AJ’s Top 10 Films of 2018

When you look over 2018, we were blessed to have one of the most evenly consistent years in recent memory. It seemed like every month 2018 delivered a film that left a real impression on the movie landscape. Looking back over the year, look at the amazing films we got each month:

January –Paddington 2

February – Black Panther, Annihilation, Game Night

March – Death of Stalin, Isle of Dogs, Love, Simon, Ready Player One 

April – Avengers: Infinity War, A Quiet Place, Blockers, You Were Never Really Here

May – Tully, Deadpool 2

June – American Animals, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Hereditary, Leave No Trace

July – Sorry to Bother You, Ant-Man & the Wasp, Eighth Grade, Blindspotting, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

August – BlacKkKlansman, Christopher Robin, Searching 

September – A Simple Favor, The Sisters Brothers, The Old Man & the Gun

October – A Star Is Born, The Hate U Give, First Man, Bad Times at the El Royale, Halloween, Suspiria (I’ll own I haven’t seen Can You Ever Forgive Me?, my big blind spot of the year)

November – Widows, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Shoplifters, The Favourite

December – Mary Queen of Scots, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, If Beale Street Could Talk, Cold War, On the Basis of Sex, Destroyer

We were spoiled this year. Even I couldn’t get to everything, and I watch 180 films this year. It was an incredibly impressive year at the movies. That makes cutting down a list to the Top 10 films of the year that much harder. However tough cuts had to be made. With a thriving year for foreign film, Roma, Shoplifters, and The Guilty could not sustain momentum to make the list. Westerns The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Sisters Brothers 

Without further ado, let’s jump into my Top 10 for 2018.

10. Free Solo (National Geographic) 

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin

I had never experienced vertigo while watching a movie in a theater. With Free Solo, I felt instantly queasy. Watching Alex Honnold climb up the side of El Capitan was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life. If the film had just focused on the actual achievement of the climb, it probably would not have made the list. However, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin delve into Honnold’s personal life and gain insight into his ideology. You watch Honnold change over the course of the documentary as his relationship with his girlfriend intensifies. Yet his goal and purpose remains, even with the stakes are clearly laid out. The moments off the mountain showcase Honnold as an absolutely fascinating subject.

Finally, the level of craft employed in the production helps it soar. The cinematography required at least three cameramen every time up the mountain, with Chin leading the team. Additionally, they recorded the sound of the climb, mixed by Martin Scorsese‘s sound team. Finally, a score from Marco Beltrami, who also scored A Quiet Place this year sells the complete experiences. Free Solo feels like the ultimate athletic accomplishment you will ever watch. Yet it was the heart of the story that makes this one soar.

9. The Favourite (Fox Searchlight)

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

One of the most absurd films of the year, The Favourite brings together three of the very best actresses in the world. With Yorgos Lanthimos letting his actresses off the leash, each comes to play with intensely despicable moments that fit together in a hilarious send-up of period piece films. For some, the Mean Girls-style antics and violent pranks on each other are enough. Yet at the heart of the film are questions about the importance of political power, and how fickle it is to acquire.

The film’s unquestioned standout is Olivia Colman, who turns in one of the very best performances on film in the past five years. Her depiction of mania feels unparalleled and brings the movie a tragic center to anchor the events. Yet Emma Stone gives her most varied performance of her career, and Rachel Weisz showcases brilliance throughout. Even Nicholas Hoult playing a politician absolutely stuns in his limited screentime. The four make for an amazing group, and the screenplay from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara crackles with the most obscene language you will ever hear in a film. It’s a gem.

8. Black Panther (Walt Disney Studios Pictures)

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Black Panther announced its greatness a full year ago. Think about the unbelievable task that requires a film. Instantaneously it became a cultural phenomenon and built a world we had never traveled to before as an audience. Yet the real accomplishment of the film is that within minutes, you buy into everything about Wakanda. A simple narration at the beginning of the film from Sterling K. Brown lays out the history, and a battle at Warrior Falls visually explains the tribes that comprise Wakanda. Black Panther allows Ryan Coogler to spread his wings as a director, daring to visual a culture that influenced black culture around the world. We are getting a peek behind the curtain of a civilization, and that peek gives way to a story about the mistakes of our fathers, a retort to policies of isolationism, and a nuanced look at the ways that our actions overseas create the most dangerous terrorists. Especially when those terrorists can strike from within.

Strangely enough, Chadwick Boseman takes a backseat to the impeccable cast that surrounds him. Instead, Michael B. Jordan rises to the top of the film as one of the strongest villains in the past decade. His anger and fury are unleashed through raw emotion. The pain that the last thirty years have created are undeniable, and you wonder what kind of leader he may have become had his life not been destroyed. It is a stunning performance of loss, and it remains one of the few times you actually agree with the antagonist of a film. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai GuriraLetitia WrightWinston Duke, and Angela Bassett comprise some of the impressive cast. Together, they all helped Coogler build a world unlike any in recent memory, and let the film rise to heights unseen. Trust me, you’re going to hear Wakanda Forever…well forever, and with good reason.

