The more things change, the more they stay the same—and nowhere is that axiom truer than in the movies. The early 21st century has seen a radical shift in the way movies are financed, made, and viewed, with digital technologies predominating, home streaming replacing the theatrical experience, and major conglomerates like Netflix and Amazon overtaking the film distribution scene. This isn't a doomsday proclamation: a countless number of fresh and vital films continue to be made each year, although more than ever before, the onus is on audiences to track down high-quality content (and not rely on algorithms to be told what they "might enjoy").
Even with all these drastic shifts, though, some of the perennial truths about cinema continue to hold sway. As is usually the case, the most unique and invigorating voices come from outside the mainstream, whether that's boldly independent works that confront the status quo or sympathetic looks at marginalized communities. Female directors made a number of the year's best movies (with many of them turning a perceptive eye on male subcultures), but this has always been the case; the huge number of talented artists behind the camera who identify as women is being spun by the industry as a political turning point, but that talent has always been there, even if it's getting more public exposure now (and yes, we still have a long way to go). While some works tried to latch on to hot button issues in a bid for relevancy (here's looking at you, Widows), the most compellingly urgent movies tackled political subject matter in more subtle, allegorical ways. Some of the most exciting movies of the year were actually reflections of cinematic history: not only a "new" movie from Orson Welles (possibly the greatest American filmmaker of all time), but also the rerelease of Dennis Hopper's flawed but riveting The Last Movie (1971). That's not to mention movies that stylistically or thematically harkened back to past cinematic epochs, with lush monochrome cinematography or references to classics like Vertigo and Watermelon Man.
In these politically dire times in the United States, one would hope that cinema (and art in general) would respond to wannabe despotism with works that are angry, volatile, raw, critical, and unapologetic. A few American movies rose to this challenge in 2018, but generally the artistic output in the wake of Trumpism has left a lot to be desired, especially in comparison to the New American Cinema that came to fruition during the late 1960s and early '70s. (Of course, it's an unfair comparison; there were many other factors that led to that fertile period in American movies.) So while it's important to commend those films that reflected on 2018 with the requisite outrage, it's also necessary to expect more from the movies of 2019: more vitriol, more commitment, a clearer acknowledgement that our American reality is severely corrupt and in need of reclamation from fearless artists.
Note: all of the films on this list received at least a limited release in my hometown of Minneapolis. This means that some of the most acclaimed movies of the year weren't available to me, including (most egregiously) Burning and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. Hopefully these movies will receive more prominent distribution in the U.S. in the near future.
1. First Reformed
First Reformed feels like the movie Paul Schrader has been leading up to the last forty years: an ambitious, outraged attempt to reconcile religiosity, morality, and sin in the modern age. From Hardcore to The Canyons, Schrader has frequently addressed how (and if) spirituality can exist in a culture ruled by money and power. But his work has never felt so timely and universal, an existential shriek of despair that's also inextricably a product of its time and place.
Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career as Reverend Toller, minister of the historic First Reformed Church in upstate New York. Already an alcoholic struggling with the loss of his son during the War in Iraq, Toller's tenuous faith--his difficulty in sustaining hope in the face of a cold and unrelenting world—is further shaken by the pleas of a young, pregnant woman whose husband, an eco-activist, has grown suicidal. Is bringing new life into the world a futile and selfish act? Can suicide be an ethical decision? Is the impending environmental collapse of the planet in fact divine intervention, a message that humans can no longer be trusted with the world? First Reformed asks these difficult questions and many more, but in ways that feel organic and sensitive to the characters; such humanity and complexity allow a long conversation in the nondescript setting of a modest home to be the most riveting scene of the year.
