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The 25 Best Singles of 2018

Our cultural concerns in 2018 over boundaries, borders, and bottom lines have trickled down into the best songs of the year.

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The 25 Best Singles of 2018
Photo: Republic Records

Our cultural concerns in 2018 over boundaries, borders, and bottom lines have trickled down into the best songs of the year. As peak capitalism and its corresponding economic inequality increasingly divide society into the haves and the have-nots, the artistic response has largely consisted of social commentary on the one hand and flaunting lavish lifestyles on the other.

Jack White’s “Corporation” chides the out-of-touch arrogance of those born into the 1%, who in the pursuit of mass adulation can, on a whim, start a corporation—or, say, become president. On “Percy Faith,” Damien Jurado concocts absurd extremes to capitalistic exploitation as he imagines Seattle trademarking the rain and Arizona being sold for its sand. Chance the Rapper puts economic disparity in more relatable and personal terms on “65th and Ingleside,” detailing a time in his life when he barely scraped by and praising his fiancée for financially supporting him while he pursued his dream. On the other side of the coin, while the American dream may have once consisted of a car in every garage, Beyoncé defines “making it” by flexing about buying Jay-Z a jet on “Apeshit.” Cardi B likes dollars, diamonds, and million-dollar deals on “I Like It,” and Migos asserts that life’s a game of Monopoly on “Stir Fry,” a song Apple used to sell a hell of a lot of iPhones.

Elsewhere, our modern anxieties alternately prompt despair and the search for empowerment. Childish Gambino and Courtney Barnett delve into incisive rebukes of a culture of violence, while Troye Sivan and Robyn revel in opening themselves up and accepting pleasure as a form of self-expression. When faced with encroachment by constrictive traditionalism, Janelle Monáe desired “an emotional, sexual bender” on “Make Me Feel” to sate the need to feel something “so fucking real.”

But hey, not everyone has easy access to money and sexual partners. So, barring that, there’s always outright escapism, whether that comes in the form of Lana Del Rey’s nostalgia-filter yearning for the comforts of Hallmark and Norman Rockwell or the meme music of Doja Cat’s viral song about cows. Josh Goller

[Editor’s Note: Listen to the full list on Spotify.]

25. Drake, “Nice for What”

There were times when the first half of 2018 felt like one long rollout for Scorpion, Drake’s wildly successful but critically underwhelming double album. “Nice for What,” released between January’s Drake-by-numbers “God’s Plan” and May’s dour, joyless “I’m Upset,” was the high point of that period. The Lauryn Hill-sampling beat by producer Murda Beatz and typically buoyant guest vocals by New Orleans bounce diva Big Freedia were a breath of fresh air amid the monochrome, navel-gazing productions of Drake’s usual partner in crime, Noah “40” Shebib. These days, of course, the rapper’s star power is such that he can make a song into a club banger by sheer force of will, but “Nice for What” was the rare song to actually earn the distinction: Its joyousness is so irrepressible one can even overlook the lyrics, which pay pandering lip service to women’s empowerment as a belated apologia for beta-bro anthems like 2015’s “Hotline Bling.” It’s a shining example of the pop song that succeeds in spite—and not because—of the artist’s persona. Zachary Hoskins


24. Titus Andronicus, “Above the Bodega (Local Business)”

With “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” Patrick Stickles cops to the fact that no matter how well he conceals them elsewhere, he can’t hide his vices from the guy at the corner store who sells them to him: “He’s there to see me buying cigarettes, he’s there to see me buying beer/He’s never seen me on the internet and five o’clock is nowhere near.” He manages to turn this into a comment on capitalism: “Because you can lie with your expression or lie with the things you say/But you can’t lie with your dollars—your dollars, they give you away.” Heavy stuff, to be sure, so Stickles does what heroes like Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen would have done 40 years ago: turn it into a party. Packed with horns, backup singers, and wah-wah guitars, and buoyed by Stickles’s own exuberant delivery, “Above the Bodega” is the grooviest thing Titus Andronicus have ever laid to tape. Jeremy Winograd


