by Jaime Grijalba.
Here we are! The 20 films that I’ve seen and that I consider among the best of 2018. As always, fair warning that I haven’t seen everything and this year I had access but wasn’t able to watch new films by Wang Bing, Asghar Farhadi, Brad Bird, Yang Zhimou, among others that I truly wanted to see before I made the final cut-off. I tried to extend the viewing period, but alas not much appeared beyond my usual date, so I decided to go ahead with it, not wait any longer and just drop it all on you. If anything, this would let you know what my taste stands as off now, and seeing how much it has evolved, or not… I guess I’m still the guy that manages to fall for the most emotional and less contrived of film experiences, but I do think that all of these movies are worth seeing, experiences that I had in cinemas, festivals and on the internet.
Be also reminded that all of these films are pure 2018 shorts, features, tv-series, whatever it was that was released in some way throughout 2018 in its first showing, directed by famous or not-so famous directors, Ready? Here we go.
20. Classical Period (Ted Fendt)
I managed to watch this film a second time on a 16mm copy, a format in which I’ve now seen every work directed by Ted Fendt, and there’s just a formal quality to his sequences and shots that just manages to be leagues above anything I’ve seen. The way that he captures both dawn and midnight in this film is impressive as it contains the mood of the characters. The obsessive nature of some of them, as well as their wealth of knowledge manages to become both the envy and the pity of the viewer, who is always on the verge of fully identifying with these outcasts, much like in Fendt’s previous work. For the first time, and only towards the end of the film, I could start seeing the influence of Straub-Huillet that many people had mentioned when discussing the films of this distinct and unique North American director, who seems fascinated with the concept of cringe, but also with evolving from that, as the female character disrupts the usual Fendt character, becoming a deeper experience, more scathing, as if someone were about to burst a bubble. Fendt’s films will only get more exciting from now on.
19. Jiang hu er nv (Ash is Purest White) (Jia Zhangke)
Jia is at a moment in his career where he thinks he needs to start looking back on what he did as an artist and manage to understand if it’s enough for it to become transcendent. For some of us there’s no doubt, his work in Chinese cinema is unique, his style is absolutely his own and the compromise he’s got with his own craft is just astounding. But he does think he needs to look back, so he again divides his film in three times, three moments in the recent history of China, through the comings and goings of a couple, in this case two gangsters from the Chinese mafia that are in love and find themselves in trouble as times seem to be changing. And sure, the film works more as a chronicle of Chinese economy and its evolution from a seemingly more communist approach to a full-on capitalist growth to then evolve into a corrupt plutocracy of sorts where the main drive is to take advantage of those that can give help into building the system that seems bent on destroying itself through constant actualization. The two main characters travel through these times, representing some of the attitudes, working together or against each other, a love story that seems to be based off interest and selfishness. It’s also a travel through Jia’s own ouvre, starting with the shot from inside a rural bus (the starting set-piece of his debut film Xiao wu (1997) ), following to the Three Gorges building (which was his focus for a couple of his films in the mid 2000s), all the way to his latest digital work, which looks forward into the future of vigilance and China’s state of total knowledge towards its subjects. A complex film to analyze, but one to hold dear due to the precise work done by Jia.
18. Introduzione all’oscuro (Gastón Solnicki)
Can’t say I’ve been much of a fan of Solnicki’s work, as I’ve seen one of his previous films and found it lacking, like a pretty painting, someone showing up and telling us that this is a beautiful image, above anything else that is happening. For some reason, in the context of this documentary-tribute, those kind of images work, because there’s nothing else besides them, as they represent what Gastón is seeing, feeling and experiencing as he travels through different places after the death of his friend Hans Hürch, the director of the Viennale. The vignettes in which we see Gastón trying his hand at writing like his friends, trying to get the same clothes, playing like a child at a cemetery, feels like a celebration, something akin to Lubitsch’s cinema, as if he were about to explode out of the joy of feeling sadness. The rituals that he perpetuates as well as the ones that he changes around, or the memories that we access to through the incredible archival work done by Solnicki via finding some tapes where he commented on the editing of one of his films, gives-off the sensation that we’re just witnessing the requiem of a friendship, and that’s just endearing to me. Argentinian cinema has a great year showing in this list, look out.
17. The Grand Bizarre (Jodie Mack)
A symphony of colors, shapes and music. What’s incredible about this Len Lye inspired feature, and the feature debut of filmmaker extraordinaire Jodie Mack, is that she manages to make what in animation looks like absolute freedom, but translating that absolute pure creativity into objects that can be found in reality. In many ways, we see Jodie Mack’s travels as much as we see the collection of shapes, colors, textures and pieces of clothing, as well as other objects of color, that move around in a precise manner to give the impression of “animation” of the inanimate, which is the ultimate goal of a film that’s the conjunction of thousands of pictures and shots of places where his tapestries have invaded the landscape. Which is curious regarding the next film.
16. La casa lobo (The Wolf House) (Joaquín Cociña, Cristóbal León)
There’s a wonderful job done here in this Chilean animated film which connects it to the previous film in this list, as it animates inanimate objects through the disposition of them in space, as well as the way that they change as the film takes possession of them, morphing them, painting over them, presenting a landscape of materiality that brings forward the almost liquid way in which the photographs morph the space where the characters move. It’s one of the most unsettling films of the year, and surely it manages to transmit the feeling of isolation and fear that many lived under the tyranny of Paul Schaeffer when Colonia Dignidad was on full swing under the protective wing of the conservative autoritarian power in Chile. This is the best Chilean of the year, by far, and one of the best experiments in the visual landscape that one could find, Chilean film or not.
15. Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)
One might have many issues with Cline’s original novel, and I sure had them as I read it months before this film opened, and while I didn’t find it to be the masterpiece some had talked about neither the unreadable mess others had warned me against off, it still manages to be an entertaining enough and with much much room for improvement. And who could ever doubt the talent of Steven Spielberg when it comes to creating new worlds and entertaining visions, so he delivered a monumental film that manages to have the breath of the experience that the virtual reality has, but at the same time it carefully creates a nuanced message about the world, fakery, reality and how we should live as a society. The world presented here isn’t far from what we get right now, like late capitalism into full-blown effect, and the virtual reality world of Oasis becomes a worthy example of pure capitalist escapism. There are a couple of sequences that stand out, and the set pieces are just impressive in the way that the “virtual camera” projects these fake realities unto us, but among them, surely the scene with ‘The Shining’ (1980) playing, might be the best scene in any movie this year. Messing around with such a “sacred” cinematic object might be called “blasphemy” to some, and the fact that this dissection of filmed worlds alongside the possibility of interactivity, is what makes it a prescient work, specially when it’s coming from one of our masterful directors.
14. Manbiki kazoku (Shoplifters) (Hirokazu Koreeda)
The Palme D’Or winner for Best Film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is maybe Koreeda’s most accessible film so far, a family portrait with a narrative edge that might’ve been missing from his entire filmography so far. Although he isn’t a truly obscure, rare or even a complex director, he manages to create narratives that are either too hard to stomach, too airy for them to grab people’s attentions, or simply just too fantastical for people to care about. Here we have something more straightforward: a family that makes ends meet by making some small robberies in shops and stores (one of the kids says that you shouldn’t rob enough for them to go into bankrupcy, which Ok, fair enough), find a little girl alone in the streets, who ran away from her family which is breaking apart. The selling point here is the varying performances from everyone, from the mater familia, the grandmother of the group, to the new child, everyone makes up for a family that maintains together no matter what happens. While Koreeda leans hard on the metaphor of “family is what you choose” towards the end, it still hits you hard, leaves you with enough fodder for thought and material to cry about.
13. Waldheims Walzer (The Waldheim Waltz) (Ruth Beckermann)
This is the story of a man who wanted power and since nobody seemed to care who he truly was, he got it through popular demand. Everyone else in the world hated him, made ridicule of him, scorned him publicly, yet he still was in power, so he didn’t care as long as he managed to do what he wanted. He left power and continued doing his life the way he wanted, because he was powerful and nobody cared. This is a film about why it’s so important to care, carefully and beautifully edited from footage from newscasts, home cameras at rallies, and other filmed elements, this “found footage” film by Beckermann brings home more than it bargains, it shows us the state of the world right now and that maybe we just don’t care enough. But at least Beckermann cares. We should too.
12. Gangbyeon hotel (Hotel by the River) (Sang-soo Hong)
Last year I had the three films that Hong did on my list of the (30) Best Films of 2017, but this year I only have one of the two (the other one being ‘Grass’ (2018) which I also liked, but there are so many other films I wanted to showcase this time), and while I don’t think this one in particular comes close to those three, it still manages to be fantastic as it signals a possible point of departure in Hong’s career. It’s one of his first films with hand-held cinematography in certain moments, it lacks an overall structure change that plays with time or repetition, at least in the classical sense of the word, and it’s obsessed with trauma and death. If anything, this is Hong’s film about his father, or so it seems, the one where he atones with his own sins and those who brought him up, the film that explores deeply into open wounds and he just lets those wounds in the air for everyone to see. Its visual style maybe represents a lack of restraint (even if the cinematography is impeccable), but in the sense that the themes just escape from his control and he’s only able to shoot this the way it comes to him, without adhering to a established style that everyone expects. Expectation kills the surprise, and I guess Hong surprised us all.
11. Ainhoa, yo no soy esa (Ainhoa: That’s Not Me) (Carolina Astudillo Muñoz)
This Spanish documentary, directed by the Chilean Carolina Astudillo, merges both the personal, the impersonal and the universal. Carolina is tasked and caught by the idea of making a film about Ainhoa, a young woman that she never met, but of whom she’s received hundreds of hours of footage, filmed by Ainhoa’s father and friends, as well as tape recordings, letters and writings. Ainhoa was a woman who knew that she was doomed to live in a world that wouldn’t receive her well, her style, her life, her looks, the things she liked, all of them were shunned upon in a conservative society, and she expressed that inner rage through beautiful moments that we get a glimpse off through Carolina’s careful selection of her moments. It’s an autobiography of sorts through a third person, which speaks loads about the status of women around the world in the 21st century. It also manages to connect with Carolina’s own life in a very beautiful segment that sees her react and relate to Ainhoa in her own struggles to live her life the way she wants to. A wonderful portrait that haunts and makes you cry at the same time.
Now, onto the top 10!
10. Te quiero tanto que no sé (I Love You so Much That I Don’t Know) (Lautaro García Candela)
Maybe the least known film of the list, as it’s played in very few festivals and only now it’s getting a commercial run in Argentina, where it was made, but I must sing praises for this feature debut from one of the most thoughtful critics that I’ve read in a while. Although I rarely agree with his points and some of the films he champions leave me speechless, I still consider his prose among the most creative among younger critics, and he’s from a background where filming, editing, writing and the craft itself of making movies is first, so I was curious and dubious to check out this film. But when I watched it, I just was enamored with the way that it crafted its characters, a bunch of youngsters in the search of something to alleviate the nothingness that surrounds them. The film breathes the night life of Buenos Aires but in a much more innocent manner than other films that have explored it, here it’s a city filled with people that you may or may not know, people that want a ride, or just want to sing a song to earn some pesos. The musical elements of the film are astounding, not because of the quality of the singers, which to some might be questionable, but it’s mostly due to the meaning of those songs in that context, in that moment for the characters, all of them copyrighted and sung by street performers in exact moments, which gives it a “musical-like” quality to both the plot of the film and its editing. Lautaro is one of the directors to watch in this extremely-indie landscape in which we’re moving in.
9. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
I would’ve never thought that I’d see a new film by Orson Welles coming out, and on Netflix out of all places, but I’ve been proven wrong so many times (I’ve seen a new film by Raúl Ruiz and more will come down the line, so who’s to say what will happen!) that I just won’t try to tempt fate. Welles is one of my favorite directors of all time, one that with each film that I’ve seen, just expands their ultimate and intimate knowledge of how the cinematographic language works, and this is a wonderful and almost revolutionary step forward into what he could’ve experimented with if he were able to continue making movies as he wanted to. And this latest film of his just expands upon that knowledge and craft into something that would’ve been deemed extremely revolutionary for his time, but now it feels at home, as if it needed the time for the world to adapt to Orson Welles’s state of mind around that time. The abundance of cameras, following the director and his cohort, the abundance of formats, grains and styles of shooting, it predates this era of us where everything is mediated, as the film plays like the editing of the footage of a documentary that was never meant to see the light, where cameras captured the most intimate and the most public of instances in the birthday party of a film director, played by John Huston in one of the most unforgettable roles as an aging artist that realizes that maybe it’s time to both hang the coat on his artistry and on his heterosexuality. The frantic camera, editing, use of color and black and white speak loads about a man who was in absolute charge of his artistic vision, one who knew what to do with all that he filmed, but at the same time, couldn’t end up doing it. What we got, maybe wasn’t the perfect vision he thought of, but it’s a pretty damn great vision of what genius Orson Welles was channeling.
8. Di Renjie zhi Sidatianwang (Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings) (Hark Tsui)
This is the third installment of a series of films directed by the Hong Kong-based director Hark Tsui, famous for his work in the wuxia genre, and here following on that tradition but expanding upon it with a modern twist. It’s also the best of the three films, a chaotic and joyful spectacle, which is mostly composed with the help of digital effects and CGI, which here becomes pure artistic imaginative colorful expression, which at the same time is marred with one of the themes of the film, which is the one of make-believe, as the plot follows a group of wizards that are attacking the Emperor. These performers/warlocks use visual and audio tricks to make people (among them, high officials and the Emperor himself) that they’re seeing monsters, dragons, fire, water and other elements, with which time we find out that aren’t there. Thus, the CG work done by the digital artists is one that is mostly tasked with the goal of making things that aren’t there as real as possible, which is almost impossible to make without a decent budget, they are, after all, the magicians of our time, if anything else, and here the work done is absolutely magnificent (most will call them fake), but it’s entirely creative and even beautiful to look at. We know it’s not there, and if we know it, might as well have fun with it. These films have always been grounded in reality, and that’s no exception here, as every supernatural ability and creature can be explained, but in the end there’s also the whole wuxia genre logic about people with immense force and ability, enough so they can jump on roofs and all that. But here the choreography and the plotting of the film become more and more important, the paths that characters take have weight and here more than in any other action film, each little character has their moment to shine. Just simply gorgeous.
7. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)
I read too many reviews of this film before I saw it. Maybe too many. I saw all the complaints, all the doubts and all the quibbles that one might have regarding this film, and besides one clear and obnoxious remark that almost soured the film (Greta Gerwig’s character), it remains being one of the most perfectly artistically accomplished films that I’ve seen. The way with which Anderson works the stop motion animation is akin to what someone might do with a complete control over everything and anything, and I believe that Wes Anderson had aspired to do that throughout his entire career, and his style seems more tailor-made for this kind of project. I’ve said it for a while, but I don’t mind repeating, that his aesthetic was always more childish, the colors and the perfect symmetry of his compositions seem like an “easy way in” to the world of filmmaking and cinematographic language, but that command on that way of thinking and seeing is also among the strongest assets of this film, which combines quite a few obsessions of both the director and his preferred audience: Japan, Dogs, Science Fiction, etc.
6. Ang panahon ng halimaw (Season of the Devil) (Lav Diaz)
At almost 4 hours this is still among the shortest of Lav Diaz’s films in the past few years, which isn’t the important thing here, but what it actually achieves on that time and in the specific genre that he’s playing with here: the musical. But this isn’t a dance and singing musical in the classic sense, this is more akin to the films of Jacques Demy, and in particular his late-period work Une Chambre en Ville (1982), where he confronts the social discomfort of the working class with a love story. Lav Diaz here he confronts the pain of a society under the scrutiny and oppression of a dictatorship with a love story, a man searching for the woman he loves, whom he knows nothing about after she stopped communicating. What hurts the most of this whole endeavor is how Diaz doesn’t shy away from showing us everything, after all he has the time to do so, without shying away from the actual brutality of the dictatorial regime, which was looking around for any sign of communism that might, in some way, justify the oppression that they exert onto everyone. The singing here is akin to Demy’s because every line is sung, with or without music, everyone speaks as if they were reciting, both poets and military, while they’re alone and while they’re with others, as they get killed, raped and maimed. What does the singing achieve here? It brings the possibility for characters to reiterate ideas constantly, to bring forward the cruelty of the language, its ridiculous rhetoric, as well as bringing forward a more poetic and less factual account of tragic events, that aren’t less tragic, but at least they make sense in a landscape of the artfully composed shots and the black and white cinematography of Diaz’s film.
