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2018 End of the Year Wrap Up

Top 10 Films of 2018

What follows are Nathan’s picks of the best films of 2018.

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Premise: Based on the novel by James Baldwin. Set in 1970s Harlem, a young African American woman (KiKi Layne) becomes pregnant and the father of her child (Stephan James) is imprisoned. She tries to prove his innocence.

Why It Made the List: There were a lot of activist films released in 2018. Pictures such as The Hate U Give and Blindspotting and The First Purge channeled the culture’s anxieties and visualized them on the silver screen. If Beale Street Could Talk was less confrontational than those films but it was no less political and in fact it was far more effective than any of its contemporaries. This film put its story and filmmaking craft first and If Beale Street Could Talk uses the strengths of cinema to make its point. As Roger Ebert was fond of saying, cinema has the capacity to inspire empathy. It places the audience in another person’s point of view in a way that is immediate and immersive. If Beale Street Could Talk does exactly that. It makes the viewer a witness to the lives of Tish and Fonny, a young African American couple played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James, and it affirms their humanity through their love story and the struggles they must overcome to remain together. This film is about a couple hanging onto each other when the world seems bent upon tearing them apart and that’s where the politics of this film are found. If Beale Street Could Talk is about the African American experience and specifically the presumption of guilt that mainstream white culture casts on young black men. The political impact of If Beale Street Could Talk is in the contrast between that expectation and the humanity of the characters. Everything in this film is concentrated around the idea of empathy. The cinematography is natural and yet stylized, using shadows and colors to give scenes a specific emotional temperature and the people and places possess a visual texture that invites us to truly feel the images. The music score by Nicholas Britell works in concert with those images, underscoring the subtext but without beating us over the head with it. The narrative also works this way, taking us backward and forward on the timeline and juxtaposing better and worse times in the couple’s lives, colliding the expectations and hopes of their past with the realities and compromises of their future. All those elements cohere in a movie that is quietly subversive, deeply impactful, and stubbornly humane. It’s a delicate balance of skillful storytelling, political insight, and cinematic craftsmanship that makes If Beale Street Could Talk the best film of 2018.

2. First Reformed

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Premise: A pastor (Ethan Hawke) counsels a young man who is concerned with threats to the environment. Their exchanges dredge up the pastor’s own anxieties about the world and he is overcome with despair.

Why It Made the List: Recent years have brought us many religious pictures that pander to the audience with sentimental victim narratives. Enter Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of The Last Temptation of Christ and Taxi Driver and a filmmaker who often deals with religious themes and existential angst. First Reformed brings Schrader’s preoccupations together in a story that rebukes trite nonsense like the God’s Not Dead films and puts the audience through an intellectual and spiritual wringer. This story of a troubled pastor could easily go off the rails into sentimental hysteria or moral grandstanding. Schrader does neither. He confronts us with the realities of the world—environmental catastrophe, political corruption, the loss of hope—and unlike a Hollywood fantasy First Reformed does not reassure us that everything will be okay in the end. Moral indignation burns at the center of this film but it’s matched by frustration. The pastor, like the audience, can see the gears turning earth into hell and he is helpless to stop it. In that respect, First Reformed is in touch with this cultural moment. But Schrader’s film cuts deeper than the zeitgeist. The pastor’s anxiety dramatizes the human craving for meaning and purpose. Ethan Hawke embodies that anxiety in an extraordinary performance, funneling the character’s anguish into every subtle gesture and he delivers Schrader’s narration with a palatable tension. First Reformed is not a film that seeks to be liked but it does demand to be listened to and for those willing to submit, the film offers a truly spiritual experience.

3. The Favourite

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Premise: In 18th Century England, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is cared for by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). The duchess’ cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) comes to court looking for employment and jockeys for the queen’s favor. 

Why It Made the List: Stories about royalty and courtly intrigue have long been a staple of moviemaking but it’s difficult to imagine anything quite like The Favourite. This movie explodes the preconceptions of what a period piece ought to be, particularly the stiffness and propriety that so often characterizes these films. That’s most obvious in the central performances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. These characters are far from the passive, sexless, and girded women usually found in a royal drama. Weisz and Stone’s characters are complex, ruthless, and manipulative while Colman’s Queen Anne is a tragic idiot. Disposing with the self-importance of many period films, The Favourite is wickedly funny in ways that are both lewd and smart. It’s also unusual in its filmmaking. The cinematography employs lenses that distort the movement through the frame and the sparse music score creates a feeling of unease. Perhaps most unnerving is The Favourite’s portrait of power. Queen Anne possesses only a fleeting grasp of state affairs. She relies on the advice of others to run the country and vacillates between the Duchess of Marlborough and her cousin. The plotting is quite fun and the women’s maneuvers keep us entertained but the political machinations conceal something more unsettling. In most pictures, the course of history is bent by the will of a strong leader. In The Favourite, the fate of a nation rests in the fickle whims of a monarch of uncertain mental fitness. It’s an unsettling idea that is especially resonant for today’s audience. 

