2018 Top 10 Movies

To cut off people who want to say “But what about …” or “You forgot …”, let me just say: No. I did not. I did not forget. There will be another list to follow of all of the films I loved this year, many of which had places on the Top 10 before I had to make some tough choices. There are no less than 10 other films which I wanted to put on here, which WERE on here until I had to bump them off. They’ll show up on some of the Top 10 roundups I’ve participated in at other sites. One of my criteria is “Wow, I have not seen THIS before.” One of my criteria is directors who are bold, who push the medium into weirdo individual directions (there are a couple here that do that). The best bet is to just have fun with lists, don’t take it too seriously (there is no such thing as real winner in art, just as there is no such thing as a film being “robbed” – it’s not that kind of pursuit).

Hopefully some of these movies will pique your interest to seek out yourself, if you haven’t already seen them.

TOP 10, in no particular order

1. First Reformed

dir. Paul Schrader

I was so rattled by this film it took me 24 hours to shake it off. There is much to be said about it, Paul Schrader, how it fits into the Schrader continuum of lonely outsiders (Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Julian in American Gigolo, John LeTour in Light Sleeper, even Bob Craine in Auto Focus), his obsession with sin, redemption, isolation, and his lifelong fascination with what he called “transcendental film” (he wrote an entire book about it at the age of 24: Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer). Schrader was raised Calvinist (he didn’t see a movie until he was 17 years old), and that has informed all of his work, but never so explicitly as First Reformed, where a broken priest (Ethan Hawke, in one of his very best performances) gets caught up in the struggles of a young pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried), bringing on a crisis of faith, and an agonized confrontation with the ecological devastation of our planet. Yes, this is a BIG film. But its style and mood is muted, tormented, terribly terribly repressed. Similar to Travis Bickle’s depression, the reverend is so bottled up with feeling you fear what it will look like when it all comes out. (Schrader is hugely influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, whose two films – Winter Light and Diary of a Country Priest are explicit influences on First Reformed. There are scenes in First Reformed which mirror – almost exactly – scenes in Winter Light). I found the film’s power to be almost excruciating. Like I said, it was so unnerving it truly rattled me. This, for me, is The Film of the Year.

2. Roma

dir. Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón burst onto the international scene with 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También, and then – because the industry works like this sometimes – he directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Quite a leap. 2006 brought his Children of Men (based on the P.D. James novel), a film so visually innovative, so memorable in what I guess you’d call “world building” people still reference certain shots all the time. He pushed his innovations even further with Gravity, for which he won an Oscar for Best Director, a film I loved (wrote about it here). It’s been 5 years since Gravity, but he has been busy. After years away from Mexico, he has returned – to the neighborhood in Mexico City where he grew up – to direct Roma, a sweepingly gorgeous film showing a year in the life of Cleo, an indigenous Mixtec woman working as a maid/nanny for a wealthy Mexican family. Cleo is played by the extraordinary Yalitza Aparicio, who has never acted before this, which is UNREAL when you see her performance. Filmed in black-and-white, with long long shots, sometimes involving hundreds of people, and slow horizontal pans, into the ocean, along a street, through a field … Roma is an incredible artistic achievement on the cinematography front alone. The criticisms of the film, dating back to its screening at TIFF, are valid, and some of the “THIS IS A STONE-COLD MASTERPIECE” commentary has felt a wee bit like a hammer of Thor trying to beat us into submission. It happens sometimes. It happened with La La Land and Birdman too, two films I sincerely and vigorously disliked. The conversation around Roma has been fascinating. For me, the film worked: the family living in a bubble of privilege, the hard-working indigenous woman among them, living her own life, with her own problems and trajectory, not to mention the political upheaval in Mexico at the time, pushing in on the action. We voted Roma Best Film of the year at the NYFCC.

