I did 20 honorable mentions, listed in alphabetical order because I had a hard enough time narrowing down and ordering the top 10.
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion - I thought nothing could top the beauty, majesty and utter insanity of the first film. I was wrong. I do prefer this one, because we spend more time in the flashbacks (and the courtship story is not as creepy as the one in the first movie). I’m not the biggest fan of the music in these movies, but Devasena’s “lullaby” to Amarendra is lovely and one of my favorite scenes. (available for rent on streaming services)
Blade Runner 2049 - Gorgeous and epic, and it gives a new richness to the original film. I wish it had been better with its female characters, but the world building is pretty fantastic. It’s wonderful to see Harrison Ford as Decker again, but make no mistake, this is Gosling’s movie. (available on streaming services)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 - From the moment Vince Vaughn tears up a car with his bare hands, I knew I was in for a ride. Vaughn has been pretty hit and miss but this was a great role for him — no sass, just a simple man trying to look out for his family. This movie is unbelievably brutal, but truly great, and I wish it had been advertised more aggressively and found a bigger audience. (available on streaming services - Amazon has it for $0.99 right now)
Call Me By Your Name - Beautiful and devastating. Where the heck did Timothée Chalamet come from? And why did it take so long for someone to figure out how to best use Armie Hammer? Will I ever be able to eat a peach again? Homosexuality issues aside (ba-dump-bump-chhh), the story unfolds like any romance between two people with a bit of an age gap where it’s impossible to take things beyond the infatuation of a summer. I love that they don’t really like each other at first and that it takes a while for the sparks to really ignite anything. And is there anything more heartbreaking than the final shot of this movie under Sufjan Stevens' "Visions of Gideon"? (no longer in theaters, not yet streaming)
Colossal - This is such a great movie, and I wish it had gotten more attention (and perhaps been advertised a bit better, though part of the magic of the movie is how it surprises you). Anne Hathaway is falling apart in her hometown when she discovers, on a hungover morning, that she has a kaiju avatar in Seoul, North Korea. It only appears when she steps into a particular small park and once she figures out what’s going on she manages to make things right. But that’s only half the story. Jason Sudeikis is an absolute dick in this movie — toxic masculinity run amok. Unfortunately a movie very much for our times. (available on streaming services)
Dunkirk - Most of you have surely seen this by now. A brilliant examination of three perspectives on the “miracle at Dunkirk” - from sea, from land, and from air. It took me far too long to get the hang of the different time settings, but it’s a very clever way to thread the stories together. One drawback for me is that it feels too detached. I don’t know any of these people, and that’s probably the way it’s supposed to be, but it’s harder to get invested that way. It’s a spectacular achievement nonetheless. (available on streaming services)
Girls Trip - If you didn’t see this in a theater full of people, I don’t know that watching at home will give you anywhere near the same experience. This is a wild ride from start to finish, and *another* film this year where someone has sex with a piece of fruit. Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett-Smith are all in fine form here, but the true star of this movie is Tiffany Haddish, whose wild antics give the film much of its humor but who also gives it a lot of its heart. (available on streaming services)
Good Time - After a bank robbery goes badly, Robert Pattinson spends the rest of the night trying to raise the money to get his mentally handicapped brother out of a Rikers Island holding cell. Like the characters in Dog Day Afternoon, this guy survives one crisis only to find himself neck deep in another, and so on and so forth. I really liked this, not only for Pattison’s incredible performance but for its bleary-eyed neon-soaked visuals that reminded me of Taxi Driver and the synth pop pulse that reminded me of an 80s Tangerine Dream soundtrack. I suppose that makes it sound derivative, and I guess in a lot of ways it is, but it steals from the best so who cares? (available on streaming services)
The Killing of a Sacred Deer - I liked this even more than The Lobster, and I love that Yorgos Lanthimos has found a kind of muse in Colin Farrell. Here, Farrell plays a doctor who is forced to make an impossible choice after losing a patient. Nicole Kidman plays his chillingly practical wife, and Barry Keoghan (who also appeared in Dunkirk) is our villain, who makes eating a plate of spaghetti into the most horrifying and threatening thing on earth. This movie makes a commitment and sticks to it through the bitter end, and it goes to some dark and hilarious places. The scene where Farrell’s character goes to his kids’ school and interrogates the principal to figure out which of his kids is “better” is one of my favorite moments of anything ever. (available on streaming services)
Lady Bird - I can’t quite nail down why I didn’t connect as much with this as everyone else seems to have, but I’d never deny that it’s a well-made film that has a lot of great things to say. The relationship between Christine and her mother is wonderfully real, and Beanie Feldstein is the best thing in the movie. This is a rare movie that’s about the lower middle class — the people who have been struggling the most since the economic meltdown. I do love Christine’s taste in music and related so hard to her indignant response to being judged for having a “greatest hits” compilation (“but … they’re the greatest”). Despite my relatively lukewarm (though still warm!) reception to this movie, I’m very eager to see what director Greta Gerwig (I love saying that) does next because she is one of my favorite people. (still in theaters)
Lady Macbeth - A Victorian drama with tremendous bite and a wonderful lead performance by newcomer Florence Pugh. Pugh plays Katherine, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who is willing to go to any lengths to have the life that she wants. Florence’s connection to her Scottish counterpart is not exact. Rather than power, she seeks sexual freedom, which was itself a kind of power for women of the time. The movie also has some subtle things to say about white supremacy. (available on streaming services)
Logan - What a great farewell for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It’s not often we get to see the latter days of a superhero’s life. They’re constantly being reinvented and rebooted with new, young actors so that we’re spared this part of the story (because this part is depressing as hell). And as sad as Logan’s role in this is, Patrick Stewart’s declining Professor X is even more heartbreaking. And don’t even get me started on the incredible Dafne Keen. (available on streaming services; on HBONow for free)
Logan Lucky - Ocean’s Eleven with rednecks is the simplest summary, but this is a bit more than that. The characters in this movie are incredibly smart, even sophisticated in their own way, and their motives (Jimmy’s, anyway) are more sympathetic. And in a year where a third of all movies, it seemed, used a John Denver song, there was no better use than “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in this movie. (available on streaming services)
The Lost City of Z - I had no idea what this movie was before slapping eyes on it, but it’s really remarkable. Based on the true story of Percy Fawcett’s explorations of the Amazon and his efforts to find the lost city, it’s a welcome example of a story that takes great pains to make the case that there was indeed civilization before white people started invading the world. Charlie Hunnam is good, but Robert Pattinson outshines him a bit. (available on streaming services; free on Amazon Prime)
Mudbound - I had several chances to see this on a big screen and I blew it, having to settle instead for my television. This is a beautifully shot movie about two families — one black and one white — who work on the same land and struggle to co-exist (and just exist in general). I hated Jonathan Banks SO MUCH in this movie. Mary J. Blige gives a wonderful, understated performance that I hope gets recognized on the awards circuit. (available on Netflix)
Okja - Another one I wish I could have seen on the big screen, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to. This movie made me care way more than I expected to about a giant CGI pig. It’s not the first film to exploit our stubborn separation of animals we love and animals we eat (which are frequently the same animals), but it very effectively sets up its heroine as a David fighting the Goliath of the meat industry, while also bumping up against an animal rights group that has its own motives. An exceptional film. (available on Netflix)
The Post - Another film for our troubled times. This is Meryl’s movie, period, and it’s her best performance in years. I mean, she’s always great, but she’s truly exceptional here as Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post. The other MVP is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, who actually procured many of the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. This is a great celebration of the media’s role in holding the powerful accountable, but I’m not sure how much power a paper like this has nowadays when anything you don’t like you can just declare fake until people forget about it. Still a great movie. (wide release Jan. 12)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women - Seems a strange coincidence that this came out the same year as Wonder Woman, but it does add some meaningful context. This is based on the real life relationship between William Marston (creator of Wonder Woman), his wife Elizabeth, and a woman named Olive who was Marston’s teaching assistant and who becomes romantically involved with both of them. We see how this relationship and the two women inspire the creation of Wonder Woman and how they struggle as an unconventional family in the 30s and 40s. There aren’t many movies about polyamorous relationships, and they’re usually presented as salacious, but this was beautifully done. (only available on DVD/Blu for now)
Thor Ragnarok - The exact kick in the pants these movies needed. So much humor and connection to the rest of the Marvelverse — I usually find the endless easter eggs and references to the other characters’ movies tiresome, but the Thor movies have been somewhat distant from all that up to now, so the connections feel more fresh. Hela is a welcome addition to the saga, and I loved the subtle condemnation of colonialism. (still in theaters)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Goes in directions you don’t expect, and that’s exciting. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are the MVPs (Rockwell’s arc makes the movie, in my opinion), but Woody Harrelson gives a beautiful performance as well. The script also boasts the best line of dialogue of any movie this year — “Penelope said ‘begets’?” (still in theaters)
THE TOP TEN
Ay, mi familia, oiga, mi gente, canten a coro
Let it be known
Our love for each other will live on forever
In every beat of my proud corazón!
I cringed pretty hard when I first heard about this movie, because while Pixar is one of the more progressive studios, they're still overwhelmingly white. And here they were making this movie about Mexican culture -- how was this not going to be hugely awkward and embarrassing? It's a good thing, then, that they stacked the cast and crew with massively talented Mexican storytellers and actors. From the moment I heard the Disney fanfare played by a mariachi band I was in love. Coco is steeped in the rituals of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a tradition where families pray for and remember those they have lost. People bring gifts and food and other offerings to encourage the souls of the departed to visit them. The plot here is fairly standard Pixar stuff, but the visuals are some of the most vivid and beautiful in any of their films. It might seem strange that a movie where most of the characters are skeletons is so bright and uplifting, but it feels like the true spirit of the Day of the Dead. Not sombre, black-draped mourning, but a brilliant celebration of life and the generations that have gone before. And the music! Everyone loves "Remember Me," and it's getting the big awards push, but my heart belongs to "Proud Corazón" (quoted above). (still in theaters)
Nancy gets hit once, and the whole world shits! For me, it's an all-the-time occurrence!
Unable to reconcile the highly conflicting stories told respectively by Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, the filmmakers decided to just show the audience everyone's point of view and let them decide what they feel the truth is. For my part, as someone who followed figure skating in the 1990s and went to a "Tonya vs. Nancy" party in college during the '94 Olympics, this movie forced me to seriously reconsider what I had always thought about Harding and the whole "kneecap" affair. (I'm convinced she had no part in the actual assault -- she wanted to defeat Kerrigan too badly to cheat herself of the satisfaction of outskating her.) And though she does dole out more blame to others and never really accepts any guilt herself for any of her misfortunes, you do get the impression that she never really got a fair shake, particularly in the skating world, where the judges only saw her as white trash who didn't belong in their rarified world. Performances in this movie are off-the-charts great. Margot Robbie is equal parts vulnerable and tough, and Allison Janney has literally never been better (no, not even in The West Wing, if you can imagine). (still in theaters)
These are the rooms we're not supposed to go in... But let's go anyways!
This movie takes place in a world I never knew existed, and if this story were told from anyone's point of view but Moonee's, it would be unbearable and exploitative. We see a summer in Orlando, Florida through the eyes of a six-year-old who lives in a pay-by-the-week motel with her indifferent mother. The reality of her life is objectively terrifying, but she doesn't see it that way herself and her perspective gives the movie a bizarrely magical quality, making you *almost* forget to feel sorry for her. The movie's cast of mostly unknowns is breathtaking, anchored by a thoroughly engaging Brooklynn Prince, who defies the scores of cloying, clever-beyond-their-years child performances that came before her. Willem Dafoe does some of his best work to date here as the motel manager who is a reluctant psuedo-parent, and Bria Vinaite -- who director Sean Baker found on Instagram and who never acted before this -- is astonishing as Moonee's mother. This movie has one of the greatest endings ever, and while everyone will talk about Moonee's breakdown or whether or not everything that follows is really happening, *the* moment for me is Jancey's reaction, which is the purest "I got you, girl" I've ever seen. (still in theaters, though not for long)
What's my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti.
It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys.
There are two ingredients I have always considered the secret weapons to making great romantic comedies: (1) fantastic supporting players (such as Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally) and (2) something going on other than the love story (e.g., the political goings on in The American President, the turbulent baseball season in Bull Durham). You've got to have at least one of those two things, in my opinion, but The Big Sick has both. In many ways, this movie is really a love story between a guy and his girlfriend's parents, perhaps more so than between the couple (whose relationship, until the very end, only spans the movie's first act). Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself, or a version of himself) wrote the movie with his wife, Emily Gordon (a version of whom is played in the movie by Zoe Kazan). Based on the actual events of their courtship, this movie beautifully explores the meat of relationships beyond the flurry of attraction and the initial stages of dating -- what happens when you actually try and merge your world with someone else's, taking on all the quirks of their life while asking them to take on yours. (available on streaming services; free on Amazon Prime)
The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.
I've long been a fan, but I fell deeply in love with Edgar Wright this year, both as a filmmaker and as movie enthusiast in general. I love that he came out of what must have been a disappointing experience with Ant-Man and decided that this was his next step. A movie he'd been wanting to make since well before the Cornetto days. A loving homage to the car chase movies of the 60s and 70s and an absolute feast of perfectly chosen songs (sweet mercy, that first six minutes!). That's right -- a friggin' car chase musical! There's a great deal of flash in the cast, including a boss cameo by Paul Williams, but it's all anchored by an understated (and frankly underappreciated) performance by Ansel Elgort. All of Wright's films reward multiple viewings, but this one especially seems to have about a million easter eggs and I'm still trying to find them all. I think of all his filmography so far, Hot Fuzz still has my heart (I could watch this gif on a loop until I slipped into a coma), but Baby Driver is a bold and ballsy step in a completely different direction and I am one hundred percent here for it. And it makes me incredibly excited to see what he does next. (available on streaming services)
If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term.
Remember when we elected Barack Obama and white people thought racism was over? Then the 2016 election happened, and we learned what black people had known all along? Like another film on this list (see #1), this movie could not have come at a more auspicious time. Get Out brilliantly punctures the hubris and complacency of white liberals who consider themselves allies because they have non-white friends, vote for a black president, and use "woke" hashtags on Twitter, but nevertheless contribute to white supremacy. It's also a reminder that you don't have to use the n-word or fly a Confederate flag to be a racist. Perhaps my favorite thing about this movie is that (SPOILER) there is not one single "white savior" to be found; I'm certain that a white director would have had at least one white character who was a "good guy" who stepped in to save the day or at least said "hey, that's not right." Jordan Peele has no time for #notallwhitepeople, and his movie is all the more powerful for it. (available to stream on HBONow)
Your mum was tough at first. Kept saying I was her best friend at school. It drove me nuts! It's not like she had a boyfriend. Just me. And then we had our first kiss. And I understood.
One of my main takeaways from this movie is that hazing in French veterinary school is hella hardcore. Our heroine, lifelong vegetarian Justine, is starting at a vet school which her older sister is already attending, and after one hazing ritual where she is forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys, she descends into a spiral of insatiable hunger (of many kinds, but most especially hunger for raw meat). Filmmaker Julia Ducournau very cleverly gets the audience on Justine's side by putting her into a situation at the very beginning where she is being yelled at and forced to do ridiculous, humiliating things, which compels us as viewers to mentally rebel against it along with her and therefore identify with her. She then spends the next two hours challenging that identification by showing us Justine's cannibalistic impulses and compelling us to see the humanity in them. Heavily influenced by the work of Cronenberg, Ducournau uses the language of body horror to tell a story about growing up and figuring out who you are, and about how doing that changes the way you see the world and your place in it. Not for the squeamish, but a very rewarding watch if you dare. (available on streaming services)
Don't you start using that filthy, little word, "chic."
Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public.
On the surface, a movie set in the world of high fashion in 1950s London is not a movie I would have expected from the filmmaker behind Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Inherent Vice. Daniel Day-Lewis (in what he claims will be his final role) plays a renowned fashion designer who has a strict routine and very particular ways of doing things. He's had a series of muses who he eventually discards (usually with a parting gift of one of his gowns), but his latest one, Alma, upsets all that and upends his neatly ordered universe. Anderson is playing a bit in Hitchcock's sandbox here -- the film bears a passing resemblance to Rebecca and maybe a little Rear Window -- but that should not suggest that this is derivative. It feels like an old fashioned movie but the relationship and power dynamics are handled with a modern touch. You already know Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal, so I won't belabor that point except to say that he still is. I don't know where Vicky Krieps came from, but I demand to see more of her because she is gobsmackingly great in this, as is the always great Lesley Manville who can take a gesture like pushing her hair behind her ears and give it the oomph of a Rocky montage. There is a wealth of rich detail in the production design and the costumes (the dress pictured above nearly made me cry) and the food. And it's all tied together with an astonishingly beautiful score by Jonny Greenwood. (wide release Jan. 19)
He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.
There's a moment in this movie that so thoroughly charmed me that I melted nearly to the floor of the theater. The story is essentially Creature from the Black Lagoon but where the Creature gets the girl. There are so many moments that could have been disastrous and unintentionally funny, but Guillermo del Toro's empathy, imagination and skill as a filmmaker make it work exceedingly well. To the point that I'm confident saying this is his best work to date and is a textbook example of that corny term "movie magic." This movie is about outsiders, and it's incredibly satisfying to watch this band of misfits come together and carry out a heist (not to mention overcome a villain who has a winning ticket in Bigot Bingo). Everyone in this movie shines -- Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones -- but none more so than the spectacular Sally Hawkins, whose joy and heart practically bleed onto the screen. (still in theaters)
Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give ... for the world I know can be.
This is a movie I needed this year in so many ways. A female-directed, female-centered movie that I could wholeheartedly support, and not just because another one might not get made otherwise, but because it was genuinely good. A movie with a woman hero to whom it does not occur that she shouldn't speak up in a room full of men, to whom it does not occur that she should cover her entire body in clothes that restrict her ability to move so as not to be objectified or be a "distraction," and who cannot fathom a cause so hopeless that it isn't worth fighting for. In a year of "nevertheless, she persisted" and women speaking uncomfortable truths about powerful men, Diana the Wonder Woman is a hero that women desperately needed. And it's incredible to have a film version of her that's iconic in it own right and truly honors who Wonder Woman is. The image above might as well be the symbol for women in 2017.
Go back and listen to the old theme song from the Wonder Woman television show. I would particularly draw your attention to the lyrics "Make a hawk a dove ... stop a war with love ... make a liar tell the truth" and "Stop a bullet cold ... make the Axis fold ... change their minds ... and change the world." I know the wait was ridiculously long for a movie about Wonder Woman, but I think it could hardly have come at a more appropriate time. (available on streaming services)