I went to the movies in 2019. Here’s the rest—and best—of what happened.

If you missed the first part of my 2019 list, you can read it (including all of my disclaimers about not blaming me for whatever you decide to watch) here. Now for my top twelve and some other scattered thoughts on what I saw last year.

After 2016 took my love for movies to another (diagnosable) level, 2017 and 2018 came up a little short for me. This past year was another one for the books, packed with so many good (and several great) films. I’m pretty iffy about assigning rankings to…well, almost anything, but I’m going to dig deep and rank my top twelve. I’ve tinkered with the list all year, and as always, if I wrote this next week there’s a good chance I’d shuffle many of them around. So again, this is nothing more than my own subjective, subject-to-change ranking of my favorite movies from 2019.


12. Dark Waters

Procedurals like DARK WATERS are not going to garner a lot of attention or praise at this point, but this is one of a couple of 2019 movies that embraced a traditional genre most are ignoring and excelled. Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, DARK WATERS chronicles the years-long effort of attorney Rob Bilott to expose layers of malfeasance by DuPont, whose production of Teflon products was responsible for all sorts of illness and death. Mark Ruffalo, who embraces his inner anti-Hulk in playing Bilott, offers one of the most under-appreciated performances of the year. It’s a relatively subdued role, the pace of the film is purposefully measured, and there’s a sort of muted grayness to the look throughout. That’s tough to market these days, but this is a powerful telling of an important story. // Trailer; watch: streaming/rental on March 3, looks like it may stream on HBO like other Focus Features films.

11. Amazing Grace

I’d rather not write a lot about this one and instead just urge you to make time to sit quietly in its presence. In short, this is 90 minutes of footage from the live recordings of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel album, Amazing Grace. There are multiple stories about why it didn’t see the light of day until last year, but I’m sure glad it finally made its way to us. It’s like someone buried a treasure five decades ago and we just dug it up by accident. It’s transcendent. // Trailer; streaming on Hulu and rental services.

10. The Peanut Butter Falcon

This is where I remind you that this isn’t a list of the twelve best films of the year by some consistent critical standard; these are my favorite movies of the year. There were a thousand reasons for THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON not to work, but it does work, silly moments and all. And it works not in spite of a lead with Down Syndrome but because Zack Gottsagen is so darn perfect carrying the story alongside Shia LaBeouf. He’s not good in a sappy, “we all feel better about ourselves for loving this guy with Down Syndrome” way. He’s at home and thoroughly human in the way actors get paid millions to try to be. If you do a little reading, you’ll find that Zack and Shia became very close during this project, and Shia shares openly that their friendship profoundly shaped his life, including his faith. Dakota Johnson, who I also like a lot in this role, has echoed those sentiments. The script is a little goofy at times, but there’s something deeper happening that’s bigger than the typical sum of a movie’s parts. I dare you to watch and try to pretend to be unaffected as Zack expresses his deepest affections (or anger) by inviting (or uninviting) people to his birthday party. As a side note, Bruce Dern is terrific in his relatively minor role, something he pulled off twice in 2019. I failed to mention it before, but he was my second favorite part of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. // Trailer; watch: widely available for streaming rental.

9. Avengers: Endgame

If you’ve followed the Marvel storyline to this point and you don’t find Endgame satisfying, it’s possible that life in general is going to be pretty disappointing for you. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard to ignore that I walked into a theater confident that a movie couldn’t possibly survive the weight of its own expectations and walked out thinking about when I could carve out another three hours to see it again. I laughed. I cried. I cheered. (Really.) // Trailer; watch: streaming on Disney Plus and rental services; content: lots of people get beat up real good.

8. American Woman

Like DARK WATERS and a few others on my list, this is another case of a great film flying under a movie industry radar that’s more tuned to marketing budgets than to excellent art and storytelling. I could make this plea in several spots, but I’ll make it here: If you find yourself regularly complaining that most movies are terrible these days but you enjoy good stories and characters, dig a little deeper. You’re right, Hollywood produces soul-rotting eye candy by the ton, but the good movies aren’t gone; they’re often just harder to find. Sienna Miller is a force in this story about a mother desperately searching for her missing daughter while also coming to terms with her own identity and decisions about the value of her life, whether or not she finds her child. // Trailer; watch: streaming on HBO and rental services; content: domestic violence, attempted suicide by car crash, lots of language and discussion of sex, one or two sex scenes that I don’t recall being terribly graphic, but this is rated R for a reason.

7. Wild Rose

Somewhere in Hollywood someone is pitching a Mr. Belvedere movie. I’m sure of this because the train of recycled ideas is clearly not slowing down despite the fact that we’ve nearly scraped the 80s clean with unnecessary and uninteresting remakes. But whatever is driving that (spoiler alert: it’s money and cynicism), the problem isn’t a lack of writers capable of creating original content. I know this because a woman named Nicole Taylor who none of us have ever heard of wrote a script about a young Scottish woman fresh out of prison who is desperate to move to Nashville and become a country star, and it’s great. WILD ROSE is gritty enough to be believable, sweet enough to be rewarding, and brave enough to let the story find meaningful resolution in a space you don’t quite expect. Jessie Buckley (who you’ll know if you’ve watched Chernobyl) crushes the part and, like Sienna Miller, should have been in the conversation for the year’s best performance. // Trailer; watch: streaming on Hulu and rental services; content: rated R mostly for language, one not-terribly graphic sex scene that I recall.

6. Parasite

It seems kind of silly for me to write a lot about PARASITE at this point given the amount of virtual ink spilled over it in the last month. It isn’t my pick for the top film of the year, but I was happy it won Best Picture; only one other nominee lands higher on my list. The penultimate act is all that kept me from joining the most ardent of PARASITE fans, as I still don’t quite get the need to steer a methodically-mapped plot (and social statement) into total cacophony. Otherwise it’s nearly perfect, masterfully written and directed and packed with brilliant actors. // Trailer; watch: still in some theaters after the Oscar push but also streaming on rental services and will land at Hulu on April 7; content: once it gets violent, it goes full Tarantino, a good bit of language (transcribed in the English subtitles) and a sex scene between a husband and wife that doesn’t include actual nudity but is fairly, um, specific.

5. Knives Out

Man oh man, I love this movie. I promise you there was a long list of people in Hollywood scoffing at the prospects of an old fashioned murder mystery, even with Rian Johnson at the helm. KNIVES OUT has now made more than $300M worldwide which is, um, a lot for any kind of movie. I’ve written and deleted several sentences here because I don’t want to spoil it in any way for those who haven’t seen it. If that’s you, try to avoid knowing any more than you already know (it’s safe to finish this paragraph and the next), but put this one on your list. If you’ve seen it once, this is one I recommend seeing again because there is so much genius to the unfolding plot you simply don’t remember by the time you get the full picture the first time.

I’m blown away by what Johnson created, both in his writing and his direction, and the cast is stellar. Daniel Craig is the obvious star, and he is indeed great, but the detailed work by so many of the supporting cast members is exceptional. Consider how many lines Michael Shannon delivers in a falsetto, how steadily authentic-to-character Jamie Lee Curtis is with her expressions (and so forth). And gosh, “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you,” is the most pitch-perfect 2019 line I can imagine. Mostly this movie makes me ask the question: Why aren’t there more smart, fun movies like this? // Trailer; watch: still in a lot of theaters, but also streaming on rental services as of today. The dvd/blu-ray looks to have quite a bit of extra content, which seems likely to be fun for a movie like this. I’ve noticed Redbox physical rentals contain the bonus materials more frequently than in the past; content: an apparent suicide scene (or was it?), on the high end for language for a PG-13 movie.

4. Honey Boy

2019 was quite a year for Shia LaBeouf. He was good in THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, but this performance is a whole ‘nother thing. He wrote HONEY BOY in rehab as he was doing the very hard work of reckoning with his chaotic life to that point. Though the characters have fictitious names, this is essentially the story of Shia’s life, alternating between scenes from his childhood and scenes from the season he spiraled toward and worked through rehab. The bulk of the movie focuses on his bizarre journey through the distorted reality of child fame while still living essentially poor with his deeply broken father. The real power here is that Shia plays his own father, an idea that could have been a total disaster but instead is one of the more powerful and obviously cathartic performances I’ve ever seen. He balances honesty about and love for his dad in a way that is excruciating to watch but still deeply humanizing and empathy-evoking, something he talked through with his dad before making the film.

Man, Lucas Hedges is everywhere. // Trailer; watch: streaming on Amazon Prime and rental services; content: some trigger warnings for verbal and physical abuse and generally a lot of really painful parent-child moments, lots of language, discussions of some level of past sexual assault.

3. The Last Black Man in San Francisco

This was at the top of my list until the last two weeks of the year. Again I find myself reluctant to write much because I don’t want to try to describe what is better seen. It’s different, sometimes odd and abstract, and my exhortation is let it be what it is and engage it on its terms. It might feel a bit like you have to earn the story, but it comes if you wait for it. There are so many layers to what’s happening, but I was all the way in on it.

Identity. Place. Boyhood. Manhood. Masculinity. Race. Gentrification. Family. Truth. I was amazed by the ways an unorthodox movie managed to so deftly slice into all of these themes. And I can’t recall a more moving look into male friendship than this one.

The score is unlike anything I’ve heard before and part of what stitches together such an unusual film.

Danny Glover and Rob Morgan are terrific, but Jonathan Majors’ (HOSTILES) and newcomer Jimmie Fails’ (who developed the story loosely based on his life) performances are two of my favorites in a long time. It’s silly that Majors wasn’t an Oscar nominee. // Trailer; watch: streaming on Amazon Prime and rental services; content: one scene of male non-sexual nudity, some language.

2. Little Women

I made no effort to avoid spoilers on this one, but it’s Little Women, so you’ve had a few decades to catch up on the plot. I’m at risk for writing too much here, but I won’t apologize for that likelihood. I love this movie. Let me count the ways:

• Writer/director Greta Gerwig took on the task of retelling a story so well-known that it’s nearly impossible to create something that feels necessary. Any filmmaker in this role risks either clinging too tightly to familiarity or wandering too far afield and alienating the audience. Gerwig works true magic in keeping faith with Alcott’s original text while infusing it with new life and immediacy.

• Equally challenging is inviting and keeping an audience’s interest in a family whose enduring nature is warmth and goodness. Gerwig’s take on the March family is bursting with energy and life, and only the most determined cynics will refuse to be affected.

• Florence Pugh turns in my favorite performance of the year in her role as Amy, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination from a rather unlikely role. Part of the brilliance of her performance is that she’s so good without consuming any of the space the other sisters’ characters need to flourish. Gerwig wrote Amy’s character from a different perspective on purpose, and I’ve rarely seen someone ease into a role with so many subtle perfections: the obsession with her nose, “you could be pretty if you tried,” her room-filling laughter at multiple turns, her doe-eyed, “I’m Amy,” when meeting Laurie, her face when Marmie asks them to give away their breakfast, her intonation in moments like, “Now my foot is stuck I can’t get it out!” It’s just one simple turn after another, many of them outstanding but none of them upstaging in a cast where upstaging would be a true shame. All of this builds to two masterful scenes between Amy and Laurie, one as she paints in the studio and the other a bit later on the lawn where, in her rebellion to Laurie finally articulating his feelings, she reveals she has “…spent my entire life loving you.” The electricity between Pugh and Chalamet in both moments is exactly as it should be for two people pretending not to be in love.

• …which brings me back to Gerwig, who deftly weaves this story between two timelines, and in this case cuts directly from Amy’s tearful confession/rejection to (years ago, when Laurie and Jo are inseparable) Amy making a mold of her foot to remind Laurie that she has nice feet. The brilliance of Gerwig’s parallel timelines is maybe most evident in the resolution of Beth’s two seasons of illness. I’ll admit I had to work a bit to keep track of where we were in time on first watch, but I was able to do it, and it’s all much cleaner and clearer (and even more ingenious) a second (or fourth) time around.

• I also became a fan of Emma Watson’s work here. The first time I saw it, the scenes between Meg and John felt a bit too much like stage acting, but that changed in subsequent viewings (yes, I’ve seen it enough to use the phrase “subsequent viewings”). Watson captures Meg’s sincerity as she slowly discovers the beautiful surprise that simple love is deeper and richer than whatever high society offers. As with Amy and the others, the direction and editing are key in Gerwig’s telling of Meg’s story. In the past timeline, Meg is offended by Laurie telling her he doesn’t care for her dress, but is later quick to forgive and essentially ask him for one night’s reprieve from being Meg March, promising she’ll return to herself for the rest of her life. We then cut to the present timeline where Meg and John argue about money and she describes her desire for things he can’t give her. “I’m tired of being poor,” she admits. Those sentiments exposed, Meg senses her deviation from true north, and the two of them spend the balance of the movie exchanging selfless gestures and finding joy in that way of living, embodying the words Mr. March speaks at their wedding.

• Timothée Chalamet is on the verge of superstardom (if he’s not already there), but he fits in here as one piece of a bigger picture with ease. He captures the duality of Laurie well, alternately leaning into privilege and bad behavior and vulnerably exposing his insecurities in the one safe place he finds: life among the March family. At times he seems to see the uncommon gift the sisters have been given better than they do, like when he rebuffs Amy’s defense of marrying for money as, “odd coming from the mouth of one of your mother’s girls” and when he tells Meg, who has been dressed up by wealthier friends, “I don’t like fuss and feathers,” then later in an apology, “I don’t like your dress, but I think you are just splendid.“ Laurie is unsettled by seeing “home” (for him the March way) distorted into the image of the world around it – the world he’s seeking refuge from in the Marches.

• I could write a paragraph on each of several other stars who are terrific, but I’ll abbreviate: Chris Cooper strikes a perfect middle ground between his classic hardass roles and his more endearing characters. Laura Dern is the antithesis of her Oscar winning divorce lawyer in MARRIAGE STORY, but I think she’s every bit as good here. LITTLE WOMEN is not overtly a religious story, but it is in very many ways an ode to virtue, and Dern’s Marmie is a stirring revelation of Christian virtue. She embodies kindness but admits her perpetual anger, only converted to something good when it is confessed and acted upon by something outside of her. She is ever urging her girls to love and forgive one another and to embrace a way that insists they always “help each other,” even when helping the one who has injured you is unimaginable. Meryl Streep is, well, perfect as Aunt March. Tracy Letts is one of my favorite actors working right now, and he’s very good here.

• There is a lot going on here in dealing with the realities of life for girls and women (in the 1800s and now), and I’ll limit my male input on that to this two-cents-worth: I think Gerwig does something fairly brave and important in this script by both dealing honestly with many of the impossible difficulties of being female and rejecting oversimplifications and miscorrections.

Jo: Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But… I’m so lonely.

…a moment which finds resolution when Jo, who had forsaken writing as not having the power she wanted it to have, lights a match, lifts her pen, and starts writing.

And when she tells Friedrich: I wish you would stay.

And when she tells Dashwood: I’ve decided. I want to own my own book.

• These wide shots of Jo and Beth at the beach. Mercy. This is why you should still see good movies with no CGI or big effects like LITTLE WOMEN at the theater. And why when America shifts all its movie-watching to lesser venues like phones and teevee screens, I’ll move to whatever part of the world hasn’t caught up so I can keep going to the movies.

• Maybe my favorite part of the film is the sequence in which Jo declares, “I can’t believe childhood is over,” and Meg (on her wedding day) answers: “It was going to end one way or another. And what a happy end.” Then we cut to the garden outside the home for the wedding and Bob Odenkirk somehow gets perhaps the most beautiful lines in the whole script as he officiates Meg and John’s wedding:

What excessive promises, giving yourself away to get the other. What a thing, what a gift, always given before it is known the cost or the reward.

• I love the time and attention given to the physical building of a book. 

• Each time I’ve seen the movie, I think I’m done crying, and as they’re printing the first copy of LITTLE WOMEN, they flash back to them as truly little girls, and I go full #girldad and lose it again.

• This conversation with Greta Gerwig about developing the script and making the movie is well worth your time. // Trailer; watch: still in theaters, scheduled to stream April 7; content: all the goodness.

1. A Hidden Life

God help me as I try to offer some words about a film about which I’d rather say, “Please choose a day when you’re rested and able to engage, carve out three hours, and watch A HIDDEN LIFE” (when it’s available at home on March 3).

So I’ll keep it simple, as most of what I’m tempted to do is quote several gorgeous parts of the dialogue that you should experience as they were written to be experienced. This is Terrence Malick’s most accessible film in a long time, as it moves away from the non-linear structure he began using in THE NEW WORLD in 2005. But it’s otherwise Malick through and through, brimming with stunning imagery and spellbinding light. I use snobby words like cinema sparingly, but this is cinema.

The story is a true one, and Malick’s telling is clear and straightforward: Franz and Fani Jägerstätter live and raise their girls in a remote Austrian village in the 1940s, when they decide Franz will not swear loyalty to Hitler when he is conscripted into the army and compelled to do so. The Jägerstätters live a simple but sublime life, and Malick is meticulous in documenting the wonder and purity of the natural world around them and of their family way. In some ways this is the film Wendell Berry would make if he didn’t categorically reject screen-as-medium.

A HIDDEN LIFE is not dialogue-heavy for a three hour film, but it manages to righteously sift beauty and virtue in so many spaces: simplicity, ordinary love, soul-committed marriage, conscience over and against all logical and unbearable pressures, forgiveness, freedom, and on and on. This is history to be sure, but it is as relevant to this moment as any film I’ve seen in many years.

Malick derived the title from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

A HIDDEN LIFE is the celebration of every uncelebrated, unknown, undocumented life of every man, woman, and child who faithfully bear the burden of choosing each day the life they’ve been given. Franz and Fani and their children — this film is about a marriage and family, not just a man — embody the intrinsic value of those lives, even when they are lived in obscurity. This is, of course, the beginning of the good news, and thanks be to God for this telling of it.

Anyway, please choose a day when you’re rested and able to engage, carve out three hours, and watch A HIDDEN LIFE. // Trailer; watch: streaming on March 3, though if by some miracle it reappears at a theater near you, go see it on the big screen.


My favorite performances, big and small:

• Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN
• Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
• Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe in HONEY BOY
• Song Kang-ho and Cho Yeo-jeong in PARASITE
• Jessie Buckley in WILD ROSE
• Adam Sandler in UNCUT GEMS
• Sienna Miller in AMERICAN WOMAN
• Archie Yates in JOJO RABBIT
• Daniel Craig and Michael Shannon in KNIVES OUT

My favorite scenes and moments:

*I won’t describe these so as not to spoil them for those who haven’t seen them. I’m also including this with some reluctance because this is the area where I’ll later realize how many of my favorites I’m forgetting as I sit and write this.

• Mr. Rogers praying for people by name (this is a perfect movie scene, by the way) in A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
• Jo and Beth on the beach (the second time) in LITTLE WOMEN
• Tracy Letts and Matt Damon in a race car together in FORD v FERRARI
• Mont’s play performance (so much emotional weight laid bare in such an unexpected way) in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
• Mont haunting the old house in THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
• Jo watching her book being printed in LITTLE WOMEN
• The singing soldier in 1917
Lost in the Woods in FROZEN 2 (don’t miss Weezer’s send-up)
• Brad Pitt fights Bruce Lee in ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD
• Several from A HIDDEN LIFE, but I need to see it again to pick one or two.

