After watching 125 of 2018’s films, here is my sixth consecutive “Top 15 Films of the Year” list!
In this critic’s opinion, 2018 was unquestionably the best year for movies so far this decade. It continued the trend we’ve seen over the past few years: there are less and less great Hollywood movies, but movies outside the mainstream—whether they’re from the indie scene, the art house, streaming services, or abroad—keep getting better and better. Choosing just 15 movies was more difficult this year than ever before.
I started my previous year-end list with a comedic anecdote about how America’s sitting president (I mean that in two ways) was setting the world on fire, but any attempt to riff on that ongoing disaster wouldn’t be so funny anymore. While empathy is more present in the human condition than headlines would have us realize, it is in short supply. That’s part of why we need movies: as I wrote for the Phoenix Critics Circle a few years back, cinema is empathy. It can also be, you know, a nice escape from it all.
So, let’s honor the best of the best that cinema had to offer in 2018! But first, the best of the rest:
The Guilty- an edge-of-your-seat Danish police thriller that both condemns and humanizes the criminals working as cops.
Hereditary- this frighteningly familial horror movie is a worthy successor to classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby.
Madeline’s Madeline- an exciting innovation of the art form that’s equal parts cinema and interpretive dance.
Mandy- balls-to-the-walls grindhouse as high art. Nicolas Cage freaks out and battles a demon biker gang. See it to believe it.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse- movie magicians Phil Lord and Chris Miller revitalize the superhero genre. And Spider-Ham!
And now, the Top 15 Films of 2018. I probably watched the movies that you think are missing. Complaints may be accepted by the Supreme Court if they are sent with a 12-pack of beer.
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
What is it? A Japanese family of petty thieves makes their most ethically dubious steal yet: kidnapping a young girl from her abusive parents.
Why it made the list: After a short detour into thriller territory with The Third Murder, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to the genre in which he found acclaim: the family drama. The Shibata family’s secrets, occupations, and conflicts criss-cross into a thematic web that wraps up Japan’s ideologies of honor and discipline; Kore-eda is the spider that strips these values bare. Amid the cultural scrutiny, it’s the human toll that interests Kore-eda most. The filmmaker is a puppeteer of heartstrings and Shoplifters is no exception. This is a deeply humanist movie that questions the nature of family while testing the bonds that bring us together. What remains is what moves us most.
Where to watch: It will be back in select theaters for a few weeks of January 2019, before becoming available for rental and purchase on February 12th.
Written and directed by Coralie Fargeat
What is it? A French rape-revenge film featuring a ferocious heroine who doesn’t shed an ounce of femininity.
Why it made the list: If you’re pro-woman and anti-rape (please reply with your contact information if you are not), this is quite a cathartic movie. Jen joins her secret lover Richard on a hunting trip with his friends Stan and Dimitri, but it all goes wrong when the men rear their vile heads. Stan rapes Jen while Dimitri sits idly by—and then Richard pushes Jen off a cliff to bury the situation. Jen’s a damn woman, though, and she rises up to murder those men back. Revenge absolutely oozes with style, soaking its hyperviolence in loud colors and striking imagery. It’s also defiantly feminist: instead of turning a woman into a masculine action hero, Revenge finds power in femininity’s endurance.
Where to watch: It is currently available for rental and purchase on multiple video on demand (VOD) services.
Adapted by Alex Garland from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland
What is it? A team of scientists investigates an environmental phenomenon dubbed ‘The Shimmer’ as it subjugates a section of the Earth. What they find is shrouded in sci-fi subtext and allegory.
Why it made the list: This is a thinker’s movie: the kind of art that will never worm its way out of your head, regardless of how thoroughly it annihilates your brain. It’s pretty to look at too, thanks to its jaw-dropping production design. Light refracts into rainbows like scattered mist, washing the air in a colorful haze. Flora and fauna blossom beyond any horticulturist’s wildest imagination. The metamorphosis of the earth contorts plants and animals into impossibly ornate dreams—and grotesque nightmares. Annihilation is obsessed with the simultaneous beauty and horror of approaching the end, so in addition to philosophical inquiry, it offers thoroughly ghastly imagery as well.
