And here we are again, at the end of another year and another time to reflect on the year that was at the movies. 2018 was a bit odd in that, at least for this critic, several of the expected awards contenders and anticipated films failed to meet the lofty expectations that were cast upon them prior to release. Instead, in a happy surprise, it was the genre fare that really stood out. Be it a few really excellent horror excursions, or Marvel continuing to up their game, or some other unforeseen action and suspense-based delights.
Before we get to my picks for the year’s 10 best films, here are a few honorable mentions:
Paddington 2, Widows, First Reformed, Avengers: Infinity War, The Night is Short Walk on Girl, The Rider, Bad Times at the El Royale and Hereditary. All are films I highly recommend, and their exclusion from this list is in some cases a simple hair’s breadth in quality. Honestly, on a different day, the first three make it.
Onward…and in alphabetical order:
BlackKklansman -In the adaptation of Ron Stalworth’s real-life memoir of his time as a part of a KKK infiltration in Colorado Springs, Spike Lee crafted his best effort since 2006’s Inside Man and the most aggressive (non-documentary) work of his since perhaps Bamboozled. It’s both an enthralling undercover tale, while also outright stomach turning. No film this year gutted me the same way that BlackKklansman final moments did, with an anger that still sticks with me even as I write this passage. A vital document.
Black Panther -That Marvel Studios has a film that could be an Oscar contender speaks not only to how director Ryan Coogler is operating at the peak of his powers, but also how unstoppable the Marvel Studios machine is. On top of that, Black Panther‘s success goes beyond being a critical darling – something I’m reminded of every time I see a young child wearing a Black Panther shirt and doing the Wakandan crossed-arms salute. I haven’t seen a character explode in the transition from comic book page to screen like this since Iron Man. I wrote about it more in detail on this very site back when it released, but a recent re-watch unfolded more of its innate brilliance. It’s going to be the first comic book film nominated for Best Picture.
Eighth Grade – Bo Burnham, in his directorial debut, crafted one of the most touching “coming of age” stories in recent memory. I’m going to back that truck up one more time; Bo Burnham, the Youtuber turned musical comedian, in his feature film debut, helmed one of the year’s best charmers. The pairing of his script and one of 2018’s biggest breakthrough performers in Elsie Fisher produced of the better examinations of middle school-era anxiety, particularly in the current millennial generation. Questions of the age like “how old were you when you got snapchat?” is married with more universal issues of bullying, longing to belong, and acceptance. That Josh Hamilton, the star of Kicking & Screaming – the 1995 examination of similar issues for Gen X – plays the central character’s dad, the generational handoff between the two seems rather purposeful. It’s the most authentic picture of that transition into your teenage years that my memory can muster, at least since Welcome to the Dollhouse.
The Favourite – Yorgos Lanthimos, the mind behind satires The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directs what is likely his most awards-baity type film yet with this examination of the court of Queen Anne, her interpersonal relationships, the ongoing intrigue of her reign, and lots and lots of rabbits. Really, to call this awards bait just because it has costumes and powdered wigs does it a major disservice. It’s just as hilarious and biting as anything else he’s made. It also has next-level turns by Olivia Colman and Emma Stone that have already begun to garner them numerous accolades. Colman, already a very famous actress in the UK, will rightly finally become a household name here stateside. That it’s happening in a film this good is just icing on the cake.
Mandy – If you had told me a year ago that a Nic Cage movie was going to be in my Top 10 for the following 12 months, I’d be pretty dubious. If you had told me he’d show up in this list twice, I’d say you were probably delusional. But here we are! The product of Panos Cosmatos, whose sci-fi cult favorite Beyond the Black Rainbow you probably haven’t seen, Mandy is basically what would happen if you turned the stoner-rock classic album “Dopesmoker” by Sleep into a narrative feature. It’s Cosmatos exploring action horror, gonzo violence, lsd-fused imagery, and utilizing Cage’s full performance like a weapon. I was hypnotized by this thing, and as soon as it was over, there were sequences I knew I wanted to go back and reabsorb in isolation. Where else can you get Cage, tripping his balls off, while getting into a chainsaw fight with a cultist and forging his own axe to kill demon bikers? Not in Green Book, I can tell you that!
Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Tom Cruise, maybe the last true movie star, once again donned the role of Ethan Hunt and found himself sprinting across rooftops for director Chris McQuarrie in what turned out to be the year’s best blockbuster. The majority of the Mission: Impossible franchise has been pretty disposable, even the lauded Ghost Protocol did little for me – but Fallout, following the strands of the previous (quite good) Rogue Nation, ups the excitement factor considerably. From its initial HALO jump, to the bare-knuckle bathroom brawl, to pulse-pounding car chases, the aforementioned rooftop marathon, and a literal helicopter chase! It’s right there with Mad Max: Fury Road in the category of “action films that left me unable to catch my breath.”
Shoplifters – Every year, I’m hoping to have at least one foreign language entry in my final top 10. Last year it was The Square. This year it’s the next winner of the Palme D’Or in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, a beautiful study of the “family you choose” rather than the one you’re born into. It’s the kind of film that grows on you with every passing moment, where this “living on the fringes” clan seems more quirky that outright tragic…until you peel into its deeper layers like a trap Kore-eda leaves for the unexpecting viewer. That warm embrace quickly turns into a recipe for heartbreak, and perhaps even a condemnation of how Japanese society treats those of lower socio-economic means. I can’t say I know enough about the social context to know for sure, but I know this much, Shoplifters resonated deeply with me. And Sakura Ando is incredible in it.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Another superhero movie? Another movie with Nic Cage? It’s not a hoax! It’s not an imaginary story! Hannah spoke to it in the site’s official review, but wow! This is a world so colorful I want to live in it. Most superhero animated efforts have been fairly subpar, direct to video toss-offs; and every time a fellow fan tried to tell me that DC or Marvel should just make animated features instead, I rolled my eyes a bit thinking of the already existent lame efforts. But I’m happy to be wrong in this case, as Into the Spider-Verse is not only the best animated superhero film we’ve seen, it’s up there among the best comic book based features to date and it goes without saying my favorite Spider-Man related effort. With a lot of superhero cinema, I found myself thinking “that was good, but I can think of at least 50-100 comics source material that I like better”, even the stand-out examples…but Spider-Verse is the first time where I actively think it stands up along with the best Spidey runs. I can’t possibly provide greater praise than that. And I can’t wait to see this again whenever I get a chance.
Suspiria – A reinvention of the Argento horror landmark and a visualization of one filmmaker’s sense of inspiration received from viewing that film. Luca Guadagnino’s take on Suspiria grabs hold of the mythology presented in Argento’s work and foregrounds it as a study of feminine and teutonic power while also exploring the performative acts that are at the heart of terrorism, enshrouded in the cloak of Cold War Berlin during the German Autumn and the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Group. Tilda Swinton takes her chameleonic approach to new heights here, playing three separate roles including an elderly gentleman who is central to the metaphorical content that the filmmakers seek to explore. A brilliantly constructed film, whose length (nearly 3 hours) feels essential in the face of its weighty material.
Vice – And as promised, the other heavy dose of invective! Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman, follows up his Oscar-nominated (and honestly, just okay) The Big Short with a much more focused look at former Vice President Dick Cheney and his rise to power through the Republican rank and file over the course of 40 years in politics. But rather than act as a stodgy biopic that tries to better explore what makes Cheney tick, it instead acts as a brutal condemnation of his acts while in the service of the Bush Administration and the events that led him to that point. That it’s also highly entertaining and just never lets go in how utterly unsubtle and unflinching it is makes it one of the few films of its nature that I actually was excited to rewatch. Add in Christian Bale giving a transformative performance as Cheney, along with some excellent supporting work (Sam Rockwell as W is a real highlight) and you’ve got Adam McKay finally making the firm transition into “serious” cinema for me that everyone else seemed to catch onto a few years ago.
For those interested, you can see my entire ranking of this year’s films that I took in here. See you in 2019!