The sheer number of quality movies that have come out this year is overwhelming — and movies like Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and the new Suspiria are still on the horizon — so you’d be forgiven for missing a few key films along the way.
If you need a place to start when it comes to catching up, we’ve got you covered. Instead of waiting until the end of the year, when Oscar season is in full swing and your holiday schedule is overloaded, we’re offering you a compendium of best movies of 2018 list right now, with everything from superhero movies to documentaries, from friendly bears to international super spies. And have no fear, we’ll keep updating this list until the year is through, so you won’t miss a thing.
Polygon Essentials is a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production — as well as the best entertainment across virtually every medium. For folks new to a platform, think of this as a starter kit. For long-term fans, consider it a list of what to play or watch next. We’ll be updating these lists often, with entries listed in reverse chronological order. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.
Though Paddington 2 was released in the UK, it hit US cinemas in 2018, qualifying it for this list and our love. As improbable as it might seem that a movie ostensibly targeted at kids — and a sequel, no less — would make any “best of the year” list, Paddington 2 is a must-see. The message of kindness and empathy feels particularly essential this year, and in the hands of director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh), the film never panders to its audience. The cutest, most colorful sequences are earned.
When Paddington Bear (sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw) winds up in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, his cellmates and his adoptive family come together in order to get him out and prove his innocence. Though the performances — including Brendan Gleeson as the gruff Knuckles McGinty — are uniformly great, Hugh Grant is the standout member of the cast. His turn as aging actor Phoenix Buchanan earned him a BAFTA nomination, and in a just world, would earn him an Oscar nomination, too.
Marvel movies have seen their ups and downs. In case it wasn’t clear from the reception it got upon its release, Black Panther falls triumphantly into the former category. Helmed by Ryan Coogler (Creed), the film, which follows T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he attempts to lead his home country of Wakanda in the wake of his father’s death, deserves praise for its cultural importance as a film starring — not just featuring — a black superhero, but also its direction. The movie moves.
On top of that, Black Panther is also one of the most explicitly political films to come out of the Marvel wheelhouse, working in commentary as to African and African-American history (past and present). With Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Angela Bassett, among others, rounding out the cast, it’s an impressive film, and a must-see this year.
THE DEATH OF STALIN
Armando Iannucci has long been known for his acerbic wit — any Veep fans that haven’t seen The Thick of It are missing out — and it’s in full force in the startlingly dark The Death of Stalin. The film, which is a take on the events following, yes, the death of Joseph Stalin, has its share of laughs, but it’s a little grimmer than, say, In the Loop.
The jockeying of Stalin’s Central Committee — featuring Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria — is outrageous, and Iannucci digs his heels in not only with regards to the lengths these figures went to in order to stay in power but with regards to the death toll that resulted. Bodies fall left and right, and after a while, whatever comedy there was in the proceeding wheeling-and-dealings becomes pitch-black.
First Reformed is one of the most remarkable artistic feats of the year. As the world seems headed towards natural disaster, director Paul Schrader has tapped into perhaps the only vein of thought that can provide any comfort. Though Schrader doesn’t try to posit that we can necessarily avert catastrophe, and doesn’t absolve us of our own hand in the ensuing apocalypse, either, his work possesses a fundamental love for humanity, and a love for love.
When Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) has his eyes opened as to the way the environment is gradually collapsing, he falls into an existential crisis. Love and faith, however, go hand in hand, no matter how abstractly, and bit-by-bit, they drive the film to its transcendent finale.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?
There’s a strange kind of expectation that often comes along with documentaries about public figures — you think that they’ll reveal something startling about them insomuch as making it clear that they weren’t exactly who they were purported to be, that there was some fundamental human flaw to them that wasn’t immediately visible in the limelight. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is singular in that respect — the picture that it paints of Fred Rogers fills in what wasn’t seen in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but only in that, if anything, he was even more remarkable in real life.
Watching Morgan Neville’s documentary, it’s difficult not to note just how different children’s entertainment — and entertainment as a whole — generally is from what Rogers tried to convey. He tried to teach kids (heck, all of us) to love everyone the way they are, to practice acceptance and care. As is clear in the snippets of Rogers’ personal life we see, they were tenets that he practiced personally, too.
With Incredibles 2, Brad Bird reasserts his dominance as one of the best filmmakers around. Whatever you make out to be the central philosophy of his latest film, there’s no denying the sheer kinetic energy in the action sequences he’s whipped up, and the delight that comes from watching them (accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s reliably snappy — no pun intended — score).
The film picks up exactly where The Incredibles left off, with the Parr family coming into their own as a team. Of course, finding a balance between being a family and being superheroes isn’t something they’re going to accomplish overnight, especially as superheroes are still illegal. But their outlook changes when media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) steps in, claiming that he’s got just the ticket to put superheroes back into the public’s good graces.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
In his debut film, Boots Riley has crafted a vision of contemporary America that will absolutely knock your block off. The film is incredibly dense — there are a million things happening in each scene — and yet clear in vision, and the less you know about it going in, the better.
