Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing post-apocalyptic novel The Road follows a father and son who spend their days picking through a parched and lifeless landscape foraging for edible remnants of the time before (before what civilization-ending disaster, the reader never learns). A lucky day for these characters is when they come across a tin of preserved apricots or a sturdy ball of twine in the long-abandoned ruins of a house: supplies for one more day of bare survival.
Moviegoing in 2018 felt like that sometimes. The world outside the theater seemed so grim, so deliberately cruel and aggressively stupid, that good movies became like found treasures to be carefully guarded on our long slog through the ashen wastes. If you came across a film this year that was both pleasurable and, somehow, useful—a stash of both apricots and twine—you seized on it and squirreled it away for the future. Because we don’t just watch and share and debate movies, we use them in ways that aren’t always easy to define. Carried within us for months or years after viewing, they can serve as places of psychic respite and replenishment, reminders that there are still such things in the world as beauty, courage, humor, and joy. Or they can do just the opposite, allowing us to undergo and survive negative experiences (of terror, suspense, violence, etc.) that we go out of our way to avoid in real life. In the best of cases, that vicarious experience might expand our scope of empathy for people who have had no choice but to live through the real thing.
I went back to more movies than usual this year, sometimes to show a family member or friend a film I knew they’d love, sometimes just to drink again myself from that movie’s uniquely refreshing fountain. Every title here is either one I’ve watched twice (or more) or one I intend to rewatch at the first opportunity. There are many other great films from 2018 that could just as easily have found their way on here; I’ve appended five of them to the end, listed, like the top 10, in alphabetical order. Because movies like this in a year like this one are gifts, and what kind of ungrateful recipient ranks their gifts?
The expectations surpasser of the year. Directorial debuts by established actors are often disappointing, sometimes embarrassing, and usually at best auguries of interesting careers to come. How often do they become widely beloved megahits with chart-topping soundtrack singles? The commercial success of A Star Is Born mirrors its already mirror-filled metastory, with superstar Lady Gaga somehow instantly convincing us she’s a frustrated could-have-been, only to stage her own gloriously melodramatic rebirth.
Marielle Heller’s second feature after Diary of a Teenage Girl is the best low-key movie of the year (and maybe, low-key, the best movie of the year). Melissa McCarthy, playing as restrained and cerebral a character as she ever has, never tries to make Lee Israel, a literary forger and misanthropic drunk, into a “lovable” antiheroine. Her Lee can be petty and flat-out mean, and her verbal barbs, attributed to Dorothy Parker or no, come with real poison at the tips. But she proves herself worthy of our love anyway. Richard E. Grant’s supporting performance as her silver-tongued criminal sidekick is among the year’s greatest, riotously funny and, by the end, wrenchingly sad.
It was an extraordinary year for directorial debuts: Ari Aster’s familial horror drama, Hereditary, Boots Riley’s fever-dream social satire, Sorry to Bother You, and Carlos López Estrada’s politically charged buddy comedy, Blindspotting, all marked the start of careers to keep a sharp eye on. But no first-time filmmaker produced a work as unexpectedly assured as the former YouTube performer and stand-up comic Bo Burnham with this intimate portrait of a painfully shy middle school girl named Kayla, played with astonishing openness by then–14-year-old Elsie Fisher. The supporting cast, made up largely of nonprofessional middle schoolers chosen by Burnham, emerges as a group of real, differentiated individuals, not archetypal teen-movie types. And in a year notable for its many loving on-screen dads (in A Wrinkle in Time, A Quiet Place, A Star Is Born, Creed II), Josh Hamilton’s nerdy but noble Mark may be the dad-est of them all.
Never assume you know when a filmmaker has made his best film: Paul Schrader may have just done it at age 72 with First Reformed, a starkly elemental drama about spiritual and environmental anguish. In its style, First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke as a lonely small-town priest and Amanda Seyfried as the parishioner who seeks his counsel, recalls the aesthetically spare, philosophically ambitious films of Bergman and Bresson. But it’s as modern as the home computer that can be seen over Hawke’s shoulder in one key scene. On its screen, a slideshow cycles through worsening climate change scenarios, accurately foretelling the end of the world to whoever’s listening—as far as we can see, no one.
Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Down to the Bone) doesn’t make a new movie very often, but when she does, she makes it right. There’s not an unneeded glance, frame, or line of dialogue in this story of emotionally troubled war vet Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), who live off the grid as hunter-gatherer nomads in the public forests of the Pacific Northwest. As the encroaching presence of “civilization”—that is to say, 21st-century capitalism and the police state—begins to threaten their hard-won idyll, Will and Tom find themselves for the first time in need of something besides one another’s company to survive. Granik’s script never judges her characters’ choices or overtly comments on the social and economic constraints that bind them once they’re “rescued” from the woods. Everything we need to know is there in the taciturn but loving exchanges between father and daughter and in the aerial views of the immense fern-carpeted forest, a place where you could go to find peace or to lose yourself forever.
