This was a good year. The worst movie I saw was the over-hyped It, and I didn’t even bother with the Flatliners remake, which had a whopping 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes during its first week of release. Blade Runner 2049 was the masterpiece, and mother! the hidden gem.
1. Blade Runner 2049. 5 stars. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only problem are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.
2. mother! 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.
3. Logan. 5 stars. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.
4. Detroit. 4 ½ stars. When Hollywood goes after racism and injustice, the end product is usually ruined by overblown sanctimony and high-horse preaching and mawkish conclusions. Kathryn Bigelow is a gifted director who eschews that nonsense, and — as in her Middle-East masterpieces The Hurt Locker ans Zero Dark Thirty — delivers a drama so unpleasantly real it needs no leftist screeds. The film is about the Detroit riots that took place in 1967, and focuses on an awful night during which innocent African Americans were terrorized in a hotel. The cops rounded them up and lined them against the wall, yelling at them, humiliating them, pretending to shoot some of them, really shooting others; all because someone in the hotel fired a toy gun out a window. The actor in the above photo does a particularly good job of portraying a security guard caught between his ethnicity and his job, as he tries mediating between the police and the suspects, and, predictably, earning hate from both sides for his efforts. True to life, the film ends on the court trial in which the racist cops were acquitted. I always look forward to Bigelow’s films, and her documentary-style realism is searing as ever.
5. Call Me By Your Name. 4 ½ stars. I wanted to rank this higher, to spite the idiots who are unable to handle eroticism between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. Some have actually accused this film of promoting pedophilia, which is not only nonsense but grossly irresponsible. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to accept the huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). What happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is no manipulation or abuse of any power on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12. Critics have praised Call Me By Your Name for every good reason. As a sexual coming of age story, it’s one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind.
6. The Last Jedi. 4 ½ stars. I had high hopes for this installment given the director Rian Johnson’s work on other projects like Breaking Bad, and his talents pay off, though not quite to the insane degree implied by the critics. This isn’t the best Star Wars film since Empire (that honor goes to Rogue One) but admittedly a close second. Where The Force Awakens plagiarized the hell out of the past, The Last Jedi breaks new ground in impressive ways and delivers some of the most dramatic scenes of the franchise. The only real offenses are the porgs and Leia using the Force to fly. (The latter is almost as bad as the Doctor Who scene in Forest of the Dead, where the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to fly down the shaft of a planetoid.) The best performance is Mark Hamill’s, who in the classic trilogy was a poor actor who played a whiny bitch. This chapter finally justifies Luke’s existence. He’s that good, and even outdoes Han Solo in the previous film. See my rankings of all the Star Wars films; I place The Last Jedi at #3, after Empire (#1) and Rogue One (#2).
7. Get Out. 4 stars. As a rule I avoid comedy-based horror films, and I was even more wary of Get Out when I heard comparisons to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Horror isn’t the place to preach about racism any more than it is to crack jokes. I was surprised on both counts. Not only does the humor work, the portrayal of racial tensions feeds directly into the plot — and that plot is a whopper — without sermonizing. A black college student visits the parents of his white girlfriend, who are liberal racists, the well-meaning kind who only think they’re colorblind. (Practically the first line out of the father’s mouth is a patronizing assurance that he “would have voted for Obama a third time”.) It turns out this family loves black people in a seriously wrong way: they have been kidnapping and lobotomizing African Americans out of “reverence” for them — turning them into household slaves, and even sex slaves. Get Out is a brutal satire on liberals who fetishize that which they admire, and is the film this year I was most pleasantly surprised by.
8. Dunkirk. 4 stars. I wish I’d seen this in IMAX, because Christopher Nolan’s films tend to be enhanced in IMAX by a factor of five. (Dark Knight, I’m looking at you.) Swerving Spitfires, boat tippings, and soldiers dropping to the sand as planes scream overhead must have a nerve-wracking experience to see in this format; I was impressed enough on my home screen. At the same time, Dunkirk is a bit overrated by those who call it one of the best war movies of all time. It wouldn’t make my top ten (though it would probably make my top fifteen), as it amounts to an impressive spectacle without much interest in character, which for me is critical to the greatness of a film. The characters are really just ciphers for cannon fodder. There’s minimal dialogue, and while that strategy can sometimes pay dividends, I’m not sure it was the right approach for Dunkirk. But there’s no denying the films strengths, and the justice it does to the civilian rescue on the French coast.
9. Wind River. 3 ½ stars. This film proves that Taylor Sheridan is a better screenwriter than director. He wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, both excellent films, but in the case of Wind River he directed what he wrote, with results that are mostly decent but nothing exceptional. The story involves an FBI agent who enlists the help of a wildlife hunter in looking for the murderer of a Native American Indian on a reservation. The hunter is dealing with grief, as he lost a daughter who was half-Indian and divorced from his Indian wife. The mystery unfolds in a rather straightforward fashion, and end in a nail-biting shoot-out. Somewhere there is a message about grief, revenge, and cultural enlightenment. Definitely worth seeing, but probably only once.
10. Free Fire. 3 ½ stars. Another film worth seeing once is an anarchist action comedy. It’s a stripped-down blow out between arms dealers and gangsters who meet in a warehouse, and soon start shooting each other to smithereens when tempers explode. The whole film takes place in the confined warehouse setting with the dealers and gangsters cursing and firing, while the mediator hilariously uses her gender to advantage in avoid getting shot by either side. Free Fire comes across as a Reservoir Dogs wannabe, and it does have its brilliant moments.
(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)