Before I begin the list, note that these are the ten best movies that I saw this year. My capsule reviews are below, but you can read my full reviews by clicking on the title of each movie. If you missed these in theaters, I recommend you catch up with them on DVD, Netflix, or Amazon Prime…
#1) “BlacKkKlansman.” It is the most powerful movie of the year, based on a book by Ron Stallworth who, in the 1970s, became the first African-American hired by the Colorado Springs police department. One day, he saw an ad in the paper for the Ku Klux Klan, soliciting new members. Thinking it was a joke, he called the number and left a message. To his surprise, he got a return call from a local klansman, who didn’t know that Ron wasn’t white. Getting approval from his chief, Ron proceeded to infiltrate the klan to see what they were up to. Stallworth is played by John David Washington, with solid support from Adam Driver and several others, all directed by Spike Lee — a perfect match for his style and the best movie he’s made since “Inside Man” in 2006. Anyone who saw it left the theater both entertained and provoked.
#2) “Bad Times At The El Royale.” It sounds like the setup to a joke: a priest, a vacuum salesman, and a singer walk into a motel. But what happens over the next two hours is no joke — it’s a helluva story, thanks to writer/director/producer Drew Goddard. I was drawn into “Bad Times At The El Royale” from its very first sequence, which consists of a locked-down camera observing a man check into a motel room, then methodically pull it apart to bury a satchel underneath the floorboards. From there we meet quite an acting ensemble, with Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Jeff Bridges (who Goddard manages to get to quit mumbling!), and newcomer Cynthia Erivo in a remarkable big screen debut as the singer.
#3) “Eighth Grade.” Kayla is a thirteen-year-old girl entering her last week of eighth grade. She’s shy, quiet, and desperate to be popular. She wants to have a boyfriend, doesn’t know what that entails, and hasn’t dated yet. She’s a jumble of pimples, anxiety, insecurities, and is obsessed with social media. She’s constantly checking her phone, taking selfies, and browsing through Instagram and Snapchat to see what her peers are up to and what she’s missing out on. Meanwhile, she makes affirmational YouTube videos with tips for kids her age (“Be yourself, and don’t care what other people think about you”) — advice she doesn’t put into practice. Writer/director Bo Burnham knows this world because he was part of it, becoming a viral video sensation in his teens, so his script rings true. He also gets an amazing lead performance out of Elsie Fisher, perfect in playing Kayla’s engaging, heart-breaking, touching, and amusing life.
#4) “The Wife.” A phone call wakes up Joe and Joan Castleman. When Joe answers, he hears the caller from the Nobel committee in Sweden telling him he’s just won the award for Literature. Thrilled, Joe immediately tells Joan to pick up the extension (remember when you had one of those?) so she can listen in. As she does, her facial expression changes from excitement and pride to bewilderment to a look that says there’s more underlying her feelings – but we don’t know what. The actress who presents all those different emotions is the formidable Glenn Close who, at 71, has been given her best role in a very long time. Her performance is simultaneously powerful and subtle, a seemingly impossible combination, yet she pulls it off brilliantly. Joe is played by Jonathan Pryce with an arrogance and exuberance I’ve never seen from him.
#5) “The Hate U Give.” Starr Carter lives two lives. By day, she’s a student at an upscale private high school, one of the few black kids, with a peer group that’s all white, including her boyfriend. By night, she’s part of a working-class black community in Garden Heights, where she lives with her mother Lisa and father Maverick, who have sent her to that private school to get a better education and environment than what’s offered in their neighborhood. Both of her worlds come crashing down when she witnesses her childhood friend Khalil killed by a cop during a routine stop. As Starr, Amandla Stenberg gives a terrific and tragic performance, one of the best I’ve seen this year. Her parents, who didn’t want any of this for their family, are played by the always-reliable Regina Hall and Russell Hornsby. The cast also includes Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, and Common. Directed by George Tillman Jr., “The Hate U Give” is thought-provoking and right for its time, and I can’t praise Stenberg enough for her performance.
#6) “A Star Is Born.” I had two big questions going into the new version of “A Star Is Born.” First, can Bradley Cooper sing? Second, is Lady Gaga a movie star? I’m happy to say the answer to both is yes. After his back-to-back-to-back success with “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and “American Sniper,” Cooper had built up enough power in Hollywood to not only star in and write some of the songs for “A Star Is Born,” but also direct it, which turns out to be firmly in his skill set, too. We already knew Gaga can sing, and she proved her acting chops on “American Horror Story” in 2011, but now she’s proving she can be the female lead in a major motion picture. I’ll always have a place in my heart for the restored version of the 1954 “A Star Is Born,” directed by George Cukor, but this one is a helluva crowd-pleasing movie. Cooper and Gaga make it seem fresh, and their chemistry is inarguable. The music’s pretty good, too, so the soundtrack will be huge. Gaga co-wrote 11 of the songs, while Cooper contributed 4. Their duet on “Shallow” will be a guaranteed Oscar nominee.
#7) “Swimming With Men.” I’m cheating a little bit here, because this movie played at the St. Louis International Film Festival, but hasn’t acquired a distribution deal yet, so there’s no official release date set. Still, I’m including it because I smiled through the whole movie, which centers around a bunch of middle-aged men who start a synchronized swimming team. Rob Brydon (so good in “The Trip” movies with Steve Coogan) stars, but the full ensemble deserves credit for a rollicking good time.
#8) “Incredibles 2.” The plot of the movie is relatively simple. The Incredible family can’t fight the bad guys anymore because superheroes are still outlawed. But rich guy Deaver wants to legalize them and convinces the Incredibles to be part of a public relations campaign that will make the public enthusiastic about seeing them again. In order to achieve that, Deaver wants Elastigirl to take the crime-fighting lead, leaving Mr. Incredible at home to raise the couple’s three kids. There’s a villain, of course, named Screenslaver, who hypnotizes people to do evil with special messages transmitted through televisions. As we’ve come to expect from Pixar features, “Incredibles 2” is visually stunning, particularly when it comes to hair and underwater scenes. The movie’s best action sequence involves Elastigirl using a high-tech motorcycle to try to stop a runaway train. There’s also a very funny bit in the backyard with baby Jack-Jack vs. a raccoon.
#9) “The Post.” Because this movie didn’t open in St. Louis until January, it’s on my 2018 list. “The Post” is the story of the internal decision-making at The Washington Post over the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. Those documents, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, proved that the US government had been lying to us for years about our involvement in Vietnam. The New York Times was actually the paper that printed those revelations first, but Richard Nixon’s White House convinced a judge to bar the Times from publishing more. When the Post subsequently got its hands on the documents, its management team had to decide whether to risk the wrath of a federal court and the administration by printing what it had. That decision could only be made by the paper’s publisher, Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep). Meanwhile, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team of editors and reporters were gung-ho to get the devastating details of the ongoing federal cover-up into print. It is that battle of journalistic integrity vs. the continued existence of the newspaper that drives the drama of “The Post.” Although we know the outcome from history, director Steven Spielberg keeps us riveted, with a script by newcomer Liz Hannah (with some punch-up by “Spotlight” scribe Josh Singer). One hell of an impressive supporting cast, too.
#10) “The Favourite.” I’m a big fan of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, who appeared separately in two of the movies that made my Best Of 2016 list (“Denial” and “La La Land,” respectively). Now they’re together in “The Favourite,” as power-hungry rivals scheming, manipulating, and competing for the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in early 1700s Britain. They make a fascinating triangle. I usually can’t stand costume dramas or anything to do with royalty, but even all the white face makeup and fake beauty marks and men in wigs didn’t spoil the fun I had watching “The Favourite.” It is quite funny at times, with good chemistry, timing, and well-executed slapstick (including literal slapping) thanks to its triumvirate of talented women in the lead roles, all sure to be nominated repeatedly during awards season. Director Yorgos Lanthimos uses a fish-eye lens at times to show the grandeur of Anne’s palace, which displays some of the most beautiful scenic design and art direction I’ve seen this year.
Also see: The Next Ten Movies on my list.
And on Friday: my list of the Worst Movies Of 2018.