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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

This year’s TV revealed new characters and narrative landscapes that cumulatively push toward artistic expression and personal liberation.

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016
Photo: Netflix

Much like the interweaving two worlds of HBO’s Westworld, the ones who make the place and the place itself, 2016 advanced two visions of where television is heading. The year’s biggest populist debuts—Westworld, Stranger Things, and This Is Us, to name just three—borrowed frameworks and ideas from a host of familiar sources in a counterintuitive attempt to make something truly their own. Those three shows in particular seem to not-so-quietly want to be about every social injustice under the sun while also being a calculated entertainment, one that has no patience for the complexities of race, sexism, violence, nostalgia, fiscal well-being, and self-knowledge.

This is where the second vision comes in. Former web series like Insecure and High Maintenance found fascinating new pockets of story and behavior, given a bit more money to experiment with music, bigger names, and broader canvases, courtesy of HBO. The Girlfriend Experience allowed two sharp, unmerciful directors—Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz—to open up about the psychological undercurrents of female prostitution and gender roles in a strikingly nonjudgmental way. Shows like this, unafraid of contradictions and complicated scenarios, suggest the salad days of 1990s American independent film, where proven talents were given creative freedom and a little extra funding to further their idiosyncratic takes on the world at large.

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Other shows on our list, from Easy to Horace and Pete, similarly fall under this rubric, but to lump them into just two groups—the cumbersome yet empty, and the small yet resonant—also works as a limitation. Where does one file the staggeringly funny and fearless Atlanta, Donald Glover’s hyper-relevant depiction of twentysomething livelihood in Georgia’s rap game? Did anyone think a series about a married team of Russian spies undermining the U.S. government would work, let alone become one of the greatest feats of modern political storytelling? Ten years ago, the pitch for Transparent would have likely caused network execs to hurry Jill Soloway out of the room. Hell, it probably still would at any place other than Amazon or Netflix.

As much as the big hits signal business as usual, television, like cinema, is still a wild frontier for people with big ideas and creative energy to spare, and 2016 revealed new characters and narrative landscapes that cumulatively push toward artistic expression and personal liberation. Chris Cabin

The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

25. Orange Is the New Black

To say that the strongest season of Orange Is the New Black to date ended on an over-determined note would be an understatement. Many gears were set into motion so that the death of one of the show’s most beloved characters could reverberate with the frustrations that drive the Black Lives Matter movement, and the process was one that felt as if it had been workshopped to death. The series was more confident, less manipulative, when exposing its characters’ public hang-ups and private strengths—attributes these individuals deploy toward either virtuous or nefarious ends. It also bloomed in its depiction of Lori Petty’s Lolly, empathetically observing the dimensions of her mental illness. Indeed, Orange Is the New Black proved itself to be more sublime than ever when focused on the micro, intuitively recognizing that even the little joys that prison life can bring to an inmate are deceptive, as they too hinge on a relinquishing of power. Ed Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

24. Happy Valley

After a night on the town, Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood’s (Sarah Lancashire) protégée, Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), drunkenly confesses that she believes God is just the best in all of us, and Catherine has more good in her than anyone else she knows. That sweet yet messily realistic scene (soon after her confession, Ann vomits) is typical of this series, whose genius lies in illustrating what it means to be a good person without being the least bit preachy. The acts of mercy Catherine is constantly engaged in are resolutely, sometimes even comically secular, like that night of drinking, which she orchestrated for Ann’s sake after noticing that the younger woman needed “cheering up.” But they’re often also wrenchingly difficult, like her battle to protect the grandson she’s raising from his psychopathic father, whose many crimes include having driven Catherine’s daughter to suicide. Her actions are always rooted in a profound moral clarity and loving acceptance of human weakness that’s inspirational without a hint of mawkishness. Elise Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

23. Insecure

Branching out from her excellent Awkward Black Girl web series, Issa Rae’s opaquely self-reflexive comedy is also one of the most quietly curious depictions of a Los Angeles that exists far from the film and music industries. Rae’s character works for a youth-outreach nonprofit called We Got Y’All, but she has dreams of becoming a rapper. Issa’s frustration with her job and the indecision that plagues her romantic relationship make the show’s title more direct than playful. Made up of images that are at once poised yet slightly off-kilter in their framing, Insecure suggests that the feelings of uselessness that can often come from working for a singular social good at once fuel and obfuscate creative desire. It’s the surreal, lacerating, and often very funny happenings of the day that give Issa’s detonations of imagination and physical energy meaning, and what makes the pockets of West Coast experience that Rae captures feel so melancholic and universal. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

