For dutiful film critics preparing to mark their ballots, the final months of the year are nothing less than a cinematic avalanche. Studios do everything in their power to entice us into viewing their most prized work prior to our voting deadlines and “best of” lists. There’s no way any single person can watch and fully digest every single movie that comes out in a given year, but boy do the most devoted cinephiles give it their all, consuming multiple pictures after work hours or early in the morning. You can’t merely enjoy movies to pull off such a feat, you must be obsessed with them and believe deeply in their importance. It’s not just a job or a hobby, it is one of the great purposes of my life to champion an art form that possesses the power of strengthening our connection with one another. In such divided and toxic times, the humanizing beam of a film projector is more vital and revitalizing than ever. And in many recent cases cited below, it reminded me of why I fell in love with visual storytelling in the first place.
For the seventh consecutive year on Indie Outlook, I am presenting my Top 20 Films of 2018 as a two-part list. This first half concludes with an alphabetized list of no less than 30 honorable mentions culled from an extraordinary year during which I had the privilege of covering film festivals in the Czech Republic and Iceland. No matter how many amazing films you discover throughout a given twelve-month period, there are always more beckoning on the horizon. Here are 20 well worth your time…
20. Stan & Ollie
Few comedic duos have had the seismic impact of Stan Laurel and Olivier Hardy. Their influence continues to reverberate in pop culture today and left an indelible imprint on everyone from Art Carney and Jackie Gleason on “The Honeymooners” to Jim Henson and Frank Oz as Ernie and Bert. What made Laurel & Hardy most appealing to me from a young age was the sense of affection that they seemed to have for each other, and that is precisely what British director Jon S. Baird explores in this wonderful tribute. I suspect the 1954 episode of “This Is Your Life” embedded above served as key research material for the filmmakers, since it took place soon after the duo’s tour of Britain and Ireland, which is the subject of this movie. During the elegant opening tracking shot, I quickly forgot I was watching Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, since they channel every nuance of the comedians’ iconic personas while digging deep into their souls. Coogan nails Laurel’s voice and childlike facial expressions, while Reilly captures Hardy’s deadpan double takes and hand movements (waving at ladies with his tie) to hilarious effect. If this pair went on tour as these characters, I’d be the first to purchase a ticket. For prime examples of Laurel & Hardy’s genius, I suggest beginning with their 1933 short, “Busy Bodies,” followed by their classic 1934 feature-length fantasy, “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”
“Stan & Ollie” will be released in U.S. theaters on December 28th.
19. You Were Never Really Here
There’s something about Lynne Ramsay’s films that I find uncommonly electrifying. Her attention to composition and sound design is so intricate that I can’t help being swept up in the moment-to-moment experiences of her characters. Take, for example, the ending of her 2002 sophomore feature effort, “Morvern Callar,” where Samantha Morton drifts on her own through a crowded club while listening to “Dedicated to the One I Love” as belted by The Mamas and the Papas in her earbuds. The visceral level of immersion achieved in this sequence is extended throughout the entirety of this picture—Ramsay’s fourth to date—starring Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a Gulf War veteran whose compulsion for rescuing girls from their perverted captors is highly reminiscent of Travis Bickle. Just as we’re made to question whether the final exchange between Robert De Niro and Cybill Shepherd actually takes place in “Taxi Driver,” Ramsay has us continually searching the frame for clues that either confirm or contradict the reality of a given scene. The abuse Joe suffered as a child haunts every moment of the picture, occasionally resulting in startling hallucinations that materialize without any transition. Jonny Greenwood’s atonal score adds immeasurably to the tension and unease, though for all of the film’s violence, what resonates strongest of all is the peace that occurs when nightmares vanish and shared experiences leave room for healing.
18. Memoir of War
France’s official Oscar submission this year is Emmanuel Finkiel’s mesmerizing adaptation of La Douleur, a 1985 memoir by the great Marguerite Duras, best known to film buffs for scripting Alain Resnais’ 1959 landmark, “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Her voice is the true star of this picture, brought to life by actress Mélanie Thierry in narration evocative of early Malick. Her articulated portrayal of purgatorial agony enhances each scene in a way that defies traditional exposition. As she spends nearly a full year fighting for the return of her husband, Robert (Emmanuel Bourdieu), after his arrest as a member of the Resistance, Duras finds her own inner voice fracturing into two. We hear arguments that she has with herself that echo the lovers in Resnais’ film. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima,” says the Japanese architect, to which the French actress replies, “I saw everything.” Time and again in this picture, Duras is of two minds about Robert’s ambiguous fate, at one point contradicting her own affirmations (“I must stay alive for him.” “He’s been dead for two weeks.”). Rarely has a film so poetically conveyed the ways in which grief can pull a person in both directions simultaneously. Thierry repeatedly occupies the same frame twice, enabling Duras to watch herself from a distance. It is an indelible illustration of how she often feels like a disembodied spirit, hovering over her own body while pondering the surreal nature of her existence.
