The end of the year is usually a time for reflection, looking back at achievements and milestones, and setting up the new goals to be achieved for the new year. Any other year would be a normal process, but 2020 was not a regular year. A global pandemic, conspiracy theories, a strongly divisive political election, and the loss of notable heroes and figures in the entertainment industry cast a dark cloud akin to the alien ship’s hovering presence in “Independence Day”. This is not me being a Debbie Downer and throwing a pity party because even with the numerous negatives, there is a good bit of happiness and great moments that salvaged some of my sanity and usual positive demeanor. Cinema is always my place to escape the world’s problems and more than ever this year it felt like a personal version of Superman’s “Fortress Of Solitude”.
The pandemic sidelined most of the theaters in the country leading to my bedroom being the stage where new films debuted. It took some time getting used to the usual stranger sitting beside me in a dark theater being exchanged for my two cats and a loving girlfriend who shares my same passion for filmmaking. The experience of watching a film at home is greatly convenient and beats having to pay for a ticket and popcorn; on the other hand, the big screen, trailers, and the grand sound system is sorely missed and I hope that I can see the inside of a theater very soon. For now, these 20 films that made the cut for my best of the year each get a strong “must watch” recommendation for the memorable moments each of them provided me during the storm of this tumultuous year. Welcome to Black Nerd Magic’s Top 20 of 2020!!!!!!
20. SMALL AXE: LOVERS ROCK
19. SMALL AXE: RED, WHITE, AND BLUE
18. SMALL AXE: EDUCATION
17. TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL
15. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
14. CODED BIAS
12. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
11. THE INVISIBLE MAN
10. WOLFWALKERS – A 17th century Irish tale splashed with gorgeous animation, a story that is part coming of age, part action adventure, and part advocate against the debilitating effects of deforestation. Heartwarming for the soul and a delight for the ears due to the stellar voice acting cast/ear-worm musical soundtrack featuring the best of Irish culture staples. The Apple TV Plus streaming service gets a boost in being an option for cord-cutters based off this film as a whole.
9. TENET – “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it” has become the meme associated with this high-concept action film but the phrase acts as a guide to becoming open to the risks and outside-of-the-box thinking required by Christopher Nolan’s new mind-bending roller coaster. The kind of film that requires more than just one sit down to understand all of the mechanics employed to pay tribute to the spy films of the 1960s and a reconstruction of what audiences are used to looking for in a summer blockbuster. “Challenging” is an apt term for the narrative and concepts but it is a test that I love to undergo to push myself past outdated conventions of what to gather from a piece of entertainment. My hope is that this film will eventually undergo the same legacy face-lift that “Inception” and “Interstellar” now currently enjoy.
8. CHARM CITY KINGS – The African-American coming of age story in the same vein of a “Lady Bird” that I have long been praying will become the norm. Thanks to director Angel Manuel Soto, that dream is close enough to realize, especially with the new focus of Hollywood advocating for more diversity. Meek Mill made his name off a successful rap career and looks to transfer that talent and grind into acting with a hell of a supporting performance. Remember this name: Jahi Di’Allo Winston. A young gifted actor whose name is going to receive more spotlight and praise as his career continues to grow in the near future.
7. DA 5 BLOODS – Spike Lee is a director who has never minced his message or employed a sugarcoating approach to stories of the African-American condition. A group of Vietnam War veterans travel back through the traumatic battlefield of war to uncover a reserve of gold that is rightfully theirs given the atrocities of their ancestors and the treatment they faced in the country they fought for in the name of honor. Delroy Lindo is a front-runner for Best Actor in a career best performance that has me still floored. This film is Netflix’s knight in shining armor of original content.
6. SOUND OF METAL – The journey of one man learning how to live life without his passion of music is sadness personified but the hope of change and the attention displayed on his growing understanding that life doesn’t have to be defined by a disability is a cinematic treasure. The awards season is going to be in love with Riz Amhed and it will be righteous and deserved. Pay attention to the subtle details hidden in the use of sound throughout this film which is able to excel in noise but also the power of comforting silence.
5. SOUL – No surprises when it comes to passing on exemplary praise to the work of Pete Docter as his new film is more of the same representing the best of what Pixar has to offer. This is animation focusing on the existential questions of life with a degree of craftsmanship and goodwill in its message of choosing right now to live life to the best it can be. The depiction of African-American characters and the markings of its unique culture, hairstyles, and musical fortitude that defines them bought nothing but tears and smiles to my face. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is another trophy on the mantle for their celebrated career and I recommend heading straight to your Spotify and giving it a serious listen.
4. SMALL AXE: MANGROVE – A courtroom drama that feels tailor-made for the current social justice movement in America. A story that epitomizes the slogan “Black Lives Matter” and gives a lens to the contained disease that is prejudice and discrimination against minorities looking to make a better life than just being second class citizens. Steve McQueen’s tribute to the experiences of West Indian people of color fighting for their civil rights in the late 60s-early 70s in England represents the pinnacle of the wildly acclaimed Small Axe series.
3. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – A stunning fireball of dark comedy that is compelling and represents a big middle finger to rape culture, mansplaining, and the continued physical and mental harassment that are faced by women in a patriarchal society. Carey Mulligan dazzles in an enjoyable performance that ranks among the most entertaining to be seen in recent years. Confident writing and direction from newcomer Emerald Fennell cruises down the lane for a cinematic strike without using bumpers or cheap tropes to relay a powerful message of “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH”.
2. NOMADLAND – Nothing can beat the feeling of seeing humankind in their best element helping others and being compassionate to understand whats it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. Frances McDormand proves again to be a treasure, further cementing her name as legendary in the acting profession. Chloé Zhao’s meditative drama centering on a woman traveling from place to place looking for a sense of self after the economic downturn of the late 2000s is lighting in a bottle. Rich screenplay full of memorable lines and a score that soars on cloud nine; there is nothing that this film does on an average level, every piece of the puzzle shines.
1. BOYS STATE – Spellbinding documentary that examines the woody swamp of political discourse through the eyes of young men on the precipice of obtaining a position in keeping democracy. No matter the side that anyone chooses on the government level, this is a must watch for educational purposes and for the human moments that transcend past anything conceived in imagination. There is a sense of understanding that won’t be found on the spaces of social media and internet messages boards; hearing clear and mature discussion between kids leaning towards Democrat or Republican is a breath of fresh air and something that should become more the norm in the United States. Another piece of fantastic filmmaking that can been seen on Apple TV Plus.
Caless Davis is a Seattle-based film critic and co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He loves any discussion of film and meeting new people to engage in film discussions on any subject. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd.
2020 will be remembered as much for the way in which we watched movies as for the movies themselves. In a world shutdown by the COVID-19 virus, theaters closed and kept us indoors more often than not, watching streaming films at an increased rate while seeing major studio tent-pole releases constantly delayed. Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and more are locked in a battle to secure our subscriptions, and almost all of my Top 10 can be found on one of these services.
Along with the change in release dates came a change in the awards season. With the Academy Awards pushing back until late April 2021, some films that will be eligible won’t even release until January or February 2021. I’ve made the decision to go ahead and finalize my end of year list without seeing a few of those, though they will be a part of my annual voting as a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. This year, our award timeline was delayed as well, and so I do not have a list of my nominations and our winners to share. Hopefully I can remember to come back and edit links to those in after they are complete.
This year I saw a resurgence in gaming, partially due to the launch of a new seasonal podcast about video games called The Games We Love, partially due to some extra free time while working from home for several months, and partially due to the excitement of welcoming the next generation of consoles into my home. I also watched more series content than in recent years, going through all of “Friday Night Lights” with my best friend and watching a season here and there of countless other shows. As of this writing, I’ve still managed to see 166 new films this year, a whopping 29 of which are documentaries. Finding room in my Top 20 (much less my Top 10) for every film that I want to sing the praises of is usually incredibly difficult and this year is no different. There were less films that blew me away this year but the overall quality of what I watched is strong and encompasses a wide range of genres. Since it’s impossible for me to ever just settle on ten best films, you will see some of my favorites of the year in the #11-20 special mention spots, as well as couple of extra highlights. While there are no specific thoughts accompanying the #11-20 films, you can always find my thoughts on what I’m watching at my Letterboxd account, so be sure to follow me there.
With regards to my criteria, when it comes to ranking films critically, I do that as part of my membership in the Seattle Film Critics Society. But on Feelin’ Film we focus more on matters of the heart, so my Top 10 films are often ones that I found the most affecting in 2020 – those movies that provided me an incredibly emotional or memorable experience of some sort. Another thing that factors strongly into my ranking is rewatchability, so think of this list as my favorites, which to me are the best.
In order to make this a tad easier on myself, and also because they truly are a unique medium unto themselves, I always list my Top 5 Documentaries separately. It feels like every year is a great one for non-fiction filmmaking and 2020 was no different. I still have quite a few highly-acclaimed ones to see and may even come back and edit this accordingly when I do. Regardless, I’ve expended this genre’s list to a Top 10 this year due to there being so many great documentaries that I want to bring attention to.
This has been a relatively long intro and I appreciate you taking the time to read it when you could have just scrolled down to the lists. With that said, I won’t take up any more of your time.
TED LASSO (Apple TV+) – “Ted Lasso” is simply one of the best pieces of entertainment media (film, series, game) that I have enjoyed in year. This ten episode series is based on an old NBC Sports commercial and follows a college football championship winning coach to England where he takes over a floundering Premiere League soccer team, despite knowing next to nothing about the sport. It’s a recipe that could so easily have led to stupidity but instead this show, which can be binged in less than 5 hours, is utterly hopeful and positive at all times. As Ted navigates learning the sport, dealing with the eccentric and egotistical personalities of the adult players he coaches, and struggles with his own quietly hidden relationship issues, this show manages to always keep you smiling and leave you feeling inspired. Response was so great that before season one had even finished airing, Apple TV ordered seasons two and three, so now is a great time to discover it and experience the uplifting ability this show will have on your life.
10. THE SOCIAL DILEMMA (Netflix)
9. THE DISSIDENT – Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) returns with “The Dissident”, another strong contender that could win him a second statue, about the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and villainy of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is a gripping, immersive, and well-told piece of investigative journalism about the suppression of speech. The film covers a lot of information but its thriller style makes it go down easy. It features a fantastic score, too, and is incredibly urgent as the world becomes more and more fractured into sides who refuse to accept opposing viewpoints.
8. TIME (Amazon Prime Video) – “Success is the best revenge.” repeats Sunil Fox Richardson over and over angrily as she tries to convince herself to stay calm during yet another inhuman and unnecessary delay in the journey toward her husband’s release from prison. The resilience of this family on display is incredible and the way their story is told is both artistically compelling and emotionally evocative. This is an urgently needed piece that looks closely at the toll of injustice in America’s prison system, not from a broad statistics viewpoint but from a ground-level human one. The Richardson’s never once complain about having been arrested. They take full responsibility for their crimes but fight for fairness and changes to a system that, tragically, once it has its claws in you just never will let go. Their determination to make their family whole again and desire to see all justice system wrongs righted is hard to watch because you hate the pain and loss of time they’ve lived with, but ultimately an inspirational reminder that we (all of us) cannot allow this to continue in our world.
7. CONSOLE WARS (CBS All-Access) – Can’t really ask for much more from a 1.5 hour adaptation of a 576-page book. The original is definitely more in-depth and focuses even more heavily on SEGA’s perspective, but this visual version does it justice and is enhanced by the ability to show things such as the commercials and events of the console war era, which at times is much more effective than just imagining or trying to remember them when reading. This is a fantastic overview of this critical period of gaming history.
6. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (Netflix) – A filmmaker daughter and her aging father stage his death to help prepare for his eventual passing. I cried gobs and gobs because of course I was thinking about my own mom who passed away in 2014 and also remembering the struggles my grandfather had with Alzheimer’s before his death. But there is such joy in what Kirsten Johnson is doing that it far outweighs the sadness; the humorous stunt work, fantastical Heaven sequences, and enjoyment I had from seeing Seattle on screen helped to never let me wallow in the inevitability of what we’re seeing play out for too long at one time. Pictures and videos immortalize our loved ones in ways that fading memory never can quite match. This is beautiful. This is special. I almost feel guilty for peeking into someone’s intimate life story in this way, but I know that the purpose of these two sharing their passions together before Dick is gone forever and putting it on film for us to see in this intelligent, clever, and poignant manner is very much for themselves first and an inspiration for us second.
5. MISS AMERICANA (Netflix) – Taylor gets very raw and real in this documentary where she comes clean about just how hard celebrity life has been for her, in a way that we can never really understand, and puts into perspective how that can negatively affect someone’s emotional and mental well-being. I loved seeing the songwriting process, too. One of my favorite things about Taylor is her storytelling ability. That’s what makes her special, and it was a joy to watch some of these hits developing in their infancy. I also definitely appreciated her vulnerability about eating disorders, the Kanye stuff (that whole incident just makes me even madder now), disagreements with her parents, the awful experience of going through being sexually assaulted, and her struggle with trying to be the picture of who fans wanted instead of the person she actually is inside. Taylor has come a long way and deserves the right to grow and change and voice her opinions just like any of the rest of us do. I laughed, I smiled, I cried, I was brought back to many memories related to her music, and I came away from this feeling like I respect her and love her as an artist even more, but most importantly as a person who has feelings and thoughts and opinions. We so often think celebrities just exist for our entertainment. That may be their job, but there’s so much more to their lives.
