As the Recess section’s resident film lover, the responsibility to decree the year’s best movies often falls upon my shoulders. It’s not an enviable position — how can I responsibly compile a listicle of the year’s crème de la crème when there are many 2018 releases I have yet to see? (If you’re wondering: “Roma,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Destroyer,” among others.) So, instead, here is a list of movies released in 2018 that I want you to add to your watchlist immediately. All of these films stuck with me long after I watched them, and they each bring something new and exciting to their respective genres — something much needed in a franchise-laden industry:
“Eighth Grade” (dir. Bo Burnham)
I must admit, I have a bias here: I’ve been a fan of Bo Burnham since I was in the sixth grade. From his YouTube days to his directorial debut, I’ve quietly followed Burnham’s career trajectory for the last eight or so years, and “Eighth Grade” is a beautiful culmination of everything he’s worked on since his breakout at 16 years old: It’s brutally awkward, anxiety-inducing, uncomfortable, funny and relatable all at once. What is most remarkable is that Burnham, who is now 28 years old, manages to manifest those career-defining characteristics into the story of a 13-year-old girl named Kayla without ever coming across as insincere or inauthentic.
Elsie Fisher’s honest performance of a young girl plagued by anxiety, insecurities and loneliness only underscores the tenderness and universality of Burnham’s script. Although “Eighth Grade” is a glimpse into an era of adolescence heavily informed by social media and technology, it has moments of genuinely relatable anxiety and shame — the way Kayla hunches over in her ill-fitting swimsuit, her panic when talking to boys, the fear that she’ll never be the person she wants to be. Instead of dismissing or jeering at the stakes Kayla creates for her social life, “Eighth Grade” validates them and acknowledges that, perhaps, what’s meaningful to middle schoolers isn’t as inconsequential as we think.
“The Favourite” (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Period pieces are my personal purgatory. I hate them. My mom would spend an entire day watching the BBC’s 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries, a total runtime of six hours, and I would loudly announce how much I hated the flowery dialogue, British accents, and ornate set designs. My aversion to period dramas has endured, and coupled with my already lukewarm feelings toward Lanthimos’ previous work, I sat down for “The Favourite” with very low expectations.
Oh, was I wrong. “The Favourite” was excellent precisely because it bucked every expectation I had for it. Lanthimos masterfully shocks and scandalizes the viewer, uses intentional anachronisms and leans into the wanton self-indulgence that Victorian-era stories usually possess. Perhaps most brilliantly, “The Favourite” entrusts the film’s strongest moments with its three female leads, whose ability to bring drama into the film’s black comedy deftly buoys and brings stakes to the constant absurdity. Lanthimos finally created a film that is wickedly funny, subversive and narratively sound — rejoice!
“First Reformed” (dir. Paul Schrader)
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Paul Schrader, whose creative genius gave us “Taxi Driver” and its nihilistic lead character Travis Bickle, is back with another pensive, cynical white man’s story. (And it’s just as good!) “First Reformed” follows Reverend Toller, a pastor of a small church in upstate New York, as he struggles against guilt, anger and doubt — so, you know, things a pastor typically worries about. Except, for Toller, those feelings are the result of a world ravaged by climate change and corporate greed, to the extent that even his own church is not free from the destructive clutches of modernity. “First Reformed” asks, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done?” — to our environment, our people, our resources, our spirits — and, like Schrader’s earlier work, answers with uncertainty. The easiest selling point is Ethan Hawke’s incredible performance as Rev. Toller, which I view as repentance for his involvement in “Boyhood.” Ethan, you are forgiven.
“Sorry to Bother You” (dir. Boots Riley)
I’ve never seen a movie like “Sorry to Bother You” before. It’s insane. Boots Riley, in his directorial debut, puts forth a garish, magical realism that’s both darkly funny and an indictment of contemporary society: At one point, Cassius, the black lead played by Lakeith Stanfield, performs a "white voice" to further his career as a telemarketer, but the voice that comes out of his mouth is literally that of David Cross, a famous white comedian. It’s ridiculously funny, but it’s also a bit unsettling — a contrast that Riley smartly wields throughout his film.
But beyond the visual and auditory gags (of which there are many), “Sorry to Bother You” is one of the first genuinely anti-capitalist films I’ve seen onscreen, period. Riley depicts labor unionization, workers’ strikes and corporate exploitation in a way that is both meaningful and promising — he ultimately makes the argument that workers’ collectivization can effect genuine change, even if the way his characters go about it are … atypical.
“Game Night” (dir. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)
At this point, everyone is probably begging to me to just shut up about this movie. But I can’t! It’s been so long since a mainstream comedy film impressed me as much as “Game Night” did. As of late, comedies have been gimmicky and predictable, reliant on the star-power usually at its helm, with perhaps a few genuine laughs wedged in between crude humor and low-brow gags. Not to mention, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein had already made one of those mind-numbing comedies: 2015’s “Vacation,” starring Ed Helms.
And yet, “Game Night” managed to completely defy my expectations, in terms of both its funniness and its filmmaking — I have yet to see a blockbuster comedy with the level of technical skill and attention to detail that “Game Night” possessed. The twists are delightful, the jokes land with ease, and the cast possesses an irresistible chemistry that allows the film to sell even its silliest jokes. (At one point, Rachel McAdams sanitizes a bullet wound with champagne, and it’s absolutely hilarious.) Plus, Olivia, the dog from “Widows,” is in it. What else do you want?
“The Tale” (dir. Jennifer Fox)
When she was 13 years old, Jennifer Fox was groomed and raped by her running coach, an adult man named Bill. For as long as she could remember, it was a consensual — albeit inappropriate — relationship she had during her adolescence, replete with sappy love letters and a mutual infatuation. But when Fox, now a grown woman and an accomplished documentarian, revisits her memories of that time in her life, the narrative shifts, and she realizes that she must unravel the truth about what really happened to her as a child, one manipulated memory at a time.
Instead of filming “The Tale” as a documentary, Fox structures her private story of abuse and trauma as a docufiction, and it’s clear that the act of creating “The Tale” itself is yet another way in which Fox contends with her trauma — she makes the difficult decision to hold nothing back when portraying the most horrific parts of the sexual abuse she endured, and it allows “The Tale” to contain all of the anger, confusion and emotional catharsis that Fox undoubtedly felt when writing the film. Fox’s vulnerability and honesty in telling her story is immensely courageous, and it ultimately signals to women who have also experienced sexual abuse that they possess the strength to tell their truth, too.
And if you’re curious, the hands-down worst films of the year were “Ready Player One,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” Take that as you will.