I love films. I love lists. It is only befitting that when The World of Apu asked me for a piece, I decided to make a list of my favourite films of the year. Now my lust for lists could meet my obsessive need to talk about movies at length. This is my new favourite (and only) winter activity. Remember I am no critic, no scholar, just your friendly neighbourhood film-goer.
Before we begin, a special mention to the wickedly funny The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK), the magical Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy), and the adorable Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, USA).
Hereditary (Ari Aster, USA)
This debut from Ari Aster is a classic horror show from start to finish. Paying tribute to some of the traditional horror tropes—demonic child figure, witchy old women, creepy doll houses, creaky wooden floors, piano, ants!—this sweet little creeper raises above the rest by packing in an emotional core. It pulls out its trump card a third-way in by killing what appeared to be the central character (at least from the trailers). This subversion allows the tension to keep escalating, as we are clueless about whose soul to root for. As the first two acts exert a fantastic psychological dread, obsessing over death, grief, and guilt, the last act goes unabashedly nuts. I screamed and screamed. Interestingly, some of the best debuts from the recent years happen to be in horror: think Robert Eggers, Jennifer Kent, Jordan Peele.
Vada Chennai (Vetri Maaran, India)
I was initially apprehensive about including this, only because I do not want people to pass it off as my token Indian movie in this list. But this three-hour thriller tackles the traditional gangster saga in such mythical proportions that skipping it would be a shame. This first-part of a trilogy tells us the stories from a decades-long turf war in a North Chennai slum that culminate with an unassuming youth at the top. The narrative is a challenging timeline of events that segue from one to another in neatly titled chapters, with magnificent set pieces that feel heavily researched and lived-in. Vetri Maaran’s fascination with Shakespearean dramatic devices continues with this one. The scene at the coming-of-age ceremony when the lead figures out where his loyalties shall lie evokes Macbeth in its scope, somehow with more screenwriting tension. There are so many things I loved in this movie: the lead performance, the craft—the sequence leading to the pivotal murder is a ten-odd-minute take of sheer filmmaking genius. But then, the film could have been more polished, as the tonal inconsistencies are a little jarring at some points. I think they are largely a product of cramming too much into one small movie. I am still waiting for that five-hour cut, and the two promised sequels.
Annihilation (Alex Garland, USA)
Slow-burn science fiction is my jam. This sophomore effort from Alex Garland takes its time setting up the conflict: a crew enters a mysterious, oddly expanding area called “the shimmer” in the middle of a national park, for an investigation. Once the characters (wonderfully acted, could have been written better) enter the shimmer, the proverbial shit hits the fan. An unsettling sequence of events follows. Plants behave in strange yet familiar ways. Animals assume human voices. Human DNA gets diffracted. A familiar house reappears. A clone burns itself. Even though figuring out hidden clues and parsing the larger themes (self-destruction, a revisit from Ex-Machina into the human condition) after the movie is so rewarding, I would have liked the movie to not be so tiringly dense. But just for the sheer audacity in pulling off that bear scene, that clone scene, and that deafening score at the singularity point, this movie deserves to haunt your dreams for a while, at least until your fingerprints start moving.
Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell, USA)
Neo-noir is my side jam. Squeeze in a scrawny, laidback Andrew Garfield, I am all yours. Honestly, this was a big disappointment the first time I watched it. Following the template of a sprawling Thomas Pynchon novel, it stacks one ridiculous turn of events over another with no real pay-off. The more I thought about it, I realised how silly it was for me to expect a satisfying mystery, tying up all the knots of a conspiracy that an unreliable narrator cooked up. As the self-importance of a satisfying plot vanishes, left behind is a funny-as-fuck satire on neo-noir that I am tempted to call neo-neo-noir—a mouthful, I know! Maybe I am carried away by the frivolous down-the-rabbit-hole exercise or the fact that such a movie exists, and it was neither made by David Lynch, nor by Paul Thomas Anderson. I can’t wait for the youth of the future to make a cult out of this tripper.
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, USA)
I used to feel really uncomfortable watching (what a young me would call) black movies. I wouldn’t understand the references, the language, and the cocky vibes would put me off completely. Bless my heart! It took a few years of personal growth to get over my narrow-mindedness, and get on board with the unapologetically black stories of Spike Lee and the many wonderful young talents of today (Barry Jenkins, Ryan Coogler, Justin Simien, Ava DuVernay). Lee’s later works have been skirting away from the race relations that helped populate his early (and best) works with such verve and vigour. Thankfully, with this new comedy-drama, he returns to familiar territory. There is a lot more subtlety and sophistication this time around: the prototype angry black man (a fantastic John David Washington) here is cool as a cucumber. The main plot of a black man infiltrating a Ku Klux Klan chapter plays out as a spin on the buddy cop comedy from the eighties. The infamous Dutch angles are disappointingly sparse—we get one glorious double-dolly shot though. But when it comes to packing the punch at last, man, does he put the N-word back in the joint!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA)
This anthology of six stories set in the Wild West is my pick for the best screenplay of the year. Every vignette and every character is written with such love and care that it is impossible for us to be so emotionally invested every time—that’s six times in a mere two hours! My favourite is the The Gal Who Got Rattled, and All Gold Canyon comes a close second. While the former is a cruel, cruel twist on the Western Romance (the two leads are so affecting), the latter is a fantastic one-man show from the affable Tom Waits, as a prospector looking for gold in an impossible canyon (Bruno Delbonnel rolls up his sleeves here and shows you all the magic a camera can do). It’s not just that these stories are individually great, but the connecting tissue is so seamless that the emotions are sustained throughout. A humorous line in one story is a callback to a heart-rending scene in other (How high can a bird count anyway?), a pivotal plot device in one is a cheeky reference to another (Money buried in a dead man’s pocket to gold found in a Mr. Pocket). This level of mastery over storytelling is more proof that the Coen brothers have been one of the finest storytellers for over four decades now.
