I loathe the film-reviewing tendency to insist that three-hour Romanian divorce dramas are obviously far more interesting than Hollywood fare. Still, some of the best movies I saw this year were modestly budgeted independent films. The purpose of a film is to move you, to draw an emotional reaction, to make you gasp or cry or sweat. These are the ones that blew me away in 2018, whether with their inventiveness, their plot twists, their terror, or their heart. I’ll go in reverse order and lead up to my pick for the best movie of the year.
10. The Mule (in theaters). Directing himself in a film for the 23rd and perhaps final time, 88-year-old Clint Eastwood creates a typically thorny and abrasive character in Earl Stone, a rotten father and husband who blithely accepts an offer running drugs from Texas to the Midwest for a nasty Mexican cartel. Very much in the vein of Gran Torino, whose screenwriter Nick Schenck also wrote this film, and carrying the air of a confessional, The Mule doesn’t ask us to love Earl, but as his life nears completion, we’re rooting for him to at least own up to his many mistakes.
9. Free Solo (in theaters). I had never heard of the rock climber Alex Honnold going in, nor did I know what free-soloing was. And I had no idea how this documentary about his adventures was going to turn out, which made the suspense otherworldly. Honnold is an oddly detached guy in his thirties who climbs hundreds of feet up sheer, vertical cliffs, with no equipment whatsoever, not even gloves. Jamming his fingers and toes into tiny crevices, he just keeps going until he either makes it to the top or he falls. There is nothing to catch him — no ropes, no nets. And thanks to unbelievably resourceful camera work by the directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, we’re right there with him as he painstakingly works his way up one face after another, building up to his quest to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a particularly unforgiving rock with only the shallowest cracks and indentations, barely big enough to press a thumb into. Meanwhile, Honnold, a lifelong loner who never saw anyone hug anyone in his chilly family, acquires a girlfriend who complicates matters: She would prefer he not fall off any mountains. As both a character portrait and one of the most nerve-jangling films I’ve ever seen, Free Solo is stellar.
8. Black Panther (on Netflix). A visual dazzler full of amazing landscapes and contraptions, the Marvel blockbuster featured a villain for the ages in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, a burn-it-all-down revolutionary whose destructive vision is grounded in the false utopianism of the 1970s pan-African radicals called the Black Panthers. That Black Panther the movie stands as a brisk rebuke to the Black Panther movement makes it as witty as it is thrilling.
7. Mandy (on Shudder). A journey into the blood-red subconscious stars Nicolas Cage as a vengeance-minded backwoods man pursuing a gang of LSD-powered biker Jesus freaks in a.d. 1983. Bloody, pulpy, and completely out of control, this gonzo nightmare is a calling card for the most exciting visionary of the year, writer-director Panos Cosmatos, son of the man who directed Tombstone and the second Rambo movie.
6. Roma (on Netflix). Alfonso Cuarón’s beautiful black-and-white paean to the household servant who raised him and his siblings in a wealthy part of Mexico City while his upper-class parents were squabbling features an unshowy lead performance from Yalitza Aparicio, who has never acted before. The servant and nanny, called Cleo in the film, is a stand-in for all of the gentle but indomitable women who kept us all safe while we as children were trying to do foolish things. She shows impossible poise in a late scene on the beach that provides a major emotional payoff. And the film is an oblique rebuke to the “politicize everything” tendency that has taken hold with so much of the cultural elite.
5. Three Identical Strangers (for sale or rent on home video). An unnerving documentary, made by first-time director Tim Wardle, turned out to be the twistiest film of the year, as well as one of the most thought-provoking. In 1980, a young man visiting a college campus discovered he had an identical twin he’d never met. When the two appeared in the newspaper, a third youth called to say he looked exactly like them. It turned out the three men were triplets who had been given up for adoption to separate homes, and as they partied it up and hit the talk-show circuit in 1980s New York City, a back story began to emerge involving a secret scientific experiment. The three boys were guinea pigs in a scheme they didn’t know existed.
4. First Reformed (on Amazon Prime). A roughed-up Ethan Hawke plays a disillusioned, alcoholic minister at a dying upstate New York church who becomes an obsessive member of the cult of global-warming hysterics. Drawing a parallel between one kind of fanatic and another, writer-director Paul Schrader paints a dread-soaked portrait of derangement to rank beside his most notorious creation, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (in theaters). A fantastically clever and delightful deconstruction of Spider-Man mythology makes for a kind of companion piece to (even better) The Lego Batman Movie. Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s hilarious script turns a bit corkscrewy in an insanely complicated final act, but this film is so bursting with fresh ideas it’s Exhibit A to present to anyone who says superhero movies are necessarily formulaic.
2. Blaze. Another Ethan Hawke film? Yes, this time with Hawke moving behind the camera for only his third effort as director. Released with little fanfare in August, the film stars Ben Dickey (an actor so obscure he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page) in the year’s most compelling lead performance as Blaze Foley, a roots musician from Arkansas who called himself Deputy Dawg and died under strange circumstances at age 40, in 1989. Foley’s professional life was, in essence, a series of dispiriting barroom gigs at which he frequently found himself getting in fights with disrespectful crowds. But the power of his gift shines through it all, and Hawke’s film, garlanded with Foley’s beautiful songs and based on the memoirs of Foley’s widow, is a stirring and heartfelt exploration of what it means to be an artist, with all of the sacrifices that come with true integrity. Few films in the entire history of cinema have so eloquently captured the struggle to make art.
1. First Man (on home video next month). Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong picture is so much more than a thrilling special-effects extravaganza about the race to the moon. It’s what’s going on in the background, and in Armstrong’s psyche, that gives the film such resonance. Without being obvious about any of its themes, it’s a film that explores how crazy it was to reach for the moon using comparatively laughable 1969 technology, how the grandest achievements can be built upon the most fragile interior motivations, and how transcendent it feels to do something that no one has ever done before.