2017 has truly been a remarkable year for film. It’s really hard to put into words what we’ve just gone through without people realizing. While 2013 and 2007 were fairly remarkable, and there were one or two years from the 90s worth mentioning, I would be willing to say this has been the best year for film since the 1970s, arguably the greatest decade for film, period. And to think I was lamenting the year’s chances as late as June (outside of a couple of hits, it wasn’t until a certain superhero with a sword and lasso stepped into No Man’s Land that the year really took off). With this historic cinematic year now in our rearview mirror, it is time to honor the artists who managed to make us laugh, cry, cheer, scream, and overall feel human again, regardless of what was happening in the world around us. It’s time for the Top Ten Films of 2017.
As per usual, I want to remind you once again how I judge films for both reviews and for rankings. While some people try to create a list of the quote-unquote “objectively best” films and others feel that it is best to reward the most entertaining films of the year, I find both methods insufficient. While a film could be a technical masterpiece, it’s all for naught if it fails to demonstrate the most basic tenets of artistic achievement: to make us feel; to cheer for the heroes, boo for the villains, and laugh at the buffoons. Likewise, rewarding shallow films that entertain us doesn’t quite work either – art is a visual medium; why must we be subjected to the same story and same imagery time and time again? That’s what Hallmark Movies are for. I believe we should have higher standards for both art and entertainment, and therefore judge based on the aggregate result of both. I want films that are visually stunning, expertly written, smartly edited, and that can tap into my heart and make me feel. It is for this reason my Top Ten list can be populated by the high art of sci-fi noir and Italian neorealist love to the simplicity of the horror, the rom-com, and the war genres. And one final caveat: I am just one man running this site alone. While I have seen more films in a given year than I have at any point previously, I have in no way seen it all. And while my list has only been changed by late arrivals once in my history of list-making (the infamous Into the Woods/The Guest/The Grand Budapest Hotel incident of 2014), there are still a few films I have yet to see. I didn’t get to see The Breadwinner, BPM, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, In The Fade, Jumanji or A Fantastic Woman before making this list, and while I have Princess Cyd and Personal Shopper lined up for a viewing in the next week, I cannot, in all fairness, include them at this time. It is possible that all of these films would make my list. It is possible that none of them do. However, as of the day I started writing this list, January 29th, 2017, these are the ten best films out of the 112 that I’ve seen.
Of course, no year is complete without some Honorable Mentions. It truly felt like no matter where you looked last year, in every genre from any director, there was some great film out there waiting for you. This included films as depressingly brilliant as The Killing of a Sacred Deer and mother! or as upliftingly heart-warming as Gifted, Their Finest, and Wonder. It included the multiple stand-out superhero films released this year, including The Lego Batman Movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2. and Wonder Woman, as well as the ingenious indie film Colossal. It included smaller indie projects like A Ghost Story (centered by David Lowery’s strong direction), Wind River (centered by Jeremy Renner’s strong performance), and The Florida Project (centered by great performances by Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe), as well as bombastic crowd-pleasing actioners like Atomic Blonde, John Wick: Chapter 2, and War on Everyone. I absolutely adored the ensemble work in The Beguiled, Detroit, and especially Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which for my money had the best ensemble of the year. And in terms of technical achievement, few had more success than the stunning, stark vision of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
And then we have the documentaries. As always, I controversially consider documentaries to be a completely separate medium from film, due to their own separate goals and purposes, and therefore give documentaries their own list. I always announce my best documentaries at the Sacred Wall Awards (consider this your teaser), but I will say that there were quite a few documentaries this year that I fell in love with. Agnès Varda’s humanist Faces Places is so wonderful it makes me forgive her for how much I hated The Gleaners and I. Brett Morgan’s Jane Goodall documentary Jane was a pure joy from beginning to end (chimps are always the best). Yance Ford’s Strong Island was an innovative and close-to-home look at how the justice system could fail one family so terribly, as well as what it’s like to be an LGBTQ member of the African-American community. Firas Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo is a wonderful story about the heroic White Helmets, and their struggles on a day to day basis (although I found the Academy Award-winning short documentary The White Helmets much more effective). Laura Poitras’ Risk was an incredible piece of docu-journalism. And then there’s Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, an incredible look at one of my favorite comedians, Andy Kaufman, as well as the infuriating lengths Jim Carrey went to in order to play him. These documentaries made me think and feel in a very special way, and I applaud them for it.
And before we reach the Top Ten, allow me to give some time to a few films that were within a hair’s breadth of making the list, and were even in contention for those lower slots at one point or another. Ingrid Goes West is one of the year’s funniest satires, making you simultaneously laugh while watching through your fingers, and has a few of the year’s best performances by Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen. Coco had one of the year’s best art designs, best musical scores, and contains a final forty minutes that will have you openly weeping in front of a theater full of children (or, um, so I’ve heard). Battle of the Sexes was a great, powerful look at an oft-forgotten historical moment that doubles as both one of the best sports films of all time and as a showcase for how great Emma Stone is as an actress. Darkest Hour overcame a mediocre script through exciting direction and powerhouse performances by Lily James and especially Gary Oldman. Logan Lucky was one of the year’s most entertaining films, blending a daring heist, topical issues, and good-ole fashioned comedy into one perfectly fun adventure (come for the dopey humor, stay for the great performances by Adam Driver and Daniel Craig). Hostiles is an emotionally devastating Western that combines the austere nature of a Cormac McCarthy novel with a heart the genre has never known, and featuring otherworldly performances by Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. The Disaster Artist is a funny, sweet look at the creative process about one of the greatest bad movies ever, The Room, and features a great performance by James Franco. And above all else, it absolutely crushes me that Phantom Thread, the dry, hilarious critique of the “troubled genius” drama that features phenomenal performances by Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, and a last-time-ever Daniel Day-Lewis. You should check out all of these films, even if I couldn’t fit them on my Top Ten. And now that we’ve established the rest of the best, it’s time to stop dilly-dallying. Here are the Top Ten Films of 2017!
