EVERYTHING IS CIRCULAR: Jed Bookout’s Top Films of 2018

by Jed Bookout 1,060 views0

Every year, hundreds of films are released, and every year, I try my best to watch them all. At the time of publication, I’ve watched over 140 films released in 2018. Many may try to tell you that “they don’t make them like they used to,” or that most films are bad and/or lifeless. These are the lies we tell ourselves to keep watching The Office instead of letting ourselves experience new things in cinema.

To paraphrase and re-contextualize the possibly apocryphal Mark Twain quote, “reports on the death of cinema have been greatly exaggerated.”

I’ve been in the practice for four years now of ranking every film I watch as I see them, re-ranking them as I revisit or when I think more about what I’ve experienced. As such, my rankings are constantly evolving. This list itself will not reflect my views in 2028, or even 2019, so it functions instead as a time capsule, of the best approximation of how these films made ME feel in 2018.

Narrowing 140+ films into just ten films has always felt like an unfair challenge of exclusion to me, so I’ve provided a top 21, which still feels too low in representing how great a year for film this was and is also a very strange number because I wrote a top 20, then realized I loved a film and wrote 1000 words on it (deal with it). Besides, 21 means my list is now old enough to drink, and since this is being published on a college news website, what could be more appropriate?

Enjoy!

Be sure to check out Emily Mahler’s list here!

AS ALWAYS, BE WARNED: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

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Here are some outstanding films I just do not have the space to write about. These are all great films that you should check out as soon as possible that just didn’t quite make the cut in my top 20.

Tully (available for rent)
Cam (available on Netflix)
Revenge (available on Shudder)
Thunder Road (available for rent)
Game Night (available on HBO Go)
The Night Comes for Us (available on Netflix)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (available on Netflix)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (in theaters now)

Here’s the films I wish I’d watched but never quite got around to:
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Capernaum
Destroyer
Wildlife

To see the entire ranked list of films I saw in 2018, click here.

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Courtesy of A24

21. HEREDITARY
Directed by Ari Aster

“Give us your knowledge of all secret things, bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars. Bind all men to our will as we have bound ourselves for now and ever to yours. Hail, Paimon!”

It’s not a new idea to present trauma as horror. It’s not a new idea to have said trauma manifest itself as literal demons and deities in the cinema we consume. What Hereditary does differently is portray the ways in which we can let that trauma win, and most grimly, how it just might always win. If not now, and if not us, then later, with our sons and daughters.

Hereditary is an actively frightening film, unnerving even in its set design which obsesses with miniature recreations, positing a perfect existence in materials empty of the life that goes on throughout the house. By now, you’ve probably heard about how deeply off the deep end the film dives in its final minutes, which really brings me back to the major thought I’ve had all year about this movie:

Ari Aster is fearless.

This was a wide release horror film that never gives its audience easy answers, introduces the concept of demon resurrection late in its run time, and kills off what one assumes is its central character halfway through the film, an idea seemingly inspired by Psycho that many films attempt to recreate but never quite manage to give justice. The “heroes” lose, and there are implications that this might eventually lead to the end of the world.

Isn’t that the case with the traumas we hold, experience, and inherit? There are never any easy answers. People just die. Life is a constant string of failures, and everything we do seems to be leading to the end times, anyway. Even life changing concepts introduced far too late in our lives is a relatable seed here; how many times have we found the answers to our problems far too late? How many times have we replayed our abuse over and over in our heads, wondering what we could have done differently?

Hereditary is a portrayal of all of this and many audiences simply don’t want those kinds of reminders. The movies are for escape, for pleasure, for fun. Hereditary is not fun. It is bleak and uncompromising, and may hit closer to home than many are comfortable with.

This is also why it’s one of the most daring, exciting horror films maybe ever made.

Currently: Available for rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Marvel

20. BLACK PANTHER
Directed by Ryan Coogler

“We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

You’ve probably read every good Black Panther take out there, and if you haven’t, it’s one of the most heavily discussed and loved films of 2018. You’ve probably read that the film fires on all cylinders as both pure escapist entertainment and a subtle rallying point for globalism. You’ve probably read the hit pieces that state that Wakanda, aside from what it says for modern representation in media, is actually a Problematic™️ portrayal of nationalism that depicts a nation with literal and metaphorical walls separating them from the world. You’ve probably read the edgy takedowns from your cousin on Facebook about how “Black Panther isn’t even that good actually.” You’ve probably read the other takes that it’s the greatest superhero movie ever made.

