10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
As a lifelong comics reader, it pains me to admit that I’m growing weary of superhero movies. Each year, the latest entry into Marvel or DC’s ever-growing canon will take me to my breaking point (this year it was Avengers: Infinity War), tempting me to swear off the genre altogether. Inevitably though, something comes along that reminds me why I, a 27-year-old man, still care about these characters.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a stunning success on every front. It’s the best superhero film of the decade and packed with animation that’s simultaneously groundbreaking and gorgeous. Focusing on the relatively new character Miles Morales rather than Peter Parker was a risky decision on Sony’s part, but one that gets to the core of the Spider-Man ethos: “Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask.” These words are spoken by Miles toward the end of the film, and it’s a refreshingly earnest message that stands out in such an overstuffed genre.
Rarely does a horror film evoke the kind of visceral dread that Hereditary managed to instill in me. That alone is usually enough to sate my appetite for all things macabre, and yet director Ari Aster’s debut is equally effective as a harrowing family drama about the psychic burdens we pass along to our kin. Yes, Hereditary is demonic as hell, with a wealth of grisly imagery that will sear its way into your brain. However, a climactic dinner-table argument between Toni Collette’s character and her son proves we as humans contain just as much darkness as any mythic evil presence.
8. Eighth Grade
Speaking of traumatic experiences, Eighth Grade dug up all the repressed memories I have of my cripplingly awkward middle-school self in some ways for which I really wasn’t ready. What makes comedian Bo Burnham’s first foray into filmmaking a resonant work of art is the emotional truth at its center. Through a sharply observant screenplay and a revelatory performance from Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade is almost painfully empathetic. The film itself has plenty to say about growing up in today’s digital age, where our online presence plays a pivotal role in social development, but ultimately Burnham knows that surviving adolescence is a timeless struggle.
7. The Favourite
The Favourite may be director Yorgos Lanthimos’ most accessible effort to date, but don’t think that means he’s grown a heart in the process. Don’t be fooled by the marketing: This is an absolutely savage spoof of period piece costume dramas that retains the chilly strangeness of his earlier films. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz exchange barbed insults with delicious cruelty. Think Mean Girls by way of The Shining, except this time there’s no one to root for. In Lanthimos’ world, we’re all doomed to destroy each other anyway, so we might as well have a laugh while we’re at it.
6. First Reformed
It’s rare that we see notable filmmakers tackle religious subject matter with genuine reverence (Sorry, God’s Not Dead 2). So leave it to frequent Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader to present to us a film where religion is both an escape from pain and an immeasurable burden. Reverend Toller (a beautifully understated Ethan Hawke) is already suffocating under the weight of his own religious and emotional turmoil before Mary (Amanda Seyfried) walks into his church and informs him of a threat that will only propel him further into madness. Structurally, Toller’s journey has some immediate similarities to that of another famous Schrader character, Travis Bickle, but Toller is the far more ambiguous of the two. By the final scene, you’ll find yourself wondering whether he’s facing damnation or found his salvation.
5. The Rider
Occupying a unique territory between documentary and narrative feature, Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a devastating look at what happens when we’re forced to let a dream die. Brady Jandreau, playing a version of himself, suffers traumatic brain damage after getting thrown from a horse during a rodeo. Being a rider has defined Brady’s existence for so long that life loses meaning after his injury no longer allows him to pursue his passion. Zhao’s decision to use the real people as actors in her story lends The Rider an authenticity that makes it difficult to watch at times. Brady and his family’s pain bleeds through the screen, but those willing to spend time with them will be deeply rewarded.
2018 was quite a year for Nicolas Cage, and Mandy might just be one of the best films of his entire career. Panos Cosmatos’ sophomore feature is a hallucinatory revenge tale of staggering beauty and exquisite ultraviolence. If Satan went on a bath-salts bender and then passed out on the sticky floor of a bathroom in a heavy-metal club, his resulting nightmare might look something like this. Visually, there’s nothing on the same planet as Mandy, and the first half is a fever dream of love and loss. The second half involves Cage snorting unholy amounts of cocaine and dismembering demons with a chainsaw, which likely makes it the greatest hour in cinema history. If there was any movie this year that felt like it was tailor-made for me, this was it.
3. Minding the Gap
Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap takes a group of skate punks from a forgotten American town (Rockford, Illinois) and uses them as a lens to explore the cyclical nature of abuse, including that which Liu experienced during his own childhood. Skate videos have long been an underappreciated art form, and the footage here is filmed with a quiet beauty that conveys the rare moments of tranquility that skating provides in the otherwise-turbulent lives of his friends Zack and Kiere. Both of them have suffered abuse at the hands of their parents, and one of them may be continuing that same trend in his own domestic life. Minding the Gap doesn’t offer any simple answers for its subjects, but real life never does.
2. You Were Never Really Here
We’ve seen the story in You Were Never Really Here told countless times before. A violent, haunted man rescuing girls from sex slavery has been previously depicted with great nuance (Taxi Driver) and, more frequently, as a brainless genre exercise (Taken). Director Lynne Ramsay saps every bit of adrenaline and sick voyeurism from this story template to craft a forlorn character study of a man physically and emotionally crippled by violence. Joaquin Phoenix delivers another masterful turn as Joe, a withdrawn brute who makes a living as a muscle-for-hire. Ramsay never allows the audience to take any pleasure in the onscreen violence, and never before has a film like this felt so unrelentingly sad. It’s a thriller that would rather focus on moments of quiet despair than face-smashing brutality.
The rape-revenge flick was a gross miscalculation from the start. Early examples like I Spit On Your Grave were mere excuses to degrade and humiliate their female protagonists. They were exploitative in all the wrong ways. Therefore, it’s only right that a woman would step in and inject the formula with a relevant point of view while also delivering one of the most gleefully sickening pieces of exploitation cinema in years. Writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s film has often been referred to as horror, but Revenge feels more like a feminist take on fantasy-comic-book fare such as The Crow or Darkman. Gallons of fake blood and entrails are spilled, and Jen (Matilda Lutz) is not so much a woman scorned than an angel of death sent to avenge every woman silenced by a male attacker. The exploitation genre, although deliriously entertaining, has never been known for its progressive insight. In its propulsive style, it’s a thrilling piece of work. In its distinctly female perspective, it’s refreshing as well.
Honorable Mentions: Roma, The Night Comes For Us, Widows, First Man, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Sorry to Bother You