Thursday, January 10, 2019

Top 15 Films of 2018

Certain years are better for movies than others. In fact, there have been a few years when I’ve struggled to think of 10 worthy films to highlight in my year-end list. But 2018 started strong early, and kept delivering solid movies from talented filmmakers. And while a number of the most talked about films from this year didn’t fully work for me, here are the movies from 2018 that hit me the hardest.

15. Mid90s
directed by Jonah Hill
I didn’t expect to be so moved by Mid90s. The scenes at home, in which a boy (Sunny Suljic) is mercilessly bullied by his older brother (Lucas Hedges, who had a great 2018) while their mother (Katherine Waterston) tries to keep it all afloat, were unexpectedly riveting. I appreciate Hill’s vision as a director, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

14. Custody
directed by Xavier Legrand
This French drama, which has echoes of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and The Past, showcases the fallout of a contentious custody battle. This is not any easy film to stomach, mostly because it avoids sensation and grounds itself in truth. How many women and children have to endure this kind of court-ordered torture?

13. Hereditary
directed by Ari Aster
Ari Aster made a horror film that is so unapologetically evil, I can’t help but be in awe of it. Hereditary is so unrelenting in its terror, that it reminded me of a modern day Rosemary’s Baby. And the shot of Toni Collette sneakily hiding on the ceiling of her son’s bedroom is one of the best shots in modern horror.

12. First Man
directed by Damien Chazelle
I loved everything about First Man. From its attention to detail about process, to its honest depiction of grief, to its astounding set pieces, which represented some of the finest technical filmmaking of the year. I wish audiences had connected to the film better, but I believe we’ll be talking about sequences from First Man for years to come.

11. Cold War
directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
What is it that draws us to someone we know we shouldn’t be with? Why do we keep coming back to this person, year after year, knowing that it won’t work? Because, maybe, it just will. Cold War is an honest and boldly cynical take on unrequited love. We don’t really see love stories told this way anymore, certainly not in 88 carefully crafted minutes.

10. Wildlife 
directed by Paul Dano
Where the hell was Wildlife? Why didn’t it get a larger release, more press, or serious awards attention? Dano’s directorial debut is one of the finest suburban dramas I’ve seen in years, largely because it is anchored by a complicated and fearless performance from Carey Mulligan. Wildlife is superb, confident independent cinema, and it deserved to be in the conversation.

9. First Reformed 
directed by Paul Schrader
First Reformed is unlike anything Paul Schrader has made. But it is not dissimilar to many of Schrader’s greatest artistic influences, including the work of Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Ozu and Dreyer. What’s so remarkable about First Reformed is that it creates its own unique world by paying homage to those master filmmakers, without being derivative of their work. Ethan Hawke deserves endless accolades for his career-best performance. What a painful, minimalist work of art this film is.

8. Vox Lux
directed by Brady Corbet
Vox Lux represents the kind of audacious independent filmmaking that I so admire. The film explores how emotional and physical trauma can haunt a person for the rest of their life, while also commenting on our culture’s insistence on treating pop stars like Gods. Why is it that certain artists can do no wrong in the public’s eye, despite doing shameful things in their personal lives, and releasing subpar work? Vox Lux is uncompromising in its vision, and in today’s film world, which is saturated with plots created by studio marketing teams, that’s enough for me to take notice.

7. Widows
directed by Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen is one of my favorite filmmakers, and his complex take on the heist flick is something the genre has needed for decades. The characters in the film (who collectively represent one of the year’s best ensembles) were never fully sure how they were going to pull their job off, but I so enjoyed the ride of figuring it out with them. Again, it’s a real shame that movies like Widows weren’t in the conversation more this year.

6. A Prayer Before Dawn
directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
A Prayer Before Dawn tells the true story of Billy Moore, an English boxer and drug addict who literally fought for his life while serving time in a Thai prison. The film displays the inhuman conditions of the prison so realistically, that it often feels like you’re watching a documentary (it was shot in Nakhon Pathom Prison in Thailand). I’ve only seen this film once, and certain images from it still haunt me. This is, without question, the most brutal film of 2018. I have no idea how Sauvaire pulled this off, because everything in it, much to our dread, feels so real.

5. The Favourite
directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Seriously, can Yorgos Lanthimos do any wrong? The man’s style is completely his own. From the lenses he uses, to his unique font choices, everything about The Favourite felt gloriously new. This movie is an absolute feast of visual wonderment, and its sardonic tone is something that cannot be replicated. I have no idea where Lanthimos will go from here, but let it be known that I am here for it.

