Let’s get this out of the way: These cinematic treats are the best movies I saw last year. This is not a favorites list — that list would look slightly different. These films pretty much reflect my sensibilities; so while the genres may be all over the map, one thing remains clear: a good story is key, which explains the dominance of writer/directors. On that note, one thing I would not advise is taking a drink every time you read “director [name here] (who also wrote the script/screenplay)” because you will never make it to the end of the post. And also your liver will hate you for it. So read through and see what you missed or where we disagree.
37) Spider-Man: Homecoming
Peter Parker finally came into his own in his first solo outing since the misbegotten Andrew Garfield era. Tom Holland wears the spandex with aplomb losing none of the charm from his “Captain America: Civil War” appearance. Michael Keaton as the film’s Big Bad is an inspired choice, while Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. give solid support.
36) American Made
Based on the life of Barry Seal, the airline pilot-turned-CIA drug runner in the 1980s, Doug Liman’s film stars Tom Cruise in a born-to-play role that has him channeling his “Top Gun”-era cocksuredness and melding it with the desperation of a family man who realizes he’s lost what little control he had over his life. Domhnall Gleeson continues his run of morally dubious characters, having fun with the shady CIA handler in charge of Seal.
A girl feeling stifled leaves home to find the famous actress she adores. A boy grieving his mother leaves home to find the father he never knew. Their parallel stories are filled with pain, loss, love, friendship and family. Director Todd Haynes brings to vivid life Brian Selznick’s lovely screenplay (based on his novel) and with it 1920s and 1970s New York City. The film’s soul belongs to its two young stars Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley who ground the story while getting caught up in its wonder.
34) I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
For Ruth (a wonderful Melanie Lynskey), having her home burglarized was just the thing to get her out of her rut. The inciting incident sets her on a quest to track down the thieves with her irritating neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood, in a nicely layered turn) by her side, Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote. They may not be tilting at windmills, but they discover too late they are in way over their heads. A smart, taut comedy-thriller by writer/director Macon Blair that deserves to be embraced by a wider audience.
33) John Wick: Chapter 2
The not-so-retired hit man came back with a vengeance in this satisfying sequel to the 2014 surprise hit that showed the world why you never underestimate Keanu Reeves. Expanding on the criminal underworld established in the original, new locales and characters are introduced (The Continental’s Rome branch is a favorite) while keeping Wick on his toes and in the crosshairs until the very end. So, um, “Chapter 3” is out when?
Dana and Ali aren’t the closest of sisters. This changes when Ali learns their dad is having an affair. Despite the existential crises each woman is experiencing, they join forces to ferret out the truth in order to protect their mom. Gillian Robespierre (who co-wrote the screenplay with Elisabeth Holm) brings together a strong cast — including Jenny Slate, Abby Quinn, Jay Duplass, John Turturro and Edie Falco — for a funny, neurotic, often touching look at the ties that bind and how those ties can often strangle you if you let them.
31) Patti Cake$
Patricia Dombrowski (a.k.a. Killa P) has set her sights on a rap career. She even has her ultimate stage name picked out (hint: it’s the movie’s title). This coming-of-age tale shows Patti in her environment: dealing with a mom who regrets giving up her singing aspirations, a grandmother who’s not in the best of health and a best friend/music partner who has her back and sees them blowing up the rap scene one day, all while working catering gigs to support her dream. Danielle Macdonald owns the screen as Patti and Bridget Everett as her mom Barb holds her own opposite Macdonald in writer/director Geremy Jasper’s invigorating music drama.
30) It Comes At Night
In a post-apocalyptic near-future, survival is everything. There is nothing that can’t be sacrificed to ensure you outlive, outlast any threat to you or your family’s well-being. Paul, Sarah and son Travis are doing just fine on their own when Will breaks into their home one night. What follows has everyone questioning loyalty, duty and morality. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has crafted an unnerving yet topical story that forces you to consider what you would do in this situation.
29) Ingrid Goes West
There’s more to life than social media. (I know. You’re shocked.) But what if your social media feeds are your life? Meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza, caustic yet sympathetic). She dumps the invisible life she was leading to move to Los Angeles to make herself essential to Instagram star Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, beautifully embracing vapid, self-centeredness). If you’re thinking, This couldn’t possibly go wrong, you’re correct. (Wait. That was sarcasm, right?) A dark comedy with a corrosive yet sweet heart, this will make you swear off Instagram. But make sure you tweet about it because otherwise it totally doesn’t count.
28) My Happy Family
Manana has had enough. She announces she’s moving out of the apartment she shares with her husband, two children (both older than 18) and her parents. This puts her entire family up in arms — minus her daughter and son, both of whom supports Manana. Though she’s enjoying her newfound freedom this was not an easy decision, which she struggles with even after the die is cast. Ia Shugliashvili gives an emotionally raw performance as the wife/mother/daughter who chooses herself.
27) My Life As a Zucchini
Zucchini has not had the easiest home life. But when his mom suddenly dies, it actually turns out to be a good thing. Shipped off to an orphanage, Zucchini slowly forges a new existence. This tender, charming animated film is based on the Gilles Paris novel. It touches on darker issues, but has a big, bright heart beating at its core.
26) Wind River
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan added director to his title with this taut thriller about a missing Native American woman. Cory Lambert, a tracker with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and FBI agent Jane Banner team up to work the investigation. However for Lambert, the ghosts of remembrance past continue to haunt and this case may be his chance at redemption. Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham head up an exceptional cast.
25) Blade Runner 2049
Thirty-five years after the original “Blade Runner”, we finally have a sequel. The best news? It’s really good. Not a surprise considering Denis Villeneuve is in the director’s chair. Paired with a cracking script by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the 1982 film) and Michael Green, the film introduces K (Ryan Gosling, in excellent form), a blade runner tracking down replicants like Rick Deckard before him. As secrets start coming to light, K follows the breadcrumbs until they lead him to a familiar face.
24) War For the Planet of the Apes
Caesar is out for blood. In the final chapter of the Apes trilogy, the leader of the apes acquires a taste for revenge after humans slaughter his tribe. The one human in particular who has Caesar’s full attention is The Colonel (an effective Woody Harrelson). Director Matt Reeves (who also co-wrote the script with Mark Bomback) leans into its Western vibe and the film is all the better for it. Andy Serkis rides into the sunset with a full-throttle performance that never disappoints.
23) Free Fire
Firearms. Foul language. A ragtag group of ne’er-do-wells. Yes, Chekov’s gun absolutely comes into play. The latest from director Ben Wheatley (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Amy Jump) is a relatively self-contained affair that sees two antagonistic gangs meet in a warehouse and sees everything go sideways rather quickly. Fast, loose, funny and violent, it’s reminiscent of early Tarantino. The super-duper cool cast includes Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley.
22) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
So. Many. Feels. I’m still processing the middle film in this current trilogy. Rey turning to no-longer-MIA Luke Skywalker for mentor duties. A newly awakened Finn partnering with engineer Rose on a mission for the Resistance and the major bonding that ensues. A half-naked Kylo Ren psychically stalking Rey. Poe throwing hissy fits because he was missing Finn. (Wait. That last one may have been fanfic.) Luke stepping foot inside the Millennium Falcon and ohmigod when he’s in the cockpit! You get my point. Writer/director Rian Johnson and his cast deliver the goods and then some. Now someone get me some tissues. I’m going back in.
21) Thor: Ragnarok
The third (and final?) standalone film featuring the Norse god and his trickster brother is a marvel (pun intended). Director Taika Waititi (plus writers Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost) put some much-needed pep in the franchise’s step: doubling-down on the humor, deepening and strengthening the relationships between existing characters, and making sure the new additions land. A fantastic Tessa Thompson is fierce as Valkyrie, adding more female strength on her own than all the actresses in the previous two films combined, while Jeff Goldblum is a hoot and Cate Blanchett gleefully devours every scene in which she appears.
20) Baby Driver
Writer/director Edgar Wright hits a new high with his latest film. When a getaway driver afflicted with tinnitus falls in love with a waitress and looks to get out of the crime business, his colleagues are less than thrilled. Wright has created a heightened yet very real world set to one groovy soundtrack and filled with characters that are violent yet passionate. Ansel Elgort shines as Baby, with Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal and, yes, even Kevin Spacey adding vivacity to the already lively proceedings.
It took three attempts, but director James Mangold (who also co-wrote the script with Scott Frank and Michael Green) and star Hugh Jackman finally do the Wolverine proud. An intimate opus that puts the title character on the road with an ailing Charles Xavier (a haunting Patrick Stewart) and Logan’s daughter-by-cloning Laura (an excellent performance from Dafne Keen) when nefarious forces target the makeshift family. A thrilling, heartfelt valentine to a character that has fought for a spot in our hearts and kept his perch even when the stories he featured in were not worthy of him.