22. Bob’s Burgers

The best laid plans of the Belchers often go awry. But Bob’s Burgers is fixated on the resourcefulness that’s possible even in conflict, an ethos handily articulated when Louise tells Gene, “When life gives you moldy melons, you make moldy melonade.” In one episode, Tina insulted a teacher just so she could get detention and crush on a boy, and in the next, Gene and Louise felt that sabotaging the annual school play was a sensible way of getting a half day before Thanksgiving. Disappointment naturally ensued, and yet the Belcher children emerged from the ruin of their failed expectations with a richer understanding of themselves and the world around them. This is a series that has you smile at Bob securing for his children a cuddle session with an albino polar bear, then disarms you with a corker of a gut-buster, as when Louise looks at the bear and says, “I changed my mind about having kids. I’m going to have one, and feed it to this bear, because I love him so much.” Throughout every episode of Bob’s Burgers, the sentimental and the anarchic walk gloriously hand in hand. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

21. Jane the Virgin

Like its title character, sweet-natured, straight-shooting romance novelist wannabe Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), Jane the Virgin has a lot more going on than a casual observer is likely to give it credit for. That it has roots in Latin American culture is just one of many refreshing and distinctive things about a series that gleefully explores and explodes stereotypes about female sexuality. This season, Jane finally lost her virginity in a scene that was wonderfully anticlimactic, as she learned that having sex isn’t synonymous with having orgasms—and that the importance of a woman’s virginity may be a tad overrated. The college degree Jane is pursing this season in creative writing and her telenovela-star father’s (Jaime Camil) attempts to break through to an American audience provide more outlets for the show’s running dialogue on how to write an entertaining yet truthful story, which winkingly refers to the melodramatic elements—including drug lords, love triangles, and long-lost twins—that help make Jane the Virgin’s undidactic messages go down so easily. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

20. American Horror Story: Roanoke

At first, it was easy to doubt American Horror Story: Roanake for appearing content to simplistically treat our obsession with reality television as a horror unto itself. But then, around the moment the show ballsily announced that only one of its characters would be alive by the end of its compact 10-episode run, Roanake revealed itself to be reflecting back at us the basic desires of our consumerist culture. With each and every unceremonious death, we were foisted into a new and unexpected rabbit hole of fractured psyches and confronted with the ultimate horror of our thirst for commodification. And the show revealed the fake as the new real through the delirium of Ryan Murphy and company’s pop-camp aesthetic, itself a reflection of our increasingly performative everyday lives. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

19. South Park

In terms of being “in the know,” South Park set a high bar last year that one might have thought was insurmountable. But that was before it even seemed remotely possible that Donald J. Trump could become the leader of the free world. From one trenchant episode to the next, each one completed just before airtime so as to ensure maximum verisimilitude, writer-director Trey Parker drew elaborate links between, among other things, the improbable rise of Mr. Garrison’s presidential campaign, the WTF trolling of Denmark, and a gender war at South Park Elementary. In its uniquely perverse and anarchic way, the series plumbed the wreckage left by WikiLeaks, Gamergate, and the men’s rights movement to arrive at the most complete understanding yet of how our country, gripped by an anxiety-induced sense of nostalgia, could transform itself into Trumplandia. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

18. Easy

Joe Swanberg’s Easy is about sex even and especially when it doesn’t appear to be. Each episode offers a self-contained narrative about characters who live in the filmmaker’s home city of Chicago, wrestling with how obligation and class identity bleed into their interactions with their lovers. The series is organized around theme rather than a narrative arc, and that fact alone suggests a looseness, an openness, of which this age of television is in need. Contemporary prestige dramas—i.e. shows produced on newer cable stations or directly for streaming, targeting millennials, Gen-Xers, and media critics—have grown adept at merging the tropes of soap operas with the platitudes of history books with the higher, often impersonal production values of films released during Oscar season. What Swanberg brings to the medium is his sense of cinema as a self-critical gateway toward achieving an empathetic awareness of microscopic need. Chuck Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

17. Broad City

In which the unimpeachable comedic team of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer continue to intimate and imitate the most “objectionable” traits of New York millennials. Where High Maintenance works more off the intimate city knowledge of Girls, Broad City continues to express an irrepressible dream of the city as the playground of the truly careless and possibly liberated. Early into the season, co-op culture got a proper comeuppance with some help from Melissa Leo, but Jacobson and Glazer criticized the lack of personal responsibility in society even more than the stereotypical white bohemian types that haunt co-op groceries. There were similar moments that took on the importance of brunching, sample sales, birthright trips to Israel, and insufferable day jobs in the five boroughs. The dream of New York is still alive for the duo, but exploring the embarrassments, bizarre detours, regrettable decisions, and wasted days that punctuate and disrupt that dream is just as important to them. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

16. The Night Of

What makes The Night Of so powerful and painful to watch isn’t the immediacy of the night in question, but the slow-burning way in which things continue to go poorly for Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) in the months leading up to his trial for manslaughter. We’re never shown what really happened in the time between Khan blacking out and waking up to find his one-night stand savagely murdered, but we’re given ample evidence of what follows: a soon-to-retire detective instructing the officers who initially arrested Khan on how to best testify against him, a prosecutor ignoring evidence that contradicts her closing statement, defense attorneys more interested in money or publicity than justice. The Night Of’s most affecting statement is Khan’s incrementally documented transformation from a seemingly mild-mannered student to a hardened thug; he may not have been a criminal before going to jail, but he’s certainly become one in order to survive. Aaron Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

15. American Crime

American Crime’s second season begins with a single line of audio from a 911 call. By omitting context, it forces viewers to question everyone’s potential guilt and possible victimhood, and reveals that they’re almost always wrong in their prejudgments. By consistently eschewing a straightforward narrative, using scenes of slam poetry and ballet to help convey complicated emotions, American Crime successfully shatters our preconceived biases. Such efforts make this series as ambitious and expansive as The Wire, focusing not on just a single crime, but the systemic crime created by racist and classist discriminations and the indifference of faculty and police. Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

14. Girls

The penultimate season of Girls was one of the show’s strongest, as the creators behind this often comic, always insightful exploration of late adolescence in the early-21st century gained confidence and skills along with their characters. The backlash against the show’s last two seasons probably has a lot to do with the fact that the first couple got more than their share of hype, but it’s also at least partly a reflection of our discomfort with the whiny, hipster-Brooklyn white privilege and ludicrously elongated upper-middle-class American adolescences of the characters themselves—and of a strong streak of misogyny expressed by disgust at things like the gloriously human imperfection of Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) naked body. But Girls’s role as a Rorschach test for our feelings about so many hot-button issues shouldn’t obscure the fact that the show gets so much right, portraying its characters and the world they inhabit in loving, living detail and with a knowing wink. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

13. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

When the first waves of terror following the election of Donald J. Trump started to hit, one of the few voices I genuinely wanted to hear from was John Oliver. And of course, when he returned the Sunday after the election, he laid out the path to, at best, a horror show and, at worst, the beginnings of a true American autocracy, while also levying a healthy series of exasperated, furious one-liners. Those who accused Oliver of being incapable of connecting with the working class might be right, but it wasn’t like he wasn’t trying. The two episodes that preceded the “President-Elect Trump” episode tackled opioid addiction—tied to Big Pharma’s relaxed regulative authority—and multilevel marketing, where companies like Amway were revealed as predatory pyramid schemes that fiscally destroy desperate individuals. In his third season as Jon Stewart’s most influential successor, Oliver also took on Clinton, Guantanamo, Brexit, abortion, congressional fundraising, and more, delivering wise, uproarious, and relentlessly researched primers on increasingly timely subjects. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

12. Black Mirror

Voltaire once suggested that if God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Black Mirror warns us of the cost of doing so, using technology as its omnipotent stand-in. Each episode introduces a new, seemingly innocuous gadget that’s wormed its way into the masses and then demonstrates its repercussions. We may not yet rate social interactions and people as we do products and services (“Nosedive”), and our augmented reality games may not yet be wholly immersive (“Playtest”), but the emphasis is, terrifyingly, on “yet.” By employing a different genre for each episode, from the procedural (“Hated in the Nation”) to the war drama (“Men Against Fire”), Black Mirror avoids repetition while still hammering home an overarching theme: It only takes a slight shift in context to change a tool’s use from good to bad. Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

11. High Maintenance

High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs. In its six quick, emotionally resonant episodes, the series also revealed the neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises of oft-ignored New Yorkers, most resonantly in the interactions between Ben Sinclair’s nameless pot dealer and an actor pretending to be wrestling with masculinity and a nervous, extensively shy admirer, played with endless empathy by Michael Cyril Creighton. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

10. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Twenty-one years after the O.J. Simpson trial surfaced a racial divide that came as news to many white people, America is once again grappling with shocking evidence of that divide. Maybe that’s why this year brought us two excellent serialized tales of the trial, O.J.: Made in America and this case study of how justice can be warped by forces like fame, money, racism, and sexism. The People v. O.J. Simpson uses reenactments of key parts of the trial and behind-the-scenes dramatizations of Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his “Dream Team” of defense attorneys, and his prosecutors to surface the central irony of his case: A man whose fame granted him special treatment by nearly everyone avoided conviction for a crime he almost certainly committed by claiming to have been framed by police who actually cut him extra slack. Examining those events through the lens of our slightly more progressive time allows us to see some things more clearly, including how shamefully Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and battered wife Nicole Simpson were mistreated. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

9. Transparent

We got to know the Pfeffermans a little better this season as they learned more about themselves, making two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress on the parallel but separate quests for self-knowledge that make Transparent so addictive. A major focus of the season was on the difficulty of achieving true intimacy within sexual relationships, particularly if you don’t understand yourself well enough to know what you want. After alienating Vicki through typically selfish behavior, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) tried something entirely new by hooking up with a man, while her children all did the approach-avoidance dance with past and current lovers. The family turned more to religion for answers too, showing an increased interest in the temple and putting their own spin on rituals like the Seder in the season finale. They may not ever succeed, but the Pfeffermans are trying as hard as any family on TV to obey the Delphic dictum to “know thyself.” Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

8. Better Call Saul

In its second season, Better Call Saul firmly established itself as a softer, nerdier, more moving and original counterpart to its source of inspiration, Breaking Bad. The latter never entirely divorced itself of macho fantasy, while Better Call Saul perceptively examines the torment of living as a symbolic artist in a world governed by corporate efficiency. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) might be a shyster lawyer, but he’s a poet of the form, a flamboyant master of bullshit who can’t bring himself to play by the staid rules of his older and more respected brother, Chuck (Michael McKeen). All of the show’s ingeniously staged crime capers, perpetuated by Jimmy or his occasional partner-in-crime, Mike (Jonathan Banks), are rooted knowingly in a need for self-actualization as a remedy for loneliness. The trick of the American dream is that it’s always just a teensy bit out of sight, discernable only in the teasing horizon. Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

7. Horace and Pete

Louis C.K. resists the insidious striving for faux-“reality” that governs so much popular art. Horace and Pete is defiantly artificial, calling attention to its own construction, which oxymoronically empowers the series to plumb emotional realms unreached by most television, rendering it vividly real. The wedding of TV-industry formalities with C.K.’s own obsessively verbose parables of tolerance and empathy cumulatively serves to interrogate the “rules” of anticipation and payoff that govern most TV shows, questioning the rules of social life by extension and implication, pinpointing the arbitrariness of much convention, highlighting the control over our own lives that we unquestioningly cede. C.K.’s freedom and confidence as an artist serve as a counterpoint to the constriction felt by his characters. Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

There are countless songs about people who are “crazy in love,” but only Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, well, crazy enough to actually live in the reality of such lyrics. Spot-on parodies of artists as diverse as the Spice Girls and R. Kelly help to cushion what’s often very dark material, from alcoholism to abortion. The show also makes everyday heartbreak a little more manageable, as when the memories of a bad breakup are brought to life by a pair of singing ghosts who, after breaking out the old soft shoe, bring a whole new meaning to “tapping that ass.” As in Sondheim’s best musicals, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s quick-witted lyrics manage to seamlessly mash together highbrow literary references with the kitsch of Sweet Valley High, all without ever missing a note. Take it from Rachel Bloom, the show’s creator and star: When life gives you lemons, make a spoof of Lemonade. Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

5. Silicon Valley

A series of major fumbles and callous corporate maneuvers in Silicon Valley’s third season allows Mike Judge to consider the psychological tactics, egotistical behavior, and sheer absurdity that clash together at the impasse of business and technology. More than ever in the show’s run, the fight between creativity and commerce that the Pied Piper team witnesses reflects Judge’s own oft-public Hollywood troubles. The series continues to offer a variety of symbolic inventions and images that highlight the laughably bizarre means by which the tech industry attempts to replace organic ideas with clearly false, market-driven opportunism. Silicon Valley may end up being recognized as Judge’s magnum opus in this sense—a complicated, heartfelt, and intensely uproarious articulation of the struggle to freely realize one’s creative yearnings, whether in business, technology, or art. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

