Someone on Twitter quipped (I do not remember who, otherwise I would credit them) that 2017 had a small handful of great films which were better than anything released this year. However, considering films just a small step below that tier, 2018 had a much larger pool to choose from. I found that to be the case myself, with over twenty films I could easily have included in my top ten. This was actually one of the hardest yearend lists I have ever put together, given the lengthy list of very good movies I had to narrow down.
An overused quote by Graham Greene states that films should depict the world both as it is and as it should be. Almost all the films below feature a world broken in one way or another whether by pollution, absent fathers, PTSD from the Iraq War, mental illness, or child abuse. At the same time most of those movies feature some form of beauty and hope, whether it be the bond between a boy and his dog, a girl and her father, or a son singing pop songs with his mom.
I think I made a better effort this year than usual to catch up with as many titles as possible, but some things inevitably slipped through the cracks (Cold War and Blindspotting). If a film is not included, I either didn’t see it or didn’t care for it as much as the thirty-five here.
Good Films Worth Noting (35-21):
A Quiet Place, Black Panther, Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Lean on Pete, Thoroughbreds, The Rider, Minding the Gap, Roma, Shoplifters, Bad Times at the El Royale, The Death of Stalin, Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, 22 July, Shirkers
20. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) – Jenkins’ third feature film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Alternating between flashbacks of an innocent childhood friendship blossoming into a touching romance and the harsher present day realities of being black in America, Baldwin’s story through Jenkins’ camera is both a witness to injustice and a celebration of love and family.
19. Annihilation (Alex Garland) – Deeply indebted to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Garland’s intoxicatingly beautiful sci-fi film about survival and the quest for the perfect organism takes equally awe-inspiring and terrifying turns as its scientist protagonists confront the alien world of the Shimmer.
18. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami) – Kiarostami’s final film, this beautiful recreation of twenty-four paintings and photographs invites reflection on what happens just outside of the frame, asking us to look beyond what we see in front of us and imagine the stories behind each work of art.
17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville) – A love letter to Fred Rogers, a man who saw everyone as his neighbor and used television as a means of living out his Christian faith with as wide an audience as possible.
16. I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni) – A debut feature from Nyoni, she poignantly captures the injustice spurred by fear and bigotry when a young African girl named Shula is accused of being a witch and forced to live in a state-sanctioned witch camp. A fantastic performance from Maggie Mulubwa as Shula reminds us of the freedom and joy a child should have in life and the tragedy of that being taken away.
15. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller) – The “true story” of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down and out author who takes her agent’s advice to find a new career a little too literally and begins forging letters from deceased celebrities and then selling them to make ends meet. Marielle Heller’s comedy walks the fine line between sympathizing with its unethical protagonists without ever romanticizing or rationalizing their behavior. More pointedly, the film strongly criticizes the greed and superficiality of a society which gives Lee an outlet to use her talents in a criminal way, while acknowledging what a waste of a vocation that is.
14. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee) – The second comedic telling of a true story on this list, Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70’s provides not only a brutally hilarious mockery of KKK, but a celebration of Stallworth’s victory over one racist segment of society. At the same time, Lee does not let us forget that racism is still alive and well with deep roots in decades of white entertainment that have been subconsciously absorbed for over a century. Drawing powerful parallels to the current climate, the comedic arc of the film reminds us that racism has been overcome before, and with effort can hopefully be overcome again. (full review)
13. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Ol Parker) – Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the year, and unquestionably one of the most joyful and fun films of the year, this sequel and prequel to the 2008 musical is not only better than its predecessor but a great standalone film in its own right. My friend Jeffrey Overstreet, in his own top ten write-up, extensively draws from my favorite film of last year, asking what each of his favorite movies loves and pays attention to. The answer for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is: families, forgiveness and reconciliation, friendships, babies, mothers, grandmothers, courageous independent women, exposing and ridiculing sexism, Greece, Cher, singing, dancing, and of course, the music of ABBA. (full review)
12. Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) – Another labor of love, the meticulous detail and craftsmanship from Wes Anderson reveals a love of canines, Japan, the films of Kurosawa, and haiku. It also shows a love of justice and compassion through its fable-like story about how we treat refugees, the sick, and the outcast. For a film which takes place in a world overrun with pollution, in this stop motion world of Wes Anderson, beauty and goodness abound in more ways than imaginable. A haiku:
We need outcasts to survive.
Green tea and puppies. (full review)
11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rotham) – The most inventive and enjoyable superhero film since at least The Dark Knight, and possibly The Incredibles, the multi-verse approach to a Spider-man origin story provides kids of all backgrounds with a superhero they can look up to. Focusing primarily on Miles Morales and his journey to become New York’s only Spider-man, the world building introduces some of the most delightful surprises of any film this year, and the animations pop off the screen recreating the effect of watching moving comic book pages. To borrow a quote from another great animated film: not everyone can be Spider-man, but Spider-man can come from anywhere.
The Top Ten
10. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda) – After we witness a shocking and brutal murder right as the film opens, it seems like the trial which hangs over most of The Third Murder should be foregone conclusion, especially since this is the culprit’s second murder and he comes across as anything but repentant. However, the truth is far more complicated than it initially appears, as Kore-eda examines the corruption of the Japanese legal system where lawyers care more about an easy explanation than a true one. The title’s meaning isn’t revealed until the film’s end, when it provides a sobering commentary on the destruction of human life, whether it be by a criminal or by the state.
