For a lot of onscreen wives, mothers and children in 2018, a good man was hard to find.

The year’s most critically beloved film, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, revolves around a Mexican household abandoned by a husband and father who runs off with his mistress. “No matter what they say, we women are always alone,” the mother tells her maid, who has also been viciously spurned by the father of her unborn child. That line speaks to a lot of the cinema of 2018.

The recent news about the American Psychological Association’s controversial new guidelines declaring “traditional masculinity” — here implicated in aggressiveness, violence, eschewing appearance of weakness and anti-femininity — to be generally harmful follows a year of movies cross-examining men and masculinity, especially abusive, ineffective or absent husbands and fathers.

“What happened to ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man’?” the young male hero of my favorite film of 2018 demands of his father, a hard-drinking gambler. “What happened to all that, Dad?” The film explores the pressure on the young man, both internally and externally, to be tough and to compete despite a potentially life-threatening injury.

Viola Davis learns the hard way in Steve McQueen’s Widows that she was, um, less happily married to Liam Neeson than early scenes would suggest. The young hero of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One lives with an aunt and her abusive boyfriend. Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong becomes increasingly emotionally unavailable to his wife and kids in Damien Chazelle’s First Man.

Remarkably, each of Disney’s four live-action family films — A Wrinkle in Time, Christopher Robin, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and Mary Poppins Returns — feature dads who aren’t bad guys but who nevertheless have trouble being there for their families, either emotionally or physically or both.

Perhaps the year’s most complex onscreen parental relationship was that of Debra Granik’s extraordinary father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, starring Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie. It’s a tender relationship and a profound bond, but deeper forces in the psyches of the wounded father and the levelheaded daughter are pushing them in different directions.  

The cross-examination of masculinity extended to nonfiction films. Bing Liu’s acclaimed debut documentary Minding the Gap explores the intergenerational fallout of paternal physical abuse and the difficulties some young men have transitioning to adulthood and parental responsibility. Free Solo profiles celebrity rock climber Alex Honnold, whose girlfriend struggles with Alex’s emotional remoteness.

While some might be inclined to blame all of this on anti-masculine attitudes among liberal filmmakers, that would be at least an oversimplification.

Cuarón’s Roma is inspired from the director’s memories of his own childhood in Mexico City, where his father abandoned the family when Cuarón was 12. Armstrong’s sons were consulted on Gosling’s portrayal of their father and vouched for its truthfulness. (It’s not included in the film, but the Armstrongs eventually divorced.) The documentaries, of course, depict real lives of real people.

There were gratifying exceptions.

Perhaps the happiest onscreen marriage in a major Hollywood release was that of real-life husband and wife John Krasinski and Emily Blunt in the post-apocalyptic horror-suspense film A Quiet Place. Krasinski’s film celebrates the masculine and feminine complementarity of its unnamed couple; perhaps concerns about traditional gender roles diminish, if not disappear, after the apocalypse.

Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk likewise centered on a loving young black couple with a child, though the father is unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne play overwhelmed adoptive parents in Sean Anders’ uneven, sometimes endearing pro-adoption comedy Instant Family, inspired by the writer-director’s own experiences.

And, while American animation often casts dads as overbearing and unsympathetic to their kids’ needs, that wasn’t the case in Incredibles 2 and especially Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which offered Hollywood animation’s richest father-son story since Finding Nemo.

Into the Spider-Verse capped a very good year for family films — a welcome reversal from the previous year. There are two family films in my top 10 list and more in the runners-up and honorable mentions. (Don’t miss the winsome documentary Science Fair.)

Landing outside my top 30 are the pretty enjoyable new take on The Grinch (which, as always, I reviewed in Seussian rhyming verse) and the funny Teen Titans Go! To the Movies! (Your family might also enjoy Mamoru Hosoda’s magical-realist family fantasy Mirai more than I did, along with Mary Poppins Returns and perhaps Hotel Transylvania 3.)

2018 was also a more remarkable year than the previous for religious themes in film.

The most extraordinary contributions were Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc.

