It’s been another tough year for me at the movies. The swamp of desperately-plotted comedy and superhero sequels clogged with action sludge– pulled me down, but not out. I hung on until late fall, when the cinematic floodgates opened to release a wave of excellent movies I’m still riding.  I have not yet seen PHANTOM THREAD (opening Dec 25th) a film that has been widely critically praised as among the year’s best. That said, my top 10 would include GET OUT Jordan Peele’s shocking, racially-charged horror flick, the sublimely understated DUNKIRK, the existentially haunting A GHOST STORY, and Guillermo del Toro’s paranoiac cold war fable THE SHAPE OF WATER. So far–my top five are the following:

1.CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: This swooningly erotic coming of age tale directed by Luca Guadagnino left me breathless. Set in northern Italy during the early 80’s, the story is based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel about 17 year-old Elio who is jolted by his first glimpse of his professor father’s visiting American doctoral student who arrives to spend the summer at the family’s villa.  Armie Hammer’s blonde godliness as Oliver ignites intense Elio’s sexual feelings and we are swept along in the beauty of the place and the ecstatic awakening of a young man in the throes of his first deep passion.The dance they do relentlessly builds to transcendent, heartbreaking intimacy. Newcomer Timothée Chalamet as Elio is extraordinary–tender and precocious. Watching his face over the final credits is like looking through a window at a cascade of pain and longing. Crack open a bottle of wine and surrender.

2. LADY BIRD:Witty, wise, and full of heart, LADY BIRD is hilariously and accurately observed by writer/director, actress Greta Gerwig. This gem of a film stars the glowing Saoirse Ronan Oscar nominee for her radiant performance in BROOKLYN. Here she plays a senior at a Catholic HS in Sacramento, CA navigating transitions familial, romantic, and collegial. Her given name is Christine McPherson but she has given herself her own name: “Lady Bird, ” and stretches her identity to include a reach for admission to east coast colleges which everyone including her guidance counselor and her mother think is beyond her grasp. Gerwig is particularly attuned to the whipsaw emotional shifts between mother (the marvelous Laurie Metcalf) and daughter, and the undercurrents of closeness and tension that percolate through this most tortuous of human relationships. The dialogue is hilarious and true, her characters speak in ways wise and wacky. Gerwig knows this territory, who these characters are emotionally and psychologically, and she knows how to put it all onscreen with warmth and economy.

3. THE FLORIDA PROJECT: For all I know, director/co-writer Sean Baker strapped an invisible camera to the back of one of a pack of kids running wild on the fringes of society, so unfettered and unadorned are these performances. Brooklynn Prince as 6-year old Moonee along with pals Scooty and Dicky live at The Magic Castle Motel, churning in the shadow of the Disney’s nearby Magic Kingdom, but light-years from the fairy tale. They scramble in and out of their cramped rooms, mouthing off, scavenging handouts from tourists, getting into trouble, and absorbing the toughness of the adults around them living paycheck to paycheck, dodging eviction notices, shooting up– and worse– as the law closes in. Willem Dafoe plays Bobby the building manager on call with extraordinary equilibrium.  Dafoe’s grooved visage suggests hard won scars of his own, and the equilibrium to be the only constant in many of these catastrophic lives. It was hard to watch, but impossible not to.  The last scene is a surreal sprint toward hope that left me gasping and aching with sorrow.

4 DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME: Without Question the best documentary this year. It’s not only a document of the “stuff” of film itself, but a movie within a movie made up of many movies. Writer/director Bill Morrison has assembled a treasure trove of  “lost” images– silent films, newsreels, and archives from the turn of the last century–that was buried deep in the permafrost of the Yukon. Their discovery 50 years later, resulted in an excavation of the history of the Klondike gold rush, the indigenous people it displaced, and a dramatic narrative of the culture that replaced them. The film is part history, murder mystery, love story, social commentary. I could have feasted on every luscious strip of celluloid twice as long. It’s a haunting communique from a place and a time gone by captured forever, the way movies capture mortality in a flash. Stunning.

5. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: Frances McDormand is the toughest customer yet as Mildred, a mother who puts up three billboards in an effort to jumpstart an investigation into the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter. What emerges is a picture of an insular town where the pace is slow, wounds fester, and dysfunctional families inflict the worst on each other. The murder is a “Macguffin” of sorts, the mystery more about what drives this unruly collection of hardscrabble town folk, everyone of whom has a burden to bear. Sam Rockwell is brilliant as a despicable, dumb-as-a-post lawman, like a cruel Barney Fife, with some of his vulnerability. Gradually, in its final and unexpectedly tender moments, the film slouches toward redemption.

Off to see more movies. Will keep you POSTED!