2018 was a wild year for the movie business. As the year began, the industry was reeling from waves of revelations regarding sexual misconduct in seemingly every corner of its existence, while also trying to keep up with the ways streaming giants like Netflix and calls for increased diversity were altering the entertainment landscape. At festivals like Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto, change was in the air.
But looking back at the year in film, another notable shift was evident. Historically, “prestige” films and so-called “Oscar movies” have largely been relegated to the end of the year, with critics and awards prognosticators looking mostly at releases from September through December when predicting which movies will be the year’s best and most recognized.
In 2018, though, the great movies started coming out early and didn’t stop: Black Panther in mid-February; The Death of Stalin in March; The Rider and A Quiet Place in April; First Reformed in May; Hereditary and Damsel and Leave No Trace in June. The list just kept growing as the year went on.
And many of the year’s best movies were by and about groups of people who have often been underrepresented in Hollywood, especially women and people of color. A diverse variety of genres made waves, too, with horror and documentaries holding their own alongside the more traditional prestige dramas.
All of that means that 2018 was bursting with good movies for nearly every taste. In an industry undergoing rapid change, it was good to see new voices emerging and old stories being retold in fresh ways.
Here are my top 21 films of 2018.
Based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? stars Melissa McCarthy as a successful celebrity biographer who falls on dire financial straits in the early 1990s and later turns to literary forgery and theft. Richard E. Grant co-stars as her partner in crime, a grifter who’s dealing with his own demons.
The film from director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) probes serious matters — loneliness, addiction, illness, and trying to make a living — while also being thoroughly entertaining. It’s a delightfully misanthropic buddy heist that’s both solemn and light on its feet.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is currently playing in theaters.
Sure, the Coen brothers also released a comedic Western this year, but all things considered, I preferred Damsel, written and directed by another brother pair: David and Nathan Zellner. Robert Pattinson stars in their film as Samuel Alabaster, a pioneer and a bit of a dandy who is solely devoted to his great love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Samuel has traveled across the West, a miniature horse named Butterscotch in tow, to collect a minister and bring him back to his hometown to marry him and Penelope.
It sounds fairly straightforward, but Damsel is one of those movies that starts out being about one thing and then takes a left turn. Its title is a bit ironic — who is the real damsel here? — and its story is darkly comic, a tale of falsified identities, denial, and more than a little mayhem. It plays with the lines between hero and villain, victim and perpetrator, and it quietly, humorously, and also a little bleakly challenges stereotypes long entrenched in tales of the West.
For his follow-up to Moonlight, which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2017, director Barry Jenkins chose to adapt James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Set in Harlem, the film centers on a young black couple (played by Stephan James and newcomer Kiki Layne) who grew up together and fell in love. But then conflict takes over — and notably, it does not originate from inside their relationship, but presses in from the outside world.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, expressive film, at times feeling like a tone poem or lyrical plaint, with a stacked cast that also features Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, and Brian Tyree Henry. It’s set in the 1970s, but thanks to the way it confronts how sexual assault allegations, policing, and racism can interlock for communities of color, it feels incredibly contemporary, too. It’s hard not to fall under the film’s beautiful, somber, lustrous spell, and as a story about black American life framed as a love story, its images are indelible.
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in select theaters on December 14.
Careening from office comedy to something like horror, Sorry to Bother You is a weird and funny and unsettling debut feature film from rapper Boots Riley. It’s a bonkers satirical comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield, who plays an Oakland native in desperate need of a job; ultimately, he winds up at a telemarketing firm, where he finds success by using his “white voice.”
To say the movie is juggling a lot of ideas is an understatement. Sorry to Bother You is a live-wire comedy with a social conscience — a commentary on race, labor, and American capitalism (also starring Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer) that veers in so many different directions that it’s best to just strap in and let it take you along for the ride. It’s about exploitation and profit, it’s about the fetishization of black bodies and the indignities of code-switching, and it’s about giving up your dignity and trying to find love, all in a vaguely dystopian magical realist packaging.
Shoplifters, from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, made its debut at Cannes, where the jury awarded it the top prize, the Palme d’Or. The film is an intimate and accessible drama about a family of small-time petty crooks who live in a small house, scratch out a living, and take in a young girl who appears to have lost her family.
But as the story unfolds, a mystery seems to emerge almost imperceptibly from the family’s everyday interactions, and the movie eventually becomes something unexpected, surprising, and haunting. With strong performances and an engaging narrative, Shoplifters continued to amass well-earned praise and capture hearts throughout its fall festival run. Its quiet, devastating take on the nature of family and love — and the limits of the law — is unforgettable.
Shoplifters is currently playing in select theaters.
