With the sun now setting on 2018, Taste of Cinema offers up our favorites from the exciting year that was. To anyone of the opinion that 2018 was a mediocre year at the multiplex, you just weren’t looking hard enough. Even just narrowing the titles down to a workable 30 titles was no small feat – I cringe at the many worthy films that didn’t make the cut (and be sure to look at the Honourable Mentions section for more list-worthy titles).
The films on this list show a wide-ranging assortment including auteur-driven films, populist fare, plentiful arthouse gems, genre films, and many magnificent female-led projects, too (five of the top ten films are from women directors; a refreshing and restorative sign of things to come).
One quick note, the films that follow do NOT include any documentaries (that’s a separate list), though if it did you can bet that Free Solo, Minding the Gap, They Shall Not Grow Old, and Won’t You Be My Neighbour? would be roundly represented.
And now, without further ado, let the roundup commence:
30. The Sisters Brothers
French filmmaker Jacques Audiard adeptly adapts Patrick deWitt’s beloved, prize-winning 2011 historical novel about a pair bickering siblings who earn a living as hitmen in the Wild West of the 1850’s.
Buoyed by some of the year’s very best casting, The Sisters Brothers features John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are ideal as Eli and Charlie Sisters, hitmen hired by the Commodore (Rutger Hauer) to murder prospector Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who may just be in cahoots with a crooked detective named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Audiard and cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void , Spring Breakers ) are a perfect pairing, not unlike Reilly with Phoenix, and such brotherly esprit de corps gives The Sisters Brothers a seeable splendour and a muscular poetry that muzzles the American West in ways we’ve not fully embraced since the genre’s heyday.
29. Under the Silver Lake
“It’s silly wasting time on something that doesn’t matter,” says a dreamy young woman with a fondness for balloons (Grace Van Patten) to an embittered and unemployed young man turned would-be detective named Sam (Andrew Garfield) in writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s surreal Under the Silver Lake.
Sam isn’t a very likeable layabout, he’s months behind in his rent at a rather low-key lovely apartment complex in the trendy neighborhood of Silver Lake. When he’s not spying on his neighbors with high-powered binoculars, masturbating to vintage Playboys, distractedly screwing his kinda sorta actress girlfriend (Riki Lindhome), or watching old black-and-white movies, Sam is pining over his pretty and provocative neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough).
Under the Silver Lake is dividing audiences down the middle, and that’s to be expected given that it offers an overlong study of self-important, wealthy, and white spoiled brats. These L.A. rats, each in a state of arrested adolescence, fixate on shiny surfaces and shallow beauty and the result is one of the most audacious, campy, and crass offerings of the year.
28. An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn
Jim Hosking, the demented and depraved mind behind 2016’s The Greasy Strangler, finds his sea legs with his artfully inspired sophomore effort, probably the finest comedy film we’ll see all year, the jet black absurdist rom-com An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn.
We’d be remiss not to mention that this brand of outsider cinema will appeal to fans of John Waters in his heyday, but Rick Alverson’s name springs to mind too, and with a cast populated by such stunning, strange, cutting-edge comic actors as Matt Berry, Jemaine Clement, Maria Bamford, and Craig Robinson, all led by Aubrey Plaza, this movie is guaranteed a cult embrace forevermore.
Annoyed and outraged by her domestic life, Lulu Danger (Plaza) finds herself smitten with an incredibly inept hired gun named Colin Keith Threadener (Clement) and plots a reunion with a mysterious tub of guts from her past, the eponymous Beverly Luff Linn (Robinson).
Totally absurd, delightfully over-the-top, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn is time well spent for adventurous audiences with fittingly strange sensibilities, a love of the surreal and, as Variety’s Amy Nicholson puts it, “those who delight in championing the next cult film leader [and] will nod along with Clement when he grins, ‘Although I don’t know what what’s going on here, I’m having a great time.’”
Cam toys and twists with psychological-horror tropes while shrewdly messing with darker existential ideas in a wonderfully impressive debut from director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei. The often episodic story, drawn from Mazzei’s own past experiences as a camgirl (a video performer who uses a live webcam to stream often erotic and subversive content on the Internet), follows up-and-coming camgirl Alice Ackerman aka Lola (Madeline Brewer, fantastic). It’s not long before Alice discovers that her Lola persona has inexplicably and eerily been replaced on her site with a doppelgänger.
As Alice searches for whomever has hacked her and tries to figure out the nature of her dead ringer proceedings grow all the more frantic and fucked up. Goldhaber advances this tale cleverly, with developments both evocative and inventive, and all of it graced by Brewer’s herculean performance, essentially a dual one that can swing from seductively sexy to panicked and undone in the bat of a lash.
Whatever Goldhaber and Mazzei have in store for genre fans next will be enticing and exciting to see, let’s hope we won’t have to wait too long.
The writer-director duo of David and Nathan Zellner follow up 2014’s impressive Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter with the often knee-slapping and consistently subversive revisionist Western, Damsel.
Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) appears, an articulate dandy of a fella, in unfamiliar territory he is accompanied by a miniature horse named Butterscotch, and shares his intent on rescuing his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) from the vile kidnappers who snatched her away. Or so Samuel frames it when talking to Parson Henry (David Zellner), a wayward man of the cloth hired on to officiate their wedding vows, if would-be gunslinger Samuel can indeed rescue his damsel, and if indeed Penelope is a prisoner at all.
The Zellner brothers brilliantly blur the fine lines between hero, villain, damsel and deerstalker in this odd odyssey that occasionally echoes both Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974) and John Maclean’s Slow West (2015), with just a splash of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar(1954) for good measure, in a film that effortlessly trots between uproarious comedy and unsettling tragedy with a slick straphanger’s gait.
