We continue our recap of the year in movies with a top 10 list, only a month late! Which, if you’re a longtime reader, is actually a few weeks earlier than usual (this list is usually posted mid/late February, right before the Oscars), so progress!? This marks the thirteenth year in a row that I’ve posted a top 10. A baker’s dozen! For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]
I usually try to figure out some sort of cohesive theme for the year in movies, and while this is something of a fool’s errand, it’s something I like attempting. This year didn’t inspire much in the way of new insights though. Yes, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu continue to make inroads into serious cinema, if not quite in my top 10. Still, the likes of Roma, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Suspiria, and Minding the Gap show that these services mean business, even if it takes some effort to sort through the throngs of new content to find the gems. The rise of these services as a serious concern was a theme I mentioned last year, as is the continued decline of traditional blockbusters. To be sure, there were plenty of conventional Hollywood movies that I enjoyed quite a bit this year, but few even made it into my honorable mentions.
To add a not exactly new theme to my list, I’ve noticed myself gravitating more and more towards sorta elevated genre exercises. Or maybe just plain genre. This is something that’s always been more prominent on my Top 10s than your typical critic’s list, but it seemed even more prevalent this year. Depending on where you draw the line, at least half of my top 10 would be considered genre, and even the other half isn’t your typical prestige drama. I’m not sure if this is due to a general increase in the quality of genre fare this year, or if I was just better at keeping up with it, perhaps thanks to services like Shudder. Whatever the case, it was a good year for genre flicks, and I’m here for that.
As of this writing, I’ve seen 86 movies that could be considered a 2018 release. While this represents an increase over the past few years and is certainly significantly higher than your average moviegoer, it’s still a much smaller number than your typical critic, so I’m not that great after all. Standard disclaimers apply, and it’s especially worth noting that due to regional release strategies, some of these would be considered a 2017 movie, but not available until 2018. In at least one case, there’s no official US release yet, which is somewhat disheartening. Anyway, rather than continuing to caveat the hell out of the list, let’s just get down to business:
Top 10 Movies of 2018
* In roughly reverse order
Bad Times at the El Royale – Drew Goddard’s latest is a fascinating, mysterious little microcosm set in a border-line straddling hotel with a fine ensemble of characters, each with something to hide. It’s a self-reflective deconstruction of crime stories, but a lot more entertaining than that would imply, much like Goddard’s previous effort, Cabin in the Woods. Goddard has a keen eye and drew (pun intended!) good performances out of a great ensemble consisting of both veteran actors and fresh faces, all in service of a twisty, engaging story.
The Endless – Filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson have carved out a strange corner of genre filmmaking, a sort of supernatural drama that draws on horror and science fiction without succumbing completely to genre trappings. Their early films displayed these qualities in varying degrees, but The Endless is far more assured and seamless. It’s a beautiful film, both visually and thematically.
Upgrade – SF tale of an AI implant gone rogue, this is schlocky and gory and a whole boatload of fun. Writer/Director Leigh Whannell has grown considerably as a filmmaker, and this is slicker than you might think at first glance. As usual, the genre trappings make the more serious thematic ideas go down easy.
The Night Comes for Us – This Indonesian flick is basically just two hours of nonstop action and gruesome carnage. The plot is mostly a functional way of progressing our protagonists from one gloriously choreographed fight to the next, but the action quotient here is absurdly high. If you saw the Raid movies and thought they could use some more blood and gore, then this movie is for you. And me, apparently.
Paddington 2 – I slept on the first Paddington movie back in 2014, but it turned out to be a delightful film, and this year’s sequel is one of the few films that could rival its predecessor.
In a 2018 filled with outrage and misery, a movie like this, which is just radically nice, becomes a welcome, soothing antidote to the vitriol and chaos going on around us. It’s just so nice and fun and pleasant and whimsical that I couldn’t not put it on this list.
Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson’s style of weaponized quirk doesn’t always work for me, but it worked well in this tale of Japanese dogs banished to an island and the boy who travels there seeking his beloved pet. Meticulous, dense, and surprisingly funny, there’s also a lot to chew on here (another intended pun!)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – In the midst of rumored superhero fatigue (something I’ve never particularly understood) comes this breath of fresh air. It reinvents the character (6 times, even), but it does so in new and interesting ways. A meditation and deconstruction of origin stories that nevertheless stands out as an exceptional origin story of its own.
