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The 29 Best Indie Movies of 2018 So Far (Updated)

The fall season is upon us, but there are already many, many cinematic highlights in 2018.

"First Reformed"

“First Reformed”

A24

Yes, we know: It’s early! There are months of new movies around the corner. However, the end of the year is a tricky time to survey the best movies released over the previous 12 months, since there’s often so much to consider. As an alternative, we’ve decided to get a jump on the process and keep you posted as the list keeps growing.

Below, you’ll find our current favorites among the films that have either opened theatrically this year or become available on other platforms (yes, Netflix releases count). We see a lot of movies early, primarily on the festival circuit, but we won’t include them here until they open.

Note: While some films on this list were released by studios, they were initially developed as independent projects. Additionally, we reserve the right to include some films that were produced at studios if they encapsulate an independent sensibility. You’ll never see a Marvel movie on here, but a singular vision with studio backing is fair game.

Want to gripe about our choices or suggest others? Drop us a line at editors@indiewire.com.

1. “First Reformed”

Paul Schrader’s best movie in years stars Ethan Hawke (in one of his finest roles) as an upstate New York priest who faces a crisis of faith as he attempts to help out a pregnant woman and learns of an ecological conspiracy behind his church’s main benefactor. The movie’s taut, suspenseful narrative remains in the confines of its protagonist’s perspective as his grip on reality slowly comes unraveled, leading to a shocking finale that forces its audience to grapple with its potent themes from the inside out. It’s filmmaking of the highest order from an American master finally receiving the appreciation he deserves. —EK (Review)

2. “BlacKkKlansman”

Spike Lee’s best narrative feature since “Inside Man” chronicles the high-stakes gamble of African American detective Ron Stallsworth (an extraordinary John David Washington), who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a racist bigot over the phone (his colleague, played by a smarmy Adam Driver, showed up at rallies to complete the illusion). This fascinating true story becomes a natural platform for Lee to construct a beguiling polemic on our troubled times. From portraitures of black faces shown throughout a Stokely Carmichael speech to the masterful finale that brings the events into our very real modern crisis, “BlacKkKlansman” pulls you into its fiery message with the confidence of a first-rate Spike Lee joint. There’s nothing like it. —EK

3. “Madeline’s Madeline”

One of the boldest and most invigorating American films of the 21st century, Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” is an ecstatically disorienting experience that defines its terms right from the start and then obliterates any trace of traditional film language, achieving a cinematic aphasia that allows Decker to redraw the boundaries between the stories we tell and the people we tell them about. The story of a single mother Regina (the multi-talented Miranda July), her irrepressible teenage daughter Madeline (major newcomer Helena Howard), and the unspecified mental illness that drives a wedge between them when the latter joins an experimental theater troupe, this mesmeric tour de force claws at its premise with incredible precision, using. The result is an experimental movie with the emotional tug of a mainstream hit, a fragmented coming-of-age drama that explores the vast space between Jacques Rivette and Greta Gerwig in order to find something truly new and ineffably of its time. —DE

4. “Support the Girls”

Regina Hall is brilliant in Andrew Bujalski’s touching look at an earnest woman who manages a sleazy Texas breastauraunt where many things go wrong over the course of a single hectic day. Bujalski’s typically subdued, character-based storytelling takes on a new volume of warmth and sensitivity with this striking look at surviving difficult times through unbridled empathy. That might sound cheesy in some circumstances, but Bujalski’s such a wizard when it comes to scripting authentic dialogue that “Support the Girls” may as well be a documentary. Hall’s character juggles each new challenge with a steely resolve that makes her one of Bujalski’s greatest characters, the indefatigable creation of a filmmaker who excels at exploring the nuances of human behavior. —EK

5. “We the Animals”

