The Ten Best (and Five Worst) Films I Saw In 2018

THE BEST

10. Madeline’s Madeline

Directed by Josephine Decker

Directed by Josephine Decker

Madeline’s Madeline moves in and out of lucidity in such a way that you can almost always understand what you’ve just seen, you just can’t believe the way it’s been shown to you. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a teenage girl whose talents are undeniable, but whose mental illness can lead to impulsiveness and occasional violence. This is naturally catnip to an experimental theater teacher named Evangeline (Molly Parker), who, despite the trepidation of Madeline’s mother (Miranda July), wants to exploit Madeline’s gifts and vulnerability in the name of Art. Similarly, director Josephine Decker has made a film about making a film, and the struggle between nurturing a human and nurturing a talent.

Currently on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.

9. Hereditary

Directed by Ari Aster

Directed by Ari Aster

Blending the quiet, satanic dread of The Witch and the suffocating, familial anxiety of Krisha, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is a dense, horrifying movie that, if you can stomach it, warrants repeat viewings. Following the death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette) begins to uncover a dark family history that puts everyone in danger. That’s more than should be said about the plot; this is a film one should walk into blind. Aster has delivered a film dipped in crude oil from minute one, and is not afraid to burn the whole thing down half-way through and let his audience watch its smoldering ashes.

Currently on Amazon Prime.

8. Eighth Grade

Directed by Bo Burnham

Directed by Bo Burnham

Elsie Fisher seems to have been lumped into the “best newcomer” category, as if director Bo Burnham plucked some kid from obscurity and pointed a camera at her. In reality, she’s been acting steadily in film and television for a decade, so let’s not sell her short; this is a performance, and an amazing one. Fisher embodies Kayla Day, a kid who is in her last week of eighth grade, is socially awkward and anxious, and makes daily motivational videos via an un-watched YouTube channel. What is amazing about this character is that while her self-esteem can be dangerously low, she never sells herself out, a characteristic that makes her father (an also fantastic Josh Hamilton) proud. Her lows might be low, but her highs are downright heroic.

7. If Beale Street Could Talk

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is James Baldwin by way of Douglas Sirk. Replete with vibrant color (cinematographer James Laxton) and elegant costume design (designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer), the film almost feels other-worldly in its beauty, until the tragedy of its story brings our feet firmly back to earth. Kiki Layne and Stephan James star as Tish and Fonny, a pair of childhood friends who blossom into lovers. Stephan is wrongfully accused of rape and goes to jail just as Tish discovers she is pregnant with their child. Jenkins has cast an incredible roster of supporting actors, recognizing that Baldwin’s tangential characters lend as much to his novels as his protagonists. Regina King, Tyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo almost steal the show as Tish’s loyal family, and a brief performance by Brian Tyree Henry as Stephan’s haunted friend Daniel acts as the centerpiece of the film.

6. The Rider

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Directed by Chloé Zhao

The story of a rodeo star who suffered a brain injury in a rodeo accident as played by Brady Jandreau (a real-life rodeo star who suffered a brain injury in a rodeo accident), Chloe Zhao’s The Rider often feels so naturalistic that it borders on documentary. However Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards shoot South Dakota as a landscape caught in perpetual twilight, full of dark color and uncertainty, reminding us that despite its true-to-life subject matter, this is a deeply cinematic experience. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 To Paris, which this year similarly cast non-actors to depict real events, the casting of Jandreau in The Rider never feels like a gimmick, but instead is essential to telling this beautiful story.

5. Roma

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Roma often seems better suited for a museum than a streaming network or movie theater. This is at times a disservice to the film, as each unhurried, beautifully porcelain frame allows your head a chance to desperately assign it meaning instead of wading in its silence. It’s quite a simple movie; an act of contrition from Alfonso Cuarón, whose empathy and technical skill somehow grows with each new genre he tackles. The film follows Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a housekeeper and nanny to a wealthy 1970’s Mexican family, who quietly pushes on as her employer’s marriage crumbles, the country erupts in protest, and she winds up pregnant. Aparicio’s performance is solemn and portrait-like, so unfaltering in its sobriety that your heart melts every time her mouth curves into a smile.

Currently on Netflix.

4. The Favourite

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

The name Yorgos Lanthimos has become synonymous with the absurd and unfeeling. His characters in The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer are more robots than real people, watching the world burn around them without batting an eyelash. Lanthimos seemed to want to keep the viewer at an arm’s length, turning his movies into little oddities that felt like the work of an alien. In The Favourite, Lanthimos is working off a script that is not his own, and it shows. Here his characters are expressive and over the top, none more than Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), whose depression manifests itself in eating cake until she vomits, and then eating more. Vying for her attention are Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Lady Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail (Emma Stone). The performances are all outstanding. As the characters battle for social stature they show their true colors and, for better or worse, all become distinctly human.

3. Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

Directed by Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey

Directed by Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey

Attempting to describe this movie, which features versions of the same character from different dimensions uniting to fight a common villain, is a bit of a headache. And that’s a shame, because somehow it works so seamlessly, all the while showcasing dazzling animation, an incredible array of vocal performances, genuine emotion, and the biggest laughs of 2018. In a year that gave us the drudging homework assignment that was Avengers: Infinity WarSpider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was a much-needed breath of fresh air. This was above and beyond the best animated movie of the year, and the best Spider-Man movie ever made.

2. First Reformed

Directed by Paul Schrader

Directed by Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader has made a career out of broken, disturbed men trying to right a wrong they see in the world, and Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is no different. However unlike your Travis Bickles or your Jake VanDorns, Toller’s is a quiet, thoughtful agony. After meeting with the environmentally radical husband of one of his parishioners, Toller’s eyes are opened to the horrors that mankind has brought to the earth, and he begins to question whether the God he has devoted his life to has abandoned His creation. Ethan Hawke gives a career-best performance, and Schrader shows an odd level of restraint for a movie that features someone wrapping themselves in barbed wire.

Currently on Amazon Prime and Kanopy.

1. Leave No Trace

Directed by Debra Granik

Directed by Debra Granik

There are so many moments in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, a bleak and tragic film on its surface, where we are shown human warmth and kindness. Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her Iraq War vet father Will (Ben Foster) are living off the grid in an Oregon state park, occasionally entering society to buy supplies with money made from selling painkillers to other vets. After being spotted in the woods, they are arrested and placed into social services, where they are forced to assimilate to new surroundings and begrudgingly accept the kindness of strangers. Ben Foster, often a student of the Al Pacino Acting School of More is More, is kept right on the edge here, brimming with sadness and contempt for a world that has failed him. Thomasin McKenzie is the real treasure though, portraying Tom’s struggle between a loyalty to family and a desire to participate in the world with maturity and wisdom. This is a story that could feel manipulative and message-driven in other hands (see 2016’s Captain Fantastic), but Granik just wants to tell a great story.

Currently on Amazon Prime.

Honorable MentionAnnihilation, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Blackkklansmen, Blindspotting, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Death of Stalin, Mandy, Mission: Impossible-Fallout, Paddington 2, Private Life, Revenge, A Star Is Born, Sorry To Bother You, Suspiria, Thunder Road, Upgrade, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

THE WORST

5. Ready Player One

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Watching Ready Player One is like going to a wedding where the DJ plays thirty second intervals of remixes of hits you loved from the 80’s and 90’s on a loop. You may bop your head for a minute in recognition, but you will leave the dance floor feeling empty and exhausted.

4. A Wrinkle in Time

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Directed by Ava DuVernay

A Wrinkle In Time is a film with its heart so firmly in the right place that it forgets to take notice of its head. Jumping from one scene to the next with no connective tissue — an act that I understand might be representative of the Tesseract since it is essentially a universe that folds space-time — begins to cause massive headaches and whiplash after the film’s first twenty minutes. Problems are invented and solved before you take in your new surroundings or understand what they mean to the cast of generic new-age caricatures. There are bright spots, namely young actress Storm Reid, who brings an emotional maturity to Meg that the rest of the film resists by giving you nosebleed-inducing happiness.

3. The Meg

Directed by John Turteltaub

Directed by John Turteltaub

Sharknado and Jaws are at opposite ends of a vast tonal ocean, so surely there is room for a fun and scary 70-foot megalodon movie somewhere in between? Oddly this one decided to take itself more seriously than Jaws and was about as frightening as Sharknado. Jason Statham, a joy to watch when targeted accurately, is effectively neutered here, leaving you with a cast of exposition-delivery robots and…Rainn Wilson. That leaves the titular dead-eyed beast; completely devoid of personality and enormous beyond frame of reference, making even the fun act of jumping the shark an impossible feat.

2. Gotti

Directed by Kevin Connolly

Directed by Kevin Connolly

Working off a script that has its titular character saying his own full name every two minutes as if worried we’ll forget who the movie is about, John Travolta, caked in pancake goop, somehow isn’t actually Gotti’s biggest problem. Sure, he’s terrible, and he reads every “whatsamattayou!” and drops the vowels on various Italian words with his signature “Adele Dazeem”confidence, but you can at least tell he’s having a good time. The problem is that by the time we get to the end of an incredibly boring and ugly film, we realize it was never interested in taking a critical look at a monster, it was content to simply deify him.

1. Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed by John McPhail

Directed by John McPhail

I was lured by the audacity of splicing the zombie, Christmas, and musical genres together, in a way that I might be similarly lured by a Steampunk Werewolf Romantic Comedy or a Kaiju Courtroom Drama (okay that one has legs). The problem is that John McPhail’s Anna and the Apocalypse has seemingly nothing to say about the undead, why we should be singing about them, or how their plight might relate to the holiday season. Instead it waddles through its 92-minute run time letting its tongue-in-cheek flag fly while its bland characters exchange snippets of sub-Whedon dialogue, yank set pieces directly from Shaun of the Dead, and belt out a catalog of instantly-forgettable songs. The only standout is the inexplicably villainous character of Vice Principal Savage (played by Paul Kaye), whose every character motivation, line reading, action, and acting choice is so baffling that I at least perked up in angry bewilderment each time he sneered across the screen.

The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2017

This was a difficult list to compile, and there is a whole mess of movies I didn't have the chance to see. Regardless, I hope you enjoy! There are also some light spoilers below, but in my opinion, nothing that would detract from your enjoyment of the films. 

10. Super Dark Times

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Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell) are two high-school friends in upstate New York in the early 90s. They spend their days riding their bikes, reading comic books, and talking about sex with the sort of naive bravado that was so common among teenagers before the internet existed. On one afternoon they meet up with two other kids and decide to steal Josh’s brother’s katana sword and go have some unsupervised fun in a field. After an altercation, one of the kids winds up accidentally dead. As the title suggests, things then escalate from dark to super dark. Pre-dating Columbine, the film examines the suburban angst and fragile masculinity that set the stage for the massacre a few years later. The detail with which the film portrays the two teens processing their guilt, one plagued by dreams and a desire to appease, the other feeding it to a pre-existing rage and unhappiness, shows a surprising sensitivity and understanding that was sorely lacking in movies like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.

9. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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Every bit as anxiety-inducing as mother!, but without the head-bludgeoning allegory, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie in which even the establishing shots exist solely to cause unease and disarray. Colin Farrell plays a surgeon whose odd relationship with a teenage boy (a terrifying Barry Keoghan) begins to impact his wife (Nicole Kidman) and children. Even more than was the case with The Lobster, the sedated frankness with which Lanthimos’ characters interact suggest that they are aliens who are learning about human nature almost as quickly as they are refilling their Klonopin prescriptions. It isn’t until minute fifty-three that a character acts on a real human impulse, and it is to the absurd credit of the film that said action is trying to force-feed a donut to a dying child. Shocking, laugh-out-loud funny, and unforgettable, this is the director’s best film to date.

8. IT

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Stephen King released an eight-million-paged, cocaine-laced nightmare called IT in 1986. It is the story of a billion-year-old cosmic shape-shifting alien-demon that often takes the form of a clown and really has a gripe with a small, fictional town in Maine called Derry. IT chronicles the lives of seven human characters in two different timelines, as well as provides over a century’s-worth of history for a town that has been besieged by evil. Suffice it to say, a film adaptation of this work was a huge undertaking. I’m happy to report that director Andy Muschietti got it (almost) perfect. First of all, Bill Skarsgård made the wise choice of avoiding an impression of Tim Curry’s Pennywise. Curry’s gravel-toned, erratically-tempered deviant is replaced by something much more alien and child-like, and thus much less predictable. But unlike the 1990 television adaptation, there’s a lot more to IT than a good villain. The cast of young actors is so fantastic that, much like the Loser’s Club, they upstage the monster itself.

7. Dunkirk

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At first glance Dunkirk feels like a horror movie that found an officer’s uniform and snuck into theaters dressed as a war movie. Leaflets fall from German planes with a simple message to Allied soldiers: surrender or die. From that moment we are immersed in a non-stop fight to survive. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was about the nobility of soldiers who died for their country. Oliver Stone’s Platoon was about war corrupting soldiers and turning them against one another. While both of these themes are briefly addressed in Dunkirk, it is really about men who are trapped like rats on a sinking ship, desperate to escape death in every direction. The lack of soliloquy and character development may further the opinion that Christopher Nolan directs without compassion for character, but perhaps a little utilitarianism and realism is just what we need in our blockbusters. 

6. Good Time

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Much like a Sprite bottle full of LSD, the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time packs quite an unexpected punch. Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie play Connie and Nick, two brothers in New York who need money. After a botched bank robbery, Nick is arrested and Connie goes to extreme measures in order to keep him out of Riker’s. Like Dog Day Afternoon before it, this is a film of grimy intensity and desperation; a 100-minute long litmus test of how many people the protagonist can fuck over before we realize he is the villain of the film. And after just one minute of screen time Robert Pattinson sheds whatever vapid afterglow remained from the Twilight franchise and delivers one of the best performances of the year.

5. Lady Bird

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When a nun at Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s catholic school points out the love of Sacramento that comes through in her writing, Lady Bird is confused, responding “I guess I just pay attention.” “Well aren’t they the same thing? Love and attention?” the nun shoots back. This is the central detail that Lady Bird’s titular character (played with confidence by Saoirse Ronan) doesn’t grasp until late in the film, when she’s finally gotten what she thinks she wanted. Before we get there though, Lady Bird experiences all the hallmarks of adolescence (first boyfriend, loss of virginity, trying drugs, favoring popularity over friendship) in hyper-speed, as if crossing them off of a to-do list required for her life to begin. At the center of the film is Lady Bird’s often hilarious and tempestuous relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). In a single scene the two go from crying together while listening to a The Grapes of Wrath book on tape to a fight that makes Lady Bird defiantly jump out of a moving car. It’s the best love story in a movie that's full of them. 

4. The Florida Project

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The Florida Project is full of characters who are trying their best in a less-than-ideal situation. Even the setting, a bright purple motel on the outskirts of Disney World, seems to have dressed itself up like a Times Square Mickey Mouse knock-off and moved to the spot with the best view of paradise. The heart of the movie is Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who spends her days wandering around with her friends (a rotating crew of kids also staying in the motel), or with her mother (Bria Vinaite, incredible in her first-ever film role) trying to sell perfume or stolen Disney passes to tourists in order to pay rent every Friday. At times the film almost seems like a documentary; every conversation or reaction the kids have seems too naturalistic for there to have been a script, and yet too poignant to be improvised by six-year-olds. And finally there is Willem Dafoe, playing caretaker to both the hotel and, reluctantly, its residents. It’s a truly unique experience to watch an actor, with a lifetime of playing unsavory characters under his belt, stretch his legs and play a decent human being; like seeing a real-life Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.

3. Call Me By Your Name

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The love story that unfolds in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name is fueled by passion but nurtured by boredom. It takes place over a 1980s summer in Northern Italy, where there is little for seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) to do other than swim, read, and soak in both sun and ennui. His father (the prolific and fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor of archeology who invites a grad student named Oliver (Armie Hammer) to help him with his academic paperwork. Elio isn’t yet comfortable in head or body, which is in stark contrast to Oliver, who enters and exits each scene with the brazen swagger of a cowboy in sneakers and tube socks. The pair weed through each other’s bullshit and finally form a deep friendship, and then more than that. Guadagnino places a lot of faith in his two leads; much of the movie is comprised of their silent longing and frustration. But it is the script, remarkably adapted from the novel of the same name by 89-year-old James Ivory, that stands out. The already-famous speech Michael Stuhlbarg gives at the end, where he employs his son to avoid the impulse to “feel nothing so as not to feel anything” will melt your heart.

2. Phantom Thread

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s obsession with solipsistic masters of their craft continues in his ninth film and second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis stars as the ridiculously-named Reynolds Woodcock, a fastidious dressmaker and bachelor who has a pattern of dating models he employs (or employing models he dates) before having someone break off the relationship for him. After one of said relationship cycles ends, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and takes her on a date that uncomfortably turns into both an audition and a dress-fitting. It quickly becomes clear to Alma how Reynolds treats relationships and it quickly becomes clear to Reynolds that Alma is different from every woman with whom he’s ever been. From a distance Phantom Thread may appear smaller in both scope and message than most of Anderson’s previous films. The lavish sets (a New Years Eve party that anyone would die to attend stands out), beautiful score by Johnny Greenwood, and of course the costumes have a hypnotic effect that may lead viewers to believe they are simply watching a perfectly-executed exercise in style. But it is the film’s central relationship and audacious finale that stay with you, much like a secret tucked away in the lining of a beautiful garment.

1. Get Out

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It’s difficult to write about a movie as replete with ideas, humor and tension as Jordan Peele’s Get Out without failing to do it justice. I can’t recall a cinematic experience that merited as lengthy a post-film dissection. Chris, an African American photographer, goes home with his white girlfriend Rose to meet her parents and brother. The ways in which Rose’s family treat Chris are all suspect, be it adulation, domination or flat-out aggression. The tension keeps piling up until it erupts in a storm of frenzied violence. A lesser horror director would resign themselves to said chaos, but Peele never loses his focus. Every beat has a purpose. It dares you to investigate closer and try to poke holes in its logic. This was the movie most demanding of a repeat viewing of 2017, and the most engaging homework movie of the 21st century. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s release date — February 24th — was just over one month after Donald Trump was sworn into office and had begun pushing a xenophobic, race-baiting, and generally derisive agenda. Now almost a year later, the film’s significance and necessity has only grown stronger.