This was not only a record-breaking year at the box office, but an exceptional year in terms of quality too—and the number-one film of 2018 happens to be in my top ten. Here are this editor’s personal favorites.
- Roma: Five years after his sci-fi blockbuster Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón returns with a highly personal but no less dazzling drama—a tribute to his family’s uncomplaining live-in maid and nanny in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Newcomer Yalitza Aparicio is quietly expressive in this tale of quotidian events that can suddenly burst with heartbreak, violence and jolting moments of surrealism. A visual and aural spectacle (which really should be seen in a theatre), Cuarón’s masterly film also includes some of the year’s most memorable set pieces. (See below.)
- If Beale Street Could Talk: Director Barry Jenkins follows his Oscar-winning Moonlight with this equally sensuous and sensitive drama based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a young woman in Harlem whose idyllic romance is dashed when her lover is falsely accused of rape. That the cast, headed by Stephan James, newcomer KiKi Layne, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Teyonnah Paris and the great Regina King, did not receive a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nod is inexplicable.
- Isle of Dogs: I adored Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and was just as knocked out by this return to stop-motion animation. (His first effort in that hands-on medium was the aptly named Fantastic Mr. Fox.) It took me a while to catch the “I Love Dogs” pun in the title, and I especially love these world-weary canines, banished to a remote island by a fascistic mayor, who speak in the familiar voices of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston and Bob Balaban. The film is very much in the whimsical, inventive, baroquely meticulous style that is Anderson’s trademark, given even more free rein thanks to his miniature players.
- A Star Is Born: Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga made a pledge to each other when they embarked on this fourth remake of a Hollywood melodrama: “You are an actress.” “You are a singer.” That promise was more than fulfilled. Cooper, in his remarkable directing debut, brings a seemingly effortless naturalism to this tragic love story of a rock star and his dynamic protégé—and tremendous chemistry with his co-star. Gaga’s musical performances are a knockout, but she’s also a highly persuasive dramatic actor. She’s been a superstar for a decade, but a movie star is born.
- Cold War: Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida could also be called A Star Is Born. The star here is the charismatic Joanna Kulig, who begins the film as an ambitious young singer in 1949 Poland, and evolves into a sultry, formidable, mercurial woman. She’s the protégé of a composer and musicologist who is smitten by his discovery, but when he makes plans to defect during the oppressive 1950s, she doesn’t show up. They eventually reunite in Paris, but their relationship remains turbulent. This moody, compelling portrait of both a couple and a changing Europe again benefits greatly from Pawlikowski’s use of stunning black-and-white photography and the square Academy ratio.
- Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Even when she’s playing someone awful, Melissa McCarthy remains one of the most likeable people in movies. That quality is put to the test with this change-of-pace role: Lee Israel, a veteran celebrity biographer no longer in demand who turns to forging letters from famed wits like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. The sour, dyspeptic Israel is someone you’d avoid at her favorite New York bar, Julius, but McCarthy makes her compelling and sympathetic despite her misanthropic attitude. And nearly stealing the film is Richard E. Grant as her impish buddy and partner-in-crime. Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) creates terrific New York atmosphere in this biting tale of ambition, envy and resourcefulness.
- The Favourite: Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose extremely eccentric The Lobster earned a 2015 Oscar nomination for its screenplay, delivers a much more accessible (but still quirky) film with this cheeky reimagining of the rivalry of two women for the affections of England’s capricious Queen Anne (Olivia Colman in a deliciously vanity-free performance). Co-leads Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are being positioned for supporting awards (a cheat), but they’re also essential points of the triangle in this outrageously amusing dark comedy.
- Mission: Impossible—Fallout: The durable espionage franchise somehow managed to top itself in its sixth outing, a nonstop thrill machine that delivers one jaw-dropping action set piece after another. Freak of nature Tom Cruise (age 56) insists on doing his own death-defying stunts, a big part of the series’ fascination. And director Christopher McQuarrie not only orchestrates the fights and chases, but delivers a script filled with clever twists and double-crosses. The best spectacle of its kind since Mad Max: Fury Road.
- The Death of Stalin: “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci walks a very delicate line with this darkest of satires, adapting a graphic novel about the machinations and brutal infighting at the top of the Soviet power structure following the sudden demise of dictator Joseph Stalin. Iannucci doesn’t soft-pedal the savage violence of the era, yet the film still finds wicked humor in the surreal absurdity and illogic of desperate totalitarians. A daring venture that delivers both laughs and icy chills.
- Black Panther: Arguably the best film to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther deserves high praise for the ground it’s broken, proving that a predominantly black cast can rule the superhero genre and attract a huge international audience. But Ryan Coogler’s tale of the wonders of Wakanda also conveys thought-provoking political and moral questions, all while offering imaginative set and costume design, dynamic performances, a strong female presence, sizzling action and thrilling entertainment.
The next ten: Free Solo, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, The Rider, Green Book, Wildlife, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Three Identical Strangers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Leave No Trace, and the rescue of The Other Side of the Wind.