It’s been one of the greatest years of my life both personally and professionally. My wife and I sold one house and then moved into our dream home. I accepted a promotion at my job that further secures stability for my family and myself. Most importantly as we approach my daughter’s 2nd birthday, she’s healthy and happy as could be, which I do not take for granted in the slightest. I have accomplished goals that I had set for myself three years ago that I had hoped to reach by the age of 30. I turn 28 in April, so I exceeded my own expectations. I’ve failed on the physical health front somewhat, even more so on the mental health one, but I’m human too.
In other ways, it’s been one of the more depressing years. The political discourse continues to be as toxic as it has ever been. Social media feels like a freight train of vitriol that we have absolutely no way of stopping from tearing us all apart. We lost more heroes this year. I cried a lot when the news broke of Anthony Bourdain committing suicide. I absolutely hate the notion that you can’t miss celebrities when they’re gone if you never personally knew them. That’s garbage. I knew Bourdain, in the same way that knew Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, and so on. I also hate the notion that suicide is a cowardly decision, as if in 2018 there’s not enough scientific evidence to show that our brains are endless enigma of chemical imbalances to show that a lot of the time it’s not a decision at all; least not made by anybody thinking rationally, free of substance influence. The news is still unwatchable, and reality is as unforgiving as ever. People are still being murdered by weapons of war in schools, churches, malls, and everywhere else. Opiates are killing the masses at a rate unimaginable. Slavery still exists ever rampant across the globe. Human trafficking is a concept preying upon my absolute worst fears as a parent now, something I never had to be afraid of before, at least I didn’t think I did.
So once again I am left with my vice, my outlet and my distraction from it all: Movies. My consumption of them has shifted though. Part of my imperfections as a human being is my personal brand of anxiety. I inherited it and it seems to be only getting worse. My impatience with others in public settings is crippling. Unknown surroundings This has caused me to abandon movie theaters for the most part. I can’t take it anymore. I saw less than 10 films in the theater this year, one of which was a revival screening of Twister, which ironically enough is my favorite theater experience this year. I was a long time paying member at a local independent theater in Columbus, but I have long since moved too far from it to continue that. I can also use the parent excuse, as bringing an almost two year old to a movie theater isn’t much appreciated by not only my peers, but also by my almost two year old. Fortunate for me, and for all of us, streaming has taken over the industry, “for better and for always” (thanks, Sorkin) I believe.
Netflix and Amazon Studios have taken over as the premiere studios empowering artists. Between the two, my list is made up over half of films distributed and financed by the studios. The best television experience of the year for me, The Haunting of Hill House, is also a Netflix original. My wife adores Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Netflix and Amazon have started a revolution in the same way that HBO once did. By all calculations they listen to the artists, sign the checks and stay out of their way. It gives me hope for a generation of filmmakers coming up that they too can thrive, so long as they adapt. I’ll make it back to the theater as a regular patron one day….maybe. I miss what it was though, not what it is now. So anyways, here’s the films that I loved. Some at first sight, some boiled within me for a while before I really took grasp. All I believe are essential, and hopefully if they lay in blind spots for you today, I can persuade you to distract yourself for a little while as well.
Notable Mentions: Black Panther, Hold the Dark, Game Night, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Won’t You be My Neighbor?,
Headaches: Avengers: Infinity War, Insidious: The Last Key, The Cloverfield Paradox, Rampage, Ready Player One, A Simple Favor
Blind spots: First Man, Suspiria, If Beale Street Could Talk
10. Private Life (Written & Directed by Tamara Jenkins)
Definitely the most pleasant surprise on my list, a married couple brilliantly played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti struggling with conception of a child and sift through just about every possible way to fill a void in their lives and finally become parents. Tactfully written and performed, again, with utter perfection. Delicately balancing between scathing humor and gut punching drama, I’ve been left with what is probably the most heartbreaking final shot into credits rolling I can remember since I watched it months ago now.
9. Annihilation (Written and Directed by Alex Garland)
Garland’s follow up to his equally superb directorial debut Ex Machina, his latest venture into Sci-Fi doubles down on the ambition in just about every single aspect. It’s a beautifully shot film, the soundtrack is haunting, and the performances by a predominantly female cast are all good. It’s a bold film, and a challenging one. It took me multiple viewings to appreciate it fully. It’s immensely sad too, an immersive allegory for depression that gets so many subtleties of inner sadness so perfectly it’s near uncomfortable to watch. I still struggle with its final moments, whether they’re in any way profound, or just profoundly empty but I don’t think it matters. I think about it often, and I hope I’m not alone.
8. The Night Comes For US (Written and Directed by Timo Tjahjanto)
In a year without a new John Wick chapter and a very disappointing Gareth Evans outing, low and behold my itch for insane, ballet-esque violence be scratched by this behemoth of a film. I consider myself seasoned with violence and gore in films, although admittedly amateur at best still on gun-fu, but I felt squeamish more than once during this bloodbath. Most definitely my “not for everyone” entry in this years collective, but if you at all appreciate highly calculated, highly wet action and fight sequences in your movies, this movie delivers in spades. The best part? It’s accompanied by a genuinely effective plot and terrific performances. Also, best use of billiard balls (among other impromptu-weapons) in a fight scene ever. I cackled.
