2018’s top film at the box office saw the world fall for the citizens of Wakanda with Ryan Coogler’s film captivating in particular communities that hadn’t seen themselves on screen in that way before. For many, the film proved a turning point where blockbusters’ impact and social commentary could coalesce thanks to gifted filmmaking and a welcoming audience.
Other films on the top 10 included a troubled production that was meant to start its own trilogy, yet thanks to its flawed execution and rushed production it’s likely Solo will live up to its name, resulting in a shift for the entire saga after the bravura work of some of the standalone pieces.
A musical proved to speak to audiences and generated the year’s best earworm, yet even that wasn’t enough attention paid to this stellar story of Stephanie who under the guise of her alter ego was every bit an artist, but had to alter to become the star. The meta-textual references were wondrous, and the director’s own fame might have stood in the way for some taking the film as seriously as they should have.
A musical of a very different sort landed at Cannes from the maker of Ida, one that’s as deeply affecting and gloriously shot as any. An wonderful tale of growing up with domestic help proved to be a super hero film of a very different sort, while a pitch perfect look at adolescence nailed its conceit.
After missing Best Picture glory, a director gazed towards the heavens yet produced a film with a character who seemed to be constantly looking inward, a brilliant and at times shockingly intimate portrayal of a reluctant hero. The filmmaker whose previously lunar-themed film eventually did take the big trophy returned with a film even more captivating, taking Baldwin’s words to produce a film of blistering impact that refused to simplify the symphony of human emotions and contradictions.
An acerbic court comedy provided an incredible trio of performances, while the journey of a father and daughter spoke with a quiet voice about loud issues. Finally, an animated web crawler told a temporally twisted tale of arachnid adolescence, brilliantly using the medium while never losing sight of the story’s impact. (JG)
A Star is Born
A Star Is Born is a vanity passion project from Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote the screenplay, directed, and starred in the film. Every aspect of the movie is top-notch; the casting (Hello Sam Elliot!), the costumes, the sound mixing, and the original music are all unimpeachable. But the picture stands out for Cooper’s off-the-charts chemistry with his muse and co-star, Lady Gaga.
Whether you love or hate the film, the moment Gaga’s character, Ally, finally takes the stage to belt out Shallow is among the most electrifying moments of the decade. A Star Is Born has the perfect blend of movie-star spectacle and small intimate moments which makes for a dazzling experience that thrills you as it yanks at your heartstrings.
History tells us that a remake of a remake of a remake shouldn’t be so well-crafted, heartfelt, and entertaining. Maybe I’ve been judging movies the wrong way. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die?” (VS)
Black Panther works because in addition to making a lot of black people finally feel seen on a huge scale through nuanced meditations on what it means to be “black” for different generations and different parts of the world, it sticks to the thesis: just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. Every major scene (including some fight scenes) have the main character grappling with this idea.
This means that at the end of the movie, our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has collected all the data he needs to make an informed decision that actually has a lasting impact, unlike most superhero films. That often-overlooked fact outweighs any complaint about the CGI in the third act and disproves surface level assertions that the film is just another cog in the Marvel machine. (DG)
Who knew the best take on A Star Is Born would be set behind the Iron Curtain and shot in black and white? Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2018 masterpiece joined Bradley Cooper’s equally great film in connecting audiences through the power of love and music. While Cooper’s A Star Is Born proved that classical Hollywood cinema still has the power to make an old story feel new again, Pawlikowski’s Cold War reminded us that great music and great love stories are timeless.
The songs that Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) perform throughout their on-again/off-again romance are often marked by influences outside their borders, like the inspiration of American music that flourished and arrived with the changes wrought by war. When they’re together, they often endure propagandistic performances or easy, soulless cash grabs that pay the rent. The musicians struggle with their desire to make a living through their passion with the cost of selling a lie, finding truth in music and their love that knows no borders. Savour the notes of each song as the music reveals new layers and meanings with each of Cold War’s sorrowful refrains. (PM)
As an aging crone, it is hard to imagine what being an awkward middle schooler these days would be like. I was raised with rotary phones, and cannot fathom how kids today can cope with social media and constant documentation of their most cringey moments. Director Bo Burnham’s debut film captures today’s experience of growing up, and shows us that while the technology has changed, little else has changed for teens and tweens.
Elsie Fisher is Kayla, a quiet and mostly content eighth grader who dreams for more in the ways that all young girls do. There are boys and more adventurous friends and attention for strangers which are all up for grabs, and feel within grasp thanks to YouTube and social media. Kayla tries, but not too hard. Her vulnerable video diaries are similar to what has always been in young girls’ diaries, but these are out for everyone to see. Eighth Grade is not a tale of the new systems of communication failing her, or Kayla rising and falling in popularity; it is a slice of her life as she is trying her best to believe in herself and her projected confidence. The honesty and delicate balance of embarrassment and growth are what make this film worthy of recognition on this list. (DC)
Coming off of the dazzling but divisive La La Land (and the ensuing Oscar drama), many critics seemed primed to hate on Damien Chazelle’s Space Race follow-up First Man. Indeed the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong had all the right stuff on paper, but despite being set against the bombast of America’s historic 1969 trip from the Earth to the Moon, Chazelle delivers an intensely personal, deeply contemplative experience that puts man first mission second. The film demonstrates that Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) had the “right stuff” to be sure, but only when he was behind the controls of an X-15 at Mach 6 or descending to the Moon’s surface in the Apollo Lunar Module. In other aspects of his life though, specifically as a husband and father, Armstrong struggles to make it work.
