This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
So many movies spoke to me in 2018, so much so that I had a harder time narrowing this list down than in prior years. For example, the margin between the top five films on this list is razor-thin. The distance is even closer between the top two movies, which flip-flopped right up until the time I wrote this sentence. And there are honorable mentions to the underrated “Widows,” the terrifying “Custody” and the memorable documentaries “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.”
10. "I Am Not a Witch"
Good satire is hard to come by. Writer/director Rungano Nyoni has made a great satire with a vicious bite and a deliciously pointed gaze at all its targets. Aided by a scarily good Maggie Mulubwa, a young actress whose use of silence is wise beyond her years, Nyoni takes on every type of exploiter, from the patriarchy to the folks who come to Africa looking for weirdness and not realizing that they’re being trolled by those who they deem inferior. The film never tips its hand, and as the story gets wilder and funnier, its emotions become more devastating.
9. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse"
Just go see this. I want you to walk into this one blind. This is a gorgeously animated feature and the voice talent is first-rate. The story is pure comic-book joy, reminding us that in that world anything can happen and realities are constantly being twisted, rejiggered and combined. Seeing Miles Morales onscreen made me giddy, but he’s not alone. Any movie that not only gives me a Spidey who looks like me but also one voiced by a full-on film noir Nicolas Cage knows my sweet spots. And my goodness, this is SO MUCH FUN. Just go.
8. "Leave No Trace"
Here I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s oft-cited quote about movies being an empathy machine. I had no idea about these characters and their environment. But by the final frames of director Debra Granik’s film, I had not only learned about these people, I was with them in spirit, shedding tears for them and hoping they’d get by. There’s no way in Hell the excellent Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is a supporting character, as the awards machine keeps saying. She’s stitched so tightly into this film’s fabric that it couldn’t exist without her character. She’s not only our stand-in, the story hinges upon the changes her journey creates. Ben Foster offers memorable support as her dad. I am glad I saw “Leave No Trace.”
Director Alfonso Cuaron takes over from his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the result is his most personal and best work. His framing is practically another character in the film, and his use of black and white conveys both a dreamlike state and a harsh realism. This story of people from two different classes is refreshingly female-oriented. The leisurely pace only adds to its magic; it puts us onto the film’s rhythms and we fall into them accordingly. As Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio is a revelation, with one of the best performances of the year. “Roma” is a memory play whose Mexican-set story feels like an antidote to today’s demonization of that country.
6. "Paddington 2"
The bear is very furry. And his movie is very, very good. This sequel finds Paddington Bear in great spirits and gainful employment. That is, until he becomes embroiled in a Hitchcockian tale of the man—or rather bear—wrongly accused. Paddington’s jail time is shared by Brendan Gleeson and made possible by an evil has-been actor played by that sly charmer, Hugh Grant. Director Paul King, his F/X people and Ben Whishaw’s voice-work bring Paddington to life wonderfully, but the actors who surround him are equally important in casting this film’s lovely spell. Grant in particular is positively shameless and absolutely fabulous, a villain for all awards seasons.
5. "Amazing Grace"
This Sydney Pollack-helmed concert recording sat in Warner Bros. vault for decades before being shepherded into a finished product by a tireless Alan Elliott. And what a product it is: One of the greatest music documentaries ever made, starring a young, radiant, resplendent and transcendent Aretha Franklin returning to her gospel roots to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. The resulting album was the biggest gospel release of all time. But listening to it is nothing like seeing it performed live, complete with choir and appearances by the Holy Ghost. It only took 46 years to see Re in all her glory, but it was definitely worth the wait.
4. "Black Panther"
WAKANDA FOREVER!! Pick any aspect of this Marvel marvel and you’ll find excellence. Whether it’s Ruth E. Carter’s dynamic costumes, the eye-popping cinematography by Rachel Morrison, the rousing score by Ludwig Göransson featuring Kendrick Lamar, or the unapologetically Afrocentric world building inherent in the Ryan Coogler Universe, you can’t go wrong here. You’ll cheer for the protagonists led by Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, his tech-savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and the Dora Milaje. You’ll hiss at the complicated villain Killmonger, played in spectacular fashion by Coogler’s Robert DeNiro, Michael B. Jordan. And if you’re a brown kid holding out for a hero, you’ll beam with a pride that’ll burn brighter than a thousand suns.
Spike Lee’s angry, funny, funky and explosive retelling of the life of Ron Stallworth takes a sledgehammer to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and the racist beliefs it celebrated, beliefs that unfortunately still exist today. Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan is milked for its comic potential, but underneath it all is a fascinating interrogation of identity and the repercussions that arise when that identity is marginalized. While John David Washington’s Stallworth gets the laughs with phone calls to a clueless David Duke (Topher Grace), it’s Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman who earns most of the film’s introspection. The powerful real-life coda is Lee at his most brilliantly political, challenging those who’d disavow the crazier aspects of his story by showing just how scary and accurate they actually are.
Barry Jenkins’ beautiful and haunting adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 book captures the author’s voice and spirit while simultaneously evoking its director’s trademarks and influences. Jenkins has several arrows in his quiver—the brilliant actress known as Regina King, James Laxton’s tactile cinematography, Nicholas Brittell’s delicate music—each of which hit the intended bullseye. KiKi Layne and Stephan James are superb as the couple who anchor this Harlem-set romance, tenaciously holding on to their relationship while injustice threatens to tear it apart. Jenkins maintains Baldwin’s matter-of-fact storytelling, which makes the characters’ joys all the more rapturous and their tragedy that much more shattering.
This fearless exploration of the complex, messy, and complicated qualities of interracial friendship should be garnering all the attention currently reserved for the simplistic and insulting “Green Book.” Screenwriters and co-leads Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have a lot to say about rapid gentrification, racial stereotypes, police brutality and the type of friendly alliances that are as potentially dangerous as they are life-saving. The two leads are fantastic, and director Carlos López Estrada successfully navigates tonal shifts with a visceral, reckless abandon. It ends with a powerful monologue by Diggs that’s the most daring thing I saw in 2018.
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