Rick’s Top 30 Movies of 2018
The following list is based on US release dates. Sometimes those foreign flicks and festival darlings have a lot of crossover from year to year.
30. Izzy Gets the F-ck Across Town
Izzy (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a wannabe punk rock icon who just can’t seem to give up the life of a starving artist/couch surfer. When she hits rock bottom: losing her job, going on a bender, and waking up in a stranger’s bed on the other side of town with no car or money, she bops from one misfortune to the next trying to get to her ex-boyfriend’s engagement party to ruin it. It might sound like a broad comedy, but it forgoes low-hanging fruit to wallow with Davis’ charismatic lead. I might be over-rating it a little bit based on the strength of a single scene, where Izzy is forced to play a song with her sister, played by Carrie Coon (and former bandmate before giving up on their collective dream). They run a full gamut of emotions while playing the song. It is amazing.
29. The Rider
Using untrained actors is always a gamble, but everyone involved is a natural especially Brady Jandreau. Jandreau was an up and coming rodeo star in South Dakota. He met director Chloe Zhao when she was doing research on ranch life. She wanted to make a movie about it, but lacked a story. A year after they first met, Jandreau suffered a traumatic brain injury that ended his rodeo career, and suddenly Zhao had her story. She effectively makes Jandreau’s circumstances into a crossroads of various topics: bruised masculinity, economic distress of small town America, and one man’s search for purpose after failure.
28. Let the Sunshine In
There is nothing more fun than seeing a master filmmaker of the human condition like Claire Denis play with something so commonly rote as a romantic comedy. She casts Juliette Binoche as a divorced Parisian artist in the later half of her life who goes looking for a second shot at romance. Binoche brings the kind of warmth you would want in a romantic lead, but she isn’t suffering fools. Which is weird, because romantic comedies could simply be renamed “fool sufferings.” She goes through a number of stereotypical loser men who aren’t ever really worth her time, and it ultimately walks the thin line between trying to satisfy the desire for companionship and acknowledging that it is not necessary for self-fulfillment. Those are often depicted as opposing forces, but they are both accurate.
27. Skate Kitchen
This narrative debut of documentarian Crystal Mosselle features Camille, a sheltered skateboarding maverick who was semi-famous thanks to her instagram account making friends with inner city skaters and being overwhelmed by how much more experienced they all seemed. Camille is played by Rachelle Vinberg, a real life skater who is getting real life famous thanks to her real life instagram account. It makes for a smooth transition for the documentary filmmaker who takes a natural approach and shoots her subjects in fly-on-the wall form. Most scenes often feel as if she just approached these random skaters on the street and started recording them.
26. The Sisters Brothers
In a perfect world, more people would have seen this sincere western and revel as John C. Reilly steals the show from some of the best actors working today: Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed. Reilly is a man of many worlds. He is an expert gun hand who is simply sick of his violent life and desires more comfortable and classy circumstances. He is mercilessly teased by his impulsive tough guy brother (played by Phoenix) and is never taken close to serious from the verbose Gyllenhaal or intellectual Ahmed. These subtle character interactions allows for French director Jacques Audiard find new emotional depths in genre conventions.
25. Bad Times at the El Royale
I suppose a comparison to Tarantino is unavoidable: a group of kooky violent individuals find themselves isolated in a claustrophobic setting dripping with nostalgia and presented to us in a non-linear fashion. However, it also depicts everything people were scared about back in those days. Government surveillance, grand conspiracies that shaped history, the weight of war and secrets on individual psyches, and the unpredictable specter of a Charles Manson-like agent of chaos. Mostly, it is stuff we are still scared of, which is a good thing to remember when nostalgia sets in. The human element is always left out. And Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, and Lewis Pullman bring just that to elevate the nostalgia-based coolness of this movie in a really compelling way.
In the beginning, Shoplifters kind of feels like an arthouse remake of a classic family sitcom. A married couple, where the mom seems to have more sense than the dad, take care of their household that includes a rascally son, a sarcastic grandma, and a disaffected sister by stealing food and taking advantage of the pension program. Everything changes when they find a young girl shivering on a stoop. They take her in and their family gets bigger. As time goes on, their crimes seem less cheeky and their bonds seems more complicated. But there is a purity to it. And eventually a sadness.
23. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers are some of the more indecipherable filmmakers mostly due to how dumb they play when it comes to the extra-dimensions that their fans find in their work. They don’t like explaining themselves. They are constantly just letting the work speak for itself, and the danger of that is maybe sometimes people get the wrong idea. Sort of like how so many people think they are misanthropes. The opening story of this six part anthology that shows a grinning, singing, dancing Roy Orbinson style gunslinger used to doing the executing scoffs at the idea of being a misanthrope, and it is hard not to think the Coen brothers are talking to us. But at the same time, these lovers of old cinema, especially westerns, might be flexing an entirely different muscle. The six stories could just as easily be seen as a tour of ALL the various western genres. The aforementioned Roy Orbinson style cowboy, James Franco’s karmic spaghetti western fable, Zoe Kazan’s epic journeyman drama, and a milder psychedelia of acid westerns in the final chapter.
