Films of 2018

Overall, a disappointing year.  I didn’t see a single new film that I’d call “great”.  (I somehow missed Ash is the Purest White.)  I saw more films than usual this year, due to the purchase of a 77-inch OLED TV (which is great for movies in 4k).  I’ll start with films made in the last few years, and then older ones:

Recent Films:

Shoplifters (Japan) 3.7 This Koreeda film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. I wasn’t as impressed as I expected, and still prefer Nobody Knows.  There are some subtle, brilliantly developed scenes late in the film.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (US) 3.7 I’ll need to see this again to form a firm opinion as to how good it is. I missed some of the dialogue, but what I heard was excellent. The craftsmanship by the Coen brothers was superb. They seem to really care about getting the look of the film just right. The final four episodes were the film equivalent of first rate short stories.

Burning (Korea) 3.7 Fascinating Korean mystery involving two men who are interested in the same women. (Based on a Murakami story.) The film has some fine performances that went beyond the typical clichés. Even after the film was over, I was still trying to put the pieces together. My only reservation is that the director tried to do a bit too much mixing of the political and the metaphysical. The political seems to win in the end, whereas it might have been better to end with the metaphysical. Still, there is one scene in the film that stands out above anything else I saw this year.

The Salesman (Iran, 2016) 3.7 I’ve now seen three films by Farhadi, and all have been excellent. His films aren’t particularly innovative, just extremely well crafted and true to life. The political/social repression in Iran allows for plots that would be considered implausible in America or Europe.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (US) 3.7. Extremely entertaining film about the making of The Other Side of the Wind, very skillfully made. Orson Welles is one of the two great artists from my home state of Wisconsin, along with the equally colorful Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Bob Dylan (another upper Midwest guy), he had enormous accomplishments by age 26.

The Other Side of the Wind (US, 1975-2018) 3.6 It’s likely that I’ll enjoy this unfinished Welles film better on second viewing. Despite my rating it lower than the accompanying documentary, it’s the more important film.

Filmworker (US, 2017) 3.6 Fascinating documentary about Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick’s right hand man. (He also had a major role in Barry Lyndon.) The documentary is not particularly well directed, but it’s a very interesting story.

Isle of Dogs (US) 3.6 Wes Anderson films are delightful. He’s one of the few American directors that you can recognize from just a 10-second segment of his films.

The Third Murder (Japan) 3.6 A murder mystery by Koreeda. Here the puzzle is not so much the logistics of the crime, rather the mystery is the motivation.

Roma (Mexico) 3.6 Brought back memories of my time in Mexico during the early 1970s. I expected a bit more after the rave reviews.

Babylon Berlin (Germany) 3.5 I don’t usually watch TV, so I didn’t realize until well until the series that you can watch it on Netflix without dubbing. Definitely opt for the subtitles; the dubbing is horrible. My favorite parts are the opening and closing credits. The final episode is excellent, actually cinematic at times. Bryan Ferry did a great job with the music.

Maria By Callas (US) 3.5 Very engrossing documentary. It gave me entry into a subject that I know little about—opera. I’d guess they sugar-coated her life somewhat.

Kusama: Infinity (US) 3.5 Documentary about a Japanese artist who had a very interesting life.

The Farthest (US, 2017) 3.4 A documentary on the Voyager spacecraft mission, which explored the outer planets from 1977 to 1989 (and recently left the Solar System.) Gets my vote for the most interesting science project in human history.

Phantom Thread (US/Britain) 3.4 Daniel Day Lewis is the reason to watch this film.

Crazy Rich Asians (US) 3.4 Economics professors are so romantic. Unfortunately, my daughter informed me that game theory is way cooler than monetary economics.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (US) 3.3 This is one of those stories that would have been considered absurdly implausible if included in a work of fiction. But this is a documentary. The film suggests that she was the co-inventor of “frequency hopping”, the technology behind Bluetooth and several other high tech applications. Don’t know if it is true, but it seems clear she did have an interest in science and technology that went far beyond the typical Hollywood bombshell.