The surface plot of “We the Animals” is as simple as they come, and it’s not the source of its lyrical power, much like the Justin Torres novel that provided its inspiration. Above all else, director Jeremiah Zagar portrays the experiences of an adolescent boy coming to terms with his dysfunctional family and his emerging sexuality as a swirling cyclone of nostalgia, brutal arguments, and bittersweet pontifications. As Jonah, newcomer Evan Rosado exudes the confusing emotions of a child growing into his otherness, apart from the family unit that surrounds him. Each moment contributes to his developing perceptions of the world — telling glances and a ruminative voiceover transforms the movie into a poetic variation on the coming-of-age formula less fixated on exposition than the haunting beauty of growing up. —EK

6. “Hereditary”

Ari Aster’s first feature is more than just a terrifying movie — though it certainly hits its mark in that regard — because it uses the genre to craft a mesmerizing portrait of the grieving process. Toni Collette delivers some of her best work as a woman reeling from multiple deaths in her family and struggling to address the resentment she feels toward her teenage son (Alex Wolff, also first-rate). Collette’s character produces a number of miniatures that provide a chilling signifier for the encroaching paranoia and doom that dominates each scene, but the most astonishing thing about “Hereditary” is the way it portrays this broken family in such credible terms even as the story careens into outrageous supernatural territory. The final minutes are some of the most riveting you’ll see all year. —EK (Review)

7. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

Fred Rogers didn’t simply define children’s television — he embodied its highest ideals. The soft spoken minister turned away from televangelism to preach universal messages about community and behavior, defining the ethics for multiple generations of viewers. Morgan Neville’s fascinating documentary explains how he pulled it off, while examining the mystery of Rogers’ perennial cheeriness and how much it stands at odds with today’s divisive climate. With a tender, sophisticated tone, Neville fuses the voices of Rogers’ longtime friends and family with an archival assemblage that communes with the spirit of his work. The result is the sense that this genial figure was either ahead of his time or too good for us, period. Either way, it’s essential viewing that brings a sensible voice back to the table right when we need it. —EK (Review)

8. “Sorry to Bother You”

Some movies are so uncompromising in their visions that they create a whole new category. So it goes with writer-director Boots Riley’s zany debut, a sensational racial satire that’s also a broader statement on capitalism as a whole. Lakeith Stanfield is next level as a young telemarketer in Oakland who climbs the ranks of his company after realizing he can make more sales by speaking with a “white accent” (David Cross dubs these lines, of course). That’s just the first act; there’s also experimental performance, street activism, union organizing, and bioengineering. However, that bizarre combination is no hodgepodge of sensibilities; it’s an extension of the same vision that fueled Riley’s music career as the frontman for The Coup. In cinematic terms, the results combine the surrealist eccentricities of Michel Gondry with the polemics of a Spike Lee joint while heeding its own beats. A true original that will stand the test of time. —EK

9. “The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci’s Soviet satire takes the “In the Loop” and “Veep” creator’s scathing tone into “Dr. Strangelove” terrain with a madcap look at scheming despots jockeying to take over the country. Steve Buscemi is brilliant as the scheming Nikita Khruschev, who butts heads with a series of dysfunctional wannabe despots in a comedy of errors as they each scramble for the top spot. Iannucci has always excelled at peaking behind the curtain at political dysfunction, but this exemplar of gallows humor takes his talents to a whole new level — and provides a historical backdrop to much of the governmental chaos dominating the headlines today. —EK (Review)

10. “Eighth Grade”

Okay, Bo Burnham, fess up: you read my middle school diaries…or at least the diaries of the many, many women who confessed that your first-time feature seemed to depict their own experiences on the big screen in a way that’s almost haunting. While there is a specificity to the story Burnham tells — so much of young Kayla’s (breakout Elsie Fisher) journey is about the influence and prevalence of social media in young lives, a wholly modern problem — it never ruins the sense that this coming-of-age tale is daringly universal. Good-hearted, honest, and so real that your heart can’t help but ache for Kayla, for kids everywhere, for kid you, “Eighth Grade” is a gem. —KE

11. “Annihilation

“Annihilation”

Paramount Pictures

Alex Garland’s heady sci-fi thriller wasn’t a theatrical hit, but it deserved attention for following up on “Ex Machina” with another mesmerizing look at the nature of human identity. Once again, Garland crafts a mysterious investigation into the nature of human intelligence, with an ominous atmosphere that suggests complex forces taking place just beyond its characters’ perspectives. The finale, an experimental dance piece that doubles as a fight scene, puts the action showdowns dominating most studio blockbusters to shame. —EK (Review)

