A lie critics tell themselves too often is that a year in movies has been particularly good or especially bad. But this year, Im echoing it as well: it was an unusually rich year for movies. Here are the very best of them. (For another view on 2018s greatest films, read chief critic Richard Lawsons own top 10 list here. For the best of 2018 in TV, read TV critic Sonia Saraiyas top 10 list here.)
10. Sollers Point
Matthew Porterfields fourth feature is, like his previous work, a subtle, razor-sharp portrait of working-class Baltimore—this time told through the striking blue eyes of 24-year-old Keith (McCaul Lombardi, in a star-making performance), a small-time drug dealer consigned to nine months of house arrest. What unfolds is, in part, what youd expect for a jobless, wandering hero with no immediate prospects. Working class but not working, Keith verges dangerously close to resuming that life of crime, ankle bracelet be damned. Rather than merely a tamped-down portrait of downtrodden white-guy criminality, however, what emerges from Porterfields extraordinarily poised study is a wide-angle, all-encompassing sense of community: of fractured social and personal ties reinforced by a sense of shared fate, geography, and broke-ness—but not brokenness. Minor characters are painted here with more detail and sympathy than the main characters in many other films. One of the great overlooked indie films of the year, and a testament to the enduring urgency of local, low-budget filmmaking.
With respect to A Star Is Born—the other major 2018 release that was originally slated to be directed by Clint Eastwood—this years best big-budget studio release is Damien Chazelles startling, formally overwhelming depiction of Neil Armstrong and his historic 1969 moon landing. “Great man” stories are passé, but First Man is more pointedly a film about the terror of the technological unknown. Every step leading up to the Apollo 11 mission, as depicted here, was a suicide mission—and better than almost any film depicting space travel that I can think of, Chazelle realizes that terror in some of the most disorientingly subjective scenes of flight Ive seen in a movie. Ryan Goslings Armstrong may be frustratingly taciturn, and he may hold the center of the film as an indomitable genius of engineering and piloting savvy. But First Man isnt a naked ode to that genius; its a fascinating study of the costs.
Argentine master Lucrecia Martels wonderful 18th-century farce, adapted from Antonio di Benedettos 1956 novel, stars Daniel Giménez Cacho as Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer stranded at a distant colonial outpost. Youd think thatd be high living for a man of rank, but Zama is miserable, and his routine requests for transfer back to Buenos Aires—civilization—are constantly deferred or ignored. So he wanders, mopes, falls in lust, and wastes away. Its a form of power that somehow, despite itself, withers right before our eyes—somewhat tragically, somewhat humorously, but above all with a grotesque sense of uncertainty. Martels hawkeyed sense of detail and her penchant for unpredictably mobile frames make you feel as if the movie, too, is slipping away. You dont watch Zama so much as you wander through it, nipping at Zamas heels, taking in a scene that includes some of the most unusual depictions of slavery and colonialism committed to screen in recent memory.
Bing Lius first documentary couldnt be more personal. In the broadest sense, its a chronicle of Rust Belt adolescence told from the birds-eye view of a skateboarder and his close friends. Zack and Keire, Lius partners in crime—though he barely knew one of them before he began filming—were drawn to skateboarding for the same reasons that Liu once was: troubled home lives, questionable future prospects, and a need to commune with other troubled men. As these young men grow closer, the ties that bind them strain under the fraught realities of unemployment and cyclical violence. Turning his camera on his friends and their tumultuous personal lives, Liu manages to create a portrait of none other than himself. And he fills that portrait with visually lyrical testaments to the sport that brought them together in the first place.
Orson Welless last movie may have been filmed between 1970 and 1976, and edited intermittently until Welless death in 1985, but—unluckily for almost everyone else who made a film this year—it wasnt officially released, after a massive postproduction effort, until this fall. The Other Side of the Wind stars famed Hollywood director John Huston as a titan in decline who, unknowingly nearing the end of his life, throws a party where he can screen clips from his disastrous upcoming project to investors, friends, and frenemies. Its a Hollywood story, in other words, as well as a mockumentary that may just have invented the form, with a playfully jazzy, whip-pan conversational style that predates and handily outpaces most contemporary sitcoms. Theres a mock Pauline Kael winkingly stirring up rumors of the great directors homosexuality, nagging father-son anxieties, and an excessively stylish movie-within-a-movie thatd make Michelangelo Antonioni blush.
