Special thanks to comic artist @RentonHawkey for this year's header image.
It was an amazing year at the movies, possibly the best since 1999 or 1994. So much so, that my usual attempt at curating a “top 10” list would be impossible. This year, I want to recognize 22 films, and even with the increased size of this list, there’s still several deserving contenders that didn’t quite make the cut. My top 5 favorite films of the year could easily qualify as the best film of any given year. Here they are, my favorites of the year, ranked in order of preference:
22. Anna and the Apocalypse
If you’re going to make a movie that is a zombie-romantic-comedy-Christmas-musical, I’m going to put it on my best-of-the-year list, full stop. That level of inspired/demented genre-blending deserves a nod in and of itself. This delight of a flick is executed with joy, great performances, catchy songs, and a nice dose of cultural-corrective-to-JohnHughes for good measure. Martin Scorsese has often said that the musical format is in many ways the height of cinema, the combination of music and sound as the truest expression of the medium - I don’t agree, I’ve never been much a fan of the genre in particular, but when one really does work for me, it’s quite an exhilarating experience.
21. Support the Girls
Sometimes it takes the absence of something to really appreciate it. In recent years, the smart workplace-comedy genre that produced so many hilarious classics in the 70s and 80s seems to have all but disappeared. Support the Girls is a welcome return - a comedy grounded in hardship, filled with sympathetic characters, nuance, based in a recognizable contemporary setting, filled with authentic details specific to the vocation focused in the story, and it’s damned funny. It’s a formula, if followed with honesty, is almost guaranteed for success - take note, studios - watch and learn.
This is a science fiction film that manages to bring many of the elements that exist in the icons of the literary form but often fail to make it onto the screen. It has a genuine sense of mystery and profundity: characters are confronted with experiences that are genuinely alien to them, beyond comprehension, and through the examination of these moments, the very idea of humanity itself is subjected to interrogation. That reflection, that truth, can be humbling and shocking to the core. It also has an aesthetic visual sense that is not cliché - with the proliferation of big-budget sci-fi action films, a number of the tropes and images have become stale, but in Annihilation, the colorful, soap-bubble/hologram haze of beauty that spreads throughout the locations and beings creates a distinct and otherworldly aura, culminating in a final sequence of image and sound that echoes the awe and bewilderment of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
19. A Quiet Place
There is not an ounce of fat on this movie. It is structured to laser precision, not a moment wasted. The world-building is sparse but effective. John Krasinski directs this debut film with the assurance of a veteran, never indulging in cleverness for clever’s sake, or lingering on cool shots or anything gratuitous. Thriller/horror films know how to weaponize silence - to use it to increase tension before a big surprise moment punctuated by sound - and this film takes that technique to another level. Instead of watering down the effectiveness of the silence, its selective and disciplined use of audio create a world in which those tensions and discomfort are pervasive. The choice to feature deaf actress Millicent Simmonds was an enormous gift to the film - not only is she a talented performer, but her life experience brings an authenticity to this soundless world that is undeniable.
18. A Star is Born
Director Bradley Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique managed to convey the experience of being in the whirlwind of celebrity through a clever choice in camera lenses and a heavy reliance on the use of steadicam. A number of early reviews of the film expressed a distaste for the more intimate framing of its subjects as if it were some ego trip - excusez mon français, but they missed the fucking point. The point was not to make a bunch of hero shots and linger on the performers for vanity’s sake - it was to bring the audience into their subjective point of view. For these performers, the crowds, the noises, the lights, the locations - occur as a spinning and out-of-focus environment that’s constantly on the move. One which lacks a sense of balance. One that never feels at home, rested, or at peace. Either craving attention or just getting it all the time just to get by, being at the center of a tornado of bullshit that doesn’t seem connected to the passion - the music - that brought you there in the first place.
Lady Gaga’s a capella rendition of the signature song from the movie was such a goosebump-inducing moment, an explosion of talent, a raw force of song that hits like a tidal wave - easily one of the top movie moments of the year. The storyteling is structured in a fast-and-episodic way that allows audiences' imagination to fill in the gaps, to skip over the mundane to get right to the important parts, to go on a more epic journey.
