I have chosen the ten films that awakened my soul, sparked my curiosity, taught me something, moved me greatly, surprised me, and healed my aching forlorn heart which has broken for a number of reasons this past year. Part of it is what’s happening to my father’s brain and how his future is being decided for him, which is not the one he would have chosen for himself. Another part of it is the daily confrontation of the catastrophe that is Donald Trump — still the dog and pony show he was a year ago but signing the bills and implementing the conservative agenda as required by his puppetmasters.
Part of it is how, eventually, life becomes more about memories than it does about the future. There is a lot to muse about that can bring a person down. So much so that every time a film captures the magic of the movies, I sit up and take notice. Only a handful of films did that this year, REALLY did that.
Hollywood is mutating and transitioning. It’s not clear where it’s going or where it will be five years from now. Movies, as we’ve known them for a century, are finding new ways to reach audiences. Great stories, however, have been around a lot longer than Hollywood or movies. Great stories humans know. Great stories humans count on to make some sense of a world our complex brains really don’t understand. Even now, as we crest a new millennium and find more avenues for storytelling than ever before.
The top three films on my list are there because they awakened the senses the most. Where I might have chosen different films if this had been a different year, but as it happened, the comfortably numb state of being since last November needed something more than intellectual stimulation. I needed a transformation. The top three I’ve chosen delivered that and so much more.
Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water was one of the few films I saw this year that took me out of the world I was in and delivered me to the place where invisible women are finally seen, where compassionate people triumph over the ignorant and cruel, where friendships can be the thing that saves you, and also somehow tells a love story that really gets down to that aching need to be closer and closer to the one you love. Have you ever been so in love that you can’t get close enough? That you almost want to merge with the person, literally of course, but also in a way our bodies can’t really satisfy? What happens between the girl and the creature in The Shape of Water presents love on those terms. Nothing else would do. Everything about the movie worked for me: clean editing, sharp, funny writing, astonishing acting from Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Production design, cinematography, score – all a perfect 10.
Movies have the ability to reach out and pull you in. If they have always served the purpose of making the lonely feel less alone, the unloved feel the spark of true love, and the sexless feel the pleasure and power of awakened senses at the hands of a new love, then The Shape of Water is a triumph of the best things movies can do.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s seemingly simple enough explanation for why he himself was being the camera during the filming of Phantom Thread either doesn’t recognize or doesn’t know how that would make this movie so different from his other films. There is a quiet intimacy that could not have been captured either way. This is a film about the song of silverware on a plate. It is a film about how thread moves through cloth. It’s a film about the primal nature of mother love and the search for a like-minded kink. Surprising at every turn, a cascade of beauty from beginning to end, a strange and challenging story that might not be for everyone, Phantom Thread rang my bell. I am finding PTA’s work becomes more palatable to me as the years wear on, but none so much as this film, which seemed to take his own work to the next level, beyond the shock and awe of a brilliant wit and into deeper, more personal territory. Like The Shape of Water, you watch this movie with all five senses. And that is always the mark of great writing and great directing.
Dee Rees’ exquisite Mudbound is the most underrated film of the season. The full spectrum of the human experience is in every frame of her work, from the sloshing of the boots trapped in mud, to the longing of the unsatisfied women, to the embedded hatred that still traps a generation of black children to the raw viscera of life on a farm where things die all the time. One of the best adaptations of the year, Rees and her writing partner Virgil Williams tease out the best parts of Hillary Jordan’s book, which follows two families on opposite sides of the segregation line in Mississippi. The country asked two families to give up their sons to war but then didn’t give them the same rights back home, in the supposed land of the free. Mudbound is an accomplished work that I hope gets the recognition it deserves someday.
And the rest of my list in alphabetical order:
What a thrill Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is. It’s so much more than I thought it would be, which was why it took me so long to watch it. I have rarely felt such joy watching a movie from start to finish as this one. The film’s editing is by far the best of the year and should get recognized by someone, somewhere. If they watch it, they will know. It’s one of the few movies where the scenes continue to play out in my head just as they do on screen, with the brilliant direction cut to the music. I love, for instance, when Baby delivers pizza. His customer says “wow, that was fast.” And he says, “I know.” If I had an Oscar ballot, Baby Driver would be on it.
Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick I’ve been asked which film is the most profound rebuke of Trump’s America. I’ve heard cases made for Get Out, Lady Bird, Wonder Woman, and Darkest Hour — but to me it’s The Big Sick. Here is a film that exposes the lie Trump and his evil band of oppressors want you to believe: that to be Muslim, or even to be associated with it, is to be suspicious, potentially violent, and dangerous. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon tell an immigrant’s story that is quintessentially American — leaving a culture behind but finding ways to blend it into a new bicultural identity. This is the America we are to become. This is the future worth fighting for. The Big Sick is a rebuke of Trump more than any other film this season, but it is also a beacon of hope for those of us who have felt lost in an America we can’t bear. The acting is brilliant across the board, from the two leads, Nanjiani and the adorable Zoe Kazan, to Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, to the comedians with an endless stream of funny, quotable lines like “I would call it shit but that would be an insult to actual shit.” I’ve found myself recommending it to just about everyone I know, from people who don’t need to see it to people who do. It is not just one of the best films of the year, but one of its brightest spots.
Christopher Nolan’s wildly ambitious Dunkirk takes us deep into the famous evacuation of the beaches of Dunkirk where nearly 400,000 soldiers were trapped by Hitler’s relentless armies. For so many, this was a story of the moment Winston Churchill turned the war around to defeat Hitler, but Nolan wants us to see one of the most horrific, demoralizing, but ultimately heroic battles of WWII. Like the best war movies, Dunkirk doesn’t leave much room to breathe as we take to the air, to the sea, and to land and watch the stories unfold simultaneously. Nolan has always been a great visual storyteller and unique among filmmakers in how he toys with expectations. While he tells this story mostly straight, there is always still a little bit of mystery in the narrative.
Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour is the partner film to Dunkirk in that it tells the story of the moment Churchill used his wits to lead the resistance to defeat Hitler. We’ve seen a lot of films about Churchill, but most of them are about the man: his marriages, his diet, his writing. So few are about this pivotal moment in history. This isn’t actually a film about Churchill at all, which is where so many of the film’s critics go wrong. Maybe that’s what they expected it to be. It is, rather, about courage in the face of evil. Who knows where any of us would be had not Churchill seized that exact moment, when everyone else argued for appeasement and negotiation with Hitler. Churchill knew whom they were dealing with before anyone else did. He was stubborn enough and bold enough to convince the government and the people to keep fighting in the face of annihilation. Donald Trump and his idiot brigade recently had the audacity to compare Trump to Churchill, but the fact is that Trump can’t even be compared to Hitler or Putin. Trump is more like King Louis IX. Trump is Baby Huey — a rich, spoiled brat who dodged the draft and can’t stop lying to the people. America is no underdog — even if we are a target for terrorism, that does not make ISIS Hitler and it does not make America, with the mightiest military the human race has ever known, England in WWII. Don’t even utter the two names in the same sentence, if you please. Darkest Hour is a thrill from moment to moment, made all the better if you have an appreciation of Churchill.
Jordan Peele’s masterful Get Out is, by many accounts, the film of the year. It is worthy of the title for so many reasons, because Peele invented a genre of horror we’ve never seen, because it was made for $5 million and make $175 million at the box office, because it is truth about the black experience in America, not just among the white supremacists, but really everywhere you go. Whatever you try to do, it’s always there, humming beneath the surface. To pretend otherwise, whether you’re black or white, is to not acknowledge the truth. It’s there. It’s always there. Perhaps it will take generations and generations for it to be bred out of us. We’re not there yet. This is a well-acted ensemble top to bottom, starting with Daniel Kaluuya in the lead, but also the brilliant Betty Gabriel, Alison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and of course — the scene stealing LilRel Howery. Between this and The Big Sick it’s a great year for former comedians to break into serious storytelling. Get Out is a great movie, and one of the few I saw this year that made me think for a long while about the story I tell myself about the life I live. It’s also just rocking socking great filmmaking.
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is something I’ve never seen any director do — or certainly not in a few decades anyway, and that is to construct a nightmare where visions take shape in ways that don’t make much sense. mother! could only have come from the unconscious, though it (like so many films in my top ten) does tell the truth about the reality we’re living through. Aronofsky has decided to hand over the job of keeping order to women because men can’t be trusted, because they seek to destroy out of vanity while women want to prevent destruction. It could be that. It could be a hundred other things, but what it is more than anything is pure art. For this, there will always be a seat at my table for mother!.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman may represent one of the most purely enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. How to explain what it was like to sit next to my daughter, whose life has been spent watching movies with me, to see a female superhero take on a battle by herself. Sure, the guy next to me laughed as tears streamed down my face, but so what. They weren’t going take that away, not after the shit year that was 2017. This is by far one of the best films of the year and will only become more apparent in the decades to come. Wonder Woman was a moment when things shifted, like Get Out was a moment, like The Big Sick was a moment. Genre bias will block it from getting its due come awards time but there is no taking away what this movie meant to so many of us.
I’ve written too much already so there isn’t time to go through the rest of the films that are worthy of attention this year, but here are fifteen more:
All the Money in the World
Battle of the Sexes
Beatriz at Dinner
Blade Runner 2049
Call Me By Your Name
Catch Every Wave
The Florida Project
A Ghost Story
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri