This is late, so I’ll just cut to the chase. Not a great year. Not a great year at all. That’s why it’s 19 instead of 20. I suppose I could have shoved A Star Is Born at the end there, but I didn’t because, well, because I didn’t want to. Including number 19 was bad enough.
19. Isle of Dogs (dir. & writ. Wes Anderson)
I hate Wes Anderson. I hate his faux-vintage aesthetic, spreading like a virus across the social media ecosystem. I hate his lifeless, spoilt characters, who wield ennui like a shield against the fact that they have no inner lives. I hate his fetishisation of everything bourgeois. And above all, I hate how he makes such good movies, which makes him impossible to dismiss. A simple formula on whether I like a Wes Anderson movie. Is it about children or animals? If yes, then I like it. If no, then I find it insufferable. As such: Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs – yay. Darjeeling, Life Aquatic, Grand Budapest Hotel – nay. Tenenbaums … eh, it’s ok? There is no great mystery as to why – Anderson’s tics (I refuse to dignify them as ‘quirks’) are insufferable in adults, but in kids and animals, are still kinda cute. As such, against my better judgment (and again, bad year for movies), we start this list with Isle of Dogs, which I suppose was not nauseating enough for me to ignore the sheer talent and craftsmanship behind every meticulously composed perpendicular shot. Hooray.
18. Suspiria (dir. Luca Guadagnino, writ. David Kajganich)
I had to include this. There were certainly far better movies which did not make this list, but were there any that were crazier? Almost perverse in how it subverts the legendary original, Suspiria is an art-horror remake that drains most of the ‘horror’ in order to up the ante on the ‘art’. A lot of it does not work – see Tilda’s weird attempt at doing an Eddie Murphy or the constant tiring references to socio-political events, making Suspiria a highly pretentious, semi-boring dirge that is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. But when it works, it works, be it the crazy camera moves, the spectacular dance sequences, the dream montages, the sharp jolts of body horror interspersed with sapphic undertones, all leading up to the most batshit bonkers ending in a movie I’ve seen in quite a while. Suspiria may not be a good movie, but it’s something better, an interesting movie whose reach greatly exceeds its grasp. I’d watch it over any competently made Hollywood biopic (hello Bohemian Rhapsody) any day.
17. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, writ. Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole)
The best Marvel movie of the year, certainly the best superhero debut film since Guardians. Justifiably overshadowed by Infinity War (which is not included in this list because I cannot in good conscience call it a ‘movie’), but after the dust has settled, it is clear that Black Panther possesses not just the MCU’s best filmic skeleton (in terms of how well-crafted that screenplay is), but also is its most successful attempt at approximating art, thanks to its thoughtful consideration of what blackness means and how it is expressed in different contexts. Excellent performances by Chadwick Boseman, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o and (especially) Michael B. Jordan further elevate Black Panther to more than just another franchise obligation.
16. Thoroughbreds (dir. & writ. Cory Finley)
A fiendishly clever little film that slipped under most radars, Thoroughbreds is one of the slickest debuts I’ve seen in a while, a pitch-black riff on a buddy comedy that happens to be equal parts biting social satire and incisive character study. With note-perfect dialogue and confident, precise direction, this story of a mismatched pair of teenage girls (both sociopaths, just in different ways) plotting a murder kept me on my toes from start to finish. Two points to note. Firstly, Thoroughbreds has a truly brilliant climax, an intelligently conceptualised long take of a sleeping character that manages to wring plenty of drama and pathos. Secondly, this was pretty much the late Anton Yelchin’s last film, and his pathetic wannabe gangster is both a highlight of the film and a reminder of how much the filmgoing world lost.
15. Shirkers (dir. and writ. Sandi Tan)
The best Singaporean film of all time, though that is a very low bar to clear. What Shirkers posits though, is the possibility of a world where that bar would have been raised a little higher. Sandi Tan’s documentary covers the history of her would-be indie film sensation (of the same name) in the 90s, from its genesis, filming and eventual disappearance, the latter thanks to a shady operator named Georges Cardona. Composed of interviews with an eclectic cast of thousands cross-cut with footage from the recovered film, Tan takes the viewer on an incredible journey of what-ifs, to mourn the loss of an imagined present where the zine-culture and indie punk spirit of the 1990s eventually led to a flourishing Singaporean film scene. That present does not exist, but Shirkers does, and the world (and Singapore) are all the richer for it.