7. Burning (Well Go USA Entertainment)

Directed by Chang-Dong Lee

With his latest masterpiece, Chang-Dong Lee has crafted one of the very best thrillers of recent memory. From the opening frames of the film, something is off for our protagonist Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) after he reconnects with a childhood friend Shin Hai-Me (Jong-seo Jun). While meeting appears to be a work of fate, questions about house sitting, cats, and Africa come up. Despite the two beginning a physical relationship, Hai-Me returns from Africa with her friend Ben (Steven Yeun), and the film goes off the rails. The film becomes something of a homosocial triangle, wrapped in a cat and mouse game, wrapped in a deep fried noir, stuffed with the fears of millennials attempting to live up to the promise of a new world. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.

The tone of the film chills you to the bone, and the slow burn stretches out the tension across scenes. Chang-dong plays the audience like a drum, and forces us to question every moment of the story, at every turn. Yet there are clear clues you can follow, and depending on the audience member this can turn into a psychological guessing game about these characters. None of the characters are genuine, none are reliable, and all know how to get under your skin. It is an absolute masterpiece of tone and pacing.

6. First Man (Universal Pictures)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Taking a trip to the moon became the most intense film of the year. While other films have shown the trip to space as an idyllic journey, diving into the nitty-gritty of the space race confirmed how dangerous the trip really was. Damien Chazelle used his ability to get any film off the ground to tell one of the most incredible stories in history. The technology used to bring this film to life, as well as the ways it pushed sound design, practical effects, and even visual effects are stunning. Claire Foy wows as the mother holding Armstrong’s world together, and the role she must play in tethering him to humanity. Her monologue during Gemini remains one of the standout showcases of the year, and she proved that she will not be defined by her role on The Crown for long.

Ryan Gosling delivers one of his very best performances of his career as the sad and isolated Armstrong. The weight of what he is looking to accomplish is on his face in every scene. His depiction of monomania in the face of tragedy says volumes about people who strive for something to ensure those around them did not sacrifice for nothing. It was Gosling’s emotion at the end of the film that broke me, and with a stunning setpiece to get him there, it was impossible to ignore the power of what this meant for this man.

5. Hereditary (A24)

Directed by Ari Aster

There is no one that can hurt you like family. That mere idea resonates throughout Hereditary and forces its characters to confront harsh truths about themselves and their lives. One of the creepiest films to come to theaters in years, Hereditary was a bone-chilling experience that will remain one of the great horror sensations of this decade. Ari Aster directs the film in a way that makes the house of the main characters feel like we’re watching one of Toni Collette‘s miniature. The camera placement, use of shadow, and sound design amp up the tension from moment to moment. Aster’s script cuts to the bone, recreating trauma, guilt, and resentment unlike any horror film in history. Yet the performances took this film from very good to stunning.

Collette anchors this film, easily turning in one of the very best performances in the history of the genre. Her ability to contort her face, and use facial expressions to pull subtext into the story visually added another level to proceedings. In the quiet moments, whether at the bereavement support groups or at the dinner table, she pulls from the deepest depths of her emotion to craft stunningly tragic moments. Yet the film makes it impossible to ignore Alex Wolff or Milly Shapiro, both of whom deliver performances that prove they deserve more attention. Whenever Ann Dowd and Gabriel Byrne become the fourth or fifth best performance of the film, you know you’re cooking. Aster lets all the actors shine, and creates one of the most haunting visual films of the decade.

4. BlacKkKlansman (Focus Features)

Directed by Spike Lee

Every once in a while, a single film captures everything you love about a filmmaker and encapsulates their style. While I would not consider BlacKkKlansman the best film from Spike Lee (frankly it’s not in my top 5), there are plenty of reasons this became one of the best films of the year. Spike brings out the story of the first black cop in Colorado Springs and uses that story to paint a picture of America today. His stunning visuals embody the 1970s, but the screenplay speaks to this moment in ways that should scare anyone who watches the film. He litters the pages and visuals with allusions to Blaxploitation, a cinematic movement that receives far too little attention. He also speaks about political rhetoric in a digestible, and alarming tone that resonates with you after you leave the theater. There might not be a more integral story to tell the story of America of 2018 and the fact that Spike brought us the tale makes it all the sweeter.

Of course, Spike gets the best out of his performers, but the two that take center stage are John David Washington and Adam Driver. Each of the actors deliver-career best work, but Washington takes the film over. His ability to balance the comedy and drama of it all really speaks to his talent. It wrestles the film from actors with showier roles, and through his subtle and internal performance style, showcases a man in conflict with himself. Driver’s conflict results in some truly great moments, and as goes deeper into the world, he becomes the audience surrogate to understand the fear that many feel every day in this country. With Cory HawkinsTopher Grace, and Laura Harrier all giving strong performances in supporting roles, this film sings with great performers. Yet Washington and Driver create a true friendship and heart in the film that should be the model of how to create and become an ally in 2019.

