Top 25 Movies of 2018

I’m sure you’ve read enough intro paragraphs to plenty of other “Best Movies of the Year” lists and are DYING to read one more. Unfortunately I’ve been swamped the past couple of weeks and in all honesty, 2018 was a lot more hit-and-miss at the movies than 2017. There were big blockbuster hits and indie darlings to block out the big bombs and horrible misfires. 2018 was a helluva stew at the movies but thankfully there was some standout choices. Here’s 25 of them!

 

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25. Wildlife

Paul Dano has had a strong career in the film industry so far, giving standout performances in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Love & Mercy. Instead of using his stocked resume to break into mainstream movie roles, he took his talents behind the camera and probably came out all the better. Based on the Richard Ford book of the same name, Wildlife tells the story of the working-class Brinson family in 1960 Montana. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets fired from his job and, out of desperation to provide for his family, decides to join local firefighters in their efforts to extinguish raging nearby forest fires. His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) feels abandoned in a small town and seemingly goes through a midlife crises while her husband’s away. All of this goes on in front of their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who now seems to be the man of the house and unsure about the status of his family. Wildlife feels oddly present given it deals with a classic American family struggling to find a comfortable footing in the working world. Dano’s direction for restrained performances and cinematographer Diego Garcia’s mix of muted colors creates something like a faded portrait of the American dream. That grim display is also felt in the script by Dano and longtime partner Zoe Kazan, who take the scary feeling of missing out on life’s opportunities and put it through the eyes of young Joe, someone who would normally have yet to experience life but who faces it all rather suddenly. There are strong performances from both Oxenbould and Gyllenhaal, but Wildlife belongs to Mulligan’s performance as a lost damsel desperately trying to find her own identity. For someone known for his quiet acting performances, Dano makes a strong debut as a one researching the lost cause of old American morals.

 

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24. Searching

2014 saw the release of Unfriended, a twist on the slasher movie where the entire movie took place over Skype and a laptop screen. Though the final product was cheap and stupid, the gimmick was interesting enough to wonder what else could be done with it. Newcomer Aneesh Chaganty clearly saw potential in the gimmick and decided to use it for a thriller instead. Searching commits to its format as it also takes place entirely on laptop screens, this time though it’s the screens of suburban dad David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La), a straight-A student who goes missing on a random day. As David gets desperate to find his daughter, he digs through her laptop and realizes that she had shocking secrets to protect. Chaganty clearly studied how people use laptops and smartphones to connect with each other, showing how equally disconnected we all are when our lives are online. It was also wise for Sony Pictures to shell out the money needed for the movie to use actual websites like Google and Facebook, adding to how real the movie feels. Even if the audience is glued to computer screens for the whole movie, the script by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian holds attention with a gripping mystery story and Cho turns in a heartbreaking dramatic performance. There’s no telling what else could be done with the “laptop screen” subgenre that’s apparently forming, but at least we now have an example of it being done right.

 

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23. Mission – Impossible: Fallout

There’s something equally hilarious and horrifying about the fact that Tom Cruise would rather hang off of a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air than admit wrongdoing in publicly supporting a creepy space cult. But Hollywood’s favorite running man still has clout and pulls in some grade-A talent to keep his career afloat, so why not bask in the glory of the most consistent blockbuster movie franchise today? Round six of the Tom Cruise stunt show features his eternal avatar Ethan Hunt and the IMF team (sans Jeremy Renner, probably busy training for Thanos) tracking down pieces of plutonium that could be used to activate nuclear bombs. Also along for the ride is returning Brit Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and fresh Yank August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that killed Justice League) only adding to Hunt’s stresses of saving the world. Fallout represents the first time the Mission: Impossible franchise features a returning writer/director in Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) and if the Oscar-winner passed the audition with flying colors through 2015’s Rogue Nation, he one-ups himself by making the most propulsive and impressive action movies since Mad Max: Fury Road. The way McQuarrie lines up so many action scenes in perfect sequence with each other is impressive, whether he throws Cruise out of a plane at 25,000 feet to get him to a bathroom fist fight or going from a motorcycle chase immediately to a car chase. As charming and likable as Cruise still remains as an action hero, the real stars of Fallout are McQuarrie and his incredible stunt team. You could say that “sky’s the limit” for the next installment of the M:I franchise but if Cruise goes any higher, he might as well be an astronaut.

 

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22. American Animals

Pete Shelley, lead singer of The Buzzcocks who passed away last year, once sang about the “very humdrum” world around him as he was “waiting for the phone to ring” not knowing that his life was passing him by. Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen must’ve been terrified by that song (among other things) so they decided to steal life for themselves. “Life” for them was a rare copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America in the library of Transylvania University, which they attempted to steal in 2004. Bart Layton’s movie adaptation of that heist zooms in on the lives of the four unassuming college students who pulled off this radical stunt. Layton knows these guys are true American idiots but at least their motivations of escaping the mundanity of modern life feels especially poignant. Not only does the movie have Layton’s sharp directing skills and quippy writing to fill out the background, but an added bonus of interviews with the actual thieves to throw reality back into the audience’s face. No matter how much of a hip fantasy the movie sets itself up to be, American Animals knows the best lesson is the one that actually happened.

