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Zhuo-Ning Su’s Top 10 Films of 2018

Written by on December 30, 2018 

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What an incredible year for cinema. What an incredible year, particularly, for Asian cinema. Obviously, the world’s most populous continent and biggest emerging film market contributes abundantly to the cinematic arts every year, but in 2018, the variety and vibrancy of output from the still underrepresented- and -appreciated region (at least in terms of inclusion at A-list festivals or global visibility) really stood out.

The Hong Sangsoo fan club probably got a little more crowded thanks to the award-winning Hotel by the River, but it’s the crazy prolific Korean auteur’s first outing this year, the compact, richly layered Grass that most reminded me of his unique touch. Another Berlinale premiere, the 4-hour political document/musical Season of the Devil, probably cost Lav Diaz some fans, but, as always, there’s something singularly, almost perversely rewarding about making it through the work of Philippine’s guru of slow cinema. For better or worse, no one tells a story quite like the director.

Both Japanese director Yui Kiyohara’s sophomore feature Our House and Chinese writer/director Dong Yue’s debut The Looming Storm knocked me out. The casual suspense of the former combined with a lingering sense of the supernatural remains just as chilling nearly a full year on. The latter’s noir-ish, densely atmospheric build-up packs that much more of a punch with the reveal of its emotional core. Also from Japan, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s micro-budget, hilariously meta zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead is living (sorry) proof how far one brilliant idea can still take you no matter how moviemaking has been revolutionized. All three are vital additions to genre cinema these past twelve months.

Meanwhile, from the even more direly underexploited world of Middle Asia, Kyrgyzstani debutant Bekzat Pirmatov impressed with the visual expressiveness and absurdist tone of Aurora, as Kazakh auteur Emir Baigazin further expanded his oeuvre – and collected more prizes – with the austere, coolly beguiling lyricism of The River. That’s two underseen arthouse gems deserving of more attention.

Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden won acclaim at Venice for the Wong Kar-wai-produced Jinpa, an unconventional road movie that drifts in and out of memory-scape with mystical, boundary-blurring ease. Also bending the rules of reality is Singaporean director Yeo Siew Hua’s Locarno-winning dramatic thriller A Land Imagined, which applies a dream-like logic in a tale of displacement to entrancing effect. Then there’s Chinese documentarian Yang Pingdao’s feature debut My Dear Friend, an unassuming time-traveling tale that elegantly contextualizes decades of tragedy.

Just in case that’s not enough Asian auteurs-to-be, Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair and Thai director Phuttiphong Aroonpheng also delivered swoon-worthy, hugely promising first features with The Third Wife and Manta Ray. The former dissects female sensuality and oppression with ferocious candor in one of the most gorgeous movies of the year. The latter is a lush, surrealist reflection on identity, redemption, and the act of self-invention that hints at a lighter, airier Apichatpong.

Looking beyond the stupendous showing of Asian cinema, 2018 may also be the year where the American studio picture got its groove back, and I’m extremely here for it. Case in point: sleekly produced adult-minded entertainment like Steve McQueen’s Widows or Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow. Be it the South Side of Chicago or the mean streets of Moscow, these films take you on mightily crafted, wildly exciting rides the way only Hollywood knows how. It’s unfortunate that both underperformed at the box office.

On the other hand, audiences embraced the work of first-time directors John Krasinski and Bradley Cooper, turning the clever, technically superior A Quiet Place and the sweatily infectious old-school tear-jerker A Star Is Born into deserved blockbusters. Ditto Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s bona-fide smash hit that is not only expertly put together, but tells a poignant, pressingly timely story in spite of the comic book trappings.

I’m also beyond glad that 1) big-budget studio musicals seem to be here to stay, because Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again definitely sweetened up my summer while Mary Poppins Returns proved a psychedelic delight for a wintry night; and 2) romantic comedy, arguably the most derided mainstream genre, made a comeback of sorts with the joyous, potentially life-saving Love, Simon and the unlikely juggernaut that is Crazy Rich Asians, a film that, besides addressing deeply felt aches of cultural divide, is just a fun time all around. And what about A Simple Favor? Not a rom-com per se, but dreamy for its mix of confectionary style and acerbic humor nonetheless.

Inevitably, the state of a year’s cinema is as much about the films included on the best-of list as about those that did not make the cut. And any year where I can’t find a spot for something that looks and sounds as delicious as Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a damn strong year. Same goes for Paul Dano’s beautifully observed and acted Wildlife, Alice Rohrwacher’s lyrical, enchanted Happy as Lazzaro, Jacques Audiard’s curiously compelling crowd-pleaser The Sisters Brothers, Benjamin Naishtat’s ultra-mysterious head-scratcher Rojo, Gustav Möller’s nail-biter extraordinaire The Guilty, and Pierre Salvadori’s The Trouble With You, aka the funniest thing I’ve seen all year.

Now, on to the favorites.

Honorable Mentions

The Favourite, Beast, Genesis, Border, Isle of Dogs

10. Die Tomorrow (Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit)

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In an age of slasher franchises and disaster epics, it’s rare to see the end of human lives treated with real depth or dignity on screen. That alone makes the experience of watching this featherlight essayistic drama from Thailand a profoundly moving one. Unsentimental and exploitation-free, the film presents death through a series of random, uncommented last-day anecdotes and lets the great, indifferent equalizer speak for itself. The deceptively simple setup suggests remarkable maturity of mind, communicating the philosophical, spiritual implications of a vast subject matter with breezy conviction.

