This has been an unusually exceptional year in film. Movies that, in most other years, would be a shoo-in for solid Top 10 placement, fell just short in 2018. These include “Support the Girls,” Andrew Bujalski’s bumptious comedy about female communion in unlikely places; “You Were Never Really Here,” Lynne Ramsay’s gripping, existential character study of a hitman in over his head; “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?,” a meditative essay film on racial hate crimes, historically and in present day; “Loveless,” Andrey Zvagintsev’s missing-child thriller that doubles as a critique of contemporary Russia; and “The Favourite,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ scheming, wicked-tongued costume drama.
Alas, there are only 10 spaces, so for these worthy contenders, a shout-out will have to do. On with the list! By the way, I don’t think at all about overriding themes when I compile year-end best lists, but in retrospective, it’s remarkable how many entries fall under two umbrellas: slices of life about strivers on the margins, and unorthodox families coming together or fraying apart.
- En El Septimo Dia
Shot entirely with nonprofessional actors, this humanistic feature from veteran American director Jim McKay hinges on a deceptively simple premise—José, an undocumented Mexican day laborer and futbolfanatic, is needed both on the soccer field and in his workplace at the same time—but it achieves life-and-death gravitas. Fear of deportation, everyday marginalization and social stratification color the story’s edges, and by the time it ends, McKay shifts focus to a new subject, and a second life on the fringe— another microcosmic everyman in search of a modest American dream.
- At Eternity’s Gate
Willem Dafoe’s poetic and soul-wrenching performance as Vincent Van Gogh has received all the awards attention, but Julian Schnabel’s hallucinatory, invasive direction is equally impressive. There have been many dramas about Van Gogh, but none have placed us inside the artist’s head—escorting us through the ghosts and demons and psychedelic colors that bind and blind him—quite like “At Eternity’s Gate.” It’s a rapturous and singular film, awash in the drunken balm of Van Gogh’s creativity and just as alive to the debilitating forces that compelled it. We know that Van Gogh’s legacy is a tightrope dance between agony and ecstasy, between madness and genius. Other films have shown this; Schnabel’s is the first to make us truly experience it.
Honestly, my knowledge and interest of anime doesn’t extend much beyond Hayao Miyazaki, but “Mirai” is as stunning as the best films from this master of the form. The narrative is presented through the eyes of 4-year-old Kun following the birth of his first sibling, Mirai. Jealous of the attention lavished on his new sister, Kun lets his imagination run amok, bending space and time in the process, to ultimately see the world from new perspectives. The animation is ingenious and original, but it’s the film’s humanity that most transcends, wrapping its metaphysics around the real and relatable struggles of both the parents and the parented. It’s intricate, sublime and abundantly truthful.
“Shoplifters,” the remarkable and heartbreaking feature from Japanese humanist Hirokazu Kore-eda, follows a marginal family of five who live in a cramped dwelling, largely off the grandmother’s small pension, while stealing what they need from local merchants. Teeming with rhythms and rituals, omens and superstitions, “Shoplifters” overflows with the joys, hardships and misgivings of life in an unorthodox family, whose illusory nature only unravels in the film’s stunning final act. As it muddies the moral clarity we associate with depictions of criminal behavior, “Shoplifters” upends our expectations with a gut punch few films share, questioning its audience’s generous capacity to fill in relationships when none exist.
- Sorry to Bother You
“Sorry to Bother You” is in some ways this year’s “Get Out:” a directorial debut from multitalented African-American entertainer, who reflects on cultural appropriation through a twisted science-fiction premise. But Boots Riley’s startling debut feature is more ferocious and confrontational to the American way of life than Jordan Peele’s masterpiece, and it’s a shame it didn’t accrue as many eyeballs. Riley’s hilarious, surrealist missive, about a call-center employee who ascends his corporate ladder at great cost, riffs imaginatively and dystopically on 21st century slavery and predatory capitalism, its cautionary themes delivered as potently as in John Carpenter’s “They Live.” It would all be a riot, if it weren’t so devastatingly accurate.
