It’s time get super UP-BEAT! UP-BEAT! about movies in 2018.
I hope y’all know that these sub-headers/slugs/whatever the correct technical term for them is are based around puns or references to songs featured in one of the movies covered within that part of the countdown, cos I’m not going to mince words: 2018 was kind of a bad year for movies. I keep going back and forth on whether or not it was as bad or worse (or just slightly better than) 2015 overall and I’m still rather unsure, to tell the truth. In 2015, I vehemently hated something like an entire third of the films I saw which is not a statistic that 2018 repeated, so that would seem like a point in its favour. But 2018 also had barely any movies worthy of note either way, it was the year of “meh.” Looking back on my list of 166 films seen (140 once holdovers and Awards Season releases are stripped out), so many of them are registering “wait, which one was that again?” or “wait, that was THIS year?” responses, this even applying to many films I ostensibly liked at the time I saw them. So, in a way, isn’t that even worse than non-stop aggravated assault upon one’s patience? At least the latter is a reaction?
Look, I know that 2018 has been a long-ass, tiring-ass year where things kept falling even in the brief rays of hope that came about. I personally have had a long-ass, tiring-ass year – one we’re going to talk about in detail a few days from now, as is tradition – albeit one that was marked more by atrophy and stagnation than meaningful entropy like my 2017 was so I don’t really have much in the way of excuses for not thinking about films this year. Yet they weren’t really at the forefront of my brain and, more than my own depression, the fault lies at the feet of movies themselves. Largely, they just didn’t matter this year and in so many instances that turned out to be by design. Christ, even many Event Movies like Incredibles II coasted by on nostalgic name-recognition and lazy rehashing of stuff that worked 14 years prior rather than putting in tangible effort or passion – and I really do think 2018 can be properly defined by the fact that we and I finally, after 14 goddamn years, got our long-sought Incredibles sequel only for it to be so inconsequential and disposable that I forgot all about it within a week of viewing.
Last year, I was unhappy with my list because I was so spoilt for choice that I ended up regretting the lower half of the Top 20 the second I locked in for all the stuff I left out. This year… well, another point in 2018’s favour over 2015 is that I didn’t have to stretch to reach that 20; I truly think every film on my list is a great movie and I do have some Honourable Mentions as a garnish. But, I dunno, it still feels a bit weaker than my other non-2015 lists? Any year that followed 2017 was obviously going to suffer in comparison, an overabundant crop must be followed by a dry season of transition and rebuilding, but my list is simultaneously somewhat unchanged from the mid-year mark – which is not something I typically do, but I’ve been running Mid-Year and Listmas content for Set the Tape so I’ve had to join in on those exercises – and heavily weighted by the last few weeks of revisitations and catch-ups rather than coming about naturally. Mind, I personally think the Top 10 is as strong a line-up as one could ask for and I am not about to deny the banner year it has been for female and minority filmmakers: half my list is made up of films by them and, spoiler for later, my entire unfuckwithable Top 5 would have solely been by Black filmmakers were If Beale Street Could Talk to have been released in the UK on time instead of next February. Don’t worry, my #5 absolutely still deserves to be there; it’s been that kind of year. I didn’t love a lot, but those I did, I adored.
Before we get going, the usual house rules. 1) Any film that’s received a release in America in 2018 but isn’t getting a UK release until 2019 is not eligible on account of either my having not seen them (The Favourite, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Vice) or, thanks to my continued patronage of the London Film Festival, nobody else getting to see them until the new year (Burning, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Thunder Road being the ones most affected). 2) Any film released in America in 2017 that didn’t receive a UK release until 2018 is also ineligible because Release Window Disparity Bullshit is now a cancer upon the film industry that I and several of my fellow critics and industry professionals at the London Film Festival are long past tolerating. Hence no Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, or The Breadwinner and, yes, all three would certainly have cracked this list were circumstances different. 3) 140 films, somehow more than I saw last year, is a lot but it is certainly not all the films released this year and I can’t count what I haven’t seen. I am especially gutted to have missed out on Lean On Pete, McQueen, American Animals, Cold War, Shoplifters, Suspiria, and Shirkers but it’s been a manic and badly-organised month for yours truly so time was not on their side.
Lastly, it may have been a dry year but I do have Honourable Mentions. Genuine Honourable Mentions, too, not just ones being highlighted to fill a token gap in this ritual of mine. They are, in no particular order: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, You Were Never Really Here, Mirai, First Man, Funny Cow, and A Simple Favor.
OK, let’s do this thing. Today, we’re speeding through the first half of the countdown. Tomorrow, we’ll cover #10 to #6. Sunday, the Final Five. Let’s call this song exactly what it is…
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
20] Ocean’s 8
Dir: Gary Ross
Star: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Helena Bonham Carter
In no world is Ocean’s 8 technically, narratively, thematically, or substantially better than films like First Man or You Were Never Really Here or almost anything else you’ll see on Real Lists from Real Critics on Real Websites. I fully concur with that statement. Ocean’s 8 is a fluffy little trifle that’s hampered by Gary Ross’ haphazard filmmaking and taking very few chances in its female-centric twist on the typically masculine domain of heist movies. I fully concur with that assessment as well. But Ocean’s 8 is on this list instead of those movies because I saw it three separate times this year and not once did I come out of the cinema in any way other than beaming as a result of watching it. It’s the most delightful film I saw all year, the one arguably most attuned to my personal tastes, and each viewing functioned as a sorely-needed and irresistible pick-me-up thanks to the effortlessly charming female cast, the mischievous sense of fun throughout, and the intrinsically feminine touch it brings to the genre freshening up old tropes with a new power. Also, Cate Blanchett’s wardrobe. I’m still wanting Cate Blanchett’s entire wardrobe from this movie. This is not a joke, I am being 100% sincere, get in touch if you can make it happen.
Dir: Coralie Fargeat
Star: Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède
In the battle of the nasty, hard-R throwbacks to cult 80s action-horror B-movies released in 2018, give me Coralie Fargeat’s tough, brutal, simple and relentlessly gripping Revenge over Panos Cosmatos’ bloated, pretentious, confused and at-times boring Mandy any day of the week, even with Fargeat working with the handicap of no Nicholas Cage. Slyly twisting the usual misogynistic morality of the horror genre, and especially the inherently misogynistic rape-revenge subgenre, through an undercurrent of critique against the idea that Bad Girls in horror movies ever really deserve the punishment against them, Fargeat positions herself as one of the next great suspense filmmakers in only her debut feature thanks to a masterful understanding of tension and release. Her every frame drips with menace, goosing proceedings with some expertly-timed jolts to keep viewers on their toes, and each proper release in this constantly-shifting game of cat-and-mouse is a visceral and bloody affair in a manner that presupposes “what if Jeremy Saulnier had vintage Sam Raimi’s sense of black-comic fun?” Revenge is a bolt out of the blue that deserves far better than becoming the Sing Street to Mandy’s La La Land, if only so people can be properly prepared for whatever Fargeat’s next move is.
18] The Hate U Give
Dir: George Tillman, Jr.
Star: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby
Back in March, Love, Simon seemingly demonstrated the limits of the Young Adult novel when it comes to the kinds of stories one can effectively tell within an inherently White heterosexual privileged framework (since these kinds of YA stories have a comfortable fantasy to them). In late October, The Hate U Give demonstrated that you actually can effectively tell stories of different perspectives to the default privileged White hetero seemingly inherent to the YA genre, without having to water down your message into something extremely non-threatening, so long as you put the effort in. George Tillman, Jr. easily turns in the best film of his career adapting, with invaluable assistance from the departed Audrey Wells, Angie Thomas’ exceptional novel, preserving her exploration of young Black lives coming to terms with their Blackness, their struggle to break out of self-destructive cycles, and the mental drain of having to constantly code-switch in order to fit in with different social circles because of one’s Blackness rather than just being able to be themselves. Amandla Stenberg instantly erases The Darkest Minds from every viewer’s memories with a commanding central performance, Wells manages to retain Thomas’ sincere and character-centric tone, and Tillman twists the YA presentation from films like The Fault in Our Stars to both brutal (the harrowing pull-over) and cathartic (Starr firmly standing up to Hailey’s casual racism) effect.
17] Leave No Trace
Dir: Debra Granik
Star: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster
“The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t what’s wrong with me.” It’s easy to read Leave No Trace as either a companion piece or spiritual successor to Debra Granik’s 2010 breakthrough Winter’s Bone, given that both take place in harsh, unforgiving yet gorgeously-shot frontiers, centre on the bonds between extremely dysfunctional family members and the daughters who have to mature too readily in an attempt to keep things together, have a heavy emphasis on underplayed naturalism in both their often-bleak tones and narratives, and each have an instant star-making turn from a then-unknown lead actress (here the sensational Thomasin McKenzie). But to do so would be to miss Trace’s own qualities. How Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini refuse to let the narrative stay in one place for too long, how McKenzie’s performance is aided and almost matched by magnificent career-best work from Ben Foster, and how the film crystallises into place with that line up top. A vital exploration of how one’s mental illness does not excuse dragging others down with you and how they may, for their own necessary sake, have to sever ties as a result, presented in the most respectful and caring of ways as it builds to one of 2018’s finest and quietly devastating endings.
