Ryan's Top Ten Films of 2018
I love making lists. I don’t take them too seriously, because I don’t see them as anything but a snapshot of how I feel with all of the films I saw in 2018. There’s still probably a dozen or so major films that I haven’t been able to cram in, even though I managed to see well over 100 movies this year. But so it goes.
Before I get to my main top 10 list, I wanted to highlight two films that I couldn’t quite squeeze in. Call them honorable mentions if you want, but they’re kind of their own thing in my mind.
Minding the Gap (dir. Bing Liu)
I don’t typically include documentaries in my list, not because I don’t love them, but for me, they are so hard for me to compare to narrative films in form and function. That’s just my feeling. I’m so glad that so many others championed this film, because I would have missed it otherwise. Ostensibly a skateboarding documentary, Minding the Gap is more about the common ground this group of friends shares. Not only skating, but also their home lives. Tracking these kids over the course of their adolescence feels like an uncensored look at growing up in a home where some form of domestic abuse is present. As this is revealed, it never feels like a sensationalized reveal or twist, but shading in the layers of a person we are getting to know. Likely the bravest film I experienced from 2018.
The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles)
It didn’t feel right including a film shot in the 1970s among a Top Ten of 2018. No begrudging anyone who does, but that’s why it is getting its own unnumbered slot. The experience of seeing this at the Philadelphia Film Festival was fantastic, especially back-to-back with the companion documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. While I wish that film delved more into how this project was completed, watching this theatrically felt like being thrown into the deep end and made to stay afloat. Formally, this film is kind of alienating, and feels experimental largely without being terribly self-aggrandizing about it. And I don’t say that with the bias of a Welles apologist, since this is only my second experience with his directorial work after Citizen Kane. I felt astonished at his ability to play with and discard the “rules” of cinema at will, and at his bitter attitude towards both Hollywood and European film.
10. The Guilty (dir. Gustav Möller)
What if Dirty Harry only had a phone? I don’t typically expect to see a great thriller at the Film Festival, but this film from Denmark fits the bill and then some. A variation on a single-location thriller, The Guilty moves beyond Panic Room or Free Fire because there is no literal action in this film. Everything is relayed to us verbally, and the film never leaves the emergency call center where demoted rogue cop Asger (Jakob Cedergren) is stationed. And yet–in part because of the vivid vocal performances of Jessica Dinnage and Omar Shargawi–it would be easy to forget that their end of the phone line is never shown, to the point where when I think back on this film, I can picture the look of those scenes just as easily as I can Asger’s increasingly intense facial expressions.
9. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
What drives us? How do we make choices? Why do we choose to do things that are harmful to us? We always describe animals as being instinctive, yet we often make choices that we cannot fully explain. Annihilation reminds us that we are as subject to the laws of nature as anything else on the planet. Our sense of self is always mutating over time. This is a film about what all of this means to the experience of being human, taking us beyond anything we’ve ever experienced in order to understand our inner selves better.
Every aspect of this film has stuck with me in the ways the best science fiction films do, and Garland excels at telling an equally heady, philosophically-driven story as well as providing a tense viewing experience. All of this also reflects the experience of the characters in the film; each of them brings what they want to find into the Shimmer with them, and each of them finds what they are looking for, and the audience experience is the same way. I look forward to revisiting it and see what new things I find inside its grotesque beauty.
8. Ocean’s 8 (dir. Gary Ross)
This earned a spot on my list as a purely fun pick. If an algorithm designed a film for me, this would come pretty close to the mark on a few levels. Heist films are probably my favorite genre, especially when they rely more on con artists than violence. When they have a sense of style, all the better. And this one is dripping in style, befitting a film that is robbing The Met Gala. Ever since seeing The Devil Wears Prada a decade ago, I’ve been fascinated by Anna Wintour (The First Monday in May also added to it), and her having a cameo in this film (alongside Anne Hathaway, even!) is pure catnip.
But that alone wouldn’t earn it a spot on this list. Sandra Bullock is a brilliant choice for Clooney’s sister Debbie Ocean, and her performance makes this familial relationship believable even though Clooney never appears in the film. And the rest of the cast is stacked. Each of these characters is clearly portrayed to the point where it feels like they could each carry their own film. Cate Blanchett’s Lou is as lovable as she is world-weary, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, and Awkwafina are also stellar, but Mindy Kaling and Helena Bonham Carter have a chemistry I never expected, and want to see more of immediately.
7. The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
From the first scene of this film when I saw it back in March, I knew it was likely to end up on this list. After a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, the producer (Paddy Considine) gets a call from the head of state asking for a recording of the performance. In desperate fear of the consequences, the producer immediately springs into action, rallying the remaining audience, musicians, and even rousing a conductor in the middle of the night (worrying him, since the latest sweep of purges is occurring simultaneously) in order to get the recording to Stalin. And the person blamed for the delay is the fifth or sixth person in the chain, the officer hand-delivering it to Stalin’s office. The entire sequence is not only filled with insane measures, but the acidic rapid-fire dialogue that is Armando Iannucci’s signature.
The Death of Stalin might be the best work from the political satirist so far. This film is exceptionally biting and dark, yet without anger. In an odd way, it kind of treats the events in the wake of the dictator’s death very matter-of-factly, which only amplifies the humor in each scene. Iannucci gets a lot of comedy out of capturing the absurdity of the language within dictatorships. What language is allowed, what is treasonous, and even the meaning of words is in constant flux as a cadre of imbeciles nakedly vie to fill the power vacuum. And this is also a stacked cast, with great work from Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough and literally every other person in the film.
6. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman)
This film is on this list for its thematic and character substance as much as it is for its amazing technological achievement (including Peter Porker, Spider-Ham, doesn’t hurt, either).
The story and mild deconstruction of the superhero genre is a stellar version of well-trod ground, but this film’s visuals set it apart from anything else I’ve ever seen. I don’t fully understand the technology behind it, though Sony believes it deserves to be patented. What I do understand is that, in sharp contrast to the Disney/Pixar style of computer animation, the techniques used in Into the Spider-Verse echo the minor imperfections that can seemingly be created only by human hands. While it’s become a tad cliche to refer to films as “a comic book come to life,” that feels true in a brand new way for this film. But the influences aren’t just ink and paper, but street art as well. And the details here don’t stop at the character moments, as each Spider-Person is animated in a slightly different style, to show that they come from a different universe.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse combines every ingredient a superhero movie should have: great characters, a love for the source material (without being beholden to it), and a keen sense of visual style, and then some. And further proof that strong design and style trumps “realism” any day. This movie is at its best when all of those elements are colliding inside the Kingpin’s reality-ripping machine, filling the space with Jack Kirby-style energy blasts, colors from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and enough Spider-People to keep the jokes and sense of fun soaring through the chaos. Truly sublime.
5. Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik)
I’m so angry that it took this long for us to get another narrative film from Granik. After Winter’s Bone was not only nominated for Best Picture, but also gave us Jennifer Lawrence, she should have had her choice of next projects. But Hollywood injustice aside, Leave No Trace feels worth the wait.
This film is an empathic portrait of people who live on the edge of society. Will (Ben Foster), a veteran, is unable to cope with his PTSD, except by living out in the woods. So he and his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in a public park outside Portland, Oregon. Granik and screenwriting partner Anne Rosellini keep the focus on them, relying on our own experience as contrast. But this also conveys the deep sense of empathy the filmmakers have for this family. This is an ultimately heartwarming story that teeters on the edge, bringing tension to the film, which is resolved in an unexpected way.
Besides the excellent and natural performances from McKenzie and Foster, one thing making the film such an immersive watch is the way Granik captures the feeling of being in the woods. The use of natural light and a taller frame (not to mention the sound design) made this one of the best film viewing experiences I had all year, as relaxing as it was tense.
4. Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham)
Basically a horror film for those that suffer insecurity and social anxiety, this film has stuck with me, if not for the individual scenes but the overall feeling the film exudes. As a childless man in my thirties, this also might be hitting me at the exact point of my life where I could identify equally with Kayla (Elsie Fisher) and her father (Josh Hamilton). I felt for both of them immensely as they faced the world of middle school as well as their relationship as father and daughter. Kayla feels the urge to reinvent herself, but it is nearly impossible to do that when you live with a parent, who sometimes only sees you as a child. But what I carry forward from this film is Kayla’s sense of optimism, and the fact that she never gives up hope for a better future. Gucci!
3. The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
I’m not sure I ever expected Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to make a “period costume drama” but The Favourite balances those expectations with the Grecian director’s canted sensibilities. The film concerns a relationship between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) that evolves into a power/love triangle with the arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone). A former lady who has lost her place in society, Abigail is willing to push the limits of her dignity and morals in order to feel safe, and secure a position at court. As the film goes on, the Queen, Sarah, and Abigail play chess on all levels, mixing politics, love, and personal gain until none of them can trust the others.
All three of these actresses give amazing performances, and are given the room to capture the various sides of these women, layers being added or stripped away as the film goes on. The Favourite is a view into female power in a world where traditionally they have none, a secret world hidden from the men at all but the surface. Lanthimos has a lot of fun with lenses in the film, giving us distorted and unusual views of the typical costume drama staples like opulent bedrooms and long hallways. I can’t wait to see this one again and find even more to like about it.
2. Paddington 2 (dir. Paul King)
First, I need to brag a little. The first Paddington made my top ten of the year back in 2015, beating out about 50 other films to land the ninth spot. So I was already on board for the sequel, but Paddington 2 not only surpasses the joys of the first film, but underlines the core message of these stories about a clumsy, marmalade-obsessed Peruvian bear in a way so important to the times we live in.
And that message is "if you're kind and polite, the world will be right." But this message should not be dismissed for being obvious or simplistic. What could be more important than treating other people with niceness and respect? Nothing. This film feels like a pointed reaction not to Brexit or Trump (since it was likely well into production before either of those two events occurred) but to the national moods that spawned them. It is important to his character that Paddington is an immigrant taken in by a posh British family, which is an homage to the children who were forced to evacuate London during the Second World War (see! Paddington has always been political, like all art).
Message alone, however, does not make a film great. In this film, Paddington is trying to find a present for his Aunt Lucy (now a resident of the Home for Retired Bears, back in Darkest Peru) suitable for her 100th birthday. He wants to earn the money to buy an antique pop-up book about London, but the book is stolen by a washed-up actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Paddington is framed for the crime and ends up in jail. While imprisoned, he meets the grouchy cook Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson) and turns the entire prison's morale around thanks to the magical power of marmalade and compassion. There are zany action sequences and plenty of laughs throughout, especially from Grant's performance as Phoenix. He is a self-obsessed actor, with a room for all of his old costumes and awards, and Grant goes for the role with supreme gusto; he is over the top in the best way.
Paddington 2 goes above and beyond simple escapism to be a film that provides moral guidance for children and adults, a stark reminder of the importance of compassion, as well as an active light against the darkness of our times. It is a feel-good movie because it doesn't ignore the issues we face in our daily lives, but reminds us that the best way to overcome them is kindness. It is not by accident that Paddington's closest friends outside his family are fellow immigrants, the elderly, prisoners, and strays. The outcasts. “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow he finds it,” says Hugh Bonneville's Mr. Brown. What could be more important right now?
1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (dir. Chris McQuarrie)
Since my review, I have watched this a number of times, and each time I am astounded by how great this film is. It is everything I could possibly want from a blockbuster, and the rare franchise film that has payoff from previous entries, but requires no previous knowledge to function. Not only does it have the best stunts of the year and likely of the franchise (though Ghost Protocol’s Burj Khalifa climb is still my favorite), but it has more than its fair share of character moments, humor, and twists. Part of the appeal of a Mission: Impossible is watching people who are the best at what they do execute their work flawlessly. This time around, I’d include Chris McQuarrie and Tom Cruise in that statement too.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has always been the main character of these films, with his defining trait being that he has a superhuman ability to complete any task or overcome whatever obstacle that stands between him and “mission accomplished.” In some of these films, especially the two previous installments, this makes Ethan the unknowable Dad to a team of highly skilled specialists. Rarely did those films give us a glimpse inside the mind of Ethan Hunt the way that J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III did, pushing him to his limits because he wife was in danger. Hunt’s compassion is the only weakness he is allowed to have, which goes back to the first film in the series. This time, rather than as an act of desperation to try and control him, the situations Ethan must work through are designed to exploit this weakness and trap him in it.
McQuarrie has peeled back a layer of mystery from Ethan Hunt, making this the most nakedly emotional entry in the series. Through his best friend Luther, his ‘little brother’ Benji (Simon Pegg), his equal, Faust, and his rival Walker, we see all of these foils for Ethan, and people who understand him in a different way. Most impactful of all is Julia (Michelle Monaghan). After two movies dancing around or ignoring the fact that Tom Cruise’s character is married, we finally get the full understanding of their relationship. The reveal itself is masterfully handled, not in terms of surprise, but in the way this film handles the quieter moments just as well as the ones involving Tom Cruise running at full speed. It all comes down to Hunt's particular worldview, and the things that he feels are required from him, and what he will risk to accomplish his mission.
This is the key aspect of Fallout that makes it a unique entry in the series: it does not ignore Ethan’s past or the passage of time. Whenever the Bond films decide to do it, the rate of success varies from clumsy and obvious (Die Another Day, Spectre) to playful (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) to forming the thematic core of the film (Skyfall). Fallout is mostly in the Skyfall camp, while series diehards will notice that there’s at least one thing or moment that calls back to each prior entry in the series. Ethan Hunt, this is your life.