Wind River is my top pick for the year, with A Ghost Story as a close second. They’re quite different, but they really got to me. I had a deeper emotional response to these two films than all the others. These are the ones that mean the most to me. That’s saying something, because I think all the films on this list are excellent, each in their own way. The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, and Dunkirk, especially, are singular achievements. The films that stood out for me last year, out of the 339 I saw, are listed below, in alphabetical order (except for two). There’s no way I can stick to a traditional Top 10 list. For me it’s more like Top 30, and even then I have to allow for a few more. This post took on a life of its own.
Note: I wrote about seven of these titles last July in “The Year So Far: Feature Films.” I’ve copied those entries here, with slight revisions.
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, director) Looks and sounds like a rom-com at the outset, but becomes something much deeper and more authentic by the end. The film is written by Kumail Nanjiami and his wife Emily Gordon, based on their real-life romance. Nanjiami plays a version of himself and Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. Anyone who’s followed Nanjiami on HBO’s Silicon Valley knows how special he is. A stellar Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents who rush to Chicago when she falls ill. The Big Sick is very funny and very moving as it looks at family relationships and the messiness of falling in love, as well as the dynamics of being a Pakistani in today’s America.
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, director) The original Blade Runner (1982) has such iconic status that attempting a follow-up is a high-risk venture, even for a director as skilled as Villeneuve. I think the new film succeeds more than it doesn’t. It’s long, nearly 2 hours 45 minutes, but I saw it twice — the second time in IMAX — and didn’t feel the length. This is a film that really justifies the IMAX format. The sequel has a number of clever connections to the original. Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, and it’s great seeing Harrison Ford back as Rick Deckard. But as powerful as it is at times, nothing here quite compares to Rutgar Hauer’s “Time to die” moment in the rain from the first film. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, director) This film has a very lush texture, as you would expect from the director of I Am Love, the film he made with Tilda Swinton in 2009. The feel of a sensuous summer in the sun at a country estate in northern Italy is sharply conveyed. Armie Hammer plays a graduate student from the States in Italy to assist Michael Stuhlbarg, a professor of antiquities. Timothée Chalamet as Elio, Stuhlbarg’s son, falls in love with Hammer over the course of the summer. A conversation Elio has with his father near the end of the film is a stunning high point. Chalamet was also in Hostiles and Lady Bird in 2017; Stuhlbarg was in The Shape of Water, The Post, and the third season of Fargo on FX.
Coco (Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina, co-directors) This film gave me a huge amount of pleasure. I had a smile on my face throughout. Setting the story in the context of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration certainly helped. Pixar is the greatest.
Columbus (Kogonada, director & writer) John Cho is Jin, a Korean translator who has come to Columbus, Indiana, where his father, an architecture scholar, has fallen ill. Hayley Lu Richardson is Casey, a high school graduate living with her mother, a recovering drug addict. Jin and Haley meet by chance and become friends during the next several weeks. They have a series of fascinating conversations, usually in the context of visiting architectual landmarks in the city. Haley is a self-styled expert on these buildings and their history. It was news to me, but Columbus is the site of many buildings and structures designed by famous architects. In this, the film has a documentary aspect. The buildings are there, they exist in the real world, they’re not merely background. The architecture is crucial to the story and crucial to the characters. I found this aspect really interesting. It doesn’t hurt that John Cho — Harold in the Harold and Kumar films and Sulu in three Star Trek films since 2009 — and Haley Lu Richardson — who I don’t recall seeing before — are very appealing and engaging actors. They make me care about what happens to them.
Downsizing (Alexander Payne, director & co-writer) The advertising for this might make you think it’s a comedy. It certainly has comedic elements, inherent in the premise of shrinking people as a way of dealing with overpopulation, but that’s just part of it. Payne, whose films include Nebraska (2013) and Descendants (2015), is great at creating quirky, oddball characters. That’s true here, but Downsizing also resonates with many issues today, such as immigration and class divisions. There’s even a wall!
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, director & writer) Seeing this in IMAX is an overwhelming experience. I’m sure it will work in any format, though probably less so on your phone. I’ve seen it twice. The first time I was thrown by Nolan’s use of time in telling the story. One segment takes place over a week, another during a day, and the third in one hour. He cuts in and out of these throughout until the end, when they all more or less come together. I came out impressed by the production, the sound and visual, but not sure if I liked it very much, or understood why he was doing what he was doing. That was last July. When Dunkirk returned to the IMAX screen at the Lincoln Square multiplex in the fall, I saw it again. This time I was blown away, much more so than before. I was able to focus on the film without trying to figure out where I was in it. The final image of a Spitfire fighter burning on the beach is exquisitely beautiful and moving.
Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz, director & writer) A couple in Tel-Aviv are told that their son has been killed while stationed at an army outpost. Later they receive some different news. Then the film shifts to the outpost location. I saw this film at a press screening prior to a week’s Oscar-qualifying run in December and really liked it. It opens for a limited release on March 2nd. Foxtrot is different, insightful, and very human.
Get Out (Jordan Peele, director & writer) Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele) has done something extraordinary and cleverly subversive here. In the guise of sci-fi horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives, he’s given us a study of race relations as deep and insightful as the documentaries I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made in America, and 13th.
A Ghost Story (David Lowery, director & writer) This is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. At the beginning we see Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in and around their house on land that might be in Texas. They’re married and in love. She wants to move; he doesn’t. Then he dies. And is resurrected as the classic kid’s idea of a ghost, as someone in a sheet with two blank eye holes, the least-expensive Halloween costume ever. The ghost stays in the house, haunting it, silently watching Mara dealing with grief as her life goes on. He remains in the house after she moves out and as a succession of families move in. The film is a strong evocation of loss, loneliness, existence, and time. That’s a heavy load for a film to carry, but I think A Ghost Story more than does it. The film suggests why ghosts might hang around at all, why objects in haunted houses suddenly fly off shelves, and gives new meaning to the expression “giving up the ghost.” This shouldn’t work at all, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. You’ll either go with it or reject it entirely. It’s hard to describe the effect it had on me. A Ghost Story left me feeling lonely and alone, but also exhilarated. At dinner the day I saw it, I was telling my wife Nancy about the final moment in the film and I got choked up trying to get it out. I didn’t expect this, but I can’t ignore something that provokes a reaction this strong. Maybe I identified too much with the ghost. Hah. You might wonder why someone should want to go through that. The answer is because it’s beautiful. Maybe I’ll see it again and it won’t work at all. But I strongly doubt it. *** I was right. I saw A Ghost Story again a few weeks ago and it’s still great. The only reservation I had this time is a scene at a party where someone is presuming to explain the existential absurdity of existence. It’s jarring because it takes place in what is otherwise a very quiet movie, and also because this guy is such a pompous windbag. Don’t know why this didn’t bother me the first time, but it didn’t.
Happy End (Michael Haneke, director & writer) Everyone has secrets in this film. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges Laurent, patriarch of an affluent bourgeois family that owns a construction company. Isabelle Huppert is his daughter Anne; Mathieu Kassovitz is his son Thomas, recently remarried; Fantine Harduin is Eve, Thomas’ 13-year-old daughter who may have poisoned her mother; Franz Rogowski is Pierre, Georges’ unpredictable and violent son. Characters and their actions in Haneke’s films are often seen coldly with a clinical eye. My favorite film of his is The White Ribbon (2009). Happy End can be seen, in a way, as a sequel to his Oscar-winning Amour. It can also be seen as a comedy, but one laced with acid. I liked this a lot.
Hostiles (Scott Cooper, director & writer) Anyone looking for a traditional Western might have a problem with Hostiles. It’s unsentimental and brutal, much in the way of Robert Aldrich’s great film with Burt Lancaster, Ulzana’s Raid (1972). There’s nothing light about it. I quite liked it. Christian Bale plays a dour U.S. Cavalry officer ordered in 1892 to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal land in Montana. Bale would sooner kill Studi than carry out this order. Along the way he picks up a woman (Rosamund Pike, perhaps a bit too beautiful for the setting and circumstances, but effective) whose husband and children have been killed in an attack by a Commanche war party on their homestead. The story plays out in some predictable ways and others not so predicatable. This is Scott Cooper’s fourth feature since Crazy Heart (2009), which featured Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-winning role.
In the Fade (Fatih Akin, director & writer) I’ve liked Fatih Akin’s films ever since seeing Head-On in 2004 and The Edge of Heaven in 2007. He’s a Turkish director who tells stories of people caught up between cultures and countries. In the Fade is ostensibly a thriller. Diane Kruger gives a totally committed performance as a woman determined to see justice done after her husband and young son are killed in a bombing by neo-Nazis. It may be a cliché to describe something as “gripping,” but that definitely applies here.
Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, director & writer) Terrific coming-of-age story written and directed by Greta Gerwig. She’s received a lot attention for her work on this film, and deservedly so. Though I’d seen Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones (2009) and Hanna (2011), it was with Brooklyn (2015) that I really took notice of her. She’s excellent here as Lady Bird McPherson, a high school senior in Sacramento, unsure of what to do with her life. Laurie Metcalf is also very strong as Lady Bird’s flinty mother. Tracy Letts is truly wonderful as her father. He’s always effective, but this is a character unlike any I’ve seen him play before.
