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The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Studio: Fox Searchlight
From the outside looking in, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film is a hard sell: a mute cleaning lady forms a bond with a sexy fish-man in an edgy Cold War era Baltimore fairy tale. But this is merely an entry point that allows del Toro to explore some big ideas: loneliness, otherness, love, regret, humanity. And he does so with such extraordinary, refreshing care for his characters, all of whom are at one time or another the star of the film. Sally Hawkins is magnificent as Elisa, a complicated woman who refuses to be defined by her disability, and who the film empowers with agency and sexuality from the very first scene. And yet her otherness in the eyes of society is obvious, as is the case with her friends Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who are ostracized by 1960’s Baltimore for being a gay man and a black woman, respectively.
The film morphs into a violent struggle against loneliness and isolation at the hands of a cruel public, personified by a covetous government-employed sadist (Michael Shannon). We find ourselves rooting for these unlikely heroes because we want Elisa to know love, and—as we come to appreciate through a gut punch of a monologue from Jenkins’ aging, single Giles—we too know the pain of being alone.
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Studio: STX Entertainment
I went into Molly’s Game not totally sure if I even cared about the story of an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker game runner. With the real world in veritable chaos and so many other fantastic films hitting theatres for awards season, it didn’t feel like an essential story or one that required the talents of one of the best writers in the business. I came out of Molly’s Game completely blown away by not only Aaron Sorkin’s writing and newly deployed directorial skills, but also—to my surprise—the gravity and humanity of the storyline and how the film treats its subject. The scene structure of Sorkin’s script—and the structuring of the beats within the scenes—double as screenwriting clinic and pure entertainment bliss.
Outstanding performances from Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and a coterie of recognizable character actors drive a story worth so much more than what its marketing would suggest. Through literary allusions, humor, empathy, and wit, Sorkin doesn’t just turn out a fun movie about poker, greed, or celebrity, but a truly captivating exposition on the value of a person’s life work and reputation—perhaps the greatest table stakes of all.
9. Your Name
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Your Name is an animated film that set Japanese box office records in 2016 but had just a limited release in the U.S. last summer. The plot is a Freaky Friday variation where a high school girl and boy wake up in each other’s bodies every other day. The girl, Mitsuha, leads an unfulfilling life in a rural Japanese mountain town and dreams of moving to the city. The boy, Taki, lives in Tokyo where he is unsatisfied with the direction his career and personal life are going. The two start meddling in each other’s lives and communicating via notes, gradually developing feelings for one another. Suddenly, on the evening of a dazzling celestial event, the body swaps cease and Taki can no longer communicate with Mitsuha.
Determined to meet Mitsuha in person, Taki sets out on a journey to find her town and discover the truth. To avoid spoiling the film I won’t go any further into the plot, but it is precisely at this point in the story Your Name becomes something altogether different from a typical high-concept rom-com. It’s a quirky, emotionally rich fantasy worthy of Pixar or Studio Ghibli distribution, and the animation is so jaw-droppingly gorgeous it’s reason enough to seek out a copy of the DVD.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Studio: Warner Brothers
Christopher Nolan is masterful at employing storytelling mechanics to drive not just the plot but also the thematic elements of his films. Whether it’s telling a story backward or treating the three-act structure like a magic trick, his films succeed by connecting the technical with the emotional; he marries the things that happen in the film with the things the film is about. But if there’s one part of Nolan’s style that doesn’t quite resonate with me it’s when he feels the need to explain this balancing act to the audience through heavy-handed dialogue and exposition. Personally, I feel he is at his best when he shows us the trick he’s pulling and lets us work it out for ourselves.
This is easier said than done, as Nolan’s films typically inhabit intricately detailed worlds governed by strict narrative laws. In Dunkirk, Nolan is up to his old ways, this time layering three distinct stories and time frames on top of each other and having them collide and pull apart in exciting, sometimes catastrophic ways. But what I thought was truly special about this film was how little it felt the need to hold the audience’s hand. Through cinematography, production design, music, light, and sound (lots of sound), Nolan delivers a relentless barrage of tension and action without feeling the need to stop and explain his choices. And yet the story felt no weaker than in his prior films; he merely trusted his audience more this time around. It felt like watching raw filmmaking at work all three times I saw it in theatres.
7. A Ghost Story
Director: David Lowery
“Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting,” a seemingly nihilistic title card reads before the start of A Ghost Story. The line is from a Virginia Woolf short story where a ghostly couple haunts the current inhabitants of their former home, but not in a sinister way. The couple is just looking for something, a treasure of some kind. Lowery’s film visualizes a similar story where a man credited as C (Casey Affleck) is killed in a car accident and comes back as a ghost—he’s literally a figure covered by a white sheet with two eye holes. The ghost mostly wanders around his old home and observes the grieving wife he left behind, a woman credited as M played by the always brilliant Rooney Mara. In one scene, M hides away a note deep within walls of the house, but C in ghost form just can’t seem to reach it. He gets distracted and continues his wandering.
