When one is composing their de rigueur list of best films of the year, the tendency to procrastinate veers towards mysterious vibes along the lines of a Twilight Zone introduction.
For your consideration, a group of films that stand as a testament to their year of release. Said releases avoid any association with known sexual predators or performers who ever said something you disagree with. For one film maven, this cinematic road is about to be redlined with a list of annual favorites. For the average reader, this detour of print space will merely enforce their view that people who watch too many films have entered a territory of happy thoughts situated on a road that never seems to end.
Distinguishing characteristic of a best film contender: A complex narrative that will soon be arriving at the emergency room of hifalutin makeovers.
Estimate of potential success: Get to the theater now because it will be gone in two-weeks.
Actually there are a handful of films I saw this year at film festivals or other media events that won’t be released until 2018 that would have certainly wedged a way into this year’s toppermost. Those titles include Joseph Kahn’s hilarious send-up of hip hop culture Bodied; Armando Iannucci’s poly satire The Death of Stalin; Hungarian helmer Kornél Mundeuczó’s (White God) part sci-fi, part police thriller Jupiter holdja; and Louis C. K.’s I Love You, Daddy.
Concerning the latter title, ILYD delivers some unexpected comments on the relationship between the sexes, many that are self-deprecating towards the male ego and more than a few that embrace women in empowering situations. The words are unexpected because Louis C. K. is in movie jail for some onanistic manipulations that went above and beyond the call of duty. However, it’s hard to put C. K. into the same box as Weinstein, Hoffman, Rose or Ratner.
Likewise a release earlier this year from The Weinstein Company (a company that has been relieved of its command so to speak) Wind River was the kind of film that would have propelled awards talk in previous seasons. Wind River comes from the pen of Taylor Sheridan who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water. The plot revolves around a murder on an Indian reservation. Excellent performances highlighted by Sheridan’s dialogue, the words geared to the nuances of small town politics, result in a taunt thriller that has a non-conventional albeit great ending.
An early Disney release, the live action Beauty and the Beast, has the year’s top gross at over $504 million, although The Last Jedi will overtake that in a matter of days.
But there are far too many films every year to narrow a list down to ten items. Yet there you have it. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science released a list of 341 films that are eligible for Oscar® honors. Reading through the lengthy list starts to encourage drowsiness before you get to the E’s. If you took ten percent of that total amount of titles, that’s still only a mere 34 films.
What does a top ten list really announce? It’s different than a list of best actors. Some of the best performances your humble narrator saw this year are not in top ten films, and nor are they adults at the peak of their process. Rather some youngish actors are tearing it up on the big screen.
Jacob Tremblay (Room) has better lines, moments and meltdowns as a disfigured boy who starts school for the first time in Wonder than most adult actors in their respective overacting rage this year. I’m looking at you Jake Gyllenhaal (Stronger) and Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour).
Mckenna Grace shows grace and depth as a pre-teen math genius in Gifted while also leaving a quick yet substantial impression as the young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.
War for the Planet of the Apes utilized special effects that seemed cooler than similar CGI work in comic hero and high concept science fiction. Likewise, the cinematography for Wonder Wheel by Vittario Storaro sets a new standard for grand landscapes saturated with dimming orange and blue lights and accented with Green Screen backgrounds.
Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan with an ensemble cast and set against the background of the evacuation of British troops in late May and early June of 1940.
Distinguishing characteristic: Overlapping time lines (Twenty-four hours, the sea; one-hour, the air; and one week, the pier) edited against each other with continuous suspense.
Estimate of success: Over half-a-billion worldwide, and over $180-million domestic.
Corollary films: Both Their Finest and Darkest Hour also spin around historical Dunkirk in some manner and provide solid entertainment.
Wonderstruck, written and directed by Todd Haynes, tells parallel stories of runaways, both deaf, who end up at the New York City Museum of Natural Science. One story unwinds in black and white not unlike a silent film in 1927 while the other materializes in 1977 with a hip eye for color and mood.
Distinguishing characteristic: Strong lead performances from child actors Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds, alongside support from Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams. The story spans generations yet remains topical.
Estimate of success: This film was in and out of theaters in two weeks.
Corollary films: The appropriately named Wonder comes to mind mainly because of its pre-teen angst. Gifted a particularly vibrant look at child precociousness.
The Post: To say that Steven Spielberg delivers one of his best films is no small claim yet the current political landscape demands a film with an imperative statement delivered by a leading filmmaker.
The Washington Post fought the law and powers that be when they ran exclusive excerpts from the Pentagon Papers in 1972.
Distinguishing characteristic: Strong lead performances from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep only add icing to the cake. Speilberg gets downright Hitchcockian in a tense phone scene. The law lost.
Estimate of success: This film opens in Houston on January 12.
Corollary films: Detroit (d. Kathryn Bigelow) with its serious depiction of 1967 race riots. Last Flag Flying (d. Richard Linklater) while a little more ethereal was also star-studded and making political comments, set in the early years of the Iraq War. Murder on the Orient Express, a tour de force that just doesn’t have the zeitgeist clout to be a contender yet is a very easy sit.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri marks the third film from writer/director Martin McDonagh (previous films are In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). McDonagh’s most grounded film yet with devastating tragedy mixed with quirky humor, usually at the same time. France McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are all contenders for acting accolades.
Distinguishing characteristic: First time in you will not second guess this film.
Estimate of success: Still in theaters after two months and about to surge due to awards announcements weeks from now
Corollary film: The Killing of a Sacred Deer shares some thematic similarities but veers more towards cinema of cruelty whereas McDonagh displays a tainted altruism.
Molly’s Game, the directorial debt of writer Aaron Sorkin, has his kind of singular dialogue that from The West Wing to The Social Network makes his narrative hop with energy from a combination of wordsmithing and characters that leap off the screen.
Distinguishing characteristic: A poker film where the emphasis isn’t on cards. High stakes players dealing with even higher stakes in moral conundrums.
Estimate of success: Opened on Christmas Day. Destined for cult status.
Corollary films: Considering how much Molly’s Game represents the vision of a writer/director I submit for your consideration The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected) from Noah Baumbach and Lady Bird from Greta Gerwig.
Free Fire just screams genre from another decade. The first reel sets up the action, a purchase of firearms by members of the IRA from gangsters in Boston in the late-1970s. The rest of the film is the most choreographed shoot-out in cinema history.
Distinguishing characteristic: Director Ben Wheatley is the most consistently engaging director to emerge in the last ten years. Free Fire fires on all cylinders while providing realistic non-stop action.
Estimate of success: Opened and closed in the click of a trigger; buy the Blu-ray.
Corollary films: Baby Driver works its magic as a tribute to 1970s car theft thrillers (Walter Hill’s The Driver). Colossal where Nacho Vigalondo went from indie Spanish films to an English language genre-bender with name stars.
Atomic Blonde was the most sustained action in a movie theater this year. Is Atomic Blonde a female James Bond film, an Iron Curtain spy thriller or a hip 1980s new wave score propelling a new way of staging mayhem? Charlize Theron displays as much physicality as any actor male, female or a planet ape.
Distinguishing characteristic: In one scene (that kind of defines Atomic Blonde’s vision of espionage in the Reagan-Thatcher era) the fighting and maiming proceeds in one single cut down four flights of stairs, out onto the street and into a car that manages to drive forwards and backwards.
Estimate of success: Opened in late July and racked up over $50 million domestic. Worthy post theatrical viewing.
Corollary film: American Made hit a lot of similar secret agent bullet points only it was Tom Cruise as a drug dealer recruited by the CIA who was eventually at odds with both the government as well as his Cartel connections.
Mother! unrolled as solemn as a Buñuel joint and as deranged as anything that came out of Italian horror films in the 1960s and 1970s. Darren Aronofky’s (Black Swan, The Fountain) take on the battle for the elements of Earth personified by God and Mother Earth. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star.
Distinguishing characteristic: Every year there’s an art film that backs up its surrealism with a thought out cosmology. There’s an ongoing sense of having a house in the middle of nowhere where guests show up and won’t leave.
Estimate of success: Opened in mid-September and racked up over $44 million worldwide. Domestic rake was $17.8 million. Definite cult item.
Corollary films: High concept films are a hard sell and hard to market. Other high concept releases this year that may or may not find their audience — I, Tonya and Downsizing. The former was hyper-realistic with direct exposition spoken to the audience mixed with recreation of actual events with the same characters while the latter uses a loose sci-fi premise (humans shrunk to six-inches) layered within social criticism.
Blade Runner 2049 a sequel to Blade Runner (1982) was destined to be an under performer on the big screen and a cult classic in the long run. Harrison Ford (reprising his role from the original) and Ryan Gosling show the divergent nature of replicants in successive generations.
Distinguishing characteristic: The ennui of the future means that no matter how advanced the technology it’s still a rainy shitty day. Cinematography by Roger Deakins astounds, production design by Dennis Gassner and soundtrack by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer operates on a level above very good.
Estimate of success: $91 million plus domestic. BR2049 has a half life almost as long as uranium
Corollary films: Sci-fi films that display a discernable level of engagement include Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Ghost in the Shell, whose building-sized hologram special effects were in theaters months before those in Blade Runner 2049.
Brigsby Bear represents everything that a film-going experience should be. Who doesn’t want a movie that defies expectations. Yet, even after the big reveal you go along willingly on the bizarre path the filmmaker has provided.
Distinguishing characteristic: Mark Hamill and Jane Adams are the parents of savant home-schooled in a geodesic-dome-off-the-grid young adult Kyle Mooney (also co-writer). In the first reel we discover they kidnapped their child as a baby and are arrested by feds. The rest of the movie circles around how Mooney adjusts to modern society.
Estimate of success: Took in just a smidge over half-a-million. Word of mouth is key on this player.
Corollary films: A Ghost Story and Ingrid Goes West both demonstrated similar abilities to mine stories out of unlikely characters surrounded by unbelievable circumstance.
Stay tuned for another article on the year’s best documentaries, animated and foreign films.