At long last, here are my favorite films of 2018! Overall, I watched 152 movies, which is around my typical average as an amateur film critic. I’ve counted films that had an original theatrical or streaming release in the United States in 2018.
For the first time since I’ve been doing these lists, I had more than 10 films I rated 4 stars out of 4, meaning I had to leave some films I loved unequivocally in the honorable mentions. Suffice to say these are some damn good honorable mentions, which is where we begin.
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The Death of Stalin
Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)
The Sisters Brothers
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993)
10. Minding the Gap
It’s rare when you see a skateboarding film that tackles toxic masculinity, systemic poverty, and the cycle of abuse, but Bing Liu makes those heavy concepts fit naturally within his poignant documentary. Synthesizing footage from 12 years of his life, Liu chronicles his and his friends’ journeys into adulthood and the challenges they face along the way. As fluid and dynamic as the skateboarding sequences are, they remain lodged in our minds as we witness the relentless flow of time, and countless dreams deferred. The film also features some of the most searing interview footage you’ll see all year, including with Liu’s own mom, deepening his understanding of her parental decisions instead of fanning the flames of resentment. Minding the Gap reminds us that our stories never end; they keep going, even if we tend to linger on particular moments. We can either fend off the past or embrace its lessons.
9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I’ve heard a variety of takes on this western anthology, but count me among the folk who think Joel and Ethan Coen haven’t lost a step. Running the gamut from morality plays to harrowing suspense tales to philosophical rambles, Buster Scruggs offers a storybook approach to the western genre (the film has a light brownish tinge to it, like the dust you blow off an old cover). Each short film is preceded by an illustration plate, and part of the fun is seeing how each plate fills its role in its respective story. Hearkening back to these old forms, the Coens play fast and loose with the murky morality of a largely lawless landscape. But they also relish the tender moments that precede the inevitability of death: the promise of a new relationship beyond what one thought possible, or the too-late obliteration of personal prejudice. It makes those moments all the sweeter, all the more tragic for being snatched away.
8. Hale County This Morning, This Evening
RaMell Ross sheds narrative, voiceover, formal interviews, and exposition in his daring documentary that’s proof of the elasticity of the form. Instead, he imbues this intimate look at life in Hale County, Alabama with humanist tendencies, privileging image and tone over cause and effect. Ross comes to this material both as an outsider (having migrated from Washington, D.C.) and as an insider (working in Hale County as a photography teacher and basketball coach). From those two perspectives he creates a fascinating tension between honesty and subjectivity, between naturalism and fantasia: a young boy plays with the moon in his bathtub thanks to overlapping photography. As Ross records this largely rural community, he captures their lives as well as their struggles. His camera acts as a testament to their striving, and a deep love for these people in all their facets.
7. Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski’s charming and heartfelt comedy-drama is my kind of crowd-pleaser…if only the crowds had shown up. Working at “Double Whammies”, a local restaurant in the mold of Hooter’s, general manager Lisa and her band of loyal employees deal with job pitfalls, personal lives, and the encroaching threat of competing franchises. The film never judges these characters despite the risque setting; rather, it depicts a vibrant, lived-in community with everyday people doing the best they can. It’s a true credit to the performers that entire character dynamics and histories are captured in the span of a few seconds. And with Regina Hall’s superlative work as the lead, Lisa proves a strict mother-hen whose best intentions run up against the realities of the world. It all leads to an ending where Lisa and her loyal employees utter primal screams from a rooftop, a scene stirring in its catharsis and solidarity.
6. Private Life
As of yet, I’m unfamiliar with Tamara Jenkins’s previous films Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages, but this was quite the impressive introduction. New York couple Rachel and Richard are desperate for a child, trying their hand at (and breaking their backs) pursuing adoption as well as fertility treatments. Understandably stressed out, they’re not the easiest characters to be around. And yet, Jenkins and her performers make them instantly lovable, thanks to the specifics of their relationship and a thorough understanding of the process and its difficulties. Complicating their situation is the sudden visit of niece Sadie, who struggles to figure out her own life very much at her own pace. Jenkins matches whip-smart dialogue with subtle visual storytelling, especially soft focus, cloistering her characters within a narrow but comfortable space. You don’t want to leave these people behind, making this the kind of film that cries out for a sequel.
