2018 was a trash heap of a year, in many respects, but the cinematic landscape was largely untarnished by that trash. A strong year for blockbusters and indies alike (barring a couple colossal failures), it brought about films full of heartbreak, laughter, and razor-sharp social commentary - sometimes all at once. Incredibly, some of those films grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, too, though not all of them did.
So here’s a somewhat comically comprehensive list of my favourite films of the year, separated into rough categories by when I saw them and when they came (or will come) out. As always, a film not appearing on this list doesn’t mean I didn’t like it - I did, after all, see some 250+ movies this year. It just means I preferred, or had more to say about, a different film. Any writing I've done on the relevant films is linked.
The five best films I saw in 2017 that came out in 2018:
5. Revenge, a female-directed “rape/revenge” film that pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin of the genre, while simultaneously being one of the best films in that genre;
4. Five Fingers For Marseilles, a transposition of Western tropes and storytelling into a distinctly South African tale;
3. The Death of Stalin, yet another jewel in Armando Iannucci’s satirical crown, and one of the funniest and cleverest films of the year;
2. Bodied, Joseph Kahn’s crazy-smart, crazy-funny battle-rap-driven investigation of race, privilege, and political correctness; and
1. Anna and the Apocalypse, a blast of utter joy, absolutely free of cynicism, and a true tonic to the emotional ills wrought by this godforsaken year.
My top 20 2018 releases that I saw in 2018:
20. Bumblebee, not just because it’s an adorable, funny, emotional story, but because it’s all of those things and also a Transformers movie;
19. Hereditary, at once a film full of great scares and a meditation on grief, mental illness, and family;
18. Vice, which despite not landing all of its stunts, is an angry, cutting, utterly unsubtle satire in an age where its subject material must be treated in that way;
17. Padmaavat, a movie that possessed more exuberance and higher production value than most of the year’s other releases, and introduced me to the wonder that is Ranveer Singh;
16. Venom, which works better as a piece of performance art than as a superhero film, further cementing Tom Hardy as one of the oddest movie stars working today;
15. Widows, a perfectly-crafted thriller that conceals a complex and incisive examination of race, power, privilege, and politics in America;
14. Won’t You Be My Neighbour?, possibly the movie that made me sob the hardest, and a plea for kindness and understanding in a world increasingly devoid of either;
13. Mission: Impossible - Fallout, one of the best action films of all time, and a feather in the caps of madman Tom Cruise and madman-guide Christopher McQuarrie;
12. The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ funniest and saddest film to date and an unbelievably smart update of the period drama form; and
11. Black Panther, the best blockbuster movie of the year, the best film in the Marvel Studios back catalogue, and the most important superhero film of all time.
10. Game Night
A humble American studio comedy would ordinarily never make this list. And there’s not much terribly original about doing The Game as a comedy. Where Game Night towers above nearly every other studio comedy this decade is in its execution. Where other films are content to point cameras at their actors and let them improvise, Game Night is as tightly-crafted as any film out this year. Every scene is crafted to perfection, whether via complex single-take sequences, joyously clever match-cut transitions, or chef-kiss-good visual and physical gags. That it works as a mystery as well as a comedy is the icing on this cake; that it features Jesse Plemons in probably his funniest role yet is the cherry on top. Oh yeah - and the very good dog from Widows is in this one, too.
2018 was the year that “screenlife” movies came of age, and no film better illustrated that than Aneesh Chaganty’s tense and emotional film. The story - a father searching for his missing daughter by combing through her various internet histories - is a tense mystery. The filmmaking - the best and most comprehensive use of screenlife techniques yet, with an opening recalling Up's efficient and emotional use of visual storytelling - proves this form can deliver thrills, tears, and laughs. John Cho puts in yet another terrific performance, acting almost entirely to webcams. And while the mystery’s conclusion gets a touch overblown, the emotional denouement more than makes up for it. You’ll want to call your parents once the credits roll. I did.
A fascinating companion piece to Bodied, Sorry To Bother You, or Black Panther, and probably my favourite out of any of them, Blindspotting is arguably 2018’s smartest and most incisive contemporary-set film about race. Centring on a friendship between two Oakland residents that’s put to extreme tests amid rampant gentrification, the film looks at race as it affects (and is affected by) law enforcement, the justice system, the cycle of violence, real estate, employment, and personal identity. It’s by turns funny and devastating, its two lead performances intensely compelling, and it uses Oakland both as a representation of itself and of a wider America. It does all this with a script full of rhythm and poetry, culminating in a thundering rapped monologue by Daveed Diggs that should really have received more attention than it did.
7. You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay continues to demonstrate her status as the single best director at creating subjective experiences through filmmaking. Her story of a hitman (a once-again peerless Joaquin Phoenix) tracking down a kidnapped girl and hunting down her captors is one of the two Taxi Driver riffs on this list, but Ramsay’s execution elevates it to something unique and heart-poundingly direct. Between this film and We Need To Talk About Kevin, her mastery of abstract editing, direction, and sound design is unmatched. Never before has PTSD been depicted so compellingly on screen without resorting to grandstanding performances, leaning exclusively on the tools unique to cinema. Ramsay is a rare cinematic artist, and one of the few directors truly pushing the boundaries of her art.
