My Year in Movies – 2017

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What a year.

2017 is, without hyperbole, probably the best year for cinema this decade (though 2013—the year we saw HerInside Llewyn DavisGravityShort Term 12, and Upstream Color all hit theatres, is hard to beat). There have been so many truly great movies put out, and even more really good ones. Hell, I even liked two of its six superhero films, something that hasn’t happened for me since 2012. And not only have there been an abundance of great movies, so many of them have been made by new, diverse voices. The two best-reviewed films of the year are both directorial debuts, one a woman’s incredibly empathetic portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age (Lady Bird) and the other a black man’s genre-bending indictment of the white appropriation of black bodies (Get Out). The most successful superhero movie of the year was directed by and focused on a woman. And what’s likely to end up the highest-grossing movie of the year, the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, is centered on two women (one Asian-American), a black man, and a Latino man. Besides being important steps forward for equality (though we are far from there yet), these movies are injections of new perspective that are vital, exhilarating, and truly new.

And what’s especially wonderful is that not only were so many great films released, a fair chunk of them got way more exposure than is typical. Get Out made over $250 million on a budget of less than $5 million. Lady Bird became the highest-grossing domestic film in A24’s history. The Big Sick was a word-of-mouth sensation. In a world where the medium is suffocating under an increasingly studio/franchise-dominated business model, to see this level of success for indie films is incredibly heartening.

A24 was the clear winner of the year for me—of my top five films for 2017, three (The Florida ProjectLady Bird20th Century Women) are A24 releases. Their continued willingness to take artistic chances and distribute films that are unique, challenging, and diverse is a true gift, and my gratefulness for them is impossible to express. May 2018 bring them even more success.

Cinema in general has been a lifeline for me this year. The mental exhaustion of post-Trump America takes its toll, and one of the things that most helped me to get some relief in 2017 was the abundance of humane, beautiful, true cinematic experiences I was able to escape to for a couple of hours at a time. Art is so, so vitally important to who we are and who we can be, guys. Don’t let it go.

And now, without further ado, here are my reviews of each of the new films I saw in 2017, with awards and a “best scenes” list following. Each of “The Great” gets two paragraphs; the rest are each granted one. Full warning re: my biggest hot take—A Cure for Wellness and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets > Blade Runner 2049 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I REGRET NOTHING

(I wish to God I’d been able to include Phantom Thread on this list, but it doesn’t open in MN until 2018. I’m resigned to placing it on next year’s list, where, knowing my relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson, it will probably earn the top spot.)

The Great

thefloridaprojectThe Florida Project

In trying to describe my reaction to The Florida Project, the closest equivalent I can think of is the first time I saw The Tree of Life. Rather than striving for that movie’s cosmic scale, this film embraces the transcendence of the utterly mundane. There’s no plot to be had, just a series of flashes, impressions, and routine tasks as the characters do their best to eke out a living in and around the squalid motel building that is, to them, nevertheless an almost infinite space. Said characters are achingly well-drawn—six-year-old Brooklyn Price’s brash Moonee, Bria Vinaite’s childlike and increasingly desperate single mother Halley, and Willem Dafoe’s quixotically decent landlord Bobby are as true a set of players as have ever appeared on the big screen. They’re an endearing but hopelessly fucked-up family—Bobby is the only one to realize the unsustainability of their situation, which makes his kindness hurt even more.

Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s frames capture with a perfect mix of dazzle and grit the candy-coated rot that exists on the outskirts of Disney World, a blend of pastel and poverty that feels like a self-contained universe. The film neither condescends to nor manipulates either its audience or its characters; its portrait of American citizens trying to create magic in the direst of straits is free of romance without ever devolving into cynical caricature. Maintaining this precarious balance, it builds and builds into what I can only describe as a spiritual experience—by the final scene, it’s dragged you through a full spectrum of emotions and left you both numb and exhilarated, a window into eternity finally slamming closed. Monumental.  (★★★★★)

lady_birdLady Bird

This movie is a gift. If I were a high-school girl it would have instantly become my favorite film, and even as it is I saw so much of myself and my family in it (mix up the worst aspects of Lady Bird’s twin love interests, played by Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, and you get a pretty decent picture of me at sixteen). It’s a reflective, adult look at the relationships between parents and children that still never ceases to feel like it was made specifically for teenagers the same age as Lady Bird. There’s so much affection for and insight into both sides of the generational coin, and reducing it to a movie whose moral is “just call your mom” is to do Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking a disservice. From the Polaroid haze of the visuals to the deft juggling of tones to the constant honesty of the script, it transcends the cliches of your typical YA coming-of-age movie time and again.

What’s almost as remarkable as the confidence Gerwig displays in her directorial debut is the trademark verve and humor she manages to bring even though she’s no longer performing her own material. Saoirse Ronan isn’t playing her director, exactly, but she’s the perfect muse for Greta to imbue with her ebullience and unguarded warmth (and her love/hate relationship with “Crash Into Me” continues the tradition of me falling in love with the central song of every Gerwig movie). I dearly hope Greta continues acting for a long time to come—her screen presence is something truly special—but I’m more than happy to be there opening night every time she chooses to remain behind the camera.  (★★★★★)

3756-12187-mothermother!

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film as full of seething, all-encompassing hatred as this one. The only thing it despises more than the animals that are humanity is the preening God that allows them to wreak continued havoc because his ego cannot conceive of an existence without worhsipful subjects. Where Aronofsky’s previous metaphysical films, The Fountain and Noah, find comfort in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, this one raves not at the dying of the light, but at the fact that the light will never be allowed to die. It will continue in unceasing misery forever, raped and murdered again and again to feed a single being’s hubris.

All criticisms of the film’s heavy-handedness are warranted—for those who are familiar with its Biblical subject matter (although a number of critics seem to have missed it altogether, misconstruing the movie as an egocentric apology for the artist’s mistreatment of his loved ones), it’s as blunt an allegory as they come. But there’s something deeply exciting about a piece of art in today’s world that takes religion utterly seriously and refuses to tamp down its sense of importance with irony. Not Aronofsky’s best film, but undoubtedly his most impassioned. And like The Fountain, I’m confident that in a decade it will be viewed as something of a classic.  (★★★★½)

24282_320_470Dunkirk

With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has accomplished something he’s failed to do since 2006’s The Prestige—make a perfect movie. His epics from The Dark Knight through Interstellar (though I dig them all to varying degrees) had a hard time balancing their cinematic ambitions with fully realized stories and themes, so it’s ironic that the solution came not in focusing more on character but paring it down to the bare minimum. There are almost no names assigned to the film’s players, no memories of far-away lovers or dreams for a postwar future. For 100 minutes, they have one impulse only: survive.

