Our demanding critics choose the best (and the most disappointing) films of the year.
By Arts Fuse Staff
The Arts Fuse‘s film critics have sent in their best-of-the-year picks. But, given the independence of mind of our thoughtful reviewers, don’t expect any predictable agreement on the selections.
The Arts Fuse
By Gerald Peary
The Best Narrative Film of 2018: If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rest of the Ten Best: We the Animals, Cold War, The Rider, The Favourite, Eighth Grade, Burning, A Star is Born, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Madeleine’s Madeleine
Best Documentary: Shirkers
The Rest of the Ten Best: Minding the Gap, Dark Money, Filmmaker, RBG, Tea With Dames, Monrovia, Indiana, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Free Solo
Best Foreign-Language Film of 2018: Cold War
The Rest of the Five Best: Roma, Burning, Loveless, Custody
Best Actor: Christian Bale, Vice
The Rest of the Best Five: Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born; John C. Reilly, Stan & Ollie; Steve Carrell, Beautiful Boy; Brady Jandreau, Rider
Best Actress: Joanna Kulig, Cold War
The Rest of the Best Five: Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Olivia Coleman, The Favourite; Mary Elizabeth Winstead, All About Nina; Glenn Close, The Wife
Best Supporting Actor: Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rest of the Best Five: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me;? Stephen Yeung, Burning; Sam Rockwell, Vice; Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back
Best Supporting Actress: Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians; Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk; Emma Stone, The Favorite
Best First Film: Eighth Grade
The Rest of the Best Five: Wildlife, We the Animals, Nancy, Thoroughbreds
Best Director: Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
The Rest of the Best Five: Pawel Pawlikovksi, Cold War; Alberto Cuaron, Roma; Yorgos Lanthianos, The Favourite; Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique, A Star is Born
Best Editing: Bob Murawski and Orson Welles, The Other Side of the Wind
By Peg Aloi
Cream of the Crop:
You Were Never Really Here: Lynne Ramsay’s lush, intense thriller stars Joaquin Phoenix as an isolated mercenary who rescues, by any means necessary, girls stolen by sex traffickers. Haunting, brutal, and gorgeous.
Eighth Grade: Bo Burnham’s fantastic debut is an uncanny depiction of the terrifying hellscape that is middle school, seen through the eyes of a shy girl aspiring to be popular. Elsie Fisher’s performance is mind-blowingly good.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Brilliant direction by Marielle Heller from a smart script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on a true story of a once-prominent writer who makes ends meet by forging letters by literary icons. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are wonderful as the friends who team up to defraud collectors; two aging misfits doing the best they can.
The Favourite: Will Yorgos Lanthimos ever make a film that is not nasty and disturbing? I certainly hope not. The triple goddess trifecta of Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman is stunning in this grandiose period piece.
Private Life: Topnotch script and directing from Tamara Jenkins, great performances from Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, and newcomer Kayli Carter. Whodathunk a film about a couple struggling to conceive could be so unexpectedly riveting?
Beast: A chilling, well-acted story of a young woman whose passionate affair with a suspected killer turns her life on the peaceful Isle of Jersey upside down. Starring Jessie Buckley in an incandescent performance.
American Animals: A true story, told in a fascinating narrative/docu style unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Four teenage boys in Kentucky let their hyper-rebellious ringleader convince them to steal the most valuable book in the world. Great cast, super suspenseful, unexpectedly moving.
Nancy: Christina Choe’s filmmaking debut is impressive and assured. Andrea Riseborough is wonderful as an inscrutably driven young woman who decides she’s the long lost daughter of a couple whose child disappeared many years ago.
Leave No Trace: Debra Granik’s topical story of a traumatized war vet who lives off the grid with his teenage daughter is thrilling and heartbreaking. Ben Foster’s performance is brilliantly low-key.
Hereditary: Ari Aster’s brilliant debut is terrifying and engrossing. Toni Collette is astoundingly good as an artist whose selfish behavior in the wake of grief is key to an occult mystery surrounding her family.
The Death of Stalin: Unadulterated epic-scale brilliance by the inimitable Armando Ianucci, who jettisons his docu-verite style in order to take on a satirical Soviet Cold War period comedy that is shockingly dark at times. An impressive achievement with a stellar cast.
Assassination Nation: Red hot thriller about how an incendiary social media prank leads to violence and chaos in a small town. Not so hidden amid the mayhem: edgy feminist political messaging that turns expected tropes on their heads more than once.
Suspiria: What can I say? I loved this remake. It’s layered, subtle, and strangely beautiful. Be warned: the penultimate climactic scene is a gory spectacle not for the faint of heart.
Cherry Picked (Honorable Mentions):
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Burning, Annihilation, The Sisters Brothers, If Beale Street Could Talk, Cam, Cold War, Capharnaüm, Damsel, Shirkers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Blackkklansman, Madeline’s Madeline, Crazy Rich Asians, Dumplin’, Divide and Conquer: The Roger Ailes Story, Border, Becoming Astrid, Don’t Look Back, The Land of Steady Habits, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Destroyer, Ben is Back, Custody, Loveless, and At Eternity’s Gate.
By Tim Jackson
10 Best List
Lebanese director/co-writer’s Capharnaüm is an uncompromising depiction of a boy’s struggle to survive in the slums, prisons, and detention centers of Beirut. The central performance of 11 year old Zain Al Rafeea (as Zain) is marvelous. “Born into urban squalor and a hard life on the streets of Beirut, Zain is already serving a five-year sentence, for stabbing the man who bought his 11-year-old sister’s hand in marriage, and his case against his parents reveals grim details about a home life that is far more troublesome that originally thought.” The cast is made up of actors whose everyday lives resemble those of the film’s characters . Given its overcrowded detention centers and separated families, Capharnaüm’s vision of chaos obviously extends well beyond the borders of Lebanon.
Elegantly choreographed compositions in rich black and white guarantee that Alphonse Corazon’s autobiographical film will be poetic viewing. Set in his native Mexico City, the narrative revolves around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) a nanny, maid, and confident to a middle class family going through traumatic life changes. Meanwhile Cleo’s own struggles become increasingly difficult. It is 1971 and Mexican society is in turmoil. A hypnotic, life-affirming masterpiece from one of the world’s leading filmmakers. (Arts Fuse review)
Also shot in shimmering black and white, director Paweł Pawlikowski’s story chronicles a relationship between a man and a woman over several decades during the Cold War. It begins in the countryside of post-war Poland, where Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) directs a Polish folk chorus. He discovers and mentors Zula (Joanna Kulig) but refuses to give the state the propagandistic art it demands. He becomes an expatriate jazz musician; she stays behind to build a career as a singer. A sprawling and melancholy epic of an impossible love.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Director Barry Jenkins patiently dramatizes James Baldwin’s powerful tale of black injustice. Actors Stephan James and KiKi Layne are given the time and the space to create convincing characters that demand empathy and understanding. Regina King was awarded a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Boston Film Critics and the movie won Best Picture.
Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley’s movie about a black customer service phone rep who has a convincing ‘white’ sales voice evolves from a fierce satire on capitalism to a Darwinian horror yarn reminiscent of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. (Of course, Wells’ volume ends on anti-capitalist vibes.) Eschewing commercial expectations, the movie generates plenty of joyous anarchy as it delivers a strong message about worker exploitation via High Tech. Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer are standouts in the cast.
