To say that 2018 was a hard year would be an absurd understatement, but as always, the movies were here to guide us. The best films of the year were often insightful, politically charged, and humane works of art that brought difficult stories to life in soul-nourishing ways. There were also some great horror movies, hilariously silly comedies, and a couple of superhero movies that are bound to go down in history as some of the best examples of the genre.
As always, narrowing the list of the best movies of the year is a pointless exercise, so I arbitrarily cut my list off at twenty, and I compensated listed a ton of runners up. I am nothing if not long-winded.
It's also worth nothing that there are a handful of critically acclaimed motion pictures that I still haven't seen, but that I plan to get to at some point in the future, including "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," "The Rider," "Shoplifters" and "Burning." So if you have a favorite film that is nowhere to be seen below, consider the possibility that I haven't seen it yet, and feel free to leave me a comment or tweet at me (@WilliamBibbiani) to make sure I know about it.
Without any further ado, these are my picks for the best movies of 2018!
20. TULLY (dir. Jason Reitman)
“Charlize Theron gives a brilliant performance” is hardly a new sentiment, but she might have outdone herself with “Tully.” Theron plays a frayed mother of children with overwhelming needs, and with a new baby in the house she’s on the verge of a breakdown. That’s when Tully arrives, played by Mackenzie Davis, and she does the chores, feeds the baby at night, and gives emotional support to a woman who has absolutely none.
If it sounds like a familiar melodrama about a magical nanny, keep watching: Diablo Cody’s smart and incisive screenplay has some tricks up its sleeve, and a few fingers to point in important directions by the time the credits roll.
19. DAMSEL (dirs. David Zellner & Nathan Zellner)
The revisionist western is so old now that it actually needs revising, and “Damsel” is just the western to do it. Robert Pattinson stars as a hokey, hunky cowboy on a mission to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend, and he brings a priest along for the ride, so he can marry them just as soon as the damsel has been saved.
But just when you think you know where this kooky Coen Brothers-esque comedy is going, it wraps dynamite around the whole western tradition, and starts fiddling with the fuse. Pattinson is brilliantly funny and subversive but the film belongs to Mia Wasikowska, whose unbridled aggravation is infectious (in a good way).
18. GAME NIGHT (dirs. John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein)
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein directed the “Vacation” reboot, and I hated the “Vacation” reboot, so trust me when I say this: “Game Night” is a potential comedy classic. It’s the story of a regularly scheduled game night that goes horribly wrong when one of the players gets violently kidnapped, and everyone else thinks it’s part of an elaborate live-action role-playing game.
It takes them a while to figure it out, and along the way they fall deeper and deeper into a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller full of double-crosses and suspense. Daley and Goldstein’s sharp, exquisitely photographed film treats every absurd comic set piece like a deleted scene from David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” and that only makes the absurd jokes funnier.
17. MIRAI (dir. Mamoru Hosoda)
Most coming of age stories focus on the time when adolescence fades into adulthood, but not “Mirai.” Mamoru Hosoda’s latest fantastical family drama tells the story of a very small child who learns, with a little help the future incarnation of his baby sister, that he’s not the center of the universe.
It’s a film that explores the basic concept of empathy in all of its complicated splendor, gorgeously capturing the details of a simple, family life and how those small moments are interconnected with our past, our present and our future… and the pasts, presents and futures of everyone we know. Even our dogs. You’ll cry.
16. THE HATE U GIVE (dir. George Tillman, Jr.)
|20th Century Fox|
While we’re on the subject of coming of age stories, “The Hate U Give” should probably be required viewing for every adolescent from now on. This noble, spectacularly acted adaptation of Angie Thomas’s novel stars Amandla Stenberg as Starr, a teenager who lives in a low-income black neighborhood but goes to an upper crust white private school.
Starr witnesses a police shooting and immediately finds herself torn between her two lives, and her emotional pain gradually evolves into outrage at a world that lets these tragedies happen. Starr comes to understand exactly what kind of world she really lives in, and how far she’s willing to go to change it. And the audience is challenged to follow suit.
