As dismayed as I am with how long this took, I’m still really fucking proud I finished this. I hope that next year I’ll be able to do this at a much quicker rate, and I’m definitely excited to get back to reviewing new and old films, much as I loved reminiscing on these films. And I’m very, very excited to present this lineup. Very excited indeed.
- Raising Bertie – I’m deeply in awe of the documentaries I saw this year that were able to fuel themselves on righteous outright, disappointment, hope, tightly-coiled emotion, and almost solely utilizing handheld photography to bring us closer to the experiences of these characters without shirking on the stories they’re telling, personalizing them while still indicting largely systematic assaults that have made these stories so necessary and powerful. And as powerfully as those filmmaking techniques and storytelling tones suited the film below this one on my list, it takes nothing away from my love of them that Raising Bertie’s aura of compassion and unobtrusively insightful formal chops stands as an even greater accomplishment to me. Byrne guides the film with a steady hand, refusing to force our responses towards any part of Bertie’s community even as she’s able to evoke who these people so fully and unselfconsciously on camera. The young boys growing into young men before our eyes are filmed in strokes that give us a genuine understanding of who they are their thought processes without neglecting the forces in their town that have led them down these paths or emphasizing those forces over their own choices, a generosity and open-eyed clarity Byrne extends to the rest of the community, especially the women. Mise-en-scene is beautifully shot and carefully layered in tandem with ambient sounds, a light yet affecting score, and voice-over from the people of Bertie that’s able to suggest what’s universal and what’s specific about the stories we’re watching without privileging one or the other. Even if the filmmaking is more noticeable just by way of not exclusively being shot via handheld camera – Byrne is especially adept at filming in cars – it fully serves the story, never violating the carefully cultivated sense of naturalism and reality that the film has so beautifully put forward. It takes a steady, intelligent film to refuse to dramatize such events like the ending of the program it was originally meant to cover, the restoration of that program, evolving romantic and familial relationships, difficulty with non-Hive formal education, the sheer fact of The Hive standing virtually alone as an outpost for the young people of Bertie while the county is overpopulated with prisons, and all the ways that these people do and don’t wind up becoming who they sought out to be when The Hive was still going, all without disrupting the warmth of the overall approach and still dig out potent observations. Raising Bertie is the kind of film that manages to be mournful and joyous and smart amidst completely mundane people and activities without being pretentious about any one of those aspects of itself, creating the most illuminating portrait of life as lived that 2017 has graced us with.
- Get Out – If mother! plays as stuffed to the gills with tones and ideas for its audience to confront, Get Out’s dissection of how black people’s experiences and bodies are co-opted by white liberal racism is so bare bones and direct it winds up being even more confrontational to sit through. “Gentrification by way of Ira Levin” is still one of my favorite things I’ve written about any film this year, and it’s incredible that such a visibly low-budget film has been able to retain its power in basically every department without compromising its ideas one bit. Even if I very so slightly craved for a bigger budget, Peele’s mastery of technique and deft collaboration with a cadre of artists who are 100% behind his vision is more than enough to make up for this tiniest of quibbles. The film is deceptively clever with the images it cultivates, contextualizing each moment so effectively that the moments where the camera focuses on pointed or unsettling imagery it effortlessly pops. A pitch-perfect sound mix and score aid and abet these images, and working in wonderful synchronicity with the film’s performers, all of whom are perfectly keyed in with Peele’s tones of rage and satire and fear while creating their own distinct presences without turning on their characters. Even as the film dexterously guides our responses to what we’re watching, Get Out finds the right tone between playing the film semi-straight amidst so many generic conventions without editorializing on what we’re watching or working up any sympathy for its white characters even as it teases whether or not they’re “just” blithely unaware racists or genuinely malicious. No film has hit me more directly in my gut every time I’ve watched, coming across as spontaneous and surprising even as I’ve caught on the foreshadowing and grown even more appreciative of how the film barely bothers hiding the dangers lurking for Chris inside the Armitage house. The decision to target left-wing racism and appropriation is a bolder choice of target than many takedowns of right-wing racism, with Peele striking his targets with deadly accuracy while simultaneously defying stereotypes about how white women are able to take the reins and operate differently than white men when it comes to racist impulses, targeting the antiquated status of white pride while connecting the body horror spectacle we witness to an updated form of slavery. From the bold variation of tones and genres to the bracing politics that never, ever waver or soften, Get Out proves itself to be a detailed essay and an unforgettable experience, one that I’ve been happy to pour over and contemplate ever since I saw it.
- mother! – I can already hear Tommy’s sigh of disdain, see him give me the Look that accompanies those sighs, when he sees how high this film is ranked. Sure, we’re able to find a middle ground on some of the film’s individual merits – the killer sound design and Michelle Pfeiffer’s wicked supporting turn in particular – but he considers the whole too odious to consider it a remotely good movie. There are films I love more and less than mother! that I’d be more galvanized to strike up a defense for, and as much I have defended the film to the boyfriend in the past, this is definitely a project where I can understand any reaction to it, from the virulent and passionate supporters all the way to the virulent and passionate dissidents. And how could you not have a strong reaction to it? mother! seems completely designed to provoke overwhelming responses from its viewers, hitting on its ideas with a cartoon-sized clown mallet and smashing so many other buttons simultaneously that everything becomes wrapped up in everything else, whether it meant for that to happen or not. My own reactions to it feed into this theory pretty well, evolving from Tommy’s outraged response to something more actively admirable and impressed to putting it all the way at number three on my top ten list. This reaction feels paralleled in my response to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, specifying her characterization while hitting the requisite notes of the script and embodying an audience surrogate. Or is she, since it is The Poet’s adoring audience that is depicted as the most noxious impediment to her happiness? mother! is a viciously unforgiving film, recuperated by the commitment of its artists and the provocative forcefulness behind its actions and the ideas that motivate them, sticking by Mother’s side even as the whole world is turned against her. This is a film that doesn’t feel remotely safe, in concept or execution, and I admire the gutsiness in how it escalates its ideas to such a nightmarish key while finding a way to make its story as plausible and off-kilter as it needs to be, and without running all the way into self-parody. Everything feels as though it’s organically sprung to life without forgoing the tone of a horrible dream, it’s ideas so impactful that it commands your attention even as it dares you to view them from more damning perspectives than you thought it could reach.
