Let’s get started, shall we?
The first entry from this year is one that I technically didn’t see when it came out, but last Christmas just before the release of Glass, the movie that follows Split in director M.Night Shyamalan’s sudden trilogy of films that began, unbeknownst to most, with Unbreakable in 2000.
To be fair, this isn’t really the type of movie I am immediately drawn to, but James McAvoy’s lead performance in the film is so captivating, it’s difficult to take your eyes off of it. While it succumbs a bit to camp in the sequel, in Split, the horror feels real, and McAvoy never strays from his commitment to the character’s many personalities.
It’s intense, with nary a break once the girls are kidnapped, but it also functions as an actor’s showcase for McAvoy, and so in that sense, it’s marvelous.
The Big Sick
This is one of the more original and thoughtful romantic comedies in recent memory, one that begins with all the expectations you have for the genre, and then seeks to subvert them all along the way.
Based on the true story of writer/star Kumail Nanjiani’s early life with his wife (who co-wrote the script), the story focuses on their meeting and falling for each other, to the chagrin of his Indian parents, before the titular sickness kicks in at an all too awkward point in their relationship.
The movie is funny when it needs to be, charming when the moment calls for it, and also often devastating, tones the writing adeptly balances throughout. It’s a film that under the wrong direction wouldn’t work, but here is exactly what it needs to be all the time.
Speaking of films that subvert genres, I give you Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine. Dark and grisly and extremely violent, the film takes advantage of the studio’s okay to make an R-rated comic book movie, and it paid off. Not only is Logan one of the best reviewed films of the year (77 score on Metacritic, 93% critics and 90% audience on Rotten Tomatoes), it also made over $226 million at the US box office, and over $600 million worldwide.
All that comes together in a surprisingly interesting way, in this post-apocalyptic version of the X-Men where not only are the heroes all but extinct, but the world shuns them even more than they ever have. An lab experiment leads to the creation of Laura, a young girl who reminds Jackman’s Logan of himself.
It isn’t for the feint of heart by any stretch, but it features a great performance from Jackman, in definitively his final run at this role, and the mood fits the movie perfectly.
This movie is all about the editing. The story is interesting to a certain point, but mostly it hits the notes you’d expect. Ansel Elgort’s lead performance is interesting, and there’s a lot of greatness going on in the supporting roles too (although watching Kevin Spacey when I saw this movie, after the allegations came out, was unsettling).
But the pacing and snappiness of the editing is what makes this movie ultimately worth watching. Some might call it too showy, but to me it makes the film feel original and gives it its own definitive look and feel.
It’s a worthy addition to director Edgar Wright’s filmography.
I’d like to go on record that ever since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the DC Comic films have been either underwhelming (Superman Returns) or outright terrible (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). After the latter, I pretty much gave up on the series altogether (I didn’t even see Justice League).
Wonder Woman is the only movie that gives me any hope that the films can be any good at all.
Yes, on many levels it’s pretty much a retread of the origin stories we’ve seen in other recent comic book movies, but this tale feels much more interesting than others that have come before it, especially because of the intrigue built into the main character’s story.
The problem with DC is, and continues to be, that many of the characters are difficult to connect with because they aren’t real people (like Wonder Woman or Superman) or have tons of money (Batman). Still, Wonder Woman works better than any of the movies in the group so far.
There were a lot of trepidation about yet another Spider-Man movie being launched, even though new Spidey Tom Holland showed himself to be intensely likable in his cameo in Captain America: Civil War. But because the filmmakers avoided yet another origin story, treating this version of Spider-Man more en media res, Homecoming works immensely well.
Much of that is credit to Holland, who is electric as Spider-Man, but is often at his best during his Peter Parker moments, which, for the first time on film, feel real. Aided by cameos by Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark and featuring an excellent villain-with-an-actual-backstory turn by Michael Keaton, the movie is always fun and sometimes affecting.
It’s the start of a new run of Spider-Man films that, as long as Holland is on board, should be really good.
It should come as no surprise to see Dunkirk, the latest in the filmography of my favorite director Christopher Nolan, is on this list. It’s massively different in terms of how it tells the story of the Battle of Dunkirk, but it’s incredibly inventive and makes effective use of its varied time lines.
The narrative of the movie isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the cinematography, which is often claustrophobic and unsettling in all the good ways, and the manner in which the story unfolds is always engaging.
Ultimately the story is about time and how little there often is, and about how heroism looks different in its various forms. It’s a beautiful film, one that often looks and feels like old Hollywood, but is always fantastic.
The directorial debut from Greta Gerwig is an off-center coming of age story about a girl trying to survive her senior year of high school in Sacramento. Lady Bird, as played by Saoirse Ronan, just wants to escape the grips of the town she’s always known and the tough relationship with her mother, who just wants what’s best for her daughter.
The movie feels honest and true about the difficulties of growing up in our modern times (even though the movie is set in 2002), and the need for connection. In the end, the film has a “the grass isn’t always greener” theme, and also a lot to say about what happens when our choices take us away from the places we know.
Both Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as her mother, are fantastic, but one of my favorite performances in the film is the understated one coming from Tracy Letts as her father, who, while caught in the middle of a complicated mother/daughter relationship, seeks to make the home a livable place. It, like most of the movie, feels lived in and loved.
Blade Runner 2049
Sure, a sequel to a cult classic film from the early 80’s based on a Phillip K. Dick novel seems like an odd idea. But Denis Villeneuve’s reentry into the Blade Runner universe is a contemplative, quiet, and often surprising tale that looks at the natural consequences of the events of the first film.
Blade Runner 2049 is built heavily upon the ending of the original film, but much of the film is about the look and feel of the film, mostly built on the Oscar winning cinematography from all-world DoP Roger Deakins. The production design is top notch, as are the effects and overall look of the film.
Ryan Gosling’s performance is very much in line with a lot of his recent work, as he doesn’t say much, but tells much of the story with his eyes and intentions.
While not an easy rewatch, it’s a beautiful film that goes down as one of the decade’s great achievements.
The funniest film in the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok was a pretty wild turn of events in terms of tone for the series. Most of that comes from director Taika Waititi, the New Zealander who announced his arrival into the scene after making smaller films like Eagle vs Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
So while Ragnarok is often still very much a Marvel movie, Waititi’s trademark sense of humor and wit makes the whole special effects riddled affair feel less bogged down and way more fun.
Chris Hemsworth is likely the actor that benefits most from this, as his stoic, medieval version of Thor gives way to a more fun-loving, even funny character, one that the series maintains to this day. There are a lot of fun supporting roles, like Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster and the introduction of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie. Given the stuffy nature of the original Thor films, this was a great turn in the series.
Yet another in the long run of excellent Pixar films, Coco is a story set in the world of the Dia de los Muertos, and the connection this belief has not only to those who live, but to those who have already passed.
Featuring some great original songs and a story that will melt even the hardest of hearts, Miguel, the boy at the story’s center, travels into the after life, believing his great-grandfather might be the great singer Ernesto de la Cruz, who can save his great-grandmother Coco. When Miguel meets de la Cruz, he finds the situation isn’t going the direction he believes.
Of course, Coco is a gorgeously made film, and the ending tearjerking as Pixar films often are. The film, as always, is family friendly and fit for everyone, no matter how old you are.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the our great living filmmakers, and he continues to prove that more and more with each of his films. Not all of them are as great as the next, but the lengths he goes to in order to make sure each one is different from the previous film is quite excellent.
Phantom Thread is another worthy addition to his filmography, and it features one of the great performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, in what might be his last role. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer of the highest class, who meets his match in Alma, a young woman who he meets while on holiday.
She soon moves into his estate and quickly becomes not only his love, but his muse, but she still feels under his thumb. So she takes action to take control of the relationship in the only way she can: in a physical sense.
Brooding and magnificent, Phantom Thread is a moving film about obsession and its consequences.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Alright, so it’s time to do this.
The Last Jedi might be the best Star Wars movie in the Skywalker Saga, although it is likely eclipsed only by The Empire Strikes Back in that category.
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll explain myself.
One of the best things that a long running series can do is to set up expectations and then eventually subvert those expectations and do something out of the ordinary. Otherwise, you’re left with a series that keeps repeating itself and has no real ideas. While The Force Awakens borrows much of its ideas from the original Star Wars film, it does present some new ideas and moves the new series in a set of directions that could have been interesting.
In that regard, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi takes the ideas presented in TFA and makes them his own, hoping to push the series into a wild and inventive new direction. In my mind, it’s better that Johnson didn’t feel the need for Daisy Ridley’s Rey to be related to anyone we’ve already met; it’s better that Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker didn’t always believe in the Force the same way he always did and that his run in with his nephew might have pushed him away; it’s better that the storyline goes in places you wouldn’t expect.
And so it’s a bummer that most Star Wars fans couldn’t handle alterations. I think those people didn’t want a new Star Wars film, they wanted a rehash of what they already had. On some level, I get it, because the prequels were mostly awful, but the new series had an opportunity to go somewhere different, to subvert expectations by following the trail set forth by The Last Jedi, one of the great Star Wars films.
Spoiler alert: The Rise of Skywalker won’t be on my 2019 list.
Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): The Lego Batman Movie, Get Out, The Girl With All the Gifts, Table 19, Kong: Skull Island, Beauty and the Beast, The Boss Baby, Going in Style, Colossal, The Circle, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Despicable Me 3, Cars 3, War for the Planet of the Apes*, Leap!, Downsizing, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I, Tonya, Pitch Perfect 3, The Shape of Water, Murder on the Orient Express, The Disaster Artist
Didn’t see: All the Money in the World, The Post, The Greatest Showman, Call Me By Your Name, Last Flag Flying, Justice League, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Florida Project, Stronger, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Mother!, Molly’s Game, It, Battle of the Sexes, Darkest Hour, The Glass Castle, Wind River, The Dark Tower, Detroit, A Ghost Story, Transformers: The Last Knight, Okja, Wonderstruck, Alien: Covenant, Free Fire, The Lost City of Z, The Fate of the Furious, Life, Song to Song, T2 Trainspotting, A Cure for Wellness, Fifty Shades Darker