And now… The top-ten-ish or whatever list!!! Just in time for me to yell at the Oscars before they go up.
Films I didn’t see: T2, Faces Places, The Lost City of Z, Your Name, Coco, Good Time, City of Ghosts, I Tonya, A Fantastic Woman, It Comes At Night, Loveless, The Work, Mudbound, Wind River, and a bunch of others I can’t remember.
Note: Some years I don’t know anyone who had anything to do with the movies on the best of list, some years I happen to know a few. This year had a weird amount of friends kicking butt. So like always, anytime you see an “*” that means I knew one / some of the creative involved. But to omit them feels somehow weirder and more dishonest, so consider those entries biased as fuck or whatever. Take all the salted grains you like.
THE ODD DUCKS
Films so vivid or strange or fascinating that they cannot be denied.
Blade Runner 2049
Yes, I had a tepid reaction to this film. Still do, honestly. And while I’m actually still planing to write about it, the chief culprits of negativity are both thematic coherency and the dramatic coherency. But we’ll get to the nuances of all that some other time. For here and now, it would still take the least gracious among us not to respect the audacity of Blade Runner 2049‘s design. It’s a film where the professionalism comes through in spades to the create the kinds of vivid images and haunting space that still occupies the eyeballs lucky enough to take them in. Still, it feels strange to call this film “an odd duck,” but it’s a simple way of conveying the idea that no such film of this professionalism should ever count as a miss.
I think I might adore Alien: Covenant more than most because it’s the one that finally got my ongoing feelings about Sir Ridley to click into place. I wrote all about it here, but it’s where you finally get the in-text portrayal of Ridley being the ultimate detached, uncaring “designer” of his films. It’s where you see the way he approaches his own work of creation much like the character David, the tinkering menace of this second trilogy of films. It’s not hard to see the parallels with Scott, who famous sketches out endless permutations of his monster just like the character does. But to it’s larger effectiveness, I’ll be blunt: buying into this film is largely about buying into that character’s fascinating portrayal. You really have to forget all the hysterics of Alien nostalgia and embrace this new creation for what it is: horrifying in a much, much different way.
Speaking of weirdos, enter Nacho Vigolando. Of course, I call him this with endless love, but Colossal is a remarkable movie that takes a left-field approach, both narratively and conceptually, to its exploration of a slew abusive-relationships, whether with boyfriends, with drinking, and with our selves. But it does so with both a remarkable affinity for its lead character and a wayward sadness, all en route to it’s total evisceration of the “nice guy” instinct and the ways men hate and control women, often to get them to blame themselves in the process. And with one cathartic throw, we can become ourselves again… And oh yes, all of this is all also expressed through Kaiju… I know.
THE CROWD PLEASERS
Making a great comedy / epic / popcorn film is one of the most difficult things in the world. These films did it in a variety of amazing ways.
I actually wrote a little about my interesting feelings in comparing this one to its predecessor Wolverine, but there is absolutely no doubting what this film does well. For it features a kind of depth and genuine “adult-mindness” that goes far beyond the blood and booze of R rated fare and right into something far more devastating. One perhaps best expressed in the heart-breaking final arc of Professor X, a benevolent man whose endless power has only been undone by raving of age. But perhaps that’s apt for the world of this film is similarly ravaged by age, where the echoes of x-men and mutant-hood are undone in the same breath. But like every ending, it’s all about what we leave for the new beginning. And the big moments of Logan shine.
Sometimes I’m dumb. For awhile I had heard Hunt for the Wilderpeople was good, but I made some dumb assumptions that it might err on the side of too quirky-aiming (not that there’s anything wrong with quirk, just only if it’s in place of function), and boy am I an idiot. I should have known the guy who did What We Do In The Shadows would actually have crafted a beautiful, heart-felt movie that might be one of the best-written comedies in years. I fell in love with it so had and then found myself suddenly very excited about the new Thor movie. Such excitement was well-founded. Not just because of the wall-to-wall jokes and playful ingenuity, but in the sheer audacity to sneak a genuine parable about the horrors of colonialism into a gosh dang Marvel movie (this was before Black Panther would break the door down). But every little thing about the movie feels refined, from a handful of renaissance shots, to Hemsworth’s incredible comic timing, to the series finally understanding how not to indulge in Loki. Plus, with one amazing entrance it brought us Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie into our world and we’ll never be the same. #taika4ever
I argue that the best superhero films don’t make us just want to be “better “versions of ourselves (read: cooler, more powerful), but genuinely make us want to be better to one another. And it’s hard to think of a film that understands purity of heart quite like this one. But my favorite thing about Diana is how she’s more than that. Sure, she’s kind, but she’s forthright, she’s inspired, she’s stubborn, she’s sardonic, and she finds babies appropriately adorable. She has so many shades to her characterization and it all comes to a beautiful embrace of a character that simply needed to come to life before us. And when she jumps into that horizon, I believe in her.