4. The Girlfriend Experience

Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, two independent filmmakers overseeing a mainstream project for the first time in their careers, walk a tonal tightrope in The Girlfriend Experience. They clearly don’t wish to fall into the moralizing trap of judging Christine (Riley Keough), or pitying her, by providing a pat “explanation” for her attraction to the sex trade. Instead, they settle on an aura of erotic melancholia that plays to their own gifts for behavioral portraiture while honoring the broad tropes of the corporate sex thriller. Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name was unsatisfyingly vague about sex, more interested in the director’s characteristic explorations of the manifestations of capitalism. It was formally impressive but self-conscious, intellectualized, and ultimately uncomfortable with its premise; the series, on the other hand, dives into the sex, daring to locate Soderbergh’s capitalist themes between the sheets. Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

3. BoJack Horseman

Ah, Bojack. Will you ever learn how to get out of your own way? To tell you the truth, I kind of hope not, much as I want that for you, since the pleasure/pain of watching you stumble through life as a self-sabotaging depressive is so wincingly exquisite for its multitudes of meaning. Ending on that beautiful scene of Bojack watching mustangs run free and encompassing both the tragedy of Sarah Lynn’s death and the brilliant, almost word-free encapsulation of alienation and missed signals that was the “Fish Out of Water” episode, this season rode BoJack Horseman’s signature tone of psychologically acute surrealism to new emotional depths. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

2. The Americans

The idea of rigid political ideology as a sort of terminal disease simmered beneath the surface of every action in The Americans this season, the show’s finest to date. The path toward a self-determined identity seemed to be held at bay by notions of family and religion, which could be seen clearly in Paige’s (Holly Taylor) work at church and her budding romance with Matthew (Danny Flaherty), the son of F.B.I. Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). But not everyone can be saved from the tangles of belief and loyalty. William Crandall’s (Dylan Baker) final confession to Beeman reveals an ocean of regrets, from long-lost love to his real opinions about his government, and Baker gives each word an ample feeling of ache and an unmistakable fury. His final utterances offer a poignant, devastating climax to an eruptive season, where the impending end of the Cold War could be seen in nuanced, even eloquent, but never simple terms. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

1. Atlanta

Over the course of its extraordinary debut season, Donald Glover’s Atlanta evolved from a seriocomically wise slice of African-American life into a despairing and nearly free-associative satire of the most insidiously powerful commodity driving American society at large: an image that begets profit. Everyone in this series is pushing their contrived shtick, whether it’s Glover’s Ern, who enjoys his conception of himself as a sensitive intellectual too good for the violent life that feeds him, or Brian Tyree Smith’s unforgettable Paper Boi, a gangster who can’t entirely hide the vulnerability residing underneath his shopworn braggadocio. What Glover and his collaborators consistently locate is the existential desperation unifying all people below a certain economic equator. The characters are forever scrambling for the meme or connection that will allow them to join the club of the rarefied and the comfortable, who are also eventually revealed to be trapped in a strange and prefabricated reality, erected on foundations of classism, racism, sexism, and self-loathing. Bowen


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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.

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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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Features

The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018

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

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The 20 Best Music Videos of 2018
Photo: YouTube

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

20. Prince, “Mary Don’t You Weep”

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


19. Rosalía, “Malamente”

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


18. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”

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


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

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


16. LCD Soundsystem, “Oh Baby”

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


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

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


14. Azealia Banks, “Anna Wintour”

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


13. Flasher, “Material”

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


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

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


11. Tierra Whack, “Whack World”

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


10. Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel”

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


9. Chaka Khan, “Like Sugar”

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


8. Anderson .Paak, “Til It’s Over”

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


7. Travis Scott featuring Drake, “Sicko Mode”

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


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

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


5. Vince Staples, “Fun!”

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


4. Jack White, “Corporation”

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


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

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


2. The Carters, “Apeshit”

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


1. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”

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


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The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

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

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

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

The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Sakura Ando, Shoplifters

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Juliette Binoche, Let the Sunshine In

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Emily Browning, Golden Exits

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Nicolas Cage, Mandy

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Toni Collette, Hereditary

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

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

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Matt Dillon, The House That Jack Built

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Adam Driver, BlackKklansman

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Hugh Grant, Paddington 2

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Regina Hall, Support the Girls

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Bhreagh MacNeil, Werewolf

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Rachel McAdams, Disobedience

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

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

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Ben Mendelsohn, The Land of Steady Habits

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jason Mitchell, Tyrel

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Michelle Pfeiffer, Where Is Kyra?

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Meinhard Neumann, Western

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Jesse Plemons, Game Night

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


The 30 Best Film Performances of 2018

Steven Yeun, Burning

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


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