And here we are finally, with the first edition of the Best of 2018. Readers will do well to remember three things before we dive into the list:
- Like in 2017, there will be three editions of this list. The first here, is to be treated like a half-time report at a game – there’s been a lot of exciting stuff that’s happened, but we’re only halfway through. With the Toronto International Film Festival just ended and, quite predictably, a bunch of heavy hitters are staking their claims for awards season. We can expect to see many of those movies in the next two installments of this list (which will show up late December/early January, and one month after the Academy Awards take place). But in this list we get to celebrate the best stuff that came out earlier this year (and conveniently if you haven’t seen them, most of these are now out for home viewing). For this list, I made the cutoff Aug. 31.
- Since I am not a professional critic but a very-enthusiastic amateur one, there is no way that this list, even at the halfway point is in any way comprehensive. There are many movies released earlier this year that I still need to catch up on and sadly most of those are going to be documentaries, foreign films, indie films, and films directed by women. They are just a lot harder to track down than studio wide-releases.
- I consider a movie eligible for this list if it had a 2018 wide-release in North America. This rule comes into play mostly for foreign movies that got released in their own countries in 2017 (there will be a few examples of this on the list).
And with that preamble out of the way, let’s get to it:
FILMS I EGREGIOUSLY HAVEN’T SEEN YET THAT WOULD OBVIOUSLY BE ELIGIBLE FOR THIS LIST
Blackkklansmen; Blindspotting; Crazy Rich Asians; Eighth Grade; Foxtrot; The Guardians; Leave No Trace; Love After Love; Love, Simon; The Miseducation of Cameron Post; Sorry to Bother You; Support the Girls; Sweet Country
(Of course, this list is still not comprehensive – I look forward to all of you pointing out more such movies that I have failed to catch up on because of my ignorance and negligence.)
Ant-Man and The Wasp dir. Peyton Reed
Avengers: Infinity War dirs. Anthony and Joe Russo
Disobedience dir. Sebastian Lelio
The Endless dirs. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Incredibles 2 dir. Brad Bird
Lean on Pete dir. Andrew Haigh
Psychokinesis dir. Yeon Sang-Ho
Revenge dir. Coralie Fangeat
Searching dir. Aneesh Chaganty
You Were Never Really Here dir. Lynne Ramsey
15. GAME NIGHT dirs. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein
Given how miserly I usually am about big studio comedies, any comedy that has a scene that manages to make me laugh so hard that I legitimately started worrying about passing out automatically has to be in contention for this list. But beyond that one gut-busting scene, Game Night succeeds thanks to its perfect blend of smart and slapstick comedy that is actually funny, a pair of great leads in Bateman and McAdams who portray a couple whose greatest validation comes from winning in their weekly board-game night, a supporting cast who more than pull their weight, and a rabbit-hole plot that veers into the absurd without ever becoming alogether unbelievable.
14. A FANTASTIC WOMAN dir. Sebastian Lelio
Daniela Vega is undoubtedly fantastic as Marina Vidal, a transgender woman who finds herself in a perilous situation when her life-partner suddenly dies and the legal system gives her very little protection from his extremely vindictive and transphobic family. The movie leans hard into making her plight as miserable as possible (an unfortunate trope surrounding movies by cisgender directors about the transgender experience) but Vega makes this movie soar.
13. TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE dir. Susan Johnson
Admittedly To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before does not break too much new ground in the teenage romantic comedy genre (except in the one obvious area), but it is nonetheless impeccably executed. Featuring an extremely likeable cast (led by Lana Condor, the first Asian-American lead in a teenage rom-com) it provides a detailed portrait of the ever-evolving and confusing realm of teenage life in a way that is both familiar to all of us who have gone through those harrowing years and yet never fully descends into cliche either. This is perhaps because, unlike many teenage rom-coms in the past, the movie is all too aware that the complex emotions of hormone-driven teenagers is something teenagers are completely ill-equipped to deal with, leading to an honesty that this genre is usually devoid of.
