The Fifties for 2018

Picture

  • A Ciambra – Assembled with the precision of a watch but adds flourishes without cleaning itself up; staying as hard-scrabbled, smart, urgent, and perceptive as its lead
  • Ava – Reveals its characters as multifaceted beings and as part of a damaging, systemic cultural structure as one girl fights against being worn down to nothing
  • Black Panther – The hero we need and the one we deserve, taking on tougher and richer ideas than previous Marvel outings and making bold stabs at originality in every direction
  • Hereditary – I went from deep skepticism to total awe of its unusual rhythms in style and performance, giving a new edge to a family’s total emotional destruction
  • Isle of Dogs – Funny, inventive, eye catching, and kid friendly while adding specific commentaries and textures to its underdog tale
  • Lean on Pete – Refusal of sentiment and grandiosity reveals a heartsore portrait of a boy trying to get by and the corner of America he’s getting by in
  • Summer 1993 – In atmosphere and story, delicately handles a child’s grief in lucid and inchoate forms without resorting to tricked-up incident or neglecting the world around her
  • Tully – Shapeshifts constantly without turning into a gimmick or becoming shallow as it shows new, powerful ideas about motherhood and one woman living it
  • Western – Makes the concepts of language and community simultaneously tangible and ephemeral, dissecting infra-European relations without sacrificing its specificity
  • Zama – Politically and technologically virtuosic at stretching every second to its breaking point and layering dense, multifaceted tones and ideas at all times

Extremely Honorable Mentions to First Reformed and to Eighth Grade, both of which were on this list at one point or another for their disarming conviction with rarely told and rarely well-told stories, and which I deeply look forward to getting a second look at soon. Further Honorable Mentions to the madcap sensibilities and politically charged core of Sorry to Bother You; the aesthetic triumphs and deeply personal storytelling of We the Animals; the potently and abrasively assembled You Were Never Really Here; and to Dark Money, which negotiates a local story of journalistic triumph, grassroots commitment, and political integrity while getting increasingly worried about the state of the country.

Director

  • Jonas Carpignano, A Ciambra – Assembles his story with incredibly muscular technical prowess, a 360 view of his conflicts, and forceful with his stakes and themes
  • Valeska Grisebach, Western – Because the film just wouldn’t work if Grisebach wasn’t so smart on genre, skilled with actors, and detailed and intricate in theme
  • Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete – Fully rounds out his characters and scenarios with a tough, tender, and observational eye that never succumbs to sentiment or pity
  • Lucretia Martel, Zama – Brilliantly dramatizes her protagonist’s headspace while standing wholly outside it, finding great depth in his bullshit while changing tone on a dime
  • Carla Simón, Summer 1993 – Marvelously realizes her story, directs her actors, and shapes a naturalistic and emotionally authentic atmosphere without false dramatics

Extremely Honorable Mentions to Wes Anderson for juggling so many moving, complicated parts while staying incredibly light on his feet, shaping his world and guiding his affections in service of his story better than I’ve ever seen in Isle of Dogs; Sadaf Foroughi’s scalpel-like storytelling techniques in Ava, making specific points about her characters and finding the right balance of sympathy for her characters and unwavering acknowledgement of how they got themselves in this situation; and Jason Reitman’s precision with the tricky themes, story arcs, and performances of Tully, helping to shape and enchance the work of the women. Any of these people could wind up here at year’s end, and leaving them out now makes me very sad; Further Honorable Mentions to the various thematic, stylistic, and acting risks undertaken by Ryan Coogler in Black Panther, Ari Aster in Hereditary, Boots Riley in Sorry to Bother You, Paul Schraeder in First Reformed, Jeremiah Zagar in We the AnimalsLynn Ramsay in You Were Never Really Here, and Bo Burnham in Eighth Grade.

Actress

  • Toni Collette, Hereditary – Makes such specific choices and imbues such powerful emotions behind them that Annie emerges as a full, complicated person instead of an acting showcase
  • Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade – Shows the real growth her character makes as well as the long road ahead of her; Awkward, yes, but kind and full of potential
  • Mahour Jabbari, Ava – Holds a tight grip on the truths of her universally misunderstood character, keeping her rebellious, stubborn, righteous, and tragic
  • Thomasin McKenzie Harcourt, Leave No Trace – Telepathically charts her character’s growing sense of self and what she wants; connecting beautifully to her father while questioning their bond
  • Charlize Theron, Tully – Wears her character’s exhaustion, humor, and acidity as easy as a pair of sweatpants, navigating a complicated emotional landscape with ease

Honorable Mentions to Julianne Nicholson’s flinty ex-con in Who We Are Now, earning our sympathy without asking for it or softening her character’s harder, more impulsive edges; and to two impressive duets: Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience, each evoking who they were and who they’ve become since their affair while rekindling and responding to each other in unexpected ways; and to Anya-Taylor Joy and Olivia Cooke in Thoroughbreds, adding distinctive textures to easily contrasting characters while connecting fully with each other and with a weird tone.