Chiwetel Ejiofor played a Pentecostal preacher who rethinks some of his beliefs in the fact-based drama Come Sunday. The Vatican’s canonical process for investigating purported visionaries was explored in The Apparition, a French-language film about alleged messages from the Virgin Mary.

Jim Caviezel played St. Luke in the well-made faith-based Paul, Apostle of Christ, and Rooney Mara played the title character in Mary Magdalene.

In documentaries, Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word looked at some of the implications of the Gospel for the world today, while Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? highlighted how Fred Rogers’ faith shaped his television career and approach to engaging children.

Newcomer Abbie Ross added a new spin to the tiny set of monastic documentaries like Into Great Silence and No Greater Love by putting a digital camera in the hands of a young woman discerning a vocation at a Poor Claire monastery, resulting in Chosen: Custody of the Eyes. Churchgoing and prayer was part of the social fabric depicted in RaMell Ross’ art-house documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening.

2018 was an extraordinary year for documentaries generally. I only managed to get one into my top 10, but there are six more in the runners-up and honorable mentions, most of which would be at home in the top 10, and more besides. (Among worthy docs I would have liked to include are Three Identical Strangers.)

As I set about compiling my list of the films that moved me most, three titles came to the top more or less as soon as I saw them. After that, it became harder to make distinctions, and especially to exclude films. (I’m somewhat surprised I wasn’t able to fit in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, among others, but in the end I felt more strongly about other films.)

The seven films rounding out my top 10 could appear in almost any order. Few of the runners-up would feel out of place to me in my top 10, and few of my honorable mentions would feel out of place in the runners-up.

SDG’s Top Films of 2018

  1. The Rider. Chloé Zhao’s sweeping, elegiac portrait of an American Western world of cowboys who are also Indians is shot against the rugged landscapes and majestic skies of a Native American reservation in the South Dakota Badlands and cast with locals playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. A devastating rodeo injury structures the story around various kinds of brokenness, but it’s also an exploration of faith and divine purpose. Mature themes; much rough language and brief profanity. Teens and up.
     
  2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Mad visionaries Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) reinvent superhero movies, American animation and family films in a wildly inventive adventure of astonishing scope and emotional power. Set in a multiverse with a variety of spider-powered heroes, the story focuses on key relationships in the life of a young Afro-Latino named Miles Morales, especially with his father. Intense animated comic-book action violence and menace. Might be a bit much for very sensitive youngsters.
     
  3. I Am Not a Witch. Zambian-born Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut is a darkly satiric parable about institutionalized oppression of women and girls, accented by an inspired cinematic metaphor: The women of a Zambian witch camp — an exotic tourist attraction as well as a slave-labor prison camp — are kept on literal leashes, long ribbons unspooling from giant bobbins said to keep them from flying off. Thematic material. Teens and up.
     
  4. The Guardians. Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men) explores the reverberations of war on the home front of rural France during World War I, seen through the eyes of women holding down the fort, or the farm, while the sons are in the trenches. Brief sexuality; fleeting violent images. Teens and up.
     
  5. Lean on Pete. Andrew Haigh’s deeply compassionate adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel about a boy and a horse walks a fine line between the unexpectedly devastating consequences of bad decisions and the incalculable workings of undeserved grace. Brief but shocking violence; much harsh language and some profanity; mature situations. Teens and up.
     
  6. Paddington 2. As gentle, compassionate and polite as most Hollywood family fare is frenetic and crass, Paul King’s superior sequel is packed with visual invention, charming incident, a hilarious Hugh Grant acting up several different storms, and marmalade. Slapstick action and comic menace; a rude term and a single profanity; mild naughty humor. Kids and up.
     
  7. Leave No Trace. Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone) builds a largely self-sufficient world around two deeply entwined characters, a veteran father (Ben Foster) suffering from PTSD and his teenaged daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), who live largely off the grid in the forest parklands of the Pacific Northwest. Then Granik proceeds to dismantle that world. As fiercely personal as its central characters, the film’s painful realities are leavened by human kindness and ultimately by hope. Mature themes. Teens and up.
     
  8. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Like Fred Rogers, like Jesus himself, Morgan Neville’s documentary offers a gentle challenge to each of us to try to be better neighbors to one another. Some mature thematic content; a gag photo of a man “mooning” the camera. Teens and up.
     
