As an art form that tends to reflect the anxieties of its times, the movies were practically invented for 2018. While 2017 was a queasy moment in the wake of the 2016 election, much of the year’s highlights were produced prior to that jarring cultural shift; in 2018, cinema became a vessel for a society in the grips of its worst identity crisis in modern history. The best movies interrogated a world at odds with itself, grappling with moral quandaries and personal values, while channeling these struggles into bracing works of art. Consciously or not, this popular art form provided intimate alternatives to the explosive intensity of national headlines. Questions of identity, behavior, and personal responsibility became a central motif.
This is what movies do best, on their own terms: bursts of ideas and experiences that reflect or refract the moment of their conception. They often do this in exciting ways liberated by the expansive possibilities of the medium, which remains freer and more pliable than television so long as it’s produced outside the clutches of risk-averse Hollywood. Of course, it would be crass and short-sighted to discount studio product entirely this year; by its own standards, there was plenty to celebrate, from the progressive allegorical sophistication of “Black Panther” to the sharp, innovative techniques of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Yet the most original and satisfying project produced by a studio was dumped by it — Alex Garland’s twisty sci-fi thriller “Annihilation” — and celebrating some moderate uptick in quality commercial product is a bit like clapping for a baby taking its first step. Progress is progress, but at the end of the day, the baby’s still just a slobbering infant.
Fortunately, there’s a lot more to celebrate about the medium as it pertains to the 2018 release calendar. Time and again, this mantra bears repeating: Anyone who thinks this was a bad year for the movies simply hasn’t seen enough of them. Each time out, this list gets a bit longer, as the year in question provides a handy excuse to extend the limitations by one entry. (Last year’s 17 best movies of 2017 would have been a struggle this time around.) And yet it still doesn’t feel long enough. This critic has been writing top 10 lists and variations thereof for over a decade, and this one was the trickiest to date.
No matter how much the industry is changing, as television continues to fight for dominance in the media landscape and theatrical exhibition faces an eager firing squad of home viewers, movies continue to deliver thrilling new ways of seeing the world. Here are the highlights that give me hope.
18. “Paddington 2”
Believe the hype: Critics wouldn’t go gah-gah for a live-action/CGI-animated film about a talking bear and the British family who loves him unless it was really something special. The “Godfather: Part II” of the “Paddington” franchise delivers a delightful window into a resilient attitude in dark times. Poor Paddington, unjustly tossed behind bars on trumped-up charges, manages to galvanize his prison mates and chart a path forward. Director Paul King’s rich visual palette transforms the storybook quality of Paddington’s misadventures into the unexpectedly delightful synthesis of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton, but this candy-colored odyssey takes most of its cues from Paddington himself, whose adorable features provide the ideal vessel for his innocent attitude. For once, CGI provides an emotional foundation for a story — this fantastical being epitomizes the good-natured outlook that the world desperately needs. It’s the best superhero movie of the year.
17. “Vox Lux”
Brady Corbet’s riveting pop fever dream chronicles the rise of a celebrity singer through multiple eras, from pre-9/11 teen stardom to the bitter monstrosity she becomes later in life. Corbet’s sophisticated narrative begins with a jarring tragedy, as Celeste (portrayed in these early scenes by the extraordinary Raffey Cassidy) contends with her newfound status as a famous survivor and faces the corruptive powers of industry eager to gobble her up. The movie then shifts to years later, as Celeste has exploded into adulthood — and she becomes Natalie Portman, fierce and resentful, equal parts “Woman Under the Influence” and “Black Swan.” The actress’ best performance in ages is a wondrous meta gambit that syncs with Corbet’s other wry narrative devices, including the brilliant decision to cast Cassidy in a second role as Celeste’s daughter, and a fascinating climactic dance sequence driven by the propulsive attitude of original Sia compositions and Portman’s dance moves. Her exuberant gyrations have a whole lot more to say about the outrageous cultural forces fueling modern stardom than anything in “A Star Is Born.”