15. LET THE CORPSES TAN (dirs. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)
Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have been directing Eurosleaze masterpieces for their whole cinematic careers, but until “Let the Corpses Tan” they relegated themselves to giallo-inspired erotic thrillers. With their new film they unleash hell in the ultraviolent pulp crime genre, in a tale about brutal thieves hiding out at the retreat of a reclusive, eccentric artist named Luce (Elina Lowensohn). When the cops come, a shootout begins, and it spirals so completely out of control that it demand enormous cinematographic and editing trickery just to keep track of it all.
It’s slick, it’s gorgeously photographed, and by the time Luce starts manipulating the murder spree like it’s just another one of her art projects, we see “Let the Corpses Tan” for what it really is: the story of a woman taking charge of male violence, and having the time of her life as she watches them destroy each other.
14. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (dirs. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers have an obsessive-compulsive need to make a film in every movie genre, and this time they’ve set their sights on anthology films. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a series of weird western tales - some funny, some tragic (most both) - in which the eccentric chaos of life is unexpectedly reversed by cruel, deadly happenstance.
Every installment is exceptional, especially the title segment about an ultraviolent singing cowboy, but all of them embody the spirit of the Coen Brothers, assuring us that we are nothing more than the pathetic playthings of fate, and that fate - played here by the Coen Brothers, writing the script and directing the film - has a cruel sense of humor.
13. HEREDITARY (dir. Ari Aster)
The scariest horror movies, as near as I can tell, are the ones that get under your skin. And then get under your skin by connecting to you on a visceral level. Ari Aster’s astounding “Hereditary” tells the story of a family that may be haunted by supernatural evil, but whether it is or isn’t, they’re also haunted by a legacy of severe mental illness. The tragedy that strikes the Graham family sends them spiraling into resentment and Aster treats a dinner table with pent-up rage fueling the conversation like the scariest scene in the movie… because it is.
"Hereditary" overplays its hand a little by the end but Alex Wolff is dynamite as the teenager wrestling with his mother’s inflamed hatred, and Toni Collette gives an all-time brilliant performance as the woman who tried to protect her family from this misery and can’t help falling into it anyway.
12. STAN & OLLIE (dir. Jon S. Baird)
|Sony Pictures Classics|
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the comedy duo that set the world aflame and then, like many successful performers, fizzled out after making questionable decisions. Jon S. Baird’s lovely biopic finds Laurel and Hardy towards the end of their careers, touring Europe with a live comedy show, and reliving their famous comedy routines as a way of making polite conversation with people.
The depth of their relationship is lovingly, tragically explored, and Coogan and Reilly give sublime performances as the title characters. And their perfectly matched by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as their Mrs. Laurel and Mrs. Hardy, who are so perfectly mismatched that they could have starred in their own hit comedies.
11. SEARCHING (dir. Aneesh Chaganty)
The concept of telling an entire movie from the perspective of a computer screen has been done before, in films like “Unfriended” and “Open Windows,” but Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” finally made it work. John Cho stars as a single father whose teenager daughter goes missing, so he searches her computer, her social media profile and her contacts for clues to her disappearance. Along the way he discovers, like many parents before him, that he never knew his daughter at all.
Cho carries practically the entire film solo, with the camera right in his face, as he deteriorates from an emotionally distant father to a paranoid wreck, and Chaganty finds new and clever ways to make the screen you’re staring at right now drive the action. “Searching” is the best Hitchcockian film in recent memory.
10. EIGHTH GRADE (dir. Bo Burnham)
Every generation is different, and yet childhood always seems the same. The same growing pains, the same anxieties, the same social awkwardness, the same bullies at school. Bo Burnham’s inspiringly authentic “Eighth Grade” is a vivid portrait of adolescence in the contemporary landscape, but anyone of any age should be able to empathize with Elsie Fisher’s hesitant first steps into adulthood, and the range of awkward emotions come part and parcel with that journey.
9. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (dir. Orson Welles)
The novelty value of “The Other Side of the Wind” cannot be overstated. It’s a brand new motion picture, directed by Orson Welles, starring John Huston, which has been languishing in post-production hell since the 1970s. The very existence of this film would warrant an honorable mention. But also, it’s a fantastic film.
"The Other Side of the Wind" proves to be a violent symphony of creative frustration, about a filmmaker (played by Huston, clearly resonating with Welles) who struggles to tell stories in a system full of obtuse financiers, fawning and underhanded hangers on, and critics who refuse to just let art be art. It’s angry and sometimes childish about it, but it earns the outbursts, and the movie-within-the-movie features some of the most sumptuous, sensual cinematography around.
8. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (dir. Boots Riley)
Speaking of angry, Boots Riley’s directorial debut “Sorry to Bother You” is probably the most pissed off movie of the year. And again, with good cause. This eclectic act of cinematic rebellion tells the story of a telemarketer, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who becomes suddenly, enormously successful by using a “white voice” (provided by David Cross).
It’s a cynical but astute comedy about selling out in every possible way, but then… it transforms into something else entirely, and I wouldn’t spoil it for the world. Riley makes some extremely experimental decisions with his narrative structure, resulting in a movie that’s hard to categorize, and sometimes a little messy, but always bold.
7. A SIMPLE FAVOR (dir. Paul Feig)
Smart, hilarious, insidious, impeccable. Paul Feig’s “A Simple Favor” is the ultimate Lifetime Movie thriller, with a sterling cast and a sharp screenplay, which uses domestic jealousy as a springboard for twisted criminal conspiracies and subversive introspection. Anna Kendrick plays a seemingly perfect single mom who befriends a sexy, affluent woman with a seemingly perfect life, played by Blake Lively. When Lively asks for Kendrick to watch her kids, and then disappears off the face of the map, Kendrick starts usurping her idol’s life and exploring the dark underbelly of suburban fantasy.
Lively and Kendrick are award worthy, the costumes are some of the finest you’ll ever see, and the script is unpredictable and witty. “Are you trying to 'Diabolique' me?” is easily my favorite line of dialogue this year.
6. I AM NOT A WITCH (dir. Rungano Nyoni)
Rungano Nyoni's devastating film tells the story of a very young girl who is accused of being a witch, and sent to a camp where “witches” are tethered with long spools of cloth, and told that if they escape they’ll turn into a goat. It’s a horrifying allegory for institutionalized systems of oppression, but also a darkly humorous farce about our cultural willingness to accept and perpetuate the most ridiculous lies, just because it’s in our own individual interests.
If Nyoni’s film wasn’t so painful it would be Pythonesque, and that unique and fascinating tone announces her as one of the most exciting filmmakers to emerge on the scene.
5. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Barry Jenkins’ latest, based on the novel by James Baldwin, is a beautiful film about a shocking incident. A young black couple, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), is ripped apart when he’s accused of raping a woman across town, when he was nowhere nearby. And now that he’s in prison, Tish discovers that she’s pregnant.
There’s a story here about trying to get Fonny out in time for the birth of his child, but what’s more important is watching the way these fascinating people respond to and adapt to systemic racism, and still live glowing lives full of hope and affection. Romantic, tragic and nourishing, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a wonder.
4. BLACK PANTHER (dir. Ryan Coogler)
We’ve been so busy deconstructing superhero movies that we sometimes forget why they work in the first place, and Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” reminds us. This epic tale, about an isolated, technologically advanced society in Africa, on the verge of revealing themselves to the world, is a visual marvel (no pun intended) of astoundingly realized afro-futurism, but more also an aspirational tale about serious moral and social issues.
Michael B. Jordan’s fantastic villain, Killmonger, is angry and dangerous, but his fury stems from real injustice: if a place like Wakanda exists, why did it do nothing for centuries while black people all over the world were enslaved and oppressed? "Black Panther" asks big questions, comes to reasonable answers, and all the while thoroughly entertains with exciting action sequences and a stellar supporting cast. “Black Panther” is the superhero movie we needed in 2018.
3. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (dirs. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)
2018 was also the year that superhero movies finally got as weird as superhero comics. The bizarre globetrotting of “Aquaman” was a hoot, the sprawling “Avengers: Infinity War” event was ambitious as hell, but “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” made it work best. It’s the origin story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), and that’s a fantastically emotional and satisfying story all by itself.
But it’s also a mega-crossover between alternate versions of Spider-Man, all of whom have rich characterizations and something to offer the story. The animation is striking and the storytelling skillfully adapts comic book storytelling techniques to the screen, creating a world in which anything can and does happen, and feels wholly natural. Even when Peter Porker shows up from an anthropomorphic animal universe. By the end, "Spider-Verse" creates a fascinating meta-narrative, justifying every superhero reboot and alternate reality, and successfully arguing that they're all of equal artistic value.
