Try as I might, I never seem to get to
every single nominated film before Oscar Night, even on the occasion of the Academy
Awards’ 90th anniversary. But I came close this year. I had avoided Kong: Skull Island, didn’t get around to
seeing The Greatest Showman, and some
how Ferdinand escaped my
radar. But I caught up with these last three nominees the week after the Oscars and integrated them into
2017 was the first year in a long time where I found more to complain about than praise in the Academy’s choices of pictures, but the ones I liked, I really loved.
Here’s my ranked list:
(features in capitols with links, short films in title case and quotes,):
58 - THE BOSS BABY
Quite possibly the film most unworthy of a nomination in the ninety-year history of the Academy. An utterly generic work that represents the laziest and least appealing aspects of its given genre—family animated entertainment. Comparing the exquisite detail of the characters and environments of its fellow nominee, Coco, to the bland renderings of this picture is like comparing a painting by Vermeer with the paint-job on a Toyota.
57 - “Dear Basketball”
This hand drawn visualization of the letter Kobe Bryant wrote on the occasion of his retirement announcement amounts to little more than a commercial for the basketball star’s greatness and legacy. Not that commercials can’t also be great works of art (especially in the field of animation); it’s just that this one is not worthy of that consideration.
56 - STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
A galactic misfire in terms of the choices it makes with its iconic characters, that somehow simultaneously feels like as much of a rehash of the same old scenes, settings, and plots as the two more reverent films that preceded it. Johnson’s installment confirms the new Star Wars universe of movies will be every bit as generic and redundant as all the other modern film franchises out there.
55 - “Edith+Eddie”
A bleak and depressing film about a newly married interracial couple who met while playing the lottery, and married in their mid-90s. Offers little insight into the two individuals at its center.
54 - FERDINAND
A classic and distinctive children's book reduced to disposable, generic 3D animated film. Watchable, with decent enough character design, but too busy, too loud, and too silly.
53 - GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Comic book movies never do much for me. But just as with The Lord of the Rings pictures, while I could appreciate the originality of the first Guardians chapter I saw no need to go through it all again.
52 - LOVING VINCENT
While the hand painted quality of the rotoscoped actors is eye-catching for the first half-hour or so, it can’t compensate for the strained narrative.
51 - VICTORIA AND ABDUL
An overwrought costume drama that drives home its message about class, otherness, and leadership with all the grace of a sledgehammer. Still, the cast and costumes are great—it’s always fun to watch Judi Dench play Queen Victoria.
50 - ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
Ridley Scott attempts to add so much weight and import to this period crime story he suffocates whatever interest we might have in the historical or thematic particulars.
49 - WONDER
A shameless tearjerker where every character is healed by the purity and goodness of a disfigured child. But Jacob Tremblay manages to bring humanity and empathy to the little boy, and director Chbosky finds a few fresh, illuminating layers to this otherwise saccharine story.
48 - ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
Denzel Washington is such a great actor he can make anything he appears in worth seeing. Dan Gilroy is such a bad writer he can make anything he authors worth skipping.
47 - LOGAN
Adding blood, lofty subtext, and “darkness” to the superhero formula doesn’t make it work much better for me. But the two leads and Mangold’s compositional skill make this one of the best installments in the crowded, thematically heavy-handed X-Men franchise.
46 - BABY DRIVER
An enjoyable movie about how great movies are, but not a great movie itself.
45 - KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Apocalypse Kong! A mess of a movie but one that earns it best FX nomination. It’s also far more enjoyable than either the Peter Jackson or the Dino De Laurentiis versions (or any Giant Monster movie of the last 40 years for that matter). And I’ll go on record saying I’d rather watch this schizophrenic B-movie hodgepodge than Guardians of the Galaxy, Logan or The Last Jedi.
44 - “Traffic Stop”
Creates a moving, three-dimensional portrait of a woman whom most would otherwise only know from a viral video of her arrest and manhandling by police after a moving violation. But the length of this short film is problematic—too short to delve fully into the vast array of themes and issues it touches on; too long not to try.
43 - BLADE RUNNER 2049
Roger Deakins may finally score his much deserved cinematography Oscar (after thirteen previous nominations), but this ponderous, overwrought sci-fi meditation on life, love, legacy, the future of humanity, and most of all itself, doesn’t measure up to its iconic, flawed, but undeniably fascinating predecessor.
42 - DARKEST HOUR
Biopics are rarely the best pictures (though they’re often Best Pictures), but at least they tend to give us some of the best performances of the year. However, Gary Oldman, usually every bit as chameleon-like as Daniel Day Lewis, fails to convince as Winston Churchill, even under near-Elephant Man levels of make-up in this plodding picture—which should have been a rousing victory.
41 - MUDBOUND
A missed opportunity to finally put the criminally under-told story of Southern blacks who fought in, and returned from, WWII. It makes all the worst mistakes of a feature adaptation from an epic, multi-character novel. The performances are excellent, but the narrative is as muddy as the Mississippi setting.
40 - MOLLY'S GAME
Sorkin seems to have challenged himself to see how many lines of voiceover narration can be crammed into 140 minutes. In between, he also manages a couple of good scenes that his charismatic leads deliver with all the expected polish and precision.
39 - THE DISASTER ARTIST
If you love The Room, you’ll love even more this lark of a backstage look at the man who made it. Unquestionably fun, but there’s little here beyond the acute attention to surface details. All subtext of this picture feels grafted on.
38 - ON BODY AND SOUL (TESTRÖL ÉS LÉLEKRÖL)
The opposite of the Disaster Artist in terms of tone and subject matter, but with many of the same pros and cons. Its determinedly whimsical surface details make for an intriguing but insufficiently developed picture.
37 - “The Eleven O’Clock”
The only comedy entry in the Live Action Shorts category is a whimsical sketch about a psychologist’s appointment with an problematic new patient. It’s a perfect use of the short form, except that it goes on just a little too long, so that we get ahead of the characters and then have time to realize that the central premise doesn’t fully work because of the specifics of the setting. Thirty seconds shorter and the ending would probably have played perfectly.
36 - PHANTOM THREAD
P.T. Anderson’s unusual love story keeps us at such a removed distance we can do little but appreciate the qualities of what he puts on screen.
35 - MARSHALL
Reduces the life of one of the greatest civil rights icons down to the kind of generic and simplistic courtroom drama that makes white liberals feel warm and fuzzy because racism is a thing of the past.
34 - I, TONYA
Elevates the life of one of the most notorious perpetrators of a sports and tabloid scandal into the kind of breezy entertainment that allows elites to look down at the lower class and pat themselves on the back for doing so.
34 - “Revolting Rhymes”
Roald Dahl’s modernized composite of classic fairy tales gets The Gruffalo treatment (by much of the same team behind that 2009 nominated CGI fable). The characters and voice actors are wonderfully realized. The concept, fresh in Dahl’s day, is a bit well trod by contemporary standards, but it’s still pretty amusing.
33 - ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL
Engaging and thought provoking, but whereas James's consummate focus on the human side of his subject matter is the biggest strength of his Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and Life Itself, here it muddles as much as it clarifies the story he tells
32 - BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Almost a shot-for-shot live-action remake of one of Disney’s most beloved animated musicals. Unlike the inventive Maleficent (2014), this studio retread adds nothing to our appreciation of the original picture, but, thankfully, it doesn’t sour our memories of it either.
31 - WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
The second entry of this new version of the Apes (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) series was so well conceived and directed it restored my faith that Hollywood tent pole pictures could still be great movies. But this follow up is fine but doesn’t sufficiently build on the achievement of the installment it follows.
