With 2018 all but over and done with, it’s time for me to look back on the year in cinema and come up with an obligatory, highly subjective, and reasoned to death ranking of the best films. Having seen over 400 films across the past year (of a total 744 that were released in Toronto, with even more if you count one-off screenings or Oscar contenders that won’t be opening in the city until the new year), it has always felt hard and unfair to only do a top ten. When you see that many films, the number that you genuinely love tends to go up drastically. By that same token, you also have to sit through a lot of middling, mediocre, and outright trashy garbage, but every year I’m able to come up with a list of fifty films that I think are the absolute best.
This year was one of the hardest years for me to compile this list, not because there was an overall lack of choice, but because it was extremely difficult for me to cut the list down to fifty worthy candidates. In the past, I have never done honourable mentions for this list because there were usually only between two and five films that missed the cut. This year, with twenty-two films hovering just outside the proper ranking (and because I don’t want to up this list to the seventy-five best films of the year), I have decided to include some.
I’m also frequently asked why my best of the year list comes out later than those of most critics. The answer to that is simple: I would rather be thorough and thoughtful with such a list than to be first. I’d rather take my time, rewatch certain films, and think long and hard about how I could even start ranking them. I’d always rather feel like I did the best ranking I could offer rather than put out the first ranking I could offer. While I will admit that the top fifteen films on this list (which is still actually a list of 53 films, for reasons you’ll see momentarily) more or less remained the same, the rest of the list was in constant, worthy flux.
With all that out of the way, here’s my list of the best films from 2018.
Honourable Mentions: 22 July, American Animals, Ava, Black Cop, Blindspotting, Boy Erased, Charm City, Colette, The Crescent Crime + Punishment, Dark Money, Fail to Appear, The Hate U Give, Incredibles II, Let the Sunshine In, Lifechanger, Maison du Bonheur, Mary Goes Round, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Never Look Away, Pick of the Litter, A Quiet Place, They Shall Not Grow Old, Stan & Ollie
- Overlord/The Night Comes for Us
The best and most brutal action flicks of the year (albeit in different ways and to different degrees) are co-holders of the number fifty spot (one of three such instances in this countdown). Timo Tjahanto’s all out mobsters and martial arts extravaganza and Julus Avery’s clever meshing of a World War II epic with a gruesome monster movie were the most fun one could have this year watching people getting completely obliterated.
- The Kindergarten Teacher
Boasting one of the best leading performances of the year, courtesy of Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sara Colengelo’s remake of Nadav Lapid’s Israeli film about an educator and struggling writer who develops and unhealthy obsession with a student who displays a flair for poetry is as uncomfortable as movies get without being full blown psychotic. It’s not a thriller by any stretch, but it’s packed with suspense.
- Instant Family
I never thought I would be singing the praises of a film from the director of That’s My Boy and the Daddy’s Home films, but Sean Anders’ genuinely hilarious, heartfelt, and disarmingly emotional look at parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, both at their best) learning the ropes of adoption was one of the year’s most pleasant and unexpected surprises.
A clever and twisty sort of Bad Lieutenant styled narrative with a sunken eyed Nicole Kidman relishing the opportunity to play a hard living antihero, the latest thriller from underrated director Karyn Kusama isn’t flashy or action packed, but it’s consistently riveting and intelligent. One of the few movies this year that builds to a big reveal that I honestly didn’t see coming. (Opens in Canada this January)
I thought long and hard about including Wildlife on this list. It’s assuredly a 2018 release, and yet, the strong debut directorial feature from Paul Dano never received Canadian distribution (although it did come out in America and several other major markets, and was put forward for this year’s Oscars). That’s a real shame because this story of a crumbling small town Montana family – comprised of Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ed Oxenbould – was one of the best first features of the year. If it ever makes its way to theatres in Canada (which at this point seems highly unlikely) or VOD north of the border, definitely seek it out. (EDIT on January 3, 2019: It has now received a sudden, last second release in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Friday, January 4. See it while you can.)
