1. Phantom Thread – Paul Thomas Anderson (USA) 130 minutes
A maximalist by instinct, Paul Thomas Anderson also has his occasional forays into a more languid tenor, with varying success – The Master has its fans but it was a bit too torpid for my own tastes. Anderson teamed up again with Daniel Day-Lewis for this darkly Forsterian fable about a pernickety fashion designer in post-war London and his abusive relationship with his assistant (Vicky Krieps). Phantom Thread is a brilliantly enigmatic character study that goes in unexpected directions on more than one occasion and is endowed with an ineffable strangeness that glows long after you have left the cinema. You keep wondering, which in this instance, is a good thing. Quite fittingly, too, for a film about literal fabric and couture, the texture of the period details is palpable throughout, and gorgeous in a way that is more substantive than your average film about the past.
2. The Dead Nation (Țara moartă) – Radu Jude (Romania) 83 minutes
In recent films, such as the Wallachian Western Aferim! and Scarred Hearts, about the consumptive Jewish writer Max Blecher, Jude seems to have taken on the mantle of the Romanian New Wave’s resident historical chronicler. The Dead Nation, a superb and ingenious film essay, carries on from the subject matter of inter-war antisemitism faced by the tragic Blecher. The film draws from two distinct sources visually and aurally. Jude shows us a succession of photographs, in the vein of August Sander or the Albanian Kel Marubi, taken from the archives of Costica Acsinte, a commercial photographer in the small town of Slobozia in the 1930s. The narration, seemingly unrelated, is from the diary of a Jewish country doctor of the same era, who documents the rising antisemitism that would lead to Romania aligning itself with the Axis Powers in 1940. The film is haunting and matter-of-fact in its juxtaposition of the material, as the private narrative belies the public face of everyday life portrayed in the photographs. As well as being an astute chronicle of a dark decade in Romania, it is a shrewd meditation on representation and disparate historical experience.
3. The Nothing Factory (A Fábrica de Nada) – Pedro Pinho (Portugal) 177 minutes
A three-hour-long cinema verité musical about autogestion in a Portuguese lift factory is an unusual gambit but Pinho’s film is a surprising treat. The workers at a factory in the Lisbon area arrive at work one morning to find equipment being stripped and are told they have little choice but to accept redundancy packages. They decide to band together and, helped by a mysterious left-wing outsider (played by Italian film director Daniele Incalcaterra), they mount resistance to the planned closure of the factory and do a few song-and-dance numbers too. The film is reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy and also the more demotic early docudramas of Abdellatif Kechine and it draws on a number of real-life cases, such as the Portuguese Fataleva workers, who ran their own lift factory for four decades before the economic crisis finally closed the business. Though The Nothing Factory has a similar melancholic inevitability, it is stirring stuff and an unlikely blending of Brechtian agitprop and social realist cinema.
4. Roma – Alfonso Cuarón (Mexico) 135 minutes
After his Oscar success with Gravity, Cuarón returned to Mexico to make this semi-autobiographical film set against the backdrop of the country’s Dirty War in 1970 and 1971. Named for the upper-middle class neighbourhood in Mexico City where most the action takes place, Roma focuses on the family’s young Mixtec maid Cleo, who gets romantically involved with a young man Fermín, who turns out to be not only a n’er do well but also a member of the paramilitary group Los Halcones, whom the authorities use to viciously quell student protests. While there is plenty of drama in the family’s own backstory, with the father of the house going through a gradual process of estrangement, Cleo’s is the real story here, putting Roma in the lineage of a subgenre of Latin American films about female domestic employees, such as Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (2009), Maria Luisa Bemberg’s Miss Mary (1986) and Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother (2015). Cuarón is ultimately no more successful than those films in resolving the class tensions but Roma is an admirable attempt to redress some of the narrative imbalance. The film is also a technical triumph, with the centrepiece the Corpus Christi Massacre where Los Halcones slaughtered 120 students, and it is almost all Cuarón’s work – as well as writing, directing and producing, he also took care of the shimmering monochrome cinematography and shared the editing duties.
5. 3 Faces (Se rokh) – Jafar Panahi (Iran) 100 minutes
The conditions of Jafar Panahi’s house arrest have been relaxed somewhat in recent years though the Iranian director is still unable to leave the country. 3 Faces marked a further geospatial evolution from his two previous films, which were confined to his Tehran apartment (This Is Not a Film) and a taxi the director himself drives around the capital (Taxi). Panahi is once again behind the wheel here, where he returns to his native East Azerbaijan with the actress Behnaz Jafari (playing herself), who has received a distressing video from a young aspiring actress who appears to have tried to kill herself after Jafari has ignored her messages for help. The landscape, the milieu and the narrative structure are a clear nod to the semi-anthropological cinema of Panahi’s mentor, the late Abbas Kiarostami, yet, as ever with Panahi, there is an idiosyncratic seam running through the film.
6. Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku) – Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan) 121 minutes
After years of winning prizes at Cannes Kore-eda finally scooped the big one in 2018, taking the Palme d’Or for this touching drama about an oddball “family” of petty thieves living on the margins of Tokyo society. In an inversion of sorts of the director’s earlier Nobody Knows, in which a group of young siblings are left to fend for themselves by an absent mother, the group is a refuge from a world of neglect and alienation (though the young son Shota’s backstory does appear to have a darker cast). Familial tension is present in almost all Kore-eda’s films, even the more optimistically cheerful ones such as I Wish or Still Walking, but his villains are nearly always flawed characters rather than bad per se. Shoplifters applies that to a collective and, as ever, the film is an emotional trawl but one that never feels manipulated or contrived.
7. First Reformed – Paul Schrader (USA) 113 minutes
After a somewhat fitful career making films where his own Calvinist upbringing and his revered “Holy Trinity” of Ozu, Dreyer and Bresson had been at best sublimated, Schrader made a film explicitly about faith. Ethan Hawke, in yet another career departure, plays an anguished alcoholic minister in a Dutch reformed church, who has lost his son in the Iraq war and who now has to choose between his church’s wealthy benefactors and the concerns of his flock, particularly a young environmentalist played by Amanda Seyfried. The film is as intense and unrelenting as Schrader’s best-known work from earlier in his career and garnered him his first Oscar nomination, for best original screenplay, and as a low-budget look at one of the least mediagenic Christian sects in the United States, it feels like a strange detour in these times. But it’s none the less rewarding for that.
8. A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica) – Sebastián Lelio (Chile/Spain/Germany/USA) 104 minutes
Before making an unlikely move to English-speaking cinema, which included a surprisingly good Hollywood remake of his 2013 film Gloria, Lelio had an international hit with this moving drama about a bereaved young transgender woman Marina (played by actress and mezzo-soprano Daniela Vega). Marina’s older partner Orlando dies from a fall one evening and her grieving is impeded by Orlando’s embittered family (with the exception of his kindly brother Gabo). Lelio, a director who tends to prefer female protagonists, offers a generous and sympathetic account of Marina’s plight in the face of transphobia and A Fantastic Woman is a stark portrayal of loneliness – something so difficult to dramatise – that fully deserved its many plaudits and awards, which included a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
9. Have a Nice Day (Dàshìjiè) – Liu Jian (China) 75 minutes
Liu Jian’s second feature is a dark but breezy comic caper about a young driver in Nanjing who steals from his Triad bosses to fund his girlfriend’s plastic surgery and is about as far away from a contemporary Chinese film as you could imagine. The action is undercut by a light cynicism and a perfectly modulated tone and it didn’t come as a surprise it was viewed unfavourably by Chinese authorities, who blocked it from further international film festivals after its initial premiere at Berlin. It was appreciated in Taiwan though, where it won the Best Animated Features in the Golden Horse Awards, which hardly endeared it any more to the powers-that-be back home.
10. Good Time – Josh and Benny Safdie (USA) 99 minutes
There’s more than an air of Cassavetes about the Safdie brothers’ film about a bankrobber (Robert Pattinson) and his attempts to get the bail money for his disabled brother (Benny Safdie) and it has a similar doomed inevitability. The success of the film hinges on the dynamism of the directing and the acting, where Pattinson in particular is excellent (and at time unrecognisable). Savage and depressing yet a very admirable film through which the old, untamed, ungentrified soul of New York City resonates.
Also worth a look
L’Apparition – Xavier Giannoli (France) 127 minutes
The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Yorgos Lanthimos (Ireland/UK) 121 minutes
Angels Wear White (Jiā Nián Huá) – Vivian Qu (China/France) 107 minutes
Loveless (Nelyubov) – Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia/France/Belgium/Germany) 127 minutes
On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui Haebyeoneseo Honja) – Hong Sang-soo (South Korea) 101 minutes
Custody (Jusqu’à la garde) – Xavier Legrand (France) 93 minutes
Wonderstruck – Todd Haynes (USA) 117 minutes
I mBéal na Stoirme – Loïc Jourdain (France/Ireland) 106 minutes
The Square – Ruben Östlund (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark) 151 minutes
Dogman – Matteo Garone (Italy) 102 minutes
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Joel and Ethan Coen (USA) 133 minutes
Thelma – Joachim Trier (Norway/Sweden/Denmark/France) 116 minutes
Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog (Selbstkritik eines bürgerlichen Hundes) – Julian Radlmeier (Germany/Italy) 100 minutes
Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig (USA) 94 minutes
At War (En guerre) – Stéphane Brizé (France) 105 minutes
Isle of Dogs – Wes Anderson (USA/Germany) 101 minutes
Last Flag Flying – Richard Linklater (USA) 125 minutes