Many of 2018’s best films provided a mental oasis for those seeking refuge from the year’s political dumpster inferno of GOP madness, naked corruption, and open racism. Admittedly, many of the films from the following list would be unknown to filmgoers who’d consider “A Star Is Born” or “Avengers: Infinity War” the zenith of cinematic achievement. But entertainment has limits as a defense against social madness. The often obscure films championed here offer new ways of seeing the world that reject fearing change and uncertainty.
As a caveat, a number of critical darlings weren’t mentioned on this list because the stars of scheduling and availability failed to properly align. So apologies are offered for not seeing “First Reformed,” “Loveless,” “Leave No Trace,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Zama,” “Sorry To Bother You,” “The Rider” and “Eighth Grade.” Then again, seeing “Hale County This Morning This Evening” or “Burning” didn’t guarantee this writer would share other critics’ rapture.
Best Feature Films
Calling “Roma” the best film of 2018 isn’t a sick appeal to critical conformity. Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical tale of life in the titular middle-class Mexico City neighborhood repeatedly earns its many plaudits. Through the eyes of maid Cleo, the film captures in both microscopic and macroscopic imagery (frequently simultaneously) the social and political turmoil sweeping Mexican society in 1971. Cuaron’s societal and family portrait cinematically possesses the detail and depth of a classic 19th century novel.
Armando Iannucci comes in a close second on this best film list with his dark political comedy “The Death Of Stalin.” The “Veep” creator dispenses with making a cinematic simulacrum of mid-20th century Russian politics through such devices as having the actors speak in their normal voices rather than mock Russian accents. Iannucci’s dark comedy thus becomes a truer film by focusing on the unfortunate universality of political maneuvering and backstabbing. Shouting “Long live Stalin” unfortunately doesn’t ensure the shouter can expect a long life.
The many shades of family relationships has been a deep creative well for director Hirokazu Kore-eda. But his utterly engrossing drama “Shoplifters” turns such relationships on their head by showing how the Armistead Maupin concept of the chosen family would function (or not) in a Japanese setting. An act of compassion towards a starving and abused little girl winds up being the catalyst for unexpected changes.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ very dark comedy “The Favourite” can easily be called a “Masterpiece Theatre” drama on acid. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone deliver performances that cap a film which wittily and comically passes gas in the face of the concept of giving the aristocracy deference. How can the aristocrats seen walking the halls of Queen Anne’s court deserve respect when they’re a bunch of duck racing weirdos, schemers, and emotional hot messes?
Alice Rohrwacher’s fable “Happy As Lazzaro” may be grounded in the eternal story of the naif whose innocence constantly collides with human baseness. But the director tosses into the dramatic mix such unexpected elements as tobacco sharecropping in rural Italy and the Rip van Winkle story. The titular Lazzaro seems more attuned to the natural world’s rhythms rather than being a human who becomes hardened by cynicism.
Barry Jenkins’ amazing James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk” dramatizes how even the romantic film can’t escape the stigma of white privilege. Tish and Vonnie’s relationship feels like a fragile thing different from white relationships because they’re young and black and living in 1970s New York City. Racist micro-aggressions fill the air of these young lovers’ lives like soot…and that’s even before Vonnie gets wrongfully arrested.
Panos Cosmatos’ “Mandy” ably shifts gears from its idyllic love story into a roaringly mad tale of brutal revenge. Nicolas Cage’s performance matches the film’s tonal shifts to help him show new levels of onscreen crazy. No other 2018 film can boast a weirdly timed callout to The Carpenters, animated fantasy art, a fighting chainsaw duel, a telepathic tiger, and a cheddar goblin.
Cristiano, the protagonist of Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s “Araby,” faces far more mundane challenges by comparison. A Brazilian traveling laborer, he endures everything from wage theft to the delicate shelter of love. Dumans and Uchoa shows viewers that the central tragedy of Cristiano’s life is a Sisyphean cycle of barely earning enough to work another exhausting day.
A married working class interracial couple might offer a more stable domestic life in Jeremiah Zagar’s “We The Animals.” But paternal anger management issues makes life fragile for youngest son and viewpoint character Jonah. Add into the mix the boy’s rich fantasy life (brought alive with simple animation) and his burgeoning homosexual desire, and he’s clearly on a different life path than his parents and his older brothers.
Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” earns a spot on this list for flinging the cinematic comfort food plate against the wall of popular acceptance. A 100-degree turn gets given to the cliched advice to look at one’s own life for the wellsprings to create theatrical art. For the emotional well Helena Howard’s titular teenager draws from includes mental illness and a troubled relationship with her mother (Miranda July). Artistic power struggle and occasional unreliable narration add to Decker’s unique cinematic experience.
Melissa Mc Carthy provides a standout anti-heroic performance as real-life film biographer turned celebrity forger Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Ably sharing the screen with Mc Carthy are Richard E. Grant as this lesbian’s gay best friend and feline actor Towne The Cat delivering the cat pron.
Maysaloun Hamoud’s powerful Palestinian women’s drama “In Between” effectively hit quite a few male nerves, judging by the death threats Hamoud received. The title describes the lives of three Palestinian roommates in present-day Tel Aviv. Not only are they caught between tradition and modernity, but they live between the cultural expectations of both Israeli and Palestinian societies. An incredibly bouncing soundtrack ties the whole of Hamoud’s package together.
Teddy Award winner “Hard Paint” from directors Filipe Matzembacher and Marco Reolon takes viewers to Porto Alegre, Brazil. Beautiful images using neon paint, beautiful men, and ultraviolet light heat up the screen. But the film is also a moving drama of a troubled young man caught between the allure of his Neonboy handle and the hazards of emotionally connecting with others.
Who knew sisterhood could be found in a Hooters knock-off? But that’s precisely what happens in Andrew Bujalski’s dry comedy “Support The Girls” to manager Lisa (Regina Hall) during a raging trash fire-level work day. A great Shayna McHayle and an even better Haley Lu Richardson deliver memorable support as two of Lisa’s best waitresses.
Shinichiro Ueda’s “One Cut Of The Dead” offers a blood- and brains-splattered valentine to low budget movie-making. Zombie attacks seem preferable to the frustrations of bad actors and insanely tyrannical directors.
Honorable Mentions: 3 Faces, BlacKKKlansman, Black Panther, Burning, En El Septimo Dia, The Line, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, The Workshop
“Bisbee ‘17” is this writer’s pick for 2018’s best documentary. A centennial recreation of a notorious anti-labor crime becomes more than play-acted history in Robert Greene’s new film. Despite the passage of decades, this Arizona mining town’s residents haven’t all confronted the ghosts of accountability surrounding this town’s deliberately deporting striking miners to certain death.
Sandi Tan earns a close second with her entertaining personal documentary “Shirkers.” The title references what would have been Singapore’s first DIY punkish feature film until Tan’s director and mentor Georges Carmona disappeared with all of the film’s footage. Given the distance of time, the film’s equal parts Tan re-evaluating her younger self as well as her trying to figure out who Carmona was as a person.
Bertrand Tavernier’s “My Journey Through French Cinema” let viewers share in the famed director’s enthusiasms for the French directors, actors, and even musicians whose work shaped and influenced him. When Tavernier wasn’t offering clips from French films little known in America, he offered entertaining personal reminiscences about such directors as Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville.
“Rodents Of Unusual Size” has nothing to do with late “The Princess Bride” creator William Goldman. Directors Chris Metzler, Quinn Costello, and Jeff Springer’s real-life man vs. nature tale makes viewers side with the people fighting the titular hordes of orange-toothed furry locusts to still have a coastline to call home.
Mila Turajlic’s amazing yet melancholy personal documentary “The Other Side Of Everything” looks at resistance to dictatorship and its aftermath. The amazing part comes from the film’s central subject Srebrenica Turajlic (aka the filmmaker’s mother) recounting her years of resisting the Romanian dictatorship despite such problems as having neighbors who literally spied on her for the authorities. The melancholy portion of the film comes from the cynicism the filmmaker displays regarding carrying on her mother’s political struggles.
“Dark Money” takes a timely if complicated American political issue and turns it into an accessible and suspenseful real-life tale. Kimberly Reed’s alarming documentary shows how the disastrous “Citizens United” decision has resulted in secretive wealthy funders figuratively buying Montana’s state legislators.