Dirs: Peter Rida Michail & Aaron Horvath
Star: Scott Menville, Greg Cipes, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch (voices)
Screw you guys, this is an absolute blast! 2018 saw a slightly higher percentage of genuinely funny comedies than we usually get, with both Game Night and Blockers livening up the early-year doldrums and a slowly-bubbling resurgence in the rom-com department (something we’re gonna come back to later on in this list). But none of them made my ribs tickle quite so thoroughly and quite as memorably as the Teen Titans GO! movie. In many ways the best possible version one could expect the theatrical adaptation of a televised cartoon series to be, TTG! keeps the rapid-fire and often dark-as-hell humour of its TV self and applies that to an actual plot, takes advantage of the extended production schedule required for a feature to refine every last gag into the best possible version of itself, and uses that breezy no-sacred-cow tone to make a genuine point about not taking nerd culture minutia so bloody seriously all the damn time. Effectively, it’s 2018’s LEGO Batman, complete with a unique visual design in this landscape of identikit all-CG Disney wannabes, a collection of original songs that are way better than they had any right to be, and at least 25 gags I could recite from memory right now that would be the indisputable high-point of many grown-up comedies.
Dir: Carlos López Estrada
Star: Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar
The defining image of Blindspotting for me is not the climactic sequence in the garage, where star and co-writer Daveed Diggs’ music-theatre and rap backgrounds, director Carlos López Estrada’s heightened music video sensibilities, and the pair’s (plus star and co-writer Rafael Casal’s) hurt and anxiety over race relations between Black people and the law enforcement that does a better job of killing them than they do protecting them collide together for an absolutely electric monologue visualised with the intensity of a long pent-up emotional release. It’s a great sequence, don’t get me wrong, but I was instead taken by an earlier establishing shot. Collin, who is on his last night of probation, and Miles turn up to a work party in a recently renovated and gentrified area of their native Oakland having Uber-d there via a mutual friend in a lowrider on hydraulics blasting rap music and with a purple neon undercarriage. Before the car has even come to a complete stop, a trio of White hipster partygoers jump out in front of it and take a selfie with what to them must seem like the perfect encapsulation of Black culture. Even before the following scene hammers home the idea of rich White tourism of poor Black lifestyles, and how Miles being a native of Oakland doesn’t shield him from charges of cultural appropriation, the point has been made loud and clear.
Blindspotting is a film that swings for the fences in almost everything it does even before the film closes with a gunpoint spoken-word monologue that’s often shot in a to-camera manner, and even if it doesn’t always succeed (and arguably veers a little too close to Sunday School sermonising as a result) I respect the hell out of a film from 2018 that’s willing to go big like Estrada, Diggs and Casal do. The times when those swings connect are some of the most powerful of the year – Collin envisioning the many Black bodies buried in the local graveyard his daily run cuts through, an update on Chris Rock’s bit about Black People and N*ggas but grappling with the consequences of said stereotyping as drama instead of comedy, the heart-stopping moment when Miles’ young son gets a hold of the gun his father recklessly brought home. But they would mean nothing without the central dynamic of Collin and Miles, and by extension the performances and rapport of Diggs and Casal. I’ve seen Blindspotting described by its principal creatives as “a buddy comedy in a world that won’t let it be one” and that’s the absolute perfect description – a story that wants so hard to be a low-key hangout buddy comedy unable to ever relax enough in order to do so because of the state of our world. Let your guard down and you might witness another cop catch a body.
14] Deadpool 2
Dir: David Leitch
Star: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beets
Real talk: I only thought Deadpool was ok. Sure, it was super-bloody and crass and said naughty words and kept self-consciously calling attention to the tropes of your bog-standard superhero movies, but fundamentally it was the exact same generic superhero origin movie we’d seen a hundred times already. The first Deadpool, when you get right down to it, was basically Shrek. In fact, fundamentally, the original Deadpool was just the first Shrek movie to such a degree that I’m kind of amazed nobody involved in the latter movie thought about sicking some lawyers on 20th Century Fox. Now, was it a good time? Yeah, I had a load of fun! Was it still a good movie? Yeah, I’d argue so because, much like with the first Shrek, once you strip away the surface-level irreverence the core of the movie is a generic superhero flick and those do still work for a reason. But for me it reeked of half-measures, low aims and, courtesy of director Tim Miller, budget filmmaking. As much as I may have been looking forward to some low-stakes nonsense fun following the empty and hollow self-serious finale to Infinity War, I had no reason to expect much different with Deadpool 2.
Instead, here was the first recorded instance in an absolute age of the “bigger, better, faster, more” school of sequel-making not only equalling the original but surpassing it in every respect. In many ways, Deadpool 2 is just more Deadpool – more swearing, more characters, more dick jokes, more action sequences, more gratuitous violence, more minutes of movie – but it turns out that Deadpool thrives in “MORE,” which is kind of amazing when you consider how one-note the character should be. David Leitch of John Wick and Atomic Blonde fame brings the style, spectacle and coherent action staging that this franchise sorely needed and which you likely expected him to do, but he also displays a real knack for the timing and physical sensations of comedy as best exemplified by the hysterical Looney Tunes-esque X-Force sequence. And even if its tongue is so firmly planted in cheek that said tongue has built chain restaurants in that cheek, writers Rhett Reese, Ryan Reynolds and Paul Wernick manage to extract some genuine emotional pathos from its story of miserable abused misfits and the makeshift families they construct for themselves to survive the world around them; way more so than any of the proper X-Men movies, anyway. Plus, much like with Teen Titans GO!, it’s nice to have a superhero movie that’s open about the futility in taking and playing COMIC BOOK MOVIES, a genre and medium defined by their carny-like commitment to shilling the illusion of an ever-changing status quo, too seriously.
Dir: Desiree Akhavan
Star: Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck
The Miseducation of Cameron Post has stuck with me way more than I thought it would have. That’s kind of a running theme in the entries on my list that originate from the first half(-ish) of 2018 and especially true of Cameron Post since Desiree Akhavan’s second feature is so reserved, emotionally conflicted, and quiet that the climactic moment where it does go big feels out-of-character and ill-fitting. When I talked about the film back in my review from August, I mentioned how it often feels like an entire movie of the scene in Appropriate Behaviour (Akhavan’s debut) where Shirin matter-of-factly comes out to her mother only to be quietly and firmly shutdown by her, a mixture of difficult to process emotions that are neither cathartic nor disheartening and resist categorisation. In the depiction of the titular Cameron’s time as a somewhat sort-of willing participant in the God’s Promise conversion therapy centre, Akhavan and co-screenwriter Cecilia Frugiuele (working from the YA novel by Emily Danforth) take root in that often-uncomfortable space of reality. That God’s Promise is unquestionably a horrible organisation instilling self-loathing and denial of one’s own identity through faith-based and useless psychobabble, but that it is also inadvertently helping Cameron come to better terms with her sexuality than she could at home – this being the 90s, homosexuality openly discriminated against let alone explained in schools, and Cameron coming from a small-town with no like people.
It’s fucked up that this is the case, and Akhavan agrees with that assessment, but that doesn’t make such a fact untrue or the joys and light that Cameron experiences, such as her friendship with Jane Fonda and Adam or her surprise tryst with roommate and workout buddy Erin, any less valid. That kind of balancing act, one that requires such a deft touch in order to pull off I can at least somewhat understand why few other directors attempt it, is what makes Cameron Post such a breath of fresh air in the gay drama subgenre, especially with 2018’s other mainstream entries: the hokey and insincere fantasy of Love, Simon and the miserablist torture tragedy of Boy Erased. The latter, especially, condescendingly can’t see anything but pain in the grappling with one’s homosexuality in the face of systemic abuse and whilst I’m not denying that may be the case for many young folks in such situations – and I certainly have no experience with conversion therapy centres or am advocating that they not be treated as the horrifying institutions they are – they end up feeling extremely simplistic and pandering to a straight audience’s sympathies and morality. Cameron Post’s tonal juggling act, its willingness to grey preconceptions and go extremely naturalistic in both presentation and narrative, feels more honest and resonant to me, which I think is why I keep mentally coming back to it time and time again even though it never deliberately aims to be a movie worthy of such a distinction like its brethren do.
12] Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Dirs: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Star: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry (voices)
At the time of writing, I have only managed to see Spider-Verse the once and a nagging voice in the back of my brain is yelling at me about how I am definitely going to regret sticking it outside the Top 10 when I finally get a chance to go back for Round 2 – an issue complicated by both my workload and the cutthroat December Box Office landscape conspiring to yank this film from many of my nearby cinemas already. Averting recency bias is a thing I try to do when I put together these lists even with my cramming of re-watches and missed films, so fact is I don’t know whether I’m going to regret hedging my bets with this one in the months and years to come. What I do know is that I came out of Spider-Verse adamant that I had seen the best Spider-Man movie ever made and one of the finest films of 2018, and that those sentiments have not subsided in the weeks since then. I mean, let’s be honest, the initial shock that, despite the partial creative involvement of Hollywood’s hottest “making bad ideas into phenomenal movies” duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and the multi-verse-hopping premise bringing in characters like Spider-Ham, Spider-Verse is an actual proper superhero movie and not a comedy can only carry a film so far.
And what a superhero movie it is! Lord and Rodney Rothman have crafted a gorgeous love-letter to the possibilities of comic books’ simultaneously anal and loose approach to continuity without ever losing sight of the hero at the centre of it all, since they know that this loony spectacle is worth nothing without a compelling central protagonist and heart to ground it all – Christ, it’s just rude how much better Spider-Verse is at this than Infinity War. The cast are all instantly lovable and compelling, the rich writing combining with phenomenal vocal turns from Moore, Johnson, and Henry (especially) to invest Miles Morales’ journey from awkward and overstretched teenager into Spider-Man with heart and soul. Rothman, Peter Ramsey and Bob Persichetti go wild with the boarding, crafting jaw-dropping sequences of outstanding thrill and beauty, including the new gold-standard in superpower demonstrations, whilst the entire team at Sony Pictures Animation combine that boarding with a unique pop-art style, a lowered frame-rate, and a gonzo colour scheme to create the best visualisation of a comic book in the medium of film since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World; it is inarguably the best-looking (and trippiest) movie of 2018. Everything about Spider-Verse screams instant classic and I guarantee we will be feeling the effects of this one in the years to come. Feel free to yell at me then about this placement.
11] Disney’s Christopher Robin
Dir: Marc Forster
Star: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings (voice)
There are some things I just don’t have the necessary emotional distance to in order to give a proper critical assessment, unimpeded by personal biases and baggage. Winnie-the-Pooh is one of them. The moment I was born, I was given a stuffed toy of Pooh Bear and I still, 24 years, 2 months and 13 days on, have that same stuffed toy in my possession (although he mainly lives in my cupboard now). I was read A. A. Milne’s various stories at bedtime in my foundational years, I watched The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh damn-near religiously growing up, I tried every single piece of Pooh-related media as it was announced, I squealed in delight when I first visited the Hundred-Acre Wood in Kingdom Hearts, and I cried actual tears of joy at both the initial trailer for and finished film of Disney’s 2011 sequel-of-sorts Winnie the Pooh. Try as I might, I cannot step far enough back from that history in order to objectively look at a new Pooh film on its own merits or how people who are not me might find it. I just cannot.
I have also, for the past six years at least, been grappling with a deep-seated depression that has been robbing me of my sense of self and, I fear, is turning me bitter and cynical. I have tried, constantly tried at every turn, to stem its progress or reverse it through so many different methods but I always find myself back where I started, having expended so much effort only to have made no progress and I fear that I may not ever be able to truly rid myself of or move on from it because I don’t even know what I’d be by this point. All of this is to say that, frankly, I could not tell you whether Christopher Robin is objectively any good, although I am right in my mind enough to know that it’s certainly not a better film than any non-Ocean’s 8 film on my list, but that it is on this list because I needed this one. I needed to hear Jim Cummings’ voice come out of Pooh Bear again, I needed to witness the Hundred-Acre Wood gang unchanged from when I first met them, I needed to have the reassurance that in my lowest moments those who care about me and who I care about will be there to help me push on through to brighter days, that the things which once brought me so much joy are still there preserved in amber ready to do what they can.
You can rightly argue that it is incredibly insidious and disingenuous to have the monolithic sovereign nation of the Walt Disney Corporation be the ones preaching these messages of hope and comfort, especially since their entire business model is predicated on monopolising and reselling the world’s collective childhoods back to ourselves over and over again, and that’s fair. Much like how you can rightly argue that Christopher Robin could have been utter dogshit and it still would have had a 75% chance of making me bawl my eyes out and cracking the list anyway, and that’s fair also. But, in this horrible and existentially-terrifying year that was for me quite uneventful (which only increased the existential terror), I needed this one and the film was good enough sans that baggage so I honestly don’t care what you think. I needed this.
Tomorrow: we slow things down to look at the first half of the Top 10.
Callum Petch can hear it, so why can’t he touch it?