23. Phosphorescent, “New Birth in New England”

More often a purveyor of wistful, contemplative ballads, singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, a.k.a. Phosphorescent, nevertheless creates some of his most stirring music when he kicks up the tempo and gets happy. Ephemeral moments of unexpected human connection and a spontaneous sense of euphoria fuel his sunny “New Birth in New England,” the lead single from C’est La Vie. Though Houck moved from New York City to Nashville and started a family in the years leading up to the album, the new birth experienced here isn’t as specific as that, as he instead focuses on how, at any moment, our perspective can unexpectedly change for the better. In a jaunty, Afropop-tinged track that recalls Paul Simon and Cat Stevens at their most joyous, Houck pairs a multi-layered instrumental arrangement with a simple sentiment about a chance meeting in a piano bar. Built on a breezy guitar-and-piano melody, the track breaks open into an ethereal swell of choir vocals, adding a sense of the mystical to the mundane on a song that revels in the profound change that can arise out of seemingly insignificant moments. Goller


22. Ariana Grande, “No Tears Left to Cry”

The similarities drawn between Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey always felt like a bit of a stretch, a familiar typecasting of the multi-octave pop tart of the moment. But on “No Tears Left to Cry,” Grande performs a flabbergasting vocal equivalent of a triple axel that would leave Mimi herself speechless. The heavenly, mournful melody accompanied by keyboards that opens the track is fit for a funeral, before giving way to a U.K. garage-inspired beat that nods to the tragic bombing at her concert in Manchester last year. But Grande dismisses wallowing, showing off her skill in switching between big-voiced singing and casual quasi-rapping. And in turn, mega-producer Max Martin nimbly provides the ever-changing backdrop. Paul Schrodt


21. Lana Del Rey, “Venice Bitch”

Though the song’s Americana-drenched lyrics are quintessential Lana Del Rey—“I dream in jeans and leather,” she coos breathily—the ambitious “Venice Bitch” finds the singer expanding her sound beyond the lush, hop-hop-infused baroque pop of her last two albums and diving headlong into psych-pop. The expansive, nine-and-a-half-minute track, produced by Del Rey and Jack Antonoff, begins as a delicate acoustic ballad before morphing into a woozy, meandering jam session. Del Rey disappears for long stretches at a time, allowing the trippy guitar feedback and liquid psychedelic effects to ooze and distort like a faded memory. It’s not hard to imagine Del Rey swaying aimlessly, lost in reverie, her mind drifting back in time as the music chugs along before the whole thing evaporates in a puff of nostalgia. Sal Cinquemani


20. Courtney Barnett, “Nameless, Faceless”

Courtney Barnett, an indie rocker known for wry, rambling confessionals about nebulous sources of angst and ennui, instead deadpans about a specific external menace in “Nameless, Faceless”: namely, aggressive misogyny. Lamenting the reality that few women can feel safe walking alone through the park at night, she aptly paraphrases The Handmaid’s Tale in her chorus, singing that, “Men are scared that women will laugh at them…Women are scared that men will kill them.” Barnett deftly highlights this disparity in threat level, taking the specific fear of bodily harm that leads women to hold keys between their fingers in self-defense and contrasting it with the vague source of pent-up rage swelling within resentful men who increasingly find an outlet for their grievances through harassment and violence. The track’s catchy, upbeat melody belies the bleakness of its subject matter. But Barnett’s blunt response to depressing modern anxieties and troll culture makes for a compelling antidote to toxic aggression. Goller


19. The Carters, “Apeshit”

There’s a certain subset of rap fans who’ve never stopped clamoring for a sequel to Watch the Throne, Jay-Z’s 2011 team-up with his erstwhile “little brother” Kanye West. At least until Yeezy permanently retires his MAGA hat, that reunion seems unlikely. But in the meantime there’s “Apeshit,” the lead single from Hova’s collaboration with his better half, Beyoncé. With its luxury-rap lyrics and a music video that pointedly juxtaposes trap beats and black bodies with Renaissance masterpieces in the Louvre, “Apeshit” feels in many ways like a successor to—or revision of—Watch the Throne‘s “Niggas in Paris.” Indeed, it may even top its predecessor in at least one crucial area: Bey’s verse is a revelation, hitting rapid-fire triplets like an erstwhile member of Migos (whose Quavo co-wrote the song and ably ad-libs throughout) and generally outshining her husband’s more restrained, rote performance. Jay, for his part, is as impressed as the rest of us, crowing “She went crazy!” as her verse concludes. Who needs to watch the throne when the queen is right in front of us? Hoskins


