Arts

Film reviews of the year: Critic Damon Smith's top 10 movies of 2018

Some are still in cinemas, others you can watch online – Press Association film critic Damon Smith picks his top 10 movie releases of 2018

Roma – Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo
Damon Smith

1. ROMA: Filmed in lustrous black and white, predominantly in unbroken shots, Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuaron's Valentine to politically volatile 1970s Mexico city is a masterclass in emotionally wrought storytelling and technical virtuosity.

Yalitza Aparicio lights up every gorgeously crafted frame as maid Cleo, who works long hours in the home of businessman Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) and his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira).

Cleo's relationship with her martial arts-obsessed boyfriend (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) warps when he abandons her shortly after she becomes pregnant.

Cuaron's script skilfully draws parallels between fractured family units on opposite sides of the class divide, enriched with ravishing cinematography and immersive sound design.

2. SHOPLIFTERS: Over the past decade, writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has elegantly distilled inter-generational conflict in present-day Japan in his immaculately observed dramas Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister.

This year's elegiac offering is another intimate study of the flawed human condition, which silently observes but refuses to pass judgment on a surrogate family living hand to mouth from small-time crimes.

Franky Lily delivers a powerhouse performance as patriarch Osamu, who makes ends meet by "liberating" products from the shelves of local stores with help from his cherubic son (Kairi Jyo).

Kore-eda's script cleverly conceals character details to deliver dizzying emotional wallops at critical points.

3. THE SHAPE OF WATER: Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro deservedly triumphed at this year's Academy Awards with his swoon-inducing reimagining of the Beauty And The Beast fairytale set in 1962 Baltimore.

The Shape Of Water recaptures the visual splendour and simmering menace of his Oscar-winning fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, conjuring an erotically charged love story between a mute cleaner and a carnivorous merman.

Impeccable period detail evokes the era of suffocating Cold War paranoia with aplomb.

Sally Hawkins is sublime as the under-estimated heroine, who speaks volumes without saying a word.

The script empowers the richly drawn female characters to defeat prejudice in myriad ugly forms.

4. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI: Hell hath no fury like a grief-stricken mother scorned in writer-director Martin McDonagh's blackly comic thriller, which pits Frances McDormand's vigilante parent against the police force of a fictional mid-western town.

Her mother's rebel yell sparks sickening violence, including one scene in a dentist's surgery that leaves our gobs smacked, but the brutality always serves a lean, muscular narrative.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri creates a vibrant portrait of small-town life torn asunder by personal vendettas and retribution.

Salty, quick-fire dialogue is peppered with polished one-liners that the ensemble cast savours.

5. FIRST MAN: Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle takes one giant leap for immersive, nail-biting film-making in a thrilling dramatisation of the 1960s space race between America and the Soviet Union.

First Man shoots for the moon and touches down beautifully with handheld camerawork, unobtrusive special effects and dazzling sound design that leave us stranded hundreds of miles above terra firma.

Ryan Gosling movingly conveys the suffocating grief, which follows Neil Armstrong to the surface of the Moon, and Claire Foy is compelling in a smaller supporting role as his wife Janet.

Josh Singer's finely calibrated script counts down to heartbreaking emotion, reminding us of the immense bravery and sacrifice of the pioneers of a new scientific dawn.

6. LADY BIRD: Although Lady Bird isn't strictly autobiographical, writer-director Greta Gerwig draws on fond memories of her Californian hometown for a beautifully observed study of mother-daughter relationships and youthful exuberance in turn of the 21st-century Sacramento.

This exquisite coming-of-age comedy drama is a near perfect confluence of direction, writing and performance, which elicits tears and laughter in generous equal measure.

Gerwig has a sharp ear for the ebb and flow of pithy conversations between friends and family and her script is infused with unabashed warmth for the well-drawn characters.

Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are delightful as the spunky title character and her hard-working mother, who generate friction every time they are in bickering proximity.

7. PHANTOM THREAD: Two's toxic company, three's a potentially murderous crowd in Paul Thomas Anderson's artfully stitched drama set in the salons of 1950s London.

Day-Lewis delivers his final screen performance before self-imposed retirement as a perfectionist dressmaker, whose softly spoken fastidiousness doesn't extend to personal relationships... except for an uncomfortably close bond to his ferocious, purse-lipped sister, played with scorching intensity by Lesley Manville.

They are a formidable double act and you genuinely fear for the sanity of co-star Vicky Krieps when she naively strays into the siblings' tortuous web.

Writer-director Anderson heeds the words of his resourceful heroine – "Whatever you do, do it carefully" – and observes his superlative cast in long, unhurried takes as they trade verbal blows.

8. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE: Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay plumbs the murky depths of human suffering on the mean streets of present-day New York in a brutal and unflinching revenge thriller based on Jonathan Ames's novella of the same title.

You Were Never Really Here is a masterclass in tightly coiled suspense, which conjures a nightmarish vision of exploitation and degradation behind closed doors.

Joaquin Phoenix delivers a fearless and, at times, heart-rending performance as a traumatised war veteran, whose quest for redemption leads him down the road to hell.

Ramsay captures her protagonist's nightmarish and woozy odyssey in a clinical, unfussy manner that sends trickles of cold sweat down the spine.

9. COCO: You can feel the love in every sumptuous and wildly imaginative frame of Disney Pixar's uplifting computer-animated coming-of-age story, which strikes a joyous universal chord with an irresistible blend of heart-tugging emotion, uproarious comedy and toe-tapping musicality.

Anthony Gonzalez provides the voice of dimple-cheeked 12-year-old Miguel, who travels to the Land of the Dead to meet his biological father.

Coco stands tear-soaked shoulder-to-shoulder with WALL-E and Inside Out as a heartfelt modern classic.

Family values resonate far beyond the land of the living in Alfred Molina and Matthew Aldrich's script.

10. A FANTASTIC WOMAN: Director Sebastian Lelio's timely portrait of grief and injustice deservedly collected this year's Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film on behalf of Chile.

A Fantastic Woman artfully considers the solitude and solidarity of the trans community alongside the bigotry which continues to fester beneath the polite smiles of supposedly enlightened society.

Daniela Vega is an unstoppable force of nature as the titular trans woman, who meets a wall of animosity when she fulfils the sombre duty of informing family and friends of her older boyfriend's sudden death.

Barred from attending the funeral to mourn the man she loved, Vega's spirited heroine meets suspicion and bare-faced prejudice with cool defiance and simmering rage.

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