Like 2017, this past year proved to be a rich one for film. Truth be told, there were only four films that I knew for sure were going to make my list, but vying for those other six slots were at least twice as many films.
Looking over my favorite films of the year, I was reminded of the fact that I live in a city in the Midwest that is not Chicago: the first three films on my list—movies that I found quite engaging—were technically released last year in larger markets. Still, they opened in the Twin Cities in 2018, with the third not opening until February, so they go on my list despite their having made many top ten lists for 2017.
Bing Wang’s Mrs. Fang
I saw a number of excellent non-fiction films in 2018, so I feel I should mention two of my favorites that didn’t make my list—Dawson City: Frozen Time and Mrs. Fang. The former is a dense, poetic essay about capitalism, colonialism, and the early years of cinema that suffers only from having so much to say that it’s hard to take it all in at times. It’s not a difficult film, per se, it’s just that the subtitled narration and the visuals prove to be too much to take in at the same time. Mrs. Fang is about dying and family and poverty. Director Bing Wang focuses his camera for long stretches on the blank face of Mrs. Fang as she dies. The film is unsettlingly intimate while somehow remaining distant, which underscores the everydayness of death and how poverty can drain it of the fullness of feeling that goes along with and surrounds it.
Along very different lines, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Granted, I’ll never need to see it again, but I was thrilled watching Ethan Hunt and his crew do the impossible in one exciting set piece after another. And while no fan of Tom Cruise am I, I would be lying if I didn’t admit how impressed I was by the stunts he was clearly doing himself. Since seeing the film, I learned that he flew his own helicopter in those hair-raising helicopter chases. That’s dedication.
I was also impressed with director Steve McQueen’s first foray into genre filmmaking, Widows. That the way McQueen filmed some of the movie’s sequences enriched the movie’s politics gives the film a gravitas and currency that makes it more compelling than I’d anticipated (which is to say nothing of the fact that there even were politics in what is essentially a caper film). It’s definitely worth seeing. Another film that was dazzlingly filmed was Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. I was smitten with how Ramsay used purely filmic means to convey the protagonist Joe’s mental state, abetted as she is by Joaquin Phoenix’s seething performance. Still, the rather sordid story to which all of that artistry was applied frustrated me. I’ll need to see the movie again to get a better sense of my take on it.
One oddball film I saw that received a very short run in the Cities was Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, starring the always wonderful John C. Reilly (who almost single-handedly made Kong: Skull Island actually entertaining) and Joaquin Phoenix. It’s probably the most traditional of the westerns I saw this year, and yet the relatively familiar story unfolds in pleasantly unpredictable ways. It’s a weird movie, and it stuck with me far longer than I’d have thought. (Rutger Hauer, alone, is a mystery beyond my fathoming.)
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Other Side of the Wind, the closest we’ll get to Orson Welles’s long-lost unfinished movie that Welles filmed between 1970 and 1976. It borders on chaotic at times, and its restless editing and roving camera, picking up snatches of dialogue before moving onto something else, occasionally wore me out. Overall, though, I found it engaging. There’s something there in if not its critique of the artist as macho savant then its confrontation with the notion as well as in what appeared to me to be its skepticism of the new cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s as a hopeful alternative to such a figure, at least based on the almost softcore porn footage of the film within the Welles’s film that is, in part, its subject as well as the content of much of Welles’s film itself. Still, my first viewing of the film was troubled enough that I’ll need to see it several more times to really be able to assess it.
So, onto my list. They’re presented in the order that I saw them. They’re not ranked, nor do I intend them to reflect the best movies of the year. I don’t see enough new films to be able to make that claim.
A celebration of workers, small communities, art, and friendship, co-directed by French film legend Agnes Varda and JR, the self-described photograffeur (a photographer/graffiti artist) known for his over-sized outdoor photography installations in which he pastes paper reproductions of pictures on the various surfaces he finds. Throughout Faces Places, Varda and JR travel to small communities across France and get to know the people there, photograph them in what is essentially a traveling photobooth, and paste enormous prints of the photos on the sides of buildings, train cars, and essentially any surface they can. The results are both visually stunning and touching tributes to their subjects—such as the picture of a goat, full-horned, that they paste on the side of a barn when they discover that modern farming techniques tend to remove goats’ horns or Varda’s now half-blind eyes blown up to an enormous size and pasted onto a tanker car. Every time I think of this film, I can’t shake its warmth and generosity of spirit. My favorite scenes include Varda focusing on the wives of the dock workers at Le Havre, culminating in the multi-storied images of the women on the empty shipping containers from their husbands’ jobs, each woman sitting in an opened container right where, in the pictures, their hearts would be; and, with great anticipation of visiting Jean-Luc Godard, when JR half-dances, half-runs as he speeds the elderly Varda in her wheelchair through the Louvre, an homage to the scene from A Band of Outsiders when the “band” jubilantly runs through the museum. And then, Godard proves to be such a pissant. Still, see this wonderful movie.
Call Me by Your Name
Set “somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the opening title declares, Call Me by Your Name is a visually rapturous film—the vibrant Italian light practically another character—about teenage Elio experiencing what seems to be his first serious romantic relationship with his father’s gorgeous graduate assistant, Oliver. The film does an excellent job evoking the swooning heights of young love—Elio can’t arrange to meet and see Oliver often enough, before and after their affair has begun, both men relishing in the joy of discovering each other—and the agonized depths it can go to as when Oliver vanishes at one point, seemingly in the company of a young woman, and Elio tortures himself every moment that Oliver is gone, writing him one anguished letter after another, which would be comic were it not coming from such an emotionally difficult place. Director Luca Guadagnino expertly captures the awkwardness of young love that was, in the past at least, exacerbated when the object of one’s attraction was of the same sex, not least in a halting scene played out around a fountain in which Elio reveals to Oliver his love for him, his declaration so oblique that it’s practically unclear at what point he actually makes it. One of the final scenes of the film, in which Elio’s father delivers a poignant monologue, is pitch perfect and emotionally devastating.
Set in the world of haute couture in 1950s London, Phantom Thread is writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s unflinching look at the self-fashioning of love—both of ourselves and how we fashion others, or at least attempt to. Daniel Day Lewis, in a screen performance that he has declared will be his last, plays renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who falls for waitress Alma Elson, played by Belgian actress Vicky Krieps. Woodcock makes Alma his muse before—in a move that surprises his wary and wily controlling sister Cyril, portrayed by Lesley Manville in a fantastic performance—marrying her. A large pleasure of the film, aside from sheer sensory pleasures of a story taking place in the world of high fashion, is watching the gamesmanship of the three characters as they jockey for control, each keenly aware of when their power is waning, though not so certain about what to do about it. Alma’s final gambit for keeping Reynolds under her sway is as novel as it is kind of crazy. Most of the film’s action is subtly written and played, requiring vigilant watching from the viewer, but that vigilance is rewarded in a film that ranks among the best of Anderson’s already impressive body of work.
The Death of Stalin
Portraying the power struggle among the Soviet elite immediately following Joseph Stalin’s death as a mordant farce is a brilliant conceit, and I can think of no one more up to the task than Veep creator Armando Iannucci, whose 2009 movie In the Loop is one of the funniest political satires that many have never heard of, let alone seen, to say nothing of the more widely acclaimed brilliance of Veep. Iannucci has packed The Death of Stalin with talented comic actors, including Michael Palin as party stalwart Vyacheslav Molotov, who repeatedly readies himself for the execution he expects and even, perhaps, thinks he deserves; Steve Buscemi as a wily, though irascible, Nikita Krushchev; Jeffrey Tambor as the hilariously wishy-washy Georgy Malenkov, who it is assumed by most, as least to his face, will be the one to assume control of the Soviet Union; and in a bracingly funny performance, Simon Russell Beale, as the savage and calculating Lavrentiy Beria. As with any great farce, the stakes in The Death of Stalin are life and death, something missing from most comedies these days, especially those that supposedly risk darkness. Iannucci’s movie is a poisoned delight.
Don Diego de Zama is tired of living in his backwater colonial post in late eighteenth century South America, longing instead to be transferred to Buenos Aires or, barring that, anywhere rather than where he is. But he soon discovers that the Spanish government is indifferent to his desires, prolonging the agony of his stay with vague refusals that to Zama’s ears sound like promises, though his fear that they’re not, driving him to potentially rash persistence, eventually proves true. He can’t even bed the woman he has been assiduously courting, discovering that her protestations that she is not that kind of woman doesn’t extend to the affair she has been having with another gentleman. In one last desperate attempt to escape, Zama volunteers to join a group of men who set out to capture an outlaw who has been terrorizing the region, in what is essentially a do or die assignment that leads to some of the film’s most memorable sequences. The result is something that is a cross between Waiting for Godot and a fever dream, a surreal satire of colonialism that dramatizes desire endlessly thwarted. Under Lucrecia Martel’s expert direction, the film is an experience that no plot synopsis could ever hope to convey. This is my favorite movie of the year.
