Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sunken Places and Sinking States: Films of 2017

 As I write this, the 2018 Oscar nominees were announced this morning. (It will likely be some time before I actually finish this post though, haha. *EDIT: It was almost exactly a month.*) Oscar nomination morning is one of my favorite days of the year—film nerd Christmas morning!—but it usually comes with some consternation. Genre films were snubbed! Too many Oscar-bait films! My favorite film wasn't recognized! This year was a bit different, however—Academy voters actually did a decent job, a quibble or two notwithstanding. (How did The Florida Project not get a Best Picture nomination?!) But just because I have fewer grievances with the actual Oscar nominations this year doesn't mean I don't think I can do better. So, for the third year in a row, I'm handing out fake awards for my favorite films, performances, scripts, and scores (new category!) of the year. We'll start, as the actual Oscars themselves usually do, with the supporting performances.

Gold = winner
* = nominated for a real Oscar

Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird*
Bria Vinaite – The Florida Project
Allison Williams – Get Out

I don't really have any issues with the actual Oscar field. Spencer is very good but her character isn't as integral to her film as the ones listed here, and Janney's/Manville's performances have similar but opposite issues—Janney's is too loud, while Manville's is too quiet. Tune Janney down and Manville up and they might have made the cut here. (I have not yet seen Blige in Mudbound.) If Elizabeth Marvel was given more to do in The Meyerowitz Stories, she might've also made the cut here, but her character was unfortunately vastly underwritten.
  • The lone holdover from the real-life Oscars is Metcalf, and I'll be rooting hard for her to win over Janney on Oscar night. Her embattled, embittered performance is one of the year's finest in any category—especially her emotional reckoning at the airport. Just wow. Also, a shoutout to one of the best parts of Roseanne.
  • Probably just missing out on a real Oscar nom was Hunter, who's a tour-de-force as a worried/wrathful mother in The Big Sick. Her rant at the comedy show is one of my favorite scenes of the year. Her snub is one of the other major quibbles I had with the real nominations.
  • Dern's big moment in The Last Jedi is another one of my favorite scenes—I remember my jaw actually dropping both times I saw it. She deftly combines traditionally masculine martial confidence with (also traditionally) feminine warmth and creates an instantly legendary Star Wars character.
  • Vinaite is so good in The Florida Project that it seems like they just plucked her out of one of those shitty motels and dropped her into the movie. (Not quite—but she was actually discovered on Instagram.) I had expected more real awards buzz for her, but nada except for a few film critic award nominations, which is a shame.
  • Also curiously lacking in awards consideration was Williams (unless you count Best Villain at the VMAs). Her role is doubly great, considering that her character is acting for 2/3 of the movie. The way she chameleons when she's revealed as a villain is astounding—everything from her eyes to her smile to her body language completely shifts in a split second. It's absolutely terrifying. (And that milk scene though. It gives me a fear boner.)
I very nearly went with Laura Dern for this category, but she has so much less screen time than the two it eventually came down to—Hunter and Metcalf. I still think Hunter's scene in the comedy club is the strongest scene of the two performances, but her character was slightly more ancillary to the movie than Laurie Metcalf's. She has a decent shot at a real Oscar too. I just wish it could have been the same debate on Oscar night.

Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project*
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Patrick Stewart – Logan
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name
Jason Sudeikis – Colossal

