It’s that time of year again…
10. Avengers: Infinity War
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely with credits given to several comic book creators
This is probably a controversial way to start.
Some of you might say that I cheated a bit, slipping this film in at the tenth spot. I’ll cop to that, I definitely made some allowances in order to keep this film in this spot. I get why some people might be upset about that. I mean, it could be said that this isn’t the most artistically driven film out there, and it would be fair to point out that there isn’t a huge message of social relevance, or one that perhaps speaks to the human condition, going on beneath the near-constant bombast racing wildly across the screen. You could make the argument that there were quite a few films this year that are much “better” than this one, and often in myriad of ways. Honestly, you could make the argument there were even better comic book movies made this year, and… eh… you’re not wrong, but, here’s the thing… this list is about my favorites, so none of that other crap really matters, right? Besides, what are we talking about here? The successful cap of a ten-year effort to create a wildly successful mega-brand the likes of which has never been seen before? A much-anticipated event that multiple studios have desperately attempted to emulate, only to have every single effort fail in the beginning stages, sometimes even before they could start? The well-balanced and well told culmination of a multi-franchise story-line, built on the fly, over the course of over a decade, not to mention twenty different successful and well-loved films, all made by a disparate gaggle of writers, directors, and actors? Isn’t that an achievement? Or does that shit not count? This film is the pinnacle of event filmmaking. It’s the end point of a huge effort, a modern-day marvel, if you will. A veritable army of people has worked for a years and years just to get to this point, to this film, and they did it. They stuck the landing (or, at least the first half of it). Isn’t that an achievement?
Regardless of what you may think of the film itself, Avengers: Infinity War is most definitely an achievement. Yes, for the studio system, yes, for the money-making end of Hollywood as well. Yes, it is a major cog in The Machine. Yes, it exists to make money, but to me, all of that stuff is just extra gravy when it comes to the main reason why I’ve included it on this list.
It was a blast.
I loved it. It was fantastically entertaining. It was fun and exciting. All of that flashing light and loud explosion spectacle? It was an actual spectacle, featuring characters I cared about, and culminating a story I’ve been invested in for a while now. Granted, I love comics, (it is known) and I love the source material for this franchise, but I also love the DC source material, and I sure as shit don’t love those movies. The Marvel movies have their ups and downs. Some are definitely better than others, but all of them have consistently had heart and have made an effort to create characters, all while trying to entertain, and all while being burdened with not only being shackled to the rest of the franchises, but being a soulless corporation’s Golden Goose. They can’t take too many risks creatively or with the narrative, but they’ve taken some. They have tried to make something good within their box, and appreciate the effort. When it comes to Blockbuster popcorn flicks, the MCU gives me what I want, and Infinity War was all of that and more. This film felt like a giant cross-over event. It reminded me of why I love the comics. And it did things I wasn’t expecting. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed an accurate Iron Man was possible, let alone that he would someday fight Thanos among the wreckage of a dead civilization on the moon of Titan. Hell, when they first showed Thanos at the end of the fist Avengers, I didn’t think it was possible, but they did it. They not only did it, but they did with heart and sincerity, and all while not taking themselves too seriously. Plus, best of all, they somehow managed to turn that ridiculously overpowered macguffin of a gauntlet into an iconic cinema cliff-hanger for an entire new generation, creating a moment on the same level as the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
Isn’t that an achievement?
9. The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, with credits to a few other creators
The title is pretty self-explanatory… This is a film about the death of Stalin, and the desperate rush by his ministers to fill the vacuum left by his passing. Also, it’s a comedy.
