15) Teen Titans Go! to the Movies
One of the advantages of Corporate Synergy™ is the ability to poke fun at your own characters even as you stack them all up in a movie for basic-math super-marketability (see also Ralph Breaks the Internet). In Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, DC satirizes their own stable of superheroes and the broader context of superhero cinema, in a constantly clever and subversive kid-friendly family comedy. (My jaw hit the floor after the Thomas and Martha Wayne gag. How did they get away with this?) The conflict of the movie, which exists in a world where every DC hero imaginable has been given a starring role in their own blockbuster, comes from Robin and the rest of the Teen Titans trying to get a film of their own, with hilarity, and songs, ensuing. Yes, this is stealthily the best musical of the year on top of everything else.
14) Game Night
2018 has actually been a damn solid year for studio comedies (a genre that I have sometimes associated with dread), with Blockers, Tag, and I Feel Pretty all sticking the landing. But none of those films reach the heights of Game Night, a high-concept murder-mystery-party-turns-real setup that’s basically shot like a straight thriller and performed with knee-slapping gusto. Jason Bateman kills his line readings, but the standout performances, getting big laughs in two totally different ways, come from Rachel McAdams and Jesse Plemons.
13) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This psychedelic animated delight fractures reality in service of a coming-of-age tale for alternate Spider-Man Miles Morales. But in addition to its humor, excellent voice acting, and universal themes, Spider-Verse is notable for its formal experimentation. When a radioactive spider bites Miles, his inner monologue and the animation style of the world around him change to closely resemble a comic book. And when alternate reality versions of Spider-Man converge in his world, different animation styles co-exist seamlessly on the screen: the modern CG of Miles, Peter Parker, and Gwen Stacy, the Looney Tunes-esque shading of Spider-Ham, the anime Peni Parker, and the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir. These unfussy mash-ups represent a special thing: the medium of animation taking a step forward. Also featuring perhaps the best Stan Lee cameo.
12) Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A film of sharp wit and strong sense of place, Can You Ever Forgive Me? stars Melissa McCarthy in the true story of biographer Lee Israel, who is motivated by cash-strapped finances to forge and sell counterfeit letters from authors and actors she knows so well from research. This literary crime movie is bolstered by fully committed performances from McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. But just for the record, one of the bookstores in this film set in the early 1990s carries an anachronistic book that wouldn’t be written for another 25 years! Clearly, now the whole movie is a wash.
As the young Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich gives at once a movie-star performance and a remarkably subtle technical one. And as an excuse to spend two hours in the company of fun characters, in a crime movie in a galaxy far, far away, the movie named Solo comes up aces. Reflecting Star Wars’ Flash Gordon roots, the film so nails the feel of an adventure serial. As far as the spinoffs go, while Rogue One’s highs are higher, Solo is more functional as a movie. And when Han sees the Millennium Falcon for the first time, I cry every time.
10) The Favourite
Not your typical regency drama, this love triangle/three-way power play between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and newcomer maid Abigail (Emma Stone) features lots of drive-by backstabbing, pointed barbs, and more shade being thrown than is around co-star Nic Hoult’s eyes. The latest askew dramedy from Yorgos Lanthimos after the visceral satire of The Lobster and the stygian horror of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite is an acting showcase with a well-bred caustic wit.
9) Paddington 2
This sequel to one of the greatest family movies ever made continues to spread joy like marmalade on celluloid. Ben Whishaw reprises his charm offensive as the voice of Paddington Brown, the bear in the blue duffel coat, and this time he’s in opposition to Hugh Grant’s delightful villain Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor turned criminal. In service of maximum entertainment per square minute, director Paul King deploys every filmmaking trick conceivable, including Wes Anderson-esque symmetrical storytelling and a detour into the pages of a pop-up book.
8) A Simple Favor
A total blast from start to finish, A Simple Favor is one of the crop of Gone Girl-alike thrillers, but filtered through the nimble no-frills lens of Paul Feig’s comedy. Anna Kendrick is the single mom food vlogger who gets caught up in the overwhelming larger-than-life existence of Blake Lively’s fashion company PR director, who seems like she should be in a Bond movie! With his run from Bridesmaids to this amusing mystery, Feig has become one of my favorite journeyman directors. If you’re humming along on its wavelength, A Simple Favor is a simple pleasure to watch.
An elevated exploitation movie with otherworldly cinematography, a demon biker gang, and Nicolas Cage in a chainsaw-on-chainsaw fight, Mandy feels less like a movie and more like a 1970s prog-rock album cover brought to life. It almost feels wrong to put it on a list of my favorite films of 2018, because it almost exists in a pocket dimension out of time. Is it a cliché to say that Mandy will become a modern midnight movie classic if it’s true?
A thrilling mystery anchored by a raw nerve performance from John Cho as a father desperately looking for his missing daughter, Searching hits a home run with its formal experiment of 100% computer screen-sourced visuals. The film deftly shows both the positive and negative aspects of the Internet, in service of a tightly coiled twist-filled narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat. And the thing is, John Cho’s character is on the edge of his seat too, as Searching achieves a rare synergy between audience and lead character.
Recently, superhero movies are adding “exotic fantasy epic” to the list of genres they can patch into their framework. Wonder Woman takes us to Themyscira, Aquaman to Atlantis and beyond, and in a move that has struck a chord throughout pop culture, Black Panther gives us Wakanda, a hidden afro-futurist über-technological nation. The film mixes spycraft, racial and interregnum-based political debate, and Shakespearean inheritance drama with apparent ease. And it all plays out through a deep bench ensemble of fascinating characters, from Chadwick Boseman’s dignified T’Challa to Letitia Wright’s scientific genius prankster Shuri to Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic villain Erik Killmonger. Overall, 2018 has been the strongest year yet for Marvel Studios. Speaking of which:
Marvel’s Avengers movies come fitted with a goldmine of action, character, and humor. But on a storytelling level, all three of them are deeply impressive. The 2012 Avengers effortlessly fires on all cylinders of its big-for-the-time ensemble. Age of Ultron has one of the firmest commands of theme that I’ve seen in a movie, let alone an action movie. And now, Infinity War miraculously balances its Biblically huge cast, all while arguably raising supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin, in a standout motion capture performance) to the status of lead character. The film excels at applause moments and brutality. And when seven superheroes combine their power sets to fight Thanos on his home planet Titan, that’s the stuff comic dreams are made of.
A pure crash course in the language of cinema, the sixth Mission is a nexus of filmmaking craft operating on the highest level: stunts (many of which, near-impossibly, are performed by Tom Cruise), editing, scoring, acting, directing, cinematography, and more are all award-worthy. While I adore Fallout’s predecessor Rogue Nation even more, watching either film is like going to my happy place. I’ve listened to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie talk about this movie for six podcast hours, and with the audio commentary still ahead of me, I’m ready for more.
2) First Reformed
A serrated crisis-of-faith movie, First Reformed stars an electric Ethan Hawke as a priest despairing the existential threats that humanity has visited on itself. So, a feel-good romp, then. There’s the sense that 72-year-old writer-director Paul Schrader has put everything he has, themes of prayers like open wounds that he’s wrestled with his entire career, into this epistolary ecological thriller. Such a personal infusion runs the risk of railroading the audience with macho flagellation, but First Reformed breaks out of that box and just cooks.
This list has included cornucopias of dark humor bled out of historical politics (The Favourite) and virtuoso cinematic balancing acts (Avengers: Infinity War). The Death of Stalin embodies both, as it walks a delicate tightrope: finding the absurdist humor in the bumbling villainy of fascistic statesman. Leavening evil with wry laughs enhances the sense of both, and director/co-writer Armando Iannucci has created a culmination for his practiced room-where-it-happens satire (The Thick of it, In the Loop, Veep). The screenplay takes characters like Simon Russell Beale’s monstrous Committee member and Andrea Riseborough’s grieving daughter and pinballs them around in a farce of national proportions. Adapted from a French comic, The Death of Stalin is incredibly the year’s best comic book movie. And we do live in an age of comic book adaptations, don’t we?