The top two contenders for the real Oscar also make the cut here. Jenkins and, especially, Harrelson are great in their films, but the three new contenders here had performances that stood out more to me. I haven's seen the always-excellent Plummer in Money yet, but I will rectify that soon. (Or maybe I'll just watch, I dunno, The Usual Suspects or K-Pax instead.) There were also several other excellent supporting actors that I considered here—Armie Hammer in CMBYN (see below), Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Bill mother fucking Camp in Molly's Game, Bill Nighy in Their Finest, etc., etc.
  • The Oscar race is looking like it'll be between Rockwell and Dafoe, and Rockwell has all the momentum in the world (zing!) right now. He's long been a favorite actor of mine (he was bomb Ninja Turtles, yo!), and he's very good in a very... tricky role in Billboards. I have several issues with the movie (which I still think is very good), but none of them are with Rockwell. I'll be quite happy if he comes away with the Oscar.
  • The same goes for Dafoe, who might have the most range of any actor working today, from transformative Day-Lewis-esque performances to batshit insane Nic Cagian caricatures. His role in Florida is definitely one of the former. It takes a special talent to be able to seamlessly blend in with a cast of mostly non-professional actors, and Dafoe pulls it off with deeply humanistic aplomb.
  • I was sure that either Armie Hammer (a near-miss here) or Stuhlbarg would score an Oscar nom for their oustanding work in CMBYN, but they must've canceled each other's votes out or something—I don't see why neither of them wouldn't get a nomination otherwise. Of the two, Stuhlbarg's work is more indelible. A perimeter presence throughout most of the film, he delivers the monologue of the year toward the end—a masterwork full of naturalistic parental warmth.
  • I saw Logan on its opening weekend and walked out of the theater thinking that Stewart had a shot at his first-ever Oscar nom. He actually got a little bit of a buzz, but it wasn't to be. He doesn't miss out here, however, for one of my favorite performances of the year. He takes a character he's played in a half-dozen movies and suffuses it with pathos and a sense of finality, ending his portrayal of Charles Xavier with a truly iconic performance.
  • The most surprising name on here is Sudeikis's for sure. But the former SNL funnyman and usual rom-com nice guy gave a uncannily chilling and gradually menacing turn in one of the year's strangest films, Colossal. It takes a good 40 minutes to an hour for you to realize he's the villain (at least for me, a straight male), but from that point on, he's utterly magnetic and frightening, a too-true portrait of toxic beta-masculinity. Give this man more villainous roles, please.
I went back and forth on Dafoe vs. Stewart quite a bit before I finally settled on Willem Dafoe. His performance didn't have the dementia-aided fireworks or beatific death scene like Stewart's, but he was the glue that held one of the best movies of the year together, a big-hearted moral compass who made a conversation with birds one of my favorite scenes of the year.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain – Molly's Game
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water*
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Haley Lu Richardson – Columbus
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird*

This field is stacked, much better than the Best Actor field. Margot Robbie was a near-miss here, as was Jennifer Lawrence for mother!. (Whatever kind of cultural cachet the Razzies once had is now gone after they nominated her for a Razzie—and I'm generally not a huge J-Law fan.) Meryl Streep, like everyone, was fine in The Post, but she wasn't considered at all here. The two new entrants were far superior in my opinion.
  • Richardson was a new name for me this year. I first saw her in Split, where she gave a decent scream queen performance. But her name didn't really resonate for me until I saw her in Columbus, one of the year's quieter films. But her performance as a wannabe architect with a meth-addict mother is one of the most revelatory performances of the year, a work of unmitigated empathy and optimism. Sometimes, there's not much you can do but try to dance your pain away.
  • Chastain has been one of my favorite actresses since I first saw her in Take Shelter—which she should have been nominated for, but wasn't. And I still think she was robbed for Zero Dark Thirty in 2013. It's one of my favorite lead actress performances of the past few years. She's almost as good in Molly's Game, combining steely professional confidence and an internal brokenness all while keeping up with Aaron Sorkin's verbal pyrotechnics.
  • Somehow, Ronan, at 23, has had a longer film career than Chastain—Atonement was in 2007, the year before Chastain's first film role. She also has one more Oscar nomination—for Atonement, Brooklyn, and, now Lady Bird. (She was robbed for Hanna!) If she keeps this up, she might have more nominations than Streep before all is said and done. Although she probably doesn't have a chance on Oscar night, she'd be a more than deserving winner for Lady Bird, where she completely melts into the titular role, making you believe she's just an angsty high school senior rather than the jetsetting professional actress she's now been for over 10 years.
  • Her main competition on Oscar night will be Hawkins and McDormand, the latter of whom is the only previous winner on my list. Her work in Billboards is ferocious and inimitable, full of barely restrained invective and soul-shaking grief. It's impressive, impressive work and will probably net McDormand her second Oscar (the first being for a much different performance in Fargo). You won't hear any complaints from me if/when she wins.
  • The same goes for Hawkins (or Ronan, or even Robbie... any of the nominees but Streep really—and, I swear, I like Meryl Streep!). Hawkins' performance in The Shape of Water is the opposite of McDormand's in many ways: she's a mute, so she can't speak, and while she does have a well of resolve and anger, she conveys love and kindness through dextrous facial tics and expressive eyes. It's extraordinary work, and would likely get my vote if I were an Academy member...
...which obviously means that Sally Hawkins is my personal pick for Best Actress this year. You don't usually have to fuck a fish-man to win this award, but, hey, sometimes it helps. That she was able to do so and make it believable might be the acting achievement of the year. It might even be enough to win the film Best Picture—it could very well have been a disaster without someone like Hawkins in the lead role. Or, perhaps, she's the only person who could have played it?