My favorite scripts:

• THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO – People aren’t one thing.
• A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (We watched this as a family since I wrote Part 1 of my 2019 review, and I’d definitely bump it up my list at this point.)

2019 movies I still want to see

…if only to prove I don’t see everything.

Short films you should see

These usually can be found online, if not immediately, fairly soon after Oscar season.
• HAIR LOVE (animated)
• SISTER (animated)

Five movies I wish I hadn’t seen (that I’ll admit I saw)

• THE MAN WHO KILLED HITLER AND THEN THE BIGFOOT (I’ll pretty much watch any Sam Elliot movie.)

I went to the movies in 2019. Here’s (the first part of) what happened.

Once again I offer the noble and frequently requested (by at least two people) service of an essay-sort-of-thing about my favorite movies from the last year. This year it’s so overstuffed I’m breaking it into two parts. I’m also kicking around the idea of taking on my favorites from the last decade because the inspiration for writing the next thing is never greater than when you’re trying to write the thing in front of you. We’ll see.

As always, my standard context and disclaimers:

• This is a true mashup of something close to serious film appreciation and me defending my opinion that the Academy’s most-nominated film is worse than a movie about a family of wrestlers produced by (can-you-smell-what-) THE ROCK (is-cooking). I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.

• At 44 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. Not to be bossy, but you should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to note any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning; I’ll definitely fail to mention something that’s troubling to someone. Don’t blame me if you watch something that offends you just because you noticed I saw or liked it. And definitely don’t watch something with your kids just because I say it’s good. I see a lot of movies my kids don’t see. Me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful and do your own homework. There are good resources that will give you a sense of content concerns without spoiling movies. CommonSense Media is one I reference regularly.

• I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been a year or more since I watched some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.

• I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.

• I saw a lot of movies this year, and I liked a lot of movies, which is nice. So I’m going to approach this a little differently. As I tried to group (and loosely rank) my favorites, I found a slight natural break behind the top 12, then another 10 movies that I still liked a lot. So I’ll roll out my top 12 in a second part in the near future, and I’ll also include a few favorite performances and other superlatives there. Here you’ll find my numbers 13-22 in no particular order plus my extras list.

Movies 13-22 in no particular order

Apollo 11

This is a visually arresting documentary about the mission to the moon with no narration or extras, just 93 minutes of archival footage from inside the control room, capsule, and the landing itself. I am astounded that we haven’t seen this before and that we did what we did with the technology available at the time. I was hypnotized from start to finish. [streaming on Hulu]

Just Mercy

If you haven’t read the book by Bryan Stevenson, I urge you to stop reading my words now and go do that. Stevenson’s story is one of the most powerful and affecting I’ve ever read, and it ought to reset our gauges on a number of fronts. The movie is very good, but I confess I have a hard time assessing how good because it is only able to cover a fraction of what you’ll experience in the book. Even if you see the movie first, the book’s impact won’t be dulled.

Ford v Ferrari

Here’s your first Best Picture nominee. I don’t think it merited that status, but it’s a fun movie with several performances that I found very entertaining. Tracy Letts is at the front of that line, and he offers up one scene that makes the full two and a half hours worthwhile (more on that later). Christian Bale is right on point, and while there’s not a lot to Noah Jupe’s role here (one of several weaknesses of this script), he’s clearly a star in the making. I worried that I was going to end up hating Matt Damon’s character and/or performance, which is always a concern when a non-Texan is playing a Texan. But I think he kind of nails it, both in inflection and with subtle phrasings like, “We’ll change your tires come rain.” That said, I’m about to tell you that he’s sort of playing Tommy Lee Jones the whole movie, and now when you watch it you won’t be able to hear anything else. You’re welcome.

Jojo Rabbit

This movie has become a bit of a referendum on whether you’re allowed to ever think Hitler is funny. I don’t care to dive into that debate, and I simply will not argue with anyone who answers that question with a “no” or who can’t suffer the trail of Jewish slurs uttered by the Nazi characters in JOJO RABBIT. The film markets itself as an “anti-hate satire,” and for me it works. I always found myself laughing at the absurdity of the villains here, never with them, and I believe the capacity for seeing the absurdity in evil is essential these days. We need to learn (or relearn) that capacity, pronto. Writer, director, and star Taika Waititi is Jewish, which ought to inform some of the criticism, and he’s also a genius creating in a space that no one else is right now. More of that, please. And more Archie Yates.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This is one of those that may settle in a higher slot for me after a second viewing and/or over time. Amy and I saw this together and were both moved by it. More than pulling off a perfect impression of Fred Rogers, Tom Hanks embodies his spirit in a way that few could and keeps the focus where the film wants it — on what Mr. Rogers was giving to the world rather than on Mr. Rogers as a star. I nearly came apart during his prayer, which is as perfect a scene as I can recall in a movie.

The Farewell

I admit I didn’t quite connect with THE FAREWELL the first time I saw it, but it was the middle feature of a run Amy and I went on when we had 24-hours without kids for our anniversary (between KNIVES OUT at the theater and HONEY BOY back in our hotel room…and between other things. What’s up?). I was much more affected the second time around, particularly by the rationale for the confounding (to Billi and most westerners) premise — that a community ought to own and bear one another’s suffering in whatever ways it can.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I’m not a Tarantino guy, so it’s a little unusual that one of his films appears this high on my list. I found the ending here unnecessarily grotesque to the point of being silly. And it’s a long, meandering story before you even get to the flamethrower. But despite the way they were nominated for Oscars, Brad Pitt is the star of this movie, not Leo, and I was more than happy to sit and watch the story wander just to enjoy the brilliant ease of his performance. [content: It’s Tarantino, so…]

Uncut Gems

This one is excruciating to watch precisely because Adam Sandler so completely inhabits this character, who seems simultaneously helpless to manage and utterly devoted to the inner chaos destroying him and everyone in his orbit. I can’t recall ever being so tense in a movie from start to finish or hearing that same sentiment universally from everyone who saw it. This year was a case study in what’s wrong with the Oscars in many ways (more on the nomination front than the ultimate winners), but Sandler not being nominated is one of the biggest travesties. [content: This is not for the faint of heart. It is dark and makes you feel a bit like you’re trying to walk on razor blades for two hours.]


This is an exceptional visual achievement, no doubt in equal parts due to Sam Mendes’s particular vision for the film, Roger Deakins’s brilliance as a cinematographer, and some virtuoso production design. (If you aren’t sure what production design is, watch 1917 and think about the imagination and execution required to pull off what you see beginning to end.) I wish the script was better, but I don’t think it’s as empty as some have suggested. There are some powerful moments and images; I just kept waiting for a culminating thread to match the dramatic tension created by the set-up and the aesthetics.

Light of my Life

This was a late addition that I just watched last week. My friend Scott called it THE ROAD meets LEAVE NO TRACE, and that’s as accurate an assessment as I could offer. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of LNT for me, maybe because it rests on a post-apocalyptic conceit and the simple realism of my favorite film from 2018 is at the heart of its power. Still, LIGHT OF MY LIFE delivers a similar emotional arc, with a father and daughter navigating both the daily challenge of survival and a growing need to know and love one another well. This is yet another chance for anyone who’s still catching up to realize that Casey Affleck (who writes, directs, and stars here) is not just Ben’s little brother. [streaming on Amazon Prime]

Extras: movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
I just can’t be baited into the angst over the imperfections of the new Star Wars movies. Sure, I wish Disney bosses had followed the Marvel plan and appointed someone to oversee the story development of the new triology. While I like all three of the new canon movies, there are some obvious issues with continuity of characters, themes, and such. Still, this is the third consecutive good Star Wars movie in an effort that could have been disastrous. On its own it’s a fun, entertaining movie, and it lands the impossible-to-land franchise without any major casualties. Is that too low of a bar? Maybe, but who has time to be mad about that? (A lot of you, apparently.)

My original review on letterboxd:
I liked it and (again) think those picking it apart are missing the point. It’s Star Wars you dorks. That said:

Woman at War
Did you know they make movies in Iceland? Well, they made this one anyway. And it’s a delightful story about Halla, a 50-something community choir director who is also waging a secret campaign of sabotage against an unholy alliance between the aluminum industry and her government in defense of the gorgeous Icelandic landscape. There is a lot more going on here, including a collision of Halla’s lone-ranger idealism and a nearly-forgotten opportunity to adopt a child and become a mother. It’s smart, well-acted, funny (especially the repeated resurfacing of a Spanish tourist perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is funnier if you’re well versed in Spanish cursing), and a little heart-breaking. There is a well-executed twist in the end, and the whole of the story asks powerful questions about what it means to change the world. [streaming on Hulu; content: one scene of non-sexual female nudity in a locker room]

Queen & Slim
I saw this on a whim late one night on the heels of a couple of stressful hours that were sure to keep me awake and walking the floor if I didn’t leave the house. The writing is a bit of a mess at times, and it pushes the boundaries of believability a bit. Or does it? I suspect that question is at the heart of the film, which takes a new, blunt-force approach to exploring the relationship between the black community and the police. The film certainly has a point-of-view, but if you stick with it to the end, it’s not nearly as reductionist and narrow as it may initially seem. Despite its flaws, I was challenged and moved. [content: a pretty, um…thorough sex scene that leaves very little to the imagination about 2/3 of the way into the movie.]

Frozen 2
What can I say? I loved it. We saw this with both of my brothers’ families, and everyone had a great time. My theory is writers-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck knew they owed parents one after six years of Let it Go, and they mostly made this for the grown-ups. I laughed as much as I did watching any other movie this year.

Ad Astra
I’ve fully embraced my deep love for Brad Pitt, and he’s great here, but as hard as I tried, something just didn’t work for me in AD ASTRA. My feelings about it actually went through a weird cycle: I kind of didn’t get it at first viewing, then I reflected on it for a week or two and decided I liked it more than I first thought. Then I saw it again and agreed with my firstself. There are some great moments, particularly visually, but the script takes a very strange path to what it’s trying to say, and the moral resolution is a bit too simplistic for the morally problematic route your hero takes to get to that resolution. Also, more Donald Sutherland!

