Our demanding critics choose the best (most disappointing) films of the year.
By Arts Fuse Staff
Arts Fuse film critics serve up their best-of-the-year picks in film. But, given the independence of mind of our thoughtful reviewers, don’t expect any predictable agreement on the selections. I, Tonya and mother! were hits for one critic and downers for another.
The Arts Fuse
By Gerald Peary
Best Film: A Ghost Story
Like Henry James with Turn of the Screw, filmmaker David Lowery utilizes the supernatural form for a chilling philosophic tale, one which looks forward and backward (sadly, ironically) on the history of mankind on earth.
The Rest of the Ten Best:
Darren Aronofsky stirs Roman Polanski, Bosch, Brueghel, and Nathanael West into a bubbly witches’ cauldron in his wildly ambitious, somewhat lunatic take on patriarchy and celebrity. Even at its most chaotic, the filming makes pure sense.
Hail a supremely talented first-time feature filmmaker in Margaret Betts, who beautifully cast and directed her period story of a young nun joining a strict convent at the moment of Vatican 2. Betts also wrote the elegant, literate screenplay.
A sweet, entertaining action movie for those who normally are bored to death by such infantile, brain-dead cinema. Filmmaker Edgar Wright shoots and edits with the greatest ease and joy. Discredited Kevin Spacey is a fun villain.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison’s poetic documentation of a dazzling moment in the archeology of cinema, when an ever-frozen lake in Canada revealed its secret treasure: 533 nitrate prints of early cinema.
Lara Stolman’s poignant, immensely moving documentary about a competitive swim team in New Jersey of teenagers on the autism spectrum. Best are the extraordinary domestic scenes with the fragile teens and their heroic parents.
The year’s most playful, artistic, and slyly political documentary, pairing on screen, and as co-directors, the diminutive, ageless film master, Agnes Varda, and JR, a young, visionary conceptual artist. A delight of a Gallic road movie.
An American indie made in Yiddish, an expert neorealist film set in the Hasidic community. The protagonist is a grocery clerk who tries to patch his screwed-up life, and be a good father to a son in an evocation of The Bicycle Thief.
Russia’s most important contemporary director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, makes yet another hard-edged, unsentimental picture of selfish, brutal, Putin-era life, this time dealing with a corrosive marriage in the yuppie world of new money.
Joachim Trier’s conscious transference of Carrie (plus the eerie mood of Let The Right One In), to a Norwegian university, where a shy, awkward female student tries to break free of the rigid hold of her evangelical parents. Get ready for fright!
And these worthy runners-up: Phantom Thread, Get Out, In Transit, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Disaster Artist, Call Me By Your Name, The Meyerowitz Stories, Brad’s Status, In the Fade, Frantz, The Death of Louis XIV, Beatriz at Dinner, Obit, The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Dolores, Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead, Good Time, Graduation, Maudie, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Lady Bird.
The most overrated films: The Shape of Water, I, Tonya, Wonder Woman
The most disappointing film: Blade Runner 2049
Best Actor: James Franco, The Disaster Artist Runners-up: Adam Sandler, The Meyerowitz Stories; Menashe Lustig, Menashe; Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name; Jean-Pierre Leaud, The Death of Louis XIV
Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri Runners-up: Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool; Sally Hawkins, Maudie, Maryana Spivak, Loveless; Diane Kruger, In the Fade
Best Supporting Actor: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri Runners-up: Dustin Hoffman, The Meyerowitz Stories; Ben Stiller, The Meyerowitz Stories; Ed Harris, mother!; Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, Novitiate Runners-up, Leslie Manville, Phantom Thread; Elisabeth Moss, The Square; Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!; Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, mother! Runners-up: Margaret Betts, Novitiate; Andrey Zvyagintsev, Loveless; David Lowery, A Ghost Story; Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Best Screenplay: Maggie Betts, Novitiate Runners-up Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri; Noah Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories; Mike White, Brad’s Status; James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Best Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema, Dunkirk Runners-up: Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049; Matthew Libatique, mother!; Andrew Droz Palermo, A Ghost Story; Mikhail Krichman, Loveless
By Tim Jackson
Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer and director is remarkably self-assured. The screenplay is grounded in love and honesty and her filmmaking is in command of the rhythms of comedy. A seasoned ensemble of terrific actors create complex and recognizable characters. Review
No good deed or well-meaning intention is left unpunished in Ruben Östlund’s dry comedy concerning an art installation called The Square. The film explores the awkward collisions of art and life; not even the audience is spared. Scenes and details, intended to defy explanation, are injected into the story to irritate viewers and foil sober-minded critics. Elizabeth Moss is excellent as an earnest and befuddled American journalist covering the art scene in Sweden. In one disarming and timely scene she confronts dapper museum curator (Claes Bang) and accuses him of seducing and abandoning her. Her accusations go nowhere.
