By Isaac Feldberg
BLINDSPOTTING (dir. Carlos López Estrada)
This tightrope-traversing masterpiece crackles with empathy, insight, and energy — more than energy, a kind of soulful electricity. Blindspotting defined this year at the movies, for more reasons than just its Oakland setting. (That same city played earth to Wakanda’s heaven in Black Panther, and absurdist other-realm in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, though Estrada’s debut has the most to say about its tensions and multiplicities.)
No, Blindspotting draws its power from the real-life friendship of co-writers and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, two cinematic radicals who here reinvent the form in their own image without making a big fuss of it. They just do it, nimbly and naturally. Both actors are performance poets, and the movie shares their quicksilver rhythmic sensibilities.
Collin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal) are introduced as lifelong friends working for a moving company, who sometimes reflect on their days by bouncing improvised raps off one another. This sounds fantastical on paper but on screen it flows, euphorically so. Blindspotting’s heightened reality never strays far enough to lose touch with what’s tangible, and the commingling of absurdity and realism achieves a very specific, important perspective. It shouldn’t work and yet it does, perfectly. It is the purest exemplification of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first-rate intelligence that I’ve seen in a theater.
As the movie opens, Collin is fast-approaching the end of probation, having done time for a felony we don’t learn much about until later on but that it involved Miles, the loose cannon of the pair. Collin is Black while Miles is white, and this is baked into the bones of their friendship; Blindspotting bravely acknowledges that this tension hangs between them, one that builds until it must surely erupt. The pair grew up together in an Oakland they increasingly strain to recognize; rapid-onset gentrification has brought all manner of hipsters and techie types swarming into their neighborhoods, and police violence — a decade after the murder of Oscar Grant, which sparked Panther director Ryan Coogler’s debut, Fruitvale Station — is an ever-present threat, cop cars lying in wait around every corner, lions in the tall grass.
All of this factors into Blindspotting’s gravity-defying narrative, which wrestles with the trauma of racism, the nuances of appropriation, the foundation of our innate biases. Its title alludes to how, when presented with an optical illusion, most people see one image before the other; to truly see means looking beyond what you initially intuit. It means knowing you need to look in the first place. Blindspotting builds to an adrenalized climax — delivered in verse by Diggs, as he defends his humanity to a world that’s placed it, unjustly, on trial. But the heart of this film beats just as loud in quieter scenes, too, where Collin pleads to be seen by the ones he loves. It’s heartbreaking he even has to ask; but outside the confines of the cinema, you really think about it, about what this year has done to the world, and your heart breaks again, even harder.
We need Blindspotting. It’s an eye-opening, indispensable film, and the year’s crowning artistic achievement.
BLACK PANTHER (dir. Ryan Coogler)
An unassailable pop culture milestone. A taut triumph of Afrofuturist iconography realized in the propulsive, widescreen language of the superhero-blockbuster fantasy, and an elevation of that genre on every front. More than anything else, though, Black Panther is a great movie.
Its action sequences move with punch and precision, never once losing sight of the strong and complicated characters that crowd them. Its visuals dazzle, from the glorious, quasi-utopian dream of Wakanda to the violet African savanna of the ancestral plane where troubled monarch T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) communes with his ancestors. And its vision of Black superherodom feels both proud and blazingly political, as alive to the idea of a paradisal African nation untouched by colonialism as it is sensitive to the profound, traumatic pain and rage of those forcibly displaced from it by diaspora.
Black Panther is passionate in its embrace of Blackness and on-screen representation; it is thoughtful in opening a dialogue about the need for pan-African unity and startlingly fleet-footed in how it packages such weighty themes into what’s still a galvanizing adventure about a king in a bulletproof cat suit. This could become the first superhero movie to not only contend for, but win, Best Picture. One at least hopes it will bring Oscar gold for Michael B. Jordan, whose antiheroic Killmonger is the most captivating villain in this genre since Heath Ledger’s Joker and miles more complex; there’s a grand tragedy to this forgotten child of Wakanda, so scarred by imperialism that it poisons his otherwise-admirable mission of global Black liberation. Jordan locates the deep pain inherent in his struggle, the plight of an African-American male told he does not belong anywhere, denied entry to his homeland, criminalized for living while Black outside of it. (Not for nothing do we discover that Killmonger is a son of Oakland, both the home of writer-director Ryan Coogler and the birthplace of the Black Panther party itself. There’s a reading of this movie where the title isn’t simply, maybe even mostly, about T’Challa.)
