The Best Movies of 2018 Scaled New Heights

13 Dec

We’re definitely living in a time of resistance (political and otherwise), so it feels like my favorite films of 2018 arrived at the perfect time. Indeed, this year, the best movies I saw pushed back in their own ways against the forces that have been trying to minimize, marginalize, silence, and reduce the impact of those who actually make us great. They are a collection that celebrates diversity, inclusion, truth, familial bonds, our obligations to the world around us, risk-taking, and great storytelling. They are films that will stay with us. And their influence will be felt long after the calendar turns the page to another year.

Which is not to say that every one of this year’s releases had the state-of-the-state on their minds. After all, 2018 was also the year of movies like Game Night, Uncle Drew, and, especially, Tag, three comedies that were better than they had any right to be. It was the year that Michael Myers (the silent killer), the Incredibles, and Mary Poppins all returned to the big screen after long absences, as if not a day (or subpar sequel) had gone by. Yes, of course, Mike Myers the actor was back, too, in Bohemian Rhapsody. There were plenty of superhero movies this year, and that includes not one but two movies about Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In fact, speaking of RBG, documentaries about a variety of subjects were legit box-office hits. And one movie, A Quiet Place, even got people in theaters to stop talking and eating popcorn for two hours. A miracle!

Suffice it to say, 2018 was a memorable year for the movies. Of the nearly 85 films I saw (see below for a full list), these are the ones that had the biggest impact on me and left the most lasting impression.

Honorable Mention

First, here are 10 (or, actually, 11) films that just missed the cut — my list of Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order:

Disobedience

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Isle of Dogs

Love, Simon

Mission Impossible: Fallout

RBG + Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (tie)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Tag

Tully

Vice

My Favorite Movies of 2018

1. Black Panther
In a highly competitive year, this MCU flick reigned supreme. And for good reason: Ryan Coogler’s film is fun and super-cool, and it ups the game for what a comic book–inspired movie could be, fusing incredible effects and action sequences with a story that raises serious questions about complicated geopolitical issues. With its strong performances (Michael B. Jordan’s, especially), impressive production design, and beautiful costumes, Black Panther also offers a display of black and women power that hasn’t been seen on film before, making it a real landmark achievement. Black Panther was a blockbuster — taking in $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office — and it earned every single dollar. Wakanda Forever!

2. Eighth Grade
Middle school has always been tough, but imagine what kids today have to go through, given the addition of social media. After watching this excellent film, you don’t have to imagine it. Elsie Fisher, in a rightfully Golden Globe–nominated performance, and writer/director Bo Burnham capture the awkwardness, loneliness, fragile confidence, and social pressures of being a teenager today; you’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll cry. Burnham, making his first feature film, doesn’t ever condescend to or mock Elsie, even when she doles out optimistic advice in YouTube videos that she, herself, doesn’t follow. Despite these modern touches, she remains completely relatable (we were all 13 once, after all). Special mention must be made of the scene in which Fisher’s Kayla Day sits with her father (Josh Hamilton, simultaneously clueless about how to relate to his daughter and full of insight when it counts) at the campfire. It is so heartbreaking and uplifting and well written and just … one of the most moving scenes of the entire year. Eighth Grade is a special movie that should be required viewing for everyone — especially those whose kids are in or approaching their teen years.

3. Roma
I never expected to like this movie as much as I did, but Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up won me over almost instantly. Shot in dreamy black-and-white, filled with thoughtfully composed and unhurried wide shots (Cuarón served as his own cinematographer), and employing ambient sounds as its score, the film is gorgeous, and worthy of big screen viewing, if possible. There’s no plot, really, just the matter-of-fact passage of time over the course of a year, as we watch a family and their housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), keep it together through a divorce, an unexpected pregnancy, and political unrest. And yet, the ordinariness of the on-screen action is exactly the point: Even the smallest things (a hailstorm, a day at the beach) can have the biggest impact. Roma is a film about nostalgia, and Cuarón expertly conjures up these memories vividly.

4. BlacKkKlansman
In this film, Spike Lee tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police detective who, with the help of a Jewish cop, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. But he does it in a way that makes the story absolutely relevant to present-day audiences. BlacKkKlansman is funny, vital, and powerful — in an election year like this one was, it was an essential watch. Merging the dramatized take on recent history with actual footage from last year’s events in Charlottesville, Lee shows in compelling fashion how the racist, anti-Semitic hate speech of yesterday reverberates today. This film stuns audiences into silence and implores them to go out and take action to stop this kind of hate from continuing.

