Alex's Top Eleven Films of 2018
The big caveat here is that I am not a profressional critic and I didn't get out to theaters as much as I would have liked to this year, so there are big gaps that I wish I could fill. One of the movies on my list is traveling around festivals, but everything else is available on home media, and if a movie isn't rent-able, I probably haven't been able to see it yet. This is a list written in December 2018, but I have no doubt that if this was written after I'd been able see everything I wanted to, it would look a lot different. What I'm saying is Yorgos, baby, I'm sorry. And if you know how I can see Guy Maddin's The Green Fog, hook me up.
The order here is very arbitrary.
1. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
Our planet is dying and we killed it and the 2018 movie to most blatantly discuss those two facts is also the most hopeful I've seen in years. It's got a beautiful ending, I think. Whether Ethan Hawke's character is dead and imagining everything or has somehow survived drinking drain cleaner, he is allowed to feel connected with Amanda Seyfried again. I don't need to learn lessons from movies. I like to agree with a film's philosophy, but I also watch enough action and horror movies to know that I can enjoy a thing without needing to 100% relate to its sexual politics or view on government or whatever. But I needed this lesson. I needed Paul Schrader and his crew to tell me that there is still value in living in a broken world if we can find and love other people. This past year I locked down my wedding date for July 2019. I also read the UN's climate change report front to back. First Reformed is a perfect reconciliation of that apex and that nadir. We can even throw the climate change part out and just focus on the Hawke character's guilt and his depression, because whether the polar ice caps are melting (they are) and the earth is ready to do back the damage to people that we've been doing to it, the world is still in a bad way. I have spent so many parts of my life not wanting to be alive, I have become less politically engaged as a head-in-the-sand solution to worrying about people less fortunate than I am, I have lay face-first on my couch in positions that are terrible for the spine and thought "They're winning." I have felt blown apart. I have also had good, true conversations. First Reformed is my reminder that this is all real and this is all terrifying and this is all happening in a world with some love left.
2. The Allins (dir. Same Saif)
I saw this documentary at the Cinedelphia Film Festival, and it's my hope that it gets wide distribution and you can see it in the near future. I know I wish I could rewatch it right now.
Sami Saif's movie is a semi-sequel to Todd Phillips' 1993 documentary Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. Phillips focused on GG, a provocateur punk rocker who got into bloody fights with fans, shat on stage and died of a heroin overdose before Phillips was able to show anybody his movie. Here's what I wrote about The Allins in a Split Decision earlier this month:
In part, I imagine, because of Hated, GG's myth has only grown since the early 90s, with his drummer Dino Sex and bassist brother Merle Allin continuing to tour on the Murder Junkies' legacy. Merle makes a living selling Murder Junkies merch at Spaceballs: The Flamethrower-levels of cognitive dissonance, all while justifying, to his customers, the documentary crew and himself, that this is the best way to keep GG's spirit alive. If a shirt with GG's face on it isn't enough, he'll sell you an unwashed shirt GG actually wore. It's extra if it still has GG's blood on it.
GG and Merle's mother, Arleta, wishes fans would stop stealing and/or pissing on her son's tombstone. She remembers GG as "Kevin Michael Allin" and wishes Merle would settle down with a woman. The Allins is a pretty wonderful movie about the push and pull between the way Arleta and Merle mourn GG. If it was a scripted film, you might think it was too on the nose, but as a document of reality, it's fascinating and, yes, touching.
And boy, does GG's music suck.
3. The Kindergarten Teacher (dir. Sara Colangelo)
I had put this off for a bit, knowing Netflix had bought the distribution rights and I could watch it whenever. I eventually got to it in December, specifically to see if it'd make this list. It did. It's great. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her quiet force of nature thing, continuing to make me wish she was in more movies (this was her first in four years!) and continuing to make me wonder if I should just give in and start watching The Deuce.
It's complicated. Morally, ethically, you know where you stand. By "complicated," I mean "This movie is about a kind of relationship I've never seen in art." There is no "person v. person" or "person v. nature" simple conflict breakdown that does it justice. And it would have been so easy to make the Gyllenhaal character a pedophile! It would be so easy for this to be a movie about a teacher in love with her student, which is what the trailer had set me up for, but the film doesn't make any easy excuses for anything. That, to me, is bravery in filmmaking. When The Kindergarten Teacher ends, it cuts to black and a piano piece starts to play, and I was overwhelmed with how sad the end was while also trying to figure out what the music was and what that meant thematically, and then the whole thing cut to a trailer for a different Netflix original movie because I hadn't clicked "Keep Watching" fast enough.
