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The 25 Best Films of 2016

Among Slant Magazine’s best films of the year are numerous works that challenge a static definition of personage.

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The 25 Best Films of 2016
Photo: A24

Celebrating great art amid the transition to political catastrophe can feel like, to paraphrase the title of poet Ocean Vuong’s recent collection, a moonlit sky with exit wounds. But the phlegm of post-truths shouldn’t get caught in our throats, let alone our eyes and ears, because films from across the globe continue to present a portrait of resilience in the face of international turmoil.

Among Slant Magazine’s best films of the year are numerous works that challenge a static definition of personage. In the realm of documentary, self-portraits of varying shades included both a remarkably unique memoir-as-collage from a longtime cinematographer (Cameraperson), and the final film of cinema’s greatest explicator of domestic malcontent (No Home Movie). In other cases, personal experience was tied directly to place, as in Chiron returning home to Miami in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s three-act portraiture of self-discovery, or the singular Lady Susan of Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s raucous Jane Austen adaptation, bringing some uninvited chaos to Churchill.

Connections between and across films abounded. Where one searing, unofficial trilogy cropped up, another equal but opposing trilogy appeared to provide a staunch counterpoint. Thus, the latest films from José Luis Guerín, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Terrence Malick are about men enticed by power and feminine beauty, whereas Anna Biller, Kelly Reichardt, and Maren Ade each made films about women rebuffing precisely those male advances.

If faith wavers during trying times, remember that reality can be wrong now, right then, and vice versa, ad infinitum. Cinema can be a mirror of reality, but it can also be a window into desire, either for the past or, hopefully, the realization of a better tomorrow. Since most of our names are not on towers, we should follow the lead characters in Certain Women and Moonlight and ride on horseback to our favorite diner for the chef’s special and several cups of wine. The complexities of the human spirit must be kept alive with precision and conviction. Great cinema has always been good that way. Based on the best films of 2016, it still is. Clayton Dillard

Editor’s Note: Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.

The 25 Best Films of 2016

25. The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2016

24. Homeland: Iraq Year Zero

Homeland: Iraq Year Zero comes into focus like a half-remembered nightmare, as the heartbreaking events it depicts have long since been eclipsed by subsequent conflicts and catastrophes. Split neatly in two parts, Abbas Fahdel’s 334-minute documentary covers the gradual lead-up to and immediate aftermath of the United States’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, as children go from playing war games with imaginary machine guns to collecting empty tank shells and mortar rounds. Each half is freighted with its own specific sense of foreboding, qualities only heightened by the early revelation of a looming personal tragedy, the likely impetus for this voluminous footage remaining packed away for so long. Yet it’s this span of time, along with the complete, slow-burn immersion into Fahdel’s extended family, that helps grant the film it’s marvelous time-capsule quality, a monument to fortitude and perseverance illuminating the often unseen costs of war. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Films of 2016

23. Fire at Sea

The quietly intense Fire at Sea captures life and death on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which serves as a crucial waystation for refugees due to its location between Africa and Europe. Director and cinematographer Gianfranco Rosi penetrates deep into the world of 12-year-old Samuele, a fisherman’s son whose daily life, which runs along a path laid down generations ago, seems almost completely untouched by the tragedies playing out a few kilometers away. When Rosi isn’t watching Samuele do things like make and master a slingshot or head into the brush for a tender encounter with a wild bird, he’s observing the process by which refugees enter a fenced-off holding camp on the island, shooting close-ups of loss-ravaged faces and vignettes about some of the trials they’ve endured. The bifurcation between their world and Samuele’s, a metaphor for the gulf between the dispossessed and the rest of us, might feel too on-the-nose if only it were not the awful truth. Elise Nakhnikian