It’s tempting to settle for being overjoyed that Black Panther exists at all, to celebrate its release alone as revolutionary. To do so would be to shortchange what a miraculous, stimulating, bar-raising burst of filmmaking this really was. Wakanda forever, indeed.
ANNIHILATION (dir. Alex Garland)
How does one even begin to describe Annihilation? This triumphant, devastating, unknowable sci-fi defies the explanation it cries out for, even as it invites you to suggest more.
Annihilation is, as the title says, most concerned with self-destruction; for me, it reflects great truths about what it’s like to live with depression and suicidal ideation that I’ve never seen depicted on screen before. Maybe I just need to see more movies. But none of them would look quite like this one, would they?
Annihilation’s characters — explorers in the Shimmer, a translucent, surreal landscape created by a meteorite crashing to Earth — are all negotiating in their own ways what it means to transform into something new, as the protean space around them promises to do the same. Their metamorphoses are distinct, allegorical, terrifyingly inevitable, and inevitably terrifying. Beautiful, too.
Depression has a way of making you feel alien even to yourself, out of place in a world that’s changing so fast you can’t hope to keep up with it. Tessa Thompson’s gossamer Josie at one point surrenders to what changes the Shimmer is enacting upon her; from the scars along her arms, flowers bloom. Annihilation is a soul cry and a carefully studied work of art at once. It is passionate and profound and precise in the ways of the best movies in this genre. It’s a film that offers to expand your mind through its very viewing. Let it.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (dir. Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, and Bob Persichetti)
Even if the story were nothing to write home about, the animation of Spider-Verse would be spectacular enough to earn it a place on this list; it is by leaps and bounds the most experimental blockbuster of the year, an audaciously, almost unbelievably alive piece of pop art made by people who really respect and understand the hope at the core of the superhero mythos. They know that core can be visualized as dynamically as it can be written on the page, and they work it into the DNA of their film: in the panoramic, graffiti-stained sprawl of city streets (no Spider-Man movie’s nailed New York like this), the whirring rhythms of high school hallways, and the nervous, euphoric thrill of two Spider-Men swinging through a snowy forest. This movie is probably the closest anyone has come to capturing the rush of being a kid opening up a comic for the first time and making a home in its pages.
Translating the language of comic books to the big screen is a tall order, and the filmmakers have placed a premium on improvisational, try-everything energy. The awe of watching panelization and line shading that looks so at home and so beautiful up on the screen probably reflects the exhilaration of the movie’s creators. Spider-Verse makes order from chaos, music from the noisy colliding of disparate animation styles; when they put a Rubik’s cube in the perplexed hand of Spider-Man Noir — a pulp-fiction ‘30s gumshoe packing heat and voiced by Nicolas Cage — it’s inspired, funny, and somehow so triumphant as to move you to tears.
A lot about Spider-Verse can make you cry, actually, more than anything else its message that you can wear the mask, that you always could. It’s a notion that warms you, one that feels like tonic at the end of this profoundly noxious year. It’s also an idea that’s been mostly lost in the increasingly weighty and apocalyptic MCU and arguably never even pursued by the comparatively leaden (though getting better) DCU.
Spider-Verse genuinely cares; it has an abundance of love for its characters and for its audience, for kids especially, for non-white kids like its mixed-race hero Miles Morales more than anyone else. It’s about time. The filmmakers’ note-perfect treatment of Miles paints him — in rich, affectionate textures — as an adolescent on the joyous precipice of finding himself. He’s a kid who feels out of place in his preppy private school but struggles to explain himself at home too, to his tough-love dad and too-cool-for-school uncle, two models of masculinity who’ve given Miles some of his best qualities and love him deeply without really knowing how to help him through this transitional period.
