Robin’s insecurity as a leader is a natural peg to hang the story on, and with seemingly every other character getting a movie, his ambition gets the better of him. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is one of the flat-out funniest movies of the year, with both broad slapstick and wordplay and jokes targeting the glut of superhero movies and jabs at specific characters and bits of DC mythology (a sequence in which the Titans use time travel to clear the field of competing heroes is a high point).
7. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)
Alice (Madeline Brewer) earns money as a cam girl online, putting on an edgy live sex show as “Lola.” While lucrative, it has risks, from stalkers who can’t separate online fantasy from real life to the possibility of her family and friends discovering what she really does for a living. Things get weird, however, when “Lola” takes on a life of her own, locking Alice out of her own website and crossing lines that Alice swore she never would. Has she been hacked? Is it one of her fellow cam girls messing with her, taking professional rivalry too far? Cam isn’t quite a horror movie, except in the existential sense that it updates the classic fear of the doppelganger for an age of identity theft and online sex work. The line between representation and reality is one of my favorite themes, and some of the best scenes in Cam are those that put Alice on the opposite side of the screen, watching the character she created come to life and trying to figure out just what’s real and what’s an act like any other john. Like Sorry to Bother You, Cam trades in the unsettling feeling–frequently pushed down so we can get on with our day–that you never really know who’s on the other end of the line.
6. Colette (Wash Westmoreland)
The creative process can be difficult to portray on film, particularly something as private and relatively quiet as writing, but as the title character in Colette, Keira Knightley makes it seem both urgent and sensual. (Between this and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s been quite a year for Knightley to play characters who get off on their work.) The film begins with Colette’s marriage to the older, already-successful writer Willy (Dominic West), whose factory-like output is produced by a cadre of ghostwriters. While coming to terms with his profligate, philandering lifestyle, Colette writes the first of her books about the precocious schoolgirl Claudine, which she allows Willy to publish under his name. A few books later, Claudine is a national sensation, inspiring fashion and style trends and bushels of tie-in products, as well as a line of wannabe Claudines lined up to satisfy Willy’s sexual fantasies. At the same time, Colette has come to terms with her attraction to women, leading to an uneasy open marriage (and an amusing sequence in which Colette and Willy trade liaisons with the same woman). The tensions inherent in such a marriage could not last forever, and Colette must choose what she wants out of life even as her older husband seems more and more used up. Knightley and West make a dynamic pair in this, and the film is charming and breezy while making room for the depth of feeling beneath the banter and fin-de-siècle Parisian style.
5. Blockers (Kay Cannon)
Blockers (as in “cock blockers”) had one of the more obnoxious marketing campaigns in recent memory, flipping the “teens set out to lose their virginity” premise of so many raunchy comedies by showing it from the perspective of the parents out to stop their fun. Perhaps no trailer could get across how thoughtful and, yes, funny, the actual film is, but I’m glad positive word-of-mouth encouraged me to give it a try. Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz are the parents of three teenage girlfriends, and when they get wind of their daughters’ prom night plans, they go into protective overdrive, each for their own reasons. (Barinholtz in particular is hilarious as a sketchy divorced dad, but his motives are actually the purest, hoping to protect his closeted lesbian daughter from what he sees as hetero peer pressure.) Through misadventures and complications, the parents come to understand their children and learn to let go, and the three girls go through their own journey of self-discovery. This year had another fantastic comedy in Game Night, but I liked Blockers a bit more: it got me in the feels as well as making me laugh.
4. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
The polite, marmalade-loving bear is back, and this time the plot centers around a pop-up book of London Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) hopes to give his Aunt Lucy. When the book is stolen, Paddington is blamed and he brings his sense of good manners and good intentions to prison where he makes an unlikely friend in cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). Hugh Grant, as has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (and the real thief), makes for a more fitting villain than Nicole Kidman’s bloodthirsty taxidermist in the first movie; it’s a great star turn as he dons one disguise after another, a performance that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Vincent Price in Theater of Blood. This charming comedy has some big laughs and a truly warm heart; Paddington’s message of civility may be simple, but it never feels cloying. And, like the Harry Potter series before it, the Paddington series is apparently dedicated to finding a place for every working actor in the British Isles.
3. Shirkers (Sandi Tan)
A captivating documentary about the nascent indie film scene in Singapore in the 1990s, Shirkers is both a retrospective and something of a mystery: Sandi Tan’s debut film, Shirkers, had completed filming when its director (and Tan’s mentor) Georges Cardona disappeared with the footage. Much of the runtime of Shirkers (the documentary) sets the scene, using clips of the original film (the reels were finally recovered after Cardona’s death a few years ago) and describing the fallout of the film’s disappearance in the lives of Tan and her collaborators. One doesn’t have to buy the doc’s implication that Shirkers would have been a great film to appreciate the injustice Tan suffered, although the parallels between Tan’s film and later indie darlings, especially Ghost World, are eerie, to say the least. Cardona comes off as at best negligent and at worst predatory, and since he is no longer around to explain his actions, the enigmatic (and silent–Cardona preserved everything carefully but apparently lost the film’s audio tracks) excerpts from the original Shirkers stand as a monument for a rural Singapore that is now vanished and a promising film career that never materialized.
2. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
Like Shirkers, The Other Side of the Wind was long considered a lost film, but one made by an established master at the end of his career. Orson Welles filmed the project patchwork-style over several years in the 1970s, struggling to secure funding and eventually losing legal access to nearly one hundred hours of footage in a tangle of claims and counterclaims. The film was finally freed from red tape and completed (“restored” seems like the wrong word) in the last few years according to detailed instructions left behind by Welles. The film portrays an aging director (John Huston) on the last night of his life (the film is framed as a documentary investigation of the director’s apparent suicide–shades of Citizen Kane!), shown through the multiple cameras of documentarians and cameramen invited into his home for an epic birthday party. At the same time, we are treated to lavish excerpts from the director’s magnum opus–also called The Other Side of the Wind–as he searches for a producer willing to invest in completing the film (and yet Welles denied the film was a self-portrait!). These excerpts, starring Welles’ muse Oja Kodar in a wordless, erotic journey that finds Welles outdoing his French New Wave competitors, are magnificent. The entire film is fragmentary and often frustrating, with many clear analogues to then-current figures in Hollywood (although I knew the general outlines of this story, the accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, detailing Welles’ final years, was illuminating and raised my opinion of The Other Side of the Wind; also recommended is the featurette A Final Cut for Orson, which describes the actual process of collecting, restoring, and assembling the footage; all three films can be seen on Netflix).
1. Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
Two teenage girls, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) hatch a plot to rid themselves of Lily’s asshole stepfather, recruiting a local drug dealer (Anton Yelchin, in his last performance–this movie was made in 2017 but wasn’t released until this year) to do their dirty work. Amanda is a sociopath, so detached from her emotions that she denies having any; is Lily in Amanda’s thrall, or is something else going on? The description of the plot makes it sound similar to any number of psychological thrillers or true crime dramas, but the clinical approach and icy humor make it closer to something like The Neon Demon or one of Alexander Payne’s upper class satires. I went into this one knowing very little about it, and that’s probably the best way to appreciate its many surprises.
Worst Movie: Gotti (Kevin Connolly)
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. “Self-serving” doesn’t begin to cover it, as the John Travolta-starring biopic of late mafia boss John Gotti goes beyond apologia to hagiography, deflecting any criticism of its main character with tough questions like, “What if government prosecutors are the real gangsters, huh, didja ever think of that?” and “What are you, a pussy?” Leaving aside its heroic spin on real-life criminality–after all, there have been plenty of compelling films about morally questionable protagonists, and it’s not like we haven’t made heroes out of mobsters before–it’s a boring slog, like a series of Dateline NBC reenactments strung out to feature length, jumping from one “highlight” to another over a series of years. Even when Gotti should be sympathetic, like when his young son is killed in a car accident, the filmmakers can’t help themselves, having him heroically tell his wife to “snap out” of her understandable depression and assuming that we’ll agree the driver of the car deserved to get wacked. Aside from a few jaw-droppingly bad choices, Gotti doesn’t even have the mercy of being comically terrible: I borrowed it from the library and I still feel like I paid too much.
Dumbest Movie I Will Almost Certainly Watch Again: The Happytime Murders (Brian Henson)
The Happytime Murders first came to prominence as a screenplay by Todd Berger that made The Black List, a noirish fantasy about a washed-up puppet detective paired with a human to solve the murder of one of his own. That sounds great! Then the reviews started coming in, describing it as a labored, unfunny insult to the legacy of the Muppets. That sounds terrible! Perhaps helped by low expectations, I found The Happytime Murders to be neither a hidden masterpiece nor the complete disaster it had been made out to be. Its biggest flaw is the assumption that puppets spewing obscenities is inherently hilarious; the lack of wit becomes apparent pretty quickly, but the plot and characters are diverting, and while it’s no Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it does succeed in delivering a few laughs. The Happytime Murders wouldn’t work at all without Melissa McCarthy’s game central performance as the troubled human police detective forced to team up with disgraced puppet Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). Actually, one of the best parts of the movie is the end credits, which includes behind-the-scenes footage showing how the puppets were filmed alongside the live actors.
The Ones That Got Away
As I mentioned, I don’t get out to see everything, and even with the options of streaming and home video there are only so many hours in the day. Of the movies that I had hoped to get to, it’s mostly films that came out in the last few months of the year that I still haven’t seen. I didn’t make Damien Chazelle’s First Man a high priority when it came out in October because I was focused on horror, even though I had enjoyed Chazelle’s previous films, and now I’m regretting that I didn’t make more of an effort. I am also kicking myself for not getting to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, but it was difficult trying to find the time for a two-and-a-half hour film in November. I also expected to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse before the end of the year, but at least that (and Aquaman, which I also haven’t seen) will still be in theaters in January. As for the rest, well, I try not to beat myself up over deadlines that are entirely personal; I know that I’ll be able to catch up with films I missed, and since I’ve already made it clear that rankings don’t really mean much to me (even as I arbitrarily assign them), I don’t plan on losing sleep over the placement of a movie. There’s always next year, right?
Thanks for reading. Have a happy New Year and a great 2019!