30 - “My Nephew Emmett”
Based on a true story, like most of this year’s nominated Live Action Shorts, this historical tale imagines the hours that led up to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. The film grounds us in the realities of the period, but the choice to tell the story from the perspective of Till’s uncle Mose Wright, while enabling an effective epilogue, offers little insight into the events or to Emmett Till himself.
29 - LAST MEN IN ALEPPO (DE SIDSTE MÆND I ALEPPO )
Plays like a longer version of the previous year’s Oscar winning short White Helmets. We might question the need for a feature length film this bleak and monotonous, but it’s these very aspects that drive home the point.
28 - LOVELESS (NELYUBOV )
Unquestionably the best long, slow, bleak, circuitous Russian tragedy, with no redeemable characters, that you'll see all year!
27 - STRONG ISLAND
Does a better job of what the short film Traffic Stop attempts—putting a human face, with a fully dimensional backstory, on a person who would otherwise be simply a statistic in the minds of most people who only hear or read about the story. I only wish there had been more of this backstory.
26 - “Heroin(e)”
A heroic portrait of three tireless women on the frontlines of the opioid crisis in West Virginia. The issues come into sharp focus through the stories of the three subjects and the people they work with.
25 - THE BREADWINNER
So refreshing to see an animated feature that explores difficult themes in ways that are appropriate for kids, but doesn’t try to be two different movies, one for children and one for adults. As powerful a tribute to the oral tradition as it is a blow against misogyny and zealotry.
24 - A FANTASTIC WOMAN (UNA MUJER FANTÁSTICA)
While it shines a light on the difficulties of life as a transgendered person, Lelio‘s central character is neither a tragic victim nor a inflated hero – she is simply what the title claims.
23 - THE POST
Unlike the great newspaper dramas All the President’s Men, Zodiac, and Spotlight, its message overpowers the story it tells, but Spielberg’s journalism thriller instills the same infectious appreciation for a bygone era when mainstream media had the respect (and earned the respect) of the nation.
22 - THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
A catchy, original musical written directly for the screen rather than adapted from the stage comes along is always worth celbrating IF the songs are good (and these are). The way the picture spins bubbly entertainment from unapologetic artifice and a slim adherence to the truth, aligns perfectly with its subject and genres. Makes me wish all biopics were musicals!
21 - “LOU”
There’s a reason Pixar almost always has an entry in the best animated shorts category: they’re damn good at what they do. But LOU is even a cut above their shorts of recent years. This story of a schoolyard, and the bully who gets a gentle comeuppance from the spirit of the lost-and-found box, has all the creative inventiveness and heart of a typical Pixar short, only more so.
20 - “Knife Skills”
An unfortunately titled but terrific story of a restaurateur whose past trouble with the law inspires him to open a world-class French restaurant staffed by formerly incarcerated people. It’s another forty-minute short that might have been more effective at either thirty or fifty minutes, but undeniably intriguing and exciting.
19 - THE SQUARE
While the whole is not as great as the sum of its terrific individual parts, Östlund’s outlandish and astute social satire is riveting and sometimes hilarious.
18 - “Watu Wote: All of us”
A powerful telling of a true story concerning a 2015 incident in Kenya in which Al-Shabaab terrorists stopped a bus full of Christian and Muslim passengers— a gripping, anxiety-producing, but also hopeful tale of solidarity and sacrifice.
17 - “DeKalb Elementary”
Another Live Action Short inspired by actual, disturbing events, this story of a potential school shooting incident couldn’t feel more timely. Stars Tarra Riggs and Bo Mitchell are so good you might think you were watching the short docs program.
16 - THE INSULT (L'INSULTE )
Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri lacks Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s ability to explore national cultural identity via the microcosm of a domestic dispute, but he's got it all over Americans like Paul Haggis, George Clooney, and the Gilroy brothers.
15 - “The Silent Child”
Writer and star Rachel Shenton and director Chris Overton create the most fully realized of the nominated Live Action Shorts with this simple story of a social worker trying to reach and advocate for a profoundly deaf child. Sounds schlocky, I know, but it’s not in the least bit.
