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)
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)
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)
“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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
40. Custody (Xavier Legrand)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
30. 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
20. The Rider (Chloé Zhao)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
10. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
Scenes of lyrical beauty and astonishing acts of compassion intersperse one of the goriest and fiercest takes on sexual abuse and gender violence in recent years. Based on a novella by Jonathan Ames and anchored on a glorious and career-high performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a deranged hired gun rescuing girls from sex slavery, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a riveting cinematic experience, a punch in the gut that concurrently shocks into fear and awe. – Leonardo G.
9. A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)
Everyone loves the first, big stage performance of “Shallow,” but A Star is Born is great because of an empty parking lot. Away from the screaming adoration of fans, Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jackson (Bradley Cooper) found themselves in one another through the construction of a song. The first stanza is for him: “Tell me something, boy. Are you tired trying to fill that void?” Ally pulls it out of thin air, hearing about Jackson’s past, before singing his soul back to him. He’s touched, but then she puts herself into the song with a chorus she’d been working on that would become the backbone of “Shallow.” The two are tied together in the impromptu construction — not only of their song, but their love. As this doomed story continues, Ally and Jackson may not last, but their love does: in this song, in this image of their isolation from the rest of the world that might as well be the entire film. You never know when you’re living in a perfect moment — something that will become memory or fable. Most of us take a picture to preserve a feeling. Ally sang “Shallow.” – Willow M.
8. Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
A heart-wrenching love story crushed under the yoke of geopolitical events and sublimated into something tragic and ethereal: Paweł Pawlikowski’s stunning Cold War bursts with the ineffable timelessness of the classics, and ultimately transcends its own time and space. Watching Joanna Kulig’s Zula and Tomasz Koi’s Wiktor dance through their pan-European exodus is to witness a journey orphaned by a devastating sense of loneliness, one that swells the screen into something majestic and universal. – Leonardo G.
7. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles)
Simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating, Orson Welles’ long-awaited final film overflows with elements we too often take for granted when discussing the master. A prime example being Welles’ stinging sense of humor, on full display in The Other Side of the Wind, a film that many have rightly called one of the funniest of the year. As Welles weaves a kaleidoscopic vision of ‘70s Hollywood, the saddest place on earth as advertised, he also gives a well-deserved thrashing to everyone from Antonioni (a stunning and uproarious visual thread) to us film lovers, many of whom were not yet born when The Other Side of the Wind wrapped production in 1976. But we’re alive to see it today, and it’s glorious, and thanks to the double-headed viper that is Netflix, access to this long-lost gem couldn’t be more readily available. – Tony H.
6. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher)
The films of Alice Rohrwacher have always been rich with the sensory magic of growing up, but that atmosphere has, up to this point, been enhanced with the knowledge that puberty was approaching, just out of sight, with all the subtlety of a B52 bomber. With her newest, Happy as Lazzaro, she has largely forgone that period of adolescence, while somehow not forgoing that sense of everyday magic. What emerges is not simply a next step in her oeuvre and creative growth but a fully formed expression of her virtuosic talents. – Rory O.
5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an anomaly. It’s the sixth installment of a decades-old franchise that has hit full steam. Since 1996, it has burgeoned into an auteur’s playground of action and intrigue, a feat that becomes doubly impressive when viewed alongside the plasticity of contemporary action fare. Add to that an aging star in Tom Cruise and his safe choice for director in Christopher McQuarrie, and in theory, this film is out of its depth. It appears doomed to be put out to pasture by something younger and sleeker, making it that much more exhilarating to see Fallout pummel its way into being one of the decade’s best action films. If Rogue Nation was a formalist entry in the spirit of a gilded, breezy Hollywood caper, then Fallout is a heavy, ice-cold rebuke. It less akin to Hitchcock and instead taps into a combination of John Frankenheimer, Michael Mann, and Christopher Nolan. – Conor O.
4. Burning (Lee Chang-dong)
After Poetry, it makes sense that Lee Chang-dong would find himself interested in deconstructing another literary genre: the murder mystery. Adapting Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” for the screen, the South Korean master has created something that feels akin to a real page turner, with each cut, the tensions, and the mystery rise as we become desperate to know whatever happened to Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), the young woman who went missing, leaving her childhood friend Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) searching for her. With pulpy characters, including a delicious Steven Yeun as a mysterious Gatsby-like figure, and a dark sense of humor, the film also serves as a study of class and the way in which the lives of the have-nots become cute anecdotes for the haves. Like in the greatest literature, the filmmaker allows for sumptuous moments in which the images wash over us in the same way we revisit our favorite passages in books we love. – Jose S.
3. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Comparing a director’s latest film to his or her previous effort is almost always unwise, or at least, a bit foolish. When both films are extraordinary achievements, however, pondering the works in tandem seems fruitful. This is certainly true when looking at Barry Jenkins‘ If Beale Street Could Talk and his previous film Moonlight. The latter deservedly took home an Oscar for Best Picture, and heralded Jenkins as a filmmaker whose empathetic touch knows no bounds. Now comes his James Baldwin adaptation, which reaches the same magnificent emotional register as Moonlight. Jenkins has written and directed an exquisite, timeless film about a place and historical period—Harlem in the 1970s—that feels painfully connected to the present. It is a film both tender and tough, with a time, a place, and a story to lose oneself in. Sublime in its depiction of an emotional connection and subtle in its layers of systematic oppression, Beale Street is a major work from a filmmaker whose gifts are clearly boundless. – Chris S.
2. Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
Memory is a construct. We don’t know why we remember what we do, but our memories are arguably the only things we take with us when we leave. The most faithful representations of the events that meant the most to us, if we remember it must mean we care. This is why the best memory films blur the line between documentary and surrealism, they ache with longing and life, but are so full of artifice that they feel too specific to be true. In Roma, Alfonso Cuarón isn’t only paying tribute to his childhood nanny Liboria (Cleo in the film, played with soulful wisdom by Yalitzia Aparicio), he’s also paying homage to all the elements that will one day represent his own altar de muertos. There’s the astronaut movie that inspired Gravity! The magical beach of Y tu mamá también! The precocious children of Prisoner of Azkaban! The poetic birth scene of Children of Men! And in recognizing these moments, not as scenes from movies, but as our own memories, Cuarón has given us the ultimate gift. Roma is Cleo, is Liboria, is Cuarón, is all of us. – Jose S.
1. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
First Reformed dares you to take it too seriously. Paul Schrader’s latest journey into the dark night of the soul undoubtedly wrestles with grandiose questions about personal responsibility, the role of faith, and moral redemption in the grand tradition of cinematic transcendentalists. But it’s less that the film confronts each of these subjects with such thoughtfulness and rigor than the ways it imbues this personal story with such immediate cosmic absurdity. As the Reverend of a fading congregation, Ethan Hawke isn’t just a single individual aching and in pain — he’s the embodiment of a society in rot. Yet that’s only one interpretation, and the end of First Reformed is, appropriately, forever suspended in a place of unknowing where those of faith and the faithless see entirely different worlds. – Michael S.
Continue reading: The 50 Most Overlooked Films of 2018