The Irishman
I actually don’t mind movies that are long, but I tend to agree with the notion that in 2020 this would have played better as a limited teevee series than it does as a winding three-plus hours of Scorsese’s aging greatest hits. That said, I liked it just fine. I just got a little bored along the typical Scorsese scenic route to the actual plot, and the de-aging stuff combined with the fact that these guys can’t help but move like their actual age was distracting. There’s also plenty to love, including Joe Pesci’s performance, which is outstanding. I’ll give it another shot eventually, but it misses out on my upper tier for now.

The Two Popes
I liked this and wish I had more to say about it, but I was doing other things while watching it, which certainly limited my experience. It’s nice to see Anthony Hopkins in a meaningful role again. I continue to be a little mystified by how infrequently that happens in recent years.

Western Stars
Only The Boss can be this earnest and get away with it. But he is. And he does. And it’s terrific.

Marriage Story
I know I’m in the minority, but I’m pretty ambivalent about MARRIAGE STORY. I like all the players, and there are some moments that shine, but it’s a little overcooked for my tastes, even after giving it a second look. I know it’s a story about stage actors, but it felt too much like a stage play to me too often.

Fighting with my Family
This is the least artistic and most commercial piece of Florence Pugh’s breakout year (more on that to come), but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve had zero interest in professional wrestling since Sting went to the dark side, but this is actually mostly about the story and the characters and never really feels like a cheap infomercial for the WWE or whatever the current wrestling behemoth is called these days.

I’m a huge fan of what Jordan Peele did with GET OUT, and I tried hard to get into this. I have no doubt Peele is just smarter than me, and Lupita Nyong’o is hauntingly brilliant. But I just couldn’t find it.

Echo in the Canyon
I’ve certainly seen better rock docs, but I enjoyed Echo in the Canyon, which explores the music scene that grew up in Laurel Canyon outside LA in the mid-60s—The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas—and the ways that music shaped generations of artists. This film was Jakob Dylan’s project, and I would have preferred more time given to the fascinating interviews and less to Dylan and his friends playing a Canyon tribute show. My sense is the concert footage is sort of his love letter to the music and an effort to demonstrate how timeless it is. But man, the conversations with David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Lou Adler, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Eric Clapton, Michelle Phillips, Ringo Starr, and even a little Brian Wilson are just so compelling. It’s a shame the ratio isn’t tilted more in their direction. Despite its flaws, the reflections and stories from those folks make ECHO worthwhile. And and AND Dylan spends quite a bit of time with Tom Petty. I’d pay to watch the whole thing again to get to see those final conversations with him.

Joaquin is predictably brilliant, and narratively JOKER is less of a mess than I expected.
It’s also trying to be two different things—a compelling drama about one man’s psychological deterioration and an origin story for maybe the most iconic bad guy in superhero lore—and misses completing either effort. Which is too bad, because I can see the potential of both.

But the real trouble is that there is nothing here but a deeply cynical and secular (a word I mean very precisely) view of the world, void of any presence of morality or true north. That’s a problem on two levels: I’m offered no chance to contrast what’s broken in Arthur/Joker with someone or something whole or redeemed; he’s just one wreck in a world of various (mostly stereo)types of wretches. That’s bad storytelling.

And while I don’t need every movie I see to say something, this movie is trying very hard to convince me it has something to say. All I hear is an echoing hollowness. Who needs that these days?

The Lighthouse
I admit I have approximately no idea what is happening here, but whatever it is, Willem Defoe is doing it with undeniable and utterly insane genius. This is also where I got on board with Robert Pattinson. [content: I don’t even remember, but this thing is bananas, so consider yourself warned and be prepared for anything.]

WAVES is not at all what I expected, and I was not into the first half of it. But this is essentially two movies, and what unfolds in the second half is rather beautiful.

Man, Lucas Hedges is everywhere.

Part Two will follow directly.

I went to the movies in 2018. Here’s what happened.

For a record-breaking second year in a row, I’m going to write about my favorite movies from the last year. First, my standard context and disclaimers:

• This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me being surprised I didn’t hate someone other than Harrison Ford playing Han Solo. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.

• At 42 43 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. Don’t blame me if you watch something that offends you just because you noticed I saw or liked it. (Though you’re certainly free to ask me if you’re wondering why I was okay watching something that offends you.) I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even (maybe especially) about what you laugh at.

• I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.

• I kept closer track of what I watched this year than ever before, and if you have any interest in doing that, I recommend letterboxd, which has been a fun discovery for me. For the two of you interested enough in my movie opinions to track them more than once a year, letterboxd has a social component that allows you to follow what your friends are seeing, liking, hating, and various lists they make. You can follow me here.

• Publishing this the night of the Oscars is only a mild form of protest for how bored I was by the overall list of the Academy’s nominees and winners this year.

• I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.

• I’m going to rank my top 15 16 (I had a late addition after I started writing this), though if I made the ranking next week there’s little doubt I would shuffle many of them around. This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2018 I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling today. Before I do that, I’ll ramble about some other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. If you think you’ll get bored with those, feel free to skip down to the numbered list. I’ll never know.

2017 Addendum: Hostiles
I saw this in early 2018 and didn’t have it on last year’s list, but it was actually a 2017 release that just didn’t make it to our theaters for a while. I’m a sucker for period movies set in the American west dealing with the usually tragic complexities of the frontier. Hostiles is exactly that, forcing a white soldier who spent his career hating and brutalizing native Americans to reckon with his past and decide whether he wants to locate his lost humanity. It oversimplifies and fast forwards through that story, but it still manages to have something to say about evil, repentance, forgiveness, and the excruciating realities native Americans had to endure while trying to cling to their own humanity. Content warning: a good bit of brutal violence, including an attack in which children are killed, and an off-screen sexual assault of multiple women.

Green Book
I originally left this one out completely, but I’m adding it Monday morning since it won Best Picture. Green Book was sort of obviously made with an Oscar-inducing formula. It has been polarizing on several fronts, most notably due to the way it approaches the racial dynamics between the main characters. I confess I don’t completely know how I feel about it or how to sort out the various perspectives on it. Even before I knew there was controversy, I was uncomfortable with what felt like the kind of movie about race we would have seen 25-30 years ago. Then I discovered there was significant pushback in the areas that seemed off to me. I honestly haven’t taken the time to read how the cast and crew, including co-star Mahershala Ali and executive producer Octavia Spencer, are responding to the questions.

Those significant issues aside, I thought Green Book was just okay. It definitely wasn’t the best film of 2018, but the Academy isn’t actually that interested in “best,” it turns out.

The Sisters Brothers
My junior high/high school buddy Scott and I met up in Dallas this fall and saw this before it was released widely. Neither of us knew much about it going in, though I was hopeful since I’m always eager for quality westerns and since the cast is so darn good: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Riz Ahmed. Scott and I talked about the movie for an hour afterwards, and the longer we talked, the less we liked it. I later discussed it with a couple of others who also disliked it, and I was content to kind of hate it. About six weeks later, I found myself thinking about it more than most movies I don’t like, so I gave it another shot. I was surprised to find I liked it a lot more the second time around. It’s still morally problematic for me in its portrayal of violence and in its (lack of ) resolution. It’s still confusing and, at times, absurd. But I found the strangeness more endearing and the unpredictability more interesting. Mostly I just loved John C. Reilly’s portrayal of Eli Sisters, and as I’m writing this I’m having a hard time thinking of a character or performance from the 2018 list I liked more. Reilly has spent a lot of time on silly roles, but he’s a brilliant actor.

I’m not going to comment much on this year’s Academy Award nominees except to say that, with a few notable exceptions, it’s the least interesting or inspiring group of nominees I’ve seen in years. Vice, with nominations in six(!) major categories, is exhibit A. I loved Adam McKay’s work on The Big Short, which was my favorite film of 2015. That’s part of why I found Vice difficult to watch. I’m otherwise very interested in these kinds of stories, this particular story, and these particular characters, but McKay mostly applied the same formula to a different story with far less interesting results. The approach and script just didn’t work for me, and with the exception of Christian Bale, who was outstanding as Dick Cheney (think for a minute about that transformation), the performances ranged from flat to painfully awkward.

First Reformed
I’m supposed to love this, I guess. I mean it’s kind of become a darling of the thinking crowd, and after all it’s about a pastor (Ethan Hawke) struggling with his faith and calling. My kind are generally not represented with much accuracy or care on screen, so I was intrigued. The more elemental parts of the movie worked for me, and the complicated emotional and spiritual landscape of Hawke’s character made sense to me as a pastor. Gosh, we even get a healthy dose of Thomas Merton. Yes please. I just couldn’t hang with some of the extreme turns in the plot building to an ending that went from weird to really weird. Sometimes I see people gush about a film and think they either watched it while they were high or they’re pretending to get and love something because they know they’re supposed to. That’s how I feel about people who claim to get or love the last 15 minutes of First Reformed. And it definitely has to be one of those two options since it seems so unlikely I’m just not smart enough to get it myself.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Over time this collection of Coen-Brothers-create-Flannery-O’Connor-stories-as-Westerns might move its way up my list. I’ve only seen it once, but it’s the kind of work that I think needs multiple visits. Content warning: lots of people die in lots of really awful ways, and the Coens are happy to show it all to you.

I don’t have much to say here except that I went and saw a Transformers movie for the first time, and it was a lot of fun. (That doesn’t mean I want to see any of the others.)

The Favourite
And then there’s the one where everyone gets what she deserves.