Steve McQueen’s thriller brought one of the more extraordinary audience reactions I’ve experienced in a theater in the past five years or so - there’s a surprise packed in the film, and when that surprise was sprung, the audience I was with audibly gasped. Loud. It’s a testament to McQueen’s handling of this well-trodden revenge/heist territory that he imbues it with such freshness and originality. Turning expectations upon its head, casting Viola Davis in a role that’d normally go to a Liam Neeson type, while having her in a relationship with Liam Neeson, gives a stark reminder as to how implicit gender expectations are pre-woven into this brand of material. Elizabeth Debicki gives a star-making supporting performance, and the ensemble cast makes every character flawed and complicated, putting you directly invested in the fates of several supporting characters at a level of connection that often doesn’t come for leading ones.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is among the most talented directors in cinema today - his films are overflowing with keenly observed compassion for its characters, but unlike a lot of dramatists who focus on slice-of-life toned stories, Kore-eda can find a unique, sometimes whimsical, framing device in which to experience the characters. My favorite of his films, After Life, follows characters in a quasi-purgatory realm. In Shoplifters, he collects a group of characters via an undisclosed series of connections - finding out those connections are part of the joy of the discovery of the film. It’s a film about the families we choose - as opposed to those that are forced upon us by accident of birth. It’s a story about hustlers and bottom-feeding grifts, a collection of discards and forgottens, choosing to bind themselves together.
15. You Were Never Really Here
This film is an almost Buddhist-like experience, a meditation on a theme, rocking back and forth, at a consistent energy - a mantra chant of post-traumatic stress, channeled through the specific peculiarities of Joaquin Phoenix’s haunted visage. The sparse interjections of original sound (is it music?) are just plain batshit-in-a-good-way, transporting viewers into the troubled psyche of Phoenix’s reluctant anti-hero. The film manages to convey over-the-top violence without resorting to gratuitous techniques. It builds toward a standard cathartic climactic point - but then denies audiences any gratuitous or vicarious highs from payback/revenge-violence, creating an oddly even more satisfying, if unconventional, conclusion. Director Lynne Ramsay has delivered a unified vision, combining performance, photography, music and sound effects in service of a chilling and unsparing immersion into melancholic, joyless survival.
14. Cold War
Paweł Pawlikowski’s period piece, set in post-WWII Poland and various parts of Europe, brings to screen one of the most epic cinematic romances in years. Viewed over a course of many years and many countries, the central relationship, in a dynamic pairing between actors Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, explore a theme of incessant dissatisfaction and longing. Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is just glorious - often rendering Kulig, whose character is bathed in stage lights as a musical performer, in luminous fashion befitting a classic Hollywood star. At a running time of 85 minutes, the film propels forward with a momentum that rolls through years and pivotal moments with sheer velocity, covering an array of angles of this fascinating, flawed, complex, and devastating couple. Kot and Kulig’s on-screen chemistry is electric, and I hope to see more from both performers.
13. Eighth Grade
Let me save you the trouble of debating whether Eighth Grade is a comedy or a drama: it’s a horror film. It is an immersive re-living of teenage terrors with bone-chilling accuracy. I thought the Generation-X version of real-life eighth grade was hard enough when I lived through it, but witnessing the contemporary experience - with all of that awkwardness and self-doubt mediated through screens and social media, quantified with likes, shares, and view-counts - was both mesmerizing and terrifying. Bo Burnham’s direction is note-perfect, and the breakout lead performance by Elsie Fisher is often heart-wrenching.
12. Black Panther
It’s an aphorism about storytelling to say that there are only seven basic plots to be told. Black Panther arrived in cinemas as the 18th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Think piece after think piece in the past five years has questioned, are we experiencing superhero fatigue? Can this formula show us anything new? Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and Producer Kevin Feige had an authoritative answer - a resounding yes. Coogler, in collaboration with production designer Hannah Beachler, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison rendered a breathtakingly original new world, informed by Afrofuturist aesthetics. In addition to the originality of the visual style of the production, the ensemble cast are extraordinary - Chadwick Boseman’s serene and dignified heroism as T’Challa, Michael B Jordan’s fiery revolutionary Killmonger, Letitia Wright’s luminous genius and humor as Shuri, Danai Gurira’s honorable and intelligent warrior as Okoye, but perhaps my favorite is Winston Duke’s acerbic, bemused, detached, wry M’Baku.
11. The Other Side of the Wind
It’s impossible to separate the journey to this film’s existence from the experience of watching and evaluating the film itself. I waited for this movie for almost twice as long as I waited for the Star Wars prequels. The mythology surrounding the making of this lost final film, from the director of my favorite film of all time, was just so intoxicating - hundreds of film reels locked away in a vault, for decades, due to legal reasons. But how to judge and consider the film itself? As a masterpiece of sorts, ahead of its time, and as autobiographical and illuminating as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century ever allowed himself to be. A movie captured in analog film and video formats, but somehow completely at place in the social-media landscape of 2018. The primary set-piece of the film, a party conveyed by found footage captured by party-goers and documentarians, feels almost as if it was compiled by an algorithm on Instagram as much as it was orchestrated by Orson Welles. The man who conquered the medium of radio, staged some of the greatest productions in American theater history, and made the best film of them all, somehow also managed to anticipate the experience of the digital age he did not live to see himself.
It’s a shame the Motion Picture Academy didn’t recognize John Huston for this performance. It is a phenomenal piece of work, up there with his best. And it’s all the more amazing, considering that some key moments of audio were lost - and his dialogue was dubbed by his son Danny. It’s also a shame the editors did not get recognition - the reconstruction done here was truly an extraordinary piece of cinematic rescue and re-creation.
10. First Reformed
On January 22nd, 2019, a robbery occurred occurred at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills when it was announced that Ethan Hawke was not among the nominees for Best Actor. Hawke’s a performer whose career choices I have admired, if not always his performances, which I’ve found to be inconsistent. But this is arguably a career peak, in a role that transmits such weariness, weight, spiritual conflict, and moral reckoning. Paul Schrader’s film is a thematic sequel to the classic Taxi Driver - both films centering on an increasingly isolated figure who is attracted to notions of becoming an avenging angel. The film invests a lot in exploring the idea of a fallen world, a world just plain gone to shit, where the church and maybe even God has abandoned any constructive role to play. The film, among many other topics it explores, examines the battles of a small church offering an authentic engagement on matters of faith and struggles of the real world confronting a community that seems to prefer superficialities in their Sunday routines - lights, sound equipment, upbeat self-help-messaging. Hawke plays a priest confronting the most difficult questions of contemporary life - and never shies away from them, never opting for easy or pat answers. It’s a supernatural-cosmic heavyweight boxing match that goes the distance - with each jab, hook, and uppercut bringing a non-stop escalating tension, an ultimate test of faith, one which builds and builds to a transcendent final round.
I ain’t gonna lie, this Russian tragedy is dark, ice-core, soul-crushing; a bleak film without hope, an almost excruciating two hours and seven minutes. How’s that for an endorsement? Put that on the fuckin’ poster, eh? The depths of sorrow and loss, at a family level, permeate minute after minute, and as the film continues it’s an utterly draining experience. Cold, sad, brutal. There’s a moment of all-too-real quiet hopelessness conveyed by a child actor in this film that’s one of the most unforgettable moments of film I’ve ever seen, and at the time it rolls across the screen you’re unaware of the full impact that moment is going to have, but as the story unfolds, your mind can’t help returning to it - an indelible image of a helpless innocent overwhelmed by the adult forces in his life.
One of my favorite structures for a film or play is one in which our focus is essentially on two intersecting character arcs, where over the course of a story, one becomes other: alpha becomes beta and beta becomes alpha, hot becomes cold and cold becomes hot. My two favorite examples of this are the film The Dreamlife of Angels and the play True West, both of which have intersecting character arcs that, if plotted on a graph, would resemble an “X”. Thoroughbreds is heavily focused on the two lead performances by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, in intimate settings not unlike a stage play. The progression of character through each act is a textbook exercise in rising tensions and stakes, culminating in a cathartic finale. This film is also sadly notable as one of the final performances of Anton Yelchin, who died tragically at age 27 before the film was completed. He often played characters filled with optimistic energy, intelligence, and precociousness, but this performance signaled another layer to his range, playing a more weary and dark character, one that operates on instinct. Such a profound loss for the movie world. He will be missed.
The horror genre doesn’t do much for me - it’s often just a lot of effect-driven pandering, and the trailers consist of the lowest-common-denominator “BOO!” moments with overwrought sound booms and screams. I don’t believe in ghosts or haunted houses or demons or anything of the sort. The only “horror” I usually get to experience in cinema is when it is smuggled in via fantasy/sci-fi stories, or social commentary, and in those cases the supernatural elements work at a metaphoric level. But, Hereditary sneaks up on you. The majority of the film plays off the supernatural elements as-if they could be genetically inherited mental illnesses. But by the end, it lays its cards on the table, fully embracing the unreal, and those sequences achieve genuine awe and marvel and terror. In addition to Toni Collette’s incredible shattered and untethered performance, this film is notable for containing the single biggest shock moment of the year.
6. Infinity War
Infinity War isn’t so much a single movie as it is a culmination of more than a dozen other movies - a meta-movie climax that builds upon a decade-plus of storytelling and character investment. Among the many things to be amazed by this movie is the creation of Thanos, a combination of Josh Brolin and the effects team. They managed to imbue Marvel’s biggest big-bad with a quest dominated by a personal code of morality - a twisted code, but a code nonetheless. In the comics, Thanos’s quest is given emotional weight as a part of his obsessive love of the character of Death - which always struck me as bizarre and hard to connect with - but Brolin’s Thanos feels almost human, encumbered by purpose, and forced to make a genuine sacrifice to serve what he sees as the greater good. Another amazing thing is that Kevin Feige and the MCU team managed to make one of the most iconic moments in comics history - SNAP! - land with full surprise and impact. They kept the spoilers secret. Many of us veteran comics-to-film fans just naturally assumed they wouldn’t fully “go there” - and yet, there we found ourselves at the end of the journey, stunned and anxious for more. The sense of tension and angst as the credits rolled after the cliffhanger at the end of film was palpable in the auditorium.
The Russo brothers have become the perfect custodians of the signature Marvel franchise. They manage to weave a number of character arcs, worlds, genres, tones, with surprising consistency. They know how to make a character’s first appearance in a film pop (see: Captain America). They know how to suggest massive scale (see: Tony Stark wandering the streets, turning a corner, and happening upon a cosmic foe). They know how to tug at the heart-strings when needed (see: “I don’t feel so good, Mister Stark”). They know how to build threats and display powers in conflict (see: Cap v. Thanos). And in this film in particular, they know how to channel one hell of a rage-inflected opening-up-a-can-of-whoopass (see: “BRING! ME! THANOS!”).
5. Mission Impossible: Fallout
If you could isolate the forty-five minutes of MI:Fallout that are stunts and action, you would have the greatest pure cinematic experience in the history of the movies. What is cinema if not moving images and sound? Those sequences are the art-form in its purest uncut cocaine variety - and they are utterly fucking thrilling. Tom Cruise deserves some kind of special Oscar for inventing a new kind of performance since he does his own stunt-work: it’s a combination of dramatic film acting with the added adrenaline rush of a potential snuff film - the question isn’t just whether the character Ethan Hunt going to escape the situation, it’s oh-my-God is Tom Cruise going to die on film right in front of me?
But those 45 minutes aren’t the only thing to admire here, they only work as well as they do because of the rest of the filmmaking tapestry. Christopher McQuarrie has managed to spin an engaging espionage tale, with plenty of surprises and twists and perhaps for the first time in the series, a genuine emotional arc that all of the time invested in the series until now pays off. There are stunningly gorgeous locations, brilliant lighting, and a sense of pace that is relentless.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is in the argument for best superhero movie of all time, but it’s no question that it’s the most comic-booky of them all. The medium of animation lends itself more fully to the source material, and this film luxuriates in embracing the grammar of comic book storytelling, with captions, narration, word balloons, text-driven “sound” effects (e.g. “TWHIP!”).
It’s in vogue today in superhero-related movie talk to advocate for getting rid of origin stories altogether, especially for those characters for whom we know the broad outlines of their beginnings. Into the Spider-Verse even makes a sideways reference to this by distilling multiple “origin stories” into quickie sequences. But these origins are handled in such a way as to feel like they are the fuel to the engine of the story, not some burden of references or check-boxes to be ticked.
