Film critics find themselves in an exhilarating and frustrating situation: Cinema keeps getting better—more formally adventurous, auto-critical, and responsive to the chaos of the society that yields it—but at the price of being less and less seen. This was a banner year for cinema, but how many of the films below have been able to penetrate Disney’s essential monopoly on the mainstream populace’s adulation? Yet perhaps this widening gulf between artisan films and pop culture at large is benefiting the former. With a certain portion of studio filmmaking that’s essentially incapable of losing money in place, and with streaming sites that are voraciously in need of “content,” other films are emboldened to be themselves and to follow their creators’ obsessions into increasingly wild-and-wooly places.
Dennis Hopper’s vision of an immersive, unmooring, self-annihilating cinema, as he proffered in The Last Movie (which was gloriously restored by Arbelos and released on Blu-ray this year), seems more urgent than ever before. We can watch movies whenever we want on too many devices to succinctly name, and many of us can be localized stars via our cellphones and platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. Cinema, then, is both more and less than art; endless variations of it serve as a kind of cultural oxygen.
In this light, 2018 was an ideal year for people to finally see a version of Orson Welles’s long-delayed The Other Side of the Wind, a brilliant hall-of-mirrors freak show about the comingling realities of art and life as governed by art. Hopper, who appears in the film, would surely approve, and he might’ve been taken with Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17, which also utilize and portray cinema as an ultimate dimension of emotional experience that’s capable, in the right hands, of refashioning reality. Notions of reality, especially as forged by masculine pride, are also deconstructed in some of this year’s most invigoratingly caustic imports, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After.
This year also offered a crop of remarkably good “issues” films, reminding us that certain traditions can remain invigorating if they’re tended to by sensitive caretakers. Spike Lee’s BlacKklansman, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and George Tillman Jr.‘s The Hate U Give, to name but a few of Hollywood’s examinations of racial strife in 2018, shook up classic social protest formulas with a bold mix of tones and acting that stressed the personal violation of this country’s fealty to white patriarchal power.
This was the year that American cinema seemed to first fully respond to the escalating hatred of the current political administration, most notably in BlacKklansman‘s piercing coda, and in the challenging empathy of Frederick Wiseman’s American requiem, Monrovia, Indiana. The film offers something like a master image for this year in cinema and in life writ national as well as global: of a grave as it’s filled in by a bulldozer. The image is foreboding yet inescapably beautiful, suggesting that perhaps a figurative sun may shine again, after undetermined costs have been paid. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
25. Dead Souls
Wang Bing’s 495-minute Dead Souls recalls his 2002 debut, West of the Tracks, in the scope and scale of its ambitions. Wang’s subject, again, is an era in Chinese cultural history that’s in danger of being lost to memory: the one-party state’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, and the countless atrocities committed in the name of “eliminating bad elements.” The party capitalized on the climate of sanctioned criticism it created during 1956’s Hundred Flowers Movement by reversing its stance a year later, and condemning those who had voiced anything resembling dissent. These “traitors” were forced to leave their homes and live in “re-education” labor camps—which experienced the worst of the great Chinese famine, and resulted in the deaths of thousands. Focusing on the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camps, both of which were located in the Gobi Desert, Dead Souls represents an exhaustive aural history, told by the dwindling number of survivors of these camps. Wang’s interviews often clock in at feature length, with only a handful of cuts, but they attain a breadth of detail and textured experience that may not exist anywhere else in cinema. The anguish expressed, and experiences described, by the survivors certainly can overlap with each other, and even become repetitive, but it’s ultimately this unification of perspective that gives Dead Souls its authority—and allows it to become an incisive reappropriation of collectivist solidarity. Sam C. Mac
24. The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite has garnered comparisons to Barry Lyndon, and with good reason, as it’s safe to say that no period piece since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece has captured the milieu of 18th-century British aristocracy with such an incisive wickedness. In both films, the refined manners of baroque Europe are recognized as a thin veneer for the barbarity that underlies civilization, though Lanthimos’s presentation of this oxymoron veers further into the absurd. The plot has Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen member of the landed gentry, ruthlessly manipulate her way to the top of English society, attempting to supplant her cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), as the lady-in-waiting of an ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). In The Favourite‘s version of an aristocratic power play, delicate political maneuvering is likely to be capped off with a violent shove, a hurled object, or a shouted C-word, and Lanthimos matches his characters’ grotesque behavior with shots that employ ostentatious slow motion and fish-eye lenses, distorting the lush interiors of Queen Anne’s palace. The film is funny, sometimes outrageously so, because it captures something recognizable and particularly evident in today’s politics: At the highest echelons of society, human pettiness still prevails, and power breeds not elegance but crudity. Pat Brown
23. Happy as Lazzaro
Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a nifty little paradox of a film: a naturalistic exploration of the miserable conditions of Italy’s poor that isn’t entirely bound to the tenets of realism. Rohrwacher unravels her third feature across time and space, following the age-defying Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) from his time in rural Italy, where he’s part of a small community of isolated tobacco sharecroppers, to his assimilation, many years later, into the Italian population at large. What emerges is a portrait of an innocent man who, regardless of whatever time he occupies, is tethered to the exploited class. Rohrwacher remains endearingly sympathetic to all her characters throughout, regarding the eternally altruistic Lazzaro with a particularly ardent sense of admiration. Take it from the organ music that inexplicably exits a city church and follows and comforts Lazzaro and his gang of other good-natured beggars after they’re thrown out of God’s house. The film’s gentle magical realism, which conjures a childlike wonder, is heartening for how it insists on giving strength to the perpetually downtrodden. Wes Greene
Blake Williams’s Prototype is at once a calm rebuttal to the enduring banality of narrative film convention, as well as a loving paean to the simplest, most inescapable qualities of the medium. The familiar characteristics of narrative filmmaking—such as plot and characters—are absent, effectively lending the film a sense of unease. Williams, one of the most erudite, eloquent film critics currently working, has long been a proponent of 3D, and Prototype makes the most meaningful use of the technology since Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (one of Williams’s favorite films). Prototype is obsessed with antiquated technology, especially television sets, on which scenes of nature and other occurrences are rendered surreal, almost alien, through abstract compositions, rhythmic editing, and shot duration. The film is a sensorial assault, and a soporific, soothing meditation on the past, and present, of cinema. Greg Cwik
21. Shoah: Four Sisters
When Claude Lanzmann’s sprawling nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah was released in 1985, it reversed received notions of cinema’s relationship to history, as it used film not to preserve or recreate a historical moment, but to reveal the continued presence of the past in the contemporary world. When Lanzmann died this past summer at the age of 92, he left behind Shoah: Four Sisters, a four-part addendum to his 1985 masterwork. The single-sitting interviews with survivors that comprise each part are now as far removed from us in time as the Holocaust was from the women interviewed, but their testimonies bring into view the lived reality and lasting toll of their experiences. Shoah demands a more ethical form of attention than we’re used to in dealing with history on film; the soberly presented words of a survivor offer no pattern of tension and release, none of the promised catharsis of narrative. Perhaps the most important lesson of Shoah: Four Sisters is that there’s no zooming out and apprehending the horror of systematic genocide in a condensed moral image. We can only, as Lanzmann’s camera frequently does, zoom in on the faces of those who lived through it, and let them speak their truth. Brown
