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The 25 Best Films of 2013

Reports of cinema’s demise, as it turns out, have been greatly exaggerated.

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The 25 Best Films of 2013
Photo: A24

Reports of cinema’s demise, as it turns out, have been greatly exaggerated. Granted, celluloid is about as dead as the dodo, and delivery systems are in flux (pretty soon, audiences will be as likely to catch the latest Hollywood tent pole streaming on their wristwatches as in a multiplex), but the century-old urge to dream another life within the four edges of a frame, to transmute image and sound into something more potent than either alone, remained refreshingly untrammeled. Given the precarious position of the medium, beholden to the ever-shifting tectonics of finance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many films took the constituent building blocks of their own construction as their theme.

Consider this “The Year of the Image.” At the bleeding edge were films that tested the boundaries of the current technology. Making the most of its in-your-face IMAX 3D format, Gravity dazzled with formalist pyrotechnics (even if its narrative beats had whiskers back in D. W. Griffith’s day), while other films reserved their fireworks for the funhouse-mirror complexity of their narrative conceits. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, The We and the I, and Viola all discovered wildly disparate ways to blur lines between performer and performance. Terrence Malick continued his ongoing project of stockpiling miscellaneous imagery for metaphysical recycling in a manner that recalls T. S. Eliot’s line: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

The commonplace (and altogether understandable) anxiety about imagery’s influence cropped up in nonfiction films as well, under the aegis of giving voice to compulsive cinephilia in the age of on-demand ubiquity, where every cine-artifact can be gone over with all the obsessive rigor of the Zapruder film. It also crept into attempts at historical truth and reconciliation, where clearing a space for cold-blooded killers to reenact their crimes could be considered a radical enough sort of performance therapy. At the far horizon where discomfort can degrade into distrust, The World’s End crankily suggested that a Dark Ages do-over might be the soundest cure for the viral onslaught of multimedia technologies. No matter how individual films parsed the always mutable relations between image and existence, the undeniable richness and diversity on display demonstrates that the medium still has legs.  Budd Wilkins

Editor’s Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26—50.

The 25 Best Films of 2013

25. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

A key moment early in Gravity solidifies its allegorical underpinnings with guileless ease. Having just revealed the loss of her daughter to lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) gazes across the Earth above which her life hangs by a thread, and in this single shot, Alfonso Cuarón devastatingly contrasts micro and macro visions of human life (and loss) against the emptiness of space from which our protagonists seek refuge. A miraculous fusion of populist spectacle and avant-garde audacity, the film’s technical achievements are secondary to its spiritual longing, an implicit layer of this survivor’s tale, and one fittingly underscored by the echoes of Maria Falconetti in Bullock’s commanding close-ups. The psychological hellfire of her struggle is bolstered by Steven Price’s electronic score, which suggests an exploding nebula of emotion, but it’s ultimately Bullock’s Stone who grounds the film, speaking to our collective fears and comforts with unyielding candor. Gravity’s vision of human endurance is simplified, but it’s far from simplistic, and those who think otherwise might do well to remember: Dying is easy; it’s living that’s hard.  Rob Humanick


The 25 Best Films of 2013

24. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais)

Barely slowing down to celebrate his ninth decade, Alain Resnais follows the sublime derangement of Wild Grass with another extraordinary balancing act of twilight introspection and youthful inspiration. A sense of mortality suffuses You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet from the start, as news of a playwright’s demise summon a group of performers—including Michel Piccoli, Sabine Azéma, and Mathieu Amalric, all playing “themselves”—to the late artist’s mansion. Yet it’s not long before the doleful mood turns vibrant and the actors, faced with their friend’s testament (a video recording of the rehearsal for one of his works), find themselves slipping in and out of the characters they’ve played over the years and the memories they’ve gathered over their lives. The spaces between past and present and performance and remembrance are familiar ones for the director of Last Year at Marienbad, but they’ve rarely been contemplated with such playfulness and heartfelt fluidity. Fusing the cinematic and the theatrical into a masterly meta-séance, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet finds a serenely mischievous Resnais celebrating an art form that can connect us past even the limits of death itself.  Fernando Croce


