First, an apology:
I was going to make a heroic effort to see as many acclaimed 2018 films as I possibly could this weekend before attempting to write a 'year's best' post
But then it snowed. A lot. And then Indiana was playing Purdue. And then also I got tired and lazy.
Long story short: life got it the way, as it does. (That's the whole reason this blog is called PART-TIME Cinephile, after all. The title reflects the fact that while I love watching movies, I also love college basketball, earning my paycheck, singing in choirs, working out, spending time with friends and getting as much sleep as I can manage between those activities.)
So once again, I'm publishing a "Not the Best Films of the Year" list. It's not that these films aren't really good.... or that I didn't see many films last year. (I've seen 96 of the films released here in 2018 - which is impressive, if still only about half of what a professional critic sees.) It's that the list represents my personal tastes and inclinations, and excludes a lot of films that I simply wasn't motivated to see (e.g. Avengers Infinity War, You Were Never Really Here, The House That Jack Built, Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Mandy to name just a few that were either too dark or too action-packed for me.)
And it excludes a few well-received films in which I couldn't get sufficiently interested to watch them all the way through (The Other Side of the Wind, Happy as Lazarro, Blockers), as well as some I consider highly overrated (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Hereditary, Annihilation, Madeline's Madeline.)
AND it also excludes several films that I really did want to see, but simply ran out of time and/or opportunities for: Widows, Burning, Shoplifters, Free Solo, First Man, Loveless, Foxtrot, Suspiria, At Eternity's Gate. I'm pretty sure I'll see most of these in the next six weeks or so, and then I'll be ready to do a revised list! (But won't...)
One final caveat: to be eligible for this list, a film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time - via theaters, premium cable, home streaming or region 1 DVD - between 1/1/18 and 12/31/18 inclusive. This means some 2017 films like The Post and Phantom Thread were considered for this year's list, while a handful of 2018 films that weren't released in Chicago till this January (On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Capernaum, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Stan and Ollie) will be considered for the 2019 list.
"Well, then," you might ask "What's even left for the actual list?"
A lot of good stuff, as it turns out. Because 2018 was a terrific years for movies, I've not only listed 13 best films (10 wasn't enough), but I follow them up with a pretty hefty list of Honorable Mentions.
Here they are, in reverse order of preference:
13. Wildlife (Paul Dano)
I would have sworn that Wildlife was based on a really good, unfairly neglected novel written by someone along the lines of a John Updike or Richard Yates. It has the sensibility of a book from the 1950s as it skims through acutely observed details of a marriage unravelling in the midst of a lonely, sprawling Montana landscape. Surprisingly, though, the story is an original one concocted by Paul Dano and his partner, Zoe Kazan, and that makes it all the more remarkable. Carey Mulligan gives the best performance you haven't seen this year as a housewife struggling to make the best of her life with a difficult, unambitious man and a sensitive teenaged son. Every forced smile and carefully calculated response from her lips subtly betrays a world of hurt and disappointment while simultaneously masking those same frustrations.
12. The Tale (Jennifer Fox)
Writer/director Jennifer Fox confronts her own molestation at age 13 by a pair of sophisticated, manipulative adults who convinced her she was having a rapturous consenting relationship. Her film is lurid and uncomfortable in ways that befit the subject matter. Yet she goes deeper by delving into the unreliability of memory and the way we unconsciously subvert it to protect ourselves from uncomfortable truths. Playing the adult Fox, Laura Dern is never less than fascinating as she comes to grips with her past and the extent to which that past has played havoc with her adult life. Not an easy film to watch, but certainly a powerful and timely one.
11. Won't You Be My Neighbor (Morgan Neville)
In recent years, my lists have skewed heavily towards films that are upbeat, humane and life-affirming. So I really couldn't NOT include this beautiful documentary tribute to Fred "Mr. Rogers." What emerges is a portrait of a man so pure in spirit - so kind and decent and good - he almost seems too beautiful for this world. Through his beloved television program, Rogers brought a message of gentle love and acceptance to millions of children. It was no mere act - it was a mission and a way of life for him. Try (just try!) to watch this without shedding a few tears. Oh, to have more people this soft-spoken and compassionate in the public eye these days!
10. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
After suffering through the deadpan cruelty of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I swore I'd never watch another of Yorgos Lanthimos' films. But the rapturous reviews for The Favourite lured me, and I haven't regretted my change of heart at all. Make no mistake: while this film is easily the most mainstream of the director's works, it's still deeply weird and occasionally off-putting, not to mention historically inaccurate. When I arrived for an after-work matinee, a large group of women exiting the previous showing desperately tried to persuade me to see something - anything! - else. (If lesbian sex scenes or the sight of naked men being pelted with overripe fruit makes you uncomfortable, you should probably see something else, too.) If, however, you're open to Lanthimos' trademark battiness, you can savor a trio of phenomenal performances from Olivia Colman (as a pouty, gouty Queen Anne), Rachel Weisz (her cunning lady-in-waiting) and Emma Stone (a conniving, social-climbing hanger-on). If it's realistic in no other way, the film still feels honest about the limits of any real power given to women in that era (even to a queen) and the kinds of manipulations and charades they had to perform to obtain any real agency in their lives. From that perspective, it's practically a feminist statement.
9. Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)
More proof that the creepiest and best horror films are the ones that show us the least gore. In Thoroughbreds, the bloodiest scene takes place completely out of camera range, while we watch a clueless teenage girl doze off on a sofa in another room. That scene is unaccountably riveting, as is the film as a whole, from its very first frames. Director Cory Finley masterfully establishes a tense mood and a discomforting atmosphere from the get go - you can't wait to see where the story goes and yet, at the same moment, you're intensely nervous about what happens next. The film opens with a pair of teenage girls studying together - there's something deeply 'off'' about both of them that you can't immediately put your finger on. By the time one girl's insufferable stepfather shows up, you know you're in for a wild ride. Even the house where most of film takes place is disorienting - labyrinthine, with endless rooms leading to other rooms. It's a neat and neatly disturbing little thriller.
8. Let the Sun Shine In (Claire Denis)
This is a very personal choice for me. Much the same as Juliette Binoche's character here, I did a lot of dating in 2018, and ultimately none of it turned out very well. And on some of those dates, I wore a pair of black suede high-heeled boots very much like the ones Binoche wears throughout this film. It is oddly comforting to watch a chic, gorgeous Frenchwoman having all the same disappointments and frustrations in her dating life that I've experienced in mine. Late in the film, Gerard Depardieu pops up as a sort of spiritual guru who wisely advises Binoche to savor the good things in her life and not worry so much about when love will find her - advice which goes in one ear and right out the other as she continues to obsess about whether that guy she really likes will come to his senses and return to her. Without giving you too much information, let's just say that's a thought pattern I understand all too well. Claire Denis' prickly, impressionistic film has won a place on few real critic's 'year's best' lists for other, more scholarly and artistic reasons. But for me, it will always be the French film version of my year on Match.com.
7. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)
I don't know how eighth grade went for you, but I remember it as the most confusing, insecure time of my entire life. And if Bo Burnham's sweet, painfully amusing film debut is any indication, nothing's changed much over the years. Wide-eyed newcomer Elsie Fisher gives a particularly lovely and sensitive performance as a lonely, awkward pre-teen struggling to fit in and be popular. Burnham strikes a lovely balance in every scene, never tipping into cheap laughs or maudlin sentiment as he navigates his heroine's bumpy road to self-acceptance. Teen troubles are well-covered territory in film, but Eighth Grade feels remarkably fresh.
6. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Paddington 2 was always destined for this list, from the first time I saw it (on a flight from Paris to Detroit, where I surreptitiously dabbed at tears several times while watching). I feel vindicated in my choice by the number of 'year's best' lists from far more erudite critics where Paddington 2 has also appeared. Like Mr. Rogers, this little Peruvian bear has a kinder heart and a purer spirit than most of the humans around him - sufficient to soften the hearts of some particularly gnarly prison inmates just by introducing them to the life-changing magic of marmalade sandwiches. There is such a welcome sweetness to a film where the stakes are no higher than Paddington's quest to send his beloved Aunt Lucy an antique pop-up picture book of London. When was life ever that simple? Hugh Grant is on hand in a deliciously flamboyant performance as the villain of the piece - an overbearing, over-dressed has-been actor with an ego as big as his wardrobe. Characters like this keep the film from becoming overly saccharine and make it as appealing to adults as it is to children.
5. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
I don't just watch this film - I luxuriate in it. It's big and gorgeous, with a lush, romantic musical score... and a few distinctly creepy plot twists involving lightly poisoned mushrooms being fed to a cranky man to keep him in line. P.T. Anderson borrows heavily from both Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean for this strange romance between a fussy fashion designer (whose life is carefully managed by his icy, controlling sister) and the deceptively mild, mouse-like woman he falls for. Sure the cinematography and clothes are gorgeous and the actors are great. (It's Daniel Day-Lewis, for Pete's sake!) But it's the weird and twisty parts that make Phantom Thread such a irresistible cinematic treat.
4. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)
There was a lot more to this movie than I expected, and it's haunted me ever since I saw it. I was not surprised that Melissa McCarthy gave an outstanding dramatic performance; the level of commitment and specificity she brings to comic roles has always indicated she's a genuinely gifted actress. And the true-crime aspect of the film was bound to be, at the very least, intriguing. (McCarthy plays real-life writer Lee Israel who forged and sold letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward to make ends meet when her career as a biographer petered out.) But director Marielle Heller infuses the film with a palpable sense of melancholy in everything from the low-lit bars that Lee and her drinking buddy (Richard E. Grant) frequent to the perfectly curated, jazz-inflected musical soundtrack. From start to finish, it's a sad valentine to the end of an era in New York: a time when books and writers truly mattered and it was possible to live in shabby-genteel poverty on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Grant and McCarthy are wonderful together, their characters sharing both a closeted, queer identity and outrageously caustic personalities designed to mask their vulnerability and loneliness. It's part character study and part tone poem with just a hint of a heist film mentality - an enormously satisfying combination.
3. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
You've heard of cringe comedy? Well, Armando Iannucci is the master of 'gasp comedy' - rapid-fire comic patter so fast and so mean that you can barely process it or even croak out a proper laugh in the wake of its farcical nastiness. But even if you've watched one of Iannucci's television shows (Veep or one of his British series The Thick of It.), you won't be prepared for the undercurrent of true horror in this very black political comedy. This time, the history is true (mostly) and the stakes are real; you can hear people pleading for their lives and/or being shot just off camera even while breathlessly funny bureaucratic squabbles play out before your eyes. It takes a particularly masterful director to get that balance right - Iannucci is up to the task. With Stalin on his deathbed, the politburo goes mad, each man jockeying for position and power in the new government to come. Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) rush to build alliances and kiss up to Stalin's daughter (a superb Andrea Riseborough). What follows is both antic and terrifying, and the actors (particularly Beale and Buscemi) are just about perfect.
2. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
I don't think you'll find a more beautifully photographed film on any screen this year. Cuaron's remembrance of his own, privileged Mexico City upbringing - and the woman who worked and cared for his family - is a masterpiece of dualities. It references a number of European classics by the likes of Fellini and Renoir while still remaining a highly personal and heartfelt work. It has an epic sweep and yet it is rich in domestic and emotional detail. A great and lovely film, with a beautiful lead performance by Yalitza Aparicio, it is a film I intend to come back to many times in the months to come.
1. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
I'm going to come right out and say it: this isn't a film for everyone, or even for most people. Sure it's won its share of critical acclaim this year, but that's largely from people who've seen and studied the two European films on which it's directly based (Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light). It's austere and formal, deliberate in its pacing and sometimes downright bizarre. But if you're inclined to give it a chance - and willing to embrace its slow rhythms and intellectual challenges - you may find yourself richly rewarded. Ethan Hawke plays the pastor of a small, sparsely attended church. He struggles with his own faith and health - as well as interference from a larger, more financially sound congregation - while attempting to counsel a depressed congregant and his pregnant wife. Writer/director Paul Schrader (who himself grew up in a Calvinist sect that prohibited going to movies) seriously confronts questions about our responsibilities to God and one another; his film is brutal and phantasmagorical by turns. Personally, I found its seriousness of purpose and its intellectual depth to be refreshingly welcome in a time when few films have any real ideas. It has stayed vividly in my memory since the day I first watched it. As a blogger friend of mine (who was himself a small-town pastor) used to say "Your mileage may vary." But if you decide to watch First Reformed, I would love to hear your thoughts.
2018 Honorable Mention*: Black KKKLansman, Tully, Searching, Mary Poppins Returns, Shirkers, In the Fade, Private Life, Support the Girls, Green Book, Film Worker, A Star is Born, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, God's Own Country, Collette.
*the original Honorable Mentions list has been amended to include two films that were egregiously overlooked in the original post: Spike Lee's excellent Black KKKlansman and Jason Reitman's Tully. My apologies!