Spencer's Favorite Movies of 2018
2018 was a good year for movies! I think this year, in combination with my burgeoning Letterboxd addiction, may have actually rekindled my obsession with movies. I used to watch a ton of them, constantly searching for the next great indie hit. In recent years, I feel like I’ve fallen into a blockbuster rut. This isn’t bad at all, and most of these on this list were major releases, but it feels good to go digging for gems again.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers
I love documentaries for the way they manage to straddle entertainment and journalism. Real life people and their stories can be just as mesmerizing as fiction, and these two documentaries are proof.
They’re just different than movies, so I have a hard time ranking them among works of fiction. I enjoyed each of these as much as most films on this list (WYBMN? was a top-three theater experience for me in 2018) but they didn’t make sense to me on the list. They aren’t below my top 10 as much as they’re on a different list entirely.
Good! Entertaining! Not as good and entertaining as many others thought. The characters are compelling and the scale is inspiring, but it felt like the movie never quite figured out what the ultimate message was, instead trying to hammer down several half-baked ideas. The whole thing kinda fell apart at the end to me. (Caveat with all similar reviews: I am not, and never have been, a big superhero/comic movie fan.)
Imagine you’re at a wedding and a drunk guest busts out a perfect cartwheel on the dance floor during an Elton John song. “Wow! That was actually impressive!” Then he tries again and topples straight into the desert table and breaks two ribs.
That’s what this movie was like to me. I think they had a really good thing going (maybe even accidentally?) and they got too greedy and overdid things with a sloppy ending. In the end: Entertaining with a finish that’s ultimately frustrating. Worth a night on your couch.
I’m a sucker for Kelsey Grammer. Toss in Kristen Bell, Seth Rogen, and some beautiful locations and you have the recipe for a passable Netflix Original. The “vacation gone wrong brings a family closer together” is hardly a novel premise, but the flawed father-daughter relationship was original enough to have me emotionally invested. It’s charming, funny enough, and available to everyone with Netflix. For those reasons, it’s a thumbs up. Worth 100 minutes of your couch time.
This thing nearly backdoored its way into this top ten. The premise of a game of tag on steroids being played by adults is unique, the cast is low-key stacked with intriguing talent, and there’s juuuust enough emotional nuance sprinkled in there to push this thing juuuust past the ranks of “worth your time but not special” in the rest of the honorable mentions above.
Also, at some point Hannibal Buress started appearing in every movie. Somehow he always seems to be additive, which might even be more remarkable than his exposure right now. Combine him with an ensemble cast of spunky B-listers and it’s hard not to enjoy this one at least a little bit.
10. Sorry to Bother You
Sometimes it’s fun to sense buzz around a movie and think, “I don’t know what that’s about, but I’m going to go see it without trying to answer that question first.” I saw some buzz about Sorry To Bother You on Twitter, so I took the leap based on my respect for Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson.
What ensued was not what I expected — something like Get Out on mushrooms. I wasn’t prepared for downright weird when I entered the theater, but welcomed it with open arms as it came. What started as a movie about a guy trying to overcome his boring job morphed into a surrealist commentary on race and capitalism, complete with horse-like beasts and an unsettling Danny Glover.
I’ve since gone back and watched the trailer. It paints a bold picture, but doesn’t scratch the surface of how weird this one gets. Watching an otherwise-ordinary movie come gradually unglued to the point of insanity is fun sometimes. Its ultimate downfall is that it overdid things. By the end, it felt like style over substance and it wasn’t able to find itself again.
09. Ready Player One
Sometimes being really fun is more important than really good. (We’ll see this again in the next movie on this list.)
Ready Player One is massively flawed. Spielberg is guiding the ship, which leads to some glitzy Hollywood blockbuster stuff that much of my enjoyment was rooted in. However, the movie is also in desperate need of more acting talent and a total rewrite of the romantic storyline, which was so cringeworthy it nearly ruined the entire thing for me. Gamer kid earnestly delivering “you don’t know how beautiful you are” dialogue to a ‘nerd’ who is clearly a gorgeous actress is a very tough look.
Eerie similarities to Spy Kids 3D aside, the rest of it was really fun. The world building was great, the premise was engrossing, and the pandering worked. Seeing the Iron Giant in a movie in 2018 was a total gimmick but I liked it.
Here’s a declaration: This may be the worst movie I’ve ever wanted a sequel to. In spite of all of the flaws, I need to spend another two hours in this universe. I’m being critical because the shortcomings are so glaring, but the movie was an overall thumbs up from me and probably clocks in around a 6.5/10.