18) Lady Macbeth
Based on Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, William Oldroyd’s film tells the story of a woman sold into a loveless marriage who finds her desire stoked by one of the workers on her husband’s estate. It’s not only carnal lust that is sparked as Katherine (an indelible turn by Florence Pugh) gets a taste of freedom — and power. Alice Birch’s screenplay is austere yet packs a punch that knocks you out.
The best film of the year that features a giant monster. Of course, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s tale is so much more than a creature feature. Perennial flake Gloria (Anne Hathaway, never better), on the outs with her boyfriend, hightails it to her hometown to clear her head. Reuniting with old friends, she takes a job at a local bar run by pal Oscar (a revelatory Jason Sudeikis). After a night of partying, Gloria wakes up to find a monster attacking Seoul. The creature and Gloria are connected, and once she realizes this her life implodes. “Kong: Skull Island” has nothing on this original, empowering film.
16) Your Name
Imagine you’re going about living your life, when one day you wake up in someone else’s body. That’s the conundrum teens Mitsuha and Taki face in this animation from writer/director Makoto Shinkai (based on his novel). The two walk a mile in each other’s shoes as they take the time to get to know their partner in body-swapping and figure out what is connecting them. A sweet, emotional film that lingers in the memory and the heart.
15) Wonder Woman
The first lady of superheroes finally (finally!) gets her own movie and it is every bit as kick ass and big hearted as you would expect. Director Patty Jenkins and leading lady Gal Godot put the “wonder” in “Wonder Woman” by tracing Diana’s origins from a young princess aching to prove herself to a warrior woman fighting with her heart. That sequel cannot come fast enough.
14) The Big Sick
The dynamic duo of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani tell the story of their amazing courtship and it’s alternately hilarious, lovely and harrowing. Emily (Zoe Kazan) and Kumail meet cute, but when it’s revealed his parents are planning him to marry a nice Indian woman (TBD) and Emily lands in the hospital shortly thereafter and put into a medically induced coma, things get real fast. Kazan and Nanjiani have a natural chemistry that grounds their scenes together, while the amazing Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents provide a satisfying yang to the younger couple’s yin.
13) The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Secrets and lies have a way of coming back round and biting one in the ass. Dr. Steven Murphy will learn this lesson. His paternal-esque relationship with young Martin is starting to chafe, but Martin will not be denied. He develops an insidious relationship with Steven’s family, driving them to the brink and beyond. The film is spare, tension-driven, allowing the characters to organically dictate which direction the story goes. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (who also co-wrote the script with Efthymis Filippou) and a fine cast led by Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Barry Keoghan make this unnerving exercise a feast for frayed nerves.
There is no take more timeless than that of a child and their pet. The latest from Joon-ho Bong relates the tale of a girl who forms a bond with the hybrid creature that belongs to a multinational company. When Big Business collects the adorable Okja, young Mija (an impressive Seo-Hyun Ahn) falls in with a group of radicals and travels to New York in order to save her beloved best friend. Topical, heartfelt and very funny, the film is a joy. Plus it features Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal and the divine Tilda Swinton.
Casey and Jin are each at a crossroads. Each is beholden to a parent, living a life that isn’t what she or he wants. Each existing. Nothing more. When they meet in Columbus, Indiana, a friendship is kindled over the architecture located within the city. Their excursions include a never-ending conversation that goes beyond a building’s design. Writer/director Kogonada’s warm, optimistic film features wonderful turns from Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho as they weave a delicate dance; two lost souls finding each other in a fog of ennui.
Writer/director Christopher Nolan brings the battle of Dunkirk to the screen in this effective account that tells the story from three different perspectives — by land, air and sea — at three different times, slowly pulling each of the narrative threads till they form a complete portrait. An impressive cast mixed with established actors and newcomers give life to the soldiers and civilians who participated in this historic event.
9) A Ghost Story
Love. Grief. Longing. Existence. Heady subjects delicately traversed by writer/director David Lowery in this quietly affecting film that begins with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck’s couple before following a trajectory that sees time progressing and circling back on itself, and a figure feeling all there is to feel when isolated from the world even while still existing within it.
The most divisive film of the year. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s films are not for everyone. For every “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” there’s “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain”. You never get the same Aronofsky twice. This is unlike any of his previous films but equally grabs you by the back of the neck, forcing you to keep your gaze while daring you to look away. A riveting Jennifer Lawrence stars as a young wife renovating her home with her older poet husband (Javier Bardem, expertly navigating a tricky role) who finds her reverie shattered when another couple arrives, their drama flooding the house, leaving a claustrophobic air behind.
