Every December, it comes: Cinephile Thunderdome. Movie critics, Twitter users, and Rotten Tomatoes commenters All Fire up their keyboards for a nettle royale over the best films of the year. It's much the same this year, except the front of the pack looks a little different than it did in 2017. Last year, moviegoers had a new Star Wars movie to gush over (well, one to gush over and another to give faint praise to) and director Guillermo Del Toro released the surprisingly charming fish-sex movie Shape of Water . This year there's no Star Wars , but there were some massive Marvel films and the almost-musical A Star Is Born turned out to be a hit with critics, audiences, and the internet. (A triple Lutz!) So which films are 2018's prize fighters? We have some ideas. We'll make them alphabetical, so as not to play favorites.
A Star Is Born
When word first circulated that actor Bradley Cooper was going to be making yet another reboot of A Star Is Born with none other than Lady Gaga the general response was … cautiously optimistic? Unenthused? Very excited? Doesn't matter. The result, which has gone on to make more than $350 million worldwide and become a critical fave, exceeded whatever the expectations were. And perhaps folks should've seen it coming. While no one knew if Cooper could direct, everyone knew he could act. And Gaga, a performer who doesn't know the definition of the word "half-assed," knows a thing or two about the modes and methods of an aspiring pop star. Together, as the movie's central couple, Jackson and Ally, they are unstoppable, from their first tentative duet onstage to the film's breathtaking climax. —Angela Watercutter
Avengers: Infinity War
Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it knows how to build up to a climax. After 10 years, 18 movies, and billions of dollars, Marvel released its massive crossover event this year to a public eager to find out if it was all really worth it. Turns out, it was. Avengers: Infinity War may not even be the best film in the MCU, but considering the massive inventory of plot lines, characters, and assorted BS it had to pull together into one coherent movie, it's about as good as it gets. And its zenith, which found mega-baddie Thanos snapping his fingers and wiping out half of the universe's population, made for a mighty good cliffhanger to set up next year's Captain Marvel and the Infinity War sequel, Avengers: Endgame . The ending felt so comic-book-y it hurt, and its extinction-level event will surely be walked back, but it didn't matter. Infinity War still pulled off an incredible feat of big-budget filmmaking—like :snaps: that . —A.W.
Every so often a film comes along that reorients our very idea of what is possible, one that seems to defy gravity itself. Black Panther was one such moment-defining epic. Outfitted with an all-star, all-black central cast—Michael B. Jordan! Lupita Nyong’o! Angela Bassett!—it was a feat of such historic proportions that its cultural and commercial imprints continue to expand, even now. The story is classic Marvel infused with contemporary currency: Set in the futurist East African utopia of Wakanda, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is challenged by all manner of invading evils, as both king and the Black Panther, Wakanda's feared, respected protector. Presented through director Ryan Coogler's discerning eye, however, Black Panther was able to generate a counter-history in film—first by removing whiteness from its narrative core, then by making black people and black self-determination the default. Creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby may have brought the story of Black Panther to life half a century ago, but Coogler's film elevated the hero into a new pantheon, shattering box office records and becoming a cultural phenomenon for all time. —Jason Parham
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A cutting, unexpectedly charming anti-love story. Melissa McCarthy stars as the real-life Lee Israel, a near-destitute Manhattan biographer who, in the early '90s, resorted to crafting fake letters from famous figures. Richard E. Grant plays her catty, opportunistic partner, Jack Hock, who gets sucked into her scheme, relishing every twist along the way. The two quip-tempered outsiders can barely stand each other, making for lots of dandy verbal volleys. But the real joy of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is watching the two forge something more remarkable than any of Lee's letters: A deeply real-seeming partnership, the kind that can only occur when desperation meets inspiration—and one all the more poignant, given the film's setting in a lonely, scary, peak-AIDS-crisis New York City. —Brian Raftery
A not-fun fact: I almost put this film on our "best movies you missed" list. Despite the fact that it came from an Oscar-winning director (Damien Chazelle) and had an A-list lead (Ryan Gosling), the Neil Armstrong biopic flew through theaters this fall with very little notice: It made just $16 million in its opening weekend and has yet to cross the $100 million mark worldwide. It's a shame. Chazelle's movie, which concentrates on the years leading up to the astronaut's historic 1969 moon landing, is as deft as it is entertaining. And in IMAX, its glowing liftoffs and stark Moon landings are brilliant—visuals juxtaposed by the film's intense intimate moments. There have been so many cinematic space odysseys over the years, it's easy to see why folks would think they could skip this one. They really shouldn't have. —A.W.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Sprawling and delicate, Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk , based on James Baldwin's 1974 novel, concerns the fates of two young lovers as they wrestle against the tide of American repression. Falsely accused of sexual assault, Fonny (Stephan James) is sent to prison as Tish (KiKi Layne), newly pregnant and scraping by to make ends meet, works to deliver justice for him. Tempered by a dreamlike emotional gaze, Beale Street is a film that looks into the pulse of black life and out at the world that works so stubbornly to quell it. As Jenkins' first feature since 2016's Moonlight —where he fractured, then brilliantly expanded, the very notion of black queer cinema, winning a Best Picture Oscar in the process—it is a generous, unhurried study in the parameters of devotion. It is also, quite profoundly, an American story of the first order: a melodrama about black love so full of light and brutal, devastating truth it will rip you open and make you anew. —J.P.