At this point, we think we’re watching a spare meditation on loss and love, or perhaps an examination of the futility and brevity of our lives, as the pessimistic title card implied. But just as we’re getting settled into one story, Lowery pulls us into something entirely different, an utterly unique and exhilarating cosmic journey through time and space. The ghost continues to wander and observe, but now the days are eons and time as a linear construct ceases to exist as we know it. We watch in a baffled, curious state as Lowery selectively presents us with imagery: shots of doorways, windows, and other portals; flashbacks of C and M in love; the future; the past; text in a book that reads “the treasure buried” (more Virginia Woolf to puzzle us with); families; buildings; M’s note buried deep in the doorway of the home; C still unable to reach it.
What does all of this mean? What does that ever elusive note represent? What is Lowery trying to say about anything? I sat with this film in my mind for several weeks, chewing on it like a dog with a bone, trying to synthesize my own interpretations while reading the thoughtful criticism of other, smarter people. It’s a cliché, but that journey the film ultimately set me on was worth far more than any destination it could have provided.
6. Get Out
Director: Jordan Peele
Get Out is the rare horror film you can watch over and over again even if you know how it ends. First-time writer/director Jordan Peele crafted a script that’s so loaded with symbolism he may be the only person on the planet with a fully sufficient understanding of the film’s allegorical relevance to the real world. In fact, the young auteur has managed to set the internet on fire on more than one occasion by dropping hints about the film’s metaphors (Curious about the meaning of “the sunken place?” Peele’s Twitter feed is a great place to start). But that isn’t to say Get Out is overly cryptic or trying to do too much. As the first breakout hit of the calendar year, Get Out was just as successful commercially as it was critically because apart from being a biting social commentary, it’s also a wildly entertaining thriller and a funny one at that. Peele, famous for his sketch comedy work, brings his knack for satire to bear as he explores an oft ignored form of racism through the story of a young black man visiting his white girlfriend’s proudly liberal family for the first time.
Horror and thriller movies, more so than any other genre, have always been particularly skilled at repackaging the collective anxieties of the societies in which they were created. As highlighted in this excellent video essay from one of my favorite YouTube channels, genre cornerstones like zombies or Godzilla can be understood as direct cinematic responses to social phenomena such as terrorism or nuclear warfare. What makes Get Out so unique is how Peele identifies and repurposes modern anxieties about race that many of his audience didn’t even know were there to begin with (myself included). By criticizing the attitudes of a group of people who think they’re part of the solution, Peele complicates the very crux of our understanding of racial politics and social progress.
Get Out was released nationwide literally two days before the 2017 Academy Awards. So on the very weekend Hollywood recognized with its highest honor an exquisite film about a black man’s coming of age, Peele’s movie was right there to remind us just how much farther we still have to go, both as an industry and a society.
Studio: Sundance Institute
As yet another directorial debut (there are four on this Top 10, for what it’s worth) and the lowest grossing film on my list this year, Columbus caught me completely by surprise. It tells the story of a Korean-American man named Jin (John Cho) who is stuck in the midwestern hamlet of Columbus, Indiana after a stroke put his father in a coma. He forms a relationship with a local college-aged girl named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) who is also dealing with parental issues and can’t seem to leave Columbus behind for reasons of her own. As strong as the ensemble’s performances are—and they are exceptional, especially Richardson who is tragically not being included in the awards conversation—it is the direction, photography, music, and editing that elevate the film to a special, almost sacred plane.
Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian film the architectural mecca that is Columbus, IN with a graceful, patient lens, allowing the film ample room to breathe so we can reflect on what we’re seeing, and why the director wants us to see it. With some of the more breathtaking shots, I found myself pausing the movie and marveling at the screen as if it were a fine painting. Not unlike the 2016 film Paterson, which featured Adam Driver as a bus driver slash poet-savant, Columbus hypnotizes its audience with the tranquility and beauty of an aesthetic medium with which they may not be wholly familiar. The spell it casts is a most welcome one.
4. Phantom Thread
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Studio: Focus Features
Phantom Thread is best understood as a series of choices. Choices on the part of its writer/director/cinematographer, Paul Thomas Anderson, and its core acting trio of Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Lesley Manville. There is a reason Anderson and Day-Lewis seem to complement each other so well, other than their notoriously obsessive work ethics (perhaps a meta-commentary within a film that deals so heavily in artistic obsessions). Beyond that, they are both uncannily adept observers of details, the tiniest minutiae of human behavior and the world around us that sum together to form our relationships with other people and our everyday lives. For Day-Lewis, it’s as simple as the glance he throws around the room that somehow drips with an impossibly multitudinous set of emotions, or sometimes it can be an even more innocuous occasion, where months of backstory and preparation are simmered down into an almost inaudible gulp or “tsk.” To Anderson’s credit, he has the vision to write characters like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, and Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock with the acute awareness of what the Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s of the world are able to do with their faces, voices, and physicality. It all comes down to artistic choices, and both the actor and his director are first-class in their respective fields.
