Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Mark Ahn's Favorite Movies of 2018

by Mark Ahn
“Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world.”

What is true in the Old West of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is also true in life, and definitely true in making top ten lists. Before I get to my list, here are the ones I really wanted to see, but 2018 didn’t last long enough for me to get to.

Eighth Grade
If Beale Street Could Talk
Minding the Gap
Three Identical Strangers

10. Crazy Rich Asians
In terms of moviemaking, it’s nothing unexpected, which is on par for an escapist romantic comedy meant for adults with a modest budget. As entertainment, it’s quite spectacular, but I found it awkward, as an Asian American, to talk about it. Of course, I loved the positive reception. But I didn’t want to feel like I had to go watch it to support Asian American art. I didn’t want people commenting on my cultural experience, because I was afraid of that experience being fetishized or critiqued. Heck, I didn’t decide to write about it on this site until now. All of that overthinking aside, when I finally watched it, it was incredibly empathetic. It was inviting, it was fun, and it was about handling the universal experience of not belonging. It’s certainly not perfect, and it’s not the first Hollywood movie with an Asian cast, but it feels very much a signpost of the moment we’re in now, where more people are open to voices that haven’t been as heeded before. It’s hitting a nerve of the Asian American Experience (yes, capitalized), and people saw it and liked it. Incredible.

9. A Star is Born
Are you supposed to watch this and not be entertained? Bradley Cooper is pulling a movie star-level flex by re-making a movie that’s already been made three times, and it comes off in his earnest performance. Lady Gaga is a revelation in how natural she comes off on screen. The costumes, the songs, the performances are pitched to entertain anybody; I can take my mom or my friends or my appropriately aged teenager to this. It’s the comfort food version of blockbuster entertainment.

8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Until the next Raid or John Wick comes out, this is the best action franchise going, almost exclusively because of its old school adherence to traditional stunts and practical effects. Seeing into the future, I cannot wait to show my grandchildren the supercut of Tom Cruise running and conquering the modern wonders of the world, before going out to see Mission: Impossible: Furious, which will inevitably end in a fight with Dominic Toretto in space for the right to invite whoever he wants to the barbecue.

7. A Quiet Place
My favorite part of the acclaim for this movie is hearing John Krasinski in interviews talking about it. He has a such an earnest joy at making movies, especially for this little idea that kind of turned into something big and great. I admire the simplicity of the movie’s premise to crank up the tension; it’s an uncomfortable reminder of how tenuous our way of life is, but a reminder of how strong family can be.

6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on about how everyone feels about Netflix taking over and whether Netflix makes “real” movies. I don’t have a crystal ball, obviously, but with the way movies work now (I’m thinking of Steven Soderbergh’s comments back in 2013 about the state of cinema), I am all for somebody like Netflix throwing their financial heft into the “prestige” movie market. If Netflix or Amazon money means more movies from the Coens or Alfonso Cuaron, then don’t we all win? Buster Scruggs is as opaque and darkly humorous as the rest of the Coens’ work, and because the bones of this movie have been around for awhile, it feels like a tapestry of the ideas they’ve collected and ruminated over for the past decade. Some may consider this lesser fare in the brothers’ canon, but it’s the rare film/filmmaker that lovingly crafts language and stares at the absurdity of life like this.

5. Roma
Alfonso Cuaron’s re-imagining and re-contextualizing of his childhood did the paradoxical thing of evoking a sense of place for a setting I’ve never been to before. How did Cuaron re-create the Mexico City wholesale from his childhood, complete to the signage, the clothes, the streets? It’s probably better that I don’t know, actually, because it’s the nature of memory to slip away even as we try to grasp it. Even though we cannot return to younger days, Cuaron captures the irresistible pull of nostalgia, the intimacy that keeps us at a distance.

4. BlacKkKlansman
It started off bemused, then got funny, then got way too damn real. In a situation where almost any preposterous outcome is possible, the most incredible thing was Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) being the most level-headed, cagey operator in this game of lying to people who lie to themselves about the value of people. It might not be me on the screen, but how can I act like I ain’t got skin in the game?

3. First Reformed
How can a lonely man console the lost? How can a man who believes in nothing represent faith or hope? How can someone continue to do good when no good returns to him? These are Paul Schrader’s questions that are buried beneath the weathered creases of Ethan Hawke’s face, who plays a conflicted reverend of a dying church. These are not easy questions with easy answers, but Hawke’s performance and Schrader’s script take us into one man’s private war against darkness.

2. The Favourite
Look, Yorgos Lanthimos. You and I don’t get along. You draw me in, like Charlie Brown and the football, with your intriguing premises and your dark humor and your talented casts. But then you yank it away from me with your overly formal dialogue and your weird hangups. But, you finally got me. The Favourite takes all of your tendencies and predilections that drove me crazy and uses it to advantage. I can watch Olivia Coleman and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone snipe at each other all day long wearing beautiful costumes. I’m going as Rachel Weisz in her hunting outfit for Halloween.

1 - Black Panther
I dream one day of loving a place so much that I would give my life to defend it. Alas, “Illinois Forever” doesn’t have the same ring to it, not because of how it sounds, but for most of us, where we live isn’t as important as that; we are what make the place, not so much as the place making us. This idea of a place that is so special that it imbues its inhabitants with gifts, and the ensuing conversation about what do with those gifts, makes Black Panther a movie of its time, and a progression for what is possible with superhero movies. May it live forever.


  1. It's great to read Mark Ahn again :-)

  2. We had very similar reactions to a lot of films this year, Mark! Loved reading this. XO

  3. "... the irresistible pull of nostalgia, the intimacy that keeps us at a distance." What an eloquent way of putting this. Great list, Mark. Very insightful.

    1. Thanks JB! The more I think about Roma, the more I like it.

    2. That one dude in Roma did a #Walkout at the movie theater.

    3. ... he had to go practice some kung-fu. We have a lot in common.

    4. I sure hope things turn out better for you though. His kung-fu was wielded for nefarious purposes. This is why you can only trust Steve McKee.

  4. Nice list Mark! I think I might go see The Favourite tonight.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing Burning too, having only heard good things. It got a limited release in Canada apparently, but it hasn't played here (Canada's 4th biggest city). They should call it ultra-limited, if it's only playing one night, in one city. Humbug!

    Roma, I'm looking forward to seeing. But it seems like the type of movie I'd have to be in the right mood, and so it waits in my Netflix queue.

    1. I saw it on Netflix as well. Everything I've heard or read about Roma is to make sure that you're totally immersing yourself in it, especially when watching at home with more potential distractions. It's not so much what the main character may be doing, but taking in all of the business around it too.

  5. My friends have been giving me shit for naming "Black Panther" my favorite movie of 2018. You know, the best-reviewed superhero movie of all time that made more money than freaking "Avengers: Infinity War" (my No. 3 pic of 2018)??!! So, Mark, thanks for sharing my belief that shouting "Wakanda Forever!" with pride doesn't make us weirdos. :-)