The 25 Best Films of 2013

23. The We and the I (Michel Gondry)

A gifted fantasist, Michel Gondry has been most successful when he’s grounded his surrealist reveries in a recognizable social reality, which is to say when he’s been able to at least partially step outside his own head. While previous efforts like Be Kind Rewind were as much about the coming together of community amid depressed urban circumstances as they were the power of whimsical invention, the director’s latest triumph is even more invested in its believably real-world dynamic, even as it largely unfolds in a single, theatricalized space. The product of two years of intense association between the director and a group of Bronx high school students who here play versions of themselves, The We and the I takes place during a long bus ride home from school in which the kids argue, flirt, goof around, and Gondry explores the specifics of a complex social dynamic. As the bus continues on and the numbers of students thin out, artificial barriers drop and the film cannily, movingly reveals the need for human connection that undergirds the restrictive, if necessary donning of public masks.  Andrew Schenker


The 25 Best Films of 2013

22. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

“I’d hoped to never love again,” says Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a French single mother who relocates to Oklahoma in order to live with her American boyfriend, Neil (Ben Affleck), in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. It’s a haunted confession of doubt—telling words that imply that there will be a painful expiration date to their whimsical romance. And the film progress along this fated trajectory. Early on, Marina and Neil are lost in each other’s presence, as if nothing in this universe could come between their deeply felt connection. But as cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbeki’s fluid camera continues to spin around them with the utmost grace, the relationship grows stagnant, like the Midwest landscapes poisoned by pollution that Malick highlights through Neil’s occupation as an environmental scientist. Uncertainty is a constant throughout, and yet the film articulates a dizzying sense of reinvention via Marina’s final dance on the beach. Here, Malick personifies the idea that happiness is possible when we find peace in the right place, at the right time, and with the right frame of mind. Hers is the transcendence that only happens when one learns to let go.  Glenn Heath


The 25 Best Films of 2013

21. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)

Ip Man may have been the starting point for The Grandmaster, but the legendary martial-arts instructor—himself the subject of a recent cottage industry of Hong Kong films devoted to his life—turns out to be more of an icon standing in for Wong Kar-wai’s thematic fascinations than the main character of his own biopic. The real central figure, in fact, is Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of a rival martial-arts master who, upon her father’s murder, devotes her life to the single-minded pursuit of revenge—a quest that not only leads her to a kind of spiritual ruin, but also exposes the futility of the old-fashioned code of honor she had been following, far less fulfilling than Ip Man’s more flexible philosophy of living. With its dazzling action sequences and even more impressive emotional and philosophical depth, The Grandmaster is the Hong Kong filmmaker’s most vital, dazzling, and profound movie in about a decade, one whose slow-burn pleasures not even the Weinsteins’ meddling for its U.S. release could entirely dim.  Kenji Fujishima


The 25 Best Films of 2013

20. Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)

Rodney Ascher’s visual essay is a dizzying wall of sound and visuals that simultaneously bolsters and slyly subverts the sometimes batshit-crazy readings a group of off-camera interviewees have on The Shining, exposing Stanley Kubrick’s classic as one of cinema’s great white elephants. Despite Ascher’s committed, profoundly empathetic sense of montage, collaging as he does footage from more than just Kubrick’s cannon to give credence to his subjects’ theories, sometimes multiple ones at once, the point of Room 237 isn’t whether you think The Shining is a treatise on the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust, or an epic admission on Kubrick’s part that he staged the Apollo 11 moon landing. And it isn’t about why we continue to lose it at the movies so much as it is a portrait of an elusive, megalomaniacal artist and brilliant con man whose work remains a siren’s call for the like-minded obsessive compulsive. Intentionally or not, Ascher reveals that the desperation with which people attempt to assign meaning to The Shining only corroborates Dick Hallorann’s belief in the film that there’s nothing in room 237 at the Overlook Hotel—except, of course, the stuff of our wildest imaginations.  Ed Gonzalez


The 25 Best Films of 2013

19. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

Stories We Tell is the only movie this year that justifies spoiler-phobia. The question is: Just how little should one reveal? In this writer’s opinion, the less you know the better, so let’s just say that Stories We Tell is a documentary about director Sarah Polley’s relationship to her family, particularly her mother, who passed away when Polley was 11. If that sounds conventional, rest assured that the film’s structure and method border on revolutionary. And if it sounds like just another self-interested memoir, rest assured that the film’s take on the shifting boundaries between truth and fiction, memory and reality, takes us far beyond navel-gazing. More than once, Polley quietly lays out false expectations before revealing a starkly different true hand. Such trickery works as well as it does because the film also offers a strong emotional punch. Polley’s story of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers is fascinating in part for its peculiarity, but the rivalries and alliances—the remembrances of love and heartbreak—that underpin it are equally compelling because of their familiar ring.  Tomas Hachard


