COLUMN: The 10 Best Films of 2018
I’ll have you know this is the latest into the next calendar year that I’ve ever pinned down my “10 Best” list here at Every Movie has a Lesson and Medium. It’s not that I was entirely lazy. Call it more shrewd and picky with how I spent my time as my own writing boss, a busy husband of two kids now in school, and educator who went back to the classroom after seven years trying a new grade and subject for the first time. A man has to prioritize needs and wants. On the movie front, this was actually a huge year of achievement for me.
I started a new medium co-hosting a monthly podcast, the “Connecting With Classics” show review the AFI’s Top 100 film with Aaron White from the Feelin’ Film podcast where I contribute my weekly movie trends column “What We Learned This Week.” After several years applying and improving my craft and standing along the way, I was admitted in the Online Film Critics Society, the largest and most established international group of online critics. Even bigger than that, I was accepted into Rotten Tomatoes as an approved critic, a bucket list dream I never thought was possible.
I published 110 film reviews of 2018 films (down from my career high of 126 last year), yet I easily saw 30 more features, shorts, and overdue reviews that still need keyboard keys put to blog posts. More than anything with this 2018 list, I wanted to be thorough and keep seeing more, even if I can’t see everything (I’m still coming for you, The Hate U Give and Shoplifters). My awards-voting deadline for the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle as a recognized awards-voting body isn’t until the end of January, so I’ve been cramming after December for that “exam” with films I’ve missed (and have more to go).
THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2018 AND THEIR LESSONS
If this teacher/critic learned anything himself this year it’s to more consistently define the difference between “favorite” and “best.” Often they are different measures, yet it is a special distinction when some films can be both. That’s a whole bunch of those of this definitive 2018 list. All ten and a few extra were no-doubt five-star films for me. True to this website’s specialty, each film will be paired with its best life lesson. Enjoy!
1. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
This was the best of the best in a very good year of movies. Barry Jenkins followed his Oscar-winning Moonlight with an even better film with richer artistry across colors, cinematography, and music. Evoking dramatic social parallels the still exist today since James Baldwin’s 1970s Harlem to today, If Beale Street Could Talk carries enormous emotional heft and a passionate romance. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: THE MANY FORMS OF LOVE — This review started celebrating the director’s love of his subjects off-screen and peaked with unconditional love on-screen. If Beale Street Could Talk swells to include multiple layers of love that even become titles for tracks on Britell’s soundtrack. Spreading against many contexts, the religious agape, sensual eros, and brotherly philia all merge with Baldwin’s optimistic sensibilities for themes that go deeper and wider than simplistic other sagas. Let more of his words on love become motivation: “Remember, love is what brought you here. And if you’ve trusted love this far, don’t panic now. Trust it all the way.” Do the same and embrace this lovely film.
I go from the best film I saw last year to easily my favorite and the movie that occupied the number one spot from May until December. The rookie feature filmmaking team of Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian took what most would dismiss as a silly gimmick of telling a film entirely through screens and flooded it with creativity, sharp craft, and completely unexpected feels. I keep going back to the level of intent and difficulty of Searching and get amazed more each time. This one is a heart attack and a trailblazer. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: MAKE THE EFFORT TO KNOW YOUR KID — Out of all of the gadgets buzzing and data streaming through Searching, zero technology comprises its true human core. No matter the fault or the cause, “everything is fine” is rarely a true statement when you ask whether or not you really know a child, their friends, and interests. No device is required for straight-up parental love, participation, and involvement. You have to put the screen down, talk, and engage in conversations and quality time to build familial bonds. Such intact trust is the way to have freedom and personal space worth hand-in-hand with the guidance and countermeasures before blame and regret ever become mistakes.
3. FIRST MAN
Damien Chazelle has earned the top spot on my “10 Best” list twice with Whiplash and La La Land. To see First Man at #3 is less about its quality, which is tremendous, and more about how good #1 and #2 are. The precision and underlying poetic pragmatism of his Neil Armstrong biopic are completely commanding. Just like Jenkins, its scary to think how good these young filmmakers are going to be as the years continue. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: THE TRAIT OF RELENTLESS DETERMINATION — Neil Armstrong and NASA pushed forward with unwavering will towards their goals. When you couple Armstrong’s aforementioned wounds of familial grief with the brotherly losses of peers, the sorrowful damage reveals the heartwarming strength found within his vital core. This man and his fellow astronauts had no quit in them whatsoever. No one balked at the price of excellence. Their determination compelled them to no end, and it is impossible not to respect seeing that on display.
From a creative standpoint, there may not have been a more personal 2018 narrative film than this one. Written, shot, directed, and edited by Alfonso Cuaron in tribute to his own nanny that raised him, Roma may not be an endearing favorite or a jolly hoot like the film behind it on this list, but its power and artistry is tremendous boasting the unquestioned best cinematography of 2018. The sweeping Oscar favorite is winning that acclaim and more for good reason. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: THE INFLUENCE OF MOTHER-FIGURES — The personal scope of Roma has been building to this platform. You see, the character of Cleo is modeled after Cuaron’s own childhood caretaker, an indigenous woman named Libo that he cherished and loved as the true woman who raised him. Like the more readily used fatherly term, mother-figures can be as important, if not more, than the real thing in every child’s journey touched by their servitude and devotion. Chronicling Libo’s plight through Cleo was restorative for the Mexican filmmaker and generates profound empathy within the viewer.
5. PADDINGTON 2
Paddingon 2 is proof that simple sweetness has a true value of quality beyond being merely happy or pleasant. Family films can be made with merit. Led by a huge ensemble cast having a blast personifying all ranges of fun characters (particularly Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson from that crew), not a second of this delightful dalliance of a sequel is a waste of effort or time. That’s something we cannot say about most mindless family fare that hits theaters nowadays. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: BE KIND AND POLITE — Take Paddington’s mantra and make it a life lesson. It’s that simple. Kindness opens more doors and opportunities than its antonym. You get more bees, and more bears for that matter, with honey. When you do your sunny optimism right, step back and observe the joy politeness brings. The smiles, hugs, and belonging are all worth it.
6. HEARTS BEAT LOUD
Within my social circles, I’m still the buddy that is always asked for recommendations of underseen films outside of the norm. “Give me something good I’ve never heard of” is the common request. Of all of last year’s movies, Hearts Beat Loud was the film I shared the most , guaranteeing a good time. I’m finding it a crime that more people haven’t found it to join me in shouting its praises from the mountaintops or, more egregiously, that its music and acting aren’t making the impact equal Oscar impact to that big studio hit at #7. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: GOOD MUSIC HAS FEELING BECAUSE IT COMES FROM FEELINGS — Personal beats impersonal every time. Hearts Beat Loud does not register without that poignant commitment from Offerman, Clemons, DeWitt, and the music they make together. Their songs outwardly express their current states and sensitivities, evoking strength together. For them, it’s for their own soothing release. Others get to hear it, but the effect wouldn’t change if it was an audience of thousands, a mere handful, or even zero. This film and soundtrack (embedded below) deserve far more than zero attention.
7. A STAR IS BORN
One of the many things that impressed me about Bradley Cooper’s debut was its intimate perspective. In 90% of movies about pop culture stardom, the narrative orbits the subject like the worshipping fans and crowds. A Star is Born stays grippingly tight on Cooper’s Jackson and Lady Gaga’s Ally, even in raucous concert performances, making their glossy drama inescapable. This could inflated to become a vanity project that landed as a disservice to the original story, yet it forged its own strengths. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: MESSAGE BEATS TALENT — In the same way that Bradley Cooper came into this with no singing and instrumental experience, A Star is Born goes out of its way to preach this inequality. What one is expressing for others to absorb will always be greater than the talent giving it. Jackson mentors Ally to say that “talent comes from everywhere” and extols and encourages that “having something to say that people want to hear” is the supreme difference. Telling people what you have to say has to be genuine and requires digging deep into one’s soul and sharing truths. Anything less crumbles the message and this storyline.
