Sunday, January 20, 2019

2018 in Review: These are Not (Necessarily) the Year's Best Films

First, an apology:

I was going to make a heroic effort to see as many acclaimed 2018 films as I possibly could this weekend before attempting to write a 'year's best' post

But then it snowed. A lot. And then Indiana was playing Purdue. And then also I got tired and lazy.

Long story short: life got it the way, as it does.  (That's the whole reason this blog is called PART-TIME Cinephile, after all. The title reflects the fact that while I love watching movies, I also love college basketball, earning my paycheck, singing in choirs, working out, spending time with friends and getting as much sleep as I can manage between those activities.)

So once again, I'm publishing a "Not the Best Films of the Year" list.  It's not that these films aren't really good.... or that I didn't see many films last year. (I've seen 96 of the films released here in 2018 - which is impressive, if still only about half of what a professional critic sees.)  It's that the list represents my personal tastes and inclinations, and excludes a lot of films that I simply wasn't motivated to see (e.g. Avengers Infinity War, You Were Never Really Here, The House That Jack Built, Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Mandy to name just a few that were either too dark or too action-packed for me.)

And it excludes a few well-received films in which I couldn't get sufficiently interested to watch them all the way through (The Other Side of the Wind, Happy as Lazarro, Blockers), as well as some I consider highly overrated (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Hereditary, Annihilation, Madeline's Madeline.)

AND it also excludes several films that I really did want to see, but simply ran out of time and/or opportunities for: Widows, Burning, Shoplifters, Free Solo, First Man, Loveless, Foxtrot, Suspiria, At Eternity's Gate. I'm pretty sure I'll see most of these in the next six weeks or so, and then I'll be ready to do a revised list! (But won't...)

One final caveat: to be eligible for this list, a film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time - via theaters, premium cable, home streaming or region 1 DVD - between 1/1/18 and 12/31/18 inclusive.  This means some 2017 films like The Post and Phantom Thread were considered for this year's list, while a handful of 2018 films that weren't released in Chicago till this January (On the Basis of Sex, Cold War, Capernaum, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Stan and Ollie) will be considered for the 2019 list.

"Well, then," you might ask "What's even left for the actual list?"

A lot of good stuff, as it turns out. Because 2018 was a terrific years for movies, I've not only listed 13 best films (10 wasn't enough), but I follow them up with a pretty hefty list of Honorable Mentions.
Here they are, in reverse order of preference:

13. Wildlife (Paul Dano)

I would have sworn that Wildlife was based on a really good, unfairly neglected novel written by someone along the lines of a John Updike or Richard Yates.  It has the sensibility of a book from the 1950s as it skims through acutely observed details of a marriage unravelling in the midst of a  lonely, sprawling Montana landscape. Surprisingly, though, the story is an original one concocted by Paul Dano and his partner, Zoe Kazan, and that makes it all the more remarkable.  Carey Mulligan gives the best performance you haven't seen this year as a housewife struggling to make the best of her life with a difficult, unambitious man and a sensitive teenaged son.  Every forced smile and carefully calculated response from her lips subtly betrays a world of hurt and disappointment while simultaneously masking those same frustrations.

12. The Tale (Jennifer Fox)

Writer/director Jennifer Fox confronts her own molestation at age 13 by a pair of sophisticated, manipulative adults who convinced her she was having a rapturous consenting relationship.  Her film is lurid and uncomfortable in ways that befit the subject matter. Yet she goes deeper by delving into the unreliability of memory and the way we unconsciously subvert it to protect ourselves from uncomfortable truths. Playing the adult Fox, Laura Dern is never less than fascinating as she comes to grips with her past and the extent to which that past has played havoc with her adult life.  Not an easy film to watch, but certainly a powerful and timely one.

11. Won't You Be My Neighbor (Morgan Neville)

In recent years, my lists have skewed heavily towards films that are upbeat, humane and life-affirming. So I really couldn't NOT include this beautiful documentary tribute to Fred "Mr. Rogers."  What emerges is a portrait of a man so pure in spirit - so kind and decent and good - he almost seems too beautiful for this world.  Through his beloved television program, Rogers brought a message of gentle love and acceptance to millions of children. It was no mere act - it was a mission and a way of life for him.  Try (just try!) to watch this without shedding a few tears.  Oh, to have more people this soft-spoken and compassionate in the public eye these days!

10. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)

After suffering through the deadpan cruelty of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I swore I'd never watch another of Yorgos Lanthimos' films. But the rapturous reviews for The Favourite lured me, and I haven't regretted my change of heart at all. Make no mistake: while this film is easily the most mainstream of the director's works, it's still deeply weird and occasionally off-putting, not to mention historically inaccurate. When I arrived for an after-work matinee, a large group of women exiting the previous showing desperately tried to persuade me to see something - anything! - else. (If lesbian sex scenes or the sight of naked men being pelted with overripe fruit makes you uncomfortable, you should probably see something else, too.)  If, however, you're open to Lanthimos' trademark battiness, you can savor a trio of phenomenal performances from Olivia Colman (as a pouty, gouty Queen Anne), Rachel Weisz (her cunning lady-in-waiting) and Emma Stone (a conniving, social-climbing hanger-on). If it's realistic in no other way, the film still feels honest about the limits of any real power given to women in that era (even to a queen) and the kinds of manipulations and charades they had to perform to obtain any real agency in their lives.  From that perspective, it's practically a feminist statement.

9. Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley)

More proof that the creepiest and best horror films are the ones that show us the least gore.  In Thoroughbreds, the bloodiest scene takes place completely out of camera range, while we watch a clueless teenage girl doze off on a sofa in another room. That scene is unaccountably riveting, as is the film as a whole, from its very first frames.  Director Cory Finley masterfully establishes a tense mood and a discomforting atmosphere from the get go - you can't wait to see where the story goes and yet, at the same moment, you're intensely nervous about what happens next. The film opens with a pair of teenage girls studying together - there's something deeply 'off'' about both of them that you can't immediately put your finger on. By the time one girl's insufferable stepfather shows up, you know you're in for a wild ride. Even the house where most of film takes place is disorienting - labyrinthine, with endless rooms leading to other rooms.  It's a neat and neatly disturbing little thriller.