Three Identical Strangers (US) 3.3 This is a very engrossing documentary, with one big flaw. One can defend their decision to not mention the Minnesota twins study, but it is hard to defend the decision of the filmmakers to imply that this study never occurred. Or to imply that this particular case tells us something important about the “nature/nurture debate”. Or to suggest it tells us something about “free will”. It doesn’t.

Us and Them (China) 3.3 Two young people trying to make it in Beijing during 2007-17. A bit too conventional, but not a bad drama. The cinematography of Mark Lee makes it watchable.

Zama (Argentina) 3.3 I read the book a few months earlier, and this film allowed me to see the book in a slightly different way. It was clear the book featured an unreliable narrator, but the film makes him seem even more unreliable. Paraguay in the late 1700s seems like one of the saddest places on earth.

Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden (Austria/Luxembourg) 3.2 Standard biopic of one of Austria’s greatest artists, who died at age 28.

Oh Lucy! (Japan) 3.2 It’s always interesting to see your home country through the eyes of a foreigner.

Shirkers (Singapore) 3.2 A mildly interesting documentary about a punkish group of Singaporean teenage girls who worked with an American film teacher on a feature film, only to see the teacher disappear with their film. It resurfaced 20 years later, after he died.

Red Sparrow (US) 3.1 A standard US/Russian spy thriller, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

The Spy Gone North (Korea) 3.1 Fairly engrossing spy thriller, but marred by an increasingly far-fetched plot. Memo to the movie reviewer at The Guardian (among others)—although the film claims to be based on a “true story”, it’s about as true to life as the average James Bond film.

Mission Impossible (US) 3.0   Lots of spectacular set-pieces, but as usual the special effects overwhelm the narrative. Tom Cruise is now too old for this; he’s lost that edge he had when he was younger.

Can You Ever Forgive Me (US) 3.0 Somewhat predictable film about a literary forger. The one saving grace was the actor who played Jack Hock, who brought some style to his role.

Nelly (French Canadian) 2.8 I never realized this was based on a true story, until the final credits.

Last First Man (US) 2.8 This film has lots of flaws, such as ridiculously hyperactive camerawork that will make you seasick. But it is sort of redeemed by Ryan Gosling’s performance. He refuses to pointlessly emote in the way that is so typical of Hollywood films. Disappointing special effects, especially on the moon. I’ve seen better images in documentaries of the space program.

Searching for Bergman (German) 2.5 A disappointing documentary about the great Swedish director.

Resistance Banker (Dutch) 2.5 Finally, a hero for neoliberals! Dutch bankers work to aid the resistance to the Nazis.

Sorry to Bother You (US) 1.8 Intriguing for a few minutes, then it degenerated into a weird combination of sophomoric political satire and teenage comedy.

Older films I saw this year:

Spirited Away (Japan, 2001) 4.0  I enjoyed this film the first time around, but was absolutely blown away when I saw it again on the big screen. This is Miyazaki’s best film, done when he was at the peak of his imaginative powers. (And he made many excellent films.) There are a number of scenes that burrow deep into one’s subconscious. (Yes, my writing has too many cliches.) I’d rate it one of the top 5 films of the 21st century.

Touch of Evil (US, 1957) 3.9 Each time I see this film I become more and more convinced that it provided Hitchcock with the inspiration for Psycho. The similarity between these two classics seems increasingly obvious as time goes by. This is probably my favorite film by Orson Welles, who must have lived a wild life. He looks about 65 years old in the film, but is actually 42. He gets all the best lines and his performance is amazing. Unfortunately, the film was butchered by the studio. Although it’s been partly restored, Welles’s original vision is lost forever.

Lord of the Rings (US/New Zealand) 2001-03) 3.8 I saw all three of the extended versions in one day, from 11:30am to 12:45 am the next day—13 hours including two intermissions. That’s probably a bit much. The third film has been extended to over 4 hours, and it drags at times. (After 12 1/2 hours I was like . . . just throw the damn ring into the lava!)  Still, the combination of a great story and superb craftsmanship is hard to beat. It seemed like the third film drifted away from the novel at times, but then I haven’t read it for decades, so perhaps I forgot some things.

