Sometimes you find yourself with a collection and cannot help but see it as symbolic of something greater. Sometimes you have a list of things, favorite films from a year, and you’re just struck by their likeness to popular sandwiches.
This wasn’t one of those times, but I thought it might be fun to pretend it was. So without further ado, I present to you my five favorite films from 2018 (premiering in at least limited showings within the good ‘ol, never better, certainly not a flaming wreck of a democracy United States). We start with number five, and work our way to number one. Again, these likened to sandwiches. As in the food; it’s not filmic slang. I’m so sorry.
Widows dir. Steve McQueen – Steak and Arugula Sandwich
The fourth feature film from Steve “Not the Cooler King” McQueen (following his 2013 Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave) might sound out of character for the stern, artistic-minded director on paper; the wives of slain bank robbers team up to pull off a job. That sort of sets you up for, like, some wry, self-aware jokes maybe? We could round out the bunch with Betty White? Seriously for a moment, the premise sounds like such a movie movie that it was tough to imagine the guy who gave us long takes of hallways being cleaned in Hunger was helming this, and co-writing the script with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. That’s about as Hollywood as you can get!
And then you see the movie, and give a quiet little “oh.”
Viola Davis wears a grim mask under her actual mask, the entire film is a dive into the layers of a community rife with corruption and backdoor political maneuvering so cold it makes robbery look like honest work. Widows is not a short film, the pacing is curt and brutal, bitter like arugula and bloody like beef, McQueen’s direction tight and working in genre tropes while maintaining a realism that hits like a freight train. You bite in and find no quarter, no sweet satisfaction. Only. Tough. Meat.
Vox Lux dir. Brady Corbet – Roast Beef and Horseradish
I promise all of these mov–I mean sandwiches aren’t steak-based. It just so happens we’re starting with some of the really dire ones. And Vox Lux would need to have horseradish in there somewhere.
Telling the story of Celeste, a visually-striking pop star (sort of like St Vincent crossed with Lady Gaga?) whose traumatic childhood yields all sorts of present pressures. It’s starting to occur to me how infrequently Natalie Portman is mentioned in discussing some of our great actors of today. She consistently knocks it out of the park and continues to do so here, spitting acid as Celeste when she needs to but also painting a portrait of a tattered woman, truly haunted and struggling. It’s almost painful to watch.
Speaking of painful to watch, remember that horseradish? I’m conflicted whether to elaborate on just what that “traumatic childhood” entails… I went into Vox Lux quite blind, and was viscerally affected by its opening scenes. Seriously, it’ll stop your breath and clear your sinuses.
The film is effectively directed by Brady Corbet in a structured format, using chapters and Willem Dafoe narration (at times whimsical in its diction, there’s always a hint of something malevolent) to grant a somewhat clinical approach, while dark shadows and tense sound design almost recall a horror film.
You Were Never Really Here dir. Lynne Ramsay – Cold Egg Sandwich
“You’re really a bundle of joy, aren’t you van der Meer?” 2018 had some great, bleak movies! So bleak that Joaquin Phoenix will take those hardboiled traditions, smash them to bits with his trusty hammer, and lay them out on a cold piece of bread and call it dinner. And he won’t even eat it. What does that mean exactly? It means Lynne Ramsay’s pulp-deconstruction will fool you with the pitch and leave you itching for something sweet and satisfying where there are only cold. Hard. Eggs.
Phoenix’s Joe is a man of mumbles, a combat veteran haunted by past trauma (there really is a trend with these choices…) making a living now in parts of New York that aren’t Times Square. How’s he livin’? Beatin’ up bad guys, that’s how! Only it isn’t like in the movies. Except it is. But… Hmm.
Ramsay gives us Joe as the sort of “avenging angel” we see in films like this where the guy has to go save the girl. Only there’s nothing sweet about this vengeance, Ramsay’s camera makes sure to avoid any slick action scenes. Violence is brutal, often seen off in the corners of the frame for a moment, or the act not seen at all. Phoenix gives a terrific performance as a man whose only outlet is violence, whether against others or himself, and comes across as sad, rather than cool.
Which is what a cold egg sandwich would be. Sad. Not cool.
The Old Man & the Gun dir. David Lowery – Turkey Club
Do turkey clubs strike you as vintage? Something that you might have heard your dad or grandfather sit down at the pop counter, flip a nickel, and order while cracking the day’s newspaper open? They do for me. So use that as context for Robert Redford’s best film in yeeeears.
Based on truth, Gun tells the story of senior citizen Forrest Tucker (Redford), who, with his gang (played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits! gold!), robbed several banks across America in the late ’70s. Forrest finds romance with Sissy Spacek’s Jewel, and we have a classy classic caper for contemporary critics. Wholesome comes to mind as a word for Old Man & the Gun.
No stranger to artistic flourish (see: A Ghost Story), Lowery directs the film with good humor and no pretenses (or at least, very few). This is straightforward drama. Come for the big names and stay for the tight direction, honest slice of Americana, and Casey Affleck’s great moustache and sideburns. I was so… happy watching The Old Man & the Gun. It’s a reminder that good films don’t need to be cynical, they don’t need cinematography that showboats, or action that arrests you. A good story, some good actors, and a laugh or two. Call me sentimental. I’ll ask for low-fat mayonnaise.
Annihilation dir. Alex Garland – Something Weird Your Mom Made
Is that… kale? And what’s that cheese, pimento? No. And there’s no meat? Oh just some bean sprouts and avocado. Okay… thanks mom! And you should thank your mother. For everything. You should also thank Alex Garland for adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s (hey look my name sort of!) bizarre extraterrestrial horror story-cum-Heart of Darkness descent into hell.
Annihilation struck me like few films do. It really, really made me think. Which is funny because that’s just so darn hard for me! But actually, even after loving Garland’s previous work (writing the excellent Dredd, directing the excellent Ex Machina) and poring over VanderMeer’s book, Annihilation the film got me thinking a lot. Alien life–who’s to say what it will look like? We conceptualize the alien as an individual. It might have four legs or be made of gas, but so often in science-fiction aliens are distinguishable beings. Alien environments might be pink and patrolled by the Lorax, but we still see trees and rivers; we can point to things and recognize them. But what if the alien… was the environment? Whoa.
Garland’s film puts Natalie Portman in another great role, confronting a lifeform that is so incredibly alien we might not even recognize it as being a lifeform. Beautiful, twisted flora and fauna populate the trek deep into the affected zone, providing all sorts of horrors and phantasmagoric imagery. Taking a page from Apocalypse Now in more than story and tone,Annihilation is often truly visually-stunning.
So like that suspiciously-aromatic thing before you, Annihilation has layers. Beneath the toasted multigrain bread and journey into the unknown lies rewarding, exciting flavors and some of the most timeless, unanswerable questions in science-fiction: If we meet little gray men, what will it be like?