8. Let the Sun Shine In (Claire Denis)

This is a very personal choice for me. Much the same as Juliette Binoche's character here, I did a lot of dating in 2018, and ultimately none of it turned out very well.  And on some of those dates, I wore a pair of black suede high-heeled boots very much like the ones Binoche wears throughout this film. It is oddly comforting to watch a chic, gorgeous Frenchwoman having all the same disappointments and frustrations in her dating life that I've experienced in mine. Late in the film, Gerard Depardieu pops up as a sort of spiritual guru who wisely advises Binoche to savor the good things in her life and not worry so much about when love will find her - advice which goes in one ear and right out the other as she continues to obsess about whether that guy she really likes will come to his senses and return to her.  Without giving you too much information, let's just say that's a thought pattern I understand all too well. Claire Denis' prickly, impressionistic film has won a place on few real critic's 'year's best' lists for other, more scholarly and artistic reasons.  But for me, it will always be the French film version of my year on

7. Eighth Grade (Bo Burnham)

I don't know how eighth grade went for you, but I remember it as the most confusing, insecure time of my entire life.  And if Bo Burnham's sweet, painfully amusing film debut is any indication, nothing's changed much over the years. Wide-eyed newcomer Elsie Fisher gives a particularly lovely and sensitive performance as a lonely, awkward pre-teen struggling to fit in and be popular.  Burnham strikes a lovely balance in every scene, never tipping into cheap laughs or maudlin sentiment as he navigates his heroine's bumpy road to self-acceptance. Teen troubles are well-covered territory in film, but Eighth Grade feels remarkably fresh.

6. Paddington 2 (Paul King)

Paddington 2 was always destined for this list, from the first time I saw it (on a flight from Paris to Detroit, where I surreptitiously dabbed at tears several times while watching).  I feel vindicated in my choice by the number of 'year's best' lists from far more erudite critics where Paddington 2 has also appeared.  Like Mr. Rogers, this little Peruvian bear has a kinder heart and a purer spirit than most of the humans around him - sufficient to soften the hearts of some particularly gnarly prison inmates just by introducing them to the life-changing magic of marmalade sandwiches. There is such a welcome sweetness to a film where the stakes are no higher than Paddington's quest to send his beloved Aunt Lucy an antique pop-up picture book of London. When was life ever that simple?  Hugh Grant is on hand in a deliciously flamboyant performance as the villain of the piece - an overbearing, over-dressed has-been actor with an ego as big as his wardrobe. Characters like this keep the film from becoming overly saccharine and make it as appealing to adults as it is to children.

5. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

I don't just watch this film - I luxuriate in it.  It's big and gorgeous, with a lush, romantic musical score... and a few distinctly creepy plot twists involving lightly poisoned mushrooms being fed to a cranky man to keep him in line.  P.T. Anderson borrows heavily from both Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean for this strange romance between a fussy fashion designer (whose life is carefully managed by his icy, controlling sister) and the deceptively mild, mouse-like woman he falls for.  Sure the cinematography and clothes are gorgeous and the actors are great. (It's Daniel Day-Lewis, for Pete's sake!) But it's the weird and twisty parts that make Phantom Thread such a irresistible cinematic treat.

4. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller)

There was a lot more to this movie than I expected, and it's haunted me ever since I saw it. I was not surprised that Melissa McCarthy gave an outstanding dramatic performance; the level of commitment and specificity she brings to comic roles has always indicated she's a genuinely gifted actress. And the true-crime aspect of the film was bound to be, at the very least, intriguing. (McCarthy plays real-life writer Lee Israel who forged and sold letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward to make ends meet when her career as a biographer petered out.) But director Marielle Heller infuses the film with a palpable sense of melancholy in everything from the low-lit bars that Lee and her drinking buddy (Richard E. Grant) frequent to the perfectly curated, jazz-inflected musical soundtrack.  From start to finish, it's a sad valentine to the end of an era in New York: a time when books and writers truly mattered and it was possible to live in shabby-genteel poverty on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Grant and McCarthy are wonderful together, their characters sharing both a closeted, queer identity and outrageously caustic personalities designed to mask their vulnerability and loneliness. It's part character study and part tone poem with just a hint of a heist film mentality - an enormously satisfying combination.

3. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)

You've heard of cringe comedy?  Well, Armando Iannucci is the master of 'gasp comedy' - rapid-fire comic patter so fast and so mean that you can barely process it or even croak out a proper laugh in the wake of its farcical nastiness. But even if you've watched one of Iannucci's television shows (Veep or one of his British series The Thick of It.), you won't be prepared for the undercurrent of true horror in this very black political comedy.  This time, the history is true (mostly) and the stakes are real; you can hear people pleading for their lives and/or being shot just off camera even while breathlessly funny bureaucratic squabbles play out before your eyes.  It takes a particularly masterful director to get that balance right - Iannucci is up to the task. With Stalin on his deathbed, the politburo goes mad, each man jockeying for position and power in the new government to come. Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) rush to build alliances and kiss up to Stalin's daughter (a superb Andrea Riseborough). What follows is both antic and terrifying, and the actors (particularly Beale and Buscemi) are just about perfect.

2. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)

I don't think you'll find a more beautifully photographed film on any screen this year. Cuaron's remembrance of his own, privileged Mexico City upbringing - and the woman who worked and cared for his family - is a masterpiece of dualities. It references a number of European classics by the likes of Fellini and Renoir while still remaining a highly personal and heartfelt work.  It has an epic sweep and yet it is rich in domestic and emotional detail. A great and lovely film, with a beautiful lead performance by Yalitza Aparicio, it is a film I intend to come back to many times in the months to come.

