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Ten Winners — & Five Losers — in Film

Standouts, runners up, and misfires in the 2018 cinema world

“Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” includes remixed film clips of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
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My choices for the year’s 10 best films are:

1. “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” (Travis Wilkerson)

A self-declared “white nightmare story” and radical response to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” as well as a minimalist road movie, it avoids comforting rhetoric about racism and goes for an emotional and political gut punch instead. Wilkerson’s great-grandfather S.E. Branch killed an African-American man, Bill Spann, and got away with it and other crimes. The fact that Wilkerson, no matter how well-intentioned he is, is around to make this film while Spann’s grave can’t even be located, says nothing positive about America or even himself, and he gives full voice to that horror.

2. “Happy As Lazzaro” (Alice Rohrwacher)

Drawing on the generation of Italian directors who started working in the 1960s, “Happy As Lazzaro” takes the legacy of neo-realism, especially its interest in the brutality of classism, in new directions inflected by Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez. It starts out seeming like a naturalist tale of peasants working on a tobacco farm, but quickly gets weirder, juggling several time frames and levels of reality while the baseline oppression it depicts never goes away.

3. “Revenge” (Coralie Fargeat)

The goriest new film I saw in 2018, it’s also an oddly upbeat revisionist take on the rape-revenge sub-genre. Deliberately over the top, it’s the story of a woman who’s viewed as a sex object and gains control over her narrative in a way that’s carefully and brilliantly reflected in Fargeat’s visual style, while the finale emphasizes violent men’s bodily vulnerability.

4. “Roma” (Alfonso Cuaron)

“Roma” has an epic sweep and a delight in the possibilities of elaborate camera movement and set pieces that make one say “this is cinema.” Of course, Netflix is its distributor, so that means audiences’ chances of seeing it in an actual movie theater are disappointingly limited — that too is what cinema has to come to mean in 2018. But Cuaron switches the focus from his own childhood to the woman who served as his family’s maid and takes ideas he learned making elaborate Hollywood genre films like “Gravity” and “Children of Men” toward honoring working-class life by blowing up its details to a grand scale, a la Luchino Visconti.

5. “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” (RaMell Ross)

Ross’ unconventional documentary depicting several years in a small town with Alabama dispenses with clichés and tropes about African-American life. His sensibility reflects a freedom and respect for his subjects. While he follows the lives of two men, he’s not primarily concerned with storytelling and gives himself room to insert scenes of an actor in blackface from a silent film or out-of-focus close-ups of a lightbulb.

6. “Cam” (Daniel Goldhaber)

This Netflix release played for a week at the Alamo Drafthouse, but by the time I learned about it, my only option was watching it on my laptop. That proved to be totally fitting for a thriller about a webcam sex site worker who finds that a doppelgänger has convincingly stolen her identity and blocked her from logging in. It’s likely to go down as the equivalent of “Videodrome” for an era when social media feels more like a threat than a communication tool and the oppressive aspects of freelancing have become increasingly clear. Director Goldhaber creates a look that bleeds stylized online fantasy into the real world, while Isa Mazzei’s screenplay, inspired by her own experience, refuses easy explanations.

7. “24 Frames” (Abbas Kiarostami)

A posthumous release from the late Iranian director, “24 Frames” consists of a series of non-narrative shorts that were digitally animated. It challenges easy assumptions about the direct relationship of Kiarostami’s work to reality since he was quite willing to use CGI here. The final “frame” suggests a new and quite moving embrace of romantic love found on his deathbed. At that point, the whole film comes together startlingly.

8. “Zama” (Lucrecia Martel)

Martel is generally considered the best director to emerge from the Argentine New Wave of the 2000s. but she still went nine years between her previous film, “The Headless Woman,” and “Zama.” (She turned down the opportunity to direct Marvel’s “Black Widow” because they wouldn’t give her control over its action scenes.) She’s taken her oblique but pointed explorations of the pained privileges of the Argentine bourgeoisie back to their roots in her first period piece, adapted from a classic novel.

9. “Black Panther” (Ryan Coogler)

Marvel Cinematic Universe films haven’t all been bad (especially “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), but they’ve taken up a drastically outsized place in American culture well beyond their aesthetic worth. “Black Panther” finally brings mythic heft and imaginative world-building to them, conjuring up a visual style appropriate to an Africa that was never colonized (and even extending that aesthetic to the soundtrack). It also plays fairer to the political struggle it depicts than the script alone might have, thanks to Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic performance as Killmonger.

10. “Fatal Pulse’ (Damon Packard)

This didn’t get a single theatrical screening in New York, but anyone can rent it from Amazon to stream. Packard’s paranoid dive into ‘90s pop culture — originally called “Yuppie Fear Thriller” — is a jagged but extremely fun postmodern riff with imaginative lighting and editing. Lifting images from movies and TV with no respect for copyright and using real people as characters without flattering them, “Fatal Pulse” serves as a potent requiem for the time when sampling and home video had radical potential and piling past influences on top of each other could produce something really transformative. (The found footage “Vertigo” remake “The Green Fog” also brought that sense back.) This is the film Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” should’ve been.

Runners-up:

“Angels Wear White” (Vivian Qu)

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (Joel & Ethan Coen)

“BlacKkKlan­sman” (Spike Lee)

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Marielle Heller)

“Custody” (Xavier Legrand)

“Discreet” (Travis Matthews)

“Gavagai” (Rob Tregenza)

“The Green Fog” (Guy Maddin/ Evan Johnson/ Galen Johnson)

“I Remember the Crows” (Gustavo Vinagre)

“The Island” (Bo Huang)

“Leave No Trace” (Debra Granik)

“Life and Nothing More” (Antonio Méndez Esparza)

“1985” (Yen Tan)

“Notes on an Appearance” (Ricky D’Ambrose)

“Werewolf” (Ashley McKenzie)

“The Wild Boys” (Bertrand Mandico)

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (Morgan Neville)

Worst films:

“Assassinat­ion Nation” (Sam Levinson)

“Godard Mon Amour” (Michel Haznavicius)

“Ready Player One” (Steven Spielberg)

“Suspiria” (Luca Guadagnino)

“Vice” (Adam McKay)

Worst scene:

The “Freddie Mercury cruises a leather bar/ Queen records ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ montage” in “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Notable shorts:

The contents of “The Arboretum Cycle” (Nathaniel Dorsky)

Vince Staples’ music video “FUN!” (Calmatic)

“The Green Ray” (Scott Barley)

“Normal Appearances” (Penny Lane)

“Story of Benjamin” (Mehdi Omidvari)

Tierra Whack’s music video “Whack World” (Thibaut Duvermeix & Mathieu Léger)

Updated 10:57 am, December 19, 2018
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