4. Eighth Grade

Directed by: Bo Burnham

Premise: A teenage girl (Elsie Fisher) passes through the final weeks of middle school. She copes with the anxieties of early adolescence and struggles to define herself in an uncertain social climate.

Why It Made the List: Each generation has a film or set of films that captures the youth culture of its day. Baby Boomers had Rebel Without a Cause, Generation X had The Breakfast Club, Millennials had Juno, and our youngest generation now has Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. This film is an unsparing and honest portrait of early adolescence as it’s experienced by a thirteen year old girl. One of the many outstanding qualities of Eighth Grade is how it rejects the way so many films and television shows portray children and childhood. A lot of mainstream media insists that children are magical and innocent and focus on young people who are exceptional. Kayla is utterly ordinary. But the filmmakers believe that ordinariness is worth exploring and Eighth Grade is packed with reality and insight. The film’s portrait of adolescence is awkward, unglamorous, and occasionally ugly and Eighth Grade might be unbearable if not for how funny it is and for the extraordinary performance by Elsie Fisher. In a significant break from most Hollywood films, Fisher and her teenage costars look their age. The filmmakers don’t disguise the imperfections of their skin and Fisher and the filmmakers capture the social awkwardness and physical discomfort of adolescence. That rawness extends to the world in which these kids live. Naïve parents might find the movie shocking but Eighth Grade is an honest portrait of the world today’s adolescents inhabit. Eighth Grade offers a glimpse into that world and it ought to be shown in every middle school and PTA meeting in America.

5. Free Solo

Directed by: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Premise: A documentary about professional rock climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall without ropes or safety gear.

Why It Made the List: Free Solo is a testament to human endurance. On the most basic level, Free Solo impresses as a sports film and a nature documentary. It is part procedural, cataloging Alex Honnold’s physical, logistical, and mental preparations leading up to the main event. In that respect alone, Free Solo is a fascinating document of Honnold’s profession. And as a nature documentary, Free Solo captures the beauty of the landscape with some extraordinary cinematography. Documentaries are generally consumed on television but Free Solo ought to be viewed theatrically on as large a screen as possible. The film includes some astonishing images of Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall with Honnold literally thousands of feet above the ground. His climb is an extraordinary sequence that matches and often exceeds the thrills of any Hollywood special effects set piece. But as is so often the case in the best sports films, Free Solo is about more than the activity itself. This documentary profiles Honnold at a peculiar time in his life. Although he earns a living from climbing, Honnold is introduced living out of a van. In the course of his preparations to scale El Capitan, Honnold gets into a serious romantic relationship and the couple buys a home. Free Solo juxtaposes Honnold’s unusual profession and independent lifestyle with the comforts and restrictions of domesticity. This film is a portrait of the risks inherent to freedom and the compromises that come with safety. Together with the drama of the climb, Free Solo gets at something profound that transcends the appeal of extreme sports.

6. The Tale

Directed by: Jennifer Fox

Premise: An autobiographical drama. Writer and director Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern) discovers a story she wrote in her youth detailing her first sexual experience. Fox gradually realizes that she was molested and sets out to make contact with her abusers.

Why It Made the List: Stories about sexual abuse are fraught by an inherent challenge: being honest without becoming exploitative. The Tale achieves extraordinary clarity and honesty and as a result the film is sometimes uncomfortable to watch. But that discomfort is matched by sensitivity and intelligence and a storytelling approach that is revelatory. The Tale is, first and foremost, about witnessing the experience of a sexual assault survivor. The filmmakers stage scenes from Jennifer Fox’s perceptive and thereby place the audience in her point of view. Perspective is central to the movie.  The narrative alternates between past and present, juxtaposing the adult Jennifer’s investigation with dramatizations of her childhood experiences. The film smartly edits scenes so that past and present lean on each other. It is in that respect that The Tale distinguishes itself from other abuse narratives. This is a story about the subjectivity of memory and the way storytelling can illuminate but also distort the truth. At the opening of the film, Jennifer remembers herself being much more mature when these events took place. Only upon investigating her past does Jennifer realize just how young she was and she gradually comes to understand what happened and its repercussions on her adult life. Jennifer’s internal process of revising her memory is integrated into the movie in a uniquely cinematic way. The filmmakers understand that our narratives form our identity and The Tale is as much about abuse as it is about self-discovery. This film is not an easy watch but The Tale is an extraordinary work that ranks among 2018’s best releases. 

