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The 25 Best Albums of 2015

If ingenuity and craft are legitimate measures of success, then the rumors of the LP’s demise are indeed greatly exaggerated.

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The 25 Best Albums of 2015
Photo: Mia Mala McDonald

Every year, around this time, the gifts get wrapped, the trees get trimmed, and we declare the album dead…or undead…or less dead than we thought. Speaking of broken records, Adele’s recent sales coup—selling more albums in one week than anyone in history, and then setting another record seven days later by becoming the first artist to sell over one million copies of the same album in two different weeks—quashed the notion once and for all that consumers aren’t interested in the long format. Turns out they just need more reason than ever to shell out the cash. And like we do every December, we’re giving you 25 of them. While many are as heart-wrenchingly personal as 25 (which, no, did not make our list), not all of them are of the bombastic, wind-blown, parody-friendly variety. Joanna Newsom upped the stakes by scaling back on the whimsical Divers, Kendrick Lamar made the socially conscious personal on the timely To Pimp a Butterfly, and ’90s mainstays Janet Jackson and Björk made unexpectedly understated comebacks this year with Unbreakable and Vulnicura, respectively. Adele’s latest juggernaut may have already outsold all four of those titles combined, but if ingenuity and craft are as legitimate measures of success as Nielsen SoundScan figures, then the rumors of the LP’s demise are indeed greatly exaggerated. Sal Cinquemani

The 25 Best Albums of 2015

25. Disclosure, Caracal

Or, the sophomore slump sidestepped successfully, though even the lads themselves feel the pressure (“Echoes”). Notably more downbeat, shady, and, yes, “Nocturnal” than their name-making Settle, Disclosure stays true to their roots, paying homage not to the EDM headliners who they’re increasingly compared to, but rather the paragons of deep-house realness they learned from. Be it in the gospel initiative of “Holding On,” the magisterial clattering of “Magnets,” or the juicy compression of “Willing & Able,” Caracal keeps a tight focus on the elementals: unpredictable basslines, committed vocalists, synthesizer lines that counterpoint the melody instead of beating listeners into submission. If “such repetition” is truly giving them “cause for concern,” they could’ve fooled us. Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

24. Jason Derulo, Everything Is 4

For his second great pop album in as many years, Jason Derulo keeps to his winning formula of precision-tooled three-minutes-and-change bangers and ballads, organically adapting it to up-to-the-minute contemporary trends, and even anticipating a few. Lead single “Want to Want Me” embraces the ballistics-grade synth attack of Taylor Swift’s 1989, while “Cheyenne” offers a better Off the Wall-era MJ update than the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” Derulo could’ve chosen to coast his way through a satisfying Talk Dirty follow-up on these more in-vogue nostalgist impulses, but instead he flavors Everything Is 4 with impeccably judged gambles like “Broke.” The song brings together Stevie Wonder’s chain-gang harmonica and Keith Urban’s down-home banjo to locate a shared blue-collar lineage in two distinct Southern milieus, and its bonkers production—a mashup of country, gospel, and dubstep—proves Derulo exceptionally gifted at allowing influences of pop music’s past shape its progression in the present. Sam Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

23. Laura Marling, Short Movie

It can be difficult, especially in a modern landscape where music seems to grow more loud, captivating and abundant every year, to adequately appreciate the humble pleasures of someone strumming tunefully on an acoustic guitar. With Short Movie, Laura Marling manages to cut through the noise, releasing an album that stands as one of the year’s most quietly captivating, as well as one of its most relevant statements on contemporary sexual politics. Packed with low-key feminist anthems and sly takedowns crafted with tuneful wisdom and biting wit, Marling’s latest, most ambitious album boldly confronts pressing issues of equality and freedom, without the singer-songwriter ever needing to raise her voice above a righteously assured medium tone. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

22. Ashley Monroe, The Blade

Not since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has a country artist released an album so totally sure of its own craft, so deserving of its place in a contemporary country field that will never be as accommodating toward it as it should be. Miranda Lambert’s watershed could be seen as more high-concept (both an affectionate ode to the pleasures of small-town Southern living and seething critique of its rampant sexism), but The Blade has its own discreet agendas as well. Monroe’s album is feminist not for turning a shotgun on male oppressors, but for owning their vices: The narrator of “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” moans that “there ain’t enough whiskey,” while the one of “I’m Good at Leavin’” brushes off “I do’s” for “hony-tonks and bars.” On an album full of cutting gestures, finding feminine agency in identification with folly might be its deepest. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

21. Selena Gomez, Revival

Selena Gomez’s pointedly titled Revival represents yet another transformation for the Disney princess turned teen-pop singer turned semi-serious indie actress. “I’m reborn in every moment, so who knows what I’ll become?” she says during the title track’s spoken-word introduction. “It’s my time to butterfly,” she goes on to sing, the word “butterfly” serving as both a state of being and an intransitive verb. While in the world of female pop singers the metaphor of emerging from a cocoon, and the concept of maturity in general, is usually analogous to the shedding of one’s clothes (as it most certainly is here, with Gomez posing nude on the album’s cover), there’s an emotional nakedness throughout the lyrics as well. Gomez’s approach to more serious subject matter, whether it’s a refreshingly sincere, unaffected take on a well-worn topic (“Sober”) or her unapologetically anti-feminist stance on lead single “Good for You,” embodies a newfound sophistication. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

20. Joanna Newsom, Divers

A twee, elfin-voiced harpist working in a singular style of oddball minstrel pop, Joanna Newsom has long been marked out for her eccentric qualities, the whimsical effervescence of her music taking precedence over its adventurous, experimental qualities. Scaling back from the gargantuan triple album Have One on Me and the epically pitched scope of Ys, she continues to mine a complex, inimitable vein of erudite songcraft, undergirding her music’s warbling fantasy structures with real emotional heft. The results may sound fantastical and light as air, but the lyrics operate in a decidedly realistic manner, taking on heavy concepts of grief and devotion while maintaining a miraculous deftness of touch. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

19. Björk, Vulnicura

Let’s be honest: Björk, more than any chanteuse, needs no tangible catalyst to trigger emotive seizures in song form. She’s felt violently happy about the backs of men’s freshly shaven necks, imagined herself a girl-shaped fountain of blood, promised a volcano eruption just below your aeroplane simply so you would know that some day you’ll blossom. Losing the man whose dick once inspired an entire album of the porniest Christmas music ever penned? Well, you may as well go ahead and strap some LED lederhosen onto the Tsar Bomba. If you ever wanted Björk to get close to a human, the raw hurt at the heart of Vulnicura gives you the motherlode. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, disoriented, ashamed. Not just her best album in ages, but her most shockingly unfiltered. Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

18. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf

During a year that saw most major rap stars (Kendrick, Future, Drake) open up about their inner turmoil in dark, disorienting settings, Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment elected to do the opposite with 2015’s warmest, most ebullient mixtape. Trumpet lays beds of wah-wah guitars, jubilant horns, and vintage R&B harmonies for an assortment of friends, including Busta Rhymes, Quavo, and Big Sean, to spit shamelessly silly, upbeat rhymes about pushing through hardship (“Slip Slide”) and being true to yourself (“Wanna Be Cool”). Chance the Rapper regularly steals the show, his hyperactive sing-song flow equally at home slagging off the groupies of “Familiar” and giving props to his grandma on gospel-juke showstopper “Sunday Candy.” With the playful spirit of De La Soul and an array of summery influences ranging from the Beach Boys to Chet Baker, Surf is a jolt of serotonin, the perfect antidote to rap’s ongoing woe-is-me phase. James Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

