When it came to movies, 2017 was full of surprises. Well, 2017 was full of all kinds of surprises, but these are the pleasant ones. This was one of those years where many of the big blockbusters didn’t disappoint, and each month on the calendar delivered something worth seeking out.
It was a good year for movies, all in all. So good that we couldn’t find room for everything we wanted in here, including Lucky, Loving Vincent, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, and The Florida Project. Hell, even Valerian, Justice League, and The Greatest Showman have their defenders around these parts. While our critics have their own top 10 lists for the year, eventually the whole Den of Geek staff was able to settle on the broader list below. Not all of these were critical darlings, but they’re the ones we enjoyed, can rewatch, and that sparked discussion and debate.
One of the most successful anime films of all time (its original theatrical run was in 2016, but the 2017 English dub gets it in here on a technicality), Your Name got an American theatrical release in 2017, bringing writer-director Makoto Shinkai’s fantastical tale of body-swapping teens to the U.S.
The lives of Taki, a boy living in Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a girl growing up in rural mountain village, are forever changed when they begin to switch lives through a dream connection. The narrative zigs into the science fiction genre halfway through the film, keeping even the most savvy viewer on her toes with an unexpected, heart-wrenching twist. The film has already landed a live-action adaptation deal in Hollywood, but it will be impossible to top the vivid and vibrant imagery of this weird, wonderful anime story.
And now, on with the rest of our list…
T2 looks and feels like a film stolen on the hoof, as though it might have been shot on weekends when the budget allowed. In a handful of scenes, this is to its detriment – an otherwise moving reprisal of the “Choose Life” bit from 1996 is marred by some distractingly obvious ADR – but overall, Boyle wins more than he loses with his fast-and-dirty approach. This may be a sequel to a 20 year-old film, but it still feels vital.
Like Trainspotting, T2 is a black comedy in places; in others, it’s a thriller, with one late sequence even recalling an intense chase from Blade Runner, of all things. But above all, T2 is a desperately melancholy drama, adeptly summing up the pain and regret that comes with growing up, accepting the past and finally moving on.
Cult of Chucky
I never would have taken the bet that the seventh film in the franchise would be one of its best, but here we are. With a 91-minute runtime, pound for pound and kill for kill, Chucky is finally stabbing well above his weight class. All these years later, Chucky may just prove to be more durable, creative, and fun than the big guys who kept him down.
Quick-tempered bravado and overcompensating machismo are the bread and butter of too many crime films to name. You know the kind I’m talking about—the ones that use sweaty swear words and supposedly crushing tension to pad the running time before an eruption of violence. Hence the brilliance of Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a balls-on-its-sleeve shoot ‘em up about an arms trade that goes sideways, turning its archetypal set-up into 85 minutes of the good stuff: confrontation, hilarity, and, yes, gunfire that is spread freely among an impressive ensemble cast.
It’s a film so persuasively arrogant that it convinces you style should bury substance in a hole every bit as deep as the six-feet kind that awaits most of its characters.
The Little Hours
It’s often said some stories are timeless, but Jeff Baena’s dry and ever so slightly perverse The Little Hours takes that in an extreme direction. Loosely adapting one of the many bawdy and subversive tales from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron–a 14th century post-plague critique of Medieval Europe and the Catholic Church–this wry comedy keeps the ancient setting while updating its characters to a distinctly 21st century, millennial venacular. Consequently, bored nuns looking for fun (played by Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Molly Shannon), and devout priests alike (John C. Reilly) speak in scornfully sarcastic four-letter words. Whether it’s practicing a little witchcraft or the tale of a priest having an affair on the side, this tonally confused film also has convivial (and sinful) fun. Also credit to the best use of Fred Armisen in a film. Ever.
Kong: Skull Island
Above all, the movie is fun — it’s hard to say whether it will linger in your memory very long but it will keep you glued to your seat (and yes, make sure you stay until the very end because there’s some post-credits business to take care of). Sorry, Godzilla, but Kong has the edge for now.
Hounds of Love
The film lays three or four narrative strands in its first act, which Young, who also wrote the screenplay, meticulously and sharply tightens with each one of the movie’s 108 minutes until it forms a garrote around the audience’s neck during the finale. Shot and edited with precision, Hounds of Love is a severe ordeal that the more daring moviegoing audiences will revel in.
