Looking Back: Adam Frazier Picks His Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2018
by Adam Frazier
January 3, 2019
Over the last 12 months, I've seen more than 110 new releases — that's over nine days of time in total spent watching movies — and I'm happy to report that it's been an exceptional year at the cinema. In fact, I could probably make a Top 50 Best Films of 2018 list and still leave off a few notable titles. Just think about it – we got to see vital new work from visionary filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Alex Garland, Alfonso Cuaron, Spike Lee, Lynne Ramsay, and newcomer Boots Riley, whose Sorry to Bother You is one of the most unique and refreshingly original movies of the year. We witnessed fantastic performances by Lady Gaga, Ethan Hawke, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Mahershala Ali, Richard E. Grant, as well as Christian Bale. We saw breathtakingly beautiful films like Roma, The Favourite, If Beale Street Could Talk, and First Man – works of flawless craftsmanship by cinematographers and production designers alike.
Musically speaking, this year provided us with a great selection of scores and original songs from composers like Justin Hurwitz (First Man) and Alexandre Desplat (Isle of Dogs) and Daniel Pemberton (Into the Spider-Verse) to new music from artists like Dolly Parton (Dumplin') and Kendrick Lamar (Black Panther). And don't forget the stellar soundtrack to A Star Is Born, performed by pop star Lady Gaga and writer-director-star Bradley Cooper. For a full recap of the best scores from this year, check out Courtney Howard's Top 10 Favorite Original Film Scores of 2018 also published on this site.
If you're into other genre films, this year brought us many impressive horror, science fiction, and fantasy titles like Hereditary, Suspiria, Annihilation, A Quiet Place, Mandy, and Apostle. If popcorn movies are your thing, there were blockbuster spectacles like Avengers: Infinity War, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. And for fans of documentaries, we were engaged and inspired by films like Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Filmworker, Minding the Gap, and Three Identical Strangers.
All this to say: There was something for everyone in 2018; something for each of us to celebrate in our own personal corner of movie fandom. Below are my ten favorite films of 2018. Please note that this does not mean they are the year's "best" films – you can visit Gold Derby for a list of Best Picture predictions, if that's your thing. No, these are the movies that affected me most – the ones I cannot wait to watch over and over again. Also included is a formidable list of honorable mentions (found at the end of the post) that reflects just how strong of a year it's been. So what did I enjoy the most? Which are my favorites? Let's find out.
#10. Bad Times at the El Royale
Written and directed by filmmaker Drew Goddard (of 2012's Cabin in the Woods previously), Bad Times at the El Royale is a spirited, subversive neo-noir thriller steeped in '60s nostalgia (and paranoia) with an incredible cast (featuring the likes of Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Lewis Pullman, Dakota Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, and Cynthia Erivo) and a killer soundtrack. Goddard's talent for creating strong characters and deconstructing genre conventions is on display once again, bolstered by neon-drenched cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Godzilla, Marvel's The Avengers), along with top-notch production and costume design by Martin Whist and Danny Glicker. I really dig what Goddard is doing here – it's fun, fresh, and feels wholly original while also acting as a love letter to the thriller genre.
Bumblebee, directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and written by Christina Hodson, proves it's possible to bring fun and a genuine sense of wonder back to a bloated blockbuster franchise. It's the first Transformers film to capture the spirit of the animated series as well as its potential as a live-action property. It's a big-hearted hodgepodge of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg with a fantastic lead performance by the talented Hailee Steinfeld that prioritizes the pure, rapturous joy that escapism can offer. The opening sequence is something diehard fans of the property have waited to see since Michael Bay's 2007 film: a war-torn Cybertron lifted right out of the cartoon, with Autobots and the Decepticons that are heavily inspired by their Generation One designs. It's an '80s baby's dream come true!
#8. Avengers: Infinity War
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been on a roll as of late, with the delightful Spider-Man: Homecoming, the wildly entertaining Thor: Ragnarok, and the gorgeous and engaging Black Panther. As a single entry in the MCU, Avengers: Infinity War is as good as anything Marvel Studios has released in the last decade, but what makes it truly special is how it elevates everything that came before and makes every character and narrative development even more meaningful. It feels too big at times – the stakes too high, the losses too great – but never feels contrived; everything is earned. Co-directors Anthony & Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, do a masterful job at balancing intimate character beats and big, sweeping action set-pieces – delivering one of the most challenging and ambitious blockbusters.
