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Best of 2018: My Choices for the Best Dramas and Documentaries


The Best of 2018
Notwithstanding the popularity of at-home streaming services led by Netflix, movie-going to theatres is not declining.  Indeed in 2018 North American attendance is up with a record box office of almost US$12 billion. Even if much of this is for tentpole blockbusters centred on comic characters, the big screen appeals more broadly.  Take the case of my best movie of the year, the Spanish-language Roma.  A Netflix production available online since December 14, the large Ottawa theatre where I saw it a second time was still packed for a post-Christmas showing in a 10-day run. Good news indeed.  

10 Best Narrative Features
1.      Roma (Mexico/U.S.)
Viewed on the big screen the immersive luminous black-and-white cinematography and ambient soundscape is even more impressive in this semi-autobiographical masterwork from Alfonso Cuarón which features a sublime performance by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio as the central figure of Cleo, the Indigenous nanny-housemaid in an upper-class Mexico City household with four young children to whom she remains devoted after the father abandons the family.
2.      The Rider (U.S. https://sonyclassics.com/therider/)
With striking semi-documentary realism writer-director Chloé Zhao relates the story of Indigenous rodeo rider Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) determined to recover from a severe head injury.  The narrative may sound simple.  The result is astonishing on every level.
3.      Cold War (Poland/UK/France https://www.curzonartificialeye.com/cold-war)
Another black-and-white masterwork, Pawel Pawlikowski won best director at Cannes for this deeply affecting fateful love story between a musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and a gifted singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) who began as his student under communism in the aftermath of the Second World War.
4.      Shoplifters (Japan)
Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda was awarded the Cannes festival’s palme d’or for this extraordinary portrait of a multigenerational “family” that gets by on wits and smalltime thievery until the warm-hearted embrace of a neglected little girl gets them in trouble, revealing a rarely seen side of contemporary Japanese society. (My film-viewing event of the year was also Japanese: director Masaki Kobayashi’s epic historical trilogy The Human Condition, released 1959-61, which played at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox in August.)
5.      If Beale Street Could Talk (U.S. http://www.bealestreet.movie/)
Adapted from the eponymous James Baldwin novel, writer-director Barry Jenkins brings a similarly soulful aesthetic as in his 2017 Oscar best picture Moonlight to this story of young lovers Fonny (Canadian Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne).  Beale Street, an actual street in New Orleans, stands as a metaphor for the struggle of blacks in the supposed land of the free.  There are scenes of raw anger and of aching tenderness .  Fonny is not just another unjustly incarcerated black man; Tish not just another unwed teenage mother.  Jenkins captures a mood, both anxious and pregnant, in the African American experience as no other contemporary director.  It’s a stunning achievement.
6.      The Favourite (Ireland/UK/U.S. http://www.foxsearchlight.com/thefavourite/)
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos serves up a terrific black comedy of jealous rivalries in the early 18th century English court of dotty, gouty Queen Anne, with two strong-willed female antagonists competing for her favours in and out of the royal bedchamber.
7.       Thoroughbreds (U.S.)
This wicked black comedy from first-time writer-director Corey Finley premiered at Sundance 2017 almost two years ago but I only saw it in late 2018.  In suburban Connecticut Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who hates her fitness-freak stepdad, is tutoring the sociopathic Amanda (Olivia Cooke) who killed her horse. There will be blood in this brilliant off-kilter satire that also features one of the late Anton Yelchin’s last performances.
8.      Doubles Vies (France http://www.juliettebinoche.net/doubles-vies.html)
French master Olivier Assayas writes and directs this sparkling witty comic drama (English title Non-Fiction) set in a Parisian publishing world beset by the midlife crises of romantic partners. Screen stars Juliette Binoche and actor-director Guillaume Canet are at their best.   
9.      First Man (U.S./Japan https://www.firstman.com/)
Director Damien Chazelle’s historical true-story follow up to the romantic fable La La Land hasn’t received as much awards love.  Still the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in July 1969, almost a half century ago, was an epochal event.  Ryan Gosling is excellent in the role of the unassuming astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to make the “giant leap for mankind”, as is Claire Foy as his supportive wife.  
Lucas Hedges is emerging as one of the best young actors of his generation. Here he plays a recovering drug addict in a convincing Christmastime drama written and directed by his father Peter Hedges. Julia Roberts is also outstanding as the mother who refuses to give up on her son.
*Note: My best film of 2017 First Reformed is landing on a lot of 2018 “best of” lists as it was only released theatrically this year.  Ethan Hawke’s role as a troubled pastor has him deservedly at the top of many critics’ lists for best actor and hopefully will be rewarded.
10 Best Documentary Features
1.      Won’t You Be My Neighbour? (U.S.
I’ve chosen for top spot director Morgan Neville’s wondrous tribute to Fred Rogers, the kind-hearted figure at the centre of the long-running PBS children’s television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. In this time of mean-spirited Trumpian fearmongering of the other, there is no more welcome antidote. 
2.      Of Fathers and Sons (Germany/U.S./Syria/Lebanon/Netherlands/Qatar
Expatriate Syrian director Talal Derki (Return to Homs) took grave risks to capture life inside an Islamist extremist family in rebel-held Syria. It’s an astonishing portrait that earned the Sundance world cinema grand jury award.
Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Meru) follow intrepid free climber Alex Honnold and his death-defying seemingly impossible unaided ascent of the sheer rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. Bizarre and breathtaking, it earned the Toronto film festival’s documentary “people’s choice” award.  (A film about another famous free-climbing ascent of El Capitan, The Dawn Wall, won the audience award at the South By Southwest festival.)  
4.      Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada https://theanthropocene.org/film/)
Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier have renewed a collaboration with renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky to document the increasing scale of human impacts on planet earth, presenting often startling visible evidence from 20 countries on six continents.
5.      On Her Shoulders (U.S. http://www.onhershouldersfilm.com/)
Director Alexandria Bombach earned the Sundance directing award for this intimate profile of Nadia Murad, the Yazidi young woman and survivor of ISIS sexual slavery in Iraq who entered the global spotlight as an advocate for their cause. The film includes her 2016 visit to the Canadian parliament and subsequent appointment as a UN ambassador.  (Since then Ms. Murad is the co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.)
6.      Dark Money (U.S. https://www.darkmoneyfilm.com/)
Director Kimberly Reed exposes the corrupting and unaccountable influence of outside big-money inflows on American political campaigns with particular attention to Montana as a case study.  Such manipulation is among the major threats to democracy deserving close scrutiny.
7.      People’s Republic of Desire (China https://www.desire.film/)
Director Hao Wu explores a fascinating and disturbing Chinese social-media subculture in which young internet stars entice millions to follow them and send gifts. Although prone to rampant exploitation, this misdirection of desire doesn’t seem to pose a threat to the guardians of the “People’s Republic”.  Winner of the South By Southwest festival’s (SXSW) grand jury award.
8.      ¡Las Sandinistas! (Nicaragua/U.S. https://www.lassandinistas.com/)
Director Jenny Murray received a special mention from the SXSW jury for this absorbing profile of key women combatants on the frontlines of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution who were subsequently marginalized and find themselves re-engaged in revolutionary protest against Daniel Ortega’s repressive regime. The struggle continues, including for women’s rights.  
Helmed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, this audience favorite of both Sundance and SXSW is a revealing behind-the-scenes look at a diverse group of high-school students in different countries as they compete in science fairs from the local level to the global stage. The youthful enthusiasm for science is infectious and reassuring in a world of “fake news” and “post-truth”. 
10.  Elvis Presley: The Searcher (U.S.
Thom Zimny directs this absorbing in-depth biography of the “king” of rock n’ roll from a poor Mississippi childhood to Memphis where his journey to the top of the charts began.  Premiering at SXSW for subsequent broadcast, this is a definitive exploration of Elvis’s storied career from highlights to controversies to a tragic demise.  (Several other excellent HBO celebrity biographies are Jane Fonda in Five Acts and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind.) 
Thom Zimny also deserves mention for helming Springsteen on Broadway currently streaming on Netflix.  It’s drawn form a lengthy run of shows by “the boss” involving both personal reminiscence, starting with an Irish Catholic New Jersey upbringing, and a legendary musical journey. Springsteen is alone on stage, at times on the guitar or at the piano, except for several duets with wife Patti Scialfa, and culminating with a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer and performance of “Born to Run”. (A must for Springsteen fans, read more at: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/reviews/view/28678/springsteen-on-broadway.)
On the enduring influence of Elvis, honourable mention goes to Eugene Jarecki’s The King (http://www.theking.film/) in which Elvis’s 1963 Rolls-Royce is taken on a journey across America. Among the interlocutors on the ride is Ethan Hawke (First Reformed, Blaze, Juliet Naked, Stockholm).
Finally I also loved Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams which combines spectacular concert footage with a candid backstory of the band’s two-decade trajectory from inauspicious geeky beginnings to global fame. It had only a one-day December theatrical release but can be ordered: https://coldplay.com/live-album-concert-film-documentary-out-dec-7/.
*Note: Yet to be released in Canada is Peter Jackson’s historical documentary composed of colourized archival First World War images. They Shall Not Grow Old (UK/New Zealand https://www.theyshallnotgrowold.film/) is being hailed as a masterpiece.


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Roma
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        Let me add a few notes to that.  The story, set in the “Roma” residential neighborhood of Mexico City 1970-71, obviously draws on director Cuarón’s personal memories.  It combines strikingly evocative images, a cinematic poetry, with remarkable realism, so much so that at times you could swear you were watching a black-and-white documentary from that period.  The class structure is apparent: the lower orders with Indigenous blood (a majority of Mexicans are ‘mestizo’- mixed race) serve well-to-do households like the one depicted in the film—a professional couple with five children (four boys and a girl) and a grandmother living with…