The Terrorizers (Taiwan, 1986) 3.8  Somehow I missed this masterpiece, which was never released in the US. Now I need to find all the other films directed by Edward Yang.  (They need to come up with a better translation of the title.)

Flowers of Taipei (Taiwan, 2014) 3.8 For film buffs, this is 2 hours of pure bliss. It looks at the Taiwan films of the 1980s, and made me realize how many great films I have yet to see. There are interviews with an amazing list of directors and artists from all over the world. The 21st century has yet to produce any film school as distinctive as Taiwan during the 1980s and 1990s. This is the first time I ever watched a film on Amazon Prime.

The Big Lewbowski (US, 1998) 3.8 I haven’t seen this film in 20 years, and it holds up extremely well. I always wondered why it became a cult classic—now I know.

A Time to Live, A Time to Die (Taiwan, 1985) 3.8 A semi-autobiographical film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Ikiru (Japan, 1952) 3.8 A classic Kurosawa film about a man with 6 months to live. Japan looks really poor, and much wilder than today.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, 2014) 3.8  This Golden Bear winning film is called “Daylight Fireworks Club” in Chinese, and is the best film noir I’ve seen in years. I can’t wait for the next film from the director (Diao Yinan.) Takes place in gritty northern China (Harbin), which has bitter cold winters. Almost everything about this film is outstanding. The story begins in 1999 and ends in 2004. At one point a character refers to the cost of an expensive coat that was damaged back in 1999, and says something like, “That was a lot of money back then.” In what other (non-inflationary) country would this statement make any sense, referring to only 5 years in the past!

You’ll never look at ice skates in the same way again.

Japanese Story (Australia, 2003) 3.7 I loved this film when I saw it 15 years ago, and re-watched it recently. It still holds up pretty well, mostly due to Toni Collette’s amazing performance. Hard to recall a film with a sadder ending.

Lost Highway (US, 1997) 3.7 A fairly representative David Lynch film, and thus a minor masterpiece. For a while during the mid-1990s, Bill Pullman seemed like the most interesting leading man in Hollywood. He also starred in The Last Seduction and The End of Violence at about the same time. Great soundtrack, put together by Trent Reznor.

It Happened One Night (US, 1934) 3.7  We watched this mainly because Netflix had a 4k copy, and I was interested in how it would look on my new 77 inch OLED. It looked very good. (It cost $5.99.)

Age of Consent (Australian, 1969) 3.4 I ran across this film on Amazon Prime, and noticed that it was directed by Michael Powell. When I was young, films from the 1930s seemed charming and innocent. Now I get that feeling from a film from 1969. Helen Mirren has plenty of “charisma”. If you’ve only seen her later work, you need to check out her short YouTube video from 1967.

Let the Wind Carry Me (Taiwan, 2009) 3.4 A documentary about Mark Lee, the cinematographer for many Hou Hsiao Hsien’s best films, along with other classics such as In the Mood For Love.

500 days of Summer (US, 2009) 3.4 As always with romcoms, you need to avoid overthinking what’s on the screen. The leads are charming and as an added bonus the film defies Hollywood convention by not having them end up together.

The Sandwich Man (Taiwan, 1983) 3.3 Considered the beginning of Taiwan’s new wave. Three short films, primarily interesting for the way they portray Taiwan during the 1960s (when it was quite poor.)

Bullit (US, 1968) 3.3 Interesting to see the famous car chase again after 50 years. It’s still probably as satisfying as any subsequent car chase, despite being pretty tame compared to modern extravaganzas. Less is more, perhaps because it seems bit more real. The same applies to Steve McQueen’s acting style.

Blowout (US, 1981) 3.3 Just as 1971 was actually part of the 60s, 1981 seems like the 1970s in this DePalma film. As usual, he rips off other directors. The good news is that he chooses to copy people like Hitchcock, Coppola and Antonioni. This film really makes me feel old—is 1981 already ancient history?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1978) 3.3 When I first saw this film it seemed as good or better than the original. It doesn’t quite hold up, and the original (which I saw again a few years ago) now seems like the enduring classic. This version seems too frenetic at time, too noisy. When it slows down it’s still pretty good. San Francisco looks very rundown.

