Although the calendar year is an admittedly arbitrary framework for the discussion of cinema, when the end of December approaches, even the most high-minded writer is usually compelled to look back on the past 12 months and catalog their favorite films. (List-making is fun, after all.) Accordingly, now that 2018 is drawing to a close, the Lens critics have labored on their own individual inventories of the best films released this year. Each contributing critic – Cait Lore, Joshua Ray, and Andrew Wyatt – has prepared a list of their top 20 films of 2018 and also offered some brief thoughts on their top 10 features. Next month, the critics will publish a roundtable discussion of the list, wherein they reflect on the year’s overall characteristics, enthuse over their shared favorite films, and knife-fight over their rabid disagreements.

For the purposes of this post, a “film of 2018” is a feature with an Academy Award-qualifying theatrical opening in New York City or Los Angeles between Jan. 31 and Dec. 31, 2018, or an exclusive online premiere during the same period.

Cait Lore

20. Minding the Gap

19. Support the Girls

18. Custody

17. Incredibles 2

16. Blockers

15. Madeline’s Madeline

14. Jeannette: The Story of Joan of Arc

13. Suspiria 

12. Thoroughbreds

11. You Were Never Really There

10. Beast

2018 / UK / 107 min. / Dir. by Michael Pearce / Opened in select cities on May 11, 2018 

Something sinister is stalking Jersey’s countryside. Who (or what) it is no one knows, but it seems to be tied to one small town’s bucolic landscapes. A serial killer lurks in the forests, murdering little girls and filling their mouths with dirt. Moll (Jessie Buckley) thinks it could be her impossibly hot boyfriend (a note-perfect Johnny Flynn). But does she even care? Beast walks a fine line between high- and low-art filmmaking, evoking some of the best of 1970s genre cinema. An ambitious debut featuring a breakout performance from Buckley, Beast is a post-pastoral horror film for Brexit-era Britain.

9. Hereditary

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

In Ari Aster’s Hereditary, there’s a suspicious lack of anyone — doctors, police, detectives — that could possibly save Annie and her family from their themselves. Aster seems to assert that madness is a birthright, one with an ironclad grip. Sitting comfortably next to films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, horror is in Hereditary’s DNA. That being said, at times Hereditary seems like an accidental horror film. Aster’s feature, with table-talk scenes capable of shattering nerves, seems most interested in aligning itself with the films of Ingmar Bergman. It’s the things that can’t be unsaid, such as the scornful invective Toni Collette’s Annie directs at her son, that haunt every frame of Aster’s debut feature.    

8. We the Animals

2018 / USA / 94 min. / Dir. by Jeremiah Zagar / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018 

Favoring impressionistic storytelling technique and voice-over narration, We the Animals brings viewers unbearably close to its lead protagonist. Noah, nearly 10 years old, feels as if his life is closing in on him. It has a destabilizing effect on the boy, and so he turns to art projects to try and document the changes happening around him. The film, at its best, explores the early pangs of queer desire with quiet courage. These scenes, in which Noah is left awestruck by his sexual stirrings, are as disquieting as they are rapturous. 

7. The Wild Boys

2018 / France / 110 min. / Dir. by Bertrand Mandico / Opened in select cities on Aug. 24, 2018

Heaven-sent for the world’s tender perverts, The Wild Boys plays like Lord of the Flies by way of James Bidgood. The viewer watches naturalism collapse in on itself, giving way to lurid technicolor in Bertrand Mandico’s erotic odyssey. In a time when Hollywood, now abruptly queer-conscious, has found a way to appropriate queer stories into humdrum morality plays, a voice like Mandico’s is desperately needed. Perhaps the only film that can clear a room quicker than Suspiria, Mandico’s debut functions as a hyper-erotic critique of biological determinism. It also has dick-fountains. God bless this film’s filthy little heart!  

6. The Favourite

2018 / UK / 121 min. / Dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos / Opened in select cities on Nov. 23, 2018

Starting with The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos has now made his last three features with Film4, a UK production company known for kitchen-sink-style pictures. While Lanthimos continues to be one of the most reliable filmmakers working today, his last two features raise some alarm bells for hardcore fans of the Greek Weird Wave enfant terrible. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are, after all, almost “normal” movies, by Dogtooth standards. With that in mind, it is a great relief to see a film like The Favourite come from Lanthimos and Film4’s partnership. Based on the real-life romances of Queen Anne, this is a biopic with one eye on the present. It feels like a story that only Lanthimos could tell, and one that seems to open up new routes for the director’s audacious approach to narrative and world-building. Few things in this rotten world ever really change, says The Favourite, least of all the petty games of the ruling class. And, for what it’s worth, watching Olivia Coleman eat cake, vomit, and then eat more cake, only to vomit again, is the scene by which 2018 will be remembered.

