A tie for top film of the year seems like a cheat, but a necessary one. Among the year’s best films below – blockbusters and indie films alike – were two films that achieved greatness for different reasons.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is a deeply personal film, not so much a story as a sliver of his childhood memories told with studied detachment and great artistry. The vistas in Chloe Zhao’s The Rider are staggeringly lovely in their own right, but it’s the small and large moments of Brady Jandreau’s true story that you’ll never forget. You didn’t have to go far to find great films in wide release (Black Panther, Hereditary), in limited release (The Hate U Give, Leave No Trace) or on streaming services (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Shoplifters), all of which I’d include on a longer list. So say goodbye to 2018: an unsettled year for weather, a ridiculous year in politics, but yet another great year at the movies.
There’s a world outside the Mexico City suburb of Roma. We know, because distant airplanes cross the small courtyard that defines the boundaries of Cleo’s domestic story. But for two hours Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Gravity) creates the sense that there is no other world other than this one. Cuaron wrote Roma in homage to his 1970s childhood, in particular to the nanny who helped raise him. Cleo (Yalitza Aparacio, who had never acted before) cares for a family with four children with unwavering self-sacrifice and devotion. The director wrote and shot the black and white film himself, each panoramic scene a carefully composed snapshot of Cleo’s everyday life. Those wide vistas – of martial arts training in the desert, the slums of a rural village, the Corpus Christi massacre in the street – lend the film a detached, silent-observer’s air. Roma is a work of art, a meditation on family, class and culture from a master craftsman.
1. The Rider
A flat-out beautiful film from Beijing-born, U.S-schooled Chloe Zhao, who stumbled on Brady Jandreau while shooting her first film on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Fascinated by Brady’s instinctive horse-training abilities, the director started fashioning a film around him. That was before his 2016 rodeo accident. The end result is an astonishing film about a young man’s identity crisis amidst a withering way of American life. It features a cast of non-actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Brady lives in a trailer with his dad and his sister and makes frequent visits to his friend Lane, a former star of the local rodeo circuit left paralyzed and speechless after an accident. With a metal plate in his skull Brady risks injury and death by riding again: but in this cowboy culture you are nothing if you can’t ride. Innumerable tender moments in this film, between brother and sister, between Brady and Lane, and between man and animal. He may be a novice, but Jandreau is a marvel of restraint, communicating more with his bare-all expression than most actors can do with a page of dialogue. The Rider offers up an authentic and memorable film about one man’s search for his place in the world.
2. Eighth Grade
I squirmed, I giggled, I cried, and – like everyone else who was awed by Elsie Fisher’s effortless performance – I was transported straight back to the acne and angst of eighth grade. Kayla (Fisher) is so desperate for friends and acknowledgement that she barely speaks in the cruel halls of middle school; at night she purges that bottled-up perky persona onto a self-help YouTube channel that no one watches. She finds hope in a friendship with a senior at the high school she’ll be attending next year, only to be faced with a test to her in-crowd readiness in the back seat of a car. Hats off to director Bo Burnham, who never takes the expected route in these conversations. His film plays like a documentary, oozes empathy, and is the most heartfelt coming-of-age film of the year. (Honourable mention: The Hate U Give)
The smartest thriller of the year came courtesy of Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) who co-wrote the story of a group of women left with an enormous debt that has to be repaid after the death of their husbands. The incomparable Viola Davis plans the heist, drawn from plans left by her crooked spouse (Liam Neeson). A superb supporting cast including Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya and Colin Farrell fills out the rich story, which keeps us guessing til the bittersweet ending.
4. A Quiet Place
The novel and terrifying premise of A Quiet Place centres on a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape in which alien creatures react to sound, any sound. That means no noise, no talking, no shoes as the family scavenges for provisions away from home. Dad and mom (real-life marrieds John Krasinski and Emily Blunt) are better prepared than most, having learned sign language to communicate with their deaf daughter (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck), but with three children to protect – plus one on the way – their enforced silence can’t last forever. Acting is top-shelf, and Blunt is flat-out magnificent, even with little dialogue to fall back on. Director, star and co-writer Krasinski doesn’t let a scene go to waste in crafting the stifling tension of the film. A sequel is slated for 2020.
