2018 was the year minority-led films — most notably “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” — ruled at the box office. Musicals also fared well, as “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” proved. Although entertaining at times, neither was a particularly good movie — not that audiences minded. Lady Gaga and Rami Malek, respectively, had viewers swooning.
2018 was also the year that Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” a project he started only 40 years ago, was finally completed and released — albeit to a mixed response.
Documentaries made a big splash on screens this year. There were some fascinating docs on topics ranging from cryptocurrency to cannabis, but the breakout non-fiction films were profiles: “RBG,” on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; the Mister Rogers doc “Won't You Be My Neighbor”; and “Three Identical Strangers.”
2018 also said “Laters, baby” to the “Fifty Shades” films. This may be a relief to some moviegoers, but my friend Michelle and I will miss these guilty pleasures.
Looking back at the films of the year and picking the best titles is always tricky. How can one compare the unbridled joy of snickering giddily and shamelessly through both “Tag” and “Game Night” with the film snob appeal of Lars Von Trier’s darkly hilarious “The House that Jack Built”? (My friend Suzanne and I did both.) Or how can I choose between the performances of Sandra Bullock in “Oceans 8” and “Bird Box,” or Gael Garcia Bernal’s work in “Museo” and “The Kindergarten Teacher”?
So here are 18 films from 2018 — six are great, six awful, and six are under-seen sleeper gems — that were memorable for the right, the wrong, or the best reasons.
Good Films of 2018
As I maintain, a good film makes you feel something — be it anger, confusion or unbridled joy. When a film nags at you for days, that makes it especially great. Here are six great films that infected me.
Alfonso Cuarón’s astonishing, semi-autobiographical film, shot in luminous black and white, is full of virtuoso sequences. It is not just the way he frames floor titles from overhead and an airplane reflected in soapy water, but also how he sets up a great gag about the family car, a Ford Galaxy, or develops the emotional power using the sound of waves during an intense scene at the beach. Cuarón finds the dignity and the humanity of his characters. From an unexpected attack by revolutionaries in a furniture store, to a quieter scene in which Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) holds a yoga pose, the film yields tremendous emotion. “Roma” is dazzling.
Lee Chang-don’s adaptation of Haruki Murakani’s short story “Barn Burning” is a stunning character study that packs a wallop. The film s-l-o-w-l-y reveals itself over its two and a half hours, which may cause some viewers impatience, but this love triangle between Jongsu (You Ah-In), Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl he grew up with, and Ben (Steven Yeun), her wealthy new friend, is full of ambiguities and delicious little mysteries. Lee builds suspense through long dialogue-free sequences, and, like the main character, the audience soon realizes that in this film, “the thing is not the thing.” “Burning” is beautifully shot as it captures the boredom and quiet rage of its characters in a way that will haunt viewers who connect with it for days.
“We the Animals”
A remarkable marriage of text and visuals, Jeremiah Zagar’s feature film debut — adapted from Justin Torres’s novel —overlaps the anxieties of economic, ethnic and sexual marginalization with the joys and freedom of childhood. Jonah (Evan Rosado) comes of age in tactile ways that Zagar captures with his perceptive camera. Magical realist moments, such as floating above the ground, provide escape from a hardscrabble life of having to grow up too fast. “We the Animals” clings ferociously to the fragile in-between state where one gains knowledge — about one’s self, and/or one’s family — and can’t put that genie back in the bottle. Zagar’s film is magic, indeed.
“You Were Never Really Here”
It is difficult to hammer home just how great Lynne Ramsay’s film (adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella) is. “You Were Never Really Here” is a tough sit, full of vivid and visceral images — from the opening shot of a plastic bags over Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) head to a dying man who reaches out for one last bit of human contact. The story, about Joe hired to save Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), is really just an excuse for Ramsay to explore trauma, and how Joe and Nina both grapple with their past and present situations, never mind the unthinkable future. There are many unforgettable scenes, best left for viewers to discover, and the film culminates in a riveting final sequence.
