My Top 10 Movies of the Year (plus a few more)

 

Movies are cool and great and informative and challenging and beautiful, and with #OscarSZN behind us, I wanted to put the movies I liked the best down into a list and explain why they fit where they did. And as they say, there’s no time like the time after the things you’re writing about have already happened to talk about them. So, I’m writing this to dive into my 10 favorite movies of the year: why I love them and why you’re objectively wrong for not liking them as much as I do.

I kid. But I genuinely do adore all of these movies for all the different qualities they have. They’re not all the same genre, and some of them hardly constitute being a movie at all — but each struck a chord in me and occupied a spot in my head where it would occasionally hurl itself against a wall in my brain to let me know that I’ll never be able to forget about it.

Hopefully you give them a shot, and hopefully you love them. If not, that’s fine, because subjectivity is extremely good. Here we go!

  • I keep track of pretty much every movie I watch on Letterboxd, a pretty neat and useful social media-ish website involving movies. Go make an account and follow me!
  • https://letterboxd.com/sbutler02/

(Also a heads-up, spoilers are probably going to be lurking in some of these — so, word of caution)

 

Honorable mentions (aka Nos. 15-11)

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Faces Places (Visages, Villages)

A delightful little documentary where the French filmmaker Agnes Varda goes on a road trip with the urban artist JR in a photo-taking/printing RV to meet the people that make up the lesser-seen pockets of humanity across France, and plaster the prints of their faces into murals in their communities. Every now and then, it’s good to go to the theater and just smile for a few hours, and that’s what I did here. An absolute treat.

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The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)

Relationships, no matter what kind, aren’t tidy. They’re messy, unkempt conglomerations of experiences, feelings and how we deal with all of them. The Big Sick is a terrific exploration of how we deal with the wrenches that get thrown in the best-laid plans we have mapped out for ourselves, and into the ones our families have for us.

I, Tonya (dir. Craig Gillespie)

I didn’t know a whole lot about the Tonya Harding story coming in, only that it happened and Nancy Kerrigan got her knee bashed in. Gillespie does as great a job as he can of sketching out the person behind the story, and it’s made all the more impressive thanks to Margot Robbie and Allison Janney’s acting. It’s definitely not a complete picture of Harding considering all the different accounts of the story, but biopics never are.

It Comes at Night (dir. Trey Edward Shults)

Despite being the unfortunate recipient of what might be the most misleading marketing campaign I’ve ever seen, It Comes at Night is a tightly wound examination of what happens when paranoia and suspicion sink their teeth into a situation where they absolutely cannot be allowed to exist. Wondering about the implications of what happens is far more interesting to me than being told the results directly, and It Comes at Night straddles that line exquisitely.

Marjorie Prime (dir. Michael Almereyda)

Memories are a strange thing. Do we remember events as they happened, or are we just remembering…what we remember? As an adaptation of a stage play, Marjorie Prime is a heady meditation on our perception of the past and what it means to actually hold memories. Despite being nothing more than a handful of people sitting in rooms and talking, this one held my interest far better than several other, more bombastic movies to come out this year.

10. Columbus (dir. Kogonada)

Another sit-and-talk movie! Unlike Marjorie Prime, this one utilizes its surroundings to string the conversations along, but it’s still an examination of the human condition and the passion people have — for the things they love, for the people they love, and for the space they’ve carved out in front of them where their future lies.

Really, though, I guess it’s a movie that hinges on architecture. Korean-born Jin (John Cho, who is exquisite) comes to Columbus, Indiana, to care for his ailing father — an architect who never connected with Jin, so as a result his son doesn’t harbor much sadness regarding his ailing parent — where he crosses paths with Casey (the magnificent Haley Lu Richardson), a recent high school graduate who has dreams of pursuing a dream of — you guessed it — architecture, only, she can’t. Casey’s mom is a former addict, and she’s worried about what leaving her would entail.

Kogonada, in his feature film directorial debut, frames the modernist landscape around the characters and the conversations they have. It’s not an urgent film; the buildings are allowed to patiently soak up your gaze, and the lead duo spend plenty of time just…being there and commenting on the things in front of them. But they also engage in a lot of discussion — about what they see, about what those buildings mean to them, about the uncertainty of everything around them, and about how much we are shaped by the things we are surrounded by, whether intentionally or not.

9. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Full disclosure: I’ve only seen the original Blade Runner once, and I only sort of half-paid attention to it. Wikipedia was my friend for that one. That didn’t stop me from seeing this on opening night at 10:30, and even though it’s a long movie, it never *felt* long to me. The bleary, neon-drenched techno-babble of the dystopian world is a place I would feel content to just explore forever, even if I’d probably end up slumped over in an alley somewhere 5 minutes after I walked into the city.

The plot here moves, but at about the leisurely pace of a canoe being pulled down a stream by a rope. You get a reason for everything, and for why it’s happening, but Villeneuve and Roger Deakins — whose camerawork is impeccable — are more content to let you stew in your own thoughts. Those thoughts are integral to the plot anyway, so it works. Harrison Ford comes back in a I’m-not-doing-this-unless-i-get-to-play-a-carbon-copy-of-my-real-self wham-bang of a performance, and I really appreciated what this story turned out to be. We’re not all imbued with a special destiny to be *the guy,* but we’re all special in a perfectly unique way. And that’s alright, but just as good.

8. Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich)

Hey, Pixar’s back! Coco finds a way to hit a metric ton of themes like dementia, loss, grief, ancestry, and the importance of family all in a way that never feels ham-fisted or wrought with the failed execution of noble intentions. It lands, and it lands hard. You’re usually able to tell where a Pixar movie is going to go, beat-wise, pretty early on, but I didn’t expect some of the roads this one went down — either because I am a dummy (probable) or because I didn’t want to know it ahead of time.

The movie is a viscerally stunning work of art, visually and thematically. I wish a way existed for me to personally thank each of the animators that worked on this, because there were times my jaw just hung open at the scale and grandeur of some of animation and setpieces here. It’s a deeply personal movie, and it’s one that — for all of Pixar’s hits and misses — never feels contrived or manipulative, which could’ve easily happened several times.

7. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)

This movie dang near had a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes for the entirety of its theatrical run until one guy ruined it, which I think he did just so he could be the one to hold that title. Lady Bird packs so, so much about the vulnerability of adolescence and the sheer terror of stepping into the cusp of adulthood and independence into, like, 90 minutes, and it does it spectacularly, somehow.

We don’t always appreciate where we are brought up. In fact, we get pretty sick of it by the time we’re loading up to leave for the first time. Everything is just too…familiar. Only when we actually do leave and get away from it all, when those insecurities and blindsiding experiences we weren’t prepared for decide to show up, do we really appreciate how easy it was to sink back into the comforts we’d taken for granted.

Our parents, our friends, our old house — they mean a lot more when they’re not there anymore. Saoirse Ronan handles that with grace as the titular character, but it never comes at the expense of compromising herself. She does dumb things, meets dumb people and makes dumb choices, but it shapes her and prepares her for when the time comes to spread her wings.

6. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)

The niche The Florida Project explores is one I genuinely don’t think has ever been observed in a movie — at least, it hasn’t been the explicit focus of one. Right outside the gates of Disney World in Orlando is a smattering of motels where people live; they’re not visiting, or just there to sleep for a night, that’s where their home is. Ends get met by whatever way they can, and from the outside looking in, it’s a destitute situation with no way out in sight. The children of these parents, though, don’t see it that way. To them, it’s a wonderland of things to play with and places to explore, and that’s what this movie smartly makes the focal point. Zeroing in on the hopelessness of the living situation is certainly an option Sean Baker could’ve opted to take, but he makes the unshakable optimism of the kids the stars here, and it goes off without a hitch.

The child actors are utterly phenomenal, and Willem Dafoe turns in what might be one of the best roles of his career as a good-hearted motel owner who looks out for them. Baker washes the scenery with vivid pastels and imposing landmarks that dot the strip just outside the home of the Mouse. It’s heartfelt, sad, and hopeful all at the same time, somehow.

5. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)

I remember when the trailer for this released. I thought it was interesting (which is an awful way to describe something, but that’s where I was at) but didn’t take it for much more than another entry into the early-year horror movie trash can. I was wrong. Get Out, which is directed by a guy who had worked entirely in comedy to this point, is terrific. It’s relevant and harrowing and precise, and the foreboding you feel as it ramps up the tension is something you can almost tangibly feel like a literal knife forcibly twisting in your gut.

What makes something scary isn’t a bucket of blood or guts; it’s the fear of the unknown; what could be behind the door is exponentially scarier than what actually pops out, and Get Out understands that. You know something is up, but you — like Chris, the protagonist — aren’t sure. It’s only as it slowly unfolds that the sinister curtain is drawn back, and then the hairs on the back of your neck prick up slowly or all at once.

What’s more, is that the script is razor-sharp. Characters behave as actual people would, but the movie accounts for that. They’re smart and calculated, and Peele plants a bevy of red flags in front of your nose that you probably won’t catch until you see it again. About as good as a horror movie deserves to be in today’s age.

4. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Who’s to say whether or not Daniel Day-Lewis is *actually* going to retire after this, his supposed farewell tour. If so, he goes out with a bang. A film about a 1950s British dressmaker has the makings to be about as stimulating as one of those novels you were forced to read in high school — ones that are pure drudgery to slog through in the moment but you appreciate as you grow farther away from it. Thankfully, Phantom Thread skips the boring first part and makes a mad dash for the latter.

The dressmaker Day-Lewis inhabits, Reynolds Woodcock, has a routine. It’s meticulously planned and perfected, and he doesn’t have time — or room — for anyone, let alone a legitimate relationship. Then, of course, his finely tuned plans go up in flames after meeting a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps, who is magnetic). Her unflinching propensity to defy him stands as a stark contrast to the previous inhabitants of the Woodcock household — Alma has her own agency and desires, and she isn’t afraid to impose her own will on Reynolds. Watching this battle of wills ebb and flow into a final, twisted compromise is hauntingly beautiful to watch unfold.

3. Call Me by Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)

I guess, if you want, you can boil this down to a Summer Romance movie, but it’s so much more than that. Instead of the usual free-spirited aloofness that comes with those films, Call My By Your Name imbues it with a melancholic exploration of an unexpected first crush. There’s an implicit understanding between the two leads that this isn’t going to be a long-term thing, and that drives the excitement that is belied by the internal clocks quickly running out of time.

Oliver and Elio (Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet, respectively) depict the roller coaster that comes with falling in love, and what happens when that romance is wrested from your grasp against your will. Director Luca Guadagnino presents a lived-in setting of 80s Italy — the summer colors, smells and sounds are there, and they hover next to you and in front of your nose, daring you to be swallowed into the environment. When it’s over, as the credits begin to roll, you can feel the regret and guilt Elio has from letting too much time slip away — the final shot, coupled with Sufjan Stevens’ haunting music, will sit with me for a long, long time. It’s heartracing, and heart-aching, both at the same time and one after the other.

2. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)

This, like Lady Bird, is a coming-of-age movie about a teenage girl coming to grips with who she is and everything the transition to adulthood entails. But Raw does it in a way that is unlike any other movie of its type, ever. It’s about Justine, the youngest in a family of vegetarians who is forced to eat raw meat as part of a hazing ritual at the vet school she begins attending — the same one her older sister has already been going to.

What follows is a totally…unique method of exploring how a girl realizes there are things in her that, to that point, had been dormant and are beginning to awaken and express themselves. Hunger and lust — for different things, and yet, the same  — collide repeatedly until Justine reaches a breaking point. Somehow, this is the directorial debut for Julia Ducournau; there’s no way a first-time filmmaker should be able to produce something as incredible as this was.

Raw is largely proverbial and mostly a massive metaphor, but the allusions it makes to growing up are clear as day despite being shrouded in buckets of blood and an are-they-or-aren’t-they mystery about the true identities of Justine’s family. This stood a good chance of being my favorite movie of the year, if only the one in front of it hadn’t been made.

1. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)

The best scene in my favorite movie of the year is of Rooney Mara, uncut, eating pie for five minutes while sitting on the floor.

She plays the wife of Casey Affleck’s character who dies, like, 15 minutes into the movie. He comes back, though, as a ghost, in a white sheet with eyeholes cut out, just like every kid used to go trick-or-treating in before Halloween became a night for sexy nurses and ill-fitting Ninja Turtle costumes. Affleck returns home and observes his wife, silently, as she grapples with the grief she’s suddenly confronted with. Nobody can see him, and he doesn’t speak. In a weird way, though, you can almost see the expressions he’s making through the sheet as she begins to heal and move on with her life. It hurts.

But the movie evolves into something more complex than that. She moves out, and a new family moves in. Affleck’s still there. Then more people take their place, all while that ghost doesn’t — can’t — leave. Time begins to move more quickly and heavily, and all of a sudden Affleck is witnessing a distant future and the early beginnings of his house one after the other. A Ghost Story magnificently blends it together, often wordlessly and devoid of sound, to drive home a simple message.

Time is fleeting and hardly a speck in terms of The Big Timeline, but when you exist, time is a gift. The memories you have and the feelings you share don’t make a dent in the history of the world, but they can shake the earth for you. In the ghost’s wife’s case, the grief she felt after losing her husband was absolutely real and immediate to her and her soul, and the journey she took through it was deeply personal and arduous. Everyone’s gone through and will go through what she did in a way, but that’s their own story. This was hers. And it mattered.

And that’s what A Ghost Story means, at least to me. Exist in the moment you’re given, because even though it doesn’t matter, it absolutely matters.

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