It’s also in vogue to dismiss Joseph Campbellian mythic structures and themes, but Spider-Verse has it in abundance, especially in its central theme - anyone can wear the mask of a hero. It also revisits these themes and structures with a freshness and vitality that feels genuinely new. The array of Spider-protagonists have complicated human journeys that are grounded in authentic character moments. There are about a half-dozen moments of emotional impact that wallop, including the best Stan Lee cameo of them all - packed inside of a sequence grieving the loss of a hero, just mere weeks after the passing of the legendary Marvel E-i-C.
Alfonso Cuarón is quite possibly my favorite director currently at the height of his creative powers - it’s a close call between him and Denis Villeneuve. Both filmmakers have recently turned to effects or genre-driven spectacles. After the space-driven survival drama of Gravity, Cuarón goes to another extreme, with a personal, black-and-white period piece set in early-1970s Mexico focusing on the life of a housekeeper, starring a cast of mostly inexperienced/nonprofessional actors.
Cuarón pulls multiple duties, serving not only as writer-director but also as editor and cinematographer. The black and white photography is breathtakingly beautiful, whether it is in the opening shots of reflections on water, or in some of the epic long-take shots for which Cuarón is known. Cuarón’s most famous long single-take-shot is from Children of Men, involving moving vehicles and stunning action, but there are a couple of long single-take shots in Roma that rival or surpass it. One in particular is an indoor scene, an almost clichéd movie/tv/soap-opera drama moment, but Cuarón depicts it with such unflinching brutal honesty - the moment is so harrowing it likely makes many audiences avert their eyes, just too much to absorb continuously.
Yalitza Aparicio stars as the main character, a housekeeper, in an ensemble cast that features several children in a large family. Aparicio plays a character with humility and reserved emotions, and considering her inexperience in screen acting, it’s a minor miracle that she’s able to convey on screen the fullness of humanity that she does. The concluding moments of her performance unleash a raw energy that’s just stunning to behold.
Co-screenwriter and Director Lee Chang-dong brings audiences on a winding journey, one that snakes and weaves in unexpected directions, one that pulses with an organic energy that feels utterly spontaneous. Character arcs and pivotal events spark and explode as if random fireworks on display. I walked into this film entirely cold, not even seeing a trailer, and I highly recommend doing the same. As several act breaks occur, it becomes possible to conceive of this film as having subtly shifted genres. Is it a thriller? A romance? A slice-of-life drama? Don’t answer now, you might change your mind later.
Steven Yeun gives a blistering performance, inhabiting a character type that’s become a screen-acting cliché, but he revels in the possibilities and provides an entirely new interpretation. I don’t want to spoil the character type to which I’m referring, because part of the beauty of his performance is the discovery. There’s a surface level to his performance, but he commands an expansive, nuanced, and multi-dimensional presence - it’s the best screen acting of the year, building appreciation and awareness and stays with you for hours, weeks, months after you see it.
1. Sorry to Bother You
No American film in recent years, perhaps decades, has had as much to say about contemporary life and culture as Boots Riley’s hilarious and incendiary satire “Sorry to Bother You.” I haven’t felt this level of forward-looking engagement with social, political, and economic trends since Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network.
Lakeith Stanfield is perhaps my favorite actor working today. His work in Atlanta and Get Out had already displayed several modes that he can succeed in. He can be whimsical. He can seem distracted and then abruptly shift into being more present and biting in the moment than any character in a scene. He can roll out bemused philosophy, a stoner-poet affectation, with dialogue and body language, but as anyone who saw Get Out can attest - he can exude terror with the slightest glance.
Stanfield’s eyes are put to great use in Sorry to Bother You. He inhabits an everyman, an everyman cursed with the ability to see through systems of exploitation, and struggle on a moment-by-moment basis whether to fight those tigers or ride them.
The film isn’t just laugh-out-loud funny, it’s did-I-just-hurt-myself I-need-to-leave-and-come-back funny. Armie Hammer gives a deliciously evil turn as a fully committed exploitative post-industrialist, a gently calm, smiling, beatific and pleasant presentation of the banality of evil. Patton Oswalt and David Cross serve as a side-splitting duo of excessively “white-sounding” voices, and Tessa Thompson portrays a fascinating revolutionary artist, almost an avatar for Riley himself, filled with complexities and self-examination on the performative aspects of protest.
No other film in 2018, a banner year for cinema, was as thrilling to engage with. Scene after scene were filled with meaning, energy, and turned its eye inward on America, with searing awareness and potential for prophecy.