Friday, December 28, 2018

The best movies of 2018

I wrote a lot of things about a lot of movies in a lot of places this year, but I don't have an official outlet for my top 10 list, so it's ended up here. These are the movies I enjoyed most in 2018, along with some honorable mentions, some favorite performances, and (why not?) a few picks for the worst of the year, too.

1. Thoroughbreds The biting wit, both verbal and visual, on display in writer-director Cory Finley's debut feature is pretty astonishing, aided by fantastic lead performances from Anya Taylor-Joy (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) and Olivia Cooke as two dysfunctional teenage girls plotting a murder. (Credit also to the late Anton Yelchin for some vital supporting work in one of his last onscreen roles.) This is a movie that builds slowly and inexorably, with a final line that clarifies and illuminates everything that came before it. I first saw it very early in the year (in March), but it stuck with me the entire time, and a recent second viewing just solidified its position at the top of the list. More thoughts in my year-end appreciation for Crooked Marquee and in the Piecing It Together podcast episode I co-hosted.

2. Disobedience The English-language debut from Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman) is another sensitive portrait of marginalized women, in this case two queer women in London's Orthodox Jewish community. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are both excellent as the old lovers who deal with forbidden emotions when they unexpectedly reunite, and Alessandro Nivola turns what could have been a one-dimensional agent of oppression into a nuanced character torn between his community's values and his commitment to seeing his wife happy. The movie is sensual and passionate but never salacious, treating its characters' desires with tenderness and understanding.

3. The Kindergarten Teacher Maggie Gyllenhaal gives possibly the best performance of her career in Sara Colangelo's remake of the 2014 Israeli film about a kindergarten teacher who becomes dangerously obsessed with one of her students. Gyllenhaal and Colangelo take what could have been an off-putting, unpleasant character and make her sympathetic and tragic, even when her decisions are so obviously misguided and self-destructive (and tough to watch). It's an extremely delicate balance, especially when the character's actions potentially put a child at risk, but the movie pulls it off by focusing on raw emotions and never sensationalizing its central relationship. More thoughts in my review for Film Racket.

4. Cold War Pawel Pawlikowski's romantic drama set against the backdrop of 1950s-era European Communism is as gorgeous as his last film, 2013's Ida, with the same museum-quality black-and-white, Academy-ratio cinematography, in service of a story that's a bit more visceral and immediate. Thomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig are wonderful as the star-crossed Polish lovers (Kulig especially), and Pawlikowski beautifully captures every triumph and heartbreak of their stormy, melancholy relationship. More thoughts in my review for Film Racket.

5. Annihilation I was fascinated by Jeff VanderMeer's novel, and even though Alex Garland's film adaptation changes a lot, it still captures the sense of dread and unease in the expedition of five scientists to a mysterious contaminated area on the American coast, possibly inhabited by aliens or elder gods or something. Garland makes some aspects of the story more explicit and others more opaque, but in all cases he finds beauty in the grotesque and horrible, and the cast led by Natalie Portman brings a delicate humanity to the increasingly inhuman encounters.

6. Leave No Trace The father-daughter relationship at the center of Debra Granik's adaptation of Peter Rock's novel is both dysfunctional and heartwarming, with Ben Foster and impressive newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie embodying the fragile dynamic between a mentally ill parent and a teenager forced to take on too much responsibility. The movie is also lovely and meditative, full of quiet moments as the characters commune with their delicate natural surroundings. More thoughts in my review for The Inlander.

7. First Reformed Ethan Hawke's captivating performance drives Paul Schrader's disquieting and transporting examination of a pastor on the edge, who's contemplating the destructiveness of human behavior in contrast to the immense beauty of the universe (and of a fierce, pure-hearted wife and mother played by a radiant Amanda Seyfried).

8. Eighth Grade Elsie Fisher is so authentic as gawky teenager Kayla that it can be physically painful to watch as she navigates the endless pitfalls of junior high, but Bo Burnham's debut feature is so warm and genuine that it finds hope and humor even in the most unpleasant and cruel teenage interactions.

9. Never Goin' Back I feel like it's been my mission this year to promote Augustine Frizzell's hilarious and affecting stoner comedy about two teenage-girl best friends in grubby south Texas, and I'll say again that the lead performances from Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone should have made them stars, and this movie should have been a mainstream hit on the level of Superbad or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. More thoughts in my year-end appreciation for Crooked Marquee and in the Piecing It Together podcast episode I co-hosted.

10. Damsel The movies of brothers David and Nathan Zellner can be pretty polarizing, and I've been irritated and exasperated by their work as often as I've been entertained. But I really connected with the bone-dry humor and oddball performances (by Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson and David Zellner himself) in this deliberately confounding Western. More thoughts in my Las Vegas Film Festival recap.

Honorable mentions: Bisbee '17, Gemini, Minding the Gap, The Old Man & the Gun, Revenge, Searching, A Simple Favor, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Suspiria

Top five lead performances: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher; Ethan Hawke, First Reformed; Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds; Joanna Kulig, Cold War; John Cho, Searching

Top five supporting performances: Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed; Mia Wasikowska, Damsel; Blake Lively, A Simple Favor; Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Steve Buscemi, Nancy

Worst movies of 2018 (theatrical releases only): The 15:17 to Paris, Show Dogs, Truth or Dare, Demon House, Destroyer, Hunter Killer

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