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What this year lacked in civility and sanity, it made up for in movies. And thank God. Because in the year of “Let’s be legends,” we needed a little bit of anything to hold on to. All ten of these films moved me profoundly. Some of them gave me hope for America, others invited me into foreign-to-me cultures, and one even made me delightfully nauseous. And they each thrill me.
I will never stop thinking about Dee Rees’s Mudbound, a gorgeous, sprawling epic tackling race and class in the Deep South during and after World War II. There’s not a single person involved who doesn’t deserve a standing ovation. Rees’s masterful direction balances romance, terror, merriment, and despair. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography buries us in a sea of rich brown palettes with texture and dimension. Mako Kamitsuna’s editing keeps the pace taut. And every single actor is electric with the energy of a gathering thunderstorm.
For me, Florence Pugh is one of the biggest breakout stars of the year. Here she plays Lady Katherine, a much older man’s wife, who will scheme and even murder her way to freedom, even if that freedom is cursed. Pugh’s cat-and-mouse scenes with newcomer Naomi Ackie almost made me ill (in a good way) with their high tension. Ackie plays lowly maid Anna, who often bears the brunt of Katherine’s whims, and the suspense comes from seeing which one will break first. Directed by William Oldroyd and written by Alice Birch, Lady Macbeth gives us one of our finest screen anti-heroines, one whom you will cheer on one minute, then want to hang the next.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker makes films like they’re journalism. In The Florida Project, he takes us to the seedy motels just outside Disney World, where a little mischievous girl named Moonee lives with her tatted-up and troubled young mother. The film is nearly narrativeless, simply trailing Moonee and her adorably annoying little friends like a contemporary Little Rascals. Their exploits through the motels of the area are surprisingly hilarious, leading up to one big, emotional moment full of magic and insight. The film is pure joy.
Brimstone & Glory
Someone practically begged me to see this in a theater and not at home, and I’m grateful for the pestering, because Brimstone & Glory is an immersive experience of color and sound and emotion, so immediate that my heart literally beat faster as I watched it. It was filmed in the Mexican town famed for making most of the country’s fireworks, and director Viktor Jakovleski drops us right into an annual festival where this community celebrates life by tempting death, shown to us mostly through the eyes of one little boy who is overcoming his fears to carry on his family tradition. Just…wow.
I’ve seen Julia Ducournau’s wonderfully gruesome debut feature five times and can’t wait to see it again. This sister story about a vegetarian girl who suddenly develops cannibalistic urges is fun, funny, thoughtful, and thrilling. Beautifully shot with a score full of pipe organs and strings, it’s a small film that feels huge. Plus, the whole story is one big coming-of-age tale that tackles with rare honesty how terrifying it is for a girl to grow into her own sexuality. Ducournau is a serious talent.
Eliza Hittman’s sophomore feature gives me sweaty palms. In it, teenage guy Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out at the seashore with his meathead friends, trying to bang girls and pickpocket tourists. But Frankie lives a double life, trolling gay dating websites to find elusive intimacy. Hittman captures the energy of summer in a tourist town and that teenage feeling that the world could explode at any minute, but it’s Dickinson’s enigmatic performance that really makes this quiet film sing.
Craig Gillespie’s docudrama/biopic of the notorious figure skater Tonya Harding made me want to write nasty letters to the U.S. Figure Skating Association for treating Harding the way it did. Here, figure skating seems like a stadium sport, where you want to pump your fist with every triple axel. Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harding is empathetic but barbed, shedding new light on this decades-old scandal, asking us to see Harding as flawed but powerful and, above all, human.
This is a Polish vampire mermaid disco musical. OK, that’s not enough to convince you? Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature is also a sister story about the dangers of dreaming outside your station in life and the casual cruelty of the entertainment industry. And the songs are damn catchy. One of the most original and daring indies of the year, it has to be seen to be believed.
Paul Thomas Anderson teamed again with Daniel Day-Lewis is already world-shattering. In Phantom Thread, Anderson pairs this iconic actor’s character, Reynolds Woodcock (a posh British dress designer in the 1950s), with two women who challenge the shit out of his egomania. Actors Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville play Alma and Cyril Woodcock, respectively; the former is an obstinate young woman who demands Reynolds’s attention, the latter Reynolds’s sister, who is the invisible backbone of his company. These are three actors at the top of their games, verbally sparring in beautiful clothes and beautiful places. What’s not to love?
The Bad Batch
Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the most wildly inventive genre filmmakers working today. Her story of a young woman who narrowly escapes cannibalistic, desert-dwelling body builders to avenge her own near-death is at once hilarious and unnerving. Amirpour gets bonus points for casting Keanu Reeves as a silk-robed messiah cult leader with a harem of gun-toting pregnant followers who pass out acid to mellow out the townspeople. Even if the story doesn’t grab you, let yourself relish the audacity of this filmmaker to try something unbelievably new.