Not since Gravity has a movie functioned so unrelentingly as an anxiety engine—and the swooping vastness of Dunkirk‘s 70mm IMAX footage deserves comparisons to that film’s yawning scope—but Nolan manages to marry that desperation with a gradually increasing sense of patriotism and comradeship that never feels out of place. The film’s denouement gives full voice to the emotional undertone that’s been building as the evacuation’s timepiece winds tighter and tighter, but it escapes the jingoism and manipulation that a lesser story (see Darkest Hour much further down this list) would have smacked of. Dunkirk‘s patriotic pride rests not in cheap nationalism but in the sheer decency displayed by everyone involved in the evacuation’s miracle. It exists regardless of England as an institution or an empire—it’s found instead in nothing more than the extraordinary heroism of neighbor helping neighbor.  (★★★★★)

386079872161fa09fbb819c723b80aa9_300x44220th Century Women

Dandelion Wine for the post-feminist age. Mike Mills’ ode to the women who helped raise him isn’t a perfect movie—it can meander a bit too much for its own good, and the universal nature of the title when applied to a film that would more accurately be called 20th Century (White) Women is troubling—but it’s a pure delight from start to finish, and no movie this year has meant more to me.

The bedrock of the film is its performers—they all do fantastic work, but the standouts are Annette Bening as frazzled single mother Dorothea and Greta Gerwig as punk photographer Abbie. Bening’s Dorothea wants to be warm but can’t bring herself to be vulnerable, has worked so hard to provide for her son that she’s falling further and further behind in knowing who he really is; the rueful sadness she can convey with just a twist of her mouth makes you ache. Gerwig’s Abbie is her finest performance to date—the ebullience of her characters in Frances Ha and Mistress America, which in the hands of a male writer/director could have soured into a manic pixie dream girl cliche, is leavened by anxiety and trauma that she refuses to give into. The sheer life that Gerwig breathes into the role is infectious; she’s absolutely magnetic, elevating every frame she’s in.

Shortly after my third viewing of the film, I went out and dyed my hair to match Abbie’s flaming red, just as she colored hers after David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth. She’s a character I’d like to model my life on.  (★★★★½)

john-wick-chapter-2-20170303013804John Wick Chapter 2

The first John Wick consisted of broad swathes of greatness marred by niggling mediocrity—stunning action scenes and world-building weighed down by a clunky screenplay, ugly cinematography, and off-kilter structure. Its sequel fully embraces the magical realism hinted at in the first film and in so doing creates something very close to an action masterpiece, a neon ballet of carnage operating on a plane somewhere above the real world.

Rarely has a sequel taken the universe crafted by its predecessor and built upon it so perfectly. The labyrinthine society of assassins that Keanu Reeves’ Wick has been pulled back into is expanded into a gloriously absurd underworld of near-supernatural henchmen and enemies, one whose rules are as ironclad as its methods are outlandish. Gunfights and brawls attain a quality the Star Wars prequels’ fight scenes aimed for but never attained, full of beauty and grace but possessed of a brutal kineticism. Visuals build and build in stylized beauty until, by the third act, it’s as though we’ve entered Orson Welles by way of Blade Runner. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film taken as a whole is like a Greek tragedy of hitmen, one that dwarfs the first John Wick in nearly every department.  (★★★★½)

p13831327_p_v8_aaThe Big Sick

One of those rare beasts: a rom-com that’s genuinely unconventional and chooses to do more than coast by on the strength of its performances. Not that those performances aren’t fantastic—Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both deserve Oscar nominations, Zoe Kazan is as winning as always, and Kumail Nanjiani does an eminently respectable job of playing himself. But they’re equaled by the razor-sharp screenplay, which line-for-line is the funniest thing I’ve had the fortune to watch in the presence of a packed theatre.

It’s also a movie that’s unafraid to be about more than just a cute love story—unsurprising, considering that Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon based it on their real-life adventures. Kumail’s fraught emotions as regard his Muslim family are the source of plenty of jokes early on, but midway through the film the subplot transforms into something far more honest and emotionally raw; meanwhile, Romano and Hunter share a fractured love story that earns its pathos without devolving into mawkishness. Kumail’s relationship with Kazan and her parents is the heart of the film, but it’s these side stories of broken bonds and strained identity that elevate The Big Sick from an unusually funny indie joint to a truly remarkable piece of comedy.  (★★★★½)

free_fire_1200x1600_6905d96a-ab18-42b6-ab6c-62269ccdb76d_1024x1024Free Fire

Caustically funny and juvenile in a way that’s crucial to its themes rather than obnoxious, this movie constructs what we expect will unfold into a humdinger of an action setpiece—a gun deal between IRA agents and a South African gun runner goes bad, with both sides drawing sidearms and scattering throughout the warehouse where they’ve met to exchange the goods. And almost immediately, things degenerate into something entirely different from how this sort of thing typically goes.

Geography splinters into a maze of confusing angles and obstacles. Bullets are traded in desperate, pathetic salvos that never allow the characters to relax but neither actually do much to resolve the situation. Alliances form and collapse at will, as panicked and livid people do their best to just get the fuck out of here. All this could result in a film that’s a droningly one-note if reasonably effective skewering of the notion that giving everyone a gun is the way to a polite society. Fortunately, the script’s consistently hysterical (in all senses of the word) sense of humor and a top-notch cast (Armie Hammer is my undisputed MVP, absolutely oozing charisma) mean that Free Fire never feels like a message film even as it’s pounding said message into your head with every shot fired. Instead, it’s a riotous, concussive blast from start to finish.  (★★★★½)

getout_chair_uk-600x888Get Out

“It’s true. All of it.”

This is such a smart, assured movie, and the fact that it’s Peele’s directorial debut is downright intimidating.  He effortlessly weaves the terrors of white supremacy into a nuanced horror framework, and manages to maintain a substantial percentage of his usual humor without ever overplaying his hand and dissipating the relentlessly mounting tension. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Chris is largely thankless, but he does an incredible job of conveying repressed frustration, anger, fear, and grief, the complexity of his emotions matching the depth of his director’s social commentary. Even after two viewings, I don’t think I spotted all the different signifiers and emblems Peele snuck into the script, the set design, the cinematography—it’s clear that he’d been making this movie in his head for years before he shot it, and every single element serves a thematic purpose.

The final scene might be the best film moment of 2017 [SPOILERS AHEAD]. When those police lights show up, the audience’s hearts plummet, knowing full well what’s about to happen to Chris. And in that moment, before anyone can think to rationalize the sickening instant of realization to themselves, the truth of white America is laid bare. A perfect ending to one of the best horror films of the century so far.  (★★★★½)

toni-erdmann-posterToni Erdmann

That this is being remade as a Hollywood production baffles me; it’s the kind of movie that could never have been made in America. A three-hour, multi-language comedy epic about the impossibility of family connection and the alienation of modern life? Even Scorsese couldn’t get it off the ground.

