2018 was a gnarly f*cking year.
I think no matter what your political affiliation, how much time you spend on Twitter or whether you stan DC or Marvel films, we can all agree that that is fact now that it’s over.
Thankfully, we still had new cinema to turn to. To provide us solace, to help us make sense of it all, to provide context for changing times and to make us wish that we had a bucket hat-wearing, marmalade sandwich-munching expatriate helping us to get along with each other.
But perhaps even Paddington was too good for this world.
2018 was also a year in which I personally had a goal of seeing more new movies than ever before, to get a taste of some films that I maybe would not have in recent years. After 12 months of prioritizing that, I can confidently say two things:
- The outcry over lack of original content at the multiplex may be overblown.
- This list would have a totally different makeup had I not prioritized exploring those films that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
It’s resulted in an incredibly varied set of experiences at the multiplex or on my living room couch. It might be because of everything else that has happened that the embrace of film felt particularly warm in 2018.
So here are the 10 films that struck a chord with me the most, whether on an initial watch or while not being able to escape their melodies for days after. It’s preceded by some honorable mentions. It’s by no means comprehensive—every single film I saw in 2018 taught me something. And it’s by no means a “correct” list; anyone who tells you theirs is has an agenda.
But these are the films I watched that I anticipate thinking about first when thinking about the last dozen months years down the road; the first I may recommend when someone asks about the batshit crazy year that 2018 represented for the world at large, and the comparatively gloriously resplendent epoch it proved to be for the magic of movies.
It was long ago (and it feels like even longer ago) that comic book movies felt like they hit their 2018 peak, like that one classmate in junior high always eager to present first and set the standard for their peers. But 10 months after “Black Panther” upended the established rules of what a superhero movie could strive for and represent, Miles Morales proved it wasn’t a one-off blend of bam-pow style and substance.
Before “Into the Spiderverse” superhero-landed onto the scene in the tail-end of 2018, comic book movies that lifted straight from the panels of the pages (think “Watchmen,” “300”) felt like appropriation instead of homage. This absurdly fun and poignant reimagining of a superhero that certainly hasn’t been short on cinematic milage this century adopts the style as well, but in ways that pay homage to its comic book roots, even as it sets standards for what animation can look like on the big screen.
Nic Cage voicing a noir-era Spidey is everything we never knew we were missing from Marvel movie mania.
Director Debra Granik’s emotional stranglehold of a film doesn’t concern itself with providing many answers. Why does Ben insist on constructing a life for himself and his daughter in the woods outside Portland? Why do they return even when social services provides a roof over their heads? Why remain so apprehensive of the help others are willing to give?
You can concern yourself with answering such questions, and Granik drops subtle hints throughout, or you can allow yourself to be enveloped in the undeniable humanity brought by her script, a career-high turn by Ben Foster and an unforgettable career-making performance by Thomasin McKenzie. The isolated atmosphere that pervades “Leave No Trace” is felt in our bones, making its closing moments all the more gut-wrenching.
Believe the hype.
The sequel to 2014’s this-is-a-children’s-movie-but-damnit-it’s-charming story of a bear who would rather swear off marmalade sandwiches before refusing to show kindness to every living thing is intoxicating in its optimism, a colorful jellybean of a movie that doesn’t skimp on its Wes Anderson-inspired sensibilities and refuses to slow down on its delights for a moment.
Elevating “Paddington 2” is its ensemble cast; Sally Hawkins and Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson and Hugh Bonneville could all be considered among the year’s finest supporting performances, one of the film’s more technical ways of proclaiming, “In this world, we’re all family.”
I doubt even our most stonehearted statesmen could prevent themselves from succumbing to Paddington’s spell.
With respect to Tom Cruise’s body and general sense of security for what it had to endure in creating the instantly iconic “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” it was Steve McQueen’s foray into genre filmmaking that elevated action cinema to a level where cobwebs have been forming for quite some time.
Armed with with one of 2018’s largest and best ensembles (Getting Davis and Debicki and Farrell and Kaluuya **and** Tyree Henry AND Erivo AND Duvall in the same work still feels like a minor miracle by the movie gods), “Widows” was to thrillers this year what “Lady Bird” represented for coming-of-age dramas in 2017—a robust collection of ruminations set in a very specific community, but one whose underlying conflicts we know exist everywhere. Politics, societal perception, domestic spheres, even the homogeneity of an entire genre—it’s all here for McQueen to give his input on.
For future action flicks that decide they want to take an extra leap and made a capital-S Statement, we are now in Year 1 AW, After “Widows.”
One of the most common things you’ll hear a director say upon a movie’s release is that they made the film, first and foremost, for themselves. It’s a win-win statement, buffering filmmakers from bad criticism by those who may not Get It, while giving audiences free rein to interpret movies however they see fit.
With “Roma,” however, Alfonso Cuarón injected the sentiment with whole new meaning. Already pound-for-pound one of our most consistently magnetic auteurs, Cuarón followed up his space epic “Gravity” by going home, constructing an illustrious domestic drama from his memories as a child in Mexico City and the women who he says played pivotal roles in his upbringing.
