While it feels like the year was a bit of a cinematic dud (thanks to December’s release of three big budget sequels to franchises either long dormant or not particularly beloved), it only takes a cursory look back to realize that the films of 2018 contained a lot of stellar work. So much so that, once again, I’ve written a “top ten” list in name only, keeping it to 25 entries that contain a lot of ties (the list actually contains 37 movies!). So, without further ado, here are the films of 2018 that deserve special mention.
25. Game Night & Red Sparrow (tie)
w: Mark Perez (Game Night), Justin Haythe (Red Sparrow). d: John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Game Night), Francis Lawrence (Red Sparrow).
Big studio films tend to not take too many chances these days, as executives continue to greenlight sequels, remakes, reboots, and cinematic universes. Given their rarity, it’s a delight when big-to-mid budget studio movies are made that are not pre-packaged material, and are wildly unique to boot. Consider this year’s best studio comedy, Game Night, a high concept film that could’ve easily been too loud, obnoxious, and brash as it follows a group of friends getting unwittingly caught up in actual criminal shenanigans, but instead is a tightly plotted and hilariously sharp comedy, with excellent character work from Jesse Plemons and Rachel McAdams. Consider, too, Red Sparrow, which set itself apart from the current spy movie boom by being unabashedly noir-ish and sleazy, featuring a protagonist who, similar to Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde, is a mercurial presence for the entire movie. It’s one of Jennifer Lawrence’s best performances (yes, even with the accent and wig work) as she slinks through Francis Lawrence’s attractively composed frames. It’s movies like these that keep the term “studio movie” from sounding like a bad thing.
24. The House With A Clock In Its Walls & Summer Of ‘84 (tie)
w: Eric Kripke (The House...), Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith (Summer Of ‘84). d: Eli Roth (The House...), Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell (Summer Of ‘84).
We’re well into the era of filmmakers who grew up on the Amblin adventure films of the 1980’s making their own tribute films to those all-ages genre classics. Some of these tributes seek to recapture the feeling of those movies for a new generation, and others look to use their iconography to evoke their tropes, in order to subvert them. As an example of the former, The House With A Clock In Its Walls excels at telling a story that appeals to a variety of ages, missing the pitfall of becoming just another loud “kids movie.” Eli Roth, who’s always been adept at mimicking the styles of the directors he idolizes, does a great Tim Burton impression here, all while making it his own—the film contains some of the most disturbing images of the former horror director’s career. Meanwhile, with Summer Of ‘84, the Canadian directing collective RKSS continue their streak of making original films soaked in the ‘80s media they loved as children that slyly zig where those well known classics zagged. Dismissed by many as a sub-“Stranger Things,” Summer is a film that may consciously look like E.T. and The Goonies, but is grounded hard in reality, resulting in one of the most disturbing endings to a film this year. Both films concern the painful and awkward processes of the end of childhood, a rite of passage that can either be exciting...or terrifying.
w&d: Coralie Fargeat
The rape-revenge subgenre is a relic of the exploitation crazy 1970’s, best left to that era’s concerns with rural crime, women’s liberation, and lazy titillation. Yet 40 odd years later, female directors are finally bursting into the mainstream movie scene en masse, including and especially the horror genre. It’s into this climate that writer-director Fargeat brings her reclamation of the subgenre, entitled Revenge (a pretty big clue as to where the film’s emphasis lies). More than just a look at the subgenre from a feminist viewpoint, Fargeat proves herself to be a top-notch stylist with a flair for brutal, visceral setpieces. Her career could go literally anywhere from this point, from more horror films to action movies to elsewhere, and it’s exciting to see the debut of a filmmaker with such a strong voice.
22. A Star Is Born
w: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters. d: Bradley Cooper.
On paper, 2018’s A Star Is Born sounds like a forgettable disaster. The third (or fourth, depending on whether or not you count 1932’s What Price Hollywood as the origin point of the story) version of the 1937 original, a hoary melodrama involving a fading star mentoring a rising talent in the midst of a whirlwind romance, the second (following 1976’s version starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) set inside the music industry rather than the movie business, co-starring a supremely talented yet unproven actress and co-written, starring, and directed by an unproven A-list star filmmaker. What keeps ASIB 2018 from being a shabby mess of a vanity project is Cooper’s commitment to authenticity, going so far as to take his co-star Lady Gaga’s advice and record all the musical performances live (or with live elements), as well as shooting the bulk of the film handheld. The story is still the showbiz melodrama it always was, but the efforts of the two leads lend it the raw, naked emotion it always needed. All that, and the original songs are damn good, too.
21. Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, & Ant-Man And The Wasp (tie)
w: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole (Panther), Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Avengers), Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari (Ant-Man). d: Ryan Coogler (Panther), Joe and Anthony Russo (Avengers), Peyton Reed (Ant-Man).
The great Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment continues to be a gift year after year, not just to comic book fans but to franchise filmmaking as well. Ant-Man And The Wasp expanded and improved upon its predecessor, taking that film’s loose heist movie structure and morphing it into a slice of early-‘60s sci-fi adventure, with rich, likeable characters, including and especially the villains. Black Panther not only single-handedly lifted a previously obscure Marvel character to immensely popular heights, it acted as a groundbreaking film in its own right, bringing a much needed POC POV to blockbusters, and providing a compellingly fresh afrofuturist landscape in the process, making the film as visually pioneering as the original Blade Runner. The entire MCU enterprise, however, paid off with Infinity War in a huge way. There are a lot of cultural moments that happen every year, of course, but relatively few cultural events, and Infinity War was a capital E-Event. Somewhere between a geek pipe dream, a fan fiction fantasy, a television season finale, and a Shakespearean tragedy, the film proved that a “cinematic universe” really works only when the characters are this loveable, this relatable, this flawed, and this respected. Instead of the end of the Marvel Universe, movies like this make it seem like merely the beginning.
20. The Strangers: Prey At Night, Hell Fest, & Halloween (tie)
w: Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai (Strangers), William Penick, Christopher Sey, Akela Cooper, Seth M. Sherwood and Blair Butler (Hell Fest), Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride and David Gordon Green (Halloween). d: Johannes Roberts (Strangers), Gregory Plotkin (Hell Fest), David Gordon Green (Halloween).
The slasher film made a huge resurgence in 2018, starting with a John Carpenter (and Sean S. Cunningham/Brian De Palma/etc.) throwback, a sequel to 2008’s quintessential home invasion film, The Strangers. Rather than following the cinema verite, bleak original installment, Prey At Night goes from a loving homage to ‘80s horror to the best Jim Steinmann musical ever made. The ‘90s slasher boom of 20 years ago also got some love in the form of Hell Fest, an overlooked solid exercise in smart, hip young characters trapped in a plausible and brutal predicament. Of course, the slasher granddaddy came back, too, sloughing off all continuity issues to tell an anniversary story of an older Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, still locked in a brutal cat and mouse game. Finding out just who the cat and the mice are is one of the true pleasures of David Gordon Green’s modern update, helped by a new masterpiece of a score by Carpenter himself, along with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies. Slashers have such a rock solid inherent structure that they’ll never go out of style, and these films made sure they didn’t.
19. A Quiet Place & Upgrade (tie)
w: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Leigh Wannell (Upgrade). d: John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Leigh Wannell (Upgrade).
As has been the case since the 1970’s, there were a plethora of genre films released in 2018, but none more pure and expertly constructed than these two. John Krasinski finally escaped his “Jim from The Office” status and entered into the pantheon of great blockbuster filmmakers with A Quiet Place, a movie that commits so hard to its “don’t make a sound or the creatures will kill you” premise that it’s almost all setpieces, almost a “greatest hits” of a clever concept. Leigh Wannell’s Upgrade took the “fear of sentient technology” trope and made a symbiotic action thriller out of it, one that not only had some of the most clever action sequences of the year but also contained a clever script structure with twists that are hard to see coming. These films are proof that great genre entertainment doesn’t need to be complex to be smart.
18. You Were Never Really Here & Destroyer (tie)
w: Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never…), Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (Destroyer). d: Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never…), Karyn Kusama (Destroyer).
How great is it that two of the most gritty, bleak, hard-hitting neo-noir films of the last ten years have been made by women directors? Both You Were Never Really Here and Destroyer are consummate noir tales by being character studies above all else, telling the tales of broken individuals who are attempting to right wrongs and atone for their sins before they burn out completely. Their styles couldn’t be more different—Ramsay chops up and fragments You Were..., reflecting Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe’s hazy perception of his reality, while Kusama shows Nicole Kidman’s Detective Bell’s world to be bleached out and mournful, haunted by a past she can’t escape. But both pack an intense emotional wallop at their climaxes, and will stay with you long after you see them.
17. The Favourite
w: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara. d: Yorgos Lanthimos
For the last few years, director Yorgos Lanthimos has been making singular, dark, disturbing films that seem beamed in from another planet. His trademark deadpan, cutting dialogue comes from characters who seem too cruel, petty, and uptight to be naturalistic. How funny, then, that when telling the tale of Queen Anne and her lovers/political aides and all the drama of the English court, that style would have found its natural home. The Favourite is by turns austere, unsettling, and hilarious, all without losing the tragedy and cruelty of the women at its core.
16. BlacKkKlansman & Sorry To Bother You (tie)
w: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Boots Riley (Sorry To Bother You). d: Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Boots Riley (Sorry To Bother You).
As much as ignorant people would like to believe, racism is still rampant in America in 2018, and it’s films like these that are vital to combatting the scourge of hatred, kicking complacency directly in the face. In addition to being an angry state of the nation, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a riveting cop movie, reclaiming and reconfiguring Blacksploitation tropes. Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, on the other hand, is a singular work all its own, as much Kurt Vonnegut as James Baldwin (or early Spike Lee, for that matter), raging not just against racial issues but class, the economy, the media, fame, and more. I’m not saying that skipping these films contributes to ignorance, but I’m not not saying that either.
15. Vox Lux
w&d: Brady Corbet
A film about pop music and the 21st century for an audience that both loves and loathes those things in equal measure is not going to be an easy sell. Fortunately, Brady Corbet’s second feature is well observed enough to be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level, as his camera captures impeccably composed shots of Natalie Portman’s pop diva who found fame through tragedy and became tragic herself, a person transformed who transformed the world in turn, a stand in for the insanity that has become the new millennium. All that, and new Sia songs that totally slap.
w: Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith. d: Julius Avery.
Before Overlord even gets to the Nazi zombie rage monsters, it’s already one of the most harrowing and powerful films depicting on the front lines battle during World War II. The opening transport plane attack rivals Steven friggin’ Spielberg in its authenticity and drama, as director Julius Avery sets up a story about war being literally and figuratively Hell. Then come the Nazi zombie rage monsters. One of the best horror-action movies of the year, that never devolves into a gimmicky grindhouse pastiche, but remains grounded in the horrors of war. Well, grounded in a pulp-y way, of course.
13. Mom And Dad & Mandy (tie)
w: Bryan Taylor (Mom And Dad), Aaron Stewart-Ahn and Panos Cosmatos (Mandy). d: Bryan Taylor (Mom And Dad), Panos Cosmatos (Mandy).
2018 was the Rebirth Of Nicolas Cage, a return to form and popularity for the one time A-list actor. He started the year off right, starring in Brian Taylor’s nutso horror satire Mom And Dad, a film about parents and children and their deep seated resentment of each other blossoming into murderous fury. He continued with one of the highlights of his entire varied career, Panos Cosmatos’ grief-stricken revenge movie fantasy horror dirge Mandy. In both films, Cage gives performances that are as outsized and outrageous as he’s been famous for giving for decades now, but each also contain nuanced moments of depth, as Cage reveals the bitter regret of one character and the deep well of distraught, manic, all consuming sadness of the other. If you know someone who rolls their eyes at the mention of his name, show them these films to help show them the path of the Cage.
w: Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. d: Carlos Lopez Estrada.
Easily one of the most unique movies of 2018, Blindspotting can’t be easily categorized or labeled. It’s part indie dramedy, with Daveed Diggs’ ex-con trying to find his place in his hometown while maintaining a relationship with his best friend (and worst influence,) played by Rafael Casal. The two real life friends’ chemistry is undeniable, and it’s a joy to watch them share the screen. But Blindspotting is also part political, dealing with of-the-moment issues, and the medium by which it deals with them is so heartfelt, musical and poetic, that it becomes transcendent.
11. Mission: Impossible—Fallout
w&d: Christopher McQuarrie
Six (6) movies in, the Mission: Impossible series shows no signs of slowing down. Even wilder, it seems to be speeding up, as star Tom Cruise pushes his physical limits further and further in order to keep audiences entertained. Yet despite all his running on a broken foot feats of endurance, one of the smartest things Cruise ever did as a producer is handing the reins over to Christopher McQuarrie, whose style as a writer is notable for its intelligence and depth, and whose style as a filmmaker is remarkable in his precision and skill at capturing crisp, clear, riveting sequences of suspense, intrigue, and action.
10. First Reformed
w&d: Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader has never really left cinema since he exploded onto the scene in the 1970’s, and his popularity has waxed and waned depending on what new experimental muse he happened to be following during any given moment. With First Reformed, however, Schrader isn’t just running an exercise in transcendental cinema, he’s also made his most passionate, disturbed film since Hardcore, with a protagonist who earns the right to be compared to his iconic creation for Martin Scorsese, Travis Bickle. Ethan Hawke’s performance as Reverend Toller is the apex of the actor’s career, a man who is by turns incredibly empathetic and unsettlingly selfish, who sees himself as the answer to the world’s current plight of a slow death via pollution. Schrader’s genius is showing just how relatable Toller’s train of thought is—there but for the grace of God go we.
w&d: Ari Aster
Ari Aster is clearly working through some shit, as his debut feature is a relentlessly harrowing portrait of a family disintegrating from the inside, with prejudices and dislikes and resentments (and, possibly, mental illness) festering away until they explode at the dinner table (as Toni Collette’s award worthy performance shows). There’s also a demon cult to contend with. Aster may be on record as not being a huge fan of the horror genre, but he certainly has an innate mastery of it, creating haunting dreamlike imagery that seems to have been beamed directly onto the screen from a nightmare he once had. Hopefully Aster’s demons have been released through the film—they’re so powerful, they may even help you with yours.
8. Thoroughbreds & Assassination Nation (tie)
w&d: Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), Sam Levinson (Assassination).
Heathers was released (more or less) 30 years ago this year, and it still holds up as a scathing satire of the far-right Reagan era as well as the potential for cruelty between teenagers, especially girls. Thoroughbreds is the successor to the sociopathy seen in Heathers, concerning two young women so disaffected by their posh lives (including one who literally feels nothing) that they decide to commit a series of escalatingly criminal acts. Assassination Nation is The Purge without mercy, an angry satire of not just the state of teenage cruelty but the state of anonymous cruelty perpetuated on a daily basis by Americans against each other, especially proud young women. Both genuinely upsetting films that reflect present day social norms in a brilliantly bold, angry fashion.
7. The Old Man & The Gun
w&d: David Lowery
David Lowery is, at this point, a master at the quiet, elegiac film, treating material as varied as a sheet-covered ghost and a flying dragon with the same empathetic touch. His farewell film for star Robert Redford is both a fond goodbye to the screen legend as well as a meditation on aging, on the legacy we look to leave behind for our families or even just ourselves. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug farewell.
6. Bad Times At The El Royale
w&d: Drew Goddard
Prestige television is still in its golden age, though the deluge of programming has diluted some of the good work that’s out there right now. With Bad Times, however, Drew Goddard has made a film that feels like a full season of television in just under three hours, a richly detailed and layered story of several strangers spending a long, deadly night at the kitschiest motel of the 1960’s—even if it turns out not quite all of them are strangers. Goddard’s clever, twisty, compelling story of the moral corruption of the ’60’s is one of the most rewarding watches of 2018, like a good TV series—or perhaps a dusty, dog-eared novel.
5. First Man
w: Josh Singer. d: Damien Chazelle.
It’s still mind boggling to think that only 50 or so years ago, human beings shot themselves into the coldness of space, and eventually, landed on the moon. Doing so in the first place seems absurd, an unpractical feat that has no empirical, immediate value. But like the man who climbed Everest famously said, the moon was there, and it would be reached. Damien Chazelle, who had previously told stories about emotionally stunted, driven men consumed with ambition, brings his talents to bear on the story of Neil Armstrong. That that tale isn’t a dry biopic but is instead an emotionally taxing journey of a heartbroken man raging against fate and nature itself is just one of the most surprising and remarkable things about this gorgeous movie.
4. Suspiria & Cold War (tie)
w: David Kajganich (Suspiria), Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, and Piotr Borkowski (Cold War). d: Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria), Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War).
Two films (ironically, both released through Amazon Studios) that deal with the cancer caused by the invasions of a corrupt political regime into the lives of two powerful women. How these women deal with the cold war as a backdrop is very different but similarly strong. In Cold War, Pawlikowski tells the tale of Zula, a woman who strikes up a turbulent yet passionate relationship with Wiktor in Poland during the late 1940’s, following how the two use each other and their love of music as an escape from oppression. In Suspiria, Guadagnino brilliantly remakes Dario Argento’s original 1977 film as a story of young dancer Suzie Bannion’s encounter with a corrupt regime in microcosm to reflect the larger one outside in 1970’s Berlin: a coven of covetous witches. Both are testaments to the power of women during politically oppressive times—something quite relevant in 2018.
3. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
w&d: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen.
The western is a genre that, while once dominant, is now all but relegated to niche. Yet while it may feel that every conceivable story about the Old West has been told, along come the Coen brothers to put their unique stamp on the tropes and style of the genre, and I’ll be damned if they haven’t revitalized it in the process. This portmanteau movie concerns elements as various as singing cowboys, men covered in tin pots, dogs named after obscure presidents, paraplegic performers, and Tom Waits as a prospector. Yet, taken as a whole, it’s an exploration of the nature of death, a ripe subject for a time period that was both cruel and indifferent, perfect for the existentialist interests of the Coens—sooner or later, we’re all visiting that dark hotel for an extended stay.
2. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
w: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. d: Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman.
Before December, not only were American animation films relatively uninspired, but the idea of yet another Spider-Man film sounded incredibly exhausting. So along came Into The Spider-Verse to prove absolutely everyone wrong, presenting a feat of animation so groundbreaking and entertaining that it makes the prospect of a whole new slew of Spider-Man films (in a similar style) sound incredibly desirable. Spider-Verse isn’t just a brilliant adaptation of one of the most fun story arcs from the Spidey comic book (the idea of multiple Spider-Men and -Women existing in infinite alternate universes), but a story that gets at the core of the Spider-Man mythos in a way that feels fresh and vital—we all have power and responsibility, and “anyone can wear the mask.”
w&d: Alex Garland
50 years ago this year, Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, and contrary to its present-day reputation, the reception the film initially received was fairly confused and cold. As I sat watching a 70mm print in theaters earlier this year, I wondered how 1968 me may have reacted had I been born a few decades sooner. Then I remembered seeing Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and realized I already knew. Garland’s film isn’t Kubrickian, nor is it really trying to be, but it contains the same pioneering spirit, a desire to take science-fiction seriously and push its limits, both narratively and visually. Indeed, Annihilation isn’t necessarily purely science-fiction—it may contain the single most terrifying sequence of 2018, and as you can see from the rest of this list, that’s no mean feat. What’s so amazing about the film is how it’s simultaneously like many previous genre classics, and not at all like them. It’s a movie that’s subtextually about so much, everything from death, to self-destruction (whether deliberately or subconsciously inflicted) to disease, to transformation, to rebirth. It’s far and away the most original movie of the year, one that takes not only the genre but the medium of cinema to new places. After all, every few years or so, an act of creation must take place, no matter how violent or jarring. That’s how movies remain so important, and so damn good.
Honorable Mentions: Isle Of Dogs, Unsane, Tully, Deadpool 2, American Animals, Hotel Artemis, Eighth Grade, The Sisters Brothers, Mid90s, Creed II, Roma, Anna and the Apocalypse, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Other Side Of The Wind/They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Cam, Apostle, Hold The Dark.
Not Seen At Time Of Writing: The Death Of Stalin, Blockers, Beautiful Boy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Bodied, Shoplifters, Mary Queen of Scots, The Outlaw King, Vice, Gotti.