Well that took long enough.
Yes, I’m a Top 10 straggler, but I’d rather be sure than second-guess myself down the road.
Rushing out a list during the onslaught of screening season, simply to meet the obligatory date of December 31st, just doesn’t allow that. Not for me, anyway.
Instead, I like to let my finalists marinate just a little while longer, maybe even watch a few again to break some difficult ties.
That extra time allows me to be comprehensive and far more certain; or, at least, as certain as one can be. I feel really good about these choices.
The list unfolds in ascending order, from 10 to 1, complete with thoughts about each, then concludes with a brief listing of the other movies I really enjoyed throughout the year.
Here are the 30+ films from 2018 that I Can’t Unsee.
(All film titles are linked to my full reviews.)
JEFF HUSTON’S TOP 10 LIST
for the Best Films of 2018
(Available to stream now, for free, for Amazon Prime members.)
10. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
A movie I’ve only seen once, one that I’m unlikely to ever see again, and one I can’t imagine recommending to anyone. As odd as that may sound for a Top 10 choice, those are actually reasons as to why Hereditary is one of the year’s best films. Ari Aster’s meticulously crafted debut – anchored by a harrowingly unstable turn from Toni Collette – is a potent, disturbing horror movie metaphor about generational curses, and the dangerous self-deception that you, on your own, can overcome your deep-seated issues, without any professional help or spiritual guidance. Or, beyond metaphor, if you’re inclined to take the demonic text of this movie quite literally (as the narrative does), you’ll find that Hereditary isn’t a genre flick that gratuitously exploiting evil for cheap thrills. Like The Exorcist, Hereditary exposes evil in its truest, most insidious, soul-destroying form.
9. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller)
The true story of Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer in the 1990s who wrote and forged fake letters of dead literary and Hollywood legends. Melissa McCarthy plays the neurotic and anti-social Israel; it’s her best, most layered acting to date. Richard E. Grant plays her friend and accomplice Jack, a polar-opposite extrovert who’s an absolute hoot – and the two of them together are endlessly entertaining and fascinating. Directed by Marielle Heller, in a New York story that feels influenced by peak Woody Allen and Nora Ephron, Can You Ever Forgive Me? examines what it means to be fake, to live life falsely, but it does in the most truthful, generous way.
8. A Star is Born (dir. Bradley Cooper)
Aside from the fact that this is Bradley Cooper’s best performance to date – I’d totally be onboard with him winning the Best Actor Oscar – it’s his direction that’s the real revelation here. Somehow, in his filmmaking debut, Cooper took a story that had literally been told three times before and, more generally, is a template we’ve seen countless times before, and he actually made it personal. It feels personal, almost like it’s his story. He also took the most cliched of moments – an unknown singer’s spectacular stage debut – and made it one of the most indelible screen moments of the year. (Having Lady Gaga be that singer sure helps.) The miracle here isn’t that Cooper reinvented any moviemaking wheels (though this is beautifully and sensitively crafted); it’s that Cooper could take a melodrama so familiar, so “done”, and make it feel fresh, honest, and heartbreakingly true.
7. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)
Rarely do we see a legitimate cinematic gamechanger, especially coming from the studio system, but that’s exactly what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is, redefining and revolutionizing not one but two genres: the superhero comic-book blockbuster and the feature length animated movie. It embraces the source medium of comic books like no movie has before – especially in visual aesthetic – while experimenting with blends of 2D and 3D animation in ways that have never been done before. It also playfully deconstructs and reimagines the form, with a script that’s surprisingly ambitious in scope – from story to characters to themes – yet is easy to follow, hilariously entertaining, and unexpectedly moving. It’s also another addition to a year filled with breakout hits of cultural representation. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse pulls Hollywood out of its rut of Disney/Pixar/Illumination and MCU templates, and does so in truly inspired fashion.
