|Ready Player One, a film which will definitely not be appearing on this list
So please enjoy this whole lot of writing, which started out as a Top 25, but expanded a bit as I saw more movies that I loved and wanted to include. 2018 was a good year for movies, all told. Maybe not the deepest bench, though, in the sense that while I found it hard to narrow this list to a mere thirty motion pictures, I couldn't expand it to a top 40 and feel strongly about everything that would be included on that list.
Speaking of, here are some honorable mentions of movies I loved or liked, but didn't feel strongly enough about to include on this list: Let the Sunshine In, Incredibles 2, John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, A Star is Born, A Simple Favor, The Little Stranger, Blockers, You Were Never Really Here, Zama, Black Panther, Cold War, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.
Now, to the list!
30. The Mule (dir. Clint Eastwood)
A very entertaining and intensely weird movie. Clint Eastwood has such an odd sense of humour and his style comprises so many disparate, conflicting elements, all of which are showcased in this, his best film in years. In one moment you have these gorgeous, painterly scenes showcasing the melancholy beauty of a broken America, and in the next you have scenes of Eastwood's character bonding with lesbian bikers in what feels like a low-key reimagining of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. It's weird! A lot of stuff in the movie doesn't work - the whole subplot with Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña slowly zeroing in on Eastwood's nonagenarian drug runner by leaning on a cartel member (played by comedy podcast all-star Eugene Cordero) has no weight or tension to it at all - but it's distinctive, and that counts for a lot.
29. Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet)
A confession: I initially put this on my list out of spite, because the audience I saw it with were so vocal about how much they hated it that I was determined to like it, despite being decidedly mixed on it at the time. With a few months' distance, though, I find myself thinking more and more positively about Corbet's story of a Lady Gaga-esque pop star (Natalie Portman) and the queasy relationships that exist between trauma and art, artist and public, and persona and reality. I still have some pretty strong reservations about individual elements of the film - I have routinely described the opening scene as "despicable" to people - but the overall experience is so singular and distinctive that I have not been able to shake it.
28. Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham)
A really smart, empathetic movie about growing up in the age of social media that avoids being condescending or patronizing anyone involved. As someone who has grown up online through his work on YouTube, Burnham displays an uncommon savvy for the ways in which technology suffuses every aspect of our lives, while also highlighting the ways in which it hasn't fundamentally altered how awkward and weird and awful being a teenager can be. Elsie Fisher gives one of the best teen performances I've ever seen, particularly when it comes to putting on a show of being fine when you're anything but.
27. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen)
You know it's been a pretty decent year for film if a very good Coen Brothers' movie barely misses out on my top 25. Debuting on Netflix might give the sense that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is some sort of minor effort, as does the scrappiness inherent in the very idea of doing an anthology film, since they lend themselves to being mixed bags by their very nature. While some of the segments wound up falling a little flat for me (the James Franco one, despite some striking images and a great opportunity for Stephen Root to go nuts, feels eminently cut-able), most of them are vintage Coens, particularly in their mix of wry humour, violence, and preoccupation with death and the notion of morality in an amoral universe. "Meal Ticket" and "The Gal Who Got Rattled" are up there with the best things they've ever done.
26. Game Night (dirs. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein)
I rented Game Night once it hit home media, having heard a lot of people say that it was really good and funny. And it was. So much so, that I watched it twice in one night. So much so, that midway through the second viewing, I had already ordered the blu-ray so that I would be able to watch and rewatch it to my heart's content. I've since seen it a bunch of times and it remains one of the most consistently funny comedies to come out of Hollywood in years. The cast are all phenomenal, though special attention should be paid to Rachel McAdams, who gets to be silly in a way that she hasn't for a while, and Jesse Plemons, who turns the sadsack quality that was so charming in Friday Night Lights into something strangely menacing. What really sets it apart is the film's deliberate aping of David Fincher's style; from the elaborate reversals that make up its plot to its use of long takes, from the cool colour palette to Cliff Martinez's thumping electronic score, it's a pretty thorough pastiche, but the jokes are so fast and numerous that it works as a really funny caper apart from its loving nods to The Game.
25. Cam (dir. Daniel Goldhaber)
The only movie I can think of that really conveys the desperate, performative dance of existing online, particularly for anyone who makes their living by monetizing their personality and their experiences. Madeline Brewer is superb as a cam girl who discovers that her account has been hacked, and now a woman who looks and sounds exactly like her is broadcasting to her loyal fans. But while the more overtly scary elements of the movie are really effective and unsettling, the most terrifying moments come from its depiction of the kind of fleeting, hardscrabble existence that defines the lives of many sex workers, particularly those who work primarily online.
24. Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley)
Messy in the best possible way; expansive and distinctive, it covers a lot of ground as Boots Riley delivers a riotiously pro-union, anti-corporatie comedy that gets progressively bolder and more interesting the more he digs into his subject. Lakeith Stanfield continues to prove why he's one of the most interesting actors working today, while Armie Hammer plays on his decidedly preppy vibe in ways that are really cool and disturbing. Fantastic score from tUnE-yArDs, too.
23. Madeline's Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker)
Not since Lodge Kerrigan's Keane has a movie so fully placed me in the headspace of a character. An intense, exhilarating and discomforting experience, one which takes a potentially very trite and familiar story of someone finding solace in art, then being exploited by people around them, and telling it in a way which feels wholly new.
22. The Rider (dir. Chloe Zhao)
Up there with Nicholas Ray's The Lusty Men in the pantheon of quietly melancholy rodeo movies. Zhao gets great, authentic performances from her largely non-professional cast, while the harsh beauty of the South Dakota badlands serves as a beautiful backdrop for a story about someone contemplating a major change in their way of life.
21. Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu)
Hugely funny, with a charming cast, performances from Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh that have such a frisson they threaten to burn the screen itself, and a visual pop that is so rare in mainstream American comedies.
20. The Sisters Brothers (dir. Jacques Audiard)
While it didn't quite live up to my high expectations as someone who loved the Patrick DeWitt novel, I thought this was pretty great, and easily Audiard's best movie since A Prophet. Like the other Westerns on this list, it's a movie that mixes a dry sense of humour with moments of tremendous violence, with Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly making for surprisingly watchable and sympathetic mass murderers. It's at its best during a middle section in which Phoenix and Reilly spend time hanging out with the men they have nominally been sent to kill, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed, and Audiard really luxuriates in the uneasy but genuine friendship that develops between the men. It makes the inevitable fall all the harder.
19. Damsel (dirs. The Zellner Brothers)
Hugely enjoyable deadpan Western which, much like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, depicts the West as a land filled with utter fuckups. Robert Pattinson is hilarious and pathetic as the lovesick suitor who sets off to find the woman he plans to marry, while Mia Wasikowska is brilliant as said woman, someone whose life is consistently made worse by men trying to save her.
18. Revenge (dir. Coralie Fargeat)
Thrilling distillation of the rape-revenge sub-genre down to its key elements, shot through with a righteous feminist fury. The bloody finale is particularly well-executed and satisfying.
17. Blindspotting (dir. Carlos López Estrada)
Something of the anti-Vox Lux on this list, in that most of it so terrific that I didn't mind that it flubbed the ending. A great day-in-the-life movie buoyed by a pair of exhilarating performances from Daveed Diggs, as a man on probation trying to stay out of trouble for just one more day, and Rafael Casal, as his best friend who seems determined to get into as much trouble as possible. It's a vibrant look at Oakland which comments on gentrification, race and different visions of masculinity in a way which never feels forced, and the question of whether or not their friendship will survive the day provides plenty of tension and focus during its tangents and episodes.
16. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
The most I have liked a Lanthimos movie since Dogtooth, which is saying a lot because I think that movie is probably one of the best of the '00s. Less arch and distant than his two previous English-language movies (possibly because he was working from someone else's script), it still retains the eerie quality that has come to define a lot of his work, the sense that you're watching characters who aren't quite human. That works perfectly for a drama set in the court of Queen Anne, since the aristocracy aren't quite normal to begin with, and all the attendant layers of tradition and decorum lend themselves to Lanthimos' interest in power dynamics. The way that the film handles those dynamics proves to be its most masterful element, since the role of protagonist switches so deftly between Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman as their relationships to each other change that you almost don't realize the focus has shifted until it's undeniable.
15. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
Probably the one film on this list that I can not see myself revisiting. Not because of its quality, but because it's such an unsparing experience that it's hard to imagine going through it all over again. A bracing and clear-eyed look into the climate abyss that articulated a lot of anxieties I and many people of my generation have about the future in a way that few other films have attempted.
14. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (dir. RaMell Ross)
It was a very strong year for personal, form-breaking documentaries and Hale County was one of the most distinctive. Consisting of footage that Ross shot over the course of several years in the eponymous Alabama county, it's a lyrical and impressionistic look at what it means to be poor and black in America. Though he does hone in on a few people as subjects, including several high school basketball players and a couple who are expecting twins, Ross mainly tells his story through landscapes, small moments of life, like a child running around their living room, and in startling edits like the cut from sweat falling off a player's face to raindrops hitting the ground in a storm. It's a mosaic of life that finds time for quiet reflection, as well as one scene in which someone comes over to ask Ross what the hell he's doing filming smoke rising in front of some trees.
13. Shirkers (dir. Sandi Tam)
A stunning work of deeply personal meta-fiction that works both as an engrossing mystery, and as a thoughtful meditation on memory, the past, and how people change. In tracing the story of how she and her friends as teenagers, aided by an older man whose intentions were somewhat murky, set out to make an independent road movie in Singapore in the 1990s, Tam plays in the same narrative documentary playground as something like Searching for Sugarman, but to more thorny and complicated effect.
12. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
A crushing, overwhelming sensory experience. Garland creates a disquieting, menacing and beautiful world and sends compelling characters to face it. Probably the film I've enjoyed reading about the most this year, since it seemed to spark off a lot of great critical writing, particularly in terms of its function as a metaphor for depression.
11. Mission Impossible - Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
One day, years from now, Tom Cruise will die, and it will probably be because he had to film a scene in which he had to walk along the bottom of the Marianas trench while carrying three medicine balls in a rucksack. And the resulting movie will probably be pretty entertaining, because Cruise's dedication to giving audience's the most fun imaginable is seemingly boundless, and was in full display in this, the latest exhilarating installment in the venerable Mission: Impossible franchise. Cruise and his frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie delivered another globe-trotting wonder filled with incredible, death-defying stunts (including a giddy final helicopter chase) and a wry, knowing sense of humour that never gets in the way of, or undermines the joy of, the big, bold set pieces.
10. Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik)
There are so many ways that this movie could have gone wrong. Stories about characters who previously lived off the grid returning to society lend themselves so easily to cheesy jokes or to being patronising. Debra Granik's take on the material, however, is stark and humane. The story of a traumatised veteran (Ben Foster) and his young daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) trying to integrate into society after being forced from their campsite in an Oregon nature reserve is delivered with such tremendous care and delicacy. The film never once feels false or like it's shortchanging the complex relationship the characters have to each other and society in general, and instead makes that complexity key to its most wrenching moments. McKenzie and Foster give two of the best performances I saw all year, ones that feel incredibly lived in and real, suggesting so much depth. I hope that Debra Granik gets to make many, many more movies in the future.
9. Support the Girls (dir. Andrew Bujalski)
Like a Dardennes Brothers' movie with more jokes, Support the Girls is an immensely funny and charming comedy which also serves as a great articulation of the idea that you can love your job but the job will never love you. Regina Hall is wonderful as the owner of a Hooter's style restaurant (though they're trying to be more mainstream), fighting to keep everything under control even as things are crumbling around her, while Haley Lu Richardson continues to demonstrate why she's one of the best actors out there with a performance which is bubbly and fun without ever veering into caricature.
8. Burning (dir. Lee Chang-dong)
Probably the film I most regret not seeing in a theatre. In telling the story of a young man (Yoo Ah-in) trying to determine if the woman he is in love with (Jeon Jong-seo) disappeared because of something her new friend (Steven Yeun) might have done to her, Lee creates an atmosphere of doubt and unease that is almost suffocating. The mystery of the film is less "What happened to Hae-mi?" and more "How can we know anything?" Central to that fine balancing act is Yeun's performance as Ben, which leaves the audience wondering if he is just a rich, disinterested dilettante or an out-and-out psychopath until the very end of the film.
7. The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles???)
Considering the long, strange, pseudo-mythic journey that Welles' long-unfinished movie went on between being filmed piecemeal in the 1970s to getting released on Netflix this year - one which involved the Iranian Revolution, Welles' death, and a complicated legal situation that left some doubt over who actually owned the movie - it would not have been surprising if it failed to live up to the hype. What movie could live up to such a legend? Turns out that this one could. Like a lot of Welles' work, it's rough and shaggy in all the right ways, with a vitality to it that is electrifying. In its heady mix of fiction, meta-fiction and (possibly unintentional) autobiography, it feels like a brutal refutation of New Hollywood and European arthouse movies of the '60s, and the ultimate expression of their promise. Welles making fun of Antonioni is better than any movie Antonioni actually made.
6. Mirai (dir. Mamoru Hosoda)
A thrilling, funny, visually dazzling anime that takes the story of a young boy learning to cope with the arrival of his baby sister and gradually spins it out to become a meditation on how each of us are the result of total accidents and tiny decisions made by thousands of people over many centuries. An exhilarating and transcendentally beautiful experience, which also has a dog that acts like an entitled prince.
5. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
The film that initially prompted me to delay publishing this list, since I saw that it was coming to a theatre near me just after the New Year, and I thought that I couldn't in good conscience put together a list of the best films of 2018 without seeing the latest film from the director of my favourite film of 2016. (Also, I hadn't even started writing the list, and I will take any excuse to procrastinate on these things.)
Anyway, Beale Street is superb, even if I prefer Moonlight slightly. As swooningly romantic and brutally honest a movie about black life in America as you are ever likely to see, Jenkins transforms James Baldwin's heady writing into lush, vivid images.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)
Spider-Man has been my favourite superhero ever since I watched the '90s animated series (with its vocoder-heavy theme tune) as a kid, and Into the Spider-Verse is the best take on the character since the Sam Raimi movies. In its kaleidoscopic visual style and sharp, funny script, it captures the well-meaning confusion of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) as he comes to grips with his newfound powers and the ways they are going to impact his life. The movie's take on an older, sadder Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) also creates a funny contrast to his more idealistic protege and a strain of melancholy that lends a real poignancy to proceedings. Also, John Mulaney plays a talking pig who smashes a plate on his head for no reason. How could I not love it?
3. Minding the Gap (dir. Bing Liu)
It's all too easy to describe Minding the Gap as "Hoop Dreams, but with skateboarders", especially since Steve James, who directed the earlier movie, serves as a producer on Liu's movie. But also, it's Hoop Dreams with skateboarders! And not merely because both are intimately focused stories of young men growing up in Illinois, shot over many years, with a heavy emphasis on a specific sport; both use their respective sports to explore bigger questions about poverty, addiction, abuse, and masculinity. What sets Minding the Gap apart is the personal angle; since he's making a film about his friends, how they all bonded over skateboarding, and how their lives have all turned out, Bing Liu is both director and character. That lends an uncomfortable closeness to much of the film, one which is then starkly contrasted with the exhilarating footage of them skating around Rockford, Illinois, which has a grace, fluidity and freedom to it that hauntingly conveys the escape they all found in their shared pastime. It's use of "This Year" by The Mountain Goats is also a pretty good contender for best needle drop of 2018.
2. Paddington 2 (dir. Paul King)
This was my number one movie of the year from when I saw it in January until sometime in November, when I started reconfiguring my list and trying to weigh all these disparate movies against each other. Building on the charm and humour of the first movie, King and his collaborators don't do much to shake up a successful formula: Ben Whishaw is brittle and sweet as the world's most endearing marmalade-loving bear, the special effects are by turns astonishing (Paddington himself is a seamless work of CGI) and deliberately old-fashioned (the pop-up book motif that mirrors the style of the movie's MacGuffin, an old book which contains clues that lead to immense wealth), and the great and good of British acting show up in roles both big and small. It's a surefire formula that worked gangbusters the first time and works just as well now.
What sets the sequel apart from its predecessor is the plot point of putting Paddington in prison for a crime he didn't commit, which makes for moments both funny and heartbreaking as he adjusts to life behind bars, and Hugh Grant's hilarious, somewhat self-lacerating performance as Phoenix Buchanon, a washed-up actor trying to stage a comeback through elaborate larceny. It's a truly delectable performance that makes for a classic villainous turn.
Also, the final scene of the movie (not counting the w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l post-credits musical number) is up there with It's a Wonderful Life in terms of reducing me to a blubbering wreck.
1. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller)
I'm obviously writing this before the Oscars have been handed out, but I think it's fair to predict that Melissa McCarthy was robbed. Here she is, giving the performance of her career to date. A performance that is rich, and complicated, and nuanced, and acerbic, and funny, and achingly, painfully human, and while the Academy did right by her with a nomination, it still feels like she has been greatly undervalued. Which is to say nothing of the disservice done to Marielle Heller, who crafted one of the great New York movies. A film that conjures up the wintry, romantic image of people milling around in dusty bars on cold days, trying to kill a few more hours and begrudgingly becoming friends with people through proximity if nothing else.
That all of these delicious atmospherics are in service of a compelling crime caper, a forgery scheme rife with tension and humour, and a friendship, between McCarthy's Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant's Jack Hock, that is as messy and humane as anything you're likely to see this year, and you've got a real miracle of a film.