It’s such a distinctly odd movie, and one that I imagine plays far better to European audiences than it does to the States, but even so my theatre was howling for most of the third act, whose climax is the stuff of legend. The runtime coupled with subtitles can feel daunting before going in, but I wouldn’t have wanted it a second shorter.  (★★★★½)

good_time_xlgGood Time

A ticking time-bomb of a movie, one whose neon jitters quickly seep under the viewer’s skin. Our anxiety is not for Robert Pattinson’s Connie (a performance that, as with Personal Shopper and Kristen Stewart, should put to rest any doubts that existed about the former vampire’s acting capabilities). He’s such a miserable piece of shit that we quickly learn to be far more concerned for the innocents pulled into his orbit, who he’s all too happy to turn into collateral damage if it means staying one step ahead of the law. The patina of filth that sticks to Connie covers the rest of the cast as well—everyone is in some form or another pathetic, whether they’re compatriots of the two-bit sociopath or bystanders brought low by him.

I walked out of the film feeling dirty, jumpy, and exhausted. It’s a singularly nasty piece of art, its absurdist sense of humor doing little to mitigate the crawling sensation it leaves you with. And I mean that in the best possible way.  (★★★★½)

in-this-corner-of-the-world-600x889In This Corner of the World

Bought this, the first anime film in my library, blind on a recommendation. I was not prepared. Why can’t we in the West have wide-release 2D animation anymore? Why?! This thing is more gorgeous than any Pixar film on a crowdfunded budget equivalent to $2.2 million. The watercolor background of each frame is just prettier than any of us deserve.

You’d expect the premise—a young woman and her family live day in and day out on the outskirts of Hiroshima as August 1945 draws ever closer—to stray heavily into grimdark territory, but while things do get appropriately somber in the back half, for the most part this is an elegant slice-of-life family drama. That’s not to say it’s overly schmaltzy or twee in the face of trauma, which would destroy it entirely. But life goes on, even in wartime, until the horrible moment when it can’t. And even moments lived on the verge of violence can be full of grace.  (★★★★½)

