The Best Movies of 2018
The more things changed at the movies in 2018, the more they stayed the same. The year’s biggest box office hit was Marvel’s Black Panther, which finally smashed the old rule that white actors were required to head up superhero stories. Crazy Rich Asians proved that perfectly mediocre romantic comedies (which should not be taken as a criticism, it’s been a moribund genre for a while) didn’t require white casts for relatability; glossy shopping montages and feisty showdowns between a bride-to-be and her fearsome future mother-in-law translate across all cultures.
Even as the industry seemed to become increasingly diverse, the offerings at the theater seemed terribly familiar. Remakes, sequels, and tentpoles dominated screens and moviegoers’ attention spans. On the one hand, it was great that Netflix is shelling out for great filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Paul Greengrass to make movies that nobody else will. But when they’re only playing on a handful of screens before disappearing into the streaming ether, how much longevity will they have?
Movies ranging from Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk to the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Damien Chazelle’s First Man showed that feted American directors still had lots of aces up their sleeves. There were incredible debuts, from Ari Aster’s bloodcurdling experiment in family horror Hereditary to Bing Liu’s documentary on skateboarding and masculinity Minding the Gap.
Less crucially in 2018, we discovered that Bradley Cooper can direct, sing, and do a decent Sam Elliott impression (A Star is Born). David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun showed that not only did we not realize how much the movies needed Robert Redford but that Lowery might be the true heir to the great Hal Ashby — who, coincidentally, was given a fine biographical rendering in Amy Scott’s Hal.
On a more negative note, this year it became apparent that not even Tom Hardy can save a mediocre superhero movie like Venom; lucky accidents don’t happen twice (Sicario 2); and that Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate might have made a better Vincent Van Gogh than Martin Scorsese in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, but that still doesn’t make it strong casting.
All that being said, there were more worthwhile movies out there this year than the average person has time to get to. What were they? Here’s one writer’s opinion:
1 — The Death of Stalin
In a year where politics felt ever more like like malicious buffoonery, this slash-and-burn satire about the jockeying for power that ensued after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 is necessary viewing. Writer/director Armando Iannucci brings the same caustic wit that has made his shows like Veep and movies like In the Loop required viewing for cynics in the post-truth era. A top-flight cast ranging from Steve Buscemi to Jeffrey Tambor thankfully dispense with approximating Russian accents as they hurl insults like knives and fight with murderously bureaucratic skill and slapstick panic to ensure that Stalin’s fiendish apparatus doesn’t ensnare them even after his death. Simon Russell Beale’s unforgettably icy turn as Beria, Stalin’s monstrous enforcer of the secret state, helps keep the horror just as visible as the comedy.
2 — The Favourite
After redefining modern cinematic surrealism with staunchly bizarre classics like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos takes on the costume drama, with inexplicably funny results. In early 18th century England, the daft and easily-swayed Queen Anne (the impeccably daffy Olivia Colman) is being pulled between two strong women — iron-spined Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and the wily, noble-born servant Anne (Emma Stone) — who play her off the other in a dizzying game of wills and romantic subterfuge. Lanthimos plays the scenario for all its period glamour, with fluttering gowns and guttering candlelight filling the frame, but also threads each scene with deadpan comedy that’s all the funnier for being so unexpected.
3 — Shoplifters
The latest slice of Japanese life from master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is a wry Dickensian tale about a family of Tokyo day-laborers who might work for a living but would really prefer to steal. The story starts when the clan’s nominal mother and father (the nearly-perfect pairing of Lily Franky and Sakura Ando) come across a young girl from a neglectful family and decide to take her in. Soon they are indoctrinating their new daughter into their ways of theft and small-time grifts. Meanwhile, the authorities continue to search for the girl and reality threatens to intrude on their made-up arrangement. Carrying a little more of an edge than some of Kore-eda’s glossier work like Our Little Sister, Shoplifters is a thoughtful, funny, and wrenching drama about the prices people pay for defining family their own way and living outside of society.
4 — This is Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo of Daniel McCabe’s gorgeous and tragic documentary is one of indescribable beauty. It is also a place of horrendous evils. Throughout the course of this devastating movie, McCabe uses the intertwined stories of three people — the leader of a commando unit fighting one of the nation’s many rebel groups, a rare-minerals dealer who courts death every day, and a tailor who hauls heavy old Singer machine from one refugee camp to the next — to dramatically illuminate the complex story of a war-ravaged nation few Westerners could find on a map.
5 — First Reformed
After years spent working on everything from an Exorcist sequel to that gloriously oddball Bret Easton Ellis-Lindsay Lohan experiment in louche L.A. decadence, The Canyons, Paul Schrader gets back to his spiritual basics with this spare and haunting story about Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), imploding in a dark existential crisis. Toller tends (somewhat) to his rarely-visited historic church and subsists mostly on whiskey and misery. Meanwhile, Jeffers, his brassy, confident and politically minded boss over at the nearby megachurch (Cedric the Entertainer), tells Toller to lighten up and not worry so much that the environment is collapsing and their new donor is a climate-change denier. An intensely felt and intensely weird paean to Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest that’s also a rousing defense of holding fast to beliefs even when the only reward for doing so is more pain and heartbreak.
