The best movies of 2018
Here are my 10 best films of 2018, listed alphabetically.
“Blindspotting” -- Co-writers and -stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal are the intently passionate anchors of this film, a thoughtful and vibrant dead-serious comedy about race, police corruption and gentrification in Oakland. Diggs plays an African-American man trying to keep his ship afloat just days before his probation expires; his cautious steps toward freedom are made all the more challenging when he witnesses a white cop shoot a fleeing black man in the back. The film is a buddy picture with biting commentary, walking profoundly on the line between hope and despair.
“Eighth Grade” -- Oh MY god, how awkward. Comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham writes and directs this story of youth in the internet age with countless terrifying close-ups on teenage faces. It’s so much hormonal fidgeting, so many bad complexions, so much insecurity behind sneering eyes, all existing in high-def in the social-media gladiatorial brawl. The brilliant Elsie Fisher is Burnham’s primary subject, playing an eighth-grader whitewater-rafting the treacherous river of adolescence: the mean girl in school, the dope she inexplicably crushes on, her overly sincere, and therefore embarrassing father (played by an extraordinary Josh Hamilton). This is a funny, scary, contemplative film. Watch it as part of an exceptional growing-up-is-hard-to-do triple-feature with “Lady Bird” and “The Edge of Seventeen.”
“The Favourite” -- A succulently barbed script, timely sexual politics and director Yorgos Lanthimos’ get-a-load-of-this wide angles work impeccably to turn the traditional British-period costume drama on its head. Masterful acting by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz only adds to its richness.
“First Reformed” -- Paul Schrader stages an auspicious comeback with this painfully modern portrait of spiritual decay staged within the frame of environmental devastation. Of course, it’s also slyly spiked with the bleakest of comedy. Playing a hapless preacher questioning his faith as he stirs Pepto Bismol into his whiskey, Ethan Hawke absolutely deserves the Oscar he’ll inevitably win. This movie sinks wickedly sharp talons in you and doesn’t let go.
“Game Night” -- Who expects a goofy R-rated comedy starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams to gradually become a taut thriller, as funny as it is suspenseful? Nobody. That’s why “Game Night,” directed with surprising visual vigor and ambition by John Francis Daley and Johnathan Goldstein, is such a delight. And watch out for the year’s sneakiest scene thief, Jesse Plemons, as the weirdo neighbor.
“Leave No Trace” -- Sometimes, the quietest dramas grip the tightest. The precarious lives of a father and daughter -- played by Ben Foster and revelatory newcomer Thomasin McKenzie -- are upended dramatically in this thoughtful character piece, directed with acute empathy by Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”). The father, an ex-soldier fighting PTSD, prefers to keep them off the grid and away from the ills of society; the teenage daughter, astute beyond her years, craves socialization. A life of extremes can have a profound effect on a developing mind, and Granik and McKenzie bring that truth into focus with significant emotional heft.
“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” -- The neo-action renaissance continues with the sixth film in the Tom Cruise Runs Very Fast franchise. It puts the pedal to the medal, and through the floorboards, into the pavement, to the earth below, smashing layers of sediment and rock on its way to the planet core. Overkill? Of course, but aptly deployed, since the film is hyperbole brought to life with only the most necessary CGI, directed by Christopher McQuarrie with such intensity, I’m sweating just thinking about it.
“The Rider” -- What was that about the quietest dramas? Here’s another -- writer/director Chloe Zhao cast non-actor Brady Jandreau to star in his own story, that of a young rodeo rider and horse trainer whose life and career are derailed by a debilitating injury. A scene in which Jandreau, fully in character, defies doctors’ orders and trains a horse in real time is terrifyingly tense. One stray kick, and he’s done forever. The film’s subtlety and authenticity are its greatest assets, and the protagonist’s struggle with losing his identity rings clear and true.
“Roma” -- This is a masterpiece. Alfonso Cuaron balances intuition and calculation profoundly in this hypnotic and emotionally resonant domestic drama, inspired by his childhood in early 1970s Mexico City, and told from the perspective of an upper-middle-class family’s housekeeper. The performances and dramatic execution are remarkably naturalistic, while Cuaron’s camera tracks, pans and pivots with such patience and diligence, it’s not just a tool for observation, but a character itself, wholly embracing the life and humanity in front of it.
