Ah, 2018. The year of tortured pop stars, doomed superheroes, dancing witches, and dueling confidants. It’s a small miracle that in a year where things in the real world can seem increasingly dire, the cinematic universe is only growing stronger. There’s any number of possibilities as to why you could single out 2018 as a particularly exciting year for movies. Many are asking: is film getting smarter? Are we? Venom would like to have a word with you, though in the year where films like Roma painted grand landscapes of everyday life in 1970s Mexico City or Annihilation pushed blockbuster sci-fi into uncharted territory, it’s easy to see why some would think the film industry is in the midst of a continued epiphany. After all, not some five or so years ago, as Netflix began its rise to dominance, eulogies were already being written for “traditional” cinema. Box office numbers were down, streaming was up, and it just didn’t seem like movies were really capturing the imagination that they once did. Now that may be reductive thinking, but it’s hard to deny it feels like the medium is on an upswing from that period of uncertainty. It seems like people couldn’t get enough of the movies this year, and that’s not just because Avengers: Infinity War hit screens; from the box office power of Crazy Rich Asians and A Star Is Born to the online obsessions with Eighth Grade and First Reformed, there’s something to be said about film’s dominance in the 2018 cultural conversation. And perhaps it’s because it’s reflecting us better than it ever has before, bringing to life what makes us a tick in a way no other art form can. This year proved that film continues to hold its power over us, transporting us into the depths of our own imagination while pushing us to think more deeply about the foundations of our world. This video aims to capture the spirit of that mission, culminating in a countdown of the 20 films that stood out in a year packed to the brim with gems.

THE best

20. Vox Lux, dir. Brady Corbet

Brady Corbet’s nasty, provocative answer to the glitzy melodrama of music dramas like A Star Is Born has much more on its mind than just pop music. Following school survivor Celeste’s meteoric rise to pop stardom, Corbet uses a brilliant pair of performances from Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman to expose the dark heart of American escapism, bringing to task our tendencies to bury our grief and guilt under the shiny facade of the new. But as Portman’s diva-like performance reminds us, those whose tragedy is turned into a public matter can never let go of their pain the way everyone wants them to.

19. Thoroughbreds, dir. Cory Finley

Playwright Cory Finley gave himself one hell of an introduction to film with this directorial debut, which features Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as Amanda and Lily, a pair of misanthropic rich girls who plot to murder Lily’s unbearable stepfather. The genius of the film lies in the pairing of its two leads, with Cooke playing Amanda like a dispassionate version of Christian Slater’s murder boyfriend with Heathers and Taylor-Joy turning Lily into a ticking time-bomb whose relationship with Amanda may not be her most productive relationship. It’s a work that manages to surprise you at every turn, providing a tale that’s equal parts dark humor and engrossing thriller. Not to mention it features fantastic work from Anton Yelchin in what was his final role before his untimely death, reminding you with every scene that we lost a monumental talent far too soon.

18. Mandy, dir. Panos Cosmatos

It’s easy to forget that Nicolas Cage was once considered one of the finest actors of generation. After an Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas relatively early in his career, fast-forward over two decades and the poor guy is taken more seriously as a meme than as an artist. Still, even those who would rather joke about Cage’s career than praise him admit he’s always had that something, that mad spark of genius underneath all the kicking and screaming that was waiting for the right moment to fully burst into the limelight. Well, Cage finally found what he seemed to be looking for with Mandy, a seriously deranged heavy metal epic that follows Cage’s Red Miller on a path of a revenge after a band of cultists murder his beloved. Director Panos Cosmatos manages to tap into that special brand of Cage insanity and give it a purpose, making him the human heart of this trip down the rabbit hole. Drug trips, chainsaw duels, and a Cheddar Goblin are just a few tools Cosmatos uses to pay homage to the weirdness of the metal genre, but don’t let that fool into thinking this is a reductive rehash of the genre’s iconography. This is hypnotic piece of work that understands the tender heart and soul deep within headbangers, not just their capacity for chaos.

17. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Why major studios have so long insisted on only pushing out animated adaptations of comic books as straight-to-DVD fodder is beyond me, and nothing hammers home that ignorance more than when you’re lost in the joyous fantasia of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. A dazzlingly animated, always thrilling, and deeply human take on Marvel’s most iconic superhero, this is arguably the best adaptation of the character yet, and it’s largely because it crams together six different versions of your friendly neighbor crime-stopper in a universe-bending stroke of genius. Few films get more entertaining than this; it’s got John Mulaney as a Looney Tunes-inspired pig webslinger named Spider-Ham and Nicolas Cage as a black-and-white private dick credited as Spider-Man Noir who describes himself as an aficionado of “drinking egg-creams and beating up Nazis”, for crying out loud. But it really shines because it has a heart in Shamiek Moore’s Miles Morales, the long-adored young black Spider-Man whose gave the franchise an intoxicating freshness when introduced in comics back in 2011. The wait for a Morales-led movie was well worth the wait, and his relationship with Jake Johnson’s curmudgeonly take on Peter Parker only makes this already dynamite film all the more impactful. Consider this the new gold standard for superhero fare.

16. You Were Never Really Here, dir. Lynne Ramsey

If you somehow had any doubts that Lynne Ramsey is one of the finest directors working today, brush that baseless assumption aside for good because You Were Never Really Here yet again proves she is a certified talent. The plot features a hulking and bearded Joaquin Phoenix cracking skulls with a hammer in pursuit of a kidnapped senator’s daughter, leading to a slew of Taxi Driver comparisons that do neither film service. This is oh such more than just that, a haunting portrayal of how trauma manifests through violence that allows Phoenix to turn in some of his best work yet. Ramsey directs with the skill of a true master, showing restraint where there would normally be gratuity and never taking the film in a direction that’s predictable. It also features probably the best ending scene of the year, a dark fantasy interrupted by a faint glimmer of hope that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

15. Wildlife, dir. Paul Dano

When you’re an immensely talented actor and get the opportunity to repeatedly work with some of the greatest directors in the business, some of the skill behind the camera is bound to rub off. Few prove that as assuredly as Paul Dano in his writing and directorial debut Wildlife, an adaptation of Richard Brody’s novel of the same name that follows Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a nuclear family couple in the midst of an imploding marriage. Stunning shots of grand Montana vistas and raging forest fires surround what is a career performance from Mulligan, who brings to life her messy, regretful housewife with a serious dose of humanity. Dano is smart enough to know when to play his stylistic cards and when to let his actors do the work for him, a sign of a patience that rewards burgeoning filmmakers with long careers behind the camera.

14. BlacKkKlansman, dir. Spike Lee

Spike Lee has long been dismissed as a director who is too “angry”, an inherently political artist who over-exaggerates his depictions of racial oppression in America and doesn’t know how to balance activism and entertainment. Nothing proves that (largely racist) rhetoric about exaggeration more wrong than the onslaught of white supremacy currently plaguing our nation, so what is Spike to do about it? Well he discovers the true story of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, who over the course of nine months pretended to be a card-carrying racist white man in order to infiltrate a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and turns it into a razor-sharp comedy-drama. The result is an often hilarious but always horrifying tale of racism in America, one which sees a pair of excellent performances from John David Washington and Adam Driver and Lee back at the top of his game.

13. First Man, dir. Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle, the Academy-adored wunderkind who turned music films into hits again with Whiplash and La La Land, seemed to be taking a left turn in his career when it was announced he was re-teaming with Ryan Gosling for a biopic about astronaut Neil Armstrong. It makes a lot more sense when you watch this dazzling exploration of the road to the Moon, which plays less like gumption-driven adaptations like The Right Stuff and more like a somber introspective on the drives of those who deal with grief through their work. Gosling plays Armstrong as if distant as the Moon itself, turning the unknowable man into a tortured soul desperate to touch the unknown as if it’s the only way he’ll touch anything again. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the so-called American dream, a film that questions whether or not our sense of national valor is masking a guilty sort of masochism. Oh, it also turns events you know turn out okay into insanely realistic, nail-baiting moments of anxiety. So there’s that.

12. Widows, dir. Steve McQueen

Even the most “serious” of directors dip their toes into genre fare every now and again, but Steve McQueen doing a heist film? That seemed pretty far outside his purview. Those who had that very thought cross their minds couldn’t have been more wrong, as Widows is a startling thrill ride that lets McQueen and Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn turn a trashy British miniseries into high art. Following a fiery Viola Davis as the grieving widow of a bank robber who must turn to the other bereaved wives of the crew that died along with her husband when a local crime lord comes demanding his money back. What happens next turns the heist genre on its head, assembling an absolutely stacked cast to tell a tale of corruption, violence, and racism that elevates popcorn thrills into intelligent examinations of American ideals.

