1. The Shape of Water
“Auteur” is a term I don’t casually throw around but it’s the one word that immediately comes to mind after watching “The Shape of Water,” director Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite and dreamy fantasy horror romance. This film is so enchantingly beautiful, so outright magical, that it captivates and commands your attention from its opening seconds until the closing scene. I’m almost as surprised as you that a 1960s period piece about a romance between mute maid Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and a scaly South American sea monster (Doug Jones) is among the very best films of the year.
Elisa works at a top secret research lab, scraping gum off the floors and mopping urine off the walls along with her talkative co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She lives a lonely life of routine that’s set to a timer, from her morning breakfast to a quick and carnal bath to her tiring bus commute, stopping off to visit her neighbor, the aging artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious amphibian man creature (referred to only as “the asset”) is wheeled into her workplace one morning, Elisa watches in horror as he is tortured, chained and beaten by the psychotic G-man in charge, Strickland (Michael Shannon). Overcome with curiosity and sympathy, she strikes up a friendship with the asset using hard boiled eggs, sign language and jazz music as methods of communication (instead of cattle prods and violence). When it becomes apparent that the creature is going to be killed, Elisa devises a plan to break him out of the research facility.
What’s so great about these characters is that they are all people who are invisible to the powerful white male workforce. The sassy African-American cleaning lady, a plain-Jane mute woman, an aging gay artist; all ignored outcasts and underdogs who become moral heroes when called upon. There’s a relevant subtext about how society treats the “other” and the unchecked lack of humanity that exists in the human world. It’s heartbreaking to think that we live in a time where prejudice and hatred have shoved their way back into accepted culture, but intolerance and inhumane treatment aren’t celebrated in del Toro’s tale of acceptance, unity and love.
The performances are all utterly terrific, including an unexpectedly subdued turn from Shannon (an actor known for his tendency to ‘play to the balcony’ through shouting). He manifests an evil yet completely believable villain who grows increasingly unhinged as he realizes a serious threat to his position and perspective. Shannon perfectly expresses the sadistic glee of a cruel, heartless man who fears the misunderstood monster and, when faced with confusion and an incomprehensible test of his worldview, lashes out in the only way he knows how: by setting out to destroy.
Jenkins doesn’t have a very showy role but it’s emotionally satisfying on the deepest of levels, understated and heartbreaking and unforgettable. He’s a loyal friend to the orphaned Elisa, their relationship being the closest thing to family either of them has left. And while I’d love to see Spencer take on a role other than a mouthy best friend, she brings the right amount of empathy and compassion to her character.
That brings us to Hawkins — my god, Hawkins — she emotes so much yet utters nothing, speaking only through body movements, facial expressions and sign language. Her eloquent performance is arguably the best of her career, unparalleled in its quiet and powerful elegance. She goes for broke in a glorious, liberating way that gets deep down to the theme that beats at the very heart of the film: embracing who you are with every ounce of your being.
The beauty and the beast story flips the traditional 1950s sci-fi movie on its head, creating a romantic fairy tale where the iconic scene of a scary creature carrying a girl becomes one of grace instead of horror. The film combines elements from a wide range of classic genres, including film noir, spy thrillers, and musicals. It’s a fable of the burning desire for human connection, of choosing kindness over cruelty and love over fear.
There’s a mesmerizing originality that transcends anything I’ve seen on screen this year, and it’s a magical and deeply moving film with a great humanity and a passionate romanticism. It’s a visual beauty too, with rich greens and blues that often give the sensation of being underwater. Needless to say, it’s gorgeously directed as well.
People often ask me what earns a movie a perfect 5 star rating, to which I respond that “I know it when I see it.” Within the first 15 minutes, I was so swept up in the enchanting romance of it all that I knew I was experiencing something truly special.
“The Shape of Water” is cinematic magic at its finest. Want to see a movie that pulses with an abundance of pure creativity and vision? This is it.
