The past two years that I’ve made top tens, I found the compilation process much easier than it was this year. This is perhaps because I saw more films this year, but I think the difficulty can be attributed to the sheer amount of great films that were released. And I mean really great. Of the 111 theatrical releases I saw, I would say my top 20 are all really strong films that I would go to bat for any time, and 20 through 30 are great in their own right. It was really hard to whittle this list down to just ten films, so before we get into those select few, I think it best if we pay our dues to the honorable mentions that would be right up there in the top ten if they were released in a different year.
Morgan Neville’s overshadowed doc of the year, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, serves as an excellent companion piece to Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, providing necessary context to the film and its director in his final years. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is without a doubt the best superhero film in years and one I welcome with open arms. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a wonderful anthology film that lets the Coens tell six moral tales in a Western sandbox that becomes a quintessential western in the process. Roma is a graceful love letter film that evokes the Italian neorealist aesthetic of the 1950s. Thoroughbreds serves as a great example of wealth and privilege run amuck. And I can’t even condense my love for Hereditary, Isle of Dogs, Support the Girls, Shirkers, or Disobedience without making this intro longer than the list itself.
From a wide variety of genres, directors, and studios, there was a film for everyone in 2018. I look at this list and often have difficulty justifying my picks’ positioning above the honorable mentions, and as I said last year, any day of the week or mood will cause me to shift some of these around, but as it stands, this is my top ten, and to me, these are as good as it gets for 2018, so let’s begin.
10. First Man (Damien Chazelle, 2018)
Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land may be a straight-laced biopic, but First Man certainly lands with assured reverence for its subject matter. Telling the story of Neil Armstrong’s accent to the moon, First Man effectively sets the intimate and personal struggles of one man against one of the most historic moments in human history. Aided by superb camera work from Linus Sandgren and a celestial score from Justin Hurwitz, First Man gets up close and personal with danger, presenting the uncertainty and doubt that surrounded the space program from the start. Perhaps Chazelle’s greatest feat with this biopic is his ability to balance the grand with the minute to create a truly theatrical experience. We may have seen space before on the big screen, but never has the odyssey to the moon been so personal, dangerous, and dazzling.
9. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)
On the surface, Paul Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, is your classic environmental political statement film about society’s inability to solve one of the most pressing issues of our time. But more importantly and more poignantly, beneath that you have a film that dives deep into questions of faith and existence. The indomitable anxiety derived from impending demise and the subsequent notion that you can do nothing about it is a sinister idea, and it is precisely what makes First Reformed so thought-provoking. What can we do to combat challenges to our faith? What is there to believe in when society is unwavering in its decline? Can we ever find salvation in the belief that things will get better? These existential questions (and many more) elevate First Reformed into a contemplative piece about our very being, and while there is a general sense of reckoning with the end of days in the film, there is a tinge of hope: in the end, we all may be doomed, but it is that which is pure that can make us keep on living.
8. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)
Annihilation came out in early 2018, and Paramount literally sent it out to die. Like Silence before it, Paramount had little faith in this psychological thinkpiece and even wanted to change the euphoric ending, but I don’t think they knew what they had on their hands. Alex Garland of Ex Machina and 28 Days Later fame made the best science fiction film of the year and it just came and went. At the heart of the film is how our choices can lead us to our . . . well, annihilation. A team investigating something called “the Shimmer” has a progressive battle with themselves as their DNA is constantly rewritten by alien forces, but this science fiction element is only the external layer for something much deeper. Upon closer inspection, it’s also a remarkable allegory for our own self-destructive behavior, and how we try to break the cycle for the sake of self-betterment, but constantly find ourselves at odds with that desire. Symbolic, hypnotic, and captivating, Annihilation proves that there’s more to it than meets the eye. If anything, the film needs to be seen for the ending alone. It’s one of the most illustrious, artistic, and thought-provoking endings of the genre that I can name.
7. Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
The most eloquent film on this list, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a slow-paced psychological thriller about the obsessions that form from intimate infatuations. What I find so appealing about this film is its disciplined nature and what we can derive from it. Implied meaning, subtle character reactions, and reading between the lines are ways in which the viewer can get the most mileage out of the film. The saying, “the devil is in the details” has never been truer, as Lee uses every ounce of his film to set up future revelations and actions. The film thoroughly develops the irrationality that comes with obsession and anchors it with contemporary themes of social isolation and dissatisfaction of younger generations. Steven Yeun gives a chilling performance as a privileged Gatsby-type and Jun Jong-seo enchants as the object of affection. Like most films on this list, the film demands a rewatch to get the most out of it but only takes one to realize the expert-level artistry on display.
You can read my complete thoughts on the fiery obsessions of Burning here.
6. Maniac (Cary Fukunaga, 2018)
I’ve already explained why I classify a serial such as this as a film in my review, but consider its species akin to Twin Peaks: The Return. This ten-part series is the brainchild of Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation) and it carries the thematic sophistication of his prior work, but this time with a humorous, often quirky edge to it. At the heart of the work is its dissection of mental illness and the importance of meaningful human connections. The length of the series allows Fukunaga to psychoanalyze assorted mental ailments in nuanced, sincere, and tactful ways that can be otherwise difficult in a shorter form. Plus, the reuniting of Jonah Hill and Emma Stone (Superbad) as Owen and Annie results in two strong performances that compliment the material. It’s one of the few multi-part series that I actually want to watch again, and with so many other films, new and old, out there right now that I need to catch up on, wanting to rewatch an eight-hour series says a lot.
5. Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018)
My hottest take on this list is Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. It’s not a particular favorite of many, but what makes this film shine is its leanness and ability to construct an economical hero’s journey. It has peripheral themes of culture and gatekeeping, but I think the self-labeled “movie” is not concerned with that. It wants to tell a straightforward narrative that is an action blockbuster first and foremost, and that’s the most compelling part. In the sea of superhero films that have come to shape public opinion on what the blockbuster should be (which I would argue is harmful), audiences have seemingly been conditioned to reject something like this. It’s superhero or bust, and Spielberg is getting a raw deal. The motion capture sequences make great use of volume and space, and Spielberg’s sensibilities for staging and camera placement are as strong as ever. Ready Player One is a great blockbuster from the man who birthed the genre, and thirty-three years after Jaws, I think he’s still got it.
4. Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)
Luca Guadagnino had a lot of clout coming off of 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, so when he announced he would be doing a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult original, there was more than a little intrigue. The original is by no means a sacred text. In fact, it’s probably a film that lends itself to being remade, and what we got was one of the most provocative art horror films in recent years that delineates itself from the original in radical ways. A reinvented visual flare, irregular editing patterns, and an eerie Cold War atmosphere are some of the more notable additions to this remake about a coven of dancing witches. Its pacing is slow, prolonging the runtime, but the contrast with the hyperkinetic dance sequence and demonic moments of horror is so potent in building an overall product. It was met with mixed reviews at release, but I believe as time goes on, we’ll be looking back at Guadagnino’s Suspiria in a more positive, artistic light.
You can read my full thoughts about Suspiria in my review here.
3. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, 2018)
Before Boy Erased there was Desiree Akhavan’s adaptation of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. While they both take aim at gay conversion camps, the later does it in a much more meaningful, potent, and nuanced way that tells a much richer and emotionally conflicted narrative. Following the titular Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is sent to a conversion camp after being caught with the prom queen, the film deconstructs the problematic nature of these camps by showing the hypocrisy of it all. Its greatest strength comes in its subtlety, showing the camp’s problematic nature through personal strife, governmental acceptance, and ironic humor. The weight of judgment isn’t a hammer but a scale that slowly shifts as more and more examples of abuse pile up. And perhaps most importantly it shows that everyone is in this together, never condemning the attendees and always pushing towards their communal resistance of these camps. It’s a profound and emotional film about a very relevant, contemporary issue, and shows that there is no reason to change who you are.
2. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018)
Lynne Ramsay is a director that only makes a film every couple years, but when she does, people should really take notice. She makes delicately crafted and incredibly impactful films that really grab you, and her latest feature, You Were Never Really Here, is no different. Taking the form of a dark and brooding character study, the film is about the physical manifestation of internal demons and the effects it can have of day-to-day life. It’s is incredibly invasive in the way it builds these ideas, using sharp editing, course sound, and visceral imagery to convey the destructive nature of post-traumatic stress in such a tactile way. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the lead, Joe, is further proof that he’s one of the greatest working actors today. He delivers a remarkably weighty and empathetic tour de force performance. On the auditory end of it, Johnny Greenwood, who made one of the best scores from last year with Phantom Thread, gives another award-worthy score that perfectly complements the distraught and troubled nature central to our protagonist, and Ramsay knocks it out of the park with a superbly directed feature that reveals new layered meaning with each watch. The film is dark and disturbing, but that is entirely necessary for what is trying to achieve. Oh, and the film’s ending will hit you like a brick. It is so immensely profound and potent.
You can read my full thoughts about this masterpiece in my review here.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)
Without hyperbole, exaggeration, or myth-making, Mission: Impossible — Fallout is unequivocally one of the greatest action films ever made. Soaring to new heights for the franchise and raising the watermark for action stunts, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has concocted a film that blows everything else out of the water. As noted in my review, the film fires on all cylinders in every aspect. The subversive nature of failure and success has the audience barreling blindly through the film, never knowing for certain what will happen next, if victory is assured, or if failure awaits. In a landscape where blockbusters are cookie-cutter and everything falls into line, Fallout excels at breaking norms, tropes, and expectations by giving the film true, tangible tension that makes the stakes feel real. It also helps that Tom Cruise, who is 56 might I add, dances with the devil as he carries out mind-boggling stunts that will leave you speechless once you learn that they were all done practically and without a double, bringing you even closer to action and danger that presents itself. Everything about this film makes it one of the most refined action films ever produced. Unmatched in theatrical experience and equally as potent upon rewatch, Mission: Impossible — Fallout is not only one of the best action films ever made, but it also just so happens to be my favorite film of the year.
If you’re interesting in seeing a full breakdown of all the films I saw in 2018, you can check out my Letterboxd list here.