“You Were Never Really Here” -- Just another grueling, intense day at the office for Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a severely psychologically damaged freelance vigilante, hired to murder pederasts and human traffickers -- with a hammer. He and director Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”) conspire to create an artfully austere genre piece, a brutal, satisfying revenge film that also functions as deep character drama and probing rumination on violence.
And 10 more worth honorable mention:
“Annihilation” -- Filmmaker Alex Garland is a one-man sci-fi renaissance, with a screenwriting resume including “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” and an exceptional directorial debut in “Ex Machina.” Here, he adapts Jeff VanderMeer’s novel “Annihilation,” casting Natalie Portman as the leader of an all-female military cadre venturing into a bizarre anomaly of physics and reality dubbed The Shimmer. The film makes all the right references (“Aliens,” “2001,” “The Thing,” “Apocalypse Now”) on the way to making its own original exploration of identity, intelligence and evolution. As for the scene with the skull-faced bear? It was more than a few shades of terrifying beyond Paddington, I tell you.
“Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther” -- It was quite a year for Marvel. “Infinity War” is a whirling kaleidoscope of characters and action, keenly balanced, a breathless two-and-a-half hours; it’s also audacious enough to tease us with a humongous downer of an apocalyptic ending. (Of course, any comic book reader knows no narrative is too narrow to be backed out of.) “Black Panther” fulfilled its aspirations of exploring numerous new movements within an increasingly staid series. Michael B. Jordan is riveting as the villain Killmonger; the fictional African culture is vivid and rich; and we walked out wanting a solo feature starring Danai Gurira’s warrior character Okoye.
“First Man” -- In the opening sequence, “La La Land” and “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle plops us right in the rattletrap cockpit of an experimental airplane. Later, of course, he puts us in a rocket to the moon. He offsets the sweaty tension of these moments with the quiet, tight-lipped internal psychodrama of protagonist Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, strong as ever as a man of few words. Chazelle’s poignant dramatic balance results in substantive cinema, great on the big screen and working just far enough outside the boundaries of conventional biography to keep us compelled.
“Hereditary” -- Few images from the year in cinema sear themselves into the mind like that of Toni Collette’s face twisted in horror. She gives one of the year’s best performances as a woman wracked by grief and stalked by, well, I won’t say what. Ari Aster’s film is a complex witch’s brew of credible tragedy and psycho-supernatural horror. You want some nigh-unbearable elastic-suspenseful teases? Don’t watch “A Quiet Place” -- watch this.
“If Beale Street Could Talk” -- Music and color. Both vibrate intently in Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Set in Harlem, it’s a sweet love story amidst great social struggle: Kiki Layne plays a young woman, newly pregnant by the man she loves (Stephan James), incarcerated after being framed by a racist cop. Plot is secondary to the people, as overarching events occur inevitably, like the sun rises and sets; what clings to us is the beauty and resilience of the human character, strengthened by conflict and tragedy, able to give and receive love in spite of it all.
“Incredibles 2” -- Brad Bird’s long-awaited sequel to the Pixar classic is pure, unapologetic fun. It’s not quite as thematically adventurous as its predecessor, but if you enjoy the art of an action-packed thrill spiced with big, big laughs, there’s much to be dazzled by here.
“Paddington 2” -- A recent theme in cinema is applying virtuoso filmmaking to staid genres -- horror, sci-fi, action and, with 2014’s “Paddington” and this sequel, live-action children’s stories. Director Paul King’s vivid visual flair brings to life a charming world we love to visit and hate to leave. It’s so lively, the enduringly adorable cartoon bear is at its center -- with support from an inspired Hugh Grant, hitting delectable comedic notes as the imminently jeerable villain -- seems almost secondary to the experience. But Paddington is a charmer. In a head-to-head 2018 whimsy-off with Mary Poppins, I’ll take the bear.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” -- Although comic-book films are a dime a dozen these days, very few of them fully embrace the tone and aesthetic of their source material. “Spider-Verse” strikes us as wildly adventurous for doing just that, albeit not in the gee-whiz way of 1960s comics, but in the manner of today’s thematically rich post-pulp works. Case in point, Miles Morales, a Latino/African-American kid who becomes a new, exciting Spider-Man, a “Black Panther”-sized win for cultural inclusion. Beyond that, the film is visually intoxicating, a fizzy delight populated with colorful Spider-derived characters (Spider-Ham! Spider-Gwen!), and backed by an inventive, vibrant soundtrack.
