Film Reviews Lists

My Top 25 Movies of 2018

For years, we’ve been asking Hollywood to stop making the same ol, same ol’s and viewing the world as if their number one job is to pry teenage boys away from Fortnite. In 2018, Hollywood finally listened.

Kind of.

Ok. I’m not gonna lie – there’s still an awful lot of the same old rehashing, rebooting, reviving, and re-whatever it takes to run away from ever creating anything genuinely new ever again. However, 2018 also saw an impressive rise in new diverse voices (Boots Riley, Elsie Fisher, Bo Burnham, Thomasin McKenzie, Ari Aster), a great number of absolute mind-blowers which seemed to come out of nowhere, and, yes, plenty of fun comic book movies.

So, when I look at my favorite 25 films of the year I see a broad sampling of genres, voices, and even distribution choices. Five of my picks, for example, are Netflix exclusives, starting with…

25. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

With Hail, Caesar!, it seemed like the Coen Bros. reverse-engineered a storyline around a desire to simply make a bunch of jokey pastiches of Golden Age Hollywood movies. The result: a so-so movie whose best parts are the scenes made to resemble and lovingly mock old classics. With Buster Scruggs, they’re more honest with themselves and drop any attempt at a unifying story in favor of a simple anthology. This frees them to just have fun making a bunch of short westerns, each one with a wicked twist ending as well as their signature dry humor. Personally, I’m partial to the segment starring Zoe Kazan as a woman finding love on the Oregon Trail. Everyone, of course, has their own favorite. Buster Scruggs is an overall slight effort, but an entertaining one with stunning cinematography from beginning to end.

Where Can I Watch It?: Netflix

24. BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee attempting to call out and laugh at bigotry before reminding us that, basically, this shit is still happening and it’s not okay. It’s a tricky, but occasionally powerful balancing act, even if Lee does ultimately jump through hoops to make more out of Ron Stallworth’s life story than is actually there on the page.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent

23. Paddington 2

Paddington 2 plays like pure weaponized whimsy and deserves an award just for its lovely storybook sequences alone.

Where Can I Watch It?: HBO

22. Sorry to Bother You

With life getting more surreal by the day and the modern economy determined to dehumanize us all, writer-director Boots Riley made a surrealist dark comedy out of it about a black man using his white voice to move ahead in the corporate world of telemarketing. The third act twist, no spoilers, is such a swift turn into a new genre that it left me feeling like Riley reached just a touch too far, but, damn, the obvious talent and ambition is undeniable.

Where Can I Watch It?: Hulu

21. Suspiria

A self-indulgent, pretentious, detestable example of everything wrong with art-horror and when a man tries to tell a woman’s story? Or a perfectly planned, remarkably thoughtful, and deeply felt tale of political, social and generational transition? Suspiria is either one or the other, and it is such a dense piece of work your opinion of it will probably rise or fall each time you see it and absorb it all over again. I’ve seen it just the one time so far and recognize how absurd it is for this remake to be almost two times longer than the Dario Argento original. Lucas Guadagnino really shouldn’t have spent so much damn time focusing on the politics outside of the dance studio instead of on the characters. And what’s the dramatic point of having Tilda Swinton play the male psychiatrist?

However, this Suspiria still managed to enchant me with its unique spell. I at least never again have to wonder what a pretzel-shaped human body would look like. Not that I ever wondered that before, but Guadagnino clearly did.

Where Can I Watch It?: On Amazon Prime sometime in early 2019

20. The Tale

The Tale, Jennifer Fox’s meta-drama about her own experience with recovering repressed memories of sexual abuse, is as pure an exercise in simply shutting up and listening to one woman’s story as I can imagine from any narrative film. It’s an eye-opening chronicle of the lifelong effect of abuse, perfectly capturing the exact moment Fox accepted that she was victimized and wasn’t somehow guilty or complicit yourself.

Where Can I Watch It?: HBO

19. Annihilation

Leave it to Alex Garland, the man behind Ex Machina, to take a familiar movie premise – imagine The Predator with a female cast – and turn it into a thoughtful reflection on broken people, self-destructive behavior, and the inescapable suspicion that the whole thing is just a giant metaphor for something much bigger. Plus, he threw in a hybrid bear monster which lets out human screams instead of roars, easily one of the best pure nightmare fuel moments of 2018.

Secret: I still don’t fully understand the ending. I kind of like that about the movie, though.