5. Paddington 2

2018 / UK  / 104 min. / Dir. by Paul King / Opened in wide release on Jan 12, 2018

Not since the original Mary Poppins has London been so delightfully drawn. Literally. It’s a pop-up-book that catches Paddington’s eye, one with fanciful portraits of London landmarks, for his sweet Aunt Lucy’s birthday. The film dazzles, as Paddington moves through these iconic London locations, hot on the heels of a show-stealing Hugh Grant. The film breezes through beautifully constructed visual gags, with references to Ealing comedies that will delight even the most jaded filmgoers. As it turns out, this year’s most kindly feature is also the funniest, and it’s better than the original, too. 

4. The Third Murder

2018 / Japan / 125 min. / Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda / Opened in select cities on July 20, 2018

Best known for his heart-shredding stories about family affairs, Hirokazu Kore-eda is repeatedly boxed in by critics as the spiritual successor to Ozu. Even now, a dozen films later, he still finds himself correcting journalists: Class, not family, is the director’s primary subject. The Ozu comparison, Kore-eda fears, de-politicizes his work. With its opening scene – in which one man bashes in another’s head – The Third Murder seems to set the record straight: Kore-eda films aren’t for tea time anymore. A courtroom drama that still manages to stay true to the director’s roots, it breathes new life into one of Japan’s finest filmmakers. Kore-eda’s track record is near spotless, but this one is his best film since 2008’s instant classic Still Walking.

3. First Reformed

2018 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018

When speaking about this year’s Suspiria, another St. Louis-based critic described the film as a “roadmap through the history of European art films.” One can also think of First Reformed as a similar type of roadmap, but the history is far more personal. “You can see a number of lessons in his face that he doesn’t have to act. Life has put them there,” says Paul Schrader in an interview with NPR. He’s speaking about the decision to cast Ethan Hawke in the role of the Rev. Ernest Toller, but the same sentiment can be extended to the director himself. The roadmap here takes audiences through Schrader’s personal film history (Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky). The lessons, though, the ones that life put there, are lurking in every frame, in each moment of deafening silence that Toller confronts. As esoteric as it is insightful, First Reformed will provide viewers with truths to mine from for years to come.   

2. Shirkers

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Sandi Tan / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

There is a certain type of movie that feels both immediately familiar and undeniably original when it is viewed for the first time. Shirkers, like Ghost World and Diary of a Teenage Girl before it, is perhaps the first in the coming-of-age counterculture canon to take the form of a self-archiving documentary feature. A film-within-a-film, Tan’s 2018 feature seeks to breathe new life into her uncompleted 1992 feature of the same name. When she was a teenager in the 1990s, Tan’s film — think the French New Wave meets underground comix — would have been groundbreaking. Then, at the start of post-production, both the film and Tan’s dear friend went missing. Twenty-five years in the making, Shirkers shows what happens when the past won’t stay buried. It’s a courageous piece of filmmaking and one that’s bound to leave an indelible mark on both the hearts of wayward teenagers and feminist film history. 

1. Bisbee ‘17

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Robert Greene / Opened in select cities on Sept. 5, 2018

Like Shirkers, the best film of the year employs both a hauntological lens and a genre-bending approach to the documentary form. Bisbee ‘17, however, does so on a far larger scope. Borrowing from the most unusual sources — the American musical, Westerns, Bertolt Brecht, and even podcasts — director Robert Greene attempts to “write” with the past (and the documentary form) to engage with the present day. A career best for Greene, Bisbee ‘17 is both challenging and astute, inventive and timely; it’s a landmark in documentary cinema.

Joshua Ray

Honorable Mentions: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blindspotting; The Death of Stalin; Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami; Incredibles 2; McQueen; Memoir of War; Minding the Gap; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; The Tale; Wildlife

20. The Great Buddha+ 

19. We the Animals

18. Lean on Pete 

17. Madeline’s Madeline

16. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

15. Private Life

14. First Man

13. The Favourite

12. Western

11. Shirkers

10. Paddington 2

2018 / UK  / 104 min. / Dir. by Paul King / Opened in wide release on Jan 12, 2018

Paddington 2 smartly expands the world of the lovable British icon to include Brexit-era nationalism, impulses to which the first film only alluded. The titular talking bear is othered and ostracized but retains his remarkable resilience, inspiring even the coldest of hearts. He’s exactly the hero that 2018 needs. Paul King's film also boasts the best action set piece of the year (sorry, Christopher McQuarrie) and an inventive filmmaking that’s alive with the possibilities of the medium. By all rights, this kids and family affair should be as sticky and sweet as Paddington's beloved marmalade sandwiches, but instead it's a reminder that greatness can come in any shape, size, or species.

9. Shoplifters

2018 / Japan / 121 min. / Dir. by Hirokazu Kore-eda / Opened in select cities on Nov. 23, 2018

With Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda builds a world in which his characters are people so forgotten by the outside world they can freely create and live in their own fantasies, forging a family of their own choosing. Of course, anyone who refuses to play by society's rigid rules eventually becomes an enemy of the people, and halfway through Kore-eda's gentle deconstruction of his own tendency towards the maudlin, the heartwarming transforms into heartbreaking. A high-wire act that could have gone disastrously wrong, Shoplifters presents the filmmaker at his most expertly balanced, in marked contrast to an unjustly imbalanced world.

8. Happy as Lazzaro 

2018 / Italy / 125 min. / Dir. by Alice Rohrwacher / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 30, 2018

Like Shoplifters, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro is a fantasy bifurcated by world-altering revelations that undermine its characters' realities. In this Pasolini-inspired fable, holy fool Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a blank-slate receptacle for the abuses of power that fuel the world he inhabits. After surviving a life of indentured servitude and one nasty fall, Lazzaro (read: Lazarus) reawakens to find himself a time traveler, stumbling into an era in which previous systemic failings are now institutionalized. Rohrwacher's third feature is her most ambitious, presenting a refreshing vision of moral condemnation and magical realism that feels equally reverent to the past and awake to our contemporary times.

7. Burning

2018 / South Korea / 148 min. / Dir. by Lee Chang-Dong / Opened in select cities on Oct. 26, 2018

The pace of Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning might have alienated viewers if the time spent uncomfortably nestling itself into the psyche of Lee (Ah-in Yoo) weren’t so transfixing. Over its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the twentysomething writer protagonist embroils himself in a ménage à trois of sorts with an old classmate and her affluent, mysterious boyfriend. Throughout, Chang-Dong maintains a razor’s edge of suspense, and the film’s final moment reveals its center’s rotten core, wholly reconfiguring the viewer’s experience. All the while, the Korean filmmaker also manages to encapsulate an entire generation’s identity-based anxieties, presenting a world of people in limbo, unable to truly understand each other or even themselves. 

6. Suspiria 

2018 / Italy, USA / 142 min. / Dir. by Luca Guadagnino / Opened in select cities on October 26, 2018

Having garnered widespread acclaim and cultural cachet with last year’s Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino doesn’t appear to be concerned anymore with such fruitful recognition. Instead, with his reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, he crafts a grotesque Grand Guignol that’s high on ambition and low on good taste. Thank God. Suspiria is the most giddy bad time at the movies in 2018, a violent and operatic ode to womanhood that reflects the schadenfreude politics of now. The spiritual polar opposite of the other movie-movie of the year, Paddington 2, Guadagnino's film maudit infuses Fassbinder’s radical political cinema with every cinematic trick in its maker’s wide-ranging arsenal, gleefully dancing its way to a bloody female revolution.

5. The Other Side of the Wind

2018 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by Orson Welles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018 

As a poison-pen letter to Hollywood, The Other Side of the Wind is Orson Welles’ angriest work, and it’s certainly justified. After boy wonder Welles made “the greatest film of all time” with his debut, Citizen Kane, RKO massacred Welles’ second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons, a work that even in its truncated and altered form bests its predecessor in sheer cinematic elegance. The next 30 years in the wilderness seem to have done a number on Welles, and his finally completed final film condemns the nastiest sides of the Dream Factory and the privileged people who run it. A feat of meta-textual showmanship — a late-in-life director attempting to resurrect his career with a wild ride of a film is both Wind’s story and its backstory — the decades-gestating film is even more dazzling in its kaleidoscopic construction. Although principal photography ended in 1976, it’s the 2018 release that looks the most brazenly futuristic.

