Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator
It doesn’t say much about abusive charlatans, their enablers, and their victims, that we don’t already know.
There are many lists of the best films of 2018 out there at this moment. This, needless to say, is the correct one. Granted, there are still a couple of end-of-year titles that I have not yet had the opportunity to view as of yet (wither “The Mule”) but this should still stand as an overview of the most remarkable films of the year.
One final note. After careful deliberation, I have chosen to exclude “The Other Side of the Wind,” the long-delayed project from the late, great Orson Welles, from consideration because the notion of including a film more than 40 years old for consideration struck me as slightly absurd. That said, it is a film that has gotten better and more fascinating with each viewing and I suspect that as long as people continue to argue about cinema in general, it will continue to be part of the conversation.
10. "A Simple Favor"
Perhaps the most sheerly entertaining film on this list, this cheerfully bawdy jape on the ludicrous likes of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” is a delightful cocktail made of equal parts droll humor, wild plot twists, French pop music, an impeccably clad Blake Lively as a woman with a lot of secrets, a slightly dowdier Anna Kendrick as her friend and the holder of plenty of secrets of her own, dead bodies, double-crosses and a screenplay chock-full of hilarious zingers. Sure, the plot may be little more than froth that does not exactly add up to anything much in the end but trust me, you will be having far too much fun watching it to notice.
On paper, a description of this film—an ordinary man seeks brutal revenge on the demented cult that murdered his beloved wife and left him for dead—might make it sound like a dismal exploitation item along the awful lines of “Peppermint” or the “Death Wish” remake. Instead, director Panos Cosmatos gives us a truly gonzo arthouse/grindhouse fusion that is so inventively over-the-top that to describe it as “operatic” somehow seems wholly inadequate to the task. As the aggrieved husband in question, Nicolas Cage—could it have been anyone else?—completely throws himself into the role and invests it with the kind of crazed gonzo energy and focus that made him such a compelling screen personality in the first place.
In his best and most consistent work since the criminally underrated “Bamboozled,” Lee presents the incredible true story of an ambitious African-American policeman (John David Washington) who, with the aid of a white fellow officer (Adam Driver), managed to not only infiltrate a chapter of the KKK in the late 1970s but also befriended Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to boot. Lee uses anger, humor and sheer audacity to tell a story that may be more than four decades old but still feels more of-the-moment than any other film released this year.
7. "The Favourite"
If someone took the already-subversive historical epics “Barry Lyndon” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” added great parts for three of the most talented actresses around and put it all into a duck press, the results might look a bit like this outrageously funny work revolving around two rival cousins (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz) battling each other in order to win the favor of the vindictive and gout-ridden Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Face it, if more costume films were like this—wildly funny, visually stunning, consistently lively, and filled with great performances across the board—the end-of-year scrum of Oscar contenders would be a lot more fun for us all.
6. "Cold War"
In his follow-up to the Oscar-wining drama “Ida,” Paweł Pawlikowski offers up a film that presents the up-and-down relationship between a composer (Tomasz Kot) and an ambitious singer/dancer (Joanna Kulig) as set against the background of the political and cultural shifts in Europe during the period cited in the title. Both a gorgeously stylized mood piece about art, politics and obsession and a powerfully acted romance, this may sound like the art house version of “A Star is Born” but I promise you this film is profound and devastating in equal measure.
So many people have praised Cuarón’s autobiographical look at a middle class family in Mexico City as seen largely through the eyes of one of their servants (debut actress Yalitza Aparicio in a truly stunning performance), shot in 70mm no less, that some may be wary, thinking that no film could possibly live up to the expectations brought on by such exuberant hype. To put it briefly and bluntly, it can and it does. (Yes, this film is available on Netflix but if you have a chance to see it theatrically, take it and thank me later.)
The Coen Brothers return to the Old West with a collection of six stories, ranging from the broadly comic to the brutally serious, exploding any number of myths about the genre in their typically skewed fashion. None of the stories are duds but the real standouts are the ones featuring Tom Waits as a prospector in search of a big strike and Zoe Kazan as a woman who finds her wagon train trip out west to be even more fraught with peril and disaster than a typical round of “The Oregon Trail.”
3. "First Reformed"
The great writer/director Paul Schrader returned to dazzling form with his powerhouse examination of a troubled priest (Ethan Hawke in the best performance of his career) whose concerns about his faith, his health and the environment drives him to the edge of despair. Intelligent, formally beautiful and filled with great performances, this is one of Schrader’s best. It's also a welcome reminder of his gifts as a storyteller who is more interested in inspiring audiences to think than in narcotizing them with empty spectacle.
2. "Madeline's Madeline"
There are any number of reasons to celebrate Josephine Decker’s powerful coming-of-age tale about a troubled girl who both finds and loses herself when she joins an experimental theater group—the direction by Decker that is both highly stylized and emotionally direct, the screenplay that explores notions of identity, storytelling and artistic appropriation in incisive ways, and the strong supporting performances from Molly Parker as the head of the group, and Miranda July as the girl’s mother. However, the best reason to see it is to bask in the stunning debut turn from unknown Helena Howard as the girl at the center—it is by far the best performance of the year and serves notice that a potentially astounding career could be in the making.
Despite being dumped into theaters with minimal promotion by a studio that was clearly bewildered by it, this incredibly ambitious sci-fi drama about a group of scientists exploring a mysterious alien-created barrier and encountering sights both mind-blowing and heart-stopping still managed to develop a cult audience that is sure to grow in years to come. Visually spectacular, intellectually stimulating and occasionally terrifying to boot, this is a truly visionary work and deserves comparison to such equally ambitious sci-fi masterpieces as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Solaris,” “Blade Runner,” and “Dark City.”
My ten runners-up, all of which could have easily made the main list in an ordinary year, are (in alphabetical order): "Black Panther," "Burning," "The Death of Stalin," "Eighth Grade," "First Man," "Hereditary," "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," "Mission: Impossible - Fallout," "The Old Man and the Gun," and "Tully"
Other films that I enjoyed quite a bit during the year, in roughly the order in which they came out, include “Mom & Dad,” "Paddington 2," "Red Sparrow," “Thoroughbreds,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Unsane,” “The Last Movie Star,” “A Quiet Place,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Lean On Pete,” “The Rider,” “Super Troopers 2,” “Revenge,” “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” “Ocean’s 8,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Hotel Artemis,” “Incredibles 2,” “Leave No Trace,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies,” “Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings,” “The Meg,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Support the Girls,” “The House With A Clock In Its Walls,” “Colette,” “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.,” “A Star is Born,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” “Suspiria,” “The Guilty,” “Prospect,” “Johnny English Strikes Again,” “A Private War,” “Bodied,” “Overlord,” “Widows,” “Shoplifters,” “Anna and the Apocalypse,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."
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This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...