I’m the damned fool who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of… list every year, and that’s because I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last few weeks of December, mostly stuff that others have told me is worth checking out that I either didn't have time to see in the theater or things that simply never came out locally. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in that timeframe, mostly in an effort to solidify my top 10.
I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn’t make my Top 10, as I was assembling this list. I often feel that after the top 5, the numbers don’t mean much, and that’s certainly true this year.
All right, enough preamble. Here are my humbly submitted Best features of 2018. Please enjoy, discuss, debate… here
We've been told to ignore all the previous sequels before walking into this latest chapter, and that's fine by me. Aside from the underappreciated Halloween 2 and the bizarrely awesome yet unrelated Part 3 (Season of the Witch), none of the other franchise entries are all that memorable. In many ways, this long-awaited follow-up sticks to the same formula as Halloweens 4 through 8, but this flick has the added bonus of Jamie Lee Curtis, front and center, anchoring not only a defense against the seemingly unstoppable Michael Myers, but also a surprisingly effective tale of three women coming to terms with some very old fears. Plus it's one of the most beautifully shot slasher movies you'll ever see, and that's not something I ever thought I'd say.
It's not easy to combine action, horror, and sci-fi into one nifty little 95-minute package that actually works in all three departments, but this movie gets it right. The story focuses on a guy who's been implanted with the fancy new "Stem" chip, a bio-computer that quickly attains a mind of its own. Genre fans will notice DNA from all sorts of fun movies in Upgrade, although it borrows mostly amusingly from Robocop, both in tone and in graphic violence.
11. The Clovehitch Killer
In a year filled with arty spins on traditional horror, not enough attention has been paid to The Clovehitch Killer, directed by first-timer Duncan Skiles, from a script by Cop Car co-screenwriter Christopher Ford, starring Dylan McDermott as a beloved small-town scoutmaster who may be a serial rapist and murderer. Lean On Pete’s Charlie Plummer plays the man’s son, in a story that unfolds in three distinct parts, each asking two unsettling questions: What if this seemingly upstanding, conservative Christian community leader is actually a dangerous criminal? And what is it about who he is and where he lives that might let him get away with something truly heinous? The Clovehitch Killer takes an unusually slow-paced and experimental approach to mystery and suspense, but it’s also a cogent critique of how “the culture wars” can provide a cover for someone whose sins are far beyond what his neighbors can imagine.
There are countless movies out there about the cyclical nature of violence and revenge -- just this year alone we got a Death Wish remake and a virtual remake called Peppermint -- but it's safe to say you've never seen one quite like Mandy. Of course we get to see the always-intense Cage lose his mind more than once as he sets out to avenge the horrific misdeeds, but we also get a surprisingly touching love story, a whole lot of insane carnage, and a freaky visual sensibility that we've simply never seen before. Outside of certain 1970s rock music album covers, that is.
9. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
Everyone knows the old saw about anthology movies being less than the sum of their parts; it’s a tale as old as the singing cowboy or the stagecoach ghost story. Joel and Ethan Coen should be especially familiar, having contributed to Paris, Je T’Aime and faced assumptions that The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs was really supposed to be a TV series. But it’s hard to imagine breaking their six Western mini-movies into a Netflix “season,” because they complement each other so gracefully. Set in a beguiling netherworld between unforgiving real-life grimness and heightened tall-tale pulpiness, the stories range from delightfully mordant musical slapstick starring Tim Blake Nelson to a heartbreaking gut-punch starring Zoe Kazan, to name just two standouts. Death haunts the whole thing, which builds toward the simultaneously hilarious and hushed “The Mortal Remains,” as satisfying and language-besotted a closer as the Coens have ever concocted. Their sometimes-fatalist outlook has seen them tagged as nihilists, a group they savaged as well as anyone in The Big Lebowski. But nihilists don’t put this much thought into endings.
Spike Lee’s tragicomic retelling of an unlikely sting operation in Colorado Springs during the ’70s—a black cop (John David Washington) uses his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) as a stand-in so they may jointly play mole in the local KKK—feels like a return to form for a director who never really lost his touch. Chalk it up to the searing, specific timeliness, particularly the chilling finale that pushes the violence and bigotry off of the screen and into our reality. Lee finds plenty of shades of gray between black and white, as a morally conflicted individual gets caught in an ideological tug-of-war between the police force he loves even when it doesn’t love him back and the black-power radicals he can’t fully get down with. Inter-sectarian disputes over praxis, charged dialogue about identity politics, guilt over inaction in times of crisis: Lee takes everything lugubrious about modern discourse, duct-tapes it to a bundle of post-blaxploitation fireworks, and lights the fuse.
7. First Reformed
By turns thoughtful and outrageous, Paul Schrader’s drama about an alcoholic ex-military chaplain (Ethan Hawke, in one of his finest performances) pushes its writer-director’s career-long interest in contemplation and grotesque, gratuitous self-destruction to new extremes. As the minister and caretaker of an old clapboard church in upstate New York, Hawke’s depressed, soft-spoken Rev. Toller struggles with the betrayed promise of Christianity—and with the secrets of a Marian young widow (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband left behind an explosive suicide vest. The material may be borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, Robert Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest, and Schrader’s own screenplay for Taxi Driver, but First Reformed’s perturbed vision of the modern End Times of terrorism and ecological disaster is very much its own. For all of its boxy visual asceticism, the result is one of Schrader’s richest films—and one’s that likely to grow on the viewer, as it has on this writer.
