The cliché is that the older you get, the faster time seems to fly. I’m only 38, but I can definitely affirm that it is a cliché for a reason. The year 2018 is a complete blur. Looking over my film-viewing log for the year had me confused. “Wait,” I thought, “Black Panther was this year?!? It feels like it was at least two years ago when I saw that.”
This year was also the one in which I watched more movies made before I was born as part of my Classic Movie Challenge. That was a rewarding experience. Stay tuned; I hope to write something reflecting on it after the close of the year.
I was only able to fit in 152 movies for the year, as of this writing. That’s slightly down from last year, but as one of the movies in my top ten makes clear, not only is infinite growth unsustainable, it can also lead to disastrous consequences. In the case of the movie, the disastrous consequences affect the climate and the earth. I’m not sure what would suffer in my own life when it comes to me watching more and more movies every year. Personal relationships? My sanity?
No, I don’t want the number of movies I watch each year to become a sort of contest with myself. The year 2018 marked my participation in a very different sort of contest, and it nearly broke me. I’m not an overly competitive person by nature, but I entered one of those ridiculous corporate-drone sort of competitions you might have expected to see on an episode of The Office. It was a step challenge, designed to encourage healthy activity by seeing who could take the most steps in a given period (sitting is the new smoking, don’t you know).
I’m a runner, so I thought I might have an above-average shot at winning. I’ve now run two marathons (one of them specifically because of this challenge), so I guess I can call myself a marathoner. I ran into a buzz-saw of a competitor who happens to be an ULTRA-marathoner – an ultra-marathon is anything over 30 miles. Again, this might have been okay, if not for the length of the contest. One week would have been fine. A month, sure. Six months? A little excessive. The contest was 10 months long.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I didn’t watch as many movies this year as I did last year. Any minute I wasn’t working, watching movies, or otherwise attending to the activities that sustain life, I was getting in those steps. (In fairness, it might also have had something to do with three weeks of vacation, two of which where spent in Europe. You know, sometimes you have to live life instead of just watching other people do so on a series of screens).
I ended up winning (#humblebrag), but not before it made me question some very basic things about the nature of competition, the limits of my body, and even who I am as a person. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time, but this year I became acutely aware of how much I dislike thinking of movies (what I see as a fantastic and boundless art form) in terms of competition.
Which one is The Best? The Greatest? It’s an asinine pursuit. That viewpoint is probably why I take so little stock in (and forget so easily) what won an Oscar, or Golden Globe, or blah, blah, blah. What was (presumably) initially intended to simply honor outstanding achievements in artistic endeavors has become a game of, “I’m the best! Look at me!”
I struggled mightily with putting my top ten together this year. Perhaps it was because this way of thinking became more prominent in my mind. The below is a list of the ten movies that moved me the most, that awed me the most, that made me think about life, and humanity, and the universe the most. They could go in almost any order. Instead of thinking about the movie in the number one slot as being THE BEST, I’m thinking of the whole list as a collection of stunning art that I want to praise. That’s how I want you to think about them, too. If you haven’t had a chance to catch up with anything on the list, I recommend you seek them out.
And then there are the regrets. Movies I’m certain to catch up with between now and March or so, but will be forever shut out of my official top ten list. The one major title that stands out for this distinction right now is If Beale Street Could Talk. I swooned for Barry Jenkins when his film Moonlight took my number one slot of 2016. I can’t wait to see his new effort.
Before we get to the actual list, as always, I want to thank my supportive and loving partner Rachel for putting up with my obsession (and my insane behavior during the step challenge). And thank you, whoever you are, for reading this. It is most appreciated.
Please see below for my top ten of 2018:
*Note: Each movie title above the picture is a link that will take you to my review of that movie, with one exception. My review for number four will post one day after this top ten goes up.
Widows is complex filmmaking. It’s a movie for adults. The themes of politics, crime, money, sex, and more interconnect and inform each other in a satisfying way. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn produced a movie as entertaining (that heist sequence, WOW!) as it is probing. McQueen has also possibly turned a corner to more mainstream storytelling.
