Last year, I remarked on the uncommon number of smart and daring blockbusters that littered the cinematic landscape. Unfortunately for much of this year, I felt that most of the truly exceptional work was few and far between, particularly on the studio level. However, 2018 finished with quite a bang and I think that my favorites stack up quite well against any previous year (though 2015 is tough to beat). Nevertheless, let’s get into yearly top honors and honorable mentions.
The Rest of the Best: Bumblebee / Eighth Grade / Green Book / Hereditary / If Beale Street Could Talk / A Quiet Place / Sorry to Bother You / Three Identical Strangers / Widows / You Were Never Really Here
Best Performance: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Biggest Surprise: (TIE) Bumblebee / Paddington 2
Visual Achievement Award: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Scene: Helicopter Chase, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Biggest OMG Moment: The Beach, Roma
10. Black Panther
Directed By Ryan Coogler
If there is one market that’s been saturated, it’s superhero movies. While most are decent enough, there are very few who reach higher and aim to achieve something transcendental to their genre origins. The Dark Knight and Logan are the two best examples of this, and the third is Black Panther. If it wasn’t for the opening titles and the obligatory post-credits scene, you’d never know this was part of the larger Marvel franchise. To Ryan Coogler’s credit, his vision of Wakanda and its battle for power is uniquely his own. The storytelling also breaks from the traditional superhero mold of dangerous macguffins and meglomaniacs by opting for a more Shakespearean route and Killmonger’s quest to share the power of Wakanda with the oppressed carries substantial thematic resonance. Black Panther is gorgeously designed, powerfully performed, endlessly rewatchable, socially profound, and ranks among the very best of the genre.
9. Paddington 2
Directed By Paul King
Paddington 2 is quite simply the most delightful movie ever made. In fact, it’s one of the best live-action family films ever made. Paddington Bear lives with the Brown family in London and he walks and talks like any regular person and this is all very widely accepted. In the sequel to the surprisingly charming 2014 original, Paddington needs to get a job so he can buy his Aunt Lucy, a grizzly who still lives in the jungles of Peru, a birthday present. Quickly he is embroiled in a crime involving a locally-famous actor played by Hugh Grant, who gives one of the most hilarious performances of his career. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, and Brendan Gleeson — all of whom are riotous and blissful in their own ways. Paul King’s superb sequel not only endlessly charms and delights but provides plenty of fun action coupled with inspiring life lessons and heartwarming joy. It’s a perfect family film.
8. A Star Is Born
Directed By Bradley Cooper
About thirty minutes into the film, Lady Gaga as Ally marches onto the stage to join Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine to sing her soon-to-be hit song “Shallow” and not only delivers one of the year’s most emotionally powerful cinematic moments but also breaks out as a full-fledged movie star. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is the fourth version of this story since 1937 and detractors would argue that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. I would posit that while this doesn’t aim to break the mold, it is one of (if not the) best version of the “Rise to Stardom” tale Hollywood has to offer. While a lot of the focus is on Gaga, Cooper offers up his best on-screen performance while proving to be quite sure-handed behind the camera. Sam Elliot also does some of his most devastating work as Jackson’s brother and manager. The film is not only a great showbiz tale and concert film, but it also captures one of the best on-screen romances in years.
7. The Favourite
Directed By Yorgos Lanthimos
When you put one of the best scripts of the year into the mix with three of the best performances of the year along with some of the most gorgeous production design and costuming of year, you’re going to get The Favourite. It’s hard to overstate just how cutting, precise, and delicious the screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara is. We also need to somehow find a way to give all three of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone the Academy Award for Best Actress. Certainly a loophole must exist somewhere because to not reward all three is tantamount to artistic treason and the Queen will surely cast us out. On the surface, The Favourite could not appear more dry: servants of Queen Anne jockey for favor while England and France wage war. Instead this is treated like Victorian-era Mean Girls and is the most sinfully entertaining movie of the year that also has the power to cut deep.
