1. 'Blank 13' The feature debut of Takumi Saitoh is broken up into two halves, one melancholy and the other hilarious regarding a father’s abandonment and the funeral his grown sons attend many years later. Despite his start status as an actor, Saitoh’s film is an indie picture through and through, having only a week to shoot the picture. The entire film - especially its second half- is filled with the energy of a first time filmmaker but has the maturity to understand the grey of people and their relationships, and is content letting the film sit in that grey. Sways between silly and heartbreaking, a true gem that seems to have come out from nowhere.
2. 'The Third Murder' The lesser loved Kore-eda film of the year. Despite the urge to pigeonhole the man as an auteur capable only of consecutive family dramas, with The Third Murder he proves himself incredibly adept at the bleak crime thriller. The mystery is other people and the film’s lead lawyer is met with the impossibility of fully knowing the truth of another person. Kore-eda takes the final scene of Kurosawa’s High and Low and expands upon it thematically and visually over the course of the entire film. Koji Yakusho is stunning.
3. 'Angels Wear White' A daytime noir from Vivian Qu taking on the industry of sexual assault. She brings both a sense of jadedness and outrage which gives the twists and turns a direct and hard-hitting vibe. Qu doesn’t beat around the bush, everyone involved is guilty to some degree. Despite how mortifying the proceedings may be, the final scene is funny in both senses of the word.
4. 'Shoplifters' This year’s universally adored Kore-eda films is actually deserving of its praise. Like The Third Murder this is too is a crime picture but of theft rather than murder. This is Kore-eda’s heist film where the assembled crew has lied and cheated to attain a sense of love and family. They each have their own specialty in carrying out the heist - their own function in the makeshift family unit - but when things go to shit the results are devastating: some know when to walk away and others can’t help but to return to the scene of the crime. The cast is so damn good that on more than one occasion you’ll find a major player appear in only a few scenes. There’s one star who shows up for just a single moment. The only negative here is how it overshadowed The Third Murder.
5. 'First Reformed' More than once in First Reformed does Schrader achieve the cinematic transcendence that he has written about numerous times. An intelligent look at self-destruction both on the individual level and that of the planet. It also tackles the subject of faith sincerely. At a certain point in the film you think it’s hurtling towards a specific endpoint, but it expertly subverts this, leaving you provoked and the bell inside of your soul ringing for days after viewing.
6. 'Searching' While keeping in the tradition of computer screen movies being thrillers, the achievement of Searching - one of four computer films Timur Bekmambetov produced this year - is how it’s able to find the emotion of dragging a file into the recycle bin, without even needing to see the person doing the clicking.
7. 'The Haunting of the Hill House' Mike Flanagan is a master of blending the past and the present, able to seamlessly visualize how the two become blurred for his characters. The addition of ghosts adds to the metaphor of what haunts us whether memories, hopes and dreams, regrets, etc. This mini-series was a whole family’s worth of tragedies, a collection of people who can’t escape the past even when they try. As we hop characters from chapter to chapter, most threads are genuinely heartbreaking. Plus, almost non-stop hidden ghosts in the background for those who don’t like looking at the principle cast.
8. 'Ash is Purest White' Using the industrial development of China as a backdrop, Jia Zhangke’s latest spans multiple decades of a gangster’s moll’s quest to find a sense of home. Despite the economic growth that surrounds her she finds herself caught in loops. Coming back to the same people and returning to the same places. She’s stuck due to both fate and her own choosing. Zhao Tao commands your attention, the scene where she wields a gun to save her boyfriend from a deadly beating, and by doing so condemns herself to some time in the clink, it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off her. Jia’s Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
9. 'Dear Etranger' What’s most impressive about Yukiko Mishima’s film is the subtle complexity she achieves with each relationship in the film. Whether between father and daughter or father and step-daughter, the interactions are nuanced and truthful to the convoluted web of loved ones we spin as we rack up the years.
10. 'Sicario: Day of the Soldado' There was something soothing about this followup that no one seemed to want. It opens on multiple scenes of terrorism and sustains a bleakness that’s static and hypnotic, an odd combination of tense and hushed. It’s what I imagine peering into Wayne’s silhouette in that final shot of The Searchers must be like: reactionary, lonely, violent, and constantly swinging a big dick.
11. 'Night is Short Walk on Girl' Masaaki Yuasa adapts another work from the author of Tatami Galaxy in which sweeping romances, secret societies, guerrilla theatre, and branching paths attempt to convey the sense you get of university life if you try to remember your entire tenure all at once. The visuals are unlike those of any other director animation, whether of the anime variety or otherwise.
12. 'Game Night' An American comedy that doesn’t feel like it was lazily improvised. It’s as close as we’re going to get to the rollicking screwball comedy adventures of ye olden times. There’s a brief moment where Bateman and McAdams are still under the impression that the whole thing is fake which culminates in pure gold as someone takes a selfie while pointing a real gun in their mouth.
13. 'Bad Times at the El Royale' What if Tarantino gave a shit about his characters? The El Royale takes character types from tired and familiar formulas, has them converge at a single location, and gives them honest shots at some form of redemption. Within the story of the film these people try to break from their pasts, outside of the film these characters are breaking away from the expectations of the genres they are associated with. Goddard doesn’t rush and it doesn’t come off as annoyingly indulgent. When Cynthia Erivo sings “This Old Heart of Mine” she puts an original spin on a tune that’s been covered many times before, making it hypnotic and a summation of the film’s through-line of hurt and hope. Also, a standout performance from Jeff Bridges (the guy from R.I.P.D.).
14. 'Knife+Heart' Using Europe’s gay porno scene as its setting, this is a wholesome update/throwback to the slasher giallo genre. A washed up, lovesick director/producer must figure out who’s going around killing her talent. In the meantime she’s also trying to repair the poisonous relationship with her editor and has found inspiration in the killings, using it as the subject of her next work. The film-within-the-film sequences have the excitement for filmmaking that only a ragtag group of renegade filmmakers are capable of. At its heart this is about the therapy the artist provides for herself, surrounded by lost loves and masked killers on and off the set.
15. 'Unfriended: Dark Web' For every Searching we need an Unfriended, something bleak and cynical about the web and the people who occupy its darker corners. Dropping the supernatural elements of the first one Dark Web is more unsettling because of it. Human trafficking and SWATing, you can sleep easy knowing that things like this occur in real life. On the computer screen it’s too late for hope, the members of the Skype chat - “little indians” as Agatha Christie would call them - never had a chance from the start. Its producer Bekmambetov seems to have found countless opportunities for exploration (especially formally) with these computer screen movies; hopefully Blumhouse finds the same with the Unfriended franchise as there will never be a drought of fatalism when going online.
16. 'Mission Impossible - Fallout' In its sixth entry the Mission: Impossible franchise has embraced it meta-elements. We are not watching Ethan Hunt climb a rope in order to board a currently in-the-air helicopter in pursuit of a device that will deactivate a pair of bombs but instead are watching Tom Cruise climb that rope to get into the helicopter in pursuit of a stunt for a set piece in Mission Impossible - Fallout. Embracing this metatextual headspace the film is constantly incorporating references to the previous films. These allusions circle around each other as the film finds ways to up the ante with a wink/ Ethan Hunt and company save the world from annihilation while Cruise and company rescue the summer blockbuster from other movies. Also, there was so much in that final set piece that portions of it were in the trailer but not the final film.
17. 'Bodied' Joseph Kahn’s followup to Detention is a rap battle musical. A white guy college student is working on his thesis about the use of the “N-word” in battle rap. The film itself tracks his emergence as a hot newcomer in the battle rap scene where he must traverse the dichotomy between the crowd pleasing offensiveness of the verbal jabs he trades with his opponents and the largely politically correct obsessed world of a college campus. The film is quick-witted, visually energetic, and is genuinely uncomfortable to watch the transformation of our hero as he burns his bridges.
18. 'The Guilty' The other call center movie of 2018. A gripping police procedural in real time and over the phone. The film is short and sweet. Between lines 1 and 2 is where it uncovers noir’s moral tightrope walk. A cop used to being out in the field is pulling an evening shift at the police dispatch. When he gets the call from a kidnapped woman he’s confronted with a chance at redemption.
19. 'Mom and Dad' It’s fun to watch Cage go nuts, but it’s even better to watch him and Selma Blair sit down and talk honestly about how their lives turned out, wondering just when did they get so old, where did things go wrong, and how did they end up just mom and dad. An unexpectedly poignant film.
20. 'Die Tomorrow' Following his more commercial outing, the almost rom-com Heart Attack, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit returns to the looser, more experimental frameworks of his 36 and Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. The film is a series of vignettes mixing narrative and documentary. Combined they form a visual essay on the uncertainty of the future, both the kind which we are aware of (the people that drift in and out of our lives, what we’re going to eat tomorrow, where we’ll call home, where dwe’ll call work) and the kind which we have no idea of or would rather not think about: freak accidents, suicide, death in general. Cast members from his previous works all show up. Because of the structure it seems distant at first, but ultimately moving and life-affirming knowing that death is always around the corner.
21. 'Anon' Andrew Niccol brings us another high concept film musing on the ways society can head towards an increase in our use/reliance on technology. In Anon the tech is applied to police investigations. Everything someone sees is recorded. If the police want to solve a murder, just watch what the victim saw the last moments of their life to see who the killer is. More effort is required when there’s a killer going around who can hack their victim’s sight, so that they see their own death from the point of view of the one pulling the trigger. Instead of thriller that thrills, the film has dedication to its concept: showing people just sitting in conference rooms, watching what others are seeing.