From the first freely swooping shots of this autobiographical documentary, you know you’re somewhere only this filmmaker could take you: namely, atop the moving skateboard from which debut director Bing Liu is filming his fellow skaters, a pair of childhood friends from his hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Liu recorded scenes from these friends’ lives and his own over the course of 12 years—at first to document their awesome skating exploits and later, as the years went by, to record their difficult transition into adulthood, including an unexpected teen pregnancy and struggles with their own long-hidden family traumas. For a film made by a 29-year-old still coming to terms with a very rough childhood, Minding the Gap displays astonishingly mature insight as well as accomplished visual artistry. (Liu also collaborated on the editing, which is one of this fluidly time-shifting doc’s most impressive features.) Minding the Gap is one of those documentaries whose subjects you know you’ll think about for years to come: How are those guys doing? Did they stay friends? Will we ever see them again?
As Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply autobiographical tour de force about a year in the life of a middle-class Mexican family and their live-in domestic servant heads into the new year gathering awards, critical praise, and hyperbole, I fear there will be a backlash against Roma, based solely on the fact that it’s an ambitious big-budget film by an already-acclaimed Oscar-winning filmmaker that’s soaking up the lion’s share of attention. Every awards season sees some version of this phenomenon, with heavily marketed prestige films taking the limelight away from smaller and just as deserving movies. Counteracting that tendency is in part what lists like this one are for. If you want to root against Roma on the awards circuit because of its critical overdog status, root away, but don’t let that—or the subtitles, or the black-and-white cinematography, or anything else—keep you from seeing this intimate yet epic-scaled story on the big screen when and if you have the chance, even if it does drop on Netflix on Friday. The only way to get studios like Netflix to keep financing great films like Roma and projecting them on the big (in this case 70mm) screen is to cast a vote at the box office.
Andrew Bujalski’s day-in-the-life portrait of a frazzled Houston “breastaurant” manager (played to perfection by Regina Hall) flew so far under the radar on its release I nearly missed out on seeing it before the year wound down. Don’t make that mistake. This keen-eyed comedy boasts a terrific ensemble cast, including the rapper Shayna McHale aka Junglepussy as a dry-humored waitress at the self-declared “family establishment” Double Whammies and Haley Lu Richardson as her inexhaustibly peppy co-worker. In a year when jokes about workplace sexism and racism have a difficult line to toe—especially coming from a male writer-director—Support the Girls wears its feminism, and its social and economic critique, lightly. Above all, Support the Girls stands out as a rare nearly all-female workplace comedy that explores a relationship few movies have bothered to document: the bond between a good small-business manager and her (mostly) loyal staff.
Morgan Neville’s warm portrait of the children’s programming pioneer and secular American saint Fred Rogers wasn’t the most innovative documentary of the year—it’s more dependent on talking-head interviews than the contemplative Hale County This Morning, This Evening and less inspired in its editing than the time-surfing Minding the Gap—but it felt like perhaps the most culturally necessary one, a salve especially formulated for the wound that was 2018. Neville shows us Rogers in all his complexity, a sometimes depressed and anxious man whose traditional Christian faith could make him slow to accept social change. But the film is, thankfully, not an attempt to topple an icon or expose the seamy underbelly of anything. Like the profile of Jimmy Carter at 93 that ran in the Washington Post in the summer, Won’t You Be My Neighbor presents us with the unadorned and thereby all the more moving story of a man who did his best to live a life devoted to serving those who needed him most—a simple-enough-sounding proposition, until you see how few figures in the public sphere in our time are attempting anything of the sort.
The films of the Argentinian maestra Lucrecia Martel have little in common with each other except their brilliance. Nothing about La Ciénaga, a social satire centering on a group of upper-middle-class families on vacation, or The Headless Woman, a psychological drama tracing the mental breakdown of a guilt-ridden housewife, suggested that Martel’s next project would be anything like Zama, an adaptation of a novel set in 18th-century Latin America. (The exact location is unspecified.) The title character is a minor colonial official who fancies himself a Spanish noble in exile, though he was born in the New World and has been waiting in vain for years for any correspondence from the royal court that would help him to escape his miserable backwater posting. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays this sometimes loathsome, sometimes pitiable character with a magisterial absurdity, his wigs and fine possessions constantly subject to breakage, humidity, theft, and decay. Zama’s ultimate fate, we’re left to understand, will be that of colonialism itself: He’s going down, but with maddening slowness and the certainty of causing a lot of damage along the way.
Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.