1. The Other Side of the Wind— After sitting unfinished for decades, Orson Welles has a new film. The Other Side of the Wind, a bleak and bleakly funny dig at the movie industry, centers on Jake Hannaford (John Huston), a drunken, disillusioned movie director. His birthday celebration becomes an excuse for all manner of people to gather and talk shit about him while enjoying his latest movie (also called The Other Side of the Wind). Shot like a mockumentary from a variety of perspectives of people at the party and interspersed with stunning footage of Hannaford’s movie-within-a-movie, The Other Side of the Wind is as disorienting as it is difficult to shake. Welles’ last completed film is a bitter vision of a rotting, death-stalked Hollywood, and a masterpiece.
2. Let the Sunshine In— Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In moves to the beat of Juliette Binoche. The two French titans prove a revelatory pairing, matching Denis’ inimitable rendering of bodies searching for connection with Binoche’s conjuring of simultaneous conflicting feelings. In telling the story of Isabelle, a painter stuck dancing between romance and disappointment, Denis structures the movie more around the character’s emotional whims than along a traditional narrative. Though her encounters with men end mostly with disappointment, Isabelle’s sudden eruptions of passion, including during a show-stopping, Etta James-backed dance sequence, suggest that her endless cycle of pursuits is not in vain.
3. Madeline’s Madeline— A swirling fever dream about the alchemy of performance, Madeline’s Madeline is both a stunning display of director Josephine Decker’s collaborative process as well as a disruptive interrogation of it. Decker and her lead actress, the newcomer Helena Howard, thrust viewers into the head of Madeline, a teenager battling mental illness who is also part of an experimental theater troupe. Pushed by the on-screen director Evangeline (Molly Parker, a self-lacerating on-screen surrogate) to incorporate her turbulent relationship with her mother Regina (Miranda July) into a production, the lines of her reality start to blur. This sets up a series of increasingly intense power struggles, between director and star, mother and daughter, and most importantly the one within Madeline herself. By the end she uses the trappings of theater to wrest control of her personal experiences away from everyone who tries to impose a narrative on them.
4. Monrovia, Indiana— Frederick Wiseman’s documentary perfectly captures the deliberate, often bizarre machinations of midwestern ritual. This ranges from the inner workings of the small Indiana community’s large agricultural and meat industries, to more specific things like a local festival and a Masonic temple award ceremony. Amid this expansive mosaic of small town experience are meetings with the area planning commission, which Wiseman uses as Monrovia, Indiana’s anchor points. The commission’s debates about an expanding housing development that some members feel will “change the dynamics” of their community informs and enhances the many and varied facets of that community that we see.
5. Burning— Lee Chang-dong’s first film since 2010’s Poetry begins as a meandering, often comical study of three distinct characters. There’s the struggling writer Jongsu, who lives in a secluded farm alone after his father was arrested for assault; his childhood friend Haemi, who he runs into on the street one day and who unceremoniously asks him to watch her cat while she’s out of town; and there’s the man Haemi meets abroad but who also lives in Korea, the bafflingly attractive, wealthy Ben. When Haemi vanishes suddenly, Burning becomes an increasingly suspenseful and paranoiac mystery. Lee masterfully builds tension throughout by playing off his characters’ reliability, laying the groundwork for an ending as haunting as anything else seen in a movie this year.
6. If Beale Street Could Talk— Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is a stunning, emotionally overwhelming follow-up to Moonlight. KiKi Layne and Stephen James play Tish and Fonny, an expecting couple whose life together is thrown into chaos when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and thrown in jail after a run-in with a racist cop. Jenkins’ view of black life in ’70s Harlem is one of defiant joy in the face of persecution. Tish and her family rally to try and get Fonny freed from jail, or get him the best deal he can. Layne and James are exceptional here, though Beale Street features a slew of stunning supporting performances, notably from Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry.
7. Support the Girls— Andrew Bujalski finds the perfect encapsulation of his vision of modern American capitalism in Double Whammies, the Hooters knockoff sports bar where much of his new film takes place. The restaurant operates on bizarrely specific codes built on the unspoken transaction between its jean shorts and tight t-shirt wearing female wait staff and its horny (mostly) male clientele. Bujalski and his ensemble are astute observers of workplace behavior, notably the glimpses of personality that bleed through the faces the characters try to wear at work. Heading up Support the Girls’ excellent cast is Regina Hall, who gives an incredible turn as the restaurant’s compassionate, intuitive, and increasingly exhausted general manager Lisa.
