From 'Paddington' to 'Pete,' 2018's best films (and a few of its worst)

Looking back at the year's best films and performances, and a few we'd rather forget

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It was the year moviegoers said "Wakanda forever."

"Black Panther" broke down barriers of race in Hollywood blockbusters and became one of the highest grossing motion pictures of all-time. 

If the old rules weren't exactly thrown out at the movies this year, they're certainly changing. Films like "Black Panther," "Sorry to Bother You," "BlacKkKlansman," "The Hate U Give" and "Blindspotting" addressed issues of race in America in a crackling, fresh new voice, making old-fashioned movies about race (see "Green Book") seem just that: old fashioned. 

Paddington is voiced by Ben Whishaw, in “Paddington 2.”

Meanwhile, there was a bounty of excellent films made by veteran directors (72-year-old Paul Schrader) and newcomers (28-year-old Bo Burnham, 30-year-old Carlos López Estrada), showing the wide range of voices leaving their mark on today's Hollywood.

And there was a bear, a kind-hearted, soft-spoken bear, whose teachings rang especially true as the outside world continued to devolve into chaos. 

It was a stellar year for cinema, and boiling it down isn't easy. But here goes nothin'. 

These are my picks for 2018's best movies and performances, along with a short recap of some of the year's worst movies. The latter list would have been longer, but like Paddington, we're trying to be a little more kind going forward:  

Best Movies of the Year

10. "Vice" — Director Adam McKay, who after gifting us with "Step Brothers," went and broke down the 2008 financial crisis for everyone with "The Big Short," takes on his biggest subject yet in former Vice President Dick Cheney. He pulls back the curtain on Cheney in this biting, hilarious and eye-opening film about power, how it is gained and how it is wielded. Christian Bale is Cheney and leads a remarkable cast (Sam Rockwell is a hoot as George W. Bush, and Steve Carell steals scenes as a hammy Donald Rumsfeld), but it's McKay's sharp storytelling that makes this portrayal so riveting. (OpensDec. 25)  

9. "If Beale Street Could Talk" — Barry Jenkins is a born filmmaker. If that wasn't apparent in "Moonlight," check out his follow-up, an intoxicating visual poem about race and class in America that is drunk on its own dreamlike vibe. Adapting from the novel by James Baldwin, Jenkins turns his camera on a young couple, Tish and Fonny (KiKi Layne and Stephan James), who are torn apart when Fonny is sent off to jail for a crime he didn't commit. Beautiful and heartbreaking, "If Beale Street Could Talk" has plenty to say if you're willing to listen. (Dec. 25) 

Daveed Diggs, left, and Rafael Casal and in “Blindspotting,” a riveting drama about race in America.

8. "Blindspotting" — Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal are pals from Oakland who took their love of poetic verse and applied it to this story about race relations, police brutality and gentrification in their hometown. "Blindspotting," directed by Carlos López Estrada, is one of the year's most resonant films; it's tense, funny and alive, a modern-day West Coast "Do the Right Thing" that builds to an explosive climax. You won't see it coming. 

7. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" — Melissa McCarthy is the best she's ever been on film, "Bridesmaids" included, in Marielle Heller's gorgeous portrait of a lonely biographer who turns to forging letters from literary greats when her writing career dries up. Except she doesn't see it as forgery, it's a tribute, which is one of the ways Heller climbs into the head of her subject. Richard E. Grant is devilishly good as her loser partner in crime; together, they're the year's best duo, a pair of misfits who find each other and prove that everybody needs someone. Especially these two.   

6. "Mission: Impossible — Fallout" — An action movie so immaculate and elaborate it could be hung on a wall in a museum, the sixth "Mission: Impossible" film is the work of a driven madman (star Tom Cruise) and his closest collaborator (director Christopher McQuarrie). "Fallout" gets the "Mission" gang back together as an excuse for Cruise and McQuarrie to go all-out on action sequences, including breathless chases through London and Paris and a climactic helicopter sequence that keeps pushing until it can't push any further. It's a perfect metaphor for this franchise. 

Charlie Plummer stars as a 15-year-old in “Lean on Pete.”

5. "Lean On Pete" — The bond between a boy and his horse is explored in this gutting drama about a teenager (Charlie Plummer) who befriends the run-down racehorse he cares for during his summer job at the local stable. Plummer's character mixes with a range of lowlife types — Steve Buscemi feels like he's living his role, and Steve Zahn is especially haunting as a violent homeless alcoholic — as the film morphs into a brutal tale of survival. Plummer is a knockout, and the film's finish is so exhilarating it puts R. Kelly's "The World's Greatest" in a whole new context. 

4. "Roma" — Director Alfonso Cuarón returns home in this sumptuous drama about a maid (Yalitza Aparicio) and the family for which she works in early '70s Mexico City. Cuarón is a visual master, and he shoots in glorious black and white, composing shots that fill the frame with the lifeblood of his city. There are weddings, parades, marches and uprisings all just outside his focus, but they're there, and he wants you to feel the pulse of his hometown. Feel it one does; "Roma" is bursting with energy, but unfolds on the small scale of a singular human drama. It's quite a juggling act, and Cuarón pulls it off with flying colors. 