5. Three Identical Strangers
File this one under: Truth is stranger than fiction. Tim Wardle’s documentary starts off like a goofy buddy comedy about identical triplets who learn about each other when they’re 19 years old, then turns into something sinister, dark and heartbreaking, before ultimately becoming a very thought-provoking film about nature vs nurture and the effect of parenting on our personalities and later lives. Wardle peels back the onion slowly, revealing the multiple layers upon layers in this story, and leaving viewers in disbelief. In a strong year for documentaries, this one was my favorite.

6. If Beale Street Could Talk
Director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight is this absolutely beautiful movie, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s classic 1974 novel about black love in a world that’s doing everything it can to stifle black existence. Despite a tragic story, the film is ultimately hopeful, and every frame is a piece of art, visually and aurally. (That score! Wow!) And Regina King, as the mother of Beale Street’s central couple, gives the kind of performance that stays with you. There isn’t much justice to be had in this film, but if there’s any off screen, King will take all the Best Supporting Actress prizes being handed out this season.

7. Free Solo
What kind of person scales vertical rock formations without ropes or safety gear? And why? In Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary, we meet Alex Honnold, who is kind of like a real-life Ethan Hunt (minus the mission) and is determined to be the first to take on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and live to tell the tale. The film’s breathtakingly stunning cinematography insisted that you saw it on a big screen. But the intimate story of why Alex has this seemingly impossible dream and the toll it takes on those around him (including his girlfriend) is worth seeing on any screen. That said, this documentary is even more of a thriller than your typical horror film is. Will Alex reach the top without killing himself? Will the photographers be able to keep up with him? You’re on the edge of your seat watching to find out.

8. Widows
Sisters are doing it for themselves in this fantastic, women-led heist film co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and directed by Oscar-winner Steve McQueen, making a mainstream popcorn flick after the heaviness of 12 Years a Slave. Adapted from a novel and British TV series, but relocated to Chicago, Widows tells the story of four women who come together when their husbands are killed while committing a robbery, and who then decide to pull off a heist of their own to repay a debt to a local gangster (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, who also makes a memorable appearance in Beale Street). Viola Davis leads a very strong ensemble that also includes Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell, and a truly menacing Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out and the aforementioned Black Panther). And while the heist itself is neither as complicated or as fun as the one in, say, Ocean’s 8, it’s no less tense or exciting watching to see if these women “have the balls to pull this off.”

9. Juliet, Naked
Much was made of the rom-com resurgence over the summer. But it wasn’t Netflix that saved the genre, it was Nick Hornby. This film, based on his novel, was kind of like a spiritual sequel to High Fidelity (also based on a Hornby novel). Juliet smartly tweaks those who are a bit too obsessed with music (or movies, or whatever), while also offering some good commentary on the connection fans have with content — “Art isn’t for the artist any more than water is for the plumber,” Chris O’Dowd’s character says at one point. It also touches on other themes like regret and the passage of time. Juliet gets a lot of comic mileage from the premise of meeting your idols after a lifetime of worshiping them, and this film was more than worthy of admiration.

10. Leave No Trace
In director Debra Granik’s drama, a father with post-traumatic stress disorder (the always underrated Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter (Thomasin McKenzie, also excellent) are discovered living off-the-grid in the woods near Portland, Oregon, and find assimilation into regular society a challenge. The film is quiet but powerful — wordless stretches illustrate the unspoken and understood bond between father and daughter — and it doesn’t feel preachy or clichéd. Is there a happy medium that will allow this duo and the government to be content? Granik portrays the journey sensitively and with empathy, allowing viewers to question whether some of society’s rules make sense for everyone.

My Least Favorite Movies

Calling these the “worst” movies of the year is overstating it, so let’s just say these 10 releases — listed in alphabetical order — were either disappointing, questionable, or just meh. In other words, of the movies I saw, they were my least favorite.

Aquaman
Not totally awful, but at least it knows how bad it is, and kind of embraces it. Why can’t anyone other than Christopher Nolan make a good movie about a DC superhero?

I Feel Pretty
Amy Schumer is already an attractive blonde in this lame movie about a woman who doesn’t think she’s attractive, so that kinda muted the whole comedic premise.

Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again
Lily James is crush-worthy and has a nice singing voice, but this movie is just as corny and pandering as the first Mamma Mia movie was.

