2018 was a weird year for movies. Overall, while the box office was huge with major earning tentpole films, the quality on average was not so great. The good news is, when you boil everything down to just ten films, what you are left with is actually very strong. In fact, in the five years that I’ve been putting out this list, the movies that make up my best list for 2018 make the strongest statement for where the future of great movies is going. Read on to see what I mean.
10. Eighth Grade – Eighth Grade is one of the most surprising films of the year for me. This little film cost $2 million to make, and made 7 times that at the box office. It was also released way back in July. This is an important detail because like last year’s Get Out and several other films later on this list, producers are realizing that people are smart enough to like a good movie and remember it all year. Gone perhaps are the days of dumping ground months and crowded December releases to just qualify for awards consideration. Good movies can come out all year! Eighth Grade was directed by comic-musician Bo Burnham who has been on my radar for the last ten years, but certainly not as a filmmaker. However, Burnham’s wit and lyrical precision is on full display in his directorial debut, Eighth Grade. The film follows Kayla, an eighth grade student, during her final week of middle school. It is simple in its design, but cutting, heartfelt, and most of all relatable. I sat down to watch this with my wife who within five minutes promptly stood back up and walked out as she said, “I don’t need to watch this; I lived it.” Now that may sound like a criticism, but it’s actually the highest of complements in that the film nails the anxiety, nerves, and pitfalls of adolescence in such a way that it is too real to bear.
9. BlacKKKlansman – BlacKKKlansman is another visionary and ambitious film from veteran filmmaker, Spike Lee. BlacKKKlansman, like Eighth Grade, was also released in the dog days of summer to great word of mouth and a box office just south of the $100 million mark worldwide, making it one of the biggest financial hits of his career. That being said, BlacKKKlansman is a movie with a message, and not just a simple heroic tale. It follows a Black detective named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he sets out to infiltrate a local and violent chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. As a Black man, he recruits his white coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to assist him in any face to face interactions that are needed, the two of them acting as one: Stallworth corresponding by phone and written word, Zimmerman (a Jew by the way) appearing in person. This is an enjoyable film and funny at times. It is also a thought provoking and frightening one. Some criticisms have been made about its accuracy, but none of those take away from some of the uncomfortable truths it exposes about racial tensions.
8. Incredibles 2 – Don’t sleep on Incredibles 2. The sequel to the 2004 original is bigger, better, and brighter than its predecessor in every way. Supers are still disdained by the public, but a tech billionaire wants to change this. Using Elastigirl to spearhead a publicity campaign to regain public support, a new adventure emerges as does a new villain by the name of Screenslaver. There’s far more to this film that a simple redemption story, and the animation and story are top notch. This is another brilliant addition to the illustrious series of Pixar films, also a summer release.
7. RBG – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or “The Notorious RBG” as she’s come to be known, is just the documentary subject we need right now. The documentary is quite linear, and nicely arranges the details of Ginsburg’s life beginning with her childhood and spanning her legal career to the present. Of course, much time is spent exploring Ginsburg’s cases and her ascension to the Court (and her love for opera), but the high points of the film for me are the scenes with her first love and husband, Martin. Their relationship is one for the history books, not that there’s anything about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is not for the history books. Political leanings aside, this is an inspirational film that champions ambition, hard work, and love, and a summer release.
6. Searching – Here’s a movie that may have benefited from low expectations. Once in a while I stumble across one of these first-person narrative films where the action is through the eyes of one character. Searching represents the finest accomplishment in the genre. It is also apparently the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian in the title role, which is surprising and welcomed. When a father’s (John Cho) daughter goes missing, he begins investigating her disappearance mostly via her online presence. The film is told entirely through a unique visual presentation of the father’s interactions with various computer devices. We only see and hear him through web cams, computer screens, and other audio and video gadgets. The gimmick of the film’s direction would be enough to make it worth watching, but the story is thrilling and twisted in some outstanding ways, making it one of the year’s best films (and a summer release).
5. A Star is Born – Released in October, A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a massively popular musical act who is over the peak of his fame. His fans are fervent, but his shows are routine, his hearing is going, and let’s just say he has a bit of a drinking problem. Inspired by a singer he hears in a bar, he invites her to perform with him, catapulting her from an unknown club songstress to a mainstream sensation. A Star is Born is a good movie with an excellent first-directional effort by Cooper, and an exceptional use of talent. There is a lot to appreciate about the film, and with the added layer of the music, the film rises above the rest.
