The sheer number of great movies that came out in 2018 is overwhelming — Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, just to name a few — so you’d be forgiven for missing a few key films along the way.
If you need a place to start when it comes to catching up before Oscar season kicks in (or you just want to start 2019 off with a bang), we’ve got you covered. Featuring everything from superhero movies to documentaries, from friendly bears to international super spies, here are the very best movies of 2018.
A sense of frustration suffuses every part of Lee Chang-dong’s hypnotic adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning.” Focusing on would-be writer Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who finds his listlessness interrupted first by the appearance of his childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), and then her charismatic friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), Burning unfolds at an almost maddeningly deliberate pace as Lee tangles with class, country, and everything in-between, and turns the three-way relationship into the seed of a mystery-thriller. With a conclusion that could be interpreted in a million different ways — and stunning performances from the three leads, particularly Yeun, who proves utterly unreadable — it’s a film that’s impossible to shake.
Currently in theaters
Though The Favourite is a historical drama set during the reign of Queen Anne (played here by the terrific Olivia Colman), the film is less interested in history and more in the shifting, twisting dynamics in the dynamic of a character triangle. Queen Anne shares a close relationship with the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), but the rapport’s thrown into jeopardy with the arrival of the Duchess’ cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who soon catches the Queen’s eye.
Under the direction of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) — who doesn’t shy away from anachronisms or his trademark coldness — Colman, Weisz, and Stone seem to be having the time of their lives. Stone in particular delivers an impressive performance that both fits and defies the chipper roles she’s been known for.
Currently in theaters
Love it or hate it, few could replicate the energy of Luca Guadagnino’s take on Suspiria. Though it’s a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic, the original only informs the foundational DNA: Susie Bannion (played by Jessica Harper in the original and Dakota Fanning in this year’s remake) arrives at at dance academy in Germany, only to discover that something dangerous is afoot. The tone, color palette and general story have been either completely altered or significantly tweaked from there.
This film is a much denser text than Argento’s, draining out all of the vibrant colors to instead dive into the historical context of Germany in the 1970s, as well as the art of dance and dynamics between women. Guadagnino is unflinching as he peels back layer after layer of the machinations of the coven that Susie finds herself in, crafting one of the most hypnotic (and most unsettling) films of the year.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
The Coens’ fascination with the West reaches a fever pitch with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which traverses both the landscape and the genre through six distinct chapters that each addresses a different storytelling tradition. Though the styles and tones of the chapters vary, they form a coherent whole as a meditation on mortality, beginning with a singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) shooting his way through a saloon, and ending with a carriage transporting its passengers beyond the veil.
That final chapter’s sense of wide-eyed mystery hints at how to process the way the Coens’ chapters veer into the bleak and macabre. It’s a lovingly crafted film, and for all that their characters may sometimes tear each other apart, the Coens love each and every one of them, too.
Stream on Netflix; Current in select theaters
IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight is further proof of his visual mastery. Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is a remarkable portrait of love and circumstance. Jenkins’ warm, caring style lifts up the love story between Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) — and makes it so devastating when they’re torn apart, for essentially no reason beyond being black in America.
That said, Fonny and Tish don’t represent a monolith, and the characters around them — Regina King as Tish’s mother, who raises her children to be polite but won’t hesitate to push for their sake; and Brian Tyree Henry as one of Fonny’s friends, who offers a look at a tragedy that he doesn’t yet know is coming for him — are all cut from different cloths. As the film unspools, following a courtship and an incarceration in parallel lines, it blooms, building the community around Fonny and Tish like gossamer. Even though the story is a tragedy, the picture that Jenkins paints is still a beautiful one, finding the light in even the worst of situations.
Currently in theaters
Though Paddington 2 was released in the UK in 2017, it hit US cinemas in 2018, qualifying it for this list and our love. As improbable as it might seem that a movie ostensibly targeted at kids — and a sequel, no less — would make any “best of the year” list, Paddington 2 is a must-see. The message of kindness and empathy feels particularly essential this year, and in the hands of director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh), the film never panders to its audience. The cutest, most colorful sequences are earned.
When Paddington Bear (sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw) winds up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, his cellmates and his adoptive family come together in order to get him out and prove his innocence. Though the performances — including Brendan Gleeson as the gruff Knuckles McGinty — are uniformly great, Hugh Grant is the standout member of the cast. His turn as aging actor Phoenix Buchanan earned him a BAFTA nomination, and in a just world, would earn him an Oscar nomination, too.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS
There’s not much by way of plot in Support the Girls, but plot isn’t one of Andrew Bujalski’s (Computer Chess) main interests. The film, which stars a group of women working at a sports bar called Double Whammies (a clear stand-in for Hooters), is a slice of life, giving people who are usually taken for granted (and rarely made the stars in film or TV) a chance to shine; the ups and downs of working in the service industry are treated with care rather than played for laughs or manufactured melodrama.
Regina Hall stars as Lisa, who manages the bar and is responsible not only for the young women who work for her, but also the man who actually owns the bar, their families, her family; for so many different people that the weight on her shoulders is almost tangible. The problems she faces may be miniscule when compared to the stakes in your typical superhero movie, but by the time the film ends, they feel just as important — because they are to her, and to the girls.
Marvel movies have seen their ups and downs. In case it wasn’t clear from the reception it got upon its release, Black Panther falls triumphantly into the former category. Helmed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the film, which follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he attempts to lead his home country of Wakanda in the wake of his father’s death, deserves praise for its cultural importance as a film starring — not just featuring — a black superhero, but also its direction. The movie moves.
On top of that, Black Panther is also one of the most explicitly political films to come out of the Marvel wheelhouse, working in commentary as to African and African-American history (past and present). With Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Angela Bassett, among others, rounding out the cast, it’s an impressive film, and a must-see this year.
THE DEATH OF STALIN
Armando Iannucci has long been known for his acerbic wit — any Veep fans that haven’t seen The Thick of It are missing out — and it’s in full force in the startlingly dark The Death of Stalin. The film, which is a take on the events following, yes, the death of Joseph Stalin, has its share of laughs, but it’s a little grimmer than, say, In the Loop.
The jockeying of Stalin’s Central Committee — featuring Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria — is outrageous, and Iannucci digs his heels in not only with regards to the lengths these figures went to in order to stay in power but with regards to the death toll that resulted. Bodies fall left and right, and after a while, whatever comedy there was in the proceeding wheeling-and-dealings becomes pitch-black.
First Reformed is one of the most remarkable artistic feats of the year. As the world seems headed towards natural disaster, director Paul Schrader has tapped into perhaps the only vein of thought that can provide any comfort. Though Schrader doesn’t try to posit that we can necessarily avert catastrophe, and doesn’t absolve us of our own hand in the ensuing apocalypse, either, his work possesses a fundamental love for humanity, and a love for love.
When Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) has his eyes opened as to the way the environment is gradually collapsing, he falls into an existential crisis. Love and faith, however, go hand in hand, no matter how abstractly, and bit-by-bit, they drive the film to its transcendent finale.
SWIMMING WITH MEN
If there’s any movie in recent years that is a worthy heir to the Japanese films of the late ’90s and early 2000s (like Shall We Dance?, Ping Pong, Waterboys, or even Linda Linda Linda), it is, however improbable it may seem, the British comedy Swimming with Men. Directed by Oliver Parker, the film has a purity of heart and earnestness when it comes to forming human connections, and demonstrates a remarkable tenderness toward the bodies of its protagonists.
Following an existential crisis, Eric (Rob Brydon) joins a men’s synchronized swimming team. His teammates aren’t in particularly good shape, or necessarily even good swimmers, but that’s not the point — they’re there to find some sense of purpose. With the rest of the team filled out by Adeel Akhtar, Jim Carter, Rupert Graves, Daniel Mays, and Thomas Turgoose, Swimming with Men is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, and a genuinely great film.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
There’s a strange kind of expectation that often comes along with documentaries about public figures — you think that they’ll reveal something startling about them insomuch as making it clear that they weren’t exactly who they were purported to be, that there was some fundamental human flaw to them that wasn’t immediately visible in the limelight. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is singular in that respect — the picture that it paints of Fred Rogers fills in what wasn’t seen in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but only in that, if anything, he was even more remarkable in real life.
Watching Morgan Neville’s documentary, it’s difficult not to note just how different children’s entertainment — and entertainment as a whole — generally is from what Rogers tried to convey. He tried to teach kids (heck, all of us) to love everyone the way they are, to practice acceptance and care. As is clear in the snippets of Rogers’ personal life we see, they were tenets that he practiced personally, too.
Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the prize was well deserved. The question at the center of the film — what defines a family — is the kind of theme that director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son) has been wrestling with throughout his filmography, and his answer here is an affecting one.
The family in Shoplifters is living in poverty, and, as implied by the film’s title, rely partially on shoplifting to get by. Still, when they come across a young girl seemingly abandoned by her parents, they take her in. The events that follow range from the expected — the son starts experiencing jealousy at no longer being the only child in the family — to the less easily telegraphed, and more tragic. Part of Kore-eda’s humanist streak means making the proceedings as real as possible, which precludes the possibility of an uncomplicatedly happy ending, but that’s to Shoplifters’ strength rather than its detriment.
