The Best Films of 2018

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A phrase that has been oft repeated in the last few years, in one variation or another, is this: “It’s been a great year for movies.” Just as cliche as the phrase’s use is pointing out the tired nature of saying it. But despite what the state of politics, internet culture, and the over-abundance of disinformation, just to name a few of the aspects of 2018 that were less than pleasant to experience, truth is truth, and enough people balk at hearing the phrase that it bears repeating. As much as critics and, to a lesser extent, audiences bemoan the aversion to risk of the major studios, the domination of bloated spectacle bolstered by recognizable IP, the absolute water hose effect created by Netflix’ and other streaming services’ constant content dumping, the facts remain.

The fact that more movies are getting made now than ever in history; that more people of different backgrounds and perspectives with the talent and drive to make them are doing so; that technological advancements have given them access to the tools of the medium; that the internet has made those films more readily accessible to discerning audiences who seek them than ever before; that many of those films are not just good, but astonishingly so; that even occasionally the studios manage to get it not just right, but nearly perfect. It may sound like hyperbole, but I genuinely believe it. Movies are better than ever, and there are more of them than ever.

In the parlance that Special Agent Dale Cooper would use to characterize a cup of his beloved coffee, it has been a damn fine year for movies.

So fine that I had to widen out my list from a standard 10 entries to a bloated 20 just to make my job easier, and I still didn’t get to make room for everything I loved. I saw nearly 150 new releases this year; almost half of them were at least good. I’m still catching up with great films; fittingly and unfortunately, when considering their last movies, a last-minute viewing of Barry Jenkins’ latest bumped Damien Chazelle’s phenomenal First Man into honorable mention-territory (reviewed here). Some of these films are destined to become modern classics - some already have - and they still failed to crack my list, not because of a lack of quality or a willfully counter-consensus pick on my part, but simply due to a crowded field.

Case in point: Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s culture-shaking treatise on colonialism, the African-American experience, racial vs cultural identity, and cultural inheritance wrapped in the crowd-pleasing Marvel template, won’t be on my list. Neither will the stunning middle-finger to Tom Cruise’s mortality that is Mission: Impossible - Fallout or the exercise in crafting a thriller literally out of bated breath, A Quiet Place. Searching might as well already be a historical artifact for the myriad ways it pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling - that its desktop exclusive presentation works as well as it does is a minor miracle - and yet won’t be on here. And the vitality of its message and the conviction of its characters wasn’t quite enough to squeeze The Hate U Give into a top spot.

That’s just the mainstream stuff. On the arthouse side, you have Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs continuing to evolve his storybook perfectionist presentation through the medium of beautiful stop motion in his most visually masterful work to date. Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio brought us two wonderfully affecting LGBT dramas in Disobedience and A Fantastic Woman. Many films aimed to speak to the current cultural moment, and none did so as wildly differently as the scathing, hilarious mockery of fascism in The Death of Stalin and Paul Schrader’s formalist attempt to dig through the howling depths of despair to find hope in First Reformed. Bo Burnham (too) effectively captured the skin-crawling, uncomfortable, and awkward experience of living through Eighth Grade. The year gave us two great westerns in The Sisters Brothers (review here) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latter the wonderful fruit of Netflix’ willingness to let great filmmakers do unique and idiosyncratic work. The same applies to Tamara Jenkins’ discomfitingly honest, insightful, and funny Private Life (review here). And finally, Hulu distributed Minding the Gap (review here), one of the most personal and fluidly transforming documentarie of the year, to its broader audience.

Others I would’ve liked to catch before making this list but didn’t: Destroyer, Shoplifters, Suspiria, Thoroughbreds, Beautiful Boy, Wildlife, Thunder Road, The House That Jack Built, and Boy Erased.

