Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
I’m not sure when my appreciation of Tom Cruise, the Man in the Arena, stopped being ironic and became genuine — around the time of Rogue Nation, I believe — but I’m so glad that happened, because to fully appreciate what Cruise gives to these increasingly preposterous and sanity-pushing films, you must give yourself over to him entirely. Let his enthusiasm for filmmaking as spectacle, defying death for the sake of populist art when the line between Cruise the Man and Ethan Hunt becomes so thin as to be nonexistent — the American Jackie Chan — become your own. Do that, watch him struggle, break his leg, and get back up, and each viewing of a Mission: Impossible film becomes as rewarding as the last.
The best action franchise currently running (and running, and running) raised its game yet again thanks to Cruise and returning director Chris McQuarrie, who stitches together a series of truly gobsmacking stunts — a “single-take” HALO jump, a thrilling Paris chase, flying helicopters, then dangling from them, then flying them some more — into a serviceable globe-trotting narrative with double-crosses, a tense spin on the Trolley Problem, and plenty of masks. McQuarrie’s technical chops are beyond dispute, developing these sequences with a watchmaker’s precision and a keen eye toward cause and effect, leaving you wrung out like a rag when the last button is pushed. This was my favorite film of the year.
Directed by Alex Garland
Ex Machina director Alex Garland famously (and hilariously) noted on the interview circuit that he wrote the script for Annihilation after only reading Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-horror novel once, and never referred to it again. Normally, that’d spell doom for any adaptation, but it speaks to the potency of VanderMeer’s imagery — and Garland’s skill in realizing it — that Annihilation brilliantly translates the story’s core and unsettling tone, if not its exact plot. The film was buried almost instantly upon release, but has since grown in stature as a new arthouse classic in the vein of Tarkovksy’s Stalker or even 2001, with an ending every bit as unexpected and confounding.
Natalie Portman leads a (nearly) all-female cast as part of a team sent into “The Shimmer,” a brand-new biome, seemingly alien in origin, that has appeared somewhere along North America’s southern coast and is slowly, but steadily, growing. Within are colorful wonders and bone-chilling horrors, with a new freaky-deaky vision around every bend as the team’s blank slates (including Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez) first begin to get filled in, then reflect the strangeness of their surroundings. Garland keeps you off-balance throughout, never quite sure if what you’re seeing is real, let alone what it means — but that’s what truly lodges it in the mind once it’s over.
5. First Reformed
Directed by Paul Schrader
Troubling and transcendent, Paul Schrader’s meditative character study posits a single unanswerable question — “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?” — and unspools a tale of grief, desperation, self-destruction, idealism, and sacrifice. Shot in the classic Academy 4:3 aspect ratio and quietly paced, like the films of Schrader’s heroes, Ozu and Bresson, First Reformed has echoes of the latter’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light, but with an apocalyptic (and occasionally bizarre) tenor.
Ethan Hawke delivers — no hyperbole — the greatest performance of his career as Rev. Toller, the lonely shepherd of a historical Dutch church in upstate New York. His mission kept on life support by a local megachurch (pastored by Cedric Kyles, no “The Entertainer” here) and deteriorating physically himself, Toller decides to keep a diary of what he seems to be subconsciously predicting is his last year on Earth. But when a congregant’s husband, and militant environmental activist, commits suicide, Toller gradually decides to channel the young man’s despair into making a more powerful — and violent — statement. First Reformed wrestles with faith, doubt, grace, and torment, first in the small-c church, then the Church, than all of humanity, and its deeply uneasy (yet poetic) ending will leave you wrestling with them still.
Directed by Bradley Cooper
If the film were only the first hour, the fourth iteration of this rags-to-riches tale would be ranked even higher. And even so, A Star Is Born will end 2018 as one of the year’s most memorable crowd-pleasers, and a massive coming-out party for both Bradley Cooper as a sensitive director, and Lady Gaga as a dynamite actress. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, the first live performance of “Shallow” (perhaps the easiest call this Oscar season) still raises goosebumps.
I’m actually not sure what else to say about it. It’s a terrific film, expertly performed (Cooper pulls off the liquored-up rock star thing beautifully, it turns out), and so what if it flags a little in the homestretch and seems unsure what it wants to say about Ally’s pop music? The first act is a whirlwind, and it sticks the landing. It seems to be on pace to win Best Picture in February, but we could certainly do worse. It’s the most well-liked four-quadrant non-genre critical-populist smash since, uh, Titanic? Is that right? Surely not. Is it?
3. First Man
Directed by Damien Chazelle
It’s hard to forgive the people responsible for causing First Man to sink from the public consciousness like a bracelet dropped into a moon crater. It couldn’t have just been the mind-numbingly moronic “flag controversy” drummed up by conservative media, though that certainly didn’t help the box office. And while I certainly understand people not wanting to see yet another hagiography about a Heroic White Man during a time of great social upheaval, that’s not what First Man was, either. I wrote in my review that Damien Chazelle’s biopic is far less of a history than an intimate portrait of emotional repression, and the lengths one man was willing to go — and the dangers he was willing to put himself through — just to have something else to think about besides his own grief. On that level, I found it extraordinarily moving, and Ryan Gosling’s relentlessly internalized performance just as effective.
Of course, the real stars of of the film are its white-knuckle flight sequences: The opening in a rickety experimental plane at the edge of the atmosphere; the diabolical, infinite spinning of the Gemini 8 mission; the final harrowing descent onto the lunar surface. Technically, from Linus Sandgren’s claustrophobic cinematography, to the effects both practical and digital, to the fully enveloping sound design with Justin Hurwitz’s metronomic score, First Man soars beyond all expectations. It is a film I will return to and appreciate often, even if I’m all alone on the Sea of Tranquility.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
If, like me, you are into British costume dramas, this was a great year for you. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots offered a pair of fierce performances from Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie; the otherwise so-so Outlaw King gave us muddy medieval battles; but the one monarch to rule them all was Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne in the rowdy funhouse mirror of The Favourite. The Lobster director brings his unique visual wit — fisheye lenses! Steep angles! — to Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara’s twisted screenplay, which is more historically accurate than you might think. At least, I was blown away reading about the real Lady Malborough after seeing the film.
A gripping pas de trois for Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz (in the role of her career), the fulcrum of The Favourite’s twisted triangle is the cold rivalry between cousins Sarah and Abigail, the usurped and the usurper for Anne’s affections and trust. And Lanthimos milks every glance and stray comment for all that it’s worth, while also making the most of Hertfordshire’s massive Hatfield House — where the impossibly large spaces (accentuated by the camera) feed into the women’s increasing paranoia. I also loved how the story’s power-hungry men, who clearly have inner lives and ambitions of their own (especially Nicholas Hoult, giving a fine performance as part of the political opposition), are routinely reduced to rubble just by being in the presence of the three women. From the idiosyncratic chapter cards to the beguiling final shot, The Favourite is a unique and wholly entertaining experience.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
The best film of the year, and perhaps in many years, is Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate Mexican epic. I don’t think I can do better justice to it than Tyler did in his review earlier this month, but I’ll do my best: Roma wrecked me in a way I haven’t felt in quite some time. It’s an extraordinary experience that demands your full attention — it’s okay to watch it on Netflix, but you must put your phone away — the better to let Cuarón’s inestimable command of the camera and sense of place wash over you like the ocean waves.
In a truly courageous performance, non-actor Yalitzia Aparicio portrays Cleo, the hard-working maid for an upper-middle-class family in 1971 Mexico City — Cuarón’s, in fact. There has been some belated criticism of the film, accusing it of white-washing class struggles by not allowing the heroic Cleo a chance at life beyond her annex, washing dog excrement off the driveway twice a day and taking heat for slights real and imagined by her employers, but I believe that is misguided. Instead, Roma is Cuaron’s good-faith effort to honor the woman who helped raise him by presenting the intimate struggles of her life with uncommon grace and empathy.
And the film, shot by the director himself in luminous black and white, is no mere manipulation; with Cuarón’s masterful staging of chaos — a riot in the streets, a forest fire, a climactic beach rescue — is as close as cinema can come to capturing the essence of life itself, in all its grandeur and mundanity, its joy and its devastation, fulfilling its role as what Roger Ebert once called “a machine that generates empathy.” I was deeply moved (I cried — twice), but moreover, I was awestruck.Follow @dav_mcg