— by Renard N. Bansale —
Potential spoilers below
First, I would like to get these out of the way:
Renard’s Bottom 10 Films of 2018:
1.) Slender Man (dir. Sylvain White)
2.) Blockers (dir. Kay Cannon)
3.) Life of the Party (dir. Ben Falcone)
4.) Holmes & Watson (dir. Etan Cohen)
5.) The Happytime Murders (dir. Brian Henson)
6.) I Feel Pretty (dir. Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein)
7.) London Fields (dir. Matthew Cullen)
8.) The Spy Who Dumped Me (dir. Susanna Fogel)
9.) Insidious: The Last Key (dir. Adam Robitel)
10.) Disobedience (dir. Sebastián Lelio)
The worst films of 2018 were released into the wild. Bye, worst films of 2018!
Unlike with 2017 and 2016, the cinema of 2018 impressed me to the point that I was ready to end the year halfway through. The majority of the movies I will gush over in a few moments came out during the first six months of 2018, along with all three new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) installments (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man & the Wasp) and the long-awaited Incredibles 2 from Disney-Pixar. These excited me as well as made me apprehensive for what the year’s second half would offer. What it did offer, aside from my remaining top 10 contenders and honorable mentions, was a serving of crow: Contrary to my closing box office forecast in my mid-year report, not just Incredibles 2 and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, but Aquaman managed to join the “Billion Dollar Club” (i.e., films that have earned at least $1 billion worldwide) and revitalize the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) in the process. Oh well.
While cinema in 2017’s brighter and more enthusiastic pockets itched for a bit of anarchy, 2018’s best have found me in a slightly contrarian mood. It took me over 220 first-time viewings of new releases, somehow attained as MoviePass fell and as I became a card-holding Sinemia Unlimited member, to determine whether my early top 10 placements carried weight, even as similar works became more popular. After all, I intend with this list to cement the features I will regard as 2018’s best today as well as a decade from now, against any changing tastes, not to mention the test of time—the ultimate judge of art.
Before we dive into my list proper, here are over a dozen…
Honorable Mentions: (ordered alphabetically)
- Zimna Wojna (Cold War) (dir. Paweł Pawlikowski) (review here)
- Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham) (review here)
- The Equalizer 2 (dir. Antoine Fuqua) ***That final showdown!***
- First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle) (review here) ***Listen to score here***
- If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins) (review here) ***Listen to score here***
- Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos) ***Listen to score here***
- Mirai (dir. Mamoru Hosoda) (review here) ***Listen to score here***
- A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski) ***Related articles here***
- Ramen Heads (dir. Koki Shigeno) ***This + Jiro Dreams of Sushi = Perfect Double Feature***
- Shirkers (dir. Sandi Tan)
- Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters) (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
- Sicario: Day of the Soldado (dir. Stefano Sollima) (review here)
- A Simple Favor (dir. Paul Feig) ***Listen to compilation soundtrack here***
- Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley) ***Most Unique!***
- A Star Is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper) (review here) ***Listen to soundtrack here***
- Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell) ***A Better Venom Than Venom***
Yes, the cinema of 2018 was that good, and it hurt to make the following necessary cuts:
Just Missed My Top 10: (ordered alphabetically)
- Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland) (review here)
- Creed II (dir. Steven Caple, Jr.) ***Best Sequel of 2018***
- Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (dir. Gus Van Sant)
- The Sisters Brothers (dir. Jacques Audiard) ***Listen to score here***
- Widows (dir. Steve McQueen) ***Listen to score here***
Now, onward to the list proper.
As great and popular Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is, a good part of me senses that audiences who did not grow up even a little bit with Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would not regard it as highly. Elsewhere, I side with the minority preference for the deft biographical legal drama On the Basis of Sex over the popular yet conventional documentary RBG. See, I tend to favor documentaries that capture viewers regardless of their knowledge of the subject matter as opposed to ones of a more hagiographical nature. Worthy examples from 2018 include Free Solo, Minding the Gap, Ramen Heads, Shirkers, and A Whale of a Tale.
