It’s that time of year again. The time to whittle down the 147 (as of writing) movies in 2018 I’ve seen into a somewhat arbitrary and totally non-definitive Top Ten list. Each and every confounded year, us critics fold ourselves into pretzels to construct these things and year in and year out, usually end up regretting a number of the choices, particularly as time moves on. Hell, I’ll probably regret half this list once I hit the publish button. I totally reserve the right to reverse these choices in the future so don’t hold my feet to the fire if my tastes have changed in 2021. Or 2020. Or January 4, 2019. But such is life and here we are, forced to complete arbitrary rankings in the hopes for improved SEO and reader’s delight.
Moving on, 2018 was another strong year at the theater, with a wide choice of options for all brands of cinephiles. There was great horror, standup drama, some rather decent superhero movies, killer action flicks, a choice selection of westerns, and a few top notch animated features. To be honest, I had a pretty strong grasp on my top eight or so features from the year and the last couple slots were really a total toss up between about 15 films. Ultimately, I went with those that I had enjoyed the most, watched the most, and see myself revisiting the most in the future. They benefited because of how I happened to roll out of bed today. Plus, I wanted to offer something a little different than the god-knows-how-many Top Ten lists I’ve already seen so far. So expect a little bit of extra flavor right off the bat.
Those that were circling those outsider spots included the following honorable mentions, who on any other day of the week could have easily been in my Top Ten. A handful of titles worthy of note include Sara Colangelo’s poetic and unnerving The Kindergarten Teacher featuring a knockout turn from Maggie Gyllenhaal; Jacques Audiard’s modernized treatment of the Western with The Sisters Brothers; Pawel Pawlikowski’s emotionally stunning, and visually gorgeous Cold War; George Tillman Jr.’s hard-hitting YA adaptation The Hate U Give; Bo Burnham’s ultimate awkward middle school saga Eighth Grade; Spike Lee’s bold, poignant, and flavorful BlacKkKlansman; Alfonso Cuarón’s loving portrait of 1970s Mexico City in Roma; Chloé Zhao’s humanist portrait of loss and soulful rehabilitation in The Rider; the Coen Bro’s sardonic western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; and Leigh Whannell’s explotative B-movie sci-fi actioner Upgrade. I could go on but I think after ten-ish titles that would be considered droning so I’ll just truncate my thoughts here by mentioning the fact that I could go on and on and on but I won’t.
So enough preamble and onto the goods. Here they are: the ten movies that I’m calling the Silver Screen Riot Top Ten Films of 2018.
It’s probably too easy to misunderstand Joseph Kahn’s slouched posturing with Bodied, a deeply satirical slide into the underground rap battle scene, which is used as a means to pick at the frontrunners of “woke” society and PC culture. On the surface, the film is angry and combative, puckered up with piss and vinegar and shaken to burst, filled with flagrant sexism, racial slurs, unchecked male egos, and white fragility. In reality, Kahn’s film opens a door to a much more interesting conversation that examines society’s obsession with gender, race, and sensitivity all with a killer rap sheet. From a purely musical standpoint, Kahn’s “anti-musical” has bars to spare, serving up some of the freshest rhymes ever to be featured in a hip-hop film, the biting cleverness of his verses rarely lost on the penitent viewer. This probably won’t crop up on many critic’s top ten lists but the fact that I’ve watched it more than any other 2018 release speaks to my affections for the caustic work of this underground wunderkind. Respect.
Tully completes the Diablo Cody/Jason Reitman trifecta in magical realism style telling the woebegone misadventures of an over-worked and under-napped mommy (an excellent, pudgy Charlize Theron) who’s saved by a magical nanny (an equally – if not moreso – excellent Mackenzie Davis.) Tully has been a bit lost in the mix throughout 2018, having been released way back in May following a Sundance debut, but Reitman’s often profound, secretly super sweet, glimpse at married life and child-rearing is an intelligent and big-hearted delight and one of 2018’s finest little treasures. Just try to forget about Reitman’s later-2018 miss (The Front Runner) and you’ll be in good shape.
8. A QUIET PLACE
Few expected the guy known for looking snarkily into the camera on The Office would write, direct, and star in a horror movie and even fewer expected said horror movie to be any good. Kudos then to John Krasinski and A Quiet Place for capitalizing on our collective doubt and delivering a sotto voce stunner that worked the anxieties of parenthood equally into this remarkably tense dystopia where alien creatures hunt humans by the slightest sound. There is simply no narrative waste here: the world building is profoundly detailed, the sound design and score are awesomely haunting, the performances (especially from Krasinski and real-life wife Emily Blunt) are rich and textured, often working with little to no words, and the film as a whole capitalizes on every single element on the screen in such a way that Chekhov himself would stand up and applaud.
7. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Moonlight won director Barry Jenkins an unprecedented Oscar and the indie filmmaker hasn’t backed down an inch from what makes his work shine so bright. His latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, pulls from the work of James Baldwin to tell a semi-tragic love story in 1970s Harlem. While narratively disheartening, the story hums with a hopefulness rare in this day and age, delivering an elixir for the cynicism, pain, and narcissism that dominate the news cycle. The film, lovingly photographed and glowing with warmth, is imbued with the same tenderness, sensitivity, and deep, empathetic regard for character that Moonlight managed. A heartwarming knockout bound to ovation-worthy direction and performances.
6. FIRST REFORMED
Anarchical existential crisis made film, Paul Schrader’s dour meditation on faith in 21st century America is an urgent explosion of ideology and a ruminant descent into extremism. It featured one of the best scripts of the year, with ruminant passages the likes of “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously — Hope and despair. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself” and saw Ethan Hawke offering possible career-best work as a priest mid-breakdown. A most dangerous drama.
Alex Garland labored quietly for more than a decade writing scripts for movies like 28 Days Later and Dredd before emerging as a director to keep a close eye on with his directorial debut Ex Machina. His follow-up, a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, is no less ambition and hits even greater high notes (if ultimately not topping that former opus.) Working within the sci-fi wheelhouse again, Garland paints an apocalyptic no-man’s-land (quite literally with a female-dominated cast that features Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh) with Kubrickian upside, cryptic shades of 2001 haunting the wackadoo later portions of the film. Like Arrival before it, Annihilation is hard science fiction without easy answers. And that skull death bear still haunts me to this day.
4. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT
When Christopher McQuarrie was to return to breathe a direct follow-up to M:I – Rogue Nation to life, I had my trepidations. No one had ever helmed two Mission: Impossible movies before and part of the enduring flavor of the franchise is how tonally different its many installments are allowed to be. All doubt was quieted with the release of Fallout, which, impossibly, topped all other former Mission: Impossible movies, affording Tom Cruise the actor an opportunity to give his most definitive take yet on the Ethan Hunt character while also allowing Tom Cruise the stuntman to top himself in spectacular fashion, throwing himself out of airplanes in space and such. Fallout ties the entire series together so well that it would be the perfect sendoff for my favorite action franchise, were it not also the perfect block to keep the franchise flames roaring brighter than ever. Without question the greatest action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road.
One of three stories this year that focused on the murder of a black man by a white police officer (joined by The Hate U Give, and Men and Monsters), Blindspotting proved an unforgettable treatise on race, gentrification, friendship, bias, language, and police brutality that said its piece with style. David Diggs gave the best male performance of 2019 as Collin, a thoughtful but compromised man living out the final days of court-imposed probation and the film written by Diggs and co-star Rafael Casal rip-roars when it breaks with tradition in moments like a graveyard coming to life, an explosive house party, or a free-form rap session that uncorks all the angst, anger, and frustrations of the film in larger-than-life theatrics. An avant-garde inner-city stunner that went overlooked by most outside of the film-o-holics inner circle.
2. THE FAVOURITE
Yorgos Lanthimos has made some of the very best films of the 2010’s (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lobster) so when he shifted gears to deliver a somewhat straightforward costume drama, heads were scratched. And yet, The Favourite, a remarkably-made estrogen-fueled verbal sparring match between Queen Anne (a pissy, bratty Olivia Colman) and two contenders for her favoritism (Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, utterly perfect each) vying for her attention, affection, and all that goes along with such, The Favourite is a delicious delight from start to finish. The production elements are simply scrumptious and the script from Deborah David and Tony McNamara is the best of the year.
Fear is a funny thing. Translating fear onto the big screen, more often than not, fails spectacularly. So when a horror movie nails fear, when it seeps into the subconscious, tickles the scaredy bone, and sits with us in the backseat of the car for the whole drive home, a headless abomination you can’t not look at, then I would say you’ve done something horribly right. Ari Aster is the one doing his audience so right in this situation, the first time director creating a symphony of fear and unrest, topped by a knockout of a performance (and the Seattle Film Critics Society’s Best Actress) from Toni Collette who proves that horror movies can couch award’s worthy performances. Cryptic, brutal, and haunting, Hereditary is a horror show that won’t soon be forgotten.