Directed by Alex Garland
Alex Garland’s second film Annihilation is something like a cross between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Natalie Portman leading a team of female scientists into a mysterious and seemingly alien habitat called “the Shimmer” which is impenetrable to all means of surveillance. Portman’s Lena joins a team of scientists and militants including Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and Josie (Tessa Thompson) as they penetrate the Shimmer’s unknown depths to discover its secrets – among them the question of why all other invasive teams have disappeared without a trace save Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac), who suddenly reappeared in her kitchen after months of mysterious absence.
What they find is a world in a hyper-evolution as nature appears to be reclaiming and recrafting the world around them. Loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation reminds the viewer that nature is both beautiful and terrifying, and wholly indifferent to the hubris of mankind. 2001 is one of my all-time favorite films, and Annihilation’s climax is the only thing I’ve ever seen rival its jaw-dropping sense of unknowable wonder.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Much like its predecessor, the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s ensemble drama If Beale Street Could Talk is as much a poem as it is a film. It defies easy description even if the synopsis is simple. Tish (KiKi Layne), a young black woman in 1970s Harlem, relies on the help of her friends and family to help overturn the wrongful rape accusation against her boyfriend Fonny (Stefan James) in the face of discrimination and financial difficulties. Beale Street, however, finds its power in the quiet moments of reflection and hope that surround that larger tragedy.
Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry are the standouts among an impressive ensemble for their performances of Tish’s mother and a recently paroled felon, respectively. It’s a film about using the hope derived from love, family and community as the support system to create a life for oneself even in the face of discrimination. From Nicholas Britell’s jazzy score to costumer Caroline Eselin and production designer Mark Friedberg’s vibrant use of blues, greens, and especially yellows that make the actors’ faces stand out on screen, Beale Street is a film that not only asserts that “black is beautiful,” but also shows it in every frame. It deftly sweeps away any accusation that Jenkins was a one film wonder. Instead, it confirms the director as a major artist.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
If this was a list about the “best” films of the year then Roma would be at the top. Six years since Gravity proved him to be one of film’s greatest tacticians Roma finds Alfonso Cuaron returning to his Mexican roots with a reflection on class, privilege, and family set in his hometown neighborhood of of Colonia Roma in Mexico City. This story of a Mexican maid and the upper-middle class family who employ her shows that Cuaron hasn’t lost touch with emotional storytelling despite his technical achievements.
Roma contains three incredible one-shots that flawlessly meld drama with Cuaron’s stunning camerawork, and they’re three moments likely to leave any viewer shaken and on the verge of tears. The film has hurdles for the viewer to clear. The cast consists entirely of non-professional actors speaking a mix of Spanish and Mixtec, shot in gorgeous black and white. Anyone watching casually will miss out on Roma’s charms. It demands attention, begging the viewer to succumb to its innate quiet rhythms. If you can’t see Roma in a theater, then at least lock your phone away. Films that attain this type of fragile magic are a rare thing indeed.
Directed by Lee Chang-Dong
As with documentaries, this was an excellent year for foreign language films with the aforementioned Roma getting most of the acclaim. For my money, however, the moody and mysterious Burning was the best of them with its look at envy in the modern world. Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man doing odd jobs around Paju, South Korea in order to make ends meet and keep his family farm afloat while his father is in jail. One day he happens upon Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who he hasn’t seen since they were childhood neighbors, and immediately falls for her. Complications arrive with entrance of her travel companion Ben (Steven Yeun) who takes Jong-su into his confidences about his secret hobby – the bi-monthly arson of decrepit country greenhouses.
Yeun gives my favorite performance of the year as the mysteriously wealthy and effortlessly cool enigma who propels the mysteries of Burning’s plot forward. He is, Jong-su says, “the Korean Gatsby.” Burning is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” and brings many of the author’s knotty tropes with it, but director and co-writer Lee Chang-dong expands the story with meditations on class, masculinity, and incisive questions about narrator reliability to make Burning more than just a collection of elusive mysteries. It’s not that Burning has no easy answers, but rather the film offers no answers at all. It’s not that it has nothing to say, but it knows how many of life’s greatest mysteries are inherently unsolvable.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lathimos has an argument for being the best director of the decade having already produced such masterworks as Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. How exciting then that even after such an impressive body of work he’s topped himself with (the surprisingly historically accurate) The Favourite, an anti-costume drama that revels in hilarious palace intrigue and a biting wit, and shows Hollywood the incredible feast that awaits them if they’d simply write better parts for their great actresses.
It’s the first time for Lanthimos to direct a film without also writing it, and co-writers Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara give him the punchiest script of his career while losing none of his trademark black comedy. Gone are the stilted monotones of his previous work, and in this place are lines that let cousins Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) hilariously backstab each other while battling for Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) favor. All three are likely to score Oscar nominations. Weisz, already an Oscar winner, gives the performance of her career as the supportive, if stern, guiding hand behind the throne fighting to keep Queen Anne’s affections over her new, seemingly more fun-loving cousin in Stone’s (also already an Oscar winner) Abigail.
It’s Colman, however, who wins the crown with her manic-depressive turn as the regent desperate to be loved. It’s a deliciously wicked Mexican standoff between three actresses at the top of their game in a film that’s antique in setting, but never in action. Throw in the gorgeous historical costumes, Robbie Ryan’s candlelit and naturally-lit cinematography, and another excellent supporting performance from Nicholas Hoult and you’ve got a devilish delight of a film. My *ahem* favourite film of the year.
With Apologies To: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Sorry to Bother You, Vice, Isle of Dogs, Widows, Game Night, Ocean’s 8, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Blackkklansman, First Reformed, Free Solo, American Animals, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, First Man, and others.