While I wasn't able to get out to theaters nearly as much this year, I did see a decent number of great new releases at home and only managed to see a single one that I didn't like. An overall strong year for movies and there's still a lot I want to see!
I always like to try to find a common thread between the films that really resonate with me: All of my top five this year involve struggling with identity or taking on a new one, a subject that applies to several other films I enjoyed this year as well. Interpret as you will.
Top Tier - My favorite films of the year:
Blackkklansman (Spike Lee) - John David Washington and Adam Driver are both excellent leads, playing two undercover police officers (one black, one white) who together create a fictional persona in order to infiltrate and expose the KKK. For much of its run time, the film manages to be darkly funny while still viscerally painful. Liberties are taking with the true story this is based on, but it ends with actual footage of modern, horrific violence to show that reality's scarier than storytelling. There's a strong scene involving the role of film itself in society and its ability to be weaponized for good or bad, for justice or propaganda.
First Reformed (Paul Schrader) - I haven't been to church in years but good crisis/lapse of faith stories hit me hard, and this one doubles down on that by focusing on environmental collapse. Ethan Hawke's portrayal of a well-meaning priest stricken by pains both physical and existential is one of my favorites of the year, and Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger's troubled parishioner characters are excellently realized. Every struggle in the film, from each of its characters, is one I've either been through or can relate to, making it all the more painful and ultimately cathartic.
It's a film that issues a call to action among people of faith, whether it's religion, activism, or a belief in the innate goodness of another human being. It shows the power of love in our darkest moments but also just how easily despair can spread like a contagion.
Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley) - I don't normally care about spoilers but go into this movie blind, outside of knowing the basic premise (a man changing who he is to become a better cog in the capital system, serving as a commentary on race/class/exploitation.) Subversive, revolting, insane, it's great! With a fantastic ensemble cast led by Lakeith Stanfield, the concept of creating a new, socially acceptable personality to more successfully survive the waters of a customer service job (and the horrors that come with the implications of doing so) is way too relatable, and that only scratches the surface of what's at play here.
Thelma (Joachim Trier) - A Norwegian film released in 2017, Thelma showed up in a couple of US theaters but if you wanted to see this one you almost certainly had to wait for the home release. A combination coming of age and psychic horror story, this is one for all the Stephen King fans out there. It's one of those horror movies that's all about discomfort and a constant feeling that something's gone horribly wrong. In other words, the kind I enjoy! It's not about action/violence/sudden scares, though there are some damn creepy scenes. I enjoy religious/existential crisis horror so this one worked for me on every level. Solid acting, a well-executed troubling love story, and a premise that works as a low-key supervillain origin story. There was one upsetting bit that hit me hard in the New Dad Zone, so keep that in mind if you're going to watch this.
Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley) - A directorial debut that kept surprising me the whole time and defies easy classification. Horror, comedy, understated love, and the lengths we go to to fit roles we create. I'm a big Anya Taylor Joy fan and she, Olivia Cooke, and Anton Yelchin are all awesome here. This was Yelchin's final performance before he died and it makes some of his scenes very tough. In a lot of ways, the world of Thoroughbreds feels like the Millennial version of American Psycho.
Excellent films worth your time:
Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada) - Another excellent directorial debut! Blindspotting is a slow-burn class/race/gender study that doesn't pull any punches. It's a cleverly constructed film where it's easy to focus on one of its social criticisms while missing another, trying into the film's thesis that we all create blind spots consciously or unconsciously. Features a very effective use of intrusive memories and nightmares. Daveed Diggs is great here, with a simmering build up that erupts in a powerful, poetic ending.
Burning (Lee Chang-dong) - A leisurely film which shifts smoothly from coming of age story to romantic comedy to psychological horror, Burning is a gorgeously shot film driven by three strong lead performances. Yoo Ah-in's Jong-su is a directionless, rural young man who fancies himself a writer, Jeon Jong-seo's Hae-mi a mysterious woman whose relationship with truth and reality is fluid, and Steven Yeun's Ben a wealthy playboy who considers himself a force of nature. A cat plays a major role. My sympathies were constantly in flux, with a final act that made me question everything leading up to that point. Jong-su sees himself as the literary hero of his story and awkwardness turns to madness.