22. 'The Strangers: Prey at Night' While the first Strangers is an exercise in miserablism, the follow-up - which is also “based on true events” whatever that means nowadays - is stylish and fun while retaining a sense of straightforwardness that the original had. Split diopter shots, zooms, eye-catching lighting, and clever uses of sound design add up to what can be considered the sleeper slasher of the year. Plus, a throwback soundtrack that is not annoying.
23. 'Vox Lux' A singular exploration of the interaction between headline grabbing tragedies and tabloid ubiquitous pop culture icons. Corbet gives his made up diva a direct connection to a public shooting but what’s more interesting is the intangible connection that is given to Celeste by her fans, management, and the press. The film asks why does society find a way to relate a pop star to a mass shooting, is it to speculate on the ideologies of the shooters or to use her as the escapism her fans crave who are surrounded by this news cycle? There are no answers but I can’t think of another film that probes this question so uniquely. Tomorrowland-alum Raffey Cassidy is as good as the music is bad.
24. 'Side Job' Writer/Director Ryuichi Hiroki has crafted a largely understated mosaic of post 3-11 life. He saves his melodrama for key, deserved moments. Lesser hands would be more inclined to sensationalism due to the part time work Kumi Takiuchi’s character finds in the city.
25. 'Mori, the Artist’s Habitat' Shuichi Okita has quietly become a director with a guarantee of quality much like Kore-eda. What differentiates Okita is the distance of subject matter that he manages from picture to picture. Capturing a single day in the life of real-life painter Kumgai Morikazu, there is a playful tone throughout the film. He is oblivious to the constant stream of visitors, more interested in studying the movements of ants up close. The humor ranges from critiques of the art world to slice of life and there are even multiple dashes of the surreal and slapstick. Along with Shoplifters this was one of Kirin Kiki’s last films.
26. 'Adam Sandler: 100% Fresh' Genuinely funny. Truly catchy songs. The Sandman gives us over an hour of the bizarre musings he previewed in the stand-up portions of Funny People. He hasn’t been this funny since the scene where he makes a raccoon explode in Sandy Wexler.
Honorable Mention: ‘Let Me Be Frank’ Despite being tonally all over the place there is a plethora of detail worth unpacking: Like the Santa apron which clues us in that this turkey carving is for Christmas and not Thanksgiving; or the sip from the mug which contains no liquid. Or how the main character largely refuses to look the camera right in the eye until the precise moments. Who is responsible for the upward pan at the opening? And what of the orchestral sting in its conclusion? The followup is highly anticipated.
Other Favorites (in ABC style): The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (specifically “The Girl Who Got Rattled”); Before We Vanish; Burning; The Commuter; Dream of Illumination; Gemini; Glass Garden; The Incredibles 2; Insidious: The Last Key; The Little Drummer Girl; The Looming Storm; Lu Over the Wall; Mute; Of Love and Law; One Cut of the Dead; The Return; The Scythian Lamb; Sennan Asbestos Disaster; The Sisters Brothers; Small Town Crime; Sorry to Bother You; Spider-Man into the Spider-verse; Sunny; Suspiria; Teen Titans Go to the Movies; Truth or Dare; Unsane; Upgrade; Violence Voyager; We Make Antiques!; Widows; The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.
Shame Makers (need to see, top of head style): An Elephant Sitting Still; Pig; Ten Years Japan; The Forest of Lost Souls; Foreboding; Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda; Insect; River’s Edge; The Great Buddha+; Louder! Can’t Hear What You’re Singin’ Wimp!; Dead Pigs; The Brawler; The Endless; Cold War; The Other Side of the Wind; People’s Republic of Desire; Thoroughbreds; The Blood of Wolves; Shirkers; Ten Years Thailand; Ten Years Taiwan; Bitter Melon; Mirai; Death Wish.
Music: I Like Fun (They Might Be Giants); Dhorimviskha (Koenjihyakkei); Moosebumps (Dr. Octagon); She’s a Girl (Ideal Social Situation); Thumbs (Busdriver); self-titled (Falsettos); Bark Your Head Off, Dog (Hop Along); Childqueen (Kadhja Bonet); Pink Air (Elysian Fields); Night and Morning (Tsushimamire); Book Beri’ah (John Zorn); Working Class Woman (Marie Davidson).
Books: I didn’t read much that actually came out in 2018 - did you know that Jonathan Latimer is an underrated crime novelist/contemporary of Hammett and Chandler? - but there’s this book called The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and it’s a mix of Agatha Christie, Groundhog Day, and Quantum Leap. It was pretty good. She Rides Shotgun and Charlesgate Confidential are worth mentioning. Also, Sara Gran, Walter Mosley, and Keigo Higashino had new novels in 2018.
Video Juegos: Hollow Knight; Florence; Donut County; The Tetris Effect; Minit; Celeste; A Way Out; A Case of Distrust.