2018 was an extremely rich year for very good movies, even while perhaps lacking in true masterpieces. Somehow when making this list, I went from not having enough films to fill it in November to making extremely difficult cuts in February. Out of the 61 movies I saw this year, it was very difficult to narrow the list to only 10 (plus four extras), and there are probably another dozen that could easily be swapped in. Here are my favorites of the year.
Sorry to Bother You
Few movies are as outright *bold* as Sorry to Bother You. Boots Riley has so much to say and only 111 minutes to say it, and boy, does he say it loud. LaKeith Stanfield plays an intrepid telemarketer, Cassius, who discovers that he has a gift for salesmanship when using his “white” voice. Sorry to Bother You is about many things: the ugly side of capitalism, code-switching, loyalty in the face of success, how much suffering is required for your beliefs, tensions inherent in race relations, prison “slavery culture”… it’s all in this movie, and much, much more. This movie is certainly not “clean” from a narrative perspective, but includes some of the most raw and purely shocking moments of any movie of the year.
There are few movies with as much pure, unbridled joy as Paddington 2. I confess that I have not even seen the first Paddington, and yet I was enamored with this film simply because it is unrelentingly fun from start to finish. Somehow a movie starring a CGI bear chasing after a pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy is one of the most engaging, despite the stakes being relatively low compared to most films. Perhaps its strongest element is its supporting cast, including a salty, surly old cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) and xenophobic Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), all of whom know exactly what movie they’re in and deliver fantastic performances. An unrelentingly positive movie in a post-Brexit world, Paddington 2 is simply a delight, and is easy to recommend regardless of your familiarity with the Paddington world.
“Will God forgive us for what we have done to His creation?” That is the central conflict behind the emotionally brutal First Reformed, in which Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) grapples with both his personal demons and the moral quandaries of bringing a child into a possibly doomed world. As you might expect from a film with those themes, First Reformed is a dark meditation on what can, should, and will be done to save the Earth, as well as the nature of depression, loneliness, and despair. I can’t get into what makes this film so fascinating without delving into spoilers, suffice it to say that much of the film is very open to interpretation. As it barrels towards its climax, the audience is left to decide for itself what hope lies in the future, and what (if anything) can be done to change fate.
They Shall Not Grow Old
This is one of the most special, yet most overlooked, films of the year. Approached by the Imperial War Museum, Peter Jackson was tasked with somehow creating an original take on World War I footage – and boy, does he deliver. With the help of the folks at Weta, Jackson was able to not only restore previously unwatchable footage from the 1910s, but also colorize the footage, replicate the sounds using foley artists and lip-readers, and introduce a 3D element as well. What results is the closest 21st century audiences will ever get to seeing through the eyes of the soldiers of The Great War. Equally fascinating to the film itself is the 30 minute behind-the-scenes in which Jackson explains all of the painstaking measures his team took in reconstructing 100-year-old footage into a documentary as modern as any other released this year. It is clear that Jackson is extremely passionate about the subject, and all of that passion pays off in spades.
10. Game Night
While there might be other films more “deserving” of this spot, no film made me laugh this year like Game Night, and it’s easily one of the best experiences I had at the movies this year. In addition to the extremely tight script, I love the film’s depiction of its central couple, Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams). Rather than have some contrived plot device split them apart, Max and Annie are a team from beginning to end, and because each are portrayed with depth and nuance, we can see what brought the two of them together in the first place. This is to say nothing of the rest of the cast, including the fantastic Jesse Plemons who steals the show every moment he’s on screen. There are dozens of hilarious moments and quotable lines, but for my money none can beat the scene in which a bullet has to be removed. If you missed this gem, I cannot recommend it highly enough to practically anyone.
Blindspotting features some of the most clearly-established stakes of the year: Collin (Daveed Diggs) has three days remaining of his parole, and simply needs to stay out of trouble for those days to avoid going back to prison. Accomplishing that is somehow near impossible, thanks to Collin’s trouble-magnet of a friend, Miles (Rafael Casal). What Blindspotting accomplishes so well is generate so much tension in its narrative, while simultaneously keeping the script incredibly funny and clever. Without getting into spoilers, Diggs is a clear star and proves his merit as a leading man, utilizing his talent as a rapper to bring home some truly emotional moments and drive home the difference between the black and white experience under very similar circumstances.
In many ways, Annihilation shares a very similar message to First Reformed: one of despair over the loss of a loved one, and the transformative power of grief and depression. In Alex Garland’s second feature film, Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a team of women on a discovery mission into an alien land from which no one has come back alive. Each of these women have their own demons, and are grappling with pasts that involve grief of some form. There’s a foreboding sense of inevitability in Annihilation, as the characters make their way through an unknown land but deep down have already resigned themselves to their fate. If succumbing to “the shimmer” is inevitable, then is there value in fighting it? Are the changes encountered “bad” from a moral perspective, or is it simply the fact that they are “different” that makes them terrifying? Annihilation is an enigma throughout, with enough depth of narrative and character to facilitate a huge variety of interpretations.
Rarely do you see a film as honest, or a performance as raw, as that of Charlize Theron in Tully. Tully depicts the plight of new mother Marlo (Charlize Theron) as she struggles to take care of both her newborn and previous child, running herself ragged in the process. Eventually she hires a new night nanny (Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis) who not only takes care of her child but proceeds to aid Marlo in her inner life as well. I’ve heard this movie jokingly called a horror movie about parenting, but I don’t see that at all. I see it as a straight-forward, darkly comedic depiction of motherhood and the very real struggles that come with it. Tully is a hilarious film full of heart, on a topic that we rarely see approached so honestly on the big screen.
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
It’s a tad unbelievable to me that a genuinely fresh take on a superhero movie can be made in an era where we’ve had a half-dozen entries in the genre each year for over a decade. There are so many reasons to love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, starting with the truly stunning animation (made even more-so in 3D). Directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman take bold chances to create an animation style true to the comic origins of the character, including Ben Day dots, occasional intentional blurring, and the use of 2s instead of 1s (i.e. a 12 fps frame-rate) to give the animators full control of each and every frame. Add to that a truly heartwarming tale that plays off of audience expectations of origin stories, and an extremely witty script that travels at break-neck speeds. Every piece of this movie is crafted with such love and care, it transcends the genre to be one of the best of the year.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk
If Beale Street Could Talk is, above all else, a love story, and no one can portray love quite like director Barry Jenkins. Any time the two leads, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), are on screen, the film is simply magical. Aided by the transcendent score of Nicholas Britell (the best of the year, in my opinion), Jenkins has a talent for conveying true love and passion on screen such that the audience can’t help but empathize with his characters on a deep emotional level. The film loses a bit of steam when it focuses on the broader narrative at play. The unjust arrest of Fonny and the crusade to clear his name, while thematically very powerful, is somewhat neglected and feels almost out-of-place at times (though, that may be part of the point). Still, Beale Street contains some of the most beautiful and emotionally-charged sequences of the year.
4. First Man
First Man is one of the most criminally under-valued films of the year, in my opinion. Somehow it came and went with little fanfare, but this is a perfect example of a large story boiled down to a small, concentrated journey. By filtering the entire moon landing through a single man, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the audience gets a glimpse at the emotional toll that such a feat takes on not only the man himself, but also his family, friends, and colleagues. The visual effects are astounding, as flight sequences put the audience directly into the flight capsule and force them to feel the claustrophobia, deafening roars, and horror of having so little control over a small metal vessel hurdling through space. First Man almost trivializes the “purpose” behind traveling to the moon, asking again and again whether it is worth the cost. By the film’s final sequence, that question is answered in a resounding “yes” as we get a breathtaking full-frame view of the accomplishment, and the emotional release as Armstrong finally accomplishes his mission.
One of the largest movie “injustices” of the year is the fact that Roma, a beautiful work of cinema, never received a true theatrical run. This film is simply stunning on the big screen. Crafted in the spirit of the French New Wave but set in 1970s Mexico City, Alfonso Cuarón’s visual masterpiece centers around the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and the family that employs her. Some have levied the complaint that Roma is created from a position of privilege, dismissing it as simply being about “what if housekeepers had lives too.” I completely disagree with this stance, and would argue that a major thrust of the New Wave movement is to show real people living real lives with real conflicts. The core conflict happens to center around a housekeeper, but it also explores the struggles of several other characters, including Sra. Sofia’s (Marina de Tavira) marital troubles and the struggles of several students directly involved in the Corpus Christi massacre. Each struggle is portrayed with equal weight to the last, as each character is the star of his or her own story. What results is an extremely true-to-life tale of real hardships big and small, anchored by big emotional set-pieces and simply masterful attention to detail.
2. Eighth Grade
Eighth Grade explores a challenge that anyone who is not either a child or presently raising a child has probably rarely considered: what is it like to grow up (or be a young parent) in the age of social media? Bo Burnham tackles this question in his fantastic directorial debut, and Elsie Fisher brings the vision to life in a phenomenal performance as eighth grader Kayla. Eighth Grade treats middle school as something of a living nightmare; Kayla is constantly trying to fit in and express herself via YouTube video blogs, but is constantly second-guessing herself and not quite grasping how to come into her own. While occasionally terrifying, Eighth Grade is predominantly a comedy, and a very funny one at that. It is extremely easy to empathize with Kayla; the audience has all gone through middle school at one point, and remember all of the emotional confusion that comes along with it. Just as compelling is the parental perspective, shown through Kayla’s dad, Mark (Josh Hamilton). This directorial debut (currently on Amazon Prime) is on the same plane as last year’s Lady Bird or Get Out, and I cannot wait to see what Burnham makes next.
1. Minding the Gap
Pound for pound, I found no movie this year to be quite as effective or emotionally true as Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, an incredible documentary distributed by Hulu. What starts as a fairly straight-forward documentary about Liu’s experiences skating with his friends quickly becomes something much, much more. Minding the Gap is truly about familial cycles of abuse, and whether or not it is possible to break the cycle.
Part of what makes the film so special are the moments of raw emotion and truth that Liu is able to capture. I don’t know how many hours of footage Liu must have shot with his friends, but to get such genuine moments seemingly unaffected by the camera must have required many hundreds if not thousands of hours of filming. Even more incredible is that you can literally watch as Minding the Gap morphs from one film to another; it is clear that Liu pivoted his narrative with the footage that he gained, and created a story extremely specific yet highly relatable. Liu also had the good instincts to insert himself and his own story into the film as well (late in the development process), made possible by virtue of the fact that he is in literally every scene, albeit behind the camera. What results is a truly special documentary, and a film that in my opinion is the best of the year.
And that’s 2018! If you want to read more about my thoughts on the year in film, check out my Top Movie Stuff of 2018 post. Here’s to 2019 and all the great films yet to come.
Fantastic choices! You’ve articulated perfectly why so many of these movies work so well and are so easy to connect with as an audience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about these movies just from your brief commentary.