2018 Top Ten List

2018 started with such promise, but much like that one Thanksgiving where I attempted to make beef wellington for my loved ones, it ended with decimated expectations, disillusionment in the promise of good things, and a round of pumped stomachs. Though a few worthwhile releases certainly caught me by surprise, by and large this was a tedious and mediocre year marked by bitter disappointments, even where my beloved Indie market was concerned. Many of the films I had high hopes for fell flatter than grandma after that aforementioned Thanksgiving dinner, while other movies I had no expectations for whatsoever taught me to never again ask “How bad could it possibly be?” unless I’m planning on French kissing a pencil sharpener.

I could rant about all the cinematic fecal matter encrusted into my Soft Mocs until Half Life 3 is announced, but this is a Top Ten List – otherwise known as that one magical time of year where I actively suppress the impulse to throw myself off a bridge. As such, I will focus on the quality films that 2018 had to offer, noting as I do that spoilers abound in plenteousness.

They are –

10) Hereditary. Imagine painting a portrait of an upscale but dysfunctional family – the sort where everybody is clearly coldest in one another’s presence. Now scatter in some pagan imagery, throw in an inordinate number of decapitated heads, and camouflage some nude cultists in the background who are just visible enough to make observers ask “Is it just me, or is that a naked dude standing in the shadows?” and you’ve perfectly captured the unnerving effect of watching Hereditary. As its title suggests, this is a supernatural horror about the unpleasant things that tend to get passed down through family lines, such as mental illness, systemic abuse, and demonic possession – all standard stuff. Its potency as a horror aside, I admit I found Hereditary more impressive for its stylistic choices than its story, which slowly became throttled by increasingly convoluted lore until it asphyxiated completely in the third act. As riveting as it is to observe the plot subtly shift from mother Toni Collette losing her marbles to son Alex Wolfe being shuffled around the board like a chess piece, trying to follow who’s being possessed and how it’s supposed to work is like attempting to track the ever-shifting loyalties in POTC: At World’s End (whose mythology was equally baffling). So, while not nearly as effective as 2015’s excellent horror The Witch, Hereditary’s genuinely creative cinematography and clever editing techniques make it an engaging watch even if you can’t sort out what the hell’s happening.     7/10

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9) Black ’47. 2018 certainly was the year for revenge tales, wasn’t it? We had Mandy (an experimental film with limited exposure), Peppermint (a terrible movie with too much exposure), and finally Black ’47, a film about impoverished Irishmen dying from exposure. Set during the Great Famine, Black ’47 chronicles a grizzled deserter’s quest for vengeance against the Anglo-Irish middlemen who cast his family out into the cold to die for the unforgivable crime of being destitute. Whereas Mandy was like an ethereal lullaby that transitioned midway to psychedelic rock, Black ’47 maintains an even tone throughout that’s reminiscent of a melancholy instrumental. It’s a bleak, gritty, grey, and joyless exercise, but one that functions more effectively than Mandy for the journeys of its dual protagonists. James Frecheville portrays an accomplished killer who cuts through his foes on a path that can only end with his own destruction, while the immortal Hugo Weaving is hot on his trail as a conflicted RIC officer who begins to rediscover his humanity. Revenge and redemption are counterbalanced on the narrative scales, bringing complexity to an otherwise straightforward premise. In all, Black ’47 is relatively low-key compared to our current entertainment climate and quite possibly the quaintest revenge tale ever told. It holds no pretensions of cinematic grandeur, only telling a satisfying story. Also, Jim Broadbent in anything earns an automatic half-point.   7.5/10

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8) Sorry to Bother You. Director Boots Riley has described this film as “an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing,” which I quote here because any summary written by me would pale in comparison. In this alternate universe-set satire, Cassius “Cash” Green yearns to do something meaningful with his life – especially if it allows him to move out of his uncle’s garage. When he lands a job as a telemarketer for the obviously evil RegalView, he finds himself embroiled in a bizarre plot involving corporate greed, institutional racism, public complacency in the face of uncomfortable truth, and an entertainment culture so brutal there’s literally a program called I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me. Yes, this is a film with something to say about society, but one that expertly laces all its social commentary into the subtext and world-building in order to focus on the surreal journey of its hero. Cash’s gradual seduction by money and power reflects Charlie Sheen’s rise and fall in Wall Street, if said journey had taken place in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and had involved a late-in-the-game twist more radical than From Dusk Till Dawn’s introduction of vampires an hour into the runtime. With Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Terry Crews, and Steven Yeun rounding out a memorable and colourful (not a pun) cast, Sorry to Bother You is wildly entertaining and never fails to generate a reaction.     8/10

