The Best New-To-Me Movies of 2018
“I don’t like to call films ‘old films’. Nobody ever says, ‘Have you read that old play by Shakespeare?’ or ‘Have you read that old book by Steinbeck?’ or ‘Did you hear that old symphony by Mozart?’ Nobody ever says that…if you haven’t seen ‘em, they’re new.” – Peter Bogdanovich
As has been observed a great many times by a great many people, listing/ranking art is inherently stupid, yet irresistibly fun. Why is that…? Do I like making lists because it gives the randomness of life some semblance of order and control…? Probably. (Probably the same reason I find reorganizing my DVDs or re-alphabetizing my books so satisfying.)
In 2017 I saw several lists on Twitter and in the blogosphere trumpeting the ten best new-to-the-writer movies of the year – could’ve come out that year, could’ve come out a few years before, could’ve come out during the silent era, etc. This struck me as a much more interesting and fun list to make than “the best movies of the year”, because a. I tend to like/get excited about older films more often than newer ones, b. it can be fun to gush about movies you’ve just discovered that everybody else was already turned on to (it’s a dirty little secret among movie lovers that we all have huge gaps in our viewing that we’re deeply embarrassed about, but like an addict, the sooner we admit we have a problem, the happier we’ll be), and c. to be perfectly frank, I didn’t see that many movies this year I was really wild about. (I saw plenty of movies I liked, but I didn’t fall in love at the theater this year as often as I would’ve wished. Maybe I just haven’t caught up with the right stuff. I’ll take recommendations.)
Anyway – here’s the ten movies that thrilled me the most this year, as well as assorted other honors and honorable mentions. Opinions are mine. Hope some of these peak your interest.
1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, d. Ethan and Joel Coen)
“Poor little gal…she hadn’t’a ought to have did it.”
I know all the cool kids dislike them, but I sorta love anthology films; they’re an opportunity to watch a bunch of short films in a row, you always know if you don’t like one segment that another will be on the way shortly, and you get the pleasure of ranking the segments within the film. (Again with the lists…) Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” may have become my new favorite anthology film, in that it pulls off two seemingly impossible feats: all the segments are good, and the various segments actually seem to build off of/dialogue with each other without having any obvious plot or character connections. (As actor/national treasure Zoe Kazan put it, each segment gives permission for the next to occur.) What at first blush sounded like something of a goof off project for the brothers Coen – a rag tag collection of Western tales they’ve been writing and storing up over virtually the entire course of their careers – was revealed as a masterwork, allowing the Coens to traverse all their various tones and styles, from Raimi-esque grotesque slapstick to Cormac McCarthy-esque nihilism to unexpectedly earnest heartbreak. Some of the stories are sadistically funny; at least two are almost unbearably sad (my favorite segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, starring the aforementioned – wonderful – Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Granger Hines, is maybe the most earnest thing the Coens have ever done); all are, as Guillermo del Toro beautifully put it, “cautionary tales about the ultimate destination of life: Death”. Also contains: a moment of shocking violence that made me laugh so loud I was worried I disturbed my downstairs neighbors; a POV shot from inside a guitar; Stephen Root in the unlikeliest of bulletproof get-ups (“PAN SHOT!”); an adorable Tom Waits; beautifully harsh winter landscapes; and a haunting final gesture of defeat and acceptance from Saul Rubinek. Sublime.
2. The Florida Project (2017, d. Sean Baker)
“You know why this is my favorite tree?...’Cause it’s tipped over, and it’s still growing.”
