Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2018” coverage here.
While 2018 was not a big year for big films, it was a big year for smaller ones. Yes, A Star Is Born was a major hit, and deservedly so. But the bulk of the movies on our two critics’ lists were not Hollywood Oscar bait but intimate fables meticulously told: a septuagenarian bank robber who just can’t quit or a pastor losing his faith in the world; a Japanese family that relies on shoplifting to make ends meet or a Mexican family coping with the absence of its men; a daughter and father hiding out in the woods or a pair of lovers torn apart by the Cold War. Each of our critics, David Sims and Christopher Orr, chose 10 films, and their lists overlapped only three times (hence, “The 17 Best Films of 2018”). After the rankings, our critics hand out some idiosyncratic awards.
A municipal masterpiece that owes equal debts to Michael Mann and Lynda La Plante, Steve McQueen’s vibrant thriller Widows was a cinematic experience like no other for me this year, one that left me buzzing for weeks on end. Many films in 2018 tried to mix topicality and entertainment, but Widows takes on the horror of various patriarchal systems in America and has a blast upending them all. Viola Davis anchors an incredible ensemble that includes Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, and Colin Farrell all delivering exceptional work. The last 30 minutes of the film in particular are best experienced in a packed theater, with a crowd gasping at every twist.
Hirokazu Kore-eda has plenty of affecting, subtly told Japanese domestic dramas to his name, but this Palme d’Or winner pierces especially deep. The film centers on the Shibatas, a semi-homeless family trying to survive by any means necessary. When they take in a young runaway girl, the viewers’ connection to her grows just as quickly as the Shibatas’ does. Through warmly observed moments of intimacy and empathy, Kore-eda sets things up for a crushing fall. Seeing this downturn coming doesn’t make the finale any less heartbreaking, and every bit of hope the movie allows feels entirely earned.
Paul Schrader’s big comeback is a soothing acid wash of a movie, a penitent piece of horror that wonders whether humanity deserves to survive after what it’s done to the Earth. It’s a tough question for Reverend Toller (played by Ethan Hawke, giving the performance of the year and of his career), a man who has long taken comfort in his unshakable faith. But the question poses an even tougher quandary for the viewer, who watches as Schrader dramatizes the nightmare of a man’s resolute beliefs crumbling into chaos. There’s perhaps no better paean to our wounded planet—even if Schrader allows one bleak note of redemption at the end.
A Star Is Born may be the easiest movie of the year to fall in love with, whether from the first twang of Jackson Maine’s (Bradley Cooper) guitar onstage, or the lush red font of the movie’s Old Hollywood opening title, or the moment when the ingenue Ally (Lady Gaga) screams “Fucking men!” in a bathroom. A Star Is Born is the kind of actor-driven blockbuster that rarely gets made anymore, one that lets its stars sing, kiss, cry, and rend their garments all in the name of art and passion. Yes, the movie takes the downward slide demanded of its predecessors in its final act, but Cooper—surprisingly—sticks the landing, and Gaga—expectedly—nails the final song.
Debra Granik might be the most underrated director working in America today; she’s certainly among the most consistent. Her long-awaited fiction follow-up to Winter’s Bone follows two survivalists, a father and a daughter, who struggle to adapt after being plucked from their isolated lives in the woods and forced to reenter society. But the film is also a tale about how difficult it can be to live by one’s principles and about how choosing an ascetic path can blur the line between love and neglect. Ben Foster gives his career-best performance here; the largely unknown Thomasin McKenzie is his equal as his daughter.
Andrew Bujalski’s tiny-scale dramedy follows one crazy day in the life of a middle manager at a Hooters-style restaurant, and its ambitions far outstrip its budget. The film is a slyly trenchant look at the slights, indignities, and myriad sources of stress that besiege many American service workers (particularly women), and the story is grounded by a patient, wonderfully human performance from Regina Hall. Bujalski, who emerged as a mumblecore director in the 2000s, once used realism as a cudgel. Now he deploys it to make quiet, incisive points about how we live today while getting some big laughs along the way.
In Hollywood’s age of franchises, the best series America has to offer is still Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible juggernaut, which has produced six entries in 22 years and has miraculously only gotten better with age. Christopher McQuarrie’s Fallout, the director’s second go-around with Cruise’s tenacious Ethan Hunt, is a giddy thriller that understands how to match incomparable spectacle with naked sentimentality. From diving out of a plane at 30,000 feet to swooping around the mountains of Kashmir with a helicopter in pursuit of justice, Hunt somehow manages to deliver action sequences you’ve never seen before.
Making a follow-up to Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was a virtually impossible task, and adapting James Baldwin for the big screen was arguably even more daunting. Yet Jenkins accomplished both with his new film If Beale Street Could Talk—an intelligent, thoughtfully made love story that depicts society’s grave injustices without letting go of its protagonists’ fierce bond. In re-creating 1970s Harlem, Jenkins paints the frame with luxurious and surprising color, and Nicholas Britell’s astonishing score sets the mood perfectly. But none of it would come off without the work of Beale Street’s magnificent ensemble: the luminous KiKi Layne, the simmering Stephan James, the indefatigable Regina King, and Brian Tyree Henry in a spellbinding cameo.
If Jenkins’s film is an ode to the power of love, then Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a tone poem about just how curdling and destructive a force love can be. A Korean-language adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” set in and around Seoul, Burning follows a romantic triangle involving two men (one poor but passionate, the other successful and frighteningly cool) and one bewitching woman, whom they don’t understand. As a frosty, mysterious millionaire, Steven Yeun is a revelation, but it’s the film’s shocking climax that deserves to be discussed and pored over for years to come.
The director Claire Denis is as adept at horror as she is at romance, and this ostensible comedy (starring Juliette Binoche) is a brilliant mix of both, following one woman’s toil and trouble in the Parisian dating scene. Let the Sunshine In delights in staying with a scene longer than feels comfortable, so that a barbed joke can be followed by a tearful monologue. In short, the film is perfectly French—witty, surgically mean, intensely heartfelt—and it’s helmed by a typically impressive Binoche. Denis is in one of the most creatively fertile periods of her career, and Let the Sunshine In fittingly bubbles with a sense of swooning possibility.