Total Film magazine presents its top 20 films of 2018

10. The Shape of Water

“It’s a musical-thriller melodrama-love story between a woman and an amphibian man, as directed by Douglas Sirk and Stanley Donen,” said Guillermo del Toro of his passion project that would go on to win the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. Only del Toro could have so effectively gelled such a seemingly unwieldy mash-up of tones and genres into the year’s unlikeliest romantic fantasy. Much of the magic was generated through the relationship between Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaner and the amphibious humanoid creature (Doug Jones) being studied at the secret government facility she works at. But every character was treated with empathy in a film tender and tense, brutal and magical. A masterclass making the unique universal.

9. A Quiet Place

John Krasinski proved he was more than the likeable everydude from The Office with this directorial effort – not his first, but by far his most impactful. The catchy elevator-pitch concept – humanity is all but wiped out by sound-seeking creatures – was given heart and heft in Krasinski’s assured hands. He also delivered a fine lead performance, starring with real-life wife Emily Blunt as parents of a family eking out a near-wordless existence in a remote house. The suspenseful set-pieces were seat-edge stuff, but it was the family relationships that stuck long after the credits. Millicent Simmonds shone as deaf daughter Regan, battling both the creatures and a gnawing guilt stemming from a family tragedy. A Quiet Place is a film worth shouting about.

Read more: Shh! Don’t tell anyone but A Quiet Place 2 release date just got announced

8. Black Panther

This may have been the year of Avengers: Infinity War, but Black Panther was a cultural event that even Thanos couldn’t match. The first Marvel Studios movie to feature a primarily African-American cast, it proved that not only could greater representation sell tickets, but that the result is better films for everyone. Following the death of his father, the newly crowned king T’Challa returns home to face a dangerous challenger to the throne, while wrestling with the need to keep the technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda hidden from the rest of the world. As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman exuded dignity, while Danai Gurira’s Okoye was this year’s standout scene-stealer. But it was Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger who gave the film its fire, the exiled mercenary the embodiment of generations of righteous fury.

Read more: Black Panther ending explained - everything you need to know after watching

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh’s savagely funny, emotionally raw drama was one of the big winners at this year’s Oscars, with both Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell picking up golden baldies for career-best performances. It should have won more. McDormand stunned as grieving mother Mildred Hayes who, frustrated by the failure of local police to find her daughter’s killers, shames them into action by erecting three scathing billboards. McDonagh’s scintillating script was the acclaimed playwright at his biting best, locating moments of heart-rending humanity in a story with no easy answers, and refusing to put terminally flawed characters in neat moral boxes. A profane, profound and poetic film about revenge, redemption and everything in between, it’s McDonagh’s masterpiece.

6. Lady Bird

An ode to ’90s teenage angst, Greta Gerwig’s clever, sweet bildungsroman sidestepped bromide for authenticity and all the feels – whatever your generation. The titular, self-named high-schooler (Saoirse Ronan) feels trapped by her Sacramento life, yearning for big romance with nice theatre geek Danny (Lucas Hedges) or pretentious hottie Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) while raging at her work-worn mum (Laurie Metcalf). There was no reinvention of the wheel here, but that sharp, knowing script gave parents and teens wonderful moments, while hazy cinematography painted the Californian capital as a diamond in the rough, and a well-developed sense of nostalgia and hindsight made Lady Bird’s eventual college epiphany both bittersweet and instantly recognisable. Hella smart.

5. Roma

Alfonso Cuarón mined his own childhood for Roma – the Mexican director’s finest film yet (and that’s saying something when Children of Men, Gravity and Y Tu Mamá También are on your CV). Set in 1971, it’s a deceptively simple story focused on the live-in maid of a middle-class Mexican family that unfolds against the backdrop of the Corpus Christi Massacre. Shot in evocative black-and-white by Cuarón himself when regular DoP Emmanuel Lubezki proved unavailable, it was a work of great empathy and humanity, each lyrically staged chapter possessing the beguiling quality of a vividly remembered dream. But its neo-realist aspirations weren’t token; Cleo (terrific first-timer Yalitza Aparicio) may be one of the family, but the stark class divide is never forgotten.

4. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

As far as impossible missions go, making the best entry six films into a franchise is right up there with Ethan Hunt’s toughest assignments. But it’s something that director Christopher McQuarrie and star/producer/stuntman Tom Cruise pulled off with aplomb. “The last movie was kind of more about laughs, and I wanted to do something that had a little more heart,” said McQ pre-release. The fact that Fallout managed to get under Ethan’s skin while also throwing him face and ankle first into the most visceral stunts, scrapes and vehicular mayhem since Mad Max: Fury Road made this 2018’s finest action film. Throw in a spot-on ensemble – including a perfectly utilised Henry Cavill – and you have a damn-near perfect cinema experience. Mission: accomplished.

3. Phantom Thread

A (meticulously timed) decade on from There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis struck oil again. This was another tale of an obsessive man with dubious people skills, but cut from a different cloth. Not as dark, sombre or gaslight-y as its trailer hinted, Phantom Thread mounts an unpredictable, perversely sweet-centred battle of wills between immovable couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and his new muse Alma (Vicky Krieps), who turns out to be an unstoppable force. 

Both Day-Lewis (in his reported final role) and Lesley Manville (as Woodcock’s fierce sister-enabler) bagged Oscar noms, but the wily, vital Krieps was equally deserving. Phantom Thread ultimately won Best Costume Design; Anderson’s film properly walks the (cat)walk, exquisite in every detail and a perfect fit for its players – not least composer Jonny Greenwood, whose swoony score complements the romantic vibes like oil (not butter) on asparagus.

2. Hereditary

Inspired by such horror masterpieces as The Innocents, Don’t Look Now, and The Shining, writer/director Ari Aster’s slow-burn, dread-soaked debut saw us meet a family at a time of grief – grandma has just passed away – and then slide slooowly into ever-deeper darkness until all light is extinguished. It proved a deeply disturbing experience, brilliantly acted by Toni Collette as traumatised mum Annie, Gabriel Byrne as dad Steve, and Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro as the deeply messed-up kids, whose very DNA is possessed by demons.

Like Jennifer Kent’s haunting 2014 horror The Babadook, Hereditary deals with grief, mental illness and familial dysfunction; and like Sir Stanley’s aforementioned masterpiece, Aster’s film is meticulously composed, framed and paced, erecting its unshakeable terror one (Ku)brick at a time. “My prime aim was to upset the audience in a very deep way,” said Aster. “I’ve been shocked by how warmly the film has been received!”

Read more: Intelligent, emotional, and terrifying, Hereditary is near-perfect horror. With a little more restraint, it would have been flawless

1. Avengers: Infinity War

It started with a distress call. It ended with defeat, disintegration and a distraught Cap gasping, “Oh God.” Our thoughts exactly. The biggest film of 2018 – with more than $2 billion in the bank – was also the boldest and, yes, the best. The secret of its mega-success? To quote a certain purple madman, it kept everything perfectly balanced. The script juggled the sprawl of superheroes and sub-plots so effortlessly, you never stopped to wonder how many Post-Its must have been involved. Every woman, man, and raccoon in the cast knew when to steal – and when to cede – the spotlight. 

And the direction maintained an Infinity Gauntlet-like grip on tone, flipping smoothly and repeatedly between spectacle, silliness (“Why is Gamora?”), shock (that Hulk-busting opener), and horror (that half-of-everything-busting closer). One masterstroke? Making us weep for fallen heroes... who already have sequels slated. Another? Leaving us cliffhanging, yet fully satisfied: no doubt about it, this was The Empire Strikes Back in spandex.

Read more: What does the Avengers: Infinity War ending mean? And 9 other questions we have

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.