5. Yara (Abbas Fahdel)
The task at hand was difficult to say the least. Abbas Fahdel had directed what might’ve been the best movie of this decade, Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015), which chronicled the Iraq War from inside the country both before and after the initial skirmish executed by the United States Army. Everyone was surprised when it was said that he’d follow that up with a fiction film, which premiered at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, but no one should’ve doubted him. Here, he presents a documentary-like reality through the motions, language, and idea of fiction. The film opens with a direct reference to Chekhov’s gun to knowingly nudge us into the realm of fiction, but his camera remains in a vérité mode, inspecting the way that characters move and interact with each other, using an Ozu-like shot structure that clearly shows us the time of day, what the people are doing, and how time passes. The protagonist, Yara (Michelle Wehbe), is a young woman who lives alone with her grandmother in a remote house in the hills, who falls in love with a man that comes from the city. The narrative might seem cliché, but Fahdel uses this fictional arrangement to present us with the reality of the people that live there, to show us the abandoned houses (ravaged by time and conflict), as well as using it as a point to present a more telling relationship between men and women, especially in the world portrayed there. It’s one of the few great, muted films of the year that surpasses one’s expectations, and I can’t wait for it to be discovered by more people.
4. L’empire de la perfection (John McEnroe: The Empire of Perfection) (Julien Faraut)
You’d never get me to say, as some cinephiles recently have done so, that watching sports is akin to watching movies, or at least as interesting. I’ve never been a sports guy, I can barely stand throughout the length of a soccer game, and that’s only been possible due to the chance that my country might win a game that might make them advance in the latest international cup of interest. The least be said about other sports, some of which I clearly just don’t understand, or won’t ever feel passionate about to even care about what comes where and why and how it all works and who’s important and who’s the butt of the joke, and so on and so forth. But there is a, sort of, exception, which is tennis. When I was in school, grades 4th through 6th, I was obligated to pick up a sport and practice it weekly as part of class, and I picked tennis because I thought I could be good at it, or at least I didn’t have to run as much as others that picked up soccer. I learned the rules, I learned the movements, but in three years I never won a match against someone that was at least competent at the sport, I just never had the coordination. But I liked watching tennis matches, there is an audiovisual, almost experimental quality to the field, the colors, it’s minimalistic and at the same time compelling. Which is the main reason as to why I found so much to like about this experimental documentary, which focuses on the American tennis player John McEnroe and some footage in 16mm of games he played in a tournament in France. Brilliantly edited, it puts together different perspectives, angles and shots which bring attention not only to the technique of this player, but also about the techniques used to film those shots themselves. The footage had a purpose, but here is repurposed, it’s given poetry, it’s given enough potency for it to escape its supposed educational intent, it becomes a look into McEnroe’s psyche as much as his prowess. It’s a purely aesthetic experience, combining movements, sounds and narration done by Mathieu Amalric, which makes it even more perfect.