With its narrow and unflinching scope, “Logan” forces the audience to face a world-weary man’s past demons up close and personally. While this poignant farewell chapter may be a swan song for Wolverine, this dark, violent and brutal film is so much more. It’s a somber, slow burn fueled with a painful introspective of a tormented man’s reflection on morality, mortality, and regret. It’s a superhero movie that has nothing to do with being a superhero, and it’s easily one of the best movies of the year.
Hugh Jackman elevates his final outing as the popular X-Men character with a melancholy performance in this exceptionally and unexpectedly thoughtful movie. The year is 2029 and most mutants are now extinct. Logan’s adamantium metal skeleton is slowly killing him, and he’s living his life in physical and psychological agony. It’s hard to see him like this, and it’s even harder to see his old friend and mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) losing his mind and the control of his own powers. The two are hiding out in a remote area of Mexico where Logan drives a limo for cash and finds it necessary to drug Charles in order to keep him sedated (and to prevent him from hurting himself — and others). When a frantic woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) begs Logan for help moving young mute girl Laura (Dafne Keen) across the border to safety from an evil government organization (led by Boyd Holbrook), he learns about the existence of a new generation of mutants and does everything in his power to help grant them safe passage.
Newcomer Keen seamlessly integrates her way into the story with the perfect blend of sympathetic and lethal, her character paving the way for a new generation to continue the X-Men legacy. She gives a strong performance, especially for such a young actor, and I’m quite excited to see more of her in future installments.
The genuine and skillful acting throughout elevates this film from being nothing more than a lurid, cheap exercise in hyper violence. There’s a certain sincerity in the mutual respect between Charles and Logan, a tumultuous yet appreciative relationship between two men with a dynamic chemistry (Jackman and Stewart remain loyal and respectful to their characters, oftentimes with agonizing sorrow when you suddenly realize that this could be the final, mournful end to their bond).
There’s an underlying anguish to Wolverine’s rage, a painful ache that simmers under the stunning action sequences. This isn’t your typical Marvel blockbuster: get ready for gory dismemberings, close-ups of claws piercing skulls, razor sharp instruments popping through eyeballs, and ferocious blows that will make heads roll — literally. (In case you haven’t figured it out, this decidedly adult oriented film is not appropriate for the youngsters. Please leave ’em home for this one).
As a long time fan of the “X-Men” film series, I have to admit that it was a little disconcerting and quite alarming to see Wolverine actually draw blood from his victims. Showing the aftermath and reality of his viciousness through brutal violence was startling and disturbing, especially after all those years of watching the superhero bloodlessly slash and stab his way through countless bad guys. His rage has at last been unleashed, and fans will surely agree that it’s true to the character (and how great is it to finally hear the man continuously dropping the “f” word in the most natural, organic way)?
“Logan” makes the most of its R rating and is sure to unsettle and disturb those seeking a traditional Marvel superhero movie. This isn’t an action packed fluff piece: it’s a deliberate, dark, and thoughtful introspective tale of a downtrodden man who has lost his will to live.
The movie isn’t without its mild flaws, from the beat-you-over-the-head parallels to the classic western “Shane” to an astonishingly choreographed old Wolverine vs. young clone Wolverine fight that is freaking fantastic — until it’s repeated later on. But these are only minor criticisms of a film that’s a bold, daring, and sad-yet-satisfying finale to the saga of Logan.
3. Baby Driver
“Baby Driver” is a movie that centers around two of my favorite things: fast cars and cool tunes. Think of it as a car chase musical for movie geeks. It helps, of course, that the writer and director of this film is Edgar Wright, a true nerd himself. Wright knows what he likes and thus knows what we’ll like, and the end result is one kick-ass of an adrenaline rush.
If you have a pulse on the cinema world, then you’ve heard the outstanding buzz and praise for this film. I’m happy to say it’s absolutely, unequivocally deserved. This is a bold, audacious, intoxicating work of pop culture art, which makes it one of my favorite movies this year.