This is a beautifully made film about a lot of human ugliness and debauchery with masterful performances and no likable or admirable characters. I’ve grown weary of that routine, even when it’s done this well. Content warning: there’s some brief nudity, and a lot of the dysfunctional relationships are sexual in all kinds of ways and directions.

Eighth Grade
I was never an eighth grade girl, but I’m pretty sure this is exactly what it’s like, at least for many. The father-daughter dynamics are often uncomfortable but ultimately significant and sweet.

As much as I liked the idea of building Han Solo’s backstory, I was supremely skeptical that I’d be able to tolerate anyone other than Harrison Ford in the role. I was surprised how well Alden Ehrenreich pulled that off. The story was just okay, but I enjoyed it more than most, I think.

They Shall Not Grow Old
Peter Jackson set out to bring new life to hours and hours of existing film and audio from and about World War I. I would do a poor job of explaining all the unprecedented ways he and his team did this, but the result is remarkable. The narration is completely composed of audio interviews with veterans of the Great War, and the footage is colorized and presented in 3D (I’m normally not a fan of 3D, but it was terrific). The storytelling manages to capture both the spirit of that era when most common men were eager to serve in the war and the day-to-day horrors they lived once they got there. I caught one of only four local screenings [on the first run; it since returned for a few weeks], which also included an introduction from Jackson and an extra 30 minute doc after the credits about the making of the film.

Be sure to watch for this guy, who reminded me that people are made of the same stuff even when separated by the centuries:

Top 16 of 2018:

16. The Hate U Give

In terms of importance, this one is in my top ten for the year. It’s a mainstream movie about the realities of being black in America that generalizes real stories of police shootings into a particular fictional story. It’s a movie I think white people should watch, not because it’s the best film of the year or because it perfectly captures all the nuances the black experience, but because I think it’s an accessible look into a reality we just don’t know first-hand. It operates in stereotypes at times, sometimes awkwardly, but I think it does so for the sake of telling a broad story and not with malice. A better script would have made a big difference, and I’m a little confused that someone didn’t insist on that. Still, it’s an important movie, and I’m a big fan of Amandla Stenberg’s performance.

15. A Star is Born

[Spoilers live here.] I’ve gone back and forth a few times in my feelings about this one. The music is terrific (oh hi Jason Isbell) and I basically loved the performances across the board. Gaga is kind of great. Sam Elliott is one of my favorite actors on the planet, and he’s right in the pocket in this role. His Oscar nomination is one of only a few that I care anything about this year. Dave Chappelle also nails it; his part is relatively small, but his character is one of my favorites of the year. And then there’s Andrew Dice Clay, who had me thinking “Is that Andrew Dice Clay? It can’t be. But it is. Wait, maybe not,” as I watched. (It is.) I have issues with some of the turns in the story, but that’s almost inevitable for a movie like this. Even though I saw the end coming, it was still a gut punch. Suicide has so marked my life over the years that I struggle even with fictional stories about it. Still, this was such an ambitious undertaking for Bradley Cooper, and it’s hard to look at it as anything but a success. It’s the kind of effort that could have been a total flop for any number of reasons – bad script, bad music, disappointing results from taking a big risk on Lady Gaga, etc. But it sufficiently checks all of those boxes for me and in some cases goes well beyond.

14. The Rider

I didn’t put these two back-to-back on purpose, but I guess it’s fitting since they’re total opposites. A Star is Born could have been terrible by going big in every way and failing; this could have been terrible for completely different reasons. You won’t recognize anyone in The Rider because it’s a feature film (not a documentary) about true people in which the actual people play themselves. It’s unorthodox, but it works. The focus is Brady, a talented bronc rider searching for identity after a head injury makes continuing to ride a really bad idea. The story is slow and quiet, and though the perspective on Brady’s struggles is sometimes uncomfortably intimate, I haven’t often seen this kind of realism work on screen in a non-documentary format. I was particularly moved by his interactions with Lilly, his special needs sister, and Lane, his bull rider best friend who is living with profound brain damage. This is one that could slide toward my top five pretty easily on any given day.

13. Beautiful Boy

David Sheff’s memoir about living with and through his son’s battle with addiction is the source for this movie, and it has been on my “to read soon” shelf or my bedside table for a couple of years now. For some reason I kept bogging down and still haven’t finished it, but I was too interested in seeing Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet handle this story to put off watching it any longer. Though I’m still scrubbing my mental association of Chalamet with Call Me by Your Name (my disdain for that film explained here), he’s a gifted young actor. And, well, Steve Carrell is just terrific, and I’m so glad he continues to tackle dramatic roles (some better than others) instead of just setting up shop in the realm of absurd comedy where he could cash obscene check after obscene check, but where the well of truly funny roles runs dry in a hurry.

Beautiful Boy isn’t the most powerful or revealing movie ever made about addiction, but I think it’s better than it gets credit for if you remember that it’s intended to be the dad’s story, not the son’s. My friend Scott pointed out that a lot of the less than stellar reviews seem to misunderstand the perspective. No, you don’t get a deep dive into the addict’s gruesome realities, but that wasn’t the point. We’re looking into the pain and hope and exhaustion of the father. I’ve seen both active addiction and recovery up close. I’ve accompanied someone we love to AA meetings and experienced family night at rehab. Those rooms are full of people who have lived a dozen lives just trying to stay in the fight with and for their son or daughter or sister or father. Telling their stories doesn’t minimize the addict’s story; it completes it.

12. Isle of Dogs

My girls (13 and 11) who love dogs and still dig animated movies are totally creeped out by every poster, trailer, or mention of Isle of Dogs. Even when I remind them how great Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson’s first go at stop-motion animation) is, they still think something is wrong with me. And maybe they’re right. Something is probably wrong with most of us who continue to love Anderson’s work. I know a goodly number of folks who are more loyal fans than me, but I’ve been in since Bottle Rocket, and I’m still here. Isle of Dogs is not his best film, but it’s smart and sweet and funny. It also has something to say while not seeming burdened by the obligation to be sure you understand what it’s saying. Anderson’s tendency to be obscure at times does not make him unique, of course, but my sense is that most filmmakers taking this path are trying really hard to make sure you know they don’t care whether or not you get them. Wes Anderson is certainly trying really hard in many ways (no, no, we’ll need the deep burgundy smoking jacket that was only made in east Bombay in 1971), but I’ve never had the sense that he’s trying to be hard to understand. He’s just a quirky fellow trying to make really good films, and he almost always succeeds.

11. First Man

First Man wasn’t originally in my list, but I was a lot more affected by it watching it a second time. When I saw it at the theater, I realized about halfway through that I’m typically not as drawn into movies about the space program as a lot of folks are. Maybe my problem is I never dreamed of being an astronaut or wanted to go to Space Camp. It looked terrific on the big screen and I appreciated that the story was as much about the people as the drama of the moon landing, but I just drifted in and out of being engaged. That was apparently about me on that particular day, because the emotional arc was powerful as I watched it again. Gosling’s work here is excellent, tapping into the quiet depth of a man whose work requires such constant mental intensity that he simply can’t always be present in other parts of his life, even the parts that are most important to him. I’m never going to the moon, but I may or may not be able to relate a little. I’m also a fan of Jason Clarke, who I think is very good as another intense guy forced into multiple emotional moments with Armstrong. Mostly Amy and I were struck by how well the cast and crew seemed to see and convey the way the loss of a child marks every moment that follows for a husband and wife. (Which is not exactly what you expect to say after a movie about the first man to walk on the moon.)

10. Minding the Gap

This was the late entry that jumped into my list and pushed it from 15 to 16. Wow. First-time filmmaker Bing Liu has created a heartbreaking and deeply personal portrait of the particular and collective histories of his childhood circle of friends, now adults but not all grown-ups. I am astounded at his vision, heart, and skill. He not only made a stunning first film, but he did it by gently and honestly documenting the sin and pain and struggle of his closest friends, his family, and his own story. This is tough to watch at times because it is so intimate and revealing, but Liu’s love for the people whose stories he’s telling–even the ones who are least lovable–is never in doubt. Content warning: the language is intense throughout, and there is a lot of explicit discussion of domestic violence.

9. BlacKkKlansman

I just rewatched this last week wanting to be sure I remembered it well enough to place it among a lot of films I’ve seen more recently. I bumped it up several spots after the second viewing, mostly because I think Spike Lee’s direction is so very good. This is a (true) story that easily could have been fumbled if the approach was too serious or too humorous (the true story and the movie are definitely both), but Lee and the cast find just the right tone from start to finish. The primary storyline has no trouble as a feature film plot, but Lee manages to explore a number of related complexities of racial struggle without getting too bogged down in any of them. Content warning: the n-word is used A LOT, along with other racist language. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s authentic to the story, and it would probably seem pretty sanitized without it. There is another content warning in the spoiler section below.

[Spoilers from here on]: Once the movie itself concludes, we’re quickly jolted into the present with footage from the August 2017 protests and violence in Charlottesville. This is one of the reasons I wanted to take a second look. The first time around, the transition was jarring to the point of disorienting me. I think I expected more of a punch in the face from the movie itself than I felt, so that punch coming from news footage made me less certain about the power of the scripted film. The second viewing didn’t feel that way at all. Some of that was probably me picking up more of the nuance of the script and some was probably time and perspective to see the two pieces as a coherent whole. Content warning: I assume most have seen the Charlottesville footage by now, but it is brutal and includes the murder of Heather Heyer.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk

James Baldwin is a tragically under-read American truth-teller, and I think I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 documentary riffing on Baldwin’s life and work, is one of the most important films of the last decade. If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a Baldwin novel, is a gorgeous and completely different take on his writing. Beale Street takes us into a specific story of innocence and love ultimately scarred by the crushing realities of a very broken system riddled with very broken people. I was floored by the portrayal of lifelong affection and budding romance between Tish and Fonny and can’t recall a gentler, more believably idyllic picture of young love on screen. My reaction to it left me wondering whether it’s a subtle, surgical excavation of some of my own lingering prejudice or if the fact that I think that exposing my prejudice even crossed Baldwin’s (or director Barry Jenkins’) mind is the real revelation. Either way, that’s the kind of conversation I think Baldwin wants me to have with myself. Content warning: there is a fairly long sex scene that I don’t quite know how to describe. I’m pretty careful about putting my eyes on this kind of thing, but I confess I was just excited we got this film in town, wasn’t sure it would be here more than a week, and ran out and saw it as soon as I could without doing much homework. Anyway, I say I don’t know how to describe it because the innocence and gentleness I describe above is almost the point of this scene; it is not at all “dirty” and is in fact purposefully the opposite. But it’s sex. And people are naked. And I always want to mention that and, again, suggest everyone exercise real wisdom in their movie-watching.