Where Can I Watch It?: Epix or Rent right now, on Hulu starting Jan. 5

18. Upgrade

Upgrade blends together so many familiar elements – a little bit of Her and Blade Runner, a lot of Robocop and DeathWish – into something refreshing and new, the type of kickass action sci-fi that appeals to the 14-year-old in all of us.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent

17. The Ritual

One of the finer cabin-in-the-woods fright fests in recent memory, The Ritual delivers a wonderful sense of dread, smartly executed thrills and takes full advantage of the inherent eeriness of its setting. Even before the monster-revealing third act, the film seriously unnerves you through masterfully foreboding wide shots and overhead shots making it seem as if the woods are literally swallowing the characters.

Where Can I Watch It?: Netflix

16. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Those expecting salacious details, shocking scandal, or startling new revelation about Fred Rogers are in for a disappointment. Instead, director Morgan Neville presents a man who truly was exactly who he appeared to be, and his innate goodness, as well as the soul-nourishing strength of his message, feels sorely missed.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent

15. Searching

Searching is not the first to tell a story entirely inside computer screens nor was it 2018’s only gimmicky genre thriller. See also Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane. However, Searching is the first to convince me that this in-screen gimmick might have some real possibilities. The Up meets a Google commercial opening montage is a thing of genius. From that point forward, the “my daughter is missing” story laid out in the script probably wouldn’t completely stand out from the crowd if presented more traditionally. However, when paired with such a novel visual approach it gains an astonishing immediacy. Plus, John Cho for President. Just saying.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent

14. Hereditary

For those attuned to this particular branch of arthouse cinema, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is an uncommonly unsettling family drama that happens to eventually remember it’s a horror movie and puts Toni Collette through the emotional ringer, transfixing us in the process. It’s the type of movie you might never want to watch again, either because you found it boring and pretentious or so deeply unsettling you wouldn’t dare revisit that feeling again. Luckily for me, I ended up falling more in the latter category.

Where Can I Watch It?: Amazon Prime or Rent

13. Veronica

This Spanish-made horror film takes old tropes like Ouija boards and demonic possession and finds an impressive new use for them through the story of a beleaguered, possibly gay, but unquestionably isolated 15-year-old girl who’s been asked to grow up too soon.

Where Can I Watch It?: Netflix

12. The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos’ entirely peculiar artist taste is one I had yet to acquire after The Lobster and Killing of a Sacred Deer. Turns out, I like him best when he’s just directing and not also writing the dialogue, as is the case with The Favourite. Turning over scripting duties to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara means much as Lanthimos might try to get in his own with needless whip pans and fish-eyed lenses he has razor-sharp dialogue, lush production design, and career-best performances from three already-celebrated actresses to carry what is easily the best film of its kind in recent memory.

To put things in perspective, I don’t normally care for Masterpiece Theater costume dramas, and I don’t normally care for Yorgos Lanthimos movies. The Favourite, however, with all of its glorious palatial intrigue and dueling schemers (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz) playing at two very different kinds of games with a disturbed Olivia Colman as their prize – not even I can pass up such a delectable treat.

Where Can I Watch It?: In Theaters

11. A Simple Favor

Game Night has been a popular “mainstream comedy y’all slept on” pick for lists like this. As much as I also enjoyed Game Night, might I suggest an alternate choice: A Simple Favor, Paul Feig’s perfectly thrilling and impossibly bonkers true crime parody. After the Ghostbusters debacle, Feig needed a win in the biggest way possible. So, he found Darcey Bell’s best-selling novel and the perfect screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (Nerve) to adapt it for the screen and produced quite possibly the best film of his career.

Anna Kendrick plays a single mommy vlogger who gets sucked into the middle of an increasingly insane murder mystery when Blake Lively, as the cool mom at her son’s school, goes missing. Each new twist is more improbable than the last, and the script and performances both nod toward the absurdities of so many true crime movies/podcasts/whatevers while also flat out celebrating them.

Henry Golding puts in a game effort as the Ben Affleck of this Gone Girl story, but he’s no match for the off-the-charts brilliance of Kendrick and Lively. When Lively wears an entirely impractical costume to a climactic confrontation in a graveyard you just don’t care because, damn, does she ever pull it off. Doesn’t it kind of seem perfectly in keeping with the rest of this delightfully frothy little movie? Also, Anna Kendrick is a comedic genius. Can’t be said enough.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent

10. Avengers: Infinity War

As a cinematic event and one-of-a-kind viewing experience, Infinity War has no equal. As a movie, it’s decidedly incomplete and overstuffed with character and incident. Its ultimate worth will be determined when we see the second side of the story in Endgame. Until then, blockbuster cinema will struggle to ever top this film’s snappening finale and heartbreaking use of the phrase “I don’t feel so good.”