Ansel Elgort is Baby, a young man of few words who has been coerced into working as a getaway driver for sophisticated crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). After a promise of finally being squared up from a previous job gone wrong, Baby agrees to “one last job” so he’ll be free to live a normal life. Anyone who has seen movies about the criminal underworld knows what inevitably comes next — Baby tries to leave and he can’t, being strong-armed into driving for yet another heist. When he meets charming diner waitress Debora (Lily James), it’s love at first sight, and Baby longs to flee with her “in a car we can’t afford with a plan we don’t have” to search for a better life.
It’s a modern day “Bonnie and Clyde” meets a millennial “True Romance,” an unlikely love story that coexists within a glossy and creative crime thriller. There’s an overall hipster attitude that permeates the story, yet it’s not off-putting at all and manages to feel inclusive. The cast is unbelievably fantastic, with each actor perfect for their role. You can tell how much everyone enjoyed working together on this film because they all have an electrifying chemistry that surges onscreen.
Elgort more than lives up to the role and is the real heart of the film, giving a rousing performance that relies heavily on facial expressions and very few lines of dialogue. This is going to be one of his classic star making roles. Elgort and James are so captivating with their effortless rapport that the second Baby lays eyes on Debora, you instantly want them to end up together. There are some impressive performances from the supporting cast of baddies too, including Spacey as the no-nonsense ringleader, Jon Hamm playing deliciously against type as a leather-clad outlaw, and Jamie Foxx stepping in as a very angry (and trigger happy) criminal. There’s nary a misstep anywhere with this cast.
While this is a male dominated movie, the testosterone fest doesn’t overshadow its strong female characters. James holds her own as a devoted new girlfriend, willing to risk it all (with zero reluctance) for her true love, and Eiza González (Darling) is stunning and disturbing in her take-no-prisoners approach to holding up her end of the bargain in the grand larceny schemes. These are tough, fearless women who are a force to be reckoned with, not simply eye and arm candy for the men.
The soundtrack is as eclectic as the film, blasting tunes that extend across all genres and years that somehow manages to create the perfect earworm accompaniment. The mash-up of great music and great driving creates the perfect melody of classic r&b, indie rock, easy listening…and squealing tires. There’s plenty of both dancing and driving choreography, with some of the most incredible stunt driving ever captured on film — which translates into several of the best car chase sequences of the decade. The exhilarating opening getaway sequence in a drifting red Subaru WRX rivals any of the “Fast and the Furious” movies. If you appreciate fast cars and skilled behind the wheel stunts, you won’t be disappointed.
When this high-speed caper movie reaches its deserved cult status (as it almost instantly does), there are plenty of what will later prove to be iconic moments in this film, from the introduction of Debora and Baby as she walks past him wearing headphones and singing an off-key “b-a-b-y,”to a post-crime coffee run dance through downtown Atlanta.
The film’s perfection lies in its imperfections, and what’s so great about all of this is that nobody is trying too hard to construct a forced relevancy. It just is.
4. Good Time
The sleazy, bleak, and primal low budget crime thriller “Good Time” feels like a cinematic punch in the face. The more I think about this film through my figurative black eye, the more I like it. It’s rare to find a movie so confident and wholly committed to its bleak tone, bursting onto the screen in its opening scene with a disarming, bold swagger. This one is reminiscent of Scorsese’s early works but it never once feels like a cheap rip-off of the auteur.
A nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson (kudos to him for taking on challenging and unglamorous roles like this) is incredible as scumbag Connie, a low level criminal who has industrious and ambitious ideas but is far from smart. After persuading his developmentally challenged brother Nick (a fabulously understated Benny Safdie) to serve as his wing man in a bank robbery, everything goes wrong and his brother is captured and arrested while Connie runs free. The next hour is spent riding shotgun with this despicable man as he tries to free Nick from police custody.
Connie traverses the city streets throughout a sleepless night and grows increasingly trapped in this nightmare. As the evening progresses, he becomes even more desperate and begins mentally or physically harming everyone who crosses his path, from an amusement park security guard (Barkhad Abdi), a teenage girl (Taliah Webster) and her immigrant grandmother, and a newly paroled drug dealer (Buddy Duress) with a soda bottle full of LSD.
Connie isn’t a nice guy. He exploits his brother as a criminal pawn, he verbally abuses his unstable girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he has harsh racist tendencies that subtly manifest in different ways, and he takes advantage of nearly everyone who crosses his path. He’s not really nice to anybody except his brother and a dog, but Pattinson is so incredibly amazing in the role that I actually became disgusted with myself as I inexplicably began rooting for this amoral, predatory man to get away from the cops. This is one of those defining moments for an actor, and Pattinson is unforgettable. Comparisons to a young Al Pacino are inevitable.
This film oozes indie spirit throughout and feels intimately personal, which isn’t a surprise because bothers Benny and Josh Safdie had a hand in just about every aspect of the movie, from writing and directing to editing, sound design, and acting. The film’s phenomenal sound is particularly effective, with a harsh, pressure cooker of an original score to the ear-splitting sound effects that serve as a mirror to the overall discomfort and discord of the script. The story is simple yet filled with so many abrupt narrative jolts that it shocked and surprised me more than a few times.
The only criticism I have for the entire film (besides its irritatingly ironic title) is the epilogue, which I won’t spoil in this review. It has a pronounced tacked-on vibe, an unnecessary piece that the directors should’ve cut but just couldn’t let it go. Yeah, I get what they’re trying to say here, but there’s no sense in beating audiences over the head with it. We’re much smarter than that.
This movie accurately echoes the desperation in last year’s bleak “Hell or High Water,” telling a similarly mesmerizing story of an American man who has nothing to lose and will therefore take anything he can. The grimy urban landscape of New York City manifests itself through intense, textural, dreamlike visuals that feel more like a nightmare. Every scene is alive with a squalid vibrancy and a pulsating tension, yet it’s beautifully done and never showy.
“Good Time” may have a morally repugnant protagonist, an unpleasant narrative, and an unsettling vibe, but it’s also one of the best movies of the year.
5. Lady Bird
Garden variety coming of age films are so prevalent that it’s all the more refreshing when something truly personal and original like “Lady Bird” comes along. The small scale intimacy of the story about a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood in Sacramento feels raw and real, its cozy focus creating a universal anecdote that relives (with bittersweet affection) a part of life that’s filled with constantly fluctuating highs and lows. This is exactly the type of indie filmmaking that we need more of, and the awkwardly charming Greta Gerwig has hit a home run with her equally awkwardly charming directorial debut.
The film gives an unromantic glimpse into middle class life in 2002, where we meet Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), her recently laid off and depressed dad (Tracy Letts), and her hardworking, steadfast mom (Laurie Metcalf). The film is perfectly cast, with Ronan and Metcalf being the real standouts (the two are at their best when pushed into blow-up clashes between mother and daughter, an emotional tug of war between a teen impatient to break away from a hometown that’s beneath her and a mother so desperately hanging on that she’s unable to express her love and disappointment). It’s apparent the actors felt emotionally connected to the material while on set, and their performances bring a biting honesty and empathy to the family dynamics of Gerwig’s screenplay.
Gerwig has said the film is semi-autobiographical and she writes with an authentic voice, taking great care with her story (a story told with the hindsight of being a grown up). She brings a confident wisdom, an earnest insight, and a fresh voice through a witty and bright script that mirrors her true-to-life, free spirited personality. It’s as if the film exists within its own glowing aura. With Gerwig at the helm, the film has a particular hipster quirkiness written all over it, yet its sunny disposition and sharp humor is abundant with sincerity and avoids falling into the trap of being overly cynical or jaded.
The film is so observant that I could totally and wholly relate to our adolescent heroine through a realism that instantly transported me to the past. While I grew up in a different decade, some of the situations seemed like actual pages ripped out of my own high school experience. There are plenty of moments in a teenage girl’s life where the trivial becomes momentous and the momentous becomes devastating, and they are presented here with a poignant and compassionate vibrancy that I’ve rarely seen so accurately captured on film.
6. Blade Runner 2049
I’m totally geeking out over “Blade Runner 2049,” one of those ‘you either love it or hate it’ science fiction films. I love art, I love movies, and I consider films an important form of aesthetic visual expression, and this one features the most disturbingly gorgeous, darkly lush, effective dystopian cinematography since 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’s filled with an unparalleled artistry and is among one of the best looking movies ever to come out of Hollywood.
The story takes place thirty years after the events of the first film, with new blade runner and LAPD officer K (Ryan Gosling) hunting rogue replicants. Eventually he unearths a secret that leads him on a quest to find Deckard (Harrison Ford), in what becomes a gradual meditation on the loss of our humanity. The film’s nearly three hour run time is undeniably long for most audiences but it never feels sluggish or bloated. The story takes its time and does what a good sequel should: it builds upon the original story. This marks a satisfying return for fans of Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 film, yet the new plot will not alienate newcomers.
Before I get into the visuals (which indisputably form the film’s overall strength), it’s important to recognize the hallucinatory and airy electronic-tinged original score from collaborators Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, the flawless special effects and costumes, the steady and confident hand of uber talented director Denis Villeneuve, and the awards-worthy performances from both Ford and Gosling (which are among the very best of each man’s career). Gosling in particular is at the top of his game, bringing a painful nuance to a tortured, brooding, and lonely soul. He’s been served well by portraying quietly brutalized characters like this (see “Drive” and “Only God Forgives”), and his performance here is a true knockout.
Although the film hits a couple of speed bumps towards the end by relying on some clichéd film crutches like a seemingly endless fist fight and a classic “damsel in distress” scenario with a man handcuffed in dangerously fast rising water, the eye-popping visual splendor will take your breath away. I actually had to stop myself from audibly gasping at this complex, fully realized vision of the future.
First, if cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner don’t sweep this year’s awards season for their magnificent work on this film, then there is no justice in Hollywood. The duo orchestrate scene after scene of haunting, dazzling images that are instantly iconic, from a neon wasteland to a dystopian future filled with rainy, murky skies. It’s first-rate intellectual and artistic sci-fi noir and even if you know nothing about the craft of cinematography, you’ll no doubt appreciate the handsome lighting, ingenious framing, and impeccable effects. ‘Astonishing’ is the most appropriate descriptor that immediately comes to mind.
This is high art, pure and simple, from an accomplished group of artists who are working at the top of their game. This one’s a real beauty and should be required viewing for everyone who has a passion for the language of cinema.
7. The Florida Project
The fiercely independent “The Florida Project” seems like the most unlikely of places to begin a heartbreaking journey of jumbled emotions. Throughout this two hour visual verite feast, you’ll be hit with moments of joy and sadness, inspiration and despondency, and a cinematic romanticism so goddamn riveting that you just can’t tear yourself away.
The film follows mischievous Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her immature and irresponsible mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) over the course of a sweltering Florida summer. The two call the candy-colored highway motel The Magic Castle their home (for $35 a night). Despite her bleak surroundings and life of poverty, Moonee celebrates every day unaware with a fervor for life, although her untamed wild streak often lands her in trouble with the stern yet compassionate motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Moonee goes on imaginative adventures with her playmates (Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera) in tow, traversing the urban tourist jungle of Orlando where she exists, nearly invisible, alongside manufactured Disney-fied happiness.
The film draws inspiration from independent films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “American Honey,” with director Sean Baker‘s camera quietly observing and refraining from telling us what to think or feel or even telling us where to look. We are a casual observer, often seeing the world from the point of view of six year old Moonee but with the astuteness of an adult’s eye. We watch as confused and unhappy tourists come and go, as Bobby struggles to keep the property up to the bare minimum standards, as the motel’s fly-by-night residents pack up and leave for good, as random perverts stop by to harass the children — or worse. The limited perspective is effective, like when you finally realize why Baker is giving us so many shots of the young child in a bathtub.
This is fully experiential filmmaking that confronts our discomfort by thrusting us straight into the heart of a forgotten segment of America that many of us would like to ignore. These are the people, the transient families, that most of us don’t want to see; they’re the folks that inspire us to avert our eyes as we pass by. This film forces us to look at them, to take notice, to care.
As with Baker’s previous film “Tangerine” (which was remarkably shot entirely on an iPhone), the film is beautifully crafted, a sweeping, fluid achievement that cements Baker’s role as a cinematic artist. This time around he’s fortunate to be working with a much better camera but his eye for creative framing and intricate attention to detail remains unchanged. He’s tuned in to the wonder and innocence of childhood, bringing a pure and unbridled view of the world to his style (the film often darts back and forth to mirror the short attention span of a pack of feral kids, for instance). You can say the film is a contradiction of sorts, an emotionally devastating yet handsomely polished look at poverty and neglect among those living on the outskirts of accepted society.
This is a beautiful and heartbreaking exploration of modern life in America, a realistic peek at poverty that is not romanticized nor glamorized. The sad truth is that people really do live this way. Children are grossly unsupervised and single parents are doing the best they can to make ends meet. Halley is unquestionably an unaccountable and unfit mother and Moonee is a completely untamed, out of control little girl. But how can Moonee ever learn right from wrong when she has so little parental involvement in her life?
Bobby does what he can to be a caretaker to both the property and to his residents. I can’t stress enough that this is a career best performance from Dafoe. His role as an empathetic motel manager / surrogate parent is touching and understated in a way that deeply affected me. Dafoe is so good — so good — that here’s hoping he will sweep the supporting acting categories at every single awards ceremony this year.
On the opposite spectrum, it’s important to note that Baker loves to cast unknowns in his films — a decision that sometimes means their acting skills leave a lot to be desired. There’s some obvious non-acting from Vinaite, but it only serves to reinforce her authenticity (she was discovered on Instagram). Prince, who at times comes across as irritating and annoying, is going to be the breakout star of this one.
Now let’s talk about that divisive ending.
I’ll avoid any overt spoilers, but I think the ending hits it out of the park. The finale perfectly captures the dreamlike manifestation of a child’s imagination and blind optimism in the face of insignificance. Since the film is often seen through the eyes of a 6 year old poverty-stricken little girl, the finale not only makes perfect sense, but it’s one of the most memorable of the year.
This is a film about childhood and youthful optimism, a film about making the most of what little you have in life. Moonee is blissfully unaware about how dire her situation actually is until the film’s final minutes. And where can a child to go escape when reality finally smacks them in the face? An imaginary playland of optimism and hope.
8. Brigsby Bear
It’s a scary time in our world, one that’s suddenly filled with so much uncertainty and negativity that sometimes the stress and worry will drive you to tears — and that’s why the utterly sweet “Brigsby Bear” is just what the cinematic doctor ordered. Revealing too much of the plotline will greatly diminish the film’s best surprises, as this is a movie that is best discovered by viewing it with very little background information. This is a sincere film that’s stuffed with kindhearted humor and a feel good message of love and acceptance, and it’s my favorite movie to come out of Sundance this year.
“Brigsby Bear” tells the story of 25 year old James (Kyle Mooney), a man who has lived his entire life in a secluded bunker with a overprotective parents (including an inspired, albeit brief, performance by Mark Hamill). James has little entertainment except for an extensive VHS tape library of the oddly cult-like Brigsby Bear television show.