3. "Eighth Grade" — In his debut feature, former YouTube funnyman Bo Burnham makes good and delivers this emotionally forthright coming-of-age story that is so honest it had audiences squirming in their seats. Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is finishing out her middle school years and preparing to enter high school, doling out life advice on social media for followers who don't exist on topics about which she knows nothing. Times and technology change, but the feelings of being a teenager don't, which is what Burnham so expertly conveys in this film that is wise beyond its years.  

Ethan Hawke in a scene from "First Reformed."

2. "First Reformed" — Ethan Hawke is a man of the cloth questioning his faith and the horrors of humanity in this jagged, slow-burn thriller that rolls over you like storm clouds coming in from the horizon. Writer-director Paul Schrader is so spartan and minimalist with his choices that the film's dizzying finale leaves you rocked and gasping for air. It's a film that grabs hold of you and won't let go.  

1. "Paddington 2" — The most inventive, imaginative film of the year is also its sweetest and most rewarding. The sequel to 2014's "Paddington" unfolds in a world where a premium is placed on kindness and generosity, concepts that seem foreign in our increasingly ugly society. Paddington is jailed, mistaken for a town thief trying to get his hands on a valuable pop-up book (Hugh Grant, perfect as the smug crook), but he makes the most of his situation and lifts up everyone around him. We could all learn a little something from Paddington, and Paul King's treasure of a film is so delightful it makes you want to live inside its world. 

10 more films with feeling: "Crazy Rich Asians," "Sorry to Bother You,; "Black Panther," "22 July," "The Favourite," "Game Night," "The Hate U Give," "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," "Vox Lux" and "Hereditary"

10 great performances:

10. Nicolas Cage, "Mandy." All those years of oversize acting in increasingly forgettable shlock has come full circle and resulted in this, the meta-Cage swallowing his own tail in a nightmare grindhouse LSD fever dream. In a word: amazing.  

9. Jack Black, "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot." Jables only has a few scenes in Gus Van Sant's uneven biopic of John Callahan, but in them he tells the complete story of the life of a guy who doesn't know when the party's over. 

8. Natalie Portman, "Vox Lux." Portman goes full pop star — she performs four songs in character in concert at the end of the film — in this cuckoo exploration of the intersection of terrorism and pop music. The film is ambitious beyond its reach, but Portman is so savage it hardly matters. 

7. Michael B. Jordan, "Black Panther." Every Batman needs his Joker, and MBJ gave Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther something to fight against as the viciously cool Erik Killmonger in the year's biggest blockbuster.   

6. Jessie Buckley, "Beast." Buckley is spellbinding in writer-director Michael Pearce's dark, dark romance, starring as a troubled young woman whose demons are more intense than anybody first suspects. 

5. Awkwafina, "Crazy Rich Asians." In a huge ensemble, it was Awkwafina who stole scenes from her castmates, playing the goofball best friend who was having more fun than everyone else combined. 

Rosamund Pike in "A Private War."

4. Rosamund Pike, "A Private War." As Marie Colvin, Pike digs deep into the psyche of a war correspondent, and the addiction to getting the story that proved to be her end. 

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in "Blaze."

3. Ben Dickey, "Blaze." As folk artist Blaze Foley in Ethan Hawke's intimate biopic, first-time actor Dickey is so real that you'll think you're watching a documentary. 

2. Kelly Macdonald, "Puzzle." Macdonald bursts with life as a lonely housewife who finds excitement in the world of competitive puzzling in Marc Turtletaub's graceful, unassuming drama.   

1. Jesse Plemons, "Game Night." As the hanger-on neighbor who desperately wants to hang out with his old friends on Game Night, Plemons is disturbing, creepy and downright hilarious in this winning ensemble comedy.  

Worst Movies of the Year

5. "Ben is Back" — Lucas Hedges is a drug addict and Julia Roberts is the mother trying to keep him clean in this hectic, cloying drama that doesn't hit a note of emotional truth. (Opening Jan. 11)  

Kelly Preston (left) and John Travolta (right) star in "Gotti."

4. "Gotti" — Using a 2012 Pitbull hit to score a 1985 block party shows the attention to detail that was spent in this fawning biopic of the notorious New York crime boss. 

3. "Flower" — A repugnant dark comedy that, try as it might, just can't find the humor in subjects such as teen suicide, pedophilia and drug use. Imagine that!

2. "Nutcracker and the Four Realms" — Utter nonsense. The Disney machine couldn't make any sense of this "Nutcracker" story, and judging from the garbled result, it's unclear if it even tried. 

Olivia Wilde and Oscar Isaac in "Life Itself."

1. "Life Itself" — Writer-director Dan Fogelman's weepy, cloying ensemble drama is so schmaltzy it makes his "This Is Us" look like "The Sopranos."