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These are the best movies of 2018

What with all the focus groups, test screenings and clueless studio executives, sometimes it seems like a minor miracle that the creative process manages to survive long enough for any genuinely good films to get made. But if there's one thing those executives do understand, it's money — and the last few years have seen expertly crafted low-budget horror films, idiosyncratic crime thrillers, and superhero films invested with actual heart and soul (not to mention diversity) at the forefront of the box office. Hollywood doesn't always learn the right lessons from its previous successes, but the unified message from the moviegoing public of late has been loud and clear: make better movies, and we will give you our money.

Fortunately, 2018 has delivered a bumper crop of films capable of winning over the hearts and minds of audiences and critics alike, using craftsmanship and artistry instead of (or, sometimes, in addition to) action and spectacle. From quirky historical comedies to superpowered kings to unexpectedly brilliant animated offerings, these are the very best films 2018 has to offer.

Blockers

On the surface, Blockers didn't look destined for critical acclaim. A teen sex comedy with a borderline offensive title (the poster features a silhouetted image of a rooster above the word "Blockers" … get it?), with none other than wrestler-turned-terrible-rapper-turned actor John Cena in a main role, the film looked like an easy target for critics to line up and take shots at. But then, a funny thing happened: ex-30 Rock and Pitch Perfect series writer Kay Cannon, making her directorial debut, delivered a surprisingly funny, honest, and heartfelt feature which some of those critics are calling the best comedy of the year.

Comedic plots don't get any more straightforward: three teenage girls want to have sex on prom night, and their parents try to stop them. But along with the over-the-top set pieces comes a surprising amount of sensitivity; Midwest Film Journal's Nick Rogers proclaimed it to be "one of the best mainstream sex comedies in years — demystifying teen intercourse, poking holes in gender-based double standards of lost virginity and encouraging kindness and empathy among everyone at the story's center," and Cannon was uniformly praised for her ability to hit comedic as well as sympathetic notes with equal aplomb, and for bringing out the absolute best in every member of her cast. Finding a way to reinvigorate the raunchy sex comedy is no small feat, but in Blockers, we just might have an American Pie for the new generation.

Thoroughbreds

Striking young actress Anya Taylor-Joy has been busy carving out quite a niche for herself as a modern-day scream queen, with high-visibility roles in critically acclaimed fright flicks The Witch and Split in just the last few years. First-time writer/director Cory Finley was lucky enough to secure her services for his debut feature, the black comedy/thriller Thoroughbreds — and with the help of his clockwork script and understated, tension-generating direction, was able to score a winner on his first outing.

The plot follows reuniting friends Lily (Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) as they scheme to murder the former's stepfather. Critics agree that Finley is a name to watch, showing the kind of self-assuredness and confidence in his vision that normally eludes freshman filmmakers. RogerEbert.com's Christy Lemire praised the film as "classically Hitchcockian in its smoldering homicidal tendencies, yet bracingly current," while other reviews singled out everything from the score to Finley's masterful balance of humor and darkness for praise. Indiewire offered up the intriguing comparison, "Thoroughbreds is American Psycho meets Heathers," which really sounds like it could have gone either way — but it seems that he nailed it, and also that we might have a major new talent on our hands.

Annihilation

Writer/director Alex Garland is making a name for himself with the kind of dark, cerebral sci-fi thrillers that aim for a realm beyond simple entertainment. After penning the screenplays for such well-received flicks as 28 Days Later and Dredd, he made his directorial debut in 2015 with Ex Machina, which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for his screenplay and led to a television development deal with FX. His sophomore feature Annihilation, adapted from Jeff VanderMeer's 2014 novel, continues in the heady tradition of its predecessor with a mind-blowing, genre-subverting story that makes good use of Garland's talent for atmosphere — not to mention its roundly excellent cast.

Headed up by Natalie Portman and featuring Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Annihilation follows a team of scientists who dare to explore the Shimmer, an anomalous area in which the very concept of reality doesn't seem to apply. Collider's review heaped praise on the film, calling it "a stunning, sweeping metaphor for the way human beings tear themselves apart. It's wildly ambitious, occasionally alienating, and consummately perplexing; an irritant to the mind and spirit that demands self-reflection." Other critics bandied about words like "hypnotic," "challenging," and "audacious" — which makes us all the more sad that Garland's original script for Halo never got off the ground.

Isle of Dogs

Animated films don't get much quirkier than Isle of Dogs, a stop-motion feature from King of Quirk Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom). The film follows a young Japanese boy in a near-future dystopia on the hunt for his dog, who — along with all other dogs — has been quarantined on an island after an outbreak of disease. If "Wes Anderson" and "stop motion" don't pique your interest, then perhaps the insanely talented cast will: featured voice performers include Bryan Cranston, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, and Yoko Ono, to name only a few.

Except for a few stray dissenters ("Maybe I'm just a cat person," sighed one critic), reviewers were generally won over by the phenomenal work of the cast and by the film's meticulous artistry. The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Mike Scott declared the film "an artistic masterpiece, featuring enchanting stop-motion visuals that have an entrancing way of drawing viewers into the story," while Film Threat's Bradley Gibson went even further: "A master filmmaker at the peak of his powers created this art for you," he says, "with a cast and crew of equally fine performers and artisans … Isle of Dogs is why I watch movies." Even if Anderson's works aren't necessarily your cup of tea, Isle of Dogs is a must-watch — if for no other reason than to witness Bryan Cranston channeling Walter White in dog form.

