The 10 Best Films of 2018

December 21, 2018

2018 has been a tumultuous year for cinema, to say the least.

The definition of film itself is becoming increasingly blurred due to the rise of digital platforms that are changing the ways we consume — and even understand — movies.  

Which isn’t to say that the future of filmmaking isn’t bright…just unpredictable. 

In 2018 alone, we’ve seen a pair of generation-defining event movies (Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War), a bevy of indie surprises (Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade) and several streaming-exclusive gems from critically acclaimed directors (the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Orson Welles’ posthumously released The Other Side of the Wind). 

And yet, despite the unpredictability, one filmmaking ingredient has persisted above all others: storytelling.  

2018 has seen dozens of talented filmmakers tell powerful, human stories, regardless of medium or genre. As digital storytellers, we at Applied Art & Technology are here to help you discover the best of the bunch, which is why we’ve assembled the following countdown of the 10 best films of the year. 

Just remember to eat and drink between binge sessions, okay?


10. Annihilation

The first film on our year-end countdown made our mid-year list and has seemed to only grow in mystery and intrigue since then.  

Directed by Alex Garland, this sci-fi sleeper hit is a challenging and often unforgettable filmgoing experience. Set in an alternate reality to our own, Annihilation follows a group of military scientists who are tasked with entering “The Shimmer,” a mutating and ever-expanding zone into which all but one person have mysteriously vanished.  

Or so we think. 

The expedition is led by Lena (Natalie Portman), a soldier turned professor whose husband’s recent disappearance starts to haunt her upon entering the zone. Portman delivers a finely tuned performance here, expertly conveying the struggle to live with one’s self after being confronted with tragedy. 

In a way, Annihilation serves as a spiritual successor to Garland’s first film, 2015’s Ex Machina, in that it echoes many of the same weighty themes: creation, evolution and, ultimately, self-destruction. 

The difference this time is that Garland seems to be more willing to take narrative and stylistic risks — resulting in a dark and inventive, if not somewhat uneven, exploration of humanity’s true nature. 



Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.


9. Tully

This mid-year film has largely gotten lost in the awards season shuffle, but don’t let that fool you. Jason Reitman's ode to struggling moms everywhere remains one of the year’s funniest and most heartwarming films. 

Led by Reitman’s clear-eyed and empathetic direction, Tully boasts a career-best performance by Charlize Theron as Marlo, a mother of three who comes to befriend a night nanny named — you guessed it — Tully (Mackenzie Davis). 

As Tully looks after Marlo’s newborn daughter and aids in other mothering duties, Marlo starts to feel rejuvenated as a mother again. It’s only then that an unexpected turn of events alters the trajectory of her life forever. 

In addition to Reitman’s direction and Theron’s magnetic performance, Tully largely succeeds off the strength of Diablo Cody’s screenplay. Cody somehow finds a way to carefully balance pathos with humor, all while peppering in elements of magical realism. 

It is in these moments that we find Reitman at his most liberated as a director, too, as he pieces together a number of striking compositions that abound with all the mysteries and miracles of motherhood. 


Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.


8. The Favourite

If we were to tell you that a historical costume drama set during the reign of Queen Anne in the 18th century would be one of the funniest movies of the year, would you believe us? 

Whether or not you do, that’s exactly the case with director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest black comedy, The Favourite

Bolstered by a trio of career-best performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite follows court favourites Abigail Hill (Stone) and Sarah Churchill (Weisz) as they vie for the Queen’s affections. 

The film proves to be quite the balancing act, pairing incredibly raunchy dialogue with beautifully idyllic imagery. However, Lanthimos somehow makes it all come together — no doubt with great help from co-screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, whose acerbic script ventures into rarely explored oddball territory. 

Their flair for the strange and surreal serves as the perfect complement for Lanthimos’ unconventional visual palette, which includes a mix of fisheye lenses and disorienting lap dissolves. 

The result is an uproarious comedy of manners that slyly strips away the aristocratic facade to reveal some telling truths about class and gender. 

Not to mention bunny rabbits. Lots and lots of bunny rabbits. 