7. Free Solo

I honestly don’t know whether this will translate as a top ten film on a small screen. It was breath taking on the big screen. It’s also a marvelously crafted documentary about climbers and climbing, effectively telling Alex Honnold’s particular story while also introducing us to the fascinating world of absolutely insane people who climb tall things, often without any kind of safety net, and often until they eventually fall off something tall and die. I can’t imagine this will hit theaters again for any reason, but if it does, by all means, go see it (in IMAX if possible). It was one of my favorite visual experiences in a theater in the last several years.

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Yes, this is the third documentary in my top ten and the fourth on the list overall.

Was this a relatively weak year for feature films?

Was this just an exceptional year for docs?

Am I a nerd?


What can I say about this beautiful look into the life and work of Fred Rogers other than it is exactly the film we need right now? If you haven’t seen it, please change that. Content warning: You’re probably gonna cry.

5. Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse

Gosh I love this movie. We’re firmly into territory where I could rearrange the order of these films on any given day, including putting this one at the very top of my list. It’s fun. It’s ground breaking. It’s exciting. It’s hilarious. It has heart. It looks great!

And I just wrote all of that about an animated comic book movie. I don’t see animated comic book movies. That’s worth noting so that I can urge you not to skip Spier-Verse just because you’re someone who doesn’t see animated comic book movies. Aiden and I took Amy and the girls back to see it and they all loved it. Of all the movies on my list, this might be the easiest one for me to universally recommend to pretty much anyone.

4. A Quiet Place

[Minor spoilers live here.] I don’t know what I loved more, seeing this in the theater for the first time and enduring the glorious silence and jump-out-of-your-seat terror or taking Aiden (16) back and watching him have that experience. I mentioned last year when I included Get Out in my top ten that I see very few horror movies these days, and A Quiet Place is only on the outskirts of the horror genre. But it will sho ’nuff scare you in all the best ways. Emily Blunt is fantastic, and the bathtub scene alone is Oscar-worthy, not that the Academy would notice when, you know, there’s a really unlikable Glenn Close character to celebrate or Amy Adams is making sure we know how hatable Dick Cheney’s wife is.

What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Emily Blunt just SILENTLY gave birth in a bathtub while blood-thirsty creatures are roaming through the hallway and no one in Hollywood cares because she wasn’t wearing an 18th century gown.

Ok, I’m back. John Krasinski chose brilliant material for his first film, and I really mean it when I say he deserves the Best Director nomination that Adam McCay got for being Adam McCay and making a cartoonishly anti-Bush/Cheney movie. Many will think that’s silly, but I contend it’s not only okay but good to reward filmmakers who find new ways to make movie-going fun, and few movies did that better last year than A Quiet Place.

3. The Old Man & the Gun

Robert Redford says The Old Man & the Gun is his last film. While I certainly hope that’s not the case, Forrest Tucker feels like a fitting final Redford gentleman rogue. This film sitting in my top three is telling for my tastes in this season of life. It is patient in its storytelling, well-written, complex enough but not opaque, beautiful on the screen, and overrun with great actors at their best.

Though I did not get A Ghost Story at all, this is the third of director David Lowery’s four major works that have really landed for me, including Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. I’m consistently drawn in by Lowery’s eye for light and landscapes, and composer David Hart’s scores are stunning at every turn.

This was easily my favorite cast of the year. I mean, I could watch Redford and Sissy Spacek on screen together for two hours without interruption. If Lowery had made that film, it might still be in my top three. But he somehow found a way to give Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, and Tom Waits memorable roles without stealing any thunder from his two legendary leads. This may be my favorite Affleck role to date, Glover is quietly perfect, and man oh man, I just don’t know what to say about Tom Waits except: “And that’s why I hate Christmas!”

2. Black Panther

I’m all in on Black Panther at every level. As a next piece in the expansive unfolding Marvel universe, it is right on point. But it’s so much more than than another superhero movie, though I won’t try to recreate what others have covered quite well. I’ll just say that it’s a remarkable thing to make a thoroughly entertaining action movie and next piece in a blockbuster franchise that also has something profound to say and show us. If you struggle to see the beauty and power in a film full of smart, noble, and strong characters who are also black, make an effort to watch Black Panther through the eyes of girls and boys—and girls and boys who have lived decades and become women and men—who have never in their lives seen a film like this full of people like this who look like them telling stories that feel like their stories. Like I said, I’m all in on Black Panther at every level.

1. Leave No Trace

I honestly don’t know how to write about Leave No Trace except to say it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years. There is a quiet simplicity and depth to this story that needs to be seen rather than read about. I saw it at The Angelika in Dallas this summer and immediately knew it was going to be my favorite of 2018. I wish everyone could see it on the big screen. I mean, just look at that photo above.

Even more compelling than the lush Pacific Northwest scenery is the story of a father and daughter whose love for one another is as pure as it is complicated. I can’t recall a movie that offers a more affecting picture of a child learning to embrace her identity apart from her father while still loving and accepting him in all his damage.

As a dad of three (and two daughters) I’ll never ask my kids to live in the woods with me, but I hope they find what Tom finds in this story: a true sense of identity apart from me that includes a deep well of grace for the ways my mistakes and brokenness have become part of their lives.

Anyway, this was the best film of 2018 whether you know it or not. But now you know.

My Favorite Films of 2017

Pardon me while I plagiarize myself:

Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.

I should also add that I still go to the movies (and watch movies at home) for the pure joy of it. It’s true that on the whole I take a more thoughtful approach to movie-watching than I used to, but I also still like to just laugh and see things explode and pretend time travel is real for a couple of hours.

I generally hate having to rank things and always struggle to cough up a sincere answer when I’m asked what my favorite anything is, but I recently started keeping track of the movies I see, mostly to build a little scaffolding that might encourage me to write more. Also people like reading ranked lists (even people like me), so I decided to try to rank my favorites from the last year. This is a true mashup of serious film appreciation and me laughing at a guy made out of rocks who tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets. I strongly discourage you from viewing this as a list of the objectively best films of the year or from trying to make any sense of it at all.

A few other notes about the list:

  • At 42 my instinct for what I should and shouldn’t put in front of my eyes is pretty sound. You should be intentional about developing that instinct for yourself. I’ll try to mention any more extreme content that might be a problem, but do your homework and be discerning. I see a lot of movies, but I don’t see everything, including certain popular or critically-acclaimed movies that I know just aren’t wise choices for me. Even “mindless entertainment” isn’t value neutral. One example: I generally steer clear of raunchy comedies because my spirit revolts at such cynical treatments of sex. There are others, but the point is me seeing (or liking) a movie isn’t necessarily an endorsement. Be wise and thoughtful, even about what you laugh at.
  • I’m writing about these films all at once, and it’s been many months since I’ve seen some of them. That means I may not have a lot to say about a few, but they make the list based on my memory of what I felt or thought about them when I saw them. I also don’t plan to try to summarize the movies and instead just share some of my reasons for including them. This is exactly how real movie critics work, I’m pretty sure.
  • This is just my personal mixed-up ranking of the movies from 2017 (and early 2018) I loved and/or appreciated based on how I’m feeling as I make up the list, plus some tacked on comments about other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about. It turned out that 13 movies stood out above the others for me, so it’s a top 13 list. Here’s hoping next year’s list is at least a top 14.

I’ll try to mark any major spoilers, but you know, no promises.

13. The Big Sick

Big Sick The first time I went to see The Big Sick, there was a power outage about 45 minutes in and I didn’t have time to wait for the lights to come back on. The second time I showed up late since I’d already seen the first 45 minutes, so I actually haven’t watched it start to finish in one sitting. The movie tracks the unfolding relationship of star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, whose near-fatal illness just after they’d broken up brought them back together and forged some very unusual and complicated bonds between the two of them and between Kumail and Emily’s parents. Having lived through some similar circumstances, I was drawn in by their willingness to share very vulnerable parts of their story with the world. The Big Sick is a smart, funny, and honest look into the complexities of a relationship interrupted by and then rebuilt in the valley of illness and trauma. Also, Ray Romano is perfectly cast here as Emily’s dad, and while I know he plays best in a fairly narrow lane, I think he’s become much more than just a silly sitcom actor.

12. Dunkirk

dunkirkMore than any other title on this list, Dunkirk leverages the power of the modern movie theater. Chris Nolan masterfully allows the oversized screen and dynamic sound system to carry as much of the freight of the story as scripted dialogue, and it works. Dunkirk is a cinematic force, visually stunning and paced start to finish by a mounting sonic landscape that seems to somehow emanate from inside your bones. It would rank higher on my list if the story and dialogue had more depth, though I know Nolan makes no apologies for the verbal sparseness. In a movie thin on scripted performances, Mark Rylance is again brilliant, filling the same kind of space he occupied in Bridge of Spies. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2016 for that role, and I’m a big fan of his work in both films. It’s hard not to root for a guy whose career didn’t really take off until he was 55.

11. Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Guardians-Vol-2Aiden (15) and I have been enthusiastically in on the Marvel movies since he has been old enough to watch them, but this crew is my favorite. James Gunn nailed the first installment, striking a near-perfect tone between superhero drama and legitimate comedy. Marvel was already succeeding on that front, but both Guardians movies have been high watermarks for the franchise. Part of what makes them work so well is a terrific ensemble of unusual characters who are all interesting beyond the first layer. Groot and baby Groot are not just talking trees, they are empathetic talking trees whose only words, “I am Groot,” somehow still constitute a full vocabulary that only a surly talking Racoon can understand. Chris Pratt is clearly the star here, but he grew up as an actor working among one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled (Parks and Rec) and is perfectly at ease as the center piece of a group of strong supporting characters.

10. Phantom Thread

Phantom-ThreadThis is a surprise entry on my list, not because it isn’t getting high marks from critics (it is) but because it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film about a fastidious dress maker in post-war England. I have limited capacity for PTA’s affection for illogical plot structure and unresolved storylines, so I entered the theater with low expectations and left pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this one until the very end; with about six minutes left, I was prepared to really hate it. That’s not because it had been terrible up to that point, but because I could see the unsatisfying, sideways ending that would make me regret spending money to see a movie about a fastidious dress maker in post-war England. And don’t get me wrong, it’s still a true Anderson film that keeps him solidly in “That boy ain’t right” territory. Many folks will find it weird and a little disturbing. But with all of its quirks and long stares in unsettling directions, I found it a lot more accessible than some of his previous work. It looks terrific on the screen, the music is gorgeous, and if there’s a better actor than Daniel Day-Lewis in the world, I don’t know who it is. Some scoff at these kinds of descriptions, but you get the sense that you’re watching a true artist do what he was born to do as he inhabits the character of Reynolds Woodcock. Day-Lewis has insisted that this was his final project and, already the only man to win three Best Actor Oscars, I suspect he’ll go out as the only man to win four.

9. Lady Bird

Lady BirdI have a theory that most teenage boys are subconsciously choosing to settle for a shallow existence at exactly the same time that most teenage girls are plunging their whole hearts into the depths of every possible human emotion. I’m sure someone came up with that theory before I did. And I’m sure someone else decided that it was a bad stereotype of both genders. But I’m still pretty convinced that it’s mostly true, and Lady Bird is a movie about the painful superiority of the choice to feel and care and risk in a world where half of your peers are not only doing the opposite, but are terribly ignorant that there’s another way. It’s about a lot of other things too. It’s also a smart, funny movie that manages to be both honest about and kind to American teenagers without relying on a pile of cliches.

8. Thor: Ragnarok

thorThirty minutes into Thor: Ragnarok, I thought to myself, “This is too funny. They can’t keep up this comedic pace and still execute a reasonable plot with any substance.” I was wrong. It is relentlessly funny start to finish, and it still manages to be a good movie that moves one of the marquee Marvel storylines forward. A lot of that credit goes to the three writers, who had worked almost exclusively on smaller Marvel projects, but it all happened under the guidance of director Taika Waititi, who I expect to become a real star. Marvel’s willingness to take a chance on young filmmakers who haven’t worked in the genre (or on any big budget film) is a refreshing departure from the Hollywood formula, and Waititi may be the best of the bunch. He began his career working with Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), and that same comedic sensibility is evident in his more recent work. He wrote and directed the quirky, wonderful New Zealand hit Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which was one of my favorites last year. In his Marvel directorial debut, he also plays Korg, the aforementioned guy made out of rocks who tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets. And in a movie full of real laughs, Korg was understated comic brilliance. Oh yeah, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, etc. This one is big, loud, fun, and one of my favorite Marvel movies so far.

7. The Last Jedi

Last JediTen year-old Thad is furious with 42 year-old Thad for putting a very good Star Wars movie that gave us the return (and end) of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia this low on a list of Thad’s favorite movies. Heck, 21 year-old Thad probably would have vowed to put a quality Star Wars movie at number one for a decade if we could just, for the love of Yoda, get another good Star Wars movie. But what can I say? It’s 2017 (well, it was when The Last Jedi dropped) and this is the third good Star Wars movie in three years. So much digital ink (and blood) has been spilled about this one, and I don’t have a lot to add except to say that I think making a Star Wars movie that will please audiences is one of the tougher jobs in the movie industry. The standards of the purists are just impossibly high and often at odds with the the standards of the rest of the purists. It isn’t perfect, and I still prefer The Force Awakens of the three new installments, but I’ll be hard pressed to be too critical of any good Star Wars movie. We all know what a bad one looks like, and thankfully we haven’t even sniffed that territory in the reboots.

6. Get Out

Get OutI don’t do horror movies. I honestly can’t remember the last one I saw before this one. I was persuaded to push through my discomfort after learning a bit about what Jordan Peele was after with Get Out (but not so much that I knew what was coming plot-wise). If I had an Academy Award vote, I’d be hard pressed to vote for anyone but Peele in both the directing and original screenplay categories. Get Out is just so very smart from conception to execution. The backbone of the film is a cutting send-up of paternalistic racism, but the layers to the story and symbolism are seemingly endless. Fair warning, it really is a horror movie with all the creepiness and killing you’d expect.

5. Mudbound

mudboundMovies 2 through 5 could easily be reshuffled in almost any order depending on when you ask me. Mudbound is the only one on this list that I didn’t see in theaters since it’s a Netflix movie, and I have mixed feelings about the changing nature of film distribution. It’s hard to complain about the production of more quality movies, and the direct-to-streaming model has been especially valuable in the creation and distribution of powerful documentaries that most of us wouldn’t see otherwise. But there’s no reason Mudbound wouldn’t have been a successful theatrical release, and multiple times as I watched, I wished I could see it on the big screen. This is an excruciating and beautiful story about two families on the same piece of Mississippi land in the 1940s — the black sharecropping family who has lived on the farm for years and the white family who has just purchased the land. It’s a brilliant lens into the history of that era, race, war, family, and the nature of human dignity. Mary J. Blige (who is very good here) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but it was Rob Morgan’s work as her husband and the family patriarch, Hap Jackson, that I found most compelling. [Content warnings: There is a brief subplot about sexual abuse and a brutal scene where a black man is tortured by the KKK.]

4. I, Tonya

I TonyaIn almost any other year, this force of a movie probably would be at the top of my list. Anyone who lived through the bizarre Tonya Harding ordeal knows it was truly stranger than fiction, and that often makes it nearly impossible to create a feature film that does the story justice. But this movie is absolutely as b-a-n-a-n-a-s as the real thing. It is wonderful and terrible in all the ways Harding’s life story demands. I may write a more complete review of this soon since I saw it recently and I left the theater with a waterfall of thoughts and feelings. What makes the film so compelling is that it convinces you that Harding and everyone in her life are terminally broken, dares you to judge them, and then demands that you not only find some empathy for (almost) all of them, but reminds you that we’re all an unpredictable mix of the best and worst versions of ourselves. Margot Robbie and Allison Janney (Tonya’s mom on your screen, C.J. Cregg in your hearts) are both magnificent and deserve whatever praise is thrown their way.

3. Molly’s Game

mollys-game-molly_unit_01869r_rgbI don’t call myself a “fan” of many people or things, but when it comes to Molly’s Game writer and director Aaron Sorkin: I’m a big fan. I first became enamored with Sorkin’s writing through A Few Good Men, though I didn’t know for a while that it was Sorkin I was fanboying. I just loved the movie and watched it two dozen times back when it was one of the few VCR tapes I owned. I watched it again recently expecting to be a little disappointed relative to my memory, but the writing, particularly the dialogue, is still sharp and brimming with energy. Sorkin went on to create and write The West Wing for its first three seasons (I’m on my fourth trip through the series), which is where I became more directly aware of him. He also created and wrote the HBO series The Newsroom and wrote the scripts for The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network (for which he won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), Moneyball, and Steve Jobs. So I was eager for another full length feature from Sorkin, this one his first to direct.

Molly’s Game is a based-on-real-events biopic of Molly Bloom, a brilliant young woman and world class skier who missed out on the Salt Lake Olympics because of a catastrophic fall in qualifying. She eventually found herself running high stakes poker games in L.A. and then New York and was caught up in all kinds of associated darkness and trouble. The biggest strength of Molly’s Game (the insanity of Molly’s actual story) is also its biggest constraint (the arc of the story is already written), but Sorkin is predictably on point with the characters and dialogue. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Molly, and I think it’s a shame that she isn’t a Best Actress nominee; Sorkin’s screenplay is the film’s only Academy Award nomination. But I loved it, and I think in a different year it would have garnered more attention and praise. In the midst of so much social upheaval and with so many films speaking to our angst, a movie about a rich girl running poker games just doesn’t register as special for a lot of folks. I get it, but a great film is still a great film, and it’s hard to beat a Sorkin-crafted script.

2. War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the PlanetYes, really. I was a late and almost accidental convert to the Apes trilogy. I remember being pretty disinterested in the first installment of the reboot (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and initially being no more intrigued by the second (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). One Friday afternoon I was in a “I need to go sit in a dark theater” state of mind, but the pickings were slim. I was surprised to see how positive the reviews for Dawn were, so I took a chance on it, going in completely blind to the context of the story. I really liked it and thought about it for days.

I then backtracked and watched the first movie, which was good and helpful for filling out the bigger picture. So I was definitely looking forward to War for the Planet of the Apes, but my hope was just for a solid, entertaining conclusion to the trilogy. I got that and a lot more. War for the Planet of the Apes is an epic about suffering, survival, family, loyalty, friendship, prejudice, oppression, bitterness, and sacrificial love.

Yes, really. All of that in a movie about talking apes.

