My Favourite Films of 2018

1. Black Mother                 
by Khalik Allah    
              
 2. Personal Problems / Something Good - Negro Kiss
by Bill Gunn / Anonymous

3. Piu Piu                            
by Naima Ramos-Chapman

4. If Beale Street Could Talk
by Barry Jenkins
The homgenous grammatical development of cinema across the last 100 or so years has had a couple of natural side effects that have less to do with the possible than the Pavlovian. This works, and so it is repeated. Which has had the effect of turning a major portion of modern cinephilia (as adduced from social media and critical trends, especially in the freelance realm, but it's made its way to the major publications as well thanks to a weaponization of nostalgia) into a sort of puzzle game. The history of cinema is a plethora of chips to be turned over constantly - known, unknown, popular or forgotten. "This film is underrated, why don't we talk about this movie, it's the 35th anniversary of this movie, these films brought us here, let's examine today through this movie," and other constructs rule our understanding of what film is, but not what it can be. We don't often ask what film can be, not as a community, if we can be called that. We box our experience into the existing cinematic languages and piece together how we got from point A. the start of our understanding of cinema and ourselves to point B. sitting in a theatre watching a movie and reflecting. 

The issues with this formulation are myriad, not least because the cinematic canon has been a list of movies made by white men for white people. Technique ossified, the same few camera tricks became the most you could hope for a film to display or try, and if someone broke out of those confines they frequently had trouble gaining a foothold in canonical understandings of history. Specifically film by black directors remains a maddeningly excluded species. Films by Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, and Julie Dash could have become 'classics' at any point in their history but a thousand little issues protecting the white supremacy of the canon stood in their way. Rights issues, print issues, accessibility and sensibility, take your pick, I'm sure whatever one you land on is "why" Daughters of the Dust took decades to be restored and properly released. Killer of Sheep and Wilmington 10 - USA 10,000 never becoming perennial rep titles, never released in theatres every year like It's A Wonderful Life or The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Vertigo means no one, least of all young black audiences, ever gets to see what it looked like when black directors broke white rules. And so a crucial branch in cinematic history is consistently stripped of leaves with the understanding that some day it'll grow back when some ideas are a little less radical. 

The recent rediscovery of Something Good, Negro Kiss an 1898 silent short, 30 seconds of two black people kissing and smiling, clearly enjoying their time together, ecstatic to be near one another, overflowing with the love that makes them such natural camera subjects, is one of a thousand discoveries from a blunted, silent history waiting to be read aloud. There were directors who knew the virtue of seeing black faces, black love, black joy, on screen. They maybe never knew that we'd be watching 120 years later but they sure make the defenses of Green Book look paltry and half-assed. Like learning when the term "Cisgendered" was coined, or finding out the earliest dates of films from India and Africa, the restoration of Negro Kiss is an essential reminder of the value of non-white presence in art. Similarly when Kino-Lorber released Bill Gunn's Personal Problems, a high-art blend of the prosaic and the electrically profane, a soap opera with the raw truth of August Wilson and Miles Davis baked into its gorgeously dated video, this was another song from the past, another deliberately forgotten reminder that the best ideas don't look like anything you've ever seen before. Gunn and Ishmael Reed used what was then primitive and brand new technology to capture the heartbreaking life of a woman (Vertamae Grosvenor) and the men who let her down. As Michael Mann and Spike Lee would later do with early digital cameras in the early part of the 2000s, Gunn erased the distance between human behavior and the cinematic. He made black emotion realer than if he'd shot it under studio lights with a 65mm camera. And he didn't stop at simply the capturing. His edit, the overlapping images and strange dramatic tangents and the games he plays with the edit, heart-breakingly lapping Grosvenor's traumas, letting us see when the other shoe drops from micro leaps into an uncertain past. Gunn could have been Godard, but they wouldn't let him speak. 

Gunn’s experiments are so shocking 40 years later because of the swiftness with which he reveals that he is playing time as a conduit to the variant emotional lives of his characters, whether a put-upon wife, or four ne’erdowells after a funeral who can’t help but put their own lives in terms of the amount of hellraising they’ve done and can still get up to. Video experiments like this also just seemed for the length of my college film education and for a large part of my catching up with film history to be the province of French tinkerers with a political methodology as arch and deceptively bare in appearance as their chosen media. Gunn reaches for what was available - cost effective and newly ubiquitous and sublimely noisy video - and did something no one else would have done. Personal Problems doesn’t look ordinary anyway you approach it. The only thing that makes sense about it was that nervous executives had it shelved.

That idea is bound to make white people with any power nervous - when it’s clear that not only can black filmmakers work with whatever means are available they can do it without aping white cinematic touchstones. Gunn’s film doesn’t look or feel like white narrative cinema, white TV, or white experimental filmmaking. He didn’t need whatever white gatekeepers could ever withhold from him. He made something fearless and visible, uniquely glorious and painful, a three hour living wake for the black working class in one microscopic corner of the world. It’s here now, it exists, because it has always existed, but can no longer be denied. Like those lovers kissing its proof of that a supposed vacuum of content like this was never the whole story.

But that idea of Gunn’s grammar being out of step with film in 1980 and today to the point of seeming almost alien in its intelligence. His making something so assured and poignant on material reserved for news casts has an uncanny muscularity to it, like he painted Nightwatching with crayons. The achievement would be enough, but he wasn’t content to just do what was possible. And he could have done it a hundred times over if anyone would have let him. His spirit lives in the mixed media experiments of Frances Bodomo, the sensitivity and sociologists eye of Raafi Rivero, the ruthless satirical intelligence of Terrence Nance, the heartrending honesty and curiously of Barry Jenkins, the righteous anger and empathy of Naima Ramos-Chapman, and the limitless savvy and formal dexterity of Khalik Allah.

Jenkins newest film pulls from the cinematic traditions of French and Asian cinema more than he relies on American images. James Baldwin’s words tie him to America through absence. The things Baldwin didn’t feel as an American - acceptance, love, respect - are here the whole story. He wants to give his young heroes the gift of everything their author never found here. Of course by adapting this, perhaps his most perfectly melancholy work, he ensures that these beautiful creatures will never receive it in full. They will know and we will see them discover for the first time what it feels like to know belonging. To feel that the place you’re standing is where you belong on the planet because of the eyes staring into yours. Jenkins, like Jordan Peele, is already being saddled unfairly with having to speak for all of black America but I will say he does seem equipped to fill in blanks missing from cinema history. There was no black Frank Borzage, no black Hitchcock, no black Sirk. The full extent of the rapturous language of cinema was not used to exalt in the love and tenderness of young black lovers until my lifetime. I can’t fathom waiting this long for a film as romantic and painful and right as If Beale Street Could Talk but I’m happy I’m alive to see it. Jenkins is giving the world images they’ve never seen, not with the feeling with which he imbues them, not with his eyes and ears, not with his experience seeing more in the work of Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao Hsien than he ever saw in Americans telling the same kinds of story. The story of Beale Street is most simply told in the story, which quotes a lot and yet sounds new. “Eden (Harlem)”, whose title doubles as a metaphor for the untouched narratives of black life and love still to be found, and Beale Street does truly feel like the Big Bang of a new era of black voices in cinema, sounds just enough like “this bitter earth” over which were used to hearing Dinah Washington sing. But here the singing is all done by the voice over, the eyes, the soft glow of Harlem at night, the gentle pastel colors the young lovers wear, the new glow of hope in the eyes of a young girl who wants nothing more than to give herself to the man in front of her, and the man who wants nothing more than to be her everything. 120 years after the first black kiss in cinema we get something that feels like the first love, something new, revolutionary in its uncomplicated depiction of real affection. The story gets complicated but their love is as simple as it gets. Jenkins brings Baldwin to life through a patchwork of influences that are now his. His style, those faces, those dancing figures, the trembling voices and nervous bands (met on the score by Nicholas Britell’s fluttering violins), and the religious tableaux of families and friends in tiny dens and basement apartments, love never looked so true...that style is American now because he gave it to us. He gave us an answer to the lack felt through a century of art, even if he never forgets what caused that lack. Injustice runs through the film like a cancer, breaking apart his compositions of intimacy and friendship. Life could be so good. But so few of us let it be.

That’s what Naima Ramos-Chapman’s film is about, set in Baldwin’s New York 30 years after his death. She finds it a colder place than even the one in If Beale Street Could Talk. Gone is the bond between men and women, gone is the love in Fonny and Tish’s eyes, gone is the togetherness, a family at work trying to keep themselves together. This place has been split open by a psychotic break between people. It’s not just along race or gender lines, it’s between all of us, as culture becomes more hostile and thoughts of help turn quickly into signs of violence and desperation. Ramos-Chapman’s filmmaking is quite unlike any of her peers, leaning into the obvious falseness of certain conceits and then plowing straight into a nerve-wracking no man’s land. The woman on the train visited by her guilty conscious in the form of posse of dancers in full body paint? They’re easy to understand at first, but they seem hellbent in torturing her to the wrong action, action she’s conflicted about taking and then backfired on her immediately. No action goes unpunished in this New York, a Carpenteresque fallen paradise, and the people we wish would have an army of conscious actors screaming in their ears seem blissfully unaware of us, and our safety. The man in the deli who strokes the finger of the counter worker who’s just trying to hand him a sandwich? In thirty seconds Ramos-Chapman shows the horror of womanhood, of feeling alone in knowing what personal space means, of begging for the respect of people no different than you. This is a place whose towering skyscrapers and too-expensive apartments are little else than satellites projecting a city’s trauma back onto each of her people. And most of us are deaf to it. Ramos-Chapman’s understanding of the mechanics of trauma and violence is uncanny, cunning and of course deeply sad. That anyone should ever need to know so much about the ritual of defending oneself from becoming someone else’s object is a failure on a human level. Every human who makes someone else feel unsafe through the withholding of language, the aggressive advantage taken of social contracts, and the knowledge, so steadfast those same skyscrapers would fall before it, that you can get away with anything as long as it’s directed at a woman. That is Ramos-Chapman’s world and here she arms her heroine with a power so many women must have longed for at one time or another. Ramos-Chapman has a different superpower: she can direct movies better than nearly anyone on earth.


Her tonal experimentation and wild visuals are uncommon no matter who’s behind the camera because we are still only just getting back to embracing the avant-Garde as a touchstone for narrative filmmaking without recourse to quoting. Ramos-Chapman quotes no one but her own experience. She knows she doesn’t have to: there are untapped springs and untouched peaks of cinematic language yet. If I’m overly fond of Terrence Malick it’s because he’s located what I think of as the most symphonic cinematic idea. He’s turned in works akin to Stravinsky and Mahler or Joyce and Woolf, complete formal command over a whirlwind of sensation. The tornado that wrecks a house only to put it back together again. It’s never mattered much to me what his subject is because his style renders it in exactly the same register, intellectually and emotionally. Every second of his films works on me at high volume and always wins. So when I sat down to Khalik Allah’s Black Mother and picked up on, in minutes, that he had taken this form to its next logical place, I just about fell off my chair. This film was better than Malick, the man who recalibrated my understanding of cinematic space and ambition because Allah was in the fabric of the film itself. That’s his voice booming in the deep like he’s about to start singing “If There’s Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go.” “Grandpa...what do you think about death?” He asks, and over images of his own funeral, a man tell us what death has come to mean. And right there...the cinematic organism, laid out as if embalmed, everything it is and ever was, everything it could be. People fought for years to keep black voices from being heard and Allah’s rings like a bell in the quiet of a movie theatre in Philadelphia, an answer to a century of blunted progress and stolen lives. Cinema speaks to him. And he speaks right back. He knows its language. He’s just painted its Mill and the Cross, it’s Third of May 1808. Black Mother is also an autopsy of spirituality fortified by a formal bulwark. Allah ricochets between aspect ratios and different stocks as a paean to the volume of experience he captures and to show that no matter how you capture someone, they are yours forever on film. His grandfather lives now as a character in Black Mother. Nothing now will erase him from this. The definitive truth of the image is deliberately intoxicated by the wandering sound design. You never see anyone talk, yet you know who is speaking. The film casts a dozen spells in a dozen voices, explaining what the image can’t see; the inner life of Jamaica. The hurt and happiness in souls rendered as anthropological studies by Allah’s sensuous camera. He wants us to understand the function of both image and sound, wants us to think about what a film is, what it can be, what’s possible. Black Mother, I’d have told you wasn’t possible until I saw it, because history has kept it from happening. But here it is. In a banner year for black art, here is maybe the finest film of the decade, a fearless compendium of chances and choices, of decadent but impoverished lives never yet rendered this orgastically. This is a list of the ways cinema can treat a human being, her voice, her face, her hands and her blood, her wants and needs, the addictions and unwanted urges, here they all are, spread across Jamaica like shipwrecked angels, high and low and everything between. Black Mother, like these five other films, is a pressing reminder that the voices that terrible powers work hardest to suppress will always find a way to be heard. And when they are finally the songs they’ll sing will be unlike any you have ever heard.

5. Widows
by Steve McQueen
Authenticity is something we're so hung up on now, we tend to miss it when it's a few feet in front of our faces. Say what you want about turning crime scenes into Gregory Crewdson photographs or filling a bleak Chicago neighborhood with movie stars doing accents of varying believability, the individual components work. There's McQueen, who it turns out is a great director of action sequences, allowing this giant machine and its sundry moving parts and variant performance styles to stop and take account of each person's humanity, the risks they take. There's Elizabeth Debicki finally looking as tall as she is, stuffed into cocktail dresses, mounted on heels, having to seem like an alien rich girl dropped into nothingness and playing into this character's every bad impulse and ounce of self-doubt. There's Lucas Haas unafraid to look and act like a disgusting, needy creep with boundary issues he has no interest in solving. There's Viola Davis who shores up mountains of fear and sorrow and shoves them behind her face, from which nothing but hardened certainty escapes. She has to act like she's in control but we see how close she is to losing it. There's Kevin J. O'Connor, once beautiful, now able to play a man so terrified, so small, that even bleeding on the floor of a bowling alley you sense he has more to lose. There's Brian Tyree Henry juggling his imagined power and influence with the reality of his waning grip on his surroundings and the men who have to be afraid of him. There's Cynthia Erivo, a living motion study, her shock of white hair keeping her in space as she hurdles towards the next thing, anything but slow down and take stock of the gaggle of imperfections with which she's agreed to live. And there's Michelle Rodriguez. McQueen gets no small amount of credit from me for casting her at all, but then to know what to do with her, to let her scowl mean something, to let her dress like a human being instead of a body builder, to let her show real, hard-fought feeling, to let us know her soul has been melting out of her body for years and it may be too late to stop the leak. McQueen lets her be, lets her live in his frame, trusts her to give the performance. That's as exciting as a car chase or an elaborate tracking shot. 

6. 24 Frames
by Abbas Kiarostami
Kiarostami was one of the first filmmakers to appreciate what digital images could do for cinematic language. His film 10 remains one of the most important early documents of the digital image capturing the human face and also how empathy can be more effectively generated by removing the distance between celluloid and the human face. He got us uncomfortably close to each other and we were better for it. A movie wasn't just a movie in his hands. 24 Frames is Kiarostami at his most playful but also his most simple. He wanted to further acquaint us with the possibilities of digital cinema, of letting us know it was ok to embrace the falseness of an image if we could still believe in the person manipulating it. Kiarostami showed us that cinema was meant to be the most malleable of the art forms, that there were still uncharted landscapes to be mapped and explored and he did it in the simplest way. He found images we could understand, quotes from Stalker, unadorned living rooms, pop music, and then he brought them to strange, otherworldly life. Still images, still lives, dance for us like the magic gifts of the conjurer in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. A painting whispers secrets to us we had never before heard and cinema grows. With his dying breath Kiarostami gave us one last gift: the promise of unending growth as long as there artists worth caring about who can still explore. 

7. Barbara
by Mathieu Amalric
With the decade drawing to a close I've been at war with myself about Mathieu Amalric. Do I love the majestic self-investigative film about artists he made ten years ago more than the majestic self-investigative film about artists he made last year? Nice problem all things considered. On Tour is a very much a cinephile's movie: the structure is pure Fellini, and the extremely French trappings kept it from ever falling into slavishness. It was generous, which makes a world of difference. Barbara rewards the careful viewer because it too gives a lot, but the byzantine shape and the mournful games played by director, star and subject are a matter of wavelength. If you can situate yourself just right in the moonlit hall of mirrors and enjoy every piece of a film's identity attempting to refract off the personalities creating it, you can simply sit back and drink in the proceedings. 

8. High Life
by Claire Denis
Solaris has been on more than one mind lately it seems. "Remaking" it is sort of an auteur rite of passage, though very few people do something constructively there's with it. There was no doubt in my mind that Claire Denis wouldn't do much more than nod at the space-fairing classic and then immediately map her own corner of the cosmos. She leaves earth, here presented as reverie partway between Claude Lanzmann and Walker Evans, and finds her neon-hued stasis deliberately hovering in a kind of pre-sexual hibernation. Juliet Binoche is in charge of criminals with childlike demeanors who have all failed to make peace with their impending deaths. Every part of the ship brings with it the potential for Denis to become lost, tangled in a messy thicket of fluids, hair and skin. She's bottled her obsessions and forced them to the edge of space, time, consciousness. Even seconds from death the pitiable urges of men and women are inalienable. We must be selfish, demand attention, be violent, attack one another like cats in heat. She removes the veneer of polite society that made the criminal actions of Bastards and Trouble Every Day feel wrong. There sits a blackhole which will swallow them, unfeeling and unthinking, proof that whatever judged them on earth isn't real. Out here it's just us. We're ugly, we're mean, we're wrong...but we're it. No one's coming to save us. 

9. Scarred Hearts
by Radu Jude
A man trapped by cinema's history and its limitations. He can't move and so neither does the camera. He can only see so much and thus so can the camera. And yet Jude sets a banquet inside the small frame, erotic tension transpiring and nearly sweating along with the imprisoned patients of a hellish seaside sanitarium. The dreamy atmosphere penetrated (like the sickly bodies) and drained of its portent right before our eyes. The nightmare of confinement becomes carnivalesque and rich even as we know that there can be no happy ending. 

10. First Reformed / Dark
by Paul Schrader
Schrader's twin dying stars of impotence and rotting bodies, of skins impossible to shed. Two men dream of leaping out of their failing frames, but neither biblical torments nor an 11th hour edit, standard definition video bisecting film like thorns ripping into flesh, can save them nor make their worlds better. Both Nicolas Cage's haunted spook and Ethan Hawke's hateful priest dream of burning a portion of the world down while they still have strength to light a match. Schrader's always been best watching men take themselves apart because he himself has been trying to do just that all his life. Here are the men with whom he identifies. Here are the last screaming men on Earth. 

11. Shoplifters / The Third Murder 
by Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Kore-Eda's double feature of sacrifice. One, his remake of Dodes'ka-den,  the other his take on the policier, arrive at the same location, a cinema of prison visitation windows. Out there is where you can lose what you love. "You're doing my time" says a lost father figure missing his phantom limb family, looking at the woman who will be stuck behind bars for loving the wrong way. His camera picks up the anxious eyes and tentative smiles of his drifting families and errant parents. Life's sweetest moments never last, and anything stolen, even happiness, can be taken back. In both films the law is a reckoning with the pain of loving someone else too much, a father for his child, an adopted son jealous of his new sister, a collection of broken limbs that have to make up a body. Kore-Eda's most humane impulses conclude at loved ones staring, as James Baldwin says, through glass. 

12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
by Joel & Ethan Coen
Like a collection of Elmore Leonard western stories adapted with a precise ear for tone and place. Everything screams 1920s Americana, from the illustrations and text at the start of each chapter to the rich colour scheme and expertly stylized performances. Somewhere between Raoul Walsh, John Ford and Josef von Sternberg lies this spiky patch of land, cruel and blackly hilarious, bloody and mean but soft in parts. It's funny to me, the arguments of cruelty, of having turned their back on people, when here for all the world to see are some of the most boisterous and lovely performances of the year, some of the finest photography of the frontier, and such care in replicating a long-abandoned Western tradition. The Coens know that so much track has been laid inventing the west they know and love, and pay due respect to their godfathers. Love and affection aren't always about treating characters nicely, sometimes they mean giving an audience a million pleasurable textures over the course of a story that begged to be told just so. A happy ending to some of these stories wouldn't change the lovely photography, the careful costume design, the expert production design and the enviable art direction. You could always watch something else and miss out on one of the few true westerns we got this year (alongside the equally bleak and splendid Damsel and The Sisters Brothers, which just barely got edged out of my list this year). You'd think people wanted movies to come with gift receipts.

13. Leave No Trace
by Debra Granik
Granik's long awaited third fiction film is even more stylistically spare than Winter's Bone, blending the patience and openness she utilizes in her non-fiction with her steady hand at orchestrating family relationships in troubling circumstances. A father and daughter pushing against acceptability, against taxable income and social codes, against someone else's right and wrong. Ben Foster's father figure doesn't seem to want to keep his child safe from all that so much as he wants to insulate himself against the possibility of ever seeming wrong. And when he does he stops being a god in his daughter's eyes and becomes a man, small and breakable, like her. Granik's movies are all essentially about learning to offer and accept help (any American by now knows that never asking for help, never ceding to a broader moral definition of right and wrong is akin to mania) and though Leave No Trace wraps its elements in red tape and a flight from justice, the heartbreaking truth is that Foster can't outrun his daughter realizing he isn't who she thought he was, nor how she was raised to see him. You can't go back to the cave (or the woods) after that. The world is hers, now. 

14. You Were Never Really Here
by Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay earning her keep in the upper echelon of world cinema by taking one of the simplest and one of the oldest ideas (scarred man rescues virginal young woman) and rendering it unrecognizably vibrant and violent. No one else could have made her film. A kaleidoscopic dismemberment of tropes and men, a feint portending sorrowful warriors that instead finds a Lynch-derived moral dead zone, where no one's pain matters more because there's no order in the universe. There's only what you can do with your hands, embrace or destroy, to counter the pain we all feel, the pain of being alive. 

15. Sweet Country
by Warwick Thornton
Warwick Thornton's becoming one of the most reliable voices in Australian cinema, a man who will tell the truth. Sweet Country takes the American western (think Apache Drums, Hombre or John Huston's The Unforgiven) and hangs it on a clothesline until there's no moisture left. This thing is bone dry and has no salvation beyond the most meagre ration of humanity like needing food in the wilderness and lifting a rock to find nothing but fire ants. The class and racial divisions are treated like absolute madness, and the laws that enforce them hangs by a thread. Thornton's edit makes of time what the violence of his characters makes of the status quo. A blistering critique of a rule anyone could see favoured the power-mad and angry, if only they had cause. Sweet Country thrusts viewer and character alike into revelations and hard truths through which they aren't prepared to wade. Even those who did the right thing are guilty. 

16. The Guardians
by Xavier Beauvois
Beauvois' Of Gods And Men turned an ongoing conversation with god into a waiting game, eschewing all but what would fit in his minimalist Mise-en-scène. The threat of violence is a gang of men who show up once and may return at any time to kill everyone. But they're an existential idea more than a cinematic presence. The film waits for them to come back, at which point some of his priests die. Honorable, but foregone. The Guardians opens things up, allows each story to tell itself without the sword of damocles visible above their heads. Yes they will suffer, it's WWI and his heroes are mostly women. The whys and hows matter less than that we know these people through their actions, the things they allow themselves at a time when civilization as such gives them nothing. His empathetic construction has room to surprise us and move us without demanding we feel what his characters feel; these women are more complex than priests martyring themselves. They're human beings. This is how they lived, worked, which means more because when we see them lose what little they do have it means the world. 

17. Your Face
by Tsai Ming-Liang
Tsai returns to the Visage but trades recognition through symbolism and art through recognition through mortality. We don't know these people, we just know that they're aged, they've lived long and varied lives and by ending on the face of his cinematic doppelgänger, he assures us that they've experienced a measure of eros and evolution akin to any of his leads. Essentially blending the real and the imaginary, forcing us to confront the end of life, the natural aging of the face (which of these men will Lee Kang-Sheng resemble when he grows old?), the growth of all things and then the silence after our lives. Your Face is meant to be taken quite literally: they are us, but he can't film all of us, so he settles for a dozen. Like Manakamana it synthesizes one of the few universal experiences through a couple of unshakable, lovable presences.  

18. BlacKkKlansman & Pass Over
by Spike Lee
Spike Lee's dynamism and explosive formal ideas have just gotten more interesting as he's aged. He began angry and talented but even something like Do The Right Thing exists in opposition, it is, to me, weighed down by the sheer enormity of what needed to be said. I think every film he's made since then has delivered on the promise of that movie and many have outstripped it because he's become more free. Discipline, in the case of Lee, has always been overrated. He's always been more interesting when he's swam a mile away from the shore. Pass Over and BlacKkKlansman are both about black men conversing with white authority, with the shaky concept of allies and friends, and they come after a string of stylistic successes each more interesting than the last (Red Hook Summer, Old Boy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chi Raq). Pass Over catalogs the ridged codes of survivors, the actions and passwords shared between two black men on a street that could be their final resting place. Lee closes on images of the city that had just been a purgatorial blank, anytown USA, concretizing the parable. The play is fake, the blood and bullets are real. BlacKkKlansman goes forward from there, turning a more conventionally filmic set of ideas (bombs and car chases, guns and mistaken identities, dances and cine-literate history lessons) into a waltz between fact and fiction (what really happened, what's been exaggerated). Lee recreates his earliest film, a burlesque of Birth of a Nation and deals squarely with the racism of the film canon, from silents to blaxploitation. Part and parcel with the film's revolutionary throughline, it doesn't just cast stones, however, offering an action climax to replace the violent films of white men with one of his own, more righteously motivated. It's polemic and replacement, a beautifully complicated look at the idea of authority and the piece of yourself you don't trust when you come in contact with it or trust it. No one ever thinks of themselves as the 'enemy,' even as the evidence mounts. Lee cannily shows what a crisis of conscience looks like when there are real stakes. Doing the right thing isn't always as easy as it sounds. 

19. The Other Side of the Wind
by Orson Welles
Cigar smoke blown across a flip book cartoon of a man falling down the stairs. That's the idea of a Welles film, the simplicity of everything he did, the same idea a dozen times. But if it were that simple anyone would have done it. Only Welles knew that if you put the camera here instead of there, they'd call him a genius. Only Welles knew how to make cinema out of Shakespeare without becoming lost in the text. Only Welles made his own worst fear the subject of some of the best films ever made. Only Welles resurrected himself to settle the issue of his talent 30 years after his death like Ralph Richardson in Dragonslayer. Only Welles understood New Hollywood as it was unfolding and exploding, knew what his place was on the mountain of money and talent even as his fingers slipped, knew where to put a camera that he could critique an image and create the best iteration of it. He knew because he was born to be one of the best directors who ever lived, our Picasso, our Liszt, our Rodin. He knew how long to hold an angle of a man walking away, knew he could get away with anything, and he must have known somewhere we'd see what Hollywood let slip away: this man and his colossal talent. We let a giant fall in front of us and he beat us there too because he filmed the whole thing as he went. He had the last word, even if no one had the last laugh. Well...accept audiences, I guess, there are like 20 all-time dick jokes in this.

20. Sorry Angel
by Christophe Honoré
Love and the last year of a man's life rendered in perfect moments and horrible losses dropping like leaves into a stream. An effulgent portrait of blossoming sensual inner lives and the closing of a thousand chapters before they had finished being written.


21. Mosaic
by Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh has to be one of the best and most constructive pastiche artists on planet Earth. After extracting Contagion from Juggernaut, The Knick from the British new wave's influence on 70s cinema, he's taken on the American TV movie. He has the splashy guest star, the remote setting, the murder, the roster of possible suspects, and he's even revolutionized the commercial break - the film was a choose your own adventure style app experience. This film is a litany of masterfully observed details about the lives of unremarkable dreamers, thrust under scrutiny and into possible infamy by their connection to a wealthy dead person. Soderbergh's in top form here, his camera capturing their eccentricities like he's writing a scientific volume about the North American under late capitalism. He's razor sharp, slowly trimming away the plot in favor of showing the sorts of behaviors usually eschewed by fiction and reality TV alike. Gorgeous and bracing and as usual lit like the world's finest hungover vacation, Mosaic is the best retirement party ever thrown. 

22. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda
by Stephen Nomura Schible 
Ryuichi Sakamoto's music was always a sort of iceberg reflection of classical music and the human condition. His slithering violins, his insistent, almost howling percussion, his somber melodies, he could score the downfall of men better than anyone since Bernard Herrmann. Watching this perceptive and beautiful man reckon with his own mortality is about the best case scenario of a true narrative such as this. No one else would have the graceful reflexivity, the perceptive expression of what he was undergoing. The important thing here is that this isn't a look at a man making plans for the end, it's largely about the cheshire cat grin on his handsomely aged features when he discovers a new sound, the joy in his voice and in his eyes when he finally makes it to the arctic in search of its song, a journey he'd wanted to make since he was a boy. Coda is the story of a man whose love and zeal for creation could not be dampened by the possiblity that he will someday not hear anything ever again. He's achieved so much, heard so much of this planet's mysterious harmonies firsthand. Life takes so much but here is a man who made a deal with the natural world and made sure it gave him just as much in return. 

23. Creed 2
by Steven Caple, Jr
I was born near enough to Philadelphia that Rocky was an inescapable element of the local character. We all saw the statue, the Bill Conti theme music was hummed in every corner of my town, we were meant to be proud of this fictitious man and his fake achievements. When I finally caught up with Rocky it seemed a strange candidate for canonization. Stallone gave a great performance but was matched by Burt Young and Joe Spinell, and he doesn't win his big fight. He just doesn't lose as bad as people think he's going to. That's sort of a perfect Philadelphia idea, and it made sense why they made it about an unstoppable, inspirational figure instead, the guy from the later movies who singlehandedly defeats all of Russia with his fists. When Ryan Coogler got ahold of the franchise I finally saw in these films what everyone else saw in Rocky: a kid going through a troubling period of self-discovery while trying to make a name for himself through his chosen artform. What millennial can't make sense of that? Creed 2 is a quieter film than its predecessors, more about home lives and ad hoc families, which is fine by me. I'm much more captivated by Dolph Lundgren's shattered pride staring out from behind his feline eyes at both his vanquisher and his only hope, the son whose love he traded for another chance to mean something than I am by anything that happens in the ring. I loved seeing Stallone and Jordan waiting outside Tessa Thompson's delivery room, I loved Jordan taking his crying daughter to the gym because it centers him and it might just do the same for her. A film of unimaginable hope and warmth under all the bruises and loss. 

24. All Square
by John Hyams
Proof that you can make a 70s character study without compromising anything, and from a guy who usually makes hallucinatory DTV action films. A noble idea given the fullest and most agreeably depressing treatment imaginable, the grey vistas captured by drone a paradise over which our hero lamely presides. Michael Kelly's smalltime bookie doesn't exactly like being stuck here but it's not like he'd fare better elsewhere. A rogue's gallery of gambling degenerates and bad drunks are his people, for better or worse, and watching him learn where he actually fits into the scheme of this trash community is enveloping but that shouldn't be unexpected because movies like this used to come out every week. Now All Square looks like a relic, but has the energy of a little league player. 

25. The Mule
by Clint Eastwood
Clint's put himself out there in a way few movie stars ever do. I don't mean actors, I mean movie stars. This guy was a singing cowboy pin-up who made a career putting himself shirtless across drive-in canvas and billboards across the country. Yes, he was a born filmmaker but he was a movie star first, known the world over for his impressionistic features, his soft face and hard eyes. He appears to have gotten so sick of his own image that he started playing geezers and dying men around the time he turned 50. But now he's as old as he seemed to feel and he threw his 88 year old features onto a hundred screens, his failing health, his jittery hands and nervous jaw, his cracking voice and uncertain posture, all of it 30 feet high for the women who idolized him as a child and the young people who just wanted to see a movie on a Friday night to see. It's all here, this is how we'll think of him when he dies, like he was our grandfather, no longer the man we once knew. The final film he gave himself still has indulgences (including a threesome with drug molls) but it's also lousy with the hallmarks of his best work. It's funny and scary, it looks back on a wasted life, it makes a meal out of one final roadtrip across an ailing nation, and it's more open and tolerant than Clint himself has made a point of being in his public life. The Mule stirs the water of his complex legacy one last time to put ripples in his reflection so he can go with a little mystery still hanging around him. The man with no name became someone who gave away more of himself than he probably thought he ever would, and here, with a deeply human look at mortality, he's tried to help us say goodbye. Not to him, but to everyone who's lived long enough to falter before us, to the people and things we've gotten used to. Since I was a kid I knew to expect to see his face on TV commercials, to know he'd never stop making movies. Letting go of the idea of Clint Eastwood wasn't easy, but I walked out of The Mule knowing a lot more about the old man than I did walking out. He just wanted one more chance to say he was sorry, and then maybe, if he could, goodbye. 


26. The Image Book 
by Jean-Luc Godard
Godard's fairweather marxism derails the film in the final act when he decides to say something about the middle east, about which he knows even less than Michael Bay, whom he derisively quotes. Before then this a profound display of formal daring, like the old Swiss curmudgeon were performing surgery on himself using cinema history as both scalpel and bandage. It's as funny as he's ever been, his editing determinedly and steadily unsettling, like Max Roach were working his software. He says so much about the way we watch images and hear sounds without appearing to say anything at all and hey maybe he doesn't? It's Godard it could actually be nonsense, which would be just fine! That's what happens when you outlive your earliest detractors, you can kind of be become your own funhouse mirror self and not have it matter in the slightest. He's still as good as he was when he was reinventing the wheel. 



27. The Land of Steady Habits
by Nicole Holofcener
Nicole Holofcener walks a tightrope everytime she directs. On this side: you have to empathize with the morally deformed rich. Over there: their much-deserved comeuppance is frequently undercut by at least symbolic victories. In short: none of her very fine movies end with the heads of her protagonists on a pike in the street. Barring that little hiccup, she's at least gotten their tainted souls thoroughly x-rayed and this, I can't help but feel, is her most astute and aching work to date. Where to begin: the father who wants to be young again so he enables a young man's addictions. The mother who can't love her own son fully so offers his life to her neighbor's boy. The mother who's so terrified of her son becoming her ex-husband when he grows up that she withholds affection until he's living in his car. Holofcener's muted palette and Bed, Bath & Beyond-derived aesthetic make the razorwire class politics and hideous interfamilial drama all the more barbed and toxic. She hides a lot of considered critique in throw pillows, christmas parties, self-help books, and glasses of white wine. 



28. Mr. Soul!
by Mellisa Haizlip & Samuel D. Pollard
I don't go to church but I know what it feels like to go to the best service in the country, because I saw Mr. Soul! at the Black Star Film Festival. I heard the audience sing along to each song clip, saw the black power salute raised at the sight of Angela Davis, saw people dancing to 50 year old footage of soul singers and saw people weep at a lost communal hope for artists and appreciators alike. Soul the TV show was a haven for black artists and it's been reborn at Black Star, so seeing this film about the myriad achievements of Ellis Haizlip on a big screen surrounded by the best audience in the country, I knew I'd never feel anything as special in a movie house as I did that day. Although I tend to say that every year I go to Black Star and every year the programmers and that audience prove me wrong. 

29. Blockers
by Kay Cannon
High-concept and slapstick soaring over the most sex-positive, non-judgmental comedy narrative in years. The lesson it allows us to learn is that it's ok to let people grow in ways that seem frightening to us, that a generational divide is no excuse for mistrust. The stunning three-way conclusion wherein the parents (played by Cena, Mann and Barinholtz in career best performances) realize they could always have trusted their kids is some of the best and most cathartic work of the year. Adorable and soothing when it isn't telling legendary dick jokes. 

30. Music For When The Lights Go Out
by Ismael Caneppele
One of the greatest non-fiction experiments I witnessed all year, a sort of sapphic ghost story, a woman haunted by who could/should be, a director and an actress looking enviously at youthful potential, all three staring into the miasmic moment of slow discovery. 

31. Dovlatov
by Aleksei German, Jr. 
While technically about a journalist, Dovlatov is as much a portrait of Aleksei German Sr, the man whose career and life made him a walking ghost in a land dominated by manipulation and shadows pulling strings that people didn't know how to cut. A hazy, daydrunk amble through a man's life as represented by a few very long days, German's focus is more taut here than usual, his gaze more interested in undressing his hero's protective layer. Tough because he has to remain unreadable to authorities and editors alike or he might be easier to corrupt. A leisurely interrogation while an ethical future for one of the last honest men hangs in the balance. 

