I have to say I was ambivalent about a lot this year. The top five of the list below notwithstanding, I did not find many standouts (including among the arthouse favorites) – and indeed, the bottom half of this list compares rather unfavorably to that of years past. The final cuts were Logan Lucky, Molly’s Game, and War for the Planet of the Apes.
1. The Big Sick
There has already been much written about the decline of the romantic comedy. It appears as a genre that has adapted poorly to the cynicism and postmodernity of our times, fracturing instead into more vulgar off-shoots (the Apatow-directed oeuvre), low-grade imitations (most recently, Reese Witherspoon’s Home Again), and ensemble messes (Mother’s Day and that ilk). The Big Sick presents a welcome alternative. Featuring a fundamental warmth and sweetness, it harkens back to the 1990s heyday of the rom-com, but does this without sacrificing depth and nuance. It is a high mark of the genre.
Anchored on a compelling true story, The Big Sick features both a razor-sharp script, capturing the dynamics of everything from family and relationships to ethnic and stand-up cultures, and strong performances from the core cast (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano in particular). It is alternatively laugh-out-loud funny and touching. And because it was written by the couple who lived the story (Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon), it never feels false, down to an ending that may not take place at the top of the Empire State Building but channels the feeling nonetheless. Indeed, The Big Sick is a rom-com for the times, and a great one at that. It is my favorite movie of the year.
It has become habit for me to remark on the visuals of animated films as technology continues to improve. Still, Coco presents a world that is sincerely breathtaking like few I have seen onscreen. Certainly the imaginative “Land of the Dead” is meant to pop, with its colorful landscapes and gravity-defying urban planning, but it is in the details of rural Mexico (and the fictional Santa Cecilia) that the animators shine. Everything from character costumes to street lights to building rooftops is rich, vivid, memorable. It provides a truly three-dimensional world for its characters to inhabit.
Of course, stunning as Coco is, it is the characters and the story that place the movie in the highest echelon of Pixar films (in my eyes, occupied by Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3). The memorable prologue serves as an effective introduction to young Miguel and his family, as well as the central conflict: Miguel’s love for music and thus defiance of his family. It adds meaning to the events that follow, and Miguel’s quest in the Land of the Dead. Surprisingly, the story engages head-first with weighty questions of legacy and mortality, but handles them with delicacy and great poignancy, and even includes some fantastic twists. Coco tells a wonderful tale of life (and death) – and is a sight to behold.
3. Blade Runner 2049
Speaking of masterful storytelling, Blade Runner 2049 provides a happy rare instance of an unnecessary sequel that more than justifies its existence in execution. It takes the themes and mythos of the original and expands upon them, following strands to their natural conclusions while examining the consequences thereof in the established universe. By situating the movie squarely in the investigation conducted by K (Ryan Gosling), Denis Villeneuve puts the audience squarely in his protagonist’s shoes – as he did with Arrival last year. That K is a replicant only makes the impact of his discoveries more resounding.
The script from Hampton Francher and Michael Green is deliberate, thoughtful, smart. Even the revisiting of the Rick Deckard character (Harrison Ford) is hardly fan service but one of a series of clues that stems from the investigation, a step closer to finding the ultimate truth. The film presents a manhunt and a mystery at the beginning, then plays with both protagonist and audience expectations as each are unraveled – and of course, as the pair become inextricably linked. That the final revelations manage to inspire such emotion is a credit to the writing, the performances, and the world-building.
One week. One day. One hour. With six words and three substories, Christopher Nolan turns a straightforward narrative on its head. He finds a way to tell the three stories on three separate fronts simultaneously. They are connected in ways small and large of course, but the links are only revealed through the course of the film. Remarkably, in jumping to and fro, Nolan sets aside room for character growth and lays the foundation for events already seen. He builds suspense for each story, creates a sense of urgency in and around them. And in the process, Dunkirk becomes larger than the sum of its parts.
Nolan’s manipulation of time and space have the added effect of enveloping the audience fully in the setting. The opening sequence sets a heart-pounding tone, with retreating Allied soldiers in a ghost town flooded by flyers to underline their predicament, avoiding potshots by unseen German attackers, and eventually joining thousands others vulnerable on the beach. The feeling of desperation permeates Dunkirk’s entire runtime, building as it barrels towards the conclusion of each of its stories with purpose. And because of the timelines, because of the circumstance, the movie captures the claustrophobia of war in a way that few have.
5. Get Out
Both the narrative and direction in Get Out appear rather straightforward, the events in motion simply structured. This is not to its detriment. After all, it is in that mundaneness that the film establishes its unsettling tone. Atmospheric beginning to end, its deliberate nature balances a simmering intensity with some fantastically funny moments, then effectively crescendos appropriately when the terrifying truth is revealed. But because of the what has come before, the explosive nature of that third act feels surreal without necessarily feeling unexpected. It is a credit to Jordan Peele then that the movie is cohesive and downright entertaining as it is.
Of course, it would be impossible to discuss Get Out without pointing out (as so many others have) how incredibly smart and thought-provoking it is. There is a level of depth to the film unmatched by most, with multiple layers and hidden meanings and hints and clues in every facet of the script. It wastes no dialogue or plot point or gesture, and the transformation of subtext into text in that third act is a genuine revelation, adding to the totality of the movie. Daniel Kaluuya and Alison Williams are wonderful, as is LilRel Howery in a scene-stealing role. But Get Out is simply one of the best written movies to come along in a long time.
6. Win It All
Win It All is a quiet little film. It follows local gambler Eddie (Jake Johnson) for a period of months, through a series of vignettes and slices of daily life. And because of its modest scope, the character study captures the psychology of gambling and addiction beautifully. The thoroughness with which results flow over into all aspects of life. The manner in which a single game, a single bet, throws everything off. The accompanying rationalization and spiralling out of control, and the long road back. Win It All concludes a little too neatly for my liking, but perhaps the ultimate outcome too reinforces the randomness of gambling – and the fragility of luck, if in the opposite direction.
7. Girls Trip
It is raunchy, of course, vulgar at times. But like the best of its brethren (e.g. Bridesmaids, The Hangover), what characterizes Girls Trip is not its gross-out moments but its incredible vivacity. The chemistry exuded between the Flossy Posse (Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish) create an atmosphere of authenticity, enhancing the fun and laughs through the antics that litter the film. Further, their easy charm lends the movie credibility when the weightier aspects of the story inevitably kick in. That the film is decidedly African-American only makes it stand out further from the crowd. Girls Trip feels unique, fresh, vibrant. And the grapefruit scene made me laugh harder than anything else this year.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The Wolverine is a fantastic comic book movie, albeit with a messy third act. But Logan… Logan is a real fucking movie. The fact that it feels so far removed from the comic book world and the X-universe in particular grounds it. This is a story about Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Caliban (Stephen Merchant) taking care of Xavier (Patrick Stewart), with each of them confronting their own demons. There’s a simplicity to it all. And even when their way of life is disrupted, and Laura (Dafne Keen) enters the fray, it is the relationship between the characters that gives it meaning, and keeps it about love and humanity …despite the presence of X-24 and such.
9. I, Tonya
I don’t know if sympathy is the proper word, but I, Tonya gives flesh and context to a story many of us were already familiar with. As the title suggests, it unapologetically shares the perspective of the infamous skater (Margot Robbie). The fraught relationship with her mother (Alison Janney), the abusive marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the constant struggle against the prim and proper ice skating world. Well-framed by documentary-style confessional interviews, I, Tanya is a breezy, entertaining, and surprisingly affecting watch, one bolstered by strong acting performances across the board and a level of detail to the (at times unfortunate) style of the period.
10. American Made
“Based on a true story” always gives me pause, but American Made spins a yarn and does it well. It manages to make a crazy story seem both realistic yet completely surreal – that is, with the absurdity of the situation manifest even as the sequence of events follows a logical course. Tom Cruise carries the movie as only he can. Barry Seal (Cruise) is not a good person, but he is also not necessarily evil: more a victim of circumstance. Cruise infuses the character with a frenetic energy, and as the situation spirals, a certain desperation. Seal is putting on a veneer of control, charming his way through – until he can’t anymore. It’s a memorable character, an unbelievable story, and one of the most watchable movies of the year.