Currently in theaters
With Incredibles 2, Brad Bird reasserts his dominance as one of the best filmmakers around. Whatever you make out to be the central philosophy of his latest film, there’s no denying the sheer kinetic energy in the action sequences he’s whipped up, and the delight that comes from watching them (accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s reliably snappy — no pun intended — score).
The film picks up exactly where The Incredibles left off, with the Parr family coming into their own as a team. Of course, finding a balance between being a family and being superheroes isn’t something they’re going to accomplish overnight, especially as superheroes are still illegal. But their outlook changes when media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) steps in, claiming that he’s got just the ticket to put superheroes back into the public’s good graces.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
Pound for pound, Lars von Trier has packed more utterly unique images and ideas into The House That Jack Built than anything else you’re likely to see this year. The criticisms of the film — “it’s too violent;” “it’s just a massive troll” — are all true (at least in part), but von Trier is also digging at something deeper, dealing with his past work as well as the way that we consume and create art. It just so happens that he’s chosen a gruesome subject through which to communicate that.
There’s a tremendous amount of heart in Matt Dillon’s performance as Jack, who, as serial killer, deserves none. The film chronicles a set of murders, or “incidents,” that Jack commits, and though each is more horrible than the last, they’re not the point of the film. Von Trier gets more across in the conversations Jack has with a mysterious figure named Verge, (Bruno Ganz) as in “Virgil,” as they discuss the nature of art.
Currently in theaters
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
In his debut film, Boots Riley has crafted a vision of contemporary America that will absolutely knock your block off. The film is incredibly dense — there are a million things happening in each scene — and yet clear in vision, and the less you know about it going in, the better.
For now, let this suffice: Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, whose job at a telemarketing company takes a turn when a coworker recommends that he use a “white voice” on his calls. However, as he starts to do so — and sees the according uptick in sales — the company is rocked by a strike by the workers demanding fair pay, which means that, as things progress, Cash is forced to take stock of where he stands, and pick a side.
Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is the kind of film that will immediately make you wish you could experience watching it again for the first time. Based on the story of Brady Jandreau, a rodeo cowboy whose career ended after a horrible accident in the ring (and who plays the fictionalized version of himself, Brady Blackburn, who suffers the same injury), The Rider is staggering, never falling prey to the kind of grandiose metaphors that such stories so often succumb to.
There’s a clarity to Zhao’s vision that makes Brady’s loss clearly felt. It’ll kill him to stay away from riding, but it’ll kill him if he doesn’t — his doctor tells him so. Though that prognosis might seem bleak, The Rider’s sense of love for its subjects is overpowering, with further light shed on the world of American Indian cowboys and, specifically, Brady’s innate connection with the animals that might very well kill him.
Roma has semi-autobiographical roots in the life of its director, Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), and that intense personal connection is one that’s tangible throughout the film. At the center of the story is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, in one of the year’s most stunning performances), a young domestic worker living with a family in flux.
Set in Mexico in the ’70s and shot in black and white, the film builds almost imperceptibly towards the finale, giving all the more weight and impact as the emotional dam finally breaks. The initial sense of detachment that Cuarón’s careful curation of images lends the film is a smokescreen for the flood that’s to come.
Currently in theaters; stream on Netflix
Whether you loved or hated your own eighth grade experience, Bo Burnham’s film will launch an arrow straight into your heart. The specifics of eighth grader Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) struggle to get through her last week of middle school might be specific to 2018 — she makes vlogs which she signs off with a cheery “Gucci!” and is constantly on social media — the awkwardness and social anxiety she deals with is familiar territory for anyone who braved middle school.
The ups and downs of Kayla’s life are played unflinchingly — including a harrowing scene that touches upon consent — as is the idea that adapting and growing are continuous processes rather than tests to be aced or touchstones to be passed. Some scenes, as such, may make you want to cover your eyes out of secondhand embarrassment, but stick with it — the film is full of compassion, too.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT
Over the last several years, Tom Cruise has essentially fashioned himself into the man who cannot die, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the latest Mission: Impossible movie. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who also helmed Rogue Nation), Fallout is a thrill ride from top to bottom, which mostly comes down to just how much Cruise seems willing to put himself through for the sake of our entertainment.
Once again, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out to save the world, though this time he’s got a babysitting detail in the form of CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) so the impossible mission doesn’t go too haywire. Naturally, though, chaos ensues, flinging Cruise all over Berlin, Paris, London, and Kashmir. Do yourself a favor and set aside the time to watch it, if only for one of the greatest, most ridiculous opening sequences of all time.