Love, Simon

Regardless of whether it had been much good, Love, Simon was destined for praise for one simple reason: it's the first major studio Hollywood film to focus on a gay teen romance, a groundbreaking endeavor in and of itself. Fortunately, director Greg Berlanti (Life as We Know It) and screenwriters Elizabeth Berger (who has recently worked on the hit NBC drama series This Is Us) and Isaac Aptaker (About a Boy) delivered a film that's notable for more than just that reason — it's a funny, disarmingly sweet rom-com that some critics are comparing to the best work of John Hughes.

Working from a 2015 YA novel with the slightly clunkier title Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens' Agenda, Berger and Aptaker populated their script with strongly drawn characters with feelings and motivations familiar to any of us — some of them just happen to be gay — and Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) was singled out for praise in the lead role, among a strong cast which includes Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, and Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse, Straight Outta Compton). RogerEbert.com's Sheila O'Malley called the film "a radically inclusive act," which was a common theme throughout most of the glowing reviews; Den of Geek's Delia Harrington proclaimed it a "rare, uplifting, 'romantic AF' LGBTQ movie … to be prized. With a modern soundtrack and a diverse cast, Love, Simon is the kind of movie many people wish they had growing up." 

Journey's End

Journey's End is a story that has been brought to the screen many times over; written for the stage and presented as a play in 1928, it was first adapted by legendary director James Whale in 1930. The 90-year-old story of British officers pinned down in a dugout over four days near the end of World War I may not seem like it has a lot to offer contemporary audiences — but director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade, along with an amazing cast, have crafted it into a meditation on war and death that feels surprisingly timely in today's political climate.

The talented Asa Butterfield stars as Raleigh, a young officer under the command of the alcoholic and mentally unstable Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, of the Hunger Games series), who grapples with what it means to follow orders under the specter of near-certain death. Claflin's performance was widely praised, as was that of Paul Bettany (the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Vision) as a mild-mannered officer "who personifies with quiet self-restraint the concept of courage as unwavering grace under pressure." The film's period production design was also deemed excellent, as was Dibb's command of mood and atmosphere — but as the Toronto Star opined,"the cast is what makes the story shine … War is hell, but we've seen that story before. Journey's End manages to reaffirm the message in a tale that is both harrowing and heartbreaking."

The Death of Stalin

Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci is perhaps best-known stateside for his work on the HBO series Veep, and he's taken his gift for political satire to a whole new realm with The Death of Stalin, an adaptation of a French graphic novel which provides an inside look at the chaos, humor, and horror surrounding the demise of the Russian dictator. It may seem an unlikely subject for a farce — but the pitch-black comedy garnered the kind of eye-popping reviews normally reserved for prestige pictures, with some reviewers labeling it a masterpiece.

Featuring a stellar international cast which includes Steve Buscemi (as Nikita Khrushchev, no less), Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame), and Jeffrey Tambor, the ambitious film hit the sweet spot with critics: Saporta Report's Eleanor Ringel Cater declared Iannucci's comedic touch "swift, sure and utterly poisonous," and his film "as much Monty Python and Marx Brothers as it is social commentary." Adam Graham of the Detroit News took care to point out the film's relevance to the current political climate, saying that it "has a timely urgency that mirrors today's political chaos … rooted in enough political reality that it hardly feels sensationalized. And given the current state of politics, it's as on-point as a breaking news alert." Many notices suggest that even viewers who are completely turned off by politics at this point will be won over by the whip-crack writing and first-rate cast — an impressive feat unto itself.

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski, best known for his role as Jim Halpert on the American version of The Office, probably isn't the first, second, or third name that comes to mind when hearing the phrase "nerve-jangling horror." But after cutting his directorial teeth on a few episodes of that series and a couple of well-received low-budget features, Krasinski looked to pull a Jordan Peele by making the leap from the world of comedy to the realm of supernatural fright flicks with A Quiet Place — and, like Peele, he succeeded mightily

Directing from a screenplay by the writing team of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (Nightlight), Krasinski stars along with wife Emily Blunt in the tale of a couple plagued by mysterious creatures who hunt using sound, forcing them into a tense and silent existence. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers called it an instant horror classic, with "flawless" acting exemplified by Blunt, who is "in a class by herself, taking a near-silent role and building a tour de force of expressive emotion." The Toronto Sun's Liz Braun summed it up as "a terrific movie, beautifully made and carried along by strong performances and skillful storytelling. It'll scare the hell out of you, too." In a pretty damn great year for fans of horror, A Quiet Place stands near the top of the critical heap.

