2018 brought us a number of movies that had interesting, and important, things to say about race relations (BLACKKKLANSMAN, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, and BLACK PANTHER, among others) but among them, BLINDSPOTTING was the most compelling. No cultural work in recent memory did a better job of addressing both the similarities and the differences between the experiences of working-class people of diverse races in this country – and in a way that was both compelling and entertaining.
2. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
Can there be any question? AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR was everything you ever wanted, and everything you ever needed, from a superhero movie. In Thanos we finally have a villain with clearly defined motives, and opposing him we have a group of heroes that are so much more than their backstories. With a snap of the fingers, our hearts collectively broke… and now we wait with bated breath to see how it all turns out. The last time I remember feeling this excited about a sequel to a big-budget movie was just before the release of STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I just hope they don’t screw it up.
3. LEAVE NO TRACE
Director Debra Granik follows up the groundbreaking WINTER’S BONE (#1 on my top 10 list for 2010) with LEAVE NO TRACE. Like its predecessor, LEAVE NO TRACE explores the existence of people who live at society’s fringes – people who most of us either do not see, or choose not to see.
Military veteran Will (the incredible Ben Foster, in one of his best roles yet) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) live in the woods of Oregon. They hunt, grow, and forage for everything they need, and Tom gets her education from books and from her father. In the eyes of the law, they are homeless, but they don’t think of themselves that way. In many ways, Tom is more well-adjusted than most girls her age, but when the National Park Service finds them living on public lands, they are taken away from that life and placed in a home where they can have the “structure” that society says they must have.
LEAVE NO TRACE is a masterfully-crafted, quiet story that challenges you, your preconceptions, and your way of thinking about what is normal and acceptable, and what should be. It’s also utterly compelling.
4. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT
I can’t believe there have been seven movies in this franchise, and they are still THIS good. Somehow, Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have unlocked the secret for keeping a franchise fresh. And Tom Cruise . . . will this guy ever slow down? Say what you will about the man, but he is the consummate movie star. His stuntwork continues to get better and better with every movie. With the addition of Henry Cavill as the key antagonist, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT is consistently compelling and surprising, even for a franchise that uses surprise as a staple. This is edge-of-your seat cinema and one of 2018’s best blockbusters.
5. PADDINGTON 2
Last year, both THE GREATEST SHOWMAN and JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE reminded us that not all entertainment needs to be cynical, jaded, or gritty to be good. A little kindness goes a long way, and no character better exemplified that kindness than Paddington. In PADDINGTON 2, we were treated to some of the best-written characters of the year in Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) (has there ever been a better name for a convict than Knuckles McGinty?) and Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). I smiled from the opening scene until the end credits began rolling.
6. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled military veteran who has a talent for violence. When he’s hired to track down the missing daughter of a politician, he unwittingly finds himself at odds with a ring of powerful human traffickers. What started as just another contract job for Joe quickly turns into something else entirely. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is as a meditation on the psychological damage that can be inflicted on a person who commits acts of violence for a living. The film asks whether redemption is possible for tortured souls like Joe’s, and if so, what form would it take?
7. SUMMER OF ’84
Comparisons to “Stranger Things” and “It” are inevitable, but any assertion that “Summer of ’84” is an attempt to cash in on the current wave of 80’s nostalgia would be dead wrong. And trust me, there will be critics that assert just that. This is a gem of a horror movie – the type of film that is invigoratingly different because it subverts expectations. While it uses familiar genre tropes, the movie refuses to meet audience expectations. Constantly surprising, the film’s revelations build on one another as the boys learn the truth about the serial killer. Even after the big reveal the surprises keep coming, leaving the audience with some truly nightmarish thoughts to fuel their dreams. “Summer of ’84” is proof that skilled horror filmmakers can shock, scare, and surprise audiences even when working with the familiar.
8. FIRST REFORMED
Writer-director Paul Schrader comes back to the big screen with FIRST REFORMED, a film that quietly confronts some of the most difficult issues of our time with one of the best-written screenplays of the year. In FIRST REFORMED, preacher-with-a-past Toller (Ethan Hawke) struggles with thorny issues of faith and politics and how the two intersect with one another in ways that are uncomfortable and often difficult to reconcile. Many of 2018’s films dealt with hot-button issues but few did so as well as this one.
In this age of consolidation, serialization, and franchising of films, horror remains one of the last bastions of creativity and independence. Horror films don’t typically get big budgets. Small budgets are, in themselves, a way for filmmakers to guarantee themselves some independence from the financiers. If your budget is small to begin with, the people who are giving you that money are less likely to want to interfere with your creative process. At the same time, working with a limited budget is one of the key drivers of creativity: how can we create the reaction we want without spending a ton of money?
“Hereditary” is the rare indie film that manages to cross over into a wider audience. The film is a slow burn – the type of movie that relies on strong character development and a well-constructed narrative – but never sacrifices audience engagement. The movie uses predictable tropes in unpredictable ways and manages to catch us off guard, bringing surprises that both shock us and keep us connected to the characters.
10. LORDS OF CHAOS
The opening title card, “based on truth and lies,” warns us that we should prepare for the unexpected, and what follows in LORDS OF CHAOS does not disappoint. Øystein Aarseth, a.k.a. Euronymous (Rory Culkin), is the lead singer of the Norwegian black metal group Mayhem. Øystein is a master of marketing – knowing just which occult, death and darkness buttons to push to appeal to his fan base – but he doesn’t take any of it seriously. When Øystein meets the impressionable Varg (Emory Cohen), he fails to recognize that not everyone in the community is in on the joke. Chaos ensues.
Seeing as many movies as I do, it takes a lot to surprise me, and it takes even more to shake me to my core. LORDS OF CHAOS did exactly that.
11. Anna and the Apocalypse
12. First Man
13. Den of Thieves
14. Never Goin’ Back
16. Bohemian Rhapsody
17. Isle of Dogs
18. Hold the Dark
19. American Animals
20. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies