Oscar Goff has been the managing film editor for Boston Hassle and the Boston Compass since 2015, and has been writing for the section since 2013. He owns Army of Darkness in four different formats, and still carries his Blockbuster card in his wallet just in case.
One of my resolutions for 2018 was to see more movies. Most of my friends would probably laugh out loud if they heard that– I watch more movies in the theater on Halloween alone than most Americans do all year– but the fact is that, when criticism has to contend with a day job, it can be easy for even a certified film fanatic to have a pretty limited purview of a year’s cinematic offerings. This year, whenever I had an afternoon to kill, I’d default to seeing a movie, whether “my kind of movie” was playing or not. As a result, I feel more prepared for this list than I have any previous year.
And yet I still agonized until the third week in January.
Before cutting to the chase, a couple of qualifiers: I chose to leave off anything I saw in a festival or premiere screening that has yet to receive a formal theatrical release (which accounts for the omission of a few favorites this year). Even with my increased moviegoing drive, I still have yet to see a handful of films I know I’d love (including Roma, despite the fact that it’s literally being piped into my damn house). And I still haven’t seen Paddington 2, but after reading the rest of the film year-enders, I’m realizing I apparently need to fix that.
Finally, a few honorable mentions which didn’t quite make the cut. The Other Side of the Wind is more a film to study than a film to watch and enjoy, but there is a hell of a lot to study, and in a just world it would be the only film in the running for Best Editing. A Quiet Place was a nifty little studio horror thriller, which only suffers in my view from coming out in a time where horror can be relied upon to be more than nifty. The Favourite has pulled off the fascinating trick of succeeding as a sumptuous costume drama, despite essentially being a parody thereof. And while my ambivalence toward the new Suspiria is a matter of public record, it’s such an undeniably strange achievement that it very nearly made my list anyway.
Anyway! Let’s get on with the list before I start second-guessing myself!
10. The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
Karl Marx once famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” To be sure, there was plenty of tragedy in the days following the regime of Joseph Stalin, but director Armando Iannucci (best known for such TV satires as The Thick of It and Veep, as well as Chris Morris’ incredible The Day Today) suggests the distance between those two poles is shorter than one might think. Unbelievably, most of the events depicted in The Death of Stalin are literally true, but Iannucci plays nearly every beat for absurdity and black comedy, underscored by his insistence that each member of his cast (including Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, and, unforgettably, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev) use their native dialect. It’s hard not to laugh as Stalin’s underlings bicker rather than take him to the hospital, or when his drunken son covers up the deaths of the state hockey team by bringing in inexperienced ringers, but the fact that it’s mostly true lends the film a chilling air. Fortunately, there will never be another government as incompetent and petty as the one depicted in the film, and everything’s really great now.
9. Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
One of the most pleasant surprises from my push to get out of my wheelhouse was Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme D’Or-winning story of life and chosen family on the fringes of society. In its achingly wistful examination of multiple generations, comparisons to Ozu have been inevitable, but the warmth with which it treats its character reminded me just as much of Charlie Chaplin– imagine if City Lights flipped the comedy-to-tragedy ratio of the Little Tramp. While one can tell from the earliest scenes that these characters’ living situation is untenable, the overall tone is not one of despair, but of love. The family at the film’s center may not have a solid financial foundation (and, as we slowly learn, they’re not even a family in the conventional sense of the word), but their bond is real, and their life at times seems positively enviable. A little empathy goes a long way these days, and Shoplifters has it in spades.
8. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler)
How did Black Panther take so long to happen? I’m not just talking about the long road toward bringing the adventures of King T’Challa to the screen (though Wesley Snipes might have a thing or two to say about that). How did nobody in the 1970s– the decade of Star Wars and Shaft— think there might be money in an afrofuturist blockbuster? How is it that, as late as 2017, some analysts looked at Black Panther’s ridiculously stacked cast of award-winning actors and saw a risk, simply because only two of those actors were white? In any event, Black Panther was the consensus blockbuster of the year– but, more than that, it was just really cool. Even in the factory-like environment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (of which I am an unashamed fan), director Ryan Coogler managed to bring both a dazzlingly unique aesthetic and some surprisingly weighty political issues, all while maintaining the house brand of infectious, quippy optimism. Time will tell whether it becomes the first Best Picture of the capes-and-tights set (my gut says yes to a nomination, no to a win), but make no mistake: 2018 belonged to Wakanda.
7. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
The first time I saw the trailer for First Reformed (before A Quiet Place!) I couldn’t tell whether it was a horror movie or not. Six months after seeing it, I’m still not sure. In a blazing return to form, Paul Schrader (creator of such feel-good romps as Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder) trains his piercing eye on Trump’s America, and the results are exactly as bracing as one might expect. Ethan Hawke, in a career-best performance, plays a mild-mannered priest who gazes into the abyss, which skips the formality of gazing back and simply devours him whole. By the end of the film, you don’t feel catharsis– neither does Hawke’s character, nor, I imagine, Schrader– but you do feel confirmation that it’s not just you, and the world is exactly as doomed as you think it is. Pray that we all take that realization better than Hawke does.