Many critics described First Reformed as Schrader's attempt at transcendental austerity, the style practiced by some of his cinematic idols (Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson) and defined by long takes, slow or static camera movements, an absence of non-diegetic music, and minimalist performances. While films like Ordet and Diary of a Country Priest make oblique appearances in First Reformed, it's inaccurate to call Schrader's film an imitation of that style. The performances are expressive and committed, wringing great pathos from these characters (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger deserve just as much credit as Hawke); and Schrader indulges in moments of majestic magical realism that couldn't be more different than Bresson and Dreyer. It's an utterly original and bracing work, as knotty and unsettling as a film about maintaining hope in the modern era should be; I hope Schrader continues to make films (and he's already completed a new screenplay in pre-production), but if not, First Reformed serves as a remarkable capstone to his career.
Lucrecia Martel's movies have always been peculiar, injecting seemingly simple stories with moments of absurdity and formal quirks: disjunctive soundtracks, jarring jump cuts, brazen compositions that fracture characters into odd shapes and angles. Zama, the Argentinian director's first historical film (based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto), joins The Holy Girl as her most audacious vision. In the late 18th century, in a Spanish colony somewhere in South America, the colonialist Don Diego de Zama (a funny and affecting Daniel Giménez Cacho) longs to be transferred somewhere else, preferably to one of the Argentine metropolises prospering in the New World. Instead, he's fated to be exiled in what he sees as a tropical purgatory, punished for unknowable trespasses. (The audience may surmise that he's being punished for the sin of colonialism, but of course that possibility doesn't occur to Don Diego, who's only doing what his country asks of him.)
The absurdity of bureaucracy and social interaction, so familiar from Martel's other films, reappears here, epitomized by a scene in which Don Diego pleads for a transfer while a cocksure camel struts behind him, mocking his desires. But Zama is unique in its restrained (but no less caustic) depiction of the class and racial disparities that accompanied colonialism, and still permeate countries in which European powers exploited native populations. (It's no wonder that ghosts are prevalent in Zama; the legacy that Don Diego personifies continues to linger in places like Argentina.) Thankfully, Martel's condemnation takes the form of wry humor and formal innovation, rather than overt dialogue or dramatic moralizing. She's more interested in creating strange and hypnotic compositions than in telling the audience how to feel. While the focus typically is on Don Diego and his sadly amusing, petty conquests (sexual and otherwise), Martel's soundtrack and camera emphasize the indigenous characters in the background, who offer mute but ever-present indictments. These characters and their historical injustice are the real story of Zama, even if the protagonist and his tragicomic travails try to convince us otherwise.
3. The Favourite
Yorgos Lanthimos returns once again to his favorite theme of the ridiculousness of humans, though this time his tone veers closer to begrudging sympathy than arch misanthropy. Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (the first time he hasn't at least cowritten the script), Lanthimos turns early 18th century England into a visually warped battleground waged through sexual jealousy and the allure of power. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) may be the matriarch, but she's essentially powerless, suffering from ill health and subject to the machinations of a mostly male court; meanwhile, her affections are split between the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her lower-class cousin Abigal (Emma Stone), both of whom become the queen's lover and vie for her favo(u)r. The Favourite strays leisurely from historical fact, and so much the better: the film becomes a darkly funny analysis of how power was rooted in sexual antagonism in the Georgian era. Many of Lanthimos' usual sordid motifs recur (self-harm, animal cruelty, sex as psychological warfare), but he also demonstrates surprising tenderness towards the characters' pain; aided by a trio of moving performances from some of the best actresses today, The Favourite sympathizes with the lengths that people go to for the sake of love (or at least desire). It all culminates in a shattering, unforgettable final shot—a perfect demonstration of the movie's visceral and emotional power.
4. Leave No Trace
Debra Granik's intimate portrayals of families living on the fringes of society continues with Leave No Trace, a devastating look at a father and daughter struggling to stay together in the midst of post-traumatic stress. Ben Foster (who has reinvented himself as one of indie cinema's go-to actors) plays Will, a veteran of the War in Iraq; suffering from PTSD, he forges a secluded existence with his 13-year-old daughter, Thomasin (Thomasin McKenzie), in an Oregon park. The visual style is unobtrusive but the narrative structure is bold: about thirty minutes in, we think we know where the story is headed, only to be radically rerouted in a way that asks questions about what "state support" actually means. Quietly tragic, confronting the shameful legacy that our nation's military has instilled in returning veterans in a way that few American movies have done, Leave No Trace is one of the most powerful films of the year; it asks impossible questions that are vital to contemplate.
