The arduous task of movie list-making has never been my forte. I am too prone to adjusting my opinions and tweaking grades up or down a half-letter grade. Most years, I shuffle my list around until a breaking point is reached and I publish impulsively.
This year is no different. With almost 200 films from 2018 in my head, it is difficult to narrow it down to 25. It is harder to take those 25 and rank them in any meaningful way. Each film in my top five could be number one. There are films in my top 50 that could have moved into the top 25 (for now, Avengers: Infinity War is at the 50-spot, and that was an enjoyable film which I saw twice in the theater). It pains me a little to not be able to give a blurb to Sorry to Bother You, which narrowly missed the top 25.
Long story short, 2018 was a very good year in film. I may not have seen a standout, A+ film. But I witnessed many, many A-/B+ films.
The following 25 films are, as of this writing, my favorite of the year. But there are many other noteworthy films out there. You can see my full ranking of 2018 films (subject to continual change) at Letterboxd.
Honorable Mentions: Sorry to Bother You, Shirkers, Roma, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Won’t You Be My Neighbor
25. Paddington 2
Inarguably the feel-good film of 2018, Paddington 2 transcends its predecessor with its Wes Anderson-esque color palettes and ebullient performances. Hugh Grant is the clear standout, but Ben Whishaw’s take on the optimistic CG bear should not be taken for granted.
Despite being a film about a cute bear who gets sent to prison and fears that his loved ones will never come to support him, Paddington 2 is the most positive film of the year. And it should get some recognition for that.
24. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The Tom-Cruise-endangers-his-life-for-film mythos has come to dominate the conversation around each new Mission: Impossible franchise installment. While his dedication ought not be ignored, this conversation acts to diminish the overall craftwork of a film like Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The stunt work in the film is exhibit A in the argument for a Best Stunt Choreography Academy Award category.
Beyond the beautiful stunts and fight choreography (that bathroom fight sequence remains the best action set piece of 2018), Fallout is just blind fun. The convoluted plot is endlessly plotting, to no direct end and for no direct purpose, yet it is enthralling even to see the plot machinations in motion, knowing that another set piece is right around the corner. It is no high art masterpiece, but Mission: Impossible – Fallout succeeds, with full marks, at what it sets out to do.
23. Let the Corpses Tan
Let the Corpses Tan moves like the sludgy masses in a lava lamp, oozing along with psychedelic energy. Fully embracing its exploitation roots, Cattet and Forzani’s film is a sumptuous treasure. You can feel the hazy heat of the desert air; you may almost believe your tongue is drying and your skin is starting to burn. The effort put into the sensuality of the film’s arid setting is impressive, and it sets the stage for a brutal shootout that will last most of the runtime.
The plot is simple, the characters are mere game pieces to be moved around, the conflict is basic and readily apparent. It is the easiest film to make, on paper, but the sheer immersion of it all is impressive. It is certainly not for everyone, but Let the Corpses Tan rewards those who enjoy a well-crafted and experiential film that also isn’t afraid to be the exploitation film that its plot calls for.
22. Cold War
Another heavily immersive film, albeit in a radically different way, Cold War is Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Ida. Like with Ida, the cinematography draws you into the world of the film. The plot has more incident and adventure than the more meditative Ida, but Cold War remains a soft touch film. The turbulent romance of the film’s main characters is fraught yet intensely passionate, and, at the best of times, it is mesmerizing.
Lukasz Zal could easily receive another Oscar nomination for his camera work on the film, and it would be an earned recognition. But Pawlikowski should be given credit, too, for deftly balancing the cold and warm moments. Both sides of this coin are stark, and both strike differently. Yet both are equally compelling.
21. First Man
A somewhat forgotten film of 2018, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land is certainly less extravagant. It isn’t going to get the same roaring attention as that film, but First Man should still be commended for its unique depiction of space flight. Many space race films have been made, few have depicted the utter fragility of early space flight. The rattling, hissing, alarm-blaring launch sequences highlight the startling fact that these astronauts were in metal death traps, doing something that was almost entirely untested.
Chazelle’s direction and the film’s sound department accomplish this tense feeling of danger. The camera is often wild. The sound design is often eerie. There is nothing magical or “Hollywood” about these sequences. That is (spoiler alert?) until the actual moon landing, which is a towering image of the vastness of space. The juxtaposition of these two visual ideas makes for something extraordinary, proving that First Man should not be completely forgotten.
20. Black Panther
My initial reaction to Black Panther was a mixed one. That it does a lot of new things while still fitting into the Marvel formula is an achievement, but that Marvel formula still left me a little cold. Certain sequences stood out as being cluttered.
But what is of cultural relevance in the mere existence of Black Panther should not be downplayed. And, ultimately, the good aspects of the film do stand out in contrast to the more bland Marvel installments. This and Avengers: Infinity War both mark a benchmark for Marvel. They have achieved a level of franchise storytelling that no other studio has succeeded in emulating (not yet, anyway).
Most notably, the ensemble cast of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, among many others) elevates this material to a place of popcorn-film excitement that a film like The Meg can only dream of reaching.
19. Lean on Pete
Andrew Haigh knows how to get inside the heads of his characters. What is more important, though, is he knows how to take those internal states and present them to the audience without ever making them seem obvious or telegraphed. There is a subtlety to it all, and this is also true of Lean on Pete. Charlie Plummer gives a phenomenal performance as a young man hired to work as a horse trainer.
Lean on Pete may not have the fiery intensity of Haigh’s 45 Years, but it still manages to compel without needing to say much. One-part character drama, one-part travel film, Lean on Pete is a little gem of a movie.
18. Let the Sunshine In
I don’t know how else to put it: there is something distinctly French about the way that Let the Sunshine In unravels. It takes its time. It is very internal. But it is also burdened by an unbearable weight of passionate emotions.
The pairing of director Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche is perfect. The quiet moments of drama are enthralling. The dialogue on display from Denis and co-writer Christine Angot (adapted from a book by Roland Barthes) is some of the most compelling screenwriting of not just this year, but of the last five or so years. Binoche, similarly, is doing some of her best work in years.
17. The Tale
Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is not an easy watch. Not by a long shot. But if one is comfortable with watching this true-life tale of child abuse, they will be rewarded by an autobiographical take on the “based on a true story” narrative that spits in the face of the idea of “based on a true story.” The inventive, reflexive narration style is fascinating, and it illustrates the complicated natures of memory and truth in an exquisitely effective way.
Laura Dern gives a nuanced, intense performance here that is one of the best acting turns of 2018. Isabelle Nelisse, who portrays Jennifer at the age of 13, gives a mature performance that stacks up well to Dern’s. This acting pair makes for a tense, beautifully-drawn film. The Tale may not even qualify as a theatrical film (it is watchable on HBO and did not have a theatrical release), but it is cinematic in the most intriguing ways.
16. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy’s best performance to date is her portrayal of Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? In a year where she also starred in a middling comedy (Life of the Party), this film of a failing novelist selling forged letters is a pleasant surprise.
Somehow, the felony of forging letters is rendered cinematic and exciting. Kudos to Marielle Heller, who creates this excitement without sacrificing the character work needed to make Israel a tragic figure. McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, and Dolly Wells are a trio of great performances that are worth seeing in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
15. Leave No Trace
Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is a gut-punch of a film. The emotions at hand in this father-daughter story are drawn with a fine brush, and the story unfolds in a way that makes these emotions so intensely felt.
Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie give two of the strongest acting performances of the year, and their characters’ relationship is a beautiful, heart-breaking thing to watch. Frankly, with a rewatch Leave No Trace may have risen higher than this spot. It is simply a lot to take in on first viewing.
I am perhaps not as high on Hereditary as most folks are. It is something about the resolution and the execution of certain plot points that make me take pause. However, what works about Ari Aster’s film works in spades. The unending tension. The restraint, accompanied by sudden bursts of grand Guignol grotesqueness. The dissonant score. Toni Colette at the height of her abilities.
A24 may be expanding their operation, resulting in some releases of lesser quality than in previous years, but Hereditary is an example of A24 continuing to champion new horror visionaries. Ari Aster has the requisite talent to become a great horror filmmaker, and Hereditary shows that potential.