7. Sorry to Bother You

Directed by: Boots Riley

Premise: A young African American (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job at a telemarketing firm that is part of a larger international corporation. He quickly climbs the corporate ladder but risks losing his conscience. 

Why It Made the List: 2018 was brimming with political films that channeled social movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter as well as the general unease gripping the culture. Sorry to Bother You was among the most extraordinary of these films and it captured this political moment while also telling a story that was smart, entertaining, outrageous and unlike anything else released in 2018. This satirical comedy successfully combined different genres, crossing a business story with a coming of age tale and adding a dash of science fiction. It’s also stylistically bold. Sorry to Bother You employed some strange visual techniques and it was often a wild and unpredictable show. Yet, everything in Sorry to Bother You fit together. Actors Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer gauged their performances perfectly. They could go broad but the cast mostly played it straight and that made the absurdity funny but also credible. The comedy of Sorry to Bother You was key to its success. This film has a political agenda but it was presented with a sense of humor. The comedy breaks down the audience’s resistance and the movie never gets didactic. Yet, this was a provocative film with far reaching implications about race relations, corporate power, and even capitalism itself. It’s rare to see this kind of ambition and even rarer to see it executed so well. Sorry to Bother You was the debut feature of musician turned filmmaker Boots Riley and it is one of the most astonishing debuts of any filmmaker in recent memory. 

8. A Star is Born

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Premise: A rock star (Bradley Cooper) has a chance encounter with an aspiring singer (Lady Gaga). They fall in love and he launches her music career but the rocker’s substance abuse threatens both of them.

What Works: Remakes are a fixture of Hollywood’s release slate and a source of frustration from audiences and derision from critics. But 2018’s A Star is Born — the fifth iteration of this story — is a remake done right. All the familiar elements are here but the 2018 film is its own movie and retells the story with style, energy, and grit offset by a tangible human frailty. Bradley Cooper plays Jack, a rock and roll star crippled by substance abuse. The artist as tortured soul is a cliché but Cooper brings charm and vulnerability to the part. Jack’s inner turmoil lead him to drugs and alcohol but it also allows him to recognize the talent and soulfulness of Ally, played by Lady Gaga. The love story between Jack and Ally is believable and viewers will want to see it succeed. In that respect, A Star is Born accomplishes something exceptional. We know where this story is going and the audience has signed up for a showcase of drug-fueled self-destruction. But Jack is so likable and his relationship with Ally is so real that we dread the very thing we’ve come to see. 2018’s A Star is Born is made for the age of opioids and Instagram. We are spectators to celebrities at their best and worst and often times the professional performances are as much a part of the show as private tragedies. A Star is Born does not romanticize the public implosion of our celebrities. Instead it asks us to see the humanity of our artists.  

9. Chappaquiddick

Directed by: John Curran

Premise: Based on true events. In 1969, United States Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) is involved in a car accident that kills campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara). In the days that follow, Kennedy and political elites attempt to keep the senator out of prison.

Why It Made the List: In the current cultural environment, anything with a whiff of politics is often seized upon and shoved into an ideological box where it can be savagely criticized or mindlessly praised depending upon how it suits partisan allegiances. Chappaquiddick frustrates that kind of categorization. This film could quite easily have been a partisan screed that ripped down a liberal hero. And while Chappaquiddick is certainly damaging to the legend of Ted Kennedy it is also much more intelligent and complex than a simple political hatchet job. Chappaquiddick is about responsibility and integrity and evasion of the former and the loss of the latter. This is a complex moral tale and an indictment of partisanship that illuminates something poisonous in American politics. Chappaquiddick is led by Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and this may be Clarke’s best performance. He soft pedals the Kennedy imitation and plays the moral ambiguity to near perfection. Most surprising are the supporting performances by Ed Helms as Kennedy cousin Joseph Gargan and Jim Gaffigan as United States Attorney Paul F. Markham. Neither of these actors are typically associated with drama but they are both quite good and Helms is startling as the moral voice of the movie. Chappaquiddick was mostly missed when it opened in the spring of 2018. It didn’t do much business nor did it generate much traction from the commentariat. It’s not a politically convenient picture and what Chappaquiddick shows us about American culture may not be easy for audiences to accept but it is absolutely essential at this particular time.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Premise: An animated film. Bronx high school student Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore) is bitten by a spider and gains superpowers. At the same time, other versions of Spider-Man appear in the city because of a scientific experiment that threatens to destroy New York City.