Only one 2018 documentary, however, blew my mind again and again while keeping me on the edge of my seat from start to finish:
(dir. Tim Wardle)
“Nurture can overcome nearly everything.”
Peerless structuring goes a long way when constructing a most arresting documentary. Director Tim Wardle and editor Michael Harte achieved just that with Three Identical Strangers, perhaps my favorite documentary since 2010’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and, dare I say it, one of the few good things CNN has crafted in recent years. Like the best opening themes to nostalgic television shows, the opening sequence of Three Identical Strangers pumps you up. What a brilliant move to kick off with the fever pitch of the actual reunion. The way the documentary matches David, Eddy, and Bobby’s experience is tight and organic—from bewilderment, rapturous endearment, and celebrity status first, then the dark experimentation swooping in to cast a proper shadow on the joy seen early on, to finally the tragedy and exhaustive crusade that persists to this day. All throughout, the documentary keeps pulling the audience further and further into the nature vs. nurture dimension of this real-life test case.
“When you play with humans, you’re doing something very wrong,” says the step-aunt of one of the triplets. “Playing with humans” has laid waste to untold hundreds of millions of souls. Three Identical Strangers proves this in a remarkably fascinating and bizarre way and presses everyone to take its lessons to heart or else ensure the repetition of its story (or worse) in the future.
Shame on the Academy for snubbing Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in Best Documentary—Feature. Shame on them.
There is something oddly adorable about a project conceived by childhood friends as they became young adults that, in due time, gets realized beyond everyone’s expectations. Our next film is exactly that:
(dir. Carlos López Estrada)
“When you look at me now, do you always see the fight first?”
Of the handful of impressive offerings from Black American cinema in 2018, Blindspotting gives perhaps the most balanced take on modern race relations. It places well-measured blame on corrupt police officers as well as felons who ended up in jail for their own foolish actions, exacerbated by said corrupt cops. Blindspotting contains the darkly serious scenes and killer freestyle raps suggested by its trailer, yet it also carries lighthearted scenes—from its Verdi-soundtracked opening titles to tasting a relatively-expensive green smoothie—that befit and give balance to its nature as a buddy comedy in a world that forbids it from being one.
Lastly, it would be most remiss of me to overlook Blindspotting’s co-writing, co-producing, and co-starring central duo: Hamilton alum Daveed Diggs is the movie’s cornerstone, while Rafael Casal gives the best male supporting performance of 2018. (By the way, Casal, as of this article’s publishing, lacks his own Wikipedia page.) Behold what less than $2 million can produce, up-and-coming filmmakers!
(Parental Note: Blindspotting has been rated R by the MPAA for “language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references, and drug use.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language, bloody violence,” and “drug misuse”.)
The misbegotten affront to virtuous sexuality and parenting that is Blockers has a higher Metacritic score than our next film. What an utter disgrace.
8.) Game Night
(read Ben Escobar’s review here)
“Man, glass tables are acting weird tonight.”
If anyone had told me that the directing duo behind the abominable 2015 “comedy” Vacation was to follow up with one of the best comedies of the 2000s so far, I would have laughed in their face. Instead, I laugh and cheer at Mark Perez’s stellar and genuinely awards-worthy screenplay, handled with refreshing bounce by directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein.
Like 2016’s Eye in the Sky (see #2 here and #3 here), Game Night wholly satisfies as an ensemble picture that gives all its prominent players something to do, with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams leading the charge and Jesse Plemons as the unquestionable standout (though Billy Magnussen almost gives Plemons a run for his money). (The absence of the Plemons, Blindspotting’s Rafael Casal; and Jonah Hill in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot in Best Supporting Actor categories depresses me.) What inspired choices to have Cliff Martinez compose the film’s electronic score and to have d.p. Barry Peterson pull off one of the most unexpected long takes (“Pass the Egg”) I have ever encountered in a comedy.
I close this entry with the following: I am really happy for you, superhero cinema of 2018, and “1967” made me chuckle, but Game Night had the true best post-credits scene of the year.
(Parental Note: Game Night has been rated R by the MPAA for “language, sexual references, and some violence.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language, sex references,” and “injury detail”.)
Re-watches are funny: The first time I came across our next movie, I knew I quite liked it, but I was not sure it would make this list in the end. On Christmas Eve, I saw the movie again, and it stepped just inside my top ten, shy to the backlash that has formed against it and the controversies of those involved in its production. The third time, I saw the movie with my parents, and I elected to concede to the backlash by keeping it out of my top ten. Finally, I somehow encountered the movie a fourth time, and now….
7.) Green Book
(dir. Peter Farrelly)
“Dignity always prevails.”
…here we are.
Green Book by writer-producer-director Peter Farrelly—yes, of the Farrelly Bros. who gave us Dumb & Dumber and progressively lesser comedies since then—simply defies expectations. Watching it brings the plot’s generic version right up to the front of the viewer’s imagination, yet the film almost never takes those turns. Even when it does, Farrelly & Co. succeed in making those turns feel fresh. It astonished me, for example, to witness Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, and Brian Hayes Currie’s screenplay handle the film’s sensitive YMCA scene so delicately. Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali match each other step for step as men who have much to learn about the world beyond their own familiar spaces and, in doing so, learn much from each other. Their journey is funny, tense, sad, joyous, and more than worth the price of admission. Even Linda Cardellini overcomes a mostly standard and sidelined dutiful wife role by having the honor of delivering one of the best closing lines of cinema in 2018. (Seriously, the audiences at all my viewings hollered in laughter at that ending.)
Green Book deserves to become a genuine perennial Christmas classic in the years to come. Furthermore, it will not bother me one bit if this film wins the Best Picture Oscar in the end. Not one bit. Even if it beats…well, all good things to those who continue reading.
(Parental Note: Green Book has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for “thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence, and suggestive material.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “infrequent strong language, moderate violence,” and “discriminatory behaviour”, and rated A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for containing “pervasive racial slurs, references to homosexuality, and fleeting rough language.”)
Ever since Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) became the first and, as of this article’s publishing, only woman to win the Best Director Oscar, many have been wondering when awards season will recognize more features headed by females. One woman immediately comes to mind—a woman who deserves much recognition for packing so much cinematic punch into such a short feature-length filmography:
(dir. Lynne Ramsay)
“Relax. What’s your name?”
“I’m Mr. Rogers.”
If watching Green Book brings the story’s generic version right up to the front of the viewer’s imagination, then You Were Never Really Here, writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of the 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, is doubly more so. Year after year, how many passable, Liam Neeson-starring Taken hangers-on and bargain-bin and forgettable Bruce Willis paychecks crowd the film market?
Here, Ms. Ramsay takes a page from Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. Not only does she show less violence to trick the audience into imagining the brutality themselves, but she also plays on the audience’s desensitization to dramatized violence via abrupt cuts and grimy security camera footage. As the psychologically damaged and Terminator-like Joe, Joaquin Phoenix is as spellbinding and unheralded as ever (see also Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot). Ms. Ramsay and Co. devote more time to Joe’s pre-mission prep and his everyday life with his aging mother (Judith Roberts) than to the missions themselves. The sparse yet textured electronic score by Jonny Greenwood is perfect for Joe’s dog-eat-dog urban jungle, where a glance can lead to an execution.
“Show, don’t tell” is a visual storytelling maxim for a reason and Lynne Ramsay remains one of the exemplars of that maxim, male or female. I sincerely hope that more filmgoers come to appreciate her cinematic brilliance sooner rather than later.
