Now that we are fully one-third of the way into 2018, I have finally been able to see all of the movies nominated for the major Academy Awards (best picture, the four best acting categories, best directing and the two best screenplay categories). Living in a second/third market city (Sacramento) has the drawback of late arrivals for some films. But I have now seen them all along with another group of well-reviewed films that brings my total for the year to 46. Of those nearly four dozen, the following is my annual list of the best from 2017. As in the past, I’ll list them in reverse order with the caveat that, while I think all would be on most critics “best of the year” lists, my ordering of them is entirely subjective (and variable from day to day and mood to mood). Excuses aside, here’s where I end up:
12. “Icarus” – This film won the Oscar for the best documentary. It is a fascinating film, primarily because it literally developed a life of its own midway into the making of it. At the outset, the film-maker, Bryan Fogel, was looking into how it is possible for Olympic athletes to avoid detection when they have been using banned drugs to enhance their performances. But the film moves into a much bigger investigation when Fogel uncovers evidence of Russian-government sponsored doping.
11. “Darkest Hour” – Gary Oldman received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in this dramatic telling of Churchill’s leadership of the British Empire as it resisted Nazi Germany’s assault on Western Europe and Britain’s own defeat in the early battles of World War I. The film was directed by Joe Wright and received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. In addition to the well-deserved award for Oldman, it also won for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
10. “Molly’s Game” – Based on the memoir by Molly Bloom, who built a criminal enterprise around underground poker games for the super-rich, the film is a highly entertaining depiction of the fascinating woman who recovered from a potential Olympics career that ended in a horrific accident to develop the elaborate system that made her an enormously wealthy criminal. The screenplay, by Aaron Sorkin, was nominated for an Oscar, and Jessica Chastain was captivating as the sexy madam of the title.
9. “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” – This film about anger resulting from murder received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It won two acting awards: Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Sam Rockwell for Best Supporting Actor. Woody Harrelson was also nominated for the Supporting Actor award as was director Martin McDonagh for his original screenplay. At times darkly humorous, the film is more often dramatic, and in depicting how anger can metastasize into violence, it offers a view of the human condition not often explored in film.
8. “Get Out” – This film was the “must-see” movie of the early 2017 season, the big discussion about it being whether it was truly a horror film or something more profound. It was part horror, part mystery, and part message, as it explored racism from a decidedly different angle, making it surprisingly refreshing in a non-preachy way. It received four coveted Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), and Jordan Peele, who directed, won the award for his screenplay.
7. “Lady Bird” – This gem from Greta Gerwig is clearly drawn from her own experiences growing up in Sacramento. A wonderful coming-of-age tale from a young women’s perspective, this movie was a delight for mothers and daughters everywhere, and it was meaningful for fathers, too. The film was nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf), and Best Director and Original Screenplay (both for Ms. Gerwig). It played in Sacramento for over four months.
6. “Call Me by Your Name” – Another coming-of-age film, this one is about a young man (late teens) who falls in love with an older man (early 30s). The story captures all the passion of young love, but what makes the movie special is the intelligence of all the characters. I especially appreciated the father-son relationship that was only a small part of the story. The film received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory), and Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet). Mr. Ivory won the Oscar.
5. “The Post” – You needn’t have lived through the Pentagon Papers case that led to Watergate that presaged the resignation of President Richard Nixon to appreciate the inherent drama in the story, which was filmed with careful attention to detail by director Steven Spielberg. The threat to the free press is ever-present in the current climate created by the current administration. This film starred Meryl Streep (nominated for Best Actress) as the resolute heroine, Katherine Graham. It was also nominated for Best Picture.
4. “Mudbound” – This powerful film from Netflix tells the story of two families (one black, one white) in rural Mississippi after the Second World War. The families are essentially joined at the hip, even as they struggle with different issues. The screenplay, co-written by director Dee Rees and Virgil Williams was adapted from a novel by Hillary Jordan. It was nominated for an Academy Award as was the performance of Mary J. Blige (Best Supporting Actor). Ms. Blige was also nominated for Best Song, and the film received a fourth Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. The film was released to only a few theaters and was underappreciated by the Academy, perhaps for that reason.
3. “The Florida Project” – And on the subject of films that were underappreciated, how did the Academy miss this one? It’s a terrific film about poverty, the perils of being raised by single parents who are into dope, theft, and prostitution, and of growing up while living in a motel that has been converted to government-assisted low-income housing in the shadow of Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, all told from the vantage point of young children who act very much like the Little Rascals of Hal Roach fame. The film is funny, except when it isn’t at all funny, and it’s poignant even when it is funny. Its sole Oscar nomination was for Willem Dafoe for Best Supporting Actor.
2. “The Shape of Water” – This one took home the big Academy Award prize as the best film of the year. It received 13 nominations and also won for Best Director (Guillermo del Toro), Original Music Score, and Production Design. Its other nominations included Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins) and Best Original Screenplay (Mr. del Toro and Vanessa Taylor). It is a beautiful film about the most unlikely pair (a mute female janitor and a mute male sea creature), who fall in love despite all of the societal barriers to their relationship. It’s a film for which the word “magical” is truly appropriate.
1. “Dunkirk” – If this film isn’t the greatest war movie ever made, it is certainly the greatest cinematic achievement about an episode in a war ever made. Director Christopher Nolan weaves three separate stories about the escape from Dunkirk, following the British defeat there, into a seamless narrative. The stories focus on the air battles, the sea rescues, and the harrowing scenes on the beach. The film has little character development and minimal dialogue. The pictures tell the stories. In a word, it’s a masterpiece. It received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it won Oscars for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
Okay; so, acknowledging that my list may not be perfectly ordered, I do assert that all of the films on it are worthy of inclusion on a best-films-of-the-year listing. They are now all available on the various media that provide for non-theatrical viewing. And, this being the time of the year when what’s showing in the theaters is mostly less than Oscar-worthy stuff, seeing a few of them in the comfort of your living room is a perfectly acceptable alternative.