For a record-breaking second year in a row, I’m going to write about my favorite movies from the last year. First, my standard context and disclaimers:
• This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me being surprised I didn’t hate someone other than Harrison Ford playing Han Solo. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.
42 43 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. Don’t blame me if you watch something that offends you just because you noticed I saw or liked it. (Though you’re certainly free to ask me if you’re wondering why I was okay watching something that offends you.) I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even (maybe especially) about what you laugh at.
• I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.
• I kept closer track of what I watched this year than ever before, and if you have any interest in doing that, I recommend letterboxd, which has been a fun discovery for me. For the two of you interested enough in my movie opinions to track them more than once a year, letterboxd has a social component that allows you to follow what your friends are seeing, liking, hating, and various lists they make. You can follow me here.
• Publishing this the night of the Oscars is only a mild form of protest for how bored I was by the overall list of the Academy’s nominees and winners this year.
• I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.
• I’m going to rank my top
15 16 (I had a late addition after I started writing this), though if I made the ranking next week there’s little doubt I would shuffle many of them around. This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2018 I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling today. Before I do that, I’ll ramble about some other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. If you think you’ll get bored with those, feel free to skip down to the numbered list. I’ll never know.
2017 Addendum: Hostiles
I saw this in early 2018 and didn’t have it on last year’s list, but it was actually a 2017 release that just didn’t make it to our theaters for a while. I’m a sucker for period movies set in the American west dealing with the usually tragic complexities of the frontier. Hostiles is exactly that, forcing a white soldier who spent his career hating and brutalizing native Americans to reckon with his past and decide whether he wants to locate his lost humanity. It oversimplifies and fast forwards through that story, but it still manages to have something to say about evil, repentance, forgiveness, and the excruciating realities native Americans had to endure while trying to cling to their own humanity. Content warning: a good bit of brutal violence, including an attack in which children are killed, and an off-screen sexual assault of multiple women.
I originally left this one out completely, but I’m adding it Monday morning since it won Best Picture. Green Book was sort of obviously made with an Oscar-inducing formula. It has been polarizing on several fronts, most notably due to the way it approaches the racial dynamics between the main characters. I confess I don’t completely know how I feel about it or how to sort out the various perspectives on it. Even before I knew there was controversy, I was uncomfortable with what felt like the kind of movie about race we would have seen 25-30 years ago. Then I discovered there was significant pushback in the areas that seemed off to me. I honestly haven’t taken the time to read how the cast and crew, including co-star Mahershala Ali and executive producer Octavia Spencer, are responding to the questions.
Those significant issues aside, I thought Green Book was just okay. It definitely wasn’t the best film of 2018, but the Academy isn’t actually that interested in “best,” it turns out.
The Sisters Brothers
My junior high/high school buddy Scott and I met up in Dallas this fall and saw this before it was released widely. Neither of us knew much about it going in, though I was hopeful since I’m always eager for quality westerns and since the cast is so darn good: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed. Scott and I talked about the movie for an hour afterwards, and the longer we talked, the less we liked it. I later discussed it with a couple of others who also disliked it, and I was content to kind of hate it. About six weeks later, I found myself thinking about it more than most movies I don’t like, so I gave it another shot. I was surprised to find I liked it a lot more the second time around. It’s still morally problematic for me in its portrayal of violence and in its (lack of ) resolution. It’s still confusing and, at times, absurd. But I found the strangeness more endearing and the unpredictability more interesting. Mostly I just loved John C. Reilly’s portrayal of Eli Sisters, and as I’m writing this I’m having a hard time thinking of a character or performance from the 2018 list I liked more. Reilly has spent a lot of time on silly roles, but he’s a brilliant actor.
I’m not going to comment much on this year’s Academy Award nominees except to say that, with a few notable exceptions, it’s the least interesting or inspiring group of nominees I’ve seen in years. Vice, with nominations in six(!) major categories, is exhibit A. I loved Adam McKay’s work on The Big Short, which was my favorite film of 2015. That’s part of why I found Vice difficult to watch. I’m otherwise very interested in these kinds of stories, this particular story, and these particular characters, but McKay mostly applied the same formula to a different story with far less interesting results. The approach and script just didn’t work for me, and with the exception of Christian Bale, who was outstanding as Dick Cheney (think for a minute about that transformation), the performances ranged from flat to painfully awkward.
