Top 10 Movies of the Year: ‘The Holdovers,’ ‘Maestro,’ ‘Robot Dreams,’ more

by STEPHEN WHITTY
top 10 movies of year

Paul Giamatti, right, with Dominic Sessa in “The Holdovers.”

It’s been a tough year for Hollywood.

But it’s been a great year for movies.

True, the studios still haven’t figured out the whole theatrical-release-vs.-streaming question. David Zaslav, chief of Warner Bros. Discovery, has shot himself in the foot so many times — “Let’s cut the TCM budget!” “Let’s shelve a bunch of films we’ve already made!” “Hey, you guys are gonna love ‘The Flash’!” — he’s beginning to resemble a limping centipede. And let’s not forget the various artists’ strikes that the bosses stubbornly, and needlessly, prolonged.

But while the industry’s top executives don’t seem to be able to create anything but chaos, filmmakers have been busy creating great films. And surprising ones. (Who would have predicted we’d get a blockbuster about the making of the atom bomb? Or a sharp feminist satire inspired by a plastic doll?) The last 12 months have brought touching dramas, startling documentaries, wild comedies and fantasies that will definitely mess with your mind.

The only problem critics faced was, how do you winnow that down to a Top 10?

It was a terrific year for foreign-language movies, for example, with France giving us the culinary romance “The Taste of Things” and the painful family drama “Everything Went Fine,” Finland providing the deadpan comedy “Fallen Leaves,” and Denmark offering the epic “The Promised Land.” There were some small, surprising indies, like the coming-out drama “Blue Jean,” the oddball Nic Cage fantasy “Dream Scenario” and the startling documentary about North Korean refugees, “Beyond Utopia.” I enjoyed the good-hearted tributes to maternal love, both plucky (“Flora and Son”) and patient (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.”) and the auteurist pleasures of Paul Schrader’s provocative “Master Gardener,” Todd Haynes’ tricky “May December,” and Ridley Scott’s entertainingly mad “Napoleon.”

Although only a few of these films got much attention at the time, all of them deserve to be remembered.

But here, listed alphabetically, are the 10 films I saw this year that I have been unable to forget.

Sandra Hüller in “Anatomy of a Fall.”

“Anatomy of a Fall”
The film opens with a bloodied corpse, lying on the snowy ground beside a charming chalet. Now: Did he fall or was he pushed? That’s the first puzzle — but hardly the last — in this French mystery, which combines a told-in-flashback story of a contentious marriage with a fascinating courtroom drama. Star Sandra Hüller (also superb as a Nazi spouse in this year’s “The Zone of Interest”) both reveals and conceals as the man’s accused wife, and director Justine Triet juggles the conflicting points of view expertly. Was it an accident or a murder? Was the marriage merely troubled, or dangerously violent? And what was their young son’s role in all this? A marital autopsy that leaves all the right questions unanswered.

“Barbie”
I dreaded this project when it was first announced, then became intrigued when the very bright Greta Gerwig signed to direct and to co-write the script (with equally smart partner Noah Baumbach). But what they delivered even surpassed my expectations — a knowing social satire that referenced decades of movie history (and Mattel merchandizing) while still delivering bright cotton-candy laughs. Sometimes the script hit things a little too hard or on-the-nose — it’s a nice piece of writing, but America Ferrera’s late-in-the-film monologue briefly stopped things cold — but star Margot Robbie is endlessly charming, Ryan Gosling is the very best of good sports, and the look of the film is perfect. Certainly the sunniest film of the year.

Glenn Howerton in “BlackBerry.”

“BlackBerry”
One of the biggest, oddest new movie trends has been the upbeat drama about how a company got a celebrity endorsement for their overpriced sneakers, or a janitor (supposedly) invented a popular, unhealthy snack. Usually safely sanitized, and relentlessly inspiring, they play more like PowerPoint presentations than motion pictures. So what a relief to see something like this under-the-radar surprise from director Matt Johnson, the story of the explosive rise and just-as-dramatic fall of a once-ubiquitous status symbol. Fiercely funny and vividly drawn, and propelled by dynamic editing, a great needle-drop soundtrack, and a ferocious performance by Glenn Howerton, it was a welcome antidote to the usual corporate propaganda.

“The Holdovers”
A ’70s-set movie that also perfectly captures the mood of ’70s movies — character-driven, unexpectedly comic, authority-averse (the film it most reminded me of was “The Last Detail” — an influence director Alexander Payne later confirmed). Rebounding from his clunky 2017 allegory “Downsizing,” Payne returns to the sort of story he does best — one about a deeply flawed, determinedly unlikable protagonist who turns out to be, in the end, not quite as flawed or unlikable as we thought. Paul Giamatti is superb as a bitter old prep-school teacher, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph provides a necessary real-world grounding as the boss of the school’s cafeteria. A rare addition to that small list of genuinely touching Christmas movies.

Lily Gladstone in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon”
One of the greatest things about this film is that it’s not the film it was initially supposed to be, centered on a Federal lawman solving a mysterious string of murders. Because the true story, Martin Scorsese realized, was not about how one white man brought justice to the Osage people; it was about how generations of white men slaughtered them, for land and profit. An uncompromising drama, with the indomitable Lily Gladstone at its heart, it’s marked by occasional, satisfyingly entertaining, classic Scorsese touches (numbskull criminals, an icily malevolent Robert De Niro performance) while shot through with quiet despair. Yes, the movie shows us, the Osage did, eventually, survive. But this nation’s promise remains on far shakier ground.

“Maestro”
Sorry, but it’s as plain as the fake nose on his face: Bradley’s Cooper true talent may lie in direction. He’s fine as Leonard Bernstein here (particularly in the genius’ later, less manic years) but what genuinely impresses are his filmmaking skills. The first mistake most biopics make about innovative artists is not being innovative themselves, but Cooper dares big — having his characters walk straight from one scene into another, turning the courtship of Bernstein and his adoring wife Felicia (played by an achingly vulnerable Carey Mulligan) into a sudden, soaring ballet. The usual prognosticators have already called Cooper a solid contender for this year’s Best Actor Oscar. But it’s what Cooper directs next that I’m really anticipating.

Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer.”

“Oppenheimer”
The summer’s other enormous hit was just as surprising as “Barbie” but in a completely different way — a complicated, narrative-shifting examination of the prickly genius who helped both to end a genocidal war and to begin a new era of existential terror. Much has been written about director Christopher Nolan’s marshalling of all the different technical elements — a soundtrack whose droning music increases the sense of dread, cinematography that switches smartly between black-and-white and color, special effects that are both terrifyingly realistic and fantastically overwhelming. But he’s due praise for his handling of actors, too, with Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh and — not least — Robert Downey Jr. giving career-best performances.

“Poor Things”
A movie that’s part “Frankenstein,” part Jules Verne, and completely surprising, as mad doctor Willem Dafoe creates a literal woman-child — who immediately declares her independence and goes in search of personal, political and sexual fulfillment. Director Yorgos Lanthimos fills the screen with sometimes whimsical, sometimes discomfiting inventions — mechanical horses, dog/duck hybrids — but never gets distracted from the film’s central question: What does it really mean to be free? As the very carnal Candide at the center of all this, Emma Stone gives a brilliant, bravely uninhibited performance (she’s pretty amazing on the dance floor, too) and Dafoe provides the best, bittersweet support. Sometimes bloody, often raunchy, never boring.

A dog and his robot in “Robot Dreams.”

“Robot Dreams”
It’s almost a cruel tease to put Pablo Berger’s film here; so far its screenings have been limited mostly to film festivals and a quick Oscar-qualifying run. But it’s worse to leave it off the list, considering that it was the gentlest, most genuinely tear-tugging film I saw all year, with great and important things to say about urban life, modern loneliness and the inevitable ups-and-downs of long-term relationships. Yes, it’s a Spanish/French cartoon. Yes, it’s told without dialogue. And yes — OK, admitted — it’s about a lonely dog who sends away for a build-it-yourself robot. But all of that added up to a story that was not only serious fun, but a joy for the whole family — and proof that animated films don’t have to be loud, computer-engineered assaults.

“Saltburn”
The very rich are different from you and me — but in England, they’re an entirely separate species. It’s a breed that Barry Keoghan’s middle-class scholarship student is determined to join, too — and so he slyly ingratiates himself with the richest, royal-est boy at school. The result is a kinky, blackly comic smash-up of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Brideshead Revisited” with an array of delicious performances, including Richard E. Grant as a lowbrow lord, Rosamund Pike as his supremely shallow wife, and Carey Mulligan as their nearly perpetual houseguest. Jacob Elordi is hunkily handsome as the estate’s young heir, but it’s Keoghan who dominates everyone and everything — and filmmaker Emerald Fennell who makes the whole thing sing.

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