Alex's Top 15 Films of 2018

The years are really getting away from me. It's not even that my life is so busy that I can't get to movie anymore (though assuredly, when I was single, I would go to the theater almost every week, whether something called to me or not), it's more about the fact that it takes so much for me to actually get excited for many titles anymore. Honestly, there was just so little this last year that compelled me to go spend time and money on. There were definitely some good ones out there - and when they came around, I made a point to see them - but there was a lot that couldn't even peak my interests enough when they were available for free on HBO. I'm hoping this isn't a trend that continues and it was nothing more than an exceedingly down year, but only time will tell.

As it stands, I still compiled a list of the movies I did see. Not surprisingly, the list is not very robust. While I saw plenty more 2018 titles than are featured, it was a fairly substantial drop-off after the top 20 or so (and even the titles at the bottom of this list are pretty fringy). I will add, though, that there's still a hefty chunk of films I haven't yet seen that would fill out this list considerably more. Obviously many of them wouldn't register much, but of the eight Best Picture nominees, I've only seen two. There are a couple of those I still really need to get around to, as well as a handful of other awards-y titles that just never made their way in front of me. Because my list feels so incomplete - but because I want to actually get something up before it's too late - I'm going to post this now and probably make edits over the coming year as I fill in more titles. I typically don't mess with lists once they're posted, but this feels different to me; because I've missed so much, I do want this to be as thorough of a listing as possible. So depending when you're reading this, the list could look different than it did even a week ago. Either way, check below to see how the year fared in my eyes...

15. Ocean's 8
Gosh, the more this one has sat with me, the less interested in it I’ve become. I love a good heist movie, this cast was incredible, and it was plenty fun and clever, but something about it just fell flat for me. Was the writing any good? Without going back, and without looking up critic reviews, that’s the only thing I can think - maybe the script felt enjoyable at the time but didn’t provide anything really memorable (this is a similar problem I have with a lot of superhero movies). I can’t definitively say it was that, but for some reason this one never clicked with me as much as I wanted. HOWEVER, it’s still on this list as one of my favorite movies of the year, so I want to make sure and give it its praises and not just its shortcomings (though when I get to this part of my list, that’s often the case, as these are movies I clearly liked but wanted to like more). As I briefly mentioned, there was a lot of fun to be had with this premise. The heist itself was grand and well worthy of the Ocean’s moniker. I always enjoy the elaborate planning that goes into these types of heist movies, and more so, the misdirection we’re given before the real plan is revealed. While it was quite blatant (not that that’s a bad thing), I also appreciated the commentary on male-female dynamics/roles. There was enough there to make a point, but nothing deep enough that would shy away general audiences. I’m glad it had a little something to say, but I’m sure most of the actors would have preferred to say a bit more. The cast also was great. Top to bottom, there was more star power with this group than any of the previous Ocean’s movies. If anything, it was just a shame that more screen time couldn’t be given to more people. I enjoyed watching this movie at the time, but little else. It feels like it might be a good movie to have on in the background moving forward (easy watchability), and that's nothing to be upset about. As I’ve mentioned in these posts before, often that's more of a win than you'd think. There’s nothing wrong with two hours of escapism entertainment. I hope this movie did well enough financially to warrant a sequel, because I’d be interested to check back in with this group and see what they can get themselves into next.

14. Black Panther
Out of respect for the film and what it means to our society, I really want this to be higher. Seriously, our world has forever changed because of this movie. It can’t be quantified what it means for young black kids to now grow up in a world where their heroes look like them; where a mostly black cast and crew won all kinds of awards; and where a blockbuster franchise can talk about themes like race. I truly believe that because of that empowerment, we’ll have a better world for our kids and kids' kids because of this movie. If this list was about my most appreciated films of the year, this would definitely be near the top. However, it’s still a superhero movie, and the fact that it’s even on this list means quite a bit. Most comic book fans believe 2018 was a banner year for superhero movies, yet only this and The Avengers make the cut for me; everything else just kind of feels mediocre.

As for the movie itself, there are a few things I really enjoyed. First, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa is easily one of my favorite MCU characters. His poise and intelligence when so many of the other characters just want to fight really resonates with me. He’s thoughtful and calculated, rarely making decisions out of impulse. I also like that he struggles with his power. I think it would be a very hard thing to be a leader of an entire nation of people - he doesn’t take that lightly, and is respectful of his culture while also recognizing its shortcomings. And opposite him, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger really provides a great and grounded villain. I get why he’s like he is, and his objectives don’t need to be “destroy the planet” to be scary. He has real world motives that are a real threat to T’Challa and Wakanda. Sometimes those doomsday scenarios are fun, but I also really appreciate a villain who not only feels believable, but who's also grounded in some reality. It's such a fun and easy watch, and more than anything, I'm happy this film exists and that it was successful.

13. The Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling
This is a pretty straightforward documentary about comedian Gary Shandling. It was first presented on HBO in two parts, but it qualifies as a “movie”, so I’m including it. Since the construction is pretty typical of a documentary about someone who’s passed (clips from their life, talking head interviews from people who knew them), it’s the content that makes this one so fascinating. I didn’t know much about Gary Shandling’s personal story, only that he was a comedian who was in some shows and movies. It’s hard to say it’s “interesting” the struggles people went through and the problems they had in the world, but I really did find his personal story very fascinating. It doesn’t mean parts weren’t sad, but this was a very layered guy that didn’t let a lot show to the world. To provide some broad strokes, he was constantly worried about death, rejection, failure, purpose, etc. Truly, to near detrimental levels. At the same time, he was also one of the smartest and hardest-working comedians of his generation. His first breakthrough was with The Gary Shandling Show - sadly, a title that has thus far evaded me - one of the first mockumentary style TV shows ever concocted. Without it, shows like The Office, Parks & Rec, and 30 Rock don't exist. If nothing, I’m sad he’s not around anymore, because I think in this age of television he could have done even more great work. He was so much more than the character actor you remember from whatever movie - it’s a shame he’s not here anymore.

12. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
It feels like they’ve really hit their stride with these movies. I associate them a lot with the MCU movies. You can look at the first few and see the missteps they took in building that universe, but now they’re on cruise control and know the perfect formula to make those movies work. Same with the Mission: Impossible movies. Around the third and fourth installments, I don’t think this franchise knew what it wanted to be, but over the last few installments, they’ve really hit a groove. The action is fun, the stories are intriguing, and the pacing is what you want from an over-the-top action/spy movie. It’s the perfect blend of action and espionage, with a little bit of romance (but not too much) and heartbreak thrown in (to help keep things grounded). The cocktail works, this team works, and I’ll sign up for any further installments they decide to churn out.

11. Annihilation
This might have been the hardest movie for me to rank this year. Seriously, what a strange film. I’m actually surprised a studio funded this and got a wide release for it. It’s really weird and almost impossible to follow all of its intricacies and messages, even for the most astute sci-fi viewer (we’re talking commentary on biology, nature, spirituality, evolution, and a million things in between). But in a way, that’s what I loved about it. This movie toes the line of being too abstract for its own good, but in some ways you almost stop worrying about the details and just kind of absorb into the strange world they’re discovering. It’s interesting enough to keep you curious about what will happen next and hope some of your questions will be answered. It’s a movie I’d enjoy discussing with fellow fans, because I believe when multiple people start talking through it you can start to uncover some really cool layers; it just isn’t always going to be easy to decipher. But if nothing else, I’ll always remember this film for some of its haunting imagery, and its eerie musical score. The score was one of the best of the year, and you can’t find me anything more strange than the clone dance at the end, or the scream bear that will forever haunt my nightmares.

10. Mandy
This movie was such a trip. If you grew up watching low-budget, ultra-violent, heavy metal rock opera, grindhouse horror movies from the 70s and 80s (who didn’t?), you’ll dig the vibe presented here. Such a great throwback to the style and themes of that era. However, it’s very abstract and I wouldn’t describe its pacing as “quick”, so I could see casual moviegoers quickly becoming disinterested. But if you think you can hang on for the trip, I promise you it’s worth it. Outside of the surreal elements of the film, the basic plot is a man, Red (Nicolas Cage, in a role he was born to play), who loses everything and seeks revenge no matter the cost. In that sense, it’s a pretty basic story progression. But writer and director Panos Cosmatos really shows a passion for the material he’s presenting, and definite attention was paid to the homage of the genres he was celebrating. With the material, while the basic progression of the film is fairly straightforward, it's the societal commentary that he sneaks in along the way that really drives this thing. Based on the cult leader of the film - played with great effect by Linus Roache - I think it’s safe to say Cosmatos doesn’t think too highly of religion or male entitlement. Roache depicts your typical cult leader, but in a broader sense it’s also commentary on basic masculine fragility (or “toxic masculinity” if we want to use the phrase of the day). The character is, by all traditional accounts, decent looking and has a bit of charisma. On the surface he doesn’t seem too threatening, but he ultimately believes god and the world owes him anything and everything he wants, and it’s a woman’s fault if he experiences any failures (or specifically to this movie, if she won’t sleep with him). Once you accept these themes are the message Cosmatos is trying to project, each scene becomes incredibly clear and purposeful. The entire plot of this movie basically stems from a scene in which Mandy laughs unstoppably in his face, in front of everyone, when he posits they should have sex. It’s such a defining emasculating moment in the film, and the deepest of burns to his male ego, sending him on a tortuous journey to prove just how tough he is. Along that journey, it simply proves unfortunate for the cult that they messed with the wrong guy. Red is ruthless and unstoppable, knowing well that he doesn’t need to survive the night, he just has to survive long enough to even the score with this group. The violence in the second half of the film is relentless, with each encounter more absurd and ruthless than the last. The payoffs are worth the wait, but I’ll admit that Cosmatos isn’t in much of a hurry to get to the gore; he wants to take you on a journey, not just get to the end. It’s deliberate, but I’ll reiterate: if you can hang on, it’s worth the ride.

9. Avengers: Infinity War
I was reading something the other day about how movie stars are almost extinct in today’s world. In definition, a movie star is an actor who draws big crowds for any movie they’re in, not the character they’re playing. “Oh, the new Jimmy Stewart movie is out!” It referenced Robert Downey, Jr. and Iron Man - audiences line up for that character, but not RDJ specifically (even though I really liked it, how many people lined up to see The Judge?). It’s an interesting thought, and off the top of my head, the only actor I can think of who maybe fits that definition still is Tom Cruise. Maybe Tom Hanks? Is there anyone else who’s a true “movie star” anymore? Or are the characters in franchises our new movie stars?

That has absolutely nothing to do with this movie, it was just something interesting I’ve been thinking about. As for the movie, it was standard Marvel fare. It was fun to watch and really started rounding out the “endgame” for this specific group. I was actually quite impressed with how well they weaved everyone into the story, and seeing that concept on screen alone was worth the ten-year wait. And while I liked seeing everyone together, I like that we’re going to get mostly core-Avengers for the final film. Since it is Marvel, I expect they’ll be able to reverse the snap and bring life back to the world, but I do expect at least one of Captain America/Iron Man to die, and I’ll be curious to see how it happens (my money is definitely on Cap, if not both).

8. Overlord
This movie was so much fun. It felt like such a pulpy throwback to monster movies of the 80s. This movie fits into a few different genres, and I don't want to necessarily ruin it by outlining those categories, so I'd just say if you're looking for two hours of a fun ride, set in Nazi-occupied France during WWII, with Americans on the attack against the Germans, with a focus on some of the Nazi experimenting from that era, then you'll probably like this movie. It felt gritty at times, reminding us that we were in the middle of a war, but it never took itself too seriously and embraced the premise it was working with. In fact, I actually wish it would have ramped up the fun a bit more; I think they could have leaned into a higher octane soundtrack and a few more chaotic battles. It might have led to a messier tone, but if it could have been pulled off, this movie could have really been a blast. It was still fun and a quality addition to the year in film, but this was close to being a few notches higher. 

7. Ready Player One
In some ways it’s fitting that this title was so high on my list; in others, I’m really surprised. I’m not really into gaming, so I think a lot of those references were lost on me or I didn’t care about, but there are still plenty of movie and music references to be had - there are fun easter eggs for everything entertainment littering this movie. In general, I’m not a huge fan of movies about kids saving the world, but in this movie, not only is the world they’re fighting for/in artificial (anyone who works hard can have any powers they want), but the fate of the world also isn’t on the line. Outside of kids playing this game and a company trying to control it, nobody in the regular world really cares about this. So I can let them have it. The construction of the film is a pretty typical puzzle/quest narrative - find this, which will lead you to that, etc. - and everything in the middle is kind of made up to get to those those points. But it’s a fun ride and the visuals are really impressive. If you remember it’s an Amblin film, it very much feels on brand with that moniker and a worthy addition to its stables. This wasn’t the deepest of story lines, and because it was a fake world I wasn't too emotionally invested in the characters or their outcomes, but it was enjoyable to watch. I liked the pop culture references and the idea that a world like this could will exist one day.

6. U.S.S. Callister (Black Mirror)
Just hear me out. First, for those unfamiliar, this was an episode featured in season four of the Netflix show Black Mirror. Obviously this post features movies, and this being a “television episode” doesn’t fit that, but it is feature length and did get nominated (and won!) and Emmy for “Best TV Movie”. And looking at others in that category (think HBO films like Game Change or Recount), I have fairly included films of their ilk in the past. It does feel more like a technicality and work-around of the current rules, but since it was, I’m allowing it.

That all being said, this was one of the more exciting pieces of sci-fi I’ve seen in a long time. It was a perfect mix of comedy and tragedy, all wrapped up in a vibrant, nostalgic aesthetic. The themes and characters were all really intriguing; talking with friends about it afterwards, I commented that I could have watched the characters in this world for hours upon hours. Like any great Black Mirror episode, it seamlessly weaved in futuristic technologies and followed the extremes of character development with the access to such technologies. I “understood” the motives of these characters, but definitely had a rooting interest towards the end. And as is another Black Mirror trademark, they always find ways to get the very best performances out of actors. When you’re talking about futuristic science fiction in space, you have to really commit or it’s going to come off as cheesy (not in a good way). These actors all dove into this material and you can tell. I won’t include much more about the plot because I think this is material that works better when you don’t know what to expect, just go watch it. It’s fun and creative and smart and tragic.

5. Creed 2
I'm such a sucker for an inspirational sports movie, with athletes who have to dig deep to reach new levels. This Creed franchise, a continuation of the Rocky franchise, hits all the right notes. Say what you will about Sly Stallone (I think a lot of people think he's a bad actor?), but he knows how to write and craft the perfect boxing movie. He's done it like six different times now, and each film feels unique in its own way while also consistent with the franchise. In this installment, the big draw here is Adonis Creed against a bigger/stronger Viktor Drago. Both of their fathers fought each other in a previous Rocky film, where Ivan Drago actually killed Apollo Creed in the ring. So there's some bad blood between these two. The film takes a good route to the final match-up, and what I've loved about these two Creed films is that Stallone doesn't rest on what the boxing genre looked like in the 80s. He's quite progressive in his storytelling, and understands completely what the boxing world looks like today. Everything felt authentic, and similarly to the previous Creed film, the fighting is legit. It looks so real; I can almost feel the punches when they land. Always about so much more than boxing, the film also weaves in some really nice personal storylines for its various characters. Everything tied together really well and made other elements in the film make more sense. I don't think you have to like or even care about boxing to appreciate this film; it has enough for just about everyone.

4. Bad Times at The El Royale
There are a few things to unpack with this one, but to start, I’m simply going to say that I loved the vibe of the film. The time period and design (1970s Lake Tahoe area) was so great and so fun to see. We actually moved to Reno, Nevada a little over a year ago, and South Lake Tahoe (where this takes place), is one of our favorite places to visit (45 minutes away) because the 60s/70s vibe is still very much alive in many of its buildings and attractions. It really feels like a step back in time when you visit the hotels and resorts, and I think they nailed it with the design of this place (sadly, it’s not real). Beyond that, I thought the story was told in a fun and progressive way, and the characters all had intriguing stories - I enjoyed following along and unwrapping the various layers this film and its characters had to offer. And speaking of the characters, that’s something that really stood out to me. When watching, I kept going back to that age-old mantra, ‘everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about’. It’s not to say everyone had something to hide, but there’s always so much more than meets the eye when we encounter new people. That was presented prominently here. The other piece I wanted to pull from my viewing was Goddard’s fascination with “the man behind the curtain”. It wasn’t as “twisty” as The Cabin in the Woods, but some similar themes were presented, where we kind of got to peak behind the curtain and see these characters when they thought no one was watching. It’s another interesting layer to my previous point, that we know very little about who anyone actually is and what they’re dealing with. This film was simply a culmination of some various personal stories in a very improbable/unfortunate (and fortunate) way.

3. A Quiet Place
What a year for horror. You can kind of categorize a few of these titles differently if you’d like (“horror”, “thriller”, “sci-fi”), but ultimately they all kind of fall under the same umbrella. A Quiet Place is very different than the horror film that ranked just ahead of this one, but it’s so good in its own ways. There are a few things that make for a great horror movie, and tension is one of them. This movie provides that in spades. We’re brought into this world and instantly made aware of the “rules” (make noise, the monsters come, and you die). They’re extreme, and even the slightest of missteps (literally) can bring death. As I watched, I was constantly fearful of what could go wrong - especially with kids, there's just SO MUCH that could go wrong. Another great element to a good horror movie is character building. This movie doesn’t necessarily let us in on individual characters (there’s not a lot of time to talk about likes and dislikes), but it does provide a very clear sense of love and family. Everything these characters do is out of love for one another. With how this movie was constructed, that bond was so important to selling its outcomes. I also now want to see a sequel with the mother and daughter kicking some monster ass!

2. Hereditary
This movie took some time to settle into this spot on my list, but it’s definitely the kind of horror movie that sticks with you, and the more you think about it, the more you really appreciate it. Outside of one MAJOR shocker, the first half of this movie is pretty subdued; a typical story about family loss and regret. It has that slow burn that I love so much about a good horror movie. I want to see that character building and those emotions simmering. As it all slowly boils to the top, you know eventually it’s going to pop. And boy does this movie pop. The movie goes off the rails in its third act, with terrifying scene after terrifying scene. As you’ve probably heard, Toni Collette absolutely gives into this role and doesn’t hold anything back. It’s her commitment to the anger and sadness and fear that really makes this movie believable. And when we finally discover how it’s all tied together, and just the creepy vibes it leaves you with in your stomach - it’s all worth it. This was the best horror movie of the year by a wide margin.

1. Vice
If you’ve read any of my posts over the last few years, it’s probably not a surprise that a political movie had such an impact on me. I feel deeply connected to the battle within our own country right now, and I’m very thankful that movies like this exist to help with my side of the cause. As the movie alludes to, Dick Cheney was a very secretive man who worked mostly behind the scenes. Because of that, I knew little about who he was and how many strings he was pulling during his tenure as Vice President. While I’m sure there were plenty of creative liberties taken, I imagine the scope of the movie was fairly accurate; it was nice to get a little peek inside this window of politics that I was otherwise mostly unfamiliar with. It’s difficult to point to a specific person or moment that started the pendulum in this direction with the Republican party, but Dick Cheney is about as good a place as any to start. He saw weakness in the system, and instead of actually fighting for issues that mattered to him, he picked issues that he could manipulate to his advantage. I can *understand* his drive for power - in a capitalist, democratic society, that’s kind of the point - but he obviously takes it to levels that were detrimental to many people. After my wife and I saw the movie, I mentioned to her that I wasn’t sure if I now “like” him more or less. Is it better to be someone who has backwards agendas out of fear, hatred, bigotry, etc., or to simply manipulate those emotions with voters to get what you want? Both are pretty terrible, but by all accounts I don’t think he was a socially inept human (my feeling is that he didn’t have many real issues with equal rights matters), he just knew how to play the game. Is that better or worse? Ultimately, my wife said it’s the same as the conversations we have about Trump: I can understand his blind grab for power; it’s the voters who continue to buy into it and support him that I dislike. While neither Dick Cheney or especially Donald Trump are decent human beings, I’m not going to fault someone (specifically) for wanting power. It’s a natural response to the world we’ve created. I’m going fault the half of the country continuously duped by people like this and who allow these kinds of people to have this level of power. You can make your argument that it’s always easier to recognize these things after the fact, but half of the country has known for years that Donald Trump is a nightmare. If half the country knew it, you don’t get to say you didn’t know when it was happening - you just didn’t want to know.

Oh, and as for the movie, it was incredibly entertaining. What a great look into a lesser-known part of our recent history. Adam McKay (writer/director) is so good at presenting information like this in a way that’s easy to absorb and fun to watch. The pacing of the film is really great, and Christian Bale is masterful as Dick Cheney. I know Bale is known for disappearing into his characters, but man, does he nail this one. Seriously, one of the more complete acting performances I’ve seen in a very long time. And Amy Adams’ Lynne Cheney is perfectly on point as the driver in that relationship; constantly pushing her husband to achieve more. She should have been nominated for an Oscar, and Bale should have won.

Thanks for checking in. I genuinely enjoy putting this list together each year; it's pretty exciting that I've now done so (formally) for eight straight years. Even though the list gets narrower and narrower each year, I'm not sure I'll ever want to stop writing it. It's a fun exercise that gives me a small creative outlet. Already I'm looking forward to next year's list! And in my view, it appears that there are some pretty solid titles ahead for 2019 - so we'll see next year how that list compares to this one. But until next time...happy watching!