The Best (and Worst) of 2018

I saw 111 new films in 2018 between the theatre and streaming services. Eleventy-one movies, eleventy-one reviews, either stand-alone or in groups. Eleventy-one chances to thrill, to laugh, to cry, and to outright despise. It’s been a hell of a run this first year, and we’re still not done. There are still plenty of movies released in 2018 that I didn’t get to see for one reason or another, and with Awards Season in full swing, I’m sure I’ll have to track down a good number of them to add to my overall tally.

Still, it’s time to send off 2018 and embrace 2019, so here’s one more addition to the pile of year-end retrospectives. Yes, technically it’s January 1, so 2018 is officially over, but I posted four reviews (for seven films) yesterday. I’ve got to sleep sometime. So strap in, as I recap the good, the bad, and the surprising films of the bygone year.

The 10 Worst Films of 2018:
Now, obviously this list may not be nearly as bad as it seems, because for the most part I avoided bad movies. Only about 10-15% of what I saw I’d genuinely consider cinematic failures. There was a lot of mediocre fare, sure, but I only saw a few movies that were truly awful in my eyes, and that’s saying something, as I was able to steer clear of truly horrendous works like Gotti and Holmes and Watson, the former of which still has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while the latter has clawed its way up to 8%.

10. A Wrinkle in Time
This will likely go down as the most disappointing movie of the year. When I saw the trailers, my eyes were watering. Finally my favorite childhood book (apart from “The Phantom Tollbooth”) would be made into a movie that would surely be a feast for the eyes, even if it did have Mrs. Whatsit turning into a giant leaf/magic carpet thing instead of a centaur. Instead, we got a plodding, schmaltzy, CGI glut fest filled to the brim with outdated tropes, horrible Disney pop songs, and for some ungodly reason, Chris Tucker references. It was also the beginning of a disturbing new marketing trend (note: it may not be the first to do this, but it was the first I noticed), where Disney has some of the top-line people (in this case director Ava DuVernay) preface the film with a “thank you” message for coming to the theatre to see the movie they all worked so hard on. Not only does it delay the start of the film even more than we already have, what with commercials and trailers, but it’s also a preemptive, “Don’t criticize the film, otherwise you’re shitting on everyone’s hard work” message meant solely to diffuse any objective critical thought. It’s odd. You’d think in a movie where Disney was trying so hard to shoehorn in as much diversity and representation as possible that they’d be more tolerant of different viewpoints, even if that viewpoint is that the movie sucks.

9. Mary Poppins Returns
If there had never been an original Mary Poppins movie in 1964, I’d argue that this might actually be pretty good. It’s still not Oscar-worthy, despite the Awards Season buzz, but if Disney as a company had never made the first film, and simply licensed the characters from the estate of P.L. Travers now, I’d say the movie was pretty decent. Instead, knowing the history of Travers and Disney, knowing how truly terrific the original is, and knowing Disney’s recent penchant for remaking and rebooting every property to cash in on nostalgia, this sequel that nobody asked for lands with a dull thud rather than a graceful float via umbrella. The songs are all thematic and orchestral rehashes of the first film’s songs, the plot adds in villains and romantic subplots that were never there before, and most of the film’s imagination is wasted on underwhelming special effects. There are some good moments to be had, but only if taken in a vacuum for the most part.

8. Hereditary
This is another disappointing effort that showed a lot of potential. Newcomer Ari Aster has a great cinematic eye, and the horror gore effects he displays are simply astounding. Unfortunately, it’s all in service of a plot that makes absolutely no sense, even if we check our disbelief at the door. Apart from Toni Collette, the performances are pretty terrible, and the story can’t even follow its own rules that it sets up. It all leads up to a pure shock value ending that I’m surprised critics liked, given the anti-transgender implications. If there’s one thing this movie has going for it, it’s that I can’t wait to see what Aster does next with a competent script.

7. Venom
Sony has had a very hit-and-miss relationship with comic book material, with the recent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse being one of the bright spots to end the year. However, before we got that glorious animated spectacle, we got the drab, pointless Venom. Tom Hardy can’t pick an accent, the bad guy is a more cartoonish bad guy than the actual cartoon bad guys in Spider-Verse, and the film utterly wastes Jenny Slate, which by itself should be a crime punishable by lifetime imprisonment. There’s no logic whatsoever to any of the proceedings, and while the look of Venom as a character was certainly interesting, in no universe did anyone want to see Tom Hardy make out with a Venomized Michelle Williams CGI thing.

