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Monica Castillo's Top Ten Films of 2018

As much as I like putting together these year-end lists, I also somewhat dread them. I always change my mind after sending them in, always want to fit in one more movie and worry that my rankings are off. This year was more troubling than usual because I liked so many movies—a good and bad thing. The good news is I easily thought of ten movies I loved this year. The bad news was I had to pare down a list of 30 or so films I really enjoyed this year. There are worse problems to have, so I’m just happy to have found some escapism, reflection and joy at the movies this year.

10. "Annihilation"

This women-led sci-fi movie has inspired some of the best writing about film in 2018, and I regret having waited so long to get around to it. The interpretations are many, but the one I hold onto to is that the film is a metaphor for depression, what it does to you and what it can make you do. Alex Garland’s adaptation of the novel by the same name looks stylish and weirdly colorful with a pastel color palette to create the divide between our world and that of an alien presence that has leeched onto a marshy spot on earth. Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Jennifer Jason Leigh play women sent into this new unknown, finding not just an alien enemy that rearranges DNA and warps time, but also to face-off against their worst self-destructive habits.

9. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

What seems like a desperate set of grim yet cheeky stories based in an antiquated vision of the frontier are united under the Coen brothers’ acerbic wit for one delightfully weird journey to the old West. Step right up for a funny yarn from a singing cowboy, a heartbreaker about showbiz, a warning about the dangerous side of anxiety or be charmed by the oddly endearing quest of a lonely prospector digging for his biggest score. Each vignette in the Coen brothers’ movie has its own unique style, set of costumes and cinematography, but they share at least one final punchline: we’re all headed to the same grim reaper, one way or another.

8. "Zama" 

Lucrecia Martel has no mercy for her leading man in her scathing adaptation of the Argentine novel. The movie’s namesake Latin American-born Spanish subject endures several demotions and indignities in his Sisyphean quest to try to get a transfer to a happier part of the country. He is denied, but through his tortured experience, audiences have the pleasure of experiencing one of Latin America’s sharpest directors examine issues of colonialism, gender, class, duty and society until the jungle comes to claim what’s left of him.

7. "Sorry to Bother You"

Musician and director Boots Riley made his feature debut with a rollicking, off-the-wall satire about capitalism, love, art and selling out. Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lands a much-needed job at a telemarketing firm where they push him to achieve impossible selling goals to get a promotion. He does so at a terrible personal cost and perhaps learns a bit too much about the shadier side of his business. There’s so much going on at once—from the film’s neon lit cinematography and Riley’s eclectic soundtrack—and I loved every surreal minute of this film.  

6. "Private Life"

After years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, a middle-aged couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) are at their wit’s end about what to do next. Tamara Jenkins’ bittersweet comedy explores the many emotions tied up with trying to conceive, how society judges peoples’ personal decisions and the pull towards starting a family when you hit a certain age. The script is at once devastatingly clever yet heartbreaking in its honest depictions of those private family feelings. The film’s jaw-dropping ending is possibly one of the best final moments in a movie all year.

5. "Shoplifters"

In the middle of a bustling city, a group of misfits and cast-offs find each other through desperate circumstances and create a rogue family of shoplifters, con artists and survivors. The makeshift family at the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda's quiet film may only be loosely connected to one another, yet each has a role to play in the family. Because they believe in their family so deeply, eventually, you do too. There’s a beautiful loveliness to their united perseverance even as their home is overcrowded by too many people and overshadowed by the booming skyscrapers around them.

4. "Shirkers"

I raved about Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers” earlier this year, and my feelings for this rescued documentary has not waned. Back in her rebellious youthful years, Tan and her two friends, Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, collaborated with their film teacher Georges Cardona to shoot an experimental and existential road movie. It could have been a breakout work of Singapore cinema. Unfortunately, after the young women wrapped filming, their mentor took off with the footage, leaving behind a painful mystery and a stalled career of an aspiring woman filmmaker who looked up to him. But the story doesn’t stop there, and the highs and lows of Tan’s saga rival those of the best fictional page-turners. Matching insightful interviews with her friends with what colorful 16mm remnants survives of their project, Tan examines the past in order to reclaim it.

3. "Cold War" 

After meeting at an audition, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) embark on the kind of fiery romance that burns beyond distance and time at the height of—you guessed it—the Cold War. It is a love that magnetically pulls the two wildly different personalities into each others’ arms. Loosely based on his parents’ relationship, Pawel Pawlikowski’s film wonderfully melts style, emotions and an evocative soundtrack for a moving work that has haunted and thrilled me ever since.

2. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Like Marielle Heller’s breakout film, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” her second movie “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” follows a fiercely imperfect yet independent female character through an introspective time in their lives. Melissa McCarthy gives a career-best performance as Lee Israel, a curmudgeonly writer down on her luck who figures out how to forge antique letters from famous authors, earning herself a nice income and the attention of the FBI. McCarthy’s co-star, Richard E. Grant, nearly steals the movie from her as a dashingly charming scammer turned friend and accomplice. Smartly adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel's memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a delicious black comedy about queer friendships, the strange world of collecting culture, and the bygone New York of the early ‘90s.

1. "Roma"

I laughed, I cried, I loved this movie so much. Alfonso Cuarón's latest is based loosely on his childhood and the memories of the domestic worker, Libo Rodríguez, who looked after his family. “Roma” feels like a sweeping epic, both intimate and distant, so specific yet somehow universal. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the character based on Libo, lives and works for a middle-class family in Mexico City, but her life and those of her employers undergo a tumultuous period when Cleo’s boyfriend leaves her after learning she’s pregnant and the family’s patriarch runs off with his mistress. There’s much technical prowess to admire in Cuarón's film, especially since he also served as the film’s director of photography, editor, writer, and producer.

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a freelance writer and University of Southern California Annenberg graduate film critic fellow. Although she originally went to Boston University for biochemistry and molecular biology before landing in the sociology department, she went on to review films for The Boston Phoenix, WBUR, Dig Boston, The Boston Globe, and co-hosted the podcast “Cinema Fix.” 

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