2018 has been a fascinating year in cinema. The medium carried me through three living spaces across two countries, and always managed to leave me ecstatic, wrecked, and completely in love. During my time in Nanjing, I was all over the historical and ideological map—from Ready Player One and The Matrix trilogy to Sergei Eisenstein. Coming back to America in June, I began to play catch-up by devouring contemporary cinema. I saw infinitely more movies released in 2018 than last year, and as such, my ‘top’ criteria had to change, or perhaps evolve.
When compiling this list, what struck me were indelible films, images, and ideas that followed me around, feelings resurfacing days or months later. I’m compelled into watching making-of features, listening (and re-listening) to podcasts; in one way or another, these films just keep popping up. Then, I went further, to consider viewings that were exciting, exhilarating, rejuvenating: where I’m enthralled, I’m giddy, I’m perplexed, I’m captivated. I’m repulsed? Confused, stimulated. Afterward, I can’t sleep. My day goes faster. My drive is shorter. It’s still on my mind, this film. It has infected me. Now we are one, the film and I. We are…Venom. If that’s any indication, the time has come for me to strip all semblance of pretense and reveal myself as the true Trash God.
The Night Comes for Us, A Star Is Born, First Reformed, Hold the Dark, Avengers: Infinity War
10. Venom (Ruben Fleischer)
Inexplicable, really. A movie surely made by aliens to trick us into believing something. What that is, I’m not sure, really. Perhaps that love is universal and pain can shared. Either way, Venom is awesomely stupid and stupidly awesome, and kind of really heartwarming? An instant classic in the “even if everything sucks, this film will make me smile” canon. That alone gives it a certain shine to surpass countless other criteria. Sir Tom Hardy delivers a suitably whacko performance—all nervous ticks, vocal oscillations, and bizarre facial expressions—seemingly assured that giving 100% of himself for the entirety of Venom’s runtime is the only way to cross the finish line at all. He does, and so do we, with big stupid grins on our faces and the knowledge that–as Eminem’s most grating incantation of music ever crafted slams into our ears alongside the credits–we have just had an encounter with The Other Side.
9. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
Speaking of the extraterrestrial, Orson Welles’ posthumous compendium The Other Side of the Wind alienates as much as it absorbs–a visual and ideological assault, though not entirely born out of anger as it is out of sheer artistic insanity. Bound to elicit phrases like confounding and astounding in tandem, every second is laced with a loose and crackling energy, packed with dynamic visualizations and disorientating zooms, all to explore idea after idea. Welles considers a heaping of topics from colonization and nationality, creation and creativity, media and (mis)communication, sexual expression and repression–and perhaps most notably–reflexivity and (auto)critique. The artist is a sham, and yet also a genius? These notions are explored with cinematic grammar that is the antithesis of polish, resulting in both an omnibus and pointed exploration of one creator—and the troves of people who orbit around him. A jagged and splintered work brimming with ideas, The Other Side of the Wind will never be what it could have been had its creator been able to see it through to completion. But perhaps “half a man is better than none.”
8. Hell Fest (Gregory Plotkin)
Hell Fest is so giddy you can catch a contact high. Is that what the kids still call it? The point is, when these characters run and laugh, you feel your heartbeat quicken, and when two of them lean slowly closer together for a first kiss, you feel that static electricity rush through your fingertips. It means that when someone gets their head caved in with a massive hammer, you feel that too. I wanted to whoop and cry, lament the loss of a friend and celebrate nasty practical effects. This is the distillation of fun and fear, playing with slasher conventions yet still delivering the goods. The killer has appropriate menace and his own stellar music cue, and every single performance is infectious. Amy Forsyth declares herself an instant star, just as Hell Fest announces itself as the park to be in after dark. Now grab a few friends, cackle, and scream.
7. The Ritual (David Bruckner)
The pure expression of anguish that is physicalized in The Ritual’s coda hasn’t left me all year. Neither has its demonic and frankly incredible creature. The film starts as effective yet prototypical group horror: friends go off the beaten path during their trip to exorcise, or perhaps forget their shared trauma, and wind up realizing…there’s something in the woods. As it develops, however—with razor sharp cutting and committed performances—you soon realize that The Ritual has been snaking its vine-coated tendrils slowly around you, building an atmosphere of dread and psychological torment to prepare you for what’s to come. Now you are bound and transfixed, doe-eyed and swaying as you witness a tale of guilt and grievances contorted in a thicket of ancient evil. A couple of lads can have a good chat, but a friend is dead. And sooner or later, the campfire only signals what you cannot see in the shadows, and that things come (back) to hurt you.
6. Cam (Daniel Goldhaber)
You might be hard-pressed to find a more tactile and contemporary film this year than Cam. While there is so much to unpack here, what has had me buzzing is how it is perhaps even more cerebral when viewed from a laptop. It connects uniquely with these screens we use daily, and with how much of a bastard it is to be locked out of your account. Despite its contemporaneous pulse, Cam plays with classical themes around clambering for success and struggling with identity, all encapsulated by star Madeline Brewer. She carries the anxiety and mania of Cam deftly on her shoulders as a woman keen on stardom and fulfillment in a job she enjoys, but stuck battling misunderstandings and masculine bullshit. I found myself excited again and again by its almost paradoxical sensory experience (digital and analog, tangible and intangible), my fingers tingling near my laptop. With these fixations taking center stage on my first viewing—along with its tight unraveling of circumstances, especially in one killer long take—I’m fascinated what my next viewing will reveal. Pair with Unsane and feel yourself unspool.
5. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Boots Riley goes in on race, class, capitalism, art, and horses—you know what, you just have to see it. Honestly, Sorry to Bother You is one of the most gleeful experiences I had with a film all year. My eyes were glued to the screen, and the sheer audacity of Riley’s vision is worthy of applause. The epitome of swinging for the fences, this debut feature sends the proverbial ball out of the park and straight into the absurdist stratosphere. The entire thing slides by with ease, a surreal work as hilarious as it is upsetting. This means that, like another film on this list, a laugh here may just catch in your throat. Riley uses a rise and fall structure when appropriate, then goes so completely nuts with a left turn that you are just left stunned. To summarize, look no further than Sorry to Bother You’s perfect opening: Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green (say it out loud) and Detroit (Tessa Thompson) talk in their bedroom, then start kissing and peeling away clothes. Suddenly, a wall of the bedroom quickly lifts up and sunlight glares in. It’s a seemingly fourth wall-breaking declaration fit for Mel Brooks. Nope, it’s the garage door, because Cassius lives in a garage. It’s reflexive and momentarily disorienting and, yeah, kind of fuckin’ sad.
4. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
In many ways, Mission: Impossible – Fallout was the most exciting film of the year for me. I listened (and re-listened) to director Christopher McQuarrie on the Empire Podcast on car rides and runs, marveling at the high-wire act that started with a 30-page script as filming began and found its way into every single frame of this blistering, staggeringly impressive slice of action cinema. Similarly, I watched the entirety of the B-roll featurette with my mouth agape, recognizing that the actual, tangible acts on display are almost as impressive as when they are wrapped up in expert cutting, meticulously calibrated sound design, and psychologically, physically committed acting. Seriously, they could cut and release this B-roll in cinemas and it would still knock socks off, especially with Lorne Balfe’s heart-thumping score attached. But that’s not to downplay Fallout, which is a darker and emotionally-denser film than any previous M:I entry. It investigates Ethan Hunt’s mind—as well as his body—and the way he uses both to actualize his moral code, and how they are inversely used against him. It facilitated one of the most stimulating, excited discussions on cinema I’ve ever had over a long, long car ride, indicative of how I could talk about this film for hours on end. If McQuarrie doesn’t complete his own M:I trilogy, we riot.
3. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
One of the many marvels of Spike Lee’s latest is in its balance; the way it is so forcibly angry and yet manages to be so level-headed. BlacKkKlansman is at once an uproarious comedy and a fuming indictment of age-old, hateful dictums still present today, their persistence both painfully obvious and incredibly disturbing. Lee uses cinematic techniques to suggest a rollicking, firecracker pace—sudden split-screen, graphic inserts, and intensified and ideologically juxtaposed crosscutting—and yet he is in no rush. He is firmly and confidently in the driver’s seat, carefully and almost delicately unfurling a narrative of love and hate, pain and triumph. Just as the film juxtaposes ideologies via cinematic grammar, Lee creates tonal altercations that catch a laugh in the throat, and profoundly upset; like cinematic scotch, it goes down smooth until it hits the wrong pipe and you cough. But that’s not to say BlacKkKlansman isn’t a firecracker of a film; it is. It moves with grace and charisma, and a certain joy to balance the rage, anchored by John David Washington’s endlessly engaging, subtle performance, and filled in by Adam Driver, whose naturalistic and understated performance is nothing short of a marvel.
2. Revenge (Coralie Fargeat)
Once in a while, a film comes along that feels like a speeding bullet. Revenge immediately declares itself as a visual treat with playful compositions and energetic editing. Then, it takes the masculine components of those ideas and snaps their proverbial neck 180 degrees, effectively—and yes, nastily—flipping them around on themselves. What emerges is an incredibly rousing proclamation of feminine endurance and triumph, blood-splattered and jolting, that makes each moment ancient and elemental, yet pressing and present. It is as outlandish and knowingly over-the-top as it dead serious; a fable and a slap in the face. Star Matilda Lutz traverses geographic and ideological spaces of masculine and upper-class hell in her righteous quest for vengeance, and director Caroline Fargeat shoots the whole affair with an eye for tension and a healthy fixation on viscera and cheeky subversions. She continually calls viewers’ attention to the power of the gaze by mimicking objectification, flipping it on its head, and then smashing it to pieces. Revenge is lean and biting, enticing and vicious. A vital cinematic cleanse that boils the blood, churns the guts, and then soothes the soul. There’s still work to be done, so someone please, give this woman a gun.
1. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
The primordial ooze is somehow perfectly visualized in Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ tender, heartbroken, and batshit crazy explosion of grief and anger. It is found in the considered pacing (structurally and within individual scenes), the swirl of elemental pigments, and the oozing drone of the score. They all build together to externalize something timeless, something dripping with fever, something entirely organic and yet cosmic and boundless. These elements work in tandem with Mandy’s primary fixation on loss, as if extreme violence, fantasy, and an existential level of pining are the only ways Cosmatos can bear to discuss (and express) them. It’s an incredibly open film despite its oppressive tendencies. Nicolas Cage’s signature rage is beautifully contextualized in the elemental center of anguish, and he delivers a performance that both quickens the pulse and breaks the heart—often in the same beat. Andrea Riseborough enchants with few words, and she acts as the anchor to Mandy’s cosmic leanings. There’s leather-clad biker demons, piles of cocaine and jars of LSD, one macaroni-spewing goblin, and the fuming notion that at the end of the day, revenge hurts—but not as much as that gaping hole in your heart.
Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018