Now playing in theaters everywhere.


7. Widows

When it was announced that celebrated auteur Steve McQueen would be following his Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave with a star-studded action thriller, some film fans raised concerns of McQueen “playing it safe” and “going Hollywood.” 

How silly of them. 

Widows may, in fact, be one of McQueen’s most daring and original films yet. Although the plot can feel as if it was ripped right out of a pulp crime novel (a group of women vowing to carry out the unfinished heist that left their husbands dead), McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn elevate the material with incisive social commentary and some truly shocking twists. 

Despite dealing with themes as varied as the female condition, political corruption, gentrification and racism, Widows never once feels like a sociology lecture. Instead, McQueen’s great skill as a filmmaker allows these thematic threads to be seamlessly woven into his characters’ experiences and even the film’s set pieces. 

It helps, too, that the tightly crafted screenplay is buoyed by a terrific ensemble cast — one that features Viola Davis in a challenging and memorable role alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya. 

An action film that’s as entertaining as it is thought provoking? If this is the end product going forward, McQueen, you can “go Hollywood” as often as you like. 


Now playing in select theaters.


6. Sorry to Bother You

Who says telemarketing is boring?  

For first-time director Boots Riley, the widely despised profession serves as the backdrop for a biting social critique on race relations, consumerism and the toxicity of modern media.  

Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield), an African-American telemarketer who uses a white accent to climb the corporate ladder. Unfortunately for Cassius, his success leads to chaos in the form of government conspiracies, media frenzies and even scientific monstrosities.  

In the end, Cassius must make a life-altering decision: continue to make money at the expense of others or join his activist friends in the fight for the common good. 

Stanfield is joined by a stellar ensemble cast led by Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun and Armie Hammer, each of whom deliver offbeat performances that are wonderfully paired with Riley’s outlandish script and even more outlandish set design. 

With pulsating visuals and feverish editing to match its hard-edged satire, Riley makes the most of his directorial debut, culminating in what may be one of the most jaw-dropping and mind-boggling third acts in any film released this decade. 

Trust us: you’ll never hear a telemarketer the same way again. 


Available to stream on Hulu and rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.


5. First Reformed

42 years after penning the screenplay for the dark and disturbing Taxi Driver, it seems that writer-director Paul Schrader has tapped into that same darkness once again for First Reformed, a brooding examination of faith and despair in the 21st century. 

First Reformed follows Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a Protestant minister who pledges to write down all his thoughts in a journal for one year. Unfortunately for Toller, this simple exercise proves to be more and more difficult as he is faced with a number of moral and spiritual dilemmas.  

Hawke gives an unforgettable turn as the Reverend Toller. Throughout the film, it feels like Hawke is carrying a lifetime of anguish in the worn and tired lines of his face, allowing the Reverend’s spiritual unraveling to slowly reveal itself through the subtlest facial expressions.  

Schrader’s screenplay is equally spellbinding and even uncomfortably personal, at times. The film’s visual style reflects this unwanted intimacy, with Schrader opting for the boxy Academy aspect ratio of 4:3 to keep things small and claustrophobic.  

It’s just one of the many artistic decisions in First Reformed that require a good deal of trust from the audience. Thankfully, the end result makes it all worth it with a truly rewarding and thought-provoking climax that merely requires one thing: faith. 


Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.


4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Whether it was the song, the sweaters or the puppets, most everyone who was a child in the last 50 years can likely recall a moment from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that impacted them. 

But what, exactly, does it mean to make an impact? 

That’s what director Morgan Neville is intent on finding out in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the biographical documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. 

From revolutionizing the look and feel of children’s programming to advocating in front of the United States Senate, Rogers knew how to make an impact on the hearts of thousands, young and old alike.  

But, as Neville’s deeply moving documentary reveals, for every one of Rogers’ moments of triumph, there was a world of self-doubt and uncertainty bubbling beneath the surface. 

Intercut with archival footage of Rogers’ personal interviews, moments from the original show and present-day reminiscences of those closest to him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes an appropriately quiet and patient look at the man behind the sweater. 