- Last Men in Aleppo – Admittedly, I don’t see Feras Fayyad’s direction as shaping his film to the degree that other nonfiction and fiction directors I’ve mentioned have done for their pictures, but just as the roughness of Whose Streets?’sfootage serves its aesthetic and political goals, I think Last Men in Aleppo benefits immensely from this visual strategy. The camera has a looseness to it that comes across in POV and lack of distance as though we’re standing right next to these men and watching them do what they do without being able to participate, stranding us between compatriot and observer. Focused as the film is on a handful of central figures, the people in their lives in and out of the White Helmets come across as distinct individuals. We’re able to see the value that Aleppo still possesses and still stands for to those who choose to live in it and defend it, even as the attacks on the city become bigger and deadlier. Fayyad’s style of shooting doesn’t change when his camera turns to bombing sites, and the continued intimacy that he shares with the men extending to the rubble and fire and dead bodies creates an uneasy tension between the idea that these atrocities could be normalized for these men even as every site has its own particular gut-churning horror. Then again, where else are they really able to go, with the nearest feasible refugee station akin to waiting in purgatory? What can they do except make Aleppo as liveable a location as possible, even as the concept of what they can possibly do to survive in this city becomes less and less tangible. Last Men in Aleppo is able to convey all of this with astonishing levels of directness without simplifying its complexities, not just on the massive geopolitical scale that’s responsible for the bombings but how the White Helmets respond to them, why they decided to do so in the first place, what’s making each one consider if they should leave while treating those who wonder about taking their families and running with the same insightfulness as those who don’t. It honors these men without denying their complexities or stepping into hagiography, dutifully placing us into their shoes and their heads to insightful, scary, and profound effect.
- Good Time – Oh god damn is it a good time. I still remember the anticipation of stepping into a mostly empty, decently sized theater house, and being utterly captivated by the film from the moment it started all the way to its finish, a deeply moving and completely unexpected finale as the film basically bookends itself with scenes of Nicky Nikas getting some much-needed therapy. Those may also be the slowest of Good Time’s sequences, cultivating an unusual brand of anxiety as a hard-scrapped and withdrawn man gets closer to a breakthrough than he’s ever gotten before. Both scenes play as disorienting in different ways, the first time because of Nick’s tetchiness and our unfamiliarity with his therapist. The second time, after seeing the first session aborted by Nicky’s brother, and after seeing the chaotic and destructive trajectory that Connie follows in the name of a love for his brother that is so selfishly destructive we either believe it totally or think it’s a crock of shit, the temerity comes because this might be the first time Nicky is able to take a step forward without his brother’s corrosive influence. Devoid as these sequences are of some of Good Time’s more overtly virtuosic techniques, it still cuts to the quick about the vile hold of people like Connie and the gratification of being freed from them, even as Nicky also mourns the loss of his brother. Look at how much trouble Connie caused for so many people in the name of love for a brother whose mental disability he can’t even acknowledge, and how disastrously short he comes up in every respect on his mission. Look at the tiny scrap of progress Nicky is able to make just by Connie stepping out of the way and letting Nicky admit on his own how horrible their relationship actually is. Good Time is able to conclude with a melancholic ode to Connie and Nick’s relationship while still maintaining a damning lense on Connie as a stand-in for a kind of white, masculine privilege that has no responsibility beyond total moral rot of itself and all who come in contact with it. Good Time doesn’t treat anything about its characters and their situations as a given, finding genuine social critique from its grotty lead while managing to create a stunningly stylized yet dangerously docu-realist yarn about a criminal spiraling out of control in a city he represents as much as he ruins.
- Starless Dreams & The Work – What a fascinating double feature these two would be, humanistic portraits of prisoners separated by gender, country, cultural and religious customs, generation, their interactivity with the filmmaker, the outside world, and the possibility that they can re-enter it. Both films are startlingly intimate with their subjects, with the men of The Work acting as though the camera isn’t even there and the girls of Starless Dreams more than willing to be interviewed by the director, unable and unwilling to ignore it as grownups can. Still, I think the richest thru-line between the two films is how they both trace the crimes and travails of the people in their prisons to the societal structures that have imposed how these people must act and be treated based on their gender, and how those expectations and prejudices and repressions have so thoroughly warped everyone we see. Toxic masculinity becomes a demon that must be exorcised in The Work, as Folsam’s most senior members of its therapy program try to help the men involved reckon with their illnesses so that they may either function even a little bit better behind bars or take a step to being better men once they leave the program. The Work is optimistic about what re-entering society will bring for the men who are able to, creating the impression of a happy ending and strongly implying that these men are on the road to recovery while stressing that this will take years of dedicated work and therapy. Meanwhile, the lively community that the young girls inside the all-female Iran facility feels increasingly valuable as they reveal the crimes that they’ve committed and the sentences they’ve received for their actions, all of them painfully aware that those sentences are even more severe that they would’ve been specifically because they’re girls. Starless Dreams is less optimistic about what leaving will do for the girls who go and the ones who’re forced to stay, evoking the emptiness that one girl finally going home brings on her friends whether the girl was happy to return or not. If my own write-up seems determined to dichotomize the two films further into one bleak and one sunny, let my previous reviews remind you that what’s just as admirable about both films is how moving both of them are while leaving plenty of room for playfulness and abject sorrow and anger and so many other emotions. All of this working to emphasis the multifaceted humanity in each and every person we meet. Jairus McLeary and Mehdrad Oskouei have both created complicated, rewarding, and haunting experiences following unlikely communities that stick with you long after the film has ended.
- Félicité – Odd how for all that I’ve endorsed an emphasized about Félicité – its uniqueness of design and execution, of combining the heady and the opaque within a wholly individual tone – and after doing so across three separate ballot entries, I worry that I may be repeating myself in how I praise this film. In truth, I fear that my unwillingness to get into too many details about the film’s slower, less plotty, equally contemplative and even more fragmented second half may compromise the feeling of discovery that I felt when watching the film, though this could also just relate to my difficulty in how to describe these moments. I’ve spent more than enough time on the film’s first half, so perhaps I should trust that some tantalizing descriptions of the second hour would be welcome and inviting without spoiling the experience of it. Especially since the back half is so much about these characters feeling their ways through unexpected relationships with each other and with themselves. You feel Félicité when you watch it, feel it right in your head as it shapeshifts so fluidly and organically while keeping a firm hold on every idea about itself that it’s engaged with. No film this year has so fully been able to reimagine itself with the consistency that Félicité achieved, creating distinct atmospheres so that each part of itself can be engaged with from a new angle, with Alain Gomis’s filmmaking taking on different tempos and moods with every shift of his story. Gomis finds a way to inhabit a naturalistic world for the characters to exist in while still finding plenty of room for stylistic flourishes, detailing a story of how difficult it is for a proud, free-spirited, lower-class woman to simply exist in Senegal, especially in a moment of crisis, and how such a woman must rebuild herself after said crisis has technically passed and must deal with the ramification of how it pans out. Even as the film is able to speed up and slow down, Félicitéalways feels as though it’s unspooling at the very moment you’re watching it, even after multiple viewings. Sure, it’s not at the top of this list, but the sheer difficulty of the endless number of tasks it imposes on itself and spectacularly aces ensure that by any measure of quality and originality, there’s absolutely no film like Félicité, in this year or any year before it.
- The Ornithologist – What exactly is the proper response when a film advertised for its formal and thematic weirdness is turns out be exactly as odd, if not odder than you expected it to be? Well, if that weirdness if layered with so many tones and rigorously applied technical savvy, all contributing towards a host of richly provocative ideas one wouldn’t expect to be wrestling with each other, a plausible response might be to do what I did, and ruminate for a good while on what the hell The Ornithologist even is before diving in for a second time. Say what you will about my claim that Pink Flamingos is the single film that most helps me understand what The Ornithologist is, but I see a real connection between taboo eroticisms, degradation, and an offbeat sense of humor infused in a truly strange plot, saved from self-parody or nonsensically spouting bullshit through the convictions of their unpretentious directors in shaping their own material. Where Waters is fundamentally interested in alchemizing trash into art, opting for blunt explicitness at all times, João Pedro Rodrigues approaches his film from an even more unusual crossroad where Catholocism, spiritualism, homosexuality, and a profound loss of self intersect, and are shot like a nature documentary even as the narrative gets increasingly surreal. Thank God that Rodrigues’ direction balances all of these ideas with one foot planted firmly in the air and the other on the ground, earnestly meditating on the implications of Fernando’s journey with a self-awareness and comedic sensibility that dodges any kind of self-importance, never pretending that this isn’t a fundamentally bonkers story we’re watching. Paul Hamy’s enticingly sculpted physicality, quietly morose face, and deep sense of unmoored isolation – one that only grows stronger as the film continues – provides a similar confluence of the film’s ideas that Rodrigues is able to utilize as Fernando observes or engages with increasingly bizarre one-off encounters with the inhabitants of this strange forest. Christian and pagan iconography is blasphemously infused with the sexually explicit, the winkingly funny, the intriguingly humiliated, and the genuinely frightening as Fernando’s transformation into the very best version of himself he can be achieves two startling conclusions, one in the forest and one out of it. As stuffed with tones and moods and events as The Ornithologist may be, Rodrigues coalesces all of this into an utterly hypnotic and coherent experience, enticing you with questions that only grow richer as the film progresses, and even more so if you watch it again.
- Whose Streets? – One of many indelible documentaries I saw this year, and the only one on this list I saw for my documentary film class. God bless Erica Levin, who assigned the class this screening early in our fall semester and engaged with us in a truly wonderful discussion about the film. She also said what might’ve been my favorite comment that I can remember, about how Whose Streets? shows the physical and personal exhaustion of activism in a way she hadn’t seen before. I’d never seen anything like this before either, not just because of my limited exposure to documentaries but also because I’d never witnessed such a power statement on behalf of Black Lives Matter beyond internet discourse, let alone in a venue as public as a movie theater, and later a classroom. The whole audience was electrically captivated by and totally in sync with the film’s sympathies from the first shot, and the manifestation of that sympathy as mocking laughter at footage of Darren Wilson saying that it simply isn’t possible to be racist and a cop remains the most unexpected audience reaction I’ve ever seen. Exhaustion, urgency, and a sense of pissed-off righteousness palpably flows through the film at all times. The variant quality of the footage assembled by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davies, expertly edited by Christopher McNabb, greatly benefits from this, both in how it’s shaped by the above trio and in the sense of actually watching a grassroots organization grow in might from a number of recurring and one-off perspectives, such that you feel how any one point of view is contributing to the unified goals of the whole in its own distinct way. This also contributes to the awareness of how costly it is for individual protesters to go up against tear gas, rubber bullets, “inexplicable” arrests and evictions, and disappointment after disappoint in your mission while still persevering against the world, an awareness magnified by how fully the film works to let us know who Brittany and Alexis and David are without sentimentalizing them. The presence of their home lives, of their families and responsibilities outside of organized peaceful demonstrations against systematic racism, is an invaluable contribution to rounding out the film that gives the members a straightforward chance to explain their philosophies unlike any typically afforded to them by mainstream media coverage, an opportunity the film frequently reminds us of. An act of advocacy in every way a documentary can possibly be, not just showing a tragedy but the work already being done to try and rectify that tragedy, the effort behind that work, and demanding participation.
- Atomic Blonde – You wouldn’t believe how much convincing I had to do to get myself to hand over Atomic Blonde the slot it deserved. I spent the most time waffling between The Salesman and A Woman’s Life, to say nothing of the other films I’ve regarded as equal to them whether or not they had the same grade. But then I remember how exciting it was to watch in the theater with Tommy, to play it for my roommates and delight in it and their reactions to it (impressed but too stoned to really follow along), and to replay it for myself. Can you believe its power hasn’t diminished a drop translated from the movie screen all the way to my laptop? What Atomic Blonde has over the other films that could’ve rightly made a claim to this slot – and had it for a long while – was that when it came down to it, my returns to The Salesman and A Woman’s Life constituted a chance to examine my own responses to it more than to go back and actually watch those films again, whereas all I can do, all I want to do when I put on Atomic Blonde is to revel in its space and enjoy the fuck out of it. David Leitch and his collaborators have cooked up a deliciously stylish graphic novel adaptation that manages to fully translate that idiom through unabashedly cinematic technique better than any bloated megafranchise multiverse or Sin City-esque experiment that has no legitimate ideas about its source material beyond fetishistically recreating every page onscreen. It also balances plenty of risky and dangerous wires to walk on: political and geographical contextualization that doubles as pop art recreations of those events; fight scenes that are vicious and coherent and utterly thrilling without letting you forget the stakes of so many entities trying to kill each other, and who they represent while doing so; a twisty plot that toes the line between ridiculous and dense, creating plenty of dazzling distractions for the audience to get lost in but rewarding viewers who pay attention to it; characters that project almost nothing except how unreliable and how dangerous they are; a team of visual and sonic artists that makes all of this look so goddamn cool and feel so alive without ever forgetting the story that they’re in service to. All of these elements are synthesized into the kind of summer entertainment that viewers deserve but seldom get, bold and experimental in every department while still, above anything else, being a good fucking time at the movies.
- Darren Aronofsky, mother! – An odd inclusion in some way, since Aronofsky went so out of his way to specify that the vicious, provocative, understandably polarizing film he meant mother! to be was only designed to talk about environmentalism and how humanity is destroying our own planet. I see this argument fully in mother! but am slightly baffled by the notion that Aronofsky somehow didn’t mean to incorporate the ideas about mother! that I find even more fascinating than his concerns about the environment, a discourse on Art and God and Fandom and how all three of those things see women’s role in inhabiting those spaces, women as ideals to be exalted and degraded to the content of that holy trinity. Perhaps they’re Aronofsky’s concerns on some level too, and though I’m intrigued by the idea of mother! as an unintentionally portrait of the author, I think I’ll just step away from psychologizing someone that explicitly. Instead, why not praise him for the sheer technical achievement of creating mother!, coaxing an entire cadre of visual and sonic artists on board with an utterly deranged tone and concept to make their own bold contributions in service of a film that surely must have unsettled some of them even as they’re all stuck to a single POV. Everything about mother! plays as spontaneous in an organically escalating and nightmarish key without betraying how much work it must have taken to play as this freewheeling and unmoored. Extras are directed with the virtuosity, momentum, and unease of Dunkirk’s war machines, and he’s able to create strongly layered characterizations from his central players, especially his actresses. Best of all, for all the violence in the film, his commitment to Mother’s perspective and thoughts and emotions are so informative to the film that they forbid a reading where the camera becomes lurid or complicit in her pain. It’s hard to watch in all the right ways for this story to brace rather than deflate, allowing its ideas to brace against each other without tidying them up too much.