That's amazing. This is one of the great superhero movies.
That's amazing. This is one of the great superhero movies.
2. BLACKKKLANSMAN (dir. Spike Lee)
In the 1970s, Det. Ron Stallworth successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, even though he was black. Spike Lee’s exceptional “BlacKkKlansman” tells the story as a gripping crime drama but keeps this tale in a sweeping context, with Stallworth’s investigation highlighting the dangers of persistent white supremacist groups while also dismissing them as hopeless idiots, an attitude which ironically allowed them to grow in power.
It’s also a fascinating examination of the power of cinema, with Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) outlining the means by which popular culture brainwashes people into accepting ugly narratives about themselves, and a hate crime survivor played by Harry Belafonte revealing the grotesque, evil impact of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”
John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier and Topher Grace all give impressive performances, in a film that works perfectly on the surface but goes above and beyond underneath.
1. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (dir. Lynne Ramsey)
I don’t think any living filmmaker understands and captures depression the way Lynne Ramsey does. Between “You Were Never Really Here,” in particular, she demonstrates a canny ability to dramatize and visualize despair, nourished by guilt, and fertilized by objective observation. It’s terrifying because, from the sufferer’s personal experience, it seems justified. And it's horrifying.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a traumatized man in a miserable, but necessary job, rescuing kidnapped children. His own experiences with abuse and his constant proximity to horrible people and their victims has transformed him into a reclusive husk, always just seconds away from ending his own life, but he persists because he has a job to do, and it desperately needs doing.
Ramsey’s film tells the story about the latest little girl he’s rescuing, and the conspiracy and murders that follow his attempts, but she strips away all the pulpy artifice and leaves behind the violence and emotional aftermath. The world is a nightmare and Phoenix’s character responds accordingly, culminating in a final scene that’s so perfect, it may be one of my favorite movie endings.
Lots of movies in 2018 transported us to new worlds. “You Were Never Really Here” transported us into someone’s soul. It’s a haunting, harrowing, and unforgettable experience.
Honorable Mentions (in Alphabetical Order):
ANNIHILATION (dir. Alex Garland)
BLINDSPOTTING (dir. Carlos López Estrada)
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (dir. Jon M. Chu)
THE FAVOURITE (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
FIRST REFORMED (dir. Paul Schrader)
OCEAN’S EIGHT (dir. Gary Ross)
OVERLORD (dir. Julius Avery)
A QUIET PLACE (dir. John Krasinski)
UPGRADE (dir. Leigh Whannell)
VICE (dir. Adam McKay)
Additional Recommendations (in Alphabetical Order):
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (dir. Jon McPhail)
AQUAMAN (dir. James Wan)
AT ETERNITY’S GATE (dir. Julian Schnabel)
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (dirs. Joe & Anthony Russo)
BENJI (dir. Brandon Camp)
BLOCKERS (dir. Kay Cannon)
BUMBLEBEE (dir. Travis Knight)
BUMBLEBEE (dir. Travis Knight)
HALLOWEEN (dir. David Gordon Green)
INDIVISIBLE (dir. David G. Evans)
INSTANT FAMILY (dir. Sean Anders)
LEAVE NO TRACE (dir. Debra Granik)
LIFE OF THE PARTY (dir. Ben Falcone)
LU OVER THE WALL (dir. Masaaki Yuasa)
MANDY (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
MORTAL ENGINES (dir. Christian Rivers)
ON THE BASIS OF SEX (dir. Mimi Leder)
PADDINGTON 2 (dir. Paul King)
PUZZLE (dir. Marc Turteltaub)
RAMPAGE (dir. Brad Peyton)
THE RITUAL (dir. David Bruckner)
ROMA (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (dir. Jacques Audiard)
SKYSCRAPER (dir. Rawson Marshall Thurber)
A STAR IS BORN (dir. Bradley Cooper)
SUSPIRIA (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
TOMB RAIDER (dir. Roar Uthaug)
UNSANE (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
WIDOWS (dir. Steve McQueen)
Top Photos: Lionsgate / Amazon Studios / Marvel Studios