6. Isle Of Dogs
Chock-full of breathtaking formal play and sharp verbal comedy, Isle Of Dogs is hard to match for moment-to-moment pleasure. By telling a familiar boy-and-his-dog story in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki, Anderson has drawn some valid charges of cultural appropriation. But the sheer range of aesthetic styles he utilizes here is often breathtaking, evincing a considered (if not necessarily marrow-deep) engagement with Japanese culture. At this point in his career, the director’s now-familiar aesthetic toolbox is liable to be taken for granted—and though he’s again working with politically charged imagery (as in The Grand Budapest Hotel), the film’s emotional earnestness is unmistakable. But sentimentality has its place, and an ingeniously assembled Rube Goldberg contraption that affirms the value of pooch-like loyalty is nothing to scoff at
5. Avengers: Infinity War
The culmination of 10 years and 18 movies, Infinity War represented a milestone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was also a huge achievement for directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who triumphantly pulled off a feat of cinematic plate-spinning hitherto undreamt of.
The sheer scale of Infinity War is staggering. A sprawling adventure set between Earth and various other outer-space locations, the film features a line-up of around 30 superheroes and series regulars. The fact that the writers and directors manage to successfully juggle all those balls, while delivering a satisfying pay-off to a decade’s worth of shared-universe set-up, is nothing short of a masterstroke.
4. A Prayer Before Dawn
Through certainly not easy viewing, A Prayer Before Dawn is essential viewing for anyone interested in a visceral cinematic experience. It’s another one for A24‘s continuous winnings streak. The fight choreography is exquisite, and it’s still essential viewing for Muay Thai fans as the film does give us an intimate glimpse in the sport’s spiritual foundations. The definition of an immersive experience, “A Prayer Before Dawn” is a survival story whittled to sweat and sinews. But if there’s one reason to watch this film it’s Joe Cole’s starring turn as Billy Moore. It’s one of the best performances of the year. This lad has got a bright future ahead of him.
Not since Marion Crane took the last shower of her short life has a horror movie so cruelly, effectively shattered an audience’s false sense of security. Capable of chilling the most jaded multiplex crowd into silence, the figurative and literal schism that arrives early into Ari Aster’s harrowingly accomplished debut feature is a microcosm for its sophisticated emotional terrorism—the way it uses the ugly feelings volleying across bedrooms and dining-room tables to put nerves on end, goosing its impeccably crafted scares. Some saw no meaningful relationship between Hereditary’s anguished family drama and the supernatural nightmare that consumes it, even with Toni Collette—in the year’s most grippingly volatile performance ( fuck off Academy Awards)—creating continuity between them with every disturbing contortion of her facial muscles. But to call the two incompatible is to miss the full significance of the film’s diabolical design, including the twisted logic of its upshot: a kind of happy ending for anyone who ever sought meaning in senseless tragedy or shifted responsibility for their misfortunes onto a power greater than themselves.
I’m not sure why more people aren’t talking about Carlos López Estrada‘s Blindspotting, but perhaps it just got lost in the shuffle. This timely drama tells the tale of two friends: Collin (Daveed Diggs, who should be a huge movie star by now) and Miles (Rafael Casal). Collin only has three more days left on probation, and as long as he doesn’t get in any trouble, he should be good to go. The problem is Miles has a temper, and tends to get the duo into sticky situations – and Collin is too loyal to cut his old friend loose. In the midst of all this, Collin witnesses a white cop gunning down a black man, triggering PTSD in the process. Blindspotting flows with ease, featuring scenes where Collin and Miles break into freestyle rap in the midst of their dialogue. That may sound strange, or forced, but the stellar performances from Diggs and Casal make it work. Blindspotting is telling an important story with social commentary, but it never leans heavily on that – it instead lets the story unfold almost casually, sweeping us up along with it, until things come to an explosive head. It’s raw, powerful and dammit did it not make me shed a tear or two in the last 10 minutes.
The House That Jack Built
The House That Jack Built is an audacious and divisive film, sure, but only because of the context surrounding the film. The gore! The violence! The subject material! Oh my! At its core, though, von Trier has actually assembled his most accessible work to date. It’s a digestible watch at 155 minutes that doesn’t fuss around with what it wants to say, getting from point A to point Hell without having to make any sacrifices on the creative front. No, this is peak von Trier — von Trier at his most von Trieriest, if you will — and yet it’s downright enjoyable.
If anything, that’s perhaps the most disturbing takeaway from the entire experience. With all due respect to von Trier, he isn’t exactly a comedic mastermind, and yet somehow The House That Jack Built is one of the funniest films of 2018. No kidding! From the film’s stark, humble beginnings to its fiery, hellish end, von Trier always has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, as if he’s standing in the corner giggling from behind a marked-up copy of either The Canterbury Tales or Dante’s Inferno.
It’s darkly comical stuff that gets in your bones, which, of course, is the point. It’s all part of von Trier’s rich subversion, stemming from the conceit that this is entertainment, that these awful atrocities are as equally eternal as anything we may put in museums or celebrate in history books. How you respectively stomach those thoughts and feelings is where the terror truly begins, and where the power of The House That Jack Built ultimately takes over. Because in the end, we’re all spiraling out of control.
Such is life.