Smartly, no big deal is made of his Afro-Latino identity, though of course it matters, just as it matters tremendously that Miles’ journey in this film in part involves learning to master the new power of invisibility, to control how and when he’s seen.
No cinematic moment this year took my breath away quite like the reveal of Miles’ spray-painted suit — beautifully customized for him — as he sticks to the glass window of a skyscraper, which shatters as he pushes off from it and dives fearlessly toward the city; from our perspective, and his, he’s rising toward it. It’s perfect.
HEREDITARY (dir. Ari Aster)
The scariest movie of the year also had the most nihilistic reading of its main cinematic motif: the family unit.
Genre hits like A Quiet Place and Bird Box found parents shepherding their children through apocalyptic realities, ones teeming with monsters kept barely at bay, struggling despite the steadfast conviction that love would be the light that got them through. Hereditary isn’t hopeful, which is why I think I liked it more, a takeaway I chalk up less to empty cynicism than reading the political room. Hereditary questions, grimly, how much the family unit can sustain, arguing that it is fragile, easily fractured.
In the cruel, assured hands of writer-director Ari Aster, Hereditary comes off as an exemplary mood piece. The film dismantles the relationship between a mother (Toni Collette, titanic) and a son (Gabriel Byrne), contorting then corrupting it entirely as the two endure unfathomable grief, the kind that yellows the eyes and shatters the soul. I recognized that grief from my own life (and hated that).
The metaphor of a dollhouse keeps showing up; the mother makes dioramas, and it’s unsubtle yet effective when Aster shows that she’s living inside one. The dollhouses are shot from the exterior, vulnerable to a force that could reach inside to wreak devastation at any point. The idea that our lives are not entirely our own — that there exists someone beyond the dollhouse capable of manipulating its residents at will — is one not unfamiliar to those who’ve suffered tremendous grief. Such loss elicits suspicion and terror, the idea that something has gone amiss and that whatever is responsible for it may not stop after the first strike.
Hereditary keeps the hits coming. It wonders whether the creeping terror of our paranoias, our fears that we cannot protect the ones we love, will ultimately be our undoing. If, when we lose track of each other in the dark, we’ll blow out the light and the love. It acknowledges that, in our hopelessness, we may instead choose to let the monsters in; and that, even more bleakly, we may become the monsters ourselves. Maybe we always were. At least until Jordan Peele’s Us next year, this reigns as the defining horror movie of the Trump era.
COLD WAR (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
If I could live inside a movie, it would be this one. Pawlikowski’s romantic epic exudes sensuality and darkness from every immaculately composed frame. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the titular conflict, a war for the very soul of Poland, it charts an impossible love between two musicians from differing socioeconomic backgrounds, just out of reach of one another as they endeavor to survive a country tumbling around them.
Like his last film, Ida, it’s set in a distinctly bygone era of the director’s native country and shot in sumptuous black-and-white. Aside from that, it has thrillingly little in common with that spectral, austere work. Instead it revels in the passion and poetry of two lovers locked in an embrace that alternately destroys and restores them.
ROMA (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
Cuarón’s latest is perhaps his most humane, which is saying something given the director’s emphatically tender body of work. This is memory play that honors the housekeeper (played beautifully, and without artifice, by Yalitza Aparicio) who carried him through formative years in ‘70s Mexico City. It is patient and precise as it makes panoramic poetry from everyday life. Like the best of Fellini, Roma discovers something mesmeric about the mundane, and in doing so questions whether they have always been one and the same. Arts Fuse review
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
The hitman thriller reassembled as fully tightened vice-grip, Lynne Ramsay’s masterful movie packs the leanest 90 minutes of the year. This a post-modernist Taxi Driver that’s much better than that slightly glib descriptor suggests. Its protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), is a soul captured mid-explosion, screaming on the inside in confusion and pain, pure misery in a mortal frame; Phoenix gives one of the best performances of the year because of how much he holds back, how his entire body feels like a mess of scar tissue.
SEARCHING (dir. Aneesh Chaganty)
Are ‘screenlife’ thrillers the future of filmmaking? Searching — a terrifically promising debut for writer-director Aneesh Chaganty — makes a compelling case that this fresh cinematic form’s role in reflecting how we live now will only grow increasingly important. And it makes a better argument than recent, screen-based horror efforts (Unfriended: Dark Web) that this is to cinema’s benefit; rather than treating the template as a cheap gimmick, it offers white-knuckle proof of its dramatic storytelling potential.
Searching hooks you with one of the best opening sequences in recent memory, recalling Up, wherein the life of couple David Kim (John Cho) and Pamela Nam Kim (Sara Sohn) is told from the perspective of their Windows desktop, from the birth of their daughter up to a family tragedy 16 years later. More than clever, it’s quietly heartbreaking, which sets the tone for the rest of this thriller. Hollywood is late enough to the party that Cho, delivering the best performance of his career, won’t be considered for any real awards attention, and that’s a shame. Performing almost entirely in front of a web cam, Cho does something special and subtle with the kind of meaty leading role he should have been given years ago.
Searching turns the screws expertly, finding innovative ways to portray technology as a medium containing menace, danger, love, and community all at once; this is the only instance I’ve heard of where a car chase has taken place entirely via a moving arrow on a screen. What the movie expresses best is the totality of our Internet lives, how technology has been woven inextricably into our reality, and what fresh opportunities for connection — and isolation — it’s made accessible.
ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE (dir. John McPhail)
If you’d told me at the beginning of this year that a Scottish zombie Christmas comedy-musical would rank among my ultimate favorites, I would have — well, I probably would have told you that sounded about right. But never could I have imagined a movie quite like this, creatively unhinged and winsome in the most wackily energetic way.
The songs sparkle, the stars appeal, and the nutty tonal concoction works precisely where you’d think there’s no way in hell it ever could. It’s the best argument for reanimated corpses since Shaun of the Dead, an immediate Christmas classic, and (apropos of nothing save my own personal satisfaction in saying this) a better musical than La La Land.
MADELINE’S MADELINE (dir. Josephine Baker)
A vertiginous head-trip through the creative process that’s so boldly, electrifyingly composed by writer-director Baker — and acted within an inch of its life by three superb actresses, most of all fresh find Helena Howard — that you can practically see sparks flying out from the edges of the frame.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Perhaps not the best Mission (for all his action savvy, McQuarrie lacks the spatial ingenuity of a Brad Bird) but my personal favorite, a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza that insists on topping itself with every subsequent, death-defying stunt, even as it finds new emotional depth in Tom Cruise’s resident madman, never more human beneath the heart-in-mouth theatrics.
A STAR IS BORN (dir. Bradley Cooper)
My favorite from the actors-turned-directors wave that hit Hollywood this year — Ethan Hawke’s Blaze, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, and Paul Dano’s Wildlife being the other standouts — Cooper’s take on the classic tragedy is a dirge for men broken in the pursuit of myth. Some people dislike it for this, believing the film should have remained Ally’s story. They’re probably right. I like this version better.
THOROUGHBREDS (dir. Cory Finley)
A stylishly serpentine psychodrama of revenge and repression, elevated by the fine work of two emerging stars — Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke — and additionally noteworthy for a great turn from the late Anton Yelchin.
EIGHTH GRADE (dir. Bo Burnham)
What’s the bigger triumph here? That standup comedian Burnham’s debut feature is such an aching and affecting look at adolescence, or that he delivered us Elsie Fisher, a star in the making whose heroic, unaffected performance ranks among the year’s very best? Who knows, who cares; Eighth Grade itself is a miracle.
A Quiet Place (dir. John Krasinski), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (dir. Marielle Heller), First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader), The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos), Game Night (dir. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein), The Hate U Give (dir. George Tillman Jr.), Hold the Dark (dir. Jeremy Saulnier), If Beale Street Could Talk (dir. Barry Jenkins), Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik), Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda), Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley), Upgrade (dir. Leigh Whannell), What Keeps You Alive (dir. Colin Minihan), Widows (dir. Steve McQueen).
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.