At the movies, 2018 was the year of Black Panther, the year of more Incredibles and Avengers, more Star Wars and Mission: Impossible. But it was also the year of intimate stories of youth and love. It was the year of period pieces and fantasies, crushing tragedies and raucous comedies. Bob Mondello, Linda Holmes and Glen Weldon would never agree on a single list of best movies of the year. But here are 15 of the movies we admired and will remember.
Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler's Wakanda is exciting in all the conventional superhero ways, but with vibrant new textures, fabrics, rhythms to go with a leading man who, for once, is not melanin-deprived. It's an African kingdom bypassed by colonialism — it's a fantasy, remember — that's filled with female warriors, Afro-futurist skyscrapers, and miraculous vibranium, which makes gold and diamonds seem not worth the digging for. Working together as families do to deal with pain that comes of real injustice, its heroes matter to audiences in ways few superhero sagas even contemplate. — Bob Mondello
Director Lee Chang-dong adapts a Haruki Murakami short story about a strange, vaguely sinister love triangle by aiming his camera with such deliberate meticulousness that a numbing chill descends, and you'd be forgiven for thinking he seems not to be aiming it at all. Which is to say: He captures the singular, very real but very abstract joy of reading Murakami's dreamlike prose by keeping us hovering in a space where reality goes frangible, where characters' memories of their youth may not withstand scrutiny, and emotions become untethered from their usual triggers. — Glen Weldon
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy is outstanding as Lee Israel, a writer who, falling on hard times, becomes a forger of collectible literary letters from Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and many others. Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty ensure that despite Israel's crimes, it is easy to understand her frustration at the cruelty of publishing. Based on Israel's memoir and co-starring Richard E. Grant as her friend and accomplice, Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives McCarthy one of her best roles and examines a very New York kind of isolation. — Linda Holmes
Had Charles Dickens lived in contemporary Beirut, he might have created this wrenching but hopeful tale. Zain is a 12-year-old street kid who sues his parents for bringing him into a world where they can't care for him. Director Nadine Labaki never called "Action!" on her "set" (more or less the whole of Beirut) so that her cast of nonactors wouldn't feel a separation between their real and "reel" lives. She had previously made sharp small films, but nothing suggesting she would create an epic of such sweep and social resonance. — Bob Mondello
Pretty much everything YouTube phenom Bo Burnham has done before this would lead you to expect snap and snark from his feature writing and directing debut. But he has encouraged his teenage leading lady to be vulnerable and observant, then put her in situations played less for laughs than for smiles of recognition: the pool party as rite of passage, the crush that goes unexpressed because how could you ever get those words out? It's an appealingly generous portrait of adolescent awkwardness. — Bob Mondello
Yorgos Lanthimos forgoes both writing the script and having his actors intone their lines in his signature affectless style to direct this witty, gleefully nasty tale loosely based on the courtly intrigues of Great Britain's Queen Anne in the early 18th century. Olivia Colman's performance as the queen is a thing to marvel at: She's infantile, imperious, calculating, repellent, pitiable and empathetic — often in course of the same scene. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play rivals for Anne's attention; Weisz's thin, reptilian smile is lethal weapon, and Stone has never been better. — Glen Weldon
Deeply competitive married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) host a weekly game night with friends. Masked toughs, who may or may not be part of an elaborate game, crash the event; the night goes violently awry. If that's all the film was, it would fall in line with countless other studio comedies in which buttoned-up suburbanites take walks on the wild side. But Game Night is much savvier than expected — it trades on the comedy of ironic restraint, of de-escalation, of mundane conversations taking place against wildly violent, criminal, life-or-death backdrops. It's neither groundbreaking nor career-making, but it manages to be smart even when it's being very, very dumb. — Glen Weldon