The 25 Best Films of 2013

18. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

In amplifying the tactile qualities of seemingly innocuous details (violin strings being wound taut, blackberry juice crammed desperately into a makeshift pen), 12 Years a Slave sidesteps the conventions of other films depicting similarly tragic tribulations. Instead, natural beauty is consistently presented as a counterpoint to human corruption. The violin close-ups, which initially connoted the talent and trade with which Solomon Northup so proudly made his living, are later transposed as signifiers when his owner demands he play to appease customers during a heated scene. 12 Years a Slave never felt like just another case study for director Steve McQueen and his preoccupation with power structures. By creating a maximalist melodrama entrenched in one of America’s most painful and corrupt periods, McQueen indirectly makes a political statement about the status quo of cinematic representation: We can do better in fictionalizing America’s past, no matter how ugly it is.  Tina Hassannia


The 25 Best Films of 2013

17. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

The visual language of Frances Ha’s poster and trailer promises an alienating kind of hipster sensibility, an ode to quirkiness built on mumblecore affectation and “farmer’s market” irony. Director Noah Baumbach, however, rediscovers the sincerity of the original behind the inane copy in the way his New York City twentysomethings parade around like mumblecore caricatures, but laugh and suffer with pit-in-the-stomach gravitas. Theirs is a kind of hipster drag, the feigning of a communal style as a way to ensconce oneself from the solitude of cosmopolitan adulthood. Frances’s non-story, played with disarming and infectious honesty by Greta Gerwig, doesn’t thrive on the inside-jokeness of Brooklynite cool, but the cool of jazz, early Woody Allen, American sass, wit, and humanizing inelegance. Baumbach knows American film wins when it embraces the pedestrian-ness of its people and language. The beauty in the film isn’t in the literal poesis of its words, but in the unabashed way the characters are allowed to roam around this world of non-productive play without the burden of pretty.  Diego Costa


The 25 Best Films of 2013

16. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)

Director Edgar Wright wraps up his “Cornetto Trilogy” with a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on with The World’s End, which bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt.  Nick Schager


The 25 Best Films of 2013

15. Viola (Matias Piñeiros)

A tale of mistaken identities and haplessly wooing couples, Matias Piñeiros’s Viola borrows freely from Twelfth Night, and as in his previous works, it weaves an intricate tapestry of passion and circumstance. Sabrina, a fickle actress who breaks up with her boyfriend, is seduced by her friend, Cecilia (Agustina Muñoz), to prove Sabrina’s vulnerability. Sabrina and Cecilia play, respectively, the impervious Countess Olivia and a resourceful, sweet-talking page in Shakespeare’s play, thus drawing a parallel between life and art. This parallelism is enhanced by the all-female cast’s ruminations on boyfriends, desire, and breakups. The action becomes looser as we meet Viola (María Villar), a young woman running a DVD-delivery business with her boyfriend, and much in need of romantic advice. As in all of Piñeiro’s films, the rich ensemble cast creates a great sense of intimacy, to which the love games bring but momentary heartache, compensated by long-lasting friendships. There’s a sense of an unshakable cool in many of the exchanges, but also a poignancy of youth, with its many romantic possibilities. Piñeiro may be using Shakespeare to show how life imitates art, but his creative appropriation is largely tongue in cheek, in a freewheeling, über-conversational style.  Ela Bittencourt


The 25 Best Films of 2013

14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)

While The Act of Killing wasn’t the only documentary from this year to approach the difficult subject of genocide in South East Asia from an unconventional perspective, the successful formal and moral risks it takes are without equal. The involved experience of watching proud paramilitary soldiers reenact through Hollywood movie tropes their memories of torturing and murdering thousands of Indonesians in the mid ’60s is surreal, causing unfathomable, layered, and fleeting responses ranging from horror to nausea to, surprisingly, laughter (the weirdly cathartic reaction that director Joshua Oppenheimer says is actually most common among Indonesian audiences). The brave choice to give these killers, who are still in power, free reign to recount this history as they would like to remember it walks a fine from accepting them to giving them rope to hang themselves, but because of how obviously deluded the aging thugs are about their wrongful acts, this fascinating and bizarre film manages to come out the other side of Mondo film territory looking like legitimate art.  Kalvin Henely