Why It Made the List: 2018 was another year full of superhero films including Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Deadpool 2, and Aquaman, among others. Most of these films remained within the familiar superhero model. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse distinguished itself. This picture was unlike any other Spider-Man film or any other superhero or animated feature of 2018. Into the Spider-Verse puts the “comic” back in the comic book movie with wild use of color and the inclusion of panels and speech bubbles. The animation combines the 2D art of a comic book with the dimension and tactility of stop-motion. The story includes several other heroes from various Spider-Man universes with each of them retaining their original look. On a purely visual level, Into the Spider-Verse goes well beyond what we expect from either a studio animation project or a superhero picture. The movie is also a lot of fun. The action sequences have so much more energy than the set pieces of live action superhero films and the movie incudes a great deal of comedy. Into the Spider-Verse is also one of the most emotionally resonant superhero films in recent memory. Miles Morales has a complex relationship with his father and uncle and the other heroes bring their own emotional baggage. Into the Spider-Verse threads a difficult needle, offering a fresh take on a familiar superhero that operates within a commercial franchise while retaining its artistic integrity. It’s a terrific piece of pop art that was the best superhero movie of the year and one of the best films of 2018. 

Honorable Mentions

What follows are films that were either runners up to the Top 10 list or other pictures that came out in 2018 that are worth mentioning.  

22 July – Paul Greengrass’ dramatization of Norway’s worst terrorist attack combined visceral action with a sensitive and intelligent examination of the aftermath of violence.

Annihilation – Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina was an ambitious and cerebral sci-fi horror picture.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – A fun western anthology by the Coen Brothers.

Black Panther – This movie was hailed more for what it symbolized than for what it actually was, but Black Panther was an entertaining superhero movie and one of the better titles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  

BlacKkKlansman – Spike Lee’s newest film used humor to a subversive end. John David Washington and Adam Driver offered nuanced performances as police detectives and Topher Grace was impressive as David Duke.

Blindspotting – One of several Black Lives Matter movies released in 2018, Blindspotting presented a challenging portrait of race and class issues against a background of gentrification. Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal were quite good in the lead roles and they shared a complex relationship that both transcends race and is shaped by it.

BlockersBlockers was a good hearted film that mixed raunchy comedy with a smart and progressive take of female sexuality.

Border – This Swedish film is an R-rated fantasy that deserves a cult following.

Boy Erased – Based on the memoir by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased dramatized life inside of a gay conversion therapy center.

Cam– This surreal story about a web cam performer was a disconcerting but intelligent tale about life in the social media age.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – An impressive mix of true crime and character study that made empathetic characters out of unlikable people. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant inhabit complex characters and McCarthy gives one of her best performances.

Death of Stalin – Wickedly funny—except when it’s not—The Death of Stalin was unsettling and sardonic. This film had one of the best ensemble casts of the year including Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Isaacs.

First Man – A well-crafted and thoughtful drama about the Apollo program. The movie was a bit too emotionally staid but it brought a fresh angle to familiar historical events.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture – A dramedy about National Lampoon magazine creators Doug Kenny and Henry Beard. Although it adhered to a standard show business cautionary tale, A Futile and Stupid Gesture had a creative and irreverent style that was in keeping with its subject matter.

Halloween – The best sequel to the 1978 horror classic. The new film balanced innovation with reverence for the source material to create one of the best nostalgia sequels.

The Hate U Give – The movie occasionally stumbled over its own message, sacrificing drama for politics, but it was also sharp and occasionally incendiary. The central performance by Amandla Stenberg holds it together.

Hearts Beat Loud – A likable indie about a father and daughter and their mutual love of music.

Hereditary – One of the impressive horror films released in 2018, Hereditary was a slow burn terror that was as psychologically complex as it was frightening. Toni Collette was terrific in the lead role as a mother whose sanity is pushed to the limit.

Instant Family – A satisfying mix of comedy and drama that was nice without being overly sentimental. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne were likable as adoptive parents and Isabela Moner nearly stole the show as the oldest of the adoptees.

Juliet, Naked –Both a middle age drama and a romantic comedy, Juliet, Naked went beyond what we expect from either genre.

The Kindergarten Teacher – Domestic dissatisfaction is nothing new but The Kindergarten Teacher depicted the frustration of an unfulfilled artist in a visceral way. Maggie Gyllenhaal embodied that frustration in the title role.

