James C. Clay’s Top 18 Films of 2018


James C. Clay  // Film Critic

TOP 18 of 2018 

Movies for me this year came from an emotional place. As I’ve gotten older it’s been easier to hold off my cynical side and let loose and enjoy some escapism. No longer am I able to turn my nose up to the studio fare that is typically reflected at the top of the box office. Movies are there to be loved (but it’s OK to despise a film), and taking a movie on its own terms has been one of the more freeing experiences for me as a film-goer this year. Comparing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR to HEREDITARY was never going to be a productive way to grade films, each is a monumental accomplishment in their own right and are two totally filmgoing experiences (and both have value). Point being: you can’t put films into a box and expect to enjoy yourself. 

Long gone are the days when opinions are kept private; we debate what should be the best, what was snubbed right up until the Best Picture winner is announced at the Oscars. Movies are for everybody and they work on us in mysterious ways. A movie isn’t just one thing, just like people aren’t just one thing. 

Media is a tool for us to take us places we haven’t seen; it allows us to turn off our brains; it can challenge our thinking;  and it enlightens us to other cultures, but it should bring us altogether. These 18 films showed me a part of humanity I had yet to discover on the big screen. 


Crazy Rich Asians (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

There has never been a film quite like John M. Chu’s (STEP UP series) CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It takes the typical romantic comedy framework and uses it to have a burst of culture that’s on display for the world to celebrate. While I am not an Asian-American, I am an American, and the display of wealth exhibited by a traditionally marginalized group is displayed as beauty and power. But don’t worry; this is still one of the most outright fun films of the year and will be spawning a trilogy is in the coming years! Yay for more Constance Wu! 


First Reformed (Photo Courtesy of A24 pictures

Paul Schrader’s (TAXI DRIVER) meditative work on religion, guilt, romance and climate change made for one of the more head scratching endings of the year. However, Schrader’s deliberate message is anchored by Ethan Hawke’s layered performance as a priest on the brink of losing his faith. Hawke and Schrader look inward and celebrate the pastoral institutions, with personal reflections that keep you at arm’s length to take you on a rewarding and eyeopening spiritual journey. 


Annihilation (Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Alex Garland’s follow up to EX MACHINA was set up to fail by its studio who dumped the film onto Netflix across the pond and didn’t receive the marketing push it deserved. While this was never going to be the runaway hit of the year, we do have a cast of five scientists – who just happen to be women – who are all on a mission to discover a new form of existence on Earth. Yet, the story gives each one of them a purpose and their fates inform the themes at large. 

Terrifying visuals and many, many dread filled sequences outweigh the “WTF” factor to create a film that I suspect many will grow to appreciate over the years. 


Bohemian Rhapsody (Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY has gained a bad rep from the critical community since it was released. It was directed by Bryan Singer (he was fired during production), whose reputation is absolutely disgusting. But all the negativity aside, Rami Malek absolutely envelops the legendary Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury, with love and commitment that pours off the screen. 

While the story hits at by-the-numbers biopic beats, the film creates an emotional reaction that fills more like fan fiction than fact. For all the quality of Malek’s turn as Mercury, not enough has been said of the band’s dynamic (played by Gwilym Lee, Ben Jones and Joesph Mazello), who play off one another with ease and creativity. If the supporting players didn’t compliment Malek’s instantly iconic role, the film would have fallen apart. Damn the detractors; BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is an outpouring of love for trailblazers all over the world!


Widows (Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Full Review Here

While on the surface WIDOWS looks like your typical heist thriller (the odd marketing certainly makes it look that way), it isn’t exactly your safest bet. It’s a technically slick film about a group of women going up against some incredible odds (odds their husbands couldn’t defeat), but there’s much more that McQueen and Co. work into the fabric of the story.

McQueen’s visual sensibilities work in tandem with Gillian Flynn’s screenplay. It doubles as a story that not only hits hard but discusses the black experience in Chicago. This is a premium genre filmgoing experience that elevates its tropes while celebrating the melodrama in all its glory.


Lean on Pete (Photo Courtesy of A24)

Andrew Haigh’s (WEEKEND) film is about more than a boy and his horse, it’s a sensitive look at the fragility of youth. The film is wrapped up in a rebellious present, yet detracts from that notion with love and empathy for a young man on the brink of homelessness. Charlie Plummer (ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD) is an emerging talent that brings a nuanced acting performance to a kid just looking to find where he belongs. Beautiful vistas and a crusty appearance by character actor Steve Buscemi allow LEAN ON PETE to avoid becoming a pandering melodrama. 


The Hate U Give (Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

THE HATE U GIVE may be the most crucial film to be released in 2018. Taking the disguise of a YA story may have been the best way to take a triggering topic of police brutality and turn it into a compelling story that is here to educate the people of America. However, director George Tillman (NOTORIOUS) isn’t here to indoctrinate or preach, but to invite a conversation. The film isn’t all just message, but it provides an insight into the mind of a young woman named Star (Amandala Stenberg), who is in search of discovering her own identity while forces in her community pull her in different directions. 