However, while many of Anderson’s films feature complex, challenging men, in Phantom Thread he focuses the lens on a worthy female adversary for Day-Lewis in Vicky Krieps’ Alma. The film is basically two hours of Day-Lewis and Krieps in a room together, and while there is plenty of scintillating dialogue to volley, so much of the story boils down to the actors’ ability to demonstrate subtext through facial expressions and body language. Krieps’ work in this regard is revelatory. She drives the film, creating room for herself and Day-Lewis to draw from one another and peel back what’s actually happening between these two anomalous people.
Day-Lewis is 60 years old and Krieps is 34, yet somehow they completely sold me on the core concept of the film. Whether it’s an impish smile or abrupt tantrum from Day-Lewis or a perfectly delivered snipe from Krieps, we’re totally convinced of the duo’s role-reversing, quasi-Oedipal connection. Anderson builds a shaky foundation for his actors to explore in the House of Woodcock, demonstrating that the domineering, singularly obsessed egomaniacs of the world are anything but icons at which to be awestruck. They’re merely children, even if they’re all dressed up in their big boy clothes.
3. Lady Bird
Director: Greta Gerwig
There is a scene in Lady Bird that made the entire theatre I was in explode with laughter. It involves a boy, a girl, and Dave Matthews Band. Not ten minutes later in the film, the same boy and girl have a scene together that brought everyone in the theatre to tears. Writer/director Greta Gerwig (her first time directing) pulls this astonishing feat on at least three more occasions in Lady Bird, and not just with the titular main character played by Saoirse Ronan but with the talent-loaded ensemble as well, which includes Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, and Beanie Feldstein. Even a minor character played by the stellar Stephen Henderson has multiple heartbreakingly tender scenes, almost as if Gerwig wanted to make a small movie-within-a-movie about this one particular character, and then move on to the next mini-storyline.
For what is not that long of a film (clocking in at 94 minutes), Gerwig finds so much room to develop her characters into fully three-dimensional people equipped with strengths, insecurities, shortcomings, passions, and vulnerabilities. We really do recognize them on the screen because they’re people we’ve seen in our own lives. Not only that, but the relationships between the characters are as true to life as those in any teen coming-of-age genre film I’ve ever seen. The loving, but often strenuous, connection between Lady Bird and her mother (played by Metcalf) is so genuinely complex that the film’s final payoff is as powerful as any in 2017 at the movies.
It’s also the funniest film I saw this year by a long shot, a credit to the performers, Gerwig’s eye, and her editor Nick Houy. But that’s not why I would recommend anyone to go and see the film. Not unlike adolescence itself, it’s the interplay between the joyous and the sad that propels Lady Bird to such a warm, satisfying place.
2. The Florida Project
Director: Sean Baker
There is nothing quite like seeing a tremendous performance from a first-time actor, their every expression, movement, or intonation an exciting glimpse into a brand new person for whom we have no preexisting emotional bias. It’s not a common occurrence, as the harsh financial realities of the film business typically demand recognizable stars, even for many smaller budget indies. For studios and financiers to stake a bet on a fresh-faced leading player and for that particular actor to deliver an unexpectedly wonderful performance with their first major role is nothing short of a miracle. In The Florida Project, there are two such miracles: Brooklynn Prince, the 7-year old star of the film who plays the precocious Moonee, and Bria Vinaite, the 24-year old Instagram model-turned-actress who plays Moonee’s mother, Halley.
Both Prince and Vinaite are inspired in their career-launching performances, the unpolished, intensely truthful nature of which juxtapose seamlessly with that of their veteran co-star, Willem Dafoe, who plays a motel manager named Bobby. Dafoe—you would probably think—is one of those actors whose unmistakable visage and profound on-screen personality would inhibit him from blending into the edges of a small arthouse film. But here, particularly through incredibly detailed physicality and voice work, he discovers and illustrates a vulnerable humanity within Bobby, who could have easily been a forgettable character in a lesser actor’s hands. In my perfect world, he would receive a long-deserved Academy Award for his work in this film. Make no mistake, though, this is Prince’s movie, and her impassioned, seemingly effortless turn as Moonee is among the greatest child actor performances in recent memory.
Apart from the acting, Sean Baker’s film is sublime in its simplicity and matter-of-factness. His camera never judges, but rather presents unfiltered vignettes of everyday life in a part of the country many people have only driven past on highways. Baker’s detour, though a dramatization, swells with the real-life importance many “real America” think pieces over the last two years have only attempted to capture. I’m biased since I mainly observe and interact with the world by consuming and analyzing film, but I’m of the belief that there can be no understanding without empathy, and no empathy without a tangible vehicle through which to develop it. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to credit Baker and his cast with providing us such a vehicle.
1. Call Me by Your Name
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
The first ninety percent of Call Me by Your Name is like something out of a storybook. Director Luca Guadagnino tells us early on that we are vaguely “somewhere in Northern Italy,” a setting so arrestingly gorgeous it’ll make you want to plan a trip there during your drive home from the theatre. It’s a lush paradise of the senses, and everyone that populates it in Guadagnino’s film is commensurately beautiful and sensual. The protagonist, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), is an intelligent, worldly young man on the verge of adulthood. We also learn that his sexuality is as variegated as his talents; in the same way he can play Bach on both the piano and the guitar, he’ll fool around with his girlfriend in one scene then make out with a boy in the next. His counterpart, Oliver (Armie Hammer), has a voracious appetite for just about everything—food, culture, knowledge, sex—as evidenced myriad times when he’s debating etymology, dancing like a goofball to the Psychedelic Furs, or cracking open a second egg at breakfast (a sight that doubles as a sultry visual metaphor). And lest we forget, he almost eats that peach.
The young men tiptoe around each other during their first several encounters, careful not to reveal too much of themselves until Elio finally opens up to Oliver during an incredible cinematic sequence at the town center. Separated by a World War I memorial depicting the statue of a fallen young man, Elio and Oliver circle each other almost ritualistically (a mating dance?) as they provoke one another. “Why are you telling me this,” prods Oliver when Elio semi-reveals himself. “Because I wanted you to know,” pokes Elio, an incantation he softly repeats to himself three more times as if invoking a magical spell. They come back together on the other side of the statue fully aware of one another, each man transformed as if they stepped through a portal.
This concept of transmission is reiterative in Call Me by Your Name, which is based on the book by André Aciman. One way to characterize love, or any human connection, is as the transfer of things from one person to another—knowledge, experiences, trust, emotions and yes, bodily fluids, which play an even larger role in Aciman’s novel than Guadagnino’s film. To love someone is to give yourself to them, physically and metaphysically. This phenomenon plays itself out countless times in Elio and Oliver’s exchanges. It’s almost as if they want to consume—or even become—each other, like when Elio wears Oliver’s clothes or when Oliver threatens to eat Elio’s “used” peach.
This idyllic summer romance contrasts starkly with many queer films which tend to highlight the challenges of being gay in an unaccepting time and place. There are tiny exceptions, but in Call Me by Your Name, the couple is mostly free to roam their paradise unburdened by external antagonists. But like all fables, there is a sobering lesson to be learned. Oliver, a student abroad, returns to the U.S. and eventually marries, leaving Elio heartbroken for the first time in his life. If the first ninety percent of the film was a storybook, the last ten percent is the harsh pivot to reality after the final page has been turned. Enter Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, a relatively unseen character up until this point.
In what has to be the best monologue in any film this year, Stuhlbarg’s speech serves as both the emotional touchstone of the film and a satisfying proxy for us, the audience. He tells Elio everything we wish we could tell him ourselves, and everything we wish someone would have told us when we were Elio’s age. We’re left to wonder if Elio will take any of his father’s advice to heart since Guadagnino doesn’t seem to suggest one way or the other with the final shot of the film. Instead, he allows us some time to appreciate the experience we had, embrace the sadness it made us feel, and glean from it the best and most beautiful parts to carry with us. And then look forward into the future.
Other films I really enjoyed in no particular order: Blade Runner 2049; The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Patti Cake$; The Big Sick; Mudbound; Coco; The Post; Twin Peaks: The Return; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Lost City of Z; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Good Time; John Wick: Chapter 2; The Disaster Artist; Personal Shopper; Logan; Baby Driver; Atomic Blonde; Girls Trip; It; Logan; Lucky; I Am Not Your Negro; War for the Planet of the Apes; Stronger; Wind River; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The Trip to Spain; I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore; Marjorie Prime; Okja; I, Daniel Blake
What I haven’t seen (yet): I, Tonya; Faces Places; BPM (Beats per Minute); A Fantastic Woman; Hostiles; Loving Vincent; The Square; Menashe; Icarus; Raw; The Beguiled; Dawson City: Frozen Time; The Work; Wormwood; Beatriz at Dinner; Kedi; Lady Macbeth; Beach Rats
Congrats for making it all the way to the end! And thanks for reading.