Cynthia Li’s Top Ten Films of 2018

This was the first year that I actively saw new releases in the theater rather than waiting for them to come out on streaming services. While MoviePass was still a functioning entity, there were weeks in which I watched a new film every day. However, with that gone along with 2018, it is time for me to look back on my favorite films of 2018. Before I jump into my list, I have to briefly give honorable mentions to First Man, Minding the Gap, Incredibles 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, You Were Never Really Here, First Reformed, Annihilation, Blackkklansman and If Beale Street Could Talk. Honestly, I could have made a Top 20 list, but here are my Top 10 films of 2018:

10. Crazy Rich Asians (Jon Chu, 2018)

Growing up, I only saw one movie (Joy Luck Club) in which an Asian American, like me, was not turned into a sex kitten, a nerd, or a Kung Fu master. Thus, when I heard about Crazy Rich Asians, this film became my last hope to break that Hollywood barrier for Asian American stories. I was not disappointed. On the surface level, Crazy Rich Asians is a typical romantic comedy. It has typical romantic comedy tropes, cliché lines, static framing, and does not do anything revolutionary to flip the genre on its head. However, underneath the glitz and glam, it is a story about generational familial dynamics and understanding the cultural gap Asian Americans often find themselves in. Am I too American to be Asian or am I too Asian to be American? As simple as this question is, it was the first time I could directly relate with the characters on the screen without overly manipulating their stories to fit mine. No, this is not some existential film that makes you ponder on the meanings of diversity, but it is an enjoyable and simple romantic comedy exploring the diverse and wonderful yet often lonely Asian American experience, and sometimes, that is all you need.

9. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2018)

When melodramatic moments perfectly blend with a gentle direction and poignant performances, films like Shoplifters are created. Focused on an unconventional family unit, director Hirokazu Kore-eda is more interested in observing the human connection between people rather than manipulating the family’s unconventionality for a plot advantage. In doing so, he creates a warm and deep film where every single character is gently moved around the narrative and given the room to breathe and bare their souls when necessary. It has a level of intimacy often found in homemade videos. By simply allowing his characters to exist, Kore-eda offers us glimpses into the lives of impoverished people we have so commonly dismissed as each character becomes a fully-fledged human being. It takes an unconventional diverse group of people and explores the tender connections that people can have with people who are not, in a traditional sense, family. Simply put, it is a human story. As I said in my review, Kore-eda is not here to glorify poverty nor preach about money being the key to happiness. He is just gently nudging us to a better understanding of the human condition.

You can read my full thoughts on Shoplifters in my review here.

8. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik, 2018)

Speaking of films that simply allow their characters to exist, Leave No Trace is the embodiment of that idea. Directed by Debra Granik, Leave No Trace explores both the nature of a father-daughter relationship and the nature that surrounds them as they live off the grid in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. In Leave No Trace, the Pacific Northwest becomes a secondary character, and through the two characters’ trek, we see how it becomes a savior for one and a burden for the other. From wide, breathtaking shots of the beautiful landscape to minute close-up shots of the harsh winters, we see how lovely and cruel the scenery can be. However, instead of exploiting the nature in which these characters find themselves, Granik lets everything quietly play out, allowing us to digest the complex nature of their relationship. Even in moments that are ripe for emotional exploitation, Granik refuses to allow us closer, respecting the natural and private emotional journeys of the two characters, perfectly positioning cameras at a distance that allow us to observe but not intrude. Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie strike up the right amount subtlety and silence to add to their complex performances, letting us see the pain, sadness, joy, and loneliness that their journey has brought them to. In an era where big robots and loud explosions have become a staple, Leave No Trace is a rarity, asking us to lean in and listen to its small and beautiful whispers.