 

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21. Black Panther

There’s a case to be made that Black Panther might’ve gotten overhyped. It’s become a gargantuan cultural moment that’s inspired millions of people, validated years of cultural appropriation and hopefully made Hollywood reevaluate how it sees the worth of blockbusters lead by black people. It’s towered almost every other pop culture movement of 2018 that it seems almost impervious to criticism. Black Panther is not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s still a damn good one. Ryan Coogler’s epic adaptation of the Marvel Comic sees Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascend to his destiny as King of Wakanda with the support of his smart sister (Letitia Wright), worldly love interest (Lupita Nyong’o) and stern soldier (Danai Gurira). On top of being unsure of his own abilities, T’Challa must hunt down a kooky arms dealer (Andy Serkis) and face a mysterious soldier (Michael B. Jordan) who looks to claim the throne for himself. Less a superhero movie and more like a modernization of Game of Thrones, Black Panther has a sweeping scale to it with fully-realized sets, costumes and action setpieces. All of that thankfully doesn’t drown out the magnetic performances on display ranging from goofy villainy (Serkis) to sprightly comedic (Wright). It’s when the movie puts the cold Jordan and the poised Boseman face-to-face with each other that the movie rises to greatness.

 

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20. Bad Times at the El Royale

So it seems the world has mostly canceled Quentin Tarantino this year and if that be the case, Hollywood could use a new master of stylish 70s throwback character dramas. Drew Goddard, come on down! After riffing on slashing films with The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard returns with a whodunit that has the gall to wait before telling us what the “it” actually is. The titular setting is an old motel on the border of California and Las Vegas in 1969. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm) and a drifter (Dakota Johnson) who all check in while leaving most of their real baggage out of sight. Much like Tarantino, Goddard tells his story by pulling the audience in and out of his characters’ backstories. But where ol’ Q’s characters were all serving a story out front and center, Goddard uses his players as puzzle pieces and takes his time putting them all together. It’s a long sit but El Royale’s lush cinematography, swinging soundtrack and splatters of blood keep things moving and grooving. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bridges fills out every dimension of his character, Erivo adds just the right touch of humanity and Chris Hemsworth swings by to make crazy cult leaders sexy again. Now the world waits with anticipation to see what genre Goddard plays with next.

 

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19. Avengers: Infinity War

It shouldn’t have worked: over 20 major characters played by distinct personalities interacting with each other in one cohesive story for two-and-a-half hours against a villain that’s been there for six years and yet stood mostly anonymous for all this time? Marvel Studios keeps raising the stakes for itself every time it puts the Avengers together and they just can’t stop winning big. Despite having the characters and tones of five different movies sharing the same set space, Avengers: Infinity War has one definitive star: Josh Brolin’s haunting, maniacal but somehow charming Thanos, who sees the only way of saving the universe from total destruction is half destruction. The wisest things writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did was not only keep most of the Avengers separate from each other but mix up the teams a bit. Who would’ve thought a moping Thor (Chris Hemsworth) could get his confidence back from Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)? Or how about the festival of snark between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland)? And seeing Captain America (Chris Evans) lunge into battle with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is more patriotic than anything the Trump administration has done in the last two years. The action and effects remain jaw-dropping, but it’s seeing characters we’ve followed for the last decade stand together (and face defeat) that help hold off superhero movie fatigue just a little bit longer.

 

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18. The Old Man & the Gun

Robert Redford was, is and will always be awesome. Everything from his shaggy blonde hair to his relaxed and confident walk in every scene to his warm smirk to the comfort in his voice has made him an icon of American cinema for nearly 50 years. Whether he’s playing baseball, reporting on Watergate or even hunting down Captain America, Redford has shown himself time and time again as one of the most natural actors in movie history. So if The Old Man & the Gun is indeed his last movie before retirement, he picked almost the perfect project to hang his hat on. Written and directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon), the movie tells the true story of 70-year-old Forrest Tucker (Redford) and his string of cross-country bank robberies in the late 70s/early 80s. With little more than a smile and the occasional fake moustache, Forrest manages to elude a determined cop (Casey Affleck) and woo a ranch owner (Sissy Spacek) as he contemplates whether or not he can actually settle down. Old Man suits pretty much everybody involved in the film in front and behind the camera. After compiling a filmography of 70s throwback dramas (even his Pete’s Dragon remake looked like it was filmed in 1977), Lowery has found his dream project by having the movie shot with an old-school graininess and low, lush colors. He keeps things moving at a cruising pace that allows the actors to soak in the atmosphere and relax in their characters. Spacek’s warm presence and the intrigue Affleck shows in the case provides a great case of Forrest being stuck between a rock and hard place, while brief appearances from Danny Glover and Tom Waits add a touch of levity. But this is Redford’s show and like a heroic lone ranger riding off into the sunset, he glides through scenes as the wild spirit of American ambition. Never slowing down and always on the run.

 

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17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It should be noted that there was once a real human being who likely believed in the same things as Paddington bear. His name was Fred Rogers and for over 30 years, he taught children the importance of love and caring. 15 years after the world lost Mr. Rogers, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) reintroduces the beloved host to a world seemingly devoid of the heart his work kept beating. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a concise and informative documentary not just about the message but the methods of Mr. Rogers. Neville shows that Rogers was an academic who studied how children process life and how the changing culture influenced the way children learn. Mr. Rogers had to take the events of JFK’s assassination and Vietnam while the youth of America took in rock music and the rise of rap, but Rogers never hindered from his vision of kindness. The documentary doesn’t shy away from what the world is today but offers an alternative: be a neighbor.

 

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16. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The most disappointing thing about last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was that it’s about Peter Parker. As good of a character he is, we’ve seen him in six movies over 16 years and three different origin stories. Spider-Man has splintered off into many different incarnations in comic books that the potential for fresh material at the movies is limitless. Live action movies can only go so far with Marvel’s web-slinger…but what could animation do? Sony Pictures Animation rolled the dice on a whacko story from Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) and got something truly spectacular. Of course there’s one Spider-Man in Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an inner-city teenage brainiac and graffiti artist who bops to Chance the Rapper and treks rooftops in Air Jordans. Then one day, there’s another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) who moves a little slower and seems a bit jaded about saving the world. And then there’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) wearing a white hoodie and a chopped blonde haircut. And then another, and another, and another Spider-Man entering Miles’s world. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a ginormous breath of fresh air not only for the superhero genre but for animation itself. It’s the most literal example of a comic-book movie as the animation has a uniquely vibrant and poppy art style, almost chopped-up in different layers allowing elements to leap off the screen. That same format applies to each of the six new Spider-Man characters in the movie as they all come with their own style from cold noir to Looney Tunes-esque 2D. Spider-Verse was clearly made with love for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation along with the idea that no matter how long a character has been around, there’s always room for more.

 

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15. Sorry to Bother You

Don’t be fooled by the title of writer/director Boots Riley’s debut feature, he’s not sorry in any way shape or form for making one of the most intense and crazy movies of the year. Tackling capitalism, racism, unionization and representation, Riley has done the cinematic equivalent of throwing a cherry bomb into a company board meeting and it’s as exactly as entertaining as the thought of seeing a bunch of stiff company men simultaneously screaming their heads off. Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he attempts to get him and his rebellious girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) out if his uncle’s garage by joining a telemarketing firm. It’s not until he uses his “white voice” with customers that he starts to make big money and grab the attention of company bigwigs, including a drugged-out millionaire (Armie Hammer) with big plans for the future. Riley clearly has a keen eye given how well he maps out color palettes, directs actors and sets up comedic bits. Even when the movie gets weird and goes off the rails (in a rather jaw-dropping way), Riley still squeezes out something compelling and impossible to look away from. More impressive is how Riley’s style doesn’t block out the substance of the movie’s message. It’s a lot to take in and Riley has no room for subtlety, but his creativity flows out of him so freely and with such clarity that it would be rude to tell him to stop. That would also require his cast to rein things in and it’s definitely illegal to tell Stanfield and Thompson, two of the best actors who had the biggest year of their careers, to stop being this good. So yes Mr. Riley, keep calling and the rest of us will be happy to listen.

 

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14. Paddington 2

Everyone in the world is so mean in 2018. We’re calling each other cucks and libtards daring one another to kill themselves while sinking further into perpetual misery. But in this darkest of timelines, it’s good to know there’s someone fighting the good fight of kindness and decency. So what if it’s a three-foot-tall talking bear in a raincoat and hat? It’s not like we’re getting it from anywhere else in the real world. Undoubtedly the feel-good movie of the year, Paddington 2 follows the adventures of the titular peruvian bear (Ben Whishaw) living in London with the Brown family. He looks to get a pop-up book for his dear aunt when a broke stage actor (Hugh Grant) steals it and frames him. Paddington tries politeness and kindness to survive his prison sentence and the stare of an angry cook (Brendan Gleeson). There’s no room for cynicism or hatred in Paddington’s world as director Paul King fills the screen with warm colors and endless whimsy. It also has no desire to pander to the lowbrow standards of modern kids movies as it features classic bits of physical comedy and impressively-intricate setpieces. The entire cast is more than game for the saccharine silliness, Gleeson and Grant in particular who seem to revel in cartoonish scenery chewing. Paddington’s mantra is, “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right,” and the movie’s commitment to that is so sincere and strongly executed that it skips past being a corny elementary school lesson to being almost a prayer for change in the next year.

 

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13. BlacKkKlansman

In August 2017, the world was horrified to watch James Fields Jr. run his car through a crowd protesting white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the darkest moments in modern American history has been something that people have either circled back to as a cause for action or have tried hard to forget as a means to ignore the very real rise of white nationalism in America. But someone who did not forget about it was Spike Lee, who decided to remind the world that the threat of racism and bigotry in America has always been bubbling underneath. Lee, one of America’s most talented and vocal critics of society, told the story of Detective Ron Stallworth in October 1978. The first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department took on a bold assignment when he posed as a white man over the phone and used a white officer to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Lee’s dramatization of those events is well aware of the historical shame America wears for housing such monstrous bigots and instead shows Stallworth (a stellar John David Washington) stuck between his duty to the law in serving justice and his pride as a black man in wanting to make the Klan look like the fools that they are. BlacKkKlansman is both a bracing history lesson in a time when it’s needed the most and another of Lee’s stylish character studies. The movie is dead serious about its lessons but also has the lovable splashes of Spike’s directorial style. Then the movie throws one final gut punch during its coda that flashes back to all of the events that led up to and followed the Charlottesville incident, showing that there’s still a fight to be made against bigotry 40 years later.

