It's that time of the year again. Things are winding down for everyone. Winter is here. It's dark early and the weather absolutely sucks.

It's also awards' season in film. That means a wrap up of the year with the top 18 films we've seen, in no particular order… These are the ones that grabbed us, made us think and feel, and entertained us the most thoroughly.

1. Sorry to Bother You

Boot Riley’s (yep, the man who did the music behind movies like Superbad) feature film directorial debut is ruthlessly sharp surrealist political and social satire for the ages.

In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.

What results is keenly aware savage satire against culture, government, and the American economy that is very much a meditation on Trump – as the main antagonist is publicly revealed to be a downright horrible individual yet too many people still love him.

The cinematography and effects add a brilliant touch of surrealism and the “white voice” for African-American actors (Patton Oswalt and David Cross) when they’re in a corporate setting is an absolutely brilliant touch that goes straight at a quintessentially American variant of hypocrisy.

Catch Sorry to Bother You on VOD now.

2. Hereditary

With a standout performance from Toni Collette as the mentally disintegrating matriarch of a family with a dark secret, Ari Aster’s directorial debut is the horror film of the year.

What makes Hereditary so damn potent is undoubtedly the slow burn pace coupled with plenty of tiny windows into the psyche of Collette’s character. Is she murderous and mad? Or murderous and possessed?

While the ending left me wanting, the rest of the film more than made for it. Check out my longer analysis of the psychology of Hereditary here.

Catch Hereditary now on VOD.

3. The Other Side of the Wind

Orson Welles’s final film is one that should not be missed by any self-respecting cinephile, The Wind was recently resurrected by a team of Welles fans including directors Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola and Edgar Wright.

A very stream of consciousness study of a director trying to finish his final film, The Other Side of the Wind really reminded me of David Lynch’s Inland Empire or Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard in just how meta it really is. Welles himself does much of the director’s voice through the film’s first part because John Huston was not yet at the Arizona production set.

Yes, that is the John Huston: prolific actor and director – a maverick and wily old devil in life – behind such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Welles said had John Huston not accepted the part here, that it was only Welles himself who could have also played it. No one else alive could have.

Check out my interview here with Robert Forster (who stars in entry 9 on this list) for the zen-like film-making lesson Houston gave Forster while filming his debut, 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye.  

Peter Bogdanovich also stars in The Other Side of the Wind as a film critic who became a director. This is interesting in itself because it very closely parallels Bogdanovich’s individual history as a critic turned director – which happened after The Wind was made. Look for other ‘70s film luminaries like Dennis Hopper in Welles’s last film too.

Catch The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.

4. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is the making-of documentary behind The Other Side of the Wind (number 3 on this list). It’s truly extraordinary in being the story of the final saga in a titan of the film industry’s life: Orson Welles – although Welles said it wasn’t autobiographical.

Welles had a hell of a time making The Wind. This included losing investor funding and the film’s final prints being locked in a French vault because of some political hanky panky shortly before Welles passed away in 1985.

Catch They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (and The Other Side of the Wind) on Netflix now.

5. BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is an incredible story that will have you cheering throughout: not just because of the rightness of Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) cause in infiltrating the Klan, but because it really is a well-constructed tale of good versus evil. I actually laughed pretty loud at the end when Stallworth finally tells David Duke (a perfectly smarmy Topher Grace) that he’s black over the phone: an absolutely amazing “fuck you” to the racist Klan leader which fits well in the film’s narrative although it didn’t really go down that way. Director Spike Lee absolutely delivers again on this based on a true story tale.

Check out my write up on BlacKkKlansman and a movie that influenced it, D.W. Griffith’s profoundly racist magnum opus The Birth of a Nation (1915) here – this history is essential to fully understanding BlacKkKlansman. A full print of The Birth of a Nation is included at the link.

Catch BlacKkKlansman on VOD now.

6. Pickings

Like 1945’s Detour, Pickings is a fantastic example of what happens when a director sticks to his singular vision on a project with little money and succeeds in making a kick ass film that keeps the audience watching and wanting more.

Pickings is a modern noir western starring Elyse Price as the head of the Dames Gang of bank robbers as she attempts a new life, buying the titular bar and dealing with mob baddies as they mess with her and her family. The cinematography and acting in this overlooked gem are pretty incredible.

Check out my interview with director Usher Morgan here and catch Pickings on VOD now.

7. Outlaw King

Outlaw King is director David Mackenzie’s (Hell or High Water) take on the saga of Scottish ruler Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine).

The acting and Mackenzie’s deft hand as a director make this one to see. What really sets it apart too is also what it is not: Outlaw King is not romanticized history in the vein of Braveheart (its natural point of comparison, considering William Wallace fought the English with Robert the Bruce). It shows history in all the blood, betrayal, and moral grey areas that occurred. Mackenzie, in fact, called it “anti-fantasy filmmaking”.

