A year that brought to us a series of balanced, progressive films focusing on several marginalized groups, the best world cinema titles from 2018 will be known for diversity more than anything else. If Black Panther was the year’s most loved superhero, Spider Man: Into The Spiderverse broke new grounds with leads of African-American origins. Films like The Heiresses, The Cakemaker and Disobedience heralded the LGBTQIA flag with a lot of grace, Doblatov and A 12-Year Night gave us profound history lessons. If veteran Hirokazu Kore-eda returned with yet another family drama Shoplifters, newcomer Bo Burham successfully attempted a journey into a teenager’s mindscape in Eighth Grade. Animation was cutting edge with many terrific titles including Mirai and The Isle of Dogs. There was The Wild Pear Tree which made a powerful statement despite its long run-time whereas A Quiet Place was a crackling horror drama which was judiciously cut. Pause from Cyprus and Colette from the USA were examples of feministic topics done right in films while Capernaum from Lebanon was a masterful take on poverty and parenthood. Blaze represented the good kind of biopics as did Champions in its attempt to get the feel-good genre right.
Here goes some of the best non-Indian films, ranked in reverse order:
30. Mirai (Japan)
Director Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai might not be the most coherent films in terms of writing, however, the end product is far from ordinary. One with top-notch visualization, the final act of the film is easily amongst the more thrilling segments I have seen in cinema this year. By creating an atmosphere that is tense and thrilling, these are also instants where we tend to forget that the format is animation. The frame transitions are spectacular even by what we have already watched in first-rate Japanese 2D animation films from the past.
29. Rafiki (Kenya)
This Swahili-English film from Kenya narrates a taboo love story of two women who identify themselves as lesbians. Subtle in mood and earnestly performed, Rafiki blends the concerns of LGBTQIA with politics and other socio-economic elements in suburban Kenya.
28. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (United States of America)
It took a good amount of time to be convinced that a superhero film (in ideal terms) will make it to the year-end list. For starters, Spiderman Into The Spider Verse does innovate. Be it in the filmmaking style that ably generate suspense while narrative a story that is done-to-death, the film also contains topnotch animation that amalgamates comic book styles with advanced CGI. And the impact, unexpectedly, is beyond the regular superhero genre chills.
27. Blaze (United States of America)
A music biopic, Blaze canvasses the low-key life of the relatively lesser known country singer Blaze Foley. Directed by actor Ethan Hawke (who was fantastic as the lead in 2018’s First Reformed), the film follows an absorbing non-linear structure. Actor Ben Dickey delivering his debut act is extremely convincing and the film’s unhurried mood is more than welcome in days of loud, over-commercialized biographies of musicians.
26. The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey)
Excessive length had prevented me initially from venturing into this visually rich film directed by auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan (whose One Upon a Time in Anatolia was fantastic, by the way). I agree there is a certain amount of tedium set in by the film’s incident-filled narrative but it can’t be denied how The Wild Pear Tree brims with energy within its gloriously conversational texture. A character-driven drama (with sensational close-ups and mid-shots of its protagonist), the film is also rich in allegories – including the film’s title. The events that Sinan (a superb Aydın Doğu Demirkol) goes through can easily be equated to the sensibilities that he inculcated over a period of time. By the end, The Wild Pear Tree ends ups as a rewarding film which is bound to haunt you long after it’s over.
25. House Of My Fathers (Sri Lanka)
If a unique storyline is what elevates your film viewing experience, then this Sinhalese-Tamil film is bound to satiate your appetite. Set around two warring villages in rural Sri Lanka where the women have stopped bearing children, the story is about a unique remedy – two people of opposites sexes from each village ought to take a trip to the jungles and consummate. And here lies the trap – only one of them would return. If this brief excites you, then let me tell you that the execution doesn’t fully disappoint either. In a layered, taut screenplay, debutant director Suba Sivakuraman’s film acknowledges the country’s contemporary political fabric while also embracing its magic-realistic possibilities to perfection.
24. What They Had (United States of America)
A family is about a multitude of things. The elephant in the room notwithstanding, its members seldom cease to express their grudges, biases, fits and convictions as and when there is a chance. In debutante Elizabeth Chomko’s family drama film What They Had, the agony is caused by a tragic medical condition – dementia.
The director who makes her debut tosses the weighty subject with a veteran’s ease in this upsetting family feature that’s also humorous in an everyday kind of way.
23. Champions (Spain)
When I ventured into the film reading a two-liner synopsis, Champions appeared to be a highly ‘agreeable’ film. I wondered how a supposedly wayward football coach’s journey to sanity can spring a surprise, if at all it intended to. Gladly, I was proven wrong.
