Every year, I come to January having seen many good films and pondering which to name in my top 10. Also, each year, I come to this list knowing of films unavailable to me so far that might very well be on my list if I had the chance to see them. I think of three right away: Burning, Cold War and Shoplifters. But I must go with what I have seen. So here is my list, as of today:
1. Roma. This black-and-white film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is set in a section of Mexico City in 1970-71 and presents a domestic drama in which the main character is Cleo, a Mixtec woman who keeps the household running. Beautifully shot, the film alludes to themes of colonialism yet refuses to speak for Cleo. It builds our empathy by presenting her life in its complexity.
2. The Rider. This account of rodeo riders on a South Dakota reservation is so fact-based that it almost qualifies as a documentary. Chloé Zhao uses nonprofessional actors and stunning cinematography to produce an authentic and moving view of life there.
3. Leave No Trace. This excellent film by Debra Granik not only tells a good story with complex characters but subtly confronts our way of life, so distant from nature. While the film moves slowly at times, the camera keeps us in the story, and we feel the beauty and menace of nature.
4. First Reformed. This haunting film by Paul Schrader is shot in what he calls a “transcendental style,” influence by major filmmakers Bresson and Dreyer. It follows an alcoholic Protestant minister (Ethan Hawke) who undergoes a spiritual and psychological crisis. The film addresses the major issue of our time, climate change, and takes some creative chances that work. Hawke’s performance is outstanding.
5. Minding the Gap. This documentary takes an honest look at poverty and domestic violence but also shows the courage and strength of young people who face that head on. Three young men in Rockford, Ill., who were beaten by their fathers find solace in skateboarding.
6. Happy as Lazarro. This Italian film is told like a fable, set initially in a village that seems timeless, where peasants work essentially as slaves to a wealthy landowner. The title character is a kind of holy fool (with hints of St. Francis) who happily does whatever task he is asked to do. He bonds with a young nobleman. Director Alice Rohrwacher plays with the concept of time and uses some magical realism in this beautiful portrayal of innocence.
7. If Beale Street Could Talk. This moving film by Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight is one of the best films of the past five years, is based on James Baldwin’s novel. It portrays a young African-American couple in Harlem whose lives are upended when he is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. The scenes that reveal the rage toward racism that Baldwin wrote about are stronger than the love story, which is shown in flashback.
8. Can You Ever Forgive Me? This film features Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, a biographer whose books no longer sell. Hard up for money, she creates fake letters by famous writers and sells them to collectors. This unlikable curmudgeon eventually wins our sympathy as she tries to make her way out of poverty. She connects with a drinking buddy (Richard Grant), who helps her in her scheme. Eventually, the FBI catches them. McCarthy and Grant are wonderful here.
9. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This documentary about Fred Rogers, the children’s television host, shows how radical and Christian Rogers’ show was. A Presbyterian minister, he addressed various issues with the message of unconditional love, in contrast with today’s climate.
10. Blindspotting. This powerful, energetic film follows two childhood friends—one African American, one white—in Oakland, Calif., and delves into the complexities of racial identity. Its use of rap and humor amid terrible events is ingenious.