The Best Movies of 2018
by Julian Garcia
The Academy Awards finds new ways every year, and recently, every month, to ignite controversy—from the Popular Film category (though the Oscars are nothing more than a popularity contest anyway, so why bother?) to the Kevin Hart controversy, to the dispiriting nominations themselves (we won’t get into that), to Academy President John Bailey recently announcing that four categories (Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, and Best Live Action Short) would be cut from the live telecast and the winner’s acceptance speeches would be edited in later. Suffice it to say, people are unhappy, and every action taken by The Academy just makes people unhappier. Everyone says the Oscars suck either way, everyone rolls their eyes when you ask them whether they will watch it or not, and rarely is anybody happy with the outcome at the end of the day—so it seems the only thing left to do for the Academy is continue the circus act of public relations meltdown and hope that things at least go right when the awards go out to the wrong films or the right films for the wrong reasons.
Great films are a lot more than the pageantry and pomp that the Academy makes it out to be. Someone like John Bailey, himself a wonderful cinematographer (and also responsible for the look of one of the most radically beautiful films of the last 40 years, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters), should understand that the craftsmen and women who make the painterly and musical aspects of the movies work in the first place should not be shoehorned into what is usually the only soulful parts of the show, especially since those categories represent where much of the heavy lifting is done. In the end though, none of it is a really big deal, and much of this outrage by the prominent artists of our times are doing nothing but blowing hot air.
The recent reversal of Bailey’s decision to now include the awards in the telecast is emblematic of the mistake-laden decisions caused by trying to appeal to both the general population (for whom movie-going generally doesn’t matter anyway) and the crazy arthouse population (in which movie-going matters perhaps a little too much). Here’s hoping he brings down the level of noise whenever he makes a public decision for future awards shows, and doesn’t try to overstuff it with controversy.
Cinema is about the liberation of the soul and the sharpening and refinement of our senses, above everything else. They are more than simple entertainment (though that is not to speak poorly of entertainment and escapism—there is nothing wrong with it, only when it is used as the only barometer with which to judge a movie). That said, I hope to write about some movies that made me feel passionately about the art form as a whole.
The films picked here are of a more liberated spirit than what is being exalted in the mainstream—films that speak of themselves on their own terms, without the approval of the multiplex mentality. Yes, some of them played in the multiplex. I don’t mind that some took millions of dollars to make, and are far away from the radical and independent cinema I try to champion. However, that does not mean that, despite all the corporate hands inside the mixing jar, there was an absence of ideas, experience, or pure handcrafted joy to be found in them. It is the opposite, actually—the films, regardless of whether they were to the taste of high art or the common denominator, reflected to me the most daring displays of status quo upsetting goodness.
Instead of making us merely feel bad about the situation we find ourselves in as Americans, whether we look around the corner or farther abroad, they inspire us to see the world with a different set of eyes, and see people for who they are and are trying to be, instead of the bogeymen we want to see them as.
I chose to release this list to Siblíní now because many of these films are finally becoming available on streaming or are opening up in cinemas across the country in preparation for the Oscars. I hope that these films last far outside the reaches of the cultural conversation as works of art on their own terms, ready to affect anybody at any time, regardless of when an individual decides to converse with it.
If Beale Street Could Talk — Barry Jenkins
Structurally more daring and bringing to the forefront the painful intimacy that Moonlight kept subtle, Barry Jenkins arguably improves on his previous film, using audacious stylistic choices to make a symphonic, tragic song, in which memory is just as present as the present itself (and just as relevant and timeless now as it ever could be.)
Support the Girls — Andrew Bujalski
Bujalski’s film focuses on the sisterly love of women who work in a Hooter’s like “boob bar”—he draws insight and observations about how people cope with abuse, racism, and misfortune, but the astonishing part is that the perpetrators are displayed casually, rarely meaning things in a harmful way, though their obtuseness does not make their actions any less demeaning. He does not signal virtue, and he wears a badge of love instead of making examples of his characters. (Stream on Hulu).
BlacKkKlansman — Spike Lee
A double-edged sword about complacency and resistance within institutions of power, private or public, filmed with a subversive sense of humor, urgency, revisionism, and philosophical beauty. Spike Lee has always tried to bridge the gap between warring parties in his films, but that does not mean he sugarcoats any problems, and it does not hide the growing consciousness of the people he films. (Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime).
First Reformed — Paul Schrader
Thrilling, tightly filmed, philosophically astute, and also so threateningly abstract that the film’s main problems dealing with climate change/global warming may as well have been about the Black Death. Schrader’s film is about spirituality, interiority, and solitude more than it is about the topical issues of the day, and the film has the effect of cleansing out the soul of the viewer in its fury and power. (Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime, stream for free on Kanopy).