Forget about all of that for a second. Look at it instead as the duality of two mindsets that can exist at once. Cognitive dissonance can allow us the blessing to think T’challa is a fair yet inexperienced leader that inherited a monarchy hidden from the world and has not yet found a way to truly democratize what could inevitably be technology and knowledge that could make the world a better place. It can also tell us that Erik Killmonger is an imperialist set on making Wakanda the one true driving force in the world but also comes from a place that knows that black people have been systemically oppressed, murdered, raped, and placed into positions of subservience to white supremacy; he theorizes that the powers of Wakanda can flip the script on this entire narrative, finally ending white supremacy once and for all.

Ryan Coogler, ever the humanist, draws a line in the sand and proceeds to balance himself on one foot. This is a thin line to stand on; Black Panther could never truly be a radical vision of the wholesale death of white supremacy in a world that benefits from it, which is why Killmonger is coded as the villain. But Coogler also knows that the ideology itself is not the villain, but rather the means in which to draw a different outcome. At the end, T’challa finally begins introducing Wakanda to the world by establishing the centers for disenfranchised youth in Oakland. This is nowhere near the act of revolution Killmonger proposes, but rather a small start of a bigger idea that Coogler proposes:

If you have the ability to completely change the world whenever you want, you can either uproot the entire system and create a period of chaos and unrest or you can change the world in little ways until the world is unrecognizable yet better.

I don’t have the answers for which approach is better, but the delicate handling of both mindsets is one of the reasons why Black Panther remains one of the smartest and most thoughtful superhero films ever made.

Plus it’s just so damn fun. Come on.

Currently: Streaming on Netflix

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

19. SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Directed by Andrew Bujalski

“I started this day off crying, so if you ask me, laughing is progress.”

You’ve never really experienced America if you’ve never worked in customer service. Service jobs in food and retail allow an observer to truly see the subtle functions of a society outside of the active eye of the media. Entitled customers demanding more than legally or ethically allowed, the casual racism and sexism of people creeping into interactions depending on who is serving them, and the frightening feeling of being stuck at a dead end in regards to “the American dream.”

It’s not just customers, though. Many of the implicitly scary things you deal with as a service worker manifest themselves in the very structure of the workforce. Business owners who see their workers as cogs benefiting the bottom line, expendable, easily fixed or easily replaced. The only thing that can ever truly make the workplace tolerable are the people in it that truly care about making this experience as palatable as possible for the rest of us.

No film in 2018 understands this better than Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, which presents itself as a day in the life of the women occupying a Hooters-esque “breastaurant” called Double Whammies, but is actually a love letter to the bosses who actually give a shit. Regina Hall gives the very best performance of the year as Whammies manager Lisa, constantly putting out little fires ranging from kicking out a sexist customer to solving the mystery of the strange noise coming from the vents. Along the way, she works to make her employees and customers as comfortable as possible all while the restaurant’s owner chides her for not caring as much about the bottom line.

The central plot of this otherwise freeform representation of a day involves one of Lisa’s girls having run over her boyfriend with a car. Lisa decides to run an unauthorized car wash outside the restaurant to help raise money for the inevitable legal fees this will lead to, another sign that Lisa truly cares more about her girls than the actual business. Most of this runs incidental to the experience of watching the film, however; more time is spent following the day to day procedures of the bar’s operations since this is really a character study of what leadership in the working class world really means and why these managers will always embody the most thankless positions in life.

Much criticism has been leveled at the portion of the film when Lisa leaves the picture and Danyelle (Shayna McHale in a revelatory first performance) becomes manager, since Regina Hall is the true driving force of this narrative, but the film’s central message doesn’t work without these scenes. You see, once Lisa leaves Whammies, the business manages to last all of an hour before the cable goes out, the customers start to fight, and one of the Whammies girls accidentally shows her bare nipple to the crowd, leading an undercover cop to shut the bar down early. Without the love and care of a truly committed manager, Whammies descends into chaos.

The most subtle damnation Bujalski is proposing here is that many of these positions are designed to be a dead end for beautiful yet uneducated women. It’s no big revelation that places like these are sexually exploitative, but what Bujalski is saying is that the entire workforce exploits the marginalized, whether they are poor, women, people of color, or all of the above, to stay in line and provide for the generally otherwise useless money men in charge.

Support the Girls is an extremely political film that never once holds the hands of the audience into understanding its wavelength. Even without this reading, it still works as an incredible slice of life story of the strong, under-appreciated women in our lives doing their best, failing, then continuing to scream into the night. The institution may be failing us all, but we don’t have to take it quietly.

Currently: Available for rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Well Go USA

18. THE ENDLESS
Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson

“What if we stayed?”

A complete redefining of what can and should be done in indie film. As a stand alone feature, The Endless still impresses as the story of two escapees from a UFO death cult who decide to return to their cult as adults.

