Outside In (directed by Lynn Shelton)
Another understated drama, Shelton’s latest follows Chris (Jay Duplass), a man adjusting to post-prison life in the small Pacific Northwest town he grew up in after his wrongful conviction is finally overturned 20 years after his arrest. Duplass is a natural in this role as a man who’s at once emotionally tender, socially stunted, and always brimming with the unspoken rage of someone who’s been wronged and could be again. Edie Falco co-stars as his former high school teacher, who worked tirelessly to get him out of jail but doesn’t know how to relate to him now that he’s really in her life. Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) and Ben Schwartz round out a pitch-perfect supporting cast.
Where to watch: Netflix
Private Life (directed by Tamara Jenkins)
One of the best movies of the year, period, Private Life is an intimate, compassionate, and inexplicably funny look inside one couple’s struggle with fertility. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti seem like an unlikely pairing, but might just be the couple of the year. The two of them are a successful pair of New Yorkers who are comfortable in every way–except that they can’t have kids. Throughout the film, they try IVF and adoption, becoming more visibly exhausted and jaded with each new failed attempt. Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter): the couple’s step-niece is a curious free spirit who appears in their lives at the opportune moment, and she has nice, young ovaries to boot. Private Life transcends the expected storyline in nearly every way, instead becoming a story that’s gently but thoroughly life-affirming.
Where to watch: Netflix
Revenge (directed by Coralie Fargeat)
Coralie Fargeat’s French feminist-tinged rape-revenge movie took the horror scene by storm when it debuted earlier this year, and hasn’t lost steam since. Central to its success is Matilda Lutz, the captivating actress who plays left-for-dead Jen with ferocity and self-determination. Jen is incredible; even before she’s wronged, she’s a confident, interesting young woman, but after she’s violated and tossed out like garbage, hers becomes a sort of superhero origin story. Fargeat directs the carnage with an eye for visceral beauty, delivering great-looking gore and an immersive trip into a dangerous desert.
Where to watch: Shudder
The Rider (directed by Chloé Zhao)
Chloé Zhao may be the most humane working director today. Her strategies as a filmmaker, which include filming unprofessional actors found on location in rural South Dakota, are both unorthodox and resoundingly successful. In The Rider, she takes the realism a step further by casting real people–namely, former rodeo star Brady Jandreau, his family, and his friend Lane Scott–as themselves. The Rider is a sort of quasi-documentary then, yet it still feels like drama at its most raw and honest. Jandreau, rocked by a head injury that threatens his ability to continue riding rodeo, must reconcile himself with a community who sees him only as a rider, a family that fears for his safety, and his own deep connection with the horses and land. The Rider is one of the best films of the year, an unprecedented achievement in storytelling and cinema.
Where to watch: Starz
Shirkers (directed by Sandi Tan)
In 1992, Sandi Tan and her friends set out to make a surreal road movie that would have no doubt been a landmark in Singaporean cinema. The movie they shot was zany and spirited, quasi-Lynchian and impressive in its shaggy, youthful way. It was also never released. Instead of being read about in film history textbooks, the film reels gathered (metaphorical, if not literal) dust on the shelf of the friends’ enigmatic, possibly malevolent mentor, Georges after he absconded with it at the end of that summer. In an example of a truth that’s stranger than fiction, Tan’s documentary retraces the steps of the greatest Singapore-made movie that never was, along the way detailing specific emotional truths about friendship, power, artistic expression, and the tricky business of growing up.
Where to watch: Netflix
The Tale (directed by Jennifer Fox)
Jennifer Fox’s documentarian background lends this fictionalized retelling of her own story a truth-telling punch. The Tale grapples with the facts like any good documentary would, but the subject is not afforded any of the distance that lends objectivity: rather, it’s a version of the director herself, played by Laura Dern, who is exploring her repressed memories about a complex, exploitative series of relationships she had as a child. Dern is played as a kid by Isabelle Nélisse, while her abusers are played with coyness and manipulative, sick charm by Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki. The Tale is necessary viewing for anyone who knows someone affected by sexual trauma (so everyone), but it also requires a lot of emotional bandwidth and should be seen, especially by survivors, when in a healthy headspace.
Where to watch: HBO
Tigers Are Not Afraid (directed by Issa López)
Together, an oft-overlooked subject, a talented cast of child actors, and a Guillermo del Toro-like sensibility for dark fairy tales make Tigers Are Not Afraid one of the most transporting movies of the year. In writer-director Issa López’s first dramatic directorial feature, magical realism meets harsh reality when young Estrella (Paola Lara) loses her mother to a local cartel and must find a new home while outrunning the ghosts that chase her. Estrella soon finds a ragtag group of homeless children, all of whom have also been orphaned by the cartel. The comparison to del Toro is a good thing, as Tigers Are Not Afraid is, like his best, a masterful, visually striking social fable that seems to have been born out of the director’s mind fully formed.
Where to watch: TBD
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (directed by Susan Johnson)
2018 is the year of the teen rom-com, and along with Love, Simon, the Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s popular YA book is the best the trend has to offer. The movie was an overnight sensation, one of Netflix’s few instant classics that inspired memes, rewatches, and a million crushes on Noah Centineo. Although Centineo stole the spotlight with his affable charm and comparisons to a young Mark Ruffalo, it’s Lana Condor who was most relatable and inspiring as Lara Jean. The nervous yet steadfast young heroine should be an inspiration for girls everywhere, and in a divergence from the teen movies from days of old, To All the Boys doesn’t force her to change but instead encourages her to embrace who she is.
Where to watch: Netflix
You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
Lynne Ramsay kicks her brutal visual poetry into overdrive for her latest project, an impressionistic symphony of thrills starring Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix is excellent as Joe, a PTSD-stricken veteran and hired gun who knows his way around a hammer. When Joe’s tasked with the recovery of a politician’s sex trafficked daughter, things quickly go awry in the bloodiest way possible. Few non-franchise stories have established the mythology of a character as well as Ramsay does here with Joe, who is as traumatized and sensitive as he is ruthless. The film flies by and leaves you wanting more, and also establishes Ramsay as one of the 21st century’s most inimitable auteurs.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
More noteworthy 2018 films directed by women:
Angels Wear White (Vivian Qu), Blame (Quinn Shephard), Blockers (Kay Cannon), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller), Dumplin’ (Anne Fletcher), Half the Picture (Amy Adrion), Happy As Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher), Mary Shelley (Haifaa Al-Mansour), Oh Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi), On Her Shoulders (Alexandria Bombach), The Rachel Divide (Laura Brownson), RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen), Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu), Seeing Allred (Sophie Sartain and Roberta Grossman), Set It Up (Claire Scanlon), Skate Kitchen (Crystal Moselle), The Spy Who Dumped Me (Susanna Vogel), The Strange Ones (Lauren Wolkstein), I Think We’re Alone Now (Reed Morano), Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (Arwen Curry), What They Had (Elizabeth Chomko), A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay), Zama (Lucrecia Martel)