The Day After - Hong Sang-Soo
Modern master Hong Sang-Soo’s marvelously dramatic/marvelously awkward movie is among his grandest and most personal yet, an unflinching and self-flagellating work that takes his usual style—long takes, “Did that just happen?” occurrences, characters trying to hold their lives together in the midst of their huge mistakes—into an (anti) majestically melodramatic song of a movie. (Stream for free on Amazon Prime).
Madeline’s Madeline — Josephine Decker
Hail the return of Josephine Decker! Her films get better and better as she goes on, and this furiously-filmed heart murmur is a sustained fever pitch movie at the level of a miracle. A film about the worldview of a troubled performer (a revelatory Helena Howard), Decker communicates an earth-shattering aesthetic that is Madeline’s worldview, dreamed, performed, real, imagined; the fractured images, half heard conversations, and unsettling real world dreams of this movie are representative of the world Decker tears apart and brings back together in her own image. (Stream for free on Kanopy).
The Old Man and the Gun — David Lowery
Sly, slick, and just plain lovely, Robert Redford delivers one of his best performances in David Lowery’s follow up to A Ghost Story. Lowery is a narrative filmmaking poet, who imbues cinema’s history with his own innocent and electrifying approach, that which quietly subverts expectations, and does so affectionately instead of obnoxiously or in any cute way. The rhythms of his films are also so carefully tuned so that every encounter between the characters, every expression, and every cut, exemplifies what is best about love, adventure, and putting everything at stake. (Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime).
Shirkers — Sandi Tan
Sandi Tan makes a personal essay documentary that is as surprising, innovative, and revealing as the film that she makes the documentary about. Shirkers is about a movie hound from Singapore who makes a whacked out movie called “Shirkers” in the 1990s, and then obsesses over its absence when the footage is absconded with by the film’s director. More than just a paean to friendship and youth’s creative energy, it is Tan’s bitter reconciling with her lost years mourning a part of a life lived that had been taken away. (Stream on Netflix).
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc — Bruno Dumont
A gorgeous, rollicking metal opera, about the crushing philosophical challenges during the childhood of Joan of Arc. It is uneven, sure, but that does not hide its visual and aural audacity. Its imperfection is among its greatest strengths—the singers can’t sing, nor can they dance, and they refuse to hide that. It does not mean it is an exercise in throwaway absurdity either; the issues that Joan sings about, the spirituality that she contends with at such a young age, is resonant of the endless arguments about what you can do as a human being and what must be left out of your hands. (Stream for free on Kanopy).
Zama — Lucretia Martel
Funny, dreamy, and vaguely frightening in equal measure, this is a film that is incredibly difficult to talk about—and all for the better, because its tensions, comedy, and surprises are like sneak attacks on the brain. The strangeness with which Lucretia Martel films her world is also exuberant and aesthetically thrilling; faces in bizarre close up, as if caught off guard by the world they find themselves in, animals and people tripping over themselves and fighting in the background, etc., amount to a wonderful amalgamation of cinematic rebellion. (Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime).
The Other Side of the Wind — Orson Welles
Orson Welles is a renegade fiend, who laughs and mourns mightily about the figures in his films. The Other Side of the Wind is taken to both extremes, usually simultaneously. The form and rhythm of this film—erratic, unpredictable, unsetting—is also musical and hypnotic in all its chaos. It’s “because I said so” aesthetic and the way it lampoons arthouse films in its curmudgeonly and self-conscious ways makes this among Welles’ funniest and most furious films. (Stream on Netflix).
The Spy Who Dumped Me — Susanna Fogel
Woe to the critics who could not sense the anarchic joy of this movie that maintains credibility in both its whacky but real violence as well as its comic super-strength. Praise be to Kate McKinnon too, among the best comedic actors, and woe to those who will only appreciate her when she inevitably crosses over into more serious acting roles. The plot is predictable, sure, but the weight(lessness) of the jokes and the implications they carry for the real world are great joys. (Rent on Amazon, YouTube).
Burning — Lee Chang-Dong
Lee’s first movie in eight years is his most surprising work, from its vague gaze to the emotional pool that functions like a circling current of the characters. Simplistic political “insights” notwithstanding, Lee’s film carries mysteries about his characters, their interests, their weird obsessions, their preoccupations, that no plot could ever surmise, and no novel could ever capture (though it is based on a Haruki Murakami short story). His camera cannot penetrate the consciousness of the people in this movie who are either lost or assured, or both, and it is fascinating as well as subversive in the ways it drops threads of its narrative off and picks other ones up. (Rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime).
Special recognition to the films that could not make the cut: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Leave No Trace, Black Panther, The 15:17 to Paris, Unsane, Minding the Gap, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
— Julian Garcia is a Film Correspondent for Siblíní Journal. Read more of his work here.