6. BlacKkKlansman (dir. Spike Lee)
It seems like Spike Lee has been struggling for years to find the right material to match his voice to the modern age. He’s made some recent provocative attempts – like Chi-Raq – but to mixed results. That’s what makes BlacKkKlansman an absolute liberation for this American filmmaking icon. Through the true story of a late 1970s police sting where a black cop infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, Lee is able to speak to the current status of racism in America today unlike he has since his 1990s peak. It’s as if he’s had all these thoughts, ideas, and feelings shut up deep within his bones and now, finally, in BlacKkKlansman, both as a storyteller and visual artist, those thoughts, those ideas, those feelings – they’re shut up no more.
5. First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader)
An arthouse movie with a capital “A”, First Reformed – which stars Ethan Hawke as a minister in upstate New York undergoing a spiritual crisis – is the kind of still, patient, and mystifying experience that will leave average moviegoers scratching their heads, and even some serious film fans perplexed, yet for the hardcore cinephile it’s a spellbinding deep-dive of intellectual, moral, emotional, and even topical heft. Written and directed by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, but crafted in an austere style that’s the polar opposite of the kinetic, sordid and carnal palette that has defined Schrader’s work in the past, the fact that First Reformed raises and wrestles with so many questions – about religion, the environment, and one’s own moral culpabilities – without ever answering any of them directly is part of the film’s sophistication, and what makes it so mesmerizing. That mystery is at the root of the film’s mastery. First Reformed may be a cryptic tale, but it’s one with clear convictions.
4. The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao)
It’s no surprise that director Barry Jenkins became an early advocate for this film. Aesthetically, visually, and thematically, The Rider is a kindred spirit to Jenkins’ Best Picture winner Moonlight. While that was about a young African-American male, The Rider is the tale of a young Native American man named Brady, in his early 20s. After an accident that sidelines him from his passion of rodeo horse riding and competition, he has a crisis of identity, of purpose, and where he fits in the world. Using real-life people – not actors – who are playing roles that parallel their own personal stories, Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao marries an intimate eye to an epic scope, painting a tale of longing against a sweeping backdrop of Americana in the South Dakota Badlands. This film really moved me. It’s heartbreaking. It’s essentially a midlife crisis occurring one full generation too soon. And the tattoo that Brady gets painted on his back is the most powerful visual metaphor of the entire year.
3. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler)
No film in 2018 had a bigger impact on our culture. It was the year’s top entertainment, yes, but it’s also a thoughtful and provocative examination of the African-American experience. Using genre as a construct, not just to mirror relevant cultural issues but actually wrestle with them, Black Panther is more than a brand-shattering revolution for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director Ryan Coogler turns Black Panther into a rallying cry for an entire race. This isn’t just a superhero movie; it’s a parable about the psyche and soul of African-American identity, proclaiming that true empowerment isn’t in waiting for some form of reparation or in pursuing revenge; it’s in African-Americans proactively and collectively asserting their own agency. And Coogler delivers this message through the trojan horse of a Marvel tentpole, a blockbuster in which the artistry of costumes, art direction, and makeup aren’t only spectacular in design but also rich in symbolism. Look, Hollywood wants to make franchise tentpoles, and they’re going to. Film lovers, meanwhile, wish studios would get back to making some serious thematic fare. Black Panther proves that you can actually do both, all in the same movie.
2. If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins)
This is the Barry Jenkins adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, about the struggle that a young African-American couple must face in 1970s Harlem when the man is unjustly incarcerated for a rape he didn’t commit. We just recently talked about movie at length on episode 16, and so I’d encourage everyone to listen to that discussion, but what I’d like to add here is something our friend and occasional guest contributor Adam Palmer said to me when we were talking about it. We were talking about how Jenkins is a cinematic poet, and I mentioned how we’d say the same thing about Terrence Malick, except that Jenkins and Malick are poets in very different ways, very different cinematic languages. Like, I don’t think of Malick when I watch a Jenkins film. Then Adam says, and this is what I’m building towards because I think it’s so spot on, he said “Jenkins is like if Terrence Malick turned himself outward instead of inward.” I think that’s stated so beautifully. Malick is introspective, but Jenkins is open, embracing, communal, he’s about community. Malick is internal, but Jenkins is anthropological – not from a cerebral, analytical distance, but deeply from the heart. That’s where his poetry lives. And here in Beale Street, Jenkins isn’t merely debating or examining African-American issues – though he certainly is doing that, and quite powerfully; Jenkins is actually getting to the core of humanity itself. So yes, Beale Street is a landmark in African-American cinema, but it’s also a powerful addition to the entire American canon.
