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- Yalitza Aparicio mesmerizes in Roma.
On the subject of Alfonso Cuarón's magnificent Roma, the reason it resonates so strongly with audiences is the same reason all of his films seem so uncannily familiar and yet so startlingly original the first time we lay eyes on them. Cuarón is taking us on a tour of the human condition. As seen through his humanistic lens, the story of the family and their housemaid in 1970s Mexico City is of a piece with, say, the dystopian vision of Children of Men or the hopes and dreams of A Little Princess. Even Gravity's outer-space life-and-death adventure is not exempt from Cuarón's pessimistic yet compassionate plea for life-affirming solidarity in the face of chaos. Here's a little experiment: Watch Roma with the sound off. You'll discover a marvelous silent movie, with none of the plot nuances missing. It reminded us of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.
A similar spiritual inspiration flows through First Reformed, writer-director Paul Schrader's profound character study of a tormented clergyman (Ethan Hawke, in one of the year's most indelible performances). Schrader, the narrative force behind Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, American Gigolo, Mishima, and The Last Temptation of Christ, never seems to stray very far from the concerns of his cinematic avatars Yasujirô Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. First Reformed is a case in point, an American story with a Scandinavian tilt.
Actor Willem Dafoe portrayed Jesus Christ for writer Schrader and director Martin Scorsese, and now in At Eternity's Gate he tackles another iconic seeker, Vincent van Gogh. A visual and thematic kaleidoscope by artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, the portrait of the legendary but notoriously mixed-up Dutch painter throws in everything but the kitchen sink in visualizing Van Gogh's overheated point of view. Schnabel's excesses suit Van Gogh's ecstatic breakdowns perfectly, and Dafoe further cements his reputation — in the wake of The Florida Project and umpteen other complacency-destroying roles in such films as Platoon, Antichrist, Shadow of the Vampire, and Streets of Fire — as one of the world's foremost portrayers of beautiful losers. The screenplay, by veteran cinéaste Jean-Claude Carrière, Louise Kugelberg, and director Schnabel, is every bit as quirky as Dafoe's impersonation. It bears up to repeated viewings.
- The Death of Stalin is one of the smartest, funniest movies of the year.
As the only film this year to transform the terror of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union into a witty sitcom, The Death of Stalin is unique. Thrill to the antics of Stalin's fellow gremlins in the Kremlin. Cringe at the specter of NKVD torturer-in-chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Guffaw at the bumbling of Khrushchev (scene-stealing Steve Buscemi) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). Howl at Michael Palin's way with chicken-hearted bureaucrats like Molotov. Any resemblance between then and there, and now and here, is undoubtedly intentional in the hands of director Armando Iannucci and his crack team of writers, David Schneider, Peter Fellows, and Ian Martin, adapting a French comic book (!). Watching Scotland native and comic genius Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It) make fun of the world's worst political thugs is an intelligent treat. That's why he's on this list.
Ah, the bad old days! The Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Yorgos Lanthimos' The Favourite take us there and make us laugh. Or rather, make us scratch our heads in wonder at the things we're witnessing. The Coens, with the posthumous help of author Jack London (he wrote the short story on which the Tom Waits episode, "All Gold Canyon," is based), take us deeper into the scruffy weirdness of the Old West than their True Grit ever dared. Lanthimos, meanwhile, gets ideal character acting from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone in order to show just how absurd the 18th-century British Empire was in the court of its monarch, grumpy ditz Queen Anne (Colman). Both films — richly decorated, lit, and photographed, and peopled by large casts of grotesques — somehow make us glad we're safely past all that. Or are we?
Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War may indeed be the most wonderful film of the year, but we're not going to talk about it now, other than to say it makes us want to dig more deeply into contemporary Polish film, of which Pawlikowski (maker of 2013's Ida) is a leading talent. We'll review Cold War when it opens here, Jan. 18.
But enough of this "Top 10" stuff. As previously hinted, this year there were so many good films we needed a Best Movies, Part 2. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
The aforementioned Coogler's Black Panther, for comic book superhero fans who always felt something was missing. Lee Chang-dong's Burning, a treacherous South Korean love triangle drenched in style. Tillman's previously cited The Hate U Give, because it can never be stated enough that Black lives matter. Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, a story for our times, about a father and daughter living off the grid. The aforementioned Green's Monsters and Men, a necessary dramatic gloss on the meaning of Ferguson.
Also: Matthew Heineman's A Private War, the true-ish story of a war correspondent, with actor Rosamund Pike in one of her strongest performances. Chloé Zhao's The Rider, a near-documentary narrative profile of a South Dakota rodeo rider at a turning point. Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters, yet another empathetic Kore-eda portrait of the Japanese people most films don't show us. The previously discussed Sorry to Bother You, this year's trippiest, most scaldingly satirical portrait of African-American life, set in an Oakland one step away from the present. Paul Greengrass' 22 July, a dramatization of a horrendous Norwegian terrorist incident by the veteran political thriller maker who gave us Captain Phillips, United 93, The Bourne Supremacy, and Bloody Sunday. (Burning, A Private War, The Rider, Shoplifters, and Sorry to Bother You were all long-reviewed in this newspaper.)