A German construction crew is relocated to a river in remote Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric plant that will divert water necessary for the many communities downstream. Crew outcast and dreamer Meinhard, who claims to be a veteran of the French Foreign Legion earning him at least temporary respect from the others, begins visiting a local village, befriending some of the residents there in spite of the fact that he doesn’t speak their language. Meinhard soon discovers that the plant is not something the Bulgarians know about or, unsurprisingly, even want. Director Valeska Griesbach assembles a cast of non-actors who turn in relaxed, natural performances in her low-key appropriation of the Western genre—complete with horse rustling and a nervous evening at the campfire, imagined enemies lurking in the shadows just outside of the fire’s illumination. Western, with its depiction of people warmly reaching across national identities, is a perfect antidote to the brute nationalism that is sweeping Europe and now too the U.S.
Brady Blackburn was a young hopeful of the rodeo circuit in South Dakota—handsome, fearless, talented. But then his career got cut short when he suffered brain damage from a nasty accident riding an unruly bronco. The Rider focuses on Brady’s struggles coping with the new limits placed on him as he tries to figure out his place in a world that for him had once consisted only of the rodeo. Blackburn is ably portrayed by Brady Jandreau, whom director Chloé Zhao met while filming Songs My Brother Taught Me on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and who was at the time a rising star in the rodeo circuit. She decided at the time to make a film centering on Jandreau. Unfortunately, a brain injury sustained while riding a bronco cut his career short, and the story of The Rider changed drastically. The whole film is portrayed by people in Jandreau’s life, including his sister Lilly, who has autism; his father Tim (as Wayne Blackburn); and his friend Lane Scott, another young rodeo star whose career was cut short by a brain injury. Zhao’s beautiful and touching film is an(other) update of the western genre that gains depth in its interplay of what’s real and what’s fictional. This is a close second for my favorite movie of the year.
Sorry to Bother You
At first, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You looks likes its going to be a funny satire about how African Americans have to “be white” to succeed in America, as it tells the story of Cash Green, who, hard up for gainful employment, finds himself working at a telemarketing firm where he discovers that the only way for him to succeed at the company is to adopt a “white voice”—in his case the dubbed voice of David Cross, creating an odd, funny effect as we see actor Lakeith Stanfield’s mouth moving and hear Cross’s voice. Though Sorry to Bother You is certainly what it appears to be, it becomes so much more as Cash continues moving up the corporate ladder and it is revealed to him what his company’s master plan really is. To be honest, the movie kind of flies off the rails in this last plot twist, but it is also in it that the movie finds some of its most memorable imagery and cutting satire.
Alphonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film gets its title from the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City that, once a place for the well-heeled, by the early 1970s, when this film is set, has seen better days, not unlike the family around whom the film is centered who lives there. Roma tells the episodic story of Cleo, a young maid who soon finds herself pregnant after a fling with the handsome, though immature and threatening, Fermín, and the family for whom she works, which comes undone after the father abandons them. Filmed in beautiful black and white, Roma is shot through with cinematic poetry that reminded me of the best of Fellini—from the wonderfully exciting scene of two of the sons racing down the streets of Mexico City to see Marooned (the seed for Cuarón’s Gravity?) to the beautiful glow emanating behind the hills near a family ranch that turns out to be fire to the violent chaos of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre that sweeps through Cleo’s life to the breathless scene in which Cleo struggles with the undertow of a surging surf as she tries to rescue her charges from drowning. Roma continues and expands upon the narrative strategy Cuarón employed in Y Tu Mama Tambien—tellling a personal story that in its unfolding reveals larger political concerns. I’ve heard from some that this is a slow movie in which not much happens, but I disagree. For the patient viewer, there is much here.
If Beale Street Could Talk
For his follow-up to 2016’s Oscar winning Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has adapted James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Surprisingly, it is the first of Baldwin’s novels to have been turned into a film. As with last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, If Beale Street … reveals Baldwin’s lasting significance. Though writing about conditions against which African Americans struggled in the 1970s, especially when caught up in the legal system, which was skewed to catch them up, this story could, unfortunately, be speaking about today. Still, for all its sobering insights—some of its best scenes have a raw honesty and vulnerability—the heart of the movie celebrates the love between Tish and Fonny and among those family members who rally around the young couple when Tish reveals she is pregnant shortly after Fonny has been arrested on trumped up rape charges. In fact, in an interview when his novel was released, Baldwin said of his work in general, “Every poet is an optimist,” but on the way to that optimism “you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all,” an excellent description of Jenkins’ film which has great beauty and celebrates the love of the young couple without downplaying the difficult conditions of their life that almost seem designed to keep them apart.