Yes, coming up with a final Best of 2018 list after more than half of 2019 has passed is late by any objective standard. In my defense, I fully intended to come out with this list about two months ago. But as some of you might know, my family was thrust into an unexpected move from the Toronto area back to our hometown Seattle area and so I had to put my blog on temporary hiatus.
But I’m back! And if this list exists now only for my weird need of being a completionist, so be it. At the very least, the list coming out this late means that all these movies are now readily available for home viewing so if you find yourself less than satisfied with your summer entertainment options, here are some pretty good alternatives.
Acute readers may notice that different movies have risen and fallen relative to their previous standings in my 2.0 edition. Rewatches and the passage of time are the primary reason for this. It is also a prime example about why the task of trying to evaluate and rank art this close to encountering it for the first time is ludicrous (of course some may also argue than any attempt to rank art is futile, but those kind of people are also no fun at parties).
And before we dive in a couple of rules for eligibility for this list :
- The movie has to be released in 2018. Fairly straightforward, but there are a couple of additional caveats. First a movie that only had a limited release in 2017 (released in a few theatres) is eligible if it had a wide release in 2018. Second a movie is also eligible if it was a foreign movie made before 2018 but was only available in North America in 2018 either through theatrical release or home video.
- A movie is only eligible to be included in one “best of the year” list. This means if I included a limited release movie from 2017 in my any best-of list from 2017, it is ineligible this year. Similarly all the movies that appear this year can’t show up next year.
I cannot overemphasize just how great this year has been for movies (the disappointment that was Green Book winning the Best Picture Oscar notwithstanding). There have been a glut of great comedies. The horror movie slate is the strongest we’ve had in years. Genre superhero fare has come into its own. A ton of bright new voices emerged on the scene while the veteran directors who rolled out their new works also generally did not disappoint. Netflix came into its own as a house for indie and art-house movies. But even the blockbuster movies were pretty great. I mean, we even had a good Transformers movie. Let that sink in.
I say this just to tell you that coming up with this Top 25 was painfully hard. There are movies in this Honorable Mentions list that would have been shoo-ins for the Top 10 in previous years. There are multiple movies that I was 100% sure were going to make my end of the year Top 10 that are shockingly on the outside looking in. The movies were great this year.
Ant-Man & The Wasp
A Fantastic Woman
The Miseducation of Cameron Post
The Other Side of the Wind
A Quiet Place
A Star Is Born
Sorry to Bother You
Support the Girls
Three Identical Strangers
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
You Were Never Really Here
25. LEAVE NO TRACE dir. Debra Granik
Leave No Trace draws our eyes to two individuals who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream. The first is Will (Ben Foster), an Iraq war vet who suffers from severe PTSD which leads him to live illegally in public forests as he finds assimilating into regular society nearly impossible. The second is his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who lives with her father in the wilderness and is faced with the impossible choice of wanting to live a more normal life and being with the father she loves. It is the rare coming-of-age story that takes honors both the child’s desires to grow up and the very real predicament that keeps her father from giving his full blessing on that endeavor. Rather than taking a sentimental storytelling route, Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) chooses to approach her subjects honestly, leading to a movie that is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking.
24. BLACK PANTHER dir. Ryan Coogler
Nothing perhaps epitomizes exactly why Black Panther stands head and shoulders above its fellow superhero movies than the words spoken by Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, “Just because something works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved.” Whether it is in actively diversifying the Marvel universe not just along racial lines but gender lines too, or in providing the universe a convincing villain in Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who manages to blur the lines between hero and villain by standing as a legitimate proxy for a real-world political debate, Black Panther brims with a contemporary energy too often missed in the escapist genre. The point of the superhero genre is to inspire its viewers to become heroes themselves of a humbler but probably more necessary kind. To finally have a superhero portrayed onscreen who doesn’t have to be filtered through the prism of White American culture is nothing short of inspirational.