The 25 Best Films of 2016

22. The Academy of Muses

In The Academy of Muses, a University of Barcelona professor (Raffaele Pinto) teaches a seminar which is entirely attended by actresses. Writer-director José Luis Guerín melds pedagogy with cinema while replacing the border between documentary and fiction for the exact (G-)spot where the desire for knowledge meets desire tout court. Cinematic cuts have rarely felt so disturbingly premature as they do in this film, suggesting romantic ruptures. Passion for erudition has never felt so alive and contagious. Never has literature felt so delectable, even haptic, on the screen. Never has scholarship been this seductive. Yet Guerín’s seduction isn’t merely carnal, as it’s drenched in desire’s most inexorable ghosts: anxiety, desperation, mourning, and masculinity’s ostensible shield from heartbreak. This is a bold and ruthless film that expands the limits of cinema and academia alike, daring to expose the necessarily erotic side, if not purpose, of any teaching experience. Diego Semerene


The 25 Best Films of 2016

21. Kate Plays Christine

Actors frequently discuss in interviews their creative process in constructing a character, but how often do we actually see this process? Robert Greene’s not-quite-documentary Kate Plays Christine begins as such a showcase, in that we observe actress Kate Lyn Sheil roaming around an otherworldly vision of Sarasota, Florida as she develops the physical and emotional nuances of her role as Christine Chubbuck, the WXLT-TV newscaster who took her own life on live television on July 15, 1974. But as Sheil’s oscillation between herself and her Chubbuck persona become as slippery as the film’s depiction of reality and fiction, Greene’s impossibly multifaceted whatsit unfolds into a discourse on the ethical quandaries in repackaging Chubbuck’s struggle with female identity as mass media. In this sense, and due partly to the concerns Sheil voices to Greene over his desire to tell Chubbuck’s story, the film engages in critical self-analysis and (especially in the climax) deadpan self-deprecation. Yet this dose of humility shouldn’t mislead from the simple fact that Kate Plays Christine is one of the most profound and necessary commentaries on the filmmaking process. Wes Greene


The 25 Best Films of 2016

20. Homo Sapiens

If we want cinema to look forward, and not merely function as a diagnostic tool for our zeitgeist-focused selves, we must ask it to conceive of contemporary life both beyond the present and with a clear view of the past. Such is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s achievement in Homo Sapiens, a futuristic-seeming document of dilapidated vistas from across the globe that forgoes time stamps, title cards, and explanations of any sort. Stripped of speech and even the presence of a single human being, the film gradually becomes a meditative sanctuary for the spectator to contemplate her place within the increasingly unwelcoming Anthropocene. By paying homage to Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma with a concluding image of a blizzard that gradually whites out the frame, Geyrhalter acknowledges his film’s structuralist dedication to grasping the strangeness of human activity, including its amnesiac pursuit of deleterious forms of newness, through experimental visual means. Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2016

19. The Illinois Parables

At a time when America’s marginalized once again face an uncertain future, Deborah Stratman’s wise, rueful essay The Illinois Parables serves as a timely reminder that history has always pressed hardest on the disenfranchised. Stratman’s approach is akin to a precise archeological excavation performed on the oft-ravishing landscapes of the Prairie State that pepper her film, as layer upon layer of thick Midwestern soil is removed to reveal the whole strata of suffering and displacement beneath. Yet while the testimonies linked to punishing Native American treks, Icarian repression, and tornado devastation heard in voiceover are frequently grueling, the film itself never succumbs to doom and gloom, with the airy heterogeneity of the material unearthed setting a tone that veers between the serene, the shocking, the surreal, and the elegiac. And it’s the latter tonality that comes to dominate and ultimately convey the weight of Stratman’s endeavor: to erect a glorious monument to all those cast by the wayside. James Lattimer


