It’s quite possible that when browsing our list, some readers may walk away asking why certain films didn’t make an appearance. The truth is, so many great films released this year that it was impossible for our staff to include each and every one. In total, our staff nominated 88 films, and we all had to make some tough choices when deciding which movies we wanted to place higher on our ballots.
Only films released theatrically and/or on VOD in North America were eligible. Apologies to Shoplifters, The Day After, Let the Sunshine In, Support the Girls, Zama and Western — all of which received nominations, but missed the cut by only one point. That said, here is our list of the best movies of 2018.
15 – The Other Side of the Wind
For Orson Welles devotees, the detritus of his final (mostly) completed feature have percolated through their minds for decades. The film, which he shot from 1970 through 1976, was first glimpsed by audiences when Welles himself played scenes he had edited for his 1975 AFI Lifetime Achievement ceremony. The tantalizing snapshots of his newest major work were supposed to inspire interest from adventurous financiers, but Welles never got a single call to fund the picture. Eventually, the negative fell out of his hands, and any chance at seeing the work completed died with Welles in 1985.
And yet it’s 2018, and there’s a movie called The Other Side of the Wind streaming on Netflix. After decades of failed negotiations, the involvement of the streaming giant and producer Frank Marshall gave the project the final push it needed. It’s a mutant beast, and viewers will always be able to question its avant-garde editing and the out-of-time title sequence, but the final product is unmistakably a major work — perhaps even a masterpiece. It deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with all of Welles’ late-career achievements.
This quasi-autobiographical film details the final day in the life of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a director who has seen better days. His latest film has been derailed by the sudden departure of his leading actor, and in order to secure funding to finish, he screens an excerpt for an unimpressed executive. After the failed screening, Hannaford throws one last hurrah with all of his remaining friends, including his former protégée, Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a former critic who has become a celebrated young director.
The film practically grabs us by the arms and shakes us to pay attention to its autobiographical elements. Despite the cynical faux-wisdom spouted by Hannaford, The Other Side of the Wind is clearing a deeply sorrowful piece. Welles certainly hoped to finish it, but he seems weighed down by his past failures. The frenetic editing style keeps us on our toes, a necessary element that prevents it from drowning in misery. It’s a fascinating experiment from a filmmaker who never stood still. Welles may not have pushed it past the finish line, but The Other Side of the Wind is still one of his greatest successes. (Brian Marks)
14 – First Man
Filmmakers have often found the poetic in humankind’s space endeavors, with plenty of images of twirling craft floating through the cosmos or condensation glistening on instrumentation boards; there is much beauty and philosophy to be discovered beyond our Earthy bounds. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is no less contemplative in its search to explain what could drive a mild-mannered engineer named Neil Armstrong to risk his very being for a mission fraught with improbability, but it also acknowledges the sheer pain it takes to achieve such a feat as sending a man to the moon.
From the bone-rattling test flight that kicks things off, to sickening centrifuge training and the white-knuckle descent onto the lunar surface, Chazelle never lets the audience forget the visceral aspect of leaving the planet, a toll taken that is not only emotional, but incredibly physical. His cockpits are terrifying death traps, only creaking metal held together by flimsy bolts standing between pilots and an unforgiving atmosphere. Nerves of steel are required, yet his Armstrong is not some idealistic legend — he’s a very human engineer who feels that his internal struggles can only be overcome by external suffering. It’s a fascinating portrayal by Ryan Gosling, one that feels more real and grounded than any movie astronaut has before.
The land-based drama is also well-executed, but it’s when First Man takes to the skies that the film truly soars. Audiences are thrust into the same cramped spaces as those they’re watching, forced to endure sequences that simultaneously dazzle and destroy (the LEM test is breathtaking), pummeling the senses in an attempt to give some idea what is sacrificed by those who push the boundaries while reaching for the stars. (Patrick Murphy)
13 – Leave No Trace
For some people, the pressure to assimilate into society becomes an inescapable prison. Will (Ben Foster), the survivalist father in Leave No Trace, prefers isolation to society’s claustrophobic boundaries. He and his teenage daughter, Tom (exciting newcomer Thomasin McKenzie), abscond into the forest where they can live by their own rules. Perhaps Tom isn’t short for tomboy, but she can more than hold her own with dad in the wilderness. Hunkered down in a public forest near Portland, Oregon, Will and Tom live off what nature provides. Their peaceful existence is shattered when the two rugged individualists are forced back into proper society. Tom makes friends and begins dreaming of a future that doesn’t involve killing game or scavenging for mushrooms. For Will, however, there is no future. There is only the sustaining action that has become his life.
Debra Granik’s latest drama isn’t for everyone. The deliberate pacing will have many viewers squirming in their seat. Working from Peter Rock’s novel, Granik (Winter’s Bone (2010)) aims to create a world that has nothing to do with time, goals, or modern concerns. She succeeds by burying the audience in the minutiae of survival and stripping away all other distractions. We learn how to make shelters, cover our tracks, and build a fire. Nothing is left to waste, especially words, which are parsed out like precious food rations. Even the score is ditched, with the ambient rhythms of the forest serving as a soundtrack.
The standout performances by Foster (who is certainly worthy of Oscar consideration) and McKenzie are anchored in uncompromising realism. Every facial expression and subtle movement becomes an instinctual method of communication. It’s impossible to see the lines between acting and naturalistic behavior.
Building towards a devastating emotional finale, Leave No Trace becomes a powerful statement about devotion, survival, and the interconnected threads that shape a society. Granik understands that these bonds between us are broken and reshaped every day. When the willingness to repair those bonds is lost, the only refuge is a world of your own creation. (J.R. Kinnard)
12 – The Sisters Brothers
There’s nary a father to be found in Jacques Audiard’s slow-burning western The Sisters Brothers, but the entire story is driven by the fists of unseen fathers. The wicked abuse visited upon their sons created hardened survivors perfectly suited for the godless outskirts of 1850s Oregon.
Civilization encroaches on every front. Where there were once tents there are now houses, and those houses are already being replaced by general stores. None of this matters to the Sisters brothers, of course. That would be older brother Eli Sister (John C. Reilly) and his reckless younger brother, Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix). The Sisters kill people — that’s their job. It’s a job perfectly suited for Charlie, who is content to go through life with a pistol in his right hand and a whiskey bottle in his left. Eli is more contemplative; he doesn’t enjoy emulating the evil of their father, a monstrous drunk who abused them mercilessly. There’s even a girl back home that he fancies. He carries her neatly folded, perfume-scented shawl everywhere he goes, breathing her deep into his lungs before he lays down to sleep.
Based on Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel of the same name, The Sisters Brothers begins like a traditional western, replete with good guys, bad guys, majestic vistas, and plenty of antagonistic banter between the mismatched brothers. Where it ends up, however, is quite a different matter. Director Jacques Audiard (Dheepan (2015)) is more interested in moral quandaries by the campfire than shootouts in the public square. In fact, many of the film’s showdowns happen at night or completely off screen.
The spotlight belongs to the great John C. Reilly, and he completely owns this film. Reilly has always been a lovable presence, but here he inhabits a man who can barely stand himself. Eli knows their curious vocation is coming to an end, but he can’t abandon his self-destructive brother. You hear his devotion in every tortured plea for Charlie to stop drinking, and see it in the simplest of gestures, as when he lovingly cuts Charlie’s hair. His brilliant performance, full of yearning, humor, and regret, makes The Sisters Brothers one of the best revisionist westerns in recent memory. (J.R. Kinnard)
11 – Cold War
Of the two lusciously photographed black-and-white foreign language films appearing on this list (the other being Roma), Cold War is, in this critic’s opinion, the better of the two. Oscar-winning filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski returns with a passionate love story of two Polish musicians — Zula (Joanna Kulig), who dreams of becoming a star, and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a jazz musician working for a traditional folk group. Jumping back and forth across European borders and a 15-year timeframe, Cold War is set against a background of political turmoil, and details a romance as bleak as the surroundings. Cinematographer ?ukasz ?al beautifully captures every moment of monochrome intensity as the couple struggles with their on-and-off relationship that never truly finds its footing.
Running only 88 minutes, Cold War casts a spell over audiences with its incredibly charismatic cast, gorgeous visuals, and an eclectic soundtrack that ranges from traditional Soviet-era hymns to folk chorals, from cool jazz to classic rock & roll. It’s slick, sexy, and cool, and the rare film which I wish was longer. (Ricky D)
10 – Burning
A South Korean love triangle with deadly implications is explored in Burning, an enigmatic, cozy thriller that keeps the audience guessing right until its haunting final scene. Boasting stand-out performances from Ah-in Yoo as an aggrieved farmer, Steven Yeun as a rich Gatsby-esque figure, and Jong-seo Jeon as the woman between them, Burning perfectly posits these contrasting characters against each other to create a delicate investigation of class difference and social rivalry.