Actor

  • Ben Foster, Leave No Trace – Subtly communicates the deep-seated unrest and illness at the core of his character but also the deep bond he has with his daughter
  • Meinhard Neumann, Western – Stays enigmatic in key respects while making his relationships and connections to each community and their members pulsing and tangible
  • Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here – Never stops radiating profound levels of deeply buried trauma and real danger, but equally convincing in his casual, sad, and tender moments
  • Charlie Plummer, Lean on Pete – Dodges cheap sentiment by keeping it honest; crafting a sweet, hollowed out kid trying to do his best in increasingly desperate circumstances
  • LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You – Gives his own distinct spin on the worker torn between morals and money, fully in sync with Riley’s madcap tone while making it accessible

Extremely Honorable Mention to Ethan Hawke’s spiritual anguish and redirected senses of conviction and hopelessness in First Reformed. Categorically shifty Honorable Mentions to Alessandro Nivola’s anxious, discomfitted rabbi trying to make the best of a situation he isn’t sure he can trust in Disobedience and John Cena taking MVP honors in Blockers for his take on the dedicated, overprotective father who loves his daughter, who might feasibly belong in either lead or supporting depending on my memories that day but are still tremendous assets to their films. Further Honorable Mentions to Daniel Gimenéz Cacho for providing a base coat for Martel’s directorial experiments as well as a sturdy characterization to center his film in Zama; and, with deep apologies after dissing him in my Foreign Film write-up for 2017, to Pio Amato in A Ciambra, charting his character’s shifting loyalties, interiority, and growth far better than I’d initially realized.

Cinematography

  • Ava, Sina KermanizadehPronounced use of depth, attention to color, and framing of actors melodramatically juggles emphasis on character, incident, and theme
  • Summer 1993, Santiago Racaj – Holds onto natural lighting marvelously while maintaining a child’s eye observational view, knowing how close and how far it can be to stay intimate
  • We the Animals, Zak Mulligan – Even if early images seem too deliberate, the attention to color, fabric, on-the-ground beauty and unreal elements are too dazzling to ignore
  • You Were Never Really Here, Thomas TownendStartling images that say more about Joe than he ever verbalizes, immersing us in an unsettling world without ever becoming predictable
  • Zama, Rui PoçasKeeps us off-kilter via creative and unpredictable use of framing and depth, alternating between natural and mechanical lighting

Extremely Honorable Mentions to November, for unreal monochrome and unsettling angles and camera movements that make this fable as monstrous and human as it wants to; Ghost Stories, which conveys steady paranoia through widescreen lensing and finding images that expose what isn’t there or what might be hiding just offscreen while staying firmly with our terrified protagonists, while refusing to sacrifice color; They, for coloring its world with pastels that feel as full as an Almodóvar color scheme, and for knowing when to put its protagonist front and center and when to let them sit back and watch; First Reformed, for powerful images in a limited color scheme and a cramped frame; Further Honorable Mentions to Lean on Pete, for balancing the picturesque and the unromantic, and with great attention to natural lighting; Leave No Trace, for largely the same reasons as Pete; and Hereditary, for lighting schemes that feed into the atmosphere of unacknowledged suffering and dread, knowing where to stick its ghosts.

Editing

  • A Ciambra, Alfonso Gonçalves – Forcefully weaves this story with potent images and short, sharply executed scenes, keeping it tight as a drum and knotted with tension
  • Ava, Kiarash AnvariCharts the boiling tensions in individual confrontations and across the film’s overall arc, with unconventional ideas about framing
  • We the Animals, Keiko Deguchi & Brian A. Kates – With barely a plot, links vignette narrative and fantastical sequences into a coherent, dreamlike experience while holding tight on character beats
  • Western, Bettina Böhler – Helps find the tension in incidents and shapes characterization, keeping a naturalistic flow and moving ever forward as it goes
  • You Were Never Really Here, Joe Bini – Confrontationally strings together bloodly fights, unsettling images, invasive memories and thoughts, all conjuring abseces and absences

Extremely Honorable Mentions to Zamafor boldly slowing to less than a crawl while making unexpected jumps forward in time, both within sequences and over several years; Summer 1993’s linking of story beats and charting of subtly and palpably shifting family dynamics; Tully’s economic montage and fleetness that doesn’t skip a beat in script, direction, or performance; The Tale’s starling frankness with memory and perspective, knowing how much punch new contexts bring to old memories; and Mission Impossible: Fallout, which can’t hide how ridiculously long most of its sequences are but has so much velocity and power that it feels as tight as it can under the circumstances. Further Honorable Mentions to Lean on Pete’s steady pacing; Hereditary’s negotiation of character beats, family dynamics, and scary framing; Black Panther’s exhilirating fight scenes; and the delightful storybook imagery that make up practically every sequence in Isle of Dogs.