4. Let the Sunshine In

2017 / France / 94 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities on April 27, 2018

Unfairly accused by some as being Claire Denis Lite, Let the Sunshine In is nevertheless as brutally frank about the complex interiority of its lead character as her two previous films, White Material and Bastards. It’s just that Sunshine deals with Isabelle’s (Juliette Binoche) monomaniacal search for romantic fulfilment, rather than explorations of a man’s violent heart; a rich and filling dessert after two lean, mean courses. Although the thematic subject matter is new to Denis (her sublime Friday Night comes the closest), this romantic-comedy subversion is still as wildly creative as any in the master filmmaker’s oeuvre. It’s an elliptical and structurally adventurous work with a strident and erratic focal point, a character who becomes the perfect showcase for Binoche, one of the great actors of the present moment.

3. Zama

2017 / Argentina / 115 min. / Dir. by Lucrecia Martel / Opened in select cities on April 13, 2018

Zama is Lucrecia Martel's return to narrative film after her surreal and insular 2008 “thriller," The Headless Woman. On the surface, this adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto's postmodern deconstruction of 18th-century colonialism couldn't be further from Martel's previous film, but the Argentine director puts her finger right on the bourgeois pulse she's always been condemning. To see a middle-management Spanish corregedor (Daniel Giménez Cacho) lose his head within the bureaucratic system he himself supports is one of the year's greatest pleasures, and this is all before the film morphs into a damning and cinematically thrilling journey into the heart of darkness that is the masculine drive for supremacy. 

2. Support the Girls

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Andrew Bujalski / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

Support the Girls is one of the smallest films on this list but also one of its biggest triumphs. Andrew Bujalski’s film about a day in the life of Lisa (Regina King), the manager of a Hooters-like bar and grill, reads like the pilot of a new sitcom, but it plays like the funniest Dardennes brothers' film ever made. At every turn, the film is a testament to women's defiance in the face of adversity, whether it manifests as the smallest inconveniences or as biblical tests of faith. It also philosophically challenges the notion of self, seemingly without much effort. The work is there, though, with monumentally alive performances from Hall, Shayna McHayle, and Haley Lu Richardson, among many others. The final rooftop howl into the sky from those three actors cements Support the Girls as the year's most endlessly repeatable anthems of self-worth.

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

2018 / USA / 119 min. / Dir. by Barry Jenkins / Opened in select cities on Dec. 14, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk is just as swooningly romantic and heartbreaking as Barry Jenkins’ previous film, Best Picture Oscar-winner Moonlight. The two are remarkably similar in scope, both tracing the decades of a central relationship made impossible by the social forces that work against it. The film demonstrates a refinement in Jenkins’ skill at repurposing the ache and longing of the color-coded melodramas of art-house giants Jacques Demy and Wong Kar-Wai, in particular. Like those masters, Jenkins so expertly captures the elation of falling in love that his characters would all but levitate if they weren't so damagingly grounded by the reality of the world in which they live.

In adapting James Baldwin's landmark 1974 novel, Jenkins furthers the author's glorious act of giving black voices a resounding platform. Although the author is ever-present in the film — it retains his masterly prose in lead character Tish's (KiKi Lane) narration — If Beale Street Could Talk isn't a typical literary adaptation. On the contrary, this is a cinematic celebration of black life, depicting the centuries' worth of information exchanged in simple glances among marginalized people. Jenkins also reconfigures Baldwin's hallucinatory "happy" ending into a stark reminder of how little has changed in the intervening time, both in the characters' and black Americans' lives.

Andrew Wyatt

Honorable Mentions: Beast; Bisbee ’17; Blaze; Blindspotting; First Man; Golden Exits; Incredibles 2; Isle of Dogs; The Kindergarten Teacher; Lean on Pete; Mirai; Paddington 2; A Quiet Place; Revenge; Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda; Sorry to Bother You; Sweet Country; Tully; Vox Lux; We the Animals; Widows

20. Shoplifters

19. Wildlife

18. The Rider 

17. If Beale Street Could Talk 

16. Leave No Trace

15. The Cakemaker

14. The King

13. Zama

12. The Favourite

11. You Were Never Really Here

10. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

2018 / USA / 147 min. / Dir. by Christoper McQuarrie / Opened in wide release on July 27, 2018

