If 2018 will be remembered for anything, it will be for well-executed blockbusters: From “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” to “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” and “Halloween,” audiences were treated to exceptionally smart, technically proficient, visually rich exercises in action, romance, horror and other genres whose mass appeal usually makes them immune to questions of sophistication and aesthetic taste.
A top-10 list for 2018 could easily include all those titles, with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born” thrown in for good measure, not to mention pure pleasure. Similarly, in a year when four documentaries shattered the $10 million dollar ceiling, one could create a top 10 of nonfiction films alone: To “RBG,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Three Identical Strangers” and “Free Solo,” just add “Dark Money,” “Shirkers,” “Minding the Gap,” “Bisbee ‘17,” “Saving Brinton” and “American Animals,” and boom — you have some of the very best movies of the year.
As for the little indies that could, there were so many to love: the winsome comedies “Juliet, Naked,” “Hearts Beat Loud” and “Private Life”; the psychological sports drama “Borg vs. McEnroe”; the revisionist Westerns “Damsel” and “The Sisters Brothers”; “The Death of Stalin” and “Cold War,” one a flawlessly executed Soviet-era satire, the other a flawlessly executed Soviet-era love story. Two underseen portraits of heroism, “Journey’s End” and “First Man,” would round out that list as among my favorites of 2018.
All by way of saying: Faced with so many worthy choices, an official-final-final-no-backsies list wasn’t easy to come up with. But here it is.
Alfonso Cuarón’s portrait of his youth in 1970s Mexico City manages to be intimate and epic, minutely observed and monumental, tender and exacting all at the same time. Focusing on the nanny who cared for him and his family during his parents’ divorce, this exquisitely filmed chronicle — photographed in silvery black and white — feels less like storytelling than poetry, shot through with shrewd social observation that never swamps the film’s deep emotional core.
2. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Barry Jenkins adapts the James Baldwin novel in a style that transcends plot mechanics and character beats to become a tremulous ode to the fragility and fierce power of love. Bursting with vivid, gorgeous color and featuring a galvanizing supporting performance by Regina King, this depiction of a young African-American couple navigating a new relationship amid the racism and family pressures of 1960s New York starts out as pure cinema and winds up as pure feeling.
3. “The Rider”
Brady Jandreau, a real-life cowboy living in South Dakota, is the charismatic star of this mesmerizing film, in which director Chloe Zhao redefines the American Western as something both mythic and mundane. Following Jandreau as he recovers from a debilitating brain injury incurred while riding, the movie becomes a meditation on purpose, identity, landscape and human frailty, all set against the magnificent backdrop of the Badlands. Although Zhao puts Jandreau and his family and friends into a lightly fictionalized narrative, “The Rider” possesses the authenticity of documentary, with the result being a style best described as grounded grandeur.
4. “First Reformed”
From Paul Schrader (“Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver”) comes a film that could be called the summa of his career and its cardinal concerns, including spiritual crisis, alienation, oppressive self-discipline and sudden, violent release. Ethan Hawke delivers a masterful performance as the troubled pastor of a semirural church, where he endures physical and psychic breakdowns that are terrifying and cathartic. Rigorous, austere, punctuated by bizarre and lurid touches, “First Reformed” marked the return of a master, collaborating with an actor at the very top of his game.
Outrageous, audacious, funny and caustic, Spike Lee’s adaptation of the real-life story of Ron Stallworth bursts with the energy and distinctive cinematic language Lee has developed over a 30-year career. The movie isn’t perfect — there are moments of excess and indulgence that have often bedeviled the filmmaker. But the sum of the parts is undeniably powerful, as the story grows beyond itself to become both a potent polemic and heartbreaking elegy.
6. “Green Book”
In many ways, this fact-based story of piano player Don Shirley and the white man he hired to drive him through the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, feels like a throwback: As a buddy road comedy set amid noxious and violent racism, it could easily have been a patronizing “feel good” portrayal of white redemption and little else. Instead, this wildly entertaining film is about characters, played in marvelous performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, who quickly outgrow their trope-ish outlines to become fully inhabited and unforgettable individuals.
7. “Eighth Grade”
We’ve seen this movie before: Awkward teen comes of age amid bullies, mean girls, well-meaning but clueless parents and her own crippling angst. But writer-director Bo Burnham, collaborating with actress Elsie Fisher, turns the genre inside out to create a portrait that’s painful and vicariously mortifying, sure, but also deeply compassionate and respectful of a young heroine whose anxieties are outstripped only by her own dazzling self-belief.
If there’s any justice in this crazy world, Charlize Theron will be remembered at awards time for her spot-on portrayal of a mother battling what looks like postpartum depression but winds up being her own ambivalence. A fascinating dramatization of selfhood as serial lives, this strange chamber piece — co-starring the terrific Mackenzie Davis — was a head trip in all the right ways.
Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal wrote a rap musical based on growing up in the midst of the political and cultural ferment of Oakland, California, ultimately creating a bold, boisterous commentary on everything from gentrification and interracial friendship to assimilation and cultural appropriation. The movie, which Diggs and Casal also starred in, felt attuned to our times in ways both sobering and exhilarating.
10. “A Quiet Place”
The first true breakout hit of 2018 was a fabulous contradiction: a good old-fashioned horror movie that broke new ground in the use of sound; a genre exercise that called back to the elegance and purity of silent filmmaking; a heartwarming tale of family featuring a bracingly badass wife and mom (Emily Blunt). Directed by and starring John Krasinski, this film proved that in an era dominated by reboots, spinoffs and endless franchises based on pre-existing material, originality isn’t dead. It just speaks very, very softly.