A lot of cool movies hit screens large and small this year, including the best Marvel movie yet, several inventive sci-fi flicks, and some truly freaky horror gems. Not to mention, a handful of excellent satirical period pieces by Armando Iannucci and the Coen Brothers.
Below are my top ten. It was difficult to narrow down my favourites, and a lot of movies I really enjoyed got edged out of the list (including Avengers: Infinity War, A Quiet Place, and David Bruckner’s excellent folk horror piece The Ritual).
Please note, I haven’t yet had a chance to see Suspiria, BlacKkKlansman, and a few others that were on my “2018 – To Watch” list. So, like all lists, this one may change over time.
1. Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
This loose adaptation on Jeff Vandemeer’s novel is a deeply strange, visually stunning mindbender of a movie. The film chronicles a doomed scientific expedition into “Area X,” a quarantined region where some unknown force is radically altering the landscape – and anyone who comes inside.
The ever-shifting geography of Area X is psychologically disturbing as well as physically hazardous, and one-by-one the researchers succumb to madness – if the monsters don’t get them first. Natalie Portman’s inscrutable protagonist acts as an unreliable narrator, adding yet another layer of unreality to the proceedings.
Director Alex Garland accompanies his ominous screenplay with imagery that looks like nothing ever seen on screen – the plants here are just as bizarre as the mutated creatures that stalk through the woods. Annihilation’s few forays into genre cliché act as palette cleansers for far weirder wonders, building up to a kaleidoscopic finale that feels like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time.
2. The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Ianucci)
Armando Ianucci’s satirical masterpiece demystifies the Soviet Union by turning the aftermath of Stalin’s death into a farcical comedy of errors. With a stellar cast including Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, and a sinister Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, The Death of Stalin gives a dictator and his cronies the send-off they deserve – by turning them into a joke.
3. Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
A claustrophobic, emotionally gruelling supernatural horror-drama that left me rattled long after the credits rolled.
Hereditary is a long con – you don’t truly understand what type of horror movie you’re watching until the very end. Director Ari Aster incorporates a cornucopia of occult horror standards – Ouija boards, creepy kids, witch cults, vengeful ghosts – and maximizes the terrifying potential of each, even as some are revealed to be red herrings.
The horror elements here are enhanced by long stretches where nothing supernatural happens – Aster devotes a lot of the film’s run-time to showing a grieving family fray. When the terror resumes in the last third of the film, it’s relentless, weaving the disparate plot threads into a devastating climax and shocking final scene.
4. Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
Panos Cosmatos’s surreal psychedelic revenge flick combines phantasmagorical imagery with an unhinged Nicolas Cage performance, biker demons, and a lot of cocaine. Mandy feels like a mashup of Mad Max and Evil Dead, directed by David Lynch.
5. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler)
Ryan Coogler’s Afrofuturist superhero movie made the Marvel formula feel fresh again with some of the MCU’s most thrilling action sequences and a compelling (and ultimately unresolved) ethical dilemma at its heart.
The movie looks absolutely stunning; Wakanda is rendered as a pristine techno-utopia, and a neon-lined Korean car chase sequence recalls John Wick 2 in style and thrills. However, it’s the characters who really shine. Letitia Wright is delightful as T’Challa’s genius sister, and has great comic chemistry with Martin Freeman’s stupefied CIA agent (“I don’t know what I’m doing!” he exclaims as she cheerfully leaves him in control of a futuristic Wakandan warplane). Michael B. Jordan is a nuanced but menacing villain, Chadwick Boseman is compelling as a young king grappling with the duties of his office.
6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Rich dialogue, gorgeous visuals, and ironic twists abound in this Wild West anthology from the Coen Brothers.
There’s something to like in each vignette. The very grim “Meal Ticket” opens with an armless, legless man beautifully reciting Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” “Near Algodones” stars James Franco as an unlucky outlaw who ends up with a noose around his neck not once, but twice; it also includes the spectacle of a skillet-armoured Stephen Root overpowering a would-be bank robber. “All Gold Canyon,” a visually gorgeous tale of frontier justice, provides the film’s sole happy ending.
The best segments, though, are the ones that bookend the film: the title story, an absurdist tale of a singing gunslinger, and “The Mortal Remains,” a nighttime coach ride with rich philosophical dialogue and a chilling plot twist.
7. Halloween (dir. David Gordon Green)
This direct sequel to the original Halloween (or, as I’ve been calling it, a loose remake of Halloween: H20) is a gory return-to-form for Michael Myers. There are some great kills in this one, including a villainous psychiatrist getting his head crushed and a brutal murder in a public washroom. Horror icon Jamie Lee Curtis delivers a nuanced performance as a traumatized Laurie Strode, who’s spent her life preparing for Michael’s inevitable return – and sacrificed her family and sanity in the process.
8. The Endless (dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)
This low-budget, smartly-written lo-fi sci-fi flick recalls ” I Have No Mouth, I Must Scream” wish a dash of Safety Not Guaranteed.
The story revolves around two brothers who escaped a UFO-worshiping death cult in their teens – although the younger of the two has his doubts about what exactly he fled. After receiving a strange video from the cult members (still very much alive), the brothers decide to return to their old commune. The cult, as it turns out, may be less sinister than it seems – but the same isn’t true of the entity they serve.
9. The Strangers: Prey at Night (dir. Johannes Roberts)
A totally different animal than its restrained predecessor, this underrated sequel boasts graphic violence and a killer eighties soundtrack (you’ll never hear “Kids in America” the same way again). It’s a lot of fun.
10. Bird Box (dir. Susanne Bier)
This survival horror flick stars a blindfolded Sandra Bullock as a single mother protecting her children from the mysterious creatures that have thrown the world into chaos. These creatures, invisible to the naked eye, show each person who looks on them something so horrible that they immediately commit suicide – or so beautiful that they become instantly enslaved.
Due to its reliance on sensory deprivation, Bird Box has been compared to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place; for what it’s worth, I found Bird Box to be more plausible and less maudlin. It doesn’t boast the same elaborate set pieces as Krasinski’s film, but surpasses it in sheer visceral horror. There’s a spectacular early scene of mass death on a crowded street, and vicious altercations with insane slaves of the creatures recall exemplary zombie films like 28 Days Later. Bullock gives an outstanding, raw-nerve performance here; the film’s cold open, in which she tells her young kids exactly what will happen to them if they disobey her, is instantly captivating.