This year, films were emboldened to be themselves and to follow their creators’ obsessions into increasingly wild-and-wooly places.
Film critics find themselves in an exhilarating and frustrating situation: Cinema keeps getting better—more formally adventurous, auto-critical, and responsive to the chaos of the society that yields it—but at the price of being less and less seen. This was a banner year for cinema, but how many of the films below have been able to penetrate Disney’s essential monopoly on the mainstream populace’s adulation? Yet perhaps this widening gulf between artisan films and pop culture at large is benefiting the former. With a certain portion of studio filmmaking that’s essentially incapable of losing money in place, and with streaming sites that are voraciously in need of “content,” other films are emboldened to be themselves and to follow their creators’ obsessions into increasingly wild-and-wooly places.
Dennis Hopper’s vision of an immersive, unmooring, self-annihilating cinema, as he proffered in The Last Movie (which was gloriously restored by Arbelos and released on Blu-ray this year), seems more urgent than ever before. We can watch movies whenever we want on too many devices to succinctly name, and many of us can be localized stars via our cellphones and platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. Cinema, then, is both more and less than art; endless variations of it serve as a kind of cultural oxygen.
In this light, 2018 was an ideal year for people to finally see a version of Orson Welles’s long-delayed The Other Side of the Wind, a brilliant hall-of-mirrors freak show about the comingling realities of art and life as governed by art. Hopper, who appears in the film, would surely approve, and he might’ve been taken with Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline and Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17, which also utilize and portray cinema as an ultimate dimension of emotional experience that’s capable, in the right hands, of refashioning reality. Notions of reality, especially as forged by masculine pride, are also deconstructed in some of this year’s most invigoratingly caustic imports, such as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After.
This year also offered a crop of remarkably good “issues” films, reminding us that certain traditions can remain invigorating if they’re tended to by sensitive caretakers. Spike Lee’s BlacKklansman, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, and George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, to name but a few of Hollywood’s examinations of racial strife in 2018, shook up classic social protest formulas with a bold mix of tones and acting that stressed the personal violation of this country’s fealty to white patriarchal power.
This was the year that American cinema seemed to first fully respond to the escalating hatred of the current political administration, most notably in BlacKklansman’s piercing coda, and in the challenging empathy of Frederick Wiseman’s American requiem, Monrovia, Indiana. The film offers something like a master image for this year in cinema and in life writ national as well as global: of a grave as it’s filled in by a bulldozer. The image is foreboding yet inescapably beautiful, suggesting that perhaps a figurative sun may shine again, after undetermined costs have been paid. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
Wang Bing’s 495-minute Dead Souls recalls his 2002 debut, West of the Tracks, in the scope and scale of its ambitions. Wang’s subject, again, is an era in Chinese cultural history that’s in danger of being lost to memory: the one-party state’s Anti-Rightist Campaign, and the countless atrocities committed in the name of “eliminating bad elements.” The party capitalized on the climate of sanctioned criticism it created during 1956’s Hundred Flowers Movement by reversing its stance a year later, and condemning those who had voiced anything resembling dissent. These “traitors” were forced to leave their homes and live in “re-education” labor camps—which experienced the worst of the great Chinese famine, and resulted in the deaths of thousands. Focusing on the Jiabiangou and Mingshui camps, both of which were located in the Gobi Desert, Dead Souls represents an exhaustive aural history, told by the dwindling number of survivors of these camps. Wang’s interviews often clock in at feature length, with only a handful of cuts, but they attain a breadth of detail and textured experience that may not exist anywhere else in cinema. The anguish expressed, and experiences described, by the survivors certainly can overlap with each other, and even become repetitive, but it’s ultimately this unification of perspective that gives Dead Souls its authority—and allows it to become an incisive reappropriation of collectivist solidarity. Sam C. Mac
Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite has garnered comparisons to Barry Lyndon, and with good reason, as it’s safe to say that no period piece since Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece has captured the milieu of 18th-century British aristocracy with such an incisive wickedness. In both films, the refined manners of baroque Europe are recognized as a thin veneer for the barbarity that underlies civilization, though Lanthimos’s presentation of this oxymoron veers further into the absurd. The plot has Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen member of the landed gentry, ruthlessly manipulate her way to the top of English society, attempting to supplant her cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), as the lady-in-waiting of an ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). In The Favourite’s version of an aristocratic power play, delicate political maneuvering is likely to be capped off with a violent shove, a hurled object, or a shouted C-word, and Lanthimos matches his characters’ grotesque behavior with shots that employ ostentatious slow motion and fish-eye lenses, distorting the lush interiors of Queen Anne’s palace. The film is funny, sometimes outrageously so, because it captures something recognizable and particularly evident in today’s politics: At the highest echelons of society, human pettiness still prevails, and power breeds not elegance but crudity. Pat Brown
Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a nifty little paradox of a film: a naturalistic exploration of the miserable conditions of Italy’s poor that isn’t entirely bound to the tenets of realism. Rohrwacher unravels her third feature across time and space, following the age-defying Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) from his time in rural Italy, where he’s part of a small community of isolated tobacco sharecroppers, to his assimilation, many years later, into the Italian population at large. What emerges is a portrait of an innocent man who, regardless of whatever time he occupies, is tethered to the exploited class. Rohrwacher remains endearingly sympathetic to all her characters throughout, regarding the eternally altruistic Lazzaro with a particularly ardent sense of admiration. Take it from the organ music that inexplicably exits a city church and follows and comforts Lazzaro and his gang of other good-natured beggars after they’re thrown out of God’s house. The film’s gentle magical realism, which conjures a childlike wonder, is heartening for how it insists on giving strength to the perpetually downtrodden. Wes Greene
Blake Williams’s Prototype is at once a calm rebuttal to the enduring banality of narrative film convention, as well as a loving paean to the simplest, most inescapable qualities of the medium. The familiar characteristics of narrative filmmaking—such as plot and characters—are absent, effectively lending the film a sense of unease. Williams, one of the most erudite, eloquent film critics currently working, has long been a proponent of 3D, and Prototype makes the most meaningful use of the technology since Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (one of Williams’s favorite films). Prototype is obsessed with antiquated technology, especially television sets, on which scenes of nature and other occurrences are rendered surreal, almost alien, through abstract compositions, rhythmic editing, and shot duration. The film is a sensorial assault, and a soporific, soothing meditation on the past, and present, of cinema. Greg Cwik
When Claude Lanzmann’s sprawling nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah was released in 1985, it reversed received notions of cinema’s relationship to history, as it used film not to preserve or recreate a historical moment, but to reveal the continued presence of the past in the contemporary world. When Lanzmann died this past summer at the age of 92, he left behind Shoah: Four Sisters, a four-part addendum to his 1985 masterwork. The single-sitting interviews with survivors that comprise each part are now as far removed from us in time as the Holocaust was from the women interviewed, but their testimonies bring into view the lived reality and lasting toll of their experiences. Shoah demands a more ethical form of attention than we’re used to in dealing with history on film; the soberly presented words of a survivor offer no pattern of tension and release, none of the promised catharsis of narrative. Perhaps the most important lesson of Shoah: Four Sisters is that there’s no zooming out and apprehending the horror of systematic genocide in a condensed moral image. We can only, as Lanzmann’s camera frequently does, zoom in on the faces of those who lived through it, and let them speak their truth. Brown
Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma marries the relaxed narrative style of Y Tu Mamá También with the dazzling technical precision of Gravity. Set in 1970s Mexico and inspired almost entirely by the filmmaker’s childhood memories, it’s a sweeping domestic epic told primarily from the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), an indigenous woman working as a housekeeper for a middle-class, and somewhat dysfunctional, family. A leisurely first act allows the viewer to revel in Cuarón’s meticulous reconstruction of Mexico City. The streets teem with life in a manner that proves utterly transportive, and the sense of authenticity is heightened by the absence of a musical score. But Cuarón’s crisp monochrome cinematography lends the film an otherworldly sheen, and as he thrusts his protagonists into a series of increasingly overwrought set pieces, it becomes clear that we’re being presented with an abstract memoir fueled more by raw emotion and unresolved guilt than a commitment to historical accuracy. Paul O’Callaghan
The bourgeois Brooklyn of Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits is a “wasteland in the middle.” The film opens with an airplane flying off to some unknown destination, the first indication of the characters’ discontent with their city, followed by a scarcely grooveful performance of “New York Groove.” The singer is 25-year-old foreigner Naomi (Emily Browning), and like the interstitial dates that appear on screen throughout Golden Exits, her youth serves as a constant reminder of time’s passage. The mere presence of Naomi taunts the various Gen X-ers who enter into and around her orbit, including two married couples who begin to question their commitment to commitment, examining past mistakes and present instabilities. Perry, as in his previous films, focuses on faces, and the intensity of the close-up. What’s different this time is the passivity of the expressions: Where Listen Up Philip and especially Queen of Earth were built around big moments of emotional upheaval, Golden Exits is all painfully unresolved repression. It’s a tone bolstered by an almost uncanny sense of atmosphere; the characters, in particular Chlöe Sevigny’s Alyssa, fortify their anxieties with cryptic, evasive musings, while composer Keegan DeWitt’s score pirouettes ominously around them. Perry absorbs both John Cassavetes’s bracing emotional exhibitionism and mumblecore’s tendencies of introversion, resulting in a film that’s at once classicist and contemporary. Mac
Hong Sang-soo reminds one of John Peel’s apt summary of post-punk band the Fall: always different, always the same. The filmmaker barely let news of his affair with Kim Min-hee hit tabloids before he folded the subject and his own complicated feelings about it into his self-reflexive filmography, producing the excoriating On the Beach at Night Alone and the more whimsical, if no less observant, Claire’s Camera. But the best of these reaction pieces is The Day After, which takes the brilliant step of casting Kim not as the romantic partner but a woman mistaken for a jezebel by her new boss’s cuckqueaned wife. This makes her an unwitting fourth vertex in a love triangle, forcing her to be both spectator and active participant. This leads to riotous scenes that revise Hong’s tried-and-true formula of pitting justifiably enraged women against the feeble self-defenses of weak men by placing Areum in the middle of them in ad-hoc group therapy. Gradually, Areum’s sense of self fades as she becomes defined by the other characters’ misconceptions of her, crystallizing Hong’s regular use of narrative replays to illustrate the friction between the way we are all the protagonists of our own story and a supporting player in everyone else’s. Jake Cole
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a work of both structural rigor and deeply felt yet measured rage. Using a wide array of stylistic devices, from red-tinted images and on-screen text to superimpositions and ominous, monotone narration, Travis Wilkerson deftly interrogates and unravels his own great-grandfather’s horrifying history of racial and sexual violence. Through this dizzying and discursive journey toward confronting his relative’s murderous past, Wilkerson transforms his personal resentment and seething indignation into a universal cry for justice and equality. Yet Wilkerson consciously avoids turning his film into a white-savior story, as evidenced by his takedown of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. He instead constructs a moving paean to the African-American histories that white supremacy often erases, including his great-grandfather’s victim, Bill Spann, and various obscure civil rights leaders. History is written by the winners, but Wilkerson’s stunning documentary proves the value and extraordinary power in exhuming the buried and forgotten histories of the dispossessed, while at the same time remaining keenly aware of the privilege that allows him to do so on a public stage. Derek Smith
