It’s been a great year for movie lovers. We’ve seen a lot of truly brilliant debuts, from startling new filmmaking voices like Greta Gerwig and Boots Riley. We’ve seen the overly saturated superhero genre find new energy and invention. We’ve had terrifying horrors and classic comedies. There have been so many good films that compiling this list of the year’s best involved much shouting, occasional bloodshed and at least two instances of flouncing out of the room.
20. ‘I, Tonya’
Ever since she broke through in Wolf Of Wall Street, Margot Robbie has been giving performances that suggest she could be one of the best actresses of her generation. In I, Tonya she finally got a role that gave her a chance to lay out all her talents. Robbie is stupendously good in this weird, fascinating retelling of one of the campiest sporting scandals in history: the rivalry between ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, which culminated in Kerrigan having her legs beaten with a metal bar by associates of Harding. It’s a lurid, mad story told in appropriately zany style by Craig Gillespie (Lars And The Real Girl).
If you watched it this year you may still be trying to work out what exactly you just witnessed. Luca Guadagnino’s take on Dario Argento’s 1977 horror landmark is one of the maddest and most polarising films of the year. Those who love it really love it and quite a lot of others despise it. However you feel, you can’t deny it has impact. It takes place in a ballet school that is rumoured to be controlled by witches. That rumour is extremely true and we witness all the terrible things the witches are capable of in a movie that unfurls with the disturbing illogic of a nightmare. Whether you’re for or against it, you won’t forget it in a hurry.
18. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’
“Diversity” in Hollywood can have quite a narrow definition. In the past few years we’ve seen great leaps in the representation of black people in cinema, but precious little in terms of stories focusing on other ethnicities. Crazy Rich Asians is a big, glamorous, silly and delightful celebration of everyone having tales to tell. Constance Wu is adorable as Rachel, a New Yorker who is engaged to Nick (Henry Golding). Ahead of their wedding, he invites her to Singapore to meet his family. Little does she know that his family is one of the richest in all of Asia. It’s one of the best rom-coms in many years and packed to bursting with extremely enthusiastic cameos.
17. ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’
The world needed another Spider-Man origin story like it needs…well, another Batman, Superman or X-Men movie, really. We’ve seen every possible telling of that tale. Except apparently we haven’t. This animation, masterminded by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the men behind 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, is a riot of invention and pure comic-book fun. It centres on Miles Morales, a teen who is bitten by a radioactive spider and bestowed super powers. However, he lives in a world where Spider-Man already exists, so he knows what’s coming. An inter-dimensional portal unites him with five other Spider-Beings, including a young girl and her battle robot, a black-and-white film noir detective, and a pig. It’s completely bonkers, wholly brilliant and the best superhero movie of the year.
Steven Soderbergh has made some very big, fancy movies, including the none-more-glitzy Ocean’s 11 series. He stripped things right back for this quick and dirty psychological thriller, which was all shot using iPhones. It tells of Sawyer (Claire Foy), a woman who is put into a mental facility, which she believes to be a mistake. However, the longer she’s locked up the more it seems Sawyer is in the appropriate place. The Crown star Claire Foy has had a hell of a year showing that playing plummy-voiced royalty is far from the limit of her talents. She was dark and chilly as Lisbeth Salander in the so-so ‘The Girl In The Spider’s Web’, but this, a furious, sweaty performance, was probably her best moment of the year.
Spike Lee has been a bit off-form for a while. ‘Chi-Raq’, his Greek comedy/gang violence drama was interesting, but it’s been over a decade since he made something really great. He came thundering back to form, with this comedy that is so insane it could only be based on a true story. John David Washington plays Ron Stalwarth, the first black police officer in Chicago, who infiltrate’s the very, very white Ku Klux Klan. It’s both a brilliantly constructed comedy, with killer turns from Washington and Adam Driver as his Jewish co-worker who helps with the plot, and an arch commentary on American racial politics. In short, it’s Lee back to doing what he does best.
14. ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’
Every year there will be one or two movies that come out of nowhere and turn into giant hits. This year, one of those was the Netflix film ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’. It’s a very traditionally constructed romantic comedy about teenager Lara (Lana Condor) who writes letters to all the boys she has crushes on. Of course she never means to send them. In a version of every teenager’s nightmare, Lara’s little sister mails all her letters and the whole school knows Lana’s feelings. It’s a winning movie about owning your emotions and because it’s on Netflix we can watch it over and over.
13. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
One of the best movies of the year didn’t even require us to leave the house. When it was announced that the Coen Brothers were making a project for Netflix, nobody knew what to expect. What we got was a highly eccentric collection of short stories, all set in the old west and all fixated on death. From the story of a prospector (Tom Waits, in a role that should net him many awards) who strikes gold and brings death a’coming, to the tragedy of a limbless actor who just wants to entertain, each of the six stories is a neatly contained morality tale full of comedy and pathos.
12. ‘Phantom Thread’
If this really is the last time we ever see Daniel Day-Lewis on a cinema screen then he went out on a high. It’s impossible to imagine anyone but him playing Reynolds Woodcock, a precious dressmaker in 1950s London whose carefully controlled life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Day-Lewis’ control of a withering glance or a bitchy aside make Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegant movie into a very strange sort of comedy, almost verging on a thriller. Reynold’s and Alma’s romance is one of weird reciprocal obsession, both trying to control the other and perversely enjoying their mutual destruction.
11. ‘Isle of Dogs’
What could make the world of Wes Anderson more cute? A whole lot of dogs. The director of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ returns to stop-motion animation for the first time since ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’. The story is a mix of adorable and horrifying. In a bleak future, a strain of canine flu has ripped through the dog population. Rather than risk the illness being passed to humans, all dogs have been banished to an island to fend for themselves. One boy refuses to live without his beloved pup and goes on a quest to find him. The animation is utterly charming and the script is one of Anderson’s funniest.
Steve McQueen’s films so far have tended toward the arty. ‘Hunger’. ‘Shame’. ’12 Years A Slave’. All excellent films, but not exactly popcorn movies. Widows saw him on looser form, making a straight-forward action-thriller about a group of women who are left widowed when their criminal husbands are killed during a job. Rather than spend their days brooding, they decide to follow in their men’s footsteps and take up their crime mantel. McQueen keeps the film charging along and gets the very best from a superb cast, primarily Viola Davis, enjoying herself hugely as a woman who realises she’s really rather skilled at being a criminal mastermind.
9. ‘A Quiet Place’
It’s appropriate that John Krasinski’s alien horror-thriller snuck up out of nowhere to become one of the biggest hits of the year. The idea is ingenious: the world has been ravaged by aliens who are attracted to sound. If you stay silent, you live. If you make a noise, you die. Krasinski wrung that premise for every drop of tension it held, ably supported by his wife, Emily Blunt, as a pregnant mother. There was no more nerve-jangling scene this year than the one in which Blunt gave birth in a bath, trying to utter a single sound.
8. ‘Love, Simon’
The coming-of-age high-school romance movie has long been a very heterosexual genre. ‘Love, Simon’ makes a big step for inclusion by telling the story of a gay teenager (Nick Robinson) who is dealing with first love while trying to stop school bullies from outing him before he’s ready. It hits a lot of the same clichés as a straight high school movie, but that’s sort of the point: to not make a gay kid’s story so different from anyone else’s. The jokes are sharp, the emotions true, and Nick Robinson gives a performance that will definitely see him graduating to stardom.
7. ‘The Shape of Water’
Guillermo Del Toro distilled all his fairytale-spinning skills into this, the story of a mute woman falling for an exotic fish-man. It would be easy to make fun of if it weren’t so moving. Sally Hawkins is heart-rending as Elisa, a cleaner at a government facility who discovers the amphibious creature, which is being horribly mistreated by those who captured it. The wordless building of the relationship between them is so delicately done that you rarely question the love between different species. Del Toro gives the whole story an old Hollywood romanticism with some truly stunning cinematography. It’s at once very old-fashioned and glaringly modern in its messaging.
6. A Star Is Born
It took so many years to get this movie off the ground – at one point it was supposed to star Will Smith and Jennifer Lopez – that expectations were not high, particularly when untested director Bradley Cooper cast not-very-tested singer-turned-actress Lady Gaga in the lead. Both Cooper and Gaga smashed expectations. He turned the story of the relationship between a waning rock star and a rising pop star into the highest quality melodrama, with some of the best live music staging ever put on screen. She gave a performance ripped from her heart, not just impressive for an inexperienced actor but impressive for anyone. It was one of the year’s biggest delights.
5. ‘Sorry To Bother You’
There was no film this year stuffed with more creativity. The first movie by Boots Riley – the first of many, hopefully – it stars Lakeith Stanfield as a worker in a call centre. In order to advance his career, he adopts a ‘white voice’, finding that sounding like an average Caucasian dude rockets him on a path to success. Riley’s story takes turns nobody could predict and is presented in a style that’s a little bit Spike Jonze and a lot nuts. It’s the kind of movie you could watch 50 times and still be finding new details. In a year of excellent debuts, this may be the best.
To call this a horror movie is to mis-sell it a little. More than anything, Ari Aster’s debut movie is a tragedy. On the form of her career, Toni Collette plays Annie, the matriarch of a fractured family. She’s just lost her very strange mother and that is only the beginning of her suffering. Aster drags his audience through bizarre sequences that leave Annie rattled and feeling like a stranger in her own home. He never allows the audience to relax, giving the constant feeling that something horrible might happen. And in the last 15 minutes Aster unleashes a sustained onslaught of horror that still has us rattled months later.
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3. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’
Some of you may be throwing things around in a fury at seeing this on the best of list. No film divided opinion so much this year as Three Billboards, and if you hated it that’s your right. To those of us who loved it, this was an exquisitely written comedy-drama that managed to make a highly unlikeable woman enthralling. Frances McDormand, on Oscar-winning form, is a force of nature as Mildred, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered. The killer has never been found and Mildred will not rest, or let anyone else rest, until someone is punished. It’s very difficult to make a movie interesting when none of the characters are ‘likeable; but this does it because they’re all fascinatingly flawed, trying to be better than they are.
2. ‘Black Panther’
It was an important movie, as the first big budget superhero film to have a predominantly non-white cast, but that’s not the reason for Black Panther making it onto the list. It’s on here because it is one of the best Marvel movies, full stop. Director Ryan Coogler (‘Creed’) filled the world of Wakanda with indelible characters – especially Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Danai Gurira’s Okoye – and spectacular action (that bar fight scene might be the year’s best action set piece). The script was both genuinely hilarious and with a lightly done commentary on black history in the real world. A sequel can’t come fast enough.
1. ‘Lady Bird’
We’ve all been teenagers and we were all, to varying degrees, probably awful. Greta Gerwig, the indie darling actress making her debut as a director, told a story that brilliantly navigated those years when you’re still working out who you are and not always sure you like the version you currently are. Saoirse Ronan is magnificent as Lady Bird, a precocious high school senior who has a combative relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalfe). The dialogue was sparky, very very funny and endlessly quotable and the emotion was true and heartbreaking. One of the best films about being a teenager ever made.