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BurningDirected by Lee Chang-dong

Lee Chang-dong’s hypnotic adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, about a love triangle between three mysterious millennials in Seoul, pulls off a remarkable trick. It keeps you captivated for nearly 150 minutes without you knowing why exactly. When its subject reveals itself in the final scene, it explodes like fire spreading through an empty room. To say more would be a crime. (NG)

Cold WarDirected by Paweł Pawlikowski

In a year where A Star Is Born dominated the box office, this Polish romance about two musicians also tugged at the heartstrings, with the crucial difference that it remained admirably economical. Cold War covers decades of material in just under 90 minutes, and thanks to director Paweł Pawlikowski’s shrewd storytelling, no scene lasts longer than it must. By setting the romance against the backdrop of European political upheaval, his film reminds us that love can sometimes grow like a persistent weed among overwhelming desolation. (AZ)

The Death of StalinDirected by Armando Iannucci

Who would have thought that the bloody regime of Josef Stalin would be the backdrop for the year’s best comedy? Adapted by Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) from a graphic novel, The Death of Stalin chronicles with comic precision the power struggle that ensues when the Soviet leader suddenly keels over. A murderer’s row of character actors—including Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, and Andrea Riseborough—convey the exquisite tension between human atrocity and human comedy. (NG)

Eighth GradeDirected by Bo Burnham

Most coming-of-age films are told with hindsight. The stakes never feel particularly high because you can feel the grown-up behind the camera, having survived growing pains, looking back at their adolescence with nostalgia. Eighth Grade is told in the present tense, and without the reassurance that everything will work out for its nervous protagonist Kayla, the tension runs painfully high. Aided by a breakout performance by Elsie Fisher and Bo Burnham’s elegant script and direction, Eighth Grade bravely and honestly depicts the horror of being a person—not just a teenager—in this world. (NG)

The FavouriteDirected by Yorgos Lanthimos

The two rivals in The Favourite may shoot birds for leisure, but their preferred pastime is another type of game; specifically, it’s the power struggle that the lady (Rachel Weisz) and her maid (Emma Stone) engage in to win the affection of the Queen (Olivia Colman) in Yorgos Lanthimos’ 19th-century farce. The trio of actresses, along with Nicholas Hoult, makes a delicious cast who trade barbs with lightning speed and perform physical comedy worthy of a Stooge. The Queen may be in charge, but cattiness reigns. (TO)

First ManDirected by Damien Chazelle

The lunar landing is as quiet as Neil Armstrong is sedate in Damien Chazelle’s biopic of the astronaut. There are no cheers from Houston or the television audience when contact is achieved; the event is portrayed as soberly momentous rather than rousing. That stillness (as well as the stillness of Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong) might have rendered the film boring. But Chazelle proves that restraint can be thrilling, showing there’s more than one way to depict a country that’s over the moon. (TO)

First ReformedDirected by Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader’s masterpiece starts off as a chamber drama, only to become something more vital and ambitious as it continues. Ethan Hawke gives the performance of his career as Reverend Toller, whose crisis of faith transforms him from a morose intellectual into a radical man of action. Despair was a common feeling in 2018, and First Reformed suggested that the only recourse is to finally ask bigger, more painful questions. (AZ)

Free SoloDirected by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

“Free soloing” is mountain-climbing alone without any ropes or safety equipment, and Alex Honnold is one of the sport’s top practitioners. This documentary—at times literally breathtaking—features Honnold and his quest to free solo Yosemite’s El Capitan peak. The photography is phenomenal, showing the climber on sheer precipices hanging by what seem to be only his fingernails as the film crew stays motionless, as if any movement of theirs could doom him instead. You’ll thrillingly, terrifyingly feel the same. (TO)

If Beale Street Could TalkDirected by Barry Jenkins

An ever-timely story of racial injustice is invigorated by James Baldwin’s words, the lyrical voice of director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), and the best ensemble cast in a film this year. The story of two young lovers whose path is interrupted by systemic racism, Jenkins shuffles the timeline to emphasize their strength over their tragedy. The narrative holds, but the film may work best as a series of devastating, lovingly-crafted moments. (NG)

The Little StrangerDirected by Lenny Abrahamson

Did you know that an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker made a gorgeous psychological horror film this year? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, since The Little Stranger came and left theaters without much fanfare. It is a pity, since Domhnall Gleeson gives one of his all-time best performances as Faraday, a country doctor in 1940s England who ingratiates himself with a wealthy family who may or may not be haunted by a ghost. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who made the acclaimed 2015 drama Room, his follow-up is moody and quiet—more creepy than scary—and it arrives at an ending that re-calibrates everything we thought about these flawed people, all while still leaving room for some delicious macabre ambiguity. (AZ)

Madeline’s MadelineDirected by Josephine Decker

Madeline’s Madeline, about a young actor (Helena Howard) torn between her ruthless theater director (Molly Parker) and mentally ill mother (Miranda July), is a remarkable film in every sense, from its trio of sharply observed central performances to its expressionist aesthetic and blistering climax. What I admire most about it, however, is how thoroughly it examines its own blind spots, ensuring that it never succumbs to the exploitation it depicts. It’s heroically self-aware. (NG)

Minding the GapDirected by Bing Liu

This is the sort of documentary that sneaks up on you. Director Bing Liu follows his fellow skater friends as they confront adulthood without many real prospects. There is a carefree quality to the opening sections—he films their skating with effortless grace—but soon Minding the Gap becomes more probing and rigorous, with Liu confronting hard truths about past trauma. Even if you’ve never picked up a skateboard in your life, these young men are easily relatable because of how they confront their flaws. (AZ)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseDirected by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

The brainchild of Phil Lord, the guy who made 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie unexpected successes, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a gorgeous, thoughtful crowd-pleaser, and easily one of the best comic book movies ever made. Everything in it is somehow a meta-commentary on the superhero genre, and also works as a traditional origin story. Spider-Verse also looks great, with animation that remixes CGI and hand-drawn elements into something wholly original. Thanks to its parallel dimensions plot, there are many different Spider-Beings in this film, but that’s also another way of saying there is something here for every type of comic book fan. (AZ)

ViceDirected by Adam McKay

Christian Bale’s portrayal of former Vice President Dick Cheney isn’t just about makeup, prosthetics, or even weight gain. The voice, the half-smirk, the eyes that tiredly look at others as if they’re the stupidest people on Earth—Bale disappears in the role, giving the most impressive performance of the year. The film itself, which boasts another terrific turn by Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, is an entertaining satire from Adam McKay about the opportunistic man who allegedly was the true No. 1 in charge during W.’s disastrous administration. The pair were awful; the movie’s sublime. (TO)

WidowsDirected by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 2013’s 12 Years a Slave is a heist flick led entirely by four women—three women of color—making it perhaps the most surprising and satisfying film of the year. These ladies don’t lie down when their partners are killed in a robbery-gone-wrong but take up the mantle themselves in an effort to secure futures in which they no longer have to be dependent on anyone else. Like Wonder Woman last year, Widows proves that action and femininity don’t have to be mutually exclusive. (TO)