The Best Films Of 2018
2018 was a glorious return to form at the box office for Bollywood, especially after last year’s dismal showing. Films both large (Padmaavat, Sanju) and small (Stree, Hichki) were both financially and critically successful, and the audiences showed for just about every film of note, proving that there is, in spite of the alacritous consumption of digital content (and one of my favorite films this year is, indeed, a Netflix Original), a market for entertaining big screen takes on all sorts of subjects, ranging from access to menstrual health to homosocial bonding.
I may have loathed some of the most enthusiastically received films of the year gone by (Sanju made me actively angry, not just because it was morally suspect but because of its astonishing, ugly ineptitude) and found a couple of the others uninspired (the love for Raazi, and Alia Bhatt in it, is baffling to me); but I had, overall, a good time at the movies this year. The range of narrative and thematic interests has been impressive; the output has often been fun to watch; and filmmakers have done a solid job in building their work around compelling, complex characters.
I do wish, however, that Bollywood took more risks with the filmmaking itself. I understand the desire to make accessible the risky subject matter writers and directors have become interested in tackling, but I could use a little more bite, more original stylistic choices in the current Hindi-language cinema. Of course, I may be in the minority here, since my favorite Bollywood film of 2018 was roundly rejected by both audiences and most film critics for being too impenetrable, too weird. Anushka Sharma’s third production, first-time helmer Prosit Roy’s Pari, confused and repelled nearly everyone who watched it, but I found its unholy marriage of odd-couple elegy to creature horror extracted from myth unforgettable and important.
Pari is an object lesson for the rest of Bollywood in how to mine our own rich folklore and the atavistic emotions it evokes in the audience for thrilling and original cinema. It may also be, alongside the South Korean Burning, the year’s most acute representation of the trauma of isolation; Parambrata Chakraborty’s chiaroscuro portrait of painful, inchoate introversion remains, in fact, my pick for the most memorable performance of 2018.
Pari is, in spite of its perfectly effective chills and thrills, a film of great kindness and empathy for the female experience in all its sublime, horrifying, persecuted, and triumphant breadth. And it is a work of great visual beauty as well. It’s miraculous to me that its expressive wash of nighttime blues and its electric hunt sequences were achieved at a fraction of the budgets for the lumbering, hideously tacky Khan tentpoles we’ve been subjected to these past few years. (Tummbad, another small horror film with big ambitions, achieved a similar miracle this year.) Anushka Sharma is a producer of daring and taste, and I hope she doesn’t lose her nerve because of the heartbreaking way this strange and excellent film was received.
My other great favorite of the year, Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, was greeted far more warmly, and I’m not at all surprised; for all its cunning meta jokes and little winks to Truffaut, it is a rollicking good ride for any kind of viewer. This mean, hysterically funny little film is, like Raghavan’s last film (the masterful Badlapur), a two-hander about the taking of revenge, but while Badlapur’s thematic concerns (the toll vengeance takes on the innocent’s soul and on the world around him) were lofty, Andhadhun is a more straightforwardly down-and-dirty exercise in desi noir; it works into its nasty little guessing game — of who, between the murderous widow and the piano-playing faker, will make it to the end — all sorts of picaresque detours around Pune (shot with deceitful warmth during the day and ominousness at night) and into the black market for human organs. The greatest pleasure of the film, though, is Tabu, playing a femme fatale hall-of-famer with the kind of scenery-obliterating relish that Barbara Stanwyck would have been proud of; she’s a figure of delicious cruelty and pitch-black humor, and she has you almost rooting for her to get away with her sundry crimes.
Less devious but just as wonderfully nuanced is Taapsee Pannu’s Rumi, a character with such force of personality that she singlehandedly elevates Manmarziyaan, Anurag Kashyap’s punk riff on love triangles like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, from tired thought exercise to something truly romantic and novel-feeling. (The score, far and away the year’s best, helps.) Stars have been born seemingly overnight in Bollywood this year (Sara Ali Khan is, one film in, already a contender for the title of India’s Sweetheart), but Pannu has been putting the work in and rising through the ranks for a while now, and it’s particularly lovely to see her break through with such a vividly unapologetic star turn.
