The Best Movies of 2018

Josh Larsen


I can’t think of a single movie that wormed under my skin quite like Annihilation. Not just in 2018, but maybe ever. Natalie Portman plays a scientist who joins a team investigating a phenomenon called “the shimmer”—a glowing, growing sphere enveloping the wilds of coastal Florida. A number of scientists and military personnel (including the husband of Portman's character) have already gone missing while exploring the area. It’s impossible to miss the spiritual significance of passing through a veil into an unknown place from which no one has ever returned. Once in, director Alex Garland develops a central theme of refraction—literally the breaking of the light—in directions that are at turns gorgeous and grotesque, sometimes both at the same time. It’s a visual feast that gnaws you back. With a climactic encounter that’s as otherworldly as terrestrial filmmaking allows, Annihilation manages to infuse a story about death and resurrection with menace. It's an encounter that wouldn't feel out of place in a Flannery O'Connor story, if O'Connor was an X-Files fan. Like her good country people facing the revelation of a God they had cooped in a tidy box of respectability, Annihilation presents revelatory power as a hair-raising, existential threat. Decidedly untidy, changing even the parts of us we'd prefer left alone. You begin to understand the prophet's words after seeing God in Isaiah 6: “Woe to me ... I am ruined.” (Michael Morgan)

Eighth Grade

Few movie characters from 2018 have been as easy to identify with as Kayla Day, the 13-year-old protagonist of director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Not everyone who saw Burnham’s movie grew up using Instagram, Snapchat, or YouTube the way Kayla (Elsie Fisher) does, but even if that part of her experience doesn’t resonate, chances are something else does: her adolescent awkwardness; the outsized importance she places on every experience; her desire to be regarded and loved by others. That last aspect—the need to be loved and the performative nature we adopt in order to earn that love—is something with which Burnham (a comedian who came up through YouTube as a teenager) is intimately familiar. Through Kayla, we see someone earnestly reaching out. Through her dad (Josh Hamilton), we see someone who knows his child completely and sees not her flaws, but her many strengths. Their relationship recalls the way that God loves us unconditionally and sees us fully, noticing the parts of ourselves we might not. The moment Kayla finally comprehends her dad’s pride in her is incredibly moving, not just for her character, but for us, too. It’s a meaningful reminder that this same kind of deep, understanding love is available to us all. (Abby Olcese)

First Reformed

Paul Schrader wrote the book on the transcendental style in film more than 40 years ago. Anchored within this tradition, First Reformed is a masterpiece of spiritual cinema, a prophetic lament of theological, political, and personal significance. Alluding to Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson in both form and content, Schrader's ascetic aesthetic—the minimalist gray-and-beige environments captured in static or slow-pan shots—is powerfully affecting as Ethan Hawke's Reverend Toller navigates his personal dark night of the soul after a counseling session with a troubled young couple goes horribly awry. A cinematic theologia crucis at the intersection of hope and despair, First Reformed triggered a spiritual crisis in my own heart, one where I truly had to wrestle with its central question: Will God forgive us? Even as I know there is grace in Christ, I'm still wrestling with the query. Such is the lingering power of First Reformed, a film which dares to ask the tough questions of faith, inviting us not only to contemplate them but to do something about them. (Joel Mayward)

Isle of Dogs

Not since Davey and Goliath has stop-motion animation been so chock-full of theology. Isle of Dogs, director Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion effort after Fantastic Mr. Fox, isn’t only a pinnacle of the art form, it can also be read as a parable about the price and promise of Christian obedience. At the center of the story is the relationship between a boy and a stray named Chief, who—reluctant to relinquish his free will—cannot see that he’s in dire need of rescue. In exquisite detail and with wry humor (there’s also a pug seer who gets her pronouncements by watching television), Anderson and his animators help Chief learn what Christians know: that true freedom lies in choosing loving obedience to our good Creator. Or, you know, that flourishing can come by way of a friendly game of fetch. (Josh Larsen)