12. THE RIDER dir. Chloe Zhao
Chloe Zhao’s drama featuring a slew of non-professional actors is so understated that it is easy to underestimate its narrative power. But Zhao masterfully weaves a tale about Brady, a rodeo cowboy who suffered a head injury when he was thrown from his bucking horse and is told that riding again may kill him, in ways rooted both in stark realism and lyrical beauty that it morphs not just into a story about the struggles of a man who finds himself cut off from the thing that gives him the most life but is also a powerful allegory not just of the dying embers of the myths of the Western but of the narratives America uses to describe itself.
11. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT dir. Christopher McQuarrie
At some point Tom Cruise’s desperate need to please and entertain his audience by performing increasingly outlandish stunts is either going to cause him to get seriously hurt or be ineffective in entertaining us because we will have become bored of his death-defying feats. However, that day is not today. Mission Impossible: Fallout finds Cruise partaking in a one-shot HALO jump, an impossibly dangerous-looking multi-vehicle chase scene, and what is without hyperbole the best helicopter dogfight ever put onscreen. He demands that we pay attention to his actions, be impressed, and be entertained. It is admittedly near-impossible not to be.
10. A QUIET PLACE dir. John Krasinsky
Following the phenomenal, and somewhat unexpected, success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out we now find ourselves in a brand new golden age of smart and critically-acclaimed horror that has thankfully not become derivative yet. Leading this year’s charge is another formerly comic actor making his directorial debut in John Krasinsky, who provides us a suffocating tale of a dystopic future where murderous alien creatures are hyper-sensitive to sound and use it to chillingly effective effect in eradicating life on earth. A Quiet Place may not have the narrative depth of Get Out but it is just as stylish and more importantly, equal in providing the visceral thrills requisite for this genre.
9. HEREDITARY dir. Ari Aster
Hereditary joins the rarified ranks of a select few movies for this uber-horror fan: it managed to freak me out. Unlike most horror movies that seek to unnerve its viewers by jump-scares and camera trickery, Hereditary achieves its horror solely by spending the entire movie building up its bone-chilling dread. The horror thus comes not in fits and spurts, but in an increasingly anxious crescendo as we see our chief characters slowly drift inevitably towards their fates but are powerless to stop them – with its conclusion reaching a crescendo of anxiety, fear, and horrific dread. Despite the fact that there are several horror heavy hitters lined up for the end of the year, this movie is going to be tough to top for pure visceral horror. Don’t tell me later you weren’t warned.
8. ISLE OF DOGS dir. Wes Anderson
Following Wes Anderson’s career is a fascinating and rewarding exercise of watching someone refine and perfect their personal aesthetic. While Anderson has made better films in the past, Isle of Dogs is perhaps the greatest example of how much control he has over his artisitc medium. Returning to the stop-motion animation medium that worked so well for him in Fantastic Mr. Fox turns out to be a fruitful decision as it allows him the chance to weave his most fantastical tale about a dystopic future in which dogs are banned from larger society and need to fight to get their place as our best friend back. His obsession to meticulous detail is a perfect fit for stop-motion as it allows almost every scene to be a spellbinding tableau in what is simultaneously his most beautiful and ugly looking movie. Ironically, Anderson’s sci-fi fantasy is also the most concerned about the real world and the ramifications of our current social climate.
7. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? dir. Morgan Neville
If there is a theme to the movies that I seem to resonating with the most this year is that they are either extremely descriptive of our current social and political climate or they are unabashedly prescriptive – showing us who we could be instead. Firmly landing in the latter camp is this wonderful documentary about the genteel Fred Rogers which is on one level a pleasant trip down memory lane into the life of a man we invited into most of our living rooms as children. But it is also a damning indictment of modern discourse and how far we have strayed from the lessons Rogers’ taught us about the worth of every person and that our greatest call is to show everyone that they are “loved and capable of loving”. It is precisely this combination that makes it such a devastatingly emotional and ultimately inspiring watch.