Black Panther

With director Ryan Coogler (Creed) as well as writing partner Joe Robert Cole and star Chadwick Boseman (who introduced the character in Captain America: Civil War) onboard, Black Panther was expected to be another winner for Marvel — but the film managed to surpass those high expectations with box office receipts making it the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the film's importance to black audiences — but Black Panther conquered the box office not only by giving that underserved demographic a hero of their own to cheer for, but by virtue of being astonishingly good. Many critics proclaimed it to be on a totally different level from the rest of the MCU's consistently high-quality fare, exploring themes of alienation and loss more effectively than a comic book film has any right to — particularly by way of Michael B. Jordan's conflicted villain Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, who has been cited as the MCU's best villain ever thanks largely to Jordan's towering performance. Slashfilm summed it up the best: "Run, don't walk, to the theater to see Black Panther. This is not hyperbole … saying it's just 'good' is underselling it … [perhaps] the best film of 2018."

Paddington 2

2015's Paddington, based on the beloved children's character, was a surprise critical darling and a moderate hit for production company Studio Canal and David Heyman, the producer largely responsible for guiding the Harry Potter series in its transition from page to screen. Its success made a sequel inevitable, but Paddington 2 is far from obligatory — the film has not earned a single negative review, surpassing even the formidable level of acclaim heaped upon its predecessor.

Some reviewers couldn't help but marvel at this feat. Starburst mused, "Paddington was an utter delight. So, how can you possibly match or even top that splendid soiree for the Peruvian bear? You'd think it would be an impossible task, but marvelously [director Paul] King has somehow shocked us once more." The Illinois Times' Charles Koplinski called it "a balm for our troubled times," while noting that he "could probably count on one hand the number of movies that have made me smile from beginning to end, and Paddington 2 and its predecessor would be two of them." With the talented Ben Whishaw (A Hologram for the King, Spectre) reprising the title role and an appropriately British cast including the likes of Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, and Hugh Grant, Paddington 2 ramps up the whimsy, adventure, and earnestness of the original.

Avengers: Infinity War

Even the eye-popping box office success of Black Panther was only a warmup act for Avengers: Infinity War, which has shattered too many records to list here. Part one of the culmination of Marvel's three-phase mega-arc, in which the powerful Infinity Stones are collected by the Mad Titan Thanos with the goal of eradicating half of all life in the universe, brought together nearly every important character introduced in the MCU thus far — and fans responded by putting up the kind of box office numbers which made it one of the top worldwide hits of all time.

While Infinity War didn't earn the widespread critical adoration enjoyed by Black Panther, positive reviews recognized it as a singularly Herculean feat of storytelling, one which takes time to deliver meaningful arcs for characters we've come to know and love over the years — and, notably, for its villain. Josh Brolin's motion-capture performance as Thanos moved some critics to declare the Mad Titan the MCU's best villain ever, and — especially given the film's amazingly dark cliffhanger ending — the only one to ever pose a true threat to Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Said ending was a sticking point for some reviewers (with some labeling it "half a movie"), but perhaps their tune will change when Avengers 4 — which directors the Russo brothers promise will hold many surprises — debuts in May of next year.

Tully

Like his father Ivan, Jason Reitman is a man who knows his way around thoughtful, engaging comedy. The director of hits such as Thank You For SmokingJuno, and Up in the Air returned in 2018 with Tully, reuniting with Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody and her famously quippy dialogue for the story of an overburdened mother (Charlize Theron) who forms an unexpected bond with her unusual nanny (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049)

While even positive reviews were quick to point out the screenplay's contrivances, critics were uniformly won over by another outstanding performance from Theron, whose comedic chops and chemistry with Davis carried the film. Ex-press calls the scenes between the two characters "gorgeously written," with Theron "using her physicality in a new, fascinatingly schlubby way," and the film's humor exploring "a deep sense of humanism." Even negative reviews had praise for Theron's performance; legendarily cranky critic Rex Reed gushed that "her passion, skill and commitment to every project is always a revelation," saying she "wakes [the film] from its lethargy, takes it by the jugular, and squeezes until it yells." Most reviewers agreed that Tully was a welcome return for the dream team of Cody and Reitman, and while the film may not have burned up the box office, it seems like a candidate for a strong second life once released to video.

Deadpool 2

Fans of Ryan Reynolds' Merc With a Mouth eagerly awaited the followup to 2016's ridiculously huge, comparatively low-budget R-rated hit Deadpool — and Reynolds, along with incoming director David Leitch (responsible for some choice scenes in John Wick and the entirety of Atomic Blonde) didn't disappoint. Those who were even vaguely familiar with the original knew what they could expect in terms of insane action and over-the-top vulgarity — but many of them weren't ready for the surprising amount of character building and emotion brought by returning screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (along with Reynolds, who of course contributed) this time around. Plus, as promised, they did give us Cable in this one.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's review carried a headline that echoed many critics' sentiments ("Deadpool 2 is more of the same, but more so") while praising the performances of Zazie Beetz as Domino and Josh Brolin, in his second major role in a tentpole comic book film in 2018, as time-traveling cyborg Cable. Wired also gushed over the performances of the entire cast, noting that Deadpool's assembly of the mutant superhero team X-Force "gives Deadpool 2 a much stronger narrative arc, and emotional payoff, than its predecessor," and praising the "surprisingly heartfelt ending… this sequel actually set out to be a movie, not just a series of jokes stuck to a Macguffin." It's the rare sequel that lives up to its beloved predecessor — plus, some critics are calling its post-credits scene the best one ever, which is really saying something.

