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Top 10 Films of 2018

Top 10 Films of 2018

2018 was a great year at the movies. And thanks to subscription services like Movie Pass and AMC A-List, I got to see quite a few of them – 83 as of this writing! I’ll avoid spoilers (except where noted), but of course, if you’re especially cautious, you may want to skip the write-ups for any films you haven’t seen.

10.) Minding the Gap

Full disclosure: my wife and I are shooting a documentary this year, our first feature. That’s not why Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” made my list. But it didn’t hurt.

This movie wears its bruised heart on its sleeve. Liu explores how a small group of young men use skateboarding – a sense of freedom and control – as a means of coping with trauma. The hurt here runs deep, and as the film progresses, it digs deeper and deeper to a genuinely moving climax. Liu cuts from one story thread to another such that the characters reach catharsis at the same immensely powerful moment.

Another disclosure: getting me to react positively to a film about skateboarding is no easy feat. But the footage that Liu captures of these men on their skateboards is extraordinary, like we’re coasting alongside them. You feel that sense of peace and independence, even as they take tumbles and falls. It’s hard to believe these sequences were shot for a documentary.

9.) BlacKkKlansman

Top 10 Films of 2018

In the 1970s, Ron Stallworth, the first African American police officer in Colorado Springs, infiltrated the KKK with the help of white officer. Typically, I subscribe to the Roger Ebert mode of film appraisal: don’t judge a movie by what it’s about but how it’s about it. But this is the kind of high-concept premise that can grab even my attention. And yes, on top of that, director Spike Lee brings artistic fortitude to spare.

I adore Lee’s brand of humor. In interviews, he’s likened his films, and this one in particular, to movies like “Ace in the Hole” and “Network.” Just because a film tackles heavy subject matter doesn’t mean it can’t also make us laugh. From John David Washington’s (Ron’s) deadpan delivery, “With the right white man, we can do anything,” to Adam Driver’s (Flip Zimmerman’s) perfectly timed slow turn as Ron tries to sweet talk Klan members over the phone. There are a lot of laughs in to be had in this film for sure…and then that ending. It hits with the force of a baseball bat and slaps the taste of victory right out of your mouth.

8.) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s greatest gift seems to be taking what looks like a series of bad ideas on paper and spinning them into movie gold (“The Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”). Here we have the fourth big screen iteration of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and one of the most creative and invigorating superhero films in years.

But of course this is also the vision of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Upending the increasing sameness of computer animation, this is a kaleidoscopic film drawing from comic panel artistry (more and more explicitly as it goes on). And it doesn’t feel tedious in a way that other such endeavors have. I’m looking at you, Ang Lee’s “Hulk.” It’s used to comic effect – thoughts and exclamations spelled out on screen – and it takes us inside the action in ways a more traditional style of filmmaking wouldn’t allow.

For all the film’s humor (“Do animals talk in this dimension? ‘Cause I don’t wanna freak him out.”) and visual imagination, what surprised me most was how it stuck the landing on the dramatic stuff. Specifically, the strained relationship young Miles (Shameik Moore) has with his father (Brian Tyree Henry – who’s having a great year, by the way) and his much closer relationship with his uncle (Mahershala Ali – also having a great year). For all the film’s visual bells and whistles and self-aware humor, it’s got a big heart.

7.) Leave No Trace

Top 10 Films of 2018

Debra Granik has a hell of an eye for talent. She cast Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” two years before the star landed the lead role in “The Hunger Games.” Here, Granik brings us Thomasin McKenzie who plays Tom, a young woman living with her father in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. McKenzie beckons those clichés that surround child performers. “Vulnerable, yet strong,” “wise beyond her years,” etc. But sometimes clichés are born from truth. Ben Foster plays her father, a vet suffering from PTSD. Foster’s always a bit of a wild-eyed actor, giving 110%. He’s never been more internalized than he is here, his brow drawn in a perpetual knot.

“Leave No Trace” doesn’t have the striking drama of a mystery like “Winter’s Bone.” But I loved this film’s understated nature and slow pace. This is one of those great tales where everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong. There aren’t any real bad guys here, just people in conflict, all with perfectly reasonable motivations.

6.) First Man

Damien Chazelle’s take on the Neil Armstrong story is pretty much everything I want in a biopic. So often, filmmakers prop their subjects up on pedestals, but Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling present Armstrong with all his flaws and foibles. An inaccessible man, someone who is closed off even with his wife and kids.

And it doesn’t matter that you know the ending. This film sets the stakes in an arresting opening and it does not let up. It feels like a tightly wound spring that’s in dire need of release. I gotta mention Justin Hurwitz’s score, which is one of the best of the year. It bounces back and forth between tense and sorrowful. And there’s that theremin. Who’d have thought that would work?! It’s such an antiquated instrument, especially for a movie about space travel.

Much of “First Man” was shot in stark close ups, filmed by Linus Sandgren in gorgeous 16 and 35mm. But when it does go wide, it’s impactful. The Apollo 11 sequence was a knockout. The sheer scale and majesty of the images. The theater-rattling roar of the rocket. And where it falls in the film – that Chazelle and Co. have taken the time to show what this mission really cost. It was god damn moving.

5.) Black Panther

Top 10 Films of 2018

“Black Panther” is one of the very few Marvel films that feels like it was made by individuals – artists and entertainers – instead of a committee. This is what happens when you put talented storytellers in charge, like co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, and let them do their thing. Though there are a couple callbacks to previous MCU entries, “Black Panther” largely (and refreshingly) feels like a standalone film. Coogler has a real knack for world building. From Ruth E. Carter’s costumes to Hannah Beachler’s production design to Coogler’s own socio-political rules that govern Wakanda. The filmmaker also lifts from very real and very present-day headlines. With (an excellent) Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, Marvel may have finally cracked their villain problem. Killmonger is driven by the degradation and disenfranchisement of black people the world over, and like many great villains, his motivations are sound, but his methods? Not so much.

And the supporting characters are wonderful. It’s a testament to actresses like Letitia Wright as Shuri and Danai Gurira as Okoye that you’re nervous for them during the big action sequences. This is “Black Panther” after all. Anyone not Black Panther is expendable.

4.) Eighth Grade

It was a good year for horror, but except for a title that’s a little further up my list, no film brought me more anxiety and panic than Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” I say this as a male who went through middle school years before social media and YouTube. Such is the universal power of Burnham’s storytelling. Honest and personal without being twee. Burnham shows real cinematic muscle. I love how, during a tense-as-hell car conversation, he allows a character’s face to be almost completely in shadow. And the camera pans rapidly and claustrophobically as Kayla paces in her room while talking to a new friend on the phone. At a critical juncture, she stops moving and so does the camera. It feels like a genuine release.

And lead actress Elsie Fisher as Kayla is incredibly strong. My friend said after seeing the film that it didn’t occur to him that Elsie was performing. Simply that Burnham had documented a young woman trying to navigate the minefield of being a teenager. Her sincerity, the performative elements of her character, her profound insecurity…it was as though the film reached into my chest like the bad guy from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and said “Are ya ready to feel some shit you haven’t felt in 20 years?”

3.) Paddington 2

Top 10 Films of 2018

“Paddington 2” is one of the most exciting, funny, and moving films of the year. It bests the original in pretty much every way. It has greater scope but it never feels as though it’s getting away from itself. Director Paul King brings order to chaos, particularly during a climactic train chase where he expertly uses the setting and weaves in props and story elements set up earlier in the film.

The laughs are louder in this one too, especially as Paddington tries to adjust to life in jail after being falsely imprisoned. There, he plays off Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty (what a name!). Gleeson doesn’t often get to flex his comic muscle, though much of his comedy comes from his character lacking a sense of humor.

Hugh Grant is another newcomer to the Paddington-verse, playing a fame-starved actor who allows Paddington to take the fall for his crime. I haven’t been this charmed and amused by a comic-villain since Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda.” I adore Grant’s comedic timing and his complete lack of vanity playing someone who’s vain as hell.

The film has a bit of “It’s a Wonderful Life” running through it, dramatizing how the choices we make can impact so many others. But nowhere does “Paddington 2” harken back to the Frank Capra classic more than its closing moments. The ending left me a blubbering mess.

2.) Roma

Writer-director-cinematographer-editor-producer Alfonso Cuarón is one of our most (multi-)talented filmmakers, and this is one of his most personal projects. It’s a loosely auto-biographical film, an ode to the young woman who helped raise him in 1970s Mexico. “Roma” is a hard film to write about. It’s a slice-of-life drama. Observational in its approach, employing mostly wide and medium shots and an almost complete absence of score. The film feels so delicate that it could be pulverized by too much praise.

