Deceptively hidden under layers of gorgeous surfaces, Paul Thomas Anderson’s borderline-sick romance waltzes toward a riveting tale of obsession. If this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s way of dropping the mic (purportedly, he’s retiring), then he’s picked a fine exit, bringing to life a fastidious fashion designer who, in 1950s London, falls for a lissome waitress (Vicky Krieps). Despite the latter’s humility, she’s the one who turns the tables, steering the film into deliciously dark irony.
The Western comeback continues this year, with Christian Bale twirling irons in the very decent ‘Hostiles’ and Mia Wasikowska headlining the so-far-unreleased ‘Damsel’. But this dusty Aussie effort from ‘Samson and Delilah’s Warwick Thornton is the best of the lot. Stunningly shot, it’s a violent frontier tale about an indigenous man (Hamilton Morris) forced to go on the run. As a study of racism and prejudice (both historic and current), it’s searing stuff.
The revelation of the year came courtesy of actor Margot Robbie, plunging body and soul into the paranoid psyche of the snub-savouring figure skater Tonya Harding. This isn’t a person who was calling out for a biopic (much less a sympathetic one), but screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie teased out timely resonances, touching on class warfare, child abuse and the exploitation of women. The film’s moment is right now.
If ‘The Witch’ didn't convince you that young Anya Taylor-Joy was the real thing, she's now got her own ‘American Psycho’ to prove it. The movie has a steely sheen and an evil sense of humour: It's about extremely wealthy Connecticut teens with bad impulses. Amid all the amazing meanness, Anton Yelchin gives his final (and best) performance.
It’s never easy to pull off a good stage-to-screen translation but Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson do it with some panache in this triptych of meta-tales that brims with weirdness and scares. Nyman steps in front of the camera too, as an arrogant spectral debunker who discovers to his cost that he may have significantly underestimated the power of the paranormal. Who you gonna call? Not this guy.
A few people grumbled that Lynne Ramsay’s kinda-thriller jettisoned the pulpier genre beats of Jonathan Ames’s source novel. True, it feels like a film recovering from a heavy night – the camerawork is blearily impressionistic and Greenwood’s electronica throbs like a headache – but it’s immaculately crafted, stunningly headlined by Joaquin Phoenix’s shaggy but lethal army vet and loaded with quiet power. It’s a film to bathe in as much as watch.
The movie didn’t linger as long as the pink-hued perfection that is ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, but Wes Anderson’s most recent bit of confectionery cinema supplied considerable charm, especially for dog lovers. Issues of Japanese cultural appropriation soured the critical reaction; we prefer to see ‘Isle of Dogs’ as celebratory – an oblique remake of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’, with mangy Bryan Cranston growling his way to his own take on Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken.
The daily struggle of 1990s Aids activists living and dying in Paris was dramatised with personal passion in a film that echoed with today’s battles. Tense strategy sessions and attention-grabbing guerrilla stunts are a window onto organisational tactics, but the emotional highlight was the reverie of one Gay Pride marcher, his mind slipping into distraction as Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ blasts out around him.
Here’s the one to beat – at least so far, in an already scary year that doesn’t need more trauma. Family frictions unravel a clan grappling with unthinkable grief in writer-director Ari Aster’s domestic-horror stunner, led by the fearless Toni Collette. That plot description suggests something sombre and Bergmanesque – which this definitely is – but when the supernatural elements creep in, you’re in the presence of nothing short of a new ‘Exorcist’.
The ‘Young Adult’ brains trust of screenwriter Diablo Cody, director Jason Reitman and Charlize Theron reunited for another sharp comedy for adults, this one (provocatively) about the little death that happens to every woman when she becomes a mother and must say goodbye to her carefree cool-girl self. Beyond Theron’s magnificent exhaustion and Cody’s deepening wisdom as a post-sarcastic voice, ‘Tully’ also introduced viewers to the seriously gifted Mackenzie Davis.