The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, Netflix)

What a mitzvah that the Coen brothers’ latest masterpiece is included with the monthly cost of a Netflix subscription. This wayward, storybook compilation of Western tales marks the conclusion of a trilogy that began with two exemplary cowboy adaptations, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, incredibly, is the most death-obsessed entry in the Coen canon (one that famously featured a human body pushed through a woodchipper). So, that’s saying a lot.

None of the six vignettes that comprise it match the brilliance of the Coen’s best. But taken as a whole, this variety act on Western themes fires a bullet straight through the heart. Is there a sadder tale than “Meal Ticket?” Is there a more beautiful presentation of human perseverance than “All Gold Canyon”? Is there a nugget of narrative gold ready for a full-blown feature that can rival “The Girl Who Got Rattled?” Is there a philosophical endgame as harrowing as “The Mortal Remains?” The answer to all these questions, given a lesser film, would be “maybe”, “kinda”, and “here and there”. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is (instead) the full, messy, glorious package. – Peter Tabakis

Paddington 2 (Dir. Paul King, Studio Canal/Warner Bros.)

With exquisite art direction that’s Wes Anderson-whimsical but, ironically, more human, director Paul King returns to the popular anthropomorphic bear and ups the adventure quotient to a level that far surpasses the new franchise’s 2014 debut. Paddington 2 is as complex, clever and finally bittersweet as any multiplex entertainment aimed at a taller audience. Do not be misled by the fact that this tale is led by a beloved children’s character; underneath its sense of youthful wonder is a story with profound resonance for the mature moviegoer, not least because it pivots into a prison movie. So resilient and resourceful is this bear that even behind bars, he wins the hearts of the most hardened criminal and even establishes a new institutional color pattern. Justice is served, but even when the diminutive hero is proven innocent, he is nevertheless vulnerable—I won’t tell anybody if you cried at the bittersweet reunion that closes his tale. Still, all the plaudits do not go to the movie’s furry center; Hugh Grant has become reborn as his nation’s greatest living ham, relishing his character’s villainy, and, in a delicious closing dance routine, following the lead of his unfairly jailed predecessor and making the most of his situation. We would all do well to learn from the bear. – Pat Padua

Support the Girls (Dir.: Andrew Bujalski, Magnolia Pictures)

Andrew Bujalski’s undersung Results moved the director’s usual communal focus into a distinct economic mode, an approach that’s extended in the even-better Support the Girls, which drops the romantic entanglements entirely to explore the reality of a world where work and family are hopelessly intermeshed. This concept is dealt with on two different levels, both in the real connections forged between those muddling through an exhausting, inequitable system, and the artificial imposition of such intimacy to further impel the productivity of a “team” of harried laborers. The workplace dynamic is further complicated by the setting: a so-called family establishment that also hawks peeks at its well-endowed waitresses’ physiques. That the presentation of sex is so wishy-washy, mirroring the bland, reheated food and the rehashed sports bar aesthetic, doesn’t make it any less difficult to navigate. Leading with empathy and humor, Bujalski depicts one day in the life of general manager Lisa (Regina Hall) who makes the hard choice to back up her employees at every turn, decisions which place her in constant conflict with the bar’s ownership. Surrounded on all sides by artificiality, she demonstrates the toll taken in prioritizing real human connection in an atmosphere that pretends at cozy humanism while instead favoring only the bottom line, in which the cost of keeping your dignity may be losing your mind. — Jesse Cataldo

Shoplifters (Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda, Magnolia Pictures)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work is defined by the ways we make our families, and Shoplifters is perhaps his most direct exegesis on the subject. The impoverished family of street urchins and petty thieves that makes up the core of the film present a hardscrabble front that masks deep resourcefulness. Kore-eda films their hovel of a home to reveal surprising dimensions, a testament to their ability to carve out space for themselves when none seemed present. That ethos extends to the quasi-adoption of a neglected child, a move that slowly brings police attention down upon the fragile situation that the group enjoys. The Dickensian nature of the family makes for whimsical sights of urban survivalism, but a brutal final act uses frosty procedural drama to expose the full, tragic truth of the makeshift family. Despite this cold crash back down to reality, Shoplifters remains one of the director’s most liltingly observed films, marking the greatest synthesis yet between his placid, minor-key family dramas and his increasing forays into genre filmmaking. — Jake Cole

Suspiria (Dir. Luca Guadagnino, Amazon Studios)