 

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12. A Quiet Place

Jump scares are one of the worst troupes in Hollywood movies today. They offer little substance to a film, are often used as an easy out for a lack of creativity and cheapen any sense of tension. They’re used so frequently in so many movies that it makes jumpscares more frightening than any killer monster. So imagine my surprise when I see that one of the best movies of 2018 is so strong because of its well-executed jump scares. And it’s from Jim Halpert, of all people! A Quiet Place is not John Krasinski’s first turn in the director’s chair, but it’s certainly the first that gave him a challenge. The game: make a tension-filled monster movie backed by a heartfelt family drama. The gimmick: the monsters have hyper-sensitive hearing, requiring as little dialogue and even sound as possible. In a tight 90 minutes, Krasinski lays out a pressure-layden haunted house ride that knows just when to hold the hostage with its sound design. Since the script is rather minimal, the movie has to rely on the “show, don’t tell” rule and expertly follows it. Krasinski is clearly as annoyed by horror movie cliches as most people so he sands everything down to the bare essentials with the growl of the monsters and the creaking of the sets keeping audiences at the edge of their seat. It’s rare to see such technical precision for a monster movie and should certainly earn Krasinki more opportunities as a director.

 

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11. The Miseducation of Cameron Post

It’s a damn shame what people do onto others in the name of an invisible bearded man in the clouds who grants wishes. How is it that human beings have made such grand technological achievements and championed capital industry but still punish people for their sexual preference? The Miseducation of Cameron Post wants you to ask this question because the people who suffering have been asking for years and still have few answers. Based on Emily Danforth’s novel, the movie’s title character is a 1993 high schooler (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is caught making out with a girl on prom night. Her guardian then takes her to a gay conversion therapy camp run by a soft-spoken but imposing doctor (Jennifer Ehle) and her unassuming brother (John Gallagher Jr.). The duo run Cameron through prayer circles, confessions and private moments of why her feelings are wrong. Cameron knows the camp is akin to prison but remains unsure of how to define herself. With the help of two fellow “disciples” (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck), Cameron looks for clarity in her life. Despite the dark subject matter there are moments of true beauty in Cameron Post thanks to Ashley Connor’s gorgeous cinematography capturing warm fall colors on the ground and in the sky. There is a soft reserve to how the movie addresses the cruelty of gay conversion therapy but it doesn’t shy away from the method’s cruelty. Co-writer and director Desiree Akhavan shines by showing the bruises of these “disciples” are found under the skin and swallowing the teens whole. Whether their feelings are blocked by grinning denial (Gallagher Jr. in a career-best turn) or sneaky pot-fueled rebellion (Lane and Goodluck), Akhavan shows how the silence these kids display screams loud with no one to hear them. The voice leading the message is Moretz with her first great dramatic performance, equal parts innocent in her eyes but powerful in her resilience. No matter how painful the events of this movie is, there is comfort knowing that the number of filmmakers giving victims a voice is growing.

 

10. Boy Erased

Kids want to make their parents proud and return the love given to them all their lives by the ones who brought them into the world. But what would one rather have: the love of a parent or the love of one’s self? That’s the question asked in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s gripping adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir detailing his time in a gay conversion program. Edgerton’s film follows teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), high school star athlete and proud son of local preacher’s couple Marshall and Nancy (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman). He reveals to his parents that he had a gay experience and is unsure of his feelings about it, causing his parents (especially his father) to panic and send him to conversion therapy. Jared endures the emotional abuse of the program’s condescending leader (Edgerton) and debates how far he’s willing to sacrifice his soul for the love of his family. Whereas The Miseducation of Cameron Post showed signs of beauty in its look, Boy Erased is a more grim and bleak-looking film. It’s on-purpose too as Edgerton’s movie takes a harder look at a more tragic story about identity. Boy Erased’s depiction of gay conversion is also more aggressive, with Edgerton’s program leader interrogating the “participants” about why they chose to have homosexual thoughts and why they chose to hurt the ones they love. It’s emphasizes the cruel and unusual punishment these programs put people through, but the center of the story is Jared’s rough journey to coming out and still wanting his family’s love all the same. Edgerton is a fine director but he also shows himself to be a impressive writer by highlighting the emotional core of Conley’s story. Along Edgerton’s own imposing presence on screen, the movie is stacked with A+ actors. Kidman fills out the role of the conflicted but loving mother well while Crowe gives his best dramatic performance in over a decade as a man caught between the morals of his religion and the love for his son. Hedges has been proving himself as one of Hollywood’s great young talents for the last two years and Boy Erased showcases his talent better than ever before. He’s a quiet actor who says more with his silence than with dialogue. The pain in his face is something that echoes long after the credits roll.

