Megan's Top Ten of 2018
As the year ends and I meditate on the sheer amount of film I consumed, I have come to my final decisions for the best of the year. I realize I have a very unconventional top ten, but I believe each film on this list has earned its place for a variety of reasons. Those merits include, but are not limited to, their ability to push the boundaries of genre, critically engage with hegemonic society, design a rewarding escapist fantasy, or implement an aesthetics that redefines the art form. I am thrilled with how many works by and about women, queer folks, people of color (and those at intersections of these identities and others) garnered attention from critics and audiences alike. It was tough to simply give these films a numerical order, because of the variety of emotion they evoked and how much they differed in form. I also feel guilty for each that just barely missed my top ten, because there are dozens that came quite close. Ultimately, these are the films that I feel are essential to this year and that I fell in love with.
10. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls is a look at the everyday lives of women who find joy in their togetherness. Regina Hall is the warm emotional heartbeat of the film, as the manager of a Hooters-esque sports bar trying to hold together her family of employees. She is breathing proof that being kind and compassionate isn’t a weakness but a strength. Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle are equally as loveable and genuine, and you will find yourself rooting for them to make it through a tumultuous work day that goes from bad to worse. They truly function as a family, taking care of each other when the world hangs them out to dry. The film thrives as a comedy that knows that these waitresses aren’t the butt of the joke, that it’s the system using the female body to sell chicken wings and beer that’s ridiculous. Bujalski’s characters are fed up with capitalism and misogynistic double standards, but their rebellion is full of optimism and self-assuredness. Rarely do we get such a sweet look at contemporary working-class folks with such a pitch-perfect sense of humor.
9. Widows (Steve McQueen)
Steve McQueen’s follow up film to 12 Years a Slave; Widows is a unique thriller with an ensemble cast overflowing with talent. Highlights include Viola Davis, Brian Tyree Henry, Colin Farrell, and an especially chilling Daniel Kaluuya. McQueen brings some nuanced themes and a multitude of plot lines into his first genre film, to a point where it almost felt like it could only have existed as a 6-part hit miniseries in the hands of a less skilled director. It uses linear time very differently than other heist films, giving far more attention to the interlocking characters than their crimes. Widows is dense with political conflict that ultimately boils down to ideas of gender, race, and class. McQueen’s thesis can be identified from a single long shot that literally shows the distinctly different sides of a Chicago ward at play (you’ll know it when you see it). It explores the insidious nature of men hungry for power that feels very real and palpable to this year. The film also uses to its advantage the idea that society will define women by the men in their lives, and assume they are less capable or morally gray. These ladies don’t buy that.
8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman)
Several years ago, Miles Morales was written off by Marvel as a temporary series that would never find an audience. Now he is proof that people do care about seeing figures who look and act like them in movies, and that those movies can be wildly successful. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is, without doubt or competition, the best animated film of the year. In fact, it is so bold and new that it raises the concern that the acclaimed Pixar might be more stagnant in its production that we realized. The characters in this multiverse come in every shape, size, and color, inspired by comics of all genres. What could have been as clunky and overcrowded as a phase three Marvel movie somehow finds an appealing universal aesthetic. In addition to being incredible art, it’s an all-around powerful film with a clear cut purpose. I was floored by how the extremely played-out superhero origin story was refreshed by directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Spider-Verse operates with a layer of meta that rewards comic lovers and efficiently brings new fans up to date on the various Spider-folks. It’s one I will be watching again and again.
7. Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Madeleine Parry & Jon Olb)
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette is admittedly an odd choice for a Top Ten film list, but carries more weight and significance than many of the narrative films released in 2018. Gadsby decides to quit the comedy that either turned her trauma and identity into a punch line, or erased it altogether. She eloquently lacerates the people in the world who use their power and privilege to abuse women. Nanette is essential viewing for understanding the meaning of #MeToo and the kind of world women and queer people face every single day. Gadsby speaks with a fury that refuses to be silenced. It’s time to listen to her, and I don’t care if it makes you uncomfortable.
6. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
As keyed into the political crises and constant threats to human rights as I was this year, Mission Impossible: Fallout was a necessary 2.5 hours of escape. Director Christopher McQuarrie has attained the blockbuster sublime, as he somehow sustains tension over the snappy 148 minutes as each monumental set piece tops the previous. His sound design, very minimal CGI, and editing all work to reinforce how spectacular the stunts and characters are. Before viewing this sixth installment to the Mission Impossible franchise, I thought I would be ecstatic to see Tom Cruise put his days of self-endangerment behind him to focus on character-driven acting. After Fallout, I now know the two are not mutually exclusive. In his return as Ethan Hunt, I was not expecting such an honesty and vulnerability as Cruise managed to deliver. As an overall production, it brims with heart and a plot that didn’t even need to be as airtight as it is. It’s a beautiful catharsis to have your cynicism be torn away like a rubber mask and be fully enthralled by the highest quality of action film. Poetry in motion.
And if it wasn’t already endearing enough, Cruise and McQuarrie’s TV motion smoothing PSA is a godsend in its own right.
5. The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
The Rider is Chinese director Chloé Zhao’s sophomore feature. With a limited release I almost missed it, which would have been a grave mistake. Brady Jandreau, a Lakota Sioux cowboy, plays himself in the aftermath of his own traumatic brain injury that suddenly barred him from rodeo, the thing he loved most. He is surrounded by his actual family and friends as fictional versions of themselves, who live so naturally on screen it is as if there is no camera in front of them. Brady is stoic in the presence of other people, and it is in the tender, simple sequences of him taming horses that the audience understands exactly who he is. Zhao gently but very purposefully studies Brady’s masculinity and his sense of duty to his family as he struggles to let go of his dreams. She also is careful never to play too much with symbolism or melodrama, keeping the narrative grounded and accessible. The Rider is able to avoid pigeonholing or pitying Native lives, which is the grim legacy of the cinema of the American West. Instead it is contemplative and proud of its identity. Zhao and Jandreau stole my heart away and wrung out more emotion than I thought possible.
4. Roma (Alfonso Cuaròn)
Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma eschews constructed plot to rather depict a year in the life story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a maid and nanny to a bourgeois family on the brink of collapse. It is a semi-biopic remembering the woman who raised him, having left her village amidst civil unrest in 70s Mexico. Cuaròn understands the crushing weight of being a woman who can only rely on herself to survive and find happiness. It is not a simple narrative caught up with finding a feel-good ending, it is about seeing an indigenous Mexican woman as a human, with all her challenges and complicated relationships. Aparicio, in her first feature film, captures more emotional labor in a single close up than many professional actors may in a lifetime. Each shot is meticulously composed, with the eye constantly sweeping over every detail. The beautiful long shots and dolly tracks invite you to slow down and be embraced by that space and time. Cuaròn is certainly one of the new masters and his luscious black and white stuns in the theater, so please resist the urge to watch it from your couch or bed on your 13’ screen.
3. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post was probably the most slept-on film of the year, which is an outrage. Desiree Akhavan is an ambitious director who balances with ease the pitch-black subject matter with her razor sharp sense of humor. It is the reason the film is so charming and yet so damning. It follows Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young lesbian subjected to the psychological cruelty of Christian conversion therapy. Moretz’s costars Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck are equally talented and charismatic, and the trio’s camaraderie is so authentic they could spring into the real world. It’s clear how much care and work went into writing such diverse representation, which is all too rare a thing in media. The film demands its audience pay witness to the systemic violence against queer youth still practiced today, while maintaining the respect and compassion of the female gaze. This is a film I first saw at the Seattle International Film Fest this year, and immediately fell in love with and reviewed.
2. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
Eighth Grade is a powerhouse of a directorial debut by Bo Burnham, with the massively talented Elsie Fisher shining at its center. Her portrayal of an anxious teenager desperate to become confident strikes straight to the heart with compassion for every vulnerable young girl forced to grow up too fast. The film itself is lovingly crafted, and specific to both the year of 2018 as well as nostalgic for Burnham’s own beginnings on the internet. Listening to Burnham and Fisher speak in person about Eighth Grade’s production at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival was also a highlight of my year, and really drove home how committed both of them were to their art. My entire adoring review can be read here.
1. Shirkers (Sandi Tan)
Shirkers by Sandi Tan is still my favorite of the year by a wide margin. It recounts the tale of a prodigious 20 year-old Tan becoming the protégé of her enigmatic film teacher Georges Cardona in 90s Singapore. She wrote a surrealist road movie by the same name, which she produced on a shoestring budget with Georges and her friends. Then Georges and the entire film vanished without a trace- only to resurface 25 years later. Tan searches for answers in an attempt to reconcile her past and pay homage to the lost masterpiece of her youth. She is truly the pioneer of “filmpunk” and has maintained her eye for cinema over the years. Despite its larger than life history, Shirkers is a tale of humanity and Tan’s relationships with her friends. It is beautiful, awe inspiring, and sharply funny. It struck a chord with me at its intersection between Avant-garde and documentary, which I wrote about in detail here.
Since it was such a challenge to pick just ten, I’ve decided to include some Honorable Mentions. The following are brilliant films that deserve more exposure and that you may not have necessarily seen recommended yet:
Blindspotting is at times familiar in a warm and human way, depicting best friends Collin and Miles (Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal) walking their home streets of Oakland as Collin finishes his last three days of probation. At other times, it is tense and aching, never flinching away from the reality of gentrification and police brutality that disproportionately robs people of color of their jobs, their youth, their freedom, and their lives. Its swift editing style is undoubtedly informed by director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s career in music videos, and his artistic partnership with Diggs in particular is what shines brightest. The film builds up to its final scene; one that I will remember and rewatch for a long time.
Zama is a period piece by renowned Argentine director Lucretia Martel. It features “Corregidor” Spaniards attempting to colonize a remote island and failing to realize the New World is greeting them not with open arms, but with open jaws. Martel has a gift for environmental storytelling, filling her frames with great detail. Zama looks like a romantic landscape painting rich with earth tones. The gazes and gestures of the background characters is what informs our opinion of Don Diego (Daniel Giménez Cacho) de Zama and his fellow colonial officers governing a remote colony in the tropics. The sound design alone is the best of this year, haunting its scenery with disembodied ambient noise. Martel’s other gift is a wicked sense of humor, as her buffoonish protagonists in powdered wigs masquerade their authority. It’s a treat.
Shoplifters is Japan’s 2018 submission to the Academy Awards, and will be a strong competitor in its category. It taps into the wonderful convention of ‘found family’ and raises questions of if loving someone is the same as doing what’s best for them. Each family member struggles on the margins of society, losing jobs and living off pensions. It’s an earnest look at poverty, but thankfully not a condescending one. Their little unit must steal constantly to feed themselves, but are generous and content sharing their shack. The standout performances come from Lily Franky and Sakura Ando as the father and mother figures, whose bond is tested in a twist of a third act. On top of everything else, the film is beautiful under Hirokazu Kore-eda’s direction. It conjures the other senses like sound and smell with its visuals, and is deeply memorable.
Finally, Gemini is a vastly underrated neo-noir that celebrates its predecessors and leans in to all the best tropes of the genre. It’s Aaron Katz’s blatant love letter to Los Angeles, sweeping dreamily over the city at dusk and glowing with its hazy light. It centers around the perfect pairing of Zoë Kravitz and Lola Kirke as starlet and personal assistant, respectively. Katz also knows a noir doesn’t need a complex plot to be great. He’s made a whodunit murder mystery that takes the viewer on a stylish joyride without being bogged down in the minutiae. It’s as witty as a pulp novel and just as brief. Highlights include John Cho and a stuffed octopus.