What I know about fashion design and haute couture could fill a thimble, but I do know from sitting through hundreds of films ever year that Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s biography of late industry icon and game changer Steve McQueen was one of the finest and most insightful documentaries of the year. It’s a sterling example of a documentary where one doesn’t need to know much about its subject’s choice of profession to become immediately captivated and engrossed in their life.
- Isle of Dogs
While Wes Anderson’s latest foray into stop motion wasn’t his best animated feature (that remains the eminently delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox by a very large margin), this story of a boy trying to save his dog in a vaguely futuristic/vaguely vintage Japan where mutts have been outlawed and exiled still has plenty to like within its exquisitely designed margins.
- Ben is Back
A poignant look at the current opioid crisis as told through a mother (Julia Roberts) and addict son (Lucas Hedges) in emotional free fall, this latest (and overall best) film from writer-director Peter Hedges has a handful of on the nose moments that feel realistic and reasoned instead of manipulative and forced. It’s gutting and unflinching while also trying to explain matters of the heart and home that are complex and frequently misunderstood by those who’ve never watched someone’s addictions get the better of them. Of all the films to come out this year about addiction – and all the films to feature Lucas Hedges in a starring role – this is the one that’s a must see.
- The Guilty
Directed and co-written by Gustav Möller and centred around what basically amounts to a capably mounted one man show from leading man Jakob Cedergren, Sweden’s intense and entertaining selection for contention at this year’s Oscars is one of those foreign language thrillers that’s so good that I knew minutes into the film that someone in an English speaking country was going to remake it within the next few years. This past week proved me right (and it’s alleged to be starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which is a fine choice), so you’re definitely going to want to catch up with this story of a suspended cop turned emergency services phone operator before all your friends tell you have great and clever the reboot is. You’ll be in for a real treat.
Adam McKay’s irate double-leg takedown and pummelling of political firebrand Dick Cheney might not be as clever as his previous politically minded satire, The Big Short, but what this one lacks in panache it more than makes up for in righteous and reasoned anger. With equally noteworthy leading performances from Christian Bale and Amy Adams as the former vice president and his equally driven wife, McKay’s latest is a well crafted primer on how American politics grew out of control at the turn of the century, and an even better look at the moments leading up to it that made the film’s titular figure the man he is today.
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
It’s hard to grade anthology films, since they’re generally inconsistent by nature. This latest from Joel and Ethan Coen isn’t any different, but all six of the old west yarns contained in this package – be they comedic, melancholic, political, or just plain ol’ strange – are all great. They’re varying degrees of greatness, but try to tell me of any other filmmakers capable of going six for six in the same film, especially in such an antiquated and unhip genre. I’ll be here waiting for your answer. (Not really)
- Woman at War
Although Iceland’s selection for Oscar contention didn’t make the Academy’s recent shortlist of potential nominees, this slyly comedic, frequently thrilling, and utterly unique tale of a 49-year old choir director trying to balance her secret double life as an ecoterrorist with her desires to adopt a child and become a single mother leaves a lasting impression. It’s an exceptionally balanced look into the loneliness of being a “true believer” in a cause and how the media can make monsters out of everyday people while protecting foreign business concerns. This is a smart one. Don’t miss it when it gets a proper release in Canada in the near future. (Opens in Canada starting in March)
- The Third Murder
While it has been already dismissed by many as a minor work from Japanese master filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, this slow burning courtroom drama and crime thriller isn’t just a curious change of pace for the writer-director, but also a clue as to where he might be headed with his future projects. I would certainly argue this his bigger success this year, Shoplifters (which I’ll be getting to a little later in the list) wouldn’t exist without this tale of lawyer who’s growing increasingly vexed by his obviously guilty client’s hidden motivation for killing someone. It’s just as great as anything else in Koreeda’s filmography, and I believe that time will be very kind to this one.