Jordan Peele honed his writing on the TV series Key & Peele and as a cast member on Mad TV. His well-deserved success with this comedy/horror film about race in America has you laughing one second and squirming the next. It audaciously skewers the hypocrisy of black/white history as well as current pieties about improved relations.
Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadagnino sensitively adapts André Aciman’s novel about a romance between a good-looking older man and a precocious 17-year-old. The narrative is set in the amidst of the small towns and romantic landscapes of Italy in the summer of 1983. Emotionally honest and physically bold performances are supplied by Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothee Chalamet as Elio. As Elio’s father, Michael Stuhlbarg delivers a memorable speech in praise of wisdom and compassion.
Killing of a Sacred Deer
Colin Farrell’s kindly heart surgeon befriends oddball Barry Keogan, who is the son of a man who died on the doctor’s operating table. The ensemble delivers comically mundane lines with an effectively muted affect. We are left feeling unmoored as the plot becomes increasingly bizarre: characters act without motives and the visuals are increasingly quirky. The result is a hysterical comedy of middle-class manners that somehow morphs into the horrifically mythological. A beautifully shot, wonderfully creepy film.
The Florida Project
This rambling, shaggy story of a wayward mother and her unruly 6-year-old daughter living in a hotel outside Orlando, Florida is anchored by the performance of little Brooklynn Prince. Willem Dafoe is the sympathetic hotel manager. As he did with Tangerine (2015), director/writer Sean Baker knows that love is still precious to those living, preciously, on the fringes of society.
Jennifer Lawrence is beset by unwanted visitors and a series of apocalyptic events in an old house she shares with her sanctimonious and oily writer husband, played by a Javier Bardem. Things start poorly, get worse, and finally descend into Armageddon. Review
Shooting in 70mm film and avoiding a digital effects overload, Christopher Nolan captures the fury and chaos, sweep and intimacy of war in the air, on land, and at sea. He revisits an essential battle of WWII, as fit to offer a rebuke to a generation that gobbles up his fantasy fare. Except for some cartoonish moments from Kenneth Branagh, the acting is convincing. Hans Zimmer’s fine score is artfully blended into the shattering sound design. The aerial dogfights are breathtaking. Review
Pixar isn’t satisfied with just creating amazing animation. They are going global. In this superb effort they employ Spanish voice talent as well as musicians to present the textures of a small Mexican village. It is the story of a boy who yearns to be a great musician — set during the Mexican Day of the Dead. Coco honors family, history, and Mexican culture in a wildly imaginative story filled with great music.
PT Anderson directs Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, celebrity designer and dresser to royalty and the elite. The protagonist’s obsessive work habits border on decadent. His elaborately controlled world begins to unravel after he takes in a former waitress named Alma (Luxembourg’s actress Vicky Krieps) as his assistant and the primary model for his designs. The music, cinematography, acting, and costumes are powerfully elegant. The film is an appropriate (alleged) last film role for Lewis, who is in total command. As with Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, the ending confounds, but the film has already worked its magic. You leave the theater dazed.
Five Documentaries Worth Seeing
There are many docs worth noting. Here are a few that should be recognized.
Agnes Varda at age 88 and artist JR at age 33 collaborate on a film that celebrates life in small towns around France. The subject is nothing less than the nobility of existence. The film is pure poetry.
Intent To Destroy
Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) exposes America’s suppression of information about the Armenian genocide of 1915 at it simultaneously documents the production of Terry George’s film on the same topic, The Promise.
This is a good year to discover the story of veteran activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder, with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers union.
Long Strange Trip
The earnest blend of testimonies and concert footage in this 4-hour music documentary on Jerry Garcia and his merry band gave me a renewed appreciation for The Grateful Dead.
Birth of A Movement
Examining the racist history of the silent film Birth of a Nation, local filmmakers Bestor Cram and Susan Grey revisit key moments in the history of D.W. Griffith’s movie while examining the such subjects as race relations in Boston, protest movements, and the overlooked career of William M. Trotter.
