Essays by some film nerds

  • Matt

My Top 15 Films Of 2018

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

2018 was a difficult year for me; besides for the world being on fire, people I love moved away, I lost close friends due to circumstances out of my control, I had to make the incredibly hard decision to leave my cush tech job at HubSpot because it was killing my soul, and it was the first year I didn’t have regular access to NUTV, a filmmaking community I helped shape and where I grew as a leader and artist. So, partially because I love the medium, and partially because my social connection to film was largely severed, I set out to try and watch as many seemingly significant film releases this year as I could. While seemingly minor, it ended up being an important decision: film was a very bright beacon for me in a very dark year, and not only did it allow me to deepen my love for the medium, it also gave me many opportunities to see and discuss these movies with loved ones.

So, to everyone who made my 2018 better, and to these films: thank you. While I can never properly express said gratitude to the former (that happens, as it should, organically in relationships), I can to the latter, by writing out why these movies were so important to me.

15: BlacKkKlansman

Hate is terrifying and as relevant in 2018 as it has ever been, and it’s going to be a common denominator in many of the films listed here. Spike Lee’s depiction of white supremacy runs the gamut from glaring shitstains to natural charmers to high ranking officials in government agencies. All of these people exist, and the movie makes it clear that all of them are deadly, especially when they work together. It is unity on the other side, though, between a black and a Jewish man (pictured above), that makes this film special. It reminds us that our struggle is a shared one, that liberation lies in cooperation, and that it is the obligation of all marginalized people to fight back, because no one else is going to do it and the system is always stacked against us. This theme is masterfully delivered through seamless shifts between humor, horror, and triumph, as only Spike Lee can.

14: Widows

While many films this year focused on the way law enforcement is weaponized by those in power, Widows focused on a different tool: property. Money, land, and propaganda are all used to keep the titular widows as well as other disenfranchised people in their place by those who can afford to wield them. In a movie with as many jaw-dropping plot twists as there are standout performances (Daniel Kaluyaa’s psychopathic hitman and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation from victim to victor are two gleaming highlights), all of it is held together with poignant thematic coherence by Steve McQueen. A one-shot scene in which a corrupt politician is driven in his limo from his press conference of a rally in an impoverished neighborhood to his glorious mansion just a handful of blocks down is the film’s crown jewel more so than the anticipated heist (which is purposeful), and will certainly be discussed far into the future.

13: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk presents the most perfect love story ever told that is come undone by a world that punishes black people for existing. The former is almost unfathomably gorgeous and never once unbelievable, and its slow moving camera and intimate lighting create some of the most tender love scenes ever put to film. Barry Jenkins teams up again with Moonlight’s cinematographer James Laxton to present a New York City that overflows with beauty, only for the frame to be stripped of color and vibrance in a cruel and uncaring jail. The film deftly moves between these two settings by shifting in and out of two different time periods, but suffers slightly with awkward voice overs and a final scene that doesn’t quite live up to the emotional depths of the incredible moments that precede it, of which there are many (which is also my only gripe with Moonlight). It is also worth noting the costumes, designed by Caroline Eselin, which not only give the movie a distinct visual flair but convey clear thematic meaning, as well as the score, by Nicholas Britell, which stitches together the changes between fairy tale and nightmare. Both of these people worked on Moonlight as well; Barry Jenkins clearly knows how to surround himself with serious talent and utilize it.

12: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It seems hard to believe that it’s taken this long for someone to make the “meet your superhero” film, but that’s because hindsight is 20/20; the people who decided to make this are brilliant. They not only tapped into a fantasy that so many people have had, they managed to do it with genuine wonder. While Rami’s films cemented the fantasy of web-slinging in New York City in our culture, this film manages to take it further by letting us feel even more impossible sensations, such as walking up and down walls, and it does so with vibrant animation that is so essential to the film. Multiple universes, different versions of the same character, and super-powers abound are all kept coherent with careful usage of composition and color as well as exposition that is not only entertaining but is framed to allow for major payoff later in the film. Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse is an immaculately crafted, deeply moving story that reminds us we all have our own struggles, we are better together than apart, and that superheroes are for everyone.