- Cold War
Formally rigorous and psychologically astute, “Cold War” is one of those black-and-white films you cannot imaginein color, so austere is the world the characters inhabit. That’s because its central artist couple, whether together or apart, separated by politics and fear or connected by creativity and pheromones, is inherently self-destructive, creating a color-bleached world of passionate extremes. Set to an immaculate soundtrack of Eastern European folk songs and western pop and rock, director Pawel Pawilowski’s elliptical masterpiece is a chilling exploration of addiction, the vice in question being love itself, pursued to each partner’s mutual detriment. It’s like Pawilowski took “A Star is Born,” stitched it into “Phantom Thread” and threw his doomed romance into the muddy waters of ‘50s film noir.
- Leave No Trace
Debra Granik’s bildungsroman follows a widowed father and daughter’s willful isolation from society, in the wilds of Cascadia National Park. The deeper themes concern radical self-reliance as child abuse, and off-the-grid yearning as a form of addiction. Granik writes and directs with a sublime poetry of economy, and this approach lends itself to performances of subtle internalization. Breakout actor Thomasin McKenzie is especially exquisite: She seems to mature at least 5 years—physically, emotionally, mentally—in the movie’s short narrative duration. It’s Ben Foster’s character I may remember most, however. He is a restive microcosm for a certain kind of American about which we rarely hear, part of a lost generation who can’t see the forest for the trees.
With an unvarnished purity harking back to the stark human dramas of postwar Italian cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love is at once gritty and painterly, deeply poignant and absurdly deadpan. In a performance of stoic grace, first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio plays a housemaid to a bourgeois family in Mexico City, set against the ambient noise of the city’s deadly student demonstrations of 1970. She has her own existential concerns, namely a baby on the way from a father who has abandoned her. The household employing her, likewise, has begun to buckle under the weight of male neglect, in this case from its philandering breadwinner, and Cuarón objectively charts the minor miracles, agonizing conflicts and gripping sacrifices required to fix what’s broken. “Roma” is about a family, a nation and a soul in flux. It is bigger than life, and it is life.
- The Rider
Fiction and documentary merge like the strands of a life-affirming double helix in this minor-key masterpiece from Chinese director Chloe Zhao. Shot in the badlands of South Dakota, it follows the drifting fallout of a near-fatal head injury on a champion rodeo rider. Told by his doctors not to ride again, he’s forced to find a new purpose in the meager existence he shares with his alcoholic, gambling-addicted father, his Asperger’s-suffering sister, and his beloved equines—reminders of the life he’ll probably never enjoy again. Zhao cast a real-life injured rider and his family as fictionalized versions of themselves, endowing the movie with a singular authenticity. Suffused with melancholy, sensitivity and insight, and buoyed by elegiac cinematography of a still-unspoiled northwestern territory, “The Rider” is both specific and universal, asking the challenging question, What would you do in life when forced to abandon your entire identity? The answer, it turns out, is moving beyond words.
- First Reformed
With its callbacks to films as varied as “Diary of a Country Priest,” “Ordet” and “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader’s crisis-of-faith masterpiece, made in the twilight of his career, is a revelation. Ethan Hawke, in a spellbinding, career-best performance, conveys the struggles of his character and our time in frame-filling close-ups, his muted agony roiling under a furrowed brow. Schrader’s screenplay is a trove of extraordinary theological debates about the role of the church in modern life and politics. Just when you think you know where the film is going, it surprises you, time and again, toward the kind of miraculous, unapologetic transcendence that should be the goal of spiritual cinema, but is usually discarded at the altar of rationality, cynicism and “realism.” I spent most of the movie on the verge of tears, and I found myself weeping through the credits in a way few films have touched me before. These waterworks were primal, instinctive and, like a moment of religious ecstasy, impossible to translate into words.