8. EIGHTH GRADE
Roma might carry the title of “most personal,” but Bo Burnham’s ballsy and unflinching piece on adolescence starring Elsie Fisher earns my distinctive of the “most important” 2018 film. That’s the middle school teacher day job in me combining with my lens as a film critic seeing skill and storytelling. If I had my way, Eighth Grade would be shown to every middle school student AND middle school parent in America as a summit for the difficult conversations that are too often not being attempted, let along accomplished. Boy, was this film necessary. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: IT ALL GOES BACK TO ENGAGEMENT AND EMPATHY — All of the connections built by teens during these formative years, the peer ones that last and the adult ones that stay strong, come from a place of those two “e” words that stoke shared interest and mutual understanding. A wise and willing audience for Eighth Grade knows and accepts two truths. First, that social challenges in real life could be, and often are, worse than a movie shows, and, second, those same apprehensions absolutely have the ability to get better for all involved with maturity and, again, efforts towards engagement and empathy. That’s where the conversations about this movie need to go.
9. BEAUTIFUL BOY
This film made me a believer of three things: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, and somebody in Hollywood doing drug addiction films differently. Carell has been crossing over into drama for a while, has always had hints of caricature in his efforts, but not in this one. Chalamet proved he was not a one trick pony after Call Me By Your Name. Lastly, I highly appreciated the effort from director/writer Felix Van Groeningen and writer Luke Davies to combine effort the family’s story beside the addict’s. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: RELAPSE IS PART OF RECOVERY — There are no automatic fixes or silver bullets. The vicious cycle of progress and defeat tumbles the Sheff family through nearly two decades in this film chronicle. Each peak brightens so much hope while each valley gets deeper and darker with . The tumultuous pattern of relapse and recovery (we see three such segments from the eight the real-life Nic had endured) tumbles the Sheff family for years until a powerless decision point comes when the help can’t help anymore.
10. I KILL GIANTS
Of the movies making this “10 Best” list, I Kill Giants was the most unassuming and unexpected for me. I went into Anders Walters’ teen-centered graphic novel adaptation written by its original comic creator Joe Kelly blind, seeing only its cover imagery of a girl with a big hammer taking on an unseen monster. I came out of its coping story of teen difficulties and peak fantasy hit by a ton of bricks. Put its young star Madison Wolfe right there with Eighth Grade’s Elsie Fisher for bright futures and watch me call this the best comic book film of the year ahead of the big boys. Fun point of fact, this is the most read 2018 review on my website, so somebody is liking what I’m putting down. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: FACING REALITY — The actions and effects of Lesson #3 are temporary. Outlets are only the release. Healing must follow and reality must be accepted. As Kelly’s story laments all things die and people need to find joy in the living, come to not fear the end, and embrace life without denial. Those are huge steps for all of us young and old. For a film like I Kill Giants to put these emotional takeaways together with fantasy is nothing short of extraordinary.
SPECIAL MENTION #1
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
The truisms of documentaries can hit like bricks of good fantasy. Unabashed proof of that was the rightfully celebrated chronicle of the late Fred Rogers, a man who used sense of fantasy to his own wondrous effect for living in reality. I know I’ve combined documentaries with narrative films in the past for these “10 Best” lists (see Life, Animated two years ago), but I couldn’t place this one prudently this year with all its emotional tugging. Won’t You Be My Neighbor is as special as the subject’s use of that word. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: SHOW CARING — This imperative command is the real springboard granted by this film experience. Be the Fred Rogers for someone in your life. Live up to all five definitions of “special” as he did. Bring out the kindness. Give someone the attention they need. Connect and create a relationship of love. Be the person they remember as part of their character formation to be a better individual.
SPECIAL MENTION #2
Over these last few years, I’ve been absorbing more and more short films. This twisty little thriller was the best of the bunch, manipulating narration and point of view brilliantly. The filmmaking was taut and the suspense was even tauter with a dynamite rug pull ending. Though I can’t keep up with this untapped short film scene, I can’t get enough of them. (FULL REVIEW)
ITS BEST LESSON: ART IS INTOXICATING — Not only is the fascination to observe indomitable for the man, so is the art to document it. Each print is a captured moment of the street lenser’s curiosity. The film bounces back and forth from the time the picture was taken to the reflective monologue of the photographer taking stock of his work at home. The photographic creations should be an outlet for our title character, but rather the outlet becomes its own metaphorically muscular creature to feed.