2018 was a mixed year for film overall. There were several notable studio blockbusters worthy of discussion but for the first time in my adult life, I found myself predominantly attracted to smaller independent/personal films this year as opposed to the largest studio blockbusters. I enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War as much as anyone else but it was far from the film that inspired me to think about it obsessively and watch it multiple times. That’s not to say that big-budget studio films don’t find a home on this list. They certainly do.
Most of the year’s best films were unexpected. While some established directors like The Coen Brothers (Big Lebowski), Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) made the list, most of the films that gripped me and hit close to home were the ones that nobody expected. This year was also an excellent year for documentaries, bringing us unexpectedly excellent non-fiction films like Three Identical Strangers and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. As with every year, the final months have proven to be full of unexpected surprises with big exciting thrillers from established directors (Widows, First Man, Suspiria) and the inevitable parade of Oscar-bait films desperately clinging for Awards Nominations (Vice, Mary Poppins Returns, etc.).
2018 represented the surprising arrival of Netflix as a mainstream platform for widespread distribution. Starting this year with The Cloverfield Paradox’s Superbowl fiasco, the platform rounded out the year with a slate of one of their best original content selections ever with half a dozen of the year’s most interesting independent films like Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The year also brought its fair share of disappointments as iterations of the Star Wars, Predator, Incredibles, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter franchises were released to largely negative fanfare. There is obviously a great deal to discuss regarding the ups and downs of cinema for this year.
Without further ado, I’ll end the year on a bit of housecleaning before diving into the Best 15 films of 2018!
Notable Films I Didn’t Catch In Time This Year: The Favourite, Burning, Psycho-Kinesis, Blindspotting, Mary Poppins Returns, Cold War, Mirai, etc.
Weakest Films of 2018: The Cloverfield Paradox, The Predator, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Best F(r)iends, Ready Player One, Pacific Rim Uprising, Fantastic Beasts 2
Most Fun Bad Film of 2018: Death Wish (2018)
Runners Up: The Mule, The Quiet Place, Paddington 2, Unsane, First Man, Suspiria, Widows, Avengers: Infinity War, Isle of Dogs, Bad Times at the El Royale, Sorry to Bother You, Blackkklansman, etc.
15. They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson’s follow up to The Hobbit Trilogy came in a surprisingly modest form. Using footage and audio interviews from the British Imperial War Museum, the director strung together and restored a bleak and surreal vision of life in the trenches of The First World War from the perspective of a ground soldier. The result is a technical achievement worthy of commendation and a powerful vision of human suffering.
14. Black Panther
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been struggling to maintain itself under the weight of its massive continuity and expectations. Several of its recent films like Spiderman: Homecoming and Captain America: Civil War felt bloated and light on the important character drama that lies at the heart of great superhero adaptions. With Black Panther and it’s two predecessors Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel crafted a surprising trilogy of films that all found new ways to imbue comedy, tragedy and thematic depth into the superhero genre by giving talented young directors like Ryan Coogler a chance to tell their own stories.
13. You Were Never Really Here
This story of post-Iraq War PTSD is frequently touted as a modern incarnation of Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver. While the comparison is apt, what is frequently left out of the discussion is what kind of movie that makes this. Scorsese’s film is a surreal, melancholic dream about isolation and violence. You Were Never Really Here is a nightmare about the fear of a veteran’s inability to control his life. It sets up its character as a violet hitman but never gives us a scene of him doing the action up close. It’s a story about the lack of catharsis inherent in returning home from war.
12. Mission Impossible: Fallout
The newest iteration of the Mission Impossible franchise is widely regarded as not only the best in its series but one of the best studio blockbuster films in years. As a suspense thriller, it’s one of the best examples of its genre in years. Tom Cruise goes all out, putting his body on the line in several of the most death-defying students the growingly insane actor has ever attempted. If I have any complaint at all it’s merely that the plots of these movies are starting to retread their stories a bit too frequently. That said, MI-6 is an excellent example of style proving itself more than an excellent replacement for substance. It’s one of the most excellently directed Hollywood action films in years and director Christopher McQuarrie deserves the credit for that accomplishment.
11. First Reformed
This film shares a connection with You Were Never Really Here in its connection to the Taxi Driver. Whereas that film was merely an homage to the film, First Reformed was written and directed by that film’s original screenwriter Paul Schrader. Here Schrader presents us with a muted world waiting for its imminent demise. All of its characters are in different stages of mourning or physical illness. The environment is being corrupted by humans and the titular First Reformed Church our lead character is a pastor for is a sponsored shell of itself that sees more visitors in its gift shop than its sanctuary. It’s a fascinating exploration of the loss of faith in the face of hardship.
That being said, this film would be much higher on the list if I wasn’t concerned that this film was low-key advocating for suicide bombings against corporations.
Alfonso Cuaron is a director who has made his mark with large studio films like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity. Using the immense success those films have brought him, he here brings a much smaller intimate story borrowing much of the style of the classic Italian Neo-realists to tell the touching life story of the nanny who raised him growing up in Mexico. It’s a slow burn but the moments hit hard when you see just how much mundane suffering the characters in this film are forced to deal with.
9. Eighth Grade
Growing up with social anxiety is difficult. Growing up with it in the age of the internet intensifies the problem in fascinating ways. Comedian Bo Burnham’s comedy about adolescence and coming of age in the information age hits extremely close to him for me as someone who grew up struggling with how to connect with people. Here the internet only serves to drive people farther apart as the gaps it leaves for unpopular people great bizarre spaces where your moments of self-expression on Instagram and YouTube get thrown out into an empty unacknowledged void.
8. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
There was a great deal of reason to assume the newest Spiderman film from the screenwriters of The LEGO Movie would be good but nobody expected the film to be as excellent as it was. It’s a fascinating deconstruction of all eras of Spiderman and it’s different incarnations on film and in comics similar in style to last year’s The LEGO Batman Movie but hits a great deal closer to home than even that film did. The story of Miles Morales inheriting the Spiderman title from Peter Parker isn’t merely the story about who Spiderman is but what it means to be a hero itself. Seeing him get hilariously heralded into this new position by the alternate universe Spider-People is just part of the fun.
This is one of the best examples of a film that benefits from having no expectations going into it. I could tell you the basic set up and the gimmick but you’d be missing out on the joy of getting to experience it blindly as I did. Searching is one of the most impressive and creative thrillers in a year full of old-school suspense thrillers. It’s a movie defined by its creative limitations. Half the fun is just getting to watch the movie play out its story through the lens of having to tell its story on an extremely limited scope and it manages to do so perfectly. The second time I watched this film with a close friend, she was tearing up at the climax while I was at the edge of my seat.
Alex Garland is rapidly becoming the most creative and important science fiction director working today. His last film Ex Machina was one of the best films of 2015 and here he is back with his most ambitious film yet. Borrowing heavily in style from classic science fiction films like 2001 and Solaris, Annihilation tells us a powerful story about five scientists being sent into a mysterious zone that warps, reflects and intensifies everything within its boundaries. As a science fiction film it’s brimming with complex ideas about regret and trauma and as a horror movie, it packs several of the most visceral and intense moments you’ll see in a movie this year.
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers are the greatest directors alive. That might not be controversial given that they’ve made excellent films like True Grit, Fargo and No Country for Old Men that plainly show their strengths but their films age like fine wine with every year. In fifty years they will likely be the directors we talk about now with an air of romance and mysticism. Most of their films rare go down easy the first viewing but with multiple viewings and reflection they almost always turn out to be masterpieces. Their newest film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is anything but a conventional western. It’s a bleak, violent exploration of morality and existentialism set against the old west. Each of the film’s six anthology stories takes a different tone and story and explores a different facet morality. As is the case with many of their movies, the eternal question that lies at the heart of The Book of Job lays at the heart of each moral quandary as these mere humans look up into the heavens and question their suffering.
There is a lot brewing under the surface of Panos Cosmato’s horror/comedy Mandy. What is sold initially as yet another wacky Nicolas Cage performance ends up being a surprisingly melancholy exploration of hopelessness and coping mechanisms. Each character we meet in the film is living in a different state of depression or co-dependancy and as their addictions and emotions boil over and start stealing from one another the full darkness in their hearts begins to boil over. Mandy is a story of vengeance and vice going as far as physically possible to the point where all that is left is death and madness. Along the way, you’ll get to enjoy the pleasures of chainsaw duels, ax smelting and one of the most over the top Nicolas Cage performances of all time.
3. The Death of Stalin
There is no way you could make a film on a computer and sculpt something more specifically for me than this film. The easiest way to explain what this movie is is just to call it Monty Python does Soviet Russia. Unfortunately, that’s radically underselling it. The film is a hilariously dark satire about life in the Soviet Union during and immediately following the death of Joseph Stalin that explores the bureaucratic and inhumane nightmare of life at that time. It’s the story of evil begetting evil in one of the most destructive regimes the world has ever seen. Truly, if it wasn’t one of the funniest comedies in years, this would be as bleak a film as Schindler’s List.
2. Won’t You Be My Neighbor
This film forms a fascinating bond with The Death of Stalin in that both films seemingly answer the same question. If that film was about how evil perpetuates itself when left unchecked, that this film posits the quest as to whether evil can be stopped at all. This excellent documentary from documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead) is merely an exploration of the life of Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. In being that, it’s one of the sweetest and most powerful pieces of film I’ve ever seen. In an age when almost everyone has skeletons in the closet and where the art you love can be compromised by the artist’s indiscretions, it’s relieving being able to listen to the life of a man who lived a full life of Christian loving kindness who ultimately didn’t have something massively wrong with him. Beyond that, it’s a beautiful expression of just how far goodness and kindness can go to impact the lives around us. In the current political climate, that’s a beautiful message.
The Best Film of 2018: The Other Side of the Wind
Orson Welles is the greatest director in the history of cinema. While he is most famous for Citizen Kane, he directed nearly a dozen other masterpieces of cinema that largely flew under the radar. He died in 1985 with several film projects uncompleted including one extensive project he started in 1970 that he famously spent the last years of his life attempting to seek out funding to finish. Now in 2018, thanks to a massive post-production budget provided by Netflix, Orson Welles’ final masterpiece is available for streaming. It’s a brazen, jazz-laden mockumentary about egotism and perversion in 1970s Hollywood as we see the elderly director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) slowly unravel over the course of his last night on earth. It’s a masterpiece any fans of the history of cinema should immediately seek out.
What were your favorite films of 2018? These 15 are just my opinion. There are no right answers of course! Comment your favorites below!DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.