Top 10 Strangest (and Most Beautiful) Films of 2018

The best films of the year explore the hollowness of contemporary Korean culture, faith in an era of climate change, the last frantic day in the life of a Hollywood director and more.

Michael Atkinson December 22, 2018

(Photo credit: Matt Dinerstein/Showtime)

This year’s best movies were, broad­ly speak­ing, freaks and geeks, weird sig­nals from the out­skirts. A black-and-white Mex­i­can mood piece about a domes­tic work­er may win the best pic­ture Oscar, if crit­i­cal hype retains its momen­tum — anoth­er sign, if we need­ed one, of movies’ loos­en­ing grip on the pub­lic mind and heart. (To most non-Amer­i­cans, Amer­i­can movies appear to con­sist of expen­sive qua­si-gen­res — block­busters,” action films,” reboots” — that didn’t real­ly exist for the medium’s first 80 years.) Like our polit­i­cal sys­tem and our pol­i­cy insti­tu­tions, movies haven’t quite caught up to where we are, spin­ning their wheels in old for­mu­las and forms, while tech­nol­o­gy and its atten­dant cul­tur­al dis­tor­tions bul­let us into the future.

So, we’re talk­ing here about movies that traf­fic in the mar­gins and tar­get adults like any respectable art form should. It speaks vol­umes that two of my top 10 films of 2018 are detri­tus left behind by dead peo­ple. But my No. 1, and eas­i­ly the year’s least-fucks-giv­en jour­ney into painful, seri­ous-issue ter­ri­to­ry, is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. In addi­tion to writ­ing the screen­plays for many of Mar­tin Scorsese’s best films, Schrad­er has been mak­ing his own movies since the 1970s that probe into eth­i­cal, social and spir­i­tu­al issues (from Hard­core and Amer­i­can Gigo­lo to Mishi­ma, Pat­ty Hearst and Afflic­tion). First Reformed is his best and most dis­may­ing movie, a char­ac­ter study of a guilt-wracked pas­tor in a small, upstate New York parish con­fronting his own lack of faith, his fail­ure as a man and his tor­tured, evolv­ing response to a parish­ioner who clear­ly sees the Armaged­don of cli­mate change. Cos­mic and gru­el­ing­ly inti­mate, it’s not meant to be a breeze to watch, and it’s not.

Alfon­so Cuarón’s Roma (No. 2) hard­ly needs me to sing the prais­es of its ster­ling cin­e­matog­ra­phy, or its gen­tle and nuanced por­trait of an unas­sum­ing domes­tic work­er (non­pro­fes­sion­al actress Yal­itza Apari­cio) in a mid­dle-class Mex­i­can fam­i­ly in the throes of divorce; it’s already the most wide­ly praised film of the year. And it’s love­ly and wise, and free of cliché, if also a lit­tle safe and unchal­leng­ing (it holds no can­dle to Cuarón’s best film, 2006’s Chil­dren of Men). Lucre­cia Martel’s Zama (No. 3) has less grace but more teeth, a wicked­ly dry com­e­dy about a Span­ish colo­nial in a South Amer­i­can province in the 1700s who wants to return to Europe but ends up being engulfed by the fron­tier and the vio­lence of colo­nial­ism instead.

Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (No. 4), released near­ly two years after his death, is an ambi­ent con­tem­pla­tion on the act of watch­ing, made up of koan-like, dig­i­tal­ly enhanced, four-and-a-half-minute set-piece shots full of ani­mals, wind and hints of violence.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burn­ing (No. 5) adapts Haru­ki Murakami’s short sto­ry Barn Burn­ing” to explore, in Lee’s uneasy fash­ion, the hol­low­ness of con­tem­po­rary Kore­an cul­ture, in a sneaky tale of decep­tions and eli­sions. Its com­ic B side, in a way, is Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos’ The Favourite (No. 6), a riotous look at the sup­pu­rat­ing reign of England’s Queen Anne and the sex­u­al­ly fraught schem­ing that sur­round­ed her.

Hale Coun­ty This Morn­ing, This Evening (No. 7) is the year’s under­dog — a bewitch­ing­ly lyri­cal doc­u­men­tary about an Alaba­ma town and its most­ly black, low-wage cit­i­zens, filmed by its own high school bas­ket­ball coach. Five years in the mak­ing, it is self-know­ing, beau­ti­ful, unpa­tron­iz­ing and lec­ture-free. In con­trast, Adam McKay’s bull­doz­er Vice (No. 8) is, like McKay’s The Big Short, broad­ly com­ic and angri­ly Chom­skian, blam­ing Dick Cheney (Chris­t­ian Bale) for vir­tu­al­ly every­thing that’s wrong with the coun­try. Satires with shark teeth are rare these days; Orson Welles’ The Oth­er Side of the Wind (No. 9) qual­i­fies, as an auto­bio rip on 1970s Hol­ly­wood. This cob­ble-job, assem­bling 48-year-old footage 33 years after Welles’ death, is a fas­ci­nat­ing self-analy­sis, set on the last fran­tic day in the life of a Welles-like direc­tor (John Hus­ton) fac­ing the new Hollywood.

All of the above will feel more famil­iar than my No. 10, the bizarre Eston­ian film Novem­ber, an inky, black-and-white, 1800s peas­ant fable cen­tered on a pair of sep­a­rat­ed lovers, but which is strange­ly over­run with kratts” (hand­made con­trap­tions giv­en human sen­tience), lycan­thropes, the Black Death and Satan him­self. Talk about out of left field.

Run­ners-up, in order: Thor­ough­breds (Cory Fin­ley, U.S.), The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, U.S.), Ara­by (João Dumans, Affon­so Uchoa, Brazil), Cocote (Nel­son Car­lo de Los San­tos Arias, Domini­can Repub­lic), The Kinder­garten Teacher (Sara Colan­ge­lo, U.S.).

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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