For now, let this suffice: Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, whose job at a telemarketing company takes a turn when a coworker recommends that he use a “white voice” on his calls. However, as he starts to do so — and sees the according uptick in sales — the company is rocked by a strike by the workers demanding fair pay, which means that, as things progress, Cash is forced to take stock of where he stands, and pick a side.
Whether you loved or hated your own eighth grade experience, Bo Burnham’s film will launch an arrow straight into your heart. The specifics of eighth grader Kayla’s (Elsie Fisher) struggle to get through her last week of middle school might be specific to 2018 — she makes vlogs which she signs off with a cheery “Gucci!” and is constantly on social media — the awkwardness and social anxiety she deals with is familiar territory for anyone who braved middle school.
The ups and downs of Kayla’s life are played unflinchingly — including a harrowing scene that touches upon consent — as is the idea that adapting and growing are continuous processes rather than tests to be aced or touchstones to be passed. Some scenes, as such, may make you want to cover your eyes out of secondhand embarrassment, but stick with it — the film is full of compassion, too.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT
Over the last several years, Tom Cruise has essentially fashioned himself into the man who cannot die, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the latest Mission: Impossible movie. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who also helmed Rogue Nation), Fallout is a thrill ride from top to bottom, which mostly comes down to just how much Cruise seems willing to put himself through for the sake of our entertainment.
Once again, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out to save the world, though this time he’s got a babysitting detail in the form of CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) so the impossible mission doesn’t go too haywire. Naturally, though, chaos ensues, flinging Cruise all over Berlin, Paris, London, and Kashmir. Do yourself a favor and set aside the time to watch it, if only for one of the greatest, most ridiculous opening sequences of all time.
Following its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman took home the Grand Prix. If that alone isn’t enough to convince you to watch Spike Lee’s latest work, how about the fact that its plot, in which Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department, successfully infiltrates the KKK, is based on a true story?
Though the events of the film get a little wilder than the source material, BlacKkKlansman is still a powerful piece of work, not just for the precision of Lee’s direction, but for just how striking it is in addressing the current political climate. Addressing everything from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the Charlottesville riots to personal cultural identity, it’s — as overused as the label may be — a timely and necessary film.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
The days of the Wild West may be long behind us, but the Western as a genre has only become more expansive and more interesting. The latest entry in the catalog is Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, based on the book of the same name. Starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as Eli and Charlie Sisters, the film is a thoughtful revisionist Western, finding the vulnerability in a genre stereotypically known for gunslinging and swagger.
The Sisters brothers are hitmen, and are set on the trail of Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist, and John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective originally sent to track Warm down. The further the four travel, the stranger things become, with the distance opening up old wounds and insecurities, and leading to a final act that’s profoundly warm rather than warlike.
Currently in theaters
THE OLD MAN & THE GUN
Robert Redford’s smile contains an all-encompassing, comforting warmth, and so does his latest film, The Old Man & the Gun. Under the direction of David Lowery (A Ghost Story), Redford stars as real-life, career criminal Forrest Tucker, who, when we catch up with him in the film, is in the middle of pulling off a string of heists. There’s a certain meta-texture to it, as Tucker’s success is due in no small part to his charm, which Redford obviously has in spades.
It’s particularly striking as he begins to woo Jewel (Sissy Spacek), who knows better than to be taken in by Forrest, but can’t quite help it, either. Another scene makes it even clearer that the movie has as much to do with Tucker’s story as with Redford’s, and his immortal place in American cinema, but it’s a moment that’s too good to spoil. You’ll just have to watch it and see.
Currently in theaters
If you have any preconceived notions about what a Nicolas Cage movie should or shouldn’t be, throw them all out before you sit down with Mandy. Directed by Panos Cosmatos, Mandy is a tour de force on almost every level: it’s visually stunning, the soundtrack (the final score by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) is incredible, and it transcends being a revenge, horror or action movie through what sometimes feels like sheer artistic force of will.
Centering it is a remarkably tender performance from Nicolas Cage as Red, which in turn is anchored and given shape by Andrea Riseborough’s performance as girlfriend, Mandy. It’s telling as to Cosmatos’ intentions that the first half of the film is solely devoted to establishing the relationship between Red and Mandy — almost nothing happens as far as driving the narrative forward, but it doesn’t have to. The impact is all the more affecting when tragedy strikes, and Cage’s descent into grief is heartbreaking to watch. He’s a great actor, and Mandy is the perfect vehicle for him.
Karen Han is a writer based in New York City. Her work appears on Vox.com, The Atlantic, SlashFilm, and New York magazine’s Vulture.