5. Madeline's Madeline
In its ninety minutes, Madeline's Madeline presents a bewildering, enervating, but frequently euphoric depiction of a young artist trying to piece her mind together. Seventeen-year-old Madeline, played with stunning assuredness by newcomer Helena Howard, is a promising actress in the middle of a tug-of-war: on one side is her seemingly unstable, sometimes violent single mom, Regina (Miranda July); on the other is her well-respected acting coach, Evangeline (Molly Parker), who is sophisticated, patient, well-put-together—the polar opposite of how Madeline views herself. The film functions as a coming-of-age story, but it's presented with dazzling cinematography loaded with filters and disorienting close-ups, not to mention whiplash jump cuts and an assaultive soundtrack. But there's a method to director Josephine Decker's madness: maybe Madeline is dealing with mental illness, or maybe this is just what life is like for an ambitious, talented teenager on the verge of adulthood. In any case, in ways both innovative and electrifying, Decker and Howard present art as a potentially transcendent experience for anyone unable to trust their own mind; it's the most immersive character study of the year, and a moving tribute to the restorative power of creativity.
6. Cold War
Epic in scope but radically condensed in structure, Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War turns brevity into a powerful aesthetic tool. The film hurtles through 15 years of European history in an hour and a half, following a tempestuous relationship between two musicians from the rise of Polish nationalism in the wake of World War II through the tyranny of the country's Communist party in the 1960s. Caught in the middle of these political movements are Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a pianist and singer respectively who drift in and out of each other's lives, their paths constantly intercepted by the larger movements of history. The film was marketed as a sweeping romance, but it's questionable if the characters even genuinely love each other; it's possible they're repeatedly reunited simply through the contortions of fate, or because they relate to each other's feelings of futility and placelessness. (Wiktor flees Poland as Communism becomes entrenched, but doesn't feel like he belongs in France either; Zula stays behind in Poland, but seems disgusted by the corruption of her homeland.) If Cold War is a romance, it's of the philosophical, icy-cool variety; it moves so quickly that it's baffling at first, but lingers in your memory long after the moving, ambiguous ending.
7. The Rider
Stories of man's bond with animals (using man in the particular sense) are plentiful, but there's a reason such stories resonate with audiences. They ask us what it means to be human, if staring into the eyes of a mute animal can provide as intimate a connection as the tenderest romance. With The Rider, Chloé Zhao offers access to a unique, secluded world: rodeo cowboys in the American West, who pride themselves on their toughness but demonstrate compassion and respect for the animals in which they place their livelihood. One cowboy, Brady (played by Brady Jandreau, an actual cowboy who suffered a serious head injury in real life), struggles to recover from a potentially life-threatening fall and is told he may never ride again, confronting what it means to be a man in his insular world. There are countless touches that deepen the vividness of Brady's world and the emotional distress he goes through: his relationship with his mentally disabled sister, his dedication to a friend who's confined to a wheelchair after a ruinous injury, a quiet, rambling conversation shared with friends over a beer beneath the starlight. The story may sound simple but it resonates exponentially, culminating in a final shot that won't leave a dry in the house.
8. The Green Fog
The funniest movie of 2018 is a bizarro remake of Vertigo using only found footage from movies and television shows shot in and around San Francisco. Notorious prankster-experimenter Guy Maddin, co-directing with Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, molds this footage into a dreamy tribute to the spell that moving images cast, epitomized by the "green fog" of the title: a surreal miasma that transforms all who come in contact with it whenever it drifts across the screen. The Green Fog is also a mostly silent movie, capturing only a few stray words as dialogue scenes are cut up into disorienting fragments, enabling some of the weirdest and most hilarious jokes of the year (even the Backstreet Boys make a brief appearance). This may be the kind of thing tailor-made for cinephiles, but The Green Fog's love for the magic of cinema is contagious and beautifully orchestrated. It also functions as a surprisingly faithful remake of Hitchcock's classic, boldly demonstrating the ways in which movies can tell stories without the benefit of dialogue or cause-and-effect narratives.
9. Crime + Punishment
The best documentary of the year is an absolutely vital depiction of corruption in the NYPD, and by extension in America's justice system. Offering compelling firsthand access, Crime + Punishment follows 12 brave officers in the NYPD who speak out against the "quota system" that requires a certain number of arrests and summons to be made each month; whether intentionally or not, those arrests frequently target males of color, who continue to be victimized by forces of law and order. (This system has since been banned, though Crime + Punishment makes you wonder how stringently the ban is enforced by police departments.) The movie's commitment to exposing and denouncing systematic injustice is admirable, but Crime + Punishment's pristine cinematography and careful pacing also exhibit meticulous craft; this is no careless, hastily made work that gathers force solely from the political zeitgeist. Director Stephen Maing builds a compelling narrative, its suspense deeply unnerving because of its easily visible repercussions in American society. It is a case study in how racism becomes institutionalized, orchestrated through the lives of the men and women, the victims and the victimizers, caught up in its web.
10. 24 Frames
Abbas Kiarostami's final film is a series of 24 tableaux, all of which take as inspiration still photographs that the Iranian director took throughout his life. In ways that range from the overt to the imperceptible, the images are propelled into motion and question the nature of cinema—how movements in and out of the frame transform the ways we look at the world. Inevitably, some of these 24 "scenes" are more interesting and compelling than others, but some are absolutely hypnotic: within a few short minutes, these images comment on the nature of time and place, the depths of human connection, our relation to the natural world, the power of art. As often happens with films that have seemingly simple conceits, the thematic implications are limitless. Kiarostami has always had an avant-garde tendency in his work (exemplified by the long moment in Close-Up in which we witness a can rolling down a street, simply because of its visual splendor), but 24 Frames is his most audaciously conceptual film. While it may not have the pathos or humanism of Kiarostami's best work, 24 Frames is a fitting coda from a master filmmaker, one of those rare movies that question our assumptions of how we experience life and the movies.
The Next Ten
A renowned, upper-class director like Alfonso Cuarón making a film that commemorates his family's indigenous maid from his childhood could have been disastrous. But Roma is sensitive to the character of Cleodegaria (beautifully played by Yalitza Aparicio), the tensions between her and the family of European descent that employs her (so often conveyed through simple glances), the rift between her class and the wealthy elite who elicit familial closeness through monetary exchange (at least in part). Cleo's unvoiced but palpable dreams of mobility are beautifully symbolized by a final shot in which the sky and its teeming airplanes beckon, and her fiery personality exudes from a scene in which she watches her nude lover demonstrate his martial-arts skills, a look of desire and bashfulness and mockery flitting across her face. A few moments of melodrama and implausibility provide more serious flaws than dubious class dynamics, but Roma provides some of the most stirring dramatic scenes (and some of the loveliest images) of the year.
Valeska Grisebach's rich dissection of an uber-masculine community—a German construction crew in a tiny Bulgarian village—allows for an analysis of sexual conquest, East meets West, political conflict leading to personal trauma. Echoing Claire Denis' Beau travail, Grisebach's evocative drama is hyperreal and dreamy, culminating in a cathartic dance scene that may symbolize the protagonist's resurrection. For the most part, Western is thought-provoking and thematically dense, but it also contains one of the most affecting scenes of the year: two men's long, drunken conversation about life and war and loss, spoken in different languages, though nothing is misunderstood between them.