14. Sorry To Bother You (dir. and writ. Boots Riley)
To carry on from Suspiria and flawed masterpieces, here comes another film whose ambition is far greater than its execution. But what ambition! What ambition to take on nothing less than the entire system we live in today, from economics to politics to culture, and to damn it as nothing short of slavery. Boots Riley’s thunderous debut consists of so many scenes that are astounding in their brazenness, from the first use of the ‘white voice’ to the reveal of the horsemen to the greatest rap scene of all time. Anchored by fantastic performances from Lakeith Stanfield, Armie Hammer, and my girl Tessa Thompson, Riley’s film is so energetic, so funny, so goddamn alive, that its issues (mostly stemming from weak connective tissues) all too easily fall by the wayside.
13. Widows (dir. Steve McQueen, writ. Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen)
This is how auteur-driven mainstream entertainment should look like. Over the years, there have been numerous examples of big-name directors ‘debasing’ themselves to do blockbuster work, and it almost always ends up as a bland pile of competent mush. Steve McQueen doesn’t do mush though, and he takes a pulp conceit (widows of bank robbers must finish their husbands’ last job) and elevates it to something almost resembling high art, thanks to his usual impeccable craftsmanship and a considered, thoughtful approach to the material. And so, instead of a jumble of cuts, we get well-blocked and edited action scenes. Instead of hammy cliches, we get spectacular work from an incredible cast, led by Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya. And instead of disposable pablum, we get an incisive critique of economic and gender inequality. Would that more artists be willing to ‘debase’ themselves like this.
12. Shoplifters (dir. and writ. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Yes, the Palme d’Or winner is ranked lower than Tom Cruise’s latest attempt to die on camera. There is so much to like about Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest effort, such as its ingenious way of filming small spaces (a skill possessed by all the best Japanese directors), its gentle, non-judgmental approach towards its characters or the deep emotional reserves it contains. However, I cannot help but wonder about the ending, which turns a simple, effective premise (‘family’ of shoplifters and petty crooks ‘kidnaps’ an abused girl and raises her as one of their own) into something resembling an M. Night Shyamalan movie, with reveal upon reveal being piled up for no discernible reason. Maybe there is some grand thematic conceit behind it, but I could not quite get past the suddenness of the swerve, which is why a film that would easily have been top 5 (especially in a weak year) finds itself here. Still, it does not take away from the quietly brilliant first 90% of the film.
11. First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle, writ. Josh Singer)
Unjustly forgotten too quickly, both in the awards race and the wider cultural conversation. The clever twist behind First Man is that it is a biopic of an event rather than a person – telling the story of the space race through the lens of Neil Armstrong. This works because director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling play Neil Armstrong as a cipher, a deeply introverted man who sublimates his emotions into the success of the Apollo project instead of expressing them. Filmed with impeccable craftsmanship, I cannot think of any other movie that has so vividly and viscerally communicated what space flight must be like, in both the terror and the awe it conjures. Special plaudits must also go to Claire Foy, for taking the thankless role of ‘the wife’ and turning it into the emotional heart of what would otherwise be a film as dry as the surface of the moon.
10. Mission Impossible: Fallout (dir. and writ. Chrisopher McQuarrie)
The best blockbuster franchise in the world has had an odd metamorphosis, transforming from its initial beginnings as a reboot of a 60s TV show to an auteur-driven series to what it is now – the most reliably well done action entertainment in Hollywood. With its focus on practical stuntwork and cleanly shot set-pieces, the latest instalment in the MI franchise is a throwback to a time when big budget action movies actually had to be planned out well instead of just throwing CGI shit at the walls to see what stuck. In the centre of it all is Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, still the platonic ideal of a movie star, fighting the ravages of age by throwing his fifty-plus year old body off helicopters, buildings, and against younger and fitter actors who could only ever dream of achieving his level of stardom (Henry Cavill in this movie). It almost feels like a ritualistic act of self flagellation – Cruise destroys his body and literally risks death, and in turn, is rewarded with the adoration of millions and the knowledge that he will live forever, even if it’s just through the countless reruns of the MI movies on HBO.
