It seemed for a time that 2018 would not be a stellar year for film – even the best movies were lacking in some regard. (Why did the story go in THAT direction? Didn’t anyone spot that gaping plot hole? Can you please just stop moving the camera for a minute?) And as popcorn movies become increasingly tiresome (leaving us waiting for the next sequel to kind of wrap things up), you just want something you haven’t seen before on a movie screen, to feel encouraged about the medium.
But happily, by the end of the year, there were enough films to fill a 10 Best List and still leave several spilling over. Despite any imperfections (and with #1 being the least imperfect), these films were inspiring for taking us to new places, in new ways, with a personal touch that only could have come from confident filmmakers eager to share their vision. Thanks to them!
There aren’t many comedies in which characters are routinely rounded up to be executed or shipped to a gulag. Nor is a pistol to the head necessarily cause for a stifled guffaw. But then, any comedy set in the Soviet Union in 1953, under the oppressive regime of a dictator, could be forgiven for looking darkly upon the human condition.
Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (the creator of “Veep” and the director and co-writer of “In the Loop”), “The Death of Stalin” is a hilarious take on when fear becomes the driving force behind society, as the passing of Joseph Stalin leads to in-fighting, backstabbing and paranoia among cabinet members over control of the very bloody apparatus used to maintain one’s own position.
Comedy this black is notoriously difficult to pull off effectively while maintaining something akin to empathy for your characters. “The Death of Stalin” does this exceedingly well, with dialogue that is razor-sharp and performances that deftly tread the fine line between humor and horror. Best among the year’s best ensemble is Simon Russell Beale, known for his Shakespearean roles on stage, who as head of the secret police is wonderfully ruthless, cajoling, caustic, and coolly inhumane. Richard III himself would be impressed.
Watch a clip: Stalin’s house staff is cleansed …
2. “Leave No Trace”
Director Debra Granik, who scored with her 2010 film “Winter’s Bone” (which introduced Jennifer Lawrence), helms this engrossing story of a traumatized veteran, Will (Ben Foster), who escapes the suffocating grasp of society, and his own PTSD, by hiding out in the Oregon woods with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). He instructs her in survival skills and how to exist off the grid, in effect teaching her not to trust the assistance of other people – be they social workers, VA staff, or charities and churches seeking to help them.
It is a tragedy that Will cannot bring himself to connect with a humanity that is welcoming of him, but it’s an even greater tragedy that he seems intent on pulling his daughter down with him. Their loving bond, while extremely close, is also self-destructive, inviting a split if Tom is to have anything resembling a “normal” childhood.
Granik’s gentle handling of the material and her cast is masterful, while immersing us in a lush Pacific Northwest environment that appears as a safe haven for those living on the fringes, until it isn’t.
Watch a clip: Tom introduces her dad to a beehive …
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth,” “The Lobster”) has in the past pursued stories with a decidedly absurdist bent. Here he concocts a ravishing period piece in which an early 18th century British monarch engages in a pas de trois with two ambitious courtiers. It’s a cruelly funny comedy that traces the bond between women struggling to have and to hold power.
The acting is top-notch. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is needy, fiery and gluttonous, and her foul humors leave her with few allies. Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah, the backstop for the monarch (and who may or may not have the best interests of state in mind), engages in a dominant-submissive relationship where the power dynamics are constantly challenged. Her control (of Anne and of her own emotions) is threatened by Abigail (Emma Stone, making guile ever so appealing), and to lose control is for Sarah a fatal flaw. Weisz plays this game of marking and protecting territory spectacularly.
Oh, and there is also gambling on duck races, because men have to do something.
Watch a clip: Lady Sarah (Weisz) and Abigail (Stone) duel, after a fashion …
4. “You Were Never Really Here”
Joaquin Phoenix, who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, is stellar in this enthralling psychological study as Joe, a man whose specialty is performing the dirty work of a private detective agency, often with a hammer. When he is tasked with helping find the teenage daughter of a politician who has been kidnapped by a sex-trafficking ring, Joe becomes, like Travis Bickle, an avenging angel who will save Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from her fate. But the trail of violence that follows Joe upon his discovery of the girl suggests that there are powerful people who really don’t want Nina found.
Writer-director Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) presents the story with both a haunting distance (Joe’s bloody progression through the brothel where Nina is held is captured by closed-circuit security cameras) and dream-like reveries (signifying Joe’s traumatic struggles with death and loss). The film transcends the conventions of pulp thrillers (such as when Joe gently cradles one character, an attempted assassin, who is bleeding to death), which it appears, on its cool surface, to emulate.
Supporting the film is a wonderfully moody score by Jonny Greenwood (“Phantom Thread”) that, like Phoenix’s stare, gets under your skin.
It would be hard to match the authenticity of director Chloé Zhao’s contemporary western about a young rodeo rider recovering from a near-fatal accident, given that the movie so expertly captures the life of its protagonist, rodeo rider Brady Jandreau, who plays a version of himself with uncommon ease.
When Brady was thrown off his horse at a competition in 2016, crushing his skull and putting him into a coma, his dreams of rodeo stardom seemed to have come to an end. But not being able to ride – doctors said he would risk his life doing so – was a death sentence of another order for the Lakota cowboy. He felt as useless as a horse with a broken leg.
