Dante's Top Ten of 2018
In a year full of things going wrong, let us celebrate those films which go right, those that fulfill their individuals promises. Some of those below are thrilling, some searing, all are excellent. This list puts weight on entertainment capital, so those films that flexed their muscle, whether stylistically, formally, or through their performance or writing, are all rewarded. In a personally tumultuous year cinema was what I gripped to most for relief. It was the thread that bound my year together. As my list shows, this was a year for experiencing a thrill at the theater, I was interested in tapping into something that would remove me from my doldrums. These films by no means aim to do the same things but are united by their ability to do things well. It’s a proper top 10 for an improper year, here’s looking forward to this next already.
10. Upgrade (Leigh Whannell, 2018)
There is a time of night that calls for a certain kind of movie; when the hour is late the more ridiculous a picture the better. A blast of violent action and absurdity, Upgrade is the ultimate midnight movie on the year: pulpy and accessible. Leigh Whannell wrote and directed this sci-fi action gory romp, whose sleek look and production quality well exceed its small budget. While certainly not a singular film, it admirably celebrates its influences and does enough to stand on its own within the genre, making for one of the more enjoyable rides of the year. Upgrade lives up to its name, elevating itself above the action fodder on the year.
The film achieves a dark yet humorous tone following Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace, a regular old fashioned man living in a new world who loses his wife and his bodily function to a vicious beating. He is then approached by a manipulative scientist with an advanced technology, STEM, which restores his ability to walk and move and a whole lot more. With newfound capabilities, Grey and STEM embark on a revenge tour of his wife’s murderers and it is a gory one. Whannell is inventive with his use of the camera in action sequences as it moves exactly in step with what is going on. Upgrade is more concerned with the spectacle than the substance, but it manages to hit on so many good notes that it can scarcely be faulted.
When the sun is well past gone in the sky and you and your friends are looking for pound for pound entertainment value, look no further than one of the stronger late night movies in a long time.
9. Wild Nights With Emily (Madeleine Olnek, 2018)
Wild Nights with Emily deserved to be seen by a wider audience. Not only does director Madeleine Olnek amend the story of Emily Dickinson, she crafts a humorous, light yet moving piece of poetic cinema. An intellectual comedy replete with clever witticisms, smart pacing, and effective genre subversions.
“Forever is composed of nows” said Dickinson, and this film is composed of passion. It is a sharp film, thoroughly researched and written to the gills by Olnek, that moves delicately and swiftly through the life of Emily Dickinson played by an ever charming Molly Shannon. Shannon’s Emily is bright and full of life, and her steamy affair with her lover Susan, played by Susan Ziegler, is a secret romance by turns humorous and sentimental. It is an engaging love affair that makes excellent use of its actors’ talents and chemistry.
The film also dips into deeply poetic moments that resemble art-house turns. These passages are affecting and Dickinson’s poetry as accompaniment make for sincere scenes that really do well to capture the underlying melancholy to Dickinson and her covert relationship with Susan. It is a comedy willing to take risks as much as it’s willing to deliver the jokes, and is truly worthwhile.
8. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
As open as the field is in the genre of science fiction, the universe should be as endless as our imagination, but much of the cinematic landscape of the genre feels familiar, often built upon previous works and franchises. Alex Garland’s interpretation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel,Annihilation however, is one that reaches for rare heights of imagination, and is a collision of theology, violence, color, and mystery.
At the heart of the film is the Shimmer, a strange ecological phenomenon with a voracious appetite for everything in front of it, that is the focus and destination of the all-female crew of scientists each grappling with their own demons. Instead of artificial intelligence, which was the topic of Garland’s 2014 Ex Machina, the thrust of this film is even more complex, concerning the idea of the self. It is an ambitious science, figuring out the self, and Natalie Portman & Co struggle accordingly within the Shimmer.
It is a strange, different film that reaches and often hits its mark. The last act of the film is especially bold and nuanced, and bears repeat viewings, further differentiating this film in the universe of science-fiction. The more films make us ask thoughtful questions like Annihilationdoes, the better.
7. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)
Sometimes we must have fun. Bradley Cooper’s calculated directorial debut A Star is Born is a solution -- bridling with energy and tension, a wild stallion on the Hollywood range. This movie is about performance and spectacle, however, despite being steeped in history and movie star glamor it is a very human affair, relatable and impassioned. For a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga that feels like an accomplishment.
The film is a story of electricity, the lightning rod that we feel when we connect deeply with someone or something. The story concerns Cooper’s Jackson Maine and Gaga’s Ally who collide first in a stunning sequence where Ally sings “La Vie en Rose” at a drag bar, the camera hovering softly following her and Jackson’s eyes on one another, and then races into their relationship and their music. There is so much charisma to their characters, they are impossibly endearing even in face of all their faults.
The camera venerates the two of them, following them closely and tenderly, but again, both Jackson and Ally resonate as human characters with human problems, and are subsequently a reminder of how to have human fun, together.
6. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018)
The equivalent of a still beating human heart on the table, You Were Never Really Here is a searing investigation of trauma, loss and how we cope with them. Director Lynne Ramsey delivers a visceral thriller that equally considers violence and pain, is visually sharp, and carefully constructed. Simply hypnotic.
The film follows Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a beast of a man who finds missing people for a living. He is unafraid of violence, he seems steeped in it, in fact, and when pressed can be brutal. He is hired to hunt down a politician’s missing daughter, and he then descends into a diseased world of corruption and sexual exploitation upon which things spiral out of control. There is an incredible Jonny Greenwood soundtrack that is at times discordant and
abrasive, others melodic and tranquil, reflecting the duality of Joe. It is a supreme example of a soundtrack benefitting the journey of a film.
Ramsey gives us something fantastically dark here, gives us something undeniably vulnerable. A film that is unsettling and demands rewatching.
5. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (BOB PERSICHETTI, PETER RAMSEY, & RODNEY ROTHMAN, 2018)
Okay, let’s do this one more time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse is one of most impressive movies of the year. Visually rich and layered, the look of the film is bright and ambitious, then the writing is intelligent, self-aware and self-referential, weaving in clever lines and easter eggs, making for one complete picture.
The film follows teen Miles Morales, voiced by Shameik Moore, as he faces the trials of growing up and trying to save the world when he gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Where things really get interesting is when five other dimensions’ Spider-Mans arrive and they must work together to save all their worlds. The plot is nuanced and resonates emotionally, loaded with reference yet comprehensible, more though the film shines in its strength of characters. They are written fully, humorous and unique. Then the film amplifies the whole thing by being a visual marvel, a furious collage of styles that blurs does the best job yet of a film translating imagination to screen.
This film is gigantic, a wonderful reinvigorating update to both the superhero genre and animation styling. It should move anyone of any age. A splendid accomplishment.
4. Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)
Ari Aster’s Hereditary is one of the most severe films of the year. It is downright harrowing experience that bends and manipulates the audience’s emotions with tongue clicks, possession, and familial love. Watch out.
Aster was obviously very fastidious in constructing this film; it is a taunt descent into depravity characterized by unsettling noises and disturbances, off-beat dialogue and characters. An unshakeable human element underlies the horror, giving it even sharper teeth. The first half of the film is especially powerful because of this last point, there is a terrible dread and unease that permeate which is built almost entirely on the back of its characters struggling with one another as a family unit. Terror is paramount to the second half, whereas grief and pain are most prominent in the first half. The entire film is full of uncomfortable dramatic beats, but the first half forces the viewer to sit with those beats for longer, further heightening the tension till the explosion of the second half.
This feels as much a family drama as it does a horror film, and that is where this film has its legs. The scares in this are supreme but the most tempestuous moments are watching the family fall apart.
3. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)
First Reformed searches for meaning and purpose in light of grave predicaments: fatal illness, climate change, suicide and extremism. Director Paul Schrader creates a world devoid of hope;the film’s imagery is austere, tightly cropped and drained of color. It bristles and crackles, it is one of the year’s most compelling dramas.
Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller of First Reformed Church in New York state. Challenged by his faith, his health and the task of counseling an inconsolable man, Toller embarks on a spiritual quest for meaning. Hawke plays the role with conviction, complicated despair etched into the landscape of his face. Anguish is beautifully rendered through a dense screenplay, punctuated by serious and severe narration, Toller’s own journaling, and through cinematography that borrows from the transcendental tradition, lingering on themes and visuals. It is all wonderfully bleak.
The first shot is a low, deliberate approach up to the titular church, the sky is cast in heavy grey and the white church just barely shines through. The pace from there accelerates, before the taut narrative explodes at its emotional zenith, a truly harrowing end sequence that provides a coda to one of the most ambitious films of the year.
2. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout is a real life action film in an age of hyper fictionalized action. Instead of worrying about the universe we get to worry about just the world, and that is a big distinction in building the world of Fallout, as it creates a challenge that has stakes. Tom Cruise is his usual Ethan Hunt self and works his tail off for our entertainment, and hey, mission accomplished.
This is a bonafide blockbuster action event that succeeds in its ever daring, incredible stunts, its emotional maturity, and its proficient directing. The sixth installment in the Mission Impossible franchise strides forth with enviable confidence, director Christopher McQuarrie along with Tom Cruise gather and lead the ensemble cast to action glory with a tight script, light
on the humor and heavy on the human, that takes them around the world and has us care about who these people are and wherever they are on the globe. It really is the writing and editing of this film that made all of this work, so that while all of Hunt & Co’s exploits are phenomenally designed and executed, such as the HALO jump where Hunt at the end of a dramatic long-take soars out an airplane filmed with an IMAX camera, it never feels like the movie was built around these stunts. Instead it is fully furnished world that makes effective decisions with its cast, pacing, and plot. A true event and one of the most rewatchable films of the year.
1. The Rider (Chloé Zhao, 2018)
Perhaps the most tender western of all time, The Rider is this critic’s favorite film of the year. Director Chloe Zhao’s film is a somber look at passion and purpose in the lives of young South Dakota bull riders. It’s that specific, it’s that personal. It is a mesmerizing feat of filmmaking.
The Rider stars a cast of local non-actors, and Zhao captures the interaction between the land and her characters with documentarian sensibilities. The camera is fluid, moving languidly around its subjects, tracing their steps closely. The film follows Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn, who suffers head trauma and is forced to quit riding, thus prompting a search for new meaning and new purpose. Blackburn is not alone, there are other disabled cowboys, like his best friend Lane Scott who is now paralyzed, who so too must reckon with identity and the disconnect between the desire to do something and the inability to do it. Zhao finds this in compelling moments such as Blackburn breaking in a horse, a spectacular sequence emotionally, as it sees him be able to live his passion, and cinematically, the camera floating softly paired with quick edits makes for a dreamy sequence. Then there are truly majestic scenes of Blackburn riding in the South Dakota Badlands that radiate with warmth and spirit because Zhao has so elegantly shown that riding is his dream.
A poignant look at the struggles and triumphs of a quieter America, The Rider is not to be missed. Filmed compassionately and with a great sense of place, what emerges is cinematic poetry.