So confession time: I have had an incredibly busy year, and wasn’t able to see as many movies as I would have liked. I missed some of the high profile films like A Star is Born, If Beale Street Could Talk, Vice, Green Book, First Man, etc., and I plan on seeing Mary Poppins Returns and Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse either by the end of the year or early next year. But this was still a great year in film, and I found ten films (well, eleven I suppose, we’ll get to that) that I will celebrate as great works of art that advance the medium of cinema in one way or another. So here’s my top ten of 2018, in roughly descending order.
10. The Other Side of the Wind/They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead
So I’m cheating on my first entry, but I can explain. Netflix was amazingly able to acquire, complete, and release the final film directed by film legend and one of my personal favorite directors, Orson Welles, called The Other Side of the Wind. Welles was able to finish filming but died before the picture could be edited and completed, and as such the film has become legendary in Hollywood history as the greatest film never released. While the fact that I can say that I saw a new Orson Welles film is noteworthy enough to recommend, the film itself is also a fantastic look at Welles’ own career and the Hollywood machine as it worked in the 1970s. It stars the late great John Huston as a cantankerous director who is having problems finishing his latest film (sound familiar?) and features an incredibly well shot and evocative film-within-a-film. This movie is great on its own, but is made even better by watching it as a double feature with the excellent documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead about the making of the film. It probes what that troubled production was like, and what the completion, or lack thereof, of the film meant to Welles and the people around him. Both movies are available on Netflix, and any self respecting film fan owes it to themselves to see this incredible new look at one of cinema’s greatest talents.
9. Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham is one of my all time favorite comedians. His most recent comedy special is a genius piece of meta performance art. But Eighth Grade is his feature film debut, and as a first time director and writer he knocks it out of the park. This film is somehow both extremely relatable to my own personal horror stories of junior high school (my fiancé and I had a hard time watching at times because it was so painfully and realistically awkward) but also seemingly so specific to the current state of teenage angst. Led by a breakout turn by Elsie Fisher, this film is universal in its specificity, and is full of a wit and life that just sings, even when it’s cringy. But that’s just what eighth grade is, isn’t it?
8. Black Panther
In a year of some pretty good superhero films, this one stands head and shoulders above all the rest. Ryan Coogler’s dynamo of a movie is the rare blockbuster that really has something to say, and is extremely timely and provocative. That doesn’t mean it shies away from the typical Marvel dazzle, and the city of Wakanda is absolutely one of the most marvelous images in film this year, and the film is entertaining and thrilling and funny to boot. It also features some great performances from actors like Chadwick Boesman and Lupita Nyong’o, and especially Michael B. Jordan, who makes easily the most interesting and sympathetic villain in Marvel history. Saying this is my favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not at all difficult.
7. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
The one movie that made me cry from this year was this one. This movie, the second documentary on this list directed by the prolific Morgan Neville, isn’t a revelatory documentary by any stretch, but it is a tender and touching look at one of the most influential media figures of all time, Fred Rogers. He has touched the lives of so many people in a positive way, and the interviews with the people who knew him and his impact on the world were very emotional. The scene where he melts the heart of a congressman and single handedly saves PBS is worth the price of admission.
6. Sorry to Bother You
The second film on this list featuring a first time writer/director, Sorry to Bother You is a scathing surrealist piece of protest cinema. Rapper Boots Riley has created a not-too-alternative universe where a put upon black man (played hilariously by Lakeith Stanfield) has to use his “white voice” (also played hilariously by David Cross) in order to rise up in capitalist America, and it only gets stranger and more vicious as it goes on. As hilarious as it is strange, the less you know going in about where this wild ride leads you, the better.