23. ISLE OF DOGS dir. Wes Anderson
Usually when directors begin to double-down on refining their own aesthetic it signals the moment their career begins to tailspin (read: Tim Burton’s later career). Not so with Wes Anderson as he seems to keep improving the more he meticulously and fastidiously seeks to control every single frame he films. This is why stop-motion animation is the perfect medium for him, and is in large part why Isle of Dogs is such a fantastic delight. In typical Anderson fashion, a simple tale about a boy trying to get his dog back becomes the framework for a dystopian tale of political corruption and abuse of power, all against the backdrop of some of the most unnecessarily and wondrously detailed sets ever created. Yes, there is a minor question of whether Anderson opens himself up to the charge of cultural appropriation, but one cannot question that at the very least his depiction of Japan comes from a place of utmost care and love. And Isle of Dogs is above all else entertaining to boot.
22. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS dirs. Ethan and Joel Coen
2018 is undoubtedly the year that Netflix emerged as a major player, filling in the hole of mid-to-low budget adult movies that the other studios have abandoned in the age of uber-blockbusters. And leading the charge in 2018 is this western-anthology from the brilliant minds of the Coens that marries the typical dark humor present in most of their farces with their meditations of fate and free will present in their more “serious” work to startlingly brutal effect. The end result is a movie that is at moments represents some of the funniest scenes they have ever created, even if the movie’s central message paints the most darkly nihilistic tale in their oeuvre.
21. PRIVATE LIFE dir. Tamara Jenkins
There are many ways that a story about an infertile couple and the ways they try to overcome that struggle could fall into sentimental and tasteless ground. Miraculously Tamara Jenkins manages to thread that needle and mostly because her stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giammati are simply phenomenal in their roles as a childless couple jumping through all the administrative and literal hoops in trying to get a child. They are equal parts hilarious, as they show through their actions the dehumanizing absurdities of the healthcare and adoptive care systems, and heartbreaking, as they shine a light on a journey that many others have undertaken but usually in secret. Private Life is also the perfect example of the kind of movie that could only exist and thrive outside of the confines of traditional theatrical releases – the fact that stories like this can now be told stands as a counterweight to the doomsday argument that we are in the death knells of cinema.
20. WIDOWS dir. Steve McQueen
Widows is the kind of smart and adult piece of popcorn entertainment that people love to say they wish they could see more of when bemoaning the monolithic state of their superhero-laden multiplexes. So naturally Widows went largely ignored and barely made back its budget. Sometimes we get exactly what we deserve. But for those of us who did see this gem of a film, we got to witness a tour-de-force performance by Olivia Davis as an increasingly cornered widow who has to come up with the money from her husband’s botched (and fatal) robbery. The crew she assembles to pull of the heist, made up of other widows from that fateful robbery, are in it not for glamour, notoriety, or fame. Theirs is a heist of emancipation. And standing in their way is a system propped up by monstrous men. Its lack of box-office success means it will do little to change Hollywood’s stance of pivoting away from this kind of movie even if the end product here proves that they should.
19. BLACKKKLANSMAN dir. Spike Lee
Like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an at best tenuous grasp of history but that hardly matters as Lee seeks to create as fist-pumping and hard-hitting an experience as possible. Newcomer John David Washington is a revelation as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in Colorado Springs who comes up with the audacious plan to infiltrate the KKK. Adam Driver plays his partner and the one who publicly interfaces with the clan and so entertaining is the chemistry between the two that I found myself wondering when they would green-light the sequel before Lee reminds us tragically that this is not some mere buddy-cop fantasy, but is rooted in a real life story of racism in America that has sadly not ended yet. It is easily Lee’s best movie of the decade.
18. ANNIHILATION dir. Alex Garland
Alex Garland’s follow-up from his impressive debut Ex Machina finds Garland in somehow more ambitious territory. Centering around an all-female led expedition into “the Shimmer” – a mysterious expanding zone in Florida of some extraterrestrial origin – this gorgeous and eerie movie is very short on answers but makes up for it by forcing its heroines, and us by extension to tackle the uncertainty of true mystery. In embracing this ambiguity, Annihilation stands as a direct contrast to the fan and nerd-culture driven bent of modern science fiction, instead echoing (if not surpassing) the great science fiction works of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. It also wins the award for the movie I was 100% sure was going to be in the Top 10 when I saw it, and yet somehow finds itself on the outside looking in.
