Top 10 films of 2018

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.”

Cameron Hoover

2018 was my first year really diving deep into the world of film, so it makes sense that it’s also my first year realizing how cruel it is to whittle down 12 months of movies into a top 10 list. That’s also why I cheated and listed three honorable mentions. Deal with it.

It was a strange year for movies, and thinkpieces have started popping up on the internet decrying the year as another terrible one at the cineplex. I see why it can seem that way in a year filled with some putrid blockbusters. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” was human-rights-violation level of bad. “The Predator” was terrible. “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”? Snoozefest. “Robin Hood” was barely a movie.

But outside of the mega-franchises which continually disappointed in 2018, smaller, more independently leaning cinema absolutely smashed this year. Films directed by women and people of color entered the mainstream more than in previous years, even if critics groups won’t recognize that, and more contained stories leapt off the screen.

Unfortunately, some didn’t make the cut for this list, but you should seek them out anyway. I spent much of my time this year in a theater, and I got to see 72 new releases. These experiences changed my perspective and helped me see things a little differently than I did 365 days ago. So, to celebrate the year in film as we turn the calendar to another year, here are my top 10 — OK, 13 — films of 2018.

DISCLAIMER: I am a college student in Ohio, and that situation, unfortunately, is not conducive to seeing every film during the usually one-week period they’re in theaters around here. Therefore, there are some films I haven’t seen yet that may have otherwise made this list: “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Vox Lux” and quite a few others. But just because someone hasn’t seen every film doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate any film. Also, this is my personal top 10 list. Don’t agree with it? Let me know why!


Honorable Mention No. 1: First Man, dir. Damien Chazelle

I admit, I may look at “First Man” with rose-tinted glasses, as it gave me one of the coolest theater experiences of my life thanks to a special advance screening courtesy of Universal Pictures. But it is genuinely baffling how what appeared only five months ago to be a surefire awards contender has been lost in the fray. 

“First Man,” director Damien Chazelle’s fourth feature film, to me, is two movies: one in space and one on Earth. The one on Earth is drab and dull, carried by Claire Foy’s performance as Janet Armstrong, wife to astronaut Neil, who was an incredibly boring, hermited man. Chazelle didn’t want to sacrifice authenticity, creating a bit of a sleepy story on the ground.

But once Neil reaches the stars, holy moly. The film turns into an epic depiction of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Composer Justin Hurwitz’s melodic, powerful score pounded through your ears, staying in your head for days after. Everything was shot in camera, and no film has ever depicted space travel like “First Man” did earlier this year. These guys strapped themselves to rocketships and catapulted themselves to the literal moon, just hoping for the best. This film captures that anxiety perfectly, balancing spectacle and realism to create something memorable.

Honorable Mention No. 2: Widows, dir. Steve McQueen

Speaking of lost in the awards season mix, what the hell happened to “Widows”? Steve McQueen’s story of three Chicago-based widows completing a robbery to settle their husbands’ debts was so brilliantly acted and methodically directed, it’s an absolute wonder as to why this is getting so little Oscar buzz.

Oscar-winner Viola Davis turns in an incredible leading performance — and carries around a cute dog for basically the entire film! Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry round out a cast of stellar performances.

The film’s perfect third act juggles multiple storylines perfectly, coming to a logical conclusion while evoking thought on subjects like race and grief. And God bless Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall. They tried.

Honorable Mention No. 3: Black Panther, dir. Ryan Coogler

Do you have any idea how hard it was for me not to put “Black Panther” in my top 10 list? When it came out in February, it took the world by storm, marking a cultural phenomenon like we’ve never seen before. Led by an understated performance by Chadwick Boseman, who dies a little more inside every time someone asks him to do the Wakanda Forever salute, Ryan Coogler’s film gave us an entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’d never seen before.

Popping with vibrant colors and sleek cinematography, the strengths of “Black Panther” come from the subtext. It’s an angry, layered thesis on colonialism and imperialism, as King T’Challa has to grapple with his ancestors’ inaction throughout history’s multiple shows of oppression toward black people. The villain, played brilliantly by longtime Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan, added so much depth to the story without beating it over the audience’s head.