6. BLACK PANTHER dir. Ryan Coogler
Up to this point most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have fallen into the “pretty good” camp without ever approaching greatness. Black Panther is the rare exception mostly because Ryan Coogler and company fearlessly decided to break the mould of what a Marvel movie could be. While other superhero movies have flirted with making their heroes face real-world situations, Black Panther weaves our current social and political realities into its central framework so that it forms the basis of the movie’s entire narrative thrust. The central conflict between the isolationist T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the militant Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is easily the most complex in a superhero movie, defying the genre’s need for a binary morality, and is all the better for it. And this is to say nothing as a minority myself of the joy of seeing the cinematic superhero genre finally embrace the diverse world we live in.
5. THE TALE dir. Jennifer Fox
There is a moment very early on in this harrowing story of a grown woman (Laura Dern) coming-to-grips with the fact she was sexually abused in her childhood that knocks the wind out of you. As with most of the revelations in this movie it has to do with the fact that our minds are often very adept at shielding ourselves from the ugly truths of our history by creating glamorous versions of our past. Thus in one sense, The Tale is a fantastic rumination of the unreliability of our memories, of how our need to make ourselves the heroes of our own story shields us from the truth. But it is also a chilling and nauseating depiction of sexual grooming that, in this age of #MeToo, puts a haunting face to the realities of sexual abuse and how it is normalized in our society.
4. THE DEATH OF STALIN dir. Armando Iannucci
Armando Iannucci, who has previously plied his trade in the TV shows The Thick of It, Veep, and movie In The Loop, is not known for pulling his punches. And he certainly lets fly with this plain-faced allegory of the current White House Administration as he tells the story of the farcical aftermath of the death of Stalin. His cast is perhaps the best ensemble of the year as each one brings a level of awfulness to the proceedings as they spew perfectly written vitriolic and often-times hilarious statements that expose just how petty people in power can be. Iannucci has made a career of using his words as weapons to cut down the powerful, and this may just be his masterstroke.
3. ANNIHILATION dir. Alex Garland
With Annihilation Alex Garland establishes himself as a bona-fide virtuouso of smart and atmospheric science fiction. When a mysterious “Shimmer” threatens to grow from its isolation into populated areas, a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and made up of the biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) is sent to investigate the “Shimmer” – an all-female crew sent in where many a male expedition has failed. The “Shimmer” itself reveals itself to be a place of many mysteries, as beautiful as it is terrifying, and perhaps frustratingly to those looking for clear answers to its many questions, opaque. But such is the nature of facing one’s annihilation after all.
2. FIRST REFORMED dir. Paul Schrader
“Will God ever forgive us for the things we have done?” This is the central question that plagues Reverend Ernst Toller as he contemplates the reality of our contributions to global warming while facing his own impending mortality from his possibly fatal and mysterious disease. It is easily Paul Schrader’s best film this century as he uses the film as an excuse to explore his own uneasy relationship between religion and faith, or the lack of it in a movie that is painfully short on answers but provides us with ample good questions. It also features an absolutely phenomenal Ethan Hawke performance that undoubtedly will be criminally ignored come awards season (it really shouldn’t).
1. PADDINGTON 2 dir. Paul King
Like the bear from which this movie derives its title, Paddington 2 is easy to underestimate at first. A sequel to a well-liked but not necessarily beloved children’s movie is an odd candidate for the best movie of the year so far, but such is the nature of this movie that its excellence is something that only becomes blindingly apparent in hindsight. The “feel-good” movie is perhaps the hardest movie to pull off well because it can so easily fall into pandering condescension and cheap manipulation (the next hardest kind of movie is the children’s movie, so the level of difficulty for Paddington 2 is fairly high). However Paddington 2 succeeds because at its centre is a bear whose gentility, kindness, and generosity is self-evident, and infectiously so. More importantly, Paddington comes across as nothing but genuine in his attitude and actions. Paddington Brown takes a look at our less welcome, less gracious, and less loving age and speaks to it not with dismissive judgment, but as a pure example of how that we can and should be better. The fact that this saintly bear is also surrounded by a colorfully entertaining cast of characters, meticulously beautiful production design, and a reverence for the source material that puts many a modern adaptation to shame, is simply a bonus.