As noted in my documentary list, this list isn’t so much a “top ten” as it is a “notable ten” list of feature films that will richly reward the time you spend with them. If there’s a theme in the movie business this year, it’s that there’s a lot of great films being made, often on remarkably slender budgets, telling stories you haven’t heard before. So if you like blockbusters, those are still being made, but there’s also a lot more to choose from.
At Eternity’s Gate. Vincent Van Gogh was one of a kind, and so is Julian Schnabel’s film about him. Willem Dafoe captures the essential outsiderness of Van Gogh while Schnabel captures the essence of his artistic vision. It’s easy to forget that artists are also people with real lives and real struggles, and certainly Van Gogh had more than his share of the latter. Rupert Friend and Oscar Isaac are outstanding in key roles as Van Gogh’s brother Theo, and his friend Paul Gauguin, respectively.
Blindspotting.What do you do when you see something happen before your very eyes, and yet the official reports of that event tell quite a different story? If you’re a black man on parole and what you saw is a white policeman shooting someone, you might feel your best choices is to clam up in order to not endanger yourself in a lost cause. Such is the dilemma of Collin (Daveed Diggs), who along with his friends is also trying to find his way in a rapidly-gentrifying Oakland. The title of Carlos López Estrada’s film references a psychological term for things people simply do not perceive, and over the course of the film more than one character will be revealed to be suffering from a serious blind spot.
Crazy Rich Asians. John M. Chu’s comedy of manners is funny, insightful, and psychologically astute, offering a sardonic view of life among super rich Chinese from the point of view of an outsider, American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). Resourcefulness and wizardry allowed Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul to create a visually splendid film on a relatively modest budget, while outstanding performances by a standout cast including Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, and Awkwafina make this one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
The Death of Stalin. The time has never been riper for an illuminating comedy about the absurdities of totalitarian culture, and Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin fills the bill admirably. Even if you don’t know that much about the Soviet Union, you can enjoy the antics of an all-star cast including Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, and Jeffrey Tambour who trip all over themselves trying to ignore the obvious and protect themselves and their positions following the event named in the title.
Eighth Grade. There are few things I would rather avoid than reliving my junior high school years, and Bo Burnham’s debut feature Eighth Grade reminds me why—although it’s possible that, thanks to ever-present social media and the attending scrutiny, kids today may have it even worse than we did. Elsie Fisher delivers a remarkable performance as Kayla, who is trying to navigate these difficult years (in a school that seems determined to reinforce kids’ worst instincts) by pretending to be a lot of things she is not, including sophisticated and zit-free.
The Hate U Give. It’s hard to imagine a young actress giving a better performance than Amandla Stenberg does as Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who has learned how to move seamlessly between her mostly poor black neighborhood and the mostly white private high school she attends. She’s doing great with the code switching until she witnesses a tragedy which exposes the fault lines between her two worlds, and she has some serious choices to make. George Tillman, Jr.’s film does draw on current events, but the focus is far more on Starr and her family, and how they make their way in a world that must sometimes looks like one big minefield.
If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins follows up his 2016 film Moonlight with another insightful, stylistically distinctive film, this one adapted from a novel by James Baldwin. Kiki Layne and Stephan James achieve Shakespearean heights as star-crossed young lovers, although in this case their difficulties are not due to their warring families but to institutional racism and a horrific experience suffered by another woman. Beautiful cinematography by James Laxton and a host of strong supporting performance by, among others, Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Aunjaune Ellis, make If Beale Street Could Talk essential viewing.
Leave No Trace. About 11 percent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and yet you seldom see their stories on the big screen. Thanks to Debra Granik, who directed Winter’s Bone in 2010, we now have a sensitive portrait of a veteran (Ben Foster) who’s done a great job of raising his daughter (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) despite suffering from PTSD so severe that he literally can’t stand to be around people for long. The relationship between father and daughter is the heart of the film, and the film’s quiet pace and beautiful cinematography (much of it shot in the forests near Portland, Oregon) perfectly complement the story.
Roma. In this delicate, intimate film, Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t so much recreate his childhood in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City as he reimagines it, resulting in a film that seems at once intensely personal yet viewed from a distance. Although any of several children in the story might be stand-ins for Cuarón, the film’s true focus on one of the family’s indigenous maids, played by newcomer Yalitza Aparacio. It’s a film of moments and small events, beautifully captured in black and white by Cuarón, who also served as cinematographer.
Wildlife. It’s been a good year for first-time directors, and Paul Dano’s Wildlife is no exception. The story, adopted from a novel by Richard Ford, portrays the breakdown of a family from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy (Ed Oxenbould). It’s a beautiful period piece, set in Montana in 1960, but also a critique of a male-dominated social and economic system and of the consequences possible when a capable young wife (Carey Mulligan) has finally reached her limit with regard to her irresponsible husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). | Sarah Boslaugh