It works well as a genre piece, but also as an experiment of the differences between expectations and reality. The cult might not be what the men thought it was, but what the cult is worshiping is more dangerous and unexplainable than they ever could have dreamed.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s third feature film, however, functions best when stacked up against their other work. You see, The Endless reveals its hand near the end as being part of a bigger cinematic universe shared with the two other films they’ve have made. The duo from this film quite literally walk into the house from the team’s first feature Resolution, revealing that Benson & Moorhead aren’t just multi-hyphenate directors, producers, cinematographers, and actors (they also play the lead duo here); they’re full fledged world builders, looking to change the way indie filmmakers craft their own output.

Currently: Streaming on Netflix

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Netflix

17. PRIVATE LIFE
Directed by Tamara Jenkins

“So, the seltzer comes from one place, the syrup comes from someplace else, and, together they make Mountain Dew, or Diet Coke, or what have you. But, if the pipe gets clogged, you don’t get Mountain Dew. You just get seltzer.”

2018 has been a pretty solid year for making the case that I should never try to have children.

Tully staged parenthood as an actual nightmare capable of driving a person insane; Blockers took the subtler road and makes the claim that being a parent makes you an irrational reactionary.

So here we are now with Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’ film about two middle-aged adults (Paul Giamatti and the outstanding, underrated Kathryn Hahn) who want to have a child at any cost. Traditional copulation hasn’t worked, and none of the other procedures seem to be working either. The idea of adoption is a disgusting thought to Hahn’s character, but even in her desperation when they end up trying that, it blows up in their faces.

That’s when their niece Sadie offers to become a surrogate parent for the two and the film becomes a character study of three people all desperate for their own piece of life.

Jenkins doesn’t pull any punches here, never afraid to make her characters look as hypocritical or as awful as they would in real life. Her work here draws to mind a more humanistic Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen without the sleazy context.

In the end, it’s disappointment that drives the narrative; the last shot of this movie is something I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

CURRENTLY: Streaming on Netflix.

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of RLJE Films

16. MANDY
Directed by Panos Cosmatos

“A psychotic drowns where the mystic swims. You’re drowning. I’m swimming.”

What can be said about Mandy that hasn’t already been said? The first half is a carefully paced fever dream of a romance torn apart by a Satanic cult; the second half is basically Drive Angry as if made by Nicholas Winding Refn.

It’s either an acid-soaked horror movie or an ethereal revenge thriller; either way, this was never meant to be for everybody, but it’s certainly an instant classic that will live on for years in midnight screenings and college dorm rooms.

For the uninitiated, this truly functions best on as blind a viewing as possible.

Currently: Streaming on Shudder

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of BH Tilt

15. UPGRADE
Directed by Leigh Whannell

“A fake world is a lot less painful than the real one. All I needed was for his mind to break, and he broke it.”

Look, if you want to see what would happen if David Cronenberg remade Robocop, you’d probably see something very similar to this. Leigh Whannell has the capacity to be the new Paul Verhoeven should he so desire, and Upgrade is a good case study in why it’s okay for our action films to be big, weird, and bloody still.

Currently: Available for rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Paramount

14. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

“You use a scalpel… I prefer a hammer.”

Listen, Tom Cruise didn’t have to do a HALO jump and fight gravity and a failing suit for us.

He sure didn’t need to make a cameraman go and do it with him, either.

But they did that, you know?

And in the process, he created one of the most intense action films ever made. It is astonishing that this franchise is six films deep yet still getting better and better.

Currently: Available for rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of A24

13. FIRST REFORMED
Directed by Paul Schrader

“I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.”

The other side of the coin to Taxi Driver, First Reformed made me realize that what Paul Schrader has created can best be called a “political masculinity dualogy.”

Both films present flawed, unreliable men as narrators looking to change the world through any means necessary. Both commit (or attempt to commit) what can be considered acts of terrorism to achieve this. Travis Bickle wanted to “clean the streets,” which involved a systemic slaughter of pimps and people of color. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) wanted the church to pay for its part in climate change denial.

Both men are defined by their masculinity, or rather the masculinity they lack and wish to hold onto. Both are painted in broad strokes and narrate their thoughts which are sometimes at odds with what an audience’s moral center would agree with.

What makes First Reformed so special in this regard is that Schrader has no interest in giving the good guy a win. Whereas Travis Bickle succeeds and is revered for it, Toller instead abandons his plans and embraces Mary (Amanda Seyfried). It is here that the true differences between the two pieces become clear: Taxi Driver was a story about the absence of God, of one man looking to be God himself.

First Reformed is a story about the search for God, of one man looking to find that God has not abandoned him. It’s in that one beautiful moment at the end that it becomes clear to Toller (and to us) that God is a representation of hope, of a better world. The absence of God is an absence of hope, and the absence of hope is unbridled despair.

CURRENTLY: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Annapurna

12. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Directed by Boots Riley

“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”

If you treat people like animals for long enough, they become actual animals. When they die, you’ll mourn but do nothing.

