Top 10 movies of a very fine year

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Arts Cor­re­spon­dent

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 small­time 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 phys- ically 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 wri­ter­di­rec­tor 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.” Brady Jan­dreau stars in "The Rider," a low-key de­pic­tion of an in­jured Na­tive Amer­i­can rodeo rider’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

AP

Lupita Ny­ong’o, left, Chad­wick Bose­man and Danai Gurira star in Mar­vel Stu­dios’ “Black Pan­ther,” a story of an emerg­ing ruler of an iso­lated African na­tion.

Mag­no­lia Pic­tures TNS

“Shoplifters” is Ja­pa­nese di­rec­tor Hirokazu Koreeda’s touch­ing story of a fam­ily of small-time crooks who take in an abused girl.

SONY PIC­TURES CLAS­SICS TNS

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