Best Movies of 2018
It’s that time of year again, when people start coming out with best-of lists. Traditionally, I wait until after the Oscars have been awarded since it’s fun to recognize what won. This year I thought it might be fun to get this out not just before the ceremony, but even before the nominations. A more naked and exposed list, which hopefully appears void of any bias. Then I’ll tune in on February 24th and see if the Academy agrees with me on anything.
Like I do every year, I want to give a quick shout-out to the worst films I had to sit through.
Worst of the Year
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation – just awful
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms – even worse
The absolute rock bottom for me this year has to be…
Luis and the Aliens – Animation was bad, but the voice acting was just garbage.
As always, not everything gets to make the top ten, but it’s still worth calling out some of the movies that were really above-the-rim this year. 2018 was really an outstanding year for film, so let’s not forget…
Bumblebee – a good Transformers movie?? WHAT?!
Ralph Breaks the Internet – super heartfelt and beautiful. Love when kids movies elevate to this level.
A Star is Born – Hard to believe this didn’t make top ten. Best soundtrack of the year. I suspect this will get a TON of Oscar nominations but win almost none of them. It’ll be really cool to see Bradley Cooper get nominated for both Director and Best Actor. Best Film nomination for sure. I think it’ll lose all three, but this was still a great film.
Hereditary – Nice to see horror coming back strong in 2018. This one was profoundly disturbing, stays with you.
The Death of Stalin – Hilarious and smart. I want to watch a GIF of Field Marshall Zhukov doing the Picard maneuver and having all his medals jostle around over and over again.
Black Panther – At the beginning of the year, I was sure this was going to make the top ten, shocked that it didn’t. I’m not a big fan of these Marvel movies but this one was really special and important in all sorts of ways. A joy to watch.
A Quiet Place – Not the smartest movie, but in terms of pure raw emotion, it delivers in spades. The whole theatre was deafly silent. I think this movie is just pure raw fun in how it tortures the viewing audience. I loved it, and it kills me not to put it in the top ten.
Now it’s time for the cream of the crop. What I consider to be the best ten movies of the year (that I saw that is).
Top Ten Movies of 2018
Incredible. Show-stopping. Powerful. Effective (hopefully).
Full disclosure: I walked into this not knowing it was Spike Lee movie and, worse than that, actually thinking this would be a comedy. Was very pleasantly surprised with what this turned out to be. Alec Baldwin's opening monologue really sets the stage in an absolutely brutal way. Two people walked out of the theatre during those first few minutes but... they might have just been going to the bathroom.
Spike Lee does some MASTERFUL story-telling here in how the narrative continuously shifts from having us think "oh, this is how things used to be" to "oh, he's drawing some parallels to how things are today" to "...omg, this is totally happening RIGHT NOW." I want to shy away from talking about the whole final act but MAN does this ever ramp up and gain momentum and not lift the finger off the button for a second. To the point that you're just sitting there with your mouth agape at the end, frozen, and full of emotion. It does seem evident that Spike Lee decided mid-production to make a shift in the movie, but it's still brutally effective.
The performances are all really strong (except possibly Laura Harrier) and I find myself wondering why Topher Grace would actually want to play such an ugly role as a young David Duke. It works, but for me Adam Driver is again a real stand-out who really seems to be stellar in anything that isn't Star Wars. Ashlie Atkinson was fairly terrifying as the wife of a klan member as well.
Brilliant soundtrack and score, by the way. Really helps bring 'funk' to the 70s feel and take some of the edge off when you need it most.
I'm also struck by how much more effective Spike Lee is to making a strong point compared to, say, Michael Moore. Moore will tell you how you should be feeling, whereas Spike Lee will MAKE you feel.
9. The Rider
In a word, authentic. They pull off something here that Clint Eastwood just can't seem to nail (using non-actors to make it feel real). It makes for a pretty emotional and highly engaging film.
Similar in many ways to The Wrestler, but instead of a daughter who doesn't need him, you have a sister who very much does need him.