The only reason it doesn’t make the list is because of the final act. All that pretense and societal commentary I was just talking about disappears in favor of a CGI beat-’em-up with actual rhinoceroses. Concluding the Shakespearean tale of family fighting for the throne was a tall task; I just wish it was treated with a bit more love in the end.

 10. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, dir. Morgan Neville

The first film to make me cry in a theater this year, Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was met with critical and box office success during the summer and currently stands as the favorite to win Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. Also, when I say cry, I’m not talking wiping a lone tear from my eye leaving the theater. I mean I was wailing like a banshee.

I think I had that reaction because I needed to see it. I think we all do. Great films are great films, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a great film. Period. But certain art can elevate to a higher pedestal if it comes along at the right time. And what better time to examine Mr. Rogers than during a time when you can’t go online without being screamed out of the room?

The film doesn’t idolize Mr. Rogers; it treats him as a human being, a mere mortal like the rest of us. The only difference was he made a goal to treat people differently than he had seen them being treated otherwise. He took stands against racism, homophobia and other societal ills on his program.

I thought about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in late October when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, killing 11. Squirrel Hill is famous for being Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. The attacks were an unspeakable tragedy, but in the weeks after the event, groups of all races and religions came to the aid of the people affected by the tragedy, donating blood and providing comfort. Everyone came together and helped out in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

I can’t help but think he smiled down on that.

9. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, dir. Marielle Heller

Reinforcing my theory that all my favorite films come in the form of a question, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of Lee Israel, a writer and biographer who’s having a pretty rough go of it. She’s trying to write biographies about vaudeville comedians of generations past, and her publisher is telling her no one wants to read them. After just straight besmirching Tom Clancy’s name for an entire scene, Lee decides she can make more money forging letters from famous writers for a fee.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the best Melissa McCarthy has been since “Bridesmaids.” McCarthy shines in a dramatic role for the first time in a long time, and her turn as the curmudgeonly Israel is an absolute delight. Her relationship with Jack Hock, played to pure perfection by Richard E. Grant, goes through ups and downs while they work together on Lee’s forgeries. Their give-and-take is perfect, culminating in one final scene where they accept the lives they’ve made for themselves — and for each other.

In her sophomore effort, Marielle Heller directs the hell out of this movie, capturing Israel’s essence and loneliness in each frame. Art is hard, especially when no one thinks that’s what you’re creating, and Heller understands that feeling of solitude. I cannot wait for her Mr. Rogers biopic releasing next year.

8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an absolute miracle of a film. It’s one of the most faithful comic book adaptations ever created with its sleek animation style and text boxes signifying characters’ thoughts. But where the film shines is in its unmatched creativity. This is a movie where Nicolas Cage plays a Nazi-punching, black-and-white version of Spider-Man from the 1930s. This is a movie where John Mulaney voices a talking pig version of Spider-Man.

“You’re like me,” is a phrase the Spider-People say many times throughout the film when their collective spidey senses tingle. Stan Lee, who passed away in November at the age of 95, was one of the people instrumental in creating the characters that led to the comic book movie boom of the last two decades. He would have loved to see this film on the big screen. Its message is not just kid-friendly; it’s downright necessary. Stan Lee helped make comic books cool. He and his work helped us realize we’re not as alone as we think we are.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” also gives Miles Morales his big-screen debut. In the film, Miles is a half-black, half-Latino kid who just is. There’s no tokenization, no way for the movie to be accused of superficially checking a diversity box. If you have kids, go see “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” with them. They’ll love it, and you will too.

 7. Blindspotting, dir. Carlos López Estrada

“Blindspotting,” starring co-writers Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, is being criminally overlooked during awards season, but it is one of the tensest, funniest, freshest films in years. Collin (Diggs) only has a few days left on his probation until he’s a free man. He just has to stay out of trouble until then, which is easier said than done when his grill-wearing, tough-talking white friend, Miles (Casal), is a complete psychopath who stomps people out for looking at them funny.

