It’s that time of year when I talk about my favorite films of the previous year, which as you may remember, is a later time than most film critics because I wait a few weeks for some of the year-end movies to make it to a theater in my neck of the woods. And of course I use the word “favorites” rather than “best,” since there are so many films that I have not had a chance to see, many of whom I’m sure are deserving of recognition. By the way, the longer I do this, the more aware I become of how utterly subjective rankings really are, so I’m not numbering them. On the other hand, I haven’t started putting them in alphabetical order either. What can I say? I’m torn.
Bleak Street (Arturo Ripstein)
Arturo Ripstein is our cinematic Dostoevsky. To be fair, that compliment should be shared with his brilliant screenwriter and spouse Paz Alicia Garciadiego. In this black-and-white masterwork, we enter a spectral night world in which a huge Mexico City slum neighborhood appears as a hellish labyrinth within a cavern of shadows. Two aging prostitutes and beggars (Patricia Reyes Spindola and Nora Velazquez) toil within this world, with no apparent knowledge of—or desire for—anything outside of it. Fate will lead them into the path of twin brother mini-wrestlers, little people who, in a bizarre surrealistic touch, choose to keep their masks on at all times. Bleak Street depicts life in extremis from the inside, not as spectacle, but as the way things are. The story was inspired by a notorious true crime case. I caught this at a festival early in 2017. It apparently had only a limited release in major cities the previous year, and I’ve never seen it on any lists. But the picture is devastating in its irony, horror, black humor, and hard-won compassion. I just couldn’t shake it.
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Daniel Day-Lewis plays an English fashion designer in the 1950s, a pampered and obsessed genius who runs a firm from his London townhouse with the help of his protective sister (Leslie Manville). Into this airtight world comes a young woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps), whom the designer sees as the perfect vehicle for his future creations. But she sees the desperate loneliness in him that he denies, and the method she chooses to break through his defenses is so outrageous that it almost defies belief.
You won’t see a more beautiful film from all of last year than Phantom Thread. The style is high classical, and the picture is visually sumptuous, in accordance with its central focus on beautiful dresses and the needs and desires they express. Anderson skillfully allows the characters to breathe, to speak and listen in natural, unforced ways. In a world striving for perfect form, we sense a strange and hidden disorder. Love, in such a rarefied atmosphere, is a hard thing requiring great courage.
Neruda (Pablo Larraine)
Not a biopic, but a reverie on one episode in the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s life—his flight into exile in 1948, when the government ordered his arrest after outlawing the Communist Party, of which he was a leading figure. Neruda is played masterfully by Luis Gnecco, rotund, impish, yet embodying the mesmerizing quality of the poet who commanded the love of working people. A stroke of genius by Larraine and screenwriter Guillermo Calderon is to have the film narrated by a fictional police inspector, a right-wing zealot played by Gael Garcia Bernal, assigned to capture Neruda. The inspector’s voice-over narration provides a running commentary on the action, which has a delightfully ironic doubling effect. The director’s style is graceful, expansive and inventive. The picture slyly delves into the nature of fiction itself, the mystery of the subject, and the idea that the poet’s life is in fact one of the poet’s creations.
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
We’re not using to seeing German comedies, but to call this film a comedy is to invite misunderstanding. The humorous parts of Toni Erdmann are hilarious, but the intent is to radically question some basic social assumptions. Sandra Hȕller plays Ines, a fiercely driven professional working for a consulting firm in Bucharest, a job that takes up all of her time and attention. She must contend with her divorced crackpot of a father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who invades her life in a dark shaggy wig and false teeth, pretending to be a businessman named Toni Erdmann, and challenging everything she thinks she knows about herself. A conventional comedy would set up the absurd premise and then knock everything down. But here the film gathers insight and dramatic heft rather than just laughs. Ade doesn’t cut corners; she takes us on a complete emotional journey.
The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
James Gray adapts a non-fiction book by David Gran, dramatizing the story of British Army officer and explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). Fawcett is assigned to command an expedition into the jungles of Bolivia, but when he finds evidence of a possible ancient civilization, he becomes obsessed with finding a lost metropolis, which he names Zed, and this obsession will stay with him for the rest of his life, in the process causing him to neglect his duties as a husband, father, and citizen. Rather than portray him as some kind of reckless madman, the film lets us understand how such an obsession could dominate a person of this caliber, who loves his family, but whose passion for discovery becomes an escape valve for energies repressed in society. What I admire about the film, even more than the acting and the impeccable production values, is Gray’s careful balance between heroic and anti-heroic impulses. Instead he achieves a rare portrait of the spiritual aspirations burning within a man of action.
