10. Long Day's Journey Into Night
Bi Gan's latest could, at least in title alone, be mistaken for an adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer winning play, but what we get instead is a journey of discovery, introspection and connection, all intertwining with an inventive spin on what could be a standard crime thriller. But, of course, no conversation about this film would be complete without looking at 'the moment' or at least mentioning that Bi Gan's integration of 3-D is daring, not just technically so, but the way in which it blends film and reality to achieve one of last year's most stunning sequences.
9. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl
In what was a fairly strong year for animated films in general, and specifically works coming out of Japan, Yuasa's latest (and one of two films, though I have yet to catch up with his other) stands at the top. The different styles create a visual sense that is inventive, while also keeping in line with the central energy and stories taking place throughout the film. It slows down just enough at the right points though to let the emotional cores build, which produces some incredibly resonate moments that connect just as all the world and characters thread together without sacrificing the power of growth and exploration to the film's central woman.
At this point it's not surprising that #HorrorIsHere because so many filmmakers have brought in elements from different subgenres under the greater umbrella, if not jumping in completely, but what makes Ari Aster's debut not only one of the strongest announcements of a new voice from last year, but also one of the year's best is just how well it builds a sense of dread. Sure, the influences are worn on its sleeve, but Aster plays with the idea of expectation and construction from the very opening to build to moments of tension and terror before pushing the film even farther. There's a surprising formal rigor, one that creates a fun tension with just how freewheeling the script gets.
7. The House That Jack Built
Going in, one might wonder if this would also fall in line with king of the provacauteurs (I've trademarked this word, by the way), Lars Von Trier's, other filmography, and just how 'far' he would push the envelope. But I was more interested in seeing how he followed up Nymphomaniac, which I think it probably his strongest work, and the answer is with something that kind of feels like an extension of the ideas explored in that film. The dangers of unchecked masculinity and hubris, the turmoil between art and violence, and even a wonderful internal dialogue that LVT just seems to be having with his own place in all of this. Which is even more than I could have imagined or wanted, each vignette building a better understanding of the ideas LVT prods, and, to be fair, I am always glad to listen in on any conversation LVT wants to have with himself.
When I got out of the theater after Lee Chang-dong's latest I knew I had liked what I saw, but it didn't register as something that would end up on my Top Ten, let alone pushing for a spot in the Top Five, but few films have stuck with me and risen in my estimation quite like this one. It's a difficult one to discuss without diving in to spoilers, but I guess that's why they pay me the big bucks. Without having too much of a knowledge of South Korea, what begins to reveal itself on a thematic level, working perfectly in conjunction with the actual plot, is pretty remarkable. Not to mention, in a year with so many movies trending towards musical sequences, the inclusion of a couple of the best musical sequences from the previous year. And Steven Yeun finally making sure I, without a doubt, understand "Gangnam Style" with one of the year's best performances.
5. Isle Of Dogs
Well, here we are again. I guess I've officially turned the corner on Wes Anderson, if there was any question left, really. Given Anderson's strengths as a filmmaker, namely just how controlled and detailed every single frame tends to be, animation truly does feel like the home for his sensibilities, and what he achieves here is up there with some of his best work. The cast is full of incredible performances, and the central relationship is so well drawn that it's believable every step of the way. And, despite the film seeming to skew younger, it doesn't shy away from a few more mature scenes that highlight the actual danger and reality of the world the film creates. All of that without mentioning the visuals which are stunning, celebrating such a beautiful Japanese style and a commitment to using the native language instead of having it all be in English, which is a bold move on its own.
4. Monrovia, Indiana
Not sure what it says about the year that I've got a documentary on this list, or that it says more about me that my arch-nemesis Frederick Wiseman is the mind behind it. I suppose I should say this is, front to back, my first full experience with Wiseman after catching plenty of clips here and there on the limited PBS opportunities I had for his other films, and did like what I saw, but you never know how something fly on the wall style will translate to a three hour feature in some smaller community in MAGA Country mother fucker. But it works pretty incredibly because, even though there are themes that run throughout, it doesn't come off as condescending or demeaning to the community that is central to the film. Making a town hall meeting compelling it a feat of its own, but the film really shines at the county fair, which I guess is kind of nuts on its own.
Coming off his best work in years with the Netflix refresher of She's Gotta Have It, I was pretty excited to see what Spike Lee would end up doing with his next feature, especially because I feel like I've been warmer on his recent films than most, but with what BlacKkKlansman ended up being my hopes ended up being exceeded. A lot has been said about the anger in the film, something that tends to bring out the best in Lee's work, and it's there. In the performances, two excellent turns by Washington and Driver, in the visuals, in the script. But there are moments of somber reflection as well, ones that punctuate the film and frame how cyclical the hate is, how even with what feels like a major victory is undercut by a reminder of how much more is still out there. Having a film that takes place in the past but is still very much having a conversation with the present could go really wrong, but those pitfalls are masterfully avoided as Spike frames the larger conversation.
2. An Elephant Sitting Still
It wouldn't be the #MostDepressingYear ever if we didn't have a four hour long film in Mandarin where the crushing weight of existence pushes characters to the brink of existence. Hu Bo's film feels imposing, and that's because there's plenty to digest over the robust run time, but with that it's hard not to be in awe of pretty much everything. From the opening exchange to the threading of these characters's lives in what feels simultaneously like a nexus and also well beyond the tipping point. Saying it is daunting comes off as negative, because it has that quality in the best possible way, and for something so complete, so dense, so brimming with ideas and emotion to come from a debut feature is staggering. Of course, it is also a final feature as Hu Bo took his life shortly after completing it, and hopefully in his decision to do so he found peace.
1. You Were Never Really Here
It doesn't happen very often, but the last time I checked in the latest from Lynne Ramsay stood at the top of my list, and it has fought off the competition (with a hammer, presumably) to retain its position. A film like this, where you have a professional security man (?) hired out to rescue a missing girl before things ramp up from there, is expected to have a certain amount of grit to it, but Ramsay softens this with a sleekness to the brutality that recalls other more full blown style dramas like the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, though the language of the film is still very much her own. Plus there's another stellar turn from Joaquin Phoenix, further cementing his status as the greatest working actor, where he plays a character that has so much going on in the interior that the moments where he breaks, when the sheer weight of his existence and the desire for that to end, that you really see the full depth of the performance. With the pace, the action serving more than just cheap thrills, and the central plot, Ramsay's latest is a hell of a ride.
And there we have it, the movies I watched last year that I enjoyed the most, or found the most rewarding, or a combination of the two. As tends to be the case in years that are solid without an immediate film that shakes me to my core the top three, and possibly four, films on this list are kind of interchangeable, but that's the order I've settled on when I wrote this post. I'm already decently deep in to 2019, though have not yet made a Letterboxd list tracking those films specifically, nor have I actually logged all the Oscar shorts I've watched, but definitely keep up with me there since that's typically where my capsule reviews happen. If you have things I left off, wondering where your favorite film is, or want to tell me that 2018 wasn't really that bad in general (spoiler alert: it was), feel free to dive in to that comment section and go to town. Thank you for reading, and see you all some time in the next few months probably.
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© 2019 Richard James Thorne