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
What can I say about the Coen Brothers that hasn’t already been said? They are unquestionably my favorite living directors, possibly of all time, and when they keep making films like this I remember all over again why I love their movies so much. An anthology film featuring six stories about the old west, Joel and Ethan Coen have created six different short films about hard lives, fate, and the inevitably of death, but also made maybe the funniest film of the year at the same time. From the opening segment with a hilarious Tim Blake Nelson as the titular balladeer, to a more morose and melancholy segment with Liam Neeson as a traveling freak showman, to a fantastic segment with Tom Waits, who was seemingly born to play a crotchety but resourceful prospector in a Coen movie, to an extended sequence with the typical Oregon trail story gone wrong with Zoe Kazan, the balance of tone is astonishing even for the Coens. Even the weakest segment, with James Franco as an outlaw avoiding the noose, features an amazingly strange turn from Stephen Root. It’s all wrapped up with a masterclass in dialogue in an ending that, to paraphrase another Coen creation, really ties the film together.
4. First Reformed
Paul Schrader is one of the more influential figures in the history of cinema; as the writer of movies from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to The Last Temptation of Christ, he has a knack for peeling back the layers of complicated and self destructive men. His latest film First Reformed is no exception, and the exploration of an alcoholic priest who spirals into existential crisis is an exercise in tension and melancholy that was so captivating that I could not take my eyes off the screen. The film is centered around a performance by Ethan Hawke that is probably the best of the year; his impotent raging against things beyond his control, and complete disregard for things within his control, shows Hawke going to emotional places that are the highlight of his career. The performance alone is enough, but the film as a whole featured some indelible imagery that has not left my head since I saw it; Schrader has definitely still got it.
This movie went completely under the radar, and has been basically forgotten by most film fans, which is a tragedy. Alex Garland’s second feature film as a director, Annihilation has just as much on its mind as the phenomenal Ex Machina, but with an even bigger scope and canvas with which to explore. Based on a heady book, this film is a visual marvel, and features some crazy sci-fi imagery that could pass for Stanley Kubrick. It also features a kick ass cast of women, led by the intentionally out of her element Natalie Portman and stone cold badass Jennifer Jason Leigh, and explores themes of nature, and humankind’s place within a world it is destroying. This is the type of bonkers, dazzling science fiction filmmaking that I am absolutely a sucker for, and it did not disappoint.
Netflix has had a spectacular year (four of the eleven films mentioned are Netflix originals), but the only downside of the ease of access is that I had to watch the stunningly photographed Roma on a smaller screen than a movie theater. What is most impressive about Roma is that it springs entirely from the mind of the great Alfonso Cuarón, the fantastic genre filmmaker making his most personal film yet. Pulled from real experiences growing up in Mexico City in the 1960s, Cuarón wrote, directed, edited, and even served as his own cinematographer; given the fact that every sumptuous black and white image in this film is a work of art, and that the story at the center is an emotional and moving portrayal of class differences, the accomplishment is simply astounding. It is an intimate and personal story told on a grand epic scale, which only a master craftsman like Cuarón can pull off this deftly. This is cinema at its most pure and profound.
The top two films on this list were the easiest to decide, and the easily the best two of the year, but for different reasons. Roma is a great cinematic experience, but BlacKkKlansman is the most essential and important film of the year, and is easily my favorite. This is the legend Spike Lee back for the first time in a while, and he is in his Do The Right Thing! zone in creating a film that is confrontational towards the racism of modern society by showing the institutional nature of that racism in the recent past. Those institutions include the film industry itself, and the way Spike points the finger directly at Hollywood, old and new, and the way we let racism run the Hollywood machine is worth an essay on its own. That is not to say that this film is a dry academic tirade. It is also a crackerjack production, full of wit and humor and excitement, and littered with terrific performances from John David Washington as the black man going undercover in the KKK in the 1970s, and by Adam Driver as the white man who becomes his front and meets with the Klan, saying all the despicable things they want to hear. It is vibrant, dynamite filmmaking from one of the masters of the craft, who has finally realized his typical rage n a movie that is the complete package, one that is definitely the most needed right now. This is the film that defines 2018 for me, and I can’t sing its praises enough.
A quick list of honorable mentions (only four because I cheated): A Quiet Place – A masterclass in tension and pacing. Three Identical Strangers – A documentary that floored me and moved me in equal measure. Crazy Rich Asians – The feel good comedy of the year, with a refreshingly diverse cast and style in spades. RBG – A powerful doc about a powerful woman and an inspirational leader.