6. First Reformed
Directed By Paul Schrader
Much like Martin Scorcese’s classic Taxi Driver, which writer/director Paul Shrader penned, First Reformed finds a man becoming radicalized and driven to desperate acts due what he sees as a crumbling world around him. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle was a potent foil to reflect 1970’s New York City and every racial, social, and cultural flash-point that came along with it. In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller looks to the failing Earth around him and pains to answer whether God will forgive us for what we’ve done to the planet. Framing the issues of environmentalism up against the issues of faith makes for a riveting juxtaposition as Reverend Toller spars back and forth with a troubled activist before eventually becoming one himself. Ethan Hawke is absolutely tremendous in the film with a portrayal that is full of intensity, doubt, agony, and grace. It’s the best character piece and performance of the year. This is a movie that grabs and enthralls you before taking you to places that can only be described as divine.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Directed By Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman
What a special movie this turned out to be. Not only is it the best animated film of the year, it’s one of the best animated films in the past 10 years. Same goes for the superhero genre and it easily takes the top spot within the Spider-Man film franchise. What makes Into the Spider-Verse so good? You can feel the creators’ love for this material bursting through the screen. It’s an avalanche of style and creativity wrapped inside a poignant coming of age story that is downright irresistible. The visual elements alone would make this one of the best films of the year. The 2D/3D hybrid-animation style is revolutionary and makes it feel like a comic book is literally coming to life before your very eyes. Spider-Verse is a full-on assault on the senses that sweeps you away into its world before making you fall so in love with its characters, its heart, and its endless possibilities that you’ll never want to leave.
Directed By Spike Lee
In my estimation, BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s most complete film and is a masterclass in tone, effortlessly balancing thrills and hilarity. The film also expertly juggles the stakes of its incredible real-life story and timely political themes. John David Washington (son of Denzel) and Adam Driver give excellent performances as their characters go undercover to navigate the not-so-underground world of the Ku Klux Klan in 1970’s Colorado Springs, CO — which still has an active chapter of the Klan to this day. The real skill that is evident within BlacKkKlansman is how easily it enthralls you within the trappings of a modern police procedural story while making several topical cuts along the way before shaking you in a way only an artist like Spike Lee can shake you. The ending of the film has been criticized as being “tacked on” or out of place by some, but it is actually what elevates the film from being an entertaining period thriller to an urgent reflection of our world today that has already gotten too far out of control.
Directed By Alfonso Cuarón
Sometimes you wonder how it’s possible for certain people to be so incredibly talented. Alfonso Cuarón was already one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world after helming a string of critically lauded and commercially successful pictures that inculde Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men, and Gravity. After so many bonafide classics, the fact that he was able to turn a black-and-white autobiographical coming-of-age tale from Mexico that he wrote, shot, co-produced, and directed into such a triumph may be his greatest feat yet. Roma is not an exciting movie, but rather it lulls you into its world through the mundanity of everyday life set amidst a backdrop of social upheavel that invades at the worst possible times. Before you know it, it’s cast its spell upon you and then devastates and uplifts in equal measure. It is an extraordinary rendition of family, love, and humanity. It’s also one of the most beautifully composed films ever photographed.
Directed By Alex Garland
Hard-hitting and challenging science fiction is tough to do these days. It usually requires a more-than-fair amount of financial commitment to accomplish, can end up being very well-regarded, but ultimately not succeed at the multiplexes. Such was the fate of Annihilation as Paramount got such cold feet that it pulled the film internationally from theaters and its domestic box-office didn’t inspire confidence. Genre fans cry out for more serious and daring fare, but it very seldom gets rewarded when done right. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ex Machina, but Alex Garland’s follow-up is a sci-fi journey into a hellish unknown that hits every pitch thrown its way. Natalie Portman leads an impressive cast into an area known as “The Shimmer” where things are not as they seem and reality itself has become distorted. Annihilation is at all times frightening, mind-bending, thought-provoking, and bone-chilling. It reps one of the most terrifying movie monsters in recent memory and a finale that is utterly mind-blowing. Its images are some of the most striking and unforgettable you’ll see in movies this year. It’s a science fiction classic in the mold of Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky whose reputation will only grow as the years go on.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Directed By Christopher McQuarrie
James Bond may have the name recognition and long history, but I dare you to find any Bond film whose thrills match up to those of Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation, or Fallout. With only one real misstep, this franchise has only gotten better over the years with each installment and that mostly stems from the commitment Tom Cruise brings each and every time. For this sixth entry, Cruise performed hundreds of high altitude jumps, learned to fly a helicopter, broke his ankle jumping between rooftops, and almost died while weaving his motorcycle around Paris. Whereas the majority of big budget filmmaking has gone to out-CGI’ing the last franchise tentpole picture, the Mission: Impossible series has remained committed to practical real-life stunts and action. With Fallout, they’ve exceeded their own very high expectations with some of the greatest action sequences of the past decade all packed into a single movie. Cruise and McQuarrie also draw on an entire franchise’s worth of history to craft a story that feels like the culmination of all that has come before. The stakes have never been higher, the action has never been more thrilling, and no spy film has ever felt so grand and epic. Fallout ranks alongside Mad Max: Fury Road as the two best action movies of this century and Mission: Impossible deserves the mantle of Hollywood’s greatest action franchise.