10. Brigsby Bear
When I originally wrote this list, I had The Disaster Artist tied with Brigsby Bear. They have a lot in common: both films are laugh-out-loud funny, both films climax with the premiere of a passion project of the main character’s, and both films were a loving ode to the creative process. However, as I got closer to the making of this list, I realized that while The Disaster Artist was a very fun, very enjoyable film about one of my favorite guilty pleasures, it was a shallow project – its themes were on its surface, and it had nothing deeper to say than simply “Making movies with your friends is fun, and isn’t it cool when you succeed?” It simply couldn’t match the passion, the genius, the comedy, or the heart of Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello’s passion project, a film that subtly and subversively captures the true meaning of creation. The film has all the trademarks of a film about trying to create: the inspiration, the disapproving parents, the setback, and the eventual reveal of the hard work; however, everything comes with a massive twist: that protagonist James Pope was kidnapped as a child, and that the “show” he had come to love was a brainwashing concoction. It’s actually a brilliant setup – what if your favorite childhood obsession, be it Star Wars, The Lone Ranger, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, was made exclusively for you, and no one could share in your appreciation? Would you still love this thing that no one else understands? Would you try to bring them along for the ride? Brigsby Bear opts to explore the very depths of fan culture, and its positive effects on creativity.
Mooney gives Pope an incredible heart and an incredible intellect. The humor comes not at Pope’s expense, but from his fish-out-of-water timing. It’s the type of humor that Mooney has cultivated over the years, coming from the uncanny; the character is always trying to be normal, and saying normal things, and yet due to an inability to understand social cues, it always comes across a bit off. It’s a sense of humor that is seen in moments like James’ attempts to bribe for information with $2.12, all in change, which he scatters across the desk and says, “Maybe we can come to some sort of understanding?” Or a scene where James, locked inside a psychiatric hospital, explains that he has a complex plan to escape, only for the film to cut to his throwing of a television through a window. However, while the humor is indeed funny, what I really love about this film is its heart. This is a film where the characters are good-hearted, even the kidnappers (thanks to the genuinely sweet performances of Jane Adams and especially Mark Hamill). Everyone just wants what’s best for James, and the film explores the communal experience of creating art. As James notes in the film, “I love making a movie! You just get a bunch of your friends and put the pieces together and that’s how you make a fantastic movie!” And they each had their own moment of “waking up” to art, whether its from something as ridiculous as Brigsby or a crappy Tim Heidecker studio comedy. Brigsby Bear is the type of film I adore. It’s a sweet-hearted comedy with a distinct sense of humor and a love for the art that came before it. Kyle Mooney is a once-in-a-lifetime comedic talent, and his first outing did not disappoint.
Original Review for Brigsby Bear posted here
9. I, Tonya
I, Tonya is such a weird, unique film, blending aspects of The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Monster, and Waiting for Guffman. Utilizing clever editing and a stylish mockumentary format (based on actual interviews conducted with the surviving members), the film tries to follow the life story of one of the most notorious figures in modern history: Tonya Harding. Now, Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie, the film’s writer and director, are no idiots – they know that Tonya has a lax relationship with the truth, and they show this to us. One of the film’s greatest sequences involves Tonya, in her “interview,” blaming a broken skate on her poor performance in the 1992 Olympics, only for the film to quickly cut in sequences of Tonya blowing off training to get drunk and hang out in bars. The film makes no effort to portray her as a saint. However, it also understands that in spite of her flaws (and what she may or may not have done – the film offers up a theory that’s sort of right down the middle), she also is a perfect metaphor for some of the biggest hurdles women face in this country. She was a by-product of a system of abuse, starting with a cruel-tongued, knife wielding mother and culminating in a destructively violent husband who talks his way out of domestic abuse charges (and, it seems, inspires Tonya’s tendencies to lie herself). She’s mocked and looked down upon by a figure skating committee that despises the lower class and a media culture that painted her as the “enemy” to Nancy Kerrigan’s “princess” long before their rivalry resulted in The Incident. And because of these factors, people overlook the fact that the women was, indeed, one of the greatest skaters in the world (in technique, at least). The sequence where the characters break down for the documentary how challenging a triple axel is, only to slowly build to the famous moment where Tonya made history, is one of the greatest not only of the year, but in all of sports movie history.
