Disclaimer: I have not seen every movie released in 2018, as such an undertaking would be next to impossible (there were 724 feature films released in North America last year, and, factoring in Netflix’s every-growing deluge of content, many more this time around). Having taken in hundreds of films over the past year, however, I can say, with reasonable confidence, that it’s been a truly impressive one.
And we sure as shit needed the distraction(s) from our Twitter-mad president and the daily chaos of his administration.
In whittling this list down to 20, there were some impressive films that narrowly missed the cut. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War offered seductive black-and-white photography; A Bread Factory was an under-the-radar gem, radiating with realism; the final shot of Jennifer Fox’s debut The Tale lingered with me for days; Mission: Impossible – Fallout is one of the best action flicks ever to be toplined by the face of a dangerous cult; and kudos to Can You Ever Forgive Me? for getting the very best out of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, the dynamic duo we never knew we needed.
With that said, here are the top 20 movies of 2018.
20. LEAVE NO TRACE
Filmmaker Debra Granik’s long-awaited follow-up feature to 2010’s Winter’s Bone—aka the film that launched J. Law—did not disappoint. Both a tender survivalist tale and meditation on the crippling effects of wartime PTSD, it’s elevated by dynamic performances from the always-impressive Ben Foster and newcomer Thomas McKenzie as his worldly-wise daughter.
He’s swapped faces, tamed a plane of murderous convicts, and eaten a live cockroach, but here, in Panos Cosmatos’ surrealist fever dream of a film, we’ve been blessed with Nicolas Cage at his most gleefully unhinged. As Red Miller, a mad-as-hell fucker hunting a pack of cult members (and their demon accomplices) after his wife was burned alive, he dials the Cage Rage up to 11, dispatching his weirdo nemeses via scythe, crossbow, and—oh yes—chainsaw.
Writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) has fast established himself as one of the most impressive sci-fi filmmakers around and an expert navigator of the human psyche. Aided by a top-notch cast including Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac, he’s presented a nuanced study of depression, and the myriad ways it can trap us in a state of paralysis.
17. PADDINGTON 2
With all due respect to Zendaya’s Meechee, Spider-Ham, and that mutant crocodile who almost took out Natalie Portman, the most captivating CGI creature this year was surely Paddington, the soft-spoken bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) at the center of this delightful fable of family, acceptance, and a wonderfully demented Hugh Grant, who has never been better.
16. THE DEATH OF STALIN
When it comes to dizzyingly-funny dialogue, no one holds a candle to Armando Iannucci. The man can somehow fashion jokes with expert precision then dispense them at near-supersonic speed, laying an entire room to waste in a matter of seconds (see: The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep). Here, he’s managed to mine side-splitting comedy from the unlikeliest of places: the death of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. Political turmoil has never been funnier.
15. THE FAVOURITE
Who wouldn’t love witnessing three actresses at the top of their game—Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman—exchanging saucy one-liners in regal attire? Though it goes a tad overboard on the fisheye, Yorgos Lanthimos’ tale of two devious handmaidens vying for the affections of crazed Queen Anne at the turn of the 18th century is a rollicking good time.
14. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
How do you follow up a masterpiece? If you’re Barry Jenkins, the answer is: helm the first English-language film adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. Rather than homophobia and masculinity, his two star-crossed lovers (Stephan James, KiKi Layne) are pitted against a criminal justice system that devours the spirits of young black men. Beale Street is a film that illustrates the joy, love and pain of the Black experience in America, and pays fitting tribute to the women who’ve forged it.
13. PRIVATE LIFE
Kathryn Hahn may be our most underappreciated actress, and if there was any justice in the world she’d have a Best Actress nod locked up for her layered portrayal of a forty-something woman waging all-out war against infertility, while in the process deconstructing myths of modern marriage and motherhood. Endless props to Tamara Jenkins for giving Hahn the platform she so richly deserves.
12. BLACK PANTHER
Given the racial iniquities of Hollywood, an incredible amount of pressure was placed on the shoulders of Ryan Coogler in helming this, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a Black lead. And boy, did he deliver. A grand tapestry of African culture that poses big questions about African-American identity, and introducing one of cinema’s great supervillains, it’s blockbuster moviemaking par excellence; a work whose aftershocks will be felt for generations to come.
11. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
I’ve said it before: everything you’ve heard about this trippy, visually stimulating, delightfully dorky animated adventure is true. It not only stands head and shoulders above every other CG film this year, and has ushered in an exciting new chapter in the superhero genre, but will induce its own madeleine moment in viewers, transporting them back to comic book-rummaging days of yore.
10. A STAR IS BORN
Let me preface this by saying that I have a long-standing weakness for movie-musicals (West Side Story was a favorite as a child), and had the privilege of seeing its first screening at the Venice Film Festival, unburdened by the tyranny of high expectations. Though it unravels some in its second half, particularly during a scene of award-show incontinence, this is an old-school romance held together by two Movie Star performances (Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga) and show-stopping musical numbers.
9. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Boots Riley’s directorial debut is the most punk rock—and urgent—film of the year, tackling issues like capitalist greed, unionization, meme culture, and racism via the journey of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a Black telemarketer who scourges his soul in order to rise up the corporate ladder. It’s messy, to be sure, but its message rings loud and clear.
8. MINDING THE GAP
If this list expanded to thirty, several more documentaries would undoubtedly make the cut, including the spellbinding whodunit Three Identical Strangers and heartwarming Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, chronicling the life of Mister Rogers. But Bing Liu’s examination of three Rust Belt skater-pals whose lives have been shattered by domestic violence stands head and shoulders above the rest of the doc field. Filmed over 12 years, it’s a devastating portrait of toxic masculinity and the ways it can corrupt young men.
Terrible marketing notwithstanding, I cannot for the life of me understand why Steve McQueen’s latest isn’t receiving more awards season love. That a shambolic film like Bohemian Rhapsody received an ensemble nod at the SAGs over this is a disgrace. A robust thriller exploring issues of race and politics, and featuring a half-dozen electric turns, Widows marks yet another triumph for its immensely-talented director. Let’s hope the Academy takes notice.
6. THE RIDER
The Hollywood Foreign Press, in their infinite wisdom, failed to nominate a single woman for Best Director. They should have included Chloé Zhao, who succeeded where seasoned pro Clint Eastwood failed so miserably: molding a riveting story around a real-life subject. With the help of Brady Jandreau, along with his friends and family, Zhao’s tale of a broken Bronc rider yearning for one last go reveals the strength of the human spirit. Can’t wait to see what she does next.
5. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Or perhaps the HFPA could have turned to Lynne Ramsay, whose neo-noir odyssey of a hammer-wielding, PTSD-suffering loner (Joaquin Phoenix, brilliant) who’s turned to rescuing kidnapped girls from the clutches of sex traffickers—exposing gross political corruption in the process—is lyrical filmmaking at its finest, like a nightmarish Wong Kar-wai.
You might be unfamiliar with the oeuvre of South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine). This should change that. No 2018 movie sparked more intense debate among my group of movie-going friends, who all found themselves captivated by the fuzzy motivations of Ben (Steven Yeun), a seductive playboy whose hold over Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo) has thrown her longtime admirer Lee Jong-su’s (Yoo Ah-in) perception of reality completely out of whack. Is Ben a true menace, or has Jong-su succumbed to the green-eyed monster? Talk amongst yourselves.
The latest from the immensely talented Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking), and winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is a stunning exploration of the ties that bind us—as a family, as people—and the plight of those society has left behind. As its story unfolds, from one disturbing twist to the next, Kore-eda plunges you deeper and deeper into his dystopic world.
2. EIGHTH GRADE
How a childless, 28-year-old male comic was able to so vividly capture the slings and arrows of contemporary female teendom—the time in one’s life when every decision feels life or death, and every misstep sends you into a pit of despair—is beyond me, but boy, did Bo Burnham pull it off. And he got plenty of help from newcomer Elsie Fisher and journeyman Josh Hamilton, who disappear into the roles of outcast daughter and concerned father. I’m not a crier, but their scene together by the bonfire got me.
There are several shots in Roma, Mexican maestro Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to his childhood, that will floor you—a chase across the crowded streets of Mexico City at night, a paramilitary group- training exercise, an embrace on the beach. That so many of these images, depicted in black-and-white, stay with you is a testament to the film’s staggering beauty, to the emotional investment of its director, and to leading lady Yalitza Aparicio, whose turn as Cleo, a Mixtec housemaid to a wealthy family in 1970s Mexico City, is one of the great cinematic performances of not just this year, but this decade.