- Vox Lux
A breathless, dread filled, and uncompromised look at both popular music superstars and large scale mass casualty tragedies from the late 90s to today, Brady Corbet’s ingenious and almost purposefully divisive look at the rise and fall of a diva (played with equal brilliance by Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman at different ages) is like watching a powder kegs setting off other flammable and explosive materials in its path. It’s aggressive and forthright, but never at the sake of subtler points and delicate character touches. There was only one American film this year more dazzling in its ability to disorient and challenge the audience, and that film is…
- Sorry to Bother You
Musician-writer-director Boots Riley’s anthemic, chaotic, frequently surreal, and nearly impossible to explain tale of a put-upon black man (Lakeith Stanfield, in the most iconic role of his career thus far) rising through the ranks of a telemarketing company by learning how to sound white is one of the most hilarious and indispensable acts of cinematic activism and advocacy this year. The messages Riley wants to deliver are complicated and sometimes come with contradictory moral feelings that the filmmaker wants to have a discussion about. The title isn’t just something one might hear on the other end of a telephone, but also a provocation and invitation for a greater discussion about the links between race and capitalism in the world today.
- Lean on Pete
Unfairly forgotten about since its release back in the spring, this latest film from 45 Years and Weekend director Andrew Haigh is one of the most complicated and emotional looks at growing up poor, alone, and abused in America. Anchored by exceptional work from Charlie Plummer as a virtually homeless teenager who finds an unlikely friend in a racehorse that’s well past his prime, Haigh’s work concentrates itself in one place for the first half before becoming a road movie that branches out further and further as it goes along. It’s a tough sell, but I don’t think marketing this film solely as a “boy and his horse” picture helped matters any. Then again, if the marketing department were truthful about Lean on Pete, even fewer people would’ve seen it. That’s a shame, and this one demands an immediate reassessment. It was one of the most emotional times I had in a cinema all year. Films this resolutely sad are rarely this smart, bracing, and memorable. The ending of this one has been burned into my memory all year, not because it’s explosive or flashy, but because of everything that came before it.
- Free Solo
The most psychologically fascinating biopic and exceptionally filmed documentary of the year, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s look at daredevil rock climber Alex Honnold isn’t only a nail biting and suspenseful look at a free-soloist attempting their most dangerous ascent yet, but also a detailed portrait of what makes such a thrill seeker tick and succeed. Honnold is a fascinating person to follow around, and while it’s a miracle that he (spoiler alert, but not really since you can google it) survives to the end of the film, you’ll definitely understand what drives him; even if you’ll probably never want to do it yourself.
The cinematic equivalent of a black metal album, Panos Cosmatos’ dirge-like, trippy cult and revenge thriller has one of the most clearly defined aesthetics of the year. While most people herald the film’s second half – where a drug and anger fuelled Nicolas Cage goes off the chain and starts slaughtering the hippie scum that killed his wife – as a visceral and uniquely entertaining blast of gore and neon lighting, the first half of the film told from Andrea Riseborough’s titular character is no less engaging and cheeky. Sure, the whole thing looks like it was edited in a room tinted by blacklights, but no one else has dared to attempt a thriller this rigorous and ambitious in years.
- The Wild Pear Tree
Breaking somewhat from the austerity of his more recent features, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s surprisingly dialogue and character driven latest looks at the crumbling bridge between different generations of adults. Told from the perspective of a young, but increasingly frustrated and entitled writer who frets about the stagnancy of his friends, family, and community leaders, this might be the first film in Ceylan’s career that’s less about the oppressive looking scenery and more about the people forced to look at it. Clocking in at over three hours, it’s a lot to take in, but it moves faster and more purposefully than any of Ceylan’s previous films. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll mention that I’ve never been all that taken with Ceylan’s particular style of slow cinema in the past, so I guess it says something that I absolutely adore his latest.
- The Sisters Brothers
Another filmmaker that I never particularly cared all that much for who showed a renewed creative vigor with a film marking a major change of pace was French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, whose adaptation of Canadian novelist Thomas Bidegain’s offbeat western about a pair of bounty hunting siblings (played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly) tracking down a gold prospector (Riz Ahmed) and a turncoat government snitch (Jake Gyllenhaal) was an unexpectedly welcome surprise. Audiard is more known for his employment of boldfaced emotional manipulation and not so much for his dry, deadpan sense of humour. Somehow, Audiard proves to be the perfect person for the job, giving the prolific Reilly his best performance of the year opposite an equally great Phoenix, as the less reliable younger brother. (I also think this is Phoenix’s best performance of the year, and if you’re wondering where critical darling You Were Never Really Here is on this list, you can stop looking. I think I’m the only critic alive who didn’t feel a single thing while watching it.)
- Skate Kitchen
Crystal Moselle’s NYC coming of age story told from the perspective of an all female young adult skateboard crew (comprised of real life members of the titular pack) proves that even if the older generation doesn’t understand those damned kids today, that they’re going to be just fine thankyouverymuch. It’s energizing and often purposefully raggedy aesthetic is a perfect distillation of modern DIY culture, faking it till you make it, and identity politics. It’s almost enough to make me feel young again.
- Cold War
Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s equally cheeky and tragic black and white period romance is the rare example of an intimate character study where the unseen and often unexplained actions happening within the margins of their lives carries an impressive amount of weight and pathos. It’s restrained and even somewhat claustrophobic in terms of its framing, but Pawlikowski asks the viewer rather bluntly is if they really want to see what’s happening just outside the frame and outside of the characters already less than fruitful and successful lives. What’s outside the frame could hold hope or further repression. That unending uncertainty and intelligence is what makes this film so powerful. (Opening in Canada starting in January)
I’m actually somewhat glad that journalist, cinephile, writer, and director Sandi Tan’s 1992 Singapore set indie road picture never got finished or released. If it did, we wouldn’t have one of the best documentaries of the year: an insightful look at what it meant to be a film buff at the dawn of a new age of cinema, how difficult it was to be taken seriously at the time as a young, Asian woman, and one of the most bizarre un-makings of a motion picture ever told. Shirkers, which was also the name of Tan’s failed project that almost cost her all her friendships, has one of the strangest, creepiest, and most undefinable backstories of any film this year, fictional or otherwise, and it’s delivered with a great deal of confidence and self-effacing hindsight and wisdom. An unlikely candidate for the best mystery of the year.
Another film that came and went without much fanfare or notice earlier in the spring was award winning playwright Cory Finley’s debut feature, a thriller and deadpan comedy in the vein of Heathers or Jawbreaker about a pair of affluent Connecticut teenagers – one seemingly well adjusted (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the other quiet, withdrawn, and morbid (Olivia Cooke) – forging a friendship and scheming of potentially deadly ways to do away with all the problems in their lives was a masterful takedown of class and entitlement. It also has the final performance of Anton Yelchin, as a skittish, put upon low level criminal the girls demand a favour from, and it’s one of his best. The studio didn’t seem to know what they had on their hands with this one, but it’s a devilishly good time that earns the right to revel in its own bad behaviour.
- Private Life
For her first film in eleven years, writer-director Tamara Jenkins weaves a delicate and uncomfortably intimate and detailed look at a couple’s likely final attempts to conceive a child of their own. As Rachel and Richard, Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti reaffirm their status as two of the most reliable working performers to date, only this time Jenkins gives them both roles that make perfect use of her actors’ deep skill sets. Whether you have multiple children or you hate kids so much that you refuse to even babysit for a few minutes, the power, pain, and humour at the heart of Jenkins’ work is undeniable.
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Fred Rogers was a much more fascinating and influential man than his square, squeaky clean reputation might suggest. Yes, he really was as kind, pious, and well mannered as his seminal, long running PBS kiddie show suggested, and no one really had any “dirt” on Mr. Rogers, but veteran documentarian Morgan Neville’s biography of the man looks intently on the nice things we wouldn’t have without him. A portrait of a well, but soft spoken man who never sold out his principles and used the platform he was given for good, Neville’s latest is exactly the kind of soothing and mindful film this year needed. It’s a reminder that while we might never have a person as pure of heart as Fred Rogers ever again, that we could learn a lot from the lessons and legacy he left behind.