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, indeed. 


Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.


3. BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman may be the most important film Spike Lee will ever make in his long, prolific career. Rarely before has a film felt so urgent — so “of the moment” — and so necessary.  

Based on actual events from the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman tells the outrageously true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black detective in the Colorado Springs police department who works to expose the Ku Klux Klan. 

To do so, Stallworth befriends members of the local KKK chapter by passing as a white man on the phone and working with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a fellow detective who poses as the “white Stallworth” in person. 

Lee allows this story to unfold with a stylistic flair that harkens back to past films like Do the Right Thing. Using dolly zooms, cross-cutting and image inserts, Lee’s unrestrained visual playbook matches his storytelling approach, which involves breaking the fourth wall to startling success. 

The cast is similarly impressive, with Washington and Driver delivering standout performances alongside Laura Harrier and Corey Hawkins (not to mention a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek cameo by Alec Baldwin). 

But above all else, BlacKkKlansman is one of the most must-see films of 2018 because of its proud and unflinching condemnation of racism. It’s clear now that the phrase “Infiltrate Hate,” which appeared on many of the film’s theatrical posters, was much more than a marketing tagline. 

It was a call to action. 


Available to rent on YouTube, Amazon Prime and Google Play.


2. Roma

A dirtied tile floor. A splash of sudsy water. The reflection of a plane flying lazily overhead. 

These are the moments that comprise the mesmerizing opening shot of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. It’s a peculiar opening, but it is one that establishes Cuaron’s intentions immediately — to capture the significance of the seemingly insignificant. 

It’s fitting, then, that Cuaron’s film follows the story of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper in 1970s Mexico City who is so often taken for granted and overlooked by others. 

Cuaron admits that his upbringing in Mexico inspired him to make Roma. As a result, the film feels both autobiographical and dream-like at times — with elegantly framed long takes and tracking shots forming an evocative, free-flowing visual style that closely resembles memory itself.  

All the while, our eyes are fixed on Aparicio, the untrained actress who delivers perhaps the most emotionally controlled — and demanding — performance of the year. Aparicio’s unassuming naturalism invites us to empathize with Cleo, to understand the character as if we knew her.  

Or, better yet, as if we were living her experiences through her. 

Roma stresses the power of empathy and the need to acknowledge — the need to love. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that we can only learn to love once we learn to reflect on our past.  

No wonder that the film’s title, which refers to a neighborhood in Mexico City, also doubles as the backwards spelling of “amor.” 


Available to stream on Netflix.


1. Shoplifters

“Sometimes, it’s better to choose your own family.” 

Uttered by Nobuyo Shibata, the makeshift matriarch in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, this simple observation holds a most essential truth: family is built on bonds, not blood. 

Following this familial theme closely, Shoplifters opens on father figure Osamu (Lily Franky) and his adopted son Shota (Kairi Jo) as they steal small items from stores in order to survive. 

After one particular shoplifting spree, Osamu and Shota discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl suffering from symptoms of parental abuse, out on the street and decide to take her in — a decision that changes their lives forever. 

A deceptively simple story that is matched by warm and inviting visuals, Kore-eda’s direction in Shoplifters can best be compared to a kaleidoscope, with every shot containing patterns and textures that naturally lead our eyes to the people within. 

This makes sense. People are just as central to Kore-eda’s compositions as they are to his story. 

Kore-eda (who served as both director and screenwriter) works to develop full-fledged human beings out of his characters, taking no half measures to build a unique and immediate connection between each family member and the audience.  

As a result, few films have ever captured the full spectrum of human emotion as perfectly as Kore-eda does here. Shoplifters is at times funny, uplifting and romantic — only offering a swift punch to the heart when you least expect it. 


Now playing in select theaters.


* Honorable mentions: A Star Is Born, Isle of Dogs, Thoroughbreds, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Leave No Trace, Three Identical Strangers, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, First Man, The Other Side of the Wind. (Note: Barry Jenkins’ Academy Awards-contender If Beale Street Could Talk had not received a 2018 wide release as of this publication date).