10. First Reformed
Directed By Paul Schrader
Written by Paul Schrader
Similar to Taxi Driver before it, First Reformed is deeply interested in dissecting the fetishization of heroism. In both films, we have protagonists who are driven to commit deadly acts in the name of a greater purpose; for Pastor Toller (Ethan Hawke, giving a career-best performance), the world is crumbling due to climate change, and to rectify it, he reckons with extreme violence as a solution. But First Reformed is less about the destination and more about the journey, the dissolution of one man’s piety with a bleakness and nihilism that echoes some of the iciest Ingmar Bergman works. The tides are rising, hurricanes intensifying, glaciers melting, and not only does it go unmanaged by God, but God’s own houses of worship directly benefit from the people causing this damage. Toller’s spirituality slowly gives way to a warped messiah complex, as only he can restore social and ecological order to the world. Schrader has never shied away from man’s propensity towards violence and the steps we often take to justify it, but what is most fascinating about First Reformed is the way that complex develops in such a respectable individual. First Reformed is undeniably dismal (as Schrader’s body of work tends to be), but, as always, Schrader has a lot on his mind and remains intoxicating in how he conveys it.
09. The Death of Stalin
Directed By Armando Ianucci
Written by Armando Ianucci, Ian Martin, and David Schneider
Armando Ianucci is a political satirist currently matched by absolutely no one in his industry. His work is sharp and darkly hilarious, and The Death of Stalin is no exception, detailing the power struggle in the USSR after the death of the dictator Joseph Stalin. Like the rest of Ianucci’s body of work, The Death of Stalin is a reflection on the intoxicating allure of authority; that it is set in a Communist regime as opposed to a republic like the rest of his material only solidifies the universality of its politically agnostic underpinnings. That, and the fact that the film’s terrific cast—including the likes of Steve Buscemi, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, and Monty Python alum Michael Palin—makes zero attempt at any sort of Russian accent. Nonetheless, their performances are pitch-perfect in both timing and physical acumen (proof that films can contain slapstick comedy and still be wildly intelligent). One of the most important takeaways from this movie, especially in conjunction with much of Ianucci’s work, is that there is no perfect political system because human folly, avarice, and self-interest will always supersede the boundaries and measures of that system. It’s something that has proven true time and time again, but The Death of Stalin might be the funniest movie to ever reach that realization.
08. First Man
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Written By Josh Singer
First Man had every opportunity to play in much of the jingoism that inspired the Moon landing itself. Damien Chazelle, however, famously opted not to include any footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the lunar surface, and First Man is surprisingly light on patriotic sentiment, period. Its heart and soul are Armstrong himself, and his psychological state of mind during the entirety of his preparation. Ryan Gosling does some of his best work here in the lead role, communicating Armstrong’s fear, pain, and determination with his eyes alone; equally impressive is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife. By centering in on these two, First Man recontextualizes the story from one of national accomplishment to one of personal salvation. After all, Neil only applies for NASA’s Project Gemini after his young daughter dies of brain cancer, and it becomes clear that, what most of us would still acknowledge as an incredibly brave act is one man’s way of avoiding an even scarier alternative: his ocean of grief. Armstrong does not simply go to the Moon; he escapes the very planet on which he lost a child. NASA’s reputation, the Space Race, and the Cold War as a whole were all defined by a single man’s way of dealing with the worst tragedy of his life. First Man never loses sight of the importance and scope of what Neil Armstrong achieved, but it also understands that even the most consequential events in history arise from the deepest, most personal motivations.
07. The Rider
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Written By Chloé Zhao
Clint Eastwood earned a fair amount of attention for the way he cast The 15:17 to Paris, casting as themselves the three heroes of the story the film is based on. His experiment was largely deemed a failure; that same year, however, Chloé Zhao’s The Rider offered a similar idea that excelled far beyond the gimmickry of Eastwood’s attempt. In The Rider, Brady Blackburn is a rodeo star who must find new meaning and identity in his life after an accident leaves him unable to ride; Brady Jandreau, who portrays him, suffered the same injury, limited in movement on the right side of his body and prone to seizures. His friend Lane is played by Jandreau’s friend Lane Scott, and both character and actor are paralyzed and nonverbal. Zhao takes a risk hewing so close to reality, but her verité approach gives the film an honesty and rawness it might not have had were it a farther distance from its subjects. At the very least, The Rider, intentionally or not, makes a case for truthfulness in casting. Studios spark casting controversies all the time, particularly when it comes to casting able-bodied actors as disabled characters. But as acclaimed as, say, Bryan Cranston or Eddie Redmayne is, neither can ever truly replicate the condition of paralysis quite as well as actors whose lives exist in the minute movements of paralysis. The Rider is a borderline documentary, and its strength comes from just how little it’s interested in being a “movie” as opposed to an authentic slice of the Midwestern lives of people whose stories are not often told with respect.
Directed By Steve McQueen
Written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen
So much of Widows would have failed in lesser hands. Its premise, about three widows (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez) completing a heist to pay off the debt their bank robber husbands left them with, could easily describe a gimmicky January heist flick. But Steve McQueen imbues the film with vision where mere craft would have been sufficient for most. Joe Walker uses clean, concise edits, as McQueen is confident enough not to need to cut around his stuntwork. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is thoughtful, even amidst the film’s chaos. One beautiful scene follows a car from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods through gradually richer ones until the car finally arrives at an expensive townhouse. Though it is alderman candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who speaks during this scene from inside the car, the camera tells a larger story of the dangerous allure of wealth in an increasingly stratified society. Widows has a lot more on its mind—themes of race, gender, and social status—than it lets on. It’s far more mainstream than any of McQueen’s previous work, but it wholly embodies his typically precise filmmaking all the same.