- The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliciously catty and decadent look at two women vying for the eyes and ears of Queen Anne boasts one of the most razor sharp comedic scripts of the year and three leading performances so good that it’s almost impossible to pick… well, a favourite. A pitch-perfect mix of sex and politics, I think my only hesitation with ranking The Favourite higher comes from wondering if someone other than Lanthimos (and more specifically, a woman or someone with a sharper visual sensibility) could’ve made something even greater out of this. There’s something holding the film back, but it’s certainly not the script or the performances, which are among the year’s very best.
- Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A film so steeped in early 90s New York literary culture that one can practically smell the decomposing paperback pages and cat piss, Marielle Heller’s depiction of the forgery crimes of former biographer Lee Israel has a better sense of place and purpose than any other biopic this year. It’s a story and a person that could only exist at a very specific point in time, and Heller knocks that encapsulation out of the park. It’s further helped by Melissa McCarthy delivering another gleefully foul mouthed performance, but this time as a hard drinking, severely depressed, and downtrodden soul, and string supporting work from the always capable Richard E. Grant.
- Birds of Passage
Colombia’s selection for this year’s Oscars is a multi-layered, sprawling indigenous crime epic that depicts one family’s rise from modest roots to becoming a ruthless, well connected drug cartel. This latest collaboration between Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent) unfolds at such a measured pace that it’s hard to fully register on a single viewing how quickly the lives of these family members and their tribe have escalated. Films about the dark side of the drug trade are a dime a dozen these days, but Birds of Passage is the first movie in a long time on the subject that gives viewers something fresh, new, representational, and astoundingly riveting. (Opening in Canada starting this February)
Ari Aster’s debut feature about a family dealing with sins of the past and a potential case of demonic possession was the biggest breakout horror movie of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. Intricately calibrated for maximum dread and discomfort and unafraid to take big chances with the material before the story has even been fully established, Aster’s film is the kind of exercise in modern terror that genre buffs generally love, but a vocal minority will hate with every fibre of their being. One thing everyone can agree on, however, is that Hereditary is nothing short of unforgettable in its ability to get under the skin of the viewer.
- Madeline’s Madeline
Josephine Decker’s best, strangest, and most overwhelmingly emotional work to date, Madeline’s Madeline can be held up as proof that works dangling very close to the line between the conventional and the avant garde can resonante on more than just an intellectual or aesthetic level. Helena Howard delivers the most impressionable debut from a performer this year as a young woman drifting apart from her mother (a never been better Miranda July), growing closer to her acting coach (Molly Parker), and increasingly losing herself in the leading role of a show based around her life. Although it’s not a terrifying film to behold, tonally this is what Luca Guadagnino was trying and failing miserably to say with the first two thirds of his Suspiria remake. This is a great example of how to make a sometimes inscrutable and difficult worth the viewer’s time and effort. Expect this one to be held up by future generations as one of the best efforts of the new American independent cinema movement, and rightfully so.
- Hearts Beat Loud
The most slept-on crowd pleaser of the year is Brett Haley’s gentle, but realistic tale of a floundering, widower record shop owner (played by the consistently undervalued Nick Offerman) trying to start a band with his university bound daughter (Kiersey Clemons, in a performance that should hopefully take her to the next level of her career with ease). It’s sounds corny and nice, and, yeah, it is, but it’s also one of the most detailed and well performed father-daughter pairings in years. Also, it has some of the best songs of the year, and it’s a crime that the film’s soundtrack has been steamrolled over the past several months by a slew of flashier musicals, many of which couldn’t produce a single memorable track (I am looking directly at you, Mary Poppins Returns). Best of all, it stays true to the characters and never cops out for the sake of the easiest resolutions to problems possible. Haley’s latest and best is a crowd pleaser precisely because it keeps things real.