Commissioned for the closing night of 2017’s San Francisco Film Festival, The Green Fog sees Guy Maddin reteam with regular collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson to deliver a playful riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Stitched together entirely from excerpts of other San Francisco-set films and TV shows, and set to a suitably bombastic original score performed by the Kronos Quartet, the film occasionally seeks to reconstruct specific moments from the source material; the use of a brief clip from Sister Act to recall the sudden approach of a nun in Vertigo’s final scene is particularly inspired. But more often it channels Hitchcock’s broader obsessions—voyeurism, deception, toxic romance—while marching to its own strange beat. The filmmakers repeatedly strike comic gold simply by cutting dialogue from scenes; conversations in restaurants are transformed into bafflingly enigmatic exchanges, all furtive glances and stifled sighs. And much of the absurdist humor requires no prior knowledge of Hitchcock. In one standout sequence, a group of dour cops soberly assess an NSYNC music video as if it were crime scene evidence. For anyone even vaguely familiar with Vertigo, though, The Green Fog’s montages of people running across rooftops, driving down steep streets, and dangling off buildings deftly illustrate the extent to which the 1958 thriller has become the archetypal screen depiction of San Francisco. O’Callaghan
Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls begins with a woman sobbing alone in her car and ends with a group of ladies screaming into the void, but the film is no downer. On the contrary, it’s one of the kindest, funniest, most humane workplace comedies ever made, a film that observes the countless struggles and indignities of life in the service industry while recognizing the sororal sense of solidarity that develops among women tramped down by the iron heel of consumer capitalism. Bujalski finds camaraderie and even a sense of empowerment among the working women of a tawdry Hooters-style beer-and-boobs joint called Double Whammies, where a tenacious general manager, Lisa (Regina Hall), looks after her staff of scantily clad servers like a mother bear caring for her cubs. In a magnificently authentic performance, Hall inhabits the role of a woman whose calm professionalism and warm-hearted generosity conceal the stress, sadness, and personal pain of her work. The employees of Double Whammies are used and abused by their employer, subjected to casual sexual harassment and inane workplace policies, but they muddle through by sticking together. Keith Watson
As the title itself suggests, dualities abound in Spike Lee’s disarmingly funny and humane BlacKkKlansman, which is based on the story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in 1970s Colorado. The film’s hero, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), is a man divided: a black man who’s also a cop, and who’s adept at using his “white voice.” But so is his partner, Flip (Adam Driver), a Jewish man who—after infiltrating the KKK—struggles to confront a cultural heritage he has, until now, never truly considered. Lee uses the innate absurdity of Stallworth’s investigation not in service of a beat-by-beat biopic, but an inventive comedic police procedural that toys with notions of public and private identities. Highlighting the hypocrisies and contradictions of the KKK’s myopic worldview, Lee viciously mocks white supremacy and its supporters, using repeated phone conversations between Stallworth and David Duke (Topher Grace), who believed he was talking to a fervent supporter of his cause, to set up the final comedic rimshot. But in the end, the humor fades and our current reality rises with a vengeance in the form of a gut punch of a coda which instantaneously bridges the seemingly massive gap between the ’70s and the present in a most terrifying fashion. Smith
Paul King’s first Paddington film honored the spirit of Michael Bond’s stories about the famous marmalade-loving bear while infusing them with a madcap sensibility all its own. But that film turned out to be merely a prelude to the gloriously daffy absurdism of Paddington 2, a wilder, weirder, funnier, more heartfelt and eye-popping, and, above all, more fully realized representation of King’s eccentric sensibility. Fusing the pastry-shop aesthetic of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with Chaplinesque slapstick and a whimsical, fable-like approach to narrative, King plops us into a world out of time—one full of carnivals, pop-up books, junk shops, steam engines, and calypso bands that magically appear out of nowhere to sing songs about window washing. But of the film’s many deliriously preposterous elements, the most surprising may be Hugh Grant’s wildly over-the-top performance as Paddington’s pompous thespian antagonist, Phoenix Buchanan. Grant overacts with such shit-eating glee that you can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t been doing this sort of swing-for-the-fences camp his entire career. In an era of relentless vulgarity and endemic mistrust, Paddington 2 stands out for its atmosphere of homey cheer and profound belief in the harmonizing power of warmth, politeness, and the absurd. Watson
Joel and Ethan Coen continue to stretch the boundaries of their art, fashioning a distinctive blend of brutal comedy and existential despair, which the filmmakers understand to be one in the same. If many audiences continue to mistake the Coens’ despair for callousness, then that’s their loss, though it’s hard to fathom how one can miss the trembling vulnerability of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. An anthology of six stories emphasizing the oft-sentimentalized cruelty of the American west, the film opens on a misleading note, following a folksy gunslinger as he’s revealed to be a coldly proficient killer. Though this story has the formalist bravura for which the Coens are known, with showy murder sequences that are designed to elicit cheers, the Coens gradually contextualize the character as a sociopath, and the laughs they elicit from you may very well stick in your throat. The story’s mournful conclusion paves the tonal path for the remainder of the film, which emphasizes the loneliness and terror of life in an unformed country riven with savagery. All these stories are astonishing in various ways, but “The Gal Who Rattled” is a particular classic, with the Coens directly confronting the heartbreak that has always secretly driven their cinema. Bowen
In Valeska Grisebach’s Western, xenophobia is exposed as a facile response to difference. The film’s protagonist, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), a German construction worker spending the summer in rural Bulgaria helping to build a hydropower plant, turns his status as a menacing stranger into that of a welcomed guest by refusing the limitations of language. He insists on speaking German and, most significantly, in listening to the locals communicate in their own language. His openness is so sincere that a connection, if not kinship, is formed. Feelings are shared by individuals as if in apparent mockery of the borders that languages and nationalities aim to erect. Western seems to say that when one is truly listening, translation is either betrayal or redundancy. Here, conversations become much more than the ordinary exchange of verbal signs, which are largely discarded by the few characters who dare to engage with, instead of confronting, each other. Conversations become opportunities for shared vulnerability. This is evident in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, when a Bulgarian local who’s taken Meinhard to meet his family asks, less with curiosity than with the melancholic certainty of already knowing the answer, “Tell me about the planet.” Meinhard goes quiet for a while, as if wallowing in freshly reignited pain, and compares the planet to animals: “Either you eat or you get eaten.” Diego Semerene
Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Clayton Dillard
After making a series of films over the last few years that took encouraging views of communities and institutions, celebrating how people of different backgrounds can be brought around to new ways of thinking, Frederick Wiseman settles with Monrovia, Indiana on a milieu whose relative social, cultural, and religious homogeneity results in a brutal narrowing of horizons for the eponymous town’s population. Over the course of a relatively curt two-and-a-half-hours, the film volleys between town council meetings, commercial farming shifts, freemasonry ceremonies, class sessions at a high school, and more. Wiseman stitches each episode together with depopulated shots of Monrovia’s one-block main street and surrounding cornfields—all edited in uptempo fashion to emphasize the almost chilling emptiness of the town. The filmmaker lingers attentively on the minutia of labor within Monrovia, even as he leaves out the ultimate upshot of all this repetitive work. What awaits the souls of Monrovia—or contemporary America, for that matter—other than the grave? Wiseman’s elegy, which concludes with one of the most profoundly unsettling monologues in his oeuvre, seeks this answer and comes up wanting. Carson Lund
