Another strong year winds to an end with a flourish of films – this year a flourish with a female focus (“Little Women,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”and “Bombshell”) and a series of strong directorial debuts also led mainly by women (“Queen & Slim,” “Atlantics” and “Booksmart,” with “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” and “Les Miserables” being the most notable male-helmed first films). Sure we got the overlong “Endgame” that capped the “Avengers” series, laying the seeds for more diversity-minded action flicks, but with the tepid critical reception to “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and the hairball known as “Cats,” it was a down year for big box office fare. On the small/indie, foreign language and documentary level, however, there were bold entries that raised the bar, plus a career capper from maestro Martin Scorsese – many listed below and among the honorable mentions for the year.
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“Little Women”

Greta Gerwig follows up her impressive 2017 debut “Lady Bird,” reteaming with muse Saoirse Ronan to update Louise May Alcott’s classic and welcome new fans to declare themselves a Jo or Amy. “Little Women” is sewn smartly together as a quilt of moments told in nonlinear fashion, allowing for different relationships to grow quicker and for characters often disliked in previous iterations to be shown with more cause for sympathy. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux contributes a textured vibrancy, and emotional moments are further weighted by composer Alexandre Desplat’s score. With a classical look but contemporary renderings that gives clear-cut agency to its titular characters, “Little Women” is a universal story that changes and grows with you over time. [AJ]

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“Us”

Considering the wild success of “Get Out,” a scathing indictment of white liberalism and the violence casual racism can inspire, Jordan Peele faced a daunting proposition when turning in this second feature. “Us” is a similar horror-action flick and damnation of our nation’s history – this time with a doppelgänger twist that allows the heavier themes room to breathe and just the right amount of comedy from actors Winston Duke and Elizabeth Moss. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o gives a fully physical performance that demonstrates again why she’s one of the most exciting actors of her generation, displaying a balletic ease that intimidates and a growling, gasping voice that horrifies. The film has a central message about America’s inability to fix a problem with a showboat demonstration of care and of our vacant catering to causes that leaves the less fortunate worse off than they were, which is just as terrifying as some of the third-act hysterics. [AJ]

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“Ága”

Milko Lazarov’s gorgeous and haunting ode to a dying lifestyle focuses on an elderly Inuit couple living in the northern reaches of the Russian republic of Sakha. They spend most of their time hunting and gathering amid the barren expanses and evading the cold in the confines of a yurt. Occasionally jets fly overhead and an outsider on a snowmobile drops in to give news of the couple’s daughter, for whom the film is titled. It’s a slow contemplation on time and change (both in climate and way of life). The landscape cinematography is exquisite, especially the closing shots of a strip mine, breathtaking in its own right. [TM]

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“Aquarela”

This unconventional non-narrative offers very little human interaction as it documents the power and beauty of water around the world. Locations include Siberia, Greenland, a sailboat under siege off the California coast, the breathtaking Angel Falls in Venezuela and, ultimately, a harrowing few moments inside the wrath of Hurricane Irma. The opening sequence, in which cars are used to cross an ice-covered lake in Russia and often plunge through, is at once hypnotic and shocking, and a sequence you soon won’t forget. The commanding camera work by director Victor Kossakovsky astounds, as does a punk-metal score by the aptly named group Apocalyptical (imagine a Gwar and Nine Inch Nails collaboration) that grinds its way into your head. [TM]

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“Asako I & II”

Few films of the year were as simultaneously enriching but overlooked as Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II,” a film that defies genre. At its core, it’s a love story (a tumultuous one) but the further the film unravels the more we realize it’s a coming-of-age tale twinged with something ambiguously supernatural: The protagonist falls in love with two men with the same face at different times in her life, prompting her to grow and learn through earth-rattling mistakes. Masahiro Higashide delivers a dextrous and empathetic performance playing dual characters, while the score by Tofubeats ensnares us with a sense of romanticism and isolation. It’s a tremendous portrait of an ever-evolving love and how we don’t so much change one another, but grow to embody that love, leaning on it and expressing it more fully as time passes. “Asako I & II” has a dreamy and hypnotic tone that will have you captivated by the very first minute, when sparks quite literally begin to fly. [AJ]

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“The Irishman”

You could call it “Goodfellas: The Reunion Tour,” and many might balk at the three-and-a-half-hour runtime, but with a cast that throws Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino together under Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction with screenwriter Steve Zaillian serving up some juicy wise-guy speak, the whole thing passes in a quick, enjoyable blip. Pacino dials his Jimmie Hoffa up to 11 and De Niro underplays his dutiful hitman, save for some peak moments. The result is a touch uneven at times – it’s odd to see De Niro digitally aged back to 30 and ahead to 85 – but still it’s a masterwork for all involved. Not quite elite-tier Scorsese, but there are arguments to be made. [TM]

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“The Farewell”

Cultural divides have rarely been given such immeasurable humanity as in Lulu Wang’s astonishing and heartbreaking “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina. The family of Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China under the guise of a wedding to support the family matriarch (Shuzhen Zhao – extraordinary) who doesn’t know she has only a few weeks left to live. It’s a fact the family is keen on keeping secret: With the belief that knowing her illness will only poison the last weeks of her life, the family plans to move mountains to grant their beloved Nai Nai a few weeks of uninterrupted joy with her family. It’s Billi’s doubt about the plan and her cultural otherness – too American to fit in with her family living in China – as well as the barely contained grief everyone is experiencing behind cracking masks that make for such a moving film. Wang’s direction is stunning. One of the most soul-crushing scenes is shot with utter simplicity, just a wave goodbye through a retreating car window that carries more weight than the person doing so could ever know. [AJ]

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“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”

Director Céline Sciamma, who has already delivered three films about the growth of women forced to comply with strict societal gender norms (“Water Lilies,” “Tomboy” and “Girlhood”), delivers her greatest accomplishment to date. A French woman betrothed to a man she doesn’t know and the woman painting her portrait fall head over heels into a private love affair, and the chemistry between Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant burns as bright as the embers that lick at the titular painting. The cinematography by Claire Mathon brings everything together, creating a film that’s simultaneously drenched in the unfurling passion but errs on the side of ghost story. The women must part, but their spirits linger on as partners after finding such joy in one another’s embrace. A celebration of love and free will and the ability to find companionship in stolen glances and chaste kisses, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a triumph. [AJ]

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“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”

Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for revenge fantasy and warping history rallies on, but with more subtle affect here. What really works is the recreation of late ’60s Hollywood (via impressive sets and capturing of a cultural zeitgeist and social mood) as the ebb of soundstage work gives way to edgier, on-location fare that would go on to define U.S. cinema (Coppola, Friedkin and Scorsese on the horizon). The special sauce, however, is the boundless chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading movie star and Brad Pitt’s hound dog stunt double. The pair are Oscar worthy, and Tarantino’s depiction of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the Manson clan feels eerily genuine as a slice of Americana and retelling of the cult leader’s indelible mark on history. [TM]

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“Parasite”

Korean director Bong Joon Ho, who tackled issues of economic disparity in “The Host” (2006) and “Snowpiercer” (2013), comes back at it here with the haves (the Park family) and have-nots (the Kims). The film moves in wildly unexpected turns as the Kims slowly (and covertly) ingratiate themselves with the Parks, taking up servitude in their palatial abode – never letting on that the driver, the cook and tutors are related. The cinematic framing of the dingy urban alleyways, Escher-esque stairways and labyrinthian basement corridors is aesthetically brilliant and adds to the biting commentary. Bong, something of a master of dark comedic satire, has his knives full out, well-honed when it comes to what lurks below. [TM]

Honorable mentions: “Honey Boy,” “Pain and Glory,” “Uncut Gems,” “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “The Nightingale,” “Marriage Story,” “Toy Story 4,” “High Life,” “Apollo 11,” “Shadow.”

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The Top 10 Films of 2018
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