This year, from my vantage point, has provided some of the most inspiring and poignant films in recent memory. From documentaries punctuating the fact that truth is many times stranger than fiction and stories that give us hope to narrative features integrating politics, the environment, religion and accentuating the need for identity, it’s been a remarkable year.
As I began to compile my “best of” list, I had more than 30 films so I created 2 categories: Best Feature Film and Best Documentaries. It seemed only fair. But even separating them into categories didn’t help as much as I had wanted. Many of my choices which didn’t make it, toggled back and forth between the top ten slots and as my film critic partner Chuck Koplinski says, “Tied for 11th place.” The “winners” who made it into my top 10 were the films that in addition to being a great story told well (as Robert Redford always says), these are films which moved me the most and still evoke an emotional response even after viewing it more than once. All of my “tied for 11th place” choices are great movies with amazing performances and outstanding cinematography, but the final decision weighed upon the lasting effects of the film.
BEST FEATURE FILMS
10. WHAT THEY HAD: Elizabeth Chomko’s writing and directorial debut depicts a family’s struggle with “doing what’s best” or Ruth (Blythe Danner) whose dementia is worsening. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon create a realistic sibling relationship as they attempt and frequently fail at agreeing on Mom’s care and Robert Forster gives us a remarkably memorable performance as Ruth’s husband.
9. PUZZLE: Polly Mann and Oren Moverman recreate the Argentinian story of Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) whose insulated life as a mother and wife is awakened as she discovers a world outside of her own. Mark Turtletaub directs this deeply layered story with religious elements and parallels that pushes the boundaries of storytelling.
8. CAPERNAUM: Taking place in Lebanon, a streetwise kid is suing his parents for neglect. The film takes us on his harrowing journey that landed him behind bars and in the situation at hand. Nadine Labaki directs young Zain Al Rafeea who gives a soulful performance that haunts you long after the credits roll.
7. ROMA: Alfonso Cuaron pays homage to the strong women in his life, his mother, grandmother, and a live-in servant, in this sometimes surreal and always poignant memoir. Cuaron finds a way to reinvent filmmaking with “Roma” as he finds and showcases the extraordinary talents of newcomer Yalitza Aparicio.
6. THE GUILTY: Gustov Moller writes and directs this one-man show taking place in a single room, but thanks to succinct and descriptive writing, your mind takes you to several location as you insert the various characters into the film. Jakob Cedergren creates the role of Ashgar, a dispatch police officer who receives a call from a kidnapped woman. His own baggage finds its way into the unfolding and incredibly tense story that has you on the edge of your seat, unable to predict the upcoming twists and turns.
5. AMERICAN ANIMALS: Unique storytelling techinques find their way into this film as Bart Layton recreates a Lexington, KY Transylvania University library heist. Editing is key in this strange yet true story and Layton is a master as we watch these character spiral slowly downward. Inserting interviews with the actual characters elevates the incredible story to make this one of the most entertaining and unusual films of the year.
4. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?: The world seems to provide many strange stories for filmmakers to bring to the masses and Nicole Holefcener has found Lee Israel, a writer who’s hit rock bottom and finds she is quite talented in the art of forgery. Marielle Heller directs Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as unlikely friends and business partners, each attempting to find meaning in their lives. McCarthy is able to show us her dramatic talents in this complex and beautiful role while Grant uses his authenticity and style to give balance and provide levity and love in this heartfelt story.
3. MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS: Josie Rourke directs Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie who portray royal sisters, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, respectively. Rourke brings history to life as we gain insight and understanding to a story of greed, power, and love all effected by religion and gender. Ronan and Robbie are extraordinary as we learn about the centuries-old story of sisterly rivalry.
2. FIRST REFORMED: Paul Schrader writes and directs Ethan Hawke as a pastor wrestling his inner demons and understanding of life, religion, politics, and the doomed environment. It’s an exquisite and eloquent story of hope versus despair pushing your intellectual and emotional breaking point to its limits. This is, by far, Hawke’s best performance.
- WILDLIFE: Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano write the screenplay while Dano takes the director’s chair to tell the story of a young teen watching and dealing with his parents’ failing marriage. Ed Oxenbould gives an Oscar-worthy performance of a boy who must grow up and understand his circumstances at much too early of an age. Carey Mulligan’s performance is equally complicated and extraordinary as the flawed wife and mother who must find independence. As a viewer, it’s difficult to watch the life-altering decisions, yet the characters are so rich that you immediately understand their every thought. “Wildlife” is a film to watch and dissect each and every scene, learning what drives the characters and how the subtle and nuanced performances convey these emotions.
Watch for an upcoming article for the Top 10 Documentaries of 2018!