Ensemble

  • Black PantherThe whole cast delivers charisma for days while building characters and wrangling with the film’s ethical ruminations; fresh air in Infinity War too
  • Blockers – Where minor and superfluous players are just as sharply keyed into the balance of comedy, silliness, and heart as the indelible lead performers
  • Gemini – Kirk and Kravitz impress as their friendship shows new dimensions; supporting players make singular, outsized impressions without rehashing tropes
  • Summer 1993 – Because the entire cast negotiates shifting dynamics beautifully while seeming like a real family, from talented adults to great child actors
  • WesternWhere everyone comes across as a distinct personality and as part of their community, feeding into Grisebach’s tensions without simplifying them

Extremely Honorable Mentions to the charming, affecting voice work of Isle of Dogs, where the entire ensemble is perfectly in sync to Anderson’s tone while adding their own distinct flavors; and the complicated multifaceted personalities in Who We Are Now; Further Honorable Mentions to Leave No Trace’s casual and affecting evocation of community; Lean on Pete’s hypnotic one-off characters and memorable fixtures in Charlie’s life; Ava’s coterie of students, teachers, and family members; Eighth Grade’s mix of middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults trying to understand them; and Game Night’s energetic besties. 

Sound Mixing

  • Hereditary, Lewis Goldstein & co.Subtler and more insidious than A Quiet Place at utlizing a creepy score, heavy silences, and atmospheric scares; smart about when to *pop*
  • Sorry to Bother You, Fred Runner & co.A grab bag of effects – the white voices, a zany score, one-off gags, parties and protests – that leave their marks without overdoing it
  • We the Animals, David “Lion” Thompson – Adept making diegetic sounds and dialogue feel full while adding fantastical embellishments and making the animated sequences hit
  • You Were Never Really Here, Paul Davies & co.Oppressive volume that shoves you into Joe’s headspace, managing a nasty score, ambient wailing, and diegetic disturbances

  • Zama, Guido Berenblum & co.Derealizes itself by making natural life on the island sound artificial, buzzing quietly in our heads, and knowing when to crescendo

Honorable Mentions to the potent, subjective soundscapes of A Ciambra and Eighth Grade; the weaving of off-the-wall scores to unusual material in Gemini, Thoroughbreds, and How to Talk to Girls at Parties; and the action soundscapes of Black Panther and Mission Impossible: Fallout.

Supporting Actress

  • Frances Conroy, The Tale – Evokes a long, troubled life by neither playing mysterious nor reducing her responses to just Jenny, making us wonder without giving answers
  • Mackenzie Davis, TullyPlays a specific person inside a condensed idea through unforced sunniness, unexpected comedic timing, and a cheery no-bullshit attitude

  • Danai Gurira, Black PantherBone-deep sense of authority and propriety thrown into genuine turmoil in the face of tragedy; nails her jokes

  • Bahar Noohian, AvaMakes her character’s destructive overreactions towards her daughter and her husband plausible through layers of fear and anger

  • Alexandra Shipp, Love, SimonEasygoing energy, open-faced reactions, and genuine goodness earns our sympathy without flattening her character

Extremely Honorable Mention to Sara Sevigny in Rogers Park, whose multifaceted responses give valuable depth to a tough, vituperative character a lesser actress might’ve abandoned. Further Honorable Mentiones to Judith Roberts as the ailing, unaware mother and the lone bright spot in Joe’s life in You Were Never Really Here; Amanda Seyfried’s melancholic yet resilient churchgoer in First Reformed; and Emily Robinson’s sincere, animated, and cheerful new friend in Eighth Grade.

