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"Good Old JR" Jim Rutkowski weighs in with his picks for the TOP 10 films of 201

2018-From intimate to epic, diversity at its best.

(011319) Year-end lists are agonizing. I already have regrets about what was omitted from my latest roster, not wanting forgotten favorites to become casualties. In shaping this list, I prioritized titles with infinite re-watchability ― ones I’d want to take another look at, in other words: rainy-day distractions, haunting enigmas, dizzying reflections of humanity’s peaks and valleys.

I’ll change my mind as soon as tomorrow, but that’s part of the fun. The movies remind us that we never have to settle for just one thing. In a darkened theater (or living room), we get the good, the bad and the ugly, sometimes at once. It is, after all, the ultimate escape.

Cinephilia is a year-round condition, and it peaks, as always, with the final tally for the year’s finest movies. Over the past twelve months, a wide range of stellar offerings have illustrated that, no matter the genre, potential greatness abounds at both the multiplex and the art house. It’s been a packed year marked by superb dramas, comedies, thrillers, and documentaries from established auteurs and promising newcomers. Their works suggest that, be it on the big screen or via streaming services, the medium’s future is in excellent hands. Nonetheless, what matters now is the present, and to that end, these are my picks for the best films of 2018.

So let's start with the outliers. That is, the films that are just outside of the top 10. This year provided an embarrassment of riches. It was difficult to narrow things down to 10. And any one of these could shuffle their way into the top 10.

From 20 to 11 in no particular order:

First Man: (from the director of La La Land, a biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong)

Annihilation: (the bear creature still gives me the creeps!)

Eighth Grade: (an insightful film about adolescence)

Paddington 2 (yes. Paddington 2. Try it! )

Won't You Be My Neighbor (the years best documentary)

Black Panther: (A grandly mythical superhero drama that confronts modern political agonies in complex and resonant ways.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse: (the best superhero film of the year AND the best animated movie of the year)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (the Coen Brothers are usually a shoe-in for a yearly best of list. This tells you how many worthy films there were this year for them to be relegated to the lower tier)

Hereditary (the best horror film of the year. Look for Toni Collette to be nominated for an Oscar)

You were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey directs and Joaquin Phoenix stars in a brutally violent film about a man who is consumed by a lifestyle he didn't ask for. But doesn't know how to escape.

How about a few more:



Sorry to Bother You

A Quiet Place


A Star is Born

And now (drum roll please) my Top Ten films for 2017...

Director: Steve McQueen

When Henry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his partners are killed while trying to carry out a robbery, the men to whom Rawlings owes money go to his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) to collect. Knowing that she has no choice but to pay the debt, Veronica rounds up the other widows to pull off a heist that Henry had been planning at the time of his death. Directed by Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, Widows is a smart, sharp thriller, combining McQueen’s biting sensibilities with the more inherently soapy source material. Anchored by a knockout lead performance from Davis, the film’s central quartet (rounded out by Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo) makes a fantastic team, and pull off the story’s twists and turns with aplomb.

Adapted from a 1983 British miniseries, “Widows” is a whole lot of movie: a heist thriller, a screed about political corruption, a portrait of domestic grief and a girl-power escapade led by the mighty Viola Davis. It works through and through, puzzling the pieces together so they add up to an electrifying whole that speaks to a contemporary American condition. Steve McQueen maintains the art-house sensibilities he displayed in “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” but still shows us what a modern blockbuster should look like. Too bad so few people paid attention.

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Demonstrating how times have changed, this pick is a Netflix original film. And before you balk....YES Netflix films are considered motion pictures as long as they also play in some theaters as well. Spoiler alert!! This isn't the only Netflix film to make the list. More on that later.

The new film from filmmaker Tamara Jenkins (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills), Private Life is the bracingly funny and moving story of Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a couple in the throes of infertility who try to maintain their marriage as they descend deeper and deeper into the insular world of assisted reproduction and domestic adoption. After the emotional and economic upheaval of in vitro fertilization, they're at the end of their middle-aged rope, but when Sadie (breakout newcomer Kayli Carter), a recent college drop out, re-enters their life, things begin to look up. 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.