Few films are as lovingly-directed and infectious as Baby Driver. The film itself plays one-part caper hijinks, one-part heightened fairy tale, one-part night at the jukebox, all before giving way to the unwieldy nightmares that come with the actual life of crime. And it’s impossible not to delight in the execution, little beats and touches that add up to something so much more. But for now I’m just thankful for this full brunt diegetic musical… I still feel like I’m tapping my foot to it.
*The Big Sick
It would be too easy to accredit this aspect to the “true story” element, but what I adore most about the The Big Sick is how they are no easy steps. Every time there’s a chance to sit back and play the story conventionally or use stock conflicts, it instead takes pulls back and aim at a more nuanced, human issue within the endless roadblocks of love. From family-pleasing, to dishonesty, to the titular ravages of disease, it offers no easy answers along the way. But, like all things, it understands that all wounds are best when dealt with head on, understood, and given time to heal.
This is Nolan’s most humane film. Because within the claustrophobic ticking-clock and suffocating action of a war film that aims to show what it’s like to be a fish in a barrel, there is a surprising sensitivity to notions of cowardice and repression. Especially those most ridiculed in the “stiff upper lip” of the old British way. An attitude that Nolan falsely gets accused of having too much (even his family jokingly referred to him as Woodcock after seeing Phantom Thread). But there’s a young soul at the center of that, with empathy for anyone thrust into the unthinkable. And as the young soldier is told, sometimes, survival is enough.
*The Last Jedi
I’ll be honest, I never thought I’d love a Star Wars film quite like this again. As I argued previously, The Last Jedi is as beautiful a repurposing of the mythos as I can imagine. And I was fully on board with every bit of caution that was thrown-to-the-wind. Not just in terms of the playful construction, but the ethos: For it was the only way to undo the long reach of Skywalker hero entitlement, along with dealing with nonsense lingering questions that never had answer to begin with. And instead, the film aims to bring us into ourselves… For the force belongs to us.
THE NOT-MOVIE MOVIES
Any one of these could be take my “best of the year” spot, but since they’re not technically movies, they get their own special place here.
Make no mistake, the season finale of Nathan For You is not only a remarkable documentary in its own right, it’s one of the most audacious pieces of outsider art this year. For as we slowly curl up inside the old showboating Bill Heath to discover a life of lies, pain, and regret, we also get a meta-journey is reflected in “Nathan” in turn. And as we push these two “stories” forward, the aching reality between them comes to the edge. And ultimately, we find out this is a “prank” show where the prank dissolves, only to show the deeper truth about all figures involved… There’s a reason Errol Morris went nuts for it. It is incredible, must-see stuff.
Twin Peaks “The Return” & Episode 8
Few events had more water cooler effect with my friends than the return of Twin Peaks. Every episode, we talked, we tweeted, and we watched in incredible fascination as David Lynch slowly unspooled a new bizarre version of something we already loved. And just when we got the rhythm of this new season, just when everything came together in a lovely moment of final catharsis, it was all slammed to the ground in a way that only Lynch really can. But during the run, it’s impossible not to single out the merits of Episode 8, which starts with a tense stand-off sequence, takes a quick detour to watch Nine Inch Nails, all before going on 40 minute abstract journey into not just the deep iconography and lore of the show, but the very heart of violence and love. In the end, it may be the single most hypnotic episode of television I’ve ever seen.
