Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (Netflix), Burning (Well Go USA), Support The Girls (Magnolia), If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna), First Reformed (A24), Graphic: Libby McGuire

In a year defined by division, the one thing we could all agree on was movies. Just kidding! If anything, film discourse grew more contentious and fractured than ever in 2018, which began with a battle for the soul of the world’s most popular franchise and moved on from there to debates about the value of Netflix and seeing movies on the big screen, the politics of a biopic about an American icon, the importance of representation in not just cinema but also criticism, and of course picking a side in the big box-office standoff of the year, Lady Gaga versus Tom Hardy as a sexy, slobbering monster. If consensus ever really existed in the thunderdome of movie opinion, the internet has officially slayed it. Hell, even the critical favorite of the year (see our No. 7 below) has its very vocal detractors.

All of which is say that The A.V. Club’s rundown of the best films of 2018 is destined to tick you off. Hell, we could barely agree on it, which is one reason we’ve posted, as we do every year, the individual ballots of contributors. But if the following list is little more than a snapshot of what this particular group of cinephiles loved over the last 12 months, it’s one that acknowledges a spectrum of successes, from intimate documentaries to visionary spins on film noir to one belatedly completed curiosity from a dead master of the medium. (Netflix, it must be admitted, had quite the year, and is accordingly represented.) Because though we might not have been enthusiastic about all the same movies, there were plenty of movies worthy of enthusiasm. On that, hopefully, we all can agree.

25. Minding The Gap

Photo: Kartemquin

From the house that fronted Hoop Dreams comes another absorbing, heartbreaking documentary about coming of age on the economic fringe of the American Midwest. It’s boards, not basketball, that the young subjects of Minding The Gap looked to as an escape hatch, back when they were teenagers delivering themselves, an afternoon at a time, from the shared trauma of their home lives. Bing Liu, the director, was one of them, a budding filmmaker shooting skating videos with his friends. Returning to his old stomping grounds of Rockford, Illinois, he catches up with these childhood companions, still haunted by the abuse they experienced as kids, which has shaped their adulthoods in ways both obvious and not. As usual, the Kartemquin long-term filming model pays enormous dramatic dividends. But Liu is just as interested in where these real lives have been as where they’re headed, because the two are intimately related—just one profound takeaway from his multifaceted portrait of boys growing into men, trying to outpace their demons along the way. [A.A. Dowd]

24. A Bread Factory

Photo: In The Family LLC

Maybe it says something about the state of the world that so many of the year’s best films (including the ones at the top of this list) address questions of how we relate to others. On the one hand are the stories of privation, alienation, and ennui; on the other are the stories of communities and ragtag support groups. Patrick Wang’s ambitious two-part ensemble comedy about art and local politics falls squarely into the latter category. Running a combined 242 minutes, A Bread Factory gets more surreal as its goes along, as performance artists in space suits invade a small town, children take over a local newspaper, and various characters vanish, lose their memories, or disappear into roles. (The downright anti-realist second part includes, among other things, an extended texting-themed tap routine, a hilarious musical number, and an a cappella quartet of realtors.) But its heartfelt, thoughtful exploration of democracy and creativity develops novelistically—an unlikely fusion of approaches that stays true to the DIY spirit. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

23. Shirkers

Photo: Netflix

In Singapore of 1992, Sandi Tan and her two best friends decided to make an independent road film with their enigmatic filmmaking teacher Georges Cardona. Inspired by American independent auteurs of the era, their film, Shirkers, was poised to create a new national cinema. But at the end of filmmaking, Cardona absconded with the footage, never to be seen again. More than 25 years later, Tan recovered the footage (sans sound) and crafted a memoir-style documentary about the turbulent making of the film and its aftermath, effectively reclaiming it from the hands of her sociopathic mentor. While the story of Shirkers fascinates in its own right, Tan’s film also serves as a tribute to underground artists of yore. Tan and her friends, with their clandestine videotape syndicate and international zines, were countercultural pioneers when and where that still meant something. The Shirkers documentary feels as much like a handcrafted relic from another era as its original, lost-and-found inspiration, which makes its Netflix release all the more ironic. [Vikram Murthi]