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma marries the relaxed narrative style of Y Tu Mamá También with the dazzling technical precision of Gravity. Set in 1970s Mexico and inspired almost entirely by the filmmaker’s childhood memories, it’s a sweeping domestic epic told primarily from the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous woman working as a housekeeper for a middle-class, and somewhat dysfunctional, family. A leisurely first act allows the viewer to revel in Cuarón’s meticulous reconstruction of Mexico City. The streets teem with life in a manner that proves utterly transportive, and the sense of authenticity is heightened by the absence of a musical score. But Cuarón’s crisp monochrome cinematography lends the film an otherworldly sheen, and as he thrusts his protagonists into a series of increasingly overwrought set pieces, it becomes clear that we’re being presented with an abstract memoir fueled more by raw emotion and unresolved guilt than a commitment to historical accuracy. Paul O’Callaghan
19. Golden Exits
The bourgeois Brooklyn of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits is a “wasteland in the middle.” The film opens with an airplane flying off to some unknown destination, the first indication of the characters’ discontent with their city, followed by a scarcely grooveful performance of “New York Groove.” The singer is 25-year-old foreigner Naomi (Emily Browning), and like the interstitial dates that appear on screen throughout Golden Exits, her youth serves as a constant reminder of time’s passage. The mere presence of Naomi taunts the various Gen X-ers who enter into and around her orbit, including two married couples who begin to question their commitment to commitment, examining past mistakes and present instabilities. Perry, as in his previous films, focuses on faces, and the intensity of the close-up. What’s different this time is the passivity of the expressions: Where Listen Up Philip and especially Queen of Earth were built around big moments of emotional upheaval, Golden Exits is all painfully unresolved repression. It’s a tone bolstered by an almost uncanny sense of atmosphere; the characters, in particular Chlöe Sevigny’s Alyssa, fortify their anxieties with cryptic, evasive musings, while composer Keegan DeWitt’s score pirouettes ominously around them. Perry absorbs both John Cassavetes’s bracing emotional exhibitionism and mumblecore’s tendencies of introversion, resulting in a film that’s at once classicist and contemporary. Mac
18. The Day After
Hong Sang-soo reminds one of John Peel’s apt summary of post-punk band the Fall: always different, always the same. The filmmaker barely let news of his affair with Kim Min-hee hit tabloids before he folded the subject and his own complicated feelings about it into his self-reflexive filmography, producing the excoriating On the Beach at Night Alone and the more whimsical, if no less observant, Claire’s Camera. But the best of these reaction pieces is The Day After, which takes the brilliant step of casting Kim not as the romantic partner but a woman mistaken for a jezebel by her new boss’s cuckqueaned wife. This makes her an unwitting fourth vertex in a love triangle, forcing her to be both spectator and active participant. This leads to riotous scenes that revise Hong’s tried-and-true formula of pitting justifiably enraged women against the feeble self-defenses of weak men by placing Areum in the middle of them in ad-hoc group therapy. Gradually, Areum’s sense of self fades as she becomes defined by the other characters’ misconceptions of her, crystallizing Hong’s regular use of narrative replays to illustrate the friction between the way we are all the protagonists of our own story and a supporting player in everyone else’s. Jake Cole
17. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a work of both structural rigor and deeply felt yet measured rage. Using a wide array of stylistic devices, from red-tinted images and on-screen text to superimpositions and ominous, monotone narration, Travis Wilkerson deftly interrogates and unravels his own great-grandfather’s horrifying history of racial and sexual violence. Through this dizzying and discursive journey toward confronting his relative’s murderous past, Wilkerson transforms his personal resentment and seething indignation into a universal cry for justice and equality. Yet Wilkerson consciously avoids turning his film into a white-savior story, as evidenced by his takedown of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch. He instead constructs a moving paean to the African-American histories that white supremacy often erases, including his great-grandfather’s victim, Bill Spann, and various obscure civil rights leaders. History is written by the winners, but Wilkerson’s stunning documentary proves the value and extraordinary power in exhuming the buried and forgotten histories of the dispossessed, while at the same time remaining keenly aware of the privilege that allows him to do so on a public stage. Derek Smith
16. The Green Fog