7.  Eighth Grade (Bo Burhnam, 2018)

Eighth Grade is very much a film about the now, commenting on the anxieties and insecurities that have bubbled up for teenagers because of the modern world. It thoughtfully understands that feeling of wanting to say something and be heard while being afraid of judgment and misperception, and also implicates the modern technologies that have gotten us to this moment, like the short YouTube videos that give us an update on Kayla’s curated online life. It allows us to see how Kayla wants to be perceived while also showing us how she thinks of herself offline. Elsie Fisher as Kayla is brilliant as she gives us the perfect encapsulation of what it means to be shy, of wanting to say everything but being of afraid to rather than having nothing to say. However, I want to give a shout out to this film’s brilliant score. Anna Meredith creates a synth-and-techno-inspired score that emphasizes the harrowing nature of the teenage mind. The score is unlike anything I have heard in any other film this year. This electrifying score, along with Elsie Fisher’s star-making performance and Bo Burnham’s script and direction combine to create an awkward, witty, and touching story.

6.  Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)

If you rip everything from this movie and look only at the plot of this film, it is full of melodramatic devices like divorce, infidelity, and unplanned pregnancies. However, because of Cuarón’s patience with his cast and the moments he has created, Roma works on almost every single level as Cuarón gives us a window into the life of Cleo, played by the extraordinary Yalitza Aparicio, the maid who is often forgotten by the people who seemingly love and rely upon. What makes this film special is Cuarón’s ability to personify this isolation, putting us solely in Cleo’s shoes. Whether it is little moments like only hearing muffled snippets about the mother’s divorce to the larger moments like Cleo partying with the other maids, Cuarón has us experiencing Cleo’s life along with her rather than having us distantly idolize. Every moment is beautifully crafted, from the panning shots to the simple yet complex and crisp beauty of the black and white film, adding to the personalness of Cleo’s life. Through these moments, we gain more of an appreciation towards Cleo’s story and empathy towards the isolation of her job. She is someone whose job is to take care of a family, yet she is not contractually obligated to provide the emotional support or love that the family she works for desires. Yet she loves them anyway, giving her whole life to make them happy.  It is no secret, Cuarón idolizes Cleo, but through Roma, we see the reason for this love, and every moment is fully earned.

5. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

The first time I saw the trailer for A Star is Born, I got goosebumps. To say I was excited about this film is an understatement and despite everything, A Star is Born still exceeded my expectations. Going by the first half alone, this film would be my favorite of the year, however, despite the flaws and pacing issues of the second half, A Star is Born is still a magnetic film. Although most of the praise for this film is for the acting and the music, which alone catapults this film to Oscar contention, it is the beautiful cinematography that makes this film magical. From the lens flares that emulate the pressure of the stage, to the lighting and close-ups to emphasize the emotional toll that the characters put one another, to the timely color changes marking the rise and fall of its characters, the cinematography allows us to not only feel like we are in a real-life concert environment but also intensifies the tragedy of the character’s love story. Despite the assistance the cinematography gives to heighten the emotional impact of the film, A Star is Born knows when a simple shot is all that is needed for its more intimate and raw moments. It is these moments combined with the more loud and bombastic ones that culminate to one of the most beautiful and tragic love stories of the year.

4. Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2018)

Paddington 2 is the kindest film I have seen this year. Yes, it is about the bear in the classic Paddington children’s book. However, despite its classification as a children’s film, Paddington 2 is so much more. Wrapped up in its sweet 110 minutes, we follow Paddington’s adventure to buy a pop-up book for his aunt, during which he encounters obstacles such as a false criminal charge and xenophobia from some of his neighbors. This children’s tale tackles these issues and tackles them well because underneath all the marmalade, gorgeous CGI (Paddington never looks out of place), and cinematography that encapsulates the London sky, Paddington 2 is a beautiful story about the power of diversity and kindness. As a response to Brexit and a president who is insistent of creating divisions within humankind, Paddington 2 inspires hope within its viewers. It is a story about the kindness within people, even in the harshest of places, like a prison, and although that concept can be taken to be overly cheesy, director Paul King is able to balance sweetness and seriousness. Paddington 2 is not trying to antagonize us, it wants to show us the true power of kindness, and although idealistic, the heart-warming and light-hearted nature of it makes a rare gem in the sea of dark and moody films of this year.

