Let's go category by category:
None: Unfortunately there wasn't a single movie this year that blew me away and left me demanding every single person I knew to go see it, knowing in the back of my head I'll be buzzing about it for years to come (the way I did about Get Out in 2017 or La La Land in 2016 or Spotlight in 2015, to name a few).
The Great Ones
1. First Man: That said, the technical mastery of Damien Chazelle's Neil Armstrong biopic produced the best movie I saw this year. The viewer is able to viscerally experience space travel in a way that can really only be captured through the scale and immersion of the big screen, unlocking the true power of movies. It's exhilarating. Meanwhile Chazelle uses the rest of the film to strip away the mystique and mythology of Armstrong and paints a portrait that's much closer to gritty realism. It's a stellar (pun intended) combination.
2. Eighth Grade: Relive all of your worst middle school anxieties thanks to Bo Burnham, a 28-year-old stand-up comedian turned director who has emerged as something of a millennial whisperer. You'll cringe, die laughing and likely cry following this week in the life of an insecure 13-year-old girl, every second of which is exposed for the world to see on social media--just as long as its cloaked in filters and fake smiles. This movie is nothing less than the magnum opus of modern adolescence.
3. Widows: A heist movie has no business being this beautifully complex, as if director Steve McQueen sprinkled magic prestige pixie dust full of nuanced subplots and plot twists onto a perfectly entertaining caper flick. Thanks to legitimately one of the greatest movie casts ever assembled (too many to name, but off the top Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Collin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya), the seedy world of south side Chicago comes to life. It's exciting, stylish, and several layers deeper than it even needed to be.
4. A Star is Born: Flawed as it may be, no movie this year reached the thrilling highs of this rock concert drama starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who also directed. I guess the fourth time is the charm for the familiar Hollywood story, which marketed itself as one of the most self-serious "going for it" projects of all time and then somehow kinda pulled it off. It's incredibly indulgent and emotionally manipulative, but the phenomenal musical performances make up for all of it.
5. Free Solo: It takes a lot for me to include a documentary among the very best narrative films of the year, so I do not take the ranking lightly. This character study of Alex Hannold--who climbs insanely dangerous cliffs "free solo," meaning without any rope or harness--legitimately blew my mind. One slip up and he's dead, causing me to literally sweat in the theater and experience the worst second-hand anxiety of my life. Away from the climbing, I've never witnessed a brain work quite like his, sacrificing any semblance of a "normal life" for the obsession of complete mastery of craft. It's fascinating, and more than a little crazy. Check it out.
The Really Good Ones
6. Game Night: This movie isn't just the best possible version of a studio comedy, in that it's hilarious and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. It also goes above and beyond with its style, stealing advanced camera and sound design techniques from movies with much greater ambitions, plus a really well-constructed script. The result is a movie that holds the tension of a legit thriller and gets you to buy into the human drama while you continuously laugh your butt off. You'd be hard pressed to find a better popcorn movie.
7. The Frontrunner: Based on the box office results, hardly anyone gave this political drama surrounding the 1988 presidential election much of a chance. It bombed. And I'll admit, juggling a large ensemble cast of characters (Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons to name a few) is a difficult task within the confines of a two-hour movie. But I think the threads of journalists, political operatives, candidates, family members and strangers pulled into the fray are intertwined really nicely here, with the blazing pace keeping it all on course and mirroring the chaos of the real life event.
8. Roma: I can almost guarantee you've never seen a movie like this. Alfonso Cuaron's semi-autobiographical tale of a Mexican housekeeper is vérité in its highest form. There is no advance notice for life-altering moments while they're happening, and similarly the most dramatic parts of this movie sneak up on you and are gone just as quickly. It's stunningly gorgeous, and totally confident in the story it wants to tell, content to show the personal and intimate struggle of one insignificant person as a stand-in for a much larger whole.
9. A Quiet Place: In retrospect, it's incredible that the gimmick this movie was based on not only got people in the door to watch this, but also sustained itself compellingly for the entire movie. And hidden within the monster thriller is a true love letter from stars and real life couple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt to their children. A perfect example of a movie that doesn't bite off more than it can chew, taking a really small scope and shooting the most precise shot possible, hitting the target right in the bullseye (to mix metaphors).
10. The Favourite: The precision of director Yorgos Lanthimos is stunning, and finally gets a chance to reach a broader audience (a surprise considering this is an 18th century lesbian love triangle movie). Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone all produce legendary acting performances. This is the hardest I laughed in a theater all year, by a long shot, a total skewering of both monarchy and period drama. And it's not even primarily a comedy!
The Personal Favorites
11. Isle of Dogs
12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Wes Anderson (11), the Coen Brothers (12) and Steven Soderbergh (13) are near the very top of the short list of my favorite filmmakers. Admittedly, these three entries are not their best work, but each is still an exceptional work of art.
Isle of Dogs is probably the hardest sell, since it's a Japanese claymation movie about animated pets, but it's also the most expertly constructed and compelling. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part anthology, a grab-bag of different stories about the old West all centered around the brevity and frivolity of life. And Unsane is a tight, captivating thriller starring Claire Foy completely shot on an iPhone and providing some of the best plot twists of the year. All three are very very solid.
