<em>The Rider</em> came out of nowhere to be one of 2018’s best movies. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The Rider came out of nowhere to be one of 2018’s best movies. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Top 10 Films of 2018

A look back on the cinematic year that was.

Do you go to the movies? I mean, actually go?

Watching movies at home is easier than ever, and our notion of going to the movies has dramatically changed. So has the way movies are produced.

Netflix, Amazon, and others are making films that may or may not play in theaters before they are streamed to the world. A couple of weeks ago Netflix boasted that its straight-to-streaming holiday movie, The Christmas Chronicles, starring Kurt Russell and co-starring Kurt Russell’s beard, was seen by so many people in its first weekend that it would’ve been the equivalent of a $200 million theatrical opening. Meanwhile, when I sit down to make my Top 10 list, I have to acknowledge that some of the best films of the year were produced by Netflix. Movies like Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs don’t necessarily have huge box-office potential. They might not exist without Netflix’s free-spending ways.

Nobody at the old movie studios or the new streaming services knows how this is going to play out. But if these companies want to shower money on talented filmmakers, let ’em run wild.

2018 had other big movie stories, including significant successes for African-American filmmakers, led by Black Panther, still the top-grossing movie of the year. A veteran like Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) and a newcomer like Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) were able to explore different kinds of race-related subjects, with surprising results. The push for more female directors, especially in Hollywood, gained ground. The playing field still isn’t even, but from the multiplex (Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to the arthouse (Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace), 2018 was a giant leap in the right direction.

Being duty-bound to register our disapproval—sometimes disbelief—here are some ideas for the worst of 2018. A seat on the Buster Scruggs stagecoach-to-oblivion for the following:

Venom

2018’s most depressing box-office number is the huge international success of this DOA Marvel offering, which cast Tom Hardy (a deeply misguided performance) as a bozo with sudden superpowers.

Robin Hood

Sometimes old legends should be left alone, especially when the impulse is to make them fast and hip for the new generation. Let’s just say Errol Flynn has nothing to worry about—neither do Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The usually reliable J.K. Rowling stumbles with the second chapter of her post-Harry Potter franchise, which had lots of wizarding and a white-haired Johnny Depp villain who takes a bong hit from a human skull—but not much storytelling.

Mary Shelley

A limp account of the author of Frankenstein (played by Elle Fanning), whose adventures with the literary lights of her era make these exciting, rule-breaking artists seem very, very dull.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Nothing against Elle Fanning, a talented actress, but here she is again, this time as an alien visiting a London neighborhood during the punk era. Almost everything feels wrong in this adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel.

From the acclaimed director of Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino, here’s a dopey remake of the ’70s horror classic. Lots of talent on display, but capsized by a pretentious backstory and a basic inability to—you know—be scary.

My Top 10 honorable mentions would have the slow-winding Korean gem Burning; the psychotropic Nicolas Cage thriller Mandy; Bo Burnham’s very funny coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade; the Melissa McCarthy film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which is as much about loneliness as literary scandal; the cutting British comedy The Death of Stalin; the torrid black-and-white romance of Cold War (opens locally in January); Yorgos Lanthimos’s wicked comedy The Favourite; Hirokazu Kore-eda’s prizewinner Shoplifters; Alex Garland’s sci-fi puzzler Annihilation, with a strong Natalie Portman performance; and Charlize Theron’s postpartum workout in Tully.

This year, my Top 10 list is less a ranking of objective “best” films than simply the movies that gave me the most sheer pleasure in 2018. We’ll leave “best” to future historians. So let me cast Bradley Cooper’s adoring gaze in A Star Is Born toward these gems, and admit I “just want to take another look” at them:

10. First Man

A nod toward a flawed film that tried something really interesting: to present a main character who barely changes in the course of the story, and who frankly remains kind of a blank. No wonder it flopped at the box office. Ryan Gosling plays astronaut Neil Armstrong in La La Land creator Damien Chazelle’s technically dazzling film.

9. You Were Never Really Here + Leave No Trace

These two films have nothing in common—except the compelling spectacle of men trying to protect the teenage girls placed in their care. The former is Lynne Ramsay’s brutal portrait of a hit man (Joaquin Phoenix), the latter is Debra Granik’s sensitive tale of a damaged veteran (Ben Foster) whose reclusive life with his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) must end. When people say we need more female filmmakers, this is the kind of range we’re talking about.

8. Zama

Stuck in a humid South American colonial outpost in the 17th century, a bureaucrat plots to escape—but there’s no way out of this backwater trap. It might sound like a drag, but Lucrecia Martel’s disorienting tale is weirdly funny and full of quirky atmosphere.

7. Hereditary

Director Ari Aster’s horror movie divided audiences, but I was haunted by its solemn, stately tone—and also by the way it goes completely off the frickin’ rails toward the end. Giant performance by the always-great Toni Collette, as a mother who rightly senses her home life coming apart.

6. Roma

Life in a comfortable household in Mexico City in 1971 as recalled by director Alfonso Cuarón. At the story’s center is the housekeeper (a soulful performance by Yalitza Aparicio), whose life feels as epic as the action in Cuarón’s Gravity. If you’re laying odds, bet on this film to become the first foreign-language movie to win the Best Picture Oscar.

5. First Reformed

Ethan Hawke gives a remarkable performance as an embittered minister, in a film that’s not just about religious faith but about the world in 2018. A strong, mysterious movie from the man who wrote Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader.

4. Lean on Pete

A simple setup: a teenage boy (Charlie Plummer of Boardwalk Empire) finds solace in caring for a horse. A whole world of connection and cruelty opens up because of this friendship, and director Andrew Haigh (45 Years) gets all the details right. The cast includes Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny, as well as the titular animal.

3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers take apart the Western and serve up a very funny comedy about death. If the song “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, there is no justice.

2. Support the Girls

A comedy set at a Hooters-like restaurant in AnyCity, USA—a most unlikely subject for a great movie, but director Andrew Bujalski creates a warm and funny community out of this location. Regina Hall plays the manager of the joint, and she’s a hero for our times.

1. The Rider

It was a very interesting year for the Western (see other titles in my top five). This intimate variation on the genre presents a young rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) trying to define his place in the world after an injury, a process given intensity by the use of non-professional actors and location filming at a South Dakota Indian reservation. Watching this young man patiently taming a wild horse might be the most remarkable sequence captured on film this year.