9. Petra (Jaime Rosales)

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There’s something about this Spanish melodrama that sticks with you. Told in nonchronological order, the six-chaptered script unfolds in violently unexpected ways, whereby even the most manipulative characters prove no match for the whims of circumstance and coincidence. Rosales’ strikingly understated direction compels with its hypnotic pull while Bárbara Lennie, equally noteworthy for Sunday’s Illness, excels in conveying the strength and vulnerability of the titular heroine. French DP Hélène Louvart, who also lensed Happy as Lazzaro, knocked it out of the park twice this year.

8. Hereditary (Ari Aster)

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As epitomized by the pivotal car accident scene, Aster’s gruesomely imagined, impeccably orchestrated debut is a thing of constant, wicked surprise. While openly embracing its roots in horror, the film follows an original trajectory of dread so that even the employment of the genre’s best-known tropes feels freshly disturbing. Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are sensational as the slowly unravelling mother-son duo caught in an ancient scheme. it’s their looks of doubt, desperation and cold surrender that would get under your skin, reminding you of the awestruck terror long after the many shocking, memorable twists.

7. The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)

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In addition to being a colossal taunt, a nasty confession and in all likelihood the cruelest thing we’ve seen this century, these 152 minutes are also the brainchild of a sick, sick genius. An encyclopedic profile of a serial killer that not only gets the apathic voice just right, but is so precisely composed, cut and calibrated it practically buzzes with (Wagnerian) musicality, the latest addition to LVT’s oeuvre astounds. However one views the moral issues surrounding his work, it’s indisputable that this man knows – intimately – the darkest reaches of the human psyche, a place where he’s probably spent too much time for his own good.

6. High Life (Claire Denis)

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It takes a filmmaker as intelligent and uncompromising as Denis to tap into the latent fears and impulses hidden beneath the brilliant surface of space travel. Carried by rock solid performances from Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth and sent to stratospheric heights by Stuart Staples’ savage, spellbinding score, this cosmic sci-fi fantasy uncovers something most primal about us earthbound sinners. Like Gravity with a seductive, nihilistic filter on or Moon in hormonal overdrive, it’s a mad waltz of ideas and style that spins gloriously out of control.

5. Long Day‘s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

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Granted, the impenetrable first half of this trip of a film is not the easiest to sit through. But once one gets what Bi Gan is going for, i.e. leading the viewer on an escape from the cluttered, painful realm of memory into the fluid, liberating embrace of dreams, it’s hard not to be staggered. Each of these worlds, similarly elusive as they are, is brought to life with distinct cinematic textures, thanks in part to the three DPs who pulled off one of the year’s most impressive photographic feats in accompanying us magically across the 2D/3D divide. Whether in terms of ambition or approach, this is radical, hauntingly beautiful stuff.

4. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)

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Though in many respects unpolished, late Chinese director Hu Bo’s first–and only–feature is a cry into the void so raw and resounding it shakes you out of a stupor you never even realized. The breathlessly long set pieces build up a sense of suffocation in real time, while the subtle music and camerawork evoke the relentless, unspoken despair of a billion nobodies. Conceived and executed with heartbreaking indignation, this is the work of an acutely observant storyteller who bared his last outrage on screen and who was probably too perceptive for the moral bankruptcy of this world.

3. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)

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In the case of this sensual, enigmatic thriller by the end of which you’re not even sure what crime has been committed, the kick comes later. But when it does, when the masterfully scattered clues rearrange themselves in the film’s thickly atmospheric afterglow to reveal a plot of quiet malice and humanity, it hits hard. The three leads Yoo Ah-In, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun serve Lee’s vision with finely-tuned performances that betray ever more nuance the closer you look. So does the love-triangle-turned-mystery itself, which demands to be studied and savored for the mesmerizing layers of truths hidden in plain sight.

2. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

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With this worthy Palme d’Or winner, Koreeda proves you can tell a sophisticated, sneakily subversive story while daring to wear your heart proudly on your sleeve. Written with genuine affection for its characters, directed with a confident grasp of the tricky tonal shifts, and personified by a charming cast including the superb Sakura Andô, this devastatingly compassionate family portrait offers an alternative, merciful definition of home for the less fortunate out there. It’s eloquent, wise and comes from such a place of kindness one hardly notices its ringing indictment of our narrow-minded times.

1. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)

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When sincere, soulful filmmaking meets truly exceptional craftsmanship, everything that calls attention to narrative and aesthetics falls away. All that remains is something as undeniable and purely moving as life itself. Cuarón’s tribute to his childhood Mexico glows with the warmth of authenticity where people, events, relationships are depicted without judgment nor as dramatic devices. What we see is what he saw: a magnificent chaos of love, betrayal, and change. And although hearts will continue to be broken and what once was may not be any more, that’s okay, the movie seems to say, as long as we keep telling the stories that, for a fateful moment in time, we got to share with those around us.

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

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