Nobody knew quite what to expect with a Suspiria remake. The Italian original, a beloved cult classic from horror maestro Dario Argento, is one of the most specific genre movies ever made. There’s no mistaking a single frame for another movie, and the countless homages and allusions other works have made to it tend to be immediately recognizable. So kudos to Luca Guadagnino, who successfully remade the film by hardly bothering to remake it at all. His unique film is a rigorous and relentless study of female energy, Jungian psychology, historical guilt and the transcendent power of art. Sure, there are similarities: It’s about a coven of witches that run a prestigious dance academy in Germany, and it follows an American expat (Dakota Johnson) hoping to make a name for herself among the venerable faculty, specifically the famous headmistress, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). But Guadagnino supplies different backstories for the characters and infuses the narrative with incisive social commentary, depicting a world in which egregious abuses of power have gone unchecked and those guilty run freely without consequence. What unfurls is a gruesome and gory look into the mighty shadows cast by history, as well as the shadows cast over our true selves, and how the two might commingle in moments of dread, despair and hysteria. Where Argento’s original is something of a phantasmagorical fable, this is a brutal cautionary tale: if we can’t take responsibility for the horrors of the past, the future can only be a nightmare. — Drew Hunt

First Reformed (Dir. Paul Schrader, A24)

While the idea of spiritual atonement is universal, it’s easy to view the path of religious martyrdom as one spanning outward from Christ, the original example of a human body offered up to absolve and assuage others. This tradition, while often couched in expansive, altruistic empathy, also encompasses a dark vein of destructiveness, with even positive efforts at self-sacrifice tinged by narcissism and mental illness. This explains why the most memorable image from Paul Schrader’s staggering First Reformed is so freighted and difficult, an avenging environmentalist priest strapped up in a suicide vest, our entire political spectrum reality summed up in one sickening symbol. Having spent the entire film with Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller, we know he’s not reached this conclusion with a level head, of neither sound mind nor body, his corroded digestive tract sucking down whiskey and spitting up blood. Still mourning the death of his soldier son, still blaming himself for a variety of misfortunes, the man of God is now closed off to new experience, unlike the younger couple he counsels, whose wall-mounted eye lamp suggests Emerson’s transparent eyeball, open to all nature has to offer. Too open, perhaps, as the frantic husband pores over statistics suggesting oncoming environmental doom, a pathogen he passes to Toller, who proves an all-to-ready host. Desperate to protect, he eventually wraps the same rusted barbed wire he’d removed from his church’s graveyard, hoping to save rabbits, around his own chest. A self-serving gesture, this act is presented as a noble effort but also an imitation and mockery of Christ, sparing the reverend from facing his own problems. In the end, the personal drive toward destruction outstrips the slow churn of institutional hesitance, an ostensible act of mercy, imagined as a push toward progress, actually signaling something far more sinister. — Jesse Cataldo

You Were Never Really Here (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, Amazon Studios)

Hitmen often receive glamorous cinematic treatment, but in the case of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Dispatching his marks involves nothing flashy—often just a few devastating swings of a hammer—and as his name implies, Joe takes a working-class approach to his grisly work. A combat vet seemingly unaffected by killing despite practically oozing repressed, deep-seated trauma, he sets about the task of violently rescuing kidnapped children. When he’s not on the job, he’s spending time with his frail mother or wrestling with the horrifying nightmares which afflict him. Director Lynne Ramsay had already racked up an impressive résumé of gritty films that delve into the simmering psychology behind taciturn characters (We Need to Talk About Kevin and Morvern Callar), and here she crafts an intensely brutal film that doesn’t get wrapped up in the plot’s machinations even as Joe’s work intersects with a child sex trafficking ring involving powerful politicians. Instead, the focus remains squarely on its emotionally aloof antihero and the humanity that lurks behind this grizzled, imposing figure. Evocative lighting, compelling set design and Jonny Greenwood’s pulsing score may add some sizzle to a film that revolves around a meat-and-potatoes contract killer, but You Were Never Really Here remains artful without overly stylized trappings and offers yet another enigmatic character for Phoenix to absolutely pour himself into. – Josh Goller

The Other Side of the Wind (Dir. Orson Welles, Netflix)

