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25 Great Films — and 5 Disappointments

It was a good year for movies. The tumultuous moral register of the times perhaps demanded it and added new contextual weight the year’s films may not otherwise have had.

No matter. For those of us who go religiously, the movies that interested us this year stretched and redefined the labels of both standard adult fare and the popcorn picture: Black Panther managed to land squarely in both, and films like Hereditary and Suspiria and Vox Lux — and the ferocious arguments they generated — seemed more in touch with the general climate of cultural engagement than something like The Wife. I like to believe I’ve noticed a generational shift in what sticks around for nice long bookings at the cinema, and perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but I think it means good things for the state of cinema in a time when its doom has seldom seemed more certain.

Here are 25 films that, at least for me, kept the reaper in the wings.

1. Lean on Pete

Sometimes you have to listen to your heart, and my heart is telling me that no film this year can top Lean On Pete, which got some restrained critical admiration and indifference from audience. It was begotten, died, and was buried in a short time span, for Lean On Pete is both the most American film of the year and the year’s toughest sell. A huge leap forward for Andrew Haigh, the masterful director of Weekend and 45 Years, Lean On Pete looks like just another boy-and-his-horse movie, and maybe it is, but it also made me cry for an hour straight, and it contains a crane shot I’ve been thinking about all year. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s why they invented movies.

2. Vox Lux

A film that could alternately be titled Fire and Fury, Vox Lux is the only movie angry enough for 2018. It packs a wallop of a premise — Natalie Portman plays a sociopathic pop star who first got famous for taking a bullet in a school shooting — and it takes it to its furthest possible cinematic extremes. It’s only Brady Corbet’s second feature as a director, but he is already confident enough to make some of the most daring narrative choices I’ve seen on screen this decade, and it deepens dramatically with repeat viewings. It’s a Rorschach test, but who could argue that this is not how we live or that Celeste is not the pop star we deserve?

3. Happy as Lazzaro

A sweeping surprise built around the twist of the year, Happy As Lazzaro could be the breakthrough for young Italian director Alice Rohrwacher. A political fairy tale of sorts, this earnest, crazily inventive yarn inspires a careful rereading of the history of Italian cinema, and anticipates an exciting future, not just for its director but for the medium itself.

4. First Reformed

The culmination of an incomparable career and the last word on all of its creator’s signature obsessions, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is chiseled to perfection as if from glass, shimmering from all angles. I ache just thinking about the majesty of the final shot.

5. Roma

Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s intimate autobiographical epic, was lavishly produced and released by Netflix. It demands to be seen however you can see it, but if you do have the opportunity to see it on a big screen, you must. Here the experience of life on Earth is depicted with both a feather-light touch and the seismic metaphysical weight of a classical drama.

6. The Favourite

A film I’ll be watching for the rest of my life. Visually ravishing, The Favourite would have more than enough to recommend it were it not buoyed by career-best performances from its three female leads. Quotable, queer, quixotic. Yaaass, queen.

7. Burning

The latest from Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea’s best filmmaker, Burning is best seen with no knowledge of what you’re getting. It’s sufficient to tell you that it’s a mysterious and moving puzzle with no correct answers and a conspicuously confusing conclusion. It’s a huge departure from his previous character studies, and it covers a lot of territory: Gender and class anxiety, capitalism and violence, power and punishment. Not to be missed.

8. Zama

A zany, inscrutable departure from Argentinian master Lucretia Martel’s previous work, Zama is an ambitious comedy of colonialist errors that begins with hopelessness and ends with despair. It contains maybe the single funniest shot of the year. And that shot involves a llama.

9. Support the Girls

If there were any justice, Regina Hall would be in the Oscar conversation for her working class hero in Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls. Bujalski’s script — which takes place mostly over the course of a day in a suburban breastaurant — contains dialogue rich and precise enough to merit comparison with the novels of Henry Green.

10. Shoplifters

The winner of this year’s Palme D’Or, Shoplifters works backwards in many ways: It is a mystery you don’t know is a mystery until it begins to solve itself. Beyond its devastating surprises and rich performances, Shoplifters is the rare film with child characters as complex as their adult counterparts.

11. Widows

Condensing its sprawling story into a taut, breathless yarn with an ensemble cast for the ages, Steve McQueen’s Widows is the studio feature of the year. The script by McQueen and Gillian Flynn is dizzy with suspense and political savvy, but the ferocious intellect of Viola Davis is the most powerful weapon on screen.

12. Amazing Grace

More than anything else I saw this year, this Aretha Franklin concert film, finally finished after more than four decades, feels like a primary document in American history: Ninety minutes of the best gospel you’ve ever heard from a devout practitioner. Forget A Star Is Born for a moment: In Amazing Grace, a star is shining.

13. Madeline’s Madeline

An experimental fever dream about a biracial New York teen actress with an unspecified mental illness and the experimental theatre troupe that is either saving her life or quickening her downward spiral. Equal parts Maya Deren, John Cassavetes, and Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, Josephine Decker’s breakthrough film is awake and alive and fresh, and the film’s lead actress, Helena Howard, gives a chaotic, gutsy performance.

14. If Beale Street Could Talk

Adapting a novel by James Baldwin, Barry Jenkins brings together many of his Moonlight collaborators and the result is another deeply satisfying, visually sumptuous heartsong. Is there anyone better at tapping untapped young talent? If Kiki Layne’s central performance is any indication, perhaps not.