17. Young Thug, Barter 6

It was a big year for the rap single, with a trio of hits by unlikely crossover star Fetty Wap opening the floodgates for more would-be street singles to enter the mainstream. Unfortunately, Young Thug’s screamingly strange rap-singing didn’t quite catch that commercial wave. But Thugga was way too busy following the singular path of his own creative muse to worry about crafting one breakout hit anyway, and we’re better for it: His mixtapes—Slime Season, its sequel, and Barter 6—represent a talent every bit as exciting as Lil Wayne’s was during his own mixtape-crushing heyday, and arguably even stranger. Barter 6, in particular, offers essentially the perfect canvas—minimalist productions, unobtrusive guests—to mount a formal showcase of irreverent wordplay, high/low vocal expulsions, and genuine technical ability. Confining all that to the space of one single almost seems too limiting for rap’s premiere experimentalist. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

16. Purity Ring, Another Eternity

Indie acts working in the maximalist mode of the rap banger is nothing new, having been done to excess, and with a markedly low level of success, in the years since Sleigh Bells’ 2010 debut. Few artists, however, have managed to modulate bombastic musical spectacle so efficiently against lyrical introspection, the external noise making the sweet-voiced contemplation of emotional wreckage sound all the more bracing. The resulting arsenal of songs on Another Eternity feels doubly stormy, the music strident, ever-changing, and routinely tempestuous. Singer Megan James steadies the ship through the measured delivery of vocals that operate in a completely different register, their pained earnestness always seemingly in danger of being consumed by Corin Roddick’s heaving instrumentals. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

15. Erykah Badu, But You Caint Use My Phone

No one finds more beauty in the words “work in progress” than Erykah Badu. She flourishes in the rough draft, generously and directly inviting those on her wavelength to share hers. A mixtape mostly in name only, as it’s as much guided by concept as almost any of her legitimate albums, But You Caint Use My Phone is the closest Badu has gotten to pure artistic improvisation since her underrated, amorphous jam session Worldwide Underground. If that flip-phone-era EP marked neo-soul at a crossroad, this hasty set (almost certainly conceived to buttress Badu’s visionary cover/reworking of Drake’s “Hotline Bling”) is the free-associative equivalent of a session hunched over your smartphone, rouletting your way from New Edition to Groove Theory, sending bees weaving aimlessly away from your honey. Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

14. Viet Cong, Viet Cong

From the crystalline, cavernous timbre of their sound, to the empty signifier of historical violence they chose to go by, Calgary’s Viet Cong has rendered comparisons to Joy Division unavoidable, and now, mere months after their self-titled debut, they’ve announced they’re retiring the moniker, just as Joy Division did after Ian Curtis’s suicide. It’s a sign of the times that Viet Cong did so in response to public censure of the sort unseen by their arguably more odiously named forebears. Also, while the production is pure Martin Hannett, the songwriting is equal parts Brian Eno circa Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Thurston Moore via mid-’90s Sonic Youth, and Spencer Krug of any instantiation. It’s a sign of the band’s ingenuity that these disparate parts are streamlined with as much brittle, nihilistic swagger as on Viet Cong. One can only hope they have at least a Closer in them before their inevitable synth-pop rebirth. Benjamin Aspray


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

13. Janet Jackson, Unbreakable

The last legitimately worthwhile Janet Jackson album was going on 15 years ago, and the last great one closer to 20. Even “No Sleeep,” Unbreakable’s lithe lead single, didn’t signify any grand ambitions so much as an amiable meeting point between Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s Minneapolis sound and a contemporary R&B that happens to resemble it without much effort. But as is the case with many of Janet’s best albums, the whole is more compelling than the constituent parts—specifically, the democratic parceling out of its roiling 4/4 rave-ups and clubby midtempo dance tracks. The best section is a three-song ballad suite toward the end that harkens back to the continuous play of The Velvet Rope or even Rhythm Nation, but throughout, there’s nary a moment wasted on this graceful legacy album. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

12. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion

Carly Rae Jepsen’s sophomore effort, Emotion, has rightfully been compared to Taylor Swift’s 1989. Both draw on the music of the years their creators were born to craft near-perfect pop albums that somehow manage to sound contemporary. There are few key differences, however, that distinguish Emotion from Swift’s similarly retro blockbuster. For one, songs like the sax-fueled “Run Away with Me” and the sublime R&B slow jam “All That” (a collab with Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid that sounds like it was recorded in 1985) revel in the glory of the ’80s in ways 1989 only hints at. Jepsen’s album is more evolution than reinvention: While Swift’s country roots were effectively scrubbed from her latest album, songs like “Boy Problems” and “I Really Like You” will sate Jepsen’s fans who have a hankering for a sugar rush a la “Call Me Maybe.” And with its breathy verses, deep-house groove, and pitched down vocals, the standout “Warm Blood” also affords Emotion something conspicuously absent from 1989: sex appeal. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

11. Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, Love Is Free

Unlike 2010’s Body Talk EPs, where the frustrating sense of an abbreviated creative statement could be forgiven by the assurance that Robyn’s vision would be fulfilled by further volumes, or last year’s Do It Again which served as a complement to Röyksopp’s The Inevitable End, Love Is Free feels comparatively tossed off, merely a bridge between Robyn 2.0 and an incarnation of the dance-pop icon we—and she—haven’t yet imagined. But if there’s a distinguishing feature that differentiates Love Is Free, a collaboration with keyboardist Markus Jägerstedt and the late Swedish producer Christian Falk, from both Do It Again and Body Talk, it’s that the songs on the singer’s latest mini-album take a decidedly more purist approach to the retro stylings that were hinted at in her previous work. Whether it’s the acid-house “Love Is Free,” the Italo-disco “Got to Work It Out,” or a cover of Loose Joints’ “Tell You (Today),” the five tracks here allow Robyn to dip more directly into her influences than ever before. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

10. Kamasi Washington, The Epic

As everyone who’s caught his sprawling live show already knows, jazz bandleader Kamasi Washington’s maximalism will not be contained, and that, ludicrous as it may sound, even a three-hour label debut broken down into three volumes titled “The Plan,” “The Glorious Tale,” and “The Historic Repetition” and given the title The Epic still ever so faintly suggests the tip of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic. “Change of the Guard”? That might be an overstatement, but there’s something undeniably thrilling about an artist who doesn’t seem to dislike a single reference point. Washington, better known as Kendrick Lamar’s go-to arranger, pulls not a single punch as he draws from big band, fusion, swing, and bebop traditions, pays homage to Malcolm X, Ray Noble, and Claude Debussy, and overlays heavenly choral and string arrangements to send the entire enterprise into orbit. Henderson


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

9. James McMurtry, Complicated Game

James McMurtry has been one of rock’s master storytellers for a quarter of a century, and his talents as a lyricist and raconteur have never been in sharper focus than on his ninth album, Complicated Game. Made up of largely of acoustic-guitar-based, downbeat compositions (the album’s only attempts to rock are the spitfire single “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” and the light boogie “Forgotten Coast”), Complicated Game plays almost like a collection of short stories set to music. Tales of an illegal late-night fishing trip (“Carlisle’s Haul”), a family from Oklahoma reinventing itself in New York City (“Long Island Sound”), and a war veteran returning home only to find economic desperation (“South Dakota”) are all spun with impeccable narrative detail and subtle but powerful social commentary. As a result, the album represents a modern-day peak for rock and folk’s rich story-song tradition. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

8. Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy

If you thought sprawling, 90-minute rock operas about characters with split personalities went out of fashion shortly after the Who put out Quadrophenia in 1973, well, you’re probably right. But such an overambitious concept has been uncool for so long that it’s apparently become punk, and Patrick Stickles and Titus Andronicus, modern-day torch carriers of the DIY punk ethos, have proven, unequivocally, that the two ideas are far from incompatible with The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Built around a storyline that represents Stickles’s struggles with bipolar disorder, the band adapts, across 29 tracks, a broader view of rock n’ roll than ever before, from teeth-gnashing hardcore (“I’m Going Insane”) to Springsteen-inspired bar-band rock (“I Lost My Mind,” “Fatal Flaw”) to dramatic piano balladry (“No Future Part V”). The Most Lamentable Tragedy is an unabashedly epic, classic rock album, in the radio-format sense. Thank God that Titus Andronicus didn’t shy away from the pomp and circumstance that such an undertaking entailed. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