Check out my pictorial interview with Outlaw King star Tony Curran here. Catch Outlaw King on Netflix.

8. Mandy

An eloquently-told, surrealist, bloody-as-hell revenge flick, the part of Red was really the part Nic Cage was born to play: frenetic, focused, a horrific, zen-like nirvana, as he seeks out and disposes of the vicious cult who murdered, then torched the titular love of his life (Andrea Riseborough).

Bill Duke does an incredible job as Red’s backwoods, military expert buddy Caruthers – check out my interview with him here. Linus Roache also does very well with the Charlie Manson-esque cult leader part of Jeremiah Sand.

Yet what will also really capture your attention in this destined to be cult classic (pun intended) gem is director Panos Cosmatos’s absolutely stunning camera work and pacing. The scene where the cult abducts Mandy and Sand is essentially explicating on his brand of crazy before her was especially exquisite; the craft Cosmatos showed in blending their faces honestly reminded me of Rudolph Maté and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in the absolutely exquisite attention to cinematic detail.

Check out Mandy on VOD now.

9. What They Had

What They Had is a touching story of dogged dedication to the ones we love, despite the ravages of time and disease. Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko really gave her heart (and showed a sophistication of technique that was pretty incredible for a beginning director) in this most exquisite debut film using her own story for inspiration.

Robert Forster plays a family patriarch dealing with his wife’s (played by Blythe Danner) decline into dementia (catch our interview with Forster here). Meanwhile, his children – played by Michael Shannon and Hilary Swank – are doing their absolute best to convince him that it’s time for mom to go to a place where they can really take care of her. What follows is funny, touching, and absolutely bittersweet.

Catch What They Had in select theaters now from Bleecker Street

10. Vice

Writer/director Adam McKay tells the story of Yale dropout turned Wyoming Congressman turned Halliburton CEO turned George W. Bush’s (a fantastic Sam Rockwell) Vice President Dick Cheney (played by a man prone to extreme physical transformations – see The Machinist and American Hustle as examples of the two extremes – Christian Bale). Vice is a biography of Cheney interspersed with plenty of sharp as a fishing hook and deadly as Cheney’s misdirected shotgun, political satire – most of which is likely tinged with more truth than fiction.

What emerges is a scary as hell tale of D.C. amorality that would make Machiavelli blush, yet should be seen by every American as the lesson in abusive power that it fundamentally is.

Catch Vice in theaters now.

11. A Quiet Place

John Krasinski’s horror debut is one that really should be watched as the experiment that it fundamentally is – read more about that here. The premise is really perfect because so much of what more standard horror fare is is really auditory. So what happens when you have a film that fundamentally revolves around that element here?

Not the top horror flick of the year, but a hell of a lot of fun as the experiment it is. Catch A Quiet Place on VOD now.

12. Capernaum

In terms of foreign language cinema this year (and even English-language fare), Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum truly stands head and shoulders above the rest in its charm and its profundity. This is a movie that will change you.

Capernaum is the saga of Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea) who is a 12 year-old (we think, the film stresses that his true age isn’t known for certain because of the poverty he was born into) serving time in a Lebanese jail for a violent crime. Zain seeks to rectify the cycle of abuse he endured by suing his parents for giving him life.

Capernaum is a heavy film by nature, absolutely uncompromising in its vision of the poverty it shows. Yet, never will you see such heart amidst such despairing conditions – Zain for instance is surly (you would be too if you had his history), witty in his profanity-laced observations, but oh so loving when he is around people like his sister Sahar (played by Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) or the child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who comes into his life. Capernaum attacks these issues with an intelligence and heart unparalleled by any foreign film this year.

Read about writer and director Labaki’s incredible filming and writing techniques and what drove her to accomplish this truly amazing project in my interview with her here.

13. Annihilation

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a sci-fi picture that will stick with you – if for no other reason than it will leave you scratching your head after first watch, but not in a bad way. You’ll be scratching your head in a way that says, I liked it but I’m not sure I understood the whole thing: must watch again. Take it from me as someone who usually doesn’t care for sci-fi: this one is worth a couple viewings.

This is some of the most cerebral sci-fi you will ever see. It honestly reminded me of two natural points of comparison: Tarkovsky’s 1971 classic Solaris and Villeneuve’s Arrival in just how much Annihilation will mess with your head (in all the right ways).

Catch it now on VOD.

14. The Last Witness

The Last Witness plays really well as a Hitchcockian thriller but about a very real occurrence in WWII: the Katyn Massacre, where the Russian Army (Stalin himself gave the order) killed 22,000 Polish officers. The United States and Great Britain sought to bury the atrocity (or blame the Nazis) after the War so as to not rock the diplomatic boat. Alex Pettyfer plays a dogged reporter following accounts of soldier suicides when he stumbles upon Katyn’s trail.

Director Piotr Szkopiak has a personal connection to Katyn – his grandfather was one of the 22,000 Poles massacred. Read my interview with Szkopiak here and catch the film now on VOD.

