2018 was my favorite year of cinema in the 21st Century. Best to get that kind of thing right out in the open, yes? I’d love to tease out a through-line that connects everything, but I don’t know that it’s worth it: it was the best year because it had a tremendously lopsided number of the best movies. Some pressed the boundaries of the medium; some simply did the same things we’ve been doing for 120 years, they just did them really damn well. Some told involving human stories, some were startling displays of pure visual and sonic spectacle, and in one very unlikely package (a comic book movie for children, rebooting a character for the fourth time in eleven years), it was both of those mixed in one. Given that basically everything in the world that isn’t movies has gone to hell and is getting worse, it’s nice to have one thing that’s genuinely as great as I can ever remember it being, whether confronting that world head-on, or providing some wholly alternative universe to explore for a couple of hours.
The Ten Best Films of 2018
2. The Green Fog
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse
5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
6. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl
7. 24 Frames
9. You Were Never Really Here
10. The Favourite
1. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, USA)
A film that feels like I’ve been waiting for it for my whole adult life. This is pure sensory overload, color and sound and music all combining to create a vision of heaven and hell and purgatory on Earth as filtered through the sensibility of a heavy metal band made up entirely of Mario Bava fans. The promised Nick Cage Kitsch is all present and accounted for, but turned into a primitive, expressionistic outpouring of pain and rage that goes far beyond anything resembling camp. It is a deeply, outrageously cinematic work, one in which the images and sound press do all the work of communicating feeling directly into the viewer, while the screenplay patiently sits to the side, offering a framework for the stylistic madness but never insisting upon itself. Pleasurably exhausting, moreso than anything I’ve seen in years.
2. The Green Fog (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson/Galen Johnson, USA)
An in-joke for cinephiles, the most pretentious YouTube joke video ever made; I suppose I can’t defend this on any level that doesn’t involve mentioning what a joy it is to watch, and of course that’s wholly subjective. Still, watching the filmmakers run their experiment in editing snotty jokes into the plot of Vertigo gave me a heady feeling like very little else I experienced this year in any form. It’s both a celebration and criticism of how cinema creates meaning through the cut that asks us to stop and think of how characters, scenes, and stories are built out of individual fragments; that it’s short and funny helps the medicine go down, but it’s still a challenge to the basics of cinematic perception that genuinely shocked me in its aggression, and what is better than being genuinely shocked?
3. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina/Spain/France/Brazil/USA)
When a great, but decidedly unprolific filmmaker releases a new feature, it’s always cause for celebration; when it also turns out to be her new masterpiece, it’s time to declare that cinema has been reborn, which is basically how I responded in real life to seeing Martel’s amazing modernist costume drama. Not one element of the deeply immersive sound mix nor the exquisite use of close-ups, nor the assertive, surprising narrative structure, is overlooked in creating a character study that doubles as a historical commentary on the corruption of colonialist systems which persist, in whatever mutated form, centuries later. It’s both engrossing living history, and a sharply contemporary social study, and the fact that it’s drily hilarious to watch is just icing on the cake.
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse (Bob Persichetti/Peter Ramsey/Rodney Rothman, USA)
The rarest of the rare: a film that did something genuinely new. Not in its story, which makes outstanding use of the knowledge that a 2018 audience has the superhero movie memorised, and so the time has come to start having fun by running it inside-out; but in its absolutely stunning, unprecedented aesthetic, which evoke the feeling of comics without sacrificing the particularities of the animation medium. The jokes are funnier, the world is richer, and the emotions are more soaring thanks to the cunningly-applied style, and when that’s paired with the best character study ever told in a superhero movie (even despite some extra-weird technobabble), what we have is pure magic, the most exquisite, triumphant movie-movie of 2018 and then some. Unmitigated bliss; even its hackneyed lightshow battle climax benefits from being an impossibly beautiful lightshow.
5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, USA)
Speaking of movie-movies: there’s a good possibility that this is my favorite collection of action setpieces ever assembled for one motion picture. When the much ballyhooed Tom Cruise HALO jump turns out to be, in context, a palette-cleanser that the movie itself seems to be bored by, it speaks well to the litany of marvels to follow, in all genres: gun fights, fist fighters, car chases, foot chases, motorcycle chases, helicopter chases, the last of which somehow manages to leave the film ending on its highest note, despite it being comprised almost entirely of high notes. Look for no deeper meaning: this film is all about the raw, unfathomable pleasure of watching human bodies moving impossibly, captured for our gawking amazement by people whose solitary concern is that we remain in constant awe of the sheer grandeur of kinesis. In other words, exactly the stuff that cinema was invented for.
6. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (Yuasa Masaaki, Japan)
The surest sign of what a monumental year it’s been for cinema is that this extraordinary, radical achievement was neither my favorite animation of the year, nor did it even make my top 5. The greatest work by the great Yuasa is, by any stretch of the imagination, one of the great accomplishment in animation of the decade: an evocation of the freedom and terror and lustiness of adolescence that erupts from every gorgeous, weird image, turning the picaresque story into a fantasia of places and sensations felt as a explosion of lines and color. One of the only films I have seen where I have to remind myself to mention the ten-minute guerilla romantic musical sequence, because there’s so much going on that it’s somehow not obviously the most ludicrous, exhiliarting thing on display. Pure cartoon candy, sweet and hilarious and wildly epic and liberating.
7. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France)
If we must lose our greatest filmmakers, what better to have as a final film than 24 miniature declarations about the fundamental nature of cinema? The second experimental film on this list (and the last, I promise) is one of the most literal interpretations of the phrase “motion picture” imaginable, watching silently as activity happens in front of a still camera, while appropriate, but apparently unattached soundscapes play out. As it develops, recurring elements of composition start to take on greater and greater importance, until the last couple of shots feel that they have all the weight of an epic poem. A celebration of the way that image and sound combine to make emotion, and the way that many images and sounds all in a row demand that we place a narrative atop them, it’s a surprisingly relaxing and dreamy experience, and a wonderful final statement from a true genius.
8. Annihilation (Alex Garland, UK/USA)
A brazen and bold attempt to do Art Sci-Fi of an old stripe; Kubrick and Tarkovsky are enormously obvious touchstones. But there’s more to it than Garland showing off that he likes good movies. The film’s extravagant, gorgeous visuals have an omnipresent aura of sickly decay that prevents this from simply being a big spectacle; it’s a cryptic tone poem about the awareness of death lurking everywhere, both in the the great wideness of the unknown, and in the silent comfort of a single house. Natalie Portman (who had a great, underappreciated year between this and Vox Lux) brings a wounded, haunted center to the film that ground everything, and even makes the wild ending feel totally comprehensible emotionally, if not necessarily in terms of “what the fuck happened”.
9. You Were Never Really Here (Lynn Ramsay, UK/France/USA)
A splendid assault on the senses by a filmmaker that we are, as a culture, way too inclined to take for granted. Joaquin Phoenix is at his best playing a man without a center doing whatever he can to fake it; unlike many filmes about wonded, traumatised men, this doesn’t try to make his condition legibile from the outside, but wrench us apart by placing us inside of his head, and getting lost in the void we find there. The exemplary sound mix and cinematography create a hideously beautiful world for that void to suck in, and while this is in some ways an artistic dead end of a film – it is the one film on this list most guilty of being bleak for the sake of bleakness – it’s so overwhelming as a physical experience to watch it, in some ways even more wholly, viscerally involving than Mandy, that I will praise any and all such dead ends for hitting such glorious brick walls.
10. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland/UK/USA)
To lighten the mood, a comedy: here is what happens when awful people are pointlessly abusive to other awful people. Put that in period dress and deck it out with the delectably acidic, clipped dialogue of Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script, and we have the most savagely funny film of the year; we also have the most sober and troubling story of what people in love will do to hurt their lovers, often for no real reason than because they forget not to. It’s probably the friendliest, easiest Lanthimos film to date, which tells us a lot about Lanthimos; by any other standards in existence, this warped vision of bug-eyed wide shots, and exaggerated, psychologically-motivated costumes in a version of history that is wholly inaccurate but also precisely right is a daunting affront to decency, and God bless it.