6. I Feel Pretty
I love Amy Schumer, but this was a misfire on just about every level. First off, Amy Schumer is fucking beautiful, and her entire stand-up career has been about that empowerment and positivity, so the central conceit that she of all people has no self-confidence is a non-starter. Further, she becomes deluded about her appearance after a slip and fall after making a wish. In 2018, you’re doing a rom-com by ripping off Rookie of the Year? Really? The jokes are lazy, none of the characters are believable (except for Rory Scovel), and the whole 90 minutes is just a gluttonous exercise in product placement for SoulCycle and Target. I loved the movie Trainwreck. I hated this trainwreck of a movie.

5. The Grinch
Speaking of gluttonous exercises in product placement, did you know you can eat green pancakes at IHOP? That’s just one of the many ill-advised commercial tie-ins with this pile of Illumination dreck that not only isn’t funny and isn’t all that well animated, it completely misses the point of the story. The whole point of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is that the Grinch’s heart grows because he learns that Christmas isn’t about commercialization. Whether you take it on faith or just the general good cheer of love and family, it’s written in the damn story that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. And yet, we had to suffer through the entire holiday season with Benedict Cumberbatch doing a weird, almost midwestern accent to sell cheap crap to tie in with an even cheaper, crappier movie.

4. Winchester
It’s not uncommon for the early part of the year to be a dumping ground for films the studios know won’t be that good. Such was the case for Winchester, only the second film I saw in 2018. Great actors like Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke get dragged through a cheap ghost story based on the real-life Winchester Mystery House, a self-contained labyrinthine mansion in California, built by the widow of the Winchester rifle company owner. The scare effects are cheesy at best, including a whopping 19 jump scares. But it really makes you wonder what drugs the writers were on when they came up with the solution of shooting ghosts with live ammo to stop them from haunting the mansion. It’s like they came up with a lame ghost story, and then wanted to find a setting where the characters could be cornered at any – and every – possible moment before realizing that such a place actually existed, and decided to set it there so they could throw up nonsensical dead ends wherever they wanted.

3. Mortal Engines
You know, just once I’d like to see a sci-fi/fantasy future (other than Star Trek) where everything isn’t just a bunch of shit. I know we deal with a lot of bad stuff in this world, and yeah, right now we’re approaching a dark timeline where fascism is on the rise once again. But as a species, we do tend to favor our better angels, so why is it that every movie future is terrible? Mortal Engines is just another case in point. In this dystopian future, set more than 1,000 years from now, most of Earth’s cities have been destroyed by supersized nuclear weapons, but somehow, the culture and technologies of those cities survived to the point that everyone decided not to rebuild the cities, but to rebuild them as giant roving mechanical monstrosities that would put Mad Max to shame. Who does this? Who allows this? Forget all the stupid plotting and shitty CGI. Explain to me in what universe mankind can still exist, but with absolutely no logic whatsoever, to the point where they decide to build cities on wheels, and then hunt down other cities for resources. It doesn’t make a lick of fucking sense, and as such, it’s impossible to engage with any of the other steampunk bullshit that goes on for the two-plus hours of this Weta slog piece.

2. Slender Man
Given the very recent creation and cult of personality behind the titular horror monster, it’s amazing to me that his film version was just so lazy and uninspired. A young girl was literally stabbed and left for dead to appease this non-existent thing, and the best Hollywood could come up with was a by-the-numbers teen disappearance movie with orchestrated scare scenes that would fit more into a Freddy Krueger sequel. Given that there are real-world people who have been victimized in Slender Man’s name, it’s in incredibly poor taste to exploit it for a movie, and arguably in even poorer taste to do so with such a no-effort movie that goes nowhere and does nothing, except like, trees and stuff.

1. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
I’ve seen reports that the next Jurassic World movie will be the last, and please dear sweet baby Jeebus let it be true. This movie was just awful, filled with cliché after cliché while essentially repeating the same basic story we’ve already seen four times, and all of which were done better (even Jurassic Park III). Jeff Goldblum’s much hyped return was just bookend cameos to deliver mic drop lines. The entire idea of saving the dinosaurs from a volcano is ludicrous in the extreme. The series seems to forget its own canon by conveniently ignoring the fact that Isla Sorna exists, so even if Nublar were wiped out by the volcano the dinos wouldn’t be extinct. The Indo Raptor is a joke. B.D. Wong becoming this massive supervillain is an even bigger joke. And once again, say it with me, folks, THE RAPTOR FUCKING CRIES! This movie is beyond redemption and I hope they burn the reels.

The 5 Most Overrated Movies of 2018:
1. Mary Poppins Returns
2. Eighth Grade
3. A Star is Born
4. Crazy Rich Asians
5. Annihilation

The 5 Most Underrated Movies of 2018:
1. Sorry to Bother You
2. Widows
3. Early Man
4. A Simple Favor
5. Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero

Breakout Performance of 2018:
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You

Good Movie I Thought Would Be Bad:
Blockers

Bad Movie I Thought Would Be Good:
Tie: Welcome to Marwen and Red Sparrow

Best Scene of 2018:
Blindspotting: The final confrontation in the garage. Runner-up: Jennifer Lawrence naked and spread eagle on the desk in Red Sparrow. I’m old, not dead.

The 20 Best Films of 2018:
As I’ve said, I saw a lot more good than bad this year. I could extend this list to 30 or 40 without hitting anything subpar. But I think 20 is a good number, as it’s double 10, so I can show you twice as much good stuff as bad. I get the feeling the Oscar nominations won’t reflect my list very much at all, but as we’re starting a new year, here’s hoping for the best.

20. Green Book
There’s a bit of cultural whitewashing to be sure, but the rapport between Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen is just fantastic, giving the audience a feel-good laugher to open the holiday season, as well as some tremendous music.

19. Widows
Leave it to Steve McQueen to make the best heist movie of the year. More importantly, if you’re gonna have a heist movie with an all-female lead team, leave such an ambitious project in his hands so that it doesn’t come off as some cheap “Let’s see ladies do it!” reboot no one asked for or wanted. Viola Davis is tremendous, as are Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya, and McQueen’s deft touch weaves in compelling drama as well as some top notch commentary on race and economic mobility in the 21st century.

18. If Beale Street Could Talk
Only a filmmaker with the poetic and artistic eye of Barry Jenkins could even get permission to adapt one of James Baldwin’s novels, and he treats the material with the care it deserves, giving us a pure romance that sings against the backdrop of institutional racism and class struggles. Led by a wonderful cast, Jenkins brings Baldwin’s unique literary voice to life in the best version of itself we could imagine.

17. BlacKkKlansman
Quite possibly the greatest Spike Lee joint of this century, John David Washington and Adam Driver make a rather mundane memoir about a black policeman infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan into a beautifully stylized and suspenseful (not to mention funny) procedural. Add in Topher Grace as the most pedantic version of David Duke imaginable, and you’ve got a true winner, hopefully one that will finally get Lee the recognition he deserves from the Academy.

16. The Old Man and the Gun
Very likely to be Robert Redford’s swan song, he goes out in the best way possible as an aged bank robber who is just too polite for words. The relationship he forges with Sissy Spacek (in what is amazingly the only film they’ve done together) is sweet, his methods intriguing, and the objective nature in which his story is told is admirable. It also doesn’t hurt to have Danny Glover and Tom Waits be your sidekicks.

15. You Were Never Really Here
This movie is so good that it very nearly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2017 before it was even finished. Joaquin Phoenix gives a career-best performance in a relatively short feature which sees him as a hitman suffering from severe PTSD as he rescues a politician’s daughter from a sex trafficking ring. The cacophony of noise that bombards his brain is delivered straight to the audience so that we feel his pain as viscerally as he does, which makes the almost silent nature of his brutal executions all the more palpable and gorgeous to watch.

14. Black Panther
Wakanda forever! Seriously, though, apart from some bad CGI rhinos, this is nearly the most perfect MCU film. It ranks fourth overall to me, but it was the one that made me decide to actually run the entire decade of films in anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War, and it’s why I’ll see Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame later this year. The characters feel lived-in, with a rich history, and Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger is the best villain in the entire MCU.

13. Bohemian Rhapsody
This film has gotten a bit of backlash for being too neat and blending too many historical moments to the point of inaccuracy. While those critiques are valid, they miss the point, which is the overwhelming nature of Queen and Freddie Mercury in particular. Freddie was truly larger than life, and the stories behind the music are just amazing to witness. What really made the film work – other than the makeup job and Rami Malek’s tremendous performance – was the way it made sure to not shift the rest of the band into the background. All four members get backstory and a scene of their contributions to the group’s art, all while showing these four disparate personalities as the dysfunctional yet loving musical family they truly were. What’s not to love?

12. Filmworker
I admit I’m biased because I love Stanley Kubrick’s work. But when someone is as big a perfectionist as he was, someone has to make sure his vision can be executed, even when it makes no sense. Enter Leon Vitali, Barry Lyndon actor turned right hand for Kubrick. Filmworker is an amazing documentary detailing the man behind Kubrick’s curtain, and the toll such a labor of love can take on a man’s health and family life. His unseen hand in so many of Kubrick’s greatest moments are not only a credit to his commitment, but also bolsters Kubrick’s own legacy in the process. I’m amazed this wasn’t shortlisted for the Documentary Feature Oscar, because a) it’s brilliant, and b) the Academy loves films about Hollywood itself. It’s on Netflix right now. Do yourself a favor and see it!

11. The Death of Stalin
I saw it early in the year, and it still stands as the funniest movie of the year. This farce set during the Cold War but with modern-day parallels is uproariously funny from beginning to end, thanks in large part to the stellar cast led by Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor. Made by the team behind Veep, one of the best creative choices of the entire film was to have the cast speak in their normal voices rather than tacked-on Russian accents (see: Sparrow, Red). This allows the gallows humor to be observed with detachment so we can simply laugh at the absurdity of it all, instead of, you know, being terrified at the similar stuff that’s basically going on right now.

10. Leave No Trace
Achingly beautiful throughout, Debra Granik’s follow-up to Winter’s Bone surpasses it in every way, thanks to incredible performances from Ben Foster and young Thomasin McKenzie. This trek through the Pacific Northwest for off-the-grid squatters is touching in the extreme, because it’s grounded in the relationship between the two leads, an ex-soldier with PTSD and his sharp-minded daughter who wants and needs a normal life. Neither one is wrong in their actions, and neither one is a villain. Both people’s motivations are given equal treatment and equal dignity, and because of that, their relationship is rich beyond measure.

9. Searching
The first “social media” movie to be any good, John Cho gives a career-best performance completely via digital screens as he searches for his missing daughter with the aid of a detective played by Debra Messing. The use of technology to both frame the movie and damn its inhabitants is an inspired touch, and the increasingly deep rabbit hole Cho goes down to find the truth elevates the suspense to Hitchcockian levels.

8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The only streaming film to crack the top 20, this old west anthology offers six different stories all crafted masterfully by the Coen Brothers. From a limbless orator to a singing duelist to what might be incarnate representations of death itself, the characters are so beautifully created and acted that each film could be its own award-winning short. Netflix has been going full throttle for a couple years now with its own original films, but most aren’t that great. However, there are a few diamonds in the rough, and this is one of them. Blind squirrels and such, you know?

7. The Favourite
Like a real-life version of “Tales of Ribaldry,” this biting costume period piece puts the tropes of modern soap operas into Queen Anne’s court and subverts them with such deliciously dark comedy. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz foil one another beautifully, and the wonderful Olivia Colman makes a great case for Best Actress. The third English language outing from Yorgos Lanthimos is brilliant on just about every conceivable level, with rapier wit to beat the band while satirizing the idle wealthy. Also, we get to see Emma Stone’s boobs, so thumb’s up from me!

6. Sorry to Bother You
As previously mentioned, Lakeith Stanfield gives the breakout performance of the year in the best pure satire since Thank You For Smoking. Along with a great supporting cast led by Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, and Armie Hammer, the film takes a penetrating look at race and the exploits of corporate America through the intrusive eyes of a black call center salesman who can only succeed by adopting a “white voice.” The jokes land beautifully, and the plot twists are something truly spectacular to behold. Jonathan Swift would be proud!

5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
A lot of attention is being paid to other documentaries now that the Academy has come out with its shortlist, but as far as I’m concerned this has been the front-runner all year. In this day and age, when we as a people are more divided than ever, it’s crucial to remember that there was once a man who used 30 minutes of TV time every day to make sure children knew they were seen and heard and loved. Fred Rogers is a presence sorely needed and even more missed in today’s society, and in the midst of all the bad things, it was beyond cathartic to watch his story and have a good cry. I hope the Academy’s bias against “popular” documentaries doesn’t carry over into this year, because this is the best doc I’ve seen by far, and it would be wonderful if it won.

4. Disobedience
In the first English language film from Sebastián Lelio, the director behind the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, we are given a truly beautiful love story set against the backdrop of an insular Jewish community. Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, and Alessandro Nivola form a tremendous love triangle where tradition must compete with pure, unadulterated human emotion, and it works to perfection. Like Leave No Trace, there is no true “bad guy” here. All three people have their own motivations and agency, and none is portrayed as being more right than the other. They are just people, people who love and are loved, and what just god would object to that?

3. Thoroughbreds
Heathers 
for a new generation, this dark comedy shows what happens when the privileged have too much time on their hands and too many first-world problems to deal with. Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy form a perfect duo in their plot to kill a douchey stepdad. One is a sociopath while the other is too emotional to get anything accomplished, and as such they complement each other with ease. The film also serves as the final on-screen performance for the late Anton Yelchin, his outstanding supporting role a cruel reminder of the potential that was lost so young.

2. Isle of Dogs
I swear to God if this loses to Incredibles 2 for Animated Feature I will blow a gasket. This movie is a near-perfect story told in the most imaginative way possible, and only the unique mind of Wes Anderson could make it all come together. Stop-motion combined with 2D cell-shading and CGI effects make for some really impressive animation. The voice work from Anderson’s usual stable of indie A-listers is superb. The underlying creative conceit of making a Japanese film that incorporated the culture but used only context and the odd interpreter character to translate is arguably the greatest artistic touch of all 2018 cinema. And then, of course, there’s just the sweet, pure story about a boy who loves his dog, and who the hell can’t get behind that? The film has its detractors, basically people who want to manufacture controversy by claiming cultural appropriation, because I guess Americans are not allowed to acknowledge Japanese culture anymore; or even worse by claiming that Tracy, Greta Gerwig’s character, is a “white savior” despite the fact that she’s mostly a bungler who saves nothing and is only there to have an English-speaking character within proper context. Those people are idiots, and need to just lighten up and enjoy something as it’s intended, rather than trying to be the first to be contrarian to a piece of high art.

1. Blindspotting
At best, this film will get an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, which is usually what happens with new, breakthrough indie talent. But that sells short what was, to my mind, the most fantastic film of the entire year. Written over the course of nine years by the film’s leads and lifelong friends – Hamilton star Daveed Diggs and poet Rafael Casal – Blindspotting is an essential discussion on race relations and gentrification, along with being the best of a strong year of cinema concerning police violence. As Collin and Miles, Diggs and Casal play off each other as second nature, giving us the best buddy rapport on screen since Dante and Randal, while also spinning some creative poetry about their beloved hometown of Oakland and commenting on our own inherent biases. There isn’t a false note to be had with the film, with every scene and every line having deliberate consequence. And with all that, it still finds a way to be effortlessly funny and touching.

That’s it for 2018, at least for now! As we get closer to the annual Oscar blitz, I’ll be seeking out likely nominees that I missed over the course of the year, particularly during the holidays. And of course, now that we’ve rolled the odometer to 2019, I’ll be doing my due diligence with new movies as well! Thanks for reading!

Join the conversation in the comments below! What were the best and worst movies you saw in 2018? What was your biggest surprise? Was it the horse cocks? I bet it was the horse cocks!

2 thoughts on “The Best (and Worst) of 2018

  1. Holy cow, you gave me a lot to see over the winter. Thanks for such a great list. I’ve only seen a few of them and you make it easy to cull through the crap. Love your work, Bill

    Like

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