25. Virus Tropical
Recipient of South By Southwest’s prestigious Audience Award earlier this year, and adapting Powerpaola’s gripping 2011 memoir graphic novel of the same name, Santiago Caicedo’s black-and-white animated marvel Virus Tropical is warranting all sorts of buzz, and all of it is warranted.
Told in picaresque fashion as it recounts Paola’s formative years in a matriarchal home environment near Ecuador and Colombia, this wryly comic, keenly observational, and excitedly original animated tale is full to bursting with familial dysfunction, coming-of-age tenderness, bold intimations, and universal truths amidst the stirring and strife motherhood, artistic awakening, and so much more.
While comparisons to Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s 2007 film Persepolis are not unwarranted (both are monochromatic adaptations of graphic novels with coming-of-age heroines at their center), Virus Tropical blazes its own brilliant trail.
This relatable tale is the sort you don’t want to end, and the 1980s nostalgia (including a singalong to Warrant’s crotch rock anthem “Cherry Pie”, Alf dolls, and Barbie doll makeout sessions being amongst the most memorable) adds extra appeal. Caicedo is definitely a detailed, gifted, and nuanced filmmaker to watch.
24. Thunder Road
Writer-director-actor Jim Cummings wonderful debut film Thunder Road (an expansion of his 2016 short film) was little seen outside the festival circuit, where it was winner of the Grand Jury Award for Best Feature at South By Southwest and the New American Cinema Award at the Seattle Film Festival, and it’s a shame. Marking the arrival of an exciting new talent, Thunder Road walks the fine line between uncomfortable comedy and heartfelt drama with gusto.
Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings, excellent) is a small town Texas cop who is quickly losing his grip in the face of an impending divorce, losing the custody of his daughter, and his mother’s untimely passing.
We first meet Jim at his mom’s funeral where he delivers an excruciating eulogy, which also includes an oh-no-please-don’t interpretative dance inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (hence the film’s title). The opening perfectly forecasts the funny/mortifying balance of the film, where one moment’s touching tenderness is the next moment’s ludicrous say wha—?
Tragic and simultaneously comic, Thunder Road is a strangely touching film that will keep you guessing and grinning throughout all manner of discomfort. Recommended.
23. The House That Jack Built
In recent years it seems like Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s brand has become one of polarization. Seeing The House That Jack Built at a film festival, well ahead of the film’s wide release, I wasn’t surprised that the majority of attendees seated around me got up and left in outrage around the time Jack (Matt Dillon, excellent) performed his macabre mastectomy on a fraught young woman named Simple (Riley Keough)––a sordid leaf torn from Jack the Ripper’s libretto.
Occupying a 12 year span during the 70s and 80s in the Pacific Northwestern United States––an area traditionally thought to be a hotbed for serial killer activities––the film follows the career of our titular murderer, sometimes referred to as “Mr. Sophistication”.
As Jack leads the viewer down an ever-swirling quagmire of obscenity and slaughter, he shares a back and forth with an almost unworldly figure named Verge (Bruno Ganz)––a perhaps too obvious sobriquet that bluntly suggests he’s Virgil to Jack’s Dante on a tour through Hell and Purgatory.
The film is a self-consciously reflexive, self-defeating, convention-crushing, neo-slasher that will reward the right kind of viewer with its masterful mesh of allusions, pitch-dark designs and dismayed poetry.
22. A Quiet Place
A menacing horror movie set in a pitilessly silent world, director John Krasinski’s latest film A Quiet Place is also a fine sample of smart sci-fi, solidly backed by arresting human drama.
Written by the genre specialists/screenwriting duo of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (Nightlight ), Krasinski, who further developed the screenplay with them, also co-stars along with brilliant actress and wife Emily Blunt. Unraveling in an eerie, post-apocalyptic world where childhood innocence, family life, and joy have been swept away by hard-to-fathom ferocity and intense fear.
While being economically sparing with the details, A Quiet Place is immediately open about its premise. In a not-too-distant future a race of mean, massive, unmanageable, multi-appendaged spider-like monsters have appeared. In this bleak tomorrow, the scant survivors have to adapt to a world of deliberate silences. Such are the Abbott family, Lee (Krasinski) and Evelyn (Blunt), who along with their three young children — sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), and deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) — have turned their remote farmhouse and environs into an efficacious survivalist ranch.
A Quiet Place will be forever remembered for its brilliant use of sound (see the next section of this list for more detail on this), but it would be folly to overlook the numerous and many clever and well-executed tableaus that Krasinski and Charlotte Bruus Christensen capture on camera, that help bring the dynamic sound design to brilliant, and nail-biting life.
As usual with filmmaker Isaac Ezban (The Incident , The Similars ), the firmament is streaming with high concept ideas, adverse emotions, and a stiff shot of the supernatural in the highly satisfying genre mashup, Parallel.
Ostensibly the ill-fated tale of four app developer friends; Devin (Aml Ameen), Josh (Mark O’Brien) Leena (Georgia King), and Noel (Martin Wallström), who are frustrated by setbacks both financial and personal. The group share an old house with a history to it, and one night they stumble upon a secret stairway that leads to a part of the house nobody knew existed.
Amongst the neglected items in the furtive attic space is a mirror that turns out to be a portal to a seemingly endless array of alternate universes.
And so our protagonists are lured into a series of multiverse expeditions, first to overcompensate for a few missed opportunities, and then to acquire continued prosperity and public esteem.
As Parallel breathlessly speeds towards its precarious finish, the audience is easily swept up in the complexities of time, identity, morality and the ethics of technological analysis couched in the form of a chic, ultra-slick and yet shrewdly nuanced weird-science psychodrama.
Capturing the genre jeu d’esprit, Ezban gives us one of the strongest sci-fi offerings of the year, a film that is endlessly inventive, and sheerly enjoyable.