Here it is: No Film School's favorite independent films of 2018! Consisting of seven curated choices from our editors and writers, this year's list features a diverse line-up of features, including two documentaries, a social satire, a period piece, a horror film, a film about faith, and a heavy metal, drug-induced cinematic experience that defies further description.
Rather than provide a top 10 list, we chose to get straight to the point and present our individual choices for best of the year. As always (and much like our choices for Best Scenes and Best Cinematography of 2018), these decisions are incredibly tough to make and tend to welcome debate and further consideration. We encourage this, so please feel free to debate and, most importantly, seek out, our picks below.
Director: Stephen Maing
This Oscar-shortlisted documentary by filmmaker Stephen Maing is a striking accomplishment. It’s damned extraordinary, first off, because Maing has captured a moment that happens maybe once in a hundred years—a group of officers united to speak out against the most powerful police force in the country.
Secondly, Maing proves that he’s a filmmaker who can see beyond storytelling conventions. He chucks the traditional linear structure of the single protagonist and instead builds momentum by stacking subjects, NYPD officers, private investigators, beleaguered mothers, and imprisoned sons into a towering portrait. With the most dignified artistry, Maing creates a cinematic experience of a bigger-picture system at work while putting us face-to-face with the people on the ground, making the film as emotionally moving as it is cerebral and visually rich. —Oakley Anderson-Moore
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
I'm going to take a loose interpretation of "Best Film of the Year" to mean "film which I absolutely enjoyed watching the most." I caught a screening of The Favourite at the Austin Film Festival earlier this year and was pretty much conversationally useless in social situations after.
The performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz stick with you like characters in a great novel that you miss once they're gone. It's a terrific film with powerful—and often hilariously enjoyable—performances. —Jourdan Aldredge
Director: Paul Schrader
First Reformed took me to church and made me a believer. I didn't know Paul Schrader still had a masterpiece in him, and when I walked into the theater, I was worried. This movie had so many bold things that could go wrong. It was structured after Jesus' passion, shot in boxy 1.37:1, and was a Paul Schrader movie made after the year 2000.
But...this movie just DELIVERED. It was an emotional journey about the earth, faith, love, and universal law. It was a deep and intoxicating look at how we may not deserve God's grace...but absolutely deserve Paul Schrader's redemption. Watch it ASAP. Pray about it after. —Jason Hellerman
Director: Ari Aster
Unconvinced I had seen a masterpiece but convinced I had seen "something resembling an imperfect one," Hereditary led me to associate its greatness with the work of impassioned theater.
Earlier this year, I wrote, "'It's Long Day's Journey into Night meets Poltergeist,' I surmised after completing my first viewing of Hereditary, the deeply unsettling debut feature from filmmaker Ari Aster that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. After a second viewing, that evaluation only strengthened, the film possessing traits equally indebted to the unspoken pains found in the work of family-infatuated dramatists like Eugene O'Neill and the dread-induced fixations of Tobe Hooper."
I believe that statement still holds true, and if a recent backlash has hit concerning the third act's balls-to-the-wall approach that feels removed from its preceding 90 minutes, I'd be hard-pressed to find a more nuanced approach that would better support the material. The plot holes, if you can call them that, feel gloriously intentional, as if the puzzle and clues that lead up to the horrific monstrosities of the third act only add to the mystery of the whole. With an incredible performance by Toni Collette, Hereditary is as grounded a film about cults, witchcraft, and demonic Welcome mats can be. —Erik Luers
Director: Panos Cosmatos
It was our first day at Sundance. Or really, at this point it was midnight. Jet-lagged and exhausted after back-to-back screenings, I was running on little more than what amounted to a popcorn/M&M dinner. How the hell was I going to make it through this next film? More importantly, was I gonna need to be high to truly enjoy this thing?
These thoughts circled deliriously through my head as I took my place in the theater. Quickly, however, I could feel the energy of the sold-out room shift to a subdued frenzy. A wild-haired director took up the podium and following him, a true legend of the silver screen, Panos Cosmatos, and Nicolas Cage, introducing the world premiere of a film called Mandy. It's hard for me to truly describe what all of us went through next.
Now look, I'm not going to pretend like this is a movie that everyone will enjoy, or even that, in what was a completely brilliant year for film, it deserves to be number one on any of the multitudes of end of the year critics lists. But, over the course of Mandy, I felt sick, stoned, terrified, dizzy, claustrophobic, shocked, giddy, exuberant, and other shit I can't even put words to. I almost lost my mind.
The point being, I cycled through more emotions in this movie's two hour run time than those I generally feel in the context of an entire month. When I watch a movie, I'm in it for the experience, and seeing Mandy for the first time was an experience I'll never forget. For that reason, it's my clear number one. —Jon Fusco
Director: Boots Riley
The Coup frontman Boots Riley’s debut feature would start out having you believe it’s a quirky indie comedy. Even that isn’t so common. After all, it’s a quirky black indie comedy. How many in the well-worn genre are led by actors of color who aren’t playing the funny foil to the lead white characters? But when protagonist Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) falls through the floor of his new telemarketing job and lands squarely in the home of his sales target—desk and all—you start sniffing something a little different. And then, before you know it, you’ve got full on social satire.
This movie takes on everything from techno-capitalism to racism to narcissism without taking itself too seriously. I promise you will laugh out loud, perhaps at comedian David Cross’s vocal cameo as Green’s adopted “white voice” that helps him succeed in the sales game.
Sorry To Bother You also showcases some truly clever production design by Jason Kisvarday who stretches a low budget to create textural visual storytelling with insane attention to detail, down to the wheat-pasted posters on Oakland city walls that were clearly designed just for the film. The story takes a wild turn in the third act that goes a gallop or two too far for some, but I’d much rather a filmmaker take a bold risk and surprise us than stay in the safe lane. Oh, and do I really need to say that the soundtrack is great?
The soundtrack is great. —Liz Nord
Director: Morgan Neville
As our culture sinks deeper and deeper into pettiness, lies, and anger (and in a political climate that feeds off hatred and intolerance), Won’t You Be My Neighbor was more than a breath of fresh air; it was a call to arms.
It’s the story of Fred Rogers and how he built a TV show that lasted generations around the idea of helping children feel loved. It’s easy to be cynical and jaded, but this story will reduce even the most jaded viewer to tears. It’s a reminder that what's easiest isn’t always what's best. How we treat the people around us each day is the most important thing we do, that you can have a massive impact through simple kindness.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor will challenge your assumptions that it’s just about being a “goody-two-shoes” and it will remind you of your better nature, giving you a little hope (even in times of darkness) for the rest of humanity. Picking the best film of the year always strikes me as a fool's errand, but I can say without question that Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a movie from 2018 everyone should take time to watch because it might help us be better people. We need that now more than ever. —George Edelman