It was a year of triumphant returns—for Barry Jenkins, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Schrader, Joel and Ethan Coen, Steve McQueen, Pawel Pawlikowski, Spike Lee, Marielle Heller, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Orson Welles (!), and, of course, Paddington. And, it was a time in which new(ish) voices asserted their authority. Consider the likes of Boots Riley, Chloé Zhao, Paul Dano (and co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan), Ari Aster, and, yes, Bradley Cooper. Any cinemagoer who calls 2018 a disappointment simply was not looking hard enough.
Interestingly, my own top ten list features four foreign language films and two “kids” films. These categorizations are flawed, of course. Language makes no difference here, and anyone who considers Paddington 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to be kid-only movies is certainly close-minded. So let’s dispense with the categories and merely say that listed here are 10 gems (and five honorable mentions) that struck me as bold, original, breathtaking films to remember–and to watch again.
Widows, Sorry to Bother You, Wildlife, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, and Annihilation
10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the seventh big-screen entry for Marvel’s beloved webslinger, is the only animated film this year that can comfortably fit on the top 10 list for a 10-year-old superhero junkie and a paunchy, late-thirtysomething film critic. Thanks to a stellar creative team (including directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, as well as co-producers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord), Into the Spider-Verse is the finest superhero film in a year that featured some pretty darn good ones. Here is a superhero film that feels utterly fresh, offering stunning animation, legit humor, and the most likable onscreen Spidey yet. While there are moments that recall some of the character’s greatest big-screen adaptations, Spider-Verse swings to its own bold beat.
9. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
It hurts to watch the films of Yorgos Lanthimos—emotionally, yes, but there are times when one can almost feel the physical pain endured by the characters on screen. In the case of The Favourite (as well as The Lobster and Dogtooth), this is a compliment. The Favourite is a film of repellant behavior, 18th-century grime, and utter degradation. It is also gleefully hilarious and luridly intoxicating. Featuring career-best performances from Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as her closest friend and confidante, and Emma Stone as the servant who comes between them, The Favourite practically dares the viewer to turn away—and knows there’s little chance of that happening.
8. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, adapted from a Murakami short story, takes its time to unfold. Indeed, there are stretches in which it is nearly impossible to know where the story of an aimless young adult, the girl who mesmerizes him, and her wealthy, enigmatic friend will go next. The answers make this Tom Ripley-esque tale one of the year’s most unsettling experiences. Highlighted by Steven Yeun’s performance as Ben, an unnervingly confident frienemy, Burning is half-class study, half-modern masculinity-nightmare. After this masterpiece of psychological cinema, you’ll never look at a greenhouse the same way again.
7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Netflix release of the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen probably meant The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was destined to be underrated. However, that should not be the case. It is too early to say whether Buster Scruggs is top-tier Coens, but there is not doubt the Old West anthology is every bit as accomplished as, say, True Grit and Hail, Caesar! The six stories that comprise the film are simultaneously funny, harrowing, moving, and sour. “What’s your favorite Buster Scruggs segment?” could be Film Twitter’s “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” Suffice to say, I cannot stop thinking about “The Gal Who Got Rattled” (especially the performances of Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck) and the bitter, haunting “Meal Ticket.” The ending of the latter… my goodness.
6. Paddington 2 (Paul King)
Paddington 2 is a genuine delight, a sequel that improves upon its (very good) predecessor. It is also the rare family film that has appeal for everyone in the family. As with 2014’s Paddington, director Paul King has zeroed in on the inherent magic of Michael Bond’s classic stories while incorporating scores of Wes Anderson-esque sight gags. Plus, there is a game cast of British heavyweights—Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, and, this time around, a superb Hugh Grant—and gorgeous London locations. Most of all, there is the titular bear himself, a wondrous CGI creation sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw. It is not hyperbolic to call Paddington one of the most adorably life-like computer-animated characters in cinema.
5. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
In a year of beautiful, painful love stories, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War ranks near the top. The Polish director’s follow-up to 2015 Oscar-winner Ida is a 1950s-era drama about the multi-year love between a singer (a stunning Joanna Kulig) and the musical director (Tomasz Kot) who discovered her. The characters undergo dramatic physical and emotional changes during the course of the film, culminating in an unforgettable final scene. Pawlikowski has solidified his place among the world’s most talented filmmakers.
4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
The most heartstopping, suspenseful moment in 2018 cinema is also one of the quietest. It occurs near the end of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning drama, Shoplifters. A secret is revealed that shakes the foundations of all we’ve seen before, and leads the audience to rethink how this offbeat, poverty-stricken family of shoplifters should be viewed. Kore-eda, the director of Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, excels at this type of emotional detonation. With Shoplifters, he has made his most devastatingly powerful film to date.
3. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
Who would’ve expected that 2018 would see the release of Paul Schrader’s greatest achievement as a director? After a number of years in the wilderness—The Canyons, The Dying of the Light, and Dog Eat Dog are undeniably fascinating, but none are classic Schrader—the writer-director roared back with First Reformed. With a career-best Ethan Hawke in the lead, Schrader deftly explored some of his recurring thematic concerns. But in this, the story of a small-town pastor drawn to a similarly sad pregnant woman, Schrader found an opportunity to make the most psychologically probing, dramatically profound film of his career. First Reformed also ranks among the most spiritually insightful motion pictures ever made.
2. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
There isn’t a stretch of 2018 cinema that is as emotionally affecting, dramatically powerful, and effortlessly beautiful as the last twenty or so minutes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The conclusion of the filmmaker’s heartfelt story of a wealthy family in early 1970s Mexico and its devoted housekeeper is not surprising, exactly; there are signals of what’s to come throughout. This Netflix-released, black-and-white masterpiece is the year’s strongest memoir, and ranks as Cuaron’s most mature effort to date. Roma is a staggering achievement, and one that will resonate with audiences for years to come—no matter how you watch it.
1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Comparing a director’s latest film to his or her previous effort is almost always unwise, or at least, a bit foolish. When both films are extraordinary achievements, however, pondering the works in tandem seems fruitful. This is certainly true when looking at Barry Jenkins‘ newest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, and his last, Moonlight. The latter deservedly took home an Oscar for Best Picture, and heralded Jenkins as a filmmaker whose empathetic touch knows no bounds. Now comes his James Baldwin adaptation, which reaches the same magnificent emotional register as Moonlight. Jenkins has written and directed an exquisite, timeless film about a place and historical period—Harlem in the 1970s—that feels painfully connected to the present. It is a film both tender and tough, with a time, a place, and a story to lose oneself in. Sublime in its depiction of an emotional connection and subtle in its layers of systematic oppression, Beale Street is a major work from a filmmaker whose gifts are clearly boundless. It is undoubtedly the finest film of 2018.
Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018