11: Roma

Roma feels as ungraspable as the mesmerizing swirls of water present in its opening shot. It’s almost exclusively shot in wide, there’s minimal amount of dialogue, there’s no score, there’s hardly a standard shot/reverse-shot conversation in the whole film: it contains almost none of the elements of filmmaking that quickly force the audience to empathize with the characters on the screen. For the first ninety or so minutes of the film, I was bored, and I had no idea how this movie garnered the acclaim it did. Yes, the visuals were outstanding: it was the prettiest black and white movie I’d ever seen, and the meaning of a scene would shift instantly with just small blocking changes. The sociopolitical dynamics depicted were also fascinating (the movie is a masterclass in period filmmaking), but, basically, nothing was happening… or so it seemed. However this movie works, once the intense scenes do kick in, and there are exactly two, each done in just one shot, I sobbed. I cared so deeply for Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo (whose last name being omitted is just one of the countless meaningful choices this film makes), depicted in an importantly understanded performance, that I was on the edge of my seat. I don’t truly understand this film, including many of the symbols it contains, but I didn’t need to to be deeply moved by it. Alfonso Cuarón shows in Roma that when it comes to art, there are no rules you can’t break if you trust your audience and know what you’re doing.

10: Vox Lux

Vox Lux is a brutal film. There might not be a pleasant moment in its almost 2 hour runtime. Little is revealed in the film’s trailer save the promise of Natalie Portman playing a pop star (in what is possibly her most unhinged performance ever, delivered with the utmost aplomb), and this was an excellent decision. The film’s inciting incident is shocking, gut-wrenching and timely; it instantly grabs the audience by the throat, and the movie doesn’t ever let go. The film doesn’t have a totally clear message, but this feels appropriate; the omnipresent ouroboros of violence, media, and fame is not an easy knot to untangle. Brady Corbet clearly has a lot on his mind, and anyone who watches this movie will too. Also, Willem Dafoe narrates the film, which is nothing short of amazing. A 21st century portrait indeed.

9: Blindspotting

Blindspotting drops its audience into the middle of a war zone, although this isn’t immediately evident. The war being waged is gradual, often subtle, and only occasionally violently deadly. The battle in question is a cultural one, and the white upper middle class has gentrification and state-sanctioned, racially-fueled violence on their side. Poor people of color living in Oakland are having their way of life co-opted by those who fetishize it, by the people moving in who will never understand the struggle those they seemingly idolize face. Blindspotting brilliantly puts its two leads, Collin and Miles, lifelong friends and coworkers played by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casel, respectively, right in the heart of this conflict. Both of them are movers, and to survive, they have to help these people move into their neighborhood. Only Collin, however, witnesses a police shoot a man in the back and is on probation for a crime that Miles undoubtedly played a part in. The tensions between these two men, one black and one white, and how their lives can share many commonalities and still be worlds apart is at the very heart of the film; so is rage, and whether or not it can be contained in a cruel, unjust world. Both of these facets culminate in respective scenes that are nothing short of heart-stopping, and they stick with viewers long after the movie ends.

8: Suspiria

“When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator.” This line’s lyricism, layered meanings, and understated menace embody what it is like to experience Suspiria. It imprints itself upon you, gradually, molding you in its conception, twisting and contorting your psyche in ways so varied and (usually) subtle that you don’t quite realize the impact it’s having until it’s too late. Given Suspiria’s elusive nature, it can be somewhat frustratingly confusing, especially without a firm grasp on 1970’s Berlin as well as the mythology of the movies this film was inspired by. However, even without totally understanding the sequence of events, the impression the film leaves is undeniable, and it’s never once boring. Dakota Johnson’s hunger as the new member of the troupe is palpable, and Tilda Swinton’s Madam Blanc as their leader is equally caring and terrifying. Luca Guadagnino presents a spellbinding horror film, with at least one scene that will go down in history as one of the most palpably gruesome ever.

7: You Were Never Really Here

Many of our most popular movies are awash with violence. There is variation in the level of gore and brutality, as well as difference in where it falls on the naturalist vs. stylized spectrum, but it is almost always glorified. It is rarely just a means to an end, it is an end unto itself. Violence not only provides a solution, it provides catharsis, triumph, and transcendence. Usually, said violence is seemingly necessary to solve the problem, but that problem is almost always introduced through violence on the part of the villain, and this duality is never explored. The bad guys are established as irredeemably bad, usually near the beginning of the film, and then the good guys hit them back just as hard and come out victorious on the other side. The film never lingers past the tidy conclusion, past a world that has apparently found balance, to the violence-induced trauma that lurks just around the corner. It is in that trauma that You Were Never Really Here begins. Joe, played hauntingly by a more grizzled Joaquin Phoenix than we’ve ever seen, comes from violence. He was born into it, and experienced more than his fair share in war, and now experiences it as a gun hammer-for-hire who specializes in rescuing trafficked girls. While Joe uses violence against men who undeniably deserve it, we are never allowed to relish in it. It either happens in between cuts or from an objective, bird’s eye view. There is no catharsis to be found, only disassociation; Joe cannot find joy in these acts, so neither can we. Lynne Ramsay didn’t make an action movie, but a movie about the harm violence leaves behind once the physical scars have healed. In a show-stoppingly tender scene that could only have come from this film, she pauses to remind us that our connections to others is all we really have, and it is only in this where there is any hope for Joe’s salvation.

6: Hereditary

Ari Aster mapped a Rube Goldberg machine onto a horror film and birthed Hereditary. Its twists and turns are mesmerizing, interlock perfectly, and send its doomed protagonists down an inescapable hell that was painstakingly planned for them. Like the aforementioned machine, all it would take to undo this spiral is interference; a conscious choice to stop the ball from rolling or the domino from toppling would prevent the ritual’s completion. But in Hereditary, it is consciousness that is most terrifying. Nothing is scarier than reality, be it circumstances thrust upon you or the world you’ve constructed for yourself. The family in Hereditary numbs, compartmentalizes, and denies all of the pain they’re choking on. It is only in her dreams that Annie (Toni Colette), the mother, can truly express her darkest thoughts, but as this story unfolds, waking up is no reprieve from the nightmare. At first distant from the death of her estranged mother, the extent to which this impacts Annie’s family begins to reveal itself frighteningly quickly. Her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) shared a close relationship with her mom; now with matriarch gone, Annie can no longer avoid that something is wrong with Charlie. Annie’s frayed relationships with her son Peter (Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) begin to unravel further as they all have less to hide behind. Every single performance claws to the depths of our capacity for terror; so long as the family refuses to open their eyes, they can feel the monsters coming, but have no hope of stopping them.

