Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
With stunning performances from two completely genuine young leads, this is a movie people will talk about all year.
It's a great privilege of the gig, yet it's always such an agonizing process. How do you choose just 10 great films each year? And how do you rank them? I went with the ones that most moved me emotionally and wowed me technically, yet there are many more that I considered as the year went along but sadly had to part with ("Cold War," "Thoroughbreds," "Mandy"). So here's what I chose, today:
10. "A Star Is Born"
The year's most satisfying blockbuster. Bradley Cooper's directorial debut pays loving homage to its hugely influential predecessors while at the same time feeling bracingly current and alive. It's glossy and swoony, epic yet intimate, and Cooper's direction brings great energy and authenticity to the crucial concert scenes. A star truly is born in Lady Gaga, who takes the famous role of the talented ingenue and gives it her own unique edge and soul. And she and Cooper have such insane natural chemistry with each that you truly feel as if you're watching them fall in love.
9. "Support the Girls"
This is such a wonderfully sneaky little movie. It seems like an understated slice of life at a Hooters-style sports bar in bland, suburban Texas. But it's actually a primal scream disguised as a shaggy hang. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski takes his low-key approach and applies it with great affection and generosity to the hard-working ladies at Double Whammies. And at the center, he's given Regina Hall the starring role of a lifetime as the waitresses' manager and den mother. Watching her calibrate who she needs to be to tackle each crisis that comes at her all day is a joy and in inspiration.
Good lord, this movie is deeply disturbing. There is imagery in here that will literally never leave your brain—that's how much of an artistic statement writer/director Ari Aster has made with his feature filmmaking debut. Toni Collette is crazy great as a wife and mother coming to grips with the truth of her family history while grieving the loss of her mother. That's what makes "Hereditary" so terrifying: It takes place within a mundane setting during a moment of emotional vulnerability. And the cinematography and sound design work wonders to create a chilling mood.
7. "Eighth Grade"
The bracing honesty at work here is what makes this coming-of-age comedy such a delight, and yet so squirm-inducing. Writer/director Bo Burnham, in his astonishing first feature, truly gets the fact that at this age, even the most benign situations are fraught with peril. We have all been that awkward 13-year-old—trying to figure out who we are, trying to connect with others—and in the starring role, Elsie Fisher doesn't hit a false note. As Fisher's Kayla struggles to survive the last week of middle school (with help from Josh Hamilton, who's great as her fumbling, well-intentioned dad), all you want to do is give her a hug and tell her it's going to be OK.
6. "Sorry to Bother You"
This film is just straight-up nuts, in all the best possible ways. And yet the points it's making about the current state of race relations couldn't more more astute or necessary. Visionary writer/director Boots Riley absolutely goes for it with his exciting and assured feature filmmaking debut, a modern-day fable about a struggling, black telemarketer (Lakeith Stanfield) who discovers the secret to wealth and success when he starts using his "white voice." With its playful, analogue charms, it's constantly changing, challenging and surprising.
I've come to love this movie way more than my three-star review for this website would suggest. It's dug into my skin and stayed with me in ways that few other films have this year, to the extent that I wish I could get a do-over. Luca Guadagnino's brilliantly insane remake of Dario Argento's seminal 1977 horror film grips you with its technical assurance from the very start. It places you on edge with its masterful camerawork and editing and holds you in its spell with the help of Thom Yorke's melancholy score. Dakota Johnson does the best work of her career, and the ever-versatile Tilda Swinton is chilling in multiple roles.
4. "First Reformed"
Paul Schrader revisits some of his biggest influences and most famous iconography in this quietly suspenseful tale of a country priest who's slowly losing his grip, and it's his best film in years. There's a lot of Travis Bickle in Ethan Hawke's tormented Reverend Toller, and yet "First Reformed" asserts itself as a work of great contemporary relevance. It's technically and tonally precise in its austerity, yet it's also daring and thrilling narratively. Hawke has done so much interesting work in recent years as he's reached middle age, but this is the pinnacle of his lengthy and eclectic career.
Korean director Lee Chang-dong's film is a mesmerizing masterpiece. It's the kind of movie that leaves you staggering from the theater in a daze, its spell is so powerful, and yet you'll also want to talk about it immediately afterward to hash through all its complex themes and possibilities. It's a film of Hitchcockian suspense that's rooted in a vivid sense of place in both its urban and rural settings. Lee draws subtle and deceptively powerful performances from his three stars—Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon and Steven Yeun —and keeps you guessing with dreamy cinematography and an unsettling score.
A very close No. 2 for me. Alfonso Cuarón's personal and intimate depiction of his childhood in 1970s Mexico City is visually dazzling and emotionally resonant. Serving as his own cinematographer, Cuarón shoots in exquisite black and white and lures us into this insular world with his signature, long tracking shots. He creates a rich sense of place and punctuates it with surreal, Felliniesque touches. And Yalitza Aparicio is a massive discovery as the family housekeeper at the film's center; in just her first film role, she will inspire you and leave you sobbing.
1. "The Favourite"
I love the contradictions here: This looks like a genteel, British period drama, yet it couldn't be weirder or wilder. You could say this is the most accessible film yet from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos ("Dogtooth," "The Lobster"), but it retains so much of what makes his work so singular and unsettling. "The Favourite" features towering performances from Olivia Colman as a mercurial and childlike Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the conniving women competing to be her confidante. The costumes are lush and the camerawork is vibrant, and while the overall tone is deliciously mean, there's also an undercurrent of sympathy that makes the film unexpectedly moving.
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