Top Ten 2005

I feel awkward calling this a “top ten,” with the implication that these are the “best” films of 2005 when, with the exception of Crash, none of these is a “great” film or would necessarily have been considered for listing in some other year. Instead, these are the ten films I most enjoyed, for whatever peculiar, often personal, reason. A number of them I saw at 4 o’clock, so to speak, in an empty theater. Which is another way of saying that un-hyped films I “discover” for myself have an easier time satisfying me than the heavily promoted blockbuster I instinctively, reactively, try to find fault with. (I find I said the same thing last year, but this year, unlike 2004, the films I’ve chosen more clearly justify this disclaimer.) That said, the runaway winner for best picture perhaps deserves even more credit for coming to me in a full, first-run theater.

 

  1. Crash. I liked the characters, the interlocking stories, the comments on race relations (an Andover teacher showed it to his class on Martin Luther King day this year), but best of all – especially for a Hollywood movie – was the moral complexity: every character had good qualities and bad, and just when we’d made up our mind about someone, we had to think again.

 

  1. Travelers and Magicians. When I saw this movie at the Oak St. Cinema, I didn’t know where Bhutan was, let alone that I would be going there this year. The landscapes it revealed were gorgeous, but it was the story that truly captured me. The movie started slow, it contained a fable-within-the-story that gave me pause, but then my body rhythms slowed, my heart opened and I became enchanted. When the film ended I heard a sigh from the audience at the loss of the friends we had been traveling with.

 

  1. Murderball. An altogether remarkable achievement: a movie about quadriplegics in which you see them as characters in the story and don’t feel any pity for them as quadriplegics. I like movies that introduce me to a new world, and although the geography was familiar, this was a new world. It also had the moral complexity of, and a lot more crashes than, my top film.

 

  1. Junebug. This movie (shown on the plane trip to Bhutan) said more about America today than anything else I saw all year. The contrast between the Embeth Davidtz gallery-owner character and Amy Adams as a rural North Carolina self-help newlywed spoke quiet volumes about the Blue-Red divide in our country. Realistic touches abounded, and we had that moral complexity again, in people we could only feel sorry for.
  2. Pride and Prejudice. Enough of moral complexity! – how about one of the all-time great love stories, set in merrie olde England, with the regiment, country balls, a buffoonish clergyman, the vicissitudes of primogeniture, and one of the happiest-ever endings, lit up by the spectacular Keira Knightley. Knowing the story, we could just sit back and enjoy every minute as it came.

 

  1. Sahara. There was more political truth here than in the heavier-handed Syriana and Constant Gardener (well, maybe not more), but that was hardly the point. Once you accepted Penelope Cruz as a WHO doctor working to prevent a plague in West Africa, you were in for a thoroughly delightful ride, with the great Steve Zahn and William H. Macy providing the laughs, Matthew McConaughey, Cruz and Morocco the scenery, and classic rockers the sound track.

 

  1. Me and You and Everyone We Know A deliciously quirky movie, full of hilarious bits, many of which had the added weight of social relevance. Almost all the characters were fun to watch, but writer-director Miranda July was a plain-Jane heartstopper. More evidence that a wonderful movie doesn’t have to cost a lot, it just has to have real people.

 

  1. Grizzly Man. A master of psychological intensity brought us this haunting psychological study of a limited individual with a photogenic and ultimately fatal mania: living with grizzly bears. Werner Herzog expertly mixed Timothy Treadwell’s own footage with postmortem interviews. Slowly it dawned on the viewer that Treadwell was crazy. But that didn’t make the issues the film also raised – mostly about man and nature – go away.

 

  1. Separate Lies. In so many stories, it’s the romance that gets dramatized and we leave the couple on their wedding day. How they will get along thereafter, once the romance has faded, is the harder story, and that’s the genre this film by Julian Fellowes fell into. It will rarely be as uplifting as the romance, but more often it will seem real.

 

  1. Tony Takitani. Matters moved slowly on screen, and not much happened, and the ending was sort of arbitrary. The simple story – of a woman’s clothes-shopping addiction and her husband’s obsession with her – was told in an unusual manner, with the characters’ voices picking up the narrator’s thread. It was different, it was mellow, it was Japanese.

 

Honorable Mentions to Good Night and Good Luck, Saraband, The Squid and the Whale, Layer Cake, Hustle and Flow and, left over from 2004, In Good Company.

 

Biggest Disappointments: Broken Flowers, Kung Fu Hustle, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Syriana, Brokeback Mountain, Walk the Line.

Top Ten 2008

The Oscar nominations this year confirmed what a dismal year the movies had in 2008. Benjamin Button was a horrible bore. Milk and Frost/Nixon were decent films, but nothing to get overly excited about, or want to see a second time. Everybody’s favorite, Slumdog Millionaire, was overbrimming with energy, and the concept was brilliant, but my implausibility detector kept me from ever fully engaging, until the encore, which was a whole different thing. When I saw part of Juno on TV, I said to myself, Now there was a movie!, a movie you wanted to talk to your friends about, a movie with moments you recalled days and months afterward. And that was just my 4th best film of 2007! Nothing this year hit me over the head like No Country for Old Men, or I’m Not There, or Once, or even Gone Baby Gone. So, I’m tempted to skip a Top Ten for this year; but tradition being what it is, I was able to come up with ten films, and ten films only, that I felt comfortable recommending to others. I’ve put them in order, but don’t take that too seriously. None of these are “award-winners,” but all are movies I’m glad I saw.