22. The Favourite
Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos loves to dissect the inner workings of manipulation, but none of his movies are quite as accessible as The Favourite. Which says a hell of a lot more about his other movies since The Favourite is still not categorically accessible. It only is in relation to Lanthimos’ other works. It features Olivia Colman in what will hopefully be a star making role as Anne, Queen of Great Britain. Anne is too busy indulging herself on cake and lesbian companionship to truly rule and ends up having her attention fought over in a darkly comedic and occasionally slapsticky manner between her closest adviser (played by a steely Rachel Weisz) and a new brash confidante (played by a cunning Emma Stone).
21. The Guilty
A Danish corrupt cop awaiting a hearing is relegated to answering the emergency phoneline until he is either fired or determined fit for duty. The stress of this situation leaves him very short tempered with his co-workers and even some of the callers until one emergency involving a dead child and a kidnapped woman captures all of his attention. The Guilty is a very honest movie shot almost entirely in close ups of actor Jakob Cedergren’s face. Independent film loves these kinds of experiments where much of the inciting story moments are happening off screen, but so many end up just being a “nice try.” They miscalculate trying to get something candid instead of building a larger drama. That’s where the background about him being a corrupt cop is so useful. It is just as much about Cedergren’s crappy cop proving to himself that he’s not a bad person. That extra layer grants it the extra dramatic oomph that so many of these experiments are missing.
20. Hearts Beat Loud
Nick Offerman stars as “Non Swanson,” a big city, community loving artist who just wants to keep his record store and make music with his talented teenage daughter. His daughter has bigger plans though. She wants to move west and study medicine, but Offerman, who is also a widower, is panicking in the face of loneliness, which send both he and his daughter on a quest of self-preservation. That sounds kind of selfish, but it is spun very positively. These are two people who genuinely care for each other and want each other to have what will make them happy. But the things that will make them happy conflict. Like Chef in 2014 or The Way Way Back in 2013, Hearts Beat Loud is the funny and heartfelt comedy that works as an antithesis to cynicism. This is nutritious cinema. It is a vitamin, take it! It is good for you!
A lot of Burning reminds me of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the more prominent Italian directors, especially his trilogy about “modernity and its discontents.” So many of the characters seem like they are sleepwalking through their lives, especially our main protagonist Lee Jong-su, who barely qualifies as interesting, except for when he thinks he has stumbled on to something worthwhile, he has found the passion to find answers. It all starts when he falls for an old childhood acquaintance, Hae-mi, who goes missing soon after introducing Jong-su to her new friend, Ben (played by The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun, who has a real American Psycho vibe). Burning delivers a lot of horror elements without really being a horror movie. The scariest thing about it is Jong-su has so many questions he can’t get answered, which makes for a thrilling watch in a fascinating way.
18. Madeline’s Madeline
Filmmaker Josephine Decker has created one of the trippiest movies of the year without actually reforming the inner reality of the movie. Instead, the actors, especially titular Madeline, played by sensational newcomer Helena Howard, voluntarily throw themselves down a deep dark hole for an improvisational and experimental performance of Three Little Pigs. As things continue to evolve, personal traumas are dragged to the surface and appropriated for the show in the name of “art.” But as these fine lines are crossed, mental health begins to deteriorate and behavior becomes predatory. It is an unpopular depiction of leaving your comfort zone, but the acknowledgment of the possible dangers in doing so are just as important.
17. Vox Lux
Filmmaker Brad Corbett has collected all the biggest headlines from the tabloids and gossip mags and arranged them as an odyssey into the American dream. It depicts the life of pop star, Celeste (played by Natalie Portman as an adult and Raffey Cassidy as a child), who’s rise to fame coincides with some of the most newsworthy events in contemporary American history. It is one of the few films that manages to look at the human condition through a rich and powerful celebrity protagonist that manages to prove its own existence. Celeste doesn’t have a celebrity job just so that the movie can have more excitement or extreme circumstances than your average Joe might be accustomed to, but there is no easier way to depict the fact that we don’t individually live in a bubble than using a person who is contributing to the ubiquity of pop culture.
16. The Endless
Independent film is alive and well. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson keep proving that with their clever twists on the horror genre. This one stars themselves as brothers, first seen in their first feature Resolution (see this one first) as zealous cult member red herrings, who return to the cult they had escaped to get some kind of closure. Which honestly sounds like the more horrible idea anyone who escaped a cult could possibly do, but Moorhead and Benson make it work with a slight provocation of destiny. These guys are meant to be here. There is no escape. If they didn’t return willfully, they would have ended up there accidentally.