(Parental Note: See end of my review)
It somewhat pained me to finally unsubscribe from MoviePass in December after almost four years, switching to Sinemia as a card-carrying Unlimited member instead. I rooted for MoviePass and their demonstrably flawed business model right up to before I unsubscribed, especially as they turned to film distribution. Yet before MoviePass Ventures’ second offering Gotti became the butt of many film jokes in 2018’s second half, another film had to come before it…and boy oh boy, did MoviePass Ventures make the best of first impressions:
5.) American Animals
(dir. Bart Layton)
“Paranoia will destroy you.”
When I think about American Animals, written and directed by Bart Layton, I think about its brilliant fusion of genres: A crime caper with film editing that overwhelms viewers with tension. A docudrama whose in-story inclusion of its real life subjects (played by Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner), their relatives, and relevant associates serves as a cinematic secret sauce rarely seen in recent memory. A darkly comedic bro flick in both the exhilarating experience of seeing it as well as the sobering takeaways from it. Because of all these, American Animals accomplishes for heists and real-life crime what The Big Short accomplished for the American and world economies, capturing when real life—for better or worse—seemed more like the movies.
Please watch American Animals when you can—it is a film worth discovering and admiring, long after one of its doomed distributors sinks into obscurity.
(Parental Note: American Animals has been rated R by the MPAA for “language throughout, some drug use, and brief crude/sexual material.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language, threat,” and “drug misuse”.)
One of the more persistent bandwagons of support throughout cinema in 2018 was for newcomer writer-director Ari Aster’s horror feature Hereditary, with Toni Collette’s performance perceived as a massive snub in industry Best Actress categories. I, on the other hand, never got that furor. I actually laughed at some parts of the movie that were meant to be scary and I found Ms. Collette’s performance a bit trying overall, which is less her fault and more that of Aster’s screenplay. If I wanted to clamor for an underrated performance and film to get recognized for more awards, trust me—I will tell you:
4.) Where Is Kyra?
(dir. Andrew Dosunmu)
“Everywhere I go, I see her.”
Talk about a dark film, literally and figuratively.
I first stumbled upon this slow-burning drama from director Andrew Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult (story credited to both Dosunmu and Picoult) in mid-April (as a double feature with Rampage, funny enough). I was so taken aback by how utterly spellbinding it was that I knew at once I had to see it again. Luckily, I did not miss the next day’s screening, which was also my last chance to watch it on the big screen. After that screening ended, I knew that my eventual top ten list for 2018 had one less spot to fill.
Michelle Pfeiffer in Where Is Kyra? gives the best lead female performance of 2018. Her unmatched natural glamour both enhances and is untouched by her role as a middle-aged woman in New York City struggling to make ends meet after the death of her mother. (It would not surprise me if she lived in the same merciless NYC as Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here.) And yes, it bears repeating: Late Godfather d.p. Gordon Willis (a.k.a. “The Prince of Darkness”) would have stood up and cheered at the sight of Bradford Young’s brooding cinematography. Where Is Kyra? is all but guaranteed to go down as one of the best hidden gems of 2018.
Look, I get it: Superhero cinema shall remain all the rage for the foreseeable future. Eye-popping animation is always a plus, while diversity and inclusivity are admirable values to practice. Above all, we just wanted a guilt-free way to love big-screen Spider-Man again. Yet there are movies I have rated 3 1/2 and even 4 stars—looking at you, Mission: Impossible—Fallout—whose flaws I can never look past. For Spider-Verse, I could not stand the elitist and altogether unheroic response of the Spider-People towards Miles and how that informed the second half of the script. “Anyone can wear the mask”…as long as you are as skilled and experienced as us. So much for diversity and inclusivity.
I have two other major reasons why I simply cannot stand such lofty praise for Spider-Verse anymore. The first, courtesy of Sunrise Land, is…
(dir. Masaaki Yuasa)
“Why do you drink?”
“I was led by those I was fated to meet.”
Such a shame both the Academy’s animators and ASIFA’s Annie Awards overlooked this wondrous gem of Japanese anime and one of the best animated films of the 2010s.
