Total Film magazine presents its top 20 films of 2018

Somehow, it’s that time of year again when we take a break from counting down the days to Christmas, and start counting down the top films of the last 12 months. Respected movie magazine Total Film’s staff and contributors have cast their votes, the scores have been tallied, and TF's top 20 films of the year have been named.

As ever, the films are long-listed based on UK release date (Total Film is a UK mag, and part of the GamesRadar network), which is how the likes of The Shape of Water and Phantom Thread have found their way onto this list despite coming out in 2017 in the US. But by whatever metric you use, the list makes it clear that it’s been a sensational year for cinema, with movies clearly in rude heath. There were a bumper crop of top-quality titles in contention; it’s a testament to the strength of the year that corkers such as Ready Player One, Sorry to Bother You, American Animals, Tully, The Rider, documentary Whitney, and more didn’t make the final cut. (Sadly, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse wasn’t screened for press in time for consideration.)

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(Image credit: Total Film)

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What you will find in this countdown are searing originals, affectionate reboots, Netflix originals, and franchise favourites. Genres include superhero movie, action thriller, heavyweight drama, cult horror, coming-of-ager, and musical-thriller-melodrama-love story. First-time filmmakers rub shoulders with Academy Award winners, and for once, the biggest film of the year also proved to be the best.

So, take a look at Total Film’s list of the top 20 films of 2018, and let us know what you think. Do you agree with the ranking, or are you outraged by an omission? Let us know in the comments section below. And for a thorough look back at the year that was, check out the new issue of Total Film magazine – on sale now – as it comes with a complete Review of the Year supplement looking at the trends, the people, the news, the box office, the… well pretty much anything and everything that’s shaped the cinema of the past 12 months. Without further ado, here's Total Film's top 20 films of 2018.

20. Mary Poppins Returns

After 50-plus years, the supernanny returned with a belated sequel that was entirely delightful from start to finish. Emily Blunt made the role her own, opting against a Julie Andrews impersonation for something a little sterner and haughtier, but no less caring. Ben Whishaw (whose Paddington series shares a kinship with Returns’ warm-hearted wonder) was lip-wobblingly good as the grown-up Michael Banks, and Lin-Manuel Miranda made for an extremely likeable Bert substitute and guide to the Cherry Tree Lane of the ’30s. For two-plus hours, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) made us forget about any outside worries with a practically perfect reprise of the Poppins formula: toe-tappingly infectious song-and-dance numbers, spirited animated interludes, and a contagious belief in the magic of everyday life.

19. First Reformed

First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s 21st feature as director, was his best for two decades, a film stark enough in its aesthetic to evoke the dramas of his director hero Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest), and yet with enough righteous rage to recall his script for Taxi Driver. Ethan Hawke excelled as Rev. Ernst Toller, a priest presiding over a small congregation in upstate New York, whose despair deepens with the suicide of one of his flock and the compromises forced upon his beloved First Reformed Church by a local industrialist who acts as a major benefactor. This was Schrader very much in his wheelhouse but also surprising at every turn, accelerating from Bergman to bonkers as events veer into violence.

18. A Star is Born

This could have been a mess. The snarky one from The Hangover making his directorial debut featuring the movie bow of a pop star (uh, hello Mariah, Britney, Christina)? But Bradley Cooper’s heartfelt re-do of an already three-told classic showcased his talent on both sides of the camera and the burning-bright charisma of Lady Gaga – nuanced, charming, and moving as wannabe musician Ally; full-throttle as the co-writer/performer of big cinematic melodies. Though the story is well-worn (his spiralling singer falls for a talented newbie and their fortunes switch), Coop and Gaga’s blistering chemistry drove audiences through a satisfying emotional journey that ends on a close-up as affecting as Timothée Chalamet’s Call My by Your Name sign-off last year – and just as likely to propel Gaga to the awards circuit.

17. Mandy

Nic Cage in Mandy

(Image credit: Universal)

Nic Cage was at his batshit best as Red Miller in this sublime, psychedelic rock opera of revenge from cult filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. Following an avant-garde opening in which Red’s wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) is abducted by mad prophet Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), Cage Rage kicks into fifth gear as Red uses a crossbow and hand-forged chrome axe to cut bloody swathes through the inhuman cult that wronged him. Shot on infernal 16mm and awash with all the colours of the black rainbow, Cosmatos told a deeply personal story of grief and fury (it was written in the wake of his mother’s death) via a wildly entertaining midnight movie that’s akin to watching a feature-length adaptation of a heavy metal album cover during a bad acid trip. Demonically good.

