2018 might just have been the best film year of the 21st century thus far. My favourites of this year encapsulate my eclectic cinematic tastes – action blockbusters, independent films, and foreign language films from Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. It’s my privilege to share with you, my friends, the ten films I loved most this year – the ones that moved me the most and/or wowed me by its mastery of the form.
Easy choice – Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is not only my favourite film of 2018 but also one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Roma is an intimate, semi-autobiographical slice of life, taking place in the Mexico City neighbourhood where Cuarón grew up in the 1970s. It is a visually dazzling and emotionally resonant piece of work. Serving as his own cinematographer, Cuarón films in exquisite 65 millimetre black-and-white and lures us into a time and place, a whole era really, with his signature long takes – the camera creates a rich sense of place and is punctuated with dreamlike imagery. You could almost live in the film’s widescreen compositions. And, indeed a lot of people live within it, especially the film’s central figure Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, a massive discovery), a family housekeeper/nanny (she is based on the woman who raised Cuarón). Through the eyes of Cleo, we witness the changing family dynamics, and the social changes in Mexico, as well as her own dreams and disappointments. Roma is an embodiment of Roger Ebert’s Principle of Cinema – “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy”. This is a very personal film for Cuarón and a powerful tribute to the nanny who raised him during adolescence. Currently playing in theatres and streaming on Netflix (but in order to fully experience its wonder, please see this on a big theatre screen).
Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of our best living filmmakers and his latest film, Shoplifters, is among his career highpoints. His films are every bit as beautifully understated and perfectly observed as the grandmaster of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda builds on themes found in his previous films – especially the meaning of kin – but Shoplifters also works beautifully as an entry point into his filmography. We become quickly absorbed in the lives of a struggling ragtag family that gets by with petty thefts – the family grows when they bring home a neglected little girl they find on the street. Kore-eda draws fine performances from his cast (side note: I’m in love with Ando Sakura). Like a practiced thief, Kore-eda sneaks in and steals your heart right in front of your eyes. This is a film of gentleness and compassion – another film supporting Roger Ebert’s theory of cinema as an empathy-generating machine. In Japanese with English subtitles. Currently playing in theatres.
A mesmerizing masterpiece from master filmmaker Lee Chang-dong left TIFF audiences staggering out of the Ryerson Theatre in a daze, eager to unpack the film’s complex themes and multitude of possibilities. Is it a comedy about social class? A Hitchcockian missing-person thriller? Lee Chang-dong stretches the film’s source material (a short story called Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami) into an expertly paced 148 minutes. You could call the dynamic that develops between an introverted writer (Ah-In Yoo), a girl he knew from childhood (Ah-In Yoo), and the wealthy and enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun) a love triangle – one the filmmaker sets alight in this lovely, terrifying, unclassifiable movie. During the post-screening Q&A session of Burning at TIFF, an audience member asked Lee Chang-dong what he was doing during his eight-year filmmaking hiatus. In other words, we need him to make more films. In Korean with English subtitles. Available on Blu-Ray March 5th, 2019.
4) Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is writer-director Debra Granik’s first narrative feature in eight years. She too needs to make more films. Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, heartbreaking) and her PTSD-afflicted father Will (Ben Foster) live on public land outside of Portland, Oregon. The two have each other and that seems like enough until society grabs this pair and tries to provide them with shelter and stability. Granik’s compassion for these two is contagious. We want Tom to be happy. We want Will to find stability. There’s no antagonist and yet there’s simmering tension in this quietly suspenseful tale. We feel as though we are with Tom and Will – that we are seeing and experiencing the world as they do. Granik has a strong grasp of environment, presenting a certain corner of American life that feels vivid and true. An incredibly gripping and powerful cinematic experience – prepare to be shattered. Currently available on Blu-Ray.
5) If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins follows up Moonlight (i.e. the best film of 2016) by adapting James Baldwin’s “unfilmable” 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a dazzling picture – the luscious cinematography of Moonlight’s James Luxton, a gorgeous score by Nicholas Britell, and deeply felt performances. The relationship between the leads, Stephen James and newcomer KiKi Layne, is at the heart of the story and their story is representative of the injustices enlaced throughout the lives of black Americans. It is tragically real. But, there’s also overwhelming joy – of family, of love, of hope. It’s a movie that wants us, like its characters, to trust in love. Clearly, Jenkins has love for these characters. I was emotional right from the start. There’s real poetry to the filmmaking – every frame maximizes the tension and emotional power of Baldwin’s work. Great performances all around but it is Regina King who gives us the best performance of 2018. Currently playing in theatres.
Baffling in the best possible way. In this tricky throwback noir, Christian Petzold melds the past into the present to tell the story of a man (Franz Rogowski) fleeing an unstated wave of fascism in an unstated time period. The screenplay is adapted from Anna Seghers’ WWII refugee novel but the setting bears a striking resemblance to the present day – modern vehicles and SWAT teams can be found in the frame. As a viewer, we feel like we’re out of time and place, and we’re left to sketch our own connections between the film’s source material and the contemporary rise of Neo-Nazism and anti-refugee sentiment. Transit is a startling, gut-wrenching, and brilliant refugee allegory and further evidence of Petzold’s confidence and skill as a filmmaker. In German and French with English subtitles. Transit had a brief theatrical run in Toronto in November. It opens in the US March 1st, 2019.
7) Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry in a movie franchise that started in 1996 as a reboot of the 1960s TV show also turns out to best the best action film in years. It has a breathtaking pace and a strong visual language. But most importantly, it’s got Tom Cruise – the 56-year-old star seems willing to sacrifice his life at the cinematic altar for the film’s death-defying practical stunt work. Tom Cruise leaps between buildings. Tom Cruise flies on a motorcycle between – and into –traffic. Tom Cruise climbs the rope of a helicopter several thousand feet above ground and free-falls 40 feet into the helicopter’s payload. Tom Cruise does a HALO jump out of a flying plane. Tom Cruise hangs from a razor-sharp cliff. Tom Cruise is the best. But the pure adrenaline and nail-bitingly suspenseful action is at the service of a surprisingly emotionally resonant script and great performances. Currently available on Blu-Ray.
8) Black Panther
The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther, turns out to be the most absorbing Marvel movie to date. Director Ryan Cooler’s imagining of Wakanda places a foot in the real world, which gives the superheroics genuine stakes. It is a landmark film for so many reasons – the biggest box office film of this year grossing north of $700 million domestically, the amazing cast, the great action, the emotionally resonant moments, the fact that this was the first time an African-American lead starred in a giant superhero franchise film. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) gives the MCU its most magnetic villain and steals the film from our title character (Chadwick Boseman). We have a great deal of sympathy for the villain’s tortured soul. This is the rare big-budget franchise film that feels like a personal project fulfilled. Wakanda Forever! Currently available on Blu-Ray and streaming on Netflix.
9) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
If you told me back in January that the 7th Spidey film (and 3rd reboot) in 16 years would appear on my Top 10 Films of 2018 list, I’d say you were nuts. But here we are. Cynicism be damned. It is a crazily bold, imaginative, diverse, hilarious, and heartfelt instant classic. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman provided us with a screen-filling, eye-popping visual treat – the film is gorgeously rendered and is the only superhero film ever made to capture the feeling of reading a comic book while simultaneously developing its own style and personality. The appeal of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse transcends visual language. Phil Lord’s endlessly witty screenplay is complex but perfectly comprehensible and the heart of the story is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a hero anyone and everyone can relate to. One of the most enjoyable animated movies of the decade. Currently playing in theatres.
10) You Were Never Really Here
Perhaps the most polarizing film on my list this year is Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Billed as a thriller but that genre categorization feels limiting: Ramsey takes us into the deepest and darkest recesses of the human psyche and what we have is a perfectly calibrated work of art that is bold and challenging. The imagery is striking and unforgettable and at the center of the film is a mesmerizing performance from Joaquin Phoenix. His character, Joe, is a physically intimidating assassin-for-hire who taps into his trauma to carry out his job. Stylistically, the film is every bit as fractured as the consciousness of its protagonist. Ramsey’s approach upends traditional narrative expectations. This propulsive, expressionistic film doesn’t stop to explain itself. It’s a film that creates meaning through style. For all its moments of excessive violence, Ramsey makes as much time for unspoiled beauty. Currently available on Blu-Ray.
Honourable Mentions: Annihilation, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Blindspotting, Capernaum, First Man, First Reformed, Happy as Lazzaro, Hereditary, Lean on Pete, Widows