“Three Identical Strangers” from Tim Wardle takes a more roundabout tone in mixing the personal and political. It begins as the classic human interest tale of long-lost relatives rediscovering one another after being literally separated at birth. But the film’s shift into more sinister terrain, particularly the reason for the brothers’ separation, soon delivers far more chilling results.
Correcting a sexist oversight regarding the history of the First Palestinian Intifada, Julia Bacha’s rousing “Naila And The Uprising” uses the personal reminiscences of the amazing Naila Ayesh to show how Palestinian women played central roles in that first rebellion. Simple animated recreations captures both the ingenuity of these nonviolent protesting women and the prison hardships they endured for resisting the Israeli government. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, though, comes off looking like an opportunistic sexist snake.
Religious-based sexism forms a major theme of Nina Paley’s animated documentary “Seder Masochism.” Dancing goddess figurines and other far from reverent imagery show how the Seder ceremony and other familiar religious tales white-washed some brutal political and sexist history. Old pop cultural music, particularly the 1970s children’s song classic “Free To Be You And Me,” winds up getting re-purposed by Paley in a manner guaranteed to reduce their current copyright holders to apoplexy.
The brutal human price of consumer electronics manufacturing is brought home in Heather White and Lynn Zhang’s “Complicit.” The Chinese electronics industry demonstrates it’s unconcerned with the levels of unsafe chemical exposure inflicted on workers. The Chinese government displays a disturbing willingness to either look the other way on such hazards or make life very difficult for people rocking this profitable economic boat.
Honorable Mentions: Demons In Paradise, Hale County This Morning This Evening, Infinite Football, Lots Of Kids A Monkey And A Castle, North Pole NY, Owned: A Tale Of Two Americas, Studio 54, When The Beat Drops
From the admittedly small pool of short films seen by this writer, Dorian Tocker’s “The Day That” tops the list of Best Shorts. Its images and silences capture the emotional ripples set off in a Muslim-American family by the father’s sudden death. Creatively influenced by both Chris Marker and John Cassavetes, Tocker’s short had emotional insight to burn.
The animated Trevor Jimenez short “Weekends” shows through symbolic moments and nicely observed scenes a boy’s emotional turmoil while shuttling back and forth between two very different divorced parents. The boy may often be a mute and sometimes uncomprehending witness to his parents’ lives. But that fact doesn’t prevent him from developing feelings about his separated birth father and mother.
Domee Shi’s very touching Pixar short “Bao” offers a Chinese spin on the gingerbread man story to illuminate a mother-son relationship. The cultural details and non-stereotypical portraits of Asian-Americans touchingly elevated this tale.
Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas’ “One Small Step” wonderfully tugs at viewer heartstrings with its story of childhood dreams and the parental love that keeps those dreams alive. Asian-American Luna Chu’s childhood desire to grow up and become an astronaut gets supported in many small ways by her cobbler father.
Stacy Mc Kenzie’s “Dyke Bars Never Last” may have been a mournful look at the passing of such places as The Lexington Club. But this Sapphic Lasers music video also celebrates the rich and diverse lesbian community that still exists even if a convenient gathering space doesn’t.
The timely “Dollar Heroes” comes from Carl Gierstorfer, Sebastian Weis, and Jonghun Ryu. The title is slang for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s secret weapon for obtaining money to buy personal luxuries and nuclear weaponry. Viewer horror gets divided between the methods the North Korean government uses to keep its “dollar heroes” in line and the European countries such as Poland who have no qualms about benefiting from these heroes’ labors.
Honorable Mentions: Business Meeting, Come And Take It, Kaiju Bath, Love Me Fear Me, Pre-Drink, Runner
(“Roma,” “Happy As Lazzaro,” and “Shirkers” are currently streaming on Netflix. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me,” “The Favourite,” and “Shoplifters” are still in theaters. Home video and/or other streaming services will connect viewers with such films as “Support The Girls,” “My Journey Through French Cinema,” “The Day That,” “Bao,” “Mandy,” and “The Death Of Stalin.”)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment