Two weeks out from the industry’s top awards ceremony and celebration of the craft (The Academy Awards), I finally sit down to reflect on the year in film. I have found that most writers and critics will compile their year-end lists earlier but almost inevitably include a second list of movies he or she failed to catch up with before making that list. Fitting in every notable title out there, especially in an exceptional year like 2018, is pretty tough for anyone, especially if it’s not your day job. This year may be the first since I’ve been chronicling Top 10s (since say 2012) that I was able to catch up with every movie I intended to watch in order to fully inform this list. I also realize I have now set myself up for a good comments thread on what I overlooked COMPLETELY. For me, 2018 is the best movie year in the last three. Collectively, I think I would stack this Top 10 against some of my other favorite years including 2015 (Mad Max, The Force Awakens, The Big Short, The Revenant, Spotlight, Inside Out, Creed, The Martian) and 2012 (Les Miserables, Lincoln, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master). One thing I found interesting is that I saw eighteen 2018 movies before Oct 3 (the date my number one movie was released) and twenty 2018 movies after Oct 3, and my Top 4 did not change. This possibly illustrates one of the toughest things about making lists like this. A Top 10 for me is not necessarily the ten most well-made movies, though that certainly plays a big part in it. It’s the ten movies that I loved the most; the ones that stuck with me; the ones that I want to watch again; the ones that move me to go tell a friend “no really, you NEED to go see this.”
So let’s get into it:
Following up a Best Picture Oscar can’t be an easy assignment. Once you achieve that high an honor, all eyes are eagerly awaiting what’s next. For director Steve McQueen, 2013’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave launched him right to this place. His latest work is a smart, subversive take on the heist genre. Viola Davis leads a ridiculously loaded cast as one of four wives left to navigate the messy web of crime their late husbands left them in. McQueen gives us a suspenseful and layered film with plenty to applaud. While Widows doesn’t have nearly the buzz of Slave and somehow earned ZERO Oscars nominations, it was one of my favorites this year.
9. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
I am a big defender of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 1 and 2, enjoyed Homecoming, and even watched a good bit of Spiderman cartoons as a kid. That said, this movie was not on my radar at all; in fact I probably wasn’t even aware it was being released until pretty close to it, and here it sits as my top animated movie of the year (Isle of Dogs is probably in my 11-15). It’s a rare super hero movie that doesn’t fit in the various “cinematic universes” that both Marvel and DC have spent so long building. I enjoyed Spiderverse because it was different. The animation was unique and AMAZING. The main character was NOT Peter Parker. The storyline and script were both moving and hilarious. With the success of and acclaim for Spiderverse, I hope to see more like it soon.
8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
For the first time in it’s six film installments. the M:I franchise invites a director, Christopher McQuarrie, back for a second movie. 2015’s Rogue Nation was, in my opinion, a leap forward for the franchise, and Fallout picks right back up with all of the right pieces. Much has been made of Tom Cruise’s continued insistence upon not only doing his own stunts, but making sure we know how difficult they are to pull off. Fallout raises the bar on this, again, with a gripping car chase, a “halo jump,” and even going toe-to-toe with newcomer Henry Cavill. This is one of very few franchises where I honestly don’t mind them continuing to crank out another chapter every 2-4 years. They’re consistently entertaining and push the boundaries of the genre.
7. If Beale Street Could Talk
As stated earlier, following up a big Oscar win is not easy. 2016’s largely unexpected win for Moonlight propelled then second-time director Barry Jenkins to a place where he could now make whatever he wanted. I listened to a recent interview of his that revealed he already knew, prior to even making Moonlight, what the next project would be. Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Beale St tells the story of two young lovers, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate love, family, and racial tension in 1970s Harlem. The acting is top-notch; the music (which I am listening to as I write this) SHOULD win the Best Score prize; the story is all at once romantic, heart-breaking, and hopeful; the camera work, costuming, and lighting (in a wide variety of scenes) is lush and beautiful. The fact that this is not up for Best Picture and Best Director is really sad.
Can you tell this was a BIG year for directors? 2013’s Gravity won Alfonso Cuaron his first Best Director Oscar. In his first film since, Cuaron goes back to his roots to tell a largely biographical story about growing up in 1970’s Mexico City. He chooses to do this in some really interesting ways that largely (read: conventionally) stack the deck against him. First of all, instead of giving us his first person perspective, Cuaron tells this story largely through the eyes of one of the family’s housemaids (played wonderfully by first timer turned Best Actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio). On top of having an unexpected protagonist, Roma is almost completely in Spanish, was shot in black and white, and was released on Netflix rather than getting a traditional wide theatrical release. The result leaves us with (sorry, Beale St) probably the most beautifully shot film of the year, in which every scene and camera movement reveals new information and scenery that gives us so much to take in. Roma will not be a film for everyone, but it is one that will stand the test of time, and it will almost certainly nab Cuaron at least another Oscar or two.
5. Minding the Gap
Admittedly, I don’t watch nearly enough documentaries. I don’t think almost anyone does. Every now and then one gets enough attention that I make sure I fit it in. Minding the Gap is, at first glance, an unassuming snapshot of three teenage skateboarders. Typical tropes of “nobody understands me” and skateboard culture immediately come to mind, and for most of us this would keep us from even sitting down to see where all of this might be going. What unfolds barely keeps the form of a traditional “talking heads” documentary film, and we’re caught up in the stories of Kiere, Zack, and Bing who have so much more to tell us about than the latest sick skatepark they found. Bing Liu, as a first time director no less, gives us an intimate, palpable portrait of life in mid-western USA amidst the struggles of domestic abuse and of learning to be an adult. This movie was, thankfully, picked up by Hulu streaming services so audiences would be able to see it, and it is now nominated for Best Documentary at the highest tier of film awards in the world. I love that.
4. Avengers: Infinity War
Hopefully I don’t have to say too much about what this movie is, given the popularity of the franchise. I should also state that I am NOT your typical Marvel fan-boy. There are a good handful of the films I have not even seen. That said, the achievement of this movie cannot be understated. This is a movie, as many have said, that actually shouldn’t have been possible to exist. When you think about the foresight and strategy Marvel Studios had to take to map out I don’t know how many movies, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, to somehow culminate ten years later in a convergence of insane proportions, make that into a movie less than three hours long, have it make sense, and have a fanbase so entrenched in the story that honestly no promotional trailers were actually necessary, your jaw should drop. Aside from all of that, Infinity War manages to have a compelling villain, an emotional core, a cast of characters we have come to love (or at least appreciate), and an ending that certainly defies a traditional comic book movie story arc. For these reasons it has stuck with me all year. What a ride.
3. First Reformed
This film, confidently but quietly, stayed near the top of my list all year. From Paul Schrader, most famous for writing the screenplays for both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, we get what many are calling the best work we have ever gotten from Ethan Hawke. Reformed tells the story of a Baptist pastor (Hawke) in upstate New York whose encounter with a struggling young married couple acts as a catalyst for his own crisis of faith. The movie is slower, but calculated. Schrader makes his audience work, often leaving us with no music and scenes of quiet contemplation. He wants us to be as in the mind of the central character as we can be. Reformed will not be everyone’s cup of tea (or should I say, glass of scotch), but it is masterful storytelling with suspense, thought-provoking ideas, and an ending that still has me on edge.
2. A Quiet Place
There are certain movies each year that I INSIST folks go to the theater to see, as opposed to waiting for it to watch at home. For me there was perhaps no better example this year than John Krasinski’s intense, suspenseful family drama, A Quiet Place. The brilliant plot device of having a post-apocalyptic world where making noise alerted the monsters that haunted it made for a gripping experience that was best shared by a crowded theater auditorium where each nervous viewer did his dead level best not to make a sound. You could feel the nervous energy in the room, and it made everything else on screen that much better. Emily Blunt gives the best performance of the film (and pulls off one scene in particular that is an easy candidate for scene of the year). Though this one came out near the beginning of the year, it stuck with me as one of the most unique movie-going experiences I’ve had.
1. A Star is Born
I love Bradley Cooper. I love Lady Gaga. I love good music. I am a sucker for a good love story. Movies about music often go a long way with me. Maybe this was destined to be my number one movie of the year. In his first outing as a director, Cooper managed to remake (for the 3rd time, mind you) a story that most people were already familiar with into a new and engrossing film for 2018. Cooper himself stars as Jackson Maine, a weathered rock star with substance abuses issues. Cooper is excellent in his own right here as an actor and performer. After a concert one night, Maine happens upon Lady Gaga’s character, Ally - an unsuspecting young singer who immediately captures his attention. From there we get to experience the ups and downs of their romance as Ally soars to stardom while Maine copes with his demons. With an array of solid supporting roles, including a wonderful turn for Sam Elliott, Star’s cast is second to none this year. Perhaps the most brilliant is Gaga (easily my vote for Best Actress), who somehow manages to make us all believe that one of the biggest names in the music industry today is just a shy, inexperienced girl singing in a local bar. The writing is great; the cinematography is great. the acting is great; the music is REALLY great. This one will make you cheer, laugh, cry, and think. I absolutely loved it.