Harlem. South Korea. Mexico City. Wakanda. The finest films of the year went everywhere and showed us a new way to live.
Movies are changing rapidly. Superhero stories are evolving. Documentaries are booming. Netflix is democratizing—or destroying, depending on your point of view—the movie experience. But it’s also committing resources to some of the most unlikely, fascinating films of the year—one of which made this list, composed by Sean Fennessey and Adam Nayman. Here’s that and nine more. And for more about the Year in Movies, read Sean Fennessey’s essay about the movies’ many fallen men of 2018, Tom Breihan’s Best Action Movies of 2018, and Miles Surrey’s Best Superhero Movies of 2018.
For his follow-up to Moonlight, Jenkins went directly to the source of one of that film’s clearest and most fertile influences—the fiction of James Baldwin—and emerged with a faithful adaptation that’s also very much an expression of his own personal vision. Jenkins’s lush, expressive style reaches an apex at several points in If Beale Street Could Talk; in the probing, rapturous close-ups of stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James as they gaze at each other (and back at us); in the languorous tracking shot down a sunny summertime street in Harlem as old friends approach from both sides of the frame; in a ’70s-style split screen that evokes a period and its moviemaking. All this beauty, in turn, envelops but doesn’t overwhelm the hard, unsentimental (but still romantic) substance of Baldwin’s story of lovers trapped—but not defined or defeated—by a social context at once beyond their control and in their bones. No film I saw in 2018 improved more upon reflection, or thrives as strongly in memory; Jenkins’s extraordinary image-making hypnotizes the mind’s eye. —Adam Nayman
“I started this day off crying, so if you ask me, laughing is progress,” says embattled restaurant manager Lisa (Regina Hall) midway through Support the Girls; by the end of Bujalski’s film, she’ll be literally screaming into the void, which may not be progress but definitely seems to feel good. Like the director’s previous, gym-set Results, Support the Girls is a workplace comedy, and the sweet ensemble dynamics and myriad contradictions of Lisa’s highway-side establishment Double Whammies—an independently owned establishment that panders to sleazy truckers and harmlessly horny dads—remain in play even as the script gradually narrows into a character study of a woman at once determined and terrified of being defined by her job. Hall’s hugely appealing performance has already been honored by the New York Film Critics Circle, and she fully inhabits a character whose mix of pride, professionalism, and protectiveness makes her a heroine to the (mostly younger) women slinging drinks in low-cut shirts on her watch; the “girls” (including supporting-cast MVPs Haley Lu Richardson and Shayna McHayle) love her unconditionally, and so do we. —AN
As science fiction goes, 2018 was not a banner year. Consumed by the trappings of adaptation (Ready Player One), intellectual property (The Predator), world-building (The Cloverfield Paradox), and sequelism (Pacific Rim: Uprising), just one film in the genre sought to tell a story individuated from our modern movie world. Garland’s loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is an exceptionally strange film as studio fare goes, colorful and violent, but also opaque, elusive, and spiritual. The film follows an all-female team of emotionally unmoored scientists who travel to the center of an all-consuming ecological event that is devouring land and time at a terrifying rate. It’s called the Shimmer, and its appetite is cosmic. Garland, who plumbed the depths of artificial intelligence in 2015’s Ex Machina, takes a bolder risk here, attempting to tangle with the idea of the self while also having Natalie Portman fire an automatic weapon at a mutant alligator. It’s an odd, intoxicating film with a score that will invade your bloodstream, a breathtaking third act, and a puzzle-box ending that rewards multiple viewings. There is nothing else like it, mostly because no one else would try. —Sean Fennessey
Hopefully, 2019 will be the year of Claire Denis: The acquisition of the great French director’s new, stunning sci-fi movie High Life by hit-making distributor A24 means that her work will be more readily available to American audiences than ever. In the meantime, though, Denis had a minor box office success this spring with the deceptively accessible Let the Sunshine In, starring Juliette Binoche as a painter navigating the treacherous minefield of midlife dating (it doesn’t help that her art-world social circle is littered with exes). In the past, Denis has pushed both narrative structure and violence to the breaking point (and she does so again in High Life), but Let the Sunshine In looks and behaves like a conventional romantic comedy … until you realize that the emotions it’s dealing with, about companionship and loneliness, are completely unsanitized, and completely devastating. A scene where Binoche’s Isabelle is seduced on the dance floor by a tall, dark stranger to Etta James’s “At Last” is sublime, but despite the song’s title, it’s not a happy ending. The actual finale isn’t an ending either, and we know it. For a movie that may ultimately be about the need for compromise, Let the Sunshine In doesn’t make any—and that’s why it’s Denis at her best. —AN
”I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Good morning to Paul Schrader! In a world devoid of meaning, there is no greater joy than meeting an artist whose purview is even darker than your own. Schrader’s portrait of a pastor coming unglued from his faith and corporeal reality features one of the great performances of the century in Ethan Hawke’s forlorn Reverend Ernst Toller, an equal to Travis Bickle in Schrader’s canon of demoralized men. The filmmaker is riffing on the slow cinema of his youth, aping the painterly, patient ethical dramas of Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu. But it’s remarkable to watch him wriggle away from his inspirations and back into the maddened, isolated masculine anxieties that have defined his career. By the time Hawke and a young, pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) find each other, it’s in an ecstatic, bizarre form of spiritual bliss. And by the time they are floating, so are we. —SF
Black Panther does something that no other movie has done before. I’m not talking about crafting a cinematic superhero film that is both acclaimed and socially relevant, though that’s true. And I’m not talking about making a film with a primarily black cast an international sensation, though that is also true. Black Panther does something else extraordinary: It bends a world to its whims. The extended Marvel continuum is the center of the pop cultural universe, more dominant, demanding, and overexamined than anything else. But, in a clever bit of self-referentiality, Black Panther mimics its own core crisis of isolationism vs. globalism, zooming in to a localized fable of succession, kings, and factional warfare. Sure, it globe-trots like a James Bond flick and ponders the history of the fates. But it takes itself seriously and stays home in Wakanda, eyeing oppression and disenfranchisement within the walls of closed communities.