The 25 Best Films of 2016

18. Love & Friendship

Whit Stillman’s films use the romantic-comedy format to, like Jane Austen’s novels, ironically scrutinize the bizarre social rituals and pitiless economic codes of the upper class. So it was in some ways inevitable that Stillman would eventually turn directly to Austen’s work. A perfect marriage of source material and directorial vision, Stillman’s Love & Friendship is a sumptuously designed depiction of Georgian England that employs its extravagant costumes and opulent settings to comment on the massive economic stakes at play beneath the plot’s surface melodrama. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) might appear to be in control of her complex web of romantic entanglements, but Stillman understands that the only tool she really has at her disposal (besides her ephemeral beauty) is her wit, while the men she hopes to manipulate into marriage have the wealth of the world’s greatest empire at their fingertips. In this Machiavellian society where wordplay opens the door to status and power, Lady Susan is a social assassin that wields bon mots as weapons on the battlefield of love. Oleg Ivanov


The 25 Best Films of 2016

17. Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater is a free and exacting talent, but he can be awfully smug and precious. In Everybody Wants Some!!, the filmmaker rediscovers his greatest gift as an artist: an awareness of an individual’s poetry of being. He riffs on the structure of his Dazed and Confused, following another scruffy, sexy assortment of young and entitled American hedonists over the course of a compact time, but 23 years has passed and Linklater has mellowed out. The snide-ness of Dazed and Confused has washed away, leaving a bruised empathy that’s counterbalanced by a remarkable sense of rowdy comedic force. Linklater can still swing, his sweeping camera pirouetting around his large ensemble in fashions that simultaneously bring to mind the fluidity of Max Ophüls and Howard Hawks. Mounting a semi-sweet parody of masculine force, Linklater grants himself permission to play again, in the process making one of his greatest and most resonant films. Chuck Bowen


The 25 Best Films of 2016

16. Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a modern exploration of the role of feminine certitude within the context of the dyed-in-the-wool codes and attitudes of the American West. Three strivers embodying gradients of progressive womanhood—a headstrong lawyer (Laura Dern), an eco-conscious homebuilder (Michelle Williams) managing her own husband, and a solitary rancher (Lily Gladstone, in a breakout performance) harboring inchoate lesbian longings—all carry the titular quality, and yet the film dramatizes, in Reichardt’s characteristically sobering manner, the clash of that conviction against obstacles that invariably thwart the fulfillment of desire. The film is thus a delicate rejoinder to the all-American bromide of self-sufficiency and will power as routes to fulfillment, the defining thematic constellation of the western in its classical form. That Reichardt emulates the genre’s components just cannily enough (expansive landscape photography, a climactic horse ride) while also subtly defamiliarizing them (plentiful dead air, unnervingly detuned ambient sound) makes her persuasions—her certainty—that much more revelatory. Carson Lund


The 25 Best Films of 2016

15. The Love Witch

No aspect of humanity in 2016 was left unmarked by men’s rights activists lifting their legs on the tree of life. Among their accomplishments: tackling the corporate-engineered summer-franchise product Ghostbusters and focusing their bottomless rage against any non-topless cinematic depictions of women. The stacked deck that is the American movie marketplace should be obvious to anyone, but—to unscrupulously reverse Michelle Obama’s bad advice at the DNC—when the craven cultural gatekeepers aim high, it’s a pleasure to see everyone else get low. In a masc4masc world, few “specialty” filmmakers wear a Cheshire grin as cunningly as Anna Biller, who knows exactly the distance between “Burn the witch!” and “Lock her up!” Her debut feature, Viva, was a retro aperitif; The Love Witch is a subversive seven-course manifesto with a ’70s Dinner Party menu. Beautifully shot on 35mm, the film would be essential even if all it had to offer were its pitch-perfect period details. But it’s also a feminist Trojan horse that both embraces and upends the aesthetics of the very genres—horror, porn—that have long been accused of holding women down. Eric Henderson


