This could have been the year when couch-surfers took to streaming services and put a big dent in box office numbers, but moviegoing was actually pretty robust — revenue is up 10 percent, and the industry hit $10 billion faster than ever.
Black Panther and other blockbusters led the way, but independents thrived, and documentaries set records as well — it may be that more options for movies whets everyone’s moviegoing appetite, and maybe even their interest in offbeat fare. Sifting through my picks for 2018, I found a bunch of movies that went against the grain — comedians took on drama and won, the Indians became cowboys, and women got the lion’s share of the good roles.
Here are my top 10 movies in (nearly) alphabetical order.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? There were some great roles for women this year, and this was one of the best. Melissa McCarthy is hard-up biographer Lee Israel, who starts forging the letters of famous people to make ends meet. McCarthy plays a bitter recluse but effortlessly uses her natural gift for comedy to make Israel accessible without softening her. And she works beautifully with Richard E. Grant, who plays her partner in crime. Directed by Marielle Heller.
The Death of Stalin. A bleak farce about Stalin’s inner circle vying for power with the dictator at death’s door. Writer-director Armando Iannucci (Veep) has always satirized the self-absorption of politicians and people in power, and he ups the ante here by acknowledging the horrific consequences of this narcissism. We see how much worse things could be without checks on power. The year’s most persuasive argument for the revitalization of democracy.
First Reformed. Want to see a movie about a drunk pastor at a sparsely attended rural church? Probably not, but it would be a mistake to miss this one, starring Ethan Hawke as a bored cleric who is suddenly revitalized by the challenge of ministering to a young man considering an act of environmental terrorism. Directed by Paul Schrader, presented without music and sparingly edited, it is engrossing nonetheless. Good supporting roles for Amanda Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer.
Green Book. Perhaps my only chance to put a Peter Farrelly movie on my Top 10 list. The director’s knack for comedy turns out to be weirdly well-suited to this fact-based road movie about the friendship that developed between jazz musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his racist driver (Viggo Mortensen) on a road trip through the Deep South in 1962. The movie dives into race and class issues with more bravado than finesse, but it’s exceptionally well-acted by the leads, and by Linda Cardellini, who has one of the best last lines in recent movie memory.
The Hate U Give. There were so many smart movies that touched on race — BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther (Michael B. Jordan, best supporting actor?), Blindspotting, If Beale Street Could Talk. But the one that sneaked up on me was this George Tillman Jr. “YA” picture, based on a the Angie Thomas novel with a screenplay by the late Audrey Wells. It’s about a teen (Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses an officer-involved shooting, and is subsequently caught between the African American neighborhood where she lives and the mostly white private school she attends. At every turn, the movie adds unexpected nuance and context. Stenberg is terrific, and the supporting cast includes Regina Hall (see below), Common, and Russell Hornsby.
» READ MORE: ‘The Hate U Give’: Amandla Stenberg shines in YA hit
The Rider. There were some interesting westerns this year, including The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Sisters Brothers, both of which felt a bit like epitaphs for a genre that’s lost its claim on the American imagination. But the cowboy isn’t dead, and cowboy iconography has rarely been more interesting than in Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, wherein the cowboy is an Indian. Lakota Sioux rodeo star Brady Jandreau plays himself in this docudrama about a rider facing a career-ending injury and subsequent loss of his sense of self. We hear a lot about toxic masculinity, but watching Jandreau find his footing again — as a horse trainer, as loving brother to his on-the-spectrum sister — we see the opposite.
Support the Girls. This movie comes from director Andrew Bujalski, who came out of the DIY filmmaker movement, and its ramshackle, informal structure makes it feel deceptively unassuming. But the lead performance by Regina Hall is one of my favorites — she’s the put-upon manager of a Hooters-type breastaurant having the worst day of her life. Her character is unfailingly decent and generous, yet met by undeserved catastrophe at every turn. She’s so appealing you forgive her one middle-finger-to-the-sky moment of blasphemy, and even laugh. And underneath the laid-back presentation is a very smart movie about the precarious lives of people in the low-wage economy. It’s been a good year for movies about people in the margins — Roma, Shoplifters, Lean on Pete.
Tully. Jason Reitman’s offbeat study of a woman (Charlize Theron) overwhelmed by caring for a newborn and her other children came and went without much notice. But the movie has stayed with me for Theron’s candid performance as a woman who has more than she can handle, captured in Diablo Cody’s ambitious and imaginative script, which has Theron’s character rescued by a night nanny (Mackenzie Davis) who is a latter-day Mary Poppins in more than one respect. Funny, magical, and somehow very real.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Morgan Neville’s deeply moving documentary movie presents Fred Rogers as a man (and ordained minister) who saw his children’s TV show as a true calling, a sacred mission to provide something truly meaningful to children. Neville digs deep to push past Rogers' earnest exterior to reveal a penetrating sincerity that reduced the cynical and the callous to tears — the kind that Rogers would produce among adults by asking them to stop and think for 10 seconds about someone who “loved them into being.”
After Auschwitz. When a gunman killed people at a Pittsburgh synagogue this year (literally in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Squirrel Hill), and I read many of the victims were elderly, I immediately thought of this marvelous Jon Kean documentary, which played here for a week in one theater this year. If you need to reaffirm your belief in humanity, and in America, check it out. It introduces you to several women who survived Nazi death camps and examines lives they built in Los Angeles after the war. A half dozen women, a half dozen different approaches to living (some choose to remember, some don’t). Here are people who took the worst blow history could dish out and found a way to keep going, to survive, and to thrive. Fascinating and inspiring.