14 - FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES )
Less an actual documentary than a charming non-fiction road movie about art, friendship, and community, it also serves as a quasi-culmination of (or valedictory wink at) the career of French New Wave pioneer and unconventional documentarian Agnès Varda.
13 - “Garden Party”
A dark and inventive student film that uses astonishingly photorealistic CGI to tell a wickedly funny, wordless story about frogs exploring the aftermath of a party that went wrong.
12 - "Negative Space"
This is the type of movie that should win the Best Animated Short. This five-minute, hand-made gem uses stop-motion to whimsically explore the art of packing a suitcase, and in doing so touches on profound themes in a simple and effective way.
11 - ICARUS
Demonstrates how great documentaries benefit as much from the unexpected ways events unfold over the course of their production as they do from the skill and vision of the filmmaking team. This little Supersize Me-style exposé turned into a real-world political thriller that provides fascinating insights into many of the most critical issues of the day
10 - THE BIG SICK
An impressive blend of genres that takes the best aspects of each to produce something familiar yet original. Easily the best of the recent crop of films written by, starring, and about a comedian.
09 - “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405”
This fascinating portrait of artist Mindy Alper, whose lifelong battle with depression and mental illness both enlivens her work and restricts her daily existence, demonstrates the amazing levels of depth and complexity that can be poetically explored in a short film. We learn more about the subject of this movie than in any of the nominated feature-length docs.
08 - DUNKIRK
A two-star movie in a five-star package. Nolan is one of contemporary cinema’s most incompetent storytellers, but he’s also one of the only working filmmakers who understands the actual power of film.
07 - COCO
Another win for Pixar. The studio once again finds originality, authenticity, beauty and heart in a setting that, at first glance, might seem questionable for animated family fare.
06 - LADY BIRD
There were so many great début features this year that Greta Gerwig’s enchanting coming-of-age comedy only ranked 4th on my list of best first films of 2017. But this movie heralds the Aughties Indie It-Girl as a great filmmaker in her own right, with a distinctly warm and funny voice.
05 - THE SHAPE OF WATER
All of del Toro’s signature obsessions and stylistic idiosyncrasies align beautifully in this genre-blending dark fantasy held together by a luminous, near-silent performance from Hawkins.
04 - CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Guadagnino and Co. enthrall through the setting, the cast, the pace, the ability to awaken long forgotten feelings, and, most of all, the decision to transform the “melancholy reminiscence” structure of the novel into a passionate and reflective “brief encounter.”
03 - THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Everything folks don’t seem to like about this movie are the things that make it so good. It IS an outsider’s view of America (more of these, please!); the characters and setting ARE NOT real (the most resonant truths are often found in works of straight-up fiction); it DOES play its dark material for laughs (our enjoyment of all that happens on screen is the picture’s most unsettling, and illuminating, aspect); and it DOES sometimes feel like a play rather than a movie (it’s crafted like a movie from a different cinematic era, but with themes, language, and action that couldn’t be more contemporary.) This is a work of consummate fiction and does what fiction does best.
02 - GET OUT
The more times you see this film, the more impressive it gets. From the first frame to the last, within every single character interaction and choice of camera placement, there are no weak spots, no wasted moments, and no gaps in logic. It’s a magnificently realized début picture. Though a timely critique of the supposedly “woke” era we just came through, this is a film for the ages that belongs in the company of Rosemary's Baby and Psycho.
01 - THE FLORIDA PROJECT
A film that explores the realities of poverty in contemporary America, and all its often painful, empty, violent aspects. But the sheer joy in simply being alive that Baker captures on screen in all its unselfconscious, unvarnished glory both transcends those realities and makes them all the more acutely tangible. The three lead actors, whose backgrounds and approaches could not be more different, exist in note-perfect balance within this unforgettable and timeless work.