By Alan Mattli
According to my Letterboxd account, which I’ve started cultivating in earnest in 2018, I spent roughly 378 hours of said year watching movies – 206 of them, to be exact – averaging four viewings per week. Now, as the year has drawn to a close, it’s time once again to pick my favourites from that selection, as I’ve done on The Zurich English Student for the past seven years (’11, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’15, ’16, ’17). In 2018, I landed on a comparatively modest set of 15 films, though that is the result of perhaps a more rigorous decision-making process than in the past, which led to the shutout of such high-quality offerings as Steve McQueen’s Widows, Xavier Legrand’s Custody, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
As usual, my list differs from those by the likes of David Ehrlich or Priscilla Page – to name just two of my favourite critics – in that it is missing a few essential players from the 2018–19 awards season (The Favourite, If Beale Street Could Talk) and instead includes a few familiar titles from last year’s Oscar campaign. The reason for this is the same as ever: my list adheres to the Swiss release schedule, which all too rarely coincides with its U.S. equivalent. So what follows are my top ten films that opened in Switzerland in 2018, preceded by five honourable mentions (highlighted in bold).
In the vacuum following the 2018 Oscars, from which Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful genre bender The Shape of Water emerged victorious, two films in particular dominated critical cinema discourse – for different but nevertheless related reasons, revolving around the question of who is best suited to discuss something with the assumption of authority. The works in question were Ryan Coogler’s rousing contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the black-led superhero adventure Black Panther, and Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s second piece of stop-motion animation (following 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox), which sees him showcasing the beauty of symmetrical detail yet again.
While the former is both the best entry into the MCU to date and the latest example of why the old Hollywood narrative of minority-led properties “not selling” is a racist myth, the latter has attracted criticism for its appropriation of Japanese culture as an aesthetic backdrop. I’ve written extensively about my lack of authority concerning the cultural debates surrounding these movies, so I am not going to repeat myself.
Instead, I will state for the record that, even though I would classify myself as a Marvel fan, I’ve not been invested in any of their productions as much as I have been in Black Panther, which navigates the line between science-fiction fantasy and real-life implications with astonishing ease. As for Isle of Dogs, I remain in awe of the artisanship on the screen, the wit in the script, and the political commentary between the lines.
Sticking with Black Panther‘s postcolonial bend, I’ve also been hugely impressed by Lucrecia Martel’s darkly satirical period piece Zama, based on Antonio di Benedetto’s eponymous novel. Set in colonial Argentina, the film, which I’ve reviewed here, tells the story of a mid-level district judge angling for a better position that will never come. Steeped in absurdism and European postcolonialism from Conrad to Herzog, Zama is a subtle deconstruction of the folly – and the brutal horrors – of imperial conquest.
An equally serious, though markedly less playful runner-up to my top ten films of the year is Loveless, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated tragedy about the disappearance of a young boy whose parents are both unwilling to take him in after their divorce is finalised. It’s a crushingly bleak story – possibly the year’s most emotionally taxing – whose characters, as the title promises, seem utterly devoid of love and affection for one another. And yet, it’s also wholly absorbing: a few gratuitous instances of breaking the fourth wall notwithstanding, Zvyagintsev proves himself as a master storyteller here, continuously turning the screw, sending his protagonists into a pit of despair whose true depth only becomes apparent once the narrative has taken its final, twistless, cruelly matter-of-fact turn. While this makes Loveless sound like an unspeakably callous piece of filmmaking, the opposite is true: it is a fundamentally empathetic work, arguing that without love and care, we are nothing.
Finally, 2018 saw the return of veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman to Swiss cinema screens. With Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, the 88-year-old director has made what one might be tempted to term “just another Wiseman movie” – i.e. a three-hour-plus collection of observational shots from a large institution. This assessment is largely correct, but it’s the sense of thematic urgency that makes Ex Libris feel like essential viewing. Wiseman’s extensive record of the New York Public Library – the daily bustle, the backroom deliberations, the countless subsidiary branches – is a celebration of reading, studying, and learning; of education and civic engagement; of activism and communal outreach. The film’s politics are entirely implicit but, after 190-something minutes, virtually impossible to ignore: society at large has nothing to gain from isolation and anti-intellectualism – and one would do well not to underestimate the role of public libraries in the fight against these forces.