4. BOYS STATE (Apple TV+) – A documentary that follows an annual event in Texas where a thousand 17-year-old boys join together to build a representative government from the ground up. It is cinematic, incredibly entertaining, super insightful, and a huge crowd-pleaser. It’s also eerie how much this serves as a microcosm of big-time American politics, but luckily manages to remind us that there is still some hope, as well.
3. TAYLOR SWIFT – FOLKLORE: THE LONG POND STUDIO SESSIONS (Disney+) – I adored this intimate and personal film that doesn’t just have Taylor playing her incredible songs from the Folklore album but provides a much bigger opportunity for her to discuss the stories behind their meaning and how they came to be written, as well as ruminate on her collaborative efforts with The National and Bon Iver. This is such a perfect companion piece to her Resolution Tour film, one that is full of her energy and showmanship. This shows a very different side of her and that is what makes her so special, the ability to be real in both ways and both places. It is an absolutely perfect music documentary on one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever.
1b. THE LAST DANCE (Netflix/ESPN+) – What really needs to be said? This incredible 10-part documentary captured the attention of every major sports fa every Sunday night over a month in 2020 as we watched behind the scenes coverage of and relived the Chicago Bulls 1997-98 championship season. Centered around that particular year and the end of a dynasty, the documentary simultaneously serves as a portrait of the career of NBA legend Michael Jordan. It is a riveting piece of work and one of 2020’s best overall cultural moments.
1a. THE HISTORY OF THE SEATTLE MARINERS (YouTube) – Since there are two sports documentaries essentially tied for my favorite of the year, I’m going with the more unique one in this top spot. This film (which you can view in chunks or as one 3.5 hour long supercut at the link above) immediately goes on my Mount Rushmore of sports documentaries. It is an incredible, engaging piece of storytelling and statistics that relives the franchise’s history from its highest highs and “what ifs” to the many, many years that have left fans feeling like the team is cursed. It is an ode to a city, a team, its icons and its villains, that manages to be both entertaining and supremely informational while never once losing my attention. Yes, I may be slightly biased because I’m also a fan of the team being covered, but the format is undeniably mesmerizing regardless, and this is a truly complete history of the team we Mariner fans sometimes hate to love. SoDo Mojo!
HAMILTON (Disney+) – Hamilton the stage musical is a perfect piece of groundbreaking theater, one of the greatest shows of all-time, from the mind of absolute genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. And while this filmed version is missing that special energy that makes a live viewing so special, that is more than made up for here with the careful camerawork providing close-ups, unique angles, and tracking shots that allow for a more intimate and detailed experience than the vast majority of viewers would ever be able to have. The show is a masterpiece plain and simple, and I’m glad that they went this route instead of adapting (and lessening) it into a different media form. “Hamilton” the “movie” immediately becomes one of the things I will re-watch the most for the rest of my life. It is simply extraordinary.
THE FEATURE FILMS
20. SOUND OF METAL
18. MONSTER HUNTER
17. ON THE ROCKS
13. ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
12. FIRST COW
10. THE INVISIBLE MAN (HBO Max) – “The Invisible Man” put a new spin on a classic horror property with a sci-fi twist, plenty of surprises, and an all-too-real story from the perspective of someone who is tormented by her long-time domestic abuser. It is not always easy to watch and trigger warnings definitely apply, but for those who can stomach it, the painful brilliance of Moss’ exceptional traumatic performance, catharsis and a genuinely unnerving but entertaining experience is to be had. Universal has finally figured out what a new line of monster movies can look like, with truly evil and unredeemable villainous fiends and social metaphors delivering a contemporary vision all their own. Let’s hope this is the start of a great franchise and not just a splendid flash in the pan. (Hear our discussion about “The Invisible Man” in Episode 219 here.)
9. WOLFWALKERS (Apple TV+) – “Wolfwalkers” has so much symmetry that you’d think Wes Anderson directed it. This technique, and accompanying use of varying geometric shapes to display its 2D art style, result in some of the most visually striking, memorable, and sublime animation I’ve seen in years. The story hits emotional beats aplenty with its fable-like tale of friendship between two girls from different worlds and its single-parent relationship struggles. There’s also the historical setting to take in for those who want to learn about this traumatic period of English control in Ireland’s past. And there are some environmental messages here akin to what Miyazaki tackles in his wonderful film “Princess Mononoke”. The musical score is an absolute delight, too, with its traditional Irish folk sounds perfectly matching the wondrous colorful images. Cartoon Saloon puts out nothing but hits and this is simply next in line.
8. THE FATHER – With all due respect to the other leading men of the 2020 awards cycle, Sir Anthony Hopkins has entered the room. In a memorable (ironically) performance that absolutely floored me, he brilliantly transports us into the mind of an elderly man suffering from dementia. He navigates a range of emotions from lovable and harmless to infuriating and heartbreaking with delicate expertise. Combined with focused first-time direction from award-winning playwright Florian Zeller and an expertly adapted script of his own work, the story plays out (pun intended) at times almost like a psychological thriller instead of a straight drama. As his daughter (played lovingly committed yet on the cusp of a breakdown at all times by the wonderful Olivia Colman), and others, enter and exit his world, nothing is certain for character or audience, allowing us to feel the suffocating struggle that loss of memory must have on those who suffer from it, and provoking a level of empathy for them that I’ve previously not experienced.
7. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN – Stylish, twisted, bitingly mean, deviously funny, and yet confidently firm in what it has to say about rape culture and those who protect it. Like its title, writer/director Emerald Fennell is a promising young woman, too, crafting a multi-tonal thriller that puts a new spin on a familiar revenge story in a way that definitely leaves a mark. It helps that the film is led by Carey Mulligan, in what is at least equal to the best work of her career, and features an expertly curated soundtrack. This is an ambitious and fascinating confrontation of a toxic masculinity culture that needs to disappear and the grief and trauma victims of it face.
6. CHARM CITY KINGS (HBO Max) – It’s not often that a film is as fresh to me as “Charm City Kings”. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like the perspective of this coming-of-age story before and I was blown away by the feelings it left me with and the strong character development throughout. It follows a group of young teenagers navigating life in Baltimore while admiring a local biker gang, learning about masculinity and loyalty along the way. Ángel Manuel Soto has created something special and rapper Meek Mill is a revelation in a powerfully emotional supporting role.
5. SMALL AXE:LOVERS ROCK (Amazon Prime Video) – This movie is a vibe. Steve McQueen offers a prime example of not padding a story just to hit some arbitrary runtime. This is one night, one party in a West London neighborhood in the 1980s, and the narrative doesn’t need more than that to completely immerse us in the experience of these would-be lovers and others just wanting to dance the night away in carefree bliss. There is no overarching conflict or problem to solve, just a few instances of natural interpersonal drama between party-goers throughout the evening. The aesthetic is incredible with a hazy cinematography as if the camera was shooting through the clouds of marijuana smoke that fill the house, and the music is flat-out incredible, provoking an involuntary response for the viewer’s body to move to the sweet rhythms and lyrical sexiness of Mercury Sound’s reggae jams. In the film’s final moments it captures the hope and feelings of newfound love beautifully and realistically, and leaves us with a smile that will go down as one of 2020’s best film moments for me.
4. NOMADLAND – “Nomadland” is a tremendous portrait of the American vagabond uprooted by recession, constantly moving as a means of survival, while simultaneously experiencing the world around her in a way that so few of us ever really do. Chloé Zhao’s use of non-actors again elevates her film, giving it a sort of slightly dramatized documentary feel. Hearing the real-life stories of nomads that Fern meets on the road and watching her learn about their ways was enlightening and humbling, showcasing a segment of humanity that is far less reliant on luxuries than I will likely ever be. Joshua James Richard’s sweeping, majestic Midwestern cinematography captures beautiful landscapes in wide glory but Zhao knows when to have him come in close to show us the incredible emotional tolls on Fern, thanks to what I believe is a career-best performance by the great Frances McDormand. And Ludovico Einaudi’s melancholic and moving score triggered tearful eyes nearly every time it sparingly appeared.
Above all else, “Nomadland” is an inspiration, much in the way that something like “Into the Wild” has always been for me. It offers an awakening to the very real struggles some face in the 21st century, and reminds us that home truly is where the heart is, while no doubt leaving a lingering mark on your soul. Zhao’s storytelling approach is truly something special and combined with her unique cinematic eye and gift in editing this film proves that “The Rider” was no fluke and she is one of the most important voices in American filmmaking right now.
3. RIDE YOUR WAVE (Hoopla) – “Ride Your Wave” walloped me emotionally and is my new favorite film from Masaaki Yuasa. It’s a romantic dramedy anime with relatively restrained use of fantasy elements (for Yuasa, at least) and a reoccurring musical theme that gives me strong “La La Land” vibes. It also teaches how to make great coffee, which is a huge bonus! The film is gorgeously animated with a softer style that perfectly fits the tone of its story and has nuanced emotional depth as it deals with love, loss, and what it means to move on. It’s also an extremely accessible anime for mainstream animation fans and nice to see something in the genre that focuses on adults and not teens. Year after year, I continually find myself drawn to romantic stories in anime and while that has mostly been Makoto Shinkai pictures, I’m thrilled to find other directors hitting those same chords that resonate with my heart.
2. THE WAY BACK(HBO Max) – “The Way Back” is not without its typical sports cliches in the personalities and stories of the basketball team players, but it is also a film that completely subverts them when it comes to its overall primary character arc and ending. It’s an addiction drama about how we cannot change the past, but how we can affect the future, one step at a time, and of the impactful part relationships and passions play in that process. It is a feel-good basketball story with a dose of exciting in-game action, some hearty laughs, and plenty of sincere feels, made even more special when you consider the cathartic personal role it played in Ben Affleck’s own recovery. Director Gavin O’Connor has cemented himself as the king of this genre and is now 3 for 3 with sports drama masterworks. (Hear our discussion about “The Way Back” in Episode 260 here.)
1. SOUL (Disney+) – At first, you might not think “Soul” is Pixar’s most perfectly entertaining film from start to finish. It definitely feels like some of their heaviest existential drama to date and is less accessible for younger kids, but it all comes together to pay off brilliantly in an absolutely triumphant and moving final act reached through a screenplay that deftly navigates complicated concepts. What personality traits are we born with and how do we choose our passions are among the big questions asked by Pete Docter and crew this time around, and it will certainly get you thinking about your own life, how you got here, and where you’ll go next. The score by Reznor and Ross is my favorite of the year and the film’s vibrant visuals (which look incredibly different when in New York or in the spirit world) are stunningly gorgeous, unsurprisingly making me very sad that I wasn’t able to see this in a theater. Thankfully, for viewers who do find it a bit abstract, the talking cat helps keep it light despite the big ideas and characters dealing with death. Ultimately, “Soul” is a tender film and one that is refreshingly all about hope and realizing just how incredible every day of life is whether we have attained our dreams or not.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted, and follow along with his daily film thoughts on Letterboxd.
For film enthusiasts everywhere, especially those, myself included, who live for the underappreciated masters and the nooks and crannies of cinema history, November 29, 2018 was a dark day, the day FilmStruck died. FilmStruck had been the all-too-short-lived streaming home for the revered Criterion Collection and their streaming partners, notably Janus Films. FilmStruck had also recently partnered with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) to provide access to an abundance of classic American cinema. Altogether, in addition to offering a large selection of films released on the Criterion label, the service had also provided its subscriber base with a wealth of ever-shifting selections, both foreign and domestic, from across the many decades of film history.
After having experienced the Criterion Collection in past years as merely happenstance as I explored various acclaimed films that happened to be on their discs, 2018 marked a shift of intentionality as I purposely began seeking out films associated with the label, especially once I finally made the decision to dive into FilmStruck. Fortunately, I’m a huge proponent of physical media, especially Blu-ray, and so that already represented the majority of my watching, but I quickly discovered many titles on the channel didn’t have Blu-ray releases. Nevertheless, come January 1, the start of my 2019 adventure with the label, discs were now pretty much my only source when it came to anything Criterion-related. That’s not to say I didn’t stop making astonishing, thrilling, and awe-inspiring discoveries on disc. In fact, the majority of my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries in 2019 were from discs in the Collection. But there’s a lot to be said for the convenience and depth of streaming.
Fortunately, the darkness and despair was short lived, as soon after FlimStruck closed, it came to light that Criterion itself would be providing a streaming service. Finally, after much anticipation, on April 8, the Criterion Channel launched, and I began to discover just how deep the rabbit hole would go. The channel’s extensive partnerships would enable them to provide an even more diverse array of films than FilmStruck had. Right off the bat, I experienced one of the new channel’s most ingenious means of helping its viewers to discover films we may never have otherwise seen. Curated collections.
Day one, the first major collection was right there on top of the screen, Columbia Noir. If this was the launching point, a whole group of compelling Columbia Studios films, the vast majority of which had no Criterion ownership, along with a whole host of other films, in and out of the Collection, I knew I was in good hands. So now, with a full arsenal of available Criterion Collection Blu-ray releases and Criterion Channel possibilities I was ready to dive into all sorts of new territory. By the end of 2019, I had experienced 134 of them for the very first time with representation from every decade from the 1920s through the 2010s.
Here’s the full list of Criterion-related titles I watched in chronological order by release date.
I wish I could tell you about all the great films I watched throughout 2019, but instead I’ll have to stick to the highlights. Without going into detail, I am particularly happy with 3 box sets I began and will finish in 2020, not a bad film in the bunch and two genuine masterpieces–The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Playtime. Those sets features the talents of filmmakers Jacques Demy, Jacques Tati, and the collaborations of Marlene Dietrich and her frequent director Josef Von Sternberg. Along the same lines, many of my channel experiences came via the aforementioned curated collections, which focus on either a specific filmmaker, actor, creative theme or a combination of those. The one and only collection I completed beginning to end, though not for lack of trying, was Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck, in which she played a wide variety of characters, from a long-suffering mother to promiscuous lover to faith healer to a mail order bride fighting for the love of her husband. That last character is found in The Purchase Price, one of the least appreciated films in the collection that was in fact my favorite of the group.
There was plenty I enjoyed from the other collections I partook from, whether I saw many as in the launch day Columbia Noir collection or merely a couple as in the Fred and Ginger grouping that featured who else but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a pair that can’t help but put a smile on your face with their chemistry, dancing talent, and synchronicity. The noir set gave me the opportunity to finally discover Fritz Lang’s genre masterpiece The Big Heat as well as his also outstanding, though underrated Human Desire. I was additionally grateful for the opportunity to explore the contributions of women in early cinema through a trio of Dorothy Arzner films, one of the pioneering women directors, headlined by Craig’s Wife, as well as a pair of George Cukor films that put a spotlight on his complex, unforgettable heroines. Both The Women, which features the unique casting of 130 female speaking parts and not one male on camera, and A Woman’s Face made for rich and heartfelt viewing.
My other big push came at the very end of the year as I simultaneously gobbled down soon-to-be-expired entries from the Val Lewton and MGM Musicals collections wherein I found some fun, some thrills, and three new favorites, from an ultra dark classic horror mystery featuring Satan worshipers and suicide, to emotional romantic drama in musical form provided by the likes of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, to a film of pure joy, silliness, and dreams of romance with the sunny Debbie Reynolds being pursued by the awkwardly charming Donald O’Connor. Those films are The 7th Victim, For Me and My Gal, and I Love Melvin, in that order.
About mid-year, after having seeing there were a massive number of Yasujirō Ozu films on the channel, a master director I had discovered the previous year and whose work intrigued me, I was inspired to try something truly ambitious, my biggest film-watching project to date. I would begin a chronological deep dive through every Ozu film I could access. By year’s end, I had journeyed through his first 10 films, though a couple only exist in part. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience watching them in order to see the growth of his film-making skills, the types of stories he tells, and to see his style progress over time. In the few short years these first films have covered, I’ve been able to pick up on subtle shifts in direction such as his heavily Hollywood influenced beginnings to him starting to develop his own distinct style. My favorite of these early years, Tokyo Chorus, is a deeply emotional family drama where a man loses his job trying to stand up for a coworker, which throws his family into hardship. Those who look ahead know emotional family drama would become a mainstay in Ozu’s work.
TOP 10 CRITERION DISCOVERIES
Now we come to the main event, the best of the best, where I highlight my top 10 Criterion-related discoveries of 2019, plus an honorable mention. These were the films that grabbed the whole of my heart, mind, and spirit, showcasing complete package film making, from script to cinematography to acting to direction to music.
Note, these titles were extracted from my overall list of my top 20 first-time watches during 2019.
Honorable Mention: La Jetée
Year: 1962 Director: Chris Marker Genre: Short, Drama, Romance Cast: Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, André Heinrich, Jacques Branchu, Pierre Joffroy, Étienne Becker, Philbert von Lifchitz, Ligia Branice
A 28-minute genius work of art. The time travel plot, as mind bending as it is, is simply window dressing to the meditation on love, memory, and the attempt to attain the unattainable or regain what is forever lost that lies beneath. Rarely has so much been accomplished with so little. Through [almost] nothing but a set of still pictures and narration, Marker sets our imaginations alight, and we ourselves become captivated with this entrancing woman once frozen in a snapshot of memory.
Upon the prisoner’s re-entering the past, the juxtaposition of music and image creates a transportive experience that makes you want nothing but to rest in those peacetime moments indefinitely all the while knowing the apocalypse is just around the corner. Likewise when the time-traveling prisoner and the woman he was seeking are together. There is so much life in the still images that you can almost sense them moving but in the way that life moves when you’re sitting quietly with someone you adore simply adoring their presence, and time just fades away. And then comes a look. Just briefly, but one that you will never forget. But these moments are fleeting, and time in fact does go on and that moment is forever gone.
#10 – Arsenic and Old Lace
Year: 1944 Director: Frank Capra Genre: Comedy, Crime, Thriller Cast: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton Peter Lorre, James Gleason, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Grant Mitchell
Who knew a movie featuring serial killer sisters that’s directed by the guy who made such moving slices of melodrama like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington could be so freaking funny? Cary Grant kills it as the just-married and utterly flummoxed Mortimer Brewster who is simply trying to get ready for his honeymoon at his family home when he stumbles across a corpse upon which his aunts happily reveal to him that they’ve been killing lonely bachelors as a service to them. As if this wasn’t wild enough, Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and his other brother, Jonathan is himself a murderer on the run with his own dark intentions. But murder turns to farce as the comedy of errors and miscommunication pile up. The plot is beautifully orchestrated, but the sheer incredulity alone that Grant hilariously shows at the ever increasing madness around him is alone worth the price of admission.
#9 – Solaris
Year: 1972 Director: Andrei Tarkovsky Genre: Drama, Mystery, Sci-fi Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Georgiy Teykh, Sos Sargsyan, Olga Barnet
Even more than the main character Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) and despite her not showing up for some time, Solaris thrives on Natalya Bondarchuk’s magnetic portrayal of Hari, Kelvin’s long-dead wife who has suddenly appeared again… and again… and again. Kelvin himself represents a relatable everyman, and it is through him we are transported from what remained of his life and relationships on Earth into a surreal, contemplative, and ever more disturbing experience on a nearly empty space station in growing disarray. The station is hovering over an alien ocean world full of fog and mystery. Through Kelvin, our attention is ever drawn to Hari, and it is the intimacy her present manifestation shares with him, an intimacy defined by their past relationship, through which Tarkovsky provides the core of his exploration into what it means to be human.
Clearly, human individuals are unique in a way that other creatures are not, a distinct nature that even a carbon copy cannot emulate, try as they might. Another side of our humanity is our attachment to one another, none more so than in that unifying relationship of marriage, where two become one flesh. The longing that comes from the loss of that relationship can be so intense that perhaps one would consider a carbon copy substitute, even knowing it’s not the same person?
#8 – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Year: 1943 Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger Genre: Drama, Romance, War Cast: Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr, Adolf Wohlbrück, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Arthur Wontner, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Robert Harris
An epic rivaling the indomitable Lawrence of Arabia that gives flesh and meaning to what had seemed a mere caricature of a man. The viewer is faced with such human complexity in this study of the fictitious General Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) that he is himself forced to contemplate the whole of his own past, how it has affected his present, and what the impact will be on his future and the future of those who will come after him.
The depth and weight Powell and Pressburger were able to instill into the film is even more profound when one considers it having been made in wartime, when the fate of the world was yet unknown. They also demonstrate an attempt to understand the nature of that present war and how it came to be that all of Britain (and the world) was fighting for its very existence against the disastrous threat of Nazism. The acting is chock full of so many delightful subtleties and the dialogue is incredibly well written, detailed with emotion and color and memory. I also must give special attention to Deborah Kerr’s extraordinary multi-role performance, no doubt helped by the costuming and makeup talent.
#7 – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Year: 1964 Director: Jacques Demy Genre: Drama, Musical, Romance Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, Mireille Perrey, Marc Michel, Ellen Farner, Jean Champion, Pierre Caden, Jean-Pierre Dorat, Bernard Fradet, Michel Benoist
Jacques Demy is a master manipulator of the heartstrings and intimately familiar with the intense passions and longing that come with young love. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg left me with bittersweet tears and a tight ball of conflicted emotions as sadness and joy fought against one another within my soul. But it’s not only emotions Demy demonstrates artistry over. The frame throughout explodes with bright, bold colors and he collaborates with composer Michel Legrand to provide a soul-stirring musical score with powerful songs. Though this is no Hollywood musical as every word of dialogue is sung, often in a subdued, melancholy manner due to the ever-present conflict even amidst joy, which plays in subtle ways against the colorful backdrops.
While Catherine Deneuve’s character Geneviève takes center stage through much of the film, every romantic relationship and desire, whether given short or significant attention, is fueled with earnest intention and truthfulness. There is absolutely nothing casual about any of the romance. But speaking of Deneuve, the pained longing and desperation expressed in her face and eyes broke me. Through her and Guy’s (Nino Castelnuovo) forced separation, we are made to feel the misery of the not knowing and the consequences of the impossible choices that life and our own actions force us to make when we’re desperate not to have to make them.
#6 – Wild Strawberries
Year: 1957 Director: Ingmar Bergman Genre: Drama, Romance Cast: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gunnar Sjöberg, Max von Sydow, Åke Fridell, Ann-Marie Wiman, Gunnel Broström
A deeply introspective tone makes Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries immensely relatable, despite the often surreal quality of the film and the vast age difference between 78-year old doctor and widower Isak Borg and the average viewer, especially when we discover he and his much younger estranged son Evald suffer from a similar darkness of the soul that has brought each to their own crisis point. Victor Sjöström plays Isak with such sensitivity that he makes us care about his inner turmoil all the while he’s showing himself to have become an insensitive and grumpy old man to those he should be closest to.
The film opens with a surreal nightmare, which sets Isak face to face with the immediacy of his mortality with vivid symbolism. This begins a literal and figurative journey, the former a shared road trip with his pregnant daughter-in-law battling her own demons and with those they pick up along the way, including a girl named Sara, played by Bibi Andersson, who reminds him of the Sara he thought he would marry as a young man (also played by Bibi Andersson). These encounters on his literal journey propel Isak into a deep inner journey of sentiment, regret, and hope that serves to change how he sees himself and the world around him.
#5 – The Big Heat
Year: 1953 Director: Fritz Lang Genre: Crime, Film-Noir, Thriller Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, Willis Bouchey, Robert Burton, Adam Williams, Carolyn Jones
Never has so much tension been wrought out of a boiling pot of coffee and rarely does a final line land with such foreboding potency. WIth a screenplay written by actual former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat unleashed upon the world one of the most brutal film noirs of the classic era. With no holds barred, Lang unhesitatingly reveals the world as a place that feels cold, hopeless, vicious, and full of infidelity. It’s a world populated by the mafia, dirty cops, and promiscuous women, and by making it clear that no one is safe, good or bad alike or anywhere in between, Lang establishes an environment loaded with tension, both for physical danger as well as moral compromise.
Glenn Ford is ideally cast as the good guy homicide detective Sergeant Bannion who starts out a positive well-intentioned family man but soon finds himself caught up in mob brutality while trying to solve a case. In his anger and frustration, the cracks in his good-guy persona quickly develop and he starts to look and more like the criminals he’s pursuing. Gloria Grahame is also outstanding as Debby Marsh, girlfriend to Vince Stone, second-in-command to the local mob boss. Despite the company she keeps, she demonstrates an awareness and intelligence and an appreciation of moral uprightness in Bannion when he stands up to a nightclub singer who Vince abuses. It seems to be the spark she needs to seek a way out of the only lifestyle she’s known. So while one character is on the descent, the other is rising up.
#4 – The Elephant Man
Year: 1980 Director: David Lynch Genre: Biography, Drama Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Hannah Gordon, Helen Ryan, John Standing, Dexter Fletcher
Carrying on the torch of early 20th century filmmakers like Tod Browning (Freaks) who want to inspire us to care for those society has rejected and abused, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man eschews the distortion of surrealism for the distortion of humanity and a trumpets a desperate call for empathy and kindness. Lynch’s most important choice is to unmask John Merrick (the eponymous character’s real name) early on. The more he shows us John’s (John Hurt) intelligence, faith, ability to create and appreciate beauty, and his longing for human connection, the more monstrous those who would be cruel and take advantage of him appear. By the point he’s crying out that he’s a human being, not an animal, he’s the only one present who isn’t acting like one.