- Margaret Byrne, Raising Bertie – Of all the documentaries I’ve seen this year and the sterling crop of directors that helmed them, Margaret Byrne strikes me as finding the surest middle ground as fully shaping her footage and offering insights from her own point of view without overwhelming the story she’s telling or judging the subjects she’s filming. She finds a warmly reflective tone to inhabit, the people she’s shooting clearly comfortable enough to exist as though the camera isn’t there yet open and engaged when she or one of her crew members interact with them either while shooting them observationally or in interviews. Best of all is Byrne’s absolute refusal to succumb to sentimentality or stereotyping in how she assembles her footage. She’s able to evoke what’s sad about this story as much as what’s worth celebrating, and avoids editorializing on her own subjects, neither condemning or lauding any of their choices or the paths they wind up taking, or displaying favoritism. Even as their lives are altered by forces outside their control, beset by tragedy, hitting a milestone of achievement, Byrne’s filmmaking encapsulates the scope and emotions and ramifications of a moment without radically shifting in her presentation of these events compared to more mundane but equally impactful moments or discussions. Bertie comes across as a real, living place, and Byrne is attentive enough that the personalities and relationships of community leaders, parents, friends, and girlfriends are as unique as the central trio, even with far less time to do so. The passage of time is evoked so quickly and so smoothly that we’re quickly able to orient ourselves to what has and hasn’t changed about Bud, Davonte, and Junior’s lives, and the world around them is so sharp that we’re able to understand why these things have happened with zero fuss. It’s an indelible portrait of lives as lived, allowing us to see how these boys grow up and forge their own paths while making us aware of the avenues they can go through become limited and expanded, which routes are taken or left untouched, and how they do and do not grow up to be the men they wanted to be.
- Alain Gomis, Félicité – Could you tell from my write-ups of Félicité in Foreign Film and Best Actress that I consider Alain Gomis’s direction to be the single greatest contribution that allows Félicité to work so remarkably well? Now you know. It’s one thing for Gomis, Olivier Loustau, and Delphine Zingg to write such an unusual, increasingly fragmented story, with shifting central characters and an unpredictable trajectory that ultimately has two narratives inside it, the story of Félicité’s desperate quest to get enough money for her son and what happens to them after her mission ends. But you can’t write a script like that and not have the confidence to direct that story as forcefully as you need to, and Gomis connects all of Félicité’s narrative and thematic threads on both emotional and intellectual levels while still giving the film a visual flourish, even as it’s mostly attached to its actor’s faces, and by synthesizing so many genres with such conviction that the film possesses a heady, singular tone all its own. At all times Gomis puts the ideas his story and his characters speak to at the forefront of how we respond to what we’re watching without reducing Félicité into one entirely populated by Concepts that he can display for us. But the sheer mobility of Félicité’s narrative is so startling that it’s even more impressive to see how deeply Gomis is able to engage with every part of the story he’s telling, even as it evolves so far beyond its initial setup. He’s also able to marshall two indelible performances from Tshanda Mputu and Papi Mbaka – I might’ve been too excited during my Foreign Film summary to credit Gaetan Claudia as having a performance on the level of his co-stars, but he’s able to make his stillness fascinating while still holding on to Gomis’s ideas – all of whom appear to be first-time actors, from what I can find out about them. And he vibrantly realizes Senegal itself, rooting the film firmly in his country’s cultural conventions and making them engaging without resorting to cliché or making it seem more purposely alien, regardless of whether any particular environment is one Félicité is familiar with or unmoored by. Hypnotic, impressive, and totally his own.
- Jordan Peele, Get Out – There’s something to be said for a slow build approach to horror – including many of the films that Jordan Peele has cited as an influence on Get Out – but I’m amazed at how powerfully the tones and ideas of Get Out accrue through boldfacing potential threats and toying with our and Chris’s paranoia until the other shoe inevitably drops. From the moment Chris approaches the Armitage house, if not the moment we hear that his white girlfriend hasn’t told her parents that he’s her first black boyfriend, the film is cloaked in a sense of anxiety punctuated by moments of outright terror and cringe comedy. Peele is savvy with horror conventions, pitching many of Chris’s interactions with Rose’s family and their servants in a gray area between an already unsettling brand of unaware liberal racism while suggesting something genuinely sinister and antagonistic in these confrontations. He’s able to charge each scene with multifaceted tones, heightened to an incredibly confrontational level yet versatile enough that the primary energy behind any scene can change on a dime. “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” is awkwardly funny, deadly serious, and genuinely uncomfortable in context, made even more so by Bradley Whitford’s Dean having just claimed how it must look for him to have two black housekeepers this day in age, while also highlighting a sense of modulation within Peele’s direction even as he makes you feel the uneasiness of the scenario at all times. Conceits like Stephen Root’s (color)blind racist who doesn’t know he’s racist might come off as too broad or on-the-nose, even as the character points out the irony of his job as an art dealer, yet Peele is able to let them play out as a part of the world he’s created. This modulation is present in the performers, all of whom pitch their characters in totally different tones yet interact with each other and the film marvelously as the camera rests on the actors and the ideas their characters represent to an inordinate degree, aided and abetted by a killer sound design and score. You feel the film’s emotions and ambitions in your gut at all times, and it’s entirely attributable to Peele’s dexterous direction.