Where to watch: It is currently streaming on Netflix U.K.; elsewhere, it is available for rental and purchase on multiple VOD services.
12. COLD WAR
Written by Paweł Pawlikowski and Janusz Głowacki, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
What is it? A historical drama that follows the relationship between Zula and Wiktor, two Polish artists whose romance starts and stops across Europe during the Cold War.
Why it made the list: In terms of finding beauty trapped in tragedy, Cold War is unparalleled among 2018’s movies. Pawlikowski’s trusted cinematographer Łukasz Żal (who also shot Ida) frames a broken Europe as cold, sparse, and unaccepting of utopian opportunity. And yet, Zula and Wiktor are willing to strive for the utopian dreams of music and romance until they’re broken too. It’s a movie with a statement that simmers below the surface—communism or democracy, nation or nationality, we haven’t yet constructed a world conducive to love and art. Joanna Kulig’s precocious, spirited performance promises a career to watch.
Where to watch: It is still in select theaters as of January 2019. Release dates for streaming, rental, or purchase have not been announced yet.
11. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller
What is it? In 1992, struggling author Lee Israel began forging letters from famous authors, selling them to literary snobs for a high profit. In 2008, Israel wrote a memoir about her criminal enterprise. In 2018, Marielle Heller made a movie out of it.
Why it made the list: First of all, Melissa McCarthy gives a career-best performance. As Lee Israel, she scales her comic sensibilities back into a hidden weapon, one that she whips out to keep others at a distance and keep her fragile world insular. Like her character, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is simultaneously world-weary and entertaining. It’s a feminist tale—the built-in allegory of a woman unable to take credit for her work is not lost on the filmmakers—and a biting commentary on the classism bred from the capitalization of art. And it’s hilarious: this portrait of Lee Israel is brimming with acerbic wit. Richard E. Grant’s devilishly clever turn as her partner in crime is a must-see as well.
Where to watch: It will be back in select theaters for a few weeks of January 2019; release dates for streaming, rental, or purchase have not been announced yet.
10. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Written by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar, directed by Orson Welles
What is it? You know Orson Welles, the legendary director of Citizen Kane? His final movie was released in 2018. It’s about a fictional Hollywood director named J. J. Hannaford, who dies before he can finish his last movie The Other Side of the Wind. Real Hollywood director Orson Welles was never able to finish his last movie The Other Side of the Wind because he died during production in 1985. Some say that parallel circumstance was Welles’ plan all along—regardless, a team of filmmakers have been finishing the film for decades, and it’s finally here.
Why it made the list: It’s a semi-autobiographical metacommentary from one of the greatest directors in cinematic history, and it lives up to that description. It’s clear that Hannaford is partly based on Welles himself, though he’s also an amalgam of Ernest Hemingway and hypermasculine director John Ford. Welles uses these character/artist connections to craft an insider’s indictment of the film industry. The Other Side of the Wind insists that we should never separate art from artist, rending the two apart to reveal the ugly adhesives that forever bind them together. Welles falls under his own critical lens: Hannaford’s protégé-turned-rival-director is played by Welles’ actual protégé-turned-rival-director Peter Bogdanovich, and that’s just the tip of the meta iceberg. The Other Side of the Wind is Welles’ apology and denouement—and it’s technically the first found footage film!
Where to watch: It is currently streaming on Netflix.
9. THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Adapted by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard
What is it? A dark comedy Neo-Western starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as the hitmen brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters.
Why it made the list: It’s both a Western and a Neo-Western masterpiece. Director Jacques Audiard, who has been dubbed “the French Scorsese”, gives the genre its most satisfyingly radical message: if you can’t bend the whims of the world to your will (which you can’t), give peace a chance. The Sisters Brothers is a potent film. It investigates the dichotomy between Western values and utopian idealism, subverts the imperialistic doorway symbology of The Searchers, and features an astoundingly nuanced performance from John C. Reilly. It’s also funny, entertaining, and magnificently shot and scored. It’s rare that a movie offers so complete a package.
Where to watch: It will be available for rental and purchase on January 22nd, 2019.
