By Hope Madden and George Wolf
Who said 2018 was a weak year in movies? We did not. In fact, 2018 offered such a bounty, we had a hard time cutting down our list of the year’s best. So we didn’t!
Thanks to Rachel Willis, Matt Weiner, Brandon Thomas, Christie Robb and Cat McAlpine for working with us this year to see and review so many films that we were helpless in the face of such abundance. So, behold: the 30 best films of 2018.
A breathtaking culmination of his work to date, Roma pulls in elements and themes, visuals and curiosities from every film Alfonso Cuarón has made (including a wonderfully organic ode to the inspiration for one of his biggest), braiding them into a semi-autobiographical meditation on family life in the early 1970s.
At the film’s heart is an extended group concerning an affluent Mexico City couple (Fernando Grediaga and the scene-stealing Marina de Tavira), their four children and their two live-in servants Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio).
Sequence upon sequence offers a dizzying array of beauty, as foreground and background often move in glorious concert during meticulously staged extended takes that somehow feel at once experimental and restrained. The effect is of a nearly underwater variety, a profound serenity that renders any puncture, from a street parade moving blindly past the distraught woman in its path to a murder in broad daylight, that much more compelling.
2. Black Panther
Just when you’ve gotten comfortable with the satisfying superhero origin story at work, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and a stellar ensemble start thinking much bigger. And now, we need to re-think what these films are capable of. Not a minute of the film is wasted. Coogler manages to pack each with enough backstory, breathless action, emotional heft and political weight to fill three films.
Coogler works with many of these basic themes found in nearly any comic book film—daddy issues, becoming who you are, serving others—but he weaves them into an astonishing look at identity, radicalization, systemic oppression, uprising and countless other urgent yet tragically timeless topics. The writing is layered and meaningful, the execution visionary.
3. The Favourite
Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest covers the declining years of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Coleman) reign, during which the War of the Spanish Succession and political jockeying in Parliament are tearing the indecisive, physically frail queen in multiple directions.
But the men of the court are little more than foppish pawns. The real palace intrigue takes place between court favorite Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her new maid, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), daughter to a once-prosperous family that has fallen on hard times. Sarah and Abigail vie for Queen Anne’s affection and behind-the-scenes power, although those two things are entangled together to varying degrees for Sarah and Abigail.
Poetic license with the relationships among the women offers an avenue by which Lanthimos can smuggle in his trademark eye for the very contemporary and very weird, cruel ways we treat each other. And in this area, Lanthimos has cast the perfect leading women to keep up with — and even rise above — his vision.
4. Eighth Grade
Who would have thought that the most truthful, painful, lovely, unflinching and adorable tween dramedy in eons would have sprung from the mind of 28-year-old comic Bo Burnham? Or that the first-time feature director could so compassionately and honestly depict the inner life of a cripplingly shy adolescent girl?
But there you have it.
Elsie Fisher’s flawless performance doesn’t hurt. In Fisher, Burnham has certainly found the ideal vehicle for his story, but his own skill in putting the pieces together is equally impressive. Burnham’s as keen to the strangulating social anxieties of middle school as he is to the shape-shifting effects of technology.
5. A Star is Born
Director/co-writer/co-star Bradley Cooper brings a new depth of storytelling to the warhorse, with a greater commitment to character and the blazing star power of Lady Gaga.
Another outstanding acting performance from Bradley Cooper is not a surprise. His remarkably instinctual directing debut here, though, must now place him among the premier talents in film.
Nearly every scene, from stadium rock concert to intimate conversation, is framed for maximum impact. His camera can be stylish but not showy, with seamless scene transitions fueling a forward momentum that will not let the film drag.
The melodramatic story has been stripped of pretense and buoyed by more layers of humanity.
Writer/director Adam McKay is just as pissed off about the polluting of the American presidency as he was about the housing collapse when he unleashed The Big Short. Like that film, the director’s conspicuous outrage as well as his biting comic sensibilities fuel the film.
Christian Bale is characteristically flawless as Dick Chaney, and Amy Adams is his equal as wife, Lynne. Together they anchor an utterly glorious ensemble that—with the help of McKay’s blistering script and wise direction—utilizes comedy to inform, illustrate, and act as an outlet for the otherwise soul-blackening disgust one might carry around with them concerning the American political system.
Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.
With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.
Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.
Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.
8. You Were Never Really Here
Two killers lie on a kitchen floor, gently singing along as the radio plays “I’ve Never Been to Me,” surely one of the cheesiest songs of all time. Only one of the men will get up. It’s a fascinating sequence, one of many in Lynne Ramsay’s bloody and beautiful You Were Never Really Here. She adapts Jonathan Ames’s brisk novella into a dreamy, hypnotic fable, an in-the-moment pileup of Taxi Driver, Taken and Drive.
