10. “Free Solo”
Non-fiction cinema doesn’t get much more thrilling than an up-close view of one possibly crazy man climbing a 3,000-foot rock with no ropes. Ace climber Alex Honnold’s ability to scale El Capitan in Yosemite was a landmark athletic achievement that would be worth watching even if he shot the whole thing with a GoPro mounted to his head, but directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vaserhelyi went way beyond the call of duty. Their cameras dangle alongside Honnold for every suspenseful chapter of his harrowing upward journey, but more than that, they recognize the need to put it in context. Honnold’s determination, which defies even his own ability to explain it, becomes a fascinating window into the ineffable nature of individual drive — and what happens when the line between risk and recklessness is up for debate.
9. “If Beale Street Could Talk”
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” depicts the experiences of a pregnant black teen in Harlem with a cinematic quality that practically reads like a screenplay. It’s no wonder that writer-director Barry Jenkins takes his cues from the source, transforming Baldwin’s evocative vision of young lovers grappling with race and class into a masterful poetic romance as Baldwin envisioned it. Yet Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight” also maintains his own profound, expressionistic aesthetic, with its lush colors and entrancing faces that speak volumes in few words, resulting in a fascinating hybrid experience — a seminal voice of the past merging with one of the present in a mesmerizing burst of creative ingenuity. “Beale Street” is a wondrous tonal balancing act: somber and inspiring, tragic and loaded with wit, it provides an absorbing vision of African-American struggles by hovering inside its characters’ conundrums and inviting viewers into the throes of a psychological rollercoaster.
8. “Madeline’s Madeline”
Writer-director Josephine Decker has shown the potential for mind-bending dives into the subjectivity of troubled people ever since her wild, unclassifiable debut “Butter on the Latch.” But “Madeline’s Madeline” crystallizes the potential of that unique talent, with the mesmerizing tale of a lively teen (Helena Howard, the year’s real star-is-born breakout) whose acting class becomes a template for unleashing her tempestuous emotions until reality and fantasy become indistinguishable. As the movie barrels toward its surreal climax, Decker turns Madeline’s coming-of-age odyssey into a disorienting evocation of what it means to grapple with a world through sheer mental energy. It’s a masterful poem of a movie, at once hypnotic, baffling, and utterly gorgeous — as much the result of a sheer creative determination as it is focused on that very process.
Eight years had passed since Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry,” and his latest effort is proof that it’s always worth the wait. Lee, a precise filmmaker whose patient character studies are among some of the richest in world cinema today, doesn’t need to rush. Combining forces with Haruki Murakami by adapting his short story “Barn Burning,” Lee develops a haunting, beautiful tone poem about working class frustrations, based around the experiences of frustrated wannabe writer Lee (a superb, understated Ah-in Yoo) who thinks he’s found an escape from his loneliness when he encounters Haimi (energetic newcomer Jean Jong Seo), a lively woman from his past with whom he sees romantic possibilities. That situation gets complicated by the arrival of Ben (Steven Yeun, blossoming into a mesmerizing character actor), a wealthy and assertive stranger with an American name who represents everything Lee wants in life. The filmmaker develops a fascinating, allegorical mystery around these circumstances as the drama builds to a shocking confrontation that asks as many questions as it answers. “Burning” is at once a social parable for lower class struggles and an intimate portrait of struggling for companionship and assertiveness in an indifferent world. That’s typical Lee Chang-dong territory, and it’s a thrill to have him back.
6. “Private Life”
One of the greatest New York stories of all time doesn’t require swooning Gershwin music and glorious Manhattan scenery to make its point. Tamara Jenkins’ long-awaited followup to “Savages” is a masterful look at an aging city couple (Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hanh, both never better) hurdling through a string of frustrating attempts to get pregnant until they settle on the prospects of getting their 25-year-old niece (of sorts) to donate her eggs. Newcomer Kayli Carter is astonishing as the soul-searching young woman willing to throw herself into the middle of a complex relationship that she can barely grasp. The scenario is compelling on its own terms, but in the hands of another filmmaker could easily devolve into hackneyed sitcom-ready fluff. Instead, “Private Life” is a wise masterstroke of deadpan storytelling with a melancholic depth, as Jenkins digs into the essence of married life and cosmopolitan daydreaming with an acrobatic balance of wit and soul. These people live in a bubble, but the emotional foundation of their struggle is universal. While “Roma” is one of the great cinematic feats of the year, Netflix’s real achievement is its support of this note-perfect triumph, which has escaped the insular world of the arthouse circuit and found the global audience it deserves.
5. “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 art, 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. No matter what Riley does next, there’s no question that he’s delivered truly original work that will stand the test of time.
4. “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.
3. “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 Khrushchev, 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 peeking 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. This is what Iannucci does best, and yet the movie deepens and elaborates on his talent by taking it to unexpected new heights of absurdity, while providing keen reminders the whole way through that all of this more or less happened. We live in absurd times when powerful people act like babies and screw up the world in the process, but “The Death of Stalin” is proof that it’s always been this way — and that, yes, it could still be a whole lot worse.
Photo by Carlos Somonte
In our jittery smartphone age, “Roma” is the rare movie in no hurry to reveal what it’s about. Alfonso Cuarón’s first project in his native Mexico since “Y Tu Mamá También,” “Roma” has more in common with that movie’s character-based storytelling than any of the bigger productions he’s made since; it also exhibits a mastery unique to his command of the medium. The bittersweet tale of a domestic worker in a middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City in the early ’70s, “Roma” channels Cuarón’s memories of his upbringing into a ravishing, meditative, black-and-white saga that mines its bittersweet story from the inside out. At its center, Cleo (remarkable newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) is a fascinating witness to a world she can’t quite figure out how to place herself within. Some critics may have felt that Cleo’s passive role in her own story made it hard to evaluate her agency as a real character, but that challenge is precisely the point. “Roma” is a remarkable, poetic deep-dive into what it means to feel alienated by an indifferent world, until it arrives at an extraordinary moment that finds those emotions bursting forth. The movie doesn’t exactly arrive at a happy ending, but it proves that catharsis doesn’t always come from tidy solutions.
1. “The Favourite”
Yorgos Lanthimos has come a long way since his “Dogtooth” days, and yet nothing about his naughty surrealist style has been compromised along the way. This twisted black comedy set in the British royal court of the 18th century is a riveting showcase for the holy trifecta of Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, and Olivia Colman in a lesbian love triangle as two women jockey for power and a third enjoys the show. It’s an actor’s showcase, but also a Lanthimos showcase, as he abandons the weight of historical accuracy and instead delivers a hilarious and strange window into desperate behavior that transcends the specificity of its period. Every laugh line of “The Favourite” lands with gusto, as does its inspired slapstick, but it’s carried along by a whiff of melancholy. Lanthimos seems to admire his deranged characters’ determination even as he sets them up for failure. In his ever-expanding universe, we’re all a bunch of rabbits hopping toward pointless destinations, comical and exasperated at the same time. Embodying this worldview better and with greater confidence than ever before, Lanthimos has crafted the ultimate indictment of our greedy, narcissistic times. The world may be falling apart, but Lanthimos at least allows us to recognize its demise as the punchline it deserves to be.