Lady MacBeth (William Oldroyd, director) This is a nasty little film that I liked a lot. I’ve seen it twice so far; once at a press screening and again when it was screened in last year’s New Directors/New Films series. A plot synopsis from IMDB sets it up more concisely than I probably could: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.” Set in a desolate landscape, the film has echos of Wuthering Heights, but with a fairly modern sensibility. Florence Pugh’s Katherine is smarter and deadlier than anyone around her, determined to survive no matter what.
Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater, director & writer) Linklater is a director who has worked to do something different in his films. He hit the scene with his no-budget indie Slacker in 1991. With his Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy (1995/2004/2013) he followed the relationship of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy, with each film taking place during a 24-hour period. He used a new method of rotoscoping in his animation features, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Most significantly, in Boyhood (2014), Linklater filmed the same actors over 12 years to tell the story of a boy as he grows from age 7 to 19. No one had made a film like this before, and is unlikely to again. Last Flag Flying is more traditional, but no less effective for that. In a sort-of sequel to The Last Detail, Steve Carell is a man who seeks out Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, who he served with in Vietnam, to help him bury his son, a Marine who was killed in Iraq. This is a more subdued character for Carell than he usually plays, less exaggerated and more realistic. It’s a journey, a road movie, comical at times, but quite moving by the end.
Logan (James Mangold, director) Hugh Jackman is the title character, aka Wolverine, from Marvel Comics. He’s played this character many times before in X-Men and Wolverine films. But this one is different, a superhero movie that’s not really a superhero movie. It’s R-rated, down and dirty, and very violent. Logan shows the bloody consequences of violent actions that are played for thrills in conventional PG-13 action films where it’s more about the body count than it is about the bodies. This one feels real, even if it’s not. There’s more at stake. Life, death, redemption. Not everyone walks away.
Loving Vincent (Darota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, co-directors) A young man investigates the last days of Van Gogh’s life in an effort to determine the circumstances of his death. This is the first fully painted animation feature, and it feels unique. One hundred artists worked to hand paint each frame of the film in the style of Van Gogh. The trailer below gives a sense of the look and feel of the film. Loving Vincent is emotionally involving and quite beautiful.
Margorie Prime (Michael Almereyda, director) In the near future, technology exists that enables a deceased loved one to be resurrected as a hologram. Lois Smith plays a widow in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who has chosen a younger version of her husband, played by Jon Hamm. He’s been programmed with memories and has the ability to learn more. Geena Davis and Matthew Robbins play Smith’s daughter and son-in-law. This film has a gentle touch as it deals with loss and acceptance.
Maudie (Aisling Walsh, director) I didn’t know before seeing this that Maude Lewis was an actual person who became a well-known Canadian folk artist in the 1940s and 50s. Sally Hawkins is simply wonderful in the title role, as is Ethan Hawke as the lonely, extremely gruff (to put it mildly) fishmonger who becomes Maude’s initially unwilling companion. They’re an odd couple if there ever was one. This is a film with a lot of human feeling, but not maudlin or sentimentalized. It earns the emotional response you’re likely to have for it.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, director & writer) Noah Baumbach’s films often have a literary feel. This one is no exception, most obviously in the title. It’s refreshing that Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are playing more realistic characters than they usually do. Dustin Hoffman is excellent as their father, Harold, an embittered artist who feels he’s never gotten his due. The entire cast is very good. The film is funny, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy. There’s real pain beneath the surface.
Mudbound (Dee Rees, director) Based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound tells the story of two young veterans, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who return home after the end of World War II to rural Mississippi. Ronsel’s father Hap is a tenant farmer on Jamie’s brother’s farm. Jamie is white, Ronsel is black. They warily become friends and have to deal with pervasive racism and their own wartime trauma. Besides Hedlund and Mitchell, the excellent cast includes Jason Clarke as Jamie’s brother Harold, Carey Mulligan as Harold’s wife Laura, Jonathan Banks as their virulent racist father, Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige as Ronsel’s parents, Hap and Florence. An interesting feature is that the characters take turns doing voice-over narration. This lends a novelistic feel to the film. Mudbound is epic in scope, from scenes of incredible hardships on the farm to flashbacks of the war with Jamie as an Air Corps pilot and Ronsel as an army tank commander who falls in love with a young French woman. Mudbound has received an astonishing number of award nominations — 76 by my count — in various categories from many regional and national organizations. Among those, cinematographer Rachel Morrison is the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar in that category, which is significant.
On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, director & writer) This is a mesmerizing film about a young Korean actress and the married film director she previously had an affair with. That the film’s lead actress, Kim Min-hee, and the film’s director, Hong Sang-soo, actually had an affair adds an interesting meta-level. Details are revealed slowly. A more complete picture begins to emerge, the way images appeared on Polaroid film. Not everything is clear by the end, and that’s okay. I saw it a second time with my wife, who hadn’t seen it. Afterwards she had a lot of questions. We talked about it the entire trip home, discussing the whats and whys and maybes of what we’d seen. Anything that can provoke that much discussion has something going on. Whatever else, On the Beach at Night Alone is the most poetic title I’ve heard of for a long time. As befits the film.
The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, director & writer) All the Kaurismäki films I’ve seen are about immigrants to one degree or another. As with Fatih Akin, Kaurismäki’s characters are caught up in countries and cultures. Khaled is a Syrian refugee who stowed away on a freighter to Helsinki, where he applies for asylum. Waldemar Wikström is a frustrated traveling salesman who uses poker winnings to open a restaurant. With immigration officials on his trail, Khaled is taken in by Waldemar. Kaurismäki’s films often involve makeshift communities made up of oddballs and outsiders. There’s always music in his films, such as bands of street musicians playing rock and roll that the film pauses to watch. Before we saw this film, Nancy and I had seen an earlier film, The Man without a Past (2002), at Film Forum, which we really liked. Then The Other Side of Hope opened and we loved it. In short order we’d watched La vie de bohème (1990) and Le Havre (2011) on Amazon. His films have a deadpan quality similar to those of Jim Jarmusch. Kaurismäki is a singular director, a humanist all the way.
Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, director & writer) Anderson is nothing if not ambitious, as he’s shown with Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012). He creates incredibly detailed worlds that have texture and heightened reality. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a famous clothing designer in London during the 1950s. His performance is extraordinary, as you’d expect. The actor has said that this is it, he’s retiring from film acting. If so, it will be a loss. Leslie Manville is excellent as his sister, Cyril, as is Vicky Krieps as Alma, Woodcock’s muse and lover. I’d not heard of Krieps before and was impressed by how she more than holds her own with Day-Lewis. Music is very important in this film. The score by Jonny Greenwood is used in nearly 70 per cent of Phantom Thread, 90 minutes out of 130. That’s a lot, and it works. Sound is also used in a subjective way, as in a breakfast scene where the sound of Krieps buttering toast and pouring tea is heightened to show how much it irritates Day-Lewis. There’s also a Hitchcock vibe to some of the story. Pay attention to the mushrooms from the woods. I wasn’t sure what I felt about Phantom Thread the first time I saw it, but I loved it the second time around.
The Post (Steven Spielberg, director) It was only yesterday that I realized The Post wasn’t on this list. It’s a good film, but not a great one. The story of the Washington Post’s role in publishing the Pentagon Papers is a timely one, but I think All the President’s Men and Spotlight are better newspaper films. Still, it deserves to be here because of its pedigree. Spielberg has long since proven his worth as a director. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks always deliver the goods. Tracy Letts and Bob Odenkirk are standouts in an excellent supporting cast.
The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, director & co-writer) With 13 Oscar nominations, this is obviously a heavyweight contender. We saw it opening day with Del Toro, Octavia Spenser, Doug Jones (who plays the amphibian man), and Michael Stuhlbarg there for an interview after. This was special. Appearances by filmmakers and cast members always add a lot to the experience. I saw it again a week later. It was just as strong, or stronger, the second time around. Del Toro has said that the initial inspiration for this film came from the scene in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) when the Gill Man is swimming beneath Julie Adams, matching her movements. It’s a sensuous, erotic moment. The Shape of Water is basically the story of a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with a Gill Man. In 1962, in the midst of the Cold War, a humanoid amphibian creature has been captured and brought from the Amazon by a tightly-wound Michael Shannon (excellent as usual) to a NASA lab in Baltimore for study. Sally Hawkins is wonderful in her Oscar-nominated role, as are Octavia Spenser, Richard F. Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Del Toro brings a unique and innovative vision to all of his best films. From his first film, Cronos (1993), to Devil’s Background (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), he’s proven his ability to amaze, delight, and creep us out. He shows us things we haven’t seen, or even thought of before. The Shape of Water, from its poetic title to the deeply moving score by Alexandre Desplat, is a beautiful fairy tale that feels very real.
The Square (Reuben Östlund, director & writer) You have to see this one to believe it. I thought it was great, but I’ve been apprehensive of seeing it again. I wrote that last year’s Toni Erdmann was my top pick of 2016, but when I saw it again a couple of months later, I had a negative reaction. Both films are very unusual, so I’m concerned that The Square might not work a second time. Of course, it received the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, but you never know. That said, I was really knocked out when we saw it at the New York Film Festival. Östlund is a rather confrontational filmmaker. He puts us in situations that make us uncomfortable, that throw us off balance. He certainly did that in his last film, Force Majeure (2014). Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes The Square as “…high-wire cinema.” Claes Bang plays Christian, the chief curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm. Early in the film his wallet and mobile phone are stolen in a crowded square near the museum. His efforts to retrieve his property result in humiliation, chaos, and damage. Elizabeth Moss is Anne, a journalist who Christian has a brief involvement with. His night in her apartment is marked by a large chimpanzee that appears without explanation in the next room. From the bedroom, Christian watches as the ape crosses to a couch, where it sits and begins examining an art print. This is later followed by a post-sex tug of war over possession of a used condom. The high point is a formal dinner for wealthy museum patrons in which a performance artist pretending to be an ape freaks everyone out with his threatening behavior. The atmosphere in this scene is one of escalating fear and danger. After writing this, I realize I definitely have to see it again.
My previous post on Force Majeure may be accessed here.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonough, director & writer) This film has gotten a lot of attention, mainly due to the performance of Frances McDormand as a mother who puts up billboards demanding that the police do more to solve the rape and murder of her daughter months before. Her character is foul-mouthed and unrelenting in her determination to see justice done. She’s incredibly entertaining to watch, though the grief that drives her is underneath it all. The terrific cast includes Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Clarke Peterson, and Sam Rockwell, who really scores in this one.
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, director & writer) As I indicated before, this is my favorite film of the year. Seeing it a third time last November made me certain of how good it is. My previous post on this film can be accessed here.
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, director) Enormously successful at the box-office, and for good reason. Wonder Woman is a knockout. It may not carry the real-world weight that Logan aspires to, but it’s pretty great, and raises the bar for the superhero (or superheroine) genre. This is largely due to the casting of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. She’s a stunning, dynamic presence. The climactic showdown is a special-effects blowout we’ve seen many times before, but the film works like gangbusters in spite of that.
Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, director) This film, based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel, has a magical, almost fairy-tale quality. There are two interconnected storylines, set 50 years apart. In Minnesota in 1977, 12-year-old Ben, obsessed with finding out who his father was, loses his hearing in a freak thunderstorm accident. Following clues, he strikes out for New York City. In Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927, 12-year-old Rose, apparently deaf since birth, runs away to New York in search of her mother, a silent film star. Ben and Rose’s stories are interwoven throughout the film and finally converge at the end when all is revealed. Wonderstruck is a wonderful movie. Todd Haynes, working with his long-time cinematographer Ed Lachman, has created an incredibly detailed world. There’s a sense of discovery in every scene. The cast includes Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, with Oakes Fegley as Ben and Millicent Simmons as Rose.
No Redeeming Social Value Category
These are extremely violent, stylish films that you’ll either find appalling or think they’re great. I know where I stand.
Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike, director) Japanese director Miike has directed 100 theatrical, video and TV productions since 1991, and he’s only 57. Audition (1999), a phenomenally disturbing film, was the first one of his that I saw. I’ve never quite worked up the nerve to see it again. He makes gangster films, horror, samurai, children’s films, teen dramas, and more. The “hero” of Blade of the Immortal is a wandering samurai who has been cursed with immortality. The kicker is that while he can’t be killed, he can still suffer grievous bodily damage and pain until his body repairs itself, which it does quickly, but still. He wants to die, but hasn’t figured out how to do that yet.
The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung, director & co-writer) A young woman trained to be an assassin by a secret organization develops her own agenda and proceeds to wreak havoc. This has a La Femme Nikita vibe pushed beyond the limit. Where else are you going to see a sword fight on motorcycles? The protagonist is in the tradition of other films in recent years that featured extremely lethal women, such as Hanna, Haywire, and Electric Blonde. I’m not sure if these qualify as examples of female empowerment, but it’s refreshing to see the tables turned.
The following titles are available to stream from Netflix:
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
The following titles are available to stream from Amazon:
The Big Sick
Blade of the Immortal
A Ghost Story
Last Flag Flying
That’s all for now. Whew! – Ted Hicks