Dan Scully's Top Fifteen Films of 2018
Oh, what’s in a list? It’s an exercise we nerds love to do, and even though it’s the most frustrating task imaginable, it’s always a ton of fun. Yes, it is ultimately a pointless effort since list-making, at its worst, is an attempt to bring objectivity into an entirely subjective matter. So with that in mind let me give you the criteria I followed in picking my top fifteen movies of the year:
These are movies that I enjoyed while watching them AND they stuck with me.
These are my picks at a single moment in time. They could change at any moment for any reason.
I’m not interested in finding the “best” movie. I am interested in listing my favorites.
Easy peasy, not too deep. If there are any titles you see as being egregious snubs/oversights, I assure you I feel the same way. Getting this list down to 15 entries was a chore. My heart started breaking by the time I got it down to 40, so believe me when I say that there are a ton of films I’d like to recognize that I simply can’t.
Final thought before we get started: This was a fantastic year overall, and in my estimation it’s because of accessibility. Filmmakers of all shapes and sizes have more access to filmmaking tools than ever before, as well as more opportunity for exhibition. Add to that the turbulent sociopolitical culture of the last few years and we’ve got storytellers bending over backwards to express themselves. Reactionary art is always good, and I’m seeing a lot of it in film.
Alright, still with me? Here goes!
15. Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
Of the foursome of 2018 films about race relations on an interpersonal level (Blindspotting, Bodied, and BlacKkKlansman being the others), Sorry to Bother You was easily my favorite. It’s a perfect blend of comedic social commentary, aggressively inventive filmmaking, and full-on body horror. Sure, it wields its themes like a mallet, but in a film so imaginative and fun, that’s okay by me. Navigating oneself through society can be a real minefield, doubly so if you’re a minority, and Riley’s satire makes it clear how difficult it can be to thrive in a system rigged against you. The third act turn is about as ballsy as they come, and we need more filmmakers like Riley to eschew cinematic convention in such exciting ways.
14. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
Now that horror films are starting to get their due in a post-Get Out world, it’s been fun to watch noobs come to terms with the genre. Creepshows like Hereditary make it very clear that classiness and pants-shitting terror are not mutually exclusive. The awards push for Toni Collette’s performance as a grief stricken matriarch dealing in dark forces may actually result in an Oscar nomination, and the Academy would be correct to recognize it. She’s not alone either. Ann Dowd, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne — really everyone in this insane nightmare brings their A game. Thematically, Aster’s film explores generational trauma, familial loyalty, and metaphysical greed...it’s a lot, and it handles it all quite deftly. Best part of Hereditary is that it benefits from multiple viewings. There’s something new to discover with each pass.
13. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
It’s messed up that it takes this long for a filmmaker as consistently excellent as Lynne Ramsay to fund a movie. I wonder why. Hmmmmmmm... HMMMMMM...
Hopefully the near masterpiece she pumped out this year will sway financial tides in her favor, because a filmmaker operating at such an intense level should not be given the opportunity to stop doing what she does best. How to describe You Were Never Really Here?? Well, a reductive description would be to call it an arthouse riff of stuff like Taken, which employs ambiguity and an unreliable narrator to explore a seedy world right beneath our noses. But that’s not all, this is also a story about addiction, about the morality of pointed violence — about the intoxicating nature of power even in the smallest amounts. It’s also one of those lovely movies which inspired me to hunt down the source material. I’m glad I did too. It’s an excellent pulp novella from an author I’m typically lukewarm on (Jonathan Ames), and Ramsay’s film improves upon it in every way. Also, Joaquin Phoenix is a god.
12. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
It’s a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver. It’s also a “spiritual” sequel to Taxi Driver. First Reformed is the movie that Paul Schrader has been writing since the moment he was born, and it shows. A young man could not have made this film, nor could have a sane man. Yet, despite being a truly bonkers individual, Schrader has found humanity in his study of the motivations behind (and logistics of) martyrdom. Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career, as does Cedric the Entertainer, with Amanda Seyfried doing extremely difficult work as a devout woman caught between her circumstances, desires, and beliefs. Everybody is digging deep, and it shows. It’s rare to see such a personal film see the light of day with little to no concession made to broad appeal, but here we are. Lucky us.
11. Diamantino (dir. Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt)
Yeah yeah this isn’t out yet, and I only got to see it at a film festival, and it doesn’t count because blah blah blah blah WHATEVER. I want to talk about Diamantino as early and as often as possible because you NEED to see this movie. It’s Zoolander by way of Danger: Diabolik through the lens of FIFA 2018, and even that description is doing a disservice to this profoundly strange movie. Since I still haven’t caught up with the Paddington films (I will, I promise), I submit this zany curiosity as my entry in the “everyone should try and be polite” category of 2018 films. My love for this movie comes down to two things. First, it’s weird in all of the best ways. Second, the character of Diamantino is an all-time great. His incredible soccer (and eventually super spy) abilities all stem from the fact that he’s too dumb to know anything but love and trust. Dumb, yes. Stupid, no. Diamantino knows what’s right and will always stand up for it. The old saying “doing what’s right isn’t always easy, but it’s always right” is brought to life in this oddball film, and as the kids say on Twitter I AM HERE FOR IT.