8. Unfriended: Dark Web— The first Unfriended movie didn’t leave much room for a traditional sequel (a nice way of saying pretty much everyone dies), and this new installment, Dark Web, thankfully isn’t one. Though the desktop horror structure remains, writer/director Stephen Susco takes the storytelling format and transposes it over a different, albeit still horrifying, new backdrop. As its title suggests, the movie focuses on the seedy underbelly of the internet, a hidden black market where users can buy things like drugs and stolen merchandise or, as Dark Web’s group of far-flung friends learns the hard way, more depraved things, like custom murder videos. Combining different types of video aesthetics- group Skypes, glitchy cellphone video, grainy security camera footage- on the same screen creates a sense of immediacy that lends the Unfriended films a unique power. The overwhelming amount of visual information present on the screen at any given time and the real-time examination of the inner life of the person using the computer remains beautifully, terrifyingly effective.
9. Zama— Lucrecia Martel’s Zama is a beguiling, mercurial vision of the bureaucratic machinations of colonialism. Set in the 18th century, the movie focuses on Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer at a remote South American colony who is impatiently waiting for a transfer to Buenos Aries. Bumping up against endless delays and setbacks, he becomes more and more aware that he’s an unimportant cog, and that he might never escape the tedium of his current existence. Martel’s rendering of his maddeningly repetitive everyday life never loses sight of the violence that his boredom is built on. Zama is a slow-burning vision of hell with images that conjure moods that linger long after it’s done.
10. Can You Ever Forgive Me?— This winningly bitter tale of queer friendship finally gives Melissa McCarthy a film role worthy of her comedic ability. As Lee Israel, a floundering writer who turns to literary forgery in ’90s New York, McCarthy captures both the joy and disappointment that comes with turning to fraud. People are finally reading and appreciating her work, but they have no idea it’s her. Matching her blow for sardonic blow is Richard E. Grant, who plays a man she meets at a bar who becomes her (reluctant) friend. Director Marielle Heller, working with an excellent script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, finds the movie’s sardonic heart in that friendship rather than in Lee’s low-stakes criminal enterprise.
11. First Reformed— A somber tale of faith at the end of the world, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed builds to a nerve-shattering final act. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, the leader of a small, mostly symbolic historical church in upstate New York. His quiet routine is disrupted when one of his parishioners asks him to speak with her troubled husband. That meeting brings him face to face with a bone-deep despair that slowly starts to overcome his own life. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His creation?” Toller asks at one point. First Reformed doesn’t have an answer.
12. BlacKkKlansman— In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee uses the story of Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs police detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, to grapple with the racist history of American cinema. In a key scene, Lee scans an audience of Klan members as they cheer on The Birth of a Nation, one of the most influential movies ever made from a formal standpoint, and one of the most morally atrocious. Here, in addition to crafting an endlessly entertaining and poignant detective story, Lee attempts to reclaim and rework that evil imagery. The movie makes blunt caricatures of the KKK while examining Stallworth’s role in an institution that seems reluctant to take them on.
13. Private Life- Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is a note-perfect look at a New York couple who desperately want to become parents. As they navigate a seemingly unending series of setbacks and humiliations, their marriage is tested in ways that seem to surprise both of them. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are invaluable as the couple, tapping into the longing beneath some of Jenkins’ more acidic dialogue.
14. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs— This anthology Western from The Coen Brothers is largely a series of differently paced death marches interspersed with their reliably dark humor. The six segments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feature many characters that could have easily held my attention during an entire movie. These include a fourth-wall-breaking gunslinger, an old man searching earnestly for gold along a river, and a woman traveling across the prairie toward an uncertain future in Oregon.
15. The Mule— In The Mule, Earl, a down-on-his-luck horticulturist, stumbles into the world of transporting drugs for the cartel. Clint Eastwood plays him as a man who has skated by on charm, though in putting his now-withering career ahead of his family he finds himself with almost nothing left. The abrupt break that the movie takes from Earl’s muling toward the end is a self-reflective reveal at just how scarred by regret he is. How many more swan songs will Eastwood sing? At least one.
Leave No Trace
You Were Never Really Here
Ready Player One
Mission: Impossible- Fallout
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
The Spy Who Dumped Me
The House That Jack Built
A Star is Born