08. Mission Impossible: Fallout
I’ve always been kind of a sucker for Tom Cruise and Mission Impossible in general. I love intricate and thoughtful movies, but I’ve got soft spot for explosions and guns. Give me something understated about a tortured artist or give me Tom Cruise two-piecing bad guys in Paris.
This was a bit more fun than Ready Player One was for me, but it’s also pieced together much better. Cruise and Henry Cavill are perfect and director Christopher McQuarrie got one right in his wheelhouse. A cumbersome 148 minutes manages to feel tight because of the constant forward momentum building to the most insane climax in years.
To put it lightly, this installment of Mission Impossible was hair-raising. It sounds crazy, but I think it may be the most action-packed movie I’ve seen… ever? Is that possible? The climax was so insane that it was nearly comical, like an SNL-skit level of action. Something like (and this is paraphrasing): “Guy hijacks helicopter to chase down bad guy in another helicopter who has a trigger for a nuclear bomb but then the helicopters collide amid a hail of machine gun fire and you jump from one helicopter to the other before crashing into a mountain and tumbling down a cliff while the bomb trigger falls out of your hands so you rappel down the cliff and grab it and stop the countdown sequence with seconds to spare in order to save your ex-wife (who you still love) and half of Europe.”
And that’s just the final few minutes. This movie rocked.
07. Incredibles 2
I’d argue Pixar has been in a rut for a bit. Their last dynamite original came out in 2009 — Up. Their last top-tier movie, sequel or otherwise, came in 2010 — Toy Story 3. That is, until 2017. I think Coco was stellar. Maybe it got them back on track, but Incredibles 2 was a fitting sequel, the studio’s first since Toy Story 3. (I enjoyed Monsters University, but it was a bit underwhelming considering the original is also one of my favorite Pixar films.)
I think I’m one of the weirdos who would classify The Incredibles as my favorite Pixar movie. I’m a big fan of the studio, so this isn’t a knock against their other work, but there’s just something special about the family dynamic and the burst of action that was enough to make it the first PG-rated film they made.
The sequel felt like an event, and I’d say it lived up to the hype. The family dynamics are interesting, the villains are better, and there’s an A+ scene with the baby of the family discovering his new powers at the expense of a poor raccoon.
Nothing beats a new Pixar original, but I’ll still take a great sequel.
06. A Star Is Born
A guilty pleasure of mine is Bill Simmons. I don’t think I view someone with such equal and opposite levels of reverie and disgust. Some of his sports work is great, but much of it is absolute garbage. One thing that’s pretty consistently great are his podcasts. His site — The Ringer, a pretty good website — has one podcast in particular called The Rewatchables. The premise is simple: Review and dissect movies from recent history that hold up well in hindsight and are therefore easy to watch over and over. They assign several convoluted “awards” to different aspects of each movie, but my favorite is the Mark Ruffalo Award for Over-Acting, given to the actor that is absolutely swinging for the fences the most.
In A Star Is Born, I’d give that award to literally every actor. Everyone is just hamming it up on screen and laying it on impossibly thick. It’s a cornball story line featuring everyone from Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga to Dave Chappelle. Each of them play a caricature of someone that might exist in real life but has been amped up to 11 for the movie. On paper, this should be an absolute disaster, but instead it works and makes the movie more enjoyable. It’s a weird feeling sitting in the theater, staring at the screen, thinking, “This is so cheesy, but I… don’t care.”
It’s a baffling formula for success, and an incredibly (and surprisingly) fun movie experience.
05. First Man
A Ryan Gosling-Damien Chazelle collaboration falling to fifth probably qualifies as a disappointment. Chazelle’s last two efforts — Whiplash and La La Land — were probably my favorites of their respective years.
First Man wasn’t bad. I gave it a 4/5, which falls into my “Please go see it” range when discussing movies with friends. However, my favorite thing about Chazelle’s previous work is the way it swells with energy and emotion before bursting at the end. First Man’s entire goal is the opposite. It’s subtle and understated, outwardly impressive only in its aesthetic. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a space movie that looks like this. So… visceral and textured. There’s nothing flashy, high-tech, or CGI’d to death. None of that stuff is bad, but a movie set in the ’60s is kinda cool when it also kinda feels like it was shot in the ’60s. It’s as if Armstrong and Aldrin took a movie camera to the moon.
The lack of flash makes it more realistic, but real life is never quite as dazzling as Chazelle’s suped-up movie world. It left me wanting a bit more.
