The Best of 2018
Every year, In Reel Deep’s "best of" list provides an opportunity for both Andrew Johnson and Steve Cimino to ramble lovingly about their favorite films from the last 12 months. This combined offering contains their co-sponsored five favorites of 2018, along with five others from each of them (and an honorable mention for the few they just couldn't ignore). As always, each section is listed in alphabetical order.
Steve’s note: This will sound like an insult, but to me 2018 was the year of 2.5 stars. Maybe that’s because I had MoviePass and saw pretty much everything that was in theaters, but look at this short list: First Man, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Sisters Brothers, Isle of Dogs, Avengers: Infinity War, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Annihilation, Hereditary, Black Panther, Support the Girls, mid90s, Game Night, Blockers.
To paraphrase the great John Cena, star of Blockers, some of y’all loved those movies and some of y’all hated them. But still, whether big-budget blockbusters or small-scale dramas, they were all pretty damn captivating. And none of those are even close to my top 10! I feel like we say this every 12 months, but 2018 was a good year at the movies. Let’s talk about how good by going through the best.
THE FIVE BEST OF THE YEAR
AJ: This was a year for memorable endings and Spike Lee’s latest packs the most memorable punch, sobering you right up after two-plus hours of John David Washington and Adam Driver-led fun at the expense of sorta-dangerous, sorta-hapless white supremacists associated with David Duke. BlacKkKlansman was the most fun I had at a theater this year, right up until it wasn’t any fun at all. Lee draws a straight line from D.W. Griffith in the 1910s to Duke in the 1970s to the tiki-torch wielding flavor of white supremacist we have now and lets us sit with it, quite uncomfortably.
SC: As you’ll see, I tended to give a lot of weight to great scenes and moments in 2018. Not if they were attached to subpar movies, but if they elevated otherwise-solid material to new heights. And very few sequences have stuck with me like the end of BlacKkKlansman; after a very enjoyable, occasionally wayward film with great performances from Washington, Driver, and Topher Grace, Lee wraps it up with a montage of modern-day hate that reinforces how timely this story is. It’s all footage you’ve seen before, but being attached to a “we didn’t beat racism, guys” ending just gives the visuals more power. Even if very impressive filmmakers in their own right took umbrage with BlacKkKlansman’s narrative-serving tweaks and omissions, Lee has tapped into anger and fear once again with a ferocity that we didn’t realize he still had.
SC: It’s telling that the most “accessible” film of Yorgos Lanthimos’s career is a historical lesbian love triangle in which Emma Stone threatens to crush a bunny with her foot. The Favourite is definitely easier to wrap your head around than The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but that’s not saying much. What’s even more remarkable is how terrific Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and especially Olivia Colman are, and how little the “lesbian” element of the love affairs plays into the proceedings. They’re just three people; all strange, all very power-hungry, and in love (and hate) with each other in distinct and well-defined ways. The main triumvirate are all wonderfully developed, and you can make a case for each of them as the true sympathetic protagonist. In sacrificing just a little of his typical oddness (and working with a great script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), Lanthimos is finally being recognized as one of our great auteurs. Just don’t tell anyone about that Sacred Deer scene where Colin Farrell literally murders a child.
AJ: I’ve been considerably cooler on director Yorgos Lanthimos’ work than my colleague around these parts, but he finally won me over with a delightfully raunchy and foul-mouthed comedy set in, of all places, 18th-century England. I could watch the trio of Stone, Weisz, and Colman do just about anything together, and The Favourite proves that such a list includes shooting fowl in period costumes.
AJ: Twice during the film, characters in First Reformed ask the haunting question at the heart of the story. Reverend Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, puts it thusly: “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?” The disturbing answer - the one that has been sitting with me for months now - is I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Director and writer Paul Schrader puts it all together in methodical fashion, leaving you to provide your own answer, but nudging you in a certain direction. You’ll never look at a public work, park or historical monument sponsored by a faceless corporation in the same manner, that’s for sure.
SC: It’s sometimes hard to fit movies from earlier in the year into these lists; you forget how great they are. Fortunately, I see First Reformed popping up all over the place, which is a testament to its brilliance. As Reverend Toller, we get a darker Ethan Hawke than usual—also better than ever—as the fuel for this rumination on faith. Schrader is not often one for subtlety—check out Dog Eat Dog, the ludicrous Nicolas Cage-starring black comedy that proceeded First Reformed, or actually maybe don’t—and this firm has its share of insane moments that strain credulity. But they all feel in service of something; Schrader feels like he has something to say here, perhaps the last big statement of the 72-year-old’s up-and-down career. By going small but asking big questions, he’s found the perfect backdrop for his tendency to challenge accepted authority.