10. The Sisters Brothers (dir. Jacques Audiard)
John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Riz Ahmed, and Jake Gyllenhaal, all under direction of the guy who made A Prophet. That’s all you need to know.
The Sisters Brothers was such a blast to watch that it wasn’t until about a week after that I realized how truly effective the film was. The sense of time and place is the best I’ve seen in a western in ages, and it’s all in service of a film that is ostensibly about the many factors which corrupt capitalist systems. How appropriate to have a picaresque tale as the vessel. Yes, I learned the term “picaresque” as a result of seeing this film, and I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna use it! For those who don’t know the term, it’s used to describe stories (novels mostly) about roguish, low class antiheroes, living by their wits in an unjust society. Typically it’s a “dude’s being dudes” sort of thing in which the protagonists don’t really have an arc to speak of. It’s less about them than it is about their situation. In exploring the American path to success, I can think of no better way to get it done.
A short moment in which Reilly and Gyllenhaal brush their teeth together remains my favorite scene of the year.
9. Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
“It’s a Nicolas Cage revenge movie” is what I tell people about Mandy, with full knowledge that the film they are picturing is not what they’re about to get. The thing is, Mandy scratches every itch that your typical Nic Cage movie should while also being a piece of high art. Mandy is a heavy metal fever dream with a mean streak and a wicked sense of humor. The score by the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson is the best of the year, as is the cinematography by Benjamin Loeb. No movie this decade can claim to look, sound, or feel like Mandy, but in the next decade many will try. This manic passion project finding such a broad audience (thanks Shudder, I love you, hire me) is an absolute miracle of cinema, as is the montage of Nic Cage welding his own super axe in order to fight demon bikers.
Mandy is FUCKED and I love it.
8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
While not my favorite of the series (Ghost Protocol for life), Fallout is undoubtedly the best. By referencing elements from every previous entry in the greatest modern action series, Fallout is able to play the meta game without doing so explicitly. Everything we love about the M:I series is massaged into the texture of this film flawlessly, and it’s all in service of the purest aim a film can have: entertainment.
Fallout, while not an empty film by any means, is here primarily to thrill the audience in any and every way that it can. Every frame is imbued with obsessive love on all levels of production, just so we can sit back and say “hoooooooooooly shit.” As much as I mocked the contract which required Cavill to keep his M:I mustache through Justice League reshoots rather than using a fake, I think it’s clear that the right decision was made. The mustache needed to be there. It needed to be real.
Because everything in an M:I movie needs to be real. Tom Cruise actually has to jump out of a real plane. He, you, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
7. Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell)
It’s not often we see a genre throwback that isn’t interested in winking and nodding. If not for the modern sheen, Upgrade could easily be mistaken for a 1980s tech thriller, and that’s what makes it so exciting, despite being a relatively basic movie. Upgrade tells a tale of one man’s loss of body autonomy to a malevolent technological force. While I can’t imagine that the film is wearing this theme on its sleeve, I couldn’t help but enjoy the depiction of a good man benefiting from power, and having to take responsibility for its excesses, even if they weren’t outwardly intended (a notion that Logan Marshall-Green wears on his considerably expressive face).
But really, I just loved watching a sick body-horror-action-tech movie, which doubles as a calling card for Leigh Whannell as a director to watch. I’ll take 10 sequels of varying quality, please.
6. Damsel (dir. David Zellner, Nathan Zellner)
The main reason why this one makes the list is that it’s probably my biggest surprise of the year. It was released for a short time with little fanfare, and it disappeared shortly thereafter. Heck, the only reason I even know about Damsel is that I won a ticket to it in a raffle. My love for alt-westerns is no secret, but even with that in mind, I figured this would be a decent distraction and nothing more. I was wrong. First and foremost, this movie is consistently funny in surprising ways. Second, and more importantly, Damsel has its finger on the pulse of society in a big way. Yeah, it’s a silly western with a dark streak, but it’s also a scathing indictment of the hardcoded possessiveness that many men still harbor over women. The Zellners have gone so far as to characterize/motivate this flawed way of thinking while also showing why it’s not just wrong, but deeply dysfunctional. And Robert Forster shows up too.
Damsel also showed me that Robert Pattinson Twitter is the purest, most supportive fan base on the planet.
5. A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski)
The film which took my number one slot at the halfway point of the year remains on my list! This is no surprise to me, as few films have functioned so perfectly as this intense thriller. Sure, I could cite the strong family dynamics, the representative casting, or even the atypical creature design, but what sticks with me most about A Quiet Place is how smoothly it works. There’s not an ounce of fat on this one. Every moment serves the story, and even with such a heightened plot, none of it (short of concept) feels like it’s happening irrespective of the characters. Even in a world where audible expression means guaranteed death, we get the sense that the Abbott family is in control of their fate, and we have faith in their ability to exist and grow in a restricted environment. There’s just so much love bursting forth from what is, at its most basic, a creature feature.