 

1.Amal. So far as I know, this was never commercially released, but it was my favorite film from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Set in a very real India (not the heightened India of Slumdog), it recounted an O’Henry-like short story about a rickshaw driver who was happier living his simple life than those around him who were chasing a fortune. “Sweet” is a dangerous word to apply to a film, but, unlike some Amy Adams vehicle, there was so much poverty, greed, dishonesty and honest emotion surrounding the driver that his good-spiritedness was both thought-provoking and heartwarming.

 

2.Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The Screenwriters Panel at this year’s SBIFF said that creating characters was more important than plot, and there is no better proof than this Woody Allen movie. Not much happens – certainly nothing important – but the four main characters are all fascinating and beautifully acted. What happens is the evolving relationships among them, and you have to ask the moviegoers with you, Which one did you relate to, or like, or understand? I’m not much on cinematography, but when I think back to all the films on this list, the vivid colors of Barcelona jump out. Bravo Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall!

 

  1. Man on Wire. Climbing Everest or robbing Brinks seems mundane compared to walking on a wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, especially when the whole stunt has to be done surreptitiously. Easily the best of the nine documentaries I saw this year, this film benefited from a wonderfully French supporting cast; and Philippe Petit himself, wirewalker, magician, storyteller, provocateur, made you wonder why it took someone 33 years to make this movie.
  2. The Visitor. The Oscar-nominated performance of Richard Jenkins was perhaps the smallest virtue of this sensitive study of the currently intractable issue of illegal immigration. The Arab son and mother and African girlfriend lit up the screen, captured our hearts, and then broke them in an ending that owed more to real life than the movies.

 

  1. Rachel Getting Married. Here, the Oscar-nominated performance, by Anne Hathaway, was all. Her character was infuriating, insufferable, but you couldn’t turn away, from fear of missing the next transgression. Bill Irwin and Debra Winger were perfectly mismatched parents, quite capable of producing a self-centered monster, as well as her overshadowed and resentful sister. The film was ten minutes overlong, but in all, a field day for the pop psychologist in each of us.

 

  1. The Band’s Visit. Another highlight of the SBIFF (seeing films in a modest setting before they get reviewed helps), this was another sensitive portrayal of a seldom-starring group, Arabs – in this case a Columbia-blue-uniformed group of musicians who found themselves stranded in an Israeli town that wasn’t expecting them. It wasn’t that the band members were presented as heroes, but more that they were shown as a typical cross-section of humanity, just like the rest of us, as they tried to relate for one night to the strangers who, not always willingly, took them in.

 

  1. A Christmas Tale. Quel plaisir to spend 152 minutes with a French family, even one as dysfunctional as this. It took a while to figure out who was who, let alone why, and then part of the fun was deciding whom you liked the most and why. Catherine Deneuve as the mother was a treat for the eye, as usual, but she was topped by Anne Consigny as her daughter. Although life and death were at stake, it was the personal relationships that really mattered. We could only watch from the outside, mesmerized.

 

  1. Frozen River. Who would want to watch a bedraggled single mother, losing her car and her home, helping equally desperate immigrants illegally enter upstate New York in the dead of winter, with a half-blind, lost-her-child Native American as a sidekick? Yet Oscar-worthy Melissa Leo’s performance, nuanced and achingly real, gave richness and color to the empty-of-promise, black-and-white landscape of the frozen river.

 

  1. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. It’s the oldest storyline in cinema – Average Joe thinks he loves bodacious bombshell, not noticing the ‘friend’ who secretly loves him– but when the leads (Michael Cera and Kat Dennings) are endearing, the side characters entertaining and the rock score energizing, it’s still a formula that’s hard to beat. And we always need a New York fix from time to time.

 

  1. Dark Knight. A clever balance between earthbound characters, emotions and acts of violence and the fantastical cartoon razzmatazz made this far more engaging than I expected. Minute-after-minute came a surprise, a new bit of deviltry, another wrinkle to fathom; and it was not just Heath Ledger, but also Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman who deserve credit for their supporting roles.

 

P.S. As usual, movies released in Minnesota (or Santa Barbara) during the year do not coincide with the NY/LA releases that qualify for a given year’s Oscars. The Kite Runner would have further strengthened my Top Ten list for 2007 had I seen it in time. At this point I still have not gotten around to viewing The Reader, Gran Torino, Waltz with Bashir, Wendy and Lucy, Doubt, Revolutionary Road or The Class, to name films receiving 2008 awards that are still current in Minneapolis in mid-February. Maybe they won’t affect the above discussion, but in any case I don’t want their exclusion to imply rejection.

