Looking over the movies that moved me in 2018, I’m struck by how many of them are about family. Clans fraying and disassembling or coming back together in times of stress; makeshift families formed from work colleagues or random strangers; single parents and only children making the best of bad situations. Some of the year’s very best film experiences were about the lack of family and the perils of going it alone. Others found fractious strength in togetherness. Baby, it’s cold outside, the movies seemed to acknowledge. Come on in and huddle for warmth.
Divining a theme in any year’s cinematic crop is a fool’s mission, given the long and arduous process of getting a film written, funded, produced, distributed, seen. So maybe it’s in the eye of a beholder, this reading of tea leaves. Maybe a recent empty nester naturally gravitates toward narratives and documentaries that fill the hole with warmth and remembered noise, the jokes and arguments you only have with people you love.
Or maybe it’s a larger, more communal thing. To get through the day as an American in 2018 has been simultaneously to absorb and ignore the awful truth, which is that we are in a nightmare phase of the republic. Rarelyhave the cracks in our national family been more apparent; never have the lies behind the truths we once held to be self-evident been harder to dismiss. If movies do serve as metaphors, conscious or accidental, for the times in which we live, this year’s crop is a hard, collective look in the mirror, confronting disillusionment but not beyond hope.
Ironically or not, it was a pretty good year for film, on both a commercial level — US ticket sales rose, and sharply, after the all-time low of 2017 — and in terms of craft, cultural impact, and artistic and entertainment quality. As television programming continues to mutate and evolve, spurred by changing delivery technologies, the cinema might seem to threaten to settle into a staid formalist afterthought — those two-hour things we used to watch together in buildings specifically dedicated to that purpose. Instead, they continue to prod and poke, divert and dismay, cheer us and challenge us.
A Ten Best list feels oddly old school in this era of efflorescence, when there’s so much to watch on so many screens. So indulge this critic as he over-indulges: 20 films that took audiences to special places in 2018, arranged in thematic pairs and in rough order of preference. Taken together, these movies are for me the year’s family portrait: a gathering on the front porch to celebrate where we came from, where we may be headed, and where we are right this minute.
If Beale Street Could Talk and Hale County This Morning, This Evening — “Beale Street” is Barry Jenkins’s intensely evocative adaptation of the 1974 James Baldwin novel, set in a remembered New York City with colors that thrum like a Polaroid, hardships that are black and white, new-born lovers, exhausted men, and one resilient Mother Courage (Regina King). “Hale County,” by contrast, is a movie of the moment that simultaneously wrestles with the past: A frankly impressionistic snapshot of black lives in small-town Alabama, it’s filmed with breathtaking visual poetry by first-time filmmaker RaMell Ross. Can images of black America ever be free of history, of society’s frame, of the white culture’s gaze? Both these movies, one traditional and one experimental, find hope itself in the struggle to see intimatelyand true.
Shoplifters and Leave No Trace — Two families on society’s fringes, sorely tested yet keeping faith. “Trace,” from director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”), follows a troubled Iraq War vet (Ben Foster) and his young daughter (a luminous Thomasin McKenzie) as they come in from living off the grid and try to adjust to society. “Shoplifters” follows an improvised clan of Japanese scavengers as, to their own surprise, they become bound by love. As a middle-aged mother trying and failing to hold on to her cynicism, Sakura Ando gives what is, for me, the finest performance of the year.
Roma and Support the Girls – A pair of portraits of working women, the ones we rarely notice, like Cleo, the nanny played by Yalitza Aparicio in “Roma,” or the ones we’re told to see only in a certain way, like the waitresses at the “Hooters”-style restaurant overseen by frazzled manager Regina Hall in “Support the Girls.” One film is an exquisitely photographed black-and-white memory play, the other a fractious low-budget working-class comedy — but both are more alive to intersecting truths of class, race, and gender than any other two movies of the year.
Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- One of the signs of a healthy popular culture is whether its mainstream myths can expand to encompass different colors and different creative approaches. While the “Avengers” series bogged down in overkilling fictional characters, Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” reinvented the superhero genre for an underserved audience with joy, weight, and dazzlement, while the animated “Spider-Man” is a modern masterpiece of brio, a Marvel movie that’s finally, truly a marvel.
Eighth Grade and Madeline’s Madeline — Adolescent girls have long been a reliable audience and subject for the movies, but Bo Burnham’s first feature as director and Josephine Decker’s third brought them to the screen with, respectively, empathetic realism and thrilling surrealism. Elsie Fisher is the stalwart middle-school heart of “Eighth Grade,” her character somehow finding herself among infinite social media mirrors, and Helena Howard is a phenomenon as the heroine of “Madeline,” a possibly bi-polar girl torn between two mother figures (Miranda July and Molly Parker).
Minding the Gap and Skate Kitchen — What with these two and Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s”, it was a big year for skateboarding movies. Masterfully shot by director-boarder Bing Liu, “Gap” is a terrifically moving documentary about Rust Belt lost boys trying to find themselves. “Skate Kitchen,” by contrast, is about skater girls in New York, a gritty yet dreamlike semi-doc from Crystal Moselle (“The Wolfpack”) in which a shy, determined skateboarder (Rachelle Vinberg) finds her clan. Both are about the families we make to find a home away from the families we’re born into.
First Reformed and Burning – Two films on the brink — of loneliness, of paranoia, of disaster. Ethan Hawke is a pastor who loses his faith and spirals into mania in “Reformed,” a scary yet ultimately transcendent tale of modern malaise that stands as a return to form for writer-director Paul Schrader. In “Burning,” Lee Chang-dong turns a Haruki Murakami short story into a rich, unsettling triangle that builds toward violence. Both are anti-family films, in a sense — portraits of solitariness going slowly around the bend.
First Man and The Rider — Men far out there on the curve of experience, tethered to the world by loved ones dead, damaged, and alive. “First Man” is the Neil Armstrong moon landing told as an interior journey gradually widening onto the universe; another minor miracle of filmmaking from Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”). “The Rider” is a spare, elegiac drama of a young rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau, essentially playing himself) coming back from a horrific injury; first-time director Chloe Zhao turns it into a valedictory to the western itself.
The Death of Stalin and Cold War — Behind the Iron Curtain with laughs, love, emotional cruelty, and the occasional purge. “Stalin” reveals writer-director Armando Ianucci (“Veep”) as a satirist worthy of Swift, finding brutal vaudevillian comedy in the backstabbing shuffle around the title event. “Cold War” (opening in Boston Jan. 18) is Pawel Pawlikowski’s epic period piece about a romance unfolding on both sides of the divide, blessed by pellucid black-and-white photography and a transporting wild card performance from Joanna Kulig.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Sorry to Bother You — Two fine comedies of the gig economy, which is to say they’re both wickedly inventive near-tragedies about people barely keeping their heads above water. “Forgive” gives Melissa McCarthy a honey of a role as a cranky New York writer who turns to literary forgery, while “Sorry” — a splattery throwback to midnight movies of yore — posits Lakeith Stanfield as a telemarketer seduced into selling his soul after he discovers his “white voice.”
And don’t forget: “Annihilation,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Blaze,” “The Favourite,” “Happy as Lazzaro,” “Paddington 2,” “Private Life,” “A Star is Born,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “You Were Never Really Here,” and “Zama.”