32. A Family Tour
by Ying Liang
Liang smothers his own anger in exhaustion, calmly detailing everything that happens when you can't have what you want, showing instead of the hungered for the real-time placation of justified rage. Frustrating but necessarily so, rendering the all-too-infrequently shown sensation of needing sleep, having a bed but being unable to end the day and dream. There is still so much work to be done.

33. Support the Girls
by Andrew Bujalski
It's rare enough to find someone willing to not dress an American workplace in cinematic shorthand - to not make a bar the kind of bar the characters in a Scorsese film might visit. It's even rarer to find real joy in the passive aggressive exploited people drained of life force by the thousand paper cuts of late capitalism (imagine if Throne of Blood ended with Mifune sighing, laughing and then getting up and waving on more arrows). Bujalski's done something major here (he always seems to!) in finding unique excuses for his cast to endure a life of servitude without compromising their humanity. James Le Gros' performance is the lynchpin here, because presented with the task of managing and paying for the lives of a dozen people, he acts petulantly, put upon and unappreciated, not realizing he's the cause of everyone's problems. Astute, acerbic but ultimately compassionate and cleansing, this film knows what we all deal with and isn't arrogant enough to think there's a way out. There is, however, the person next to you. 

34. Dirty Computer
by Andrew Donoho, Alan Ferguson, Lacey Duke, Emma Westenberg & Chuck Lightning
Dirty Computer is the kind of passion project we need more of. On the one hand it's collection of revolutionarily feminist genderqueer music videos, permanently cementing Janelle Monáe's reputation as a theorist who writes text with her body and costuming. On the other it's a dystopian daydream of the sort you imagine someone to scribble in their notebook while bored in class after reading The Maze Runner. Hopelessly, endearingly dorky and also rabidly sensuous, repurposing her body as if she were seizing a factory. In a sense she is because the body and voice of a pop star is historically an easily corrupted, co-opted instrument. She is fully in charge of hers, answerable to no one, able to place it in whatever context she pleases. She's an inspiration, a true artist whose autonomy and ambition is sure to launch a thousand careers. 

35. Hale County This Morning, This Evening
by RaMell Ross
A phantasmic evocation of a time and place most films fear to tread. A singular extra-sensory document of people most films won't treat like humans with inner lives. A bear hug from a community with a hundred names. The announcement of a major talent's arrival, his methods and feel already sculpted and shined. 

36. Happy as Lazzaro
by Alice Rohrwacher
A benevolent fairy tale about the never-ceasing injustices of class divisions. Rohrwacher cruelly leaps into the future and finds poverty in worse shape than she left it, but she does so with the affectionately soft touch of a mother welcoming her children back after a semester at school. Pasolini would likely have made something similar if he hadn't been killed and lived to rediscover his love of people. 

37. Diane
by Kent Jones
A relatable bitterness has fallen over Diane. Her son messes his life up and takes her with him. He fixes it and abandons her. This is the pattern of so many american mother's lives. The push and pull of necessity, of caring when it's too late and leaving after making a mess, it's the broiling undercurrent of so much suburban living. I'm not sure why Jones felt the need to tell this story but if i had to guess it's that he knew as many Dianes as I do. I'm glad he did because he gave work to a real murderer's row of terrific actresses from Mary Kay Place in the lead to Estelle Parsons, Glynnis O'Connor, Joyce Van Patten and Andrea Martin in the margins. It's like he was recreating some specific moment of his childhood and pulled every woman who was on the television at the time to portray it. What a wicked and clever treatment of the past. 

38. Bisbee '17
by Robert Greene
America as Potter's Field, unmarked graves and bodies who trudged out from a buzzing tomb of a mine to live, only to be forced into the desert like Moses. Greene, doing perhaps his best work to date, resurrects our ideals for one zombie-like crawl through crimes we still seem hellbent on committing and justifying. A dirge, "Danny Boy" for workers' rights, a mournful humming you will never get out of your head. 

39. Monrovia, Indiana
by Frederick Wiseman
Wiseman's latest city movie is shrewdly political in that, like its heroes, it doesn't mention anything objectionable where you can hear it. The racism, classism, sexism, power struggles and abuse, they're all there, but they've been hidden where his cameras can't find them. It wouldn't be polite to discuss such things. A damning indictment of small town America, the face it presents to each of us as we pass by, saving its judgment for when they're safely ensconced in their homes. Wiseman here becomes a synecdoche for "mixed company," and loves capturing every disingenuous minute of his time in Monrovia, birthplace of nothing, keeper of secrets. 

40. The Miseducation of Cameron Post
by Desiree Akhavan
It's the motion of tiny arms that made me see how accurate, how real this film was. The little arms moving in the darkness taking from too-trusting peers. I remembered those arms from high school, watching young paramours kissing on the school couches. That was so real, and what makes it hit like a ton of bricks is that these poor young people have to wait until they're in the dark to move freely, to kiss and touch and feel anything they really feel. The hidden self has acres of pent-up energy to release but has no outlet and so The Miseducation of Cameron Post is like a series of explosions. Mines from a long lost war are stepped on and out comes the aggression, the need for acceptance, the total lack of sexual attention. This is no way to live, and this beautiful film knows it. Out there may be dangerous but it's where you can be any version of yourself you choose. 

41. The Green Fog
by Guy Maddin, Evan & Galen Johnson
Guy Maddin never properly gets credit for being one of the pre-eminent film comedians (if Groucho had learned to direct, I'm guessing he'd make something like Guy Maddin) even as we've lauded him continuously as a visual stylist and Freudian supergenius. The Green Fog is both a single gag stretched flawlessly to feature length and a city symphony to beat the band. Ravishing footage of San Francisco plays itself while Bernard Herrmann's strings insist that something else is happening. An exegesis on the function of framing, music and place, The Green Fog begs to be seen over and over again. 


42. The Endless
by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead
The boys are back in town. Unbelievably clever take on the apocalypse and cult-living as an extension of high school cliques, these guys do more with their tiny budgets than most state governments. Endearingly goofy, exceedingly funny, and creepingly, insidiously frightening, this film makes a mountain of madness from a molehole. 

43. Annihilation
by Alex Garland
A psychedelic hangover, a fable about living right in the space between having everything and nothing, between the living dead and giving up. 


44. Private Life
by Tamara Jenkins
Splendidly thorny and realistic look at the hatreds that burrow inside an unconditional love. You can look at someone and at once see everything about them that makes you wish they'd jump in front of an L train and everything that makes you glad they're always there when you wake up. 


45. The House That Jack Built
by Lars Von Trier
An artist explaining their work as if they were at a Q and A presented as the entrance exam to hell... you've gotta admit that is pretty fucking funny. 

46. Early Man
by Nick Park
Nick Park's Early Man is hilariously exactly the kind of thing I expect an English pensioner to come up with but this thing is just way too delightful for that to be a problem. The creator of Wallace and Gromit introduces a bevy of equally lovable new characters and saddles them with the earliest underdog narrative. His hand-made animation style has carried him (and me, watching them since I was a kid) a long way and it's marvelous to see his canvas so expansive, his lovable and precise humour writ so large. 

47. The Favourite
by Yorgos Lanthimos
Lanthimos' Spartacus is just as pretty and perverse, if a little more up front about its version of oysters and snails. The catty in-fighting and delicious word play is the sort of thing of which directors dream of rounding out the edges and Lanthimos doesn't waste a second. The busy frame, lusty dancing, duck-filled soirees and casual viciousness is all delicious. I don't mind that it's not the most profound film ever made. If I expected that every time I went to the movies I'd be a bitter, disappointed fellow. I'll take a woozy costume party if you've got one.  


48. Illang: The Wolf Brigade
by Kim Jee-Woon
Targeted by Korean conservatives and buried deep on Netflix, this film's hyper-violent treatment of separatists ought to have been written about a little more extensively than it was. Not that the US doesn't have its own fires to put out but it's not like our President hasn't made taunting the North Korean dictator one of his favourite pastimes. Regardless this is Kim Jee-Woon at his best as an action stylist, his colours playing with the darkness, the careful choreography still clear and exciting in near-total darkness. A gloomy pulse-pounding descent into the subterranean bestial nature of men at war. 


49. The First Purge
by Gerard McMurray
The Purge films are an important token of post-W Bush political media. The idea that the rich would encourage the poor to kill each other isn't fiction, nor is the idea that we'd take to the task with unbridled creativity that the military would immediately co-opt. No the problem starts with arming the radical poor, no white government would ever. I waited for these films to have something to say beyond having an armful of ideas and throwing them at the screen and saying "ahh? Get It?" Surprise, surprise it's a black director who does something visually and textually interesting with the idea. This film is sort of if The Wire were a slasher film except that McMurray's visual style is such a blazing statement of purpose. His neatly orchestrated bedlam is a neon fever, the inverse of the dream world from Black Panther. He lets his criminal hero do the work to locate his moral center rather than simply waking up an avenger, and lets his activist POV character scream into the faces of a disbelieving public. It happens every day, after all. The degree to which most of this is possible should worry people more than it does, but I fear the thrills and candy-coloured bloodshed of previous entries has turned this film's polemical warning soft by association. 


50. Sorry to Bother You
by Boots Riley
Lindsay Anderson would have loved it. Completely free of studio notes and workshopped, acceptable ideas, a chaotic free-for-all of an anti-capitalist script is thrown into Riley's razor-laced grab-bag of technical and stylistic ideas, culled from major and minor works alike. It speaks to modern audiences through visuals they can understand even as it throws a bag of antique economic theory on the scales. One of the few films to speak the language of hip-hop and one of the even fewer films to spend millions of dollars on something that's worth its weight in seditious sentiment, lush visuals and hysterical gags. 

51. Searching for Ingmar Bergman
by Margarethe Von Trotta
One of Bergman's last but most sagacious and indefatigable students turns her keen eye on her teacher. A loving parting glance from someone who finally lived long enough to know what her instructors knew when they gave her the lessons that led her to discovering her identity. That we have Bergman to thank for Von Trotta would be reason enough to fete him even if he hadn't set the tone for a half century of arthouse cinema. 


52. Where is Kyra? / Nancy
by Andrew Dosunmu / Christina Choe
Stories of imposters running out of road, learning too late that there are some people on whom you can rely. Career highs from qualified casts steer these dark tales of identities arriving too late to be of much use to their owners into realms of unforgettable discomfort and unexpected connection. Andrea Riseborough and Michelle Pfeiffer seeing their cons run out of steam in real time make for the most shocking and effecting sequences of the year. 

53. The Death of Stalin
by Armando Iannucci
I knew this film was for me when it begins as a sort of Busby Berkeley musical around a corpse, moving the dead body of a dictator like it was a couch from room to room. Iannucci indulges in a dozen miniature classes in film comedy all while maintaining his deadpan docudrama method of shooting. Every performance shoots for the moon vis-à-vis a lack of empathy and relatability none more so than Michael Palin's crusty Molotov, who accidentally calls his disappeared wife a traitor before her 'miraculous' resurrection and who spits on a colleague as he's being executed. Somewhere between Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove sits this Man Bites Dog-style provocation. 

54. Ray Meets Helen
by Alan Rudolph
Fireworks for lovers on a hot streak, Alan Rudolph takes his romantic language out of storage and gifts us a valentine. Keith Carradine, Keith David, Samantha Mathis, Jennifer Tilly and, may she rest in peace, Sondra Locke are given his full attention and care, allowed to play to and against type and have oodles of clearly visible fun doing so. Carradine's eternal boyhood peers out from his sly eyes and a million dollar wardrobe at the bird-like Locke, who conquers a fear of sensation to accept the many delights the world may offer her. The film is a ballet of newly discovered confidence, lost potential and late love, a rhyme with late Malick in its decidedly un-Hollywood priorities and intrepid lyricism. 


55. Shadow
by Zhang Yimou
Embracing his inner futurist was the smartest choice Zhang ever made, not that his historical dramas weren't good it's just that so few people do these presentational action epics as well as he does. He presents himself with limitations he gleefully conquers - the colour palette is essentially monochromatic - turning the whole thing into a marbleized swirl of expressive shades of white and grey, a silken shimmer of fists and blades. The film has something of Ran's impressionistic sprawl and Kagemusha's palace intrigue, but maintains its singularity every chance it gets to spread its stylistic wings (or bladed umbrellas). 

56. The Predator
by Shane Black
A Shane Black and Fred Dekker Halloween movie is better than none at all, so even with the tampering and the bad reviews and the not-all-there CGI, I am grateful this film exists and that it gave Olivia Munn the role of a lifetime. 

57. Little Drummer Girl
by Park Chan-Wook
Park is all business in this 6 hour John le Carré adaptation, his camera trapped in the machinery of espionage like an insect caught in a clock. He discovers every angle from which to capture and re-capture the mask work and intrigue, the personal betrayals at every turn, the flutter of discarded costumes and forgotten ideals. His most active technical exercise since Lady Vengeance, he finds a new angle for every spy cliche, beginning with openly spelling out the parallels between filmmaking and spying. A voyeur's delight. 


58. The Wild Pear Tree
by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Ceylan doubles down on the deliberately ponderous (but naturally thrilling because he can't film a highway shoulder without making it look like Night of the Hunter) Winter Sleep, which feints at Tarr-esque durationalism but is wilder than its schematic implies with the gargantuan Wild Pear Tree, which keeps threatening to locate Bergman-derived psychosexual refractory womb spaces, but everyone is entirely too vein. The film is ultimately a comedy, even if it looks like an overly forgiving roman à clef on paper (appearances are always deceiving in Ceylan), it just happens that every joke is on us trying to take our lives seriously. His lustrous digital images of a town going to seed while its favourite son withers on the vine and rejects all but the most token support are ravishing enough that you expect them to stay around longer, for the film to become about the land, to film everything around the reams of dialogue and too-satisfied small-timers loitering the frame. That is the war at the heart of his films. Do we luxuriate in the natural beauty all around us (that most of us miss) or focus in on the petty bickering and posturing that tramps up and down its contours? Both spill out forever in his vision of Turkey and both are captivating. 

59. Dark River
by Clio Barnard
Barnard's lost soul narratives are a consistently gripping, if obviously tough proposition. Turning from the more clearly wounded and less defended characters of her early work to Ruth Wilson was, I must say, a good choice. She wears hardship better than most modern performers, she relishes the chance to have her anguish spill out from her singular expression, to let debasement seem like second nature. She's electric in Dark River, haunted by the ghost of her abusive father (a brilliantly utilized Sean Bean showing up in subliminal flashes of memory), needing to erase her sense of self before her last shred of property is taken from her. If she does the damage first she wins; she'll be empty either way, it might as well be because it was her choice. 


60. Game Night
by John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein
A cornucopia of incongruous reactions and semiotic humour, of things that should not be! Game Night threatens to rely on the sitcom humour its high-concept set-up would seem to suggest, but its infectious energy, its nocturnal voyage into criminal confidence is a sort of power trip masquerading as comedy. It allows you to laugh at ordinary cinematic ideas (what's more exclusively cinematic than a set-up that's basically a parody of David Fincher's The Game?) while acknowledging that these people (read: the audience) don't belong near them. There are certain things that certain characters shouldn't do. It's a delectable textual navigation for the price of a screamingly funny comedy. 

61. Waiting for the Barbarians
by Eugène Green
Chamber drama a la Brooklyn's forgotten son. Wry, profane and delightfully ahistorical. 

62. Manhunt
by John Woo
John Woo's anniversary tour is as ingratiating as you'd imagine, the old rockstar playing hits with renewed fervor and shiny new instruments. His nerdy enthusiasm for his own best played tropes and devices is palpable and catches. You find yourself screaming for more doves, more jetskis, more, more, MORE! 

63. Isle of Dogs
by Wes Anderson
I have no defense for the accusations of appropriation and I'm not going around begging people to watch this curate's egg in the making. But this is the closest he's come to reckoning with his fascination with craggy, unknowable bastards, the closest he's come to reproducing real sexual tension, the most human he's ever seemed. The animation is beautiful, the music stunning and strange, and Bryan Cranston finally works on film. I'll let everyone else decide whether it should have been made, I'm just glad it did, because I got to sit with my friend Nick Allen after Ebertfest and watch it with a cocktail in my hand, feeling like I'd found my place.

64. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
by Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant always seems to walk about 8 miles out of his way but he always comes back to what he does well. It's years later but there's no denying what this film means in his canon. His first study of the heedless addict's quest for betterment Drugstore Cowboy is almost 30, and Last Days, his look at a rockstar who never pumped the breaks on his own delusion and dependancies is almost 15. It was time to show the outcome it's possible to achieve if you can truly get a hold of yourself, and learn to replace the needs with something else. Recovery is a tough thing to dramatize, it's not quite as the descent into oblivion, but Van Sant made group therapy into jazz music, his expert collection of battle-hardened eccentrics teaching a wily asshole (Joaquin Phoenix, who's had quite a year) that everyone has seen what he's dealing with before. Nothing about him is special, even less reason to find his journey compelling in and of itself. It's to Van Sant's credit that he does find Phoenix's transformation and slow generation of empathy worth caring about and films it in 70s Laurel Canyon magic hour light, like overcoming addiction were like entering a hippie's vision of paradise. Heaven can just be knowing you did your best that day. Phoenix's cohorts (Jack Black, Jonah Hill, Beth Ditto, Kim Gordon, I could go on) are all up to the task of drawing his buried fears and neuroses out to help him deal with what he did to himself. This film is just about the herculean effort of trying to do right by yourself, and it turns out that can be more captivating than the descent that brought you here. 


65. Incident in a Ghostland
by Pascal Laugier
Laugier returns to the US for another tale of lost children. Here he strands young women in a fantasy that they erect rather than handle loss. No film has ever quite been structured like this, where the reveal is waiting before the third act and the resulting push isn't furhter into the unknown, and certainly not with the inky goth aesthetic he's trademarked. This film, like his earlier The Tall Man should be classics for the Ally Sheedys-in-John Hughes-movies of the world if only anyone ever talked about them. 