13. Support the Girls
Deceptively modest, Support the Girls is an ensemble comedy that's political only by implication. Taking place in a Texas suburb, the workers at a Hooters-style sports bar band together in the face of sexism and capitalism so pervasive that they hardly bear mentioning. A late scene in which three women scream in defiance from the roof of their workplace provides potent symbolism, but this is a movie whose comedic zeal and character-driven sensitivity respect the audience's intelligence in ingratiating ways.
14. If Beale Street Could Talk
Barry Jenkins' follow-up to Moonlight is looser, richer, more beautiful, and more affecting than that award-winning predecessor, turning James Baldwin's classic novel into a story of love conquering pervasive bigotry. At times, the movie is as obvious and didactic as that description sounds, as when a racist cop sneers into the face of saintly Fonny (Stephan James), or when a progressive landlord played by Dave Franco gives the obvious moral that "love is love." More powerful are the scenes that aren't narratively driven or thematically blunt: a montage in which Tish (Kiki Layne) works at a perfume counter in a department store, or when two men share a seething conversation over a beer, commiserating over the feelings of rage and impotence that day-to-day life in the United States has instilled in them. (I hope Jenkins' next movie is a modest endeavor with a simple story and zero moralizing; he could be a masterful director if he shrugged off the yoke of Oscar expectations.) This is a flawed but fiery movie in which the parts never cohere into a masterful whole, but those parts can be massively cathartic.
15. The Other Side of the Wind
Of course, there's the question of how much of The Other Side of the Wind is actually Orson Welles' vision: conceived and written throughout the 1960s, filmed off and on from 1970 through 1976, partially edited by Welles in the late '70s in the midst of financial and legal troubles, Welles' ostensible swan song was for a long time the Holy Grail of modern cinema. At the very least, the convoluted production backstory is crucial to understanding the power of The Other Side of the Wind. The finished product (which was completed by a number of Welles collaborators and seems like a reasonably faithful execution of his vision) is remarkable: visually stunning, breathlessly exciting, a candid portrayal of a legendary artist trying to reckon with the legacy he's leaving behind (not to mention the legacy of cinema itself, undergoing drastic transformation in the 1970s). Sure, the film was purported to be based on Ernest Hemingway, not Welles; but the story of a larger-than-life director, magnetically charming but disastrously self-absorbed, bears undeniable similarities to Welles' tempestuous career. There's a lot to treasure in The Other Side of the Wind: its formal innovations, its enormous ambition, its decades-spanning bridge between disparate cinematic epochs. Its characters and their perspectives, their depth as human beings, are somewhat compromised in the process; but Welles may be slyly asking if that's the sacrifice directors always make when they turn the camera on their friends and collaborators.
Spike Lee is second only to Jean-Luc Godard in the ranks of modern filmmakers-as-critics, who use their art to comment on and criticize the field in which they work. With BlacKkKlansman, Lee questions the very nature of escapism and lays out the ways in which mass media inculcate audiences with racial ideology, commenting on everything from Birth of a Nation to blaxploitation. If cinema is an insidious tool for disseminating racism, Lee alleges—as evidenced by a sickeningly funny prologue in which Alec Baldwin's vile politician films a racist newsreel—it's also a powerful mobilizing force, creating images around which a culture can maintain hope and activism. The movie itself is thrilling and entertaining, its montage editing occasionally sloppy but undeniably effective, and its exploration of how identity coalesces in the social sphere is more sophisticated than the comedic atmosphere suggests. Boots Riley's criticisms are worth noting--BlacKkKlansman
doesn't go far enough in exposing how pervasively racism has infiltrated the American justice system, instead positing that only a few "rotten apples" are to blame—but even this serves a powerful thematic function: just when a few artificially uplifting endings make us believe that everything is resolved, Lee pulls the rug out from under us again, revealing how little has changed over the last 40 years. The film's impulses towards crowd-pleasing entertainment and vehement social commentary coexist uneasily, but it's more fascinating because of it.