Brigsby, a giant plush talking bear, teaches life lessons like “curiosity is an unnatural emotion” and advance mathematic skills. The film slowly reveals the truth about where James lives (Is it a cult? The future? The past? A prison?), and a chain of events leads to his escape into the real world (in this case, it’s Utah). This is when the film becomes a quirky fish out of water story with enjoyable instances of severe culture shock as James tries to adapt to the scary new world around him.
When he realizes that he’s the only person in the world who has ever seen the Brigsby Bear t.v. show, James decides that he wants to make a movie adaptation of the series. This is when the movie really finds its footing and becomes an inspiring valentine to the joy of creating art, and it’s a message that creative types and film lovers everywhere will adore. James enlists the help of sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins) and his new friend Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to make the movie, as well as a friendly police detective (Greg Kinnear, happily returning to his indie roots and is very funny here) who fancies himself a serious Shakespearean thespian. Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Claire Danes round out the cast.
Director Dave McCary creates a heartfelt, offbeat story of love and finding acceptance for who you truly are, an eccentric celebration of weirdness and the meaningful experience of sharing your art with others. There’s some darkness to the story (it touches on a few heavy themes like treatment for mental illness and isolation), but it’s mostly filled with a sweet sincerity that never rings false. I could see this film easily becoming a quirky cult classic a’la “Napoleon Dynamite.” As one character says, this movie is “dope as sh#t.”
9. Personal Shopper
“Personal Shopper” is an unnerving thriller, a troubling mystery, and a very disturbing haunted tale that nearly defies classification. This is a dark film that explores human solitude and the unspoken, deep desires that simmer inside us and create a tormented inner turmoil. It’s a strange yet effective twist on the classic ghost story, a genuinely creepy and impressive film that’s guaranteed to be unforgettable.
Maureen (Kristen Stewart) spends her days doing a job she hates: picking out expensive designer outfits and extravagant jewelry for her famous supermodel boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten). She is trapped in the superficial, shallow world of fame and fashion yet longs for spirituality inside herself — and from the beyond. Her twin brother Lewis was a medium and before his death, the two made a pact to come back as a ghost and attempt to make contact from the afterlife. For three months Maureen has been trying to seek out signs from her brother but has yet to receive any clear signal. Desperate for closure, she refuses to leave Paris until she communicates with him. Maureen is much like a ghost herself, trapped in a life limbo and obsessed with her steadfast commitment to communicating with her dead twin.
Eventually Maureen starts to experience some strange things, from mysterious running water in her brother’s abandoned house to flickering lights and slamming doors. Things turn even more sinister and increasingly aggressive when she starts to find scratches on the walls and progressively threatening text messages from an unknown person. Is this simply Maureen’s grief taking its toll by playing tricks with her mind? Is it a cruel hoax from a malicious acquaintance? Is Lewis really trying to contact her from the other side? (Or even worse, has she mistakenly stirred up an evil spirit that’s not her brother)? The film leaves you guessing the answers to the creepy mystery in a way that’s extraordinarily ominous and intensely suspenseful. This movie scared the bejeezus out of me, especially when Maureen’s own natural curiosity eventually turns to sheer terror.
This film marks another truly incredible turn from Stewart, who gives a performance full of deep sadness and furious intensity. She keeps up her track record as one of the greatest actors working today. This is her second collaboration with French director Olivier Assayas (the first being “Clouds of Sils Maria” in 2014), and they are proving to be a wonderful pair.
Assayas’ direction is purposefully gradual and deliberate, with a slowly unfolding setup that lends a chilling atmospheric creepiness. He manages to turn simple things like a flashing light, a text message, and an empty elevator into the most suspenseful, terror-filled things ever.
The film can be jarring in both its shifting tone and unconventional style, a strange mix of several genres that’s packed with some truly bizarre directorial choices. For instance: there are awkward fadeouts which at first annoyed me but then I could clearly see they were the perfect visual effect for the detached story.