Best Actor
Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name*
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread*
Michael Fassbender – Alien: Covenant
Hugh Jackman – Logan
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out*

Like Best Actress, three out of five of the real nominees also made my list. Of the two "snubs," Denzel was fine in the... less-than-fine (but still decent) Roman J. Israel, Esq., and, honestly, I didn't think much of Oldman's work in Darkest Hour. He's under so much makeup and prosthetics that you can't even tell it's him (which isn't acting), and he mostly blusters and bloviates with the same kind of scene-chewing intensity that he does in Luc Besson films—and he's better in those. Still, it'll be a deserving career-capping Oscar win, so I'm generally fine with it. He's just not winning *my* (fake) Oscar.
  • Unlike the other acting categories, I actually had a hard time filling out a field of five here. The top four (see below) were easy enough, but there weren't a lot of options for the fifth spot. I briefly considered James Franco in The Disaster Artist, but his performance is more of an impression, so that didn't last long. I nearly went with my boy Jimmy Macs (James McAvoy) for his impressive multi-character performance in Split (one of the underrated movies of 2017), but I eventually went with a different multi-character performance: Fassbender as the two androids, David and Walter. It's a great dual performance—he's both hero and villain, equal parts Data and Dr. Moreau, in one of the year's most misunderstood films.
  • The other usurper here is Jackman, who, like Fassbender, plays a character he's played before (and he also plays two different-but-identical characters). But Jackman has played Wolverine in nine(!) films now—and this one might be the best performance of his career. (The 2006 double-whammy of The Prestige and The Fountain are also up there.) That's because, unlike most of the previous X-movies (which is definitely also a porn site...), Wolvy is actually a human in this one. And not just because his powers are fading. It's because Logan isn't actually a superhero movie—it's a dramatic film that happens to be about superheroes, and Jackman makes the most of the opportunity to explore the humanity of these superpowered humans. I wish more superhero movies would follow Logan's lead.
  • The rest of the three nominees here landed much-deserved Oscar nominations. I was especially happy to see Kaluuya's name on Oscar nom morning—he's very young for a Best Actor nominee (28), he's, uh, black, and his performance is mostly reactive. The story mostly drives his performance, whereas most Best Actor nominees mostly drive the stories of their films. But Get Out allows Kaluuya to embody the genial wariness that most black people probably experience day-to-day—and he's even better when he gets to drop the pretense at the end of the film. I can't wait to see what he does next. (Sicario sidequel?)
  • Chalamet is even younger than Kaluuya at 22, and is, surprisingly, not French, which I definitely thought he was after seeing him in Lady Bird. Speaking of which, I was generally unimpressed with his performance as a pseudo-intellectual poser in that film and was prepared to be underwhelmed in CMBYN. I couldn't have been more wrong, although the languid pacing of the film doesn't allow him to really shine until the second half of the film. And in what is probably a film first, his best acting might actually occur over the end credits. I'll be hoping either him or the guy below can pull off the upset against Oldman on Oscar night. Wouldn't that be peachy?
  • Can Day-Lewis win a record-setting (for men) or record-tying (for either gender) at what might be his final Oscars? If he pulls off the upset, it would certainly be deserving (even though his win in 2012 for Lincoln came at the expense of Joaquin Phoenix's superior performance in The Master—although he was robbed for Gangs of New York, so I guess it all evens out?). His work as Reynolds Woodcock—perhaps the character name of the year—is one of the best performances of the year, a precise, pained paean to the oft-clichéd tortured genius. The genius of his performance, like Chalamet's, isn't necessarily apparent until close to the end, when the film's—and Woodcock's—true character is revealed. It's a performance, and a film, that demands a second viewing, which I eagerly anticipate.
Despite all the Oscar heavyweights here, I'm giving this award to Hugh Jackman, who had the hardest task by far—not only bringing a character to life, but breathing new life into a character most moviegoers know all too well. He could have easily coasted on his previous eight performances, but, instead, he turned in the best performance in any franchise movies since probably Heath Ledger. (R.I.P.) It's one I know I'll revisit many times. (And in black and white too!)

Best Score
Marco Beltrami – Logan
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – Wind River
Dario Marianelli – Darkest Hour
Oneohtrix Point Never – Good Time
Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049

This is the only category that doesn't overlap the real Oscar nominees. Carter Burwell's Three Billboards came closest, but there actually wasn't that much music in the movie, and one of the nominees below is the same type of score, just better. Desplat and Greenwood both did fine work for The Shape of Water and Phantom Thread, but those kinds of ornate, baroque scores don't typically do it for me. Zimmer is on here but for a different movie. And Williams always does good work on the Star Wars movies, but he basically gets a nomination just for showing up. Not here.
  • The most typical orchestral film score on this list is Marianelli's for Darkest Hour, which is about as Oscar-baity a movie as there comes. But Marianelli is the man behind one of my all-time favorite film scores, Atonement, and his latest collaboration with Joe Wright is another thing of beauty—alternately sweeping and mournful and, finally, as rousing as anything you'll hear this year. It'll make you want to leap out of your seat to fight Nazis (even if the film itself doesn't quite accomplish the same goal).
  • Beltrami's alternately spare and caustic score is the perfect complement to the emotional and physical grittiness of Logan. Forlorn piano undercut by discordant strings, bleeding into heavy guitar and howling harmonica, it sounds almost like a '70s Southern prog rock band founded by Clint Mansell. (If that makes any sense.) The score doesn't dictate the emotional beats of the movie (and there are plenty), but adds nuance to them, enhances them, sonic texture than manages to stand on its own.
  • Cave and Ellis's Wind River score, like the film, is one of the more underappreciated of the year. Treading similar aural territory as Burwell's Billboards score (twangy strings, tinkling keys, rustic moodiness), their work conjures up the frigid mountainsides, frozen plains, and claustrophobic interiors of the film's setting—a desolate and desperate tableau. It's haunting and deeply affecting work, maybe even better than their work on 2016's Hell or High Water.
  • Ever since Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Oscar for their The Social Network score, there's been a growing trend of electronic musicians scoring TV shows and films. A couple great recent examples are Disasterpiece's phenomenal It Follows score and Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of S U R V I V E's music for Stranger Things. Oneohtrix Point Never's score for Good Time is the latest example, and one of the best scores of the year. Urgent, hypnotic, and trippy—like the offspring of Cliff Martinez and Philip Glass on acid—it's as audacious and mold-breaking as the movie that spawned it.
  • The new Blade Runner was perhaps the most technically impressive film of the year: cinematography, set design, visual effects, sound—all of which it received Oscar nominees for. Missing out was Johannes BRAAAMS himself in Zimmer, whose ethereal-yet-foreboding score was much stronger than his work on Dunkirk in my book (er, blog). (And, besides, Marianelli did the better Dunkirk-related score.) The score suffuses every immaculately designed and shot scene with crystallized dread commingled with a strange sense of hope. It's a marvel to behold. I just wish I liked the writing and acting as much as the technical aspects. (I do intend to rewatch it soon though.)
This was really tough to pick, coming down to, perhaps surprisingly, Marianelli and Beltrami, the two most prototypical film scores. Even more surprisingly, I decided to go with Dario Marianelli for Darkest Hour, probably my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees. But the end credits piece, "We Shall Fight" is the film music that stuck in my head the most last year, especially the triumphant piano melody. Just fantastic work, even if I didn't love the sometimes maudlin movie as a whole.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green – Logan*
James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name*
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist*
Aaron Sorkin – Molly's Game*
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman – It

Four out of five of the real Oscar nominees are in here as well, and I have't seen the fifth nominee (Mudbound), so it could turn out that I agree with all five nominees when I eventually see it. But overall, it wasn't a strong year for adapted screenplays. The various non-Logan superhero movies were good, but the scripts all had to follow the typical franchise formula. I considered Rian Johnson for The Last Jedi, but it also was beholden to franchise conventions (and is the middle film in the trilogy besides) and didn't really know what to do with its female lead. But I was able to find space for a movie I was surprised as much as I did to round out the field of 5.
  • That movie was It, the year's best (and only) coming-of-age horror summer blockbuster. It borrows liberally from other King adaptations (and spiritual adaptations like Stranger Things), yes, but it's effective in its own right, streamlining the overly complicated mythos behind Pennywise/It without sacrificing anything essential. Palmer, Fukunga, and Dauberman set up the scares well (especially the ones in broad daylight—hard to do) and elegantly sets the table for the sequel while allowing the movie to stand on its own. Solid, functional work overall. (Although I do wish it hadn't leaned so much on the "damsel in distress" cliché in the third act.)
  • I almost omitted Neustadter and Weber for their adaptation of The Disaster Artist for being too straightforward. The book uses two separate timelines—the events leading up to the making of The Room and the actual filming of The Room—while the film takes a simple chronological approach. And the film is a bit more gawky toward Tommy Wiseau than the book, going for easy laughs when a more psychoanalytical approach would've been more effective. (The book largely avoids both—easy laughs and psychoanalysis.) But in the end, the film has just the right balance of humor, pathos, and incredulousness that I included it here.
  • Sorkin's script for Molly's Game was another flawed contender, but its high points were more than enough to outweigh the one pretty terrible scene toward the end. (I won't spoil it here, but it's basically a pater ex machina.) But those high points are Sorkin very near the top of his game (this isn't *quite* Social Network level), from the opening voiceover to the Michael Cera's serpentine Player X to Idris Elba absolutely CRUSHING his one Sorkin monologue. But the pièce de résistance is the mid-film sequence featuring Bill Camp's unassuming entrance into and shockingly catastrophic exit from the titular poker game. It's one of my favorite sequences in any film this year.
  • I was ecstatic to see Frank, Mangold, and Green nominated for Logan on Oscar nom morning. It's the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight and the script is a big reason why. While Logan is still clearly a superhero movie—it's got all the usual action set pieces, superpowered rumbles, and nefarious government organizations—it's also very much a movie about family. The extended mid-film sequence at the Munson farm has some of the best writing in any film this year, contrasting the patched-together trio of Logan, Charles, and Laura to the close-knit Munson family. Things predictably go wrong, but what's unpredictable is how affecting it all is when the blood is finally shed—and who's. It's an uncompromising, unflinching movie all the way to the end credits.
  • Like I said above, you actually have to stay through the credits with Call Me by Your Name—and I'll be damned if that isn't right there in Ivory's script. That editless, wordless scene serves as the exclamation point (or perhaps ellipsis) to the best love story of the year. (And how great is it that the best love stories of the past couple years are all about gay romances?) Ivory's masterful adaptation of the gay literary touchstone pushes Elio and Oliver together and pulls them apart in a sensuous rhythm for close to ninety minutes before finally allowing them to meld as one. It's a masterclass in patience and restraint, full of breathtaking interludes and unforgettable moments—and, of course, capped by Stuhlbarg's sure-to-be legendary monologue. The adaptation is handled with such care that it almost feels like you're reading the dialogue as it's being spoken, it gets into your head that much.
This one almost went to Logan, but as good as the Munson sequence and the very end was, it just didn't pack the same emotional and literary punch as James Ivory's work on Call Me by Your Name, which gets the win here and is likely the Oscar frontrunner as well.