- The Other Side of the Wind
It’s a miracle that this film even exists at all, but Orson Welles’ “final” posthumous film (which was completed by a variety of big name collaborators after the footage was rescued from legal limbo in a French vault) is another typically excellent dramatic and satirical effort from one of the best auteurs to ever live. Built around the fall of a Hollywood titan (played with gruff aplomb by John Huston) and his relationship to a younger, more successful filmmaker on the the rise (an equally great Peter Bogdanovich, clearly drawing heavily on his relationship to the man behind the camera), The Other Side of the Wind feels like a final exorcism of demons for Welles. It can be debated that The Other Side of the Wind would’ve looked and moved much differently had Welles been able to complete the picture before his death, but it can’t be debated that the work now stands as one of the most ambitious and fruitful cinematic rescue operations in history.
Christian Petzold’s uniquely unplaceable refugee drama Transit takes the current migrant crisis and distressing rise of Alt-Right nationalism to its sadly reasoned end game. Although this tale of a man attempting to escape from an occupied France never defines its time period (despite being based on a novel set during World War II), Transit feels frighteningly modern and appropriately cautionary and claustrophobic. The somewhat darkly comedic final scenes don’t land as well as they probably should, but as a pointed and poignant “what if” scenario, it works exceptionally well.
- First Man
Damien Chazelle’s visually stunning and thoughtfully told look at the life of Apollo pilot, engineer, and astronaut Neil Armstrong largely keeps the politics of the race to the moon and the media circus surrounding it at bay in favour for a humane, nuts and bolts approach to iconography. While it will most likely be remembered for its flashier second half where the media attention placed on the Apollo program has exploded and the previously stoic Armstrong (played nicely by Ryan Gosling, the perfect choice for a thoughtful stoic) starts to let his composure slip, the movie as a whole is both loving and critical towards the NASA enterprise. This one is a lot more textured and rich than both its defenders and critics give it credit for.
- Minding the Gap
The highest ranking documentary on this list, Bing Liu’s superlative labour of love Minding the Gap is a complex and monumental work of nonfiction filmmaking. Shot over the course of twelve years by someone who initially just wanted to capture the everyday lives of his skateboarding friends, Liu’s personal project evolved and sprouted fascinating new threads about growing up impoverished, striving to live one’s best life, and how people can gradually and unconsciously either turn into their parents or learn from the mistakes of their guardians as they grow older. It’s an unparalleled look into learned behaviours and shared, formative experiences, and Liu has created something with the power to change lives and open eyes about growing up on the poverty line in America.
- Paddington 2/Christopher Robin
One of these selections is probably expected, albeit somewhat lower on the list than some readers who know me well enough were anticipating. The other is something they probably didn’t expect to see turning up at all on here, but that made me feel the same amount of warmth. While I might be in the minority who thinks that Paddington 2 isn’t quite as excellent as its predecessor (which I named as the best film of the year several years back), it’s still one of the most delightfully empathetic, heartfelt, and intricately designed comedies of the year. At the same time, I like to think of Paddington 2 in the same way that I see this year’s other “beloved CGI bear in the UK teaches adults life lessons” movie, Christopher Robin. Paddington 2 has been appropriately praised by critics, but Christopher Robin and its message about creating a proper work-life balance might be more timely. At any rate, they’ll both hit viewers squarely in the feels, and I appreciate them both equally.
- A Star is Born
It turns out that Bradley Cooper is one hell of a director. I’m not that surprised, but I am shocked that he was able to make such a gorgeous looking and unabashedly melodramatic throwback from material that’s caused stumbles and failures from more seasoned filmmakers who dared to attempt it. Lady Gaga is great as the singer-songwriter on the rise, but the film might lean a bit too heavily into the psychology of Cooper’s washed-up and perpetually wasted country star. Even then, this film stands as one of the best directed efforts of the year. Everyone knows this story by now, but it’s never been delivered this impactfully.