 

9. Beast

“Love is blindness, I don’t want to see.” While it’s the chorus for a U2 album cut, it could also apply to Michael Pearce’s haunting romantic thriller. Set in a calm but complacent English island community, Beast tells the story of love at first sight between Moll (Jessie Buckley) and Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Moll lives with her creepily overbearing family while stuck in a rut giving bus tours to visitors. Then she meets Pascal on a random day at the beach as he lurks in the reeds holding a hunting rifle. They fool around and he sweeps her off her feet. Then bodies start piling up and Pascal is the prime suspect. Is Moll falling for a serial killer? Does she even want to know? Beast is at times erotic, suspenseful, mysterious and classic. Similar to Gone Girl four years earlier, Beast is a sleazy grocery store romance novel done with class and style. Pearce juggles tones and moods like a craftsman letting scenes effortlessly flow into each other like a river stream pouring over rocks. There are moments of sizzling romance in the movie (credit Buckley and Flynn’s volcanic sexual chemistry for that) mixed with elements of psychological horror. It’s also just a great, gripping mystery that makes the audience second guess everything at least twice. Considering how much movie audiences love sexual drama, it’s baffling how Beast went under so many people’s radars. Hopefully it becomes a sleeper hit on streaming services when it arrives. Beast feels both meticulous in its planning and yet effortless in its execution.

 

8. Hereditary

As great as writer/director Ari Aster’s feature-length debut film is, you may never ever want to watch it again. Point blank, Hereditary is one of the most grim and depressing films of this, the last and maybe every prior decade when film existed. It’s indeed a horror movie, but it deserves the full extension of “horrifying.” On the surface, Hereditary is a family drama with a stressed-out mom (Toni Collette), passive dad (Gabriel Byrne), burnout son (Alex Wolff) and awkward daughter (Milly Shapiro). But weird things start to happen when grandma dies and some supernatural family secrets come to light, driving the family into madness and perhaps something even more sinister. Aster’s film wants you to be as uncomfortable as possible watching Hereditary. The pacing doesn’t so much move slow as it does eek and crawl along while it drags its fingernails across the floor. Aster also loves flat, immobile shots that lets his creepy dialogue play out. As dark and cringe-inducing Aster’s story and dialogue may be, there’s an irresistible magnitude about it as you wonder how dark he’s willing to go (SPOILER: very very dark). Hereditary does get very grotesque once its supernatural elements come into play, but the biggest compliment to the movie is that it almost doesn’t need any ghosts to be scary. The raw, unflinching grief it emits comes through thanks to the commitment of the actors. It’s a wonder what process Collette put herself through to reach the hopelessness of her character and the insanity she has to play out. She nails it of course, as does Aster in making a horror movie that damn near redefines the entire genre.

 

7. Eighth Grade

Comedian Bo Burnham thrives on awkwardness. Whether he’s sitting behind a piano asking why nobody else likes soda at parties or using Auto-Tune to whine about first-world problems, Burnham’s worldviews come from a place of introvertedness and confusion about the constantly mutating social norms for teenagers. And despite being 28, he seems to have kept paying attention about what young people are into the older he gets. That’s the only explicable reason he managed to capture a snapshot of shy adolescence in the 2010s. Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) on her last week of the titular school grade. She’s an amateur YouTuber looking to impart wisdom on kids her age, a facade for her own insecurities at school. She’s awkward in conversation with kids her age, closed-off when her dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to connect with her and addicted to her smartphone screen. Burnham puts Kayla through a fair share of cringey awkwardness throughout the movie, but it’s not entirely for comedic purposes. Kayla’s efforts to socialize and break out of her shell are natural efforts of anyone trying to make friends. Eighth Grade is as critical of teen social standards as it is sympathetic to the introverts of the world. Burnham also wisely shows the crippling fear Kayla has when she tries to break out of comfort zone, as if Kayla is on the verge of suffocating. She makes efforts to make friends with the cool kids but never lashes out at them. Burnham doesn’t take Kayla’s insecurities to the extreme for the sake of the movie. It’s a grounded and surprisingly realistic look into the struggle of connecting with each other in the 21st century. The two key ingredients are Burnham’s detailed script and how Fisher taps into it with her performance. This is a girl who has lived this movie before a camera even rolled.

 

6. Isle of Dogs

It’s getting harder to notice when Wes Anderson actually evolves. The man has a style that’s so beyond the realm of typical filmmaking, with layers of detail precision on top of each other, that to notice changes and improvements between his movies in the last decade would require some antique magnifying glass he’d probably put in the background of his next movie. In the case of Isle of Dogs, his second stop-motion animation feature, the biggest improvement is actually the most outstanding feature of the movie: a big beating heart. Set in a dystopian future where Japan deals with a viral outbreak amongst its dog population by exiling them to an island filled with garbage, a pack of island dogs come across a young boy who crash-landed on the island searching for his own dog. The dogs (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban), lead by a mean former stray (Bryan Cranston), guide the boy through the remnants of the island and discover what humans and dogs lost in the confusion. While admittedly Isle of Dogs doesn’t have the freshness of Anderson’s previous animated adventure, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it does have a better embrace of the concept’s silliness without losing the emotional core. Anderson is still playing with his personal toys in a fine-tuned sandbox, his production designers and art direction team have outdone themselves with the scope of the island and Megasaki City, not to mention the impeccable touches to the designs of the dogs themselves. Even the drum-heavy score by Alexandre Desplat adds to the distinct atmosphere. But even under all of the style is the heartwarming story of two lost boys trying to find their way home through each other. It might be the most accessible movie Anderson has ever made without sacrificing his own integrity. Keep climbing, Wes!

