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The Year in Film: 20 highlights from 2018

Collage by Emily Utne

Collage by Emily Utne

Since 2017 was one of the best film years in some time, the bar was high for 2018.

And while this past year didn’t quite reach the same heights, there was still plenty to lure us to the movies. Detective Ron Stallworth made fools of the KKK in BlacKkKlansman. Thanos halved the universe in the penultimate Avengers. Toni Collette scared the shit out of us in Hereditary. And director Yorgos Lanthimos decided to stop torturing his audience in The Favourite.

Here are our highlights from the year in film.

Best Action Movie

Avengers: Infinity War

While it’s worth acknowledging Mission Impossible: Fallout, another outstanding entry into that franchise, this winner’s a toss-up between Marvel movies. Both Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War had solid stories and eye-popping action sequences, but seeing a decade of Marvel plotting come to fruition in the latest Avengers movie—the Guardians of the Galaxy teaming up with Thor, Spider-Man, and the like—that was every comic-book fan’s dream. In and of itself, Infinity War is a phenomenal action movie, and surprisingly complex, but it’s the ambitious culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that really sends it home. This is unlike anything achieved in movie history.

'The Favourite'

'The Favourite' Fox Searchlight Pictures

Best Sci-Fi Movie

Annihilation

Taking Marvel movies out of the running is really the only way to get something different out of this category. Like director Alex Garland’s debut, Ex Machina, Annihilation plays out as both science fiction and horror show, though here the latter quality appears much more readily. Natalie Portman’s character enters a mysterious zone known as the Shimmer, and either goes insane or mutates to become something else entirely. Annihilation raises a lot of questions without being too lofty, and as it builds to a bizarre conclusion, we can’t help but be entranced by this freaky new universe. Annihilation also features the best monster of year: a mutant bear that imitates the dying screams of one of Portman’s crew.

Best Comedy

The Death of Stalin

It’s technically a 2017 movie, but The Death of Stalin didn’t cross the pond until March 2018, so we’re counting it. This year wasn’t a great one for funny movies anyhow, which speaks either to the difficulty of making good comedies these days or just a general malaise sweeping the globe. Somehow, taking a monstrous despot as its focus, The Death of Stalin finds light in the darkness. It’s admittedly more highbrow than most standout comedies, but don’t knock it for being smart. Through Armando Iannucci and an all-star cast, the absurd is transmuted into comedy, reminding us with laughs that this too shall pass.

Best Cameo

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 ’s gags were pretty hit-or-miss, but the reveal of its invisible man character, the Vanisher, as an impossible-to-get Hollywood A-Lister was so simple and jarring that it was brilliant.

Most Unnecessary Remake

A Star Is Born

Yes, A Star Is Born is a good movie, but this is the third time it’s been remade. That’s four stars being born! We know Bradley Cooper really, really wants an Academy Award, but there have got to be more stories to tell.

Best Song

“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

With all the buzz around A Star Is Born’s soundtrack, it’d be easy to overlook the handful of truly delightful musical numbers in the Coen brothers’ latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Lady Gaga, Tim Blake Nelson is not, and yet his duet with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson in the film’s opening vignette is one of the best country songs written in years. An old-school folksy number, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” is outright infectious, its melody topped only by the clever lyrics lamenting the cowboy existence.

'A Star Is Born'

'A Star Is Born'

The Dead Horse Award

Solo

This award is usually reserved for the ninth direct sequel of a terrible action series, but somehow the Rocky and Mission Impossible movies continue to be awesome. Solo, meanwhile, was ready to snatch defeat from the Jawas of victory by telling a story we already knew. It traded almost entirely in a mythology already established in the other movies. You know all those cool stories you’ve heard about Han Solo that make him sound like a badass? Solo does away with all the mystery. There are some new characters and a bit of added context, but the writers clearly crafted the entire beat sheet around things said in the original trilogy. The good news is it looks like Solo was bad enough that it won’t be getting a sequel.

Best Horror Movie

Hereditary

This one was a tough call between A Quiet Place andHereditary, but the latter has classic written all over it. It’s Rosemary’s Baby on amphetamines, expertly orchestrated and littered with horrific visuals so deftly placed that it often takes a second to see the horror right in front of you. We defy anybody to guess the twists and turns of writer-director Ari Aster’s feature-length debut, which makes it better than most scary movies that forego plot in favor of cheap terrors. Throw in some gorgeous cinematography and exceptional performances, and you have a horror movie to stand the test of time.

Most Awkward Movie to Watch with Your 12-Year-Old Step-Daughter

'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s take on awkward adolescence is an important movie and one middle-school kids should definitely see. But parents be warned: Watching the backseat truth-or-dare car scene with a middle-school girl is extremely uncomfortable.

Best Documentary

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

While Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Mr. Rogers story, isn’t the most in-depth, illustrative, or earth-shattering documentary ever made, there’s something special about director Morgan Neville’s telling of the tale. We learn a little more about the man behind the show, sure, but more moving is how the movie translates nostalgia that anybody who watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood—and that’s a lot of us—can instantly feel. Impressively, the documentary manages to draw connections to current events without being heavy-handed. It makes the viewer wonder if there will ever be anyone like Mr. Rogers again—because he’s sorely needed.