- Eighth Grade
A film so unflinchingly awkward and painfully realistic that I’m actually terrified of ever watching it again, Eighth Grade is a stroke of genius that literally no one could’ve predicted first time director and stand-up comedian Bo Burnham had in him. A rough, but intelligent take on coming of age tropes, Burnham’s material is vividly researched and realized, but it’s brought even further by a remarkable leading performance from Elsie Fisher as a girl stuck in the emotional minefield grade school and high school. If Eighth Grade doesn’t ring true for you – no matter your sexual identity or upbringing – you were either home schooled or have lost all of your long term memory. I can still feel the cringing I felt watching this, and I mean that as a full on compliment.
- Black Panther/Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
I promise that this will be the last dual entry on this list, but another pairing of films that I loved equally for changing how we think about comic book films is Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. While not everyone can be T’Challa from Black Panther (but everyone has the potential to be the villainous Erik Killmonger), it was refreshing to see such a crowd pleaser delivered from a predominantly black perspective, with even better roles for the female cast members than many of their male counterparts were given. There’s an inclusiveness to Black Panther that’s refreshing, unique, and more exciting to behold than the majority of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By that same token, the dazzlingly animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – which I hope spawns a franchise of its own – proves that anyone can be Spider-Man as long as they desire to do good things and never give into the bad feelings that have shaped their identities. Both are invaluable pieces of mainstream pop culture that have come along at the perfect time and delivered spectacularly on their potential.
- Support the Girls
Keenly observant writer-director Andrew Bujalski crafts one of the best and most realistic “day in the life” portraits with his look at an increasingly stressed out floor manager at a T&A themed roadhouse sports bar who’s going through one of the most difficult and emotionally trying days of her personal and professional life. There’s no cut and dry plot to speak of, but a lot happens in Support the Girls. It’s escalated along the way in realistic fashion, and is knocked into the stratosphere by Regina Hall’s leading performance as the put upon manager. It’s not only the best performance of Hall’s career, but the absolute best leading performance in any motion picture this year. No one can top her.
The second film on this list from Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda, this story of a loving family of petty thieves who welcome an endangered toddler into their lives as if she were one of their own is an evolutionary step forward for the filmmaker. Once again examining how laws meant to maintain civility neglect any sort of moral nuance or reasonable judgment, Koreeda offers up a typically strong cultural critique alongside his elegantly written characters. While many have praised Koreeda’s work for years, I think he’s actually getting better with age.
The film on this list that benefits the most from second, third, and fourth viewings, Lee Chang-dong’s Korean thriller is as close as filmmakers often come to realistically creating the feeling of a slowly building nightmare. A strange love triangle between a struggling young man from a rural community, a seemingly average millenial girl from the big city, and a swaggering, potentially untrustworthy outsider, Burning reveals more and more about its stylistic choices and subtle narrative signposts upon each viewing. After watching it for the first time, I thought Burning was exceptional. After a second viewing, I was pleasantly confounded by things I hadn’t noticed before. By the third time I watched it, I was convinced I had seen a masterpiece. If I watch it a fourth time, it’s place on this list could very well go higher.
- First Reformed
Paul Schrader is a filmmaker that I hate to love. On a personal level, I can’t stand the guy. His “old man yelling at clouds” attitude rankles me to no end (especially when one considers that he’s made just as many duds as he has successes), and even his best and most cogent points about the dire state of filmmaking today sound like the rantings of a true asshole who can’t admit that he’s part of the same problems he spends most of his days bitching about. And yet, he’s responsible for creating some of the best and most underrated motion pictures of all time, with this stunning religious, political, and environmental allegory emerging as one of his finest, deepest, and most personal works. Led by the always exceptional Ethan Hawke in one of his finest performances, Schrader’s latest isn’t a film about a religious crisis of faith, but of a full on moral reckoning that will befall characters on all sides of his story. No one other than Schrader could’ve made this film, and no matter my feelings on him as a difficult and obstinate crank, this is writing and direction at the highest possible level.
- The Rider
The year’s best blend of fiction and reality comes in the form of Chloé Zhao’s latest meditation on American life; the tale of a real life plains cowboy and rodeo rider (portrayed by non-actor Brady Jandreau, playing out a story similar to his own life) who struggles to overcome what was almost a life ending brain injury. It doesn’t sound like much to go on, but Zhao’s socially, dramatically, and aesthetically rich approach to Jandreau’s way of life is an unfiltered and poignant critique of Americana that evokes genuine comparison to the likes of Malick and Minervini alike. This a deceptively simple motion picture with a lot to say about the modern world. The fact that Zhao is able to accomplish such depth from such a relatively desolate location speaks volumes to her talents as a filmmaker.
Not just one of the more entertaining, playful, and crowd pleasing efforts in the career of Spike Lee, but also one of his most impassioned and revolutionary works, this retelling of the unlikely, but true story of a black cop and a Jewish coworker inexplicably infiltrating the biggest white supremacist group in America during the 1970s balances exceptional storytelling with a strong, reasoned political stance. It’s a thriller and a comedy, to be certain, but more importantly it deftly illustrates that when it comes to racial equality, more things stay the same than ultimately change. It might be Lee’s most effective, impassioned, and rousing cinematic lecture to date.
- Leave No Trace
Winter’s Bone writer-director Debra Granik outdoes herself by leaps and bounds with this heart-wrenching look at a traumatized military veteran and single parent (Ben Foster, in the year’s most unjustly uncelebrated performance) trying to live life off the grid with his increasingly skeptical, curious, and worried teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie, in the biggest star-making turn of the year) in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Many films were made this year about marginalized peoples who fall through society’s cracks for a variety of reasons, but none were as subtly detailed or as remarkably character driven as Granik’s work here. I sincerely hope it’s not another eight years before we get another film from her.
One of the best and most politically loaded heist films ever made, Steve McQueen breaks away from his normally austere and elegantly designed dramas for a full on ensemble thriller that’s better than the 80s BBC miniseries that inspired it. A look at four women struggling to get out of debts left behind by their deceased, thieving husbands, Widows boasts the overall best cast of the year, a remarkably technical sensibility that suggests McQueen could direct bigger Hollywood blockbusters with ease if he wanted to, and a sharp script (co-written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn) that keeps its social messages, complicated relationships, sudden swerves, and richly drawn characters in perfect balance. This is the best piece of mainstream filmmaking this year without a single weak link in sight, and its relative underperformance at the box office is proof that sometimes we can’t have nice things.
Somehow with Roma, a look at an upper middle class Mexican family in the 1970s told from the perspective of their indigenous and pregnant housekeeper, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has created the closest cinematic experience to virtual reality yet. Drifting in and out of the lives of his characters as if there viewer were a ghost holding a camera, Roma takes what could’ve been a bland and rudimentary family drama, and creates a stunning, technically marvellous, immersive experience through the careful implementation of patience, empathy, and artistry. It’s on Netflix now, but if you’re lucky enough to be close to a theatre that’s showing it, do that instead. You will not be disappointed.
- If Beale Street Could Talk
Somehow besting the work that he did on Moonlight and performing the seemingly impossible task of bringing the work of author James Baldwin to the screen with the writer’s unique voice intact, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is the best feat of filmmaking, performance, cinematography, production design, and writing this year. A perfect film in every respect, If Beale Street Could Talk contains multitudes of meaning in every frame, performance, line of dialogue, lighting choice, and bit of set decoration. This tale of a young woman and her family struggling through the incarceration of a loved on in 1970s Harlem is as great a movies get. Baldwin’s story could hold the same resonance if Jenkins set it in modern times or anywhere in the world (which was really the point of the novel in the first place), but the writer-director’s staggering attention to social, political, emotional, and tactile details is unparalleled in cinema this year. It’s one of the best films of all time, let alone one of the best in 2018.