WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
We had an atypical year for the movies.
Besides Black Panther, a phenomenon which fit the critical acclaim-box office megahit venn diagram, most Hollywood heavyweights fell flat, among them First Man, Aquaman, Ready Player One, Venom, Vice, to name a few. Instead, this last year proved strong for the smaller, independent markets; intimate character studies and audience heartwarmers usually won out over typical blockbuster fare (compare A Star is Born’s domestic $400 million intake to Solo: A Star Wars Story’s $390 million, for instance). The notion of art-house, niche films winning mass public affection may not be a coming trend (or they wouldn’t be niche), but for every Marvel, Pixar, or even the outstanding seventh Mission: Impossible (which finds its way on this list), there were an equal amount of smaller, less noticeable movies, which through their audacity and craft proved their voices were loud as any.
The Ten Best Films of 2018:
Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Burning falls on a key principle that its director, South Korean master Lee Chang-dong, often employs: patience. Though boasting a runtime in the 150-minute range, the quiet thriller waits on action or major plot points, instead choosing to focus on its characters for much of the film. Among these characters is the lead, Yoo Ah-in, in an illustrious career performance. The film’s pace lets us soak into the movie as it slowly becomes our atmosphere, before the harrowing third act, which leaves you no room to breathe. This one won’t leave your mind.
The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
An impeccable comedy from first frame to last, The Death of Stalin oftentimes looks at power, and the insane drive of the elite to receive more of it — though unfortunately for the citizens of the Soviet Union in 1953, the elite are all incompetent buffoons. If a mock-historical period piece in Russia doesn’t appeal to you, maybe Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor leading a “unanimous” vote wherein everyone half-wanders their hands like nervous grade-schoolers will convince you.
First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
Faith is nothing new in movies, but rarely is it depicted this well. Paul Schrader, a legendary filmmaker and critic of the 1970s movie brat area, delivers wholly on his decades-long commitment to serving cinematic chills and goosebumps, only this time it comes not on the streets of Manhattan at dusk, or in feudal Japan, but instead a reformed church in New England. Ethan Hawke as the Rev. Toller gives the year’s most-accoladed performance and his character’s self-reflection drives one of the most soulful narratives of any film on religion and faith, what drives those things, and why we so often look to them for guidance.
Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
Hereditary is the most horrifying film in years. If you’re an easy scare, turn away quickly because there’s no hope for you in this dark, uneasy universe. What makes this film so unique is its absolution of grief and dread; in most horror movies, we get “breather” scenes, filler of dialogue or lightweight conversation to both keep the audience engaged but provide them a chance to relax for a moment. Director Ari Aster doesn’t agree with this style, instead choosing to shoot his movie away from the Hollywood sets and glamour and uproot the cast to a remote area of Utah to build the set from scratch and tear it down once filming wrapped. It’s an ingenious choice, one that ensures us general discomfort and terror even when we don’t see smiling shadows in dark corners or watch the use of bird heads as arts-and-crafts (*this movie is insane and this entire paragraph is a warning*).
If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Barry Jenkins, though making only three features in an eleven year span, is proving himself to be a truly masterful storyteller. I’m not sure any living filmmaker, especially in American film, captures the fleeting moments that make us human better than him. In Beale Street, a movie so full of heart that it seems it’s been playing in the background of your mind your whole life, Jenkins truly reveals his evocative skills. His films make the intangible expressions and feelings of his characters vivid onscreen, a gift that provides a deep pulse to a darker, grittier surface.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Is this the end of action movies? Watching M:I — Fallout for the first time in a glorious IMAX setting, you might have to ponder the question. Tom Cruise (who is ageless as ever as he jumps from planes and scales mountain walls) and Chris McQuarrie put it all on the table for this seventh film, making it easily the best sixth-sequel in film history -- unless, that is, the serial films of the 1920s suddenly feature Ethan Hunt being chased through the city of light on a motorbike, but that’s unlikely. You thought Mad Max: Fury Road was full-throttle? That’s cute. Twenty minutes into this one, around the time Cruise and Henry Cavill lead a visceral fistfight in a Parisian nightclub bathroom, you’ll probably change your mind.
Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Academy award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón has one of the great oeuvres of American film in recent years (ranging from the third Harry Potter movie to the space thriller Gravity), but in the personal and wounding Roma, the filmmaker crafts a recollection of growing up in Mexico City as a child. What he brings to the film is an incredible sensitivity to the locale and to the protagonist, a domestic worker played by the stunning Yalitza Aparicio. Roma is available on Netflix, but I implore you to see it on the big screen, where the skies are twice as gleaming and the heartbreak is twice as impactful.
Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
This movie is just insane. It just is. There’s really few other ways to prepare a viewer for the visionary sci-fi/comedy Sorry to Bother You, besides maybe a brief hallucination complete with proto-centaurs, capitalist commentary and razor-sharp ingenuity. It’s a ride from start to finish, and the hip-hop figure Boots Riley, at forty-seven years young, writes and directs his debut with a little bit of knowledge of traditional film “rules”—but a lot of dismissal of them as well, a welcome sight for one of the year’s best screenplays.
24 Frames (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
The posthumous work from an artist who died on July 4th two years ago, 24 Frames is a loving ode to the simple aspect of movies: pictures moving rapidly and continuously, at 24 frames per second. Kiarostami chooses twenty-four photos he has taken over the years, and uses effects to interpret the moments before and after the shot was taken. The result is a surprisingly moving and pure love letter to an art form by an artist whose work made him one of the great icons of his time.
You Were Never Really Here (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
Joaquin Phoenix stars in possibly the most polarizing film on this list, a thriller-noir hybrid that descends from the New York streets down to hell and back. Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman whose paranoid tendencies and unchecked aggression leave him often as wounded as those he’s hired to take out. When a series of events leave him confused and suspicious, he enters a realm of the worst a city has to offer. Director Lynne Ramsay photographs the metropolis underbelly better than nearly anyone, and the visceral, nail-biting climax directs the viewer to one of the most shocking moments in recent movie history.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.