2018 felt like hitting the reset button after 2017’s political, societal, and planetary meltdown of epic proportions. Though American studio releases continued chasing the reboot/rehash culture, there was a marked shift where films with diverse perspectives like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians captured the zeitgeist. This gave the industry a much needed boost, though foreign films and documentaries remained steadfast in showcasing the wide-ranging spectrum of human experiences. Empathy and anger stood side by side (Blackkklansman, Blindspotting), while auteurs found time for quietly contemplative inner dialogues (Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk). Of course, there was plenty of brain-dead entertainment too (Venom, The Predator) and even trolling masters sticking their fingers in the wound of a sensitive culture (The House that Jack Built). Mostly, though, 2018 was a year in which there were no clear distinctions of what would work, be profitable, or move the needle, and the resulting list of 15 favorites proves the art form can still give us a glimpse into experiences different from our own. Long live the films. May they never die.
The Nothing Factory
Pedro Pinho's neorealist epic about workers in an elevator factory who are being pushed out by corporate managers is a universally searing portrait of the state completely giving up on the working class. By turns languid, funny, sad, and unexpected (those late musical interludes!), The Nothing Factory is the working class zero opus you didn't know you needed.
Leave No Trace
Rarely has a film about America's apathy towards its veterans actually deemphasized ideology in order to push compassion, but Debra Granik's deeply felt film about a father and daughter surviving off the grid does just that. A powerful parable about the falseness of the American dream, Leave No Trace understands that empathy extends to all living things, whether they choose to live as part of a community or apart from it.
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Travis Wilkerson’s self-narrated essay/documentary investigates the 1946 murder of an African-American by a white grocery store owner in Alabama, and becomes an indictment of whiteness. Images of broken down grocery stores, family photos, and deserted streets are interspersed with interviews and Wilkerson’s grave narration; deftly linking the cyclical nature of racial violence with cross-dissolving editing schemes.
Life and Nothing More
Writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza handles black oppression through a subtle lens in this intimate film about a small family in rural Florida. The absence of a father figure, economic struggle and familial discord are present, but Life and Nothing More plays out more like a gentle ellipsis than a heavy-handed narrative; using spatial distances and naturalistic conversations to encourage us observe rather than judge.
The Other Side of the Wind
A work of madness with a wounded heart; Orson Welles’s “lost” film (shot over the course of six years from 1970-1976) is the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. Stylistically bold, narratively meta, and obsessed with Hollywood myth-making, The Other Side of the Wind is an unclassifiable slice of movie history.
A mixture of violence, romanticism, surreality, and grotesque comedy, Estonian writer-director Rainer Sarnet's November is unlike anything you’ll see all year. Bathed in fog, teeming with distorted black metal guitar riffs, and saturated in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the film’s central love is mainly an excuse to tether metaphoric/folkloric language to freakish imagery.
Radu Jude’s unique adaptation of Romanian writer Max Blecher’s final novel unites political fury with a macabre dissection of the body. Blecher died at age 28 from musculoskeletal tuberculosis, and Jude’s striking widescreen imagery takes in the poet’s physical immobility with pathos, while also criticizing the legacy of Romanian fascism. A philosophical, but also humorous, examination of literary ambition, anti-semitism, and medical minutiae.
A German construction crew is sent to Bulgaria to work on a hydroelectric power plant in Valeska Grisebach’s understated commentary on power, privilege, and wounded masculinity. Following a stoic pacifist as he befriends villagers living nearby while also navigating his hot-headed fellow workers, Western brilliantly uses silence and medium-to-long shots to make political statements without ever preaching.
Let the Sunshine In
The search for a partner is at the heart of Claire Denis’s exquisite Let the Sunshine In, which moves from hope to sadness in a manner complimenting the film’s fascination with how love can corrode from the inside out. Aided by Juliette Binoche’s extraordinary central performance as a divorced mother drawn to men with low moral standards, Denis not only inverts the romcom, but sneakily lays bare the inherent falseness at the genre's core.
The House That Jack Built
Danish provocateur Lars von Trier often uses the extremity of human suffering as a model for emotional and psychological substance, and his latest doozy The House That Jack Built, is no exception. Following Matt Dillion’s serial killer as he maims and murders, the victimization narrative operates rather cunningly as probing self-critique. The ability for artists to create morally questionable art results in a shocking, darkly funny, and strangely transcendent masterwork.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’s euphoric adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name is tender, poetic, harsh, and unbearably moving. Following the romantic courtship of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) and the subsequent false imprisonment of the latter, Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton create wondrous compositions which match the interior emotions of his characters. There’s injustice, tragedy, and heartbreak here, but If Beale Street Could Talk is primarily a humanistic work of art.
Ethan Hawke plays a middle-aged pastor deeply questioning how the religious community have denied the destruction of the planet in Paul Schrader’s intellectually dense, surprisingly funny, and aesthetically daring First Reformed. Mixing the transcendental style of filmmakers like Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Yasujirō Ozu, with Schrader’s own "God's lonely man" template, the film is a startling riff on modern radicalism, ecology, and suffering as a call to arms.
Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been as sadly deadpan than in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama; a film which often plays like a droll comedy where a waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up. Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections, with unfussy compositions and details packed into every frame. The results are a major film from a major filmmaker; conjuring a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs that ends with a haunting exclamation mark.
The final, posthumously released film from Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is made up of 24 single-shot vignettes where ordinary scenes are reconstructed through a variety of VFX work. Taking inspiration from Kiarostami’s own photographs and then imagining what would happen the moment after the picture was taken, the results are gorgeously zen-like in presenting wintry settings devoid of human interaction. 24 Frames understands the passage of time, and perhaps even the inevitability of Kiarostami’s own passing, in a way which reaches toward the profound.
Though technically made in 1980, Bill Gunn’s “meta-soap opera” only played on a few TV stations before disappearing unceremoniously. Resurrected for a limited theatrical run in 2018, Personal Problems is a towering work; giving us late 1970s-era Harlem African American life through the prism of grainy video. Gunn and co-writer Ishmael Reed allow scenes to play out in long takes, detour into seemingly unconnected vignettes, and have story threads circle back in on themselves. Intimate yet sprawling, experimental yet emotionally resonant, Personal Problems is an extraordinary tapestry of lives we rarely experience, told in a way not yet duplicated.