THE TOP TEN
Criminally overlooked in Swiss cinemas when it opened in the summer, Chloé Zhao’s introspective western drama offers a quiet challenge to the ideals its parent genre has long promoted, inspired by a long history of violent American self-aggrandisement. Set in rural South Dakota and populated by non-professional actors playing somewhat fictionalised versions of themselves, The Rider tells the story of a horse trainer and rodeo rider recovering from a near-fatal accident and facing the prospect of never being able to ride again. It’s a classic set-up that plays straight into the western’s penchant for stubborn, headstrong male heroes and their never-say-die, a-man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do attitudes. But Zhao beautifully pulls the rug from under this glorification of the reckless cowboy – fully aware of why the figure has lost little of its iconicity, even so long after the last wagon train has crossed the prairie: never does her film deny the allure of the male western hero, the power he exerts over people’s imaginations. Rather, it juxtaposes him with the less toxic elements of western folklore, most notably those of family and community. With its tender and elegiac exploration of masculinity, set against a western locale plagued by economic strife, The Rider is a perceptively contemporary piece of genre cinema that is not only deeply moving but also undeniably relevant. (Read my full review.)
Combining the aforementioned Zama with Australian director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton’s latest film would make for an arresting double bill, as both ultimately make a case against the legitimacy of nations founded on a colonial system. While Lucrecia Martel achieves this by implication, Thornton all but states it outright in Sweet Country‘s hard-hitting final line: “What chance has this country got?” The film, set in the Australian outback during the early 20th century, is a searing indictment of the complacency with which Australia’s white settler population regards its own history. Chronicling the hunt for an Aboriginal couple, who killed a white man in self-defence, Thornton, in unfailingly gorgeous imagery, peels back the layers of racism and colonial entitlement that pervade his home country’s institutions and collective consciousness. These forces are contrasted with Aboriginal tradition, which prominently informs the structure of Sweet Country: in keeping with the native Australian belief system that people belong to the land, and not vice versa, the film places a lot of emphasis on the psychological consequences of physical displacement; while Thornton’s idiosyncratic direction, the fragmented chronology, and the flouting of conventional temporal markers are a successful attempt at translating the concept of “Dreamtime” into cinematic language. The result is as thematically rich as it is complex – a deeply felt and appropriately radical call to end the deafening silence surrounding the legacy of colonial pasts. (Read my full review.)
You Were Never Really Here
Although on the surface, it looks like another lone-wolf avenger story in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) or Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ 2013 novella You Were Never Really Here is in fact a potent and timely variation on the format. Joaquin Phoenix – scarred, bulky, muscular, wearing shaggy hair and a scraggly beard – plays Joe, a traumatised veteran of the Iraq War and the FBI’s human-trafficking division who now works as a gun for hire, specialising in rescuing kidnapped underage girls from secret brothels. While his work may be noble, Joe is a far cry from the heroes of Melville and Refn, flawed though they were. Ramsay, turning in a masterclass in impressionist filmmaking, makes palpable the psychological toll a lifetime of violence has taken on her protagonist in visceral fashion – helped by Joe Bini’s brilliant editing and the atonal musical soundscapes created by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. You Were Never Really Here is devoid of heroic glory: the violence, when it occurs, is both excruciating and curiously vague, with Ramsay being much more interested in the lead-up, the aftermath, and the impact than the actual event. This enigmatic concoction is not exactly a pleasant experience, as one can imagine, but it never descends into rank nihilism either. Instead, it’s a clear-eyed, strangely beautiful counterpoint to the machismo of the thriller genre that firmly establishes Ramsay as a major artist of contemporary cinema. (Read my full review.)
