Another Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone, driving a nail into the coffin of 2018, cinematically speaking. As usual, it was a night of triumphs and travesties. (More of the latter than the former, probably, but let’s not dwell.)
Green Book is our Best Picture for the year, though it was not even crafted well enough to secure a Best Director nod for Peter Farrelly. Instead, Alfonso Cuaron won for Roma, an artfully made black-and-white foreign language film. Both Best Screenplay categories tackle racial issues (BlacKkKlansman and Green Book). Both Supporting Actors are African-American (Mahershala Ali and Regina King), while both Lead Actors are playing gay or bisexual characters (Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne and Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury), as is Best Supporting Actor winner Ali. Black Panther received three below-the-line nominations, two going to African-American women making history in their categories.
So, can we feel good about the Oscars, and the cinematic year of 2018 in general? It’s difficult, with Green Book striking a sour, disharmonious note that punctuates a fraught year for the Academy. Green Book isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a poor representation of the past year in movies, which saw numerous black filmmakers tackling race-related subject matter more honestly and authentically than Peter Farrelly’s film could hope to. But the outrage around its win, and the way Green Book reinforces tired attitudes toward race that we thought had been left in the past, is very 2018. The Academy’s selection reflects America’s recent choices, even though it doesn’t seem to reflect the majority. In that way, this Best Picture winner actually is the perfect representation of where America is right now, culturally speaking — and that just happens to be embarrassing. Sorry, future historians! Some of us were trying.
And since Green Book doesn’t speak particularly well to the level of quality in movies in 2018, I’ve assembled a list of the Top 25 films that really, really do. I saw 106 films from last year, and these are the best — or my favorite, or however you want to classify it. They’re the films I expect to look back on as most representative of 2018 in cinema, and the year in general.
25. READY PLAYER ONE
Hello, haters! I used my #25 slot last year to call out a not-necessarily-great film I nevertheless had plenty of fun watching — The Greatest Showman. I don’t regret it, so this year I’ve doubled down and included Ready Player One as one of my 25 favorites of 2018.
I’m not just trolling you. Ready Player One is one of few 2018 blockbusters I saw in theaters. I had a great time with it. When I’m in the mood for popcorn entertainment, I’ll return to Ready Player One before the more respectable Black Panther or Mission: Impossible – Fallout. The action is fun, the special effects are stunning, and it captures the pleasure of playing video games in a way that gaming-related films almost never do. The film — and the book its based on — are notoriously stuffed with 80s pop culture references, but Steven Spielberg captures the spirit of an 80s quest adventure better than most of his imitators, and the earnest, surprisingly irony-free screenplay feels like vintage Spielberg, circa Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. (At its high points, at least.)
More significantly, though, Ready Player One is the perfect meta-riff on pop culture in 2018. The very thing many viewers loathed about it is exactly what I love. This film is aggressively nostalgic, regurgitating the beloved IP of our youths with indifferent abandon. Freddy Kreuger? The Iron Giant? Buckaroo Banzai? If it’s from the last quarter of the 21st century and you recognize it, why the hell not throw it in there?
If you think that’s annoying, welcome to the entertainment 2018. We see hodgepodge pastiche everywhere these days, from The Goldbergs and Stranger Things to The Lego Movie and Ralph Breaks The Internet — and, of course, all across the actual internet, too. Hollywood is hard at work serving up reheated leftovers of everything millennials ever loved — and, failing that, everything we’ve ever heard of. Star Wars, Full House, Ghostbusters, The Lion King, It, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, The Terminator, and so on and so on (times infinity). The resurrected corpse of our childhood is being forced to dance for us, and we are loving it. In Ready Player One, at least that’s baked in to the premise.
Unlike the latest Star Wars Story or “live-action” Disney classic remake, Ready Player One wears its shamelessness on its sleeve. Rabid fan culture is part of the text. Its world-weary, shell-shocked society is so nostalgic for the past, they hide inside a digital “oasis” that serves up an endless stream of safe, controlled satisfaction 24/7 — and prevents them from experiencing anything fresh or new in the process. Sound familiar? What was the last piece of media you consumed? Was it a sequel, remake, adaptation, pastiche, or reboot? The highest-grossing original film of 2018 was A Quiet Place, #15 for the year with $188 million at the domestic box office. Every other film in the top 25 grossers was based on existing IP. We’re living in the age of pop culture cannibalism. But only Ready Player One is in on the joke.
To prove it, Spielberg steals an entire movie from auteur-of-auteurs Stanley Kubrick. (If Kubrick weren’t already dead, Ready Player One would kill him.) It’s the kind of audacity only Spielberg could pull off, turning a horror classic into something like a Disneyland ride, or a video game, or the latest Netflix binge-watch. It’s great fun to see Steven Spielberg rip himself off for a change, because why not? Everyone else is doing it. Ready Player One is Spielberg’s meta-response to Super 8 and Stranger Things, one part “if you can’t beat ’em, join em!” shrug, the other part middle finger (maybe). If Colin Trevorrow’s half-cocked Jurassic World can bastardize Spielberg’s iconic T-Rex, why can’t Spielberg himself? In the film, Mark Rylance plays James Halladay, a worshipped maestro of imagination (much like the auteur himself). An evil corporation aims to take control of and exploit Halladay’s creation, just as studios have done to storytellers since day one. In its own sly way, Ready Player One is about the fraught connection between creativity and commerce. It’s not hard to imagine an inner battle raging between Spielberg the Visionary and Spielberg the Executive. Perhaps, in a strange way, this is his most personal film.
I won’t go so far as to say Ready Player One is underrated — but it is overhated. It’s about you, Mr. or Ms. Millennial, whether you like it or not. It may not be the film our Stranger Things-binging generation wanted, but it is certainly the movie we deserve.
