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My Favorite Directorial Efforts of 2018

I post these lists every year. They’re coming late this year, mostly owing to the scheduling of the rest of the season. Shit happens. This will be the first one you get, because the next couple days are all Oscar nominations. And then I’ll do all the performances once those are done, and then after that it’s basically category preview time.

The point of these lists is the same as when I post the Underrated and Underseen films of the year — I just want people to discover cool stuff. I mean, sure, a lot of the time we’re all in agreement on what the best stuff is, but you might look at my list and see something you wouldn’t anywhere else. And then you seek that out and think, “That was really great. I gotta tell people about that.” That’s the goal. It’s all about seeing cool things and sharing cool things.

Today I’m going over the directorial efforts I loved. As I say, they’re in order, but they’re not really in order. The numbers don’t matter. I liked these efforts the most. And it’s just about what I liked, not about awards or anything else.

Here are my favorite directorial efforts of 2018:

1. Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk

I am in awe of this man. Moonlight is the kind of film that builds a career. He didn’t have to do anything for the next three films and coast off of that. But he came right back with a film that’s as good as that film. And his direction of it might arguably be better than Moonlight’s. It’s an incredible, staggering piece of work. I’m shocked that he’s not on every single Best Director list I’ve seen. There’s a decent chance he’s not even nominated on Tuesday. This movie is like four movies in one. He’s got the strength and conviction as a filmmaker to allow people’s faces to tell the story. And to stop his movie in the middle for a ten minute monologue and know that he won’t derail the rest of the film — I think this is the best directed film of the year.

2. Damien Chazelle, First Man

And here we are again. Jenkins and Chazelle, just like 2016. Here, they’re flip-flopped. Still, amazing how these two seem forever linked because of that year. Still, Chazelle is the one for me where — he took what might have been deemed a “safe” choice for a followup to La La Land. Literally anyone could have made this movie and it would have been solid. But he really elevated it into something I haven’t seen before. I’ve said it a bunch — this is the first film that really shows the balls it takes to go into space. Maybe only The Right Stuff gets where this goes, and even this I feel goes further. Because you hear and feel every single nut and bolt in those rickety planes and it really shows you the stones required to want to do something like that. And the notion of having Gosling carry the film with silence and stillness and just eye movements, basically — it’s a really bold move that takes what could have been a throwaway biopic and makes it something really special.

3. Lynne Ramsey, You Were Never Really Here

The second film on this list that really could have been much more generic had this director not made it. Because this movie is — it could have been a Liam Neeson movie. Guy saves girls from sex slavery. You’ve seen variants of this before, and you can already guess all the tropes. But within five minutes of this movie starting, you immediately know — this is not that movie. And thank god for that. The angle she took on this movie is so great, and really elevated it from standard genre fare into one of the best movies of the year.

4. Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Cuaron is a master filmmaker and he really made his masterpiece with this one. It’s a stunning piece of work. I love that he chose to shoot the whole film in masters, and let the frame breathe, like a painting unfolding in real time. He’s probably going to win his second Oscar for this, and with good reason. It’s an incredible piece of work.

5. Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

When Spike makes them good, he makes them really good. This is a movie I had no expectations for in January. I figured, “Oh, that could be fun,” but didn’t expect nearly what I got with this one. It’s such an amazing job. From starting with Gone With the Wind, to the fact that he makes it both a drama and a comedy at the same time, drawing you in with humor and then really hitting you in the gut with those final moments. This is a confrontation of the audience that the audience is complicit in until they realize the message being given to them. I loved it. I think Spike is one of those filmmakers who never gets his proper due (and some of that might be of his own doing at times), but here he makes something that’s almost undeniable. This might be his most important film since Do the Right Thing. He puts a musical number in it, too! It really takes a steady hand to know you can pull off a musical number and everything else he does in this but still know that you’re gonna get them in those last five minutes.

6. Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born

I fell in love with the direction of this movie in the first 90 seconds. Once Cooper went out on stage for that first song and the camera moved around, never giving me that shot I expected, which is the, “Look at me, big star, playing his own guitar, look how cool I look,” I knew that it was gonna be a special film. Because the direction matched the character and the story. Here was a director who is also acting in his film but has complete dedication to the story he’s telling rather than making himself look good. It’s very impressive for someone who hasn’t directed a feature film before.

7. Steve McQueen, Widows

Why is this movie so unheralded? This dude almost won Best Director for 12 Years a Slave and his follow up is just an afterthought to people. I get that it seems like just another thriller. But trust me, when you see this, he elevates this to social commentary and something way more than just a log line. One of the most stunning moments in the film is something you might not even notice. There’s a scene where Colin Farrell leaves a photo op and gets in an SUV. And he and his assistant/girlfriend are having a conversation in the car, and the whole time the camera is mounted on the hood of the car and never moves. You never see them or inside the car. But as the car drives, you see them go from basically the poor/black part of town into where he lives. And it’s like, ten blocks, maybe. The whole thing takes about two minutes. But it’s an incredible piece of filmmaking that you wouldn’t see in another director’s version of this movie. He shows you everything you need to know about this town and the people in it without ever focusing on it. That’s directing.

