This is in no particular order. I looked at a lot of other lists to refresh my memory, and I teased out the ones I’d seen and particularly enjoyed (or at least remembered easily in December). It’s eclectic, given that I like science fiction, French movies, animation and mainstream award nominees.


Ad Astra

One of two Brad Pitt on the list this year; Brad, as you head into your fifties, you’re doing all right. That dewy ingenue seducer you once were has aged into a stoic, brooding, equally hot and taciturn man, and you’re fully in charge of your cool dude powers in both films. Here, helped along by exciting sci-fi visions, you take the trope of confronting your father issues (all-too common in cosmic sci-fi for some reason) to new places that actually transcend the cliché and allow for personal growth and a sense of achievement. You’re only going as far as Neptune, and the message is not as mind-bending as 2001’s trek to Jupiter. Yet how you handle yourself, what you find the along the way, and what comprises the story’s end are vital storytelling. The sense of how wrong everything could go never at any moment lets up in the exciting but otherwise nearly random vignettes.


High Life

Robert Pattison also made quite the impact this year; here he underplays wonderfully as a convict on a doomed mission to the stars, one which is somehow staffed by unstable coeds who have nothing left to lose. His life on Earth wasted, he manages to pull something from the ashes in this interstellar kamikaze trip, namely a daughter he genuinely loves. This despite Juliet Binoche’s sexy mad scientist turn, and Claire Denis’ affinity for Solaris more than 2001 when it comes to deep space. In caring for the unlikely baby like a parent, he becomes his own man at last, just in time for her to reach puberty and for both to embark on a suitably ambiguous and open-ended fate.


Wild / Sauvage

Children are not part of the picture in this stunningly frank film about gay sex workers, living on the rough and trying to survive with the hopes of enjoying their paid exploits occasionally. And yet it is the childhood of the main character Leo that is the unspoken mystery, as we start to wonder what drove him to this barely civilized style of living? Love happens from two directions, from our title ruffian towards a fellow hooker (affection returned, but not love) and from a depressive loner seeking to domesticate said savage. Rules and rituals of masculinity are flaunted and underscored as one relationship leads to violence and the other to domestication. Society, represented by some kindly souls, tries to help in tentative, mostly insufficient ways. Felix Maritaud, whether in a doctor’s office, a bedroom or in the woods, makes it clear that he’s beyond their well-meaning grasp.


Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

So many things should never have happened. The assassinations of the Kennedys. Of Martin Luther King. Of Malcolm X. Of John Lennon. Jodie Foster should never have been involved in someone’s murderous plan. Sharon Tate should have had a long career. Quentin Tarantino can’t fix all of that, but with the help of amigos Brad and Leo, he can make sure one little thing goes well. A couple of things actually, as his story of the waning years of a mostly TV star from the era finds a parallel in the beginnings of an ingenue’s beautiful career. On a night of horror, the spirit of vengeance rises, and it is embodied by the other great Pitt performance of the year. He’s a stunt man who knows basically how to do one thing. Move his body safely where it needs to be, from where it might get hurt otherwise. He knows this one valuable skill faultlessly. And while he is giving lessons, Leo is learning them, from the mouths of babes and over a benevolent outdoor speaker. It’s as feel good as QT is ever likely to get, and it felt great.


Abominable

We chose this film over the animated competition one holiday weekend, and you’d think we made the wrong choice. Certainly the less popular one at the box office. But this tale of some Chinese friends who find their own personal Buddha in need of help becomes a gorgeous personal and spiritual cross-country journey, and while it’s definitely made with an Asian audience in mind, it translates to the West with style and the substance of universal appeal. The monster is cute but can be scary. The kids are precocious but not too mature and Sarah Paulson and Eddie Izzard bring nuance to their villainy. One more story of a magical creature who brings out the best in everybody but the bad guys turns out to be just the thing for a family outing.


Spider-Man: Far from Home

What was great about this one was how that core chemistry of Tom Holland and Robert Downey (Iron Man/Spider-Man as father/son) was challenged by throwing more star power at it. Jake Gyllenhaal came on to portray the aptly dubbed Mysterio, and he milked every ounce of confusion out of his ambiguous role and attempt to usurp Spidey’s need for mentorship.  The effects were great, and the winning formula from the Avengers film was given a more personal, typically near-tragic Peter Parker journey that made great use of European set pieces. Even better, this meticulously CGI Mysterio looked just as Ditko as Doctor Strange.


Non-Fiction

Perhaps not a perfect film, but this long and wordy exploration of loyalty, fidelity and literature has stayed active in my thought processes all year. As we watch a nebbishy writer on the left be gently let down regarding his new book by a savvy editor and long-time friend, the friendly manners of business give way to an increasingly cut-throat modern infotainment world. Even as the writer carries on an affair with the always electric Juliet Binoche (the editor’s wife), while misunderstanding the more committed leftism of his own wife, the editor’s new apprentice (whom he’s sleeping with as well) is miles ahead of all of them on the digital frontier. Yet even she would rather just read a poetry book. Assayas gives these thoughtful characters plenty of room to make their points, and the attractive cast shines, especially Binoche, Canet and Macaigne.


Honorable Mention: Greta

Always worth making room for Isabelle Huppert, especially when she’s teamed with a director who knows what she can do such as Neal Jordan. This one is closer to The Crying Game’s noir style than the wackadoo Elektra complex of In Dreams, bringing back Jordan stalwart Stephen Rea to investigate the mysterious surrounding Huppert’s title piano teacher. The two of them give a master class in scenery chewing as they dance around each other when his detective work leads to her obscured New York flat. Chloe Grace Moretz, having recently lost her mother, falls into her trap too, but the twists and turns as the red flags go up keep their struggle for dominance complicated and full of surprises until the end.

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