18. Brockhampton, “San Marcos”

Even for a group as lyrically frank as Brockhampton, “San Marcos” feels less like a pop song than a group therapy session. Named for the town in Texas where the group formed, the track rotates among the members as they bare uncomfortable truths. Matt Champion sketches a haunting image of someone drinking to kill his or her pain and dancing alone, before Kevin Abstract implores listeners to speak with their chests to fool the world about their inner torment. In the darkest moment, Joba sings through a hazy vocal effect, “Suicidal thoughts, but I won’t do it/Take that how you want, it’s important I admit it.” Despite the pathos, “San Marcos” is ultimately not about self-loathing, but about reckoning with one’s scars and moving on—or as Joba says, “I know that I’m changing.” When the London Community Gospel Choir euphorically sings, “I want more out of life than this,” it’s hard not to feel like you’re arriving somewhere better. Schrodt


17. Jack White, “Corporation”

Jack White’s Boarding House Reach is an unfettered and occasionally unhinged morass of prog rock, funk, spaghetti-western soundtrack pastiche, and demented white hip-hop. But while the album’s indulgences weren’t for everyone, the compressed energy of “Corporation” proves harder to resist. The mostly instrumental track succinctly captures the manic energy of White’s live performances: Listen and you can practically see him running from one side of the stage to the other, moving from clavinet to congas to fuzz guitar like Edgar Winter performing his own kitschy rock instrumental, “Frankenstein.” When White breaks into a sales-cum-preacher patter mid-song (“I’m thinkin’ about startin’ a corporation/Nowadays that’s how you get adulation”), it’s both a knowing nod to his reputation as a huckster eccentric—part Willy Wonka, part Charles Foster Kane—and a genuine statement of intent from a man whose record-label storefront and pressin-plant complex occupies a sizeable portion of Detroit’s gentrifying Cass Corridor neighborhood. By the end of the song, not long after a pitch-shifted, extended vocal squeal that takes on the sonic character of a siren, you’ll believe that he’s really planning to “buy up all the empty lots and make one giant farm.” Like everything else having to do with Boarding House Reach, he’s just crazy enough to try. Hoskins


16. Courtney Barnett, “City Looks Pretty”

On 2015’s “Pedestrian at Best,” Courtney Barnett warned not to put her on a pedestal. She insisted it was because “I’ll only disappoint you,” but it may in fact have been an act of self-preservation. “City Looks Pretty” is far from disappointing, but the lyrics suggest that isn’t quite what she meant by her earlier missive. Rather, the attention she’s gotten since then seems to have paralyzed her, as she sings about staying indoors and ignoring phone calls. “Friends treat you like a stranger and/Strangers treat you like their best friend, oh well,” she observes, and when it comes to her “injured soul,” even her own “heavenly prose”—the sharp, witty lyricism that’s made her a rising star—“ain’t enough good to fill that hole.” Once Barnett’s insistently driving guitars cede to slow, bluesy keyboards as the song nears its end, she makes a final, desperate entreaty to be left to work things out on her own terms: “I’ll be what you want, oh when you want it/But I’ll never be what you need.” Winograd


15. The Beths, “Future Me Hates Me”

The impeccable “Future Me Hates Me” evinces a mastery of pop structure that one might expect from a seasoned songwriter who’s spent years honing his or her melodic instincts. The fact that its composer is 27-year-old Elizabeth Stokes, who wrote the song for her indie power-pop band’s first album bodes well for the future of the Beths. As Stokes sings about her reluctance to jump into a promising relationship because of the “Future heartbreak/Future headaches” it will inevitably cause, one can’t help but think that if the paramour she’s singing about makes her feel anywhere near as good as listening to these big, fuzzy, propulsive guitars and stream of euphoric vocal hooks that fit together like puzzle pieces, taking the plunge will be worth it. Winograd