With those incredibly limited honorable mentions and disclaimers out of the way, here are my 20 favorite films of 2018:

20. Blackkklansman


Subtlety and conventionality might as well be opposite ends of a spectrum in terms of vague labels that people like to attribute to filmmakers as positive or negative. Spike Lee has arguably never possessed the former - thank God - but you could certainly never accuse him of the latter. On its surface, BlacKkKlansman, the biopic-cum-buddy cop comedy about Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer and his infiltration of a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, might appear to be Lee’s most accessible film to date. But Lee wields his film’s conventionality like a weapon, telling its incredible true story with verve, wit, and his now to-be-expected rage, scathingly and hilariously dismantling racism by portraying it as inherently moronic and absurd while never forgetting the frighteningly real danger it poses. Meanwhile its characters reflect on their heritage and how they are affected by prejudice both minor and more overt, how best to change systems of power, and whether or not those systems can be changed at all. By the end, the demands of a three-act structure lull you into forgetting who’s at the helm, the happy ending interrupted with a line drawn directly to the present like a laugh caught painfully in the throat. Spike Lee has never been shy to tell you exactly what he wants you to hear. God bless him.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD

19. spider-man: into the spider-verse

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It took a jump to animation for a movie starring Spider-Man to finally match Sam Raimi’s first two turns with the character. In some ways, Into the Spider-Verse even surpasses them. The vivid day-glo animation edited to appear like someone projected their favorite comic panels directly onto the screen is the most dazzling display of style of the year; you’ve never seen an animated film that looks this beautiful. Wrapped within is a story by The LEGO Movie‘s Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the guys with the golden touch bringing the new gold standard for stories about Spider-Man if only for the ways in which it explicitly demonstrates what we love about the character. Miles Morales’ introduction to the mainstream is a welcome one, giving a modern origin story for a new generation while touching on versions of the character we’re already familiar with and introducing new, equally interesting and endearing versions. The film contains endless wit and creativity, and a touching, inspiring affirmation that anyone can be a hero.

In Theaters Now

18. leave no trace

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Debra Granik’s first movie since her indie debut Winter’s Bone in 2010, Leave No Trace tells a story similar to others you might’ve heard. A survivalist father and his teenage daughter live peaceably off the grid until the modern world intrudes, irrevocably altering their world and relationship. But the story speaks a vastly different language than something like Captain Fantastic‘s anti-establishment hipster posturing. There is no villain or other in the story that isn’t internal first and foremost. As Ben Foster’s heart-breakingly tormented father becomes more and more alienated from the world, our sympathy for him and his daughter deepens even as we become more aware of the damage being done. The audience’s awareness grows with the maturation of Thomasin Mackenzie’s Tom, delivering a performance seemingly both fragile and miraculously strong-willed; if there were any justice in this world, this would be a career-launcher similar to what Jennifer Lawrence got with Granik’s previous film. 2018 wasn’t short on great endings, and Leave No Trace‘s unexpected but wise, inevitable conclusion will break your heart.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime

17. crazy rich asians


If anything, Crazy Rich Asians shows that there’s still gas left in the tank for romantic comedies in the modern age. It does many other things successfully as well, whether its cementing in stone the multi-varied charms and talents of its large ensemble - Awkwafina to host the Oscars, please - or telling a mature story that perfectly demonstrates the differences between racial and ethnic identities by pitting them as opposing forces. The slick direction by Jon Chu suitably couples glamour and spectacle with the film’s larger class and cultural concerns to create a distinct and authentic sense of place. The outsider perspective is never lost in the clutter thanks to Constance Wu’s amusingly awestruck lead as she tries to impress her fiance’s proud mother, played with cutting ferocity and sensitivity by Michelle Yeoh. There’s formula here to spare, but the originality and fun lies in what is done within its tried and true structure.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD

16. Madeline’s madeline

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Experimental film can be off-putting for many people, much like the type of experimental theater with which Madeline’s Madeline concerns itself. It’s often less concerned with concrete story than it is abstraction and emotion. From the beginning, Josephine Decker’s film is trying to get you into a specific headspace, similarly to how Molly Parker’s physical theater director is trying to get young Madeline to tap into her own. Stunningly, naturally played by newcomer Helena Howard, Madeline is particularly adept at transforming herself to play a part, possibly fed in equal parts her undefined mental illness and her fraught relationship with her mother. We’re never given a full picture of Madeline’s life, the film building beats and narrative flow on raw emotion, but we’re given just enough to begin to raise serious questions as the troupe reconfigures their performance around her. Who gets to tell this story, and what is the emotional and psychological cost of doing so? The film’s transfixing ending provides an beguiling answer.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime

15. The Old Man & The Gun

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Robert Redford is supposedly retiring from acting. Even if this wasn’t the case, it’s difficult to imagine a better swan song than David Lowery’s wonderfully nostalgic conman drama. At once an old-fashioned throwback and a quiet subversion of the heist film with its gentle demeanor and warm tone, the film works primarily as a summation of Redford’s storied career and a demonstration of the particular qualities of his star power that captivates audiences. Much like the marks of his character’s robberies, a wry, mischievous smirk and ever-present twinkle in the eye is enough to literally charm the pants off anyone, and make them glad to have had the experience.

Reviewed Here

Available soon on DVD & Blu-Ray and VOD

14. The Favourite


How can it be that Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible film to date still feels like a splash of cold water to the face? Bringing his twisted surrealism to 18th Century Britain in his first period piece, The Favourite plays like a cross between Barry Lyndon and Mean Girls with an even more acidic wit and grim view of humanity. The film takes the late reign of Queen Anne and recasts it as a three-handed jockeying for power, as Rachel Weisz’s ruthless adviser has her authority over the child-like queen threatened by the arrival of her fallen but ambitious cousin, played wickedly by Emma Stone. Full of scathingly funny witticisms and disturbing turns of plot and character, the film does it all deliciously, though it’ll certainly burn your throat on the way down.

Available soon on DVD & Blu-Ray and VOD

13. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


No one could be blamed for partaking in hagiography when it comes to a figure as beloved and seemingly built from the deepest well of compassion as Fred Rogers, but to label Won’t You Be My Neighbor? as only that would be both callous and dismissive. For a little more than thirty years, the quaint, wholesome world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was beamed into American households, affecting countless children and adults with its dedication to knowledge and caring about the world and each other. Morgan Neville’s documentary functions as a balm to the soul as it explores the life of Fred Rogers, the unique appeal of his charmingly low-budget show, and the ways in which the culture at large was impacted by his messages of love and acceptance. Where most projects of this nature would unearth some scandalous hidden trait or event that throws the subject’s reputation into question, the hook of this film seems to be that no such detail exists. It appears that Rogers was an authentic specimen of what he presented himself to be, the closest thing to a personal shame being an honest questioning of his own goodness; perhaps his most humanizing and relatable quality.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD

12. Hereditary


Ari Aster’s bold debut is scary in the same way that a full-blown panic attack is scary. Something is incredibly, disastrously wrong, but you don’t know what and why, and you can only hope that it will end soon before spiraling into madness. It’s not so much something that you watch as something that is done to you. Few new filmmakers at the reins of their first feature have ever delivered a film so assured and calculated, even as the family at the film’s center loses all control through their processing of grief, trauma, and possible mental illness. Hereditary throws a lot at the viewer - much of it familiar - but the manner in which it mutates from one element to another and then back multiple times over render it unknowable and frighteningly immediate up until its bonkers everything-including-the-kitchen-sink climax. If there were a better depiction of an individual teetering on the edge of madness before falling headlong into it this year than Toni Collette, I didn’t see it. If awards bodies had any sense, she would be rewarded for it.