But whaddaya gonna do?

The care with which Cuarón put this film together is extraordinary. The shots are impressively staged. The edits feel invisible. Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo, the maid. A non-professional actress, she provides the kind of subtlety that escapes most seasoned vets. I knew the performance was working for me when she gave a slight smile in response to her boyfriend’s…let’s call it bedroom routine.

And I don’t want to be disingenuous by saying this film has muted stakes, but at 2 hours and 15 minutes, viewers are going to have to be patient before they reach the meat-and-potatoes drama. I love how the scope of the film expands. Just as it opens with water lapping across tiles as Cleo cleans the family garage, it culminates with crashing waves at the beach where Cleo performs a much more momentous act.

The movie’s cumulative emotional effect doesn’t really come into focus for me until about half way through the end credits.

1.) Annihilation

Top 10 Films of 2018

But no movie, and I mean no movie, burrowed into my brain like “Annihilation.” When I wrote about Alex Garland’s second film after it was released on disc, I tip toed around a scene involving a bear. Well, I’m diving headlong into it here, so if you’re wary of spoilers, please stop reading and go watch this film.

Scientists are deep inside the Shimmer, a massive entity that’s grown from a meteor, which now covers a swath of the southern United States. Inside the Shimmer, DNA is mixed and matched rapidly in ways that range from aspiringly beautiful to the stuff of nightmares.

This team of five women has been sent in to investigate, but the group dynamic is breaking down. They’ve lost one of their own, Cass (Tuva Novotny), to a bear attack, and now Anya (Gina Rodriguez), wracked by paranoia, has tied up the remaining members in an abandoned house. She ponders cutting them open to see if their insides will writhe like snakes – a grisly callback to something that happened earlier in the film – when she’s stopped by a scream. Cass’s scream. “You said she was dead,” Anya accuses. She runs outside, calling for Cass, when her shouts are cut short by a growl. Then the shadow of a bear falls across the wall. The lighting in the scene is extreme, depicting characters in dark, dramatic profile. But as the bear enters, we can discern that fur and muscle have worn away from its head and a large part of its skull is exposed. It approaches the women as if to inspect them, almost nuzzling them. And when it opens its mouth, Cass’s scream comes out, “Help me!”

This is what Lovecraft wrote about. It’s not terrifying the way Michael Myers stalking a quiet neighborhood is terrifying. It’s terrifying in a far more existential and primal way. What I am seeing and hearing should not be. And yet there it is. And the twinge of empathy you feel. The cries sound almost plaintive, in pain and terrified. How much of the bear is Cass and how much of Cass is the bear?

We so rarely see cosmic horror in film, and I could have rattled off a handful of other examples from “Annihilation” that’ll linger in your mind and the pit of your stomach. And that is just one of many reasons why it’s my favorite film of 2018.

And for those keeping track, yes, this marks two talking bears in my top 10 for the year.

And now a bunch of honorable mentions, because as I said, it was a pretty great year: “Burning,” “Cold War,” “First Reformed,” “Game Night,” “Hereditary,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “Revenge,” “The Rider,” “Shirkers,” “Thoroughbreds,” and “You Were Never Really Here.”

What films stood out to you in 2018?


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Garrett is an entertainment professional living in the Los Angeles area. In his free time, he's a shark hunter, Jedi Knight, Kaiju wrangler and dog owner. He also edits and contributes to movie discussions at 3byThree.

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16 thoughts on “Top 10 Films of 2018

  1. The only one of these I’ve seen is Annihilation. It didn’t click for me as much as it did for you, although I have to acknowledge the bear scene. After watching the movie, I did spend some time trying to figure out why Lovecraft can pull this stuff off. I think it’s the medium. Lovecraft’s writing is hypnotic in a way that I’m not sure that movies can be, at least not without feeling slow. Or maybe it’s my fault – I get impatient faster with movies.

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    • You’ve hit on why I responded to “Annihilation” so positively. I feel like cosmic horror, Lovecraftian horror is so rarely achieved effectively in movies, but it sure as hell worked for me here. But you’re right, it’s not the most fast-paced film. It just kinda simmers or festers even.

      Thanks for reading!