Best Nude Scene

Sorry to Bother You

'Roma'

'Roma'

Let’s not sleep on Boots Riley or his directorial debut: Sorry to Bother You is a lot more complex and downright weird than the category title might have you believe. But the nude scene in question is so bonkers, so out of left field, and so well executed that it’s worth a shoutout. We run the risk of giving away too much here, especially because this scene completely changes the landscape of what is already a wild and indefinable movie. So let’s just leave it at two words: horse dong. And funny as it sounds, this biting comedy starts feeling more like a horror film the moment we see it.

Feel-Bad Movie of the Year

The Rider

The Rider is one of the bleakest movies to come out in years, its fallen rodeo-rider plot line amplified by its lead actors playing versions of themselves. This is a small movie, but director Chloé Zhao uncovers some deep-seated American universals as she outlines one man’s journey to get back on the horse, and a best friend who never will again. This is one of my favorite movies of 2018.

Best Supporting Actor

Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Since the identity of Ron Stallworth’s partner in his KKK infiltration plot is still a secret, it’s anybody’s guess how real Adam Driver’s performance is here. But as Oakley Hall wrote, “The pursuit of truth, not of facts, is the business of fiction” and Driver’s performance does nothing if not enhance the overall verisimilitude of BlacKkKlansman. Playing both a Jewish detective and the fake Ron Stallworth, Driver’s delivery is so on point that we’d be horrified by his undercover bigoted diatribes if we weren’t so certain he’s on the path of virtue.

Best Actor

John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman

In 2017’s Year in Film issue I declared—half-jokingly—that Daniel Day-Lewis was the year’s Best Actor, even though Phantom Thread hadn’t come out yet. I ended up being wrong (Daniel Kaluuya killed it in Get Out), so I won’t repeat the mistake by predicting Christian Bale in Vice as best of 2018. (Though one peek at him as Dick Cheney makes it abundantly clear he’s going to get another Oscar.) And while Ethan Hawke gives a great heavy turn in First Reformed, it’s John David Washington who emerges at the front of the pack. As Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Washington displays effortless cool while still relating the deep anguish underlying the black experience in the early ’70s. It’s an incredibly well-rounded portrayal, which will be all the more momentous if he and dad Denzel become the first father-and-son duo to win Academy Awards for Best Actor.

Best Animated Movie

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It’s a downright shock when a Pixar movie isn’t the best animated movie of the year. Yet here we are. Despite Sony’s track record, their animation division has delivered one of the cooler Spider-Man outings to ever thwip onto the silver screen. It’s not just the story, which is about as fun and funny as “kids” movies get—it’s an incomparable animation style and some top-notch directing that catapults Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to a league of its own, building to one of the most eye-popping visual climaxes in memory.

Best Supporting Actress

Olivia Colman

The Favourite is one of those strange movies where there really isn’t a lead. Instead, three fantastic women mold this period piece into a sharp and funny head-to-head-to-head battle of wits. Olivia Colman is being recognized in the Best Actress category for her portrayal of Queen Anne, but it feels like much more of a supporting role, albeit a damn good one.

Best Actress

Toni Collette, Hereditary

Horror movies don’t typically pull in the big awards, but the success of Get Out and an uptick in quality scares as of late has done a lot to “legitimize” the oft-knocked genre. In Hereditary, Toni Collette plays an artist whose mother has just died. She soon finds herself spiraling down a black hole of nightmares and grand evils, but what makes Collette’s work here so great is the way she rounds out shocking acts with subtler dramatic nuances. If demonic forces weren’t at play here, you’d have a strong take on loss and grief, and that baseline makes the insanity to come all the more horrifying.

Best Foreign Language Film

Roma

Alfonso Cuarón wrote, directed, edited, produced, and shot this harsh story of an indigenous Mexican housekeeper—a taxing feat with a remarkable payoff. More slice of life than traditional narrative, Roma ruminates on grand themes of race, class, love, and death while never losing its extremely personal touch. Roma also features some beautiful cinematography, so it’s nice that Netflix is releasing it in theaters for a limited time. It’s clearly an attempt to win some Oscars, but it’s also good news for cinephiles who want to see Roma as it deserves to be seen.

Best Director

Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite

I belong wholeheartedly to the school of thought that Best Director and Best Picture are inextricably linked. Every once in a long while we’re tempted by an outlier, but generally the tautology is true: The best movie of the year is made by the best person making movies that year. The Favourite is 2018’s Best Picture and therefore Yorgos Lanthimos is its Best Director.

Best Picture

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos is a brilliant filmmaker, but I truly hated watching his last two movies. Such a skilled director can provoke extremely visceral responses in the audience, and in the case of both The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his desired response was, clearly, nausea. But The Favourite is a huge change of pace, and Lanthimos has a different aim. The story of Queen Anne and companions Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), The Favourite masterfully balances high drama with more than a few laughs. It’s extremely well acted across the board and features the best cinematography of the year courtesy of Robbie Ryan. The Favourite may not feel like your usual Lanthimos, but it certainly carries his trademark greatness.