For some reason this took me forever this year. I’ve had the list made for months, I just got to writing other things. Oh well.
10. Lady Bird: Around Oscar time earlier this year, some of my friends commented that they didn’t quite understand why Lady Bird was in the Best Picture race; they liked the movie a lot, but something about it didn’t strike them as a Best Picture kind of movie. I’m inclined to agree with them, but I think this kind of coming-of-age movie, when done right, really appeals to artists. Lady Bird sees herself as wholly unique from everyone around here, and what artist doesn’t feel the same? The screenplay and performances are directed into such a perfect imitation of life that her experience of being humbled as she starts her life is all too relatable.
9. The Killing of a Sacred Deer: Yorgos Lanthimos (this year’s contender The Favourite) made one of my favorite movies from 2016, The Lobster, but where The Lobster is unsettling in its weirdness, Sacred Deer is unsettling in its terror. Colin Farrell stars as Steven, a surgeon who is faced with an impossible decision given to him by a strangely powered young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan): he must kill one of his family members or all of them will die. Lanthimos never explains how Martin is able to inflict the debilitating, paralyzing disease on Anna (Nicole Kidman), Steven’s wife, and their kids, or how he might be able to cure them if Steven follows through with Martin’s demands, but that’s the beauty of Sacred Deer. Nothing is explained, so the unsettling nature of the stark filmmaking is allowed to take on a life of its own.
8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Lost among the Neanderthal frustrations some people had with the more diverse cast and some misinterpretations of Luke as a character were genuine critiques that made a lot of sense: the jokes didn’t feel like they fit organically with the tone of the other Star Wars films, there are some storylines that feel unnecessary, and, oh yeah, Leia can fly through space without dying now? I heard those criticisms many times over the last year, and I do think they’re good, valid points of contention. I just don’t care. I loved The Last Jedi so much for its balance of theme and action, for the way it turns the entire franchise on its head, for the almost balletic action sequences – it’s not perfect, but to me, it’s damn close.
7. The Shape of Water: I’ve already written extensively about Sally Hawkins’s performance in this wonderful little fable of a movie, and how her mute performance speaks for all those people who cannot speak for themselves, so I’ll try not to rehash that entry here. Instead, I want to take a moment to appreciate how unlikely this movie is. Somehow, a fantasy movie that couldn’t be more in-your-face with its own weirdness, a movie that became known as the “fish sex” movie, ended up winning Best Picture. It’s a testament to how well the film works on multiple levels: as a fairy tale, as subtext, and as a big-picture allegory.
6. After the Storm: My enjoyment of After the Storm, a small Japanese movie made by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, also brilliant), is probably reflective of why The Last Jedi works so well for me: it doesn’t bother me when a plot doesn’t have a definite purpose. If it troubles you when a plot meanders, then After the Storm won’t be for you. But if you think it sounds constructive to sit through a movie that is basically a mostly uneventful day in the life of a failed writer and his family, a snapshot of his life, then find this movie however you can. I found it at my library, and I’m better for it.
5. A Ghost Story: If you think The Shape of Water is weird, A Ghost Story may be a bit too much for you. I’m having a hard time coming up with comparisons for the story that A Ghost Story tells, which focuses on a ghost (played by Casey Affleck, with a sheet over his head) watching the life of his wife (Rooney Mara) play out without him until she moves out of their house, and then things get weird. The closest analogs I can come up with are Malick’s The Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey, movies with an epic scope and epic themes. Director David Lowery went from making the great, family-friendly Pete’s Dragon with Disney to making this oddity, and I hope he keeps balancing out his more straightforward movies with bold ones like this.
4. Dunkirk: I had friends last year who were left cold by Dunkirk, saying the movie never quite lets you get to know its characters enough to involve you in the story. It’s a fair criticism, to be sure, and Dunkirk may be the most your-mileage-will-vary movie of last year. But for me, Dunkirk eschews a lot of the clichés that run rampant through war movies by pulling back from the soldiers and looking at the big picture. The story of Dunkirk isn’t one that could be told by isolating your focus onto a single group of soldiers with different personality traits; there were too many moving parts, which makes it the perfect story for the master of storytelling-via-editing, Christopher Nolan. Dunkirk is a story about heroism and the way men either fail to live into it or rise to the occasion. Obviously it’s the selflessness of the English citizens that gives this movie its soul, but Tom Hardy’s pilot, knowing there is no way he comes out of this without being killed or captured and choosing to spare the soldiers a little more time anyway, is the movie’s heart.
3. The Florida Project: Indie filmmaking at its best, the kind of filmmaking that isn’t hampered by obligations to studio interests, is the most exciting kind of filmmaking. While you may be acutely aware of the effects a lower budget has on a movie (fewer locations, amateur actors), you can still get lost in a well-presented story. And the upside is, literally anything could happen. Which is exactly what happens in The Florida Project, the second release from director Sean Baker to receive major attention after 2015’s Tangerine. You think you’re following a pretty straight-forward (if exceptionally acted by Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, and breakout Brooklynn Prince, seen above mischievously licking her ice cream) story about a down-on-her-luck mom and her daughter at a motel in Orlando. But in the very last scene, Baker takes the camera down a rabbit hole I never expected, leaving me both broken-hearted and full of joy.
2. Get Out: I thought I had put Get Out a little lower on my tentative Top Ten list at the end of last year, but it’s actually at the same spot. What changed is that Dunkirk dropped a little bit past Get Out while Get Out remained as close to the top as you can get without actually being at the top. But the fact that Get Out is still at No. 2 doesn’t reflect how my estimation of the movie’s quality has changed. I’ve seen more movies since I made that list; there are six movies on that one that dropped out of the Top Ten and into the honorable mentions below, replaced by movies I hadn’t seen yet, but Get Out remained at the top, because my appreciation for it increased after seeing it for a second time. After seeing it in theaters, I was unsure if it was a sharp, smart horror movie or a transcendent, historically great movie. Seeing it again around Christmas last year, I became convinced: it’s both.
1. Call Me by Your Name: Coming-of-age movies can be hard to resist. If any part of you sees any part of your childhood on screen, the nostalgia factor can lock that movie into a certain status in your brain and throw away the key. I had this experience with 2009’s Adventureland– not that I worked at an amusement park, but that I had a crappy summer job before college, and I remembered the aimless restlessness of that few months before leaving. Adventureland may not have been as good as I remember; I may have been drawn in because I saw enough of my own story in its story.
There’s a danger of that happening with Call Me by Your Name as well. Not that I spent much of my life in Italy (I’ve been once though! It’s as beautiful as it looks in this movie.) or that I had a fling with my father’s older graduate assistant. But I see myself in Elio’s insecurity, his shame, and his desire to be special. Maybe I’m projecting, but I think all of that is up there on the screen. I wrote a little about this when I put Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio as No. 2 in the Top Performances from last year. He captures the in-between of your late teens so well, which is crucial to a coming-of-age story.
But Call Me by Your Name goes a little farther than most coming-of-age movies in its scope. The bare bones of the story fit into the genre, but its themes are more ambitious. Elio, 17, falls in a sort of love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), 24. Call Me by Your Name, in its luscious cinematography and languid screenplay, revels in the time that Elio and Oliver have together in which they just enjoy each other. But it also deals honestly with the decision any couple has to make: what does this relationship actually mean for my life?
I’ve had friends express concerns over pederasty and the power dynamic therein; while such concerns are valid on their surface, the movie doesn’t reveal any problematic abuses of Oliver’s power as an older man. Indeed, I think the situation in the movie is far more complex than such concerns credit it as. The movie isn’t so much “age ain’t nothing but a number;” rather, their ages do matter, but they’re both discovering who they are, and the conclusion they come to at the end of the movie says more about who they are than their ages.
I feel as though some of my Christian friends have let these concerns over pederasty (or even just homosexuality) keep them from seeing this movie. Everyone is entitled to well-considered convictions, so I would never say everyone should see any movie. I only hope that such concerns are truly well-considered and not simply the result of not wanting to be challenged. Call Me by Your Name is a technical marvel, beautiful by any standard. It’s also wonderfully empathetic and sees right through its characters. It could help you see right through yourself as well, if you let it.
Another Fifteen (alphabetical)
Baby Driver: The best music video of the year.
The Big Sick: The best romantic comedy of the year.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: The best Marvel movie of the year not named Logan. In all seriousness, as clever as the first with nearly as much heart and a tad more nuance.
John Wick: Chapter 2: The best action movie of 1999.
Logan: The best Marvel movie of the year not named Thor: Ragnarok. In all seriousness, a great example of how genre enhances themes.
The Lost City of Z: The best movie of 1949, and truly the most beautiful-looking movie of the year that wasn’t set in Italy.
mother!: The most biblical movie of the year. I realize that’s not saying much. But really, mother! is an experience.
Mudbound: The best Netflix movie of the year- as good as any released in cinemas, to be sure.
Okja: The best Netflix movie of the- damn it, I used that one already, didn’t I? The best movie with a super pig in it, not including Casey Affleck.
Phantom Thread: The Paul Thomas Anderson movie of the year that everyone praises, no one understands, and everyone will regret not putting higher on their list ten years later.
The Post: The best movie of the year that is in no ways prescient or relevant at this political moment in time, not at all, no sirree.
Thor: Ragnarok: The best Marvel movie of the year not named Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. In all seriousness, this was the funniest movie of the year.
War for the Planet of the Apes: The best movie about our inevitable future of the year.
The Work: The best documentary of the year. Seriously, this one’s a doozy.
Past Top Tens
Kubo and the Two Strings
La La Land
Everybody Wants Some!!
Hell or High Water
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Look of Silence
The Big Short
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Two Days, One Night
Guardians of the Galaxy
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The World’s End
Short Term 12
Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi