Best of 2018: Film

zama-07Perhaps it was my first year working full-time in the film festival world or perhaps 2018 was simply a great year for cinema, but I found it harder than ever to pin my list of my favorite films down. As always, there were films I didn’t get the chance to see, notably Claire Denis’ High Life and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, but I present you my Top 20 Films of 2018, with an additional 20 honorable mentions (in no particular order).

  1. Zama. Lucrecia Martel. Argentina/Brazil/Spain/Dominican Republic/France/Netherlands.
  2. The Favourite. Yorgos Lanthimos. UK/Ireland/USA.
  3. First Reformed. Paul Schrader. USA/UK/Australia.
  4. The Wild Boys (Les garçons sauvages). Bertrand Mandico. France.
  5. Cold War (Zimna wojna). Paweł Pawlikowski. Poland/France/UK.
  6. Hard Paint (Tinta Bruta). Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon. Brazil.
  7. Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice). Alice Rohrwacher. Italy/Switzerland/France/Germany.
  8. Suspiria. Luca Guadagnino. Italy/USA.
  9. Knife+Heart (Un couteau dans le cœur). Yann Gonzalez. France/Mexico/Switzerland.
  10. Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Marielle Heller. USA.
  11. Mandy. Panos Cosmatos. USA/Belgium/UK.
  12. Roma. Alfonso Cuarón. Mexico/USA.
  13. Private Life. Tamara Jenkins. USA.
  14. You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay. UK/France/USA.
  15. Border (Gräns). Ali Abbasi. Sweden/Denmark.
  16. El ángel. Luis Ortega. Argentina/Spain.
  17. Narcissister Organ Player. Narcissister. USA.
  18. Burning. Lee Chang-dong. South Korea.
  19. The Kindergarten Teacher. Sara Colangelo. USA.
  20. Destroyer. Karyn Kusama. USA.

widows1

  • BlacKkKlansman. Spike Lee. USA.
  • Diamantino. Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt. Portugal/France/Brazil.
  • Eighth Grade. Bo Burnham. USA.
  • Jane Fonda in Five Acts. Susan Lacy. USA.
  • The Land of Steady Habits. Nicole Holofcener. USA.
  • Leave No Trace. Debra Granik. USA/Canada.
  • Lizzie. Craig William Macneill. USA.
  • M/M. Drew Lint. Canada/Germany.
  • Madeline’s Madeline. Josephine Decker. USA.
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Desiree Akhavan. USA.
  • Neon Heart. Laurits Flensted-Jensen. Denmark.
  • Nina. Olga Chajdas. Poland.
  • Non-Fiction (Doubles vies). Olivier Assayas. France.
  • Sauvage. Camille Vidal-Naquet. France.
  • Skate Kitchen. Crystal Moselle. USA.
  • The Silk and the Flame. Jordan Schiele. USA.
  • Support the Girls. Andrew Bujalski. USA.
  • Widows. Steve McQueen. UK/USA.
  • Wild Nights with Emily. Madeleine Olnek. USA.
  • Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre). Hlynur Palmason. Denmark/Iceland.
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Best of 2018: #1. Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

zama-141. Zama. Lucrecia Martel. Argentina/Brazil/Spain/Dominican Republic/France/Netherlands.

It’s been a long journey for Lucrecia Martel to bring Zama, her sensational adaptation of the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto. Her last feature, the astounding The Headless Woman, bowed at Cannes in 2008. Between then and now, a big budgeted feature adaptation of a science fiction comic strip about the alien invasion of Buenos Aires fell through. Last year, after completing Zama, the film received curious treatment at the major festivals. It was rumored to have been outright rejected by Cannes, where every single one of her previous films premiered and in a year where again the lack of female directors in competition was glaring, and it ended up being relegated to an out of competition slot at Venice, again in a year with a drought of female filmmakers being represented in the major sections of the festival. This is hardly the treatment that one of the most gifted, visionary (that word is thrown around way too easily these days) directors out there should be given, let alone for a film as rapturous as Zama. Uncompromising, bold, and dazzling in all respects, Zama is Martel at the top of her game.

zama-06Zama actually makes an interesting companion piece to the latest from another of world cinema’s finest auteurs: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Their shared rocky history in failed projects (Ramsay was supposed to direct the already long-forgotten Natalie Portman western Jane Got a Gun) aside, both films bring two famed novels by male authors to the screen and almost unconsciously dissect, analyze, and subvert the very notion of masculinity. Zama is the strange story of an unremarkable man, Don Diego de Zama (a splendid Daniel Giménez Cacho), who serves as an officer of the Spanish crown in South America and lives in a bizarre state of limbo as he endlessly awaits a transfer from the king.