12. “Paddington 2”

The latest exploits by the furry city slicker outmatched expectations with a heartfelt adventure about theft and incarceration, mining more universal poignance out of the material than even fans of the children’s books could have anticipated. —EK (Review)

13. “The Rider”

Chloe Zhao’s Cannes-acclaimed tale of a South Dakota bronco rider recovering from an accident is a delicate, understated achievement that manages to present an underrepresented culture while situating it within the context of cowboy iconography that feels definitively American. Following up on “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” the new movie confirms Zhao’s status as one of the most exciting voices working today, and she’s just getting started. —EK (Review)

14. “Minding the Gap”

At one point in “Minding the Gap,” one of the young Chicago skateboarders at the center of Bing Liu’s documentary asks the director which type of filming they’re doing: “The one where I pretend you’re not there, or the other kind?” In fact, it’s both. Liu’s lovely portrait of wayward men stumbling into early adulthood functions both as a snapshot of their tumultuous lives and Liu’s own experience alongside them. Combining first-rate skate video footage with a range of confessional moments, “Minding the Gap” is a warmhearted look at the difficulties of reckoning with the past while attempting to escape its clutches. —EK

15. “A Quiet Place”

John Krasinski’s mostly silent monster movie is a riveting survival story that owes as much to its intricate sound design as the script itself. While the premise (monsters that attack if you make a sound) may be ludicrous on paper, Krasinski tackles with an ambitious eye for visual storytelling; even some of the more ludicrous twists go down easy because nobody wastes time talking things through. Who needs monologues when a single terrified expression does the trick? More studio-produced movies should take such risks; this one was written outside of the system. —EK (Review)

You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix in Lynne Ramsay’s film

“You Were Never Really Here”

Alison Cohen Rosa | Amazon Studios

16. “You Were Never Really Here”

Lynne Ramsay’s existential hit man drama is a poetic look at a broken man (Joaquin Phoenix, never better) who finds some measure of comfort in his gunslinger skills. Soulful hitman stories are an old cliché, but Ramsay’s lyrical style transcends the boundaries of its familiar mold by turning it into a poetry of loneliness and yearning — think “Taxi Driver” by way of Walt Whitman — and deserves to be celebrated alongside the rest of her first-rate work. —EK (Review)

17. “Disobedience”

Sebastián Lelio’s British drama finds two former lovers (Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, in peak form) rekindling their romance under the constraints of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where their relationship is considered taboo. It’s a tender, moving look at forbidden love. —EK (Review)

18. “Zama”

Argentine master Lucrecia Martel tackles her most ambitious subject to date with this eerie and darkly funny look at a Spanish diplomat adrift in Colonialist Latin America. Martel’s movies have always been difficult to parse, and “Zama” is no exception, but as with “The Headless Woman” this movie sympathizes with the state of confusing afflicting its character. This time, however, the stakes are much higher, as the man becomes a metaphor for a region still struggling with its complicated history. —EK (Review)

19. “Isle of Dogs”

The world is trash, and Wes Anderson is currently enjoying the hottest streak of his career. These things, it turns out, are not unrelated. The worse things get, the more fantastical Anderson’s films become; the more fantastical Anderson’s films become, the better their style articulates his underlying sincerity. Disorder fuels his imagination, and the staggeringly well-crafted “Isle of Dogs” is nothing if not Anderson’s most imaginative film to date. —DE (Review)

20. “RBG”

“RBG”

Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a wide-ranging documentary portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsberg that’s as sharp and energetic as the Justice herself. —KE (Review)

21. “Thoroughbreds”

Cory Finley’s delightfully vicious debut is a pitch-black comedy about two rich, white, teenage girls who discover that empathy is the only thing they can’t afford. “American Psycho” meets “Heathers” (in broad strokes, anyway), this twisted chamber piece offers a blistering portrait of privilege gone wild. —DE (Review)