22. Madeline’s Madeline

Photo: Oscilloscope Films

Like a bolt of lightning, Helena Howard came out of nowhere and laid waste to everything in her path. The New Yorker was just a teen when she accepted the title role in Josephine Decker’s bracingly amorphous drama about the fraught relationship between an unstable young actress, her well-meaning mother (Miranda July), and the director (Molly Parker) whose sincere love for her new muse has a vampiric edge to it. Howard doesn’t conceal her age by playacting adulthood. Instead, she digs her fingernails into the chaos of adolescence, the internal swirl of possibility and rage and occasional horniness from which a passionate thespian can emerge. There’s a maturity in that, too, as both Howard and Madeline come into their own by embracing the spontaneity and imperfection that can lead to all-time-great performances. Here’s hoping the lightning strikes again soon. [Charles Bramesco]

21. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? is technically a biopic of a biographer, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who resorts to forging and embellishing letters from deceased writers when both her life and career take a big downswing in the early ’90s. But the film works best, perhaps, as a portrait of a misanthrope who finds herself completely out of step with a culture that once embraced her. McCarthy tempers her broad comic sensibility in favor of thorny frustration, resulting in the best performance of her career. Alongside her, Richard E. Grant gives another in a long career of stellar turns as Jack Hock, Israel’s gay partner in crime/drinking buddy. Heller’s low-key, detail-focused approach pays off big in a film that lives and dies by its period aesthetic. She also finds a warm empathy for her caustic, drunk subjects. “Difficult” people, after all, deserve love and recognition just as much as the nice ones. [Vikram Murthi]

20. Private Life

Photo: Netflix

“This is my private life,” cries Danny Elfman in the Oingo Boingo song of the same name. “Come and get me out of here.” That’s more or less how Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) feel in Tamara Jenkins’ long-awaited third feature, which explores in minute, often excruciating detail this infertile couple’s Herculean efforts to either conceive or adopt a child. Jenkins apparently went through a lot of this herself (which partially explains why it’s been 11 years since The Savages), and she expertly threads the needle, finding ways to make her ordeal both scrupulously accurate and enormously entertaining. And the narrative that gradually emerges, in which Rachel and Richard become surrogate parents to their college-age niece (Kayli Carter), who volunteers to be an egg donor, beautifully conveys the idea that love and guidance don’t necessarily require a traditional family structure, and that sometimes we find what we’re looking for without even realizing it. [Mike D’Angelo]

19. Shoplifters

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

In the opening moments of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, a man and a boy exchange a nod that’s at once solemn, playful, and astonishingly efficient. It tells us that these two are connected, practiced, that they’re here to work, but that the work is fun. They’re stealing, and it’s a necessary but enjoyable ritual. That density of meaning runs throughout Shoplifters, which explores how families can be both chosen and needed, built on love and formed for convenience all at once. It’s a film of gentleness and compassion, brought to life by an ensemble of actors as committed to the playfulness and poetry of ordinary life as the director who brought them together. Like a practiced thief, Shoplifters knows how to direct your attention; it’s more than capable of sneaking in while you’re distracted and lodging somewhere behind your ribs, never to leave again. [Allison Shoemaker]

18. Lean On Pete

Photo: A24

At first, Lean On Pete appears to be the modestly heartwarming story of a lonely, motherless teenage boy named Charley (Charlie Plummer) who finds purpose and structure in his life by bonding with a past-its-prime racehorse. Working from Willy Vlautin’s novel, director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) captures the circuit’s hardscrabble shabbiness, giving equal attention to the patient, pragmatic trainer (Steve Buscemi) who takes Charley under his wing, as well as to one of the region’s longtime jockeys (Chloë Sevigny). As it turns out, though, this is a masterful bait-and-switch. Learning midway though the film that his best pal is about to become glue, Charley steals Lean On Pete and heads out to find his aunt—a journey that grows increasingly bleak, becoming less about human-equine relations than about the dangers of having no support system in America. It’s as if the kid from The Black Stallion turned into River Phoenix’s character from My Own Private Idaho, and as bracing as that suggests. [Mike D’Angelo]