This seems to be one of the central messages in Boots Riley’s gonzo directorial debut, a personification on screen of the beating of a dead horse. One of the most unique and damning screeds against capitalism ever released to multiplexes, no single essay can do this strange, singular film justice in regards to what it has to say about race, gender, the working class, and socialism.

All hail Boots Riley, the millennial Lynch, and praise be unto Lakeith Stanfield, a star unlike any other, not afraid to take on some of the most truly baffling and insane material released in 2018.

Currently: Streaming on Hulu

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Netflix

11. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Directed by Orson Welles

“If the audience can’t get it then what’s the point of even going to the movie?”

This was never going to live up to almost fifty years of expectations.

Orson Welles is the king of what could have been. We all know the story: boy wunderkind who rides high, falls far, considered a legend far past when it would have mattered. Many projects started and stopped, some never coming to fruition at all.

But this one came really damn close.

And so when it was announced that it was finally going to be finished 48 years after the start of production, expectations were monumental to say the least. Would this be a lost masterpiece from the master himself? A profound statement on what happens when the artist is treated infallibly? Perhaps it would be a clever improvement on his faux-doc style previously established in F for Fake. Discussion raged, expectations soared, and then people saw it.

Does it live up to that hype? Not really. But was this ever really meant to be something deserving of said hype?

Around the same time this film was in production, the spiritually similar film Day for Night was released. A major theme in that film was whether the art or the artist was ultimately more important. Welles is functioning on a similar yet simpler wavelength here with a pretty damning thesis that takes a definitive stance on that quandary:

Just because art is magnificent does not mean the artist is magnificent.

The Other Side of the Wind functions sublimely as both self criticism and a profoundly ahead of its time reading of the idea that we can love and know art but never truly know the masters behind those pieces. Because to those who know those masters intimately, there is just a person. Flawed, cantankerous, arrogant, bigoted. Jake Hannaford is the embodiment even now of just how shitty our idols can be. He doesn’t finish “The Other Side of the Wind,” the film within this film, due to a lot of this cantankerousness. This in many ways mirrors the real life struggle this film would eventually go through.

Wind is best enjoyed if experienced more for what it is than what it’s not: Godard directing 8 1/2 by way of Dazed and Confused. The film is a shaggy dog, fly on the wall whiplash event that flows without resolution from scene to scene. It’s a single day in the life of an asshole that everyone thinks is a genius. Maybe the genius is an asshole. Maybe the asshole is a genius. Who knows? Welles and Hannaford never finished, anyway.

Currently: Streaming on Netflix

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

10. COLD WAR
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

“He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Pawlikowski’s luscious monochromatic romance Cold War details the on and off again love affair between a singer and a pianist that spans ten years and four countries in just under 90 minutes. Nothing here ever seems rushed given the time constraint, but rather fleeting. Cold War perfectly captures the feeling of a love that can never truly be due to the inherent toxicity we find in ourselves and the world around us.

Unlike many great romances of the screen, Wiktor and Zula’s is not even staged conventionally, with Tomasz Kot towering over Joanna Kulig in their scenes together.

But when Joanna Kulig sings, she overpowers her partner, the screen, the stage, and everyone watching. Her performance is magnetic, yet never idealized. Zula is not a manic pixie dream girl; she is an opportunist using the biases of the state as well as the many men in her life to get ahead, including Wiktor, whose downfall many times over lies in the way he imagines Zula in ways other than who she is. This is not to say that Wiktor is the “poor male victim” at the hands of an “evil woman.” Wiktor is eventually an abusive drunk obsessed with making Zula into something she is not, a relatably toxic partner for many in the audience. But Cold War does not want you to “side” with either partner here: this is a uniquely toxic relationship, showing how flawed people can bring out the absolute most toxic qualities in each other. Consider it the Polish Phantom Thread.

In 2018, an unintentional spiritual trilogy was created of men turning women into stars, only for those women to greatly exceed the power and influence of those very men. If A Star is Born is the romanticized version of this tale, and Vox Lux is the acidic reality, then Cold War is perhaps the logical outcome of both of those visions coming to life. This is a doomed romance shackled to the reality of its Cold War backdrop, with no traditional happy ending in sight for the two lovers, but Pawlikowski seems to posit that this doesn’t matter: doomed love is love nonetheless, and as Zula says at the end, “I think the view is better on the other side.”

Currently: In select theaters

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Annapurna

09. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Directed by Barry Jenkins

“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

The way Barry Jenkins casually floats around in time here creates mirrors and echoes of two different lives by the same people.

Effervescent scenes shot by James Laxton, set to a luscious Nicholas Britell score showing young romance, big plans, bigger ideas shared between two young lovers that contrast with sequences in which the reality is that these two have been torn apart by a criminal justice system biased against people of color.

