Burning - South Korean master Lee Chang-dong returns after a eight-year hiatus with this rich adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story. The film is so many things at one. It is a missing-persons mystery along the lines of Antonioni. It is a dark comedy of class warfare. It is a fascinating character study and and existential meditation on what drives someone’s hungers. The central love triangle works as a framework for Chang-dong to explore all of these elements. Steven Yeun is riveting as is Jong-seo Jun and Ah-in Yoo. Burning was a hard film to describe to people so I just called it the year’s best movie.
First Reformed - Paul Schrader knows how to write characters we are unsure about following. Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Toller is a man who feels betrayed by Christianity, his faith fed more by his alcoholism than scripture. When he meets the young widow Marian (Amanda Seyfried), his life gets thrown into upheaval. This allows Schrader to paint a vision of the End Times that stuck with this writer for weeks. Hawke gives his finest performance here and deserves all the awards.
The Favourite - What do you get when visionary director Yorgos Lanthimos decides to make a period pierce in the vain of Barry Lyndon and Jane Austen? You get one of the year’s funniest and nastiest pictures featuring three great performances by females. You also get a picture of ruthless behaviour than moves seamlessly between classes. Olivia Colman is a standout here giving a physical performance that astonishes. Filthy and vicious, The Favourite is a period drama for those who can’t stand period dramas.
Blindspotting - Perhaps the clearest-eyed exploration of race in America since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Carlos Lopez Estrada’s funny, terrifying and deeply moving film follows a parolee, Collin, with three days left of probation. His lifelong friend, a white man, threatens to ruin everything but the cost will all fall on Collin. Daveed Diggs and Rafeal Casal deliver energetic performances. The film explores police shootings in an appropriately angry fashion and the ending, with a monologue delivered in rhyme, is one of the highlights of the year.
Minding the Gap - The best skateboarding film of the year out of three, the others being Mid90s and Skate Kitchen. This documentary is a coming of age tale with a completely fresh point of view. Three friends grow up in Rockford, Illinois, one a budding filmmaker. When Bing Liu returns to catch up with his friends, he discovers they are all united by the abuse they have experienced. That abuse shapes them in different ways and Minding the Gap captures profound moments of self-discovery and admittance.
Hereditary - It is hard to believe that this is Ari Aster’s debut film. He directs with a confidence that marks Hereditary as one of the scariest, unsettling films in recent memory. This is largely due to the central performance from Toni Collette. She gives everything to create a volatile portrait of a woman dealing with grief, regret and shame. The film is at once a family drama and a supernatural frightfest. Hereditary is emotional horror at its finest.
Annihilation - There is a sense of endless creativity flowing throughout Alex Garland’s second feature film. The film is firmly rooted in the sci-fi genre but explores horrors and existential dread in a completely unique way. The visuals, score and performances all help to create an unforgettable experience. Repeat viewings only reveal how much this story has to offer.
Cold War - Rarely has a film been so melancholic and cold and yet so romantic. Pawel Pawlikowski tells the story of two people, drawn madly to each other and yet forced to have an on-again, off-again relationship. Surrounding their passion is music, gorgeous music that fills their lives in each other’s absence. The film is also able to weave in politics in a way that never distracts from the personal story here. Joanna Kulig is mesmerizing a singer Zula.
Roma - Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker but nothing he has done has felt as deeply personal as Roma. His signature filmmaking bravado is all over this but it serves the story in such meaningful ways that it never becomes the focus, like say in Gravity. Casting unknown Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the film’s lead character, was a stroke of mad genius. She creates an incredible portrait of a strong woman who serves as the maid to a middle-class family in 1970’s Mexico City.
You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay’s fractured tale of a tormented assassin-for-hire is an exercise in how much can be done with very little. The film was to feature some intricate violence and yet the budget didn’t allow it. Ramsey uses this to create an impressionistic take on violence. We see the aftermath rather than the action and thus feel the toll it takes on Joe, a phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix. The film is often beautiful, weird and dread-filled all at the same time, creating an unshakable experience.
If Beale Street Could Talk
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Death of Stalin
Isle of Dogs
A Quiet Place
Won't You Be My Neighbor