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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

Written by on December 21, 2018 

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For our most comprehensive year-end feature, we’re providing a cumulative look at The Film Stage’s favorite films of 2018. We’ve asked our contributors to compile ten-best lists with five honorable mentions–those personal lists will be shared in the coming days–and, after tallying the votes, a top 50 has been assembled.

It should be noted that, unlike our previous year-end features, we placed no requirement on a selection being a U.S theatrical release, so you may see some repeats from last year and a few we’ll certainly be discussing more during the next twelve months. So, without further ado, check out our rundown of 2018 below, our ongoing year-end coverage here (including where to stream many of the below picks), and return in the coming weeks as we look towards 2019.

One can also follow the list on Letterboxd.

50. Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

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For over two decades the filmmaker Jia Zhangke has, through his movies, shown Western audiences a barometer of life in 21st Century China. Ash is Purest White was both the most expensive and, arguably, least political film that Jia has made (read into that what you will) but it was also his most shape-shifting, adventurous and heart wrenching work, too. The director’s partner Zhao Tao provides that heartbeat as the wife of an absent mob guy who goes on an odyssey to find him. The film–and perhaps the world of Jia itself–would simply evaporate without her. – Rory O.

49. Widows (Steve McQueen)

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An adult thriller in a time where such resources are scarce at the multiplex, it might be easy to dismiss Widows as a gritty, trashy heist caper. It’s got the exterior of a genre flick better digested on Netflix, but Steve McQueen and the women of Widows decidedly have more on their minds. While it serves as a wonderful popcorn piece, it confronts more than just female empowerment. McQueen weaves in treatises on race, gentrification, class warfare and police brutality, never tacking them on. They become the texture of the film without overshadowing the fun genre trappings, allowing Viola Davis to grace Hollywood with more of her all-time best crying. For those craving some smart, substantial snack food, Widows is a gift to be savored. – Conor O.

48. Personal Problems (Bill Gunn)

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“The attempt to bury Bill Gunn began in his life,” wrote Greg Tate of filmmaker Bill Gunn (Ganja and Hess) in a Village Voice piece in 1989. Gunn, who scripted Hal Ashby’s The Landlord, passed away that same year, leaving behind a stunning catalogue of work, including the unreleased erotic melodrama Shop. His masterpiece may be the sprawling shot-on-video epic Personal Problems, originally produced in 1980 with the intention of airing on public television. That never happened. Now, nearly 40 years later, Gunn’s collaboration with novelist Ishmael Reed finally hit screens, and it’s a revelation. Following a Harlem nurse whose life changes after she learns of her husband’s infidelity, Personal Problems is half soap opera and half kitchen-sink melodrama. Textured by a Brechtian layer of motion ghosting, complete with falling boom mics, the film is not only a one of a kind work of aesthetic boldness and emotional sincerity, it’s also an essential entry in the filmography of an unfairly forgotten pioneer of African American cinema. – Tony H.

47. Dead Souls (Wang Bing)

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Wang Bing spent over a decade tracking down survivors of Mao Tse-tung’s Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s, seeking to create a record of their unspeakable suffering and salvage the memory of this forbidden chapter of Chinese history before it is buried forever. Out of some 120 testimonies and 600 hours of footage, he drew the 8.5-hour Dead Souls, a filmic masterpiece of such monumental proportions, it fully merits the many comparisons it has received to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. – Giovanni M.C.

46. The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery)

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At the time of year when people are falling all over themselves to award topical movies that no one will recall the context or possible importance of in five years, there’s a lot to recommend in a solid, playful, deft little character drama. Robert Redford is beguiling as the septuagenarian bank robber at the center of this romantic caper flick, and David Lowery conducts the whole affair with wit and charm to match Redford’s central performance. – Brian R.

45. A Paris Education (Jean-Paul Civeyrac)

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A promise: if you are bothering to read a non-mainstream publication’s best-films-of-2018 list and, moreover, its entry on A Paris Education, you will find interest–masochistic, cringe-inducing, subject-me-to-more-please interest–in A Paris Education. The year’s most giggle-inducing laceration of myopic cinephilia (arguments about Fincher and Verhoeven vs Ford and Vigo, oh my) is, in turn, a great story of fuck-ups in their many forms–first comic, then tragic, and finally as a semi-stable state of contentment. Civeyrac’s brilliance lies directly in line with his intent: to watch this, something about which its all-too-real-feeling figures would argue in a perfectly attenuated shot-reverse dynamic, is to feel like you’re within its confines. – Nick N.

44. Revenge (Caroline Fargeat)

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Revenge immediately declares itself as a visual treat with playful compositions and energetic editing. Then, it takes the masculine components of those ideas and snaps their proverbial neck 180 degrees, effectively—and yes, nastily—flipping them around on themselves. What emerges is an incredibly rousing proclamation of feminine endurance and triumph, blood-splattered and jolting, that makes each moment ancient and elemental, yet pressing and present. It is as outlandish and knowingly over-the-top as it dead serious; a fable and a slap in the face. Star Matilda Lutz traverses geographic and ideological spaces of masculine and upper-class hell in her righteous quest for vengeance, and director Caroline Fargeat shoots the whole affair with an eye for tension and a healthy fixation on viscera and cheeky subversions. She continually calls viewers’ attention to the power of the gaze by mimicking objectification, flipping it on its head, and then smashing it to pieces. Revenge is lean and biting, enticing and vicious. A vital cinematic cleanse that boils the blood, churns the guts, and then soothes the soul. There’s still work to be done, so someone please, give this woman a gun. – Mike M.

43. Before We Vanish (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

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Consensus-best is, needless to say, a horrible metric, but it’s only logical that Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish is the consensus-best since 2008’s masterful Tokyo Sonata: within its ever-moving widescreen walls are an ideally familiar-but-surprising angle on the alien-invasion film, conceits never entirely explained just as their danger is forever felt, sans too much emphasis on what-it-means-to-be-human angles that hobble many of its ilk. Is the deepest thing under the skin love? Of course not. – Nick N.

42. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack)

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A time capsule that’s as fresh and powerful an experience as it must have been when recorded live in Watts in 1972, Amazing Grace is arguably one of the year’s most-anticipated films arriving after years of litigation and a fetal technical glitch that was resolved thanks to digital workflows. The film that exists, finished by producer Alan Elliot, bursts with intimacy and immediacy capturing a captivating and sublime performance by Aretha Franklin. In between the incredible artistry we discover and are introduced to several influences of Franklin’s including her father the minister and civil rights activist CL Franklin who provides a moving context for the performance along with commentary provided by Reverend James Cleveland. Amazing Grace is a rousing performance lensed with simple, raw, intimate filmmaking that’s unforgettable and nourishing for the soul. – John F.

41. Sunset (László Nemes)

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László Nemes’ Sunset doesn’t just live up to the promise of his Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul, but surpasses it. Nemes employs a very similar aesthetic, again constructing the film from handheld long takes that stick close to his protagonist at all times, hurtling along with her as she navigates a series of increasingly chaotic situations that eventually culminate in the outbreak of WWI. The rush generated through this formal strategy is nothing less than, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the storm which we call progress. – Giovanni M.C.

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