Chloé Zhou dives deep into the American West, where cowboys young and old are grappling with injuries and poverty as well as their masculinity. Brady (Brady Jandreau) is a bronc rider who has to give up the sport he loves after a head injury threatens his life. He works at a boring store pricing grocery items but gets tempted to help break in a horse and risk riding again. “The Rider” is a taut film that shows not just how much Brady is willing to risk, but also how much he cares for father Wayne (Tim Jandreau), whom he bumps heads with, his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), and his debilitated best friend, Lane Scott (Lane Scott). “The Rider” is full of heartbreak, but it is oddly life-affirming.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Barry Jenkins’s achingly beautiful, bittersweet film showcases a tremendous performance from KiKi Layne as Tish, a young, pregnant African American teenager in 1970 Harlem. Tish is determined to get her boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) out of prison — he has been wrongly incarcerated — before their child is born. However, that goal requires money and the effort of Tish’s mother Sharon (Regina King) to persuade a witness to testify on Fonny’s behalf. “If Beale Street Could Talk” never gets mawkish; in fact, it is just the opposite. Jenkins nicely balances romantic and dramatic scenes that reveal the true natures of the characters who are ordinary people just trying to make the best out of the bad situation they find themselves in. Gorgeous cinematography and a vibrant soundtrack only add to the film’s superiority.
Now, For the Bad
There are bad films and then there are baaad films. I love a good bad film (Hello, “The Boy Next Door!”) I hate films that try to pass themselves off as something they aren’t. Here are six terrible films that failed to deliver on their promise to be exciting, or interesting, or funny or moving. They are bad movies that aren't even good at being bad.
Lemme tell you something. “Gotti” is the worst f**king movie this year. Or possibly any year. John Travolta plays the title character, who started in the gutter. Director Kevin Connelly’s film keeps him there, despite their aspirations to make Gotti ascend to the top. “Life,” Travolta’s Gotti says in his New Yawk accent in the film’s opening moments, “ends in one of two ways—death or in jail—and I did both.” Anyone not howling at this prologue will be upon seeing Gotti wheeled, Hannibal Lecter-style in the film’s next scene. Travolta’s execrable performance is a hoot. The film is a dare. Viewers may deserve a badge of honor, as — Mike and I sure do — if they can sit through all of it.
Oscar winners and married couple Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem co-star in this ludicrous film about Virginia Vallejo, a journalist who had an affair with notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Director Fernando León de Aranoa wanted to play their relationship seriously, but it comes off like a bad telenovela, emphasizing the garish costumes and sets and creating elaborate and stupefying set pieces. Ultimately, “Loving Pablo” is like Bardem’s Escobar, a big, bloated mess that doesn’t earn the respect it wants.
“A Happening of Monumental Proportions”
Judy Greer makes her directorial debut with this painfully unfunny comedy about a day in the life of a handful of Los Angelinos. Working from a lame script by Gary Lundy, Greer strands her talented cast — which includes John Cho, Common, Jennifer Garner, Katie Holmes, Allison Janney, Kumail Nanjiani, Keanu Reeves, and Bradley Whitford. The individual storylines are dumb; characters try to hide a dead body, grapple with an affair, and deal with a bullying boss in ways that defy logic, sense and reason. This enervating film runs only 81 minutes, but it feels endless as Greer and the actors flail trying to get the comic timing to spark.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”
Could there be a more joyless jukebox musical? This sequel/prequel set to ABBA’s songbook is like bad celebrity karaoke. Several musical numbers feel drained of energy. Twice the cast (the film cross-cuts between the past and present) delivers zero fun. While Young Donna (Lily James in what is the La Streep role from the original) meets her three suitors — each one more smarmy than charming — Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) tries to open a hotel on the Greek isle of Kalokairi. When a blonde Cher shows up in the last act, it’s too late to save this stinky piece of overripe Feta.
“Here and Now”
Sarah Jessica Parker stars as Vivienne, a lounge singer who gets a bad medical diagnosis (inoperable brain tumor) in the opening moments of Fabien Constant’s pretentious film. She then proceeds to go about her day — meeting with her mother (Jacqueline Bisset), her manager (Common), her ex (Simon Baker) her lover/drummer (Taylor Kinney), her daughter (Gus Birney) and even an old friend (Renée Zellweger), and keeping her condition private. She also has multiple interactions with a Lyft driver (Waleed Zuaiter) that are always fraught with tension. Somehow, all these encounters fail to illuminate Parker’s fragile emotional state. Constant’s film, an homage to Agnès Varda’s “Cléo from 5 to 7,” never resonates. It aims for depth and comes off far too superficial.
I actually wanted to leave five minutes into this true crime caper film; 111 minutes later, I wish I had left. This story of four young men trying to heist valuable rare books is as botched and as misguided as the robbery itself. The overly showy direction by Bart Layton screams “look at me!” but it fails to make anything on screen engaging. The protagonists are mostly unlikable and unsympathetic, which makes it tough to root for them to get away with it. “Are you in or are you out?” a character asks another about committing the crime. The crime is on screen. I’m out.
. . . and Finally, the Delightful Surprises
The best thing about going to a film is seeing something unusual, or particularly memorable — a film or a performer makes you sit up and take notice, a line of dialogue works its way into your speech. Here are six gems that were terrific surprises this year.
This nasty, fantastic British film came out of nowhere and struck such a nerve that I can’t wait to see what director Michael Pearce does next. Moll (Jessie Buckley) gets involved with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who may be a killer, much to mother’s chagrin. Pearce keeps viewers on tenterhooks as the truth about Pascal is slowly revealed. “Beast” is a tense, nervy little thriller, full of twists that will leave viewers gasping. Seek it out.
“Sorry to Bother You”
Even though it may collapse under its own weight in the last reel, Boots Riley’s debut is one of the sharpest and funniest films this year. A rollicking satire about our media saturated age, as well as race and ethnicity, “Sorry to Bother You” is visually and verbally witty, with raucous humor and pointed insights — "Worry free, Prime,” anyone? Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green (say it fast to get the joke), an African American telemarketer who find success using his “white voice” (David Cross). Shit happens. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) not only delivers a damn good performance art presentation, she also has the best earrings in cinema history. Armie Hammer was hilarious in his few scenes as the techie dude bro Steve Lift, and Omari Hardwick was pricelessly funny as Mr. _______. We’re still laughing.
“A Simple Favor”
So much fun, it should be a crime. Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a vlogger who befriends Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), as their young sons attend the same school. When Emily asks Stephanie for “a simple favor,” things quickly get out of hand; Emily disappears, her husband Sean (Henry Golding) is a suspect who confides in Stephanie, and more trouble ensues. It would spoil the many splendid pleasures of the film to reveal more, but Lively gives a delicious performance that will prompt chuckles and howls, and Kendrick nails her role as the innocent drawn to misadventure.
The opening scene of this documentary about teens competing in the annual international science fair may be the most joyous five minutes on screen this year. But the rest of this doc is pretty great, too. It shows how young girls (and guys) can be empowered by science and why it matters. It’s not just the self-confidence aspect, but the idea that teens can (and need to) start exploring solutions to today’s health, environmental, and other problems. Yes, it’s a competition film, but there is plenty of suspense and surprises.
“On Chesil Beach”
Dominic Cooke’s excellent adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel came and went when it played theaters earlier this year, so don’t miss this gem now. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle play an anxious young couple on their wedding night in 1962 England. The scenes in their hotel room are as stifling as those on the empty, titular beach. The story also toggles back and forth in time to recount the couple’s courtship and their relationship after their wedding night, which adds dimension to the main drama. “On Chesil Beach” is a subtle film, with some pointed commentary about class, gender and social conformity, and it is acted and directed with striking precision.
“The Strange Ones”
Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff’s mesmerizing film — based on their earlier short film of the same name — opened the first week in January, and still remains one of the year’s best films. A dark, daring, ambiguous drama about two brothers (Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson) going on a camping trip — or are they? Unsettling and unforgettable.