Throughout it all, though, there is love.

Love is what keeps Fonnie and Tish together, even when they are physically being torn apart from one another. This is nailed home with a beautiful, melancholy final shot of the entire family sitting together at last… in a prison. If Beale Street Could Talk doesn’t need to say what’s on its mind for you to catch its drift.

Currently: In select theaters now; expands further January 2019

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of A24

08. EIGHTH GRADE
Directed by Bo Burnham

“Growing up can be a little bit scary and weird.”

Bo Burnham begins his transformation from a gimmicky “musical comedian” to full fledged auteur with this painfully accurate picture of adolescence. He could not have done it without Elsie Fisher, whose Kayla so resembles someone we know that by the end, we will reluctantly admit that the person she most resembles is us.

All Kayla wants to do is fit in and be liked; not by weirdos like Gabe, but the cool kids. The older kids. She wants the life that Instagram influencers post about that interest her. Just as much of a tragedy in the film as it is in life, the people who truly love Kayla are the ones she notices the least. If we already have the validation of our parents, why would we need to impress them?

Eighth Grade is everything Mid90s tried to be, effortlessly. By setting this film in the modern day, Burnham knows that the film will very soon be another nostalgia relic; this is acknowledged as such when Kayla finds her time capsule for herself. The hot trends will always fade away, but the desire to find one’s place will always be universal.

Currently: Available for Rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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© 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation                         All Rights Reserved

07. THE FAVOURITE
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

“I like when she puts her tongue in me.”

If you watch this one with the sound off, it looks like yet another costume drama story of kings and queens.

I really don’t like films about royalty.

Something has always felt off about these kinds of worlds to me in that they always feel like actors playing actors: royalty has always been about putting on a show, historically speaking, and there’s nothing more masturbatory to me than the kinds of multi-layered performances by actors showcasing their best Transatlantic voices these films often have.

That’s part of what makes The Favourite so special, though. This is a film about those performances collapsing under the combined weight of manipulation and misdirection. It also features a queer love triangle that tellingly is never painted as a true romance. There isn’t even a king in sight!

Everything here is about power: Sarah (a delightfully cold Rachel Weisz) has long been pulling the strings of the government while being the romantic “favourite” of the Queen (Olivia Colman, equally good at playing frightening and funny here). In comes her cousin Abigail (a never better Emma Stone), once an aristocrat and now a floor girl. Abigail wants to reclaim her position in life, and also becomes involved with the queen.

What follows is a messy, dark story of three dominant forces trying to maintain supremacy; in the end, it is the cold aristocracy that wins.

Currently: In theaters now

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Netflix

06. ROMA
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

“When I was older, I was a sailor.”

Life presented as cinema, cinema presented as life. Roma is at once a two hour film school walking us through Alfonso Cuarón’s many influences AND a small story about the sort of women that informed his direction in life.

Discounting this as either one of those things is doing this monument a disservice; Cuarón makes the little moments here feel huge and the big moments seem truly claustrophobic. In one impressive tracking shot (and boy are there many), Cuarón says more than the tight knit editing of many bigger films will ever say.

Cleo (an astonishing Yalitza Aparicio in her very first acting role ever) and her friend run excitedly down a busy street in Mexico City, the camera struggling to keep up as the viewer soaks in as many details as possible, before she ends her run at a busy street corner, revealing an intersection bustling with life, bristling with true excitement. We have spent the last twenty minutes watching Cleo tend house at her employers’ residence in painstaking detail. She is a maid, and although she is well respected by this family, she is still shown as the “other” in these early scenes.

It is here on this street, where you see the smile on Cleo’s face, that you can truly see the dreams, the hopes, and the ambitions of this remarkable woman. Roma is a huge portrait of the little moments and a towering achievement for any filmmaker, even one with as many masterpieces up their sleeve as Cuarón.

Currently: Streaming on Netflix and in select theaters now

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Hulu

05. MINDING THE GAP
Directed by Bing Liu

“When you’re a kid, you just do, you just act and then somewhere along the line, everyone loses that.”

Friday Night Lights, struggling in its ratings in its later years, once famously crafted an ad campaign around the words “It’s not about football.” On the surface, the show was about the Dillon Panthers, but really, it was an ensemble piece about young people getting by in a small town and facing their demons head on. Football was a means to an end, not the end itself. The same can be said for Minding the Gap, Bing Liu’s brilliant documentary detailing he and his friends’ bonding through skateboarding while going through the motions in Rockford, IL.

But this is just a jump off point for the bigger picture Liu wants to paint about abuse across generations. His friend Keire was abused by his dad, yet only ever wanted validation from him. His dad died before he could ever receive it. Likewise, Zack too saw a less defined kind of abuse occur, which leads him to physically assaulting Nina, the mother of his child.

Liu uses his friends’ experiences and the differences in which they coped with their abuse to draw a direct parallel with the trauma he endured at home from his stepfather. Liu is both the artist and the subject here, with multiple scenes involving participants directly acknowledging the camera about Liu and his experiences. In a truly heartbreaking scene, he sits his mother down for an interview and asks her if she knew. How long did she know? Why did this happen? She responds by shaking her head. She was always at work. She never saw the warning signs, and whenever her children tried to tell her, she didn’t want to believe it. In this moment, the camera is as much fixated on his mother as it is on Liu, smashing the fourth wall and making us realize that the central idea here is that we can all relate to being the target or the targeted, and sometimes, inaction is its own form of abuse.

Minding the Gap is not about skateboarding. But the tie these three share because of it makes this a truly outstanding companion piece for Friday Night Lights in one of the absolute best documentaries of the year.

Currently: Streaming on Hulu

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Warner Bros

04. PADDINGTON 2
Directed by Paul King

“Aunt Lucy said, if we’re kind and polite the world will be right.”

Paddington Brown is framed for a crime he did not commit and is sent to a federal penitentiary. Along the way, he finds that the best weapon to arm oneself with in this world now is simply kindness. Statements are made about the need for prison reform, and Hugh Grant gets to perform the role of a lifetime as a truly devious master of disguise.

Yes, this is a kids’ movie. But it’s more than that. This is a testament to the power of being nice and being true to oneself. It is not the kind of centrist fence walker nonsense you would expect from a message like that, either; Paddington NEVER compromises his true self in the name of prison or a society quickly turning its back on him. In the end, he comes out unscathed and the world is all the better for it. We obviously can’t and shouldn’t be nice to EVERYBODY in a world like today’s.

What Paddington 2 posits, however, is that there is a capacity for kindness in those around us, and if we lead by example while never letting anyone walk all over us, the world would be a better place for it.

Currently: Streaming on HBO Go

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Paramount

03. ANNIHILATION
Directed by Alex Garland

“I thought I was a man. I had a life. People called me Kane. And now I’m not so sure. If I wasn’t Kane, what was I? Was I you? Were you me?”

Self destruction is not always intentional. The warning signs of our own deterioration are often shrugged off in the name of living for the sake of living. What Alex Garland is saying in Annihilation is that self destruction is strange in its simplicity, beautiful despite the ugliness, and fascinating despite the danger. There is a dangerous message that could be gleaned here that we need to embrace our own self destruction; the sooner there is nothing left, the sooner we can rebuild. How does one rebuild something with nothing, though?

That’s the puzzle at the middle of Alex Garland’s latest head scratcher experience in science fiction. The Shimmer is a true cinematic marvel; the screaming bear is one of the absolute most frightening things ever committed to screen. The most fascinating thing about this film is the central core of strong women unwilling to take anyone’s (including each other’s) nonsense. All are subject to their own flaws they ignore that begin the destruction within themselves, but never defined by those very flaws, either. This is a well rounded group of women working not at the agency of any man, but for the furthering of science. That curiosity isn’t what kills any of them; it’s always their own self destructive tendencies that do.

Isn’t that the best metaphor for life in 2018, though? We will always be our own best downfall.

Currently: Available for Rent and streaming on Amazon Prime next month

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of NEON

02. VOX LUX
Directed by Brady Corbet

“So tell me, how many of you have cried yourself to sleep at night? You’ve all been trying to take me down for years. But I won’t stay down.”

Here I am writing about a film that I initially felt cold toward that now might end up being the film I discussed the most in 2018.

This doesn’t happen too often for me, but when it does, it’s that initial coldness that contextualizes why I initially didn’t connect with material. In the case of Gone Girl, it was more than likely the jagged jump between narratives and the ending, which by design is meant to feel icy and uninviting. In the case of Children of Men, it was a clash of expectations between what a protagonist should look or act like and how a masterpiece really establishes a narrative beyond the plot. For Young Adult? The jarring realization that the protagonist is not a likable person and will never be a likable person.

In the case of Vox Lux, it’s a bit of each of these scenarios.

Vox Lux tells the story of Celeste (first played by Raffey Cassidy), a survivor of an incredibly violent school shooting massacre in 1999 who becomes an overnight pop sensation on the backing of a song she wrote for a wake for those lost in the shooting. The early goings of the film track Celeste’s fast track to stardom and slow dive into depravity, showcasing her as a girl who loves God, her sister, and her country that manages to succumb to the usual musician downfalls like drugs and promiscuous sex. These early scenes appear to be setting up a message that we are far too eager to turn our survivors into celebrities, to mention them in the same breath as actual pop sensations. What Vox Lux seems to be asking is what if Miley Cyrus had survived Columbine.

But right when you think Corbet is going to meaningfully tackle this question, the film jumps ahead from 2001 to 2017. Celeste (now played by a gloriously unhinged Natalie Portman) is no longer the kind shy God loving girl, but has morphed over the years into a controversial and abrasive pop icon. Think Gaga by way of Lindsay Lohan and you have something closely resembling Celeste here. The initial shock is incredibly jarring, especially with Cassidy still onboard in the film, now playing Celeste’s daughter. But to Corbet’s credit, it is a good thing that it is not made entirely clear how Celeste became the way she is.

Our survivor is no longer the voice of a nation looking for hope in time of tragedy: Corbet posits that she has become the tragedy, emblematic of the bigger picture outrages provoked daily. Early on in the 2017 chapter, another massacre occurs on a beach in which the perpetrators are dressed in masks from one of Celeste’s old music videos. A press conference happens where Celeste is expected to once again act as the voice of reason in a time of tragedy, but this time, she doesn’t have any words of encouragement for the world. She’s a poisoned property, her reputation soured by years in the spotlight after courting high profile controversies. Instead, she “puts on the show” expected of her and stokes more controversy when she speaks.

And then she performs that night, in a truly electrifying, almost real time concert set piece. Aside from a mild break for narration (more on that later), the performance encompasses the last fifteen minutes of the film… and then it ends. So does the film. Credits roll to complete silence.

What makes this cut even more jarring for me is the experience I had watching the film as a whole during my first screening. My girlfriend Sarah and I showed up right on time for our screening at a Cinemark, but instead of the usual twenty minute string of previews accompanying any print, the film simply began. All we knew about the film going into it was that Natalie Portman played a “troubled popstar.” Right away, we were invited into an incredibly violent world we did not expect to be thrown into, and directly following the depiction of the shooting proper, the entire credits shown at the end of the film rolled. So when the credits begin to roll abruptly almost two hours later, the effect is circular, making it feel as if this cycle will continue ad infinitum with the same outcome. A film reel ouroboros eating its own celluloid. This point is even further driven home by the image underneath the end credits: that of the underbelly of a snake.

Everything in the world of Vox Lux is circular. Violence begets celebrity and celebrity invites violence. Even the film we were watching was a personification of this idea in a technical sense, each section book-ended by names imprinted over mundane events, preceded by grim imagery that could have been plucked from the headlines of today. Everything happens, leading to everything else happening, over and over.

Earlier in the film, Celeste tells her manager (Jude Law, outstanding, tragically under-discussed here, I’m sorry) that she doesn’t want people to think too hard about her music and she just wants them to have fun. In one of her songs (all of which were written by Sia and performed excellently by Portman and Cassidy), she sings that she “has a sixth sense where the party’s headed/every night we’re alive,” establishing an image of success surrounded by people she loves. But we are explicitly shown this is not the world Celeste lives in. Her relationships with God, her sister, and even her country have soured beyond initial portrayals otherwise. There is then a sad irony in the words Celeste sings night to night: the party is always headed to a close, the flashing lights will not last forever, and just outside the focal point of flashing lights and stardom is always a darkness willing to engulf everything within it.

What makes Vox Lux truly fascinating is the massive valley between how its filmmaker feels about Celeste and how I feel about Celeste. The film posits two messages in its split narrative:
01. Tragedy becomes a commodity in the pop culture machine, chewed up and spit out like any other product
02. That very same commodity is just as capable of becoming the very machine that chewed it up
Ultimately, Corbet centers on this idea that our personal experiences and traumas don’t matter to pop culture because empty generalizations meant to strike one as “relatable” are what sells. In the song she breaks big on, the record label convinces Celeste to change a lyric from “I” to “we” to make the song less central to her own trauma and more relatable to any experience. He furthers this argument by portraying Celeste as yet another part of that machine, now willingly selling those generalizations to her audience, even if she thinks they’re getting “worse and worse.” Celeste is now the machine.

What makes this an incorrect reading of Celeste’s life is that we as the audience are led to this through exclusion. All we are shown in the film are events from Celeste’s earlier and later life, never what lies in between. Here, we are told (by men, no less) in no uncertain terms that Celeste did shitty things and has become a bit of a media punching bag. One of the things we are told via narration during the closing stretch of her “Finale” concert is that Celeste firmly believes that after she was shot at the school, between life and death a man approached her and made a deal in which she could live as an agent of his own.

It’s this very moment that really tackles the tragedy of Celeste Montgomery: she is not allowed to be herself anymore. There is no “I” in Celeste’s music, unless the statement is so general it couldn’t possibly feel intimate. Celeste did die when Colin Active shot up the school, but not in the way her peers did. Her innocence, her capacity to truly love, and her ability to express what she feels died in the school that day. From that moment on, men dictated her reality.

