There were lots of movies to like in 2018, although the most ballyhooed ones, as usual, tended to show up in bunches toward the end of the year. That’s the time when awards voters with short memories can be counted on to bite into Oscar bait. The fact that some of the most heavily heralded movies were also good helped ease the glut.
I just wish the goodies were spread out a bit more evenly – or, more to the point, that awards-worthy movies that opened relatively early, like, say, “Journey’s End” or “Paddington 2,” had longer shelf lives in the public imagination. But that’s part of why I’m here: to bring some perspective to the year and remind you of some very good films you may have missed. I’ve seen, by my count, around 300 movies in 2018, most of them far less than marvelous, but at least 40 of which, for a variety of reasons, are eminently worth noting.
Given how consequential and combative the global political landscape has become, I was surprised by how few movies, from Hollywood or elsewhere, directly addressed the disquiet. Perhaps we have arrived at a time in popular entertainment when, as opposed to the headline-grabbing gabble on the internet and the airwaves and the nightly news, audiences are seeking something less in your face.
The few mainstream “political” movies in 2018 often fused the personal with the politics. “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as the young, feminist crusader lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “Vice,” starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, attempted to humanize their protagonists, not altogether profitably, as flesh-and-blood people and not as historical icons or effigies. (In the case of Ginsburg, the icon-making was achieved in the hit documentary “RBG.”)
Without a lot of grandstanding and with varying degrees of success, such issues as homelessness and post-traumatic stress disorder (“Leave No Trace”), teen drug addiction and the toll it takes on families (“Beautiful Boy,” “Ben is Back”), ecological ruination (“First Reformed”), and gay conversion therapy ("Boy Erased," "The Miseducation of Cameron Post") were humanized.
Even in movies, many from outside the United States, where one might expect a more upfront and scathing treatment of social issues, the examinations were muted, as in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which focused, without being accusatory, on the travails of a live-in domestic worker of an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City; or Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” which dealt with a poverty-row Japanese family linked by crime; or Nadine Labaki’s marvelous “Capernaum,” about Lebanese street kids. It would be misleading to call these films indictments.
The portrayal of racism was the major exception to this generally muted approach to social issues. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” was ostensibly a 1970s period piece about a black cop who infiltrates the Klan, but Lee doesn’t really make period films. The speechifying and agitprop in this movie close out with newsreel clips from the violent 2017 Charlottesville, Va., white nationalist rally.
Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” tries (and fails) to be this year’s “Get Out.” Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” draws on the outrage in James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, even if it unduly poeticizes that outrage. Unlike these other films, “Green Book,” starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, is a mostly successful, if shameless, attempt to revive the old-school, we’re-all-brothers-under-the-skin type of movie that was popular decades ago. It plays like a racially role-reversed “Driving Miss Daisy.”
And then there is “Black Panther,” which locked into the Marvel zeitgeist, decried racism, opened up a whole new world for black performers (I’m not talking about Wakanda!), made a fortune, and aside from all that, managed to be pretty terrific. From a critic’s standpoint, if not a sociologist’s, I’m more excited by the success of this film than, say, the commercial success of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which, whatever its racial composition, I found insipid and likely to lead only to “Crazy Rich Asians 2.”
In the same vein, it was nice to read that, according to a recent study, a strong relationship exists between female-led films released in the US from 2014 to 2017 and box office gold, even though, as a critic, I wish more of those films could be more like “Eighth Grade” and less like “Ocean’s 8” (or, while I’m at it, the scabrous, smart-alecky, overrated “The Favourite,” not my favorite).
When “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s invaluable documentary about Fred Rogers, came out, I kept hearing people say, “This is the kind of movie we need right now.” Judging from its unexpectedly phenomenal success, I suspect what is going on is that audiences are craving movies that are feel-good in ways that don’t devalue one’s intelligence. There is more than nostalgia at work here. It has more to do with an authenticity of feeling and a sense that you can be a superhero without ever wearing a cape. A cardigan sweater will do just fine.
And now for my 10 best list, ranked in roughly descending order:
At Eternity’s Gate: I wasn’t exactly craving yet another movie about Vincent van Gogh, but director Julian Schnabel, himself a renowned artist, delivers one of the most powerful renderings of the creative act and its ravages that I’ve ever seen, topped by a career-best performance from Willem Dafoe.
What Will People Say: Iram Haq’s ferocious drama is about a 16-year-old girl (the extraordinary Maria Mozhdah) living with her tight-knit immigrant Pakistani family in Norway until her Westernized ways impel her father to remove her to Pakistan. It’s one of the strongest movies ever made about the cultural and generational divide within immigrant communities.
Amazing Grace: Finally finished after years of legal wrangling, this documentary of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles – the basis of her mega-selling record album – is an ecstatic musical feast. It will reopen in early 2019.
Burning: Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s allusive, creepy, melancholy mystery movie – it’s really a movie about the mystery of character – stayed with me in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” does.
Paddington 2: This is a transcendentally cheerful movie about the marmalade-loving bear, complete with a scrumptious roster of human actors headed by the deliciously nasty Hugh Grant. He looks as if he’s having the time of his life. So will audiences.
A Quiet Place: Director John Krasinski co-stars with Emily Blunt in this film about aliens that hunt by sound and a family under siege from both inside and out. It’s one of the most beautifully crafted and acted horror films I’ve ever seen.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Who says a leopard can’t change her spots? Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a real-life, down-on-her-luck author who becomes an expert forger, and she extends her powerhouse comic persona into darker and sadder realms than perhaps even she might ever have imagined she could inhabit.
Leave No Trace: Debra Granik’s incisive drama about a homeless veteran (Ben Foster) and his adoring 13-year-old daughter (the sensational newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) does justice to the vast complexity of its characters’ lives.
The Death of Stalin: Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci’s riotous, fanatically intelligent political farce takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet dictator’s demise, but don’t let that fool you. It also rings many a bell today.
Monrovia, Indiana: Our greatest documentarian, Frederick Wiseman, blessedly free of blinders and bias, offers up a meditative, richly observed portrait of small-town rural America.
Other worthy films, besides those mentioned favorably in my intro, are “Isle of Dogs,” “The Guilty,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Cold War” (at least the first half), “A Star is Born” (ditto), “Lean on Pete,” “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” “The Other Side of the Wind,” “The Insult,” “Shirkers,” “En el Séptimo Día,” “Juliet, Naked,” “On Chesil Beach,” “Science Fair,” “Free Solo,” “The Guardians,” and, for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance, “The Kindergarten Teacher.”