17. Isle Of Dogs

Photo: Fox Searchlight

What Wes Anderson’s latest foray into stop-motion animation lacks in intricate plotting or detailed character work, it makes up for with sheer visual delight. Chock-full of breathtaking formal play and sharp verbal comedy, Isle Of Dogs is hard to match for moment-to-moment pleasure. By telling a familiar boy-and-his-dog story in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Megasaki, Anderson has drawn some valid charges of cultural appropriation. But the sheer range of aesthetic styles he utilizes here is often breathtaking, evincing a considered (if not necessarily marrow-deep) engagement with Japanese culture. At this point in his career, the director’s now-familiar aesthetic toolbox is liable to be taken for granted—and though he’s again working with politically charged imagery (as in The Grand Budapest Hotel), the film’s emotional earnestness is unmistakable. But sentimentality has its place, and an ingeniously assembled Rube Goldberg contraption that affirms the value of pooch-like loyalty is nothing to scoff at. [Lawrence Garcia]

16. Hereditary

Photo: A24

Not since Marion Crane took the last shower of her short life has a horror movie so cruelly, effectively shattered an audience’s false sense of security. Capable of chilling the most jaded multiplex crowd into silence, the figurative and literal schism that arrives early into Ari Aster’s harrowingly accomplished debut feature is a microcosm for its sophisticated emotional terrorism—the way it uses the ugly feelings volleying across bedrooms and dining-room tables to put nerves on end, goosing its impeccably crafted scares. Some saw no meaningful relationship between Hereditary’s anguished family drama and the supernatural nightmare that consumes it, even with Toni Collette—in the year’s most grippingly volatile performance—creating continuity between them with every disturbing contortion of her facial muscles. But to call the two incompatible is to miss the full significance of the film’s diabolical design, including the twisted logic of its upshot: a kind of happy ending for anyone who ever sought meaning in senseless tragedy or shifted responsibility for their misfortunes onto a power greater than themselves. [A.A. Dowd]

15. The Favourite

Photo: Fox Searchlight

The unpredictable offspring of Jane Austen, Barry Lyndon, Ken Russell, and a Hype Williams music video, The Favourite is the freshest costume drama to come along in ages. Director Yorgos Lanthimos, the cerebral provocateur behind Dogtooth and The Lobster, provides an invigorating counterbalance to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s gleefully filthy, viciously witty script about 18th-century English queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the noblewomen, played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, at war for her affections. The actors are electric, as is the chemistry between them, and Lanthimos captures their power struggle through flourishes as excessive as the appetites of the story’s idle elites. Think of a sweet and sticky rum cake scented with just the faintest hint of cyanide. Or maybe of Dorothy Parker gone mad with syphilis, toasting a three-legged race where the loser gets eaten at the end. [Katie Rife]

14. Leave No Trace

Photo: Bleecker Street

It’s been eight years since writer-director Debra Granik and writer-producer Anne Rosellini debuted their magnificent Winter’s Bone, and helped launch a then-teenaged Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. The thematically similar Leave No Trace may do the same for its 18-year-old star Thomasin McKenzie, who’s both magnetic and heartbreaking as Tom, the resourceful daughter of a mentally ill Iraq War veteran (Ben Foster). As the pair scavenges their way across the Pacific Northwest, looking for places to squat off the grid, McKenzie captures the young woman’s complicated dilemma: She wants to take care of her dad, even as she realizes that his damage may be irreparable. Leave No Trace is at once a wilderness adventure, a coming-of-age picture, and a sensitive portrait of a kid struggling to reckon with the realization that she may need to cut her family ties. [Noel Murray]

