At least the movies were good.
2018 was an incredible year to be a genre fan. As the times grew weirder, so did the films, with the industry’s established minds and exciting new voices alike turning to the realm of the strange and the surreal to tell their stories, pushing the boundaries of conventional narrative with big, impressive swings.
And boy does that fearlessness pay off in cinema. 2018 officially cemented a new golden age of horror in my mind, seeing filmmakers turn from comparatively straightforward awards contenders toward psychedelic experimentalism. And for someone like me, who’s always had a profound love of the weirdest and wildest stories, it was an inspiration.
Not to be that annoying person screaming on a soapbox, but if there’s one thing I hope we can learn from 2018’s best movies to carry with us into the new year, it’s to think more boldly and more freely, to communicate more thoughtfully and clearly, and to strive for bold strokes in expression. If we’re stuck in times like these (and until one of you dopes invents the time machine, we definitely are), then the best way through it is with good, ambitious art.
In that regard, it shouldn’t be surprising that 2018 was an embarrassment of riches on the film front, packed with incisive, wise storytelling and cutting analysis of humanity’s best and worst. Which makes it especially hard to narrow down ten films this year. Well honestly, it’s always hard, but it wouldn’t be a proper Top 10 if I didn’t make a show about it. As for ranking, well, that’s a fools errand from the ground up, so feel free to take the number rankings here with a giant grain of salt. Or ignore them entirely! Especially the first two, which are honestly interchangeable in my love for them.
Housekeeping notes: Nobody sees everything. In this day and age, that’s ridiculous and inevitably I will see something soon that makes me go “Fuck, that should have been on my list!” We do what we can. Speaking of which, I’m disgustingly behind on documentaries and foreign films this year. With that in mind, here are the biggest films I missed, my list of shame, each confessed title an act of penitence to the movie gods: Burning, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Shoplifters, Three Identical Strangers, The Hate U Give, and Zama. There are obviously many more, but these are the ones that haunt me.
On that cheerful note, let’s head into my Top 10 movies of 2018, a list I will never have any future doubts about and will definitely get no shit about online.
Spike Lee is an essential filmmaker in the tapestry of American cinema, and he continues to prove it to us year after year. One of the most prolific filmmakers in the industry, Lee has a gift for tapping into the politics of a given era, it’s just that this time around, the given era is both then and now, a look at the devastating influence of institutionalized racism in American history that masterfully toes the line between being immensely watchable and almost impossible to look at. Set in the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman tells the mostly-true story of Ron Stallworth (a hell of a breakout from John David Washington), the first African American officer in Colorado Springs, who managed to infiltrate the KKK with the help of a Jewish surrogate detective (Adam Driver, casually outstanding as ever). Lee’s invective against the foul and deep roots of racism in America is dangerously crowd-pleasing, and no movie sucker punched me harder or made me more aware of my privilege than when Lee drives home is final blow, a striking reminder that these issues are as just as relevant as they’ve always been, and they’re not going anywhere any time soon. If you’ve been paying attention, even a little, in 2018, you probably already knew that, but Lee brings the truth down like a crushing blow with his masterful hand, proving once again that no one puts their finger on the nation’s pulse with more accuracy.
Christopher McQuarrie is turning out to be the action fan’s dream come true. A screenwriter with a well-respected (and well-hired) knack for building strong story bones, McQuarrie crafts his scenes and set-pieces, always elegantly intertwined, with an eye toward classic cinema and technical excellence. His passion is matched by that of his frequent collaborator Tom Cruise, who never stops finding new ways to go-for-broke with his on-screen depictions of adventure and heroism, and with Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the pair discovers a new zenith of their wild ambition.
Fallout is one of the best action movies ever made. It’s not just the set-pieces, though the frequency and complete insanity with which Cruise and McQuarrie constantly find new ways to top themselves lead me to believe there might be some kind of pact with the devil involved — they’re just that impossibly good. But Fallout is also unique in the franchise because it investigates the very essence of what it means to be an action hero continuously faced with world-ending odds. Every one of Ethan’s grand feats tests him, not only as a specimen but as a man, allowing us to finally glimpse the inner workings of the iconic on-screen hero that’s entertained us for decades. Mission: Impossible — Fallout is the special kind of action film that happens only when the people making it invest in the genre, the kind that sparks a little old-fashioned awe in the midst of sparking that franchise fuse.
I don’t even understand how Sorry to Bother You got made, let alone how it turned out so damn good. Off all the films that glimpse the insanity of 2018, nothing captures it with as much pure zaniness and off-the-rails creativity as Boots Riley‘s directorial debut, which surprised me more than any other film this year. On the one hand, anything less from the celebrated musician and activist would feel like a disappointment, but on the other, Riley demonstrates a shocking command of filmmaking — while somehow breaking all the rules.
