2018 in Review: What We Liked on the Big Screen (Narratives Edition)

I’m the dummy who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of… lists, and that’s because I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December. Mostly, it’s stuff that others have told me is worth checking out, that I either missed when it came out in Chicago or it was never released here at all. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in that timeframe, primarily in an effort to solidify my top 10.

As of this writing, I saw 513 films in 2018 (a personal best), either in a theater or via screener—from Paddington 2 to Holmes and Watson (only one of which made my list; guess which one). This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the list.

As I do every year, I’ve separated my Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on a combined list. Plus, it’s always seemed strange to me to mix docs and narratives; the same way you don’t usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a book store. I value them equally, however.

I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn’t make my Top 10, or even my Top 20, as I assembled this list. I often feel that after the first ten, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year. But 2018 was what I would consider an exceptional year to be a film fan, and this list represents nothing but worthy titles—remember, this list represents roughly 10 percent of everything I saw last year.

I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: If you think a list of 50 films is annoyingly excessive, feel free to stop reading at 30, or 20, or 10. (For the record, I also believe 50 titles is indulgent; but what is the internet, if not indulgent?) I have faith you’ll find ways of coping with it.

I’ve included sections of my original reviews of my Top 10 films. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for purchases, streaming, rentals, or best of all, going to the theater. Quite a few of these are still in theaters, and if they are, that’s where you should view them; there are also a couple of titles that will make their way to you in January.

The world in 2018 has been interesting for more reasons than I care to count, and a great deal of frustration, anxiety, fear, and outrage was reflected in the movies we watched. This was the first year that filmmakers had a chance to set fire to things in their stories, a reaction to the fiery world we’re living in. It’s a time in cinema that is both exciting and terrifying, and both are healthy reactions.

Alright, enough preamble. Here is my humbly submitted Top 50 best narrative features of 2018; my Top 20 best documentaries can be found here. Please enjoy, discuss, debate, and above all else—go watch.

Hereditary Hereditary | Image courtesy of A24

10. Hereditary

The feature debut from writer/director Ari Aster leaves open the possibility that you are not watching a horror movie but that you’re instead watching a horrific drama. Hereditary shows audiences a family in crisis, leaving emotional cracks so wide open that something dark—perhaps actually evil—can crawl in an fester and eventually destroy all that was good and sacred about the sanctity of blood relations. In other words, Hereditary takes its deep-seated sense of danger and foreboding quite seriously and with a level of maturity that few of today’s horror releases do. Although Aster does seem to enjoy the idea of audience members falling out of their seats with fright every so often, he seems far more interested in carefully constructing scenarios specifically designed to cause nightmares long after you’ve seen his work. Jump scares seem like child’s play in this filmmaker’s hands. His scares are sustained; his visuals are more carefully crafted to play off everyday fears, like a recently departed love one visiting you in the night; and his soundscapes feel like cold water being injected directly into your neck.

The film’s deliberate pacing, commitment to atmosphere over cheap scares, and stellar cast, led by the remarkable Toni Collette, make this work a easy contender for the best horror films of the year. There’s an artistry and level of craftsmanship that is too often lacking in movies designed to scare or otherwise creep us out, and the effort is both as effective as hell and greatly appreciated. Arter is a filmmaker less interested in spectacle and more intent on a type of world building that places his audience at the center of this fresh hell—both the last place we want to be, as well as exactly where we need to be for this ride.

9. Widows

Widows is about a great many things, only one of which is a group of women, all of whom have lost their husbands during the commission of a joint robbery gone horribly wrong. Directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame), the film also takes deep dives into themes of loyalty, class, politics, corruption, power and the danger of underestimating people. And it does so in the context of a wicked, take-no-prisoners, often shocking story in which nearly everyone is guilty of something. It’s also a helluva heist movie, making it a dense but completely satisfying experience.

Based on a 1983 British mini-series (adapted by McQueen and Gone Girl/Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn), Widows isn’t set in Chicago by accident, and it’s clear that McQueen and Flynn see it as a place where political corruption is the price of getting things done. Everything in the film is connected masterfully and every character is sketched using rich details and a lack of stereotypes. It’s a genuine pleasure watching all of these great acting talents (including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Kevin J. O’Connor and Robert Duvall) work together in various combinations, moving through this layered, well-structured story that is one of the best ensemble works in years.

8. BlacKkKlansman

One of the best movies of the year is the latest from master cinematic provocateur Spike Lee, who gives us the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s gifted son). Stallworth was a Colorado Springs police officer, circa the early 1970s, who was hired as the first black officer in the area to infiltrate the rising black radical movement within the local college campus. Produced by, among others, Jordan Peele (Get Out), BlacKkKlansman is a film about how racial issues are treated almost comically different, depending on the region of the country in which you happen to be. It doesn’t take long for Stallworth to discover that there’s a local branch of the KKK operating in and around Colorado Springs, and almost without thinking, he makes a quick phone call to the local leader to get more information about joining and setting up a meeting for a few local members.

While it’s clear that Lee is having too much fun taking jabs at how stupid the Klansmen were to allow a black man into their ranks in an effort to see if any homegrown terrorist activities were in the works, it also seems evident that he is undeniably angry that white supremacist groups like the one in this film are still active and even thriving under today’s administration. Using still-impactful footage from the violent Charlottesville, Virginia, marches where a man drove his car down a street packed with people, Lee is demanding that definitive statements be made by the current leadership against hate groups, which I’m guessing he knows will never happen. BlacKkKlansman is a story of bravery, audaciousness, hypocrisy, and history—all pulled together in something that feels horribly, inescapably current.

Leave No Trace Leave No Trace | Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

7. Leave No Trace

It’s almost impossible to believe that it’s been eight years since filmmaker Debra Granik debuted her powerful, atmospheric, four-time-Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere. Since then, audiences have had to wait far too long for Granik to once again immerse us in a world that seems millions of miles away, when in fact she places us in long-ignored corners of America that are currently having light shone upon them for a variety of reasons. With her latest work, Leave No Trace, Granik moves from the depths of the Ozark Mountains to the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Tucked away on a nature reserve somewhere near Portland, Oregon, veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (New Zealand newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live off the land in complete isolation and seeming tranquility, always wary of being discovered. The film begins almost wordlessly as we simply watch the pair go through their routine of collecting water, foraging, and even playing a version of hide-and-seek that utilizes all of their well-honed tracking skills. A seemingly small mistake on Tom’s part exposes their living arrangement, and soon they are removed from the federal land they occupy and put into the social services system, where they are actually treated quite well, given a home on a quaint farm, and given jobs. And just as they begin to settle into their new arrangement, Will wakes Tom up in the middle of the night and away they go back into the woods, leaving us frustrating and trying to empathize. While the film may feel familiar to Granik’s other works, in terms of its approach and locations, no one has really taken up the mantle of these types of films that defy genre in the time she took to pull this one together. It is not an easy thing to place us into the lives of people we’ve never had real-life contact with, but this is the stuff that fuels Granik’s creativity, and Leave No Trace is a fresh reminder of her talent and how eagerly we await what comes next from her.

6. A Star is Born

There’s a song we hear on several occasions during the latest incarnation of A Star Is Born that begins with the lyric “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” It’s Bradley Cooper’s rock star character Jackson Maine doing the singing of what is clearly one of his most famous, go-to songs, and the idea behind that simple statement speaks volumes not just in the context of the movie, but with the way a lot of us are feeling these days. The film doesn’t treat its substance abuse storyline as an afterthought or crutch; Jackson even attends rehab after a particularly nasty drunken incident, and it’s one of the best sequences in the entire movie.

It would be a mistake not to talk about how phenomenal the music in A Star Is Born truly is. Memorable, sure, but the songs also dig deep into the psyches of these characters to let us know where they’ve come from and how they feel about each other. Thankfully, the music doesn’t seeks to summarize what’s going on, instead opting to open up the emotion and enhance the moment, whether it be romantic or tragic. It’s near impossible not to be impressed by the way Cooper and Lady Gaga’s voices mesh and play off each other, her taking the angelic, soulful high notes, with him harmonizing below her. A Star Is Born is layered, fulfilling, and moving to the point where only singing can properly capture the emotional complexity of some of the film’s heavier moments.

5. Blindspotting

At its heart, Blindspotting is a film by and about friends. Longtime music collaborators and Oakland natives Daveed Diggs (best known for his Tony-award-winning dual role in Hamilton) and poet Rafael Casal took nearly 10 years to write the screenplay. The result is a vibrant, energetic, rhythmic profile of a city in transition, where nonwhite residents and culture are being pushed out by gentrification. These lifelong friends, Collin (Diggs), who is black, and Miles (Casal), who is white, work for a moving company and have a front-row seat to watch the world around them change its identity whether it wants to or not. Working with first-time feature director/longtime music video helmer Carlos Lopez Estrada, Diggs and Casal tell the story of Collin, an ex-con who has three days left on probation, trying desperately to stay out of trouble, while his slightly bent best friend seems to be an endless supply of bad decision (like buying a gun from his Uber driver).

Aside from the almost non-stop soundtrack of mostly local artists, Blindspotting also features a couple uses of free-verse/rapping/spoken-word monologue that serve to highlight the film’s most dramatic and revealing moments. In one of the film’s final sequences, Collin gets the opportunity to confront his greatest fear and has to choose whether to strike it down or overcome it in other ways. In other hands, in other films, the moment shouldn’t work; but here it is such a forceful release valve of a moment that you’ll applaud and cry and feel a flood of emotions like you haven’t in a movie in years. Blindspotting is easily one of my favorite films of 2018; I’ve seen it three times and I can’t wait to see it again.