1. First Reformed (Paul Schrader)

I'm going to come right out and say it: this isn't a film for everyone, or even for most people.  Sure it's won its share of critical acclaim this year, but that's largely from people who've seen and studied the two European films on which it's directly based (Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light). It's austere and formal, deliberate in its pacing and sometimes downright bizarre.  But if you're inclined to give it a chance - and willing to embrace its slow rhythms and intellectual challenges - you may find yourself richly rewarded.  Ethan Hawke plays the pastor of a small, sparsely attended church. He struggles with his own faith and health  - as well as interference from a larger, more financially sound congregation - while attempting to counsel a depressed congregant and his pregnant wife. Writer/director Paul Schrader (who himself grew up in a Calvinist sect that prohibited going to movies) seriously confronts questions about our responsibilities to God and one another; his film is brutal and phantasmagorical by turns. Personally, I found its seriousness of purpose and its intellectual depth to be refreshingly welcome in a time when few films have any real ideas. It has stayed vividly in my memory since the day I first watched it.  As a blogger friend of mine (who was himself a small-town pastor) used to say "Your mileage may vary."  But if you decide to watch First Reformed, I would love to hear your thoughts.

2018 Honorable Mention*Black KKKLansman, Tully, Searching, Mary Poppins Returns, Shirkers, In the Fade, Private Life, Support the Girls, Green Book, Film Worker, A Star is Born, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, God's Own Country, Collette.

*the original Honorable Mentions list has been amended to include two films that were egregiously overlooked in the original post: Spike Lee's excellent Black KKKlansman and Jason Reitman's Tully. My apologies!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018 in Review: A Dozen Wonderful Things on TV This Year!

It's been a pretty quiet year here at Part-Time Cinephile. When last I posted here, I shared my terribly important thoughts about the 2018 Oscars.  That was in February.  And my predictions of the winners were 100% accurate.

Normally, this post would be about the best binge-watching of the year. But in 2018, I wasn't much into binging on TV. Even so, I did see some delightful things on the small screen, and they're worth writing about.  It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that this is a highly personal, somewhat idiosyncratic list. It reflects my personal tastes and skews heavily towards music, comedy, and happy, uplifting fare. Take it with a grain of salt - but if you find something on this list that piques your interest, watch it and enjoy it, then my work here is done!

Here are twelve wonderful things I found on TV this year, in alphabetical order:

1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Trapped in a Car With Someone You Don't Want to be Trapped in a Car With (The CW)

The final season has been uneven at best, but it's delivered one absolutely perfect song parody. In less than four minutes, "Trapped in a Car..." lampoons the entire trajectory of the Beach Boys' careers - from their surfer anthem days to the experimentation of "Pet Sounds" to the easy listening dreck of "Kokomo." Nothing I write here will do justice to its brilliance - just click on this clip and hear it for yourself.

2. Forever (Amazon)

A quirky and imaginative take on the meaning of a lifelong commitment - and then some. SNL alums Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph play a long-married couple whose lives have become stale and predictable. The ski trip they take to shake things up is only the first in a series of mystical events that lead them back to their original passion for each other. There are two completely unforeseeable, gut-punch plot twists within the first two episodes, and it only gets loonier and more crazily inventive from that point on - not to mention heartbreaking and sometimes genuinely profound. Trust me, the less you know going in, the better. I actually did binge this one; at just eight short episodes, it can easily be devoured in the course of one snowy weekend. And it's far more substantial than you'd expect at first glance.

3. Jesus Christ Superstar Live (NBC)

I've not found the resurrection of live television musicals to be very satisfying so far. Productions of The Sound of Music, Grease, Peter Pan and Hairspray have run the gamut from underwhelming to excruciating.  But with Superstar, directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski got it just right. Filmed in an arena setting with a live audience, it had an energy, a confidence and a clear directorial vision that's been sorely lacking in the previously mentioned productions. Norm Lewis' Judas was the show's VIP, though Sara Bareilles gave us a soulful Mary Magdalene, and John Legend's singing in the title role ultimately compensated for his limited acting chops.  Alice Cooper's cameo as Herod seemed more exciting than it actually was, an inspired piece of casting that didn't quite coalesce in the actual performance.  But that's a nitpick; this was an impeccably produced and executed show: thrilling, emotional, and a perfect choice for its Easter Sunday airdate.

4. John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City (Netflix)

In his third stand-up special for Netflix, the former SNL writer hit it out of the park.  He gets plenty of mileage and laughs from the kind of anecdotal humor that is his trademark (stories about his upper-middle class Catholic upbringing; outrageous statements from his gruff, conservative father; musings about getting older and becoming a bona fide adult). But his greatest moment is this analogy for the Trump presidency, which he develops to pitch-perfect hilarity:
   "It’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital! I think eventually everything’s going to be okay, but I       have no idea what’s going to happen next. And neither do any of you, and neither do your parents.    Because there's a horse loose in the hospital!!
I watch a lot of Netflix stand-up specials - and there were good ones this year from Jim Gaffigan, Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Rock and Russell Brand, among others. Hannah Gadsby's justly praised Nanette was a near-miss for this list. But Mulaney's Radio City special is the one I go back to, repeatedly, when I need a really good laugh. 

5. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert - opening monologues (CBS)

How you feel about this choice is probably dependent on your politics.  For me, Colbert's relentless mocking and skewering of the man in the White House was my nightly sanity check in a world gone mad. Though I miss the early days of the show when Colbert sometimes got more serious and linked his scathing comments to his own religious convictions, I'll still revel in his gleeful Trump takedowns anytime. 

6. Live from Lincoln Center: Stars in Concert (PBS)

Over a series of four summer Friday nights, these Broadway stars (Leslie Odom Jr, Andrew Rannells, Sutton Foster, Stephanie J. Bloch) performed intimate, immensely enjoyable one-hour sets against a backdrop of New York itself - the lights and traffic on Broadway, seen though an enormous window behind the small stage.  To my recollection, no one performed any of their own show-stopping hits (although Rannells memorably rocked out with his standard audition number - Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"). But all were personable and funny, sharing and singing music that mattered to them and musing on their youthful hopes and sometimes rough roads to Broadway acclaim.  The superbly produced specials captured the feeling of really being there for the viewer at home, making for a quartet of highly enjoyable evenings.

7. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 2 (Amazon)

The clothes! The apartments! The glamour! The stunning location shoots in Paris and the Catskills!(no I'm not kidding about that last one!) The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has the most gorgeous production design of maybe any television show in history.  But eye candy alone doesn't land a show on my list.  In its second season, Mrs. Maisel took its indefatigable heroine further along in her journey towards stand-up comedy stardom, with some meaningful reflection on both what it costs her personally and the privileged bubble in which she's been living vs. the scruffier, harder world she's now going to have to deal with. Showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino delivered even more smart, rapid-fire repartee, plus a collection of impressively choreographed scenes of hectic activity that will leave you dizzy.  It's not just the best-looking show on streaming  - it's very likely the smartest and best-acted as well. Kudos especially to Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub and Alex Borstein this season. I can't wait to see where these characters go next.