Together, Ramsay and Phoenix ensure nearly each of the film’s 89 minutes burns with a spellbinding magnetism. While Phoenix lets you inside his character’s battered psyche just enough to want more, Ramsay’s visual storytelling is dazzling. Buoyed by purposeful editing and stylish soundtrack choices, Ramsay’s wonderfully artful camerawork (kudos to cinematographer Thomas Townend) presents a stream of contrasts: power and weakness, brutality and compassion, celebration and degradation.
Welcome back, Spike Lee!
In a beyond-absurd true story of an African American Colorado Springs police officer (John David Washington) joining the KKK by phone, only to send his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) to the face-to-face meetings, Lee balances unexpected shifts between humor and drama, camaraderie and horror, entertainment and history lesson, popcorn-muncher and experimental indie with a fluidity few other directors could muster.
Much sit-com-esque absurdity and dramatic police procedural thrills follow, but it’s the way Lee subverts these standard formats that hits home. The insidious nature of the racism depicted in 1979 echoes in both directions—in the history that brought our country to this moment in time, and in the future Ron Stallworth undoubtedly hoped he could prevent.
Luca Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth. Macabre visions dart in and out like a video that will kill you in 7 days while sudden, extreme zooms, precise sound design and a vivid score from Thom Yorke help cement the homage to another era.
But even when this new Suspiria—a “cover version” of Dario Argento’s 1974 gaillo classic—is tipping its hat, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. The color scheme is intentionally muted, and you’ll find no men in this dance troupe, serving immediate notice that superficialities are not the endgame here.
11. Leave No Trace
In her first feature since 2010’s gripping Winter’s Bone, writer/director Debra Granik is again focused on souls living on the rural fringes and scraping out a hardscrabble, under-the-radar existence.
Driven by two haunting performances from the always underrated Ben Foster and impressive newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Leave No Trace replaces any of Winter’s Bone’s sinister, menacing layers with a tender, sympathetic grace that feels achingly authentic, and often heartbreaking.
The film follows its own titular advice, broaching a variety of relevant social concerns without ever raising its voice, yet cutting so deeply you may not get out of the theater with dry eyes.
12. Boy Erased
Lucas Hedges once again joins the ranks of likely Oscar nominee with an intensely intimate performance in Boy Erased, a touching and vital account of one young man’s trip through “conversion therapy.”
Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it’s a film that also solidifies Joel Edgerton’s skills as both an actor and filmmaker, one able to balance a complicated, troubling subject with grace , understanding and intimacy.
It is precisely this intimacy that fuels the film’s resonance, as one family’s story becomes a vessel for greater understanding. That’s no small achievement, and Boy Erased is no small triumph.
13. Won’t You Be my Neighbor?
The world did not deserve Fred Rogers.
A loving and tender soul if ever there was one, Rogers saw children not as future consumers, but as vulnerable human beings who needed to know they had value.
Directed by documentarian Morgan Neville (Oscar winner for his 2013 doc 20 Feet from Stardom), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trollies into the life of the children’s TV host. What you’ll learn is that, yes, Mr. Rogers was really like that.
Rogers looked out for children, understanding what frightened us and making every attempt to help us through those “difficult modulations.” It’s tough to make it through the film’s 94 minutes without tearing up, and that’s not entirely from sentimentality. It’s from wondering whether today’s world is simply too cruel and cynical for Mr. Rogers.
14. First Man
We’ve seen a lot of movies about astronauts, loads of sometimes great films about the US space race and the fearlessness of those involved. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is something different.
Chazelle strips away the glamour and artifice, the bombast and spectacle usually associated with films of this nature. His vision is raw and visceral, often putting you in the moon boots of the lead, but never quite putting you inside his head.
As gritty and unpolished as the film is, Chazelle never loses his sense of wonder. The jarring quiet, the stillness and vastness are captured with reverence and filmed beautifully. Those images of silent awe are as stirring as anything you will see, but it’s the visceral, queasying and claustrophobic moments underscoring the death-defying commitment to the cause that will shake you up.
15. Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley’s movie could not be more timely. Though he wrote it nearly a dozen years ago, and it certainly reflects a trajectory our nation has been on for eons, it feels so of-the-moment you expect to see a baby Trump balloon floating above the labor union picket line.
Bursting with thoughts, images and ideas, the film never feels like it wanders into tangents. Instead, Riley’s alarmingly relevant directorial debut creates a new cinematic form to accommodate its abundance of insight.
Does it careen off the rails by Act 3? Oh, yes, and gloriously so. Riley set us on a course that dismantles the structure we’ve grown used to as moviegoers and we may not be ready for what that kind of change means for us. Isn’t it about damn time?
What if a great mystery wasn’t at all concerned with answering the questions it raised? Chang-dong Lee’s Burning is more interested in the journey than it is the destination. The story unravels slowly. Two and a half hours seems daunting at first glance, but the twinge of unease hanging over the film keeps you involved. There’s a sense of dread that is hard to pinpoint, but is also intoxicating. By defying genre conventions and expectations, Burning provides an alternative mystery that pops with excitement.
17. A Quiet Place
Damn, John Krasinski. Dude can direct the heck out of a horror movie.
Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The cast, anchored by Krasinski’s on-and-off-screen wife Emily Blunt is amazing. That you may expect.
What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction. His film is smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.
18. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spidey gets back to his animation roots with Into the Spider-Verse, a holiday feast of thrills, heart, humor and style that immediately swings to the very top of the year’s animated heap. This Spider-Man is filled with everything you want in a superhero flick today. There are compelling characters and engaging conflicts within a diverse climate, and a vital, clearly defined message of empowerment that stays above the type of pandering sure to trigger a kid’s b.s. detector. And man, is it fun.
19. Thunder Road
Writer/director/star Jim Cummings is responsible for the most criminally underseen film of 2018. If you are looking for a gift to give yourself this holiday season, make it Thunder Road.
Cummings explores grief, mental health, small town stagnation and the genius of Mr. Bruce Springsteen in a film that is breathtaking in its tonal shifts. Simultaneously heartbreaking, funny, nuts, unpredictable and alertly honest, Cummings’s film and his performance cement him as among the most exciting cinematic voices of 2018.
20. First Reformed
Writer/director Paul Schrader delivers a nearly flawless meditation on faith and despair with First Reformed. In what may be his strongest performance, Ethan Hawke delivers a a slow slide from a pleasant façade to destructive rage, perfectly capturing every emotion, every nuance of internal crisis and its external manifestations. Schrader’s film is a masterful character study that asks thoughtful questions about how our choices will be viewed in the eyes of God.
21. If Beale Street Could Talk
Writer/director Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 Oscar-winning masterpiece of a debut, Moonlight, with the insanely high expectations of movie lovers everywhere. If Beale Street Could Talk meets those expectations with grace.
Based on the writing of James Baldwin (never a bad idea), the film follows a struggling couple as a means to illustrate the intersecting forms of oppression facing African Americans in this country. Jenkins’s poetic camera, the elegance of his interpretation of Baldwin’s world, and the tenderness of the performances—especially from the always wonderful Regina King—weave together to create a hypnotic, heartbreaking story of American resilience.
Sebastian Lelio continues his interest in stories of women struggling to be free and live as their true selves, exerting their power to disobey. The message is love and mercy, and how these basic tenets of religion are often forgotten in the name of enforcing a preferred social order. Lelio and his committed actors—Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz and Alessandro Nivola—make it intensely intimate but never salacious, a parable with a powerful grip.
More than just a time stamp, Mid90s emerges as a completely engaging verite-styled slice of place and person, a clear-eyed and visionary filmmaking debut for writer/director Jonah Hill. Though the film does feel like a labor of love for Hill, it’s not draped in undue nostalgia, but rather a gritty sense of realism resting comfortably between 1995’s “Kids” and Bing Liu’s skateboarding doc, “Minding the Gap.” An often funny, sometimes startling and endlessly human film, Mid90s is a blast from the past that points to a bright filmmaking future for Hill.
Wicked, surprising, unapologetic, cynical and buoyed by flawless performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, writer/director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is a mean little treat. It’s a fascinating look— blackly comedic and biting—at how the other class comes of age.
Writer/director Panos Cosmatos’s hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.
Alex Garland’s work as both a writer and a writer/director has shown a visionary talent for molding the other-worldly and the familiar. Annihilation—an utterly absorbing sci-fi thriller where each answer begs more questions—unveils Garland at his most existential.
Border director/co-writer Ali Abbasi has more in mind than your typical Ugly Duckling tale. He mines this story of outsider love and Nordic folklore for ideas of radicalization, empowerment, gender fluidity and feminine rage. The result is both a sincere crime thriller and a magical fantasy.
28. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
The fascinating and true story of biographer turned felon Lee Israel offers a weirdly optimistic if cautionary tale for misfit women. It’s also a great reminder that Melissa McCarthy can really act.
29. Mission: Impossible —Fallout
Tom Cruise’s next mission – and he’ll most likely accept it – is to try and outdo the stunts he pulls in this latest Mission: Impossible entry. Good luck with that, because Fallout delivers the GD mail.
30. The Death of Stalin
Opening with a madcap “musical emergency” and closing with a blood-stained political coup, The Death of Stalin infuses its factual base with coal-back humor of the most delicious and absurd variety.