10. The Disaster Artist
While ostensibly about the making of The Room, aka the worst period movie period ever exclamation point, The Disaster Artist is actually more about the strength of friendship. Dave and James Franco both do a wonderful job of taking characters that could’ve been punchlines, and presenting them as thoughtful, three dimensional creatures.
With three narratives over three different time periods (over an hour, a day, a week), in three different venues (land, sea, air) Christopher Nolan’s World War II film is low on plot but high on intensity. The dazzling film magnificently flows from one vignette to the next presenting a harrowing, if hopeful, image of war from the weary faces on the ground actually fighting it.
08. Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut lives on the strength of a central figure, Molly Bloom (wonderfully played a gorgeously powerful Jessica Chastain), who is dynamic, aggressive and fiercely intelligent. Playing off of the always-welcome Idris Elba as her verbose attorney, the pair spit out the surprisingly un-Sorkinesque dialogue with glee, in this thoughtful feminist parable.
07. The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani and his now wife co-wrote this delightful and surprising comedy about the first years of their awkward coupling. Kumail, with his struggle to overcome his family’s ideas for what his life should be, while ex-girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) struggles to maintain consciousness, when a freak accident leaves her hospitalized. With an assist from a strong supporting cast highlighted by Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, and Zenobia Shroff, the Big Sick is sweet, funny, dark and challenging.
06. Blade Runner 2049
Every single frame of director Denis Villanueve’s follow-up to the 80s-sci-fi mystery is gorgeous. With the doe-eyed Ryan Gosling taking lead reins from original hero (and supporting player here) Harrison Ford, the futuristic thriller opens the rich universe, created by author Philip K. Dick and original director Ridley Scott, in intricate and interesting ways.
Visceral, difficult and aggressive, this film, from director Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (the team behind the Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty), follows the 1967 riots in Detroit, and a central racially-motivated attack between overly-violent police officers and a group of victims whose only crime was being black at the wrong place and time. It’s hard to watch, but captures honestly the oppression that has been prevalent throughout America for far too long.
04. Get Out
Writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut effort is a category defying horror-thriller hybrid that is as tense as it is dark as it is funny and thought-provoking. A weekend trip to meet the parents for interracial couple, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) goes horribly askew where her seemingly progressive parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) prove to be anything but. It’s surprising and uncomfortable, but also urgently necessary.
03. The Post
With a first-rate pedigree of talent, directed by Steven Spielberg, co-written by Josh Singer (Spotlight), and with performances from Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon and Jesse Plemmons, the Post is almost accidentally timely depicting the 70s-era conflict between the secrecies of the Nixon administration and the Washington Post’s mission to expose them.
02. Lady Bird
This love letter to growing up in suburbia (Sacramento in specific) from writer-director Greta Gerwig, is honest, thoughtful, funny, and sweet without ever feeling cloying. Teen heroine Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) lacks ambition and self-awareness as she traverses her senior year of high school, often coming into conflict with her aggressively overbearing Mom (national treasure Laurie Metcalf). This charming film is peppered with vignettes that expose the difficult navigation of high school, especially one with religious influence, and the effects that everything from class to inclusion has on a kid whose only wish is to escape.
01. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
No other film shocked me as much, and for a movie with murder as a central plot point, Three Billboards is surprisingly funny. When a mother (Frances McDormand) puts up the billboards calling out the local police force for its lack of a suspect in her daughter’s rape and murder it pushes the small town to the breaking point. More than anything the film is about rage and grief and the way in which we try to balance those two feelings when combined with a great loss. It’s amazing and engaging, and even though McDormand owns this film, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell provide amazing foils for her overly intense Mildred.
Also, the Top 10 Performances in film this year.
10. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
While I was as enthralled with Guillermo Del Toro’s latest effort as others, I was still impressed by the performance that anchors the film. As Elisa, the mute cleaner who works at a government facility and falls for the sea creature housed there, Sally Hawkins has to do most of the work with only her eyes and body at her disposal.
09. Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger
There are six real-life figures on my list and they each come with different degrees of difficulty. Gyllenhaal is Jeff Bauman, a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing who lost both his legs. The film eschews standard biopic traps by sidestepping any need to present Bauman as merely a hero of circumstance. Instead, in Gyllenhaal’s deft hands, we get a three-dimensional man who can be a prick, who can wallow in self-pity, but who also has the drive and determination to not let one accident define him.
08. Emma Stone/Steve Carell, The Battle of the Sexes
As real-life tennis pros- Stone as the awkward but progressive Billie Jean King, and Carell as the boorish and bloviating Bobby Riggs- both actors present flawed, but fully-realized characters that are perfect foils for each other. Stone is all sad eyes and constant uncomfortability in her own skin juxtaposed with an assuredness on the court as a leader in the feminist movement. Carell finds the humanity in Riggs’ need for relevance in a world that has left him behind.
07. Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Another real-life figure, but with a much different challenge – how do you take a historic figure, so iconic, so well-known, who has not only been well-documented but also well-performed for decades, even currently on TV’s the Crown (by Emmy-winning John Lithgow)? An almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman embodies the cantankerous, inspiring and mystifying Winston Churchill and grounds him in a raw humanity that elevates a fairly mediocre film.
06. Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper
Kristen Stewart continues to surprise by serving as muse to writer-director Olivier Assayas who also pushed Stewart to new heights in their previous effort (Clouds of Sils Maria). In this esoteric film that is sometimes confounding, sometimes slow, but always engaging thanks to Stewart’s central figure – a medium, and personal shopper to a high-maintenance star, desperately waiting for a sign from beyond the grave from her recently-deceased twin brother. Yeah, it’s one of those. But Stewart is astounding and natural and somehow even manages to make the endless scenes of texting engaging.
05. Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
When singers become actors, it can be a mixed bag. For every Justin Timberlake there’s a Britney Spears, someone that is too self-conscious and too interested in maintaining a brand than actually becoming a new character. Thankfully, Mary J. Blige absolutely disappears into Florence Jackson, the quiet and long-suffering wife, mother and midwife in Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Without any overly showy scenes, Blige showcases Florence’s thoughtfulness and unwavering support of her family, even as it come into dramatic and direct conflict with the family that employs her.
04. Margot Robbie/Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Janney’s acerbic, vile, and hilariously awful mother, Lavona wouldn’t work nearly as well without playing off the chaotically appealing Margot Robbie as the notorious Tonya Harding. Robbie had the unenviable task of finding the humanity in a character society would rather paint with a stark black brush. In a quiet scene where she staves off a breakdown as she puts of her overly-made for her eventual Olympic downfall, Robbie takes the complicated figure and gives her an all too real honesty. Janney has to basically play a larger-than-life cartoon with nary a character trait that isn’t off-putting, but mines every insult she spits somehow enjoyable.
03. Ensemble, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
While lead Frances McDormand is the force behind this film, it is the way her grief-stricken rage monster mother Mildred bounces off all the characters around her that makes this film a favorite. The first surprising thing about the film is that the central conflict between Mildred and the dogged police chief Willoughby, played with a charming grace by Woody Harrelson, is one of mutual respect and delicate fondness. Sam Rockwell’s unapologetically dim and uncomfortably racist police officer Dixon is the perfect antagonist for Mildred, two characters trying to figure out what to do with their anger. And while that central triumvirate is the core of the film, smaller performances from Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes and Samara Weaving all surprise and delight in their own way.
02. Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
As the precocious seventeen year old and central figure of Call Me By Your Name, Chalamet deftly balances the awkward adolescent ignorance of his Elio, with the confident swagger earned by a kid that plays guitar, piano, speaks multiple languages and charms the grad student (Armie Hammer) working for his father. Every movement of Elio feels honest and real, sometimes tragically so, as in the final scene where Elio’s emotional catharsis is uncomfortably on display. I was impressed with Chalamet in Lady Bird, but the raw teenage masculinity he projects here is revelatory.
01. Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
As the cold matriarch in constant conflict with her flighty daughter, Laurie Metcalf reins in her seemingly nature tendency to over-emote by internalizing the hurt, anger and disappointment that comes from raising a child so anxious to leave home. Without ever getting a moment to display overt affection, she nonetheless imbues a character with harsh edges with a delicate purity that makes every eye roll, every brow furrow, every severe and unforgiving barb a sign of love.