2018 was a momentous year in the cinema. From the introduction of sound, to the breakup of the classical studio system, to the cascades of New Waves in national cinemas the world around, to the innovations of home video and eventually streaming, why, if you told me that was a hundred years, I'd believe you!
Okay, 2018 wasn't that long. But it was fucking long. It was my first full calendar year as a non-working critic since 2009, due to the slightly precipitous decision to give up film writing in favor of filmmaking (turns out, raising funds for an independent film that isn't horror and has a bunch of stuff you can't shoot on the cheap? Kind of hard! Who knew?) and, on top of my still living a two-hour drive from anywhere with arthouse theaters, this meant I was a bit limited for most of the year in what I could see. As a result, the following list has at least two major oversights: I wasn’t able to see Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, whose absence in my life I feel like an ache, or Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Anything else you see “missing” from the list? Tell it to the marines, pal.
With no further ado, let us proceed to the 18 best movies (I saw) of 2018:
18 (tie): Fighting in the Age of Loneliness / Fake Friends Episode 2
I don't pretend that this is a great revelation, or even an original insight, but the YouTube video has (long since) coalesced into a recognizable cinematic form with its own particular characteristics and quirks. These two pieces, the first a five-part history of mixed martial arts by Felix Biederman and Jon Bois, and the second a feature-length meditation on the online phenomenon of parasocial relationships by Shannon Strucci, each fascinated me. Neither subject is something I'd thought about before for any length of time, but the singularly conversational and intimate nature of this type of cinema absorbed me completely, whether it was Felix describing addled aristocratic Brazilian jujitsu dynasties or Shannon meticulously analyzing the oeuvre of Bo Burnham. Is my calling them “Felix” and “Shannon” instead of “Biederman” and “Strucci” and example of a parasocial relationship? Watch Fake Friends! (And watch Fighting in the Age of Loneliness too.)
16. The Commuter
Someday we won't have a new Jaume Collet-Serra movie where Liam Neeson fucks guys up every couple years, and I for one do not plan to look back and regret not appreciating this gift.
The rare treat, a Nicolas Cage movie that manages to get on his energy level without exploding into a cloud of adrenaline and sulfur. It comes close, though. It's got chainsaw fights, crazed religious fanatics, Bill Duke, everything. Could have done with more Riseborough, but that critique applies to the entire universe.
14. The Death of Stalin
I wrote a whole fevered thing about this on Letterboxd that I promptly deleted because it was literally the ravings of a madman, and although as with the insufficient Riseborough screen time in Mandy there are some nits to pick here with regards to historicity and tonal inconsistency, but the way I see it is this: if the movie touched something so visceral in me that I immediately had to post a thousand crazed words about it, there's something there. Also, it's one of the greatest movie premises of all time. Of all time. “Stalin's dead . . . what do we do?” That's up there with “Nazis in Morocco,” “holy shit Kim Novak fuck me up,” and “what if jail, but in space.”
I wouldn't give an arm or a leg to have been in the screening room the first time Paramount execs saw this, but I'd think about giving up a pinkie joint. They must've shit a brick.
12. Minding the Gap
Great skateboarding footage, better contemplation of masculinity under capitalism. Tough to watch in places, but if it wasn't it wouldn't have been any good.
11. Sorry To Bother You
Oh, hey, more masculinity and capitalism. Boots Riley's first film is very much a first film aesthetically, and it's as subtle as a sledgehammer to the nuts but it's fucking weird, and that wins it a lot of points with me. Also, I used to work in telemarketing, so there are huge stretches of this movie that are basically the calligraphy on the inside of my heart, so I can't be objective. Also Lakeith Stanfield is wonderful in this, and look, capitalism is bad. What's Boots supposed to say, maybe it's not? Fuck that.
The proverbial good Palme winner, and about as good at the whole “build up sympathy for these characters to the point where it becomes familial love and then utterly crush them and, by extension, you” two-step as you'll see. That might not sound fun, and honestly it's not, but it's still a very good movie with some truly astonishing performances, particularly by Sakura Ando as the mother of the family.
