10. Lady Bird
Sure, there are more of these coming-of-age teenager movies nowadays with quirky characters and meaningful journeys of finding yourself, but Lady Bird stands out from the pack for being a more spirited and driven picture. Saoirse Ronan plays the titular teen of a Catholic student with a rebellious spirit as fiery as her red hair. She loves doing drama with her overweight best friend but starts changing her tune when she is accepted by the cooler kids. She has a strained relationship with her mother, made all the more difficult with Lady Bird filling out college application forms behind her back. There’s a lot going on in Lady Bird, but all flows rather beautifully and without fat. Scenes are played just long enough for us to get the point before moving onto another moment of laughs or drama. It’s a film with such great power that it left me leaving the theater with a sense of warmth and wholeness, thanks in no small part to the tactful direction of Greta Gerwig.
Christopher Nolan didn’t just direct a war picture with Dunkirk, but one of the most clever and moving war films ever made. Cutting out most if not all of the nothing dialogue between scenes, the film focuses on three separate campaigns during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Few characters speak in cliches; only of the mission at hand and how they’re going to survive. There are a handful of stars in the picture, from Mark Rylance to Tom Hardy to Michael Caine, but none of them have any scene-stealing moments. I didn’t realize Michael Caine was speaking over the radio until I looked it up later as I was too engrossed in the film. Rather than muddy up his picture with overused war movie cliches, Nolan favors more of an experience where we can feel more of the desperation in the soldiers than typical blathering about trying to get home and wanting to see their wives again. Nolan doesn’t waste our time and makes Dunkirk one of the more important films in experiencing how much it sucks when bombers are always overhead and you’re always in the crosshairs.
8. Get Out
Get Out has all the timely commentary of John Carpenter’s They Live in weaving a weirdly terrifying, Twilight Zone style tale of racism. A black photographer played by Daniel Kaluuya visits the wealthy family of his new girlfriend, only to discover an unbelievable trap. Jordan Peele’s direction makes this unconventional horror picture a real insightful treat for taking aim at the self-hating white liberals that want to stress how much they love black people to a disturbing degree. Filled with freaky moments of messing with psychology, shots that echo Hitchcock, and an eerie examination of one’s own perceptions of identity and shame, Get Out is the type of horror film that keeps on giving, offering up something new on each viewing. It’s not the least bit surprising that Jordan Peele is helming a resurgence of The Twilight Zone after directing such a picture that feels right at home in such an iconic series.
7. War for the Planet of the Apes
The Planet of the Apes franchise has gone through a stunning makeover of one of the silliest sci-fi movie series to the strongest genre trilogy of the decade. War for the Planet of the Apes serves up the sensational, moving, and gritty finale as the strongest film of the already stellar series. There’s such an ease and grace of the computer graphics to conceive walking, emoting, and talking apes that the film has enough faith to now let the intelligent primates take center stage. It’s easy to get invested and lost in the performances of the motion-captured CGI character Caesar (performed by Andy Serkis) when he has such depth and drive in his scowl and sorrows in deciding what to do with his defensive clan. It’s also easy to appreciate Woody Harrelson as the army leader gone mad with power when there’s no sympathetic human to work with the apes. It’s all up to Caesar to both stop this threat and carry the film’s morality. He does both with gusto.
6. Blade Runner 2049
In a cinema scene overflowing with reboots, remakes, and sequels, Blade Runner 2049 stands tall as the rare example of a returning franchise with a purpose. Director Denis Villeneuve not only stays true to the Blade Runner world established by Ridley Scott, but also takes it into new areas worth exploring. His film manages to be even more atmospheric and thoughtful as hard sci-fi that asks the big questions of humanity and artificiality. Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford make a fantastic duo and thankfully subvert the whole passing of the torch. Jared Leto is used just enough as the conniving industrialist bent on breeding the ultimate Replicants. Sylvia Hoeks plays a perfectly evil corporate assassin and Ana de Armas is glowing as a hologram companion with an arc that is both touching and strange. It’s a long film and was a box office bomb, but there wasn’t a moment in those three hours when I didn’t feel completely engrossed in this world. Few films ever give me that sensation of leaving the theater as though I had left the planet.
