A Star Is Born might be the current front-runner in the Oscar race, but Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s musical hit didn’t chart on this list of the year’s ten best films. The haunting, postmodern comedy Sorry to Bother You and savage western The Sisters Brothers just missed the cut, along with ribald royal drama The Favourite — but a superhero royal did still crash the party (and break box office records). The king of Wakanda is in good company among a year’s worth of memorable heroes and villains.
10. The Cakemaker — A well-tuned tragic love triangle, The Cakemaker has the feel of fine ’40s melodrama — if, say, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman had ever starred in the story of a married businessman engaged in a secret gay affair with a pastry baker. In this German-Israeli coproduction, when the straight businessman (Roy Miller) goes missing, his baker lover in Berlin (Tim Kalkhof) ventures all the way to Jerusalem to find out what happened to him. There, the cakemaker eventually inserts himself into the life and café of the businessman’s wife (Sarah Adler), and writer-director Ofir Raul Graizer’s subtle film insinuates powerful messages about family, faith, and faithfulness.
9. Bad Times at the El Royale — Drew Goddard’s long-awaited follow-up to Cabin in the Woods spins a kaleidoscopic compendium of America’s worst nightmares of the ’60s into a darkly comedic thriller featuring a tuned-in, turned-on all-star cast. Bad Times delivers a very good time amid startling twists and surprises, and a flawless classic soul jukebox. Jeff Bridges dresses up the Dude as a deceitful priest, Chris Hemsworth undresses his abs as a murderous cult leader, and Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo sings her heart out in a star-making onscreen turn, which was later reinforced by her standout work as part of another all-star ensemble in Steve McQueen’s fabulous Widows.
8. McQueen — Speaking of McQueens, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui etch a fascinating portrait of late iconoclastic fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen in their revealing, elegiac documentary. Well-stocked with the presence of the troubled artist in home movies and interviews, McQueen allows McQueen to speak for himself, while also employing impressionistic visuals and the evocative music of McQueen favorite Michael Nyman (The Piano) to reflect the designer’s unique sensibilities. The film unfurls his fashion, from workroom to runway, providing insight into his inspirations and industry. Somehow, McQueen tells its audience all they need to know about the man, yet preserves the mystery so gorgeously summed up in his clothes.
7. Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther — This year marked the passing of profoundly influential storytellers from Neil Simon and Aretha Franklin to Stephen Hawking, all voices of a generation to their respective audiences. Stan Lee, the voice of a few generations of comic fans, also passed this year, having witnessed in 2018 the awe-inspiring culmination of his decades of building worlds in fiction. With the box office-toppling one-two punch of Marvel’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, nearly every major character Lee had a hand in creating blazed across the silver screen in a fantastic display of the persistent power of mythology. People still look up to find the best of themselves, even in the darkest times.
6. Three Identical Strangers — No more riveting or chilling mystery hit screens this year than Tim Wardle’s documentary account of the incredible true story of three brothers, separated at birth, who found each other after two decades. Adopted as infants into three different homes, the reunited siblings also stumbled onto the shattering truth behind their separation, and the film reconstructs their investigation with gripping suspense. Tracing an insidious web of lies to their source, Three Identical Strangers even gives the perpetrators of the grave injustice that changed the brothers’ lives a chance to speak on camera. The astounding lack of remorse shown by one interviewee might leave viewers shouting at the screen in righteous anger.
5. Vice — As audacious in form and feeling as any mainstream movie this year, Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic is biased, cranky, and cantankerous (just like its subject), and that’s all for the better. The fast-paced comedy of Cheney’s rise, fall, and rise to his world-altering vice presidency lands a satirical counterpunch to the walloping blow Cheney’s policies dealt to the globe. Christian Bale remarkably disappears into a version of tricky Dick that’s at first lovably mean, then just amusingly awful, always anchored by his indomitable wife Lynne, played by the amazing Amy Adams as the red-headed shot of gunpowder that keeps Dick firing even when he’s down.
4. Wildlife — In this impressive directorial debut, actor Paul Dano created one of the most truly heartbreaking films to come along this year. Wildlife quietly, and with poignant attention to detail, tells the engrossing story — adapted by Dano and partner Zoë Kazan from the novel by Richard Ford — of a family tested by fire when alcoholic dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves for a job fighting a wild forest blaze. Carey Mulligan’s slow-blaze performance as the unhappy wife he leaves behind, reaches moving depths of despair and desire as she attempts to recreate her life in Jerry’s absence. The couple’s prideful, destructive dance is seen through the hopeful eyes of their only son (Ed Oxenbould), who gains a taste of worldly wisdom as he watches his parents’ marriage burn.
3. Roma — Alfonso Cuarón continues one of cinema’s all-time greatest hot streaks, following up his global hit Gravity, for which he earned an Academy Award for Best Director, with this piece of raw, expertly crafted autobiographical moviemaking. The low-key, ’70s-set story of a middle-class Mexico City family and their resourceful maid Cleo isn’t just a penetrating look at the filmmaker’s own beloved family and hometown, but an astounding feat of intimate personal expression on a vast scale. Cuarón directed, wrote, produced, shot, and co-edited the warmly human, black-and-white epic, and guided to the screen an indelible performance by Yalitza Aparicio that makes the whole symphony sing.
2. If Beale Street Could Talk — A truly great director sees the world differently, and with technique can convey that way of seeing. They organize a story meaningfully, and, through shots and character, convey that story’s meaning. Barry Jenkins is such a director, with a lushly beautiful way of seeing a whole world in characters’ lives and faces, especially in the black American lives and faces he so thoughtfully exposed to the world in his Oscar-winning gay coming-of-age drama Moonlight, and now in this passionate adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. Abetted by the textured cinematography and score by James Laxton and Nicholas Britell, respectively, Jenkins conveys the rush of hope and romance that could sweep these characters’ lives forward, if only injustice didn’t so cruelly intrude on their existence.
1. Can You Ever Forgive Me? — A blistering and sad tale of winners and losers, this oddball strange-but-true story was laugh-out-loud funny as much as it was painfully real in its portrayal of human loneliness. Director Marielle Heller’s jazzy dramedy, working from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s snappy script, plays the fun trick of capturing the voice of its curmudgeonly central character Lee Israel, a writer who arguably created her best work writing in the voices of other writers. Israel didn’t so much echo the voices of more famous authors, as she just forged their letters and sold them, a deed of criminal daring and sheer stupidity that’s wonderfully captured in the performances of Melissa McCarthy as Israel, and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, her messy, mischievous partner-in-crime.