2018 in Review: The Best Films of the Year so Far

Won't You Be My Neighbor?, Isle of Dogs, Fake Tattoos, Meditation Park, American Animals,
and Sweet Country rank as some of the year's best films so far.
2018 slept in, but what started as a slow year for movies has become a strong one. I’ll admit that I’m still not covering as many films as I’d like to here, but there are a lot of films worth championing that I’ve let slip through the cracks and want to take the time to spotlight.

This year’s crop of standouts could easily hold on and be the top ten at the end of the year. The group is a mix of holdovers from last year’s festival circuit, plus new indies, Can Con, and the best superhero movie in years.

The best film I’ve seen this year is Les affamés, but it is technically a 2017 film having been released in festivals and in Quebec theatres last year. I’ve omitted it since this list considers the best of 2018—anything that has been released theatrically from January to present, but anyone in search of a good horror film really need to seek it out now that it’s on home video. In alphabetical order, are my picks for the ten best films so far of 2018.

(Dir. Bart Layton, USA/UK)

Bart Layton follows up his masterful documentary The Imposter with another riveting true crime tale. As with his previous work, American Animals is an exhilarating and inventive feat of storytelling. Layton creates a dramatic narrative to recount the true story of four misguided college students who plan to knock off the school’s special collections library by miming heist movies like Snatch and Ocean’s 11. However, American Animals emphasizes the consequences of crime, entitlement, and privilege by having the characters’ real-life counterparts reflect upon their actions in documentary interviews. It shrewdly straddles style and plays with the line between fiction and reality to invite empathy for these men who learn the consequences of their actions only when it’s too late.

American Animals is now in theatres.

Black Panther

(Dir. Ryan Coogler, USA)

Black Panther is the most satisfying superhero film in some time. Ryan Coogler (Creed) surpasses the thrill of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman by creating a fun, entertaining, and action packed adventure with strong characters and an impeccably realized world. It’s the only studio tent pole of late that feels more like a film than a product. What works about Black Panther as opposed to the glut of overly serious superhero flicks is that it has a self-contained world that doesn’t require one to have seen three or four other franchise films and their respective marketing campaigns to understand. The cast is also lots of fun with Chadwick Boseman offering a strong hero and Danai Gurira stealing every scene as Black Panther’s partner in crime, Okoye. It’s the most energizing film of the year.

Black Panther is available on home video.

(Dir. Sebastían Lelio, UK)

Hot off his Oscar win for A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastían Lelio offers another engrossing queer romance. Disobedience features Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in some of the best performances of their careers playing two members of London’s Orthodox Jewish community who tango with the oppressive patriarchal codes of their world in a tale of forbidden love. Lelio plays with the role of ritual as Weisz’s Ronit, an exile from the community, sees through the emptiness of a lifestyle in which people suffocate themselves as they go through the motions, denying their hearts when religion tells them to celebrate love. Disobedience is a captivating and sensuous exploration of awakening as faith and forbidden love are cosily intertwined.

Disobedience is now in theatres.

(Dir. Pascale Plante, Canada)

It might have been hard to see Fake Tattoos on a big screen outside Quebec, but make no mistake: the film introduces Pascale Plante as a major talent. Plante’s confidence with the script and the actors ignites the natural chemistry between the two leads in this story of young love. Actors Anthony Therrien and Rose-Marie Perrault essentially deliver a two-hander of a film as outsiders in the indie music scene bond over their love for rebellious beats. Like Jesse and Céline of the Before Trilogy, the swell singers of Once, or Clara and Nikolai of Nuit #1, Théo and Meg discover one another through intimate conversations and by sharing their passion for music, movies, and pop culture arcana. The film pulses with the vitality of youth.

Fake Tattoos hits iTunes July 3.

(Dir. Paul Schrader, USA)

Paul Schrader has a return to form and delivers his best film yet as a director with First Reformed. The Taxi Driver and Raging Bull writer interrogates a world in moral decline with this tense and tautly composed study of a priest’s crisis of faith. Ethan Hawke is in top form as the troubled Reverend Toller, a faltering priest whose concerns for global warming lead him down a road of doubt and darkness. The actor and director find a perfect union in tone and restraint as Toller takes stock of his flock and realizes that this world isn’t worth saving. One is enrapt by the violence and darkness of First Reformed’s final act, but one cannot at one moment abandon hope for Toller.