Cinema can conjure a place, a space, with a startling immediacy not available to any other medium. “The Florida Project” brought to my mind Jonathan Rosenbaum’s sentiment about Tati’s “Playtime” as not so much a film as a place the viewer could visit; the dilapidated motel in Kissimmee, Florida that is the setting for “The Florida Project” is one of the great movie spaces, and co-writer/director Sean Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zebe invite us to not so much look at as inhabit the motel, to not so much watch as peek in on the lives of the film’s characters. (I’m also reminded of Robert Towne’s wonderful quote about Hal Ashby, that he created the impression you were not hearing the dialogue but overhearing it.) Six year old Moonnee and her friends have an apparently carefree existence – causing “Little Rascals” style havoc, discovering magical bits of tourist ephemera just on the edges of Disney World – but the desperation of their actual lives (the poverty they live in, the degradation of floating from week to week at a not-quite-Magic-Kingdom hotel, the prostitution Moonee’s mother Hailey — Bria Vinaite, incredible — resorts to) begins to intrude, bit by bit, on their summery idyll; we live with them, get invested in the lazy rhythm of their days, and so the film’s final development is as devastating to us as to them. It’s simultaneously a joyous, rambunctious movie, and a deeply melancholy one. Features incredible supporting work by Willem Dafoe, and maybe the most un-fussily beautiful compositions I saw in a film this year — it’s one thing to make grand landscapes beautiful, and another thing to make the bottom of a dilapidated stairwell so beautiful the viewer gasps. I gasped, and remembered from my own childhood how magical it could be to find your own special area under the stairs, or behind the desk, or under the bed…I’m not sure if the final flourish of the ending is a masterstroke, or a gesture too far, but it’s certainly bold, and that’s to be celebrated.
3. Scarlet Street (1945, d. Fritz Lang)
“Johnny…Johnny…jeepers, I love you, Johnny…”
Fritz Lang cited “Scarlet Street” as his best American film, and I think he’s probably right. A giant of the German cinema (“Metropolis”, “M”, “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler”), Lang certainly had an interesting and worthy career after fleeing the Nazi menace, but he never quite become an A-lister in the US, directing mostly noir or noir-adjacent thrillers that are softer and less focused than his best German work. But “Scarlet Street” feels like something of an American cousin to Lang’s masterpiece “M”, not just a movie about a crime, treachery or betrayal (although it’s all those things), but a vicious and often pitiless portrait of a society rotting from the inside. Edward G. Robinson’s Christopher Cross falls neatly into the “guileless rube” end of the pool as far as noir protagonists go, a miserably henpecked bank clerk whose secret fantasies of being an artist are ruthlessly exploited by slick operators Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett (their sadomasochistic relationship is depicted with often shocking frankness); I won’t spoil the movie, but suffice to say we know pretty much from the first reel that things are not gonna go well for poor Chris…we are in noir territory, after all. Even by film noir standards, “Scarlet Street” is pretty grim; even the story’s most farcical twist, the reappearance of the late Mr. Cross, feels like a sick joke, and that’s before we get to the jaw dropping final act. I watched 30 movies as part of “Noirvember” this year, many terrific, many undercut by silly cop out endings. “Scarlet Street”, by contrast, shifts into a higher gear in its final scene, a finish that in its audacity is up there with the bitter kicker of Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”. A brutal masterwork.
4. The Ninth Configuration (1980, d. William Peter Blatty)
“Cutshaw…why won’t you go to the moon…?”
Writer/director William Peter Blatty was apparently cursed with that writer’s malady of being an incessant tinkerer; he wrote the novel of “The Ninth Configuration” twice, under two different titles (“Twinkle, Twinkle, ‘Killer’ Kane!” was the other…does that not sound like the greatest exploitation movie ever…?), and spent much of his life rethinking and recutting the film he wrote, produced and directed based on his novel, releasing it in a variety of different versions under a variety of different titles. (I suspect if he hadn’t passed away in 2017, he’d still be considering changes.) In whatever version you see, “The Ninth Configuration” is very much a “writer’s film”, in that it’s happy to mix tones in jarring, “uncommercial” ways; the follow-up film from the writer of “The Exorcist”, set in a gothic castle/insane asylum (Stacy Keach is the new head doctor placed in charge of a group of military crack-up cases), is basically a goofy comedy for its first hour (there’s a subplot about Jason Miller teaching dogs to perform Shakespeare, and it’s amazing), before slowly transitioning into a philosophical treatise about the existence of God; in addition to goofy slapstick and philosophical debates, it has a murderer’s row of odd character actors (Scott Wilson! Ed Flanders! Neville Brand! Robert Loggia! Joe Spinell!), a credulity-challenging plot twist that’s been stolen many, many times subsequently, dreams about Christ being crucified on the moon, a touchingly earnest argument for the inherent goodness of man and maybe the most viscerally satisfying bar fight in movie history. “The Ninth Configuration” is a singular, beautiful, strange work, the kind of movie that could only have become a cult film, indescribably and wondrously odd. We need more like it.