Leave No Trace – A poignant father-daughter story led by committed performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. 

Lean on Pete – One of the underappreciated releases of 2018, Lean on Pete is the story of a boy and his horse and it takes the audience in unexpected directions.

The Looming Tower – This television miniseries about the events leading up to the September 11th terrorist attack was a compelling thriller that offered a nuanced take on recent history.

Mid90s – This coming of age story set amid the skateboarding culture of 1990s Los Angeles was impressive in its rawness and depth and honesty. The young cast were impressive including Sunny Suljic, Olan Prenatt, Na-kel Smith.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout – The sixth Mission: Impossible film was one of the series’ best installments. It provided everything a viewer would want from an action movie while also breaking away from some of the conventions of this franchise.

Paterno – A terrific drama about the former Penn State football coach with an extraordinary performance by Al Pacino. It’s a tragedy that confronts the audience with our own culpability in systemic corruption.

Private Life – A smart and insightful drama about middle age that mixed humor with melancholia. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti were terrific as a married couple facing reproductive challenges and Kayli Carter was impressive as their niece.

A Quiet Place – An exceptional horror picture that is frighteningly entertaining and extremely well made, particularly in its use of sound.

Ralph Breaks the Internet – The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph was playful and fun but it also has some serious substance about friendship and adjusting to change.

Revenge – The movie dealt with tricky subject matter in a way that shows thoughtfulness and craft and the picture made the audience think about the violence we often take for granted.

The RiderThe Rider was a beautifully made film that takes the audience into its world of cowboys and rodeos in a way that was immersive and authentic. Brady Jandreau was quite good playing a fictionalized version of himself. 

Roma – Alfonso Cuarón’s story of a middle class Mexican family and their maid had authentic period detail and impressive black and white images.  

Searching – This thriller about a missing teenage girl uses contemporary technology in a way that was more than a gimmick and it will keep viewers on the edge of their seats throughout.

A Simple Favor – A playful mystery from director Paul Feig. The film includes likable performances by Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick. 

Support the Girls – This dramedy about a day at a Hooters-esque “breasturant” was smart and populated with complex characters. The film was distinguished by performances by Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle.

Suspiria – Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic was an ambitious and cerebral horror picture that offered a lot to dissect.

Tag – Another of the underappreciated titles of 2018, Tag was one of the best comedies Hollywood has produced in some time.

They Shall Not Grow Old – Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary is an extraordinary technical achievement. 
TullyTully reunited director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and actress Charlize Theron in an unglamorous story of middle class domesticity.

Vox Lux – An unusual portrait of contemporary pop stardom that broke out of the standard show business framework. Natalie Portman impresses in the lead role. 

We the Animals – This story of three young bothers living in poverty mixed fantasy and realism in a vivid portrait of pre-adolescence.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – This documentary about Fred Rogers investigates his ideals as well as the history of his television show. The result was a moving tribute to a man and to kindness and decency.

Widows – Filmmaker Steve McQueen brought depth, style and complexity to pulpy source material. Widows also showcased terrific performances by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, and Colin Farrell.

The Wife – A complex tale of gender politics, complicity, and authorship with an exceptional performance by Glenn Close in the title role.  

You Were Never Really Here – Lynne Ramsay’s 2018 feature was beautifully crafted even as it was difficult to watch because of its subject matter. The film also has an extraordinary performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a hired gun who is haunted by violent trauma.

Good Buzz List

These are films that were released in 2018 and have strong word of mouth, and in some cases award nominations, but Nathan was unable to see them in time for the year end summary, usually because they were not available before the program was recorded.

Beautiful Boy— A drama adapted from the addiction memoirs of David and Nic Sheff. The film has earned praise for the performance by Timothée Chalamet.

Ben is Back – Lucas Hedges achieved some recognition for his performance as a drug addicted teenager.

Capernaum – This Lebanese drama won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Cold War – Pawel Pawlikowski won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival and Cold War has been a fixture of many award ceremonies and year-end top ten lists.

Destroyer – Nicole Kidman’s performance has been widely praised and earned her numerous award nominations.

A Private War – This biographical film about war correspondent Marie Colvin has attracted notice for Rosamund Pike’s performance in the lead role.  

Shoplifters – This Japanese film was named to several critics best of the year lists and it won the Best Film award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

The Sisters Brothers – Director Jacques Audiard won the Silver Lion award at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. 

Stan & Ollie – This feature about comedy duo Laurel and Hardy has earned acclaim for the lead performances by John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan as well as for its production design.

Wildlife – Paul Dano’s directorial debut was a regular award contender at film festivals throughout 2018.