Best Original Screenplay
Sean Baker – The Florida Project
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird*
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou – The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon – The Big Sick*
Jordan Peele – Get Out*

Two big Oscar contenders missed out here—Three Billboards and The Shape of Water. Neither of them really had a chance in this category for me. Billboards' script—set in the same state as Ferguson, for chrissakes—is absolutely tone deaf on race (to put it mildly), while Water's was just a little too... slight. (The strength of that movie is in the filmmaking and acting, not writing.) Other films considered were Colossal, Phantom Thread, Raw, and Ingrid Goes West. On to the nominees...
  • I have a feeling Baker's The Florida Project script missed out on a real Oscar nomination because of the film's natural, documentary-like feel and use of non-professional actors. It almost feels like the camera was just dropped in the middle of Kissimmee and picked up what it found. That's a shame, because the script's ability to to show both the rock-bottom desperation and never-dying hope of these motel residents is one of the true feats of screenwriting of the year. And that ending, my god (wordless, yes, but it still has to be written). There will be much more on this one below.
  • Also looked over by the Academy were Lanthimos and Filippou for Sacred Deer. It's not hard to figure out why—Sacred Deer is built on monotone line readings, stilted conversations, and a lethargic pace. Oh, and *SPOILERS* the ending features a blindfolded father murdering his son with a rifle. Not exactly Oscar fare. But it works. Like most Lanthimos films, it's uniquely weird yet undeniably compelling—and, in my eyes, his best yet.
  • Nanjiani and Gordon *did* thankfully earn an Oscar nom for the best romantic comedy since... I don't even know. Does Trainwreck count? Drinking Buddies? (Don't say Pitch Perfect.) Romantic comedy hasn't really been an Oscar-relevant genre since the '90s heydey of Ephron and Crowe (although The Artist and Silver Linings Playbook might count), but Nanjiani and Gordon bring a modern touch to the story of their love, touching on race, the healthcare debate, and even 9/11 (in one of the best scenes of the year—see the blurb on Holly Hunter above). Leave it to an interracial couple to make romcoms great again.
  • The coming-of-age movie has had better Oscar luck recently, with 20th Century Women, Inside Out, and Boyhood scoring noms in recent years. Gerwig continues that streak this year with the wonderful Lady Bird. Loosely based on her own adolescence in Sacramento, Lady Bird is a full-hearted exploration of mother-daughter relationships, burgeoning sexuality, high school politics, female friendship, finding your place in the world... yeah, it touches on a lot of themes. But it doesn't short-change any of them, and the clichés it does court are approached with earnestness and honesty. And, come on, any film that scores one of its biggest emotional beats to "Crash Into Me"—and totally pulls it off—deserves all the plaudits it gets.
  • One of the best things about this year's crop of Oscar nominees is that Tyroil Smoochie-Wallace is now an Oscar nominee (which I called, NBD)—and Peele might damn well win one or two. He might have his best shot in this category for what is *SPOILERS* easily the best screenwriting achievement of the year. Much has been made about the indeterminate genre of Get Out—is it a drama or comedy? A horror movie? A horror-comedy? A documentary? (For the record, I agree with the Golden Globes' decision to nominate it as a comedy—it's fucking hilarious.) However you want to categorize it, it doesn't matter—it's simply the sharpest social satire in a long time, replete with incisive observations and ingenious devices. It's also has an alternate ending that's might be even better than the nearly perfect theatrical ending. What a movie.
Obviously, Jordan Peele takes this category for Get Out, the best debut script in a long, long time. He's got a really good shot on Oscar night in a wide-open category. He's one of the nominees I'll be rooting for the hardest come March 4.

Best Director
Sean Baker – The Florida Project
Luca Guadagnino – Call Me by Your Name
James Mangold – Logan
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk*
Jordan Peele – Get Out*

All three of the missing Oscar nominees were varying degrees of painful to leave off this list. I'm a huge PTA fan, and his last few movies are great, but a little... esoteric at times, Phantom Thread included. I loved The Shape of Water and how much it loves movies, but it's a fairy tale that's much more purely cinematic than actually dramatic, so I could live with not including del Toro. But Greta Gerwig. Man, it *kills* me to leave her off the list. I *loved* Lady Bird and thought she did a fantastic job on it. I just loved these films slightly more and thought their directors did just a bit better work. There were just a few too many familiar beats in Lady Bird, and the ending didn't *quite* land for me. But I'm raptly waiting for her next film. 
  • The final slot was between Gerwig and Guadagnino, and I felt that Guadagnino had the slightly defter touch from the director's chair. CMBYN had the warm, hazy feeling of a cherished memory and the deep emotionality of a vivid dream that you just woke up from. It's also a gorgeous movie, swathed in sunshine and pastels and bare flesh. (Granted that it's easier to film a gorgeous movie in Italy versus Sacramento.) And thanks to Guadagnino, it's the rare film that manages to be both sexy and emotionally resonant. This, combined with 2015's excellent A Bigger Splash makes me both want to dive backwards into his catalogue and look forward to his next film.
  • I also considered Rian Johnson here for his often-spectacular work on The Last Jedi. He was responsible for some of my favorite movie moments of the year (see below). But, again, the film is propped up by the built-in franchise girding and he doesn't handle Rey particularly well. Instead, I went with another director of a franchise film whose film broke away from the trappings of the genre—Mangold for Logan. I've already waxed plenty above about the thoughtful script, stellar performances from Stewart and Jackman, and the film-within-a-film at the Munson farm. So let me end by saying that the scene at the Oklahoma City casino is one of the most inventive, intense action scenes since Mad Max: Fury Road (and in a totally different way). Mangold gets the lion's share of the credit for the best superhero movie of the year in a year that featured several very good ones.
  • The other non-real-Oscar nominee in my field is Baker, who, given his trajectory from Tangerine to The Florida Project seems like a damn good bet to earn a nom with his next film. Should that happen, it'll be one film too late, since he was absolutely one of the five best directors of 2017. How else to explain how a film featuring predominantly non-professional actors—most of whom are children—and shot in the seediest, scummiest transient motels of the sinking state of Florida was one of the year's best? Baker's knack for finding the humanity and the hopefulness in the denizens of society's fringes—Armenian cab drivers, transgender prostitutes, welfare mothers, motel managers—combined with his almost whimsical aesthetic make anything he does worth watching. I'd normally be leery of a film about the opioid crisis as it's happening, but if Baker is directing it, I'm all in.
  • Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, The mother fucking Prestige—it's hard to believe his nomination for Dunkirk is Nolan's first Oscar nomination for Best Director. It's richly deserved for his most accomplished, subtle work since the aforementioned Prestige (which is possibly his best work). Dunkirk takes the ingenious Russian-nesting-doll structure of Inception, strips it of the high-concept antics, and builds a gripping WWII drama around it. Watching each of the three timelines unfold on their own time signature and slowly—but inexorably—linking together in a pulse-pounding climax is one of the truly breathtaking cinematic achievements of 2017. Nolan will probably lose to del Toro on Oscar night, which would be a shame, if not quite on the level of one of the all-time Oscar snubs.
  • That leaves us with Peele for the year's breakout directing performance. The premise—a horror movie about a black man visiting his white girlfriend's parents for the first time—seemed more like an extended Key and Peele sketch than the zeitgeist-iest, most socially aware movie of the year. Just about every moment is note-perfect, from the Childish Gambino-scored opening to "I would've voted for Obama a third time if I could" to the Sunken Place to the two equally great endings. First films aren't usually this polished, this assured, this groundbreaking... not to mention this darkly hilarious, this tonally nimble, this cuttingly observant. But he totally crushed it. Smashed it. Smoshed it.
This was the toughest category of them all to pick. The final two contenders were Baker and Peele, who helmed my *SPOILERS* two favorite movies of the year. Peele actually beat out Baker for Original Screenplay above, which is exactly why I went with Sean Baker for this category. The strengths of Get Out come directly from the page, while The Florida Project comes to life on the screen—best embodied by the incredible ending, a clandestinely shot dash through the Magic Kingdom itself. It's magical, affirming, a little scary, a little sweet... in a word, perfect.

Best Picture
Call Me by Your Name*
The Florida Project
Get Out*
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Lady Bird*
Molly's Game
The Shape of Water*
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

None of the other actual Best Picture nominees was particularly close here, but I enjoyed them all to varying degrees, from the bilious and deliberate Phantom Thread to the spectacularly flawed and sometimes actually spectacular Billboards to the spectacularly competent The Post to the severe and sentimental Darkest Hour. A few films that just missed the cutoff here were mother!, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok (I do love me some Marvel movies). As usual, I've gone with a full list of 10 to match my Letterboxd top films of 2017 list (rather than the 9 films that earned real Best Picture nominees). Here are my final thoughts on my favorite films of the year.
  • 10) Molly's Game – I flip-flopped between this and mother!, but wound up going with the film with the (slightly) stronger lead performance and less opaque story. (Although the cinematography in mother! might be the year's best.) Despite its daddy issues, Molly's Game is a story made for the big screen, and Sorkin brings it to life with his trademark machine gun approach to dialogue and a keen sense of tension, for drama and poker hands both.
  • 9) The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro's latest has found itself the frontrunner for Best Picture, which is never a thing I thought I'd say about a film in which a woman *SPOILERS* fucks a fish-man. But to me, neither the fish-man, nor Michael Shannon's forehead vein, nor even Sally Hawkins is the star of the show—instead, it's cinema itself. This is the most unlikely ode to classic films I can think of, but from the careful compositions, to the jaunty score, to the delightfully emotive acting, to the movie theater Sally Hawkins's character lives above, this is clearly a love letter to Old Hollywood. Which is probably why it will win the Oscar next month.
  • 8) The Killing of a Sacred Deer – This is easily the least-likely film on this list. I wasn't a huge fan of the previous two Lanthimos films I'd seen—Dogtooth (too deliberately "shocking") and The Lobster (great concept, but drab and kind of boring). I thought I was headed for another Lobster with the first half or so of Deer—wooden performances, stilted line-readings, a seemingly forced weirdness, an apathetic pace. But when the plot hinted at in the trailer kicked in, everything seemed to click for me. The character interactions started to make sense, the weirdness seemed justified, and the tension was cranked up so much I physically felt it in my seat. It wound up reminding me a lot of Cache, one of—if not my favorite—the best films of this century. It's not for everyone, and it's certainly not a very likable film, but I found myself admiring it more and more once I understood what Lanthimos was trying to do. It's also probably the film on this list I've thought the most about long after I saw it. It really stays with you.
  • 7) Lady Bird – Here's how much I like Greta Gerwig: I was super disappointed when I found out she was *only* directing Lady Bird and wasn't actually in it. (I mean, she couldn't have been a nun or the older sister of a friend or something?) But then, of course she's in the movie—in every line of dialogue, in every awkwardly genuine tic of Lady Bird, in every lovingly specific dig at Sacramento, in every music choice. It feels both incredibly personal and universal at the same time, which is hard to pull off. And even though the ending didn't *quite* work for me, it was also just ambiguous enough that it made the movie work as a quasi-prequel to Frances Ha (one of my actual favorite movies of this century), which made me appreciate Gerwig's achievements in that one all the more. It's not a Baumbach movie at all to me anymore—it's Gerwig's first feature. I can't wait to see what her third brings!
  • 6) Dunkirk – If anyone wanted to argue that the characters in Dunkirk are a weak point, I'll mostly agree. I don't remember a single thing about any of the characters in the beach plotline, or about the non-Tom Hardy pilot. But Hardy is probably the character people remember most about the film, and I call BS if you didn't find the Rylance storyline with his sons compelling. But, yeah, I generally agree the characters were a weak point. That said, this was one of the most technically impressive film of the year, maybe even more so than Blade Runner 2049 (which had even more flaws with its characters/story). Magnificent cinematography, tension-driving score, bombastic sound, meticulous editing, Dunkirk is big-budget filmmaking at its finest. Like here, it probably won't win any major awards come Oscar night, but it will be a major category in the techs.
  • 5) Logan – Yes, Logan is a superhero movie, and, yes, it's rated R. Those aren't the reasons it's so good though (although they don't hurt). Logan is a good movie because, simply, it's just that—a good movie. It's a surprisingly heartfelt story about the family you find when the one you were born into is gone, about the reckoning that comes after a lifetime of persecution and violence, about finally coming to peace with the choices you've made. That it just happens to be about people with healing factors, retractable claws, and/or telekinesis is just a bonus. Take those things away and, I'd contend, you'd still have a great movie. (That's because you'd likely have an old-school Western, but that's a point for a more in-depth write-up.) I hope we'll see plenty more superhero movies like Logan, but given the Marvel/DC box-office arms race, I doubt we will, unfortunately.
  • 4) Call Me by Your Name – It's easy to compare CMBYN to Moonlight, as they're both critically fawned-over gay romances that came out in back-to-back years. But I don't think the comparison is strictly accurate—Elio and Oliver didn't have to hide who they were nearly to the level Chiron and Kevin did for a number of reasons. (Race is a big one, as are geography and social class.) No, the better comparison for Elio and Oliver is another set of star-crossed white lovers: Jesse and Celine of the Before Sunrise trilogy. The European locale, the too-short time together, the vague hopefulness for the future despite knowing their time together was coming to an end... it just makes too much sense. Even Guadagnino himself realizes the similarities, teasing a Before Sunset–esque sequel a decade or so down the line. Elio visiting married father Oliver in America, neither never having gotten over the other? Watching their romance unfold on screen was one of the most purely joyful cinematic experiences of the year, so count me 100% in for revisiting it. (Although I hope it ends better than Before Midnight—great movie, but my god it was hard to watch.)
  • 3) Star Wars: The Last Jedi – The ranking of this one might come as a bit of a surprise, considering the lack of presence in the other categories above. It's even more surprising to me, considering that my fist viewing was at a sold-out 10:00 p.m. preview screening after more than a few barrel-aged beers with several buddies (one of whom fell asleep about 10 minutes in) and my review was "meh." But then I saw it again a few days later without the buzz or the snoring and the number of moments where I cheered silently or pumped my fist or cracked a huge grin or stared slack-jawed at the screen were more than I could count. (More than VIII, anyway.) Paige Tico's sacrifice, Rey's hall of mirrors, CANTO BIGHT, Holdo's last stand, the fight with Snoke's guards, Rose and Finn's kiss... I didn't realize how much they'd stuck with me after the first viewing, and how much I'd been anticipating them. I haven't seen it since, but I'm already looking forward to the next time I do. THAT is the mark of a great movie, and that it came as the *eighth* movie in a franchise is even more impressive. (I'm tempering my expectations for IX though.)
  • 2) Get Out – Although I'm (thankfully) no longer a dead-broke student, my preferred method of seeing movies is still the time-honored "pay-for-one-see-two" double feature. It's partly out of habit/tradition, and partly because I genuinely love spending 4-5 hours at a time in those darkened theaters. I say all this because 2017 was a damn good year for double features. I saw CMBYN and The Post on the same day, The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour and, impressively, Lady Bird and Thor: Ragnarok. (There was also Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Dunkirk, which was... interesting.) Great movie days, all. But none were better than the day I saw Logan and Get Out back-to-back. I walked out of Logan knowing I'd already seen one of the best movies of the year (this was in March), but I had no idea I was about to walk into an even better one. Get Out blew me away—it was inventive, it was important, it was impassioned. It didn't know what genre it wanted to be, but it didn't matter because it executed the best parts of each flawlessly and subverted every cliché it encountered. It's the movie I've talked the most about this year, and the one I hope will walk away with the real Best Picture in just over a week...
  • 1) The Florida Project – ...if only because, somehow, the Academy passed over the actual best picture of the year, The Florida Project. It's a small movie, to be sure (only a $2M budget and $7.5M box office), with only one "big" name attached (Dafoe's), but what it lacks in traditional prestige and major studio sheen, it more than make up for in pure, crackling vitality. The cast, the characters, the setting, the story, the filmmaking—everything about this movie just seems so raw and real and untouched by pretension or artifice. These kinds of cinematic experiences are so rare—Moonlight was one just last year, Boyhood a couple years before that. Say what you will about the Academy, but they usually at least nominate these films when they come along. They didn't this year for whatever reason, but I'm not making that same mistake. See it if you get a chance and I think you'll feel something similar to what I did. It's rare to see such a pure distillation of the human experience—life, beautiful, messy, difficult life—projected onto a screen, but that's just what Sean Baker accomplished with this film. See it, see it, see it.
And that concludes another several-thousand-words-long ramble about last year's films a couple months too late for most people to care. But it's earlier than last year (by three whole days!) and before the actual Oscars, so I'll count that as a win. As always, thanks for reading!

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