5. The Other Side of the Wind (2018, d. Orson Welles)
“We who glow a little in his light, the fireflies, he does quite often swallow whole…and it is a fact that some of us he chews on rather slowly…”
That one of the great lost masterpieces of cinema – begun in 1970, more or less shot by 1976, held up for so long in legal entanglements that writer/director/auteur/genius Orson Welles would die having only edited 40 minutes – is finally done, cut together and available for public consumption, is a marvel. That it drew a somewhat mixed response, and seems to be actively pissing certain people off, is even more marvelous, and his constant protestations that he wanted to be a popular artist aside, I’d like to think Welles would’ve taken some delight in knowing that 40 years on, “The Other Side of the Wind” is still bracing, shocking, revolutionary, etc. The film is essentially two movies in one – a freewheeling fake documentary about the final day in the life of the great film director Jake Hannaford, the “Hemingway of the cinema” (John Huston, magnificent), holding court at a birthday party at which various sycophants, suck-ups, subordinates, rivals and rogues whirl around him like moths around a flame, intercut with scenes from the film Hannaford is making, “The Other Side of the Wind”, a sort of pastiche “art film” in the Antonioni mode that features a lot of nudity and empty symbolism. Some of the criticisms of “The Other Side of the Wind” have opined that the film-within-a-film is too lengthy and opaque (which is both the point – Hannaford’s film is supposed to be an artsy-fartsy boondoggle, made by an aging egomaniac desperate to look “with it” – and inaccurate – Welles’ compositional gifts make the film-within-a-film material consistently fascinating whether it “means anything” or not); some have accused the film of being “problematic”, of buying into macho posturing, when it’s pretty evident it’s a critique of machismo, which Welles finds fascinating and repugnant in equal measure. (That Welles must’ve seen and detested these same traits in himself is part of the fascination.) Still others have accused the film of being befuddling or confusing or idiosyncratic, which…duh. Welles’ final film (completed by co-producer Frank Marshall, co-star Peter Bogdanovich, producer Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski among many others – Murawski deserves particular praise for capturing the manic frenzy of Welles’ late period editing rhythms – it’s like “F for Fake” on crack) is a whirling dervish of a movie that doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion but circles like a cyclone around themes, ideas, motifs, feeding back in on itself, critiquing its own pretensions as it goes. Its frantic editing rhythms give it, as David Cairns pointed out, the feel of a long party, stretched out far beyond the point most of the guests are ready to go home; it’s also a kind of cinephile cocaine, full of allusions to the early ‘70s New Hollywood and cameos by people like Henry Jaglom and Joseph McBride (if you know who they are, good GOD is this movie for you) and choice roles for members of Welles’ long time repertory company (Paul Stewart! Mercedes McCambridge!) and two powerhouse performances from two great directors – Huston and Bogdanovich – who are not necessarily known for being great thespians but are just magnificent here. (“Our revels now are ended…?” “You bet your sweet cheeks.”) As Rian Johnson wrote about the film: “1st viewing was a phantasmagoria. 2nd was like my eyes adjusting to the dark. But after the 3rd, it took up residence in my head, the way only a few other movies have.”
6. Happiness (1998, d. Todd Solondz)
“I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.”
“But I’m not laughing.”