The cinematography is off the charts, reminding me of Legends of the Fall, Brokeback Mountain, Dances with Wolves and just a smidgen of Hell or High Water.
Putting these three specific leads into this story was surely a risky experiment but it totally pays off. Everything feels as real as it gets. It will tug on each string that holds your heart in place.
I cannot WAIT to see more from director and screenwriter Chloe Zhao. Movies live and die much more by the talent of the director/screenwriter, rather than the efforts of the cast, and it will be very apparent here that she is someone of remarkable talent.
8. Free Solo
Really glad I saw this on the big screen as the cinematography is amazing. This movie was clearly shot by seasoned rock-climbers. If you have a single drop of vertigo in your body, you will feel it in this one. Also glad I knew nothing about this free solo rock climber beforehand and I'd strongly recommend not reading up on it before seeing the film.
One sound bite that you hear one-third into the film that haunts you for pretty much the rest of it was, "none of the well-known free solo climbers are alive." So this one scene of the day before Alex attempts to solo climb El Cap in Yosemite, when he's talking to his g/f and you realize he's trying not to tell her that he's planning to do it, but she senses it.... it's actually one of the more stressful scenes in the film. You feel her concern, you feel him wanting to protect her from this and keep her out of it. In fact, that whole relationship is a really cool part of this documentary. When they buy a house together and she's measuring everything and he couldn't care less.... these scenes will speak to a number of us in different ways.
At one point I was wondering how immersed I was in the movie (always a sign that it's a good one), after Alex had got up at 3:30am in order to attempt a free solo climb. I'm looking at the movie and I'm wondering, "He didn't want to tell his g/f he was going to try it, I wonder if he told the film crew..." and then ultimately realizing I'm watching footage of him walking as I'm actually thinking this. So obviously SOMEONE is filming this. At that point I realized I was fairly immersed in the movie :)
It's an astonishing movie and most of the real drama is watching his filmmaking friends' reactions to Alex doing free solo as they wonder if they're about to lose this friend of theirs. Some of the filmmakers can't even watch and they're supposed to be making a movie! Those scenes are gripping and remarkably dramatic.
The other part that really spoke to me was at one point Alex says that casual rock-climbers will think it's cool and will 'get it' as to what Alex is attempting by doing free solo climbers. Whereas any true professional hard-core climber will think he's absolutely nuts. Slipping and losing footing is a very normal part of rock climbing. I did it in college and it was nerve-wracking to say the least.
Imagine doing it without gear.
Imagine trying to do it up a 3,000 foot slab of granite.
...can't imagine it? Go see this movie.
7. Leave No Trace
Floored. A movie about nothing and everything at the same time.
As a father of a little girl, of course this movie resonates with me but I don't think you need to be a parent to fall deep into this.
I don't want to say much of the story other than it's about a father and daughter living off the grid. Heard from one movie-goer exiting the theatre, "what the hell was that?? Where was the story?" I've not seen a movie like this in some time (or ever) that better represents the type of film where "your mileage may vary." That being said, I don't see at all any way that someone could dislike this movie. I think people will either like it or love it. It's a very non-traditional way to tell a story. I loved how I got totally lost in it.
The performances are insanely good. I continue to be impressed with Ben Foster since Hell or High Water, but I for sure would love to see some Oscar recognition for Thomasin McKenzie who's breakthrough reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone (which I only just found out was the same director, more from her please!).
There's a few elements familiar with Into the Wild in this, but it's such a completely different set up and situation given the choices for why the characters are where they are. I can't wait to see McKenzie in her next roles, I hope the talent won't get wasted in some remake of Mean Girls or whatever. She deserves great screenplays like this one.
I love that there is no backstory, you're just watching this family exist, living off the land and surviving. The dynamic between father and daughter constantly framing everything you're witnessing. It's very powerful and especially honest. So honest and stunning. Not for the impatient.
I would see it again.