Let Disney spoonfeed you, if you want. I prefer my childhood to be shoved in my face. It’s all the same meal, anyway.
Available to stream on HBO.
24. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
“Hey, have you seen the new Orson Welles movie?”
That’s not a phrase I expected to ever utter, but 2018 was full of surprises. The Other Side Of The Wind‘s backstory is bigger than the film itself, which is saying something — the movie contains a film-within-a-film and features a number of Hollywood legends. The Citizen Kane auteur began shooting his final film in 1970, but was plagued by complications that had him working on it intermittently until his death 15 years later. The Other Side Of The Wind was ultimately shepherded by Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall, who have a long history with the project — both appear in the movie. It debuted on Netflix — which, of course, was not even conceivable to Welles when he died.
The Other Side Of The Wind is a confounding document, with one foot in the past, and one in the present. Films are a product of their time. We watch them, knowing that. The special effects and performances we cherish in classic movies would be panned today, because technology advances and social behavior changes. But we forgive the antiquated look and feel of older movies, maybe even prefer them — they’re a relic of a bygone era, a way of traveling back to the past.
But The Other Side Of The Wind was only shot and partially edited back in the 1970s. It was not assembled for a 1970s audience, by those immersed in what was en vogue in 1970. It was assembled by filmmakers in the 21st century. They’ve been influenced by an extra forty years of culture and cinema. As a result, The Other Side Of The Wind is fresh and musty all at once. It veers haphazardly between color and black-and-white footage, mockumentary-style, at a pace that feels more Michael Bay than Orson Welles. It’s unique in 2018, and surely would have seemed radical back in the 70s — though, of course, we can’t be sure that this version is anything like the film that would have been released by Welles himself.
Is this an Orson Welles movie? Yes. No. Maybe. We’ll never really know for sure. It is an authorless, timeless work, dreamed up by one of cinema’s most revered directors and abandoned by fate… then picked back up by — well, who really knows? It looks like a 70s movie and feels like it was shot yesterday. It is, ultimately, impossible to evaluate The Other Side Of The Wind as a movie of 2018, or of any era, but the pure joy of pondering these existential cinematic questions was one of the year’s artistic highlights.
Available on Netflix.
23. NEVER GOIN’ BACK
Never before has a film so embodied Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” By far the most lightweight of my picks this year, Never Goin’ Back is a female-driven, female-directed comedy about teen BFFs whose plans for a beach getaway get derailed. The stakes are low, the plot is thin, and the budget is tiny. But it isn’t a “small” movie by any means.
Angela and Jessie are waitresses, high school dropouts, and casual drug users in Texas. They live with Jessie’s older but not more mature brother Dustin and his too-clueless-to-be-skeezy friend Brandon. There are no true adults in the picture. Dustin’s amateur drug-dealing leads to the girls’ arrest and detainment in jail, causing the girls to miss work. So Angela and Jessie hatch a hare-brained scheme to replace their missing paychecks and go on that much-needed vacation. Hilarity happens.
Directed by Augustine Frizzell, Never Goin’ Back combines the rebellious antisocial spirit of Ghost World with the female crudeness of Bridesmaids, delivered with pizzazz on a shoestring budget. Though there are brief forays into the crime genre, it’s light on story, preferring to follow the girls on a series of misadventures both related and unrelated to their quest. The lead characters’ gender is both a strong selling point and irrelevant. It’s exactly the movie you’d imagine if it starred two slacker dudes, which we’ve certainly seen before, but Never Goin’ Back is fresher and more fun for being female-focused. Angela and Jessie earn plenty of the trouble they get into, but also sometimes suffer at the hands of dumb young dudes, and one pervy old guy. The final payoff works a little better because the protagonists are women. They’ve earned the right to get away with a little mischief.
As Angela and Jessie, Maia Mitchell and Camila Morrone are a dynamic comic duo I hope to see in many more comedies, together or apart. Frizzell should be offered a prime studio comedy, stat… if only so she can turn it down and make more low-budget comedies like Never Goin’ Back, because this is funnier than any studio movie I’ve seen a while.
Never Goin’ Back is 85 minutes long, available to stream, and entertaining as hell. If you’re looking for an easier, breezier watch on this list, you’re not going to find it. Get to it.
This one can currently be found on Amazon.
22. BEAUTIFUL BOY
There are two good reasons to watch Beautiful Boy. One is Timothée, the other is Chalamet. That might seem unfair to the rest of the cast, comprised of dependable actors like Steve Carell, Amy Ryan, and Maura Tierney. They all do solid work. But Chalamet’s depiction of a young addict is one of the most compelling screen performances of the year, unfortunately shunted aside in awards season. That’s somewhat understandable, given Beautiful Boy‘s middling success as a drama, but plenty of actors are lauded for strong performances in so-so movies. (How about Mahershala Ali, who did win Best Supporting Actor for Green Book?)
Felix Van Groeningen’s film is two memoirs in one. The title comes from Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, which deals with the father’s perspective on his son’s addiction. The movie also borrows from memoirs by Nick Sheff, the addict in question. This dichotomy creates a tension Van Groeningen doesn’t know quite what to do with. David Sheff’s story is a pretty square melodrama. He plays it safe. Meanwhile, Nic Sheff opens up like a wound, unflinchingly honest about the highs and lows of methamphetamine use. Beautiful Boy never quite reconciles these separate perspectives, instead shifting between these two movies. One is fine, and one is borderline fantastic.