Faces Places (Agnès Varda, JR)
The 89-year-old Agnès Varda, one of the greats of world cinema, teams up with a young photographer and muralist who goes by the initials JR, to celebrate the people in little towns with a film whose more poetic French title is Visages Villages. They travel around rural France in a minivan, going to different villages, getting to know the people, taking their pictures, then blowing the photos up to a huge size and carefully pasting them on local landmarks—walls, buildings, the side of a barn, and so forth. First there’s the simple delight of talking to various ordinary small town folks, and then the even greater pleasure of watching them see their own images displayed in such a big and prominent public way. Faces Places has a strong feeling of community, of generosity, and love for the reality of how people live, and another quality that’s hard to describe—a sort of quiet joy as we witness the gentle unfolding of the film from shot to shot, scene to scene, as an expression of the graceful and natural style of a true artist.
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
This is Mungiu’s most accessible yet most complex work to date. It centers on a respected Romanian surgeon (Adrian Titieni) whose daughter has won a scholarship to Cambridge, conditional upon her passing her final exams. But the day before the test, she suffers an assault, an attempted rape, on the way to school. When she ends up not getting a good enough grade on the test, the doctor is determined to find a way around the system. Mungiu gently guides us into the doctor’s nuanced view of himself and the world. We may not agree with him, but what he does seems completely understandable, and many parents would likely do the same. Which is precisely the beauty of Graduation. It shows how dishonesty is rarely a matter of bad intent, but is instead subtly woven into the fabric of the social order. The film takes us to a lonely place in which a person who is only trying to do good ends up face to face with his shadow.
The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
Six-year-old Moonee, played by an amazing little girl named Brooklynn Prince, runs around playing all day with her friends, largely unsupervised in a tawdry area of cheap motels and strip malls near Disney World in Orlando. They all live in a motel with semi-permanent tenants renting rooms at 38 dollars a day, some of them trying to raise kids while squeaking by on the perilous edge of poverty. Moonee is wild, insolent and disrespectful to all adults, destructive and defiant, a real brat. Her very young single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) is a tattooed, chain smoking, foul-mouthed hustler who survives mainly by theft and prostitution. The long-suffering motel manager (Willem Dafoe) is the only person trying to provide some stability to the kids who live there. Baker doesn’t soft-pedal any of this, which is one reason the movie is so good. It’s truthful without being judgmental, challenging us to try to be the same way.
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)
This is not really a film about the great American novelist and intellectual James Baldwin, but a film about the predicament of African Americans living under oppression, and the problem of white racism in America, as expressed through Baldwin’s writings. Baldwin is, in effect, the author of this film. With a wealth of footage from the civil rights era, including television interviews and other speaking engagements by Baldwin himself, we are presented with a wide-ranging history of the struggle. When we are not hearing Baldwin actually speak, his written words from a variety of sources are being narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, who is not his familiar persona here—he’s low key and utterly concentrated into the voice of Baldwin, with the gravity, subtlety, and piercing intelligence that requires. Even someone familiar with the period will find themselves moved by Baldwin’s incisive critique.
The Post (Steven Spielberg)
What a pleasure it is to see a mainstream American movie directed by someone who clearly loves the style and elements of filmmaking—not just doing it “by the numbers.” That’s how I felt watching this story of the decision by The Washington Post in 1971 to print the Pentagon Papers after The New York Times, which broke the story, had been ordered by a federal court to cease publication. Much of The Post is about process—all the thoughts, conversations, and actions that go into producing a daily newspaper—and Spielberg’s characteristically fluid camera follows all the details with evident joy, whether it’s a newsboy tasked with running an important document across town, or the publisher herself confronting a room full of self-important male board members—the film revels in its own detail. This is largely the story of that publisher, Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, who expertly conveys her journey from hesitancy to emerging strength. The Post celebrates the legacy of a free press challenging executive power, and nothing could be more timely.
And here are the excellent B-sides:
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar)
Their Finest (Lone Scherfig)
Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
The Square (Ruben Őstlund)
mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
Wish ourselves luck.