The ending is a whopper and is one that you’ll absolutely want to discuss with anyone who has seen the film. It’s open to interpretation in a way that gives great meaning to the story, no matter what you make of it. This is a memorable work of art that’s genuinely scary, boldly original, daring, and smart. I really loved it, and it’s not a movie I’ll forget (or shake) anytime soon.
10. Patti Cake$
That “Patti Cake$” is the first feature film of writer / director Geremy Jasper bodes very well for his future as a serious indie filmmaker. This coming of age story about a big girl with even bigger dreams has a distinct, visionary voice that makes it as meaningful as it is memorable.
Danielle Macdonald is Patti, an underprivileged, overweight young woman who longs for a better life and a way out of her gritty blue collar New Jersey town. Patti dreams of becoming a rap star, spending her very little time between juggling multiple jobs scribbling lyrics in her notebooks and spitting rhymes with the locals. She lives with her ailing grandma (Cathy Moriarty, a real hoot here) and her man-juggling mother Barb (Bridget Everett) who gave up rock star dreams of her own when she became pregnant as a teenager.
Patti’s loyal best friend Jheri (the utterly charismatic and charming Siddharth Dhananjay) provides backup to her freestyle rap songs, and the pair find unlikely solidarity and inspiration in the reclusive homeless musician Bastard the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). The rag-tag group of truly talented misfits band together to create original music, forming the rap group PB&J.
This is a classic underdog story that’s actually a little unpredictable. It sticks to the formula of its origins, yet the story so genuinely eccentric that it creates a fresh spin on the classic genre. The film is extremely rough around the edges, but it’s this roughness that gives it a powerful authenticity. The cast of unknowns give impressive, convincing performances, and the theme of self-expression through music is realized with sharp-tongued, funny, and very raw original rap tracks. (You’re going to want to buy the soundtrack to this one).
There are a couple of stumbles, mostly due to some forced sentimentality surrounding Barb and Patti’s mother/daughter relationship, but it doesn’t slow the film down for long. Instead, the raw energy of the movie takes over. “Patti Cake$” celebrates artistic determination and the joy that derives from chasing your dream while never failing to march to your own beat, but it also is an unexpected ode to entrepreneurship. Work hard and do what you love, even if you never realize any rewards.
LOUISA’S BEST MOVIES OF 2017: HONORABLE MENTIONS
These fantastic movies came very close to making the list of my Top 10 Best of the year:
11. American Made
There’s an intoxicating energy to this unbelievable story, as director Doug Liman plays fast and loose with the actual facts and events. Read the full review.
12. The Greatest Showman
The film is flashy in all the right ways, its dreamy and dazzling costumes punctuated with spirited and elaborate staging and set pieces. Read the full review.
In a crowded sea of male-dominated Hollywood films and paper-thin female characters, little independent gems like “Landline” generate even more of an electrifying spark. Read the full review.
14. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
If anything, the film serves as a reminder of why Frances McDormand should be getting more big screen roles. Read the full review.
15. A Ghost Story
This is a sad, haunting film that has affected me like no other this year — and that’s the sign of something truly special. Read the full review.
16. The Disaster Artist
“The Disaster Artist” is a good movie about a bad cult classic that embodies the essence of Hollywood: dream big, stumble spectacularly, but never let your failures define you. Read the full review.
This family-friendly drama is sweet, smart, funny, and charming, the cinematic equivalent of a snuggly, cozy sweater. Read the full review.
18. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is one of the biggest and best surprises of the year, and it’s everything a big-budget popcorn movie should aspire to be. Read the full review.
19. The Hero
It’s a theme that’s been done hundreds of times before, but somehow this story manages to feel fresh. Read the full review.
20. T2 Trainspotting
“T2” is the perfect companion to its predecessor, providing a meaningful epilogue and closing chapter to the original film. Read the full review.