Steve Carell plays David, a doting father who must learn that he’s powerless against his son’s addiction — it’s up to Nic to save himself. That may true, but this half of Beautiful Boy reassures parents like David Sheff that “it isn’t their fault” rather than looking inward. Maybe David is just a good, standup dad, and quite possibly, he’s blameless for Nic’s addiction. But if that’s the case, David’s story isn’t all that cinematic — it’s about a father reacting to his son’s actions, and doing very little else. As a film, Beautiful Boy needs the chaos and charisma of Nic’s story to come alive — and it does, whenever Chalamet is on screen.
At its best, Beautiful Boy is an exhilarating examination of compulsion and self-destruction. Lots of drug dramas show the “highs” of substance abuse with psychedelic flourishes, pulling out all the cinematic stops so we “feel” what it’s like. But that’s usually just disorienting, if not outright nightmarish. Beautiful Boy has no such sequence, but the allure of narcotics is a real threat — because we see how much Nic enjoys it. Chalamet is so good at conveying Nick’s love of getting high on crystal meth, I kind of wanted to try it myself. (I didn’t.)
Ultimately, Beautiful Boy spends more time with David than Nic. Van Groeningen makes some offbeat choices, particularly in the erratic, unfocused soundtrack (which uses Perry Como’s “Sunrise, Sunset” unironically). The film wades into melodrama between Chalamet’s powerhouse appearances. But in those moments, Nic Sheff’s is one of the most compelling addiction stories I’ve ever seen on screen. Beautiful Boy isn’t a great movie, but it contains one, and that was enough to get me hooked.
Available to stream on Amazon.
21. 22 JULY
Is it too soon?
That was the question on our minds back in 2006, when Paul Greengrass delivered United 93, a harrowing retelling of 9/11’s final tragedy. Released less than five years after the attacks, the film took us back to that fateful day with documentary-style precision, using a largely unknown cast, utterly eschewing the usual Hollywood bombast. United 93 did solid business at the box office, ranked as one of the year’s most critically praised films, and earned Greengrass an Academy Award nod for Best Director, though many Americans were reluctant to see such a sobering take on a tragedy that was (and is) still very fresh in the collective consciousness. It remains challenging to watch — not the sort of movie one throws on while cleaning up around the house — but also offers catharsis. That magnitude of tragedy is hard to hold in our heads, but by honing in on particular details, Greengrass places it in the context of human behavior, making those unimaginable moments immediate again.
The same holds true of 22 July, for a different audience. Seven years passed between the events of July 22, 2011 and the release of Greengrass’ latest, which chronicles another fateful day. Right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik killed seventy-seven people in two separate attacks — first an explosion, then a mass shooting. Most of the victims were teenagers at a summer camp. Many Americans never knew about or have forgotten the attacks — they received less press coverage stateside than domestic terror acts — which seems reason enough to justify 22 July‘s existence. Certainly, American viewers will have no trouble relating to the horror of these attacks, especially when the lone gunman sets his sights on students who think they’re in a safe place. Few American films have had the stomach to tackle these grisly events — aside from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, all the way back in 2003, 2018’s Vox Lux is one of the first. 22 July takes place in Norway, but may make a lot of Americans feel like they’re watching the news.
Depicting a recent tragedy of this magnitude without being either exploitative or overly cautious is tricky, but Greengrass is the master of striking the right balance. The massacre sequence is unnerving, but not lurid. Though Greengrass doesn’t shy away from the staggering number of lives halted, he never dwells on the violence itself. Unlike United 93, 22 July spends a significant portion of its running time on the aftermath of the attack. Jonas Strand Gravli plays Viljar Hansse, the film’s central figure, a teen who nearly loses his life on Utøya and spends the rest of the film physically and emotionally recovering from the damage done that day. Anders Danielsen Lie plays the other central figure — the killer himself, who posits himself as a revolutionary. The dozens of lives he ended are all in service of a media circus he hopes to create. And of course, it works.
Though fairly large in scope, 22 July boils down to this battle between good and evil — between a killer and a survivor, between hate and love, between nihilism and hope. The terrorist seeks to put a stop to globalism, to preserve an archaic way of life that favors conservative white men. Here, again, 22 July will resonate all too well for Americans. We tend to think of mass shootings and white nationalism as uniquely American concerns in the 21st century. 22 July is a sad, sobering reminder that that isn’t the case. Is it a comfort or a pity that we are not alone?
Available on Netflix.
20. SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
The past year has got to be one of the most prolific for films by and about people of color. From The Hate U Give to BlacKkKlansman to Blindspotting, several bold, distinct films touched directly on topical social issues, and that’s certainly true of Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You. Its central characters are black, which is critically important to who they are, and to the overall premise — which sees Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green adopt a “white voice” as a telemarketer, with incredible success.
But Sorry To Bother You also tackles a broader swath of issues plaguing America in 2018. It is as much about economic disparity as it is about race. (The two are intertwined, of course.) It tackles capitalism with a clear-eyed ferocity that’s never been presented quite like this. It skewers colossal corporations that are known for exploiting their workforce at the expense of customer satisfaction, like Walmart and Amazon. There’s also a heaping helping of media satire thrown in.
Stanfield is terrific as the leading man. As good as he is, though, it’s Tessa Thompson’s Detroit who steals the movie. With her statement T-shirts and earrings, her very look says more than most women get to in a whole movie. She could easily be the poster child for 2018. Sorry To Bother You also finds the perfect role for Armie Hammer. He plays Steve Lift, the villain of the piece, a take on Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Travis Kalanick and a bunch of other rich white men whose names we hear too often. In the film’s high point, Cassius parties with Lift and is coaxed into rapping. It mostly consists of using a racial epithet over and over. It’s one of the most shocking, relevant, and eviscerating screen moments of the year.
Sorry To Bother You has a lot on its mind — a little too much, actually, which is better than the dozens of movies released in 2018 that said nothing about the world we live in today. The absurdist tone takes some getting used to, and it’s easy to fall off during some of the film’s wackier twists and turns. The first time around, I admired Riley’s chutzpah and the film’s originality, but couldn’t fully get into its groove. Sorry To Bother You plays even better on a second viewing, though — well enough to convince me that it’ll have a healthy shelf life. It’s one of the most essential films of the year.
Available to stream on Hulu.
19. LOVE, SIMON
Love, Simon was one of the first 2018 films I saw, back in March. I cried (a little) in the theater, thought it was good, and told people to go see it. Then a lot of other movies came out, and Love, Simon faded into the background, as good romantic comedies tend to do in the wake of the Romas and If Beale Street Could Talks of awards season.
Then I gave Love, Simon a second viewing. I expected to find it cute and rewatchable and not much more than that — but Greg Berlanti’s teen dramedy got me the second time around, too. Touted as the first mainstream gay teen comedy, Love, Simon is a John Hughes-style spin on the same coming out story gay audiences have seen regularly for the past 20 years. Simon, played by Nick Robinson, is conflicted about his sexuality — but nobody else is. His parents are loving and supportive, his friends are open-minded and accepting. Only a couple of obnoxious, inconsequential jerks at school have a problem with it, and even they aren’t that bad. Simon’s problems are about as serious as any other teen comedy protagonist’s — not very! Thus, history is made.
This lack of drama is precisely what makes Love, Simon quietly revolutionary. Simon is a privileged white male who has the luxury of passing for straight. A more effeminate black peer named Ethan, played by Clark Moore, reminds him of that. There are lots of stories about kids like Ethan yet to tell, and it’ll be really revolutionary when that character is at the heart of a mainstream comedy. But teen comedies from Hollywood studios never follow characters who are very far from the mainstream — even if they’re supposed to be dorky (She’s All That, anyone?). Outcasts are played by the same attractive, charismatic actors who play the jocks and prom queens, because high school movies are aspirational. Now, here is an attractive, charismatic teen character who is gay, but still aspirational. That’s rare in a mainstream movie protagonist in any genre.
Love, Simon may play more down-the-middle and retrograde than some would like, but it does contain a handful of moments that speak directly to queer experience. Simon’s mom, played by Jennifer Garner, becomes the poster parent for how to handle a kid’s coming out. (Once conservative Christians finish with Boy Erased, Love, Simon should be next on the list.) Better yet, Simon confronts the frenemy who outs him, making it clear that the time and place one’s sexual orientation becomes public should never be chosen by a third party.
Beyond its progressive place in Hollywood history, Love, Simon is a satisfying rom-com mystery (I was in genuine suspense about who Simon’s internet paramour could be), heartwarming but never gag-inducing, and a pleasure to watch. If last year’s Call Me By Your Name was the adult-oriented arthouse version of unimpeded gay romance, Love, Simon is its cute kid brother — a gay romance parents can watch with their kids, a queer love story with a happy ending, just like any other romantic comedy. Love, Simon announces rom-com equality on the big screen, where the greatest love stories ever told unfold. It probably means a lot to gay teenagers growing up in 2018. It would have meant a lot to me.
Available to stream on HBO.
18. BOY ERASED
The past year offered the first mainstream gay teen comedy, Love, Simon, which depicted its protagonist’s coming out experience in rosy, rom-com fashion. Simon’s family and friends accepted his sexuality without question, and he got the guy in the end.
Boy Erased is, on the surface, a very different movie — based on Gerrard Conley’s memoir about a gay conversion therapy group. Jared (Conley’s semi-fictionalized counterpart) is the son of a minister, living in a conservative community in Arkansas. When Jared is outed by a college classmate, his elders convince him to go to Love In Action, where he’ll be shamed straight. Naturally, there’s plenty of anger and pain in Jared’s path toward self-acceptance, but it lands pretty close to where Love, Simon does — which is a much happier spot than a lot of gay conversion therapy stories. There is room for a darker and more damning examination of men like “therapist” Victor Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the movie), and the hypocrisy they preach, and the lives that are squelched as a result. Boy Erased is not that movie. It’s about one of the lucky ones, but there’s still value in that.
Lucas Hedges plays Jared, a budding writer, in many ways the model son. Nicole Kidman is his mother Nancy, clearly conflicted about sending her son to Love In Action. Russell Crowe is his father, Marshall, whose feelings on the “sin” of homosexuality are pretty cut and dry. Boy Erased tracks Jared’s evolution, from a product of his environment to a young man who can think for and be himself. But it’s just as much a story about Nancy and Marshall coming to accept that. Edgerton’s film isn’t particularly novel for gay viewers, or people who’ve spent much time with them. Like Beautiful Boy, it approaches a young man’s torment largely through the eyes of his parents. It’s an aspirational film for parents of gay kids — because they’re likely to get more out of it than a queer audience will.
In the current political climate, it’d be easy for Boy Erased to skewer religious hypocrisy. It’d probably play better to a liberal audience that way, but Edgerton chooses to understand and empathize instead, which may just be the bolder choice. In asking conservatives to be open-minded about sexuality, Boy Erased is itself open-minded, finding as much tolerance for traditional Christian views as it asks for its protagonist. And Nancy’s journey, from the silent, supportive “good wife” to a woman who stands up for what she believes is right, is one more American women should take.
Despite its gentle approach, Boy Erased is not just a softball pitched to the lowest common denominator. Unlikely supporting players like Xavier Dolan, Troye Sivan, and Flea turn up playing key characters at Love In Action. Sivan’s “Revelation” plays over a scene of hand-holding that ends up being one of the best love scenes of the year. Joe Alwyn also appears as Jared’s handsome classmate, who reveals a devious darkness in the film’s only truly wrenching scene. Boy Erased isn’t just another coming out story — it’s about coping with the trauma of rape. Sexual assault between men is still underexplored in cinema, and Boy Erased only scratches that surface — but it’s refreshing to see a story about a young gay male that acknowledges a darker reckoning with sexuality than your average schoolboy crush.