Commissioned for the closing night of 2017’s San Francisco Film Festival, The Green Fog sees Guy Maddin reteam with regular collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson to deliver a playful riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Stitched together entirely from excerpts of other San Francisco-set films and TV shows, and set to a suitably bombastic original score performed by the Kronos Quartet, the film occasionally seeks to reconstruct specific moments from the source material; the use of a brief clip from Sister Act to recall the sudden approach of a nun in Vertigo‘s final scene is particularly inspired. But more often it channels Hitchcock’s broader obsessions—voyeurism, deception, toxic romance—while marching to its own strange beat. The filmmakers repeatedly strike comic gold simply by cutting dialogue from scenes; conversations in restaurants are transformed into bafflingly enigmatic exchanges, all furtive glances and stifled sighs. And much of the absurdist humor requires no prior knowledge of Hitchcock. In one standout sequence, a group of dour cops soberly assess an NSYNC music video as if it were crime scene evidence. For anyone even vaguely familiar with Vertigo, though, The Green Fog‘s montages of people running across rooftops, driving down steep streets, and dangling off buildings deftly illustrate the extent to which the 1958 thriller has become the archetypal screen depiction of San Francisco. O’Callaghan
15. Support the Girls
Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls begins with a woman sobbing alone in her car and ends with a group of ladies screaming into the void, but the film is no downer. On the contrary, it’s one of the kindest, funniest, most humane workplace comedies ever made, a film that observes the countless struggles and indignities of life in the service industry while recognizing the sororal sense of solidarity that develops among women tramped down by the iron heel of consumer capitalism. Bujalski finds camaraderie and even a sense of empowerment among the working women of a tawdry Hooters-style beer-and-boobs joint called Double Whammies, where a tenacious general manager, Lisa (Regina Hall), looks after her staff of scantily clad servers like a mother bear caring for her cubs. In a magnificently authentic performance, Hall inhabits the role of a woman whose calm professionalism and warm-hearted generosity conceal the stress, sadness, and personal pain of her work. The employees of Double Whammies are used and abused by their employer, subjected to casual sexual harassment and inane workplace policies, but they muddle through by sticking together. Keith Watson
As the title itself suggests, dualities abound in Spike Lee’s disarmingly funny and humane BlacKkKlansman, which is based on the story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. The film’s hero, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), is a man divided: a black man who’s also a cop, and who’s adept at using his “white voice.” But so is his partner, Flip (Adam Driver), a Jewish man who—after infiltrating the KKK—struggles to confront a cultural heritage he has, until now, never truly considered. Lee uses the innate absurdity of Stallworth’s investigation not in service of a beat-by-beat biopic, but an inventive comedic police procedural that toys with notions of public and private identities. Highlighting the hypocrisies and contradictions of the KKK’s myopic worldview, Lee viciously mocks white supremacy and its supporters, using repeated phone conversations between Stallworth and David Duke (Topher Grace), who believed he was talking to a fervent supporter of his cause, to set up the final comedic rimshot. But in the end, the humor fades and our current reality rises with a vengeance in the form of a gut punch of a coda which instantaneously bridges the seemingly massive gap between the ‘70s and the present in a most terrifying fashion. Smith
13. Paddington 2
Paul King’s first Paddington film honored the spirit of Michael Bond’s stories about the famous marmalade-loving bear while infusing them with a madcap sensibility all its own. But that film turned out to be merely a prelude to the gloriously daffy absurdism of Paddington 2, a wilder, weirder, funnier, more heartfelt and eye-popping, and, above all, more fully realized representation of King’s eccentric sensibility. Fusing the pastry-shop aesthetic of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with Chaplinesque slapstick and a whimsical, fable-like approach to narrative, King plops us into a world out of time—one full of carnivals, pop-up books, junk shops, steam engines, and calypso bands that magically appear out of nowhere to sing songs about window washing. But of the film’s many deliriously preposterous elements, the most surprising may be Hugh Grant’s wildly over-the-top performance as Paddington’s pompous thespian antagonist, Phoenix Buchanan. Grant overacts with such shit-eating glee that you can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t been doing this sort of swing-for-the-fences camp his entire career. In an era of relentless vulgarity and endemic mistrust, Paddington 2 stands out for its atmosphere of homey cheer and profound belief in the harmonizing power of warmth, politeness, and the absurd. Watson
