Jenna's Top Ten Movies of 2018
In some ways 2018 was a pretty solid year for diversity in not only content but also filmmakers (not where it needs to be, to be fair). I certainly took advantage of society’s newfound interest in diversity by contributing an essay to film critic Alicia Malone’s The Female Gaze–a book about women in film, written entirely by women. I’d absolutely encourage you to purchase it (I don’t get the commission, I’m just that into it). Not only is it fun and easy to read, but it’s chock full of excellent film recommendations that I am very excited to check out in the upcoming year. Plus, it’s a map to a whole slew of cool female film critics for you to look up online. Big thanks to Alicia Malone!
That said, try as it might, 2018 didn’t do too much to ease up some of the tensions from last year. In 2018 I watched 326 films, with around 43 of those being 2018 releases. Out of all of those, I have to admit that the vast majority of my favorite films from the past year have been new-to-me viewings as opposed to new films. I managed to miss a handful of things I had wanted to see–such as Blindspotting, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Crazy Rich Asians–but of what I did see, it was kind of hard to rank because I’ve gotta admit I didn’t adore much this year. There were a ton of solidly enjoyable films, but I don’t know if anything truly wowed me this year. I guess I could have worse problems than having equally enjoyed most of what I saw. So lets just get into it:
1) Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
I’ve been a fan of writer/director Armando Iannucci since The Thick Of It and I honestly think this might be the best thing he's ever done since. While technically this came out in 2017, it premiered in the States in 2018, so it qualifies for my favorite of the year. Death of Stalin shows just that, the aftermath of Stalin’s death and the power struggles that immediately ensued within his cabinet of cronies. The Death of Stalin is that perfect balance of Ianucci's razor-sharp comedic wit, some genuinely engaging history (*shown with with a degree of poetic license), perfectly cast actors crushing it, and a larger commentary on how insidious the lure of corruption is when you're in a position of power. It absolutely hits that sweet spot of political schadenfreude–it’s all so absurd you’ve just gotta laugh or else you’ll cry.
It’s true feat to find that perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, especially when you're dealing with the subject of mass murder, but Iannucci and co-writers sure managed it well. The movie never treats its violence as anything but terrifying and unjust, and the laughs are mostly gallows humor; at the expense of how terribly vain and selfish these terrible men are. Shout out to MVP Steve Buscemi and my boo Michael Palin who were both standout great in this. After the movie ended I was straight up bummed out. I easily could have watched another four hours of this shit all the way up the line to Putin.
2) Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
I came for Stalker but I got Solaris. Except instead of the humans being an invading force whose mere presence irrevocably disrupts the delicate ecosystem of an alien planet, in Annihilation it's the aliens disrupt our planet with their gosh darn 'shimmer.' It's not malicious, it's not conscious, it just is. As if breathing and footprints in the sand had the same effect as dragging the your boat through a coral reef. It knows not what it does.
While this film is definitely flawed in some of its directorial choices, the concepts at play here were so fascinating and horrifying to me I can’t help but rank this one real high. I wrote a long essay on this film, so if you want some insight into why I loved it check that one out. Having since read the book series this was based on, I actually really enjoyed some of the changes the film made–including that oil-slick Lawnmower Man who scared the bejesus out of me.
3) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)
C’mon, this is so my shit. I love the concept, I love the setting, I loved the content, I love the filmmakers, and I loved analyzing it and thinking about it for days after. That said, I didn't totally love watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. For one, it's got about two sections too many (for my money, it's "The Meal Ticket" and “Near Algodones,” which isn't to say they are bad, they're not, they're just redundant), and it’s just a huge downer to watch. There's none of the lightness promised by the first section so it was kind of a lot of take in by the end.
But the writing keeps bringing me back–it reminded me a lot of Ethan Coen's short plays (specifically this film reminded me of Happy Hour ), which are written in a similar fashion and tend to feature similarly depressing themes. I’m positive my viewing experience would improve upon a rewatch, but I gotta give it some space because I can't handle facing down my mortality for two hours again so soon.
4) Zama (dir. Lucrecia Martel)
I went into Zama relatively blind and it took me by surprise. It’s a strange, mostly quiet film about disappointment and false expectations; somewhere in-between Waiting for Godot and A Serious Man set in colonial Paraguay. The film follows a Spanish colonialist stationed in South America who’s desperately waiting for his promotional transfer back to Europe. Slow and bizarre, to its detriment Zama rarely stops for any sort of expository dialogue, but it does do some things super perfectly. For one, it has a sound that perfectly captures that pit-in-your-stomach dread of impending disappointment. It also features some great acting all around, a gorgeous setting and a truly wild and horrifying last act.
Lucrecia Martel does an amazing job setting the tone, showcasing the banality of it’s beautiful settings and colonial life. She also manages to walk a fine line between generating human sympathy for Don Diego de Zama as the lonely outsider, and showcasing what it meant to be a colonialist oppressor trapped in a hellish limbo for the “glory” of the state. I’m glad I saw this in theaters because there’s a lot of detail here that really keeps the intrigue going when it gets quiet. Plus that positively hallucinatory last act… phew.
5) BlacKkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee)
A refreshing and purposeful offer from Spike Lee, who I’m glad to see back to form after a couple of films that felt kind of unfocused to me. BlacKkKlansman is all at once a little more polished and a little more mainstream than Lee’s norm, and yet it’s still a clear continuation of the themes he loves. Based on a true story about a black cop who infiltrated the KKK by phone, the film is more in the vein of Death of Stalin as far as the liberties that it takes with facts. But the facts aren’t as important here as its message about the banality of white supremacist evil. I was also very glad he ended the film with the footage of Charlottesville, which apparently some people grumbled about but personally moved me to tears. Watching that footage, knowing somebody who was hospitalized during that event because he was attacked by white supremacists, juxtaposed with these goofy hateful idiots in the film felt overwhelming and pointed after the feel-good ending of the film. John David Washington and Laura Harrier were both standouts and I look forward to their next films.
6) Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Yup, me and everybody else. What really impressed me about Roma, besides its beautiful cinematography and direction, was its excellent use of symbolism. Roma skillfully highlights what happens when an authoritarian regime uses and abuses its own people. Cleo becomes a symbol for the indigenous population of Mexico, reflected in her place in society and her unfortunate circumstances. Fermin quite literally swinging his dick around is a perfect symbol for authoritarianism, and of course the fate of his child speaks the loudest. That inequality is both a main focal point of the film and also never explicitly confronted clearly speaks to Cuaron’s autobiographical truth. Which is why it’s all the better that he made the decision to tell this story from Cleo’s perspective—it certainly elevates this above and beyond your normal political film. Speaking of, it’s also a great crash course in Mexican history, and its depiction of the Corpus Christi Massacre made me cry.
6) Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
I was not at all a fan of Panos Cosmatos’ first film, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mandy was everything I wanted it to be. Yeah sure, this bloody revenge flick hits every cliche in the book, but I loved every LSD-inspired minute of it. This feels more like a fantasy movie than even a horror movie, with a color palette and haze that reminded me of late 80’s early 90’s fantasy novel covers. I loved its strange mix of the supernatural with the fully-grounded menace of a murderous cult. Nic Cage knocks it out of the park, but he always does when he's allowed to go absolutely nuts. I also dug the weird moments of levity that kept the whole thing from not getting too pretentious–Cheddar Goblin vomiting cheese on that little girl in the commercial being a standout. Could have done without the cliche violence towards women, but at least we got some satisfying bone-crunching in retaliation. "You exude a dark cosmic energy, man" indeed.
8) The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles)
Honestly I had some issues with The Other Side of the Wind, but I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna include a brand new Orson Welles flick in this list. On one hand, it's so awesome to see how Orson Welles was always trying to innovate and push the envelope with his filmmaking. But gosh, I wish Welles hadn't wasted it all on what amounts to satirical softcore porn. Following a day in the life of a celebrated Hollywood director, The Other Side of the Wind is insanely gorgeous and so uniquely shot–a mixture of frenetic documentary-style footage and the gorgeous color film his main character is releasing. Welles’ film within a film seems to be clearly a satire on Zabriskie Point and the like, the “plot” being just a naked woman and man chasing each other around a desert. Which then begs the question of how much of this was actually as satirical as he thought it was, seeing as he cast his beloved girlfriend in the role and shot an entire film about her butt. But it's fascinating and fun to piece together and decode.
9) Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (dir. Travis Wilkerson)
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a deeply depressing documentary about the strength of white privilege in the South. Returning to his Alabama hometown, director Travis Wilkerson finds a great deal of resistance to his attempts to uncover the truth of a murder committed by his white supremacist grandfather in the 1940s. It’s a terrifying look into how the gate keepers of these no-so-long-ago atrocities are not only still alive, but actively guarding their secrets until the last remaining witnesses are slowly suffocated. It’s also an excellent example of the type of honest self-confrontation that many white Americans should be asking of themselves. While I didn’t love some of the stylistic choices in his filmmaking, that’s all peanuts in comparison to the raw, depressing and insidious experiences Wilkerson confronts in this documentary. I also appreciated the nod to Phil Ochs, criminally underrated for his own activism and contributions to the folk scene.
10) Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
I had high hopes for this and thankfully this film did not disappoint. Featuring an amazing cast (I love Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson so much!), Sorry To Bother You takes us through an alterna-reality of the present day, where the key to success is in sounding white, keeping your head down, and backstabbing your fellow workers (some “alternative” reality, huh). The film wears its influences on his sleeve, from its Michel Gondry-like style to the fact that this whole movie is almost a remake of Lindsey Anderson’s amazing economic parable O Lucky Man!. (Which I am so excited about, Boots Riley. Thank you!!) We need more fun arthouse films that actually live up to the term “arthouse”–Sorry to Bother You, while unfortunately a little too broad in its message, is certainly a wild ride through the worlds of pop art, performance art and protest art. Its great sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. That this is Riley’s debut film is thrilling to me because I can’t wait to see what he does next.