Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation
After struggling to come up with a top ten list in 2015, I had thought that both 2016 and 2017 were very good cinema years. But I never would have predicted they would be so trounced by 2018. Not only did I have no trouble coming up with a top ten, but there are a further eighteen films at the bottom of this post that I still want to see, many of which could easily be “top ten” material from what I’ve heard about them.
What’s more, it was a great year for the normalization of the film landscape. What do I mean by that? Well, seeing a broader range of characters and experiences up on the screen for one. You know, like the world we actually live in? More blockbusters and critical darlings than ever before seem to be centered on women and/or people of color, and, while there is still a long way to go, especially behind the scenes of film production, this is a significant step. I hope the trend continues—mainly because it makes for better stories.
In short, boys, I hope you are finally ready to accept that you are not the universal human experience you think you are.
Top Ten 2018 Films (So Far*)
Leave No Trace
A Star Is Born
You Were Never Really Here
Best Film Seen in a Theater: Annihilation by Alex Garland. I couldn’t stop thinking about this one for a long time after I saw it. It even got me to watch Stalker, as noted in Be Kind, Please Rewind: The Year in Film, Part 1. I like to say I’m not a huge science fiction person, but then I also loved Arrival so maybe I need to stop saying that. This film was gorgeous, thought-provoking, unsettling and even terrifying at times, and built to one of the best final acts I’ve seen in some time. And the sound design, my god, the sound design. Fantastic.
Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation
Best Theater Experience: A Star Is Born by Bradley Cooper. It is hard to beat the theater experience of seeing this film at the Dolby Laboratories theater with a post-screening interview of Bradley Cooper by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. So much of this movie is the music that it was thrilling to see it in a theater with such fantastic sound. But even if that hadn’t been the case, I think I would have loved this film. The story is pure movie magic, the camerawork was extremely effective in making you feel you were on stage, and the performances were rock solid. Now that I have seen the three previous versions, I think Cooper did an excellent job in bringing the story up to date.
Best Remake That’s Not a Remake: First Reformed by Paul Schrader. After coming home from the theater following a screening of First Reformed, the Math Greek immediately suggested watching Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman. I thought this was because he is often trying (unsuccessfully) to get me to watch Bergman, but actually it was because the basic plot of First Reformed is so similar. Like, really, really, similar. Not that I have a problem with that, rather, I find it fascinating how we can interpret and appreciate similar material differently in different eras and at different times of our lives. Despite any similarity to previous works, this film (and Ethan Hawke’s exceptional performance) stands on its own. In fact, First Reformed would probably be ranked number one on my list above were it not for the “fantasy” sequence in the middle. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. I hated that scene.
Best Film by a Female Director: Leave No Trace by Debra Granik. This film was simply a stunning achievement for a director whose last feature (Winter’s Bone) was released eight years ago and nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but somehow wasn’t flooded with offers to direct something else. Hmm, I wonder why that is? [Side note: I don’t actually wonder.] Not many directors could pull off such a “quiet” film—the script, performances, sound, and editing have to be pitch perfect to make something like this work. Granik makes it look easy. If she is not up for Best Director this year, it will tell you everything you need to know about how little progress Hollywood has made.
Most Shocking Ending (tie): BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee and A Star Is Born. I normally hate spoilers of any kind, but in the case of BlacKkKlansman, I wish I had been warned of what was to come. In fact, I’m still not sure how I feel about that particular directorial decision by Lee. It certainly had an effect, but I don’t think it was necessary. Which is sort of my main quibble with this excellent film—its message is quite clear without the obvious references and linkages to contemporary events scattered throughout. Trust your audience, Spike. As for A Star Is Born, I am so happy I wasn’t spoiled for where that was going, because, man, I did not see that coming at all. I know that many people see this film as having a split personality, and don’t like the second half, but that’s kind of baked in to the story, isn’t it? In any case, the second half is completely worth watching if only for that one look by Sam Elliott.
Laura Harrier and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman
Most Improved on Rewatch: You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay. Mostly because I watched this at home with only half an eye and wasn’t that impressed, but when I actually focused on it the second time around was blown away. Because there is so much below the surface of this tale of a gun for hire (or hammer, as the case may be). A violent movie, but one that focuses on the results and impact of violence, rather than showing the violence itself. The trauma of abuse and military service are highlighted, but not presented as an excuse for Joe’s actions. Nor is he put on a pedestal for his “rescues” of young girls. Come to think of it, while they are very different films, this would make an excellent pairing with Leave No Trace.
