2018 was another year of highs and lows on top of ups and downs thanks to the chaos of the daily news cycle, and the continued uncertainty about the future of cinema on the business side, as well as the magic of the theatrical experience that comes with the medium. But at the end of the day, the one constant positive was that in one way or the other, the movies were always there to make us laugh, give us catharsis, and escape the uncertain state of our current reality, regardless of genre, message or culture. And while Hollywood appeared to be moving in the direction toward rewarding films that connected with general audiences in this particular year, it was the genre films that stood out amongst the plethora of cinematic offerings through their thought-provoking messages about the current political climate, the state of society at this point in time, racial tensions, class struggles, mental illness and even how we connect to each other spiritually. From the films that had us gripping our armrests over existential terrors and the period pieces that went to 1970s New York and Victorian-era England, to heist films in contemporary America and stylish psychological thrillers, the cinema helped us ponder about the times we live in now, how we communicate with each other today, and who we are as people. So without further ado, this is a look back at the last year in movies, and the best films of 2018.
Worst Films of the Year (from 5-1): Welcome To Marwen, Venom, Slender Man, Life Itself, Gotti
Biggest Disappointments: Pacific Rim: Uprising, The Cloverfield Paradox, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Tag, Bad Times At The El Royale
Biggest Surprises: Anna and the Apocalypse, Mid90s, Crazy Rich Asians, A Simple Favor, Upgrade
Honorable Mentions (from 15-11): Hereditary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Halloween, Beautiful Boy, Revenge
And now, onto the main list….
The Best Movies of 2018
10. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Once a foregone conclusion to be the yearly oscar frontrunner, it can be argued that period dramas are slowly but surely fading into obscurity. However, they will be alive and well for years to come if going forward, they are crafted with the ingenuity of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, a dramedy set in the early 18th century England, where Queen Anne shrieks orders, suffers from gout and indulges in hedonism while her closest ally Lady Sarah operates the country in her place; that is, until her younger cousin Abigail is literally thrown on their doorstep, scheming to rise among the ranks of aristocracy in Anne’s kingdom by getting on her good side, which arouses suspicion from Lady Sarah. The conflict that follows is always intriguing and fun to watch from beginning to end thanks to a lively script rife complete with savage, sardonic banter between the characters of Sarah and Abigail, who Weisz and Stone convey impeccably with nuanced performances. That said, it’s Colman’s that stands out the most, as Queen Anne’s next outburst is unpredictable to see coming in every facial expression. The unsettling side of The Favourite also shines through in Lanthimos’ direction: from shooting scenes by candlelight with unconventional lenses to creative use of superimposition in the editing. We live in an age where a period piece as unconventional as this, and a filmmaker as unique as Lanthimos, can contend for the respective Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards, and that’s a great thing.
9. The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
Based on the true life experiences of former bronc rider Brady Jandreau, The Rider follows a fictionalized version of himself recovering from brain damage after a horrific accident he suffered during a rodeo. Once doctors tell him he can never ride again, Brady spends the film’s runtime reflecting on his career as a rodeo rider, tending to his horses and taking care of his family in the present, and sees his future every time he visits a friend in the hospital with a progressively worse form of his condition. All the while, however, Brady questions the stubborn, ‘rub-some-dirt-on-it’ nature of his fellow bull riders, struggles to adjust life after riding with few options on what to do next, and looks up in the sky night after night asking himself what makes him a man, and what he is in the grand scheme of things. This inner conflict is conveyed in an understated fashion by writer-director Chloe Zhao, who crafts this small but compelling story through minimalist performances from her cast of non-actors, gorgeous cinematography that frames the plains of Wyoming in a way that isolates Brady while celebrating their beauty at the same time, and slice of life storytelling that goes down avenues rarely portrayed in film. Rife with atmosphere and powerful in its subtlety, The Rider is a lyrical film, and an intimate, quiet commentary on masculinity, and a celebration of prairie culture.
8. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)
When Sam Raimi directed the first two Spider-Man movies in 2002 and 2004 respectively, audiences everywhere were enthralled and ecstatic to finally see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man on the big screen for the first time. Sixteen years later, after several failed attempts in doing so, Sony finally replicated the same excitement in their animation department with Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, the first computer-animated depiction of the world-famous wallcrawler. Only, this one takes the franchise not only to new heights, but also a new universe as it tells the origin of the Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales, whose coming-of-age story in a fresh culture carries a good message that anyone can be a superhero as long as they accept the responsibilities that come with it. Into The Spider-Verse also sets itself apart from the other films in the franchise with an animation style that’s as kinetic as it is unique in crafting a comic book come to life through the story structure reminiscent of a multi-issue comic art, speech balloons and comic book-style captions serving as the manifestation of Miles’s inner thoughts, and even the line drawing of Miles’s face becoming visible when he looks into an oncoming train. What’s also admirable are the vibrant colors of Miles’s universe, and how each character is beautifully rendered in their own animation style and texture, from the black and white cel shades of Spider-Man Noir and the 2D anime execution of Peni Parker to the Looney Tunes-esque rendering of Spider-Ham and the kinetic CGI builds of Miles, Peter and Spider-Man. Add a labyrinth of Easter eggs for die-hard Spidey fans to discover in every watch to an infectious energy and fast pace, and you have what could arguably be the best Spider-Man movie ever made.
7. Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Thought-provoking horror/sci-fi has been Alex Garland’s forté since his first feature screenplay, and after striking gold in 2015 with his directorial debut Ex Machina, he returned in 2018 with an adaptation of Annihilation, the first novel in Jeff Vandemeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Garland pivots the story of his film in several directions that differentiate it from the source material, but the risks were worth taking as the film version of the story crafts an allegory about human nature and its penchant for self-destruction within the narrative of an all-female team of scientists venturing into The Shimmer, a zone created from an unidentified object that struck the Earth. Inside the Shimmer, the squad encounters several species of mutated animals and plants, and grows fearful about what the mysterious atmosphere of their new world is doing to themselves. And the audience feels the same fear as the characters thanks to a slow burn of Tarkovsky-esque atmospheres that last from the second they step into the Shimmer, all the way to the climax inside the lighthouse where the object landed. On every step of their mission, Garland juxtaposes the wonder and majesty of the Shimmer’s vibrant colors, ethereal synths, beautiful flowers and creatures with desolate scenes blanketed in the blackest of shadows, existentially haunting imagery, and an ominous, droning choir that isolates our characters further, forcing themselves to look at each other and inward at the destruction they’ve wrought on themselves and their lives. But there are several ways to look at Annihilation as a film: is it just a commentary on human nature, or is it a film about all the different ways we confront our mortality, or even necessary change? Regardless, it’s hard to deny that Annihilation is a beautiful nightmare about how we, as a human race, carry the absolute power to destroy ourselves, the people around us, and even entire worlds.
6. Sorry To Bother You (Boots Riley)
This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do The Right Thing, an angry, loud and vibrant ensemble film with a haunting but powerful message about the state of race relations and societal tensions of the time period. Last year, musician and political activist Boots Riley exploded onto the scene as a filmmaker with a movie that’s equally as resonant in Sorry To Bother You, a genre-blending debut about an African-American telemarketer who uses a literal ‘white voice’ to move up the corporate ladder and achieve success in his life and society as a whole, only to get more than what he bargained for when he reaches the final step. What’s fascinating about Sorry To Bother You is the alternate universe that Riley builds in his screenplay, complete with images that are absurd in their literacy, but also contribute to the surreality of a dystopian depiction of Oakland: from Detroit’s risqué works of art to Cassius’s anxiety to succeed as an African-American manifesting itself every time he and his desk fall into customer’s houses. Sorry To Bother You is also filled to the brim with commentary about race relations today, how real life goes viral, capitalism, the pretentiousness of artists, society’s penchant for violence in mass media, and what we, as a society, need to do to get the changes in the world that we desire. A great ensemble and a catchy soundtrack full of aggressive hip-hop attracted audiences to Sorry To Bother You, only to leave them shocked by the directions in which its ambitious story went, but the images and ideas proposed are impossible to forget.