One Great Film Ineligible for Reasons of Being 40-Plus Years Old
The Other Side of the Wind
10. Peter Rabbit (Will Gluck, UK/Australia/USA)
Distastefully cruel slapstick and a whole lot of dumb pop song interludes meet in a film that seems tailor-made to offend anyone who ever had a kind thought about Beatrix Potter, or cinema generally. The film’s unanticipated box office success still makes me slightly heartbroken
9. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (David Yates, UK/USA)
It’s easy to complain about the narcotic quality of movie-as-product filmmaking, but one of the things it’s usually good at is putting a lower bound on how bad a movie can actually be. Such is not the case here: the tenth film in the Harry Potter franchise has somehow lost all vestiges of quality control: the script is inept and it seems to have dragged down almost all of the acting and craftsmanship with it.
8. Holmes & Watson (Etan Cohen, USA)
It wouldn’t have ever been good, but it probably could have felt like less of a mummified time capsule if it hadn’t spent so many years languishing in development hell. The lazy anachronisms are merely the most visible of the many ways in which the film’s shallow notions of comedy result in an entirely unwatchable slog.
7. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston, USA)
Bafflingly ugly and confusing. Christmas is the time for gild and gingerbread and whathaveyou, but this excruciatingly overdesigned take on fantasy boilerplate is even more garish than it is dully-plotted, and it is real dull.
6. Mile 22 (Peter Berg, USA)
Rotten on fundamentals: there is no structure, no rhythm, not even clear editing to show off the excellent stuntwork that is the film’s solitary aesthetic justification. Even more rotten in its junky authoritarian politics, which are just mean without even the appeal of being frantic.
5. Show Dogs (Raja Gosnell, UK/USA)
Atrocious CGI animals talking with pop culture references that are ten years out-of-date is a well-established branch of bad cinema, so it takes quite a lot to make it stand out. Luckily, Gosnell is an expert at this sort of thing, and so we get a new low in a genre for which the highs are still hatefully mediocre. Makes dogs do the most repulsive things.
4. Slender Man (Sylvain White, USA)
Bad horror is always a drag; bad horror that aspires to artistry is somehow even worse. A needlessly convoluted and busy version of what should absolutely not be difficult to at least carry off with some gloomy atmosphere. And special shame for the appalling editing that leaves the film feel like nothing but dog ends of scenes.
3. Life Itself (Dan Fogelman, USA)
I presume that Dan Fogelman is himself a human, which makes it hard to understand why he understands so little about how the species works. Godawful tonal shifts and a merciless indifference to letting us form emotional bonds to the characters are the worst parts of a film with no good parts
2. Gotti (Kevin Connolly, USA)
Cartoon Eye-talian gargoyles find themselves navigating an incomprehensible slurry of chronologically aimless plot beats. Just about the only thing that can be determined with confidence is that the filmmakers think a very bad and very stupid man is very admirable.
1. Proud Mary (Babak Najafi, USA)
Actively incompetent in ways I did not realize that movies made by professionals who had money could be incompetent. Editing, sound recording, cinematography are all hapless; the script can’t even keep its trite “hitman goes good” story legible on a human level. Fundamentally wastes Taraji P. Henson in a caricature of steely resolve.
The wine mom thriller genre hasn’t so far turned out anything particularly memorable, and Paul Feig making a serious movie sounded obviously bad. To the second point, A Simple Favor is secretly a comedy, and a great one. To the first point, it turns out that camp is a much better approach to this material than sincerity, and the pile-up of trashiness is breezy in the able hands of a terrific cast. Taps into a snotty vein of ’60s Euro-chic that I didn’t know people still did, and from there becomes one of the year’s most pleasurably stylish exercises in attitude.
Last year, I put Alien: Covenant in this spot, and noted that it was pretty fucking dumb of me to have had any expectations of it being good. The Alien films and the Predator films having long been yoked, I think there’s something beautiful that I will now say that yes, I had fairly high hopes for The Predator, and yes, it was pretty fucking dumb of me. Again.
