If you are a cinephile a yearly top 10 list is a labor of love you spend a lot of time mulling over. Oscar buzz, critical hype, and Rotten Tomatoes is a guideline but can also fool you into thinking what you ought to love. If a story moves me emotionally, grabs my attention in some way, or reveals a topic from a new perspective, then that is the deciding factor regardless of awards. Cinema is a visual medium so the presentation matters, be it performances, cinematography, editing, etc. I’m open to any kind of film as long as it’s impactful. Sometimes genre films, if done well, can be equally as good as art house, feature documentaries or award contenders. I typically include films in my top 10s which stay with me or I have a personal connection to. Reading the choices below, you’ll notice only two films (Minding the Gap & First Reformed) are oscar nominated. I wasn’t trying to do that but just happened to pan out that way! I really liked some of the Best Picture nominees from 2017 such as Three Billboards, Phantom Thread, and Dunkirk but not to the same degree from 2018. Without further ado, what is in my top 10?
Lykke Per (aka A Fortunate Man) (Bille August)
Period drama. One of three films shortlisted to be the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards. Among the most expensive films ever made in Denmark. Definitely a career high point for director Bille August, his filmography also counts the oscar winning Pelle the Conqueror (1987), which is not too dissimilar as both are based on Scandinavian literary classics set in the early 1900s.
While the main character is unlikeable, I was captivated throughout despite an epic running time. Based on Nobel Prize winning author Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke-Per, a long book so I can understand why needed to be 2h 42 min. To be honest, I could happily have watched another 30 minutes. A story about ambition, family, and life choices. A lot of care has been put into recreating the past with costumes, sets, but the acting impresses just as much. For me, one of the truly great films of 2018 which hopefully will get an international release at some point.
Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
Coming of age drama. Wasn’t easy trying to watch this movie. Not shown in cinemas near me, but thanks to the region 1 dvd release I managed to watch. I’m glad I did as it’s among the best American films of 2018.
With the buzz surrounding Boyhood (2014) a few years ago, a film I loved, we were bound to get stories from the female angle as well. Girlhood (2014) showed us a pivotal time for an adolescent girl gang in the housing projects in Paris, France. The characters did unlikeable things and the film is better off for it.
Eighth Grade takes place in the US and focuses on an insecure girl, on the verge of high school, struggling to make friends. As with Girlhood, I admire the filmmakers for keeping it real and honest. Elsie Fisher is in almost every frame and delivers a brilliant, award worthy performance as the awkward teen, she is easy to root for, and arguably her acting is better than what Ellar Coltrane did in Boyhood.
I find many Sundance Film Festival movies don’t live up to the hype but Eighth Grade is one of those where the critical praise is on point. While the story does have a very contemporary, social media approach which may cause the film to become dated over time, it’s also a moving, relatable drama which takes you back to those difficult teenage years, whatever age the viewer is. Like John Hughes in the 1980s, director Bo Burnham understands his characters and what they are going through.
Væbnet med ord & vinger (documentary) (Torben Skjødt Jensen)
A Danish documentary about 80s punk poet Michael Strunge which probably won’t appear on many top 10s. To my knowledge, his writing is hard to find in English despite a reputation as one of Denmark’s most important poets. The accessible documentary tells his story, featuring new interviews by friends and girlfriends, and inspired me to start reading the author’s work. Strunge burnt the candle at both ends, cementing his legacy, but paid the ultimate price.
Burning (2018) (Lee Chang-dong)
South Korean psychological drama mystery. The dialogue scenes between the three main characters are effective. When following the lead by himself (another character goes on a trip) the story loses its way a bit.
The final 45 minutes are riveting (even when he is alone) as there is more at stake. A film that lingers in the mind because the viewer is not given the full facts and the narrator might be unreliable. There’s political subtext about high unemployment and the uselessness of South Korea’s youth. A good mystery with some Murakami-isms. Could have been 30 minutes shorter.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Action/Spy film. Better than Rogue Nation which I barely remember except the plane and underwater sequences.
A great thrill ride with non-stop suspense for 2½ hours, the most exciting movie I’ve seen in a cinema since Mad Max Fury Road. Won’t change your life but very entertaining and cinematic. The action in Fallout is Bond-like. I’m a fan of less CGI and and there are plenty of practical stunts. The only aspect I disliked is the opening credits sequence which is a mini-trailer for what is to come.
TIE: Minding the Gap (documentary) (Bing Liu) & Mid90s (Jonah Hill)
A big year for skateboarding on film and I haven’t even seen Skate Kitchen (2018) yet!