12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Joel and Ethan Coen continue to stretch the boundaries of their art, fashioning a distinctive blend of brutal comedy and existential despair, which the filmmakers understand to be one in the same. If many audiences continue to mistake the Coens’ despair for callousness, then that’s their loss, though it’s hard to fathom how one can miss the trembling vulnerability of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. An anthology of six stories emphasizing the oft-sentimentalized cruelty of the American west, the film opens on a misleading note, following a folksy gunslinger as he’s revealed to be a coldly proficient killer. Though this story has the formalist bravura for which the Coens are known, with showy murder sequences that are designed to elicit cheers, the Coens gradually contextualize the character as a sociopath, and the laughs they elicit from you may very well stick in your throat. The story’s mournful conclusion paves the tonal path for the remainder of the film, which emphasizes the loneliness and terror of life in an unformed country riven with savagery. All these stories are astonishing in various ways, but “The Gal Who Rattled” is a particular classic, with the Coens directly confronting the heartbreak that has always secretly driven their cinema. Bowen
In Valeska Grisebach’s Western, xenophobia is exposed as a facile response to difference. The film’s protagonist, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a German construction worker spending the summer in rural Bulgaria helping to build a hydropower plant, turns his status as a menacing stranger into that of a welcomed guest by refusing the limitations of language. He insists on speaking German and, most significantly, in listening to the locals communicate in their own language. His openness is so sincere that a connection, if not kinship, is formed. Feelings are shared by individuals as if in apparent mockery of the borders that languages and nationalities aim to erect. Western seems to say that when one is truly listening, translation is either betrayal or redundancy. Here, conversations become much more than the ordinary exchange of verbal signs, which are largely discarded by the few characters who dare to engage with, instead of confronting, each other. Conversations become opportunities for shared vulnerability. This is evident in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, when a Bulgarian local who’s taken Meinhard to meet his family asks, less with curiosity than with the melancholic certainty of already knowing the answer, “Tell me about the planet.” Meinhard goes quiet for a while, as if wallowing in freshly reignited pain, and compares the planet to animals: “Either you eat or you get eaten.” Diego Semerene
10. The House That Jack Built
Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Clayton Dillard
9. Monrovia, Indiana
After making a series of films over the last few years that took encouraging views of communities and institutions, celebrating how people of different backgrounds can be brought around to new ways of thinking, Frederick Wiseman settles with Monrovia, Indiana on a milieu whose relative social, cultural, and religious homogeneity results in a brutal narrowing of horizons for the eponymous town’s population. Over the course of a relatively curt two-and-a-half-hours, the film volleys between town council meetings, commercial farming shifts, freemasonry ceremonies, class sessions at a high school, and more. Wiseman stitches each episode together with depopulated shots of Monrovia’s one-block main street and surrounding cornfields—all edited in uptempo fashion to emphasize the almost chilling emptiness of the town. The filmmaker lingers attentively on the minutia of labor within Monrovia, even as he leaves out the ultimate upshot of all this repetitive work. What awaits the souls of Monrovia—or contemporary America, for that matter—other than the grave? Wiseman’s elegy, which concludes with one of the most profoundly unsettling monologues in his oeuvre, seeks this answer and comes up wanting. Carson Lund