The 25 Best Films of 2016

14. Sunset Song

That most punctilious of auteurs, Terence Davies never led an audience across a more dizzying emotional crevasse than in this adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’s 1932 novel Sunset Song. Like the farmland practices embossed in borderline-hallucinogenic 65mm glow by cinematographer Michael McDonough, the film’s narrative is deceptively simple: A Scottish girl, Chris (Agnes Deyn), grows up under the thumb of an inhuman patriarch (Peter Mullan), whose death is the sole liberating fact of her adulthood. She takes a husband (Kevin Guthrie), their love blessing her still-young life with the plot twist of domestic stability. He’s drafted in the Great War, and returns an alien presence: traumatized, paranoid, proud, vindictive beyond explanation. Chris’s struggle to maintain herself against still more excruciating odds unifies Sunset Song’s devastating dual testimonies: One speaks to the cruelty of time’s relentless forward march, the other to the grandeur and fragility of a life’s defining blisses. Steve Macfarlane


The 25 Best Films of 2016

13. Knight of Cups

A Hollywood player roots around the hollows of his soul in Terrence Malick’s most brashly experimental film to date. A wayward romantic on an inverted hero’s journey, Christian Bale’s Rick is the director’s Don Draper, visited by a series of spectral lovers and tortured family members who attempt to prod him out of his torpor. Many of Malick’s great films cast a metaphysical eye on a masculinist historical narrative, but after To the Wonder, Knight of Cups feels like the next step in a reckoning with that conceit. Dynamically shot by the peerless Emmanuel Lubezki and stitched into a seamlessly impressionistic collage by editor Billy Weber, the film gives Rick’s structuring absence a visual mirror in the environmental dislocation surrounding him. Endlessly jolting iterations of a teeming, defiantly unnatural city surrounded by an unforgiving desert strike at the film’s resounding theme, an ecstatic simultaneity of awe and dismay at the world we’ve built and the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the process. Christopher Gray


The 25 Best Films of 2016

12. No Home Movie

Chantal Akerman’s final feature is irrevocably haunted by its maker’s ghost, sensed most palpably in her off-screen sobs in the final shot. But the entire film is a ghost movie in progress, albeit one meant to chart the director’s uncomfortable anticipation of her mother’s death. Akerman splits the document of her mother’s final months between trademark shots of the woman’s cluttered domestic space as it gradually forms the walls of her coffin and moments of direct confrontation over the mother’s repressed Holocaust memories. If cinema typically gains its poetry through editing, Akerman finds it in duration, as in a shot in which an empty recliner seems to animate with its owner’s spirit as a window focuses fluctuating sunlight onto it. No Home Movie is the fraught culmination of a master’s career, tying together all of Akerman’s thematic and formal innovations into an anguished howl. Jake Cole


The 25 Best Films of 2016

11. Right Now, Wrong Then

Hong Sang-soo may have his pet themes, character types, and stylistic tropes, but the differences between his films lie in the telling, and in Right Now, Wrong Then he’s hit upon one of his most fascinating structural gambits yet. It’s a two-part film detailing two totally different outcomes of an encounter between the two same people: one a macho art-house filmmaker (this is a Hong film, after all), the other a shy female artist he tries to pick up. But while one could see the second half as the more optimistic wish-fulfillment version of the disastrous first half, Hong’s film actively resists such pat interpretations. What’s brilliant about Right Now, Wrong Then is that the structural gimmick not only reveals the troubled souls of its characters, but opens up real philosophical and moral questions regarding the ways human beings interact with each other. In other words, this is Hong at his most deceptively droll, observant, and incisive. Kenji Fujishima


The 25 Best Films of 2016

10. The Treasure

A (literal) excavation of Romanian history, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure explores a single, unremarkable plot of land (it had previously served as a kindergarten, steelworks, brickworks, and bar, but now lies empty and abandoned) as a microcosm of a nation’s variegated past and desultory present. With meticulous pacing and rigorously composed long shots, Porumboiu develops an ever-so-subtle suspense as we observe a trio of down-on-their-luck men equipped with metal detectors comb the land for loot supposedly buried there by a wealthy ancestor before the country’s communist takeover. The meticulousness of Porumboiu’s form provides ironic contrast to the hapless bumbling of his characters, creating an abiding air of melancholy deadpan that’s relieved only by the film’s jarringly triumphalist final image, a swooping crane shot that soars up to the heavens. After so long staring at the ground, simply looking up can feel like liberation. Keith Watson