Favorite Sequel: Paddington 2 by Paul King. I can’t tell you the number of people who have given me the “Really?” look when I recommend Paddington 2. Yes, I do like bears very much, but that is not the reason I love this film. Because there are so many other reasons to love it: the message, the visual design, the characters, the script—which is just straight up appealing and doesn’t resort to the “wink wink nudge nudge” common to many family films that try to appeal to adults. There’s a reason it is the only major release along with Leave No Trace to maintain a 100% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. [Side note: For maximum impact, it does help if you have seen Paddington (2015), but luckily that is also an excellent film, so just make it a double feature when you’ve had a hard day.]
Most Squirm-Inducing Realism: Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham. I went to see this movie on a whim with my sister and niece and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I mean, a movie about an eighth-grade girl made by a dude? A father-daughter relationship depicted by a dude without kids? Actually, I thought I knew what to expect, and that was the absolute worst. But instead I got this sensitive and insightful portrait of teen life in the age of social media, parenting at a difficult age, and dealing with social anxiety. The accuracy of Burnham’s observations are cringe-worthy in the best way possible. His direction of Elsie Fisher’s YouTube videos alone is a remarkable achievement. And Fisher is a revelation.
Most Deceptively Ranked: Roma by Alfonso Cuarón. Roma seems to be headed to Oscar glory and it is well deserved to be sure. Its placement at number nine on my list is a true testament to what an incredible year it has been for films of all shapes and sizes. And again, with the number of films I have left to see, it may even fall off my top ten! Which is insane because this film is gorgeous. And the sound design is amazing as well, so if you have a chance to see it in a theater, you should really make the effort. It just didn’t hit me in the gut like some of the other films on my list, perhaps because I lacked the background to appreciate the nuances of some of the historical and cultural elements. But I will say that it is one of the few films I’ve seen to make me think about Latinxs as colonizers.
Most Underrated: Revenge by Coralie Fargeat. Revenge is surely the most controversial choice for inclusion in a top ten. In fact, it is a movie I myself avoided watching for some time because I really didn’t want to see yet another rape-as-plot-motivator on screen. I should have trusted the difference a female director makes. Fargeat turns the rape-revenge subgenre on its head to make for an incredibly satisfying action horror film. Yes, there were parts of this film that were hard for me to watch and it is not for the faint of heart, but the rape was not one of those parts. Plus, a bonus cameo for my little pink iPod nano!
Matilda Lutz in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge
The Next Fifteen (So Far*)
Three Identical Strangers
The Death of Stalin
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
A Simple Favor
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Hearts Beat Loud
Crazy Rich Asians
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Rather than go into detail on each of these selections or any of the other 2018 films I have seen, let’s just get to the awards, shall we?
Standout Performance (Female): Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline
Standout Performance (Female) (runner-up): Blake Lively in A Simple Favor
Standout Performance (Male): Ethan Hawke in First Reformed
Standout Performance (Male) (runner-up): Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here
Standout Performance (Teen) (tie): Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade and Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace
Best Supporting Performance (Female): Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians
Best Supporting Performance (Male): Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman
Best Supporting Performance (Male) (runner-up): Sam Elliott in A Star Is Born
Best Ensemble (drama): Annihilation
Best Ensemble (comedy): Game Night
Best Debut: Helena Howard in Madeline’s Madeline
Best Villain: Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2
Favorite Scene: Jackson and Ally singing “Shallow” on stage in A Star Is Born
Best Scene Stealer: Rachel McAdams in Game Night
Rachel McAdams in John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night
Best Documentary: Three Identical Strangers. There were a number of excellent documentaries put out this year, and the three in my top twenty-five have all made the Oscar shortlist, along with RBG, which I also saw and liked, but is more run-of-the-mill than the others. I watched Three Identical Strangers on a plane and found it fascinating. I didn’t know much about the story going into it, which is probably a good thing. An astonishing tale well told.