3. Relaxer (Joel Potrykus)
Potrykus is still one of the most interesting and inspiring North American filmmakers that have come out this decade. His cinema is uncompromised, and thanks to the scale of his projects, as well as the way with which he finances them, he manages to make whatever it is that he wants, and the absolute freedom births projects like this: a gross-out chamber piece drama about videogames and the end of the world. Chronicling an alternate 1999 where a man is under the control of his older brother, under his constants dares, challenges and games, which in some way mimic the protagonist’s obsession with video games, or places like Chuck e Cheese, finding glitches in unreleased games or the childish way in which he seems to manage his life, both emotional and related to work. The film manages to create an unsettling portrait of obsession and control, while at the same time it finds itself creating an atmosphere of compassion. Maybe the strongest scene of the film is one where we see the protagonist (once again masterfully played by Potrykus’s usual, Joshua Burge) meeting with an ex co-worker, a woman of color who enters the apartment and tries to comfort, help and try to advice Joshua’s character, but she doesn’t come off as judgemental or as trying to change him from whatever he is inclined to do, she just passes through, in a beautifully shot sequence against the light. We see the emotions flowing between them, we see what could’ve been but wasn’t ever supposed to happen, and we’re left with an immediate sadness as the scene shifts and she leaves. There’s also a very cool special effect shot at the end, but you’ll get people talking about that for days when this becomes more widely available.
2. La Flor (The Flower) (Mariano Llinás)
A mammoth achievement, the elephant in the room, the conversation piece, the 14-hour film that won festivals and hearts all over the world. This Argentinian endurance round was among the hottest topics for cinephiles this last year, as its runtime made conversation with the issue of serialized binge-watching television, alongside the ever-present question of what is actually a film and what isn’t, and above all, the lack of screeners for people that wanted to review it. Mariano Llinás, the director, has been adamant in his task of not letting anyone see it in any other medium than on the big screen, and I understand, there’s no way to experience this film any other way, because it plays with the expectations, with the tired sensation of standing up on intermissions, preparing each day for the new film session, finding the same people here and there, discussing the film and its values. It’s a film about storytelling and cinema itself, it’s comprised of 4 “beginnings” in different genres, a complete short piece and a final segment that’s just an “ending”, also in a different genre. One could start to rank segments, finding ways to piece the experience together, but I feel that everything is just one big chunk of film that needs to be understood as a whole, because you can’t put a segment divorced from the rest, each one of them builds on each other, not because they reference each other (some do, but it’s slight, and the major connection is seeing the performances of the four main women, Piel de Lava, exchanging roles and positions between segments), but because it’s the experience of going through them what makes you understand this or that moment, the love that Llinás feels for his actresses only comes through after 2 days of screenings and seeing them look at the camera, smiling, happy to be there, even if they’ve gone through so many tragedies together. We understand that Llinás and his actresses are just trying to entertain us, they’re trying to make us happy, they make up stories, dress up and have fun. And I had fun.
1. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
It always seems as if the films that I have towards the top of my list become more and more controversial, divisive or just outright “wrong” for some cinephiles, but this isn’t a provocation more like just the honesty portrayed by me when it comes down to what affects me, moves me or makes me cry, which I think is the most honest of barometers when it comes to how great a film is in my eyes, beyond what “objective” qualities they might have. It also feels like a cop-out when you say that one of your favorite films of the year is also among the ones that are favorite to take home some Academy Awards. It never truly sits well with me, yet I keep falling into the same compartments from time to time. All of this long preamble is a way to feel at ease, in front of all of you, with saying that the latest film from Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is among the strongest cinematic experiences that I’ve had this decade. Not only it feels absolutely personal and soulful, as if the director were truly searching for the most defining moments of his life, but putting them through a matriarchal lens, the one of Cleo, a family maid that takes care of a house in the upper-middle class neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City in the turmoil-filled years of 1970-1971, where everything seemed to vibrate from the inside-out. The political reality mixes with the mundane daily life of a family that’s also in the midst of a divorce that’s breaking everything apart and making evident the differences between patrons and servants. I do believe that the travel of Cleo, while for some it reflects a bit too much the state of Mexico, it’s also and still is the usual path of many women deprived of education and opportunities, it rings true not because of its universal approach, but due to the fact that it still applies to what we see in our days. The scenes in which Cleo’s emotional journey starts to end are among the ones that truly demonstrate both the filmmaking prowess of someone like Cuarón, but at the same time his ability to portray horror and grief without daring to look away from it, just as he doesn’t look away from the hard class differences between the characters and manages to make you feel that there’s a love that might never be real, because that difference is too deep for it to ever be surpassed. And that’s the saddest thing. Not even love can seem to win.