It’s been a fairly woeful year for movies: Coming up with a list of ten films I unreservedly loved was harder than usual. But there were still five absolutely first-rate blockbusters, a perfect little comedy about growing up, and several brilliant independent films that displayed amazing resourcefulness and imagination on tiny budgets. Counted down from the tenth-best to the best movie of the year, here are my picks:
10. Coco. Set in Mexico, Pixar’s latest big-hearted adventure takes a journey into the Land of the Dead with a little boy searching for the secret of his great-great-grandfather as his great-grandmother Coco fades in body but not in memory. Few movies, especially those made for children, have so beautifully made the case for the importance of keeping our forebears alive by remembering them.
9. Stronger. Sensitive but not sentimental, and clear-eyed about the toll of Islamist terror, this reality-based story about Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing, is quietly profound. Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the finest actors of his generation, doesn’t milk the script for tears but finds the frustration and the grit in an ordinary, decent man whose life is upended by fanaticism. Read review
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Released to the superior storytelling team at Marvel by Sony after the latter’s two dreadful Amazing Spider-Man movies (hence the in-joke of the title), this one sets Spidey on a thrilling and hilarious adventure driven by a canny script. Starring a gawky, nerdy Tom Holland as the titular hero and an equally terrific Michael Keaton as his nemesis, this is by far the best Spider-Man outing yet and the most effervescent superhero movie in years. Read review
7. A Ghost Story. I’m normally unimpressed by arty, high-concept gimmicks, but in this eerie drama, writer-director David Lowery pulls off something mesmerizing and magical by using a simple, intense visual motif. Early in the movie, a young couple (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck) are parted by death. But then he returns to her, after a fashion, without being able to contact her in any way. Ultimately this $2 million film proves both cosmic and deeply human in its sense of the vastness of time and the woefully limited piece of it we are granted in this world.
6. Logan. A rare R-rated comic-book yarn, writer-director James Mangold’s dusty neo-Western about aging superhero Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) shepherding a silent young mutant girl to a presumed safe haven eschews the usual X-Men spectacle in favor of an earthier, punchier feel reminiscent of 1970s Clint Eastwood films.
It’s been a fairly woeful year for movies: Coming up with a list of ten films I unreservedly loved was harder than usual.
5. Wonder Woman. The best DC Comics movie since Christopher Nolan stopped making them is a bit silly in the early going but gets better and better as it goes along, combining the legend of the Amazonian warrior Diana (Gal Gadot) with a very DC story about unmasking the true source of evil in the waning days of World War I. A lovable central character, an endearing romance, unexpected moments of comedy, and an absolutely smashing third-act climax made director Patty Jenkins’s first big-budget effort the new guiding star in the DC universe of movies. Read review
4. Good Time. I hesitate to compare anything to one of my favorite 1970s films, Dog Day Afternoon. But Good Time brings the same crazy combination of ingenuity and idiocy and the same detailed appreciation of the New York City landscape to its breathless tale of a bank robbery gone wrong after two brothers (Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie), one of them mentally challenged, bungle the getaway. The low-budget film is co-directed by Safdie and his brother Josh, who prove in scene after knockout scene that they can orchestrate suspense as well as any other filmmaker working today.
3. The Florida Project. A granular exploration of the goings-on at a low-rent Florida motel just outside of a forbidden kingdom called Walt Disney World turns out to be offbeat, funny, and tender without the usual romanticizing of the poor as mere victims of circumstance. Written and directed by Sean Baker and starring seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince, the film is one of the most naturalistic portrayals of childhood I’ve ever seen on screen, a kind of antidote to sappy liberal clichés about the underclass’s supposed lack of agency. Read review
2. War for the Planet of the Apes. A somber, gorgeously photographed post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie that thematically echoes Apocalypse Now, Spartacus, and the Exodus story, Matt Reeves’s low-key drama has a respect for pacing and composition that recalls the films of John Ford. The third entry in the current run of Apes movies, it is gripping from start to finish. Read review
1. Lady Bird. The finest mother-daughter movie since Terms of Endearment (minus the tragic element) takes place at a girls’ Catholic school in Sacramento in the early aughts, where a headstrong student whose actual name is Christine (expertly portrayed by Saoirse Ronan) fancifully styles herself “Lady Bird.” The interplay between her and her exhausted, slightly disappointed mother (Laurie Metcalf, in perhaps the year’s single best performance) is funny, tangled, and emotionally rich, suggesting that the film’s young writer-director, Greta Gerwig, has a great deal of perspective on her own similar upbringing. Read review