13. BlacKkKlansman

Photo: Focus Features

Spike Lee’s tragicomic retelling of an unlikely sting operation in Colorado Springs during the ’70s—a black cop (John David Washington) uses his Jewish partner (Adam Driver) as a stand-in so they may jointly play mole in the local KKK—feels like a return to form for a director who never really lost his touch. Chalk it up to the searing, specific timeliness, particularly the chilling finale that pushes the violence and bigotry off of the screen and into our reality. Lee finds plenty of shades of gray between black and white, as a morally conflicted individual gets caught in an ideological tug-of-war between the police force he loves even when it doesn’t love him back and the black-power radicals he can’t fully get down with. Inter-sectarian disputes over praxis, charged dialogue about identity politics, guilt over inaction in times of crisis: Lee takes everything lugubrious about modern discourse, duct-tapes it to a bundle of post-blaxploitation fireworks, and lights the fuse. [Charles Bramesco]

12. Thoroughbreds

Photo: Focus Features

Thoroughbreds doesn’t deal directly with the social media-saturated lives of Today’s Teens. If anything, the friend-like arrangement between high-achieving, stepdad-loathing Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and disaffected, unfeeling Amanda (Olivia Cooke) has the retro trappings of older money: They hang out in Lily’s Connecticut mansion, often staring at the TV, with Lily receiving payment to SAT-tutor Amanda. Yet a very contemporary sense of isolation, and a very tricky relationship with empathy, is all over Cory Finley’s knockout murder-plan thriller, a sort of riff on Strangers On A Train. In other words, Thoroughbreds is the kind of movie Brian De Palma used to make, albeit less luridly feverish—and, in carefully meted-out doses, more unexpectedly affecting. Lily and Amanda may be teenagers, but they’ve moved beyond the question of how to navigate the high school cafeteria, instead setting out to calculate how to make their way in an empathy-challenged real world. [Jesse Hassenger]

11. If Beale Street Could Talk

Photo: Annapurna Pictures

Barry Jenkins’ dazzling adaptation of a 1974 novel by James Baldwin approaches the blossoming love between Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) with great reverence, cinematographer James Laxton capturing the almost internal glow they radiate, as Nicholas Britell’s score swells and swoons. Yet an undercurrent of tragedy runs through even the film’s most sun-kissed moments, not just the ones of hardship. Baldwin’s story, remarkably adapted by Jenkins as his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight, looks upon the injustice laced throughout the lives of black Americans with the same steadfast gaze the film turns on its moments of tenderness. It’s all there, found in the blue skies; in Fonny’s sculptures; in the thoughtful performances of Layne, James, and standouts Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Brian Tyree Henry; and in the warmth that passes between two palms pressed together, even when they’re separated by glass. [Allison Shoemaker]

10. The Other Side Of The Wind

Photo: Netflix

To quote Twin Peaks: “What year is this?” After more than four decades languishing in post-production limbo, Orson Welles’ final project arrives like a missive from a bygone era. No less than a Herculean act of reconstructive surgery, The Other Side Of The Wind tells an ostensibly familiar tale of protégé (Peter Bogdanovich’s Brooks Otterlake) surpassing mentor (John Huston’s Jake Hannaford), here in the context of ’70s-era Hollywood. But it’s also a delirious, wildly entertaining implosion of unstable meta-text, filled with nonstop callbacks, withering bon mots, and thinly veiled send-ups of then-contemporary personalities, not to mention some of the most electric (and unabashedly libidinous) filmmaking of Welles’ legendary career. Shifting freely between black-and-white footage and lurid color photography, it’s a veritably prismatic object, a kind of cracked crystal that’s all the more fascinating for its supposed flaws. Putting it on a year-end list feels inadequate. [Lawrence Garcia]

9. You Were Never Really Here

Photo: Amazon Studios

Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest dive into the deepest, most diabolical trenches of the human psyche is as fractured as the consciousness of its protagonist, the physically intimidating, psychologically fragile assassin-for-hire Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). Ramsay swings between understatement and excess with bravado, a destabilizing tactic that injects every loaded silence with a sense of palpable dread. The result is an impressionistic fugue state of a film that illuminates moments of unspeakable violence with the blinding indifference of a flashbulb, a series of Polaroid photographs stashed under a dirty, bloodstained mattress in a blighted Skid Row hotel room. But for all of its grim, broad-shouldered misanthropy, You Were Never Ready Here also finds time for moments of simple, unspoiled beauty—ephemeral, but beautiful nonetheless. [Katie Rife]