7. You Were Never Really Here (Written and Directed by Lynne Ramsay)
A crippling exercise in both restraint, and execution. It’s an immensely heavy film, drifting through the muddy waters of trauma with an informed sensibility. The first image we see are tight in on a man gasping for air through a plastic bag. One of the final images is our anit-hero day dreaming personal catastrophe. It’s a depressing film, absolutely, but also a viciously honest one. Hones in on the inherent misery of life when living with the invisible blanket of trauma that chokes the very will out of you. Joaquin Phoenix will be forgotten on this one come awards time I believe, and it’s almost as much of a disgrace as the fact that Lynne Ramsay will as well. This film will be brought up in years to come as a forgotten masterpiece.
6. Upgrade (Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell)
Leigh Whannell has been batting around the industry forever now, the writing half on most of James Wan’s early horror success, and producing one sequel after another in the Saw and Insidious (he made his directorial debut in the frankly underrated third installment) franchises. Color me shocked that his new film be one of most calculated, smart and subdued science fiction films we’ve gotten in years. As the ever brilliant Walter Chaw already pointed out in his review, Upgrade is the best ‘Venom’ movie we got this year, and could ever hope to get to be quite honest. I expected to laugh a lot based on the brilliant first trailer that debuted, but I didn’t expect the penetrating poignancy of it all. The rare sci-fi film these days that’s somewhat derivative, yet somehow offers new perspective into old ideas, and that’s no easy feat in this genre.
5. BlacKkKlansman (Dir. Spike Lee, Written by Wachtel, Rabinowitz, Willmott, Lee)
Hilarious and stomach churning all the same. Takes the absolute piss out of a despicable, ignorant movement, and serves a fresh reminder of the savant like skill set that Spike brings to the medium when he finds the material that sparks the flame. In any just world, these are star making performance for John David Washington and Laura Harrier, as well as further evidence of Adam Driver’s brilliance and magnificent taste in material to work with. I expected the film to be powerful, I didn’t expect to laugh quite as much as I did.
4. A Star is Born (Dir. Bradley Cooper, Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper)
For all of the grievances that exist against it, those of which I fully understand and maybe even agree with to a point, I do not care. I love this movie. I love that it feels modern but also so classically put together. It’s the best mix of an O’Russell and Eastwood film school one could ever assume they would get, Cooper taking the best bits of each of the former’s styles and ringing it out over a very straightforward story. I applaud foremost for the film’s aesthetic Matthew Libatique, Ace DP who helps Cooper accomplish some of the best portrayal of on stage musician performance, and the vibe that exists leading up to and after gigs. Spending years in much more modest venues than what the characters perform in this film, I have such a deep appreciation for this film getting that crucial element so right. Along with that, Gaga is terrific as billed. Cooper is also great, doing his best hybrid performance of Eddie Vedder, Jack White and stealing Sam Elliot’s dictation. Mentioning Sam Elliot, with all of the accolades this thing is destined for come awards season, I fear that the most deserving performer in Elliot, will leave empty handed and I cannot say how disappointing that will be. It’s arguably a career best outing from one of our living legends.
3. Mandy (Written and Directed by Panos Cosmatos)
1000% “my thing”, and I have gone on at length here so I will spare you from gushing further.
2. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Written and Directed by The Coen Brothers)
Every new Coen Brothers film is an event that need be celebrated, and this one be no different. Hilarious, somber and alluring in all of the usual ways that one would now expect with the Brothers at this stage of their careers. A collection of vignettes set in the old west, each one reaping their own unique rewards, the pinnacle being the chapter christened “The Girl Who Got Rattled” featuring a career best performance in a still fresh career full of them from Zoe Kazan. It’s a film that is going to prove more fruitful with each viewing, as an inversion of so many tropes synonymous Western genre, a scathing critique of the traditions of Americana, and yet another prestige piece of craftsmanship in the medium. I would have never imagined after watching it that it wouldn’t uphold as the best of the year, that was until I watched…
1. First Reformed (Written and Directed by Paul Schrader)
The single most important film one can take in from a year littered with significant works. In what is most definitely the career defining performance to date, Ethan Hawke is awards bound and I don’t think there’s any argument in this year to suggest otherwise, so of course the Academy will screw it up. It’s a flat out masterpiece. A powerful character study about a man of faith who is all but empty of any faith at all. The film itself contains some of the most astounding transcendental imagery I have seen in a quite some time, in which I succumbed to it in what I can only imagine those that surrender themselves to their religion must feel when possessed with a sort of divine power. Schrader has made a career grappling with anti-heroes and “man of god” in which I can only imagine are Schrader battling with his own life long crisis of faith. Hawkes portrayal of a man so frightened with the belief of impending doom for humanity will stick with me for a very long time. Amanda Seyfried is equally terrific as a pregnant widow that offers as a perhaps the last shred of hope to salvage Hawke’s Toller character from grave conclusion. There’s an underlying message of environmentalism that is reminiscent of Aronofsky’s maligned mother! that sets this in a category of recent films likely to be scoffed by a many that will have properly warned us, but we didn’t listen until it was too late.