Annihilation has the distinction of getting my lowest star-rating (whatever good those are worth) of all the movies on this list. That’s part of the reason I included it. The months following my viewing of this sci-fi mind-bender – from Alex Garland, who made my number two film of 2015, Ex Machina – found me returning to it’s unique vision over and over again in my mind. It’s the tale of a group of scientist-soldiers who enter a mysterious zone in a state park known as Area X. This strange swath of land is changing every living creature inside of it in perplexing, terrifying ways. The hallucinatory ending is something I can’t wait to revisit.
8. First Man
Director Damien Chazelle made a movie that treats what is arguably humanity’s most challenging accomplishment, landing on the surface of the moon, like a contemplative, ethereal tone poem. Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong is a mystery. The movie didn’t unlock that mystery quite to my liking, but that might just be the whole point.
More than four decades after Taxi Driver, his seminal study of a man on the edge of insanity, writer Paul Schrader returns to familiar ground with First Reformed. Schrader is in the director’s chair in addition to being the writer, and his focus this time around is a man of the cloth, Reverend Ernst Toller. What drives Toller slowly, inexorably over the edge is the realization that humanity is intentionally destroying our habitat for little more than profit. This masterpiece of transcendental cinema is as mesmerizing as it is alarming.
My go-to joke all year whenever telling someone about Hereditary has been that the thing I like most about it is that it’s fueled by Satan. This is obviously a joke because I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in Satan any more than I believe in God. But director Ari Aster almost makes me believe in evil forces residing in the astral plane. His layered horror film about loss and the sins of the father (or, in this case, mother) being revisited on the children is delightfully transgressive. It also packs a wallop of an ending.
First time director Boots Riley had my head spinning with Sorry to Bother You. This is a sly, hilarious satire on race and class in our society. His visual flourishes are wonderfully imaginative. The whole movie builds to an unbelievable twist ending that had me picking my jaw up off the floor as I left the theater.
4. Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is a contemplative, empathetic portrait of an Iraq War vet suffering from PTSD who is trying the best he can to care for his teenage daughter. The understated performances from the two leads, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie are astonishing. Director Debra Granik has crafted a beautiful, heartbreaking tale of love and loss.
The one-and-only Spike Lee tells the tale of a black undercover police officer infiltrating the KKK with his signature wit, humor, and bold visual style. Lee is one of the most talented American filmmakers working today, and his complete command of building rising action makes for exhilarating viewing. The coda at the end of the film brought me to tears as I was reminded (not that I needed it) that we have come a pathetically short way from the race relations of forty years ago.
Alfonso Cuarón can pretty much do it all. He shows off his multi-talents with Roma by directing, writing, producing, editing, as well as being responsible for cinematography on the picture. The semi-autobiographical story was inspired by the woman who helped raise Cuarón. It’s a starkly beautiful rendering of a unique time and place in Mexico’s past. It’s a wonder to behold visually, and it posses a mournful emotional quality.
1. Free Solo
I was almost positive I had seen my number one film of the year when I stepped out of the theater after watching Free Solo. I say almost because to make a call like that with three months left in the year is a fool’s errand. But, it turns out I was right. This documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold has so many layers. It’s about the determination to succeed. It’s about being driven to do great things, no matter what the cost. It’s also about the crushing sense of worthlessness that fuels that determination and drive. Then, the movie becomes about something else. It becomes about the film itself, and the filmmaker’s anxiety at the risk of documenting his subject’s death. Free Solo is a fascinating, breathtaking watch.
An excellent adaptation of a stellar book. Both address pressing concerns about race in our country.
This movie about human trafficking and the toll it takes on a man who fights to rescue girls from it is a brutal, disturbing sit. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is revelatory.
This movie is a wonderful way to remind yourself that there are good and decent people in the world.
Marvel at how a man in his late 20s tapped into the story of a girl in junior high-school. Marvel more at the girl playing that junior high-schooler.
An emotionally pulverizing gem of a movie.