SC: Disclaimer: I saw Roma in theaters, and I’d recommend it to anyone with that opportunity. I think it’s a beautiful work of art, and objectively the “best” film of 2018, but I cannot guarantee the same reaction had I watched it from home. Even with the lights perfectly dimmed, my phone locked in a drawer, and my eyeballs glued to the screen, even the slightest unanticipated distraction would’ve taken away from my enjoyment. A black-and-white movie with subtitles and not a ton of action (some would say no action at all) can be a tough sell for many; a legitimate cinephile might look away or pause to use the bathroom and fall out of its spell. Luckily, I can only work with my own experience, and this was another film with two scenes that sucked the wind right out of me. Alfonso Cuarón can create tension with both single-take shootouts and a waist-high plunge into the waves; at this point, he stands alone.
AJ: There is a sharp, captivating specificity to the characters in Roma that I have not seen since Moonlight a few years ago. It starts with Cleo, but extends to the family she cares for and the absentee fathers in both their life and hers. Needless to say, only Cuarón could have made this film, and made it as well as he did. We will be picking apart the symbolism of the water—sometimes with soap suds, sometimes with whitecaps—lapping its way around the film for years to come.
AJ: Lady Gaga’s Ally might be my favorite character of all from this year’s batch of films. As she belted out “I’ll Never Love Again” during the closing moments of the film, I found myself just wanting to see what was next for her - a surefire sign that someone did something right in the making of A Star Is Born. Revelation though she was, we also shouldn’t lose Bradley Cooper in this. He proved in another few ways he’s not just a pretty face. He wrote. He directed. He sang, and hung in there with a pop star who has the love and respect of Tony Bennett. Updating this story—its fourth iteration in the last 80-plus years—is a major achievement.
SC: It’s not a perfect movie; I’m still laughing about Sam Elliott’s Bobby “running into” Bradley Cooper’s Jack backstage at SNL, that typical place where everyone hangs out. And whether its “on purpose” or not, the second half never comes close to the heights of the first. But it also had three scenes that brought me to real tears: the big “Shallow” moment, Jack saying that Bobby’s his role model, and the final minutes when it cuts to Jack at the piano. Nothing in A Star is Born reinvents the wheel, but there’s also plenty of depth just under the surface. It’s the rare commercial gem that deserves all the critical love too.
THE BEST OF THE REST
SC: The perfect Coen brothers movie for Netflix, where its six stories can be consumed in one sitting or multiple short bursts. Many people have said the opening entry—with Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Scruggs—is the best, but that’s disrespectful to Tom Waits’s grizzled prospector (“Sleep tight, Mr. Pocket”) and how masterfully the famed musician/actor carries his one-man story. But whether you prefer Waits or TBN or even Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, and Chelcie Ross, there is rarely a dull scene in Buster Scruggs. It doesn’t captivate audiences through a slow and meticulous build like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, and it’s not catchy with quotes like The Big Lebowski or A Serious Man, but I can’t think of a better marriage of film and streaming. For a worse marriage despite an even “better” movie, see above.
Basketball: A Love Story
AJ: Clocking in at 20 hours and airing on a cable television network, I am perhaps stretching the definition of movie with my inclusion of this sweeping documentary that serves as a comprehensive history of the sport. Never mind. This is perhaps my most recommended “film” of the year. It doesn’t leave anything obvious out, nor does it duck the proverbial elephants in the room (i.e. coach Adolph Rupp’s racism, the predominantly lesbian fan base of the WNBA, the still simmering hatred between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal). Just as importantly for a work of this length, it offers countless exclusive interviews and rare footage; among my favorites is a high school-aged Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (nee Lew Alcindor) towering above classmates. If you love hoops, you have to find time to take this in.
SC: Yes, it’s nowhere near as good as its predecessor. But I never expected it to be; we didn’t love Rocky II because it was just as awards-worthy. Creed II is a love letter to the Rocky franchise; hell, Brigitte Nielsen and Milo fuckin’ Ventimiglia show up. I was on the literal edge of my seat during its last scene, certain that Rocky’s grandson would welcome him in and we’d fade to black. And then, bam, Rocky Balboa’s lamest character, Peter Petrelli himself, appears. I almost burst into applause. Not because I love Milo; because I love this franchise and I love that Sylvester Stallone and company are pulling out all the stops to keep continuity alive and make every second count. Even if Creed II unnecessarily packed three movies worth of story into one; even if there aren’t many places to go with Adonis Creed and Bianca Taylor after this entry; even if no Ryan Coogler meant the well-paced mastery from Creed was gone, this is still a high-quality sports movie and a hell of a entry in the Rocky canon. It might not be objectively excellent, but I loved it with all of my heart.
SC: One of four movies I saw twice this year (the other three were Star is Born, Buster Scruggs, and Roma) and definitely the most adorable. Elsie Fisher puts it all out there as an awkward pre-teen struggling to find her place; even if the Golden Globes are a useless waste of time, Fisher’s nomination for Best Actress almost makes up for their irrelevance. It remains to be seen if Bo Burnham is a clever dude with one great idea or an actual capital-F filmmaker that we’ll come to know and love, but he certainly put himself in the shoes of an anxious 13-year-old girl with a touching and impressive burst of genuineness.
SC: About as good a follow-up to the deep introspective beauty of Moonlight as one could expect. It peaks early with a blistering conversation between Tish’s and Fonny’s families about their upcoming baby and never again reaches those heights, but there’s little shame in producing one of the top scenes of the year and then settling in as a contemplative triumph. I wish we got a little more of Colman Domingo and Michael Beach as the two fathers, or Diego Luna as the friendly waiter, but Barry Jenkins does an excellent job of doling everyone out sparingly and making the neighborhood feel lived-in and real. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
SC: Another early-2018 release that cracked the list, the story behind The Rider is almost as good as the film itself. It stars Brady Jandreau, a former rodeo star playing a cinematic version of himself, and his family and friends as themselves as well. They’re all untrained actors but writer-director Chloé Zhao thought they were best suited to tell the tale of a one-time bronc rider who suffered a brain jury and now has to rediscover who he is and what he does well. It’s a beautiful movie, filled with quiet tenderness and a genuine introspective look into what it means to be a man, especially in a place like the film’s setting of South Dakota. Watching Jandreau’s Brady Blackburn break a horse again, and thereby reconnect with what he loves, is one of recent cinema’s top tearjerker moments.
Sorry to Bother You
AJ: Director and writer Boots Riley uses race as a point of entry for a discussion that also encompasses class and late-stage capitalism. This is a searing, wonderfully bizarre satire that has two up-and-coming stars in Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson and throws in scientifically engineered horse people for good measure. Something tells me it will be an ongoing touchpoint for people trying to encapsulate the forces at play in the late 2010s.
AJ: I became a parent three years ago, and, as with pretty much anything else, it changes your perspective on a lot of films. One thing I hadn’t seen until Tully, though, was a cinematic representation of the zombie-like state parenting a newborn puts you in, especially when the newborn isn’t the only child at home and when you are a breastfeeding mother. Charlize Theron is a fantastically beautiful woman, and her character Marlo looks positively (and accurately) awful. As with past collaborations between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, Tully is the proper blend of caustically funny and poignant. For you parents out there who want to see yourselves on screen, it’s a must-watch.
AJ: As I wrote in my review, They Shall Not Grow Old was a perfect challenge for Peter Jackson: one where he could exercise his technical mastery to its full effect and largely stand aside on the story piece. We do not have a proper appreciation in this country for the devastating impact and long-reaching effects of the First World War but, thanks to Jackson, we at least have a place on film to start.
AJ: Kindness is radical. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a very conventional documentary about a well-known public figure, Fred Rogers. And yet the time for it was perfectly right. In a world where just about everyone and everything seems mean, a dose of Mr. Rogers was a wonderful—albeit temporary—balm for what ails us.
AJ: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was my last cut, interrupting a run of Coen brothers films in the 10 best. It’s not unworthy of the list. Hold the Dark and Hereditary chilled me to the bone in their own ways. The Death of Stalin gave us a wonderful window in to what the West Wing might look like should a sudden leadership change arise. Journey’s End is an excellent fictional companion to They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s always good to see Edie Falco, so Outside In is worth your time. Finally, Paddington 2 has every bit as much charm as the original but with a few dashes of additional Britishness, courtesy of Hugh Grant.
SC: Beyond all the wonderful films we’ve already listed, there’s You Were Never Really Here, Widows, Incredibles 2, Blindspotting, and the hugely underrated A Futile and Stupid Gesture. Again, though perhaps in quantity more than top-level quality, it was a good year at the movies.