First Reformed is playing in theatres.

(Dir. Wes Anderson, USA)

What an imaginative and whimsical delight Isle of Dogs is! Wes Anderson conjures a bag of eclectic dog tricks with this madcap adventure set in Japan’s near distant future as a clan of abandoned mutts helps a young boy find his beloved dog. Anderson has an eccentric aesthetic that makes his live action films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums offbeat originals, but his visual style works even better on the palette of feature animation. His films have an unabashed playfulness that isn’t matched by other directors. The attention to detail and clever nuances of the dogs’ world are an enchanting delight. The zany energy of the lark—fuelled by Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-worthy score—ensures Isle of Dogs is a storybook adventure one can revisit again and again.

Isle of Dogs is still playing in theatres and is available on home video.

Meditation Park

(Dir. Mina Shum, Canada)

A hidden gem that got lost with a poorly timed release amidst award season heavyweights, Mina Shum’s Meditation Park is a treasure of a film worth seeking out. The film boasts a trio of great performances with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Chang Pei-Pei giving a heartbreaking turn as a woman who reflects upon the life she built for her children in Vancouver when she discovers her husband (Tzi Ma) is having an affair. Sandra Oh compassionately plays their daughter, Ava, and steals every scene she’s in as she reunites with Shum to revisit the themes of family, culture, representation, agency, and heritage with which they broke out in 1994’s Double Happiness. Shum once again provides a rich slice of life portrait of Vancouver’s Chinatown community and her respectfully humane representation of Canada’s immigrant population reminds a viewer that she is among the country’s most vital filmmakers.

Meditation Park is available on home video.

(Dir. Warwick Thornton, Australia)

Why can’t we have more films like Sweet Country in Canada? Warwick Thornton’s visionary take on the western puts a decolonial spin on the myths that the new world offered a virgin land to be conquered. The film stars Hamilton Morris as Sam, an Indigenous man who goes on the lam when he kills a white man in self defense, and he finds a worthy foil in Bryan Brown’s Sergeant Fletcher, the bitter racist who leads the manhunt for our hero deep into the outback. The film, easily the best I saw at TIFF last year, rewards on repeat viewings with its artfully reflective meditation on a nation founded upon colonial violence and cultural genocide.

Sweet Country is coming soon to home video.

(Dir. Morgan Neville, USA)

Morgan Neville makes America kind again with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. This wonderfully sincere film looks at the legacy of TV icon Fred Rogers and the return to Mister Rogers Neighborhood reminds audiences of a time when leaders preached messages of passion, inclusion, and tolerance. Carefully selected archival footage pays homage to the man who was the first teacher to many children, but Neville also provides subtle commentary on the current political climate with allusions to the vitriol of the Trump administration and the culture of toxicity it breeds in America. For all the talk of “civility” these days, one couldn’t find a better portrait of the value of kindness than in the tale of Mr. Rogers.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now in theatres.

You Were Never Really Here

(Dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK/France)

The spirit of Taxi Driver endures in this brooding thriller from Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin). Joaquin Phoenix, who won a well-deserved Best Actor prize at Cannes last year, stars a Joe, a traumatized war veteran who navigates a criminal underworld as a killer for hire to feed his pain. Joe is a modern day Travis Bickle when a job inspires him to save a young girl from an underground sex ring and Ramsay proves she can wield grisly violence with as much artful brutality as Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese can. Tense, dark, and very mysterious, Ramsay’s film employs her signature style that sees the world through a fractured lens of violent cuts and jarring imagery that finds everyday horror in familiar objects. The editing of the film is a jarring fever dream that puts the audience in the headspace of its disillusioned anti-hero. It’s a dark and scary place to be.

The best performances so far:

Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Runner-up: Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here

Best Actress: Toni Collette, Hereditary
Runner-up: Chang Pei-Pei, Meditation Park

Best Supporting Actor: Bryan Brown, Sweet Country
Runner-up: Steve Buscemi, The Death of Stalin

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Clarkson, The Party
Runner-up: Sandra Oh, Meditation Park

What are your favourite films of the year so far?