 

5. Unsane

Boy we really didn’t see the Steven Soderbergh comeback coming, did we? After putting a hold on his movie-directing retirement with last year’s goofy caper Logan Lucky, Soderbergh decided to go the complete opposite direction for his next feature: a tight, tense psychological thriller shot entirely with iPhone cameras. For a man with such a wide-ranging resume, it’s actually amazing that he’s tackled both versions of a filmmaker’s comeback. Grounded in both simplicity and mystery, Unsane follows Sawyer (Claire Foy) and the struggle of being a followed woman. Sawyer has been stalked by a former work client so incessantly that she had to relocate, but she still feels like she’s in danger. She goes to a medical institute in hopes of joining a support group but ends up involuntarily committed. Sawyer claims she’s not crazy, but seeing her stalker somehow present at the institute makes her second guess her own sanity. While the iPhone camera shooting style might seem like a gimmick at first, it actually elevates the atmosphere and tension of the movie. Unsane is intense and unnerving, practically breathing down the neck of the audience the entire time, and part of that is because the camera is either still in the corner of a set playing out uninterrupted drama or in the face of its characters. The way Soderbergh sets up, lights and shoots the scenes of Unsane is this ugly neon shade that seems like everything is about to explode. The same could be said for Foy in her best film performance to date in her balance of quiet emotional confliction and frantic energy. Unsane is unnerving in all the best ways. When it stands still, you anxiously wait for it to strike like a killer tiger. When it’s unleashed and tries to terrify you, it shakes you to the core.

 

4. Roma

2018 had a curious double event: two Oscar-winning writer/directors return with their first movie in five years. The first of the pair is Alfonso Cuarón, who took audiences for a roll in space with the mega-hit Gravity. Cuarón could’ve gone anywhere he wanted with his next project, but he decided to go home. Loosely based on his own upbringing, Cuarón’s Roma centers around a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City going through life. Seen through the eyes of the family’s maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), she and the family deal with marital troubles, societal shifts and growing up together. Shot in black and white, Cuarón’s vision is one of blunt scope as he lets the audience take in the wide shots of the family home or the sprawling mansion they celebrate the holidays in. You almost feel bad that the movie isn’t in color given all the wide scenery Cuarón captures. It’s a borderline documentary in how realized the sets are and how real the actors portray their characters. There are equal doses of grown-up reality and childlike whimsy, as if the movie is a child maturing before the audience’s eyes. Seeing the bustling and overcrowded locations in Mexico and how everyone finds ways to get by on their own highlights the story’s focus on family. Cleo, embodied in every degree by Aparicio, is both a fly on the wall to middle-class struggle and a look inside of the lives of the working-class. As hard as things may get for the family and Cleo herself, sadness is never a long-term option. And that seems to be Cuarón’s point: things may look as bleak as can be but you can always come home to family.

 

3. The Favourite

The career of Yorgos Lanthimos has been mostly fascinating but also a bit frustrating. The Greek writer/director clearly has a strong grip on making left-field dramas that challenge movie norms. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are like if Stanley Kubrick looked at the droll lives of modern society and took them to shocking extremes. With those concepts come tones, characters and executions that can seem too strange to fully enjoy. So much so that one wishes Lanthimos would drop the weirdness and take his technique to a more straight-forward story. Be relieved at The Favourite, which looks on the surface like an episode of Downton Abbey beefed up to be a soap opera. It’s the early 18th century and England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is more like a bored child than a bold leader the country needs while at war with France. At the Queen’s side is longtime friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who is as ruthless as a monarch but remains the Queen’s closest companion. Then Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up looking for work, nudging up against the Queen herself. Lady Sarah feels threatened, Abigail feels empowered, and the Queen snickers to herself watching people fight for her affection. One of the best things about The Favourite is that Lanthimos has no writing credit, keeping his tendency for weird and rather depressing subject matter out of the movie’s stew. Instead, the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara plays out a story of friendship, love, betrayal and power. It gives equal weight to development of all three leads: one with no love but great power (the Queen), one with neither love nor true power (Lady Sarah) and one with great love but no power (Abigail). Lanthimos lays out the three pieces in the immaculate Hatfield House estate and moves them around, against and occasionally on top of each other like a three-way chess game. Free of writing duties, the director focuses entirely on orchestrating the synthesis of gorgeous costumes, crisp natural light and a surprising amount of fish-eye lenses to let the audience soak in the driven cattiness between the leads. Despite being in constrictive corsets, all three actors revel at swiping their claws at each other. Colman has effortlessly jumped between dramas (Broadchurch, The Night Manager) and comedies (Doctor Who, Hot Fuzz) throughout her career so it’s fitting that she balances both in The Favourite for the best performance of her career. Weisz is downright sinister in her poise, line delivery and even just the way she holds her head up. Stone may seem like the hero of the movie at first, but she takes her time in turning as rotten as the wig worn by Nicholas Hoult (also giving a career-best performance). The Favourite should allow those hoping that Lanthimos’s talent was not dependent on his weird story twists a sigh of relief knowing that he’s the real deal in delivering his first true masterpiece.