Actually, one of the great joys in the Bollywood films I’ve loved this year has been seeing women be unapologetic, shameless in taking pleasure and making mistakes, and Pannu’s Rumi grabs both pleasure and pain with a ferocity that energizes this, shaggy, repetitive (no one needs four contemplative shots at the Golden Temple!) and overlong, but ultimately rewarding romance. Could Kashyap, the self-styled heartland heir to Scorsese, turn out to be the successor to Yash Chopra we didn’t know we needed? Someone needs to be making these joyously heartsick portraits of memorable women and the men who love them and long for them, and Kashyap seems to have an unexpected, perverse sort of knack for the subgenre. Who would have thought?
Who would have thought, also, that a film with hilariously unsubtle promo for Amul ice cream, Haldiram’s snack mixes, and Uber would turn out to be anything but an embarrassment? Not only does Veere Di Wedding overcome the humiliation of having to put Air India sponcon bang in the middle of what is meant to be a cathartic montage song, it somehow whips up the year’s funniest, most entertaining Bollywood film out of its fairly slight tale of friends reuniting for the wedding of one of their own.
I’ve written at length about the film here, but half a year after its release, Veere holds up as a bawdy, large-hearted work of irrepressible comic energy. Its portrayal of the particular social class its characters are from is keenly observed; the cast is almost uniformly excellent, with Swara Bhasker, Sonam Kapoor, and Vishwas Kinni each turning in crackling comic turns. And the film has heartfelt things to say about how young women ought to be empowered to find who they are and what they want by making mistakes and listening to the beat of their own desires instead of sticking to scripts that outline a strictly circumscribed femininity. This is escapism done pretty, done smart, and done right; there really is no excuse for Bollywood’s (much more expensive) male-star-driven comedies to be any less good than this (or for any end-credits item number to be less catchy than Tareefan).
Love Per Square Foot is also escapism, albeit in a more minor-key. The protagonists here are not upper-class Delhiites who take healing group trips to Thai resorts when tragedy strikes; they are middle-class Mumbaikars living in cramped apartments and taking packed trains to work. Mumbai really does function as sort of a beguiling third lead in this lowkey charmer about two young people who decide to fake a marriage so they can score a housing scheme loan and — wouldn’t you know it! — really fall in love; it feels at once enormous with aspiration and mercilessly claustrophobic with its narrow windows of opportunity for folks of modest means. Director Anand Tiwary and writer Sumeet Vyas know we miss the era of classic romcoms and give us all the tropes (the squabbles, the mismatched familial backgrounds, the meet-cute followed by the fight-cute, the boring fiance); but the story they’ve worked these beloved bits into feels fresh and relevant because the characters’ concerns and the world they live in are depicted with bracing honesty and a sense of real stakes.
Of course, a romantic comedy lives and dies by its leads’ chemistry, and Vicky Kaushal (who’s had a fantastic year) and Angira Dhar are warm and sexy together. They’re buoyed by a supporting cast that includes the great Pathak sisters and Alankrita Sahai playing Kaushal’s very weird, very sexy, very funny boss/paramour. She is among a list of fantastic women who’ve stolen entire films in just a scene or two this year: Surekha Sikhri lending the marvelous Neena Gupta splendid support in Badhaai Ho (which I liked very much); Amala Akkineni in Karwaan; Aditi Rao Hydari in Padmaavat; Chaya Kadam and Ashwini Kalsekar (a Raghavan repertory player) in Andhadhun; Ayesha Raza in Veere Di Wedding; Ritabhari Chakraborty in Pari; and Manisha Koirala in Lust Stories and Sanju. Bollywood may yet be, for most intents and purposes, a man’s world, but it’s the women who remain its chief joy.