A testament to the power of the film comes from its sole needle drop. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon is used to such lovely, melancholic effect that it dissolved my tendency to dismiss his music on the whole. I was never into it...now I can’t get enough.
4. Burning (dir. Chang-dong Lee)
I went into Burning with no clue what it was about. I had heard good things and figured that even though it’s not really my thing (a wrong assumption, it turns out), I should see it to be part of the conversation. So I strapped in for what I expected to be 2.5 hours of solid, sleepy arthouse drama. I did not expect to get one of the most delicious slow-burn thrillers I’ve ever seen. Sure, it starts as a cheeky romance, but every passing minute erodes our ability to trust, well, anything. The less I say, the better. Just go see it.
There are multiple reads as to what actually happens in the film, and each opens up a Pandora’s box of interesting ideas. I suspect people will be pulling this one apart for years to come, and I certainly plan to watch it a few more times with an eye toward investigation. Above all else, however, Burning is an absolute visual/auditory knockout. Even if you hate the film (you won’t) I dare you not to be transfixed by the cinematic spell it casts.
Steven Yeun is a BEAST.
3. Suspiria (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
I think my review of Suspiria says it all, but I’ll hit on a few points nonetheless.
After a decade of media devoted to the recognition of power structures in everyone’s respective world - be it familial, political, social, etc - Suspiria is the first film I’ve seen which goes beyond mere recognition. This is a film about what to do within such systems, and how even the most corrupt individual can still be rightly considered a victim. It’s also a film about generational trauma, about forging a new identity on the shaky shoulders of a violently cleaned slate. It’s a wicked horror flick. It’s an impressive dance film. It’s a tone piece, a visual experiment, and a late in life coming of age tale.
Suspiria is the Blade Runner 2049 of horror. It’s better than its predecessor AND its existence makes the predecessor better. This is another film which we’ll be exploring and thinking about for years to come, and I imagine the film itself will change in meaning over time. This is our generation’s The Shining in the sense that it processes whatever you bring to it and spits it back out in a new, masticated, fucked up form.
Perhaps my favorite aspect about it is the way Guadagnino keeps the formalism of his film craft at a polar opposite to the material at all times. What I mean is that the film starts innocently enough, but the camera darts around the screen erratically. As the story gets more and more insane, the filmmaking technique becomes tighter, more formal. It’s the work of a master — a master who wants to make you feel ill without knowing why.
2. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has a film leaned so hard into the surreal and succeeded. The final act of this mind blowing sci-fi stunner is as indescribably beautiful as it is gut wrenching. How this got made and sold remains a mystery to me. I just don’t know how this wasn’t meddled with to the point of being “safe.” Annihilation makes my list not just because it’s a head trip with some seriously twisted horror elements, but because it came to me at a time when I needed it most.
The beginning of 2018 was a challenge for me, and this cinematic rumination on the nature of change was exactly what I needed. Growth does not come without loss/sacrifice, and it hurts when the requisite destruction is unexpected. At times like this we can reject change — reject growth — or surf entropy’s cruel wave to wiser shores. When this film came out, I was in a situation that had me questioning so many things I held dear. It sucked, but Annihilation pushed me through the bullshit and helped guide me on a path to a much better place.
But beyond all that mushy shit, Annihilation simply rules. To quote the text message I received from Ryan when he first saw the flick: “Annihilation FUCKS.”
1. Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet)
In a few years we’re all going to realize that the 2010s were an era when Natalie Portman took on a bunch of weird projects and knocked every one out of the park. Exhibit A in this conversation would undoubtedly be Vox Lux. No, I can’t guarantee that you’ll like this purposefully abrasive, scathing portrait of the fame machine, but I, for one, am head over heels for it. Not a day has gone by since I’ve seen it that I didn’t think about it in some way. I don’t even know if I agree with what it has to say (I don’t even know if I rightly get what it has to say), but it says it with such verve that it can’t be ignored. My limited read on it is that Vox Lux is commenting on the increasingly destructive requirements of our entertainment tastes, and then using it to fuel an explosive character study.
What resonates with me most about Vox Lux is the way it embraces salaciousness. The aggressive score placed over stark, monolithic architecture, narrated by a never-seen Willem Dafoe reminds me of early P.T. Anderson. Corbet’s cocksure way of throwing every image, every performance, every sound cue into our faces is refreshing to say the least. There are no half measures in Vox Lux, and Natalie Portman, repping east coast swag in a performance cranked up to 150%, GETS IT. Jude Law, as a scummy music producer, opens the slime faucet to full blast, forcing us to swim in his filth.
Even the soundtrack, with orchestrations by Scott Walker, and pop music by Sia (performed by Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy) drips with biting satire. No meta material either. The songs could easily pass for radio friendly hits, but knowing that they were created solely for this film makes them brilliantly pointed.
Vox Lux is mean, dirty, abrasive, and painful to watch. It’s this year’s Good Time. I get why a lot of people don’t care for it, but no one can deny that there’s nothing quite like it. A Star is Born can kick rocks - Vox Lux forever.