Even if no one is able to appreciate “Roma” as much as its director-writer-editor-cinematographer (this really was a personal project for him) does, we’re still able to follow Cleo – the housemaid of a Mexican upper-middle class family – through situations and environments both intimate and monumental, the wallpaper in between those layers bursting with intention and meaning. “Roma” is the cinematic equivalent of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Who knew that what is essentially a period piece “Mean Girls” from the director of some of the last decade’s most unusual, drunkenly obscure works would help provide some of the best cinematic context for our own stranger-than-fiction political realities?
In “The Favourite,” Yorgos Lanthimos gave us a peek at a hilariously cruel set of (fairly true-to-life) symbiotic relationships in early 1700s England, in a royal palace masquerading as a circus run by infants where you can be ridiculed in one moment, taken advantage of the next and still have some time left in the day to be tripped into a puddle of mud.
The film would have been another winner on the strength of its acrobatic wordplay alone (“I have a surge of desire to see your nose broken” is one of many memorable lines from the film that has found a home in my daily lexicon). But on the strength of the ironically sublime acting triumvirate of Colman, Stone and Weisz, “The Favourite” is a tour-de-force in subversion, right up to a haunting ending that makes us wonder if we’re just as cruel for guffawing on the way there.
Josephine Decker’s undeniably daring (and equally trippy) deconstruction of artistic appropriation and the tug-of-war between chaos and order feels like the future of movies. “Madeline’s Madeline” is another film centered on a trio of women trying to gain the upper hand, though without ever admitting their intentions even to themselves.
Presented at an appropriately frenetic pace – artistic inspiration tends to be fleeting, after all – it’s impossible to tell whether certain events in Decker’s story play out reality or within characters’ minds. That doesn’t stop it from leaving a lasting impression.
The film also boasts the single best performance of 2018, with Helena Howard bringing true definition to the word “range” as she sulks, screams, ponders, disassociates and purrs. If you know, you know. If you don’t, get on this film.
The most confident film of the year, “Happy as Lazzaro” (or “Lazzaro Felice” in its native Italy) is a Trojan horse of a movie, one whose initial subtle eccentricities burst forth and grab the reigns in the second half with the might of a contemporary fable that feels universally renowned, even as it occupies Netflix’s back alleys.
The less said about this film the better, but protagonists rarely urge us to sympathize with them as much as the humble, happy, somewhat prophetic and totally naive Lazzaro does. His circumstances take him from being out of his element to representing a mythological entity in a comparatively secular world, all the while remaining someone around which nature mysteriously bursts free of the shackles placed upon it.
There’s no template for the places “Happy as Lazzaro” goes. And our experience watching is all the better for it.
No film in 2018 was more devastating while still so constantly hopeful than Tamara Jenkins’s masterpiece, a punch in the face of those whose days fall to shambles when someone disagrees with their views on social media.
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn’s late-40s New York City couple are trying to accomplish what most of society takes for granted – conceiving a baby – and it’s a Herculean task. As is continuing to keep their marriage afloat while they’re doing it.
Jenkins’s screenplay overflows with wit and domestic causticity as a simple desire threatens to tear a family apart, though it treads very personal territory (Jenkins herself went through much of what the characters in her film endure) with light feet and an underlying consolation that somehow, in some way, things are bound to turn out for the better for everyone. It’s difficult to get at the heart of what is so memorable about a movie that is, compared to other entries on this list, so ordinary. But perhaps that’s why it shines so radiantly.
“Private Life” is remarkable in delving as deep as a storyteller can into a problem most go their whole lives never having to consider, all the while showing the very believable effects it has on a perfect pairing in Hahn and Giamatti. This film, and the couple it follows, wears its soul on its ring finger.
While the titles listed above took us to fictional worlds and situations to help us relate to our own, “Minding the Gap” brings it straight home as a sort of anti-passion project, a documentary of the most heart-knotting kind that goes from earnestness to trepidation and finally the most intimate kind of self-confession.
A decade or so ago, Bing Liu was a skateboarder and videographer, capturing the everyday life of he and his friends as they grow up in Rockford—a small Illinois town trying to keep up with the rest of the world.
Utilizing that footage as the most raw kind of juxtaposition, Liu compares that nostalgia when he, Kiere and Zack believed escape could be a strategy to life beyond our teen years (don’t we all?) with the very different realities they face as they enter their 20s. And when we begin to realize – in near-real time with this trio – how their circumstances have nonetheless dictated not just where they are now but where they seem to be going, the syringe of harsh truth that form “Minding the Gap’s” revelations slowly begins to insert into our disarmed selves.
There’s no iconic celebrity being deconstructed in “Minding the Gap.” No curtains are pulled back on little-known political events to help us understand how we ended up where we are, no spotlights shining on the scandals of Facebook or the nihilism of Twitter with implications we remain at least a bit removed from. If this doc does any leaning at all, it’s Liu, Kiere and Zack on each other once they begin to reconcile who they are with who they thought they’d remain.
This is an example of moviemaking at its most malleable, a mirror image of its core trio in the way it begins so self-assured of what its nature is before admitting it shouldn’t lie to itself anymore. In a world that pines for truth on a scale bigger than we could ever empathize with, “Minding The Gap” counsels us to look at our own truths first, and to decide if they aren’t actually a disguise.
Other works that resonated with me: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Mandy,” “Sorry To Bother You,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “Annihilation,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Hereditary,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “American Animals,” “A Quiet Place,” “Black Panther,” “Juliet, Naked,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Cam,” “Bad Times At El Royale,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
Here’s to 2019.