9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers Promise: Your Mileage WILL Vary. (For the record, they're my boys, but I wholly realize why they aren't yours, if they're not yours.)
8. Black Panther
This is probably as good as the MCU movies are ever going to get. And a few of the others have been pretty good recently (like Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok) but Ryan Coogler is a once-in-a-generation pop filmmaker, and he nails this. And, while it may be extratextual, no other movie this year clicked with the culture at large the way Black Panther did. People were saying “Wakanda Forever” for months. Chadwick Boseman had to do the two-armed salute so often his shoulders almost fell off. On a strictly personal level, though, the war rhinos were what really got me. I'm sitting there trying to think some shit like “this is kind of rote structurally” and “is this great cinema or is it just expensive?” and then those fucking war rhinos came through and my mind went blank and I was like, “cool!” Hey, it happens.
7. The Rider
Here for the next few decades of Chloe Zhao. This might be the best ensemble of non-professional actors I've ever seen. Yes, better than [whatever movie you skeptically come back at me with].
6. Support the Girls
The fuck is wrong with you? SUPPORT THEM.
5. Madeline's Madeline
Helena Howard's performance in this is really great stuff, if only because playing a character who's kind of an asshole without losing the audience is beyond a lot of really talented actors, but she does that with one hand tied behind her back while doing all kinds of other fascinating stuff. (Also, much like with Sorry to Bother You, this one touched my “weird performance art theater” memories, so I obligingly fulfilled my duty as the target audience with a best-of nod. Josephine Decker, where ya been all my life?)
4. Leave No Trace
Debra Granik coming through like an old friend. Two perfect lead performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, and it deals with trauma and its generational inheritance about as well as you can. Also, like Shoplifters, very much a “fuck the police” movie.
3. Paddington 2
The most pleasant surprise in movies the last few years is that somehow, someone made two Paddington movies that were each as sublimely perfect as the old books. Do you know how hard it is to compete with fuzzy childhood memories from when your brain was Play-Doh and thought everything was perfect? That's right: very. If that level of praise is too daunting, let this be reassurance: both movies, and particularly this one, were seemingly made as if they knew everyone had been hyping them up incessantly to you, and the first thing they do is reassure you. These movies are pure and wonderful.
2. First Reformed
The essential Paul Schrader film: a lonely man, struggling with religion and existential terror, gets horny and then goes fucking apeshit. This time it's a minister (Ethan Hawke) of a small congregation in upstate New York, whose despair at the looming threat of apocalyptic climate change collides with deeply repressed sexuality and frustration with the corporate megachurch that controls his own. All I'll say is this: I'm actually sorry Ethan Hawke isn't going to win an Oscar for this, and if you remember the days when it was illegal to get laid in 38 states unless you looked like him, you know this is a big deal for me, who did not, in the interests of full disclosure, look like Ethan Hawke at the time.
1. The Other Side of the Wind
Speaking of upset victories, the only thing that could knock First Reformed out of my #1 spot this year was a new Orson Welles movie. The first few minutes of this were rough, being edited like a late-period Orson Welles movie (analogy: not found), but like late-period Welles, and, frankly all other period Welles, once you get on its level, there's just nothing else. I swear Welles spends a full hour just flat-out teabagging Antonioni in this, with the help of co-writer/producer Oja Kodar, who was clearly in on the idea that she be nude for, like, ever. Peter Bogdanovich is running around doing Jimmy Stewart and Jerry Lewis impersonations. John Huston is a fucking tesseract; he's playing himself and Welles and Hemingway and the concept of historiography, and he makes that shit look good. The story of how it got made is the stuff of legend: all the residuals from those wine commercials and shit went right into the movie, and the Iranian revolution in 1979 was involved, and arms dealers. In summary: Orson Welles automatically made everything around him 25% more interesting. And only Orson Welles could shoot from the late 60s to the mid 80s and somehow make the perfect 2018 film. Long live the king.