Cinema in our country and in this moment has come to include everything from movies that play for a week before heading to streaming services to blockbusters with the budget of a small country to indies that are shot on an iPhone.
The disparity between “movies that studios (including Netflix, which is essentially a studio now) spend money on” and “movies that have to scrape it together tooth and nail” has never felt more dramatic. One looks at the giant corpus of cinema and an apples-oranges problem becomes ever more clear.
All that —it also allows for documentaries and features to be put together — went into this list of the best movies of 2018, which is in alphabetical order and not ranked.
Twenty movies from 2018 worth your time, eyes and ears:
“Black Panther.” The box office capo de tutti capi (it made $700 million domestic) just happens to be first here for alphabet reasons, but let’s be real: 2018 was the year of the Panther. Ryan Coogler’s entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe felt like a new thing in the world. A movie in the dominant blockbuster genre of this moment that featured an almost-entirely African-American cast and emphasized themes of globalism, isolationism, generational burdens, but also impossibly cool teen girl scientists, war rhinos and the best joke with “we’re vegetarians” as the punchline. Wakanda forever.
“Blaze.” The more I thought about this gauzy sotra-biopic about one-time Austin musician Blaze Foley, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Director Ethan Hawke gets a remarkable performance out of Ben Dickey, a 40-year-old musician from Arkansas, in a tour de force of oversized charm, a living ballad of song-writer-as-ramblin’-man and artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies.
“Blindspotting.” Written by and starring real-life best friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, the more you watch “Blindspotting," the more you want to see it a second time. Then a third. You want to make sure you understand the freestyle verse. You want another look at the shots of the filmmakers’ beloved Oakland. You want to admire the tense hyper-reality director Carlos López Estrada delivers in this story about a man in the final week of his probation and the best friend whose recklessness might ruin everything.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Melissa McCarthy had a weird 2018. “The Happyland Murders,” in which she starred, has been excoriated as one of the year’s worst movies, but this based-on-a-true story pic directed by the extremely savvy Marielle Heller is easily one of the year’s best. McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a once-popular writer of puffy celebrity bios who gets into literary forgery. Richard E. Grant is better than he has been in years as her friend, confidant and occasional co-conspirator.
“The Death of Stalin.” Of course it’s impossible for political satire to keep up with the convulsive weirdness currently gripping Washington, but Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “In the Loop”) does his level best in this gonzo, incredibly funny flick about, well, it’s right there in the title.
“Eighth Grade.” The question folks asked after seeing “Eighth Grade” was “How did Bo Burnham, a comedian and first time feature director, pull it off?” It didn’t hurt that he got a beautifully, shatteringly real performance out of Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a 13-year-old gal dealing with her final week of middle school and everything that goes with it.
“The Favourite.” Yorgos Lanthimos is on a roll: “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” and now this grim, funny wonder. Look, it’s not that Olivia Colman can do both drama and comedy, and it’s not even that she can do drama and comedy equally well. It’s that she can do both as well as anyone who specializes in one or the other. She might be the best actor of her generation and all of it is on display in this dapper, often hilarious and ultimately extremely dark examination of a very specific love triangle between a queen struggling with the strictures of power, her own precarious self-image, the interaction between the two and the two ladies-in-waiting who want to exploit all of it.
“First Reformed.” Paul Schrader — film critic/historian of austere cinema, the writer of “Taxi Driver” and writer/director of many excellent, decent and terrible movies — was raised in a Dutch Calvinist household, a faith and worldview he once characterized as “a mild form of depression.” Elements of this upbringing are all over his movies, and fans have long wanted him to make a movie that confronts his Dutch Calvinism head-on. This is that movie, with all of the above coming together and anchored by an amazing performance from Ethan Hawke as a minister who has just about had it with us, the church, God and the universe. Yes, the ending works.
“If Beale Street Could Talk.” “What can we shoot? The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world, the human face.” — John Ford, probably.
Barry Jenkins understands. How do you follow up an Oscar-winner and critical smash such as “Moonlight”? By making an emotionally and visually luminous passion project based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a young couple — played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James — who struggle to clear his name of a crime he didn’t commit. Every frame resonates like a heartbeat.