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7) The Death of Stalin. Another absurdist dark comedy, this time set in Soviet Russia in the days following the passing of its “beloved” leader. This was one of the year’s earliest gems, albeit one shrouded in obscurity. I only discovered it after a chance perusal through FirstShowing, because apparently this film’s distribution and marketing budget was lower than what my hometown is willing to spend annually on road maintenance, which itself is less than my weekly allowance back in third grade. Those who have heard of The Death of Stalin have both lauded it for its comic brilliance and raised the valid question of whether or not satirizing a genocidal dictator is maybe violating the conventions of good taste. Controversial as its subject matter may be, The Death of Stalin doesn’t stoop to trivializing the atrocities committed under Stalin’s reign of terror, but instead lampoons the exaggerated pettiness of the clowns who scramble to fill the power vacuum left by his demise. Grown men behaving like children has long been a staple of comedy, and when those men are Soviet leaders played by Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor, well, that’s just gold. Replete with deadpan deliveries and endlessly quotable lines (“I like making eye contact with an officer when I’m taking a piss… it completely ruins their day.”), Game of Thrones meets Dr. Strangelove is a triumph of comedy. Also, it got banned in Russia, so it must have done something right.     8/10

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6) A Quiet Place. This post-apocalyptic tale of a nuclear family living quietly in the woods for fear of attracting savage, sightless monsters who hone in on sound like my dog on a dropped cocktail weenie became an instant hit upon release, both critically and commercially. Since then, for some reason, it has become extremely popular in certain circles to nitpick on. The problem with merely nitpicking a film (as opposed to analyzing its structure, plot, characters, etc.) is that penalizing a story for perceived CinemaSins is ultimately petty and leaves no room for the suspension of disbelief or even for characters to be fallible. In the case of A Quiet Place, I have yet to witness a nitpick actually hold up under scrutiny. “If that waterfall was able to drown out all noise, well, why didn’t they just live inside the waterfall?! Duuuuuur—” Anyway, as a monster flick this is spellbinding, and as a family portrait it’s everything that Hereditary isn’t – that is, loving and supportive. I found it wholly refreshing to see committed, present parents functioning as a united front in a film, as opposed to the usual fractured marriage that stands estranged from the kids. John Krasinski has proven that he’s beyond the Jim Halpert role and is entirely convincing as a serious leading man. We may again contrast this with Hereditary, where Gabriel Byrne is so incidental to the plot in his capacity as nameless husband that it’s practically comical. Unlike The Last Jedi, A Quiet Place truly is a story about family that manages to both charm and thrill. I just hope that they never do something stupid like announce an ill-conceived sequel…     8/10

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5) Isle of Dogs. After 2014’s decadent The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was concerned that Wes Anderson may have begun to dip his nose a little too liberally into his own supply of perfectly-centered whimsy. As such, my viewing of his latest feature about scruffy stop-motion canines embarking on a quest across Trash Island to reunite a precocious boy with his lost dog occurred fairly late in the year. Now that I’ve seen every installment in the Anderson Canon – except, ironically, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, his first stop-motion venture – I’m pleased to report that Isle of Dogs stands alongside Bottle Rocket and Moonrise Kingdom as one of his greatest hits. The wonderful thing about animation is that it allows for timing and movements that simply aren’t possible with live-action, and Anderson capitalizes on the medium’s flexibility to pack every frame to the brim with his signature deadpan hilarity. Every snap-zoom, dolly shot, and camera pivot are pitch-perfect notes in a visual melody that never misses beat. Because each character, prop, set, and element needed to be painstakingly created in miniature, Anderson’s meticulously-crafted mise-en-scène might be remembered by the annals of cinematic history as the finest he’s ever arranged. At the very least, every shot could very well be framed and hung beside your Citizen Kane prints and that portrait of The Great Wave off Kanagawa that you picked up at the thrift store for $6.00. All artistry aside, this tale of love between an orphaned boy and a dog who learns to let affection in is suitable for cinephiles and the casual filmgoer alike.     8/10