9. Annihilation (dir. and writ. Alex Garland)
I’ll be honest here, Ex Machina left me kind of cold. I get what it was trying to do, but it just never really clicked for me the way it clicked for others. Annihilation, on the other hand, worked like gangbusters, from its beautiful/horrific imagery to its muted tone to the allegorical/metaphorical nature of its plot. Following a group of all female scientists into a mysterious alien bubble known as ‘The Shimmer’, Annihilation is the best kind of science fiction – thought-provoking, fiendishly clever, and using its central conceit (in this case, about evolution) to make a grander thematic statement about the world we live in today. Plus, it had that human-bear thing, so that alone is worth a couple of (fake) movie points.
8. The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci, writ. Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin)
Has there ever been a better time for a satire of buffoonish men in power, incompetently blundering their way towards totalitarianism? As counter-intuitive as it might seem, Armando Iannucci’s first period piece contains a more vicious sting than the rest of his work set in contemporary times because of [Dennis Reynolds’ voice] the implication. The implication, in this case, is that the blustering bozos in charge of the supposed free world are no better than Iannucci’s portrayal of the real life petty (and not so petty) tyrants squabbling over the remains of Josef Stalin. A murderer’s row of talent (led by Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin) coupled with the usual Iannucci hallmarks (irony, dexterous wit, and copious swearing) result in a film that, beneath its gleeful nose-thumbing exterior, contains a righteous anger at all that has gone wrong in politics.
7. Hereditary (dir. & writ. Ari Aster)
As someone who scares real easy, the recent glut of indie art-horror pictures (IAHPs for short) is both a wonderful and horrible phenomenon because watching them for me is both pleasure and pain. The recent few have been successful in merging other genres with horror (e.g. The Witch is period-piece plus horror, It Follows is teen coming-of-age drama with horror), but Hereditary might be the first of its kind to be a bona fide horror movie with no additional frills. And in that regard, it is a hell of an achievement. Debut filmmaker Ari Aster exhibits an unbelievable level of artistry, especially in his perfect control of tone, effortlessly shifting gears between slow-building tension in the first half to batshit-crazy imagery in the second. Plaudits also to Aster’s uncanny ability to compose a frame, a skill that is at once so vital to the horror genre and yet so easily ignored these days. Aside from the director’s skill, much of the success of Hereditary also depends on the brilliant (and underlooked by Oscar, as expected) performance of Toni Collette, who goes over-the-top in a frighteningly believable manner. I expect Hereditary to be followed up with more in the IAHP genre, which means more seat cowering from me. Hooray.
6. Eighth Grade (dir. and writ. Bo Burnham)
Ah, youth. A time of fun and whimsy and freedom, said nobody who actually remembered their actual youth. And so it is that a pair of young people (both relative according to their occupation) have created Eighth Grade, one of the most painfully realistic depictions of what it really is like to be young. It is the constant bone-deep fear of being judged by your peers, or the confused maelstrom in the pit of your stomach when you look at your crush, or the way your parents are simultaneously the worst and the best people in the world. The wonder of Eighth Grade is that writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher have avoided the temptation of creating a misanthropic tale of how much high school really, like, sucks man cause everyone’s so fake and shit. No, they go one better, and fully express just what is like to be young, to feel each tiny emotion so strongly and to believe that it will never be this bad or this good again … until it happens once more the very next day and the next, and so on till you wake up one day old and decrepit, wondering where the good old days went.
5. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, writ. Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara)
Not your mother’s period piece, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite bristles with barely undisguised glee at thumbing its nose at the conventions of its Merchant-Ivory brethren. From the liberties it takes with the true historical story of Queen Anne to its astounding (and very anachronistic) production design to adding what is (I’m assuming) a fictionalised Sapphic relationship between its three central characters, The Favourite contorts and twists its central concept of power to see what myriad shapes it can take. The central trio of actors do wonders with the buzzsaw-sharp screenplay and the opportunities it provides them, with Colman, Weisz and Stone providing shrieks, sneers and seduction respectively. Guided by Lanthimos’ impeccable direction and framed by his off-kilter compositions, the lead actresses (titanic talents, all of them) have never been better, creating a devilishly entertaining power play that will hopefully shake up the staid and conventional genre of the period piece for good.