The 25 Best Films of 2013

13. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a “sprang breaaak forevvver.” Mathematically constructed and patient where even the best of his prior films were largely powered by unpredictable excretory gestures, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers plays the long game with a terrifyingly short fuse. Casting Selena Gomez as a string bikini-clad Jesus freak and James Franco (given free reign to culture-studies up this bitch) as the parasitic candy man who lures her and her clique away from dick-teasing, whip it-dazed fraternity meat, Korine refines his approach and purifies his knack for provocation, no less subversive here for being rendered in sun-kissed neon poetry. The film ties Godard to a Kmart pony ride, forces Malick at gunpoint to give him a lap dance, and sets the whole ground-zero graduation montage to the visual equivalent of a screwed “Teenage Dream” as covered by Pussy Riot. No regrets, just the detritus of America’s well-oiled pleasure principal flexing like an overinflated hot-pink pool toy. It’s enough to bring a tear to your eye. Oh, no, wait…that’s chlamydia.  Eric Henderson


The 25 Best Films of 2013

12. Drug War (Johnnie To)

A genre masterpiece with politics to spare, Drug War belies its prototypical shoot-’em-up surface at every turn. When Cantonese meth dealer—and sometime mule—Timmy (Louis Koo) comes under the thumb of police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), he strikes a deal to clandestinely lead the cops into the heart of the local supply chain. The purity of Timmy’s motivations is murky at best, but Johnnie To doesn’t structure the film around either man’s character so much as the unspooling repercussions of their collaboration. Zhang is domineering to a fault; Timmy takes smug satisfaction when the captain must, posing as a drug dealer, do several ceremonial lines of blow to seal a deal, while his horrified cadets watch on closed-circuit. To’s portrait of mainland China is ultimately a network of desperate compromises, dotted from one end of the economy to the other. Much has been written about Drug War’s punishingly violent finale, which is indeed the least equivocal piece of To’s puzzle: If the narrative were a pane of glass carried by these two men, the film shatters it in breathtaking fashion, a gruesome anti-deus ex machina that spits you out into the blistering cold of the real world.  Steve Macfarlane


The 25 Best Films of 2013

11. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan)

Even if you’re somewhat able, at this point, to process that 24-year-old Xavier Dolan is preternaturally fluent in the filmic vocabularies of everyone from Truffaut to Fassbinder, his idea- and ideal-festooned masterpiece Laurence Anyways, a raging indictment of heteronormativity that’s nevertheless rich with love and status-quo compassion, still registers as an overwhelming show of staggering precocity. Though Dolan clearly speaks through his eponymous heroine (Melvil Poupaud), a transgender woman aching to express herself no matter the cost, he also gives resounding, feministic voice to two women gifted their proper forms at birth: Laurence’s repressed mother, Julienne (Nathalie Baye), and Laurence’s uncageable lover, Fred, the other half of an unprecedented screen romance, played by Suzanne Clément in the performance of the year. The central rebirth marks the scary, exhilarating, irreversible transformations of three women at different removes from societal demands, while sparking Dolan’s stunningly florid formal proclivities—a Euro-pop-scored brand of baroque, sophisticated camp. From a swooning partnership that defies definition to the bitingly cheeky, ironic reveal that Laurence’s tell-all is entitled In Praise of Normal, Dolan’s epic finally leaves you with the notion that “normal” might be the most inhuman word in the world.  R. Kurt Osenlund


The 25 Best Films of 2013

10. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia Zhang-ke announced his return this year from a half-decade working in nonfiction with a literal explosion—and in A Touch of Sin’s fiery commencement we sense the master Chinese filmmaker turning a corner from the allegorical to something more circumstantial in the process. But while Jia’s indignation manifests here in less subtle displays, framing this four-part treatise as he does around elements of the revenge, exploitation, and wuxia genres, the film’s narrative dynamism may, paradoxically, yield his most thematically nuanced work to date. By locating these parallels in recent cases of violence throughout China, and proceeding to subvert the escapist thrills traditionally afforded such stylistic excess, he manages to deftly implicate an entire culture of civic and cinematic ignorance without betraying his aesthetic identity. Bold, disorienting, and palpably enraged even at its most meticulously constructed and composed, A Touch of Sin bleeds humanity from the wounds of hypocrisy. No longer simply practitioner of still lives and unknown pleasures, Jia has entered a new era of internal complexity, and this righteous manifesto may portend a future as bleak as it is invigorating.  Jordan Cronk


The 25 Best Films of 2013

9. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)