 

Oscar Selections Limiting myself to the Academy’s nominees, I would vote as follows:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor: Sean Penn

Best Actress: Anne Hathaway

Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger

Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz

Best Director: Danny Boyle

 

 

 

Top Ten – 2007

Never, in memory, has my list of favorite films for a year been so usurped by the critics’ choices. There was never a complete synchronicity, as each critic – and I’m talking here about The New York Times, Time Magazine, the Star Tribune, the Associated Press and (Minneapolis) City Pages – favored one or two films that I did not particularly like, namely There Will Be Blood, Ratatouille, Zodiac or even The Bourne Ultimatum. And of course every critic felt compelled to include one or two, usually Eastern European, films that didn’t open, at least not in Minneapolis or Santa Barbara, before January 31. But because my own list will seem so uncontroversial, so borrowed even, I have chosen to adopt the Oscar format and start with the lesser awards.

It has never been clear to me what qualifies a role as “supporting” rather than lead; therefore, I am not distinguishing. I will simply list my favorite performances by an actress and by an actor alphabetically, with the winner in boldface.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

Kate Dickie, Red Road

Market Iglova, Once

Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding

Keri Russell, Waitress

 

Best Actor

Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone

Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men

Michael Cera, Juno/Superbad

Ethan Hawke, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War

 

Best Documentary

No End in Sight

Sicko

 

Best Cinematography

No Country for Old Men

Atonement

 

Best Art Direction

Across the Universe

Sweeney Todd

There Will Be Blood

 

Best Original Screenplay

Juno

 

Best Picture

No Country for Old Men

The Lives of Others

Once

Juno

I’m Not There

Gone Baby Gone

Across the Universe

Superbad

Freedom Writers

2 Days in Paris

 

Honorable Mention: Diggers, Enchanted, Jindabyne, Paris Je T’Aime, Waitress

Biggest Disappointments: Assassination of Jesse James, Away from Her, Bourne Ultimatum, Darjeeling Limited, La Vie en Rose, There Will Be Blood

 

  1. No Country for Old Men. For what it was, this was perfection, and what it was was quite something. Each scene was a stunning set piece, and built momentum to the next. Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin gave Oscar-worthy performances, and other minor characters – e.g., Woody Harrelson – were just as good. Tableau after tableau was worth framing. And, probably because it came from Cormac McCarthy, the story had a depth, plumbing beneath the Coen Brothers’ surface gloss. The movie started in the Old West, limitless spaces and sheriffs on horseback. It ended in Texan suburbia, cramped motorcourts and boys on bicycles. Who gets the money, the driving motif, became unimportant. What was important was left to each viewer to decipher.

 

  1. The Lives of Others. A seriously engrossing film about East German Communism, but more about individual morality. Where do one’s personal responsibilities lie – to the state, a friend, your lover, to art, or to oneself? The set was so confined, this could have been performed on the stage, but the issues were so large they were inescapable, and unforgettable. One would like to hope that man’s humanity to man can trump state oppression and blind ambition, but here the movie does not quite convince.

 

  1. Once. The year’s best romance and best musical. Once Market Iglova fixes you with her soulful Eastern European eyes it’s impossible to hope for anything but the long-term happiness of her and “the guy.” That this doesn’t happen only reinforces the feeling that you’re observing a slice of life, instead of just another movie. But what sets this apart from other guy-meets-girl stories is the music, so real and so integral to the story and, by the second time you hear the songs, so good.

 

  1. I’m Not There. Taking a cue, perhaps, from Dylan’s autobiography, which is half made up, Todd Haynes invents a new biopic form, one that keeps you constantly on your toes – when they aren’t tapping along with some of the greatest music of our generation. There’s Joan Baez! There’s the Beatles! There’s the Jack of Hearts! Who?? Each Dylan avatar had a different sort of appeal, although Richard Gere left me rather cold. Charlotte Gainsbourg grounded the film in reality; Cate Blanchett, on the other hand, was surreal. When the credits rolled and we heard the man himself singing Like A Rolling Stone, I felt I had been present at an art happening, not just a movie. Thanks, Bob.

 

  1. Juno. Best of the year’s “knocked-up” movies, and best of the “funny teen” movies, but both are insufficient praise for a pitch-perfect comedy in which every scene, and every song, was worth a laugh or a tug of the heart-strings. Juno MacDuff was probably not a totally realistic character, but neither was Huck Finn. Every supporting character added to the fabric, and the story built to a surprising and satisfying climax. For a little movie, it survived massive hype.

 

  1. Gone Baby Gone. Like the great Mystic River in so many ways, mainly due to the common source of a Dennis Lehane novel and Ben Affleck’s affinity with his native Boston, Gone Baby Gone throws us into a world of real people then winds us around a plot too twisty to keep up with in one viewing. And like its predecessor, it abounds in moral ambiguity. At the end, you may think our hero made the right decision; or you may follow his girlfriend, Michelle Monaghan, who walks. This, not The Assassination of Jesse James, is Casey Affleck’s coming-out film, and Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan is so natural I didn’t even think of her as an actress.

 

  1. Across the Universe. By placing the songs in a story you cared about, with the different characters supplying their own interpretations, Julie Taymor gave the music of the Beatles a depth and emotional context it never had, for me at least, on record. Moreover, the movie encapsulated the ceaselessly fascinating sociology of my favorite period, from Princeton in the early ‘60s through Greenwich Village in the early ‘70s. Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood were my favorite lovers (cf. Once), and if you didn’t love one song, wait a minute and another goodie was on the way.

 

  1. Superbad. There are laugh-out-loud comedies, and then the rare laugh-on-the-floor ones, and this was the latter, fit to be shown in a festival with Animal House and Airplane. Every joke was high-school dirty, but the innocent, almost sweet, tone never varied. And we knew that all would work out in the end, which allowed us to totally relax and wait for the next smashing bit of puerile humor. I still smile at the vision of the cop solemnly addressing “McLovin,” a name now enshrined in our culture.

 

  1. Freedom Writers. Maybe a drop-off here, to a film that garnered no awards or attention and was released in the dead of January, and had a story that’s been told many times on screen: a naïve, do-good young teacher thrown into an inner-city classroom of dead-enders who blossom into academic success. But I liked all the kids and their individual stories, and I loved Hilary Swank (more than her husband did, in a nicely realistic touch). I felt good coming out of this film, pun intended.

 

  1. 2 Days in Paris. I’m a sucker for relationship films, and for cross-cultural studies, too, and that’s all this little film by, for and of Julie Delpy was. It’s fun to see the French mocked, and when it’s done by the French, it’s okay to laugh. Of course, Americans were treated the same; so I was chuckling, or at least twittering, the whole way through. Better than Ira & Abby, the other “Woody Allen” movie I saw this year, or Paris Je T’Aime, the other ode to Paris.

Top Ten 2020

It was not much of a year for movie-going, and I fear that 2021 will be the same: how any movie can get made in these conditions beats me. I can’t remember the last movie we saw in a theater, and watching them on TV brings them into competition with made-for-television series, which can be longer and more engrossing and are often therefore more memorable.  It seems a bit left-handed to anoint the best movies of the year without acknowledging the TV series that left more of a mark; and because we had watched little TV before the pandemic struck, we folded 2019 (and older) releases* into what we considered current viewing. Before listing movies, therefore, I would acknowledge the TV series that in quality and impact matched anything on the list of movies that follows.

  1. Our Boys*
  2. My Brilliant Friend
  3. The Last Dance
  4. Baghdad Central
  5. Giri/Haji*
  6. Trapped*
  7. Unorthodox
  8. Sanditon*
  9. Flesh and Blood
  10. Das Boot*

Honorable Mention: Roadkill, Queen’s Gambit, Normal People, The Undoing, Money Heist*, Lenox Hill

Mentioning 16 TV series gives me license, or an excuse, to include a similar number of films, which I will further disguise by presenting them in natural pairings, which will make a 1-10 order especially arbitrary (am I ranking them by highest score or combined score?). Here goes…

1. The Mangrove / The Trial of the Chicago 7
It is fitting in this year of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests that my two favorite films showcase police brutality and protest. That both involve real events from 50 years ago only added to their poignancy and relevance. The story of the London police and judiciary bullying West Indian immigrants trying to make their own place in British society packed more emotional power, while the pen of Aaron Sorkin brought his usual razor-sharp wit and intelligence to the motley band of Yippees and idealists who opposed the Vietnam War.

2. Les Miserables* / The Traitor*

These were almost the last two films I saw in a theater, a great start to a truncated year. Both were down-and-dirty looks at the underworld, one the gangs of the banlieues of Paris, the other the Cosa Nostra of Sicily. Both were brutal, physically violent and reminders of how good European cinema can be. “Powerful, engaging and historically informative,” I called The Traitor, which was a true story, and the same goes for Les Miserables, which could have been. The Irishman is the American equivalent of this genre, but that seemed sleeker and faker, perhaps due to the presence of Al Pacino and, especially, Robert De Niro.

3. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart / Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind*

Featuring the music and performances of the respective title characters, both documentaries started on second base. The arc of their stories, largely positive, moved them to third, and the story-telling presence and perspective of Barry Gibb and Gordon Lightfoot themselves brought the movies home. These probably provided my happiest moments in front of a TV screen this year.

4. Nomadland / Never Rarely Sometimes Always

I’m not normally a fan of movies about down-and-out characters in tough situations, but the lead performances of Frances McDormand and Sidney Flanigan were riveting as, respectively, a houseless wanderer and an abortion-seeking teen. Set in the expansive American West, Nomadland had a visual beauty wholly absent from the bus rides, arcades and medical offices of Never Rarely, but in both movies it was the character’s inner determination to resist bad odds that shone brightest.

5. Athlete A / Boys State
I might feel awkward about putting our daughter’s documentary about women’s gymnastics on this list except that other critics listed Collective (#2 for  TIME), which tells a similar story but is not nearly as good a film (not even close). Providing gender balance to Athlete A, Boys State is embedded in its moment, not an after-the-fact report, but in its small way, the insight it provides into American politics today is just as troubling.

6. Just Mercy* / Lost Girls
Two true-life stories of underdogs battling a system that’s stacked against them. The former is predictable but nonetheless heartwarming and on point in the BLM summer. The latter, by contrast, is unresolved, but the saga of the desperate mother, played sensationally by Amy Ryan, is enough. Both movies are beautifully acted by a trio of my favorite actors.

7. Da 5 Bloods / Uncut Gems*

Two high-energy, unexpectedly gripping adventure yarns, with Delroy Lindo and Adam Sandler, respectively, punching at phantoms, getting more and more desperate. One was set in Vietnam, the other on 47th Street; one featured Chadwick Boseman, the other Kevin Garnett. Spike Lee’s film raised issues of friendship, greed, race and Vietnam while the Safdie brothers’ card was a high-intensity style that exhausted and exhilarated.

8. Yes, God, Yes
No Oscar nominations here, but this low-budget quirky comedy tickled my funny bone, attacked a deserving target and was pitch-perfect throughout. It reminded me of a “Spin & Marty” episode updated to the 1970s with computers.

9.-10.

Even though I’ve listed 15 films (and 16 TV series) already, I should note that the Motion Picture Academy has postponed the deadline for 2020 Oscar releases to February 28; and of the 11 movies cited in the Times today for best actor buzz, 6 have yet to be streamed. Just as I have included five 2019 releases on my 2020 list above (indicated by *), I will consider these upcoming films in the year I get to see them – i.e., 2021.

Top Ten 2019

As I get on in my movie-going career, I find that more and more I want to enjoy myself when I go out to see a film (or, less often, stream one at home).  Yes, it’s good to be intellectually challenged or recognize great craftsmanship, and those qualities are both included in selections below; but if something can make me smile for 90-120 minutes, I’m willing to overlook, say, triviality of subject or, perhaps, lack of originality. So, I offer apologies at the outset to Marriage Story, 1917, Little Women, The Irishman and Parasite, for reasons spelled out in my reviews. They were each, undoubtedly, expertly acted and executed, and perfectly fulfilled a director’s admittedly interesting vision. They didn’t grab me, however, and, for different reasons, left me with questions and complaints, not satisfaction. Some of this may be attributable to the advance notice that each of these Oscar nominees had received before I saw them. In any case, I will not contend that the following list comprises the “ten best” movies of 2019. They are just the ten I would most gladly recommend; the ten I enjoyed the most.

1. The Two Popes.  If the meek are to inherit the earth, the Papacy is a good place to start. This movie had a startlingly current subject, two of the best performances of the year, gorgeous visuals and provocative thoughts on faith, theology, politics, history, culture, humanity and probably more. The scenes of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce alone together were, to me, the cinematic highlight of the year.

1A. Never Look Away. (A 2018 release, so not on any lists this year, but not seen in Santa Barbara in time for my 2018 Top Ten.) The best film about an artist I’ve ever seen, plus it’s a searing look at Nazi-era Germany and a charming love story. With six strong performances, the movie kept growing and getting richer over its fly-by three hours.

2. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood.  An amusement-park ride of a movie, a paean to Hollywood filmdom and a loving recasting of a time and place. There was nothing serious here, but each new scene was its own bonbon, and the mastery of Quentin Tarantino was evident in every shot, every song, every performance. Brad Pitt was never better, and LDC fit in with the fun.

3. First Love.   A Japanese gangster-romance that melded classic samurai-movie types with a love affair of two innocents out of their depth. Nothing here might be original in Japan, but it was refreshing and new in New York and I smiled with delight all the way through.

4. Pain and Glory.  Nothing funny here, but painfully soul-bearing and honest. You had to admire and respect the way that Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas  made art out of a dark view of the director’s life.

5. Transit.  A mystery thriller set in a modern-day Nazi occupation that kept you guessing, thinking and feeling, from the German director Christian Petzold, who has made this list with three films in a row.

6. Long Shot/Late NightI’m combining two underrated pleasures, based on the commanding performances of Charlize Theron and Emma Thompson and their goofy humor. The Late Night setup was a tad more realistic, but you didn’t have to buy into the stories to enjoy the side characters and the funny one-liners.

7. The Sound of My VoiceA sweet documentary about Linda Ronstadt that so happens to have all my favorite ’70s California rockers playing and reminiscing alongside. What’s wrong with bathing nostalgia in golden haze?

8. YesterdayLightweight, yes, and as improbable as any sci-fi story, but so goodhearted and filled with such fun music (and I’m not a Beatles fan!), that I could just sit back and enjoy Lily James and Kate McKinnon.

 9. Knives Out.  A devilishly tongue-in-cheek whodunit with scores of clues that ultimately hung together, all the while giving the first-rate cast scenery to chew en route to a happy ending.

10. Ford v. Ferrari.  An old-fashioned, conventional Hollywood drama with good guys, bad guys, personal relationships, car races and a bittersweet ending, all actually based on fact. Plus, Christian Bale is fantastic.

Elsewhere, I have handed out my Oscar selections; unusually, I don’t have to go far outside the official nominees to find my favorites. At this point I also like to make special mention of somewhat-acclaimed movies that I couldn’t stand: The Farewell, Booksmart, Judy and Hustlers.

Top Ten 2018

Just in time for Oscar voting, I list my favorite films of 2018. As I grow older, I find I rate films less on artistic merit or innovation or cultural relevance and more on the questions, Did I enjoy myself and Would I recommend the film to all my friends? Thus, my choices may seem more mainstream than my list of two decades ago, but this also brings me more in line with the Academy and will give me relevant rooting interests come February 24.
That said, my two favorite movies this year both happened to be documentaries, only one of which is up for an Oscar.

  1. The King. Of all the movies I saw, this is the one I would be happiest to watch again. It featured a bunch of interesting musical acts, an acute commentary on our society and, of course, Elvis. It was less a documentary than an essay, like nothing I had ever seen.
  2. Free Solo. Also an unusual documentary, as the filmmakers were an important, and visible, part of the story they told. Alex Honnold was a charming subject, and the footage of his climbing was so gut-gripping I had to look away, even knowing the outcome.
  3. BlacKkKlansman. This had humor, spirit and message in equal doses, with more going on and more interesting characters than any other film, justifying its nominations for Film, Director, Supporting Actor, Score and Editing. I hope it gets something.
  4. Bohemian Rhapsody. Totally unoriginal and perhaps not truthful, but this rendition of the Queen story milked the rock-band story – creation/success/breakup/reunion – to perfection. You felt good not just about Freddie Mercury but for all the supporting characters, as well. And I liked the music.
  5. Green Book. Another “based on a true story” whose accuracy has been questioned, but who cares? It’s the feel-good movie of the year, with comedy leavening the heart-warming story of race relations. Mahershala Ali should win an Oscar, but Viggo Mortenson’s performance was even better.
  6. 8th Grade. An excruciatingly realistic account of a not-popular girl’s rough voyage through that terrible middle school year. Who couldn’t identify with at least some of the scenes and situations, yet Elsie Fisher’s courageous performance kept the experience watchable. (Similar kudos to the less-seen Searching.)
  7. Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Those daffy Coen Brothers added to their legacy with this collection of five offbeat Western short stories, from humorous to tragic, dastardly to noble. You never knew what was coming next, either in the story you were watching or the one to follow. Zoe Kazan was my star.
  8. Juliet, Naked. Off the beaten awards path, this small rom-com starred some of my favorite actors: Chris O’Dowd, Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne. That it centered on an obscure rock star and his music placed it right in my alley.
  9. Black Panther. I felt good watching a blockbuster in which excellent black actors and strong female characters ruled the screen. There was also an uplifting story, visual delights aplenty and lots of African art.
  10. Game Night. A bauble, compared to some of the above, but it had a fun premise, kept me guessing to the end and starred some of my favorites: Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman and Kyle Chandler.

Favorite Foreign Film:

Shoplifters. A casually adroit comment on Japanese society and the concept of family, told in a style that resonated with Japanese cinema of the last 60 years.

The Year’s Worst Films (all of which received favorable notice to some degree from NYTimes critics)
Support the Girls; Vox Pop; A Private War; Death of Stalin; At Eternity’s Gate; Ocean’s 8.
My Oscar Awards (from Academy nominations)
Film: BlacKkKlansman
Director: Spike Lee
Actor: Viggo Mortenson
Actress: Olivia Colman
Supporting Actor: Adam Driver
Supporting Actress: Regina King
Adapted Screenplay: Buster Scruggs
Original Screenplay: Vice
Cinematography: The Favourite
Although I wouldn’t be upset if Oscars went to Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Glenn Close or any of the films also on my list. I have omitted Mahershala Ali and Emma Stone only because I don’t see how their roles can be classified as “supporting,” as I understand that term. They were both co-stars, and quite excellent at that.

Top Ten 2017

In order to accommodate the films I liked, I’ve cleverly divided them into three categories: domestic, foreign and documentary. The bigger issue was weighing movies I enjoyed against movies I admired. For once, my choices and the taste of the award-givers weren’t far apart.
1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Every line of Martin McDonagh’s dialogue is fraught and measured, delivered to perfection by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and an equally adept supporting cast. Like a good Coen Bros. movie it is funny and serious, real and surreal, all at once.
2. LadyBird
The oft-told story of a misfit high school senior is lovingly and sensitively told and portrayed, respectively, by Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan.
3. Detroit
You are there in the 1967 race riot, then in the motel as white policemen terrorize their black suspects. Kathryn Bigelow’s meditation on race (one of three, or maybe five, on this list) is not easy to watch, but masterfully made.
4. Get Out
The racially charged setup – white girl bringing black boyfriend home for the weekend – adds a bit of misdirection to a totally fun horror movie with a wonderful ending.
5. Mudbound
Remarkably balanced parallel stories of a white family and a black family, coping, struggling in 1940s Mississippi. Another hard-to-watch reminder that for many, life is hard, often unfair and a matter of endurance.
6. Wind River
The Indian reservation is topographically, economically and psychologically bleak, but in the snowy depth of winter bleak is beautiful – the most visually stunning movie of the year.
7. The Shape of Water
Masterfully directed by Guillermo del Toro, this fantasy set in 1950s America seemed as real and alive as it was charming.
8. The Post
Spielberg takes no chances and it’s reassuring to see the good guys win; but this is no Spotlight or All the President’s Men.
9. The Big Sick
Every year deserves a feel-good romantic comedy, and the Pakistani connection spiced up this pleasant but predictable confection.
10. Battle of the Sexes
A funny and teary, thoroughly enjoyable battle in which almost everyone is a winner, and love in tennis is not a bad thing.
Documentaries
Of the 15 documentaries listed for Academy consideration, I saw five, none of which made the final short list. I can understand the exclusion of four of them, but not the following, which was my highest-rated movie of the year:
Jane
What was best: the modest and beautiful Jane Goodall, the endlessly fascinating chimps, the story of the amateur woman being accepted and feted by the scientific community, or the quiet love affair between the ethologist and the photographer? All of them were here, beautifully photographed and cleverly edited.
Foreign Film
This is admittedly a hodgepodge of movies that were released in 2016, or were seen at film festivals, or might not have made the Top Ten but deserve mentioning:
The Salesman
Julieta
The Distinguished Citizen
Darkest Hour
Their Finest

Top Ten – 2016

By my rating standards, 2016 was the worst year yet for new movie releases. Perhaps as a reflection, dinner party discussion tended more toward what TV series are you watching/have you seen, than what’s your favorite movie of the moment. While there were movies I admired, there was only one – Hell or High Water – that I felt I could unequivocally recommend to anyone who asked, and that paled in comparison to top movies of yesteryear, specifically No Country for Old Men. Nevertheless, if for no other reason than to reveal my taste and proclivities, I feel compelled to  designate a Top Ten, subject to amendment as other 2016 releases get shown in Santa Barbara.

1. Eye in the Sky. This film about a drone strike in the Mideast gave me more to think and write about than any other and courageously tackled a controversial matter of foreign policy. (Kudos, also, to the similarly overlooked Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.)

2. Hell or High Water. Not rated high upon viewing because of its derivative nature, but it was charming and accomplished everything it set out to. I still get thirsty thinking about its West Texas setting and enjoy any time I spend with Jeff Bridges.

3. Elle. A taut, if kinky, thriller, in which all the pieces fit together and warrant a second thought, if not psychoanalysis.

4. Sully. Corny, in a Tom Hanks way, but heartwarming to watch regular people saving lives by doing their jobs. (More credible, by far, than the also heartwarming Deepwater Horizon.)

5. Manchester by the Sea. I could smell the New England air and feel the palpable heartbreak of the Casey Affleck character. I like “real.”

6. Fences. A dramatic tour de force that barely made it off the stage, but its power builds to a final knockout.

7. Little Men. Real people grappling with a real situation, parents on one page, kids on another. (Maggie’s Plan deserves mention here, too.)

8. Cafe Society. This was my favorite love story, with my favorite actress, Kristen Stewart, and lots of good costumes. (Hail, Caesar was also better than the similarly set, similarly plotted La La Land.)

9. Love and Friendship. Can’t go far wrong with Jane Austen and Kate Beckinsale – may there always be an England!

10. Loving. Realistic and de-dramatized, the movie spoke of hope despite our hopeless times.

Outside the main studio releases, I found much satisfaction in three other movie categories this year:

Documentaries

1. Vegas Baby (f/k/a Haveababy). I rated this as high as any of the ten above, and it was the only film that made me cry (twice).

2. Weiner. For sheer audacity, and subsequent relevance, this couldn’t be beat.

Revivals

1. Elevator to the GallowsSo French, so 1958, so Jeanne Moreau, so noir.

2. Niagara. Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten in Henry Hathaway’s 1953 take on Alfred Hitchcock.

Festival Films

1. The Unknown Girl. A psychological thriller from the Dardennes brothers.

2. VivaA drag queen, or princess, in Cuba, against all odds.

Oscar Choices (limited to actual Oscar nominees)

Best Picture: Hell or High Water

Best Actor: Casey Affleck

Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert

Featured Actor: Mahershala Ali

Featured Actress: Viola Davis

 

Top Ten 2015

My Top Ten this year is a bit of a cop-out, although not without precedent among major film critics: with no clear standout movie I will list my favorites in alphabetical order. Spotlight was the closest to a flawless movie, but it didn’t have the emotional power of Brooklyn, which was almost indistinguishable from Carol as the sensitive portrait of a young woman discovering herself. Phoenix was the best foreign film, edging out Number One Fan, but not as good as Barbara, the director’s previous effort. Straight Outta Compton captured a music scene new to me in documentary fashion, but so did Amy, which was an actual documentary. Timbuktu and Theeb were equally powerful and enlightening depictions of Muslim and Arab cultures. While I’m comparing apples and oranges, I can add Tangerine, also satisfying my diversity goals. I may be overrating Trumbo and The End of the Tour compared to other critics, but both caught me at a good time and, if the list is sufficiently flexible, are worth honoring. So, again, here’s the list:

Amy. I went in knowing nothing about Amy Winehouse or her music and departed with a sad appreciation of both. This documentary was so intrusive it made the viewer feel complicit.

 Brooklyn, the season’s softest, sweetest film with an award-worthy performance by Saoirse Ronan, a beautiful script by Nick Hornby out of Colm Toibin and impeccable supporting actors. The feel-good film of the year.

Carol was another novel-based film with built-in depth that constantly churned under the glossy surface of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s silky performances. It was also the best (American) period piece of the year.

The End of the Tour taught me everything I sort of wanted to know about David Foster Wallace in the form of an ego struggle between a writer and a reporter, skillfully portrayed by Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg.

Number One Fan (Elle L’Adore) restored my faith in French cinema, as everyday-but-slightly-loopy people with everyday problems get caught in a murder investigation, a cleverly delightful detective thriller.

Phoenix was the movie we all talked about and, perhaps, wanted to see again. It required a leap of faith that left some behind, but as a psychological mystery it was the year’s most intense cinema.