Hurt’s performance is one for the ages, both in physically presenting himself as this horribly disfigured man as well as from the soul that pours out of his eyes. Anthony Hopkins is likewise terrific as Dr. Treves. We sense his deep compassion for John and yet he’s hardly perfect as he comes to realize about himself. Despite his good intentions, he realizes he and his hospital staff are treating John with the same lack of humanity as John had endured in the circus. I loved seeing the pure care and affection that Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) had for John. She is wholly unaffected by his outward appearance, seeing straight into the soulful kindness and goodness of the man’s heart. And she’s proud to show him honor in public as well. What an inspiration!
#3 – Autumn Sonata
Year: 1978 Director: Ingmar Bergman Genre: Drama, Music Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, Lena Nyman, Halvar Björk, Marianne Aminoff, Arne Bang-Hansen, Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson, Linn Ullmann
After several previous attempts to fully appreciate the morally, philosophically, and artistically dense films of Ingmar Bergman, this one was the key to finally unlocking my ability to love one of them. I adore movies that make me feel, and let’s just say that if you ever wanted to know what the emotional equivalent of going 12 rounds with a prize fighter would be, my suggestion would be to watch the pulse-pounding bout herein between Bergman regular, Liv Ullmann and the incomparable Ingrid Bergman, who play a daughter and her estranged mother respectively. That daughter, named Eva, is the troubled wife of the village pastor, and her mother Charlotte is a highly accomplished and well-traveled pianist. Both have to face the disappointment and frustration that has come with choices that were long ago made, especially those due to Charlotte’s career pursuits.
If we’re honest, emotional baggage is always going to be a factor between mothers and their daughters. Ingmar takes advantage of this reality by heaping insult onto injury and creating deeply complex individuals whose fully fleshed out characters and rich histories bear scars that run incredibly deep. Reconciliation is the unstated desire, but as long-held secrets, selfish desires, and bottled up trauma are dredged up even the possibility of achieving that reconciliation is going to unleash all kinds of misery, frustration, rage, and despair. For 90 minutes, Ingrid and Liv are this mother daughter pair. With exacting performances that never once cross the line into overacting, they are taken to the limit as emotion pours out of each of them in a mesmerizing, soul-crushing plea for understanding and appreciation. By the end, the viewer feels as exhausted as the couple on the screen.
#2 – Barry Lyndon
Year: 1975 Director: Stanley Kubrick Genre: Adventure, Drama, History Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Körner, Gay Hamilton, Frank Middlemass, Arthur O’Sullivan, Godfrey Quigley, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone
It amazes me how Kubrick could seemingly take any genre and make a masterpiece out of it. This is his take on a 1700s period film. The sumptuous beauty of the cinematography presents an experience akin to a relaxing stroll through a gallery of richly detailed paintings, complete with narration and a gorgeous classical music compositions, except in the rare moment when the calm is unceremoniously broken and even the camera is set loose in the ensuing chaos. In contrast to the beauty of the camerawork is the only sometimes sympathetic man at its center, Redmond Barry, played to subtle perfection by Ryan O’Neal.
Barry is repeatedly given opportunities to put his past bad choices behind him and start anew, often in even better shape than he was before, but he keeps failing to overcome the lusts that drive him leading him to spurn those opportunities. He finds pleasures for a time, but those pleasures, those choices to act evilly towards not only strangers but eventually even his own wife and stepchild come at a severe cost. The defining duel of the film is masterfully filmed with immaculate detail and taking what had been a mostly relaxing viewing up to that point and ever so slowly infusing ounce upon ounce of suspense, creating intense discomfort for the characters on screen and the viewer alike.
And my #1 favorite Criterion discovery of 2019 is…
Year: 1948 Director: Vittorio De Sica Genre: Drama Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri, Carlo Jachino, Michele Sakara, Fausto Guerzoni
Such a simple premise–a man’s search for his stolen bicycle through the streets of post World War II Rome, an ancient, endlessly fascinating city of contrasts. Shot on location (no sets) with only untrained actors (though you’d never know it), this prime example of Italian neorealist cinema blurs the line between fly-on-the-wall documentary and fictional narrative. Director Vittorio De Sica demonstrates how such an event that would seem a mere inconvenience to many feels like a life and death predicament to the impoverished Antonio Ricci and his family. Through Antonio’s desperate urgency, he being played by the remarkable Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker by trade, we understand that failure is not an option. He must recover his bike, or he won’t be able to work, and his family will starve. Along for the search comes his son Bruno played by Enzo Staiola, equally photogenic and adept at showing a range of emotion as he watches his father’s growing desperation.
De Sica expertly fuels our empathy for the Riccis right away as the film opens with a bit of tragic irony. Antonio, desperate for work is informed there’s a job available for him. The catch, he must have a bicycle. The irony is he had one and had to pawn it to put food on the table. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes charge and decides they can live without their bedsheets and pawns them–because there’s nothing else of significance left to pawn–to get Antonio his bicycle back. With such a precious possession back in hand, we are in suspense every moment the bicycle is not under Antonio’s watchful eye. Later, at times as the needle-in-a-haystack search continues, we are further enlightened to Antonio’s miserable condition as he is surrounded by hordes of bicycles, the very thing he needs, but not one is his. We also see how Antonio’s desperate condition and the decisions it leads him to make affect young Bruno.
Jacob Neff is a film enthusiast living east of Sacramento. In addition to his contributions as an admin of the Feelin’ Film Facebook group and website, he is an active participant in the Letterboxd community, where his film reviews can be found. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with his latest thoughts and shared content.
2019 was weird for me when it came to film. In some ways, it wowed me. In other ways, it made me shake my head. Sandwiched in between an epic franchise finale and retellings of classic favorites were some real gems (cut and uncut). Below is the best of the best, for me at least. As with every year, not everything could make my top ten, so here are my honorable Top 5 Best of the Rest of 2019.
THE BEST OF THE REST
5. Brittany Runs a Marathon
3. Spider-Man: Far From Home
1. Avengers: Endgame
THE FEATURE FILMS
Without further delay, here are my 10 favorite films of 2019. If you haven’t had a chance to see them, hopefully, this list will help encourage you to seek them out soon and draw your own conclusions
10. UNCUT GEMS – One of the surprise performances of 2019 is Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems”. As a gritty New York gambler, Sandler shows us the life of trying to make a fast dollar, and his performance carries the film all the way to its surprising conclusion. His performance combined with the fantastic cinematography put me right in the tough streets with him, hoping that I don’t get caught saying or doing the wrong thing, for fear I might get a bullet in the chest.
9. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD – Quentin Tarantino is a director that I can respect and value, but also dislike and dismiss based on personal preference. There are few movies I can watch more than once with him in the director’s chair. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” stands out as one. Tarantino succeeds in crafting his own history, using a combination of real-life celebrities of Hollywood past as well as fictionalized characters representing those personalities that lived so prominently of that era. Two of those characters, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, and their friendship carry the story, something I didn’t expect from QT. That relationship becomes the catalyst for the film, and it’s the thing that captured my attention more than anything. (Hear our discussion about “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” in Episode 178 here.)
8. JOKER – A friend of mine said to me after seeing “Joker”, “if this was about a guy named Arthur Fleck, without the whole Joker origin story, it would have been just as impactful.” I completely agree. What Todd Phillips does in this story is invite us into the chaotic world of mental illness with the pressure of having that mental illness in a world that expects you to behave as if you don’t. Joaquin Phoenix delivers an outstanding performance and journey succumbing to the monster he eventually becomes. It’s a hard movie to watch and one of the few I hesitate to revisit because of the impact it has. But it’s one that will be the most memorable of 2019 for me. (Hear our discussion about “Joker” in Episode 191 here.)
7. FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY – I love it when a movie makes me feel happy. What I thought was going to be a nice little throw-away popcorn flick turned out to be one of the most memorable films of the year. It is anchored by Saraya Knight, an up and coming wrestler with dreams of being in the WWE, but the emphasis extends to the importance of family, of being connected to a common set of people, believing in each other’s dreams and how success and failure can shape each person’s life. It also doesn’t hurt that it takes me back to my days growing up watching “rasslin” every Monday night and Saturday afternoon.
6. MARRIAGE STORY – What a gut punch. “Marriage Story” acts as a mirror in a lot of ways in exposing the honesty of real relationships. It’s a raw vantage point seeing how two people come to grips with the fact that they, as a couple, aren’t happy, and have to deal with it knowing that there will be collateral damage no matter what. I see that in my marriage, in the hard conversations that expose the messiness of choosing to be together. But “Marriage Story” also reminds me that, at the heart of relationships is the ability to choose, and though I don’t agree with some of the choices made by our main characters, I am reminded that that ability is crucial. The film isn’t pretty, but it’s honest, which makes it a valuable watch for anyone. (Hear our discussion about “Marriage Story” in Episode 203 here.)
5. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON – Independent movies don’t get enough love. I’ve learned to accept that. Limited theater distribution, smaller marketing, and sometimes a simple narrative can hinder the buzz that these films deserve. “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is no different. Centering around a relationship between a couple of rejects pursuing a better life, this film invites us to join them on this journey and accept them for who they are as they grow to accept each other. Family doesn’t have to be defined by blood, and this film sells that message in a way that makes a believer out of me.(Hear our discussion about “The Peanut Butter Falcon” in Episode 199 here.)
4. PARASITE – I hope that we get to cover this on Feelin’ Film at some point. So much has already been said about this fantastic film. The social commentary is both obvious and subtle at the same time, giving the audience enough to think about but not overselling and overshadowing a fantastically entertaining story. There are so many “wow” moments in this film, twists and turns that keep me wondering what’s really at work here. It’s definitely worthy of the accolades that it has gotten and I hope that more people get a chance to appreciate what Bong Joon-Ho has crafted.
3. FORD V FERARRI – I don’t get a chance to see movies in the theaters more than once, so when I do, it’s got to be worth it. “Ford v Ferrari” is probably the most entertaining movie of 2019 for me, and it’s one that I had the pleasure of seeing twice on the big screen. There is a completeness in telling the story of Carol Shelby, Ken Miles, and their pursuit to bring Ford motor company back to relevance in the 1960s. James Mangold, in his meticulous direction, puts us so close to the action of LeMans as well as the intimacy of the relationships he takes care of in this story. I didn’t come away feeling wowed by what I saw, but rather getting a complete story, one that entertained me from start to finish. There wasn’t a single moment that stood out as the big moment, but it wasn’t necessary. Everything worked, and I can’t wait to experience it all again. (Hear our discussion about “Ford v Ferrari” in Episode 198 here.)
2. LITTLE WOMEN – What the heck? It’s no secret that period pieces are not my thing, and had it not been for Sam Mendes’ “1917” releasing in early 2020 instead of on Christmas (for my area at least) this was going to be a rental, easily. But as I learned in watching “Lady Bird” this year, Greta Gerwig can make me feel deeply in spite of my preconceptions of what a movie is supposed to be. “Little Women”, driven by a solid female cast, manages to tell a story that is both 200 years old and also still relevant today. Saoirse Ronan anchors the narrative as Jo March, and the supporting cast of her sisters propel it to entertaining heights. Watching the film reminded me of how important it is to understand yourself, how difficult it is for women to navigate a world dominated by men, and how family can bring out the best in a person, even through conflict and pain.(Hear our discussion about “Little Women” in Episode 207 here.)
1. BOMBSHELL – Movies that can entertain, educate, and provoke thoughtful discussion will always rise above any other, and “Bombshell” doesn’t miss any of those beats. When corporate America treats sexual harassment prevention training as a box to be checked to avoid liability, its importance is lost. “Bombshell” should essentially replace that training and be standard viewing for any employee working today. Solid female-led performances by Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margo Robbie help expose the toxic environment of Fox, and John Lithgow, portraying the sleazy Roger Ailes puts the exclamation point on that world. Much like last year’s “Hearts Beat Loud”, this film comes at a disadvantage, namely releasing late in the year against “Uncut Gems” and “The Rise of Skywalker”. If not now, hopefully, the early part of 2020 will bring it more of an audience and allow the message of “Bombshell” to explode beyond just the film world. (Hear our discussion of “Bombshell” in Episode 205 here.)
Patrick “Patch” Hicks calls Little Rock, Arkansas home with his family of four (his wife, son and three pets). When he’s not podcasting, he works as a multimedia designer and is also dabbling in the art of writing and directing. You can find him floating around the web on Twitter, Facebook, and his home on the web, ThisIsPatch.com.
2019 is coming to a close and what a wonderful year of movies we’ve had to wrap up the decade. This year I saw 175 new films, 26 of which were documentaries. Finding room in my Top 20 (much less my Top 10) for every film that I want to sing the praises of is always incredibly difficult and this year is no different. The process of narrowing down my favorites to the top ten films of the year was a painful experience that required a lot of reflection and time. The ranking you see here changed constantly right up until I hit “post”, but now what’s done is done and I have to live with it. Since it’s impossible for me to just settle on ten, you will see some of my favorites of the year in the #11-20 special mention spots.
With regards to my criteria, when it comes to ranking films critically, I do that as part of my membership in the Seattle Film Critics Society (see my nominations here and our award winners here). But on Feelin’ Film we focus more on matters of the heart, so my Top 10 films are often ones that I found the most affecting in 2019 – those movies that provided me an incredibly emotional or memorable experience of some sort. Another thing that factors strongly into my ranking is rewatchability, so think of this list as my favorites of the best.
In order to make this a tad easier on myself, and also because they truly are a unique medium unto themselves, I have listed my Top 5 Documentaries separately. It feels like every year is a great one for non-fiction filmmaking and 2019 was no different. At least two of these below would be featured in my Top 10 of the year if these lists were combined; I had to make some very hard cuts in limiting this list to just a Top 5. But as they say… “it’s what it is.”
5. UNTOUCHABLE – (not the 2019 documentary about Harvey Weinstein) The first documentary I saw in 2019 was this film by David Feige that started making festival rounds in 2016 and finally got its release this year. The film follows Ron Book, a Florida lobbyist and father to a daughter who has been sexually abused, on his campaign that leads to some of the toughest sex offender laws in the nation. The film is special because of the way it gives equal space to the stories of both victims and offenders, as well as their respective loved ones. It is an incredible example of what documentaries at their best can be – not just informative, but balanced and thought-provoking despite covering very difficult to watch & complicated subject matter. While never losing sight of the pain these crimes can cause, it challenges our long-held perception of sex offenders, forces us to see the effects of our strict justice system on them and their families, and offers statistics that question whether our laws are even making a dent in rehabilitation or prevention. (Hear our discussion about “Untouchable” in FF+ here.)
4. LOVE, ANTOSHA – Get ready to cry your eyes out and then embark on a (surprisingly long) quest to watch all of the late actor Anton Yelchin’s films. This film is so well-constructed as a documentary that tells the story of Anton’s life, but its power is in sharing the stories of what he meant to so many people, who could see in him what he maybe never could. It is a beautiful, beautiful tribute to a brilliant artist and wonderful human being gone far too soon.
3. SEA OF SHADOWS – I was blown away by the incredible access to both the bad guys and Mexican governmental agencies that this filmmaking team was able to have. “Sea of Shadows” is a documentary (which feels like an intense geopolitical thriller about cartels and other international criminal groups) that follows journalists teaming with activists and military to expose and take down powerful black-market fish bladder traffickers. The film is engaging and riveting in the way it brings this story of gross human exploitation and the destruction of our planet’s environment/animal kingdom to the forefront of public minds.
2. FOR SAMA – Many films have been made about the Battle of Aleppo, a 4.5 year conflict during the Syrian Civil War, but none like this. Told entirely from a young woman’s perspective, Waad al-Kateab becomes a journalist and documents her life in a sort of video log time capsule dedicated to her daughter Sama. It is an intimate, ground-level perspective otherwise unseen that captures the struggles of Waad’s life as she transitions through falling in love, becoming part of the resistance alongside her doctor husband, and eventually motherhood. It is visceral and painful in a way that caused me to have tears welled inside my eyes for almost its entire runtime. But though it is a horror film, it is also a love story, one that shows the cost yes, but also the deep devotion to justice and freedom that drives the resistance to protect one another and strive to reclaim their homeland from tyranny. It was unforgettable, and I hope that for the sake of retaining our humanity in this world as many people as possible will see it. Tough to get through? Absolutely. But worth it in every way for the beautiful relationships that exist within the chaos, and the inspiring hope these parents bring to not just their own child but the next generation as a whole.
1. APOLLO 11 – For the second year in a row, a documentary provided my most incredible IMAX theater viewing of the year. Composed entirely of newly discovered raw archival footage from the actual launch, mission, and landing, “Apollo 11” is an editing marvel that shares with the world an immersive experience from the past. Presented entirely free of any commentary and backed by one of the best musical scores of the year, this is technical filmmaking mastery at its finest. I held my breath, cried tears of pride and awe, and felt my bones rattle and my seat shake – all part of a spectacular experience that was one of my most memorable ones this decade. (Hear our discussion about “Apollo 11” in FF+ here.)
I broke this into a Top 11 because I couldn’t bear to cut (heh) “Uncut Gems” from my Top 10. It’s that great. #SorryNotSorry
11. UNCUT GEMS – Remember. To. Breathe. “Uncut Gems” is an E-X-P-E-R-I-E-N-C-E. This is a one-of-a-kind stylish anxiety attack that captures the highs and lows of compulsive gambling like I’ve never seen before. It often feels like complete chaos and manic screaming of dialogue throughout, but that is actually the Safdie Brothers in complete control of a career-best performance from Adam Sandler. It’s terrifying to watch unfold – like a horror movie without the slashing or supernatural – and the gigantic breath I finally took at the end is like the greatest gasp of air I’d ever had. Bonus points for a huge sub-plot involving Kevin Garnett and one of the year’s best scenes where said NBA superstar caresses a rock lovingly.
10. BOMBSHELL – There’s always room for a stellar biopic with Oscar-worthy performances and a biting script in my Top 10, and this year it was director Jay Roach’s riveting story of how brave women at Fox News took down its infamous sexually abusive CEO and a culture of toxic sexism. It is a slick, entertaining, and highly uncomfortable film that is so much more than just a history lesson, though. It tells this very important story from a perspective that audience members may never experience otherwise, opening my eyes via dramatization in a way that mundane and cheesy workplace sexual harassment videos never have. I feel empowered to look for, notice, and stand up against sexual harassment of any form anywhere it exists. (Hear our discussion of “Bombshell” in Episode 205 here.)
9. TOY STORY 4 – Shame on me for doubting Pixar and one of the most perfect trilogies of all-time. It took me two viewings, but once I took in the film detached from my expectations of what a Toy Story film “should” be, I fell in love. Not only is it heady and thoughtful in ways the series has never quite tried, it still packs the emotional punch I expect and crave. I laughed my ass off. I cried hard. I became obsessed with Forky. New characters won me over and this fourth entry manages to somehow create a new conclusion that makes perfect sense. (Hear our discussion about “Toy Story 4” in Episode 172 here.)
8. JOKER – Todd Phillips’ “Joker” is exceptional, elevating the type of stories we are accustomed to from our comic book characters into previously uncharted artistic territory. As Phillips’ muse, Joaquin Phoenix carries the film with a phenomenal physical performance that imbues the titular villain’s tormented soul with both a growing madness and a painfully affecting pathos. It took a lot of nerve for Phillips to depict a “beloved” villain in this way and style, knowing that many fans would not approve, but his approach allows for a powerful conversation to be had about mental illness and violence. I was completely enthralled throughout the film, both with its narrative and its artistic elements. I left the theater floored and impressed beyond belief. (Hear our discussion about “Joker” in Episode 191 here.)
7. PARASITE – What hasn’t already been said about director Bong Joon-Ho’s delightfully dark social satire? It’s a commentary on class warfare and capitalism that plays out in a funny yet thrilling story that crosses several different genres and surprises at every turn. Worthy of every bit of praise and all of the awards that it is winning this year, “Parasite” is one of the best live-action foreign films of the decade and should be seen knowing as little as possible.
6. 1917 – “1917” is an astonishing exercise in immersion that left me utterly shaken. It is a true technical marvel, with emotional power that creeps up slowly, and then forces the viewer to reconcile with the futility of war in a manner that lingers long after the credits roll. Featuring my favorite score of the year and the best cinematography, as well, the film is stunning on every level, a tour-de-force in the genre, and an absolute must-see theatrical experience. (Episode coming in January 2020)
5. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON – A simple, moving adventure story of friendship and family. Never condescending. My eyes were hardly dry throughout. I love this movie. Every single moment. The cinematography, the score, the acting, but of course the story most of all. And for me, the depiction of people on the fringes – a care center runaway with Down Syndrome and a troubled thief – who come together and become a non-traditional family is one of the sweetest I’ve ever seen. (Hear our discussion about “The Peanut Butter Falcon” in Episode 199 here.)
4. WEATHERING WITH YOU – It’s no secret how much I adore Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.” This film also features a central teenage romance with fantastical elements and natural disasters on the horizon but is a much more serious and dramatic work that takes its time moving the story along and has Shinkai exploring the very real issue of climate change (and humanity’s conflicting response to it) through the decisions that its romantically inclined protagonists face. In what has become the norm, Shinkai delivers breathtaking visuals yet again and they perfectly synchronize with another beautiful RADWIMP’s score. There is just something about how Shinkai consistently tells stories that move me deeply and affect my soul in ways that very few filmmakers do. “Weathering With You” is an incredibly layered animated dream and I can’t stop thinking about its characters, their relationships, and the challenging situations they must deal with, but also what my own feelings about those things ultimately say about me.
3. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD – Where Quentin Tarantino’s storytelling shines the most in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is in the relationship between movie star Rick Dalton & his stuntman/best friend Cliff Booth. Their friendship is touching and hilarious, and their stories are compelling enough on their own to carry a nearly 3-hour long movie. In addition, the satisfying and respectful retelling of Sharon Tate’s tragic murder within this alternate history grounds this film in the time period that QT is clearly making a love letter to. I could watch these characters in this world for hours upon end and never tire of it. Exceptional production value and acting all around plus great messages about friendship and how we remember people make this a slamdunk top film of the year for me. (Hear our discussion about “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” in Episode 178 here.)
2. MARRIAGE STORY– “Getting divorced with a kid can be one of the hardest things you can ever do – it’s like a death without a body.” I relate very deeply with much of what’s depicted in this story, and from personal experience, I agree that divorce *is* like death without a body. What makes “Marriage Story” brilliant to me, is that Baumbach captures the waves of changing emotions and challenges that many, many couples face perfectly, despite the setting being that of two celebrities parting ways. “Marriage Story” is a reflection of this beautifully flawed couple that gives insight into the awful process of divorce, and it hurts like hell to experience but can also serve as a cautionary tale for those in relationships now. It is the rare film that comes along that has impeccable filmmaking artistry, is entertaining, and has a huge personal relevance, making it an easy choice for this spot on my list. (Hear our discussion about “Marriage Story” in Episode 203 here.)
1. LITTLE WOMEN– When was the last time a pure drama, period piece, with Hollywood star power, contending for awards had a PG rating? Greta Gerwig’s masterful retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic is a love letter to the source material that is as delightful as it is artistically terrific. Updated with a fun new meta twist that could have gone terribly awry, instead, Gerwig’s storytelling device highlights the theme of owning your own story and hammers home Jo’s arc in an impactful new way, while also portraying Amy’s important story quite powerfully, like we haven’t seen before. The acting is just as brilliant as you’d expect from this supremely talented group of young actors, and supporting roles by such veterans as Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, and Chris Cooper are every bit as perfectly cast. Each and every element of the film adds to its delight – from the production design to the score – and it’s likely Gerwig’s film will go down as the best telling of this famous story for many a viewer, and may just inspire a whole new generation of little women too.(Hear our discussion about “Little Women” in Episode 207 here.)
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.
2018 was a stellar year for movies. More often than not, I found myself asking the question “Can this year get any better?” after finishing one of the many great films ranging from big blockbusters to upstart independents to non-fiction narratives. Anytime I do a top 10, wrestling with the ones that “didn’t make the cut” makes me feel like a coach that has to cut those players that were great, but just not great enough. That doesn’t negate the films’ impact on me by any means. Sometimes, you just have to make sacrifices. However, I’m not going to completely disregard them, so here are my honorable Top 5 Best of the Rest of 2018.
THE BEST OF THE REST
3. Green Book
2. Crazy Rich Asians
1. Sierra Burgess is a Loser
THE FEATURE FILMS
Now, for the all-star team of films that I chose, I was surprised at how varied my list was. That says so much about how great this year was in film-making. If you are reading this, I hope that you’ve had a chance to see these films, and if not, that this will encourage you to do so.
10. RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET – Sequels can be a high risk/high reward avenue when it comes to franchises. Honestly, I was content with Wreck It Ralph as a stand-alone feature. That story was told. What more needed to be said? Well, apparently, a whole internet’s worth of stories. What the first film did for my love of all things gaming, the sequel successfully pulled off the personification of the world of cyberspace. Not only that, but the message at the heart of Ralph 2 is one that I wasn’t expecting, one that speaks to the importance of what real friendship is.
9. FIRST MAN – Damien Chazelle + Ryan Gosling + Space = Yes Please. I thought I knew what I was getting when I walked into the theater. Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and From Earth to the Moon are staple space viewings for me. But I walked out of the theater saying, “Wow, that really was about Neil Armstrong.” I thought that I was going to get a movie about space and the guy who first set foot on the moon. Instead I got an intimate portrayal of a man who struggled with the weight of being a father, a husband, and an astronaut, all while dealing with grief over the loss of a child. Any nominations this film get are much deserved, and I hope to see that come awards season.
8. A STAR IS BORN – This was a movie that I had very little interest in. I hadn’t seen any of the previous iterations, and thinking about Lady Gaga in a theatrical performance where she may be out of her element (aka not dressed up as something obnoxious) didn’t give me a lot of hype value. But then I watched the opening performance by director/actor Bradley Cooper, a man who altered his whole persona (voice included) to own this role of Jackson Maine, and I was floored. Then Lady Gaga comes in and completely sells me on her character, Ally, not only with her singing chops (this I knew) but the way in which she and Cooper’s chemistry worked so well. This film did so much in helping me see that beauty and ugliness of a star’s life, how it can change you and turn you into something you aren’t proud of. It also showed me how the love two people have in the midst of that can not only survive, but succeed, and leave a lasting legacy.
7. THE ENDLESS – Imagine a movie that tells you one thing and then about half way through, shouts in your face “Gotcha.” Now imagine if that worked for you. I’ve had experiences like that, where I’m sold on a movies premise and then it completely goes sideways. More often than not, it spoils my movie experience. The Endless just ratcheted it up to another level of enjoyment. It’s drama and sci-fi, two things I love, but packaged together in a way that I have never seen before. I can’t say much more without spoiling it, but of any movie on this list, I would say see this as soon as you can.
6. READY PLAYER ONE – Book to movie adaptations can be a slippery slope. I’ve learned to extend a lot more grace as I’ve watched more of these as long as the central plot doesn’t change and characters don’t become inconsistent with who their book counterparts are (I’m looking at you Percy Jackson). But something interesting happened with Ready Player One for me. While those two character traits stayed intact for the most part, the book and movie became two different experiences because of the amount of changes that Spielberg and company implemented. Some will complain that the deviations from the source material detracted from the quality, I would make the opposite observation. The spirit of what the book was trying to do played out on the big screen, and the changes done made so much more sense in that medium. I love being able to have two unique experiences when it comes one of my favorite stories in the last decade.
5. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – Stakes. That’s what seemed to be missing for me in the massive success that is the MCU. Infinity War changed that. Finally, we had real consequences to a universe that has been growing for 10 years. Finally, we had significant sacrifices with the real possibility that some of our favorite heroes have been lost for good. And finally, the MCU gave us a villain that wasn’t as flat as a pancake. Infinity War got my superhero excitement revived and my hope is that Avengers: Endgame finds its way to this list in 2019.
4. THE HATE U GIVE – If I had to give a One Word Takeaway for this film, it would be “honest.” I’ll admit this was a hard watch for me. It’s a movie that finds a way to portray the ugly reality of what our current racial landscape looks like, to walk in the shoes of a young black teenager. To say this film is important is an understatement. It’s a conversation starter and a perspective changer. But it’s also a movie that, in the most subtle way, leaves me with a sense of hope, and it’s an honest hope. It’s a reminder that even though things are ugly and may always be that way, I don’t have to be a part of that ugliness. I can help be a voice that changes the conversation, the perception, and the landscape.
3. EIGHTH GRADE – This movie and The Hate U Give were neck and neck in my final rankings, and on any given day I could switch the two. Eighth Grade hits all the emotional notes for me, a guy who never cries, enough to start sobbing in the middle of the gym while on a treadmill. I confess that I don’t have a middle school daughter. Currently, I’m experiencing what it’s like to live with a 6 year old boy. But the truths presented in this film still resonate with me. I was that awkward kid trying to figure out who I was, caught in the middle of elementary school and high school. I am also a dad that knows those experiences are going to befall my child one day and as a dad, I can’t even begin to know how to handle it. But that’s okay. This film is a fantastic depiction of the beauty that can exist in the messiness of life. It’s also one that leaves me feeling hopeful as a dad. Gucci!
2. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE – My most anticipated movie of 2018 did NOT disappoint. From the animation to the narrative to the adaption of the comic event that, in and of itself is fantastic, this film helmed by the guys behind THE LEGO MOVIE and LEGO BATMAN brought exactly what I expected and more. Spider-Verse gave me, not only a fresh take on Marvel’s flagship character, but also opened the door for more stories that could come from this “spider-verse” and what that could mean for introducing more different kinds of spider characters. I would not be disappointed if I got to experience a new Spider-Verse film every holiday season. Merry Christmas to me.
1. HEARTS BEAT LOUD – Where did THIS film come from? Had it not been for my best friend pointing me to this movie, I wouldn’t have even considered it as a contender. And why would I. Independent movies have a hard time finding their way to my neck of the woods. Fortunately, I was able to see it and my goodness, I hadn’t felt the way I did since Sing Street. It hits all the right notes for me. Drama, family relationships, and music. Lots of great music. Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman make a fantastic father/daughter combination. It’s tender, funny when it needs to be, and doesn’t try to be anything more than it sets out to be. Movies like this, because of their quiet demeanor are not going to get a lot of recognition, and that’s sad. Nonetheless, it topped my list and I will gladly champion it as much as I can.
Patrick “Patch” Hicks calls Little Rock, Arkansas home with his family of four (his wife, son and three pets). When he’s not podcasting, he works as a multimedia designer and is also dabbling in the art of writing and directing. You can find him floating around the web on Twitter, Facebook, and his home on the web, ThisIsPatch.com.
Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk,Black Panther, Upgrade, Burning, A Quiet Place, First Reformed, Widows, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? These are just some of the wonderful movies released this year (out of 171 new films seen, up from 155 last year) which I couldn’t find room for in my Top 20, much less my Top 10, but still heartily recommend you seek out and see. The process of narrowing down my favorites to the top ten films of the year was a painful experience that required a lot of reflection and time. Just know that I harbor deep affection for many of the films you see listed earlier in this introduction and also below in the #11-20 special mention spots.
With regards to my criteria, when it comes to ranking films critically, I do that as part of my membership in the Seattle Film Critics Society (see our awards here). But here at Feelin’ Film we focus on matters of the heart, so my chosen films are often ones that I found the most affecting in 2018 – those movies that provided me an incredible emotional experience of some sort. Other things that factor strongly into my ranking are how likely I am to remember a film months down the road and rewatchability, so think of this list as leaning more favorite than best.
In order to make this a tad easier on myself, and also because they truly are a unique medium unto themselves, I have listed my Top 5 Documentaries separately. This was an incredible year for non-fiction filmmaking and more than one of these below would be featured in my Top 10 of the year if these lists were combined.
5. SCIENCE FAIR – An entertaining, encouraging, and essential spotlight on some of the bright young minds that will be responsible for innovations and research that dictate the future of humanity. This inspirational, feel-good documentary follows a handful of brilliant multi-ethnic teenagers from around the world as they compete at the annual International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the “Olympics of science fair”, and is a heartfelt celebration of both their drive to learn and the parents and teachers who support their ambition.
4. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? – I knew very little about Fred Rogers, the iconic and innovative television personality, before seeing this story about his life. His heart for children and unwavering hope to see every person loved and respected for who they are, as well as his sense of ministry and passion for child development, led to an incredible career of service that the world sorely needed. It was a joy to learn about his life through those who knew him and a reminder that the world could sure use a solid dose of Mister Rogers again today.
3. MINDING THE GAP – Incredibly personal story of three skateboarding friends, one of which is documenting their lives over the course of many years Boyhood-style. The film takes unexpected turns in dealing with the realities of absentee fathers, the challenges of parenting, and domestic abuse, but the honesty and courage of director Bing Liu and his friends throughout the process creates an experience that is extremely important and potentially life-changing for viewers.
2. THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD – An immersive documentary experience like nothing that has ever been made before. What Peter Jackson has done with previously unseen archival footage from the Imperial War Museum, restoring and colorizing it, then combining it with recorded interviews of the very soldiers who lived through World War I, is truly stunning and deeply intimate. The film is nothing less than a triumphant tribute to those who served and an impressive technical marvel that sets a new standard for the kind of storytelling that can be achieved in 2018 and beyond.
1. FREE SOLO – Real, raw, and intense as it gets. This story of Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to ever free solo climb (that means with no ropes, y’all) Yosemite National Park’s 3,200 foot high El Capitan wall is stripped of Hollywood special effects, stuntmen, and safety measures, creating a truly unique voyeuristic experience. World-class photographer Jimmy Chin’s camerawork is amazing but it’s the intimacy of getting to know Alex, his girlfriend, and fellow climbers that makes this documentary truly special. This deeper connection with Alex as a person also makes watching his final ascent one of the most truly nail-bitingly stressful things I have ever witnessed. This film additionally inspired me to get back outdoors and commune with nature, so it impacted me in a potentially long-lasting way. (Hear my interview with 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year & subject of Free Solo Alex Honnold in Minisode 53 here.)
10. THE HATE U GIVE – I was a complete wreck watching this film from start to finish. It provides perspectives on police violence and race that you just can’t get without intimately knowing people who’ve lived through the kind of experiences these characters do, and does so through expert filmmaking, performances, score, and script. It’s eye-opening, heartbreaking, and evocative. It is also entertaining in stretches, but engaging with the complex thematic material is challenging. The emotional experience I had watching The Hate U Give was likely the most powerful one I had all year, and if there is one film that I find vitally important enough to suggest families see it with their teenagers, this is the one.
9. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – We waited 10 years for this and the historic puzzle that the Russo Brothers have put together is nothing short of amazing, lending itself to multiple viewings and deeper analysis. Despite being 2.5 hours long, I never once felt that length, as the film hurtled me along toward an inevitable tragedy. I was shocked that Infinity War managed to live up to its incredible hype. It was as entertaining and emotional as a superhero film has ever been and sucked me back into MCU fandom right as I was starting to fall away from it from fatigue. (Hear our discussion about Avengers: Infinity War in Episode 107 here.)
8. THE RIDER – This Western slice-of-life story about real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau wrestling with what he wants versus what is best for him plays out in ways that are both painful and touching. Director Chloé Zhao’s choice to have the film acted by the actual Jandreau family added a layer of realism and created a level of personal connection to the characters that may not have been reachable otherwise. The film features a beautiful score and my favorite cinematography of the year. It is both a moving piece of storytelling and cinematic achievement that I won’t soon forget. (Hear me discuss The Rider with J.D. on InSession Film Podcast here.)
7. FIRST MAN – From the pulse-pounding opening scene, seeing this film in IMAX was an extraordinary, unique, and stunningly immersive cinematic experience. Damien Chazelle’s manner of storytelling, keeping the focus centered on one man and letting us experience Neil’s journey through both the intimacy of his personal life and the exhilarating flight challenges that give him purpose, was incredibly impactful. The performances and production design are phenomenal, but the technical mastery of this picture’s flight sequences is unlike anything I’d ever seen. Likewise, the sound design was so intense and score so awe-inspiring that you could feel them in your bones and soul. Chazelle’s film is breathtaking, while also being a fantastic history lesson, and is definitely both the best biopic of 2018 and one of the best films ever made about the space program. (Hear our discussion about First Man in Episode 131 here.)
6. HEARTS BEAT LOUD – Hearts Beat Loud is not just the witty title of this third feature film from Brett Haley, but also a prophetic description of the physiological response it evokes when I watch it. Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons are stellar as a father and daughter bonding over a shared love of music, dealing with his mid-life crisis of sorts and her impending departure for college. The catchy tunes they create bring out the feels but it’s the thoughtful, realistic story about coping with the challenges that life brings us that keeps me emotionally invested throughout this charming, heartwarming exploration of parenthood, love, and facing the future. (Hear our discussion about Hearts Beat Loud in Episode 129 here.)
5. A STAR IS BORN – The first act of this film is a mesmerizing display of immersive, emotional storytelling and song, and one of the top five or so sections of any film in 2018. What Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have created here in this 4th retelling of the classic Hollywood tale is not only the best version but also one of the most entertaining, memorable films of the year. Its songs and performances, its triumphs and tragedy, have grown on me with every viewing thus far, and the deeper my emotional connection gets the more closely I hold this film in my heart. (Hear our episode about A Star is Born in Episode 130 here.)
4. READY PLAYER ONE – My expectations for this film adaptation of a favorite book were sky high, and somehow the master of the adventure movie himself, Steven Spielberg, delivered. Seeing the OASIS come to life before my eyes had me in awe. I love the visual effects, the constant references that gamers and pop culture addicts like myself eat up, and the new version of a beloved story that stands on its own as equally (if not more) impressive than its source material. This film, like the book it is based on, was created with a very specific geeky target audience in mind. I am that audience and this film is a new favorite, bound to be joyfully revisited year after year. (Hear our discussion about Ready Player One in Episode 103 here.)
3. AQUAMAN – Do you remember the moment when you became a fan of something? My favorite superhero of all-time is Batman, and seeing Michael Keaton on the big screen is what kicked off a nearly 30-year love affair with the caped crusader. I also cannot forget the feeling inside me when I first witnessed Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I enjoyed the books before that, but seeing them realized in a cinematic way is what cemented my extreme fandom. Well, this year that happened again, and came from a completely unexpected place. Aquaman is a combination of things that I love. It is an underwater Star Wars, with the visual world-building of Tron: Legacy and Avatar, plus an adventurous quest for a relic a la an Uncharted video game, and topped off with epic Lord of the Rings-like battles. I had little to no knowledge of the character prior to this film, but I fell hard for the origin story of this king torn between two natures, wrestling with guilt, familial conflict, and mercy. The visuals, the score, the performances, the costumes, the amazing action, and the campy way in which this epic tale is constructed fit together perfectly for me. Thanks to this film, I am now an Aquaman fan and riding this rare wave of pure bliss as far as it will take me.
2. BLINDSPOTTING – Rarely have I ever been been so floored by a film. This movie gave me one of the most emotionally visceral cinematic experiences that I’ve had this year, leaving me thoroughly exhausted and in need of both a hug and a nap. The performances by Diggs and Casal are phenomenal. The script, which the two friends/stars spent years developing, is the best of the year and brings absolute fire in every scene. There is so much heart in this funny, thought-provoking, entertaining picture that perfectly expresses a relevant rage about such topics as police violence, gentrification, post-traumatic stress, and more. The battle between #1 and #2 was very, very close, and I suspect that Blindspotting is the type of film whose genius ability to address these topics in an honest but healthy way will only be appreciated more as time passes.
1. PADDINGTON 2 – “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” Little did I know walking into a theater in early January that I would be seeing my #1 film of the year. The aforementioned quote is the most memorable line of dialogue from any movie in 2018. It, and many other wonderful pieces of Aunt Lucy’s advice, have stuck with me all year long. Technically the film is marvelous. Its flawless blending of live-action and CGI is special. The colorful, symmetrical cinematography is so vibrant and alive that it bursts off of the screen. No other film was quite as perfect a blend of artistic excellence in filmmaking, lovely performances, and emotional significance for me. In a world that often gives us plenty of reason to frown, Paddington brings kindness, hopefulness and pure delight. (Hear our discussion about Paddington 2 in Episode 112 here.)
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.
Despite all of the turmoil oozing out of Hollywood this year, 2017 still managed to supply us with a bevy of wonderful films to enjoy. I feel like a lot of blockbusters rose to the next level this year, and as always, there were plenty of fantastic independent films to balance everything out. My top 10 of the year is indicative of this balance.
As always, there were a handful of potentials I just haven’t had a chance to see yet, either due to lack of time, or due to the geographical restrictions of living in the great tundra that is Maine, where we aren’t typically privy to early releases. So, some of the buzz worthy films that I haven’t yet peeped… The Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Wonderstruck. I’m sure there are a few more, but these stand out for me at the moment.
Shuffling the top 10 deck was difficult this year, simply because there were so many excellent films to choose from. I seriously feel that many of my 11-20 list could easily be considered for higher standing. But, as they say, you have to be prepared to kill your darlings.
I’m not going to regale you with any commentary on my “not quite” top ten (ie: 11-20), but I’ll list them, and you should know that all are fantastic and should be on your cinematic radar.
19 Beauty & the Beast
17 Baby Driver
16 Gerald’s Game
15 The Big Sick
14 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
13 Brigsby Bear
11 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
And the top 10…
10 – LOGAN LUCKY
Steven Soderbergh comes out of “retirement” to give us Ocean’s Eleven with rednecks, but he never cheapens the experience with tired cultural cliches. Okay, there are a few tired cultural cliches, but they don’t drag the film down. The characters have depth and the actors are all in on this madcap adventure which finds them plotting to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the 4th of July. What could possibly go wrong?
9 – STRONGER
This is the film Patriot’s Day wishes it was. Choosing to focus less on the capture of the perpetrators of the cowardly bombing of the Boston Marathon, Stronger instead follows the story of bombing victim Jeff Bauman, played here with ferocious abandon by Jake Gyllenhaal, and the struggle of coming to terms with being thrust into the spotlight as a symbol of hope for an entire nation.
8 – WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The rebooted Apes trilogy comes to an end with one of the most heartfelt and well crafted war movies in recent memory. This series has gotten better with each installment, hitting all the right notes in the telling of Caesar’s story. The special effects are unmatched. And I’m coming around to the idea that Andy Serkis deserves some recognition from the Academy for his motion capture work.
7 – Get Out
It’s not often you find a horror film getting so much attention during the awards push, but Jordan Peele’s take on race relations in our society disguised as a genre film is simply outstanding in its structure. Funny, scary, and poignant- wrapped up in a tight script, Get Out is a breath of well intended and needed fresh air- conveying a necessary message in our current cultural state.
6 – WONDER WOMAN
With undoubtedly one of the best scenes of the year- as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) ascends to her rightful place as warrior princess in the Battle of No Man’s Land, a female icon is finally emblazoned into the fabric of cinematic geekdom. Director Patty Jenkins was without a doubt the right choice to bring Diana’s story to life on the big screen, and to see the impact on the faces of empowered women and girls is easily one of the hallmarks of the 2017 cinematic year.
5 – THE DISASTER ARTIST
Based on the making of the 2003 “Citizen Kane” of bad movies, The Room, James Franco deep dives into the persona of eccentric writer/director Tommy Wiseau and the calamity that surrounded the production of his cinematic oddity. Watching The Room is highly recommended before jumping into The Disaster Artist. Having that context greatly enhances the appreciation for what Franco achieved…..Oh, Hi, Mark!
4 – A GHOST STORY
A deeply moving look at grieving and loneliness, A Ghost Story will not be for everyone. Each scene is a haunting portrayal of loss, shown from both sides of the equation- the living that must move on, and the dead that cannot. This is a deeply emotional and affecting film, shot in a way that can often be uncomfortably slow of pace. Those with a lack of patience may struggle, but if given a chance, this is a film that will resonate on a deep level.
3 – THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Having worked for Disney for nine years, this story felt very close to home for me. Knowing there were pockets of people living far beneath the poverty line mere minutes from the front gates of the Happiest Place on Earth make me feel equal parts ignorant and culpable. This film is an unflinching look at people living day to day in the shadow of a world that has essentially left them behind. Yet, in all of its squalor, the spirit of six year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friends is rooted in an innocence that is often as hopeful as it is bleak.
2 – I, TONYA
Margot Robbie is fantastic as figure skating’s bad girl, Tonya Harding. Director Craig Gillespie shoots the film in a way that accentuates the zany humor of the scandal surrounding the 1992 olympic games, but he never cheapens the awful abuse levied against Harding by her family and her on again / off again love interest, Jeff Gillooly (here portrayed by Sebastien Stan). Harding, while not completely innocent, is treated mostly as a product of her environment, unable to free herself of the bad influences in her life, and she comes away here as a mostly sympathetic figure. Allison Janney, as Harding’s Mom, is a stand out.
1 – LADY BIRD
In what seems to be a renaissance of coming of age films, Lady Bird raises the bar even further, perhaps to a place unaccessible for whatever comes next. Greta Gerwig’s scriptwriting is so tight, it’s difficult to find any flaw in the narrative of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, all at once head strong and in search of an identity. Her contentious relationship with her mother Marion (an award worthy Laurie Metcalf) provides the crux for everything happening on screen. The result is a heartfelt and sometimes difficult look at love and familial relationships, told in a refreshingly honest way.
Steve’s first cinematic experience dates back to 1972, when his Aunt took him to see Dumbo at Buffalo’s historic North Park Theater. With the seed planted, his love for movies has blossomed into a full time obsession over the years, and he will happily engage in conversation about all things film related, especially the works of Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino. He also manages to find time to keep current on the plethora of great television shows and comic book series, and build upon his retro vinyl collection.
He lives in South Portland, Maine with his wife and a menagerie of small furry pets. When not engaged in the latest pop culture phenomenon, he spends time working on creative writing projects or updating his personal blog, popcornconfessional.com. Follow him on social media at facebook.com/popcornconfessional/ and Twitter@woosterbbb.
The end of the year brings grading and reflection points for both the school teacher in me and the film critic. Looking at the online Trapper Keeper portfolio called Every Movie has a Lesson, I published 126 full film reviews in 2017, topping last year’s 114 and setting a new high mark. When I did my website’s first “10 Best” year-end list in 2011, that number was 53. Humming along with press credentials, festival access, and being part of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle as a recognized awards-voting body, I can’t even remember what 53 feels like.
Even at 126, I feel like I left plenty of opportunities on the table living in a big market with a great reach of films. For the purposes of a proper “10 Best” list, short of not making it to The Disaster Artist, Mudbound, and Molly’s Game quite yet, I feel sound about 2017 and have no problem calling it a fair to middling year. By this teacher’s math and reflection, 2017 < 2016 < 2015. Give me the likes of Sicario, Creed, Brooklyn, Spotlight, Room, La La Land, Jackie, Moonlight, A Monster Calls, and more compared to most of the 20 films listed below.
Focusing back to now, only three of my “so far” picks from this past June made the final ten this year. Here’s my definitive list. True to my website’s specialty, each film will be paired with its best life lesson. Enjoy!
THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2017 AND THEIR LESSONS
1. LADY BIRD
This was like watching a no-doubt home run off the bat of a muscle-bound slugger fly over the stands and out of the park. Like that home run crack, Lady Bird’s effect was unmistakable. I knew it as soon as film made contact. From that opening car ride argument between surefire future Oscar nominees (if not eventual winners) Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird was going for something reinvigorated conventions and oxymoronic cadences with the coming-of-age film framework. (full review)
BEST LESSON: PUNCHY WHIMSY— All of Lady Bird’s conflicts and clashes build to swelling peaks of emotion and legitimate feels. Gerwig’s film is one heck of a debut and shows that a good cry and awkward laughs do go together when assembled with truth and care. When it hits, my goodness, it hits. When it charms, by golly, it charms. Few films this year can tout such towering achievements of writing and performance to create such a genuinely satisfying experience.
2. I, TONYA
In a fierce performance, Margot Robbie proves without a shadow of a doubt that she is a talented actress beyond her bombshell looks. From the director of Lars and the Real Girl and the writer of Stepmom (I know right?), the dark comedy, pushed often by Allison Janney’s Oscar-worthy rants, fuels an unconventional sports film and true story American dream saga with kinetic sizzle. It’s the wildest and brashest film I saw this year. (full review)
BEST LESSON: EVERYONE MIGHT BE TELLING THEIR TRUTH, BUT NO ONE IS TELLING THE REAL TRUTH–The true merriment of I, Tonya is the trying to sniff out the bullsh-it. Many of us remember witnessing the tabloid history unfold on television before our very shocked and captivated eyes in a era before the 24-hour news cycle. Even know the fate of the characters, this film’s spin of such events will glue you to the screen preparing for the suspense of possibly observing a few chapters of “what really happened.” Who’s right and who is full of it?
From what I can tell viewing the year-end lists of fellow critics, this one is going to be a unconventional choice and I don’t care. I see a great deal of perfection in the whimsy and introspection of Wonderstruck. Artful to no end, I cannot help but compliment the care and consideration given to the Brain Selznick source material from a skilled filmmaker like Todd Haynes stepping into PG material in a manner as impressive as Scorsese doing Hugo. In a landscape where people are craving rich and compelling films for family audiences instead of mindless animated entertainment, I adored what this film accomplished. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE MAJESTY OF MUSEUMS— Both in the novel and in film form, Wonderstruck is a love letter to museums, their history, and their continuing presence as authentic experiences. It starts with one person gathering a collection of interest, a “cabinet of wonder” if you will be that in a single room or an expansive complex, and deciding to share it with a larger audience. In the present-day of Google, Wikipedia, content apps, and innumerable virtual experiences, there should always be a place for the tangible and real wonders right before our eyes in museums. Calling them magical is not enough and calling them antiquated should be a compliment and not a slight.
4. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The closing chapter of what has quietly become one of the best film trilogies of all-time (it’s that good as a sum total) elevated the impressive soaring themes, blockbuster action, and the performance-capture brilliance of Andy Serkis that have enraptured myself and many others. Serkis, present and emoting in every scene behind the finished special effects, deserves the Oscar for Best Actor even if he doesn’t stand a chance against the stigmas towards the technology. No film this year hit me the full roller coaster of feels like this one, from heart-stopping thrills to blubbering tears. (full review)
BEST LESSON: APES AND HUMANS HAVE MORE SIMILARITIES THAN WE ALL REALIZE— Due to the increases in peril and consequences, this is a repeated lesson from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that is cemented even further in this third film. Both primate species love their families, cling to their homes, and possess tangible feelings and emotions that drive their actions and personalities. “Humanity” doesn’t have exclusivity to those behaviors in this fictional world anymore.
5. THE BIG SICK
The Big Sick, written and inspired by the real-life duo of Emily V. Gordon and leading man Kumail Nanjiani, offers wide hopes that smart romantic comedies are still possible since their 1990s hey-day and that they don’t require man-child actors and full-on toilet humor. When people have asked me this past year for a no-doubt winning movie suggestion or hidden gem to entertain them for any occasion, The Big Sick has been my top recommendation for its maturity and humor while still carrying the right heft of drama to keep it honest. In my eyes, this was the best screenplay of the year and I hope the Oscars notice. (full review)
BEST LESSON: FIND SOMEONE YOU CAN BE OVERWHELMED BY— This lesson is going to sound like one of those “find someone who looks at you the way so-and-so looks at such-and-such” memes, but captivating ga-ga devotion is a real draw. The film uses the word “overwhelm” when it talks about measuring such love and it couldn’t be more spot-on advice. Love has its own rules and it’s just as hard to keep as it is to earn.