From the students debating race relations to the high-earning administrators embroiled in bureaucratic jargon, At Berkeley’s sweeping cast of subjects are all captured with the same integrity, this sense of equality enhanced by Frederick Wiseman’s sublime knack for refusing context or identification. And as a feeling of anxiety from financial strains on both the school and students collectively haunts the campus, a larger picture subsequently emerges: that of the present in constant reconciliation with the past in order to forge a path for the future. Between student protestors carrying on Berkeley’s counterculture history and being ridiculed by the faculty that once engaged in such actions, as well as dinosaur skeletons jarringly juxtaposed with robotic legs helping a handicapped man to walk, time, like the personalities featured, is consistently clashing. By turns hilariously mundane and truly heartbreaking, not a single scene is wasted in this four-hour behemoth of a film, where everyone struggles to simply make do with the time they have.  Wes Greene


The 25 Best Films of 2013

8. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

If Before Sunrise was about the exhilaration of connecting with a kindred spirit and Before Sunset captured the ways in which these connections define us long after we believe them defused, Before Midnight is the sobering reminder that all it takes to cripple such romantic synergy is its consummation. This affecting but surprisingly prickly entry in Jesse and Celine’s saga manages to be thoroughly subversive of its predecessors without sacrificing the intense chemistry and Socratic rhythms that so endeared them to audiences. Where the earlier films were structurally predicated on the anxiety generated by impending deadlines, this one is pointedly shapeless, with tension arising from Jesse and Celine’s excess of time together. The central duo—still conceived with preternatural assurance by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy—now share a committed relationship, children, and a decade of baggage, the weight of which threatens to turn a Greek sojourn into a potentially disastrous minefield of simmering resentments. The dazzling afterglow of young love gives way to the more muted palette of fortysomething disappointment. Take comfort, however, from the fact that the pair’s travails never feel like the dissolution of that love but, simply another iteration of it.  Abhimanyu Das


The 25 Best Films of 2013

7. Bastards (Clare Denis)

Bastards is to the classic American noir what director Claire Denis’s prior Trouble Every Day is to the biological horror film: A beautiful essay on the potential moral perversions of intense human hunger that’s structured around genre trappings that are, in turn, refreshed and shaken free of the cobwebs of stale irrelevancy. The self-consciously derivative plot is a classic tale of a man lured into trouble, partially by his penis, who discovers a world of nearly primordial rot that far exceeds his comprehension. But, typical of Denis’s films, it’s the movement of bodies and faces you remember, particularly Vincent Lindon’s poignant, commandingly gruffy and weathered cheeks and weary eyes, as well as Chiara Mastroianni’s gorgeous body and deceptively tentative gestures. The love scenes are marvels typical of Denis: trysts that honor both the super-charged eroticism of genre tropes and the revealing physical vulnerability of sex as some of us might actually have it (perhaps, if we’re lucky).  Chuck Bowen


The 25 Best Films of 2013

6. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

With any luck, Andrew Bujalski’s irreverent black-and-white comedy Computer Chess will sound the death knell of that most flippant moniker: mumblecore. Shot on vintage video cameras, the film initially resembles period public-access television, and Bujalski appears quite taken with the quirky deficiencies of the dated technology. But as it unfolds, the filmmaking becomes more ambitious. Bujalski incorporates split screen, avant-garde framing techniques, and surrealist interludes to liven up what might have otherwise been merely kitschy material—a story set during the early ’80s in a grungy motel where nerdy computer programmers have gathered to pit their chess-playing software against one another. At first glance, this might seem like stylistic grandstanding, but the film’s genuine sense of inquiry permeates all of its aesthetic gestures. Bujalski demonstrates the ways in which a crude format like analog video is capable of creating high art, and thematically, the film’s amateurish, period-specific photography makes for a symbolic, if somewhat cheeky, examination of a subculture that, despite its meek social standing, has had arguably a larger influence on contemporary life than anyone else.  Drew Hunt