15. Unsane

Director Steven Soderbergh gives us a descent into nerve-shredding psychological terror in Unsane, where Claire Foy’s character begins losing her senses after admittance to a mental hospital. The entirety of Unsane being filmed via iPhone really adds to the… well… “unsane” atmosphere, making this one to see.

Catch Unsane on VOD now.

16. Mirai

Mirai is a daringly original, heart-felt and highly intelligent meditation on family told through the saga of time-traveling children. When four-year-old Kun meets his new baby sister, his world is turned upside down. Named "Mirai" (meaning "future"), the baby quickly wins the hearts of Kun's entire family. As his mother returns to work, and his father struggles to run the household, Kun becomes increasingly jealous of baby Mirai... until one day he storms off into the garden, where he encounters strange guests from the past and future - including his sister Mirai, as a teenager. Together, Kun and teenage Mirai go on a journey through time and space, uncovering their family's incredible story. But why did Mirai come from the future?  

Mirai truly deserves all the praise it is getting as a superior animated story this awards’ season. Check out my interview on it with director and animator Mamoru Hosoda here.

17. The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is a Gothic horror story based on Sarah Waters's novel of the same nameDomhnall Gleeson plays Doctor Faraday who visits the sprawling Hundreds Hall to tend to the Ayres family (the principal members of which are played by Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter). After his initial visit, very strange things begin to happen as we get a look into Faraday's psyche and the drives that motivate him.

The Little Stranger is quintessential Gothic horror in its conventions. It is a superb slow-burner, remarkable for its atmosphere and what it does not show. It is highly intelligent, character-driven horror that does not rely on fake blood or a jump-scare-a-minute to achieve the desired end of terrifying the viewer. Yet it is absolutely terrifying, through and through.

In the process of achieving that end, the film also shows itself to value its viewers. The Little Stranger does not pander and it does not sacrifice high aesthetic standards or its integrity to appeal to a lowest common denominator so often seen in big budget Hollywood fare nowadays.

Catch my interview with director Lenny Abrahamson (who directed Brie Larson to her Oscar win in Room) here.

18. You Were Never Really Here

 

Kevin Reynolds’ review of You Were Never Really Here:

“There are moments of great acting and then there are moments that are beyond superlatives. Such is Joaquin Phoenix's commanding of the screen during Lynne Ramsay's fourth feature film, adapted by Ramsay herself from a novel by Jonathan AmesYou Were Never Really Here – as the title suggests – is a story of missing elements.

Phoenix plays Joe, a monosyllabic man of physicality: a man of contradictions and a war veteran haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a specialist in a very narrow field of employment – hired by various nefarious criminals and dubious characters to track down missing girls. He leaves no trace behind, which obviously appeals to his employers. When he is hired to track down the missing daughter of a politician (Alex Manette), it initially appears that all has gone well. But soon he is sucked into a hellish environment of child prostitution, extreme violence and moral decay.

There are two crucial relationships at the heart of the film. That of Joe and the kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) and that of Joe and his elderly mother, played by Judith Roberts – with some amusing references to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Through the dual prisms of these two women, we learn about Joe's skewered morality. Ramsay is keen to reveal very little to begin with, we slowly learn of his traumatic past via hallucinogenic flashbacks to his youth. There's no guide to this narrative, you are left alone with it's sudden plunge into a dream-like world of destruction.

Comparisons with Taxi Driver (1976) have been made and are unavoidable. Though Ramsay's picture shares some of its DNA with Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, it takes those influences in a different direction. It's a character study where it's protagonist is missing, in a physical and mental sense. There's a massive amount of tension, aided by a stunning Jonny Greenwood score (his second great score of the last few months after Phantom Thread (2017) ).

Visually, Ramsay throws you into a grubby, claustrophobic world which occasionally threatens to leave its dark-hued, New York environment and head into the light, but never quite surfaces – though Joe does in one deep-dive moment that sees him submerge and then rebirth himself. One sequence, which in an action film would be depicted as a triumphant sucker-punch towards a high death count, is entirely shown via CCTV cameras, leaving you under no illusions to its brutal interpretation of reality.

Joe's avenging weapon of choice, a ball-peen hammer, gives you a character in itself. It means business. Phoenix anchors the visuals and the overwhelmingly bleak subject matter, in a performance that internalises all of the pain that's felt by Joe, his physical bulk betraying his every awkward glance and half-uttered sentence. It's his latest great performance in a run that has seen him work with some of American cinemas greatest modern voices, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze.

Acclaimed at the Cannes film festival last year with Phoenix winning best actor – indeed, it received a seven-minute standing ovation – it's perhaps too esoteric for some and ambiguous for others, but for its deceptively brief 90 minutes run-time it plunges you into the abyss and quietly grabs you by the throat. It's a quite stunning achievement."