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Simon Abrams' Top Ten Films of 2018

The year is 2018 AD and the world is that much closer to ending. You can always find fear and paranoia at the movies, but this year's bumper crop feels different. Many of the best films of the year are, at heart, political in the sense that they are about civic responsibility and what we owe each other. For better and worse, many great filmmakers wore their righteous anger on their sleeves and tried to express what bothers them most about, well, everything, including the global rise in so-called "nationalism," the seeming increase in (ugh, this phrase) "PC culture," and a general trend towards divisive-ness. False equivalencies and unhelpful generalizations abound, and everyone's so tired (yes, that's a "The Thing" quote). 

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Granted: there are numerous reasons to despair. Our communities only seem to support the ruthless and the selfish, as seen in the British political farce "The Death of Stalin," the Zambian feminist parable "I Am Not a Witch," and the Hong Kong tropical island black comedy "The Island." Technology is alienating us, as it does in the horror/road movie "Like Me," the Russian dash-cam mixtape "The Road Movie," and the Indian robot superhero blockbuster "2.0." And our family and friends are sometimes the most destructive people in our lives, as in the Brazilian werewolf drama "Good Manners," the Polish biopic/domestic portrait "The Last Family," and the American religious cult horror film "The Endless."

But you can still find hope in many of this year's best movies. Sometimes a familiar (though perhaps forgotten) face appears at just the right moment, as in the American biographical doc "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", the English post-Brexit fable "Paddington 2," and the Indian gangster/musical/Rajinikanth vehicle "Kaala." Sometimes, we have to use what little power we have to set a good example, as in the American basketball comedy "Uncle Drew," the South Korean superhero drama "Psychokinesis," and even the Indian period epic "Padmaavat." But in most cases, we are already united by a common threat, as in the Hong Kong tenement horror-comedy "Goldbuster," the two-part American community-center saga "A Bread Factory," and the animated British caveman fantasy "Early Man." All of the above-mentioned films speak to the best in us while also acknowledging our weaknesses and frustrations. I believe you can say the same thing about all ten movies in my Best of the Year list, though your mileage may vary.

10. "Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc"

This French religious mystery play and rock opera is as strange as that brief description suggests. The sound of death metal music as sung by untrained child actors (who are also untrained singers) is also as alienating as that sounds. But, like writer/director Bruno Dumont's other great provocations, "Jeannette" is extraordinary because of his brazen combination of a bratty, punk rock-style sense of humor with austere, Robert Bresson-like naturalism (just look at all those squinting non-professional actors and gorgeous landscape shots!). In "Jeannette," Dumont re-presents the life of a pre-revolutionary Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) as a head-scratchingly noisy musical about her struggle to hold onto her finer feelings (spiritual and otherwise) in spite of the apparently homely and absurd qualities of the people who shape her personality. Only a filmmaker as strange as Dumont would semi-seriously consider heady concepts like religious epiphany and personal growth using growl-y, unpolished heavy metal music and low-brow slapstick. Thankfully, "Jeannette" is the best kind of strange.

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9. "Have a Nice Day"

This Chinese animated neo-noir bowled me over when I first saw it. Writer/director Liu Jian made a "Pulp Fiction"-like narrative—basically a series of criss-crossing vignettes about small-time crooks—about the lives of young, hungry, and under-developed mainland Chinese characters. That combination of subject and style may not sound extraordinary given some similar works by contemporary Chinese filmmakers who also combine neo-realism with a neo-noir sensibility, especially mainland heavy-weight Zhangke Zia ("Unknown Pleasures," "Ash is the Purest White"). Still, what sets "Have a Nice Day" apart is the way that Jian's simple, precise animation style (where characters and their surrounding world only move when they absolutely have to) complements his blackly funny focus on dirt-road characters who struggle to steal/buy themselves a brighter future. I can't wait to rewatch this one.

8. "The Guardians

I didn't really know what to expect from this French WWI drama despite having seen (and loved) director Xavier Beauvois' powerful religious drama "Of Gods and Men." It also takes a little while for this stirring adaptation of Ernest Perochon's source novel—about a hard-working farmhand (Iris Bry) who considers a romance with newly-conscripted soldier (Cyril Descours)—to become more than just a pleasantly melancholic weepy. But in time, Beauvois, screenwriter Marie-Julie Maille, and director of photography Caroline Champetier all tighten their seemingly relaxed grip on viewers' heart-strings. This one leaves a mark; it's easily my favorite romantic-drama of the year.