3. The Rider

dir. Chloé Zhao

The Rider came out earlier this year, and I missed it. The reviews of it – by critics I trust, like Bilge Ebiri at the Village Voice (RIP Voice) and Godfrey Cheshire at Ebert – were so intense I was pissed at myself for missing it. Well, now I’ve caught up and I can say the rapturous response was well-deserved. I am not a List-Maker, this post notwithstanding, but after seeing it, I thought to myself, “Godfrey was right. This is the film of the year.” No one in it is a professional actor. They all live the lives of their characters. Brady Jandreau is the real discovery: he’s an actual horse trainer and rodeo rider (whose injuries withstood during a rodeo were so extreme he was no longer allowed to compete). Brady is a Lakota who lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation with his father and autistic sister. Life is tough, but Brady is a horse whisperer, for real, and there are not one, but two, phenomenal sequences where we watch him train a wild bucking horse. This is not a documentary, but at a certain point the lines between real and narrative are blurred. It’s gorgeously filmed, with a sense of the scope and grandeur of South Dakota, but also the hard-bitten life of modern-day cowboys. The fact that Zhao was born and raised in Beijing makes her accomplishment here even more miraculous, although not really a surprise: she is an “outsider” in this world, but sometimes outsiders see more clearly, the rhythms and beauty and reality of another culture. She approaches it without judgment. This is an absolutely amazing film and I beg you to check it out.

4. Shirkers

dir. Sandi Tan

It’s hard to even know where to start. This is a documentary about Sandi Tan’s experiences directing a movie in Singapore called Shirkers when she was a teenager. But that sentence alone does not accurately describe this film, what it does, how it operates. It evokes the rhythms of a childhood growing up in a very strict country without a real film culture, and how she bonded with two movie-mad friends drawn to punk rock and various subversive actions, like putting out a crazy ‘zine, and dreaming of setting the world on fire with the films they were going to make. And they made one, with the help of a teacher named Georges Cardona who taught a film class they all attended. This teacher – a mysterious man of mysterious origins – is the key to this film, and the key to that original film the teenagers made called Shirkers. The film morphs into an investigation that takes Sandi Tan from Singapore to New York to New Orleans, as she tries to understand Cardona, and tries to understand what happened to her, her film, and why. This is a gripping fascinating story, and it left me with a sense of mournfulness for what-might-have-been, anger, and yet also triumph, because here we have a documentary about it, and now the world will know about Shirkers. A great film.

5. Private Life

dir. Tamara Jenkins

I reviewed this beautiful funny and painful new film by Tamara Jenkins for Film Comment, and have since watched it 3 times. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star as a couple so completely obsessed with having a baby it has co-opted their entire relationship. When we meet up with them, they are already years into it. IVF, adoption, egg donors … the film moves through each stage, the couples trudging wearily forward. Could they stop if they wanted to? It’s about infertility, a topic not really addressed in film all that often. People don’t want to deal with it, people shy away from the pain experienced by those who suffer from it – which is often as enormous as grief from the loss of a loved one – and the film really understands that, shows it in the reactions of friends, in particular Molly Shannon’s character, who views them both as “fertility junkies.” The stereotypical (unfortunately) viewpoint of many many fertile women. When the couple ask their young step-niece (newcomer Kalyi Carter) to donate an egg, the story swerves into another phase of the journey. Every phase has explosive emotions attached to it. Kathryn Hahn gives one of the best performances of the year, as a woman so twitchy with grief about a lost future, the betrayal of her body, she can barely bear to be in the presence of others. And Paul Giamatti is funny, exasperated, and heartbroken, too, but starting to wonder if maybe it’s time to give up, to accept. This is an amazing film, my kind of movie.

6. Amazing Grace

dir. Sydney Pollack/Alan Elliott

Has to be seen to be believed. A film 46 years in the making. It lay in a vault for all that time, beset by technical problems (Pollack hadn’t used the clapperboard, so there was no way to sync the sound), and then by Aretha herself, who did not want the film to be seen. An obsessive producer, Alan Elliott, had figured out a way to fix the sound problem, and when Aretha died he and her estate come to an agreement. So now we have the film, the visual accompaniment to Aretha’s extraordinary gospel album, filmed live in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts. Aretha is supported by Rev. Cleveland (who, at one point, puts his head down on the piano and sobs, because of the power of what is happening in that room) and the Southern California Community Choir. As I wrote before, there were moments when I felt like I stopped breathing – I was afraid to breathe – and I’d think, “Okay, so this is clearly the climax of the song, because I honestly can’t take anymore” … only to find that no, it was not the climax – Aretha was going to go higher and deeper. For the rest of the commentary on it, I will point you to my friend Odie’s great review over on Ebert. Amazing Grace is only playing in New York and LA, short runs so it can qualify for awards season, but it will soon hit your streaming platforms. Don’t miss it. I loved many documentaries this year (Hale County This Morning This Evening, The Searcher, Mr. Soul!, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Shirkers, see above), but once I watched Amazing Grace, it had to be on my Top 10.