5. Widows (Steve McQueen)
Directors to branch out from arthouse to mainstream filmmaking have done so with varying levels of success, but in collaborating with Gillian Flynn on Widows, Steve McQueen has successfully blended his art-conscious aesthetics with the tropes of the heist genre in an ensemble-driven narrative about a group of recently widowed women aiming to finish the robbery their husbands started, while an African-American crime boss looks to get out of gang life and make the lives of his allies better by running for public office against the white son of a prolific politician. Set against the backdrop of contemporary Chicago, McQueen’s dedication to artful storytelling shines through in several motifs over the course of the film, the most prevalent one being the reflections of our characters that imprison them in their own respective conflicts: Veronica (Viola Davis) in her grief following the death of her husband, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) in her upbringing rife with tragedy, and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) in her financial stresses. The artistry extends to creative cinematography and long takes that build a menacing character from Daniel Kaluuya and reveals Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) as a conflicted and aggrieved candidate who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. All of this is aided by stellar, nuanced performances from everyone involved, and a narrative full of ideas pertaining to class struggles, the nature of politics, and the anxieties of being a woman in today’s society.
4. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
Whether it was elevator pitched as the result of Nicolas Winding Refn directing Mad Max, or a heavy metal retelling of Conan The Barbarian, or whether moviegoers could or couldn’t get past the second half tonal shift, Mandy left an impression on every audience that saw it in every aspect of its filmmaking. The story centers around lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and his artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), whose idyllic existence in the fictional Shadow Mountains is suddenly disrupted beyond recognition by a gang of hippies corrupted by LSD. This drives Red berserk with rage and aspires him to achieve his vengeance against each member of the cult, one-by-one. What makes Mandy truly special is how writer-director Panos Cosmatos tells the story as a hybrid of the revenge fantasy genre with cosmic horror. The terror of existence in the world of Mandy is constantly felt from beginning to end thanks to how well the film grounds its cosmic fantasy in realism, in addition to the film’s hypnotic tone; complete with deliberately long takes, a deliberately slow pace, and a shadowy color palette that ranges from hallucinogenic to infernal shades of red. These nightmarish visuals are also complemented by a sound design consisting of an unsettling use of distortion, as well as a phenomenal musical score from the late Johann Johannsson, whose reflective, melancholy synths in the beginning take a turn for the monstrous once the Children of the New Dawn come into the picture, and only pulse more aggressively after Red forges his battle axe. While some consider the narrative of Mandy straightforward and nothing new, it’s worth noting that every watch brings a new way of interpreting the series of events: is it a what-if scenario about Adam and Eve being sent to Hell after getting expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is Mandy the god of the film’s universe, with her absence leaving it to crumble in on itself? Is it about how the closest people in our lives become our universe both spiritually and cosmically, and what happens to us and our personal universe when they’re taken away? Or are we just supposed to gawk and laugh at Nicolas Cage smoking a cigarette off a burning skull of one of his victims? However you interpret it, or however you watch it, Mandy is an entrancing, surreal and unique film with images, sounds and performances one will never forget.
3. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
There was only one way writer-director Barry Jenkins could follow-up his minimalist, Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight, and that was by crafting a story on a scale grander than his last. Sure enough, Jenkins succeeded in his film adaptation of the James Baldwin novel If Beale Street Could Talk. The story follows Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), a young, pregnant African-American woman who, along with her family, strives to clear her fiancé Fonny (Stephan James) of charges for a crime he didn’t commit. Conversations with Fonny’s lawyer, visits with Fonny in prison and the family’s search for proof of his innocence are interspersed with beautiful portraits of Fonny and Tish’s romantic relationship that are visceral in execution and powerful in their intimacy. The film’s emotional weight also shines through in a script rife with dialogue that packs several punches in its imagery, and cinematography consisting of portrait shots that frame the ensemble like moving photographs, in addition to long takes that allow the audience to picture the harrowing nightmares of prison life for themselves during every character’s monologue. The chamber musical score also lends a hand to telling the story on a grand scale by replicating Fonny’s tenderness toward Tish in their relationship, the anxiety of Tish’s family as they go to incredible lengths on their side of the investigation, and the jazz-based music of the film’s time period and location. And all this is before mentioning the nuanced but moving performances from everyone involved, led by the same nuanced restraint Jenkins has used throughout his filmography. If Beale Street Could Talk is more than just the beautiful romance of which it was advertised, it’s also a sprawling, compelling epic about the harsh realities of black America, and a call to action to make them better.
2. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
Six years ago, Alfonso Cuarón changed the way adventures in outer space were presented on film with innovative camera rigs, and an immersive theater experience in Gravity, and last year, he created yet another enthralling film watching event with a story that may be on a smaller scale in terms of spectacle, but one of the grandest of importance. With Roma, Cuarón tells an autobiographical narrative about the lives and struggles of a Hispanic family and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid that takes care of them in the titular village of Roma circa-1970s Mexico City. What makes Roma deserving of all the praise it’s received this award season is how Cuarón not only immerses the audience in the world in which he grew up, but also asks the audience to look inward, reflect on their own life experiences, and recall personal memories of their own. His nostalgic intentions extend to how long the film spends time on insignificant details: from the way his father pulls his Cadillac into their tight fit of a garage, to the wide, panoramic, Tati-esque shots of the village’s bustling streets, the interiors of the household where Cleo works, and even the crowded movie theater where Cleo’s life changes forever. Her story and that of her family’s struggles to stay afloat are as emotionally involving aurally as they are visually thanks to a surround sound mix that captures the sound of birds chirping outside both the ensemble’s house as well as the frame of the film, and makes the roar of rioters in the streets and the beach’s tide grow louder and more suspenseful with every step Cleo takes toward them. Roma is an intimate love letter to the women in Cuarón’s life, and a reminder of the true power film has as an art form.
1. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Leave it to Lynne Ramsay to convey the most honest portrayal of mental illness on film in recent memory. You Were Never Really Here follows a PTSD-suffering war veteran named Joe who tracks down missing girls for a living. A senator asks for his help with finding his kidnapped daughter, only for the mission to send Joe down a rabbit hole into his worst nightmares and traumas. While other movies of this type elect to emphasize the anti in their anti-heroes, Ramsay’s adaptation of the Jonathan Ames novel gives Joe a humanity that comes out in his internal guilt over what he deems as failures, a drive to do better in everything he does, and intimate moments where he tends to his mother. Ramsay’s direction also crafts a tense yet affecting story on every aspect. Joe’s volatile nature drives him to cope with all his years of trauma in methods of self-endangerment, while the labyrinth of violence throughout his mission is presented in gruesome ferocity. What aids in this are the stylized cinematography, and a sound design that perfectly balances haunting, diegetic ambience with ominous drones, and a score from Jonny Greenwood that pulses with suspense and screeches with the frailty of Joe’s psyche. That being said, Joe is as brutal in his methods as he is sympathetic as a character, thanks to Ramsay’s visual depiction of how the slightest encounter can trigger mental flashbacks and mood swings at the blink of an eye, or the drop of a tear. And Joaquin Phoenix wears each and every trauma on which Joe reflects with every facial expression in a nuanced, visually driven lead performance of what’s arguably his most unpredictable character. All these elements amount to a character study of a trauma-stricken man, the harrowing struggles of mental illness, and a message about the amount of people like Joe that carry emotional scars with every step they take to move forward. You Were Never Really Here is tragic and violent, but it’s truthful and humane, and that’s why it stands out as the best film of 2018.