One of cinema’s great lost documents has finally been completed and, in a staggering turn of events, is casually nestled among binge TV on Netflix. Orson Welles’s final work is a film of vast energy, as cannily observant and defiantly innovative a reaction to New Hollywood as his titanic debut was to the old studio system. A frenzied jumble of edited footage depicts the final days of a permanently addled old-school director (John Huston) who inadvertently plans his own wake by staging a birthday party of peers, youthful sycophants and long-time rivals to bear witness to footage of his new work. That this film-within-a-film is a savage parody of Michelangelo Antonioni, one of Welles’s all-time bugbears, is hilarious, but it is a testament to the filmmaker’s technical skills and sharp critical eye that even his travesty of ponderous European arthouse fare is itself gorgeous and evocative. The rest of the movie, devoted to a blizzard of self-aware interviews from aspiring wannabes (epitomized by Peter Bogdanovich in a performance bordering on slapstick) finds Welles responding to the pressure of being a stated influence on the new generation of over-funded wunderkinds as he himself scrambled for money with wry humor and self-lacerating criticism. It’s a fitting swan song for Hollywood’s most esteemed prodigy, the child genius in aged decline saluting the next generation with middle finger raised, bowing out by proving he could beat these kids at their own game. — Jake Cole

Burning (Dir. Lee Chang-Dong, WELL GO USA)

There’s mystery in every frame of Lee Chang-dong’s patient adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. The film takes on an atmosphere that’s never easily defined and challenges the viewer’s expectations every step of the way. Just when you think it’s going in one direction, it pivots and turns the plot on its head. Burning is endlessly engaging, a bold vision that proves itself time and time again. Whether it’s the subtle political context, the beautiful, enigmatic story developments or the haunting dynamics of its protagonist’s relationships with others, the movie takes it slow and simmers the viewer in an environment all its own. Throughout, its characters are relentlessly fascinating due to a fantastic trio of actors: Yoo Ah-in as Jongsu, Jun Jong-seo as Haemi and, in one of the year’s best supporting performances Steven Yuen as Ben. The spot-on navigates all the unspoken riddles that lie within their psyches. What’s to make of the film’s abrupt and shocking finale? You can ask the same about any scene within the film, and that’s the best part. There’s mastery in the mystery, and Lee Chang-dong begs his viewers to be the detective. Embrace the challenge. You won’t regret it. —Greg Vellante

Annihilation (Dir. Alex Garland, Paramount Pictures)

Jeff Vandermeer’s haunting, baffling work of weird fiction, Annihilation, scarcely reads as a book that could be reasonably adapted, and Alex Garland’s film deviates sharply from the insular, almost philosophical horror of the novel’s transmogrifying apocalypse. Instead, Garland uses the material’s body horror to extrapolate themes of depression, slightly tweaking Vandermeer’s emotionally removed documentation of slipping reality for an equally numbed outlook rooted in the hollowing after-effects of grief. The characters dispatched to investigate an alien-altered zone all suffer from crippling ailments physical and emotional, and their reactions to the nightmares of the Shimmer traverse the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Garland has a keen eye for horror, depicting it often as aftermath, particularly in the mutated, flowered residue of corpses like one body burst and stretched until it becomes a kind of vine. Nothing compares for visceral impact to the scene of a decaying, but still living, bear suffused with the anguished screams of its victims, stalking the characters with the anguished howls of their own comrades. Yet for all the warping elements of the film and its haunting climax of body doubles, self-immolation and rebirth, perhaps the most memorable moment belongs to its quietest and noblest death, a moment of peaceful acceptance that personifies the eerie calm of suicide like nothing else ever captured in film. — Jake Cole

Black Panther (Dir. Ryan Coogler, Walt Disney Studios)

It’s not just one of the best of the 20 Marvel superhero movies; Black Panther is a milestone in the history of blockbuster filmmaking. There has never been an Afrocentric action movie that celebrated Blackness while creating an African mythology before and its existence stands in stark contrast to its previous absence. Director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) manages to make the extraordinary personal by beginning and ending the movie through the eyes of a child in the projects of Oakland, a child such as himself, who wanted to see faces like his represented onscreen. He does so and weaves in questions about colonization, isolationism and what we owe each other as citizens of the world.

Set in Wakanda – a fantastical, techno-utopian African nation – this tale of kings and princes is Shakespearean in tone, 007-ish in globetrotting and mythic in spectacle. With Killmonger, Jordan creates a villain worthy of the grand stage, an aspect lacking in previous Marvel films. Achieving something else the company is not known for, Coogler creates a complicated and fully realized supporting cast. Winston Duke shines as M’Baku, and Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o, as Okoye and Nakia, play the smartest characters in the film. But it is Letitia Wright’s Shuri, the genius behind the advanced Wakadan tech, who steals the movie. There are no certainties in Hollywood, but with all the acclaim and success Black Panther has put the lie to many of the racist assumptions that have governed Hollywood since its founding. Hopefully, Coogler and company have changed the industry forever. – Don Kelly

Widows (Dir: Steve McQueen, 20th Century Fox)

After winning Best Picture at the Oscars five years ago with the terminally depressing 12 Years A Slave, seeing director Steve McQueen cut loose on something as mainstream and pulpy as a heist thriller is an absolute revelation. Of course, “cutting loose” is different for McQueen than his peers. He still composes his images with the same exacting attention to detail, the same severe editing patterns, but seeing his style employed towards the execution of a genre picture reminds audiences that they shouldn’t be so comfortable settling for some of the bland workmen who cobble together summer blockbusters like Ikea furniture. Widows, above all else, is a celebration of a craftsman given free reign over the kind of material usually reserved for casual escapism. The script, from Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, is suitably twisty, and the sprawling, mega-gifted cast each deliver sterling work on the screen (It’s impossible to choose a stand-out when every single speaking role brings their A-game.) From top to bottom, everyone involved seems dedicated to producing as high a quality film as humanly possible, an audience pleasing action drama that functions just as well as a prestige picture packed to the gills with passive social commentary. At a time when films are going in opposing directions, either bigger and dumber or smaller and more niche, Widows has it both ways, playing to the crowd without having to pander as well. – Dominic Griffin

The Favourite (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In this film about power and the lengths we might go to achieve it, director Yorgos Lanthimos continues to examine the pet theme he’s pursued ever since he broke through with the shocking Dogtooth, which framed the pursuit of power in a sort of domestic horror show. Which just as well describes The Favourite, but in a much more opulent and classical setting. After spending time in the alternate universe of The Lobster and the reimagined fairy tale of The Killing of a Scared Deer, Lanthimos pivots to 18th century England, depicting the real-life interpersonal conflict between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her confidant Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who arrives at Hampton Court Palace in search of employment after her father sullied her family’s name. That sounds like the making of Lanthimos’ most traditional work to date, but the Greek filmmaker elegantly subverts convention with anachronistic details, psychosexual characterizations and incisive satire. Prone to pinpointing life’s various grotesqueries, Lanthimos finds his most indelible target in British royalty, exaggerating the era’s excess and frivolity, from the gaudy attire, aggressive makeup and peculiar pastimes. Fixated as it is on the past, The Favourite hones in on some of mankind’s most timeless frailties: greed, deception and cruelty, all of which is committed under the guise of love and compassion, as is so often the case. “Love has limits,” Sarah tells the Queen. The Queen’s response: “It shouldn’t.” – Drew Hunt

Eighth Grade (Dir. Bo Burhnam, A24)

From social media horrors to the 24-hour news cycle, the internet can seem more and more like a hopelessly destructive development. Yet it gave us Bo Burnham, whose career grew from the inauspicious seeds of a YouTube comedian gone viral to a director of unlikely sensitivity. His debut feature tells the story of a shy teenage girl, but as Kayla (Elise Fisher) navigates the online world with a vlog that nobody watches, you see a hint of the frightened young director nervous that his own work won’t get noticed. Out of this dizzying electronic milieu, Burnham crafts what may be the year’s best needle drop: to the strains of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” a miniature epic of seafaring adventure, we watch Kayla navigate the seas of social media from the comfort of her bedroom, a scathing indictment of the very medium that launched his career. Fisher’s performance is uncomfortably real, from vulnerable pool-party guest to spoiled tween girl, and her path to resilience is heartbreaking, as is her developing relationship with a father (pitch-perfect Josh Hamilton) who seems as lost as his daughter does. Sure, you’ve seen coming-of-age movies before, but with Eighth Grade, Burnham and his charges have made one that’s timely and personal, with a sense of discovery that’s as scary and exciting as growing up. — Pat Padua

Unsane (Dir: Steven Soderbergh, Bleecker Street)