17. SHIRKERS dir. Sandi Tan
Granted, as a cinephile who grew up in South-east Asia in the 90s, this documentary about a lost 90s film by young indie filmmakers from Singapore was basically catnip for me. And while there are inherent joys found in looking at the time-capsule nature of Singapore in the 90s and in relating so much to the plights and interests of director Sandi Tan and her friends Jasmine and Sophia, what is truly haunting about this documentary is imagining what could have been. The making-of section of the documentary quickly gives way to becoming an investigative story when the white producer of Sandi’s movie disappears with all of the film reels, effectively burying the film from ever being released. Shirkers reveals the recovered footage and with it the realization that it could have truly changed South-east Asian cinema had it been released in the 90s. To imagine the path not taken is equal parts fascinating as it is tragic.
16. SUSPIRIA dir. Luca Guadagnino
There is a strong case to be made that Luca Guadagnino’s slow burner and horrific remake of Dario Argento’s classic chiller Suspiria is all sound and fury signifying nothing, but oh what a glorious noise it makes. Guadagnino puts on a masterclass of visceral discomfort by frequently conjuring up nightmarish visions that are as confusing as they are horrific. Meanwhile Dakota Johnson liberates herself from the chains of the Fifty Shades franchise and commands the screen as the doe-eyed Susie Bannon whose arrival at the Markos Dance Academy triggers a cataclysm of dark events. Peer closely and you will see an unconventionally powerful story of redemption, but you are going to have to endure a lot of winces to get there first. There were (obviously) better movies last year, but Suspiria is the movie that has haunted me the most.
15. EIGHTH GRADE dir. Bo Burnham
In a year of impressive debuts, our introduction to Elsie Fisher, the star of Eighth Grade, and the movie’s director Bo Burnham stands above them all. Working together the two of them create such a compelling portrait of Kayla Day, a shy, anxious, earnest, and clueless eighth grader, that it is shocking that it is not a documentary. Eighth Grade does a remarkable thing in that it both reminds us of the personal hell of our own middle-school of yesteryears (in many ways vicariously identifying with Kayla might be the most terrifying thing I experienced last year) while also pointedly showing us that we know little to nothing of what it means to be a middle-schooler today. It is easily the best film about adolescence that I have seen for a long time, and as such an important film for the adolescent in your life to know (the fact that this movie got an “R” rating is simply an indication of how broken the ratings system is).
14. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
It is somewhat astonishing that in the glut of superhero movies that we are living through at the moment that it took this plucky cartoon to be the first movie to replicate what it feels like to actually read a comic book on the big screen. And the directorial team accomplished this by breaking the mold of computer animation and pushing the medium to its absolute limits. The end result is a comic-book movie that was easily the most exhilarating in years, in which every frame held new surprises. The thrill of a comic-book is that it is an art form that promises infinite possibilities. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the first comic book movie to truly embrace that idea. Bring on the next one.
13. COLD WAR dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
At its core, Cold War is a simple but nearly flawless meditation on love drawing from director Pawel Pawlikowski’s own memory of his parents’ relationship. Set against the backdrop of communist Poland, Pawlikowski skillfully employs the conventions of a lush romance to highlight totalitarianism’s cruelty. As with his previous work Ida, Cold War is absolutely gorgeous to look at as Pawlikowski showcases precisely the unique beauty of shooting in black and white, frequently bathing the central lovers Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) in an otherworldly and luxurious light, making it very easy to believe the passionate love unfolding onscreen and the ideologies that keep tearing their love apart.
12. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT dir. Christopher McQuarrie
It is easy to get cynical and disenfranchised about the ways Hollywood seems to be jettisoning most of their artistry in favor of safe, franchise picks. But at least once a year a blockbuster movie comes along to remind you why there is hardly anything better than an A-list big-budget franchise movie firing on all cylinders. This year’s case is Mission: Impossible – Fallout, a feature-length reminder that Tom Cruise’s greatest desire is for you and I to be entertained when we go to the movies and that he is literally willing to put his body on the line to do that. That this series, already famed for it’s over-the-top stunt sequences, manages to top itself with several death-defying sequences is impressive enough. That it manages to do so while providing its most compelling story since the first movie is what vaults it to its high position on this list.
