The Best Films of 2018

Honorable Mentions: Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard), Widows (Steve McQueen), BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee), First Reformed (Paul Schrader), Tully, (Jason Reitman), Dogman (Matteo Garrone)

10. Unsane, Steven Soderbergh
9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman
8. If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
7. The Old Man & the Gun, David Lowery
6. Creed II, Steven Caple, Jr.
5. 江湖儿女 [Ash Is Purest White], Jia Zhangke
4. Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
3. Transit, Christian Petzold
2. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Ethan & Joel Coen
1. The House that Jack Built, Lars von Trier

It seems crazy to think that all I heard about "The House that Jack Built" before giving it a go myself was that Lars von Trier had finally gone off the deep end to make a full gonzo exploitation piece with the sole purpose of putting emotionless violence on a screen. This may have seemed conceivable after the greatly anticipated "Nymphomaniac" failed to narratively justify its own envelope-pushing content despite great effort, but it's so distant from the truth. With his latest Cannes-stirrer von Trier has turned inward to develop an explicitly detailed and absolutely fascinating autobiographical dissertation on artistry itself (including stumbling blocks, manipulation, meticulous study, rule-breaking, happy accidents, narcissism, experimentation, and finding comfort and confidence in one's artistic identity) as well as the interpretation of art (such as effects of casual and professional criticism, opinion of one's audience, conformity, divergence, and the terms of legacy) through the metaphorical characterization of a necessitated detachment from sentimentality. On paper certain choices may read as tacky and self-important but in context feel earned and insightful, and through it all not once does von Trier stray from his meticulously composed and edited methods of messing with us thereby driving home his overarching thesis through perhaps his most thorough evidence in favor of it. To send it off, the final segment contains per my estimation by far the most sumptuous and resonant cinema I've seen the filmmaker produce to date.

With a most impressive catalog topped by all-time majors like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "The Big Lebowski" and otherwise comprised of such potent works as "Burn After Reading" and "Blood Simple", it's incredible to see the Coens maintaining their steep standard across the decades. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" manages to thematically tie disparate western subgenres in a completely enrapturing and perfectly paced anthology on the human condition akin, quite honestly, to "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" in its chapter-based existential brilliance. It is one of a rare echelon of films in possession of effervescent intangibility that practically generates a purifying chemical release enjoyed throughout its running time. Between this being a seemingly widely viewed and well-liked Netflix exclusive and "Red Dead Redemption 2" being a masterful new benchmark in open world gaming, 2018 may come to be viewed as the time the cowboy retook pop culture. And... I'm sure it must be but mere coincidence that my two favorite films of the year are each told in six parts and conclude with... well, you know.

Out of time and corporeality, "Transit" is almost sneaky in its mesmerizing precision that swiftly takes hold and passes like a dream. Added to "House" and "Ballad" this now makes for a hat trick of top films involving a literal or allegorical [insert spoiler and shifty eyes emoji here].

At once one of the most narrative-driven documentaries I've seen as well as one of the most candid, "Minding the Gap" bears its strength in near every instant, thriving just as much on its hangout quintessence as its sense of organic discovery.

In "Ash Is Purest White" the marital duo of Jia Zhangke and Zhao Tao have again crafted a sprawling and cozily signatured examination of magnetic characters navigating life in contemporary China, featuring tangents this time perhaps even richer than the throughlines.

At once a tried-and-true "Rocky" entry as well as new ground for the franchise, "Creed II" surpasses its immediate predecessor under a newer director thanks to the surprisingly subdued and melancholy approach to the Drago family dynamic as well as an overriding somberness that defines the piece as a whole.

Lowery may undermine the effectiveness of the charm in "The Old Man & the Gun" by fading back up from an ideal conclusion point to show the epilogue of this true events biography, but the bulk of the piece feels right in fraternity with the spirit of "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid".

An assured step for Jenkins from his already attention-grabbing "Moonlight", "If Beale Street Could Talk" facilely coheres on the strength of its palpable central romance, virtually ever-present music inhabiting its spaces, and a dedication to the spirit of James Baldwin.

Even without the familiar Peter Parker as its fulcrum, the proudly peculiar "Into the Spider-Verse" is both the best embodiment of the character's spirit we've gotten on screen as well as a long-absent reminder of how cool movies about colorful superheroes can be in general.

With "Unsane" the curious, medium-testing side of Soderbergh again elevates a basic concept with his utterly impeccable cinematography skills, resulting in tight and efficient entertainment.

Complete 2018 list on Letterboxd (rankings subject to change).


Extracts, January 2019

"White Boy Rick" (Yann Demange, 2018)
Select review blurbs collected from Letterboxd & Twitter

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, 2018)
Timeline discernible from the “Letters from Iwo Jima” poster on the kid’s wall. Proud of Clint for including the phrase “Instagram-worthy.”

Bad Times at the El Royale (Drew Goddard, 2018)
As if a ‘90s Tarantino wannabe with a dash of surreality was originally intended for the stage and somehow actually turned out okay, “Bad Times” dwells on its concepts with assurance and (mostly) elevates its own material scene after scene. Also Jon Hamm sounds exactly like John Cena and it freaked me out.

Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada, 2018)
There’s enough to admire, particularly in Daveed Diggs, that I’ll likely recall it somewhat fondly even though it tries to tank itself with nearly every other scene. Almost as tense as David Ayer on a good day and as unsubtle as Oliver Stone on a bad one.

Dogman (Matteo Garrone, 2018) Bumped from The Best Films of 2018
"Dogman" hardly masks its ordinary anti-fascist parable beneath the veil of a dog groomer learning to manipulate people in the same way he does his business subjects, though it thrives on an incredible charm achieved in tandem through Garrone's sympathetic camera and Marcello Fonte's instantly winning performance.

The Favourite (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2018)
Not the best Lanthimos but strong enough that I easily lost track of how many times the seniors behind me said, “Oh, heavens!” Was Nicholas Hoult on stilts or was everyone else filmed with Hobbit technology?

The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018)
If I remember it as anything other than “that one Ben Mendelsohn movie,” it will be as a film more concerned with the yuppie suburbia it may or may not be trying to chastise than with its awfully distracting continuity errors. It is inoffensively brisk, though. An acceptable $7.99 red blend from CVS even though Total Wine was right there.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam, 2018)
Feeling nigh every bit the '90s transplant it is - for which mileage may vary - Gilliam's longstanding bugaboo gets off to a fine start, aided by the fortune of an Adam Driver upgrade, yet wears itself out with each subsequent blurring of lines that mutates its trajectory beyond recognition by the end.

Tully (Jason Reitman, 2018) Bumped from The Best Films of 2018
"Tully" rests well shy of the prior collaboration between Reitman, Diablo Cody, and Charlize Theron, but uses an idea that likely sounded rote on paper to speak agreeable truth to how our lives tend to be compromised against expectation as our youth escapes before we realize it was even on the run.

White Boy Rick (Yann Demange, 2018)
As much vintage soul cinema spirit as can be reasonably wished for in a 2018 film starring white people. A seedy enough image of Detroit I almost expected RoboCop to save the day. Also, in one scene a character is nicknamed “Scarface” then walks inside and “Serpico” is on TV. Liked it.