6 — Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy gives the performance of an already sterling career as real-life forger Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s sympathetic and funny account. A biographer of people with limited modern-day audiences like Fanny Brice, Israel turned to fabricating letters supposedly written by famous people in order to keep the lights on. Israel complains to her agent about the advances garnered by the likes of Tom Clancy (it was the ’90s) while refusing to commercialize herself and aligning with a top-notch raconteur and fellow drunkard Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, similarly fabulous) who encourages all of her most misanthropic and destructive tendencies. Even though Israel’s scam has a limited life span, she enjoys every second less for its financial rewards than for finally being rewarded for her writing. Beautifully shot in a wintry New York of bars and bookshops and acted with a fiercely individualistic panache.
7 — A Quiet Place
While the premise is absurd even by the standards of post-apocalyptic cinema — aliens who can’t see but have hypersensitive hearing have invaded Planet Earth, leaving only a few hardened survivors who have learned how to live without making hardly any sound and essentially never speaking — there is something about John Krasinski’s terrifically terrifying thriller that bounds right past those issues. The scares are expertly delivered. The family dynamic is tautly rendered, with the parents (cooly competent Krasinski and a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Emily Blunt) running out of ways to keep their children safe in a seemingly hopeless scenario, even while their true salvation might lie with their deaf daughter (the marvelous Millicent Simmonds). A sequel is due, so make sure to to see this before the appeal is ruined.
8 — Sorry to Bother You
In a version of Oakland delivered straight from the melded subconscious of Philip K. Dick and Karl Marx, down-on-his-luck guy Cassius (the epically laconic Lakeith Stanfield) starts getting on his feet with a new telemarketing job. The catch? The only way he’s able to make sales is to use his “white voice” (an intensely nasal David Cross). Adding insult to insult, the firm wants Cassius to use his sales acumen to pitch products and services that read like a roster of human rights violations being brought before a tribunal at the Hague. A goofily guerrilla agitprop comedy that melds a stingingly updated critique of capitalism with surrealist indictments of gentrification, modern consumerist identity, and racism, this debut from political agitator and hip-hop artist Boots Riley is hopefully the sign of more Marxian weirdness to come.
9 — Of Fathers and Sons
Most stories about Islamic extremism focus on the damage they cause. Relatively few filmmakers pay attention to how the groups live. In this remarkable documentary, Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki (Return to Homs) embeds himself with the family of Abu Osama, a founder of al-Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot, Al-Nusra. Of Fathers and Sons moves ahead on dual fronts. In one, we see Osama on the frontline, calmly killing enemies with a sniper rifle. The more prominent and more disturbing footage tracks him on the home front, as he goofs around with his kids (just the boys, all females are kept out of view) and instructs them in the ways of medieval violence, intolerance, and blind hatred of all things related to women or modernity. The casual sadism bleeds into all aspects of life, suggesting that the next generation, raised in trauma and hate, will only speed the region’s downward spiral of destruction and inhumanity. Derki’s daring movie is seemingly less sensational than Jonathan Hacker’s Path of Blood from earlier in the year, which used captured al-Qaeda footage to show the inner workings of a terrorist cell in Saudi Arabia. But this disquieting lesson in generational cruelty is all the more searing for the future barbarity it predicts.
Seventeen years after making his name with the rambunctious road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuaron circles back to the land of his youth with this beautifully wrought and intimate portrait of a bourgeois academic household in Mexico City being pulled apart by political and domestic strife. Shot in long, languorous takes from the perspective of the family’s patient Mixteco servant, the black-and-white cinematography gives the story a deceptively placid surface. This is undercut by turmoil both outer, such as the 1971 student riots that enter the narrative like a summer storm (there and gone so quick it almost seems to have not happened), and inner, from the mother’s anguished attempts to keep her wandering husband in the family to the maid’s unexpected pregnancy. Packed with telling details, poetic imagery, and a gorgeously humanistic perspective that carries surprising echoes of the great postwar European filmmakers from Fellini to Bergman, Roma is a rich feast of storytelling and bravura filmmaking.
11 — Vice
You wouldn’t imagine that Adam McKay’s background in digital SNL shorts and Funny or Die viral videos would prepare him for this kind of epic undertaking. But as he showed in the furiously funny The Big Short, McKay has a knack for rendering knotty modern American history as sharp and not-so-slightly surreal satire. In this gonzo Dick Cheney biopic, Christian Bale delivers the lead performance that’s so deeply Method you wouldn’t be surprised to find out he still answers to “Mr. Vice President.” McKay jumps through the Cheney timeline — from drunk Yale dropout to beady-eyed Nixonian apparatchik to quasi-dictatorial architect of limitless executive power — with confident panache, speckling the screen with sharp caricatures (Steve Carrel’s Don Rumsfeld is particularly on-point) and gutsy comedic jabs. At the same time, McKay doesn’t let his clear antipathy toward the subject cloud his storytelling; there are moments where Cheney’s breathtaking ambition and steely reserve evoke an almost grudging respect. A modern satiric masterpiece that will infuriate your Republican relatives, should they somehow be tricked into seeing it.
12 — Custody
This resonant, chilling story from Xavier Legrand will likely be categorized as a domestic melodrama. While that’s not incorrect, as Legrand’s tightly-wound neo-realism recalls the best family dramas of the Dardennes brothers, that doesn’t quite indicate the level of aching discomfort it creates. Miriam (Lea Drucker) has divorced her husband Antoine (a simmering, rage-filled Denis Menochet). Stuck in the middle is their 11-year-old son Julien (Thomas Gioria). Although seen in high regard by most outside the family, Antoine is not so secretly a man of volcanic furies. Miriam does what she can to keep her son safe as Antoine’s campaign for joint custody utilizes all aspects of the system to his advantage. The creeping suspense builds with expert care in incremental steps that Legrand — helped in large part by Menochet’s slow-burn performance — executes with a Hitchcockian precision that doesn’t lose track of the very real effects of Julien’s growing emotional terror.
13 — Blackkklansman
You could argue with some aspects of Spike Lee’s smart, funny, consistently surprising 1970s-set movie about a black cop who helps take down the Colorado KKK in part by pretending to be a white supremacist. The sidelines about blaxploitation cinema and a Black Power montage that evokes Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” video don’t quite fit into the story. But Blackkklansman, based on the real-life escapades of detective Ron Stallworth, hits the jackpot in so many other ways that any carping doesn’t quite matter in the end. John David Washington’s effortless cool as Stallworth, the sole black cop in an all-white department who uses his white voice to investigate the Klan, and Adam Driver’s laid-back but staunch turn as Jewish cop Flip Zimmerman who does the leg work by impersonating a neo-Nazi, make for the year’s best buddy pairing. Topher Grace makes a weirdly perfect David Duke, playing an abhorrent character with just enough comedic pomposity that the caricature remains as funny as he is frightening. But it’s in the movie’s last minutes, where Lee departs from the undercover cop narrative — his best straight drama since Inside Man — to deliver a terrifying montage of racial villainy from The Birth of a Nation to Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric following the deadly Charlottesville rally that the movie truly hits home with the force of righteous truth.
14 — Dark Money
You might not think that one of the most frightening and urgent movies of 2018 would involve campaign finance. In Montana. But Kimberley Reed’s documentary about how big and dark contributions from unseen sources with nefarious purposes is required viewing for anybody who worries about what unlimited corporate spending can and is doing to American democracy. Reed’s story shows how big-money conservatives were able to secretly inject their viewpoints into Montana politics without disclosing how the agendas their front organizations were pushing would personally benefit a small clique of oligarchs. Her Don Quixote is John Adams, a spunky investigative reporter who gets laid off from his newspaper but keeps digging into the ungodly nexus of money and power shaping the future of Montana. What makes Dark Money so fascinating beyond its immediate story is the dire implications it holds for the rest of the post-Citizens United nation.
15 — Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
In many ways, Black Panther was the most important comic-book movie of 2018. That an unapologetically Afrofuturist superhero story with only one semi-major white character could become an international billion-dollar blockbuster changed the face of modern moviemaking, perhaps forever. But coming right on its heels was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, an overcaffeinated and structurally fractured addition to the overly crowded Spidey world that was both purposefully racially conscious (embodying its new Peter Parker in a nerdy black New York teen who’s more into his burgeoning graffiti artistry than saving the world) and a sign of a more confidently inclusive cinematic comic multiverse to come. Besides being a fast-paced hoot of an adventure whose richly imagined animation is both evocative of its outer-boroughs setting and stylistic enough to include comic inputs like sound effects being imprinted on the screen (“Thwip!”), it’s also a deadpan comedy whose standouts range from Jake Johnson’s cynical and chubby washed-up older Parker to Nicolas Cage’s gruff 1930s-esque Spider-Man Noir (“I really like fighting Nazis”). For once, great fun for the whole family doesn’t have to mean a lack of smarts or thoughtfulness.
Honorable mentions: American Animals, Annihilation, Charm City, Cold War, Disobedience, Hale County This Morning This Evening, The Hate U Give, Hereditary, If Beale Street Could Talk, Lean on Pete, Minding the Gap, Shirkers, A Simple Favor, Widows, You Were Never Really Here
Best actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Best actor: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Best music: You Were Never Really Here
Best cinematography: Hale County This Morning This Evening
Best costumes (tie): A Simple Favor, Mary Poppins Returns
Most overrated: A Star is Born
Most disappointing: Suspiria
Semi-annual award for best skate-rink choreography: United Skates