8. Mom, Season 6 (CBS)

Over six seasons, Mom has evolved from an enjoyable but uneven two-hander (Allison Janney and Anna Faris as a mother-daughter pair of recovering alcoholics) into a female-driven ensemble comedy with reliable laughs and genuine emotional insights.  It's consistently true and respectful to the challenges of sobriety and creating a new life without abandoning its mainstream sitcom sensibility, and I think that achievement isn't sufficiently valued. With expanded roles for Mimi Kennedy, Jaime Pressley and Beth Hall - plus the addition of Wiliam Fichtner as Janney's fiancĂ©e - the show has gotten better every season, nicely balancing all characters' story arcs with sensitivity and humor. In season 6, the cast expanded again to include the outrageously funny Kristen Johnson as Janney's long-lost stepsister -- fresh out of prison and looking for a new, sober start.  Johnson is a larger-than-life performer who could easily suck all the air out of the room, but it's a tribute to the show's well-honed and infinitely generous cast of actors that she fits right into the ensemble, earning her big laughs, but outshining no one.  This show is my Thursday night feel-good fix. If you haven't discovered it yet, you should.

9. The Romanoffs (Amazon)

Like many Mad Men fans, I'd been anxiously awaiting Matt Weiner's next show (though still secretly wishing he'd done a series with Sally and Bobby Draper as adults.). Instead, he gave us this gorgeous, expensively produced anthology series in which every story contains at least one character who is a descendant of the Romanoff dynasty, Russia's last ruling family.  Filmed in glamourous locations around the world with a distinguished international cast, its episodes are intricately plotted, smartly written, and beautifully acted.  Well, Ok, there are a couple of duds near the middle. (Particularly insufferable is a chapter in which Andrew Rannells plays a piano teacher accused - perhaps falsely - of pedophilia.  This is clearly Weiner's answer to his own accusers in the #metoo movement, and it plays very badly).  Breeze past that episode, and enjoy the remaining very good ones.  The best of the lot is pictured above. Kathryn Hahn and Jay Ferguson play a couple adopting a baby girl from a Russian orphanage; the episode plays like a dark comedy of innocents abroad as the two navigate a strange, cold, confusing landscape of bureaucrats, unheated hotel rooms, and unsmiling clerks. But it evolves into a complex drama of marital discord - with one particularly brutal scene in which the entire foundation of their marriage comes perilously close to dissolving - before finding its way back to a (partly) happy ending.

10. SNL - The Kavanaugh Hearing cold open with Matt Damon

The best sketch SNL has done in years - and that's from someone who believes the show is still approximately as funny as it was in 1976. Two days after Brett Kavanaugh's infuriating, appalling appearance before the Senate to answer allegations of sexual assault, SNL managed to perfectly encapsulate the entire experience in a 10-minute sketch that both entertained and - dare I say it - healed us. Matt Damon dropped by to play a spectacularly pissed-off/entitled Kavanaugh (though, honestly, only a few minor tweaks away from the real thing) and the regular cast portrayed the key senators to delirious effect. (Kate McKinnon's apoplectic Lindsey Graham was a highlight.) The sketch nails every single absurdity in the actual hearing, while being so funny that even people who think Kavanaugh was innocent laughed out loud.

11. A Very English Scandal (Amazon)

The middle-aged resurgence of Hugh Grant continues - impressively - under the direction of Stephen Frears, who also gave Grant his best role in years with 2016's Florence Foster Jenkins.  In this tragi-comic British mini-series, Grant plays the real-life disgraced politician Jeremy Thorpe - accused, but not ultimately convicted, of hiring a hit man to murder a former male lover who threatens to expose their affair.  The series hums along with a darkly comic energy, but it's also thoughtful and honest about Thorpe's complex dilemma: he's a deeply closeted gay man who comes to political prominence in a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain. By the time his aggrieved former lover (an emotionally volatile but sympathetic Ben Whishaw) comes forward in the late 70s, the world is a changed place. The series depicts its events as the last gasp of Establishment respectability prevailing in a newly open and permissive society, giving it a gravitas that belies its swinging, insouciant tone.  Both Grant and Whishaw deliver exceptional, complex performances.

12. The Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (pretty much everywhere!)

Because, honestly - can you even think of a lovelier, happier event on our screens this year?  An English prince married a bi-racial American divorcee and the whole world tuned in to cheer for them. A gospel choir sang "Stand By Me" in Windsor Chapel and an African-American clergyman preached passionately about the power of love, while Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, chortled in obvious enjoyment and Zara Tindall (Princess Anne's daughter) gave them all a stunningly frosty side-eye.  Who would have thought that the British royal family (most of them, anyway) would be our guiding light for diversity and tolerance in the 21st century?  I cried more tears of joy watching this wedding on television than I have at any nuptials I've attended in person for people I actually know - and I'm not ashamed of that. Sometimes we all need a feel-good event like this to rally around and give us hope.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Oscars - 2018 Edition: The Good, the Bad, the Undeserving and the Overlooked

This is the post I almost didn't write.

Because if you thought I was bored and apathetic about the Oscars last year, you have no idea how uninterested I was this time around.

My enthusiasm for the 2018 award season quickly began to wane about the time that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri swept the Golden Globes. When it subsequently picked up an armload of Screen Actor's Guild awards, my growing apathy morphed into rage.  By the time of its stellar showing at the BAFTAs (Britsh Academy Awards) I had progressed to outright stupefaction.

Every year has its share of overrated critical darlings whose appeal I cannot begin to fathom, but Three Billboards outstrips them all.  Where so many others apparently saw a modern masterpiece, I saw a muddleheaded, mean-spirited, pointlessly sadistic screed containing not one iota of truth or genuine insight.  And I've worshipped Frances McDormand for most of my adult life, but I swear if I see her unsmiling, make-up free face behind one more awards podium, I'm going to pitch a fit so loud the folks at the Kodak Theater will stop applauding, cock their heads and ask each other "Did you hear that fit being pitched? It sounded like it was coming from Chicago!"