- John & Benny Safdie, Good Time – On the one hand, it’s incredible that John and Benny Safdie have created a heist movie that strikes its own, vibrantly modern tempo while staying in conversation with 70’s filmmaking and generic conventions. Such bold stylization feels almost counter-intuitive and rarely utilized in stories where characters in naturalistic depictions of New York’s underbelly ruin their lives and the opportunities of people around them, but the film is just as commanding on sonic and visual levels as it is on thematic ones. A scuzzy Robert Pattinson is able to brilliantly blend in and interact with a supporting cast mainly composed of non-professionals, all of whom convey startling characterizations aided and abetted by a killer score, lean and nasty editing of scenes, and a camera that’s often too close for comfort. The Safdies have whipped together a New York movie that’s able to dodge any obvious sight-seeing and create its own convincing topography of hospitals and banks and sex carnivals and rent-controlled housing so bare-bones that tenants have to keep the TV on static channels and hang Christmas lights instead of putting in real lightbulbs. On the one hand, they’ve created a heist movie that tells its own knotty, compelling tale without an ounce of extraneous material. On the other hand, or perhaps within that same hand, since unlike Aronofsky the Safdies have fully admitted to intending to make the version of Good Time I so admire and enjoy, they manage to do all of this while including a pretty damning critique of Connie’s white privilege and deluded sense of ethnic pride, omnipresent and seeping into every aspect of the film. Even if it takes a while for Connie to face some real consequences, the direction is completely keyed to how his prejudices impact the dynamics behind his interactions with the black and female characters he interacts with, the ways he literally wears blackness to throw the cops off his trail, and the toxicity behind his love for his mentally handicapped brother, which seems both earnest and totally tempered on ignoring Nicky’s illness unless Connie’s praising Nick for how exceptional he is. Of course all these actions are odious, but the Safdies let these action speak for themselves while pointing at even more insidious ideas seep into them, seeing every unappealing aspect of their lead character and still fashioning a totally compelling film around him.
- Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – If it’s an unexpected surprise to walk into Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpooland realize that the film’s primary POV character is Peter Turner rather than Gloria Grahame, it’s an even richer surprise that this hasn’t stopped Annette Bening from delivering a multifaceted, engaging performance for the second year in a row. True, this leaves her with more obstacles than Jamie Bell has: Her relationships with her family and her career are given less screen time comparatively; she has fewer sequences where the film inhabits her point of view; occasionally she’s framed for graphic impact instead of characterization. But in Gloria’s one scene with her mother and sister, their relationship is just as affectingly etched as Peter’s is with his family. Bening works tremendously with the few scenes where Gloria is by herself, singing in front of a mirror or going to the doctor’s office, and is able to productively find character details in the poses Gloria is set to strike. In rewatching the film, it’s noticeable how many of her scenes are framed with her face and body in the frame, compared to Bell keeping his hands in his pocket while working so expressively with his face and eyes. Even as Bening delights in playing a woman who’s sexy and funny and not too worked up about herself or her career, she has to pose herself for Peter, though Bening also finds ways to do so without looking to belabored, and does so for Peter rather than the camera. She also stands by Gloria’s insecurities, making them painful without turning on her vanity. I love how Bening refuses to play Gloria as some hazy idea about either a fantastical older woman who Peter learns something from or a ghoul he rescues from isolation. And isn’t her relationship with Bell such an endlessly rewarding experience, through good times and bad? His write-up goes into their chemistry deeper, so I won’t repeat myself, but kudos to Bening for creating one half of the year’s best heterosexual romance and a generously compelling characterization all on her own.
- Sally Hawkins, Maudie – From Aisling Walsh’s direction and Sherry White’s script to the film’s gossamer lensing and cutting to an impressively subtle makeup job to age these characters through the years to John Hand’s recreation of Maud Lewis’s paintings to the indelibly sharp cast, there’s not a single aspect of Maudie that doesn’t surpass expectations. Best of all these considerable achievements is Sally Hawkins as Maud herself, delivering an extraordinary act of emotional transparency. Without indulging in clichéd ideas about artist biopics, tales of talented folks with physical disabilities, or spunky heroines living with brutish but kind men, Maud still emerges as a good-spirited and good-humored woman. She’s not invulnerable to the worst actions of the people around her, but is so assured of her own worth that she’s able to brush off and fire back at the nastiness of strangers and happily eave behind the relatives who can’t seem to regard her as anything but a burden. Hawkins is able to translate every thought and feeling Maud experiences onto her face at an astonishing rate without skimping on the might of those experiences or mugging. Equally heroic is her physical rendering of Maud’s arthritis, visible in how she carries her purse, walks across town, holds her paintbrushes, and how all of these things change as Maud becomes older and her joints stiffer. Her limp gets worse, her posture more hunched, her speech arrives at a slower rate than before, all gracefully realized without being belabored. Still, what I find most interesting in her performance and in Maudie itself becomes more pronounced later on, as her husband Everett – handsomely etched by Ethan Hawke – makes a claim decades into their partnership that his life has become fully subsumed into hers despite his best efforts. And whatever one could say about his subjectivity, he’s not exactly wrong, having initially hired her as a housekeeper while he went out working. Now her business is the primary source of income, they share chores, all because Maud did not let him degrade her and insisted that her art was as valuable as his fishing. Hawkins presents a quietly indomitable will without ever acting like it, giving indelible layers to Maud’s happiness and sorrow and humor and perseverance. It’s the physical specificity and facial expressivity of her performance in The Shape of Water attached to an even richer character, bouncing off an unlikely romantic partner with a real point of view for years, and shaped by a writer and director team who’ve made a film that builds to an even richer reservoir of feeling. All of them make Hawkins’s performance possible, and in return she rewards them endlessly and lovingly so.
- Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu, Félicité – I can’t imagine a tone more difficult to acclimate to or one that evolves so consistently as their film progresses than Félicité’s. The narrative trajectory plays host to any number of generic conventions, and an inattentive performer could easily disrupt the tone by playing too heavily into a different kind of story that Félicité could be rather than serving the synthesis it is. Alternatively, the forcefulness of Alain Gomis’s direction leaves room for an actress to let him do the heavy lifting of characterization without contributing much. Instead, and miraculously so, Tshanda Mputu emerges as beautifully in sync with Gomis from the get-go by dialing her performance back without sacrificing any of Félicité’s interiority and emotions. We’re entirely reliant on the movement and fluctuations of her face, her eyes, her voice, her body to give us some indication of what she’s thinking and feeling as Mputu insists on her character’s opacity as her typical state of being without confusing this for making her hard or unapproachable, or framing it as a negative trait. Her cabaret scenes, whether the camera is squared solely on her face or framed around the whole band so we can see her grooving to the music, are an impressive externalization of her inner delights and turmoils, as her singing changes it energy when hope comes and goes and returns as it pleases. Her face never betrays the character’s desperation as her situation gets worse and the people she asks money from more dangerous and tenuously connected, but we see it in the swiftness of her movements to get in and out of these situations as quickly and cleanly as possible, in the assured intensity she tries to project in her voice. This makes way for a depressed slowness, her quest having ended with consequences she sees herself as directly responsible for, if not the worst possible ending, a slowness that evolves into a complicated romance with a prostitute – wonderfully played by Papi Mbaka – that Mputu plays with the same opacity as her more obviously dire circumstances. And yet, so much of what’s compelling about Félicité is how tough she is to read throughout the film; what does she think of the folks she’s asking or demanding money from, be they legitimate debts owed or strangers she’s terrified of? What are her thoughts about this romance, this new avenue of her life, of herself? Mputu knows which questions need to be asked, answered, or hinted at without providing obvious solutions for all of them, culminating in a heroic act of an actress suiting her fully to her director’s demands while still creating a vibrant, plausible characterization that gets to keep her secrets.
- Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion – For all of the impact A Quiet Passion accrues, it takes a little while for the film to fully click into its groove than I expected it to. But even with that caveat, and as the third of three similarly intelligent and creative artists perfectly realized by three equally intelligent and creative actresses, Cynthia Nixon is ferociously on point from her very first scene. As capable as the film’s best supporting performances are – particularly Joanna Bacon and Keith Carradine as Emily’s parents and Jennifer Ehle as her sister, though Nixon connects fully with all her co-stars – Nixon thrives better than anyone else on Terence Davies’s mannered dialogue. Finding the emotional and philosophical truths inside the novelistic stylization, she wisely roots the poet’s characterization in her vocal inflections and annunciations. As complicated as her line readings are, at every moment Nixon feels as though she’s spontaneously interacting with other characters, her props, her own body. Emily’s casual and increasingly severe disparagements of her appearance are delivered as easily as her other witticisms and insults at other parties, and Nixon isn’t afraid to show that for all of Emily’s righteousness and self-assuredness, she withers under criticisms she agrees with or has no idea how to counter. The sensitivity that made her so insightful likely contributed to her refusal to face the world by leaving her home. Nixon is also able to use her body as well as her voice to convey Emily’s severity, her attentiveness, her love towards a select few. And, most bracingly, she dramatizes Emily’s multiple seizures, often in single shots, managing to do so without calling attention to her own acting save for leaving us to wonder how she could manage to portray something so horrifically painful without making it into a spectacle. Nixon shows how this woman was seen as a rebel and an eccentric in her day without breaking from the conventions of her era or shying away from her painfully reclusive introversion. It’s a heroically unromantic portrait of the artist, so fully realized that by the time we see the real Emily’s portrait before the credits role, Nixon looks more like Emily than Emily does.
- Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird– It’s a little jarring to read any official summary about Lady Bird and realize how unappealing the character must read on paper. That isn’t entirely fair – it’s not as if Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig aren’t totally attuned to the fact that Lady Bird is a drama queen who could use more perspective on the world around her and do better by a lot of people in her life. Even as Lady Bird creates a new name for herself (given to her, by her) and dons a self-assured persona, Ronan doesn’t mistake these affectations for the character but doesn’t undermine them either. Nor does the film ask us to consider Lady Bird a bright, thinking, caring presence in spite of what’s unpleasant about her, finding a poignant middle ground of angsty adolescence that’s still deciding who she wants to be. She doesn’t overplay Lady Bird’s theatrical streak in her characterization of the part or imbue it in her own acting, gorgeously interacting with her co-stars and rewards their performances as much as they reward hers by creating a stable center for the supporting players to bounce off. Especially in her interactions with Laurie Metcalf’s Marion, Ronan proves how fully she’s parsed through the script’s dramatic and comedic beats without short-shrifting either of those requirements or seeing them as contradictory, though she knows when a scene needs more of one than the other. She finds the right tenor of being in her face and voice and movements that plays so believably as a teenager’s without working too hard to “play” young. The fact of her changing relationships and shifting priorities is given almost no fanfare, save for the moments Ronan shows us Lady Bird deciding to act a certain way and reach out to a certain person, be it making a new friend by abandoning her old ones, earnestly asking her mother when the right time to start having sex is, or telling a stranger at college what her name is and where she’s from. These contemplations become even more fascinating since Ronan plays these thought processes exactly the same whether Lady Bird tells the truth or not. Yet, even as Lady Bird is trying on new hobbies and friendships and boyfriends, as her relationships with her parents take on new textures, Ronan’s interpretation aligns perfectly with her writer-director’s endless generosity in about every way a performance can be generous to her film, her character and the artists working with her.
- Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper – Perhaps unlike the five other actresses I’ve recognized – don’t worry, the list version will only have five of these six women – I don’t see Kristen Stewart’s work in Personal Shopper as totally in sync with the goals of her director so much as helping him shape up their film while flourishing almost in spite of her vehicle. A comparison to her performance and how it functions in relation to her film might be Edith Evans in The Whisperers, another spooky story of isolation similarly interested in atmospheric dread fashioned to an off-kilter narrative that never rewards its lead actress as well as it might, ultimately making *them* the film rather than the actual plot. Like Evans, Stewart cannot help but be more interesting alone than with any costar, none of whom are bad but can’t measure up to the implications that Assayas gives to the antagonistic messenger bombarding Maureen’s phone, her unseen employer and the outfits she buys for this woman while palpably coveting them, the locations Maureen goes to ready for danger and getting a different kind than she’s expecting. Also like Evans, playing a totally different character that might still resembles Mrs. Ross in her loneliness, if nothing else, Stewart is so captivating and resourceful in the central role that Personal Shopper’s limitations almost don’t matter. Maureen is a jittery, stammering bundle of nerves, constantly stressed out and irritated and plain ol’ tired with everything about her life right now, especially running around buying someone else’s clothes for a living even though that shitty job is what Maureen shows the most confidence doing. Stewart’s rendering of temerity and on-edge anxiety constitutes a surprisingly full-bodied performance, realized not just in stuttered phrases but shaking thumbs, hunched posture, always played as alive and spontaneous in a wholly mundane key. Her emotional transparency is both a gutsy, counter-intuitive move to playing a character who could die if her heart is overexerted, while also helping us just sweep past that once-mentioned plot conceit without too much fuss. I’ll still never understand how I didn’t notice Stewart’s lived-in, frightened, casually hypnotic performance my first time through Personal Shopper, but I’m so glad I eventually figured it out.
- Hiroshi Abe, After the Storm – The absence of After the Storm across my ballot, after making such a tremendous showing on The Fifties, speaks more to my over-enthusiasm on first pass than a sudden negative reevalutaion. I still enjoyed it, especially the acting, and especially what Hiroshi Abe accomplishes as the film unspools itself. A portrait of a perennial fuck-up doing just enough right that his family, friends, and coworkers can’t give up hope on him, Abe shapes this man with considerably humanity and bracing honesty, showing Ryota’s considerable flaws without turning on the character or trying to compensate for them. He finds a crucial balance between empathy and distrust, showing us a man who uses his vices to connect with his son, cares for his mother as he roots through her home for stuff to pawn, makes an honest effort to get on his ex’s good side even as he cannot stop trying to undermine a new relationship he shouldn’t even know about. It’s not that he doesn’t know he’s doing this, he just doesn’t know how else to be, even though he loves these people. What’s even more amazing is that Abe keeps his performance in largely the same tenor as the film progresses and we learn more about Ryota, letting his contradictions speak for themselves while his actions gains greater meaning. Befitting the film’s own positioning of its events as not inherently new but part of cyclical series of comforts and confrontations in a family, Abe simply doesn’t make a big deal out of information that radically alters our ideas about this man. His is a subtly different performance the second time you watch it, yet Abe shoulders his character and the film magnificently with zero fuss. If there’s any reason I rated the film so highly before, it all comes down to Abe’s magnificent performance more than anything else.
- Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool – If it’s an unexpected surprise to walk into Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpooland realize that the film’s primary POV character is Peter Turner rather than Gloria Grahame, it’s an even richer surprise that Jamie Bell rewards us and the film so beautifully with his playing. He refuses to make Turner into some kind of schlub until he meets Gloria, standing by the character’s lower-class standing and still developing acting career. Like Gloria, Peter is content with the current standings of his life even as he strives to improve it and try new things. He creates plausible relationships with his family, his friends, the actors playing them – home becomes a tangible place for him to stay and leave as he and Gloria blossom and wither. Still, the film’s crowning glory is the evolving chemistry between Bell and Bening across the entirety of their film. Both actors are utterly in sync with each other from moment one, conveying a piqued interest in each other that could happily turn romantic but functions fully as a friendship. I love how completely in awe of Gloria he is, and how that translates into an absolute lack of jealousy among adoring crowds. He’s smitten enough to follow her to America, even as he sometimes accidentally steps on her anxieties. He’s more than willing to ask for her forgiveness, but unwilling to beg for it if he cannot understand what’s upset her. This only makes his eventual aiding of her delusions, when Gloria is insistent on not getting treatment for her cancer, all the more heartbreaking. At every moment Bell is emotionally transparent, his thoughts and feelings readable on his body and face through good and bad decisions. Especially compared to so many male performers that thrive off masculine reticence, his open-faced puppy love and the way Peter wears his heart on his sleeve is refreshing at the very least. He crafts half of the year’s best heterosexual romance while creating a totally engaging character as an individual.
- Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name – There’s something so impressively confident about Timothée Chalamet’s portrait of Elio, isn’t there? Admittedly, I think the performance and the film start a little wobbly but spikes up considerably once he A: Raises his hand to the statue’s arm as a truce with Oliver, and B: Gets in bed with Oliver, but Chalamet shows smart instincts on how to play the character even before then. I like how he doesn’t belabor Elio’s intellect, even as he taunts Oliver by performing variations of a simple melody on the piano like he’s a rock star rather than just playing the damn thing. He seems completely comfortable with his family, their house, their employees, their friends, but doesn’t lose all sense of himself or these relationships once this dashing new grad student shows up and unmoors him somewhat, stirring up Feelings that Elio can’t quite place. He doesn’t suddenly become a naif or a tsundere or standoffish, but seems genuinely curious about what qualities this man has to provoke these responses in him, manifesting in teases and ogling looks, yes, but also an earnest interest in spending time with Oliver and getting to know him. Chalamet never plays his exploration of his sexuality as something to toil over and be ashamed of, either, instead mainly devoting his time to figuring out how to explore as much of Marzia and Oliver – especially Oliver – as he can. Even if his face and voice avoid tilting into full emotional transparency – or at least not melodramatically so – we see these thoughts play out in the intensity of his gazes but also, miraculous, in Chalamet’s loose and expressive physicality and posture, giving us insights into the character that his face occasionally withholds. All of this fertilizes and becomes even more potent once he and Oliver finally get together, and Elio becomes more expressive with his emotions as well as more certain about his feelings, expressive in his voice and face and body. You could practically play the film without any sound and see the transformation in Elio simply by how his body moves and interacts with the world. How could his parents not notice what he’s made with Oliver, given all that? Still, the moments Elio utilizes every part of himself to convey what he’s feeling, those emotions hit harder than they had previously simply because he’s discovered more ways for his body to let them out, without losing any of the clarity or might of those feelings. Chalamet has every part of himself working at all times, becoming even more technically detailed and emotionally voluptuous while still holding on to the core truths of his character, to exquisite effect.
- Charlie Hunnam, The Lost City of Z – If it’s already smart for Gray and casting director Kate Ringsell to choose a technically capable actor lacking in the kind of traditionally heroic charisma that a film like The Lost City of Z seeks to deconstruct, it’s entirely a tribute to Charlie Hunnam that he so capably rises to the challenges of the script and direction with such an intelligent, close-to-the-chest performance. He conveys a full, stories marriage with his wife Nina – brilliantly played by Sienna Miller – luxuriating in his adoration of this woman but too blinded by gendered prejudice to see them as truly equal partners. The strain of his absence doesn’t go unnoticed on their marriage, or in his relationships with his growing children, a paternal fondness tinged with the fact that he simply doesn’t know them that well. This warmth stands out next to the bitterness and quiet determination that defines much of the performance early on, as Percy stands over an elk he knows he will not be properly recognized for shooting. But the desire to redeem his family name that motivates his first quest to the jungle evolves, shifting into something that initially looks and sounds anthropological but becomes increasingly abstract and metaphysical even as Percy’s convictions grow stronger. Hunnam carries all of this in his eyes, his face, his body. He makes no fussy in the affectations Percy puts on as his status rises and falls, changing his accent and taking on different kinds of grandstanding airs when advertising his second and third expeditions. In the face of a tremendously ambitious project, Hunnam proves himself just as savvy, resourceful, and ambitious an interpreter of Percy as the man himself was.
- Robert Pattinson, Good Time – I’ve spent a lot of time applauding all the ways that Good Time moves so incredibly well, and Robert Pattinson deserves similar credit for attuning himself to the Safdie’s style so well. His performance as Connie is just as kinetic, and as variant in its kineticism as the film’s other artists. Connie seems to be a livewire of fidgeting movements and darting eyes and a mouth that speaks as fast as his brain can think, some part of him always moving even when his body seems to be completely still or his mind lost in thought. At all times he projects the endlessly whirling mind of a born bullshitter, yet Pattinson does nothing to delineate between when Connie’s telling the truth to tenuous allies or putting on a show for unsuspecting marks or trying to give a heartfelt pep-talk to a brother who he earnestly but toxically loves or spouting deluded nonsense we don’t know if he even believes in. Nor does he editorialize the performance itself into a takedown or false lionization of the character, trusting the film’s other artists to expose Connie’s behavior as vicious and short-sighted. Everything is played with equal conviction, giving his brother the same attention and energy he gives to people he’s more than willing to use and abuse in order to get Nick back. Connie’s story essentially follows an arc from bad to worse, someone we never really learn about nor who gets a lot of development outside of the new levels of desperation he escalates to to save his brother and the probably existing levels of depravity and cruel cunning he reveals to wheedle all the help he can get from the people he’s managed to charm or promise something to. Pattinson plays the part with as much conviction as Connie plays out his own twisted bunny-hop across New York City, proving himself equally resourceful and, in the long term, infinitely more successful at captivating and repelling his audience while still coming out on top in the end. Bonus points for that horrifically still finale, as the character seems to fully retreat into himself and stare off at nothing, but gets so dangerously close to spiking the camera that for one last time, he leaving us and him wondering: How on earth is he gonna get out of this?
