The 10 Best-Directed Films of 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk 2

Cinema is a language beyond words, one we speak regardless of where we’re from. It allows us to both put forth and absorb ideas through picture and sound, telling stories that transcend borders while still being specific to our experiences. Though, despite our constant fixation with discussing cinema, I often wonder how much we’re truly understanding one another.

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz once wrote that refusing to engage with film form is like “[refusing] to engage with the heart of a work. The heart of a film, the heart of a TV episode, might be contained in an image or a cut.” He’s not wrong, and the quote often pushes me to check myself whenever I talk about story as something separate from technique. The heart of a film, the heart of a TV episode, might be contained in how it’s told.

Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House rightly garnered attention for “Two Storms,” its sixth episode, which played out over a series of long-takes. The technical mastery in assembling the episode can’t be praised enough, though what often goes un-mentioned in discussions is why presenting this way, twenty to thirty minutes at a time, was the right decision. The same plot could have easily played out over traditional coverage, but in preventing the characters from ever escaping each other’s orbits, the show cranks up the inter-personal tensions that have been building all season. A perfectly medley of story and telling.

I love this time of year, when everyone makes their own unique, often deeply personal list of favourites. I’ve made two already, about the best works from the Asian diaspora and the year’s best Indian films, but here, I found myself wanting to discuss the specific reasons I loved the things I did. It’s impossible to reduce a film — a complex system of decisions, intentions and emotional responses — to a single factor, but “the heart” of these works jumped out at me in ways I won’t soon forget.

I love each and every film on this list for a myriad of reasons; in trying to sum them up, however, a picture began to form. Cinema taught me a lot of things this year. About storytelling, about the world and about myself, and if I can repay the films in question by recommending them, or by discussing what they excelled at, I’ll leave 2018 satisfied.

First, some honourable mentions.

roma at home

I love the editing in Roma, which tells us all we need to know about its character dynamics without a single word. I love the ornate set design of Padmaavat and how it draws you into its history. I love how Mayurakshi and Wildlife hold on their actors just a little but longer before cutting away, telling stories through reaction shots. I love how Black Panther incorporates Afrofuturist philosophy into every costume and set, creating an underlying narrative wholly separate from the action.

I love how Mid90s frames uncertainty. I love how The Favourite adjusts how seriously we take it whenever it switches lenses. I love how Her Smell snakes around winding hallways to reflect a crumbling sense of self. I love the performances in A Star is Born; drama through posture and movement is severely undervalued. I have mixed feelings on First Man, but I love how its enormous final minutes, shot on full-frame 70mm IMAX, magnify emotions on massive scale, fulfilling the film’s own promise of finding new ways to see. And of course, I love everything about Into the Spider-Verse, a fitting ode to visual language in its totality.

Blindspotting review

10. Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)

Country: USA

Language: English

Energy.

What feels like the most slept-on film of 2018, Blindspotting is, above all else, a magnificent performance piece. Its backdrop is institutional racism, pitting Collin Hoskins (Daveed Diggs, i.e. Hamilton’s original Lafayette and Jefferson) against a system of incarceration and police brutality. However, it treats both Collin’s year-long probation and the police shooting he witnesses — that of an unarmed Black father — as normal occurrences. They weigh on Collin daily, interrupting his morning runs with nightmarish visions. Diggs fights opposing battles here, bringing to the surface the lasting effects of trauma while being forced to shrug them off in the very same breath, but these traumas, these major injustices, aren’t the larger plot of the movie. They are, instead, the mere mechanics of Collin’s life; the terms of his existence as a Black man.

Collin’s best friend, fellow furniture mover Miles (Diggs’ co-producer Rafael Casal) is a white man born and raised in Oakland. He speaks the slang, he knows how to read the streets, and given his surroundings — a Black best friend, a Black wife, even a Black son — he’s woke, for lack of better term, and attuned to the nuances of antiblackness. He knows what photographs the press will use for the police and the victim before the shooting story breaks. On a ground level, able to walk into a Black hair salon and sell its owner used hair straighteners, a hilarious and exciting moment. He’s that guy. That friend who knows what’s up, using just enough AAVE to avoid mimicry (though to him, it’s a native tongue) but never skirting close to any variation of N-word, even by accident, despite the moniker being thrown his way. The plot, simply put, is Collin navigating the last three days of his probation, but where it gets complicated is in the time he spends with Miles.