However, great dialogue alone does not make a film funny, tragic, or all of the above. You need great actors to bring that dialogue to life, and this film shines brightly thanks to one of the year’s best ensembles. Allison Janney is a force of nature, hurling out curses and insults with more glee than I’ve ever seen in this type of monster. When we see her in the beginning berating Tonya for trying to “make friends with the enemy,” we begin to see how Tonya views her fellow skaters, and suddenly pieces begin to fit together. Paul Walter Hauser steals the film as Shawn Eckhardt, the man behind the assault on Kerrigan, and not only does he get the film’s best lines, but he reminds us that, in reality, this was a really stupid plot, orchestrated by stupid people. However, no one in this film shines as brightly as Margot Robbie. Robbie gives the performance of a lifetime as Harding, bringing her pathos, humor, insufferability, and overall, humanity. The film’s mission is not to justify a woman who committed a crime, nor is it about vilifying a woman any more than she already has been. No, instead the film wants to paint a picture about what society, through media, pop culture, and expectations, has done and can continue to do to women. While their actions are still completely their own, considering the strain we put on them to uphold this “perfect” image and the way we torture them if we don’t, eventually they are going to snap. And when that happens, we as a culture are just as much to blame. Tonya is definitely no hero, but the film make the case that society is the real villain. And it does so through a perfect balance of comedy, insight, and trauma – everything I love in a great film.
Original Review for I, Tonya posted here
8. The Big Sick
You know, sometimes a film just finds you at the right time, in the right mood, with the right message. The Big Sick was one of those films. Watching it for the first time back in June made me understand why people love romantic comedies so much, and it felt like the first true film of its kind for the millennial generation, the way that The Way We Were was for the Baby Boomers, or Four Weddings And A Funeral and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were for Gen-X. In all honesty, the “gimmick” (a term I hate to use, as it diminishes the impact) here is so brilliant, I’m surprised nobody has done it before, and nobody has planned to use it going forward. However, the truth of the matter is this: nobody else can mine their romantic courtship the way Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon did, because nobody else has a story quite like theirs. The film knows the tropes of the 90s rom-coms by heart, and certainly sends them up, what with the supportive family and friend group and the quick-witted barbs and the sweet mixture of melancholy and overwhelming optimism. However, it never feels like anything less than an original, warm-hearted romp about two people falling in love in the modern age, with slight complications. The dialogue here sings, mainly because Kumail and Emily (as played by Zoe Kazan, although unmistakably in the real Emily’s voice) have a real rapport. The best romances on film are built on great dialogue and facial cues, and these two have their fair share. From their first scene to their time in the hospital their smiling reunion, every moment of their journey feels smart, funny, and real. I love the way Kazan delivers her lines, and I love the emotion in Kumail’s eyes as he realizes the woman he loves could die when she goes into her coma. This is the romantic comedy at its finest, and its centered by two lovable people in the throws of finding that Special Someone.
However, the reason the film is such a sensation isn’t just because of the romance – it’s because of what it has to say about families. At its core, The Big Sick is about two families coming together through love and sickness, centered by Kumail’s put-upon performance. The crux of this film is Kumail trying to balance his desire to go his own way and pursue the woman he loves, while his parents want him to follow his religion and his culture and marry a Pakistani Muslim girl. Neither is portrayed as right or wrong, only flawed in their methods of achieving their goals. Kumail is right to love anyone he so desires, especially Emily, but his own cowardice and penchant for lying to everyone he cares about shows that he has a great deal of growing up to do if he wishes to prove himself to both his family and the love of his life. Meanwhile, Kumail’s family does for the Pakistani culture what My Big Fat Greek Wedding did for the Greeks – it shows the loving, joking nature of the family, and the bonds that religion can bring about. However, the looming threat of disownment and judgment coming from the family is also portrayed as unhealthy for the familial relationship. Neither is right or wrong for feeling the way they do, but the important thing is that they love each other and need to hold healthy dialogues in order to understand. Ironically, in a film full of romance and meet-cutes, it is the relationship with the family that I come away remembering and smiling about. And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s most important factor: Emily’s parents, as played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. These two are truly remarkable in the film, creating a repartee that only comes from years of intimacy in a couple, as well as the baggage of two people going through a lot (and not just the fact that their daughter is in a coma). Both are remarkable as they try to keep themselves together in the face of the loss of a child, and their interactions with Kumail are laugh-out-loud funny. Watching Hunter unleash barbs at him while Romano awkwardly sits off to the side is great, and Kumail gets in a few solid jokes, including the year’s funniest 9/11 quip (not that there are many of those). The Big Sick is about love in all its forms – family, friends, romance, etc. – and it’s the film on this list most likely to make you smile.
