FROM WHERE I’m standing it’s been a fearful year, an angry year, a hateful year; a rollercoaster ride, a terror-filled plunge, a horror show.
Horror as a genre still seems irrelevant — what can be more frightening than the evening news? — except where it’s a reflection or refraction of anxieties already out there (which, come to think of it, is what good horror is all about). John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place starts off strong with its monster-enforced insistence on silence but stumbles along the way; Ari Aster’s Hereditary is good — very good — for at least the first half, a unique mix of domestic drama and horror, till it decides to do a clumsier version of Rosemary’s Baby.
That said, horror as a genre is doing better than science fiction. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One was arguably the most interesting SF release in Hollywood last year, is arguably the fleetest, most inventive work the director’s done in recent years, and all that sturm und drang proves that there’s a limit to what special-effect heavy SF movies can do. Give me Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime instead, with its underplaying digital effects in favor of theatrical effects, its musings on memory and emotion, its suggestion that digitally stored personalities may become the ghosts of our technological future. Our dramatized response to science (my thrown-together definition of the genre) seemed less relevant — or is the word I’m looking for “urgent”? — last year, and, yes, I’m aware Ryan Coogler directed a movie that qualifies — barely — as SF, that there is in fact a major studio churning out supersized examples of the genre to which I have to say: give me back the Mr. Coogler who did Fruitvale Station.
Documentaries seemed more palatable last year, if only because they want to talk to us straight, no chaser. Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a moving enough account of Fred Rogers but is really our way of mourning the death of our sense of community; Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers is his funny and bizarre and ultimately sad take on the debate of nature vs. nurture, tinged with the shadow of child abuse.
Animation? Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is about as witty and inventive as animated films can get, with an intricately detailed, wondrously realized vision of next-generation Japan. A case of cultural appropriation, of cultural insensitivity? Maybe, but putting that aside, it’s also Mr. Anderson being willfully hermetic, insisting on creating his sealed-off aquarium worlds and only once in a while making sly subtle commentary on the world outside — in this case too sly and subtle for me to pick up.
Comedies? Bo Burnham’s Eight Grade is (as with most good comedies) funny and painful both. Peter Farelly’s Green Book is yet another crude and sentimental odd-couple road movie, a Driving Miss Daisy with genders and races shuffled around, but Don Shirley seems as estranged from his own race as he is from white America — a conceit that has been questioned by Mr. Shirley’s own family but which within the film brings something fairly new to a weary genre. Jason Reitman’s Tully is a visually undistinguished realization of an imaginative Diablo Cody script, cunningly sketching what mothers today are up against.
I can never see as many Filipino films as I want but the ones I do get to see often startle with their range and visual variety — even something as narratively and politically incoherent as Erik Mattti’s BuyBust features deftly staged and shot action sequences. Keith Sicat’s Alimuom — made for the To Farm Film Festival — relocates the Filipino farmer in the world of both Blade Runner and Mad Max: Fury Road. State-of-the-art (for the Philippines anyway) digital effects are surprisingly impressive, though not as impressive as the focus on seed banks and corporate monopolies — an uncommon subject in today’s SF movies. Denise O’Hara’s Mamang is a lyrically realized retelling of her filmmaker uncle Mario O’Hara’s close relationship with his mother.
What films best express the mood of the times? Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is more a memory film than anything else but it is beautifully shot, and does give us an unsparing view of wayward husbands and neglectful boyfriends. Steve McQueen’s Widows is not so much a bank heist film as it is a film about women taking back what they lost — not their husbands but their sense of independence. David Gordon Green’s Halloween is not so much a horror story as a story about the horrific aftereffects of abuse.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a savage satire on power; Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 is a satiric sketch of Mr. Trump’s rise to the White House, a poignant look at the middle and lower class folk rising up in opposition to him. Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake turns the spectre of the Marcos administration into yet another monstrous father figure, one of many that loom over the director’s films.
Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner has a young girl surviving wartorn Afghanistan by dressing as a boy. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed channels the anger of his Taxi Driver script through the austere style of Robert Bresson, then blindsides us with an impish humor not unlike Yasujiro Ozu’s.
Khavn’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness is a ferocious depiction of the Balangiga massacre, its scattered corpses evoking the victims of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. Lav Diaz’s Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil) conflates Mr. Marcos and Mr. Duterte in a single freakish figure, a gibbering incoherent idiot full of sound and fury — told in plaintive singsong, the story’s emotional temperature just a few degrees above freezing contempt.
Looking back I realize this isn’t so much a list of the best of 2018 as it is a list of the films that best express the anger of 2018. Not so much a Best Of list as a Hate list. Hate, hope of change to come, determination to bring about that change.