While assembling the big “best movies of 2018” list last week, I was struck (as I usually am) by the sheer volume of noteworthy movies to choose from in 2018 — how many of them could have just as easily made that top 30+ list, had I been in a different mood or chosen to shift in a particular direction. So with that embarrassment of riches in mind — as well as the fact that many of your are on some kind of a break, with a remote control or mouse in hand and all sorts of extra time to kill — here are 20 more great movies from 2018, an extended list of runners-up, all sharing the common trait of availability at this very second via one of your subscription streaming services. Watch ‘em now, thank me later.
The latest brainy sci-fi adventure from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, is a bit of a puzzle — a journey into an unknowable heart of darkness, relayed by a perhaps unreliable sole survivor (Natalie Portman), who takes on the dangerous mission out of grief-fueled desperation. Her rich backstory is emblematic of what makes the picture so special: there are effects and monsters and the whole bit, but Garland is far more concerned with the unexplored corners of his characters’ psyches. And that is in dangerously short supply in mainstream cinema.
Black Panther (Netflix)
Ryan Coogler’s entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe grossed a staggering amount of money, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise: here was, for once, a sui generis filmmaker marshaling the limitless resources of a big-budget franchise to tell a story that wasn’t just about servicing said franchise. (Frankly, there are huge swaths, like the Bond-esque casino sequence, that barely feel like a superhero movie at all.) But it also gets the blockbuster job done, delivering big action beats and inspiring hero moments with an offhand ease that shames the lumbering likes of Coogler’s contemporaries. The key to its high grosses is simple: when you bother making one of these legitimately great, audiences will keep coming back to see it again.
Blame (Amazon Prime)
Youth is a genuine benefit in the realm of high school movies, which document a world that changes with lightning speed, so this tricky drama from 20-year-old filmmaker Quinn Shephard feels, in spots, like a dispatch from the front lines. She also stars, as a troubled teen trying to navigate her judgmental classmates (there’s a Carrie element to this story — scenes where you know her humiliation is eminent, and it’s worrying) while falling for the substitute drama teacher (Chris Messina), who casts her in The Crucible. Shephard’s filmmaking is as assured as her acting, which is saying something; she’s good throughout, but has a moment near the end of such vulnerability, innocence, and pain, it sort of takes your breath away. Blame is a touch overlong, and I’m still not sure if the ending is a masterstroke or a cop-out (or both). But I know this much: this is a thoughtful and compelling work, announcing the arrival of a genuinely exciting new talent.
One of the best Twilight Zone stories — in both the original show and its mid-‘80s reincarnation — was the one about the guy who accidentally calls his own telephone number, and is shocked when he picks up on the other end. Director Daniel Goldhaber and screenwriter Isa Mazzei give that concept a 21st century spin with this story of a webcam performer (Madeline Brewer, brilliant) who wakes up one morning and discovers she can no longer access her channel and audience — and someone who looks and sounds exactly like her has taken it over. It’s a tricky role for Brewer, who has to play both selfish and sympathetic, often simultaneously; she becomes aware of her contradictions as she spends quite a bit of time (probably too much) in the act of watching herself. Dark and disturbing, with a portrait of cam-girl culture that seems verrrrry authentic.
Disobedience (Amazon Prime)
We can put aside our true selves, our dreams and our desires, but they have a way or roaring back to life when we least expect it. That’s what happens in this emotionally overwhelming drama from co-writer/director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), telling the story of a love triangle from years ago that’s suddenly, forcefully reignited — and resituated. Leilo builds tension like a thriller-maker, mining emotions buried and things left unsaid, while paying considerable attention to the social formalities that necessitate such secrets. And every performance is a gem, though Rachel McAdams is particularly vivid as a Jewish Orthodox wife who discovers a fire still burning inside her.
“Fashion is fleeting. Style remains.” So says André Leon Talley, described by Tom Ford as “one of the last of those great editors,” whose words and images filled the pages of Vogue in its golden era. Witty, catty, and unapologetic, he’s an ideal documentary subject, with a scrappy story of humble (and repressive) roots leading to a voyage of self-discovery. And in telling his story, director/producer Kate Novack is also able to tell the story of the fashion industry — and hint at the tricky place of African-Americans like Talley within it. And that element remains vital; Talley seems light as air, but he remembers the insults and slights, and they still hurt.
Half the Picture (Starz)
A who’s who of women in Hollywood — including Ava DuVernay, Kimberly Peirce, Penelope Spheeris, Miranda July, Jamie Babbit, Martha Coolidge, Lena Dunham, and many more — turn up to contribute to Amy Adrion’s perceptive examination of gender bias (unconscious and not) in the motion picture and television industries. If you’re interested enough to see the movie, the stats probably won’t come as a surprise (though the sharp, clean graphics and animation helpfully underscore them); the real value here is the space Adrion gives these extraordinary women to tell their war stories.