Best Popcorn Movie
Already said my bit about Mission: Impossible – Fallout up above, so I’ll just reiterate that the film ends with Tom Cruise piloting a helicopter through canyons, and I can’t help you if that’s not something that rings your bells.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom sure is fucking dumb, has a bloated and badly-shaped plot, and commits all the sins of all the sequels in its dodgy franchise. And yet. “Haunted house movie with a Frankensteinian dinosaur who acts like a silent melodrama villain” hits so many of my buttons all at once, and everything about the film’s final third makes up for anything I might possibly have to say against the first two.
Spike Lee is one of the great cinephiles among great filmmakers, and the crowning moment of BlacKkKlansman is one only a film historian could have imagined: using cross-cutting, the great legacy of 1915’s notorious The Birth of a Nation, to demonstrate the deeply poisonous impact of that film by comparing hooting, screaming white supremacists watching the movie with a peaceful, poetic gathering of African-American activists. Form as politics in a year when way too many wannabe political films were bland wordy splotches.
The post-credits scene in Vice, at which point the director of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues tells us that we’re moral degenerates for enjoying Fast & Furious movies. As the punctuation mark to a film that has had nothing but contempt for the audience’s intelligence, it’s agonising.
Wolf Blitzer, Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Using real news personalities as characters in a fiction is something that has drifted into the background over the years; Blitzer appearance as a simulated version of himself indulges in that cliché while also pointing out how ridiculous and even dangerous it is. A blissful start to a blissful movie.
“I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just the human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.”
-Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, written by Joel & Ethan Coen
“The most unreliable narrator is life itself.”
-Many people, Life Itself, written by Dan Fogelman
Support the Girls
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Striking enough on its own merits as an image, but what I especially love about it is how well it speaks to the themes of the film. Collin and Miles are good friends, united by birth and life and divided by race, and the way they are fragmented and interwoven is a beautiful visual suggestion of the way that they complete each other, but also fundamentally don’t exist in the same space
Best Teaser Poster
The graphic simplicity of the layout is appealing all on its own, even if a giant “S” isn’t really reflective of anything. What I really love, though, is the blood: thick and clotty and somehow a realer-than-real color, suggesting the violence and the heightened reality of the remake.
Badly photoshopped collages of people who obviously did not all inhabit the same space at the time the photos were taken are nothing new in trailers – particularly romcom trailers, a genre prone to extremely bad advertising. Generally speaking, though, those posters do not call attention to how bad they look by further subdividing all of the portions of the collage into little squares, practically insisting that we notice the seams. Chris O’Dowd is the obvious problem here, towering over the other character for no reason, but Rose Byrne’s face is the part that really makes me feel queasy when I try to focus on it.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Basically a sizzle reel, promising snapshots of all the marvelous stunts to come, but what pushes it from “good job selling me a movie I already wanted to see” to “pop art masterpiece” is the music, hinting at the franchise’s iconic theme without giving us too much of it, and propelling all of that wonderful footage with dramatic fatalism. Routinely better than whatever film it screened in front of, and a constant comfort in the first half of the year.
The Happytime Murders
Of course, it doesn’t help that it was trying to advertise a bad movie, but The Happytime Murders itself wasn’t nearly this repulsive. The silly string orgasm joke is the very worst thing that happens in the feature; giving it such a loving position in the ad campaign is a profoundly bad idea, and I suspect did more than just about anything else could have to murder any interest anybody had in this project.
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2018
A Page of Madness (Kinugasa Teinosuke, 1926)
Cluny Brown (Ernest Lubitsch, 1946)
Sound of the Mountain (Naruse Mikio, 1954)
Two Rode Together (John Ford, 1961)
Kwaidan (Kobayashi Masaki, 1964)
The Spider’s Stratagem (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
Chinese Roulette (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1976)
Duelle (Jacques Rivette, 1976)
Legend of the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
After Life (Kore-eda Hirokazu, 1998)