11. Mission Impossible: Fallout, dir. Christopher McQuarrie

Tom Cruise is Hollywood’s wild man, a blockbuster actor baked in mystique who is seemingly indestructible and always eager to please, no matter the cost. He goes fully off the rails with the newest, and best, entry in his always thrilling Mission: Impossible series, risking his life in insane practical stunt after insane practical stunt due to an unquenchable need to entertain. It’s a breathless film that not only provides the most wildly entertaining action movie moments in recent memory, it also questions the motivations of action heroes in a way few other films even dream of, positing that Cruise’s signature character perhaps survives simply because he’s devoted to those he loves most above all else.

10. If Beale Street Could Talk, dir. Barry Jenkins

It’s so daunting of a task to adapt author James Baldwin’s work for the screen that we’re only just now getting one more than three decades after his death. How, after all, can you transmit the words of one of our most profoundly talented, emotionally wise authors and activists to the screen without besmirching his memory? Leave it to Barry Jenkins, who proves his success with the flooring Moonlight was no fluke with this heartbreaking and tender adaptation of Baldwin’s novel of the same name, which sees a deeply in-love young couple torn apart by the specter of institutionalized racism. Jenkins manages to bring to life the lyricism of Baldwin’s words through a combination of patient writing, gorgeous direction, and a slew of amazing performances. Leads KiKi Layne and Stephan James have an intoxicating chemistry that only makes the film all the more earth-shattering, and supporting turns from Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry only further color the deep hues of Baldwin’s work on-screen with performances that will leave you speechless.

9. Annihilation, dir. Alex Garland

There’s few, if any, films more visually striking this year than Alex Garland’s Annihilation, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name that sees Natalie Portman as a biologist taking an excursion along with a team of all-female scientists into a mysterious quarantine zone called The Shimmer, all in a bid to save her comatose husband (payed by Oscar Isaac), the only person come out of the zone alive. What takes place beyond the trippy wall that separates Portman from the outside world is equal parts the stuff of beauty and nightmares, a deeply haunting but profoundly mesmerizing exploration of the interconnection of ecosystems that shows sci-fi is at its best when it’s allowed to embrace the strangeness of the unknown.

8. Burning, dir. Lee Chang-dong

An adaptation of legendary author Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning”, Lee Chang-dong takes us to the edge of the Korean border for a mystery soaked with intrigue. Following the meek Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) as he tries to surmise what happened between his missing love Hae-Mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and her mysterious and sinister new boyfriend Ben (a harrowing turn from Steven Yeun), this trip into the heart of darkness features some of the most stunning cinematography this year and a trio of brilliant performances that make the film’s cat-and-mouse game feel all the more real. This is a slow-burn (no pun intended) potboiler that asks the question of what a regular person would do if they were on a collision course with a psychopath, and the answer may just provide the most fascinating twist of the year.

7. First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, whose long and tumultuous career has seemed to be a pursuit of recapturing the magic of his screenplay for Taxi Driver, finds himself back at the top of his game with the caustic and fascinating First Reformed, a scathing condemnation of the hypocritical relationship between big-money organized religion and climate change. Featuring Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, a tortured priest whose personal turmoil only worsens as he deals with the suffering of a expecting mother (Amanda Seyfried) and her paranoid environmentalist husband (Philip Ettinger). As his relationship with the couple grows deeper, Toller finds his crisis of faith deepening as well, lighting the match on a powder keg that lets Hawke play to his exasperated strengths and Schrader provide an affecting treatise on our duty to nature, a climate change warning call that stands out as the most effective to date.

6. Shoplifters, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

This warm but devastating family melodrama from Japanese directing legend Hirokazu Kore-eda follows an eclectic band of petty thieves after they take in a young girl neglected by her parents. The resulting bond between the girl and this group of outsiders allows Kore-eda to elevate his penchant for affecting familial drama to its highest levels, providing a morally complex film that’s full of love, broken dreams, and secrets long buried bubbling to the surface. It’s the ultimate form of tearjerking affectation, conning us into reaching for the Kleenex with a group of sympathetic criminals whose affinity for shoplifting is matched only by their raw, sometimes unexplainable love for one another.