Director: Armando Iannucci
Armando Iannucci has long been known for his acerbic wit — any Veep fans that haven’t seen The Thick of It are missing out — and it’s in full force in the startlingly dark The Death of Stalin. The film, which is a take on the events following, yes, the death of Joseph Stalin, has its share of laughs, but it’s a little grimmer too. The jockeying of Stalin’s Central Committee — featuring Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria — is outrageous, and Iannucci digs his heels in not only with regards to the lengths these figures went to in order to stay in power but with regards to the death toll that resulted. Bodies fall left and right, and after a while, whatever comedy there was in the proceeding wheeling-and-dealings becomes pitch-black. 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.

Director: Spike Lee
From director Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero. It's the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. Following its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman took home the Grand Prix. If that alone isn’t enough to convince you to watch Spike Lee’s latest work, how about the fact that its plot is based on a true story? Though the events of the film get a little wilder than the source material, BlacKkKlansman is still a powerful piece of work, not just for the precision of Lee’s direction, but for just how striking it is in addressing the current political climate. Addressing everything from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the Charlottesville riots to personal cultural identity, it’s — as overused as the label may be — a timely and necessary film. It uses history to offer bitingly trenchant commentary on current events -- and brings out some of Spike Lee's hardest-hitting work in decades along the way.

Director: Barry Jenkins
Director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight is further proof of his visual mastery. Adapted from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk is a remarkable portrait of love and circumstance. Set in early-1970s Harlem, this is a love story of a couple's unbreakable bond and the African-American family's empowering embrace, as told through the eyes of 19-year-old Tish Rivers (screen newcomer KiKi Layne). A daughter and wife-to-be, Tish vividly recalls the passion, respect and trust that have connected her and her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, who goes by the nickname Fonny (Stephan James). Friends since childhood, the devoted couple dream of a future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Through the unique intimacy and power of cinema, If Beale Street Could Talk honors the author's prescient words and imagery, charting the emotional currents navigated in an unforgiving and racially biased world as the filmmaker poetically crosses time frames to show how love and humanity endure. Jenkins’ warm, caring style lifts up the love story between Fonny and Tish — and makes it so devastating when they’re torn apart, for essentially no reason beyond being black in America. That said, Fonny and Tish don’t represent a monolith, and the characters around them — Regina King as Tish’s mother, who raises her children to be polite but won’t hesitate to push for their sake; and Brian Tyree Henry as one of Fonny’s friends, who offers a look at a tragedy that he doesn’t yet know is coming for him — are all cut from different cloths. As the film unspools, following a courtship and an incarceration in parallel lines, it blooms, building the community around Fonny and Tish like gossamer. Even though the story is a tragedy, the picture that Jenkins paints is still a beautiful one, finding the light in even the worst of situations.

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos’s fascination with hermetically sealed social units is again explored in The Favourite, albeit this time in an unlikely setting—the 18th century court of England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). In her luxurious abode, the ill health-plagued monarch is aided in her duties by doting best friend/lover Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), whose adoration is designed for maximum manipulation. Their bond is shaken by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), whose attempts to rise from her lowly position and usurp Anne’s affections leads to a backstabbing battle with Sarah that’s intertwined with the country’s dilemma over whether to continue pursuing war with France or, per conniving opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), settle for peace. Lanthimos’s fisheye-lensed cinematography presents this opulent milieu as warped and deranged, and his comic characterization of his players—who entertain themselves by racing ducks and throwing fruit at naked men—augments the action’s eccentric satire. His three female leads, meanwhile, are equally tremendous: pitiful and bitter Colman, cunning and ruthless Weisz, and clever and amoral Stone.

Director: Debra Granik
Eight years after her last fictional feature (2010’s
Winter's Bone) introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence, writer-director Debra Granik returns with Leave No Trace, a pensive, prickly character study about a father (Ben Foster) and daughter (newcomer Thomasin McKenzie) living off the grid, illegally, in Pacific Northwest national forests. Once again teaming with co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini and cinematographer Michael McDonough (this time on an adaptation of Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment), Granik details the ins and outs of her characters’ isolated circumstances while plumbing the trauma that’s driven Foster’s dad to retreat from society—and the tension that develops between him and his daughter, who finds it difficult to assume her father’s grievances (and, thus, lifestyle). There’s no judgment here, just empathetic curiosity about unique lives situated on society’s fringe—as well as some wonderful acting from a silently tormented Foster and a confused and brave McKenzie in a sterling debut performance. Leave No Trace might be described in social terms as a film about homelessness, but it never loses sight of the fact that what makes a home is the privacy people need to connect with each other. Sublime.

Director: Paul Schrader
 It’s been forty-two years since Taxi Driver first verified Paul Schrader’s greatness, and with First Reformed, the writer-director provides a magnificent companion piece to that earlier triumph. Also indebted to Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Ingmar Bergman, Schrader’s religious drama fixates on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), an upstate New York man of the cloth whose ongoing crisis-of-faith is accelerated by an encounter with an environmental activist beset by hopelessness and anger. Toller’s ensuing relationship with that man’s wife (Amanda Seyfried), as well as the leader of a local mega-church (Cedric the Entertainer), forms the basis of Schrader’s rigorously ascetic—and occasionally expressionistic—film, which is guided by Toller’s journal-entry narration about his fears and doubts. Formally exquisite and led by a tremendous performance from Hawke as a Travis Bickle-like country priest who can’t quell the darkness within, it’s a spiritual inquiry made harrowing by both its mounting misery and its climactic ambiguity. 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 and director 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. First Reformed is one of the most remarkable artistic feats of the year. As the world seems headed towards natural disaster, Schrader has tapped into perhaps the only vein of thought that can provide any comfort. Though Schrader doesn’t try to posit that we can necessarily avert catastrophe, and doesn’t absolve us of our own hand in the ensuing apocalypse, either, his work possesses a fundamental love for humanity, and a love for love. When Reverend Toller has his eyes opened as to the way the environment is gradually collapsing, he falls into an existential crisis. Love and faith, however, go hand in hand, no matter how abstractly, and bit-by-bit, they drive the film to its transcendent finale.

2.) ROMA
Director: Paul Schrader
The 2nd film on the list that was funded by the ever popular streaming service Netflix.

The last time director Alfonso Cuaron made a movie, it was “
Gravity.” While many filmmakers have reached for the stars, Cuaron managed to create a picture that felt like it was set among them. Cuaron returns with “Roma,” an autobiographical effort that’s just as detailed as “Gravity,” but brings his storytelling interests back down to Earth. Mexico, to be more exact, filing through memories and utilizing his creative muscles to mastermind a recreation to his youth, crafting a valentine to the woman who helped raise him.

It’s 1970, and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a maid for an affluent family, undertaking daily chores to keep the household running along, interacting intimately with the children, becoming part of their lives while their mother, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), deals with domestic unrest, watching as her husband, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), gradually decide to relocate his own life elsewhere, leaving behind loved ones. As Sofia slowly unravels due to the stress of it all, Cleo tries to maintain order while experiencing her own private pursuits, including a sexual experience with boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). When a moment of pleasure and comfort with a restless man results in a pregnancy, Cleo is left to figure out her future with Sofia’s family, unsure if she can work with her own baby. Embarking on her own journey of understanding, Cleo bears witness to domestic and civil unrest, speeding toward a destiny she’s not sure she wants.

Cuaron is no stranger to meticulous filmmaking, having previously helmed “Children of Men ” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” with the two productions embracing specific visual standards and intense world-building. While “Roma” is a personal tale, without fantasy or dystopian expanse, Cuaron still manages to generate a widescreen window to another way of life, taking audiences to the unsettled landscape of Mexico in late 1970, with specific attention paid to Sofia’s household, which bustles with the activity of children, relatives, and a family dog who enjoys defecating all over the place. The screenplay appreciates the commotion of the home but concentrates on Cleo, a maid who goes about her daily business in near-silence, tending to her work, which includes cleaning, cooking, and refereeing unruly children. With Sofia dealing with her own headaches, Cleo has become something of a mother for the kids, and Cuaron keeps her involved with her employers, subtlety assuming a role of authority while remaining in a service position, doing her best to keep her job.

The majesty of “Roma” comes from Cleo’s daily adventures away from the house, experiencing life on the streets of Mexico. A theme of the writing is chaos, and Cuaron likes to keep things hectic as the character steps out for leisure pursuits, including a date with Fermin which should take the pair to the movies, but they end up inside a hotel room, about to alter their lives in a major way. The same instability is found with a New Year’s Eve celebration featuring Sofia’s extended family, which begins with dancing and ends with a forest fire. And there’s internal turmoil, with Cleo carrying a heavy burden with her pregnancy, trying to keep her composure as she deals with medical check-ups and emergencies, while finding Fermin becomes a quest that ends up gifting the picture a brief moment of levity. This cycle of disorder and stillness carries through “Roma,” with Cuaron recreating the experiences that shaped his life, or at least the emotional tides he navigated as a boy.