Best Documentary That’s Not a Documentary: The Rider. Director Chloé Zhao was already planning to make a movie with Brady Jandreau when he had the accident that inspired The Rider. While a complete fiction, the film stars Jandreau as a rodeo star whose accident prevents him from competing again on the circuit and his real-life father and sister play his father and sister. Rather than follow what might be a typical sports film trajectory of a road to recovery, this story instead tells a tale of survival, the hard choices we must sometimes make, and the family dynamics that may or may not help us along the way—all against the incredible backdrop of the South Dakota badlands. Despite his lack of acting experience, Jandreau is utterly compelling and I hope to see more of him in the future.
Best Documentary That’s Not a Documentary (runner-up): American Animals. This film uses a mix of interviews with the real protagonists of a rare-book heist interwoven with a fictional re-telling of that heist for an interesting look at memory, truth, and the consequences of one’s actions.
Most Heartwarming Documentary: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Most Heartwarming Fiction Film: Hearts Beat Loud
Hardest to Categorize: A Simple Favor. It’s a comedy! It’s a noir! It’s a thriller! It’s an ode to French pop! In short, I’m not quite sure what I saw, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Anna Kendrick in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor
Best Use of French Pop: A Simple Favor
Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In)
The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): A Wrinkle in Time
“Every Frame a Painting” Award for Special Achievement in Cinematography: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Best Would-Be Double Feature: The Snake Pit (1948) and Unsane. Unsane didn’t make it into my top ranks mostly because it hit so close to home with its horror: from the stalker, to the insurance fraud, to the fear of being trapped in a mental institution. But it did make me want to watch The Snake Pit again.
Most Relevant Premise: The Oath
Most “Out There”: Sorry to Bother You
Most “Out” There: The Miseducation of Cameron Post
Best Romantic Comedy: Crazy Rich Asians
Best Franchise Film: Black Panther
Best Action Sequences: Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Rebecca Ferguson in Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Most Overrated: Black Panther by Ryan Coogler. I liked Black Panther, and it is certainly one of the better Marvel movies, but I do not think it’s a “film” that should be competing for major Oscar categories. Especially this year.
Biggest Disappointment: The Sisters Brothers. I love westerns, I love Jacques Audiard, but, much like the book, this story just fell flat. I had really been hoping this would be one of those cases where the visual medium would make up for the book’s deficits.
Biggest Surprise: Never Goin’ Back. This movie just missed out on my top twenty-five. A raunchy comedy about two young down-on-their-luck waitresses who just want to get to the beach in Galveston. The characters aren’t particularly likable but they are somehow charming as hell.
Better Than Reviews Would Imply: Red Sparrow. I think people went into Red Sparrow thinking it was going to be more of a Mission: Impossible action film than the John Le Carré deliberate slow burn that it turned out to be. It has problematic elements to be sure, but I still found it entertaining.
Best Bear (three-way tie): Annihilation, Christopher Robin, and Paddington 2
Worst Abuse of Geography: Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Best Use of a Major U.S. Tourist Attraction: Lombard Street in Ant-Man and the Wasp
Most Coveted Outfits (tie): Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8 and Blake Lively in A Simple Favor
Best Backstabbing (tie): The Death of Stalin and Mary Queen of Scots
Saoirse Ronan in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots
Most Effective Trailer: A Star Is Born
Top 18 2018 Movies I Haven’t Yet Seen But Want To
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
If Beale Street Could Talk
Minding the Gap
The Old Man and the Gun
A Quiet Place
Support the Girls
Rachel Weisz in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite
A big thanks to some of my favorite film podcasts (Fighting in the War Room, Movie Geeks United, Movies Now and Then, and Top 5 Film) for calling my attention to many of these films, especially American Animals, Madeline’s Madeline, and Shirkers.
What are your favorite movies of 2018? What did I miss that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.
*The 2018 movies I saw this year include: American Animals, Annihilation, Ant-Man and the Wasp, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Beautiful Boy, Black Panther, BlackkKlansman, Christopher Robin, Crazy Rich Asians, The Death of Stalin, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, Game Night, The Hate U Give, Hearts Beat Loud, Incredibles 2, Leave No Trace, Madeline’s Madeline, Mary Queen of Scots, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Never Goin’ Back, The Oath, Ocean’s 8, Paddington 2, RBG, Red Sparrow, Revenge, The Rider, Roma, Shirkers, A Simple Favor, The Sisters Brothers, Sorry to Bother You, A Star Is Born, Three Identical Strangers, Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In), Unsane, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, A Wrinkle in Time, You Were Never Really Here
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