The end of each year inevitably brings a deluge of top 10 lists. Of course, many of them include the same films. For 2018, we expect that Cold War, Burning, Roma, and Shoplifters will be on most lists. I wanted to do something a bit different and create a top 10 that highlighted films that probably won’t end up on all those best-of lists, but not because they aren’t great or they don’t matter. Instead, they’re films that flew under-the-radar or made a bigger impact in other countries or, for whatever reason, didn’t find an audience to champion them. So, I’m championing them.
These are films that moved me in some way because they focused on a singer I love or examined a problem or went deeper into a topic that interests me. Not all the films are technically from 2018, there are also a few from 2017 and even 2016. I am often behind on new releases and some films released a year or so ago haven’t been available until now. So, I’m just including all of them together. I hope the list can expose you to a few films you might not know about and inspire you to seek them out!
Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar have worked on many films together. I even covered one of those films–Le stade de Wimbledon–for the podcast. Over the years, Amalric has proven to be both a brilliant actor and talented auteur. I love his films because they’re often very idiosyncratic and different. In his latest film, Amalric plays Yves Zand, a director obsessed with the French singer, Barbara (born Monique Andrée Serf) who captivated audiences with her poetic and confessional songs. Balibar plays Brigitte, an actress playing Barbara in a biopic. While Brigitte can fluidly go in and out of character– one moment inhabiting Barbara, the next just being herself–Zand struggles to separate reality and fiction because of his intense connection to Barbara’s music. Amalric incorporates actual footage of Barbara into the film, leaving the audience unsure, at times, if we are seeing Balibar or Barbara–the two women almost merge, and the resemblance between them is startling. Ultimately, the film raises questions about the nature of biopics, the mystery of acting, and the deep devotion we feel for certain singers and artists.
God Knows Where I Am (2016)
Few films have haunted me this year more than God Knows Where I Am. I first saw it on PBS where there was also a discussion with the filmmakers, Jedd and Todd Wider. The documentary is about Linda Bishop, a woman who starved to death in an unattended house in New Hampshire after she was released from a mental health facility without her family being notified. Bishop struggled with bipolar disorder with psychosis and often refused treatment. She was really hiding in the house and no one knew she was there. She kept diaries and purposely starved herself, only eating apples and surviving off snow until she died. Excerpts of Bishop’s diaries are read in voice-over in the film and there are interviews with her loved ones. More than anything, this documentary exposes the major cracks and dysfunction in the mental health system in the United States.
In the opening scene of Xavier Legrand’s Custody, Miriam and Antoine Besson are meeting with a judge to discuss who will have custody of their young son, Julien. Miriam claims that Antoine is violent toward Julien and their older daughter, Josephine, but Antoine denies it and, along with his lawyer, paints Miriam as a liar. The audience is immediately unsure of who to believe, and the film maintains that tension until the very end in a final scene that is one of the most shocking and intense I’ve ever witnessed. It’s best not to say too much more, and I recommend avoiding reviews until you’ve seen the film for yourself.
Charlotte Rampling continues to construct a body of work that is filled with quietly powerful performances. Hannah is another triumph in her career. She received the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for playing Hannah, a woman whose husband is put in prison for sex crimes, leaving her alone, adrift, and isolated from both her family and the outside world because of how she remains by his side. Hannah is directed by Andrea Pallaoro, and he created the role specifically for Rampling, allowing her to bring all of her formidable powers to a film that is slow, subtle, and concerned with a woman’s agonizing diminishment. Hannah rarely speaks and hardly interacts with people. She is deeply coiled within herself, but Rampling conveys the interiority of Hannah through small gestures and quiet moments, like when Hannah sees a beached whale or sits alone on a subway. The silence and slowness of the film suggest great depths and brought to mind a film called Everything Else, which also focuses on a woman gradually receding from the world.
Quiet Hours (2018)
When Donald Hall died in 2018, the world lost a truly important poet. For decades, Hall wrote poetry that bore witness to life and loss in all its complexity. His wife, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, died in 1995, and he wrote many books about her death. He never got over losing her and, it seemed, turned to poetry and language as a way to mourn, celebrate, and survive. Quiet Hours is a short film directed by Paul Szynol that captures Hall in the last years of his life. It shows him at his home in New Hampshire. He talks about Jane. He talks about writing. We even see the women who help him in his daily chores. In his late 80s, he has a gravity and presence that remind me of Walt Whitman. Maybe it’s the beard. I’m grateful for this film and grateful for the contributions of Hall and Kenyon, two poets who have deeply affected my life.
Amanda is a simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking film. Visually, it is dreamy and sun-soaked. Thematically, it is devastating. Vincente Lacoste plays David, a young man whose sister is killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. David must face this terrible loss and also take care of his sister’s young daughter, Amanda, who is grief-stricken and lost without her mother. David and Amanda were already close, but their bond deepens as they turn to each other for love and support. Every day on the news, we hear about horrific acts of violence, but we rarely get a sense of how these events impact the lives of the survivors, how the loss of a loved one changes them forever. Amanda goes beyond the headlines. It even questions the ability of the news to convey the real life of the victims when, in one scene, David tries to talk to a journalist about his sister and abruptly ends the interview because he can’t find the words. How can he explain who she was? How can he make people understand? Amanda shows that perhaps fiction is, at times, a better medium for telling these stories and for conveying the rich and complex life of a person and how their death can affect the loved ones they leave behind.
A Season in France (2017)
On the news, we hear about the plight of refugees around the world, but, often, they remain nameless faces on a television or cellphone screen. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France takes us directly into the lives of a father and his children as they seek asylum in France after leaving their home in Africa. Eriq Ebouaney gives a powerful performance as Abbas Mahadjir, a man trying to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of immigration law and provide for his family but, at every turn, he faces daunting obstacles and systemic barriers. He falls in love with Carole Blaszak, played by the always-wondrous Sandrine Bonnaire. Blaszak had her own immigration issues because of her Polish background. So, she symapthizes with Mahadjir and tries to help him, but all his appeals for asylum are rejected. Who will take him and his family in? Where will they go? How will they survive? Through one story, Haroun makes us think about the larger experience of migrants and refugees, how precarious their lives are, how traumatic it is to leave their homes and to be unwanted in every country they enter, the inhumanity and dehumanization they face just for trying to survive. I think this period will go down as one of the most shameful times in human history when millions of people fled war, violence, and environmental collapse and so many countries closed their borders and showed no decency. Often, the countries closing their borders are the ones that helped create the very conditions that refugees are trying to escape. A Season in Hell is vital and important and forces us to stare that shame directly in the face.
My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)
The single most important film I watched this year was Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema. Some films are catalysts leading us in new and unexpected directions that change our lives forever. For me, this is that film. Tavernier takes us on a personal and in-depth journey through the French films that he loves. He talks about directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carné, and many more. Because of this documentary, I decided that I want to go even deeper into French cinema, that I want to watch as many classic French films as I possibly can, and learn all I can about the history of French cinema. I went on to watch other French films, including Melville’s Army of Shadows, Carné’s Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise, and Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal, and I’m not stopping there. I look forward to watching many more, and I have Tavernier to thank!
Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar (2018)
Discovering the poetry of Sylvia Plath when I was around 16 years old was one of the single most important events of my life. I was immediately electrified by her art, and my love for her has only grown over the years. I’ve devoured her poetry, her journals, The Bell Jar, her short stories, and biographies about her. However, I’ve always been baffled by the lack of documentaries about her life and work. There was one made shortly after her death that features interviews with people who knew her and even her mother, but, other than that, few films have come to fruition. This makes me all the more grateful for the BBC documentary Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar, directed by Teresa Griffiths, which takes a look at her life, specifically the period of her internship at Mademoiselle in the 1950s. The events would inspire her to write The Bell Jar. The documentary includes interviews with the other women who were also interns with Plath, childhood friends, and Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Scholars also provide important historical context, discussing the struggle many women faced in the 1950s, how limited their lives were, how Plath resisted that and struggled to create the life she wanted at a time when women had few options. I found myself in tears by the end of the film because Plath felt so real to me. It also brought home to me what a ferocious woman she was. We talk too often about Plath’s suicide. It looms so large. What gets lost is Plath’s life. What gets lost is how vivacious and funny and beautiful and ambitious she was, how she endured horrendous depression and even worse treatment by mental health professionals but despite it all she wrote poems and a novel that stand the test of time and continue to astonish, inspire, and influence countless writers to this day. Her life was extraordinary. She was extraordinary, and this documentary reminds us of that.
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2018)
I love film scores. I listen to film music on a regular basis. One album that has stayed with me for years is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant. It’s a stunning work of art that Sakamoto actually composed while he had cancer. The documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda takes us into the life of a talented and fascinating composer who seems deeply connected to the world around him. In the film, we go all over the world with Sakamoto, from the wasteland of Fukushima to the icy landscape of the Arctic. We hear stories of Sakamoto’s life, including the day he was in New York City on 9/11 and why he loves Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. Sakamoto takes inspiration from a variety of sources-from history, cinema, the sound of rain, nature, human and environmental disasters, and his own personal struggles. I was in awe of this documentary. It inspired me to seek out more of Sakamoto’s work and to pay more attention to the world around me.
Where to watch Ryuichi Sakamto: Coda
Letter from Masanjia – a Chinese prisoner at a labor camp smuggles an SOS letter into a box of Halloween decorations, and the letter is found by a woman in Oregon, triggering a haunting series of events
Drift – a meditative and contemplative film that incorporates the beauty and rhythms of the ocean
Before Summer Ends – After several years of living in France, a young man must return to Iran, but takes one last trip with his friends
BPM (Beats Per Minute) – a fierce look at the courageous activists of ACT UP in Paris in the 1990s
The Dead Nation – a harrowing examination of the rise of nationalism and fascism in Romania in the 1930s and 1940s
Yours In Sisterhood – women read unpublished letters from the archive of Ms. Magazine, exposing how much and how little has changed for women over the last few decades
Mug – a construction worker receives a face transplant and is subsequently shunned by his conservative Polish village
They Shall Not Grown Old – Peter Jackson colorizes old footage from the First World War, bringing history to life in new and powerful ways
Dawnland – a documentary about the first ever truth and reconciliation commission in the United States that looked at how Native American children were taken from their families in Maine
Chavela – an insightful documentary about the vibrant life and music of Chavela Vargas, who was once the lover of Frida Kahlo
Into My Life – a daughter preserves her mother’s home movies that show the life of the African American community in Brooklyn in the 1970s and beyond