The Best Movies of 2017

Without movies, I’m not sure I would have survived 2017. With each new terrible tweet sent from our president’s (shudders) account, a daily barrage of demoralizing and horrifying news updates about/caused by said president and a flurry of personal setbacks this year was rough. To hold onto my sanity, I sought refuge at my local movie theater and spent more money seeing movies this year than any year in recent memory. During my extensive viewings, I laughed, I cried, I laughed until I cried, I had my heart broken and I was transported; some of my brightest memories from this year took place in front of the big screen. 

So, without further adieu, my favorite movies of 2017.

20.) Molly’s Game (dir. Aaron Sorkin, Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd & Bill Camp)molly's game 2

Between Ms. Sloane last year and now Molly’s Game, it’s clear we need a series of films where Jessica Chastain just emasculates and controls men for 2+ hours at a time. As the self-proclaimed “poker princess” Molly Bloom, she delivers one of her best, most dynamic, performances yet and all but runs away with Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Equally as electrifying is Idris Elba as Bloom’s lawyer, who continues to prove he’s one of our most versatile working actors. 

***

19.) The Disaster Artist (dir. James Franco, Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogan, Allison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson & Jacki Weaver)

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Oh hai Mark! I’ve gotten the results back: James Franco goes super-meta and digs deep to unearth the best performance of his career. It would be easy to make fun of Tommy Wiseau for 2 hours, but that wouldn’t be nearly half as interesting at what Franco and The Disaster Artist are interested in exploring. All those celebrity cameos are flawless.

Bonus Points: SHARON STONE, Josh Hutcherson’s wig, and JACKI WEAVER.

***

18.) Battle of the Sexes (dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Andrea Risenborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Natalie Morales, Austin Stowell & Eric Christian Olsen)

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Battle of the Sexes didn’t make as big of a splash as many originally thought it would. A retelling of the classic match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs featuring recently crowned Best Actress winner Emma Stone and featuring Steve Carrell in full ham mode seemed tailor made for awards success. But what was marketed as a pretty straightforward biopic was a sensitively handled, expertly shot look into King’s inner turmoil over her blossoming attraction to hairdresser Marilyn (beautifully played by Andrea Riseborough). Stone is absolutely exceptional in delivering the best performance of her career, easily exceeding her turn in La La Land and even her breakout Easy A. The last scene shared between her and Alan Cumming is a shot in the heart, and a moment I have found myself coming back to multiple times as the year has gone on.

***

17.) Ingrid Goes West (dir. Matt Spicer, Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Billy Magnussen Wyatt Russell & Pom Klementieff)

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This bitingly funny satire on the Instagram age didn’t get the attention it deserved this year. Without feeling heavy handed or too judgmental, Ingrid Goes West gets underneath the skin of its superficial characters and exposes the empty cycle that comes with internet validation. 

***

16.) Colossal (dir. Nacho Vigalondo, Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell & Tim Blake Nelson)

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Director/writer Nacho Vigalondo’s genre-bending black comedy/monster movie may be one of the best, and most effective, films about toxic masculinity in recent memory. He and Anne Hathaway raise a huge middle finger to all the “nice guys” and Hathahaters out there. As Gloria, a struggling writer fighting a losing battle against the bottle and her own toxic tendencies, Hathaway lights up the screen and displays her range in a way that reminds us all why she won that Oscar for Les Miserables. 

***

15.) Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielson & Elena Anaya)

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Years from now when we look back on 2017, it will be nearly impossible not to immediately jump to Patty Jenkins’ take on one of our most iconic superheroes. Released amidst the underperformance of several other DC films, too many Marvel movies and superhero fatigue, Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air, a hugely fun time at the movies and the box office success story of the summer. Gal Gadot victoriously emerged from the charred rubble of last year’s awful Batman vs. Superman, proving that origin stories can feel exciting again. I have not stopped thinking about that “No Man’s Land” sequence from the first moment I saw the film. 

***

14.) The Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray, Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson & Tom Holland)

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James Gray’s adaptation of the story of Percy Fawcett’s obsession with the uncharted Amazon is a sprawling, gripping epic. Told over the course of several decades, Gray does a great job at juxtaposing Fawcett’s professional success with his personal sacrifices; he continues to give himself over to a civilization that may or may not exist until he all but fades into history. As commendable as Charlie Hunnam’s leading performance is, Sienna Miller steals The Lost City of Z, delivering a searing monologue in the final scene that is burned in my memory forever. It’s a film that is every bit as awe-inspiring as it is haunting.