Featuring technically brilliant reenactments of Armstrong’s nail-biting Gemini and Apollo missions, propelled by composer Justin Hurtwitz’s score, First Man is must-see for space junkies like this writer. But the movie is a character study at heart and an actor’s showcase above all, particularly for Gosling and Claire Foy, who plays Armstrong’s rightfully fed up spouse. We know Gosling does taciturn well, but here he brings to life – warts and all – a person who is little more than a famous name to most people. Focused but incredibly flawed, driven but deeply hurt. First Man is a portrait of the kind of man it took to make America great, and it turns out to be a very different picture depending on where you’re sitting. (WP)
If Beale Street Could Talk
Imagine being in Barry Jenkins’ situation, having to follow up the Academy Award-winning indie sensation Moonlight with another film? It’s enough to cripple mere mortals with indecision. But Jenkins, with his transcendent gifts, may not be mortal. Jenkins dove back into filmmaking by taking on the work of literary master James Baldwin, and somehow, delivered another masterpiece.
If Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, and the film perfectly embodies the author’s conflicted spirit. The story of young lovers enduring hardship and falling in love couldn’t be more on-brand. Baldwin possessed a love/hate relationship with America, and his literary work finds love in broken places. Jenkins captures the feeling of falling in love with breath-taking beauty – the movie is full of stunning images, soulful music, and characters you can’t help but feel for. But Jenkins balances romance with the doomed nature of the black experience in America. Beale Street is a soul-stirring film that finds joy in a world without happy endings. (VS)
Leave No Trace
Father and daughter Will and Tom are living off the grid in a large park; when they’re discovered they have to find a way to integrate into society, something that is far from easy for Will but which Tom starts to take a liking to. Director Debra Granik’s deft touch weaves the events of the film without the need for a lot of exposition and only the sparest dialogue, making it a uniquely quiet yet very affecting story.
Refreshingly, there are no villains in this movie; universally, the people Will and Tom encounter within the woods and in the city have good intentions and genuinely want to help. The conflict comes from Will needing to live in nature, away from the machine noise that triggers his PTSD, and Tom wanting a different life, in a community. The eventual compromise they come to is sweetly melancholic, and will resonate with any parent who’s watched their child grow up and gradually make their own life. (JB)
Roma is the palme d’or that never was, pulled from Cannes due to its production under the Netflix banner. It went on to take top prize at Venice, came second at TIFF, won the Oscar for best foreign and came as close to taking best pic overall. All from a black and white look back at childhood that in lesser hands would have been lugubrious and narcissistic and instead is nothing short of cinematic glory. The film takes all the technical marvel of Gravity or Children of Men (including sumptuous sound design – it’s worth seeking an Atmos system to get the full extent of the marvel), along with all the grace and precision of Cuarón’s more personal, character-based films like Y Tu Mamá También and merges them all into an epic that’s startlingly intimate. With knockout performaces led by Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the film was a smash in its home country, caused consternation for some who confused what the film was about versus what they though were its blindspots, and presented a singular vision that illustrated better than any film this decades Ebert’s first law of cinema – if those flickering images are the fluttering of empathy machines, this is the result of the finest, most exquisitely crafted contraption of all. (JG)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This animated entry into an alternate Marvel universe is completely unique and it utterly transcends the genre. Taking its stylistic cues from urban street art and graffiti, the animation is kinetic and brimming with energy. The hip-hop-infused soundtrack perfectly complements the action. Happily, this superhero movie doesn’t rest too long on telling the origin story, but quickly pulls in the Spiderfolks: superheroes with similar Spidey-abilities, all from other dimensions and looking for a way home while saving Miles Morales’ New York from the Kingpin’s plans. The various Spiderfolk provide new fodder for humour, balancing out the more dramatic themes of reaching your potential and coping with traumatic loss. It’s a rare masterpiece that has appeal for all ages. (JB)
Truth be told, all of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films would be at home on this list, but my personal favorite is his historical comedy The Favourite. Based on the allegedly true (but presumably embellished…) stories of manipulation and sexual conquest in the court of Queen Anne in the early 18th century, this is not your typical costume drama. It quickly becomes clear that the strength of The Favourite resides in the performances of the three leads (Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone) and their hilarious dialogue. As soon as Weisz comes into the frame, it is clear that she is quicker witted than any person – man or woman – to step foot in that palace since it was erected a century before. She is nearly matched by Stone as a social-climbing maid, however her ego and selfishness will never pay off. But best of all is Coleman as the infirm and incompetent Anne. Her childishness and moodiness make the film all that it is; which is to say, a magnificent comedy and satire of the wealthy and powerful.
The only facet of The Favourite that even comes close to besting the ladies’ performances is the art direction. The use of natural light and lavish royal setting immerses the audience into this lush world of unearned poshness and inconvenient architecture. Throw in the pointed costumes and their world is stunningly complete. (DC)