2017 was a historically good year for movies. It’s the kind of year that film fans twenty years from now will look back at and wonder what it must have been like to have Blade Runner 2049, Alien:Covenant, Wonder Woman, The Shape of Water, Get Out, and The Last Jedi all released within the same year.
By comparison, 2018 didn’t have quite the same powerhouse lineup that 2017 had, but there were still some damn good films, plenty of which I anguished over having to cut from this list (Teen Titans Go! To the Movies came this close to making the cut simply out of spite towards everyone who slept on it in theaters). But in the end, I managed to whittle it down to ten, with a couple of last minute watches knocking a few established contenders out of the running. So let’s dig in, shall we?
Bad Times at the El Royale didn’t make much of a splash when it came out, and that’s a real shame because the movie is terrific. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino, and if I’m being fully honest, I like Bad Times more than Pulp Fiction. Early Tarantino reveled in immorality without ever really interrogating it, but questioning morality – how it functions, who it affects, and if it even exists – is at the thematic heart of this story. But it’s also just an incredibly entertaining piece of filmmaking. The period setting is a blast and used to terrific effect, the cast is phenomenal (Cynthia Erivo got a lot of well-deserved attention for Widows, but this is her best work of the year), and Drew Goddard proves once again what an impeccable screenwriter he is. This one deserved more love than it got.
If not for extremely positive word of mouth, there’s almost no chance I would have watched this, and I’d have missed out on perhaps the most moving and emotionally resonant documentary of the year (and yes, I did see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). This is a skateboarding documentary, yes, but to write it off as just that would be missing the deeper purpose filmmaker Bing Liu is trying to get at here. Liu and his friends were products of abusive families and broken homes who used skateboarding to find a community and establish some sense of control in their lives, and through this documentary, Liu explores the way these cycles of abuse are perpetuated and tries to find some grain of hope that he can find a way to move past these traumas. It’s a stunning piece of work, and I’m immensely grateful I made a point to see it.
I only saw the original version of Suspiria for the first time a couple of years ago, but it hit me like an electric shock. It’s so singular and unique; the type of movie that could only be made by a specific person in a specific time, meaning it’s exactly the type of movie that shouldn’t be remade. And yet, Luca Guadagnino’s remake is probably one of the best remakes ever made. Certainly among the best horror remakes, right up there with The Fly and The Thing. What makes it work so well is that it doesn’t try to update or recreate the original film, but instead take the skeletal structure of the original film and fleshes it out with wildly different visuals and style to dramatically different ends. It’s a film that’s dense with metaphor; examining femininity, power, revolution, religion, and it’s well beyond the scope of a year-end recap to dig into it all here. It’s the kind of movie that has inspired fiercely divergent interpretations in virtually every review I’ve read. It’s the type of movie we’re going to be talking about for a long time.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is my favorite superhero movie and it likely always will be. It’s a damn great film, first are foremost, but beyond that it’s a film that is profoundly personal in ways I can’t even begin to quantify. My connection to Spider-Man 2 is not, I imagine, unlike the connection the generation before me had to Superman. They’re terrific movies, but they also spoke specifically to certain people at a certain time. I’m nearly certain Into the Spider-Verse is going to be that movie for a whole lot of people.
You can make a very strong argument that it is the best Spider-Man movie, which means you’re also making a strong argument that it’s the best superhero movie period. It’s got an ingenious hook and an incredible aesthetic style that is genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever seen done in animation before, and that alone would merit a place in the conversation for year-end best lists, but what pushes it into the category of a genuine all-timer is the way it uses all of that to tell a story that cuts to the heart of why superheroes and Spider-Man in particular matter. In a world of superheroes who get their powers from alien genetics or royal lineage or access to tremendous sums of wealth, what makes Spider-Man stand out is that he’s just a regular kid. Superman is the ideal to strive for, but Spider-Man is us; flawed, uncertain, prone to mistakes and feelings of inadequacy. That’s always been at the heart of Spider-Man’s story, but Into the Spider-Verse underlines it – not just by giving us myriad Spider-People so that the character can actually be all of us – but also by making it a story about self-doubt and feeling like there’s this legacy so much greater than you could ever dream of living up to.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a movie that is at once as beautiful and horrifying as this is. Broadly speaking it’s a film about change and all the ways that change can be beautiful and wonderful and good, but also the ways it can be destructive and damaging and downright scary, and it’s about the ways both of those things can be true at the same time. To say any more would be to say too much, and thanks to a truncated release due to Paramount getting cold feet, not nearly enough people have seen this. Find this movie. Seek it out. Watch it. It’s something really special.
The Mission: Impossible series was already a strong contender for best contemporary action franchise, but then Christopher McQuarrie went and made not only the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, but flat out one of the best action movies of all time. This year was not particularly great for blockbusters, but Mission: Impossible – Fallout was good enough to make up the difference all on its own. I could talk about the practical effects work that gives the film a tangibility that other modern action movies often lack, I could talk about Tom Cruise continuing to commit to ever more absurd physical stunts and how that makes what’s happening on screen all the more gripping, I could talk about the pitch-perfect tone, the great ensemble cast, or the airtight script, but instead, I want to talk about pacing. This film is a masterclass in pacing for an action movie, gradually dialing up the tension over the course of 150 minutes until it’s very nearly unbearable in the film’s climactic race against a nuclear clock split between three locations. McQuarrie had already made the Platonic ideal of a Mission: Impossible movie with Rogue Nation, but with Fallout he tops himself to make the kind of film no one else could make and no one else should try.