“Roma” is a sensorial experience, dealing directly with a lush sound design and cinematographic supremacy that employs black and white to set the mood of memory, while the frame is loaded with details, from specific textures of common vices to deep backgrounds of urban activity, which pays off with a late inning surge of violence as political protestors storm the streets. For a movie about the simplicity of routine, “Roma” creates a visceral viewing event that deepens as it unfolds, showing special care for Cleo’s personal situation and the psychological wear she’s bottling up out of duty. Cuaron gets in some penetrating scenes of loss and protection, anchoring the endeavor with a heartfelt understanding of sacrifice, and the tears will flow. However, “Roma” is a complete experience, merging an offering of love and empathy with the sharpness of large-scale filmmaking.

1.) the RIDER
Director: Chloé Zhao
On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota sits a lonely trailer in the middle of the wide-open wilderness. Living there is cowboy Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) with his gambling addict father Wayne (Tim Jandreau) and his little sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), the young woman never seeming to let her battle against Asperger’s Syndrome ever get her down. Once a rising star on the rodeo circuit, Brady’s skull was crushed by a horse after a fall. He was in a coma for three full days, waking up with a massive scar on the side of his head and a warning from his doctors that he’ll likely never ride competitively ever again.

After Wayne sells his son’s favorite horse to pay some outstanding bills, Brady takes a job in a local convenience store to make sure his family can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. He also regularly visits former professional bull rider Lane (Lane Scott) in the hospital whenever he can, his friend’s career cut short because of a horrific car accident that left him severely brain damaged and with only limited use of his arms and legs. As time goes by Brady finds he cannot stay away from horses and resumes training them for local ranchers, all the while mulling a return to the rodeo circuit even if doing so goes against the edicts handed down to him by his doctors.

It will be a long time until I’ll see a more visually gorgeous film than writer/director Chloé Zhao’s (Songs My Brother Taught Me) award-winning drama The Rider. Utilizing her Pine Ridge locations to perfection, featuring hushed, painterly majestic visuals courtesy of cinematographer Joshua James Richards, there is minimalistic elegance to this film that couldn’t help but blow me away. More than that, though, Zhao has also composed a story that tugs at the heartstrings, sparks the imagination and challenges the intellect almost all in equal measure, her focus on the minutia of life’s miseries and miracles incredible.

Granted, the reason so much of this motion picture feels real is because it is. Jandreau was an up-and-coming rodeo star who suffered a horrific head injury that has put his competitive career in jeopardy. His sister Lilly really does battle Asperger’s and does so with a positivity and a resilience that goes far beyond inspiring. Former bull rider Lane Scott portrays himself in the movie and does so with a fearless openness that’s documentary-like in its nakedly raw candor. All of this helps the film ooze a form of truthfulness that cannot be faked, the austere grace of it all oftentimes magnificent.

But this isn’t a documentary. Jandreau might be playing a character that resembles him in real life, and his father and sister might be acting right alongside him, but that doesn’t mean he still isn’t giving a complex, touchingly personal performance. There is a haunting longing burning inside of Brady that’s primal in its fiery glow, his connection with the land, the people who live on it and the various horses he has the good fortune to become acquainted with bristling with a quiet realism that’s sublime. Jandreau is electrically alive for every second of the movie’s running time, commanding the screen in a way that would lead a casual viewer who knew nothing of his history to think he’d been doing so for his entire life.

There are moments where Zhao’s script almost seems weightless, ephemeral, the wispy nature of the themes she’s so intimately trying to explore vanishing as if they’ve been carried away by the winds blowing through deserted South Dakota plains. But she keeps her characters at the forefront of all that’s happening, the focus always on Brady and his interior battles. It gives the film an air of humane specificity that’s poignantly affecting, making this cowboy’s journey innately universal in the process. I could go on, but I find I’d rather let Zhao’s sophomore narrative opus speak for itself. A naturalistic marvel of restraint, The Rider is a gem I’ll not soon forget.




Discussion of the Top 10 Films of 2017

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