This has been a strange, despairing year. A common refrain is that, “[X] amount of days feel like [Y] amount of years.” No number for [Y] is high enough that it sounds like an exaggeration. If there is any solace, it is that films in 2018 reflect our trying times. Unlike films released in 2017 or 2016, directors now have time for their work to reflect the rise of racist authoritarianism, the denigration of ordinary people, and the constant threat of violence. The best films this year (so far) do not offer solutions, or even a sense of hope. What they do offer is acknowledgment that things are different. The films in this list vary in ambition and scope – including titles that were barely in theaters – and yet they have a shared sense of compassion.
From Risky Business through Superbad, horny teenage boys dominated sex comedies for too long. Blockers is corrective of that, focusing on three teenage girls who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night, with an added twist: their parents figure out the plan. What follows is a raucous, surprisingly empathetic documentary about the awkward collision of sex, adolescence, and parenting. The stand-out performed is John Cena: he takes the intensity of his wrestling persona, flipping it so it’s turned toward his imperfect affection for his daughter. This generation of parents are the same who group up on Animal House and Meatballs, so perhaps Blockers represents a sea change from the Boomer parents who were too interested in themselves to care about anyone else.
14. Leave No Trace
Ever since Six Feet Under, Ben Foster has been a reliably intense character actor. He never chooses easy roles, whether he plays Lance Armstrong or a deranged Western outlaw. This drama, written and directed Debra Granik, is a showcase for Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. They play a father and daughter who live off the grid in the Oregon Mountains, at least until law enforcement intervenes and forces them back into society. The drama unfolds quietly, with Foster and McKenzie only hinting at their bond and backstory. The final scenes, among the most moving I’ve seen all year, are poignant because they are handled in such an unaffected, natural way. Anyone who loved Winter’s Bone, Granik’s previous film, or the work of Kelly Reichert should absolutely see this.
13. Eighth Grade
Like Leave No Trace and Blockers, Eighth Grade is also about a young girl’s relationship with her father. What makes this film unique – written and directed by comedian Bo Burnham – is its total commitment to the girl’s painful, highly subjective experience. This is not a “cringe” comedy, where you laugh through the awkwardness, but a compassionate dramatic comedy that gets at how thirteen year olds handle the feelings they barely understand. Burnham is a natural filmmaker, with some choices and music cues that downright shocking, but what’s most surprising about this film is how it is meant to be allegorical. Everyone will relate to Kayla, the film’s young hero, more than they may care to admit.
Directed by Lucrecia Martel, Zama came and left theaters all too quickly. It is a shame, since the historical satire is a sensual delight. It follows Don Diego de Zama – a Spanish bureaucrat in a South America – as he systematically loses all the dignity that he feels owed. This film oddly reminded me of Children of Men, insofar that the second-class citizens must necessarily be in the background in order to fully understand what they mean to Zama and his compatriots. The final images are horrifying, beautiful, and elegantly distill how the moral rot of colonialism infect those who fly near it too long. Zama suffers the worst fate, suggesting the best anyone back then could hope for is to be a blissfully ignorant, vulgar caricature of European aristocracy.
Oh, look, another film about parenthood! The difference between Tully, another collaboration between Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, is that it is uncompromisingly about what it means to be a mother. Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a mother at the end of her rope, and Mackenzie Davis plays the nanny who watches Marlo’s newborn so she can sleep. The two develop a rapport, and the film subtly shifts from a “warts and all” comedy to a drama about youthful nostalgia. Theron and Davis have gorgeous chemistry, and while the sting of acknowledgment might hurt too much for new parents, I suspect the ones that seek out this film will think, “Finally, someone got it right.”
10. Black Panther
It is hard to find anything new to say about Black Panther, arguably the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead, I will double down on what makes Ryan Coogler’s big budget effort so special among comic book movies, and Marvel ones in particular: his villain Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is the most charismatic since Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. And unlike The Joker, a psychotic anarchist, Killmonger’s motivation is informed by oppression and history. Up until he angrily chokes a Wakandan elder who questions his will, Killmonger was more worthy of our sympathy. You cannot say the same about Thanos or Loki.
This film is probably the most escapist one on this list. It is also the creepiest, and most terrifying. Ari Aster’s Hereditary is not “elevated horror.” It is horror, period, with imagery so transcendent and unsettling that he effectively burrows into the audience’s subconscious and deposits nightmare fuel there. More importantly, this horror film treats its audience with respect. There are no jump scares, and characters whose motivations are clear, even when they lose their heads or get set on fire.
Like Zama, this is a historical satire where what happens in the background is necessarily in the background, so we can fully grasp the naked ambition of those who are speaking. The difference is, however, that what happens in the background in The Death of Stalin are a nonstop string of political killings. This film has the hallmarks of Veep and In the Loop – petty squabbling, creative profanity – with the added force of history behind it. Rather than forcing his actors who speak in bad Russian accents, all the actors speak in their native dialect, which gives their performances a freedom and looseness that tempers the taut, dense narrative.
7. The Workshop
Radicalization does not just happen overnight. It is an ongoing process, with feelings of alienation and betrayal tilting someone one way or another. The French drama The Workshop is about that process, using a class setting as a chance to explore pluralism and reactionary fringe movements in Europe. A novelist has her students work on a murder mystery together. Her class includes immigrants from Africa and Algeria, as well as a white, male firebrand who likes to makes the class uncomfortable. He is an undeniably bright student – and a gifted writer – who flirts with the idea of killing for its own sake. This film is a slow-burn thriller, one that uses its picturesque setting to suggest unsettling subtext. While it does not have a traditional payoff, its ideas are more insidious than the satisfaction from an explosive climax.
6. Sorry to Bother You
The less you know about this satire, the better. Skip the trailers, if you can, and instead see it with a sold-out crowd. You’ll be glad you did.
Jeff Vandermeer’s slim novel Annihilation is a stunning achievement of tone and immersion. His sparse, haunting prose gives the suggestion of something alien in the truest sense of the word: a place that defies the limits of language. Alex Garland took this source material, shrewdly adapting it to the screen while maintaining the book’s otherworldly spirit. The result is a psychedelic horror/sci-fi hybrid that confronts how ordinary people might handle the end of humanity. It is also a visual delight, mixing macabre beauty with body horror in a way that is just the right amount of freaky. Annihilation is hardly a blockbuster, but word of mouth has helped it find a passionate audience who are anxious to study and revere its sinister power.
You may recall the Australian Western The Proposition, written by Nick Cave and starring Guy Pearce. It is an unsparing film, owing more to Cormac McCarthy than John Ford, with the kind of violence few films even attempt. Still, for a genre that’s often about how the wild frontier clashes with interlopers, The Proposition has little interest in Australia’s native population. Sweet Country is a corrective to that. It has weight of a bible story, oozing with metaphor. It also a good character study, looking at how Australia’s frontier forced men and women to see who they really are. More than any other film this year, Sweet Country is about the need for acknowledgment before answers and healing are even possible.
3. The Tale
After premiering at this year’s Sundance, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale was bought by HBO, who aired the film in late May. Heading for TV, even if it’s premium cable, is never the most desirable outcome for a film on the festival circuit. But in this particular case, home viewing may be the best way to watch something so disturbing. The film is autobiographical, with Laura Dern playing Fox. Her mother comes across a short story Fox wrote as a teenager, and this story sparks Fox to revisit a period in her life where she lived with a horse trainer and her partner. It turns out these adults raped Fox, and she blocked the memory that it ever happened. The Tale is not just about sexual predators. It is about the ephemeral nature of memory, and the impossibility of closure. In the #MeToo era, it is important to understand the wounds that victims of sexual harassment/assault carry with them, and The Tale accomplishes that through film-making that’s even more fearless than the performances.
2. The Rider
Chloé Zhao’s empathetic drama is a marvel to behold, and not just because it unearths an entirely new approach to filmmaking. She ably mixes fiction with documentary: she meets a group of people, learns their story, and casts them in a dramatization of said story. In this particular case, it is about a Native American bull rider named Brady who is ailing from a traumatic head injury. He wants to return to the rodeo circuit, even though his reactions are less than what he needs to ride safely (insofar that he could). The Rider is a revisionist Western in the truest sense the word, with more to say about masculinity and responsibility than the typical duels and histrionics of gunplay. Zhao gets impressive performance from her amateur actors, filming them with curiosity and just enough romance that we see why Brady is so anxious to return to the saddle. The last shot of this film will linger in your memory long after the movie is over.
Paul Schrader’s masterpiece is nothing less than the first American film of the twenty-first century to grapple genuinely with modern existential dread in a spiritual way. This film is smart, elegant, philosophical, tragic, and heroic. It features amazing performances from Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric the Entertainer – all of whom deserve Academy Award nominations. It is a timely story, concerning a preacher (Hawke) who transitions from sleepwalking through an unremarkable career into becoming an environmental zealot. But there is so much more happening here, including scenes that perfectly articulate what purpose religion now serves, and visual motifs that are inexorable, audacious. Schrader has made some of the most important films in the history of the medium, yet he is always on the outside, looking in. First Reformed will do little to change that, but it may give other studios the courage to let him explore what’s on his mind in the way he sees fit.
That’s it! I cannot recommend these fifteen films tonight, but given their heavy subject matter, I recommend you do not watch them so closely together.