The Best of a Bleak Year

Confession time: I dragged my feet writing my Best Of list this year. The reasons are threefold:

  1. This is one of my favorite pieces to write each year, and I want to get it right.
  2. My insecurities as a creative person peak with this piece, including my creeping fear that I know nothing about films because I didn’t choose the correct ones or order them right.
  3. I was underwhelmed by the films of 2018, and I wasn’t the only one…right?

“There haven’t been a lot of great movies lately,” is a comment I heard twice this fall, and I had trouble disagreeing. Last year, I complained about killing my darlings—I could have written about 2017’s top 30! This year, I keep trying to squeeze in one more movie, thinking I may muster more enthusiasm for my list. While I still have a few buzzy movies to see, that’s no different than any other year—2018 had the same number of hours as 2017, but it didn’t have the same wow-factor.

Perhaps it’s because the film landscape was bleak. Yes, in the industry we seemed to learn of a new actor, creator, or executive accused of sexual harassment every other week, but the movies themselves weren’t escapism. They weighed with death, prejudice, and world-weariness, with quixotic dreams and deep disappointments. Uncertain futures, skewering betrayals, and irreplaceable loss defined character journeys, which left their hopes and our moods jaded. The posters for 2017 films were colorful, covered in fun sans serif and bold script fonts, but in 2018, serious all-caps serifs dominated on shades of neutrals. We watched our most beloved superheroes fade to dust, and even if you didn’t loathe this year’s Star Wars, was it anyone’s favorite?

I want to attach a label to many of these: “WARNING: Contains heavy subject material that may make you feel terrible about the world. May need hours of Cheers reruns and a bucket of ice cream to recover.” But there is artistry even in darkness, and there were standouts in my indecisive list. My top 10 of 2018:

10. Three Identical Strangers

2018 was a year for the Pop Doc. Like Andy Warhol’s soup cans made art accessible in a new way to the masses, this year was full of documentaries noteworthy enough for conversation around the proverbial water cooler. Three Identical Strangers sucks you in with its stranger-than-fiction premise but keeps you till the end because of its better-than-fiction characters. Just when you think you’ve wrapped your mind around the separated-at-birth triplets’ story, the movie adds another layer so that Bobby, David, and Eddy will stay with you long after it ends.

9. Game Night

When the weariness of these other movies has gotten to you, hit play on Game Night, hands-down the funniest movie I watched this year. Unlike the hands-down worst new movie in years, Tag, this popcorn flick rises above its silly premise of a murder mystery party mixed up with real life crime. Come for the sharp jokes, but stay for the clever heist plotting and a hilarious ensemble including Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Jesse Plemons, and Billy Magnussen.

8. Black Panther

You have to do something right to beat out Avengers: Infinity War for box office champion of the year, but somehow Black Panther did pretty much everything right. Most blockbusters covet director Ryan Coogler’s attention to detail in the visual style and music, and the multitude of superstar actors covered the most minor sin of an exposition-heavy story. We have yet to see another Marvel hero as contemplative and family-focused as T’Challa, but I hope there are more to come.

7. BlacKkKlansman

Another true story even more insane than that triplets documentary. John David Washington and Adam Driver play black and Jewish cops taking down the KKK—from the inside. While a few moments made more on-the-nose commentary about today’s political climate than I needed, it’s only because the story has a power that speaks for itself. Just when you think this undercover investigation can’t get riskier, Spike Lee finds another way to send your blood pressure rising, then releases that tension with laughter and starts the cycle all over again.

6. First Man

Damien Chazelle’s historical biopic of Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling is a setup that drips of Oscar bait, but it’s not without merit. Any film about a well-known historical event is an uphill battle with audiences who think they already know the story, but I left First Man thinking about how much I hadn’t known about the loss and risk it took to get to the Moon. Gosling, Claire Foy, and Jason Clarke humanize a process most of us can’t wrap our minds around, while silence and Justin Hurwitz’s melancholy score echo the balance between quiet and noise in the adventure.