Of course a writer likes the movie about a writer. But Can You Ever Forgive Me? is less a movie about writing (though it is also that) than a movie about self-hatred and emotional repression. Melissa McCarthy, never better, occupies her caustic, grizzled cynic with wit and feeling, supported by an incredibly strong supporting cast. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script digs deep into the notion of disappearing into your work, and the loss of self-identity that can come along with that. Together, they create a picture of a woman hardened against the world, incapable of expressing her feelings - only of expressing others’. And it’s all carried to the screen on the back of the lowest-key caper comedy imaginable - where the caper is something as non-threatening as forging letters by dead people.
With this sequel, the Paddington franchise further demonstrates that it’s the heir to the Babe: Pig in the City crown. Like its predecessor, it makes a strong case for politeness and decency; it’s filled with wildly entertaining setpieces courtesy of The Mighty Boosh director Paul King; and it features a wide range of wonderful performances from Britain’s finest thespians. But this movie steps away (slightly) from the first film’s exploration of the immigrant experience, sending Paddington to prison - where he fixes the corrections system from within. Add in Brendan Gleeson as a hulking prison chef and Hugh Grant doing career-best work as a charming, self-important washed-up actor, and you’ve got yourself a marmalade-sweet confection.
4. Minding the Gap
The best of the three great skate movies that came out this year - the others being Skate Kitchen and Mid90s - Minding the Gap is the only one of the three that ends up being about more than camaraderie and escape. It starts out that way, certainly, documenting a group of friends bonded through skating. But as it goes on, it turns into an emotional gutpunch, examining the deeper common threads of domestic violence and abuse that link them all. What’s more, this isn’t a film about friends who skate together and videotape it; it's born directly out of that, with director Bing Liu filming his friends as they age and become more self-aware. Liu extracts heartbreaking confessions from his friends as their lives collapse into echoes of their parents', and even turns the camera on his own family, demanding answers as to how these crimes can be visited upon loved ones. It’s the best documentary of the year. I ugly-cried.
3. First Reformed
I’ve always been more of a respecter of Paul Schrader than an admirer. His films often leave me cold, and from my perspective, he’s missed as often and as hard as as he’s hit. But with First Reformed, Schrader repackages and reframes his entire oeuvre, creating something that both reflects contemporary anxieties and drills into a deeper crisis of the soul. Ethan Hawke turns in his finest-ever work as a pastor struggling with faith, mortality, addiction, self-hatred, the death drive, and guilt, boiling higher and higher until reaching a disturbing, amibugous climax. He’s matched by Schrader’s sometimes-figurative direction, which communicates this man’s increasing disconnect from his former values and security by, paradoxically, both drawing away from him and peering ever closer.
There’s little I love more than a sci-fi film that matches big genre ideas with tiny, private ones. Annihilation perfectly matches its conceit - a force that rewrites and mutates the DNA of everything it touches - with its characters, who have all suffered emotional traumas and losses that cause them to kill off a part of themselves. Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of our most underappreciated actors, sums it up in a terrific and achingly raw speech in the middle of the film, but director Alex Garland takes things to bigger and more visual places. Starting domestic, before working its way through weird sci-fi production design and creatures to an interpretive dance climax, it’s one of the most dazzlingly uncommercial big-budget films ever made. For that, Mr. Garland, I salute you.
This one surprised me. But sometimes, a film comes along that seems to speak to you in an uncannily direct way, and for me, that film was Madeline’s Madeline. Not only does it literally mirror many of my own experiences, as both a mentally ill person and a person who came of age through physical theatre; it does so with grace, beauty, and some of the best performances of the year. On an emotional level, it speaks to multiple kinds of heartbreak; and on an intellectual level, to artistic exploitation of that heartbreak. By the time the movies comes to its rousing, expressionistic climax, the film absolutely had me. Expressing all the joys and heartaches of creating art and living life, Madeline’s Madeline is, somewhat unexpectedly, my film of the year. It gets me, and I it.
Furthermore - yes, furthermore! - I would also like to direct your attention to ten films I saw this year that most audiences won’t get to see until 2019.
10. Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear, a bizarre and largely incompetent movie that I'm certain would have become this year's Evil Within if most of the BMD staff hadn't balked at the deranged 45-minute monologue that opens it;
9. One Cut of the Dead, an air-punching love letter to the creative process and the most gutbustingly funny film I saw all year;
8. Climax, a film that I loved and hated in equal measure, but that features lengthy stretches of unsettling, physical visual and performance work that I would happily watch on loop;
7. Relaxer, a single-room indie that represents astonishing and surreal commitment to the slacker-comedy bit;
6. Lords of Chaos, a black-metal “true” story that’s both darkly hilarious and extremely disturbing, and a peerless examination of the radicalisation process;
5. Possum, Matthew Holness’ feature directorial debut, which almost wordlessly creates an unbearably distressing atmosphere of emotional violence;
4. Profile, Timur Bekmambetov’s own entry into the “screenlife” genre, about a female undercover reporter catfishing an ISIS recruiter, as perfect a story for the form as there ever was;
3. Diamantino, a bizarre and utterly delightful comedy/sports/sci-fi satire featuring an intensely loveable, intensely stupid protagonist who just wants to keep hallucinating giant fluffy puppies;
2. Chained for Life, a head-spinningly complex treatise on disability, representation, exploitation, empathy, and the whirlwind of all those things that happens on a movie set; and
1. Junk Head, a one-man stop-motion sci-fi epic, an strange and utterly pure expression of creativity, and a film whose rights hopefully will get wrested away from the pachinko company holding them hostage.
Woof! That’s a lot to write about, and a lot of movies to see, if you haven’t already. Keep an eye out for those films at the end there. 2019 has a bunch of must-sees already, and believe it or not, they’re not all superhero or Jedi movies.