His struggle to find a new purpose while still fulfilling the mythic life of a cowboy, and of accessing the unique bond with horses that he exhibited from an early age, became the heart of Zhao’s semi-biographical film, which has the dual qualities of being both highly intimate and panoramic – making the lone figure on the prairie as riveting as the South Dakota landscape he inhabits. Brady’s performance may be hard to critique, being a version of himself, but there isn’t a false note in sight. And when he communes with a horse, we see a magic beyond acting.
Watch a clip: How one should interact with a horse …
In the summer of 1992, 18-year-old Sandi Tan, and her friends Sophie and Jasmine, shot Singapore’s first indie film, a road movie about a young woman acting as an Angel of Death and accruing an assortment of companions along her way. Helping them was her teacher, an older, married man named Georges who served as a Svengali to the budding filmmakers, transgressed more than one boundary, and then disappeared with the reels of film, essentially destroying the young women’s dreams.
Tan’s insightful documentary reexamines her youthful creative ambitions butting up against the realities of adulthood; her relationship with Georges (and how it compromised her relationships with her peers); her efforts to trace Georges’ whereabouts; and becoming reacquainted with the footage once the film cans are located, among Georges’ personal effects.
It’s a plus that the footage which the teenage Tan shot, unearthed after decades, is a marvel – an arresting, picaresque, candy-colored ode to childlike wonder that makes one pine for the film, and career, that could have been.
In the latest film from director Paweł Pawlikowski (whose last picture, “Ida,” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film), music serves as a way to survive the suffocating effects of Soviet oppression – or as a means of escape.
Set in the years following World War II and lusciously shot in inky black-and-white, the film follows a Polish musical anthropologist and his attraction to a comely young blonde singer. But their relationship, while passionate, is hardly straightforward. The singer, Zula (Joanna Kulig), is flighty, given to drink, and when she explodes on the dance floor, gyrating to Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” she pours herself into the arms of any nearby dance partner. And despite the invitation of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) for her to cross the border out of East Berlin with him, she does not. And so begins a long-distance attachment that transcends politics, musical genres, and their own mismatched temperaments.
Despite a third act that is more muted than this fiery couple would suggest is in their cards, “Cold War” offers a mesmerizing journey that delivers a striking, ultimately tragic lesson: Art and artistic expression may not cure every malady, even a wrongfully chosen love affair, no matter how valiantly pursued.
An only child may be the fulcrum of a nuclear family – the point around which a couple revolves in all their love, disappointment and distrust – and as such is a powerful witness to the failure of a marriage. In actor Paul Dano’s emotionally affecting debut film as a director, fourteen-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) sees his home life destabilized when his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), loses his job, again. Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), a housewife, is left to pick up the pieces as Jerry wallows in drink and self-pity. Going back to work, she salvages a sense of independence by taking part-time jobs. And when Jerry announces that he will be moving out of town for an unknown length of time to help fight a pernicious wildfire, Jeanette aims to wipe her slate clean.
Dano handles this material (based on a 1990 Richard Ford novel) in a crisp, muted fashion, increasing the sense of instability for his characters who cannot predict how their actions will antagonize or threaten the others. Each family member rues the mistakes they’ve made, and continue to make, as they look for some better outcome. Because the film is viewed pretty much through Joe’s eyes, the audience is as unsure as Joe about the hidden meanings of some of the adults’ interactions. But we feel his eagerness to want to help set things right, to reassure his mom, to reconnect with his dad – and we feel his growing resentment when his vision of an orderly universe keeps getting jarred.
Watch a clip: Jeanette recalls her younger days …
How was this story not told before? In the 1970s a black undercover police officer in Colorado, pretending to be a white nationalist, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by currying favor with Grand Wizard David Duke (by phone, of course). He even gets his own KKK ID card!
John David Washington is terrific as the police officer who plucks a plum assignment to get out of a stifling desk job and can’t believe his good luck – or the gullibility of the hate group he’s investigating. He teams up with a Jewish officer (Adam Driver) who can serve as his alias in the flesh, and together they deliver a one-two punch of non-Aryan schadenfreude to racists. (The Klan members, incidentally, celebrate their superiority over blacks and Jews by screening D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” in which the KKK ride in, like the cavalry, to the rescue of white women.)
Spike Lee’s direction is a mixture of pungent social commentary (his asides to today’s political scene include news footage of a neo-Nazi driving a car into counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., last year, killing Heather Heyer), and wide-eyed Can you believe these jokers? humor.
Leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to defy expectations. Having in the past directed a contemporary western (“No Country for Old Men”) and a classic Old West adventure (“True Grit”), they now turn their absurdist sensibilities to an anthology film that takes the spirit of storybook western tales and slightly sets it askew. The film’s six stories, all set in the Old West, have no real connective tissue, but each possesses a peculiar take on western tropes that have been handed down via Hollywood and pulp authors over the past century-plus.
Filmed in the Coen Brothers’ typically meticulous style, the stories are recognizably Coenesque in that fate keeps dealing a surprising hand. Each feels so purely western, thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, production designer Jess Gonchor, and costumer Mary Zophres. They fill the frame with extraordinary images – captured in New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska – that feel plucked from our collective imagination of what the Old West was (or should have been).
The acting, as is par for the course with the Coens’ films, is excellent. Tim Blake Nelson as the singing cowboy is a hoot, while James Franco, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines perfectly fit the period. And while two of the six stories leave one hanging, wanting more, the other four (particularly the tragic “The Girl Who Got Rattled”) are so well done as to balance out any misgivings.
Watch a clip: Why it’s best not to deal Buster Scruggs into a game of cards …