Original Review for The Big Sick posted here
It seems like every year, there’s a film I underestimate or am too harsh on in my initial reviews that I come to regret when making this list. This year, that film is Dunkirk. For while I stand by my critiques of the sound issues (the film has some mixing issues that drown out the film’s very few and very important lines of dialogue) affecting the final product, Christopher Nolan’s take on the war genre is simultaneously painfully grounded and realistic while serving as a true action-adventure film the likes of which we haven’t seen since Titanic. This is the type of film that Hollywood doesn’t make any more, the kind where the adventure is pure, your heart rate rises and the audience rises to their feet cheering when the heroes finally have a win. Nolan has created a unique film with a virtual reality-esque quality, putting you right into the middle of the ships, the planes, and the beaches. And unlike most war films, like Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, Nolan depicts a much more realistic take on war – where the soldiers are young boys, and their actions come from being scared sh*tless instead of the mythical “stiff upper lip.” However, Nolan manages to find the bravery in “cowardice,” the heroism that comes in running away to fight another day. By showing how truly terrifying the war is, and how hopeless the situation was, it makes the quiet choices all the more inspirational. A subtle shot of Tom Hardy making the decision to return to battle despite not having enough fuel to survive the action is powerful, and the moment where he swoops in at the last second to save the mole will make you stand and cheer. However, there are few films from the entire year as powerful as when “home” came to save the day. Nolan builds up the tension throw the sound and score, slowly overwhelming the audience with the threat of impending, inescapable doom. However, just as they become breathless from the bombardment of the sense…a string of boats, piloted by old men, young women, and casual seafarers emerges over the horizon, the music finally releases its chokehold on our esophagus, and we see the sheer joy and hope in Kenneth Branagh’s crying eyes. It’s an emotionally cathartic moment, overwhelming the audience and bringing tears to their eyes as they see what ordinary people are willing to do in the face of unstoppable evil.
However, Nolan isn’t simply responsible for an emotionally rich story about hope, fear, and survival. It’s also a technical marvel for the modern age. Every single aspect of this film is a visual or aural marvel. Each ring of a gunshot clinking and piercing around the petrified soldiers haunts the audience’s mind. The cinematography by Hoyte von Hoytema is amongst the best ever filmed, challenging the norms of filmmaking with his innovative use of IMAX. The scope is sweeping, the shots haunting, and the action so close that it traps the viewer in its haunting embrace. The effects are incredible because they are practical – there are no CGI cheap shots here, what you see on the big screen is as realistic as possible. Hell, even the score, which is still a bit overbearing, manages to temper our emotions, lifting us up and dragging us down as the situation calls for it. However, the real wonder here is Lee Smith, who manages to keep the film together despite Nolan’s confusingly innovative storytelling technique. By playing with time in each tale, Nolan helps capture the overlapping, confusing nature of war, and it falls to the editor to make these plots seem interpretable. Thanks to Smith’s keen eye and near-perfect genius, the pros of this framing device far outweigh the cons. The newest Star Wars film features the unique idea that true victory isn’t “destroying what we hate, it’s saving what we love.” Dunkirk is the embodiment of the idea: the cheers don’t come when an enemy pilot is shot down or a German soldier is shot. The cheers come when a young man is pulled out of the ocean, or a pilot manages to land his plane safely despite broken landing gear. Dunkirk shows how the terrors of war can bring out the best of humanity, and through its astonishing technical achievements, it stands tall as one of the year’s best.
Original Review for Dunkirk posted here
6. The Shape of Water
In a year that literally had a live-action interpretation of Beauty and the Beast, who knew that the best version of the classic fairy tale would be a 1960s retelling from the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth? Guillermo del Toro has crafted yet another one of his “adult fairy tales,” and while I won’t pretend it’s as perfect as Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water is still an overwhelmingly powerful film, filled with some of the greatest production design and filmmaking you’ll see all year. Like most of del Toro’s films, Shape never settles on being one specific genre. He blends them all to his liking, allowing for a more complete look at the vision he’s created. However, what is specifically brilliant here is the way that he uses these genres as a critique on his greatest theme: fascism. Having grown up fascinated with the issues plaguing Spain, del Toro has used his films to explore outsiders banding together to battle the threat of The Powers That Be. In a lot of ways, he’s similar to Steven Spielberg’s early works, as the famous filmmaker also began making films about children and outsiders battling against shady government forces. Here, del Toro has his characters – a mute, a gay man, an African-American woman, and an Amphibious Creature meant to represent the Other – face off against a 1960s American government hell-bent on silencing and controlling all of the above, assuming it was “God’s duty” for him to defeat the Communists and hold dominion over all. What’s remarkable about this simple story about good people fighting a bad man (represented by Michael Shannon, who plays the role perfectly) is that del Toro uses genres that have traditionally been led and dominated by Shannon-type roles. The spy genre, the Monster Movie genre, the rom-com genre, the musical genre, and the heist genre were all dominated by a white guy winning the heart of a beautiful woman, often through battling an ugly monster (figuratively or metaphorically). The Shape of Water shifts the focus to those cast into the background of these films – African-Americans, homosexuals, and the “ugly monsters” – and makes them the focus. And like E.T., King Kong, and Pan’s Labyrinth before them, we root for these outcasts and their forbidden love throughout, whether they’re pulling off a daring rescue, living the fairy tale romance, or singing and dancing in black and white to “You’ll Never Know,” a truly stunning sequence in its transporting beauty.