 

2. Annihilation

For the last two years or so, the world has been asking for more female representation in Hollywood movies. No more token love interests or ditzy blondes, the people want smart and strong women to be the stars of movies that treat them like real people instead of stereotypes. So why did a movie in 2018 about five intelligent women using science and logic to investigate an alien invasion get beat at the box-office by a movie where James Corden voices a cartoon rabbit? It’s still a wonder why the world let Annihilation pass by as it stands as both a successful statement in the hopes of better female representation in films and one of the best science-fiction films of the decade. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation follows a biologist (Natalie Portman), two scientists (Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) brought together to enter “The Shimmer.” After a meteor crash lands in a remote U.S. coastal area, an electromagnetic bubble forms and grows throughout the land creating “The Shimmer.” All military teams sent into “The Shimmer” end up never returning, except for the biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) who seems….different. Annihilation makes writer/director Alex Garland two for two in the director’s chair as he builds on the promise of 2015’s Ex Machina on a larger canvas. There is in fact actual “shimmer” coming from the movie as cinematography Rob Hardy lets in the right amount of light to the jungle setting of the movie to let everything around the protagonists glow like crystal. Coupled with the set and creature designs all give an otherworldly illusion that Garland uses as a psychological test for his characters. There’s beauty in “The Shimmer,” but it’s lays a seed that grows something horrifying overtime. There’s also great beauty in Annihilation, but Garland shows himself an expert in building tension and even terror as the characters trek further into the unknown and into their own fears. Even the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury starts as smooth plucks of acoustic guitar before flooding scenes with haunting synthesizers. It’s a deep, dark rabbit hole that Garland’s cast is more than game for. Every member of the quintet gets a moment to be swallowed whole by the movie’s nightmare, but Portman has room to showcase her bubbly personality with the deep emotional trauma of her character. Annihilation swallows you whole and leaves jaws on the floor. It’s not the easiest pill to take but it’s a ride that reminds you that science-fiction can be more than lasers and spaceships.

 

1. Widows

No disrespect to Alfonso Cuarón, but the winner of the “Oscar-winner returning after five years” competition is undoubtedly Steve McQueen. The British writer/director showcased shining beauty and unflinching brutality in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. That balance is the key to McQueen’s success, an ability to effortlessly capture moments of tenderness and compassion one minute before taking a stranglehold of the audience through tension and violence. Put simply, McQueen makes movies about struggle and his latest offering was no exception in covering the strife of women raising families, women left alone by men, women abused by men, women intimidated by men and most importantly, women underestimated by men. At face value, Widows is an expertly executed heist movie where three widowed women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) team-up with a determined single working mother (Cynthia Erivo) to finish a robbery laid out by their husbands who were double-crossed and gunned-down by police. But the script by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) saw what was deeper inside Lynda La Plante’s novel: one woman making a stand for her husband’s memory, one refusing to fail for her kids, one fed up with being the accessory to a man and one trying to lessen the struggle for her family. McQueen and Flynn add more to Widows, ranging from political corruption in contemporary Chicago between two inner-city thugs (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya) and a father-son dynasty (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) to police brutality. There are a lot of threads in the tapestry of Widows, but McQueen and Flynn manage to weave it all together in near-perfect sequence. It all lays out through the setting of Chicago filled with characters that feel like real people with grounded, working-class struggles. It’s a well-rounded depiction of modern American life that McQueen doesn’t try to glamorize or dress-up. Every bruise, threat, punch and gunshot is heard and felt thanks to some sharp sound editing and McQueen’s fluid camerawork. The biggest charm of the movie is how stacked the cast and crew are who’ve come together for such a stripped-down production, Widows feels like a movie Martin Scorsese or William Friedkin would’ve made at their peaks in the 1970s as a lost American classic. Credit also goes to the best ensemble cast of the year. Erivo continues her transition from Tony-award-winning theater actor to breakout movie star as she holds a strong screen presence on her own and with her castmates, while Henry and Kaluuya especially are imposing antagonists. Debicki also adds to her growing resume playing a battered woman saving herself as much as she is saving her colleagues. It’s rewarding to see Rodriguez, known for popcorn action vehicles like The Fast & the Furious franchise, get a deeper role for her to embrace and embody. But of course there’s Davis, undoubtedly one of the best actors alive today, turning in a balanced and heartbreaking performance. She’s got bruises and pain on her own that nearly shatters her to pieces, but she’ll never let it show if it means not taking what belongs to her and her team. It’s strength that busts through the screen and is impossible to dismiss as fake. Same goes for Widows as it stands alone as something present and timeless at the same time.

 

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Last Call

Even before Anthony and Joe Russo ran their first reel, Avengers: Infinity War had a lot of problems. Not only did the movie have to adapt one of the most mystical and visually-striking comic series in the Marvel canon, not only did it have to bring together all of the popular superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent and enjoyable narrative, not only did it have to payoff a seemingly-random post credit scene from six years ago with a giant purple alien wanting to slide into death’s DMs….but they had to tell people that it was going to be two movies. Due to the size and scale of the source material, not to mention cutting up screen time between over 20 main characters, the Russo brothers had to split the grand finale of the MCU’s first decade between two movies (with the next installment out next year). That would be enough of a challenge, but then Marvel Studios had to go ahead and tell everyone about it. So that’s the biggest rub: with everyone knowing that Infinity War is only Part 1 and that whatever happens is only the first half of the whole story, how do they give any weight or meaning to anything that happens in the movie?

