5 best movies of the year (so far)

  1. “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.

“A Quiet Place”

Four of the finest movies this year so far

It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.

I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)

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Brilliant spoof “What We Do in the Shadows”

So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson. 

I also haven’t seen these films atop my list: “A Quiet Place,” “Loveless,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Leave No Trace” and a slew of other gushed-over indie titles, from “Let the Sunshine In” to “Lean on Pete.” And I’m keenly looking forward to Bo Burnham’s dramedy “Eighth Grade,” coming July 13.

What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:

Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television 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, cooing 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 this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.  

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Henrietta Pussycat and Mister Rogers, a sweet couple in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

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.

You slip behind the scenes of the papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.

It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.

Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.

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Ethan Hawke has burning questions in “First Reformed.”

The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly 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.

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. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.

Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.

Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.

Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.

That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.

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Brady Jandreau and Apollo in “The Rider.”

Easily the most moving film of the year — I rhapsodized about how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.

Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity. 

Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence. 

A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there. 

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Robert Pattinson and Butterscotch in the comic-western “Damsel.”

Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.  

If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.