10 best movies of 2018 include 'Support the Girls,' 'Leave No Trace' – Commercial Appeal

The best movie of 2018, according to the voting groups of movie reviewers represented by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the nine-state region covered by the Southeastern Film Critics Association, is “Roma,” now available to anybody with access to Netflix. 
I agree “Roma” is one of the outstanding films of the year. But it didn’t screen in a theater or public venue in Memphis, so I didn’t consider it for my annual lists of the best films of the year.
Is that wrongheaded? Perverse? You tell me.
As usual, my annual 10 Best list (and its complement, the Second 10) is culled entirely from the ranks of feature films that had their local debuts in public venues in Memphis during the past year. In other words, these are films that Memphians had the chance to see in a theater, museum or other public gathering place.
My reasoning, when I began this tradition — long before the line between made-for-TV movie and made-for-theater movie had been blurred like a chalk drawing in the rain in “Mary Poppins” — was that it would be pretentious and foolhardy to pretend I was picking the best from among all the movies released worldwide or even in the U.S. in any given year.
Also, I believed it would be unfair to readers to include movies I might have seen that had not yet been offered to Memphis as a whole. 
Netflix — this year more than ever — has complicated that theory. In addition to “Roma,” the subscription-based streaming service — increasingly useless when it comes to classic older films — offered several worthwhile new movies that I would have considered for my list if they’d been in a theater, including “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Happy as Lazzaro,” “Shirkers” and the Orson Welles rescue “The Other Side of the Wind.”
Is it time to open the gates to the vast world of small-screen premieres? Or should I stick with movies shown outside the home, as Jack L. Warner if not necessarily God intended?
The latter number is not decreasing, despite the streaming competition: According to my records, a record 1,008 distinct movies or movie-type presentations (filmed operas and ballets, for example) were shown here during the past year in public venues, ranging from the high-tech IMAX auditorium at the Paradiso to the makeshift outdoor rooftop screen at Elmwood Cemetery.
Here are my choices:
1. “Support the Girls”: A veteran of the regional lo-fi moviemaking movement dubbed “mumblecore,” Boston-born writer-director Andrew Bujalski delivered the year’s most generous film, a working-class sisters-in-solidarity comedy-drama set in a Hooters-esque sports bar in suburban Houston, with Regina Hall cast as manager/den mother to a group of servers with big hearts, short shorts and bruised hopes. The milieu is specific, but the portrayal of an ain’t-that-America workplace and its floundering ethos suggests the movie could prove as timeless as one of Howard Hawks’ classic studies of group dynamics (for example, “Only Angels Have Wings,” about airmail pilots). Presented as the closing-night feature at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, the movie ends with a series of screams that express both frustration and determination — an ideal cri de guerre for a new resistance.
2. “Leave No Trace”: A traumatized war veteran (Ben Foster) tries to live off the grid, in total independence and isolation, with his increasingly restless but entirely sympathetic teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) in director Debra Granik’s remarkably humane adaptation of a novel by Peter Rock. Granik’s touch is as delicate as a sunbeam on a fern in the hushed and majestic Oregon forests where the father and daughter collect condensation for drinking water and mushrooms for stew; as this doomed ideal collapses, the movie’s conflict resolves into two competing universal impulses: the desire to be noticed and the desire to disappear.
3. “Phantom Thread”: A 2017 movie that didn’t reach Memphis until 2018 (see also “The Post” and “Call Me by Your Name,” fine films that didn’t make my top 10), director Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama about a London-based genius couturier incredibly named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is as meticulously crafted as a Reynolds evening gown and as obsessive as the designer’s relationships with his latest and most determined love interest (Vicky Krieps) and his almost terrifyingly imperturbable sister (a magnificent Lesley Manville). Jonny Greenwood’s haunting piano-based score heightens the ecstasy.
4. “Faces Places”: Belgian-born auteur Agnès Varda (with multiple masterpieces already on her résumé) joins the French artist who calls himself JR on a kook’s tour of the title objects — “Visages Villages,” as the movie is called in France, its country of origin. The charming and disarming result is a playful documentary that is at once familiar (it belongs to the buddy comedy and road movie genres) and entirely fresh, as the hip JR creates monumental photo portraits of some of the hardworking citizens the collaborators meet while the elfin Varda (now 90) reconciles the memories of her vibrant past with the realities of failing eyesight and curling feet.
5. “Hereditary”: Only one person burns alive, but the entire cast — especially lead Toni Collette, as a grieving mother and pawn to supernatural conspiracy — is on fire, fueled by the audacity of debuting feature writer-director Ari Aster’s strikingly photographed  and borderline impenetrable “Rosemary’s Grandbaby.” This is the rare horror movie with an earned shock so unexpected and horrific that it left this veteran fan — whose eyeballs have ingested literally thousands of screen dismemberments, decapitations and mutilations — aghast.