I’m supposed to love this, I guess. I mean it’s kind of become a darling of the thinking crowd, and after all it’s about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) struggling with his faith and calling. My kind are generally not represented with much accuracy or care on screen, so I was intrigued. The more elemental parts of the movie worked for me, and the complicated emotional and spiritual landscape of Hawke’s character made sense to me as a pastor. Gosh, we even get a healthy dose of Thomas Merton. Yes please. I just couldn’t hang with some of the extreme turns in the plot building to an ending that went from weird to really weird. Sometimes I see people gush about a film and think they either watched it while they were high or they’re pretending to get and love something because they know they’re supposed to. That’s how I feel about people who claim to get or love the last 15 minutes of First Reformed. And it definitely has to be one of those two options since it seems so unlikely I’m just not smart enough to get it myself.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Over time this collection of Coen-Brothers-create-Flannery-O’Connor-stories-as-Westerns might move its way up my list. I’ve only seen it once, but it’s the kind of work that I think needs multiple visits. Content warning: lots of people die in lots of really awful ways, and the Coens are happy to show it all to you.
I don’t have much to say here except that I went and saw a Transformers movie for the first time, and it was a lot of fun. (That doesn’t mean I want to see any of the others.)
And then there’s the one where everyone gets what she deserves.
This is a beautifully made film about a lot of human ugliness and debauchery with masterful performances and no likable or admirable characters. I’ve grown weary of that routine, even when it’s done this well. Content warning: there’s some brief nudity, and a lot of the dysfunctional relationships are sexual in all kinds of ways and directions.
I was never an eighth grade girl, but I’m pretty sure this is exactly what it’s like, at least for many. The father-daughter dynamics are often uncomfortable but ultimately significant and sweet.
As much as I liked the idea of building Han Solo’s backstory, I was supremely skeptical that I’d be able to tolerate anyone other than Harrison Ford in the role. I was surprised how well Alden Ehrenreich pulled that off. The story was just okay, but I enjoyed it more than most, I think.
They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson set out to bring new life to hours and hours of existing film and audio from and about World War I. I would do a poor job of explaining all the unprecedented ways he and his team did this, but the result is remarkable. The narration is completely composed of audio interviews with veterans of the Great War, and the footage is colorized and presented in 3D (I’m normally not a fan of 3D, but it was terrific). The storytelling manages to capture both the spirit of that era when most common men were eager to serve in the war and the day-to-day horrors they lived once they got there. I caught one of only four local screenings [on the first run; it since returned for a few weeks], which also included an introduction from Jackson and an extra 30 minute doc after the credits about the making of the film.
Be sure to watch for this guy, who reminded me that people are made of the same stuff even when separated by the centuries:
Top 16 of 2018:
16. The Hate U Give
In terms of importance, this one is in my top ten for the year. It’s a mainstream movie about the realities of being black in America that generalizes real stories of police shootings into a particular fictional story. It’s a movie I think white people should watch, not because it’s the best film of the year or because it perfectly captures all the nuances the black experience, but because I think it’s an accessible look into a reality we just don’t know first-hand. It operates in stereotypes at times, sometimes awkwardly, but I think it does so for the sake of telling a broad story and not with malice. A better script would have made a big difference, and I’m a little confused that someone didn’t insist on that. Still, it’s an important movie, and I’m a big fan of Amandla Stenberg’s performance.
15. A Star is Born
[Spoilers live here.] I’ve gone back and forth a few times in my feelings about this one. The music is terrific (oh hi Jason Isbell) and I basically loved the performances across the board. Gaga is kind of great. Sam Elliott is one of my favorite actors on the planet, and he’s right in the pocket in this role. His Oscar nomination is one of only a few that I care anything about this year. Dave Chappelle also nails it; his part is relatively small, but his character is one of my favorites of the year. And then there’s Andrew Dice Clay, who had me thinking “Is that Andrew Dice Clay? It can’t be. But it is. Wait, maybe not,” as I watched. (It is.) I have issues with some of the turns in the story, but that’s almost inevitable for a movie like this. Even though I saw the end coming, it was still a gut punch. Suicide has so marked my life over the years that I struggle even with fictional stories about it. Still, this was such an ambitious undertaking for Bradley Cooper, and it’s hard to look at it as anything but a success. It’s the kind of effort that could have been a total flop for any number of reasons – bad script, bad music, disappointing results from taking a big risk on Lady Gaga, etc. But it sufficiently checks all of those boxes for me and in some cases goes well beyond.
14. The Rider
I didn’t put these two back-to-back on purpose, but I guess it’s fitting since they’re total opposites. A Star is Born could have been terrible by going big in every way and failing; this could have been terrible for completely different reasons. You won’t recognize anyone in The Rider because it’s a feature film (not a documentary) about true people in which the actual people play themselves. It’s unorthodox, but it works. The focus is Brady, a talented bronc rider searching for identity after a head injury makes continuing to ride a really bad idea. The story is slow and quiet, and though the perspective on Brady’s struggles is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, I haven’t often seen this kind of realism work on screen in a non-documentary format. I was particularly moved by his interactions with Lilly, his special needs sister, and Lane, his bull rider best friend who is living with profound brain damage. This is one that could slide toward my top five pretty easily on any given day.
13. Beautiful Boy
David Sheff’s memoir about living with and through his son’s battle with addiction is the source for this movie, and it has been on my “to read soon” shelf or my bedside table for a couple of years now. For some reason I kept bogging down and still haven’t finished it, but I was too interested in seeing Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet handle this story to put off watching it any longer. Though I’m still scrubbing my mental association of Chalamet with Call Me by Your Name (my disdain for that film explained here), he’s a gifted young actor. And, well, Steve Carrell is just terrific, and I’m so glad he continues to tackle dramatic roles (some better than others) instead of just setting up shop in the realm of absurd comedy where he could cash obscene check after obscene check, but where the well of truly funny roles runs dry in a hurry.
Beautiful Boy isn’t the most powerful or revealing movie ever made about addiction, but I think it’s better than it gets credit for if you remember that it’s intended to be the dad’s story, not the son’s. My friend Scott pointed out that a lot of the less than stellar reviews seem to misunderstand the perspective. No, you don’t get a deep dive into the addict’s gruesome realities, but that wasn’t the point. We’re looking into the pain and hope and exhaustion of the father. I’ve seen both active addiction and recovery up close. I’ve accompanied someone we love to AA meetings and experienced family night at rehab. Those rooms are full of people who have lived a dozen lives just trying to stay in the fight with and for their son or daughter or sister or father. Telling their stories doesn’t minimize the addict’s story; it completes it.
12. Isle of Dogs
My girls (13 and 11) who love dogs and still dig animated movies are totally creeped out by every poster, trailer, or mention of Isle of Dogs. Even when I remind them how great Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson’s first go at stop-motion animation) is, they still think something is wrong with me. And maybe they’re right. Something is probably wrong with most of us who continue to love Anderson’s work. I know a goodly number of folks who are more loyal fans than me, but I’ve been in since Bottle Rocket, and I’m still here. Isle of Dogs is not his best film, but it’s smart and sweet and funny. It also has something to say while not seeming burdened by the obligation to be sure you understand what it’s saying. Anderson’s tendency to be obscure at times does not make him unique, of course, but my sense is that most filmmakers taking this path are trying really hard to make sure you know they don’t care whether or not you get them. Wes Anderson is certainly trying really hard in many ways (no, no, we’ll need the deep burgundy smoking jacket that was only made in east Bombay in 1971), but I’ve never had the sense that he’s trying to be hard to understand. He’s just a quirky fellow trying to make really good films, and he almost always succeeds.
11. First Man
First Man wasn’t originally in my list, but I was a lot more affected by it watching it a second time. When I saw it at the theater, I realized about halfway through that I’m typically not as drawn into movies about the space program as a lot of folks are. Maybe my problem is I never dreamed of being an astronaut or wanted to go to Space Camp. It looked terrific on the big screen and I appreciated that the story was as much about the people as the drama of the moon landing, but I just drifted in and out of being engaged. That was apparently about me on that particular day, because the emotional arc was powerful as I watched it again. Gosling’s work here is excellent, tapping into the quiet depth of a man whose work requires such constant mental intensity that he simply can’t always be present in other parts of his life, even the parts that are most important to him. I’m never going to the moon, but I may or may not be able to relate a little. I’m also a fan of Jason Clarke, who I think is very good as another intense guy forced into multiple emotional moments with Armstrong. Mostly Amy and I were struck by how well the cast and crew seemed to see and convey the way the loss of a child marks every moment that follows for a husband and wife. (Which is not exactly what you expect to say after a movie about the first man to walk on the moon.)