7. Paddington 2

dir. Paul King

The movie is, to quote my friend Mitchell, pure liquid joy. Pure liquid joy is harder to generate than tragedy, or earnest sentiment, or even slapstick comedy. I mean, all of them are hard to pull off, it’s amazing there are any good movies at all when you consider the odds. But joy? Unabashed delirious joy? This is what Paddington 2 does, from beginning to end. The humor is effortless, the feeling generated is real – not pushed, or sickly-sweet, it’s filled with interesting characters, and has almost a life-giving energy, bringing on true laughter, true tears, and joy at the sheer inventiveness of many of the sequences. This is a movie for kids, without any age-inappropriate nods to the adults (something that drives me crazy in other films for kids. You can play to the adults – like Inside Out, did, for example – without being sneaking in sleaze). If the world were fair, Hugh Grant would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His performance is out of this world, and again, my kind of acting: bold pantomime, crazy facial expressions which would fit in perfectly in a 1930s screwball, and HILARIOUS. He makes a wonderfully loopy adversary. The film is a rare bird: it made me so happy I almost wanted to cry.

8. 24 Frames

dir. Abbas Kiarostami

The final film of the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, I managed to see it during its run at Lincoln Center on a rainy cold day last spring. It was like I had stepped into an isolation chamber, a vacuum of space or something, where all that existed was the film. If you take your eyes off the screen for 5 seconds, you’ll miss something (It’s not that so much happens. It is that each “frame” has its own “arc,” but the arcs rely on accumulation of images and sounds.) An animated film, it’s made of 24 short films, each one its own small arc. There are no people and no dialogue. The arcs involve birds, a deer, trees, waves. Kiarostami was never a safe filmmaker (see Close Up, a stone-cold masterpiece, and Certified Copy (my review here), one of my favorite films of the last 20 years. I know I am not doing this film justice, so I’ll send you over to Godfrey Cheshire’s review on Ebert. Cheshire is an expert on Iranian film, and has interviewed Kiarostami many times, visiting him in Tehran, and elsewhere.) Kiarostami is one of my favorite film-makers. He died in July of last year, so it was somewhat haunting to see a film released posthumously, especially this film. Radical and experimental, but enriching and emotional. A dream.

9. Shoplifters

dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

This Palme d’Or-winning film works on a slow burn, immersing us into the world of the Shibatas, a family who live in a cluttered basement room, basically squatting, hiding from an increasingly impatient landlord. The group makes a “living” through a variety of legit-unlegit activities. The father and son survive through shoplifting. They work in tandem. They have a whole system. One young woman is a sex worker. One works in a factory. The grandmother cooks. They are all off the grid. One day, impulsively, the man and the boy basically kidnap a child off a balcony, locked out in the cold as her parents scream at each other inside. They envelop her in their family, watching anxiously as the search for the child dominates the headlines. The story is told in an oblique way, submitting to the rhythms of this group, a trip to the beach, their meals, their relationships with one another – as a group and within the group – so much so that we feel we know them. And then Kore-eda pulls back the curtain, revealing how much we don’t know, how much we have assumed, how much the story has left out. From then on out, the film is a powerhouse, culminating in a couple of scenes which might rip your heart out. This is a glorious film, one which casts a long long shadow after you’ve seen it.

10. Mandy

dir. Panos Cosmatos

Oh, Mandy, OH MANDY. I walked out dazzled, almost laughing at the film’s audacious style – audacious doesn’t even cover it – how psychedelic, how satisfying in its boldness, its experimentations, its final act, featuring Nic Cage at his very insane best. I saw it with an audience, which was perfect, because people were roaring with laughter (at some of the most horrifying moments), clapping, cheering, shouting with vengeful lust at the events onscreen. It’s the appropriate response! Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is so much a part of the film his name should practically be listed alongside the director. It’s blood-soaked, drug-soaked, but also fantasy-soaked, with its portrayal of a relationship that is a true oasis in a mad mad world. A lumberjack (Cage) and his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), an artist, live in a cabin isolated in the woods, and lie face to face in bed, sharing their dreams of the future. (This sounds sappy, but wait until you see how it is filmed and imagined). Then something happens. Something unforeseen and truly terrifying. To say more would probably ruin it. This is a thriller, as gory as a slasher film of the 1970s, directed with such dazzling artistry and imagination that you can’t even believe it exists. I was thinking during the film – as I was overwhelmed by what was happening and HOW it was happening, “WHY don’t more directors just UNLEASH themselves like this?” alternating with “My God, CAN THEY DO THAT??” I’ve described it as a Black Sabbath album cover come to life.