66. Laplace's Witch & Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable
by Takashi Miike
It wouldn't be a year in film without at least one Miike. The master's pace has slowed for the first time in his life but the benefits of that are interesting considerations I would never have thought to come to him for: dueling close-ups, post-enhanced supertext and fourth wall breaking, and a more melancholy tone. Without my realizing it he seems to have entered his late Coppola phase, sending young people and their older, wiser guides on missions of fantastical mercy. Conspiracies need unraveling and the mightiest among us still need help from mortals and rubes. That's always been Miike's life, incidentally, he just didn't always make movies about it, and the reflection-heavy style into which he's slowly settled since the turn of last decade suits him well. He's now the Jun Kunimura character in Jojo, lifting weights by himself, hoping he can still 'protect the town.' Introspection suits him well. 

67. Unrest
by Phillipe Grandrieux
Grandrieux's latest study of dispossessed bodies overflows with rapturous texture and free motion, a drunken push into erotic projection, dance and unrelated images spying on one another in the edit. Grandrieux's knack for making every image feel like something you're spying on in darkness is perhaps best utilized in his short work where he doesn't need to give his images purpose beyond how they interact with one another. This haunting spell in his id is precisely what French cinema's been exploring and pioneering for a hundred years, if perhaps never with this murky fervor. 


68. The 15:17 To Paris
by Clint Eastwood
Never count an old director out, he might still find ways to shock you. Clint waited a long time to enter his anything-goes experimental phase and now might be done directing for good, but I'm so grateful this period produced Sully and The 15:17 to Paris, twin narratives about average guys whose instincts saved lives. There's something fascinating going on the film's approach to recreations but I haven't quite cracked what makes them so enrapturing. Maybe it's enough that they are. 

69. Disobedience
by Sebastián Lelio
There's something about the going home for a funeral narrative that I can't shake. Something about the wash of nostalgia, the seductive shelter of a familiar home regained, of faces you once knew willing to to put aside all but the most comforting emotional responses to your presence. And so I looked past the too-obvious way that Rachel McAdams married out of convenience despite feeling nothing for her husband, who is plainly far more committed to their religion than she would have any interest in faking for as many years as she has. I overlooked the too-brisk and too-familiar meltdown montage with which Rachel Weisz's character is introduced. I overlooked a dozen other infarctions because when the score swells and these two troubled souls embrace for the first time in decades, this movie gets everything right. Walking through their adolescent fantasy, stopping to breathlessly kiss, knowing someone might catch them, that's why films like this exist. It's perhaps got nothing on the other Rachel Weisz erotic daydream from this year, but this film gets the particulars of wishing for one more minute with someone you love and know intimately exactly right. 

70. Crazy Rich Asians
by Jon M. Chu
A 30s melodrama/musical in one delectably gaudy package. There are a few too-big notes and performances that break the spell of mean-girl drama and actualization, which the film does spectacularly well, but for the most part this is a simple story told well. As in Wolf of Wall Street it's best to remind oneself that the movie knows money isn't the answer to life's problems. And as in Wolf of Wall Street this movie is machine tooled to be a good time. 

71. Unsane 
by Steven Soderbergh
Presumably between rounds of golf, dance lessons on cruise ship decks, and brewery tours, Soderbergh's retirement's been uhhh eventful. Mosaic had already basically redefined the TV movie when Unsane hit theatres, a joyously acidic little pill, whose side effects include nodding one's head as the story's paranoid strands form a coherent shape and the iPhone aesthetics pull their weight. Claire Foy is ideally cast as a brittle professional, the kind who are expected to never complain about sexual harassment or being paid less than their male counterparts. Her forceful personality means it's only a matter of time before she's freed, unless the conspiracy she smells really is true. Soderbergh puts her in alien-seeming frames (courtesy of the bizarre look provided by the phone) to hammer home her dislocation from everyone around her. She trusted no one on the outside, and now, trapped, she has to learn to use people without them sensing they're being used. Soderbergh's female characters don't get enough credit for their expressive inner lives and Foy is no exception. Like Jennifer Lopez's Karen Sisco, Sharon Stone's Olivia Lake, Eve Hewson's Nurse Elkins, Sasha Grey's Christine and Gina Carano's Mallory Kane, Foy's Sawyer Valentini contains multitudes and despite a life-changing adventure, very realistically keeps her nervous, untrustworthy behavior even after everything. Trauma doesn't always make us stronger. 


72. Cruise
by Robert D. Siegel
Siegel returns with another story of small-timers realizing that their dreams aren't only unrealistic but just about gone. His sense of the deep New York milieu is loving and complete, from the debris-strewn sidewalks to the cavernous parking garages and crowded greasy diners, this is a living, breathing time and place, and its non-judgmental look at a class problem between lovers is a snaky, sensuous thing. 

73. Paddington 2
by Paul King
There isn't much to say about this film at this point. Everyone loves it and they're right. The hyperbole is appropriate, the memes have their heart in the right place, the fans are correct. This film is practically weaponized delight, so pure of heart and generous in its very core that you can easily overlook that it's a major studio sequel, an idea that's pure evil. This film was made for rainy days, for kids and sad adults, for everyone and everything, and it makes every old idea in the script feel new. It even earns a beat so potentially devastating it enters Toy Story 3 territory. This is how it's done. 

74. Hotel By The River
by Hong Sang-soo
Hong's very public personal strife (public for an arthouse middleweight, I should say, it's not like he's made the cover of tabloids in the states or anything) seems to have pinioned him to exceedingly personal narratives. Claire's Camera and On The Beach Alone At Night take the side of the women who's life he's affected and The Day After and now Hotel By The River attempt to sort out his unwieldy feelings. An old poet tries to conduct his legacy to whomever's nearby as he senses he might die at any moment, and the odd glint in his eyes says he might try to hasten the process if he can get his affairs in order. Life won't get better than seeing the look in young women's eyes as they're affected by his work. Hong doesn't necessarily buy into the old man's self-mythologizing or self-pity, but you can see him wrestling with just what it is he's meant to feel or supposed to say when it's his voice we hear and not anyone else in his life. It's a hopeful cry into an uncertain void, but it still works. We can't ever determine our legacy by anything but our actions, but for some of us it's too late. We've done what we were going to. It's too late to change. 

75. Between Worlds
by Maria Pulera
Keep your Mandy, I say! This is the bughouse Nicolas Cage movie for me, the midnight movie-in waiting. This is a film that fears nothing, no plot development, no offense, no faux pas, no genre's mile-markers, and it isn't wrapped in self-consciousness, aware of the jokes even as it kills an innocent woman to set a pointless and foregone conclusion of a revenge plot in motion. There are surprises here, too many to count, not least that any film that opens this busily and forcefully can sustain its energy over a runtime longer than 15 minutes. It behaves simply as it pleases, running from psychodrama to melodrama and collapsing in a heap of battered bodies and bruised egos. But more than that and the reason I'll remember this movie years from now is because after watching Nicolas Cage go dour or crazy for the last 8 years of direct-to-video projects and the odd studio picture...Between Worlds lets him laugh like a human being again. Lets him sit and drink and smoke pot and seem like a man actually enjoying himself. That is the Nic Cage I love, and the one I want to remember. 


76. Cold Skin
by Xavier Gens
From the opening Nietzsche quote to the hoards of inhuman barbarians washing up on a beach, we're firmly in John Milius territory. The women are inhuman fish monsters and fundamentally different from the men, the men are violent, short-tempered drunks with one purpose in life: kill. The film's rinse & repeat style of sci-fi action pyrotechnics is very much the purpose of the exercise; a life lived in thrall to violence and warfare is doomed to be a hellacious ouroboros, an unyielding scraping of viscera off one's boots and preparing for the next onslaught. The film is a nifty metaphor for WWI, but works for all time periods. Surrender the need to kill, to be right about your prejudices, and you may find substance, something like joy between sunrise and sunset. Gens' best film to date, a stunningly bent creation. 

77. A Bread Factory
by Patrick Wang
Patrick Wang is an artist who directs like he might drop dead at any minute. Nothing is off limits, nothing is forbidden, no subject is taboo, no stylistic choice too outlandish, and the results are never shy of completely thrilling. What's it like watching a movie in which anything could happen? Characters break into song and dance without warning, the credits transpire over a sad folk song that re-contextualizes snippets of dialogue from the film, characters vanish from the narrative to teach their neighbors (and we in the audience) a much-needed lesson, celebrity guest stars drop in out of the clear blue. It is marvelous lawlessness, like a wild west town, as if the energy of the set bled into the fabric of the film, down to the thrilling courtroom climax of part 1. But when to make of the spellbindingly raw family troubles, the infidelity and in-fighting, the sense of longing for a life easier than the one these people have chosen? A Bread Factory could have easily run another 4 hours without ever losing its engrossing rhythms and anything-goes spirit, because for all of the welcome lunacy, it's rooted in two people who have chosen to grow old together, even if trouble seems to follow them no matter what they do. 

78. Transit
by Christian Petzold
Petzold leaves a direct post-war period and fashions one of his own imagining, a purgatorial hellscape that looks and feels exactly like ours. Go figure. He radically transposes a holocaust narrative into modern dress like he were shifting Shakespeare into the present, trying to wake us up about our hideous policies on immigration. That he locates a reserved love story, a tapestry of tiny betrayals and wandering eyes while he's there is simply because Petzold can't help but find passion in the moments before peril and death, it's in his bones. Transit is one of his most useful romances as well as one of his most pressing social tales because it turns the mistakes we make into apparitions, our romantic regrets like walking ghosts storming in and out of our lives at their leisure. That's how it feels, they can come back at any moment and we'll have no clue but to chase them into the street to see if they were real. They'll always have a little control over us. 