8. First Man

Photo: Universal Pictures

After tackling musical obsession in Whiplash and La La Land, Damien Chazelle shot for the moon with this remarkable biopic about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the first person to set foot on its gray, dusty surface. Drawing parallels between Armstrong’s remote personality and the remoteness of space, human ambiguities and cosmic unknowns, First Man recasts the Apollo 11 mission as the story of a man who got further away from the rest of the species than anyone had gone before—and came back. The cast is top-notch (especially Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, the astronaut’s wife), but the tin-can claustrophobia, head-spinning terror, and ultimately transcendent imagery of the training and mission sequences is the film’s singular technical achievement. It might seem like a world away (literally) from the musical numbers of Chazelle’s last film, but his themes are as conflicted and melancholy as ever: perfection and anxiety, the need to connect and the need to escape. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

7. Roma

Photo: Netflix

Alfonso Cuarón followed up his blockbuster science-fiction picture Gravity with something unexpected: an intimate, semi-autobiographical slice-of-life, set in early ’70s Mexico City. Even more surprising? Roma has just as much cinematic panache as the director’s previous fantasy films and sex comedies. Shot in dreamy black-and-white (with Cuarón himself serving as cinematographer), the film tracks the dissolution of a marriage, as well as the social changes in Mexico, all through the eyes of one middle-class family’s maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). In long, astonishingly well-choreographed takes, Cuarón creates the impression of a larger world rushing by outside the window of an increasingly dysfunctional home. But his camera keeps finding its way back to Cleo, as she manages the smaller domestic dramas—including some of her own—while quietly contemplating what gives her life meaning. [Noel Murray]

6. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

Photo: Netflix

Everyone knows the old saw about anthology movies being less than the sum of their parts; it’s a tale as old as the singing cowboy or the stagecoach ghost story. Joel and Ethan Coen should be especially familiar, having contributed to Paris, Je T’Aime and faced assumptions that The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs was really supposed to be a TV series. But it’s hard to imagine breaking their six Western mini-movies into a Netflix “season,” because they complement each other so gracefully. Set in a beguiling netherworld between unforgiving real-life grimness and heightened tall-tale pulpiness, the stories range from delightfully mordant musical slapstick starring Tim Blake Nelson to a heartbreaking gut-punch starring Zoe Kazan, to name just two standouts. Death haunts the whole thing, which builds toward the simultaneously hilarious and hushed “The Mortal Remains,” as satisfying and language-besotted a closer as the Coens have ever concocted. Their sometimes-fatalist outlook has seen them tagged as nihilists, a group they savaged as well as anyone in The Big Lebowski. But nihilists don’t put this much thought into endings. [Jesse Hassenger]

5. Eighth Grade

Photo: A24

Most movies about teenagers, even the good ones, can’t quite capture the sheer emotional intensity of the adolescent experience. Eighth Grade is not most movies about teenagers. Comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut is so viscerally awkward that it plays occasionally like a horror movie, while being empathetic enough that it never has to resort to shock value to get audiences squirming. Star Elsie Fisher is equally essential to the film’s resonance, playing painfully insecure, smartphone-obsessed eighth grader Kayla with a vulnerability that would be remarkable from an actor of any age, let alone one too young to drive. You want to hug her and snatch the phone from her hand at the same time, a swirl of reactions Burnham and Fisher deftly manipulate into a warm, observant, endlessly relatable symphony of mortification. [Katie Rife]