10. Minding the Gap
This was the late entry that jumped into my list and pushed it from 15 to 16. Wow. First-time filmmaker Bing Liu has created a heartbreaking and deeply personal portrait of the particular and collective histories of his childhood circle of friends, now adults but not all grown-ups. I am astounded at his vision, heart, and skill. He not only made a stunning first film, but he did it by gently and honestly documenting the sin and pain and struggle of his closest friends, his family, and his own story. This is tough to watch at times because it is so intimate and revealing, but Liu’s love for the people whose stories he’s telling–even the ones who are least lovable–is never in doubt. Content warning: the language is intense throughout, and there is a lot of explicit discussion of domestic violence.
I just rewatched this last week wanting to be sure I remembered it well enough to place it among a lot of films I’ve seen more recently. I bumped it up several spots after the second viewing, mostly because I think Spike Lee’s direction is so very good. This is a (true) story that easily could have been fumbled if the approach was too serious or too humorous (the true story and the movie are definitely both), but Lee and the cast find just the right tone from start to finish. The primary storyline has no trouble as a feature film plot, but Lee manages to explore a number of related complexities of racial struggle without getting too bogged down in any of them. Content warning: the n-word is used A LOT, along with other racist language. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s authentic to the story, and it would probably seem pretty sanitized without it. There is another content warning in the spoiler section below.
[Spoilers from here on]: Once the movie itself concludes, we’re quickly jolted into the present with footage from the August 2017 protests and violence in Charlottesville. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a second look. The first time around, the transition was jarring to the point of disorienting me. I think I expected more of a punch in the face from the movie itself than I felt, so that punch coming from news footage made me less certain about the power of the scripted film. The second viewing didn’t feel that way at all. Some of that was probably me picking up more of the nuance of the script and some was probably time and perspective to see the two pieces as a coherent whole. Content warning: I assume most have seen the Charlottesville footage by now, but it is brutal and includes the murder of Heather Heyer.
8. If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin is a tragically under-read American truth-teller, and I think I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 documentary riffing on Baldwin’s life and work, is one of the most important films of the last decade. If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a Baldwin novel, is a gorgeous and completely different take on his writing. Beale Street takes us into a specific story of innocence and love ultimately scarred by the crushing realities of a very broken system riddled with very broken people. I was floored by the portrayal of lifelong affection and budding romance between Tish and Fonny and can’t recall a gentler, more believably idyllic picture of young love on screen. My reaction to it left me wondering whether it’s a subtle, surgical excavation of some of my own lingering prejudice or if the fact that I think that exposing my prejudice even crossed Baldwin’s (or director Barry Jenkins’) mind is the real revelation. Either way, that’s the kind of conversation I think Baldwin wants me to have with myself. Content warning: there is a fairly long sex scene that I don’t quite know how to describe. I’m pretty careful about putting my eyes on this kind of thing, but I confess I was just excited we got this film in town, wasn’t sure it would be here more than a week, and ran out and saw it as soon as I could without doing much homework. Anyway, I say I don’t know how to describe it because the innocence and gentleness I describe above is almost the point of this scene; it is not at all “dirty” and is in fact purposefully the opposite. But it’s sex. And people are naked. And I always want to mention that and, again, suggest everyone exercise real wisdom in their movie-watching.
7. Free Solo
I honestly don’t know whether this will translate as a top ten film on a small screen. It was breath taking on the big screen. It’s also a marvelously crafted documentary about climbers and climbing, effectively telling Alex Honnold’s particular story while also introducing us to the fascinating world of absolutely insane people who climb tall things, often without any kind of safety net, and often until they eventually fall off something tall and die. I can’t imagine this will hit theaters again for any reason, but if it does, by all means, go see it (in IMAX if possible). It was one of my favorite visual experiences in a theater in the last several years.
6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Yes, this is the third documentary in my top ten and the fourth on the list overall.
Was this a relatively weak year for feature films?
Was this just an exceptional year for docs?
Am I a nerd?
What can I say about this beautiful look into the life and work of Fred Rogers other than it is exactly the film we need right now? If you haven’t seen it, please change that. Content warning: You’re probably gonna cry.
5. Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse
Gosh I love this movie. We’re firmly into territory where I could rearrange the order of these films on any given day, including putting this one at the very top of my list. It’s fun. It’s ground breaking. It’s exciting. It’s hilarious. It has heart. It looks great!
And I just wrote all of that about an animated comic book movie. I don’t see animated comic book movies. That’s worth noting so that I can urge you not to skip Spier-Verse just because you’re someone who doesn’t see animated comic book movies. Aiden and I took Amy and the girls back to see it and they all loved it. Of all the movies on my list, this might be the easiest one for me to universally recommend to pretty much anyone.
4. A Quiet Place
[Minor spoilers live here.] I don’t know what I loved more, seeing this in the theater for the first time and enduring the glorious silence and jump-out-of-your-seat terror or taking Aiden (16) back and watching him have that experience. I mentioned last year when I included Get Out in my top ten that I see very few horror movies these days, and A Quiet Place is only on the outskirts of the horror genre. But it will sho ’nuff scare you in all the best ways. Emily Blunt is fantastic, and the bathtub scene alone is Oscar-worthy, not that the Academy would notice when, you know, there’s a really unlikable Glenn Close character to celebrate or Amy Adams is making sure we know how hatable Dick Cheney’s wife is.
What was I talking about?
Oh yeah, Emily Blunt just SILENTLY gave birth in a bathtub while blood-thirsty creatures are roaming through the hallway and no one in Hollywood cares because she wasn’t wearing an 18th century gown.
Ok, I’m back. John Krasinski chose brilliant material for his first film, and I really mean it when I say he deserves the Best Director nomination that Adam McCay got for being Adam McCay and making a cartoonishly anti-Bush/Cheney movie. Many will think that’s silly, but I contend it’s not only okay but good to reward filmmakers who find new ways to make movie-going fun, and few movies did that better last year than A Quiet Place.
3. The Old Man & the Gun
Robert Redford says The Old Man & the Gun is his last film. While I certainly hope that’s not the case, Forrest Tucker feels like a fitting final Redford gentleman rogue. This film sitting in my top three is telling for my tastes in this season of life. It is patient in its storytelling, well-written, complex enough but not opaque, beautiful on the screen, and overrun with great actors at their best.
Though I did not get A Ghost Story at all, this is the third of director David Lowery’s four major works that have really landed for me, including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. I’m consistently drawn in by Lowery’s eye for light and landscapes, and composer David Hart’s scores are stunning at every turn.
This was easily my favorite cast of the year. I mean, I could watch Redford and Sissy Spacek on screen together for two hours without interruption. If Lowery had made that film, it might still be in my top three. But he somehow found a way to give Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits memorable roles without stealing any thunder from his two legendary leads. This may be my favorite Affleck role to date, Glover is quietly perfect, and man oh man, I just don’t know what to say about Tom Waits except: “And that’s why I hate Christmas!”
2. Black Panther
I’m all in on Black Panther at every level. As a next piece in the expansive unfolding Marvel universe, it is right on point. But it’s so much more than than another superhero movie, though I won’t try to recreate what others have covered quite well. I’ll just say that it’s a remarkable thing to make a thoroughly entertaining action movie and next piece in a blockbuster franchise that also has something profound to say and show us. If you struggle to see the beauty and power in a film full of smart, noble, and strong characters who are also black, make an effort to watch Black Panther through the eyes of girls and boys—and girls and boys who have lived decades and become women and men—who have never in their lives seen a film like this full of people like this who look like them telling stories that feel like their stories. Like I said, I’m all in on Black Panther at every level.
1. Leave No Trace
I honestly don’t know how to write about Leave No Trace except to say it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years. There is a quiet simplicity and depth to this story that needs to be seen rather than read about. I saw it at The Angelika in Dallas this summer and immediately knew it was going to be my favorite of 2018. I wish everyone could see it on the big screen. I mean, just look at that photo above.
Even more compelling than the lush Pacific Northwest scenery is the story of a father and daughter whose love for one another is as pure as it is complicated. I can’t recall a movie that offers a more affecting picture of a child learning to embrace her identity apart from her father while still loving and accepting him in all his damage.
As a dad of three (and two daughters) I’ll never ask my kids to live in the woods with me, but I hope they find what Tom finds in this story: a true sense of identity apart from me that includes a deep well of grace for the ways my mistakes and brokenness have become part of their lives.
Anyway, this was the best film of 2018 whether you know it or not. But now you know.