What a whirlwind this feature is! In one blistering night, director Masaaki Yuasa, his extraordinary animation team, and screenwriter Makoto Ueda (adapting Tomihiko Morimi’s 2006 novel, with illustrations by Yūsuke Nakamura) colorfully tackles a fabulous host of themes—college-age angst, drunken honesty, naïve and unrequited infatuation, fate vs. coincidence, playing along in a silly situation rather than experience embarrassment, and learning to take the initiative in life, one day and one moment at a time. Alcohol is respectfully and reasonably consumed here for the most part, rather than hopelessly binged. Here be a glorious, in-film musical number! All these allow The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl* to offer exponentially more than the average teenage comedy. Those unfamiliar with Japanese anime need not shy away from Masaaki Yuasa’s eccentric yet gorgeous cinematic vision, be it here or in Lu Over the Wall from the same year. As for those only familiar or comfortable with western animation, believe me—you do not know what you are missing. Catch The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl as soon as you can!
*The informal Hepburn romanization of the movie’s original Japanese title is “Yoru wa Mijikashi Aruke yo Otome”, which literally translates to “The Night Is But Short, So Walk on, Maiden” (other international title renderings here).
(Parental Note: See end of my review)
And the second other major reason, born of deep love for that same Sunrise Land, is…
2.) Isle of Dogs
(dir. Wes Anderson)
***Most Rewatchable Film (with (6) separate viewings in the theater—the most for any new release in 2018)***
Yes, that was always a longshot, but what could I do? Anderson’s ever-polishing vision (so much symmetry!) continues to leave my eyes, ears, and mind floored. Anderson masterfully orchestrates such playful technical efforts to achieve this Japanese (specifically Akira Kurosawa)-inspired adventure, including (but not limited to) Anderson’s growing stable of actors, the meticulous animation supervised by Mark Waring, and a driving, Oscar-nominated score by Alexandre Desplat. Anderson & Co. dared to tackle such specific linguistic and cultural differences and have those inform the filmmaking in turn, resulting in a tightly-constructed, stop-motion animated delight that no one should ever hesitate to experience.
I hope and pray with all my heart that a worthy animated film will win the Best Picture Oscar within my lifetime.
(Parental Note: Isle of Dogs has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for “thematic elements and some violent images.” It has also been rated PG by the BBFC for “mild threat, violence,” and “language”, and A-II (Adults and adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature themes and images, fleeting surgical gore, and a single instance of rough language.”)
Cinema shall always remain a collaborative medium, yet Isle of Dogs and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl have reminded me of why I continue to place a high premium on singular cinematic visions, even in the highly time-consuming medium of animation. Less cooks in the kitchen can not only tighten the effort lent to a fantastic meal, but often gives the consumer the chance to know more about who has nourished them—their quirks, their limits, the ways they view creation. The journey of the artist in motion enhances the experience of encountering their art. The more the pockets and powers that be grant them the necessary space without compromise, usually because the artist himself or herself possesses that pocket and power, great art often cannot help but follow.
Thus, it should not surprise anyone that this list could only be topped…
…by Alfonso Cuarón.
(dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
“I like being dead.”
What more could one write about Roma—written, produced, shot, edited, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón—that others have not already written? Whether on the big screen (where I managed to watch it twice) or the small screen (where Netflix subscribers can see it whenever they wish), I ask again: How can one filmmaker have the audacity to possess that much power and control over the frame and all that inhabit it? How can one artist harness that much passion and confidence to pull off such a towering artistic miracle?
As the man who unleashed Roma and Gravity upon the world in the same decade, Alfonso Cuarón is resounding proof that both masterful art and timeless entertainment can come from the same person. God bless him for his talent. God bless him for his uncompromising vision. God bless his fellow Roma collaborators, especially actresses Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira.
Roma by Alfonso Cuarón—the best film of 2018.
(Parental Note: See end of my review)
Godspeed and Farewell, Cinema of 2018!
Welcome, Cinema of 2019!
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.