The Death of Stalin, from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, tamps down the unrelenting joke delivery of Iannucci’s earlier work (like 2009’s In The Loop) in favor of a more complex, almost nihilistic rendering of politics as the work of bumbling and weak-minded people who lack any real conviction other than a desire for power and position.
The film (which is entirely in English, with no Russian accents) is based on the true events following the Soviet leader’s death and subsequent scuffle over his succession, and most of its comedy is situational rather than textual, which is to say that it’s funny because it’s true. Once you’ve climbed the ladder to kiss the ring of power, you can’t go back down — but you’ve placed a big target squarely on your forehead.
15) The Tale
Jennifer Fox is best known as a documentarian, but for The Tale — which she called “pure memoir” in a Q&A following the film’s Sundance premiere — she shifts to a scripted format, transforming her own harrowing story of being molested as a 13-year-old into a sensitive, innovative, even beautiful feature that cuts right to the heart of the most difficult conversations America is currently having as a country.
Laura Dern plays the grown-up version of Fox as she’s slowly forced to grapple with the fact that the relationship she once had with her 40-year-old swim coach wasn’t a relationship between two consenting adults. In turn, we witness Fox’s search for her place in her own story — is she a victim? A survivor? A heroine? The Tale is not a film that wears its importance on its sleeve, because it’s deeply personal. But it feels prescient, almost prophetic.
The Tale is streaming on HBONow and HBOGo.
Luca Guadagnino followed up last year’s critically lauded Call Me by Your Name with a remake — of sorts — of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult horror film Suspiria, one of the most visually wild horror films ever made. Set in a modern dance company and starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, and Chloë Grace Moretz, Guadagnino’s take feels like new flesh molded around old bones and lit on fire.
Less remake, more regeneration, the new Suspiria retains its predecessor’s setting and setup — a prestigious German dance school run by a shadowy coven — but digs its hooks into elements that Argento’s film floated past. The result is something much scarier, more chilling, more menacing, and absolutely, wholly its own.
Suspiria is currently playing in theaters.
Roma was one of 2018’s most anticipated movies, and it’s been the subject of rapturous reviews since its fall festival debut. The lushly shot, monochromatic domestic drama from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men) tells the story of a family living in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and a girl named Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, in a stunning turn) who works for them.
Focusing on the struggles and strength of the family’s women, Roma is funny, sad, and carefully told, a challenge to simply sit and pay attention to people who find themselves overlooked in their own homes. In addition to directing, Cuarón also served as cinematographer, and he chose to set the women’s stories — first and foremost Cleo’s — against the backdrop of political unrest in Mexico City.
Netflix is positioning Roma for a big awards season run in a number of categories, including cinematography, directing, and writing — and given its sensitive, gorgeous rendering that’s garnered comparisons to world cinema masters like Fellini and Bresson, it’s likely to be a strong contender. It’s also an incredible sensory experience, full of layered visuals and sound, that richly rewards the sensitive, attentive viewer.
Roma is playing in select theaters and will premiere on Netflix on December 14.
12) Private Life
Eleven years after the debut of her highly acclaimed feature The Savages, Tamara Jenkins returns with Private Life, a funny, moving film about one couple’s maddening and harrowing struggle with infertility.
With an outstanding original screenplay by Jenkins, the movie features strong, funny, and heartbreaking performances from Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, alongside a stellar supporting cast. It achieves a tricky tonal balance by irreverently locating the humor in the suffering that many experience when trying to conceive a baby — injecting hormones into buttocks, having to deliver semen samples for in vitro fertilization, readying one’s home for a visit from an adoption agency — without making light of those experiences. The result is an accessible and complex portrait of two people whose ardent shared desire for a child leads them in some unconventional directions. And it’s a joy to watch, whether or not you can relate to their experience.
Private Life is streaming on Netflix.
11) The Favourite
A deliciously wicked, loosely historically based drama from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (who earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for his screenplay for The Lobster), The Favourite is a dark comedy about three women: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and adviser Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and the young woman (Emma Stone) who joins the household and starts to usurp Sarah’s coveted spot.
The film’s luxurious interiors, cockeyed sensibility, and complex trio of female characters with frank views on power, sexuality, and what they want out of life make for a film that’s both entertaining and loaded with pathos, feeling uneasily authentic in how it depicts what it takes to attain power. The three performances at its center are funny, complex, and unsparing — and that’s especially true for Coleman, a beloved TV and film actress (and the new Queen Elizabeth on The Crown) whose time for awards recognition may have finally arrived.
The Favourite is currently playing in theaters.
Burning, from Korean director Lee Chang-dong, has been one of the most critically lauded films on the 2018 festival circuit, topping many critics’ lists and drawing nearly universal praise. And that reception is well-earned.
The movie (which is in Korean) is loosely based on Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” which was first published in the New Yorker in 1992. It’s a gripping, unnerving, noir-style mystery about a young man from rural South Korea who runs into an old friend in Seoul and rapidly falls for her, only to find his hopes overshadowed by a mysterious, cosmopolitan rival.
Burning goes in entirely unexpected directions, and its cast features The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, giving a creepily suave performance as a man of the world who may also be very dangerous. And it is laced with elemental metaphors — fire, water, cold, heat — that make its story of desire, mystery, and destruction feel all the more visceral.
Burning is currently playing in theaters.
9) Eighth Grade
Written and directed by Bo Burnham, formerly a wildly popular YouTube comedian (which may be a turn-off for some, but stick with me here), Eighth Grade is a startlingly empathetic, wincingly honest, completely charming story of a girl living through the last week of eighth grade and coming to terms with herself, at least a little.
It’s the sort of film that makes anyone who’s already well past their teenage years grateful that they don’t have to relive them ever again. A sensitive movie about what it’s like to grow up in the selfie generation, surrounded by iPhone cameras and webcams, it’s a story that probably had to be made by a filmmaker who knows that terrain intimately. But it also captures something ineffable about the awkwardness of being a teenager — and so, in the end, it’s a movie for everyone.
As much a poem as a documentary, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the sort of film for which the word “lyrical” was invented. Ross, who started his career as a large-format photographer, carefully assembles hours of footage he shot while living in Hale County, Alabama — of water droplets on a baby’s skin, of kids goofing off in a parking lot, of church congregants singing during mass, of old houses, of insects, and more. Together, they act as brush strokes to create a portrait of a community, capturing a way of life in a place burdened by history.
Ross’s goal is to redefine the cinematic “vocabulary” that’s often used when black Americans are shown onscreen, so he purposely chose to shoot and edit the documentary in ways that suspend judgment and resist the narratives we often bring to films as viewers. And in the few instances where Ross uses text onscreen, the sentences are as carefully, elegantly structured as the images, carrying narrative and emotional weight that’s deeply affecting. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a major work, and a richly rewarding one.
Hale County This Morning, This Evening opened in theaters earlier this year and is awaiting digital release.
Support the Girls, from writer and director Andrew Bujalski, is a barely concealed double entendre of a title for a film set in an even less coy Hooters-style bar called Double Whammies. Every day, the bar’s waitresses — pretty girls in crop tops and cutoffs — serve beer and wings to the mostly male clientele, though Double Whammies insists it’s a family-friendly “mainstream” place.
But Support the Girls is not at all the winkingly misogynist raunch-com for dudes that such a premise might imply. Starting out as a workplace comedy featuring a sparkling female ensemble, the movie — set mostly over a single day — morphs into an affecting, startlingly insightful depiction of the bone-weary work of being a woman in a man’s world.
Leave No Trace is the story of a bond between a daughter and her father, but in the background is another kind of bond, something that keeps the world from spinning apart. Ben Foster stars as a military veteran with PTSD who is raising his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), off the grid in a state park — until they’re found.
Written and directed by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Leave No Trace is an often surprising and very moving film about familial love, as well as the networks of support and empathy that people living on the margins of society construct for themselves. Granik’s restraint as a filmmaker lets her indulge this kind of storytelling without patronizing, fetishizing, or aestheticizing her subjects. Her characters and their relationships don’t just exist for us to watch; they’re also part of the broader fabric of an American society that pays lip service to individualists and originals but makes it extraordinarily hard for anyone without access to certain resources to live freely and well.
Kept under a bushel for more than four decades while it was held up by both technical issues and lawsuits, Amazing Grace — which Sydney Pollack filmed in 1972, as Aretha Franklin recorded the live album of the same name that would become one of her most acclaimed — seemed like it would never see the light of day. But this year, it was finally finished and released, just months after the singer’s show-stopping funeral.
The result is a concert documentary, one of the most electrifying ever made, that captures Franklin at her peak, backed by the Southern California Community Choir over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. And for its 87-minute runtime, those of us in the audience aren’t an audience at all. We’re bearing witness to one of the greatest performances of all time. We get to be part of a ritual of remembrance, a cry for mercy, and a long plea for justice. If we’re just sitting there watching other people make music — instead of participating in it ourselves as engaged audience members — we’re doing it wrong.
Amazing Grace premiered at the DOC NYC festival in November and will play limited engagements before its theatrical release in early 2019.