I doubt the audience that should watch Boy Erased ever will, but perhaps its sympathetic portrayal of both conservative Christians and gay men will open a mind or two. As the film shows, it is possible to bridge that gap. If not… at least we tried.
Find out where to stream it here.
17. EL ÁNGEL
Carlos Robledo Puch is Argentina’s deadliest serial killer. He’s also kind of a babe. Most of his victims were slain when he was 19 years old; he was arrested just after turning 20. His pretty boy looks earned him the nickname “the Angel of Death.” He is Argentina’s longest-serving prisoner, having been in prison for 45 years.
Luis Ortega’s crime drama takes a Bonnie And Clyde approach to his story, casting Lorenzo Ferro as the cherubic Puch and Chino Darín as Ramón Peralta, his handsome partner in crime. The boys start off as enemies but quickly discover a volatile chemistry between them, one that gets downright explosive once danger is sprinkled in. Carlos fantasizes about Ramón, but is equally drawn to lawlessness and violence. He has no fear of being caught or killed, and shows no remorse for his victims. He’s a sociopath, most likely, but every crime he commits seems to be in the spirit of fun. There’s no more sinister id. It’s unnerving, but also rather alluring, to see a violent criminal unabashedly enjoy himself.
El Ángel was produced by Pedro Almodovar, which shows in the vibrant cinematography. It’s gorgeous to look at and fun to watch, and it doesn’t take much more time to consider Puch’s victims than Puch himself does. It toes the line of glorifying criminal behavior, but Carlos’ charisma is as creepy as it is captivating. A cloud of doom hangs over the whole affair, because no one can be that reckless for long without getting caught. He isn’t what you’d call a careful criminal.
Even if you don’t know the true story, it’s obvious that El Ángel will end with some measure of consequence for its killer duo. But we get to enjoy the ride as Puch himself did, with Tarantino-like reverie in bloodshed as pop art. Carlos develops weird relationships with Ramón’s deliciously wicked parents, crossing all sorts of unhealthy boundaries because he just can’t help himself. At heart, Carlos really is just a kid, showing off for the cool boy, hoping he’ll like him. And what’s cooler than murder?
El Ángel makes violent crime as relatable as any other act of teenage transgression. Despicable acts are carried out with a petulant juvenile’s carelessness. Some of the worst people in the world have a toxic magnetism, which gets at the existential dilemma at the heart of every good crime drama. As remorseless as Carlos is, it’s hard not to feel for him, and root for him. And that’s exactly why movies exist — so we can live out the fantasies, however perverse, we want no part of in real life.
Find it streaming here.
16. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Regina King was rightly made an Academy Award-winner for her portrayal of a doting mother in 1970s Harlem in this film. Nicolas Britell was Oscar-robbed in the Original Score category. And on its own merits, Barry Jenkins’ adapted screenplay probably should have beat BlacKkKlansman‘s, though Spike Lee’s win was one of the most delightful moments of the ceremony. For those keeping score, that’s one Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk, three for Green Book, and four for Bohemian Rhapsody. Clearly, something went wrong this year.
If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of childhood pals Tish and Fonny, whose friendship blossoms into a relationship shortly before Fonny is put behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. The movie takes place both before and after his arrest. The achingly beautiful budding romance is intercut with sobering looks at Fonny and Tish, separated by injustice and glass, communicating via phone though they’re only a few feet apart from one another. Tish is pregnant. Her family is determined to free the baby’s father in any way they can. They turn to a lawyer, then go after Fonny’s accuser, hoping to appeal to her compassion, or her common sense. But this is America in the 70s, so the odds are stacked against them, as Brian Tyree Henry explains in one of 2018’s most powerful scenes.
It’s easy to imagine the Precious-style, Lee Daniels version of this movie — bleak, squalid, and mad as hell. If Beale Street Could Talk is made as only Barry Jenkins would make it. The production design, costumes, music, and cinematography are distractingly gorgeous, creating a tension with the dark events of the story. Shouldn’t we feel the grit and grime of Fonny’s time in prison? Shouldn’t Fonny’s arrest be more harrowing? Shouldn’t this be more depressing?
Ordinarily, yes. But we’ve seen that before. In a potent year for films about being black in America, it’s a shame that this one didn’t catch on — but not entirely surprising, given what it is. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk bucks audience expectations and takes a very quiet risk. It refuses to be ugly.
When viewed from most angles, Fonny and Tish’s story is tragic, but Jenkins doesn’t present it as a tragedy. He chooses to emphasize love instead — the love between Fonny and Tish, the love of parents for their children and unborn grandchildren, and the goodness of people like Dave Franco’s Jewish landlord, who is willing to do the right thing, even at a time when it wasn’t expected of white people.
In 2018, BlacKkKlansman, The Hate U Give, Widows, Monsters And Men, Sorry To Bother You, and Blindspotting were varying degrees of pissed off at the systemic oppression of African-Americans — and of course, they had every right to be. We need movies to be angry about what’s wrong in our world… but we don’t need every movie to be. In a year that saw so many notable films indignant about black Americans’ past and present, If Beale Street Could Talk is the most challenging — because it’s non-confrontational.
Filmgoers want to be riled up by an story like this. They expect to be. Jenkins’ refusal to play to cliche makes If Beale Street Could Talk less than satisfying on a gut level. But by playing up the beauty in Tish and Fonny’s lives, Jenkins makes what is stolen from them feel so much more potent. The audience experiences that loss, along with the characters. It doesn’t feel right, because it isn’t.
Jenkins’ film has a quiet, confident power that I suspect will outlast other 2018 films on this subject. It zigs, where the others zagged. In the outrage era, isn’t finding the beauty in it all the braver choice?
Find out where to stream it here.
15. SUPPORT THE GIRLS
If this title makes you think about boobs, that’s not an accident. The action takes place in and around Double Whammies, a Hooters-esque bar and grill where the waitresses wear short shorts and tight shirts. That setting sounds primed for a raunchy comedy, one that likely treats its female characters as little more than eye candy.
But despite being written and directed by a man, the male gaze is nowhere to be found in Support The Girls. It is about women who are paid to be leered at, but Andrew Bujalski’s film does not leer at them. It listens to them.
The protagonist is Lisa (Regina Hall), who manages the restaurant. She’s the organized, efficient, and frequently overwhelmed den mother to the young women in her staff, who personally and professionally need the support called out in the title. They certainly don’t get it from Lisa’s boss Cubby (James Le Gross), who is exactly the kind of doofy blowhard boss you’d expect to be in charge of a place like this. Lisa is both the brains and heart behind Double Whammies. The people she manages know that, but those above her take her for granted. If you’ve ever worked in America, you can relate.
Support the Girls unfolds mostly over the course of one hectic but not particularly out-of-the-ordinary day. Lisa deals with a break-in, employee no-shows, new hires, a firing or two, a waitress who can’t find a sitter, and an impromptu car wash that is technically a misuse of company resources. Most of this is incidental. The real story is Lisa’s relationship with her staff — primarily sarcastic single mom Danyelle (Shayna McHale) and perky, ditzy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson). Lisa has to show tough love to her staff frequently, but treats even the most problematic employees with dignity and respect. She has a “zero tolerance” policy for customers who get grabby or verbally abusive, and she carries that policy into her personal life, too. Lisa lives her life with integrity, and fights for the world around her to live up to those standards. The world often disappoints, but Lisa keeps trying.
Like Magic Mike, Support The Girls‘ look at a very specific industry speaks volumes about how businesses are run in America. Double Whammies is a local spot, which is about to face stiff competition from a corporate chain called the Mancave. The way Lisa runs her workplace is in stark contrast to how Cubby does it, and how a hiring manager at the Mancave does it. Ultimately, it looks like the heartless approach to management wins out, but the film ends with Maci, Danyelle, and Lisa laughing, drinking, and ultimately screaming to the heavens. It’s both a venting of frustrations with the male-dominated corporate world, and a battle cry. The system isn’t fair — at least, not yet — but as long as these women keep supporting one another, we’re pretty sure they’ll be okay.
Available to stream on Hulu.
14. LEAN ON PETE
Did anyone else notice that 2018 had a thing for horses? From more conventional man-and-his-horse relationships in The Rider and The Sisters Brothers to less conventional horse appearances in Thoroughbreds and Sorry To Bother You, it may as well have been the Year of the Horse in Hollywood.
Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete is the most traditional horse-focused film of the year, centering on a teenage boy named Charley (Charlie Plummer) who develops a friendship with an aging racehorse named Lean On Pete. Lean On Pete is owned by Del (Steve Buscemi), who runs his horses into the ground with zero sentiment. A jockey named Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) seems like an ally, but she, too, turns out to be world-weary, looking out for number one. Lean On Pete’s days are clearly numbered, so Charley does what he can to prolong his life — which includes kidnapping the horse in a particularly desperate moment and going on the lam.
On paper, Lean On Pete sounds like a Disney movie, but there’s a lot less horse cuteness than you’d expect. Haigh’s focus is on Charley and the increasing precariousness of his survival. First, his father Ray (Travis Fimmel) lands in the hospital, putting Charley out on the streets. Ray is a loving but irresponsible father who left Charley without a safety net. Charley has only a slim chance of finding a long-lost aunt who might be willing to help him out in a time of need. Barring that, he’s got nowhere else to go.
Lean On Pete isn’t really about a boy and his horse — it’s about the boy, using the horse as a metaphor. Much like Lean On Pete has been cooped up in stables all his life, Charley will be placed in foster care if he is caught. As a fifteen-year-old boy from a poor family, he’s the victim of an unstable upbringing, without a support network. It’s only once Charley makes off with Lean On Pete that he’s choosing the course of his own life. But there aren’t a lot of options. A drifter played by Steve Zahn briefly takes Charley under his wing, but as he learned with Del and Bonnie, seemingly kind strangers can’t always be trusted.
Lean On Pete shows us how close a good kid with no money or family can be to a life on the streets. Just as a used-up racehorse is inevitably sent to the glue factory, society has no place for a young man without means or a home. His fate could be equally cruel. Haigh’s understated storytelling is carried over from Weekend, 45 Years, and HBO’s Looking, grounding a tale that could easily be melodramatic or mawkish in another filmmaker’s hands. One shocking moment in particular removes any question that this is a family film. Piece by piece, cruel fate removes Charley’s every last safeguard, until he’s barely more than a defenseless animal himself. Compassion is hardest to find when you need it most.
Available to stream on Amazon.
13. EIGHTH GRADE
Of all the harrowing places 2018 films took us, sending us back to eighth grade might have been the cruelest cut of all. Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is painfully familiar, though set in the present with plenty of social media FOMO viewers my age didn’t contend with back in the day. One look at Elsie Fisher’s Kayla in those middle school hallways takes us right back to the most awkward of our adolescent years.
Like Support The Girls, one of the year’s other great female-driven dramedies, Eighth Grade is close to plotless. It’s not about what happens to Kayla, it’s about being Kayla, and in that way, Burnham’s film feels remarkably fresh, both in script and on screen. The dialogue is uncomfortably natural, but never dull or trite. The camera has a documentary’s patience, with occasional bursts of manic comic energy — like when Kayla spots her crush, a perfectly cast eighth grade dreamboat who probably reminds you of some popular boy from your own past. The make-or-break element, though, is Fisher’s pitch-perfect casting and performance in the lead. She’s wonderful, never reaching farther than she should, never asking us to feel for Kayla. Even more astounding — Kayla actually looks like she’s in eighth grade, not like she just popped in from a JCPenney catalogue shoot around the corner. It’s a stark distinction from the squeaky-clean teens in virtually any other teen movie (including my beloved Love, Simon). Kayla’s gawkiness and blemishes make all the difference in telling her character’s truth.
Eighth Grade is a revolution in teen comedy, inspired by the current state of teen culture itself, where even the most average of teenagers can be a video star. It kicks off with a time capsule addressed to “the Coolest Girl in the World,” filled with embarrassing mementos to remind Kayla how awkward she used to be. (She’s just as awkward now, but she won’t know that until she’s outgrown this phase, too.) Kayla makes influencer-style videos about being true to oneself, though she has no insight or experience on the subject — and no audience, either. Kayla’s pain is both raw and unremarkable, but her quietly fighting spirit is a constant. Lots of kids in her position would hide from the world, but when Kayla is invited to a popular girl’s pool party, she puts on her game face and her unflattering swim suit and she goes.
The most remarkable thing about Eighth Grade is that isn’t mean in the way many teen comedies can be — not to the snooty popular girls, not to the horny, pushy older boy who tries to mack on Kayla in the back of his car, and certainly not to its heroine’s clueless dad. It doesn’t go for the easy targets or obvious laughs — every moments is earned.
Between Eighth Grade and Support The Girls, two of the most insightful looks at strong-willed, good-hearted, ordinary women were written and directed by men. That’s weird, but a promising sign. Eighth Grade feels like a glimpse into the future of female-driven comedy. If that’s the case, the future is bright.
Available to stream on Amazon.
“We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.”
Like last year, my Top 10 list should really be a Top 12, because it was borderline painful to leave these last two films out.
Three of my favorite 2018 films — The Tale, We The Animals, and Minding The Gap —transported us back to their creators’ childhoods, while two others — Vox Lux and Never Look Away — also touched on the way juvenile trauma breeds art. Roma is also the story of an artist reckoning with his past. The film’s backstory is so well-known, it’s practically a part of the text. Perhaps someone under a rock somewhere watched Roma not knowing that it was an ode to Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood caretaker — they may have Netflix under rocks, these days, since they have it everywhere else. But any real cineaste knows Cleo is faithfully based on a real woman, the family she serves closely resembles Cuarón’s, and Roma is set exactly when and where Cuarón grew up. With three Oscar wins, Roma is the crown jewel of this 2018 trend, also reflected in 2018 films blending documentary and fiction (The Other Side Of The Wind, American Animals, and Shirkers), films meant to evoke the target audience’s own adolescence (Eighth Grade, Mid90s, Ready Player One, lots of reboots), and other films about childhood itself (Three Identical Strangers, Christopher Robin, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?).
Amongst these, Roma is an anomaly. The Paco character, who represents Cuarón, has a small role; Roma focuses squarely on Cleo, a proxy for Cuarón’s own childhood caretaker. The film recreates his childhood as precisely as a movie possibly could. Many scenes are based on memory; the places and objects we see on screen are replicated, or even borrowed, from Cuarón’s actual past. But Cuarón doesn’t tell his story from his own perspective… or Cleo’s. He never presumes to get inside her head.
We see a select few moments of Cleo’s personal life — most notably, a stolen tryst with an ill-chosen paramour — but mostly, we see her at work. Cleo is loved, but rarely considered; she is appreciated only as far as she erases any sense of self. Her wants and needs must never come before the family’s. Her job is to attend to the whims of others. Eventually, Cleo’s personal life does encroach on this family, and we learn to what extent her employers are willing to see, and understand, and embrace her. But Cleo isn’t much of a protagonist. The story is not told through her eyes. She’s not directing her own fate. Cuarón doesn’t align us with the little boy he once was, or the nanny he loved. Instead, he inserts the viewer into his past like a ghost. We watch from a distance, as impartial as can be. It’s an unusually objective approach to subjective memories, attempting to show us how things were, not how they felt, or were experienced. Of course, Cuarón is not God. This is still his point of view, however he may try to disguise it.
As a tribute to a surrogate family member, Roma is unconventional. Major political events interrupt Cleo’s narrative, putting us at a distinct point in Mexican history. In long, quiet takes, Cuarón calls attention to details we might otherwise overlook — planes flying overhead, hours of labor taken for granted. Most shots are wide — we rarely get a closeup. Yalitza Aparacio is an inexperienced actress, with only a handful of emotive moments. She’s terrifically authentic, which the role requires, but intentionally subdued by this style of filmmaking. Marina de Tavira gives the more traditional “performance,” but even she is a supporting player. Cuarón himself is the star of this show, though he’s never on camera. His presence is felt in the set, in the sky, in every sound and every shot. With its striking black-and-white cinematography, its slice-of-life sound design, its meticulously detailed sets — rendered with the utmost precision under Cuarón’s assured direction — there’s little doubt he delivered exactly the film he set out to make, and he touched every part of it. Roma is as auteur as a movie can get.
So what’s with the exquisite craftsmanship? Why go through all the trouble to recreate reality, then shoot it with such elevated elegance? Every frame is perfection, every detail managed. You could say the movie is too beautiful, and too carefully constructed, to place us in the mundanity Cleo’s workaday life. It’s impossible to forget that it’s all curated, putting Roma at odds with its subject. Is that Cuarón’s gift — a lavish, expensively spartan awards movie for this unassuming woman? When was the last time an entertainment giant spent millions on a story about an indigenous Mexican housekeeper?
Roma is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, as pristine and polished as any other film this year — or any year. It is perhaps the ultimate testament to Cinema As Art — brought to us, strangely enough, by Netflix. The streaming giant gave us 2018’s two biggest auteur spectacles, the resurrection of Orson Welles’ “final film” The Other Side Of The Wind, and the indelible Roma, projected directly from the soul of one of the most acclaimed and respected filmmakers of the century. It’s ironic, given that Netflix may also be systematically, strategically killing the cinematic experience. Because Netflix doesn’t want us to go to the movies, Netflix wants us to stay home and stream them instead.
Roma looks back on the past in a style reminiscent of old masters like Bergman and Fellini, while forging a new distribution model for Netflix movies. It tells an intimate story, while a much larger one simmers in the background. It spends big money on a small story about a woman who would never dream she’d inspire an Oscar winner someday. In so many ways, Roma is grander than the story it tells. It may emerge as the most telling film of 2018 — the year cinema officially departed from the big screen. Or, maybe, the year streaming saved it.
Roma forces us to confront these existential questions about the future of moviemaking and moviegoing. Who could have guessed we’d have such an unlikely heroine at the center of this epic sea change in Hollywood?
Streaming on Netflix… obviously.
11. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
“Shit happens. Get the whiskey.”
As I’ve said several times, 2018 movies were obsessed with the past, with films as disparate as Roma and Ready Player One looking wistfully back upon the good old days. (I suspect it’s because the present is so goddamn confusing, but that’s another story.)
Bad Times At The El Royale unfolds mostly in one day, but speaks to an entire decade. It’s 1969, and four strangers have found themselves at a desolate hotel, half in Nevada, and half in California, with a line down the middle dividing the two. There’s the priest (Jeff Bridges), the singer (Cynthia Erivo), the salesman (Jon Hamm), and the femme fatale (Dakota Johnson). It might as well be the setup for a “…walks into a bar” joke. In fact, it kind of is.
Bad Times At The El Royale is pure cinema. Part thriller, part musical, part crime noir, part black comedy, it’s funny, stylish, sexy, sad, exhilarating, and wildly entertaining. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, who previously brought us The Cabin In The Woods, it is based on… nothing. While the tone borrows from Tarantino and the Coen brothers, amongst others, the story is very Goddard (not Godard). Original movies are a dying breed these days, and so are intelligent genre movies made for adults. Bad Times At The El Royale checks both boxes, with a stellar ensemble cut loose to show us a fantastic time at the movies.
I already reviewed the film last year, calling it “the lovechild of No Country For Old Men and Dreamgirls, having a sleepover with its cousin Psycho,” and I can’t describe it any better now, so I’ll keep this brief. Bad Times At The El Royale minces up virtually everything we know about the 1960s — Civil Rights, Manson, Motown, Vietnam, Cold War espionage, drug use, political assassinations — and drizzles it all over a big bucket of popcorn. There’s a voyeuristic reveal in the story that provides a meta spin on the act of watching movies; many of these characters end up watching each other. But the real reason it’s in the “just missed it” slot, at #11, is because I had such a good time with it. If you chopped up my other 24 favorite movies of 2018, and frothed them all up in a blender, you’d get Bad Times At The El Royale. Bon appétit.
Find it here.
Here is every 2018 film I saw, ranked, starting with the very best.
1. Never Look Away
3. First Reformed
4. Minding The Gap
5. We The Animals
7. The Tale
8. A Private War
10. Vox Lux
11. Bad Times At The El Royale
13. Eighth Grade
14. Lean On Pete
15. Support The Girls
16. If Beale Street Could Talk
17. El Ángel
18. Boy Erased
19. Love, Simon
20. Sorry To Bother You
21. 22 July
22. Beautiful Boy
23. Never Goin’ Back
24. The Other Side Of The Wind
25. Ready Player One
26. The Sisters Brothers
27. Red Sparrow
30. The Kindergarten Teacher
31. You Were Never Really Here
32. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
34. Game Night
35. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
36. The Hate U Give
37. Paddington 2
38. A Star Is Born
40. Black Panther
41. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
42. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
43. Juliet, Naked
44. Private Life
45. The Favourite
46. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
47. American Animals
48. The Death Of Stalin
51. Of Fathers And Sons
52. Every Day
54. At Eternity’s Gate
58. Sollers Point
59. On Chesil Beach
60. Hale County This Morning, This Evening
61. Leave No Trace
62. Monsters And Men
63. First Man
64. The Endless
65. Thunder Road
67. Christopher Robin
68. The Old Man And The Gun
71. On The Basis Of Sex
73. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
74. Mary Queen Of Scots
75. The Rider
76. Bird Box
78. Free Solo
79. Bisbee ‘17
80. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
81. Isle Of Dogs
82. Three Identical Strangers
83. Green Book
85. The Miseducation Of Cameron Post
86. Mary Poppins Returns
87. Bohemian Rhapsody
88. Hot Summer Nights
89. Cold War
91. The Land Of Steady Habits
95. Ben Is Back
97. A Simple Favor
98. Crazy Rich Asians
99. A Quiet Place
100. Let The Sunshine In
101. Happy As Lazzaro
104. The Wife
107. In Darkness
108. Madeline’s Madeline
109. Avengers: Infinity War
112. Racer And The Jailbird
113. Ocean’s 8
114. Sicario: Day Of The Soldado