4. You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
The second the end credits started to roll, in my second-day-of-release, early afternoon showing at the Ritz East, a guy behind me said "Thank god that's over" to his friend. He said it loud, because he wanted everybody in the room to hear him.
That person was obviously a chode, but the effect he had on me was sort of incredible. I was annoyed that the movie's quiet had been pierced, but I was also just very happy that I loved the whole thing as much as I did. I got to see what is, by my measure, a pretty perfect movie that I would be able to pick apart (not in a reddit-y, Westworld-y, Room 237-y "hunt for every clue" way), a movie that was both viscerally thrilling and challenging. I got to go think about it over lunch. And I felt bad for the guy who had tried to seem above it all because he didn't get to do that.
5. Gemini (dir. Aaron Katz)
Aaron Katz is the latest mumblecorey, micro-budget-burdened filmmaker to get a big (for him) budget and absolutely kill it. This is a tight "something's fishy in Hollywood" mystery that you probably shouldn't know anything about going in. Even Wikipedia's one-word-long blurb at the top of the movie's page reveals something that, while the center of the plot and the impetus for much of what you see on screen, happens 20 minutes in. Lola Kirke from Mistress America is a celebrity's assistant and Zoe Kravitz is her celebrity boss and there's a mystery.
6. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
I tend to fall in love with movie trailers that secretly tell you nothing about the movie they're advertising (i.e. something like The Place Beyond The Pines, whose trailer only really shows off the first of three distinct acts, or The Rover, whose trailer sets you up for Mad Max, even if you're headed for Walkabout). And it's a beautiful thing when this happens, even if once it's done, it's done and the cat's out of the bag for good. I knew what happened in Psycho years before I saw it, and I definitely didn't watch that trailer where Hitchcock teases the audience until after I had seen the full film. The trailer was just a curio unearthed in the special features section of a DVD.
So Hereditary is an incredible film that gets on my list on its own merits, but also maybe bumps a couple spaces up because the people promoting it were as artful as the people actually making it. It's a shame almost nobody coming to Hereditary in the future will be subject to the same bait and switch I was, because there were a solid ten minutes in the middle of this thing where I thought I was watching a dream sequence, because the "real" story couldn't possibly have gone in the direction I was watching it go in. In a better world, Toni Collette would be a big awards frontrunner for her performance. That's about as deep as I'll get on the story.
Another specific-to-me detail from my Hereditary experience: My partner and I went to a screening around 11 am. Later that afternoon, I bought Colin Stetson's soundtrack and played a gorgeous track over the speakers in our apartment. My partner told me to turn it off. She couldn't handle being in the Hereditary head space anymore. I don't blame her.
7. Widows (dir. Steve McQueen)
Not the follow-up I expected from Steve McQueen, but then Shame is my favorite of his movies, and I sort of wish everything he made was just Hunger-like long takes of conversations between people. I don't think of myself as a big "production values" guy, but sometimes I see a movie like Widows and think "Hey, all movies should spring for Robert Duvall-level actors to play bit parts" and "Why doesn't every quiet, internal drama director put this amount of gloss on their action scenes?" Money aside, the reason is most movies aren't put together by this much talent. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry give performances that would collapse lesser movies; if Viola Davis was this good in a normal action film, you would spend the whole thing wishing she was in something better.
8. Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins)
Tamara Jenkins writes and directs and Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn act in some of the best movie fights, right up there with Before Midnight's centerpiece argument between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and the big climax of The Raid 2 where Iko Uwais takes on the baseball bat and hammer people at the same time. Last month I said I was thankful that Lynne Ramsey and Debra Granik returned after six and eight year silences, respectfully. At the time, I forgot that Private Life was Jenkins' first film in 11 years. She belonged on a list of missing directors so much that she was missing, so much time having passed between her second and third films that her momentum was completely gone. I regret the error.
9. Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell)
Always happy to watch a violent "horrors of violence" movie that doesn't seem hypocritical, especially if that's wrapped up in another of my favorite tropes, the "action movie wish fulfillment is actually hell" twist. I still remember the first Saw movie, the only one I saw until last year's failed reboot, as a crappy fluke-hit. It was shot like a Mountain Dew commercial, with a "grittiness" only the JNCO'd among us would like. So for the co-writer of that movie, whose only other directing credit is the third entry in a C-tier Blumhouse franchise, to go from making 90-minute Disturbed videos to a legitimately frightening action flick is a great surprise.
10. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (dir. Gus Van Sant)
It is a weird feeling, tearing up during a movie about a guy who'd probably make fun of you for tearing up. I've known and loved John Callahan's comics for years (maybe this movie has changed things, but for a while you were guaranteed to find at least one copy of his collection in every used book store in America) but didn't know anything about his personal life outside of his disability and the story of how he got it. I'm glad Gus Van Sant filled in the blanks.
Van Sant, who must have the most uneven directing career in modern film, does a beautiful job showing every part of Callahan's recovery. He's a writer-director who can clearly get raw, but he can also get a little too precious at times, and he does a good job of making the movie rough without dipping into misery porn. It isn't just two hours of Joaquin Phoenix crying. Callahan is allowed his sexuality, and he's allowed to be both a good guy and the person ultimately at fault for a lot of his own problems. Phoenix is so affable that parts of the movie just feel like hanging out with a person.
The real Callahan is also just funny as hell. There's often a point in movies about artists, real and imagined, where everybody's been calling them brilliant and the audience is finally exposed to their work and maybe it isn't bad, but it probably isn't as good as we had all pictured it being. I think, for example about poetry recitations where the film's crowd breaks down crying and I'm left with stale metaphors about the wind and moon, or the "young band pulls it together and writes a hit song!" sequences where the band has been set up as a Rolling Stones analogue, but their music sounds sub-Wolfmother. And the question, then, becomes "How do I view the artists in this movie?" Is the poem bland because the filmmakers are trying to comment on the writer character's skills? Maybe the screenwriter just doesn't like poetry and is trying to show how hollow he or she finds the whole medium. Or maybe this whole thing misfired and the emotions I need to connect with the movie just aren't going to come because art is difficult to make. Then I'm just stranded. But John Callahan's work is worth celebrating. His comics are amazing. When other characters laugh out loud at them, you naturally join in.
11. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
I resented this movie in the lead up to watching it. I had already started making my list, and I love Alfonso Cuarón and I knew that there was a good chance I'd love his newest movie, and then that'd be it, I'd have to knock something else off. But I'm not replacing anything-- this is #11.
Something that especially impressed me: Cuarón previously always worked with Emmanuel Lubezki, probably my favorite cinematographer, but with Roma, Cuarón handled photography on his own. And Roma is gorgeous. Lubezki made me sit through that excruciating Iñárritu/DiCaprio bear movie. He can do anything. And Cuarón is obviously a great filmmaker in his own right, but his work as cinematographer on Roma really cemented how brilliant he is.
And now we all get to wait five-to-seven years for his next thing.
Tree of Life [Extended Criterion Cut] - I don't know what to do with this one. For a while it was my #1 or 2, but it's difficult to know how much of what I watched was new without picking apart every montage frame-by-frame. Malick reportedly considers it a different movie, not a preferred cut, and I love a lot of the things that would qualify it as a different movie, i.e. everything with Jessica Chastain's character's brother, but I can't sit here and put it above anything that "fully" came out in 2018. But when I watched this, I felt exactly how I did when I first saw it, alone, in theaters, after college, living at home, blah blah blah. Ranking art isn't always a healthy thing to do, and I'm not going to drive myself crazy trying to figure out if "the feeling of love and the inevitability that you will inherit the pain your parents inherited from their own parents" is better or worse than Upgrade.
My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea- This hit festivals and an extremely limited release in 2017, but I saw it in January 2018 when it hit home media, and the movie's scarcity up to that point makes me feel okay about including it here but not up top.
Avengers: Infinity War- Black Panther and Mission: Impossible are probably better movies, but I saw Infinity War in the theater, in a year when I didn't go to theaters much. And I just haven't seen Spider-Verse.
Small Town Crime - I remember loving this when it was released in January, but here I am without the time to revisit it. Can't rank it, but it was a good 'un.
Leave No Trace