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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

Written by on December 21, 2018 

40. Custody (Xavier Legrand)

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A riveting sequel to Xavier Legrand’s equally tense Oscar-nominated short Just Before Losing Everything is the type of film that leaves you speechless—a fact only augmented by its lack of score and deafening cut-to-black silence. In my mind Custody is the most accomplished and assured directorial debut of the year with Legrand’s skill at coaxing heartrending performances from veterans (Léa Drucker and Denis Ménochet) and newcomers (Thomas Gioria) alike matched only by his technical prowess to construct the type of edge-of-your-seat terror this raw depiction of domestic abuse horror deserves. He puts you into the desperate mindset of a family struggling to escape a monster. As they hold their breath in a permanent state of anxiety, so too do we. – Jared M.

39. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel and Ethan Coen)

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The Coen brothers undertook an array of landmarks in the making of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—the digital cinematography, the Netflix distribution, the anthology format—yet all of these coalesced to form one of their strongest films. The six-story structure offers ruminations on death and fate in a manner that enhances all of the Coens’ calling cards while keeping the film rooted in the Western genre as a whole, examining it with an elegiac, always searching gaze. – Ryan S.

38. The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood)

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Seemingly beamed in from another planet, The 15:17 to Paris baffled even the most seasoned Clint Eastwood auteurists when it landed on screens early in the year. But looking back, one sees a film where an 88-year old is taking the biggest risks of his lengthy career; one need not seek any further than an extended sequence where our heroes order gelato in seeming real-time, proof of a director making his strangest and most touching films. – Ethan V.

37. Private Life (Tamara Jenkins)

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Featuring the unequivocal best performance of the year from Kathryn Hahn, writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ film concerns a middle-aged pair of New Yorkers doing their damndest to have a child and the hurdles that emerge along the way. Also starring Paul Giamatti in a career-best turn, every moment is rendered with such honesty, such comedy, and such heartbreak. This small story slowly becomes a perfect microcosm for relationships and all we do to get through the day with the ones we love. – Dan M.

36. Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker)

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Loudly arriving the breakthrough of its lead Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline is a riveting performance study following a young woman battles her inner demons as she participates in an experimental theater exercise. An emotionally and visually thrilling drama, Josephine Decker navigates the muddy waters between performance and reality as well as art and therapy creating a provocative tug of war. Co-starring the great filmmaker and artist Miranda July as Madeline’s mother and Molly Parker as her director, Madeline’s Madeline is as engaging as it is hard to shake. – John F.

35. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Peter Ramsey, Robert Persichetti Jr., Rodney Rothman)

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Everything about this new–and markedly different–Spider-Man feels like a revelation, but in particular, it is the visuals; uniquely comic-book inspired while also leaving behind that medium completely, they get the rare recommendation of even seeking out the 3D version. Is it another Spider-Man origin story? Sure, but it knows this is a yawn-inducing trope and plays with those conventions while also giving us a person of color under the mask. The influences are worn on its sleeve–or in this case, a hoodie–with the Swae Lee and Post Malone jam Sunflower featuring prominently and a Spider-Man that opts for Jordans on his feet. This is a rare film that is able to blend bombastic action, laugh-out-loud humor, a smirking knowing meta-commentary on the genre, and some strong emotional beats all in one ecstatically entertaining package. – Bill G.

34. First Man (Damien Chazelle)

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There’s a glossy mechanical precision to First Man, a technical achievement of filmmaking and period recreation so immersive that the work of Damien Chazelle and co. renders this exhaustive effort nearly invisible. Indeed, the sacrifices we make in the name of human achievement too often burn up in the heat of glory, a means to an end, faceless in history save for the heroes who survive. The heroes who made it home alive. Awe-inspiring and heart-wrenching, First Man explores this territory from the vantage point of a person scarred, left incomplete, by the loss of family and friends, seeking catharsis through his work and obsessions. Audiences who had the chance to catch the film on IMAX were also treated to the finest aspect ratio change of the year. No offense to Nancy. – Tony H.

33. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)

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The primordial ooze is somehow perfectly visualized in Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’ tender, heartbroken, and batshit crazy explosion of grief and anger. It is found in the considered pacing (structurally and within individual scenes), the swirl of elemental pigments, and the oozing drone of the score. They all build together to externalize something timeless, something dripping with fever, something entirely organic and yet cosmic and boundless. These elements work in tandem with Mandy’s primary fixation on loss, as if extreme violence, fantasy, and an existential level of pining are the only ways Cosmatos can bear to discuss (and express) them. It’s an incredibly open film despite its oppressive tendencies. Nicolas Cage’s signature rage is beautifully contextualized in the elemental center of anguish, and he delivers a performance that both quickens the pulse and breaks the heart—often in the same beat. Andrea Riseborough enchants with few words, and she acts as the anchor to Mandy’s cosmic leanings. There’s leather-clad biker demons, piles of cocaine and jars of LSD, one macaroni-spewing goblin, and the fuming notion that at the end of the day, revenge hurts—but not as much as that gaping hole in your heart. – Mike M.

32. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo)

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Though in many respects unpolished, late Chinese director Hu Bo’s first–and only–feature is a cry into the void so raw and resounding it shakes you out of a stupor you never even realized. The breathlessly long set pieces build up a sense of suffocation in real time, while the subtle music and camerawork evoke the constant, unspoken despair of a billion nobodies. This is the work of a keenly observant storyteller who bared his last outrage on screen and who probably proved too perceptive for the moral bankruptcy of this world. – Zhuo-Ning Su

31. High Life (Claire Denis)

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It takes a filmmaker as intelligent and uncompromising as Claire Denis to tap into the latent dread and impulses hidden beneath the brilliant surface of space travel. Carried by rock-solid performances from Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth and sent to stratospheric heights by Stuart Staples’ savage, spellbinding score, the cosmic sci-fi fantasy High Life uncovers something most primal about us earthbound sinners. A mad waltz of ideas and style that spins gloriously out of control. – Zhuo-Ning Su

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