The Very Good

  • djputcvvwaaflwwLast Flag Flying
    • Was worried that this would veer toward ra-ra military dreck, and there are still isolated choices that make me wince—uses of “raghead” by soldiers who’ve deployed to Iraq are period-appropriate, I suppose, but c’mon. These jarring moments aside, though, Last Flag Flying is a low-key pleasure to sit through. It leans heavily on its players, but you’d have to be soulless to not love Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne taking each other on in full ham-to-ham combat (and Steve Carell anchoring them in an almost eerily quiet performance). While the cast goes for broke, Linklater keeps his direction restrained, his leisurely editing letting the script breathe and his muted color palette keeping Carell’s grief in the back of the audience’s mind. This isn’t a movie calculated to awe with its ambition a la the Before trilogy or Boyhood, but I think that’s why I like it so much.  (★★★★)
  • the-meyerowitz-stories-2017The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
    • Wouldn’t have started out this year predicting that Adam Sandler would outperform Dustin Hoffman in the same film but here we are. Baumbach gets career-best work out of both him and Ben Stiller, and though the white-guy daddy issues premise has been done to death elsewhere (and arguably better, at least as far as skewering self-absorbed Rothian artists goes, in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip), the film has more than enough warmth and wit to justify its existence. I miss Greta’s presence, but hey, at least she showed up via Skype call.  (★★★★)
  • ddi9fwxxkaav6xbBaby Driver
    • It’s no masterpiece. Characters are underdeveloped, plot is formulaic, and the ending just doesn’t work (save as an unintentional commentary on our justice system’s willingness to let white people slide through circumstances that would leave black suspects gunned down on the pavement). But god damn if it’s not impossible to resist this movie’s charm. It has exactly one trick—the editing of its action sequences to line up precisely with the songs that play over them—but it pulls that trick off time and time again without the fun ever wearing off. And that final “Brighton Rock” scene? CINEMA.  (★★★★)
  • silence-posterSilence
    • Shusaku Endo’s novel, in which two Portugese priests arrive on the shores of Japan and find themselves in mortal spiritual and physical peril, is one of the great works of literary theology of the 20th century. At times it feels like Scorsese is barely scratching the surface of the his source material’s spiritual depth—there’s only so much one can do in translating inner monologue to spoken dialogue, even in a three-hour film. But this is still a harrowing, wholly admirable adaptation, which makes up in beauty what it can sometimes lack in faithfulness to the text. Andrew Garfield does career-best work; it’s predictable but still incredibly frustrating that the Academy decided his performance in Hacksaw Ridge was more deserving of a nomination. His increasing desperation as he realizes just how much his journey to Japan may cost him is agonizing to watch.  (★★★★)
  • paterson-20170303013604Paterson
    • Just pure loveliness—one of the many movies this year that portray the mundane beauty of working-class life with affection and warmth. The titular character, a bus driver and aspiring poet, simply lives under our scrutiny for a week, his routines and relationships unspectacular but a sort of utopia nonetheless. We should all be blessed with an Adam Driver in our lives—the film hangs on his performance, which is understated but full of kindness and nuance.  (★★★★)
  • the-last-jedi-theatrical-blogStar Wars: The Last Jedi
    • An absolute hot mess of a movie, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For every wildly unique scene there’s a jarring tonal shift; for every structural weakness there’s a new idea. What you get out of it will largely depend on which parts of the mishmash you choose to focus on. I’ll take The Force Awakens‘ unity of purpose and theme over this one’s gonzo carnival, but there’s no denying there’s an abundance of compelling material here even if it leaves the trilogy in a very uncertain place. Contains some of the most breathtaking visuals of the franchise, and is certainly its best-acted installment—Adam Driver continues to kill it (“Blow that piece of junk OUT OF THE SKY” is the single greatest line reading of the year) and Mark Hamill delivers the best performance of his career.  (★★★★)
  • nullCall Me By Your Name
    • A languorous, turbid first act that’s little more than a bunch of obscenely privileged people being vaguely snippy to each other amid gorgeous surroundings gives way to a love story that made me feel a tangible swooping in my gut at multiple points. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are each outstanding, but Michael Stuhlbarg’s supporting performance deserves an equal amount of praise—the level of empathy he brings is a bit staggering. The movie is at its best when it allows that emotional honesty to take center stage rather than the (admittedly heavenly) sun-drenched Italian scenery.  (★★★★)
  • hgn8jpfThe Disaster Artist
    • I have no way of knowing how much mileage people who’ve never seen the so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece The Room will get out of this. The source material, Greg Sestero’s chronicle of his relationship with would-be auteur and superlative weirdo Tommy Wiseau, is a much darker, surprisingly nuanced account of a struggling actor slowly realizing that not only is he making the worst movie of all time, he’s befriended a monster. The movie, which could have been a classic if it had plumbed similar depths, is instead content to remain a largely surface-level farce, and its depiction of Wiseau’s magnum opus as an off-beat success story is not only sugarcoated but downright morally questionable in light of the sustained abuse the director/writer/star/producer put his cast and crew through. That said, as an ardent fan of The Room I was still delighted. Because while this does render itself a lesser film in giving up the book’s darkness, it’s devastatingly funny. It gets a lot of mileage out of not much more than Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau, but said impersonation is so uncannily good that my fellow premiere audience was howling for a good half of the runtime. So while it falls short of being a masterpiece, as a fan’s labor of love it’s a joy.  (★★★★)
  • Transfiguration03The Transfiguration
    • Gave this one a whirl on Netflix after seeing some positive buzz and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Owes a lot to Let the Right One In, but it’s more than just a reimagining of that tale of vampire preadolescence; more important than the setting change (from Sweden to New York) is the choice to have the audience view the world through the (possible) undead creature’s eyes rather than those of its new best friend. The resulting mix of slice-of-life friendship story and ambiguous portrait of supernatural/mental illness consistently exceeds expectations, painting a picture that’s nuanced and often gripping.  (★★★★)
  • a-cure-for-wellness-2017A Cure for Wellness
    • If it weren’t for the fact that mother! came out the same year, this would be the absolute craziest studio release of 2017. That Gore Verbinski managed to convince Fox to greenlight his batshit mashup of Bioshock, Lovecraft, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” for a budget of $40 million after his Lone Ranger was one of the biggest bombs in film history is an unbelievable achievement, and even if I didn’t like the film I’d have to respect him for it. Fortunately, I continue to disbelieve how much I do like it. It’s uneven, and the digital photography can be distractingly plastic at times, but the sheer Gothic insanity that Verbinski keeps hurling at the screen with abandon is just delightfully bonkers—it’s as if he knew this was gonna be his last big(ish)-budget feature for the foreseeable future and just poured everything he had into it. Leading man Dane DeHaan, between this and Valerian, is the year’s MVP for his willingness to just go for it in utterly bizarre auteur-driven tentpoles.  (★★★★)
  • logan-2017-poster-2Logan
    • The first superhero movie I’ve really liked since The Dark Knight Rises. Mangold shakes off the consequence-free, snappy shackles of his MCU brethren and dares to craft what’s almost purely a character piece, one whose violence carries unbearable weight and whose harsh, sun-bleached cinematography looks like a movie as opposed to a greyed-out TV show. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give their absolute all, both reduced to worn-out wrecks of their former selves but carrying meaning in that weariness rather than giving in to the adolescent nihilism of a Frank Miller comic. There are some missteps throughout, mostly in the number of villains that square off against our clawed hero, but it’s the first one of these things to even approach greatness in nearly a decade.  (★★★★)
  • 04gicwdksulzThe Shape of Water
    • The rapture so many people feel watching Guillermo del Toro’s films always seems to pass me by—I respect much of his work but love little of it. The same is true here—Sally Hawkins’ performance as the mute heroine Elisa is a thing of grace and passion, Alexandre Desplat’s score is full of sweeping romance, and every aspect of the art direction and production design (especially the absolutely seamless bringing-to-life of Doug Jones as the Creature) is perfection. But I don’t feel the dazzling love that Del Toro is trying so hard to induce—perhaps because he’s trying so hard to generate delight in his audience, I’m left feeling that I’ve been told I’m swept off my feet without any sweeping occurring. This is a lovely film, a film whose heart is entirely in the right place, and I enjoyed it more than any other Del Toro flick I’ve seen besides The Devil’s Backbone. But alas, that deep connection still eludes me.  (★★★★)
  • 2adad826a68b21d29ae9b48e617b96e6371b0a7bIcarus
    • One of this year’s most disorienting turns in subject matter—what started as director Bryan Fogel’s investigation into sneaking through doping tests in cycling turns into an espionage thriller that uncovers a Russian state-sponsored athletic conspiracy decades in the making. Not a whole lot happens on-camera—the doc consists largely of interviews, news footage, and the occasional computer-graphic sequence—but it’s still engrossing. The central tragedy of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who was forced to flee Russia for his cooperation with the documentary/the Olympic authorities and remains in hiding, is heartbreaking, anchoring the broader political implications of the film with a thoroughly human center.  (★★★★)
  • mv5bmzcyntc1odqzmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntgzmzy4mti-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_A Ghost Story
    • Casey Affleck is trash, but he did this movie for free and spends most of it under a sheet so I was able to pay to see it guilt-free. Its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp—that house-party monologue on Beethoven and the impermanence of humanity is as heavyhanded as any Tyler Durden speech minus the wry humor—but on the whole it’s a moving examination of transience, time, and memory. Come for the existential anxiety, stay for Rooney Mara eating pie for the first time.  (★★★★)
  • beguiled-posterThe Beguiled
    • Almost palpably humid with morning mist, claustrophobic space, and sexual tension, Sofia Coppola’s hazy, sweltering hothouse potboiler is bathed in stifling, dreamlike atmosphere. As a look at the gender politics of the Confederacy it’s a failure—it’s ridiculous that a movie like this can simply ignore the existence of black women, especially when one was present in its source material—but as a piece of psychosexual tension it’s often superb. The photography and production design are the MVPs, but close behind them are Nicole Kidman’s icy matriarch and Colin Farrell’s slimy silver fox of a Yankee deserter. That accent just keeps getting sexier.  (★★★★)
  • found-footage-3d-posterFound Footage 3D
    • Figures that the genre-savvy parody of the found-footage conceit would also be one of the few times it’s truly worked—this “behind-the-scenes” look at the making of the world’s first 3D found-footage film is a cynicism-free love letter, but its subversion of its format’s pitfalls means it mostly rises above its source material (besides twin pillars The Blair Witch Project and [REC]). It falls down when it gets too nudge-nudge-wink-wink (the third-act intrusion of horror critic Scott Weinberg as himself is hilarious but diminishes tension far more than it’s worth), but for the most part strikes an admirable balance between self-aware satire and genuine suspense. Too inside-baseball to stand completely apart from the films it riffs on, but for fans of the genre’s heights and victims of its lows it’s a great time. (★★★★)
  • personalshopper_keyart1_fmhrPersonal Shopper
    • Are we all on the same page now re: Kristen Stewart actually being great? I sincerely hope so. She turns in one of the year’s best performances here, as a reluctant medium who’s struggling to commune with her dead brother’s spectre only to find that the spirit realm could be out to get her. A kind of Vertigo for the cell-phone age, but where that film is operatic this one turns inward, threatening speeches reduced to onscreen text messages and broad emotions distilled to fleeting microexpressions. Stewart communicates more in a handful of facial twitches than many actors do in whole monologues.  (★★★★)
  • jim-andy-the-great-beyond-600x890Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Appearance by Tony Clifton
    • Jim Carrey seems to think this is an ultimately uplifting meditation on the nature of identity, in which everyone involved in shooting Man in the Moon bonded over his quirky-but-endearing method portrayal of Andy Kaufman. The far more engrossing reality is that this is a downright disturbing testament to what he put an entire film crew through in his attempts to channel the late comic’s spirit. I felt genuinely sick whenever we were shown footage of Carrey interacting in-character with Kaufman’s family—what he sees as a beautiful act of healing is so emotionally manipulative it gives me the shivers. A harrowing glimpse of what must have felt like a living hell for everyone on-set but Carrey.  (★★★★)
  • ksd_1sheet_alt_curzon_hrThe Killing of a Sacred Deer
    • More consistent than The Lobster, although it never reaches the highs of that movie’s first half. Lanthimos’ knee-jerk urge to throw in casually delivered shock lines can wear a little thin at times—and isn’t justified here the way it is in Lobster—but his compositions and use of music are exquisite, and the kitchen shouting match between Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman is one of the year’s great scenes.  (★★★★)
  • 0702446Imperial Dreams
    • This one was filmed in 2014 and then languished until Netflix picked it up. It’s mostly a vehicle for John Boyega’s performance as an ex-con returned to the ghetto, but he takes the material and elevates it far beyond what a lesser actor would have been capable of. The desperation in his eyes as he struggles to make a life for himself and his son is heartbreaking.  (★★★★)

