10. Madeline’s Madeline
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 War, Spider-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
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
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 Mention: Annihilation, 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?
5. Ready Player One
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
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
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.
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
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.