Sunday, December 30, 2018

Ten Best Films of 2018

1. The Mule (Clint Eastwood, United States)
Hollywood's great late classicist, and one of its most reliably biographical auteurs, seeks redemption for his failures as a husband and father in this sharply self-critical portrait of the physically reduced filmmaker late in life. Eastwood's masterful latest is also a breezy road movie, filled with brilliantly underplayed supporting appearances--including that of the actor-director's mentee Bradley Cooper.

2. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, China)
The impossibly formidable first feature of writer-director Hu Bo--who tragically took his own life before the film debuted this past winter in Berlin--An Elephant Sitting Still represents one of the great what-ifs in film history. This four-hour modernist opus also exemplifies one of the world's most exciting national art cinemas, from its hyper-regionalism to its distinctive perspective on China's uneven development.

3. The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Blige Ceylan, Turkey/Macedonia/France/ Germany/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Bulgaria/Sweden)
Ceylan's epic and subjectively fluid treatment of fathers and sons possesses the philosophical density and textural richness of Russian literature and the referred-to Tolstoy. This is a film about Turkey's continued struggles with modernization, and the persistent estrangement between the country's liberal intellectual and conservative political classes, staged in the ancient city of Troy.

4. Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China/France/Japan)
A return to the three-part tour structure and gangster genre of Jia's A Touch of SinAsh Is Purest White is more broadly career retrospective filmmaking, pointedly recalling Unknown Pleasures and Still Life as a new China emerges around the film's leads. Jia's ambivalence once again emerges for the great fictional chronicler of China's transformative shift away from a command economy.

5. Dead Souls (Wang Bing, Switzerland/France)
There are important films, and then there are important films: essential records of human history that can exist only in the moving image medium. Wang's eight-hour latest is just such a work, presenting the stories of the now deceased survivors of China's anti-rightist prison camps in their own words. That China is repeating history with its Muslim minority makes Dead Souls even more tragically meaningful.

6. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)
The last remaining Cahiers master is perhaps more aware and concerned by the glut of moving images than any other, returning in The Image Book--with the title suggesting a mode of spectatorship and a new conceptualization of the filmmaker's art--to the collage form of his monumental Histoire(s) du cinéma. Godard's work models a life lived wholly in reference to the moving image.

7. Infinite Football (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
At once one of the funniest films of 2018 and one of its most trenchant political satires, Infinite Football re-imagines Romania's socialist past within the context of one bureaucrat's attempts to reinvent the sport of soccer in his own physically impaired imaged. Porumboiu interrogates utopian theory and practice through a series of unintentionally comedic on-camera interviews and one ill-fated demonstration.

8. Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany/France)
Despite its strong connection to genre practice, there's really nothing else that feels like the Berlin School master's cinema. With Berlin Competition highlight Transit, Petzold provides a rigorously intellectual though still moving take on the period melodrama, staging past and present side by side in this joint presentation of World War II Europe and the modern-day refugee crisis in transitory Marseille.

9. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
"The world is a mystery" and facts fickle in this consummate revenge thriller from Korean auteur Lee, made more than a decade after the revenge film's peak in the Korean popular cinema. As in the best films of this type, the feeling of loss hits suddenly in this exceptionally well-written and crafted effort by the director of Peppermint Candy and Secret Sunshine--strong work that Burning rivals if not exceeds.

10. Grass (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Hong provides a compendium of alternatives for shooting his favorite subject: men and women seated around a table, conversing, eating, and of course drinking. The director's latter-day muse, Kim Min-hee, sits back on her laptop, perhaps co-authoring the casual encounters that provide the core of yet another novel and endearing variation on cinema's most rapidly expanding body of work. 

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