The 25 Best Films of 2016

9. Manchester by the Sea

The broadness of scope in Kenneth Lonergan’s raw post-9/11 New York melodrama Margaret, along with the writer-director’s legendary struggle to reach final cut only to see it dumped by its distributor, turned the film into one of the true causes célèbres for Film Twitter™. Manchester by the Sea, his comparatively brisk follow-up, arrived with no such triggers to help its cachet. If anything, its top prize from the incurably square National Board of Review suggests quite the opposite. But, unfashionable and ill-timed as its depiction of raw-nerve masculinity in a state of inveterate crisis may seem in this moment, Manchester by the Sea’s articulation of grief not as a cycle but as a hardening—a pitiless freeze that won’t even allow you to bury your dead—will only continue to resonate so long as there remain shreds of evidence that things may indeed never get better. Life’s daily pinpoints of humor and twists of fate are deftly balanced by Lonergan, but by the end of the film, the fog still hasn’t lifted. Henderson


The 25 Best Films of 2016

8. Cameraperson

Assembled from the detritus of a peripatetic cinematographic career, Kristen Johnson’s collage of outtakes, test footage, and idle between-scenes documentation forms an unsettling portrait of a life lived adjacent to violence. Johnson bridges the personal fury of a boxer to the scarred façades of Bosnian buildings, evoking the consequences of rage on a broad scale. Cameraperson gathers together many of the cinematographer’s offhand observations, like the mirthless chuckle of the prosecutor of the James Byrd murder case as he lays out an ironclad amount of evidence before court is in session, or Afghan soldiers merrily cutting watermelon before dropping everything for an assignment. Johnson finds a simple thesis in her past self talking about sifting through material until finding something interesting, though the true summary comes from Jacques Derrida, who stops Johnson from tripping in the street while filming him only to say, with only the faintest wit, “She sees everything.” Cole


The 25 Best Films of 2016

7. Moonlight

In Moonlight, masculinity is brittle yet resilient—too puny to drown. His name is, fittingly, Little (Alex Hibbert), the fatherless, and largely motherless, black boy who instead of growing up, grows inward, as if burying his broken child’s body into a muscular corset in order to make trappin’ practical and lovin’ impossible. Many other films have exposed masculinity as a violent response to its very own frailty this year, but only in director Barry Jenkins’s tripartite coming-of-age story have race and sexuality so aptly appeared as the inseparable entities they inevitably are. Chief among Moonlight’s many groundbreaking properties is its ability to engulf the viewer in an ocean of empathy for the main character as he grows up. Throughout, it’s as if we can’t breathe watching this growth. Jenkins does such justice to the complexities of Little’s life story that to call his desire gay and his condition closeted would mean to have misunderstood absolutely everything. Semerene


The 25 Best Films of 2016

6. Paterson

At a time when certain doom seems to hover just above our heads, a film like Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson becomes all the more essential, its understated, rhythmic rendering of ordinary existence feeling both timeless and entirely modern. Telling the most mundane of stories, the film recounts one week in the life of a bus-driving, happily married poet without resorting to high-stakes conflict, strained symbolism, or overwrought showmanship, featuring no villain greater than an ill-tempered bulldog or a frenzied spurned lover with a gussied-up squirt gun. Its aims may seem modest, but Paterson excels by operating in a register few films bother to touch, serving as an important reminder of the sanctity of the everyday, the pleasures of the routine, and the sacred rite of doing something you love without the expectation of reward. Condensing William Carlos Williams’s sprawling city-spanning epic poem of the same name down to a small-focus character study, Jarmusch constructs one of the most effortlessly lyrical films in recent memory. Cataldo