8. If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins’s adaption of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is elegantly structured, seesawing back and forth in time to illuminate the daily injustices faced by a young black artist, Fonny (Stephan James), and his girlfriend, Tish (KiKi Layne). The film intercuts the couple’s blossoming romance with Tish’s struggle to get Fonny out of prison after he’s falsely accused of rape. Jenkins rarely shifts his focus from the pair and Tish’s family—indeed, he often frames his characters in unblinking Jonathan Demme-style closeups—so that when we see archival images of police brutality at the end of the film, we’re reminded again that Tish and Fonny’s story is a microcosm of black experience. If Beale Street Could Talk is also proof of Jenkins’s talent for eliciting strong performances from his actors. Layne dazzles as Tish, but it’s Regina King, as Tish’s mother, Sharon, who steals the film. In one memorable scene, Sharon flies to Puerto Rico to wrestle the truth from a stubborn rape victim, but before she confronts the woman, Sharon must decide between wearing a wig or her natural hair. As she looks at herself in the mirror, grappling with how much of her blackness she should bring to the fight, we sense that she feels she’s fighting an impossible battle. Yet she pushes forward, like so many in the film, speaking powerfully to Baldwin’s message of patience and endurance. A.J. Serrano
7. 24 Frames
Abbas Kiarostami’s final film, a study of five paintings and 19 photographs, is his ultimate reduction of cinematic form. Yet these are anything but still lifes, with animation and in-camera effects adding dynamic motion to the paintings and photographs. Chimneys in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow subtly begin to spew smoke, while a silhouetted image of a bird and tree comes to resemble the animated work of Lotte Reiniger. Through it all, Kiarostami continues to develop his core theme, that of the slurred and porous boundaries between reality and art. By using effects to illustrate this theme, he makes more explicit the unreality of his art while nonetheless pulling some clever illusions to make one forget that this is all fake. At times, Kiarostami’s digital trickery, rudimentary yet engrossing, recalls David Lynch’s use of similar effects in Twin Peaks: The Return. At once a departure and distillation of Kiarostami’s style, 24 Frames is a fitting send-off for this grand master of Iranian cinema. Cole
6. Bisbee ’17
Director Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17 frames performance as an act of historical reckoning. In charting the progress of Bisbee, Arizona’s recreation of 1917’s horrific Bisbee Deportation—in which a coal company transported and stranded hundreds of striking workers in the nearby desert—Greene creates his most ambitious work to date. Wiseman-esque snapshots capturing Bisbee’s citizens rehearsing and providing their various opinions on the deportation accumulate to form a head-spinningly complex commentary on America’s historical mistreatment of minorities, immigrants, and the working class. Bisbee’s history becomes yet another example of how the “Land of the Free” motto is, if anything, a misnomer. But in also following Fernando, a citizen tasked to play a striking miner, Bisbee ‘17 shows the awakening of social consciousness. Presenting the disturbing recreation of the Bisbee Deportation with earnest intensity, the film posits, as Fernando realizes, that the only true way to grapple with the sins of the past is to live it. Greene
Once the ruler of the Western Hemisphere, the Spanish Empire was considerably weakened by the late 18th century. The Catholic monarchy’s supremacy—at this point little more than a dream of power—was unravelling; the crown’s subjects in the New World were no longer Europeans, but not quite Americans either. Call it an existential crisis, and one whose effects are felt centuries on. Ever the dissector of the vices and petty weaknesses of Argentina’s ruling classes, Lucrecia Martel is perhaps the perfect chronicler of royal Spain’s twilight in the colonies. Zama is a historical fever dream told through the devolving subjectivity of the impotent Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a low-level Spanish functionary in Argentina who wants to leave his backwater post but is blocked from doing so at every juncture. Sure, masculine frustration is as well-worn a theme as any, but it’s rare that a film can take such particular and humiliating failures—the dogpiling aspirational and libidinal upsets of this single, irrelevant servant of the crown—and make them coincide with the anxious insecurity and moral turpitude that have kept colonialism’s afterlife running. And certainly, few films display such careful modulation of visual and aural perspective, giving a darkly comic, surreal image of the havoc that colonialism, and its agents’ constant need to appear powerful, wreaks on the minds and bodies of both colonizer and colonized. Peter Goldberg
4. Let the Sunshine In
Time has steadily eroded the patience of—and prospects for—the artist and divorced mother played by Juliette Binoche in Claire Denis’s funny, sad, and capacious encyclopedia of dashed expectations and missed opportunities. Cinematographer Agnès Godard, Denis’s longstanding collaborator, captures Paris with an autumnal radiance that’s nonetheless a bit cramped and shadowy; this, along with the steady drumbeat of men who Binoche’s Isabelle is lustful, hesitant, and disdainful about, suggest that Paris is no longer the world of possibilities it once was for Let the Sunshine In‘s heroine. The director, working with the novelist Christine Angot as a co-writer, devotes herself almost exclusively to Isabelle’s romantic travails, largely eliding her roles as a worker and a mother. This slyly radical act of structural generosity, full of diamond-cut edits that may span hours or weeks, yields a symphonic study of conflicting and perhaps irreconcilable desires, every note of which is distinctly legible on Binoche’s face. Denis’s most unassuming masterpiece deftly translates Isabelle’s anger, frustration, lust, and hope into a film that’s as wise as it is bittersweet. Christopher Gray
3. The Other Side of the Wind
Film is a collaborative art form, and questions of authorship, even ownership, have been asked since the advent of the medium. Most people, in a post-Andrew Sarris world, credit directors as the progenitors of films; theirs is the vision which unspools before our eyes, which lends their films an impetus and a soul. Orson Welles’s final film, shot on and off for much of the 1970s, with editing dragging into the ‘80s, was belatedly completed thanks to a bevy of filmmakers, notably Peter Bogdanovich (who stars alongside John Huston) and Frank Marshall. But The Other Side of the Wind, in its variegated indulgences, abstract angles, playful lens work, its film-within-a-film structure and aphoristic musings on art and trenchant, often salacious sense of humor, remains undoubtedly Welles’s film. A self-aware, sometimes self-loathing creation—F for Fake by way of Russ Meyer—the film is a concoction of excess and incision, a lascivious phantasmagoria, a mockumentary, a filmic essay on celebrityhood and affluence and influence and fandom. Cwik
Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning” captures the creeping surreality of the author’s worlds. The film’s main character, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), seemingly can’t be sure of anything. He meets and sleeps with Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a woman who insists she grew up with him, but he can’t remember her. She asks him to watch her cat while she’s on vacation, but in an almost comically literal take on Schroedinger’s famous paradox, the cat is nowhere to be found in Haemi’s one-room apartment. Then Haemi suddenly disappears, but is she really gone, or is it just that Jongsu can’t find her? Burning gradually finds its main narrative thread, using a dream logic that constructs a reality at the same time as it subtly undermines our trust in it. Haemi returns from vacation with a new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yuen), a quietly arrogant millionaire who gets off on burning down greenhouses. The meek, unreadable Jongsu is haunted—or perhaps jealously fascinated—by the naked wantonness of Ben’s destructive hobby, the man’s license to indulge his arbitrary power fantasies. When Haemi disappears again and Jongsu begins to suspect Ben is responsible, Lee’s drama of South Korean class conflict becomes, true to its title, the best slow-burn thriller in recent memory. Brown
1. First Reformed
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is apocalyptic in the most fundamental sense of the word. The comfortable demarcations of metaphor and reality, which render other films safely removed from viewers—be they spiritual or topical message dramas—are stripped away here. The urgent matter at hand in the film is the inexorable fact of climate change, as Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is propelled to become an environmental activist and stand up to corporate interests and human apathy. Toller is a minister in a maze of environmental decay, existential worry, and physical disease, and his own unraveling leads him to self-martyrdom. First Reformed reverberates in the head—in the way it embroils us in Toller’s spiritual hunger for permanence. Hanging over every edifice, especially the First Reformed Church, is a dark specter of silence. Prayers, journals, memorials, anniversaries, best-of-the-year film lists—such things keep us tucked in a neatly compartmentalized present moment, but First Reformed is conscientious of its own transience. What will the garden of earthly delights mean after the last human is dead? Schrader is one of American cinema’s great architects of loneliness, and First Reformed understands how it’s the weight of loneliness that fills us with fear and trembling, compelling us to zealously pursue the certainty of consoling ideas. Niles Schwartz
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
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.
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
The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018
These performances share a commitment to achieving emotional vitality by any means necessary.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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