8. HAPPY AS LAZZARO
Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher
What is it? A film about a poor family of Italian farmhands and their hardest worker Lazzaro—at first.
Why it made the list: This mysterious little movie is probably 2018’s biggest surprise. What starts as a charming exercise in Italian neorealism eventually becomes something more like an anti-capitalist fairy tale. It’s best to go into this movie blind, so I won’t say too much regarding its narrative: it’s quirky, meaningful, unique, well-acted, and essential as a modern parable. Happy as Lazzaro is the perfect recipe for a smile on your face and a trail of thought in your mind.
Where to watch: It is currently streaming on Netflix.
7. MINDING THE GAP
Directed by Bing Liu
What is it? After working a number of small jobs in the film industry, young camera operator Bing Liu returns to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois to document the lives of his friends who never left.
Why it made the list: If you’re a human being who’s capable of feeling, this documentary will wreck you and overjoy you. In a way, it’s a continuation of the director’s upbringing: Bing grew up skateboarding with his friends and filming their adolescent exploits, and he returned to Rockford to capture their transitions to adulthood. Without losing sight of these people—who’ll feel like your close friends by the end—the doc takes a profoundly emotional journey into their American context. Minding the Gap examines how toxic masculinity destroys women and men, spends time with the disappearing middle class, touches on the Rust Belt race divide, shares the ubiquity of feeling directionless, and more, all with limitless empathy.
Where to watch: It is currently streaming on Hulu.
Adapted by Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-mi from Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong
What is it? A South Korean mystery thriller about a rich man, a poor woman, and the suspicious friend trying to discover the connection between them.
Why it made the list: Ostensibly, Burning is the fearlessly political film that South Korea has been waiting for; if you reside elsewhere, it’s an illuminating look into the social issues of South Korea as well as an outstanding thriller. Chang-dong masters the art of nail-biting suspense in this film, urging you to peek through your fingers at South Korea’s class divide and cultural misogyny—and incriminating the wealthy upper class that weaponizes both. Steven Yeun is downright chilling as Ben, the movie’s embodiment of the wealthy elite. Burning is a slow-burner that disturbs by implication.
Where to watch: It will be available for rental and purchase on March 5th, 2019.
5. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Adapted by Lynne Ramsay from Jonathan Ames’ novel You Were Never Really Here, directed by Lynne Ramsay
What is it? Joe, a military and FBI veteran struggling with debilitating PTSD, is a contract killer who specializes in hammering child traffickers to death. His mental state is put to the test when he’s hired to rescue the missing daughter of a New York State Senator. It’s all very arthouse.
Why it made the list: Lynne Ramsay takes a razor to the plot of the novel, slicing away the thriller and surgically extracting the psychological core. She’s interested in what lies beneath narrative: the thematic blood, which she splashes on screen with a flick of her dauntingly talented wrist. But only a few drops—her unconventional direction dismisses the idea of violence as catharsis. Ramsay instead lets the consequences of violence hit you like a blunt force object. The film cuts away from action and distorts otherwise mundane sound design, ripping the viewer from their reality and casting them into the disparate static of Joe’s existence. You Were Never Really Here explores cycles of violence through the formal elements of film alone. Oh, and the cinematography is drop-dead gorgeous.
Where to watch: It is currently available for rental and purchase on multiple VOD services.
4. THE TALE
Written and directed by Jennifer Fox
What is it? The first narrative film from acclaimed documentarian Jennifer Fox. It’s based on her real-life experience of reckoning with the sexual abuse in her past.
Why it made the list: This film is the most crushingly true-to-life depiction of sexual trauma that I’ve ever seen. As a documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Fox has long been a purveyor of cinéma vérité; and though The Tale is her only narrative film, it is no less committed to uncovering the truth. Fox keenly acknowledges the paradox of memory: we need story to make sense of our lives, but story can never fully capture the complexities of human experience. By deconstructing, investigating, and reconstructing her own clouded memories of sexual abuse, the particulars of her trauma precipitate into a story that will resonate with women and educate men. Watching this movie feels like stepping into the shoes of, say, Christine Blasey Ford—a contemporary example who bears a passing resemblance to Laura Dern. Like Ford’s act of bravery, The Tale is a difficult but significant work.
