The 10 best movies of 2018

Top ten lists are frivolous exercises. They’re useful for drumming up debate, I suppose, but they don’t reflect an actual valuation of the year in movies. At a certain point it’s arbitrary; my #18 could easily be my #8 if I re-did this list tomorrow. I also missed some films I assume might have made my list, like Burning and Hereditary. That being said, it’s a helpful way to look back on the movies I loved this year.

Here’s my number 20 through 11 films: A Quiet Place, Minding the Gap, BlackKklansman, The Tale, Paddington 2, Mission:Impossible - Fallout, Love, Simon, Support the Girls, Black Panther, Blockers.

A lot of those movies could have made the back end of my list, but with the final slots I tried to include some of the movies that I found most unique, and most unlike anything I’d seen before. Let’s get to it.

10. Searching

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A noir mystery about a father tracking down his missing daughter, Searching takes place entirely within screens. It is not the first to do this, but it is the first to use this gimmick as commentary on how the internet functions. In Searching the web is a tool that encourages deception; it is a place where we go searching for a version of ourselves that was right in front of us the whole time. And yet Searching doesn’t dismiss the internet, either; it may be filled with artifice, but it is undeniably just as much a part of our social context as the real world. The most striking thing about Searching might just be how normal it felt for the movie to take place within a screen.

Full review here.

9. Thunder Road

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Thunder Road is both acutely familiar and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The film stars Jim Cummings (who also wrote and directed it) as Officer Jim Arnaud, a police officer facing a mental breakdown after the loss of his mother and an impending divorce. It’s funnier than it sounds. Cummings gives one of the strangest performances I’ve seen in a while, and his nervous collapse is a case for allowing for emotional fragility in men. Between Thunder Road and Minding the Gap, it’s been an excellent year for men exploring their emotional vulnerabilities against the backdrop of a crumbling middle-American locale.

8. The Favourite

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The Favourite has been described as Mean Girls in corsets, and it’s partially true: the battle between Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) for the affection of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is hilarious, and very high school. But the description also sells short the unique perspective of director Yorgos Lanthimos, the most gleefully perverse filmmaker working today. Lanthimos makes horror-comedies about the tragedy of getting what we want while we're playing by someone else's rules. This one isn't as insightful as The Lobster or as insane as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it is a lot of fucking fun.

7. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the seventh stand-alone Spider-Man film and fourth different reboot of the friendly neighborhood hero in the last 16 years. So it’s a delight that the newest film is a completely refreshing take, and the best Spider-Man film yet. It does this primarily by toying with audience expectations. Spider-Verse actively rejects the “origin story,” and it stars a black-hispanic hero (among others, including a Spider-Pig). Perhaps most exciting is the film’s madcap animation, a gorgeous Anime-comic book style mashup that’s a strong case that all animated movies shouldn’t strive to look like Pixar films. I can’t wait for the sequel.

6. First Man

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First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong’s journey to becoming the first man on the moon, appeared as if it would be a natural extension of director Damien Chazelle’s previous works, Whiplash and La La Land. Both of those films celebrated personal sacrifice in the pursuit of personal ambition, and what better subject matter for that theme than Armstrong’s? But First Man turned out to be a Trojan Horse of a movie, posturing like a film about ambition before becoming something much slower, sadder, and more complicated. Armstrong’s mission was not a triumphant pursuit toward a goal, but an outlet to run from something else.

Full review here.

5. Widows

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Widows is a unique heist movie with a combination of thrilling action and visual and thematic prestige that recalls The Departed. Like that Martin Scorsese classic, the action is the central plot point in Widows, but the film’s best and most intense moments come in the exchanges between characters.

The film delivers its message with a heavy sobriety. Everyone is accumulating power for its own sake, and no one can seem to escape the cycle. If it’s true that you reap what you sow, then nothing in this urban hellscape will ever change. But Widows ends with a rare moment of hope for the future. It’s not a big moment, and it’s no guarantee that things will get better. But it’s a sign that people still have the potential to escape the dour toxicity of corruption if they are willing to abandon the rules of those who came before them.

Full review here.