Supporting Actor

  • Simon Russell Beale, The Death of Stalin – Maybe a lead?; definitely dexterous making a monstrous, Machiavellian, finally pathetic character funny and unexpectedly pitiable
  • Steve Buscemi, Lean on PeteA crabapple with a life completely independent of Charlie’s, taking some interest in the kid without making him a real priority
  • Philip Ettinger, First Reformed – Leaves a trail of dangerous and ultimately hopeless despair for Toller and the audience to follow from an unkooky and intelligent source
  • Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade Layers his different and desperate attempts to connect with his daughter but shows such sincerity in his love and admiration towards her
  • Alex Wolff, HereditaryWhose grief overwhelms into a fugue state, making his stabs against the world and signs of life count; Cries like Sherilyn Fenn screams

Extremely Honorable Mention to Koudous Seihon in A Ciambra, whose easygoing charisma makes his character a welcome presence without delineating if he’s a trustworthy one until the right moment, and whose exclusion from this list is one of my least favorite omissions anywhere on this ballot. Further Honorable Mentions to Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, who gifts his villain with a legitimate POV for taking over Wakanda, poignant sympathy, and dangerous determination; Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You as an entertaining agent of chaos whose manic energy makes sure he never hits just one note; Logan Miller in Love, Simon, who makes his blackmailing, somewhat oblivious drama queen even more discomforting by finding an uncomfortable, sincere potential for real friendship with Abby and SimonHugh Grant for creating such a funny and endlessly charming criminal master of disguises in Paddington 2; and Alex Lawther in Ghost Stories, making the paranoid terror of his haunting victim even scarier than the Devil himself.

Original Screenplay

  • A Ciambra, Jonas Carpagnino – Deeply contextualized by its characters and communities, moves like a racehorse, and makes its changing stakes and shifting relationships count
  • Ava, Sadaf Foroughi – Scalpel-sharp precision at delineating character, shaping narrative, and creating forceful dialogue that serves Foroughi’s ambitious themes
  • Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson & co. – Delineates a host of characters while complicating a classical narrative structure in sizable and subtle ways, and doing so hilariously
  • Summer 1993, Carla Simón – As spontaneous as individual scenes feel, the structure still feels defined and the whole culminates powerfully without suggesting a resolution
  • Tully, Diablo Cody – Knows when to specify her characters and story beats while honing in on universal ideas; impressively keeps adding layers

Extremely Honorable Mentions to the discourses on Catholic guilt, capitalistic complicity, and wailing against genuine hopelessness in First Reformed; the disintegration of family and study of how trauma is passed down from parent to child in Hereditary; and the unflinching examination of yourself and people you thought you knew, in the past and the present in The Tale; with further Honorable Mentions to the twists in plot and characterization in Gemini; the updates to old tropes and entertainingly broad strokes in Blockers; the questions of morality and unexpected divergences in Who We Are Now; and the loosely defined but stable outlines of theme and trajectory in Western

Adapted Screenplay

  • Black Panther, Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole – Even within a basic Marvel structure, infuses their story and characters with real political stakes and doesn’t settle for easy answers
  • Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci & co. – Mordant, flippant comedy a risky choice for such a repulsive setup, but effectively delineates its characters, shifts its tone, and adds potent historical stakes
  • Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh – Initially plays as a structurally loose series of encounters but persuasively builds from one moment to the next, never losing sight of its characters
  • Sorry to Bother You, Boots RileyFit to bursting with ideas about race, capitalism, and exploitation of workers, wrapped in a zany satire that never loses its edge
  • Zama, Lucretia MartelDense deconstruction of colonial fantasies while laughing at those who hold them, adding its own sense of tragedy and malaise

Honorable Mentions to the sturdy and impressively textured but not unfamiliar trajectories of Disobedience and Leave No Trace, both brought to greater heights by direction and performance but worthy of respect in their own rights; and the brutal, compact script of You Were Never Really Here

Score

  • Annihilation, Geoff Barrows & Ben SalisburyBoldly connects to the intellectually and emotionally grandiose charges of the film in a way none of its other aspects do
  • Gemini, Keegan DeWittAble to accommodate any instrument it wants and convey every emotion it needs with astonishing success and inventiveness
  • Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat – Trades in Japanese idioms without Orientalist bullshit; instead, it’s an inventive score that’s equally affecting with whimsy, danger, and heart
  • Ocean’s 8, Daniel Pemberton – A jazzy, snazzy, genuinely offbeat creation that gives the film its most entertaining stab at originality
  • Thoroughbreds, Erik Friedlander – Forgoes the niceties of the characters to connect to their unexpressed and inaccessible intensities with rumbling, unusual flourishes

Honorable Mentions to the lush, full, and moving score of Disobedience; the frightening intensity of You Were Never Really Here; and the pastiche communication with 70’s punk and 70’s scifi in How to Talk to Girls at Parties.