9. The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois) – Like Cuarón’s impressive Roma, The Guardians tells a story of fatherless children in a world torn apart by violence. In this case the violence is WWI, and Beauvois focuses on the ways that life at home away from the front changes as each character does what they believe necessary for survival. That naturally reveals the best of some characters and the worst of others as prejudices are either confirmed or altered. The film’s similarities with Beauvois’ previous feature Of Gods and Men becomes apparent as a more noble path is celebrated by the protagonist’s refusal to return evil for evil, even as the war and its hatred moves closer to her and those she loves.
8. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker) – One of the most brilliant films of the year, Madeline’s Madeline is an unnerving case of life imitating art imitating life. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a typical rebellious teenager seeking her own identity as she works after school with an experimental acting troupe in NYC. Idolizing her fellow actors and reviling her mom, Madeline is naturally vulnerable to being exploited and lashes out at others while trying to pursue her acting vocation. The film’s hypnotic editing underscores the value Madeline rightly places on her work while simultaneously emphasizing she may not be the best judge of who is looking out for her well being. The film makes the importance of vocation clear, while also showing the dangers of putting anything ahead of people as it reminds us that “creating art” is not an excuse for objectifying human beings.
7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen) – A film that puts the gallows in gallows humor—in one scene quite literally—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comprises six vignettes on the subject of death in the old West. There’s a logical progression to each of the vignettes, from gunslinger to bank robber to traveling showman to prospector to pioneer to bounty hunter. Moving from outlaws to “more respectable” characters, the Coens make clear the one thing that connects everyone is death, as they satirize Western tropes in delightfully and wickedly funny deconstructions. The subversive storytelling invites us to reflect on the nature of our stories while simultaneously reminding us how those stories originated in the first place.
6. First Reformed (Paul Schrader) – This dark night of the soul story has been the darling of most Christian and secular critics for 2018, and the acclaim is richly deserved. A modernized version of Bergman’s Winter Light, with strong influences from Diary of a Country Priest, The Sacrifice, and Taxi Driver, First Reformed is a challenging examination of a crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, pastor of a dwindling First Reformed church in upstate New York, pointedly and literally asks, “Can God forgive us,” after being confronted with the catastrophic damage done to the planet by humanmade global warming and the silence of many Christian leaders in response. Despite the scathing critique of a capitalist Church more concerned about prosperity than souls, Schrader is not interested in tolling the death knell for American Christianity, but instead champions the ways which Christian faith can make a difference in the world by standing with the outcast and caring for the least of these, while acknowledging the pain of watching many Christians do the opposite.
5. Paddington 2 (Paul King) – “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it!” That line from Mr. Brown summarizes the winsome charm of both the titular bear and this sequel to his 2014 cinematic adventure. This entry improves on the original in every way with its homages to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, one of the best production numbers of the year, glorious storybook-like production design, and outstanding supporting performances from the entire cast, with especially fabulous work by Hugh Grant. Embodying his Aunt Lucy’s mantra, “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington celebrates joy and love wherever they’re found, from the care of his adoptive family to touching the souls of hardened criminals.
4. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) – There’s a shot fairly early in You Were Never Really Here when Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD Iraq War veteran who now works as an efficient hitman, is worried a kid saw him as he collected his next assignment. After being reassured he’s fine, there’s a shot of the empty doorframe after he leaves. It summarizes both the importance of invisibility in his line of work and his depression telling him it would make no difference in the world if he wasn’t here. A chance to rescue a young girl from a child prostitution ring provides an opportunity for Joe to make the proverbial difference, but depression, trauma, and violence do not wash away that easily, especially in a line of work which feeds upon all three. A sliver of hope is present throughout the film, however, as the relationships between Joe and his mother and the young girl form a contrast to a bleak world.
3. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis) – Given my amicable indifference to most of Denis’ past work, my love for this is as surprising to me as anybody. Featuring a phenomenal performance from Juliette Binoche as an artist desperately searching for a meaningful relationship, often with some of the most toxic men she meets, Denis structures a clear progression to the same place where the film began. Functioning almost as an inversion of the traditional romantic comedy arc, the film reveals the shallowness of genre clichés as it gives all the agency to Binoche’s artist as she learns happiness comes from acceptance and not making some grandiose development or progression.
2. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) – I described this to a friend as King Lear from the perspectives of Goneril and Regan, retold as a vicious dark comedy. That description is overly simplistic, but it underscores the fine line between comedy and tragedy that The Favourite walks so brilliantly. A speculative, yet not implausible, version of events that led to the shift of power in parliament toward the end of Queen Anne’s reign, games of political intrigue have rarely been portrayed as darkly or caustically as the manipulation and backstabbing here. With Olivia Colman as the monarch, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the ladies competing for her favour, the trio of actresses all give fantastic performances, and the ruthless portrayal of the court’s corruption provides the perfect backdrop to expose the price of vanity and envy. (full review)
1. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) – The one film that has stayed with me more than anything else I’ve seen this year is this heart-wrenching tale of survival of a father and a daughter living in the Oregon woods as a means of the father coping with his PTSD from serving in the Iraq War. The inevitable conclusion hangs over the entire film, bookended in the first and last shots. Each time the protagonists depart another home, the pain of broken connections and relationships becomes greater and greater until the final separation demonstrates that humans are meant to leave a trace. Completely devoid of villains, the film is anything but an exercise in tragedy, as it instead celebrates the generosity and compassion of people from diverse walks of life who all want to do their best to help, even as it acknowledges the reality that that help is not always possible.