14. Chance the Rapper, “65th & Ingleside”

The mea culpa is an underrated subtype among love songs: It delivers all the bliss of a first romance but also the sting of a breakup. Chance the Rapper, arguably the most exciting lyricist of his generation, licks his wounds in order to commit himself to his fiancée on “65th & Ingleside.” As on Coloring Book, where he adopts church organs and mixes them with heavy bass drums, flirting with gospel in his sing-songy, Chicago-referencing rap while unraveling a universal story that knows no god or city. He mixes playful acknowledgments of his failures with entreatments that leave no doubt about where his heart is. Note to prospective spouses: If your man tells you, “Feel like you remember every single lie/Truth is I just really need your finger size/So I can make sure that they make the ring so tight,” say yes. Schrodt


13. Cardi B featuring Bad Bunny and J Balvin, “I Like It”

For a fleeting moment in late 2017, it was reasonable to suspect that Cardi B would never recapture the lightning in a bottle of her breakthrough hit “Bodak Yellow.” But with “I Like It,” the fourth single from her debut album, Invasion of Privacy, she once again exceeded expectations: delivering an early summer jam that was arguably even more irresistible than the song that put her on the map. With its trunk-rattling trap beat grafted onto a sample from Pete Rodriguez’s Latin boogaloo classic “I Like It Like That,” “I Like It” just sounds like a party. And Cardi is the hostess with the mostess, holding court with her customary panache alongside Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaetón singer J Balvin. It’s impossible to say whether Cardi can keep up the momentum that propelled her through her meteoric last 18 months, but at this point, we should all have learned that underestimating her is a fool’s errand. Hoskins


12. Sofi Tukker, “Batshit”

Sofi Tukker’s thumpy, bass-driven club track “Batshit” features a deadpan nod to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” that makes Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” sound like an understated homage. The EDM duo’s debut album, Treehouse, nudged them away from the underground club fare of 2016’s Soft Animals EP and in a more obvious pop direction, and the deliciously silly “Batshit” lands squarely at the nexus of dead-serious and downright batty. Cinquemani


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

Bruno Mars’s 2016 album 24K Magic was already a none-too-subtle love letter to late-1980s and early-‘90s R&B, but on the remix “Finesse,” he went whole hog, opening the track with a programmed snare line that doesn’t nod to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” so much as swallow it whole and spit it back out undigested. Fortunately, he also gave us something new: namely, an ebullient guest verse by Cardi B in the full flush of her post-“Bodak Yellow” victory lap. Cardi’s charm, as ever, is less in what she says—a variation on her now-familiar “dollar bills”-to-“poppin’ bands” narrative—than in the way she says it: boisterously and Bronx-accented, with an audible megawatt grin. The concentrated joy when Bruno met Cardi was aspirational: Like they sing on the outro, “We got it goin’ on/Don’t it feel so good to be us?” Hoskins


10. Doja Cat, “Mooo!”

L.A.-based alt-R&B artist Doja Cat earned some critical attention in early 2018 with her debut album, Amala, but nothing close to the plaudits she received later in the year for her Dadaist viral hit “Mooo!” The song is, of course, inseparable from its memetic music video, which features Doja twerking in what appears to be an off-the-rack “sexy cow” Halloween costume in front of a green screen populated with bouncing anime breasts and 8-bit hamburgers. But it wouldn’t have had the same impact if it weren’t also such an earworm: from the absurd opening line, “Bitch, I’m a cow,” to the chorus, which milks every “moo” from the phrases “Bitch, I’m too smooth/I’m not in the mood/Tryna make moves,” to the cow-themed interpolations of Ludacris’s “Move Bitch” and Kelis’s “Milkshake.” Like the best memes, “Mooo!” has no intrinsic meaning, which made it strangely comforting in a year when the meaningless things meant too much and the important things were rendered meaningless. Hoskins


9. Taylor Swift, “Delicate”

Following hit-you-over-the-head singles like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready for It?,” Taylor Swift’s aptly titled “Delicate” offers similarly fleeting glimpses into a psyche shaped by public scrutiny, but does so with a much softer hand: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me,” she tells a prospective love interest, blurring the line between confident ultimatum and uncertain deliberation. It’s this mix of spunky self-reliance and open vulnerability that made Swift a star, so it should come as no surprise when “Delicate” proves to be Reputation‘s more enduring hit. Cinquemani