Minding the Gap
One of the 2018's most affecting and time-sensitive documentaries came from an unlikely source: Hulu. In August, the streaming service quietly (maybe too quietly) released Bing Liu's years-in-the-making account of his time growing up in Rockford, Illinois, where Liu recorded the everyday lives of his skateboard-obsessed friends. The boys initially come off as likably bratty goofs, but as they uncomfortably merge into young-adulthood, Liu's film becomes an inadvertent primer on the state of the country's lower-middle class, with its broken families, diminished dreams, abusive relationships. Gorgeously made—Liu shot many scenes while on riding alongside his friends, giving the film a dreamy fluidity— Minding the Gap is both deeply sympathetic and admirably unflinching. It's an American classic—a description that would surely prompt the film's already world-weary subjects to roll their eyes. —B.R.
Alfonso Cuarón's latest is a quiet one, a meditative film that pulls its dramas from the dangers that exist just in the distance—earthquakes, forest fires, violent government response to student protesters —leaving you unsure about which tragedies will touch its heroes and which won't. In doing so, the writer-director created scenes that, while focused on one family, feel wholly universal. It is also a film that celebrates the resilience of women. Two, in particular: Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) and Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the woman whose house Cleo keeps and whose children she's helping raise. While both face their own unique struggles (I won't spoil them here), their shared experiences are what bring them, and the film, together. "We are always alone," Sofia tells Cleo in a late-night moment of vulnerability. "No matter what they tell you; women, we are always alone." Alone in the world, but not in the home they share. —A.W.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
The announcement that Sony would be making an animated Spider-Man movie initially sounded like a cash-grab, like the studio stretching its bit of Marvel IP not just into the MCU with vehicles like Spider-Man: Homecoming , but with additional movies as well. Then the news came that it was going to focus on Miles Morales (not Peter Parker), and that it would have creative input from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who did such good things with The Lego Movie and Lego Batman , and my interest was piqued. That good spidey sense was justified; Into the Spider-Verse is an utter delight, not least of all because it's a new Spider-Man story instead of the same one audiences have heard a million times before. It's smart, beautifully illustrated, and shot through with a wry, knowing tone that the sometimes overly earnest Spider-Man franchise desperately needs. (It also, thanks to Sony, has a killer soundtrack.) There's a certain slapstick that's possible with animation that's not an option with live-action, and coupled with excellent voice actors—from Shameik Moore (Morales) to Nicholas Cage (Spider-Man Noir) to Mahershala Ali (Morales' uncle, Aaron)—it spins an excellent Spidey tale for a new generation of fans. —A.W.
In the hands of a different cast or another director, Widows could've easily lost its narrative—could've been just another "[blank], but with women" flick. (Actually, it might've been Ocean's 8 .) Not so with director Steve McQueen and stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki. Although it may look like a heist movie—a group of women looking to pull off a job to pay the debts of their deceased husbands—it's actually a deft thriller about the overlap between political and criminal worlds. It also, thanks to more than a few tense action sequences, offers up a lot of surprises and a helluva good time. —A.W.
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