Great Performances

This is a list of some of the great performances in 2018, although not all of them were in great movies. 

22 July – Paul Greengrass’ dramatization of Norway’s worst terrorist attack had notable performances by Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, and Jon Øigarden.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs –Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan contributed to this fun western anthology by the Coen Brothers.

Beirut –John Hamm impressed in the lead role.

BlacKkKlansman – John David Washington and Adam Driver offered nuanced performances as police detectives and Topher Grace was impressive as David Duke.

Blindspotting –Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal were quite good in the lead roles and they shared a complex relationship that both transcends race and is shaped by it.

Bohemian Rhapsody – This average Hollywood biopic was elevated by Rami Malek’s performance as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

Border –Eva Melander’s performance turns a fanciful conceit into a grounded and emotionally impactful drama.

Boy Erased –Lucas Hedges was heartbreaking in the lead role and he’s matched by empathetic performances from Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe as his parents.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? –Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant inhabit complex characters and McCarthy gives one of her best performances.

Chappaquiddick –Jason Clarke impressed as Bobby Kennedy as did Ed Helms as Joseph Gargan and Jim Gaffigan as Paul F. Markham.

Death of Stalin –This film had one of the best ensemble casts of the year including Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Isaacs.

Disobedience – Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola offered complex characterizations in a story about sexuality and love in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot – Joaquin Phoenix embodied the comedy and the tragedy of wheelchair bound cartoonist John Callahan. The cast also includes Jonah Hill as Callahan’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and Jack Black and Beth Ditto as fellow addicts.

Eighth Grade – Elsie Fisher impressed in the lead role and Josh Hamilton provided a terrific supporting performance as her father.

The Favourite – The film was led by a trio of exceptional performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz.

Final Portrait – Geoffrey Rush brings his talents to bear on a portrait of Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

First Reformed –Ethan Hawke was extraordinary as a pastor struggling with despair.

The Front Runner– The cast of The Front Runner create nuanced and complex characters including Hugh Jackman as former Presidential candidate Gary Hart, Vera Famiga as his wife Lee Hart, Sara Paxton as paramour Sara Rice, and Mamoudou Athie as a fictionalized Washington Post reporter.

Green Book – Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali are largely responsible for the success of this film.

The Hate U Give – The movie occasionally stumbled over its own message but the central performance by Amandla Stenberg held it together.

Hearts Beat Loud – Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons play father and daughter in this likable indie.

Hereditary –Toni Collette was terrific in the lead role as a mother whose sanity is pushed to the limit.

If Beale Street Could Talk – The entire cast was stellar but the success of the movie hinged upon KiKi Layne and Stephan James. Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry were also impressive in supporting roles.

Instant Family –Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne were likable as adoptive parents and Isabela Moner nearly stole the show as the oldest of the adoptees.

The Kindergarten Teacher – Maggie Gyllenhaal embodied the frustration of an unfulfilled artist in a visceral way.

Leave No Trace – A poignant father-daughter story led by committed performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. 

Lean on Pete – Charlie Plummer is quite good in the lead.

The Leisure Seeker – Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland elevated this picture with their performances as an aged married couple.

The Looming Tower – This television miniseries included several impressive performances including Jeff Daniels as FBI Counterterrorism Center Chief John O’Neill and Tahar Rahim as FBI agent Ali Soufan.

Mary Poppins Returns – Emily Blunt played the magical nanny and her performance was every bit as good as Julie Andrews in the 1964 original.

Mary Queen of Scots – Saoirse Ronan brought intelligence and wit but also youth and vulnerability to the title role.

Mid90s – Sunny Suljic, Olan Prenatt, and Na-kel Smith impressed in this coming of age story.

The Mule – This movie showcased one of the Clint Eastwood’s best performances in decades.

Never Goin’ Back –This bawdy comedy was led by Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone.

The Old Man and the Gun – Robert Redford brought charisma and charm to what he has said will be his final acting role.

Paterno – Al Pacino was exceptional as the former Penn State football coach.

The Polka King – Jack Black was terrific in the lead role as Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan. Jenny Slate was also notable as Lewan’s wife Marla.

Private Life – Hahn and Paul Giamatti were terrific as a married couple facing reproductive challenges and Kayli Carter was impressive as their niece.

The Rider – Brady Jandreau was quite good playing a fictionalized version of himself. 

A Simple Favor – A playful mystery from director Paul Feig led by bouncy performances from Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick. 

Sorry to Bother You –The performances by Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, and Armie Hammer were perfectly pitched to match the offbeat tone of the movie.

A Star is Born –Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott provided fine performances.