Peppermint
It kills me to put a Jennifer Garner movie on a “worst” list, but this Taken wannabe was not particularly well written or directed, and was oddly structured. Oh, and it’s rather unclear why the film is called “Peppermint.” Jen tried hard, but it wasn’t enough.

Skyscraper
Dwayne Johnson made two bad movies this year, and this Die Hard ripoff was worse than Rampage was.

Solo
A rare misstep for the Star Wars universe, this film was proof that audiences just needed a break. Not even Donald Glover, whose performance is fine but sounds too much like he’s just doing a Billy Dee Williams impression, could save it.

The Spy Who Dumped Me
Apparently, this movie was a comedy. But I can count using one hand the number of times I laughed, and I don’t even need that many fingers.

Unsane
Steven Soderbergh’s shot-on-iPhone thriller has a good premise that doesn’t ever pay off.

Vox Lux
I really wanted to walk out of this one, which I don’t say very often. Natalie Portman portrays one of the most annoying characters you’ll see on screen this (or any other) year.

Welcome to Marwen
Poor guy. And poor all of us who have to suffer through this poorly written and badly acted film.

And there you have it. Another year, another bunch of movies seen.

What were your favorite and least favorite movies of 2018? I’d love to know!

All the Movies

If you’re curious, here is a list of every movie I saw this year, in order of when I saw them, and the grades I gave them.

  1. The Final Year. B+
  2. Black PantherA
  3. Early ManB
  4. Game NightB
  5. A Wrinkle in TimeB–
  6. Tomb RaiderC
  7. The Death of StalinB
  8. UnsaneC+
  9. Love, SimonB+
  10. Isle of DogsB+
  11. Ready Player OneA–
  12. A Quiet PlaceB
  13. BlockersB–
  14. ChappaquiddickC+
  15. RampageB–
  16. I Feel PrettyC+
  17. BeirutB
  18. You Were Never Really ThereB–
  19. Avengers: Infinity WarB+
  20. TullyB+
  21. RBGB+
  22. Disobedience. B+
  23. Life of the Party. C+
  24. Deadpool 2B
  25. Solo. B
  26. AdriftB
  27. Ocean’s 8B
  28. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A–
  29. TagB+
  30. The Incredibles 2B
  31. Hearts Beat LoudB
  32. Jurassic World: Fallen KingdomB
  33. Uncle DrewB
  34. Leave No TraceB+
  35. Ant-Man and the WaspB
  36. WhitneyB
  37. Three Identical StrangersA–
  38. SkyscraperC–
  39. Sorry to Bother YouC
  40. The KingB+
  41. Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go AgainC–
  42. Eighth Grade. A
  43. Mission Impossible: FalloutB+
  44. BlindspottingB–
  45. The Spy Who Dumped MeC–
  46. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on FootB+
  47. Christopher RobinB
  48. The MegB–
  49. BlacKkKlansmanA–
  50. Operation FinaleB–
  51. Juliet, NakedB+
  52. PeppermintC–
  53. A Star Is BornB
  54. VenomB
  55. First ManB
  56. The Hate U GiveB+
  57. Bad Times at the El RoyaleB
  58. HalloweenB
  59. Beautiful BoyC+
  60. Free SoloB+
  61. The Old Man & The GunB
  62. Mid90sB
  63. Bohemian RhapsodyB
  64. Can You Ever Forgive Me? B
  65. Boy ErasedB
  66. WidowsA–
  67. Ben Is Back. B+
  68. Ralph Breaks the InternetB+
  69. On the Basis of SexB
  70. The Front RunnerB+
  71. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindelwaldB–
  72. If Beale Street Could TalkB+
  73. The Ballad of Buster ScruggsB–
  74. Creed IIB–
  75. The FavouriteB
  76. First ReformedB
  77. Mary Poppins ReturnsB
  78. Vox LuxC
  79. ViceB+
  80. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseB+
  81. RomaA
  82. AquamanC
  83. Welcome to Marwen. C–
  84. The Wife. B–

5 Responses to “The Best Movies of 2018 Scaled New Heights”

  1. Jen January 22, 2019 at 9:43 pm #

    I would have given “A Star Is Born” an A-. It was such a great remake. I loved it.

    • Martin Lieberman January 22, 2019 at 9:46 pm #

      Glad you liked it. I thought the first half was fantastic. But the second half brought my rating down.

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