Posted January 31, 2019 

I'm constantly in utter disbelief by how many film fans and critics said that the year that was one of the worst in recent memory for quality releases.

I couldn't categorically disagree more with them. 

I thought 2018 was riddled with releases of rich and eclectic variety, some of which were the product of veteran directors, some by novice directors, many by female directors, but they all shared the commonality of representing the best offerings that I had the pleasure of experiencing over the last twelve months.  In actuality, and as was the case in previous years, I saw so many upper echelon films in 2018 that disseminating them down to a grouping of ten was a frustratingly difficult task for me.  This has led to me expanding upon a TOP 10 FILMS list with a greater TOP 25, which affords me the opportunity to pay respect to those entries that couldn't quite crack the TOP 10, but were nevertheless highly worthy of inclusion in the larger discussion of cinematic greatness in 2018.  This year was so good for high end releases that I even found myself procrastinating about which films should be left off of the TOP 25.  That's a good kind of problem, I guess, but a greater reflection of how solid last year was for the movies. 

In short, it didn't suck as much as many believe it did.

As I strive for every year with these lists, I aim for rich variety with my choices.  That, and my list of the TOP 10 FILMS OF 2018 are just that...they are my choices, and no one else's.  Two fact based historical dramas made the cut, as well as a musical remake.  Three films made by female directors respectively are here (so, for those saying that there are simply not enough good films made by women to warrant awards season nominations...yeah...I call bull shit).  Finally, there's a film from a first time director (and former YouTube star) on the list, and arguably one of the greatest late sequels in a franchise ever made. 

So, below is my TOP TEN FILMS OF 2018, followed by 15 very worthy runner up picks. 
 

 
 

1.   BLACKKKLANSMAN

 

I'm choosing Spike Lee's BLACKkKLANSMAN as the best film of 2018, mostly because - unlike the others listed below - it was a terrific mainstream entertainment with mass appeal that also worked as a great and important film with timely themes that spoke to racial injustices both past and present. 

It's arguably Lee's finest effort in over twenty years too in telling a truly bizarre, but absolutely true story of an early 1970s undercover African American police officer that decided to infiltrate his local KKK cell and destroy it from the inside out, via the assistance of his white partner.  Lee has certainly made a career out of making racially charged dramas that pushed all kinds of buttons, and the manner that he relayed the absurdity and horrors of this reality based tale of yesteryear by holding up a mirror to our current divisive times gave BLACKkKLANSMAN an added incendiary bite.  Equal parts thought provoking, politically charged, darkly comical, and hauntingly relevant, Lee's historical drama examined the attitudes of the 70's and juxtaposed them with contemporary ills, which makes this film all the more powerful on a level of hard hitting and frightening immediacy.  Lee's never been known as a subtle filmmaking, but his propulsive methodology displayed here was just the right needle to the heart that the film world needed last year.

2.  ROMA

Alfonso Cuaron previously made the positively spellbinding sci-fi thriller GRAVITY and, previous to that, made one of the best dystopian dramas of all time in CHILDREN OF MEN.  The Oscar winning director is clearly one unafraid of genre challenge, and his latest effort in ROMA - a period drama, shot in lush black and white and loosely based on his own upbringing in Mexico City - was a bold and miraculous achievement for the acclaimed cinematic maestro.  

The Netflix produced film - which should be seen on the big screen for proper immersive effect - could not be anymore different than his previous two, done with simple, but nevertheless masterful stokes as a stunningly authentic portrait of a live-in maid (played in a spellbinding and Oscar worthy performance by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actress before taking the role) working for a middle class family in 1970s Mexico City.  ROMA emerged as Cuaron's most thoughtfully personal film in terms of capturing the intoxicating microcosm of this family unit while, at the same time, showing the larger political and social upheaval of the era.  Visually arresting and replete with painterly imagery (Cuaron served as his own cinematographer) and containing a free flowing narrative that evoked the spontaneity of life, ROMA was a beautifully told story of domesticity; it told a small story with the broadest of brush strokes, and it deeply moved and will stay with me for an awfully long time.  

3.  FIRST MAN

Damien Chazelle's FIRST MAN - his latest film after winning the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND - told the story of the build up to the Apollo 11 moon landing on July of 1969, during which time Neil Armstrong become a living legend in the annals of exploration history by becoming the first human being to step foot on the lunar surface.    What made this historical drama so endlessly compelling wasn't in its portrait of the early days of NASA and their years of intense planning - and hellish setbacks - that led to Armstrong walking on the moon, but rather in how intimately it honed in on humanizing Armstrong by focusing on the trials and tribulations he faced to achieve a first for the human race.  Even better, FIRST MAN emerged as one of the grittiest and most breathtakingly realistic portrayals of space travel ever committed to celluloid.  And helping lead the charge was Ryan Gosling (re-teaming with Chazelle after LA LA LAND) in his brilliantly understated portrayal of this iconic hero as a man of unimpeachable mental and physical iron that also had his share of uncertainties and vulnerabilities.  Gosling made Armstrong more of a flesh and blood man of intelligence, perseverance, and, yes, self doubt versus a mythologized version of this historical figure that's easily propped up for instant hero worship.   

FIRST MAN was far better than most critics gave it credit for (and how audiences stayed clear of it remains a frustrating mystery), but with it and WHIPLASH and LA LA LAND Chazelle has clearly entered the directorial elite.  No question.

 

4.  EIGHTH GRADE

One of the more sublime surprises of last year was Bo Burham's EIGHTH GRADE, the 27-year-old rookie director's auspicious feature film debut that chronicled the awkward and anxiety plagued transition of one young teen girl making her way from elementary to high school.  

What made this drama all the more potent and invigorating was that it was painted with such heartfelt authenticity.  Watching EIGHTH GRADE was akin to viewing a documentary: It attained a level of stark realism with its damaged main character and showed her at her most emotionally fragile.  It's so rare to watch a modern high school dramedy that features adolescent characters that all look, sound, and act with absolute veracity (that, and Burham paid respect to the adult characters in the film as well, whom usually get the shaft in these types of movies).  On top of that, EIGHTH GRADE was also a compellingly rendered commentary on the nature of social media in shaping young people's lives, and often not for the better.  And at the heart of it all was the extraordinary performance by young Elsie Fisher, bestowing upon viewers one of the most credible and layered performances of a teenager I've ever seen on screen.   

5.  FIRST REFORMED

One of the great overlooked films and featuring one of the great overlooked performances of 2018 was Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED, a penetrating and unnerving faith-in-crisis drama about a man of the cloth being thrust down a dark path of complete emotional and spiritual breakdown.  That the film warrants and deserves comparisons to TAXI DRIVER (which Schrader also famously penned) is inevitable, seeing as both films chronicle lost souls that are plagued with nagging thoughts of using violence to seek a form of self-therapy and salvation.  The best thing I could say about FIRST REFORMED is that it steadfastly refused genre classification and never could be easily compartmentalized into the same broad conventions of other religious genre pictures.  Schrader's film was an awfully hard one to process: Its story was uncompromisingly bleak and depressing, and its final fifteen or so minutes were punishingly hard to endure, which left me feeling both astonished and exhausted.  

At 71-years-old, Schrader proved here that he could still be a cinematic provocateur that pushes tough buttons, and his partner in crime in star Ethan Hawke gave the finest performance of his career playing a deeply unsettling character that undoubtedly struck a raw nerve with anyone that saw FIRST REFORMED.   

6.  YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Speaking of TAXI DRIVER, here's another offering on my list of the year's best that found inspiration from that 1976 Martin Scorsese film.  YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE contains a premise of a sociopath avenger trying to do right in the world via very violent means (much akin to Travis Bickle), but it could have become a one note and dime-a-dozen revenge thriller awash with overused genre clichés under the wrong care.  Thankfully,  Lynne Ramsay's dynamic and impactful direction and a lead performance of volcanic and animalistic internalized intensity by a never-more-committed Joaquin Phoenix made YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE one of 2018's most relentlessly paced and stylishly captivating films.  I found this film unendingly brutal to sit through during its refreshingly economical 90 minute running time, but I mean that as a sincere compliment.  Ramsay's film never made apologies for what it was, and as an examination of pain and suffering on many nightmarish fronts, it was an unforgettably compelling thriller, and Phoenix gave one of the most unfiltered and raw pieces of acting in many a moon. 

7.  A STAR IS BORN

I'm frankly tired of remakes.  Simply...tired of them.  More often than not, they represent the artistic and conceptual laziness and rarely, if ever, warrant their existence. 

A STAR IS BORN really got me thinking about all of that, and it's a seemingly ageless story that's been told nearly more times than I have fingers on one hand (there was the 1932 film WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?, followed by the 1937 remake A STAR IS BORN that later begat the 1954 Judy Garland remake of the same name that, yes, also begat the Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Striesand led 1976 remake).  Here's the deal, though: Bradley Cooper - making his directorial debut - has quarterbacked arguably the finest remake of all time in his iteration of the rags to riches story by paying faithful homage to the previous efforts while making the material feel fresh and reinvigorating to modern audiences.  By utilizing a rough, rugged, and raw level of verisimilitude that's anything but glamorous, Cooper crafted a version of this tale that felt more alive and lived in than any previous version.  Plus, A STAR IS BORN featured an embarrassment of performance riches with Cooper, Sam Elliot, and Lady Gaga, the latter who predictably and reliably breathed passion into the film's songs,  but also gave one of the more thanklessly dialled in and restrained performances of the year.   

Cooper and Gaga triumphantly became one of the most unlikely and successful star unions in man a moon, and they utterly carried A STAR IS BORN.  Watching this film I was reminded that sometimes the best films - remake or not - are ones that stealthily sneak up and surprise you beyond your modest expectations.  A STAR IS BORN was a most joyous cinematic curveball thrown at viewers.

 

8.  LEAVE NO TRACE

LEAVE NO TRACE was the most quietly powerful drama of 2018, and writer/director Debra Ganik's film was a brilliantly unfussy, but unendingly compelling character piece that showed what a great observational eye she has as a filmmaker.  That, and LEAVE NO TRACE also contained a finely attuned cast and an intriguing thematic richness about the nature of human survival and how one parent copes with rearing his only child without the conveniences of a modern technological society.  There have been a lot of films over the years about characters that live in seclusion and in the wild, but very few are done with as much delicate sensitivity and an open frame of mind as what Granik did here.  Featuring two of the most genuine performances of the year by the terribly underrated Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Mackenzie as the family unit in question trying to eek out an existence in the wilderness, LEAVE NO TRACE displayed atypical empathy for its homeless characters.  Granik's drama wasn't flashy or in-your-face, but it challenged and deeply moved me in ways that few dramas do these days. 

9.  THE RIDER

There as never been a modern western quite like Chloe Zhao's THE RIDER.

It was a genre busting genre effort featuring indigenous cowboys from reservations starring non-actors playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves who are all directed by a female Chinese filmmaker. 

So, yeah, an ultra rare breed of western, indeed. 

Zhao's western was an enrapturing and magnificently naturalistic one that never once felt like it fell victim to the usual pratfalls of and troupes of the genre.  That, and it all but absconded away from the traditional and one sided "cowboys and Indians" arc that has all but permeated westerns since their cinematic inception.  THE RIDER told the semi-true story of real life wrangler and rodeo star Brady Jandreau, who played himself in the film and had his actual family members play his family in the film as well.  It's an artistic gamble that could have backfired immensely, but Zhao gets such textured and melancholic performances from her non-actors that you feel like you're watching their actual lives unfold before us.  Even better, THE RIDER was a western that squarely focused on the trials and tribulations of reservation life, but it wasn't a downtrodden and depressing character piece.  Zhao showed her indigenous characters as a proud and banded together people that were driven to tough choices just to stay alive and afloat.  As a novel and beautifully told spin on western film conventions, THE RIDER sought to reinvent Old West mythology in creating an engrossing vision of Native American life.  And how many films from 2018 dared to turn centuries old genres upside down on their heads so thoroughly and successfully?  

10.  MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT - rather impossibly - emerged as arguably the best action thriller since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and one of the best pure sequels ever made. 