1. Roma (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
It was a close, tough call between Roma and Beale Street, but a second watch of both is what sealed it for director Alfonso Cuarón‘s passion project about a Mexico City maid in 1970 (inspired by the housekeeper for Cuarón’s family from his childhood). Watching Beale again was a confirmation of everything I thought and felt about it, but a second viewing of Roma continued to reveal new things, at deeper levels, particularly in its religious symbolism. Roman Catholicism is such an integral part of the Mexican cultural fabric. It’s so deep and ingrained that, whether intentionally or unwittingly, they’re everywhere – and in key ways – throughout Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical tale. In my review, I said that it felt like Cuaron was filming this portrait of Cleo, the maid, from the point of view of a guardian angel. That itself has religious connotations. But on a second viewing, Roma became a beatification of Cleo. It’s her the canonization. Seeing her trials, her struggles, her tests of faith, and even her tragedies, Cuaron anoints Cleo a saint – a process that crescendos toward Cleo, in essence, performing a miracle, the very thing that confirms sainthood. Roma is also rich in sacramental metaphors (ones I hope to unpack in a future piece sometime this awards season). These symbols took a movie that was already a spiritual experience for me and elevated to a whole other level, to something truly profound. Along with the superior display of directorial vision and artistic craft, those symbols of sacrament are what make Roma, for me, the best film of 2018.
Here’s that list again, this time in simple descending order:
- If Beale Street Could Talk
- Black Panther
- The Rider
- First Reformed
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- A Star is Born
- Can You Ever Forgive Me?
I won’t belabor things too much here, other than to give specific shoutouts to two Netflix films that were only given brief, extremely-limited Oscar-qualifying runs.
- Private Life, writer/director Tamara Jenkins‘ overdue follow-up to the “brother / sister / dying father” gallows-humor drama The Savages. This is about a middle-age couple still struggling to conceive, and the heartbreaknig trials of that experience. There’s humor here, too, and I often found myself laughing through gut-punches. Comic actress Kathryn Hahn reveals serious dramatic chops, Paul Giamatti is at his career-best (which is saying something), and newcomer Kayli Carter as their college-age niece seems destined for an acclaimed acting career; she is amazing. All three would be in the Oscar conversation if Netflix had given this a legitimate festival and theatrical run. (Private Life is Rated TV-MA for strong language, some full frontal nudity, and one scene – albeit comic – that involves watching a porn clip at a fertility clinic.)
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the other great film that Netflix only gave an obligatory Oscar-qualifying run. This is the latest from the Coen Brothers, and its a Western anthology. Each short story is so utterly and brilliantly Coen, weaving literary language, quirky dark humor, emotional wallops, and epic visual scope, all as a collective meditation on life, morality, and death in the voice of Mark Twain and the spirit of Flannery O’Connor. (Available to rent on Amazon.)
Fortunately, Netflix ended up giving Roma a much wider-than-expected theatrical run. It’s still playing in some markets, in fact. In essence, it’s received as wide of a release (and maybe even wider) as what the average foreign-language film usually gets in the U.S.
And finally, the rest of the movies I really enjoyed and / or respected, in alphabetical order:
Annihilation, American Animals, Crazy Rich Asians, Eighth Grade, Foxtrot (a 2017 foreign film with a 2018 U.S. release), Hearts Beat Loud, Isle of Dogs, Juliet Naked, Leave No Trace, Mary Poppins Returns, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, The Old Man and the Gun, Ready Player One, Shoplifters, Widows, The Wife, Wildlife, You Were Never Really Here – plus the documentaries Free Solo, Minding the Gap, Three Identical Strangers, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?