“John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection." In this wonderful non-narrative documentary, French director Julien Faraut examines and cuts together footage of McEnroe, mostly from 1984 and ‘85, shot by French filmmaker Gil de Kermadec at the French Open tournament at Paris’ Roland Garros Stadium. The result is an examination of sui generis athlete in filmic bits: a serve here, a rally there. Maybe my favorite movie music moment in a year full of good ones: Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl” building up and exploding to life over slow-motion footage of McEnroe’s famously surreal serve, in which he looked like he was about to fall backwards before twisting his body and arm for maximum firepower. A fantastic, pure-cinema look at an athlete who was never better than when the whole world was against him.
“Leave No Trace.” It’s a shonda that it took director Debra Granik (and her creative partner, Anne Rosellini) eight years to put together this movie after pretty well inventing Jennifer Lawrence in 2010’s still amazing “Winter’s Bone.” (How about we not treat women directors like their successes are fluke, huh?) “Leave No Trace” is about a 13-year old girl (Thomasin McKenzie) and her PTSD-wracked father (Ben Foster, never better) living extremely off the grind in Oregon. Let me say this slowly: Granik is very good at making movies. Please assume she can make another good one, soon.
“Mandy.” I am still not entirely sure if this was actually good or if I was just in the right mood, but this mondo trasho monster by Panos Cosmatos offered me a screaming, blood-soaked Nicholas Cage fighting cultists dueling with chainsaws and demon combat and some of the decade’s most lunatic, acid-casualty visuals. “Mandy” seems to have leapt off the side of a 1976 conversation van driven by a Sabbath-cranking mushroom-dealing D&D dungeon master. So, yeah, it made the cut.
“People’s Republic of Desire.” In China, in online live-streaming showrooms (meaning someone’s bedroom or home office with laptop webcam and decent microphone), thousands of folks — some talented, some pretty, some charismatic, and some none of the above — log on and live-stream, well, whatever it is they feel like, in an attempt to get the time and money of hundreds of millions of potential fans. Which means about five minutes into Hao Wu’s “People’s Republic of Desire,” it hits you that this is a completely bonkers William Gibson sci-fi story come to life.
“Roma.” Alfonso Cuarón’s gorgeous, arresting, black-and-white semi-autobiographical story of Cleo, a domestic worker in early ‘70s Mexico City, rewards profoundly when seen on the biggest possible screen. The punchline: It is distributed by Netflix, which has given it a weird, limited theatrical release before putting it on the streaming service. Welcome to the rich ironies of 21st century cinema. All of that said, see it in whatever format possible.
“Sorry to Bother You.” Boots Riley’s debut has it all: Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson (both great), unions, Oakland, capitalism’s open maw, magical realism, the best-ever use of Armie Hammer, the year’s weirdest plot twist and the year’s most uncomfortable rap scene. In my head, it and “Blindspotting” were perpetually locked in combat for the No. 1 slot.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The year’s other incredible Marvel movie might be the best superhero-movie-qua-superhero movie ever made. Dazzlingly trippy, groundbreaking animation, a brilliant script, wild actions scenes, it’s a $90 million rejoinder to the notion (which has taken root in some of the Internet’s more unsavory corners) that superhero fiction, once near-lily-white, shouldn’t include characters that look like all of America. Amazing, spectacular and sensational.
“Support the Girls.” Another one that I liked that got smarter and deeper the more I thought about it. Written and directed by Austinite Andrew Bujalski, a marvelous Regina Hall plays the manager of a small-scale “breastaurant” who has to look after her employees, the regulars and her relationships all at once. Starring Austin itself at its least-attractive, “Girls” is an often bleak reminder that work is a four-letter word and finding compassion, dignity and friendships therein goes a long way to mitigating life’s grind.
“Three Identical Strangers.” Starting as an almost goofy story of triplets separated at birth, Tim Wardel’s documentary soon turns into a weird nightmare of nature versus nurture, mental illness and primitive attempts at social engineering by doctors who, having been alive during the Holocaust, really should have known better. Riveting.
"Widows.” On paper, it’s a commercial move: Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “12 Years A Slave”) directs from a script co-written with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) adapted from a British series by Lynda “Prime Suspect” La Plante. Instead, he made a very Steve McQueen movie (long takes, stake colors) that asks a cool cinematic question: What if “Heat” (more or less) had to be pulled off by the wives and girlfriends of the career criminals? Smart, gripping and, of course, Viola Davis is the straw that stirs the drink.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Director Morgan Neville ("20 Feet From Stardom") makes audiences sob with this incredibly moving doc on Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," one of the very few people who seems to have been as good a human being as everyone thought he was.