At this point in this series - which was born with the 1995 introductory installment and has been going strong ever since - it's beyond staggering that producer/star Tom Cruise has managed to maintain such a tight level of high quality control, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT continues to make this franchise an aesthetically unique and diverse one.  Returning behind the director's chair once again was ROGUE NATION's Christopher McQuarrie, who once again engineered a bewildering array of death defying action set pieces, all done with the absolute and utmost precision, confidence, and editorial clarity that seems wholly dead in modern cinema.  And watching the perpetually ageless, courageous - and some would aptly say crazy ­- Cruise showing a complete willingness to put his body and life on the line for the sack of his art and to entertain the masses is mind blowing, considering that he's pushing 60.  MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT was the pre-eminent blockbuster of 2018, and set a high qualitative benchmarks for future genre pictures to come.   
  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2017 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11. WIDOWS:  Steve McQueen orchestrated one of the finest heist films in years featuring a sensational ensemble cast.  

12. THE DEATH OF STALIN:  A sublimely engineered piece of comic satire about the historical horrors of Joseph Stalin's Russia.

13. WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?:  The best feel good movie of the last year was a documentary about the late and great Fred Rogers' life.    

14. MANDY:  As a film that journeyed towards uncharted realms of cinematic consciousness, Panos Cosmotos' revenge fantasy was a memorizing visual odyssey.  

15. GREEN BOOK:  Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali were brilliant together in this historical Civil Rights era dramedy.  

16. BOY ERASED:  This shocking fact based gay conversion therapy drama contained yet another inspired performance of understated power by Lucas Hedges.

17. THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN:  Robert Redford was pitch perfectly cast in this tale of an elderly bank robber in what has been reported as his final film appearance as an actor.

18.  CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?:  Melissa McCarthy gave the performance of her career in this reality based tale of a disgraced writer.  

19. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS:  The second best doc of 2018 told an unbelievable story of separated at birth triplets that took nightmarish turns.

20. BLACK PANTHER:  Ryan Coogler's box office record breaking super hero extravaganza was thematically dense and visually opulent.   

21. AQUAMAN: This sixth film in the DC Extended Universe doubled down on eye popping visual spectacle and did this marine based super hero ample big screen justice.  

 

22. A QUIET PLACE:  This ingeniously constructed post-apocalyptic thriller was one of the ultra rare films that demanded viewing in a cinema with as large of an audience as possible.    

 

23. REVENGE:  This marvelously engineered revenge action film found a healthy middle ground between pulpy B-grade thrills and full bodied feminist empowerment.

 

24. ISLES OF DOGS:  Wes Anderson's second stop motion animated film was a staggeringly beautiful achievement.  

 

25. THOROUGHBREDS:  A superb fusion of HEATHERS meets Hitchcockian intrigue made Cory Finley's thriller a unique standout.   

 

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  

UNSANE:  Claire Foy was superb in this Steven Soderbergh directed psychological thriller, all improbably shot on iPhone 7s. 

WELCOME TO MARWEN:  Robert Zemeckis' heartfelt, wonderfully acted, and technically superb telling of real-life photographer Mark Hogancamp's life.    

GAME NIGHT:  As an engine designed to deliver well oiled and sustained laughs, this spring released comedy was as good as they come.      

LOVE SIMON:  This high school romcom was a huge inclusive step forward in the right direction for the LGBT community's representation in film.      

BORG VS. MCENROE:  A criminally overlooked and underrated fact based sports film about one of the greatest sports grudge matches in history.    

TOMB RAIDER:  This Lara Croft reboot effort was both stylishly faithful to the recently rebooted video game series and a fairly full bodied action film to boot.    

EARLY MAN:  Another joyously realized Aardman stop motion animated film.

ALPHA:  One of the past summer film season's best surprises that featured director Albert Hughes' command over visuals in telling a novel canine-fuelled survival yarn.    

OVERLORD:  As a good old fashioned WWII drama and a viscerally disgusting zombie horror flick, Julius Avery crafted a delightful genre mishmash of trashy eccentricities.      