4. First Man – First Man is a moody film full of emotion and grit. Ryan Gosling gives another brooding yet powerful performance worthy of the man he plays: Neil Armstrong. Additionally, Claire Foy is the source of most of the film’s real impact. Her scenes transcend the “poor astronaut’s wife” tropes aspiring to something far more revealing. While this is a film that profiles the man who eventually becomes the first man to walk on the moon, it is not the traditional biopic that one may expect. Once one understands that this film will not hit the notes you most likely were expecting, First Man works very well. Its disarming use of camera to focus on the human element of the action, and not the detached traditional view of things that we are used to is both uncomfortable and powerful. Overall, a poignant and dramatic exploration of a major historic event without the all too common escapist quality generally associated with this type of entertainment (October release).
3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout – One of the rare film sequels that is better than any of its previous installments. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is both an excellent film and a true sequel. It is one of the finest action films I have ever seen and respectfully builds from its predecessors with selective and critical details that weave the film nicely into the mythology that has developed over six films. In this big summer blockbuster, Ethan Hunt once again finds himself in a race against time to save the world from the clutches of a new terrorist group known as the Apostles, who are planning to create a new world order through a series of catastrophic terrorist events. Two key thematic elements within Mission: Impossible – Fallout are time and destruction for the sake of improvement. The film seems to use these themes to meta-style reference itself in that Fallout, while representing the culmination of a trilogy, feels like the beginning of something else.
2. Roma – Roma is the most beautiful film of the year. It captures everything I love about film by capturing a beautiful and personal story with stunning detail and told well through visually immersive camera work. Alfonso Cuaron’s memoir of his boyhood in Mexico City is a breathtaking, personal, and sentimental masterpiece. Not a frame of film is wasted, and Cuaron appropriately assumes not only the role of director and writer, but also director of photography as his trusted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable. The result is a deeply emotive drama about the importance of family in all senses of the word as even the most shattering human experiences can be mended by family. Cuaron accomplishes what only the best filmmakers are able to do: show the majesty and beauty of the typical, and he does so masterfully. Theatrically released in November, Roma is a triumph and a gift to film fans in both its greatness and its availability, being the first great film nearly immediately available to all audiences via streaming on Netflix by early December. I hope Roma blazes a new trail for art films and prestige pictures in that they do not need to waste time and effort on limited releases when they can just instantly open in every home in the world.
1. Avengers: Infinity War/Black Panther – Is this cheating? I don’t think so. If so, then Avengers: Infinity War is my official pick for best film of the year. That being said, these two films, released only two months apart (February and April) combine to form the best cinematic experience of the year. Black Panther serves as the model for how these stand alone superhero films can work. Vibrant new characters branching off of a known entity, widening the scope of the universe without cheap references to previous installments, oh and a kick-ass soundtrack. The character Black Panther is the least interesting thing about the movie Black Panther, and that’s saying something. It also effectively serves as a nice palate cleanse before jumping right back into the fight with Infinity War. Avengers: Infinity War is the best of the three Avengers films, just barely edging out the original. The immenseness of the stakes in this film are only rivaled by the vastness of its scope. Everything you loved about The Avengers is here in this third film along with the vast epic nature of a Star Wars film. The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely flawlessly balance the top-heavy cast by somehow giving us more than we expected of our favorite characters and still leaving us wanting more. Here we are 10 years into this MCU thing, and not only has it not lost any steam, for the first time, one (or two) of these films has actually topped my list as the best of the year!
So there you have it. And if you did not catch on to the ongoing trend in my countdown of listing the release dates for these films, go back and take a look. Most of them were released during the summer months or before. Those released in the fall/winter were either released early fall or available for streaming at home. One of my major criticisms this time of year is the onslaught of limited releases trying to vie for awards consideration only to release wide after the new year. This year, that list is much smaller, the main culprit being The Favourite. It is great to see production companies realizing that great movies can make money all year round and still be remembered come awards time. In fact, as of the release of this post, eight of the films I have listed in my top ten are up for at least one Golden Globe nomination. We’ll see if Oscar recognizes this trend as well when nominations are announced January 14th.
I refuse to rank these because there’s not real quantifiable way to determine which is truly worse than the next. Just call it a tie.
Venom – The lobster scene is the one where I scratched my head and then realized, I’m watching a terrible movie.
50 Shades Freed – Congratulations! The third (and hopefully final) installment of this mess of a series makes it a perfect sweep. All three of these films have made my “Worst of the year” list for their respective years. Not one could scrape by as just passable or forgettable. They all are equally terrible.
Red Sparrow – I still don’t know what happened in this movie. Mindlessly silly and needlessly complicated, Red Sparrow takes the “girl on fire” and douses her flame in a boring, confusing espionage thriller with cardboard performances and lazy production value.