Disagreements are glorious—maybe not in politics or in bed, but for sure onscreen. As 2018 comes to a close, it’s clear that the year’s best films vibrated with discontent, attracting partisanship and furious debate but very little consensus. And that’s totally fine with us: Movies are, at root, a conversation with the past, with strangers and with our own desires. We grappled with unknowable evil (Hereditary, Burning, Suspiria), pushed the limits of empathy (Roma, Private Life, Shoplifters) and punched the envelope of our abilities (First Man, Support the Girls, Widows). And in all cases, we emerged the better for it. Here’s but a small sampling of the best of those discussions.
Joshua Rothkopf's top 10 movies of 2018
From its first screenings at last January’s Sundance—where audiences slowly discerned the shape of pure terror—Ari Aster’s ruinous feature debut held us in its thrall. On a longer timeline, the movie will join the ranks of classic possession movies, welcoming Toni Collette into a spooked sisterhood that includes Mia Farrow’s Rosemary and Linda Blair’s Regan. This was domestic horror at it deepest and most relatable.
The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun smiles right at you (beyond creepy) in this expertly nuanced South Korean mystery—there’s a good chance he’s a serial killer, and perhaps that’s the easiest way to enter into director Lee Chang-dong’s simmering triumph, a cousin to American Psycho. But, based on an elliptical short story by Haruki Murakami, the movie scrapes at something larger and more metaphysical, gnawing at your mind days after you see it.
Director Steve McQueen, forever a baller for 12 Years a Slave, channeled his intensity into this rousing crime film, a Chicago-set cousin to The Fugitive and an infinitesimal pivot to the mainstream. He lost none of his edge: The craft was intoxicating, as was his trio of actors on top—Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and the ceaselessly inventive Elizabeth Debicki, who unleashed the best acting of the year.
Fans of Call Me by Your Name had every reason to expect sexiness from Luca Guadagnino’s update of the 1977 Italian witches’ brew. But no one was anticipating this elegant top-to-bottom revision, one that recasts the supernatural in the context of Nazi atrocities, sweaty modern-dance moves and hot-blooded female potency. If we must have remakes of horror films, let them all be this thoughtful and challenging.
Russian malfeasance dominated the news, fake or real, all year, with no end in sight. So it was oddly comforting to see the Politburo parodied viciously on the big screen, thanks to Veep genius Armando Iannucci. His dive into Soviet-era shenanigans is a scream: scalpel-sharp and laced with savage insults. Ultimately, it came within spitting distance of Monty Python’s finest political smackdowns.
During a year in which we lost Shoah’s Claude Lanzmann, his core principal—the need to confront the evils of the past in an ever-vigilant present—was taken up by radical documentarian Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine), who chronicled an Arizona town reckoning with its century-old racism. His results were unforgettable: the year’s most inspirational film and a way forward.
Indie legend Tamara Jenkins makes feature films at her own pace, roughly once a decade. She’s got only three of them so far, but between Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), The Savages (2007) and her latest, they’re worth the wait: raw, humorous portraits of urban crisis and personal desperation. The tricky subject of IVF and starting a family late in life doesn’t jump out like grist for a comedy; Jenkins raids it for deep insights and an unwavering sense of empathy.
Writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s mighty Italian drama begins gently, like a fable, enmeshed in the customs of a tiny fictional rural community. But the modern world rushes into to it, and the movie takes on a cautionary tone, tinted by apocalyptic sadness. Cinematically, Happy as Lazzaro felt like the best of Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire)—a poetic tale with sociopolitical backbone. It will grow in time and reveal itself as the masterpiece it is.
Family is where you find it. That was the tagline I thought of after being wrecked by this incredible Japanese drama, based on a news story about a makeshift clan of semi-homeless survivors who find strength in solidarity. Genius filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is too sophisticated for taglines, but he’s welcome to it. Let this movie awaken your compassion.
Jonathan Demme could have made this sweetly relaxed ensemble comedy set at a corporate “breastaurant” where the scantily clad waitstaff—led by a stalwart Regina Hall—are constantly summoning inner strength. I don’t want to overpraise Andrew Bujalski’s film, because modesty is what makes it special, but there’s tons of heart here. Quietly, the movie feels major: a definitive piece of American independent filmmaking, circa right now.
Tomris Laffly's top 10 movies of 2018
The aching work of art that writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Gravity) was born to make, Roma summons the Mexico City of the filmmaker’s childhood and lovingly honors the selfless live-in maid (Yalitza Aparicio) who helped raise him. As textured and painfully alive as any real-life memory, Cuarón’s masterpiece bursts with humanism throughout.
Locating nerve-racking tension in the most unlikely of places (you’ll never look at surveillance-cam footage the same way), Scottish director Lynne Ramsay undergirds her thriller with a delicate sense of broken psychology. As a hit man pushed to a place of self-doubt, Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance of unforgettable vulnerability; his broken, hammer-wielding antihero redefines the notion of machismo.
Don’t expect neat answers at the end of Lee Chang-dong’s moody psychological thriller: A cat goes missing, ladies vanish and a mysterious hotshot may or may not be to blame in this atmospheric (and surprisingly funny) mystery that masterfully toys with expectations while casually dismantling Korean class warfare on the side.
It doesn’t get more personal for a filmmaker than fictionalizing her own fertility struggles. The laughs are uncomfortable and the tears are real in Tamara Jenkins’s bighearted dramedy about an urbane fortysomething couple (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, both excellent) grappling with bad genetic luck. It’s an instant NYC classic in which the happy ending that matters isn’t a baby but strengthened marital unity.
Forget the bad-faith controversy surrounding the number of American flags planted in La La Land wunderkind Damien Chazelle’s intimate epic: He’s onto something more soulful. His intimate Neil Armstrong story mines a pride born out of smarts, imagination and competence. It’s the right stuff that should fuel true patriotism.
Is impossible love always the most passionate? Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (also of 2013’s spiritual stunner Ida) makes a twisted case with his swoonworthy black-and-white melodrama, set over several decades in post-WWII Europe. Intensified by a soundtrack that spans from traditional folk tunes to French chanteuse pop, the romantic battle (based on the same one waged by the director’s own parents) is sexy and stubbornly turbulent, just like the relationships that smolder longest.
The secret weapon of director Marielle Heller’s literary-hoax drama is its pitch-perfect script (by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty). Melissa McCarthy takes a dramatic turn playing misanthropic letter forger Lee Israel, while the delightful Richard E. Grant winks at his Withnail & I persona. The effect is cumulatively heartbreaking, as this down-on-its-luck duo navigates NYC’s bookish streets in the early ’90s, through the palpable political residue of the decade past.
Xavier Legrand’s divorce drama doesn’t take place in a haunted hotel, but the scares of its tightly orchestrated finale are Shining-level scary. An expansion of his Oscar-nominated 2013 short, Legrand’s sure-handed feature debut mercilessly curdles into a domestic showdown in which toxic, systemically enabled male entitlement feels depressingly 2018.
Laced with several delicately realized character journeys, Yen Tan’s criminally underseen indie will make you wonder how 85 minutes can envelop such enormous emotions. Set in a conservative Texas town in the title year, this understated heartbreaker joins BPM and Angels in America in lamenting a generation of AIDS victims.
The traumatized dysfunctional family at the heart of Ari Aster’s astonishing feature debut—one of the most frightening films of recent memory—might just make you forgive your own crazy relatives. Aster’s Rosemary’s Baby-adjacent paranoia feels plausible in the hands of Toni Collette, whose instantly iconic performance is the stuff of nightmares for anyone haunted by their past.