The best action franchise of the 21st century has implausibly improved with each post-M:I III iteration, but it attains its jaw-dropping apotheosis with Fallout. Tom Cruise risks life and limb in some of the most spectacular action set pieces ever filmed, tempting an outright blood sacrifice for viewers’ amusement. Any one of those scenes would make Fallout a classic; assembled into one film, they constitute a kind of multiplex miracle, placing Christopher McQuarrie’s feature into the rarefied company of touchstones such as Police Story, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Whether during the 25,000-foot HALO jump, the bone-crunching men’s-room brawl, or the mind-blowing Parisian breakout-cum-getaway, the film consistently exudes an astonishing assurance, ferocious and confident but never weightless. One can almost hear Mr. Cruise rhetorically glorying: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

9. Minding the Gap

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bing Liu / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

Strictly as a keenly observed sub-culture portrait and lyrical sports documentary, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap is an uncommonly accomplished work, the sort of debut feature that signals the arrival of an instantly vital filmmaker. What makes Liu’s nonfiction triumph truly great, however, is the invisible and yet pitiless way it reveals itself as something much more profound than a scruffy hangout film about three young skateboarders coming of age in Rockford, Ill. Mirroring the director’s own evolving understanding of his material, Minding the Gap emerges as a shockingly potent and intensely personal dissection of violence, trauma, race, and toxic masculinity. It’s at once wistful, woebegone, and unsentimental, the sort of dynamic, gutsy filmmaking that leaves the viewer astonished and disconsolate.

8. Eighth Grade

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bo Burnham / Opened in select cities on July 13, 2018

In a year of fantastically auspicious debut features, there was arguably none unlikelier and more miraculous than Eighth Grade, directed by a fellow who got his start performing silly parody songs on YouTube. In his touching, slice-of-life dramedy about the tribulations of newly minted adolescent Kayla (a sublimely sweet-’n’-awkward Elsie Fisher), Bo Burnham achieves a wondrous balance between affectless realism and indie quirk, discovering an inspired middle way that is at once grounded and heightened. Eighth Grade isn’t merely a so-real-it-hurts elicitation of universal 13-year-old anxieties. (The loneliness! The humiliation! The horniness!) It’s a soulful, slippery, quietly radical portrait of the Kids Today, who, it turns out, are a lot like kids from every era – just less private and more attuned to the postmodern maelstrom of performative living that’s sweeping them along.

7. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman / Opened in wide release on Dec. 14, 2018

Two decades into the superhero film’s indefatigable box-office winning streak and attendant artistic fossilization, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse swings into the multiplex like a red-and-blue bolt of radioactive plasma. To birth one of the best comic-book films of all time, Sony’s Columbia Pictures simply had to ditch the live-action actors – and then throw out every hidebound rule that has governed 21st-century computer animation. Equal parts thrilling, touching, sidesplitting, and downright hallucinatory, Spider-Verse blends its seemingly dissonant elements with such sneaky elegance, it looks virtually effortless. Establishing a new, dizzying gold standard for pop entertainment, it’s the rare film that simultaneously elevates and democratizes its genre through its ecstatic formal artistry and heartfelt characterization. Excelsior, indeed.

6. Hereditary

2018 / USA / 127 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opened in wide release on June 8, 2018

No horror feature from the past decade can compare to director Ari Aster’s indescribably terrifying debut – at least in terms of sheer, white-hot traumatizing potency. Gnawing the viewer’s nerves raw from the opening notes of composer Colin Stetson’s disquieting score, Hereditary drags the viewer – first gradually, then in a frenzy of kicking and screaming – into a pitiless occult nightmare of familial grief, guilt, and resentment. Headlining this demonic vision is the unparalleled Toni Collette, who undergoes a succession of frightful and yet wholly credible psychological upheavals as an irrevocable, unthinkable doom descends on her household. In an era when mainstream horror has become dully formulaic, Hereditary is an exemplar of the form at its most brutally unpredictable and unhinged. It’s the sort of once-a-decade cinematic experience that leaves scars — deep, lasting, and exquisite. You have been warned.

