Rewinding 2018 (Part Four): The Top 10

December 29, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

Most years, the “Honorable Mention” portion of the Top 10 – those titles that may have been on the list at some point during the year but were eventually pushed off – numbers between 6 and 10. (I don’t allow more than ten movies on the Honorable Mention list.) This year, there are only four. Those four films, combined with the ten that made it onto the main list, comprise the entire roster of 3.5-star films from 2018. Fourteen. That’s it. And no four-star films at all.

To put this into perspective, since I began reviewing in 1992, there has never been a year with as few as fourteen 3.5-star films. And, although there have been occasional years without a four-star entry, it’s a rarity. This is the third time. The other two were in 2007, in which there were twenty 3.5-star films, and 2010, in which there were seventeen. So the numbers match my observation that 2018 has been by far the worst year for movies since I started in this line of work. That’s difficult and depressing to acknowledge. And people wonder why I have been so grumpy of late…

Still, fourteen is better than, say, nine. (In that case, for the first-time ever, a three-star film would creep into the Top 10. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen in 2019.) And I have no problem heartily recommending these four that fell just outside the Top 10. These are presented alphabetically.

H.M.: Annihilation: Controversy surrounded the release of this film, which went directly to Netflix across the globe except in North America, where a theatrical release was contractually mandated. It’s a deep, trippy film that requires a lot of thought, conjecture, and musing – exactly the kinds of things mainstream movie-goers don’t want. An early-year release, this is now available for home viewing.

H.M.: Free Solo: The year’s best documentary, beating the better-known Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Free Solo is a harrowing look at a man who risks his life in order to make it meaningful. Had things gone differently, this could have been a snuff film. Compelling, harrowing stuff. Although more heart-stopping on a big screen, the theatrical window has closed. It should be coming to home video in the near future.

H.M.: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: I thought for sure this was going to end up in the #10 slot, where it resided until the 11th hour. It’s the year’s best animated film by a considerable stretch and the most family-friendly superhero comedy of 2018, easily beating the cash-grab called Once Upon a Deadpool.

H.M.: Widows: A heist film that finds room both to celebrate female empowerment and make statements about social injustice. There’s more to unpack in Widows than one normally gets in a genre film and that makes it a richer and more compelling trip than what we’re used to while still delivering all the necessary tropes and twists.

Now, onto the main show...

Not the strongest Top 10 I’ve ever compiled (in fact, probably the weakest) but these are all still very good films and well worth the time and effort to see. They are presented in reverse order.

#10. If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Moonlight avoids the slump that sometimes occurs after an Oscar win. A faithful adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel, the film explores the difficulties encountered by an innocent black man thrown into the court system during the 1970s. It also functions as a sweet but non-saccharine love story. The movie is political but doesn’t feel political – a key distinction.

#9. Private Life: This production, a dark comedy focused on the attempts of Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn to start a family, might have gotten more notice if it hadn’t been a “Netflix baby.” Despite the drawbacks of the label, however, Private Life used its finely-honed wit to give birth to the many truths about the burgeoning fertility medical industry.

#8. The Hate U Give: A powerful story of racial injustice and female empowerment, The Hate U Give is anchored by a star-making performance by Amandla Stenberg. Like If Beale Street Could Talk, this is an openly political film but the strength of the story and Stenberg’s acting give it emotional and dramatic tenacity to go alongside the impossible-to-miss message.

#7. A Quiet Place: Without question, the best horror film of the year. By focusing on atmosphere and things never clearly seen, this PG-13 rated exercise in terror and suspense allows actress Emily Blunt to appear in two very different roles this year (the other being Mary Poppins Returns) and shine in both.

#6. Avengers: Infinity War: The year’s most expensive superhero movie, Infinity War exceeded the lofty expectations placed on its shoulders. Big, bold, and thrilling, it’s a reminder that a blockbuster can still deliver – if developed and executed effectively. As a bonus, this one holds up on a second viewing, which is not always the case with films in this genre.

#5. Black Panther: Black Panther joins Logan and Deadpool in the category of “superhero movies that are more than generic superhero movies.” The characters are better developed, the situation is richer, and the action is more compelling. It’s also impossible to ignore the racial aspect – Black Panther wouldn’t have finished the year #1 at the box office if it had been White Panther. The superhero genre more than any other needs diversity. Kids watching these movies deserve to see characters on screen who resemble them. That’s not to say that a black child can’t identify with a white hero (or vice versa) but it feels more…fair…this way. Black Panther expands Marvel’s already-broad canvas, and does so with class and distinction.

#4. Eighth Grade: I don’t mean to denigrate Bo Burnham’s direction or writing (both of which are superb) when I say that the reason why Eighth Grade made it into the Top 10 is because of Elsie Fisher’s performance. Damn, is she good. In my “Best Performances” piece, I didn’t pick a top choice, but she’s right there. She was at the top of my Critics Choice nomination ballot and was my #1 when I came to the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle. The movie is balanced between dark comedy and drama, hitting nearly all the right notes and never leaning too far toward the former in an attempt to get laughs or toward the latter to tweak the heartstrings. Regardless of whether you’re male or female and considered yourself popular or an outcast during junior high (middle school), you will see yourself in this movie.

#3. Roma: From a purely technical standpoint, Roma is the best-made film of 2018, but issues that prevent it from reaching my #1 position. In the first place, the awkwardness of a Netflix release makes me uneasy because I know how differently the movie plays in theaters versus on a small screen. Secondly, this is a challenging film. Let’s call a spade a spade – the first hour is boring. That’s necessary because the second hour wouldn’t be as effective had the pacing been more aggressive; the movie demands patience. I admire Roma greatly. It impacted me the first time I saw it (theatrically) although not as much the second (on Netflix). But I have no great desire to see it a third time and I think it would be a colossal mistake for the Academy to give it the Best Picture Award. Talk about italicizing how out-of-touch the Oscars are from mainstream movie-goers. (More about this in various pre-Oscar pieces I will write over the next few months.)

#2. Leave No Trace: For most of the year, this was my #1 and it’s a close call between it and the eventual winner. A beautifully made meditation about family, society, love, assimilation, and maturity, Leave No Trace pairs Ben Foster and the young, upcoming Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in a story that is mature without containing adult language or imagery (it’s rated PG). Emotionally precise, beautifully shot, and smartly written, the movie is never anything less than spellbinding.

#1. Shoplifters: It will come as no surprise that I consider myself to be a fan of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Although Shoplifters isn’t as emotionally arresting as his movie from a few years ago, Like Father Like Son, this one has been more globally celebrated, winning the 2018 Cannes Palme D’Or. Shoplifters explores one of Kore-eda’s pet subjects – the nature of “family” – with a narrative that deviates considerably from the expected trajectory. Although you may think you know where this movie is going when it starts, you’ll probably be wrong. I have complained a lot about the weakness of 2018’s slate but Shoplifters would be a Top Five film in any year, regardless of the competition. This year, it’s #1.

As for 2019, the optimist in me looks forward to the great moments that even the least appealing years bring while the pessimist thinks of this oft-repeated warning: “Hope for the best; be prepared for the worst.”