- “Eighth Grade” — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with ruffled blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and slightly bucky, will break your heart. Played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. But as some have noted, the movie is not about geezers and their times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology. It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. This rumpled, dimpled film is a marvel to behold, and one from which to learn.
2. “The Rider” — Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady (newcomer Brady Jandreau) is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. An accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of the year, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. It won Best Feature at the prestigious Gotham Awards this week.
3. “A Star is Born” — Call me a sap but I fell hard for this high-sheen remake of a remake of a remake (of, yup, a remake) about a pair of star-crossed musicians working on love amid the ruthless, sometimes lethal brambles of showbiz. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga unswervingly possess their crooning characters, Jack and Ally, with explosive energy and heart-searing nuance. It’s a simple tale about mutual respect, and its flip-side jealousy, and how drugs can neuter talent and well-oiled ambition can nurture it. Cooper, whose steely direction wrests high drama from the grunge and glamor, sings and gives one of his finest performances. Lady Gaga is a blazing revelation. The picture boasts genuinely solid songs, including the hit “Shallow,” a soaring paean to the thrill, and fragility, of love.
4. “First Reformed” — The underrated Ethan Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself. Veteran writer-director Paul Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Austere and bruised, this is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one. (Hawke won Best Actor at the Gotham Awards.)
5. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly TV host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied-piper of cheering children across the land. He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs and soaring imagination. Not a scintilla of that hagiographic image is tarred in this illuminating, touching documentary that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked. (Gotham Audience Award winner.)
Of course there’s a slew of buzzed-about movies I haven’t seen yet that might still make the list: “Roma,” “The Sisters Brothers,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” “The Favourite,” “Widows,” “Blaze,” “I Am Not a Witch,” “The House That Jack Built” and more.
Then there are the acclaimed movies that left me limp: “Black Panther,” “Leave No Trace,” “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Isle of Dogs,” “Mandy,” “Shirkers,” “Miseducation of Cameron Post,” “You Were Never Really Here,” “Hereditary,” “Private Life.”
And there are films I enjoyed perfectly well, like Julian Schnabel’s heady portrait of van Gogh “At Eternity’s Gate,” the funny-sad triplets doc “Three Identical Strangers,” the melancholy horse saga “Lean on Pete,” the anthropomorphic, Wes Andersonian antics of “Paddington 2” and the asphyxiating thriller “A Quiet Place.”