15. First Reformed
Normally, faith-based movies are crap because they are made by people unwilling to challenge their faith for the same kind of people. It’s a genre all its own that First Reformed is technically not a part of but semantically it would be accurate. No film this year has challenged faith quite like this movie. Ethan Hawke, in what filmmaker Paul Schrader called a “lean-in” performance, as in forcing the audience to lean-in as if he is whispering a secret, has a crisis of faith after the death of his son, the dissolution of his marriage, and his failing health that put him at a crossroads of his religious interest in saving the world and his community’s conservative agenda to not regulate polluting businesses.
14. Game Night
Broad comedy had either fallen to hyper juvenile punchlines of little substance or become pre-occupied with ending their movies with boring dramatic beats while forgetting they were a comedy. Game Night instead had one of the best joke frequencies this year, never forgetting to be funny even in at its most dangerous or heartfelt moments. It stars a great cast of utility comedy players like Jason Bateman, Sharon Horgan, Lamore Morris, and Billy Magnussen, who almost stole the show if it wasn’t for Rachel McAdams completely knocking each and every punchline she was given out of the park. An especially funny backalley surgery scene had me cracking up from beginning to end. All the while, directorial duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Golstein effectively combine the comedy with a decent David Fincher-esque mystery that never feels like a parody and never supersedes the comedy.
13. The Other Side of the Wind
An unfinished Orson Welles movie that was finished by not-Orson Welles for a Netflix release is not something I would have expected to be a good movie, let alone one of the best movies of the year. It would help if I knew more about either film history or Orson Welles. I might have something to say about this near satirical take on present day cinema (at least at the time of its filming). As the movie tells us, Welles was making a big comeback movie about a similarly reclusive director named Hannaford who was also making a big comeback movie. Welles’ movie feels like one of the gritty “American new wave” like Easy Rider and Hannaford’s feels the trippy foreign arthouse of various new waves like the work of Jodorowsky. Somehow, it seems both like hesitant appreciation and gleeful contempt of those post-modern examples of cinema.
Border is potentially the only movie worth calling a modern day fairy tale, not because it injects a level of whimsy into the age of smartphones like so many have come before it, but rather, because it is a modern day fantasy that cares more about a strong post-modern character arc for its whimsical players. The player in this instance is a troll, a caveman-esque woman with a pretenatural ability to smell out feelings, who uses those gifts to excel in her job as a border security officer. When she finally meets someone just like her, she is torn between two worlds, more dramatically than usual. This isn’t a “hated and feared” X-Men situation. She isn’t constantly being treated like a monster. She has a loving yet conflicted relationship with her father, kind friendly neighbors who treat her with respect, and professional success and appreciation thanks to her results.
Annihilation should be one more movie in the trend of big budget arthouse sci-fi like Blade Runner 2049, but the audiences clearly are not on board. Which is too bad because Alex Garland paints this sci-fi world of his sophomore feature and adaptation with a terrifying reality-altering brush, anchored confidently to a saddened Natalie Portman. She joins a group of military scientists who have volunteered to enter “The Shimmer,” an ever expanding no man’s land that started with an alien artifact landing near the coast. The more reality changes, the less solid their footing becomes. It is like wading into madness.
On a superficial level, Widows is a self-serious heist movie that plays close to the vest in terms of style. Where many like it are trying to make them glitzier and more action packed, director Steven McQueen sheds all of that extra and relies on the inherent pulse-pounding tension to do its job. When everyone is trying to out “push-the-envelope” each other, holding back can seem unique. McQueen doesn’t just hold back, though. He delivers on an underlying human level the rest aren’t even bothering to do, especially through Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki’s characters. There is an underlying loneliness and loss of purpose that underlines all their decisions. Oh….and Daniel Kaluuya is one scary mother fucker!
9. If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins follows up his Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight with this adaptation of a James Baldwin novel of the same name. It takes place in Harlem in the ’70s, where a young couple is about to start their life together. Marriage, kids, a place of their own, the works. Unfortunately, agents of an oppressive system work to keep them apart. It is a snapshot of a time and place that in certain ways looks a lot different than today, but in the worse ways, it looks exactly the same. However, even though it is sad, Jenkins stops it from being a slog. He is an engine for empathy. It’s not just tragedy and sadness and all forms of horribleness. It’s uplifting and hopeful and romantic. It’s timeless.
8. Cold War
In this tumultuous romance from Paweł Pawlikowski, the director of Ida, we get a tour of Cold War eastern Europe, told through the eyes of a travelling propaganda choir. Where Ida told a tender but often dry story of identity, Cold War fixes that problem with the use of interesting cultural folk music and period appropriate jazz music. The music gives life to what time and time again returns to an oppressive world that desperately wants our star-crossed lovers from ever having that happy ending.