Minding the Gap (documentary)
Winner of the 2018 Sundance Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Filmmaking. Nominated for an Academy Award for feature documentary. Advertised as a skateboarding documentary but really that is misleading as it’s closer to the Up Series but with a subjective angle. Drawing from 12 years of footage and interviews, large parts of the running time depicts relationships, problems, work, and home life for a group of young, poor Americans from Rockford, Illinois. Flashbacks to their teenage years yet mostly about them as 20somethings dealing with responsibility and childhood traumas. The participants bravely give a lot of themselves. Took me a little while to get into it as I wasn’t sure I was interested at first. Particularly memorable is troubled Zack Mulligan and his issues with drinking, having a baby and a young wife. The other main thread involves the likeable black guy Keire Johnson whose smile I will never forget. Interestingly, the director is also part of the narrative, the participants are his friends which adds an extra dimension of intimacy and urgency as he is on record saying he felt the need to tell the story of his community. Bing Liu describes Minding the Gap as “A coming of age story. A film about skateboarders, not about skateboarding”. Although what Liu presents never feels exploitative as he seeks to tell the truth. The skateboarding friends are sort of a family away from home. Nathan Halpern and Chris Ruggiero provide the score which is quite moving, especially the main theme. The people we follow lingered in my mind long after the credits had rolled.
Didn’t receive a cinema release in my country which is a shame. Now available on region 1 dvd. Strong language and some clichés, but the story feels personal and believable. To me, a sibling to Eighth Grade (2018), as both main characters are 13-year-olds. Each are coming of age dramas, yet Mid90s is pretty different as there is no social media and it’s more gritty, the boy hanging out with an older group of skateboarders in the streets of Los Angeles. Reminds me of other movies from the 90s without resorting to rip-off. The characters are distinct, the camaraderie is special, and I began to gradually care about them. Could happily have watched another half hour (or a sequel) as the film is quite short at just 84 minutes. A better than average directorial debut by actor Jonah Hill. Nice score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. The soundtrack also includes a selection of 90s music. There’s a tendency nowadays for filmmakers to try too hard and over-complicate their work, resulting in tonally inconsistent films, but Hill wisely keeps things simple.
Quote: ”You are nicer than those guys. You are naturally nice. Not like fake nice”
Shirkers (documentary) (Sandi Tan)
Autobiographical documentary available on Netflix. Has a 100% (58 of 58 critics liked it) score on Rotten Tomatoes. I was hooked and if you like a good story this is worth watching. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and the type of film I wanted to read everything I could find to uncover more. Would appeal to cinephiles and filmmakers especially.
A cathartic documentary for Tan to come to terms with her past. She has been criticized by some reviewers for having an inflated opinion about the importance of the unreleased Singapore film. I wouldn’t go that far as I think of her attachment to the film as sentimental as who wouldn’t look back and hope what you did mattered. Wouldn’t be a stretch to accuse her of self-mythologizing and somewhere that is what the documentary is about, as her friend George tended to be that way. Tan is fascinated by George despite what he did and I sense enjoys creating her own legacy in the way that he did.
From the description given, the lost 16mm film is a dream-like and child-like mood piece, about random encounters, big dogs, and killing off those people you develop feelings for. Visually documenting places in Singapore that have changed over the years. The makers have an affection for Shirkers that we could never have. A very subjective, personal reminiscence that shapes how the documentary is presented.
The story of filmmaker Sandi Tan’s real life, friendships, and struggle to get her film made interested me more than the actual lost footage. Experimental independent filmmaking was rare in Singapore in 1992 and hard to be inspired by edgy US movies such as Blue Velvet due to a ban. Sad that the experience in the early 90s killed her creative spirit (or is that statement self-mythologizing?) though she did maintain an interest in cinema. Quote: ”It was so like George that he would want me to chase him down in this way”
Oh Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi)
Culture-clash drama-comedy. According to the critics, films like Leave No Trace, The Rider, and You Were Never Really Here are among the best female directed films of 2018. Oddly, I didn’t connect with any of those three. Oh Lucy!, also directed by a woman, is not as well-known yet to me a stronger effort. I had a smile on my face for most of the movie. A very sweet, charming story with characters I cared about while not shying away from family disputes, loneliness and vulnerability. Wonderful performances. Despite a 100% (46 of 46) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an American-Japanese production that somehow slipped under the radar. Check this out if you are a fan of Lost in Translation. Released at festivals in 2017 with a general release in 2018.
