So a lot happened in 2018. Like, even without leaving the domain of film, a hell of a lot happened. Documentaries became cool. Netflix started pumping out awards-worthy dramas one after the other. Netflix also released an interactive science fiction film, with plans to use the format for more films in the future. Superhero movies started to look very different than they ever have, with the black-dominated cast of Black Panther and the diverse Spider-people inhabiting a uniquely animated world in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. James Gunn got fired from Mervel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and quickly hopped on board DC’s Guardians wannabe franchise Suicide Squad. And now, as we find ourselves in the thick of awards season, we find a foreign language film in serious contention to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which would be an unprecedented achievement. The landscape of cinema looks remarkably different now from what it looked like a year ago.
In the midst of all this, my own experience of the movies of 2018 was that, while there were many movies that were excellent in very different ways, there were fewer outright masterpieces than I’ve seen in the last few years. Granted, there are quite a few remarkable movies I’ve been unable to watch, that I’ll be catching up on before the Oscars. But even so, it’s difficult to call 2018 either a better or worse year for film overall than 2017, because I really don’t know if I’d rather see many excellent movies or a few that are practically perfect in every way.
Here are the best movies released in 2018 that I have seen so far:
10. Support the Girls
Films are often built around a central character facing one big challenge, and the ways they try to overcome it. With Support the Girls, director Andrew Bujalski reminds us that sometimes the biggest challenge is to get through the day. And once we’re completely engaged in the story of one fateful day in the life of Lisa (played with admirable depth by Regina Hall) and the day-to-day problems that just keep piling on her, we get to the most enthralling aspect of the film: women helping each other stay afloat, keeping each other sane. It’s a glorious celebration of female friendship, and that lands it a spot on this list.
9. Black Panther
I wrestled with this choice a lot. I’m still fighting myself over it. Ever since it released to an outpouring of love back in February, much of the conversation around it has focused on its flaws. And yes, it’s flawed. And yes, I could easily have replaced it with Incredibles 2 or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, both exhilarating superhero adventures. I suppose my final decision came down to the feeling the movie left me with, and after the big, CGI-heavy, disconnected battle, Black Panther used its closing minutes to give its villain an emotional gut-punch of a moment, and closed out its hero’s arc showing his growth in action in a way that resonated. That’s the kind of catharsis I’m always looking for in movies, and rarely find.
8. Village Rockstars
The best thing about movies about little kids is that they tend to have the biggest dreams. In Indian filmmaker Rima Das’s Village Rockstars, a girl living in poverty in a remote Assamese village dreams of owning and playing a guitar. An antidote to poverty porn, the film is realistic about how insanely difficult such a goal is for her, and in general about how difficult life is in that village for financial, social and natural reasons, but chooses to focus on the good, the fun, the hopeful. Its unsentimental optimism is infectious, and its impeccable technical quality on a miniscule budget heralds Rima Das (who wrote, directed, produced, shot and edited this movie) as a creator to watch.
I’m not a documentary person. Usually. But there’s nothing usual about Sandi Tan’s Netflix original Shirkers. The story of a film she made decades ago (also called Shirkers), and the reasons it could never be finished, Shirkers beautifully captures both what goes into making a movie and what it takes out of you. We see from the clips of the original Shirkers in this movie that it was a quirky, hipster, arthouse film with a strong sense of creative identity. Sandi Tan’s unique sensibilities shine through just as much in the documentary. And most impressive of all, she manages to shine a light on herself as well, laying bare her flaws for the world to see. One can only hope she gets back into directing fiction.
6. First Man
The last two films Damien Chazelle directed, Whiplash and La La Land, landed in most top 10 lists for their respective years. As far as I’m concerned, no matter how good 2019 ends up being, those two movies each deserve a spot in top 10 lists for the decade. So of course First Man doesn’t live up to their lofty standard, and of course that’s not a bad thing. This is an unconventional biopic, one that tailors its style and tone to its subject, Neil Armstrong: passionate and energetic and focused when on the job, low-key and muted at home. Ryan Gosling perfectly conveys Armstrong’s inner turmoil without overt displays of emotion, and his lack of energy is more than made up for by the fiery Claire Foy. And the moon landing is one of the best scenes I saw all year, in any movie. The word “exhilarating” was coined just so it could eventually be used to describe my feeling watching this.
5. A Star is Born
Exhilaration is also what it feels like when you see a nervous Ally (Lady Gaga) first take the stage and, gradually getting lost in her music and her love, own the stage. First time director Bradley Cooper plays up the drama in every scene, extracting every ounce of emotion from the audience, and it doesn’t feel manipulative because the relationship we find ourselves invested in is so delicately constructed in front of our eyes, through moments big and small. The romance is born of the music, and the music in turn comes from their love, which makes this the perfect story for the musical treatment. By the time the film hit the crescendo, I found myself spent.
Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut is a perfect example of a film where form trumps content and that’s not a bad thing, because the content is still solid. A whodunit thriller that we observe entirely through digital screens, Searching has its foundations in a well-constructed mystery with unpredictable twists and interesting characters portrayed by skilled actors, especially John Cho as the father of a missing girl. On this solid foundation, Chaganty has constructed a complex, layered maze of computer interfaces, where the different operating systems and softwares we see aren’t merely plot devices, instead the way they’re used becomes a part of the film’s central theme of interpersonal communication. Near the end, the film essentially turns into a crowdpleaser, which ends up being a good thing, because we’ve already been put through such a ringer that catharsis, in plot and in character growth, is appreciated.
3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
While this is easily one of the best movies of the year, that’s not even the most important conversation it’s a part of. What it is is one of the greatest action movies ever made, up there with The Raid: Redemption and Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a celebration of what mainstream blockbuster cinema can do. One, it has an unabashedly heroic hero, who really does want nothing more than to save lives and accomplish missions. Two, it has a crew of characters whose dynamic with each other has the kind of wit and heart that makes you want to just watch them banter or bicker when you know they could be out there kicking ass. Three, it flows. The rhythm established between plot twists, emotional pauses and action set-pieces is the kind of thing that makes Christopher McQuarrie the ultimate action director. But fourth and most important is just how insane the situations are that Tom Cruise finds himself in. The bike chase is exemplary of how bike chases in movies should be done. The bathroom brawl is the pinnacle of hand-to-hand combat, at least in Hollywood. And the HALO jump is so crazy and unprecedented, you’re not left asking what action filmmakers can learn from this, you find yourself asking, how is Tom Cruise still alive?
2. The Tale
Because it didn’t get a theatrical release and was exclusive to HBO, Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical character study largely went unnoticed by the film fan community. Laura Dern plays Jenny Fox, a documentarian who, in her late 40s, realises that what she considered an innocent relationship she had as a teenager with an older man might have been worse than she remembered. More importantly, it was very different from how she had remembered it. The movie digs into the unreliability of memory in truly unsettling ways, made all the more powerful by the fact that it’s a true story. Also worthy of applause is Isabelle Nélisse as young Jenny, who has to act in some extremely uncomfortable scenes. The film left me shaken and unsettled.
I said there weren’t many cinematic masterpieces this year, but I didn’t say there were none. Alfonso Cuarón already proved himself to be a master of cinematic storytelling with Gravity, but with Roma, he has cemented his position as among the greatest directors of the 21st century. Not since 2011’s A Separation have I seen a movie that so perfectly captures the rhythms of day-to-day life, the joys and challenges. Its sound design immerses you into its 1970s Mexico setting before you’re even past the opening shot. And the slow initial build up pays off when, in its later scenes, it pulls the rug out from under us, and shatters its audience’s hearts. There are movies like Bohemian Rhapsody and First Man where I think of wrecking ball moments and immediately come up with the Live Aid performance and the moon landing respectively. With Roma, a few different scenes jump to mind, and I get choked up just thinking about them. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the protagonist Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), and even though this is clearly not the kind of movie that gets a sequel, I can’t help but wish I could get to live more of her life with her.
What were your favourite films of 2018? Was it a good year for film in your opinion? Are you excited for 2019? Either way, happy new year! May we get more great films.