In a year when there was little humanity to be found in our daily lives, cinema provided an escape to worlds and characters where love, compassion, and understanding were virtues to be celebrated. The films that resonated most with me this past year were the ones that embraced what makes us different and showed that family comes in many forms, none of them “traditional.” It was also a year when venomous comedy was in no short supply, and while I enjoyed the critically adored Vice and The Favourite while I was watching them, neither of them resonated with me for long after.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed may well have earned a spot on my list had it not gone totally off the rails in the final minutes, but kudos to him for making a good movie post-Canyons. I will also happily single out Ethan Hawke for giving his best performance ever in that film. Though it didn’t quite merit a spot on my list, I salute Teen Titans GO! to the Movies for being a brilliantly acidic kick in the crotch to the DC Cinematic Universe. Other films I saw in 2018 that I enjoyed but didn’t earn a spot on the list include Incredibles 2, The Rider, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Three Identical Strangers, American Animals, The House with a Clock in its Walls, and Avengers: Infinity War.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse didn’t work for me, sorry. At the end of the day it was another god damned origin story. Neither did other critically beloved films this year like You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, A Star is Born, BlacKkKlansman, Isle of Dogs, and Mary Poppins Returns, but I understand why they worked for a lot of people. Also, we all know that Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad movie, right? Can we all admit that out loud? It’s not good, no matter how much you love Queen.
Movies I would qualify as dumb-but-fun are Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Bumblebee, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Holmes & Watson, and until the last thirty minutes, Venom. I’d recommend all of them, but adjust your expectations accordingly. Movies I still haven’t seen and hate myself for not having seen include Paddington 2, Vox Lux, Burning, Free Solo, and appropriately enough, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
I no longer do a worst-of list, but some films I straight up disliked in 2018 include Luca Guadanino’s unforgivably cheap looking remake of Suspiria, the horrendously unfunny Action Point, the insultingly stupid Happytime Murders, and the supremely hollow Sherlock Gnomes. Shane Black’s The Predator felt as if it suffered massive head trauma in the third act, becoming one of the dumbest movies in a long time. Everything else was just sort of forgettable or not terribly good or memorable.
These are the best of the best…
10. Leave No Trace
Deborah Granik's 2010 film Winter's Bone established her as a director with real southern gothic credibility, a director able to portray a way of life not often seen on film with tremendous truthfulness. Her latest work, Leave No Trace, is as no-frills as filmmaking gets, telling a gripping story about a father (a never-better Ben Foster) and his daughter (the remarkable Thomasin McKenzie) living off the grid. While it deals with heavy themes like PTSD, feelings of abandonment, and the way we treat veterans in this country, it’s nowhere near as gut-wrenching to watch as Winter's Bone. This truly tender film is one of the most economical stories of love and survival ever told, with a perfectly pitched pair of performances from Foster and McKenzie.
9. Black Panther
Ten years ago, Christopher Nolan elevated the comic book movie to an art form with The Dark Knight, and this year, Ryan Coogler pulled off an equally impressive feat with his first foray into the genre. Black Panther transcends the confines of what has come to be known as "The Marvel Formula" and gives a wonderfully subversive riff on the Marvel superhero film. More than that, however, the film is a celebration of African culture, a warning against the dangers of isolationism, and a rip-roaringly fun action adventure film. That its roots are in the world of comic books is a testament to the bright future the genre has when filmmakers can continue deconstructing what it is that makes a comic book movie.
Alex Garland has a corner on smart science fiction, and his follow-up to 2015's Ex Machina is a much more expressionistic take on a similar question: What does it mean to be human. In a society increasingly reliant on technology, what is it, ultimately, that separates human from machine? Far more elliptical than any of his previous scripts, Annihilation doesn't necessarily set out to answer all of the many questions it raises. The fun, however, is in figuring out what it all means for yourself. Any science fiction film that climaxes with a visual effects-laden modern dance sequence can't be all bad, can it?
7. Eighth Grade
The notion of a YouTube star making a feature film sounds like a terrible proposition, however, with his feature directorial debut, Bo Burnham has crafted one of the most painfully honest films about adolescence since Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse. Where Solondz reveled in his characters wallowing in the depths of adolescent despair, though, Burnham reaches out to his characters with heartbreaking empathy. Young Elsie Fisher gives a wonderfully realized portrait of an awkward teen, while the always reliable Josh Hamilton gives the performance of his career as a dad whose one wish is for his daughter to love herself as much as he loves her. It's often a cringe-inducing and difficult film to watch, but it cuts to the core of the universally terrible but ultimately uniting experience that middle school is for everyone.
That I am only now arriving to the party on Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is something I shall likely never forgive myself for, but his latest film has all the humanity one could hope for in a fictional film. Set in a poverty-stricken area in Tokyo, Shoplifters centers around a ramshackle family of petty thieves, skating by in the unseen corners of the city. When they decide, against their better judgment, to take in a seemingly abandoned five year old girl, they redefine the notion of family. Bitterly funny, brutally real, bleak yet optimistic, this tenderly loving film will stay with you long after it's over thanks to a note-perfect ensemble cast and a beautiful new way of looking at the world.
5. They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson has always been enamored with special effects and what they can do to aid in telling a story. With They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson used special effects to bring the past to life in a way never before seen in a film. Jackson and his team of visual effects wizards have revitalized century-old footage, using it to connect us to people and places long gone. A World War I documentary that's not the least bit interested in the war itself, Jackson's brilliant film ensures we never forget that the real cost of any conflict is our own humanity. The soldiers of this film not only shall not grow old, they'll never be forgotten by anyone who sees this film.
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
It's tough for any filmmaker to follow-up a Best Picture winner, but the fact that "If Beale Street Could Talk" is only the third feature film by director Barry Jenkins speaks volumes about his enormous talent. Elegant and elegiac, Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's novel of the same name is, like many great films this year, hopeful and bittersweet all at once. Jenkins' gorgeous shot composition is aided by James Laxton's lush and radiant cinematography, and a haunting score by Nicholas Britell. Also featuring a top-notch cast with the always incredible Regina King delivering the best role of her career, this is a film brimming with life in the midst of some thoroughly hopeless circumstances.
Speaking of tough acts to follow, London-born director Steve McQueen decided to follow his Oscar winning film 12 Years a Slave with this wholly satisfying thriller that plays like a good page-turning book. An excellent ensemble headed by a dazzling Viola Davis add gravitas to a film that might have been handled as just another disposable thriller by a lesser filmmaker. Featuring the single best scene put on film this year—a single, long take shot with a camera mounted on the hood of a car—Widows is a film for grown-ups that never insults their intelligence and always keeps them on their toes, ready for the next shocking, expertly realized turn. That this wallowed in the multiplex while an utter mediocrity like Bohemian Rhapsody made a fortune makes me angry.
2. First Man
In an era when heroes loom large in the multiplex, it's nice to have a major studio film that dedicates itself to bringing one of the biggest American legends of all down to human proportions. Damien Chazelle follows up his Oscar winning efforts Whiplash and La La Land with a fourth film that stuns with its honest, unsparing look at America's space program. As portrayed by a clench-jawed Ryan Gosling, Neil Armstrong becomes a real person for the audience in a way no other major American figure has on film in a long time. Gosling is beautifully and brilliantly supported at every step by Claire Foy as Neil’s wife Janet, and a top notch supporting cast full of terrific character actors. First Man carries all of the awe and power that prior films detailing the space race have, but it never forgets that these men were—first and foremost—human beings. If only every biopic committed itself to such verisimilitude.
1. The Death of Stalin
It's rare that I find the funniest film of the year to be the best film of the year, but "The Death of Stalin" is so much more than a mere comedy. Armando Iannucci's latest film is a hilariously funny film about some wildly unfunny people and situations. Sometimes you see a film and think, "This was made just for me," and that's the overwhelming feeling I get every time I watch The Death of Stalin. The triumph of the film is its ability to move seamlessly between comedy and outrage, horror and hilarity, all while keeping a vise-like grip on the throat of anyone thinking, “This could never happen here.”. These incredible turns come throughout the film's running time, always managing to keep you laughing when you're not appalled by the pettiness and lack of humanity on display. The Death of Stalin reminds us that sometimes, the only thing we have going for us is our sense of humor. Until they squash that, these petty tyrants and wealthy demagogues can't hold total dominion, so even if it's all you can do, you have to keep laughing.