The film takes place in Oakland, and Casal and Diggs wrote the movie as a sort of love letter to their hometown. They have some things to say — on racism, on America’s broken justice system and especially on gentrification. Diggs and Casal both deserve Oscar nominations for their performances and their script. Diggs plays an apprehensive black man trying to win a rigged game perfectly, and Casal’s Miles is one of the most nuanced characters of the year.

The film is hilarious, but many scenes pack such a wallop that the tension can be cut with a knife. Collin’s dream sequence in the courtroom is one of the most visually stunning set pieces in recent memory, and the final sequence showcases Casal and Diggs’ incredibly gifted penchant for spoken verse in one of the heart-pounding scenes of the year.

In context, Miles’ line, “Are you sure?” cuts to the core. “Blindspotting” is on Amazon Prime to rent for $1. Do it. 

 6. A Quiet Place, dir. John Krasinski

I’d be lying if I told you I expected the lanky guy from “The Office” to prove himself to be a proficient horror director, but John Krasinski absolutely knocked “A Quiet Place” out of the park, both in front of the camera and behind it.

Aliens have invaded, and if you make noise, they kill you. Quickly. Gruesomely. It’s a simple premise, but Krasinski’s direction and the work of the film’s seven sound designers ratchet up the intensity to levels we haven’t felt in years. It was one of my favorite theater experiences of the year: No one said a word or made a sound out of sheer fear that the creatures were going to pop out of the screen and eat us. It was serene and mortifying all at once.

Krasinski also stars in the film alongside his real-life wife, Emily Blunt. If you’ve seen one of the seemingly thousands of interviews with Krasinski since this film came out, you’ll have heard him say “A Quiet Place” is a love letter to his own children, and it shows. Blunt and Krasinski portray the parents of the family with a tenderness that adds legitimate emotional depth to an already terrifying filmgoing experience.

5. Burning, dir. Lee Chang-dong

“Burning” is a lot. It’s one of the most nuanced, deeply layered films of the year. It’s 158 minutes long. It’s in Korean. Many of the qualities that make it great will turn off a good portion of American audiences, but I hope everyone gets to see this film.

Jong-su is a delivery driver, making ends meet as his writing career has yet to take off, when he meets Hae-mi. He quickly goes head over heels for her, but one day she tells Jong-su she’s taking a trip to Africa. Her “big hunger,” as she calls it, to find life’s true meanings is calling her, and she must go. Jong-su reluctantly agrees, and she’s off. When she returns from Africa, she has a man with her, Ben, portrayed to absolute perfection by Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead.” That’s when everything goes bonkers.

“Burning” is a thoughtful, contemplative film with awe-inducing cinematography and Hitchcockian levels of suspense. The story of the film is a mystery thriller wrapped in a social commentary on class frustrations. Lee Chang-dong does such a masterful job pacing the story with bits and pieces of information that by the end of the film, you wonder how much you really knew all along. It’s brilliant and surprisingly accessible for someone who may not watch a lot of foreign films. Seek this one out when it becomes rentable online and let me know when you do. I have a theory.

4. Mission: Impossible — Fallout, dir. Christopher McQuarrie

Franchises are getting kind of stale. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and its fill-in-the-blanks storytelling (see: how Han got his name) were boring. Entries into the “Fantastic Beasts,” “Predator” and “Jurassic Park” storylines were disappointing to say the least. All of this is even more reason to praise the marvel that is “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.”

The sixth film in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is also the best, slightly ahead of “Ghost Protocol.” Director Christopher McQuarrie has proven he is a force to be reckoned with in terms of directing extravagant action set pieces, like the final helicopter chase, the motorcycle ride through Paris and, my goodness, the bathroom fight scene with an assist from brilliant Chinese stunt performer Liang Yang. The audience can feel every punch, and even when Ethan Hunt saves the world from nuclear destruction one second before the bomb goes off — again — there is a genuine sense of realism.

The film is anchored by performances from Henry Cavill and a somehow 56-year-old Tom Cruise, who puts on a physical performance the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd would stand up and applaud. Cruise puts his life on the line in more and more unreasonable ways with each one of these films — the guy rappelled down the Burj Khalifa for goodness’s sake — and he needs to be credited with giving us many of the generation’s finest action films. 

