This wasn’t the greatest year for movies, but it was one of the good-est I can remember.
There wasn’t a “No Country for Old Men” this year. Nor a “There Will Be Blood.” I don’t know if any of the following, my top 25 movies of the year, will be talked about 50 years from now like those two will.
But 2018 was a triumph of volume, a year with a deep roster of good or very good films. Of the 110 movies I saw that came out this year, I would recommend or strongly recommend well over half of them. Which is what made it hard to create this list. Too much good stuff to pick from.
And yet I hope the following serves as snapshot of the year that was, a year that brought quality blockbusters, indies, documentaries and Netflix originals alike.
1. “First Reformed”
Featuring: Barbed wire. Magic carpet ride. A sea of tires.
As the ecological apocalypse approaches, a man sits alone in the room of an old church — drinking, praying, wondering if God can forgive us. He is also, ever so slowly, making a plan.
Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is a lot of things: angry, outrageous, unsubtle. It’s slow cinema served up with a side of deranged ecstasy, taking turns both bold and baffling, confronting climate change and religious hypocrisy with a rage that gives way to madness. Whatever the hell else “First Reformed” is, it’s also the best film of 2018.
2. “Minding the Gap”
Featuring: Great skateboarding. Heartrending drama. The Mountain Goats.
This “Hoop Dreams”-like documentary digs into the lives of three skater friends over the course of several years, exploring how cycles of abuse and neglect have affected them and how they’re now carrying that trauma into the next generation. It sounds sad and harrowing, and it is. But it’s never bleak. Despite their circumstances, these young men never give in to grief. They approach life with open eyes and good humor, and when things get hard, they get on a skateboard.
3. “Eighth Grade”
Featuring: Cringe comedy. A winning kid. Coming-of-age horrors.
A great movie about adolescence, but also about the (now almost boring) ubiquity of technology. The film’s hero, middle-schooler Kayla (Elsie Fisher), is immersed in screens and feeds. There are full sequences of her just sitting in her bedroom endlessly scrolling through Instagram, liking her classmates’ posts and participating in a world that has barred her from entry IRL. Later, a shattered iPhone screen becomes a symbol of her spiraling mental state. Touching, terrifying.
4. “The Night Comes for Us”
Featuring: Fights. Fights in apartment buildings. Fights in butcher shops, warehouses, police vans, stairways and closets.
Many action movies utilize rapid editing schemes to hide the fact that they didn’t do any real fight choreography beforehand. That’s not the case in “The Night Comes for Us.” The movie puts in the work, each of its exquisitely staged fights filmed in wide shots and long takes, and you see every bit of bodily damage.
The plot makes little sense, but that doesn’t matter when you’ve got droves of machete-wielding men charging into rooms where our heroes suffer gruesome damage yet still somehow manage to keep on kicking/punching/stabbing, with every conceivable body part severed, flayed, hacked, bashed, exploded or set on fire. Masterpiece? Masterpiece.
5. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout”
Featuring: Bathroom brawls. Tom Cruise stunts. Wolf Blitzer cameo.
God bless Tom Cruise. In an age in which the omnipresence of CG spectacle has made most blockbusters boring, Cruise makes special effects special again. He jumps out of planes and off buildings, and pumps new life into the waning state of our entertainment industrial complex. If this weren’t already the case, “Fallout” solidifies the “Mission: Impossible” series’ status as the best action franchise running — and one of the best ever.
6. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Featuring: Lyrical filmmaking. Sad romance. The year’s best acting ensemble.
Barry Jenkins follows up his best-picture-winning “Moonlight” with a film that’s even better — a beautifully wrought adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name. The film follows a young, pregnant black woman named Tish as she tries to prove the innocence of her wrongfully accused fiancé. KiKi Layne and Stephan James star as the couple, and they’re terrific. But the film is just as much about their families’ struggles to help them. As Tish’s parents, Regina King and Colman Domingo are extraordinary. If King doesn’t win the best supporting actress award next year, the Oscars will have found yet another way to not matter.
7. “Support the Girls”
Featuring: Breastaurants. Outrage. A Steph Curry tattoo.
Critiques of capitalism and sexism often come in a serious package. But they can also take the form of a breezy and easygoing comedy like “Support the Girls.” Set at a Texas sports bar, the film follows the scantily clad waitresses and their long-beleaguered den mother of a manager (a never-better Regina Hall). Over the course of one day, the girls must deal with break-ins, dodgy cable connections and grabby customers. It’s fun and entertaining but not without an undercurrent of righteous anger, ending on the most evocative closing shot of the year: Three women screaming in futile rage.
Featuring: Chainsaw duels. Crotch knives. Pantsless Nicolas Cage crying in a bathroom.
Nic Cage finds love. Nic Cage loses love. Nic Cage forges a battle ax to get revenge against a hippie death cult and its demonic biker gang.
An LSD-induced vision. A heavy metal fever dream drenched in the psychedelia of bad trips and fantasy book covers. The best use of Nic Cage in decades.
9. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
Featuring: Western Nebraska. Musical murder. A chicken that does basic math.
Like most Coen brothers movies, this one improves with repeat viewings. The Netflix-produced Western anthology (partially shot near Scottsbluff) might be a relatively minor entry in the Coens’ canon, but so what? It’s still a Coen brothers movie, and it’s still overflowing with delights. The Coens squeeze into six separate tales their inimitable blend of humor, pathos and fatalism.
Two unforgettable moments: The creative manner of Surly Joe’s murder and Stephen Root’s pan-covered bank teller charging into a gunfight while shouting “Pan shot!” every time a bullet bounces off his cookware.
Featuring: Allergic reactions. Multiple decapitations. Clucking noises.
Images you’ll wish you could unsee, emotions you’ll wish you could unfeel. Maybe the worst death in any movie ever, and the second-worst death, too. A Satanic jack-in-the-box horror show grounded in the white-hot terror of everyday human suffering. (Cluck.)
11. “The Rider”
Featuring: Naturalistic acting. Rodeos. The badlands.
A former rising star of the rodeo circuit is told he can never ride again after suffering a traumatic brain injury. If he does so, he will die. And so he’s wrestling with his options: Die doing what he loves? Or find another reason to live? Director Chloé Zhao tells the story using nonprofessional actors. Rather than making the film seem amateur, the cast taps into something raw, human and true.
12. “The Favourite”
Featuring: Duck races. Subterfuge. Joyless sex.
Olivia Colman is the queen, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are jockeying for her favor. Their competition begins as barbs but promptly escalates to violence. As directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film is fun, vicious and damned strange. One of the best and most unconventional costume dramas since “Barry Lyndon.”
13. “The Sisters Brothers”
Featuring: Bear attacks. Spider bites. Old West surgery.
In the year’s second-best Western, John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play a pair of hitmen brothers searching for a man with the chemical formula for finding gold. It’s a darkly funny film but also a poignant and even tragic one, with the brothers trying (and mostly failing) to find a way out of the killin’ folks business. Their search for a life more ordinary gives the film a strong emotional undertow.
Featuring: Badass women. Racial politics. Cute dog.
A crew of widows teams up to finish the heist their late husbands couldn’t. In the process, they get entangled with a crime boss and a dirty politician. “Widows” is exciting, intelligent and easily the most efficient movie of the year. Director Steve McQueen has taken a miniseries’ worth of plot and condensed it to two hours, and the result is a triumph of omission.
Featuring: Witches! Fascism! Tilda Swinton playing three different characters!
In this (very different) remake of Dario Argento’s classic, a West Berlin dance academy hides a powerful coven of witches. A young dancer taps into dark powers. A dissenter’s body is mangled into a knot. A new order is born in blood.
This is a spiky, singular vision, and a slippery allegory for resistance in all its forms.
16. “Leave No Trace”
Featuring: Star-making performance. Subtle social commentary. Survival skills.
Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” is, by Rotten Tomatoes metrics, the second-best-reviewed movie of all time (“Paddington 2” being No. 1). And it makes sense. It’s the kind of simple but affecting story that evokes warm feelings and good reviews.