After “retiring” from making films while pumping out prestige television with “The Knick,” Soderbergh’s second act continues unabated, with his first film to be shot entirely on the iPhone 7 Plus. On the technical side, Unsane is an interesting snapshot into the current cinematic landscape, one where a restlessly experimental filmmaker like Soderbergh just wants to be left alone to shoot movies on a smartphone. When the guy who survived making Ocean’s Twelve finally throws in the studio system towel for a consumer grade, DIY-aesthetic, you know something has shifted. But outside of the behind-the-scenes tech tinkering, this is another strong entry in an ongoing series of Soderbergh doing his finest work in his so-called “lesser” projects. Unsane, with its sickly green color grading and claustrophobic framing, is as tense a psychological thriller as the director has ever helmed, anchored by twin stellar performances from Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini and The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard as her stalker. It’s a tightly wound flick that wastes no time and packs a powerful punch dramatizing the dynamics between men and women, particularly in a climactic scene where Foy’s Sawyer reads her nemesis with a fiery intensity every neckbeard, MRA type should be forced to listen to at maximum decibels. If Soderbergh wants to crank out a new movie every year on whatever new handset Apple brings to market, let him. – Dominic Griffin

BlacKkKlansman (Dir. Spike Lee, Focus Features)

Just a few short years ago, a film about the Ku Klux Klan would’ve seemed largely historical. Indeed, Spike Lee’s biographical BlacKkKlansman does focus on specific events that occurred in Colorado in the early ‘70s, but the issues explored within this film remain lamentably timely in this era of dog-whistle politics whipping up racist vitriol to the point that—emboldened by a president who publicly refers to them “very fine people”—white supremacist groups march the streets with seething animus. Lee highlights this fact at the film’s coda, implicating Trump for the tragedy of Charlottesville in a series of news clips, but these stark modern-day realities are far grimmer than the bulk of the film that precedes it. Lee threads a needle by managing to infuse dark comedy into the dramatic story steeped in racism and the threat of violence, as a black police detective named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) manages to infiltrate a local chapter of the KKK telephonically before sending in a white avatar (Adam Driver). The comedic element is helped along by Topher Grace playing David Duke with punch-worthy smugness, and by the outright outlandishness of story that would seem far-fetched were it not actually true. – Josh Goller

Halloween (Dir. David Gordon Green, Universal Pictures)

The success of 2018’s Halloween can be credited to one key element shared by this year’s slasher and its 1978 predecessor: simplicity. Simplicity was missing from the other six Michael Myers Halloween sequels, and that robbed the series of what made the original so disturbing. Though Myers is a creepy villain and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode a classic heroine, the truly discomforting thing about 1978’s Halloween were how simultaneously random and straightforward Myers’ attacks were. The original Halloween suggests that the only reason Myers has for stalking Laurie and killing her friends is that he simply spotted her on the front porch of his abandoned childhood home.

This sequel also keeps things simple, relying on a surprisingly lean script Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green to keep Myers and Laurie in constant motion. By making 2018’s Halloween a direct follow-up to the original, the writers abandon the familial ties that 1981’s Halloween II added to the series in favor of making Myers’ obsession with killing Laurie random once more. What differentiates this Halloween from the original, however, is that now – 40 years after he first attacked her – Laurie’s hatred for Michael Myers is anything but random.

Myers’ indiscriminate acts of terror and Curtis’ performance as a gun-toting, backwoods recluse are reason enough to love Halloween. But it’s the film’s ending, a cat-and-mouse chase with an powerfully abrupt, girl-power infused conclusion, that makes this one of the best films of 2018. – Mike McClelland

Isle of Dogs (Dir. Wes Anderson, Fox Searchlight Pictures)

With his second entry into visually stunning, emotionally potent stop-motion animation, Wes Anderson again finds it a natural medium for his obsession with (at best) painstaking perfection and (at worst) overwrought fussiness. Fantastic Mr. Fox was his trial run, and what a proof of concept it was. He transformed a thorny Roald Dahl novel into a joyful and quirky puff of smoke; the puff, sure enough, was rendered onscreen as upward-travelling cotton balls. Isle of Dogs is even more tactile and dazzling to the eye. Its thematic heft sinks deeper. This is Wes at his most Andersonian, and his most overtly political. As a follow-up to The Grand Budapest Hotel, his first investigation into fascism, it employs stereotypical Japanese culture to turn American, WWII internment camps upside-down. Here, English-speaking pooches are shunted to a trash island by a Japanese overlord. A cutesy, homophonic pun is imbedded in the title of Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic diorama. I love dogs, indeed. Scruffy canines stand-in for grander themes. Isle of Dogs may be problematic, when you pick it apart. But it’s transporting when you sit back and bask in its slobbering, barking glory. –Peter Tabakis

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