4. If Beale Street Could Talk
directed by Barry Jenkins
“Chemistry” is a word thrown around a lot in film criticism, as a way to measure good performances. However, what Kiki Layne and Stephan James do in this film cannot be defined by that single word. From the first moment they appeared on screen together, I believed, without question, that these two people were soul mates. And what wouldn’t you do to ensure that your soul mate could be by your side? If Beale Street Could Talk is lavish filmmaking at its most refined. The cinematography, score, and performances work together in poetic harmony, making this a film that I plan on revisiting often.

3. A Star Is Born
directed by Bradley Cooper
A Star Is Born is the only film I saw in theaters three times this year, and for every minute of each of those viewings, it had me. Bradley Cooper took an age-old Hollywood love story and made it his own in a way I never anticipated. This film measures pain and bliss with equal weight, and I remain utterly transfixed by it. Cooper and Sam Elliot’s scenes together were my favorite acting moments of the year, and Lady Gaga’s rendition of “Shallow” is the kind of musical set piece that will play on highlight reels for decades to come. A remarkable film achievement that earned its immense praise.

2. Suspiria
directed by Luca Guadagnino
I often comment favorably on a film’s use of minimalism. On directors using less, whether by financial necessity or artistic choice, to execute their vision. A few directors named in this list did that this year, to great effect. But what about maximalism? What about replicating whatever bold carnage you can think of, throwing it against a wall, and letting it play out? What about making something so go-for-broke, so unapologetically over-the-top, that you create something huge in scope, but unique in style? That’s Suspiria, and I could not get enough of it. Abandon all faith, ye who enter here.

1. You Were Never Really Here
directed by Lynne Ramsay
Pain stays with you. You can try to chase it away, compartmentalize it, or expose it, but it’s always there. It’s how we react to our pain that helps make us who we are. And watching Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) respond to his complicated trauma in such a bold, antihero fashion made for the finest cinema I saw in 2018.

You Were Never Really Here is a surrealist masterpiece that continues to inspire me. It’s a movie completely void of artificial sentiment; instead, it is equipped with a level of pure artistry that is rarely matched. Its violence, unexpected poise, and complex execution make it a film that is undeterred by convention. I’ll never forget the first time I saw this movie, sitting in the mostly empty theater, utterly stimulated by every one of the film’s narrative choices. As I walked away from that screening, I roamed the streets in a daze, carefully trying to piece together what I had just seen.

You Were Never Really Here is the Taxi Driver of our time, a title I do not give it lightly. In my original review, I said I would continue to praise this film in my best of the year list, and, later, in my list of my favorite movies of the decade. See you next year, You Will Never Really Here. You can be damn sure you won’t be forgotten.

Ten More I Enjoyed (alphabetically)
Bad Times at the El Royale
The Kindergarten Teacher
Lean on Pete
The Rider
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


  1. I knew You Were Never Really Here would be on top as I'm already thinking about watching the film for my Cannes marathon this coming May.

    This was an alright year although there were too many films that came out that never played at my local multiplex as well as the fact that they came and went after a week. It sucked that there was a lot films that I wanted to see but they were gone after a week.

    Here is my list as of right now as I'm going to see If Beale Street Could Talk this coming Sunday.

    Any plans for the Best "Rotten" films of 2018 coming? I enjoy reading those. Heard you weren't fond of The Other Side of the Wind. I enjoyed it. Sorry it didn't work for you.

    1. Great list! I really wanted to like Roma. I really wanted to. But it just didn't work for me, which is perfectly fine. And I agree with you, this year, more than any other, so many notable films were in the theater for a week, then vanished. Burning, Shoplifters... by the time I even knew what those movies were, they were gone. A real shame, because they both sound great.

      Definitely doing a Rotten list this year. I'm so happy you enjoy that list. And that's weird... I don't remember talking down about The Other Side of the Wind publicly. How'd you hear that?!

    2. I remember reading one of your comments during the whole review on some Netflix films as you said you weren't fond of The Other Side of the Wind or something. I don't know. Maybe I misread it.

    3. Ohhh yeah that totally makes sense. I was so confused at first! But, yeah, duh, comment threads.

  2. A few of yours will also be on mind. So happy you mentioned Wildlife. I've been complaining about it's lack of awards love since I saw it.

    I'm holding off on my best list until I can Beale Street but it's nowhere in sight for my city's theaters. *heavy sigh*

    I saved Cold War in my Netflix queue. I've had Vox Lux saved there too, hopefully I can get my hands on those as well.

    1. I loved Wildlife! It deserved a much bigger release. And the very slow release of Beale Street is odd to me. The man's last movie won Best Picture! I just wish all these smaller movies were easier to see in theaters, but long-term theatrical distribution for indies just isn't really a thing anymore. But I do hope you enjoy Beale Street!

  3. Part of the reason I will hold back with my 2018 best list is because I've seen only a handful of the films in this list.. and I feel like last year I rushed into my lists and missed out on mentioning some surprises that I saw later on. Not this year! Which probably means my list will come out in like.. summer or something. :D

    1. I actually think that's really smart. My list definitely has some omissions, namely Burning and Shoplifters, neither of which I had heard of until they were long gone from theaters. It would be really interesting to sit on a list like this for a few months, so that you can see everything, but also so the hype dies down for certain movies. I look forward to reading yours!

    2. I guess the hype wearing down is the biggest issue.. but my blog traffic is slow anyway, so, doesn't really matter. :D

    3. Well you can be damn sure that I'll check it out when you post it!

  4. Wish I saw more of these. Surprised not to see Roma up here.

    Also -- did you see American Animals? Easily my favorite movie of the year.

    1. I really enjoyed American Animals, and I loved Evan Peters in it. And, man, the two movies I was most excited for in 2018 were Widows and Roma. So, yeah, I was surprised it wouldn't be on my list either.

  5. I haven't been keeping up with the movies released last year as much as i usually do, so there are still a ton i need to watch. I have only watched five of the movies on your list and i really want to watch the rest as well. Especially after reading your thoughts. Suspiria has been one of my most anticipated movies for a long time and i still haven't gotten a chance to check it out. But i still managed to cobble together my own top 15 so far list.

    15. Love, Simon
    14. Green Book (The movie itself was kind of predictable and bland, but the two main performances were so great i could look past that. I just loved spending time with them.)
    13. Leave No Trace
    12. The Sisters Brothers
    11. First Reformed (Ethan Hawke has never been better. The only reason this movie isn't higher is the ending.)

    10. Isle of Dogs
    9. A Quiet Place
    8. Hereditary (The only movie in years that actually gave me nightmares. No joke.)
    7. Eight Grade
    6. BlacKkKlansman

    5. A Star is Born
    4. Roma
    3. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (I debated with myself for a long time where to put this on the list, but in the end i just couldn't go any lower. This is the most fun i have had with an action movie in years and by far the best Mission Impossible movie since the first one.
    2. Annihilation
    1. You Were Never Really Here (These top two choices keep changing day to day, but i think Joaquin Phoenix's incredible performance is what nudges this just above Annihilation. It's a shame he most likely will be ignored at most major award shows this year. It's one of his best.)

    And like i said, there still are a ton of movies i need to watch like Suspiria, The Favorite, Mid90s, Widows, If Beale Street Could Talk and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

    1. Nice work! YWNRH, for the win. Love it. I really enjoyed Fallout and agree it's the best of the franchise since the first one. What a ride.

      Green Book, man, I thought it was a decent movie, but the amount of backlash that one is receiving is insane. I feel like one movie gets unjustly shit on every year, out of nowhere, and it seems like it's Green Book this year. So weird.

  6. Hahaha...this list is sunsurprisingly fantastic. I don't see a lot of good shit anymore, but I managed a few that made the cut.

    That said, I have to check out your number one. One of the smarter dudes I've ever met absolutely vouches for YWNRH, so that plus this means I'm just being an asshole at this point, you know?

    Great post, AW.

    1. Haha! Man, I always love your comments. YWNRH is one damn challenging film, but it is pretty short, so it won't take up too much of your time. I would LOVE to read a review of yours for that movie.

  7. Good lawd, am I way behind. I've only seen Hereditary from this list. I live that one so I'm not complaining too much. I just have a bunch of stuff to catch up on. Here's my top 10 out of what I did watch.

    1. Great list! And I totally understand being behind on lists like these. Some years, I debate to hold off for a few months, until I've seen damn near everything. I guess a list like this is never fully complete, you know? But I LOVED that The Kindergarten Teacher made your top 10.

  8. Would be fascinated to see a profile on Lynne Ramsay, sometime. While watching YWNRH I was struck immediately by how the economy of her photography during their incursion on the mansion echoed one of the final scenes of Robert Bresson's L'Argent. Dying to catch up on a lot of these (if also to forget a few others), especially Cold War.

    1. And I have to say its a real shame you've missed out on the free bumper sticker everyone's getting for sticking Roma at the top of their lists ;)

    2. Ha! But really, I would love to do a profile on Ramsay, because each of her films has meant so much to me. Morvern Callar has been a huge inspiration to my own filmmaking.

