John’s top 10 movies of 2018


he dominant genre of 2018 continued to be superheroes; even with the “X-Men” Universe and DC Extended Universe releasing only one film each, the three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were impossible to overlook. Still, this was a less blockbustery year than 2017, and by year’s end I had seen at least one really good film in every genre. From a throwback thriller to an arthouse gem, here are my 10 favorite films of 2018.

10. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” – Sometimes you want a straightforward horror film, and this sequel to the cult favorite from a decade prior is 2018’s best. A family arrives at their stopover – a vacation trailer park in the offseason – only to be met with increasing weirdness and tension. Perhaps embarking on the career that Katie Holmes should’ve had, Bailee Madison stands out as girl-next-door Kinsey, who is being taken to a school to fix her behavior but now can prove her worth to her parents and brother. “Strangers 2” earns boffo style points for its smattering of incongruous music, neon lights flashing on an empty swimming pool, and other expertly wielded tools from the horror kit. (Full review)

9. “Black Panther” – With its lush world-building and colorful African costumes, “Black Panther” works as the best travelogue you’ve ever seen, but – by the way – it’s also a strong superhero origin story and an essential puzzle piece in the MCU. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan do their usual fine work as enemies-who-shouldn’t-be-enemies battling for the Wakandan throne and the global political direction of the country. Cases can be made for and against isolation or involvement, making this the best and most timely MCU political allegory since “Captain America: Civil War.” There’s also room for humor, such as when the title character tries out technology designed by his kid sister, scientist Shuri (the delightful Letitia Wright). (Full review)

8. “BlacKkKlansman” – Director and co-writer Spike Lee finds a nice balance between history and humor in this mostly true account of Ron Stallworth (Denzel’s son John David Washington), a black police detective who gains membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. A bevy of dark humor spirals out from this central absurdity, but Lee’s film also brings us into the inner workings of the experiences and mental gymnastics that prop up color-based group-think – whether based on black, white or blue. A handful of small but standout performances accomplish this, including Paul Walter Hauser (“I, Tonya”) as an awkward Klan member who just wants to belong, and is therefore perhaps the most disturbing type of racist. (Full review)

7. “Borg vs. McEnroe” – In a year of good tennis films (see also the Federer-Nadal documentary “Strokes of Genius”), “Borg vs. McEnroe” brings us into the thick of the 1980 rivalry between the ice of champion Bjorn Borg and the fire of challenger John McEnroe. It also illustrates the irony: They are a lot alike, and would probably be good friends if they weren’t enemies. Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf are so good – the former with his resemblance, the latter with his mannerisms – that I didn’t stop to think that the actors are older than the players were. Since I have the actual Wimbledon match on DVD, I thrilled to how the filmmakers get every little detail of the grounds correct. (Full review)

6. “Hereditary” – This is a masterful mix of scares, mystery and dark family drama, but it’s not for everybody: It’s so grim it makes “A Quiet Place” look like a gleeful romp. As the script throws an almost absurd amount of tragedy at matriarch Annie, Toni Collette grounds the film in grief. Scenes play one way, but just weirdly enough that you wonder what’s really going on, and by the end we get the answers to a mystery we barely knew was percolating. Writer-director Ari Aster knows how to stage scares where we search the dark recesses of the screen and brace ourselves, as evidenced by the scene when Alex Wolff’s Peter climbs out of bed and we can vaguely make out a figure in the corner of the ceiling behind him. (Full review)

5. “Upgrade” – Writer-director Leigh Whannel, known for the “Saw” and “Insidious” sagas – delivers a smart melding of sci-fi think piece, revenge thriller and crazy actioner. Logan Marshall-Green is a sympathetic audience surrogate as Grey, who (bad news) is paralyzed, but (good news) lives in a near-future where there is a solution. Grey gets fused with an artificial intelligence, Stem, which will follow the commands of Grey’s brain but can also go on solo mode, leading to the dark humor of our hero killing bad guys while experiencing the horror of killing people. As for the story, it’s a mind-bender that will have you perusing the web’s “Ending Explained” articles, but in a good way. (Full review)

4. “Game Night” – The year’s most pleasant surprise is also a lesson in not judging a movie by its trailer. What seems like a dumb comedy about adults having an evening of charades and the like only starts that way. The film entertainingly runs off the rails as husband Max (Jason Bateman, the perfect straight man since his “Arrested Development” days) and wife Annie (Rachel McAdams) are thrown into a world of underground crime. We often know more than they do, allowing us to see humor in scenes that aren’t funny to the characters. There’s also a twisty mystery playing behind everything, plus absurdist humor such as Max trying to wash blood off a white-furred dog and a running gag about Kylie Bunbury’s Michelle (supposedly) meeting Denzel Washington. (Full review)

3. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” – The series’ best sequel is a pure summer blockbuster delight as director J.A. Bayona gives us an hour of B-movie thrills such as a semi-paralyzed Owen (Chris Pratt) trying to roll away from lava followed by an hour of tasty Gothic horror such as raptors roaring in the moonlight. “Fallen Kingdom” can be read as a treatise on unchecked global corporatization, but moments such as an ankylosaurus being put up for auction are so delightfully absurd that things lean more toward fun than serious. Still, the makeshift family theme comes through – better than any time since the original film – with the bonding of Owen, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), an intelligent velociraptor and a genetically engineered human. I can’t wait for the next chapter. (Full review)

2. “Juliet, Naked” – Although you can find familiar rom-com moments here and there, this adaptation of the 2009 Nick Hornby novel feels fresh because it’s interested in its three leads’ individual lives more so than their position in relationships. It has a touch of melancholy as it questions the sanity of Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) building his life philosophy around one album of music, and it digs even further into the regrets and indecision of play-it-safe Annie (Rose Byrne) and layabout musician Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). But “Juliet, Naked” – co-written by regular Alexander Payne collaborator Jim Taylor — is from-the-heart funny, too, and will leave you misty-eyed from laughter both sweet and bittersweet. (Full review)

1. “Eighth Grade” – The story of Kayla Day’s (Elsie Fisher) troubled teen times is also the story of every person’s troubled teen times – and low self-esteem in general, at any age, of either gender, from any time period. Writer-director Bo Burnham crafts a tale of a shy person’s rise to some semblance of confidence by combining his own experiences with Fisher’s contributions such as her observation that Facebook is passé among modern teens (thus leading to a line in the movie). By zeroing in on Kayla right up to the zits on her face, “Eighth Grade” becomes a universal statement on inner turmoil – how real it is, and how silly it is that we make it real. Bookend moments between child and parent (Josh Hamilton, nailing the well-meaning-but-uncool dad role) no doubt play out in many a household. (Full review)