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4) Overlord. Having dedicated my pre-Christmas entry to singing this World War II zombie film’s praises, I’m afraid I’m left with little new to say – not unlike the zombie genre in its current state. Because the modern zombie movie has brought almost nothing fresh to the table since roughly 2002, even genuinely striking films like Overlord succeed or fail on the appeal of their characters. Fortunately, in this regard Overlord succeeds, because at face value it’s virtually indistinguishable from the rotting cornucopia of other Nazi zombie movies (most of which were direct-to-DVD) and video games to be released this century alone. I stand by my previous Saving Private Ryan parallel, as every character that Overlord spotlights is memorable in their own fashion and makes a marked progression across their respective arcs. I recall seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story back in the day and completely losing track of who was who and why I should care in the theater, but Overlord’s band of brothers stands out clearly in my mind even after a single viewing back in November. If I had any quibbles to put on record, it’s that Overlord tarried ever so slightly in its second act, facilitated its hero’s infiltration of the Nazi lab through the magic of plot convenience, and neglected to have anyone turn directly to the camera at any point and say “Zombies? I did Nazi that coming!”     8.5/10

3) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I’m as dismissive of most comic book movies as the next guy… is something I would say if the next guy behind me in line at the welfare office wasn’t bulging out of a Venom onesie. That being said, my soft spot for animation coupled with my unyielding zeal for Lord and Miller’s oeuvre (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) compelled me to suspend my aggravation with both Marvel and Sony for an evening and give Into the Spider-Verse a shot. Well, wouldn’t you know it, this mash-up of Spider-Men from various dimensions teaming up to save New York City from a science machine is not only the best of the seven Spider-Man movies churned out since 2002, it’s one of the most innovative animated films ever produced. Into the Spider-Verse transcends the staid conventions of the superhero origin formula with a fresh version of everyone’s favourite web-slinger, paying loving homage to the Spider-Men of Christmases Past while establishing a unique mythos that will leave viewers young and old clamoring for the inevitable sequel. Though it felt a little overstuffed at times, Guardians of the Galaxy with all Spider-Men (and women!) is fun, energetic, imaginative, and heartwarming. The best endorsement I can make is that I loved it enough to see it twice, which is two more times than I saw Amazing Spider-Man 2. You’re welcome, Sony – please stop making Smurfs movies now. As an aside, this iteration of Doc Ock looks exactly like Ms. Grotke from Recess.    8.5/10

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2) Annihilation. If science fiction is about exploration of the unknown, then sci-fi horror is about investigation of the unknown. Generally, the best horror investigations don’t lead to conclusive answers, only more stimulating questions, which Annihilation has in abundance. When Natalie Portman and a team of military scientists enter an alien “Shimmer” on the coast of Florida in search of answers, they are confronted by their own inner demons, genetically-spliced flora and fauna, and a soundtrack that will permeate your nightmares for years to come. I’ve been highly impressed with Garland’s repertoire to date – both Dredd and Ex Machina made the Top Ten in their respective years and Annihilation sat enthroned as my top pick for 2018 until one fateful day in October. Garland’s direction focuses heavily on tone and atmosphere, and Annihilation’s overall feel is as mysterious and absorptive as the humidity draping Florida’s bayou. A palpable solemnity lingers in even the beautiful moments, while a conscious darkness lurks in the shadows of the frightening ones. Suffice to say, this is a film that stays with you long after you’ve gone to bed. Perhaps the most perplexing question raised by Annihilation is why Paramount got cold feet and chose to pawn it off on Netflix, other than to give snooty film critics like myself a treasure to unearth in our own insatiable hunt for answers and meaning. As is the case with the mysteries in the film, I suppose knowing for sure would only disappoint us.     9/10

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1) Bad Times at the El Royale. A dear friend recently asked me what sorts of films I actually enjoy, since I appear to go out of my way to subject myself to movies I loath. My honest answer was that despite all the preaching about form and rules, my favourite films are usually ones that defy narrative convention. Enter Bad Times at the El Royale, the Drew Goddard-helmed neo-noir thriller that singlehandedly revitalized my waning hope in 2018. Seven strangers converge on the seedy El Royale hotel on the border of California and Nevada sometime in the late 1960’s – all have secrets, all have agendas, and all will spill blood before the night is through. Just as Goddard used Cabin in the Woods to subvert clichéd horror tropes, so he uses Bad Times to reimagine 70’s thrillers. Few things ever surprise me in films anymore, but Bad Times consistently caught me off guard with its clever twists, interweaving plotlines, and intriguing reveals. This honestly feels like a lost Agatha Christie classic that was adapted for the silver screen by Tarantino. Sadly, critical and audience reception has been mixed and its box office return has been paltry, which is just heartbreaking. Bad Times is a wonderful reminder of just what a good film can be – it’s a beacon of quality cinema standing tall in a mire of entertainment that panders to the lowest common denominator. In all, Bad Times is slick, stylish, sexy, and – contrary to what the naysayers will say to dissuade you – never feels its ample runtime.     9/10

