3 months ago
December is the month of movie lists. Ten Best this. Ten Greatest that.
And, as usual, the rankings have proceeded along two parallel tracks.
The top critics’ groups and film sites—like the New York Film Critics Circle, which I belong to, and IndieWire.com, which I contributed to—have heralded the challenging pleasures of fine art like Roma, First Reformed, and The Favourite.
The more “mainstream” (read: industry-friendly) organizations like the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes have gone gaga for more populist fare, like A Star Is Born, Mary Poppins Returns and Black Panther.
Occasionally, a great film, like the haunting If Beale Street Could Talk and the deeply felt Eighth Grade, will manage to make both lists.
But far more common are the terrific movies that don’t make either. Very good movies that for whatever reason—a tiny release, a penny-pinching publicity campaign—never got the attention they deserved.
Are these the best films of the year? Well, they’re guaranteed to be the best films you probably never saw in theaters—a more-than-deserving, if decidedly unlucky 13, most of which you can now catch up with on DVD or through streaming services.
It is the best-selling live gospel album ever, and one of Aretha Franklin’s finest, period. Sydney Pollack’s 1972 doc recorded her over two nights in an L.A. church before a spirited crowd (with the Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in attendance in a back row). A piece of cultural history, long hidden from the public because of legal issues, this film got a few rare screenings this year, and finally landed a distributor. A treasure worth searching out.
Imagine a grim, violent spaghetti Western, with a stoic hero roaming the land and hunting down the foreign villains wiping out his people. Now transplant that narrative to 19th-century Ireland, in the worst year of the Great Hunger, and you have director Lancy Daly’s powerful vigilante drama, with James Frechevile as a Celt determined to bring Britain itself to justice. Powerful, thrilling and uncompromisingly authentic.
Breakout Hamilton star Daveed Diggs co-wrote and co-stars in this lively drama set in rapidly gentrifying Oakland, Calif., where two lifelong friends—one black, one white—find their lives drifting apart in a rapidly dividing world. Marked by wild comedy, daring rap, and a clear-eyed, open-hearted view of class and culture in America, Carlos López Estrada’s film is that rare one that teaches without preaching.
Spanish director Isabelle Coixet is a consistently terrific, constantly underappreciated specialist in literary films, and this one was a particular delight. Based on the eponymous Penelope Fitzgerald novel and set in the pre-Beatle ’60s, it stars Emily Mortimer as a plucky bookseller in a small-minded English town, and the great Bill Nighy as the recluse who becomes her unexpected benefactor. Bittersweet and absolutely charming.
You would expect a film about the infamous 1969 car crash to be as polemical as everything else these days, strident and unforgiving. John Curran’s movie, however, takes a more nuanced view, acknowledging Ted Kennedy’s immediate, very human panic without forgiving his cowardice, while restoring a well-rounded humanity to victim Mary Jo Kopechne. A thoughtful drama, deftly acted by Jason Clarke and Kate Mara.
Suspended from active duty, relegated to answering 911 calls, a dour and disgraced cop picks up the phone—and hears a frantic plea from an abducted woman, in a car she can’t describe, on a highway she doesn’t know. How can he save her? This first film from Danish director Gustav Moller is a master class in tension, unfolding in real time as star Jakob Cedergren frantically races to rescue an unseen life.
Hearts Beat Loud
Clueless dads, testy teens, the hipsters of the new Brooklyn—this isn’t a film that lacks for easy targets. Yet instead of taking the lazy way out, filmmaker Brett Haley works hard to create a truly compassionate comedy, with a warmly welcoming Nick Offerman and spunky Kiersey Clemons making music together, literally, as parent and kid. Add in Toni Collette and some great songs and you have a low-key charmer.
Leave No Trace
Debra Granik has given us stark small-town stories (Down to the Bone) and grim rural dramas (Winter’s Bone). Now she goes off the grid entirely, in this tale of a veteran with PTSD, his devoted teenage daughter, and their struggle to reconcile his need to wander with her hunger for home. Ben Foster is perfectly, uncharacteristically contained as the vet, but it’s young Thomasin McKenzie who owns this.
Love After Love
The little press this movie got obsessed over the fact that Andie MacDowell, now age 60, had a nude scene in it—and yes, she does, and yes, she looks great. But barely remarked upon was how smart Russell Harbaugh’s film is, or how unflinchingly it confronts awkward issues like illness, grief, and the sometimes simmering resentments of adult children. MacDowell’s audacity is only a small part of this picture’s bravery.
Under the Tree
Life in this upper-class Reykjavik suburb is polite, peaceful, practically perfect—or would be if that couple would agree to do some landscaping. Or that neighbor would control her dog. Or if anyone communicated. But because no one in Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s film ever does any of these, annoyances soon escalate into all-out, murderous war. A pitch-black comedy (and not one for easily shocked pet lovers).
Director Steven Soderbergh likes devising challenges for himself, and this one—shoot a Hitchcockian thriller on a cell phone—certainly seemed daunting. But he came through brilliantly, with a locked-in-a-madhouse movie that flirts with (but never succumbs to) the preposterous. The biggest shock? Claire Foy’s performance even outdoes her work in this year’s First Man and Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Paul Dano has long been a pale and slightly haunting presence in movies. Here, for the first time, he goes behind the camera for this Richard Ford story, which Dano also adapted with long-time partner Zoe Kazan. A carefully observed drama, it’s particularly clear-eyed about the family dynamics among father, mother, and teenage son—and features an even-more-stunning-than-usual performance from Carey Mulligan.
You Were Never Really Here
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay surprises with this, her most accessible and disturbing tale yet, with Joaquin Phoenix as an abuse survivor who now rescues kidnapped and exploited children. Armed only with a hammer and an endless supply of icy rage, he stalks New York City like a kinder, but no gentler, Travis Bickle, an avenger who’s almost as damaged as the monsters he hunts. Is he the story’s hero, or just another one of its villains? That’s for you to try to decide.