Read more: Nic Cage "bottles the essence of every whack-job he’s ever played" for his most wild-at-heart performance yet in Mandy

16. Leave No Trace

Ben Foster delivered his best performance to date in this powerhouse drama from Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik. As Will, a PTSD-suffering veteran, he channelled all of his on-screen intensity inwards in a powerfully underplayed performance. He was matched though, by relative newcomer Thomasin McKenzie, as Will’s daughter Tom. McKenzie did so much with so little; she’s a quiet, twitchy presence whose eyes can speak monologues. Plot-wise, father and daughter live off the grid in an Oregon park, surviving Bear Grylls-style as Will’s unable to assimilate back into society. Leave No Trace was a quiet, sparse drama: backstory is minimal, histrionics nowhere to be seen. But it also gripped from its very first woodland moments to its pathos-soaked denouement.

15. Annihilation

An “unfilmable” book, a long gestation period, an eleventh-hour distribution switch from theatrical to streaming... Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s brainy sci-fi novel seemed like it might be a dud. Until we saw it. It follows an army squad (Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh among them) as they ventured into ‘the shimmer’ – an otherworldly alterna-zone that has claimed the lives of teams before them. Annihilation offered uncompromising artistic vision, disquieting body and psychological horror, open interpretation and a divisive sign-off that thrilled and challenged. Allegedly flogged due to concerns it was “too intellectual”, this ballsy female-led project proved a good number of us did actually want our entertainment intelligent, opaque and provocative. And with mutant, wailing bears...

Read more: Annihilation won't give you answers, but surrender to its beautiful fever dream and you won’t regret it

14. First Man

It was a case of failure to launch at the box office for Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land and Whiplash, but First Man was a high-altitude space saga to match the likes of Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. Ryan Gosling played Neil Armstrong as close-mouthed and compulsive, but with a heart visible amid the tangle of computer chips, while Claire Foy made the wife-at-home role register. But this was first and foremost a technical achievement, with sound design (at times thunderous, at others thunderously silent) and cinematography (grainy and hazy, immersing you in the period) sure to be vying it out with Roma at the Oscars. And as for Chazelle’s detailed direction – wow. An intimate American epic.

13. BlacKkKlansman

(Image credit: Universal)

Spike Lee’s most electrifying film in years couldn’t have come at a better time. Set in the ’70s but pointedly speaking to the present day, BlacKkKlansman was based on an unbelievable true story. Using some dramatic licence, it told the tale of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan over the phone, before sending his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) as his stand-in for a series of tense face-to-face meets. The weighty subject matter was leavened (though not diluted) with humour as Lee embraced the absurdity of the situation, but for all the raucous comedy and righteous indignation, it also worked as a gripping cop thriller, entertaining all the while it informed.

12. You Were Never Really Here

(Image credit: Film 4)

The triumph of Lynne Ramsay’s tremendous adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ poetically brutal novella was that it actually lived up to the inevitable comparisons to Taxi Driver (Joaquin Phoenix played a traumatised vet intent on saving a young girl) and yet also had a flavour all of its own. Ramsay herself called You Were Never Really Here a “mid-life crisis action movie”, and Phoenix’s Joe, who employs a hammer as his weapon of choice, is spoilt goods, with memories of the abuse he suffered as a child forever detonating in both his splintered mind and the shelves of fat that coat his slabs of muscle. By turns ugly, tender and painfully funny (emphasis on painfully), You Were Never Really Here turned vigilante clichés inside out.

11. Widows

Steve McQueen’s most commercial film yet was a remake, a slick thriller and boasted a full-on ‘no, he didn’t!’ twist. But that’s not to say the 12 Years a Slave auteur had sold out. Based on Lynda La Plante’s pulpy ’80s Brit TV show that followed a criminal gang’s wives, who plan a heist after their hubbies buy it, McQueen’s pedigree take moved the action to Chicago and loaded his cast with fresh faces (Cynthia Erivo), unexpected delights (Michelle Rodriguez actually acts, Daniel Kaluuya terrifies) and top-tier powerhouses (Viola Davis, monumental). Scripted with tangible female insight by Gillian Flynn, Widows proved that it’s still possible to engage audiences’ hearts and heads with a propulsive thrillride that also addressed meaty issues including domestic abuse, politics, socio-economics, motherhood and race. A total score.

Continue to Page 2 for more of Total Film's top films of 2018

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.