DEN OF THIEVES:  Considering how low rent and typically awful most January released films are, this crime drama was a far cry above the cut.    

MAZE RUNNER - THE DEATH CURE: The final chapter in THE MAZE RUNNER trilogy ended the series with a reasonable and mostly satisfying sense of closure.  

THE POLKA KING:  Jack Black was in his performance grove in this hysterical Netflix Original true story about a highly unlikely con artist.      

ANNIHILATION:  Although not achieving the greatness of EX MACHINA, this Alex Garland quarterbacked sci-fi thriller still managed to defy conventional genre troupes.      

RED SPARROW:  This Jennifer Lawrence starring vehicle emerged as a bold and courageously orchestrated spy thriller.       

BLOCKERS:  An ultra rare high school sex comedy told from the female perspective and with reasonable amounts of empathy and intelligence.      

SUPER TROOPERS 2: My guilty pleasure movie of 2018 and a mostly solid sequel to the cult 2001 comedy classic; seek it out right...MEOW!

AVENGERS - INFINITY WAR:  A colossal and commendable filmmaking undertaking for the MCU that, despite some hiccups, genuinely delivered on pre-release promises.

TULLY:  Director Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody's audacious creative choices and Charlize Theron's tricky and transformative performance made for an enthralling take on motherhood.      

CHAPPAQUIDDICK:  This historical drama that tapped into an infamous and controversial tragedy was thoroughly captivating on most fronts.   

DEADPOOL 2: Although not achieving the madcap originality of the first film, this sequel featuring the "merc with the mouth" wholeheartedly delivered with a maximum effort!

ADRIFT:  Shailene Woodley was endlessly credible in this true and harrowing story of human survival.

OCEAN'S 8:  This female led sequel did a splendid job of re-igniting a long dormant franchise out of creative dormancy.

INCREDIBLES 2: The long gestating sequel to one of Pixar's most cherished animated films was mostly worth the wait.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO: This sequel to the Denis Villeneuve directed masterpiece stood proudly apart while still carving out some interesting story threads for future entries to come.

THE EQUALIZER 2:  On a level of maintaining gory comeuppance status quos, this Denzel Washington led sequel was on reasonably strong footing. 

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN:  A wholesomely old fashioned endeavor and honorable tribute to A.A. Milne's and E.H. Shepard's Winnie the Pooh literary legacy.

THE MEG:  A giant shark creature feature with a lot of visual ambition that worked as self-referential and brainless escapist fare. 

UPGRADE:  A solidly acted and well directed man versus machine sci-fi thriller with a highly innovative take on well worn material. 

SUMMER OF '84:  This RKSS - the Canadian filmmaking behind TURBO KID - 80's era murder mystery thriller was a nostalgic blast that fused comedy and horror rather well. 

WHITE BOY RICK:  A somewhat misshapen fact based crime drama that was saved by some wonderful performances. 

FAHRENHEIT 11/9:  Although scattershot in focus, Michael Moore's fire and brimstone documentary about the Trump Presidency remained as hypnotically watchable as anything he's made before. 

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE:  Drew Goddard's star studded PULP FICTION wannabe was arguably one of the better Tarantino clones in a long while. 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU:  Boots Riley's dystopian workplace satire featured innovative visuals and a plethora of dark comedy that undercuts many darker societal truths.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY:  Raimi Malek was the brightest spot of this mostly conventional biopic about the legendary rock bank Queen.  

BLINDSPOTTING: A disturbing urban drama and whimsical workplace farce deserved props for sheer audacity.     

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE:  Arguably the best movie - animated or not - about everyone's favorite wall crawling super hero in years.   

MARY POPPINS RETURNS: Several decades in the making, the long waited sequel to the iconic and cherished 1964 original shared much of its whimsical and infectious charm.      

VICE: Adam McKay's spirited and ambitious follow-up effort to his Oscar winning THE BIG SHORT tackled the life and times of one of the most powerful Vice Presidents in history in Dick Cheney.    

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK:  Barry Jenkins' follow-up to his Oscar winning MOONLIGHT was a flawed, but passionately directed and acted period romance and parable about racial injustice. 

 

 

 

   

 

 
 
 

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