15. Dogman

It didn’t get as much play as Suspiria, but Matteo Garrone’s third great movie in a row contains the most violent, shocking finale of the year. A parable about class, violence, and patriarchy, Dogman alternates skillfully between hilarity and horror, and its supporting canine cast deserves a shout-out of their own.

16. Private Life

Here’s a pleasant surprise written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Private Life begins with more than its share of New York movie tropes — the infertile urban couple, arty midlife anxiety, the perfect imperfect apartment — and then quickly turns the whole thing on its head. Credit is due in great part to Kathryn Hahn, giving a performance no other actress could give, and the astonishing newcomer Kayli Carter.

17. The Wild Boys

Five schoolboys, all played by young women, are punished with servitude at sea. A theoretically audacious, iconoclastic, and visually inventive romp through the themes and imagery of classic queer literature and cinema, the opulent, bizarre French psychodrama The Wild Boys is a defiant and delicious entry for future annals (anals?) of cult LGBTQ films. It’s horny, arguably infuriating, and it earns every trigger warning imaginable.

18. Leave No Trace

Like a good short story, Leave No Trace contains nothing extraneous and hits hard with each stroke. Debra Granik’s long-awaited follow-up to Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace is about the close bond between a father and his daughter, the forces that put them in an untenable situation, and the forces that blew it apart. It’s a film that could only be made right now, by this filmmaker, with these actors: Thomasin Grace McKenzie is a star.

19. Let The Sunshine In

At long last, Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche have made a film together, and I was so entranced by this off-kilter, formless character study of a Parisian artist who simply cannot fall in love that I sat watching it as my apartment flooded. I may need help. But it was fucking good!

20. The Tale

Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, which played to stunned audiences at Sundance in the early months of the #metoo movement, is an imperfect movie, but no movie that takes this many narrative gambles cares about perfection. The way Fox reexamines her own memories makes you reexamine the way you have always examined your own.

21. Blackkklansman

Not the very best recent Spike Lee joint — that would be the brash and brilliant Chi-Raq — but Blackkklansman is his most exuberantly entertaining work since Inside Man, and it contains spectacular filmmaking from Lee which builds up to a showstopping climax.

22. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc

Jeannette is one of the most intelligent movies of the year, but it masquerades as the stupidest. It’s a musical — mostly heavy metal — performed by children who cannot sing, dance, or act. Bruno Dumont has made some of the finest French films of the last quarter century, but his purposeful artlessness in Jeannette becomes his greatest asset, and eventually the film’s oddest decisions gain profound spiritual resonance. Be advised: There will be headbanging nuns.

23. You Were Never Really Here

A huge surprise after her disjointed We Need To Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here is Lynne Ramsay’s bloody return to fine form, and it comes in close collaboration with a swole, oft-shirtless Joaquin Phoenix and Phantom Thread composer Jonny Greenwood. It’s a film about gender and violence that is less concerned with the structures that create violence than it is the lasting, dehumanizing effects of trauma, and it is sharp as a blade and blunt as a hammer.

24. The Rider

A transporting semi-fictional Western from brand new American auteur Chloe Zhao, The Rider is a deeply humane, grounded document that takes apart and explores a true story in search of greater truths about America, storytelling, and vocation.

25. A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born transmits the closest thing to old-fashioned Hollywood studio magic in recent memory. It may be the only thing bringing our country together, and if Lady Gaga is going to win an Oscar, Lady Gaga is going to win an Oscar. No shade! Okay, maybe a little shade.

And five disappointments, in alphabetical order:

Destroyer

A shoddy retread of everything Prime Suspect and Top of the Lake did beautifully, Destroyer takes everything Nicole Kidman is offering and gives her a flimsy, forgettable cop drama that hints at deeper meaning but never gets close.

First Man

A savior to insomniacs everywhere, First Man has little to offer to the rest of us. Ryan Gosling, dead behind the eyes and apparently everywhere else, sleepwalks through this faux-Malickian ghost world of underwritten scenes barely holding up its unearned hagiography. Claire Foy should sue.

Hereditary

A hollow fret-fest that fears women and the intellectually disabled, Hereditary barely distinguishes itself from the bottom of the horror barrel, and the attention paid to Toni Collette’s, um, interesting work only underscores the ineffectiveness of everything around her.

Suspiria

An unnecessary, empty, brick-colored disaster from the word go, Suspiria is the movie that finally begs the question: How hard is it to put Tilda Swinton in your movie and put Tilda Swinton in your movie? (You cannot watch an actor act through prosthetics. I might as well have been looking at a Muppet.) It’s very difficult for me to entertain seriously a film which repeatedly loudly proclaims its grand intentions while refusing to accomplish them, especially when it involves the Holocaust for no substantial reason.

Vice

‘A tiresome pastiche of dead-in-the-water sketch concepts, Adam McKay’s atrocious Vice is the latest biopic to let the prosthetic department do the heavy lifting, while continuously calling attention to the supposed genius of its writer-director, who has no coherent ideological perspective or style to express it with. I never thought I’d utter these words but Dick Cheney deserves better.


Austin Dale

Austin Dale (he/him/his) is an LA-based writer and film critic. His essays have been published by Hello Mr. and Gayletter, and his television credits include TransparentDoubt, and the docu-series We've Been Around. He regularly reviews films for Out, and he can definitely talk on your podcast.
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