In movie business parlance, a four-quadrant film is one that appeals to each of a potential audience’s four demographic groups: men and women, those over and those under 25 years of age. A film that succeeds with all four quadrants — think “Star Wars,” “Toy Story,” “Lord of the Rings” — is doing very well indeed.
Critics don’t look at films in a four-quadrant way but you could say that there is an equivalent, that a year’s worth of movies can also be divided into four groups: big studio blockbusters, independent films, foreign-language efforts and documentaries.
The best way to understand why 2018 was an exceptional movie year, and it was, is to realize that each of these four categories boasted better than average films, films not only worthy of a 10-best list but also suitable for an all-time classics registry as well.
In recognition of this, I’m splitting my No. 1 pick between two memorable films that each represents a pinnacle of its particular group: Ryan Coogler’s dazzling, massively successful blockbuster “Black Panther” and Debra Granik’s emotionally resonant, piercingly insightful independent gem “Leave No Trace.”
A superhero movie whose characters have integrity and dramatic heft, laced with socially conscious commentary as well as wicked laughs, “Black Panther” is the model of what an involving popular entertainment ought to be but hardly ever is.
Fiercely involving in a way we're not used to, made with sensitivity and honesty, “Leave No Trace” tells its emotional story of a father and daughter living dangerously off the grid in way that is unnerving and uncompromising yet completely satisfying.
As in years past, I am going to order the rest of my list alphabetically, but, in recognition of how strong individual films were in 2018, I will also do a few things differently.
That starts with not including more than one film in each choice (as has been my habit in the past) but letting each of these films stand alone. Here goes:
“Cold War.” Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski has made a star-crossed love story, haunting, atmospheric, passionate and tempestuous.
“Free Solo.” Both intimate and expansive, this eye-widening documentary about a climber who disdains ropes has an unexpected human dimension.
“Incredibles 2.” If all sequels were as good as this 14-years-later follow-up, what a fine movie world this would be.
“Roma.” Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s impeccably realized memory piece allows us to feel we haven’t merely witnessed a life, we’ve been fully immersed in one.
“Shoplifters.” The latest from Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, a master of unforced intimacy, this wise and insightful film is delicate, poignant and unexpectedly powerful.
“A Star Is Born.” This is the fifth version of a venerable Hollywood tale, but you wouldn’t know it from Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s fearlessly emotional performances.
Sundance documentaries. It’s a truism that the Park City festival is the U.S.’ premiere doc showcase, but in 2018 something like 20 top docs debuted there on the way to theatrical release. Just listing my favorite 15 in alphabetical order takes my breath away:
“Bisbee ’17,” Crime + Punishment,” “Dark Money,” “Hal,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” “Jane Fonda In Five Acts,” “King In the Wilderness,” “The Last Race,” “On Her Shoulders,” “The Oslo Diaries,” “RBG,” “The Sentence,” “Shirkers,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“Vice.” “The Big Short” showed that Adam McKay was a writer-director to reckon with, and this wicked smart Christian Bale-starring satirical biography of Vice President Dick Cheney proves that in spades.
But listing 10 films is not going to do justice to the kind of year 2018 was, so I am presenting an unprecedented (for me) follow-up: a Second 10 list, terrific films that in a weaker year would have had no trouble making it to the top group but just couldn’t fit this time around. Alphabetically they are:
“At Eternity’s Gate.” Willem Dafoe’s deep dive into playing Vincent van Gogh elevates everything it touches.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The Coen brothers’ take on the traditional western is hard to resist.
“BlacKkKlansman.” Spike Lee reaffirms that he’s as skilled as a filmmaker as he is as a committed polemicist.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Melissa McCarthy gives a nuanced dramatic performance as a woman you hate to care about.
“The Front Runner.” Jason Reitman’s fine, unjustly neglected film about politician Gary Hart and his relevance to today.
“The Mule.” At age 88, Clint Eastwood continues to do things his own way, and we’re all richer for it.
“A Private War.” Rosamund Pike brilliantly brings to life foreign correspondent Marie Colvin’s magnificent obsession with the truth.
“They Shall Not Grow Old.” Peter Jackson’s ground-breaking documentary uses the most modern technology to bring ancient World War I footage magnificently alive.
“22 July.” Paul Greengrass’ ambitious, somber and significant re-creation of a horrific terrorist attack.
“Wildlife.” An impeccably made, beautifully restrained emotional drama that is also an impressive directing debut for actor Paul Dano.
Lastly, I want to put in a good word for the wonderful films that didn’t all last long at theaters but still linger in my mind. Let’s hear it for, in no particular order: “Puzzle,” “Early Man,” “Juliet Naked,” “Beirut,” “The Guilty,” “The Land of Steady Habits,” “Big Fish and Begonia,” “Mirai,” “The Death of Stalin,” “The Guardians,” “American Animals,” “Hearts Beat Loud,” “Custody,” “The Cakemaker” and “I Am Not A Witch.” They enriched my year and, given the chance, they will yours as well.