One other note: I’m a purist in many ways, so I’m generally pretty unimpressed by CGI-enhanced performances. But Andy Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar, and the synergy of his acting and the visual effects team behind these films is the definition of movie magic. [Content warning: This is a movie about a war, so it’s fairly violent. There also is a suicide toward the end. It’s off screen, but we see the run up to the death including an image that will be difficult for anyone who has lost someone this way.]

1. Wind River

wind riverLet me get the big warning out of the way here: About two-thirds of the way through Wind River, there is a very intense sexual assault scene. So despite my clear affection for this movie, I struggle to recommend it without a strong qualification. I caution anyone with sensitivities in that area to avoid this one. No movie is so necessary that you need to risk new trauma to see it.

My favorite movie of 2016 was Hell or High Water, a kind of contemporary western starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine and written by Taylor Sheridan. Set in West Texas where I grew up, the look and tone of that movie are so perfect that everything about it felt familiar even though it was about two brothers robbing banks to save the family ranch and not at all about a preacher’s kid who was a high school debate nerd. This is another one I need to write about separately, because it shook something loose in me about my writing, and I’m still figuring out how to ride that wave of inspiration.

Wind River was both written and directed by Sheridan (his first time to direct), and it opens on the aftermath of the assault and murder of 19 year-old Natalie Hanson on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who discovers Natalie’s body. Lambert’s specialty is tracking and killing animal predators, and he becomes a key member of the effort to identify and locate Natalie’s killer when rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who doesn’t know the area, arrives to investigate. I’d rather not write much more about the plot than that because it would be difficult to avoid giving away one of the key reveals that comes about halfway through the film.

Wind River flew under the radar a bit, which is a little surprising for a movie with Jeremy Renner in the lead and on the heels of HOHW’s success (it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture). Whatever the reasons, it’s an underseen and underrated film. Set against a snowy Wyoming landscape that offers mountains in one moment and meth lab infested trailer homes in the next, it looks beautiful and bleak on the screen. The often haunting soundscape and silence become an actual character at certain moments in the film. And the key for me: Sheridan is in Sorkin’s league when it comes to writing dialogue.

I’ve been unsure of what I think about Jeremy Renner as an actor, but while his part here was probably too subtle to get a lot of attention, I think this is his best role to date. Olsen, who is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, is a pleasant surprise, and she’s a legit star in the making. I also was blown away by Gil Birmingham, who played Natalie’s father, and there are two scenes between him and Renner that are as authentic and moving as anything I’ve seen on screen. I’ve seen Wind River four times, and I cry through both scenes every time. Some of that is just being a dad; some of it is that those scenes are a master class in writing and acting.

[Mild spoilers in this paragraph.] The film is a slow burn until, well, until it isn’t…and then it really isn’t. The scene I mentioned at the outset is a flashback where we see exactly what happened to Natalie, and from that point forward the pacing and volume explode for a bit. I suspect the abrupt change gave a lot of critics whiplash, and I wasn’t sure about it at first myself, but I think I’ve made sense of the contrast Sheridan was creating. I’m less at ease with the way evil is dealt with in the end, primarily in one particular scene that taps into a deep well of moral and spiritual questions about justice and vengeance. But after multiple viewings I’ve realized that while hunger for vengeance is the most obvious theme in the story, Wind River isn’t ultimately about good overcoming evil through vengeance. It’s about the discovery that the triumph of good over evil happened in the very first scene in the film. The virtue in Natalie’s courage (and, I think, to a lesser extent Jane’s) is juxtaposed with both the monstrous cowardice of her attacker and the crusade to end her attacker by any means necessary, and it’s Natalie’s virtue that stands as the unmistakable hero of the story.

Like every movie on this list, Wind River is imperfect, and it likely won’t be atop many people’s year-end lists. But even as much as I value a refined metric for evaluating quality film, I’m still most affected by how a movie makes me feel. Quiet and deliberate most of the way, Wind River drew me into the pain of being human and the struggle to make some sense of the harshness and move forward. It was my favorite film of 2017.

Some tacked on comments about other movies I kind of liked, really hated, or just want to tack on a comment about:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
[Some spoilers here.] I have a web of conflicted feelings about this one, which has done well on the awards circuit and may continue that at the Oscars. Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand both give terrific performances, and it’s a compelling story with a strong script. But I struggle with any story that appears to minimize the grievous tragedy of suicide, and I felt that in this movie after a significant character ends his life rather than endure a terminal illness. Both parts of that are probably just too personal for me, but it seemed we were being ask to sympathize with his choice in a way that I just hated. I also struggled to understand how I was supposed to feel about almost all of the main characters. I can live with some of that ambiguity and tension, but when the credits roll and I’m still that uncertain about almost everyone in the movie, I’m not sure I’m the problem.
[Content warning: This is an extraordinarily violent movie, and some of the violence is particularly troubling as it involves a little girl killing bad guys with her wolverine claws.]
I haven’t tracked with the X-Men franchise prior to Logan, but I was interested after reading some reviews. Like many of the films on my list, my experience with this one was complicated, mostly because it is so very saturated with bladed violence. But in the golden age of superhero movies, James Mangold (writer and director) did what many have tried and failed to do in creating a complex, deeply human story about a magnificently flawed superhero grappling with the purpose and value of his life. The sheer volume and intensity of the killing is actually meant to demonstrate the futility of even “justified” violence as Logan wrestles with that part of his legacy. But it’s hard to separate violence-as-anti-violent-plot-device from the truth that I’m still watching a one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen (are you picking up on my caution here?) and that I’m often still in that very familiar territory of knowing someone has to die, so subconsciously rooting for what’s going to be another brutal killing. Hugh Jackman is great as a weary, aging superhero plagued by a superhuman version of male midlife (and possibly end of life) crisis, and Dafne Keen owns the screen when it’s her turn. But it’s the story and script that set Logan apart, and Mangold and his cowriters were rewarded with an Academy Award nomination, a rare feat for a superhero movie screenplay.
Wonder Woman
My expectations for any DC movie not directed by Christopher Nolan are deservedly low, but this one somehow escaped whatever bad movie bacteria is clinging to everything else DC does. It was still pretty formulaic, and some of the dialogue was more cringeworthy than I’ve seen many people admit, but Gal Gadot owns the role, and Chris Pine is, as always, excellent. I also appreciate the empowerment that it represents for women and girls, but my enthusiasm for these triumphs continues to be tempered a bit when the route to liberation is just better violence. And yes, I feel the same way about violent male heroes, including many in the list above.
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Poor Spider-Man drew a tough break, rebooting in a year with several other very strong superhero movies. But I really liked this movie, and I continue to be impressed with what Marvel is doing, even with characters and stories that have previously struggled to find big screen footing.
I’ve sincerely enjoyed a lot of animated movies with my kids over the last 15 years, but it’s rare for me to connect with one in the same way I connect with live action features. Coco didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s a movie with real depth and offers a lovely portrait of Mexican culture and family values.
The Greatest Showman
Will I be banished from my home for not including The Greatest Showman in my actual ranked list of my favorite movies of the year? The answer is no, but only because my daughters would have to stop singing and dancing along with the soundtrack long enough to notice. I’m kind of amused by the divergent reactions to this thing, some calling it the best movie of the year and others declaring it deeply troubling (grumpy much?). I think both reactions are a bit much, but I understand why some folks love it and why others hate it. I thought it was fun and entertaining if you can really set aside your need to connect what you’re watching to the real world, and I love that it tapped a new well of wonder and joy in my kids. And my girls are right: The songs are fantastic.
Darkest Hour
This is another one that I like more over time as I reflect on it. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing and unrecognizable as Winston Churchill, so much so that I’m having a hard time with John Lithgow as Churchill in The Crown. Lily James is also delightful.
All the Money in the World
This feels like a movie that should have been great but was just good. Of course it’s easy to assume that the whirlwind reshoot to replace Kevin Spacey (a crazy story you should read about if you haven’t already) is to blame for that, but Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of a relentlessly loathsome J. Paul Getty is astounding. Michelle Williams is also terrific, but there are some structural and emotional holes in the story that held it back as a film.
The Post
The Post had every reason to be a movie that I’d love: Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, and a historical drama about the time I was born into that highlights the importance of a free press and the courage of a woman forced into a man’s world that didn’t want her. But I got bored and stayed bored for like 45 minutes. I couldn’t stop thinking, “It feels like the more interesting story is what’s happening at The New York Times.” The most compelling case offered in the film for why we’re seeing what’s happening at the Washington Post instead is to make sure Kay Graham’s (Streep) story is told. And that’s great, except that I felt like, on the whole, Streep’s character was written poorly. But a lot of smart people thought it all worked, so I’ll probably give it another chance just to make sure I didn’t catch it on a bad day.
Call me by your name
I’ve already written at length about my serious problems with a “love story” about sex between a 24 year-old and a 17 year-old. I should acknowledge that this film looks fantastic — something like what you might imagine a dream about literature or literature about a dream might look like on a screen. Michael Stuhlbarg also delivers a monologue at the end of the film that is so beautifully authentic and gentle that it’s uncomfortable, but that just aggravated me more because it was such poignant writing and acting about a relationship we never actually saw. (What a year for Stuhlbarg, by the way, who is in three of the films nominated for Best Picture, including this one, The Post, and The Shape of Water.) Anyway I still think this film and, even more so the response to it, is a creepy indictment of the entertainment industry’s selective morality.
A Ghost Story
I really wanted to love this, and I’ll probably give it another shot someday. But some kinds of esoteric are still just kind of weird, and that’s how my first attempt at A Ghost Story landed.
Last Flag Flying
This movie is underwhelming, somehow managing to be less than the sum of its pretty swell parts — written and directed by Richard Linklater and starring Steve Carrell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne. But I loved Carrell in this role, and I continue to be bowled over by his range and his genius.
Movies I haven’t seen that seem like they might have a shot to find their way onto this list:
Personal Shopper
The Shape of Water
Florida Project
Their Finest
The Work
Ex Libris