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Films of the Year

A critic lists his top picks from a great year for movies.

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If a movie isn't a Disney production, an umbrella that includes Pixar and Marvel entities, it's probably playing to a niche audience.

With the pressure to be noticed somewhat lifted, particularly by streaming platforms that are endlessly hungry for content, films are able to be weirder and more personal and reflexive.

Films continue to get better, but audiences must look beyond advertising saturation to find the figurative flowers growing behind, say, the Starbucks billboard. Hopefully this list can be of assistance, as 2018 was a glorious year at the cinema.

10. "Isle of Dogs" (director: Wes Anderson)

With this stop-animation film, Anderson continues to hone his aesthetic with jokes that are nestled between an invigorating series of planes within planes within the frame. Like many of Anderson's films, this is a story of revolution, and the emotional chaos of the narrative contrasts movingly with Anderson's supreme formal control.

9. "The Green Fog" (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson)

In this one-of-a-kind mixture of clip show, documentary and fictional film, Maddin and his collaborators remake Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" using various clips from TV shows and films that are set in San Francisco. Most profoundly, Maddin emphasizes how performances are shaped by editing. Collapsing years of his performances together into one extraordinary montage, Maddin turns Chuck Norris into a good actor, utilizing him as a symbol of obsessive yearning.

8. "Leave No Trace" (Debra Granik)

Granik's fictional follow-up to "Winter's Bone" is another wrenching story of folks on the margins of American society. Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are a father and daughter duo living in the woods of Portland, Oregon, and it gradually becomes evident that Will is suffering from PTSD and unable to engage with society, while Tom is becoming old enough to long for more social connection. Granik, Foster and McKenzie dramatize these dueling needs with exceptional sensitivity, leading the film to an ambiguous and heartbreaking finale.

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7. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" (Marielle Heller)

Playing Lee Israel, a struggling writer in New York who forges letters by famous authors to pay her bills, Melissa McCarthy doesn't shut herself down to connote seriousness, as many comedians do in dramatic films. Rather, the actress expands her art, elaborating on the fury, loneliness and sharp comic timing that have always been the bedrock of her performances. McCarthy is matched by Richard E. Grant as an equally tormented sidekick, and the result is the year's great and tender buddy dramedy.

6. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Here, the Coens offer six stories of the American West, emphasizing the realm's merciless savagery. Tonally, this film is most reminiscent of the brothers' remake of "True Grit," which was similarly eaten up with a qualified vulnerability. Underneath their showy, violent poetry, these filmmakers are romantics, which is especially evident in a devastating story featuring Zoe Kazan as a stranded sister on a wagon trail.

5. "Golden Exits" (Alex Ross Perry)

This tale of existentially frustrated New Yorkers finds Perry ever closer to mining the rocky and insulated terrain of John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. This is an intimate and furious comedy-drama, with fragile imagery and volcanic performances by a cast that includes Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, as well as Jason Schwartzman, Lily Rabe, Mary-Louise Parker, and an especially astonishing Emily Browning.

4. "Burning" (Lee Chang-dong)

In this simmering social thriller, Lee fuses a critique of South Korean capitalism with freighted references to William Faulkner's "Barn Burning." The film is charged with an ineffable sense of possibility, following three attractive young people as they navigate a minefield of resentment and sexual jealousy. And one of them, alas, might be a serial killer.

3. "Bisbee '17" (Robert Greene)

Director Robert Greene returns to a town on the Arizona-Mexico border, and recruits its residents for a re-creation of a buried racial atrocity. Greene fuses documentary and fictional film tropes to punctures myths of the American West. It would pair well with "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs."

2. "First Reformed" (Paul Schrader)

Schrader's best film in years is a parable of faith in the face of modern American nihilism, with Ethan Hawke as a haunted man of the cloth. The narrative works as a brilliant inversion of Schrader's prior tales of damnation, revealing vengeance to be a failure of nerve. Hope requires vision and steadfast strength, and Schrader's devotion to cinematic transcendentalism is an embodiment of such vision.

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1. "Monrovia, Indiana" (Frederick Wiseman)

One of the greatest, and least known of filmmakers, the documentarian Wiseman is an astute chronicler of American infrastructure, having produced more than 40 films that analyze various social institutions. In "Monrovia, Indiana," Wiseman goes to the heart of Trump land, capturing the daily tasks of people whose way of life is dying, partially due to the person they hold as a savior. Politics, however, are largely implicit in this film, as Wiseman hones his camera in on the quotidian of life, illuminating the beauty that's inherent in everyday rituals, including having coffee at a diner and preparing pepperoni breadsticks for minimum wage as a teenager. The film offers a portal to empathy. S

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