It’s time for that post I look forward to with both dread and excitement every year. I’m excited because I get to talk about some films I really loved, but I always dread making this list because I know there are movies I really liked that are going to get left off because there just aren’t room for them even among my honorable mentions (which I have limited to five). Between trips to the theater and purchases on streaming platforms, I saw more new films in 2018 than ever before, and that made narrowing down my top ten and my honorable mentions extremely difficult.
I do want to admit that I have not yet seen Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. I considered holding off on making this list until mid-January when the film expands to screens in my area, but then I got a little annoyed that every December, one or two studios come up with a release strategy that means I won’t get to see a film until early the following year, and I am tired of holding off on my lists to accommodate that. I will absolutely see If Beale Street Could Talk once it expands. I have been looking forward to seeing it for quite some time and am eager to review it, but a four hour round trip to Chicago or Milwaukee doesn’t work with my schedule right now.
One last thing I want to mention is that my list, as always, is un-ranked. Back when I used to just post my lists on Facebook or previous blogs, I sometimes ranked my year end lists and realized that over time, I felt differently about the rankings. Years later, I still agreed with the movies I picked but I would have ordered them differently. Subsequent viewings changed my feelings on the order. Some films held up better over time than others. So I don’t rank them anymore. The list is simply in alphabetical order. With that out of the way, I’m ready to dive in.
THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2018
Spike Lee’s best film in years, BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan over the phone. In the film, he pairs with a Jewish officer named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who goes undercover to infiltrate the group in person. Lee and screenwriters Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz take many creative liberties with the story, but still come up with a thoughtful, searing and sometimes hilarious examination of racism. As a film scholar I personally enjoyed how the script often examined Hollywood’s role in creating and perpetuating racial stereotypes. This film is not to be missed.
Joining the ranks of transcendent and near-perfect comic book adaptations such as Spider-Man 2, Iron Man and The Dark Knight is Ryan Coogler’s epic Black Panther. Though it retains many familiar aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it benefits from a central conflict that is more personal. I was also dazzled by how Coogler and his team brought Wakanda to the screen. High praise for costumes, makeup, production design, visual effects and music are entirely deserved. The cast is wonderful and the performances top notch, especially from Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger.
I’m whipping out my soapbox for this one because I’m still bitter over the dumbest movie controversy of 2018. Prior to First Man hitting theaters, certain so-called news outlets began making a big fuss over the fact that the famous flag-planting moment was not included in this story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. Those who hadn’t even seen the film began accusing it of anti-American sentiment. I have seen the film, and it is one of the most patriotic movies to hit the screen in a long time. More importantly (from my standpoint), it’s a marvelous piece of filmmaking. Its primary focus is on Armstrong, and when you see what director Damien Chazelle does with the moon landing scenes, I think you’ll understand that the absence of the flag planting moment was not a political statement, but a choice made by an artist who had a particular vision about one man’s pain and loss. Please give this film a chance.
Ethan Hawke delivered a new career-best performance in his portrayal of a troubled reverend in Paul Schrader’s environmentally conscious psychological thriller. A script that could have been too sullen and a character that could have been too unlikable both are immensely compelling thanks to Schrader and Hawke. The film even provides a few doses of needed yet appropriate humor in the form of Cedric Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer). I’ll be talking about this one for years.
Leave No Trace
Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster deliver quietly wrenching performances as a father and daughter who’ve been living off the grid as a result of his PTSD. When they are caught living on public land, they are forced back into the modern world, where a rift slowly develops between them. Director Debra Granik delivers both an engaging survival film and a thoughtful look at the struggles of veterans with PTSD. Granik’s minimalism allows the ending to sneak up on you a bit, and it delivers quite a punch. Foster is great as always, but McKenzie is a revelation.
Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical look at his childhood through the eyes of his housekeeper is one of 2018’s gems. Cuarón is not the star of his film. Rather, he examines several key historical events and social issues through the personal experiences of a housekeeper named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). The gorgeous black and white cinematography alone would make Roma unmissable, but the story delivers as well. It’s a masterpiece and you can watch it on Netflix right now, so what’s stopping you?
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I wasn’t that eager for another Spider-Man film, but I was pleasantly surprised by this fresh, funny and beautifully animated bit of genius. I don’t want to imagine a universe where this doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
A Star Is Born
I’ve never been shy about my hatred of remakes or indifference to musicals, but this one is an exception. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper not only deliver a soundtrack full of great tunes, but also spend two plus hours acting their asses off (with a little help from Sam Elliot). I left the theater with my faith in Cooper as a director fully rewarded.
Steve McQueen’s crime thriller is full of twists in terms of both plot and character development. I don’t know if it is the best Chicago film ever made, but in the way it touches on racism, politics and crime, it may be the most Chicago film ever made. Oh, and Daniel Kaluuya gives Michael B. Jordan a run for his money as the year’s best villain.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Morgan Neville’s documentary about beloved PBS icon Fred Rogers may have contained little in the way of new information, but it’s a moving tribute to a man whose gentility and compassion are greatly missed. The film is also a fascinating look at the early days of television.
Director Felix Van Groeningen weaves a few too many cliches into his visual and aural style, but they aren’t enough to derail superb performances by Steve Carrell, Timothee Chalamet and Maura Tierney. This one of the better entries in a string of recent films about addiction.
I had low expectations for this one, but a steady stream of gags that work and a cast willing to go all in made this my favorite mainstream comedy of 2018. Though it was released early in the year, this will be on my Halloween watch list from now on.
The Last Race
This documentary about one New England town’s attachment to the last remaining raceway in the area is easily the best NASCAR film ever made. What’s surprising and most affecting about The Last Race though is how nearly every frame carries an environmental message in its subtext.
Mary Poppins Returns
The storytelling falls a little short this time around, but Mary Poppins Returns is still a fun, lively and occasionally touching adventure that features wonderful performances from Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Vice is certainly one of the most polarizing films of the year. Some critics are enthralled by it, while others, including liberal ones, have bashed it to pieces. I loved the performances and if you go into it expecting Director Adam McKay to treat his subject with total irreverence (it’s what he does), you won’t be disappointed. It’s a film that makes you angry not just at an individual or a single party, but, if you’re paying attention, flaws in our system of government that are destined to be exploited. McKay uses an admittedly biased (but largely factual) look at Dick Cheney to deliver a message, but the message itself transcends party: Pay attention. It takes work, but if you want a better government, you have to pay attention.