My biggest takeaway when it comes to 2018 movies was that this was an incredibly great year for action cinema, so much so that I could almost fill my whole list of favorites without leaving the genre. We get tons of action films each year, but rarely so many amazing ones with so much variety. So while there were many wonderful and important dramas this year, I have to speak my heart. And my heart will always prefer watching fictional people beat the shit out of each other. My only regret is that Equalizer 2 was not quite good enough to make the list.
10. Avengers: Infinity War
Here’s where the wackiness begins. You won’t find A Star is Born on this list, and yet I found a spot for this big-ass Marvel movie. But why not? I saw this film more than any other this year. We’ve been building to it for a whole decade, and it somehow delivered. It’d be hard to argue against Thanos’ snap (or “The Decimation” as I guess they’re calling it now) as one of the bigger cultural moments of the year. Surely you remember your first viewing. People were rattled in a way I never expected from a Marvel film, a series in which death is more like an annoyance (and let’s face it, probably still is). Whatever happens when Endgame rolls around, it can’t undo the experience of watching this crazy overstuffed film for the first time.
9. Game Night
In a trend I hope continues, high-concept, mainstream, R-rated comedies have started getting good again. This is just a hunch, but it could be due to a willingness to incorporate violence and actual jokes rather than just have characters curse a bunch. That’s certainly the case with Game Night (and to a lesser extent Tag, which I also really enjoyed). While everyone came away from this film singing the praises of Jesse Plemons - who really does steal the film - this is a group effort that doesn’t stop being amazing whenever he’s offscreen. The story’s twists and turns work, the characters are likable, and the jokes are strong enough to make this a comedy classic that I hope endures.
It took two viewings for me to fall in love with Suspiria. My first was a somewhat overwhelming experience where I walked out not really knowing what I thought. But that groundwork was necessary for my second viewing, which allowed me to take in the narrative and luxuriate in what Luca Guadagnino and his team accomplished. Suspiria is a lot. It’s long, weird and indulgent, but I love every second of it. I love the way it looks. I love the strange violence. I love Tilda Swinton’s bizarre performances. But most of all, I love that at the end of the day, it really is just a super cool story about a witch getting what’s hers.
Where Suspiria showed us what happens when a prestigious director does horror, Widows offers the wonder of an auteur making a heist film. Of course, Widows is much more than a mere heist film. It’s just as interested in examining class, race and gender in America. But it’s still a genre entry, and watching a director like Steve McQueen take on the tropes feels like a gift. There are great performances all over this film - I’m particularly fond of Daniel Kaluuya’s cold-blooded killer - but Viola Davis absolutely owns this one. Like a lot of my favorite films from this year, Widows makes something special from a genre in which we normally settle for “pretty good”, which illustrates how amazing even regular cinema can be if those behind the scenes really go for it.
6. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Speaking of really going for it, how is Tom Cruise still topping himself after six of these things? I feel like we collectively undervalue the Mission: Impossible series until a new one comes out and we’re all reminded - oh yeah, THIS is the best action series out there. We can argue about that all you want, but as Hollywood action continues to be dominated by superheroes, there’s something increasingly grounded and satisfying about watching ragdoll Ethan Hunt bounce from one incredible action set piece to the next while feeling true concern over Tom Cruise’s safety. This series has only gotten better and better, and if Fallout is the one they go out on, I would be totally satisfied.
It’s amazing that in a year with Creed II, the best Rocky movie was actually this arm-wrestling gem from Korea. Not that Creed II was bad. It’s just that Champion checks all the underdog, heartwarming boxes in a much stronger way. It’s a shame so few people will see it as I strongly feel Champion will make you laugh and cry and cheer like no other film of 2018. You wouldn’t think so - it’s not like there are a bunch of great arm-wrestling movies out there - but that’s all part of its underdog charm. This is an entertainment machine, and I defy anyone to dislike it. You can’t! It’s impossible! From now on I want to see Ma Dong-Seok in every movie.
4. The Night Comes for Us
This is it. I don’t see how a movie can offer more pure action than this. We’ve been so blessed these last few years when it comes to visceral, brutal action films. You have the John Wick series, the Raid movies, even going back to the last couple Universal Soldiers we’ve been experiencing a trend of just jaw-dropping action that strips out all the boring stuff that used to make these films chores and replaces it with more of what we really want to see. That trend will continue, but I cannot fathom anyone outdoing The Night Comes for Us in terms of brutality, quantity and invention. You don’t believe me, you can watch it on Netflix right now. Bring the kids.
3. First Reformed
Oh hey, a drama! In a year where my emotional connections to stories about real concerns in regular people’s lives were more or less trumped by fantasy (I mean, just look at this list), First Reformed is the one that got through and truly stuck with me. It’s also a film I haven’t quite parsed out in my head yet, and perhaps never will. Is it miserable? Is it redemptive? Is it a weird love story? I can say for sure that it is angry and wild, tamped down by the quiet facade of Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance. The brilliant ending made me want to stand up and cheer, yet I still don’t know if that was the proper reaction to it. In other words, this film is a full meal. We live in horrible times, and First Reform offers the most sober reckoning I’ve seen about them yet.
2. Sorry to Bother You
But maybe a sober reckoning isn’t everything. Maybe it’s best to fight weirdness with weirdness, which Sorry to Bother You definitely achieves. Part satire, part farce, part social commentary, part juvenile cartoon, Sorry to Bother You never forgets to be weird and hilarious while making its points. There’s just so much in this movie, with invention to spare. It’s hard to believe the whole thing is almost over before the horse dicks even come out.
And then there’s Mandy. This is another one that took two viewings to become totally clear for me. That first watch, all I could think about was Nicolas Cage’s performance and the insane levels the film achieved in terms of fun, heavy metal violence and aesthetics. It was like watching Evil Dead II for the first time again. But it’s that second watch where you realize how tragic the film is, where Cage’s big bathroom scene is not just a crazy actor going crazy but a real expression of despair (a crazy one, though). It’s where you realize Cage is hardly even in the first half of the film and his mad smile as he sees Mandy one last time in his passenger seat hits home as mournful rather than funny. As I said above, 2018 feels like the year where prestige and genre mixed in ways I’ve waited for my whole life (fuck, Annihilation isn’t even on this list!). As great as the other movies on this list are, Mandy is the one that both pleases me and hits me the hardest. I absolutely adore it and hope we can all please stop making fun of Nicolas Cage soon.