a.k.a. “Irony in titling”, as Todd Solondz’ incendiary film was by far the most uncomfortable viewing experience I had this year – I mean that as a compliment, but also a warning. “Happiness” is, as Roger Ebert wrote, about “people who want to be loved and who never will be – because of their emotional incompetence and arrested development”; a plot summary could serve equally well as a book length trigger warning. Almost an acid black parody of all those mid ‘90s ensemble dramas about interconnected lives and how “we’re all really connected, y’know…?” (sarcasm aside: I miss those big star ensemble pieces, like “Short Cuts” and “Magnolia” – what happened to those…? Why were they endemic in the ‘90s…?), “Happiness” plays like a series of interconnected short stories about social niceties hiding truly unspeakable secrets. Louise Lasser and Ben Gazzara are an older couple going through the final stages of a joyless marriage; Jane Adams’ directionless young woman finds her sweet optimism brutally attacked at every turn; Philip Seymor Hoffman’s desperately lonely “nice guy” devotes his personal time to making obscene phone calls; Dylan Baker’s happily married psychiatrist, father of two, pillar of the community, struggles to hide his sexual attraction to pre-teen boys…The film “Happiness” brought to my mind was Todd Fields’ (quite terrific) “Little Children”, another story about pain and sexual dysfunction boiling just under the veneer of all American niceness, but where “Little Children” used the device of a “Frontline” style narrator to allow the audience ironic distance, Solondz’ film forces you to stare directly at its source material, and dares you not to blink. “[It] is like a challenged hurled at audiences who think movies should come with built-in viewing instructions,” Ebert wrote, “with cues to the appropriate responses.” Some scenes are played for jet black comedy; some scenes are played as brutal tragedy; most scenes seesaw between the two poles. Making movies like this requires madness or bravery or both; via Solondz and the work of his incredible cast (Dylan Baker deserves special mention for his absolutely fearless performance – I have to imagine this role cost him a lot of work over the years), “Happiness” forces us to look into some of the ugliest corners of human existence not for geek show thrills, but in sometimes empathetic, sometimes repelled recognition. High on my list of “great movies that I cannot in good conscience recommend to people”; it is a phenomenal film that I will not be able to revisit for a while.
7. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017, d. Noah Baumbach)
“Sometimes I wish Dad had done one horrible, unforgivable thing, something specific I could be angry about, but it isn’t one thing, it’s tiny things…every day…it’s drip, drip, drip…”
There’s a brittleness to Noah Baumbach’s work as a writer and director that can make him difficult for audiences to swallow; Baumbach doesn’t give a hoot whether audiences find his characters “likable”, and his humor comes from probing their worst impulses with scalpel-like precision. (I find his characters likable, for the record, but I’m also relieved I don’t have to live with them.) If there’s a signature scene in “The Meyerowitz Stories”, it’s probably the moment where Ben Stiller’s businessman impotently screams at his sculptor father Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) as he’s driving away: “It doesn’t matter how much money I make, you make me feel like a big piece of shit because you don’t care about it…! But you also actually do…! You’re privately obsessed with it…! You know that I BEAT YOU…! I BEAT YOU…!”. The dialogue is painful, and yet the framing and rhythm – shooting from across the street, underscored by Harold’s car squeaking out of his parking spot – are comic; the secret to Baumbach’s cinema is that he makes movies that are only comedies because we’re not part of the whirling vortex of pain and dysfunction at their center. (Get into a screaming match with a relative, and it’s agonizing; watch two people having a screaming match from outside the house, and it can be quite funny.) “The Meyerowitz Stories” would play well on a double bill with Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”, another story about a sprawling family of artists and intellectuals circling around a monstrously selfish patriarch; the main difference between Baumbach and sometime collaborator Anderson is that Anderson’s movies takes place in a kind of fanciful cartoon world which cushions the blow, whereas Baumbach’s work is more immediate and painful. Every member of the Meyerowitz clan – tightly-wound Matt (Stiller), coulda-been-songwriter Danny (Adam Sandler - God he’s good in this…), wallflower sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) – has stored up years of unexpressed resentment toward their casually rude father, but as the old man lies (apparently) dying in a hospital bed, it becomes evident that catharsis and closure are not going to come in neat packages; it would feel like Baumbach was parodying the cliches of Hollywood movies about achieving catharsis with your family, if the emotions under the comedy weren’t so raw and real. Contains maybe the funniest spoof of college art movies I’ve ever seen (“That was a hard R!”); also has the most unexpectedly emotional final scene of any movie I saw this year, a gentle beat that comes completely out of left field and knocked the air out of my chest. (“This is him.”)
8. The Boy Friend (1971, d. Ken Russell)
“Now go out there and be so great that you’ll make me hate you!”
Digging into the work of “Mad Ken” Russell has been one of my great movie going pleasures in the last few years – I’ve been limiting myself to only about two films a year, so as to savor each new-to-me cinematic morsel. “The Devils” is a neglected masterpiece (Mark Kermode thinks it’s one of the ten best movies ever made; he might not be wrong); “The Music Lovers” and “Savage Messiah” are near masterpieces; I admire “Women in Love”, and I adore “Lisztomania”, a work of insane genius. Russell’s cinema is brash – noisily opulent, cheerfully vulgar, it has no interest in being polite or sane and that’s what so many cinephiles love about it. “The Boy Friend” is the most joyously entertaining Russell picture I’ve seen thus far; produced the same year as his incendiary, vicious “The Devils”, and by Russell’s own admission something of a palette cleanser from that angrily political work, “The Boy Friend” adapts Sandy Wilson’s comic pastiche of Roaring Twenties musicals, adding to it both the backstage shenanigans of a theater company in crisis and the grand fantasies of a Hollywood producer sitting in the balcony seat. (It almost feels like self-commentary from Russell, who perhaps sees himself in both the hard scrabble theater troupe struggling to put on a show and the slick impresario whose fevered visions transform kitsch into art.) Most of the musicals Russell is homaging ran something like 90 minutes, whereas “The Boy Friend” runs almost two and a half hours; as always with Russell, the whole point is to push past excess into the sublime – “The Boy Friend” keeps finding new dazzling sights, stunning images, startling visual juxtapositions to delight and astound us. You’ve seen this story a million times before — a theatrical production on the verge of collapse, a young first timer pushed to center stage — but you’ve never seen it with this wildness of imagination and invention. Russell’s whole stock company of players is here – Christopher Gable, Max Adrian, Murray Melvin, Georgina Hale, Vladek Sybal, Glenda Jackson in a delicious cameo – backing up model turned actress Twiggy, easily as charming as any Hollywood ingénue; it feels like they’re all on holiday, and the overall effect of the film is joyous, the work of an artist grinningly saying to his audience, “Have I got something to show you...!” Certainly the most purely pleasurable film on my list.
9. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, d. William Friedkin)
“This is Mr. Jessup, whose name isn’t really Jessup, who says he’s from Palm Springs but doesn’t have a tan. You’re not wired, are you…?”
“The message seems to be that, to pursue crooks through cities that resemble garbage heaps, you need garbage men,” Glenn Erickson wrote about “The French Connection”, the brilliant cop procedural written by Ernest Tidyman and directed by William Friedkin. All of Friedkin’s best work is about, in his own words, the thin line between good and evil, and the subversive pleasure of his cop thrillers (“French Connection”, “Cruising”) is that they suggest that not only is there a thin line between the cop and the criminal, but there is often no real moral separation between the two sides of the legal divide. “The French Connection” took place in the filthy streets of ‘70s New York; “To Live and Die in L.A.” brings Friedkin’s cop cinema to the sun dappled back alleys and freeways of California, but if anything the morals have gotten grubbier – Willem Dafoe’s artist/killer/money counterfeiter is a very, very bad man, but he does at least seem to operate according to a kind of personal code, and in a perverse way that makes him more likable that the two Treasury agents (William Petersen and John Pankow, both fabulous) who will perpetrate literally every crime Dafoe would in their desire to nail him. (Petersen’s Richard Chance is basically everything an American action hero of the ‘80s and ‘90s was supposed to be – a handsome hot shots who takes big risks for bigger rewards – and “To Live and Die in L.A.” is ruthless in revealing how empty and even sociopathic his risk vs. reward calculations are, how willing he is to stampede over the line into lawbreaking.) In addition to being an involving procedural with some delicious twists I would not dream of spoiling, “To Live and Die in L.A.” becomes a kind of moral nightmare, as the audience realizes – with perhaps the same combination of exhilaration and terror in Chance’s eyes as he bungee jumps off a bridge or drives up the off ramp of a busy freeway – there’s no one to “root for”, there are no good guys or bad guys, and the laws society creates are as counterfeit as the bills the ostensible “villain” is peddling. In an America where greed is good, morality becomes transactional, even meaningless. Featuring great supporting performances by John Turturro and Darlanne Flugel (her subplot – sleeping with the Treasury agent she’s informing to – could’ve been a whole movie in its own right), a terrific Wang Chung score, and a car chase that might actually top “The French Connection”’s, it’s the best Michael Mann movie that Michael Mann never made.