You Were Never Really Here
Lynn Ramsey is masterful at telling stories that look into the soul of unsavory existential characters. Joaquin Phoenix plays an emotionally exhausted and traumatized veteran who has become a vigilante fighting against purveyors of child trafficking. It is a performance so good that you worry about the actor. The violence is mostly implied; the film is filled with wildly imaginative montage sequences. (Arts Fuse review)
Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster, and Killing of a Sacred Deer) creates yet another cinematic parallel universe. This time it is a weirded-out 18th-century England during the reign of Queen Anne. The narrative is very loosely based on history: Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) compete for the good graces of the crazed ailing Queen (Olivia Colman). The ensemble of conniving women is rounded out by a cast of bewigged male aristocrats spouting outlandish dialogue. (Arts Fuse review)
A dour delivery boy, Jong-su, befriends a free-spirited young woman, Shin Hae-mi, only to lose her to a charming and wealthy party boy named Ben. Korean master Lee Chang-dong presents a world of surfaces and impenetrable mysteries. Interpreting what drives each character, figuring out what is true and what is fiction is at the heart of the puzzle. Does Ben really act on his confessed obsession with burning down abandoned greenhouses? Is Jong-su an artist or an obsessive neurotic? Uncertainty reigns until the final devastating end. (Arts Fuse review)
Paul Schrader’s story of a preacher undergoing a crisis of faith spirals from angst and desperation to surreal panic. Ethan Hawke is at his mournful best. First Reformed has its gonzo moments, but this time around, as both a writer and director, Schrader has a found a story, and the artistic restraint, to convey his ‘transcendent’ vision. (Arts Fuse review)
Border is a kind of guilty pleasure, audacious and unforgettable. Based on a book by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In), this is an exercise in the Gothic grotesque, memorably skimming the border between reality and the supernatural, examining the irreconcilable division between the civilized and the perverse. (Arts Fuse review)
I would remiss to not mention these films, which that could easily have been included in my bests: Shoplifters, Black KkKlansman, The Hate You Give, Madeline’s Madeline, Eighth Grade, Zama, Nancy, The Sisters Brothers, and Museo.
I assume the boffo box office for this giant mess has something to do with the devil’s spell cast by comic books. I’m trying to read more comics — but having trouble making the effort. Meanwhile, what I see happening in comic book movies is talented actors stumbling through scenes unworthy of them (though very enriching for their pocketbooks). Bottom line: CGI spectacles make my eyes tired.
I believe the opening narration goes something like: “Forget history, forget what you believe, forget what you know. This is not that this story.” Excellent advice — add originality to the list. The film updates classic characters by piling on heaps of needless irony. For example, Robin is known “The Hood.” This is your generic heist film done in tights. Where have you gone Richard Greene?
This film was hyped aplenty and then disappeared pretty fast. Ben Kingsley supplies ‘banal evil’ as Eichmann. The story of how the Nazi was smuggled out of Argentina by the Israelis and then brought to trial in Nuremberg is compelling. Alas, too much of the film is filled with forced romance and the pratfalls of Argentinian keystone cops.
What could have been a revealing drama, filled with fascinating details about Freddy Mercury and Queen, is flattened into a predictable bio-pic mold “sanctioned” by the surviving members of the group. Remi Malick sucks relentlessly on his false buck teeth; the actor works hard to give a convincing impression of Mercury. But all the posing and posturing reveals little about the artist’s inner life.
Best Documentaries of 2018
By Neil Giordano
Minding the Gap: Highly personal yet socially relevant, a film about big dreams, hidden violence, and the way boys become men in America. Essential viewing by first-time director Bing Liu, who spent ten years making this study about coming of age with his skateboarding buddies.
Hale County, This Morning, This Evening: Revisionist contemporary history — visual as well as social — that focuses on the American South and on young black masculinity. Presented with equal parts beauty, hope, and intensity.
Shirkers: A quirky yet deeply felt portrait of the artist as misfit. Director Sandi Tan reflects on her fledgling filmmaking career of twenty-five years as she reconstructs her younger self on screen.
Bisbee ‘17: America grapples with history and injustice in this ingeniously designed cinematic re-enactment of an incident from 1917 in which residents of a small Arizona town betrayed their immigrant neighbors. Bigotry and violence from the past takes on a new resonance in the present; the descendants of those involved in the original incident dramatize and reconsider the actions of their ancestors.
Of Fathers and Sons: A terrifying portrait of family life in ISIS-controlled Syria, where radicalized children can’t be stopped from carrying on an endless war that is destroying their homes and country.
Crime + Punishment: The NYPD is exposed from the inside in this triumph of investigative documentary work, examining the retribution suffered by whistleblowers who see corruption at various levels in New York City’s police hierarchy.
America to Me (series): A necessary and sometimes troubling look at race, class, and education in America’s high schools by master filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams). Heartbreaking at times, and sure to spark discussions about our approach to teaching and the impact of race and the culture wars on institutions of learning.