(Dis)honorable mentions:

The “I Can’t Believe I Enjoyed Myself” Award goes to… The Meg. Yes, you heard me, The Meg. I liked The Meg. I like Jason Statham and I liked The Meg even more. Bigger, dumber, louder Jaws was not only less dumb that I thought it’d be, it was actually enjoyable.     7/10

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While technically not a film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Mr. Rogers documentary, was simply wonderful. Chock-full of sex and nudity, but wonderful just the same.     7/10

Mandy. I feel that I may have been too dismissive of Mandy in my full write-up, which I attribute largely to the mood I was in that month. Given the lofty creative standards I impose on all other movies, I may return to it down the road and reassess it more favourably. Until then, I must stand by my original rating.     6.5/10

Avengers: Thanos, The Hands of Fate. I avoided this during its lengthy theatrical run and managed to ignore the pull for most of the year, only to succumb to temptation at the tail-end of December. I blame this lapse of conviction on an over-saturation of the Christmas spirit (not to mention mixed Christmas spirits). Anyway, this was meh.     6/10

Halloween. There’s actually quite a bit to like in 2018’s Halloween. Had it come out in, say, 1978, it would have been revolutionary. Oh wait. It did…     6/10

Comedy double-whammy – I saw Game Night and a New Zealand movie called The Breaker Upperers nearly back-to-back. Maybe I just hate laughing.     6/10

Solo: A Star Wars Story. There were five completely separate movies strung together in Solo. Admittedly, I enjoyed three of them.    6/10

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The “Manufactured Drama Award” goes to an Indie pic called When Jeff Tried to Save the World. This mumblecore drama isn’t terribly offensive, it just fails to make a story about Napolean Dynamite trying to save his bowling alley from closing anything that resembles exciting.      6/10

A movie I had high hopes for was Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back), an ostensibly black comedy about a manically depressed young writer who hires Tom Wilkinson to assassinate him. Unfortunately, two tightly-woven acts built towards a third that could have been resolved in a minute and a half… but instead dragged on for an additional thirty.     6/10

Mission Impossible: Fallout. Wait… did this one have the Burj Khalifa in it??     5.5/10

Bohemian Rhapsody. The most memorable part of this viewing experience was the bottle of Jack Daniels I smuggled into the theater.     5.5/10

For a truly immersive Bird Box experience, I challenge you to watch this hack Quiet Place derivative blindfolded.     4/10

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Every auteur has a love letter to themselves at some point in their career. Generally these love letters are pretentious, focused on style over substance, and an excuse for the director(s) to flex their muscles in public. The Coen Brothers finally delivered theirs with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This disjointed and vapid series of western vignettes left me supremely irritated.     4/10

The Predator. I had initially planned to write a full critique of this movie, but instead decided to mainline a bottle of Drano and let myself float away into a dreamless euphoria.     3/10

The “Can 80’s Nostalgia Please Die Now? Award” goes to Summer of ‘84. The only interesting thing about this plodding, bland regurgitation of things you recognize from your youth is how something so uninspired can leave such a bad taste in your mouth.     3/10

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Speaking of a regurgitation of things you recognize from your youth, did you see Ready Player One??? The first twelve minutes of it was nigh-incomprehensible exposition that could have been guest-written by George Lucas. The rest was a nauseating, bloated, obvious, bucket of pop culture references that could have been directed by Steven Spielberg’s grandson. It tried to appeal to my fervor for The Shining to generate a rapport, but it only succeeded in insulting my intelligence.     2/10

Oh, Venom. The most amusing thing to come out of my viewing of Venom was the barrage of hateful accusations thrown at me by strangers on social media over my article. My favourite was from the fanboy who accused me of being a snooty film critic (how dare you…) who “probably loved Gravity.” Well, the joke’s on you, jerk – I love gravity. It keeps me from drifting into space.     2/10

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. How did James Cromwell not know that there was a massive laboratory with caged dinosaurs underneath his mansion? Wouldn’t the dinosaurs have made noise– ah, hell with it.     1/10

I eagerly tuned in to The Escape of Prisoner 614 for Ron Perlman. I deflatedly turned it off after fifteen minutes and watched Hellboy instead.     N/A

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Skipped Black Manther and Ant-Man and the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Moderation, Marvel. Moderation.

The “Most Compelling Depiction of John Gotti Award” goes, of course, to Gotti… an HBO original film from 1996 starring Armand Assante.

Thus ends a year of cinematic dumpster-diving. Thank Heavens for Netflix gems like Maniac and The End of the F***ing World to keep me sane. Here’s to 2019…

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