5. If Beale Street Could Talk

Perhaps objectively the most beautiful film of the year, Barry Jenkins’s follow-up to Moonlight is a mellifluous mixture of color, music, and poetry. James Baldwin’s words build the foundation for rich characters and a fully-realized world in this adaptation of his novel, and the aesthetics reveal and reiterate how wholly human they are.

4. First Reformed

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed (2017)

I have never heard a character pray in words or wrestle with moral questions so close to mine as I have with Ethan Hawke’s small church pastor. Somber and excruciating, the second half takes a turn that I wouldn’t have chosen, but then again, it’s not my story. Then again, the tension between hope and despair very much is my story, and it’s very much the story of 2018.

3. A Quiet Place

Speaking of the tension between hope and despair (and of quiet and noise), A Quiet Place teeters in that uncomfortable limbo. Much ado has been made about John Krasinski’s directorial breakthrough and about Emily Blunt’s both tender and fierce performance, but it’s hard to overstate how brilliant they are. In just 90 minutes, it brings together the best in critical and commercial filmmaking with an element as basic as sound design.

2. Mary Poppins Returns

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Jack leads the lamplighters and the Banks children in "Trip a Little Light Fantastic" in MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018)

I’ve already written the very definition of a glowing review for this film, but one can never sing the praises of Emily Blunt too often. Though my second place pick, Mary Poppins Returns is the most successful film on this list because it knows exactly the kind of film it wants to be and then is that. (I could only nitpick the editing speed because I wanted to slow down and soak in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dancing.) Mary Poppins has come to teach us how to overcome grief, and she hasn’t come a moment too soon.

1. A Star Is Born

Sometimes a movie is everything you hope it to be. I fell in love with the story of A Star Is Born in our March 2017 Film Admissions, and in many ways, Bradley Cooper’s vision reaches that story’s peak. Fame looks different every year, but it never really changes, which is why we’ve seen 4 versions across 80 years each with their own heartbreaks and triumphs. Cooper, Lady Gaga, and Sam Elliott create authentic characters and, when combined with that music, constellate into a luminous piece of cinema.

Rounding Out the Top 20

11. Sorry to Bother You – The most disturbing movie I watched this year because of how close it is to our real world. Imperfect, yes (that much nudity seems to undercut its warnings about commercializing people), but it had a lot to say I’m not hearing anywhere else in film, which is the highest achievement for a Sundance feature.

12.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Another Pop Doc to counter the weight of the world by reminding you empathy and compassion can still change it.

13.  Tully – Like Sorry to Bother You, this story of a night nanny changing a tired mom’s life tackles topics of womanhood and motherhood in ways I haven’t seen anywhere else. Diablo Cody is still witty as ever.

14.  Creed II – If workout montages and daddy issues had a baby, it would look like Creed II, but the writing and performances from Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, and Tessa Thompson elevate it above those tropes.

15. Incredibles 2 – Look, if you don’t find a giant baby Jack-Jack funny, I’m not sure we have anything more to talk about—except maybe how the animation still blows most superhero movies’ effects out of the water.

16.  Juliet, Naked – A refreshing twist on the rom com, both for the premise and for the belief that finding love doesn’t necessarily solve all of your problems.

17.  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Quintessential Coen Brothers. The anthology segments’ tones vary wildly, but they’re united in their exploration of greed, pride, and fear that go before a fall. Hilarious and brutal, that opening segment with Tim Blake Nelson is a new Coen icon.

18. Avengers: Infinity War – I sure didn’t go into this movie thinking I would cry. Who knew I cared about these silly, superhuman characters so much?

19. Ocean’s Eight – The real heist was eight funny ladies taking turns stealing every scene.

20. Crazy Rich Asians – There’s a very good chance I’m going to have watched and laughed with this lush spectacle many, many times before I write my Best Of 2019 list.