79. Classical Period
by Ted Fendt
The pleasure of hearing a 16mm camera whirring contentedly in the background of conversations about Borges are myriad if you're the biggest dork on Earth. Lucky me, reader, lucky me. Fendt's autumnal celluloid images and poky sound design make the film seem like it might become science fiction at any moment, but of course the mere fact of its existence in the digital age makes it a kind of science fiction artifact itself. Arcane technology to record arcane theory, like a discovery from another era or timeline. 

80. In My Room
by Ulrich Köhler
A film that heroically refuses to make its hero learn from his mistakes. A grim delight that never stops becoming something new and exciting, revealing its design in the most bittersweet manner imaginable, with mere seconds left to learn what men infrequently get to. He can do everything but change. 

81. They Shall Not Grow Old
by Peter Jackson
In which the dead smile for the camera

82. ¡Las Sandinistas!
by Jenny Murray
A damning indictment of revolutionary sexism, corruption and American imperialism. Not even the solution to a country's biggest problem found a way to be inclusive or intersectional. Communism can't work where gendered supremacy is stitched into social hierarchies. Women could have saved an undeserving nation, but men wouldn't let them. 

83. Upgrade
by Leigh Whannell
HAL-9000 comes back as bluetooth and gets to murder people the old fashioned way: with human hands, knives and firearms. Whannell has such old school pre-code fun filming this, landing somewhere between an Astaire Rogers dance-off and a Lionel Atwill horror movie, that I didn't mind that it's the biggest bummer of the year, sub-textually speaking. A total riot, what b-movies are supposed to be. 

84. Ash Is Purest White
by Jia Zhangke
A film that seems to have flown clear out of space, a look at the changing shape of China through its economic development, through the mammoth pieces of land it abandons or destroys, through the gambling that makes the world go around. His heroine can't quit the place that made her, nor the man that did the same and then left her to die. Jia can't either, stuck to his themes, his rhythms, and the places he knows. Dressed like a crime film but unfolding like an arch picaresque, the film starts and ends at the same strange place but everything in between has changed, faded, gone away. 

85. Three Faces
by Jafar Panahi
Jafar Panahi still making movies is one of those things that will always make me happy, like Ryuichi Sakamoto still drawing breath or the polar ice caps refusing to fully melt (yet). This one shows him at ease enough to change genres and modes at every act break, beginning like a mystery, becoming an anthropological study of a town and ending as a portrait of womanhood on the verge of escape. A lovely film about boundaries, communally and self-imposed, and how difficult it can be to break them and/or convince people who can't see them that they're there. 

86. The Captain
by Robert Schwentke
Delirious social parody barreling headlong into the blackest truth about fascism: people are just looking for permission. Once they've got it, what's to stop them? We needed this film in 2018 and we're going to need it for a long time after. 


87. A Very English Scandal
by Stephen Frears
Frears on fire after a decade long nap is a sight to behold, though he's got two of the most cunning lead performances of the year to aid him in unearthing the bodies under parliament. Like a bespoke Fargo, this film shows that even the wealthiest and most educated men on earth act like children when they feel fate start to squeeze them. In between learning which forks go with what meal, no one told Hugh Grant's marvelously decrepit Jeremy Thorpe empathy or caution. 
88. Sol Alegria
by Tavinho Teixeira
Godard, Almodovar and Fassbinder are the three fathers here, gifting a reposed aesthetic of sun-kissed sexual freedom, gleeful sacreligious anti-iconography, and lusty performance to the proceedings. A non-stop parade of just enough "too much."

89. The Glass Note
by Mary Helena Clark
Clark's aural examination, which unfolds with the blissed detachment of a national geographic special, finds connections floating in mid air between sounds, people and places, the neat surfaces she photographs or reproduces a resting place for impossible phenomenon. Her trippy rumination packs a lot of unconscious connection and surprising tenderness into just a few minutes.  

90. Outrage Coda
by Takeshi Kitano
Kitano, like Eastwood, winds down a career staring death in the face with a crooked smile and unbreakable confidence. Outrage Coda, like all of his Outrage movies, tightens a series of nooses on a passel of yakuza jackals and watches everyone try to bargain their way out. His calming mise-en-scène is the best vehicle for his creative bloodshed and misfiring masculine synapses. The cool grey frame a canvas waiting for blood and debris to colour it. 

91. A Gentle Creature
by Sergey Loznitsa 
Kafka's match is met in Loznitsa's dispiriting parade of bleak interiors, dazed victims of bureaucracy, and broken bodies. The 20th century laps itself. 

92. Halloween / Mission: Impossible - Fallout 
by David Gordon Green / Christopher McQuarrie
Unstoppable forces that should by all rights be dead plowing into destiny, through fire and chaos, towards the women by which they're obsessed and the inevitable continuation of their sagas. Resist, if you must, but they'll keep moving. They will never stop. 

93. Outlaw King / Apostle
by David MacKenzie / Gareth Evans
Two strong takes on ancient masculinity looking for a foothold in the wake of bloody violence, each rooted in a different tradition, historically and grammatically. 

94. Thunder Road
Jim Cummings
A deeply effective study of a nervous breakdown, of an aggrieved man who did everything right and has yet to be rewarded. The anger, the seething, bald, uncontainable anger of the white male is drawn out into sunlight, no chivalry to hide behind, no higher power to blame it on. Only honesty can save you, or a series of accidental deaths. Cummings finds an honestly earnest language to deal with his troubling hero, sorting out good intentions from bad impulses and leaving us, wisely, to sort out our feelings for this mess of a man. 

95. Mom and Dad
by Brian Taylor
I'd foolishly assumed that the formal side of Neveldine/Taylor was all Mark Neveldine on his rollerblades, anxiously chasing their black metal avatars into hell. But then Taylor made Mom and Dad and proved me wrong and then some. Taylor was no slouch behind the camera (helped by Daniel Pearl!!! The man who shot The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shooting in digital!) and he had creative energy to burn. Mom and Dad is a non-stop riot, one of the few films that can reasonably lay claim to the throne vacated by the likes of Class of 1984 and Repo Man. Youth and experience finally have it out, and a parasite takes the restraint away from the elderly contingent. Taylor's anarchic sway finds its richest expression watching suburbia implode into cracked skulls and exploding living rooms. 

96. The Inhabitant / The Witch In The Window
by Guillermo Amoedo / Andy Mitton
Ghosts and devils taken out of their crypts and given a modern and post-modern spin respectively. Amoedo's accidental exorcists are punk in appearance yet still battered by age-old questions of faith. Mitton's father and son ghostbusters seem like they can outsmart an ancient evil (its ambitions seem so small after all) but there's a reason these stories are so often told. Evil never changes even if the trappings and costumes do. 


97. The Misandrists
by Bruce LaBruce
LaBruce back in the communes that he so loves after a season away telling May-December romance stories and watching decaying loners look for closure and completion. His winking lesbian chamber piece (which makes The Little Hours look like the prank it is) is awash with his trademark obscura and fury, but does find a productive model for society, even if it pretends it's too hermetic for its own good. So few filmmakers speak LaBruce's language, it's so refreshing to be trapped in his version of a convent with him and his guerrilla familiars. 

98. Winchester
by Michael & Peter Spierig
An uber-elegant haunted house story that does something with the specter of gun violence as the ultimate evil in America. Naturally it took too Australians to say all this and it was laughed off screens but this honest (and beautiful) story rightly reckons that we have done nothing but apologize to ghosts when it comes to our fixation on guns. 

99. Marfa Girl 2
by Larry Clark
If you'd told me that a Larry Clark movie would ever wind up on my list of favourite anythings (it's been over two decades since he last made a movie I like) I'd have scoffed. Well I'm not scoffing now. On a whim I caught up with his Marfa Girl movies and while I wasn't impressed with the usual aimlessly violent self-discovery of the first entry, it was deeply satisfying and altogether comforting to watch people he'd happily objectified have to become full-fledged adults with renewed agency in the sequel. This is what happens when you come back to the scene of the crime, people have to learn how to live, children born of youthful passion have to be raised and cared for, lives that could once be comfortably empty have to be filled with something. And it's the rooting around for that something, for meaning, that makes up the bulk of this gentle and lovely study of a place. If you took the spine out of a Sam Shepherd play, leaving nothing but lost boys and broke girls, you'd have this. 

100. Gemini 
by Aaron Katz
Katz, whose career I've been watching rapt for a decade now, dips another toe in generic waters for another neo-noir, a companion piece to his remarkably fun Cold Weather. Gemini lets the routine post-war crime film's notion of replacement (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) play out in slow motion as a woman discovers herself, her strength, her buried identity, when she has to find the woman who made her bury it all in the first place. Ice cold compositions of red hot passion for the person you might be around the next corner. 

1 comment:

Brian said...

Really great list, Scout. Lots of films to add to my list(s). I thought I was ambitious (or silly) for posting my yearly top 50 on my blog but what the hell -- let's celebrate cinema!

P.S. - Really dig your videos on Ebert site -- especially on Malick and Spike Lee. MZS moved to my neck of the woods awhile ago and I helped organize a screening of A Bread Factory with Patrick Wang and Matt served as the moderator. It was like a cinephile dream come true :)