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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2018

Written by on December 21, 2018 

20. The Rider (Chloé Zhao)

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Words like lyrical, phrases like “tone poem” get thrown around a lot for films like The Rider. Chloé Zhao’s picture is doing something more than all of that. It exists in a fascinating melancholy that lives on the edges of the Myth of the American West. Brady Jandreau stars as a rodeo cowboy recovering from a brutal head injury, determined to get back on that horse no matter the dangers at play. It’s a question of masculinity. Zhao clearly trusts her lead actor, her cinematographer Joshua James Richards, and every location implicitly. This is a touching, beautiful film. – Dan M.

19. Western (Valeska Grisebach)

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Valeska Grisebach gives us an unnerving vision of toxic masculinity in the throes of late capitalism in this Bulgaria-set fable among German construction workers in the frontier lands of the EU. Grisebach is a superb director of non-professional actors, and in Meinhard Neumann finds a striking conduit for the insecurities of the modern man, a brusque yet pensive army vet whose sensitivity gives way to tempered aggression when simmering tension boils over. Western’s title allows for a whole host of subverted-genre interpretations, but in today’s fractured Europe it’s perhaps best seen as a ruminative critique of the arrogant gaze of capitalism-of-good intentions, a dramatic counterpoint to the antics of 2016’s Toni Erdmann which also found a setting among Western plunderers in eastern Europe. But through whatever prism, this is a masterful study. – Ed F.

18. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

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Rapper/activist/writer-director Boots Riley’s debut feature skewers the gig economy, race relations, and corporate culture in one of the year’s sharpest and most timely pictures. An absurd comedy starring Lakeith Stanfield as Cash, a broke, up-and-coming telemarketer who is told to use his white voice, he quickly finds himself at odds with girlfriend Detroit’s (Tessa Thompson) political ideology. Things quickly run off the rails fast as Cash ascends the corporate ladder while his friends and family consider coining WorryFree, a kind of prison industrial complex that makes explicit what others in the gig economy might bury: just because you don’t feel totally exploited doesn’t mean you aren’t being exploited. – John F.

17. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

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Well known for making peculiarly-told darkly comic films, Yorgo Lanthimos set out on a new path with The Favourite: he left behind script-writing duties for the better and delivered one of the year’s most humorous films, a revelation that his sensibilities can meld with a more mainstream appeal. But truly it is the three female leads–Olivia Colman as the Queen and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone–battling for her affections, that shine the most. With gorgeous cinematography from Robbie Ryan and a tightly-woven plot, this palace intrigue manages to excite and entertain in equal measure. – Bill G.

16. Annihilation (Alex Garland)

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Without all its wild ideas and analogies, this would still be a ripping adventure yarn. Lucky for the cerebral audience members, writer/director Alex Garland is able to weave ideas regarding self-destruction, personal evolution, and the mutable quality of self. Natalie Portman anchors it all through her expressive performance as a woman who is threatened more by her own mind than a world filled with vicious mutations. – Brian R.

15. Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski)

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It seems everyone is working two or three jobs these days to make up for the widening gap in wealth inequality for millennials. All the wealth in the entire world is tumbling from the sky into the large pockets of the same five or six men who control the biggest companies in the world. In the end it won’t rightly save anybody. We all live and die and these days we all work crappy jobs. The American dream is long-dead and been replaced with American exhaustion, and Andrew Bujalski’s film is on the pulse of that very idea. That he manages to create something that is so full of life and celebration amid the decaying reality of an entire society of low-income class employees is something of a miracle. When all that’s left at the end of the day is a shrinking check and more bills all you can do is scream. It won’t make things better, but it can’t hurt. – Willow M.

14. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

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The most heart-stopping, suspenseful moment in 2018 cinema is also one of the quietest. It occurs near the end of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning drama Shoplifters. A secret is revealed that shakes the foundations of all we’ve seen before, and leads the audience to rethink how this offbeat, poverty-stricken family of shoplifters should be viewed. Kore-eda, the director of Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, excels at this type of emotional detonation. With Shoplifters, he has made his most devastatingly powerful film to date. – Chris S.

13. Paddington 2 (Paul King)

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The most joyful, hopeful movie of the year. Director Paul King follows up his first film with a far better one, the sequel focused around the mystery of a stolen gift. Ben Whishaw once again adds whimsy to his voiceover work while Hugh Grant has never been better. In fact, nearly everyone in this cast is doing career-best work here. Flawless animation integrated into live-action, effortless slapstick comedy, and a genuinely touching narrative. Even as I write this I’m excited to watch it once more. – Dan M.

12. Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)

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After three features utilizing the same humanistic approach of bringing stories about marginalized and often-taboo communities to cinemas, I still found myself staring in awe at Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. Her subject matter is the sort Hollywood exploits for cheap melodrama and politicized messaging and yet she unearths the beauty, humility, and grace existing within. She exposes PTSD’s sobering complexity here rather than the explosiveness agenda-driven editorializing revels in spotlighting. Through it arrives the pain and sacrifice of love once individual strengths and necessity become paramount to the co-dependent safety a parent/child unit provides. And with a stunning debut by Thomasin McKenzie opposite the always-superb Ben Foster, we bear witness as two empathetic souls acknowledge this devastating and inspirational truth. – Jared M.

11. Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

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Argentinian auteur Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return Zama is a film of casual wonders–only revealing its cunning structure, allegorical ease, and narrative poignancy long into its running time. An adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel about a Spanish officer marooned on a purgatorial island, Martel’s luminous, phantasmagoric film is less a character study than a biting deconstruction of natural and societal norms implying political systems as random suggestions set by self-important buffoons and individual lives as the playthings of a fickle universe. – Michael S.

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