Where Can I Watch It?: Netflix (for now)

9. A Quiet Place

The further you get away from the film you more you turn into the logic police pulling on loose threads, but in the moment of watching A Quiet Place for the first time it’s almost an elemental experience of unease and, eventually, joy. By the end, never before has the simple sound of a gun cocking sounded so damn triumphant.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent

8. Roma

Feeling motivated to make an autobiographical love letter to the women (mother and maid) who raised him, Alfonso Cuaron went and made a black and white, Spanish Fellini film. With no movie stars. Or professional actors besides Marina de Tavira. Or, really, any damn time for anyone who’s either lost the ability to or never learned how to watch a slow-moving, 135-minute, not all hand-holding reflection on family and class.

Thank God for Netflix because I don’t know who else would give him to the money to do that, other than maybe Amazon. The result, as so many other critics have been quick to shout from the mountaintop (if by mountaintop, I mean Twitter), is definitely in the masterpiece conversation, which of course has led to plenty of contrarianism. Isn’t this just an art-house The Help? Doesn’t Cuaron’s script show that while he can dutifully recreate what life was like for the maid who helped raise him he still doesn’t fully understand her as a human being?

Perhaps. A little. However, at a time when the underclass of the world is in desperate need of more sympathy, Cuaron does just that by saluting the quiet dignity and desperation of those we take for granted.

Where Can I Watch It?: Netflix

7. Leave No Trace

The story has superficial similarities to recent families-off-the-grid films like Captain Fantastic and The Glass Castle and if you really want to stretch it and reach further back, Into the Wild, but Leave No Trace is decidedly quieter and more humanistic in its approach. This is a purposefully small, quiet movie about a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) making their way through the lush woods of Oregon and Washington, their seemingly unshakable bond put to the test by the creeping realization that no escape might ever be enough for the dad’s PTSD.

It’s sad that it took 8 years for Debra Granik to find the funding to make another movie after Winter’s Bone. Based on the strength of Leave No Trace, surely she won’t have to wait so long next time.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent right now, stream on Amazon starting Jan. 3

6. A Star is Born

This is basically Bradley Cooper’s love letter to Lady Gaga. His character, camera, and, by extension, the audience completely swoon the first moment – and every moment after that – she sings. Cooper, turns out, isn’t a bad singer or guitar player himself. The two harmonize together on screen, both musically and spiritually, and deliver a love story which audiences will be revisiting over and over again for years.

Maybe that’s where Cooper sticks true to the movie’s message – have something to say, and say it in a way people will want to hear. Maybe audiences don’t really want overt commentary about what it truly means to be a star today. Maybe leaving that as subtext is enough. Maybe they don’t need the fourth version of A Star is Born to actually challenge itself to come up with a new ending. Maybe we just want to watch an old-fashioned Cinderella/love story. When this Cinderella sings like Lady Gaga, it’s impossible to resist.

Let’s all agree, though, when Gaga and Cooper sing the “Shallow” chorus they clearly just ran out of words and figured, “Hmm. How many ‘o’s can you can add to ‘shallow’?”

Where Can I Watch It?: Nowhere right now but expect it to be back in theaters soon after the Oscar nominations are announced

5. The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give attempts to do the seemingly impossible by merging a YA empowerment narrative with Black Lives Matter. Isn’t that, I don’t know, kind of distasteful? However, at its core the film’s story is actually quite simple:

A young, black girl learns to find and own her own power, sometimes due to the support of friends and family, other times by tapping into an inner strength she didn’t even know she had. When that girl is played with such nuanced intensity by Amandla Stenberg and coached by Russell Hornsby with such soulful wisdom, it’s almost impossible to ever look away.

Luckily, director Audrey Wells’ script is too smart to suggest systemic racism, police violence, and inner-city drugs can be solved with a tidy third act finale, instead opting for a powerful plea to simply break the cycle of hate and continue speaking up for yourselves. This gives The Hate U Give a hopeful message, but a decidedly measured one.

Where Can I Watch It?: Not available to stream, rent, or buy yet.