zama-02As in all of her previous works, narrative is about the least of Martel’s concerns. She’s a director who explores ideas and mood like a master craftsman. Zama is certainly her largest film in scope, and thusly it shows her at the height of her skill. As a film, Zama exists in a series of dimensions, straying from time and reality through her unparalleled mixture of audio and visual, often at odds with one another and frequently creating an entire different plane of film outside the edges of the frame itself. Her films live and breathe outside the confines of narrative and the screen itself, permitting the adventurous and willing audience member to engage (and revel) in what they don’t see. It’s all an illusion really, and no one plays with that notion better than Martel.

zama-04With that said, Zama requires a lot from its audience, which makes recommending it to just anyone a challenge. “Difficult” was the word I saw thrown around most when it played both Venice and the New York Film Festival, but with great effort comes great reward… and I can assure you that is the case with Zama, one of the many ecstatic films of 2018 that left me bewildered and speechless as I left the theatre.

zama-18Seeing Martel herself introduce the film and participate in a funny and enlightening Q&A with the great B. Ruby Rich was the true highlight of my filmgoing experience in 2018. Released theatrically in the spring, Zama is currently streaming on Amazon Prime in the US, rentable on all other platforms, and available on Blu-ray from Strand Releasing.

With: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano, Mariana Nunes, Carlos Defeo, Rafael Spregelburd

Best of 2018: #2. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

favv-062. The Favourite. Yorgos Lanthimos. UK/Ireland/USA.

I’m so enamored with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a more-than-welcome addition to his oeuvre of wicked, hysterical, and jarring dissections of the darker side of human nature, that I almost don’t know what to say (especially that hasn’t been said already).

favv-03For starters, we have truly the three best performances of 2018 in a single film—a pair of Lanthimos repeats (Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz) and an apt newbie (Emma Stone). While Colman, unhinged and unforgettable as Queen Anne, has the showier role, it would almost topple over without the strength of Weisz and Stone (an actor I admittedly underestimated and besmirched through association to La La Land and winning the Oscar that so rightfully belonged to Isabelle Huppert in Elle).

favv-02For as sharp and funny as the film is, it’s anchored not just in actual British history but in a fatalistic reality where games of deception, sex, love, power, and war offer only false or pyrrhic victories to those who chose to play. The Favourite is a visceral delight nonetheless, but for me, the film’s true brilliance on all fronts—direction, acting, writing, score—didn’t fully reveal themselves to me until my second viewing, not that it’s the sort of film which requires time and patience to admire. In my second viewing however, the tiniest of details come to light, revealing a highly intricate, near flawless piece of (devilishly entertaining) art that will only grow stronger with age.

favourite3The Favourite premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it won a Special Jury Prize and the Best Actress award for Olivia Colman. Fox Searchlight has it in theatres in the U.S. currently.

With: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Mark Gatiss

Best of 2018: #3. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

fr-013. First Reformed. Paul Schrader. USA/UK/Australia.

If you would have told me that in 2018 Paul Schrader would release arguably his best work as a director, have it star Ethan Hawke in perhaps the year’s best performance* playing a priest, film it in a square 1.37 ratio, and basically update his Taxi Driver screenplay through a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light… well, there’s no words to properly finish that sentence.

first-reformed-01Urgent, mesmerizing, and truly haunting, First Reformed addresses our modern anxieties of the future through the destruction of our planet in a way no other film has yet to capture. In a smoldering turn, Hawke too feverishly delivers his most impressive work in a long-spanning career. He acts with his entire body, brilliantly mirroring Schrader’s static, deep focus takes, until both Hawke and the film start to unravel… and you’re left in the dark with the sneaking suspicion that you’ve witnessed something that will be seared into your memory for as long as it or our planet sustains.

*I really can’t bring myself to choose the better performance between Hawke or the three leading ladies of The Favourite (Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone).

fr-08First Reformed premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival in competition and was released theatrically in the U.S. by A24 Films. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

With: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Antonio Kyles, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill

Best of 2018: #4. The Wild Boys (Bertrand Mandico)

garc-03 copy4. The Wild Boys (Les garçons sauvages). Bertrand Mandico. France.

After a decade or so of directing experimental short films, frequently with his muse Elina Löwensohn, French writer/director Bertrand Mandico made the most auspicious and exciting feature debut of 2018 with The Wild Boys… a sentiment shared by the elite and often controversial Cahiers du Cinéma, who named it their #1 film of the year.

garc-15 copyThe Wild Boys wears its influences on its sleeve (a trait shared by another film on my top 10 list, Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart, which coincidentally co-stars Mandico himself looking vaguely like Tim Burton as the cinematographer for Vanessa Paradis’ porn shoots), but certainly not to its detriment, as Mandico finds a way to mix Lord of the Flies, Jean Cocteau, Querelle, Kenneth Anger, Jean Vigo, and The Island of Dr. Moreau into its own astonishing queer, feminist fantasia.

garc-08 copyMandico’s fully realized and effectively wild adventure follows a quintet of unruly teenage boys—all beautifully and convincingly played by women—who find themselves the captive of a gruff sea captain (Sam Louwyck) with the coordinates of a magical island tattooed on his enormous penis. Hairy fruit, ejaculating trees, multiple stranglings, and the presence of a mythical figure by the name of Trevor all await you.

ultra-pulpe-01Special mention to a medium-length short from Mandico entitled Apocalypse After (or Ultra pulpe in French), which premiered at Cannes and features the same ecstatic style, marvelous sense of humor, and female-driven cast, including the great Löwensohn as an unusual film director named Joy D’Amato who is falling for her lead actress on a ridiculous fantasy film set.

garc-06 copyThe Wild Boys premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2017 and was released theatrically by Altered Innocence in the U.S. It’s currently on Blu-ray and rentable on all available platforms.

With: Pauline Lorillard, Anaël Snoek, Elina Löwensohn, Sam Louwyck, Vimala Pons, Diane Rouxel, Mathilde Warnier, Nathalie Richard, Christophe Bier, Margaux Fabre, Lola Créton

Best of 2018: #5. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)

coldw-065. Cold War (Zimna wojna). Paweł Pawlikowski. Poland/France/UK.

Hustling through decades and across the European continent, the latest from director Paweł Pawlikowski functions in some ways as the sister piece to his Oscar-winning Ida; they both share the same striking visual form (elegant black-and-white photography, square aspect ratio) and explore similar themes of personal identity and history. With Cold War, Pawlikowski loosely retells the story of his own parents’ unrequited love affair, and it unfolds with the beauty and the pitfalls of memory.

cw-06Cold War charts the passionate, elusive romance between singer Zula (an electric Joanna Kulig) and composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) through brief, intimate exchanges as they meet and separate and repeat through both fate and choice, with Pawlikowski smartly leaving so much within the ellipses of time. As with memory, the segments in Cold War range from the heated and the profound to the strange and distant, but at every moment, the film crackles with passion and seduces with mystery. Cold War in effect moves like music, and at such a brief running time, the screen fading to black and the credits rolling nearly took my breath away… likely a result of my total immersion into the film and my yearning desire for more.

coldw-04I wrote an article on Pawlikowski for the 41st Mill Valley Film Festival if you’re curious. The article itself isn’t published online, but you can find it in the festival program PDF linked here. Cold War premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where Pawlikowski won the Best Director prize. Amazon Studios will be releasing it in the U.S. this month. It’s also currently on the shortlist for 2018’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

With: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar

Best of 2018: #6. Hard Paint (Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon)

tinta-066. Hard Paint (Tinta Bruta). Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon. Brazil.

If the Dardenne brothers (or maybe even Andrea Arnold) made a film about a withdrawn Brazilian boy who has a niche Cam4 show where he puts neon paint all over his naked body and discovers that someone is stealing his act and decides to make contact with the imposter, it would be Hard Paint. No plot description ever does the film justice. It’s riveting, haunting, and surprising from start to finish and a major leap forward artistically and narratively for the filmmaking duo Marcio Reolon and Filipe Matzembacher (Seashore). It’s ending still haunts me to this day.

tinta-03Hard Paint premiered in the Panorama section at the Berlinale, where it won the Teddy Award for Best Feature and the C.I.C.A.E. Award. Wolfe Releasing will be releasing the film in the U.S. sometime next year.

With: Shico Menegat, Bruno Fernandes, Guega Peixoto, Sandra Dani, Frederico Vasques, Denis Gosh