Support the Girls – Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle distinguished this dramedy about a day at a Hooters-esque “breasturant.”

The Tale – Laura Dern, Elizabeth Debicki, and Ellen Burstyn were impressive in Jennifer Fox’s semi-autobiographical drama.

Thoroughbreds – Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Anton Yelchin were quite good in this offbeat crime drama.

Tully – Charlize Theron captured the unglamorousness of parenthood. She was well paired with Mackenzie Davis as the family’s new nanny.

Vice – Christian Bale’s portrayal of former Vice President Dick Cheney was uncanny. Amy Adams was also impressive as Lynne Cheney. 

Vox Lux – Natalie Portman impresses in the lead role as a pop star. 

Welcome to Marwen – Steve Carell was quite good in the true story of artist Mark Hogancamp even if the film was deeply flawed. 

Who We Are Now – Julianne Nicholson led this film as an ex-con trying to reunite with her estranged son and Emma Roberts was also impressive as a public defender struggling to balance work and family obligations.

WidowsWidows showcased terrific performances by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, and Colin Farrell.

The Wife – Glenn Close was terrific in the title role. 

You Were Never Really Here – Joaquin Phoenix was extraordinary as a hired gun who is haunted by violent trauma.

Bottom 10 Films of 2018

What follows are the very bottom of the cinematic heap for 2018.

1. Acrimony

Directed by: Tyler Perry

Premise: A woman (Taraji P. Henson) marries an ambitious inventor (Lyriq Bent) against the advice of her sisters. Their marriage suffers when his dream project doesn’t take off and her anger gradually gets the better of her. 

Why It Made the List: Tyler Perry’s filmography has long suffered from misogyny, going all the way back to 2005’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman. But rarely has Perry’s depiction of women—and in particular black women—been as vicious, hysterical, or stupid as it was in 2018’s Acrimony. This film is led by Taraji P. Henson who seems to think she’s channeling Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction but her performance is actually much closer to Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Henson’s character is an unsympathetic psychopath but the other women of Acrimony aren’t much better. Astonishingly, the misogyny of this film is only one of its problems. Acrimony combines the production values of The Room with the narrative logic of The Book of Henry. It’s an astonishingly sloppy mess of a movie. The production budget was reportedly $20 million but if that’s true it’s unclear where the money was spent. Youtube videos have better production values than this slop. The film’s regard for women, its shoddy filmmaking, and incoherent storytelling triangulate to make Acrimony the worst film of 2018.

2. Fifty Shades Freed

Directed by: James Foley

Premise: The third film in the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan) get married. Anastasia’s former boss (Eric Johnson) attempts to blackmail the couple. 

Why It Made the List: None of the movies in E.L. James’ erotica trilogy have been any good but the final installment is extraordinarily bad. From the wedding to the sex and bondage to the stalker plot, nothing in Fifty Shades Freed is done with any competence. The plot is clumsy and the erotic scenes are flaccid. This movie also clarifies the real message of this series. It was never about abuse, sex, or redemption.  The Fifty Shades trilogy is about shagging a billionaire and all the stuff he could buy you in exchange for being his plaything. 

3. Holmes & Watson

Directed by: Etan Cohen

Premise: A spoof of Sherlock Holmes stories. The famous detective (Will Ferrell) and his associate Dr. Watson (John C. Reilly) investigate a plot to murder the Queen of England.

Why It Made the List:Holmes & Watson is a spoof in the same vein as the movies Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer churned out a decade ago and just like those films it’s a disaster. Holmes & Watson is ninety minutes of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly cavorting and shrieking in a desperate bid to distract us from the void at the center of their movie. There’s nothing to Holmes & Watson – it’s slapdash and lazy—and Ferrell and Reilly alternate between being mildly irritating and numbingly boring. 

4. Death Wish

Directed by: Eli Roth

Premise: A remake of the 1974 film. A doctor’s (Bruce Willis) wife and daughter are assaulted during a burglary of their suburban home. The doctor begins patrolling the streets of Chicago with a handgun and doling out vigilante justice to street criminals.

Why It Made the List: As bad as the Charles Bronson Death Wish films could be, none of them were as bland as the 2018 remake. Filmmaker Eli Roth’s style is muted and the provocative material is contorted into a generic Bruce Willis shoot-’em-up. Willis knows that and it shows in his phoned in performance. Death Wish also has the distinction of being the most politically tone-deaf film of 2018 in this story of a white suburbanite traveling to mostly black inner city communities looking for people to shoot.