The mesmerizing effect of Burning is how it lingers on the mind long after the final credits have run. My initial reaction was one of pure bemusement. Nevertheless, its evocative treatment of love, jealousy, and class resentment is so finely-tuned, so open to interpretation, that Burning has slowly grown in my mind to be one of the best films of the year. Based upon the short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation perfectly expands upon the Japanese author’s enigmatic writing to create a work of art that at first is almost pure mood.
When Burning finally switches into thriller mode, it becomes a claustrophobic experience. We learn so much about these characters’ personalities that we become deeply invested in the outcome. Centering around a single anecdote which changes the entire dynamic of the film on a single tack, Burning expertly displays Chang-dong’s incredible mastery of tone. It is the simple things he gets right — whether it’s the motifs of fire throughout or the cat that never seems to be there, Burning forces the viewer to truly observe and think about what is going on. Perhaps frustrating for some in that it centers around the theme of absence itself, Burning has a beautiful negative energy that secures it as probably the best film to come out of South Korea since Old Boy. (Redmond Bacon)
9 – You Were Never Really Here
There are two Taxi Driver-inspired masterpieces so far this year — First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here. They each have their own unique pleasures, but only one comes at you with the force of a ball-peen hammer to the skull. Written and directed by Lynne Ramsey (only her fourth feature since 1999), and based on the short novel of the same name by Jonathan Ames, the film stars the famously mercurial Joaquin Phoenix at his most focused as Joe, the hammer-wielding searcher. He finds and rescues young girls who have been sex trafficked, all while dispatching their captors with his brutal brand of justice. Joe has seen and done things that flash across his brain like searing lightning bolts. He’s also a product of abuse, and part of his need to save the young girls is to spare them the trauma that he deals with on a daily basis.
You Were Never Really Here is a fascinating thriller made in a strangely effective yet disjointed manner. The story is simple: a man who saves young girls sets out to save another who is the object of desire for politically connected perverts. Yet Ramsey constantly muddles that simple story with lightning bolt flashes of Joe’s past traumas and bits of fantasy. Jonny Greenwood’s bracing score adds to our disconnection; it flits between harsh atonality and funky synthesizers at dizzying speed. We stumble through the film just as Joe stumbles through every day of his existence.
Ramsey’s film owes a great debt to classic film noir. She eschews the typical New York landmarks that might pepper an urban crime film, instead luxuriating in the gorgeous neon light that perpetually bathes the city. But more than anything else, the film is a showcase for Phoenix’s gifts. Ever since his pseudo-breakdown in I’m Still Here, Phoenix’s roles have been scrutinized for any signs of madness. He plays up those connections in order to show us a man just barely surviving on the edge. Any performance by Phoenix is electrifying, but here he invigorates the film with his manic energy, pushing it toward its white-hot conclusion. (Brian Marks)
8 – Mandy
Pantos Cosmatos’ second feature (after his criminally overlooked Beyond the Black Rainbow) is not especially easy viewing, and unquestionably not for all tastes, but Mandy is an extraordinary film no less — one touched with moments of crazed inspiration and imagery that reaches beyond language to something primal and original. And while I can’t guarantee you will like it, Mandy will no doubt blow your mind, kick your ass, and burn in your subconscious long after the credits roll.
Cosmatos has gone on record to say that his 2010 debut film, Beyond the Black Rainbow (a brilliant pastiche of 1970s sci-fi and horror), was inspired by his childhood obsession with the VHS box art of horror movies he wasn’t allowed to watch when he was a young boy. Mandy feels like a companion piece to Black Rainbow, if only more self-aware, and features a strong serving of heavy metal iconography, along with Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged. If a bloody, hallucinogenic nightmare featuring gooey practical effects and a chainsaw-wielding Nicolas Cage sounds like your cup of tea, than Mandy is a film you might want to see.
The revenge film is an over-saturated genre, but Mandy is in a class of its own; it’s safe to say that no one has ever made a revenge film quite like it. This is experimental genre filmmaking at its very best. It’s not for the faint-hearted and should be approached with caution, but if you don’t mind the copious amounts of bloodshed, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Expertly directed and superbly conceived, Mandy is an astonishing achievement that packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch. With only two films into his career, Cosmatos is poised to become one of the boldest filmmaking talents of his generation. (Ricky D)
7 – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
“Things have a way of escalating out here in the west.” The same could be said of anywhere in the Coen brothers’ repertoire, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs puts that tendency toward a fatalistic viewpoint front and center as its characters rarely suffer anything but heartache from a cold, indifferent world. Yet at the same time, this collection of western short stories is beautiful in its frankness, finding the wonderfully human moments that make life worth living, even if that life is at times unceremoniously snuffed out.