11. THE DEATH OF STALIN dir. Armando Iannucci
Politeness is overrated. That if anything sums up Armando Iannucci’s entire career of creating vulgar politicians who expound all their creative energy and social capital in spewing exceedingly rude and clever insults at one another – all at the expense of getting anything done. What sets The Death of Stalin apart however is that this is the first Iannucci both portrays a period of history and turns his eyes towards a dictatorship. Suddenly the foppish vanities of the leaders involve take on real bite compared to their ineffective democratic counterparts, giving this dark comedy the terrifying addition of higher stakes and horrific consequences for vanities insulted. Of course since this is Iannucci, you can’t help but snicker and laugh at the highly creative expletives spewed by this entertaining cast, led by an anachronistic Steve Buscemi, even as you watch in horror at its real-life consequences.
10. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? dir. Marielle Heller
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are two truly noxious people who under normal circumstances would be people we would rather not spend any time with. Yet such is Marielle Heller’s grace in portraying these people, flawed and all, that by the movie’s end we wish we didn’t have to leave them so soon. Both McCarthy and Grant put in career performances here as two desperate individuals who turn to forging letters of famous people in order to make a quick buck. McCarthy in particular is revelatory as Lee Israel walking the thin line between villain and victim as her utter contempt for humanity is fueled by the fact that her passionate interests which form the contents of her books seem to interest no one and leave her effectively alone. As the title of the movie suggests, this isn’t a movie that asks you to sympathize or side with the petty criminals, but rather it is a movie about forgiveness. Thanks to Heller, who approaches the movie’s subjects with something akin to unconditional love, this is not hard to do.
9. MINDING THE GAP dir. Bing Liu
Bing Liu astonishing debut is sort of a skateboard documentary but it quickly evolves into something more profound almost by accident. Following his skateboarding friends over the course of 12 years, Bing Liu portrait their transition from youth to adulthood in the backdrop of a declining rust belt town unable to give them a proper place in that society. In between exhilarating skateboarding montages come sobering discussions about masculinity, domestic abuse, racism, and the economic anxiety that comes with living in a dying city and the ways each has shaped Bing and his friends for better and mostly for worse. While Bing may have just been trying to get enough footage for his little skateboard documentary, he inadvertently came up with something better: a personal vision of what it means to grow up in modern America.
8. THE TALE dir. Jennifer Fox
Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is a feature-length dismantling of the argument that the distance between when an act of sexual abuse happens and when the victim comes forward has any bearing to the validity of the victim’s claim. It is also a reminder that our bias as humans is to paint every one of past memories in a heroic and empowering way, even as it blinds us to the pains that were inflicted upon us. Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox strikes the right balance between poise and heartbreak as she reexamines the horrific implications of a “relationship” she had when she was 13 with a man thrice her age. It is a gut-punch of a movie, but one that is also sprinkled sensitivity and grace. It is a pity it could not shake the shackles of being a mere “HBO” movie; it also reminds us that the old distinctions between theatrical and home release movies are increasing outmoded.
7. FIRST REFORMED dir. Paul Schrader
“Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?” Depending on where you fall on the religious spectrum, it is a question that can either seem rhetorical to the devout (“Of course! Amen!”) or illegitimate (“There is no God.”). What makes Paul Schrader latest so powerful is that it chooses to approach this question as a real question, embodied perfectly in the person of Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a small parish priest who finds the black-and-white certainty of his training chipped away by the moral grayness of day-to-day life. Hawke portrays Toller as someone standing in the impossible middle, unable to stomach the hypocrisy and emptiness of his religion yet simultaneously unable to walk away from God either. Schrader offers him, and us by default, no easy resolution to this problem and instead invites us to sit in the struggle between the things that are and the things that are hoped to be. As such it is easily the most spiritually enlivening movie I have seen in years.
6. PADDINGTON 2 dir. Paul King
I can guarantee that nothing would surprise the genteel, honest, good, and humble Paddington more than knowing he was somehow at the heart of a counter-revolution but such is the times we live in that his motto, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will turn out right” feels like a clarion call to a new way of living and a chastisement to our less gracious, less loving, and less welcome age. In his second adventure with the bear director Paul King flexes his muscles narratively in a tale as tightly-wound as a Wes Anderson picture but without Anderson’s inherent cynicism. The term “feel-good” movie is one tinged with sugary sweet sentiments and manufactured emotions; Paddington 2 wears that term with pride, because its feel good-ery comes from a place of genuine warmth and sincerity. And as a side note, this movie has become my daughter’s obsession for the last six months and amazingly her repeat watchings have done nothing to make me love this movie any less.