Barry Jenkins’s adaption of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk is elegantly structured, seesawing back and forth in time to illuminate the daily injustices faced by a young black artist, Fonny (Stephan James), and his girlfriend, Tish (KiKi Layne). The film intercuts the couple’s blossoming romance with Tish’s struggle to get Fonny out of prison after he’s falsely accused of rape. Jenkins rarely shifts his focus from the pair and Tish’s family—indeed, he often frames his characters in unblinking Jonathan Demme-style closeups—so that when we see archival images of police brutality at the end of the film, we’re reminded again that Tish and Fonny’s story is a microcosm of black experience. If Beale Street Could Talk is also proof of Jenkins’s talent for eliciting strong performances from his actors. Layne dazzles as Tish, but it’s Regina King, as Tish’s mother, Sharon, who steals the film. In one memorable scene, Sharon flies to Puerto Rico to wrestle the truth from a stubborn rape victim, but before she confronts the woman, Sharon must decide between wearing a wig or her natural hair. As she looks at herself in the mirror, grappling with how much of her blackness she should bring to the fight, we sense that she feels she’s fighting an impossible battle. Yet she pushes forward, like so many in the film, speaking powerfully to Baldwin’s message of patience and endurance. A.J. Serrano
Abbas Kiarostami’s final film, a study of five paintings and 19 photographs, is his ultimate reduction of cinematic form. Yet these are anything but still lifes, with animation and in-camera effects adding dynamic motion to the paintings and photographs. Chimneys in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow subtly begin to spew smoke, while a silhouetted image of a bird and tree comes to resemble the animated work of Lotte Reiniger. Through it all, Kiarostami continues to develop his core theme, that of the slurred and porous boundaries between reality and art. By using effects to illustrate this theme, he makes more explicit the unreality of his art while nonetheless pulling some clever illusions to make one forget that this is all fake. At times, Kiarostami’s digital trickery, rudimentary yet engrossing, recalls David Lynch’s use of similar effects in Twin Peaks: The Return. At once a departure and distillation of Kiarostami’s style, 24 Frames is a fitting send-off for this grand master of Iranian cinema. Cole
Director Robert Greene’s Bisbee ‘17 frames performance as an act of historical reckoning. In charting the progress of Bisbee, Arizona’s recreation of 1917’s horrific Bisbee Deportation—in which a coal company transported and stranded hundreds of striking workers in the nearby desert—Greene creates his most ambitious work to date. Wiseman-esque snapshots capturing Bisbee’s citizens rehearsing and providing their various opinions on the deportation accumulate to form a head-spinningly complex commentary on America’s historical mistreatment of minorities, immigrants, and the working class. Bisbee’s history becomes yet another example of how the “Land of the Free” motto is, if anything, a misnomer. But in also following Fernando, a citizen tasked to play a striking miner, Bisbee ‘17 shows the awakening of social consciousness. Presenting the disturbing recreation of the Bisbee Deportation with earnest intensity, the film posits, as Fernando realizes, that the only true way to grapple with the sins of the past is to live it. Greene
Once the ruler of the Western Hemisphere, the Spanish Empire was considerably weakened by the late 18th century. The Catholic monarchy’s supremacy—at this point little more than a dream of power—was unravelling; the crown’s subjects in the New World were no longer Europeans, but not quite Americans either. Call it an existential crisis, and one whose effects are felt centuries on. Ever the dissector of the vices and petty weaknesses of Argentina’s ruling classes, Lucrecia Martel is perhaps the perfect chronicler of royal Spain’s twilight in the colonies. Zama is a historical fever dream told through the devolving subjectivity of the impotent Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a low-level Spanish functionary in Argentina who wants to leave his backwater post but is blocked from doing so at every juncture. Sure, masculine frustration is as well-worn a theme as any, but it’s rare that a film can take such particular and humiliating failures—the dogpiling aspirational and libidinal upsets of this single, irrelevant servant of the crown—and make them coincide with the anxious insecurity and moral turpitude that have kept colonialism’s afterlife running. And certainly, few films display such careful modulation of visual and aural perspective, giving a darkly comic, surreal image of the havoc that colonialism, and its agents’ constant need to appear powerful, wreaks on the minds and bodies of both colonizer and colonized. Peter Goldberg