***

13.) Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, Starring: Ryan Gosling, Ana de Adams, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mckenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, David Bautista, Jared Leto & Harrison Ford) 

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Blade Runner 2049 is easily one of the most beautiful movies ever made, in every sense. Costumes, production design, the cinematography… everything is perfect from start to finish. That said, the film is too long, and feels hollow at some points… but that ending is a sucker punch I wasn’t expecting. Gosling is doing a riff off of his “Drive” performance to a great effect, one that is a perfect fusion of project and star. It’s great to see Ford back in another one of his iconic film roles, which never feels gimmicky or inauthentic. It’s the women, however, (Wright, Armas, Hoeks and Davis) that leave the biggest impression. After last year’s brilliant Arrival, Denis Villeneuve has given us a stunning and emotionally resonant piece of art.

***

12.) Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom-Glynn Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance & Tom Hardy)

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The first (and better) of the two Dunkirk-centric films that would be released this year; Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a galvanizing war epic. Told from three vantage points (the conflict in the air, the evacuation on land and the civilian led rescue mission on the sea), the audience can feel (and hear, thanks to the expert score) the clock ticking for our heroes. There have been countless films about war and World War II, but few have reached the highs that Nolan does with Dunkirk. Though the enemy forces never make a true onscreen appearance, their presence is felt in every frame. Nolan plays with time and sound, surrounding the audience with the chaos unfolding onscreen. Much like the stranded soldiers we feel time slipping away from us, like sand through our fingers.

***

11.) Personal Shopper (dir. Oliver Assayas, Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz & Anders Danielsen Lee)

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I’m convinced that Oliver Assayas and Kristen Stewart can make magic whenever they work together. Their second collaboration, Personal Shopper, is a a haunting ghost story for the 21st century that also manages to echo a beautiful sentiment about loss and grief. Stewart was phenomenal opposite Juliette Binoche in 2015’s Clouds of Sils Maria, but here she’s given the lead role. She quite literally carries the film on her very capable shoulders and demands your attention, sometimes by not saying anything at all. By the film’s end there’s still a lot we don’t know about our protagonist Maureen, but Stewart’s face says it all. 

The Top 10:

10.) Baby Driver (dir. Edgar Wright, Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eliza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx & CJ Jones)

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Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a fast-paced and meticulously arranged love letter to action thrillers with a killer soundtrack. From the film’s opening moments, he puts his foot on the gas and fires on every cylinder imaginable, gifting us with one of the year’s most memorable, and fun times at the movies. 

If there’s one thing Baby (The Fault in Our Stars Ansel Elgort) knows, it’s how to arrange a soundtrack for any mood. One could say he has the ear for it, thanks to a car accident he survived as a small child that claimed the lives of his mother (Sky Ferreira in the world’s briefest, quietest cameo) and his abusive father. Music helps drown out the constant ringing in his ear, but it also gives him an inner rhythm that just so happens to be perfect for driving getaway cars. That’s something that kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) exploits for his personal gain; Baby may not say much, but he sure is good at pulling off heists. Doc’s associates, “Buddy” (Jon Hamm) and “Darling” (Eliza Gonález) welcome Baby’s quiet demeanor, but the paranoid “Bats” (Jamie Foxx) is more suspicious. When Baby gets involved with the lovely Deborah (Lily James) he sees a chance at redemption on the horizon, and wants out of his life of crime. But any casual movie goer knows that the “last job” is never truly the last job. Suddenly, Baby is on the run and has to rely on his nimble instincts to save the day and the future he has envisioned for him and his girl. 

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The action sequences in Baby Driver are phenomenally executed, choreographed to rhythm of the heartbeat of hero’s iPod. Whether we’re in the passengers seat outrunning the police to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencers Blue Explosion dancing down the street with Baby while “Harlem Shuffle” plays, it’s impossible not to get swept up in Wright’s stylish and visceral car-chase musical. 

***

9.) Atomic Blonde (dir. David Leitch, Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, James Faulkner & John Goodman)

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It’s about damn time that Charlize Theron get an action star vehicle built around her kicking men’s asses. And yet, it’s so much more than that; what could have been a gimmicky spy thriller is actually a visually arresting and unforgettable experience. 