Riding the Breeze (Taiwan, 2014) 3.0  I’m drawn to films about long bike trips.

As far as books, I read volume 6 of Karl Knausgaard’s great novel, if that’s what it is.  Also Murakami’s new novel, as well as his first two, which were finally translated.  Also the excellent Chinese sci-fi trilogy The Three Body Problem. Another Chinese novel entitled “Decoded” is also pretty good.  I also read Zama, Disgrace, Solaris, and The Immoralist, all from the long list of famous authors that I’d never gotten around to reading.  Plus a few other novels and travel books that I’ve forgotten. I’m a slow reader.  The best nonfiction book I read was Simon Ley’s The Hall of Uselessness, which is a collection of essays.  It’s not perfect—the remarks on gay rights haven’t aged well—but overall it’s very, very impressive.  He’s a sort of Belgian George Orwell. The book I learned the most from (“How to Change Your Mind Life“) discussed psychedelic drugs.  In social science, my favorites were the latest books by Tyler Cowen, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Bryan Caplan and Kevin Simler/Robin Hanson.  All were excellent, and also very readable.




33 Responses to “Films of 2018”

  1. Gravatar of ECharles ECharles
    13. January 2019 at 10:46

    Nice list. Here are my top movies from 2018:

    1- Blakkklansman- Spike Lee back in the zone
    2- Vice- The Big Short was not a fluke in regards to effectively mixing together comedy and outrage
    3- Green Book- great chemistry between the two leads
    4- Game Night- funny and clever
    5- The Favourite- dark period piece with three excellent performances
    6- Roma- slow but sticks with you for a while
    7- Annihilation- puzzle ending with varying interpretations
    8- Spiderman Into the Spider-Verse- unique animation and some bonkers action
    9- First Reformed- Ethan Hawke becoming my favorite actor
    10. Three Identical Strangers- can’t believe this crazy true story wasn’t on my radar in the 1980’s

  2. Gravatar of HH HH
    13. January 2019 at 15:19

    “Last Man”?

  3. Gravatar of A A
    13. January 2019 at 15:23

    Burning and Shoplifters moved me. I admired Roma, but maybe watching it on t.v. shed its power. Parts of Hereditary were excellent, and really captured a claustrophobic sense of despair, but stumbled in the third act. Upgrade was a fun sci-fi with top notch physical acting. Leave No Trace showcased thoughtful acting and lush hiking imagery. Paddington 2 was the best family film since Finding Nemo. And Eigth Grade displayed incredible empathy.

  4. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    13. January 2019 at 16:08

    Your 2018 list is mostly a bit too exotic for me. But I might give Annihilation and The Favourite from ECharles a try.

    Isle of Dogs is on my list, too. Wes Anderson is nearly always good but it’s hardly his best movie, I guess.

    Zama could be great – or super-boring.

    Mandy could be fun – or too excessive.

    “You were never really here” could be good – but is there one good non-mainstream movie with the so much applauded Joaquin Phoenix at all? Heresy to ask that, I know but seriously.

    Sollers Point looks good – but got only average ratings.

    What about Revenge – too trashy?

    What about Quiet Place – too mainstream?

    As you say, it seems 2018 was a subpar year for movies.

  5. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    13. January 2019 at 19:48

    ‘Bullet (US, 1968) 3.3 Interesting to see the famous car chase again after 50 years.’

    If it weren’t for the Ford Mustang/Dodge Charger chase, everyone might have noticed just how preposterous the plot was.

    A couple of professional hit men first fail to make sure their intended victim dies. Then they hang out at the scene of the crime, so they can tail the policeman to the hospital to finish the job. When they fail at that, they again find the cop and tail him for some reason that remains obscure to this day.

  6. Gravatar of Aaron Aaron
    13. January 2019 at 20:50

    Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to interview Alan Trustman — screenwriter of “Bullit” and “the Thomas Crown Affair” — this past year. Interesting bit of trivia: despite writing the most iconic car chase scene in cinema, he wasn’t much of a car guy.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. January 2019 at 21:08

    HH, What was I thinking? I meant First Man

    A, I saw Roma at the theatre, and I’m not sure it made much difference.

  8. Gravatar of Jason Smith Jason Smith
    13. January 2019 at 21:37

    Yes, Hedy Lamarr really was behind the invention of spread spectrum waveforms (at the time, the application was sonar but to a large degree waves are waves). We have a new conference room at work (my job is primarily in signal processing research) and I’m suggesting naming it after her.

    Was blown away as a kid seeing the cinematography of Touch of Evil — even on the tiny 13″ TV in my room.

  9. Gravatar of Tom M Tom M
    14. January 2019 at 06:45

    I thought the new Mission Impossible was actually a lot better than I expected. I thought Rogue Nation was weak, but they actually managed to tie up the narrative in Fallout in an entertaining way. Have you been keeping up with the Marvel movies? Generally I’m not a fan, but I thought Infinity War was phenomenal.

  10. Gravatar of Monday assorted links – Marginal REVOLUTION Monday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
    14. January 2019 at 09:27

    […] 3. Scott Sumner films and books of 2018 these are always among the best blog posts of the year. […]

  11. Gravatar of Art Deco Art Deco
    14. January 2019 at 09:35

    The name of the film is Bullitt.

  12. Gravatar of Rock27 Rock27
    14. January 2019 at 09:46

    I agree about Roma. I liked it but it’s way overrated.

    My advice for you with future LOTR marathons (I try to do one every year) is to skip the Frodo/Sam scenes in the middle of Return of the King. They seriously drag.

    One of the other commentators mentioned this one on their list too, but you should really see Into the Spiderverse. I had no expectations going in and really only went to see it to spend some time with my cousins, but was totally blown away. I’d put that as my top movie of the year.

  13. Gravatar of Ted Craig Ted Craig
    14. January 2019 at 09:53

    I just watched “Bullit” with my 17-year-old son. He enjoyed it, but laughed when the bad guys rolled down their window during the car chase.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. January 2019 at 10:16

    Thanks Jason.

    Tom, The only superhero movie I’ve seen is Batman. For some reason I’m not really interested in that genre.

    Thanks Art.

    Rock, Pretty hard to skip scenes in a movie theatre. To be honest, I’ll probably never see LOTR again, but I might read the book a second time.

  15. Gravatar of Hazel Meade Hazel Meade
    14. January 2019 at 11:08

    You still need to watch more television. There were some great mini-series this year:

    The Terror – based on a novelization of real events by Dan Simmons, a team of British exlporers trapped above the Arctic circle on a ill-fated mission to find the Northwest Passage. (Apparently they are making a season 2, but you can safely ignore it – they are trying to turn it into an anthology).

    The Haunting of Hill House – loosely based on the book, a family recalls events that occurred in their house twenty years earlier as they struggle to come to terms with events in the present.

  16. Gravatar of Echarles Echarles
    14. January 2019 at 11:59

    “Tom, The only superhero movie I’ve seen is Batman. For some reason I’m not really interested in that genre.”

    You should revisit since the genre deals with some entertaining ethical conundrums. Stick with Marvel movies though. I’d recommend Captain America (especially 2 and 3), The Avengers movies and Guardians of the Galaxy.

  17. Gravatar of RPLong RPLong
    14. January 2019 at 11:59

    Nice to see Lost Highway getting some love. That’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and you’re right that the soundtrack is excellent.

  18. Gravatar of H.P. @ Every Day Should Be Tuesday H.P. @ Every Day Should Be Tuesday
    14. January 2019 at 12:44

    I finally watched the extended cuts of The Lord of the Rings movies this year (after rereading the books for the first time in years). The first one is the only one to improve enough on the theatrical versions to merit the extra time. Future viewings will be E1, T2, T3.

    Yes, The Big Lebowski really is that good. It has been far too long since I revisited it.

    For car chases, you still can’t beat Bullit, the original Gone in 60 Seconds, and Vanishing Point.

  19. Gravatar of Michael A Tubbs Michael A Tubbs
    14. January 2019 at 13:28

    As always, thanks for the list. I would love to put a pitch in for First Reformed. Directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote the book on transcendental film, the film naturally plays like Bergman or Bresson meeting Taxi Driver. The film has a lot on its mind: identity anxiety, masculinity, narcissism, the environment, ect. It is also surprisingly refreshing for a movie to be neutral-ish toward religion. I think you’ll enjoy it!

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    14. January 2019 at 17:04

    Everyone, Thanks for the tips.

  21. Gravatar of John Thacker John Thacker
    14. January 2019 at 20:24

    Death of Stalin was a 2018 release in the USA (2017 in the UK) and I would highly recommend seeing it. Really captures the banality of evil while being darkly hilarious.

  22. Gravatar of ECharles ECharles
    15. January 2019 at 05:24

    “Death of Stalin was a 2018 release in the USA (2017 in the UK) and I would highly recommend seeing it. Really captures the banality of evil while being darkly hilarious.”

    Ditto for Vice. 🙂

  23. Gravatar of Dtoh Dtoh
    15. January 2019 at 05:32

    Didn’t see so many of these but the ones I did.

    The Salesman – incredibly depressing. I walked out halfway through the film.

    Crazy Rich Asians – super trite but very cute. I liked it.

    Mission Impossible – Benefitted from super low expectations. I managed to stay awake and actually enjoyed this one.

  24. Gravatar of Dtoh Dtoh
    15. January 2019 at 05:36

    Phantom Thread – I like elegance so I enjoyed this.

    Red Sparrow – better than the book which is not saying much.

  25. Gravatar of Dtoh Dtoh
    15. January 2019 at 05:39

    Ikiru – Classic. Love this film. L

  26. Gravatar of J.S J.S
    15. January 2019 at 06:38

    Spiderverse is the glaring omission

  27. Gravatar of Ray Tseng Ray Tseng
    15. January 2019 at 07:39

    I don’t know how familiar you are with Spirited Away, but the story is it’s based on a town Jiufen in Taiwan; Miyazaki vacationed there and was so amazed by it, he crafted a whole movie about the town. Everyone I know says the town is wonderful. May increase your appreciation of the movie.

  28. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    15. January 2019 at 09:00

    Everyone, Thanks for the tips. Check out this superhero movie:

  29. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    15. January 2019 at 12:52

    Scott is right about superhero movies, most of them suck. Even The Dark Knight sucked. Ledgers performance was good, but the rest? Just forget about it. Nothing about Nolan’s Batman is dark, or at least shady, or ambiguous, which is fine (who cares) but then don’t call the whole stupid movie „The Dark Knight“, call it „hyper-moralic perfect-saint Mother Teresa in a skin-tight black suit“. Bale can be just a good actor, don’t waste him like this.

  30. Gravatar of Nick Ronalds Nick Ronalds
    15. January 2019 at 14:37

    Great-looking list, great watching ideas, thanks. A nitpick: the book on psychedelics is probably How to Change your Mind, not “Life”, by Michel Pollan.

  31. Gravatar of Epiphyte Epiphyte
    17. January 2019 at 02:53

    The Sound Of Your Heart and Campus are two comedies on Netflix that I’d like to watch again. In terms of anime, I loved One Punch Man. Each time that I scroll past it on Netflix I want to click the “thumbs up” button so many times. It reminds me of Rothbard saying that, if there was a button that would abolish the state, he would press it until his thumb blistered.

    My new favorite website could solve everything…

    There’s also another website that’s similar…

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. January 2019 at 18:17

    Nick, Thanks, I fixed it.

  33. Gravatar of Best Of the Web: Apple’s TV-Set Future, Coffee Heals DNA and Podcast Lists – The Economics, Tech, Health and Culture Remix (beta) Best Of the Web: Apple’s TV-Set Future, Coffee Heals DNA and Podcast Lists – The Economics, Tech, Health and Culture Remix (beta)
    9. April 2019 at 04:55

    […] Films of 2018 Scott Sumner’s list includes “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs”, “Burning” (Korea) and “Shoplifters” (Japan). Great varied selection. […]

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