A PTSD-stricken father and his teenage daughter, Tom, live in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. When society barges into their lives, each struggles to assimilate. The brilliant Thomasin McKenzie plays Tom as a whip-smart survivor, soft-spoken but capable of rage.
17. “Sorry to Bother You”
Featuring: Class politics. Critiques of capitalism. Horse genitalia.
Boots Riley’s dystopian satire is messy and insane in all the right ways, starting as an absurd comedy about an Oakland telemarketer (played by Lakeith Stanfield) and mutating into something much stranger. The second-act twist either works for you or it doesn’t. I’m thoroughly in the former camp. This movie knows that the only way to spoof these outrageous times is to take things just short of TOO FAR.
18. “A Quiet Place”
Featuring: At-home childbirth. Hearing-aid weaponry. Shh! They’ll hear you!
Whaddaya know, John “Jim from ‘The Office’” Krasinski directed one of the best nail-biters in years, an excruciatingly effective fusion of Hitchcock and Shyamalan. “A Quiet Place” takes a great premise — a family tries to quietly survive in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by monsters with hypersensitive hearing — and never lets up. The inventive screenplay and filmmaking are given the emotional ballast of a family you actually care about.
19. “Lean on Pete”
Features: A boy and his horse. Emotional sadism. Steve Buscemi as a surly horse trainer.
Teenager Charley (Charlie Plummer) takes a summer job tending to a quarter horse named Lean on Pete ( Pete for short). When Pete’s life is in danger, Charlie steals him, and the duo set out across the waning American West looking for a place to call home. The movie moves at a slow canter, but it knows exactly when and how to break you in half.
Featuring: A doppelganger dance. Amateur surgery. A mutant bear screaming “Help me!”
Weird, cerebral sci-fi that takes a team of women (including Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson) into a mysterious zone surrounded by a gooey shimmer, where they encounter monsters, madness and more. It’s a female-centric “Stalker,” but with more mutant bears.
21. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Featuring: The hot, salty tears on your crestfallen face.
This doc about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers could have just been a doting tribute to the man. It is that, but it’s also a clear-eyed examination of Rogers’ message of kindness and compassion, and how awkwardly that message now meshes with the meanness of the modern era.
22. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Featuring: Fraud. Drinking. Malicious banter.
Melissa McCarthy plays a celebrity biographer who hatches a scam to write and sell fake letters by long-deceased authors. She finds a co-conspirator in her drunk and horny best friend, played by Richard E. Grant. The film not only has a wonderful specificity in its early 1990s New York City setting, but also McCarthy and Grant as a sour duo of sad-bastard drinking buddies.
23. “A Star Is Born”
Featuring: I’m in the deep end / Watch as I dive in / I’ll never reach the ground
The thing is just a well-shot, well-written and perfectly cast rags-to-riches remake of a story we’ve seen so many times before. But it’s also got that scene: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “The Shallow.” And it’s just one of those moments. One of those things only the movies can do: A character triumphing in the most spectacular, goosebumps-raising way possible. It’s the kind of thing that helps viewers, however briefly, transcend their own miserable lives.
24. “Set It Up”
Featuring: Future movie stars. Snappy dialogue. Nebraska Huskers cameo.
Netflix’s charmingly contrived romcom stars Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as a pair of executive assistants who cook up a ruse to matchmake their two horrible bosses, played by Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs. Light and predictable, but as smart, slick and witty as this kind of movie gets. And Deutch and Powell, both future movie stars, have a great deal of chemistry.
Featuring: Sci-fi buddy comedy. Pre-apocalyptic horror. Gory, gory death scenes.
In a near future, a man who looks like Tom Hardy becomes quadriplegic, then gets a cutting-edge computer chip put in his spine. The chip not only lets him walk again but turns his body into a kung-fu-fightin’ killing machine. Oh, also, the chip, named STEM, is a talkative artificial intelligence bent on world domination. It’s awesome.
Honorable mentions: “Halloween,” “Free Solo,” “Crime + Punishment,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Creed II,” “Thoroughbreds,” “Game Night,” “Den of Thieves,” “Private Life,” “Unsane,” “Cam,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Incredibles 2,” “First Man,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Black Panther.”