A small miracle happened in Hollywood this year: For the first time in recent memory, we sail into Oscars season without a few front-runners waiting to be anointed. That’s not because the year wasn’t good – I saw more than two dozen films to treasure – but because there hasn’t been an obvious combination of critical and audience approval for award-worthy projects.
Fine work showed up in movies that were enjoyable but hardly great: Rami Malek’s remarkable impersonation of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Glenn Close’s fire-and-ice acting in “The Wife,” Bruno Delbonnel’s haunting cinematography in the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” All three deserve an Academy Award nomination; the latter two, who have earned 11 nominations between them without a victory, could be winners this year.
But the pictures in this year-end roundup stay with me for multiple reasons: Performances, storytelling, emotional depth, physical beauty (or, where apt, ugliness). If I had to choose the 10 most memorable movies I saw this year, I’d go with these:
1) “Shoplifters” – Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda earned a Golden Globe nomination, a Golden Palm at Cannes and a cold shoulder from his government for this story of a family of small-time crooks who take in an abused girl. It’s partly social commentary about a nation that ignores its underclass, partly a touching look at choices we make out of desperation and love.
2) “Eighth Grade” – Writer-director Bo Burnham makes a superb feature film debut with this wrenching and funny portrait of an introvert (the terrific Elsie Fisher, a Golden Globe nominee) who’s trying to finish middle school with her psyche intact. Half a century after the fact, I relived every painful and laughable moment and thought, “Sure enough!”
3) “Isle of Dogs” – Director Wes Anderson tops “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with his second animated project, a visually splendid science-fiction foray into a Japanese future where dogs have been banned to a radioactive island and one injured boy decides to save his pet. It’s fast and funny but also a political satire about a president who becomes a monomaniacal near-dictator.
4) “The Rider” – This low-key depiction of an injured rodeo rider’s rehabilitation becomes more remarkable when you realize all the folks in it – including the title character’s mentally disabled sister and a physically broken bull rider he befriends – play fictional versions of their real selves. Writer-director Chloé Zhao gets deep inside the horse-loving culture of the Lakota Sioux.
5) “Leave No Trace” – Ben Foster has no current peer at interpreting haunted, introverted characters. Here he plays a loving dad who tries to protect his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) from the burdens and pressures of society by raising her on the run, in the wilderness. Her longing to connect with a more extended family causes a conflict that can break your heart.
6) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – I was in high school when “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” premiered 50 years ago, so I never watched it. He emerges in this documentary as someone I wish I’d grown up with: wise in the ways of kids. aware of how the beauties and horrors of the world affect them, and a savvy (never naïve) guy who taught two generations about love.
7) “Black Panther” – The best superhero movies – and how few there have ever been! – offer memorable and complicated characters, profound messages about social responsibility, riveting action sequences, meaningful dramatic conflicts, a stalwart hero, a charismatic villain and a little humor. This story of the emerging ruler of an isolated African nation has all of those.
8) “Roma” – I can’t explain why this piece, set in an affluent Mexico City neighborhood circa 1970, affects me so. Maybe it’s the way writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) captures the atmosphere of those turbulent times. Maybe it’s because, in paying tribute to the indigenous maid who cared for him as a child, he introduced me to a character I never expected to know.
9) “Science Fair” – Pure joy. This documentary about students around the world competing in an international contest will make even the most cynical viewer rejoice in the drive, creativity, expertise and pride of the younger generation, whether they’re in a Brazilian slum or at a New York high school where the teacher creates an ideal atmosphere in which to excel.
10) “Lean on Pete” – “Boardwalk Empire” co-stars Steve Buscemi and Charlie Plummer play a hardscrabble horse owner and the motherless young man who steals a mount destined for the glue factory. This remains my candidate for the year’s most underrated movie. It includes twists I didn’t see coming and lingers in memory nine months after its too-brief theatrical run.
Honorable mention, in alphabetical order: “At Eternity’s Gate,” “Capernaum,” “Cold War,” “First Reformed,” “The Favourite,” “The Guilty,” “Hereditary,” “A Star is Born,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Three Identical Strangers.”