Leave No Trace

In director Debra Granik’s pensive survivalist film Leave No Trace, not all who wander are lost. And not all who are lost want to be found. This slow-burn character study follows homeless war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) as they navigate the challenges of social integration after being dubiously “rescued” by social services from their illegal forest camp. Expertly acted and exquisitely photographed, the film centers on how their relationship changes as they explore this new way of life—one that frequently places them on the receiving end of others’ charity. Though both initially resent the state’s intervention, Tom begins to thrive in the company of others, while Will visibly languishes under the demands of community life, waiting for an opportunity to escape. Granik gently subverts viewer cynicism by surrounding her protagonists with understated, genuinely decent people whose overtures of nonjudgmental kindness evoke God’s common grace toward all humankind—including those who refuse to acknowledge him. Which is what makes this story so bittersweet. One character recognizes her condition and gratefully opts for a more abundant life. The other, tragically, insists on being his own savior. That’s why some might say that Leave No Trace isn’t really about a flawed society or an imperfect welfare system. It’s about the human condition apart from God. (Johnathan Kana)

The Rider

During an impressive sequence in The Rider, Chloé Zhao’s contemporary Western drama starring real-life Lakota cowboys, once-promising, now-injured rodeo star Brady Jandreau skillfully “breaks” a new horse. Gloriously backlit by a South Dakota sunrise, the two square off in a training pen, Brady’s steps gently, confidently bending the horse in the direction of obedience. The give-and-take plays out like a well-choreographed ballet. When Brady finally mounts the steed, it visibly relaxes beneath his weight. The horse that once refused to accept a rider is now learning to submit—and to thrive. Yet this animal isn’t the only one being broken in the film. Recently sidelined by a serious accident, Brady struggles for identity in a community that prizes rodeo fame and expects him to “cowboy up” in the face of difficulty. Watching him stubbornly submit to mundane responsibilities—holding down a job, taking care of his special-needs sister—viewers may discern the deft hand of a heavenly Rider gently bending this cowboy’s steps in the way of obedience, too. With imaginative cinematography and heartfelt lead performances (Jandreau, a first-time actor, plays a version of himself), The Rider poignantly explores the ephemeral boundary between beauty and brokenness, suggesting that we’re never truly free until we’ve fully yielded to God’s sovereign will. (Johnathan Kana)

Support the Girls

A seedy, knockoff Hooters on the side of a busy highway might not be where you’d expect to find grace, but grace abounds anyway. Support the Girls covers a single day, give or take, in the life of Lisa (Regina Hall), the manager of a sports bar “breastaurant” in Texas. Lisa has to deal with a multitude of issues over the course of the day: a racist and sexist boss; an understaffed workplace; a waitress who can't find childcare for her son; horrible customers; the utilities going out … the list goes on. Lisa’s situation is impossible, and it is an everyday reality for the millions of people who work in the service industry. The marvel is not that Lisa endures her situation—she has no choice except to keep going—but that she endures with unending generosity. As an advocate for her workers in an unfair environment, Lisa is a living embodiment of Micah 6:8. And she does it all with no hope of recognition or reward. (Sarah Welch-Larson)

You Were Never Really Here

In any other movie, we would cheer when a vigilante beats up human traffickers while rescuing abducted girls. But in You Were Never Really Here, director Lynne Ramsay pulls away as hero Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) assaults the kidnappers, taking the perspective of black-and-white security cameras that only accidentally capture brutalized bad guys and fleeing girls. Not just a gesture toward realism, away from the hyper-violence found in other parts of the movie, the sequence also employs the musical power of Rosie and the Originals’ 1960 hit “Angel Baby,” a girl’s love poem translated into a piece about adult yearning. This portrayal of art influencing reality, of male violence and female passivity, deconstructs gender roles in action movies. Joe may seem in charge, but frequent flashbacks to his abusive father’s commands to “act like a man” have damaged him, crushing his psyche as he tries to emulate Hollywood heroes. The movie suggests that action tropes can be as harmful to men as they are to the women reduced to “victim” or “prize” statuses. The film reminds us that whatever pleasure we derive from action movies, we Christians follow the Prince of Peace, a God who would rather die than destroy, who returns in glory bathed in the blood of his own sacrifice. You Were Never Really Here reveals that despite what our movies tell us, no good comes from retributive violence. That type of redemption is never really there. (Joe George)

Topics: Movies