6. Paddington 2
The 1st 2018 movie I saw and it made the list! It was a stellar start to a new year.
Took Emily when she was 6 to see this and we both totally loved it. I couldn't believe how much I was laughing out loud. All the time.
I know nothing of Paddington, not having seen the first one (which I hear is good), nor having read the books. Same with Emily. You don't need to have previous exposure to love this movie. It's a total joy and so, so smart. We ended up watching the first Paddington a month ago in a hotel and it was also fantastic, btw.
Hugh Grant is a blast as are all the supporting cast. Sally Hawkins is great and adds a ton of gravitas to this one surprisingly dramatic scene.
The special effects are perfect and leads to a total suspension of disbelief. Never once did I question, "...so...are these Londoners cool with a bear walking around and talking?"
You don't even need a kid to bring to this. It's perfect on its own for adults.
Super highly recommended.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin's book-turned-screenplay gives one of the more desperate, stark and absolutely naked tales of why he ultimately decided to leave America himself. Beauty, innocence and joy just turned to despair and hopelessness, all barely being held together by love.
You won't be able to mistake the director of Moonlight behind this as well. Tons of close-ups, lots of extra time spent on faces and character portrayals. Very powerful. I'm probably going to be the only person that preferred Moonlight to this, however.
The scene in the department store at the perfume counter is transformative in how it speaks to an entire culture's treatment in just a few exchanges. Brilliant and important storytelling. On the opposite side of the hard spectrum, the scene with the in-laws is worth the price of admission alone. I wish there had been more of that.
I got asked coming out of the theatre if I liked it, but for once I just wasn’t able to talk about the movie. I really need to think. Shortly later, I felt the need to have a conversation about social justice over a terrible Philly steak sandwich. I'm sure you will too, just skip the sandwich.
Now, in all honesty, these next four movies are practically tied for 1st place. They are all extraordinary in very different ways. These are the MUST SEEs for 2018.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Besides the great story, incredible art and visuals, fantastic soundtrack, there is also the very bold casting choices that were made that I really feel complete this movie and ultimately put it on the top shelf. So bear with me while I really appreciate the casting risks that paid off here...
Some of the casting choices are your standard fare: Chris Pine, Hailee Steinfeld (who was great as a very low-key Gwen Stacy), Zoe Kravitz as MJ, and even Mahershala Ali (who is a KEY driver for why this movie elevates so high) as Uncle Aaron (what an incredible complicated character for a CARTOON about Spider-Man). But... I think it's the risky and bold casting choices that ultimately make this movie so incredible: Lily Tomlin as Aunt May was a brilliant choice, Nicolas Cage as a noir Spider-man is simply almost an impossible choice to believe but he KILLS it as this character, and I can't say enough good things about John Mulaney as Spider-Ham. What a huge risk that paid-off.
I took my 7-yr old girl to see it and she LOVED it, asking to see it again for the next two days (which is a rare thing). So the appeal to kids and adults alike is a total slam-dunk.
This is the most effective way I've ever seen Kingpin portrayed either. He literally fills the screen of any scene he's in. Again, just a huge bold choice with how to have him interpreted for this. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in some of the early round-tables on artistic direction for this movie. I wonder what ideas got thrown out given some of these bigger risks they went with.
I'm sure it's been said, but this really is the best Spider-Man movie yet. Couldn't stop laughing, couldn't stop being completely and utterly amazed.
3. Eighth Grade
Super warm and honest look at life for a modern eighth grader.
Was not expecting such a hard-hitting and vulnerable look into life as an eighth grade girl. Was not expecting such an amazing performance. I was expecting a light coming-of-age comedy I guess. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised.
There's a great scene where Kayla befriends some senior high school students and one of them wisely points out that there is a generational gap between students only 4 years apart. Technology and especially social technology is moving so fast that kids are growing up very differently. I certainly felt it watching that scene and I realize that the experiences of kids growing up in school nowadays are going through things that I didn't have to deal with at all.