4. First Reformed (dir. and writ. Paul Schrader)
As a Protestant atheist (all converted atheists still carry the sins of their former religion), I remarked after seeing Martin Scorsese’s Silence that if all Christian art was that sublime, I might never have turned away from the faith. In that same regard comes First Reformed, a stark exploration of what it means to believe in the current day. Paul Schrader, the brilliant writer behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull has turned his lacerating genius towards creating the best possible ripoff of a mid-20th century European art-film of faith – think a cross between Bresson’s Diary of A Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light – except laced with a searing rage of what the world has come to. Ethan Hawke does career best work as Reverend Ernst Toller, a man of faith disgusted and dismayed by how that same faith has been corrupted by American ‘conservatism’ and capitalist dogma. This is an angry, thoughtful, powerful piece of art, as intense in its belief as it is in its doubt, a film that refuses to accept easy answers and instead constantly questions the role of religion in a dying world. Again, if all religious art were like this – searching instead of smug, complex instead of facile, sophisticated instead of provincial – then perhaps I might have never turned away from the faith. Alas, we live in a world where something like First Reformed is not just the exception rather than the norm, but also is a piece of religious art that will be shunned by the majority of the people who most need to see it.
3. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong, writ. Lee Chang-dong & Oh Jung-mi)
It is the thinnest of lines this movie treads. Can you shroud motivation and plot details in complete mystery while maintaining a structurally and psychologically coherent narrative? The answer, in case this film’s placement has not made clear, is yes. The genius of Burning lies in how every development has two possible explanations, depending on whether your inclination towards optimism. Does dilettante Hae-mi (Jeon Jeong-seo, radiant in her film debut) disappear because she’s just flaky and hurt by friend-with-benefits Jong-su’s (Yoo Ah-in) cruelty, or has something more sinister happened to her? Is Ben (Steven Yeun) just a louche playboy, or does that facade hide the dark heart of a killer? Is Jong-su right to be suspicious, or simply taking out his class-ridden masculine insecurities onto Ben? The questions continue to pile up towards an conclusion that is at once shocking and inevitable, but oh-so-satisfying in the way it avoids any simplistic or easy answers.
2. Transit (dir. and writ. Christian Petzold)
If Christian Petzold’s previous film, Phoenix, was a riff on Vertigo, Transit is his remix of Casablanca. The elements are all there – a border city, refugees on the run from fascism, a love triangle – but they are chopped and screwed into odd, twisty shapes and shadows. Film noir as framed through the sunbleached streets of Marseille, Transit is a brilliant exploration of identity in a fractured, globalised world, as protagonist Georg (a magnificent Franz Rogowski) slips into different guises depending on who he needs to be at any given time. But this film has none of Casablanca‘s swooning old-Hollywood heroism nor its starry-eyed belief in the power of love. No, this is a film of survival, of scrapping and scheming and staying alive at all costs, even if it dooms those that you love most. Arriving as it does in a time of impending fascism and mounting international crisis, Transit is not the most comforting of films, offering no solace, only a single broken mirror to the global state of affairs. There is no hope. Only reality will do.
1. You Were Never Really Here (dir. and writ. Lynne Ramsay)
Perhaps the only film of 2018 that would make my top 20 of the decade. Lynne Ramsay, the auteuriest of auteurs, imbues this pulpy, melodramatic tale with enough artistry to fuel lesser directors’ entire careers. In a different world, the tale of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, in a performance that is as good as the one in The Master) would be told in a straightforward kind of way, as a nasty little revenge movie that could be called ‘pretty good’. In the hands of a bona fide artist, however, You Were Never Really Here is transformed into a meditation on trauma and violence, and how terrible events can shape and scar a psyche beyond all repair. Ramsay’s bag of tricks are endless – a murderous rampage told purely through security camera footage, a gentle soft-rock singalong at the conclusion of a brutal murder, a cut from hazy soft-focus to cold hard reality. Few films, even those from other celebrated auteurs, could ever truly be said to be a singular vision. You Were Never Really Here is one of them, and it is the best movie of 2018.