If there’s any grand, overarching story to the movies this year, it might just belong to MoviePass. For a heady stretch that included the first half of 2018, the company’s now-defunct movie-a-day-for-$10-a-month deal had everyone I knew — not just dedicated film fans — going out to theaters. It was an unsustainably good offering that was obviously destined to implode like the beach house at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But before it did, it seemed to create a noticeable, if impossible to quantify, uptick in people talking and caring about movies, both online and in person. Hell, strangers were making plans on Facebook to go see films and talk about them afterward.
A bargain’s a bargain, and I know I shouldn’t read too much into people taking advantage of this particularly absurd venture capital–fueled one. But it’s been worryingly easy to believe that streaming has become dominant not just because it’s cheap, but because people prefer staying at home, and will settle for the good-enough options they can just hit play on. The MoviePass heyday was a reminder that people still take pleasure in the shared experience of gazing up at something projected larger than life — provided the price is right.
Even Netflix, a company that set itself up in opposition to all things traditional, ceded territory this year by putting Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma in theaters first. With its meditative pace and intricate widescreen compositions, it’s a movie whose very existence is a feature-length argument for why some things really are best experienced on a big screen. Roma didn’t make this list, which could have easily gone on twice as long if it included close calls like Cold War, First Man, First Reformed, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, On Her Shoulders, Paddington 2, Revenge, Shirkers, Shoplifters, Summer 1993, and Widows. They didn’t all have to be seen in theaters, but I appreciated the luxury of getting to experience them that way, and I wonder if other people felt similarly. In a year like this one, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to lose themselves in the dark for a little while?
Hereditary is the kind of movie that leaves marks. When I first saw it at the Sundance Film Festival in the bright light of a crisp Utah morning, I stumbled out shaken, but certain I was fine. A series of car-to-plane-to-monorail-to-train-to-subway maneuvers later, I collapsed in bed at home, exhausted but miserably incapable of sleep, courtesy of the disturbing images that would rattle around in my head for days afterward. Ari Aster’s directorial debut is as finely made as it is frightening, the camera coaxing ghostly specters out of dark corners, lingering on a roadside that later plays a part in a ghastly development, and capturing the creepiest dioramas of all time. The final act is pure nightmare, anchored by a go-for-broke performance from a fearless Toni Collette that includes…let’s call it a medical procedure? that belongs on an Oscar reel from hell. But the early scenes of the film are the ones that have stuck with me the most, the ones where you know that something is very wrong with the Grahams, but you’re not sure what. Every family has its troubles. What’s remarkable about Hereditary is how long it keeps you on the knife-edge of uncertain dread, waiting to learn if some type of horror is descending upon these characters, or if it’s been there all along.
Hereditary will be streaming on Amazon on Dec. 27.
10. Support the Girls
Support the Girls shares some basic DNA with movies like Waiting… and Empire Records, workplace comedies about how camaraderie can offset the tedium and petty humiliations of the minimum wage grind. But while there’s also a sense of community at the Hooters knockoff in which this movie takes place, there’s nothing cozy about it — it’s born out of necessity, an attempt to patch holes in the social fabric, like a lack of affordable child care, or help for someone dealing with an abusive relationship. At the movie and the restaurant’s core is Regina Hall, who — in one of the year’s defining performances — plays Lisa, the warmhearted manager juggling schedules, protecting employees from their own mistakes, dealing with the difficult owner, and basically destroying herself by caring too much. Support the Girls ambles along in such a deceptively good-natured manner that it takes a while to appreciate just how despairing it actually is. Andrew Bujalski’s film is nothing less than a testament to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, tucked inside the story of a day in the life of an Austin breastaurant.
Support the Girls is available to rent.
9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
2018 kicked off with a major milestone of superhero representation and imagination in Black Panther. It ends with another, and this one isn’t saddled with any of those regulation-issue Marvel CG action sequences that make a diverse slate of movies briefly look alike. Watching Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, you might start to believe animation is the medium all superhero movies are meant for — that’s just how joyously liberated the origin story of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) is in this feature from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. The screen breaks into comic book–inspired panels, characters are textured with Ben-Day dots, spider-sense gets represented by a series of squiggles — and that’s before we meet spider-people from mecha anime, film noir, and Looney Tunes–inspired universes, all bringing their respective styles with them. It’s dazzling, witty, and, when you least expect it, startlingly poignant. The message of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just that Miles, an Afro-Latino teenager from a gratifyingly detailed present-day Brooklyn, gets to be in a superhero movie, too. It’s that he can be the hero at the center of the story, built around his journey to figure out what it means to do good.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse opens in theaters on Dec. 14.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the ending of Burning, South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s slippery stunner based on a Haruki Murakami short story that in turn owes some inspiration to one by William Faulkner. I won’t spoil what happens here, but I’ll just say that I’ve been wondering if the final scenes are meant to be taken literally, or if they represent a scenario that the film’s hapless hero, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer, has put to the page. Burning is a story about being stuck — creatively, economically, romantically, and geographically. So much of its menace and mystery stems from its main character’s metaphorical immobility and his limited perception of the two people who crash their way into his purgatorial existence. They’re an alluringly enigmatic pair, unpredictable oddball Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and dead-eyed playboy Ben (Steven Yeun), and their respective gravitational pulls turn Burning from a potential romance to a love triangle to a thriller, and finally to something that eludes labels or any easy interpretation of what’s really going on.
Burning is now in theaters.
7. You Were Never Really Here
You Were Never Really Here is an action movie that belongs in therapy. I mean that as the highest possible praise; Lynne Ramsay’s human trafficking drama is as emotionally damaged as it is unstintingly violent, Taken if its tough-guy rescuer actually exhibited the cumulative effects of a lifetime’s worth of brutality and trauma. Joaquin Phoenix’s character, the depressive fixer Joe, is terrifyingly competent when it comes to hurting people for pay, and yet somehow the film accomplishes the nifty trick of making the viewer deeply invested in sparing his character from further harm. Phoenix gives an astonishing performance, playing the ridiculous badass as a battered survivor of abuse, living with and taking care of his mother and all the while dreaming about death. It doesn’t surprise me at all that one of the most virtuosic movies about wounded masculinity this year was made by a woman director — there are shades of Kathryn Bigelow’s intensely female gaze to the film and the way it regards its morose main character, though the jolting terseness is all Ramsay’s own.
You Were Never Really Here is streaming on Amazon.
6. The Death of Stalin
In 2018, we may not need reminders that absurdity and horror are perfectly capable of coexisting without canceling each other out. But Armando Iannucci’s movie about the power struggle in the wake of Josef Stalin’s 1953 death is a masterful exploration of this juxtaposition. It turns out that when you run dark history through the filter of a blithe sitcom, it can be even bleaker! Iannucci, the creator of TV’s The Thick of It and Veep, obviously knows his way around bitter political comedy. But he outdoes himself in The Death of Stalin with the help of an incredible ensemble of actors — including Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, and Andrea Riseborough. They look and sound nothing like the real figures they’re portraying, and they play characters engaged in awesomely petty (but not inaccurate!) squabbles over control of a nation. The result is something that’s specific in its details and universal in its sentiment, a depiction of totalitarianism as a fear-driven group delusion.
The Death of Stalin is available to rent.
5. Madeline’s Madeline
This movie is an experimental theater freakout, a tale of creative vampirism, an exploration of race and class, a coming-of-age story, and an attempt to portray mental health issues from inside the head of the young woman contending with them. More than any of that, though, Madeline’s Madeline is host to one of the greatest screen debuts I’ve ever seen. As the title character, first-time actor Helena Howard burns so bright she could scorch your retinas, hurling herself into the role of a scary-talented, not-always-stable teenager teetering in her allegiances between her single mother Regina (Miranda July) and Evangeline (Molly Parker), the director of the theater company in which Madeline is the youngest member. While Regina’s hovering and smothering leads her daughter to lash out, Evangeline treats Madeline like a colleague — but also increasingly exploits her as a source of material, this beautiful girl with volcanic emotions who seems so much more alive than everyone else in the room. Josephine Decker’s movie ducks and weaves its way around traditional storytelling, but the emotions onscreen are always laser-precise, down to the moment Madeline summons the whole world to serve as her chorus, her backup dancers, and amplifiers of the voice she demands be heard.
Madeline’s Madeline is streaming on Amazon.
4. Minding the Gap
There’s no way to pinpoint the moment in Minding the Gap in which filmmaker Bing Liu realizes he’s not just the director of this documentary but also one of its subjects. It’s a decision that happened sometime during his years of shooting, but one you feel onscreen as a kind of gradual yielding. Liu, a first-time documentarian based in Chicago, is a little older than Keire and Zack, the two young men he started filming in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois. But he’s one of them — the product of an abusive household and a city hollowed out by economic blight and narrowing opportunities. They also have a love of skateboarding in common, footage of which is peppered throughout the film, representing both an unbearably wistful sanctuary from the pressures of the real world and a shrinking bit of shared ground as life takes them in different directions. Liu’s film is about seeking out new models of masculinity when all you had growing up were bad examples — but it never feels the need to spell out its themes. They’re there in every moment of this compassionate but steady-eyed portrait of boys trying to figure out if they like the men they’re slowly, even reluctantly, becoming.
Minding the Gap is streaming on Hulu.
3. A Star Is Born
Okay, yes, it gets a little weird about pop music and legitimacy. And sure, the second half isn’t quite as magical as the first — how can it be? But none of that really matters when the truth is that there’s no other movie this year than I wanted to wrap myself up in the way I did Bradley Cooper’s luscious, swoony directorial debut. (Bradley Cooper! Who’d have thought!) Cooper’s remake is the fourth incarnation of this semi-disturbing showbiz fable, and the one most rewardingly intent on having its narrative be a tragic love story rather than the saga of a striving woman inadvertently leeching the success away from a once-great man. The update is — in a distinctive and off-kilter way — absurdly romantic at a time when big-screen schmaltz feels like it’s gone out of style. It’s a mix of the outsize and the intimate, best summed up by the fact that the most highly stylized pop star in the world appears without makeup as its female lead. Gaga is good as Ally, and so is Cooper as Jackson, all vulnerability under the rock star trappings. A Star Is Born‘s depictions of the music industry may not always ring true, but its central relationship, and the way that relationship is warped by the weight of addiction, never fails to. I knew what was going to happen to Ally and Jackson from the beginning, and A Star Is Born broke my heart anyway.
A Star Is Born is now in theaters.
2. The Favourite
I know acting categories are an awards season necessity, but I can’t bring myself to think of Olivia Colman as the “actress in a leading role” of The Favourite. She is, don’t get me wrong, fully delightful, playing Queen Anne as a gouty toddler of a monarch, impulse-driven and querulous while also being capable of bursts of devious plotting. But it feels wrong to declare any of the three women at the forefront of Yorgos Lanthimos’s indelibly strange and wonderful period comedy as the main character, when it so deftly shifts the audience’s sympathies around as it goes. For a while, it’s a maybe-career-best Emma Stone as Abigail Hill, who seems like the hero, the young underdog seizing opportunities to get herself into the Queen’s good graces. Then it seems like Rachel Weisz’s gloriously imperious Sarah Churchill is the one to root for, especially after a nasty accident, when it seems like she’s going to return to fuck shit up in her lace facial wrap. And of course, the Queen herself can be a compellingly tragic figure, since the only relationship in her life that seems to be even remotely genuine is hopelessly unhealthy. But to hand ownership of the story to only one of these women seems to miss the point — that there’s no winning the game they’re playing. It sure is a joy to watch, though.
The Favourite is now in theaters.
1. The Rider
I realized, as I was making this list, how rife it was with features that are referential and effervescently clever, that play off genre and form and expectations, and that are in different ways about the movies — a reflection of a media-saturated world. And yet my favorite film of the year is nothing at all like that. Chloé Zhao’s South Dakota–set The Rider is so powerfully straightforward and present that it can feel, at times, like it was beamed in from another era. Brady Blackburn (first-timer Brady Jandreau, playing, as does everyone onscreen, a fictionalized version of himself) is a cowboy — he trains horses, competes in the rodeo, and believes that the best way to deal with pain is to walk it off and get back to riding. It’s a rough lesson, especially when he’s sustained a head injury that’s left a line of stitches in his scalp and that gives him periodic seizures. Going back to the arena could kill Brady, but the possibility that he might not be able to rattles his sense of self, a quiet crisis whose aftershocks shape the film. Zhao’s portrayal of life in the badlands is matter-of-fact and without any sense of tourism or outsider gaze; there’s a casual ease to the movie’s beauty that reflects the perspective of characters who’ve lived in this landscape all their lives. But it’s Zhao’s depiction of a man trying to figure out who he is without the thing he loves most that stayed with me — boundlessly tender, mournful without being final. Letting something go doesn’t mean losing it forever.
The Rider is available to rent.