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Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2018

The best films of 2018 grappled with the unsettling valences of an uncertain and sometimes hostile world, and found empathy, solidarity, progress, and tempered hope in cinematic art. The pinnacle highlights of the filmic year are a varied bunch, reflecting majoritarian trends in big-budget blockbusters and arthouse film as well as singular curios.

The new African-American film renaissance continued and strengthened in breadth and commercial and artistic power this year, following from 2017’s Best Picture Moonlight and surprise hit (and my top film of that year) Get Out. The year’s highest-grossing film in the U.S. and Canada (and second highest-grossing worldwide) was written and directed by an African-American, featured an almost exclusively African-American cast, and thought compellingly about contemporary and historical issues facing black people globally. It is hardly alone on this list, either, with an enervating animated superhero movie and a hyper-inventive, politically-conscious comedic debut joining it (to say nothing of other important African-American films released this year, like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, to name just a couple).

Superhero movies continued to dominate the box office and the Hollywood release schedule, but these films continued to expand in new creative directions that portended a brighter future for an oft-artistically-maligned genre. The streaming revolution proceeded apace, with format giant Netflix bypassing traditional theatres by releasing a dizzying variety of new original films, including no less than four of this year’s top ten films below. In between, there were varied glories: a fingernail-biting documentary about a death-defying rock climber; an animated picaresque about the destabilizing madness of the internet and maintaining healthy relationships in the face of separation and division; a viciously black-comic satire of screwball authoritarian power struggles; an aborted anthology western series turned into wonderful anthology western movie; a belatedly completed and released final film from one of movie history’s true masters. And standing above them all, a poetic black-and-white masterpiece about family and togetherness under pressure in 1970s Mexico City from one of our greatest living film artists. A fine year at the movies, and these are its finest moments.

 

1. Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

“[Roma] is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers. […] Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow. It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. […] For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.”

Review – 30 December 2018

 

2. Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. […] [Sorry to Bother You] is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize[…]. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it.”

Review – 1 December 2018

 

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year, and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period. […] If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as an effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike. […] This movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.”

Review – 17 December 2018

 

4. Free Solo (Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

“Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. […] Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on [free climber Alex] Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes. […] This film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.”

Review – 23 December 2018

 

5. Annihilation (Directed by Alex Garland)

“Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation […] picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. […] Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence. […] What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty.”

Review – 20 October 2018

 

6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

“The Coen Brothers’ Netflix streaming-series-turned-anthology-film is at once a deconstruction of the Hollywood western and a sincere homage to the genre, all while remaining indelibly and profoundly Coens. […] These vignettes range from wacky send-ups of generic tropes to exquisitely-wrought parables of human want and drive to wordy chamber pieces to cause-and-effect escalations with tragic dimensions. But they always retain an internal logic of momentum and direction, a force and counter-force progression of choices and events unmoored from moral consequences and judgements of cosmic justice; indeed, they often brazenly thumb their collective noses at the sense of a moral order. […] They are all entertaining, involving, amusing, or moving in some way or other; we as viewers are always engaged and trusted, never condescended to but forever respected and given space to consider, to interpret, maybe to understand.”

Review – 23 November 2018

 

7. Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

“The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s […] an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America. […] Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s).”

Review – 18 February 2018

 

8. The Other Side of the Wind (Directed by Orson Welles)

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. […] The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. […] This film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success.”

Review – 26 December 2018

 

9. The Death of Stalin (Directed by Armando Iannucci)

“Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.”

Review – 5 December 2018

 

10. Ralph Breaks the Internet (Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

“[Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s] surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. […] Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.”

Review – 28 December 2018

 

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