4. First Reformed

Photo: A24

By turns thoughtful and outrageous, Paul Schrader’s drama about an alcoholic ex-military chaplain (Ethan Hawke, in one of his finest performances) pushes its writer-director’s career-long interest in contemplation and grotesque, gratuitous self-destruction to new extremes. As the minister and caretaker of an old clapboard church in upstate New York, Hawke’s depressed, soft-spoken Rev. Toller struggles with the betrayed promise of Christianity—and with the secrets of a Marian young widow (Amanda Seyfried) whose husband left behind an explosive suicide vest. The material may be borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, Robert Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest, and Schrader’s own screenplay for Taxi Driver, but First Reformed’s perturbed vision of the modern End Times of terrorism and ecological disaster is very much its own. For all of its boxy visual asceticism, the result is one of Schrader’s richest films—and one’s that likely to grow on the viewer, as it has on this writer. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

3. Cold War

Photo: Amazon Studios

Pawel Pawlikowski’s alternately chilly and hot-blooded drama (opening in limited release on Friday) was reportedly inspired by the turbulent relationship of his own parents, but the film’s horizon—as its title suggests—is considerably broader than that. Rather than merely chronicle the on-again, off-again passion of musicologist/musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), Pawlikowski uses it as a proxy for life in the Soviet Bloc during the middle of the 20th century, while simultaneously crafting a geopolitical metaphor for the sort of love affair that thrives only when confronted with obstacles. Like Ida, it’s a shimmeringly gorgeous black-and-white picture, shot in the squarish Academy ratio; here, the frame can barely contain Kulig’s raw nerve of a performance, ideally matched by Kot’s maddening passivity. As Sean Penn can attest, making the personal political is tricky business. Cold War pulls it off without breaking a sweat. [Mike D’Angelo]

2. Support The Girls

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

So many movies perform grotesque contortions (or extraordinary acts of denial) to avoid showing their characters at work, at least if their jobs aren’t cop, lawyer, or secret agent. And who can blame them, really? A lot of work is a soul-crushing slog, something that Support The Girls understands intuitively—so intuitively that writer-director Andrew Bujalski doesn’t need to sink his characters into a swamp of misery to acknowledge the drudgery of working at Double Whammies, sort of a poor man’s Hooters in the Texas suburbs. Applying a one-crazy-day structure to a day that isn’t all that crazy, Bujalski follows Lisa (Regina Hall), the restaurant’s manager, as she plays boss, dutiful employee, counselor, and mother, depending on which crisis she’s addressing. Hall, in exactly the kind of performance that’s too grounded and true to receive the awards attention it deserves, shows deft command of the subtle differences between our various selves—work, family, uncomfortable fusions of the two—that so many working people are forced to navigate. Yet for all of its dead-end realism, this is also a warm and funny movie, with boundlessly charming supporting turns from Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, and Dylan Gelula. Workplace drudgery doesn’t preclude glimmers of humanity—and humanity doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, as the movie’s perfectly open final shots indicate. [Jesse Hassenger]

1. Burning

Photo: Well Go USA

A bone-dry comedy of class warfare. A perplexing missing-person mystery worthy of Hitchcock or Antonioni. An existential meditation on the little hungers and great hungers that drive us. There’s no single right way to classify Burning, so why not just call it the best movie of the year and leave it at that? Returning after an eight-year hiatus from filmmaking, South Korean master of the slow burn Lee Chang-dong (Poetry) did more than perfectly capture the subjective ambivalence of Haruki Murakami’s original short story, “Barn Burning.” In stretching it out to fill two-and-half perfectly paced hours, he also teased from his source material a wealth of new meanings and ambiguities, percolating through the love triangle of sorts that envelops an introverted writer (Ah-in Yoo), his hometown classmate-turned-crush (Jong-seo Jun), and her slick, wealthy new beau (Steven Yeun, rivetingly loathsome in a tricky role). You didn’t have to look hard to see a disturbing relevance in the film’s simmering stew of resentments, the working-class and explicitly male rage that boils over into a shocking climax. (Not for nothing does Donald Trump make a televised cameo.) But Burning’s power is more timeless that it is timely, located as it is in big questions without clear answers: real riddles of desire, longing, and motivation, none any easier to solve than the disappearance at the center of this captivating enigma. [A.A. Dowd]

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