A heartwarming feature in every way, Champions spreads its goodness without necessarily manipulating our emotions. The film is laugh-out-loud funny in parts but also warms the cockles of your heart with its innate simplicity and endearing performances. One should also hand it to the writers (David Marqués, Javier Fesser) for treating disability with a lot of dignity in a film that belongs to the comedy genre.
22. Nancy (United States of America)
The perennial mood of first-time director Christina Choe’s Nancy is that of melancholy. The protagonist Nancy Freeman lives a listless, loveless life in the suburbs. One fine day she stumbles upon an opportunity to masquerade as an elderly couple’s long-lost daughter. High on atmospherics and dramatic moments, the layers that Choe packs within Nancy is astounding. I loved the tearful last reel and also the smart layer involving the cat, Paul.
21. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (United States of America)
Here’s one for the love of Westerns, and I would rank it a little above The Sisters Brothers (also from 2018) which is as captivating but slightly disoriented in structure. An anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, if you observes has the filmmakers Coen Brothers and the actors having great fun. The stories are wild, unabashed and the tints of dark humour are delicious. I didn’t tend to be repelled by the violence quotient out there because the binding thread in the stories mirror the emotions of American society, with the settings bearing crystal-clear know-how of its components. ‘Meal Ticket’ featuring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling has to be the personal pick out of all the stories.
20. Climax (France)
One that begins with a series of verite-styled interviews, filmmaker Gasper Noe’s Climax is set in the ’90s and is based on a real events. Finding a mysterious balance between dance and substance abuse, the film sets in a mood that is nauseating and also equally engaging. Presented in segments, Climax offers absurdist inter-titles and daring long takes with the latter adding greatly to the chaos. The extended dance sequence shot entirely from an overhead angle is bound to thrill you to bits. The same cannot be said about the film’s excessively gore narrative which simply refuses to tone down. There’s violence and volumes of it. Performances are uniformly impressive and the making style is sufficient enough to create atmosphere around the core theme of drug abuse.
As claustrophobic as say Luis Buñuel’s ‘An Exterminating Angel’, the film is one that keeps you involved throughout its run-time. Having said that, Climax‘s dizziness inducing tenor and cinematography style might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
19. The Hate U Give (United States of America)
Adapted from Angie Thomas’ novel by the same, The Hate U Give, at the outset, looks slightly daring to be produced by an American studio – even in this day and age. Reasserting the national sentiment around ‘Black Lives Matter’, the film follows the harrowing story of a teenager girl whose life (and perspectives) change once her fellow African-American friend gets shot.
Finely tying poverty, law negligence, bias and other vices to the central theme of racism, the film has its share of fine subtexts and a natural inclination to expose a good number of social realities. Amandla Stenberg, playing the lead role brings sharpness and believability while picturing Starr’s doubts and conscience calls.
18. Birds of Passage (Colombia, Denmark, Mexico, Germany)
Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Birds of Passage is an astute take on how Colombia’s complex political strands tangle with its notorious Marijuana trade. Divided into episodes that they prefer to call “songs”, the film sets the tone just right with the opening sequence featuring members of the Waluu tribe.
Not an easy film for the faint-hearted to sit through. Birds of Passage is extremely violent but it is also well-spun around a screenplay that screams of cultural relevance. The performances and the editing coupled with breathtaking cinematography make the film one of the year’s very best.
17. Colette (United States of America)
There is something incessantly captivating about the whole thought that before the blitzkrieg of feminism in our society, there lived a woman called Colette in the early twentieth century. One who is an amalgam of beautiful contradictions, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (played by Keira Knightley) is a woman of autonomy. She lets her husband Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars control her movements but only to the extent that she wanted him to. Directed by Wash Westmoreland, Colette chronicles the volatile early life of the iconic woman who had seen it all by the time she turned 30.
The biggest delight from Colette, nevertheless, is a towering, unabashed lead performance by Keira Knightley who owns every frame with astute poise. Notice her disregard when she uses Willy’s repartee back at him, “The hand that holds the pen writes history.” You also perceive how acquiescent Gabrielle is to Willy’s unfair, dominating ways. Yet, Knightly walks the thin line of conviction to make us identify with a woman who took eons to call it quits. This might come as a jolt in times of ‘Me Too’. However, when you look at the era and what it traditionally held for women, Gabrielle’s abstinence stands largely justified.
As the film satisfyingly ends on a high note, one wonders if it holds promise for a compelling sequel. After all, there is a lot more to Colette and what we see in the film is a precursor to what eventually went on to be a productive and momentous life. For the rest, Westmoreland’s representation of quiet rebellion and coming-of-age [also sexually] in an era of radicalism serves justice to its subject who also became a symbol of feminism, almost by accident.
16. Dovlatov (Russia) & Non-Fiction (France)
A Berlinale favourite, Dovlatov does not cover the complete life arc of its subject, Sergei Dovlatov, a celebrated author from Russia. Taking us through what happens in a span of few days in the writer’s life, this evocative feature by Aleksey German is exceedingly well-conceived – both in terms of writerly intent as well as filmmaking techniques (I loved the cinematography, especially).
Dovlatov, whose standpoint was known to be not fully non-conformist, lived an eventful life amid Russia’s rigid political landscape, we are told. While I cannot fully vouch for the film’s historical accuracy, the writer’s exasperation while dealing with personal and professional insecurities have been dealt with maturity. Milan Maric, playing the title role, is subdued yet highly effective.
Olivier Assayas’s Doubles Vies (Non-Fiction), on the other hand, was anticipated for more than one reason. First up, the decline of conventional literature post the emergence of digital mediums merits an objective discussion. Secondly, at the cost of sounding ageist, Assayas is one filmmaker who understands technology. When he puts together jargon and cheeky one-liners on Twitter, Facebook, blogging and the likes, we, for sure, know that his views are well-balanced. Similar to the way he utilized smartphone usage to create a smart psychological thriller template in Personal Shopper, Non-Fiction examines the impact of the Internet on the conventional publishing business.
Extremely talkative in demeanour, Non-Fiction is also a film that you will miss several beats of, in case you lose concentration for a few seconds. Complete with digs on social media and crazy references on film (and filmmakers including Bergman, Haneke), it unfolds primarily through its bitter writer protagonist Leonard (Vincent Macaigne). With his persistence to adopt what he calls ‘auto-fiction’ in his own publishable works, Leonard’s personal life is also bizarre with his partner Valerie (Nora Hamzawi) leaving no stone unturned in letting her displeasure known.
Filled with witty lines, delivered with astounding flair by actors who seem to understand (and enjoy) the evolved humour design, Non-Fiction balances the personal and intellectual anxieties of its characters to a T. Assayas also makes us empathize with its arguably problematic and mediocre protagonist. Never overtly pointed in the issues that it deals with, Non-Fiction makes sure to plant a smile on our faces throughout and it also ends on a notable, LOL-worthy high.
15. Capernaum (Lebanon)
One that shocks you to bits with its core story, Capernaum quickly brought back the memories of 2017’s Loveless. What if the child protagonist – though not an urchin – had the will power to sue his parents?
Talking about Nadine Labaki’s film that is told in frequent flashbacks, Capernaum is a difficult film to conceive. It could have either made sheer mockery of its cause or would otherwise have become overtly artsy. Labaki does not let the film to be either. Additionally, the film’s intent – with elements of slight disbelief in place – feels highly essential. You don’t really come across writers who think of human perspectives from an angle as stark as this – Did your parents seek your permission before bringing you into this world?
If compassion is the barometer to evaluate a film, Capernaum perhaps will top the list of 2018’s best films.
14. Green Book (United States of America)
2018 also saw the director of There’s Something About Mary, Peter Farrelly deliver a touching road film which also inspects race equations between its protagonists (Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen).
What ups the ante for this simple story is the bond the two men develop over their journey wherein the white man (Mortensen) is a guard to a celebrated musician of African-American origins (Ali). The understated ‘60s vibe is pleasant and so are the conversations. The style of filmmaking that Nick Vallelonga employs carries a classic verve and is abundant with original perspectives and a markedly progressive worldview.
13. Dogman (Italy)
A violent film that talks about a toxic friendship between two men – one a dog-groomer cum small-time drug seller and the other a seething criminal. Their bond is based on relentless fear and hate, making the film a rather difficult one to endure. Yet, with every passing frame, you would want the hero’s (Marcello Fonte) journey to be complete. We want him to finally call out on the abuse and claim his dignity back.
The finale of Dogman is vehement and merciless. Well-aware of Marcello’s desires to win goodwill from people around him, the last frame is bound to leave you speechless.