“Three Identical Strangers” -- From the Truth is Stranger than Fiction Dept. comes this riveting documentary detailing the lives of triplets separated at birth, then reunited two decades later. If that’s not extraordinary enough, the events of their lives take enough sudden left turns -- some heartbreakingly tragic -- to make this one of the most suspenseful films of the year.
“Vice” -- With “The Big Short,” filmmaker Adam McKay satirically ravaged the big banks complicit in the 2008 Wall Street crash by employing a freewheeling, ruthless comedic tone. This time, he aims his heavy artillery at another target big enough to deserve all that firepower, political villain Dick Cheney. The veep is played with uproarious subtlety by a muttering Christian Bale, who somehow manages to keep a straight face beneath lots of convincing prosthetics. He’s supported by Steve Carell, who’s a hoot as Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwel, playing George “Dubya” Bush as a good ol’ dope. Yes, the film is cynical. You’ll laugh until you cry as McKay portrays the all-but-unknowable Cheney as both buffoon and callous puppet master. One of the funniest movies of 2018 is also one of the bleakest.
Most overrated: “A Quiet Place” -- Yes, this is an entertaining bit of high-concept manipulation. We all sweated buckets during the Emily Blunt bathtub sequence, and appreciated the walking-on-eggshells conceit, which demands near-absolute silence from a family, living in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by blind creatures who attack only what they hear. But let’s be real here -- you can drive tanks, RVs, blimps and aircraft carriers through some of those plot holes.
The saddest goodbye: “Fifty Shades Freed” -- Instead of putting my boots to the worst of the year, I decided to pay special homage to the torturous franchise I love to hate. Just as I wept at the departure of “The Twilight Saga” from the cinematic landscape (Chant with me: Re-boot! Re-boot! Re-boot!), I do the same with the “Fifty Shades” trilogy. Narrative and thematic ineptness is so wildly entertaining as long as you’ve developed the constitution to endure it. (Sometimes it’s hard: “I rolled my eyes enough that I noticed a missing tile in the auditorium ceiling, quietly inviting me to a warm, dark place to hide.,” I wrote in my review.) These were impressively bad, gloriously insane movies, and I will miss them.
On a related note, these are the scenes that made me cry the most at the movies this year:
Spider-Man crumbling to dust in “Avengers: Infinity War.” He’ll be back, of course. We all know that. Didn’t make it any less heartbreaking, though.
The ending of “A Star is Born.” It does terrific justice to a classic cinematic tragedy.
The Sea of Tranquility scene in “First Man.” The loss of a child is a tragic current that runs long and deep.
The end credits of “Fifty Shades Freed.” What franchise will provoke our ridicule next? I don’t know, my friends. I don’t know. And I despair.
Performances of note
These two won’t win Oscars, but they deserve special mention:
Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians” -- The crazy smash-hit comedy wouldn’t be nearly as strong without Yeoh, who showcases her underrated acting chops to match the karate chops that defined her career. Thanos, schmanos -- Yeoh plays the most complex villain of 2018, easily.
Nicolas Cage, “Mandy” -- Here’s one hell of a wild black-metallized medulla oblongata-twister of a movie, which is what might’ve happened if David Lynch helmed schlock horror in the ’80s. Cage is its anchor; he disappears for a long stretch of the film, but returns with so much raw, crazed gusto, if you could bag it and sell it, it’d make crack look like candy corn. Amazingly, it’s only, like, the fifth-most bonkers performance of his career.