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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

Written by on December 21, 2018 

30. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)

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As a swan song, there aren’t many as beautifully somber as Abbas Kiarostami’s window into his soul. In 24 Frames, it’s overwhelming imagining each offering as one’s final glimpses of the world—bleak isolation clashing with graceful nature. As the late Iranian filmmaker questions and plays with the very foundations of what we perceive filmmaking to be, it builds to a superb, chilling farewell and a towering culmination of a life’s work. – Jordan R.

29. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)

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One of the many marvels of Spike Lee’s latest is in its balance; the way it is so forcibly angry and yet manages to be so level-headed. BlacKkKlansman is at once an uproarious comedy and a fuming indictment of age-old, hateful dictums still present today, their persistence both painfully obvious and incredibly disturbing. Lee uses cinematic techniques to suggest a rollicking, firecracker pace—sudden split-screen, graphic inserts, and intensified and ideologically juxtaposed crosscutting—and yet he is in no rush. He is firmly and confidently in the driver’s seat, carefully and almost delicately unfurling a narrative of love and hate, pain and triumph. Just as the film juxtaposes ideologies via cinematic grammar, Lee creates tonal altercations that catch a laugh in the throat, and profoundly upset; like cinematic scotch, it goes down smooth until it hits the wrong pipe and you cough. But that’s not to say BlacKkKlansman isn’t a firecracker of a film; it is. It moves with grace and charisma, and a certain joy to balance the rage, anchored by John David Washington’s endlessly engaging, subtle performance, and filled in by Adam Driver, whose naturalistic and understated performance is nothing short of a marvel. – Mike M.

28. Vox Lux (Brady Corbet)

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Pop music and mounting cultural violence collide as points of consideration in this divisive, engrossing film. Brady Corbet writes a story and character that demand strong opinions from the audience, and shoots the film with unblinking conviction against all its absurdity and horror. Natalie Portman is the definition of fearless in her vulnerable, brittle turn as a pop star unable to reckon with her own celebrity. – Brian R.

27. The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)

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A genuinely provocative film in a cultural landscape leaning more and more heavily towards strict, black-and-white moralism, Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built feels like, for all its well-trodden territory (serial killers, directorial self-critique), a breath of fresh — and take it from someone who hasn’t found the director’s observations interesting in a long time. Is the film exhausting? Yes. Contradictory? Yes. Boring? Hell no. – Ethan V.

26. The Day After (Hong Sang-soo)

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In The Day After, the ever-prolific Hong Sang-soo returned to black-and-white for the first time since his 2011 masterpiece The Day He Arrives, and turned out some of the most elusive, bleakly hilarious writing and visually nuanced direction of his career. A quintessentially Hongian story of failure, love, and repetition, bolstered by one of the strongest casts of the year, it carried something unexpected: genuine hope, whether it be found in faith or ultimate fidelity. – Ryan S.

25. Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)

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In a career full of stellar performances, Juliette Binoche raised the bar once again in Claire Denis’ tender, humorous exploration of the yearning for connection. More or less a string of encounters with increasingly disappointing men, Binoche plays off each of them in subtly riveting ways. Shot while Denis and Binoche were waiting to film another entry on this list (High Life) her character in the forthcoming sci-fi film also plays like the inevitable result of the years of romantic frustration found in Let the Sunshine In. In a year when it was purported that Netflix brought back the rom-com, leave it to Denis to deliver the most poignant one in recent memory. – Jordan R.

24. The Tale (Jennifer Fox)

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What does your life mean if the memories that have defined you are revealed to be false? What if the memories are tied to devastating trauma? For Jennifer Fox (Laura Dern), when letters are unearthed revealing more about a “relationship” when she was 13, she starts to not only investigate in the present-day, but excavates the memories that she’s repeated since the trauma and opens a dialogue with her younger self (Isabelle Nélisse). What she perceived as a relationship was, in fact, repeated rape. Directed by Fox herself, The Tale is an emotionally debilitating drama, the powerful kind that makes one want to scream rage at the events on the screen, but are choked by silence as the credits roll, comprehending the irrecoverable damage caused to the protagonist and the director, as the events are based on her own life. – Jordan R.

23. Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel)

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Less that no other film this year was so free of superfluity, more that it angles this economy of ideas and feelings towards the worst period any normal person will endure at some time or another (and then another, and then another, and then…). But Lover for a Day is not masochistic viewing, not even close: if Garrel–and I don’t know a non-insufferable way to say this–makes movies about what it’s like to feel alive in a given moment, there’s great wisdom imparted to the viewer who looks from a distance. Forget heartbreak. This is how it is to walk down a street with a secret swimming in your mind; this is the way someone with a whole life before them perches on an open windowsill; this is why someone disregards a person they love. Maybe. Garrel’s spent half a century telling us we’re nothing but immensely complicated. – Nick N.

22. The Mule (Clint Eastwood)

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Clint Eastwood’s The Mule stands in contrast with his earlier 2018 project, 15:17 to Paris; the latter about young men beginning their hero’s journey, and the former about an old man paying the monetary and spiritual price for his own. Eastwood’s own storied career as a filmmaker, former mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, and father of eight adds a layer of subtext inaccessible to artists half his age. Via his character Earl, Eastwood places himself on screen for a dissection like no other 88-year-old American filmmaker before him. – Josh E.

21. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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Minding the Gap epitomizes the power of cinema as an artistic medium for change. To watch the footage first-time director Bing Liu shot years ago is to see a group of young skateboarders attempting to immortalize new tricks and hype them up with friends. It’s a look at kids with different backgrounds and issues escaping troubled lives and unwittingly finding a resonant point of catharsis. Inevitably growing older to find their struggles compounding, they refuse to shy from the toxic cycle of abuse uncovered. Liu morphs from camera-operator to subject alongside two men who trust him enough to bare their souls and expose their secrets—joyous and damning. The result is an unforgettably human depiction of honest self-reflection and transformative possibility. – Jared M.

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