12. Pause (Cyprus)
There are times when you come across films which blow your mind with its very first act that one wishes with all our might that it doesn’t go awry in the subsequent portions. I experienced the same with director Tonia Mishiali’s debut feature Pause (Pafsi) which speaks about the harrowing life of the middle-aged Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni). The film delivers a massive blow on the face of patriarchy without explicitly referring to it. The rebellion (or the absence of it) and the ultimate victory of the protagonist is something that gorgeously mirrors the lives of many a woman living in every corner of the world. In one of the finest cinematic experiences that I have had this year, Tonia Mishiali’s film is a staggering winner and Fyrogeni’s principal performance is one for keeps.
11. Eighth Grade (United States of America)
Director Bo Burham’s Eighth Grade has to be the most compelling debut from the United States of America in 2018. His film is a masterful take on a teenager’s coming-of-age in semi-urban New York. The screenplay is fresh and is neatly packed with elements that dexterously reflect the psyche of youngsters in that age group. Elsie Fisher delivers what must be the year’s most arresting and freshly interpreted lead performance by a female actor in a Hollywood film.
10. The Cakemaker (Israel)
Abundant with enchanting still frames, The Cakemaker is one film that confidently lets the camera make love to its actors’ ability to emote. Not many in times in the recent past did a film’s use of long close-up shots attracted me as much. Thomas, played with great restraint by Tim Kalkhof, in particular, is given fewer lines and there is also a language barrier that exists between him and the rest of the characters.
Ofir Raul Graizer’s directorial debut, easily, is a spectacular proof that a love story need not be verbal to leave a heavy lump in our throats. The climax, which is gloriously melodramatic, conveys the kind of grief that sets the film light years ahead of recent films that handle complicated romantic relationships. The air of empathy that engulfs Graizer’s method of writing and storytelling is just the kinds that we desire to relish more in contemporary art.
9. Leave No Trace (United States of America)
Leave No Trace presents to us an unusual premise – that of a father and daughter who refuse to take conventional lodging. The war veteran dad and his teenage daughter live in makeshift tents in the woods and they have their reasons in doing so. The film effectively examines what happens when the duo is rescued from the situation when they barely needed to have.
What, initially, comes across as a little hard to fathom, the plot eventually develops into an empathy-filled ride where we will tend to think in favour of the father as well as the daughter. Based on a true story, Leave No Trace, contains spectacular performances by Ben Forster and Thomasin McKenzie.
8. Wildlife (United States of America)
Here is one film that made me break into copious tears. Personally, there hasn’t been a more emotional climactic moment in any film in 2018. Yes, it is a wee bit predictable in the way the story pans out. Damn it all because Ed Oxenbould’s turn as the teenager caught in the web of his parents’ bitter separation is moving from the word go.
Wildlife is skillfully written and directed by Paul Dano and the screenplay, which analyzes themes such as livelihood, desire, fidelity and parenting, packs quite a solid punch in its 100-minute long run-time. Carey Mulligan, too, pitches in an outstanding performance in her utterly realistic role whereas the film makes us miss the fabulous Jake Gyllenhaal during his long absence in the second and third acts.
7. The Heiresses (Paraguay)
Yet another film that chronicles same-gender relationships, this Berlinale winner from Paraguay is about two elderly (and wealthy) woman partners facing bankruptcy, imprisonment and borderline infidelity. A film that runs pretty slow, The Heiresses proves to be a neat character study through its lead protagonist, Chela (Ana Brun).
The film throws in a series of perplexing situations which do not attempt to burst over all over with excess exposition. The performances are heartfelt and the same can be said about the dialogues. The cherry on the cake is the profound final shot where Chela quietly disappears from the frame.
6. If Beale Street Could Talk (United States of America)
2018 was a year when American cinema produced a good number of films centered on African-American protagonists. Out of all, it is Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk that truly takes the cake.
The Moonlight director makes it a moving experience as he takes us through this gorgeously photographed (DOP: James Laxton) film. Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, the film’s innocent love story is captivating and so are the family equations around it. Filled with complex characters, If Beale Street Could Talk is also appreciable for representing the African-American community sans pretense and stereotypes, in the most normal way as possible.
My favourite moment in the film has to the initially progressive one where Tish and Fonny’s families get together to celebrate the former’s (unexpected) pregnancy. With the staging, the acting, the interspersion of flashback portions and the thunderous culmination, Barry Jenkins reiterates that he, for sure, knows what glorious screenwriting is all about.
5. Shoplifters (Japan)
Acclaimed Japanese director whose films radiate a definite auteurial quality, Hirokazu Kore-eda is no stranger to the domestic drama genre. The portrayal of families with parenting (including foster), inadequacies and complicated relationships in their hinge is by now a forte of the filmmaker. Akin to many of his previous films, Shoplifters is the story of a plain-looking household. Middle-class or below by economic standards, it is a family that engages in petty thefts and untraditional careers.