The Other Side of the Wind

dir. Orson Welles

40 years in the making. Released now, filmed in the 1970s, so your guess is as good as mine where this should go (I suppose the same could be said of Amazing Grace). Orson Welles’ final film, which obsessed him for years, he filmed it in spurts and bursts, until the financing ran out, bringing along with him fellow obsessives, cinematographers, PAs, producers (like Frank Marshall,partially responsible for the dauntingly huge project of actually completing this film, as closely aligned to Welles’ wishes as possible). The story of this film is almost as interesting as the film itself, but it’s the film that matters. It’s the story of a famous director (John Huston) and his acolyte, another famous director (Peter Bogdanovich), as they try to complete the famous director’s work-in-progress film, an artsy mood-piece, a departure for him along the lines of Antonioni called The Other Side of the Wind. The director walks around surrounded by paparazzi and documentary film-makers and photographers – and it is through THEIR footage that we see this film. (Brilliant.) We also see extended sequences from the film within a film, totally different style, totally different color scheme and mood. Welles was, as always, far ahead of the rest of us, in his experimentation with different film stocks and aspect ratios and black-and-white and color. Plus the reality-TV aspect of it, although both should probably have quotation marks around it. I have seen it three times already, and it’s absolutely overwhelming. On Netflix. A new Orson Welles film. What are you waiting for?

And now I’ll do my own “But what about …?” What about the Coen brothers? What about Barry Jenkins? What about Debra Granik? What about Beast? What about Spike Lee? What about Death of Stalin? Can You Ever Forgive Me? Annihilation? Burning? Boots Riley? BAH. TOO MANY.

Another list to come of other 2018 films I loved. It’s a long list.

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13 Responses to 2018 Top 10 Movies

  1. Helena says:

    Love your end-of-year lists, and thanks to this one I’ve just watched Shirkers, which is an amazing piece of story-telling. I don’t know where to start with it, but I bow down to those creative, rebellious, obsessed, compulsive-note-taking, lets-wing-it teens, and to the adults they have become. I’ve bumped a few other films from this year up the queue too. Thank you, Sheila!

    • sheila says:

      Helena, so glad you watched it!!

      // but I bow down to those creative, rebellious, obsessed, compulsive-note-taking, lets-wing-it teens, //

      Right? I LOVED them all – and you’re so right: the adults they have become are so impressive – they did not let this … horrifying? … experience stop them.

      And how about Georges??


      I tell you, the first time I heard his voice on the tape recorder – before I even knew where the story was going (I had somehow avoided spoilers) – I felt a chill. That flat-affect yet knowing tone. And the icy blue eyes. A total saboteur. Keeping those film cans?? HOW DARE YOU SIR.

      And the footage from Shirkers looks SO good, didn’t you think? Innovative, way way out there, amazing visuals – and I won’t credit Georges for any of it. It was those girls who saw it, who weren’t held back by preconceived notions.

      It blew me away – I can’t wait to show my friend Allison, in particular. I think she will flip.

      Let me know what else you watch! I need to do my 2nd list, of all the also-rans.

      (And it was pure coincidence that there are quite a few female directors on my list. But it makes me happy. Women were killing it this year.)

  2. Helena says:

    Georges … again, still processing. Can’t find or type the words to describe what I feel. And when the kindest thing you can say about someone like that is ‘at least they weren’t a sexual predator …’. God, the utter relief and vindication when Tan finally meets someone else who was betrayed and sabotaged in a similar way by that guy. Hoo, boy. And his wife … trying to make amends for his fuckery – I really felt for her, a good person sucked into a conman’s web.

    I hope really there is more to come from Tan.

    • sheila says:

      // God, the utter relief and vindication when Tan finally meets someone else who was betrayed and sabotaged in a similar way by that guy. //

      Yes, I felt the same way. A pattern of sabotage. I felt bad for the wife too – and was glad she eventually did the right thing.