5. SHOPLIFTERS dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Like most Kore-eda movies, Shoplifters lowers your defenses with its decidedly low-stakes and domestic drama. Here an abused runaway Yuri finds herself being embraced by a blended family of vagrants who scrounge up a living by committing petty crimes mostly as a way to keep them all together. And so for nearly two hours, we get to breathe in their space and abide with these fully realized people, finding joy as we get to spend hang out with this odd family (with nary a weak performance amongst the impressive cast). And yet, because Kore-eda is to honest to allow us to dwell in sentimentality, the cruel reality of their lives slowly starts intruding into their lives until it comes crashing down in mournfully tragic ways. The end result is a movie that is bittersweet, rich in warmth and happiness, and ultimately beautiful. In other words, your typical Kore-eda film.
4. THE FAVOURITE dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
With The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos fine-tunes his penchant for making us uncomfortable and crafts his most explicitly comedic and accessible movie to date. Basically Mean Girls in aristocratic clothing, the movie is anchored three exceptional (and in my mind, unsurpassed) female performances in Olivia Colman as Queen Anne (who deservedly won her Oscar and restoring a modicum of justice for the movie being otherwise shut-out on Oscar night), Rachel Weisz as Anne’s childhood friend Sarah who is more than willing to use her position to change the balances of power, and Emma Stone as Sarah’s cousin Abigail who carries with her a survivor’s ruthlessness in wanting to climb up the pecking order. Together the three of them create a potent environment for horrible people to do horrible things to one another in ways both ingenious and cruel, and the end result is an utter blast for the neutrals in the audience.
3. BURNING dir. Lee Chang-Dong
It has been eight years since Lee Chang-Dong’s last feature (Poetry) and it was well worth the wait. Burning is, to excuse the pun, a slow-burn chamber-piece of a movie in which a bleak and Darwinian view of the world is played out in fatalistic and stunning fashion between our central trio. Jongsu (Yoo Ah-In) is perfect as an opaque young man with aspirations of being a writer, but finds his dreams trapped by his lower estate and his responsibilities to his working-class father. He runs into Haemi (Jun Jong-Seo), a former classmate who uses her free spirit and sex appeal to entwine Jongsu into taking care of her cat while she runs off to Africa where she meets Ben (Steven Yeun), an upper-class Gatsby-type with a penchant for arson who completes the tension-filled lover’s triangle. Perhaps the only obvious aspect of this movie is the inevitable clash of classes that will ensue, yet how it does so is in such a psychologically and emotionally labyrinthine that it will linger with you long after the credits have rolled.
2. ROMA dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Roma stands as the primary example as the kind of movie that could only get made through non-traditional means like a streaming company. It is a meditative black-and-white time-capsule of a movie centered around Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid for a rich Mexican family in the 1970s during a tumultuous time not just in Mexico but in the life of this family. Cuaron creates a world that feels fully lived-in, with every frame filled with subtle details meant to be appreciated. It is deliberately paced, often taking its time to build up its few scenes, patiently allowing the full impact of small moments to be felt. It stars non-professional actors, each imbibing their roles in ways that would have been impossible for named stars. In other words, this movie would have in the past struggled for financing (despite Alfonso Cuaron’s name on top), been distributed at best in art-film circles, and would be destined to become the kind of film that cinephiles would hear about and then have to hunt down. Netflix opens the door for this kind of movie to be made and distributed so that it is available globally for cinephiles to discover over and over again.
1. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK dir. Barry Jenkins
Like Barry Jenkins’ previous work Moonlight, every time I think about If Beale Street Could Talk I am filled with an almost impossible mix of joy and melancholia. That is because Beale Street, a masterful adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, is a movie that simultaneously makes you want to give up on humanity while restoring your faith in it. The racism that tears young lovers Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) apart is devastating and infuriating, but as a counter-weight is the life-giving and pure essence of their love for one another. In many ways Barry Jenkins enhances the visual style he employed so well with Moonlight to create an almost poetic meditation of a film, cementing his status as a must-see director. While the movie was shut out from almost all awards consideration (which is in part why I feel the need to champion it so much here), I have no doubt that when we look back at this decade, we will look at this back-to-back efforts Jenkins pulled with Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk as one of the great cinematic achievements.