The directorial debut of character actor John Carroll Lynch stands on this list as the “Little Engine That Could.” Far from a blockbuster and puffed with zero muscles for Oscar bait on the 90-year-old frame of its star Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky is a straight-shooter of writing and performance brilliance to make cantankerous endearing. In different hands, this would be a Coen brothers quirk-fest or a Grumpy Old Men farce. Instead, Lucky plainly might have the most heart of any film on this list, and that’s saying something. (full review)
BEST LESSON: ACCEPTING MORTALITY— Nothing is permanent and the biggest truth to be told is the finality of the human condition. No matter the level of your faith or depth of character, misgivings about your own ephemerality are inevitable feelings we all share. We would all be so “lucky” to reach our nineties to have that revelation.
Sharply shrinking the comic book genre’s towering current scale down to the marrow inside of its bones, James Mangold’s Logan nails the western motifs to make one of the best comic book films of all-time. For me, this movie is like what young songstress Ella Mae Brown did to slow down with Bonnie Tyler’s 80s classic “Holding Out for a Hero” a few years ago. This is energy boiled down to bold substance, making something rightly stoic as the conclusion for Hugh Jackman’s lovable anti-hero. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE POWERFUL NEED FOR FATHER FIGURES— Loganopenly creates a parallel with 1953’s seminal western classic Shane and it is an ideal thematic pairing. Alan Ladd’s reluctant gunfighter and Jackman’s Wolverine embody the fight for the defenseless as well as the influential father figure role of this lesson. Laura is another Little Joe and but one more person Logan leaves a positive mark on in his world. Tales may be written on the actions of heroes, but the personal connections they build and leave behind are where the real legend lies.
8. THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Sean Baker’s sprightly dose of youthful fantasy mixing with socioeconomic reality was one of the few times I’ve ever gone back to a review and changed my rating after some thoughtful reflection. This film went from a four-star film to a five-star one on the strength of the impact of that aforementioned storytelling and emotional mix. The level of empathy stoked by this film’s fire is off the charts and I cannot help but respect that. (full review)
BEST LESSON: THE CAPACITY TO FEEL EMPATHY— The crucial emotional response The Florida Project demands of its viewers is empathy. If you can’t find that, if you turn your nose, close your eyes, and refuse to accept that this kind of American lifestyle exists, you are missing the hard truths, the teachable moments, and the larger points being presented. Become compassionate enough to remove the negative prefixes from Mother Teresa’s quote of “unwanted, unloved and uncared for” when it comes to addressing poverty. Take her advice and start in your own home and community.
9. PHANTOM THREAD
Five years ago, after beating my head senseless over the pretentiousness of The Master, if you would have told me I would have a Paul Thomas Anderson film in my “10 Best,” I would have said you were nuts and wondered how the sequel to Boogie Nights could have been achieved. Yet, here we are and Phantom Thread is the real deal. Exquisitely crafted and intensely nuanced, I was impressed like I’ve rarely been. If this the last ride of Daniel Day-Lewis, he leaves us with a gem. (full review)
BEST LESSON: “WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT CAREFULLY”— This quote from Lewis’s Reynolds, the peak of the film’s trailer, sent in the direction of his new muse could be echoed in dozens of aspects of one’s life. Mundane activities could become effective and even artful with an extra level of paid care and consideration. At the same time, there is an unsettling level to that rigidity. Often there is a missing flexibility to perfectionist who cannot get over themselves or adjust their idiosyncrasies.
10. LOVING VINCENT
In terms of sheer creation of a finished piece, Loving Vincent might be the most miraculous film of the year and greatest technical achievement as the first entire oil-painted feature-length animated film. 125 painters combined their efforts on over 65,000 canvases shot on film to create this incredible achievement. Beyond the art, the enriching whodunit drama of investigating the final days of Vincent Van Gogh backed by Clint Mansell’s rich musical score create storytelling worthy of all the work. (full review)
BEST LESSON: INTERPRETING AN ARTIST— Subjected to ridicule and criticism from a young age to his last, Van Gogh’s talent and purpose were always questioned before the established reverence that followed his death. Another Van Gogh quote in the film reads “We cannot speak other than by our paintings.” Sometimes artists are not peaceful souls. The few people that did realize his greatness in the moment were not enough to save his.
When I can, I dip my toe into the world of short films and I’m beginning to love the art form and the efficiency of its skill. Merely scratching the surface of this form of film medium, among the handful I saw and reviewed this year, Not Yet was a five-star gem. Picture one of those expressive and imaginary Pixar shorts that open their films and apply live-action human emotion to it That will give you a taste of Not Yet. My full review has a link to the short for you to see for yourself. I promise nothing but smiles.
BEST LESSON: THE IMMENSE CHALLENGES OF CHEERING SOMEONE UP— Some folks are tough nuts to crack in the cheer department. Add the physical drain and toll of illness into that equation of happiness and the challenge is even greater. Self-deprecating humor in this situation often works in spades, but there’s one action that’s even better: Love. In Not Yet, you have a man that unabashedly loves his wife with every ounce of willingness and companionship. Love always wins the best cheers.
DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud member and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends. Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.
Christmas-time, a season of joy. A time when many take a much needed break to relax, enjoy family, and celebrate religious traditions. Oh, and there’s also that fun little part of gift giving. Well, Christmas is also the time when film critics are finalizing their year-end lists, a gift given to the world (but without that whole relaxation part). So, after much debate and internal stress, I’m ready to discuss my Top 10 favorite films of the year. There are many lists out there, but I expect you won’t find another one that matches up perfectly with mine.
2017 was a banner year for me as both a film critic and podcaster. Some of the biggest highlights:
Witnessing the amazing growth of our Facebook Discussion Group that offers daily film conversations and relationship building among our listeners
155 films seen that were released in 2017, by far a new “career high”
Now about those movies. 2017 was a fantastic year at the cinema. Offering numerous superb indie hits, documentaries, and some big, unique blockbusters as well, the wealth of exceptional and diverse content was both a blessing and a curse. Experiencing all of these wonderful films was great, but trying to rank them, not so much. So my disclaimer is that while 10 have been highlighted, with 10 more selected for recognition as just missing the cut, even these films don’t scratch the surface of what 2017 provided in terms of quality.
10. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – This spot on a Top 10 list is always a brutal decision. No less than five other films got serious consideration here, and I could make an equal case for any of them. Ultimately, I had to go with a film that blew me away my expectations and reinvigorated my childhood love of a franchise. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is not without faults, but it is a wonderful next step in this new trilogy and one of most epic cinematic space operas since THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Its unexpected plot choices had me gasping in surprise, and several emotional moments brought me to tears. Its impossible not to respect director Rian Johnson’s talent, ambition, and passion, especially as the film’s momentum builds and races home to its incredible climax. I LOVE the direction this film takes the series and can’t wait to see where it goes next.
9. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN – Hugh Jackman has said that “A bad musical stinks to high heaven, but when a musical works, there’s nothing like it. It’s everyone coming together and opening their heart.” THE GREATEST SHOWMAN worked for me and opened my heart, too. Its reverence for musicals of old shines through every frame and its impressive soundtrack has been played on repeat endlessly since my first viewing of the film. It may not be a perfectly accurate historical representation of P.T. Barnum, but as entertainment it is a fun and emotionally provocative family-friendly film complete with several inspirational messages. It’s the kind of film that deserves being seen with an audience, a real crowd pleaser.
8. DARKEST HOUR – Winston Churchill is a fascinating figure. Historian and politician, but also extraordinary leader. His actions within that first month as British Prime Minister changed the course of world history. Had he sued for peace, who knows if Hitler would have been stopped from overtaking Europe (and beyond). DARKEST HOURis a high-energy thriller as much as a period piece drama, with Wright combining the two styles to form an incredible, visceral, inspiring film experience that is anchored by Gary Oldman’s award-worthy transformation and performance.
7. THE FLORIDA PROJECT – THE FLORIDA PROJECT wowed me in a way that few films did this year. I resonated deeply with its primary theme of empathy. As a parent myself, watching it was sometimes difficult but always worthwhile. My hope is that many will see this poignant film and begin to look a little more closely (and with more compassion) at those outside the margins as they go about their everyday lives, and perhaps even be called to action. Sean Baker continues to be one of our best young directors and he has created a film that is unforgettable down to the final shot.
6. SONG TO SONG – For those willing to meet director Terrence Malick halfway and open themselves to engaging with the film, SONG TO SONG offers a moving emotional experience. Its dialogue is lyrical poetry that works perfectly in concert with Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, an expertly balanced soundtrack, and wonderful acting performances all around. This may be some of the least abstract and aimless work Malick has ever produced, but it is also among his best, and quite possibly my favorite. SONG TO SONG is a film that needs to be more than just seen, it demands to be felt.
5. DUNKIRK – Christopher Nolan’s vision of this important but little known battle is a hold your breath affair, set to an almost never ceasing Hans Zimmer score that is pounding with atmospheric dread. Fear, after all, is at the heart of this portrayal of the civilian rescue of nearly 330,00 allied troops pinned down by Germany on the beaches of Dunkirk. It is a wholly unique war film, gorgeously shot and focusing on the authenticity of its characters’ feeling, displayed much more in act than exposition. A truly remarkable achievement that left me shaking in amazement and raw emotion.
4. PHANTOM THREAD – In what has been proclaimed to be his final performance, Daniel Day-Lewis once again collaborates with director Paul Thomas Anderson for a story about an obsessive man, this time with an unconventional view of romance set around the industry of high fashion. Though PTA’s films have never spoken to me before, PHANTOM THREAD is captivating from the opening scene to the end credits and casts a spell unlike any other film experience in 2017. Thematically, it’s exploration of submissive/dominant relationships makes it feel like the arthouse version of MOTHER! combined with FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Cinematically, it is one of the most well-crafted, stunningly beautiful, perfectly scored, impeccably acted dramas I’ve seen in years. PTA’s meticulous attention to detail marries so well with Daniel Day-Lewis’ devotion to character immersion, and on top of that newcomer Vicky Krieps is every bit DDL’s equal, flat out owning the screen in every scene. This film left me unable to shake it for a month and dying to talk to others about it. If this is really Day-Lewis’ last hoorah, he goes out with a bang, and PTA has a new fan.
3. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES – Matt Reeves’ WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APESis the rare third film to end a trilogy on the highest of notes. It is a spectacular marvel of technical achievements, acting, and thematic blockbuster storytelling that uses Biblical, historical, and cinematic references to craft a compelling epic. It has surprisingly limited action and the film lives in bleakness, but out of that comes a celebration of the human spirit – embodied by apes. Caesar’s journey is gripping from beginning to end, filled with emotional depth and moral complexity. His place among the greats is now secure, and the trilogy stands as one of the finest the 21st century has seen. APES. TOGETHER. STRONG.
The films above are all exceptional works of art which I expect to remember many years from now. These last two films, though, are special to me, and choosing between them was an impossible task. Both of these films are guaranteed inclusion in my next Top 100 Movies update, and as much as I just want to make them 1a and 1b, I made the hard choice. So for today, this is where they fall.
2. YOUR NAME (KIMI NO NA WA) – Like many Americans, my only exposure to anime films prior to this were the works of the great Hayao Miyazki. But when I heard that this film had broken box office records to become the highest worldwide grossing anime film in history, I took notice. Directed by Makoto Shinkai, YOUR NAME is the story of a star-crossed boy and girl, perhaps destined to forever yearn for a meeting that will never come, connected across space and time by an unexplained magic and framed against the backdrop of an impending supernatural disaster. It is a story of dreams (and desperately trying to not forget them), time travel, body swaps, natural disaster, coming of age, and romance that is emotionally riveting from beginning to end. Comedic at all the right times, soul-crushingly painful, and yet tender and hopeful. This is an animated masterpiece that goes far beyond its dazzling visuals and one of the very best films I’ve seen this decade.
1. BLADE RUNNER 2049 – It took more than one viewing to get there, but after seeing my most anticipated film of the year three times, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to the 1982 classic BLADE RUNNER is more than worthy of its name. Staggeringly incredible cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins is matched by a thought-provoking, multi-layered script. Not a single word of dialogue is wasted. So much emotion is conveyed through expression and silence. Performances are brilliant and memorable. The film strikes an ideal balance between cerebral and action-packed while remaining so mysterious that even more is revealed with every subsequent viewing. Despite being over two and a half hours long, it is so immersive that I would have gladly lived in this world for two and a half more. Inconceivably, an improvement in every way over than its hallowed source material. Cinematic perfection – the best film of 2017.
And now for the rest. In many cases, multiple viewings and rewatchability were major factors in determining how to order these.
11. LADY BIRD 12. THE LOST CITY OF Z 13. THE POST 14. A GHOST STORY 15. FACES PLACES 16. LA 92 17. GET OUT 18. THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE 19. COLUMBUS 20. MOTHER!
Keep in mind that just because a film isn’t listed doesn’t mean it wasn’t incredible. I could list another 20 “great” films from this year that deserve attention. 2017 was truly an excellent year. Here’s hoping that 2018 is even better, but if it’s not, we’ll always have these gems.
Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.