Time has steadily eroded the patience of—and prospects for—the artist and divorced mother played by Juliette Binoche in Claire Denis’s funny, sad, and capacious encyclopedia of dashed expectations and missed opportunities. Cinematographer Agnès Godard, Denis’s longstanding collaborator, captures Paris with an autumnal radiance that’s nonetheless a bit cramped and shadowy; this, along with the steady drumbeat of men who Binoche’s Isabelle is lustful, hesitant, and disdainful about, suggest that Paris is no longer the world of possibilities it once was for Let the Sunshine In’s heroine. The director, working with the novelist Christine Angot as a co-writer, devotes herself almost exclusively to Isabelle’s romantic travails, largely eliding her roles as a worker and a mother. This slyly radical act of structural generosity, full of diamond-cut edits that may span hours or weeks, yields a symphonic study of conflicting and perhaps irreconcilable desires, every note of which is distinctly legible on Binoche’s face. Denis’s most unassuming masterpiece deftly translates Isabelle’s anger, frustration, lust, and hope into a film that’s as wise as it is bittersweet. Christopher Gray
Film is a collaborative art form, and questions of authorship, even ownership, have been asked since the advent of the medium. Most people, in a post-Andrew Sarris world, credit directors as the progenitors of films; theirs is the vision which unspools before our eyes, which lends their films an impetus and a soul. Orson Welles’s final film, shot on and off for much of the 1970s, with editing dragging into the ’80s, was belatedly completed thanks to a bevy of filmmakers, notably Peter Bogdanovich (who stars alongside John Huston) and Frank Marshall. But The Other Side of the Wind, in its variegated indulgences, abstract angles, playful lens work, its film-within-a-film structure and aphoristic musings on art and trenchant, often salacious sense of humor, remains undoubtedly Welles’s film. A self-aware, sometimes self-loathing creation—F for Fake by way of Russ Meyer—the film is a concoction of excess and incision, a lascivious phantasmagoria, a mockumentary, a filmic essay on celebrityhood and affluence and influence and fandom. Cwik
Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning” captures the creeping surreality of the author’s worlds. The film’s main character, Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), seemingly can’t be sure of anything. He meets and sleeps with Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a woman who insists she grew up with him, but he can’t remember her. She asks him to watch her cat while she’s on vacation, but in an almost comically literal take on Schroedinger’s famous paradox, the cat is nowhere to be found in Haemi’s one-room apartment. Then Haemi suddenly disappears, but is she really gone, or is it just that Jongsu can’t find her? Burning gradually finds its main narrative thread, using a dream logic that constructs a reality at the same time as it subtly undermines our trust in it. Haemi returns from vacation with a new boyfriend, Ben (Steven Yuen), a quietly arrogant millionaire who gets off on burning down greenhouses. The meek, unreadable Jongsu is haunted—or perhaps jealously fascinated—by the naked wantonness of Ben’s destructive hobby, the man’s license to indulge his arbitrary power fantasies. When Haemi disappears again and Jongsu begins to suspect Ben is responsible, Lee’s drama of South Korean class conflict becomes, true to its title, the best slow-burn thriller in recent memory. Brown
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is apocalyptic in the most fundamental sense of the word. The comfortable demarcations of metaphor and reality, which render other films safely removed from viewers—be they spiritual or topical message dramas—are stripped away here. The urgent matter at hand in the film is the inexorable fact of climate change, as Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is propelled to become an environmental activist and stand up to corporate interests and human apathy. Toller is a minister in a maze of environmental decay, existential worry, and physical disease, and his own unraveling leads him to self-martyrdom. First Reformed reverberates in the head—in the way it embroils us in Toller’s spiritual hunger for permanence. Hanging over every edifice, especially the First Reformed Church, is a dark specter of silence. Prayers, journals, memorials, anniversaries, best-of-the-year film lists—such things keep us tucked in a neatly compartmentalized present moment, but First Reformed is conscientious of its own transience. What will the garden of earthly delights mean after the last human is dead? Schrader is one of American cinema’s great architects of loneliness, and First Reformed understands how it’s the weight of loneliness that fills us with fear and trembling, compelling us to zealously pursue the certainty of consoling ideas. Niles Schwartz
Your email address will not be published.
Sign Up for Our Weekly Newsletter
© 2022 Slant Magazine
The 25 Best Films of 2018 – slantmagazine
This year, films were emboldened to be themselves and to follow their creators’ obsessions into increasingly wild-and-wooly places.