Hereditary

Hereditary drew enormous buzz months before its release; its debut at Sundance in January 2018 was greeted with an overwhelming chorus of "scariest movie ever," with much of the praise focused on the performance of Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense). But while many festival favorites find a tougher crowd in general audiences, Hereditary managed to decisively live up to the hype.

The audacious feature debut from writer/director Ari Aster is a significant financial success, and it's been called "a haunted house movie for the ages" as well as "an instant horror classic," with the general consensus that Collette — helped along by a strong supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects) and newcomers Milly Shapiro and Mallory Bechtel — has delivered the performance of her career. Meanwhile, its underlying themes of menacing family dynamics and the passing down of tragedy through generations help Hereditary get under your skin in a way that few horror films dare to. Warns New Yorker critic Anthony Lane: "I would hesitate to recommend it to the readily traumatized… for viewers recuperating from a wounded childhood, or from a festering relationship, it could scrape too close to the bone."

Upgrade

Leigh Whannell is the scribe behind the enormously profitable Saw and Insidious series, and after taking the directorial reins for this year's Insidious: The Last Key, he returned with a very different sophomore effort. A sort of modern-day spin on RoboCop crossed with Death WishUpgrade features Logan Marshall-Green (Spider-Man: Homecoming) as a man left paralyzed after a mugging in which his wife is murdered. A billionaire investor may have the answer to his problems: a new technology which will "upgrade" the man's paralyzed body in spectacular fashion, enabling him to exact terrifying vengeance on the thugs who destroyed his life.

According to The Detroit News' Adam Graham, the film "is a cuckoo science fiction horror pastiche that's smarter than it looks but disguises its ambition with low-grade, B-movie thrills," while critic Matthew Pejkovic asserted that Upgrade "just might be the breakaway film needed to re-establish director Leigh Whannell's standing as one of Australia's leading genre filmmaker talents." With recent mainstream sci-fi and horror efforts becoming increasingly high-minded, Whannell's vicious little thriller is just what the doctor ordered for fans craving visceral, well-crafted shocks.

Incredibles 2

We knew it was coming for years, but in 2018, it finally arrived: director Brad Bird's triumphant return to Pixar, Incredibles 2, the follow-up to his beloved 2004 original about a nuclear family of suspiciously Fantastic Four-like superheroes. Picking up literally seconds after the original, the film grafts a somewhat Civil War-esque narrative — in which the destructive consequences of superhero battles are sought to be mitigated through government regulation — onto the adventures of the Parr family. But even in this era of superhero movie box office dominance, Incredibles 2 is far from content to simply ape its peers — and still manages to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in terms of heartfelt storytelling and eye-popping visuals.

Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it "one of the most entertaining films of the year — and one of the smartest… sets a standard that few superhero flicks — animated or live-action — can match." Adelaide Review's David Bradley went even further, praising the "fabulous voice cast in top form and characters it's impossible not to love," while declaring the film "certainly one of the best family-film outings released this — or any — year, [demonstrating] once again that Pixar are truly caped crusaders fighting for truth, justice and the animated way." In a year typically stuffed to the brim with high-profile superhero adventures, Incredibles 2 proves Marvel aren't the only ones who know how to score a critical hit in the genre.

Sorry to Bother You

As the longtime frontman of the Oakland rap group the Coup, Boots Riley has long been a respected figure in the world of hip-hop, but he's not exactly a household name. That may be about to change: critical notices for his feature directorial debut Sorry to Bother You were nothing short of over the moon, with more than a few reviews suggesting that the picture marks Riley's arrival as a major new filmmaking talent.

The film follows the story of Cassius Green, a struggling black telemarketer who unlocks the key to success by discovering his "white voice." But as he begins to climb the corporate ladder, he finds himself navigating a surreal world of drugged-out CEOs and anti-corporate activists. The critical consensus pegs the film as something of a brilliant mess which isn't as undisciplined as it seems on the surface; Adam Graham of the Detroit News called it "An absurdist, startlingly original Molotov cocktail through the pane glass window of Hollywood" that "travel[s] to bizarre places, making Get Out look like a fairy tale." Observers mostly agreed that not all of the jokes land, as the film continually swings big — but when it connects, it connects hard. Subversive and even militant (no surprise to any fan of the Coup), Sorry to Bother You is an astoundingly original, timely piece of filmmaking summed up best by Bernard Boo of Pop Matters: "This film is dope as hell."

Ant-Man and the Wasp

No surprise here: Marvel Studios landed their third smash hit of the year, and 20th straight film to debut at No. 1, with the lively and entertaining Ant-Man and the Wasp. Audiences needed a bit of a palate cleanser after Avengers: Infinity War, and returning director Peyton Reed gave them one — as well as a worthy sequel to 2015's Ant-Man that's fleeter on its feet, more assured, and perhaps even funnier than the original. 

In fact, Devesh Sharma of Filmfare.com went so far as to call it "the funniest Marvel film you'll see," which is high praise considering that Thor: Ragnarok was released less than a year prior. Reed told A.V. Club that in returning for this film, the pressure was off. "We knew that audiences accepted and embraced this character," he said. "In this one we were free to kind of let him loose a little more." This is evident in the film's loose, playful tone and confidently staged action set pieces, which make even more novel use of Ant-Man mentor Hank Pym's shrinking/growing technology than the first installment. The stakes are reasonably low — the gang must secure a piece of technology from a black market arms dealer to attempt to rescue Pym's wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm — but after Infinity War, this seems wholly appropriate. However, if you're still traumatized from that film's end, you may want to skip Ant-Man and the Wasp's post-credits sequences.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

For over two decades, Tom Cruise has put himself in mortal danger for our amusement by way of the surprisingly resilient Mission: Impossible series, which has failed to lose even an iota of momentum despite its star's advancing age. Now in his 50s, Cruise continues to insist on doing every stunt that physically possible for him to do, which somehow seems to always be "pretty much all of them." The series has long favored top-shelf action set pieces over plot and characterization; audiences don't go to a Mission: Impossible film for character beats or high drama, they come to see which unbelievably insane stunts Cruise will pull off this time, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout delivered in spades.

Director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) became the series' first returning director, remaining in the seat previously held by such luminaries as Brad Bird, John Woo and Brian De Palma. His sure hand behind the camera, plus Cruise's otherworldly dedication to the role of eternally put-upon IMF agent Ethan Hunt, resulted in a crackerjack picture which pulled down some of the best reviews of the entire series. As Impossible as it might seem, this venerable action franchise and its star just seem to keep getting better with age — or, as succinctly put by the Detroit News' Adam Graham, "Bless this franchise, we're truly not worthy."

BlacKkKLansman

With a new generation of African-American filmmakers getting their time in the spotlight, it's easy to forget about Spike Lee. Today's racially charged political climate is the perfect time for Lee to make a triumphant comeback, and nearly 30 years after detonating a cinematic nuclear bomb with 1989's Do the Right Thing, he appeared in the middle of another sweltering summer with BlacKkKlansman — a hilarious, scathing, insightful piece critics praised near-uniformly as his best picture in years.

Ron Stallworth stars as a black police detective in the 1970s who — with the aid of a Jewish fellow officer played by Adam Driver — endeavors to infiltrate and expose the workings of the Ku Klux Klan. It's based on an improbable but true story (or, as the opening card states, "some fo' real, fo' real s***") which Lee milks for comedy, suspense and modern-day relevance. Critics were roundly amazed by Lee's mastery of tone, as he imbues dramatic, high-stakes situations with his singular sensibility; Digital Spy's Hugh Armitage summed up this consensus neatly, calling the film "a rollercoaster that is laugh-out-loud when it isn't shocking you into stunned silence… a damn fine and funny piece of entertainment, and a testament to Lee's skills as an artist." It's comforting that Spike Lee is still fighting the power, and appears to have lost none of his touch. 

Crazy Rich Asians

The producing team behind Crazy Rich Asians, an adaptation of the 2013 novel of the same name, made an incredibly gutsy decision when fielding distribution offers for the film. Their two suitors: Warner Bros., who promised a theatrical release and not much else, and Netflix — who were ready to greenlight an entire trilogy based on the property and were offering a ridiculous amount of money. The novel's author, Kevin Kwan, and the film's director Jon M. Chu decided to go with Warners, ensuring that the only romantic comedy in recent memory to feature a nearly all-Asian cast would see a theatrical run. It turned out to be a good choice.

The film, featuring Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) as a native New Yorker who accompanies her boyfriend to a wedding in Singapore, became a surprise critical smash and a cultural phenomenon. Online reviewer Rendy Jones encapsulated the consensus in concluding his review, "Crazy Rich Asians takes familiar tropes and revitalizes them and its entire genre… a great cast, amazing direction, and powerful writing." Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal called it "hugely enjoyable, and hooray for Hollywood for making it happen." Like Black Panther before it, Asians constitutes a clear message to Hollywood execs that heartfelt, well-executed stories featuring people of color can not only cross cultural boundaries, but smash them — and earn huge box office in the process.

Alpha

Director Albert Hughes was once better known as one-half of filmmaking team the Hughes Brothers. With brother Allen, he was responsible for such classics as Menace II Society and Dead Presidents — but he's kept a low profile for the last couple of decades, with only 2001's poorly-received From Hell and 2010's divisive The Book of Eli to his credit. In 2018, Hughes returned with Alpha — a film set in prehistoric times which purports to be a sort of origin story of the bond between man and dog, and which largely won over critics with its straightforward, throwback style of storytelling.

The Wrap's William Bibbiani had high praise for Hughes, saying, "What could have made other storytellers stir-crazy seems to have unleashed something philosophical in Albert Hughes… Alpha comes close to greatness, specifically that rare kind of greatness that we reserve for timeless epics." Many critics noted the film's old-fashioned feel; said Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com, "It plays like one of those Disney nature movies with sharper edges, a bit more grime… this could play at museums forever once it leaves general release." Kodi Smit-McPhee was also praised for ably communicating his lead character's growth with a complete lack of dialogue, as was cinematographer Martin Gslacht for rendering gorgeous visuals perfectly suited to IMAX viewing. If you're a cat person, you may not be terribly impressed — but dog lovers, or just those in search of a rollicking old-timey adventure, would do well to check out Alpha.

