The best movies what I saw in 2018

I saw about a dozen theatrical releases this year, and most of them were pretty good. Here are my favorites, in rough order from least-best to most-best.

11. Suspiria

The original Suspiria is both a campy product of its time (all the new age psychology nonsense) and a visual masterpiece with lots to say about buried history. It’s full of rich subtext about European life in the shadow of fascism and the Holocaust in the 1970s. Guadagnino’s version turns that subtext into text and grounds the story very specifically in Cold War Berlin, but it stops short of the original by not connecting those hidden wartime histories to post-war supernatural violence. Instead we get an audience surrogate whose wife was killed in the Holocaust, which results in some effective but ultimately hollow moments.

The movie is beautiful and has an excellent (but probably divisive) ending. Unfortunately, scenes often linger too long, character motivation is sometimes unclear, and there’s generally not very much subtlety to the plot itself, all of which hampers the climax and conclusion of the movie. When my friend and I saw the movie, a group of people next to us were cackling all throughout the ending, I suppose because they were expecting a more conventional horror movie. I was hoping for something art house-y, which was what the ending delivered, but ultimately I think the movie failed to please either side.

10. Mission Impossible: Fallout

This movie was built up as the action movie that will “ruin all other action movies“. I hadn’t seen a Mission Impossible movie since the second one, I think, and I had heard the recent installments similarly talked up. I was surprised, then, to see Fallout and find it just fine. It was good, I guess.

The first Mission Impossible produced endless jokes about convoluted double- and triple-crosses. The second one did the same but added masks. The franchise has somehow managed to keep the same misdirection narrative gimmick going through six movies. It doesn’t really work well, because the betrayals and sleights reveal themselves so quickly and repeatedly that they never carry any weight.

What is impressive is how the filmmakers managed to make a modern political action thriller totally devoid of politics. The villain is described as an anarchist, and in another movie (maybe one made 15 or 30 years ago) the audience would have a great time seeing the anti-American and vaguely leftist villain’s plot foiled by superspy Ethan Hunt. The villain’s supposed beliefs in Fallout are so removed from any actual anarchist thought that I don’t think real-life anarchists in 2018 could even be offended by it. These are sprawling global stories for global audiences now, I guess, and the producers know they can’t count on “this guy says America is bad, that’s how you know he’s the bad guy” working everywhere anymore.

This all sounds like I disliked the movie, which I didn’t. It was just dumb. Action movies don’t need to be smart, but Fallout is a movie that wants its audience to think it’s smart, and that’s where it comes up short. Skyfall did the same thing much more effectively in 2012 by being slightly less dumb and far less averse to actual politics. Fallout is worth seeing just for the last line Alec Baldwin delivers, which was my favorite unintentional comedy moment of the year.

9. Zama

A movie about an 18th century corregidor! I was always going to enjoy this movie. I don’t know that I fully got it, but I loved seeing the absurd contradictions of colonialism on display. This is a slow movie, so I don’t know that I would have made it through if I hadn’t seen it in theaters, but I’m glad I did.

8. Roma

Roma is a gorgeous movie. It wanders from realism to poetry just a handful of times, and those moments are beautiful as a result. There’s also unexpected comedy in the form of ridiculous nudity and a fourth-wall breaking scene at a movie theater.

7. Annihilation

The Jeff VanderMeer novel was one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years, and as a fan of Alex Garland’s I was interested in seeing how the story could possibly be translated to film. Garland cut the story down significantly and stripped it of its framing device, which I imagine was the only way any studio would ever finance the script. While I still liked the book quite a bit more than the movie, it felt like this was the best, weirdest adaptation we could possibly get in 2018. Weird, abstract sci-fi is hard to film successfully and probably even harder to sell to a studio, so Annihilation gets a pass for its deviations from the book.

6. You Were Never Really Here

I expected this movie to be a lot more violent and disturbing, so it was refreshing to see how restrained it was. The comparisons to Drive are obvious but apt: both movies are about an odd loner with a barely-contained capacity for violence and a vague sense of morality. The sense of place is also similar: Los Angeles is a central character in Drive, and You Were Never Really Here is rooted in a mucky New York City that almost veers into Taxi Driver (or, worryingly, Death Wish) territory. The movie is minimal enough that it never feels outright nihilistic or gleefully fascist like a lot of 1970s-’80s New York exploitation cinema, thankfully.

Unlike Drive, You Were Never Really Here is actually interested in the protagonist’s history of trauma. Critical portrayals of masculinity are rare, and like American Psycho maybe it’s because this movie was made by a woman that it does such a good job of being about masculine violence, instead of simply showing it. Joaquin Phoenix is great as always at playing a wounded, maybe-sympathetic weirdo.

5. The Favourite

I had a hard time understanding why studios were so hesitant to shoot this script. The lesbian relationships might have scandalized some people in the late 1990s when it was written, but it’s also a straightforwardly funny movie with clear character motives and relationship dynamics. The decadence of the aristocracy as shown here is hilarious, though there’s surprisingly little direct social commentary (less than I thought, anyway). The casual references to the constant threat of sexual violence were increasingly uncomfortable for me, but I suppose that may have been because media has conditioned me to expect graphic portrayals of it at this point. Thankfully it avoids ever being too dark. I was excited to hear that the writer, Deborah Davis, based the screenplay on actual historical research using Queen Anne’s letters.

4. The Sisters Brothers

This was a delightful balance of dark comedy and vulnerable humanity, and it reinforced my belief that the most compelling films about the American frontier are made by non-Americans. I haven’t seen any other movie that has centered this specific dynamic between brothers. The brothers are constantly annoyed at how different they each are, but they are also entirely comfortable with and loyal to one another. It was touching and relatable as someone who is very different from his older brother.

3. Hereditary

Hereditary prompted a thousand “I don’t like horror movies, but this is a good one” explanations this year as I recommended it to everyone I spoke to for several weeks after seeing it. Horror fans will say it’s really annoying to see the entire genre qualified like that so regularly, but I’ve also seen a lot of online reactions from horror fans who hated Hereditary, so who knows. I saw the movie in a crowded theater, and that scene about a third of the way through absolutely silenced everyone. Credit to the producers and/or trailer house for effectively hiding what actually happens in the movie.

The movie doesn’t reach The Babadook levels of horror-as-metaphor, and that’s probably good. The Babadook stopped being scary to me as soon as it explained itself in its conclusion, whereas the themes at work in Hereditary don’t change the supposed reality of the events in the movie.

2. Mandy

I saw Mandy at a late night screening, and when I left the theater it felt like waking up from a dream in the middle of the night. I’ve since struggled to explain the movie and the experience of watching it to friends, because its internal logic is so surreal that its narrative elements stop making sense beyond its bounds. I usually just say “it was the most violent movie I’ve ever seen,” which I think is probably true.

I was a big fan of Panos Cosmatos’ first movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow. Other than the visuals, what made that movie so compelling was its firm grounding in the world of late ’70s and early ’80s new age psychology. Mandy is similarly set in the early ’80s, and many of the themes carry over into it from Cosmatos’ first movie. Beyond the Black Rainbow was about an apparently respectable psychological institute whose work with psychedelics has had inhumane consequences which have been kept a secret. The plot of Mandy is driven by the arrival of a roving Manson Family-esque cult in an isolated Pacific Northwest town. The cult feels out of place in the 1980s, like a group of hippies who have emerged from isolation and who don’t realize they’re living in the age of Reagan and cocaine, not Nixon and psychedelics. Reagan, cocaine, and psychedelics all figure heavily in the movie, as it turns out. I get the impression that Cosmatos is interested in exploring the transition between these two periods: if Beyond the Black Rainbow is an institutional story of that transition, Mandy is an anarchistic one.

1. Sorry to Bother You

In a year that saw a handful of effective surrealist movies, Sorry to Bother You stood out as the best of the lot thanks to its radical, direct critique of neoliberal labor practices and racism. The movie is very clever in how it presents code switching, labor alienation, and internalized capitalist logic: these and other themes are central to the story, but at no point does it feel heavy-handed or trite.

The film production business being what it is, it usually feels like a miracle if a movie can so much as hint at critiques of capitalism or structural racism, but here is a story that foregrounds its message without compromising it in any real way. There’s no watered down condemnation of violence or muddled messaging to be found here. The protagonists’ cause is righteous because it upholds human dignity, art, and community, even if the protagonists themselves are imperfect, often messy people.

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