At last. At long last, we can put 2018 to bed. We've talked about the worst of the year. We've talked about the music. We’ve rued grave errors in judgment. Now we finally come to the end game; what were my absolute favorite films of the year? Let's find out together.
Standard rules, as always- any film that got its first theatrical OR festival release in either Germany or the US over the course of 2018 is eligible for consideration. It was a great, great year, so my list is by no means definitive. There was a lot of stuff worth seeing I just couldn't fit here. I gave it my all though.
10. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
Boots Riley's directorial debut was about as splashy, aggressive, and in-your-face as it gets, and I loved it. I will ruin none of the film's utterly bonkers twists, but suffice it to say that Riley held nothing back, and the film is better off because of it. Every performance across the board is staggeringly good; Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson continue to take the world by storm, we’re treated to a smorgasbord of great Afro-American acting; Donny Glover and Terry Crews and Rosario Dawson and Omari Hardwick and more and more. And to top it all off, oh my God, I am so happy to have Arnie Hammer back in my life.
David Cross is ridiculously perfect as Stanfield's "white voice;" in a just world, the simple fact of how well they mesh with each other would lay to rest any lingering notions that voice-acting is not a craft as worthy of recognition as "on-screen" performances. As you will soon see, it was just one of many of the year's great films that earned the moniker of being "topical," but no others took quite the angle this film did. In a year full of challenging films, Sorry To Bother You dared more than most even dreamed.
9. Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard)
This remains the biggest surprise of the year for me. I had no idea what to expect going in, at most hoping for a fun, pulpy two hours at the movies. What I got was a masterfully atmospheric rocket-launch into the color-pallete of the 60's that threw mystery yarns and parlor dramas together with gleeful abandon, and that also brought Cynthia Erivo into my world. I love films that tell me just a little bit about their worlds, then leave me grasping for more; the El Royale might be the most interesting original settings for a film since the haunted mansion from Crimson Peak. Like most of the films on this list, the ensemble cast is an absolute treat, from Erivo's hardtack singer, to Chris Hemsworth trying his damndest to make the camera cum, to Jeff Bridges being, well, Jeff Bridges. It's slick, it's steamy, it's bloody, and it's damn good.
8. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Spike Lee is back, and seems determined to make a fool out of those in the Academy who figured he was at “Honorary Lifetime Achievement” stage just a few short years ago. His latest joint, like Chi-Raq before it, is a hard-hitting look at the ugliness of American racial politics, but ultimately ends up stronger for being more focused in its storytelling. I could watch John David Washington and Adam Driver team up forever, given that they are able to make something as banal as turning around in a chair one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years. Topher Grace is absurdly perfect as David Duke, in one of the year’s best bits of stunt-casting. As funny as the film is, though, it knows how to hit hard where needed, including a remarkably edited scene splicing together a speech by an actual Civil Rights veteran and a Klan viewing of Birth of a Nation, and a final sequence that gave us one of 2018’s most essential gut punches.
7. Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz)
This Israeli film about a soldier, his family, and a tragic case of mistaken identities, is one of the most precisely and thoroughly shot movies of the year, with Roma being one of the few that can match it. Every movement, every setup, every step of the characters, is so carefully measured. And for a film that only has a few settings, and very little in the way of “action,” it packs in an incredible amount of commentary on father/son dynamics, the legacies of generational trauma, the absurdities of modern bureaucracy, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and so, so much more. Rarely has a simple dance managed to contain so much symbolic power.
6. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
The best comedy of the year, hands down, and one that packed in a hell of a lot of sociopolitical commentary to boot. Of course, what else would you expect from the creator of In the Loop and Veep? The cast list is practically an Avengers lineup of middle-aged British talent (plus Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor), and they hit every note. What really got me, though, was just how much fine detail of the actual historical record surrounding Stalin’s death got worked into the film. Seriously, check out History Buff’s breakdown of the film, it’s really amazing. Brilliant parlor comedy, smartly-executed historical accuracy, and a wealth of relevant commentary on dictatorship and the circular, murderous logic of the cult? Sign me up.
5. The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (Masaaki Yuasa)
Japan can always be counted on to provide the world of animation with a reminder of just how boundless its possibilities are, and this year, that trip came courtesy of Masaaki Yuasa. The film with a mouth-masher of a title about a hard-drinking girl, her admirer, and a whole city’s worth of utterly bonkers side characters was one of the year’s funnest rides, a world of random possibility contained within a night that never seemed to end. I shall say nothing more, except that you owe it to yourself to see this gem if you like fun of any sort.
4. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
This was so much more than just a movie. Yes, it’s easily the best film yet in the Marvel canon, and one of the best films of 2018. Yes, it set box office records and was ground-breaking in being the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture, the first blockbuster film helmed and casted by a predominantly black cast. But it was even more than that. This was a genuine cultural event, on par with Avatar, The Dark Knight, or Return of the King. And it earned it: Ryan Coogler delivered us a massive, sprawling epic of a hero’s journey, a classic tale revitalized and reborn through fulcrum of Afrofuturism. Amazing costumes, production designs, and music, great action, plus one of the year’s best powerhouse casts; you name it, this film had it.
3. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
Cuarón- indeed, all of the Three Amigos- have staked a claim to being among the greatest living filmmakers, and Roma does nothing but add to that. This is as close to perfect, whatever that is, as films get. There is a reverence for the people we see that suffuses the entire film, and it is so beautiful to experience. It’s been extremely refreshing to see the way black-and-white filmmaking has re-established itself over the past decade, as it provides a unique way to clarify the details of each and every shot. Roma takes full advantage of that, bringing us into a fairy tale of nostalgia that is bitter, harsh, and painful, but still, somehow, hopeful.
2. Taste of Cement (Ziad Kalthoum)
It’s for experiences like this that I go to the movies. For those times when something so profound, so utterly unique, hits me out of nowhere. There is a special sort of appreciation for a film that you go into knowing nearly nothing about beyond, perhaps, one trailer, that turns out to be a true gem. With the oversaturation of news, predictions, and analysis that has deluged the world of film criticism the past few decades, it’s become impossible to experience most films this way, but there are still a few out there, waiting to be discovered by the enterprising soul. Taste of Cement, a quasi-documentary about refugee construction workers in Lebanon, is one such film.
The series of images the film uses to convey states of mind, dream sequences, moods, and ideas of societal alienation, is unlike anything else I can remember seeing. Can a deconstruction of the senseless harm of war get any simpler than a shot of a refugee sleeping on a cot, overlaid on footage of falling bombs? Or explosions on the news reflected on the scarred, hardened eyes those watching it? There are no words that truly capture such horrors. But there are images that can, to a degree.
And now, DRUMROLL PLEASE….
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Bob Persichetti)
Yep. No two ways about it, there was no other movie this year that hit every possible one of my sweet spots quite like this one. Solid writing, amazing characters, slick action, a slew of jokes, the year’s best soundtrack, and to top it all off, gorgeous and groundbreaking animation; like Black Panther, this movie went beyond just being one of the best ever of its genre to being one of the best, period. I could spend hours and pages going into what I love about this movie- and I already have- so in the interest of not being repetitive I will restrain myself here. Put simply- there are so many reasons this film is my hands-down favorite of the year, I can’t even count them. It’s just so damn good. What a year it’s been.