3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018) 

If Paddington 2 is one of the kindest films I have seen this year, then The Favourite is one of the darkest. Lead by three strong female performances from Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, The Favourite takes the period piece genre and turns it on its head. Instead of lavish sunsets and bustling kingdoms, The Favourite is filled with gout, cake-bingeing, and lonely halls. Instead of wide and static shots of the English scenery, we have fish-eye lenses, giving a sense of distortion and strangeness to the fight for the attention of the Queen, fantastically played by Olivia Coleman, by Weisz and Stone’s characters. The methods by which these women compete are downright brutal and although Weisz and Stone both put on stone-cold exteriors for their characters, they play them with enough humanity and insecurity that we almost pity the situation they are in. They live in a state where the queen is so vulnerable that she is easily swayed by one compliment, and where the men are extravagant and have no work ethic, yet somehow have more power than the two women clawing to the top. Combining a mix of 18th-century language with 21st-century dialogue, each moment between the Queen and her competing subjects is fresh, funny, and a joy to watch. The Favourite uniquely creates a deceptively light and strange exterior to give us a look into the insecurities of people. These are sad, pitiful, and as this film distinctly points out, is always there waiting.

2. Widows (Steve McQueen, 2018) 

Widows is not your conventional heist film. In fact, the titular heist that gives the genre its name is about 10 minutes long within this 120-minute film.  Instead, Widows aims to say something more, and director Steve McQueen effectively dives into themes of political corruption, racism, patriarchal manipulation, and widowhood. It is gritty and nuanced, never overdoing any particular scene with giant shootouts and long car chases. It is grounded in realism and provides a very human element into a genre that often lacks it. Peeks into the domestic lives of the four main women provide us a bleak, destabilized, and lonely look into their tumultuous lives due to their husbands’ selfishness and carelessness toward their wives. We focus more on the people, their stories, and their motives rather than the heist itself. Yet McQueen is still able to incorporate his unique visual style as he presents to us one of the best scenes of 2018, wherein we go on a car ride with a character and instead of peering inside the car in which we are invited to notice the dramatic shift in wealth from where he is coming from to where he is going.  Widows, although often dark and bleak, provides us a thoughtful look into the mess we can create for ourselves if we are not careful, while still incorporating the elements that make heist films the enjoyable genre that it is.

1. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, 2018)

If you have gotten this far into this list, you will have realized that I enjoy films that give their characters room to breathe and be actual human beings rather than caricatures. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is no different. Led by a powerful performance by Chloe Grace Moretz, The Miseducation of Cameron Post gives us haunting look into the world of gay conversion camps, which, unfortunately, are still relevant today. It shows us the amount of internal hurt and repression caused by these camps and the cluelessness of the people running them. It looks at the ever-lasting marks from the constant self-hate, fear, and self-doubt being forcefully shoved into these children’s’ minds. However, it never vilifies anyone to an extreme because although the idea of conversion camps is horrendous, the reason some believe that we need these camps (which is also awful) is a complicated matter in and of itself. Each character is allowed to explore the complicated and different stages of just existing, just like a normal teenager would, and it is all captured in long and beautiful takes of the characters just being human. It made the film more intimate like I was watching a gentle homemade video of a person growing up. Each take feeds into the intimacy of it all with each scene being treated with care and nuance that many films lack today. All of the vulnerability and warmth that this film possesses is bundled in a short 90 minutes, and during these 90 minutes everything seemed natural and every emotion I felt, whether it was a release of tension or an ounce of empathy, felt earned. As much as this story is about the cruelty of conversion camps, it is also about realizing who we are as individuals and the constant back-and-forth we put ourselves through, from denial and confusion to acceptance and realization, just to be accepted by others. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not preaching to the choir, it is looking at the complicated nature of being a human in our world. Although a small and quiet coming-of-age film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post left a permanent mark in my brain and is my favorite film of 2018.