This was a subtly subversive year in filmmaking—and Christ knows there was a lot to revolt against. While sexual-harrassment allegations hit the top studios and the White House, strong females often ruled the screen. Meanwhile, everything from romantic comedies to horror movies was challenging Trump America’s ignorant racial views.
Jordan Peele screws around with genre almost as much as he does with liberal righteousness in the age of Trump and Trayvon Martin. Impossibly, his manic mashup ends up landing somewhere between explosive social satire and splatter horror. Star Daniel Kaluuya’s nightmare is a rich white suburbia reminiscent of Scream’s or Halloween’s, but the evil here resides not in a mask-wearing maniac but in an Obama-voting patriarch and Earth Mother psychiatrist.
Breakout director Greta Gerwig shows meticulous skill at tapping the awkward pain of a girl coming of age. The charged relationship between eccentric Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her passive-aggressive, overworked mother (Laurie Metcalf) feels so achingly familiar, you almost have to avert your eyes. Gerwig gets all the details right, from the iffy indie-red hair-dye job to the blotchy facial acne to the dramatic proclamations of first love.
The Big Sick
A smart-funny slice of real multicultural life—and a welcome antidote to all the nauseatingly rote rom-coms out there. Two random favourite scenes: a Pakistani woman letting her guard down to admit she’s exhausted from being paraded around for an arranged marriage; and comedian Kumail Nanjiani trying to find a respectful way to log in to a thumbprint-activated cellphone when its owner is in a coma.
The opening is indelible: an Indigenous woman running for her life, barefoot in the snow. From there, Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut leaves you with a chill that goes bone-deeper than the bleak winter landscape where it takes place. Far more than a murder mystery, it’s a genuinely disturbing portrait of the injustices done to Native Americans—but also a testament to their warriorlike resilience.
A Ghost Story
Resistance is futile. Director David Lowery sucks you into his haunting, lyrical look at mortality, complete with a ghost wearing a stupid bedsheet with sad cutout eyes. Floating through mind-bendingly fluid time and space, the movie needs almost no words to talk about big subjects like the meaning of life, the weight of existence, and our built-in resistance to letting go.
Blade Runner 2049
Everything Blade Runner geeks could hope for and more, heightened by the visual genius of Roger Deakins’s dystopian futurescapes, Benjamin Wallfisch’s roaring soundtrack, and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s uncanny ability to inject sci-fi stories—even one about replicants—with humanity.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Screenwriter Martin McDonagh and an elite acting ensemble find all the conflicting shades that run beneath good guys and bad guys. No one, to a person, acts in any way you’d expect in this story of a grieving mother (Frances McDormand, at the height of her gruff powers) and the flawed small-town cops assigned to solve her daughter’s rape and murder.
Chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall’s first husband was one of the world’s top wildlife cinematographers—a fact that makes the long-lost archival footage here so remarkable. When her toddler son isn’t splashing around in an African lake with monkeys, he’s playing in a large jungle cage so the primates she’s studying don’t rip him apart. Beyond those spectacular home movies, director Brett Morgen digs at Goodall’s central quandary—marriage and motherhood versus her life’s calling.
Breathtakingly gloomy and as tight as a whalebone corset, this is a pretty period piece gone wonderfully ugly. Florence Pugh is transfixing as the rebellious 19th-century woman sold off to a cruel husband and locked in his grey mansion. Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Brich ratchet up the tension by throwing in issues of sex, class, and, especially, race, as a bullied black servant (Naomi Ackie) slyly starts to turn the tables.
Earning marks for sheer balls, Alexander Payne’s weird fable about humans who buy into a shrinking craze manages to speak to most of the pressing questions of our times: the personal-debt crisis, illegal immigrant workers, and Earth’s impending eco apocalypse. An audacious, semicomic trip that meanders, but never where you think it might.