The 25 Best Films of 2013

5. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

The heartbreak of Like Someone In Love settles in when Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a prostitute, asks her driver to pass around a roundabout for a second time. She’s looking at her grandmother, who’s patiently awaiting her arrival in Shizuoka, and whom Akiko may never see again. It’s a heartfelt gesture, sure, but it’s also a performance, something she does to portray her love for her beloved grandmother and the misery of her station, if only to herself. As with Certified Copy, the semiotics of expression in Abbas Kiarastomi’s latest plunge us into an anxious and wholly unpredictable melodrama, a blind-eyed love triangle of sorts between Akiko, her john (Tadashi Okuno), and her fiancée (Ryô Kase). It’s a mild comical conceit on paper, but Kiarastomi eloquently augments this idea by summoning his own fascinations throughout, particularly the deceptive nature of the image. The john sees romance and innocence in Akiko, while her would-be betrothed increasingly sees her only as a sex worker. The slight act of violence that caps the movie comes from a true realization, but as with all of Kiarastomi’s masterworks, the truth and the “truth” are inseparable in this breathtaking high-wire act.  Chris Cabin


The 25 Best Films of 2013

4. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)

A uniquely crafted hybrid film, incorporating narrative, travelogue, and art-essay conceits, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours saliently channels the excitement and alienation of traveling. Charting the fledgling friendship between a charitable museum guard and a middle-class Canadian woman who’s visiting her hospitalized cousin in Vienna and passes time by wandering the galleries of the grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the film insightfully cherishes the act of observation and a peculiar curiosity about life. Exceedingly proving the richness that patience yields, the audience—like the characters themselves—becomes acquainted with backstories and interests of the unassuming protagonists. At once pensive and playful, the film’s most brilliant stroke comes from Cohen’s ability to organically link the characters with the art that surrounds them to illuminate the power of observation and various existential inquiries inherent in art, leading to an understated personal investigation into the lives of these people we’re asked to consider. With a keen eye for detail, Cohen offers the viewer a lens that shapes, and discovers, new ways to view both cinema and the world.  Nick McCarthy


The 25 Best Films of 2013

3. Leviathan (Verena Paravel and Lucian Castaing-Taylor)

Verena Paravel and Lucian Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan is, first and foremost, a direct reminder of the visceral possibilities of cinema: to submerge us in a churning, nightmarish nocturnal ocean ballet, to mesh nature’s tidal flow with the clanking repetition of machinery, to force empathy with a suffocating fish. Documentary in its purest, most spectacularly observational form, it also functions as both an unspoken rebuke to the staid presentation of most nonfiction films and a reminder of how few movies exploit the full sensory capabilities of the form. Every image presented here feels alien and invigorating, evoking the cold shock of sea water as the camera bobbles about the surface, the utter confusion of usually fixed visual axes being shifted or flipped upside down. Few films have managed to so brilliantly use formal disorientation to elicit both sinking dread and total wonder, results of an insistent focus on immersion and interaction, nature’s primeval power pitted against the mechanistic efficiency of a system bent on its ruthless exploitation.  Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Films of 2013

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Steeped in the melancholy born of remorse and irresolution, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a wintry valediction to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early ’60s, whose eponymous man of constant sorrows, not to mention continual social fuck-ups, is a couch-hopping songster caught between the Scylla of selfless devotion to tradition (emblematized by the haunting “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) and the Charybdis of crass commercial success (the ludicrous anti-Space Race novelty tune “Please Mr. Kennedy”). Like the timeless music that Llewyn claims “was never new and never gets old,” the Coens transmute historical events and persons into something else altogether, so that the film becomes a surreal odyssey across a desolate landscape of insult and invective where the timeframe soon gets sort of wonky. Being the Coen brothers, it’s not all heavy treading, of course: Inside Llewyn Davis is laced with their bracing sense of absurdist humor, the brunt of it aimed at the conceits and depredations of the music biz, while the gentler bits involve an elusive feline with an unexpectedly apt appellation. In the end, Llewyn seems to glumly accept his anachronistic fate since, for better or worse, the times they are a-changin’.  Wilkins


The 25 Best Films of 2013

1. Her (Spike Jonze)

Spike Jonze’s Her begins with a love letter—a misdirect. It’s a billet-doux by proxy, ghost-authored, dictated to a machine. We open on the wide-eyed mug of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seeming to speak from the heart, recalling fondly a first love that proves, with the reveal of an incongruous anniversary, to belong to somebody else. So the “handwritten letters” of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are merely approximations of the form: our near-future’s phantom memorandum. But what matters here is that the love is real. Theodore’s letters, in a sense the film’s emotional through line, are never less than deeply felt, swelling with earnest affection. That he’s talking through and to another can’t reduce the depth of feeling in the sentiments. The genius of Her is that it doesn’t ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about “the modern condition,” but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love.  Calum Marsh


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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
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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
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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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