But this isn’t a turgid morality play. The composite parts of a rollicking comic book movie are all there: sharply drawn set pieces, exceptional costuming and production design, overqualified actors filling in bit-part gaps, adventurous photographic choices, meme-worthy gags. Evil threatens and ultimately falls. But Coogler’s sure-handed, empathic portrait of fathers and sons—what they give to each other and what they take away—is an uncommonly trenchant theme interwoven in a movie that also features CGI war rhinos. Black Panther is obviously great, but never greatly obvious. —SF
The greatest movies make us experience them on their own terms. They go so far with their style that there’s no meeting them halfway. No narrative film released in 2018 asked more of its audience than Martel’s Zama, a slow-motion comedy about a Spanish diplomat wasting away in a remote Patagonian outpost in the 1700s; the line between the boredom of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who wants desperately to leave for better things, and that of the viewer is razor thin, but Martel—a genius of mood and atmosphere—stays on the right side in every precise, mesmerizing scene. Part existential horror movie, part colonial critique, part satire of deflated masculinity—and so fully realized on the levels of sound, image, and performance that comparisons to past masters are inevitable (I thought often of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon)—Zama is challenging stuff and exists in a separate universe from some of the other titles on this list. But if cinema is about being transported to another place, Martel is unrivaled as a guide—which may be why, in its amazing final scenes, the film suggests that the solution (for the character and the audience) is to just sit back and enjoy the ride. —AN
Roma is practically defined by a humane grandeur, the swirling image of Mexico in a state of unrest in 1970, masses of people on the move through forests, deserts, beaches, city streets. But the image that has attached itself to my mind and refused to let go takes place inside the home of the middle-class family at the center of the film, on the floor of the living room, where a mother is clutching her young son, seated foot-to-foot, heads bowing toward one another, in tears. It’s one of the most profound, modest evocations of a family dissolving that I’ve ever seen. Alfonso Cuarón has rendered dystopian warfare, interstellar space travel, and a rousing round of Quidditch on screen. But he’s never made anything quite like Roma, a masterly work in which he is controlling all of the levers—writing, directing, producing, and physically shooting the film. If ever a movie demanded such a one-man-band approach, it’s this personal remembrance, a swatch of memory reprogrammed for the big screen. It’s also a staggering achievement, a rare occasion when the oft-overused word “vision” is worthy. It feels like something Cuarón has been seeing in his mind for years, decades. That we can see it now is a gift. —SF
It has been an unpredictably massive year for the documentary form—as narrative podcasts grow, true crime has emerged as a core American genre and streaming services have built their unwieldy content plans around sprawling doc series. And yet, it was good ol’ feature documentaries that rose above a glut of “real” to tap into something urgent and sometimes even profound. They hit on something obvious but elusive in the culture, and audiences showed up. What RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? accomplished with overt political and social gestures, Free Solo found in astonishing physical feats, and Three Identical Strangers captured in its shocking unbelievability, Liu’s Minding the Gap touched on the surface of the earth, gliding along the mortal remains of an abandoned American city. Tracing his friends and fellow skateboarders through adolescence and into uncertain adulthood in Rockford, Illinois, Liu doesn’t do anything fancy with the camera. He doesn’t try to announce a decree about his generation. He doesn’t even care much about narrative cohesion. But if you look closely at the credits, you’ll see a meaningful name that’s also a guidepost: Steve James. The same Steve James who made Hoop Dreams some 25 years ago, tracking a previous generation of hopeful and ignored young men seeking guidance in flawed role models. The connection is deep and earned. Liu’s film is autobiographical but timeless, a picture of how disenfranchised kids with no good idea of how to live make mistakes and wonder why they went wrong. It’s an unusually raw and upsetting movie made with grace and a seeming ease, across several years. Unlike so many in the genre, you can never feel it working or manipulating the viewer. The landing is hard, but the trick is worth it. —SF
“There is a difference between movies that refuse to fix their meanings for fear of exposing their essential vacuousness—that leave so much space for interpretation that they end up feeling legitimately empty, like a shell game without a marble—and movies that bristle with an ambiguity derived from the complex, irreconcilable nature of reality itself.” I wrote those words about Burning in October, the point being that Lee’s film was in the second category. They’ve only felt truer the more I’ve meditated on this wonderfully maddening thriller. The trope of the unreliable narrator is brilliantly realized in the character of Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who sees himself as the hero in a tale of unrequited love. The question of whether his romantic rival, Ben (Steven Yeun, who should be nominated for an Oscar), is an embodiment of true evil or a hateful projection of the author remains as wide open as the fate of the woman who comes between them (Jeon Jong-seo, in a nuanced, thoughtful performance that’s being given predictably short shrift by critics who’ve misread the role as evidence of misogyny). As a story about class, money, sex, art, masculinity, and the fundamentally mysterious nature of all interpersonal exchange, Burning is as intricate and layered as the kind of novel Jong-su wants to write; it’s the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner where you can’t help but savor each poetically loaded passage. —AN
A Star Is Born
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Old Man and the Gun
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
A Quiet Place
The Price of Everything
Leave No Trace
The Death of Stalin
Sorry to Bother You
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The Best Movies of 2018 – The Ringer