Available to watch on amazon prime

11. The Tale


Lord, hear my prayer: that you would give me even an ounce of the courage and vulnerability that writer-director Jennifer Fox has demonstrated in making The Tale. Titled for the troubling short story Fox wrote as a 13-year-old that is rediscovered by her mother well into adulthood, the film follows Fox herself, played here by Laura Dern, as her past relationship with a pair of childhood riding instructors resurfaces in her memory, only to realize that her recollections may not be fully truthful to what actually happened. Upsetting and uncomfortable in the utmost manner, The Tale is a film as brutally honest and unflinching in its wrestling with personal history and demons, simultaneously demonstrating the malleable nature of memory and the drastic measures to which a mind will go to protect itself from disturbing truths and abuse. One early moment is as blunt and unsettling a metatextual statement of intent as any: a brief flashback replays to switch out a more mature, conventionally attractive actress for a clearly adolescent one as the characters more accurately recall Fox’s age. The sly directorial flourish that challenges the typical methods Hollywood employs to make these narratives more palatable to regular audiences while sending the viewer a message loud and clear. We will only be dealing with the full, unvarnished truth here, no matter how difficult or disquieting.

available to watch on HBO Go

10. Paddington 2


If Wes Anderson did away with his cynicism and understated emotional expression, Paul King’s deliriously charming sequel might be what you’d get. Bursting with a boundless creativity and visual wit and wearing its heart proudly on its sleeve, Paddington 2 rejects any and all crotchedyness and temper, practically daring the viewer to frown. From a wonderful window-washing mishap to an accident that dyes all the prison uniforms pink to a delightfully silly and brilliant performance from Hugh Grant as the foppish villain, there’s no shortage of funny gags and clever setpieces that carry not a shred of meanness or cruelty to them. Much in the same way the film’s furry protagonist brings cheer to the lives of all he encounters, every actor that appears in the cast seems to be having the time of their life, all marching to the beat of the film’s wholesome drum with the aim of making its world a better place. I’m of the opinion that many a problem in 2018 could’ve been fixed if most politicians had been shown the film, A Clockwork Orange-style. In short, it’s a miracle movie, and more children’s entertainment should be like it.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD, and to watch on HBO Go

9. Avengers: Infinity War

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The image above should read as much weirder than it is. The fact that it doesn’t shows how far we’ve come in the ten years since the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which reaches its climax with this third Avengers film. With eighteen other films released prior in that same ten year span, it’s a wonder that the film does not completely collapse under the weight of serving its seemingly endless cast of characters and branching storylines and arcs. But if anything, Infinity War benefits most from the hard work Marvel has done in building its stories and framework from characters that we care about and understand, thereby rendering the difficult choices they have to make here meaningful because we know exactly how hard they are. It should be stressed how fun, large, and adventurous the film is as well. But amid all the digital chaos and spectacle and zippy one-liners from fan-favorite heroes, the film also manages to instill a genuine sense of danger with its intimidating villain and a philosophy verging on nihilism. For the first time in the franchise, doing all the right things and making all the right choices doesn’t guarantee a win or a positive outcome, culminating in an instantly iconic and shocking ending. The cynical may resist its power with genuine disbelief of its permanence, but whatever any sequel may or may not do does not detract from the feeling experienced in the moment. Infinity War closes with utter devastation.

Available to watch on Netflix

8. Blindspotting


2018 was a banner year for films about racism and the African-American experience - a few of them have already been mentioned in this article. As vastly different in style, tone, genre, and intent as these films are, what’s most miraculous is how radically each tackles its own very specific subject matter that makes lumping them all into the category of “The Black Movies” difficult and absurd to justify (Film Crit Hulk wrote an excellent piece for the Observer on this topic).

Blindspotting has perhaps the trickiest subject of them all in gentrification, in the way that to many it’s an incredibly nebulous concept to those who aren’t affected by it because on its face it doesn’t seem to be that bad. After all, what’s wrong with making things nicer and healthier, even if it makes everything more expensive? But the screenplay, cowritten by stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, perfectly communicate the oppressive sense of suddenly and continuously feeling unwelcome in your own home. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly gentrifying and overly-policed Oakland, California, the film acts as a parable about the clashing of cultures and the assumptions made about both the transplants and locals. Newcomer Carlos López Estrada directs with a firebrand energy that feeds off the characters’ building anxiety, culminating in an earth-shattering spoken-word climax in which Diggs’ Collin finally gets to fully express the heaviness that has burdened his soul since his criminal conviction. The film is remarkably assured, knowing exactly what it wants to say and how to say it. It almost devalues itself by way of making it all look so easy.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD

7. The Rider

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You may begin watching The Rider without knowledge of it’s true-life backstory and purposeful use of non-professional actors - I almost hate to spoil it here. But there will come a point somewhere in the movie when it will suddenly strike you that what you’re seeing onscreen - the validity and rawness of the emotions, the unique choices of the “actors”, the ways they inhabit the spaces and interact with each other - has to be real. Based on a real injury that rodeo star Brady Jandreau suffered during a competition, the story follows Jandreau and his immediate family playing versions of themselves as Brady looks for a new purpose in life and tries to come to grips that what he was seemingly born for may no longer be tenable. Chloé Zhao directs with a naturalistic eye seeming to channel a lost Terrence Malick film with its gorgeous outdoor vistas, sublime realism, and honest emotion. The film also echoes recent stories about masculine identity such as The Wrestler, though Zhao draws a much more life-affirming and positive conclusion with the same understated beauty through which she’s realized the rest of the film.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD, and to watch on starz

6. Mandy


Much has been made of Mandy‘s utter insanity, and star Nicolas Cage has the track record to make anything with that kind of buzz an instant classic and a must-see. And while the second half of Panos Cosmatos’ phantasmagoric revenge film more than lives up to whatever you’ve heard about it, with its tripped out psychedelia, chainsaw duels, and rampant demonic bloodletting, what’s been less publicized is the melancholic beauty and tragedy of the film’s first half. Bathed in a red and purple mist that will only ramp up in its intensity as the film progresses, Cosmatos takes the time to establish the tranquil existence of his film’s namesake and the meaningfulness of her life to Cage’s lumberjack protagonist. Far from a virginal madonna set up as a lamb to the slaughter, Andrea Riseborough gives Mandy a clear inner life and defiant complexity that’s implacable and difficult to define, which is perhaps what draws Linus Roache’s murderous cult leader to her in the first place. By the time Cage is letting loose arrows from his crossbow and forging his own axe out of steel, you get exactly why. It’s not especially deep, but a richer and more intoxicating formal exercise could not be found in theaters this year.

Available to buy & Rent on DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD

5. Roma


Alfonso Cuarón has spent his career establishing a trademark for background details. His films often feel so large and grand because the world through which his characters move feels genuinely lived in and real, enough that often just as much of the story is happening when Cuarón turns his camera away from the characters as when he’s focusing exclusively on them. Fitting that perhaps this, his smallest story to date, encapsulates his style the most. Inspired by the life of the nanny who took care of he and his upper-middle class family in Mexico City, Roma charts the seemingly mundane daily life of Cleo as it is interrupted by tumultuous events both in her own personal life, that of the family that employs her, and the political realities of the city. It is not so much a hagiography as it is an extended canvas for which Cuarón paints his appreciation and adoration for the woman who held such a prominent place in his childhood. And the film makes a miraculous effort to understand and explore the genuine inner life of Cleo, performed luminously by Yalitza Aparicio. The final product is a wonderful oxymoron, an intimate character study that feels like a three-hour epic, and even more sublime and enveloping.

Available to watch on Netflix

4. You Were Never Really Here


Never expect a traditional film of any kind from Lynne Ramsay, especially when in the broad strokes it appears exactly like any kind of typical genre picture. You Were Never Really Here tells a story of vengeance that never feels like any other you’ve seen because it denies the viewer the catharsis of just violence. Ever the poet, Ramsay instead shows us barely enough carnage to communicate its raw brutality and viciousness while never rendering it either satisfying or pleasurable. Every death is a messy, bloody nightmare that, regardless of whether its deserved, immediately calls into question its own rightness. The film depicts its violence as a necessary vent valve for Joe, played haunted and reclusive by Joaquin Phoenix, as he hunts down criminals and frees girls caught up in sex trafficking. The sense is that if Joe doesn’t use his trauma in a manner similar to the ball hammer which which he caves in the skulls of his targets, he will inflict it instead on himself. Harrowing and gripping, the film is a brilliant character study and a vital examination of PTSD and mental illness.

