What a marvelous movie year! Any film mentioned on this page is far superior to all last year’s awards winners. Below are some very brief comments to add to the general discussion, since even those movies I didn’t personally enjoy are admittedly excellent and well worth watching and talking about. My top eleven and a half (I couldn’t trim it to ten) follow.
The Favorite made me squirm. I greatly admired so much about it: its intelligent pathos, its contrasting of harsh poverty and preposterous extravagance, its sharp but offhand humor. But in the end I was instinctively outraged at yet another deliberate depiction of women set against each other by the exploitative machinations of men. I concede the specific and cultural bona fides, however they don’t excuse either the choice of material or the naïve expectation that I delight in this display of cruelty.
Green Book likewise beautifully presented a questionable tale, one perhaps not quite true but apparently well meant. But it was a master class on how to make a hokey, un-woke white-savior buddy film, and I enjoyed it even while knowing better. That’s on me.
I didn’t particularly enjoy The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers clever compendium of Western-themed essays on death. The story with the chicken literally left me traumatized.
And I was fortunate enough to catch a theatrical showing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker not that long ago, so Annihilation had a high hurdle to leap, and to my surprise it did a pretty decent job of it. Not enough to clear the top, certainly, but the concepts and sensory effects were excellently creepy and disturbing. The confused science and silly ending could have used a little work.
BlacKkKlansman I thought terrifying for the sheer ineptitude and ignorance of its pathetic but dedicated villains, but this movie’s heroes ran a bit bland. I appreciated the spot-on period look and feel, and that finger pointing straight at today. (This movie requires the viewer to block out any natural outrage regarding what’s now known about government infiltration of black organizations.)
I’ve loved Joaquin Phoenix since The Immigrant and I wanted to love You Were Never Really Here but I didn’t see the brilliance, only the blood. I understand about the purity, the character’s own confusion, the depth of pain exploding into violent reality. It’s a small poem, if you like, but not one that speaks to me. In similar fashion, the equally sparse, indeed almost clinical Leave No Trace left me cold, but here I had additional concerns regarding its essential veracity, in so far as that criteria applies to fiction. (See my review here.)
I initially figured The Rider a shoe-in for my year’s best list, but while I still love this movie I’m not sure it isn’t more of a documentary, or anyway something else entirely. It’s an amazing movie, though: a bleak but loving testament to the modern West and rodeo culture.
I consider Eighth Grade this year’s Lady Bird. As with that film, I just don’t get the raves. Imagine it with a twenty-something traditional beauty playing the lead and tell me that doesn’t diminish its power.
Happy as Lazzaro was a delight, with a driving sense of impending tragedy that matched its barren, beautiful setting. I’m not sure yet regarding the introduction of magical realism: it’s a perfect solution but I think it loses its way, or anyway it felt to me as if the present didn’t adequately reflect the past. I was loving the sharp wit of Sorry to Bother You until the horse thing came in and it got too silly. Searching proved an engrossing if unremarkable detective story, with its investigation of the Internet world that’s increasingly our world, but I was a tiny bit disappointed because a final realization from real life.
Black Panther was just outright fun, with a nice moral dilemma to boot. Wakanda Forever! And Crazy Rich Asians was almost as enjoyable as the book(s) – perfectly cast, costumed, and played.
THE TOP ELEVEN AND A HALF
11. Madeline’s Madeline: I started out a little hesitant, stuck with it, and wow! What a kick-ass little film! This little improvisational experiment about a girl involved with an improvisational theater group is not heading in any direction you can rationally foresee, but just trust it and it’ll do right by you.
10. Support The Girls: All about one truly horrible day at a Hooters-type restaurant, this movie is so heartfelt and so real, and so much the welcome antithesis of The Favourite, with a wonderful performance from Regina Hall.
9. Isle of Dogs: The absolute nature of canine devotion versus municipal corruption, with science and junior journalism to the rescue – what more could you ask? I fell hard for Wes Anderson’s stalwart mutts. (No, I’m ignoring all the cultural appropriation stuff. Have you seen those adorable dogs?)
8. If Beale Street Could Talk: Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, this movie shares both the eroding terror of racism and the insistence of steadfast love, with nothing either trite or overblown about it. One part of my mind was thinking: “At least he wasn’t shot outright; what a relief.” In that respect it felt almost quaint.
7. Angels Wear White: The stark tale of two molested schoolgirls and the teenaged motel worker inadvertently caught up in the crime, this movie compels through its virtually unemotional depiction of children calmly going about the business of resolving the horrendous problems adults have landed on them, as if that were the expected and ordinary thing to do. Never mind that Marilyn Monroe statue on the beach, skirt flying up, as usual carrying more than her share of weighty symbolism.
6. The Death of Stalin: Political satire done right, and what a lovely line it walks between insanity and history – or does that line even exist?
5. First Reformed: I did have some issues here. The sparse settings were sometimes the emphasis they meant to be, but at others I found myself thinking: no wonder that man killed himself. Take those plain stoneware mugs: if that woman had brought out brightly colored mugs with funny sayings it would have been more human and more genuinely tragic. And I had reservations regarding the floating spiritual connection as shown, but I’m not sure how else it could have been done. The point is, we must cling to each other in order to cling to life. The point is, that accommodating difference between real and acceptable Christianity.
4. Zama: A tale of an abandoned lesser dignitary on some desolate South American shore. I slogged through it, sweated through its humid, dense, unmoving environment, getting nowhere but taking forever to do it. Now remembering it makes me smile; in fact I feel kindly towards its pathetic, lazily immoral protagonist, and I love the way the movie reminds me of that precious human ability to remain alive.
3.5 I haven’t included documentaries here, but special honorable mention to Shirkers, so special on so many levels. Ultimately this story is about the creative process itself – about the necessarily collaborative nature of making movies, and who gets to control all that inventive power. What could be more important?
3. Shoplifters: How do you make a film about extreme poverty and borderline immorality in a marginalized population, end by cruelly undermining already fragile lives and endangering a tiny child, and somehow end up with a joyful narrative about the triumph of light and love? This movie is an absolute miracle.
2. Roma: Ah, how achingly, outrageously excellent, every frame telling its own complete story, the whole incredible to view. Not that it’s faultless; indeed I have several issues with this film, chiefly its dependence on coincidence and the convenient event, but then perfection is always boring. This love letter to a family maid in 1970s Mexico City is occasionally about a servant, but it’s really any young woman’s story, and it unfairly benefits through choosing the universal over the particular. I was not so much emotionally moved by this film as utterly overwhelmed.
1. The Other Side of the Wind: The late Orson Welles’ story of an aged, legendary director returned to Hollywood to make his comeback film, lovingly assembled according to Welles’ own notes and the forty minutes of film he managed to edit before his death, and with a new score by Michel Legrand, this movie is the ultimate thesis on the exhausting nature of creative genius. (Read my full comments here.) A traditional tragedy still far ahead of its time and thus far from being fully appreciated – I would have worried were it better received than it was – Wind is acerbic, unflinching, unrestrained, and dazzling.
[Please note that I haven’t seen a number of films that might otherwise be part of this discussion, including Burning, The Sisters Brothers, The Tale, First Man, Lean on Pete, Cold War, or Vox Lux. And I deliberately avoided A Star is Born because I’ve had enough of that one. I think there are some deep, important feminist reasons behind that one, but this isn’t the place to unearth them.]
Next post: 2018 in novels.
(ALSO PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special sale this January, about as low as it goes without being free. (It was going to be a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)
Photo credits: Nick Ansell, York Theatre Royal refurbishment – 9 (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Personal Creations Movie review card (CC BY 2.0)