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) - While this is definitely Yorgos Lanthimos' most approachable film, it's still a subversive, maniacal blend of dark humor and human drama. Usually it's hard for me to take an interest in royal costume dramas, but this film focuses on the absolute grotesqueness of the age from a satirical angle that plays up the costumes, attitudes, and childishness of those in power. It's so over the top that it becomes hilarious, and what's most impressive is that even in the middle of all that it's still an effective love story. Weisz, Coleman, and Stone are all excellent and it's remarkably impressive how hard our sympathies flip over the course of the story. There are a ton of rabbits and there's a scene where we see a duck race.
Hereditary (Ari Aster) - This wasn't what I expected at all, in a good way! From the trailers I expected a more standard Evil Mom story and instead got a modern fable about grieving and mental illness. It's extremely well made, Toni Collette and Alex Wolff are fantastic, and I loved the blurry lines between the real/imagined/artificial. The film blends real sets and an artist's miniature sculptures, creating an odd vibe that feels like a horror take on Wes Anderson's visuals. A good, modern companion piece to 2016's The Witch.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) - Barry Jenkins' follow up to Moonlight is an example of expertise of form; while the story is straightforward, it's presented with such strong, natural acting, lovely cinematography, and powerful score that it becomes something bigger. Combining the literary style of James Baldwin's 1974 novel with performances that feel like a great stage play and a non-linear, sometimes dreamlike structure that film can do so well, every detail of Beale Street feels masterfully performed. One of the more interesting structural details is placing the film's highest emotional point (a young woman announcing her pregnancy to her family) early in the first act.
We follow two expecting parents played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James as they experience young love in the past and a failure of justice in the present. When we first meet them, they're both wearing shades of blue and yellow that complement each other so well that we get an immediate visual shorthand telling us that they're perfect for each other. There's a constant sense of hope and optimism even in the film's darkest moments, set in a time and place that feels universal. While injustice is everywhere, that blinding feeling of first love just makes everything feel lighter.
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik) - Debra Granik's first feature film since 2010's Winter's Bone, another excellent film observing lost, forgotten, and overlooked people. Unlike Winter's Bone's harshness, Leave No Trace shows an incredible amount of human compassion and a love of nature that in many films would be enough to cure a lead character's ills. Here we see instead a man so deeply hurt by past traumas that there's no coming back, not with medication, religion, charity, or community. Living alone in the woods with his daughter, Ben Foster plays an army vet who finds no solace in any solution but isolation. The film avoids filling in details of what exactly happened in the past and relies on powerful, subtle acting from both Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. You can feel McKenzie's exhaustion as the film goes on, leading up to a crushing but hopeful resolution. It's also the rare PG film that isn't meant to be a movie for a young audience.
Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) - Wish I could have been able to see this in theaters! It's a real audio/visual nightmare. It's a movie that opens with a King Crimson song and that couldn't be more perfect; the whole thing feels like a bizarre melding of Prog Rock, 80's slasher horror, and campy wizard novels, yet it's played completely straight, in large part thanks to Nicholas Cage who always gives his all. Mandy plays within the rules of its own deranged world-logic and introduces a cosmic uneasiness that never goes away. Also: It's super gross. There's a very fine line between avenging knight and a slasher monster. I loved the title cards for each chapter, too! Feels like a weird thing to praise, but this film has fantastic typography.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan) - A coming of age story focused on a teenager sent to a reeducation/conversion therapy camp. Incredibly authentic with a strong performance by Chloe Grace Moretz as the title character, a young woman trying to figure out who she is while under pressure from counselors with no idea how to handle life's complexities. Painful and familiar in so many ways. Moretz plays a character who goes out of her way to avoid standing out but does so with expert physical subtlety that builds until she reaches a breaking point.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) - With incredible animation and great sound design, there's never been a comic book movie that's looked or moved like this. Miles Morales is a teenage Spider-Man fan trapped between two social worlds who quickly finds himself literally between worlds as alternate Spider-People start popping up all over the place, not to mention his own developing spiderhood. It's easy to be cynical about a story where a kid finds his inspiration in a billion dollar superhero product (The Peter Parker of Miles' world is a marketing entrepreneur selling Spider-Man brand products on top of his regular action stunts,) but Miles is portrayed with such good-natured sweetness and hope that he's an inspiring figure.
