In all deference to the congregants of the church of Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning but confused Roma, 2018 struck this critic as a truly stacked year of worthy cinema lacking one monolithic landmark. The most financially successful film in my top 10 is currently regarded as the year’s biggest disappointment, and as much as I’d like to blame the right-wing media, perhaps a space epic with an emotionally withdrawn hero wasn’t the easiest sell film studios had to make this year. Many films of great artistic (and box-office) worth lurk just below this unranked list, but these are the ten I trust will grow and endure with time.
Bisbee ‘17: The slippery documentarian Robert Greene goes to an Arizona mining town and unearths the year’s most ambitious film, a work that excavates all manner of ghosts as the director not only investigates, but recreates a century-old atrocity.
First Man: Damien Chazelle’s flashy, overeager Whiplash and La La Land left me wholly unprepared for the stark pragmatism of this Neil Armstrong biopic, which portrays a man so desperate to escape his grief that he repeatedly risks death in order to get out of this world. Deeply relatable, and the action sequences are uniquely immersive.
First Reformed: Perhaps the only good work of fiction about climate change, Paul Schrader’s austere yet miraculous drama boasts career-best work by Ethan Hawke and Cedric the Entertainer and a series of dazzling ruptures: flights into the sublime, descents into Pepto-Bismol-fueled madness, and a truly remarkable floor lamp. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins follows up his Oscar-winning Moonlight with a jaw-droppingly beautiful adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, which wraps a complex treatment of institutional racism in a brilliantly structured and deeply earnest love story. (In theaters soon.)
Leave No Trace: This is Debra Granik’s first fiction feature since Winter’s Bone, and it’s an exquisitely modulated portrait of a father and daughter negotiating life on the margins of society. It’s also the rare film by a director who has evidently researched and thought through the ambitions and daily struggles of this lifestyle. (Available for rent.)
Let the Sunshine In: The great Claire Denis undoes the romantic comedy, turning the travails of an artist played by Juliette Binoche into a catalog of dashed expectations and missed opportunities. Brusque and fickle, the film is an echo of our irreconcilable whims and desires, but after repeat viewings it feels like it contains all the wisdom of the world. (Streaming on Hulu.)
Minding the Gap: Director Bing Liu chronicles the lives of three skateboarders (including himself) in Rockford, Illinois, paying particular attention to the forbidding gravity of a fading industrial town. Confronting issues abuse and generational inertia in between moments of great vibrancy, Liu’s debut is as striking as it is devastating. (Streaming on Hulu.)
The Rider: A fiction film rooted in documentary ethics, Chloe Zhao’s portrait of a grievously injured horse trainer struggling to get back in the saddle is in equal measure a rousing athletic comeback film and a work of deliberate, sensitive social portraiture. (Available to rent.)
Western: Valeska Grisebach’s drama concerns a group of German construction workers on a job in Bulgaria, but it’s primarily an intelligent (and unexpectedly gripping) inversion of Western tropes, positing its progressive Marlboro Man-meets-John Wayne protagonist as a corrective to the entrenched sexism and isolationism of the modern masculine psyche. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
Zama: No director in the world has a higher slugging percentage than Lucrecia Martel, and her horror film/office comedy/period phantasmagoria is the year’s most impressive technical feat, guided by a strange, surreal soundscape and gobsmacking multiplanar images. Llamas and slaves wander in and out of the frame to disrupt the pretensions of a functionary in 18th-century Argentina, and this and other interruptions yield a funny, singular indictment of colonialism. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)