It was a great year for movies — providing you could find them.
The best movies of the year may have been playing at your local theater. Or they may have been playing at a one-time-showing on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus or at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Or they may have been playing on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
With AMC taking over the former Sundance 608 at Hilldale Mall, Madison no longer has what could be considered an “arthouse cinema” (although in truth Sundance mixed indie and commercial films for years, and AMC has largely kept the same balance). The bad news is that there’s no one-stop shop in Madison for the best independent films. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, to cite one example, played at New Vision Fitchburg 18 and Marcus Point.
The good news is that other theaters are taking chances on indie movies. Even second-run Market Square has programmed a few first-run films, such as Paul Greengrass’ Netflix drama “22 July.” To know when and where movies are opening in town, Madison cinephiles have to stay engaged (which is where, ahem, local movie critics can be helpful).
Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies of the year. Living in a smaller market like Madison, the list is a little wonky because it doesn’t include 2018 movies that haven’t opened here yet like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Cold War.” And it doesn’t include 2017 movies that didn’t open in Madison until early 2018 (“Phantom Thread” would have been a shoo-in otherwise.) Where available, I've listed where you can see these movies.
1. “Widows” — Steve McQueen’s follow-up to “12 Years a Slave” was a surprising turn into the crime thriller genre, starring Viola Davis as a Chicago widow who, when her criminal husband (Liam Neeson) dies during a heist gone wrong, is forced to pay off the crime lord he stole from by mounting her own heist. While the film delivers on tension and suspense, it broadens beyond a heist film to explore issues of class and sexism, with Chicago emblematic of a polarized world where rich and poor live uneasily next to each other. Now in theaters.
2. “You Were Never Really Here” — Another twist on a genre film, Lynne Ramsay’s take on the hitman thriller stars Joaquin Phoenix as a tortured gun-for-hire who tries to rescue a young girl from a predatory politician. Ramsay deliberately fractures the storyline to match her protagonist’s addled mind, and finds unexpected moments of grace and beauty within the violence. Now on DVD and Amazon Prime. Read my original review.
3. “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” — The sixth installment in the Tom Cruise action franchise is the darkest and the best, with incredible stunts, gorgeous filmmaking and a knotty plot that doublecrosses the audience as much as the characters. You can feel the care and craftsmanship in every scene, like when you eat a fancy meal or drive an expensive car. Now on DVD. Read my original review.
4. “Minding the Gap” — From just down the road in Rockford comes the best documentary of 2018. Bing Liu began filming his skateboarding friends when he was a teenager, but kept the camera rolling as they grew into manhood and responsibility. The result is a sensitive but clear-eyed portrait of toxic masculinity in an economically depressed area. Now streaming on Hulu. Read my original review.
5. “Leave No Trace” — Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) returns with a tender portrait of a father and daughter (Ben Foster and Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) living off the grid in a vast urban park in Portland. While the father, a traumatized veteran, shows his daughter survival skills, she helps him cope with the wider world, and Granik shows patience and care in detailing their relationship in all its complexity. Now on DVD and Amazon Prime. Read my original review.
6. “Wildlife” — Actor Paul Dano takes a turn as director and co-writer (with his partner, actress Zoe Kazan) to adapt Richard Ford’s piercing novel about a dissolving marriage, and the teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) who watches it crumble. Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan are excellent as the fraying couple, and Dano captures their separation with extraordinary subtlety and empathy. Read my original review.
7. “First Man” — Damien Chazelle followed up “La La Land” with this unusually intimate and subjective epic about Neil Armstrong. By locking us into Armstrong’s perspective, making us feel the danger of space travel and the parental grief Armstrong keeps locked inside himself, “First Man” makes being the first man on the moon feel like an incredibly lonely place.
8. “Blaze” — Ethan Hawke is rightly getting praised for his performance in “First Reformed,” but I thought his latest film as a writer-director was even better. In telling the story of Blaze Foley, a brilliant, self-destructive member of the “Texas outlaw country” movement, Hawke captures the highs and lows of his staggering career, with an unforced, unaffected lead performance by Ben Dickey as Foley. Read my original review.
9. “Black Panther” — Ryan Coogler’s Marvel movie was a true marvel, a thrilling and groundbreaking superhero movie that used the genre to ask serious questions about the world we live in. What if Africa had never been colonized? What if slaves hadn’t been shipped to America? What might the world look like without those sins in our past? “Black Panther” points the way to a more just and hopeful future. Now on Netflix.
10. “Private Life” — Netflix had several candidates for this Top 10 list, including “Roma” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The movie I kept coming back to was Tamara Jenkins’ gently comic tale of two middle-aged New Yorkers (the wonderful Kathyrn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) laying their lives bare as they attempt to conceive a child. Now on Netflix, obviously. Read my original review.
Honorable mentions: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," "Paddington 2," "The Endless," "Roma," "First Reformed," "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."