The Adventure Zone: Balance
For nearly three years, the McElroy Brothers had played D&D with their dad. What started almost as a lark, slowly picked up steam as the four jokesters learned how to make the show fun. But right around “Mystery Aboard the Rockport Limited,” it became clear there was the story element was going to fire on all cylinders. And along the way, I fell more and more in love with the brazen adventure of Taako, Magnus, and Merle, as they navigated a world whose very essence defies categorization. As they amassed hilarious side characters like Angus McDonald Boy Detective, Garfield The Deals-Wizard and the wise-cracking Lup.And as each mini-arc piled up, with narrative conventions and right turns that could only work in this oddly meta presentation: The Eleventh Hour is my favorite, but The Stolen Century is downright daring and incredible, and at one point it has no lie one of my favorite story reveals of all0time. By the end, I realized I was in love with the oddest, least-definable saga since… well, Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga. And when the saga of “Balance” finally came to an end this year, I realized just how much it had become one of my favorite stories of all time. But while this story has finished, there will be something new instead. So Here’s to the next one.
THE 11 FAVORITES
I have this weird thing where I keep having to defend Steven Spielberg in these lists, which feels kind of absurd. The Post marks his third entry in his late-period “capra-esque” run of american morality tales and while I admittedly like both Lincoln and Bridge of Spies a bit more, there is no doubting that incredible work on display here. Basically everything outside the weird bookends (which I have no understanding of why they not only went with them, but portrayed them as they did) is pure gold. And it’s so amazing that in a movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, it’s actually Bob Odenkirk who walks away with the movie (maybe it’s that he most understands the movie he’s in?). But again, people don’t know what to do with Speilberg’s elegant professional perfection. If this was some hotshot kid had directed that phone call sequence we wouldn’t be shutting up about them.
This film was the surprise of the year. I walked in not knowing a damn thing and walked out with my jaw on the floor, unsure how they just pulled off such an astute piece of commentary. I saw someone mention that the film would make a great double bill with The Last Jedi and I fully agree. Not just because they both feature great Mark Hamill performances, but both seem to get at the links between fandom, toxicity, and trauma. It’s the linking of that one that’s really something special, though as it it taps into our understanding of why we really need art and how we need to project it back with our new understanding of life. It’s a film with a hell of a lot on its mind, and a character somehow brought to life with a vivid sincerity that I’m sure only Kyle Mooney could have pulled off. Loved it.
Yup. Girl’s Trip. People have no idea how hard it is to write these kinds of broad comedies, let alone turn them into something resonant. Yes, there’s a reason Tiffany Haddish walks away with the movie and endless accolades (it’s because she’s incredible), but literally everyone is good in it. Especially Jada Pinkett-Smith. But the reason the movie works the way it does is all script level and solid arcs. It’s the way it knows the way you make Tiffany Haddish’s character really come to life is with that prayer scene and her understanding of how the other characters feel about her. And at the center of it all, self-respect, all culminating in a speech that needs to be celebrated just as much as we celebrate Haddish’s comedic talent.
A bitter, controlling “genius” and an emotionally-abused woman looking to carve out her little bit of space and power within it… I keep telling everyone Phantom Thread is a horror movie because… it is. It just happens to be about the horror of both sides buying into a toxic co-dependent relationship. And as much as their story is brought to life with a whirling, sumptuous love, there is no hiding that horror. But what is perhaps most interesting is the way the film ends up being a bellwether for how we see such horror. Cause I’ll admit, I’m seeing a lot of dude critics lavish praise say it is about the “equality” of relationships, and a lot of female critics say “uhhh, this straight up plays into my horrible relationship PTSD, no thank you.” Which should be pretty telling.
There are few minds I’m more thankful for that of Bong-Joon Ho. He’s my favorite bizarre weirdo filmmaker precisely because he also knows how to deliver heart and thematic coherence in equal measure. With Okja, what could be viewed as a simple animal rights parable is instead something much more grand, thoughtful, and, yes, strange. For it takes on the bombastic nature of consumption / production culture, but I sort of feel like even trying to describe it is folly, for those things take on a life of their own. So all I want to do instead is single out the work of Seo-Hyun Ahn and mention this also my favorite Paul Dano performance. Just good things all around.
*A Ghost Story
David Lowery’s haunting, ethereal film about a ghost walking around the ruins of their former life rattled me in a way I cannot even describe. So I won’t. Just see it.
I want to talk about filmmaking and go back to the old “tangible details” theory. Because it’s easy to look at a hyper-stylized movie like Blade Runner 2049 and heap praise on the construction, but the simple fact is that a film like Ladybird is every much its professional equal. I’m in awe of every perfectly-timed cut. Every little bit of focus on an informative character detail (the Dad playing solitaire as the mom rants about his depression). I’m in awe of a story that feels loose as it’s in front of you, but the story actually comes together like a swiss clock. There’s barely a bit of wasted fat. But these are the things that feel “normal” so most people don’t notice the construction. But they sure know the feeling when they leave, in the way it gives us one of the best coming of age movies in years and there’s a reason collective critic scores were in the stratosphere. It’s because it’s well-made as hell. So by all means call it “too simple” or something just means you’re falling for the texture. And as the counter-point, I’ll leave it to Daniel Day Lewis to explain: “There is nothing more beautiful in all the arts than something that appears simple. And if you try to do any goddamn thing in your life, you know how impossible it is to achieve that effortless simplicity.”
Call Me By Your Name
After watching I Am Love a few times I came to the conclusion that Luca is a wonderful mad man who hits incredible heights along the way of his near-drunk style of filmmaking. Perhaps in adapting this book he was more motivated to be on his best behavior with the cinematography, but there is just so much great work here, particularly in the way Timothee Chalamet carries the entire film with his damn eyes. But there are, of course, the incredible Luca-brand highs of beautiful details: Armie Hammer dancing. The peach. The mattress. And of course, the unforgettable Stuhlbarg speech. One that I even knew was coming, but it didn’t matter against the profundity of the words themselves. For what I’m left with is the feeling of them. Not just in the personal touchstones of not understanding as your sexuality and the way that bounces around your soul. No, it’s in the fatherly words that echo. The way that hearts get used up. The things that become lost and gone. And things had for only the briefest moments. And in the end, it is the happiest saddest feeling there is or could ever be.
The Shape of Water
The fact that the three best movies of the year are horror movies should not be surprising. It is, after all, a year full of horrors. But with the many shapes of GDT’s The Shape of Water, lies a film as perfectly designed and shot as I can think of. Everything about his aesthetics just hits me in the right spot within my brain. But it’s the story that is most transcendent here: a beautiful adult fairy tale about monsters, and voices, and sexuality, and art, and love, and boundaries, and many of the things we forget about life along the way. And at it’s heart, and understanding of trauma and transformation.
I’ve been obsessed with Julia Decournou’s debut opus since I saw it two fantastic fests ago, but I’m still thinking about it. It actually makes for a fascinating combo with Ladybird, as it’s another vivid coming of age film, just with a tasteful amount of cannibalism (that’s not a joke, and it’s more unnerving and tense than it is gross). But really it’s all a metaphor the horrors and baser delights of college, where we struggle with the desire to fit in and the desire to be left alone in equal measure. But for most of all, it’s about the ugliest bonds of family and the things we can’t help but take with us.
The word zeitgeist.
I could go on for hours about the way people dismiss genre and horror without understanding how much better you have to be at your craft than in constructing some loose-feeling, rambling “important” drama, but what Get Out is able to capture goes beyond cinema and straight into the modern conversation. It’s not only terrifically entertaining, it breaks the door wide open on a new kind of social filmmaking that Hollywood didn’t understand was not only possible, but their audience was hungry for. It gives voice and power and success to an artist and those who will follow in his footsteps. And like all great movies, it communicates identity and experience through story. Starting from the simple premise of “this is what it feels like to come to the white suburbs,” Peele said he just followed the truth. And in that following, the film gives us a new lexicon for understanding modern racial contexts. It let’s understand the “the sunken place” and what it feels like being projected with other-ism at every point of your life. And best of all, it confronts our behaviors dead on, understanding complicity in a way that goes beyond base assumption. Which is perhaps why a bunch of cantankerous Oscar voters are so put off by it. No, it’s not another Hollywood movie that’s secretly designed to make white people feel like they’ve overcome racism, it’s actually confronting them with the ugly truth. Which is what makes it so damn powerful. But it’s also joyful, and brutal, and despair-inducing, and ultimately cathartic. I am still in awe of Get Out. Because it is the movie of the moment. The movie of the year.
The movie of the decade.