Cinema embodies an increasingly strange mixture of the personal and private elements of our lives. It was born as a public spectacle, so that people may gather together to watch simple actions, but film-going is an essentially lonely act of contemplation. Which is to say that there’s a certain poetic justice in how mainstream cinema, overrun by Disney’s corporate product, has forced most of the medium’s true art out of popular consideration into the shadows of streaming sites and imperiled small-run theaters. Perhaps cinema’s destiny of privacy is being fulfilled, which renders the equally imperiled critic’s job all the more important. These films, the best of 2018 so far, are united not only by their greatness but, with one exception, by their relative obscurity in the pop-art landscape. One must now work to discover great films. We can’t rely on publicity and marketing to do that work for us, but the reward sanctifies the efforts, as evinced below. Chuck Bowen
The basis for 24 Frames, specified in an opening title card, is Abbas Kiarostami’s photography work. Looking over his stills archive, the filmmaker was apparently overcome with a desire to witness more than what his images could offer, and thus set about resurrecting, with some mixture of memory and projection, the “scenes” leading up to and succeeding the click of the shutter—an undertaking that deflates Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous idea of “the decisive moment.” If one “decides” on immortalizing a single instant with photography, Kiarostami seems to posit, then one has robbed a moment of its life and complexity, qualities that can only be revived through cinema. It’s no accident that whenever a death occurs in 24 Frames, the vignette comes to an end; movement and progress are the organizing principles here. Carson Lund
“To follow” could be said to be Wang Bing’s ethos. Ta’ang, from 2016, was literally structured around following refugees fleeing war, and the Chinese filmmaker’s output, at least since 2012’s Three Sisters, has largely been propelled by his camera’s adherence to his subjects’ movements and spaces. In Bitter Money, Wang gets close to his subjects—so close that he’s in their work and inside their crowded dormitories—but maintains and highlights his limited perspective on their world by often spending time with an individual, only to let them walk into the distance, leaving undisclosed whatever happens next. Techniques like these balance the filmmaker’s proximity to the community with a sense of his outsider status, preventing any illusion of objectivity or detached spectatorship, while still bolstering the film’s unsparing realism. Peter Goldberg
The Day After
Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After homes in on the similarities between job interviews and dates, mining them for a comedy of romantic alienation and autobiographical rumination. In the tradition of many of Hong’s protagonists, Bong-wan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is an acclaimed creative at a crossroads with the women in his life, implicitly feeling that his professional success grants him a right to his self-absorption. Bong-wan, a married book publisher, has three attractive women circling him throughout the film, which is a dream that becomes a castrating nightmare. Over the course of coffee and soju-drenched meals, these women demand that Bong-wan account for himself, as the film is a study of his increasingly inadequate deflections. As with most Hong films, The Day After engages in intellectual gamesmanship while courting emotional pathos, representing its hero’s own attempt to rationalize behavioral chaos with tidy structures and neat justifications. Hong uses a distinctive formality that’s designed to highlight its own inadequacy—a daring, self-interrogating hat trick that he’s managed to pull off with stunning consistency over the years, forging a cumulative tapestry of the frailties of the creative male ego. Bowen
Did You Know Who Fired the Gun?
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? begins with a baritone voice intoning the following credo over pin-drop silence: “Trust me when I tell you this isn’t another white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” In directly requesting the audience’s trust, director Travis Wilkerson initiates a not-particularly-inviting proposition for the viewer, and specifically the white American viewer: Follow my lead, the voice seems to say, and my conclusions will make you uncomfortable. The film’s equivalent of a chorus, repeated four times throughout, is something of a call-and-response bit, setting bold textual callouts to recent black victims of white aggression—Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and so on—against Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a thundering backbeat that re-enters the soundtrack at sudden, unannounced junctures. The declamatory nature of these interludes extends into Wilkerson’s style of narration, which similarly reiterates certain phrases and names. Didacticism becomes a critical means to an end here, since the underlying implication of the film is that American history’s unnerving cyclicality can only begin to crack through a self-conscious reckoning with the past and its hard evidence—that unsavory truths must be recalled as vigorously as they’ve been covered up. Lund
There’s an irony to Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver fame, as the film bears Scorsese’s taste for highly florid formalism, which is at odds with Schrader’s own methods as an artist. Throughout his career as a director, Schrader has set about reconstructing the basic Taxi Driver scenario—of a miserable loner with the potential for radicalism—and casting it in the more intellectualized light of the work he first described in Transcendental Style in Film. These ambitions reach a pinnacle in First Reformed, in which Father Toller (Ethan Hawke) wrestles with Earth’s potential for environmental catastrophe while contemplating a violent response to a church that’s in bed with corrupt corporations. Drawn inexorably toward the pregnant, recently widowed Mary (Amanda Seyfried), Father Toller embarks on a Schrader-esque struggle to discern heaven in a place that increasingly resembles hell. Operating at the peak of his formal powers, Schrader transforms his fury with the modern world into arrestingly lucid icons of grief, hopelessness, and exaltation. Bowen