 

In a word: Thanos. The intergalactic, purple-faced, multi-chinned, wannabe-god first introduced at the tail-end of The Avengers finally makes his presence known in the 19th feature film in the decade of dominance held by Marvel Studios. And six years later with endless teases, boy howdy does he make his presence known. Motion-captured and voiced by Josh Brolin, Thanos finds himself burdened with glorious purpose: to balance the entire universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants from existence. He plans to use his mighty Infinity Gauntlet and the six Infinity Stones to power his “mercy,” as he describes. He already has the purple Power Stone and now looks to collect the rest from a cavalcade of caped crusaders: the blue Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the green Time Stone from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the yellow Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the red Reality Stone and the mysterious Soul Stone. Thanos’s malicious intent garners the attention of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of exiled Avengers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the city of Wakanda, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Thanos’s jaded adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

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Since Marvel was at least smart enough not to further damage the movie’s merit by putting a Part 1 at the end of the title, Infinity War’s greatest challenge is merely standing on its own two feet. A great control in this experiment is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a pointless first installment in a two-part finale that mostly spins its wheels to get to the actual conclusion of the story. Thankfully, Infinity War is a solid standalone installment in the MCU that gives its audience an enjoyable and high-stakes adventure before saving its sequel-baiting for the final moments. Kudos to the Russo brothers for giving such a stacked cast of characters all something to do and a purpose for being in the movie outside of fan service. For such a huge movie with basically three climactic action scenes going on at the same time, the Russos shoot the blendings of CG and live-action surprisingly well without too much shaky cam and with a focus that doesn’t jerk the audience between perspectives. The movie’s art direction and production design also take full advantage of the movie’s cosmic settings in outer space and on Thanos’s spaceships, merging the universes of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes. And even with all the cosmic lasers and monsters, many of the fight scenes here are surprisingly well-choreographed fistfights (seriously, Thanos looks like Manny Pacquiao in his prime going toe-to-toe against the Hulk). All of these elements make the 149-minute runtime fly by and don’t make the movie seem bloated or overdone.

 

Despite this movie’s advertising billing Infinity War as an epic event, it seems like the movie can’t commit to that promise. A problem with some of the recent Marvel movies is a stubbornness to let go of the laughs with certain emotional scenes being cut off by a quick or lame one-liner (see Thor: Ragnarok for example). Infinity War has that same problem, as many of the first-time interactions between the likes of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are used for jokes that can pull the audience right out of the movie. On top of that, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies) can’t find the right pacing rhythm. The movie rarely takes time to slow down and have its characters recognize the weight of the scenario. It’s mostly just show up, suit up and throw hands, which leaves little room for great character development. The likes of Iron Man, Gamora, Star Lord and Thor get the best of the writing character-wise and while everyone else has a presence in the movie, they end up as bit players in the background when all is said and done.

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But with all the big names and big guns on display, Infinity War does have one essential main character: Thanos. His characterization and impact to the story could’ve broke the movie down before it even started but right from the get-go, as he walks across the corpses of fallen enemies, he stands as one of the MCU’s finest villains, let alone one of the finest comic-book movie villains. He’s incredibly imposing in his presence, Brolin’s deep growl matched with his lines is a good combination of intelligence and evil, and the movie doesn’t overstate how righteous he thinks he is. Thanos believes he is doing the universe a favor by committing genocide, but he’s not cackling like the Joker when he takes an entire planet and shoots it at Iron Man (a wonderful visual, by the way). Thanos is the best character in this movie, and it’s easy to see how much Brolin enjoys the subtleties of playing him. He may be in a motion-capture suit (also impressively done) but Brolin clearly envisioned the universe around him in all the green screen and really liked every second of being in it.

 

Not every member of the Avengers gets character development here, but it seems like the movie gives time to right ones. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in particular play a pivotal role, being Thanos’s adopted daughter and all. She seems to give Thanos the most cause to reflect on his actions and Saldana gets very emotionally invested in it. Same with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who, without spoiling anything, takes a great deal of loss in the movie and it’s clear his brutish armor is starting to rust away. Downey Jr., the flagship star of the MCU, also has great emotional weight on Tony Stark being that he took a great bulk of trauma from his first encounter with Thanos six years ago. It’s understandable as to why he’s more stressed and emphasizing the threat of the movie than his typical joking self. On the flip side of that, Chris Pratt can’t seem to turn off the goofy Han Solo-esque schtick and get into the events of the movie. Tom Hollland’s aggressively teenaged Spider-Man also does not belong in the events of Infinity War, while Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, who’s been such a focal point of the MCU for the past four years, merely seems like an afterthought addition to the cast. There’s plenty of faceless monsters for the Avengers to fight, but not enough screen time for them to establish their investment in the movie.

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So for a studio-mandated, contextually-required first half of grand finale, there’s a great sense of relief knowing that Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it is. There’s a lot of moving parts and some of them stall, but the essential pieces keep the motor running smoothly. It’s action-packed and more grim than the previous installments, never boring or overbearing. A superhero orchestra playing the right notes for an entertaining night out. The biggest problem though is that it is obviously a “Part 1,” leaving whatever risks it takes stuck with an asterisk on it needing to be solved in the next movie. That next installment will prove whether or not the entire journey was worth the investment or not but if it’s the latter, at least we got one good ride out of it.

3/4