3. Eighth Grade (A24)

Directed by Bo Burnham 

No film this year gave you a more sincere and beautiful look at the intricacies of growing up. Bo Burnham shines as a first time director and screenwriter. He makes audiences feel the pain of growing up in the social media age but reminds us that while the technology may change, the struggle feels the same. However, it is not just his screenplay that clicks the film into place. His work is amazingly gorgeous, showing off the visual styling of someone far more seasoned than he has been. The camera moves through the scenes and through Kayla’s life with confidence and a knowledge of how to capture her world. While the camera works to follow her around like a puppy dog, it is in the moment that he chooses to not follow her that your heart breaks the most.

Star Elsie Fisher embodies the feelings of loneliness and self-doubt in a textured performance. It is not just that she wants to make friends. She wants to belong, for just a minute. Anyone can relate to that feeling, and to see her try so hard, but fail, will make your heart melt. She gives a level of sincerity we rarely see in films, and there’s not a point in the movie that you think she is acting. It was a breakthrough performance and should be heralded as such. I would be remiss if I did not gush about Josh Hamilton, who simply stole this movie in the campfire scene. It ranks up there with the Michael Stuhlbarg’s or James Earl Jones’ of the world (I’ll let you figure which Jones performance I mean). It was stunning work and shows the care that Burnham put into this film. He got the best out of everyone and created something truly special in the process.

2. If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna Pictures)

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Making a film about love can feel like a truly boring and trite idea. Most movies that try to base a film on this premise ring false, because making a movie about the subject is far more complex than one might imagine. Yet Barry Jenkins not only brings this story of love and hope to the big screen. With a beautifully adapted script based on a James Baldwin novel, you cannot question he has become one of the great artists of our time. He commands the brilliant film from start to finish, letting his craftsman go to work. James Laxton simply stuns as the cinematographer here, painting portraits with every shot. Meanwhile, Nicholas Britell brings the world to life with stunning musical cues that make your heart soar.

However, the film’s performances are simply outstanding. From top to bottom, the concept “it takes a village” has never felt as applicable as it does in Beale Street. KiKi Layne and Stephan James astound and were it not for the incredibly deep year in Lead Actress (and my goal to not commit category fraud), Layne would have made my list. Her innocence and belief that she can save the man she loves are beautiful to watch, and her strength is commendable. Meanwhile, James delivers a shattering performance as you watch what incarceration can do to a man. Brian Tyree Henry delivers the scene of the year and will leave you breathless. Regina King delivers heart, love, and support, while Colman Domingo delivers a beautifully nuanced performance. This one was spectacular, and with an amazing closing message that diverts from the book, Jenkins reminds us about how disruptive and life-altering prison can be, especially if you are black in America.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Columbia Pictures)

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

My film of the year seemed like an unlikely choice even three weeks before its release. It looked cool, and seemed to be very stylistic. Yet I never imagined that another story about Spider-Man would undeniably be the funniest, most artistic, and emotionally powerful film of 2018. The story stemmed from an event in Marvel’s comic books, where multiple dimensions of Spider-Man came into contact with each other. It was a weird event, and certainly, an ambitious one to tackle on the big screen. Yet Sony Animation, the trio of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, as well as producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller took a leap of faith. In the process, they told the most transgressive, comedic, and heartwarming story about a kid in Brooklyn.

Led by Miles Morales (Shamiek MooreInto the Spider-Verse tapped a vein that was only possible by the looking at the years of borning white kids playing the part. Miles brought a style that had never been seen before for the character and became our first multiethnic interpretation of the character. His street art also provided the directors with an avenue to challenge the conventions of traditional animation and make a comic book film come to life. Each little visual flair, from the Chance 4 poster to the gradient textures helped to feel like we were watching a comic book come to life. With amazing visuals, the story of Miles ran headfirst into an amazingly rich cast of characters. The additions of Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), Penny Parker (Kimiko Green), Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), and even Spider-Hamm (John Mulaney) were wonderful. Even Miles own family, including Brian Tyree Henry and Mahershala Ali, were infused emotion and pain into their performances. This movie felt epic from the word go, yet contained an extremely personal story. Yet it was the way they told that story, that made it feel like it could be my story. It was such an impressively boundary-breaking film while telling my favorite story of the year, that made this one ring true as one of the most impressive animated films of all time.

What do you think of AJ’s Top 10? Which films do you agree with and which would you sub out? Let us know in the comments below! 

Check out AJ’s Oscar Ballot as he voted for (Part 1) The Crafts, (Part 2) the Screenplays, Foreign, Animated, and (Part 3) in the acting and directing categories.

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