10. They Live By Night (1948, d. Nicholas Ray)
“Son, I’d sure like that money. I’m old, and money’s a real comfort to an old man…but I can’t take this money of yours. No sir. In a way I’m a thief just the same as you are, but I won’t sell you hope when there ain’t any.”
Not so much a crime movie as a love story painted in the edges of a crime movie. Nicholas Ray’s first film is ostensibly a Bonnie and Clyde riff, about a dopey teen convict who gets involved with two older, meaner bank robbers and goes on the lam with a poor girl, but all but one of the bank robberies takes place off screen, and until the climax even all the violence takes place off screen; the movie isn’t about crime, but is instead a sad love song about two young people born behind the 8 ball. Farley Granger’s Bowie has virtually no life experience outside prison, and Cathy O’Donnell’s Keechie has already amassed a lifetime’s worth of scar tissue and wariness (“You don’t see me knittin’ anything, do ya?” she sneers at Granger after she’s told him she’s pregnant). It’s easy to imagine the tough, vicious version of this story (Robert Altman’s remake, under the story’s original title “Thieves’ Like Us”, is much more stripped down and unsentimental); what makes Ray’s movie so special is the tenderness with which it shows its lost lovers, young and confused, and the gentle way it allows them to open up to each other before their love is snuffed out. Granger’s quite good here (he’d later make two great films with Hitchcock, “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train”), but the movie really belong to the radiant Cathy O’Donnell, simultaneously soft and tough, completely ordinary and utterly resplendent, whose final, whispered “I love you” is one of the most touching endings in all of noir. A beautiful and transcendent film.
BEST SHORT FILM
“Lunch Time” (2017, d. Alireza Ghasemi) A terrifically terse Iranian short that is a perfect case of small gestures equaling big effects. Dazzling.
BEST ANIMATED FILM
“Pussy N’ Booty” (1943, d. Frank Tashlin) The last black and white “Looney Tune” to come out of the Schlesinger studios, and a great showcase for both the rude, subversive humor that was the studio’s stock in trade (this one has a particularly, admirably sadistic punch line) and the wild compositional flourishes Tashlin indulged in his cartoons (the above is just one of at least two dozen screen grab worthy moments in a seven and a half minute short).
Dylan baker, “happiness”; john huston, “the other side of the wind”; scott wilson, “the ninth configuration”
Three wildly different but equally brilliant portraits of masculinity in free-fall crisis.
ALSO: Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out”; BILL PAXTON IN “ONE FALSE MOVE”.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, “The Kindergarten Teacher”; Charlize Theron, “Tully”
Two of our best actresses with fearless portraits of women in maternal roles, struggling to hold it together in the face of societal pressure and expectations and exhaustion and general patriarchal bullshit. The most brutal line from each film – “The world is going to erase you…couple of years you’re going to be just a shadow, just like me” in the former; “I leave this way every day, you just don’t see it” in the latter – could easily be swapped into the mouth of the other character and be just as heartbreakingly true.
ALSO: ELSIE FISHER IN “EIGHTH GRADE”; Thomasin McKenzie in “Leave No Trace”; CATHY O’DONNELL IN “THEY LIVE BY NIGHT”.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
peter bogdanovich/norman foster/dan tobin, “THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND”
I could probably fill a whole list of great performances just from “Other Side of the Wind”, but three highlights: Peter Bogdanovich, doing marvelous work as a thinly veiled version of himself (some scenes are uncomfortable in how close to the bone they seem to cut); Norman Foster, quite touching in the Joseph Calleia role of the much-abused flunky; and Dan Tobin, a wonderful Welles grotesque who is the center of maybe the best scene in the film, the uncomfortable revelation of John Dale’s true backstory.
Also: WILLEM DAFOE IN “THE FLORIDA PROJECT”; Sam Elliott in “A Star is Born"; Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace”; Roger Livesay in “A Matter of Life and Death”.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
danai gurira/lupita nyong’o/letitia wright, “black panther”
“Black Panther” was actually as good as everybody was hoping it would be, thank God (see below), and these three incredible actresses were a big reason why. Nyong’o managed to breathe life and sincerity into what threatened to be a cliche “love interest”, Wright became maybe the best “Q” character in movie history; and with no offense intended to the very fine Chadwick Boseman, Gurira was so good and multilayered in “Black Panther” that I would’ve happily watched a whole damn movie about her character. Point of fact, much as I’m getting sick of superhero movies in particular and “spinoff culture” in general (I invented that, but I’ll stand by it), if they make that “Women of Wakanda” spinoff movie they were blabbing about earlier this year, I will absolutely buy a ticket. Marvel finally figured out how to give women equal weight to carry in their cinematic universe.