Where to watch: It is currently streaming on HBO, and is available for rental and purchase on multiple VOD services.
3. PADDINGTON 2
Written by Paul King and Simon Farnaby, directed by Paul King
What is it? The sequel to Paddington, the world’s most wholesome sleeper hit. It’s also the highest-reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes of all time.
Why it made the list: This was a 2017 movie if you live in the U.K., but the U.S. didn’t delay Trump like y’all delayed Brexit, so we needed Paddington more in 2018. Paddington 2 is, bar none, the most delightful and uplifting movie of 2018—maybe of all time, I declare without hyperbole. It’s also exceedingly well-made. In addition to winsome direction and a winning screenplay, the color grading and set design are replete with lovely little touches. Where the original Paddington established a pro-refugee undertone, Paddington 2 implicitly addresses topics like toxic masculinity, Brexit, and even prison reform. It extends its bear hug in everyone’s direction: “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right” isn’t just nice dialogue, it’s the movie’s mission statement. Taking the route of British politeness to universal acceptance is a valuable adventure indeed. Also, Hugh Grant gives a wonderfully over-the-top performance.
Where to watch: It is currently streaming on HBO, and is available for rental and purchase on multiple VOD services. You can also borrow one of my physical copies.
2. FIRST REFORMED
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
What is it? Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor of a humble New York church with a dwindling congregation, deals with a crisis of faith as he contemplates humanity’s destruction of the environment.
Why it made the list: Writer/director Paul Schrader, known for co-writing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ with Martin Scorsese, also wrote a seminal book called Transcendental Style in Film in 1972. In it, he analyzed the ways in which naturalistic, non-narrative filmmakers (such as Ozu and Tarkovsky) harnessed the formal elements of film to create a spiritual dimension within cinema. He focused on replication of the existential: lengthy, still, meditative shots, for example, that withhold information from the viewer and echo our limited capacity for knowledge—thus making any suggestion of the divine all the more revelatory. First Reformed is the ultimate realization of Schrader’s vision. Reverend Toller’s overwhelming concern for the environment drowns him in a distinctly Kierkegaardian pool of hope and despair. Schrader utilizes transcendental style to expand the scope of both states, painting Toller as a more plausible messianic figure: anti-Empire, internally fraught, and both terrified and eager to usher in the end.
Where to watch: It is currently available for rental and purchase on multiple VOD services.
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón
What is it? Alfonso Cuarón, one of the greatest—if not the greatest—living directors, recreates his childhood upbringing in Roma, Mexico City. Not from his perspective, however, but from that of his struggling family’s live-in housekeeper, Cleo.
Why it’s the best film of 2018: No amount of writing could ever do this movie justice, especially not a short blurb at the end of a list. You can find my full thoughts on the movie here, but I’ll do my best to summarize as well.
Roma is breathtaking. By utilizing wide angles and deep focus, Cuarón encapsulates the breadth of Mexican culture: the land of Roma is no diminutive peculiarity, no tidy snow globe; it is the fullness of a place and a people as remembered by one of their children. It’s dynamic, organic, and captivating. Every frame is composed immaculately; every shot is suffused with meaning. Amid the visual grandeur, it’s the vision of another life that proves most audacious, and that serves as a thesis statement for cinema itself. Cuarón and his family are characters in the movie, but their story unfolds in the periphery: through Roma, Cuarón redefines the protagonist of his own experiences, ensuring that everything revolves around Cleo. With the filmmaker in the narrative but nowhere near its center, Roma functions as a journey into the theater of a tangential life. Cuarón trades his camera lens for the lens of his former nanny and demonstrates empathy in action—in order to truly see the people around you, you must also see their wide-angled worlds.
Where to watch: It is currently back in select theaters for a few weeks of January 2019 (please do yourself a favor and see Roma on the big screen); it is also streaming on Netflix.
That’s it for 2018. Watch as many of these movies as you can, so that you can be disappointed with me when the Oscars roll around in a couple months.