7. Shamir, Ratchet

“Ratchet” seems to have broadened beyond its origin as a slur for tacky young women, but even without a pejorative undertone, it refers to a basic excessiveness of self-presentation. To see it affixed to Shamir Bailey’s debut album, then, is ironic. As produced by Nick Sylvester, Shamir’s music is hook-laden dance-pop at its leanest and most demure. Suave synths, squawking sax, and cowbells combine beneath the Vegas native’s soft-but-not-fragile confidence as house music primed for house parties. Much has been made of Bailey’s distinctive countertenor, mainly because of the way it seems to express his gender-queer identity as an aesthetic virtue (despite his insistence to the press that it’s really no big deal). Ratchet’s abiding theme of ditching girls and guys alike to “go out and make a scene” seems to make it an existential virtue too: The gender binary is simply more wretched excess of which Bailey has blissfully unburdened himself. Aspray


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

6. Miguel, Wildheart

Hopscotching from cooing love ballads and tormented identity anthems to salacious hook-up fantasies and grimy hate-sex confrontations, Wildheart seems for most of its length like a breakup album, a wide-spanning post-mortem on one relationship’s intense highs and lows. This impression persists until the clouds part on the closing track, “Face the Sun,” a declaration of renewed dedication that recontexualizes everything that’s come before it, confirming this grab-bag collection of emotionally turbulent material as a single defined statement on the shaky equilibrium of sustained commitment. All this on an album that simultaneously taps into the wistful mythos of California’s equivalently dramatic hills and valleys, where starry-eyed dreams and old ghosts commingle to form the evocative backdrop to this tumultuous tale of modern romance. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

5. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

No one else makes music like Josh Tillman, a.k.a. Father John Misty, a pseudo-cult leader who combines a singer-songwriter’s earnest aesthetic with Prince’s flamboyance and a talent for satire as dry as dirt. I Love You, Honeybear—truly catchy, truly hilarious—finds Tillman playing equal part folk hero and sarcastic balladeer. As he spins acoustic tall tales decrying both the impossibility of love and the impossibility of living without it, it’s unclear whether even Tillman knows where his character ends and he begins, creating a living monument to the 21st-century musical celebrity, a bizarre amalgamation of talent, confession, and obfuscation. How fitting that he rose to national attention performing his ennui ballad “Bored in the U.S.A.” on Letterman, featuring a player piano, a laugh track, and jokes about subprime loans. Like that famous performance, I Love You, Honeybear is at once tragic, heartfelt, cathartic, and tremendously funny, proving the old adage: There’s little difference between laughter and tears. Jesse Nee-Vogelman


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

4. Vince Staples, Summertime ’06

Vince Staples incited the wrath of the hip-hop police with a tweet that dismissed the influence of the classic rap canon on his music (“In 1999 I was 7 years old and toy story 2 had just dropped you niggas really think I was worried about hip hop?”), but on his monstrous, unrelentingly dark double album, Summertime ’06, is worthy of that very canon. Sure, its production eschews samples and scratching for Latin rhythms (“Senorita”), gloomy house beats (“Surf”), and twisted Yeezus-indebted electronic pulses (“Hang N’ Bang”), but lyrically it’s a no-frills dive into the psyche of the young black male, conflicted about romance and rapping to white audiences who wouldn’t dare step foot in his neighborhood. Like the rap legends he says haven’t influenced him, Staples burns down the past and creates a sound that’s more dangerous than they ever imagined—a hip-hop story as old as the genre itself. Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

3. Grimes, Art Angels

Whereas Claire Boucher’s past work as Grimes felt intentionally obscured, perhaps as a way to hedge against her undeniable pop instincts, Art Angels is shamelessly open. Boucher seems to have indulged her every whim: the dive-bomb guitars on the nü-metal-gone-right of “SCREAM,” shoegazing phasers slicing up the bubblegum hooks of “Flesh Without Blood,” the wistful K-Pop of “Pin.” At every turn she’s challenging herself to invent a new sonic palette, a new mashup of genres. It never feels shoehorned or forced, since Boucher has internalized her influences, as eclectic as any Internet traveler’s music library on shuffle, and repurposed them into a work that feels welcoming in its experimentation rather than exclusionary. Art Angels is the sound of a truly self-styled pop star emerging from the bedroom, as delightfully weird as ever. Rainis


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

2. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Courtney Barnett doesn’t waste even a second getting down to business on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. As soon as the needle drops on the album’s opening cut, “Elevator Operator,” she immediately embarks, in a laconic Aussie brogue, on a verbose slice-of-life tale replete with a great journalist’s eye for detail over an invigoratingly upbeat bed of wiry guitars and buzzing Wurlitzer. The result is the wittiest, rockingest, most life-affirming song that’s probably ever been written about a guy considering jumping off a roof. That infectious energy rarely lets up on the rest of the album, and Barnett never lets her wry, rambling wordplay, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, get in the way of fashioning maddeningly catchy vocal hooks. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she claims over a ferocious guitar stomp on the single “Pedestrian at Best.” But we might have to anyway: Sometimes I Sit and Think is undoubtedly one of the most exciting debut rock albums to come along in ages. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2015

1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

Few albums in recent memory have seemed so intensely timely and vital as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. For America, 2015 has been a year of violence and awakening. On his third LP, Lamar addresses both equally and with a deftness that crystalizes his reputation not only as the greatest MC of his young generation, but also as a dynamic political voice and the country’s social conscience. Coupling his poetic lyricism and lofty intellectualism with a tremendous musical ambition that combines funk, jazz, and unprecedented vocal flexibility, it’s no surprise that To Pimp a Butterfly stands after just nine months as a modern classic. “Alright” is already a canonical anthem of hope for justice and faith in future redemption. “King Kunta” is the rare song as equally applicable to the club as to the scores of protests sweeping urban America. To Pimp a Butterfly is more than the best album of the year; it’s an awesome chapter in the making of a legend. Nee-Vogelman


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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use, the power we wield, and the places we carve out for ourselves.

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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
Photo: YouTube

The year’s best music videos reflect the way we live now: the technology we use (“Vince Staples’s “Fun!”), the power we wield (the Carters’ “Apeshit”), and the places we carve out for ourselves (“Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over”). They also acknowledge the state of the world, from systemic racism (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”) to institutional corruption (Jack White’s “Corporation”). Notably, a clear majority of the videos on our list were created by or for artists of color, whose stories serve as an act of resistance against a racist regime. The year in music video wasn’t all gloom and doom, though, as both identity and resistance manifested in profoundly joyous ways in Chaka Khan’s “Like Sugar” and Kali Uchis’s “After the Storm.” And Bruno Mars and Migos embraced playful, nostalgic visions of the past—though it’s hard not to question whether even those ostensibly frivolous throwbacks are rooted in self-care and a need to romanticize a seemingly simpler time. Sal Cinquemani

20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

There are no guns or mass shootings in the clip for Prince’s posthumously released “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but their absence isn’t conspicuous. Gun violence is, more than anything else, about the aftermath—the loss, the grief, the haunted lives left in the wake of a fleeting shot. Amid politicians’ perpetual handwringing over when the “right” time is to talk about solutions to this epidemic, Salomon Ligthelm’s exquisitely lensed video testifies to the notion that, at least for tens of thousands of Americans this year, it’s already too late. Cinquemani


19. Rosalía, “Malamente”

Barcelona-based collective Canada marries the traditional with the modern—as in an eye-popping freeze-frame of a bullfighter facing off with a motorcycle—in this spirited music video for Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía’s flamenco-inspired hit “Malamente.” Alexa Camp


18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”

The music video for Ariana Grande’s sultry, subtly reggae-infused slow jam “God Is a Woman” finds the pop princess bathing in a milky swirl of vaginal water colors, fingering the eye of a hurricane, and deflecting misogynist epithets, a visual embodiment of her declaration that “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing/And he sees the universe when I’m in company/It’s all in me.” Directed by Dave Meyers, the video mixes animation, digital eye candy, and references to classical artwork, as well as a few WTF moments, like a set piece in which a group of moles emerge from their holes and scream bloody murder. Pointed metaphors abound, from scenes of Grande walking a tightrope to literally breaking a glass ceiling. At one point, pop’s original feminist queen, Madonna, makes a cameo reciting the Old Testament by way of Pulp Fiction—with her own characteristic twist, of course, swapping “brothers” for “sisters.” Cinquemani


17. Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B, “Finesse (Remix)”

Bruno Mars directed the video for “Finesse” himself, and its note-perfect homage to the opening sequence of In Living Color shows him to be as adept a visual pastiche artist as he is a musical one. As with the song, however, it’s guest Cardi B who steals the show, dominating every second she’s on camera as the flyest of Fly Girls in tube socks, cutoffs, and larger-than-life hoop earrings. Zachary Hoskins


16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”

Featuring masterful performances by Sissy Spacek and David Strathairn, LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby” is a stirring saga of lovers venturing into the unknown. Directed by Rian Johnson, the video follows an aging couple who build a set of strange, inter-dimensional doorways. Enter one, and you can exit out of the other, but it’s never clear what reality exists between them. Simple, cinematic, and heart-wrenching, the clip is the perfect accompaniment for James Murphy’s ponderous, uplifting electro-pop. Paired together, Spacek and Strathairn convey love’s capacity to obliterate all barriers: loneliness, old age, even death. Pryor Stroud


15. Migos featuring Drake, “Walk It Talk It”

Migos’s “Walk It Talk It” takes place on a fictional television program called Culture Ride—a clear homage to the iconic show Soul Train. This isn’t the first music video to conceptually riff on the vintage variety show format; both OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and the Strokes’s “Last Nite” are set in Ed Sullivan Show-style sound stages. But the video is still a triumph of flashy, vintage style. Offset, Quavo, and Takeoff surround themselves with dancing spectators and major stars, notably Jamie Foxx and Drake, all of whom are transfixed by the music they’re hearing. And just as they are today, Migos is the center of attention. Stroud


14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”

Yes, those really are Azealia Banks’s nipples. At least according to the New York singer-rapper-lightning-rod’s perennially deleted Twitter account. But the music video for Banks’s single “Anna Wintour” is striking not just because of the artist’s ample bosom. Directed by Matt Sukkar, the clip was filmed in an empty warehouse using understated faux-natural lighting, an apt visual milieu for Banks’s declaration of independence: “As the valley fills with darkness, shadows chase and run around…I’ll be better off alone, I’ll walk at my own pace.” Shots of a scantily clad Banks strutting on a metal catwalk, posing in a full-length mirror, and striking a pose in front of a backlit gate pay homage to Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle,” an iconic video by another female artist who was once determined to assert control. Camp


13. Flasher, “Material”

The internet has rendered media consumption so isolating that it takes a work of profound ingenuity to remind us that art is inherently a shared experience—even if that experience is one of infuriating data buffering, inescapable clickbait, and micro-targeted advertising. Directed by Nick Roney, Flasher’s meta visual for “Material” proves that YouTube has become so engrained in the fabric of modern life that the simple action of clicking out of a pop-up advertisement is now part of our brains’ cache of muscle memory. Though the video isn’t actually interactive, you just might find yourself unconsciously reaching to take control of what’s happening on your screen. Cinquemani


12. Jennifer Lopez featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled, “Dinero”

The music video for Jennifer Lopez’s “Dinero” is as over the top as the song itself, which finds J. Lo alternately singing over a tropical rhythm and rapping atop a trap beat—sometimes both—while fellow Bronx upstart Cardi B boasts of their borough-based bona fides. Directed by Joseph Kahn, the black-and-white clip brazenly takes the piss out of Lopez’s dubious Jenny from the Block persona—and she’s clearly in on the joke, bowling with a diamond-covered ball, barbecuing in lingerie and pearls while sipping a crystal-encrusted Slurpee, toasting marshmallows over a burning pile of cash, and walking a preening pet ostrich on a leash. The video also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by a Casino-era Robert De Niro. Camp


11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

One of the most ambitious music video projects of the year, “Whack World” is a full-length accompaniment to Tierra Whack’s debut album of the same title. Like the album, it’s 15 minutes long, with the Philadelphia-based rapper and visual artist performing a wildly different vignette in each minute. Both album and video make for an impressive sampler of Whack’s versatility as a performer—which, in visual form, translates to her inhabiting a range of quirky and inventive characters, from a facially disfigured receptionist to a rapping corpse in a sequined coffin, a sentient house, and others that defy description. With a highlight reel like this, it’s hard to image there being anything Whack can’t do. Hoskins


10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Every segment of the “emotion picture” released by Janelle Monáe to accompany her third album Dirty Computer is visually striking and thematically rich in its own way. But it’s the segment for lead single “Make Me Feel” that arguably stands best on its own. Directed by Monáe’s longtime collaborator Alan Ferguson, the video features the singer and 2018 It-girl Tessa Thompson at what may be the year’s coolest party captured on screen. Widely viewed as a coming-out moment for Monáe—her pansexuality is dramatized in her interactions with both Thompson and co-star Jayson Aaron—the clip is rife with references to two recently canonized icons of sexual fluidity, Prince and David Bowie. Monáe’s choreography with Thompson and Aaron echoes Prince’s with dancer Monique Mannen in the video for “Kiss,” while the dynamic of a bold, flamboyant alter ego performing for the singer’s more reserved self is borrowed from Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” As with her music, however, Monáe is capable of wearing these influences on her sleeve (and her silver bikini top) while still making them wholly her own. Hoskins


9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”

The music video for R&B legend Chaka Khan’s first single in five years giddily foregrounds a multiplicity of black bodies via vibrant, kinetic montage. The joyous clip represents a celebration of identity and persistence in the face of adversity, a thread that shoots through many of the year’s best videos. Camp


8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”

The music video has always sat at an awkward intersection of art and commerce, having originated as short film clips serving quite literally as “promos” for new singles. It’s thus only a little strange that Spike Jonze’s video for Anderson .Paak’s “Til It’s Over” isn’t a conventional one at all, but rather an extended commercial for Apple’s HomePod smart device. In the short vignette, FKA Twigs comes home from a long work day and asks Siri to play something she’d like. After a few seconds of .Paak’s voice coming out of her HomePod speakers, she discovers that her dancing can make the physical properties of her apartment stretch and shift. Both the simple, human joy of Twigs’s movements and the technical wizardry of the expanding room are so arresting that you’ll almost forget you’re being sold something. Hoskins


7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”

The album cover for Travis Scott’s Astroworld painted a vivid picture of the eponymous theme park as a psychedelic, vaguely sinister landscape, dominated by a giant inflatable model of Scott’s head and decidedly not to be confused with the real-life (and long-defunct) Six Flags AstroWorld. But it’s the video for single “Sicko Mode,” directed by Dave Meyers, that really brings the place to life, turning the bleak landscape of Houston’s inner city into a post-apocalyptic playground of talking train graffiti and video vixens on bicycles while Scott rides past a prowling police cruiser on horseback. Much like the multi-part song, the clip isn’t cohesive, as the scenes during Drake’s guest verse almost seem to be cut in from an entirely different video. But the abundance of bizarre imagery, both menacing and absurd, ensures that it’s never boring. Hoskins


