In 2018 we watched the further backslide of liberal democracy around the world, not helped by the dire prospects climate change poses for our species. The highest-grossing movie of the year was Avengers: Infinity War, in which our favorite superheroes fail to save half the population of the universe from obliteration. Their foe, the titan Thanos, is working on Malthusian logic, claiming to be doing what’s necessary to save existence from overpopulation. His justifications echo those of real-world rightists currently fortifying Western countries against the rising tide of refugees, of which there are more than at any time since World War II.
Times are rough, basically.
Infinity War isn’t on this list of some of the best films of the year, and it won’t be on many others either. But several of the chosen movies also grapple with seemingly implacable destructive forces, or with living in a world of all-encompassing disjointedness, where so few feel assured of what they’re supposed to do anymore. With that in mind, here are 10 very different movies from this year that impressed me significantly.
1. First Reformed
Nothing in any film this year felt more like it was pulled out of my own head than a scene in First Reformed in which an environmentalist spills out all his anxieties about the future to Ethan Hawke’s priest character. Pop culture doggedly avoids touching on just how awful the prognosis is for the future, and if it did nothing else, the list of horrifying statistics this scene brings up would make the film groundbreaking. But it’s just one great part in a movie full of patiently observed sequences about struggling to find hope, and then just what one can do with that despair. In the middle of this journey is Hawke giving a lifetime-defining performance trying to bear the burden of God, his community, his world, and his own guilt.
Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel is a director we don’t hear from nearly as much as I wished we would. This adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name follows a Spanish official in 1700s colonial Paraguay as he desperately tries to wrangle a transfer from his miserable station to more glamorous environs. Zama seeks to correct the historical record, undermining any conception of beneficent European explorers and rulers in the New World and instead putting together a low-key but incredibly funny portrait of the colony as a self-created purgatory for the white man.
3. Madeline’s Madeline
Ideas around mental illness, race, and the artistic process collide messily in Madeline’s Madeline, which pulls off cinematic subjectivity like few other works. Helena Howard makes the most striking debut performance of the year, playing a young woman whose fantasies and acting class exercises increasingly blur together as her opportunistic teacher takes advantage of her ideas. Josephine Decker somehow holds everything together even as the movie grows increasingly chaotic, with Madeline’s reality and imagination eventually merging. A great film about using art to take control of one’s circumstances.
4. Before We Vanish
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa specializes in making high-concept sci-fi and horror movies with few or no special effects, and his spin on the alien invasion genre is wholly unique. In Before We Vanish, a trio of extraterrestrial beings possess human bodies and prepare Earth for its impending occupation. Along they way, they “collect” memories, emotions, and experiences from people, in the process destroying their abilities to feel what’s taken from them ever again. A deeply unsettling exploration of the psychic weight of living.
Ouroboros appeared only in select festivals and for a brief window on Mubi this year, and will hopefully become more widely available at some future point. Palestinian director Basma Alsharif explores the cycle of violence afflicting Gaza through an experimental, elliptical travelogue, following a nameless character walking Los Angeles, France, and Italy along with her sojourns back to her hometown. This melancholy picture of life as an internationally scorned minority is equally affecting and aesthetically fascinating, and is one of the most promising first features in some time.
Milla is one of the most quotidian movies I’ve ever seen, composed entirely of the small beats in the life of its title character, with major events entirely elided. The overall effect it accrues over its runtime, as it follows Milla from days squatting with her boyfriend to her becoming a responsible single mother, becomes surprising in its potency once it hits you. Valérie Massadian has constructed some of the most marvelously nuanced scenes in any film this year, and star Severine Jonckeere embodies this emotional subtlety beautifully.
7. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
The murder of black people makes the news often enough to inure people to it, and there’s already a wave of documentaries tackling different facets of the issue. Travis Wilkerson is not working in any mode like the one they operate in. He is a white man investigating his own family history, how in the 1940s his great-grandfather killed a black man and got away with it. Incorporating footage of his own travels to meet and speak with family about the event — with sources like To Kill a Mockingbird (and in the process darkly subverting its heroic vision of a white man trying to uphold the law on behalf of a black man) — Wilkerson finds that the barriers to his research are harsh enough to form a cage around him. No one wants to talk about this. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a damning spin on the idea of “white guilt.”
8. You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay movies are spaced far enough apart that getting a new one qualifies as an event, and her spin on the action drama was worth the wait. You Were Never Really Here‘s story about a PTSD-addled veteran who takes jobs rescuing trafficking victims is so simple as to almost be elemental. It’s Ramsay’s consistently brilliant framing and harrowing, claustrophobic creation of the main character’s headspace (centered around a brutal performance by Joaquin Phoenix) that makes the movie far unlike anything else in the genre.
9. Claire’s Camera
Here’s a drastic change of pace from the rest of this list. Korean director Sang-soo Hong went to Cannes and shot this light, not-too-long film with Min-hee Kim and Isabelle Huppert. It’s an unceasingly good-natured comedy about working through life’s aggravations through the pure and simple act of making a new friend. Claire’s Camera is one of the most purely pleasant movies of the year.
Unsane is a vicious thriller, a portrait of desperation birthed from the slow realization that you have no one else you can turn to for help. This story about a woman trapped both with her own head and possibly her stalker by an uncaring, profit-hungry medical system thrums with nervous energy. Claire Foy (having a big year) is indelible as a woman pushed to the edge, and then beyond it. Director Steven Soderbergh never misses an opportunity to toy with the camera’s perspective, including bringing us the single most terrifying movie shot of the year.