5. Hereditary, dir. Ari Aster

It’s a rare thing for a horror film to acknowledge that sometimes the most frightening thing in our lives is our own family, and it’s an even rarer thing to use that conceit and turn into something truly unsettling. Ari Aster’s feature film debut Hereditary pulls it off with aplomb, using its wildly messed up, grieving family to tell a tale of inherited demons that’s a ruthless family dysfunction drama and an off-the-rails ghost story all in one. It features one of the best performances of the year in Toni Collette’s spiteful, complicated matriarch, one that allows the actress to show off the depths of her underrated talent with a performance that’s just as savage in its moments of family sparring as it is when the heads start spinning. This is a film that in the revels in the terror of unpredictably, subverting your expectations at every turn not with jump scares or gore but with its relentless belief that things are only bound to get worse.

4. Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón

Take a look at the long, storied career of Alfonso Cuarón and you’ll see a roadmap to Roma, his magnum opus that sees him writing a love letter to the women of his childhood in the form of a look at everyday life in 1970s Mexico City. Don’t let the plot fool you, this is a film whose visual splendor is just as affecting as its emotionally powerful tale of a maid and her relationship with the crumbling family that employs her. Every frame a painting is a phrase seemingly invented for this film, as Cuarón uses the lessons of his diverse filmography to provide the most stunning cinematography of the year. A riot. A wrestler pointing to the sky. A harrowing walk into the ocean. Ask anyone who walks out of this film what image stuck with them most and you’d get a different answer every time, if they can even find the words in the aftermath of avalanche of emotions Cuarón puts you through.

3. Suspiria, dir. Luca Guadagnino

Ditching romance in the lush Italian countryside for the cold brutality of 1970s Berlin, Luca Guadagnino reforms Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic of the same name into a new one that plays more like a startling cinematic condemnation of the act of ignoring our past than a shlocky haunted house thriller. Using Argento’s framework of an American girl (here an astoundingly committed Dakota Johnson) arriving at a secretive ballet school only to discover that’s it’s really a front for a coven of witches, Guadagnino turns the idea on its head and explores the terror of history through twisted dance sequences, quiet battles for control, and a superb ensemble that includes a stunning triple performance from a peak weird Tilda Swinton. When Johnson questions why everyone seems to think the worst is already over whilst the trauma of a World War manifests into the German Autumn outside, it’s clear that Guadagnino’s sudden interest in horror is born from an eye for the potential of its ability to conjure up societal demons in a way no other genre can.

2. Eighth Grade, dir. Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham made a name for himself producing comedy songs in his bedroom and posting them on YouTube before eventually rising to become one of America’s most popular and intelligent comedians. When he announced he was likely taking an indefinite break from the stage, it seemed like an immense cultural loss. Then came Eighth Grade, his writing and directorial debut that is a miraculous examination of the time in our lives when we are most vulnerable. Following the magnificent newcomer Elsie Fisher as an anxiety-ridden girl whose last week of middle school will leave her permanently changed, Burnham turns the awkwardness of that uncertain time into an instant classic that’s wildly funny, deeply moving, and often horrifying. No film before it has captured how Earth-shattering every little moment of our adolescence can be, and that alone makes this essential viewing for teenagers and adults alike.

1. The Favourite, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

There’s no one in the business quite Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek writer-director who has made a career out of demanding the world’s greatest actors to go deadpan, wringing comedic brilliance out of his actors performing more like they’re detached, robotic maniacs than real people. It appears he has found the perfect setting for his unique brand of dark humor with The Favourite, a very loose re-telling of the real struggle between two women for the favor of England’s deranged Queen Anne. Abandoning the usual stuffiness of period pieces for a wacky takedown of the greed of the aristocracy, Lanthimos pits three legendary actresses against each other as Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz duke it out in an acting Olympics that sees the entire trio turning in career performances. This is the sort of film that reaffirms the staying power of the comedy and its ability to be every bit as smart as it is funny, letting us revel in the depravity and force us to think while we do it. All hail Horatio, the fastest duck in the city.

Honorable Mentions: Black Panther, Bad Times at the El Royale, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Paddington 2, Crazy Rich Asians, Sorry To Bother You, Free Solo, A Quiet Place.

Thanks for watching, and for reading. See you next year.