- Atomic Blonde, Jonathan Sela – I don’t think I’ve watched a single film sequence from 2017 as often as I have the grueling fight in the abandoned hotel between Lorraine and the Russians. Except, maybe her fight with the cops in Gascoin’s apartment. Atomic Blonde’s visual coherence and unbridled kineticism are its greatest assets, and the cinematography – in glorious tandem with the film’s editing – keep these plates spinning the whole time without breaking a sweat. Sela has a strong grasp on comic-book framing and combat choreography, making the fights easy to follow and more thrilling than any summer tentpole release. We’re allowed to revel in Lorraine’s capabilities as a fighter and fear for her when she’s facing real challenges even though we know she’ll make it out alive. The select close-ups and direct-to-camera speeches are perfectly chosen. He also has a fantastic grip with lighting and color, from the dehydrated grayscale the film usually wears – with occasionally embellishments like the red of Lorraine’s shoes, the saturated graffiti, the yellow cord she fashions into an escape rope – to the brilliant bisexual neons of club scenes that drown the characters. Yes, we get other shades too, like the brilliant red when Lorraine confronts Delphine, but the blue and pink that Lorraine so often inhabits alone and with Delphine is as artful and unsubtle as you could possibly get. And there’s not even any uncomfortable male-gazy luridness of ogling at the women’s bodies in intimate and life-threatening situations, which feels just as rare and wonderful as everything else I’ve mentioned.
- Call Me By Your Name, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom – The common line I’ve made when advertising Call Me By Your Nameto friends and coworkers is that it’s beautiful – beautiful story, beautiful romance, beautiful actors, beautiful setting – all wrapped up in beautiful cinematography. For all the raw material listed above that Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera had to work with, his handling of natural light is still immaculate, the camera luxuriating in this story the way the characters constantly lounge about the Perlman’s summer home, similarly inviting us to immerse ourselves in Guadagnino’s moods and emotions. And yet, the texture and quality of that light tilt into a kind of unreality, the hermetically sealed nature of the setting and story veering into a vaguely fable-ish quality, in sync with the ambitions of the script, direction, and performances having to inhabit a naturalistic key while still accommodating more mannered, coded double-speak and ellipses in the story. It helps that the camera regularly moves in ways that break free from this pattern too, which begins in the film’s very first scene as Esther Garrel’s character practically sprints out of bed to see this new American intern, the camera rustling with the force of her movement. Unexpectedly long takes, camera mobility amidst editorializing angles, and irregular framing while still maintaining detailed attention to shot composition, shaping the internalized and externalized elements of the film’s performances, and a tight grip on Call Me By Your Name’s emotional beats allow the camera to keep one foot on the ground with the other planted firmly in the air, holding what is plausible and what is precarious, lucky, and glorious about that plausibility in conversation throughout.
- Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema – The urgency of Dunkirk’s story might be the most obvious fit for the sweeping visual grandiosity that Nolan’s films of late have so fully embraced. Hoytema’s lensing suits itself equally well to the film’s cramped or limited spaces as well as the terribly open landscapes, fully keyed in to the danger that each particular setting carries. Even as the film’s characters are left intentionally opaque, the photography still knows how much to use the faces of the men to carry the mood of a sequence, especially in how they respond to offscreen sounds, spectacles, and threats, and how much to let the face or faces of the men be dwarfed by the enormity of their environments and the omnipresent if not alway visible machines haunting the British soldiers. Camera motions are gloriously synchronized to the movements of the characters and of the giant war machines trying to attack and aid these trapped soldiers. But what impressed me most about Hoytema’s work on Dunkirk is a refusal to visualize the bleakness of the scenario by desaturating the environment or heightening an already threatening atmosphere. Light and color are given careful attention without seeming belabored or attempting to beautify a horrific setup, though the compositions of light and color in tandem with Hoytema’s vistas are remarkable in themselves while still feeding the film’s tensions. Even if these visuals are expansive or repetitive in nature – the bigness of the beach, sea, and sky, and the near-interchangeable series of chiseled, bone-white brunette twinks that make up most of the soldiers – they’re still impressive to behold. This potency also makes the variations in the imagery – older men, a red sweater, the warm colors in Mark Rylance’s boat vs the grays of the military machines – all the more striking without having to strain for those variations to stand out.
- Good Time, Sean Price Williams – What an unexpected film to be so stitched to the faces of its characters. As high velocity as Good Time’s trajectory is, Sean Price Williams primarily shoots the film’s setpieces by focusing on the character’s faces, showing how they think through these actions and their points of view. We’re consistently forced into incredibly close quarters with these characters, uncomfortably so, even if our protagonist wasn’t such a vicious figure. This allows the deliberate moments where we’re physically given distance from Connie – lifting a girl bridal-style to her bedroom, beating and degrading a security guard, running from the police in a basketball court – to have greater weight, showing us new lights on who Connie actually is and what he’s doing. The camera refuses to play into any anti-hero or lionizing depiction of Connie, cutting through his moralizing bullshit as his actions get worse and worse. And speaking of light, Williams doesn’t let the grottiness of Good Time’s locales be an excuse to avoid paying attention to color and lighting and shot composition, all in tandem with the grainy effect quality of shooting on real film. Fluorescent neons, dingy and atmospheric in how they take over a room, bathe the characters, though Williams is just as resourceful in natural light, dingy hospital whiteness, or incredibly low light where characters have all right to vanish if Williams wasn’t so resourceful. He maintains visual coherence at all times, making the images enticing and dirty without using one to mask either, and does so while keeping a firm grip on character and narrative beats.
- The Lost City of Z, Darius Khondji – In his second consecutive collaboration with James Gray, Darius Khondji once again finds astonishingly inventive ways of realizing his film’s tricky visual style. In keeping with the goal of deconstructing the colonialist exploration epic, the photography never becomes fetishistically or romantically swept up in the jungles Percy explores and the indigenous people he finds. Even as the film is finely attuned to each environment, bathing the land and the characters in Gray’s love of golds, embellished with vibrant greens, the landscapes are attentively shot without sue preceding the attention the characters and their journeys receive. Conversely, the English cottages and guild houses alternate between sharp and foggy atmospheres without being delineated as inherently better or worse than the jungles Percy continues to explore, even as his motivations and relationships to both places change. Faces are subtly lit with Gordon Willis levels of detail, calling attention to the wear and tear of old age and battle scars without overemphasis. Through styles of framing and camera movement, Khondji keeps the film in conversation with the studio-era epics Z seeks to update while thoroughly rooting them in modern techniques. Bonus points for Khondji’s use of darkness and low-light spaces; the fortune teller in the bunker, yes, and also the next-to-last scene, where the lights of the lanterns and their reflections are practically floating in midair. Bonus bonus points for the very last shot, complicated an already charged scene and stunning all by itself.