I was raised with a religious background, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become disillusioned with the church and have had to wrestle with my own personal faith. I want to believe that faith can be an incredibly positive thing in someone’s life, but I’ve also seen the ways belief can be exploited to nefarious ends. I believe that the teachings of Christ are good and just, but I’ve also seen those words twisted and manipulated to justify hatred and ugliness and hurt. First Reformed hit some deeply personal buttons for me by wrestling with a lot of these same concerns. The question that lingers over the film is, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?”
In the film, that’s specifically in regards to climate change and environmental collapse, but the same question can also be applied to the church itself. Biblically, the church is referred to as the body of Christ, but if that’s the case, Christ’s body has become cancerous and toxic – infected by the influence of money, where right wing political doctrine takes precedent over scripture. And all of this meditation on the failures of religion plays into a broader theme of the battle between hope and despair. At its most pure, religion offers hope – hope that we can be better in this life and that there is something waiting for us afterwards; but despair sets in when you start to look at how much harm has been inflicted in the name of faith. Is there any hope of fixing this or was it all bad right from the very start? First Reformed doesn’t pretend to have answers to those questions, but to see a film like this dedicated to asking is remarkably cathartic.
Around the release of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, there was some talk about Mid90s being Eighth Grade for boys who grew up in the ’90s. Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m a boy who grew up in the ’90s, and I related with Eighth Grade far more than I did any part of Mid90s. This film is terrific. It’s a film that’s remarkably honest about the nightmares of middle school (there are moments in this more uncomfortable than any horror movie released this year), but it’s also warm and joyous and optimistic. In 2018 it could be unbearably difficult to be optimistic about just about anything, so to have this movie come along and say, “hey, you’re going through some shit now, but it won’t last forever, and your best days are still ahead of you,” is heartening.
And speaking of heartening, no movie melted my heart and lifted my soul quite like Paddington 2. That’s true of this year, and it’s close to being true of the entire history of film. Paddington 2‘s true cinematic peers can only be found in the likes of Singin’ in the Rain or It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a work of unadulterated joy as moving and momentous as any of those classics. That sounds like hyperbole, and perhaps it is, but I am incapable of discussing this film in anything but grandiose superlatives. It’s a film that marries the storybook wonder of classic Disney with the physical humor and inventiveness of old silent films and wraps it all up in a tale about the restorative power of kindness and acceptance as a bulwark against isolation and hatred. It’s the antidote to living in these dark times and if every human being saw this movie, I believe there would be no more war.
And then there’s BlacKkKlansman. If Paddington 2 is a balm, then Spike Lee’s latest is a passionate plea to stop allowing hatred and stupidity to win the day. Lee is one of our greatest living filmmakers, and BlacKkKlansman ranks among his very best works. It takes a fascinating stranger-than-fiction true story and reconstitutes it as a larger-than-life cinematic fable, blending blaxploitation style with a buddy cop story before pulling out the rug at the last minute to bring it all crashing back down to reality for the most devastating emotional gut punch I’ve seen in years. It’s a masterpiece of manipulating audience expectations; presenting what appears to be the kind of happy ending you’d expect from any other race-focussed period piece, only to undercut that with the kind of ominously ambiguous ending you might find in a police procedural, and then finally stripping away the ambiguity and drawing a straight line between the bad guys back then and the bad guys now.
Beyond that ending, though, the way Lee portrays racism is unlike any other depiction I’ve seen, but it’s one that feels vital and true. The Klansmen in this movie are all big, stupid, dummies, and the movie allows them to be big, stupid, dummies, but it also never lets you forget that as stupid as they are they are still evil and cruel and dangerous. In 2018 that feels like maybe the most important distinction we can make: evil is stupid, but that doesn’t make it any less of a threat.
As a bonus, and in lieu of a traditional section for honorable mentions, I instead want to present a fantasy double feature, pairing two films released in the last year that I think both perfectly complement each other and act as a perfect encapsulation of the cultural zeitgeist of 2018:
Neither of these films are as structurally sound or technically proficient as some of the other movies on this list, but they both act as a raw, primal scream of anger at the sorry state of the world we’re in. Sorry to Bother You is indiscriminate in its rage, taking aim at institutional racism, capitalism, environmental collapse, celebrity, performative social justice, you name it, and tearing it all down in the most deliriously bonkers story of the year. You shouldn’t let anyone spoil this for you, but even if I spelled out the entire plot right here, you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.
And then there’s The First Purge, which continues this series’ evolution from a limp, middling home invasion movie that wasted a unique premise to the preeminent angry exploitation franchise of our time. I mean, Jesus, just look at that poster! And this movie isn’t playing around. There’s a moment in this movie where a police officer in blackface is strangled to death by the black man he was trying to murder and it’s maybe the most powerful, loaded image committed to film in 2018.
Neither of these quite makes the cut for best of the year on their own, but together, they represent the raw emotion of being two years deep into the Trump administration, wondering what fresh horrors each day will bring and reacting to each new development with fury and despair. If future generations want to know what it was like to live during this time, these are the two movies to watch.