I wasn't feeling two of the comic relief Spiders, but the jokes that worked for me were great (including Nicholas Cage playing a film noir Spider-Man) and I loved how alive everything felt. Miles, Peter andGwen are a fun oddball superhero family unit, and Miles' interactions with his actual family are quite genuine and lovely. The whole film's just bursting with frantic energy that perfectly matches what's going on in Miles' head; a fantastic visualization of our lead's inner conflict. The action's chaotic (and there's probably too much of it loaded into the final act) but it fits Miles' nervousness and artistic flair. I wish other popular superhero movies were even half this visually interesting! I'd settle for a quarter at this point.
Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino) - A reimagining of Dario Argento's 1977 cult classic. A horror/drama set in a dance school run by a group of witches, this film is completely up front about its supernatural elements and uses them to signify the way dance and other physical performance can break the bodies of its artists. It doesn't condemn the art (and it does present two very different witch figures, one with ill intents and one who's a lot more complex) but it does showcase the painful nature of creation that can allow its audiences to feed off of it while costing the artist.
There's a constant sense of division at play; between the real and the magical, past and present, cruelty and love, between the leadership of the coven, between who we really are and the persona we project, and between its settings of East and West Germany. Motherhood and birth imagery (physical, artistic, and spiritual) are everywhere here, it's a very loaded film that rewards rewatching. Dakota Johnson is a solid lead, but it's Tilda Swinton who steals the show in every scene. I'd be totally up for watching her talk about and demonstrate dance theory for two hours with or without witchcraft involved.
Venom (Ruben Fleischer) - Who'd have thought both of the year's best comic book movies would be Spider-Man spinoffs? While Spider-Man himself doesn't appear in this film, this reimagining of one of his most iconic villains is a ton of fun. It's a wild, campy ride that more or less plays out like a buddy action-comedy where one of the buddies is a parasite inside the other's body. Tom Hardy is remarkable here and is the entire reason the film works. He plays alien-infected reporter Eddie Brock with hilarious over-the-top madness but also manages to keep the character endearing and heroic. While the Venom character is a comic book anti-hero, this film's take on the character presents a more heroic figure than usual for a modern comic film. While most superheroes these days are fighting to protect the status quo, the Venom/Brock combo team up to punish the world's most powerful corporation for literally consuming the poor inside and out. It's still a power fantasy, but it's aimed in a more worthwhile direction than usual.
Won't You Be My Neighbor (Morgan Neville) - A great documentary following the life and teaching of Mister Rogers. While this is largely a celebration of Fred Rogers' life, it doesn't shy away from struggles and criticism. One of the most interesting pieces to me is Rogers' study of silence and slowness in film and television. As the parent of a toddler, it's a relief from the hyperactivity of Elmo.
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay) - Awesome, relentlessly pumping sound design and a performance by Joaquin Phoenix that somehow manages to alternate between incredibly subtle and over the top and feels completely right. Phoenix plays Joe, a PTSD-riddled hitman/detective with a death wish focused on rescuing abused children. Lynne Ramsay gives us a violent action movie focused on the internal consequence of violence that spends no time glorifying the horrors it shows. Much of the film's most grotesque violence happens just off screen, forcing our imaginations to fill in the gaps much as we're forced to fill in the gaps explaining how Joe became the man he is today. We're given flashes, microscopic waking nightmares, and a bond with a rescued child who Joe wants to save from following in his own footsteps.
Films with standout elements:
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski) - A world with a ludicrous concept on the surface: There are monsters everywhere, if they hear you you're most likely going to die. Don't make a sound! As a social metaphor, it's saying that there's safety in keeping your head down and blending in. Eventually, standing up and being loud becomes an act of courage, even if it has a cost. This was more of an action movie than I expected, and I appreciated how much time it spent calmly getting to know the family before stuff really went nuts. The use of sign language in the film was great and it was nice to see a deaf child able to play a heroic role rather than a victim.
Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit (Aaron Hancox, Michael McNamara) - It's light, fluffy, and lovely, just like its star: A gigantic red Persian named Oh La La. The film follows several cat owners and their fuzzy buddies as they compete across the Canadian cat show world, but Oh La La is definitely the draw. This one's particularly funny to me because my first paid, published work involved taking pictures at a local cat show in 2009 and at the time I thought, "Someone really has to make a movie out of this." Someone finally did, and it's absolutely spot on.