7. "Shoplifters"

Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore'eda is at his best when he's most actively struggling to understand how parents (and other adult guardians) can simultaneously be the best and the worst thing to happen to a young child. Kids are, after a point, the main focus of the Palme d'Or-winning "Shoplifters"—about a family of skid-row outcasts who have perfected the low art of stealing food and other grocery store items just to get by—though the film's surrogate parents are also shown to be equally human, despite their glaring flaws. What sets "Shoplifters" apart from Kore'eda's other recent dramas (I particularly recommend "Like Father, Like Son" and "Our Little Sister") is that he doesn't seem so sure that a family's bread-winners—driven by their conflicting needs to protect themselves and each other—are always the best influence on their children's personal growth. How can you be good to a loved one when you can't even provide for yourself? And is trying (and re-trying) to renew your commitment to your loved ones enough, in light of apparent (and inevitable) failures? Who decides what's best for your kids, and how can they possibly be right? I don't know that Kore'eda has any deep answers, but the questions (as phrased by his protagonists) are very moving.

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6. "Bodied"

I have so much affection and respect for Korean-American filmmaker Joseph Kahn's fiercely independent approach to filmmaking and his confrontational sense of humor. He directed several of my favorite music videos of the '90s and early '00s (in my book, his video for The Chemical Brothers' "Get Yourself High" alone makes him an all-time great). He also co-wrote, directed, and produced "Detention," a clever, manic 2011 post-postmodern comedy that throws several genres into a blender for the sake of arguing that the stories we tell about ourselves are never as neat or finite as we think. Now: here comes "Bodied," a raucous, agitated genre hybrid that takes underdog sports comedy conventions into the battle rap arena for the sake of posing knotty questions about privilege, the power of free speech, and the consequences that people who wield that power must face if and when they inevitably cross a line. "Bodied" feels like a movie made by a free artist, one who is unsentimental and self-critical enough to know when something works and when something sucks. "Bodied" definitely does not suck.

5. "24 Frames"

I don't know if I can add much of value to my year-old review of "24 Frames," the last movie made by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (completed by his son Ahmad). I remember that when I first saw the film, I felt awed by the way that the Kiarostamis forced me to re-think how I normally experience cinematic time, both visually and aurally. Here are 24 scenes of daily life, presented like 24 moving paintings: the camera doesn't move, but objects within the frame do. It's a bit like watching 24 daydreams of a restless photographer, somebody who was keenly aware (or maybe even fixated with) his own mortality. The 24 segments are, when viewed together, alternately wistful and optimistic, making it an eerily perfect career summation from Abbas Kiarostami, an artist who constantly tested the limits of his medium.

4. "Pow Wow"

I love this bitterly sardonic, spiritually restless American documentary, which questions the way that the rich, white residents of Coachella Valley have essentially rewritten the local Paiute residents' historical narrative and connection with this iconic American desert. In a short amount of time, director Robinson Devor paints a vivid picture of what this land used to mean to its residents, and what it now looks like using brief, but pinpoint-sharp interviews with local historians and residents. I had no idea what to expect from this film, but am so glad I heeded the recommendation of New Yorker critic Richard Brody. Don't read a lot about this one, just find it, and watch it.

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3. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"

This spoiler-filled Letterboxd review seems to be popular. Why not read that, if you must read anything? It's on Netflix. Don't you have Netflix? Turn on Netflix. Now I'm just talking for the sake of meeting my 75-100 word per capsule rate. Where was I? Hm. You ever write something just so you don't have to ever think about the thing you're writing about ever again? But not, like, in a bad way, just because you need to get your thoughts out of your system? And then you never want to think about what you wrote about again, not unless you're directly confronted with/looking at the thing you wrote about? Yeah, me neither.

2. "Sorry to Bother You"

I saw "Sorry to Bother You" a few weeks after it came out. I sat near the screen, as I've grown to like doing lately (I don't have to see or hear my fellow moviegoers and it makes the images on the screen look bigger). I hadn't read much about "Sorry to Bother You," but was aware that it was an out-there comedy about racial passing and how hard it is to get ahead in a system that's rigged to keep you in your place. Sort of like Mike Judge, only written and directed by rapper Boots Riley. Then I saw "Sorry to Bother You" and, well, *pantomimes an emerging mushroom cloud exploding from his earholes*.

1. "Bisbee '17"

I ran out to see this unusually structured American documentary after it earned overwhelming praise at film festivals like Sundance, True/False, and Hot Docs. Again, I hadn't read much about this film, nor had I seen any other movies by director Robert Greene ("Kate Plays Christine," "Actress"), though I have read that in those earlier films, Greene also ostentatiously repeats and deconstructs a neat progress narrative version of historical events. "Bisbee '17"—a documentary set in a ghost town on the Arizona-Mexican border—definitely fits that M.O. Greene gives serious consideration to the ways that a small town community has tried (and mostly failed) to move beyond its dark past. And in making this film, Greene gives his subjects an opportunity to think and/or defend their shared history. Moving, unsparing, and deeply satisfying: go, run, see for yourself.

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