However, like Dunkirk, what makes The Shape of Water such a stunning film is how truly perfect it is in terms of its filmmaking. Every detail is thoroughly planned and calculated, and each flourish of color, dimming of shadows, and avant-garde set design has meaning in the grand scheme of things. The score and the cinematography work together to create a wonderfully vibrant wonder, feeling like Amélie but with a grounding to the whimsy. The sound design is remarkable, matching cutting even minute details for comedic and symbolic effect, from whistles to rhythmic poundings, and it stands out as one of the year’s greatest achievements. The editing pays homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood, using wipes and fades like something out of a 1940s noir. The motif of water adds a unique, gorgeous layer to the production, appearing throughout to hint at the film’s dramatic climax at the docks. And then there’s the acting. While Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer are wonderful as the lonely, reluctant Giles, who chooses to do nothing until faced with bigotry by the young man he crushes on, and Zelda, who provides dialogue when her best friend can’t, the film truly belongs to Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins. Jones brings both the creepiness and sweetness required to make the Asset lovable, but Hawkins is the real star here. Without the aid of dialogue, she makes Elisa a fiery, passionate woman who is willing to do anything to keep her love alive. Her actions speak louder than words ever will, and she is the type of hero we both want and need. Guillermo del Toro has proven himself to be one of the most unique, intelligent directors in the business right now, and should The Shape of Water end up winning the Oscar come March, we would all be better for it. This is the type of filmmaking that inspires generations of young directors, and it stands out as one of the year’s best achievements.
Original Review for The Shape of Water posted here
5. Get Out
I’m not sure what the last film was to truly capture the public lexion in the same way as Get Out. A case could be made for La La Land, and before that, it was probably The Dark Knight. However, even if you were to try to pinpoint an exact example from film history (it’s The Silence of the Lambs! It’s Do the Right Thing! It’s Halloween!), it would still feel irrelevant. There has never been a film like Get Out before, and it’s not entirely likely that there will be again. Jordan Peele has masterfully blended horror’s past with society’s future to create a film that subverts all genres, metaphors, and films to create a unique look at the experience of African-Americans in today’s society. Indeed, references to classic horror films and satires populate Peele’s creation, including Wait Until Dark, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and The Stepford Wives. However, make no mistake: this film is original, through and through. What Peele has chosen to do is take on the very idea of a “post-racial” society, and go after a group of people not often explored in films about race: the white liberal guilters. Peele isn’t interested in going after the normal rednecks and white supremacists who normally populate films about racism. He wants to go after the people who want to declare the matter open and closed without examining themselves: those that openly tell African-Americans, usually unprovoked, that “I would have voted for Obama for a third term.” Those that want to run their fingers through an African-American’s hair, and address issues about racism as “At least it’s better than the 1960s.” The people who voted for Crash as Best Picture and took until 2013 to vote for a film by an African-Americans about African-Americans as Best Picture (and even then it culminated in a white person coming to save the day). And ironically, the film is taking aim at the people who are most loudly championing the film right now, remaining blind to their own bigotry by missing the point, and using it as a defense from their own shortcomings. The film boils this all down into a smart satire, using these forms of microaggressions and cultural appropriation as a form of tension. It’s the type of film where a white person can see it and know that something is just off in the way the characters are reacting to Chris (a remarkable Daniel Kaluuya) while not being able to put their finger on it, while an African-American knows exactly what’s wrong based on everyday occurance. It creates discomfort out of not knowing who you can trust, who secretly resents you based on the color of your skin, and not knowing which way is up or down as you find yourself transported to the Sunken Place. In short, it’s the type of horror film that we’ve all been waiting for: one that’s as smart, as clever, and as honest as we all deserve as a society.
Peele’s filmmaking here is unlike any I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m amazed it has come from a comedian. He knows exactly how to use the camera as a means to build tension and make a point. The opening scene is one of the greatest in modern horror history, blending classic horror filmmaking (and relying exclusively on tension, as opposed to modern horror’s affinity for jump scares and gore) with social commentary. Scored to an eerily upbeat 1950s song (in the same way that Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, and Insidious classically did), we watch as a car trails a young black man in a hoodie, the tension slowly building before a masked figure jumps out and subdues him. Not only is this a truly frightening sequence, but it calls to mind hundreds of infamous cases in recent history, not least of which is Trayvon Martin. The references only build from there, with some of the creepiest images – including a backyard auction and the ultimate reveal of the Armitage family’s mission – serving as metaphors for slavery and suppression. In fact, the forces at be feel so powerful, the audience feels trapped and hopeless in the face of it all – which is exactly what Peele wants us to feel. However, what Peele wants more than anything is to give us a taste of visceral filmmaking. He wants us to laugh (albeit uncomfortably) at the forward dialogue, as well as at Lil Ren Howery’s impeccable comedic timing; he wants us to scream as Chris descends into the Sunken Place, and as we realize how deep this conspiracy goes; and he wants us to cheer as Chris manages to mount his escape and have a life to live after the ordeal (I literally shouted “Yes” on my second viewing when the camera shows Chris’ hand quietly picking up the croquet ball). I’ve never seen a film quite like Get Out. It’s a perfect bland of social critique, satire, and horror, and I want more films like it. Jordan Peele has proven himself as one of the greatest working filmmakers, and while I can’t wait to see what he does next, it will be incredibly difficult to top Get Out.