6. “Sorry to Bother You” and “BlackKlansman”: With traces of such off-kilter science-fiction comedies as Alex Cox’s “Repo Man” and Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” in its DNA (a surreal twist involves genetic manipulation to boost corporate profits at the expense of a worker’s literal humanity), hip-hop artist-turned-writer-director Boots Riley’s first film is a wonder. The invaluable Lakeith Stanfield stars as an Oakland telemarketer who uses a “white voice” to increase his sales, a compromise of identity that opens the door to a promotion but also to personal and professional chaos (his girlfriend is played by Tessa Thompson). Like Sergio Aragones scrawling cartoons in the margins of Mad magazine, Riley fills the frame with more jokes, ideas and inventions than can be apprehended in a single viewing; the result is a film that is never cynical and that teems with and celebrates life, even in the context of a dystopia.
Meanwhile, Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” — which Boots Riley, in a public “political critique,” condemned as a whitewash of police malfeasance  — was the second movie of the year to make use of a black character’s “white voice” as a major plot point (and a source of comedy); perhaps Lee, too, worried that a movie in 2018 that makes heroes of law enforcement represented too much of a “white voice” itself, so the film’s most powerful passages are lengthy digressions that abandon the plot to memorialize the victims of lynching; to mourn the role of Lee’s beloved chosen art form, cinema, in the stoking of racism; and to condemn — with news footage from Charlottesville that is presented with fury and sorrow — the public encouragement of racial violence. Inspired by an actual event, the film stars John David Washington as a rookie Colorado police detective who recruits a white Jewish veteran officer, played by Adam Driver, in a plan to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
7. “Madeline’s Madeline”: Newcomer Helena Howard gives what might be the performance of the year as a troubled teen diving (sinking?) deep into the embrace of a local theater director (Molly Parker) whose commitment to experimental expression is catnip to a feline-identifying girl who needs little encouragement to go out-of-body. Pushing beyond art-indie convention, writer-director Josephine Decker has found the ideal collaborator in cinematographer Ashley Connor, whose melty, woozy, indelible images conjure the alternate disorder and clarity of a scrambled, scrambling mind.
8. “First Reformed”: “Taxi Driver” writer Paul Schrader here introduces another of his signature spiritually conflicted heroes: Played by an Oscar-worthy Ethan Hawke, Ernst Toller is a military chaplain turned Protestant pastor whose crisis of faith is stoked by the material-world existential crises — climate change, terrorism — that distress some of his parishioners. Schrader (also the director) apparently was inspired by reading works of social justice advocate Thomas Merton and other theologians; the movie is filled with conversations that provide something of the satisfaction of sinking into a smart, provocative essay.
9. “You Were Never Really Here” and “Mandy”: Two bearded weirdos (Joaquin Phoenix in the first film, Nicolas Cage in the second) embark on violent missions of righteous revenge in two films of uncompromised, painstaking and delirious style. The first, directed by Lynne Ramsay, is a lushly photographed and (at least initially) cryptically edited immersion into the mind and milieu of a lonely hired gun who discovers a sick sex conspiracy; the second is a slow-motion descent into a sludge-rock hell as Cage tracks a killer hippie cult across a landscape that seems printed on discarded Mountain and Uriah Heep album covers and painted with tar.
10. “I Am Not a Witch”: Screened during the Indie Memphis festival (pay attention, and at about the 25-minute mark you’ll detect the ghostly and utterly unexpected croak of sometime-Sun rockabilly artist Charlie Feathers floating over the south-central African plain), writer-director Rungano Nyoni’s made-in-Zambia heart-wrencher about an 8-year-old girl exiled to a “witch camp” and literally tethered into servitude is both political exposé and political satire; the sense of sorrow and anger is enhanced rather than compromised by Nyoni’s artist’s appreciation of the absurdity at the root of tragedy. 
1. “Black Panther”: A second-tier albeit iconic Marvel superhero inspires what may be the most significant comic-book adaptation in film history as director Ryan Coogler and an ideal cast — led by Chadwick Boseman as the African prince turned costumed warrior and Michael B. Jordan as his conscience-pricking adversary — craft an international box-office blockbuster that ignited like a blast of cultural vibranium in the ugly face of resurgent global racism. At this point, “Wakanda forever!” feels like not just a boast but a prophecy.
2. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”: Melissa McCarthy is real-life author Lee Israel, an alcoholic New York lesbian misanthrope who found perverse artistic satisfaction, freedom from writer’s block and also rent money by composing and forging colorful letters from such deceased celebrity wits as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. With Richard E. Grant stealing scenes as McCarthy’s fey partner in crime, the movie fulfills the promise director Marielle Heller showed with her first feature, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”; its seemingly credible re-creation of 1990s New York as a place of dark, inviting bars and even darker and more inviting used bookstores represents at least one idea of paradise.
