I know I know, a little late to the party. But with the Oscars just around the corner, what better time to say what movies from last year were the best of the best. Because who knows better: the Academy or a 20-something journalist with snark and sarcasm to boot? So in honor of my lateness and about how great the year 2017 was for movies, I figure I’d expand my annual list to 30 movies. Because again, 2017 was a damn good year at the cinema. We had blockbusters made with some genuine creativity and imagination both with their special effects and writing, paired with the continuously-improving independent film scene. It felt like 2017 was when creators were fully in-charge of their projects instead of the feel of studio interference in a lot of 2016’s worse movies. So in the vein of celebration and the prizes of all movie prizes just days away, here are my top 30 movies of 2017.
- Ingrid Goes West
It’s actually amazing that’s taken so long for someone to make a satire comedy about the dark side of being Instagram famous. Co-writer and director Matt Spicer’s slightly grim and side-splitting comedy stars Aubrey Plaza finally breaking out of her own droll gaze as a mentally unstable woman who falls in love with the life of an L.A. Instagram star (Elizabeth Olsen, hilariously bitchy) and does everything possible to become her friend. Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith use cringe comedy merely as a front to display the deeply-troubled effects of obsessions with likes and follow sprees. It’s led by Plaza in a truly star-making performance that a strong blend of comic, dramatic and impossible to look away from.
- Call Me By Your Name
In 2015, director Luca Guadagnino used sexual tension and rock-and-roll to play a four-way cat and mouse game in the bright but kooky A Bigger Splash. This year, he decided to cut the BS and present one of the most tender and heartfelt romances in 2017 cinema. Based on the 2007 novel, it follows a summer romance in Northern Italy, 1983 between 17-year-old introvert Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the laid-back visiting student (Armie Hammer) of his archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). The two, both womanizers in their own rights, find common ground in their intelligence and freewheeling behavior that morphs into something more. Of course it’s beautifully shot (props to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and soundtracked by some glittering 80s new wave (and Sufjan Stevens, always a pleasure). What makes it pop is the booming chemistry between the two leads, equally shy of the unknown between them yet infatuated with each other. It’s the quiet but forceful debut of one actor (Chalamet) and the resurgence of talent for the other (Hammer).
- Baby Driver
It’s not fair to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst movie, because 1. It’s not a bad movie in any way, shape or form and 2. Edgar Wright has yet to make a bad movie. So let’s call the writer/director’s longtime passion project his “least-best” movie before going into what makes it still good. While its core is a run-of-the-mill “criminal tries to get out of the game” story following a baby-faced getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who meets his dream girl (Lily James) and tries to shake off a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and his band of baddies (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González). But Wright, being the obsessive perfectionist/lovable movie geek he is, sets nearly every bit of action and driving to a rocking soundtrack turning the movie into something of an action musical. On top of the flawless action scenes is some of the year’s best supporting turns from Hamm, Foxx and James. But this is Wright’s show, and very few are as good a ringmaster as he.
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
Look, nobody needed another Spider-Man reboot. It’s actually quite amazing how everyone isn’t sick of Marvel’s geeky wallcrawler and his great responsibility and whatnot. But since Marvel (and Disney) likes money and Sony Pictures are desperate for a hit, the two studios pooled their resources and now we have the sixth Spider-Man movie in 15 years. Wisely skipping the origin story, our new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a high school science geek in Queens who stops bike robberies and helps old ladies cross streets while trying to be taken seriously by stand-in father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He gets his chance when he tries to stop The Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing and selling alien weaponry on the black market. What Homecoming has in its corner is its full acceptance of being a screwball comedy that happens to have Spider-Man in it. Not only does Holland capture the geekiness and good heart of Peter Parker better than his predecessor (sorry Andrew), but he’s got a grounded yet charismatic adversary in Keaton’s Vulture. Seriously, we need Michael Keaton in more of our blockbusters.
- Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Yup, the children’s cartoon with potty humor that we all read when we were in elementary school is one of the best movies of the year. Sue me. What makes the cinematic debut of Dav Pilkey’s bald and misguided superhero (Ed Helms) created by two childhood buddies (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) so memorable is its understanding of what makes cartoon comedy work so well. Because Captain Underpants is such a silly premise to begin with, it opens up possibilities for more creative forms of comedy. Want to do a random live-action scene with sock puppets? Sure! How about an unbroken bit where Captain Underpants snaps back-and-forth into his alter ego at a breakneck pace? Absolutely! Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) understands that there is an art to being silly, and Captain Underpants has enough warm color and expertly-crafted antics that it could sit in the MoMA.
We can never leave the past behind. No matter how far America has come in terms of equality and civil rights, we must be reminded that there are still smudges in this country’s star-spangled history. One the year’s most striking reminders came from writer/director Dee Rees’s stirring and grim Netflix period drama about two World War II soldiers (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) who return home to Mississippi to face their own personal wars. One (Hedlund) has a drinking problem and can’t seem to measure up to the expectations of his seething racist father (Jonathan Banks) and farmer brother (Jason Clarke) with a unfulfilled wife (Carey Mulligan). The other (Mitchell) sees his mother (Mary J. Blige) and father (Rob Morgan) working for a white family still feeling the racial injustice of the south despite him being a war hero. Rees pulls no punches when presenting the cruelty of the southern white man, yet also finds the small ties that bind the different characters in the grim mud of the Mississippi farmland. She also has one of the best casts of the year working overtime with Mitchell, Mulligan and Blige lifting the movie up with their hearts on their sleeves.
