Every so often, Hollywood changes the world, but most of the time, the world changes Hollywood, which adjusts to reflect the innovation happening around it. A year after the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements forced the film industry to confront the sexism baked into the system, we are starting to see progress reflected onscreen and behind the camera — and not just for women, but for groups of all kinds.
Films like “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Love, Simon” broke barriers and minted new stars, offsetting the stumbles of “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Annihilation” (a female-powered sci-fi movie too smart for its own good). Want to know which studio is being the most open-minded about choosing its directors? That would be Netflix, where female, minority, queer, and non-English-language filmmakers are making movies — which far exceed the 80 original films estimated this time last year. Heck, the company doesn’t even discriminate against the dead, stepping up to complete Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind.”
Most of these films may be bypassing theaters, but let’s not declare the theatrical experience dead just yet. This year, millions of people signed up for MoviePass subscriptions, boosting box office (at considerable expense to the upstart company) and demonstrating that if cinemas could bring down ticket prices, the audience would come. Clearly, the world is changing. It’s time for Hollywood to catch up!
Launched last January at the Sundance film festival, “Blindspotting” kicked off the year with an ultimatum, demonstrating that the surest way to combat prejudice and misunderstanding is by insisting upon being recognized for the complete, complex, and sometimes contradictory human beings that we are. Co-written by and starring charismatic “Hamilton” rapper Daveed Diggs and hyper-articulate spoken-word artist Rafael Casal, this ambitious Oakland-set movie grapples with everything from gentrification to gun violence, racial profiling to police brutality. At a moment when representation matters more than ever, this blistering, spitfire debut is a rallying cry for all who demand to be seen and heard.
2. “A Star Is Born”
A familiar story rendered original in the details, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a dazzling reminder of why we love movies in the first place. Credit on-screen chemistry for much of the movie’s power — Lady Gaga is a revelation, while Cooper gives a career-best performance as the burnt-out country singer who “discovers” her — but the key is their mutual determination to reveal more of themselves than the material demands. To the extent that music and movies are “the same story told over and over,” this one amounts to so much more than a shallow cover version, revealing a voice all its own.
A master of compelling, easily relatable melodramas, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has dedicated his career to the question of “What is family?” In “Our Little Sister,” three adult siblings rearrange their lives to make room for their much-younger half-sister, while in “Like Father, Like Son,” a family wrestles with the revelation that their child was switched at birth. His latest, rightly recognized with the Palme d’Or at Cannes, examines a far less conventional arrangement, asking whether family can only be determined by genetics, or might be something we choose for ourselves, as a multi-generational ensemble of gifted actors does here.
4. “The Hate U Give”
Young-adult movies seldom tackle the kind of themes novelist Angie Thomas wove into her complex portrait of an inner-city teenager juggling two different personae: the side she shows to those in her Garden Heights ’hood, and the one she shares at her predominately white prep school. Playing Starr, a multi-dimensional role model who’s incredibly articulate about race, Amandla Stenberg is the radiant heart of a movie that uses its YA status to explore the thorny reality behind Tupac’s THUG LIFE acronym — “The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everyone” — breaking it down even for us grown-ups, who need this lesson most.
5. “Eighth Grade”
Every year, festivals like Sundance and Toronto are crammed with coming-of-age movies from callow first-timers fixated on picking the scabs of their own teenage trauma (a few, such as Jonah Hill’s nostalgic skater movie “Mid90s,” actually turn out to be quite good). How refreshing then to find a newcomer like comedian-turned-director Bo Burnham stepping into someone else’s shoes. Both vulnerable and incredibly well-observed, his pimples-and-all portrayal focuses on an adolescent girl (newcomer Elsie Fisher) trying to navigate the pitfalls of junior high today, resulting in a tender dramedy that feels as lived-in and honest as last year’s “Lady Bird.”
Although “Roma” may be stealing much of the attention (deservedly so, since Netflix gave Alfonso Cuarón a rare opportunity to re-create his childhood as a lavish, black-and-white art film), from where I stand, the year’s most exciting Mexican movie is this visionary, hyper-stylized heist picture from director Alonso Ruizpalacios. Inspired by a bizarre real-life caper in which two guys (one played by Gael García Bernal) stole more than 100 objects from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, this is no conventional genre movie, but a radical challenge to the notion of who owns such artifacts in the first place.
7. “Life and Nothing More”
Funny how it often takes a foreigner to recognize the American stories and characters that most deserve telling. That was true of “The Rider,” in which Chinese-born Chloé Zhao ventured to a Native American reservation to discover a lyrical real-life Western begging to be told (that film topped my list last year), and the principle applies just as strongly to Spanish director Antonio Méndez Esparza’s North Florida-set family drama, about a single mother (Regina Williams) struggling to provide for her two kids. The result would make a perfect double-bill with “Moonlight,” offering another vital glimpse into the working-class African-American experience.
8. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”
Not every movie can — or should — try to change the world. Occasionally, it’s enough to push the boundaries of cinema, which is something Tom Cruise has consistently done with each new outing of the “Mission: Impossible” series. Until now, tapping Brad Bird to helm the fourth installment set a franchise high, though Cruise seems to have found his ideal accomplice in director (and “The Usual Suspects” screenwriter) Christopher McQuarrie, whose puzzle-brain sees the big picture, creating elaborate payoffs for story threads introduced earlier in the series, elegantly interwoven with such over-the-top set pieces as that spectacular HALO jump, or a lunatic helicopter showdown over Kashmir.
Some films thrill you in the moment, while others worm their way under your skin, forcing you to untangle mysteries that quite possibly have no answer. In “Burning,” South Korean director Lee Chang-dong serves up a beguiling example of the latter, focusing on a frustrated novelist (Ah-in Yoo) obsessed with creating meaning from the messiness of his life, to the point that he convinces himself the girl he likes (Jong-seo Jun) has been murdered. Maddeningly ambiguous at times, “Burning” invites audiences to reach their own conclusions about these characters, challenging the basic conventions of storytelling in the process.
10. “In Syria”
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of Syria, now the most-documented conflict in history. What’s missing from most non-fiction accounts, however, is the human connection that would make these tragedies resonate with Western audiences. By merging the testimony of refugees and survivors with his own imagination, writer-director Philippe Van Leeuw’s brilliantly finds a way to frame this ongoing humanitarian crisis for international audiences. Set in a single apartment, where a stubborn matriarch (the great Israeli actress Hiam Abbass) has ill-advisedly insisted on keeping her family after all others have evacuated, this tense domestic drama really brings the situation home.