The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego Batman Movie does sag a bit under the weight and speed of its scores of references and over-the-top climactic battles, and the story also does not achieve the genuinely moving impact that The Lego Movie made with its surprising closing scenes. We would also hesitate to compare it directly to a masterful live-action Batman film like The Dark Knight.
But it does capture the essence of the Batman mythology and the character quite well, while gently poking fun at its clichés and at the same time paying loving homage to its long history. The film is also a marvelous indication that the Lego film series can continue to have a nice long life if it keeps generating efforts as clever and energetic as its first two have been. Best of all, it’s fun — something the recent DC Extended Universe entries can’t claim.
What this spy thriller lacked in inventive plot, it more than made up for in style. Charlize Theron’s MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton takes down half of Berlin circa 1989 while decked out in Dior, Burberry, and custom John Galliano, all to a soundtrack of synth-friendly New Wave anthems.
Director David Leitch pulls out all of the action scene stops, demanding so much of his leading lady that she actually broke a tooth during filming. While the film also gave us charismatic performances from James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, and John Goodman, it was Theron who stole the show, cementing her status as one of her generation’s most iconic action stars.
As the third major Stephen King adaptation in only a few months, Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game is an intensely intimate nightmare—and perhaps the most effectively haunting of the three films. To be sure, there is (arguably) nothing supernatural about Gerald’s Game, nor anything particularly “high-concept,” at least within the industry definition of that term. No major special effects explode here, nor are there alternate dimensions; there isn’t even a creepy dancing clown. In fact, the most daring thing about the picture is its exact smallness. For here is a movie that’s focused essentially on a woman who can’t pull herself out of bed.
Hardly the stuff of easy adaptation, the actual implications of why this woman has been stuck in one place, both in a horrifying moment of short-term survival and in a more abstract overview of her whole life, would likely make this tale of middle-aged despair “unfilmmable” to any number of modern studios. But as a Netflix original film, Flanagan has the support and resources to spend a whole film inside a bedroom… and explore the darkest corners therein.
Another Netflix release that proves the streaming service should be considered a source of quality cinema, Mudbound digs right to the heart of the American South in a post-war period piece where segregation still rules, and crime and survival is not nearly as black and white as those in power believe. Directed by Dee Rees, this haunting epic sees two Mississippi men return from war (Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell). One is black and one is white. While that shouldn’t make a difference, it can represent the line between life and death in this evocative effort.
John Wick: Chapter 2
The film, of course, leaves the story open-ended and lays out the premise for a third chapter, but for once you leave the theater energized and inspired instead of exhausted and nursing a headache. Taking a little from Walter Hill’s classic The Warriors, and a bit more from the early work of John Woo, John Wick: Chapter 2 is as close to pure cinema as an action movie can come.
The Meyerowitz Stores (New and Selected)
Much emphasis is placed on love being the tie that bonds, even though there are many other perfectly valid kinship knots out there. Familial connections derived from anger and resentment, passive aggression and embittered tolerance, these too can be a worthwhile place to build hearth and home. They’re also tribal tidings that are ripe for the most exacting of dry-rage humor. For proof, look no further than Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which can often play like best type of family dinner: one where everyone’s had too much to drink and is ready for a real chat.
Indeed, after working with muse and frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig on several projects, Baumbach refocuses his attention as a writer and director on men, and in this case particularly aging men. With Meyerowitz we have three generations of New York intellectualism and high-minded artistic aspirations, however this does not necessarily improve anyone in the clan’s health—but it can make for a fairly heartwarming and deliriously funny cult. One with Dustin Hoffman as the impresario and his adult children as the hapless kool-aid drinkers that can never get far from the damage papa has wrought before needing to return to his side as he gets up there in years.
Coppola stages all of this with a wistful hand, right down to utilizing the Academy aspect ratio. Consequently, the picture is elegiac and haunted. From the opening frames of a Confederate hymn drifting across bald cypress trees and thunder-stricken gray skies, there is a distinctly Southern shaded specter permeating the picture. While it never quite slides into the realm of horror, Coppola knowingly conjures something supernatural about what drives these women in the shaded margins of America’s bloodiest war.
That allegiance will also run thicker than any outside force’s beliefs too.
Ingrid Goes West
Ingrid Goes West is dead-on in its portrayal of how the madness of social media can easily consume our lives and relationships, and also how people create idealized versions of themselves for public consumption. Had it gone all the way with those ideas instead of teetering on the edge of becoming a horror movie, it might work better (a recent Black Mirror episode starring Bryce Dallas Howard featured some of the same concerns). There’s still fun to be had here at the expense of our current culture, but the great film about what these so-called tools are doing to us has yet to be made.
Logan Lucky is the much-hyped return to filmmaking for director / writer / editor / cinematographer Steven Soderbergh, who retired from making movies in 2013 after finishing Behind the Candelabra. It was generally assumed that Soderbergh, a man who steeped himself in film history and worked in as many different genres as he could, would eventually get bored with sitting around the house and get back behind a camera instead. Sure enough, here we are four years later with Logan Lucky — not one of Soderbergh’s greatest efforts, but an amusing yarn with a frothy, gentle tone.
There have been many underdog stories about following your dreams and escaping poverty. But it’s safe to say you haven’t ever seen one like Patti Cake$. The passion project was years in the making for writer-director Geremy Jasper, and with the final he result he casts a spotlight on the type of people thought to be left behind by society. Surrounded by other 20 somethings who grew up in the wings of New Jersey’s grim garden state, looking across the river hopefully at Manhattan lights, life is almost impossible for someone like Patti (Danielle Macdonald), an overweight young woman who actually has a killer rhythm as a rapper. But due to her background and larger social expectations, she is never allowed to pursue her talent.
Coupled by a strong turn by Bridget Everett as Patti’s mother, Barb, the two both see their worlds change in a finale every bit as exhilarating in its use of rhymes as the punches that took Rocky Balboa the distance.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
There’s no question that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is missing the sheer delight of discovering this corner of the Marvel Universe onscreen for the first time. The joke of seeing a potty-mouthed talking raccoon fire off snarky asides while blowing away enemies with high-powered weapons is clearly not a surprise anymore. And all the odd little denizens and Easter eggs lurking in every corner of Gunn’s richly imagined universe are, while not predictable, certainly more anticipated.
But Gunn wisely decides to focus on adding more depth to his team, not to mention their allies and enemies, and they’re still such a likable, entertaining bunch that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 succeeds more than anything else as a character piece.
This sorrowful Western written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) is almost as good as Unforgiven at kicking away the myths of the Old West and baring the ugliness, racism, and entitlement that lay beneath. Christian Bale plays an Army Captain who must escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their ancestral land despite his hatred for the Native Americans he’s fought for years. The journey is interrupted by the discovery of a woman (Rosamund Pike) who has lost her husband and children to an attack by Comanches. All must find a way to survive the trip while coming to terms with fear, loss, and bigotry.
Battle of the Sexes
If ever there was a movie tailor-made for our times, it must be the saga of Billie Jean King, and when she was forced to shut down a loud, obnoxious misogynist before the eyes of an entire country. That Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes is also so unapologetically vintage in its 1973 setting—practically wallowing in the period piece aesthetics—just makes its timeliness both dispiriting and, somehow, inspiring. Clearly a feel-good movie meant to celebrate the progress of women in our culture, Battle of the Sexes now arrives as an unintentional yet galvanizing clarion call to not leave the court or throw down the racket. There are still more matches left to play, and the one offered by this film is a joyous rallying cry, indeed.
Last Flag Flying
War tends to be depicted only a few ways in fiction. It is either a brave adventure or a soul-crushing Hell. A great honor of noble sacrifice or a cynical waste by so many calculating politicians. Yet Richard Linklater appears to be asking with his latest film: Why can’t it be both? For make no mistake, Linklater considers the tender and surprisingly mercurial Last Flag Flying to be a war story, even if it’s about a war that ended more 30 years before his film begins.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ fifth feature film is at once both his most mainstream and his most unsettling to date, perhaps because it’s a full-on horror movie set in a recognizable (if sterile) suburban environment. Colin Farrell is the surgeon who seems to have it all–successful practice, beautiful and smart wife (Nicole Kidman), and bright, talented kids–but whose haunted past comes back with a vengeance in the form of a frightening young man (Barry Keoghan) whose power to destroy the fabric of Farrell’s life goes beyond anything rational.
Lanthimos’ clinical and eerily still aesthetic (think early Cronenberg and latter-day Kubrick), as well as his deliberately stilted dialogue, may be off-putting to some. But the way he allows the seemingly normal everyday world around us to slip sideways into a surreal and dark new reality makes The Killing of a Sacred Deer into a genuinely unnerving and even shattering experience.
Brawl in Cell Block 99
I can’t state this enough, either: this is a film that earns its R-rating. Not just for reasons of its violence either, rather that there are very nasty people involved in very nasty things and saying very nasty sentences. It utterly got under my skin,
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an exceptional piece of work, and two films in, I’d already argue that S. Craig Zahler is an astonishing voice in American cinema. He channels exploitation cinema in a way nobody is doing right now, fusing it in this case into a sometimes disturbing, ultimately gripping and human modern day B-movie. Brawl In Cell Block 99 – and boy, does that title only tell part of the story – is a modern late night movie classic.
The Disaster Artist
The Disaster Artist comes off a lot like Ed Wood or even American Splendorwhere it feels like there’s always multiple layers to what Franco is doing, especially when it starts with testimonials by well-known actors who are fans of The Room. Maybe it’s also because Franco is acting and directing his own script, similar to Wiseau, although having the original movie and Sestero’s book as a road map certainly helped create a sense of authenticity to telling this true story.
The true brothers and sisters of the bet will tell you poker is a game of skill, not chance. It’s more than likely Aaron Sorkin agrees with them. After all, he treats his screenwriting like the highest staked ante this side of Monte Carlo. There’s a touch of the riverboat gambler in the way he’ll glad-hand and schmooze his audience, keeping us wined and dined, while ever burrowing his loquacious hand closer to his chest until it’s time to call in the most dramatic of speeches. Hence Molly’s Game is a near pitch perfect directorial debut for the storyteller. It’s a movie that flows as quickly as his ratatatat dialogue, ever discarding and raising at a dizzying pace, while placing its real Ace up the sleeve in plain sight. And her name is Jessica Chastain.
Indeed, with a flicker in her countenance that causes characters and viewers alike to wonder when she’s bluffing, Chastain gives a magnificent turn as a woman who might be Sorkin’s most quick-witted hero to date. Always one of our generation’s best actors, Chastain complements Sorkin’s need to double deal on audience expectations in this tale about a “poker princess,” who eternally dresses the part, if only because she can use words as both her armor and weaponry. It may rely on its origins in tabloid fodder to gets audiences to the table, but once there it becomes clear there’s so much more on the line.
The movie doubles down on Thor’s dirty little secret: he really is just a big, kind of dumb, musclebound surfer dude who cruises the universe on a Bifrost instead of the ocean on a board, and he’s far likelier to hit first and ask questions later than the intellectually superior Tony Stark or the forever morally conflicted Steve Rogers. But he’s so innocent in his own blockheaded way, and ultimately so open to learning from his mistakes and embracing his weaknesses that you can’t help but like the big galoot even if he does screw up for most of the first half of this picture.
Despite its flaws, mother! is a movie worth seeing (unless you are sensitive to violence). It’s The Yellow Wallpaper on steroids, a challenging, female-centric thriller that will keep you trapped in your seat in even the most seemingly innocuous of moments. Like Mother herself, there is no escape from the terrifying, frustrating dream-logic of this horrifying maybe-dream world. This most famous of stories is Mother’s now, too, and that, in itself, is a subversion worthy of this effectively disturbing cinematic experience.
The Lost City of Z
Finally, here is a film we can more authoritatively recommend since David Crow reviewed at the New York Film Festival in 2016. An intentional throwback to the sprawling epics of a previous cinematic era, The Lost City of Z liberally adapts David Grann’s book on Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an ambitious member of the last guard of English explorers in the 20th century who memorably tracked a mythical ruin in the midst of the Amazon.
The film is a savvy update of old school tales about European explorers, creating a portrait of grandiose drive, and the fading decay of Victorian glory (and ambition) as it withers before the dawn of modernization and, eventually, the First World War. The film also boasts excellent character work from Robert Pattinson, Angus Macfayden, Sienna Miller, and a mustached Tom Holland.
It’s sort of amazing to realize the events of this film take place entirely in a single month, because so much is happening not only on the battlefront but in Churchill’s attempts to fight back against the Germans. It’s equally amazing how the story pulls you in and keeps you invested even if you have absolutely zero interest in British politics or WWII.
Darkest Hour is one of the most amazing films of the year, a true tour de force in terms of the writing, performances (especially Oldman), and Wright’s direction. It’s a film that can surely bear repeat viewings in order to catch more of the nuances, of which there are many.
Coco is a delight from start to finish, and a welcome return to form for Pixar, as this is probably the animation studio’s best outing since 2015’s Inside Out. Whereas the intervening The Good Dinosaur was muddled from conception, and Finding Dory and Cars 3 played like efficient enough corporate obligations, Coco feels fresh and inspired thanks to a poignant story, a lovely immersion in Mexican culture, and a handful of rousing musical numbers (it also tells a quite different tale, although with similar elements, than 2014’s Guillermo del Toro-produced Book of Life).
M. Night Shyamalan, master of the twisty high-concept thriller, seemed to have lost his way for a while there. But a little more than a year since reinventing himself with the found footage thriller The Visit, the Philly filmmaker returns with a movie that’s likely to re-endear himself to the fans who’ve been unsatisfied with his post-Unbreakable work.
War for the Planet of the Apes
From its very opening, the most striking thing about War for the Planet of the Apes is how uncompromising it is in its earnestness and brutality. Whereas most summer spectacles these days are beholden to universe-building and snappy intertextual banter, Matt Reeves’ War makes no bones about being anything less than its aspirations: a patient, deliberate, and occasionally devastating drama about an ape who is transitioning from the role of flesh-and-blood leader to mythic figure for a yet to be written Simian bible.
And, if nothing else, War for the Planet of the Apes does succeed in its task of turning Andy Serkis’ Caesar into a figure of immense gravitas. After three movies, the most profound of which had Reeves in the director’s chair, Serkis and the filmmakers are prepared to make no concessions for a human co-leading protagonist, nor worry about audience expectations for upbeat escapism. For like other demigod mythos, Caesar and his civilization of apes will spend an awful lot of time in the underworld—a realm of man that sees the eponymous conflict as a war of attrition. Thus for the Planet of the Apes to truly begin, Caesar must enter a manmade hell wherein the results can be quite dour… and divine.
Okja is a formalist exercise not the least bit concerned with “realism” or grounding its titular super-pig in any kind of classical standard (i.e. it cares not if the pig’s CGI “doesn’t look real”). Nor is it much worried about upsetting some viewers with its broader tone, narrative jumps, or ultimately merciless condemnation of the meat industry. It’s a fairy tale about a girl named Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her lovable super-pig Okja, a cross between Babe and Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. And like Winnie’s forest friends, Okja herself lights up the screen, from the agrarian heights of Korean mountains to the monstrous depths of New Jersey stockyards.
Making Baby’s path more difficult are the dangerous members of Doc’s latest crew, including drug-addled Wall Streeter turned crook Buddy (Jon Hamm), his trouble-starting girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and the possibly psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who adds a murderous new wrinkle to the operation. But the biggest complication of all may be Debora (Lily James of Cinderella), the sweet and full-hearted diner waitress that Baby meets and wants to escape with once and for all.
Sounds like the ingredients for a certain kind of heist thriller we’ve all seen before, perhaps most recently in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive. But what elevates Baby Driver is that Baby, afflicted with tinnitus from a life-changing incident in his childhood, keeps his earphones on and the music pumping almost ceaselessly to keep the ringing away. So the soundtrack of his life becomes the soundtrack of the movie, and Wright edits the film almost perfectly to the music, creating a kinetic rush of a cinematic experience that also brings us intimately into Baby’s head, heart, and point of view.
Colossal’s refusal to be easily quantified in terms of genre, as well as never allowing its characters be placed in archetypal boxes, is what makes the movie so enticing and resonant. Even truly feminist. It’s why after a crowd-pleasing finale, there is still an unspoken acknowledgement that a monster, be it in South Korea or at the bottom of a glass, can always rise again. To see that on the big screen is more than worth raising a glass for.
Despite being the sixth Spidey film, Homecoming feels stunningly fresh and playful, inventive and cocky. But most impressive is that it’s a blast to watch, harkening back to the sugar rush that accompanied flipping through Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s earliest comic adventures for the web-head in the 1960s.
What seemed like shrewd studio deal-making between Sony Pictures (who maintains the Spider-Man license) and Marvel Studios to reboot the character has ultimately benefited both with a superhero movie that enjoys a disarming buoyancy so effervescent that it practically dares you not to smile along. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has said in the past that he considers the wall-crawler to be the greatest superhero of all-time, and he more or less delivers on his vision by producing one of his studio’s best flicks.
By focusing on the children, their relationships with each other and their parents, and the way each of them deals with both the encroachment of death and adulthood, It dives into the kind of character development rarely seen in modern horror fare. We care about each member of the Losers Club, we laugh with them (there is a surprising amount of humor in the movie) and perhaps even cry; their experiences together in that summer of 1988 (in another wise move, the writers and director have moved the story forward by 30 years, with minimal impact) — first love, finding real friends, getting terrorized by the neighborhood bullies — feel real and relatable, making the introduction of supernatural evil more believable and their suffering at Its hands more powerful.
Skating a line as thin as any triple-axel landing, I, Tonya mischievously balances itself at the odd angle between gallows humored satire and a pointed tragedy that is just as quick to indict its audience’s appetite for blood as it is to blame Harding for surrounding herself with buffoons. Both a black comedy and a lamentation over the personal and communal signals that doomed Tonya to punchline-status, even I, Tonya’s title underscores the dueling elements of its premise: here is an athlete whose self-aggrandizement would place her trials on the same footing as ancient Roman epics like I, Claudius—and yet it’s still as bitterly sad as any other opera about a swift rise and crashing fall.
Taking more than a few pages from Martin Scorsese’s narrative playbook about smalltime (read: stupid) criminals, I, Tonya embraces the ambiguity surrounding an infamous celebrity by conveying its story from the perspective of multiple, and frequently contradictory, narrators. Primarily the wistful recollections of a now middle-aged Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the movie wallows in depicting its film as a he-said, she-said. Throughout the picture, the now very divorced couple will alternate in narrating scenes, with one occasionally breaking the fourth wall in the other’s version of events by dismissing them while staring dead into the camera. (But given events of the last year, Jeff’s insistences on never physically beating Tonya are going to fall on entirely deaf ears).
Detroit is hard hitting cinema that intends to push buttons and stir emotions that many viewers would likely prefer to keep hidden. Approaching the material with almost a documentarian journalist’s eye, Bigelow and her longtime screenwriting partner Mark Boal revisit the stinging authenticity that made The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty so inescapably mesmerizing, and achieve an even greater feat by pointing it in the direction of domestic tensions that have never been solved. Turning black and white newspaper ink into red blood and sweltering emotions, the filmmakers embrace the tightrope they’ve elected to walk and essay with nerve-shattering immediacy a solitary event that can simultaneously seem universal.
Blade Runner 2049
Thirty-five years after Ridley Scott’s beautifully horrifying dream of a synthetic tomorrow flopped at the box office, Denis Villeneuve has conjured a potent and worthy successor to that alluring bleakness. The fact that it too is struggling with entrancing viewers in its drenched-street charms is also a shame, for Blade Runner 2049 is a lyrical reverie that not only builds on the world of Scott’s cult classic, but adds its own layered miseries atop that initial grim prophecy. As temperatures rise and scientific advancement makes true artificial intelligence an almost certain inevitability, the future where Harrison Ford’s Deckard pounded the pavement with replicants’ skulls appears quaint, and the one with Ryan Gosling’s “K” making love to a ghostly siren is ambiguously optimistic.
The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is simply a gorgeous dark fantasy peopled with wonderfully drawn characters, laced with a frank sexuality (something new to the del Toro playbook) and layered in rich metaphorical meanings. In customary style, it’s filmed and designed to perfection as well, with the director creating a 1962 Cold War period piece that is exquisitely detailed and also relevant to the times at hand. His monster — or least what we first perceive as the monster — is unforgettable, inhabited once again by longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones in perhaps his finest non-human outing.
… Thus begins one of the strangest yet most beautiful courtships you will see this year, a melding of horror tale, Cold War sci-fi, musical homage, and romance that is not just a love letter to cinema in all its varied forms (it’s no accident that Giles and Elisa live above an old theater) but a tribute to the idea of love itself.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
To be sure, Rian Johnson’s evocative and often exhilarating sequel continues the post-Disney mandate to remix elements that bask in the familiar. Hence why the First Order is even more imperial this time, striking back against Resistance forces who look increasingly like rebels; Jedi and evil sorcerers alike sit in chairs while skeptically sizing up would-be apprentices; and we even get an epic battle on a planet that may as well be called Salt Hoth given how powdery white those crystals look when the AT-M6 walkers stomp across the landscape like mechanized buffalo grazing during the dregs of winter.
Yet within all this repetition, Johnson uses his solitary writing and directing duties to massage and then manipulate our nostalgia. His film subverts and seduces, twists and turns, and frankly challenges us just when the audience dares to get too comfortable. It also gives a needed shot of adrenaline to the numerical Star Wars films that, by the end, leaves you uncertain what is up and what is down, or what is light and what is dark. Still, most will be delighted to jump to lightspeed to find out.
Call Me By Your Name
The performances are magnificent. Chalamet — slim, consciously nonchalant until he’s almost bursting with desire and just slightly androgynous enough to make his sexual explorations with both men and women believable — is a revelation. Meanwhile Hammer, whose all-American looks, booming voice and reach-for-the-ceiling frame seemingly make him a walking, talking prototype of white cis hetero malehood, subverts Hollywood’s attempts to make him into an action figure with a sensitive, restrained performance that reveals the complex layers and ultimately the conflict underneath. And Stuhlbarg (who also does great work in the upcoming The Shape of Water) once again proves why he is one of the most humane players on the current film scene. He delivers a soliloquy for the ages to Chalamet in the film’s closing minutes, a speech so profound, moving and compassionate, so filled with love and empathy and understanding, that it left this reviewer trembling on the edge of tears (credit to legendary screenwriter James Ivory as well for adapting the words faithfully from the novel).
The combination of that speech and the movie’s final shot — a silent, unbroken close-up of Chalamet’s face underneath the end credits — elevate an already great film into something else. Guadagnino has made the exploration of love and sexuality his mandate over the course of these last few films (and it should be interesting to see how he applies his deeply warm approach to both to his next film, a remake of the horror masterpiece Suspiria) but with Call Me by Your Name, he powerfully deciphers just how transformative both can be –and how universal that experience is.
More than any director in memory, Steven Spielberg has transitioned from being a beloved American showman to the filmmaker who continuously pursues a conversation with our national conscience. In three of his four last films, Spielberg has looked to the past to commune with our present on a national scale—and often with the halls of power that preside over his audience. Lincoln was many things, including a clarion call to 2012’s sitting President Barack Obama to use soft power and a firm hand to do big things in a second term; and Bridge of Spies coincidentally or not came out just as relations between the U.S. and Russia began to frost over.
Now, with a sharp regard for the tortured relationship between a shady White House and a bullied, increasingly adversarial press, Spielberg’s The Post is so timely that its ironic, nearly 50-years-ago-setting chills to the bone. For here is a story juxtaposed during the reign of President Richard Nixon. Casting deep shadows with an even deeper camera focus on a paranoid Republican president paces his isolated West Wing cage, we glimpse a politician who struggles with facts and transparency, and who is never fully captured by Spielberg’s lens. Still, his presence is deceptively omnipotent. The clearly well-researched film was written before the latest of Nixon’s successors was sworn in, yet its echoes of our reality appear both intentional and drenched with menacing happenstance. Together, they mingle and combine into a reverberating cacophony of dread.
When actors transition to directing, the trip behind the camera can sometimes be a short and bumpy ride, often because it is still in service of staying in front of that ever perceptive lens. Seeking the ability to craft films around entire performances—their performances—the effect can frequently be left wanting. But that’s not the case for Greta Gerwig’s sweetly warm and uncannily astute Lady Bird. While the picture is certainly built around two superb performances, those turns belong to Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Gerwig, meanwhile, proves that in addition to being a wonderful actor and screenwriter, she is also emerging as one of the sharpest cinematic voices of her generation, bar none.
This is no doubt in large part due to Lady Bird being a deeply personal film, one that like her revelatory Noah Baumbach collaborations—Frances Ha and Mistress America—provides an intimate and exceedingly rare snapshot of the age-group the press has sneeringly dubbed “millennials.”
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani’s co-writing feature debut has offered not only the best straightforward comedy of the year, but a strikingly personal one that gave Nanjiani a wonderful starring vehicle to boot. Another film in a recent line of what appears to be Woody Allen-esque romantic dramedies reinvented for the Millennial generation, Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick goes one step further by using the familiar template of adult(ish) characters dealing with neurotically adult problems and placing it in the context of a culture clash that can occur during interracial dating.
There are several extraordinary sequences in Wonder Woman, but at one point halfway through the film there is a scene (you’ve seen part of it in the trailers) where Diana rises into battle and we see her stride onto the field for the first time in her full costume; I want to see the movie again just for this shot, which gave me major goosebumps. This is a moment 75 years in the making where the hopes and dreams and fantasies of millions of little girls and adult women finally crystallize into one transcendent image that is proud, defiant, more than welcome, and a long time coming.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Thus with McDormand’s hand coiling around the bottle like a serpent ready to bear venom, Mildred saunters to the hubby’s table. Is this sequence going to be violent or emotional, hilarious or bleakly despairing? No audience can know for sure. Such is the strange alchemy of Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards, a layered work that can at once be darkly amusing while still maintaining an unrelenting air of tragedy. To just witness how its characters will connect, crash, or upend one another becomes a densely rewarding mystery unto itself.
Like McDonagh’s previous movies, Three Billboards blurs the line between comedy and calamity, suggesting that there is no real difference, especially in a landscape populated with Midwestern sad sacks ready to explode. It’s the filmmaker’s most challenging and sweeping film to date, and it’s also capable of bringing tears to the eye, whether via laughter or whatever that other feeling is that comes when the violence, four-letter expletives, and even ominous wine bottles are put away.
It turns out that like the quieter, more deconstructionist Westerns that heralded a reflective temperament following the indulgences of 1950s Oaters, Logan seeks to carve out a fairly intimate character study about an aged do-gooder in a country for no old mutants. And the film wildly succeeds at its goals with bloody verve. Seriously, there is so much blood. More miraculous still, though, is that Logan is also without question the best superhero movie in years, and certainly the most ambitious one since Christopher Nolan hung up the cape.
It is that kind of approach to the visceral storytelling in Dunkirk that marks it on several fronts as one of Nolan’s most precise and challenging of cinematic exercises—one that looks to test himself just as well as any audience. How much can he move away from modern expectations for storytelling, both visually and narratively, while working on a grandly epic canvas? Because even with a pricy studio tentpole budget and the best spectacle you’ll see all year, this is shockingly intimate. And despite its very title in which the writer-director suggests a sweeping vista overlooking one of the most important battles of the 20th century, the film is often claustrophobic, personal, and defiantly obscure.
It is, in fact, defiant of the very way Hollywood has come to make movies, and of the way audiences now expect to receive them. It’s a primal countermeasure from an auteur who wishes to protect the sanctity of the theatrical experience in the days of Netflix, Hulu, and shared cinematic universes. This isn’t a franchise and it isn’t about selling; it’s a visceral vocalization of the nightmarishness of war. And Nolan finds that voice without anything in the way of exposition or the kind of handholding detractors have long accused him of pursuing.
Peele takes the concept behind Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to its furthest, most genre extreme.
The fact that Rose’s parents act so friendly towards Chris doesn’t make their intentions any less dubious, as you know there’s something behind all the smiling faces around them.
Peele leans far more toward an old school Hitchcock approach, utilizing a slow build and music clearly inspired by Bernard Herrmann to escalate tension. Kaluuya does a fine job as an ersatz Jimmy Stewart replacement, pulling the viewers into the mystery with him. The actors around him, especially Williams, also do excellent work of making the viewer feel just as uneasy as Chris does about everyone who is so unnaturally friendly when meeting him. It’s obvious that Peele’s casting choices accomplish so much at bringing out the strengths in a script that might have felt somewhat one-note or even Twilight Zone-ish otherwise.