04. We The Animals
Talk about finding a movie in the weirdest of places: When writing my Favorite Songs of the Year list, I noticed how Foxing’s “Trapped In Dillards” reminded me of Zammuto’s self-titled debut from 2012. The song had triggered memory of a band I’d forgotten entirely. I thought “Huh, I wonder what they’re up to?” and looked them up to find they just released the official soundtrack to a film adaptation of “We The Animals”—a novel released in 2011 and read, by me, right around the time I discovered Zammuto. What are the odds?
The soundtrack is great, but it’s by no means the center of the show. I wondered how they’d adapt such a poetically-written novel to the screen, but they pulled it off. It’s a gorgeous, haunting, slightly surreal coming of age story set against the depressing but occasionally affecting backdrop of Upstate New York. I was glued to it.
We The Animals would probably be higher on this list if it weren’t so easily described as Moonlight meets The Florida Project. Those are two very good things to be compared to, but its shortcomings are largely because it feels a bit too laced with cliche.
03. A Quiet Place
When I first saw the trailer for this one, I kinda rolled my eyes. I love John Krasinski for his work on The Office, but I haven’t exactly been blown away by his film efforts. Combine that with the fact that he was also directing, and also roped in his wife to co-star, and I was extremely lukewarm. To be honest, I had no intentions of seeing this movie, ever.
Then the reviews started to trickle in, and I became interested. Don’t get me wrong, I was open to the idea of the movie, but its success seemed incredibly doubtful on paper.
I expected some cheap, sloppy thriller-horror, but I got something else. A Quiet Place is at once beautifully shot, written, and acted. It’s a story of a father’s love that was far more powerful and affecting than I gave Krasinski credit for. Instead of B-movie scares and suspense, it’s incredibly thoughtful and careful. In a year with a few movies that surprised me, I think this was the best.
02. Eighth Grade
I am not an eighth grade girl, and actually never have been. I was an eighth grade boy once, however, and for that reason I understood the language Bo Burnham was speaking in when he wrote (and directed) Eighth Grade. The defining differences between this film and other coming-of-age, growing-up-sucks movies are (1) this was intentionally set in middle school rather than high school and (2) it seems to draw heavily from those currently/recently experiencing the events the movie dramatizes. So many similar works tend to feel out of touch and clearly crafted by adults. This one was heavily informed by the kids it’s about, and it comes across as very genuine because of it.
I never liked school. Personally, I view high school with more disdain than middle school, but that’s probably because I didn’t posses the self-awareness to feel embarrassed by every aspect of my being when I was 12 or 13 years old. Watching this has made me grateful I didn’t experience middle school as a girl. It somehow seems worse than experiencing it as a boy.
Bo Burnham is incredibly talented, and I’m beginning to think I might even prefer him working behind the scenes. I’m interested to see what his guiding hand brings us next. Hopefully it’s as good as Eighth Grade is.
I’m a big Jonah Hill fan. Not only does he seem like a good guy, but he’s supremely talented and his filmography is proof. His career has carried him all over the map. Small roles (Knocked Up), breakout roles (Superbad), animated movies (The Lego Movie), indies (Cyrus), more breakout roles (Moneyball), and blockbusters (The Wolf of Wall Street). Now, he’s got his debut behind the camera with Mid90s, and, is it possible Jonah the director is better than Jonah the actor?! Honestly, I’m not ready to go that far yet, but this is a terrific start.
Get into film to any serious extent and you’re bound to end up at KIDS, a 1995 drama by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine that’s stood the test of time as a powerful and resonant slice of life focused on New York City street kids with too much free time and not enough role models. It is — by definition of the word — a very good movie. It’s also one that is really tough to watch. Like much of Korine’s work, you leave feeling like you need a shower and a few episodes of SpongeBob to bring you back to earth.
Mid90s takes many of these cues — youthful rebellion, truancy, drugs, sex, growing up by learning rather than being taught — and packages them in a far more optimistic light. There are certainly moments of intensity and even a scene that’s particularly hard to watch, but the movie’s world view positions its characters (largely portrayed by non-actors) as kids making mistakes and figuring things out together, rather than ruining each others lives in some nihilistic thunderdome.
The biggest downfall are the stones left unturned. Yes, the film is centered on Stevie feeling out his place in the world, but I’d have loved just a liiiitle more about his mother, his brother, or even some of the other characters like Ruben.
It’s a minor knock on a beautiful movie that makes you fall in love with its characters and believe that maybe the growing pains of youth are worth it for the relationships and sense of self they forge.