I love a good, long Western yarn, but theres something almost criminally appealing to going the short-story route—sticking a pin in the usual Western themes (nationality, prosperity, renegade justice, and the like), but with a concentrated dose of that good old Coen brothers cynicism. Joel and Ethan Coen have assembled a sterling cast (including Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, and the exceptional breakout Bill Heck) into six miniature tales which, though unrelated by plot, are united in their fixations on death and money. Per usual, the Coens have fashioned a genre landscape into a closed-circuit confrontation with fate and history. But because of their unobtrusive length, the stories in this anthology have a more immediate sense of pleasure and danger, a more biting sense of irony, than the pairs usual tales. Its a film almost too entertaining to be seen as the harsh, unforgiving chronicle that it is.
The love story of the year. Barry Jenkinss adaptation of James Baldwins beloved novel is a lush, inventive melodrama of the kind American directors rarely make anymore. Stephan James and newcomer KiKi Layne star as a lovestruck pair of Harlemites in 1970s New York, torn asunder when Fonny (James) is wrongly accused of sexual assault and sent to prison. So begins a fervent, muscular drama of love and injustice, shot through with an unabashed embrace of color, style, sweeping music, and sentiment. Its rare that a movie shoots for the stars and clears them so handily, skillfully.
The first time I saw Lynne Ramsays masterpiece, I hated it. The second time, I realized what Id missed. Though You Were Never Really Here—with its chaotic sound design, constant traumatic flashbacks, elliptical emotional structure, and coy sense of extreme violence—feels like a film about trauma, it is more accurately a film about compulsion. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, an ex-soldier with memories—including from childhood—hed rather not have. Hes a mercenary of sorts, hired out to save young women from violent prostitution rings at a high expense. His own past, seen in bits and pieces, grows to clarify what makes him the man for the job. Ramsays filmmaking is, as always, fluid and impressionistic. Whats new here is the steep sense of genre awareness. Everybody knows this is a film about a man with a hero complex, trying to survive a world that hates women. Ramsay, a director of immense imagination and offbeat taste, forces you to wonder whether that complex is worth it.
2. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
Director Travis Wilkerson, whos white, is the great-grandson of a man who got away with murder. Specifically, it was the murder of a black man in 1940s Alabama—and as this astonishing documentary shows, Wilkersons great-grandfather more than merely got away with it. He effectively made a man vanish from history. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is Wilkersons radical attempt to recover that history, and to tell the story of the black man whose history was lost to a racially unjust murder. In the process, Wilkerson—using a stripped-down voice-over, brash music cues, exceptionally detailed interviews with loved ones and strangers, and a close-up tour of the modern day setting of the murder—gives us a front-row seat to his own startling revelations about what white supremacy can do to the history of a people. As he eventually learns, and as his documentary proves, whiteness has the power to set that history up in flames.
Paul Schraders masterpiece stars Ethan Hawke as the disgruntled Reverend Toller, who feels hes lost contact with God and, under strain of grave illness, decides to write a daily testament to that absence. That, at least, is where things start. But as Schraders airtight, deceptively simple film unfolds, that personal quest to document daily grievances grows into a disorienting depiction of a modern man of the cloths unlikely radicalization. What starts off as an almost humorously grim inner monologue expands to encompass visions, dark detours, and maybe even a miracle. Its the most intellectually enriching film of the year, but even more urgently, its a slick tour de force, prepared to push its miniature premise to extremes that even those well versed in Schraders spiritually tortured work won't see coming.
Honorable mentions: BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee); A Bread Factory (Patrick Wang); Burning (Lee Chang-dong); The Day After (Hong Sang-soo); Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher); Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis); Madelines Madeline (Josephine Decker); Mandy (Panos Cosmatos); Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor); Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson); The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery); The Rider (Chloé Zhao); Roma (Alfonso Cuarón); Shirkers (Sandi Tan); Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda); Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski); A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper); Thunder Road (Jim Cummings); Unfriended: Dark Web (Stephen Susco); Unsane (Steven Soderbergh).
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— The supercalifragilistic Lin-Manuel Miranda
— The Golden Globes are quirky—and thats a good thing
— How The Sopranos gave us Trump training wheels
— Rockos Modern Life was even loonier than you thought
— The years best movies, according to our critic
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hollywood newsletter and never miss a story.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.