16. “We the Animals”
The surface plot of “We the Animals” is as simple as they come, and it’s not the source of its lyrical power (the same could be said about the Justin Torres novel that provided its inspiration). Above all else, director Jeremiah Zagar portrays the experiences of an adolescent boy coming to terms with his dysfunctional family and his emerging sexuality as a swirling cyclone of nostalgia, brutal arguments, and bittersweet pontifications. As Jonah, newcomer Evan Rosado exudes the confusing emotions of a child growing into his otherness, apart from the family unit that surrounds him. Each moment contributes to his developing perceptions of the world — telling glances and a ruminative voiceover transforms the movie into a poetic variation on the coming-of-age formula less fixated on exposition than the haunting beauty of growing up.
15. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Melissa McCarthy has shown the potential for a role that deepens her screen presence for some time, but her brash, rambunctious performances have been restricted to broad comedies that usually fall short of exploring what such a character might be like under more realistic circumstances. At long last, she’s landed the right opportunity with “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, director Marielle Heller’s charmingly melancholic comedy about real-life writer-turned-criminal Lee Israel, who forged some 400 letters by dead celebrities and pawned them off until the FBI caught up with her scheme. A lonely, infuriated New York woman prone to turn her luck around no matter the cost, Israel provides the ideal template for McCarthy to project her talents onto a more sophisticated plane, and — complemented by a top-notch Richard E. Grant as Israel’s partner-in-crime — she rises to the occasion.
At first, “Border” is the story of an ostracized woman named Tina (Eva Melander), who works at a remote Swedish port where she sniffs out contraband, and long ago accepted that she was ostracized because of her unusual appearance. But this is not your average ugly duckling story. As the movie charts a path to her burgeoning self-confidence, it arrives at a sex scene so unexpected and ludicrous it instantly transforms the movie into a dark fairy tale. Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi’s sophomore effort (following 2016’s “Shelley”), co-written by the author of the Swedish vampire novel “Let the Right One In,” builds out such an unusual premise that it risks devolving into quirky inanity, but Abbasi grounds the narrative in an emotional foundation even as it flies off the rails. As it does, “Border” becomes a complex, gender-bending examination of identity politics with Melander’s spellbinding performance at its center. This unusual, unpredictable love story is one of the year’s great conversation-starters.
13. “Support the Girls”
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Regina Hall is astonishing in Andrew Bujalski’s touching look at an earnest woman who manages a sleazy Texas breastauraunt where many things go wrong over the course of a single hectic day. Bujalski’s typically subdued, character-based storytelling takes on a new volume of warmth and sensitivity with this striking examination of surviving difficult times through unbridled empathy. That might sound cheesy in some circumstances, but Bujalski’s such a wizard when it comes to scripting authentic dialogue that “Support the Girls” may as well be a documentary. Hall’s manager juggles each new challenge with a steely resolve that makes her one of Bujalski’s greatest characters, the indefatigable creation of a filmmaker who excels at exploring the nuances of human behavior.
Even before Nicolas Cage does a line of coke off a shard of broken glass in “Mandy,” the movie has entered batshit insane territory. Panos Cosmatos’ followup to his wacky debut “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is another stunning dose of psychedelia and derangement, this one folded into the constraints of a woodsy revenge thriller, but that’s mainly an excuse for Cage to unleash his most psychotic extremes. Cosmatos gives him plenty of opportunities in this hypnotic midnight movie, which veers from astonishing, expressionistic exchanges to gory mayhem without an iota of compromise. For years, Cage has swung wildly in search of gonzo material; at long last, he’s found a movie willing to match his intentions. And yet “Mandy” is more than simply a vehicle for Cage’s seething screen presence; it communes with the fragility underneath all that rage by transforming it into a vehicle for genuine grief.
A visual artist whose movies have dealt with starvation, sex addiction, and slavery, Steve McQueen has never been considered a safe commercial bet. That just makes “Widows,” his bracing, moody heist thriller about women who finish the robbery their husbands started, all the more satisfying: McQueen has made a first-rate genre exercise — led by a defiant Viola Davis in one of her very best roles — that doubles as a treatise on race and gender, juggling dramatic payoff with heavier themes. “Widows” embraces its trashy, melodramatic twists while deepening their potential. If all escapism looked like this, America would get smart again.
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