Original Review for Get Out posted here
4. Baby Driver
There are very few films that are as flat-out cool as Baby Driver. I mean, it’s taking America’s favorite genre – the good-hearted criminal who escapes from danger with the help of his best gal – and tells it in a new, unique, innovative way. I honestly don’t think people realize how high the degree of difficulty was for this film. To choreograph an entire film as some sort of innovative musical extravaganza, with the sound timed perfectly to the action through a clever mix of editing, cinematography, and sound mixing is a damned near impossible feat. However, Edgar Wright pulled off, delivering to us one of the greatest examples of the reason we go to the movies: to laugh, cheer, be awed, and have fun. At its core, there isn’t anything truly “original” in terms of the film’s story: a young man was sucked into a life of crime at a young age, and forced to drive getaway cars for the mob, but when he falls in love with a waitress in a diner, he tries his best to make an escape. That story could be straight out of the 1940s or 60s (hell, it pays homage to Bonnie and Clyde and Breathless every chance it gets). However, the twist comes from Wright’s cool, slick mind: the kid’s nearly deaf with tinnitus, and he uses music to drown out the ringing – music that plays over the action and choreographs it for us, in one slick, smooth example of cool. Take the opening for example, a scene that is destined to be one for the ages. The way everything finds itself timed to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” from the opening of a trunk to a walk down the street to each quick cut the film makes, each detail finds itself planned to the last detail. And as we watch Baby (as the charming, lovable Ansel Elgort calls himself) careen down the street, dodging in and out of traffic, performing ingenious swaps with similar vehicles on the road, and performing impossibly cool drifts in between trucks, we find ourselves more and more immersed in the cool, twisted mind of Edgar Wright. It is cinema gold, and it doesn’t let up from there. Each scene builds upon the previous with the introduction of a new twist, whether its comedy (a sequence involving Mike Myers masks is laugh-out-loud funny), romance (Lily James is the perfect moll for Elgort, matching him in sweetness and filling in as a badass when the material calls for it), or suspense (a sequence set to Blur’s “Intermission” is just another example of the film’s perfect timing). And when the film stops the music to fill in the blanks, it does so with a funny script and an entirely game cast, including a great Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González. Every aspect of this film sings, if you will excuse the pun.
I don’t think I can stress how difficult it is to make a film like this. The way each cut, each musical cue, and each action by the actors has to be timed to the music is impossibly challenging, as each aspect would only be demonstrable in post, with little knowledge of how it would look in advance. To make this film work, the sound and editing crews would have to be operating at a superhuman level, which, thankfully, they are. Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Paul Machliss, and Jonathan Amos each work in tandem to time every gunshot, every footstep, every slide across a room, and every turning tire to the words and music of Bob & Earl, Carla Thomas, The Damned, T. Rex, and Focus. This is one of the coolest aesthetics in movie history, feeling as ultracool as when Warren Beatty first flirted with Faye Dunaway, as Travolta shared a two-step with Uma Thurman, or Steve McQueen first stepped into his 1968 Ford Mustang GT. Jean-Luc Godard once famously said “All you need for a great film is a girl and a gun.” Edgar Wright has added “Along with a great soundtrack and killer editing” to that quote as a footnote. I saw Baby Driver in the theaters three times, each with a different member of my family. Each time, I found myself more and more impressed with the filmmaking, and watched each family member fall in love with the film in their own right. This is the kind of film that brings people together, that wows us through technical wonder while lulling us with a simple, exuberant story. This is cinema at its finest, and it is the most fun film to come out this year.
Original Review for Baby Driver posted here
3. Call Me By Your Name
It is quite possible that Call Me By Your Name is too perfect of a film. It’s the type of magical nostalgia that we adore in our movies, recalling that magical summer where we first discovered who we were, where we were going, and what love was. Luca Guadagnino explores these feelings of love, youthfulness and nostalgia by channeling the great Italian filmmakers of old, including Fellini, Antonioni, and Bertolucci. It’s that sort of sweet, Italian love that transcends the impeccable performances of the actors and embodies itself in sun-drenched fields, impossibly green hillsides, and moonlit strolls alongside the river. Guadagnino utilizes these locations as a storytelling device, creating a sexually charged world in which Elio and Oliver can explore their feelings. The music builds a quiet, romantic atmosphere around the production, whether it’s the quietly nostalgic “Hallelujah Junction” or the original masterpiece by Sufjan Stevens “The Mystery of Love,” and the camera dances around them like a third partner in their romance. Of course, the romance can’t feel alive without the two consenting partners at its heart, and here they are brought to life by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. Each plays their character perfectly, and their relationship seems perfectly understandable. Chalamet’s Elio is a quiet, sarcastic, bookish genius who has yet to discover himself, so his attraction to the Adonis that is Armie Hammer is perfectly understandable, especially considering the special attention Hammer pays to his knowledge and his talent. Meanwhile, Hammer’s outgoing and charismatic Oliver is clearly a stranger in a strange land, unsure of himself despite his attractive nature to the women of Italy. He’s someone who has never felt seen despite constantly being seen, so when paid special attention by Elio, he finds completion and solace in their quiet honesty. It’s a sexy film without feeling overly sexual (although there are a few memorable scenes that seem contrary to this, including the now-infamous one involving a peach).
However, what makes this film most memorable is the way it explores the art of seduction. Seduction is always the sexiest part of any film – the mystery is still there, and because you don’t know if one character is into another or not, you have to suss out the information alongside the protagonist through clues and gestures. Here, the characters are so hidden inside themselves, and so afraid of what will happen if they are wrong, they have no choice but to rely on little hints and details to convey their feelings, each more clever than the last. Everything, from a touch to a choice in song, from a dance to a quiet glance across a table, is incredibly important to the mystery, forcing the audience to pay close attention in order to determine who is feeling what, and when. It puts extra emphasis on the importance of intellect, of common appreciation, and of personality in the courting process, as opposed to one lunkhead clamoring onto the nearest pretty girl. Watching Elio carefully and deliberately play classical music is one of the film’s sexiest moments, and watching Oliver woo Elio through his drunken dancing to “Love My Way” by The Psychadelic Furs is modern movie magic. However, I think my favorite detail in the film comes from a simple shift of the camera. After hearing an old fairy tale about a knight who suppressed his feelings for a princess, Elio recites the moral dilemma to Oliver, in the hopes of building up the courage to confessing how he feels. Oliver plays dumb, asking him what he would consider the best course of actions, but as Elio chooses not to act on his desires, the camera simply and quietly shifts focus to Oliver, who is clearly just as conflicted and wanting. It’s an incredible shot, capturing the emotions and desires of both characters within seconds of each other, and summing up the film’s entire demonstration on desire, love, and emotion. Call Me By Your Name is the type of film that the 70s thrived on, and the type of film we will be teaching in film school for years to come. It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, it’s magical, and it takes you on an emotional journey. It avoids and destroys all clichés in order to tell a simple story about love. Luca Guadagnino has put love incarnate on the big screen, and it made for one of the best films of the year.
Original Review for Call Me By Your Name posted here
2. Blade Runner 2049
It’s been four months since I saw Blade Runner 2049 on the biggest screen possible, and I’m still in awe at the technical mastery on display. It’s really remarkable that the sequel to a sci-fi film that I appreciate but don’t love has gone on to be the film that arguably most shook me in the course of a year, but here we are. This is a film unlike any science-fiction film in recent memory, and one that surpasses its predecessor. Unlike when Ridley Scott tried to expand the world of Alien and we got the bloated Prometheus, Denis Villeneuve truly immerses himself in the details of the Blade Runner universe, taking what had been incorporated in the original (holographic billboards, flying cars, a rain-soaked earth) and took them to their next logical step. Using every single second of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime, Villeneuve draws out a rich tapestry of themes and ideas, including race, gender, the meaning of love, and ultimately, what it means to be human. He fleshes out the world of the Replicants (essentially a mix between bioengineered humans and robots) in order to question where the line is drawn in terms of free will, who has/deserves a soul, and what exactly gives life meaning. Subtle touches that allude to the racial undertones include the way K, Ryan Gosling’s Replicant character that stands out as one of the best performances in his career, is treated as a member of the Blade Runner police force. He’s mocked by his fellow cops for being “a Skinner,” while also loathed by fellow Replicants for killing his own kind. What’s more, Blade Runner 2049 fleshes out the world originally established by Scott by adding nuance to the characters. Instead of having the humans be complete assh*les while the Replicants were simply struggling to survive, here we have different characters making difficult choices. Not every android is a good person, and not every human is unforgivable. Instead, we have a series of characters struggling to survive while balancing their own desire to do the right thing. Sylvia Hoeks isn’t truly evil as Luv (even if she is the film’s best villain), she just wants to prove she’s the best to keep from being executed. Robin Wright’s Lt. Joshi isn’t evil as the leader of the Blade Runners, she’s just doing what she thinks is right to avoid an all-out war between the species. And Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard is finally given a chance to prove himself, keeping his hard-living ways and attitudes while also helping understand that he was changed at his core by his love for Rachael, and his facial cues in the final scene are amongst the best acting he’s ever done. Each character is simply trying to get by in this world, struggling with their sense of purpose and trying to figure out what it means to be human. We are dealing with the most key aspects of the noir genre, and by blending the noir with science fiction and humanism, Denis Villeneuve is proving that not only does he understand the universe he entered into, he may understand it more so than the original creators.
And even if the film didn’t thematically make too much sense or add up to much, this film would still be a wonder based on its technical achievements. Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 pushes the boundaries of what a film can and should be. I walked out in awe after seeing this film, wowed by the visual wonders on display. The visual effects here are otherworldly, creating a neon punk aesthetic that blends modern effects with the original’s grounded futurism, as well as blending in homages to the films that came in-between, including Gattaca, The Dark Knight, and Her. Speaking of Her, the introduction of Ana de Armas’s hologram adds an extra layer to the film’s themes, as well as allowing for some innovative filmmaking. The Surrogate Love scene is one of the coolest aesthetics I’ve seen all year, and somehow still feels romantic despite its weirdness. The story is perfectly edited by Joe Walker, who keeps things moving swiftly and powerfully despite the film’s lengthy running time. And it’s all perfectly framed by Roger Deakins, the greatest cinematographer alive, who does some of his best work here by constantly creating visual wonders in each individual frame. I’m not sure I can forgive Americans for letting this film fail – this is the reason we don’t get smart blockbusters anymore. Blade Runner 2049 is the reason movies exist: to visually challenge what we know about storytelling, and to wow us with new worlds in which to tell them. Denis Villeneuve is one of the greatest working directors today, and yet this may be his greatest achievement.
Original Review for Blade Runner 2049 posted here
1. Lady Bird
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to put into words how much I love Lady Bird. It’s just such a special, special film. It somehow blends the über-specific with the completely universal to tell a story about coming of age, discovering who we are, and appreciating the relationships that change us. This is one of the most honest films about growing up and going to high school ever made, and I’m still smiling about it three months later. The film strikes its mixture of comedy and drama just right, eschewing the traditional clichés about being seventeen in order to find the humor in the realistic. The humor here comes not from convoluted, fictional scenarios, the kinds done best by John Hughes – here the humor comes from the universal experiences that Greta Gerwig experienced alongside us as people. The auditions, the failed relationships, the first time, the high school play, the interactions with teachers, the fights with parents – it’s all there, milked for the shared laugh we can have as we remember how big of deals they were at the time and how trivial they seem now. It’s a film where we can both laugh at Saoirse Ronan’s firecracker Lady Bird sharing a cry with best friend Julie (the equally talented Beanie Feldstein) as they listen to the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” while also cheering when Lady Bird finally is able to stand up for herself to her “cool” friends and declare her love for its cheesiness. It’s a film where we laugh at the goings-on in Sacramento (a city referred to as the “Midwest of California”) while also learning to love the city in all its awkward glory (a feeling we all share when referring to our hometowns). And above all, it’s a film where we can laugh at our own awkward adolescence while be thankful for the experience for helping us become who we are today. This is a film about finding out who we are, and the journey along the way. Watching Lady Bird struggle to discover who she is, what she wants to be, and how to make that dream a reality is to watch ourselves go through that same period. Yes, mistakes will be made – that’s the point of being a teenager – but each mistake will lead to a discovery, and a decision about who we will become in the future. Looking at that description and watching this film, it is easy to see who the influences are. “Oh, it’s like Linklater, it’s like Allen, it’s like Baumbach.” However, at its heart, Lady Bird is none of those things. It’s Gerwig, through and through, wholly unique, perfectly quirky (a word that transcends its condescension here), and utterly wonderful in its originality.
What works best about a film where characters are constantly growing and coming terms with themselves is the way it allows them to make mistakes. We love films where our characters aren’t perfect because we can relate to them, like George Bailey and Rocky Balboa before them. I’m not talking about flawed characters, like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, even if that technique can be used effectively. I’m talking about characters who make bad decisions and forget who they are while still being good, lovable people. Lady Bird is obnoxious, cheats on her math test, and betrays her friends for popularity, and yet she is still a loving, passionate woman whom we like and cheer for (mainly because Ronan is so wonderful in the role). We are angry with her when she prioritizes her douchey boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet is a star-to-be), but feel for her as she repairs her relationship with her first boyfriend Danny, whom she had a falling-out with after discovering sharing a kiss with another boy in the drama club. She is a girl defined through her actions, her friendship with Julie, and above all her relationship with her parents. Tracy Letts is the best dad of the year (and yes, I too love Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me By Your Name and Romano in The Big Sick), playing the sweet mediator of the family fights, but the performance worth talking about here is Laurie Metcalf. In a lot of ways, Lady Bird is about the relationship between mothers and daughters, the divide in between, and the way that the fights, the make-ups, the passive-aggression, and the love defines who we grow up to be. Laurie Metcalf gives hands-down the best performance of the year as Marion, Lady Bird’s mother who wants so badly for her daughter to improve herself that when she doesn’t see her living up to her full potential, or making bad decisions, she hides her pain in quips, insults, and scolding. However, while she too steps over the line (and regrets it, as we see her breaking down after one mistake too many), we get a glimpse into her life, and the struggles it takes to keep things moving. In many ways, this film is a testament to the parents who had to make tough decisions behind the scenes, the kind of stuff we are too selfish to think about in our childhood. While Lady Bird is trying to navigate young love and bad friendships, Marion is balancing being the sole breadwinner, keeping the lower-middle class family afloat, and helping her depressive husband. Watching Lady Bird and Marion battle it out is fearsome and painful and funny and iconic, all in one go, and yet you never side with one wholly over the other. They are just two people who love each other dearly and have trouble expressing it. All of the characters are like this – characters who love too much and struggle to express it properly. And I love them all dearly. There is not a single film released this year where I loved the characters or the dialogue more than I did in Lady Bird. It’s a film that spoke to my soul, using its wit and its emotion to discuss the things I care most about, to make me laugh with the things I enjoy most, and to entertain me with the actors I like best. As far as I’m concerned, every aspect of this film is perfect. This is a film that every mother and daughter should watch, every teenager should watch, and every person who has ever been a teenager should watch. This is a magical movie, taking the simplest story about the most universal moment and transforming it into a personal manifesto of love, happiness, and becoming the person you were meant to be. Thank you, Saoirse Ronan. Thank you, Laurie Metcalf. And especially thank you, Greta Gerwig. You have made a delightful treat for the entire world, and I look forward to whatever you three (as well as the entire cast and crew) do next.
Original Review for Lady Bird posted here
I hope you all enjoyed my recap of the best films of 2017. If you haven’t seen these ten excellent films yet, please do yourselves a favor and go see them now, rent them, or better yet, purchase them. That way we can continue seeing the best that these filmmakers have to offer for years to come. Next week, I’ll be writing about my favorite performances, scenes, and more from the year, and as always, I’ll be looking forward to the next year, eagerly anticipating what film will shock me and end up on next year’s list. In the meantime, you can check out my overall rankings of every film from 2017 that I watched right here, at The State of the Race. Thanks for reading, and I hope you get a chance to see some great films soon! Go out and enjoy what I am hoping is the new Golden Age of Cinema!