The 25 Best Films of 2016

5. Elle

Halfway through Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video-game company, discovers that a certain male employee is responsible for creating a harassing video of her. Faced with any number of paths for punishment, Michèle looks at him and says: “Take out your dick.” As in Basic Instinct and Black Book, Verhoeven finds ways to cap scenes with tense moments of “who’s the victim here?” through reversals of sexual power that undercut masculine pride. The scene distills the filmmaker’s aesthetics into microcosm; women are made into agents of power who use their sexuality as weapons against male oppressors, yet they may also actually be murderers in the same breath. Simultaneously a Buñuelian satire of the bourgeoisie and a Chabrolian thriller of manners, Elle is ultimately wholly Verhoeven’s own in its play with the limits of sexual delight and all of its irreconcilable contradictions. Dillard


The 25 Best Films of 2016

4. Cemetery of Splendour

Sometimes the most obvious sign of greatness is familiarity rather than innovation. The defining features of Cemetery of Splendour are equally evident in Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s other films, while the more eye-catching narrative bifurcations and unruly shifts in tone of his previous work are notable by their absence. The past can still cast its spell on people and locations alike, the mythical can still intrude on the everyday, and boundaries between different states can still be suspended at the drop of a hat, yet all these shifts now occur with a newfound matter-of-factness, a calm, tender inevitability that approaches the sublime. This serene drama about how politics and history gently seep into life in a country hospital is at once a singular illustration of how any one place may contain the entire world and the sign of a director relaxing into a new phase of his career, where rigor and freedom, restraint and invention flow together as one. Lattimer


The 25 Best Films of 2016

3. Happy Hour

In Happy Hour, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi follows four intelligent Japanese women in their 30s as they discover that their dialectal beliefs are no longer adequate compensations for their emotional estrangement. Hamaguchi mounts an epic film of intimate gestures that unfolds in great lapping movements containing minute stanzas of heartbreak, in which a meditation class, a post-workshop happy hour, a divorce hearing, and a book reading are allowed to exist both as worlds onto themselves as well as links in chains comprising larger existences. The women debate with themselves, resenting and reaching out to the equally miserable husbands and lovers who disappoint them, attempting to rediscover the healing primacy of touch in the film’s overarching sequences. Hamaguchi is that rarity: a tough, exacting humanist who puts his characters through their paces, relentlessly pointing and counterpointing their actions, his elegantly tensile imagery serving to render them wholly explicable and mysterious in seemingly equal measure. Bowen


The 25 Best Films of 2016

2. O.J.: Made in America

O.J.: Made in America clocks in it at over seven hours, but it’s about much more than O.J. Simpson, the national celebrity who rose to fame first as a football phenom and then as a murder suspect in “the trial of the century.” Director Ezra Edelman casts his net deliberately wide: The spectacular first 90 minutes of his documentary, in particular, cover systemic racism and the socioeconomic injustice plaguing this nation through the decades before O.J.’s time (and continuing to after). The film is one of the great works of American cultural history over the last half-century. But it infuses that imposing breadth with the singular, personal story of a man who, in effect, at the height of his public life, found his triumph and his tragedy iconographically representative of an American ideal, and the dissolution of it. Sam C. Mac


The 25 Best Films of 2016

1. Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann boasts a script that’s hyper-constructed yet always free-flowing, two faultless, effortlessly varied performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, and a trenchant understanding of how late-phase capitalism hollows out the individual that’s as wryly funny as it is unbearable. Yet what’s most remarkable about Maren Ade’s third feature is the idea that the true essence of family relationships can only be revealed via performance. The father slips into the role of the embarrassing, yet brutally revealing Toni Erdmann and his daughter can’t help but respond in kind, as their game-playing and one-upmanship gradually carries them both into the realm of the primal and into each other’s arms. But much like in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, the final, devastating turn of the screw suggests that archetypical relationships are inherently ambivalent: There is so much solace in an embrace, but how much difference does it actually make? Lattimer


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Features

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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