First Reformed is an astonishing, bruising meditation on faith and doubt from writer and director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo), starring Ethan Hawke in one of his greatest performances. Hawke plays Rev. Toller, the minister of a small, dwindling church in upstate New York that’s more museum than church at this point. A young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) are among his church’s few attendees; Michael is an environmental activist who was discharged from prison on compassionate leave because Mary is several months pregnant. During his conversations with Michael and Mary, Toller starts to experience his own crisis of faith.
Furious, darkly funny, and deeply disturbing, First Reformed is a tight, explosive encapsulation of our very specific political and ecological moment in history, and one that brings both the physical and metaphysical into the picture as it considers what could be the future. It also dares to wonder aloud whether we’ll be forgiven for ushering that future in.
3) Bisbee ’17
Directed by unconventional documentarian Robert Greene, Bisbee ’17 is a fierce, lyrical probe into the soul of a town haunted by a history it would rather forget. It’s also an unsettling cipher for America, at a time when the ghosts of our past have revealed themselves in frightening ways.
Greene ventured to Bisbee, Arizona, for the centennial of a 1917 incident in which 1,200 striking miners were illegally deported to New Mexico. By stitching together interviews with locals, quiet shots of the town and the stunning landscape that surrounds it, and footage of Bisbee’s preparations to reenact what happened, the film gently blows the dust of accumulated history off the past.
In the process, it exposes some of the town’s still-tender wounds. And those wounds map onto things that America is currently struggling to address: our relationship to shameful episodes in our history, the ways that communities and families can be torn apart by powerful people weaponizing loyalty for their own gain, and how we think about immigrants. What happened in Bisbee could happen again — and the film frighteningly shows how.
Bisbee ’17 is currently playing in limited engagements around the country.
One of the most extraordinary films of the year is Minding the Gap, which starts out as an engrossing documentary about a group of young people in Rockford, Illinois, who skateboard and grow up together. But as the film unfolds, it expands from being a skate movie into something much bigger.
Minding the Gap is particularly concerned with domestic violence — Rockford has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in the state of Illinois and in the country at large — and how generational patterns of abuse repeat themselves. It isn’t an easy movie to watch, but it’s an important dive into a reality that many young Americans face, with a resolutely subjective viewpoint that lends it credence and heft. It’s one of the best documentaries of 2018, and one of the best films of the year.
Minding the Gap is streaming on Hulu.
1) Cold War
Cold War was my favorite film at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and it hasn’t budged from the top of my list since I saw it in May. It’s a decade- and continent-spanning, pristinely shot romantic tragedy set in Europe in the early decades of the actual Cold War, balancing its captivating lead characters and their fiery love with the grand sweep of the places and times they find themselves in.
As with his previous film, 2013’s Ida, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (who was awarded the Cannes directing prize for this film) renders the story in black and white and shoots in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is much closer to a square than the widescreen ratio used for most films. And his main characters are Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (the striking, marvelous Joanna Kulig, an actress to watch) — two people based very loosely on his own parents.
Cold War is about how country and ideology twine together, pushing and prodding Wiktor and Zula into shapes that ultimately determine their fate. Their relationship is, in many ways, very relatable to people across the ages. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, even when they try to move on. And as they discover, closeness coupled with the passage of time can mean that the person they love may one day become unrecognizable.
Cold War rivals most films I can think of in how much longing it packs into every scene. Every shot is perfectly composed — you could hang any of them on your wall — to electrify the frame’s empty spaces. And the film is thoughtful and immersive in its use of music, taking the mood from chilly but beautiful to swirling, beating ardor with a score that ranges from haunting Polish folk music to smoky Parisian jazz. Watching Zula or Wiktor alone, you feel the absence of their heart’s other half as keenly as they do.
But it’s all complicated by the vast distance between the West and the Soviet Union, not geographically so much as ideologically. And that distance, and the difference in how you might act in a free place versus one where free thinking is strongly discouraged, ratchets up the tension between the couple. You couldn’t call Cold War a political film, exactly, but if their stars are crossed, then politics had a hand in bending them, and knowing that is almost, in the end, too much to bear.
Cold War opens in theaters on December 21.
15 runners-up, ranked
Lists lose some potency when they get too long. And critics ultimately have to go with their gut as well as their critical analysis when deciding what to keep and what to cut. But a year like 2018 had so many good films — including some major, groundbreaking studio releases — that I can’t help but note my runners-up would have been. Here they are.
1) Shirkers; 2) The Rider; 3) Makala; 4) Monrovia, Indiana; 5) A Star Is Born; 6) Annihilation; 7) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; 8) At Eternity’s Gate; 9) Lean on Pete; 10) The Hate U Give; 11) First Man; 12) Black Panther; 13) Crazy Rich Asians; 14) Hereditary; 15) Blindspotting