As you can see, I haven’t posted anything on here since January 9 of 2018. My goal to write more movie reviews didn’t pan out I guess, but hey, there’s always 2019. I wasn’t about to miss out on doing a top ten list because I’m a slut for lists and it’s a good excuse to brush up on my writing. So here we are, the ten best movies of 2018, plus some honorable mentions.
#1 First Reformed
Paul Schrader expands upon the creation of his haunted Taxi Driver protagonist, a man driven to violence by a grotesque picture of society, and drops him into a new age, demented and warped into a horrifying vision of modern anxiety. In doing so, Schrader has crafted his most personal and searing film yet, and the definitive work of his career. First Reformed is both timely and timeless. It is a film born from anger and despair but told with grace and humanity. As a preacher torn between faith and desolation and ultimately driven to the unimaginable, Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of his career and our times. Together, Hawke and Schrader confront our anxieties about climate change, corporate control, and religion head on. This isn’t a subtle film; it’s angry, passionate, and deeply felt. It should be. The slow-burn of the story simmers with anticipation and a grim melancholy until culminating in the most intense, jaw-dropping ending in recent memory. First Reformed is an unforgettable work of art from a master of the cinema.
#2 If Beale Street Could Talk
Is there any working filmmaker today more in love with the human face than Barry Jenkins? The director of Moonlight, my favorite film of 2016, has created another beautiful love letter to humanity in the face of society’s unfathomable ugliness. Many filmmakers are content to dive into nihilism and revel in it. Even filmmakers I admire sometimes drown themselves in misery, but Jenkins is admirable in the way he shines a light on love and hope, reflected in the deeply romantic close up shots of his character’s faces. Based on James Baldwin’s novel, Beale Street looks at the institutional racism that leads to Fonny (Stephen James) being falsely accused and imprisoned for rape, and Tish (Kiki Layne), the woman who loves and fights for him. Though the film is tinged in the realities of 1970s life for Black Americans, it is not a depressing film or a preachy film. There is pain and tragedy in it, but there is also love, romance, passion, and hope. Jenkins is in love with his characters so much that we fall in love with them too. The film is romantic not just plot-wise, but as a piece of visual storytelling; the camera so delicately capturing its subjects we feel as if we’re in the room with them. Beale Street also features the best ensemble cast of the year, including one of the year’s best performances by Regina King.
#3 A Star is Born
The year’s best mainstream popular entertainment is by far, no question, A Star is Born. It marks Bradley Cooper as a director to be reckoned with. It made a bonafide movie star out of Lady Gaga. It is the third remake of this story, by this point a tale as old as time, and somehow Cooper and Gaga have dragged it into a modern age and injected it with life and truth. This is not a soulless reimagining of a story we’ve all seen before. If anything, in our age of celebrity obsession and pop culture tragedy, this is the right movie for the right time. As a screen couple, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have such raw chemistry that we truly believe in them all the way through. Without them, the movie would be a, ahem, shallow Hollywood tragedy. Cooper and Gaga take the time to create full-blooded characters, not just caricatures, and their romance is one of the most effective Hollywood has conjured in ages. Most importantly, A Star is Born is wise about alcoholism and depression. These issues are not treated merely as plot points, but with the weight they deserve. Rarely does Hollywood create a film with mass audience appeal that is as honest and human as it is entertaining. This is one of those movies that struck a chord with critics and audiences alike, rose to spectacular box office heights, and became a pop-culture phenomenon, and absolutely deserved all of it.
I haven’t had a good nights sleep since June because of this fucking movie, and as a horror fan, I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that. It’s easy for a horror film to shock you, but it’s rare for one to sear into your brain and linger under the skin every time you close your eyes or turn the lights out. If Satan himself could pick his favorite feel-good movie, it would be this one. In his feature-length directorial debut, Ari Aster has created a family drama that descends into the bottomless pits of despair and evil. Aster presents motherhood and family life as a waking nightmare, and he is absolutely merciless in his vision. Some horror films don’t earn their cynicism; they end on a depressing, nihilistic note as a sort of ironic punchline. Make no mistake, Hereditary will not make you feel good in the end. It won’t hold you and tell you everything will be okay. But it doesn’t cheat the audience with a hopeless ending just to fuck with you. The horrors of Hereditary are unshakeable, building to an inevitable conclusion that has been preordained from the beginning, taking on a sort of sick, terrifying logic. Aster’s vision is merciless in its destination, but he doesn’t cheat the audience. As a mother who personifies the confusion and grief of a hereditary succession of mental illness and outright evil, Toni Collette is utterly extraordinary. It’s a heartbreaking and horrifying performance, a representation of pure anguish that is limitless in its soul-shaking devastation. Hereditary will make you feel as if you’ll never be safe again, and that you never were from the beginning.
#5 A Quiet Place
I commend A Quiet Place for being the movie that finally got audiences to shut the fuck up in a movie theater. You would think that’s what people would do when they went to the theater, but you’d be wrong 99 percent of the time. So how did this happen? Well, on top of the fantastic hook: monsters who hunt based entirely on sound, it’s just a damn great thriller. If Hereditary was the kind of horror film that drained the life out of you and left you feeling like nothing would be okay ever again, A Quiet Place is the kind of horror film that scares the shit out of you, makes you grip the armrests harder than you’ve ever gripped anything in your life, then gives you a wink and lets you know you’re having a good time. As a piece of storytelling, there’s not much to A Quiet Place, and that’s precisely part of its charm. It’s a simple premise, told sparingly and effectively without an ounce of unnecessary fat. In an age where most Hollywood blockbusters are an agonizing two-and-a-half hours or longer, this one has the decency to not bore you with excess characters or plot points that add nothing to the narrative. The film is also simple enough to be ripe for interpretation. Like all great horror, A Quiet Place uses its monsters as symbolism for human fears and anxieties. In the case of John Krasinski and Emily Blunt’s fiercely realized parental figures, they are not afraid of protecting their children from alien monsters who hunt by sound, they’re afraid of bringing their kids into a world where they cannot protect them. The fears are relatable and palpable and the suspense is early Spielberg-level terrific. The bathtub scene alone will be remembered as one of the all-time great horror sequences.
#6 The Favourite
If Mean Girls or The Devil Wears Prada were set in 18th Century England and infused with a nasty, savage wit, you might get an idea of what Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is like, although that would only scratch the surface of its complexities. This is one of the great dark comedies of the decade, but the biting humor rests at the surface of a film that is tragic and ferocious, moving and whimsical, sometimes all at once. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are never-better, as rivals vying for the affection of Queen Anne, played by Olivia Colman, in a performance that takes Anne from pathetic to ridiculous to deeply sad to monstrous. Colman is absolute perfection in a tricky performance that requires her to create a character that is not simply a comedic caricature, but also a tragedy-stricken and deeply traumatized woman who acts out because of past wounds that never healed. As Stone and Weisz characters pluck at these scars as well as their own for personal gain, the movie becomes a hostile and scathing critique of aristocracy. Lanthimos creates a period piece that exposes the cruelty and ugliness underneath the lavishness.
I had the pleasure of reading Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer right before I saw the movie, and I was struck by how Alex Garland adapted the book for the screen by encompassing the themes of the story while changing certain details to fit his vision. It’s not absolutely faithful to the book, and it’s better for it. Both can be enjoyed on their own terms. Garland’s take on Annihilation is great science-fiction because each viewer can interpret the alien and otherworldly elements in different ways. Walking out of Annihilation, I felt that Garland was telling a story of personal destruction; the ways humans are hardwired to destroy and rebuild themselves, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is about characters who are deeply flawed, sometimes destructive individuals who are trying to understand something alien, which, in turn, is trying to understand them. So many Hollywood sci-fi movies are about nasty aliens and explosions and spaceships blowing things up, and very rarely do we get thoughtful science-fiction that allows mystery and confusion into the narrative. How would we react to experiencing something alien? Annihilation doesn’t necessary have the answer, but it allows us to meditate on it. It allows us to experience wonder and fear and the possibility of something completely new and unseen. Above all, Annihilation is thrilling cinema that makes tangible the stuff of dreams, and nightmares.
Steve McQueen’s Widows is a popcorn entertainment of the kind audiences aren’t used to. It has all the elements of a crowd-pleasing heist movie – shootouts, car chases, horrible villains and kick-ass heroes, but it’s also politically charged social commentary and a deeply feminist fable. Written by Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, here is another thriller with layers of subtext and meaning behind an uncommonly skillful genre exercise. And when I say it’s a feminist movie, I don’t mean that in the way Hollywood typically thinks something is feminist by remaking a movie franchise but with an all female cast. Widows actually explores issues of femininity, toxic masculinity, and race within the context of a socially relevant narrative involving political corruption. It’s the ideal kind of mainstream entertainment; one that has you on the edge of your seat in suspense and thinking about the implications of the events as they unfold. Viola Davis is flawless as usual, but the cast as a whole is pitch perfect, including Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Daniel Kaluuya in a deeply menacing role that couldn’t be farther from his sympathetic hero in Get Out.
Although I have to give props to Netflix for taking a break from pumping out garbage to take a chance on something as artistic as this, Roma really is best seen on as big a screen as possible. It is Alfonso Cuaron’s most personal and intimate film, told on a small scale but with a big backdrop. The story of a maid and the family she works for set during political turmoil in 1970s Mexico City may seem like a departure from Cuaron’s bigger hits such as Gravity and Children of Men, but the director’s typical flair for breathtaking imagery and visual symbolism is on full display here. The film opens with one of the great cinematic shots of 2018; a stone floor is being washed with water, creating a reflection of an airplane traveling through the sky. The motif of the airplane is used several times throughout the film, creating the effect of bigness and establishing a time and a place that feels like we’re experiencing it in the moment, as life passes by. One of the great gifts of cinema is being able to empathize with people we typically do not. Roma is specific in its setting, but universal in its themes and experiences. Cuaron allows the audience to experience all the heartbreak, frustration, joy, and humanity of his characters in a film that is deeply moving and deeply human.
#10 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Just when I thought I’d had enough of superhero movies, here comes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which not only is the best comic book movie of the year, but one of the best ever made. That it’s animated does not take away from its power but only heightens it. This is one of the most visually stunning movies (animated or not) I can remember seeing on the big screen. Each frame of Spider-Verse feels like the drawings of a comic leaped off the page and onto the screen. The dizzying visuals, created with a combination of hand-drawn and digital effects, are dazzling in a way that has to be seen to be believed. On top of being great to look at, Spider-Verse has a story that is frenetic and fast-paced but also empowering and uplifting. It’s a movie that kids can take to heart and their parents will be just as pleased to sit through. Like Black Panther, it’s another big leap forward in representation that kids who don’t typically see themselves portrayed as heroes on-screen can see themselves in. In a cinematic climate that pumps out superhero movies on the regular, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is proof that the genre can be magical.
Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order):
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Lean on Pete
Leave No Trace
A Simple Favor
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?