It has been a good long while since a movie frightened me on such a primal level that it forced me to sleep with the lights on. I’ve always believed that a great horror film is one that follows you home and hovers over your bed at night. You can feel its eyes staring at you from its perch in the corner of the ceiling, daring you to fall asleep. Ari Aster’s galvanizing debut feature elicits this terror quite literally in its final act, though this is well after it has prompted the audience to leap from their seats with the mere click of a tongue. Toni Collette receives her finest big screen showcase since “The Sixth Sense,” lending ferocious conviction to her role as Annie, a mother reeling from tragedies that initially appear sudden and random, yet might all be part of an insidious pattern. Alex Wolff turns in equally wrenching work as Annie’s guilt-ridden son, Peter, who finds himself gradually losing control in every sense of the word. The most unnerving scene of all takes place in a brightly lit classroom, as Peter’s body begins moving against its will. Any family with a history of neurological disorders will likely find this yarn too tough to take, but for everyone else, Aster’s film is an unrelenting ode to our hard-wired destinies and the paranoia they engender. You’ll never hear the lyrics of Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now” in the same way again, nor will you ever forget the face of Annie’s daughter (“Matilda” star Milly Shapiro), a pawn in one hell of a wicked game.
16. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc
In my 32 years as an ardent moviegoer, I have never seen anything like this latest curiosity from the tirelessly experimental French auteur Bruno Dumont (“Li’l Quinquin”). It is a punk-rock musical about Joan of Arc (yes, you read that correctly), comprised of rambling songs that don’t at all seem to flow with the subtitled lyrics, none of which spring organically from the mouths of Dumont’s precocious leads. There are a million reasons why this picture shouldn’t work, and yet, it held my gaze in a befuddled trance until I saw the light. What Dumont has crafted here is a disarmingly ingenious portrait of spiritual fervor as experienced by Joan, first as an eight-year-old (Lise Leplat Prudhomme), then later as a young woman (Jeanne Voisen). The offhanded way in which the braying of a sheep interrupts the girl’s opening number, delivered directly into the lens, is indicative of an outside world indifferent to the inner yearnings of mankind. To unconverted eyes, worshippers can appear as silly as these characters often do when dancing to a rhythm that conflicts with their surrounding environment. Yet when Joan is in the throes of divine ecstasy, banging her head until her braid comes undone, I suddenly found myself moved not only by the youthful purity of her faith, but by the exuberant spirit with which Dumont portrays it. Who knew that choreography normally attributed to mosh pits could be so deftly linked with the devout rituals of a saint?
15. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
It was nearly a half-century ago that Fred Rogers appeared before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communication to make his case for the importance of national public television, reading the lyrics of his own song, “What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?” Though the chairman was weary and rather impatient, he melted under the warmth of Rogers’ almost otherworldly benevolence. It’s truly one of the most Capraesque moments in American history (as evidenced above), and though the footage—like much of what’s contained in this documentary—is readily available, there is something profoundly special about viewing it on the big screen with a responsive audience. I’m sure that novelty contributed to making this film, directed by Morgan Neville, a hit at the box office, yet when viewed entirely on its own terms, the picture is a hugely impressive achievement. Far superior to the director’s 2013 Oscar-winner, “20 Feet from Stardom,” this love letter to the legacy of Rogers analyzes just how subversive the television icon was in tackling timely content for a family audience (one segment during the first week of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” involves a wall built by a Trumpian tyrant). I was especially struck while watching the film by the remarkable similarities between Rogers and David Lynch—both value meditation, have a preoccupation with numbers and push against the ADD-addled status quo with their measured pacing, enabling viewers to savor crucial details that would normally be overlooked.
Read my letter from Fred Rogers here.
14. The King
Speaking of David Lynch, fans of “Twin Peaks: The Return” are going to have a field day with this enormously ambitious visual essay from Eugene Jarecki. It tackles several of Lynch’s most memorable topics: Elvis, Vegas, Hollywood, mushroom clouds, small-town idealism and the dissolution of the American dream. Mike Myers, of all people, has one of the film’s best lines, claiming that the nuclear testing in Vegas caused the city to become a “radioactive mutation of capitalism,” a pure expression of our prevailing values governed by the almighty dollar. Boarding Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce, Jarecki embarks on a road trip across the United States, while building a brilliantly nuanced argument that the legendary singer’s life serves as a microcosm of the country itself. Traveling from Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi to the numerous colorful locales he once called home, the filmmakers invite a diverse array of singers to perform in the backseat, many of whom represent the genres that he embraced and arguably appropriated. With the election of Donald Trump looming on the imminent horizon, the parallels between him and Presley prove to be inescapable. Both men are celebrities cross-branded to consumers and both are swayed into making self-destructive choices when prioritizing money over common sense. As the Rolls Royce starts to inevitably break down, the wheels have come off the very foundation of American democracy.
13. The Guilty
In terms of pulse-pounding suspense pictures centering on a charged telephone conversation, Gustav Möller’s Danish thriller may be the best of its kind since Anatole Litvak’s 70-year-old radio play adaptation, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” With its single location and narrative unfolding in real time, this film also harkens back to the unparalleled CBS series, “Playhouse 90,” where the full emotional arc of masterworks such as “Days of Wine and Roses” were performed live on television. The script co-authored by Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen is certainly on par with those productions, featuring a main character so magnetic, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. Jakob Cedergren delivers flawless work as Asger Holm, an officer working the night shift on his department’s emergency hotline, who receives a call from a kidnapped woman (Jessica Dinnage). As efforts to rescue her become repeatedly thwarted, Asger comes face-to-face with his own inner demons, finding that his need to protect is endangered his own primordial impulses. If Rod Serling were still alive and had observed the various instances of police brutality in recent years, he likely would’ve penned a teleplay such as this. Möller’s film is provocative without being preachy and empathetic without devolving into sentimentality. It also plays on the mind just like radio did back in the day, causing your mind to conjure the most horrifying imagery all on its own.
12. 22 July
Whereas Paul Greengrass’ devastating 2006 film, “United 93,” recounted the atrocities of September 11th, 2011, a terrorist attack of which I was all-too familiar, his latest picture (available for streaming on Netflix) focuses on a similar tragedy that took place a decade later and had escaped my memory in the years that followed. Even so, the opening scenes build such an overwhelming sense of dread that by the time chaos erupts, I was already peeking between my fingers. In many ways, this film is a fitting sequel to “United 93,” as it recounts the senseless slaughter of 77 Norwegian citizens at the hands of a right-wing terrorist (a monstrous Anders Danielsen Lie), the sort of radical whose irrational fear of women, Muslims and immigration should automatically revoke his right to firearms. After a horrendous portrayal of the carnage, which is impossible to watch without being shaken to the core, the bulk of the film is devoted to a young survivor, Viljar (a riveting Jonas Strand Gravli), and his agonizing efforts to recover from injuries that shredded his body and left him with one eye. Greengrass concludes the film with Viljar confronting the evil man in court, delivering an applause-worthy monologue that voices the outrage of civilized societies unwilling to collapse, even as extremism threatens to engulf the globe. Once again, we find ourselves in the cockpit of United 93, wrestling for the controls of our world as it teeters on oblivion.
“Will these little ones ever be reunited with their loved ones?” asked Julie Andrews in an Instagram post this past June, responding to news of immigrant families being separated and caged on the U.S.-Mexico border. “And even if they are reunited, will these children ever trust again? Can they surmount the emotional trauma of this horrific experience? If not, I fear they may one day roam in our midst, having become the personification of the problems that these misguided efforts claim to address.” I kept being reminded of the searing pain in these children’s eyes when regarding Zain (Zain Al Rafeeda), the pint-sized yet towering lead of Nadine Labaki’s explosive Lebanese drama. He plays a 12-year-old boy born into an impoverished family entirely ill-equipped to fulfill his most basic needs. When his parents sell his beloved sister into marriage in a fit of desperation, the resourceful kid flees from home and winds up caring for an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), and her baby, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, in one of the most impressive toddler performances ever to grace the cinema). The mere sight of Zain pulling Yonas in a makeshift stroller along busy city streets is enough to make one weep, yet Labaki never views them as objects of pity. Zain is one of the strongest characters in any film this year, and his insistence on fighting for justice, even if it means suing his parents or ending up in prison, is exhilarating to behold. He is the hero we need right now and forever after.
“Capernaum” opens in U.S. theaters on December 14th.
30 Honorable Mentions: “Allure,” “Becoming Astrid,” “Bisbee ’17,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” “Blaze,” “Burning,” “Crystal Swan,” “Fahrenheit 11/9,” “The Favourite,” “God’s Own Country,” “The House That Jack Built,” “Isle of Dogs,” “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Liyana,” “Love After Love,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “Milla,” “Never Look Away,” “Private Life,” “Putin’s Witnesses,” “The Sentence,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “A Star is Born,” “Styx,” “A Very English Scandal,” “Vice,” “We the Animals,” “The Wife,” “Winter Flies”