Whatever you can say about 2018 as a year (and a lot of what I could say isn’t very good at all), it was undoubtedly a magnificent year for the movies. Troubled times often produce great works, and this year was no different. I couldn’t quite narrow my list down to a top 10, so here’s my top 15 films for the year.
First, some honorable mentions: Burning, Sorry to Bother You, The Guilty, BlacKkKlansman, The Death of Stalin, Game Night, Mandy, Bad Times at the El Royale, Searching, Hereditary. And with that, onto the top 15.
15. FIRST MAN
Damien Chazelle is unquestionably one of the greatest young talents working in the film industry today, and First Man is yet another stellar installment in his growing oeuvre concerning troubled-but-driven men working at any cost to achieve their goals. Ryan Gosling, in brooding thoughtful mode, turned out to be perfect for Neil Armstrong’s soft-spoken persona, as Chazelle tries and mostly succeeds to conduct an emotional throughline that would drive the first man to walk on the moon. The Apollo 11 launch and landing sequence is one of the most spectacular sequences of the year. I was immensely cynical about the whole affair, and once the rocket took off, I got goosebumps anyway. Also, Justin Hurwitz’s score is brilliant.
14. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
From the very beginning of the Coens’ career, a very similar series of ideas has driven their work, particular those concerning the morality of our strange world. Is it virtue or luck? Karma or chance? Their Netflix anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs might be the neatest encapsulation of those themes thus far, laying just about all of them out across its six installments. As with all anthologies, some installments are more effective than others (though I’ve heard a wide range of opinions on which ones folks seem to prefer), but this particular mode of storytelling makes it an almost perfect introduction for a newbie to the Coens’ work. “The Mortal Remains” in particular is arguably my favorite 20 minutes of film this year.
Based on Steve McQueen’s first three films, Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, I’d call the extraordinarily talented filmmaker a lot of things, but “fun” was not typically one of them. Which is why it totally surprised me when Widows ended up being a total blast, having all the thoughtfulness and polish of McQueen’s earlier works, but packaged into the propulsive energy of a gritty heist thriller. Viola Davis gives her best steely-eyed performance yet, Elizabeth Debicki shows us a depth and energy we haven’t seen from her before, and Daniel Kaluuya makes for a fantastic, menacing villain. And at the same time, it manages to fit in an entire political subtext worthy of a season of The Wire. This is one that I suspect will be infinitely rewatchable in the years to come.
12. THE NIGHT COMES FOR US
Timo Tjahjanto is one of the most energetic and idiosyncratic genre filmmakers working today. His previous films Killers and Headshot were impeccable exercises in style, and with his Netflix martial arts action film The Night Comes For Us, he found a whole new level, as he created a movie so propulsive and relentless that it makes The Raid look like a staid drama by comparison. This is the sort of movie where basically any prop in a scene can turn into a weapon, where basically anything can throw a wrench into the ongoing proceedings; where the blood is plentiful and the punches, kicks and stabbings are almost nonstop. It is a movie where a severed cow hoof is used as a weapon. It is one of the best action films of the year.
11. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
In an increasingly saturated market for superhero films, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like a major shot in the arm for an increasingly stale genre. Easily the best Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 2, Into the Spider-Verse manages to double as a perfectly executed origin story for Miles Morales and a broader meta-narrative about the meaning and importance of the character of Spider-Man, teaching a wonderfully inclusive lesson about what it really takes to wear the mask. Along the way, directors Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman and Bob Persichetti take full advantage of the animated format, delivering visuals unlike in any other comic book movie and telling a story that simply wouldn’t work in live action, for a multitude of reasons. Shameik Moore makes a wonderful Miles, Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker is one of the best iterations of the character ever, Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir is a brilliant casting masterstroke and Hailee Steinfeld’s Gwen Stacy and John Mulaney’s Peter Porker (THEY MADE A MOVIE WITH SPIDER-HAM IN IT) leave strong impressions as well. Another affirmation that producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the former of whom co-wrote the movie with Rothman) simply cannot be stopped.
10. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen another filmmaker with as much love and empathy for his characters as Barry Jenkins. Moonlight was a beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of a life that earned every accolade it received, and while his James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk might not quite rise to that transcendent level, it’s still overflowing with love in every frame. A story of love in a world that almost makes love for its subjects impossible, If Beale Street Could Talk takes great pains to give almost every character in the film their own unique perspective, from the central couple (played to heartbreaking effect by KiKi Layne and Stephan James), to Regina King’s strong but caring mother, to Brian Tyree Henry’s haunted parolee, to Finn Wittrock’s well-intended lawyer, all the way down to Dave Franco’s delightful cameo as a goodhearted landlord. We’re all looking for love, but the systemic prejudices of the existing system make it seem almost impossible. Simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming.
9. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT
How did the Mission: Impossible franchise become the best action franchise running today? While I greatly enjoy Brian De Palma’s insane and unusual first entry, John Woo’s sequel doesn’t work much at all and JJ Abrams’ third film is a passable-but-empty exercise in franchise retooling. As it turns out, the secret weapon might’ve been Tom Cruise’s current partner in crime, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie helped retool the script for Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol and took over the reigns on Rogue Nation, reinventing the series as a series of stunt-laden, team-based action-adventures, creating a pulpier B-side to James Bond and Jason Bourne and giving us the modern incarnation of Ethan Hunt, the most physically complete and aggrieved big-budget action hero this side of Indiana Jones. And with Fallout (McQuarrie being the first director in franchise history to return for a sequel), he took the series to new heights. Fallout is a nearly flawless Swiss watch of an action film, with every single character beat, plot element and twist designed to constantly keep the audience on their toes and breathlessly move them from one setpiece to the next. Cruise is in top form as always, Henry Cavill provides a brutal and imposing foil as August Walker — the hammer to Hunt’s scalpel — and the supporting cast has finally become a motley crew of characters that the audience can connect with. Not the best film of the year, but undoubtedly the one I had the best time watching in the theater.
8. THE FAVOURITE
Yorgos Lanthimos has become one of my favorite weirdo auteur filmmakers working today, and I’m honestly shocked he’s apparently garnered an audience and acclaim. Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are all bizarre, idiosyncratic works that involve a lot of unsettling elements and a deep dive into their maker’s… unusual perspective. The Favourite is by far the most accessible of his films, but is still laden with all of the idiosyncratic elements and themes that defined his earlier work, just packaged in a slightly more structured narrative and slightly more naturalistic dialogue. Olivia Colman gives a multilayered performance as the petty, manipulative, often fickle queen who just wants to be loved, and Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz do career-best work as the two women vying for her attentions and the power that comes with them. The Favourite is loaded with people who lie, cheat and con their way into power, while the war raging on in the film’s margins might as well be on another planet. The last shot is something I’m still pondering to this day.
7. BLACK PANTHER
What else can one even say about Black Panther at this point? Ryan Coogler made one of the most thematically dense, morally complicated films of the year, one that tackles the endless struggle between goodness and righteousness, the two sides of the same coin, the two impulses natural to the collective black experience in America… and he somehow did it inside of a big-budget, Disney-backed superhero movie. Watch Black Panther with distant eyes and you might get distracted by the moments where you can feel Coogler technically pounding on the Marvel ceiling, where reshoots came in and where a beautiful shot would get offset by bland coverage, where the climax sorta dissolves into a CGI mishmash of weightlessness (despite holding up perfectly on a thematic and character level). But get past those flaws inherent to its big-budget construction, and you’ll find an exciting and dense fantasy epic that demands you turn your brain all the way on. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is one of the great comic book movie villains, Chadwick Boseman’s quiet contemplation perfectly conveys T’Challa’s arc of understanding, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o give us two of the most badass women to ever appear in a comic book movie, and Ludwig Goransson’s score is simply one of the best of the year. This is a superhero movie where the villain changes the hero’s mind and challenges his perceptions, and in the process makes him even better. How often do you see that?
How does one even remake a movie like Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria? It’s one of the most stylistically iconic movies of all time, a nightmarish dive into a morass of colors, witches and grisly deaths. How can you even come close to replicating its effectiveness? If you’re Luca Guadagnino, the answer is “do basically everything different”. Gone are the bright colors, replaced by a wintry chilliness and Brutalist architecture. Gone is the iconic Goblin score, replaced by a eclectic soundtrack by Thom Yorke. Gone is the relatively brief runtime and thematic lightness, replaced by a 152-minute deep dive into postwar Germany, de-Nazification, the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Lufthansa hijacking, and more, along with a primary thematic exploration of the dual nature of its women. Everyone in Guadagnino’s Suspiria has a double self, or maybe even a triple self in some cases (Tilda Swinton plays three roles). Even the city they inhabit has a dual self (it’s no coincidence that Swinton’s Dr. Klemperer takes a train across a wall separating two halves of 1977 Berlin). I gotta admit, I liked Guadagnino’s previous films, but I just didn’t know he had this kind of dense, languid epic in him. It’s the sort of movie where every choice feels considered, every indulgence feels like it comes with a purpose. Sure, it might not be as on-the-face terrifying as Argento’s original, but it trades that for a quietly creeping dread. And the implications of that final shot are utterly haunting. Easily my favorite horror film of the year.