5: Wildlife

Forest fires spread destruction quickly and however we resist them, it’s ultimately up to time to finally stop them. In Wildlife, the characters try and fight the forces of nature raging inside and around them, but these forces always win in the end. Paul Dano presents a small family at a tipping point: having recently moved, Jeanette (Carrie Mulligan), Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) now find themselves without any income. Jerry, a professional golfer who never quite made it because he wasn’t born into wealth, has just been unfairly fired from his job as a caddy. This immediately triggers a depressive episode, and despite Jeanette’s and Joe’s best efforts, they can’t get him out of his funk; it doesn’t help that none of them have the language to discuss his mental illness. Now, with Jerry incredibly distant from his family and without financial security, Jeanette takes it upon herself to find her own way. Upon tasting self-reliance, though, she realizes just how much of life she’s denied herself, and that the spark she and Jerry once had is gone. What follows is a harrowing tale of acting out, and it’s not distressing because she strays from her husband’s wishes, as he’s failed her too, but because Joe bears witness to every sordid detail. He tries his best to quietly stop her, again with neither power nor words to properly express his own anguish, but Jeanette has launched herself down a path she has to see through to the end. All three performers, along with Bill Camp who plays a terrifyingly realistic sleazebag, make this film special, but especially Carrie Mulligan: her portrayal of a person finding themselves after they hadn’t known they were lost is the best performance of the year. Each character is a fully realized, three dimensional person, more so than the vast majority of films are able to achieve. We understand their aches and hurts so well, that while it would be so easy to pass judgement on Jeanette and Jerry, we never do. Carefully framed and moodily lit as intimate dramas need to be to carry this level depth, the cinematography and color palettes consistently stand out, especially when the film makes use of Montana’s big, open sky. The fire raging at the outskirts of the film is deadly, but it’s the threat of being destroyed from within that plays such a bigger role in Wildlife.

4: Annihilation

“We’re all programmed to self-destruct” is easily the most memorable line of 2018, and sits at the core of Annihilation. Ex-Machina’s Alex Garland is back with another sci-fi/horror that gets at the roots of dysfunction, pain, and change, writ large in the metaphorical Shimmer. The Shimmer is a force of alien technology (possibly; the exact mechanics of how it works are smartly only vaguely alluded to) which warps many miles along the US southern coast into a simultaneously nightmarish and dreamlike atmosphere where reality, while not undone, collapses into itself. Components of animals, light, plantlife, buildings, people, and more are all refracted through each other to create a world where everything both is and isn’t familiar, and in these amalgams lies the questions at the center of Annihilation: how do our relationships change us? Do we come out of traumatic events and periods in our lives the same person? Can we even survive them? With some of the most entrancing and terrifying visual effects ever put to film, Annihilation explores these questions in scenes that alternate between beauty and horror and calm and violence. There are no simple answers, but the fate of each of the characters tasked with uncovering what The Shimmer is perfectly matches the baggage they take in with them. Annihilation is a dense film that warrants many rewatches, and on each one the viewer is guaranteed to come away changed.

3: First Reformed

First Reformed takes on the daunting task of asking what it’s like to be alive in 2018, and it absolutely succeeds. The story begins when Toller (Ethan Hawke), pastor of the First Reformed church, is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a member of his congregation who is pregnant. Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) doesn’t want her to keep the baby; he can’t morally justify bringing a child into a world ravaged by humanity’s destruction of the planet, a world that may not be livable by the end of the child’s lifespan. Michael’s words deeply affect Toller, and how couldn’t they? What he’s saying is so blatantly true. Matters complicate further when the Toller realizes the church has financial ties to one of the worst corporate offenders when it comes to pollution. Toller, now face to face with and indirectly benefiting from financial powers directly tied to climate change, has to ask himself what the right thing to do is. When the fate of the planet is on the line, what lines are ok to cross? First Reformed is a haunting film about the realities so many of us face: loneliness, failing health, an impending apocalypse, and the fledgling ability to cope with any of it. Framed in the tight 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Toller is trapped in a world that won’t stop pressing in around him, in a world that won’t stop pressing in around us. Ethan Hawke is constantly haggard, and his weariness and existential dread is terrifyingly relatable. First Reformed reminds us that inaction is a choice, and that without any hope we are truly lost.