This film was underway well before Trump was a definite thing, but somehow the buffoonish and (somewhat) historically accurate events depicted in the film still provides a valuable insight into our current inept, crooked, and corrupt regime, and that insight can be found in the decision to let the actors keep their own accents. By having the actors keep their own accents, Iannucci took an event that happened a century or so ago, in a distant country—perhaps the very definition of “at arm’s length,” especially for American audiences—and suddenly made it relatable and very much of the now. Suddenly, these characters weren’t just names from old black and white photos, or grainy film footage, a collection of fuzzy figures who needed subtitles, they were people you know. They’re friends. They’re family. They’re neighbors. They’re regular, every day, stupid, venal, petty, and all too common people, and the film never flinches from showing them as the monsters they really were. That’s the important part, especially these days, to show that these men weren’t extraordinarily inhuman beasts killing millions of people, they were dipshits and morons and lickspittles and boobs and power-hungry opportunists. These were people like Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner and, of course, they were people like Donald Trump. Ordinary people, ordinary monsters. For that part alone, I would love the hell out of this film.
But it’s also ridiculously funny.
Iannucci is one of the people responsible for Veep, so that same razor sharp, smart-ass dialogue crackles throughout the film. The comedy is super quick and wild, and goes from squirming and drawn out, to gasping in sudden shock, and the cast is so good together. Like I said, it’s just ridiculously funny. Obviously, the inclusion of Jeffrey Tambour is a now a bit of a dark smudge on the film, something that might make revisiting it a little less bright in the future, but for my initial viewing at least, this was a fantastic experience.
8. Anna and the Apocalypse
Directed by John McPhail
Written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry
I honestly expected this movie to be terrible.
I expected it to be shrill and ridiculously twee and so saccharin sweet that I’d leave the theatre with a toothache. I expected this to be some screeching and tedious and broadly mugging Glee–meets-Kids Incorporated horrible slog, but with “zombies.” I also expected at least one, maybe two, references to “Thriller.” I mean, my eyes were pre-rolled. After all, it is a Scottish, Christmas-set, teen drama and zombie apocalypse musical, the combination sounds like a K-pop group, a soldier returning home to surprise their kid, and a kitten video made a movie. How could it possibly be any good at all? It sounds like the end result of a tumblr riff that went on for far too long after everyone involved should’ve put the Redbulls down and gone to bed. The movie shouldn’t work at all.
But god damn, it’s so charming and fun and full of heart. The songs are super catchy. The cast is great, and most of the characters die. The gore splatters everywhere. Seriously, it is hands down the best Scottish Teen, Zombie Apocalypse, Christmas Musical I’ve ever seen.
Kidding aside, it really is a good movie.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a good example of the benefits of going into a film with an open-mind. It’s impossible not to have some kind of expectations, especially when you live on the internet and marinate in pop culture. Honestly, only fools and whiners—themselves blinded to the fact that they’re already enslaved to their own preconceived notions—would try to claim that preconceived notions about films are a bad thing. This is why trailers and posters exist, you’re supposed to consider and judge and decide. Plus, the people involved in these films have usually been involved in other projects as well, and you will probably have some opinions on those projects too. That’s normal. That’s unavoidable. “Wait until it comes out before you judge” is the dirge of the butthurt. The important part is, when you sit down in the theatre, you have to be willing to give that particular film a fair shake, and judge by what it is. It may not work out, you might still hate it, but you might not… ya’ never know…
My point is, this film was a joyful, wonderful surprise that I wasn’t expecting at all, and I’m so glad I took the chance to find that out.
Directed by Alex Garland
Written by Alex Garland, based on the book by Jeff Vandermeer
I find the term “superhero fatigue” to be offensive. The idea that there’s nothing but superhero films out there and that there’s no room for smaller, smarter, better, arty, whatever-er films anymore sounds like so much First World blame-shifting and entitlement, it makes me ill. With so many terrible things going on in the world, I think this is one of the few truly valueless complaints out there. I mean… get a real fucking problem.
However, that having been said, I recognize that Hollywood’s focus on grabbing fistfuls and fistfuls of money grows with every year and every box office smash. I don’t know if there’s less films like this one because of this attitude, or because Alex Garland is just a little more unique in vision and execution, or if maybe you just have to hunt more to find other films like this, or maybe that’s all shit, and there’s just as many examples of everything like there always has been, and the real reason is just that I’m an adult and I’m not a projectionist at a 12-plex anymore, or a counter monkey at an independent video store, so I don’t get to have all of the options at my fingertips anymore, and see them immediately on demand, but whatever… Point is, I do know I’m always happy to see the weirder and riskier films make it to wide release.