13. The Death of Stalin
Much bleaker than his In the Loop and Veep, Armando Iannucci’s Death of Stalin is nevertheless a cruelly hilarious romp. With an assemblage of great comedic talent at his disposal, Iannucci makes the script (based on a comic book of the same name) sing. The song just happens to be a sardonic funeral dirge.
Depicting with shocking frankness the homicidal tendencies of the Russian regime under Stalin, Iannucci makes a farce out of terrifying historical figures. The ineptitude of these characters, who scramble to maintain stability in the government following Stalin’s untimely death, is crafted with brilliant wit. The prime example of this is a scene involving a meeting of the ruling minds, which is one of the most dryly funny scenes put to film in the last few years.
12. Minding the Gap
Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap may be, for me, the biggest surprise of 2018. The premise of Minding the Gap is not something that would normally draw me in. A chronicle of teenage skaters skating through their formative years is not inherently compelling to me. But Minding the Gap is much more than its premise. It is a great skate film that also delves into the psyches of its skaters. These teens skateboard for specific reasons, and how Liu extracts these narratives is compelling.
In a sense, Bing Liu is making a courageous film. He is potentially alienating himself from his longtime friends, as he depicts them with no sugar-coating whatsoever. At the same time, he does not shy away from his own story. He puts himself, and his mother, out there on the table for the sake of his film. What results is the most honest documentary of the year.
Steve McQueen is a great director. Each of his films shows an adept understanding of the cinematic craft, and each of these films have distinct stylistic personalities. With Widows, he presents a genre film that works both as a genre film and as a drama on a loftier level than a mere genre film. He has a lot to say, and this discourse happens around the central heist conceit. Neither element clashes with the other. It is both a good action film and a good ensemble drama.
What allows this combination to work so smoothly is the cast. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, etc., etc. They are all great performers who perform great together. Widows is an exciting film that is worth multiple viewings.
Spike Lee’s Blackklansman is a film that sticks with you. It is so jam-packed with energy and passion that it is hard to completely absorb it in the moment. But it is a high point in Lee’s prolific career, and it is a film worthy of multiple revisits. Sharply funny but brutally honest about its frustrations, the film is both energizing and disturbing.
The two moments in Blackkklansman that stand out to me most also illustrate its power. The first depicts, in tableau, a series of black faces looking on in empowered awe at a Kwame Ture speech. The second depicts, conversely, the grotesque hatred spewed forth by members of the KKK during a screening of The Birth of a Nation. The two sequences are polar opposites, and both illustrate two vastly different tonal positions. Yet both are equally impactful. Throughout Blackkklansman, Lee oscillates tone in a way that shouldn’t quite work, but by the end it all feels complete and tonally coherent.
9. If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight is not as spell-binding of an experience. But If Beale Street Could Talk is still a measured, gorgeous portrait of 1970s Harlem life. At the same time, it is a heart-breaking indictment of the justice system told through the poignant voice of James Baldwin.
Beale Street is sensitive without being sentimental, brutal without being maudlin, poignant without being pretentious. It is an emotional high point in 2018 cinema, and the careful construction of its world is a testament to Jenkins’ power as a director. The production design, the costuming, the color palettes. They all add up to a beautiful whole. And the acting ensemble is all giving the best work of their careers.
There is something ethereal and haunting about Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. It is a mystery housed inside a character study, and its plot never feels settled. The resolution doesn’t seem to be enough. The narrative never seems complete. And that is the majesty of Burning. It is gripping and moody. It is not completely other-worldly, but something always feels off.
The mood is complemented by the acting from the three leads—Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jong-seo, and Steven Yeun—who all give wholly engrossing performances. Burning may not leave you entirely satisfied in the end, but that lack of satisfaction is part of what makes it so compelling.
7. Private Life
There is something so effortlessly natural about Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life. It is not some grand aesthetic piece (see: The Favourite). No, it manages to be cinematically appealing without resorting to grand cinematic gestures. And that is a refreshing change of pace.
Kathryn Hahn gives the performance of her career in Private Life, but that wouldn’t be immediately apparent while watching. Again, this is because it is so effortless. Hahn has an astonishing range as a performer, and she uses tools from across this spectrum to create a beautiful character. Hers may be my single favorite acting performance of the year.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is a moving film about how humanity can be found in the most overlooked places. It is a beautiful film with a phenomenal cast. Heart-breaking and unpredictable, Shoplifters sends you on an emotional journey that you won’t soon forget.
