The past year was a milestone of innovation for the film industry in terms of craft, representation, genre-mixing, streaming content and family entertainment. Movies in general are an iconic visual expression of imagination, emotion and empathy. When successful, they provide audiences with a way to escape, to experience the lives of others through storytelling. Not all films channel this opportunity effectively, and so the ones that do make a profound impression. Several films in 2018 stood out for that reason.

Disclaimer: Due to release timing and lack of availability, The Arkansas Traveler was unable to include the following films in its consideration: “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “On the Basis of Sex,” “Mid 90s,” “Free Solo” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” 

Honorable mentions:

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Boy Erased”

“Incredibles 2”

“Christopher Robin”

“Game Night”

“Aquaman”

“Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse”

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Top 10 films of 2018

10. The House with a Clock in its Walls

It might surprise some to see a Halloween-themed children’s movie outpacing so many worthy contenders this year. However, this film truly deserves the slot. Thanks to a well-crafted, old-fashioned storyline, meticulous and atmospheric production design and magnetic performances from its lead actors, this film is truly delightful. It reaffirms the potential of a well-crafted family film.

9. Black Panther

As the most profound comic book movie of the year and one of the most celebrated blockbusters of all time, “Black Panther” deserves every good thing that comes to it. Its cultural and artistic significance allowed it to remain in the mainstream consciousness throughout the year and even earned it a significant amount of awards buzz. The film is the epitome of ambitious filmmaking and good-natured, powerful theme-work—it set the bar for everything that was to come in 2018.

8. Green Book

This feel-good awards contender is among the rare message-driven pieces that refrains from self-importance. Its thoroughly enjoyable yet simple story chronicles the unlikely friendship between a world-class black pianist and a bouncer. It may take a slightly sentimental approach to the issues of civil rights, but its display of kindness and empathy over examples of shocking debauchery sets it apart from other similar films.

 7. Hereditary

This was a tough one, literally—tough to watch, tough to digest and tough to enjoy. Still, Ari Aster’s debut horror film is incredibly rewarding. Marked by a winding series of unsettling, and escalating, events, the film plagues viewers with unease from its very first frame. Add to that a fierce performance by Toni Collette and one of the most genuinely excruciating scenes of the year, and “Hereditary” is impossible not to have some kind of strong reaction to. The films devastating exploration of guilt, rage, fear and the inescapable burdens we receive from our family sets it apart from other films in its genre.

6. Ben is Back

Just this year Lucas Hedges appeared in three award contenders. “Ben is Back,” a film directed by his father, Peter Hedges, rises to the top of the pack. Julia Roberts also stars in the film, which is ultimately a love story between a mother and her drug-addicted son. Playing out over the course of a single Christmas Eve, the film is suspenseful, humorous and heartbreaking. “Ben is Back” challenges tropes of addiction stories and weaves a well-paced tale of redemption. Hedges is brilliant, of course, but even more impressive is the screenplay, which feels fully fleshed out in terms of story beats and emotional character arcs, despite the limited time scope.

5. Love, Simon

Arguably the most endearing film on this list, “Love, Simon” is everything we needed out of a teenage rom-com in 2018. A truly lovely representation of friendship and self-acceptance, the story takes a long-overdue message of inclusion and embeds it in a delightful high school dramedy. Nick Robinson nails his performance as Simon, coming across as both confident, relatable and kind. Although inherently flawed for not casting an actor of the appropriate sexuality, the story at hand is charming, funny and sweet, complemented with a serious exploration of LGBTQ themes. While it doesn’t solve the problem of representation, it certainly takes a step in the right direction by offering a story that is lighthearted and relatable. Not to mention, Jennifer Garner wins the award scene-stealer of the year.  

4. Mary Poppins Returns

Disney magic was in full bloom this year, just like the precious cherry trees lining the familiar London neighborhood in the sequel to “Mary Poppins.” Emily Blunt donned the iconic umbrella in this follow-up, a daunting task no doubt, and her performance is flawless. The movie does everything to honor and build upon the original film, from the refined opening credits to the compassionate finale. Naysayers will question the need for a sequel, but it’s hard to imagine a better companion piece. Everything, from the ensemble cast to the Oscar-worthy new crop of songs–“The Place Where Lost Things Go” and “The Lovely London Sky” are standouts– embodies pure joy and wonder. With an impeccable blend of escapism, spectacle and sentiment, “Mary Poppins Returns” is practically perfect in every way.

3. Eighth Grade

The most honest, funny and true-to-form film this year was the product of a powerhouse team of a new-comer actress and a YouTube star. Elsie Fisher and director Bo Burnham bring out the best in each other. “Eighth Grade” is the unique film that will have viewers rooting, wishing and cringing for its protagonist all at the same time. Its exploration of an awkward teenager’s adolescent years is ultra-contemporary and yet timeless, sometimes feeling like a documentary. It is one of the most understated pieces of art this year thanks to razor-sharp direction from Bo Burnham and its talented star, Elsie Fisher (ruthlessly snubbed at the Oscars.) “Eighth Grade” is relatable to everyone, even those furthest removed from Fisher’s demographic, and that is what makes it so essential.

2. Tully

Quietly released last May, “Tully” may be Charlize Theron’s most tender work, and her best. It follows the life of a modern mother, worn so thin on the cusp of the birth of her third child that she begins to lose sight of herself. As the film progresses it becomes more apparent that we are witnessing something very special. In addition to the simultaneously humorous and poignant performance from its lead, the film’s major strengths lie in its editing (reminiscent of Witherspoon’s 2014 “Wild”), compelling script (another Oscar snub for these screenwriters) and a surprising ending that brings everything together. Each aspect of this film incredibly subtle and human.

1. Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to 2013’s “Gravity” is different from his last film in almost every way. It’s low on flash and visual effects and it’s not even in English. Still, it’s somehow more of a spectacle. This is quite possibly the most visually inventive film I have ever seen, with cinematography that is at once intimate and incredibly immense. Profoundly compassionate, Roma chronicles the lives of regular, but emotional characters. Some of these, including the film’s protagonist, Cleo, are reported to be semi-autobiographical renditions of the most important figures of Cuarón’s childhood. Amazingly, its lead actress, Yalitza Aparicio, had no prior acting experience. Ultimately, the love and care poured into the project is obvious. This film’s breathtaking conclusion makes this Netflix release a must-watch that deserves to be seen on a larger screen.

Ryan Deloney is a staff reporter for the Arkansas Traveler, where he has been a staff reporter since 2016.

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