Costume Design

  • Black Panther, Ruth CarterAs specific and evocative in imagining entire tribes as she is in characterizing the main players; Richly creative and full of color
  • How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Sandy Powell – For youthful, eccentric choices with the punks and deliciously bonkers ones with the aliens, appropriate to the era and the movies from it
  • Paddington 2, Lindy HemmingWhere Grant’s delightful disguises are best in show, displaying equal whimsy with the prison uniforms and the Brown’s wardrobes
  • Sorry to Bother You, Deirdra Elizabeth GovanA weirder fulfillment of the Roman Israel outfits – fitting its lead man in an idiosyncratic wardrobe and having fun tailoring everyone else
  • Zama, Julio Suárez – Heightened takes on colonial wares that are equal levels of plausible and strange, colorful and flat, without looking too lavish

Production Design

  • Annihilation, Mark DigbyMakes its setting plausible as both a former city and the uninhabitable ruin it is now, spooky and suggestive of greater forces
  • Black Panther, Hannah BeachlerHas a blast with Wakanda’s singular afrofuturist designs while making it plausible, and without neglected the outside world
  • Hereditary, Grace Yeun – Adds textures to the Graham’s house that makes it and its inhabitants more specific than allegorical, more dolls in a diorama than autonomous beings
  • Isle of Dogs, Paul Herrod and Adam StockhausenDraws from multiple eras – real and not – to make Megasaki its own. Even better with unanthropomorphic dogs, Trash Island’s eye-catching decay
  • Sorry to Bother You, Jason Kisvarday – Broad strokes on familiar spaces packed with odd details, from the mundane to the disgustingly wealthy; original takes on familiar spaces

Special Acknowledgements to:

  • They, which I’m not entirely sure got an official U.S. release this year but is free to stream on Kanopy, clocks in at about 80 minutes, and is a completely wonderful story about a young trans character trying to figure out or not figure out their identity at a moment where a decision is fast approaching – if you’re steamed I left off this but it included The Tale I’ll say it’s cinematography, script, sound design, and editing were all runners-up in those respective categories. It’s beautifully made, and has the depth and grace of a short story you feel the protagonist might write.
  • Saturday Church, which is also an 80-ish minute LGBT film on Kanopy, this one about a black boy trying to explore sexuality gender identity while keeping it under wraps in a Christian household, and who befriends a couple of trans women and their friends at an LGBT youth shelter. It’s an uneven but deeply moving experience that feels like the first film I’ve seen that’s responding to the example set by Moonlight, particularly in its often impressive cinematography.
  • Dark Money, which would have been on a Documentary shortlist if I had seen enough docs by now to make one up, and is a galvanizing experience I highly recommend
  • Disobedience and First Reformed, which placed in so many runner-up lists that I wish I had found more room for them somewhere, even knowing that they’re being championed well enough by plenty of people I admire, and which I plan on getting a second crack at now that they’re online.
  • BlacKkKlansman, which I loved walking out of the theater and immediately added to several lineups but have been endlessly reconsidering in the face of criticisms that pointed out plenty of qualms I’d had watching it. It’s got energy for days, but it still feels slapdash in some areas and not developed enough in others. The Kwame Ture sequence is one of the best in any movie, and if it turns out I love it again when I see it a second time I’ll feel rightfully silly for leaving it off here. But I’d rather wait and see.

Films I’ve Seen For This Ballot:

  • A Ciambra: A-
  • Annihilation: B-
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp: C+
  • Ava: A-
  • Avengers: Infinity War*: C-
  • Before We Vanish: C
  • BlacKkKlansmanB
  • Black Panther*: B+
  • Blockers: B
  • Dark Money: B+
  • Deadpool 2: C+
  • The Death of Stalin*: B
  • Disobedience: B
  • Eighth Grade: B+
  • First Reformed: B+
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: F
  • Game Night: B-
  • Gemini: B
  • Ghost Stories: B
  • Hereditary*: B+
  • How to Talk to Girls at Parties: B-
  • Incredibles 2: C
  • Isle of Dogs*: A-
  • Lean on Pete: A-
  • Leave No Trace: B+
  • Love, Simon: C+
  • Mission Impossible: Fallout: B
  • November: B
  • Ocean’s 8: B-
  • Paddington 2: B
  • The Party: D
  • Pope Francis, A Man of His Word: C+
  • A Quiet Place: C+
  • RBG: B
  • The Road Movie*: B-
  • Rogers Park: B
  • Saturday Church: B-
  • Summer 1993: A-
  • Sorry to Bother You: B
  • The Tale: B+
  • (They: B+)
  • Thoroughbreds: B
  • Tully: A-
  • Vampire Clay: C-
  • We the Animals: B+
  • Western: A
  • Where is Kyra?: C
  • Who We Are Now: B
  • A Wrinkle in Time: C+
  • You Were Never Really Here: B+
  • Zama: A

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