8. Jason Reitman, The Front Runner

Reitman is a filmmaker who made his career not looking like a director. That is to say — he’s one of those guys, like a lot of the old pros of the studio system, who tried not to make it look like he directed his movies. He let the movies be themselves and wanted to be the “invisible hand” guiding it. I couldn’t tell you more than one or two “showy” shots in one of his movies. But here, he starts with a Robert Altman-esque tracking shot that introduces all the different elements of the film in the first four minutes. And it takes you by surprise but also perfectly fits the context of the story. This is, you think, a story about a guy who was running for president and then was undone by a scandal. But really, it’s about more than that. It’s about the rise of tabloid media, the notion of public life vs. private life, the course of politics over the past 30 years, and even to an extent, the Me Too movement. There’s a lot going on here, and this is a film that is directed in a way that you can view it through whatever lens you want and still get something out of it. It’s a really impressive piece of work. I don’t think Reitman gets enough credit as a director, but it’s also because he kind of disappeared for five years there. This is one of the more impressive efforts of the year and absolutely no one is talking about it.

9. Luca Guadagnino, Suspiria

I knew I’d like this film, but I didn’t know what Guadagnino would do with it. And holy shit, does he do something with it. I never thought I’d go in for a Suspiria remake and come out with a movie about sisterhood and trauma and a post-Holocaust political message. But hey, it’s what we have. And I loved every minute of it. Also, the “bone-breaking” scene is the one that got all the press before it came out, but that third act — jesus christ. That shit sticks with you. I know this movie is kind of messy and there were times where I questioned certain camera movements and things, but it definitely evokes a feeling, and I think I just like that Guadagnino had the unabashed conviction to just go for it and tell the story he wanted to tell.

10. Panos Cosmatos, Mandy

This is another one where — a different director does not make this movie. This is a tone poem. I mean, sure, it’s a fucked up tone poem, but this really just drops you in a mood and then just brings you through the different movements in a glorious acid trip of a movie. This is one of those where — it’ll stick with you once you’ve seen it. I love what Cosmatos did here. It goes from sublime to just gory as shit to, “What the fuck is going on with the Cheddar Goblin and that dude in the gimp suit?” I can’t explain this, but it’s also one of the most memorable efforts of the year, and one that ought to be seen by more people, because it’s 100% dedicated to what it’s trying to do, and it stands out more than almost anything else from 2018.

11. Julian Schnabel, At Eternity’s Gate

This movie is like a fever dream. What I love about it is that it’s not a narrative so much as a feeling. It just embodies the man rather than telling a story about him. It’s beautiful. Schnabel is one of those directors who doesn’t work often, but when he does, the result is something special.

12. Gaspar Noe, Climax

Gaspar always gives you something to talk about. Irreversible, Enter the Void, Love. His last movie was basically a porno. This movie is a descent into hell. It’s an acid trip to hell. It starts with a one-shot, eight minute dance sequence that’s absolutely spellbinding, and then takes off from there. By the end, you’ve literally descended into hell on earth. I remember watching this and realizing I hadn’t physically moved a part of my body for over 30-40 minutes. That’s how much this movie draws you in. It’s a hell of an effort, especially considering they shot it over only two weeks and didn’t really have a script. It’s all just visuals.

13. Coarlie Fargeat, Revenge

This might be the most badass movie of 2018. It’s a simple rape-revenge movie, the kind of which you might go, “Why do I want to see that?” But then you watch it, and Coarlie Fargeat directs the absolute shit out of this, and turns it into something almost mythical. There’s a section of this movie that is basically The Revenant. And then the revenge part is just so badass that you wanna stand up and cheer. And it makes it so bloody. All the violence feels completely realistic. Little things that you may gloss over in another movie are huge here. And the third act — there’s so much blood that it becomes operatic. And the colors — this is so colorful this movie. I loved everything about it. This is an incredible piece of work.

14. Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You

It’s the single most unique film of 2018. And here’s a film that should have the most niche audience, be super indie, and yet, somehow it became a crossover hit and seemed to be pretty recognized throughout the culture almost immediately. But also, on a technical level — Riley made a movie set in its own universe. This movie has its own rules that it plays by, and it just works. He completely controls this world and gives it to you in a way that you don’t question it. Even when the movie takes its turn about an hour in, you’re just like, “Okay, I guess we’re doing this now. Bring it on.” That’s a testament to the direction. There’s definitely a Day of the Locust kind of vibe to this, which speaks to the level of satire this film is aiming for and the level it manages to hit. It’s really impressive.

15. Orson Welles, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

I saved the final spot for Welles, because the man is a cinematic master, and here we are, graced with his final film, forty years after he shot it. And you know what? It’s great. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying Welles did things with the camera (and lighting and editing) that people just weren’t doing. He pushed the boundaries of cinema. And truly, I think what he did here is some really great stuff. It’s someone who began with a film so far ahead of its time that he could have just rested on that and coasted for the rest of his career. But he didn’t. He kept pushing. And this is proof that he wasn’t just comfortable with the conventions of cinema as they were and kept wanting to try more. To go further. I think that’s worth a spot on this list.

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