Mandy A lysergic vision of astonishing and delirious beauty, Panos Cosmatos’s second feature contains multitudes, including an LSD cult of Easy Rider caricatures and a biker gang seemingly sprung from the puzzle box of Hellraiser. In a year when theaters were still dominated by a predictable empire of superheroes, Mandy gave new meaning to the action film without skimping on epic chainsaw duels and other gems of ultra-violence. A genre flick, a poetic exploration of intimacy and loss, and a cautionary tale about the havoc caused by the fragility of the male ego, Mandy revived the revenge-film narrative by infusing it with emotional depth, centered on the tender relationship between two lovers: Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) and Red (Nicolas Cage). In scenes that accurately represent the process of trauma, Cage takes his characteristic performance of excess and exaggeration to a whole new level of intensity, while the proliferation of hallucinated landscapes and the dreamy synth score Jóhann Jóhannsson wrote before his untimely death accompany us through this splendid nightmare. —Marta Nuñez Pouzols

First Reformed There are two main characters in writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. The first is the eponymous Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, a remote two-hundred-fifty-year-old chapel with few parishioners and an organ that doesn’t work—more like a stately museum than a functioning parish. By contrast, the cannibalistic megachurch nearby, which owns the historical landmark, has many more worshipers flocking through its doors but compromises its precepts for the sake of corporate donors who keep those doors open. The second protagonist is fallen Calvinist clergyman Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke in an aching, penetrating performance. Toller is grappling with despair and an existential crisis of faith on multiple fronts. When he fails to save a radical environmentalist who comes to him for counsel, Toller inherits his unused suicide vest and the friendship of his widow (Amanda Seyfried), which both become fulcrums in Toller’s inner struggle between Old Testament damnation and New Testament atonement. The untidy ending doesn’t resolve this conflict—there are not-so-faint echoes of Schrader’s Taxi Driver script. But, upon reflection, two thousand years of Christian theology hasn’t resolved it, either. Schrader’s best film in years skewers politics, organized religion, and even anti-environmentalism, all under the umbrella of stewardship. “Will God forgive us?” is the film’s refrain, but it offers no easy answers to this provocative question. —Neil Morris

BlacKkKlansman It’s no coincidence that BlacKkKlansman was released a day before the first anniversary of the infamous Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. With implacable lucidity and excellent humor, Spike Lee’s latest feature highlights how white supremacy, far from being a marginal phenomenon, is ingrained in the social fabric of this country. Paying skillful and pertinent homage to Blaxploitation movies through its cinematography and referencing the heroes of its genre (Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, Ron O’Neal), the film is a carefully crafted reflection on the representation of blackness in cinema history. This reflection, mixed with a pointed bit of social commentary, culminates in a harrowing scene that should end the critical reverence for D.W. Griffith’s ode to racism, Birth of a Nation. Other crucial moments are the exhilarating phone conversations in which black detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) successfully passes as white and tricks a clueless, wimpy David Duke (Topher Grace). Poignant, engaging, and hilarious, BlacKkKlansman is also a relevant critique of the futility of attempting social  change without subverting the racist status quo. —Marta Nuñez Pouzols

Annihilation A very good adaptation of an even better book, Annihilation is a thrilling alchemy of science fiction, psychological horror, and ecological parable. Natalie Portman leads a team of scientists into Area X, a  patch of quarantined Florida coastline where a sudden transformation has occurred. The government’s official story concerns a vague industrial disaster, but Area X is actually Something Else Entirely. Director Alex Garland folds in all kinds of kinky, thinky weirdness: optical physics, de-evolution, fungal intelligence, that sort of thing. The film departs significantly from Jeff Vandermeer’s book, but both cross apocalyptic sci-fi with the old literary tradition known as weird fiction. Each plays to the strengths of its medium. The book gets into your head via language, while the movie takes a brutal shortcut through your eyeballs. The images evoke a specific variety of terror-tinged awe, the kind you feel contemplating the destructive power of a hurricane, the terrible beauty of a decaying swamp, or the vast darkness of the night sky. Weird fiction specializes in these sensations, and Annihilation points them at our environmental worries about climate change, genetic engineering, and ecological collapse. If movies are like dreams—and they are—then this is a collective anxiety nightmare. We’re trying to tell ourselves something. —Glenn McDonald