Blade Runner 2049
To paraphrase: “Looks great, but not so filling.” I think we were supposed to be confused and uncertain about who’s who and what’s what but after two hours you just give up. It was overly long, slow, and comes with a dreadfully bombastic score. The scenes of aging Harrison Ford in peril were straight out of Mad Magazine.
War for the Planet of the Apes
I confess that I love watching monkeys ride horses. This film, however, comes off as your standard bad western — it just happens to have monkeys instead of cowboys. The silly plot about apes in bondage, or some such nonsense, is capped by a laughably clichéd ending.
The Meyerowitz Stories
Parts of director Noah Baumbach’s script are clever, but Ben Stiller’s and Adam Sandler’s comic styles are mismatched and poor editing made the disjunction worse. Dustin Hoffman is so generic and listless in his role as an ornery grandfather that it’s as if he is saying to viewers ‘Watch me. I don’t have to act anymore. I’m Dustin Hoffman.’
First They Killed My Father
This essential lesson in Cambodian history, based on Loung Ung’s memoir, is performed in the Khmer language by native actors. Alas, director Angelina Jolie turns noble ambitions into a dishearteningly static and predictable picture book of a film.
The film is one of the better entries in the superhero franchise though, as usual, every CG moment and twist of the plot is hammered with melodramatic abandon. The dialogue’s comic book seriousness and the self-conscious irony of Chris Pratt’s performance as Steve Trevor become tiresome. And I am I the only one made uneasy by the specter of Nazi atrocities via the mass death by gassing storyline?
Lost City of Z
Bland and laughably predictable from start to finish with an ending so comically inept that it tainted any credibility the story might have had in the lead up. You’re better off reading the book.
By Peg Aloi
Best of the year (in no particular order)
Call Me By Your Name: A stunning love story set in the 1980s in Italy, reminiscent of Stealing Beauty in terms of its dreamy backdrop and unabashed sensuality. Timothée Chalavet gives one of the best performances of the year as a self-assured French teen who falls for an older American grad student (Armie Hammer). Director Luca Guadagnino’s storytelling is subtle yet provocative, with silences, gestures, and vistas as significant as the most pointed words of dialogue.
I, Tonya: A glitzy, vicious thrill ride tinged with 1980s nostalgia, brilliantly conceived, written, acted and edited, exposing what really happened between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan…except really it’s about how badass, irascible, and resilient Harding is. So good I seriously started hyperventilating.
Get Out: Original sharp social satire that works equally well as comedy or horror. Excellent cast and impressive first effort from writer-director Jordan Peele. I applaud anything that shakes up Hollywood’s old guard whiteness.
Lady Bird: Sweet, sad, and savvy screenplay by Greta Gerwig, whose directorial chops are impressive. Saoirse Ronan soars as the title character in this coming of-age tale that deals honestly with sex and the painful pitfalls of adolescent friendships.
The Florida Project: This one eventually won me over. Gorgeous 35mm cinematography and low-key, naturalistic performances are the highlights of this funny but also disturbing portrait of poverty-stricken communities living on the outskirts of Disneyland. Directed by Tangerine’s Sean Baker.
mother! Darren Aronofsky’s metaphorical mindfuck divided critics and generally perplexed audiences, but this filmgoing pagan was blown away by its powerful portrait of humanity in the form of loutish houseguests running amok on the green planet we call Home.
A Dark Song: Liam Gavin’s directorial debut is a stunning, minimal tale of a grieving woman who partners with an occultist to make contact with her dead child. Atmospheric, chilling, and absorbing.
The Beguiled: Maybe the original 1970s version is deep in my blood, but I loved Sofia Coppola’s moody, exquisitely photographed reboot of this tale of a Civil War soldier (Colin Farrell) who charms the women at an all-girls school in the war-torn South. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning are all beguiling.
Raw: Julia Ducornau has crafted a kinetic tale about growing up that also works just fine as a horrific story of cannibalism. Garance Marillier gives a brilliant performance as a vegan veterinary student suddenly gripped by a compulsion to eat human flesh.
The Lure: What can you say about an erotic, violent Polish musical about teenage vampire mermaids? It’s clever, funny, creepy, suspenseful, and sparkling with strangeness. This was one of my favorite films of the year and it’s well worth seeking out.
Honorable mentions: Personal Shopper, The Square, Frantz, Kedi, The Shape of Water, Good Time, God’s Own Country, The Other Side of Hope, The Lego Batman Movie, Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Graduation, A Ghost Story, Wind River, It Comes at Night, Darkest Hour, The Post, Wonderstruck.