The Honorable Mentions
14. The Old Man and the Gun: An incredibly charming send-off for an all-time legend (Robert Redford), following the wild true story of an octogenarian bank robber. 15. Incredibles 2: It's family friendly and tons of fun, everything you could possibly want from a Pixar movie (that is, unless you're prone to epileptic seizures). 16. White Boy Rick: On the other hand, this movie about 1980s drug dealing in Detroit is as depressing as it is real. Matthew McConaughey acts circles around the rest of the cast (except for Brian Tyree Henry, of course). 17. Bad Times at the El Royale: Stealing the format of an Agatha Christie novel, this whodunit chamber mystery unfolds in a handful of really surprising chapters. 18. Searching: The best version so far of a movie taking place entirely on a computer screen, because it combines the gimmick with a pretty convincing fictionalized version of a true crime story. 19. Won't You Be My Neighbor: The sanctification of Mr. Rogers was ultimately exactly the kind of uncomplicated goodness the world needed this year.
The Pretty Good Ones
20. Khodachrome: A road trip movie centered around a father and son that would definitely not have worked if that father and son were not Ed Harris and Jason Sudeikis (and s/o Elizabeth Olsen). 21. Sorry to Bother You: A formally inventive acid trip of a comedy, capitalizing on the hilarity of telemarketing to mask a strong anti-capitalist sentiment. 22. Green Book: A delightful but ultimately facile look at race relations in the United States, using two of our very best actors (Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali) to tie a pretty bow around an ugly situation. 23. The Sisters Brothers: An extremely underrated western drama starring John C. Reilly (playing a very serious role!) alongside Joaquin Phoenix. It's patient (i.e. slow), but effective. 24. Set it Up: A totally innocent, uncomplicated romantic comedy. Does everything it's supposed to, including making the viewer fall in love with its leads: Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell. 25. Hereditary: Probably the scariest movie of the year, less because of pop-out terrors and more because of its deeply disturbing conclusion. 26. Operation Finale: A perfectly adequate WW2 drama that hides an unbelievable acting performance from Ben Kingsley (playing a Nazi...again). 27. Mission: Impossible - Fallout: Probalby the best possible version of this franchise, which leans hard into its campy-ness and doubles down on its ridiculously cool action set pieces.
The Status Quo
28. Black Panther: The subculture surrounding the movie is far better than this slightly-better-than-normal superhero fare could ever be. 29. Vice: Should an all-out political attack really be quite so silly? Adam McKay tries to be both a comedy mastermind and political crusader at the same time. 30. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: Two very different movies spliced together. One good prequel starring the queen Lily James, and one bad sequel starring the over-the-hill cast from the original. 31. Hold the Dark: Just like director Jeremy Saulnier's Green Book, this movie draws you in to its world, kills off all of its characters in super gory fashion, and makes no attempt to learn any lessons from what's happened. 32. When We First Met: A decent choice to throw on late at night when you're scrolling through Netflix, leveraging a decent time-shifting gimmick into a simple, predictable rom-com. 33. Blockers: A mediocre studio comedy in every sense of the word, from its parents vs. kids premise, to it's sight gags, to its tied up in a pretty bow conclusion. A perfectly mediocre amount of fun.
The Disappointing Ones
34. Bohemian Rhapsody: Queen performances = very good. Everything between the musical performances = very bad. 35. Annihilation: Well I've never dropped acid before, but I imagine the experience would be exactly like watching this movie. A total mind bomb. 36. The Mule: This movie was made by an 88-year-old. In every sense of the word. I'll never disrespect Clint Eastwood (he'd find me and kill me). 37. The Year of Spectacular Men: And this movie was made by a mother, written by her daughter, staring that daughter and her sister...who just so happens to be Zoey Deutch. If not for that last fact, this movie wouldn't exist. 38. First Reformed: A depressed priest questions God. And climate change? Ethan Hawke's performance is excellent despite all that. 39. Tag: A stacked cast is completely wasted on an incredibly dumb concept, which I guess was justified because it's based on a true story?
The Downright Bad Ones
40. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Don't look beneath the surface of this simplistic period rom-com, or you'll find nothing but...well, nothing. 41. Outlaw King: A convoluted plot is so jumbled you can't enjoy a nice battle set piece at the end, and almost don't notice the poor Scottish accents. Almost. 42. Red Sparrow: Jennifer Lawrence's attempt at a sexual spy thriller fell extremely flat. 43. Ready Player One: If you spend the entire movie counting the references, that would probably be your best use of time. 44. Deadpool 2: When I use the word gratuitous, I'm not just talking about the shocking blood and gore. Why did this movie exist (other than the stack of money)? 45. Mary Queen of Scots: Female empowerment movies, when handled this poorly, work entirely against their underlying mission. 46. A Simple Favor: If one plot twist is good, does that mean 10 is better? What about 50? Or 100? Even if they have no basis or explanation? 47. Solo: A Star Wars Story: Lucas Film has had over 40 years to plan out the Han Solo story everyone has envisioned, and three directors later we got this incoherent pile of fan service. 48. Ocean's Eight: The most damning thing I can say is that a movie that existed solely to be fun was not fun whatsoever.