Reviewed Here

Available to watch on Amazon Prime

3. If Beale Street Could Talk

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I’ve once said about a certain director’s style that it is folly to shoot an entire movie in close-up, but If Beale Street Could Talk makes an astonishingly compelling case that I was wrong about that. Or maybe Jenkins' particular talents afford him some exception to the rule. Whichever it may be, the film serves up scene after scene comprised almost entirely of the most intimate tool in a filmmakers’ arsenal, mapping every texture, flicker of thought, and stirred emotion of its characters’ faces. Better to deliver the tenderness, passion and, sometimes, volatile anger directly to the audience, no words needed. It of course doesn’t hurt to have the words of James Baldwin backing them up either, cataloging the swooning romance between Fonny and Tish in an early ‘70s Harlem that remains hostile to black people even after the Civil Rights movement. The love of the couple and Fonny’s imprisonment under false pretenses gives the story its specificity, but as the foreword of the film states (taken directly from Baldwin’s novel), the story is also meant to be representative of a universality of experience and emotions that all African-Americans have faced at one time or another. Despite the dark clouds of discrimination and the absence of justice, however, Beale Street captures the rich inner lives of these people in this place and time - their love, the support they give and receive from each other, their dreams, their hopes, and even their fears - with expressionistic flair that leaves the heart soaring. Movies this warm and full of grace are a rare thing indeed.

In Theaters Now

2. Widows


Who knew serious dramatic film director Steve McQueen had a genre film as gratifying as Widows in him? With the writing talents of thriller author Gillian Flynn on board, McQueen goes about crafting a heist thriller richer and more meaningful than most of its contemporaries in the vein of a feminist Michael Mann picture. It starts with the best and most exciting opening sequence of the year, a marvel of editing, scripting, and performance that communicates specificity of character and relationships in seconds where most films fail to do the same with hours. The film continues with a portrait of a Chicago that stands in for the whole of America’s current political and social moment, examining the effects of classism, racism, misogyny, nepotism, and broader political corruption that would feel overstuffed and forced in less capable hands. It’s aided even further by an ensemble more stacked with talent than any other production this year, all committed to some of the finest work of many of their careers. Engaging from the word go and never letting up, with repeat viewings only revealing more about its intricate plotting and relationships and the various statements they are making, Widows was among the top tier of adult-minded entertainment of 2018, and it deserved a much better reception in theaters than what it received.

Reviewed Here

Available soon on DVD & Blu-Ray and VOD

1. Annihilation


The Human Condition has been explored enough times through the medium of cinema that the term has been rendered nebulous and frustratingly unspecific. Annihilation has a very specific idea of what the condition is - that of self-destruction. This quality is coded into our own biology, and as we grow and experience life it also permeates our psychology. The Shimmer, the alien phenomenon that has consumed a large area of the Florida coast, directly externalizes that condition, projecting it onto the environment in ways both beautiful and horrifying as it mutates and transplants components of whatever life it encounters. Alex Garland’s second at-bat in the director’s chair takes the skeleton of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name and cross-pollinates it with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker to create an elusive and mysterious journey into the depths of trauma, grief, and guilt. The metaphor I’ve used to explain the film’s puzzling questions is but one of many conclusions that could be drawn about its meaning. Garland leaves interpretation up to the viewer, even as the scientists through which we experience the journey attempt to explain what they’re seeing for themselves. Why is this happening? Why do we do these things to ourselves? Much like the being encountered in the film’s hypnotic, enrapturing, terrifying climax, perhaps the answers are unknowable. Few films from this year have lodged themselves as firmly in my brain as this. If anything, Annihilation is proof that science-fiction remains the best vehicle for exploring cerebral, thoughtful concepts and themes when placed in the hands of filmmakers willing to take it seriously. It is also the best film of the year.

Available to watch on Hulu and Amazon Prime