Still haven’t seen but want to: Phantom Thread, BPM, The Breadwinner, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Kaleidoscope.
By Neil Giordano
Best of the year (in no particular order)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This pitch-perfect black comedy is particularly relevant given America’s current hyper-divisiveness. It is also commentary on violence and redemption. The performers are all award-worthy, especially turns by leads Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell.
A beautiful and arresting drama set in Hasidic Brooklyn and presented entirely in Yiddish. A widowed father, portrayed with warm and humorous accents by newcomer Menashe Lustig, fights for custody of his son in a culture that prohibits single parenthood.
A brilliant social satire on the troubled history of American race relations disguised as a horror movie. Writer-director Jordan Peele (of the tremendous Key & Peele comedy team) examines the complexity of white exploitation of black bodies in a wholly original (and disturbing) way.
The Shape of Water
Guillermo Del Toro’s mash-up of romance, musicals, Cold War thrillers, and creature features is sky high ambitious. Sally Hawkins is entrancing as a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with a mysterious sea creature who is being kept prisoner in a military lab. On the problematic side: weak social commentary about outsiders and social class in American culture. Still, the movie is gorgeously filmed and designed.
First-time filmmaker Yance Ford’s unflinching documentary about race and family, really a memoir about his brother’s violent death in the 1980s in their mostly white Long Island town. Deeply moving, the director explores, with a highly personal style, the black middle-class American experience. He evokes memories of growing up in a place where dreams of middle-class economic freedom and racial acceptance are disturbingly out of reach.
Playfully absurd, this observational documentary draws on a style that suggests a collaboration between Frederick Wiseman and Stanley Kubrick. A scathing glimpse at the ultra-rich scions of Qatar and their hobbies, which include off-road 4x4ing in the desert, pet jaguars, and falcons (Lots of falcons. In fact, private jets full of falcons). Criminally under-distributed, this movie should earn a birth as a midnight cult favorite. Its slyly satiric commentary on the greed of the idle wealth shouldn’t go unnoticed.
A tad overrated, probably because we are unaccustomed to excellent films featuring complex female protagonists. It helps that this one was made by a woman, actress Greta Gerwig in her writing-directing debut. High school senior Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan) struggles to make her way through the challenges posed by friendship and sexuality. She is also charting a future that she hopes will be more exciting than her current life studying at a Catholic school and living with a family beset by financial woes. Wonderful acting and a screenplay that makes sense of teenage girls without resorting to cliché.
Blade Runner 2049
The spectacle somewhat overwhelms the story and theme …which is particularly problematic because they are worthy of genuine contemplation (the evolution of artificial intelligence). Given our high expectations for a sequel to an original that was so influential on our visual sense of futuristic dystopias, director Denis Villeneuve had his work cut out for him. Cinematographer Roger Deakins might finally win his long-deserved Oscar for any number of eye-popping scenes that are bathed in darkness, color, and moodiness.
Logan ended the X-Men’s story of Wolverine in style. It is less a superhero movie than a character study of flawed and fated has-beens, reminiscent of The Dark Knight’s reinvention of what a comic book movie can be.
Two releases this year, Edgar Wright’s fun but ultimately forgettable Baby Driver and the straight-to-Netflix satire War Machine featured the blood-pumping, hyper-kinetic rhythms of the 1990s punk-rockabilly-garage band phenomenon Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
Critics took the bait
Not overrated as much as over-discussed, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! wasn’t worthy of all the over-intellectualized hype. The filmmaking is good enough, but its subversions of plot and structure felt showy rather than provocative.
Please stop making kids’ movies this mediocre
My 11-year-old twins are finally growing out of the genre of “children’s movies” and none too soon. The Emoji Movie, The Lego Batman Movie, The Lego Ninjago Movie, My Little Pony: The Movie don’t even attempt to rise above the anemia promised by their generic titles. The Boss Baby and Despicable Me 3 were amusing. and there’s hope that late-year releases Coco, Ferdinand, and The Breadwinner might makes 2017 more memorable for younger moviegoers.
By Betsy Sherman
Top ten 2017
A Quiet Passion
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
A Ghost Story
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Call Me by Your Name
The Big Sick
Downsizing; Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri; Lady Macbeth; Mother!; Dunkirk; The Beguiled; Lemon; I, Tonya; The B-Side; Lucky; Wonderstruck; The Lost City of Z; War for the Planet of the Apes; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Square; Abacus; The Post