From the humorous, upbeat duels of a notorious singing gunfighter who never expected to meet his match, to a feisty, gold-mining geezer unlucky enough to strike it rich, and even a group of stagecoach passengers on their way to an unexpected destination, the people in Scruggs accept their tragic fates with an admirable understanding that the universe is bigger than themselves. They simply keep going on until they cannot anymore, appreciating the rare moments when they aren’t under siege by forces they cannot control. It may sound like gloom and doom, but while Scruggs is certainly full of poignancy, the Coen brothers never forget to counter that feeling with epic shots of natural beauty that remind us that warmth and happiness persists beyond the misery.
The brothers’ penchant for creating rich, memorable characters is on full display (the tender, polite exchanges of a man and woman on the wagon trail westward are more sweet and endearing than most movie romances), as is their particular brand of dark humor, yet it’s the images that stick the most. The pale face of a limbless bard as he resigns himself to his fate is haunting, and a wild-eyed banker personifies unpredictability. Anthology films can be hit or miss, often due to the inconsistent talents of the different filmmakers, but the brothers have written and directed everything here, masterfully weaving their collection of western short stories into one gorgeous, violent, mesmerizing whole. (Patrick Murphy)
6 – A Quiet Place
In 2018, John Krasinski mounted one of the most successful brand-flips we’ve ever seen. Between his acclaimed Amazon Prime series, Jack Ryan, and his bold, scene-stealing turn in A Quiet Place, fans of The Office likely don’t know what’s hit them. As if Krasinski’s burly, bearded turn in A Quiet Place wasn’t enough, he also showed he was more than just an actor, having also co-written and directed the film. One of 2018’s finest horror films, A Quiet Place is a high-concept story that focuses on a family trying to survive in a world invaded by sound-sensitive predators.
As the opening scene shows, this is not a movie that will play by the regular rules of horror. This shocking tone-setter marks A Quiet Place as a film that is beset by tension and suspense with every passing moment. This is a film where the biggest gasps will come based on sound rather than sight.
Whether the denizens of this lonely cabin might accidentally let out a burst of laughter or mistakenly step on a nail, every single sound in A Quiet Place may be the last. Still, it isn’t just this intensity that makes A Quiet Place stand out; the film is also remarkably full of heart, as you will genuinely find yourself rooting for the family to make it through one harrowing circumstance after another.
Easily one of the best movies of 2018, A Quiet Place might be vying for Academy gold in any other genre. Either way, this one is an absolute must-see. (Mike Worby)
5 – Hereditary
In a year already brimming with a bevy of solid horror efforts, Hereditary is the film that has garnered the most chatter and discussion by far. Even in a genre as divisive as horror, rarely has there been such a split between audience reaction and critical opinion. Of course, this isn’t necessarily without precedent, as some of A24’s other films (most notably The Witch) have drawn similar divides.
However you view Ari Aster’s directorial debut, one would be hard-pressed to find a more shockingly original horror film in 2018. Focusing on the death of the family matriarch and the ripple effects this event has on her surviving family, Hereditary dives deep almost from the outset. It’s a very deliberately paced film, which can make it frustrating at times, particularly when compared to your average genre fare. Those who are patient will be rewarded with one of the best twists in years, as well as a final half hour so relentless that you’ll find your fingernails digging into your armrest if you’re not careful.
With some truly terrifying analogies to the things that our parents can pass along to us, Hereditary is a deeply unsettling film anchored by some of the best performances of the year, particularly from relative newcomer Alex Wolff and a never-better Toni Collette. You might see a better film in 2018, but this writer doubts you’ll see one that lodges itself so firmly in your mind. (Mike Worby)
4 – Mission Impossible: Fallout
It’s debatable whether or not Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the greatest film in the series, or merely one of the best, but it’s safe to say that no other entry gets one’s adrenaline pumping quite as effectively. That’s because returning director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie is a master of pacing and escalating tension (even if his dialogue is occasionally not so fresh). Combine those skills with the ever-capable Tom Cruise, as well as the most extreme stunts he has ever filmed, and you’ve got a pinnacle of the M:I series.
One striking difference between Fallout and all the previous entries is that it’s a direct sequel to 2015’s Rogue Nation. The M:I films have — until now — been mostly disconnected. Characters essential to one film are usually absent in the next (except for Ving Rhames, the only actor besides Cruise to appear in all six). Here, however, the actions picks up right where it left off. The fate of the IMF is still uncertain, and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is still inescapably tied to Rebecca Ferguson’s talented assassin and Sean Harris’ genocidal psychopath.