Miles has a violent streak, and his skirting around legality puts Collin at risk. Despite most of the film focusing on duo moving boxes, its crux is the different ways in which they navigate spaces. During any given activity, whether sitting in traffic or even walking into a convenience store, the different energies Diggs and Casal bring forth fill the frame with palpable tension. Collin, unlike Miles, isn’t going to be given the benefit of doubt, and while they don’t butt heads over this until late in the film, the subtle contrast in the two performances plants the seed with precision.

Casal’s movements, his tone of voice, even the length of time he maintains eye contact, carry flashes self-assurance that Collin simply can’t afford. Instead, Diggs remains ever so slightly more cautious. His weary eyes occasionally leave the conversation to gauge his surroundings, turning otherwise mundane scenes into explorations. While it eventually dissects racial preconceptions (leading to explosive confrontations), Blindspotting remains focused on the long-term effects of being placed in a box, which Collin and Miles express in the form of laid-back freestyle. The day-to-day struggles of being preconceived, living in a world where Black kids need pamphlets, and practice, for putting their hands up.

9. Bhasmasur (Nishil Sheth)

Country: India

Language: Hindi

Space.

Bhasmasur is a tale of tough love and innocence lost. Set in a drought-ridden village in Rajasthan, it centers on a young boy, Tipu (Mittal Chouhan), his beloved pet donkey Bhasmasur, and his father Dhaanu (Imran Rasheed), who needs to sell the animal out of desperation. As the trio embarks on an arduous city journey, Dhaanu is forced to show Tipu the ropes when it comes to survival. As a father who can’t afford to be vulnerable, Dhaanu’s actions are born from a complex swirl of love and anger — complicated feelings that Tipu returns in equal measure.

Nishil Sheth and D.P. Shrish Tomar explore, through Tipu and Dhaanu’s eyes, the beauty and hardships of rural India, from the contours of the broken ground to the golden sunlight shimmering off its surface. After days of travel without water, and after the buildup of severe emotional tensions, the father-son duo arrives at a gorgeous oasis. They splash and bond, in a scene composed mostly of wide shots, but is uses long/telephoto lenses, flattening the image and making them part of a beautiful landscape painting. The film affords them enough room to frolic laterally, along a wide open space, coming together and separating at will.

Later however, when the two ride a Ferris wheel together, Dhaanu is on the verge of a difficult decision. A wide-angle lens captures them in close proximity, their awkward energy confined by the walls of the carriage, made to feel closer than normal. The contrast of these two scenes perfectly represents the difficulties of their relationship: a father, forced by circumstance to put his sons through an emotional ringer. Being close to someone to the point of suffocation, even someone you love, isn’t healthy, but Tipu and Dhaanu don’t seem to have a choice. Few people do when they’re starving.   

High Life Trailer

8. High-Life (Claire Denis)

Country: France, Germany, Poland, UK, USA

Language: English

Memory.

Per critic Bilge Ebiri, auteurs do some of the best work in outer space. “The vast emptiness of the cosmos,” he explains, “has a way of bringing out the more experimental side of a filmmaker.” This is undoubtedly true of Claire Denis and her small step into a larger world, High-Life, reflecting humanity’s hopeless isolation on the brink of, or perhaps even after, annihilation. Space station prisoner Monte (Robert Pattinson), the last man onboard, and for all he knows, the last remaining human adult, spends time balancing a newborn with the responsibilities of keeping up the ship’s life-support. The film cuts intermittently to months or years earlier, when the vessel — travelling away from civilization at light speed — was populat ed by a handful of other inmates (Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, André Benjamin, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, Gloria Obianyo), all cast off from Earth as fertility Guinea pigs for experiments by Dr. Dibbs (Juliette Binoche).

From both these points in the story, editor Guy Lecorne occasionally flashes back to an Earth that may no longer exist. We see glimpses of the characters’ pasts, mostly in childhood, though who’s memories we’re seeing isn’t always clear. Friends on trains. Dogs by the river. Petty grievances turning violent among the trees. Rural, abstract details of the lives and decisions that led them here.

These flashes aren’t narratively motivated in the traditional sense — one, about the politics of dooming prisoners to the coldness of the cosmos, isn’t tethered to anyone on the ship — but the presentation of these recollections gives them a tactile quality. Shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux on grainy 16mm film, the moving haze of memory forms a collective portrait of life as it’s lived, often in the vast openness of nature — in contrast to the inmates planting fauna in the confines of a lab. As if we’re seeing the living memories of the film itself.

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