6. Thoroughbreds (dir. Cory Finley)
Even by 2018 standards, Thoroughbreds is a nasty little piece of work: the story of two teenage girls– one privileged and unscrupulous, the other a textbook psychopath– who rope a local skeeze into a plot to murder an assholish stepfather. Yet it’s also one of the year’s most smartly written comedies, deftly performed by a game cast of young actors (including, sadly for the last time, Anton Yelchin) who make you, if not root for these characters, at least hang on their every word. Ironically, what keeps Thoroughbreds from being unpalatable is its commitment to its characters’ awfulness; by never pretending its protagonists are any kind of traditional “heroes,” it allows the viewer to fully sink into its mordantly satirical world (though horse-lovers might still be advised to give this one a pass).
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen)
The language of the western runs through much of the Coen brothers’ work, from the sun-bleached vigilante justice of No Country for Old Men to Sam Elliott’s fourth-wall-breaking narrator in The Big Lebowski. Yet prior to this year, their filmography only included one proper western– True Grit— and that was a remake. Their new anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, feels like a clearinghouse for a career’s worth of bottled-up ideas. Each of the six short stories that make up Scruggs’ running time is based on an irresistibly cockeyed premise, gorgeously shot and scored (by Bruno Delbonnel and Carter Burwell, respectively) and filled with terrifically entertaining performances; standouts include Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector and Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, who plays like Gene Autry dropped into a Sam Peckinpah film. Throughout, the stories are gleefully nihilistic and infectiously quotable– just like the best of the Coens’ oeuvre.
4. BlacKkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee)
Like Paul Schrader, Spike Lee is a filmmaker who suddenly feels a hell of a lot more relevant and energized than he did just a few years ago. But where First Reformed threatens to let the despair of the modern world consume it, BlacKkKlansman, in showing us an unbelievable-yet-true story of resistance from the 1970s, provides hope that we can overcome it. BlacKkKlansman is a furious film, allowing its director’s articulate rage to flow freely through the mouths of its characters, but it’s also a funny, exciting tale of real people taking pure evil down a peg. Then comes the film’s final moments, in which the fictionalized 1970s give way to actual cell-phone footage of the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville. The implication is clear: this shit is still going on, and this film is Spike Lee’s marching orders for you, the viewer. You know what to do, soldier.
3. Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
I wrote extensively about Mandy the other day– which is kind of funny, as Mandy itself is a film of few words. Indeed, who needs words when you have Nicolas Cage, bellowing and covered in blood, decapitating cultists and demons to a lush backdrop of power chords, mellotrons, and endlessly swirling reds and purples? Mandy is more of an experience than a film, which will be selling out midnight screenings for years to come. I’m pretty much out of words, except for two: Cheddar. Goblin.
2. Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
When I first encountered the trailer for Sorry to Bother You, I thought it was a joke: it debuted during Atlanta (preceding that show’s phenomenal “Teddy Perkins” episode), with which it shares leading man Lakeith Stanfield, and its gonzo sensibility seemed in keeping with series creator Donald Glover’s penchant for inserting uncannily realistic fake ads. Obviously, I was wrong, but Sorry to Bother You still feels like something that should not be, that perhaps slipped into our reality from some dimension in which much more interesting comedies get greenlit. You just don’t see films this brazen or freewheeling often, mixing the cerebral flights of fancy of Charlie Kaufman or Terry Gilliam with a gleefully perverse sketch comedy sensibility (it’s worth noting that director Boots Riley is also the frontman of The Coup, one of the few ‘90s hip hop collectives whose skits are actually funny). More importantly, its sci-fi-tinged satire of race relations and corporate oligarchy is some of the most searing to come out of this singularly dystopian moment in history. I’m not sure we deserve Sorry to Bother You, but one thing’s for certain: I’m never going to look at decorative horse plates the same way again.
1. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
Watch Hereditary again. I know that might be a bit of an ask; even beyond the hair-raising demonology and periodic bursts of genuinely upsetting violence, the emotional territory that Aster drags his characters through makes it pretty much the definition of a Difficult Watch (if you haven’t seen it, consider this your warning). But if and when you gather the nerve to put yourself through it a second time, you’ll see that it’s more than just the most traumatically terrifying horror movie in recent memory (though, to be sure, it is most certainly that). There is just so much going on in this movie, on so many levels, in every single scene, ranging from slyly hidden exposition and retrospectively obvious foreshadowing to Where’s Waldo-esque hidden details crammed into the corners of the frame (take a moment to spot everything going on in this half-second gif). And yet this technical bravado would be beside the point if Hereditary wasn’t, simply, a fantastic movie, with no genre qualifiers needed. Strip away the literal horrors and you still have an equally horrifying portrait of familial grief and the cycles of mental cruelty, anchored on a singularly fearless performance by the great Toni Collette; there is one scene in which Collette, in a single line of dialogue, elicited more gasps both times I saw it than any of the scares. I could go on, but suffice to say that, even in the modern age of (ugh) “elevated horror,” I truly believe that Hereditary is one for the ages. Now go get a piece of cake.