Searching

John Cho is perhaps best known as Harold from the Harold and Kumor movies and Sulu in J.J. Abrams' rebooted Star Trek series, but that may be changing. He fills the lead role in Searching — and while the thriller didn't exactly tear it up at the box office, the critical response to the film, and Cho's performance, should ensure that this talented actor will soon be landing more juicy leads.

Searching borrows a page or two from producer Timur Bekmambetov's Unfriended playbook, as the film takes place within the confines of laptop and smartphone screens. A distraught father (Cho) is frustrated with the lack of a police response when his 16-year old daughter goes missing, eventually taking matters into his own hands by using the girl's digital trail to determine her whereabouts. As with Unfriended and its sequel, the "screen within the screen" gimmick works remarkably well — and while some of the cast seem a tad thrown off by the conceit, Cho improbably thrives in it. 

Vince Mancini of Uproxx lavished praise on his performance, saying, "It sounds more like a cheap gimmick than it actually is, and if I'd skipped it I would've missed the ultimate evidence of John Cho's remarkable evolution into a capable leading man." Critical consensus pegged the film as a well-made, suspenseful thriller with a timely message — namely, that nobody's secrets are safe online — but Cho's engaged and emotional performance helped elevate Searching from genre standout to one of the summer's best films.

A Simple Favor

Director Paul Feig seems particularly at home with comedy. After helming episodes of Freaks and Geeks and The Office, he scored huge hits with 2011's Bridesmaids and the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy. But with his feature A Simple Favor, he showed off a previously unseen trick: the ability to deliver a tight, noir-flavored suburban thriller with a healthy dash of comedy and twists and turns aplenty. Adapted by Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story) from the Darcey Bell novel of the same name, A Simple Favor features Anna Kendrick as a mommy blogger who suddenly turns detective when her best friend (Blake Lively) vanishes from their close-knit town.

Positive notices focused largely on Kendrick and Lively; said Laramie Movie Scope's Robert Roten, "Most recent movie scripts don't give female characters much respect, but this screenplay… gives the two lead characters plenty of power and substance. Kendrick and Lively both respond with marvelous performances." Feig also drew praise for striking a delicate balancing act with the film's tone, which Sarah Ward of Concrete Playground accurately described as "slick, smart, slightly sleazy and ruthlessly entertaining… thoroughly committed to making viewers eat up every moment." It's no Gone Girl — A Simple Favor doesn't take itself quite that seriously, which worked out in its favor.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born is a classic Hollywood story, one that's been revisited no fewer than three times since the 1937 original. The 1976 version, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, was the third-highest grossing picture of that year and won an Academy Award for Best Original Song — but in 2018, we got a lovingly crafted retelling that may prove to be not only the finest version of the story put to film, but one of the greatest remakes of all time.

Helmed by Bradley Cooper (who also stars) in his directorial debut, the film tells the story of up-and-coming singer Ally (Lady Gaga), who falls in love with an established musician (Cooper) and begins her ascent to stardom even as the career of her mentor and lover begins to decline. Cooper displays a sure directorial hand; Adam Epstein of Quartz calls his direction "instinctive," with "remarkably orchestrated" scenes which enhance his own spot-on performance while taking full advantage of Gaga's smoldering star power. To nobody's surprise, she absolutely crushes it in her first big-screen leading role, with piles of notices singling out the realistic chemistry between the two leads and Gaga's "powerful and winning" screen presence. Said Jmuvies' John Urbancich, "Expect [Oscar] nominations all around, with actor/writer/director/producer and songwriter Cooper on the verge of a boatload." 

Overlord

It seems like it's been awhile since we've gotten a pure, distilled, sterling example of an awesome B-movie — but if any of 2018's films are worthy of the distinction, it's Overlord. Hailing from J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company and directed by up-and-coming Aussie filmmaker Julius Avery (Son of a Gun), Overlord has all the ingredients: a bombed-out World War II setting, Nazis, zombies, Nazi zombies, and buckets upon buckets of blood and gore. It may not have burned up the box office, but it seems like the kind of movie destined to amass a cult following on home video — and there's little question it delivered the B-goods.

Positive reviews generally praised its effective blending of elements, including its equally harrowing sequences of war and zombie mayhem ("If anyone ever wished Saving Private Ryan were more of a B-movie splatterfest," deadpanned Tribune Media's Katie Walsh, "Overlord is the movie for you"). USA Today's Brian Truitt described it as a "two-fisted, flame-throwing World War II action-adventure horror film," that "[makes] the new Halloween [look] like a Pixar film in comparison," while praising the film's "grindhouse style and sensibility, on-point jump scares, [and] hyperrealistic wartime action." Obviously, Overlord is a film that knows its audience, but unfortunately, a great chunk of said audience apparently decided to wait for the video release. However, the film's meager box office showing doesn't necessarily mean that no sequel will be forthcoming, because there very well might be.