Two families — one black, one white — are thrown together by a plot of land, but are inextricably linked when two men become friends after discovering they both served in the recently concluded World War II — and both have the physical and emotional scars to prove it. Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, the film is a sober look at life in the South, where racism is inescapable and survival is not guaranteed. The tenuous peace between the Jackson’s and McAllan’s is ripped apart once the bonhomie between Ronsel Jackson and Jamie McAllan (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, respectively, each delivering a deeply effective performance that together form the soul of the story) comes to light. This absorbing film by director Dee Rees (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams) has no shortage of joy amidst the darkness.
6) Lady Bird
All high school seniors dream of the day when they can leave their hometown in the rear view and never look back. That day has not yet come for the self-monikered Lady Bird (real name Christine) McPherson (a pitch-perfect Saoirse Ronan). She still has to deal with the mundanity of her teenage life, particularly her prickly mother (Laurie Metcalf, uncannily channeling mothers everywhere into a singular turn). Of course as Lady Bird matures she learns her mother is not the enemy, boys are complicated and best friends should be cherished. Writer/first-time director Greta Gerwig presents a gift to be accepted without cynicism, but with open arms and a wry smile.
5) The Florida Project
Six-year-old Moonee (an effervescent Brooklynn Prince) lives in an Orlando motel with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite, spiky yet endearing), who’s just making enough cash to keep a roof over her and her daughter’s heads. This is enough for Moonee as she dashes from adventure to adventure with her friends under the watchful eye of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe at his most open-hearted). Director Sean Baker (who also co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch) subtly reminds us there is more to this tourist town than cartoon mascots and movie rides.
4) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Mildred’s daughter was murdered; her killer still out in the world. Mildred thinks the cops have had their thumbs up their collective asses for long enough, so she rents three billboards with a rather pointed message for the chief of police. This is merely the beginning of the story. Frances McDormand gives a thundering turn as the grieving mother at the heart of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s blistering, hilarious and heart-wrenching drama. Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage and Woody Harrelson have her back and then some, ensuring the film’s prickly edges don’t get smoothed down too much.
3) Get Out
Writer/director Jordan Peele’s social horror tickles the funny bone while chilling it. A simple trip to visit his white girlfriend’s parents turns into a nightmare for Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, ensuring you feel every emotion except pity for the character) as he notices odd discrepancies among the family’s black servants and guests. Peele tackles racism in today’s America with an unflinching attack, adding ripples of dark humor to keep you off-guard. A sterling film that has Peele keeping the torch lit by George A. Romero burning bright.
2) Call Me By Your Name
Love in Northern Italy 1983. Two men meet one long, hot summer not sure if what they feel for the other is reciprocated let alone appropriate. Based on André Aciman’s novel, director Luca Guadagnino luxuriates in the beauty of the country and of its central romance between teenager Elio (a beautiful performance by Timothée Chalamet) and 20-something grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer, more than delivering on the promise he showed in “The Social Network”). James Ivory’s loving script captures the mercurial mood of the novel and the essence of its characters, body and soul. To view the film is not to wade into its crystalline waters but to let those waters wash over you, gently caressing, its power all-encompassing.
1) The Shape of Water
“Creature from the Black Lagoon” redesigned as a fairy tale is the basic logline for this gorgeous affair from director Guillermo del Toro (who also co-wrote the script with Vanessa Taylor). Mute Elisa works on the janitorial staff at a government facility when she encounters its latest test subject. What starts as an act of kindness blooms into something much deeper and has far-reaching consequences not just for the unlikely pair, but for Elisa’s friends, allies and enemies. Del Toro crafts every film from the words on the page to the color palette to the tiniest details in each scene. He outdoes himself here, which is saying something from the man who gave us “Pan’s Labyrinth”.
Beatriz At Dinner; Beauty and the Beast; The Beguiled; The Belko Experiment; Better Watch Out; A Cure For Wellness; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Happy Death Day; The Incredible Jessica James; Kingsman: The Golden Circle; The Lego Batman Movie; The Lure; The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected); Murder On the Orient Express; Split; Victoria and Abdul; The Wedding Plan; The Women’s Balcony; The Zookeeper’s Wife.
Joanne Thornborough is pop culture junkie with a particular love for film, TV and the printed word. Find her at @cinelitchick on Twitter and Instagram.