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
It actually helps to like Star Wars but not be super invested in the mythos and cult of George Lucas’s over 40-year-old space opera This way when super-fans tear themselves apart over the eighth installment in the franchise, rioting in movie theaters when their midnight viewing is only slightly delayed then whining online after seeing the movie become “BAAAAD,” you can just sit back and shrug your shoulders enjoying the first legitimately interesting and different Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. Whether it’s focusing on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, never better) and his disillusionment with the Force against the hopes of Rey (Daisy Ridley, getting better), the evolution of conflicted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, still the best) or the scrappy heroics of Resistance crew Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rose (a beaming Kelly Marie Tran), writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) decides to let the past crutches of Star Wars die and shoot the characters in a new direction. Unlike the last risky Star Wars movie (The Phantom Menace *shivers*), The Last Jedi rolls the dice by making its villain deeper, turning the beloved imagine of Luke Skywalker into a heartbroken shell of himself, and showing how failure and loss is just as important in Star Wars as hope and heroism. And that’s all after witnessing the best-looking Star Wars movie to date. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s hard not to applaud a Star Wars movie that doesn’t rely on nostalgia and fan service to garner interest.
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I’ve always thought of writer/director Martin McDonagh as “classy Tarantino,” meaning a guy who doesn’t mind making movies laced with profanities, violence and darker subject matter but stages it like a grown-up character study instead of through the lens of 1970s pop culture. For his third feature film, McDonaugh decided to take some pages out of the Coen brothers’ playbook: small-town crime mystery, emotionally-damaged characters, Frances McDormand, etc. The longtime-Coen muse stars as a mother demanding answers for her daughter’s murder, so determined that she erects the titular ads calling out the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his dim-witted deputy (Sam Rockwell). While not as classically-tragic as his debut In Bruges but certainly more adult and grounded than his follow-up Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is a modern American story of people struggling to let go of the little things they had to keep them going through the day. Though it has some well-earned moments of hilarity (points to McDormand and Rockwell with solo charisma and great chemistry together), it’s a grim tale of small-town anguish over injustice, literal and personal.
- I, Tonya
It’s rare that America looks back fondly or sympathetically on its subjects of tabloid fixation and overexposure. That said, Tonya Harding deserves an apology from everyone in the country who wrote the blonde former figure skating champion off as crazy white trash. I, Tonya pleads the case that Ms. Harding, who was publicly shamed for being tied into an attack against fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, was merely a victim of a brutal upbringing, a rushed romance with an abuser and the American people’s obsession with people more miserable than they are. Lead by Margot Robbie in the title role, which certifies her as a damn good actress, I, Tonya follows Harding from an upbringing with a monstrously-pushy mother (Allison Janney, equal parts hilarious and horrifying) to her tumultuous marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, showing himself more than the ratty wig of the Winter Soldier) and how her obsession with perfection and victory against the skating world that looked down on her led to her downfall. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) orchestrates a biopic that’s like if Martin Scorsese remade Ice Castles: raw, raunchy and rarely taking its foot off the gas. But when he zooms in on his title character and how she handled becoming a princess to a pariah, it becomes some damning evidence against America’s love of a villain in the spotlight (how times have changed, eh?).
- War for the Planet of the Apes
In a world where audiences flock to movies about capes and spandex, it’s truly shocking to find one of the most heroic movie characters of the year is a computer-generated talking ape. Matt Reeves second (and final) turn directing the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise manages to be an epic and entertaining summer blockbuster while also being the darkest and most heartfelt of the new trilogy. After the battle of San Francisco in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe into the woods to avoid the attacks of an anti-ape military battalion and its ruthless commander (Woody Harrelson). But when Caesar and tribe suffer heavy losses, Caesar treks through the snow for a final assault against the battalion. What makes War such a striking summer blockbuster is how reserved it is and focused more on the duality between its hero and villain than explosions. Between the impressive set pieces and action scenes is the almighty Andy Serkis as Caesar carrying the emotional burden of being a lone avenger for his struggling ape brethren even as he starts to lose faith. It’s true acting, all while wearing a gray onesie with dots on his face.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Behind all of his love for snarky comedy, gross monsters and 70s/80s pop-rock, writer/director James Gunn does have a soft spot for family drama and togetherness. He takes outsiders, rejects, abandoned children and total assholes and brings them together because even if they don’t like each other, they’re all they’ve got. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is arguably the most emotional movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focusing on the daddy issues of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the dissenting rebels of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (a very impressive Michael Rooker) and the torn sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). What makes Vol. 2 one of the most outstanding comic book movies of the new decade (maybe of all time) aside from the gorgeous visual effects, creative set design, great soundtrack and the lovable cast is the heart that Gunn writes into his characters. Gunn, the sole writer on this endeavor, impressively juggles the right amount of development for all the characters while putting on a colorful and wacky sci-fi/action spectacle. He sees the Guardians as equal parts children and parents to each other, petulant about where they stand on the team but always there to help the other up after getting thrown around by a giant space monster. The Guardians may never get along, but who else would put up with their baggage. All of this while a vibrant imagination runs wild, fantastic entertainment.
