This list is extremely subjective. It’s not hard to see that my taste is for art films about trauma or depression or some combination of both. But if you can forgive me my opinions, I’d like to share the 10 films that meant the most to me in 2018.
“Roma,” a stunning black and white ode to the 1970s Mexico of director Alfonso Cuaron’s youth. We follow Cleo, a young indigenous maid to a middle class family in Mexico City. “Roma” asks if the unhappiness of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is comparable and renders the suffering of each with grace. The immaculate surround sound and epic cinematography means you should not watch this on your computer. With the most powerful beach scene since “The 400 Blows,” this compelling, beautiful film is a clear Oscar contender.
In “First Reformed,” Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a man of faith possessed by doubt and depression about the apocalyptic realities of climate change, and his flock is dwindling. This film is as taut as it is bleak; its questions resonant after it ends, such as what Reverend Toller writes on the sign outside the First Reformed Church: “Will God forgive us?”
“The Favourite” is Yorgos Lanthimos’ (“The Lobster,” “Dogtooth”) most heartwarming film yet—that is to say, one will not be plunged into a state of despair after leaving the theater, unlike with his other films. Two women (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) vie for the romantic affections of an ailing Queen Anne in seventeenth-century England. An exquisitely-designed aristocratic farce that puts powerful women at the forefront, with the men relegated to powdering of their wigs in the background. A ridiculous dark comedy I’ll definitely be seeing again.
Brandeis alumna Debra Granik’s ’85 “Leave No Trace” asks if we can ever move past our scars. We follow a father and daughter living off the grid, forced back into society. The father, played by Ben Foster, is a veteran suffering with PTSD. The outside world is too much for him. But his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), isn’t like him. Over the course of the film, Tom has to come to terms with her father’s trauma, and perhaps choose a different life for herself. The result is quiet and powerful and sad; a beautiful film if there ever was one.
In “You Were Never Really Here,” Joaquin Phoenix plays a bulky, deeply-traumatized hitman trying to break free from the cycles of violence and despair. It’s a play on “Taxi Driver” that feels fresh: Phoenix gives an emotive gonzo performance—a rare empathetic antihero. The film is hauntingly bleak, aided by composer (and lead Radiohead guitarist) Jonny Greenwood’s score. It’s a wholly disturbing movie but not without a glimmer of hope.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is the only movie this year that had me tearing up on multiple occasions. Director Morgan Neville adeptly portrays Fred Rogers’ radical empathy for children—how he considered them people rather than empty eyeballs to be marketed to—in this retrospective documentary. A wholesome antidote to the squalid morass of entertainment today; a film that will make you a better person for watching it.
“Eighth Grade” was more pulse-pounding than “Hereditary.” Bo Burnham’s profoundly-realized portrait of the anxieties of adolescence, the film stars newcomer Elsie Fisher as Kayla, an awkward eighth-grader trying to fit in. Kayla’s an exceedingly empathetic protagonist: her struggles aren’t played for laughs. Though the movie is funny, it’s also poignant, terrifying—a particularly scene alone in a car comes to mind—and we’re rooting for her the whole way through.
A unique blend of documentary and fictional storytelling, “American Animals” tells the story of four college students who attempted to steal a hand-drawn copy of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” from the Transylvania University Library. The characters are well-realized, and director Bart Layton connects them with their real-life counterparts, interspersing scenes with talking head interviews of the real people, creating a great deal of emotional heft to consequences of their actions. Suffice it to say, I am definitely not planning on robbing the Brandeis Archives.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is an avant-garde exploration of the creative process: We follow Madeline, played by the ascendant Helena Howard, a teenage theater student who begins working with a theater troupe to generate a performative work based on her relationship with her mother. Told through jagged editing and a camera with a shallow depth of focus, the film quickly becomes a claustrophobic fever dream, a meditation on the problematic power dynamics of the creative process and the inherent weirdness of theater.
“Shoplifters” is an evolution of a specific tradition in Japanese film—those of Yasujiro Ozu, whose focused on the family, usually in a state of entropy. In “Shoplifters” we see an unconventional, almost entirely unrelated group of people living together, off the pension of an old woman in a house hemmed-in by much taller developments. They survive by stealing, the father figure teaching a young boy and girl how to shoplift from supermarkets and convenience stores. A ramshackle redefinition of family and social mores, “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year.
To me, 2018 was a great year for film. It reminded me that there are still talented directors able to get their movies made and shown—far from the apocalyptic cries that T.V. was going to render film irrelevant.
Some honorable mentions for movies that just barely missed the list: the powerful ending sequence of “BlackKklansman” (dir. Spike Lee), Jonah Hill’s AA mentor in “Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot” (Gus Van Sant), and the “Volk” dance-mutilation scene in “Suspiria” (Luca Guadagnino) and the wonderfully-absurd helicopter scene in “Deadpool 2” where everyone dies. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I missed or how wrong my opinions are—please, email me at email@example.com.