Wild, Wild Country (series): A kooky mash-up of archival footage and contemporary interviews that recounts the early-1980s cult of the Rajneeshi, who sought to create a utopia in rural Oregon, much to the dismay of the locals and state politicians. Juicy, absurd, and wholly entertaining — if a little lengthy.
Three Identical Strangers: The truly unbelievable tale of triplets separated at birth and reunited at 19. Each new revelation about their past unfolds through a dizzying presentation that disturbs as much as it entertains. The film raises nonfiction cliche — the act of revealing deeply troubling secrets about the past — to a new level.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Fred Rogers was a national treasure who humanized learning for two generations of American children. If you watch the last half hour without shedding a tear you must be made of stone.
A few of the unheralded documentary gems of the year
The Blessing: A view of life in the Navajo Nation that breaks through lingering stereotypes about Native American life. The character-driven story focuses on a coal miner, Lawrence, who is forced to compromise his deep faith for the reservation’s sacred land: he earns his living by destroying it. Caitlin, his teenage daughter, is secretive, soulful, iconoclastic — she deserves her own film. This movie is still awaiting a distributor.
Cielo: After seeing this film, you’ll want to go to the highlands of Chile at night to bask in the wonders of the sky (“cielo”). Beautiful cinematography provides the elevating backdrop for philosophical musings by astronomers, local natives, and stargazers who can’t stop looking into the heavens for meaning and solace.
Rodents of Unusual Size: An entertaining slice of Americana that features bounty hunters seeking out the invasive Nutria in southern Louisiana, served with a side of Bayou charm and gumption. Arts Fuse review
Best Feature Narrative Films of the Year
Sorry to Bother You: A biting critique of contemporary capitalism that manages to be laugh-out-loud funny and unapologetically entertaining. The movie’s major weakness is that it sends up everything but the kitchen sink: nothing escapes its acid — Silicon Valley tech gurus, corporate strategic planning gobbledygook, sign spinners, union organizers, VIP rooms in bars. Not that all these targets don’t deserve a good roasting.
Shoplifters: A taut but compassionate Japanese-language drama about family connections that pulls you apart from beginning to end. Features a wealth of characters filled with emotional contradictions. Achingly human and thought-provoking.
The Favourite: Another wacko satire from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), but this time he is relatively restrained, particularly for an artist who usually pours (and pours) on the weirdness. He brings a twisted sensibility to the court of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. The three leads — Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone — are superb, as is the mischievous script and eerie Kubrick-ian cinematography.
Eighth Grade: Elsie Fisher makes an auspicious debut as young Kayla, who is navigating the social and self-negating pitfalls of middle school. The movie reminded me of why I like to teach teenagers: their oddities and self-consciousness mask the almost-grown-up young adults writhing underneath the awkwardness.
First Reformed: A triumph of self-control from writer-director Paul Schrader. The narrative deals with an anguished loner of a minister who questions how faith can be relevant in a world overwhelmed by despair and corruption.
Game Night: A successful comedy for adults is a rare delight these days.You can’t help but giggle throughout a movie that knows how to wield irony with style. If she did nothing else in the film, Rachel McAdams should be congratulated for her reenactment of a scene from Pulp Fiction.
Roma: Deeply personal and beautiful to watch (see it on a big screen if possible) this movie is clearly the work of a master filmmaker. Director Alfonso Cuarón meticulously recreates his childhood in stunning detail by way of an encomium to his underappreciated nanny. For me, the narrative’s portrait of class and prejudice is irritatingly top-down and the nanny, Cleo, lacks the depth and agency given the more fully formed characters who surround her. It’s not Cleo’s film so much as it is the filmmaker’s idealized portrait of her.
By Betsy Sherman
1 Can You Ever Forgive Me?
2 First Reformed
3 The Rider
5 Eighth Grade
6 Stan & Ollie
7 Isle of Dogs
8 Leave No Trace
9 The Death of Stalin
10 Three Identical Strangers
Honorable mentions: Museo, First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk, Shirkers, Nancy, Private Life, Black Panther, Annihilation, Bisbee ’17, Support the Girls, Skate Kitchen, The Sisters Brothers, The Green Fog, Hereditary, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection.