It wasn’t until June that the movie year really set sail.
You see, that’s when the trailer for “A Star Is Born” overtook the internet. By then, the Avengers had already turned to dust (or something), and “Black Panther” had claimed its still-guarded spot atop the annual box-office rankings. But when Bradley Cooper, the American sniper himself, told Lady Gaga, of all people, that he wanted to take another look at her, 2018 fell off the deep end.
As 2018 barrels to a close, it does so with a spoonful of sugar and a doozy of CGI. “Mary Poppins Returns” and “Aquaman” will be the final tentpoles to flood theaters, arriving amid an Oscar season that once threatened to introduce a popularity prize. If a calendar with record-high grosses and a limitless scroll of disheartening news confirms anything, it’s that our entertainment landscape is more crowded than ever ― which makes the best of the best all the better.
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For anyone who claims moviegoing as a profession, year-end lists are agonizing. I already have regrets about what was omitted from my latest roster, not wanting forgotten favorites to become casualties. In shaping this list, I prioritized titles with infinite rewatchability ― ones I’d want to take another look at, in other words: rainy-day distractions, haunting enigmas, dizzying reflections of humanity’s peaks and valleys.
I’ll change my mind as soon as tomorrow, but that’s part of the fun. The movies remind us that we never have to settle for just one thing. In a darkened theater (or living room), we get the good, the bad and the ugly, sometimes at once. It is, after all, the ultimate escape.
20"A Simple Favor"
Paul Feig turned "Gone Girl" into martini camp, casting Blake Lively (in Uma Thurman vixen mode, and never better) as a bespoke blue blood and Anna Kendrick as the obsequious mommy vlogger who gets wrapped up in her disappearance. Even when the plot careens off the rails, "A Simple Favor" is a pastry worthy of Hollywood's trash pantheon. As an added bonus, it was the second film this year (after "Crazy Rich Asians") to treat us to Henry Golding's charming abs ... er, I mean, talents.
Crystal Moselle made a name for herself with the 2015 documentary "The Wolfpack," charting sheltered brothers whose connection to the world came courtesy of the movies they watched inside their cramped New York City apartment. Her follow-up, "Skate Kitchen," has a similar docu-sheen, but here Moselle fictionalizes a female skateboarding collective she encountered on a subway. You'll grin ear to ear throughout, soaring alongside the girls (plus Jaden Smith) and their too-cool wheels. With vibrant cinematography and dialogue that sounds unscripted, the film is "Kids"-lite for the Instagram age, at once street-smart, glossy and splendidly raw.
“The only thing worse than being incompetent or being unkind or being evil is being indecisive,” a sociopathic teen (Olivia Cooke) tells her sorta-friend (Anya Taylor-Joy) in “Thoroughbreds.” So they make a firm decision to kill the latter’s vicious stepfather, a crime nuzzled amid the idylls of suburbia (think “Heathers”) and the hubris of uncanny companionship (think Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”). Cory Finley’s satire is a slick psychodrama that’s alternately hot and cold, amusing and bloody.
17"Mission: Impossible - Fallout"
The derring-do of Scientology’s patron saint should have grown stale now that “Mission: Impossible” has seen six spotty installments. Somehow, the opposite happened. In a dazzling long take, Tom Cruise (or Ethan Hunt, rather) parachutes from an aircraft 25,000 feet in the air, the camera plummeting alongside him — and that's just the beginning. Christopher McQuarrie stares other blockbuster directors in the face, daring them to conjure half the integrity he does when staging action sequences. In today’s CGI malaise, rarely is big-screen frenzy this crisp. And rarely does it include Angela Bassett making nuclear commands sound like Shakespearean verse. If there's such a thing as Hollywood tentpole nirvana, it looks like "Fallout."
Sony Pictures Classics
"The Rider" takes place amid poverty but finds great riches in its South Dakota vista. Our taciturn but sensitive hero (Brady Jandreau) takes refuge in the rodeo, or at least he did before an injury threatened his sanctuary. Chloé Zhao's beautiful sophomore feature captures paradise lost, wondering how someone with limited means can rebuild an identity in an America whose resources don't always abound. Hope and despair intermingle, forever one gallop away from peace.
15"Support the Girls"
"Support the Girls" screams into the void in all the right ways. Andrew Bujalski's winning slice-of-life dramedy follows the tight-knit women who run a Hooters knockoff in Texas, where a corporate chain's arrival threatens their livelihood. Despite personal strife, they skirt the clientele's sexism and racism with a can-do spirit that speaks to the resiliency of the American heartland. Boasting a first-rate performance from Regina Hall, who plays the sports bar's tireless manager, this sharply observed jewel is an indie that cannot go ignored. It has far too much to say, and far too charismatic a way of doing so.
The devil’s in the details, and the details are probably sitting in your attic. Diorama artist Annie Graham (Toni Colette) finds out the harrowing way: first by mourning her mother’s death, then by watching her family -- and its eerie secrets -- unravel. “Hereditary,” written and directed by first-timer Ari Aster, joins the many horror staples that filter grief through supernatural and demonic specters (“Don’t Look Now,” “The Others,” “The Babadook”). Loss, after all, haunts victims much as a ghost would: It is slow, bizarre and sometimes fatal. But Aster also looks beyond his characters’ maladjustment, actualizing the occult elements that another storyteller might render metaphorical. You'll be clucking in your nightmares.
HBO nabbed “The Tale” at Sundance, providing it an ideal home and sparing us box-office reports about how few people would pay to see a portrait of sexual assault. With exquisite grace, Jennifer Fox's lyrical memoir places its protagonist (Laura Dern) in conversation with her younger self (Isabelle Nélisse), confronting once-treasured memories that are, in actuality, anything but. The results play like a tone poem: introspective, gutting, elliptical and ultimately life-affirming.
The hype is real. Many kiddie movies aim for the grown-up rafters, but few reach them as triumphantly as “Paddington 2.” The gentle bear’s pratfalls make for the year’s cleverest sight gags, and his mishaps its most sophisticated whimsy. Prison breaks! Hidden fortunes! An evil Hugh Grant! Director and co-writer Paul King, besting himself after 2014's predecessor, achieves an earnestness that is open-hearted instead of cloying -- exactly the distraction we needed in a hellish 2018. This marmalade glaze is a perfect spread.
Well Go USA
The greatest fear is that of the unknown, which Korean director Lee Chang-dong mines in this seductive thriller about an ambling wannabe writer (Yoo Ah-in) and a love triangle involving a former classmate (Jeon Jong-seo) and a mysterious interloper (Steven Yeun). With a lilting build, “Burning” kicks into high gear at the midway point, when Miles Davis’ horns serenade a hazy sunset that could lead to anything: dancing, disrobing, disarmament, utter disorientation. Lee’s source material is a Haruki Murakami short story, so alienation remains a constant villain. “Burning” wonders how much we can ever really know another person. Its inability to answer that question makes the film all the more searing.
10"The Old Man & the Gun"
“The Old Man & the Gun” doesn’t have many gunshots, but it can claim the ultimate weapon: Robert Redford. The 82-year-old actor, who says he is retiring after 58 years in the business, went out with a bang, reteaming with “Pete’s Dragon” director David Lowery for the whimsical story of career criminal Forrest Tucker. Redford’s blue eyes and big smile make Forrest a charming crook, the kind you hope the law won't catch. He’s not killing anyone, after all — just robbing some banks to pass the time and courting Sissy Spacek along the way. This lovely, memorable film doubles as an ode to Redford’s career, cementing his position as one of the last great stars from a bygone Hollywood epoch.
Alfonso Cuarón based his latest film on the nanny who helped raise him, an autobiographical flourish both intimate and grand. Set in early-1970s Mexico City, where sociopolitical upheaval roams through prosaic neighborhoods, "Roma" captures a short period in the life of Cleo (gifted newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous maid working for an adoring middle-class clan. We see events through Cleo's eyes, trading domestic-work clichés for a rich diary bursting with dreams, desires, regrets, loss. Photographed by Cuarón himself in luscious black and white, it's a mood piece that avoids sentiment but still achieves breathtaking heart.
A pearly electromagnetic valance is all that stands between female scientists and the mutated creatures, doppelgängers and memory gaps that have invaded the United States' southern coast. In they go, Natalie Portman leading the charge alongside Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. What they will find, as first envisioned in Jeff VanderMeer's novels, is some sort of netherworld where the uncanny emanates through trippy science fiction, ornate horror and domestic drama to balance the scale. Paramount Pictures botched the release of "Annihilation," which should have been a global smash, but make no mistake: Its director, Alex Garland ("Ex Machina"), has confirmed his position as a premium technician dedicated to the metaphysical mystique.
It’s a great time to be a movie about a teenage girl. The past two years have treated us to “Lady Bird,” “Princess Cyd,” “Blockers,” “Skate Kitchen,” “Madeline’s Madeline," “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and, of course, “Eighth Grade,” which heralds comedian Bo Burnham as our next great auteur. His point of view can be distilled through a single scene: Lying in bed one night, high-school-bound Kayla (Elsie Fisher, giving the year’s most realistic performance) scrolls and scrolls and scrolls some more, through Instagram selfies and BuzzFeed quizzes, as Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” scores the ocean of pixels illuminating her face. After another long day of anxieties, she’s at peace. Kayla uses social media to project a self-confidence she greatly lacks offline, and Burnham presents modern adolescence's complexity with inspired precision. "American Horror Story: Middle School" would have been an apt title, were the movie any less effervescent. Thankfully, as Kayla would say, it's gucci.
6"A Star Is Born"
Bradley Cooper’s directorial bow had no right to be this good, especially considering it retreads a decades-old Hollywood property. But every generation gets the “Star Is Born” it’s earned, with an actress whose off-screen renown says as much about the celebrity machine as movie strives to. Lady Gaga makes Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand proud, and the tragic-fame saga applies old-fashioned grandeur to a modern world where A&R executives massage pop singers’ images, YouTube turns amateurs into sensations and rockism ruins the day. “A Star Is Born” resurrects the kind of four-hanky blockbuster that has faded from Hollywood’s coffers — and it does so with roving camerawork, catchy music and a soaring sense of purpose. As soon as it’s over, you want to take one more look at it.
Luca Guadagnino’s life was changed at age 14, when he first saw Dario Argento’s phantasmagoric witch chiller “Suspiria.” To say that his remake is a passion project would be an understatement. Even calling it a remake is an understatement. It’s more like a transmigration, shifting the enchanting focus to a gray, fraught Berlin where a dance-academy coven seeks a new sacrificial lamb. In walks Dakota Johnson, who won’t let the matrons’ hooks pierce her soul. Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is an operatic tale of motherhood, memory, power and destiny, told with a macabre elegance that’s Freudian, Shakespearean and Argentian all at once.
4"Sorry to Bother You"
Since the early ‘90s, Boots Riley has been a rapper and activist. Now he’s a first-rate filmmaker, too. His inventive debut, “Sorry to Bother You,” is a surreal head trip starring the fantastic Lakeith Stanfield as a hard-up telemarketer who learns that climbing his company’s ladder means coming face to face with a shadowy hierarchy that threatens to change the world. Surprise, surprise: Corporate mobility requires selling your soul, or worse. This movie, as giddy as it may be, doesn’t horse around.
Adapted from a 1983 British miniseries, “Widows” is a whole lot of movie: a heist thriller, a screed about political corruption, a portrait of domestic grief and a girl-power escapade led by the mighty Viola Davis. It works through and through, puzzling the pieces together so they add up to an electrifying whole that speaks to a contemporary American condition. Steve McQueen maintains the art-house sensibilities he displayed in “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” but still shows us what a modern blockbuster should look like. Too bad so few people paid attention.
2"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Melissa McCarthy is known for throwing her body into performances, often literally. Here, she tosses in her spirit, too. As Lee Israel, a cantankerous biographer turned literary fraudster, McCarthy possesses a bone-deep loneliness offset by the warm, golden hues that Marielle Heller applies to her sublime sophomore feature. We don’t feel sorry for Lee so much as we root her on, especially once she’s bonded with another lost gay soul (Richard E. Grant) in a dive bar. Even for someone who prefers cats and Dorothy Parker books, life’s mistakes are sometimes better experienced with a companion. We’ll always forgive you, Lee.
Parlor games have never been this fun. The NSFW power struggle that unfurls in the bowels of Queen Anne’s castle is equal parts farce and tragedy — a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, in other words. With volcanic performances from Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Nicholas Hoult, “The Favourite” satisfies our collective itch for a lesbian “All About Eve” set amid an early-1700s English court. Every word is a tart-tongued barb, and every corset merely a cover-up for the dangerous liaisons that go unmentioned in history textbooks. Of course, time will tick on, and those who hunger for aristocracy may still find themselves lacking when they achieve it. In 2018, there wasn’t anything as delicious, provocative and profound as this.
• “Black Panther” (directed by Ryan Coogler) Attn. Hollywood: If your superhero infatuation is as interminable as it seems, at least make more that look like this.
• “The Endless” (directed by Jason Benson and Aaron Moorhead) This sci-fi indie about two brothers who revisit the cult they once fled is a time-bending curiosity.