ALSO: ELIZABETH DEBICKI, “WIDOWS”; MARY BETH HURT AND MAUREEN STAPLETON, “INTERIORS”; GLENDA JACKSON, “WOMEN IN LOVE”; carmen maura, “volver”; ALLISON WILLIAMS, “GET OUT”.
“13th” (2016, Ava DuVernay) A terrific documentary that made me so angry I had to pause it about every 20 minutes. Powerful.
“Alphaville” (1965, d. Jean-Luc Godard) 2018: The Year I Finally Saw a Godard Film I Love! Granted, it helps that it’s a genre deconstruction/mash-up, which maybe made it easier for me to get on board with the games Godard is playing. At any rate: hypnotic, surprisingly funny and surprisingly touching.
“Black Panther” (2018, d. Ryan Coogler) I’m an agnostic on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but this is easily the best movie to come out of that grand corporate experiment. Everything you’d want big blockbuster filmmaking to be – exciting, emotional, mythic without being self serious.
“Born to Kill” (1947, d. Robert Wise) A terrific noir melodrama. Lawrence Tierney’s devilishly handsome thug was the scariest villain I saw in a movie this year – a psychopathic killer straight out of a James Elroy novel.
“A Bucket of Blood” (1959, d. Roger Corman) Wickedly funny. Long live Dick Miller!
“The Brothers Rico” (1957, d. Phil Karlson) A fascinating, ruthless piece of noir nihilism…until it completely loses its nerve in the last three minutes. But man, those preceding 90 minutes are like a gradually closing trap.
“Carnival of Souls” (1962, d. Herk Harvey) Watched this at about 3 in the morning, which turned out to be appropriate; I’m not sure I’ve seen another film that so accurately recreates that slightly loopy, slightly nightmarish feeling of being half awake and half asleep in the middle of the night.
“Crossfire” (1947, d. Edward Dymytryk) Terrific mystery/thriller with a social conscience. We need more of those. (Also, this year turned out to be the year I fell in love with Gloria Grahame. I think I’d sort of bought into the dumb notion that she was just “The Girl Who Can’t Say No” from “Oklahoma!”, but I saw her in four noir titles this year — “Crossfire”, “The Big Heat”, “In a Lonely Place” and “Odds Against Tomorrow” — and she’s radically different and very good in all of them. Went from “yeah, she’s OK, I guess” to “Oh she’s in this?! I LOVE her!” in my book. Sorry it took me so long to catch up.)
“Dawn of the Dead” (1978, d. George A. Romero) The best movie I watched during my “31 Days of Horror” marathon; I like the original “Night of the Living Dead”, but “Dawn” tops it in every way, more visually confident, more politically daring, scarier and funnier. Extra points for brilliant use of Muzak.
“Dead of Night” (1945, d. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer) Another great anthology movie! I actually enjoyed all the segments (yes, even the golf one), and Michael Redgrave is as great as everyone says.
“Eighth Grade” (2018, d. Bo Burnham) I wanna hate Bo Burnham. But I can’t. But I wanna. Does he have to be good at every damn thing…?! Also, Elsie Fisher is glorious and magical in this.
“Frances Ha” (2012, d. Noah Baumbach) The spiritual sequel to “Lady Bird”, made five years earlier. I spent the first ten minutes thinking, “Am I gonna find these people this obnoxious for the whole movie…?”, and then bit by bit, moment by moment, line by line, I fell in love. “That’s what I want out of a relationship…or just life, I guess.” I cried when Frances got her wish.
“Fresh Airedale” (1945, d. Chuck Jones) Maybe the most gleefully misanthropic thing Chuck Jones ever made…? Deserves notice for that.
“George Harrison: Living in the Material World” (2011, d. Martin Scorsese) My favorite documentary I watched this year – an epic, enthralling, (near) exhaustive portrait of a great artist and complicated man.