Steve McQueen makes the ultimate heist film, a brilliant piece of pulp filmmaking fully incorporating real-world issues into its genre trappings. Beginning with a harrowing car chase/job-gone-wrong sequence, McQueen only heightens the dramatic stakes with more glorious set-pieces, where the conversations match the heist scenes for sheer tension and suspense. Making use of one of the year’s best ensembles, Widows paints a distinct picture of our female crew, united in their desperation but distinct in their personalities. Swooping camerawork, claustrophobic framings, and raw performances make this feel like something akin to opera, but always grounded in something real. Even when Chicago politics and corruption prove formidable foes, our protagonists rely upon the inner strength they’ve honed without even realizing it. It’s one of the best marriages of sociopolitical commentary and pure popcorn thrills that you’ll see.
4. Burning (Beoning)
Lee Chang-dong’s gorgeous Hitchcockian thriller plays like a mystery without a clear solution. In fact, is there even a mystery to solve? Is Jong-su simply projecting his fears onto Ben, the enigmatic stranger in whose company his crush Hae-mi was last seen? The film’s ambiguous tone leads to a stealthy eeriness, where tensions go unacknowledged, and where the social fabric of time and place substitutes for traditional explanations. Never fully revealing the truth, Burning emphasizes the truths that we choose, and the factors that influence those choices. Perhaps that is what Ben means when he discusses his penchant for burning down greenhouses: eliminating seemingly useless establishments with a decisive act of violence. The deliberately off-kilter vibe here won’t work for everyone, but the rest of us will gladly marinate in this unsettling world.
3. You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay takes a fairly standard Hollywood setup and injects it with her signature impressionistic, image-driven flourishes to create a moving character study. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a quiet but capable enforcer who tracks down victims of human trafficking, the film opts for a minimal dialogue approach where reality and illusion collide, and the line between Joe’s past trauma and present violence ceases to exist. We’re not watching a straight procedural as much as a moody reverie, where paranoia reigns and any and all people are potential threats. Somewhere, somehow, the film finds moments of grace, humanizing Joe and his troubles. With some of the most psychologically accurate imagery I can recall, it also occasionally gives in to moments of unadulterated fantasy: sing-alongs with dying thugs, or a sublime underwater scene on par with the ending of The Shape of Water.
Ari Aster’s debut has been much lauded, and for good reason: the savage, technical filmmaking is matched by its nightmarish tableaus and dark imagination. But submerged within this demonic conspiracy film lie deep emotional truths. This is a film first and foremost about families, and the parts of ourselves we bestow, genetically or otherwise. Keeping its tone at the peak of melodrama the whole way through, Hereditary taps into something far more terrifying than any jump scare: how attempting to distance ourselves from our families may in fact lead us closer than we ever could have anticipated. But Aster never loses sight of the genuine emotional bonds in this family, despite the horrors they wreak upon each other. And the much-debated ending offers its own twisted version of hope; seeing through each other’s eyes may not necessarily lead to healing, but it can lead to understanding.
1. If Beale Street Could Talk
Many films moved me in 2018, but few lifted my heart the way Barry Jenkins’s latest did. Not only does Jenkins prove his 2016 masterpiece Moonlight was no fluke, he carves out a whole new cinematic niche while retaining his vast powers of empathy and visual filmmaking. Taking the story of a falsely accused man from James Baldwin’s novel, the film follows the man’s girlfriend and her family as they seek to prove his innocence. Jenkins gives vivid, startling portrait to the systemic injustices that plague both 1970s New York and our modern society, all while refusing to give in to despair. Boasting an impressive ensemble from Regina King’s powerful matriarch to KiKi Layne’s indomitable Tish, Beale Street humanizes all its characters (even the would-be villains in a less sensitive version of this story). Jenkins finds a way to dramatize love and faith, resilient even in the face of abject tragedy.
And with that, we are officially done with 2018! Please stay tuned for a much earlier 2019 retrospective. (I hope.)