Following its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman took home the Grand Prix. If that alone isn’t enough to convince you to watch Spike Lee’s latest work, how about the fact that its plot, in which Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department, successfully infiltrates the KKK, is based on a true story?
Though the events of the film get a little wilder than the source material, BlacKkKlansman is still a powerful piece of work, not just for the precision of Lee’s direction, but for just how striking it is in addressing the current political climate. Addressing everything from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the Charlottesville riots to personal cultural identity, it’s — as overused as the label may be — a timely and necessary film.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
The days of the Wild West may be long behind us, but the Western as a genre has only become more expansive and more interesting. The latest entry in the catalog is Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, based on the book of the same name. Starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, the film is a thoughtful revisionist Western, finding the vulnerability in a genre stereotypically known for gunslinging and swagger.
The Sisters brothers are hitmen, and are set on the trail of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist, and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective originally sent to track Warm down. The further the four travel, the stranger things become, with the distance opening up old wounds and insecurities, and leading to a final act that’s profoundly warm rather than warlike.
Currently in theaters
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Adapted from author Lee Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a remarkable portrait, with the same kind of verve that Israel put into the letters she forged. Directed by Marielle Heller, the film stars Melissa McCarthy as Israel in her first significant dramatic role, and is the rare biopic that resists putting too much shine on its subject. The resulting look at Israel’s criminal streak is compelling and touching, particularly as the film touches upon the way that women navigate and protect themselves in their careers.
McCarthy is also given an able sparring partner in Richard E. Grant, who stars as Israel’s friend and partner in crime, Jack Hock. The two of them — notably both queer characters — make a dynamic pair, and help to make Israel’s remarkable story into one of the best films of the year.
Currently in theaters
When Henry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners are killed while trying to carry out a robbery, the men to whom Rawlings owes money go to his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) to collect. Knowing that she has no choice but to pay the debt, Veronica rounds up the other widows to pull off a heist that Henry had been planning at the time of his death.
Directed by Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, Widows is a smart, sharp thriller, combining McQueen’s biting sensibilities with the more inherently soapy source material. Anchored by a knockout lead performance from Davis, the film’s central quartet (rounded out by Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo) makes a fantastic team, and pull off the story’s twists and turns with aplomb.
Currently in theaters
THE OLD MAN & THE GUN
Robert Redford’s smile contains an all-encompassing, comforting warmth, and so does his latest film, The Old Man & the Gun. Under the direction of David Lowery (A Ghost Story), Redford stars as real-life, career criminal Forrest Tucker, who, when we catch up with him in the film, is in the middle of pulling off a string of heists. There’s a certain meta-texture to it, as Tucker’s success is due in no small part to his charm, which Redford obviously has in spades.
It’s particularly striking as he begins to woo Jewel (Sissy Spacek), who knows better than to be taken in by Forrest, but can’t quite help it, either. Another scene makes it even clearer that the movie has as much to do with Tucker’s story as with Redford’s, and his immortal place in American cinema, but it’s a moment that’s too good to spoil. You’ll just have to watch it and see.
Currently in theaters
If you have any preconceived notions about what a Nicolas Cage movie should or shouldn’t be, throw them all out before you sit down with Mandy. Directed by Panos Cosmatos, Mandy is a tour de force on almost every level: it’s visually stunning, the soundtrack (the final score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) is incredible, and it transcends being a revenge, horror or action movie through what sometimes feels like sheer artistic force of will.
Centering it is a remarkably tender performance from Nicolas Cage as Red, which in turn is anchored and given shape by Andrea Riseborough’s performance as girlfriend, Mandy. It’s telling as to Cosmatos’ intentions that the first half of the film is solely devoted to establishing the relationship between Red and Mandy — almost nothing happens as far as driving the narrative forward, but it doesn’t have to. The impact is all the more affecting when tragedy strikes, and Cage’s descent into grief is heartbreaking to watch. He’s a great actor, and Mandy is the perfect vehicle for him.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
Doing something new in the realm of superhero movies is nigh impossible, and yet Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has pulled it off. The film, which stars the Miles Morales version of the wall-crawling hero (as well as numerous other iterations of him from other Spider-verses, hence the film’s title), is a bright, innovative delight, harnessing a visual style that hasn’t been seen before to tell a story that, despite treading some of the same ground, feels equally fresh.
With appearances from the likes of Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir, as well as a look into the parts of New York that haven’t yet been seen in other Spider-Man films, Into the Spider-Verse turns what could be a relatively rote story (characters from one dimension get stuck in another, and must work together in order to get home) into a mesmerizing blend of comedy, action and drama. The film is also keenly aware of the comic book history it’s pulling from, and builds some of its best gags off the way Spider-Man has become a staple of pop culture.
Currently in theaters