Many of my favorite movies that received their Chicago theatrical premieres in 2018 expanded my sense of cinema history. Whether they were rediscoveries from past eras (such as the first and seventh films on my list) or new films by old masters (such as the films to hold the fourth- and tenth-place rankings), these works reminded me of how expansive the art form has always been in terms of visual beauty and social insight. As usual, I’m particularly grateful to the city’s independent programmers, who are responsible for bringing most of these movies to town. Keep up the good work, all of you.
1. L’Enfant Secret Philippe Garrel’s masterwork—a dreamlike meditation on doomed romance, inspired by the French writer-director’s relationship with pop singer Nico—premiered in France in 1982 but received its first Chicago screening only this year, as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Garrel retrospective in May. It’s one of those rare movies that exists in a category all its own, bridging narrative and nonnarrative cinema in ever-inventive ways. Indeed, it feels as though every shot is challenging what movies can do, how they can convey emotions, and the nature of thought. But despite being formally unusual, it’s always emotionally accessible if not emotionally overwhelming.
2. Zama Lucrecia Martel‘s first movie in nearly a decade breaks new ground for Argentina’s greatest filmmaker. It’s her first literary adaptation, her first period piece, and her first film to center on a male protagonist. Yet this blackly funny—and ultimately haunting—examination of colonial history is thoroughly characteristic in its brilliant manipulation of physical space (every frame feels at once intimate and disorienting) and in its mysterious, arhythmic sense of narrative development.
3. Ash Is Purest White and Bitter Money (tie) Jia Zhang-ke and Wang Bing are mainland China’s greatest working filmmakers, and these features find each director at the top of his game. Jia’s Ash (which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in October) moves fluidly from naturalism to melodrama to tell an epic story of a wayward, romantically frustrated woman over roughly 15 years. Wang’s Money (which played at Facets Multimedia in the spring) is a hypnotic documentary about degradation, both personal and cultural, in a textile mill town; it confirms that Wang is perhaps the most important nonfiction filmmaker anywhere in the world.
4. 24 Frames and The Arboretum Cycle (tie) Beautiful and enveloping experimental features by master artists, these films inspired reverence for nature and cinema simultaneously. The final feature by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, 24 Frames (which played at the Film Center in February) employed subtle cinematic trickery to make still photographs seem to come to life. In The Arboretum Cycle (which played at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema in September), American avant-gardist Nathaniel Dorsky found transcendental beauty in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the nuances of 16-millimeter cinematography.
5. Good Manners Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s staggeringly original Brazilian fantasy (which premiered at the Chicago Latino Film Festival in March) depicts a convergence of lesbians, werewolves, and singing street beggars in São Paolo, but the most surprising thing about it is that it’s all about love—the only other monster movie I can compare it to is James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Also, every movie made in color should aspire to the vividness that Rojas and Dutra (working with the great cinematographer Rui Poças, who also shot Zama) achieve here.
6. Roma If Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men seemed to grow organically out of the social insights of Y Tu Mamá También, then this spellbinding autobiographical drama seems to expand upon the reflections on inner and outer space that Cuarón first explored in Gravity. This has plenty to say about class relations too, but what’s most impressive about it is how the Mexican writer-director-cinematographer-editor transforms even his political observations into the stuff of big-screen spectacle.
7. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day Who knew that Rainer Werner Fassbinder had ever been so cheerful? With this recently rediscovered TV miniseries (which first aired between 1972 and ’73 and received its Chicago premiere at the Film Center in May), the trailblazing German writer-director delivered an upbeat (but still incisive) saga of a working-class Cologne family. It’s unlike anything else in his monumental filmography—to watch it is to discover a side of Fassbinder you might never have known existed.
8. The Commuter and The Hate U Give (tie) My favorite American studio films of the year both ponder the same theme: how do we define ourselves morally in life-or-death situations? The Commuter, the best film to date by Spanish genre director Jaume Collet-Serra, took the issue to abstract extremes, employing Hitchcockian formal playfulness, while The Hate U Give, a deeply moving adaptation of Angie Thomas’s young-adult novel, is grounded in keen observations of such topical subjects as police brutality and racial segregation in American cities.
9. The Third Murder Japanese writer- director Hirokazu Kore-eda may have won the Palme d’Or this year for Shoplifters, but I prefer this 2017 legal drama, which played at the Film Center and Facets late this summer. The film showcases Kore-eda’s skillful sense of characterization and ethical inquiry, asking viewers to think long and hard about the meaning of justice.
10. Rainbow: A Private Affair This year marked the passing of Vittorio Taviani, one half (with his brother Paolo) of the great Italian filmmaking duo behind Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars. Sad as the news was, it was reassuring to know that he went out on such a strong note. This terse and visually breathtaking period drama (which played in the European Union Film Festival in March) about a WWII resistance fighter facing certain doom as he enters enemy territory is a commanding consideration of mortality and historical responsibility. It’s one of the Tavianis’ best.
Runners-up (in order of preference):
Bisbee ’17; Araby; Personal Problems; Non-Fiction; The Woman Who Left; Diane; Minding the Gap; Scarred Hearts; Sorry to Bother You and Support the Girls (tie); The Mule; Rodin; Good Luck; Claire’s Camera and The Day After (tie); Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot; Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc v