We are pleased to announce our selections for the best films we saw this year. As you head into the holidays, The Octavian Report film list makes great year-end watching wherever you may be — and these movies make great gifts, if you are still scrambling.
A Private War — Matthew Heinman, 2018
Syria is top of mind this week, making Heinman’s amazing first narrative feature more powerful than ever. The true life story of Marie Colvin, a contemporary war correspondent of the old school, who died trying to bring news of the siege of Homs to the rest of the world. An outstanding performance from Rosamund Pike anchors the work.
Pershmerga — Bernard-Henri Lévy, 2016
The Kurds have proven to be one of the few successful forces fighting ISIS troops. This frontline documentary from French intellectual and Octavian Report contributor Lévy was filmed when he and a crew travelled the long frontier dividing Kurdish terriritory in Iraq from lands controlled by Daesh. Frightening and illuminating, Peshmerga showcases a valiant people who deserve more support from the West.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead — Morgan Neville, 2018
Orson Welles’ post-Citizen Kane career was legendary for his struggles to get his projects done. This year saw the release of his final film, the lost masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind starring another legendary director, John Huston. Morgan Neville’s documentary about Welles and his battle to make and complete the film works as both a companion piece and a standalone meditation on art, fame, and the complexities of unquestionable but in the end misunderstood genius.
In the Realm of Perfection — Julien Farraut, 2018
Speaking of perfectionism, John McEnroe is another explosive and revolutionary talent. This intense, up-close-and-personal documentary focuses on the 25-year-old John McEnroe’s dominant 1984 performance and his legendary match against Ivan Lendl in the final of the French Open that year. Described as a nouvelle vague take on the sport documentary, Farraut’s vivid, intellectual documentary uses copious archival film footage and a unique sensibility to evoke a time that feels like another era.
At Eternity’s Gate — Julian Schnabel, 2018
Vincent van Gogh has long exerted a fascination over Hollywood. Schnabel, an artist himself and a connoisseur of unusual personalities, has made a strange, powerful film here about the final years of the painter’s life. Willem Dafoe’s van Gogh is troubled and uncertain about his place in history, and Dafoe does a good job playing a man thirty years his junior. Oscar Isaac as his great friend Paul Gauguin is also well worth watching.
Solo — Ron Howard, 2018
We have to say that both the critics and the fans got this one wrong, at least if you are an old-school Star Wars aficionado. Fun and lacking the heaviness of some of the recent Star Wars installments, Solo tells the story of everyone’s favorite rogue as he works his way up from the gutters of Corellia to become space buccaneer and smuggler. Alden Ehrenreich captures the innocent-going-cynical young Solo perfectly. Emilia Clarke is utterly delightful as his lovely but duplicitous bestie. Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian is note-perfect. And Paul Bettany offers a scene stealing performance as a soft-spoken villain.
Score — Matt Schrader, 2016
The movies we love are as much animated by sound as by images. Think of The Third Man without Anton Karras. Star Wars without John Williams. Lawrence of Arabia without Maurice Jarre. Some of the greatest music composed today may in fact be made for the movies,. This intriguing documentary takes viewers through the difficult, exhilarating process of scoring great films by introducing them to the masters of the form: Hans Zimmer, Rachel Portman, Danny Elfman and Quincy Jones, among others.
Maria by Callas — Tom Volf, 2018
This excellent documentary demystifies the great diva Maria Callas through a combination of interviews and performance footage. It allows Callas to chart her own story, from humble beginnings in New York City as she scaled the heights of the glittering world of opera. A soaring tale.
The Favourite — Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018
Lanthimos, fresh off the masterful The Killing of a Sacred Deer, makes a departure from form for this bawdy, bizarre take on court intrigue in the days of England’s Queen Anne. The titular position becomes the subject of a social battle between Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham. Echoes of Barry Lyndon abound but the film is all Lanthimos.
And here are a few worth watching again . . .
The Truman Show — Peter Weir, 1998
It’s hard to find a more prescient movie for our times that The Truman Show, celebrating its twentieth birthday. At the dawn of the Internet age and well before the dominance of reality television and social media, this gem of a film depicts a modestly dystopian world where one man’s life has been from infancy broadcast around the world as a source of entertainment. The movie is harsh but sweet, and its presaging of our current panopticon hits hard. Jim Carrey is winning as Truman.
Immortal Beloved — Bernard Rose, 1994
The endlessly versatile Gary Oldman is the centerpiece of Bernard Rose’s assay of an enduring mystery around the composer’s legacy. Jeroen Krabbé plays Anton Schindler, the composer’s executor, as he searches for the titular Beloved and remembers his dead friend in his youth. The score is incredible — the London Symphony Orchestra directed by George Solti perform, with the legendary Murray Perahia as pianist. It’s hard to beat Beethoven.
2001: A Space Odyssey — Stanley Kubrick, 1968
2001 celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year. It’s hard to think of a director who churned out masterpieces with the regularity and speed of Stanley Kubrick. Here, he adapts a thought-provoking novel by Arthur C. Clarke into a visionary parable about the human past, present, and future. 2001 is the foundational work for modern sci-fi films and a landmark in its own right: an epic that pushes the boundaries of cinema and of our own self-conception. Often imitated. Never surpassed.