3. “The Favourite”: Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are ladies of the court competing for the attention of Olivia Colman as gout-ridden Queen Anne in this sardonic portrayal of 18th-century sexual and political intrigue from director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”), who trades his signature sadism for cutting wit (for the first time, he is working from someone else’s script). He hasn’t mellowed, however: His jaundiced eye remains evident in the fish-eye lenses that distort the compositions.
4. “If Beale Street Could Talk”: Director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his deserving Best Picture Oscar winner, “Moonlight,” is a swoon in motion-picture form, reminiscent of the work of Wong Kar-wai and Douglas Sirk: Its lush score, expressive period decor and color-coded photography give the streets of early 1970s Harlem and the hopeful characters who inhabit them a glamour and respect that historically have been denied to cinematic representations of the African-American experience. Faithfully adapted from a novel by James Baldwin, the movie stars KiKi Layne as a young pregnant woman whose sculptor boyfriend (Stephan James) is accused of rape; the plotting is rickety, but the artistry is intense.
5. “Isle of Dogs”: With an original script, director Wes Anderson’s second animated feature is not as lovable as its predecessor (“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” adapted from a book by Roald Dahl), but it’s still a delight, thanks to an impressive voice cast (Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, etc., etc.), the Japanese-inspired design (a source of some controversy, these appropriations motivate further flattening of Anderson’s already Cornell-box-like compositions) and the uncanny charm of the stop-motion process.
6. “Let the Sunshine In”: Juliette Binoche is a painter with bad taste in men (or is it good taste in men who prove to be bad matches?) in French director Claire Denis’ episodic film, which demonstrates that realistic behavior — self-defeating whims, conversations that go nowhere, distracted small talk, a consultation with a psychic that is more banal than dramatic — is so alien to the moviegoing experience that most viewers cannot recognize it.
7. “Minding the Gap”: Constructed by director Bing Liu and editor Joshua Altman from years of home-video footage that Liu shot with his skateboarding friends in depressed Rockford, Illinois, this documentary may be a form of therapeutic exorcism for the filmmaker but it’s a portrait of all-American despair (economic and otherwise) for us, complete with racial discomfort, cycles of domestic abuse, astonishing skateboard acrobatics and Fourth of July fireworks. 
8. “Mr. SOUL!” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: Here’s another two-for-one, a pair of documentaries about public television programs that offered utopian visions of communities built on love, creativity and respect. The first, which was the opening night film at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, is director Melissa Haizlip’s chronicle of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, and his pioneering New York-based series, “SOUL!,” which during its 1968-1973 run attempted to be “true to the black experience” by introducing TV viewers to such artists as poet Nikki Giovanni, far-out jazz visionary Roland Rahsaan Kirk and radical proto-rappers The Last Poets. Meanwhile, Morgan Neville’s sleeper hit “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is the story of former Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, longtime host of the gentle preschool-oriented program “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a celebration of kindness and acceptance that even in rerun form offers a — dare we say it? — Christ-like antidote to the hostility endorsed by much of the current social and political culture.
9. Some more documentaries: RaMell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”; Suzannah Herbert’s “Wrestle”; “Free Solo,” by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; “The Gospel of Eureka,” by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri — all exemplary, all worthy of attention, in what was an outstanding year for nonfiction film.
10. “Upgrade” and “Annihilation”: Written and directed by “Saw” co-creator Leigh Whannell, “Upgrade” may be ersatz Verhoeven and Cronenberg lite, but so what? I was kind of smitten by its unpretentious old-school economy, its fine lead performance (Logan Marshall-Green stars as an injured man “upgraded” into an ultra-fast super-avenger by a computer chip implant) and its surprising visual panache — the digital effects and “camera” moves are ingenious, simple and fun. In contrast, “Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s follow-up to “Ex Machina,” is prestige commercial science fiction, with Natalie Portman as a biologist who joins a mission into The Shimmer, a mysterious quarantined zone of mutating lifeforms that slowly but surely will spread like a stain across the United States. The biologist’s trek might as well be across the landscape of genre history: It begins with a pulp-magazine-worthy attack by a monster alligator and ends with a trippy “2001”-like alien encounter.
Also worth seeing: “Anti-Man and the Wasp”; “Avengers: Infinity Wars”; “Blockers”; “Call Me by Your Name”; “The Death of Stalin”; “Eighth Grade”; “A Fantastic Woman”; “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom”; “Lean on Pete”; “The Little Stranger”; “Mirai”; “The Old Man & the Gun”; “Overlord”; “Paddington 2”; “The Post”; “Ready Player One”; “The Rider”; “Rodents of Unusual Size”; “Rukus”; “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”; “A Star Is Born”; “Three Identical Strangers”; “Unsane”; and “Vox Lux,” among others.


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