The Good

  • lightbox_194552_1497869652Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
    • A swamp of a screenplay full of wooden dialogue and meandering structure can’t hope to dull the manic energy and furious creativity that propel Valerian and the Overlong Title along. Possesses all the color and enthusiasm of Guardians of the Galaxy and none of its cynicism, along with one or two of the most riotously original SF/F action setpieces in years. The casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne at first feels like a baffling misstep, but their adolescent attempts at badassery and charisma feel so much like children playing pretend that it ultimately just adds to the off-kilter charm. Joy-inducing in a way the genre rarely is these days.  (★★★½)
  • war-for-planet-of-the-apes-poster-5War for the Planet of the Apes
    • Doesn’t reach the dramatic or philosophical heights of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (a truly impressive piece of stakes and character), but sends off the trilogy with enough directorial panache and elegiac mood that the depiction of chimpanzees as concentration camp inmates manages to mostly avoid crossing the line into unintentional hilarity. (Would that this occasionally clumsy but always earnest examination of human nature were a baseline for franchise films rather than a rarity.) The visual effects are the most impressive of their kind to ever grace the big screen—there isn’t a frame of mocap primate that isn’t completely convincing—and Andy Serkis turns in a career-best performance. It’s high time the Academy changed the rules for eligibility—he deserves a Best Actor nomination, and if this trilogy hasn’t proved that nothing will.  (★★★½)
  • logan-lucky-poster-4597-600x890Logan Lucky
    • Considered purely as a heist movie it doesn’t approach the heights of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, but as a loving portrait of the eccentricities and nobility of the West Virginian working class it’s a winner. Daniel Craig is having fun onscreen for the first time in years, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are as stalwart a leading pair as any of 2017, and Katherine Waterston has far too little screentime but remains a joy. There’s a Game of Thrones gag midway through that won’t be understood by anyone in a couple of decades, but until that point it will remain the absolute funniest joke of 2017.  (★★★★)
  • 6cbb943a8973ec66de94483295d2135cCoco
    • A decade ago this would have been subpar Pixar, but these days it’s a welcome relief from a string of duds and cash-grab sequels that, with the exception of the genuinely great Inside Out, has been ongoing since 2011’s Cars 2. Stunning animation—the neon metropolis of the Land of the Dead may be a high-water mark for the studio—elevates but can’t quite save a story that starts to noticeably lose steam as it approaches the third act. It’s right around this point that a tiresomely mustache-twirling villain thrusts himself into what’s otherwise a relatively nuanced, mature look at family responsibility and the impermanence of memory, watering it down pretty severely. Still, the drag didn’t stop me from almost tearing up at the end—Pixar may have lost a good deal of their touch, but not that one.  (★★★★)
  • whose-streets-posterWhose Streets?
    • Suffers from its compact length, which keeps its engagement with much of what happened in Ferguson, MO pretty surface-level, but it chooses its images well. It’s kind of unfathomably weird to watch a documentary that regularly cuts footage and tweets I saw unfold live three years ago—it simultaneously feels as if it had just happened and as if it were an eternity ago.  (★★★★)
  • largeposterIt
    • A wretched adaptation that works quite well when taken on its own merits. Pitch-perfect casting, which was always going to be the key to success here. Never even attempts to tackle the book’s genuinely epic meditation on childhood, aging, memory, and friendship, but hits the lesser target of Stand by Me/horror hybrid in consistently crowd-pleasing fashion (the audience I saw it with was riveted). And if this, rather than the godawful 90s miniseries, is a new generation’s way into the novel, I’ll take it. The kids are all great (though both Mike and Stan are rather unforgivably watered down from their literary counterparts), but Sophia Lillis in particular is one to watch.  (★★★½)
  • rawRaw
    • You know what they say about hazing—it ain’t great. (Nowhere near as shocking as festival buzz made it out to be—granted, this is coming from the Hannibal fan—but there are a few good squirmy moments in addition to a lot of genuinely funny black comedy. Quite an impressive first-time effort from both writer/director Julia Ducournau and lead Garance Marillier.)  (★★★★)
  • 71yqgyuakol-_sy550_I Am Not Your Negro
    • As a portrait of James Baldwin it’s scattershot, and downright irresponsible in the way it near-completely ignores his sexuality. But the screenplay is largely his own words, and no documentary that’s built on that basis could ever be classed a total failure. The contrast between Sam Jackson’s narration and period footage of the man himself is striking—Jackson is gravelly and somber, while Baldwin’s jumpy eloquence remains electrifying some sixty years later.  (★★★★)

The Mixed

  • bb_launch_a4posterBrigsby Bear
    • I probably would have preferred this if it were a deconstruction of the toxicity of fan culture and cheap nostalgia—especially in the wake of the internet’s absolutely bonkers rage toward Mark Hamill’s other big movie this year—but the movie’s so sincere in its love for the positive impact our childhood media consumption can have on us that it feels uncharitable to find fault with its approach. Come for the Lonely Island production logo, stay for Luke Skywalker as an evil sentient moon-creature.  (★★★½)
  • blade_runner_2049_posterBlade Runner 2049
    • Beautiful but sterile visuals (Roger Deakins has seldom been this majestic but seldom as plastic either) reflect the soul of the film at large. Villenueve has little to offer but stale repackaging of ideas from better films (HerEx Machina, and the original Blade Runner chief among these), even if those repackagings are exquisitely crafted. Throw in some absolutely abysmal treatment of its female and POC characters (the two of which almost entirely fail to overlap—it’s ridiculous that thirty-five years after the original we’ve actively regressed in representation), and we’re left with a movie that’s satisfying enough on its own terms but falls down as both a worthy sequel to its predecessor and a truly thoughtful piece of SF.  (★★★)
  • mollys-game-film-posterMolly’s Game
    • At this point in his career, Aaron Sorkin’s writing has retreated from attempts at deeper thematic resonance; his one remaining trick is to have characters deliver rapid-fire repartee full of facts that serve no narrative purpose beyond showing off how smart the screenwriter is. Said repartee is still entertaining enough to make for a consistently fun two hours—and Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are fantastic at delivering it—but when compared to prior Sorkin scripts like The Social Network and Moneyball, which were both more disciplined in their displays of authorial ego and more restrained by talented directors, Molly’s Game can’t help but feel self-indulgent and slight. This isn’t helped by Sorkin’s slack gestures toward feminism, which never make it further than “I can be just as good a rich criminal as these men!” and ultimately collapse into an embarrassing daddy-issues emotional resolution.  (★★★)
  • lrg-png__650x935_q70Wonder Woman
    • As much as I’d like to truly love this one, I can’t. The first and third acts are messes (the former stiff and talky, the latter a confused jumble of plot and CGI), and the cartoonish treatment of WWI Germans as Nazi stand-ins is both juvenile and worryingly ignorant of history. That said, seeing honest-to-god color onscreen is delightful, the middle act’s focus on character and relationships feels like such a breath of fresh goddamn air, and seeing a female superhero dominating the screen solo for the first time in my life was properly exciting. Mr. Pine remains the pinnacle of the Hollywood Chrises.  (★★★½)
  • 59a462129e241Hidden Figures
    • Fits the standard Hollywood race-biopic subgenre to a t—complete with obligatory white-saviorism—but there’s something so incredibly satisfying about watching the story of these women finally being told in spite of the predictability. And there are moments where it rises above the moral two-dimensionality usually associated with this subgenre to become a more nuanced indictment of white supremacy—Ocatavia Spencer’s weary “I’m sure you believe that” to Kirsten Dunst’s white supervisor speaks volumes. Janelle Monáe is a literal goddess.  (★★★½)
  • 3bb_key_1sheet_101_f3_smThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    • Gets so close to being good that its bummer of a third act leaves even more of a sour taste. Said third act, in which [SPOILERS] a key antagonist who we’ve seen brutally torture an innocent person just for kicks (and who we’re told has a history of racial violence) turns good on a dime for no particular reason other than someone telling him to love more [/SPOILERS], feels like a betrayal of the movie’s first 70 or 80 minutes. Said beginning section, which features tremendous performances from everyone involved (especially Frances McDormand as our righteously angry protagonist), is caustically funny and for the most part manages to avoid smothering genuine emotion with flippancy. It’s unfortunate that this devolves into something far broader, cheaper, and more sentimental, losing its bite and honesty and exacerbating early representational flaws into full-on apologism for police violence.  (★★★)
  • mv5byzu5ywflyzktmmjjmc00nwe3lwiwnwmtmjg2ztzmzwy3mdyzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqzotywmzc-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Detroit
    • An unbearably tense middle section that unfortunately veers into white-on-black torture porn is bracketed by first and third acts that fail to provide the macro-level context necessary for the movie to function as the citywide portrait its title promises. The central confrontation between police and black victims is admirably crafted on a pure suspense level, but I have to wonder what such a sustained depiction of black pain in a vacuum is supposed to offer artistically or politically. I’ll take Get Out‘s signifier-rich pulp thrills over this one’s vacuous self-seriousness any day.  (★★★)
  • abl-rtdadv1sheet-rgb-1-5938474674f1c-1Atomic Blonde
    • Icy neon visuals, gloriously obvious 80s needle drops, Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, and a few extraordinary action scenes—including a genuinely astonishing one-take stairwell brawl— elevate what’s otherwise a pretty tepid, convoluted espionage drama too mired in twisting in on itself to ever become interesting. Director David Leitch, who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski, shares his former collaborator’s enthusiasm for bright colors but lacks his eye for truly unique visuals; it’s all surface-level aesthetic, though that surface has its isolated moments of badassery.  (★★★)
  • mudboundMudbound
    • A staid, lifeless first hour whose Ken Burns narration has a soporific effect eventually gives way to a film that’s just as brutal as Detroit but has at least a hope for redemption where that film offered nothing but black pain. It’s mostly a disappointment coming off the heels of director Dee Rees’ near-perfect Pariah, but there’s enough good here to make its duller bits worth the slog. Its cinematography, dusky and atmospheric, is probably the best of any Netflix original to date.  (★★★)
  • one-sheetIt Comes at Night
    • Not much more than a 90-minute episode of The Walking Dead minus the zombies, but its grimdark “humans are the real monsters” story is performed, shot, and structured well enough to feel at least somewhat worthwhile. Disappointing for an A24 joint, but a perfectly decent if forgettable postapocalyptic flick otherwise.  (★★★)
  • mv5bmtrhyjyxntetnzu3zs00ngrklwjimzutzwi2otu1yzmxnmewxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzq0mtcymju-_v1_sy1000_cr006971000_al_Lady Macbeth
    • Florence Pugh is the only true standout here—it often feels as though we’re watching an unusually pretty direct-to-television film—but this nasty remix of Wuthering Heights is still consistently tense and grim without becoming dull, Pugh’s dead-eyed hatred taking over every frame it’s present in. Men are trash, Victorian men even moreso.  (★★★)
  • i_don27t_feel_at_home_in_this_world_anymoreI Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
    • At its strongest when first-time director Macon Blair channels memories of his work with Jeremy Saulnier of Green Room fame. In terms of lasting impact, this comedy-thriller is of little consequence, but it’s endearing to me if for no other reason than giving stars Melanie Lynsky and Elijah Wood a much-needed chance to shine.  (★★★)
  • manifesto-movie-poster-1Manifesto
    • Its collage of art treatises is less the draw than Cate Blanchett playing thirteen different people, but Julian Rosefeldt was humble enough to realize that and hire her anyway so bravo to him. (This never stops feeling like the art-museum installation it started off as, but its star is incapable of being boring.)  (★★★)
  • murder-on-the-orient-expressMurder on the Orient Express
    • The great joy of Branagh’s Shakespeare films is how exhilaratingly alive they are—the directorial choices he makes in them aren’t always the best, but the conviction and enthusiasm of the performers and the energy of his guiding hand were a revelation for me when I first experienced his Hamlet and Henry VMurder on the Orient Express, by contrast, is frequently plodding and airless, characters reduced to a handful of tics and Branagh’s usual passion succumbing to the canned accent and massive mustache he’s forced to bear. It’s not offensively bad, though—the richly saturated 70mm photography is an absolute pleasure to take in, and watching Johnny Depp get stabbed in the chest over and over will never be the wrong move.  (★★★)
  • wonderstruck-first-posterWonderstruck
    • A visually immaculate construction that left me completely cold. Haynes’ sumptuous photography and wondrous art direction are bogged down by characters that never even rise to the level of assembled quirks—they’re all blank slates wandering through a fantastical world that dazzles without ever moving (perhaps a result of Brian Selznick of Hugo fame penning the overcautious adaptation of his own novel). Even more disappointing coming off the masterpiece that was Carol, it’s a children’s fantasy that’s not engaging enough for the kids (though Carter Burwell’s score, the best of the year, does everything it can to generate momentum) and has nothing substantial for adults to hold onto.  (★★★)
  • song-to-song-20170711104326Song to Song
    • Like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups before it, some absolutely breathtaking visuals and scenes—one sequence of Rooney Mara dancing alone in her bedroom is perhaps my favorite purely visual moment of the year—in search of a decent anchor. Malick’s increasing distaste for story and character in favor of elliptical fragments isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but his attempts to create a narrative throughline through constant voiceover actively hinder the experience he’s aiming for—the naked, revealing monologues that propel Badlands and Days of Heaven and the minimalist, elemental thoughts that pervade The New World and The Tree of Life have been replaced by lifeless platitudes that distract rather than immerse.  (★★½)
  • nocturama-paris-is-happening-posterNocturama
    • An hour’s worth of remarkable, nearly wordless tension bookends a middle section of adolescent terrorists acting out The Neon Demon inside an abandoned Parisian shopping mall as they wait for the inevitable to fall upon them. Just as uneven and frustrating as that description makes it sound.  (★★½)
  • 661820936_ztkyvpkz_eba08ceb8d94ed8c9c-ec98a5ec9e90Okja
    • At its core is a reasonably effective satire on the absurdity of neoliberal ethics and corporate morality, but this movie is so goddamn shrill that its sharper points of critique are almost completely obscured. Paul Dano is the only adult lead to escape with his dignity intact—Gyllenhaal and Swinton are absolutely insufferable cartoon characters made flesh, which might be more acceptable if director Bong-Joon Ho had shaped the whole film as a kid’s fantasy rather than including rape and slaughterhouse scenes deliberately designed to evoke Holocaust associations. The resulting tonal mishmash contains several worthy scenes, but the obnoxiousness they’re mired in is so exhausting to wade through that it’s hard to summon much interest when they arrive.  (★★½)
  • all-these-sleepless-nights-posterAll These Sleepless Nights
    • Explores similar structural territory as Song to Song, but possesses neither Malick’s visual panache nor his sense of the spiritual. What starts off as a promising portrait of wandering youth in that netherworld that exists between 1 and 5 in the morning crumbles into a repetitive, monotonous look at aimless debauchery.  (★★½)

The Poor

  • eda5gozhwyawqu1xkqe5The Void
    • Populated with dodgy acting and an abundance of tired horror tropes thrown into a nonsensical blender, this one’s sole selling point is the practical effects used to form its Lovecraftian creatures. Said effects are quite good—it’s just a pity the amateur cinematography and lighting mean that we barely get a glimpse of them. Watch a John Carpenter movie instead.  (★★½)
  • battle-of-the-sexes-2017-04Battle of the Sexes
    • It can’t decide whether it wants to be the movie its title suggests or The Billie Jean King Story, and ends up being a satisfactory version of neither. Stone and Carrell are likable as ever, but their performances and some pretty film grain can’t rescue the movie from its bizarrely lopsided structure and its inability to commit to which story it’s going to tell—it’s too interested in other aspects of King’s life (and too pedestrian in its shooting and editing) to be a tense sports drama, but also too committed to giving Carrell’s Bobby Riggs as much screentime as possible to turn into a biopic of its heroine.  (★★½)
  • jcwn2t9x3gozDarkest Hour
    • Rests solely on the shoulders of Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill, which in the best of circumstances would mean a forgettable, tepid chamber drama with some memorable character work. Unfortunately, these aren’t the best of circumstances. Oldman is on autopilot—he lisps, brays, and sprays spittle at the screen in what isn’t a performance so much as the same shtick played at varying degrees. Add to that the fact that neither Churchill nor any of his fellow players are given any sort of interior life—one never gets the sense that these are people living their lives, just orators exchanging lines—and what results is an utterly hollow, empty bit of drama. If Oldman, after decades of Oscar snubs, finally nabs the golden man for this, in the same year as Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, Timothée Chalamet’s breakthrough, and Willem Dafoe’s career-best work on The Florida Project, it’ll be a sad if predictable state of affairs.  (★★½)
  • suburbicon586Suburbicon
    • I should have known this wasn’t going to turn out well as soon as I learned that Clooney had rewritten the original Coens script that allegedly forms the basis of the movie. Painfully unfunny and annoyingly sanctimonious in its attempts to weld a half-baked civil rights subplot onto what’s otherwise a cynical farce, it limps through every single scene save the two that weren’t altered from the original draft. Said scenes are fortunately the ones that include Oscar Isaac, whose presence in that hat should be a requirement for every movie forthwith.  (★★½)
  • 527496The Discovery
    • Rooney Mara does her best to breathe some life into what’s otherwise a tiringly dull and overlong extrapolation of an SF premise—what if we had definitive proof of the afterlife?—that in its execution is neither thoughtful nor thought-provoking. No worse than a second-rate episode of Black Mirror, but most definitely no better.  (★★)

The Godawful

  • woodshockWoodshock
    • Neither shocking nor woody. Wants to be Upstream Color so badly, but where that film runs purely on emotion this one decided to take a few really banal characters and their hour of story and tack on thirty minutes of double-exposed shots and elliptical editing. Kirsten Dunst does her best, in a performance that’s basically a hazier version of Melancholia‘s Justine, but with the material she’s given she can’t achieve much more than strolling through pretty lights looking vacant.  (★½)
  • brawl_cb99_teaser_2764x4096-1-e1503427449280Brawl in Cell Block 99
    • A first half that’s atrociously color-graded and amateurishly structured slides into a second half that wants to be a visceral descent into hell but instead is simply a perversely gleeful dive into grindhouse schlock. The audience is offered little more than some split-second shock at the cartoonish brutality on display; the characters less than that.  (★½)
  • c8f7pflvwaayhkpThe Book of Henry
    • Too entertaining in its baffling incompetence to be genuinely hated. This truly bizarre attempt at imitating human behavior feels like a slightly more sapient Tommy Wiseau joined forces with Gus van Sant to produce a monstrosity that slides from sickeningly twee to hilariously sociopathic—Sarah Silverman making out with a ten-year-old cancer patient is one of the less weird things that it features. It probably contributed to getting Colin Trevorrow kicked off Star Wars Episode IX, so we’re eternally in its debt. Poor Naomi Watts deserves better, though.  (½)
  • the-snowman-first-posterThe Snowman
    • Too dull in its baffling incompetence to be genuinely entertaining. (What I did there? You see it?) Bewildering in its editing choices, its pointless subplots, its basic character motivations, and its choice to name its protagonist Harry Hole (three of which became clearer when the director admitted his crew had forgotten to shoot 15% of the script), it’s a good forty minutes shorter than David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but feels twice as long. In a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and J. K. Simmons, not a single person manages to walk away looking good.  (½)
  • ho00004153Beauty and the Beast
    • Feels like the most purely useless movie ever made. A cynical mishmash that’s made up entirely of scenes that either rehash their animated counterparts in inferior fashion or “expand” the story in a way that makes it actively worse. The Gothic beauty of the 1991 film is degraded into ugliness almost everywhere—the slipshod, “gritty” CG reimagining of the enchanted castle and its inhabitants; the audible pitch correction slathered over nearly every singer’s voice; the wooden, cringing acting of anyone who isn’t Gaston or LeFou. The fact that this narrowly avoided being my most-loathed picture of the decade speaks to how ghastly the final candidate on this list is. (For more thoughts, see my long-form review.)  (½)
  • the-dark-tower-posterThe Dark Tower
    • An utter abortion of an adaptation, one that takes the insanity of a book series that’s a dimension-hopping fantasy/SF/western metafiction epic and turns it into a seemingly autocorrect-generated screenplay whose visuals and characters have all the life of a screensaver. Its 90 minutes feel like an eternity, and Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey’s heroic attempts to bring something of the source material’s fire just make it hurt even worse. I pity the viewers who watch this movie and as a result are turned off from the books forever. It has forgotten the face of its father.  (½)

The Awards

  • Best Picture
    • Sean Baker, The Florida Project
  • Best Foreign Language Film
    • Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
  • Best Animated Feature
    • Sunao Katabuchi, In This Corner of the World
  • Best Documentary Feature
    • Bryan Fogel, Icarus
  • Best Director
    • Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  • Best Original Screenplay
    • Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird / Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
  • Best Adapted Screenplay
    • Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan, Last Flag Flying
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role
    • Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role
    • Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project / Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role
    • Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi / Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role
    • Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
  • Best Cinematography
    • Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
  • Best Editing
    • Lee Smith, Dunkirk
  • Best Visual Effects
    • Weta Digital, War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Best Original Score
    • Carter Burwell, Wonderstruck
  • Best Original Song
    • Dark Rooms, “I Get Overwhelmed,” A Ghost Story
  • Best Stuntwork
    • John Wick Chapter 2
  • Best Production Design/Art Direction
    • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Best Costume Design/Makeup and Hairstyling
    • A Cure for Wellness
  • Best Sound Editing and Mixing
    • Dunkirk

The Best Scenes of the Year

  • prom, Lady Bird
  • communion, mother!
  • fish in a barrel, Dunkirk
  • menstruation, 20th Century Women
  • shootout in the catacombs, John Wick Chapter 2
  • 9/11, The Big Sick
  • hands up, Get Out
  • house party, Toni Erdmann
  • the blast, In This Corner of the World
  • “Brighton Rock,” Baby Driver
  • poetry forum, Paterson
  • sunset, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • clearing the air, Call Me By Your Name
  • kitchen shouting match, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • interdimensional firefight, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  • napkin of demands, Logan Lucky
  • the memory maker, Blade Runner 2049
  • stairwell brawl, Atomic Blonde
  • bedroom dance, Song to Song
  • the inevitable, Nocturama

 

My Year in Books — 2017

I wish I could do my usual writeup, in which ten or twenty books get their own individual reviews, but it’s 2017 and I’m tired. (Plus I have a forthcoming end-of-year post in which every one of the 70 movies I saw in the theatre this year gets a capsule review, so.) So, a more compact writeup before my list of the year’s best below.

8467013Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain was my favorite book of the year. A sprawling, semi-autobiographical epic of rum-running in the American Northwest, it’s ambitious and overstuffed and completely absorbing. Where similar family-saga books like Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned (another favorite of mine) can end up sacrificing some central narrative in favor of a bird’s-eye view of the multiple generations they cover, Stegner’s novel has as its lynchpin the central figure of Bo Mason, a husband and father whose avarice and frustration constantly battle with his love for his family. His shadow hangs over everyone in the book, and it’s a credit to Stegner’s characterization that he’s a nuanced and heartbreaking figure rather than a simple patriarchal tyrant. I’ll take him over Jay Gatsby as a personification of the American Dream any day.

51ckn9mhyfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_o-amelia-gray-900A Fine and Private Place sent me into paroxysms of jealousy. Peter S. Beagle wrote it when he was only nineteen, and it’s as fine a fantasy novel as I’ve ever read, full of affection for and understanding of its characters both dead and living. His We Never Talk About My Brother was also one of a myriad of excellent short fiction collections I read this year, the two best of which were Amelia Gray’s Gutshot and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. The former is a loaded magazine of a book, full of stories that are little capsules of violence and abuse; the latter an elegant, haunting deconstruction of patriarchal power and the male gaze through updates of fantastic and folkloric staples.

blackwaveThere was all manner of reading that for better or worse resonated stronger than it otherwise would due to the current existential-political hellhole in which we’re currently living. For fiction, Michelle Tea’s Black Wave is reminiscent of Dhalgren in its vision of a city going about its business as the apocalypse looms, 33916061though it jettisons that book’s Joycean complexity for a more elegiac tone; Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, a pulp SF novel-within-a-novel written by none other than Adolf Hitler, is exhaustingly prescient in its deconstruction of toxic tendencies within the fandom that have most recently manifested themselves in Vox Day and his alt-right henchmen. Nearly every single nonfiction book I read touched on our current crisis of civics in some form or fashion; of them, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power is the most damning, particularly in its conclusion, which chronicles the rise of Trump as America’s first white president. Meanwhile, John Michael Greer’s back-to-back Decline and Fall and Dark Age America are almost comforting in their reminders that as bad as things currently look, we can rest assured that they will be getting much, much worse in the decades to come.

karrNearly all of my favorite creative nonfiction this year was memoir. The most stylistically straightforward of the lot, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club/Cherry/Lit trilogy, was also the best of them, funny and poignant and candid in a way that seems as though she’s just telling you her life story over drinks despite the years of craft and effort that went into the nearly 1,000 pages. Maggie Nelson’s The Red PartsBluets, and The Argonauts also form a trilogy of sorts, albeit a much looser one—the first volume is the closest to memoir in the traditional sense, while the latter two 51vz1irzo2bl-_sx331_bo1204203200_are syntheses of memoir, essay, prose poetry, and philosophy that touch on grief, love, memory, language, and sense perception in quietly devastating fashion. Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a brutal account of the rape she suffered as a child interwoven with the subsequent cultural and personal abuse she’s suffered as a result of obesity, is heartbreaking, probably the best thing she’s ever written. Outside of memoir, The Empathy Exams is my favorite creative nonfiction title of the year. The titular essay, which uses author Leslie Jamison’s stint as a medical actor to look at how we perceive and respond to pain, is a springboard into a wider study of empathy, trauma, and human interaction. It’s a brilliant collection.

pid_23793Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World deserves individual mention here as well. A political history of the concepts of Satan and hell, it’s theologically engrossing and morally devastating. Its indictment of the Christian church—specifically the doctrinal shift from identifying Satan with hierarchical power and God with the marginalized and oppressed to viewing minorites as diabolical agents and the powerful as agents of God’s will—is all the more damning in the aftermath of large swathes of evangelicals’ devil’s bargain with Donald Trump and his movement.

I read 150 books for my Goodreads challenge this year; I think this will be the last year I participate in it to such a competitive extent. It’s far too easy to fall into the attitude of reading for the sake of meeting a number rather than for learning and personal enjoyment, and I don’t want that mindset to dominate my activity in the future. Link to my full challenge is here, for those who want to see the full list of books I read.

Below is a list of my personal favorite reads of the year, which the above writeup only sampled. Goodreads pages for each title are linked.

Fiction

Creative Nonfiction

Nonfiction