The Day After
(dir. Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

For those not familiar with his work, Hong Sang-soo is a prolific South Korean director who has had a presence at Cannes since the 90’s and has steadily been getting more acclaim in the international film scene as time goes on. 

His films typically move through conversations between friends and lovers and interrogate the ideas of relationships and the flow of time. Meanwhile, his approach to filmmaking can range from straightforward to at times downright experimental. Thematically and formally his films often hinge on repetition in intriguing ways, a particularly great example of this can be found in his stunningly clever Right Now, Wrong Then.

That film was my introduction to Hong and led to me to watch through 6 of his films in 2018 which, to be honest, barely scratched the surface of his now 22 film filmography. His not quite latest, because he literally has already made two more films since this premiered in the U.S., is the fantastic The Day After. It’s a remarkable elevation of his craft and stands out, not only as one of his personal best, but as one of the very best films of the year.

The story roughly follows a day in the life of a book publisher whose wife just uncovered his affair with a coworker. The narrative splinters into a mix of past and present, jumping back and forth in time as the story unwinds. Alongside the shifts in time we are also moving back and forth from the perspective of a new employee attempting to navigate her first day of work for the company as all hell breaks loose.

More often than not the visual look of one of Hong’s films takes a backseat to the conversations at hand, and the at times weird formal elements of the film.  However, here the cinematography is front and center in a gorgeous black and white, making this easily one of Hong’s best looking films yet.

Additionally, his typically free-form structure is eschewed for a precise approach, each scene feeling critical and creating a clockwork feel that pairs beautifully with the stark contrasts of its look. There is a darkly comic throughline running through this, but much like his other work there is a strong tinge of brooding melancholy lurking underneath, and in many ways this is also one of his darkest films. 

This is a wonderful entry into an already staggering filmography, and an excellent entry point to this fantastic talent. His next two films Grass and Hotel by the River are premiering next spring so keep an eye out on those as well.

Free with subscription: Amazon Prime 

Happy As Lazarro
(dir. Alice Rohrwacher, 2018)

Happy As Lazarro is one of the more surprising and intriguing films on this list. The subjects being explored by director Alice Rohrwacher feel simultaneously massive, and yet the scope of the story remains so fundamentally personal.

Without giving away too much, Happy as Lazarro is a satiric exploration of power structures and a vicious indictment of “progressive” western society. In watching this, I was strongly reminded of Claire Denis‘ masterpiece White Material, a film painting a picture of the viciousness and horror of colonialism through an individual lens. Much like with Denis we are watching an elegant balance of the personal and the political, the macro and the micro.

In Happy As Lazarro the scope of subject matter feels even broader, using some marvelously clever conceits and a little bit of magical realism to draw a fantastic throughline from the past to the present, and the way in which power structures and rigid class systems replicate themselves in ostensibly free societies. 

While a lot of these ideas can feel lumbering on the page, Rohrwacher brings all of this in a fairly light and elegant way, that unlike White Material doesn’t necessarily feel brooding. Something that feels like quite a feat given that she is able to weave in a whole other undercurrent of religious metaphor through which we observe the characters at play. 

I am avoiding much of the specifics of the the plot because because this  intriguing and at times surprising film, I think really benefits from going in knowing less. Alongside Madeline’s Madeline, which appears a bit later on in this list, I think this is one of the most imaginative and beguiling films of the year.

Free with subscription: Netflix

Hereditary
(dir. Ari Aster, 2018)

Over the years I’ve developed a soft spot for the horror genre, something that surprised me because these movies used to scare me to death growing up. One day it felt like a switch flipped, and I’ve been watching a lot of horror ever since, but few if any have been able to effect me in the way that Hereditary has, making me just a little bit more wary before casually throwing on a horror movie before bed.

I was so impressed by this film that I went to seek out Ari Aster‘s other work. I watched one of his short films: The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, which was, and I’m not exaggerating, one of the worst things I’ve seen this year. An attempt at provocation so shallow that it plays out like a rejected Tim & Eric sketch. This could signal that Hereditary is a fluke, or maybe that Aster has since evolved his style and thinking, but regardless, Hereditary is electric filmmaking and if Aster can keep this up, he will be one of the major voices in horror today. 

The plot revolves around a household trying to desperately move forward following a death in the family. The horror of Hereditary lies in it’s engrossing and realistic portrayal of grief. Toni Collete‘s performance grounds this in such a tangible reality, that by the time the horror elements begin to creep in, you are left vulnerable to the consuming terror.

I don’t know if it needs to be said one more time, but Toni Collete deserves more attention than she ever gets. She is one of the most consistent and fascinating actresses in Hollywood today, and has been delivering fantastic performances going all the way back to one of my very favorite films Muriel’s Wedding. Her role here is absolutely spectacular and she literally holds the film on her shoulders.

Partially, the strong effect that this film had on me is tied to having lost my grandmother earlier this year. So many of the aspects of this, the vagaries of grief, and the particularly gaudy faux-formality of the funeral home, were still fresh in mind when I saw it.

Aster nails the grip of grief and the toxicity of family dynamics in a way that is hard to verbalize, and that might be Hereditary’s true achievement here, placing this into the esteemed category alongside classic brooding family horror like Don’t Look NowThe Changeling, and Rosemary’s Baby.

Free with subscription: Amazon Prime

If Beale Street Could Talk
(dir. Barry Jenkins, 2018)

Right around the time that Moonlight came out I remember seeing an interview with Barry Jenkins talking about being inspired by the work of Wong Kar-wai. Immediately, I knew that I needed to see Moonlight, and when I finally did, I was absolutely blown away. 

One of my dorkiest possessions is a VHS of Wong’s Chungking Express that I got from a thrift store, that sits on my shelf to remind me of that original tape my brother made me watch years ago. So hearing Barry Jenkins talking about Chunkging Express opening up the world of film for him in much the same way that it did for me, just cements my adoration for him.

Flashing forward to 2018 watching If Beale Street Could Talk, the first film that came to mind for reference was not the more approachable Chunkging Express but Wong Kar-wai’s career defining masterpiece In The Mood for Love.

In an interview with Criterion Barry Jenkins says he still has a lifetime of film ahead of him before he could approach that level of filmmaking. But the truth is I think he’s so much closer than that. In fact there are so few films that I could compare the gorgeous lush colors and cinematic rapture of Beale Street to, that it’s difficult to say he’s not already there. The visuals here are so sumptuous they positively ooze off the screen.

The story which is based on a James Baldwin novel of the same name, explores the relationship of a young black couple Tish and Fonny, who are torn apart by a racist police force determined to imprison Fonny for a crime he didn’t commit. The film follows Tish and her family’s efforts to exculpate Fonny, intercut with gorgeous glimpses into the history and growth of their relationship. 

This is a film covering some very upsetting subject matter in an honest and forthright way, and yet, Jenkins fills each frame with so much warmth, empathy, and love, that it’s impossible not to feel some type of hope, based solely on the images on screen. This is all backed up and grounded in phenomenally tender and often quietly beautiful performances that breathe a real life and vibrancy into the already elevated source material. 

All of the acting here is fantastic, but a small moment that sticks with me in particular is when in one of the segments looking back on the good old days. Brian Tyree Henry who plays an old friend of Fonny’s comes to visit the couple and after a number drinks, he talks about his experience in prison foreshadowing Fonny’s future. As he speaks, the warm tender tones of the cinematography and music lilt and dip into a slow graceful melancholy, that is absolutely staggering. 

Much like Wong at his best, Barry Jenkins is a master at weaving a chain of scenes like this, and each one could exist on their own as gorgeous short film. In doing so again here, he continues to make the case for himself as one of the top American directors today.

Only In Theaters
Additional Material: Barry Jenkins on Wong Kar-wai

Let The Sunshine In
(dir. Claire Denis, 2018)

One of the most egregious omissions from most end of year lists has been Claire Denis’ stunning Let The Sunshine In, I’ve been following this movie since I had a chance to see it at the New York Film Festival in 2017 and those who know me personally, know that I haven’t shut up about it ever since. I got to see it again this year when it made its official theatrical release here in the U.S., and maybe now, with 2018 behind us, I’ll take a break at singing it’s praises, but here is just one last attempt.

Claire Denis is one of the most intriguing filmmakers in that while each of her films share certain commonalities ever single one somewhat eludes genre and type. Of the films  I’ve seen thus far, she has been able to show such an impressive range, from her unflinching portrait of colonization in White Material, to the tender family dynamics of 35 Shots of Rum, the visceral body horror of Trouble Every Day, all the way to the brutal existentialist sci-fi of her upcoming High Life.

Let The Sunshine In shows Claire Denis trying her hand at what could technically be considered a romantic-comedy, though to be fair the laughs here are more often punctuated by sobs. Juliet Binoche is a powerhouse here, delivering one of the best performances of the year with a bewildering ease and grace. 

The film finds Binoche’s character torn between a number of men of varying degrees of obnoxiousness. But while each successive situation seems to hint towards a steady despair, Binoche is unwilling and almost unable unable to give up, finding the glimmer of hope in each of the at times woeful partners, in her ardent pursuit of love. 

A particularly spectacular moment comes to mind set in a women’s bathroom, where she delivers a monologue gliding across an emotional landscape from smiles to tears and back within the framework of a single sentence. It’s an absolute thrill to watch an actor of such a caliber performing at the height of her abilities, being filmed by a director who is absolutely fearless in this pursuit, and continues to grow and explore.

Much like Claire Denis other work, the at times loose collection of vignettes and scenes builds and carefully coalesces into a powerful thesis by the end. This leads all the way to what I consider the very best end-credit sequence of the year.

Free with subscription: Hulu

Madeline's Madeline
(dir. Josephine Decker, 2018)

As evident from earlier, I love Barry Jenkins, so when I saw him effusively raving about Madeline’s Madeline on Twitter, I knew I had to see it. This is an exciting, jarring, haunting film, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen.

After first seeing Madeline’s Madeline, I took some time to explore Decker’s other two feature films Butter On The Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. While out of the three I prefer Madeline’s Madeline, I would strongly recommend taking a look at these, especially because all three films are easily available through Kanopy, the amazing streaming service made available through your library card. 

Decker comes from a background of performance art, and while in Madeline’s Madeline this plays as a literal theme and location, all of her work is imbued with a fascinating approach to filming human movement and the human body. There is something electrifying in the way that she directs her actors to deliver full body performances, that is quite unlike anything else I’ve encountered before. Madeline’s Madeline is off-kilter in a very exciting, and a film where you’re never quite sure what to expect.

Nowhere is this type of performance-art direction more evident than in the star making role of Helena Howard who plays the titular Madeline. A teenage girl struggling to cope with her overbearing mother and finding escape in the world of theater and her surrogate mother figure. In many ways, both impose themselves equally on Madeline stifling her voice, a tension that builds and builds until the explosive finale. 

Also, keep an eye out on Decker’s new film Shirley coming this year with the wonderful Elisabeth Moss playing the iconic horror author Shirley Jackson. The biopic is one of my least favorite genres but with Decker at the helm, I’ll tell you now, I’ll be scrambling to be first in line to see it.

Free with library card: Kanopy
Free with subscription: Amazon Prime

Paddington 2
(dir. Paul King, 2018)

It’s tricky to judge children’s films alongside heavier fare. What are the criteria that one sets, and how successful should it be in achieving its goals to be considered alongside some of the best art films of the year?  Thankfully, I didn’t need to think too hard about this given that Paddington 2 is such a marvel that nearly all of these questions and concerns are rendered moot.

In trying to figure out exactly what makes this film so magical we have to start with the animation itself. It’s taken such a long time for CGI to cross the uncanny valley, but here we are seeing some of the most brilliant animation yet. Paddington’s eyes communicate so much emotion it’s hard not to become invested, and yes, start crying towards the end because of the adventures of a cartoon bear.

The story at hand is similar in tone to the original, which was fantastic in its own right. It melds together common themes of friendship and empathy in ways that are easy to understand for kids, but sophisticated and relevant enough to resonate with adults. After all Paddington is in a immigrant first and foremost, at a time when immigrants are under attack in both the U.K. and U.S. 

However, this time there is an additional layer covering the racist and cruel nature of the prison system, adding even higher stakes in a more realistic setting of how “the other” can be treated in ostensibly progressive countries. 

Paddington 2’s thrilling action sequences rival something like Mission Impossible: Fallout, while the depth of its story and characters wholly blows that film out of the water. Not to mention the great performances that surround it, in fact, Hugh Grant is absolutely unforgettable as the foil here. There is so much joy and heart, that I feel pretty comfortable saying that this is a modern classic that will be revisited for a good long time moving forward. 

One of the saddest things is word is coming down that director Paul King won’t return for the next movie in this series, leaving me to wonder whether this might be the peak of Paddington, but even if it is, the first two are such unique treasures that it’s hard to ask for more.

Free with subscriptionHBO

Roma
(dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

One of my favorite scenes of all time is the ending of Nights Of Cabiria, and if you’re spoiler sensitive just skip to the next paragraph, essentially you have the incomparable Giuiletta Massina having just had her heart broken yet again by a sleazebag she was ready to start a future with, walking alone alongside a road, and as she walks she starts passing by kids playing various instruments and dancing in the street. She walks through them and as she does so the music and laughter swirls around her, a quiet smile comes across her face, and in that moment you could see that she finds the faith to continue on, and brave everything again for another day.

That is one of the real joys of watching movies, that a director, at the height of their power, is able to capture in a single scene, or more precisely just a handful of frames, not just the entire film, but in some sense the entirety of everything, when I saw this moment happen for the first time, I immediately burst into tears. Fellini was able to imbue the previous two hours of longing and questions of faith into a single fragmentary moment that said everything.

I also cried multiple times during Roma, for much the same reason, and though you could say that I was bound to love this, there are a number of allusions to Fellini to be found, and even possibly an homage to that very scene I mentioned. I mean even the title references Fellini’s relationship to his home city and Alfonso Cuaron’s relationship to Mexico City.

Something that came as a surprise to me having heard that this film is about Cuaron’s childhood, and I think surprised many as well, was that this was only tangentially about his own life, but rather he focuses on the stories of the two most important women in his life. His mother and his housekeeper, the focus primarily being on the latter, marvelously played by Yalitza Aparicio.

While the film is shot in a wonderful black and white and with large set piece sequences reminiscent of Fellini’s ‘film-as-circus’ approach. There are strong elements here that remind me more so of Terrance Davies‘ mesmerizing approach in his masterpiece The Long Day Closes.

I think particularly about the jaw dropping opening shot of the wet floor in all of its grime, flooding with water and reflecting the sky. As we listen in and hear the sounds of the mop and water and the street, the sounds begin to meld into a simulacrum of the oceans waves. It’s an absolutely dazzling sequence that at once introduces all the elements of the story, and functions as the mirror of the entire film. One shot after another follows these same principles, an evocative, all consuming nostalgia for a world that exists just underneath the reflection of a puddle, the depth of an ocean painted with the sweep of a mop.

Later in the film we have that shot similar in structure to Cabiria when the film hits its climax and emotional peak, and also wisely appears as the image on the posters, that much like the posters for Moonlight only really reveal their brilliance once you have seen the film all the way through.

Each time I see the poster for Roma, I think about the water lapping at the sand, and the waves, and the mop and the floor, and the mess of humanity clinging together trying desperately to not be swept away.

Free with subscription: Netflix
Additional Materials: Nights of Cabiria Ending Scene

Suspiria
(dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2018)

Dario Argento‘s original Suspiria had been sitting on my watchlist for years and I finally got around to seeing it earlier this year in it’s brand new 4k remaster. I was struck, as I think everyone has been by it’s glorious kaleidoscopic colors lathered with Goblin’s ferocious score. Nevermind the stilted acting and out of sync dubbing, the original Suspiria proved that you could stun the viewer into submission by sheer bravura and spectacle alone. The gorgeous sets palpated and the colors burned into my brain, with some of the thinnest connective tissue linking one bewildering set-piece to the other. As I sat there in awe watching the credits roll, a nagging thought entered my brain, what the hell was Luca Guadagnino going to do?

To be honest, I didn’t have much faith in him when I first heard about this project. I had seen his I am Love a few years ago and was left nonplussed, and Call Me By Your Name while gorgeous and finely acted, left me a bit less enthusiastic than most. So hearing he was moving on to Suspiria gave me more concern than excitement. Any attempt to mimic the outlandish colors and dizzying style of Argento’s cinematography would fail almost by necessity. Imagine someone attempting to recapture the original magic of other cult classics like Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sounds like an infinitely awful idea, though I’m sure someone somewhere is trying to cram Chris Pratt into a soft reboot pitch. Better to joke about it, rather than Google and remove all doubt.

What shocked me most here was how Guadagnino was able to sidestep a lot of these possibilities by going in the opposite direction and toning down the colors and the music, while sharpening the story at the core. All of a sudden the frivolity of the original ideas is switched out for the gravity of postwar Germany. There are fascinating narrative threads weaving through as ideas about fascism, complicity, and the Holocaust begin to weigh heavily throughout. 

Thom Yorke also does a masterful job of deconstructing the original Goblin score, which is a must listen regardless of whether you see the original or not, which you absolutely should as well. This deconstruction culminates in a showstopping dance sequence that is at once reminiscent of the full power of the original music, and yet still feels restrained and weighty in comparison. 

Dakota Johnson is excellent here but Tilda Swinton really steals the show in more ways than one. Her performance helps tie together the seemingly disparate pieces into a powerful whole that makes the film feel at once quieter and less bombastic than the original, and at the same time paradoxically grand in comparison.

Rent: Google PlayAmazoniTunes
Additional Materials: 
Original Suspiria Score

Tyrel
(dir. Sebastián Silva, 2018)

Something that struck me this year was how few films dared to take place in our present reality of 2018 and directly address Trump’s presidency. Apart from the snarky jab in Burning, and BlackKKlansman going straight for the jugular, few films dared to address Trump at all. This is why I found the way that Trump’s presence is felt in Tyrel particularly interesting.

The plot is fairly straightforward, a college aged Tyler, (the title comes from someone mispronouncing his name) played with a staggering depth by Jason Mitchell joins his friend for a rowdy retreat to the Catskills, only to realize that he’s the only black person there.

What proceeds is an honest depiction of toxic masculinity and waves of racist micro-aggressions from the well-meaning friends that Tyler is forced to navigate, choosing his battles, and trying to stay afloat. The film’s depiction of unfettered toxic masculinity and casual racism feels so real it’s deeply unsettling, and the brooding anxiety in Jason Mitchell’s charged performance stays with you long after the film ends.

One of the most striking moments is a scene in which at one point Michael Cera brings out a Trump piñata and all of the friends take turns bashing it. The crew also attack Trump and his politics on multiple occasions, highlighting that the inherent racism of their other behavior is not incompatible with the denouncement of the explicit racism of Trump-era policy.

These guys don’t wear MAGA hats, and yet, the racist hostility and disrespect that pervades each scene and moment directed at Tyler is absolutely palpable. Meanwhile the act of repudiating Trump, his policies and racism itself is consistently contextualized as a performative and frivolous game.

One thing to note upfront is that the advertising campaign for this film really plays up comparisons to Get Out which might work on a more surface level, I mean it even features Caleb Landry Jones playing a creepily similar character to his Get Out role, but in truth, I think this film has a lot more in common with a movie like Krisha instead, as it’s hard to classify this as a horror film, but rather a film that stylizes and escalates the horror of the mundane without ever stepping into the realm of the fantastical.

Rent: Google Play, AmazonVUDU

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