Hirokazu Koreeda's plaintive family dramas can be a little too gentle for my taste (the most unfortunate example being After the Storm), but there's no denying the craft and aching humanism behind his Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters. A makeshift family consisting of outcasts, orphans, and misfits bands together in a tiny home in Tokyo; they've been shunned by capitalism as well, and although several of them hold down jobs, they don't bring home enough money to make ends meet. Morality is revealed as a gray zone given to countless variables; thefts of food and toiletries are seen as necessary actions, though they eventually take a toll on the young children who toe the family line. Koreeda frequently emulates the radical simplicity and aching humanism of Ozu, and at its best, Shoplifters
recalls one of the Japanese master's finest works, I Was Born, But..., with its attention to how social and financial expectations distort family dynamics.
18. Black Panther
Black Panther can't quite escape its origin as a Marvel superhero blockbuster, and it's unfortunate that the movie's guardedly hopeful ending places salvation in the context of the military-industrial complex (all the ghetto needs to resurrect itself is the beneficence of the richest country on Earth and its high-tech wizardry). But Ryan Coogler's film is still the most culturally vital superhero film ever made, and its Afrofuturist aesthetic, along with its immersive depiction of an African civilization that represents the height of human progress, is a bold and cathartic vision. It's surprising how few critics are giving credit where it's due on their end-of-the-year recap lists: only ten months ago, everyone was proclaiming Black Panther a revolution in Hollywood storytelling, though now most people seem to have moved on to the next fad. This is an indication of the short attention spans of most commentators, not of the movie's own deficiencies (though it does have a few). The film is constrained by its Hollywood trappings, but the extent of its social commitment is all the more remarkable because of it: how many other franchise tentpoles offer a "villain" that forces us to question the value of anarchist terrorism as a political tool? Yes, Erik Killmonger is ultimately vilified, but his sacrifice is so moving because he's the film's most radical character; as the end credits roll (to the tune of Kendrick Lamar and SZA), we ask ourselves whose approach, Killmonger's or T'Challa's, is more expedient in a world without the luxury of superheroes.
A parade of misery, perhaps, but one that uses the tropes of melodrama to evoke sympathy for the plight of international refugees. A 12-year-old boy named Zain (played by real-life Syrian refugee Zain al Rafeea) sues his parents for neglect, but underlying that accusation is the more stinging crime of bringing him into a heartless world. Through the frame story of his courtroom testimony, we learn how Zain fled his family after his 11-year-old sister was sold off into marriage; how he met an Ethiopian refugee named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her infant son, whom she supports by working as a janitor in an amusement park; and why he was forced to return to his family to commit a violent act that he thought was morally necessary. Hardships pile upon tragedies, and the movie occasionally overplays its point by appending maudlin string music and gratuitous close-ups of the actors' pained expressions, but it's not hard to imagine that uncountable people across the globe have encountered situations just as tragic if not worse. As such, Capernaum turns into a sincere testament to the human spirit, and if it occasionally begs for our sympathy too aggressively, that sympathy is well-placed and imperative. The relentlessly somber tone ultimately serves a powerful purpose: in the very last shot, when the film finally does offer us a semblance of hope, it feels well-earned and nearly miraculous.
20. Sorry to Bother You
So much of Sorry to Bother You is admirable in concept and flawed in execution: the characters are shallow cyphers, their behavior inscrutable and their motivations seemingly irrelevant; the aesthetic execution is sloppy, especially early on, when scenes are haphazardly edited and camera placement is almost arbitrary; and the provocative, satirical tone is too eager to shock, with ultraviolent reality TV shows and performance artists pelted with blood-filled condoms. But then another scene arrives that astounds you with its outrage—especially after a late plot twist reroutes the movie into allegorical horror/sci-fi territory—and the urgency and rarity of the film's caustic commentary is made clear. This may be a movie easier to appreciate than to experience, but that's not necessarily a critique; it acts as a more abrasive counterpart to 2017's Get Out and heralds the arrival of a must-see directorial voice.