Alfonso Cuarón seems absolutely determined to not repeat himself. From the almost-pornographic, documentary-realist approach of Y Tu Mama Tambien, to the best Harry Potter film that set the aesthetic tone for the rest of the series, to the now chillingly realistic dystopia of Children of Men, all the way to the technically marvelous story of death and rebirth in Gravity. And now Roma, which is one of his finest films yet, and the one that might be nearest and dearest to his heart. Based on Cuarón’s own upbringing in Mexico City, Roma tells the heartbreaking and sometimes unbearable story of Cleo, a live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family. It’s a quantum leap forward stylistically for Cuarón, with him basically taking on the aesthetic trappings of Federico Fellini, and he’s got a story and performances to match, with Yalitza Aparicio being completely and utterly real as Cleo. It’s easily the most emotionally agonizing film I saw this year. Cuarón is one of the best filmmakers working today, and Roma just shows that he has a versatility to him beyond anything anyone could have predicted.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along and really, truly surprises you, and this year for me that was Blindspotting. Music video director Carlos López Estrada’s feature debut, Blindspotting is Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and his childhood friend Rafael Casal’s tribute to the city of Oakland, in all its modern complications and failings. It’s a occasionally hilarious comedy-drama that also occasionally cuts to the bone and delivers scenes that are both heartbreaking and intense in their ferocity. Blindspotting is about the evils of American society and how people deal with it on a daily basis, what it means to be living in a space that seems to be changing and moving beyond you on an almost daily basis, about the very structures of society and how they’re hardwired to fail people for no reason other than the color of their skin. Diggs and Casal are both electrifying in the lead roles, presenting us a friendship that is troubled and often on the verge of hostility, but that also feels completely and utterly true. It also has perhaps the most important message of the year, which is that everything might be awful and the world might be on fire, but that doesn’t stop you from trying to better yourself. Everyone should see this movie.
My anticipations were already high for Annihilation leading up to release, based on Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina, and then I was very surprised when the actual film surpassed them. There has been much talk about how to read into a film like this, and the conclusion many have rightly come to is that there really is no puzzle to solve. Annihilation wears its themes on its sleeve, and the truth is that it’s a film about both the fears and comforts of inexorable change. It comes at this from numerous angles, from the self-destructive tendencies of the characters to the not-particularly-subtle cancer metaphor to the fact that life inside “The Shimmer” seems to be constantly shifting in every way. Rarely do science fiction film manage to pack its themes and ideas into every single nook and cranny in such a way. Pluck Annihilation and it vibrates. The last act is one of the biggest head-trip deep dives into change and evolution since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And it does this while also being a film featuring sequences that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jurassic Park or Alien movie. Stunning.
2. FIRST REFORMED
Paul Schrader is back, y’all. After years of languishing in DTV hell, Schrader returns with a very intentional reprisal of the ideas he examined in Taxi Driver, only now filtered through the lens of someone with 40 more years under their belt, and it turns out he’s angrier than ever. Pretty much all the themes laced throughout Schrader’s oeuvre are present here, from his anger at society to his conflicted and guilt-ridden reaction to his strict Calvinist upbringing to his weird and off-putting sexual fixations. And along the way, he also fits in a more specific meditation on faith and how that faith can often come into conflict with really trying to make a difference in a world that seems hell-bent on preserving the status quo at all costs. Ethan Hawke is revelatory as Rev. Ernst Toller, delivering a quiet, subtly strained performance of a man in a severe existential crisis. 40 years ago, Schrader was furious at society for making heroes out of murderers. Now he’s mad at society for just ignoring the problems lingering right under their noses. The final ten minutes of First Reformed feel like Schrader’s final statement, that he’s said everything he had to say. Schrader apparently wants to continue making movies, but this would be a truly fitting sendoff. It plays like a magnum opus.
1. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Lynne Ramsay might be the best filmmaker working today who isn’t regularly included in conversations regarding the best filmmakers working today. True, she’s only made four films in the last 20 years, but rarely have I seen a filmmaker better at giving us a full picture of a tortured psychology. Morvern Callar dealt with a person battling breakups and grief. We Need to Talk About Kevin dealt with both the psychology of a mother who can’t connect with a child and a young man going down a path of no return. And now You Were Never Really Here, at first glance, seems to be giving us something of an arthouse Taken, about a violent and brutal hired gun, but quickly reveals itself to be much, much more. For Joe, our “hero”, as it were, is a man who has become completely disillusioned and mentally separated from society, and the filmmaking supports this in every sense. Ramsay shot You Were Never Really Here in New York City, which is as familiar a film setting as there could ever be, but in her hands it looks positively alien. It becomes a world one can’t even recognize anymore, because we’re seeing it through Joe’s eyes. Aided by Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, Ramsay creates a full world as seen through the eyes of a man fundamentally disconnected from reality. Even more so than First Reformed, Ramsay dives deep into that sort of headspace, using every tool at her disposal to paint that view in the world around him. As a character says to Joe near the end, “It’s a beautiful day.” And you can tell through Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet, layered performance, that there’s nothing more in this world that he wants than to believe it.