Hearts Beat Loud (Kanopy)
There’s a wonderful moment early in this warm-hearted comedy/drama in which record store owner Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) is waiting for his order at the neighborhood bakery when, to his wide-eyed amazement, the song he recorded with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) starts playing over the speakers. “You guys, this is my band!” he exclaims to no one in particular; it’s a lovely beat, though one it’s hard to imagine anyone carrying off as charmingly as Offerman. Writer/director Brett Haley specializes in personality pieces — his earlier films include I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero– and Hearts taps nicely into Offerman’s very specific, sensitive-burly-dude appeal. The picture is much more about the sweetness of his relationship with Clemons (and hers with new girlfriend Sasha Lane) than any particular plot or conflict, and that’s fine; it’s a lovely little hang-out movie, nothing more, nothing less.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (HBO GO/Now)
If anyone’s earned the epic HBO documentary treatment, it’s Ms. Fonda, an extraordinary actor and controversial figure whose in-the-public-eye evolution — from ingénue to activist to cause célèbre to icon — is as rich and fascinating as Bob Dylan’s or Elizabeth Taylor’s. This two-plus hour portrait from director Susan Lacy finds just the right pace and tone for this busy life, refusing to either judge or succumb to hagiography, treating each phase of her life as equally important and equally compelling. And Fonda’s commentary throughout is reflective, thoughtful, and often wryly funny.
The Kindergarten Teacher (Netflix)
Maggie Gyllenhaal is smashingly good as a 20-plus year kindergarten teacher who takes an intense interest in a student that seems to be a poetry prodigy — perhaps, it soon seems, too intense of an interest. Writer/director Sara Colangelo (adapting Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film) shifts from character drama to comedy of desperation and back again, and does so with such nimble grace, we hardly notice the sense of dread she’s sneaking in. It becomes one of those films where there’s no doubt something terrible is going to happen; it just becomes a matter of what, and when. The pieces don’t all snap into place, but the skill and bravado of that Gyllenhaal performance keeps the picture humming.
Lean on Pete (Amazon Prime)
The latest from writer/director Andrew Haigh is nothing you’d expect from either Weekend or 45 Years, aside from the fact that it’s vividly drawn and elegantly executed. Charlie Plummer stars as 15-year-old Charley, who falls in with an aging, “broker than he used to be” cowboy (Steve Buscemi), which begins a journey of both emotional growth and human desperation. He is, after all, just a kid, and when bad turns come his way, they’re sudden and scary. Haigh colors in his journey with beautiful Northwestern locations and finely-drawn supporting characters, building a little world for his protagonist to inhabit, and (we suspect) transcend. What a lovely, introspective movie this is.
This hybrid of trippy experimental movie and lurid revenge thriller from director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is one of the more boldly experiential of this year’s releases, one that fully benefited from not only the size and scope of the big screen and theater sound, but the immersion of the theatrical experience. This isn’t just a tribute to the picture’s craft (though it’s first rate); Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn create such a specific world, moving to its own rhythm and operating according to its own nightmare logic, that it does the film a disservice not to enter into it. So the best I can advise is to queue it up on Shudder, put your phone in the other room, turn off the lights, and give yourself over to this wild ride.
Outside In (Netflix)
The latest from the insightful Lynn Shelton (Laggies, Touchy Feely) concerns an ex-con (Duplass) and his relationship with the former teacher (Falco) who helped get him out of a jail, and even with regards to that plot set-up, it toys with our sympathies — taking its time explaining what, exactly, he was in there for. It was a “wrong place in the wrong time” situation, of course, so we can share with him the happiness and freedom of just riding a damn bicycle, and the injustice of having to check the “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box on a job application, and the heartbreak of discovering that he and that teacher may not fall in love and live happily ever. Shelton and co-scripter Duplass capture the rhythms and repetition of everyday conversation (which are harder to create than you’d think), and the perpetual rains of its Pacific Northwest settings are particularly appropriate for this drizzly story. It’s not Shelton’s best work — she has a specific comic style that’s not really called upon this — but kudos for trying something more serious, and landing it.
Paddington 2 (HBO GO/Now)
The original 2014 Paddington was a modest success at best — memorable mostly for Nicole Kidman’s villain turn — but modest success is good enough for a sequel these days. The good news is the follow-up is superior in pretty much every way, disarming and charming, gorgeously crafted and uproariously funny (there’s a bit in a barbershop that Rube Goldberg would’ve been proud of), full of quirky little sidebars, Saturday-serial thrills, and pathos without pandering. And its cast is superb, with particular credit due to new additions Hugh Grant — having a great time playing a fading, vainglorious actor (insert joke here) — and Brendan Gleeson, who tones down the intensity and menace not one whit merely because he’s acting in a family movie. Director Paul King gives it a wide-eyed visual sense and a bright, cheery, candy-colored aesthetic, and the script (which he co-wrote with Simon Farnaby and Michael Bond) keeps the messaging subtle but pointed. What a lovely little movie this is.