6. A$AP Rocky featuring Moby, “A$AP Forever”

The camera is the star of Dexter Navy’s video for “A$AP Forever”: whirling in dizzy circles above A$AP Rocky’s head and pulling in and out of a seemingly endless series of television monitors, street signs, smartphone screens, and other images within images. In the final sequence, the camera moves one last time into Rocky’s eyeball, revealing a reflected image of the rapper rotating in an anti-gravity chamber. Also, Moby is there. What it all means is anyone’s guess, but the trippy effect is a perfect complement to the strain of 21st-century psychedelia in Rocky’s music. Hoskins


5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”

Directed by Calmatic, the video for Vince Staples’s “Fun!” is both an astute condemnation of racial tourism and a (perhaps unintentional) auto-critique of hip-hop’s exportation of the black experience to middle America. Like Flasher’s “Material,” it’s also a bleak commentary on the ways technology—in this case, satellite mapping—has simultaneously united and divided the human race. Cinquemani


4. Jack White, “Corporation”

Jack White’s “Corporation” is just as oblique, ambitious, and political as the artist himself. Over the course of seven minutes, a series of surreal, seemingly disjointed events occur: a cowboy puts on lipstick, a rave starts in a diner, a little boy steals a car. By the end, you learn that all of the characters are simply different manifestations of White himself, revealing the alt-blues pioneer as someone we already knew him to be: a complex, multifaceted artist whose neuroses are intimately tied to his genius. Stroud


3. Kali Uchis featuring Tyler, the Creator and Bootsy Collins, “After the Storm”

Like the contemporary surrealist photos of its director, Nadia Lee Cohen, the video for “After the Storm” pairs a rich Technicolor palette with a playfully elastic approach to everyday banality: bringing P-Funk icon Bootsy Collins to (animated) life as a cereal box mascot and making rapper Tyler, the Creator grow from a garden like a literal “Flower Boy.” That these whimsical images appear alongside shots of singer Kali Uchis, dolled up in mid-century attire and staring blankly into the distance, suggest that they’re meant to dramatize the daydreams of a bored 1950s suburbanite. This makes the video’s final image, of Uchis and a fully sprouted Tyler acting out an idyllic nuclear family scene while their own disembodied Chia-pet heads look on from the window, as vaguely disquieting as it is humorous. Hoskins


2. The Carters, “Apeshit”

The Carters’s Everything Is Love may not have achieved the same cultural ubiquity as Beyoncé‘s Lemonade, or Jay-Z’s 4:44, but it spawned one of the year’s most poignant videos. In “Apeshit,” the power couple performs in a vacant Louvre, commandeering the world’s most famous museum without breaking a sweat. It’s a radical testament to their influence as artists, business people, and political players, as well as a bold statement about the overlooked primacy of blackness in the Western canon. Stroud


1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

Surprise-released to coincide with Donald Glover’s double duty as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May, the provocative video for “This Is America” was already inspiring breathless think pieces by the following morning. Directed by Hiro Murai, Glover’s principal collaborator on FX’s Atlanta, “This Is America” shares with many of that show’s best episodes a knack for getting under viewers’ skins, presenting highly charged images with just enough ambiguity to encourage social media reactions of the “WTF did I just watch” variety. But if the last seven months of critical dissection and memetic recycling have inevitably dulled some of its shock value—and, by extension, its power as a political statement—the video remains an astounding artistic achievement. In a series of long shots cleverly disguised as one uninterrupted take, Glover pulls dances and faces from the intertwined traditions of pop culture and minstrelsy, seamlessly juxtaposed with eruptions of sudden, graphic gun violence. In both extremes, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him—which is, of course, the point. Like the never-ending train wreck that is American history itself, “This is America” offers entertainment and grotesquerie in equal measure. Hoskins


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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.

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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

This year offered a feast of cinematic acting that pivoted on surprise, in terms of unconventional casting that allowed performers to add new shades to their established personas, as well as in blistering work by newcomers. These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary, shattering the banality of expectation to elaborate on universal feelings that are too easily submerged by us on our day-to-day toils. Which is to say that the finest film acting of 2018 was less indebted to the representational “realism” that often wins awards than to fashioning a bold kind of behavioral expressionism. Like many of their filmmaker collaborators, these actors are master stylists. Chuck Bowen
 

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Sakura Ando, Shoplifters

As Nobuyo, the default “mother” of an informal family of hustlers on the margins of present-day Tokyo, Sakura Ando enriches Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle social drama with her bracing articulation of her character’s self-discovery. Nobuya’s melodramatic arc—a woman with dark secrets whose hard-won redemption is inevitably undone by higher forces—culminates in an agonizing one-shot unraveling, but what makes her fate so devastating is the sense of surprise and liberation that Ando brings to Nobuya’s acceptance of new responsibilities, passions, and her own self-worth. Christopher Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In

For all of her versatility, Juliette Binoche has never particularly been noted for her comic skills, but she displays a subtle wit as the middle-aged and single Isabelle in Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, often dismissing petulant, needy men with scarcely more than a mocking glance or a passive-aggressive comment. Binoche truly shines, though, in scenes that play up Isabelle’s feelings of panic and loneliness over having to date again, such as when Isabelle reminisces about her ex-husband and, in the process, a whole panoply of emotions, including resentment and wistfulness, flit anxiously across the actress’s face. Most moving of all is the outright panic that Isabelle betrays when a wonderful date urges her to take things slowly, triggering an existential attack over her perceived lack of time to find another partner so late in life. Jake Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Emily Browning, Golden Exits

Golden Exits sustains a lingering aura of futility that’s counterweighted by the film’s beauty and by the exhilaration of seeing Alex Ross Perry realize his vast ambitions, as he’s made a modern film about relationships and social constrictions that clears the bar set by the work of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Perry also ultimately empathizes with Naomi, who’s paradoxically diminished by her status as the narrative’s center of attention. Regarded by her American acquaintances as a barometer of their own personal failures, Naomi is never truly noticed. She’s the gorgeous woman as specter, played by Emily Browning with an ambiguity that carries a heartbreaking suggestion: that Naomi’s unknowable because no one wishes to know her. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Nicolas Cage, Mandy

Mandy‘s smorgasbord of indulgences is held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Toni Collette, Hereditary

Flashes of insanity and malaise factor into Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary, yet Annie cannot be defined by such traits often linked to the trope of a hysterical woman. Instead, Collette’s glares of frustration suggest a world of complicated emotions that extend well beyond pain. Terror and intense focus become indecipherable in Collette’s eyes as Annie, a diorama artist, is torn from her profession by conspiring forces, making the film’s outcome feel even more like a cross between a cruel joke and a rebuke of society’s stacking the deck through maternal guilt and shame against Annie’s aspiring career. Clayton Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

As Queen Anne and her rival sycophants, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, respectively, establish a delicious series of manipulative, barbarous, and poignant emotional cross-currents throughout The Favourite. Stone and Weisz verbally parry and thrust at lightning speed, one-upping one another in an escalating series of duels that inspire the actresses to give among the finest performances of their careers, while Colman expertly operates at a slower, daringly draggy and exposed speed, painting a portrait of a woman imprisoned by entitlement. Collectively, this superb acting also achieves the near miraculous feat of rendering a Yorgos Lanthimos film authentically human. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built

It’s no secret that Jack (Matt Dillon), the viciously misogynistic serial killer at the heart of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, is at least partially a stand-in for the director himself, and the genius of Dillon’s interpretation of the character is that he never seems to be sucking up to the man who created it. He plays Jack as ruthless, self-pitying, and disturbingly empty—Hannibal Lecter without the wit or charm. No mere pawn of the Danish provocateur’s autocritical schema, Dillon both deepens and challenges von Trier’s intended self-portraiture with the uncanny blankness of his performance, creating in the process an absolutely chilling embodiment of evil. Keith Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Adam Driver, BlackKklansman

