2 Movie Reviewers Pick This Year's Standout Films
NOEL KING, HOST:
We are heading into movie awards season. 2018 was the year of "Black Panther," "Crazy Rich Asians," Ryan Gosling playing Neil Armstrong in "First Man." I asked the film critics April Wolfe and Claudia Puig of the LA Film Critics Association to try and pick their favorites from this year. Good morning, ladies. It's been a busy year for you both.
APRIL WOLFE: Oh, my God, we want to - I've written at least four different top 20 lists because there are...
WOLFE: I'm serious. I'm not even joking. And they're all different.
KING: Top 80.
WOLFE: They're all completely different.
CLAUDIA PUIG: There's so many lists that can be given to you right now. And I'm sorry to give you...
WOLFE: Yeah, this has been a great year.
KING: But I want to talk about your favorites. And I know that, Claudia, one of yours is a 1970s period piece that was set in Mexico City. It's called "Roma." Tell us about that movie.
PUIG: This is one of the most beautiful films. It's enthralling. It's - people throw around the word masterpiece a little too lightly, but I'm going to throw it out there.
PUIG: It's such a powerful and intimate story. It's like cinematic poetry. Moments are allowed to unspool. The pacing is very different from what we normally see in American movies. And it's a portrayal of the middle class in Mexico, which is not something you see hardly ever in American films. You see, you know, of course poor and struggling immigrants, and you see wealthy drug lords leading decadent, violent lives in luxurious haciendas, but you don't see the middle class.
And it's told from the perspective of an indigenous woman who raised the director and writer, Alfonso Cuaron. And it's about the relationship between this woman and the family. She clearly loves the kids, and they love her. But she's - you know, there's definitely a class struggle here.
It really resonated for me on a personal level because I lived there in the 1970s in Mexico City. And the production designer, Eugenio Caballero, was just meticulous in his production design, recreating what the streets looked like the '70s.
KING: OK, I'm putting that one on my list. April Wolfe, one of your top picks of the year is "First Reformed," which starred Ethan Hawke. He played a minister who is going through kind of a crisis of faith and then found purpose in environmentalism. Not to be snarky, but not exactly blockbuster material. You loved it. What did you love?
WOLFE: Well, I think Claudia hits on something that I was going to bring up, which is the idea of poetry. And I think that American cinema embraced the idea of poetry this year, which is a...
WOLFE: ...Slower tone. And it's almost literary in a sense. And it's also a little bit more open. And "First Reformed" for me hits all of those points. It's a very slow film. Paul Schrader - if he doesn't make anything after this, he doesn't need to. This could be the capstone of a really great career. And the way that Ethan Hawke acts in this film is very restrained. And it's a really beautiful thing to behold and just to kind of lean in and feel like you're getting very close to these characters.
KING: Let's take a listen to a clip from "First Reformed."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST REFORMED")
CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER: (As Pastor Jeffers) Jesus doesn't want our suffering. He suffered for us.
ETHAN HAWKE: (As Toller) And what of his creation? The heavens declare the glory of God. God is present everywhere, in every plant, every river, every tiny insect. The whole world is a manifestation of his holy presence. I think this is an issue where the church can lead. But they say nothing.
KING: So that's the poetry you're talking about.
WOLFE: Yeah, there's almost a literary quality to this. You know, the language of this is a very different film.
PUIG: April, I was just wondering. I think it's Ethan Hawke's best performance. What do you think?
WOLFE: Absolutely. And you can see when they talk together, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke, the kind of respect that they have for one another. And the way that they talk about process is very philosophical.
KING: Another quiet movie that made both of your lists - it's called "Leave No Trace." And it's about a father and his young daughter who are living in a park outside of Portland. Let's play a clip of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAVE NO TRACE")
THOMASIN MCKENZIE: (As Tom) What if the kids at school think I'm strange because of the way we're living?
BEN FOSTER: (As Will) How important are their judgments?
MCKENZIE: (As Tom) Guess I'll find out.
KING: What is this movie about?
PUIG: It's exploring people who are living on the margins, people that you might not ordinarily even see or think about. And that's one of the things that the director, Debra Granik, does so well. She made "A Winter's Bone" (ph), which kind of launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence. And she just has a way of drawing fantastic performances. And the two actors here, Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, are just amazing as father-daughter. I completely believed that they were parent and child.
WOLFE: Yeah. They - in fact, Debra Granik - she talks about this. She built into the budget of her movie at least a week for them, these two actors, to get together and to take a survival course. So they were actually living in the woods for a week together and bonded. And you can see that kind of familiarity in that film. And I quite love everything about this movie. And talk about a...
PUIG: I do, too.
WOLFE: ...Literary quality, too, you know? This is...
PUIG: Oh, yeah.
WOLFE: Gosh, this is a poem of a film as well. It makes you really think about things. And ask Debra Granik about her thinking about why she made it, and she'll immediately go into Henry David Thoreau and talk about stillness and the need for stillness right now.
KING: It's interesting. The three movies that you've highlighted - it sounds like realism is part of the point in many ways. And I don't know. That's interesting to me 'cause I guess I think about movies so much in this day and age as escapism, you know, as movies about superheroes, as "Black Panther," as, you know, movies about wildly wealthy people living lives, you know, most of us can't imagine - "Crazy Rich Asians." But what impressed you this year were the movies that felt like they could really happen to people we know.
PUIG: They could really happen. And I think they're also people that we maybe overlook in different ways - you know, a domestic worker, people, you know, living in a tent that we drive by perhaps or a minister who's - who we sort of see going about his business. We don't know what kind of interior life he's having and what struggles he's having. So I think it's, you know, realism and also just delving into lives that we might not be thinking about all the time and that we're fascinated by when, you know, they're presented to us so beautifully and poetically.
WOLFE: Yeah. And, you know, this is a very noisy year...
KING: Yeah. Yeah.
WOLFE: ...In terms of everything else that's going on. And so to me, there is a bit of escapism in something like "First Reformed," "Roma" and "Leave No Trace" because you get to go into this theater and escape from the noise for just an hour or two.
PUIG: Yeah, all of these films are very still. And they're quiet. And you have to listen and watch and - you know, as opposed to - sometimes with those big, noisy films - you know, some of them are great, but some of them you almost are inured to, or you're just - you know, it's just too much. It's like overload, sensory overload. This is a much gentler - these are gentler films.
KING: Quiet down and pay attention to people is kind of a nice message. I'm willing to take it in (laughter) 2018. Film critics April Wolfe and Claudia Puig of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, thank you both.
PUIG: Thank you.
WOLFE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRODUCTION MUSIC'S "ROMA (TRAILER THEME)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.