Halloween

We waited all year for it, and it delivered. Halloween, a direct sequel to the seminal 1978 film of the same name and made with the blessing of (and with a new score by) original director John Carpenter, finally gave fans of the Shatner-faced slasher Michael Myers a sequel worthy of his towering legacy. Co-writer and director David Gordon Green and fellow scribes Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley were criticized in some quarters for relying too heavily on the story beats of the original, but most fans found Halloween to be more of a loving, skillful homage than a blatant remix — and spot-on performances by Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and Nick Castle as Myers (reprising their roles from the original film) brought this excellent sequel home.

Laura Delaney of RTE found the film to be "the perfect companion piece to John Carpenter's 1978 classic, with a boundary-pushing script offering fans something truly cutting," while Medium Popcorn's Brandon Collins called back to the underrated H2O (which this film wiped from the series' continuity, along with all the other sequels) by labeling the film "A really good follow-up to the first one, and the best Halloween in 20 years." It may not have reinvented the absurdly large kitchen knife, but it gave fans a worthy canonical followup to one of the greatest horror films of all time — and 40 years down the road, that's no small feat.

First Man

Fresh off his Best Director Oscar win for La La Land, director Damien Chazelle assembled an all-star cast for First Man, a dramatization of the 1969 moon landing in the grand tradition of such great space program dramas as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. As in his previous Oscar-winning effort Whiplash, critics found Chazelle to have a deft touch with characterization, particularly when it came to the handling of Neil Armstrong, a man who never wore his emotions on his sleeve. Ryan Gosling's understated performance as Armstrong — "the man, not the legend," as one reviewer succinctly put it — was at the heart of the film's success, carrying the moments of relative inaction and bringing a quiet fortitude to the sequences of space-based drama.

Rex Reed praised the film for its realism, saying that it "[gives] you a hair-raising feeling of what it really felt like inside the space craft, where every hour was life-threatening and the outcome was always perilous." He also briefly acknowledged the much-publicized omission of the planting of the American flag on the lunar surface, "which has caused a great deal of controversy and led to a staunch refusal by many patriotic moviegoers to see the film at all. In the final analysis, it doesn't matter. The movie resonates anyway." The majority of critics concurred, with many finding the film superior to La La Land — meaning that Chazelle can probably go ahead and pack his bags for another trip to the Oscars.

The Hate U Give

Amandla Stenberg, a fine young actor, has been in search of her breakout role for awhile now. 2018's The Darkest Minds may have provided it had it not fallen resoundingly flat with critics and audiences, but The Hate U Give put that swing-and-miss squarely in the rearview mirror. Stenberg's portrayal of Starr Carter, a black teen whose world is upended when she witnesses the murder of a friend by a police officer, has drawn rave reviews from all quarters — and the film itself has garnered near-universal acclaim for its confident handling of a difficult subject.

Variety's Owen Gleiberman positively lavished praise on the film, saying, "[It's] the rare racial drama that will detonate the complacency of even those who are drawn to see it… a stunningly acted movie that never panders or settles for middlebrow piety… Amandla Stenberg makes [Starr's] journey at once stirring and psychologically riveting. This is a performance everyone should see." Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader went even further in his praise, saying it deserves to be held up against To Kill a Mockingbird and adding, "The filmmakers understand their characters so thoroughly that the insights seem to grow organically from their experiences. This is American studio filmmaking at its finest." Hollywood hasn't always given us the most nuanced examinations of race relations — hello, Crash — but The Hate U Give proves cinema can still be a powerful tool in forging understanding between human beings of all stripes.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

2012's animated feature Wreck-It Ralph was an endearingly sweet, pop culture-savvy hit that made masterful use of video game tropes to explore such kid-friendly themes as how our differences can make us stronger, and the perils of judging a book by its cover. The long-awaited followup Ralph Breaks the Internet went even further in developing these ideas, while also opening up the video game world of the original to a broader landscape, thanks to the introduction of a wifi router to the arcade which Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his new bestie Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) call home.

Kevin Harley of The List nailed the film's understanding of it audience with his thoughtful review. "What starts as a splatter-gun celebration of cyberspace spectacle becomes a savvy, sweet fable of friendship and online distraction, its in-jokes and emotional stakes interwoven with surprising subtlety," he wrote. "[It's] a sequel rich in ideas and character investment, capped with a wistful climax: the kind that leaves you torn between wanting another sequel and hoping Disney stops there, for fear of breaking it." While not every critic was as impressed ("less a film, more a commercial," opined one), the general consensus pegged Ralph Breaks the Internet as a worthy sequel, one that expands upon the themes of the original without losing any of the subtle gags and lively humor that made it special.

Creed II

2015's Creed was many things: a surprisingly vital entry into the well-worn Rocky franchise, an excellent and compelling sports film, and something of a coming-out party for director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan (who also teamed up for 2018's Black Panther). For Creed II, Coogler ceded the director's chair to sophomore feature director Stephen Caple, Jr., resulting in a film slightly less kinetic — but with just as much on its mind — as the original, featuring another stellar performance from Jordan and the return of Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, the role that made him famous in 1985's Rocky IV.

Newcomer Florian Munteanu delivered a solid performance as Viktor Drago, the near-unstoppable son of Ivan, who emerges to challenge Jordan's Adonis Johnson in the ring — and if the storyline seems a little familiar, well, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The great Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper hit the nail on the head in his review, saying, "Even though we've seen this movie before (and more than once), there's a strong beating heart to this franchise." That heart would be Jordan, who (as always) earned heaps of praise for his masterful sketching of his character's personal growth. Also a standout: Lundgren, who showed off the acting chops that fans always knew he had by humanizing the monstrous Drago with a simmering performance. The general consensus: not quite as good as the original, but a worthwhile entry which sets the stage for a potentially fantastic finish.

Widows

Director Steve McQueen struck box office and Oscar gold with 2013's 12 Years a Slave, a sweeping historical drama with a strong eye for characterization and period detail. Widows could not be more different from that film, but the fact that it's executed just as well speaks to McQueen's prodigious talents. Co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), the film tells the story of four women caught in the blowback from their dead husbands' criminal activities who decide to alleviate their difficulties with a daring heist — and it works just as effectively as a character study as it does a crackerjack crime picture.

Featuring roundly excellent performances from Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, Widows "offers everything adults used to love about cinema," according to Brandon Katz of The Observer: "taut story lines overflowing with talented actors chewing scenery… The transformation of its housewives into heisters makes for one of the most enjoyable cinematic arcs of 2018." The New York Post's Sara Stewart agreed, calling it "a gritty romp that makes the cliché-prone heist genre feel fresh again." The whip-crack screenplay and McQueen's efficient direction were certainly factors in its success, but most critics concurred that it was the performances of its four leads that made Widows special. 

Bumblebee

The films in the Transformers series, never critical darlings to begin with, have produced consistently diminishing returns both critically and at the box office, and observers could be forgiven for expecting spinoff Bumblebee to offer more of the same. But with director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) taking over for Bay and working from a smart, '80s-set script by Christina Hodson (Shut In), a funny thing happened: Bumblebee debuted to absolutely stellar reviews, with near-universal praise for its smaller, more personal story and throwback vibe, which drew favorable comparisons to the work of Steven Spielberg in his Amblin-era prime.

In what may constitute a first for the entire series, lead Hailee Steinfeld was singled out early and often for her heartfelt, nuanced performance ("We haven't seen such a well-realized character in any of the other Transformers movies," opined one observer). Critics simply found the movie to be more pleasant to look at and easier to follow than Bay's famously busy, jumbled offerings, with Knight's empathetic direction marking a refreshing change of pace. Simply put, Bumblebee served up what the series had thus far struggled to provide: heart, wonder, and fun. Said Rolling Stone's David Fear: "It's a blockbuster that, with a few whirring movements and a half dozen clicks and beeps, transforms itself into something meant to be watched by actual thinking, feeling human beings. For once, there really is more than meets the eye."

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

After three cinematic incarnations stretched across six feature films and two guest appearances in Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings, it wasn't exactly clear what fresh spin (no pun intended) on the character an animated Spider-Man feature could provide. But Sony Animation's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse brought the answer into sharp focus by eschewing a Peter Parker-focused narrative in favor of Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teen who's taken up the mantle in recent years, and in the process become a beloved fan favorite. Based loosely on the Spider-Verse comics event, in which multiple Spider-people from different universes must band together to take on a common threat, the film leaned into the idea that "anybody could be behind the mask" — and followed through with its wildly eclectic collection of Spider-characters.

In addition to its spot-on characterizations and story, the flick drew rapturous praise for its insanely innovative animation style, rendered to look as if it were leaping right off the comics page. Critic after critic heaped praise on its "newfound sense of joy and playfulness," along with its "perfect balance of thrills, comedy and drama," not to mention its "sheer creative gumption." Some went so far as to call it the best Spider-Man film ever made, with others suggesting it should be a shoo-in for an Academy Award in the animation category. An unmitigated triumph for Sony, Into the Spider-Verse opened up whole new avenues of storytelling for Spidey — and garnered wider acclaim than nearly any wide release of 2018.

Mary Poppins Returns

1964's Mary Poppins was many things: a star-making hit for Julie Andrews, a groundbreaking mix of live action and animation, a delivery mechanism for a slew of iconic children's tunes, and a showcase for one of the most terrible English accents ever performed by an American actor (Dick Van Dyke). P.L. Travers, the author of the novel upon which it was based, was famously displeased with the adaptation — but that didn't stop Disney from making Mary Poppins Returns, featuring Emily Blunt in the title role. 

While some reviews acknowledged that diehard fans of the original might find fault, the film charmed the socks off the majority of critics and audiences. Blunt's winning performance was found to measure up favorably to Andrews' take; Matthew Norman of the London Evening Standard found her Poppins to be "the same irresistible amalgam of the brisk and brusque, the kindly and mischievous, the vain and magical… and the intriguingly enigmatic." Director Rob Marshall drew praise for doing "a canny job of suggesting, if not replicating, the treasures of the original movie… this new film hardly feels as if it were made in 2018 at all." Overall, it was received as a worthy sequel to a timeless classic, which one review summed up in truly Poppins-like fashion: "While it may not be practically perfect in every way, Mary Poppins Returns is never less than perfectly palatable, and in some ways comes close to perfection — practically speaking."