It’s a rare year when your top twenty-five films find the room to allow their usual Oscar-bait dramas to co-exist with foreign favorites, heartfelt documentaries, surreal comedies, and superhero fantasy adventures. Rarer still is a period of time such as 2018 wherein it happens two or three times over. And it’s not just about familiar faces leading the way either as the extensive list of first-time filmmakers who saw their works distributed in theaters nationwide the past twelve months goes a long way towards ensuring cinema has a bright future ahead.
Add the full-blown infiltration of streaming giants with Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu all possessing true contenders (along with the first signs of positive compromise as far as collaboration with big screen purveyors in advance of day-and-date releases goes) and the industry is literally adjusting its blueprint for success in real-time. There’s excitement in that as both a critic and fan of the medium. And it’s no coincidence that underserved communities are wielding this sweet spot of affordable technology, unorthodox distribution patterns, and an empowered call for equity to bring their art to the masses. They’ll either force change within the Hollywood studio system or watch as it crumbles under an archaic stubbornness against evolution.
As long as we receive the spoils in the form of uniquely unforgettable roller coaster rides marrying emotion, entertainment, and artistry together in order to cross genre, demographic, and cultural lines so film can once again transcend shortsighted notions of disposable escapism devoid of meaningful substance, the old ways can burn to the ground. This year has delivered the type of work hearty enough to rise from the ashes when that hard reset finally occurs.
Writer/director Josephine Decker makes good on the horror-like intensity of her previous two features by rendering Madeline’s Madeline an unabashedly performative exercise centered upon a young girl fighting to survive the continual theft of her identity by adults who should be protecting her. Miranda July and Molly Parker deliver roles steeped in terror with disarming smiles as they strip their ward/muse/plaything of her unique voice in order to make it their own. Helena Howard’s Madeline is ostensibly sold as a masterpiece of their creation until a rousing finale of sensory overload can allow her the space to reclaim what they’ve stolen. Hers is a mesmerizingly raw and authentic debut that cuts through our hearts as her trauma is misappropriated as entertainment.Review
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: the subjects of Bart Layton’s American Animals exiting prison as the documentarian was ready to fictionalize the reason for their incarceration. His film therefore exists as a hybridized docudrama shifting between third-person fictionalization and first-person recollection to deliver one of the year’s most uniquely fascinating cinematic experiences. Some events are fact, some embellishment, and some outright lie. Ask each subject and they may have a different answer as far as which is which. Layton cuts between life and legend with a deft hand, each interjection of commentary critical to understanding the mindset and motivation behind scared kids who prove how anyone is capable of horror when privileged boredom warps the integrity of their values.Review
Christian Petzold isn’t interested in throwing the weight of the world on Georg’s shoulders because that turns him into a white savior—no matter how flawed—who swoops in to usher those less fortunate to their salvation. The director instead transforms his lead into a ferryman of the dead, always present at others’ demise. Every kind thing he does leads to tragedy because there’s no relief in purgatory. To live is to watch the world suffer. Transit is a manifestation of this unalienable humiliation with Georg standing in for our collective conscience. Those of us who remain ultimately become the ones who remember and Petzold does a wonderful job putting the melancholic beauty of that reality’s bittersweet poetry on-screen.Review
Director Paul Dano and co-writer Zoe Kazan’s Wildlife could have easily found itself unraveling into a “he said/she said” battle of attrition. The pair instead paints their material’s parental fracturing with compassion and complexity from the vantage point of a son (Ed Oxenbould) desperately attempting to preserve his love for them separately despite how their individual frustrations and yearning for more risks implosion. Some of the year’s best performances (anchored by Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal) help portray these diverging trajectories as a revolt against an archaic way of life that stifles potential for societal homogeneity. We’re watching a sea change of cultural taboo wherein each character takes an evolutionary step forward to spotlight three new and parallel beginnings rather than one collective end.Review
It’s easy to compare First Man to Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough Whiplash since both are dealing with men under pressure to be the best they can while losing who they are beneath the veneer that particular mindset creates. So while hearing twisting metal cut to absolute silence against space’s backdrop might prove a universally religious experience, it remains tethered to Neil Armstrong’s personal journey with tortured psyche laid bare. Ryan Gosling internalizes his pain and grief so that those long years of work can exorcize his unique demons just as America expels its own in a gloriously iconic instant. The moment’s hugeness was thus torn from Armstrong’s hands so that a nation could rejoice in patriotic excellence. Finally its stolen intimacy has been returned.Review
Minding the Gap
Minding the Gap epitomizes the power of cinema as an artistic medium for change. To watch the footage first-time director Bing Liu shot years ago is to see a group of young skateboarders attempting to immortalize new tricks and hype them up with friends. It’s a look at kids with different backgrounds and issues escaping troubled lives and unwittingly finding a resonant point of catharsis. Inevitably growing older to find their struggles compounding, they refuse to shy from the toxic cycle of abuse uncovered. Liu morphs from camera-operator to subject alongside two men who trust him enough to bare their souls and expose their secrets—joyous and damning. The result is an unforgettably human depiction of honest self-reflection and transformative possibility.Review
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s unparalleled exercise in economy You Were Never Really Here cements her status as a cinematic master. This brutal thriller runs a deliberate yet swift 89-minutes, its central character a man of few words with violence bubbling just beneath a too large heart for the hostile world that’s forced him to retreat within. The whole is built upon purposeful machinations as spare as they are beautiful, its stoic façade a means towards surviving the authentic horror lying amongst the shadows we’ve been conditioned to pretend don’t exist. Joaquin Phoenix imbues his lead with a palpable ferocity—an anti-hero resigned to the fact that his soul cannot be saved. And somehow that torturous self-hate and defeatism lends his unrelenting carnage grace.Review
If Beale Street Could Talk
Art like James Baldwin’s and Barry Jenkins’ provides truth to remind us of the sacrifice and heroism through survival some will never endure or experience themselves. The power in this is unquantifiable and, much like he did with Moonlight, the latter seeks to express it through the poetic construction of resonant images, sounds, and ordeals that comprise his adaptation of the former’s If Beale Street Could Talk. He brings us into this world of aching love and romance tinged but never tainted by the horrors of what looms above. Impossible as a word becomes erased from these characters’ vocabulary because whether or not their actions succeed, the attempt cannot be diminished. Love will protect them and love will set them free.Review
Leave No Trace
After three features utilizing the same humanistic approach of bringing stories about marginalized and often-taboo communities to cinemas, I still found myself staring in awe at Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. Her subject matter is the sort Hollywood exploits for cheap melodrama and politicized messaging and yet she unearths the beauty, humility, and grace existing within. She exposes PTSD’s sobering complexity here rather than the explosiveness agenda-driven editorializing revels in spotlighting. Through it arrives the pain and sacrifice of love once individual strengths and necessity become paramount to the co-dependent safety a parent/child unit provides. And with a stunning debut by Thomasin McKenzie opposite the always-superb Ben Foster, we bear witness as two empathetic souls acknowledge this devastating and inspirational truth.Review
Jusqu’à la garde [Custody]
A riveting sequel to Xavier Legrand’s equally tense Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything is the type of film that leaves you speechless—a fact only augmented by its lack of score and deafening cut-to-black silence. In my mind Custody is the most accomplished and assured directorial debut of the year with Legrand’s skill at coaxing heartrending performances from veterans (Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet) and newcomers (Thomas Gioria) alike matched only by his technical prowess to construct the type of edge-of-your-seat terror this raw depiction of domestic abuse horror deserves. He puts you into the desperate mindset of a family struggling to escape a monster. As they hold their breath in a permanent state of anxiety, so too do we.Review