4. Eighth Grade

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This earnest, hilarious directorial debut from comedian Bo Burnham rejects tidy, conventional coming-of-age moments in favor of immense awkwardness and absolute honesty, and the result is a film that portrays modern adolescence more accurately than perhaps any other film of recent years.

Burnham became famous on Youtube, and understands more than perhaps any other modern creator how profoundly the internet has reshaped the social landscape of adolescence. He’s smart enough to know that even when we’re presenting something online, we know what a facade the whole thing is, and it makes Kayla’s online moments more crushing, and more resonant.

Full review here.

3. Set It Up

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Set It Up is, without exaggeration, the best Netflix original movie I’ve seen. The rom-com, released on Netflix this summer, is about two executive assistants who, in an attempt to lessen their own workloads, try to set up their bosses with each other so the bosses devote less time to work. During the set-up, though, the two assistants start falling for each other.

Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs, playing the respective bosses, deliver solid performances, but the movie succeeds because of the chemistry between the assistants, played by Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell. Deutch and Powell previously co-starred in the 2016 Richard Linklater film Everybody Wants Some!!, and I’m starting to think I should petition Netflix to cast them in one movie together every year. The two work effortlessly together, bolstering exchanges that would be boring in other rom-coms. Writer Katie Silberman (Set It Up was written and directed by women, a refreshing step for the rom-com genre) deserves credit for actively working against manic-pixie-dream-girl tropes and creating two of the most well-rounded rom-com leads in recent years. I think this one is a sleeper rom-com classic.

2. Sorry to Bother You

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Sorry to Bother You feels like it owes its lineage more to memes than movies. It captures the sensibility of millennial America, or Gen Z, or whatever arbitrary moniker you want to give young people who grew up on the Internet and give a shit about the future of the planet. It’s irreverent, and hilarious, and completely earnest. It’s as if Clickhole presented a Spike Lee Joint. And in creating this tone, it’s one of the first movies I’ve seen that both takes on issues that plague American youth and emulates the way they see the world.

The film takes on a lot: labor rights, corporate greed, capitalism, the relationship between politics and aesthetic, the vapidity of popular entertainment. In covering so much ground, Sorry to Bother You gets a bit messy at the end. There’s a major shift in plot and tone that takes things in a completely new direction. I was still invested, but it’s not unfair to say that the film kind of goes off the rails.

Perhaps, though, this meandering, lost quality is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel so representative of this generation. The film is radical, and intersectional, and takes on the issues that make up our social condition. It’s about people who want labor rights, and don’t want to get chlamydia, and can make jokes about both of those things at the same time.

Sorry to Bother You ultimately finds some meaning in collective action. The ending is a little vague, and tonally incoherent, and it doesn’t really give a fuck. And that’s what it makes it just like us, and a representative movie of our time.

Full review here.

First Reformed

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What could motivate us to search for new beginnings in a world that seems to have an imminent end? This question is posed quite directly to Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the stoic reverend at the heart of Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of the few members of Toller’s dwindling congregation at the First Reformed church, asks him to speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael “thinks it’s wrong to bring a child into this world,” she says, because climate change will soon make the world unlivable for their child.

Toller meets with Michael the next day, and Michael lays out the impending environmental destruction that will soon befall Earth. A laptop sits behind him showcasing a heat map of the planet’s rapidly rising global temperatures. He is both forceful and fearful about the implications of climate change; he delivers the information with the vulnerability and resolve of a prophet who sees the future but can do nothing about it.

Toller listens patiently to Michael’s fears. When he responds he doesn’t reassure Michael, but merely cautions him against nihilism.

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers,” Toller replies. “I can't know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously. Hope, and despair.”

When Toller is not counseling his parishioners, however, he struggles to follow his own guidance. Slowly but surely Toller transforms into an unstable figure akin to Travis Bickle, the infamous anti-hero from Taxi Driver, the 1978 Martin Scorsese film written by Schrader.

Toller, however, manages to evade the total darkness that consumed Bickle. On the edge of violence he finds salvation in a moment of genuine, even mystical, human connection.

Full review here.

Jacob SkubishComment