Writing these countdowns always comes with a sense of relief. I made it through another year. (And spent a big chunk of it watching movies.) Excitement, too: now I can set aside that year, break it down, hold its little pieces in my memory. The year that was can hold no further surprises; now, as I pause in late December waiting for the new one to start, I have an opportunity to assess it. So here, as far as cinema’s concerned, are the little pieces of 2018.
First, a couple outliers. Blue is a lovely Apichatpong Weerasethakul short that premiered at TIFF this year. Within its 12-minute run time, he finds sublime uses for some antiquated visual trickery. The Other Side of the Wind is a film Orson Welles starting shooting decades ago, now given a posthumous release. It’s breathtaking: a poison pen roman à clef full of formal experimentation. (Ranking it alongside films from living auteurs feels a bit like apples and oranges, but it’s a strong addition to the Welles corpus.)
Here are 15 other movies I enjoyed in alphabetical order: The Day After, Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, First Reformed, Happy as Lazzaro, Lean on Pete, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Minding the Gap, Private Life, Shirkers, Sorry to Bother You, A Star Is Born, Unfriended: Dark Web, Unsane, Werewolf, and Widows.
And here are 10 other performances: Bryan Cranston, his voice a forlorn growl in Isle of Dogs; Widows’ Viola Davis, giving blunt directives in the midst of mourning; Jennifer Ehle (supporting actress extraordinaire) as The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s homophobic villain; Daniel Giménez Cacho, who bears weariness in his sharp features as Zama’s title character; Upgrade’s Simon Maiden, drily funny as a HAL-style AI; Amanda Seyfried as bereaved mothers-to-be in both First Reformed and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again; Adriano Tardiolo, his eyes wide as the namesake naif in Happy as Lazzaro; Tessa Thompson embodying praxis as the earring-adorned artist in Sorry to Bother You; Ready Player One’s Lena Waithe, transformed via mocap into a lumbering avatar; and Anton Yelchin, now a couple years deceased, playing the scumbag of all scumbags in Thoroughbreds.
And now, the list:
In this superlative sequel to 2008’s The Strangers, three cocky killers pursue a family of four through a lakeside trailer park. The whole film derives from that sleek premise, its characters killing or dying until a mere couple survive. Roberts’ style involves sparse lighting and slow zooms within the park’s too-open spaces. Both the brutality and the soundtrack (with its Jim Steinman power ballads) recall the ’80s heyday of the slasher.
Anne Hathaway spoofs herself in Ocean’s 8 as a star luxuriating in sex appeal.
Steve Buscemi is all pragmatism and zero sentiment as a horse trainer in Lean on Pete. (He also plays Nikita Khrushchev as the consummate schmuck in The Death of Stalin.)
This wistful western dispenses with its genre’s myths. Zhao focuses instead on reams of medical and economic detail. These are the risks and rewards (both substantial) of rodeo life. They’re the rider’s fear of pain and dream of glory as felt around a bonfire, atop the saddle, and against the vast South Dakota sky.
Zoë Kravitz haunts Gemini as an actress lost in the haze of celebrity.
Hugh Grant takes the piss out of his own prim persona with a show of thespian drollery in Paddington 2.
Nearly a decade after the bleak melodrama Poetry, Lee returns with this modernist thriller. Through expert visual storytelling, he depicts what’s ostensibly a matter of romantic rivalry across class lines. But then one point in the love triangle disappears, leaving an enigma with no resolution. The subsequent hunt moves through a thick moral malaise across the remainder of this tantalizing film’s two and a half hours.
Kayli Carter nails the solipsism of an aspiring writer in Private Life, craving and saying and feeling too much.
Sam Elliott (half a century into his career) maximizes his scant screen time in A Star Is Born. He turns a 10-second shot of him backing out of a driveway into a snapshot of fraternal heartbreak.
What’s the best way to live? Granik considers this question across the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. A veteran and his daughter (Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie) pinball from drab public housing to bus and boxcar then back into the woods, where survival’s entirely on their own terms. Their relationship structures this ambivalent road movie.
In one year, Elizabeth Debicki played both a predatory riding instructor (The Tale) and a burglar learning the ropes (Widows): different tones, different accents, but each one a small gem of a performance.
Michael B. Jordan is the challenger in Black Panther, nonchalance in his voice and fury in his strut.
Juliette Binoche stars as an artist and divorcée in her fifties, bouncing from man to mediocre man in this purgatorial romcom. Denis and Agnès Godard’s camera moves sensuously as she talks with her paramours, the lighting mellow. She languishes beautifully in her heterosexual tristesse.
Shayna McHayle (aka Junglepussy) makes her screen debut in Support the Girls as a sarcastic coworker who feels plucked from real life.
Burning’s Steven Yeun is the cat that ate the canary, wealth sustaining his eternal smirk.
Sexual trauma is thorny material. Though it crops up in a lot of movies, depictions tend to be exploitative. Fox’s memoir of abuse alternates between the present—with Laura Dern as the director—and her remembered past, when two authority figures groomed her into compliance. It’s a disturbing means of visualizing trauma’s psychic upheaval. Fox weaves documentary tactics into the narrative, too, stripping away clichés in order to share her unsettled memories.
In Game Night, Rachel McAdams gets to be a latter-day Nora Charles, screwball queen of comic timing and line deliveries.
Searching relies on star John Cho, all furrowed brow and polo shirts as he descends into fatherly panic.
Set across one disastrous day, this offbeat comedy draws its jokes from the drawbacks of restaurant work. Bujalski finds punchlines in inadequate staffing, sexist customers, and an unsympathetic boss. The camera winds past walls of crass decor, through the bar and grill’s narrow corridors and kitchen, even out back for a break by the dumpster. For these girls, as with any job, the only real consolation is the solidarity of fellow employees.
Toni Collette is scared and scary as shit in Hereditary, big eyes peeking out past her stringy hair.
Mumbly genius Joaquin Phoenix plays You Were Never Really Here’s anti-hero as a ball of trauma with a beard.
Kiarostami passed away a couple years ago. His valediction is this set of two dozen vignettes, most of them involving weather and wildlife, each one raising questions about the mutability of the image. They’re miniature stories, the images tightly composed, that transform stillness into motion and thereby play around with the concept of filmmaking.
As Madeline’s Madeline’s nested Madeline, Helena Howard intersperses her anguish with bratty behavior.
In The Rider, real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau reveals a body that’s seen its breaking point and a soul that’s been denied its vocation.
Indignities vex a colonial dignitary in this episodic tale of 18th century Paraguay. The drone of birds and insects mingles with off-screen dialogue. The production design, like the sound, is intricate: dyed textiles, wigs, and wooden furniture fill this sample of the past. It’s a bustling recreation rife with absurdity.
The light that catches in the moisture on the surface of Juliette Binoche’s eyes holds a world of emotion in Let the Sunshine In.
Lakeith Stanfield is the sucker in Sorry to Bother You’s satirical Faust story—the Charlie Sheen to its Wall Street—and throws himself into the role’s host of humiliations.
At its most elemental, this bombshell psychodrama is about motherhood, physical sensation, and collaborative art. It reckons with who we present and what we do to the people around us. It’s a lyrical inquiry into the self.
In Support the Girls, Regina Hall plays a manager whose smile strains from caring as much about her subordinates as the position allows. These negotiations etch themselves in her worn-out face.
Reverend Toller in First Reformed is a definitive Ethan Hawke performance: sage, soulsick, with a quaver audible in his even voice.
[Movies I have yet to see include Bisbee ’17, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Favourite, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, If Beale Street Could Talk, Monrovia, Indiana, Shoplifters, and Western.]