You can tell by the lack of an English-language title that this is the odd one out in this year’s top ten. Even though few people outside of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria will have seen Kulenkampffs Schuhe, the made-for-television documentary feature, which premiered on German TV in August and whose title translates to “Kulenkampff’s shoes,” has become a minor sensation in the German-speaking world, garnering ecstatic reviews and earning itself multiple reruns on various channels. One would hope that this prestige will eventually lead to a subtitled international version, as the film’s relevance transcends the borders of Germany, especially given the ascent of neo-fascism around the world. Coming from a deeply personal place, Regina Schilling’s Kulenkampffs Schuhe is a sweeping cinematic essay on popular TV culture in post-war Germany. Using only archival material and home movies, she reads the biography of her father, who volunteered to the Wehrmacht as a minor, in parallel with those of his contemporaries Hans Rosenthal, Peter Alexander, and the titular Hans-Joachim Kulenkampff – two Wehrmacht soldiers and one Holocaust survivor (Rosenthal) in the 1940s, kingpins of German entertainment in the 1950s and 1960s. The conclusions are stunning, as the film convincingly recontextualises their shows as weekly therapy sessions for a traumatised nation, a cultural binding agent for a population that has committed unspeakable atrocities. There is no judgement in Schilling’s script, narrated by fellow director Maria Schrader, but only honest questions about how – whether – Germans can deal with the lingering trauma of their own past. (Read my full review.)
Spike Lee’s adaptation of the memoir of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan’s Colorado Springs chapter in the early 1970s, is not a subtle movie. It features a character laying out the way in which white-nationalist ideology could find a home in the White House; it includes a scene in which KKK members and sympathisers are shouting, “America First”; and it ends by bridging the gap between America in the 1970s and America in the 2010s with a startling invocation of current events. It’s also a masterpiece – vibrant, abrasive, provocative, funny, and fuelled by righteous anger over the racial injustice that lies at the very heart of American society. Starring John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as his white stand-in at KKK chapter meet-ups, BlacKkKlansman offers poignant pushback against Hollywood’s tendency to treat racism not as a structural social force but as a both-sides issue caused solely by prejudiced individuals – most notably in in a widely misread sequence that elegantly illustrates why the ideology of “White Power” can never in good faith be equated with that of “Black Power.” 29 years after Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee offers ample proof that he is still at the top of his game, both artistically and politically. (Read my full review.)
The Florida Project
There is a cruel irony at the heart of Sean Baker’s follow-up feature to 2015’s Tangerine, his delightfully zany comedy about the misadventures of two transgender sex workers: even though The Florida Project, named after the earliest moniker of Orlando’s Disney World complex, takes place just a few miles outside of the famed theme park, to spend a day at the Magic Kingdom is but a distant dream to its protagonists – a young mother and her six-year-old daughter, played by the revelatory Brooklynn Prince, who live in a dingy motel, struggling to stave off falling into homelessness. This is, however, the only cruel thing about Baker’s film. Told mostly from the perspective of Prince’s character, who spends her days roaming the neighbourhood with her friends, playing pranks on the kindly, put-upon motel manager (played to perfection by Willem Dafoe), and huckstering perfume with her mother, The Florida Project is an empathetic, thoroughly human portrayal of poverty in the modern United States. Alexis Zabe’s gorgeous cinematography with its striking colour palette – finding pastel beauty even in the run-down houses and strip malls Prince and the other child actors frequent – and the suggestive way in which the drama slowly unfolds, never disrupting the film’s unhurried slice-of-life mood, round off an aesthetically, thematically, and emotionally resonant cinematic experience that feels utterly unique and original. (Read my full review.)
Call Me by Your Name
Sometimes it’s extremely easy to pinpoint why one loves a movie, and this is such an instance: the third instalment in what Italian director Luca Guadagnino calls his “Desire” trilogy, an adaptation of André Aciman’s acclaimed 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name, is a work of transcendental beauty. Set in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, it follows the romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the 17-year-old son of a Jewish-American archaeology professor, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s graduate student-in-residence seven years Elio’s senior. Invoking the look and feel of 1970s European art cinema, Guadagnino and veteran screenwriter James Ivory have created a film that perfectly captures the mood of a lazy, sun-drenched summer’s day. They go about their narrative – which is nonetheless rich in emotional and dramatic detail – in a leisurely fashion, dipping in and out of scenes without feeling the need to neatly conclude every single one of them. Instead, the audience is presented with a 130-minute collection of indelible moments – conversations, excursions, trysts – that brings to mind the logic of a photo album; cherished memories, looked back upon with yearning nostalgia. Much like The Florida Project, Call Me by Your Name is an experience first and foremost – a chance to fully immerse oneself in a time and place and to bear witness to and empathise with the lives of well-rounded, wholly engaging characters. This is what the movies are all about. (Read my full review.)
