1. Roma (d. Alfonso Cuaron)
Hands down, the finest piece of cinema of 2018. A fragmented period piece of a specific place and time, the story of a year in the life of a housemaid has a fascinating mixture feeling real and dreamlike as the film unfolds like a woozy dreamlike state. Alfonso Cuaron is a director who started off as a director of potential, but he continues to improve with each piece of cinema he embarks on. With “Roma” he equals his earlier masterpieces, “Children of Men”, and “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, and this is a director that truly has delivered the most technical mastery out of any film released this year. By telling a visually striking story in chromatic black-and-white, Cuaron truly elevates the craft and artistry of cinema and what it can do with concepts of time and memory. This film is so pristine, so meticulous in detail, that it’s reminiscent to the works of other advanced movies of cinematic history, as it uses a elegant flow to love and loss, memories and dreams, and it’s unlike anything you will ever experience. A film like “Roma” is why I love and celebrate cinema to begin with.
2. Burning (d. Lee Chang-dong)
In the course of 20 years, Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong has only made six feature films; Poetry made my runners-up in 2011, and I was also very impressed with “Secret Sunshine”, but here Lee Chang-dong has made a film that will be celebrated in years to come. A modern Hitchcockian thriller, that looks deep inside the soul of South Korea, and where the country stands in terms of society. The story of a young aspiring writer named Lee Jong-su who encounters a girl who he grew up with, who asks him to take care of her cat while she goes on a trip to Africa. Once she returns, she comes back with a mysterious man named Bend, who ends up turning his world upside down with torment and abstruseness. A film that takes it’s time to reveal and unfold, but it leaves a great impression on the mind as it allows the viewer to connect the story together. “Burning” is a film that will truly plague the viewers mind upon viewing as it explores courage and standing up against our tormentors.
3. Shoplifters (d. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
A poignant and heartbreaking masterpiece, “Shoplifters”, the new film from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda does what Sean Baker did last year with “The Florida Project”, but only in his own country of Japan, he explores a forgettable part of society; the livelihoods of individuals who are trapped in poverty. A sublime and thoughtful drama that centers on the story of a Tokyo family trying to survive day-to-day by a cycle of shoplifting food and even grifting. Once the family reaches beyond its means, they end up taking in a traumatized young girl who family appears to have neglected and even abused her. The way the film unfolds is with many surprises and grace, this film is destined to become a classic of our times.
4. The House That Jack Built (d. Lars von Trier)
A deeply disturbing film, with touches of dark comedy, this mesmerizing suspense-thriller from Lars von Trier is an exercise of provocation that will stay with you long after you view it. Chronicled with chapters called “incidents”, and starring Matt Dillon as Jack, a failed architect, engineer and brutal serial killer narrates the film with a character named Verge (Bruno Ganz) as he explains the details of his most elaborate orchestrated crimes. Each of them is a towering piece of art that defines his life’s work over the span of a decade. A greatly underrated work of art, and just as great as great as many other von Trier masterworks, it’s a stylish and dense work where you see Dillon deliver the performance of his career.
5. Suspiria (d. Luca Guadagnino)
It would seem blasphemous to remake Dario Argento’s horror classic from 1977, about an American girl attending a dance school that is ran by a covet of witches. Italian director Luca Guadagnino recreated “Suspiria” resisted pale imitation. Instead, he shook the whole film upside down, changed the color palette of reds and blues to more muted gray’s, and brought in a dense film that is filled with historical and political context that is also 50 mins longer. With outstanding set-pieces, with great emotional truths about confronting the brutality of Germany’s past, “Suspiria” is a towering artistic achievement. Guadagnino proves here that vision goes a long way, and that remakes actually can be just as essential and as breathtaking as the original, as rare as that sounds.
6. You Were Never Really Here (d. Lynne Ramsey)
Lynne Ramsey’s fourth feature is a return to form and “You Were Never Really Her” is certainly her strongest film to date. A modern noir film where Ramsey elevates and transcends genre in the way violence impacts the human psyche through trauma is profound in the film tense. A look inside how the aftermath of violence can shatter our minds and souls, Ramsey uses clever visual techniques by cutting away from violence to impact the viewers psychology, the result makes the violence even more disturbing without even seeing it, but rather feeling and sensing it. The main protagonist, a bounty hunter and contract killer named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) who reluctantly takes a job from political outsiders to track down the young daughter of a state senator who has gone missing. Ramsey uses the fragmented structure of trauma, time, and space by creating a mood of Joe living in a waking nightmare world of scandals and sexual exploitation where Joe is transcended into finding purpose in his life by rescuing this young girl. Ramsey doesn’t force feed the viewer what to feel or think, she does it all visually and the result is grim and equally exuberant.
