In some ways, 2018 proved to be a bit of a letdown. Much-hyped films – think Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born – turned out to be disappointments. And while Hollywood certainly made progress on the diversity front, it still hasn’t figured out how to translate that progress into good filmmaking, as flops like Crazy Rich Asians readily attest.
If you knew where to look, however, 2018 was still a rich year – a year that gave moviegoers many opportunities to go to the theater and leave utterly wonderstruck. In alphabetical order, here’s a list of 10 films that stood out:
In Burning, Lee Chang-dong offers a mesmerizing portrait of modern-day South Korea, a country afflicted by the same feelings of alienation that beset Michelangelo Antonioni’s rendition of 1960s Europe. Aside from offering a subversive twist on the idea of the “male gaze,” the film also features outstanding turns from Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun (Okja, Sorry to Bother You).
The Guardians (Les gardiennes)
Most war movies center on the suffering that soldiers endure in battle. By contrast, Xavier Beauvois’ The Guardians (Les gardiennes) focuses on the domestic front, depicting a group of Frenchwomen who manage a farm while their partners fight in World War I. A feminist upturning of genre tropes, the film is also an acute study of emotional repression – and a striking portrait of the spiritual damage that the Great War wreaked.
Hale County, This Morning, This Evening
2018 was undoubtedly a banner year for black cinema. But despite their merits, films like Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman were content to challenge racial hierarchies within the framework of traditional narrative structures. By contrast, RaMell Ross’ Hale County, This Morning, This Evening examines how such structures can actually hinder true interracial understanding. It’s a “slice of life” documentary that studiously avoids imposing “messages” on the viewer. And in a noteworthy break from convention, it’s also a film that strives to let its subject matter guide its camera, rather than the other way around.
Have a Nice Day
Liu Jian’s Have a Nice Day follows a group of crooks, petty thieves, and Mafia bosses who all want to get their hands on a bag of money. The film provides a welcome antidote to the macho, romanticizing worldview of many Asian gangster movies. But as with the works of Jia Zhangke, it’s also an incisive portrait of the social, economic, and cultural inequities that have plagued China since its economic boom. The bitter mordancy of Liu’s worldview easily made this the best animated film of 2018.
Leave No Trace
For her follow-up to Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik decided to adapt Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, a novel about a homeless veteran who lives in a public park with his teenage daughter. The result is a deeply affecting portrait of family, an uncondescending look at poverty in America, and a subtle refutation of the idea that characters have to change during a narrative.
Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana takes us to a region – rural America – that many have been quick to characterize as backward, particularly since the election of Donald Trump. In his habitually low-key style, Wiseman offers a nuanced rebuttal to such caricatures, depicting a once-vibrant Midwestern town that has been decimated by death and mechanization. Just as significantly, the film also demolishes the fallacious yet long-standing notion that cinema can “objectively” represent reality.
The Other Side of the Wind
A project that took over four decades to complete, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind depicts the last day in the life of a famous director (played by John Huston, himself an accomplished filmmaker). As anyone familiar with Welles’ life won’t be surprised to hear, the film critiques the studio system and its narrow-minded obsession with financial profit. But it’s also a scorching attack on New Hollywood – namely, the arrogant, hyper-analytical generation of American filmmakers who (as Welles tells it) rose to prominence in the ‘60s by emphasizing film style to a fault. Huston’s brilliant performance rounds out this achingly personal statement from one of cinema’s greatest artists.
The protagonists of Shoplifters are a Tokyo-based family who steal food, toiletries, and other essentials from supermarkets in order to survive. That might sound like the premise for yet another piece of “poverty porn.” But in the hands of Hirokazu Kore-eda, the film ends up being a compassionate – yet consistently unflinching – meditation on poverty, self-interest, and the nature of family. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the performances are all excellent.
For his last film, the late Abbas Kiarostami decided to make 24 4.5-minute-long shorts, each of which centers around a different photo or painting. The end product is an unexpectedly mesmerizing discourse on the film medium itself, offering reflections on topics like the role of narrative, the relationship between cinema and reality, and the epistemological limitations of the camera. For Kiarostami himself, moreover, the film was the perfect way to conclude his filmmaking career, which was invariably defined by provocation and free-spirited philosophical inquiry.
Don Diego de Zama is a low-level colonial magistrate who works for the Spanish Empire in South America. In Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, his life provides the basis for a fascinating and endlessly thought-provoking depiction of ennui, European privilege, and worn-out masculinity. A scathing critique of colonialism and its excesses, the film also serves as a much-needed corrective to past cinematic depictions of the era.
Zain Al Rafeea (Capernaum)
Yoo Ah-in (Burning)
Ben Dickey (Blaze)
Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade)
Daniel Giménez Cacho (Zama)
Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline)
John Huston (The Other Side of the Wind)
KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace)
Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here)