It’s 1989. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a top-level MI6 field agent called into questioning about her recent stint in Berlin on the eve of the collapse of the wall. Assigned with the task of locating and recovering a highly coveted list of double agents, Broughton finds she’s been compromised from the moment she she arrives. She meets a colorful cast of characters, each with more questionable motives than the last. There’s her fellow MI6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy), the mysterious watchmaker with a knack for hiding codes, East German contact Merkel (Bill Skarsgård) and love interest Delphine (Sofia Boutella) who is an undercover French agent. As she gets closer to her target, fights ensue and the walls begin closing in while the plot twists and turns so many times you may just get some mild whiplash trying to keep up? Who can she trust? Is she being double crossed? Is she even telling the truth? We know she makes it out alive, but as she recounts her story to her superiors, we learn that we really can’t trust anyone, maybe not even Lorraine. 

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The film really does owe a lot of its success to Theron’s star power. She plays Lorraine with a mysterious, icy, tough as nails attitude that leaves the audience guessing until the very last scene. She’s an expert fighter, and while her fights are hard fought, they’re not easily won. Each altercation leaves her more battered and broken the last. The masterfully shot, seven minute long sequence in which Lorraine fights her up, and down, a stairwell through an array of KGB agents is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking that sums up the film’s stylish and bad ass bravura best. Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela shroud the seedy hotels and clubs of Berlin in an intoxicating array of pale blues and neon colors that manage to be beautiful and foreboding all at once. The killer music choices (“Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” “Der Kommissar,” “Father Figure”) are expertly choreographed to the film’s rhythm. Atomic Blonde aims to please, and goes straight for the jugular. 

***

8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson, Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Kelly Marie Tran, Carrie Fisher, Any Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Gwendolyn Christie & Benicio del Toro)

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It’s a shame that so much of the conversation around the release of The Last Jedi has been mired in *shudders* “the backlash.” Apparently the devoted fan boys and casual fans of the franchise have found themselves divided and upset over the follow up to 2015’s The Force Awakens. Coincidentally, it just so happens to be the most acclaimed entry since The Empire Strikes Back go figure.

If you look beyond the hissy fits of the emotionally stunted fan boys, however, you’ll find the most visually stunning addition to the Star Wars universe, and arguably the best since The Empire Strikes Back. Director/writer Rian Johnson (who wrote and directed 2012’s brilliant Looper) takes over the reigns for J.J. Abrams, and in doing so injects some much needed excitement in a franchise that was starting to feel all too familiar. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens, I can genuinely say that it was a film that owed a lot of its success to the fond memories and nostalgia evoked by the original films. And though there are some easter eggs scattered throughout the plot, The Last Jedi is a film that succeeds on its own merits. 

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The story picks up just about where The Force Awakens has left off. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to Ahch-To in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to help aid the Resistance. The First Order’s vice grip on the galaxy is getting tighter, and with her control ship unable to jump into hyperspace General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, in her final appearance) is running out of time and options. Despite this, Luke isn’t interested as he closed himself off to The Force a long time ago. Plagued by visions of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) due to her growing connection to The Force, Rey is torn between her mission to recruit Luke and save Ren from General Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the Dark Side. At the same time, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) teams up with a scrappy Resistance member Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) in search of a hacker who can help buy their remaining teammates some time to outrun the First Order’s tracking systems. The clock is ticking for our heroes, and with a limited amount of resources and a dwindling number of manpower at their disposal, the odds of escaping don’t look too promising. 

What makes The Last Jedi such a thrilling addition into the Star Wars universe is that it subverts our expectations and breaks with the tradition of the original trilogy. Even the prequels were extremely Skywalker-centric, devoted entirely to spelling out Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader. The old myths and legends are broken; even Skywalker’s lightsaber is destroyed in conflict. The mystery of Rey’s parents (which was such a major plot point in The Force Awakens) is revealed to be unimportant; sometimes there isn’t a “chosen one,” and the film’s ending does a stand up job at driving home this point that heroes don’t have to be “special.” The cast is pitch perfect, with our principle trio of Ridley, Boyega and Isaac remaining as charming as ever. New characters such as Rose and Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo are great, organic additions to the already sprawling cast (though the less we say about Benicio del Toro’s stuttering con-man DJ, the better). Hamill and Fisher are great as always; it’s especially wonderful to see Leia as more than the supporting presence she was in the last film. And any fans of BB-8 will absolutely adore this one; the little droid who could all but rolls away with the film. 

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Running at a staggering 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars ever and though I was thoroughly engaged throughout, one can definitely feel it. By the end I felt emotionally and mentally worn. “Did I really like what I just watched?” I thought to myself as I left the theater. But the more time I spent thinking about this movie, the more I realized how enchanted I was. This is a film that deserves multiple viewings and time to grow in the minds of audiences and fans alike. Cinematography Steve Yedlin (who worked with Johnson on Looper) makes even the desolate mineral planet of Crait jaw droppingly gorgeous; his vision of a galaxy far, far away is the most beautiful I’ve seen of all the Star Wars films. The action sequences are expertly choreographed, and had me on the edge of my seat. Even Rose and Finn’s quest to the gambling planet of Canto Bight ends with a thrilling chase scene. The Last Jedi is a laudatory achievement not just in filmmaking, but storytelling. 

***

7.) Girls Trip (dir. Malcom D. Lee, Starring: Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Larenz Tate, Mike Colter & Kate Walsh)

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No combination of words I attempt to throw together will accurately convey just how much I love Girls Trip. I would go as far as to call it 2017’s biggest, most pleasant surprise; it deftly delivers laugh out loud moments while being a beautiful testament about the sheer power of friendship. 

The film is centered around a quartet of lifelong best friends, “The Flossy Posse,” who have drifted away from one another in recent years. Their “leader” Ryan Pierce (Regina Hall, pitch perfect) has become a successful lifestyle guru and is on the brink of becoming the next Oprah when she invites her girlfriends for a vacation to New Orleans as a way to reconnect. There’s Sasha (Queen Latifah), a struggling journalist turned gossip columnist, Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) a divorced mother in need of some girl’s time and Dina (Tiffany Haddish) who is nothing short of an impulsive force of nature with a heart of gold that lights up whatever room she’s in, whether you like it or not. What ensues is a weekend full of debauchery, laughs, dance offs, grapefruits and hard truths that threaten to tear the women apart just as they came back together. 

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I would watch a trilogy of films simply about the escapades of these four women, who are are all exceptional in their roles. Even Pinkett Smith’s single mother, Lisa, manages to find interesting character beats that lift her out of the “uptight divorcee” archetype. But for me, it was Hall and Haddish who stole my heart the most. What can I say about Haddish that hasn’t already been said? It’s clear she’s one of 2017’s biggest breakouts; in Dina, Haddish delivers the type of full-bodied performance that makes every single movement hilarious and is wholly deserving of a Best Supporting Actress nomination that I’m praying she nabs. Meanwhile, Hall, who has played iterations of Dina in the past (namely the now iconic Brenda Meeks from the Scary Movie series) plays it straight here. Ryan is a woman trying to hold her failing marriage and rising star together, despite the truth staring her right in the face. Hall displays her incredible and very under-appreciated range, pulling the film back into focus amidst all of the outrageous humor while still finding ways to deliver laughs. In the end, it’s the love these four women have for one another that brings them back together despite their differences and years of growing apart. In a year filled with ugliness and disappointment at every turn, Girls Trip managed to be a hilarious story with an emotionally resonant and compelling center. 

***

6.) Okja (dir. Bong Joon-ho, Starring: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Byun Hee-bong & Shirley Henderson)

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Bong Joon-ho’s follow-up to 2013’s epic Snowpiercer is just as grand in scope, but full of heart. Mija (the remarkable Ahn Seo-hyun) runs away from her South Korean village and embarks on a journey that takes her all the way to New York City in hopes of rescuing her beloved super pig Okja. These two have known nothing else, and want nothing else but to live out the rest of their lives in each other’s company, traversing through the forest and falling asleep beside one another when the day is over.

But fate has other plans for our protagonist and her pet. Okja is actually the property of the Mirando Corporation, which has bred and genetically engineered Okja and many other super pigs in an attempt to combat an impending food shortage crisis. In an attempt to distract the world from the diabolical plan happening behind the scenes, the company’s CEO, Lucy (Tilda Swinton), wraps it all up in a glossy package, making it a” fun” competition. The biggest, “best” super pig of the 26 sent to random farms around the world will be crowned the winner complete with a parade and ton of pageantry, perfect for a necessary boost in PR. But winner or not, all of the super pigs share the same nightmarish destiny: to be shoved into a factory (somewhere in New Jersey, of course) and slaughtered for mass consumption. At the same time, a members of ALF (the Animal Liberation Front) see Mija as the perfect chess piece to take out the Mirando corporation for good. Both sides want to use Mija and Okja for personal gain, but neither really takes their desires into consideration. 

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The conversation around Okja‘s unveiling earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival was unfairly centered around the streaming vs. theatrical release debate. It’s a conversation that doesn’t seem to be plaguing Netflix’s other big release this year, Mudbound, which seems on the right track to become their first feature-length Oscar nominee. And while awards aren’t the be all end all, it’s disheartening at how fast Okja has seemed to fade from the public consciousness. Mr. Bong’s dexterity at balancing the film’s tonal shifts and underlying messages without them seeming jarring or heavy handed is laudatory. He lays the groundwork of Mija and Okja’s bond in part one beautifully. The camera takes in every bit of the beautiful South Korean countryside, never wasting a frame to showcase the jaw dropping visual effects that bring the lovable super pig to life. He’s working within a vein that’s incredibly similar to Spielberg’s E.T., but ultimately digs at something much deeper. This is a film not just about a child’s loss of innocence in a world full of capitalistic greed, but just how far we’re willing to go to save the ones we love. 

***

5.) Columbus (dir. Kagonada, Starring: John Cho, Hayley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes and Jim Dougherty)

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One’s appreciation for architecture might not necessarily sound like the most exciting jumping off point for your debut film, but appearances aren’t always what they seem. This is perhaps the biggest takeaway from Columbus, Kogonada’s hypnotic and affecting debut feature about two lost souls who find each other in the mecca of Columbus, Indiana and against all odds, help one another find themselves. 

Twenty-something Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson) has lived in Columbus all her life. By all accounts, she’s incredibly bright, knowledgable and would do well wherever she went. But since graduating high school, she’s put off higher education to remain working her menial job at the town library so she can look after her mother (Michelle Forbes), a former addict. Though she’s clearly longing for something more, Casey insists she’s content with her day to day. She fills the void in her life with the beautiful structures that make her town such a draw for tourists. The older Jin (John Cho) on the other hand, couldn’t be more different. He left his family behind years ago for a life in Korea, but is called back after his father, a renowned architecture professor, falls into a coma. Casey has come to depend on the “healing power” of the buildings, but for Jin it is a nagging reminder of the parent he left behind. The two cross paths and form an unlikely friendship at a pivotal moment in both of their lives, bonding over their mutual frustrations and feelings of regret. Eventually, they push one another to confront what they’ve been running away from: Casey towards what awaits her in the future and Jin to what he left in the past. 

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Prior to this, director, writer and editor Kagonada was best known for being a world renowned “academic turned filmmaker,” creating video essays of the works of well known directors such as Stanley Kubrick. Columbus benefits from his precise attention to detail; each shot feels perfectly poetic, taking in the beauty of the buildings and surroundings to the point where Columbus itself begins to feel like a character within the film. The scenes contain sparse dialogue and almost no soundtrack or music; rather than signal to the audience what they should be feeling, he quietly observes his characters and lets the actors show and tell the audience what these people are feeling. 

I find myself coming back to one scene in particular, in which Casey and Jin visit a local strip mall that just so happens to be home to one of Casey’s favorite structures in town. The camera is fixated solely on Casey, but Richardson is facing away with her face buried in her arms. She begins recounting the story of why she chose to stay behind, her voice breaking at various points as she tries to hold it all together. “I’d rather not talk about it,” she half-laughs as tears fall down her cheek. Lit only by a yellow neon sign, Richardson’s face tells us everything we need to know about Casey in that moment, even if her voice is saying something else. Her expressiveness is matched by Cho’s seasoned nuance; Jin can see past her facade, but is careful not to overstep the boundaries Casey has carefully laid down. Kagonada’s history as a curator and essayist has enabled him to hone in on these quieter, more revealing moments without them seeming heavy handed or saccharine.

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In the hands of two less capable lead actors, Columbus might have faltered. Richardson, who was great in last year’s under appreciated The Edge of Seventeen is an absolute revelation here, more than holding her own against the more established Cho. It couldn’t be more of an odd pairing, but the two play off each other perfectly, crafting a pair of characters that believably take refuge in each other’s company. Columbus quietly builds and builds upon these quiet moments, until it grabs you and refuses to let go. And by the end of it all, you don’t want it to. 

***

4.) The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer & Michael Stuhlbarg)

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Few films this year come close to matching the sheer beauty of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. On one hand, it’s a touching fairytale-like love story, a Beauty and the Beast for the modern age. On the other, this is a film for those who have been “othered” by society; those whose stories aren’t often told or depicted may see themselves in this meticulously crafted story.  del Toro is at the height of his creative prowess, and has delivered his best film since Pan’s Labyrinth

Elisa (an incredible Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who works as a cleaning woman at a top-secret government facility in Baltimore along with her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer in top form). Her neighbor and best friend Giles (an equally amazing Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, closeted artist pining for a much younger waiter at a nearby pie shop. Their world is turned upside down, however, when Colonel Strickland brings in “The Asset,” a fish/man creature hybrid to the facility for scientific study. While the cold and cruel Strickland relishes in the opportunity to torture him at every turn, he and Elisa are immediately drawn to one another. What starts out as innocent and quiet curiosity blossoms into a full on fixation; Elisa, who feels incomplete due to her inability to speak, feels seen for the first time in her life by a similarly misunderstood being. She enlists the help of Giles to free the Asset from his cage, eventually being helped by Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy who works as a lab scientist at the facility.

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The Shape of Water deserves accolades for its scope and grandeur alone. The opening sequence of Elisa’s apartment submerged in water beautifully sets the tone for the rest of the film. Accompanied by rich costume design and swelling score, del Toro has given us what might be his best film to date which is certainly saying something. Without saying a word, Hawkins delivers one of the performances of the year. She does an excellent job at evoking Elisa’s inner loneliness without making it her defining trait. On the contrary, her Elisa is a complex woman with wants and desires, and it’s a beauty to witness those flourish as she comes face to face with a love that’s been cruelly withheld from her. Jenkins and Spencer are also wonderful as Giles and Zelda, who have their own battles with loneliness and feeling incomplete; they are heart and soul of this vibrant love story.

When asked about the film in an interview with Indiewire, del Toro said that this film was “healing” to him. “For nine movies I rephrased the fears of my childhood, the dreams of my childhood, and this is the first time I speak as an adult, about something that worries me as an adult. I speak about trust, otherness, sex, love, where we’re going.” 

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Like many fairytales, The Shape of Water has a lesson to teach us. Though we see how all four characters feel trapped by society because of what makes them different, they eventually come to define themselves through their relationship to one another, which is ultimately what makes them strong. Those who have been othered and demonized by society are just as deserving in having their stories told, experiences validated and most importantly, are deserving of love. It’s a tale as old as time, but one that feels both revolutionary and necessary in today’s volatile, ugly world. 

***

3.) Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Kenner & Bette Gabriel)

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The first great film of 2017 was Jordan Peele’s masterful debut feature. Chris Washington (Sicario‘s Daniel Kaluuya) is on his way to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Girls‘ Allison Williams) parents. From the moment they get in the car he’s visibly uncomfortable, but ignores the underlying anxieties about his white girlfriend’s family finding out that he’s black and warnings from his best friend Rod (the great scene-stealer Lil Rey Howery). “My dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could,” Rose says in an attempt to assuage his reluctance. Spoiler: It doesn’t really work. What ensues is a subversion of familiar themes present in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Peele has delivered a biting and timely piece of art that exposes America’s original sin. Get Out points the finger not just at those who wear their bigotry proudly, but white liberals who oftentimes exempt themselves from being complicit in racist practices.

We see Chris’ worst fears validated throughout the film, even in the warm reception he receives from Rose’s parents Missy (Catherine Keener), a hypnotherapist and Dean, a neurosurgeon (Bradley Whitford); they seem a little too self-congratulatory about their “wokeness.” He’s immediately wary of their employment of Water (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who seem to be trapped in some lobotomized nightmare despite their insistence that the Armitages treat them like family. When he meets the similarly zombiefied Logan, the only other black person for miles besides the help, at the family’s annual gathering suddenly, Rod’s warnings of “sex slaves and shit” don’t seem so outlandish. Suddenly the underlying eeriness running through each exchange of dialogue ratchets into full blown horror. But it’s too late; the trap had been laid long before Chris’ arrival. The audience knows it’s over the moment Missy begins tapping that spoon on her tea cup. 

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It’s only upon repeated viewings that one can truly appreciate the layers Get Out has, from the brilliant double meanings of dialogue (“My mother loved her kitchen, so we keep a piece of her in here”) to the expertly placed easter eggs scattered throughout. That’s not even mentioning the bait and switch Peele expertly pulls off with the film’s plot, and how adroitly it skips between comedy, horror and satire, sometimes all within the same scene. It’s hard to imagine the film being such a laudatory achievement, however, without Daniel Kaluuya’s nuanced performance. Not only does he serve as a mirror for all of the bubbling uneasiness, but the way he wordlessly fills in years’ worth of blanks to Chris’ backstory is incredible in its own right, and holds the film together. It feels like such a miracle that he’s been such a mainstay in the Best Actor race, as this is a performance that the Academy often overlooks. Williams crafts a perfect villain, the performance people have been waiting for her since Girls premiered; her Rose feels like an even more warped Marnie Michaels who dove even further into embracing everything that’s awful about her. But its Betty Gabriel who is the film’s secret weapon, delivering one of the film’s most memorable, and centerpiece, moments. This is a film that the category “Best Ensemble” was invented for. 

In a world where the killing of unarmed black men, women and children have become a common news staple, Get Out is a searing indictment to white people who believe they aren’t engaging or contributing to the racism that America was founded, and continues to thrive upon.

***

2.) Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson & Lois Smith)

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“I just want you to be the best version of yourself.”

“What if this is the best version?”

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, is about a lot of things. It’s a coming of age story about a high school senior coming into her own, although she hasn’t quite figured out who she’d like to be yet. It’s an earnest and honest portrait of growing up with aspirations and dreams yearning to break through the restrictive boundaries of your small, familiar town. But first and foremost, it’s about a mother and a daughter, their complicated love for one another and how similar they are despite their insistence that they couldn’t be more different. Gerwig has taken one of film’s oldest tropes and made it feel brand new.

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, never better) is bored. She’s bored with her name, so she gives herself a new one, “Lady Bird,” much to her mother Marion’s (an amazing Laurie Metcalf) disdain. She’s bored by her life in Sacramento, California, so she’s making plans to look at liberal arts colleges on the east coast. Ones that are similar to Yale but not Yale because she “definitely” couldn’t get in. “The only thing exciting about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome,” she complains at one point. Lady Bird would desperately love to live through something. As she and her mother tear up to “The Grapes of Wrath” on cassette on their way home from visiting colleges, they argue over who knows what’s best for Lady Bird’s future. It’s incredible to watch Ronan and Metcalf go back and forth; you’re completely transfixed by how easily the lightning-quick dialogue just flows so effortlessly between the two. And just when you think you’ve figured out what the next 93 minutes are going to be like, Lady Bird opens the passenger door of her mother’s moving car and falls out in a sequence that shocks you so much that you almost forget to laugh. Things move pretty fast in Gerwig’s retelling of adolescent life in post-9/11 Sacramento, though she finds plenty of room for honest and hilarious surprises among familiar story beats.

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As much of a joy as it is to see the two go back and forth, Lady Bird is yet another example that Saoirse Ronan is one of the most talented actresses of her generation who just keeps getting better. After breaking through as a teenager in the first chapter of Atonement back in 2007 and transitioning into leading lady status with Brooklyn just a few years ago, she delivers the performance of her career here. She rips through Gerwig’s dialogue as if it’s nothing, tossing off lines that left the audience in stitches with absolute ease; her comedic timing is impeccable. But it’s the way she balances Christine’s sardonic persona with the burgeoning realization that she just might not have it all figured out that makes her work feel like such a revelation. Is there anything she can’t do? It would have been easy to play a sarcastic teenager who thinks the world is against her, but Ronan is too smart to reduce Christine to a cliché; you definitely knew this girl in high school. 

But it’s Gerwig who deserves the lion’s share of praise for pulling off such an incredible feat of filmmaking. Her collaborations with Noah Baumbach as a co-writer (particularly Frances Ha, which she also starred in) suggested she was capable of much more than simply acting. With Lady Bird, Gerwig emerges as a triple threat; even though she doesn’t appear onscreen, we can feel her presence in every frame of the film. Whether it’s through Ronan’s performance or the exemplary, biting dialogue. “You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life,” Chalamet’s character says to Christine after she discovers he’s not a virgin after all, just one of the many great one liners within the film. No matter how small the role, Gerwig gives her actors respect and room to breathe; these characters feel more like people who were plucked right from the streets of Sacramento. The film could have easily been lite Girls or Juno, but each moment feels like it was taken from straight from her teenage diary. Christine may want nothing more than to fly the coop, but in Lady Bird Gerwig asserts that home is where the heart is, no matter how contentious or complicated that home may be.

***

1.) Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino, Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel & Victoire Du Bois)

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There’s nothing quite like your first love, in all of its passionate and torturous beauty.  

Set in the the beautiful countryside of 1983 summertime Italy, Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American grad student, has arrived from America to study with Elio’s (Timothée Chalamet) father Mr. Perlman (Michel Stuhlbarg), a professor. Upon their introduction on the winding staircase of the Perlman’s villa, Oliver’s laid back demeanor immediately throws the very intelligent and capable Elio out of equilibrium. Sure, he’s multilingual and masters the work of Bach with an ease that defies his young age, but is completely unequipped to handle his visitor’s nonchalant aura. “Later,” Oliver casually tosses out as he comes and goes without a care in the world, putting another chink in Elio’s armor. Their interactions feel purposefully distant at first, and then the wall slowly begins to come down. Elio’s disdain quickly evolves into an infectious curiosity that quickly consumes him. He feels compelled to spend time with him and observe, always careful to never get too close. The camera echoes this sense of repressed longing, quietly resting on the short-shorts that tastefully frame Oliver’s legs, and the oversized Oxfords that expose just enough of his hairy chest and the glistening Star of David necklace. Stealing these prolonged glances feels forbidden, but it’s impossible to tear yourself away. Suddenly we realize that much like Elio, we’re enchanted. 

As Oliver’s visit comes to a close, it’s impossible to deny the connection that’s been bubbling underneath the surface any longer. “We wasted so many days,” Elio admits shortly after the two consummate their feelings, occasionally stealing kisses and resting his head on Oliver’s chest. The coded exchanges in the film’s first half come rushing back like a dagger to the heart; in being so careful not to reveal their true selves to one another, it becomes clear how many moments were stolen from these two, a feeling queer people hiding in the closet know all-too-well. 

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In retrospect, there probably wasn’t a more perfect director than Luca Guadagnino to adapt Call Me By Your Name, who finds the perfect balance between lascivious infatuation and repressed desire. Working from a screenplay from James Ivory (Howard’s End), the film encapsulates those first love butterflies, something Guadagnino has called “the most beautiful feeling”. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeep beguiles the audience with the beautiful Italian landscape; every shot in this film feels like a painting ripped from a museum. It’s an essential piece to the film, which immediately casts the audience under its maddening spell from its opening moments, much like Guadagnino’s previous efforts, I Am Love and A Dangerous Splash

While Timothée Chalamet has continued to (deservedly) rack up nearly every award for Best Actor, enough can’t be said about the other half of this burgeoning love story: Armie Hammer. Tasked with the difficult job of playing opaque against Chalamet’s expressiveness, Hammer’s innate warmth is irresistible as these two finally give themselves over to their crazed, clumsy impulses. “You don’t know how happy I am we slept together,” Oliver says in one scene. In less skilled hands, it might have been impossible to imagine the Oliver from the beginning openly admitting this. But it’s through Hammer’s nuanced performance that we can see that inner conflict taking place under that performative composure. Together, Chalamet and Hammer deliver a pair of performances so authentic, they feel ripped from personal experience. Had I been absolutely clueless about pop culture, I might have believed they were real-life lovers.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention to Mr. Perlman’s crushing monologue towards the film’s end, in which he pleads to Elio to hold onto his memories of Oliver. “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste,” he encourages. It’s an incredibly cathartic moment to hear a father so determinedly committed to loving his son, especially for a gay man whose father provided no such closure. But it’s a moment that also represents the entire film. Call Me By Your Name transcends the trappings of the coming of age/love story genres, savoring every passionate kiss and stolen look.  Every frame and dialogue exchange is swelling with an urgent, vibrant feeling that is absolutely undeniable. This stands along with Carol and Moonlight as one of the most beautiful movies about queer love and discovering one’s self. I’m still sorting through the pieces of my shattered heart after it was ripped from my chest.

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