Christopher Robin (Marc Forster) - I thought this was good even if the ending felt like a mistake. I really enjoyed the animation and thought the ragged old animals looked excellent. Eeyore's (as always) the best part and I'm glad that Heffalumps were embodied as jobs gobbling up your happiness. It's maybe about a shared delusion spreading from one man to everyone he interacts with, presumably leading to an eventual delirium utopia. Ewan McGregor's particularly good at interacting with CG puppets, he did it better than anyone else in the Star Wars prequels and he does it well here.
Creed II (Steven Caple Jr.) - The previous Creed is one of my all-time favorite movies so there was a lot to live up to, which is appropriate in a film focused on legacies. It's solid and it's got some strong emotional moments but they don't hit as hard as the previous film's. The fights are totally fine, but the insanely good choreography and cinematography of the previous film is sorely missed; those were among my favorite action scenes I've ever seen. Steven Caple Jr. takes over directing duties from Ryan Coogler and does a fine job, but Coogler's direction of the first film was just on a whole other level. This one brings back Ivan Drago from Rocky IV and his family scenes get just a little too silly, even if it's a lot more grounded than before. Tessa Thompson rules, Michael B. Jordan is always awesome, Stallone's as good as ever but doesn't have as powerful of a story as he had in Creed or Rocky Balboa.
First Man (Damien Chazelle) - A very personal story that carefully guards its emotions as much as Armstrong himself did. First Man is less a celebration of the accomplishments of science and more of an exploration of one man's personal triumphs and loses and the way in which it affects his family. It avoids the typical biopic structure and instead gives us insight into a few crucial moments in Armstrong's life and career, framed almost entirely by the shadow of death. During the space scenes there's an awesome sense of claustrophobia and danger thanks to great sound design and tight camera angles.
Incedibles 2 (Brad Bird) - It's a fun ride, the parenting jokes are actually great, and the action scenes are above the usual fare for a superhero movie (though nothing on the level of Spider-Verse.) But... Spoilers: One of the characters driving the action is a billionaire CEO who seems a little too good at first. He gives our heroes a mansion, a new job, and selflessly campaigns to make their lives better. It's a very obvious set up for a double cross, but somehow, he's actually purely 100% good! He doesn't suffer for his hubris or his naivety and he isn't interested in making money in spite of being a billionaire communications guru. He's a saintly version of Tony Stark and it's baffling to see. The world becomes a better place because of the kindness of a megacorp CEO and I don't know any way to look at it that isn't grotesque, especially coming from a company under the Disney umbrella.
The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.) - Amandla Stenberg is excellent as a high-schooler torn between class and racial divisions who witnesses a brutal police murder. This skews younger than other recent films about cultural identity in America and that's good! It's more of a YA story, but teenagers need to see more stories like this. It doesn't hit as hard as Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, or Blackkklansman, but it it's aimed at a different audience than those and stands out because of that.
Vice (Adam McKay) - Adam McKay's experiment that asks just how far you can push a completely detestable cast of characters without losing your entire audience. It's a dramatization of Dick Cheney's life and ambitions that sometimes gets a little too cute but is driven by an excellent, transformative performance by Christian Bale. It exonerates George W. Bush a little too much, painting him as a confused innocent surrounded by devils and the format of the jokes worked way better in The Big Short than it does here. Somehow, there's an after-credits scene in a movie like this, and like most after-credits scenes it's awful.
Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham) - A (mostly!) lighthearted coming of age story that I found immensely recognizable even if not entirely relatable. It's another good one for kids to watch, even if it doesn't have the power of Cameron Post or The Hate U Give. Elsie Fisher's performance is remarkably organic, the kind whose value is easy to overlook because it feels so normal and natural. Eighth Grade is a fun watch that touches on a lot of important issues but for the most part plays it safe.
Some flawed, some decent films:
Annihilation (Alex Garland) - Garland's follow up to Ex Machina is fine but just doesn't hit the heights of that film. What it does feature is some of the best sound design of the year, though! This one's more or less an Americanized remake of Tarkovsky's 1979 Soviet film Stalker; same basic idea of exploring a distorted, forbidden zone that alters time, space and minds, but this time with guns and gore. It weighed too heavily on the action-horror side and not enough on the existential drama. There are a few phenomenal scenes, but I couldn't connect to it and part of that's on me for wanting a very different film from what I got.