And I do love this weird film… I hated the book, but I loved this weird film.
Alex Garland makes smart and interesting sci-fi. He makes beautiful sci-fi. He makes… cold sci-fi, sure, but hey, you can’t win them all. Besides, we’re dealing with heavy themes here. Plus, Tessa Thompson gets turned into a tree, and Natalie Portman machine-guns an albino alligator. And that bear? Good Lord. That thing is pure nightmare fuel. That cry… Man, I love that weird and awesome and beautiful stuff. This whole film is a gift. It’s a travelogue into the weird and unexplained and you are as helpless as the characters before these insane vistas. I would love to see this on the big screen again. Visuals aside, the thing I loved most about this film is that it’s about self-destruction and death, the ways we face it, and how that changes us, and it doesn’t offer any clean answers out. It’s just “crazy awful shit can sometimes happen for no reason, and you have to deal with it as you will.” That’s fantastic. I also love that the film feels no need to explain any of this to you either. There is no point where it looks at the audience and says “The shimmer is a metaphor for cancer, and the earth is the human body.” There’s nothing like that, there’s only: “Catch on. Keep up. Or don’t. Also, here’s a fucked-up bear screaming at you in a human voice.” So while I do love my blockbusters, I love the strange and unexpected journeys too. I love the complete lack of catering to the audience. I miss that in films, and I love it when one comes along that digs its heels in and pulls it off.
6. Eighth Grade
Written and Directed by: Bo Burnham
This film is an example of something that wasn’t on my radar at all, but positive word of mouth drove me to the theatre to go see it in a year where I definitely wasn’t going to the theatre often. I guess that also makes it another example of approaching each film with an open mind. I wasn’t familiar with Bo Burnham before this, but guessing from how much his name was excitedly mentioned in the chatter about this film when it came out, and after glancing at his IMDB page, I’m betting I’m probably one of the few people in the world who hasn’t heard of him, because he’s apparently been in a ton of things. From going by this film, he’s super talented too, and now I’m looking forward to whatever his next project is going to be.
No wonder people were so excited.
From the outside, Eighth Grade seems like every other coming of age film, something you’ve seen before and have probably loved on occasion. After all, it’s a film about that awkward time of life that can sometimes seems like it never truly ended. This film in particular is very distinctly set in the now, but it’s so honest in a way that it is so universally—terribly—familiar that you can’t help but recognize and relate to it. I know some people can barely even watch it, because it’s so squirmingly real. That honesty and sincerity is what makes this film so incredible. It’s rare to see a film like that, without a massive “life lesson” at the end… or maybe that’s not quite true. Maybe the lesson was… be kinder. Or maybe it was… chin up? Tomorrow is another day? Maybe it was all three. Either way, this is a film about who we may have been, and who we still want to be, and I really loved that.
Also, that banana scene is one for the ages.
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with credits to Jack London and Stewart Edward White
For a while now, I’ve been wondering if the western is dead as a genre.
It’s too well known, too familiar, too unavoidably packed with clichés, too problematic in its inherent politics, too fake, or at least… not real enough. In the end, it’s maybe just too “done.” Don’t get me wrong, I love westerns, but my question is: Is there any new ground to cover? And: Is the old ground too covered? I really enjoyed Bone Tomahawk, but it pretty much answered the question: “Can you make a Cowboy and Indian movie anymore?” (The answer: No. No, you can’t). The Hateful Eight was great, in its way, but it was also mostly Homage Tarantino doing battle against Gore-hound Tarantino, and more about The Man then The Myth, y’know? So, is there anything left in the western genre beyond the same old same old? For me? Honestly, I don’t think so, not so much, not anymore.
I feel like the Coens have been thinking the same thing for awhile now too.
In fact, I think True Grit and No Country For Old Men is them working at the genre and its trappings from both sides, the Legend versus the Revisionist. I thought they were both great, but there’s a finality to both films. Both are about the end of an era, regardless of what the people involved may want or wish. That finality is what led them to this, I think. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is them gathering up the last few leftover bits of the genre they’re still interested in, the odds and ends and smaller pieces. It’s a wide-ranging anthology, there’s singing cowboys, lonesome prairies, last stands, bank robberies, a wagon train, and even a determined old prospector. There’s nobility and betrayals. There’s quick draws and a couple of hangings. Then in the end, there’s one final stage coach ride to the end of the line.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is all western romance and glory, and it’s a fantastic and fun watch. I loved it.
But the main reason I loved this film is the section entitled “Meal Ticket.” Placed somewhere in the middle-ish of the film, it is slow and contemplative and sad, and in regular Coen fashion, it refuses to flinch from both the beautiful and the ugly, and this particular section has so much of both. It’s fantastic. Well acted. Beautiful. And all about the artists’ struggle to make art in the face of a world that demands low-brow entertainment. It is a slow, hard journey turned suddenly vicious and resigned indictment of the modern audience, and I loved that. It’s just brutal, and it doesn’t care. It revels in it, and doesn’t wait for you to recover. “Shut your mouth, Trash, and keep up.” The ending of that section is the darkest middle finger I’ve ever seen the brothers give the audience—and they definitely give the audience a lot of them—and I loved it so much for that.
4. The Rider
Written and Directed by Chloe Zhao
Okay, maybe the western isn’t completely dead.
Chloe Zhao’s previous film was Songs My Brothers Taught Me and while I really liked it, it didn’t quite stick with me. There was a lot of potential there, but in the end, it was more “interesting” than “good,” at least for me.
Then The Rider came along, and I was floored. Haunting and beautiful, lingering like the flicker and flash of a distant storm on the horizon, it is a story of dreams and disappointment, of finding a new purpose and the meaning of masculinity. It’s another incredibly relatable and familiar film. “Rub a little dirt in it” is a mantra for so many parts of my life, times where finding a real connection with someone felt like finding an oasis in the desert. The fact that this movie is populated by mostly amateur actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves makes the film all the more amazing. Often times, you’ll run across low budget, shoe-string films like this where people playing themselves is just easier on the budget, and that’s understandable, but these same films will often lean hard on improvisation too, and less on hard scripting, and with untrained actors… man, it shows. There will be dead air, fits and starts to scenes, and stilted unnatural conversations, the actors unable to relax and feel natural, let alone propel a narrative forward. It’s a credit to Zhao’s deft directorial hand that the characters in this film were not only so compelling and so real, but were doing some serious heavy emotional lifting on camera.
It’s an incredible watch. If you haven’t seen this one, I urge you to seek it out.
So, speaking of… it turns out one of the themes to this year’s list is apparently open-mindedness, and this film is just one more example, as the trailer for this film made me think I’d get something a lot of more smaltzy and “Oscar-bait-y,” but instead, I got a surprisingly lovely and poignant film.
I’m really excited to see more from Zhao. She is an incredible talent. Perhaps surprisingly, that having been said, I’m incredibly disappointed to discover that she’s been roped into such a shit project as The Eternals. On one hand, I’m glad she’s getting something big and mainstream that will introduce her to the world, and I would love to see what she might do with lots of resources and wild concepts, and sure, I’m definitely a Marvel head, but damn, talk about pulling the short straw. I mean, there’s a reason why this z-grade property has never been successful, even among comic nerds. I want to hope that she makes something great out of that garbage, but really, the Eternals are about as infertile a property as you can get, so mostly I’m hoping that the project doesn’t hobble her career.
Directed by Carlos López Estrada
Written by Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs
There’s a niche genre out there. I’m not sure whether or not it even has an official name, but it’s the “two junkies/crooks/whatever are just trying to accomplish a single task—like get to rehab, or maybe file some paper work, or find some cash to pay off a debt—all in a single day, but various misfortunes befall them along the way, hindering their valiant efforts” genre, and it just bores the shit out of me. I don’t know why either, but I just hate it. As soon as the characters are shown waking up in the morning in their squat, and oh gosh, look the landlord is sure giving them a hard time, and what’s this? The local gangster is upset with them? Uh-oh. Thank goodness, the better looking protagonist in the hat has a plan to do the thing that they need to do, despite all of the obstacles in their way. Granted, the greasier, less handsome protagonist does have a point, because the plan sure sounds iffy, something that will not only threaten their lives, but their very friendships too. Ugh. I seriously can’t stand it. This will be a sticking point for some, and they’ll bring up all these what-about titles, and then they’ll try to stretch the boundaries of this little niche genre I just made up, in order to include all of everyone’s favorite sci-fi films or something, because got’cha!
To that coming storm, I say: Blah. Blah, blah, blah. Fart noise. Shut up.
My point is, somewhere early on, I got the idea that Blindspotting was that type of movie. I don’t know how or why, but I couldn’t even be bothered to watch the trailer. I was over it. It was just too exhausting. I couldn’t do it. No, thank you. But the title just kept coming up, and everybody was jibber-jabbering non-stop about it, so… I checked it out.
I loved it. LOVED IT. This is a fantastic film. First and foremost, let me just assure you, Blindspotting is not the kind of movie I assumed it was going to be. At all. Secondly, it is incredibly entertaining. It is incredibly human and funny and smart and good-looking. It’s a great time at the movies, people. It is full of music and comedy and quotable moments. It has all of that, all while also being about the realities of gentrification on lower income neighborhoods, institutional violence, as well as racism and class and cultural appropriation in today’s world. It is a film that is brutally honest about these subject, specifically through the relationship of the two main characters, friends, one white and one black, from the same neighborhood, and the seemingly inescapable strains and expectations that society places on them due to the color of their skin. It’s a film that is much smarter and much cleverer than I expected it to be. Phenomenal work. Here’s the really impressive par, though, and that is how easily it balances its tone. The film swerves between the ridiculous, the surreal, and the hilarious, and then veers off into important themes, genuine sadness, and on into the deadly serious, and the whole time, it’s so smooth, so honest, so hyper-stylized, and yet grounded in reality. I loved its ability to deal with important topics, seemingly so easily too, and all while being bright and funny and entertaining. That’s not something that you get very often. That’s why this is an incredible film. Diggs has a well-known pop culture pedigree at this point, of course, but as far as I can tell, this is his and Rafael Casal’s first script—not to mention starring roles, roles they are both amazing in—but apparently these two work together often, so now they are two more names on my list of creators to follow. You should do the same.
2. One Cut of the Dead
Directed by Shin’ichirô Ueda
Written by Shin’ichirô Ueda
I’m not sure if this film was technically even released in 2018, but y’know what? I don’t care.
Either way, I can’t tell you much about this film. Honestly, you shouldn’t read anything about it before you see it either. If you see an article, or a tweet… look away. Not that there’s this huge twist or anything, because there isn’t. It’s just really well done and clever you should be able to experience this film as it unfolds. There’s pure joy there. I’m putting it on the list, because the film may not be playing anywhere now, but it’s on the way, and when it does show up, I want you to know to go right away, because it’s incredible. This film was one of the best viewing experiences I had this year, maybe ever. I loved it. The audience loved it. People were so happy and excited by the end, they clapped spontaneously, that’s how much you’re invested. This is an all in one take indie zombie film. It’s also a love letter to cinema. It’s a touching and clever film, a sincere comedy about love and life, friendship and family, and zombies.
It’s just good. Really good. You have to go when you can.
The only thing I can tell you is these two things… 1. If it wasn’t for the next film on the list, this would easily be my Number One favorite film of the year. Easily. And 2. When you finally do get a chance to see this film, you have to watch until the end. Go in with an open mind, and watch it all the way to the end.
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman and a myriad of creators
Yep. Number one. Hands down. Easily.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is great. It is a great Spider-Man movie. It is a great comic book movie. It is a great movie. Period. I loved it. It’s a total deep-cut love letter to Spider-Man, and to comics in general, but it’s also a very welcoming entry point into the whole comic book world for new fans.
I really loved Miles and Gwen in this. Obviously. You should. They’re fantastic characters all around, and really it is long past time that these two get featured on the big screen, and I can’t wait to see more of them, so that was nice, but really… it was old Peter who spoke to me the most. (I’m so tired.) So did Uncle Aaron, too, honestly. These are two guys who’ve made mistakes and try to do what’s right, even if they sometimes don’t. I loved that. I also loved the relationship between Aaron and Miles, that loving mentor who cares about you and your interests. I felt that. Honestly, all of the family stuff in this film felt very true. None of it felt forced, and this despite being action and comedy packed. It was so well-done, the successful juggling of all of the big fight scenes, the complex plot points, and the large and very important sub-cast of family and friends gives me hope that a Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel film could actually work. It gave me hope that all of her diverse elements would have room to breathe, instead of damning the character to mediocrity and ruin by letting Perlmutter and Loeb make a TV show version, because that’s what happened here. You got all of Spider-Man, multiple Spider-Mans, their villains, and friends and loves and losses, their whole world, and it was complete. None of it felt rushed or squished or short-shifted. Best of all, the message about being a hero, and how anyone could be Spider-Man (That is… if a radioactive spider bit you, of course… ahem…) was perfect. That was pure Spider-Man. That part goes even further, using the idea of the multiverse, so that it isn’t just about Peter or Miles or Gwen, it’s also about everyone’s ability to do good, it’s about everyone’s responsibility to do good. That is so perfect. I love that so much. It is not only 100% Spider-Man to the core, but it’s also something that is truly timeless and important… especially these days.
Speaking of “these days,” I also loved how the film made sure to clearly state that punching Nazis is a good and right thing that heroes do. Always. Forever. Plus, the stain of Trump was obvious all over this version of the Kingpin, or maybe I’m just reading into it because they’re both evil asshole pieces of shit whose families hate them.
Anyway, the film looked great, the designs were great, and I especially loved the Miles’ rogues gallery. Some were classic, some were obvious nods to the Ultimate Universe, and some were brand spanking new. Doc Ock was big stand out. I loved, loved, loved the look of her tentacles this time out. Those were so good. One thing… it was a little weird how they never said Tombstone’s name aloud in the film, at least not that I caught. I wonder if that was a studio note. Regardless, in the end, I’d say that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a perfect family film. Old fans or new ones, hardcore or casual, there’s something for all of them, but best of all, you don’t have to be a fan, and you don’t have to be a kid either. This is an endearing, funny, sweet, cool and sincere film. It reminded me of an old top tier Pixar, if that comparison helps illuminate what I’m talking about here. This was the last movie I saw in 2018 and it is most definitely my favorite film of the year.
And that’s it.
Oh, wait… I almost forgot…
For 2019: Tigers Are Not Afraid
It is a crime this film isn’t out yet, but thankfully, I think it’s finally showing up this year. Sitting at an intersection of real life and back alley magic, of childhood imaginations, restless ghosts and vicious drug lords, this is a film to cherish, and I can’t wait for you all to finally see it. It’s so good. Also, just FYI… Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King loved it, so…
Just for explanatory purposes, I’d like to point out that I missed a lot of films that I really wanted to see, and might’ve otherwise made this list if I’d seen them in time. I’m talking about movies like Never Goin’ Back, Cargo, Flower, The Sisters Brothers, Bad Times at the El-Royale, Prospect, Widows, Border, Paddington 2, The Old Man and the Gun, If Beale Street Could Talk, Aquaman, Mortal Engines, The Favourite, Creed 2, Robin Hood, Roma, Vox Lux, Bird Box, and Shoplifters, just for example. I have a list, and I’ll get to them eventually, but I’m telling you this now so that you’ll understand why they’re not mentioned here. As for any other titles you can think of that do not appear—with the definite exception for Venom, of course, which I’ll never watch—those other films were probably all just terrible. Okay, okay, maybe a few of them were amazing… but the rest? (Fart Noise) Terrible, so they just didn’t make the cut. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. However, I do have a handful of honorable mentions.
- Hotel Artemis: mid-range sci-fi is a treasure, and we should support good ones when we find them.
- Werewolf: Not what you expect at all. A fantastic film
- An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn: Jim Hosking is a genius.
And that’s really it.