2018 was a good year for cinema; here are a few of my favorites.
10: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
This year, I discovered that I actually like westerns, and the Coen brothers’ newest film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a perfect example of the kind of western I enjoy. The Coens create a brutal world that is callous and cruel, where people get away with murder all the time while the innocent and the defenseless are trod upon. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is an anthology film, with six short stories ranging from 10 to 45-minutes long. None of them have happy endings; all of them are good.
9: Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Good action is good action, and the Mission: Impossible franchise does it well. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was exhilarating and fun. Henry Cavill showed a delicious range, and Tom Cruise broke his ankle on the first day of filming — which is to say, it’s kind of wonderful that this movie exists at all. One of the nice things about following this series is watching characters come into their own, which is particularly true of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” where we see the return of Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) and Beji (Simon Pegg), who both shoulder large portions of the film.
8: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The the first of two “family” films I’ve put on this list, “Spider-Verse” is an instant classic on its own merit. From the animation to the music to the story, “Spider-Verse” in some ways feels like it’s juggling tomatoes while someone keeps throwing more and more tomatoes into the hands of the juggler. That is to say, on many levels, it’s astonishing that “Spider-Verse” packs so much in without getting convoluted in the way that superhero films are apt to do. The secret to this: Miles Morales. This may be the Spider-Verse, but it’s Miles’s film through and through and he shines.
7: If Beale Street Could Talk
Based on the James Baldwin novel by the same name, “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a soft film about hard things. The script, score and performances all make this film special. The lighting and cinematography are transcendent and color how we see the entirety of the film. The subject matter is handled with tact, and the whole film stands as a testament to what it’s like to fall in love and what it’s like to lose.
6: Paddington 2
“Paddington 2” is that rare sequel in that it’s better than its predecessor. Almost all of the films on this list are directly political, and the decidedly pro-immigration “Paddington 2” is no exception. I want more films like “Paddington 2,” where the thesis statement is, “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” This is the kind of film to watch when the world is going to hell. Not quite escapism but something nearing a media detox. I keep coming back to it, simply because the it lives in that rare ideal of being kind and polite.
The last 10 minutes of “BlacKkKlansman” are terrifying. They are eye-opening. They were made for people like me. Spike Lee has been making provocative films for a long time; this is one of his most successful.
“Blindspotting” is a film made by three friends, and it shows. Yes, it’s a film about race, gentrification and class differences, but it’s also a film about friendship. It’s a comedy; it’s a drama; it has surreal dream sequences with rap. “Blindspotting” is a lot of things. It’s profound in its dialogue and has an EP that accompanies the film that I’ve listened to more times than I can say. More than that though, it’s a film that’s fully enjoyable. I laughed a lot during this one.
3: The Rider
There’s a point in “The Rider” where we see the main character, Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau), break in a horse and realize, “Oh, this man isn’t just an actor — he can actually do all of this.” Chloe Zhao’s second film, “The Rider” doesn’t have a conventional plot in the way that we expect from a film. Or rather, it does have a plot, but it’s paper-thin, and the film would do fine without it. Instead, Zhao presents us with a world and has the decency to let the audience live in it for an hour and a half. Soft and melancholic, “The Rider” is beautiful and poetic, and the minute I finished, I wanted to walk back into the theater and watch it again.
After the release of “Annihilation,” I read a lot of reviews. Every journalist had a different take on what the film was a metaphor for: it was about grief, about PTSD, about depression. To say that “Annihilation” was a good sci-fi film would be to belittle it, but isn’t that what good fiction does best? Point its audience towards the real in their own lives? “Annihilation” is good sci-fi, which leads to it being a metaphor about grief, PTSD and depression. It’s visually stunning and, at times, eviscerating.
1: First Reformed
Here we are, at number one. I can’t quite explain why “First Reformed” stuck with me as long as it has. I saw it in the spring of last year, and I can’t get it out of my head. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and the best I can say is that “First Reformed” is, like much of religion, bleak. Devastatingly so. I don’t even know if it’s redemptive.
The main character, a priest named Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) has lost his faith and yet simultaneously remains the strongest believer he knows. But there’s a character named Mary, and she’s pregnant, and maybe that points to something hopeful. “First Reformed” is ugly. It’s barren and wintry. I think about it often. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year.