10. Rocket Man
I get it, the framing and execution in this Elton John biopic don’t quite work for a lot of people, but what they see as clunky I see as bringing this legend down to Earth in extremely human ways. The songs are well placed, elaborately staged, and beautifully sung by lead Taron Egerton, and the film’s emotional core hits exactly as hard as it needs to. It’s big, toe-tapping entertainment intertwined with an extremely personal tale of one man’s war with himself, and it succeeds where so many biopics before it fail. John’s music comes alive here in endlessly creative ways, and the film’s surreal approach at times works to pull viewers closer rather than push them away.
9. Woman at War
It’s a cliche to say that Earth is the only home we have, but that doesn’t make it any less true. While some films explore this idea in big ways, this Icelandic gem offers up a beautiful affirmation towards the apocalyptic importance of our stewardship of the planet, but it does so by focusing on one bad-ass woman’s ongoing fight against the system. The drama and character work are strong and never less than engaging, and the film’s social commentary manages to be as humorous as it is damning, but special shout out is earned for a repeating element involving the band providing the film’s score. Halldora Geirharosdottir does tremendous work in the lead role, but she also delivers as a twin sister whose approach toward doing good by the universe differs dramatically and importantly. And that final sequence and shot? Just a breathtaking kick to the heart and head.
8. Ready or Not
Few films this year are executed with such perfection as this horror/comedy from the collective known as Radio Silence. Starting with the pitch perfect casting of Samara Weaving as a new bride marrying into an extremely wealthy family, the film moves quickly into a hilariously violent thrill ride as they all start hunting her throughout their mansion. It’s extremely funny, features plenty of bloody demises, and lands with a tremendously satisfying ending. Just because it’s a genre film — and a comedy at that — doesn’t mean it isn’t among the year’s best.
As I write this the latest film from Sam Mendes has gone from critical favorite to multiple award winner to “overrated video game cinema.” I put that term in quotes because it’s bullshit to the extreme that just goes to show how fickle tastes can be and how predictable backlashes always are. Anyway. 1917 is fantastic. The illusion of a single take turns this World War I-set film into an adventure unlike most war films as it drops viewers into the thick and thin of it all. We’re there for the action, we’re there for the emotion, and we’re there for the tense downtime in between. It’s a massively entertaining achievement that hits with real heart in its final moments and reminds us not only of those who sacrificed their lives but also of those who fought and returned home.
6. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
There are more than a few films on this list that simply faded into the ether without catching the attention of nearly enough people, and if I could make everyone watch just one it would be this feature debut from writer/director Joe Talbot. Gentrification, class conflict, the economic divide, and more make up the building blocks of this sweet, sad, and funny film, but the core message comes down to the idea of home — where is it? What makes it? And can your ass even afford to live there anymore? It’s a powerful watch fueled by a casual energy and raw humanity. Seek it out, turn off the world’s distractions, and treat your heart to its power.
5. Under the Silver Lake
I know I’m not supposed to like this one, but that’s the beauty of writing your own list. David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to his acclaimed It Follows (2014) never stood a chance thanks to preconceived notions, lazy misinterpretations, and A24’s mishandling of its release, but it remains one of the year’s best and most entertaining films. Its protagonist, played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield, is a self-centered asshole, but unlike popular comedies that teach their characters lessons and see them turn into better people this is a film with no such intention. Sam goes on an adventure through a slightly askew Los Angeles, one he sees through his own ego-tainted prism, and the journey — he’s looking for a missing woman — is one where he sees only what he believes to be true. A conspiracy thriller for conspiracy nuts, the film is a brutally honest take down of male entitlement while also being extremely funny.
This Swedish film offers up a microcosm of humanity in the form of a space ship on a routine trip to Mars — think an ocean liner on a week-long cruise — that’s accidentally knocked off course and unable to recover. We follow the crew and passengers as they deal with the passage of time with fate out of their control, and their journey through every emotion rings far too true. Days, weeks, years pass, and the film explores the rise and fall of beliefs, religions, relationships, cultures, and more. It’s funny, grim, thrilling, affecting, and never less than fascinating, and for better or worse, it feels utterly authentic as to the human experience.
3. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood
Inglourious Basterds (2009) remains my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, but his latest — coincidentally his second of two movies that subvert historical expectations — is a close second. His kindest and most compassionate film by a wide margin, Once is an affectionate nod to filmmakers, from actors to stuntmen to producers to directors, and it’s an experience that takes viewers on a journey of character over plot. That’s not always a plan that works, but Tarantino develops such fascinating characters and imbues them with personality, dialogue, and charisma to spare meaning even a sparse narrative is enough to pull audiences in and leave them wanting even more beyond the film’s 161-minute running time. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio shine with pitch-perfect comic performances, and the supporting cast is nearly as perfect. This is a film you want to live in, and there are fewer compliments as great for a movie.
2. Uncut Gems
Benny & Josh Safdie found critical success with 2017’s Good Time, but the film left me cold as its characters never crossed the line into the realm of the interesting or sympathetic. Their latest, though, succeeds on the back of smart writing and a fantastic lead performance from Adam Sandler. His Howard isn’t very likable, but you can’t help but love the guy as his day gets worse and worse through actions of his own, and it’s that compelling urgency and increasing anxiety that works to create such a tensely captivating experience.
Social commentary and stories about the class divide are nothing new, but as the days and years tick by and our world shrinks we’re seeing just how universal these themes can be. Bong Joon-ho’s latest speaks directly to South Korea’s own woes, but the struggles and clashes are recognizable the world over. He captures the moment here in a story about a family of lower class opportunists who work their way into the home of a wealthy, successful family only to discover that not only is the grass rarely greener but that sometimes bigger troubles rest beneath the turf. It’s at times uproariously funny, incredibly tense, surprisingly touching, and undeniably sad, and it’s that rare bird — a straight up masterpiece.