The Rachel Divide (Netflix)
You remember Rachel Dolezal. She was at the center of one of 2015’s weirdest controversies, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP who was revealed, after a light bit of digging by a local news reporter, to be a white woman identifying as black. Filmmaker Laura Brownson documents the fallout of that revelation, and Doelzal’s attempts to recover from it, and the results are astute and nuanced — surprisingly so, as it would be so easy to subject her to a feature-length drag. But The Rachel Divide turns itself inside out at regular intervals, shifting sympathies, explaining complexities, yet refusing to let its subject all the way off the hook. It’s rather a brilliant balancing act.
The Rape of Recy Taylor (Starz)
The justice system failing women, and especially women of color, is not (to put it mildly) solely a historical concern, so there’s a particular urgency to this tough but essential documentary by Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) about the assault, trial, and fallout of the 1944 rape of Recy Taylor, 24-year-old African-American wife and mother in Abbeville, Alabama. “They felt that the black woman’s body didn’t belong to her,” we’re told, and Buirski places those attitudes in context — from slave rape to Jim Crow laws. And she also details how this one attack (among many) became a flashpoint in the black community, with race films and black press sharing the story without the interference of the usual gatekeepers, and how the anger it stirred prompted organization and protest. The result is an informative and bracing pre-history of the Civil Rights movement — and a valuable reminder of the role of women within it.
Skate Kitchen (Hulu)
Crystal Moselle’s narrative follow-up to the The Wolfpack is cut from the same cloth — she hangs out with, and eavesdrops on, her protagonists with a documentarian’s eye for detail — while also positioning itself as an updated, gender-swapped Kids, a doc-style snapshot of NYC skater kids with no illusions about the world they inhabit. Her focus is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, excellent), a Long Island teen who starts hanging out with the skater girls she follows on Instagram and finds a community, just as she’s growing apart from her single mom. She’s a complicated protagonist, mostly because the film is about the process of figuring herself out, and Moselle dramatizes that process with clever edits and casually lovely cinematography. But most importantly, her intimate style deftly captures the end-of-the-world intensity of teenage relationships.
The Tale (HBO GO/Now)
It’s hard to imagine a film being more of its moment than this potent and powerful story of repressed sexual assault, which marks the narrative filmmaking debut of documentarian Jennifer Fox — with a story based on her own journey, so the fiction/non-fiction lines get blurry. On top of that, the film is preoccupied with questions of memory, of scenes in which the present interrogates the past (and vice versa), and with the question of what one even does with memories like these, once they begin to reveal themselves. Fox structures the film as something of a mystery story, but there’s nothing trivial about the topic — and she refuses to soft-soap the subject matter, as difficult as it may be to take in. The Tale has its problems; the dialogue is frequently stilted, and while Laura Dern and Ellen Burstyn are unsurprisingly brilliant, Common is embarrassingly bad as Dern’s fiancé. But those issues are ultimately secondary anyway; this is probably an instance where a film’s overall effect simply matters more than the particulars.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Netflix)
Morgan Neville’s new documentary focuses on the making and aftermath of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, and its side-by-side appearance with that long-in-progress film on Netflix is wise; it fills in the gaps that might leave casual viewers of the final product baffled. But Neville (Oscar winner for 20 Feet from Stardom) is no slouch, and this isn’t just a special feature — it’s a portrait of a hustler/genius, a celebration of his work, and a valentine to Gary Graver, the cinematographer whose dedication and perseverance kept the project going for all those years. Playfully edited with clips from the entire Welles oeuvre, and loaded up with great outtakes and archival interviews (including one, with a French reporter, that Welles conducts entirely in her native tongue), They’ll Love Me is, in some ways, more purely enjoyable than its subject.
Unsane (Amazon Prime)
The latest from director Steven Soderbergh plays like a stealth act of film criticism — it’s fully aware of the tropes of this particular subset of thriller, and spends its running time toying with our expectations (and, in this case, gendered prejudices). Claire Foy (very good, though struggling with her American accent) plays a woman in a new city, fleeing a stalker, who finds herself in the midst of the Kafka-esque nightmare of being held in a mental facility against her wishes, in which her understandably violent objections snowball into self-fulfilling prophesies. More than that I won’t say, at least in terms of plot; Soderbergh’s decision to shoot entirely on an iPhone is an experiment that doesn’t quite pay off, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating film to look at, as he torques out the angles and whiplashes the camera to put us in his protagonist’s troubled headspace. It’s an itchy, twitchy movie with an endlessly satisfying payoff.