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  2. In “First Man” I had trouble with the scene with the multi-axis trainer because I’ve strapped probably a thousand children into one that has been ridden by, as a guess, ten thousand children and adults. Spinning at high speed in a three axis tumble doesn’t make anyone black out, and the only two who’ve gotten sick were sick before they got in. No one even gets dizzy because you don’t spin along a single axis long enough for that to happen. Some kids will hum a Star Wars theme while they’re thrown in all directions, whereas I’ve also seen an eight year old emit a stream of very adult quotes from Rick and Morty. I thought “What are his parents letting him watch?!”

    But in First Man, Neil Armstrong blacks out from the G’s. That never happens to anyone, even small children. Then he tries again and ends up running to the bathroom to vomit, and as he’s leaving the bathroom another astronaut runs in to vomit. That would put them in the bottom 0.001% of the population as far as having what it takes to fly, because even kids love riding three-axis trainers. I’ve had them lined up fifty deep just to get strapped in.

    So while shooting the scene, Ryan Gosling and the other actors had to immediately realize that contrary to they may have thought, they didn’t feel stressed, didn’t get dizzy, and didn’t feel sick. The director had to realize that too. But it was in the script, so they faked it for the movie, without apparently stopping to say “If we’re not getting sick, and we’re shooting take after take, there’s no way the Apollo astronauts got sick.”

    And the inner struggles portrayed in the movie didn’t seem evident in all the photos the astronauts posted on Facebook. As an aside, it’s pretty much impossible to top an Apollo astronaut’s Facebook photo. No matter how cool you think you are, you’ll never be that cool.

    So my take was that Hollywood could’ve made an accurate movie, but decided to make something else instead, because art.

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  3. I couldn’t make it through Annhilation. I thought it was pretty boring.

    The best movie of 2018 was Kore’eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters. I think Hirokazu is possibly the greatest living filmmaker. He has some duds but when he is good (which is a lot more often than not), he is sublime. His films often deal with frayed family dynamics and the families we make and find but in a much more quiet way than Americans are possibly able to process. We prefer a screaming punk rock fuck you a la something like Love and Rockets or Ghost World. Kore’eda Hirokazu is much more restrained than that.

    Shoplifters is about a make-shift family who work jobs on the margins of the economy. One mother figure works in a laundry. The father figure works as a menial laborer in construction. There is a grandmother figure with a pension and some guilt tripping schemes and an elder daughter figure involved in low-grade sex work. The family supplements their meager earnings through Shoplifting. Early on, they rescue an abused girl and decide to keep her with the family. There is also a young boy in the family around 11 or so.

    When I saw it in the theatre, I was probably among the youngest people there by 25-30 years and I am 38 years old. I’ve mentioned this before but I think under 40s are largely abandoning the arthouse and difficult movies. Everyone says “But what about Prestige TV and streaming” and I don’t think it is the same. Roma is an exception, not the rule. Most of the original content on Netflix seems to be more inlines with “OMG I loved this cartoon when I was 8 and now it is rebooted.”

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    • “Shoplifters” was one of my regrets insofar as not being able to see it in time for this post. Though I will definitely catch up with it (and now you’ve made me wanna revisit “Ghost World”)!

      And I’m with you, the art house is getting squeezed. I’ll always prefer a theatrical experience to sitting at home and watching something on streaming, but hopefully, with the success of “Roma,” outlets like Netflix and Hulu will continue to provide a platform for smaller films. (I really liked “Mudbound” from 2017, that was a Netflix release.)

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. I loved the Paddington books as a child and waited until this year to watch the films back to back. I thought they were really both fantastic. I can see giving a slight edge to the second one, but they’re both very well made films. I think the image that most stuck with me was the shot in the first one where the father comes home feeling defeated without Paddington in the home and they convey this by showing him from behind with the leaves falling off the tree that’s painted on the wall. Hugh Grant’s performance was hilarious though.

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  5. These are really good movies. I think the two I most often recommended to people, and was thanked emphatically for the recommendations were Sorry to Bother You and Hereditary.

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  6. The three big ones for me this year were You Were Never Really Here, BlackKklansman and Into the Spider-Verse. The last one in particular was a pleasant surprise for me, because I knew very little about it going in.

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  7. The best thing about Annihilation is that it doesn’t tell you what it’s about.

    You watch the whole thing and you’re really not terribly sure what the message(s) are.

    I had a take that was totally different than anything I read on line and yet I didn’t think the other takes were wrong, I just felt like that was sort of the point of the movie – like the people entering the Shimmer, what you bring into the movie is melded into the story to create whatever-it-is that you take away from it.

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