2018’s over, which means it’s time for the End of Year lists to come rolling out. Just like in 2016 and 2017, you won’t be hearing about my top films, but about my sticky films, the films which, after seeing them, made me want to watch, rewatch, discuss, and share. It should go without saying that my top films for the year fit this criteria and, chances are, that you’ve already heard about those films from other lists. So what you’re going to get here are the films that you’ve likely never heard of or had forgotten about in a year which offered a generous heaping of incredible cinema.
If you’re interested in checking out my full list of favorite films from this year, I kept a running list on Letterboxd all year and it has my full list of the 51 best films of 2018. To read my full review on any of these films, click on the hyperlink in the film title.
Anna and the Apocalypse
Director: John McPhail.
Cast: Ella Hunt, Malcom Cumming, Ben Wiggins, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Mark Benton and Paul Kaye.
Part of the fun of being a cinephile is seeing where the surprises come from. Sure, you can expect a comforting experience from Steven Spielberg, a rock ‘n roll ruckus from Guy Ritchie, and something that’ll bend your brain a bit from Yorgos Lanthimos. So when you hear about a zombie apocalypse film which blends the humor of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead with the musical earworms of Glee, you immediately have my attention. In this case, it’s John McPhail’s Anna and the Apocalypse, a festival darling from the U.K. which hit the U.S. in late November. To say that it’s a treat does a disservice to actually describing the experience. The songs are catchy (and frequently move the narrative forward strongly), the performances are engaging as hell (to the point of heartbreaking), and the narrative it all revolves around feels original (even as it borrows from plenty of other teen comedies/dramas). If there’s anything that sums up the Anna experience, it’s the song “Hollywood Ending” which not only features most of the main characters in the ear-wormiest of songs on the soundtrack, but also rewards careful attention with prophetic warnings.
Director: Junpei Mizusaki.
Cast: Kôichi Yamadera, Wataru Takagi, Ai Kakuma, Rie Kugimiya, Atsuko Tanaka, Daisuke Ono, Hôchû Ôtsuka, Takehito Koyasu, Jun’ichi Suwabe, Yûki Kaji, Akira Ishida, Kengo Kawanishi, Chô, Toshiyuki Morikawa, and Kenta Miyake.
Batman’s seen his fair share of adventures across the globe, even an adventure or two requiring him to help save all of time itself, but rarely is the Dark Knight out of control. That’s what truly makes the Kazuki Nakashima-crafted script fantastic. It forces the infamous Bat out of his element by taking him on a trip through the culture of another. Batman Ninja is both undeniably amazing and incredibly jarring from the storytelling to the character designs. The whole Batman world is shown through the lens of Japanese artists and creatives, not American ones. At first, audiences might recoil at such a foreign take on the beloved DC character, however, those willing to stick with it will be rewarded with some of the most impressive action (and certainly some of the most bizarre) sequences in an animated movie this year. Yet, at no point is any aspect of this interpretation disingenuous to the source material, nor does it seem out of place within Batman’s adventures. In many cases, it’s just a uniquely constructed, beautifully animated adventure which demonstrates that the animation side of the DC Universe still has the edge on the live-action side if only because they are willing to go someplace new and different stylistically which, effectively, pushes the experiences of the characters.
Director: José Pedro Lopes.
Cast: Daniela Love, Jorge Mota, Mafalda Banquart, Lígia Roque, Tiago Jácome, Débora Ribeiro, and Lília Lopes.
The Forest of the Lost Souls is one of the more frustrating cinematic experiences I’ve encountered this year and, for that reason alone, it needed to be included here. José Pedro Lopes’s A Floresta das Almas Perdidas is an absolute conundrum: the execution of narrative is complex, yet simple, and the structure allows for a bit of mystery to hang in the air. But all I want are some answers. Just a simple line of dialogue, a trophy, a clue, anything which might add some clarity to a film which has rattled around in my brain since August. Our lead, played devilishly by Daniela Love, is either a force of nature or a sociopath (perhaps both?) whose plans are so precise that sheer patience for opportunity seems unlikely, particularly given her inside knowledge of the inciting incident of the film. So what’s the connection?!? Thankfully, there’s more than this particular mystery to make Souls intriguing, but it’s one that will bother me until my end.
Director: Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Paul Whitehouse, and Alex Lawther.
Speaking of horrific ends, the IFC Midnight-distributed film Ghost Stories is everything and nothing like what you’d expect. Originally a stage production, writer/director partners Dyson and Nyman helmed the feature with Nyman pulling double-duty as the lead. Ghost Stories possesses all the hallmarks of every horror film you’ve ever seen or heard about, but, despite all of this, Ghost Stories manages to hoodwink anyone who gives the film a chance. Tapping into ye olde theatrical misdirection, Dyson and Nyman’s mini-anthology of chilling tales will screw with your senses from beginning to end. Even when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the floor manages to disappear beneath you, leaving you in an infinite free-fall, until they decide it’s time to pump the brakes. Thankfully, Ghost Stories offers style and substance, making a rewatch a near-immediate necessity.
Director: Brett Haley.
Cast: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Toni Collette, and Blythe Danner.