In the world of cinema, few things are as gratifying as seeing an eagerly awaited sophomore feature succeed, confirming that the promise a director had shown in their debut was not a fluke. In 2018, there was no better illustration for this scenario than Annihilation, Alex Garland’s confidently excellent follow-up to his impressively layered science-fiction drama Ex Machina (2014). Based on the eponymous novel by Jeff VanderMeer, this enigmatic marriage of sci-fi and Cronenbergian horror is a bold spin, both narratively and thematically, on works as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Eschewing definitive conclusions and conventional genre trappings, this tale of a group of scientists venturing into an area where an alien presence is wreaking havoc on the local flora and fauna is an intriguingly open-ended reflection on change and humanity’s myriad ways of dealing – or not dealing – with it. Be it depression, grief, self-improvement, marital turbulence, or environmental destruction – Annihilation is amenable to a wide array of thought-provoking readings without compromising a shred of its suspense or its pervasive atmosphere of unease. Although – or maybe because – the film, which premiered as a Netflix exclusive outside of North America and China, has its fair share of detractors, I would not be in the least surprised to see it grow into a classic over the coming years. Its breathtaking finale alone, which owes more to Samuel Beckett and modern dance than it does to the history of science-fiction, is worthy of being remembered as one of the most visionary sequences of 21st-century cinema. (Read my full review.)
A Ghost Story
David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is built around an image that is at once striking and disarmingly, comically unexpected. There, on the poster and in most of the film’s expertly composed shots, it stands: the most basic representation of a ghost – a figure with a bedsheet over its head, perfectly white but for two black eyeholes. The image has long since lost its potential to startle, possibly even before E.T. and Charlie Brown donned the sheet to comedic effect. It’s perfectly conceivable that it was always more of an icon anyway, a kind of cultural shorthand for something so abstract and personal – not to mention fictional – that it’s impossible to do it justice with even the most modest degree of detail. And yet, here it stands at the centre of Lowery’s remarkable drama – the ghost of a deceased musician haunting the small house he once inhabited with his girlfriend. From the shadows, he watches her grieve, move on and, ultimately, out, leaving him behind forever. It’s a slow film that won’t resonate with everyone – a nine-minute scene consisting solely of Rooney Mara scarfing down a pie will see to that – but it definitely worked its melancholy magic on me. Delivering a poignant meditation on life, love, loss, death, and the sheer immensity of time without getting tangled up in pretentious platitudes, A Ghost Story is a near-perfect exercise in narrative minimalism – a profoundly affecting mood piece that, through sheer inventiveness and boldness of vision, has already joined the ranks of my favourite films. (Read my full review.)
Professing one’s love and admiration for Roma has become a bit of a running joke during this year’s awards season, as critics left and right are falling over themselves heaping praise on Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical tribute to his childhood nanny and the Mexico City of the early 1970s. I can’t help myself, however: after seeing and being floored by the Netflix production at the Zurich Film Festival in September, I was anxiously waiting for information regarding its limited run in Swiss cinemas, because I couldn’t wait to revisit it on the big screen. When it finally opened in December, I went to see it twice in the span of three days. My conclusion remained the same: seeing Roma on the big screen feels like watching a classic of the medium – the ubiquitous comparisons to the films of Federico Fellini don’t come out of nowhere, after all. Cuarón, as director, writer, producer, editor, and cinematographer, is in full creative control here, as he chronicles a year in the life of Cleo (played by the outstanding Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous maid of a bourgeois family from Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood. Bookended by the 1970 FIFA World Cup and the infamous Corpus Christi massacre that rocked the city on 10 June, 1971, Roma is a fascinating illustration of how the private and the public spheres continually intersect, of how history both happens to and shapes the lives of ordinary people. Through brilliant camerawork, jaw-dropping set pieces, and overwhelming soundscapes that demand to be experienced on the biggest possible screen, Cuarón fashions this sensitive character study into his own take on Ulysses, telling Cleo’s story in the context of the pulsating megalopolis that surrounds her. The result is an act of pure cinema – a stunning reminder of what the art form is capable of. For this, Roma is my favourite film of 2018. (Read my full review.)