Dee Rees’ Mudbound is far more than just a period piece with a talented cast. It’s a wholly encompassing drama that hits several different perspectives of farm residents in Mississippi during the early 1940s. The families of McAllan (white) and Jackson (black) try to connect as fellow farmers, despite the bitter racism of the McAllan’s old and racist grandfather Pappy (Jonathan Banks). Both families have boys that went off to war and return home to a much different world. Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) finds himself retreating to a bottle and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is floored to discover he had more freedom in the service around Europe than the hateful communities of Mississippi. Rees goes the extra mile to absorb us into this world with little details on the muddy walks, the harsh farming life, the brewing racism, and the questioning of beliefs. Everything from the direction to the casting to the eloquent narration of nearly every characters makes Mudbound a triumphantly engaging and meaningful film. It also has one of my favorite final lines of any movie: “I choose to end with love.”
Rarely have I cared for the comic book character of Wolverine as I do when he appears in Logan. Hugh Jackman plays a much different version of the character in his twilight days, struggling to find some purpose in a future that has all but wiped mutants out of society. In walks Laura (Dafne Keen), a clone of his blade-wielding DNA, that gives him a mission to safely transport her to the north. Paired up with the confused and more snarling Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), this is a modern western that hits all the right beats which felt strangely absent from other X-Men movies. There’s real character and grit in giving Jackman’s long-time a character a fantastic send-off film, far more than with just an R rating for him to finally slices up his enemies on screen. Logan is not only one of the best comic book movies of the year but boasts one of the best superhero deaths ever put to film.
Coco does what Pixar films do best in creating a wholly different world with a unique story and deeply mature themes. This film ranks among the studio’s best for its paranormal tale of the young Miguel trying to become a musician and escape the Land of the Dead, inadvertently uncovering a dark family secret on his journey. Unlike The Book of Life, another animated film that dealt with the belief on The Day of the Dead, Coco has fully defined the rules of its world so that there’s a clear goal in mind as the adventure grows trickier with betrayals and family secrets. Filled with amazingly colorful locations, charming characters, and amazing music, Coco is both sweet for it innocence, daring for its tackling of death, and incredibly emotional for an ending of closure that is sure to evoke as many tears as Pixar’s Up if not more so. Pixar hasn’t had a pristine track record, as seen in this year’s Cars 3, but when they deliver something as masterful as Coco, it’s a pleasant reminder that they’re a studio still capable of animated masterpieces.
2. Baby Driver
There’s never a dull or dreary moment in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a well-tuned heist picture with much music and action. Ansel Elgort plays the titular Baby as a getaway driver with an ear problem that is a wizard with the wheel when his MP3 player is set to the right song. He wants out of the game, but a sinister Kevin Spacey won’t let him leave and a chaotic Jamie Foxx won’t let him live. Scene after scene features brilliantly written characters, fantastic action, and a soundtrack that is so perfectly timed with the chases that it feels like Wright is directing the world’s greatest music videos. Where else can you watch a brutal car duel wonderfully synced up to the melodies of Queen?
1. The Florida Project
This was an easy choice. No other film this year brought me so deep into its world and tore out my heart like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an offbeat drama about kids living in the squalor just outside Disney World. Brooklynn Prince is one of the finest child actors out there in a role of great innocence for just being a kid and the tragic sadness that washes over her in the climax. Bria Vinaite plays the short-fused mother the struggles to hold a job and resorts to huckstering, prostitution and stealing to keep her daughter and their place at the motel. And Willem Dafoe is in the role of his career as the conflicted motel manager that tries desperately to hold down the fort and do right by the many kids that occupy his establishment. It’s an intoxicatingly atmospheric film for the natural nature of the kids, the real drama of the adults, and the trashy world occupied just outside the place where dreams come true.