1. “The Rider”
Oh, good. A story about a rodeo rider from a director I’ve never heard of. This should be JUST GREAT. And you know what? It turned out to be much, much more than just great. Brady Jandreau, an actual cowboy (as in, not an actor), stars in a story loosely based on his life, in which his character has to decide whether to return to the sport he loves after a near-fatal accident. Chloe Zhao, who wrote and directed, created an intensely quiet, stunningly beautiful examination of American masculinity. I have remembered how this movie made me feel through the entire year. No movie lover can ask for anything more than that.
3. "First Man’"
5. “Black Panther”
Full disclosure: I knew “Black Panther” was going to be good, because Ryan Coogler doesn’t make bad movies. I just didn’t expect it to be as phenomenal as it was. “Black Panther” isn’t only one of the best superhero movies of all time, but it succeeds on every cinematic level. No other movie this year created a world with the visual depth of Wakanda; no other superhero movie, Marvel or not, has presented such nuanced and complicated characters. Sure, Ryan Coogler doesn’t make bad movies. Ryan Coogler makes great movies.
6. “Sorry to Bother You”
Two surprises in one! In this biting satire, a black man finds wild success as a telemarketer for a not-so-vaguely sinister company in the not-too-far-off future after he begins using his “white voice.” It’s a great, clever conceit. Then comes the movie’s second act, in which the stakes get raised and the story goes absolutely bonkers in the best way. “Sorry to Bother You” will make you laugh and punch you in the stomach — often at the same time. There’s never been anything like this movie, and I doubt there will be again.
7. “The Favourite”
9. "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"
When I first saw the trailer for this animated film, I assumed it was going straight to video because did theaters really need ANOTHER Spider-Man movie? (No.) Then, 20 minutes into the movie, I realized I was looking at something groundbreaking. Newbie webslinger Miles Morales must work with five other Spider-People (all drawn in their signature styles) to save the world. The visual innovation is backed by a clever, emotional story about how we all can be heroes — and why it’s important that we are.
10. “Eighth Grade”
In “Eighth Grade” there is no quest; it’s just Kayla (Elsie Fisher, who in a weaker year for actresses would be getting serious Oscar buzz) attempting to survive her last week of middle school. The expected awkwardness abounds — and is heightened by the ubiquitous presence of social media — but what’s surprising is the amount of empathy writer-director Bo Burnham builds not only for the sometimes-obnoxious Kayla, but for those of us who know we were awful in middle school. It’s rare that identifying with a character makes you more forgiving of yourself.