5. The Other Side of the Wind

2018 / USA / 122 min. / Dir. by Orson Welles / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Nov. 2, 2018 

Despite – or perhaps because of – Orson Welles’ canonization as one of the all-time masters of cinema, the posthumous completion of the director’s final feature seemed like the sort of questionable artistic endeavor that could have resulted in an epic boondoggle. Happily, such pessimism was not only unwarranted but completely misplaced: The final product testifies not only to the perseverance of filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich and producer Frank Marshall but also to Welles’ unruly and enduring genius. Exhausting, impenetrable, and endlessly fascinating, The Other Side of the Wind is an eminently fitting swan song for the director, equal parts time capsule and timeless critique. A quasi-autobiographical fusillade directed squarely at Hollywood, the film arrives like a multi-camera, multi-textured whirlwind, declaring – in John Huston’s tobacco-juice growl – that it might have just rolled in from the 1970s, but it already has your number, you 21st-century cocksuckers.

4. Shirkers

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Sandi Tan / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

Equal parts sorrowful, livid, and flabbergasted, Sandi Tan’s superb artistic memoir Shirkers is the kind of vibrant, masterful documentary feature that conceals myriad layers. Initially, it assumes the form of bittersweet recollection about Tan’s formative experiences as a 19-year-old indie filmmaker in Singapore, where she and her friends channeled their cinephilia into a seemingly groundbreaking Jarmuschian feature (also titled Shirkers). Then the documentary evolves into a fraught, decades-old mystery concerning the creepy middle-aged American mentor who absconded with the friends’ film, crushing their artistic ambitions. Then it shifts again, into a more convoluted, self-lacerating meditation on youth, gender, betrayal, loss, memory, and the perilous alchemy of storytelling. Throughout, Tan maintains a disarmingly honest and ambivalent sensibility, allowing the viewer to steep uncomfortably in the vinegar of her remembrances. It’s unabashedly personal filmmaking at its most fruitful and fascinating.

3. Thoroughbreds

2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Cory Finley / Opened in select cities on Mar. 9, 2018

Director Cory Finley’s pitch-perfect debut feature might be a black comedy, but it’s just as horrifying as anything in Hereditary, if only because this frosty tale of adolescent sociopaths-in-training feels unnervingly relevant in 2018. Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke are superb and unnervingly watchable as a pair of scheming WASP princesses – the latter already an old hand at soulless amorality and the former a disturbingly quick study. Formally flawless and utterly remorseless, Finley’s film gawks in revulsion at the warped process by which the filthy rich unlearn basic human decency, leaving a hollow that fills up with cruel ambition and narcissism. Thoroughbreds is the sort of crackling, morally gangrenous story that Nicholas Ray or Billy Wilder might have delivered, had they lived to witness the Trump Era. It’s a delectably nasty triumph, and nothing less than the feel-bad film of the year. 

2. First Reformed

2018 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Paul Schrader / Opened in select cities on May 18, 2018

Paul Schrader’s decades-long exploration of anguished “men in rooms” achieves its most heightened and vehemently Calvinist expression in First Reformed, an austere portrait of spiritual agony that veritably quakes with pleading despair. Inverting the classic crisis-of-faith narrative for an era in which global devastation can be livestreamed, Schrader presents the tormented Rev. Toller (a never-better Ethan Hawke) as a man whose guilt-wracked and freshly inflamed species of Christianity has twisted him into a snarl of powerless rage and anxiety. At once cerebral, visceral, and inscrutable, First Reformed is spiritual cinema at its most staggering. It harmonizes with the works of Schrader’s illustrious forebears Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer – and yet is still its own haunted, distinctive thing, an impeccably realized vision of Christian angst that no other filmmaker could have delivered.

1. Roma

2018 / Mexico / 135 min. / Dir. by Alfonso Cuarón / Opened in select cities on Nov. 21, 2018

The breathtaking wonder of Roma is that its grandeur emerges, almost numinously, from the raw materials of prosaic childhood remembrances. By means of director Alfonso Cuarón’s heedless cinematic ambition, everyday fragments of 1970s Mexico City life – shirts fluttering lazily on rooftop clotheslines; slot-cars buzzing around a plastic track; dogshit smeared beneath a gas guzzler’s tires – attain a vivid, almost mythic resonance. In this epic tale of a Mixtec live-in housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio) and the troubled family that employs her, every shot thrums with silvery vibrancy, every detail as considered as the individual grapes in a still-life painting. Yet, miraculously, nothing about Roma feels fussy or arranged. It is a feature that feels unaccountably alive; a virtuosic rendering of the past rather than a musty re-creation. Destined to be savored and studied for years to come, it’s nothing less than the best film of 2018.