      I wish Shirkers (the original) would be released – with just a score over it – written by that musician who wrote the original music. I was so moved by that too – how this sociopath stole this guy’s tapes – UGH – and then Sandi Tan asking him to pick out what he remembered of the music.

      Georges was … how does one become like Georges??

      I took a class with an acting teacher once – she had a huge following and they were like a cult. This was Actors Studio. I was curious to see what she was about – a couple of my friends swore by her methods. I found her to be way too “woo woo” in her approach – so many “relaxation exercises” that you’d think that that was all acting required. I saw her completely ruin two people’s talent, or at least their ability to just get up and say lines. She filled them with doubt about every choice they made – and everything they did had to be run by her first. Interestingly enough, both of these people were men. It was my theory that she had a lot of hostility towards men, and found some kind of joy in breaking them down, taking away their agency, making them submit to her – and in so doing, they lost their way. I’m not saying it was deliberate – whereas Georges was quite sinister about it – but I did feel that there was a process of sabotage going on in that class. She was way too powerful, way too invested in being a guru. Also, it was like women were nonexistent in her class. She only had interest in the men, and she robbed them of self-confidence. I only took one class with her, like No thank you very MUCH with that stuff.

      But to completely take over these teenagers’ work and enthusiasm – such envy, right? How aware of his envy was he? Or had he concocted a lot of justifications for his behavior? Did he think he was protecting them, or was it really just a “Screw them, I’m going to ruin them, they have what I don’t have, I will destroy them … ”

      It’s rather amazing, when you look at all the evidence, that he WASN’T a sexual predator.

      • Helena says:

        //A pattern of sabotage.//

        The film is just littered with his destructiveness … that poor young musician who just gets railroaded by Georges into handing over his ONE TAPE. When he starts playing – and the fact that Tan has never heard it and it only now occurs to her to have him actually play it to her. Like, they are just slowly unlocking themselves from this accepted state of erasure and disappearance, and rediscovering their own work. And his music was sowas so simple and so lovely. (And I totally get that he only had the one tape. I was in art school in the nineties and we were all so … unaware of the need for things like backups and copies, and so trusting of anyone offering a break.)

        And yeah, your story about that teacher chimes. Some people just want to break other people, and god help you if you are that person.

        • sheila says:

          // Like, they are just slowly unlocking themselves from this accepted state of erasure and disappearance, and rediscovering their own work. //

          Wow, yes. This is a perfect way to put it. I was so moved by that moment.

        • sheila says:

          // Some people just want to break other people, and god help you if you are that person. //

          Envy is so powerful and destructive.

  3. Luis Guillermo Jimenez says:

    Great list. Thank for this.
    I have to say though, Children of Men was based on a novel by P.D. James, not Ursula K. Le Guin.

  4. mutecypher says:

    I just watched Mandy. That was incredible! It was John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars plus David Lynch’s creepiness plus Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin’s beauty plus Peak Nic Cage! And all it’s own thing. God, I want more movies where cigarettes are lit off the burning heads of just-decapitated demon bikers!

    The relationship between Red and Mandy was really sweetly covered. I liked her a lot. This was such a striking film.

    • sheila says:

      I’m so glad you saw it!! It really is crazy, isn’t it? I agree it’s a hybrid of so many things – and the cult?? So creepy!

      // I want more movies where cigarettes are lit off the burning heads of just-decapitated demon bikers! //

      Seriously. The world would be a better place.

  5. carolyn clarke says:

    I am very late to the party, but I have finally seen “Amazing Grace”. The fros, the sweat, the rocking, the raising, the transcendence, the glory, as my grandmother would say. From ‘ Wholy Holy” which is my absolute favorite gospel song, that movie just picks you up, takes you away and leaves you shaking.

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, it’s just mind-blowing, isn’t it? I need to watch it again – I’ve seen it twice already! The sweat – the sweat just pouring off of everyone – how about Mick Jagger jamming around in the back row? lol

      And Aretha’s OUTFITS.

      There were long sections where I was afraid to breathe – she was so in control, she was leading me somewhere, I needed to stay focused, let her take me there.

      Just extraordinary – I am so glad you saw it, Carolyn and I’m so glad this movie finally exists!

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