Though BlackKklansman was marketed as the story of an African-American police officer impersonating a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, it also concerns a Jewish cop’s efforts to do the same by offering a white face to accompany a vocal charade. As said cop, Flip Zimmerman, Adam Driver deliriously plumbs head-first into a disturbing irony, acknowledging the catharses that can be had by indulging in disgusting epithets secretly at one’s own expense. Or, simply: Flip insults himself, and those close to him, and Driver elucidates the character’s disgust as well as the weird spiritual purging that can occur by indulging one’s basest instincts. One of America’s best and most sensitive actors offers perhaps his finest portrait yet of a soul twisted in contradictory knots. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

It’s a testament to the authenticity of Elsie Fisher’s performance in Eighth Grade that you’d never have guessed she’d been in front of a camera before, much less that she’s been acting consistently for years. As Kayla, the awkward, unpopular tween protagonist of Bo Burnham’s film, Fisher infuses every stammered “umm” and stumbling “like” with a palpable sense of self-loathing and social anxiety. For anyone who ever felt like Kayla in middle school, Fisher’s painfully real performance is liable to induce PTSD. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

Finally shedding his tick-laden parlor games, Ben Foster comes to life as an actor, connecting with Will and giving him a fearful thickness of being that’s only occasionally leavened by Tom, whom Thomasin McKenzie invests with the trembling, negotiating intelligence of an unformed prodigy. Will and Tom and Foster and McKenzie’s energies are beautifully in and out of sync, simultaneously. Foster confidently cedes the film to McKenzie, which parallels Will’s gradual relinquishing of authority to Tom. Both characters know that it’s unfair to expect Tom to inherit Will’s alienation, as she has the right to give this potentially doomed society a chance, to fight for it as well as herself. In Leave No Trace‘s heartbreaking climax, a relationship dies so that an individual, and maybe even a society, may be reborn. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

Hugh Grant may well be more cartoonish than the animated bear protagonist of Paddington 2. As the film’s villain, a has-been thespian with the world’s most convoluted scheme to finance a one-man show, Grant can scarcely utter a syllable without throwing his head back and exclaiming it to the rafters, and the actor’s body language—a series of shocked gasps, wild-eyed stares, and manic grins—is similarly absurd. As Phoenix dons a series of ever-more elaborate disguises throughout the film, Grant’s acting somehow gets even broader, resulting in a work of giddy panto and one of the finest comic performances in recent memory. Cole


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Regina Hall, Support the Girls

It’s not often that we see decency and level-headedness radiated on screen as convincingly as it is by Regina Hall in Support the Girls, much less a film centered around such a performance. As Lisa, a put-upon restaurant manager enduring a particularly hectic day on the job, Hall suppresses the comic histrionics that she’s become known for in mainstream comedy movies in order to inhabit the delicate naturalism that writer-director Andrew Bujalski consistently cultivates in his casts. Slipping into this mode with grace, the actress conveys the sheer exhaustion and frustration of nine-to-five existence with just the subtlest of disruptions to an exterior of buttoned-up professionalism. Carson Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

As the great blackness of night swoops in, we reach for assurances of “the everlasting arms,” as sung about in First Reformed‘s concluding hymnal. Ethan Hawke’s staggering performance is one of Ecclesiastian sympathy, with watchful longing and hungry silences in between reminders of Toller’s own impotence to change the world. The man’s face suggests a tragic predicament that the only ark to save us from an impending flood is in our illusions. Niles Schwartz


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Nearly every actor in the Coen brothers’ newest anti-western is remarkable, but Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are particularly heartbreaking, partly because the audience has been so expertly rendered vulnerable to the vignette in which they appear. By the time that we get to “The Gal Who Got Rattled” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we’ve seen so much brutality and cynicism that we’re hardened for more of the same only to encounter tenderness. As potential lovers who never get to be, Kazan and Heck dramatize the unmooring vulnerability of feeling attraction just when you suspect that you’ve aged out of it, informing the Coens’ florid, beautiful dialogue with trembling pathos. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk

For this critic, the lovers at the center of Barry Jenkins’s newest parable of racism are too gorgeous, primped, fawning, symbolic, metaphorical, and seemingly straight out of a coffee-table book. As a man recently out of prison after serving a stretch he didn’t deserve, Brian Tyree Henry does for If Beale Street Could Talk what he did for Widows and continues to do for Atlanta: informing potentially self-conscious conceits with a jolting burst of common-sense machismo. If Beale Street Could Talk‘s most haunting scene is a monologue that’s hypnotically uttered by Tyree, allowing this film, for a few minutes, to actually capture the brutal poetry of the James Baldwin novel that inspired it. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

The center of a film about commitment and disassociation, Helena Howard’s Madeline evidently relishes the opportunity to change identities in the blink of an eye. Director Josephine Decker contrasts the aspiring actress’s easy mastery of improv exercises with Madeline’s harried life outside of rehearsal, where she’s regularly manipulated by her mother and an overeager director as she struggles to control her mental illness. Decker’s film is willfully alienating in its commitment to Madeline’s tortured interiority, but Howard steers it with an undeniable power and confidence, making Madeline’s rootless chaos feel entirely legible. Gray


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf

Werewolf belongs to the extraordinary Bhreagh MacNeil. The film derives quite a bit of its power from allowing Vanessa to unceremoniously wrest the spotlight away from Blaise (Andrew Gillis), a lost and bitter man whose quest for recovery is probably hopeless. MacNeil doesn’t project Vanessa’s determination in a manner that’s familiar to rehabilitation fables, but rather physically embodies it, and McKenzie doesn’t mar her with any screenwriterly speeches. We see Vanessa’s strength in the steel of her eyes, in her willingness to ask family for help, and in her ability to get a thankless job at an old-fashioned burger and soft-serve ice cream joint, in which she grinds imitation Oreo cookies into pieces with a machine that resembles a sausage grinder. The fierceness with which Vanessa grinds these cookies—or attempts to master an ice cream machine that resembles a liquid methadone dispenser—is haunting. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience

Esti (Rachel McAdams), at first glance, is another type: an obsequious adherent to orthodoxy. When she passionately kisses Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), you understood the gesture as compensatory, to convey that I’m just not that into her anymore. But then McAdams caps the moment by quickly playing with Nivola’s beard, and the actress subtly communicates the sense of the genuine love that exits between this husband and wife—an impression that’s confirmed when Esti later repeats the gesture with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). Only theirs is a different kind of love, and we finally get a sense of what that is when, during a tryst in a hotel room, Ronit casually sends a stream of her spit into Esti’s mouth. This moment feels organically, almost miraculously stumbled upon—arrived at by two great actors wanting to convey the singular nature of their characters’ communion. Ed Gonzalez


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The pairing of Melissa McCarthy, a Hollywood A-lister, with Richard E. Grant, a sublime arthouse presence, is one of the most invigorating surprises of this year’s cinema. McCarthy avoids the pitfall of comic actors appearing in unusually dramatic material. Rather than restricting her emotional catalogue to a few grim gestures of purposefulness, McCarthy expands her repertoire, elaborating on the sadness that’s inherent in even her blockbuster roles—a sadness that also fuels her comic virtuosity. And Grant is complicit with McCarthy’s tonal dexterity in every way. Together they offer an irresistible portrait of a bittersweet paradox of companionable alienation. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits

The Land of Steady Habits benefits enormously from the casting of Ben Mendelsohn as an unexceptionally tormented upper-middle-class guy. Here, the actor submerges the aggression that’s often closer to the surface of his sleazy villain roles, giving Anders a mysterious internal tension that’s compelling and often funny. When writer-director Nicole Holofcener follows Anders around as he drifts in and out of the lives of Helene (Edie Falco) and his grown son, Preston (Thomas Mann), and their various friends, the film has a free-associational piquancy. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jason Mitchell, Tyrel

Sebastián Silva tasks Jason Mitchell with carrying the weight of Tyrel on the actor’s face; he’s asked to project toughness in reaction shots to aggressions both micro and macro from Tyler’s white bros, then later vulnerability as he steals away for moments of quietude to escape the ambiguous pain of social discomfort. While the scenario and performance is comparable to that of Daniel Kaluuya’s in Get Out, Mitchell’s Tyler isn’t given a catharsis of violent retribution. Mitchell’s expressions and gestures convey the betrayal of a daily life that never lets Tyler feel at ease, let alone at home. Dillard


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?