Three Billboards aside, I also find I am intensely weary of the self-imposed pressure to see every major Oscar nominee before the ceremony.  And this year, I gave up the fight. As I write this, I still have not seen The Post or All the Money in the World - let alone most of the Best Documentary, Foreign Language or Feature-Length Animated films on the Oscar Ballot.  But before we get to my terribly important thoughts about what should win, what shouldn't win, and who got unfairly overlooked for a chance at Oscar glory... let's talk about this year's host.

For years now, I've been carping about the Academy's inability to find a master of ceremonies who sets the right tone for the evening.  They've cycled through everyone from James Franco to Ellen DeGeneres, but they finally found the right man. I'm very pleased that Jimmy Kimmel will be returning as emcee this year; he strikes exactly the right balance between pointed, topical comedy and low-key, light-hearted mischief.  Now if only the Academy would pick the right nominees and winners!

Best Supporting Actress

Will win:  Allison Janney for I, Tonya

I love Allison Janney, I really do. I will watch anything this woman acts in, primarily because she is in it. I even cheered when she accepted a BAFTA award while wearing a bizarre gown that made her look like a giant space alien. (I'm not kidding about that - Google it and see for yourself.) But in all honesty, this is not the best supporting female performance of the year. Janney nails the character's coldness and anger alright, but it's a fairly one-note take on Tonya Harding's monstrous mother. And frankly, it's the kind of role she could do in her sleep.

Should win: Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird

Metcalfe's take on stressed, imperfect motherhood was lovely, rich in nuance and brilliantly rendered emotional detail.  The actress, at 62, has been enjoying a bit of a late-career renaissance, starting with her Tony Award last year for A Doll's' House, Part Two. An Oscar would be a perfect, well-deserved companion for that Tony.  She's recently emerged as a dark-horse possibility for taking this category from Janney, so the idea is not entirely far-fetched.

Overlooked: Michelle Pfeiffer for mother!

Pfeiffer swaggered into the middle of a difficult, enigmatic and divisive film, providing a bracing shot of much-needed comic relief.  The film was always better when she was onscreen. There's no better recommendation for an Oscar nomination, and Pfeiffer certainly deserved one.

Also overlooked:  Vicky Krieps for Phantom Thread -  She more than held her own against old pros Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville. And, like them, she deserved a nomination.

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

I like Rockwell, and I'll admit he made a pretty interesting meal out of this film's most problematic character.  So I'm actually kind of OK with him taking this trophy - although I wish to God it had been for a better movie.

Should Win: Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project

People tend to think of Dafoe as the guy who plays creepy or bizarre characters, but niceness and restraint are also qualities in his wheelhouse. (After all, he's played both Jesus and T.S. Eliot). As the motel manager working on the tawdry edge of Orlando, Dafoe comes off so authentically torn between frustration and compassion towards his residents that he doesn't seem to be acting at all. You forget you're looking at Dafoe and just see a man who tries to be fair to his residents and look out for their neglected kids.  He's the quiet soul of a fine film.

Overlooked: Armie Hammer for Call Me By Your Name

I'm not quite sure how Hammer has been so overlooked in the slew of awards nominations for this film.  His Oliver is the perfect match to Timothee Chalamet's justly praised Elio in this emotionally charged romance.  Just his dorky dance moves alone are award-worthy.

Also overlooked: Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller for The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) - Two stunning performances by these actors playing estranged brothers.  Each has an electrifyingly good monologue and many great scenes.  I'd have expected as much from Stiller, but Sandler's work is revelatory.

Best Actress

Will win: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Oh, dear. I worship McDormand and can name at least three other films I'd loved to have seen her get an Oscar for (in addition the one she deservedly won for Fargo.).  But I just can't get past how much I hate this film in general, and her character in particular.  So I can't rejoice about this, but it's a foregone conclusion.

Should win: Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water

Hawkins' performance was so beautiful, sweet but not cloyingly so.  Her character had a refreshing grit and stubbornness. The scene where she tells her friend - without words -- why the sea monster's love meant so much to her was the most emotionally devastating piece of acting I saw all year.  Also, this would be a welcome corrective to the academy's unforgiveable snub of her performance in Happy Go Lucky in 2009.

Overlooked: Diane Kruger for In the Fade

Forget McDormand's Mildred Hayes.  If you want to see the best, most devastating portrayal of a grieving, vengeful woman look to the German film In the Fade and the riveting performance of Diane Kruger.  Kruger won the Best Actress award at Cannes; I can only assume her absence from most awards slates this year is due to the fact that In the Fade has not yet opened wide in the U.S. It's a devastating, harrowing film, and Kruger's performance is one for the ages.

Also overlooked: Cynthia Nixon for A Quiet Passion -
Her take on the poet Emily Dickinson delved into deep emotional corners of anguish and frustration.

Best Actor

Will - and probably should- win: Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour doesn't really amount to much, but Oldman's Winston Churchill is wonderful.  Consider the Oscar he's certainly going to win as a very well-deserved lifetime achievement award. The emotion in his eyes behind all that old-Churchill makeup is the whole show here.

But I wish we could give one last Oscar to Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread

If this really is his last film, that's a damn shame. Phantom Thread is a gorgeous film that celebrates the fine art of acting in stillness and nuance.  Day-Lewis communicates more with an artfully arched eyebrow or a fleeting glance than most actors do with a whole, scenery-chewing cathartic monologue.  I know he already has three Oscars, but this was his last chance....

Overlooked? No one, really.... I'm pretty happy with this category as is. (Although I suspect if I'd gotten around to seeing The Post, I'd be filling the space with my annual rant about Why Tom Hanks is a Better Actor than the Academy Thinks He Is.)

Best Director

Will win: Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water

Del Toro is pretty much a shoo-in here, having won every other Best Director trophy on the planet this season.  It's not undeserved either.  The Shape of Water is beautifully crafted fairy tale for adults and it's a stunning achievement. But...

My heart is with Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is a bit too slow, stately (and, ultimately, creepy) to be to everyone's taste.  But I loved it - luxuriated in it, even.  If you look at the trajectory of Anderson's  career - from early, messy epics like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the level of craft he's achieved in The Master or There Will Be Blood - his growth as an artist is truly stunning. Phantom Thread is the work of an artist in full command of his powers. Sadly though, it's not likely to win much on Oscar night except Best Costume Design (of course!) ...and maybe (hopefully?) a Best Original Score trophy for Johnny Greenwood.

Overlooked?  How about an Honorable Mention to Joe Wright for Darkest Hour?

Oh sure, I could make a case for Luca Guadagnino and Call Me By Your Name (which is up for Best Picture) or Dee Rees for Mudbound (which isn't - more on that later). But apart from Oldman's performance, I think the whole reason Darkest Hour got a Best Picture nod is Joe Wright's inspired direction. The script is awful, really, and most other directors would have delivered a stillborn, stodgy snoozefest.  But Wright finds a stunning visual style and utilizes fluid, urgent camera movement to ratchet up the drama - and it just about works.  And while we're at it, let us remember that in 2007's Atonement, Wright managed to evoke the entire Dunkirk experience in one spectacular 5-minute tracking shot. Take that, Best Director nominee Christopher Nolan!

Best Picture

Will win ( probably?....) The Shape of Water

I say 'probably?" because - although The Shape of Water has been the odds-on favorite in this category for weeks - there has been some late-breaking groundswell for both Three Billboards and Get Out.  I can't bear to think of the former film winning, and I can't wrap my mind around how the latter one even got into this category. (I've seen Get Out twice now; I liked it and thought it was a solid debut for Jordan Peele, but also significantly flawed. It will be interesting to see how it's regarded five or ten years from now.)  Anyway, I won't be disappointed if Shape takes the top prize - it's certainly deserving.

But... again, my heart is with Phantom Thread

Because the happiest two-and-a-half hours I spent in a movie theater this year was watching this. As previously noted, I still haven't seen The Post.  But I would rank the other 8 nominees in this order: 1. Phantom Thread; 2. The Shape of Water; 3. Lady Bird; 4. Call Me By Your Name; 5. Dunkirk; 6. Get Out; 7. Darkest Hour; 8 and a Distant Dead Last. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.  

Overlooked: Mudbound

I guess it's encouraging that this straight-to-Netflix release got any nominations (for Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Song). Oscar voters have been slow to embrace films distributed through home streaming channels, and I suspect that if Mudbound had been a theatrical release, it might have knocked Darkest Hour off the Best Picture roster. The story of two Southern families - one black and poor, one white and poor ( and there's a difference between what poor means for each family) - it's emotionally gripping and  effectively subtle in rendering the details of an ingrained, unconscious racism practiced even by the most well-intentioned characters. There is a particularly horrific sequence late in the film, but it doesn't feel forced or exploitative - only sadly inevitable. It's downbeat but honest, offering no easy solutions or breakthrough moments for any of its characters.  Director Dee Rees does skillful, masterful work; as noted above, she deserved a Best Director nomination.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Seventeen for '17: Not the Best Films of 2017

What follows is not a definitive list of the best films of 2017. How could it be?

It's compiled by a weary part-time cinephile who fits as many movies as she can in between the deadline pressures of her day job, family commitments, and other interests like choral singing, travelling and napping.  It represents the highlights of her moviegoing year - a year in which she ran out of time and/or opportunities to see any of the following critical darlings:  The Florida Project, Wonderstruck, Call Me By Your Name, The Darkest Hour, Mudbound, All the Money in the World, Novitiate and I, Tonya. 

I could have run around from theater to theater this week, working like a woman obsessed to catch up on these films so I could publish a respectable 'year's best' list.  But I've lost interest in respectability. And I simply don't have the energy or motivation to be a 2017 completist.  Like most of my readers, I lead a distracted and fragmented life. I'm not an academic, nor am I a professional critic.  This year I managed to see 96 films - which is a lot, but still only about a half of what a real critic sees in a year. (Rest assured however, I will likely manage to see every film mentioned above before the Oscars on March 4. Some habits die hard.)

More importantly, I find my tastes in film are changing and evolving as of late.  Honestly the very best film I saw all last year was Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1991 classic The Double Life of Veronique. I loved it for its beauty, its haunting musical score, and the transcendent,/radiant/joyous screen presence of Irene Jacob in the title role. Her performance embodied the kind of humanity and wonder I want my 'year's best' list to celebrate.  I'm all done with films that revel in darkness and brutality for shock value or uncomfortable laughs, regardless of how well-crafted they may be.  So don't expect to see mother!, Killing of a Sacred Deer or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on this list. (And yes, I saw all of those.) But don't expect to see a roll call of mindless, escapist pleasures, either. The world we all live in is crazy and violent and scary enough;  I don't want to live in denial of that exactly, but I want to celebrate the art that rises defiantly out of this muck and leads us back to the better angels of our nature.

You'll still see some significant overlap between this list and the year's best lists of many prominent critics. But it remains as personal and idiosyncratic as ever. It is an honest representation of the films  that meant the most to me in 2017 - and ones I believe my readers will love as well.

One other thing: because this cinephile lives in the Chicago area, eligibility for this list is limited to films were first in general release here (whether in theaters or via home streaming) between 1/1/17 and 12/31/17 inclusive. What this means is:
  1. A number of films that are on 2017's awards slates and critic's lists - but which haven't yet opened in Chicago - will be considered for my 2018 list (including The Post, Phantom Thread, Maggie's Game, A Fantastic Woman, Hostiles and Loveless).  By that criteria, this list also excludes two fine films I saw at this year's Chicago International Film Festival that have not yet opened in general release here: In the Fade and God's Own Country)
  2. Conversely, some films that were on 2016 awards slates/critic's lists were considered for my 2017 list (among them Silence, Paterson, Neruda, Hidden Figures, Things to Come, Toni Erdmann).  SPOILER: Some of these made the list!
So here is my "17 for '17 - NOT the best..." list, ranked in ascending order of preference, from 17th best to best....

17. Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened (Lonny Price)

This documentary about the ill-fated 1981 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" would be worth it just for the audition and rehearsal footage, plus its behind-the-scenes insight into the shaping of a flawed but underappreciated musical.  But it is elevated and made resonant by its poignancy. Sondheim and director Harold Prince cast the show entirely with teenagers and very young adults, playing jaded middle-aged showbiz types who age backward into their younger, starry-eyed selves over the course of the play.  The concept was not successful, and the show flopped badly.  Some successful careers were launched (Broadway director Lonny Price, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander), but much of the cast would eventually give up on performing to pursue other careers - some to public acclaim, others in obscurity.  Much like the show it profiles, this film is as much a testament to the way life's realities transmute our youthful hopes and dreams as it is about musical theater.

16. Their Finest (Lone Scherfig)

Every so often, I need a film that is old-fashioned in the best possible way - romantic, funny and sad in just the right proportions. The kind of film you want to watch on a snowy Sunday afternoon, curled up under your favorite quilt with a cup of tea. (There's at least one such film on every one of my 'year's best' lists: Allied last year, Brooklyn in 2015). Their Finest is hardly groundbreaking, but its story of young woman finding her way in Britain's wartime propaganda film industry (and falling in love along the way) is engagingly and affectionately told.  Bill Nighy's supporting turn as a once-celebrated actor seeking one, last great role is just the delicious icing on the teacake.

15. Brad's Status (Mike White)

Ben Stiller's Brad wrestles with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy during a long weekend of college visitations with his son.  Friends from his own college days have largely eclipsed and abandoned him, caught up in their own successful, high-profile careers while Brad toils in the non-profit sector for little money and even less recognition. Here is fresh evidence of what a terrific and nuanced actor Stiller can be. We have access to his internal musings via voiceover, and no honest one among us will deny having struggled with these same kinds of tortured, often ugly and uncharitable thoughts. Writer/director Mike White manages to be both unsparing and compassionate towards his main character, and the finale offers a sweet moment of redemption.

14. Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)

How to explain the conceit at the heart of this film without causing my readers to roll their eyes and move on to the next review?  Anne Hathaway plays a woman who's fast approaching rock bottom; whenever she has a wild, drunken night, a huge Godzilla-esque monster goes on the rampage halfway around the world in Seoul. This isn't coincidental, and the cause-effect relationship is more complex and dramatically satisfying than you'll ever expect. (Hint: monsters can be metaphors!) Even better is the film's welcome inversion of overused romantic comedy tropes when Hathaway returns to her hometown and reconnects with an old boyfriend (Jason Sudeikis). He seems like the sweet, adoring guy she's always needed, but it's so much more complicated than that.  

13. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Griffin Dunne)

Probably no one but Griffin Dunne could have produced so intimate and revelatory a portrait of writer Joan Didion, who happens also to be his own beloved aunt. There's an ease and openness in their filmed conversations, yet they cut right to the heart of Didion's marriage (to writer John Gregory Dunne), motherhood and work - and all the challenges that came with them.  There are just enough passages with Didion reading from her books in voiceover to tantalize you into reading more (exactly what any documentary about a writer should do.)  And the film doesn't back off the grief that fueled Didion's most recent works ("The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights" about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively). It's generous and appreciative without descending into hagiography.

12. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)

I am of two minds regarding British director Ken Loach's approach to this story. On the one hand, he's made a beautiful, compassionate film about the lives of ordinary, working class folks that eschews big emotional moments for quieter, more truthful ones. On the other hand, he's a cranky technophobe with some startlingly retrograde ideas about government social welfare programs and the underpaid, underappreciated people who work in them.  Both sides of Ken Loach are very much on display here, but the film's quiet compassion ultimately triumphs over its sneering disregard for computers and petty bureaucrats.  Dave Johns gives a particularly lovely performance as a man struggling to get either work or aid after he's felled by a heart attack, and Hayley Squires is sweetly sympathetic as the struggling single mother he befriends and tries to help.  There are no happy endings here, only a reminder that every man and woman is entitled to dignity and a helping hand.  That's a sorely needed message in these times.

11. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese wanted to make this film for over 20 years, since he first read the book on which it is based while traveling through Japan.  I'm not sure how it plays to atheists or agnostics, but for people of faith it poses some challenging, important questions about the value of evangelization and martyrdom.  A tale of 16th century Jesuit missionaries attempting to convert Japan and wrestling with the country's unspeakably cruel torture and murder of its Christian converts, it's alternately gorgeous and painful to watch, overwhelming in its scope. What, finally, is the more Christian thing to do - convert the people only to see them viciously killed? Or to give up the fight for the faith and allow them to live in peace?  I watched this on Good Friday; I can't think of a more appropriate time to grapple with that kind of question.  And I won't pretend I have the definitive answer for the situation depicted here - just as the priests played by Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson don't find entirely satisfying resolutions to their own spiritual struggles.

10. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) (Noah Baumbach)

Here's a sentence I absolutely never expected to write: Adam Sandler gives one of they year's best performances - every bit the equal of those turned in by his co-stars: Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel.  (And Dustin Hoffman, too - but I'm probably not allowed to say that, because #timesup for him, right?) Noah Baumbach  is a frequent chronicler of dysfunctional family dynamics, but here he's absolutely perfected his game.  Hoffman plays the self-absorbed father of three adult children by three separate former wives.  Each has a different kind of fractious relationship with their father, indicative of the kind of man he was in each of his marriages.  There are several electrifying scenes of great acting here - the fact that some of them honestly belong to Sandler makes me wonder how much he's been holding back over the years.  In fairness, both P.T. Anderson and James L. Brook have teased some decent work out of Sandler before (in Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, respectively). But after this triumph, he really can't go back to doing something like Grown Ups 3.

9. Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta)

In Beatriz at Dinner, director Arteta and screenwriter Mike White resurrect themes from their HBO series Enlightened, then hone and sharpen them into deadly satirical daggers.  Selma Hayek plays the massage therapist - equal parts radiant Earth Mother and raging nutjob - who becomes an awkward, last-minute addition to a wealthy client's dinner party.  She faces off with John Lithgow (superb as always) playing his ruthless corporate bigwig as an outwardly charming and sensible sparring partner to her earnest, cuckoo-bird do-gooder.  Meanwhile Connie Britton hovers, soothes and attempts to put a good face on every exchange between them, as only a desperate-to-please-everyone hostess can.  Some of the class conflict insights are a bit obvious, and the dinner guest played by Jay Duplass is a bit more of an asshole than was required for any dramatic purposes. But, as was true in Enlightened, even when the battle lines between spirituality and commerce are broadly drawn, the actors raging from behind those lines are positively riveting to watch.

8. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

This film might seem an odd choice for the list, given my preamble about celebrating the good and the noble... but come on, it's fun!  Baby Driver was, in fact, the most fun I had at the movies all year (with the possible exception of Thor: Ragnarok).  I normally hate action films (too loud, too overstimulating), but under Edgar Wright's direction, this had some of the most elegant and coherent action sequences I've seen in years, if ever.  And I'm a sucker for any movie that can perfectly synchronize getaway drives to some insanely rockin' tunes. For pure, exhilarating fun and thrills, nothing matched this one - and I think that's something to celebrate, too.

7. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

There's a sweet simplicity to Paterson that is in direct contrast to just about any movie you've ever seen about a poet.  Adam Driver's Paterson is no tortured, drug-addicted genius, but rather a New Jersey bus driver, living an outwardly unspectacular life while writing some truly lovely poems about it in his spare time.  Director Jarmusch finds the poetry in Paterson's life too, from his delight in his wife's ditzy, dilettantish schemes for self-expression to the small dramas playing out in the neighborhood bar he frequents.  Paterson celebrates the transcendent nature of life's simplest pleasures (a cold beer, a cupcake, new curtains, the thrill of mastering your first song on the guitar), and reminds us that poetry can be a part of everyone's life.

6. Columbus (Kogonada)

It takes place in Columbus, Indiana - which is both a mecca for devotees of modernist architecture and the hometown of vice-president Mike Pence.  The latter fact has nothing to do with the film, but the town's architecture gives the film its soul.  In his directorial debut, Kogonada finds a visual style that showcases and complements the town's architectural treasures. There's an elegance and understated beauty to this film that is oddly calming; it sneaks up on you with an answer to the question that its main characters ponder: Can architecture heal you?  Turns out, it can.  John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson give effectively understated performances as, respectively, a young man grappling with a long-standing estrangement from his critically ill father and a young woman who can't bear to leave her recovering addict mother behind for college. Rory Culkin really nails the role of a nerdy graduate student who awkwardly attempts to court Richardson.  But the lovingly photographed buildings and interiors are Columbus's real stars.

5. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)

Yes, this film has Casey Affleck playing the ghost of his deceased self in a white sheet with two eyeholes like Charlie Brown on Halloween. Silly as that sounds, this haunting (no pun intended) film is actually a profound and moving meditation on grief, offering the highly original theory that the deceased grieve, too. It's poetic and impressionistic, without a strictly linear narrative or much in the way of dialogue, but it's also kind of mesmerizing.  There's an infamous scene in which Rooney Mara, playing Affleck's widow, eats an entire blueberry pie during one, uncomfortably long shot. If you've ever grieved for the sudden loss of someone you loved, you'll recognize the character's desperation to numb her emotional pain by any means available - even by gobbling a whole pie - as completely authentic.

4. BPM (Robin Campillo)

Pedro Almodovar, a judge at the Cannes Festival this year, reportedly wept when BPM was passed over for the Palme D'Or in favor of The Square.  I've no doubt he's broken out in fresh, new tears of grief over its egregious exclusion from the Oscars' shortlist for Best Foreign Film, once again bested by Ruben Ostlund's vastly overrated art-world satire. I saw this at the Chicago International Film Festival in October; see my review here.  This French-language drama about AIDS activists in early '90s Paris remains vividly in my memory for its ravishing, emotionally charged visual images and performances.

3. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

Three are two types of films that Terence Davies does exceptionally well. The first are impressionistic memory films about his boyhood in Liverpool. The others are emotionally charged dramas about passionate or unconventional women out of step with the times in which they live.  In the life story of poet Emily Dickinson, Davies has found his greatest female subject yet, and Cynthia Nixon gives an exceptionally complex and impressive performance in the role.  Behind the period trappings and the florid, sometimes stilted dialog, we can see and feel Dickinson's passionate intensity struggling to channel and express itself within a rigid society and under the specter of her declining health. Nixon doesn't shy away from Dickinson's prickly, cantankerous side, and she brings illuminating conviction to the poet's ambivalence towards men and marriage.  Jennifer Ehle, playing her devoted sister, gives Nixon gentle and generous support. This is an utterly perfect depiction of an artist struggling with an ambition that exceeds her ability to produce, as well as the ways in which her family and familiar domestic routine help her to bear that frustration.

2. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

You could call Lady Bird a coming-of-age story or you call it a mother/daughter drama; either or both is true, but confining it to a neat category would reduce and misrepresent what it achieves.  It's really a story about being human - about being young, unformed, hopeful and figuring life out - while at the same time, it's about the disappointments of adulthood and the anxieties and hopes that parents have for their children. Greta Gerwig imbues her directorial debut with a sweetness and humanity that brought me to tears more than once, each time during scenes that weren't particularly sad - just beautifully realized.  The performances by Soirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf and Tracey Letts are pitch-perfect, sublime.

1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro's gorgeous fantasy film is a fairy-tale for grownups, embracing both the enchantment and the darkness that true fairy tales possess.  Sally Hawkins is a mute cleaning woman at a government laboratory where a South American sea monster is being held and studied for mostly nefarious purposes.  She befriends, then falls in love with the "monster," and Hawkins makes us believe in it all; she gives her character a grit and stubborn emotional urgency that prevent any Amelie-esque, cutsie-poo nonsense from diluting the story's power. The scene where she explains to a friend, via sign language, what the monster's love means to her is possibly the most emotionally intense moment in an entire year's worth of films. The film's dense, imaginative production design and its thematic inspirations (which include Cold War intrigue and classic movie musicals) combine to evoke our terror and wonder.  (Also, there is inter-species sex . Like I said, this fairy tale is for grownups.) The Shape of Water ultimately celebrates love, goodness, tolerance, and the movies themselves, while dazzling us with its gorgeous visuals and heartfelt performances. I'm not sure what else I would ask of a film.