7. First Man
A follow up to the hit La La Land that won its director, Damien Chazelle, a Best Director Oscar starring Ryan Gosling, generally a big deal, about one of the greatest American accomplishments is not a movie I would think would underperform at the box office, even with a manufactured American flag controversy. And yet, here we are, this movie that looked at history through the pinhole intimacy of one particular man’s emotional burden is not the blockbuster it should have been. However, the reserved nature of the film, that it swipes from real life Neil Armstrong’s own public demeanor, tells a very special yet subtle story worth experiencing.
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Despite being the prevailing type of blockbuster, the distinction between superhero comic and superhero movie is still pretty vast. The superhero movie, despite advancements in visual technology and concern of fatigue, is still more concerned with grounded realism and avoiding some of the sillier elements that the source material is known for. That is one of the reasons Into the Spider-Verse seems to stand out so much. It dives head first into alternate realities. never holding back on the ridiculousness, so much so it features a cartoon pig version of Spider-Man as a major supporting character. Not only that, but it also readdresses an element that has even been forgotten by the comics themselves: what superheroes are actually good for. Their circumstances are too crazy to ever teach us HOW to be a good person. Their strength relies in teaching us how to WANT to be a good person. That is the throughline of this version of Spider-Man, delivered with a world-weariness that impossibly avoids being cynical thanks to Jake Johnson’s memorable voice acting.
5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Other than Marvel Studios, I don’t think any other franchise is cranking out as consistently good action blockbusters as the Mission: Impossible franchise. Tom Cruise’s commitment to punishing himself for our enjoyment has continued to be a highlight year to year. It is kind of a bummer that the franchise has moved away from its new director-new vision per movie style, but if there was anyone in the history of the franchise that deserved multiple bites at this spy saga apple it is Christopher McQuarrie. I give him full credit for the fact that everyone suddenly seemed really excited to see this movie. The social media buzz and editorial frequency from blogs was unlike any other Ethan Hunt adventure. And there is still more coming!
4. Eighth Grade
In a Q & A after the screening I went to, writer/director and comedian Bo Burnham discussed how he wanted to make a movie of how universal anxiety could be, and to do that, he decided to use a character that was the furthest from him: an eighth grade girl. Too many comedians go for the struggling comedian in New York looking for success and love, just a take on Louie CK’s old sitcom, which was itself a take on Woody Allen’s filmography. Burnham didn’t want to do it, and it was a smart choice. Star Elsie Fisher gives a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of girl with crippling shyness that Burnham escalates with little horror stylistic flourishes. One scene that sticks out in my head in Fisher at a pool party, standing by a glass sliding door, waiting to go out to the pool area, with a dark horror music choice playing in the background.
3. You Were Never Really Here
It is a violent world, and it is getting more violent. Or we are just hearing about it more often. Cinema is also pretty violent. We love our stories of vengeful lunatics going apeshit on villainous caricatures. We love violence, and I am finally feeling kind of guilty about it. Enter Lynne Ramsay. She took the classic man vs everyone structure of a John Wick and completely skipped the violent parts. Joaquin Phoenix’s severely depressed enforcer is very dangerous, don’t get me wrong. But Ramsay purposefully obscures the violence, ironically making it that much more intense. It avoids glorifying it completely, settled to only show the violence perpetrated on our protagonist in full crudeness. Ramsay is much more interesting in the brooding quiet moments between the violence, where the weight of decisions are at their heaviest. And with an actor like Phoenix, she gets all the brooding she needs plus some.
2. Thunder Road
In one of the more fascinating comedies, writer, director, and star Jim Cummings gives the best performance of the year. He plays police officer, Jim Arnaud, whose life starts to unravel after the death of his mother. Normally, this kind of cringe comedy doesn’t quite work for me. It’s like nails on a chalkboard. However, this is rooted an emotional truth that allows it to double as drama. It’s more vulnerable than awkward, and with conversations of toxic masculinity becoming more and more public, there is power in a story of a man ill-equipped to deal with his emotions.
From the moment I saw Blindspotting, I knew it was going to be the best movie of the year. Not many movies can deliver on a COMPLETE cinematic experience. It is a funny movie, full of natural chemistry that only two lifelong friends like Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal could deliver, but it never forgets what is at stake. Their hometown is changing right under their noses, and even though they are both townies, they navigate their neighborhood a lot differently because of their skin color. That makes for a lot of heavy material, but Diggs and Casal (who are also the writers) and director Carlos López Estrada mix in music and fantasy dream sequences that keep everything lively and kinetic. It grabs your attention and teaches you something. It is the best of ALL worlds.