5. Free Solo
There is a lot more than a world-record riding on Alex Honnold’s ascent of the 3,200-foot El Capitan sheer granite monolith at Yosemite National Park, “the centre of the rock-climbing universe”. He climbs it without safety gear, with only the slimmest of finger- and toeholds between glory and death. The film has wide, triumph-of-will appeal but National Geographic Documentary Films, along with directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, also personal drama by documenting Alex’s insecurities and perfectionist tendencies, products of a rigid upbringing without hugs. Death is not so much a risk as an eventuality in the free solo-climbing world. “Everybody who has made free-soloing a big part of their life is dead now,” says a mentor to Alex who has lost 30-40 friends to the sport. The splendid scenes of Alex climbing defy superlatives like jaw-dropping and nail-biting but the risk is terrifying: you can’t help but know you are watching something historic with Free Solo, even if you are peeking between your fingers.
6. A Star Is Born
There was nothing earth-shattering about this third telling of an aging rock star and his relationship with a younger ingenue, but the acting (Sam Elliot, Andrew Dice Clay) and the execution of musical sequences were so seamless as to make A Star Is Born one of the best big-budget offerings of the year. Lady Gaga has earned praise for her stripped-down performance as a crooner on the rise, but it’s actor/first-time director Bradley Cooper who inhabited the booze-soaked skin of a burned-out rock star so completely that even the most ardent Cooperites found his Jackson Maine unbeddable.
Black power and white power face off in Spike Lee’s canny story about Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs police department (John David Washington), who calls up the KKK as a joke one day and ends up infiltrating the Klan. He launches an undercover sting operation, even chatting on the phone with national director David Duke (Topher Grace), though fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is called on to play the white version of Stallworth for face-to-face meetings. It’s the early ‘70s but the film is depressingly prescient: Duke’s political aspirations are in their infancy and seem ridiculous: “America would never elect somebody like David Duke president,” one sergeant laughs. (Forty years later the jokes on us: Duke has a good friend in the oval office.) The film is intercut with footage from Gone with The Wind and 1915’s racist Birth Of A Nation, archival photos and footage of the recent white nationalist rally in Alexandria. This is Lee at his most agile: jumping between horror and humour with deft skill.
8. The Favourite
A twisted period tale from Yorgos Lanthimos, creative genius behind The Lobster, starring Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) as 18th-century Queen Anne, who suffered from chronic illness and lost 17 children. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play the two women who vie for her affection as a means to further themselves at court. Based loosely on true events, the film is interwoven with a modern sensibility and modern language, and is starkly – darkly – hilarious. Meaty roles for all three women, who make the most of it, especially Colman, who is superb as the volatile, vulnerable monarch. What fun it is to see women running roughshod through court and at parliament!
9. Green Book
A largely feel-good movie by Peter Farrelly with standout performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Ali (Moonlight) plays Dr. Don Shirley, a virtuoso pianist who agrees to a performance tour of the still-segregated south, a mere six years after Nat King Cole was attacked by Ku Klux Klansmen while performing in his home state of Alabama. He hires wise-guy Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen) as his driver and security, should things go wrong. And things do. The Negro Motorist Green Book was a real travel guide for African Americans venturing beyond northern cities, a where-to of hotels and diners where they would be welcomed. Shirley deliberately opens himself up to the harassment of the south as a means of expanding southern minds, and widening his own experience. For his part, Tony gets to see life outside the Bronx, and is schooled along the journey on everything from racial stereotypes to how to write the perfect love letter.
This phantasmagoric journey into the heart of darkness was created by Panos Cosmatos, with Nicolas Cage as your guide. Mandy is a midnight madness offering populated by mutant bikers, a maniacal cult leader, and gore par excellence. We meet Red (Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) living a way-off-the-grid existence in a cabin in the woods, pretty solitary until Mandy catches the eye of a charismatic “Jesus freak” (Linus Roache) who decides that he can’t live without her. The kidnapping of Mandy and what follows transforms Red into a vengeful killing machine. Cosmatos creates tension in the little things, and Cage gives his best performance in years. “It didn’t make any sense… there were bikers and gnarly psychos,” Red says, which just about sums up the film. But there’s beauty in the trip, if you don’t mind the violent ride.
@juliecfilm, North Shore News, Voting member, Vancouver Film Critics’ Circle