Scan the DVDs in the Criterion Collection of your nearest Barnes & Noble. If you want to know about the cinema of “democracy,” notice that beside Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” lurks a scary low-budget creature-feature called “Fiend without a Face,” and to the immediate left of David Lynch’s cult masterpiece “Eraserhead” can be found “Equinox,” an occult thriller shot over so many years you actually see the actors age as the movie progresses.
Movies once thought disposable are back to worm their way into our collective consciousness. Maybe they never went away. How else to explain the revival of two classic thrillers: Brian De Palma’s “Sisters” and Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” both from the early 1970s, when visual virtuosity and fluid, go-for-broke storytelling were at their most fruitful. The best movies of the last 12 months carried on this creative explosion.
This was a banner year for movies — if you could find them. The disparity between the mainstream and the alternative has never been wider. Even the art houses are splitting like amoeba. Alternative cinema has spawned alternatives to the alternatives. Movies that didn’t fit the popular molds — superheroes, sequels, remakes, romantic comedies, etc. — didn’t stand a chance. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (omigod, a Western) was in and out of a few theaters and can be seen on Netflix. Another movie on this year’s top 10 list, “Vox Lux,” played at only one venue for a week.
NOTE: Some movies released at the end of the year have not been reviewed, and of the 700 films released this year, I have probably seen between 100 and 150, so this list is highly subjective and far from complete. Oh, and don’t count them too closely.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (Joel and Ethan Coen) A remarkable example of the Coen brothers’ style of comedy — a poker-faced, oddly charming treatment of bizarre and perverse premises, all contained in a six-story anthology rooted in the violent traditions of the Western.
“Bisbee ’17” (Robert Greene) This documentary about the tragedy carried for generations from a 1917 strike by copper miners and the local residents determined in 2017 to re-enact the events is as painful as watching scabs torn off wounds that have not quite healed.
“BlacKkKlansman” (Spike Lee) Now in his 60s, Lee effortlessly weaves political passion into a taut, tense detective thriller about two Colorado Springs undercover police officers — one black, the other white — who, incredibly, infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Based on a true story.
“The Favourite” (Yorgos Lanthimos) Three powerful women — Queen Anne, her trusted aide and a former Lady seeking redemption and a little revenge — battle for supremacy in this exquisitely stylized and pungent black comedy of ill manners set in an England that isn’t Merrie at all.
“First Reformed” (Paul Schrader) Ethan Hawke’s startling performance as the minister of a desolate upstate New York church suffering a crushing crisis of faith underscores a remarkable return to form for director Schrader.
“Hereditary” (Ari Aster) and “A Quiet Place” (John Krasinski) By manipulating form and content, visual style and uses of sound (or the lack of it), these two movies are virtuosic exercises in supernatural shocks and alien-invasion apocalypse, shot through with domestic tensions.
“Isle of Dogs” (Wes Anderson) In this apocalyptic drama about diseased canines exiled to a garbage island to live out their days, Anderson rediscovers the visual pleasures of stop-motion animation and supports the long-lost technique with a provocative story and characters.
“Let the Sunshine In” (Claire Denis) Juliette Binoche is luminous as a successful middle-aged artist who craves men and, much to her heartbreak, always picks the wrong one. Denis, in one of her most sensitive character studies, shuffles the themes of romantic comedy.
“The Old Man and the Gun” (David Lowery) Robert Redford does a splendid farewell tour (he says it’s his last movie) as a cheeky, chivalric bank robber who travels from state to state with a wink, a smile and a revolver. Lowery directs in a breezy style that is almost a romp.
“Vox Lux” (Brady Corbet) As Natalie Portman floods the role of a besieged Lady Gaga-like pop star named Celeste, this brutal, starkly imaginative drama pushes the cinematic envelope deeper and farther than any other movie this year. If you’re expecting another “A Star Is Born,” enter at your own risk.