#7. Assassination Nation
Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation is a searingly relevant and outrageously bold piece of filmmaking about the downward spiral of American values; a re-imagining of the infamous Salem witch trials through the lens of the Snapchat generation. As the film opens, audiences are greeted with an extensive list of trigger warnings ("sexism," "toxic masculinity," "homophobia," "murder," "nationalism," "male gaze," etc), which prefaces the nightmares that await. A fascinating, genre-bending mix of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, The Scarlet Letter, and The Purge series, Assassination Nation is as exploitative as it is engaging, with dynamic performances by Odessa Young and Hari Nef (Amazon's Transparent) and powerful visuals from cinematographer Marcell Rév (White God). A blood-splattered declaration of female empowerment and gender equality, Assassination Nation is an audacious film that cannot and will not be ignored.
From Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) and screenwriter David Kajganich (of Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash), Suspiria is a magnificently macabre remake of the 1977 Italian classic by Dario Argento, which was partially based on Thomas De Quincey's 1845 essay, Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths). Split into six acts and an epilogue, the 152-minute horror opus features exquisitely bleak cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and an ethereal score by Thom Yorke, but what's most impressive about Guadagnino's spellbinding re-imagining is its ensemble. Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, and Chloë Grace Moretz are great in their roles, but it's the peerless Tilda Swinton that steals the show, playing not one but three (or four?) different characters with the help of some truly incredible practical makeup FX. While certainly not for everyone, Suspiria is my favorite horror movie of the year and the rare remake that's as iconic as its predecessor, ala John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly.
Co-written and directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Chi-Raq) BlacKkKlansman is the filmmaker's strongest, most soulful narrative work since 2002's 25th Hour. Based on actual events, the film is an entertaining and inflammatory study of cultural and institutional racism in America that is both thought-provoking and laugh-inducing. With strong performances by John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier, BlacKkKlansman is the most relevant and "of-the-moment" film from 2018, driving home the point that while many people like to think that we've progressed since the '70s, little has changed. It's a sobering film that elicits many conflicting emotions, generating empathy and anger in equal measure by drawing parallels between the past and present. To paraphrase President Woodrow Wilson upon seeing The Birth of a Nation, Lee's film is history written in lightning. My only regret is it's all terribly true.
#4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
As a lifelong Spider-Man fan, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is something of a miracle. Developed by filmmakers-working-as-producers Phil Lord & Chris Miller, Spider-Verse pays homage to the iconic character while delivering a compelling standalone story that doesn't sacrifice narrative for world-building. It's up there with Homecoming as my favorite cinematic adaptation featuring the friendly neighborhood web-head. Everyone involved has such a strong, intimate understanding of the character and what makes him work. Shameik Moore and the rest of the ensemble are fantastic, and the post-credits scene is absolutely hysterical. In a year with great superhero flicks like Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Ant-Man & The Wasp, it's kind of crazy that Sony's animated Spider-Man movie, which isn't connected to the MCU in any way, could actually be the best of the bunch. But here we are, with Into the Spider-Verse as not only my favorite animated film of 2018 but my favorite comic book movie as well.
#3. A Star is Born
A Star is Born is the rare remake that not only gets it right but does it better than any of its predecessors. Bradley Cooper blew me away with his deft direction — it is seriously mind-boggling that a movie this well-crafted and affecting is the work of a first-time director. Of course, it helps when your cinematographer is frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique (nominated for an Academy Award for Black Swan). Libatique films the musical performances from the perspective of the performers, no wide shots from the audience's point of view. By incorporating various techniques — handheld, Steadicam, long tracking shots — the veteran DP and his camera operator, Scott Sakamoto, achieve a unique visual style that blends the glitz and glamor of a Hollywood production with the gritty authenticity of a documentary.
To develop his character's musical style, Cooper took guitar, piano, and voice lessons for six months to learn how to play and sing as Jackson Maine. The vocal performances were recorded live on the day of filming — nothing pre-recorded — and that commitment to realness captures the truth in each performance. Likewise, Gaga delivers a restrained, vulnerable performance as a struggling artist whose insecurity feels light years away from her glittery, haute couture stage persona. They are unstoppable, with undeniable chemistry that makes this feel more like an autobiography than a fictional love story. It's the most thoughtful and sincere movie I've seen in a while, and one I know will resonate with artists caught in the 9-5 grind, working side-gigs, tirelessly chasing their dreams in hopes of one day breaking free and sharing their gift with the world.
In 2015, Alex Garland made his directorial debut with the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, for which his script earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination. Garland's second feature, Annihilation, is another mind-bending masterstroke in the writer-director's ambitious oeuvre that will prove profound to some viewers, but polarizing to others. It's a fascinating amalgam of pulp sci-fi action, such as Ridley Scott's Alien and John McTiernan's Predator, and more cerebral art house films like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, as well as Denis Villeneuve's Arrival.
With stirring cinematography by Rob Hardy (of Ex Machina, and MI: Fallout) and a haunting score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (of Dredd, Ex Machina), Annihilation is an uncompromising work that stays with you long after the movie is over. Some moments are staggering in their profound beauty, like the scene where the group stumbles across a kind of topiary garden where flowers have taken humanoid form, and others are truly horrific – like one particularly grotesque abomination that will haunt my dreams for years to come. It's this balancing act of dread and wonder that makes Annihilation so damn captivating. For the audience that welcomes the challenge of a visually inventive, emotionally affecting, and intellectually stimulating movie, Garland's sci-fi adaptation will be celebrated as an instant classic.
I grew up in the heart of Appalachia – in a small town comprised of only 3.2 square miles, where nothing really ever happened. Thirty miles from the nearest shopping mall or movie theater, there wasn't much to do but daydream about the exciting lives of people elsewhere; places where things happened. As a result, I relied on the works of visionary storytellers and filmmakers to escape my own mundane existence. Classic sci-fi films like Star Wars, Alien, The Terminator, and RoboCop ignited my imagination by introducing me to thrilling, sometimes terrifying, new worlds filled with endless possibilities.
I say all of this to say that Upgrade made me feel the same way I felt as a kid, watching the aforementioned masterpieces for the first time – like I was peering through a palantír into a world so fully realized that it must be real; the actual future, happening in real time. Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (of the Saw and Insidious series), the cyberpunk sci-fi action film stars Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) as a quadriplegic who is implanted with STEM in his brain, an experimental microchip that restores his mobility and effectively gives him superpowers. The only problem: STEM has a mind of its own.
Production designer Felicity Abbot delivers an imaginative yet entirely plausible vision of the future; it's a world that feels lived-in and real, occupied by a main character who feels equally as real thanks to a pitch-perfect performance by Marshall-Green, who nails the physicality of someone whose body is controlled by a computer program. The performance is accentuated by innovative, off-kilter camera movements where the camera moves in lockstep with the actor, creating a kind of computerized, almost stop-motion effect. In a genre where fight scenes, car chases and shootouts are abundant, Upgrade makes the action feel new and different; it achieves the equivalent of The Matrix's bullet time effect on a shoestring budget thanks to the work of fight choreographer Chris Weir (Thor: Ragnarok) and cinematographer Stefan Duscio.
Whannell's Upgrade is bold, soul-stirring science fiction that showcases Leigh's talents as a writer as well as director. This is the arrival of a visionary storyteller, one who – like Ridley Scott and James Cameron – will no doubt inspire countless kids and future filmmakers out there to dream big and imagine worlds beyond their own. Along with other contemporary sci-fi classics like District 9 or Ex Machina, this is a film that shows just how potent the genre can be when someone with something to say is allowed to say it. Thank you, Leigh Whannell, for making a kick-ass movie that feels like it was made just for me.
Honorable Mentions: You Were Never Really Here, Mandy, The Death of Stalin, First Reformed, Black Panther, Creed II, Apostle, Overlord, Hearts Beat Loud, Sorry to Bother You, Paddington 2, American Animals, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Three Identical Strangers, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hereditary, The Favourite, Vice, If Beale Street Could talk, Ready Player One, Widows.
What do you think of Adam's Top 10 films of 2018? Do you agree or disagree with his picks?