2: The Favourite

The Favourite is nothing short of explosive. It screams with life, from the script to the sets to the score, moving as fast as its whiplash whip-pans. Royal period pieces are so often stuffy, but Yorgos Lanthimos first and foremost understands that royalty were people, and they are just as down in the muck as any of us, and their lavish trappings are nothing more than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. That being said, their trappings are ravishing; Hatfield House, where the film was filmed, and its surrounding gardens are jaw dropping. Long corridors, vibrant tapestries, and massive windows provide a beautifully lush backdrop for the nasty mudslinging that permeates the film. The three leads, Abigail, Sarah, and Anne (Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman) are all varying combinations of witty, sympathetic, seductive, cunning, and vicious. Constantly using their stations in life and precarious political ties to their own gain, the audience’s favor shifts many times throughout the film, and deliberately so. Another astounding feat The Favourite manages is not shying away from or brushing over the hardships women and lesbians endure without making the movie solely about that or turning into a gut wrenching tragedy. Those tragedies have their place, and the leading trio in this film certainly end up getting what they deserve, but they and the film have an uproarious amount of fun on the way. Each of them is layered and stand out on their own, but the relationships they have to each other deepen our understanding of them and further defines who they are; it’s truly an ensemble film, brought to life by three incredible performances. While it’s difficult to pick a definite favorite, Olivia Colman’s Anne is arguably the most impressive, as Anne’s petulance would completely overshadow her other traits in a lesser performance. The Favourite takes settings and concepts that we’re incredibly familiar with, such as royalty and political intrigue, and presents them in an entirely new fashion: intricate costume design, an enthralling score, layered editing, practical lighting, and bold camera usage all serve to create a wholly unique film that is as meaningful as it is delightful.

1: Sorry To Bother You

Working in tech is a very specific type of hell for people who can see through bullshit. The corporate culture is carefully manufactured to trick as many people as possible into thinking that the work they do matters, that the company cares about their humanity, and that they’re making the world a better place. None of these things are almost ever true, but so many believe them, and the messaging is constant and omnipresent. Of course, some or all of this is true for many corporations outside of tech, but tech’s “we’re not like other girls” attitude greatly exacerbates the hypocrisy. “What do you mean, we don’t care about our employees as people? We have beer on tap! Nevermind that we pay so many of them barely-livable wages: they’re in tech, it’s a privilege to be here. And we care about marginalized people, too, look: we march at pride parades! Sure, we’ll never speak out on left-of-centrist issues like police brutality or immigration bans that directly impact the workers we claim to care about, but we have to remember we don’t want to alienate our right-wing customers!” In the end, all of these companies are just like other girls, because all they care about is the bottom line, and it is in this environment Sorry To Bother You’s Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself. This film gets so much right about corporate culture: dangling promotions like carrots, the sway money holds over people, and the deep cultural (and often fireable) stigma surrounding dissent. Diana DeBauchery (Kate Berlant), a middle manager at RegalView, where Cassius works, perfectly captures the relationship between the company and its workers; after talking about how RegalView is a family, when Cassius asks about whether or not they’re going to get a pay raise, she air-quotes “no” and then goes into a spiel about how social capital is the way of the 21st century. Another crucial facet in Cassius’ place at RegalView is racism; for him to be successful, he has to talk in a “white voice,” which boils down to making sure he seems non-threatening and effectively out-whiting white people. RegalView doesn’t care who Cassius actually is, they just care about how effectively they can utilize him, and along the way they’ll fetishize his humanity right out of him. At a party, in the single most horrifying scene of the year, it’s becomes painfully clear that what RegalView really wants is a minstrel. Sorry To Bother You is brimming with crucial social and political commentary about unionizing, the role of art in political movements, exploitation of the poor, the impact of class on our personal relationships, and the terrifying trend of work and home life becoming more and more blurred. Also, somehow, it is both an incredible comedy and sci-fi film, and it would be criminal not to mention Armie Hammer’s perfect performance as a misogynist tech CEO who’s mistaken personal profit for revolution. Boots Riley created arguably the most important film of our time, and everyone should see it.

Well, that’s all folks! 2018 has been an amazing year for movies, and I hope in reading this list you’ve had your preconceived notions affirmed, thought more about a movie you already liked, or had your interest piqued in any of these films. While the ranking was not arbitrary, it is by no means definitive, and all of these films are excellent. If you’re curious about my personal ordering of all the films I’ve seen this year, you can check that out here. Here’s hoping 2019 is comparably excellent!

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