Plus, it provides a whole new take on what had become a pretty stale animation landscape, at least from a visual standpoint, seamlessly incorporating the graphical conventions of comic books onto the screen in a new and exciting way.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor – Along with Paddington 2, this stands out as another radically nice movie of the year. Like many people my age, Mr. Rogers was a mainstay of my childhood, such that this documentary covering his life and work hit home in unexpected ways. Let’s just say that it got dusty in the theater at times.
Searching – The whole gimmick of a film comprised entirely of a computer’s desktop screen is deployed here in a way that feels much less like a gimmick and much more like a reflection of the times in which we live. The film starts with an Up-like montage, then descends into full-blown mystery phase, as a young girl goes missing and her father must piece together the digital clues to find her. The story maybe strains the medium, especially towards the end, but I was mostly just blown away by the movie.
The Death of Stalin – Armando Iannucci’s grim takedown of Soviet Russia under Stalin is bleakly funny and yet mostly accurate and quite relevant to our tumultuous moment in history. All of the performances are spot on, the comedic timing is perfect, and the use of various accents inspired. It might seem hard to laugh when so much of the humor is derived from paranoia and murder, but that’s just because totalitarianism is a joke. This is a fine illustration of how gallows humor exists, and it’s my favorite thing I’ve seen from Iannucci.
One Cut of the Dead – This tiny Japanese film starts as a sorta rote zombie tale elevated by the single take camerawork, but it quickly pivots to become so much more. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but this was the most delightful discovery of the year, a love letter to independent filmmaking spirit and improvised problem solving. Due to a weird Amazon leak, the US release has been jeopardized, but I strongly encourage everyone to seek this out once it becomes available. Its fantastic.
More Info: [IMDB]
* In alphabetical order
Bodied – Joseph Kahn’s paean to battle rap is bound to infuriate pretty much everyone who watches it, which is kinda the point. Punctuated by the same frenetic energy that drove Kahn’s previous manic masterpiece, Detention, this is a film that will challenge you, but it’s worth examining our impulse towards being offended, even if we are completely justified in our offence. Very nearly made the top 10.
Free Solo – This documentary chronicling a free solo mountain climber, that is, a man who climbs a mountain without any ropes or safety harnesses, is quite eye opening. Filled with procedural process junkie stuff that I absolutely love, it also covers the subject’s love life and friendships, which is a bit more difficult since the man is a tremendous asshole.
The filmmakers just let this all play out, and by necessity are not invisible. I spent most of the running time with sweaty palms and what I suspect was a low-grade but sustained panic attack. This was a pretty unique experience that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the theater, for what its worth. Again, on another day, this could easily have made the top 10.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s collaboration has been bearing fruit for going on a decade now, but if this movie is any indication, they’re still finding ways to keep it fresh and exciting. Great action set pieces with some standard twisty tropes. Among the most entertaining and fun experiences in the theater that I’ve had all year, and again, very nearly punching its way into the top ten.
Three Identical Strangers – Goofy coincidence after goofy coincidence piles up in this documentary about triplets separated at birth who find each other later in life. The coincidences are eventually revealed to be not a coincidence at all, and the journey from coincidence to serious duplicity is a fascinating one. This is one of a bunch of great documentaries this year that vied for a top 10 slot, and very nearly made it.
The Witch in the Window – Short, small-scale psychological horror that nevertheless packs a punch. Rainy Sunday afternoon comfort food for low-key horror fans, this was another strong contender, and it’s obscure enough that I don’t want to spoil anything. It’s basically a haunted house story, but it’s got more heft behind it than most of its ilk.
Shirkers – Another great documentary about a young Singaporean girl’s attempt to make an avante garde masterpiece when she was younger, only to have the director abscond with all the footage. Decades later, the footage was sort of recovered, but it’s the story behind it all that really fascinates.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – The Coen Brothers always warrant consideration, and this bleak set of Western vignettes is memorable and sometimes quite entertaining, if a bit too nihilistic for my tastes. Like all anthology films, some of the segments are better than the others, leading to a somewhat uneven experience, but I think they all have their merits, and some are downright sublime.
First Reformed – What at first glance seems like a simple, sparing story, eventually reveals multitudes. I suspect my reading of the story is somewhat unconventional; I see it as a damning portrayal of the dangers of despair (in the film, it’s despair induced by environmental concern, but it could easily be transferred elsewhere). Writer/director Paul Schrader has crafted an excellent acting showcase for Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and more, and his visual motifs emphasize the themes well.
Black Panther – Marvel continues to mine obscure back catalog heroes for gold, and in this latest example, they also manage to establish an effective, sympathetic but still ruthless villain, something the MCU has generally struggled with. The setting is interesting, but some of the action sequences come off as rote, and I don’t know, the monarchy system portrayed here seems awfully fragile, but now I’m nitpicking. It’s a really fun and effective movie that carves out a distinct identity in the MCU.
Hereditary – An unnerving portrait of grief tinged with supernatural thrills, I can’t help but thinking that this would have been even more effective if the filmmakers were a little more interested in the horror components and spent a little more time establishing that groundwork, rather than wallowing in grief for so long. It still had one of the most memorable jaw-dropping sequences of the year, and a knockout performance by Toni Collette (she wuz robbed in the Oscars).
Mandy – Panos Cosmatos’ trippy, psychadelic revenge flick is a visually stunning sight to behold, and it sure does take you on a journey. Certainly a little bloated and indulgent, it’s hard to fault a movie where Nicholas Cage forges a battle axe and fights reptilian demon bikers and religious cults with chainsaws. Plus, there’s always Cheddar Goblin, who should definitely be hosting the Oscars.
Sorry to Bother You – Boots Riley’s debut is so jam packed with ideas that it can’t quite do them all justice, but it’s fascinating to watch him try. It’s somewhat amusing that I only got to see this anti-capitalist film via the ultra-capitalist system of film distribution, but such are the ironies of life. The film holds many surprises and while overstuffed, that just leaves a lot of room for thought and discussion after-the-fact.
The Favourite – An impressive acting showcase for three exceptional actresses, I found myself intrigued by the paradoxical nature of centralized power. Yes, a monarch is at the top of the hierarchy, but she is still but one person, and somehow more vulnerable to attack precisely because of her power. Again, this isn’t usually my sort of movie, but it’s still a fascinating attempt.
The Quantum Jury Prize:
Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states (like good and bad or like and dislike, and everything inbetween). I’m not sure what that means, but that’s kinda the point. Basically, every time I observe my feelings on these movies, I experience something like a wave function collapse and get different results each time. Still confused? Good.
Annihilation – Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel has some wonderful imagery and effective performances. Some components of the story are a bit too conventional for my liking (notably the framing device, as well as some of the “action” setpieces) and some of the ideas are a bit fuzzy, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating movie.
Eighth Grade – An excruciating look at the life of a young girl in eighth grade, the wahjah factor here is so high that it rockets past uncomfortable and into some hitherto unknown realm of embarrassment-by-proxy that I have to respect the whole endeavor. Not usually my thing, but I’m glad I caught up with this one. Or maybe not?
Roma – Alfonso Cuarón’s character study of a Mexican middle-class family’s maid is an impressive formal exercise, but for some reason, my overriding thoughts during the movie’s slow pans and long takes were about Cuarón himself, and the characters on screen only briefly penetrated through Cuarón’s style. Sometimes it’s but a fleeting moment – a child absent-mindedly wraps his arm around the maid while watching TV with the family. Others are more sustained – when the maid goes into labor during the Corpus Christi massacre and must make her way to the hospital. The virtuosity is impressive and I’m not normally put off by such things, but then, here we are in the Quantum realm.
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Game Night
- A Quiet Place
- Deadpool 2
- Incredibles 2
- Mom and Dad
- Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Crazy Rich Asians
- You Might Be the Killer
- Summer of 84
Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen around 90 of this year’s releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don’t wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with: