With all that being said, I though this was an excellent year for cinema. Admittedly, I saw fewer movies in theaters than ever before, partly because I’m disheartened by the behavior of most audiences. The first time I saw The Post, people could not sit still during a movie about the power of newspapers without staring at their smart-phones and going out to loudly take calls. That kills me, because it means I’m more prone to miss out on personal discoveries (such as I mentioned above). But even so, I still wander into movies not really knowing what to expect (see Brigsby Bear or Jane) and come out feeling inspired. My top twenty in general is jam-packed with movies I simply adored; in fact, there’s three more – Wonderstruck, Mudbound and I, Tonya – that will likely join the list once I get a chance to view them again without audience distractions.
As always, there are spoilers aplenty below.
Of all the movies released this year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the only one that seared images into my head. For me, this was the most consistently surprising and exciting film to watch in a very long time. Some years, it’s tough for me to pick among a handful of great films for my number one spot. This year, there was no contest. McDonagh has long been one of my favorite playwrights – I saw a production of The Pillowman at Austin’s Hyde Park Theatre in 2007 that blew me away – and I’ve greatly enjoyed his career as a filmmaker (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) thus far. But nothing prepared me for what he does here.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, in the best performance by any actor this year) is a single mother in small-town Ebbing, Missouri. Her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered several months ago, and the local police haven’t done much to solve the case. In deep frustration and anger, Mildred has three billboards put up on the outskirts of town, calling out the police for their lackadaisical response.
From the beginning, we see both sides of the billboards debate so beautifully. In Mildred, I saw a woman who has weathered hard times and isn’t interested in being bound by social niceties or political correctness – she’s uncouth and does what’s necessary in order to be heard and seen. We revel in seeing her take charge, kicking ass and calling people out for doing nothing. But who would expect the policemen to be given such depth beneath all of their buffoonery? McDonagh is too smart to make this simply a “police are the problem” movie – even though Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a bigoted, drunken officer who lives at home with his mother, is clearly not the model law enforcer. He, more so than Willoughby, is set up as Mildred’s primary antagonist.
And because of our inability to catch the real monster – the unknown person who killed Mildred’s daughter – we will project onto and destroy each other until we’re left with nothing besides hate and, if we’re lucky, an opportunity to rebuild.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is astonishing – a study of two people in love, told mostly through glances and gestures, each of them trying to discern what the other is thinking. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps give two of the best performances of the year, and Anderson once again proves he is the most exciting filmmaker working in cinema today. Seeing this film in 70MM at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse at an early screening was one of the great film experiences of my life, no less impactful than my repeat viewings of Anderson’s The Master (2012) in the same format.
Phantom Thread is supposedly Day-Lewis’s final performance as an actor, and if that’s the case, he is going out on a magnificent note. Anderson and Day-Lewis previously collaborated on There Will Be Blood (2007), which is rightfully considered one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century. Their new film finds them in a very different – but equally thrilling – mode, with Day-Lewis playing Reynolds Woodcock, an unmarried dressmaker working at the top of the fashion scene in 1950s London. Notoriously particular and obsessive, Reynolds seems to rotate through women in a cycle assisted by his sister and fashion partner Cyril (Lesley Manville). He puts all of himself into a dress – and a relationship – at a time, and then burns out, having to retreat into solitude. During one of his escapes from London, he meets Alma (Krieps), a younger Polish woman, who is more strong-willed and forceful than we first suspect.
But part of what’s so moving about Phantom Thread is how Alma and Reynolds manage to stay together – like Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015), the film presents a romance seemingly doomed to fail that somehow endures. I cannot wait to see Phantom Thread again – more than any other director, Anderson’s films grow in complexity and meaning upon each new viewing.
The enormously talented writer and director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) is the rare filmmaker who still makes movies for adults. His latest, The Lost City of Z, is a mesmerizing adventure that ranks among his best films. There are so many movies in The Lost City of Z – a tale of madness and obsession, a rollicking journey down the Amazon River, a World War I battle movie, an investigation of British exploration and imperialism – and all of them add up to a hugely entertaining picture unlike anything else in cinemas. You can see the influences on display here – the journey down the river of Apocalypse Now (1979); the candlelit interiors of Barry Lyndon (1975); the restless spirit (and one great match cut) of Lawrence of Arabia (1962); the relentlessness of There Will Be Blood (2007) – and yet The Lost City of Z is uniquely its own film, very much in the style of Gray’s previous work.
Gray’s film is a rich, classically made drama without a hint of irony. With The Immigrant and Two Lovers, Gray made his reputation as one of the great filmmakers of our time, and The Lost City of Z is an achievement of the highest order.
With his new film Downsizing, Alexander Payne has attempted something beautifully ambitious – this high-concept, visual effects-heavy story about human miniaturization spends its first act getting obligatory sight gags out of the way, leading to something far richer and more interesting as it progresses. Payne takes a unique concept that many filmmakers would use for a comedic romp and finds the social implications inherent in the premise, offering so many unexpected wonders and ideas along the way. The director has always excelled at human dramas, and Downsizing is the most literally human of all of his works.
The film opens as Norwegian scientists announce a breakthrough in human miniaturization, a process in which people are made smaller (approximately five inches in height) and able to live in sustainable micro-villages. This allows for a significantly decreased carbon footprint – and a huge rise in the value of one’s personal savings.
With The Squid and the Whale (2005), writer and director Noah Baumbach showcased his incredible ability to dramatize the inner lives of a broken family. It’s a raw and painful film, as are Baumbach’s two subsequent movies, Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010). But starting with Frances Ha (2013), there was a sudden shift in Baumbach’s work – the pain and messiness of life was still there, but the tone was somehow kinder, more forgiving. I love all of Baumbach’s work, but Frances Ha (along with 2015’s double-whammy of While We’re Young and Mistress America) shifted Baumbach – in my mind, at least – from a great talent to one of my absolute favorite filmmakers.
To call The Meyerowitz Stories (New Selected) his best work to date would be comparing the film against some of the above pictures I simply adore, but it certainly seems like the synthesis of so many of his themes and ideas. Like a cinematic cousin to Baumbach’s friend and sometimes-collaborator Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Meyerowitz Stories chronicles the trials and tragedies of a prominent New York family, and how the legacy of the patriarch, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), impacts his children and grandchildren. I was hooked five minutes into this film, when Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) and his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) play piano together, showcasing the creative spark inherent in this family. The music from this film has stayed in my mind – Randy Newman’s original songs (with lyrics by Sandler, Baumbach and Newman) are so memorable and moving.
There are so many wonderful Baumbach staples in this film – hilariously abrupt ends to scenes, characters talking over one another and not listening, and a few heartfelt monologues that seemingly come out of nowhere. Case in point – when Harold and Matthew visit Julia (Candice Bergen), Matthew’s mother, she surprises them with a sincere admission about her mistakes and her deep love for them. It hits you in the gut, but Harold and Matthew aren’t quite ready yet for that level of openness.
Ironically, the son who was seemingly never part of his father’s artistic process or worthy of his attention (Danny) is the most attached to the endurance of his father’s legacy, while the prodigal, younger son (Matthew), who his father always included, is the pragmatic businessman ready to sell away his father’s work. This makes Stiller’s breakdown at Harold’s retrospective all the more touching.
The humor and the sadness comes through in such sharp and unexpected ways – just when you think you’ve understood all you can about Maureen (Emma Thompson), Harold’s current wife and Danny and Matthew’s rather ridiculous stepmother, she reveals a real, profound love for her husband. There’s a beautiful moment near the end in which Stiller repeats a joke Harold often makes throughout the film back to his father, only to find Harold doesn’t even remember it.
One of the great pleasures of the current stage of Steven Spielberg’s career is his commitment to making richly detailed historical dramas. I love Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as much as anyone, but with films like Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich (2005), Spielberg has taken an interest in exhilarating and morally complex recreations of history. His latest, The Post, feels like the third in a trilogy of Spielberg political dramas (after the masterful Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), and it’s no less exceptional than both of those movies.
Acting titans Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star as Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor, respectively, of the Washington Post in the early 1970s. Richard Nixon is the President of the United States, and while Watergate is still on the horizon, there’s a different political scandal unfolding with the release of the Pentagon Papers. The Post concerns Graham and Bradlee’s efforts to release and report on information that the White House is trying to suppress.
Steven Soderbergh’s welcome return to cinema, Logan Lucky, is one of the most delightful surprises of the year – the working class heist answer to Soderbergh’s own Ocean’s Eleven (2001) series. It’s as tightly constructed a picture as you would expect from the always economical and precise Soderbergh, but imbued with a looseness that makes watching the film such a pleasure.
Channing Tatum and Adam Driver star as West Virginia brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan, both of whom are decidedly unlucky (Jimmy, with a hurt leg, is let go from his job as a coal miner, and Clyde lost his arm serving a tour in Iraq). Together, they devise an intricate plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. To pull it off, they’ll need the help of their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and particularly the assistance of explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is currently incarcerated.
The performances here are superb – it would have been so easy to play these characters as southern caricatures, but every one of them feels authentic and grounded. Craig, in particular, is fantastic as Joe Bang – hilarious, fascinating to watch, and nothing short of a truly original character. Soderbergh (and writer Rebecca Blunt) deserve enormous credit for one of the most entertaining, heartfelt movies to come out in 2017.
Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 truly and profoundly surprised me. I had no doubt I would enjoy the film – Villeneuve is one of the strongest filmmakers working today – but I did not expect to find the picture as involving and engaging as I did. I greatly admire and respect Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), but I wouldn’t count it among my all-time favorite films. Blade Runner 2049 exhilaratingly expands on the ideas in Scott’s film, and, in an opinion that may count as heresy in some circles, I found Villeneuve’s film to be an even deeper and more complex movie than the original.
From the very beginning, I was truly invested in this slow-burn detective story. Scott has called this sequel “way too long,” but to me, that’s an insult to a deliberately well-paced and meditative science-fiction epic that’s just about the most astounding movie of its kind since Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).
Harrison Ford returns as former blade runner Rick Deckard – the actor once again revisiting one of his iconic screen characters and giving the role an added complexity (not to mention a rather wistful quality), just as he did in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). K tracks down Deckard late in the picture, as Deckard may know the answer to the film’s central mystery (which concerns the possibilities of replicant offspring).
Villeneuve ends the film with a typically brilliant final image (Prisoners and Enemy are the best early examples of the director closing on a memorable frame), and we get some astounding moments of Villeneuve and Deakins shooting action through glass (a whole video essay dedicated to these shots, Denis Villeneuve Through Glass, played before the screening at Brooklyn’s Alamo Drafthouse). All in all, Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning achievement – and, along with this year’s Dunkirk and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, proof that big-budget filmmakers can still take chances and, more importantly, engage the viewer with thought and feeling.
Hostiles is a grim, contemplative western that takes place largely around campfires late at night, where quiet conversations between beaten-down frontiersmen and Native American tribal leaders reveal a shared trauma that goes beyond words. It’s the rare western in which there are few battles or action scenes, and the shootouts that do occur are messy and ugly. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) is far more interested in the effect the battle for the American West has had on the people who have endured the fight – the Native Americans, the American soldiers and the frontierswomen who have seen unspeakable violence. Nobody in this film is innocent.
As the film closes, Blocker’s actions cause even more death and pain. There’s a lengthy shot after the final shootout where the camera closes in on Bale, as he looks around at the death and chaos surrounding him. Even when he tries to do a good thing, violence and destruction are inevitable.
I saw this film two weekends ago at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, where I’ve viewed well over forty films across the last eight and a half years. It was perhaps my favorite theater in New York, and now it’s gone forever. I went back with a group of friends this past weekend to celebrate (or, rather, lament) its closing with a midnight screening of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975). But Hostiles serves as the last first-run feature I saw there. The Sunshine was such an intimate space, and watching Hostiles, I was reminded of the kind of movie that will struggle to find a home now that this theater and others (Lincoln Plaza Cinema, for one) are gone. The world is changing, all right, but not always for the better.
Richard Linklater, the king of hang-out movies, strikes gold again with Last Flag Flying, a leisurely and reflective road trip movie for the ages. Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne star as three Vietnam veterans travelling up the east coast in 2003 to bury Carell’s son, who died in the Iraq War. The Army wants to give the boy a military funeral, but Carell insists that he escort the body back to his hometown and bury him as a civilian. He’s righteously angry about the murky reasons for the United States invading Iraq, and bristles at the notion of the army treating his son’s death as “heroic.”
My interest in Last Flag Flying stems not simply from my love and adoration for my hometown hero Linklater, but also from my love of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan (who also co-wrote this film with Linklater), with Last Flag Flying serving as a somewhat-sequel to The Last Detail. In the first film, the older rebel-rousers (Nicholson and Young) are tasked to bring a young man (Quaid) to military prison, and as they travel together up the east coast, the two elder officers try to show the young man a good time. In Last Flag Flying, these men have all grown up, in a sense, but they’re just as adrift in their middle age.
And in the end, it turns out that both Carell and the army had the best interests of his son in mind – he wanted a burial at home in New Hampshire, but still dressed in his military uniform. Linklater ends the film with Levon Helm’s Wide River to Cross and Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet, perfect closing songs that evoke a lifetime of regret and sorrow. Linklater is coming off a streak of great films – Bernie (2012), Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – and he moves into new territory here. The result is one of the year’s undiscovered treasures.
Special Note: I will be posting reviews in the near future of the first five runners-up, all of which are deserving of inclusion on a top ten list.
The Rest of the Best
11. I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
12. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
12. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
13. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
14. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
15. Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen)
16. Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
17. Darkest Hour (Joe Wright)
18. Good Time (Joshua and Benny Safdie)
19. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
20. Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary)
21. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
22. The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
23. The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
24. Get Out (Jordan Peele)
25. Jane (Brett Morgen)
26. mother! (Darren Aronofsky)
27. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
28. Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
29. Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer)
30. Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
Other Movies I Loved and Admired:
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Patti Cake$ (Geremy Jasper)
Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
Logan (James Mangold)
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
Okja (Bong Joon-ho)
The Promise (Terry George)
The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour)
Winner: Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Runners-Up: Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread; James Gray, The Lost City of Z; Alexander Payne, Downsizing; Steven Spielberg, The Post; Noah Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk; Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049
Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Runners-Up: Tom Hanks, The Post; Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour; Christian Bale, Hostiles; James Franco, The Disaster Artist; Matt Damon, Downsizing; Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Robert Pattinson, Good Time; Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name; Adam Sandler, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Note: One of the best male performances of the year was in a made-for-television film, Barry Levinson’s The Wizard of Lies, with Robert De Niro at the peak of his powers as Bernie Madoff.
Winner: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Runners-Up: Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread; Meryl Streep, The Post; Margot Robbie, I, Tonya; Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird; Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel; Rooney Mara, Song to Song and A Ghost Story; Rosamund Pike, Hostiles; Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water; Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Runners-Up: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project; Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Dustin Hoffman, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Daniel Craig, Logan Lucky; Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying; Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name; Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lady Bird
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Hong Chau, Downsizing
Runners-Up: Allison Janney, I, Tonya; Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread; Sienna Miller, The Lost City of Z; Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049; Elizabeth Marvel, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird; Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Runners-Up: Phantom Thread; Downsizing; The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); The Post; Logan Lucky; I, Tonya; Lady Bird; Wonder Wheel; Get Out
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Lost City of Z
Runners-Up: Last Flag Flying; Call Me By Your Name; Blade Runner 2049; The Disaster Artist