People were putting out their 2018 top ten lists, in some cases, on December 1st. Maybe by waiting until the dawn of a polar vortex-filled February, I compensate for all those who jump the gun. But I also had time to think, to see the movies still playing in cinemas, and to compare until I felt sure these were the best choices. And as you will see, I have eleven!
An interesting note on this list: December 2018 may rank as one of the finest moviegoing months of my life. The films ranked in places 8, 7, 4, 3, and 1 were all seen in one month, either in theaters or on Netflix, and I caught up with enough in January 2019 to make sure this was not a fluke.
- Can You Ever Forgive Me?
There is so much to admire in this work of beauty that gets biopics right where so many others fail. (Always, always, concentrate on one period of the subject’s life and never the whole story…but, for the first time, I digress.) In a year when it seemed a trove of great female filmmakers were passed over for recognition—though not on this list; four of the eleven films were helmed by women, and that was NOT due to me working towards gender parity but due to me really loving these movies—Marielle Heller particularly shines with a direction full of darkness, loneliness, and shadow. Even brightly lit rooms feel muted in Heller’s world. The film’s lucky enough to boast an extraordinary double act in Melissa McCarthy, shedding her comic skin to capture the anger of Lee Israel, and Richard E. Grant incarnating a trickster god. But what makes this a highly subjective pick for me is the screenplay, adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s memoirs—few films have so perfectly captured the psychology of the writer, the way writers deal with career uncertainty, crowds, talking to others, talking to others about their work, the painstaking act of writing itself. It’s almost frightening to be so seen.
- Set It Up/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Another thing four of the eleven movies on this list have in common is that they’re Netflix productions, and these two movies tie for a spot on the list because I didn’t have a better time watching anything this year. One of the particular geniuses of Netflix is that they invest in movies which, over the past decade, the major studios stopped making as they retooled for the international market and the Oscars with little (broad comedies and horror) in between. The intelligent, not-that-expensive romantic comedy was one of many genres to fall by the wayside. Then this summer, Netflix unleashed this one-two punch that seemed to capture everyone’s hearts, and for great reason: these pictures barely broke the bank, were cleverly written, and most of all avoided the stupid traps that too many rom-coms fell into near their conclusions. There’s no moments where someone lies to someone else for two-thirds of the story and then finally get caught, no misunderstandings blown out of proportion, no Atonement syndrome (to borrow a phrase from the great Kal-El Bogadnove) where all the problems would be cleared up if someone said one sentence of information. These are movies where even the teenagers are mature, people communicate clearly and honestly, and the drama is genuine while the laughter keeps coming, all building up to endings that definitely feel earned.
(These were also movies written and directed by only women. Sensing a pattern here?)
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (directed by Susan Johnson and adapted from Jenny Han’s novel by Sofia Alvarez, with Netflix already having plans for the rest of the trilogy) ended up getting the most love and rightfully so! It took a great high concept premise—a teenage girl’s letters to the five crushes on get delivered—and never let happen any of the things I expected to happen, which is rare indeed. Throwing in Lana Condor and Noah Centineo as the appealing leads, a supporting cast full of surprising depth (the relationship between the older sister and the neighbor didn’t have to get that complex), and the always welcome John Corbett as the widowed father who loves chardonnay and heartfelt monologues only helped.
But I slightly preferred Set It Up (directed by Claire Scanlon from Katie Silberman’s screenplay), which kept me laughing from beginning to end thanks to a non-stop succession of terrific set pieces and great one-liners powered by four of the most charming leads you’ll ever see: Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs as the wealthy, ballsy executives, and Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as the two beleaguered assistants who get through the dicking around and conspire to Cyrano their bosses. As Dorothy Parker said about Hemingway, it’s so simple, but you try to do it.
The Palme d’Or winner for 2018 is, along with the next film, one of the two great movies that speak to this moment in world history while holding the qualities that will make it endure. As a writer, Hirokazu Koreeda pens one of the cleverest screenplays of our time. His story of a Tokyo family crammed into the grandmother’s single apartment and living off hustles and shoplifting gets the inciting incident overwith as soon as the credits roll, as they take in an abused and abandoned little girl. This simple choice snowballs into consequences that fill the second half of the movie with multiple twists and emotional gut punches. As a director, Koreeda lifts from Ozu and Mizoguchi with a static camera that observes the natural behavior of actors you don’t believe are actors and the environment they try to navigate with intimacy both charming and so probing it hurts. As we follow the elderly, the adults with menial jobs and trying to get what pleasures they can from life, and the younger ones who are conflicted about sex work or face totally unknown futures, the look at life on the margins is nothing but searing and unforgettable.