8. Jessie Ware, “Overtime”

Last year’s Glasshouse found U.K. soul songstress Jessie Ware further submerging herself in lush, introspective balladry. So, it was a bit of a surprise when the singer reemerged this fall with “Overtime,” a slice of classic house music reminiscent of her early collaborative singles. Produced by Simian Mobile Disco’s James Food and Bicep’s Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar, the blissed-out track pairs a wobbly bassline and crisp backbeat with a bold vocal performance from Ware: “I could drink you up like summer lemonade/Give it to me straight, no chase,” she sings lustily. Cinquemani


7. Migos, “Stir Fry”

It’s a testament to the caliber of Pharrell Williams’s production backlog that the beat for “Stir Fry,” originally intended for T.I. back in 2008, could be plucked off the shelf 10 years later and still sound like the most futuristic thing on Migos’s Culture II. But the song’s infectiousness owes just as much to Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff, whose half-sung, half-shouted call and response has become the lingua franca of contemporary rap music while somehow retaining its own unique character. Every barked exclamation on “Stir Fry” is a hook in its own right, as potent as the one Pharrell sampled from the Mohawks’s “Champ”: It’s the purest distillation to date of the trio’s talent for turning simple, even sub-verbal utterances into instant earworms. As Migos has proven time and time again, they could ad-lib over the proverbial phonebook and make it sound hot. But the synergy they achieve with this single’s incessant breakbeat and retro video game keyboards is positively molten. Hoskins


6. Damien Jurado, “Percy Faith”

Throughout his latest album, The Horizon Just Laughed, Damien Jurado isn’t shy about making musical references to the halcyon 1960s. On “Percy Faith,” he reveals that his nostalgia is rooted in disaffection with the trappings of his own time. “Mr. Allen Sherman, I am writing from the future,” Jurado greets the long-dead novelty singer in the song’s final verse, before regaling him with his feelings of alienation. But Jurado doesn’t have rose-colored glasses on about the past either. In separate addresses to the likes of the titular easy-listening bandleader, he acknowledges the strife endemic to Faith’s era: “There are riots in the streets/And we’re still not on the moon.” Fittingly, then, the music suggests a wistful, gauzy interpretation of a mid-‘60s sound half-remembered from a dream. With the warm piano/organ interplay redolent of vintage Dylan and the Band, combined with soothing strings and Jurado’s own yearning tenor, the conclusion is inescapable: Few others but Jurado make ‘em like they used to. Winograd


5. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

Prince reportedly helped Janelle Monáe come up with some of the distinctive falling star-like synth tones on “Make Me Feel,” and the single’s infectious funk-pop groove and hypersexual lyrics are unmistakably redolent of the late pop icon. But Monáe wills “Make Me Feel” to transcend mere homage by turning it into a deeply personal anthem of self-actualization. After years of coy deflections of questions about her sexuality, she more or less confirms suspicions right off the bat (“Baby don’t make me spell it out for you…Can’t be explained, but I can try for you”) before proceeding to make it clear that as a sexual being, she’s much more than just the fact that she likes girls. “It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender/An emotional sexual bender,” she declares, strutting her way through the song like the most fearless badass in the world. Winograd


4. Troye Sivan, “Bloom”

Counter to the clumsiness, dysfunction, and abuse that comprise so many coming-out stories, Troye Sivan’s “Bloom” is a joyous celebration of burgeoning sexuality, set to a jubilant hook punctuated by a snare drum lifted from an era when being gay was a death sentence. “Promise me you’ll hold my hand if I get scared/Might tell you to take a second, baby, slow it down,” the 23-year-old Aussie singer begs. But don’t let his coy protestations fool you: Much of the song is likely a romanticized portrayal of how things could or should be, as so much of adult life can sometimes feel for those deprived of proper formative years. Cinquemani


3. Ariana Grande featuring Nicki Minaj, “The Light Is Coming”

Ariana Grande’s simmering “The Light Is Coming” at first seems spiritual in nature, hinged on the singer’s infectious mantra, “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” But the track—all skittish beats and throbbing sub-bass—also doubles as a rejoinder to our current political climate. It’s an impression bolstered by an audio sample of a man at a town hall venting his frustrations about being silenced by those who are supposed to represent him, and syncopated verses in which Grande condemns a culture that incentivizes the questioning of others’ experiences. Cinquemani


2. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

No single in 2018 captures the essence of our fiercely polarized culture and its conflicting priorities quite like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Released in conjunction with Donald Glover’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live, it juxtaposes ebullient choral melodies with an unnervingly sinister electronic drone, a sonic sensibility that echoes an increasingly bipolar modern society which seems to alternate between outrage and mindless distraction. At one point, a rejoicing gospel choir is abruptly silenced by a barrage of assault-rifle shots, but—reflecting a 24-hour hour news cycle that feigns shock and offers thoughts and prayers before quickly moving on to the next hot-button issue—the music quickly swings back toward the upbeat. Goller


1. Robyn, “Honey”

Robyn’s music can be exhausting. Her four-on-the-floor beats flex so hard that they sometimes struggle to leave room to breathe. Not so on “Honey,” which keeps us slightly off balance with its simple, sneakily sophisticated instrumentation. Skittering hi-hats create their own rhythm around the bass, while haunting vocal samples drift in and out like distant sirens. It’s still propulsive but filled with seemingly endless empty space. True to its name, however, “Honey” is ultimately sticky-sweet comfort food. Robyn’s sensual coos invite us into the unconditional warmth “at the of heart of some kind of flower/Stuck in glitter, strands of saliva.” This latest version of Robyn’s fembot persona is a starkly open-hearted about-face for an artist who once wore synths like armor. And it just happens to be the balm that many people this year not only wanted, but desperately needed. Schrodt


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Awards

2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.

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Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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.

Picture

Vice

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.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: If Beale Street Could Talk and A Quiet Place

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Burning, First Reformed, Let the Sunshine In, and Zama

Best Director

Yorgos Lanthimos

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.

Will Be Nominated: Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Peter Farrelly (Green Book), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Adam McKay (Vice)

Should Be Nominated: Lee Chang-dong (Burning), Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), and Paul Schrader (First Reformed)

Best Actress

Yalitza Aparicio

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.

Will Be Nominated: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Closest Runners-Up: Toni Collette (Hereditary), Viola Davis (Widows), and Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)

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?)

Actor

John David Washington

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.

Will Be Nominated: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)

Should Be Nominated: Yoo Ah-in (Burning), Ben Foster (Leave No Trace), Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Meinhard Neumann (Western), and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman)

Supporting Actress

Emily Blunt

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.

Will Be Nominated: Amy Adams (Vice), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite)

Closest Runners-Up: Claire Foy (First Man), Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased), and Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots)

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)

Supporting Actor

Timothée Chalamet

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.

Will Be Nominated: Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Sam Rockwell (Vice)

Closest Runners-Up: Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born) and Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Should Be Nominated: Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Hugh Grant (Paddington 2); Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), and Steven Yeun (Burning)

Adapted Screenplay

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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.

Will Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Death of Stalin, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star Is Born

Closest Runners-Up: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and First Man

Should Be Nominated: BlacKkKlansman, First Man, Leave No Trace, The Grief of Others, and We the Animals

Original Screenplay

First Reformed

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.

Will Be Nominated: The Favourite, First Reformed, Green Book, Roma, and Vice

Closest Runners-Up: Cold War, Eighth Grade, and Sorry to Bother You

Should Be Nominated: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Bodied, First Reformed, Sorry to Bother You, and Western

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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018

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

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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
Photo: YouTube

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

20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

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


19. Rosalía, “Malamente”

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


18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”

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


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

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


16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”

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


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

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


14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”

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


13. Flasher, “Material”

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


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

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


11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

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


10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

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


9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”

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


8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”

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


7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”

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


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

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


5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”

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


4. Jack White, “Corporation”

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


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

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


2. The Carters, “Apeshit”

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


1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

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


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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

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

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

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

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Sakura Ando, Shoplifters

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Emily Browning, Golden Exits

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Nicolas Cage, Mandy

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Toni Collette, Hereditary

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

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

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Adam Driver, BlackKklansman

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Regina Hall, Support the Girls

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

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

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jason Mitchell, Tyrel

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Meinhard Neumann, Western

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jesse Plemons, Game Night

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Steven Yeun, Burning

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


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