Some critics have detected a Nolan-esque slide toward the dark side in Fallout, both emotionally and visually — which isn’t wrong, but is still somewhat misleading. The Hunt of previous M:I films has been a cipher; we come to see him defy death — not feel sad. Fallout‘s dream sequences change that, giving us one of the first signs of an interior life for Hunt. That, coupled with the ability to further develop its cast, suggests an interesting future in which the M:I films might become something radically different. (Brian Marks)
3 – Roma
No film this year exhibited the power to transport audiences more than Alfonso Cuarón’s frank depiction of 1970s Mexico in and around his childhood neighborhood. Inspired by many of his own experiences, Roma follows a young woman named Cleo who works as a maid for an upper-class family in the titular borough. But while the events in her life are certainly of dramatic interest, Cuarón has placed Cleo in the middle of tumultuous times, and it’s the edges of the frame that contain Roma‘s real riches.
Utilizing impeccable black-and-white compositions and probing long takes, Roma is visually mesmerizing, shot on location and filled to the brim with human details and nuances, given ample time to live and breathe. City streets are abuzz with activity, a powder keg that we soon learn is ready to blow, while a seemingly tranquil home mirrors the uneasiness, with destructive tension lurking just below the surface. The director views events both large and small through the same non-judgmental lens, ignoring contrived plot points and giving as much weight to the uncomfortable end of a relationship as he does to the beginning of a new life, as much consideration to a family Christmas party as he does to the Corpus Christi massacre.
Serving as his own director of photography, Cuarón has captured life itself, filled with moments both quiet and noisy alike, and though his perspective may come off as a bit on the clinical side, he still finds time to see the beauty in the mundane. It’s these asides that can have a hypnotic effect, these weird tangents that feel the most authentic, as if the camera were simply set down in the middle of reality without anyone noticing. Firing pistols during a picnic, catching a matinee movie, a day at the beach, waking the kids for school; we are there, and it’s captivating. (Patrick Murphy)
2 – Annihilation
Alex Garland’s followup to Ex Machina may be an even more confident and thought-provoking piece of cult sci-fi. It’s certainly more terrifying, trading anxiety about human replacement by machine for human replacement by something less defined — an alien mutation of nature at the very least. Annihilation expands on the Jeff Vandermeer novel, using the basic story as an outline for an adventure into the unknown that recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but with more automatic weapons and a feminist bent.
A team of five women are sent into the Shimmer, an alien aura surrounding a patch of Florida swamp where flora and fauna have become genetically altered. Peculiar lapses in time, Cronenbergian body growths, and bastardized versions of God’s creations (including the grizzliest “bear” ever put on film) ensue as our heroines cope with their physical and emotional defects as human beings (guilt, grief, depression, disease, and fear). The alien itself is almost like a cancer, expanding and consuming and transmogrifying every living thing it touches.
Garland attempts to do the same to his audience, recognizing that the most disturbing answer is a mirror reflected back on us — on, in this case, a rainbow colored humanoid mimic. Though the ending may be predictably opaque, it’s no less than what we want, demand, and deserve for our trippy sci-fi. (Shane Ramirez)
1 – First Reformed
You will be left feeling cold and alone by the time Paul Schrader’s latest film ends. It’s a movie that demands you go back into it and mine beneath the surface, as it’s more than just a man having a conflict of faith — it’s a man holding onto a dark past, coming to terms with a dark future, and contending with a dark present. First Reformed is a deeply moving film that wallows in its moodiness; equally atmospheric and thought-provoking, there isn’t much room for joy in Schrader’s misery — just a constant sense of personal insignificance.
Ethan Hawke delivers one of his greatest performances, and surrounded by a small, dependable cast, he burrows deep into the role of a reverend at odds with his beliefs while hurting himself and trying to guide others through their own troublesome thoughts. Hawke feels barely alive, on the verge of collapse throughout the entirety of First Reformed. Place him up against Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, and there’s a kindness to him that fluctuates between genuine and appeasing to her innocence. Put him next to her significant other, and you feel his powerlessness. Hawke runs the gamut to anchor Schrader’s exploration of despair and eternal sadness.
Schrader tackles heavy subject matter with an importance that could endure for a very long time to come. The damage we do to ourselves can be just as damaging as what we do to our planet, but it takes the love of others to give pause to that damage. And that’s just one of many ways to look at First Reformed — a movie that will undoubtedly reveal more of itself with every viewing. (Christopher Cross)