Don’t let anyone tell you that <insert film year here> was ‘not a good year’ for movies. Every year is a good year if you’re willing to step outside your comfort zone a little bit but even better, when you have a year like 2018 that saw studios really step it up with stellar populist fare like A Star Is Born and Black Panther right alongside the tiniest of indies like The Rider and Leave No Trace. All allow their characters to live and breathe and after all, it’s the story, stupid.
When I looked into what I felt were the best movies of the year, my list kept coalescing around three themes: family, masculinity and empathy. All kinds of families, all versions of masculinity and various types of empathy. 2018 has been a trying year as we rip at the seams of our social fabric daily so it was no surprise that I gravitated towards themes that explored love, family and understanding in a way to partly ‘escape’ the real world as well as feel reassured by elements of it.
Sometimes it’s hard to sift through the rhetoric of Film Twitter and yes, as a critic, to step outside of the comfort zone and bubble I mentioned above. I can list of 10 movies that the majority of my readers probably haven’t seen yet and might have a very difficult time finding but who does that benefit other than my own ego? Accessibility to films, to people searching out top 10 lists for suggestions and guidelines, is important. With the theatrical-to-home video window getting shorter and shorter each year (or in cases like Netflix, almost no window) that gap begins to close. I’ve added the availability of each film listed.
Honorable Mentions (any of which could be on this list): BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Blindspotting, Border, Burning, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Destroyer, Eighth Grade, First Reformed, Game Night; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Happy as Lazzaro, A Star Is Born, Suspiria, Widows.
The 10 Best Films of 2018
10. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)
Despite this riveting documentary (and first film!) being an autobiography of its director, I’ve rarely felt so many unique elements that resembled my own history (skater friends as my core group, being the gay one). Does that make me like it more? Maybe. Even without that connection, Bing Liu captures a truth of masculinity – both from how men see it and how it’s subjectively viewed – in a way I hadn’t ever seen on screen before. (Available on Hulu)
9. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Don’t dismiss this as a Taxi Driver rip-off by any means. Joaquin Phoenix plays a traumatized vet (a character that shows more than once on my list) but Lynne Ramsay brilliantly strips this gender-swapped Gloria of the trappings of oversimplified masculine bravado to reveal something deeper. Grisly violence (after all, a hammer is practically a supporting player) is punctuated by compassionate storytelling and at an extremely lean 89 minutes, there is nothing left but the bare essentials. (Available on Amazon Prime/YouTube/Google Play/Vudu)
8. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Wigs! Whigs! Lesbians! The grotesque comedy, sapphic lust and palace intrigue of The Favourite is the gay gag of the season. The trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone (maybe here best ever?) is the ménage of the year, doling out jabbing and stabbing one-liners from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s acid for blood script in Yorgos Lanthimos’ best film to date. (In theaters now, wide on December 21st from Fox Searchlight)
7. We the Animals (Jeremiah Zagar)
Zagar’s debut feature film is a gorgeously impressionistic sense memory. Merging magical realism and deeply grounded reality, the tale of a young boy named Jonah trying to understand his burgeoning sexuality hints at Moonlight and Beasts of the Southern Wild in the most complimentary of ways. Evan Rosado, as Jonah, is astounding. (Available on Amazon Prime/YouTube/Google Play/Vudu)
6. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
A profound examination of family, and what makes a family; tackling class struggle, societal constraints is at the core of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s best film to date. This Cannes Palme d’Or-winning film is graceful and heartfelt and I still can’t shake the performances from Sakura Ando and little Sasaki Miyu. (In select theaters now from Magnolia Pictures, with expansion through December-February)
5. The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
The fact that Brady Jandreau plays a version of himself (he’s a non-actor and Zhao brought him and his real-life story to the screen) makes for one of those film experiences where it’s the only way it could have been. Pulling directly from his own experience and in his milieu, the story is a docudrama that’s as much a classic ‘boy and his horse’ story as much as it is an honest look at what used to be the most resilient parts of Americana, the cowboy and the rodeo, that are now almost a distant memory. (Available on Amazon Prime/YouTube/Google Play/Vudu/Starz)
4. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
This utterly charming (and disarming) departure from Claire Denis is not your average romance, despite its title. Bittersweet and clever, Juliette Binoche’s Isabelle has all the markings of a rom-com lead (hopelessly romantic, romantically hopeless) but with an unvarnished and expressive sexuality and sensuality. It might be Denis’ best film since her seminal 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail. (Available on Amazon Prime/YouTube/Google Play/Vudu/Hulu)
3. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Rarely is a director able to pull from so many influences (Claire Denis, Douglas Sirk, Wong Kar-wai) and make something truly their own. In just his third film, Barry Jenkins finds the convergence of beauty, love, sadness and racial divide and makes them specific and universal with the best ensemble of the year. Newcomers KiKi Layne and Stephan James are set for greatness. Regina King is the GOAT. (In select theaters now from Annapurna Pictures, opens wide Christmas Day)
2. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
There is a level of humanity in Debra Granik’s emotionally grounded stunner that reaches the deepest levels of empathy possible. I was left examining myself, my own capacity for empathy, in the rawest way. Ben Foster continues to be one of his generation’s most vital and visceral actors and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is going to be a huge star. Her “What’s wrong with you isn’t what’s wrong with me” moment is one of the year’s best. (Available on Amazon Prime/YouTube/Google Play/Vudu)
1. ROMA (Alfonso Cuarón)
A lyrical marvel, a touching tribute, a deeply personal poem. ROMA is visually and aurally lush but the true strength of the film is the sorority of women supporting each other through the toughest of circumstances. It’s impossible not to be swept up by it. I’m still in awe that this is Yalitza Aparicio’s first (and possibly only) film. She commands the frame and she’s in virtually every one of them. The film rests on her shoulders and she carries that weight like she’s done it her whole life. I don’t hesitate in the slightest to say that hers will go down in history alongside Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of the greatest film performances of all time. (In select theaters now and currently streaming on Netflix)