Isle of Dogs (Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Full review here

“Was I born to live in the wild?” — “Should I Obey?” These are some of the meditative thoughts posed through the film; it rings true to universal fears that humans have about change and struggle. It’s an overwhelming experience to see how man and dog have magnetic pulls on one another, but the journey to get to that place of trust, isn’t as easy as giving a dog a bite of a “Puppy Snap.” Anderson has never shied away from showing his characters with complete candor; luckily for us, audience’s laughter usually ensues.


Minding The Gap (Photo Courtesy of Hulu)

Youth and reckless abandon are often romanticized by filmmakers that are in the mood for nostalgia. BING LIU’s documentary started as a montage of skate videos that he and his friends would make as a way to escape the wasteland of Rockford, Illinois. Shot over 10 years, MINDING THE GAP takes that romance for being young and uses the look back as a mouthpiece to discuss domestic violence and borderline poverty. Truly one of the most beautiful films of the year Liu’s work is authentic, heart-wrenching and triumphant. 


Sorry To Bother You (Photo Courtesy of AnnaPurna Pictures)

This movie comes from the singular mind of musician and first-time filmmaker Boots Riley as comments on capitalism – the flavor of Oakland and what one will do to be successful. The funniest film of the year is also the most original. Lakeith Stanfield (TV’s ATLANTA) commands the screen with a relaxed bravado as he puts on his “white voice” to lure unsuspecting people into a scheme at his telemarketing job. 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU was the most original film I saw in 2018. It’s a beautiful mess of comedy, anger, and frustration for the system that holds so many people down. Trust me you have no clue where this one is headed. 


First Man (Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Full Review Here: 

Throughout FIRST MAN, Gosling’s performance is completely internal, living in constant fear for the better part of a decade as he falls further away from his wife and sons in service of achieving a feat that could better humanity. 

 In an early scene in FIRST MAN, Armstrong is having his psychology questioned by a room full of suits trying to figure out why this man would so willingly volunteer himself for an apparent suicide mission. The act of diving deep into the mind of these guys could uncover something less savory about their personalities, but it all boils down to personal responsibility. This is Chazelle’s best film to date and his most intimate. 


BlackkKlansman (Photo Courtesy of Focus Features)

Full Review Here

BLACKkKLANSMAN, is in the pantheon of his best narrative films, which include DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X and (some may disagree) HE GOT GAME. This true story of Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in 1978 using an over-the-phone “white voice” to gain access to their “secret” criminal underbelly. Stallworth is a sharp guy with ambition and an attitude to truly enact change within his world, yet he’s focused on doing his job to the best of his abilities. 

At the heart of the film is the struggle of a man attempting to assimilate vastly different groups while keeping true to his own identity. Yet, Stallworth operates with confidence even when the odds are stacked against him.


The Favourite (Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Full Review Here

The dynamics at play are ripe with subtext regarding gender politics and women in power, and Lanthimos plays these themes with visual splendor. There are rich tapestries of carved wood and lush oil paintings hanging upon the floral wallpaper with beautiful checkered floors of the pre-Georgian era. THE FAVOURITE is a furiously funny film that many should take a chance on. Lanthimos is an expert at having his actors subvert expectations.


If Beale Street Could Talk (Photo Courtesy of AnnaPurna)

Full Review Here

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is a satisfying movie that relies on the conventional aspects of a romance and uses the ups and downs of life to discuss the injustices in America’s social landscapes. Jenkins has broadened his filmmaking talents to a more showy display of visual emotion. We see Tish and Fonny grow together, while listening to a life well lived. Change is constant in BEALE STREET, but it’s the intoxicating pleasure of family that keeps us all going.


Beautiful Boy (Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Full Review Here

BEAUTIFUL BOY wrestles with a tough subject, yet the aesthetic compliments the material with an evocative style and the best performance duo this year. There will be detractors who will say this is a saccharine story, but denying the truth this film uncovers would be a shame. It cuts deep and will hit you in the feels.


A Quiet Place (Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Full Review Here 

The best horror serves as an emotional, social allegory that can relate to the world in a timeless manner. Here, we get a bottle cap tight piece of filmmaking with a remarkable score by Marco Beltrami that amplifies the emotion caught on camera. While the characters on screen won’t utter more than a whisper, you’re guaranteed to hear a few screams from across the theater.


Suspiria (Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

SUSPIRIA is an unbridled exercise in arthouse horror, and director Luca Guadagnino (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) puts his stamp on this reimagined version of the 1977 Italian classic. He blends political unrest with comments on feminism, and finding your own power with elegant and disturbing results. Marvel at Tilda Swinton playing three roles, gasp at the shocking visuals and smile because this unfiltered film exists.  

Hereditary (Photo Courtesy of A24)

Full Review Here

HEREDITARY acts as a cautionary tale and points out one of the most obvious horrors of reality: we truly can’t pick our family. Just be warned that there’s a point in this film where you will contemplate getting up and leaving the theater. However, this is typically a sign the horror movie is working in spades. HEREDITARY will test those not willing to give themselves over to Aster’s twisted form of grief counseling, but it’s an exceptional experience no less.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.