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John Fink’s Top 10 Films of 2018

Written by on January 2, 2019 

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Reflecting on 2018 through the lens of its cinema proves to be an ironic feat – films that explored new ideas reflective of our culture premiered alongside a crop of “lost” or reimagined works and there was no shortage of cinematic treasures and landmarks. It was a year of exciting new work that provided a commentary on our current political conditions in various ways from Frederick Wiseman’s portrait of rural America Monrovia, Indiana to films that explored the nature of work and race such as Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls and Boots Riley’s timely Sorry to Bother You. When seen through the prism of film history, 2018 might be known as a year of rediscovery as it offered our first chance to see lost masterworks like The Other Side of the Wind and Amazing Grace alongside repurposed footage combined with recollections that made films like Shirkers and They Shall Not Grow Old such transcendent experiences.

Choosing 15 films in a year in which I saw over 300 films in theaters and countless more on Netflix and in my work as a film festival programer was no easy task.

Honorable Mentions

Hereditary, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, The Tale, Capernaum, Shoplifters

10. Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)

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A star is born out of domestic terrorism. Vox Lux is a formally stunning film in which the life and times of pop star Celeste Montgomery are presented in several uneven acts. A product of the Columbine era, she takes her physical and mental anguish and turns it into sugary pop and club bangers all while we wait on the edge of our seat for the next shoe to drop. Vox Lux is a provocative and uncomfortable film, imperfect in passages, but on a whole it’s one of the year’s most unnerving and rewarding cinematic experiences.

9. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher)

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Like the next entry on this list, Alice Rohrwacher’s Italian drama Happy as Lazzaro offers a different kind of economic analysis as the maquis of his plantation befriends a simple farmhand, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo, in his first performance) in order to fake his own kidnapping. The kidnapping has unintended consequences later leading Lazzaro towards the city and a life he doesn’t quite understand. Beautifully shot by Hélène Louvart in Super 16mm, Happy as Lazzaro is another film that’s benefited from an awfully democratic global release. Like Roma it’s ready to be discovered by cinephiles on Netflix.

8. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)

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A day in the life of an Austin “Breastaurant,” Double Whammy’s provides the material for a smart, moving, and subtle comedy about commerce, labor, sexism, racism, and friendship. Proving the great Frederick Wiseman theory that there are interesting characters in every institution, Support the Girls is a warm institutional study led by Regina Hall as the manager/den mother caring for her girls while taking care of multiple aspects of the business and her own family. Support the Girls is a smart crowdpleaser that’s unafraid of offering a relevant economic analysis.

7. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker)

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Loudly arriving the coming of its lead Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline is a riveting performance study as a young woman battles her inner demons while she participates in an experimental theatre exercise. An emotionally and visually thrilling drama, Josephine Decker navigates the muddy waters between performance and reality as well as art and therapy, creating a provocative tug of war. Co-starring the great filmmaker and artist Miranda July as Madeline’s mother and Molly Parker as her director, Madeline’s Madeline is an engaging film to unpack and a hard film to shake.

6. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

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A heartbreaking, politically relevant ode to love. The mark of a brilliant film is just how many great scenes it contains and Barry Jenkins, along with performers KiKi Layne and Stephan James as young lovers in 1970s Harlem, create beautiful, intimate moment after moment. Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a powerful and tragic story of a dream differed.

5. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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Probing his hometown of Rockford, Illinois the immensely talented Bing Liu crafts one of the bravest films of the year, turning his lens on his own friends and family to create a haunting portrait of America we rarely see on screen. A shape-shifting documentary about lost youth stuck in a form of arrested development as they skating for salvation in fluid, sweeping low-angle, wide-lens shots that recall the collaborations of Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki, Minding the Gap is a raw and often beautiful film about the cycles of dead-end jobs, addictions, and other bad decisions.

4. Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh)

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Directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete is a stunning rural drama in extraordinary year for movies about rural America (including the aforementioned Fredrick Wiseman film as well as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider). The beautifully-acted and-directed portrait stars Charlie Plummer as a runway in search of his own American Dream. More dramatic rather than a political allegory, Lean on Pete is simply raw and captivating. Haigh masterfully splits the difference between his minimalist filmmaking and themes of a good ol’ fashion western.

3. Sorry To Bother You (Boots Riley)

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Rapper/activist/writer-director Boots Riley’s debut feature skewers the gig economy, race relations, and corporate culture in one of the year’s sharpest and most timely pictures. An absurd comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield as Cash–a broke, up-and-coming telemarketer who is told to use his white voice–he quickly finds himself at odds with the political ideology of his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson). Things run off the rails fast as Cash ascends the corporate ladder while his friends and family consider coining WorryFree, a kind of prison industrial complex that makes explicit what others in the gig economy might bury: just because you don’t feel totally exploited doesn’t mean you aren’t being exploited.

2. Amazing Grace (produced and conceived by Alan Elliot)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was resolved thanks to digital workflows. The film that exists, finished by producer Alan Elliot, bursts with intimacy and immediacy capturing a captivating and sublime performance by Aretha Franklin. In between the incredible artistry we discover and are introduced to several influences of Franklin’s including her father the minister and civil rights activist CL Franklin who provides a moving context for the performance along with commentary provided by Reverend James Cleveland. Amazing Grace is a rousing performance lensed with simple, raw, intimate filmmaking that’s unforgettable and nourishing for the soul.

1. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)

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The central theme of Alfonso Cuarón’s beautifully-written, -directed and -acted film is summed up in the film’s opening and closing shots of water and sky. Large set pieces mesh with grand ideas about politics, race, and family, filtered through the narrow lens of protagonists Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid for an upscale family working and living in Mexico City’s Roma district in the early 70s. She finds herself torn between multiple worlds in this intimate and immersive portrait as several wrenching moments occur alongside a nostalgia for the city’s more romantic aspects. Roma is simply a stunning cinematic experience.

Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

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