22. “Nancy”

The first thing we learn about Andrea Riseborough’s eponymous character in Christina Choe’s taut feature debut, “Nancy,” is simple: she’s a liar. Yet Choe’s sharp writing and Riseborough’s nervy performance only use that as a jumping-off point to craft a twisted and emotional story that was good enough to pick up the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance, where it premiered. Plus, the film also offers Riseborough the kind of complex leading lady role she’s more than able to fully make her own. Bored, alienated, and at loose ends after the death of her tyrannical mother (Ann Dowd, of course), thirtysomething Nancy happens to catch a local newscast dedicated to exploring the kidnapping of a young girl decades ago, with her still-shattered parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) taking to the airwaves to discuss both the scholarship they’ve put in place in memory of young Brooke and to share an aged-up picture of what Brooke might look like today. She looks like Nancy. You’ll never guess what happens next. —KE (Review)

23. “Lean on Pete”

Andrew Haigh’s third feature is a searching, violently unsentimental coming-of-age drama about all the things we have to offer one another, with a superb Charlie Plummer as a troubled teen who escapes his troubled working class surroundings with the titular horse as the pair flee towards the Canadian border. Set against the indifference of desert shrubbery, the story is propelled by its moral velocity, by the friction it finds between its characters. Each scene is so quietly compelling because Haigh doesn’t focus on cruelty, but helplessness. —DE (Review)

24. “The Tale”

Jennifer Fox’s semi-autobiographical narrative debut, “The Tale,” has been rightly billed as the first great #MeToo movie, but it’s also a deeply personal portrait of a complicated woman, told with an inventive and unique cinematic language. The heartbreaking drama follows Fox’s on-screen surrogate (Laura Dern) as she comes to terms with a decades-old molestation experience; it’s spawned by her mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) discovery of a “story” she wrote when she was 13, documenting her experiences with a pair of older coaches (Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki). A documentarian and journalist in her own right, Fox also uses the film as a clever way to explore memory, and its fallibility; as Fox, Dern struggles to take possession of her own story, even when she’s desperate to rebuke the “victim” label forced on her by loved ones. The film will likely continue to be hailed for its “timely” nature (weirdly, it was filmed almost three years ago), but it’s also a true cinematic achievement. —KE (Review)

25. “Love After Love”

Andie MacDowell gives the performance of her life in Russell Harbaugh’s stunning drama about a family dealing with the way things change after someone dies, and also the ways in which they don’t. Like a traditional melodrama that’s been thoroughly filleted and then pounded flat, “Love After Love” bristles with an honesty that few films about grief have ever found the strength to show. —DE (Review)

“Love After Love”

26. “Foxtrot”

Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s brilliant followup to his debut “Lebanon” takes a seemingly dreary story of loss and crafts a wonderfully unexpected hodgepodge of insights into intergenerational Israeli frustrations. —EK (Review)

27. “A Fantastic Woman”

The other great Sebastián Lelio film from this year, the Oscar winner features first-time actress Daniela Vega in a breakout role in the rare movie about a trans person that — for better or worse — feels of its time, and not at least a half-step behind. —DE (Review)

28. “Who We Are Now”

Not only does Matthew Newton’s scorching character study explore notions of forgiveness and self-worth with surgical precision, it also boasts an extraordinary lead performance from Julianne Nicholson, proving once and for all that the under-appreciated actress is one of the greatest we’ve got. —DE (Review)

29. “Leave No Trace” 

“Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik is drawn to stories about survivors — stories about people who don’t fit into the one that America likes to tell itself, but are no less valuable for that. The taciturn father (played by Ben Foster) at the heart of “Leave No Trace” is no exception. He and his young daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have always lived off the grid in the green sogginess of Portland’s Forest Park, but that all changes when a stray jogger spots the girl and reports her to the authorities. From there, Granik’s latest grows into a tug-of-war between the system and its outliers, resolving into a modest but extraordinarily graceful film about what people need from each other, and the limits of what they can give of themselves. —DE (Review)

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