The Favourite The Favourite | Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

4. The Favourite

History has rarely been so playfully nasty as it is in the latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Set in the court of Queen Anne (played to mind-warped perfection by Olivia Colman) in early-18th century England, The Favourite rides the line between tragic and comic with great abandon, as it examines the excesses of the rich and powerful as well as those who wish to sully their favor for personal and political gain. The film tells the story of two women who battle for the affections of the queen in order to rise up through the ranks and effectively rule the nation, which is currently bleeding money thanks to an extended war with France. Established early on, Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) holds the strings that control Anne’s policies and heart. Anne herself is in fragile physical health (thanks in large part to an appalling diet) and mentally unwell, wanting little more than for her gout-ridden legs to be rubbed while she lays in bed. This leaves bigger-picture decisions to Lady Sarah, who happens to be a masterful strategist with a savvy mind for politics.

Into this long-standing and cozy situation arrives Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant relation to Lady Sarah, who is looking for any type of employment. Gradually allowing her hidden charms and brains to reveal themselves to Anne, Abigail soon becomes her majesty’s new favorite pet and romantic interest, leaving Lady Sarah furious but far from powerless to retaliate. The Favourite shows us a time when being cruel wasn’t about simply hitting someone over the head until they were out of the game; it was about the surgical removal of a rival. It was one-upmanship at an Olympic level, and this movie captures that brilliantly.

3. Border

From the opening frames of the second feature from Iranian-born, Danish-dwelling filmmaker Ali Abbasi, we know something isn’t quite normal. Set in Sweden, Border is part human drama, part fantastical lore about a customs officer who has the uncanny ability to sense when a potential smuggler crosses her path, and it is somehow tied to her unusually broad nose’s sense of smell. All of her life, Tina (Eva Melander) has been made fun of and bullied because of her less-than-flattering looks. She has a painful-looking overbite, stained teeth, a protruding brow, blotchy skin, and a noticeably high volume of body hair. When someone she catches smuggling alcohol at the border calls her “ugly,” she doesn’t even flinch, let alone get offended, and this tells us all we need to know about her life up to that point… or so we think.

It may come as no surprise that this blend of the supernatural and troubling reality is based on a short story by author John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose novel Let the Right One In is one of the greatest vampire stories ever told. The true nature of the story reveal itself when, on the job, Tina meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), whose features bear a striking resemblance to hers (right down to her unflattering hairstyle), so much so that we begin to suspect that they might be related. Without wanting to reveal what their true connection is, Border dives headfirst into the world of Nordic mythology, while also being a social criticism of the humankind’s many flaws, all which comes to light after Tina allows Vore to rent out her guest house, and the two start spending a great deal of time together.

After spending the entire film emotionally thrashing its audience, Border commits the ultimate act of boldness by giving us hope for Tina’s future well being in its final moments. In many ways, it’s the perfect genre film in its refusal to conform to any familiar tropes, instead opting to dip its misshapen form into several cinematic molds, only to shatter them as its lead character continues her search for purpose and belonging.

2. Roma

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes as a film critic—or simply as an audience member—you exit a film so extraordinary and emotionally stirred that words nearly fail you. Writer/director/cinematographer/co-editor Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal work Roma results in just such an experience, in large part because it’s so unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You almost feel as if it’s something you’ve been waiting to see your whole life but didn’t realize it until you actually did. Mexico’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Film consideration at the next Academy Awards, this stunning black-and-white movie is more a series of remembrances than simply a linear story, although it’s certainly easy enough to follow, even when the focus of each scene isn’t always where many other filmmakers might have placed it. That’s in large part due to the perspective from which the story is told.

Roma tells the story of the women in Cuarón’s life who raised him, therefore shaping his earliest memories. The film centers on a domestic worker named Cleo (first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, speaking in her native Mixtec, as the real-life Cleo did), who helped keep the house clean and the family’s four kids in line in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Initially the children’s parents, including mother Sofia (Marina de Tavira), are around, but before long the father (Fernando Grediaga) says he’s heading out for a work trip and simply never returns, leaving the middle-class family in dire straits.

Cuarón (who also directed Gravity and Children of Men) is a master at emphasizing moments without telling you exactly where to look or why an instant is significant. We figure it out and sense the weight of an action or visual reference from the context. There are also elements I still haven’t fully deciphered, including the recurring image of planes flying over at different key moments. Is that to indicate the family lived near an airport? Or is it a sign to someone in that family that there is a whole world out there to which they can escape and get out of the confines of this small neighborhood? Questions like this arise out of Roma, and they still haunt me, as do the note-perfect but very different performances from Aparicio and De Tavira, who served very different, but equally important, purposes in Cuarón’s life. The movie is an elegant and meditative series of memories that combine to make something fulfilling and soulful.

The Rider The Rider | Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

1. The Rider

The story behind the making of writer/director Chloé Zhao’s second feature, The Rider, is almost as intriguing as the finished film. While doing research for her previous feature, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, she went to a ranch where a lanky rodeo rider named Brady Jandreau worked teaching people how to ride horses. Jandreau was such a striking, quietly intense young man that Zhao was determined to put him in a future film. But when a riding accident left him with a near-fatal head injury (requiring a plate in his head), Zhao became resolute that her next script would center on this man, whom she would also hire to play a thinly veiled version of himself. The resulting film is an utterly captivating work that could have easily gone wrong in so many places. Not only does Jandreau play saddle bronc rider Brady Blackburn, who opens the film having just checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders with several dozen staples along one side of his partially shaven head, but his real-life father Tim (played by Wayne Blackburn) and Asperger’s-affected sister Lilly (also named Lilly in the movie) are on hand as his family members.

In a broader sense, The Rider is also about a particular type of masculinity, one that is so deeply intertwined with pride and a fear of losing even the slightest bit of manhood, that cowboys would rather endanger their lives than appear any less tough. Brady drinks and boasts and lies about his prognosis with his other rodeo buddies, but his inability to open up to them about his true fears and newly developed shortcomings is the film’s biggest tragedy. He has an enormous heart, as is evidenced by his frequent visits to his friend Lane, a now-paralyzed former rodeo star, whose condition should act as a warning to Brady. But both men seem to feed off of each other’s kindness.

Filmed in the stunning and meditative environs of the Badlands of South Dakota, The Rider opens on Brady’s first morning back from the hospital, and although we don’t know what exactly has happened to him at first, it's clear that the idea of never riding again is so unthinkable to Brady that he treats his doctor’s orders like a suggestion rather than a life-or-death pronouncement, because a world without riding and competing doesn’t exist. The piece works because Zhao has the open eyes and big heart of a humanitarian, and she refuses to ignore inspiration in any form when it strikes her. Brady, his family, and their world are all uniquely American, while also maintaining a universality that will likely seem familiar to many cultures around the world.

The Other 40

11. Cold War (Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski)  |  12. First Reformed (Dir: Paul Schrader)  |  13. Shoplifters (Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)  |  14. Capernaum (Dir: Nadine Labaki)  |  15. Annihilation (Dir: Alex Garland)  |  16. If Beale Street Could Talk (Dir: Barry Jenkins)  |  17. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Dirs: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)  |  18. Eighth Grade (Dir: Bo Burnham)  |  19. Suspiria (Dir: Luca Guadagnino)  |  20. Black Panther (Dir: Ryan Coogler) 

21. First Man (Dir: Damien Chazelle)  |  22. Lean on Pete (Dir: Andrew Haigh)  |  23. Mission: Impossible–Fallout (Dir: Christopher McQuarrie)  |  24. Tully (Dir: Jason Reitman)  |  25. Wildlife (Dir: Paul Dano)  |  26. Burning (Dir: Chang-dong Lee)  |  27. Sorry to Bother You (Dir: Boots Riley)  |  28. The Old Man and the Gun (Dir: David Lowery)  |  29. Incredibles 2 (Dir: Brad Bird)   |  30. Searching (Dir: Aneesh Chaganty) 

31.The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Dirs: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen)  |  32. A Simple Favor (Dir: Paul Feig)  |  33. Avengers: Infinity War (Dirs: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo)  |  34. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Dir: Marielle Heller)  |  35. The Guilty (Dir: Gustav Möller)  |  36. Destroyer (Dir: Karyn Kusama)  |  37. A Quiet Place (Dir: John Krasinski)  |  38. Isle of Dogs (Dir: Wes Anderson)  |  39. Hearts Beat Loud (Dir: Brett Haley)  |  40. The Sisters Brothers (Dir: Jacques Audiard)

41. 22 July (Dir: Paul Greengrass)  |  42. Creed II (Dir: Steven Caple Jr.)  |  43. The Captain (Dir: Robert Schwentke)  |  44. You Were Never Really Here (Dir: Lynne Ramsay)  |  45. Paddington 2 (Dir: Paul King)  |  46. Puzzle (Dir: Marc Turtletaub)  |  47. Love, Simon (Dir: Greg Berlanti)  |  48. All About Nina (Dir: Eva Vives)  |  49. Overlord (Dir: Julius Avery)  |  50. Ralph Breaks the Internet (Dirs: Phil Johnston & Rich Moore)

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.