Spotlight was not quite All the President’s Men but it was the next best thing, a rare “true story” that played out as drama. I loved its depictions of journalism, Boston and the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, with telling end credits the coup de grace.

Straight Outta Compton. For joyous musical fun, this was the year’s best treat, although Love And Mercy was not far behind. The story was full of cliché, but Gangsta Rap was enough original to carry the day.

Tangerine was raw, gritty and thoroughly engaging, a view of LA I never want to see, populated by characters I’d just as soon avoid, as well; but the whole thing was oozing with enough energy and humanity to fascinate.

Theeb was a plain story, told with the sparseness of the desert it inhabited, a pared-down spaghetti Western or Lawrence of Arabia. It had a perfect young male lead, it captured the Arab character and it brought back memories.

Timbuktu had more story, more characters and more beautiful scenery than Theeb, but they both put you in a world we so little understand, from Mali here to Jordan there. For haunting images, this film led the way.

Trumbo was Hollywood history – always a lark – and knowing the outcome didn’t diminish my pleasure in getting there. Trumbo pinballed against a dozen similarly vibrant characters; he didn’t change, but each interaction had its fascination.

 

Individual Awards, with Oscar nominees in bold, my other choices in regular:

Best Actor: Bryan Cranston, Paul Dano (Love and Mercy)

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss (Phoenix), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck)

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Mark Rylance

Best Supporting Actress: Rachel McAdams, Rooney Mara, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mickey O’Hagan (Tangerine)

Notes: Obviously, the women stood out for me more than the men. I chose Stallone over Rylance only because Stallone was such a surprise and Rylance could have performed his role in his sleep. I don’t know why Blanchett is considered the lead while Mara, who has more screen time, is supporting (the film’s title, maybe?), but both are equally deserving, as are Segel and Eisenberg in End of the Tour, which hurt my selection of either. There really isn’t a strong male lead in any of my Top Ten – hence the choice of Cranston, who hogs the screen without being off-putting.

Top Ten 2014

Four of my ten highest-rated movies in 2014 were actually 2013 releases. This has caused me to add a PS to my last year’s Top Ten (see below) and acknowledge what a bad year 2014 was for movies. There is a chance that there will be 2014 releases still to come my way that will improve the list – A Most Violent Year and Two Days, One Night come to mind – but I suspect that this year will go down as one of the weaker in history. The fact that 7 of my 10 are Oscar nominees reflects a lack of depth: I don’t think I’ve ever been so short of idiosyncratic choices. So, with apologies for being so unoriginal, here is my list:

1. Boyhood – Far and away the best movie “experience” of the year as well as the most innovative moviemaking. It was more real than reality TV, with situations that everyone could identify with. The plot was life itself, only with better actors.
2. Selma – An important story, skillfully told. Perhaps the best thing is that the movie didn’t try to do too much. It left me curious, and hungry for more.
3. A Most Wanted Man – Just as Selma was filmed in brown, this was filmed in gray, a bleak, smoke-filled tone that encapsulated the spirit of this Cold War spy thriller, a worthy ending to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s great career.
4. The Imitation Game – Two stories on parallel tracks probably shortchanged each other, but both had impact and both came with delightful period attire and a great cast.
5. American Sniper – I read this as a strong, if subtle, anti-Iraq War statement, but more to the point a probing character study of what it takes to be a soldier, or what being a soldier takes from you.
6. Ida – Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography matched the purity of nun Ida’s faith and reminded me of Eastern European New Wave cinema of the ’60s.
7. Grand Budapest Hotel – The cleverest film of the year, from our most idiosyncratic director, held together by Ralph Fiennes and the spirit of a Charlie Chaplin silent movie.
8. The Theory of Everything – Two of the year’s best performances made this a story about a relationship, more than “a crippling disease and super-difficult math,” although that did add a dimension of importance.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy – Maybe nothing original here, but every scene was rollicking fun and nobody took themselves too seriously (cf. Interstellar).
10. The Drop – The year’s best straight action film, with a good story, gritty setting, unusual lead character adroitly played by Tom Hardy and the usual fine work from, RIP, James Gandolfini.
Acting Awards: Without seeing Julianne Moore or Marion Cotillard, my nod goes to Patricia Arquette, who gave life to Boyhood. She is Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress instead (for which she’s a shoo-in). I have seen all the Actor nominees, and while Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper are totally deserving, I vote for Eddie Redmayne, who acted with his eyes when his body couldn’t move anymore. In addition, I liked the score of The Imitation Game, and I thought The Homesman was the most beautiful movie I saw, although it’s not nominated for anything.

Top Ten 2013 – Part II
1. Big Bad Wolves – Quentin Tarantino couldn’t’ve done it any better.
2. Omar – The agony of Palestine, personified.
3. Nebraska – Bruce Dern and June Squibb are wonderful, but it’s Will Forte’s son that caught my attention.
4. August Osage County – As good as the stage play, which is unusual, thanks to Streep and Roberts.
5. The Wind Rises – An animated look at the engineer who designed Japan’s WWII airplanes, sheer artistry.
6. The Past – Ambiguity, in people and relationships, kept us guessing, and thinking.