If Beale Street Could Talk
Director Barry Jenkins faces huge expectations in following up the Oscar-winning Moonlight, and Beale Street is equal to them all. Adapted by Jenkins from a James Baldwin novel, it follows young couple Tish and Fonny, who are deeply in love, when he is arrested for a crime he didn't commit and she tries to free him. Blooming with sumptuous colors and blessed with a superb cast, Beale Street sees systemic racism through the eyes of not only the active pain it inflicts but the earned bliss and beauty it prevents. — Linda Holmes
Leave No Trace
The title is the camper's creed: Enjoy the park, but leave your site as pristine as you found it. In director Debra Granik's compassionate, often wordless drama, an off-the-grid father with post-traumatic stress disorder and his 13-year-old daughter take that notion further than most. It's about being on the run even when no one's in pursuit, and also about how, with the best intentions, social services disrupt what has been a stable if isolated existence. Leave No Trace treads softly, breaking not a twig. But boy, do you know it's been there. — Bob Mondello
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Look: In no universe does a narratively threadbare, conflict-free concoction of close-harmony power-pop like Mamma Mia 2 belong on any list of BEST films of the year. AND YET. Can we agree that 2018 has been, by any measure, an ever-widening gyre of flaming, airborne, chili-festival port-a-potties? OK, so there's a moment, in this movie, of a joy so pure, so distilled, so perfect it sends a cleansing fire through your soul. The production of "Dancing Queen," in which boats thronged with dancers steer themselves into a harbor, is a much needed, insanely tuneful, giddily colorful balm in Gilead. Plus: Cher in a pantsuit. So. I mean. — Glen Weldon
Writer/director Chloé Zhao's film about a modern-day cowboy (Brady Jandreau) forced to abandon rodeo riding after a disastrous injury is meditative, melancholic and achingly wise about a specific breed of laconic masculinity. It's also, not for nothing, one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year, filled with glorious, lonely vistas, vast spaces and stunning sunsets. Amid all that spectacular scenery, Zhao locates an astonishing and intimate tale of the bond between man and animal. — Glen Weldon
In luminous black and white images, every frame worthy of framing, Alfonso Cuarón captures a year in the life of a middle-class 1970s family in Mexico City. Though based on his own childhood, the film focuses not on the kids but on the indigenous live-in maid who cares for them, following her from domestic chores to dates with a guy whose idea of bedroom foreplay is nude martial arts to a stunning re-creation of the Corpus Christi Massacre. A breathtakingly beautiful cinematic experience that's inclusive, rapturous and resonant. — Bob Mondello
A Star Is Born
Yes, it's the fourth shot films have taken at telling this story of a fading star (here, Bradley Cooper) who falls in tragic love with a new talent (here, Lady Gaga). But Cooper's direction is surprisingly inventive for a first-timer, and he is very good as a clammy, collapsing partner whose love is as toxic as it is genuinely felt. The songs are solid, Lady Gaga is impressive, and the grand emotional beats land, particularly when there's music. Let the big feelings wash over you. Weepies are for weeping, after all. — Linda Holmes
Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn have very different histories: He directed the devastating 12 Years A Slave; she wrote the blockbuster novel Gone Girl. Now, with a brilliant Viola Davis in the lead, they have co-written, and he has directed, one of the best heist movies and one of the best dramas of the year. Davis plays Veronica, who is forced into crime after her husband dies with a debt that she, and the widows of his accomplices, must repay. Suffused with Chicago's racial and political history, Widows is satisfying, funny and exciting. — Linda Holmes
Actor Paul Dano's directorial debut, co-written with his partner, Zoe Kazan, is a family drama set in 1960 Montana. Through the eyes of young Joe Brinson, we watch the dissolving marriage of his parents, Jeannette and Jerry, as Jerry heads off to fight wildfires and Jeannette seethes and tries to reinvent herself. The three leads — Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as the parents and Ed Oxenbould as Joe — are all outstanding, and the simple but thoughtful visual style establishes Dano's chops. Wildlife is a gem well worth seeking out. — Linda Holmes
Jessica Reedy produced and edited this story.