It’s impossible to put into words how outright insane and unusual Sorry to Bother You is without giving away the film’s best surprises. Suffice it to say you are either on the ride for this aggressive and hilarious deconstruction of race and capitalism in America, or you’re going to reach an “I’m sorry, what?” point pretty quickly. Whacky and surreal with a stronger genre bent than any of the trailers prepared me for, Sorry to Bother You is as funny as it is damning in its portrait of the corrupted beliefs and behaviors at the root of our society, and it heralds the arrival of a new exciting voice in cinema with the immediacy of a five-alarm fire.
Lady Gaga is an icon and a queen, and I will hear no slander — that said, I was floored by how much I loved A Star Is Born, a film I watched progress for years with little to no interest and shamefully wrote off as the kind of awards bait I find unpalatable. You live and you learn, folks, because Bradley Cooper‘s remake of the cinematic classic destroyed me and left me floored, tapping into a vein of pure cinematic wonder in the first act and then bringing it all crashing down on your head with the crushing finale.
A Star Is Born also happens to be a movie I struggle with. It is “awards bait,” but who cares when it’s this good? Much worse, the movie betrays its title “star,” Ally, halfway through, reducing her to a prop in Jackson Maine’s story with almost no internal richness of her own. Even now, putting this movie on my Top 10 list, I’m not satisfied by that. But A Star Is Born also captures such a raw portrait of addictive self-destruction and toxic love that I am wowed and moved by it. If this film is Jackson Maine’s story, then it’s told very well, with songs that demand compulsive listening and a romance that will nurture and murder your heart all at once. In his directorial debut, Cooper captured the transportive and awe-inspiring possibilities of a great movie, culminating in the instantly iconic moment he pulls Ally on stage for Shallow.
It’s been a long wait for Lynn Ramsay‘s follow-up to We Need to Talk About Kevin, but fortunately, it was worth every impatient minute to get to her shattering adaptation of Jonathan Ames‘ You Were Never Really Here. Joaquin Phoenix gives the physical performance of his career as Joe, an army veteran with a dark past who hunts down missing girls and winds up falling down the dark well of conspiracy. That logline sounds like a million action thrillers before, but Ramsay’s disinterested by everything but the mangled humanity at the root of the story, trading set-pieces for searing imagery, breaking you down with a series of stunning vignettes that reach deeper and deeper for that little spark in all of us we fight to keep alive.
I was a bit unmoved by You Were Never Really Here after my first watch — this movie’s not fast food, it’s a whole meal that demands thorough digestion — but the film’s sights and sounds stayed in me like a song of sorrow, rattling around my brain for months. Ramsay has an unparalleled eye finding the hidden sublime in the banal and she wields it carefully and intentionally, like an expert performing emergency surgery on someone they love. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other moment in film this year that captures the infinite reaches of human emotion like the quiet, sad song Phoenix sings with a killer in his kitchen, and that’s but a single scene in a film filled with the like.
A compelling character drama all dressed up in popcorn movie clothing, Bad Times at the El Royale was one of the most dazzling, personality-fueled movies of the year. Cabin in the Woods director (and screenwriter/producer of a bunch of other stuff you love) Drew Goddard steps behind the camera again for his robust spin on the post-Tarantino crime genre, and the result is a cornucopia of delights that proves Goddard has a gift for ensemble.
A work of casting wizardry, Bad Times at the El Royale thrives not only because of Goddard’s script and sharp directing but because of the knockout troupe of actors he assembled to bring his touching crime drama to life. The film unites seven strangers hiding a stockpile of secrets in a hotel that holds secrets of its own, and everyone here is on point. Jeff Bridges is reliably excellent as the sketchy priest, Dakota Johnson is the high queen of zero fucks given, and Chris Hemsworth‘s hips reach snaky new heights as an enigmatic, dance-happy cult leader. But the film’s powerhouse performances come from new faces Lewis Pullman and Cynthia Erivo (a bonafide Broadway star who made a double-whammy film debut this year in Bad Times and Widows), who knock the wind out of you with their soulful, sorrowful performances. In keeping, Bad Times‘ greatest trick is that it’s a stealth feat of intimacy, inviting you to a neon-tinged party on the border of California and Nevada, guns blazin’, and making you fall in love with its characters along the way.
Hereditary is a film I would recommend to few people, but to those would appreciate it, I would recommend it with all my heart. Or at least with all the pulpy shredded remains of my heart I still have after I’ve watched this movie. In his directorial debut, filmmaker Ari Aster doesn’t just refuse to pull any punches; he covers his fists in glass and rains punishment down on his characters and his audience with a relentless assault of horror and heartbreak. And it’s amazing.
Centered on the suffering of the biblically ill-fated Graham family, Hereditary hinges on a performance from Toni Collette that will knock the socks right off your feet as the mother to a family that went to bury their dead and seemingly dug a hole straight to hell on accident. Aster spares his characters no agony, and his audience in turn, crafting one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever encountered; the kind that leaves your face sweating and your back sore when it’s done putting your through its wringer. You’d be hard-pressed to find a scene more taxing than the dinner confrontation, which god willing, will be the clip they play at the Oscars next year before Collette goes to accept her statue. Shocking and coursing with dread, Hereditary transforms the collapse of a family into a nightmarish breakdown in reality, and while many of the best horror stories of 2018 were rooted in themes of trauma, none were a more traumatic experience to behold than Hereditary.
Royal drama is always delicious, but the tea has never been hotter than that which Yorgos Lanthimos serves in his loose re-telling of the love triangle that shaped Queen Anne’s reign. Led by a trifecta of commanding performances from Olivia Coleman as the queen, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the women who courted her, The Favourite is everything conventional costume dramas dare not be; brusque, filthy, and deadly witty, with abrasive style and full confidence to mock the genre it mimics. Oh, and this movie is nasty.
Lanthimos is more interested in the sex and revenge comedy elements than the political intrigue, though he does masterwork marrying the two, and he puts his signature stamp of bleak humor on the queen’s tragic life. Lanthimos has never been a filmmaker to play by the rules, and he delivers a salty, surprisingly sad comedy about three women undone by their unique indulgence, with such a smart instinct for motivation and empathy that it leaves you reeling, unsure of who you’re meant to love and loathe, and certain that you feel both towards all of them.
For my money, Alex Garland is the most exciting voice in science fiction working today. After making his name with the novel The Beach, Garland became a go-to for smart sci-fi screenwriting for years before making his staggering directorial debut with Ex Machina. Until now, his resume has been pretty much unimpeachable, strung together with the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century. And then he goes and does something like Annihilation, a movie that’s so good it almost makes me mad (and not just because the studio botched the film’s promotion and theatrical release.)
Annihilation delves into heady themes of duality and self-destruction through surreal, artful imagery and a haunting quest for self-actualization that simultaneously goes micro and macro, plumbing biology, psychology, and the cosmos to craft a horror story so intimate it’s universal. Reuniting with Ex Machina cinematographer Rob Hardy, Gardland follows his characters into an alien realm, capturing wondrous and horrifying perversions of the natural order, showcasing each new nightmare with flourish for style and nightmare-inducing imagery. There are sequences from Annihilation that have haunted me for months; from the pulse of dream logic that defines the film’s most disturbing sequences, to the blunt force impact of the Scream Bear — easily the best creature design of 2018. Garland uses every element at his disposal to immerse his audience in The Shimmer, creating a challenging, visionary exploration of the human condition that demands to be engaged with and studied, like one of the strange anomalies beyond the Shimmer itself.
For the second year in a row, Luca Guadanino owns the #1 spot on my Top 10 and I couldn’t think of a more incredible 180-degree turnaround for a filmmaker to come off a masterpiece like Call Me by Your Name and deliver a masterpiece like Suspiria. But even though the films are as disparate in tone and material as could be, they share the filmmaker’s gift for forging a direct line to your spirit and working his magic there.
Suspiria was a profound and moving experience for me the first time I watched it, provoking an inexplicable spiritual response I could barely process, let alone put into words. If that sounds extra to you, you can start to imagine how it felt. With each subsequent viewing, the themes and imagery of Guadagnino’s haunting film shifted ever more into focus for me, but the film has never lost its emotional punch of primal melancholy or razor-sharp edge historical analysis of the human condition. Working with screenwriter David Kajganich, composer Thom Yorke (in his film-scoring debut), and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Gadagnino crafted a meticulous meditation on fascism, the fight to escape the past, and Jungian psychology in an ambitious story of rebirth and self-fulfillment that glimpses the divine.
Suspiria is a phantasmagoria of violence, magic, and movement that feels pulled from the old ways of some unknown ritual. Art, dance, horror, and the human spirit come out to play in Guadagnino’s coven, conjuring the uncanny and a feeling of true witchcraft that’s as stirring and profound as it occasionally terrifying. Give yourself to the dance, indeed, because Guadagnino’s film gives you no other choice.
As for the honorable mentions, this year made it easy to full-on double my list. Here are the films that were this close to making the Top 10.
But I’m not done yet. Just for to really send out the year in a full blown celebration of cinema, here are a few more movies I loved in 2018: Blindspotting, Blockers, The Death of Stalin, Anna and the Apocalypse, Upgrade, Terrified, Tully
For all of Collider’s Best of 2018 content, click here, and peruse our other personal staff lists below:
Haleigh Foutch is a writer, editor, host, actor, and cat enthusiast based in Los Angeles. Former Managing Editor of Collider, she is currently an editor at The Wrap. She also co-created The Witching Hour podcast, appeared in Shudder’s docuseries Behind the Monsters, and has written for Rotten Tomatoes, Complex, Birth.Movies.Death., and more. You can usually find her sharing Buffy the Vampire Slayer memes on Instagram, rehearsing the Five Movements from The OA, and asking people about their pets.
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