7. Isle of Dogs (d. Wes Anderson)
This has been a great year for animated films, but Wes Anderson’s 9th feature film “Isle of Dogs” had a passion and care that seems rare in animated films today; Anderson truly cares about Japanese culture and here he plays great tribute here. A delightful experience that families and any dog lover will certainly enjoy. Technically superb on so many levels, and perhaps Wes Anderson’s most uproariously comical film to date that surpasses his deadpan tendencies into something that is more sincere. The influences in the film from Hayou Miyazaki, Akira Kurosawa, and Yajurigo Ozu are clear. His world building of Japan is gracious despite the films detractors accusing it of cultural appropriation. Anderson here is the perfect director to make an outsider film of Japanese culture, his visuals and world building are astonishing, and the film is filled with rich pathos and dignity.
8. At Eternity’s Gate (d. Julian Schnabel)
Artist turned director Julian Schanbel has a love and passion for art and the artists behind it. A majority of Schnabel’s filmography has been biopics about artists and the suffering they endure, and his latest offering, “At Eternity’s Gate”, is both an outstanding film and a refreshing ode to Vincent Van Gogh played with humility and melancholy by Wilem Dafoe. Instead of focusing the whole life of Van Gogh, Schnabel instead focuses on the last few months of Van Gogh’s life. Schnabel brings his experimental aesthetics and rich color pallets of green, yellow, and grey here with sheer elegance, while showing the internal turmoil Van Gogh experienced bolstered by a career-defining performance from Dafoe who delivers the greatest performance of the year.
9. Let the Sunshine In (d. Claire Denis)
Four times in a row now French auteur Claire Denis has delivered a ten best-worthy film. “35 Shots of Rum” (2009), “White Material” (2010), and “Bastards” (2013) all made my top ten lists in the given years. Most of Denis films are often very contemplative, elliptical, and austere, oddly enough this one is her most lighthearted, personal, and verbose. The film is episodic and spread out with interludes of space. The film is a personal portrait of a lonely middle-aged Persian woman trying to find love and all she finds is betrayal, deception, and ultimately emptiness. Juliette Binoche is absolutely radiant here, honing in a performance of empathy and tenderness while Denis writing and directing here is intoxicating, pristine, and just filled with honest emotional truths about the patience and agonies of finding true love.
10. Vox Lox (d. Brady Corbet)
“Vox Lux” is perhaps one of the most bold and formally daring films of the year that certainly bites off more that it can chew. The drama set in the world of pop music has so much on it’s mind, along with the dark satire echoes the literary works of Don DeLillo. Actor turned director Brady Corbet shows great promise behind the camera, and it’s certainly clear he shows competency and confidence here as a young director, and you can tell he has taken a page or two from the masters. As the credits role during “Vox Lox”, you might be perplexed in what you just saw. It’s a very bizarre film where you always feel something sinister lurking beneath the surface, as it explores the complexities of celebrity and stardom. Natalie Portman delivers one of her most impressive performances of her career in a film with ravishing cinematography, haunting music, and compelling ideas.
Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)
Eighth Grade (d. Bo Burnham)
An impressive directorial debut feature, Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” captures the uncomfortable truths of becoming a young teenager. This film wouldn’t have worked with out it’s lead Elise Fisher who delivers one of the most authentic and resonate performances of the year.
Lean on Pete (d. Andrew Haigh)
Andrew Haigh’s third feature film is completely different from his other two, a delicate coming-of-age story starring newcomer Charlie Plummer as a teenager who finds his calling after bonding with a struggling racehorse. The drama here is soul searching as it avoids any sentimental trappings.
Leave No Trace (d. Debra Granik)
Debra Granik is known for jump starting the career of Jennifer Lawrence with “Winter’s Bone”, and if any luck the amazing Thomasin McKenzie will join the same success with “Leave No Trace”. Granik’s gripping and somber father-daughter drama stars McKenzie and Ben Foster trying to reconcile their relationship as they try to find the right place they can call home.
The Other Side of the Wind (d. Orson Welles)
A magnificent gift that was given to us in 2018, one of the few remaining “Unfinished Orson Welles” projects, Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” is a film I never thought I would ever get to see. Thanks to the resources of Netflix, crowdfunding support, and producer Frank Marshall is a film way ahead of it’s time
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (d. Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, and Rodney Rotham)
Spider-Verse finally achieves a great goal of pleasing both children and adults. At its center, it’s a kid-friendly animated movie with a traditional “be true to yourself” type of message, but the animation sparks with such vivid color that it feels fresh and crisp.
Honorable Mentions (Other strong titles of 2019–In Alphabetical Order)
Annihilation (d. Alex Garland), Black Panther (d. Ryan Coogler), Disobedience (D. Sebastian Lelio), The Favourite (d. Yorgos Lanthimos), First Reformed (d. Paul Schrader), Happy as Lazarro (d. Alice Rohrwacher), If Beale Street Could Talk (d. Barry Jenkins), Private Life (d. Tamara Jenkins), The Rider (d. Chloe Zhao), Support the Girls (d. Andrew Bujalski)