Brett Haley’s second feature film is an absolute delight. It may not feature career-defining performances, but everything the cast gives, they do so honestly and it can be felt thanks to the incredible music crafted by Keegan DeWitt, which the central characters develop and perform throughout the film. Through the process of creating the songs, the characters channel their hopes and their fears and cast them out into the universe. Particularly given the harsh realities of 2018, there’s a deeper need for authentic love and Hearts Beat Loud is filled to the brim with it. “You told me I was brave, and I will remember that” seems trite without context, yet, understanding reveals incredible and profound pain, even as it uplifts. “I’ll watch it as it goes, keep it in my heart no matter where I am” sounds like saccharine nonsense until it’s heard in a joyous father-daughter duet, acknowledging how their lives are changing and how that’s ok. While there have been many films in 2018 which talk about, seek out, or try to acquire love, none feel as honest or pure as Hearts Beat Loud.
Director: Josephine Decker.
Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, and Miranda July.
Holy shit. I’m not sure where to begin with this film. Madeline’s Madeline is one of the more challenging films released in 2018 because of its tenuous grasp on reality. From the start, the audience is clued in that something is different as the images are blurred, the sounds are a little muffled, and the figure that appears tells you that all that you experience isn’t real. It feels like a birth in some aspects, yet the story isn’t of a child, but of a teen – a troubled one whose line between reality and the imaginary is flimsy – caught between the tangible world her mother wants her to exist in and the dream world her dance instructor encourages her to explore. As the conflict between them all builds, the audience’s experience becomes…strange. Despite the psychological fragility of the central character and the seemingly loose narrative, Howard instills an audacity which makes the story feel like a triumph by its end. Even if an entirely pyrrhic one.
Director: Panos Cosmatos.
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, and Bill Duke.
Speaking of divisive films, have you seen Mandy?! No really, if you haven’t seen it, then anything I say – hell, even this clip – will make it seem like the nuttiest, gnarliest film of the year and you’d be correct, even with context. Few films these days are the experience they’re solid as, but Mandy is all of those things and more. It’s a love story of two broken individuals who find comfort in their companionship, living in quiet solitude in the wilderness. It’s an absolute horror show as a cult leader descends up them, ripping their peaceful existence to shreds. It’s a heavy metal rock show as a lone man fights demons on Earth in a quest for blood-filled retribution with an axe forged for the sole-purpose of killing evil. It’s all of these things and more made absolutely real through Andrea Riseborough’s soulful performance, a persistent dream-like vision maintained by director Cosmatos, and a haunting score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Director: Boots Riley.
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, Omari Hardwick, Jermaine Fowler, and Danny Glover.
If you haven’t yet noticed a pattern in the films that got into my mind this year, it’s films that tried something different. Some of them were mainstream hits while others became indie darlings. Frankly, I’m not sure where the Boots Riley darkly, satirical, comedy Sorry to Bother You sits, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest because once seen, it’s a film which cannot be unseen. For some, the third act twist was a step too far, but that’s the moment where I ask why. Riley’s slow burn narrative continuously set new lines in the sand for his audience, giving them opportunities time and again to step away from the farce as things grew more and more outrageous and equally egregious, much like his lead Cassius Green, portrayed by the talented Lakeith Stanfield, was. This, I think, is Riley’s real test: why was everything else ok before that point? Why was everything else funny? While those questions may remain rhetorical in nature, my informal polling suggests that perhaps it’s because the third act twist requires more of a break in reality whereas the previous two acts request only a bend. Make no mistake; if you’re all in by the third act, then you’re truly off to the races.
Director: Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., and Rodney Rothman.
Cast: Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Jake Johnson, Liev Schreiber, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, and Lily Tomlin.
Never before have I wanted an animated picture to win Best Picture at the Oscars, but Spider-Verse deserves to be in that discussion. Ramsey, Persichetti, Jr., and Rothman not only created an entertaining, heartfelt Spider-Man story, but they made one that’s at once universal and insular. You could come to the film with a wealth of knowledge or none at all and come out blown-away. There’s certainly some understanding to be had for audiences who struggled with the various artistic styles thrown into the mix to create not just the world of one Spider-Man, but of six, yet, you can’t argue that the animation style not only swings for the fences, but that it hits the stars. It simultaneously honors all of the Spidey adventures that came before it while also introducing cinematic audiences to a new bearer of the mantle: Miles Morales. With Miles comes the lesson that anyone can wear the mask. All they need is to take the leap of faith required to become a webslinger. Frankly, after this film, all I can think is, what’s up danger?
Director: Becca Gleason.
Cast: Joey King, Andrea Savage, Erin Darke, June Squibb, Paul Scheer, Logan Medina, Jack Kilmer, and Stephen Ruffin.
2018 had some fantastic coming-of-age films. Everyone heard about Love, Simon and no one seems to be aware of Saturday Church, but somewhere in the middle is the incredible gem Summer ’03. Inspired by writer/director Becca Gleason’s life, Summer is a female-focused story of burgeoning sexuality and familial discord offering a perspective on love, lust, and teenage angst that’s usually ignored. It’s charming without being saccharine, hilarious without losing its heart, and ridiculous without losing its truth. Summer ’03 is the rare film which eschews insincerity in favor of honestly depicting the universal complexities of adolescence, refusing to pull its punches as it explores the head and heartache of love.