  9. Great list, as usual, Alex! Unfortunately, I haven't seen some of them, and they have been on my list for so long: The Favorite, If Beale Street can talk, You were never really here, First reformed, Wildlife. But I will probably catch up in the following weeks and months.
    Have you seen Roma? I have a feeling you would appreciate the filmmaking aspect of it, it's special, although definitely not a movie to be enjoyed by everyone.

    1. Thanks so much! I really hope you like all of those movies you listed. As for Roma... I cannot deny the visual power of that movie, but the narrative simply didn't work for me. I completely understand why it is so loved, but it just wasn't for me. And that is not how I expected to feel about it. Oh well!

  10. YWNRH didnt do much for me but First Reformed, The Favourite and ASiB are all in my top 5 so far. God I hope Malek wont beat Cooper and Hawke

    1. Three out of four ain't bad! And at this point, I'm not even sure Hawke will be nominated, which is baffling. How the hell is Malek even in the running?

  11. Wonderful list! I agree Mid90s is moving. The supporting characters are memorable which is not always the case with group movies.

    The new Suspiria was interesting by taking a simplistic horror and turning it into an arthouse film. Not many filmmakers have done that to my knowledge.

    Not a huge fan of Roma either as I feel the aesthetic(while stunning in its own right) distracts from the sadness on screen. Kind of the year of the self-indulgent filmmaker with The Other Side of the Wind, The House that Jack Built, and Roma all qualifying!

    1. Thanks Chris! I agree with everything in this comment. I cannot wait to buy Suspiria and watch that damn thing again (and again). What a head trip that movie was.

  12. You have one of the few lists that has Mid90s on it. Also, Suspiria is my #2 as well! And seeing You Were Never Really Here at #1 is lovely. Ramsay is one of my favorite filmmakers working today. I still need to see Burning and A Star Is Born before I release my list.

    1. Burning is the big missing piece from my list. I honestly had never heard of that movie, until it left theaters. And it was only in theaters near me for 1 week, so go figure. Mid90s... that movie surprised the hell out of me. I did not expect to like that film so much.

  13. I'm happy that you put Mid90s in your list (its soundtrack is great too). Also, the new Gus Van Sant's movie really touched me. Maybe it's a little sentimentalist, and it's true that we saw that kind of stories hundreds of times, but the permormances of Joaquin Phoenix and Jonah Hill really worked for me. It left me with a nice feeling.

    1. LOVED the music in Mid90s. I read that it was a late addition, and Hill realized he needed the music to punctuate certain moments. I really appreciate that. And I enjoyed Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot as well. A fine Van Sant film.

  14. Yes, You Were Never Really Here at #1!! I have it in 2017, and I keep going back-and-forth between it and Phantom Thread in the top spot (and Joaquin for Best Actor instead of DDL). What a film!

    I almost saw A Star is Born three times in theaters as well. (Saw it twice on opening weekend.) It was very high on my list, and now it's not even in my top 10. I need to give it another look.

    Thrilled to see A Prayer Before Dawn so high. Really dug that one.

    I wish I liked Suspiria. I'll give it another chance at some point, though.

    I still haven't seen Cold War War, Vox Lux, Custody, and The Kindergarten Teacher.

    Noticed the lack of Roma, which surprises me, but it's not on my list either, which also surprises me. Lol

    Great picks, man!

    1. I love what you said about Roma. Believe me man, I was surprised that it wasn't going to make my list. I was so excited for that film. And YES to another person who has seen and liked A Prayer Before Dawn!

  15. Alex, have always loved the inclusion of 15 for this year! Having looked at your honorable noms, which one would you say was number 16?

    1. Thanks man! And hmmm, that's a fun question. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is the only film there that I've seen twice, but I actually think I'd have to go with Unsane. I need to rewatch that again actually!

    2. Really enjoyed Unsane! Also didn't think Sicario 2 was a letdown like a lot of critics did, I love Del Toro's work in that ongoing series.

      As far as some currently right outside my developing 10 of 2018:
      Lean on Pete
      Into the Spiderverse
      Wildlife (recently watched)
      Minding the Gap
      The Rider
      Eighth Grade
      A Star is Born
      Sorry To Bother You
      Leave No Trace

      Hopefully you got around to Burning which I loved!

    3. Nice list there! I did appreciate Burning. It wouldn't have cracked my top 10, but I was really glad I saw it. And man, I hope they make Sicario 3. Doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar though.