Minding the Gap Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap, about three amateur skateboarders (including the filmmaker) in Rockford, Illinois, is empathetic and expansive. It encompasses so much more than skating. It’s as much about the heartbreak of growing up as it is about the endowment of domestic violence, the premonitions bred by race, and post-recession American malaise. The film played to a full house at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this year. Documentary filmmakers often discuss who should be making documentaries for whom, a question always underpinning doc festivals. This debate isn’t new and is never settled, but I share in others’ frustrations about the proliferation of documentaries targeted towards the NPR-donor variety: white, educated, liberal enough. In fact, many of the documentaries that crossed over into the mainstream this year seemed designed to assuage the anxieties of this demographic, like RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Minding the Gap was a rare, necessary exception. Liu’s film moves with both the fluidity and jolts of skateboarding: in graceful, single shots of lanky bodies gliding through the streets, the camera skates with the skaters. But the camera stumbles, crashes, and lingers with them, too. To watch is to come away with skinned knees. —Katie Jane Fernelius

Roma The word “cinematic” often functions as an antonym of “intimate,” suggesting a layer between art and life. But that’s not so in Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping panorama of family life, which centers on Cleo, a young housekeeper who is at once deeply involved with and held at arm’s length by the family she works for. Shot in black and white, 1970s Mexico City is beautifully recreated, with the changes happening in the outside world—a jet reflected in soap suds, astronauts suspended on a dark movie screen, a student riot-turned-bloodbath—mirroring those happening within the family. “Who are these kids?” wayward father Antonio jokes as he greets his children, foreshadowing the distance to come. Near the end, the mother, Sofia, takes her kids to the beach so Antonio can clear his belongings from the house. By then, Cleo, now pregnant, has also been abandoned by a man. Despite the emotional scope of these changes, interiority is not emphasized. In this way, Cuarón’s priorities—visual texture over narrative contours—often resemble Terrence Malick’s. But while a Malick film often feels austere and painterly, Cuarón deftly translates the visual poetry of everyday life with an intimacy that makes it almost hard to breathe. If the film has a personal feel, it’s because it’s Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical tribute to the women that raised him, his perspective now complicated by adult understandings of class, race, gender, and the lonely distance between intense emotions and a world unready to receive them. —Sarah Edwards

A Star Is Born I watched A Star Is Born on the last day of a trip to New York, forswearing all other cultural activities to sit alone in an overpriced theater and have an experience I could have literally anywhere in America. I think that’s what I enjoyed about the movie, though—how unifying the experience felt. I can’t remember the last time a big-budget Hollywood movie felt as thrillingly encompassing: Even before the film was released, the trailer racked up a staggering number of views, and the internet swam with memes. The anticipation, taste, and aftertaste of the movie all felt equitable. As for the movie itself, Lady Gaga’s Ally is genuine and focused, the music is phenomenal, and Bradley Cooper’s throaty, washed-up musician is appropriately wrenching (although the biggest fairy tale might be that an alt-country singer could be a megastar of the stature depicted). Afterward, I found myself singing the soundtrack, compulsively telling people that I just wanted to take another look at them, and re-watching the trailer—which, after all, includes the capital-M Moment, the one we’re all somehow collectively nostalgic for even though we’ll never experience it quite this way: watching from the sidelines, being recognized, called up, and reborn. —Sarah Edwards

If Beale Street Could Talk Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’s latest (finally getting a local release next week) is visually appealing, intimate, and heartbreaking. Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, the film foregrounds the beauty and resilience of black people, black love, and black families against the despair of racism and systemic oppression. Set in 1970s Harlem, Beale Street opens with two gorgeous brown-skinned people. A young woman with natural hair (KiKi Layne) and a young man with full lips (Stephan James) are holding hands. The scene conveys optimism that their love will have space to flourish. We learn that Tish and Fonny, who have been friends since childhood, are engaged to be married. But then, with a baby on the way, Fonny is incarcerated.

Baldwin’s characters are always complex. They don’t just destabilize stereotypes about blackness; they actively reflect the range of black experience. Fonny is an artist, and Tish’s family celebrates her pregnancy and devotion to Fonny—though Tish’s father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), asks if she’s sure she wants to keep the baby.

Still, it’s clear from the start of the film that the odds are stacked against them. From those Edenic opening frames, we hear Tish’s voice over the darkness: “Of course, I must say I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody … If it is, God’s days have got to be numbered.” These are Baldwin’s words, appearing dozens of pages into the novel, and it is significant that Jenkins begins with them. It’s hard to hear them and not think of our current moment, when America’s apparent greatness is tangled up with its return to a misguided false morality.

In Baldwin’s world, which Jenkins recreates with vivacity and tragedy, a just, benevolent God is absent, replaced by racist police and a corrupt justice system. Fonny is incarcerated for a brutal rape he did not commit, and his Puerto Rican accuser, who was indeed raped by someone, becomes the tool of a white police officer’s vendetta against the black man who dared to defend his bride-to-be after she was sexually harassed at a bodega. Jenkins’s complex, awe-inspiring film challenges us to imagine and fight for a society in which black love, black families, and black lives matter. —Jameela F. Dallis