Beast (Michael Pearce)
Psychological mystery thriller. Discovered thanks to Dan’s top 10 British films of 2018. This UK film does several things well. Firstly by capturing the scenery of Jersey which is a place that doesn’t get enough attention. Secondly, the story cleverly presents a family as both protective yet oppressive, both loving and exasperating. Also a compelling mystery that keeps you on edge as you never quite know who to trust. The poster labels the movie “a warped fairy tale” although a bit misleading as it is realistic. The criticism I’ve read is the story lacks “wildness” but I wasn’t bothered by that as I think if went too far the realism would evaporate. The performances really impressed me. A film that can be spoiled so I suggest you avoid reading too much beforehand. Was shown at film festivals in 2017 with a cinema/dvd release in 2018.
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
2018 was a noteworthy year for directorial debuts which I’ll elaborate on in my upcoming 2018 awards post. Hereditary is a gripping, confident horror that held my attention throughout. The excellent music score by Colin Stetson adds a sense of unease and the performances by especially Toni Collette and Ann Dowd are above average for a horror movie. The weakness is it feels a bit derivative, sort of a patchwork of other films from the genre. You don’t want to read reviews as plot points can be easily spoiled.
The House That Jack Built (2018) (Lars von Trier)
Serial killer horror-comedy. I saw the unrated “director’s cut” version. Love him or hate him, Lars von Trier keeps going. Has a few things in common with his 2013 film Nymphomaniac, in terms of shocks and the lead in a lengthy dialogue with another character. Takes you inside the mind of psychopathic killer Jack, played by Matt Dillon in his best role in years. The story is entertaining but uncomfortable and one of the most disturbing scenes to me could be when the blonde talks to the cop. It’s possible the film is a response to the controversial Melancholia press conference at Cannes in 2011, by reinforcing that Lars von Trier is interested in when art clashes with evil. The writer/director has a pitch-black, easily misunderstood wit, evident in the hilarious OCD cleaning sequence, or Uma Thurman’s “you look like a serial killer” conversation with Jack in the van. A black comedy even if it really shouldn’t be a laughing matter.
Serial killers (like filmmakers) display their creativity through their acts, and the film has unforgettable visuals. Addresses the audiences enjoyment with horror and puts the viewer in horrific situations so we can try and understand the thinking of even the most evil minds. Divisive, daring cinema, as you’d expect from the Danish auteur. As with the director’s other horror Antichrist (2009), excluding viewers with its unpleasantness.
The Guilty (Gustav Möller)
Danish thriller that won the Audience Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Takes place in a single location, at a police call center. Manages to build suspense, and captures the stress the alarm dispatch duty can involve. My only gripe is would a police officer under suspicion of misconduct still be on duty? A good movie despite this issue I had.
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
A wordy, low-key, thinking person’s drama. Best viewed with subtitles. About a priest who writes a diary and we hear his inner monologue. He has doubts about himself and his actions, questioning his professionalism. Uncomfortableness about “wanting to be liked”, drawing on his own personal life when helping a man in trouble. For those couples considering having a child, the film may provide the answers they need to make the decision.
The film has a weaker middle, but the beginning and ending are really well done, especially the extended conversation between Mary’s husband, Michael, and the priest Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). Life is taking its toll on Toller in more ways than one, and the film shows that even a righteous, intelligent priest can lose sight of what is right and wrong. As another reviewer wrote: “He’s a good man who has lost his way”
While the story addresses contemporary issues, and features a great performance by Ethan Hawke, the screenplay does at times feel like an updated version of Taxi Driver for today’s audiences, just with a new set of characters. Isn’t in my top 10 as I had to watch in spurts. Too heavy to sit through the entire thing in one sitting. Hopefully will grow on me on rewatch.
Searching (Aneesh Chaganty)
A tense, suspenseful thriller about a father’s search for his lost daughter. At about the 85 minute mark started becoming less plausible. Still, I couldn’t look away, and needed to know what happened.
Searching belongs to the new so-called “screen life” genre (see also the new music video by Pet Shop Boys), in which the audience sees what happens via a screen. What works well is we witness the main character David Kim painstakingly look for clues in his daughter’s files and online activity, while typing and retyping text on screen, taking us inside the mind of a caring and worried father. The film is very detailed in that regard. Some might argue he oversteps the line in terms of Margot’s right to privacy yet it’s an emergency so no stone can be left unturned.
What do you think? As always, comments are welcome. I hope I inspired you to add a film to your watchlist. Next, I’ll share my personal 2018 film awards.