As the film concludes, we are reminded how deeply compassionate can cinema writing be, if treated with the kind of care that filmmakers of Kore-eda’s ilk do. It is the prototypical Japanese style of filmmaking if one must add. Reminiscent of the simplicity and romanticism that makers like Yasujiro Ozu could bring to the scene, Kore-eda’s innately original style successfully spins drama around everyday monotony. Shoplifters proves to be amongst his finest domestic dramas as it contains a principally complex, emotionally rich, subtext-laden screenplay to which the editor-filmmaker does complete justice.
4. A Twelve-Year Night (Uruguay)
Chronicling the difficult times spent by members of the left-wing group Tupamaros – José Mujica, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro in solitary captivity – this film is a grueling experience. There is bloodshed and relentless torment. The human rights violation that we witness in A Twelve-Year Night is blood-boiling, especially when we tend to think of how the actual events might have transcended. Three strong men, who stand fiercely by their principles, refusing to conform, are tortured in prison for over 12 years.
Performances by Antonio de la Torre, Chino Darín and Alfonso Tort are top-notch and I could not marvel the film’s gritty cinematography and production design enough as they let you nearly enter those dreary, claustrophobic interiors. The rusty hues, the music and the slightly expository way by which events pan out, this Alvaro Brechner film is an exceedingly satisfying take on one of the most difficult times in Uruguay’s history.
3. Burning (South Korea)
Director Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is one film that cannot be pinned down to a specific genre. The film lazily kicks off as an existential drama where two loners come in close contact, all by chance. Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in) and Ha-emi (Jeon Jong-seo) look all things perfect when they make love in her rickety apartment. There are metaphors thrown in here and there, and one day Ha-emi zooms off to Africa. Interestingly, there is a moment where she quizzes the men in her life about what the word ‘metaphor’ meant – something that Jong-soo chooses not to answer. Instead, he heads to the bathroom.
Based on the book ‘Barn Burning’ by Haruki Murakami, the proceedings get all the more puzzling during the trio’s subsequent meetings. Delivering what is cold yet slow-burn climax, Burning leaves less room for ambiguities as it closes. Brownie points for Lee Chang-dong for maintaining a wretched mood throughout and also for extracting superlative performances from the three principle artists.
2. Cold War (Poland)
Post second world war Poland, an unassuming audition for a music project and a love story that is unforgettable in every sense of the word. The background of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Cold War could be summed up in these simple phrases. The film, luckily, rises above its immediate foundation and presents to us a distressing musical tapestry of emotions, passion, politics, practicality and, often, destiny.
And no, this no commonplace tale of unrequited love. The political climate and the thoughtful socio-economic background provide sufficient context to the love story which jumps in time sans warnings. By cleverly avoiding tropes and subplots that emerge as expositionary devices in making the lovers part, Cold War concentrates more on developing their individual character sketches, projecting the orbit of their intimacy over decades to high impact. Their love, to give a mild spoiler, only soars with time. The leads Zula and Wiktor do not need cues to re-ignite their passion for each other, as it was not lost at any point. It lies rusted somewhere deep within, only to be sandpapered upon a chance meeting after ages. How magical are those love stories which still makes us believe in the idea of permanence?
1. Roma (Mexico)
It took a good couple of hours to fully assimilate what Roma wanted to say. This was besides the generous amounts of tears I had shed in a cinema hall filled with people who couldn’t find ways to appreciate the film enough. Alfonso Cuarón’s spellbinding drama set in the ‘70s is a magnificent black-and-white stunner. Filled with enchanting wide-shots and long takes, Roma gradually draws you into what is the eventful yet ever-so-ordinary life of Cleo, a suburban housemaid in Mexico City.
Cuaron, who is known for films on larger canvasses, trades grandeur to minimalism in Roma. One that feels immensely personal but also leaves a heavy lump in our throat for all its poignance, Roma is powerful and is, undoubtedly, the best feature film to have produced in 2018 – across languages and cinema industries. Yalitza Aparicio, who plays the central role, is incandescent as she etches out what is probably the most groundbreaking and uninhibited debut performance of the year.
Special Mentions: Yomeddine (Egypt), A Quiet Place (United States of America), Suspiria (United States of America), Beauty and the Dogs (Tunisia), A Private War (United States of America), A Star is Born (United States of America), Isle of Dogs (United States of America), A Family Tour (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia), Black Panther (United States of America), Disobedience (United States of America) and Hotel By The River (South Korea).