But unlike this film’s spiritual sisters A Star is Born and Cold War, those men ultimately don’t matter to Celeste. What she becomes is larger than life, bigger than death. Her “Finale” concert is treated with a mock bravado tying the very experience of listening to Celeste with the second coming. Celeste has died many times over for your enjoyment and will keep dying until there’s nothing left to kill.

So this is the film I’ve deemed The Most 2018 Film. I can think of no better film that defines 2018 than a film in which celebrity and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. The film currently sits at 59% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 51% audience score, clearly showing that this film has split those who have experienced it almost strictly down the middle.

Is there anything more 2018 than divisiveness?

Currently: In theaters

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Lionsgate

01. BLINDSPOTTING
Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada

“You monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town.”

How often do you watch a movie and just know what you’re experiencing is something special?

Blindspotting isn’t a typical film about blackness, racism, or somebody trying to make right after serving time. It’s actually pretty far from being a typical movie in general. It’s very funny, but it’s no comedy. It made me cry quite a few times, but it’s no drama. It’s something else on its own.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal are powerhouses, hitting the right notes at all times on this film that can simply be called “a bittersweet story about the death of Oakland.” The film manages to draw a straight line between two truths with three points: there were once many trees in Oakland, those trees were cut down to make homes for the families there, and those homes were cut down to make room for gentrified white America. There were once many proud black men in Oakland, those men were gunned down to make room for “safer streets,” and the identity of blackness is being co-opted by the country that’s so scared of it.

More than any film grappling with black identity this year, Blindspotting seems to really drive home the reality that white America wants the aesthetics of black culture without the black bodies, and the only thing standing in the way of that colonization is black people.

That’s a scary message I’d wager is old news to many, but will function as a massive wake up call to those who catch it for the first time here. The ideas are grim, and I’m probably making this sound like such a self serious drag, but Blindspotting is also fun, urgent, and some of the absolute best art I’ve experienced this year.

Currently: Available for Rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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As a bonus, here are a few brief write-ups celebrating the work of women in 2018. There were far too many films to name and write about, but in an age where representation is encouraged yet hard to track, I figured it would be nice to provide you all with a list of the very best works by women, as well as how to track them down!

Top Five Films Directed By Women

Courtesy of Netflix

01. Private Life
Directed by Tamara Jenkins

View the write-up above. This movie owns so hard I needed to mention it twice.

Currently: Available on Netflix

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Courtesy of Netflix

02. Shirkers
Directed by Sandi Tan

A documentary about the creative process, the crushing feelings of what could have been, and the crippling damage of toxic masculinity, Shirkers is equal parts innovative and engaging, a truly revelatory means of taking back one’s stolen work and recontextualizing it for the world.

Currently: Available on Netflix

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of MES Productions

03. Revenge
Directed by Coralie Fargeat

Not just another rape revenge story, Revenge uses surreal imagery and truly cinematic violence to empower rather than exploit. A narrative that could have fallen apart in any other hands is deftly handled by the outstanding Coralie Fargeat, and during the finale you’ll be screaming at your TV.

Currently: Available on Shudder

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Netflix

04. Happy as Lazzaro
Directed by Alice Rohrwacher

A film lost in time, both within and surrounding the material, Lazzaro has a classicist and minimalist approach to fantasy drawing comparisons to Rossellini and Fellini. For such a fantastical concept, Rohrwacher makes the decision to keep the material grounded, and although we are mostly seeing the world across time through Lazzaro’s eyes, the world feels as stuck to earth as the others around him experience it, creating a touching story about what it means to truly go back to where you most felt alive.

Currently: Available on Netflix

You can watch the trailer here.

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Courtesy of Bleecker Street

05. Leave No Trace
Directed by Debra Granik

Another story about survivalists in the modern world, but Granik tellingly never fully sympathizes with Ben Foster’s Will. Instead, the film mostly takes the side of his daughter Tom, played with an inquisitive curiosity by Thomasin McKenzie in an assuredly breakthrough role. This is the life her father has told her is best, but once she experiences life outside of the woods of Oregon, she begins to wonder if father really does know best. Much more accessible than Granik’s prior Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is an examination of the idea of home and whether it can truly be more than a concept.

Currently: Available for Rent

You can watch the trailer here.

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Five other great films by women in 2018:

The Rider, dir. Chloe Zhao, Available for Rent

6 balloons, dir. Marja-Lewis Ryan, Netflix

You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsay, Amazon Prime

Blockers, dir. Kay Cannon, Available for Rent

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, dir. Susan Johnson, Netflix

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You can follow Jed on Twitter @thejedgentry and on Instagram @jedgentry.

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