Shoplifters (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan)
In the final shot of last year’s Happy End from Michael Haneke, an old man wanting an escape from his dysfunctional family slides his wheelchair into the ocean. As Ben Sachs from Chicago Reader puts it, this film felt like a conclusion of Haneke’s entire filmography that obsesses about isolation and apathy in dysfunctional families. Hopefully so. It is somewhat depressing that the younger elite—at least at Cannes—is getting increasingly attracted towards these bleak stories of the family. Enter this antithesis from the Japanese master. We get a family unit, alright. We get the semblance of a father (Lily Franky in my second favourite performance of the year), a mother, a grandmother, a granddaughter, and a young boy. We see them take in a young girl from an abusive home in the neighbourhood. The family shoplifts, lies to each other, steals from one another, and partakes in all sorts of small-time crimes. Yet they are so likeable, and their togetherness even more so. By the time we figure out the nature of this makeshift family, we are challenged with a completely different look at what makes a family. The structure of the narrative is so masterful that I had to take a pause and wonder how these seemingly small scenes add up to such an emotional juggernaut. I would like to recommend one to watch out for the impeccable staging in three specific scenes: the family looking at the fireworks, the sex scene in the summer, and that scene at the beach. Be warned that another soul-crushing scene of a family at a beach is coming up.
Burning (Lee Chang-dong, Korea)
I have been reading Haruki Murakami since I was a teenager. I have always found it hard to put in words the specific emotion his writing evokes in me, this emotion which keeps bringing me back to his stories. It’s part melancholy, part longing and nostalgia for times or places I have never lived in, part this, part that. I could never have imagined that a movie adaptation of one of his stories would bring me that exact feeling. Conjuring mood in cinema is, for me, the first thing that sets apart a great filmmaker from others. Chang-dong does exactly that. Starting as a character study, the movie evolves into a murder mystery, it then becomes an unreliable narrative, it makes you question what you have seen so far. Prevailing throughout is a slow-burn atmosphere that finds its peak indulgence at a marvellous long take of the three leads smoking marijuana. While the female lead is a fascinating variation of the manic pixie dream girl trope, the two men are written and performed with so much conviction that you do not want to take your eyes off the screen. Steven Yeun is especially brilliant—his yawn is the most unsettling thing I have seen in movies this year.
Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski, Poland)
A black-and-white romance between two tortured souls that are destined to destroy each other doesn’t exactly sound like favourite film material, does it? The characters are extremely unlikable. The movie does not clue us in with a classical motivation for why these two people are in such passionate love. The traditional romance scenes of two people in love (that usually help us root for them) are sacrificed for brevity, and—worse—scenes showing why these two should not be together. I am not selling this very well, am I? I think this insurmountable challenge that the Polish auteur sets himself up for is what makes this movie so interesting to me. And man, does he succeed with flying colours. We see the two leads finding and losing each other through many decades, with blackouts implying gaps in time. After every blackout, by just looking at these characters, I can imagine what they might have gone through, and why they need each other after all. This way of storytelling by omission is unheard of. I still can’t put a finger on how he achieves this. Of course, the directing and cinematography are top-notch, but the magic is elsewhere. Maybe it’s in the acting. Joanna Kulig, in my favourite performance of the year, speaks volumes with just a smirk, a wince, a moan. When she gives that final look of exasperation with life and takes Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot) to the other side of the road, we are left with nothing to do but look for a shoulder to cry on.
Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico)
Another black-and-white film, another family drama, another tear-jerker, another slow mood-piece with not much of a plot, yes, this is my pick for the best film of the year. As soon as I heard that Cuarón is going back to Mexico to make a personal piece, I had my expectations cranked up to a hundred. Last time he did that, we got Y Tu Mamá También. Of course, I love when regional filmmakers of repute go to Hollywood and make their mark. But it is always extra special when they go back to their roots. Stories become extraordinarily unique, characters are cut from the locale, the settings are lived-in, and above all, there is plenty of heart. With Roma, he tells a semi-autobiographical story of his childhood nanny through Cleo, a maid living with an upper-class family in the neighbourhood of Roma. Large events happen around her (a forest fire, an earthquake), even larger stories are being told around her (class dynamics, dirty wars). Yet what we are mostly getting is a hypnotic, meditative account of her daily life. We see her go through the routine of cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, feeding the family dog, and caring for the children. We see her forge relationships with the family and her friends, who are also maids. We see her fall in love with a man. We see her go through a heartbreaking pregnancy. We see her save lives at a beach. We see her come to terms with her life. We see her stand tall. When we come out of the movie, it feels like we have lived, through her, stories worth thousands and thousands of lifetimes. It is only a testament to the magic of cinema that we feel very alive just watching a bunch of pixels on screen.
 “Meet Your Neighbour, Thomas Pynchon” by Nancy Jo Sales. From the November 11, 1996 issue of the New York Magazine. Accessed on December 31, 2018. Available here.
 A review of BlacKkKlansman on BlackGirlNerds by Jonita Davis. Published on August 10, 2018. Accessed on December 31, 2018. Available here.
 Ben Sach’s review of Happy End can be found here. Published in Chicago Reader on March 13, 2018. Accessed on January 2, 2019.
About the author
Iniyavan Elumalai is a double minority snowflake of the nineties. He dabbles in film analysis, electronic circuit design, and Oxford comma snobbery. Born in India, he now lives in the Netherlands. His social media stash can be found on the gram and now-not-so-fun tumblr.