- T2 Trainspotting
A sequel to a beloved cultural time capsule 21 years too late? Yes, the very idea of T2 Trainspotting is off-putting. So surprise surprise that original director Danny Boyle got the gang back together again for another darkly comic romp through cultural dissention and drug-addled mischief. Clean and well-adjusted Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to the dirty slums of Edinburgh for the first time since he stole money from his friends after a drug deal. He runs into his old pals Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), no better off than where he left them but sparking something inspirational in Renton. That is, if he doesn’t get killed by former-buddy/recent-jailbird Begbie (Robert Carlyle). T2 doesn’t harbor on the nostalgia of the Britpop days. Instead, it manages to further develop its main characters in a believable way. It makes total sense that all four of the youthful, reckless leads turned into bitter, disappointing shells of their former selves. No matter how much they try to relive their substance-addled days of old, Boyle and writer John Hodge (from Irvine Welsh’s sequel novel, no less) keep the dark cloud of reality all over their heads. As Renton says, “Choose life….we thought it was amusing at the time.” How time flies.
I guess Hollywood has run out of ways to make movies about the dangers of substance abuse outside of say, a Lifetime original movie with high school kids discovering booze for the first time. So why not hide an abuse drama inside of a giant monster movie? Colossal’s trojan horse plot is the sighting of a giant monster that starts randomly appearing and disappearing in Seoul with no explanation why. The lone Greek hiding in the plot is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an alcoholic that’s been dumped by her boyfriend and forced to move home. After reconnecting with an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) and indulging in heavy drinking, she wakes up the next morning to find her drunken demeanor is eerily similar to that of the monster. Despite the mystery of how Gloria and the monster are connected being the selling point of the movie, it’s actually the least interesting part of Colossal. Instead, Nacho Vigalondo’s character study is less zany than it could’ve been and instead focuses on the negatives of Gloria’s dependency. It hangs on the performance of Hathaway and Sudeikis: the former being more believably human and interesting on screen than she has in a long time, and the later providing a shockingly effective dramatic turn.
- The Lost City of Z
In 1980, writer/director Michael Cimino released his highly-anticipated follow up to The Deer Hunter known as Heaven’s Gate. It was long, it was epic, it was ambitious, and it bombed like mad with critics and audiences. But what if Heaven’s Gate was a smash success and Cimino was so made in Hollywood that his next movie could’ve been even more grand and epic? We’ll never know, but it would probably look a lot like this stunning adaptation of David Grann’s book. It’s the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, reminding everyone how capable a movie star he is), a British explorer in the early 1900s looking for something greater in life. With the help of Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Percy finds evidence of an ancient civilization undiscovered in the jungle and becomes obsessed with finding the lost land. Writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) has made a classic adventure story, putting his actors deep in the green jungle instead of a green screen set. He sees the humdrum ordinary life as a grim wasteland of lost potential. It’s when he’s in the jungle, with the imposing trees and rushing water, that he sees the vibrant excitement of life. It’s as if Gray is making a meta-commentary on the CG-heavy modern blockbusters and how it’s more interesting to see a historical epic that’s as real as the history it’s based off of.
- Logan Lucky
As far as car-based heist movies go, Steven Soderbergh beat Edgar Wright by a country mile in 2017. The stylish yet reclusive director came out of retirement from filmmaking for this loose and zany caper about the Logan brothers of West Virginia: single dad Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and veteran/amputee Clyde (Adam Driver), who are fed up with their misfortunes and decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But since they’re just two men who’ve never done wrong in their life before, the brothers decide to employ the help of incarcerated bomb expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to pull off the job. It would be easy to dismiss Logan Lucky as “white trash Ocean’s Eleven,” but that would be ignoring the genuine comedy Logan Lucky has to offer. It brings the typical Soderbergh craft to filmmaking: hi-resolution video making for more realistic cinematography, David Holmes’s swinging score, sharp camerawork and a tightly-woven supporting cast (Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane). Logan Lucky’s ace in the hole is a more relaxed vibe throughout and a more down-to-earth story than previous Soderbergh productions. Usually fascinated with only the fanciest of fancy people (Ocean’s trilogy, Side Effects, Magic Mike) or the very obscure (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience), Logan Lucky is Soderbergh in touch with the world around him and being surprisingly sympathetic to it.
- Super Dark Times
Many people have been complementing this year’s remake of It for its comradery between the young kid characters being relatable and believable in the face of a suspense/horror movie. I, an intellectual, point instead to this delightfully cool suspense thriller crossed with a coming-of-age story. Set in a sleepy New York suburb in 1996, it follows high school buddies Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) riding their bikes around town while talking about banging chicks in high school (teenage masculinity, everyone). One day, the boys are playing around with a samurai sword (as you do) and a gruesome accident occurs. In the midst of dealing with their feelings for a cute classmate (Elizabeth Cappuccino), the boys grapple with crushing guilt and the haunting suspicion of who will find out. Super Dark Times is another offspring of the atmospheric indie-thriller subgenre manifested by 2014’s It Follows: luminescent cinematography, themes of sexual frustration mixed with a mystery, John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score and well-executed tension and gore. It’s all the more impressive that Super Dark Times is made by a first-time director (Kevin Phillips) and writers (Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski), clear film fans who understand what makes thrillers work. Tender and haunting in its quiet moments while knowing how to build and break tension, it’s a shame this movie won’t be the VHS hidden gem it wants to be. Guess it’ll have to settle with being one of the best indie thrillers of the 2010s.
- Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig has always seemed destined for bigger things. She’s a feisty and fiercely funny presence on screen on top of being a talented writer for modern-day situations and relationships (see Frances Ha and Mistress America). And since she found herself unsure for mainstream Hollywood movies (see the 2011 remake of Arthur…actually, don’t), she must’ve figured she’d be better suited blossoming in indie world behind a writer’s desk and a movie camera. Lady Bird’s title character (Saoirse Ronan in fiery rebel red hair) is a smart but snooty high schooler trying to break out of suburban Sacramento and go to a culturally-woke college. She’s in a working-class house with a stubborn mom (Laurie Metcalf), a spunky best friend (Beanie Feldstein), a straight-laced boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), a douchey crush (Timothée Chalamet) and a big helping of self-doubt. Gerwig, the sole writer and director, says that Lady Bird is only semi-autobiographical. She could’ve fooled the audience, as the film’s characters, environment and emotions feel very lived-in. Gerwig is a proud child of the new millennium (2002 specifically), putting Lady Bird in the awkward scenarios of modern love and faking friendship with the cool kids. The heart of Lady Bird is in the mother-daughter bond, two bright souls constantly clashing but always finding solace in each other. It’s a true family story executed by Ronan and Metcalf’s incredible chemistry with each other, along with Ronan’s obvious solo star power carrying each scene. The real star of Lady Bird is of course Gerwig, seemingly trying to push the cliched teen comedy into a more grounded, relatable territory.
Growing up in a Catholic family, I’ve always wondered about the life of a devout Catholic. How does one devote his or her mind, body and soul to such a strict lifestyle and a idea that isn’t tangible? Writer/director Margaret Betts, in her first feature film, doesn’t paint a picture in the black and white worn by the nuns that are the subject of Novitiate, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. Set in sheltered convent in 1960s, there are two focuses of Novitiate: a long-time devout nun (Melissa Leo, as intimidating as Darth Vader despite speaking mostly whispers) whose extremely traditional ways are challenged by the issuance of Vatican II, and a teenage novice (Margaret Qualley, a delicate flower who speaks volumes with little dialogue) trying to become a nun herself after only finding solace in the light of the Lord. It’s a personality crisis for both lead characters and the easy route would be for the two to find solace in one another. Betts takes a different approach, effortlessly balancing two different stories of people questioning their faith. Despite the beautiful set design and cinematography straight out of a Sofia Coppola movie, Betts is not afraid to show moments of heartbreaking brutality endured by the younger nuns in the movie. And even when their emotions ache after being stripped of their dignity in front of Leo’s character (repeatedly, mind you) they have to crawl (literally) back to their place in line and keep their heads down in the name of something they cannot see or feel. Novitiate doesn’t attack the Catholic religion, but more observes it with a keen eye and simply lays out its events for the audience to take in on their own accord. Betts is clearly a talent behind the camera and the writing desk, but it’s hard to ignore her actors on camera. Leo is an absolute force onscreen, equal parts antagonist and soul of the movie being a victim of changing ways as much as she is a soldier of the old. Qualley also evolves into a full-fledged movie star in her soft and thoughtful performance. Novitiate is a quiet movie, but one that sticks in the back of your mind and picks away at you.
- Atomic Blonde
2017 has been a great year for women, especially ones that punch people in the face: Wonder Woman, Valkyrie, Gamora, Wolverine’s clone daughter, Rose McGowan, etc. But of all the ladies who kicked ass this year, no one did it better than one Charlize Theron in the neon-bright but brutal Atomic Blonde. Fittingly directed by one of John Wick’s co-directors (and helmer of the upcoming Deadpool sequel) David Leitch, the movie’s title character is undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) who is charged with recovering a list of double agents from the cold of Berlin on the eve of its wall collapsing in 1989. Aided by a shady British operative (James McAvoy, in full sleaze mode) and a mysterious French photographer (Sofia Boutella), Lorraine tries punching and kicking her way out of Berlin unsure of who’s her friend and who’s her enemy. It would be easy to call Atomic Blonde “girl John Wick,” but Blonde is more of a spy thriller than a straight-up action movie with a classic plot of double-crossing and espionage. Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remade by the guys who did The Raid 2. As stylish as vibrant this movie can be (everything from the costumes to the music to lighting is 80s glory), Blonde also has a knack for brutality as every bruise and blood stain Theron takes is proudly displayed for the audience. It’s an action movie that knows how good its action is, so it makes the audience feel every closed-fist and bullet put in the front of the camera. The audience also feels the powerful presence of Charlize Theron, who finally gets a well-deserved action lead role after AEon Flux bricked 12 years ago. And Theron reveals in the role, gliding through scenes in her white trench coat and platinum blonde hair while shooting people in the face and repelling off building with George Michael playing in the background.
Depending on who you talk to, it’s hard to pinpoint when specifically Pixar Animation Studios started on a downward slope. It might’ve been in 2011 with the unnecessary Cars 2, the admirable but incomplete Brave in 2012 or the good-looking misfire of The Good Dinosaur in 2015. On top of that, competition from Warner Bros. Animation and Laika as caused Disney’s animation brain trust to start sweating creatively (not financially of course, because Disney always makes money). So Disney decided to stop making movies about inanimate objects and go back to making human stories…ok, they’re mostly dead humans, but still. Coco follows the journey of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy dreaming of being a world famous musician against his family’s ban on even the tiniest musical note. Following the words of his late hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel looks to enter a talent show on the eve of Day of the Dead and tries borrowing his hero’s famed guitar from his tomb, inadvertently winding up the spirit world. Teamed with a fast-talking con man (Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel looks to meet his hero and find some way to get home. Co-directed by Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3), Coco follows the Pixar formula of lost kids on their own finding the importance of family and all the usual schmaltz. What Coco has in its corner is a beautifully-designed and imaginative world inspired by Mexican culture that’s worth getting invested in. The animation is always stellar in Pixar movies, but Coco takes great advantage of the brighter and more vibrant colors to make the movie pop. With some gorgeous Spanish guitar music soundtracking the film and wonderfully lively voice acting talent, the story of what parts of our family history we hold onto actually packs more of an emotional punch.
- The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Noah Baumbach loves dysfunctional people, especially when they’re blood relatives. The writer/director thrives on trying to give narcissistic creative-types the chance to redeem themselves as decent human beings and showing them repeatedly fall on their faces. His characters might be stuck in some form of eternal misery, but Baumbach always manages to find partners for them to gravitate to. When he writes about messed-up families (most famously in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale), it’s even sadder, funnier and more heartfelt to watch how hard these people who’ve grown up with each other still try desperately to connect with one another. His latest feature is another family affair: Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is the soft-spoken, self-centered, curmudgeon artist living out his golden years in New York City. He has three grown-up kids: mustached Danny (Adam Sandler) dealing with his only daughter (Grace Van Patten) going off the college and being mostly a failure, suit-wearing Matthew (Ben Stiller) who lives in Los Angeles and is annoyed by his father’s snobbery towards financially successful people like himself, and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who is so mousey and unassuming that she’s practically invisible. Baumbach, not one for the typical movie plot, simply lets the movie play out as interactions between the Meyerowitz family. What makes The Meyerowitz Stories one of the most accessible and emotionally-impactful movies of Baumbach’s career is how grounded his characters are this time around. Harold and his children touch on many different aspects of troubled family life: abandonment, failure, overachieving, lack of acknowledgment and just miscommunication. All three of Harold’s kids are so different from each other and the only common ground they have is the different ways their father annoys them, so they’re all they got. Of course it’s told in Baumbach’s typically funny way of talking over each other and cringe comedy, but it’s more about togetherness than before. It’s all played out with the best cast Baumbach’s had in his entire career: Hoffman is an entertaining grump while still having his intelligent and soothing voice, while Marvel is the secret MVP with her droll delivery and deeper character development. The real stars here are Sandler and Stiller, more reserved and emotionally-bare than ever before. Well beyond their capacities to handle the mainstream slapstick that got them rich, it’s nice to see these two comedy heavyweights handle such rich characters and make it seem so natural.
- The Florida Project
Kids always manage to find happiness in anything. Even in the worst of times in broken homes and little money, young children have a limitless imagination. It’s like they have a sixth sense that has them see the world as this strange alien planet just waiting to be explored. Writer/director Sean Baker took audience into that world one more time, with the very-adult reminder that it’s never a truly happy ending. The Florida Project follows the summer adventures of six-year-old Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her twenty-something mom Halley (older but still-newcomer Bria Vinaite). Moonee and Halley live in a run-down motel just outside of Disney World with faded purple walls, broken air-conditioning and people who stay longer than the motel’s owner (Willem Dafoe) would like. Through all the obvious signs that she should be in a more stable household, Moonee manages to find little bright spots in her home of faded failure. With some gorgeous cinematography and the real set pieces of abandoned housing complexes and endless weeds from the wet and hot weather, Baker captures a snapshot of a modern-day American white trash and frames it like some kind of paradise lost. It’s obvious how desolate and faded Moonee’s stomping grounds are, but her enthusiasm and imagination makes each setting more than meets the eye. Baker doesn’t let Moonee off entirely, as Halley’s attitude and obvious incapability to make a stable living for her and her daughter becomes more apparent as the movie goes on. Baker slowly builds up to reality crashing down on Moonee, but it’s so subtle that the movie’s heartbreaking end comes practically out of nowhere and hits harder. Until then, The Florida Project is a borderline documentary about the forgotten kids of the early-2000s ringtone rap generation left behind to struggle. For the feature debut of a kid and a girl who Baker found on Instagram, Prince and Vinaite are extremely compelling and natural in their blissful ignorance of the world around them. Even Dafoe’s crazy eyes are restrained for a more tender and human performance, one of the best of his career.
- The Shape of Water
At some age, we were told that we’re not allowed to believe in fairy tales and monsters anymore. Guillermo del Toro didn’t get that talking to when he was younger, and cinema has been all the better because of it. Whether he’s working with a miniscule budget (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or given carte blanche by a major studio to spend money and run wild (Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), del Toro is a proud believer in the magic of movies and a wizard in concocting mystical myths for grown-ups. With his 10th movie, del Toro has seemingly made the most tender and innocent project of his career centered around the wonders of monsters, blood and sex. It’s 1962 in a small American town and mute, timid Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as janitors in a secret underground military base overseen by a shifty army Colonel (Michael Shannon) without knowing why. It turns out the base is hiding a human-size amphibious creature that forms a bond with Elisa. So much so that she conspires with her artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and an undercover Russian agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) to break the creature from its prison. Of course these elements of monster movies and dark thrillers in The Shape of Water, but del Toro throws in his affiliation for classic foreign films as well. Everything from exceptionally crafted 1960s set design to Alexandre Desplat’s French romantic score to the emphasis on mood through the lime green color scheme feels uniquely European while also tipping a cap to classic Hollywood. At its core, The Shape of Water is an old-school love story: two lonely misfits finding each other and showing each other how much one means to the other. All of those elements in the melting pot and del Toro stirs it like a master chef, officially claiming his title as a master genre filmmaker. Even in a scene between a skinny Creature From the Black Lagoon and a mute woman that seems so weird on paper, del Toro uses everything in his power to create this sweeping feeling of passion and romance. Despite his technical tools ever present, del Toro further proves his talent as an actor’s director by allowing Shannon to be the off-kilter type of imposing that his anger and face expresses. His muse, aside from the creature (played by del Toro favorite Doug Jones), is Hawkins in a stunning performance that doesn’t even need words to be the heart of movie. The tender way she moves through scenes and interacts with the creature is inspired and can inspire others to believe in the power of movies again.
- Free Fire
No matter how intricate, delicate, subtle and quiet all the best movies of the year are, nothing makes for a good time at the movies like a good ol’ fashion shootout. All the more impressive when that shootout manages to take place over the majority of a 90-minute movie and continuously be interesting. Seemingly a cross between Scorsese swagger and Tarantino’s taste for cussing and bullets, Free Fire is set in Boston (where everyone handles things calmly and with friendly language) where a group of arms dealers gather together for a deal. Things go south, insults are thrown around and bullets fly. It’s a premise simple as toast, and co-writer/director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List) knows to keep the movie that way. While movies like John Wick and Atomic Blonde have turned gunfights into expertly-choreographed shootout symphonies, Wheatley prefers something more realistic. Free Fire’s shootouts are sloppy, frantic, dirty and more importantly, unpredictable. It heightens the anticipation of where the bullets are going to fly and nothing about the movie’s plot is predictable or certain. When the movie’s brisk 91 minutes conclude, there’s both satisfaction and desire to see more. It probably comes from the stacked cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Noah Taylor) having fun with each other slapping each other and rolling around in the dirt. Free Fire is basically the little movie that could, something that probably have a higher profile in the 1970s but serves as a reminder of the simpler pleasures of action movies in the bloated 2017.
- Good Time
New York City has always been a popular place for filmmakers to make movies about crime. The towering skyscrapers are always the focal point for so many that it’s fascinating to zoom in on the dirty alleyways and see civilization try to call over itself and pick up the scraps left over by the rich. Every decade provides a classic NYC crime movie: the 70s had Mean Streets, the 80s had The Pope of Greenwich Village, the 90s had New Jack City and the 2000s had 25th Hour. As for the 2010s, there would be a strong case for 2014’s A Most Violent Year holding the title for best NYC crime film. But that’s the classy version, how about something as grimy and hectic as a back alley in Queens? Good Time follows two brothers: Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed the movie), who rob a local bank but Nick gets caught by the police and sent to jail. Connie, concerned for his mentally-challenged brother, races through seedy scenarios in the city to try to come up with bail money and ends up falling deeper and deeper into a hole of failure as the night goes on. It’s fitting that Good Time’s plot revolves around brothers, considering it’s directed by Benny and Josh Safdie (who also co-wrote the script). It also revolves around chaos and tension. The Safdie brothers shoot the movie mostly with handheld camerawork and close-up shots, making the experience fast and unstable. It’s a dizzying experience, but never boring in the slightest. There’s a near-constant feeling of uneasiness in Good Time, like this flaming bullet train is set to go off the rails at any second. The throbbing, pulsating, electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never and the bright neon lights that flood every other scene help emphasize the constant dread hanging over the movie. And the way Robert Pattinson, fully removed from the weight of Twilight, sprints through the movie and claws desperately at any form of saving grace is enthralling to see. Good Time is a crime movie for the modern-day common man, sweating out the day in baggy clothes and psychedelic drugs trying to outrun their failures.
It’s amazing how Christopher Nolan has reached so far out to what can be done with blockbuster event movies that doing a World War II movie is the tamest thing he could’ve thought to do next. Think about it: he’s messed with memories, cops, dreams, space and superheroes in his near 20-year directing career. So why wouldn’t he take a genre so tried-and-true like the war movie and flip it on its head? The subject of Dunkirk is the 1940 evacuation of 300,000 English army soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France after German soldiers have overwhelmed the surrounding area. What Nolan brings to the table is the use of different sets of perspectives of the evacuation: one from a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) trying to get off the beach in any way possible, one from a team of Spitfire plane pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) trying to clear the air for a rescue, a duo of commanding officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) frantically trying to organize options to get their boys home and a group of English civilians (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) joining hundreds of other local boaters to trek the ocean and help rescue the soldiers. Of all the major set pieces and action scenes in Dunkirk, the most important thing in the movie is a tiny sound buried deep in the movie: a ticking clock. Not to say that Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t also equally important and one of the most impressive of his career, but the ticking that pops up every now and again after a bomb drops, bullets spray on the shores or the cold sea water of the English Channel get closer and closer to filling their lungs of the soldiers. Dunkirk is not the typical war movie: it’s a test of morals in the absolute worst case scenario. How much of one man’s soul is he willing to sacrifice to stay alive? Nolan, often criticized for missing a human element in his movies, challenges the typical valor and honor in military heroism in a spectacular action thriller that stays remarkably grounded in realism. Not only does Nolan make one of the most realistic movies of his career, but he reminds major movie studios how to make an old genre fresh again.
Has the Golden Age of superhero movies finally turned to gluttony? The Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no sign of stopping with three movies a year, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are trying (poorly, but trying) to keep with the times, and even 20th Century Fox ended up surrendering to the House of Mouse just to save face. The phrase “superhero fatigue” is being thrown around more and more lately, as critics and audiences are starting to see too much of the same every time a caped crusader walks across a movie screen. So how does the superhero movie stay relevant? It needs to do something few superhero movies ever do: say goodbye. Logan is the swan-song of everyone’s favorite hairy Canadian with metal claws and anger issues, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). It’s the near-future of an Earth where mutants are practically an endangered species and the famed X-Men are either dead or scattered somewhere unknown. Wolverine, simple referred to as the title character, is an old limo driver sulking along the Mexican border scrapping for cash and caring for an extremely senile Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Logan’s got pus coming from his knuckles, his claws come out slower and his reasons for living are practically nonexistent. Until he meets a small girl (newcomer Dafne Keen) with claws in her body, rage in her eyes and gun-touting enemies on her tail. Logan and the Professor then trek north to get the girl to safety despite both men clearly being on the last legs of their lives. One of the most amazing things about Logan is that there isn’t really an antagonist. The movie is a splicing of a road movie and a western with R-rated ultraviolence and superpowers thrown into the batch, no one’s heading for an ultimate showdown or trying to take over the world. Co-writer/director James Mangold thrives being back in the old school American grit he once shot in Cop Land, Walk the Line and his original western masterpiece, 3:10 to Yuma. The yellow sun beats down on the grey hair and open wounds of our heroes while the open range of the midwest makes for some gorgeous backdrops for blood-soaked fight scenes that are some of the best in action movie history, let alone superhero movie history. Logan is also a character study of a man who after years of thriving on the attribute of being able to self-heal has to finally look mortality right in the face. Logan’s fate isn’t toned down or skirted aside, you know that this is the last ride for Marvel’s mad animal. What makes it so incredibly satisfying is how it stays focused on giving Logan a satisfying arc to go out on and how much it throws so much gloom and reality at Logan himself that it makes him the most human he’s ever been. There’s a lot of emotional baggage that comes with Logan, and it’s ever so fortunate that the cast understands that. Stewart is having a blast playing a more bitter Xavier that cusses like a sailor and newcomer Keen is practically mute for the whole movie but leaves a damn good impression with her face and mannerisms. But it’s Jackman giving a career-best performance that carries the movie, seeing the fatal flaw in Logan’s anger and showing how broken the iconic character really is. When Logan’ final shot graces the screen, it’s the biggest emotional gut-punch to probably ever run through a comic-book movie. And for a genre that’s been in a gluttonous phase for the last 15 years, that’s saying something.
- It Comes at Night
One of the most popular movies of 2017 was an adaptation of Stephen King’s It. For me, It represented all of the major problems of modern-day major-studio horror movies: cheap jump-scares, little tension, unimposing monster and not enough genuine scares that stuck with me after the movie was over. The big horror movies don’t seem to trust their audience enough to let things build in the background and feel the dread of silence, which is why it’s better to look deeper into the indie movie scene to find truly scary horror movies. 2016 had The Witch and 2017, thankfully, had It Comes at Night. It follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living isolated in the woods after an unknown plague hits the Earth and impacts the popularity. They family lives to strict living guidelines and try to find some form of harmony until Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife (Riley Keough) and younger son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) is found in the woods looking for a place to stay. Despite going against everything Paul sees as a form of security, his family lets Will stay in the home. But as the fear of the unknown creeps into the house, Paul and Will’s paranoia starts getting the better of them in the worst way possible. This is only the second feature for writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) and, much like The Witch’s writer/director Robert Eggers, Shults proves himself as a true pro. He knows that the least important part of the movie is the actual monster (in this case the unknown plague) but what the emotions and character that the monster brings out. He hangs the unknown over the head of the characters and the audience, keeping the hair-trigger tension high throughout its 91 minutes. The gloomy cinematography also highlights the brief color flares of fire and blood that practically jump through the screen. And what makes those brief moments of chaos so gripping is how Shults shoots the movie with a steady arm and patience to keep the viewer guessing as to what is or isn’t lurking in the shadows. The darkness and the silence used together are such strong monsters in horror movies because it never tells you what it is. You don’t get to know it, you just get lost in it.
- Blade Runner 2049
It’s fair to say that Denis Villeneuve is one of the hardest-working men in show business. The French-Canadian writer/director has made one of the best movies of the year since 2013, ranging from an abstract mystery (Enemy) to a crime thriller (Sicario) to an inquisitive sci-fi story (Arrival). With each movie being a step up in scale and ambition, there was a sense that Villeneuve was building to something bigger. Villeneuve was about to make something that would truly solidify him as one of the great directors working today. And sure enough he did. How good is his 2017 project? So good that it doesn’t even require mentioning that this is a sequel to one of the most influential and beloved sci-fi films ever made. Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 technological detective drama still sees the future the same: bleak, overcrowded and yet without any sign of radiant life. It’s 2049 and replicants are still the somber slaves of humanity. Those who try to escape are hunted down by the blade runners, one of whom (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a mystery about the potential of replicants. When the pretentious CEO (Jared Leto) of a replicant-making company wants to keep things quiet, the new blade runner sets out to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) for some more answers. While the movie’s 164-minute runtime might seem intimidating, take comfort in knowing that the world Villeneuve and his production designers built is so absorbing that somehow the movie just flies by. The combination of practical sets and CGI backgrounds are so spot-on that it’s hard to tell where the solid stuff stops and the green screen begins. Making it all pop is the gorgeous cinematography by the almighty Roger Deakins, sinking the movie deep into greys, blues, oranges and yellows that are sunk into the background of the movie instead of flooding in front of the actors. Blade Runner 2049 is the potential of today’s hundred-million dollar movie standard fully-realized, a movie that uses its budget not to overindulge on one element but flesh-out everything to make it a complete presentation. It’s the blockbuster movie format made by craftsmen, the bridge between the art house students and popcorn movie audiences. Despite what its box-office returns say, Blade Runner 2049 is a monumental achievement for movies and proof that even when he constructs one of the most awe-inspiring visual experiences, Villeneuve manages to maneuver through it all and focus on the human elements of any movie (even when they’re about fake humans).
- Get Out
When the first trailer for writer Jordan Peele’s directorial debut first hit the internet in October of 2016, it took a second for a few things to sink in. 1. That this was a real movie, and 2. That seemingly no one else had ever made this movie before. Sure it’s basically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner spun as a horror movie, but how had no one thought of doing that until 2017? Though the best time to make this kind of movie was 2017, a time when racism was (and still is) thoroughly back in public conversation and smaller films often make more interesting choices than the blockbusters do. But this was all speculation even before the movie came out, so the world waited to see if anything it set out to do. So let’s list all of the things Get Out has done since its release nearly a year ago:
- One of the most critically-praised horror movies of all time
- $252 million at the global box office from a $4.5 million budget
- Four Oscar nominations
- Unironic meme status
- Successful horror movie unreliant on jump scares or found footage
- Genre film that is socially and culturally relevant without using dated references or humor
ALL OF THAT, from a very basic premise: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is going with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her family. They don’t know that Chris is black, but it’s ok because mom (Catherine Keener) employs two black housekeepers and dad (Bradley Whitford) really wishes Obama got elected for a third term. Everyone’s friendly to Chris….a little too friendly. And that’s all the audience needs to go with the movie. It doesn’t smack you in the face with its symbolism or commentary, turning what could be obvious into some strong cringe comedy. Even with that dark comedy going on at the forefront, Peele is carefully setting up the hard left turn the movie makes into a genuinely terrifying survival story. Peele is working on a very basic level in both genre and filmmaking style, yet his amazingly-tight script and story elevate the material into something revelatory. It goes without saying that his cast is also reveling in the material they get and dead-serious about what it’s trying to get across. The tears and fear in Kaluuya’s eyes grab hold of your soul and make you feel like his attackers could turn right into the camera and hold the entire audience hostage in the sunken place. And on top of playing the typical horror-movie protagonist perfectly, Kaluuya has a deeper character going on that he never leaves behind even as he frantically tries to escape. Even if Get Out didn’t achieve the global success it did and earn its many Oscar nominations, it would still stand out as one of the most outstanding genre exercises in recent memory. It’s also a friendly reminder that even in something as tired and unoriginal as the horror genre is, creativity can still shine through.