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The best movies of 2018

December 26, 2018

This was a grand year at the movies for spectacle — that “Huh? What?” finale of “Avengers: Infinity War,” Wakanda in all of its Afro-centric glory in “Black Panther,” Rami Malek channeling Freddie Mercury at Live-Aid in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper getting all breathlessly “Shallow” in “A Star Is Born,” — that provided enough water-cooler moments to lift the American box office to $12 billion this year, a record.

All of this happened despite the stiff competition from Netflix, Amazon and the wonderful world of streaming. But the undercurrents running beneath this raging river of cash proved more intriguing.

Documentaries surged in both quality and accessibility, with the likes of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “RBG,” and “Three Identical Strangers” opening theatrically and becoming unexpected hits. Foreign-language films, which have been getting less commercial exposure in recent years, got a jolt of interest thanks to Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish-language “Roma” and, to a lesser extent, Chang-dong Lee’s Korean-language “Burning,” the former predicted to be the rare non-English-language film to score a best-picture nomination at the next Oscars.

“Black Panther” was at the forefront of a wave of African-American-themed films — “Sorry to Bother You,” “The Hate U Give,” “Blindspotting,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “A Boy. A Girl. A Dream” among them — that made 2018 the strongest year for black film in a generation, if not more. Simultaneously, “Crazy Rich Asians” showed that filmgoers will support a Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast.

Here then are my favorite films of 2018:

1. “Roma”

Alfonso Cuarón’s moving recollection of the world of his Mexico City childhood is an absorbing and affecting celebration of the women in his young life. But, filmed in sumptuous black-and-white in a style that recalls Italian neorealism, it’s also a technical triumph in which Cuarón uses the big screen in the way an old master used a canvas.

2. “The Rider”

Chloé Zhao’s magnificent, haunting character study of a young South Dakota rodeo rider dealing with the crushing of his dreams after a brain injury would be worth applauding even if it were totally fictional. That she coaxes such powerful performances from the real-life Brady Jandreau, on whose life the film is based, and his family and friends makes it all the more special.

3. “Black Panther”

Not only did Ryan Coogler come up with one of the best films in the Marvel universe, he did it without sacrificing his unique voice and vision. Also, with the fictional Wakanda, he created an African world of beauty, strength and smarts previously unseen in a big Hollywood movie.

4. “You Were Never Really Here”

This moody and enthralling mystery, starring an especially disturbed Joaquin Phoenix as a veteran who tracks down kidnapped girls slated for sex work, is much more than a tale of rescue and revenge. From Lynne Ramsay’s taut direction to Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score, it stays in the memory long after the credits roll.

5. “Blindspotting”

The story of two working-class friends in Oakland, Calif., trying to make ends meet, turns into a compelling look at life along the fault lines of race, class, police violence and gentrification. The last 10 minutes or so, when star Daveed Diggs shows what made him commanding in the Broadway version of “Hamilton,” are unforgettable.

6. “Minding the Gap”

In a year of so many notable documentaries, this one stands out. Director Bing Liu stitches together 12 years of footage of his childhood, skateboarding friends in hardscrabble Rockford, Ill., to fashion an incisive, beautifully shot and ultimately hopeful portrait of adolescent aimlessness, neglectful moms, deadbeat dads, abusive boyfriends, dying towns and the hallowing out of the American Dream.

7. “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Barry Jenkins follows his magical “Moonlight” with this gorgeously transcendent take on the James Baldwin novel about two lovers separated by an unfounded rape charge.

8. “Widows”

Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya and this year’s acting MVP, Bryan Tyree Henry, are magnetic in Steve McQueen’s smartly concocted and unpredictable thriller about a group of women staging a heist.

9. “Wildlife”

Actor Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with this terrific ’60s-set family drama based on a Richard Ford novel. Carey Mulligan turns in what may be her best performance, and she’s ably supported by Jake Gyllenhaal and young Ed Oxenbould as a boy who has to grow up quickly as his family falls apart.

10. “Burning”: Chang-dong Lee’s South Korean film about a love triangle starring Steven Yeun is a minor masterpiece of mood and desire.

Runner-up 20, in alphabetical order:

“1985”: Yen Tan’s delicate yet powerful story of a young Fort Worth man dealing with his sexuality and conservative parents — played by Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen — at the heights of the AIDS crisis is a knockout.

“22 July”: Paul Greengrass is a master intelligent action and he does it again with this powerful take on the Norwegian terror attack of 2011.

“A Quiet Place”: John Krasinki’s exercise in hushed terror may have had some logic problems but is the year’s best film to see with a (hopefully quiet) crowd.

“American Animals”: Bart Layton’s clever, involving narrative/documentary mash-up about a bungled real-life heist by a bunch of college kids shows what happens when misguided protagonists have more privelege than street smarts.

“BlacKkKlansman”: Spike Lee’s version of black policeman Ron Stallworth’s real-life, undercover investigation of the Klan is inventive and heartfelt.

“Blaze”: Ethan Hawke as a director evokes the free spirit of Texan singer-songwriter Blaze Foley in this beautifully realized biopic.

“Bodied”: Houstonian Joseph Kahn takes a smart, stylish peek into the world of battle rap.

“First Man”: Damien Chazelle’s portrayal of the life of Neil Armstrong engagingly balances the personal and the technological.

“First Reformed”: Ethan Hawke crafts the best performance of his career in Paul Schrader’s masterful portrait of a priest at an emotional and ethical crossroads.

“Foxtrot”: Director Samuel Maoz blends grief and absurdist humor in his darkly compelling exploration of life during wartime in contemporary Israel.

“Free Solo”: The documentary about free climber Alex Honnold’s scaling of El Capitan is even more harrowing than you think it might be.

“The Guilty”: This Danish film could have been a gimmick — the whole thing takes place at the desk of a police dispatcher — but it’s absolutely riveting.

“The Hate U Give”: The young-adult best-seller about a young black man killed by police becomes a vibrant, life-affirming film that both adults and young adults should celebrate.

“Leave No Trace”: Ben Foster, one of the country’s best actors, turns in a stirring performance as a veteran who chooses homelessness over rootedness while his teenage daughter yearns for something else.

“Mary Queen of Scots”: Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie absolutely rule in this riveting history lesson about the war of wills between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.

“Mission: Impossible — Fallout”: A long-running franchise doesn’t have to run out of gas, and this installment proves it.

“Searching” — Telling the tale of a man hunting for his missing daughter by only using his online presence and social-media posts screams “gimmick,” but director Aneesh Chaganty and star John Cho turn it into an innovative stroke of genius.

“Shoplifters”: The flip side of Japan’s shiny technocracy is the focus of Hirokazu Koreeda’s moving story about a struggling family who shoplift to make ends meet.

“Sorry to Bother You”: Boots Riley’s anarchic blast of social commentary is a hilarious critique of workplace drudgery, social engineering and corporate groupthink.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”: The animated entry into the “Spider-Man” universe turns out to be one of the best in the franchise.

cary.darling@chron.com

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