  9. Mission: Impossible — Fallout. Working harder than any two action stars half his age, Tom Cruise brings to a triumphant conclusion what amounts to the most outstanding action sequel trilogy in Hollywood history. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie frames Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as an action hero for whom one life counts as much as millions, for whom the only acceptable level of collateral damage is zero. Sometimes brutal/deadly action violence; brief sexually themed remarks; divorce and marriage; brief profanity, cursing and crude language.
     
  10. 22 July. United 93 director Paul Greengrass takes a very different approach to a very different mass terrorist incident that traumatized a nation, the 2011 Norway lone-wolf attacks that left 77 dead and hundreds injured. Focusing on the aftermath of the attacks, the film builds to an unexpectedly ringing rebuttal of this particular face of evil. Harrowing, graphic terrorist violence; occasional harsh language; mature themes. Older teens and up.

10 Runners-Up (unranked)

  • Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s Afro-futurist superhero blockbuster, with Chadwick Boseman leading an almost all-black cast (teens and up)
  • Chosen: Custody of the Eyes, a unique monastic documentary from first-time filmmaker Abbie Reese in collaboration with a young former blogger discerning a religious vocation in a Poor Clare cloister in Illinois (no content issues)
  • Eighth Grade, newcomer Bo Burnham’s empathic depiction of the anxieties and pitfalls of middle-school life in an age of social media and school shootings (older teens and up)
  • First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s exploration of religious and environmental sickness unto death, anchored by an outstanding Ethan Hawke as a clergyman in crisis (adults)
  • Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross’ feature debut, an impressionistic, artful nonfiction slice of life in a black community in Hale County, Alabama (teens and up)
  • Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont’s exhilaratingly bizarre musical adaptation of the writings of the French Catholic poet Charles Péguy on St. Joan of Arc (older kids and up)
  • Minding the Gap, newcomer Bing Liu’s nonfiction record of friendship, skateboarding, the bumpy transition to adulthood, and the legacy of domestic violence (teens and up)
  • A Quiet Place, starring Emily Blunt and cowriter/director John Krasinski as archetypal parents in a post-apocalyptic horror-thriller that celebrates married and family life (teens and up)
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet, a superior sequel to Wreck-It Ralph that goes beyond the first film’s rote message of acceptance into more complicated thematic and emotional territory (kids and up)
  • Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s deeply personal, visually stunning drama centering on a maid for a middle-class family in the Mexico City of the director’s childhood (adults)

10 Honorable Mentions

  • Blindspotting, a pungent comedy-drama offering possibly the richest and most provocative of the year’s many explorations of urban life, race, violence, law and order, and masculinity, from Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal (mature viewing; discretion advised)
  • Custody, Xavier Legrand’s harrowing postmarital psychodrama about a manipulative man, a vulnerable woman and their tween son (adults)
  • The Death of Stalin, a pitch-black satiric comedy skewering the absurdities and arbitrary abuses of power under totalitarianism, from Armando Iannucci (adults)
  • First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s personal portrait of America’s most private icon (teens and up)
  • Free Solo, documenting celebrated rock climber Alex Honnold’s pioneering efforts to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without gear or partners (teens and up)
  • Incredibles 2, Brad Bird’s lesser but well-crafted sequel to his superhero family masterpiece (older kids and up)
  • Puzzle, starring a brilliant Kelly Macdonald as a Catholic housewife whose newly discovered passion for jigsaw puzzles changes her life in complicated ways (adults)
  • Science Fair, a crowd-pleasing documentary about young science enthusiasts from around the world competing for a global science prize, from Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster (fine family viewing)
  • Shirkers, Singapore-born filmmaker Sandi Tan’s hair-raising nonfiction account of an enigmatic mentor’s contributions to — and grotesque sabotaging of — her experimental first film (teens and up)
  • Sweet Country, Warwick Thornton’s 1929-set Australian Western featuring Sam Neill as a gentle man of Christian faith in a brutal world of racial and sexual violence (adults)

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

This is an expanded version of the Jan. 20 print issue article.