Michelle Pfeiffer’s ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent. Bowen


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Meinhard Neumann, Western

Casting is everything, the saying goes, but that’s especially true when filmmakers elect to use nonprofessionals, in which case ineffable factors such as “presence” and “authenticity” become paramount. Meinhard Neumann, the grizzled, mustachioed brooder at the center of Western who director Valeska Grisebach came across on a whim at a horse market, has these qualities in spades, in addition to a seemingly preternatural capacity for playing to Grisebach’s roving handheld camera and finding his light. His taciturn, repressed Meinhard doesn’t have a wide expressive range, but when the character does undergo a few emotional breakthroughs in the latter half of the film, Neumann seems to be genuinely accessing reserves of pain and regret deep within himself. Lund


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jesse Plemons, Game Night

John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein assembled one of the strongest comedic ensembles in recent memory for Game Night, but a single performer still managed to steal the show: Jesse Plemons as the weirdo Gary, a sad-sack cop with a broken heart whose self-pitying glumness could ruin anyone’s vibe. Pitched perfectly at the intersection of creepiness and pathos, Plemons earns big laughs without really seeming to try. The hilarity arises instead from his expertly discomfiting embodiment of one of those off-putting personality types we’ve all unfortunately encountered: the guy you feel bad for but desperately want to get away from as fast as humanly possible. Watson


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Steven Yeun, Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is driven by a central mystery of purpose. To what genre does this film belong? Is it a horror film, a romantic triangle, a class critique, or a beguiling fusion of all of the above? Much of this mystery is embodied by Steven Yeun’s performance as a rich smoothie who’s far more appealing than the floundering hero, which strikes up a crisis in the audience’s empathy that resonates with our romantic preferences in real life. Turns out there’s a reason that confident people get all the lovers, because they are, well, confident. Yet Yeun laces his sexiness with the subtlest tint of passive aggression, so subtle that one wonders if it’s even there, investing Burning with a fleeting malignancy that’s worthy of Claude Chabrol. Bowen


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The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power.

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The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018
Photo: Well Go USA

Watching a great scene for the first time is like confronting the reality of one’s mortality. As the scene unfolds, it can feel exhilarating in the moment, though it can only be fully understood in hindsight. Think of our selections of the best scenes of 2018, then, as flashes of memory connected to a larger whole. It’s not that the whole dies without the memories, but that the whole might, upon reflection, be primarily composed of such recollected flashes. Music, dance, action, rage, touch, rhyme, and blunt-force trauma—these are the moments that give films, and life, their staying power. Clayton Dillard
 

The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Amazing Grace, Reverend Cleveland Weeps

There are a number of points throughout Sydney Pollack’s Amazing Grace where Aretha Franklin’s voice hits such astounding heights that members of Los Angeles’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church congregation and choir can’t help but rise to their feet and shout “Amen” or dance like no one is watching them. But no single moment is more profoundly moving than when Reverend James Cleveland, the concert’s musical director and Aretha’s childhood friend, walks away from his piano, sits down on a pew, and quietly weeps into his handkerchief. In this moment, the church transforms into a sanctuary to revel in the power of Aretha’s singular, iconic voice. Derek Smith


Annihilation, Suicide Is Painless

The characters who enter the alien-terraforming Shimmer in Alex Garland’s Annihilation are all people who’ve lost the will to live, yet their survival instincts compel them to self-defense against the horrors thrown at them by the film’s creepy elements. The Shimmer responds in kind, folding the terrors of characters about to meet their deaths into the flora and fauna that form out of corpses and sport gnarled looks of frozen anguish. After watching a colleague “live on” in the mutant screams of the bear that killed her, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson)—tacitly suffering from depression and knowing the odds of her survival—decides to leave a calmer imprint of herself on this alien region. Her blissful walk into oblivion is the film’s sole moment of quietude, and perhaps the most gorgeous display of justifiable suicide ever depicted on film. Jake Cole


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

BlacKkKlansman, “Too Late to Turn Back Now”

After watching Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) speak about his vision for an equal society where African-Americans are accepted for who they are, undercover cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his impromptu date, activist Patrice (Laura Harrier), visit a nearby club. What follows is Spike Lee at his most observational and celebratory: an extended sequence of black Americans joyously dancing and singing along to the song “Too Late to Turn Back Now,” free of the prejudice they encounter in their daily lives. Echoing the kind of liberated society Ture outlined in his speech, the utopic vision of this scene becomes reason enough for Ture and his followers to want to fight the power. Wes Greene


Bodied, Behn Grymm vs. Adam

After months of training, Adam (Calum Worthy) finally faces off against his friend and mentor, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), in a rap battle that quickly turns from two buddies trading barbs to something far more insidious and calamitous. For the African-American Grymm, rapping is a means to end, a way to put food on the table for his wife and daughter. But for Adam, a white boy and intellectual born with a silver spoon in mouth, there’s no greater purpose to spitting fire, only the unfettered joys of unabated verbal destruction. In his stomach-churning assault of Grymm, Adam sheds all semblance of kinship and morality, all but shattering a friendship simply in pursuit of a big win and pushing the phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” far past its breaking point. Smith


Burning, Jazz Dance at Sunset

Stoned, topless, and standing beneath the South Korean flag as it flaps in the wind, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) begins to emulate the Kenyan “great hunger” dance she described earlier in the film. Set to Miles Davis’s “Générique,” the sequence occurs only halfway into Burning, but it feels climactic in its power, especially for Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who seems finally entranced with Haemi to the point of no return. The scene’s thematic complexity underlies the immediacy of Lee Chang-dong’s use of a long take to capture the dance, making the film’s larger mysteries, and Jong-su’s subsequent paranoia, all the more chilling. Dillard


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

First Man, Agena Spin

Damien Chazelle’s claustrophobic direction of spaceflight in First Man brutally undercuts idealized images of the Space Race with the abject terror of hurtling through the void in a rattling tin can launched into the skies using calculations performed on computers with less processing power than an Atari 2600. The film’s tensest scene is a depiction of the failed Gemini 8 mission, in which a routine spaceflight goes catastrophically wrong and sends the spacecraft into an unstoppable barrel roll. As Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) attempts to both stabilize the craft and get it back on its correct flightpath, we see him not only contending with high G-forces and dizzying spins, but also performing trigonometric calculations in long hand on graph paper. With the film’s camera firmly entrenched inside the capsule, Chazelle mines Armstrong’s claustrophobia—and rouses our—through the flashes of shaking plates of sheet metal and elaborate operating switchboards. The material reality of early space missions comes into sharp focus, clarifying the deadening trauma that weighs on Armstrong throughout the entirety of First Man. Cole


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

First Reformed, Magical Mystery Tour

In an act of compassion, and passion, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller indulges Amanda Seyfried’s pregnant widow in a meditative ritual she had regularly performed with her now-deceased husband. After she lays on top of Toller, synchronizing her breathing with his, the two begin to levitate and hover over gorgeous images of outer space, snowy mountains, and lush green forests. But this extraordinary and uncanny transcendence is fleeting, as the sublime imagery abruptly gives way to visions of real-world problems, such as mass deforestation and pollution, pulling Toller violently out of this reprieve from his obsession with the world’s misery. What place do love and faith have in a world that’s crumbling around us? Smith