- Private Life
Tamara Jenkins has only directed one film per decade. This is a crime. Her third feature, brought to us by the grace of God and Netflix, is all the proof one needs she should be working more often. It’s a chamber piece of a movie, mostly unfolding over conversations in rooms where people, comfortably or not, bare their souls. It also, like Shoplifters, strikes a perfect balance with its characters who are constantly aware of the world’s problems yet also focus on their own wants, needs, and dreams. Jenkins’s script delights in language and plays everything with a mix of hilarity, heartbreak, and a deep love that pushes people to do things for others even when they don’t always want to. In short, it’s a reminder of our humanity in a time when we need it and not all movies show it. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are outstanding as the aging artists trying to have a baby in a time and place full of uncertainty; rarely have I loved two people more, as they make even Richard and Rachel’s flaws empathetic. And if there’s any justice, not only will Jenkins be granted more opportunities, but Kayli Carter, in an indelible role as a young relation who can lend a helping hand, will become a star.
- A Star Is Born
Did we need a fourth version of what Karina Longworth calls Hollywood’s greatest myth about itself? It turns out, we did. There’s can be a magnificent pleasure in seeing a well-told story get retold, linking back to the past and pointing to the future. (For more on this, I refer you to my friend Sarah Welch-Larson’s essay reading the film through the lens of Ecclesiastes.) And this time, Bradley Cooper (along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, pulling hard from the 1954 Hart and 1976 Didion/Dunne/Pierson scripts) adds a new layer to the story. Jackson Maine is still an addict fighting not so much for stardom as for survival, Ally Campana is still the determined ingenue who doesn’t realize how great she is, and their love is still tempestuous and old-school romantic (for good AND ill). But Cooper (who apparently read Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird multiple times during pre-production) introduces the idea that Jackson and Ally have been shaped by parents and parental figures with whom they have complex relationships…and how those ties are lessened as they find new figures and new people to strive for…and how this all plays out as they navigate their bond with each other. If the ending is the same, these details make Jackson’s fate and Ally’s last choices all the more poignant; I could feel people sobbing through the theater when I saw it the first time. Cooper and Lady Gaga, who is so reminiscent of Cher in her best movies, play it low-key and natural to great effect, Sam Elliott has never been so magical, Cooper’s novice direction is as confident and assured as you can get, and the music is great from the first frame to the last. You couldn’t ask for a more Hollywoodish time in the best way.
(Note: with this, Crazy Rich Asians, and the Conjuring series, Warner Bros. is singlehandedly reminding Hollywood that medium-budget films can make terrific money if you give the audiences an experience they haven’t had before.)
- Black Panther
Is Black Panther the finest live-action superhero movie ever made? It doesn’t feel like a mere chapter in an ongoing comic book her saga as it does an extraordinary alternate universe. Ryan Coogler, working with Joe Robert Cole, Rachel Morrison, and a production design team without peer makes Wakanda and the world surrounding it real as anything you could reach out and touch, effortlessly shifting from long takes that soak in the atmosphere to thrilling set pieces shot like few others could. More importantly, while so many recent movies fail to create compelling villains or conflicts as much as excuses to watch characters hang out and use their cool abilities, Coogler and Cole write the battle between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger as one not merely of good versus evil but one of different ideologies which complicate our notions of right and wrong. (As FilmCritHulk so magnificently puts it here.) Everything may be decided by a final all-out battle between superpowered men in tech suits, but the real war is one of ideas forged from the weight of history, culminating in the single most beautiful shot I saw this year in film. (That also made me cry for thirty seconds.) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o effortlessly carry the movie and its themes leading a note-perfect ensemble cast…and the presence of Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, and others provide the final masterstroke. Black Panther has so much on its mind and says it in a way to make you think and not stop thinking, but unlike Nolan and Snyder’s similarly grandiose epics, it never forgets that at heart, superheroes are fun, and having a sense of humor and thrills to make you smile are just as important.
- The Favourite
Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove get in the Large Hadron Collider and fuse…but Stanley Kubrick was never inclined to put the focus on women, and he rarely kept it as surreal as Yorgos Lanthimos does. A black comedy for the ages, Lanthimos crafts every moment with the knowing, graceful control of the Vivaldi music that provides the score, using different lenses and fluid movements to thrust the viewers into the action and balancing the serious talk with anachronistic dances, more animals than you’d expect, more mud and filth than you’d have guessed, and the most uninterested sexual act I’ve ever seen. But while the world of early 18th-century England and its nonstop barbed one-liners draw you in, Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have something serious to say about how much things can get out of control when the personal and the political mingle in the most undesirable ways, when millions of people are affected by decisions they have no say in, made simply according to mood and caprice (This film isn’t timely at all.), and the politicians with their speeches and plans don’t hold the real power. If a director’s job is in large part working with the actors, Lanthimos gets superhuman work from his three leads. Olivia Colman as the lonely, recently widowed Queen Anne gives one of those rare performances that make you rethink everything she’s said and done when the movie’s over, as she balances a character both achingly sympathetic and crafty. Rachel Weisz, unruffled and fabulous, plays Sarah Churchill as a gamesmaster with layers of thought behind every word. And Emma Stone gives the most brilliant turn in her career, which is saying a lot; Stone’s Abigail Marsham has less dialogue than Colman and Weisz, but her facial expressions and gestures say more than page-long monologues ever could. It’s an acting clinic put on by three incredible women working with a director who knows how to get out of their way. The Favourite is aptly titled.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The reason I qualified Black Panther as possibly the best LIVE-ACTION superhero movie ever made is that nothing could have prepared us for the genius of Into the Spider-Verse. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, working with guiding producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have done something unfathomable: bringing all the storytelling and artistic techniques of comics history to the big screen. It’s a mixture of larger than life animation with one style bouncing into the next with nary a moment to catch your breath AND an acknowledgment of how the superhero mythology is reborn in infinite variations on the same theme by making the variations fuse into one beautiful melody. Given the creative team and the players involved, the movie is full of laughter, but it also reconsiders and perfects the origin story in a way that may render it superfluous (Thank God) for the future, as Miles Morales’s unlikely path to heroism is shaped by others who’ve undergone the same origin, and who ultimately push him, by their lessons and by what he sees in their triumphs and failutes, to reach within and take the leap into his destiny in his own way, a way that feels earned, right, and inspiring as no other film has done. It’s corny to say that there’s a hero within us all, but Into the Spider-Verse proves that such corniness is real. And the laughter and heart comes to life thanks to the best ensemble of 2018, with the earnest, inspiring Shameik Moore playing with Jake Johnson (quietly brilliant), Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicolas Cage, the incredible John Mulaney, and more. It passes Mask of the Phantasm as the best animated superhero movie. It may be the best superhero movie, period. And it inarguably has the best post-credits scene ever devised.
- Sorry to Bother You
Continuing with the idea of non-stop laughs; a picture full of outrageous humor and sight gags that would have made Mel Brooks and Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams proud. But Boots Riley’s film about a gifted telemarketer who discovers a corporate conspiracy that—up to a point—defies imagination may be the defining movie of the late capitalist, Donald Trumpian era. A movie Fredric Jameson would put on the cover of his books. Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle in what it rails against (capitalism, racism, sexism) and what it stands for (unions, personal freedoms, friendship rooted in shared beliefs). It’s a call to action. But all calls to action should mix infectious, righteous anger with hilarity as this does. It staggers the mind Riley had never made a movie before this. His direction is always assured as he handles the absurd tone with ease, and his screenplay is intricately constructed but easy to understand. The conceits are introduced early, each character’s role is defined, and the many personal conflicts between them tie into and are resolved by the overarching, nationally-scaled conflict. This is a movie you could teach in schools. And on top of that, Riley is helped by a terrific cast. Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green shares initials with Cary Grant, and Stanfield brings a Grantian charm to the protagonist: handsome, confused, a bit wrong-headed, and finally resolute. Tessa Thompson is magnificent as the loving, fiercely independent Detroit, the platonic ideal of Riley’s world, and Steven Yuen anchors the supporting cast in the fascinating role of Squeeze, the organizer who effortlessly blends passions causal and carnal. But the film’s real MVP is Armie Hammer, who should have been up for every Supporting Actor category for his depiction of Steve Lift as a man transcending wealth and power to reach a singular, messianistic state of domination. Few actors could have played Lift with the confidence that they’re benevolent and harmless. Hammer nails it and helps bring Riley’s points home. The voice cast is next-level as well, but the less said about them before you see the movie, the less said about anything in the movie, the better.
I call Roma the impossible movie. Because I don’t understand how it exists. I don’t understand how director/writer/cinematographer/editor/total artistic visionary Alfonso Cuaron constructed shots where hundreds of people are moving not in any choreographed fashion but to the orderly pulse of life itself. How the camera moves to take in every single detail, no matter how small, from objects on shelves to cars passing down the road at the right second, that makes you feel you are in 1971 Mexico City. How the sound design is immaculately constructed to the point where half a dozen times I turned to see if people were aggressively whispering right behind me only to realize it was the film itself. How light and shadow play together in ways I’ve never seen. How I’ve never felt so immersed in a movie before.
Roma might still be my film of 2018 if all it boasted were these technical astonishments. But Cuaron, being Cuaron, uses them in service of a story that strikes you to the core. Roma is a meditation on existence itself and how the connections between us shape existence, how a countless multitude of lives observed and dancing around ours work with our lives. It doesn’t offer a secret to life or a big answer. Instead it observes Cleo, the maid, and Sofia, her middle-class employer (played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio and Mexican entertainment veteran Marina de Tavira), as the status quo of their lives is upended and how, amidst the tumult of a society in transition, they discover or rediscover things about themselves. And while the trajectories of their lives change, their state of affairs does not…and the bond between them becomes a question for heartfelt interpretation. While de Tavira leaves a great, empathetic impression, Aparicio is revelatory, playing Cleo with openness, honesty, and a quiet grace in a way no one can explain.
On a last, personal note; I saw Roma with my now ex-girlfriend, one of two movies we saw together during our relationship. And I think it’s one of the ultimate movies to watch while you’re holding hands with someone and letting things wash over you.
WORST TWO MOVIES I SAW THIS YEAR:
Ready Player One – Bohemian Rhapsody
Neither of these films rank as the worst of their respective directors’ careers. Both have something to recommend. Ready Player One’s visual effects are truly a delightful funhouse ride to experience, especially in 70mm, and Bohemian Rhapsody boasts Rami Malek giving one of the finest physical performances I’ve seen in any movie, all without gaining or losing weight or wearing ridiculous make-up; he seems to work backwards from Freddie Mercury’s stage persona to imbue his actions with a singular air in a way that’s really tough to do. That said…
Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was far from great literature, but it was a rollicking read that also took a stab at saying something about our responsibilities to the real world and the perils of being in a virtual world. I had thought Steven Spielberg would play into these themes. Instead, halfway through a movie that for the most part had been really entertaining, a choice is made, the film’s plot structure wildly breaks off from the novel’s, and from there, everything collapses. There are no thematic points made. The hero has no conflicts with his allies and learns zero lessons. It finishes as an even more masturbatory nostalgia trip than the novel, which is saying a lot.
Meanwhile, Bohemian Rhapsody tries to bring home messages about “living your own life” and “the power of love and friendship” except, and this may be even worse than saying nothing, it says the most banal somethings imaginable. This is a movie that never met a cliché it didn’t like, to the point where you have to seriously wonder how a movie like this can exist after Walk Hard destroyed the genre so badly it demanded a reinvention that still hasn’t happened. Some parts made with care and imagination are “balanced” by atrocious filmmaking, every montage is laughable, and while you expect certain elements of a true story to be fictionalized or elided for the screen, this gets so much about Queen wrong on a basic level that it doesn’t seem like it was worth telling this story in the first place. If not for Malek, who manages to push this to acceptable, this movie would be completely useless. As it is, he and the final twelve minutes, and I tip my hat to this in a cynical way, are enough to manipulate you into thinking that film was worth something.
And Finally…Great Performances Outside the Top Ten
PUT THIS MAN IN EVERYTHING
Jesse Plemons – Game Night and Vice
TWO AWESOME MARRIED COUPLES WHOSE RELATIONSHIP IS REFLECTED BY JESSE PLEMONS
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – Game Night
Christian Bale and Amy Adams – Vice
(I want to talk for a moment about Christian Bale in Vice. I expected Amy Adams to be wonderful. I did not expect Bale to be as truly great as he was.
Last year, Gary Oldman won an Oscar he didn’t deserve for Darkest Hour, in which he let makeup, weight gain, and an accent stand in for an actual performance. Bale transforms into Dick Cheney the way Oldman transformed into Winston Churchill, but Bale takes the further steps, letting the girth, the quiet voice, the air of a harmless-seeming, soft-spoken man build a real character whose words carry force, whose thoughts are terrifying, and whose motivations build into a thunderstorm of affect…and who ultimately comes across as a real person even though in one of his many terrible decisions, Adam McKay tries to undercut this.
There are two moments in the film which are surprisingly underplayed. At the start, Dick Cheney makes a promise which he will keep through the movie, until the chronological end when he breaks it. In both scenes, Bale conveys a deep, empathetic brokenness that definitely doesn’t make us like Cheney, but brings a moment of humanity in a film which refuses to let anyone be human most of the time.
INCREDIBLE IN A MOVIE I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY ALL OF YOU LOVED
Ethan Hawke – First Reformed
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
GREAT YOUNG STAR
Ed Oxenbould – Wildlife
GREAT “27 BUT SELLING THAT SHE’S IN HIGH SCHOOL” STAR
Danielle Macdonald – Dumplin’
BIGGEST SURPRISE, AS BOTH CHARACTER AND STAR
Joanna Kulig – Cold War
COOLEST THROWBACK COUPLE (FOR GOOD AND ILL)
Constance Wu and Henry Golding – Crazy Rich Asians
BEST ONE-SCENE PERFORMANCE
Harry Belafonte – BlacKKKlansman