4. First Reformed

The guy who wrote Taxi Driver is super worried about the world, particularly the environment. So, he wrote a movie about a man – Ethan Hawke’s mentally and physically anguished priest – being consumed by similar despair. Think of it as Taxi Driver meets Silence meets An Inconvenient Truth. What writer-director Paul Schrader perfectly captures is the sense of isolation and spiritual ennui infecting this land, chronicling how even the best among us can be driven to extremism and self-radicalization in a world which seems to be losing its soul. How perfectly 2018.

Where Can I Watch It?: Amazon Prime

3. Eighth Grade

Yes, Eighth Grade and its story about a shy girl named Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her tortuous final weeks of middle school hits many of the same universal points we can all relate to. Anyone who remembers what it was like to be that age – so unsure of yourself, anxious about becoming a teenager, dealing with acne, simultaneously transfixed by and terrified of looming sexual rites of passage, mortified by your parents who really just want to help, and just being generally awkward about everything – can see themselves in Kayla and empathize with her.

However, there’s also an element of Eighth Grade which persuasively shouts: “Yeah, all that shit you remember from when you were that age? It’s soooooo much worse for kids these days. Everything that’s always been bad about being that age is magnified times a thousand now. To thine own self be true, obviously, but have you seen Instagram?”

As such, your heart repeatedly goes out to Kayla. You desperately want her to realize that just like everyone keeps telling her throughout the movie, things will get better. It’s just harder than ever for kids her age to see that. Elsie Fisher and her director-writer Bo Burnham communicate this universal, yet also very “now” message as beautifully as any coming-of-age movie I’ve ever seen.

Where Can I Watch It?: Rent right now, stream on Amazon starting Jan. 13

2. Black Panther

A good superhero movie finds the truth inside the fantastical and presents the world with something hopeful and inspiring; a transcendent superhero does all of that while also showing the world something it’s never seen before.

Hello Black Panther, a movie which became a rallying cry (Wakanda Forever), led a whole lot of people around the world to Google the word “Afrofuturism,” and will now probably become Marvel Studios’ first Best Picture nominee. If you think that last part would be going too far – it’s just a comic book movie! – please re-watch Killmonger’s heartbreaking, but deceptively profound conversation with his dead father and get back to me.

Any old comic book movie can distract us well enough to make bank these days. Few of them actually have anything real to say about the world. Black Panther does. Ryan Coogler made sure of it, and while it seems strange to have re-state this about a movie which out-grossed freakin’ Titanic, Black Panther is a work of truly transcendent entertainment.

Where Can I Watch It?: Netflix (for now)

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies set the modern template for how family-friendly, live-action comic book movies should be made. 16 years later, Spider-Man is doing it again, this time blowing everything up and swinging in to show everyone just how you make an animated comic book movie. The result is the closest we’ve ever truly come to the phrase “a comic book brought to life,” right down to the half-tone dots and thought bubbles. It could have gone so very wrong. Instead, it’s dazzling.

Perhaps, however, people like me have been over-stressing the film’s visual flair. Maybe that’s why it still hasn’t outgrossed even The Grinch. So, as a reminder, the plot is exactly as complicated as you’d expect from a movie which dares to tackle the crazy, wide world of the multiverse, pulling together various different kinds of Spider-Men – and one Spider-Woman – from alternate universes and having them team up against a mountain-like Kingpin. It totally works, though.

Into the Spider-Verse entrances with its never-before-seen visuals and wild, hip-hop meets punk rock approach to blockbuster storytelling. By the time your eyes and ears to adjust to it all, you’ve been sucker-punched in the heart with an empowering story of a kid who refuses to stay down and his new friends who know all too well what it means to be a hero.

Where Can I Watch It?: In Theaters

Honorable Mentions: ShirkersBeast, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Mule, Teen Titans Go to the Movies!, Deadpool 2

Dishonorable Mentions: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Holmes & Watson, Welcome to Marwen, Life Itself, The Predator, The 15:17 to Paris, The Cloverfield Paradox

Full disclosure: Some portions of this article have been re-used from my full film reviews and my mid-year list of 2018’s best.

What about you? What are some of your favorites of 2018?

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5 comments

    1. I actually have both a niece and nephew who I can’t wait to show Eighth Grade to when it drops on Amazon Prime Jan. 13th. It’s so ridiculous that the MPAA slapped it with an R-rating, but once it hits Amazon maybe it’ll finally find a wider audience. In a more just world, Eighth Grade would have been 2018’s Lady Bird in terms of awards and box office.

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