Shoplifters is a film I am eager to revisit, as there is so much to dissect in the characters. They do not speak much; they just live. For most of the runtime, not much happens at all. We are merely granted access into this makeshift family as they survive day-to-day. But the characters have internal baggage, struggles that they don’t share with others. The desire to understand them better is what makes the film engaging. And for a film that mostly depicts a family shoplifting and eating, Shoplifters is incredibly engaging.
Regina Hall is great. She’s just…great. Andrew Bujalski understands this. That is why Support the Girls is amazing. Hall is the movie, and she is in full command of the narrative. Following a day in the life of Hall’s Lisa, a manager at a Hooters-style restaurant, Support the Girls meanders along. But it never feels aimless. It is not hard to become fully invested in Lisa’s struggle. She just wants to do what the title suggests. She just wants to be a good person in a nasty place.
And that’s the movie. It is a comedy in which we sympathize with the impossible situation Lisa is in. Along the way there are running gags and narrative threads that come to a head in surprising fashion. The world of this woman and her business is alive. It feels real even when it is used for the absurd. Hall is great. Support the Girls is great. Great. Great.
4. The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos remains one of my favorite directors working today. Few are as inventive, both visually and narratively, with the medium. With The Favourite he adopts someone else’s script, which is rare, but it pays off extraordinarily. The biting wit of the script blends with Lanthimos’ crisp, disorienting visual style in the best possible way.
The story of a three-pronged power struggle is pulled off thanks to the performances of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. They are all working at the top of their game, making the dangerous game their characters are playing something that is impossible to look away from.
3. Eighth Grade
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is the most nuanced, honest portrayal of contemporary adolescence I have ever seen. It may be a dated portrayal of adolescence two years from now, but nevertheless it is brimming with earnestness. Elsie Fisher is a tremendous discovery, and her performance speaks for itself.
Burnham does something interesting with Eighth Grade, in that he is taking an empathetic position toward a character that is very different from him yet whose means of expressing herself is quite similar. This results in a character study of a young girl in a very specific period of her life who is easy to relate to. Eighth Grade is elegant, honest, uncomfortable, and inspiring. Not much to complain about there.
First Reformed is an experience. Not an entirely pleasant one, but one that seeps coldly into your bloodstream. Kinda like that striking image Paul Schrader conjures, in which Pepto Bismol mixes with liquor. An unholy blend. Schrader’s script bangs into your ears like a migraine, hitting you with a bitter crisis of faith that is entirely understandable.
This is Ethan Hawke’s best performance. Hands down. There is so much confusion and doubt in Hawke’s Toller, and Toller does not know how to reconcile that against his faith in God. The examination of this character can be dissected in different ways, as can the enigmatic ending of the film. First Reformed will mean different things to different people, but no matter how you interpret it it is a striking film.
The majesty of The Rider is what earns it my top spot. Chloe Zhao’s film blends fiction with reality, and, in doing so, she creates a fictionalized drama that could not feel more real. Yes, admittedly some of the non-actors struggle with their performances. But not Brady Jandreau, whose performance as a fictionalized version of himself is often surprising and always thoroughly compelling.
There is no film this year that I have been more eager to see for a second time. With quiet, careful, yet gorgeous direction, Zhao explores what it means to be a cowboy in modern times. Doing this allows for a conversation about toxic masculinity, but one that is more nuanced than I have ever seen on film. Even with the more weighty thematic pressures of the narrative, the plot itself remains poignant and heartfelt. The intimate camera travels alongside Brady as he trains horses, putting us in the center of his world so that we understand his passion and desire to (literally) get back up on the horse.
Brady’s protagonist is one that gives so much without every needing to say a word. It is incomprehensible to me how Jandreau pulls off such a performance, aside from the knowledge that his real life has parallels to the character’s. Zhao’s realization of this character is brilliant, and her film is an achievement.
I don’t mean to oversell it to those who have yet to see it, but what can I say? It’s my favorite movie of the year. It made me warm and full, emotional and in awe. Right now, it is my only full-fledged A-rated film of the year. I saw it in June and waited for something to swoop in and usurp its spot at number one. Nothing did.