3. Wildlife, dir. Paul Dano

In his directorial debut, Paul Dano, who usually finds himself in front of the camera, crafts a touching, yet equally heartbreaking portrait of a family in turmoil with “Wildlife.” The film is grand in scope in terms of its ideas, yet so intimate in its storytelling in showing us each family member’s emotion as they watch their lives go up in smoke. Pun intended.

Jake Gyllenhaal, a bona fide movie star who needs to be commended for starring in smaller indie films, plays Jerry, a husband in a crisis of confidence after losing his job as a golf pro. Bored out of his mind and feeling unimportant, he decides to join a crew and ship off to fight wildfires near the Canadian border, leaving 14-year-old Joe as the man of the house and Jeanette, his wife, without a husband.

The script, co-written by Dano and his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan, who is an exceptional performer in her own right, is pitch perfect. The film is fluidly paced, stopping to give us a look into each character’s emotions. We feel their pain, and most importantly, we can understand their actions. The film does well not to place blame, and it is all the more compassionately told for it.

Carey Mulligan is the star of the film as Jeanette, and in my mind, hers and Melissa McCarthy’s performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” do battle in my head every day for the title of best actress of the year. As an actor, Dano worked with some of today’s best directors, and that de facto film school did wonders for him in his first turn behind the lens.

2. First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader

Good lord — pun intended again — I can’t remember being so thoroughly punched in the face by a film as I was with “First Reformed.” After the credits started rolling, I didn’t stand up and leave. I just sat there. I don’t know if I was stunned, sad, happy, but I do know I was affected. Also shout out to the Nightlight Cinema in Akron for giving Northeast Ohio a place to see films like these.

Ethan Hawke has never been better, here portraying Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor of a small church in New York. Rev. Toller is having a rough few weeks, to say the least. He’s an alcoholic. He’s got a tumor. An ex-lover will not stop nagging him. He’s fulfilling his priestly duties when he meets Michael, a radical environmental activist in crisis. That’s all I really want to say of the plot, because the journey the script takes you on is one of the most impactful rides given by a film in 2018.

Hawke, who better at least get nominated for an Oscar, isn’t the only actor turning in career-best performances here. Amanda Seyfried’s acting in “First Reformed” is kind and solemn, and Cedric the Entertainer even pops up here and there to give Rev. Toller some guidance on his spiral into existential dread.

Directed and written by Paul Schrader, “First Reformed” is like four movies smashed into one, but in the best way possible. It’s a film only Schrader could make, with thoughts on organized religion, climate change, human impulses and so many others. The ending is the best of the year. It pulls no punches, and it’s proud of its bleakness. It needs to be, and it’s one of the best films of 2018.

1. Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón

I’m aware I’m not really breaking any critical norms here in calling “Roma” the best film of the year, but this movie absolutely floored me. Alfonso Cuarón, who is now correctly getting recognition as one of this generation’s seminal filmmakers, owns everything about “Roma”: He directed it, wrote it, did the cinematography for it. The result is a deeply personal, unabashed love letter to the women in his life.

“Roma” tells the story of Cleo, a housemaid working for a wealthy family in Mexico, who gets pregnant during civil unrest in the 1970s. Portrayed emotionally and realistically by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, Cleo is one of the most genuine characters put to film in some time. If you have a woman who’s important in your life, you’ll most likely see a lot of her in Cleo. She’s strong, persistent and proud, but never to the point where we can’t see her struggle. She never becomes a superhero. But there’s power in her kindness, and it shows that being herself is enough.

The film is on Netflix, and you need to watch it. But prepare some tissues because I wailed like an infant during some of the movie’s more impactful scenes. Cuarón will probably win Best Director for this, which would be completely reasonable, but he should also win Best Cinematography; some of the shots in this film are absolutely mesmerizing.

It’s emotionally bruising, but deeply compassionate in its realism and portrayal of Cleo as she navigates her way through life. It’s Cuarón’s best work, though “Children of Men” is tantalizingly close, and it was easily 2018’s best film.

Cameron Hoover is a senior reporter. Contact him at [email protected].