“Get Out” (2017, d. Jordan Peele) I’ll actually sort of defend the weird choice to nominate it for “best musical/comedy”, ‘cause I’d argue it’s just as funny as it is scary. And it’s pretty damn scary. Daniel Kaluuya’s on quite a roll, isn’t he…?
“A Ghost Story” (2017, d. David Lowery) I confess I’d put off seeing this one, despite all the accolades and recommendations of people I trust, because I couldn’t get past the trailer. “But…it’s a dude in a bed sheet…” I got around to it. It shook me. You guys were right, I was wrong.
“Hangmen Also Die!” (1943, d. Fritz Lang) Lang turns his cold, procedural gaze on/against the Nazi menace, with inspired results.
“Hereditary” (2018, d. Ari Aster) So scary I both plugged my ears and looked away from the screen for the last 15 minutes.
“The Hitch-Hiker” (1953, d. Ida Lupino) Terrific, stripped down exercise in suspense. Brilliantly directed by the great Ida Lupino.
“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” (2017, d. Chris Smith) Simultaneously made me admire Jim Carrey’s dedication and also want to throttle him for his rudeness and unprofessionalism. Fascinating, in any case.
“A Matter of Life and Death” (1946, d. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) Endlessly inventive, ingenious, irreverent. A delight.
“Modern Romance” (1981, d. Albert Brooks) Funny and painful in about equal measure.
“One False Move” (1992, d. Carl Franklin) A brutally honest movie about violence, and a brilliantly subtle movie about race, hidden inside an apparently straightforward crime film. A brilliant lead performance by Bill Paxton, who starts the film as something of a homespun stereotype and grows deeper and richer as the movie goes on. Another devastating final shot that elevates the whole movie preceding it.
“Point Blank” (1967, d. John Boorman) Quentin Tarantino once talked up Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone as the two great re-inventors of genre, “guys who put their own spin on genre while still delivering the goods”. Put John Boorman in that class; “Point Blank” abstracts and deconstructs the crime film while still delivering all its visceral pleasures.
“Roma” (2018, d. Alfonso Cuaron) My favorite Cuaron – the long takes really work to draw you into the everyday rhythms of this family. Also has maybe the most stunning opening shot of the year.
“Searching for Sugar Man” (2012, d. Malik Bendjelloul) Made me wanna buy Rodriguez’ two albums, so it definitely worked.
“Sister Hearts” (2018, d. Mohammad Gorjestani) Beautiful, moving short form documentary.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999, d. M. Night Shyamalan) In retrospect: yes, the twist ending does rely on more than a fair helping of contrivance. Still a deeply emotional movie, with maybe Bruce Willis’ best work.
“Spielberg” (2017, d. Susan Lacy) Could’ve been just a hagiography. Ends up so much more involving.
“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974, d. Joseph Sargent) This fabulous little heist thriller, seen as nothing more than a solid piece of studio workmanship in its time, is more exciting and entertaining than basically any major studio film I’ve seen in the last ten years. Perfect cast, a terrific David Shire score, and second only to “Scarlet Street” for the best last 30 seconds of any movie I saw this year.
“Three Colors: Red” (1994, d. Krysztof Kieslowski) My favorite of the “Three Colors” trilogy.
“Toni Erdmann” (2016, d. Maren Ade) Please don’t remake this. Just don’t.
“The Unknown” (1927, d. Tod Browning) Brilliant silent melodrama.
“Volver” (2006, d. Pedro Almodovar) I often respect Almodovar more than I’m enthralled by him, but this one’s pretty delicious. Carmen Maura is wonderful — it’s no small feat to steal a movie away from Penelope Cruz, but she manages to balance broad comedy, wild melodrama and understated dignity with aplomb.
“Whitney” (2018, d. Kevin Macdonald) Heartbreaking.
“Who Can Kill a Child?” (1976, d. Narciso Ibanez Serrador) As the title suggests, not exactly a fun watch, but a chilling, upsetting horror movie whose message is maybe more relevant than ever: if we leave our children a world of conflict and violence, we shouldn’t be surprised it they follow suit…
So what’d I miss…? - C.B.