5. Mile 22

Directed by: Peter Beg

Premise: An elite tactical unit working out of the United States’ embassy in Indonesia must escort an informant out the country. They caravan toward an airfield while under fire by that country’s paramilitary force.

Why It Made the List: Mile 22 reunites filmmaker Peter Berg with actor Mark Wahlberg and it falls short of their previous collaborations. This movie is an incoherent mishmash of sloppy action and daft political commentary. The set pieces are a cacophony of gunshots and car crashes and the narrative is all over the place. The political commentary desperately reaches for something profound about international relations and combat but whatever this film is trying to say is at best half-baked and at worst a simplistically cynical rationale for unrestrained warfare.

6. Death of a Nation

Directed by: Dinesh D’Souza and Bruce Schooley

Premise: A political documentary that attempts to draw parallels between Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump and claims that the Democratic Party is the descendent of Nazism.

Why It Made the List: Convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza’s latest crime against cinema finds him rehashing the same old ground. Death of a Nation is just another occasion for D’Souza to accuse Democrats, and anyone else he disagrees with, of being secret Nazis. The documentary repackages the same asinine ideas that D’Souza has been peddling since 2012, even repurposing footage from earlier films, and he attempts to distract from the stupidity of the arguments with bombastic musical montages. It’s as though someone made a documentary out of the comments section of a Breitbart article. 

7. Gotti

Directed by: Kevin Connolly

Why It Made the List: Gotti had a tortured path the screen, spending years in development and then pulled from its original 2017 release just days before opening. But it’s no wonder. Gotti is a disaster. The production looks cheap. The acting is terrible, especially John Travolta in the title role. Gotti also suffers from bizarre musical choices, including contemporary songs that are totally out of place. And it misses everything that was interesting about Gotti, minimizing and even valorizing his record while reducing his life to a series of gangster movie clichés.

8. Life of the Party

Directed by: Ben Falcone

Premise: A forty-something woman (Melissa McCarthy) on the rebound from a divorce enrolls at the same college her daughter is attending.

Why It Made the List: Life of the Party rips off of the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School but it’s nowhere near as funny, smart, or likeable. This is another failed collaboration between Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. She is given free reign and Falcone enables McCarthy’s worst tendencies. The jokes are so bad as to make your toes curl and the filmmakers demonstrate no interest in their own premise. There is nothing clever or relevant in Life of the Party. It’s a bad sitcom episode strained into a feature length.

9. Dark Crimes

Directed by: Alexandros Avranas

Premise: A Polish police detective (Jim Carrey) reopens a murder investigation when a bestselling novel includes details remarkably similar to the facts in the case.

Why It Made the List: Dark Crimes features Jim Carrey far from his usual comic territory. Actors should take on new challenges and it would be interesting to see Carrey in a crime thriller that was made with any kind of competence. Dark Crimes is awful. It has no tension or excitement and the detective story is a garbled mess infused with juvenile nihilism. It’s full of all sorts of unpleasantness, including sexual assault and drug abuse, but there’s no point to any of it. Dark Crimes is a grotesque bore.

10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Directed by: David Yates

Premise: A sequel to the 2016 film. Renegade wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escapes custody and rallies others to his cause. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is recruited to find a young man with unique magical powers.

Why It Made the List: J.K. Rowling’s expanded Wizarding World universe was nearly destroyed by The Crimes of Grindelwald. The set pieces are edited so frantically that nothing makes sense. The story drowns in its own mythological minutia and the narrative is a morass of subplots that don’t go anywhere and characters who don’t do anything. Perhaps worst, Rowling cannibalizes her Harry Potter stories, rehashing the same old themes and cheapening the material. The Crimes of Grindelwald is a sloppy mess that embodied the worst of Hollywood franchise filmmaking.

Trends of the Year

Movies About Music

Several films about music and musicians were released in 2018, some of them full blown musicals and others about the love of music.

Movies Directed by Actors

A few prominent actors stepped behind the camera and came up with impressive results.

 Political Films

Perhaps owing to the current political climate and social movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, many films of 2018 had overt political themes.

MAGA Movies

While a lot of the political films released in 2018 had a leftist bent, there was also a crop of movies that (intentionally or not) told stories with right wing political themes.


Probably in reaction to the angry and despairing tone of the culture these past few years, several filmmakers concentrated on stories that were uplifting and focused on kindness.  

Good Horror Films

In the past few years the horror genre has enjoyed a renaissance with a variety of interesting films from cerbral hauntings to retro slashers. That continued throughout 2018 with some impressive titles.

Impressive Directorial Debuts

A few of the best movies of 2018 were made by first-time directors.

Back to Year Index