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

The Green Fog, Chuck Norris As Meme

About midway through The Green Fog, just as one is beginning to acclimate to its conceptual high-wire act—a reconstitution of Vertigo by way of clips from wide-ranging movies and TV shows set in San Francisco—directors Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson decide to entertain a ludicrous high-concept-within-a-high-concept: an entire lengthy sequence composed only of reaction shots of Chuck Norris. Staring, staring, and staring some more in a ridiculous sustained imitation of Scottie Ferguson’s paranoid daze, Norris’s blank mug becomes the best underappreciated meme of the year. Carson Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Epic Jump Shot Drill

RaMell Ross’s evocative hymn to Hale County, Alabama and the indomitable spirit of its residents dedicates a portion of its attention to Daniel, a small-time college hoops player with big aspirations, but the actual sport of basketball only surfaces in fits and starts, interwoven as it is with the larger mosaic of Daniel’s life. The fragments that do emerge, however, show a sprightly athlete in firm command of his game, nowhere more evident than when he drains 10 of 11 long-range jumpers from around the arc in one breathless take, muttering affirmatively after each swish. Ross’s camera bobs along behind him, emphasizing the sheer force and persistence of Daniel’s motion over the shots themselves, in effect translating the feat into something more divine than worldly. Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Happy as Lazzaro, The Music’s Followed Us

A band of former sharecroppers relocated to an anonymous metropolis are lulled into a church by the sound of an organ and are promptly shooed out. This everyday affront is avenged by the lightest and most surreal of miracles as the music travels into the city, seemingly rebirthed from the sound of a passing train. Its ineffable quality leads the previously guileless Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) to an olive tree planted in artificial grass and a catharsis that’s at once unclassifiable and long overdue. Christopher Gray


Hereditary, Heads Will Roll

For its first hour, Ari Aster’s Hereditary is something akin to a relentless panic attack, rife with displays mental illness, disturbing familial follies, cryptic portents of doom that would curl Poe’s toes. The highlight of the film is a scene that’s tremendous for its artistic dexterity and shock value. In the throes of an allergic reaction, the young and socially awkward Charlie (Milly Shapiro) writhes in the back seat of the family car, her throat tightening while her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff), wildly drives them down a forlorn stretch of deserted asphalt. The brilliance of the scene isn’t just the visceral depiction of an unfathomable violent incident, but the patience with which Aster dwells on the consequence: The camera remains on Peter’s face, bathed in the red glow of the car’s tail lights, as he sits static, stoic, his eyes glazed over, while his sister’s body is slumped over behind him. After several agonizingly long, laconic moments, he starts the car, drives home, and goes to bed. Greg Cwik


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk, Daniel’s Monologue

If Beale Street Could Talk is at its most potent in the scenes where human frailty and the specter of injustice come more elliptically to the surface, as in a long dialogue scene between Fonny (Stephan James) and Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), an old school chum. At first it’s all soothingly friendly chitchat between the two men. Then things slip into dolefully dark territory as Daniel recalls his time in prison: “The white man’s got to be the devil. He sure ain’t a man. Some of the things I saw, baby, I’ll be dreaming about until the day I die.” What hits hardest about Daniel’s recollections is his overall sense of exhaustion. If constant subjugation doesn’t kill you, it’s suggested, then your soul is forever crippled, which is in many ways a worse fate. How can anyone walk through life with their spirit so completely paralyzed? Keith Uhlich


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Let the Sunshine In, “At Last”

Etta James’s “At Last” is like “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or “Over the Rainbow”—a piece of music so deeply imbedded in popular culture that its use risks parody. Leave it, then, to Claire Denis, a modern master of needle drops, to find just the right implementation. In Let the Sunshine In, the song becomes an exemplification of the romantic nirvana pined after by middle-aged Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a feeling crystallized in a sensuous slow dance with a bar patron that finds Denis’s camera pirouetting sinuously with her lead character. After a series of botched relationships, Isabelle’s ecstasy is cathartic and moving in the moment but ultimately illusory and hollow, a spell cast through the concise power of Denis’s montage and broken just as quickly by a hard, sobering cut back to reality. Lund


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Mandy, Bathroom Meltdown

Mandy is a smorgasbord of indulgences held together by Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Panos Cosmatos understands Cage as well as any director ever has, fashioning a series of moments that allow the actor to rhythmically blow off his top, exorcising Red’s rage and longing as well as, presumably, his own. In the film’s best scene, Red storms into the bathroom of his cabin and lets out a primal roar, while chugging a bottle of liquor that was stashed under the sink. Cage gives this scene a disquieting sense of relief, investing huge emotional notes with a lingering undercurrent that cuts to the heart of the film itself. Chuck Bowen


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

A Star Is Born, “Shallow”

“Shallow” makes less sense as a song than Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) performs as a celebrity, but it’s perfectly structured for Ally’s (Lady Gaga) birth as an idol. Cooper makes goosebumpy magic of Ally and Jackson mooning in the backdrop of one another’s closeups, and their performance features two of the great half-seconds in the year’s cinema: first Ally covering her face in a rush of fear, embarrassment, and exhilaration, then catching up to the song’s chorus a half-beat late with unstoppable force. Gray


The Strangers: Prey at Night, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The ne plus ultra of The Strangers: Prey at Night‘s irony-tinged mayhem is a lengthy set piece at a secluded mobile home park’s pool. It’s there that Luke (Lewis Pullman) brutally dispatches Dollface (Emma Bellomy), then tussles with the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei), all set rather perversely to the camp-operatic mood swings of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The song almost subliminally primes the characters to perform a dance of death, a point that the camera devilishly underscores by jumping in and out of the water alongside Luke and the Man in the Mask, in the process muffling the sound of Bonnie Tyler’s protestations. Ed Gonzalez


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Suspiria, Break Dance

As Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances, Olga (Elena Fokina) breaks—literally. The gist of the scene is that simple, yet Luca Guadagnino and editor Walter Fasano create an unforgiving series of images that approximates what it feels like for Olga to have her body being taken away from her. First Olga’s arms, then her torso and legs, and finally her face. By the end of Susie’s ascension within the dance company via her dexterous moves, Olga is but a urine-stained pretzel, helplessly writhing on the floor. All About Eve, eat your heart out. Dillard


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Widows, A Drive Through Town

The numerous long takes sprinkled throughout Steve McQueen’s oeuvre tend to exude a shallow, posturing quality. This shot from the filmmaker’s Widows, however, is rich in meaning. With the film’s camera mounted to the hood of a car, Colin Farrell’s Chicago councilman candidate is seen leaving an event in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood and riding to his posh townhouse on the other side of town. In one long take, McQueen cannily and succinctly catches glimpses of how the neighborhood has succumbed to the forces of gentrification. Greene


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Wild Boys, Island Arrival

Upon landing on a mysterious island with their magisterial captor, the five wild boys of Bertrand Mandico’s film wander through the tropical jungle and discover a landscape rife with bizarre sexual pleasures. As the boys traverse through groping grass, quench their thirst with the juices of ejaculating trees, and satiate their hunger with hairy, testicular-shaped fruits, it’s as if the island is responding to their surging desires. Such an uninhibited and unhinged celebration of pure, impulsive sexuality, in a film driven by silent-film aesthetics no less, is capable of making even Guy Maddin blush. Smith


The 20 Best Film Scenes of 2018

Zama, The Ambush

Lucrecia Martel’s cinema dwells in languor and repressed energy, a wavelength for which she’s invented her own filmmaking grammar. In Zama, a tale of simmering tensions in Paraguay during Spanish colonial rule, that grammar gets audaciously applied to action scenes that briefly and violently materialize the friction felt between Spanish forces and oppressed natives elsewhere in the narrative. The first of these eruptions, a shockingly rapid and coordinated ambush in a boggy marshland at high noon, offers a stunning case study of Martel’s distinctive style in the context of frenetic action: The camera remains stagnant and the sound design sparse, but everything’s unnervingly sped-up and fragmentary, a technique that approximates the phenomenological jolt of danger. Lund


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