If I was asked what defined this past year in cinema, I would argue it was films that went beyond their brief: films that used familiar generic frameworks as the basis for innovative films telling new stories; films examining particular situations in ways that both illuminated their specifics and spoke to universally resonant emotions; takes on familiar characters and settings that found new and timely angles. The films on this list are by-and-large united by their defying whatever expectations one might have of them to tap into deeper truths, ones that both speak to and go beyond their time.
Revealing of just how good and wide-ranging this year’s films were are the ones I sadly had to leave off this list: the moving and lyrical modern fairy tale The Shape of Water; Greta Gerwig’s brilliantly observed Lady Bird; Boots Riley’s incendiary, dizzyingly innovative satire Sorry to Bother You (possibly the year’s best directorial debut); the dazzlingly entertaining and superbly constructed Mission: Impossible – Fallout; American Animals’ daringly meta-textual take on the cinematic mythology of crime. Now, without further ado, my ten favourite films of 2018.
NOTE: This list is operating by UK release dates.
You probably wouldn’t expect the most memorable, invigorating moment in a film which features Nicolas Cage screaming while soaking himself in vodka and later engaging in a chainsaw duel to be a simple scene of a woman laughing. But, then again, there’s lots you wouldn’t expect about Mandy, director Panos Cosmatos’ heavy-metal dream-opera of love and revenge. Daringly, it spends almost the whole of its moody first hour building the sweet relationship between Cage’s Red Miller and Andrea Riseborough’s Mandy Bloom before plunging us into a hypnotically hellish heart of darkness, and some manages to wrap the whole journey around a surprisingly resonant exploration of the difference between selfish and selfless love and the ravages of toxic masculinity. Oh, and it has the best fake advert of the year.
- Tie: Black Panther/Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
2018 was the year when the superhero film as we have come to know it reached its apotheosis with Avengers: Infinity War, but the year’s two best entries in the genre were two more idiosyncratic, more diverse, and more daring Marvel adventures. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther delivered one of the few blockbusters of recent times to feel like a genuine epic, crafting a visually stunning, richly detailed world and populating it with fleshed-out characters with complicated points of view in a tale that grapples with Black cultural identity and how it is shaped by the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Exquisitely shot, costumed, and choreographed, this is handily the most visually ravishing tentpole in years, while a classy ensemble cast give richly textured character turns – the film being handily stolen by Michael B. Jordan, who creates a rare blockbuster villain of real complexity. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman’s animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, meanwhile, takes a premise that sounds like craven corporate cynicism – a team-up of multiple, merchandise-friendly incarnations of Spider-Man – and makes into one of the smartest, most inventive animated films in years. It sings with formal innovation from the first frame onwards, awash in vibrant colours and cleverly importing the visual devices and short-hand of comic books, and somehow roots all of its free-wheeling psychedelia and delightful tangents around a poignant coming-of-age story that understands the primal appeal of superhero stories better than any other such film in recent memory. Both films suggest that there’s life in this over-saturated genre yet if it opens up to new styles, new stories, and new voices.
- First Man
First Man sadly failed to connect with audiences at the box office – but it may be the very things that financially doomed Damien Chazelle’s latest that make it great. Rather than the grand-scale crowd-pleaser that the subject of the moon landing would seem to invite, First Man is an intimate-to-a-fault hybrid of procedural drama and character study that zeroes in on Neil Armstrong himself (played with nuance and sensitivity by Ryan Gosling, an expert at projecting melancholy through a mask of stoicism), his grief over the death of his infant daughter and how that impacted his approach both towards his historic mission and his life as a husband and father. It is a technical marvel in recreating the physicality of early space travel, and its admirable restraint makes the final moments of emotional awakening all the more moving.
As in his directorial debut Ex Machina, Alex Garland takes a premise that sounds like B-movie fodder and spins it out into a thought-provoking, profoundly disturbing exploration of the human condition. In this case, we follow four female soldiers and scientists (Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, all superb) into an alternate dimension where they are confronted with a series of disquieting phenomena – ranging from the quietly uncanny to the viscerally terrifying – that manifest the horrors of decay and non-existence. This exploration of our relationship to the inevitability of death and our divergent responses to it is hypnotic and daringly non-literal, full of images that will dwell behind your eyes for weeks.
Want to know why there’s only one Spike Lee? Because no-one else would even think to try to make an exploration of the history and present of white supremacy’s deep roots in American society, a riveting period crime thriller with nods to Blaxploitation, a character study about the nature of racial identity and performance, and a wittily self-reflexive debate on the nature of cinematic representation all in the one film – one that’s based on a true story, no less. That’s exactly what Lee did with his take on the story of African-American detective Ron Stallworth’s 1970s infiltration of the KKK, delivering a rousing, furious, and smart film replete with bold formal flourishes and terrific performances from John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Topher Grace. From its darkly funny opening to its chilling final moments, BlacKkKlansman is the unmistakable work of an uncompromising voice on peak form.
- First Reformed
It probably doesn’t say anything good about our current epoch that it took the writer of Taxi Driver to deliver what feels like the defining encapsulation of the moment. Paul Schrader’s latest effort as writer and director, marking a striking return to form, is a slow-burning, deeply troubling film, the sort of meditative, complex, idea-driven piece we now see all too rarely. Following Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller as he grapples with spiritual and environmental despair, the film is a lament for and angry indictment of humanity’s treatment of the earth, but one shot through with a quiet hope in our capacity for love and possibly redemption. Austere and quiet, the film is a model of restraint in form and content until suddenly, thrillingly, it becomes something else entirely. Hawke gives a possibly career-best performance, while Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles shine in nuanced supporting turns. It’s a film we’ll be talking about for years to come – not least its beautifully ambiguous ending.
- Phantom Thread
Every time it looks as though Paul Thomas Anderson has made his masterpiece, he finds another way to surprise us. And surprise is the operative word in Phantom Thread, a film which keeps wrong-footing us as to just what kind of film we’re watching right up until its delicious left-turn of an ending – is it Gothic homage, art-house psychosexual drama, or even dark romantic comedy? The answer, gloriously, is all of the above, Anderson meticulously weaving an ever-shifting web of complex inter-personal dynamics it’s all but impossible not to get caught up in. Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent in his (allegedly) final performance, making an infuriatingly childish tragicomic figure of fastidious couturier Reynolds Woodcock, while Vicky Krieps plays an unpredictable character arc to perfection, and Lesley Manville steals entire scenes with single looks. An absolute pleasure from start to finish.
Alfonso Cuaron’s chronicle of a year in the life of a Mexico City family in the early 1970s, told through the eyes of their housekeeper Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparacio, a revelation), is a stunning exercise in empathy. Drawing on his own childhood and memories of the household maid who raised him, Cuaron fixates in on the most mundane details of the lives of his characters and captures the transcendent power they have for those experiencing them. Recalling Italian Neo-Realism and the domestic dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, the film has a keener eye than all but a few in recent memory for the relationships between people and spaces, and captures both moments of domestic intimacy and grand-scale drama with grace, beauty, and staggering attention to detail. Roma is a masterpiece, one that embodies cinema’s capacity to bring together form and content to create a vivid impression of the experiences of another.
- You Were Never Really Here
A pulp novella by Jonathan Ames might not seem like the most obvious choice of source material for director Lynne Ramsay, a filmmaker best known for her probing examinations of how our sense of self and experience of the world are shaped by forces beyond our control. But as anyone who’s seen Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin knows, Ramsay doesn’t make conventional literary adaptations – rather, she makes films that feel like the dream one might have after reading the book in a single night. With You Were Never Really Here she outdoes herself on that front, rendering the story of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe – a PTSD-addled hired gun specialising in rescuing trafficked children – as a vivid and overwhelming nightmare diving into the toxic nexus of abuse, trauma, and masculinity. The film strips away all the comforts of its genre, largely denying us exposition, keeping its violence off-screen and making that which we do see grimly un-cathartic, and rejecting any and all attempts to project adolescent fantasies of ‘coolness’ onto its protagonist: without those easy and familiar signifiers, we are left to navigate our way through the impressionistic landscape Ramsay weaves out of Tom Townend’s dreamy cinematography, Joe Bini’s elliptical editing, and another terrifically bracing score from Jonny Greenwood. As Joe, Phoenix may be the best he’s ever been, lumbering as though weighed down by his large frame, and playing out in his eyes the turmoil of a man perpetually torn between past and present, life and death. And yet beneath it’s bleakness lies a wounded humanity, summed up in four simple words: ‘It’s a beautiful day’. We can but hope we see Ramsay being the camera again soon – she’s one of our very best.
- Leave No Trace
That Debra Granik – perhaps best known for Winter’s Bone – isn’t a household name yet surely qualifies as a crime of some kind. Want to know why? Then go and watch Leave No Trace – 109 minutes later you’ll be left thoroughly moved and enraptured by a film that evokes overwhelmingly powerful emotions without ever resorting to over-statement. This drama about war veteran Will and his young daughter Tom (played by Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt Mackenzie, respectively) reintegrating into society after years of living off the grid in a public park outside Portland takes us inside the unconventional life of two damaged people and makes their feelings and experiences almost painfully palpable to us, developing a profound empathy for every choice both Will and Tom make – even as it slowly becomes apparent they are perhaps irrevocably on different paths. Granik’s film is a work of true cinematic storytelling, never simply telling us something if it can find a way to show it through camera movement or editing, and never spelling out what we can discern about the characters and their situation from the particulars of framing or the actors’ body language. It’s a film that manages to generate real drama and conflict not out of cruelty but kindness, from the nuances of a situation where all involved genuinely mean well. Foster and Mackenzie are both excellent, the former again cementing himself as one of the most chameleonic performers working today while the latter’s shaded turn instantly makes her one of the most promising actors of her generation. Leave No Trace feels both like a story we haven’t heard before and like part of a long and venerable tradition of American epics on the relationship between the individual and society – and entirely like a modern classic.