Peak TV is creating more opportunities for independent film directors, and for new stories to be told. Films from around the world are more accessible via streaming, and Netflix spent an estimated 13 billion dollars on content just this year. More cash available can translate to more stories by and about communities of color, women, transgender and gender nonconforming people, and other communities Hollywood has long ignored. But the movie industry is still primarily about making profit, and it’s main business is reinforcing the status quo, including churning out films that glorify capitalism, war, and policing.
Below are 2018’s top ten conscious films that made it through these barriers, plus twenty more released this year that you may want to check out.
It was a year for independent dramas with a range of tones. One of the year’s best was Disobedience, a lesbian romantic drama set among London’s Orthodox Jewish community. The film is the latest from Sebastián Lelio who won an Academy Award for last year’s excellent Fantastic Woman. Support The Girls is a light-hearted low-budget drama from mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski set in a Hooters-esque “breastaurant,” and featuring excellent performances from Regina Hall and newcomer (and indie rapper) Shayna McHayle. Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik returned with Leave No Trace, once again exploring the lives of impoverished people on the edges of society with the story of a man raising his daughter in the Oregon woods.
In a sign of the times we live in, two films this year dealt with “gay conversion therapy.” Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post is the better, and lighter in tone, of the two (the other was Boy Erased). Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is grounded in an excellent performance by Nicole Kidman as a bad cop seeking redemption in a film that avoids glorifying police. In Tully, Charlize Theron is driven to the edge of sanity by the trials of motherhood. The film’s director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody previously collaborated on Juno and Young Adult.
After making great films in the late 90s (Girl’s Town and Our Song) director Jim McKay has been mostly working in prestige TV (The Wire, Mr. Robot, Breaking Bad). In his return to theaters for the neorealist En El Septimo Dia, McKay examined a week in the life of undocumented Latino immigrants in Brooklyn. Private Life, Tamara Jenkins’ third feature in twenty years (after Slums of Beverly Hills and Savages), explores an east village bohemian couple in their early 40s who are seeking to have a child, and navigating medical and legal options. Yorgos Lanthimos has made some of the strangest films of this millennium with Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The Favourite, his newest, is his first historical drama, but it’s still weird, anachronistic and, like his previous films, not for everyone.
In Wildfire, Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are both suffocated by trying to conform to the roles assigned to them as housewife and husband in 1960s Montana. Actor turned director Paul Dano gets strong performances in this story of a dysfunctional family and the social roles that create that dysfunction. Sandi Tan’s Shirkers is a documentary that feels like a drama, as the director tries to uncover the mystery of the man from New Orleans who stole the footage of the feature film she directed as a teenager in Singapore, 25 years ago.
Hollywood doesn’t have a great record in covering presidential politics (remember Kevin Costner in Swing Vote?). Vice, comedy director Adam McKay’s follow up to The Big Short, explores the Bush/Cheney presidency, attempting to make history and polemic accessible to a wide audience. It’s not as effective as his previous film, but it’s a good history, especially for those less familiar with the ins and outs of the early 2000s corporate power grab. Fahrenheit 11/9, the latest from Michael Moore, is both exactly what you think it is, and also better than you expect, finding some new angles to view the current political dumpster fire we find ourselves in, and some reasons for hope.
The sunny suburbs are full of double crosses and duplicity in Paul Feig’s light-hearted comedy-thriller A Simple Favor, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively as suburban housewives with secrets. Assassination Nation brings another darkly satirical view of the suburbs. A Heathers for Generation Z, the protagonists of Sam Levinson’s biting, bloody, and over-the-top satire are teenage girls blamed for society’s ills, and forced to fight back. The film is smart and wild, and in featuring a transgender student as one of the leads, breaks ground for a high school comedy/thriller.
Each bad decision leads to horrifying consequences in Matt Palmer’s feature debut Calibre, a thriller set in the Scottish highlands. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching has a gimmick — it’s a thriller/mystery that takes place entirely on computer screens. But the film’s twists, surprises and excellent lead performance by John Cho never feels held back by its central conceit. Unsane, the latest from Steven Soderbergh is a suspenseful psychological thriller about a woman trying to escape her stalker and her own post traumatic stress. Soderbergh is always experimenting with new forms — this time, he shot the film on an iPhone, which appropriately captures the off-kilter feeling of the protagonist. Tikli And Laxmi Bomb, directed by Aditya Kripalani and based on his novel of the same name, is a story about sex workers in Mumbai banding together and organizing (warning, the film has a lot of sexual violence, though mostly offscreen or threatened). Jordana Spiro’s Night Comes On, co-written with The Shade Room founder Angelica Nwandu, is a naturalistic drama of a teenage Black girl in Philadelphia (a subdued and powerful performance by Dominique Fishback) who has spent much of her life in the shelter system and juvenile prison and must choose between revenge or rebuilding her life.
The gentleman bank robber, stealing from hated institutions to redistribute the wealth (at least to themselves) is a Hollywood cliché, but David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun is better than most, partly because of central performances by Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck, in a cast that also includes Danny Glover and Tom Waits.
We are living in a golden age of horror films. While no film this year had the brilliance or socio-political weight of 2017’s Get Out, there were several great films exploring variations on horror, sci-fi, and suspense. Toni Collette gave a powerful performance in Ari Aster’s Rosemary’s Baby-esque Hereditary, the scariest of the group. Former webcam model Isa Mazzei wrote Cam, a horror film directed by Daniel Goldhaber, to challenge Hollywood’s depiction of sex work. Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold The Dark is more of an elliptical supernatural mystery than horror, starting with a missing child in a small village in Alaska and launching in surprising directions from there. Mandy, directed by Panos Cosmatos and starring Nicholas Cage in an over-the-top performance that has already brought the film a cult following, is not for everyone — it’s violent, bloody, and more acid trip than movie. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead write, direct and star in the low-budget, and bracingly original, sci-fi horror film The Endless, about a mysterious religious cult. The less you know about Border (Gräns), by Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi, the better. So I’ll just say it’s a fantastical and strange love story based on a short story by the author of Let the Right One In.
The Top Eleven:
11. Blackkklansman manages to be both one of Spike Lee’s best films (and biggest hits) since the era of Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing, and also most frustrating for it’s positive depiction of police in the era of COINTELPRO (as Boots Riley pointed out in an incisive critique). But despite the valid complaints, Lee is still a brilliant filmmaker working at the top of his game, and the film is a powerful statement on enduring white supremacy, with a devastating conclusion that points directly to today.
10. Blindspotting, a story of two working class friends in Oakland trying to get by, is directed by Carlos López Estrada, but in many ways it’s a showcase for writers and stars Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs. The two writer/performers come from the worlds of spoken word poetry and hip-hop, and have made a film about racism, class, police violence, gentrification, and cultural cooptation that is rooted in poetry.
9. With Black Panther, director Ryan Coogler made perhaps the best superhero film ever, and stirred hours of debate, while bringing out spectacular performances from a brilliant cast, especially Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist (not villain).
8. Raed Andoni’s Ghost Hunting defies easy explanation. It is part drama, part documentary, part theater of the oppressed workshop. It explores the collective Palestinian trauma of torture and imprisonment in Israeli jails in a way that is accessible and unforgettable.
7. Wajib is directed by Annemarie Jacir, the Palestinian filmmaker behind Salt of This Sea and When I Saw You, two of the best films of the past ten years. Jacir returns with an exploration of a generational and cultural clash between father and son.
6. Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a drama that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. From the vantage point of life on the fringes of Japanese society, the film explores class and chosen family and the hustles it takes to survive.
5. Did you hear about a new film that tells the true story of early 20th century Korean and Japanese anarchists fighting Japanese colonialism in Korea? Lee Joon-ik’s inspiring historical drama Anarchist from Colony was a box office hit in Korea in 2017, but received only a limited US release.
4. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a black and white drama about an indigenous domestic worker and the family she works for in Mexico City in the early 70s, feels like a European art film from that era. Cuarón submerges you in her life, from mundane tasks to relationships and friendships, to life and death events surrounding her. The standout scenes and images will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.
3. Youtube-star-turned-filmmaker Bo Burnham expertly and empathetically explores the awkward pain of middle school in the era of social media in Eighth Grade. The film is anchored by a perfectly earnest performance by Elsie Fisher, who had just finished middle school when the movie was filmed.
2. Musician/activist filmmaker Boots Riley’s blends science fiction, satire, and social commentary in Sorry to Bother You. Like Riley’s music, the film wears its revolutionary anticapitalist politics on its sleeve but lures you in with sly humor. The film is worth seeing just for the design, from Tessa Thompson’s outfits to the fully imagined future that seems just days away, but the unique and visionary story is what makes it a modern classic.
1. Every frame has meaning, and every moment is crucial in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins’ beautiful follow-up to 2016’s Moonlight. Hollywood has often shown Black pain and suffering, but Jenkins excels at showing the love, tenderness and desire — within families, and between lovers — that the film industry has rarely cared to explore. Faithfully adapting James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, Jenkins explores heartache and injustice, but also beauty, passion, and poetry.