Our chief film critics single out a Mexican remembrance of things past and four American documentaries about the way we live now.
What Could Have Been
Some of the most inspiring films I watched this year were made by women who wore long skirts and high-button boots and couldn’t yet vote for president. You can find some of their work in “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers,” a recently released DVD box set from Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress. (The Blu-ray version has more titles.) Some of these movies were featured in a program at Brooklyn Academy of Music that ran in July, one of several surveys that this vital arts center has dedicated to forgotten and overlooked female directors.
The more I watched these films from the beginning of the 20th century, the more I began to think about the movie world — the Hollywood — that could have been. By the late 1920s, women were largely shut out of directing in the American industry until the mid-1960s. If film pioneers like Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché had continued, it’s possible that a radically different movie world might have emerged. In my alt-Hollywood fantasy, female and male filmmakers would have worked side by side, perhaps giving us unimagined stories and heroines. That history in turn might have laid the foundation for an equitable present rather than an industry defined by entrenched sexism.
This inequity shows no real signs of abating, presumably because sexism has never damaged the movie industry’s bottom line. As of this writing, only a couple of the top 20 movies at the domestic box office have female-driven stories; in a few titles, the prominent female character shares the screen either as part of a romantic couple or a family. None of the 20 were directed by women. And then there is the continuing fallout from the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement, which my colleague Brooks Barnes reported in November are greatly contributing to a “profound malaise” in the movie capital.
“Yap, yap — go back to your kennels,” a movie producer said of Time’s Up, the advocacy group formed in January by producers like Shonda Rhimes and performers like Reese Witherspoon to fight workplace sexual harassment. Barnes was startled by the movie producer’s comment. I was only surprised that he had been honest, even off the record. This producer is just one power broker, but he represents a mind-set that is responsible for mainstream industry that feels both creatively and ethically bankrupt. At this point, I wonder if it would be better for the powerful women in Time’s Up to forget about changing the old industry and just burn it down so they can rebuild it.
This malaise has other sources, including the effect Netflix and Amazon are having on the big studios. Then again, these same studios — with their sequels and superheroes — are busily doing their part to turn American cinema into a gushing stream of uniformity. This seems unlikely to change especially given that in July the Walt Disney Company solidified its plans to buy Fox, thereby destroying one of the studios that created Hollywood. Opponents of the proposed deal include the Writers Guild of America West, which severely criticized the merger for furthering the media consolidation that has drastically limited competition.
The proof of these limits is evident at the box office, which in recent years has been dominated by branded product, much of it owned by Disney. The studio again leads the box office, having thus far gobbled up a staggering 27 percent of the domestic market share. (A decade ago, it released more features and had less market share.) You can like Disney movies and still believe that oligopoly is bad for movie culture. The same is true of Netflix, which has been showing its muscle in the movie world to feed its platform and which is where Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently crammed among its thousands of good, bad and indifferent titles — all ready to watch, pause, forget.
My 10 favorite movies of the year, in order:
1. ‘Roma’ (Alfonso Cuarón)
Monumentality is intrinsic to Cuarón’s memory piece, which, alas, means that when it begins streaming on Netflix, viewers won’t be able to fully see — or experience — its wonder. (Stream it on Netflix beginning Dec. 14.)
In this breath-catchingly lovely, terrifying movie, a South Korean woman dances in the fading light as two unworthy men sit, watch and slowly burn down their world.
By turns delicate and brutal, this Japanese drama about a struggling ragtag family is perfectly observed from its first scene to its last, and is a career high point for its director.
4. ‘Zama’ (Lucrecia Martel)
Set in the New World in the 18th century, this wonderfully eccentric movie centers on an official of the Spanish empire brought low by hubris and the laughter of women. (Stream it on Amazon; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.)
Neorealism meets magical realism in this marvelous, surprising movie about an impoverished Italian man, his sprawling tribe and a radically transformed way of life. (Stream it on Netflix.)
For much of this startling story, set in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s, Lee expertly takes you into a shocking American past that harrowingly leads right back to its agonized present. (Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay and Vudu.)
A deeply moving exploration of faith in the fallen world, Schrader’s triumph feels like both the summation, and the galvanizing beginning, of an extraordinary cinematic career. (Stream it on Amazon; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.)
A blazingly funny writer, Iannucci has become a great director of actors, who with slow burns and pinpoint timing turn a political burlesque into a terrifyingly timely cautionary tale. (Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.)
In this quietly political Trump-era documentary, Wiseman offers a long, searching look at a small American town where homespun charm exists side by side with steadfast isolationism.
With their gently nodding, brilliantly colored flowers and shifting shadows, Dorsky’s heart-soaringly beautiful films are reminders that cinema is also about light and form.
“At Eternity’s Gate” (see it for Willem Dafoe and the lovely light); “Black Panther” (there’s a lot here, but mostly there is Michael B. Jordan, who can do anything); “Bodied” (rapping and identity politics); “Cold War”; “The Day After”; “Destroyer” (Nicole Kidman badassery); “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” (righteous anger); “Eighth Grade”; “Golden Exits” (Alex Ross Perry’s sandpaper touch is very fine); “The Guardians”; “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”; “If Beale Street Could Talk”; “Custody”; “Isle of Dogs”; “The King”; “Lean on Pete”; “Leave No Trace”; “Lizzie” (good acting with 40 whacks); “Minding the Gap”; “The Other Side of the Wind” (imperfect Orson Welles is still Orson Welles); “RBG” (the OG); “The Rider”; “Shoah: Four Sisters”; “The Sisters Brothers” (John C. Reilly); “Skate Kitchen” (girls + skateboarding); “Sorry to Bother You”; “A Star Is Born” (too much Bradley Cooper, but I love it); “Support the Girls” (Regina Hall deserves more roles like this); “The Third Murder” (more Kore-eda); “Three Identical Strangers” (a must-see); “Vox Lux” (sick, but in a good way); “Western” (a finely calibrated look at men and work).
Starting With Vision
A four-way tie for first place may look like wanton indecisiveness, but to me these lyrical, visionary documentaries add up to an indelible composite portrait of America right now. At a time when we tend to see ourselves and our fellow citizens as sociological stereotypes and ideological clichés, these highly personal films suggest that a different way of telling the American story — the crazy multiplicity of American stories — may still be possible.
Not because the filmmakers offer visions of consensus, but precisely because each one digs deep into the conflicts and contradictions that run through every neighborhood, household and individual heart. “Monrovia,” filmed in a tiny, mostly white heartland town, is the latest work from an 88-year-old master. “Hale County,” set in a rural mostly black part of Alabama, and “Minding the Gap,” set in a mixed Illinois industrial city, are first features by skilled and intuitive young directors. “Bisbee ’17,” named for a mining town in Arizona, is a powerful midcareer foray into historical memory and political strife.
These movies touch on issues that often come up in journalistic hot takes or political broadsides, including race, masculinity, inequality and the changing nature of work. Each one forces you to suspend judgment, and to rethink what you thought you knew. They are acts of witness but also, as great documentaries must be, works of art, reminders that the job of the artist and the duty of the citizen are fundamentally the same: to pay attention. (Stream “Minding the Gap” on Hulu.)
Rohrwacher’s third feature starts out as a simple fable of rural Italian life, centered on a simple young man living among fellow sharecroppers in an isolated hamlet. By the time he reaches the big city, about halfway in, the film has already infused neorealism with an old, strange magic. By the end it has transcended all categories and conventions and revealed something about the tragedy of modern life that seems almost unspeakably ancient. (Stream it on Netflix.)
Ethan Hawke, as a Protestant minister staring into the abyss of his own soul and the gathering darkness of climate-change catastrophe, gives a performance that is at once unassuming and overpowering. Schrader distills the spiritual and cinematic preoccupations that have defined his career as a writer (“Taxi Driver”) and director (“American Gigolo”) into an austere and elegant study in metaphysical and political anguish. Yes, the movie is topical. Among the topics under discussion are the meaning of human existence and the survival of the planet. (Stream it on Amazon; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.)
4. ‘Private Life’ (Tamara Jenkins)
A movie about liberal-minded, literary-bohemian heterosexual New Yorkers that finds something new to say surely counts as a minor miracle. A comedy that is sharp but not cruel, a drama that is poignant but not sentimental, an informative and unflinching look at fertility treatments — “Private Life” is all those things. And, maybe most of all, it is a wonder cabinet of incisive, unshowy performances, from Molly Shannon, John Carroll Lynch, Kayli Carter, Paul Giamatti and above all the splendid and fearless Kathryn Hahn. (Stream it on Netflix.)
5. ‘Roma’ (Alfonso Cuarón)
You could almost live inside Cuarón’s intricate, pulsing wide-screen compositions, borne along on the movements of his sweeping, swooping camera. A lot of people do live here, in a world conjured from the director’s own memories of growing up in the wealthy Mexico City neighborhood that gives the film its name. In no great hurry to make a point or advance a plot, he takes in Mexican politics, changing family dynamics and, above all, the dreams and disappointments of a young housekeeper named Cleo, played with heart-stopping candor and sly elegance by Yalitza Aparicio. (Stream it on Netflix beginning Dec. 14.)
The first time I saw this piquant, episodic chronicle of a middle-aged artist’s bad romances, I was puzzled and a little irritated. Juliette Binoche’s character was so abrasive! The men she was with were so awful! But I still couldn’t look away. A second viewing knocked me out, and I kept coming back with new questions. How can something so true to the rhythms of real life and the zigzags of an individual temperament still hold together as a movie? How can a movie be so artful and seem so artless? How can a film about such thoroughly tiresome people be one that I can’t imagine ever getting tired of watching? (Stream it on Hulu; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.)
Casting Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as witty, cynical partners in crime in early ’90s Manhattan is pretty much foolproof. They would be fun to watch if all they did was insult each other over drinks. They do a lot of that, and this movie — based on the real-life escapades of literary forger Lee Israel and her accomplice, Jack Hock — is admirably modest and specific in scale. It doesn’t preach or pose, but in the fine grain of its characters and the skill of its performers (including Dolly Wells as a sweet and credulous bookseller), it achieves a kind of perfection.
Ebullient and indignant, Lee’s best nondocumentary feature in quite some time delves into some ugly American history — including film history — to remind us that it’s still being written. Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ’70s, the film is a wild mash-up of genres and styles. It’s an interracial buddy picture (with John David Washington and Adam Driver), a blaxploitation action-romance (with Washington and Laura Harrier) and a real-life horror movie. The last scenes, which trace the continuity of racism from “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 to Charlottesville to 2017 is a tour de force of political filmmaking and blunt, brilliant Spike Lee dialectics. (Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube and Vudu.)
9. ‘Capernaum’ (Nadine Labaki)
Naturalism meets melodrama in this harrowing, hectic tale of a lost boy’s adventures in the slums and shantytowns of Beirut. Twelve-year-old Zain witnesses and undergoes horrors that don’t seem exaggerated, but Zain al-Rafeea, the young actor who plays him, endures the worst with Keatonesque stoicism and Chaplinesque empathy. Not that this is a comedy, exactly, but as in her previous features (“Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?”) Labaki refuses to lose sight of the exuberance, grit and humor that people hold onto even in moments of the greatest desperation.
10. ‘The Favourite’ (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The twisty mischief of the plot — court intrigue in the palace of Queen Anne overlaid with sexual treachery among the her courtiers — is crisply handled, but what lands this movie on the list are its many moments of scenic and thespian audacity. Emma Stone makes rape jokes. Rachel Weisz dispatches pigeons with a front-loaded rifle. Olivia Colman complains of gout. There are bunnies, duck races and a human menagerie of fops, fools and femmes fatales. The moral is that power corrupts, and corruption is fun.
In alphabetical order: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”; “Black Panther”; “Custody”; “If Beale Street Could Talk”; “The Rider”; “Shoplifters”; “Sorry to Bother You”; “Support the Girls”; “Western”; “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”; “Zama.”