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) - I think that this is one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I also think it's just a mostly OK film. Wonderful art design and costumes help hide the flat cinematography and uninspired action, which caught me by surprise given how gorgeously framed every shot of action in Coogler's Creed was. I wish Coogler had directed Creed II while passing Black Panther off to Steven Caple Jr.!
The film's politics are bizarre: A revolutionary (played wonderfully by Michael B. Jordan) returns to his fatherland of Wakanda and takes power from an isolationist monarch with a goal of liberating oppressed black citizens in America and elsewhere... but he's the villain. He's given the cartoonish name of Killmonger and a couple of ludicrously violent moments so that we don't sympathize with him TOO much and think that maybe he's right here. In the end, the titular Black Panther defeats the usurper and maintains the status quo, but builds a community center in Oakland to show that he's capable of reaching out and changing the world, sort of. Meanwhile, a CIA agent flies remote drones to shoot down Wakandan pilots following the orders of their new leader so that America can maintain the rule of an American-friendly monarch. Kimberle Crenshaw wrote an excellent post to this point that goes into detail much better than I ever could.
Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson) - The stop-motion animation is cool and the dogs are nice and gross, but otherwise this one didn't inspire much of a reaction from me. I've seen critics both praise and bash it, but I couldn't personally bring myself to feel much at all. I expected it to be a tough watch but there's really no emotional drive here at all. I'm generally a big fan of Anderson but this ranks at the bottom of his list for me. There's a crazy amount of voice over exposition explaining stuff that doesn't need to be said and while that's nothing new to Anderson's style it feels less necessary than ever here.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J. A. Bayona) - Jurassic World 2's never boring, I'll give it that. It's also weirdly interesting as an inversion of Jurassic World 1, which revered the original Park. This one just blows everything up and resents everyone. It's ultimately more of a Resident Evil movie than a Jurassic Park movie, complete with evil laboratory under a ludicrous castle mansion. A velociraptor mugs for the camera and pretends to be asleep to fool a bad guy, basically winking at the camera before eating him. Another raptor reads a flammable warning sign and understands how gas leaks work and heroically jumps out of an explosion. It's a fun ride that doesn't have a lot to say, but at the very least it's a way better film than Bayona's 2016 drama A Monster Calls.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard) - I expected a train-wreck from all of the behind the scenes drama, but Solo's actually fine. Some of the referential stuff was a little too cutesy and it's about 15 minutes longer than it needs to be, but it really does feel different from other Star Wars films and was nice and small and personal. It's a crime/heist movie where the twists all make sense and the stakes are immediately clear, where I still don't really understand the political scale of anything that happens in Force Awakens or Last Jedi. The cinematography is uninteresting, but it's got some great alien designs. It's a weird one because it's a Star Wars prequel that fills in gaps that don't need to be filled while at the same time, from my anecdotal evidence, seems to be better received by people with less attachment to the franchise.
Films flawed in significant ways:
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) - I don't like the Avengers films but people keep saying, "Trust me, this one's better, you'll like it!" I never do. For what it's worth, I DO think this is the best of the Avengers films, but that's a bar that couldn't be lower. It's at the very least interestingly weird at times, but the human drama is spread ludicrously thin between the enormous cast, the action's stupid, and it's tonally all over the place. Captain America, while protecting one of his robot buddies from invading alien hordes, states, "We don't trade lives," followed by sending thousands of Wakandans to die to save one man-bot. The line even comes up a second time as a heroic moment! What he really means is, "We don't let friends sacrifice themselves, but all those other guys, it's no biggie."
When compared to other films in the Marvel series, it's not as good as the personal stories in Spider-Man: Homecoming, it's not as stylistically creative as Black Panther, it's not as good of a comedy as Guardians of the Galaxy, and it's not as good of an action movie as Captain America #1. It's a greatest hits album in film form, but instead of actually picking the best songs it's all b-side fillers.
That's it for 2018! In 2019 there's a great looking Godzilla sequel, Jordan Peele's Us, M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, and a bunch of others I'm looking forward to. Frozen 2 will probably be my daughter's first film in a theater. There's also a bizarre looking Joker movie that I mainly care about because it stars Joaquin Phoenix and obviously there's another Star War coming that I can only assume will undo half of The Last Jedi and introduce a whole bunch of new mysteries that don't go anywhere. Should be fun!