This really hit home with me as the scenes with her dad trying to connect with her are very much what I'm going to face with my own daughter. Those scenes were for sure my favourite parts of the movie but its just full of great moments with friends, antagonists and pretty much everyone that presents social challenges to kids today.
It's beautifully filmed and through a combination of an incredible lead performance by Elsie Fisher and great camera work, you will FEEL what it's like to try and approach a pool party when you are very unsure of yourself.
I found myself trying to 'parent' a couple of scenes which means the immersiveness of the experiences are really genuine. Between this and Leave No Trace, we're seeing some amazing father/daughter moments being captured on film this year. I'd love to see Josh Hamilton perhaps get a nod for best supporting actor, he really delivers the goods in this.
Very, very brave film. Certainly in the running for best movie of the year in my eyes so far. Loved it. A must-see.
2. Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)
It's always tough talking about a tough movie. How can I convince people it's most certainly worth seeing, while acknowledging that it's not super pleasant?
If I HAD to draw a parallel to another movie, it would be GONE BABY GONE even though this is NOTHING like that.
So it's a Japanese movie, and that's important to know since not only will there be subtitles but this is a VERY Japanese culture movie. For instance, the excessive slurping while eating noodles, something you don't see or hear in Western culture, is all over this. I guarantee that it will bother some of you.
What's this movie about? On a high level, it's challenging what a family is supposed to be. How no one ever gets to really choose their family. More importantly, how badly we need in our lives to both be loved and to love. Both.
The ending is great and powerful, but the stand-out for me is this interrogation scene which is the most dramatic one since Three Billboards, even more so. Some monumental acting going on there.
Be prepared to not really understand what journey you're being brought on during at least the first half. It's fun to watch, it's difficult to watch. Then everything sort of gets flipped and things become REAL.
Boston Globe called this the worst family movie of 2018. They're not wrong. They’re probably comfortable saying that because this seems to be pigeon-holed as a criminal drama which is RIDICULOUS. I would classify this as “family movie that you should NOT bring your family to.” This is a 13+ movie everywhere except in the States where it’s rated R and that makes sense there cuz b00bs.
Listen, I do think you'll really like this movie. At the same time, it's not easy to like. I just believe in you :)
Which brings us to what I think was the best movie in 2018…
1. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
A pretty magical documentary on the career of one Fred Rogers and his life-long commitment to children.
This was a surprising movie as I wasn't exactly sure what the message was going to be. Right off the bat I had no idea that Fred Rogers was a minister, which really helps to contextualize how much he wanted to find a medium to give sermons on values in a brand new and very effective way.
The movie does a great job walking you through the beginnings and how unique his approach was on speaking directly to children's feelings. He had a gift in that respect. Then when he begins to try and reach adults in his own way, you can see how he is often less effective and naturally the movie slows a bit during these parts but that's still an important part of his story.
I didn't realize how he was able to address all these huge topics in his show (war, racism, 'am i a mistake?") in a way that is digestible and understandable for children. I should get my daughter Emily to watch the episode where one of his fish dies.
The film is worth watching just for the segments where he is communicating directly to children, live. Or when he explains how kids 'test' him in their first questions. Those segments are just pure magic and worth the price of admission alone.
I watched this show pretty religiously (no pun intended) as a kid and it's cool to see how authentic the process was. Also, how much he never went fast but always purposely went very slow. After all, what is the damn rush to do everything anyway? I wonder if today's kids would respond to his show, when he is simply showing a turtle walk across the carpet or literally showing an egg timer count down a minute, just so people can understand speed and time. Amazing.
By the way, talking to kids using puppets totally works. They do a great job at showcasing this and pretty much anyone can do it.
Oh, and yes I did get wet in the eyes a few times in this film.
Well that does it. Hope you enjoyed the read and this gives you some great ideas as to what to watch from home (or in theatres if any of these are still playing during award season). Feel free to share your top ten lists in the comments below! Great year for movies!!