Despite my writing absence from this site, I was able to see a ton of movies this year. And man, was it a good one. This is easily the best year for film as a whole since I started this blog (so six years now, I believe). I began losing track of four-star great movies I saw this year, which naturally made making a top 10 list particularly challenging for 2018. Nevertheless, I persisted, although you will notice that I have a significant number of “ties;” some might say this is breaking the rules, but this is my list and I can do what I want.
This year, I was most appreciative of films that reflected the goodness of humanity. Every time we turn on the news, it seems there is so much wrong with the world and the people in it. I love a good dark drama, but I think we were all looking for something to lift our spirits up and give us some hope. Not all of this year’s films did that, but most of them did. These were the films I found most beautiful, thought-provoking, emotional or enjoyable in 2018. Cheers to another great year of movies!
10. GAME NIGHT
I feel like this brilliant comedy was overlooked by some critics because, well, it’s a comedy. But man, what a ride! This brilliantly crafted knee-slapper stars Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams as a game board-loving couple who are forced into a game more dangerous than they imagined when Bateman’s trouble-making brother (a hilarious Kyle Chandler) comes to town. There are enough twists and turns in this labyrinthine plot to make your head spin, but there’s also great running gags, top-notch visual humor and incredible acting all-around. Also, the one-shot Fabergé egg heist is one of the best action sequences of the year, right up there with the casino fight in Black Panther. Rarely are mainstream comedies this exquisitely constructed.
9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–FALLOUT
Imagine the most badass 2 ½ hour roller coaster, and you have a faint idea of what you’re in for with the sixth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the best one yet. This impeccably crafted thrill ride is one of the best action movies this decade. Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, and there are enough synthetic masks and double crosses to fill three movies. Yeah, the plot is a bit ridiculous and complicated, but dear lord, the action in this movie is some of the best ever put to screen. This is mostly due to Cruise, who has always insisted on doing his own stunts and pumps the daredevil antics up to a level never seen before. From skydiving to helicopter flying, motorcycle chases and leaping across rooftops, Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie consistently keep a lump in our throats and our nails clawing out our chairs. What makes this one such a blast is that it just nails that M:I tone of being dramatic without taking itself too seriously. When people are constantly pulling off masks and revealing themselves to be in disguise, it’s hard to get too serious. The terrific supporting cast and lightning-quick dialogue help to keep the pace frenetic, and the whole thing feels like an intense labor of love that, miraculously, everyone survived. Well, almost anyways. I saw this bad boy in IMAX and barely made it out unscathed. Action films this heart-pounding and polished are a rare and beautiful thing.
Critics can not stop raving about Alfonso Cuaron’s latest masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The veteran director’s intimate, autobiographical look at a nanny and the family she serves amidst the civil unrest of 1970s Mexico City is a jaw-dropper. Filmed in stunning black-and-white, Cuaron captures the look and feel of the era with painfully accurate detail, and invites us in for the journey. Thanks to Cuaron’s own eye-popping cinematography, extraordinary sound design and a wonderful performance from Yalitza Aparicio, this is an undeniably emotional experience. It’s also, I must say, a bit slow, and I can’t say it had quite the impact on me that it is having on a lot of other folks. It’s one I need to see again, on a bigger screen and a better sound system when I’m less tired. I know this is the kind of quality film that deserves my utmost attention, but for now Roma is comfortably one of the best films I saw in 2018, rather than the far-and-away best. Yet, there are several scenes that will stick with me for a long time.
7. THE RIDER
I found Chloe Zhao’s stunning portrait of a professional horse rider dealing with the fallout of a traumatic brain injury to be one of the more gripping films I’ve seen in some time. The Rider is the kind of film that sneaks up on you as it paints an exquisite portrait of life lived on the margins. The film seems to be “about” rodeo riders, but it’s more deeply about how to live life when our dreams don’t go how we expect them to. I definitely cried watching this one. Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself, and his performance feels all the more authentic given that he’s lived out his character in real life. The film’s use of naturalistic actors could have been a big miss (see Clint Eastwood’s 15:17 to Paris), but in Zhao’s capable hands they help convey something natural and beautiful. For those at a crossroads in life or feeling like they might have to give up on a long-held dream or passion, The Rider is a box-of-hankies salve for bitter souls.
6. BLACK PANTHER/BLACKkKLANSMAN/SORRY TO BOTHER YOU/GREEN BOOK
This terrific quartet all made an impact this year due to their diverse and wild perspectives on the black experience in America. I loved them all so much I decided they should share a spot.
Black Panther is the rare film that enthralled both critics and audiences alike, an even rarer feat in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film definitely works as a superhero origin story and as a vehicle for spectacular action set pieces (see the aforementioned casino fight or the subsequent car chase), but it digs deeper by examining the roots behind racial tensions in America and giving us the best Marvel villain yet: Erik Kilmonger, played by a brilliant Michael B. Jordan. Through Kilmonger, Jordan forces us to confront our own biases and the way we’ve stood by as black people suffered in the name of peace. He’s the rare villain that actually ends up changing the hero’s mind, although the way he goes about his mission is nothing to be praised. Thankfully, the hero is pretty great too, giving another avenue for Chadwick Boseman to show off his considerable talents. But it’s the ladies who really steal the show here, with terrific actors like Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o getting to show off their badassery and prove that the ladies can throw down as much as the men can any day. Wakanda Forever!
Far less subtle in its racial overtones is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a based-on-a-true-story tale as in-your-face and controversial as anything the veteran director has done. This is not a sensitive racial drama, but it is a powerful one, if you prefer a bludgeon to a scalpel. The chaotic “friendship” between a Colorado Springs undercover police officer (John David Washington) and KKK leader David Duke (a never-better Topher Grace) is frequently hilarious and disturbing, sometimes in the same scene. Lee does a great job of pulling our strings until we’re not sure whether we should be cackling or muttering uncomfortably under our breath. It’s a terrific high-wire act that could have easily felt overstuffed or manipulative in less capable hands. But, from Lee’s impeccable direction to an amazing soundtrack and committed performances (Adam Driver is especially good), the whole thing works. Oh, and watch out for that ending—it will sneak up on you.
Sorry to Bother You is an even darker racial comedy that marks the directorial debut of Boots Riley, who proves he has something to say. The always great Lakeith Stanfield leads us down a wild and disturbing path, as his Cassius Green makes his way up the corporate ladder by using his “white voice” to manipulate telemarketing customers to buy from him. His increasingly cushy job is soon at odds with his social activist friends (Tessa Thompson and Steven Yuen), who believe the corporation he works for is up to some shady business. To say that this movie is insane would be an understatement, but Riley has some profound things to say about the relationship between African Americans and capitalism, and how the corporate machine both objectifies and abuses black bodies. The film’s slow descent into sci-fi insanity feels earned because Cassius is such an every-man—he is both ambitious and a bit naive, manipulated by people who pretend to have his best interests at heart. Sorry to Bother You is definitely an acquired taste, but it’s unlike anything else out there, and, much like Get Out, shows that there is no shortage of up-and-coming (and sorely needed) black voices in contemporary cinema.
Green Book is the most stuffy and traditional film of the group, but it’s so damn charming it eventually wins you over with its goofy heart. The friendship between Mahershala Ali’s sensitive Dr. Shirley and Viggo Mortensen’s braggadocious Tony is undeniably affecting, especially when we’re in the hands of such terrific actors. Despite its Oscar-bait trappings, the film is far from predictable, and it’s a surprisingly funny and enjoyable ride. Perhaps that’s partially due to director Peter Farrelly (of Farrely brothers fame), who has seemingly left his Dumb & Dumber days behind, and shows he is an accomplished and visionary filmmaker in his own right. This is a film that might have you rolling your eyes in the beginning, but by the end you’re wiping away tears. When examining America’s racial past, we could use more light and gentle touches like the ones found here. Green Book is a powerful testament to putting yourself in someone’s shoes in order to enact a change of heart.
5. THE INCREDIBLES 2/ISLE OF DOGS/SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDERVERSE
This was a particularly great year for animated movies, and these three are sterling examples of why it was so good. I loved them all so much, I couldn’t pick a winner.
The Incredibles 2 is a pitch-perfect sequel to the beloved original. It took 14 years, but the wait was worth it. Brad Bird’s whip-smart and eye-popping sequel is another powerful testament to the power of family. Bird is one of the best dialogue writers in the business, and much of this film’s joy comes simply from hearing his words come out of these colorful characters’ mouths. The film also deals more with family dynamics than the original, tackling topics such as mid-life crisis and the feeling of abandonment. Thankfully, we also get a slew of new superheroes (and more Frozone!) to liven up the action, although the villain can’t hold a candle to Syndrome. This is another Pixar delight, great for kids but perhaps even more fun and profound for adults.
Speaking of films kids and adults alike can enjoy, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is an endlessly clever and original take on the famous character. I didn’t think I wanted to see another Spider-Man movie, but Sony animation has thankfully proved me very wrong. In fact, this is the best Spidey flick to date, with memorable characters, an engaging story and some of the best animation ever put to screen. No film has even looked more like a moving comic book than this one, and it’s honestly pretty jaw-dropping to witness. This is definitely the most fun I had at the movies this year, and I can’t wait to see what the Spiderverse kicks up next.
If you prefer your stunning animation of the more hand-crafted variety, look no further than Wes Anderson’s delightful Isle of Dogs. There’s a particular pleasure to watching the painstaking craftsmanship of stop-motion animation, and this film is clearly a labor of love. Everything is hand-made, from the painted neo-Tokyo backdrops to the smoke made from cotton and hypnotizing fur on the canine cast. Beyond the visuals, it’s just a sweet and engaging story, with a great cast of veteran voice actors to round out the package. Isle of Dogs may seem like a typical boy-and-his-dog story, but in the hands of a visionary like Anderson it is a work of true genius.
4. LEAVE NO TRACE
Leave No Trace, like many of this year’s best films, is about the inner lives of its characters more than it is their outer struggle. When that outer struggle is homelessness, such profound introspection is quite a feat.
The always terrific Ben Foster plays Will, a war veteran suffering from PTSD and a variety of other…issues. One of those issues is not his relationship with his daughter Tom (a breakout Thomasin McKenzie), which is palpable and profound. But, Will can’t exactly live in a traditional suburb with four walls. In fact, he’s convinced the best life he can provide for his daughter is out in the open wilderness. But there are other forces, both outer and inner, determined to prevent that from happening.
This gorgeous film is Debra Granik’s first since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, but the wait was well worth it. Granik takes her naturalistic style from a backwoods thriller to a subtle tale of love, friendship and the power of community. There’s so much in this film to appreciate: Michael McDonough’s arresting cinematography, the natural performances and the powerful themes. But what really reaches the gut is the relationship at the center—one that helps us all to think about someone we might have to love enough to let go. It’s a story that absolutely celebrates the goodness of humanity, even as it recognizes that there is brokenness amidst the beauty. This is a bittersweet movie that nonetheless ends up feeling like a big, warm hug. It might just restore your faith in humanity.
3. FIRST REFORMED
Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, which is my all-time favorite film. Schrader’s own directing career has been full of ups and downs (especially in recent years), but few would argue that First Reformed doesn’t represent one of his most profound and stirring works, anchored by the best performance of Ethan Hawke’s formidable career.
The film, in many ways, feels like a modern-day remake of Taxi Driver, with much more overt religious parallels. Schrader’s “God’s lonely man” is the Revered Toller this time (Hawke), a dedicated priest in charge of a dwindling Episcopal congregation. Most of his duties these days consist of giving tours of the historic church to visitors rather than doing anything that might be truly called the Lord’s work.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Toller is well-intentioned but a bit aimless, feeling like his life lacks purpose despite his deep-seated faith that God has called him to this work. He turns to drinking. He turns away those who reach out to help. One day, he finds purpose and meaning, however, when he encounters parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is concerned about her husband Michael and his increasingly nihilistic views on raising a child in a world ravaged by climate change. Though initially repulsed by the man, Toller soon begins to see him as a sort of kindred spirit, and like Bickle turns to an act of violence to save those he loves and pay penance for his sins.
When it comes to modern films about religious faith, First Reformed ranks with Calvary and Silence as one of the finest. It’s a deeply personal work by one of our most spiritual filmmakers at the top of his game. Its dark themes and refusal to provide easy answers means it’s not for anyone looking for easy believism. But, for people of faith or of none in particular looking for a gripping moral drama, few films so potently echo the Prophet Jeremiah’s words: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
2. EIGHTH GRADE
Writer-director Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is nothing short of a revelation. Few modern films have so perfectly captured the confounding mixture of joy, fear, anxiety, isolation and hormones of modern adolescents. This is the kind of film that’s instantly relatable: anyone can remember a time when they were like Kayla (an arresting Elsie Fisher); ambitious and kind but eager to please and prone to peer pressure. Kayla’s internal life is fascinating as she struggles with body shaming, cliques, awkward pool parties and school dances and her lifestyle blog, which feels more like an obligation than a passion.
Kayla, like nearly all modern youth, also struggles with technology and the way social media and phone addiction feeds into the lies young people are told about themselves. You have to be pretty, you have to be popular, you have to have sex and go to wild parties and be a rebel. Kayla is both resistant to and drawn towards this kind of exhausting lifestyle, and she must choose which things she will believe about herself and what she will filter out.
This is an uncomfortable and awkward film, for sure, but it’s also sweet, hilarious and completely relatable (the scene with Kayla and the high school boy in the car is the most intense scene in any film released this year). It also has so much wisdom to speak to young girls especially about where worth and identity really come from. This is all conveyed with brilliant cinematography that makes us feel like a part of Kayla’s life, along with sensitive and soulful performances all around (Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s father is particularly great).
Eighth Grade feels like a miracle, a debut so self-assured and confident it deserves mention alongside the great coming-of-age classics. What a wonderful work of art this is.
1. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
No film this year moved me more, and none had more value. Morgan Neville’s intimate and unbearably emotional examination of the life of Fred Rogers and the impact of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood is one of the finest documentaries ever put to screen.
There is so much in this film that is necessary. To see an exemplar of a truly kind and giving soul in our modern age of darkness is something that should give us all a measure of hope. To see that a true man doesn’t have to fit traditional ideas about what a “man” should be, especially in an era of heightened sensitivity to toxic masculinity, is something that speaks deeply to my soul. Rogers is a reminder that kindness is, indeed, a revolution, as he demonstrated when he came back on the air after retirement to comfort a grieving nation reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. No average man is asked to tackle such a herculean task, but like everything Fred did, he accomplished it with grace, sensitivity and a seemingly inhuman amount of humility.
The film is also just an exquisitely crafted work of art, once again proving why Neville is one of the finest documentary filmmakers working today. His deft handling of the material is something to behold; refraining from hagiography and ensuring many different perspectives and personalities are represented. It’s no hyperbole to say that there really wasn’t anyone who had anything bad to say about Fred. He was just that special of a person, and this is that special of a documentary. It made me cry and laugh in equal measure, and has left me reeling ever since. Any film that encourages us to be better humans, and to do so without manipulation, is one for the history books.
The rest: As I said before, 2018 was a truly extraordinary year for film. There are so many movies that I regret I couldn’t include on this list. Some of my favorites, in no particular order, are: A Quiet Place, Paddington 2, Lean on Pete, Avengers: Infinity War, The Favourite, A Star is Born, Ralph Breaks the Internet, First Man, Annihilation, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Tully, Crazy Rich Asians and Ready Player One, to name a few.
Blind spots: Shoplilfters, Minding the Gap, They Shall Not Grow Old, Burning, The Tale, Cold War, The Death of Stalin, Sweet Country, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Hereditary, If Beale Street Could Talk, You Were Never Really Here, Widows, Free Solo, The Hate U Give, Mandy, Three Identical Stranger, Revenge, The Old Man and the Gun, The Sisters Brothers, At Eternity’s Gate, The Other Side of the Wind, The Wife, A Private War, Blaze, Thoroughbreds, Journey’s End, Searching and Boy Erased, among others.