This list will be divided into smaller parts, as I did not quite take the time to write full-length reviews for most of the films this year. I have decided to use this opportunity to flesh out most of my thoughts with these films. The list will be released in parts everyday of this week. As much as I hate clickbait, I assure you that my purposes in dividing up my list into chunks has more to do with a reasonable word count rather than trying to cash in on some P.F. Skinner internet experiment run amok.
Runners up: Green Room, Southside With You, Kubo and the Two Strings
20.) Hacksaw Ridge
dir. Mel Gibson
Hacksaw Ridge is stylistically old-fashioned. It’s classical in the way it approaches its gung-ho patriotism and larger-than-life heroes. But what distinguishes this war film from others is the unusual story it found with Private Desmond Doss. His story is so unlike any other war story that even Cracked.com had an article a few years back that included him called The 6 Most Aggressively Badass Things Done by Pacifists. Desmond’s story is unbelievable at times, for he was essentially showing Rambo-style tactics without ever picking up a weapon.
During World War II, Doss wanted to be a medic and save lives, not take them. The man was a Seventh-Day Adventist pacifist who nearly faced court-martial for refusing to complete his weapons training. He simply would not touch a rifle. He also refused to work Saturdays because of the Sabbath. Other Christians point out that they interpret the Bible to make war an exception to the commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” But no matter how hard they try to get him to compromise, he won’t betray his values. The man had convictions and he wouldn’t bend them for anything. Given what has happened politically and socially in recent times, maybe the film could act as a wake-up call to some of those modern Christians who have traded away their values of love and compassion in exchange for hatred and fear, but I digress. To see this kind of character demonstrate his courage in battle is empowering. Although it has its share of Mel Gibson-esque gut-splattering, the film lacks the usual downtrodden bleakness of war films because the emphasis is not about taking life, but saving it. In Desmond Doss, Mel Gibson really has found a real American superhero whose story is worth telling.
19.) Sing Street
dir. John Carney
In John Carney’s follow-up to Once, Carney has once again constructed a “real world musical” in which characters do not break into song and dance and have bystanders suddenly drop everything that they’re doing and become possessed with the great spirit of boogie-woogie. That means that whenever people in the film sing, they are singing “in the real world,” in real time and space where bystanders can gawk and wonder if they are secretly filming a flash mob to upload to Youtube. While Once effectively followed a street musician having a brief encounter with a piano player, Sing Street follows younger subjects: 1980’s Dublin teenagers who want to start a band.
The hardships of growing up are conquered with brute force optimism. Poverty, divorcing parents, bullies, and cruel headmasters are met head-on with the overwhelming goodness found within the teenagers’ music. These kids realize that their focus and goals need not be limited to the confines of poverty. The lead singer is horrendously maligned for not being able to afford the right kind of shoes for school, but it’s merely a bump in his path, not a sturdy wall. These kids can set goals far beyond what their school, parents and reality expects of them. At one point, the kids have an epiphany about a bully. This bully is a violent, redoubtable brute, but upon expanding the scope of the band’s goals, the bully becomes quite pitiful and small. They are going to become huge. He’s still going to be some poor mate collecting government checks in a ratty apartment in twenty years. These musicians aren’t going to be stopped by some lone, sad kid. If they are going to become the next U2, who would waste their time dealing with a bully? The way these kids emerge and find their confidence is quite lovely. Sing Street is a wonderfully uplifting film.
18.) The Lobster
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
The Lobster has the second most absurd premise of any movie on this list: If an individual becomes relationally single from a spouse divorcing or dying, then that single person must go to a hotel and find a romantic partner within 45 days, or be transformed into an animal of his or her own choosing. The Lobster is an absurdist dystopian that makes for some spectacularly bizarre comedy. Because that every single person is trying so desperately hard to find a soul mate, how in holy crustacean hell are you supposed to convince the state that you have a special connection with another individual? Through special oddities like being born in the right Zodiac month? You and your romantic partner both have the same limp? The same laugh? The same kind of rare nosebleeds? Why are those the metrics used to quantify intimacy?
Everything about the relationships in the film are superficial. How could they not be? The state has completely deprived individuals of any kind of personal privacy. Because of that deep governmental oversight, it’s like these people are aliens imitating human emotions. The emphasis is on building the visible outer framework of a relationship, but without any of the inner-workings within. There is no room for messiness or individuality. The hero, David, is told that he must register as a heterosexual or homosexual, for there isn’t any room for anything in-between. He also has a problem with getting the right footwear as he is denied a shoe size that comes in 44.5. He either must choose a 44 or a 45. Either people are defined to be single or together. It is not the individual that determines the value of a relationship, for it is the state that does so. With such an absurd premise, the film explores a strange conversation about the nature of relationships as an institutional symbol of status. There really is no other film quite like it. It’s as if the filmmakers binge watched all of those movies about Rob Schneider or Tim Allen becoming animals, and thought, “How do we stretch this stupid idea far enough until it becomes profound?”
17.) All the Way
dir. Jay Roach
In perhaps the most underrated, under-the-radar performance of the year, Bryan Cranston is transformative as President Lyndon B. Johnson, a president who up until now was the clear winner of the award for “President with the Most Erratic Behavior.” If you take away the politics for a second and simply look at Johnson’s behavior, you will find a man who recorded a long conversation with his tailor about making his pants bigger so his “money and his knives don’t fall out,” which begs the question as to why the president is carrying knives in the first place. He also requested extra room for his crotch “down where your nuts hang” and make “extra room for the bunghole.” It’s a real conversation filled with presidential burps that was really recorded and put into his presidential archive. And everyday, he would have to review the tapes of everything recorded and see if he wanted to keep it for future reference. I don’t know why, but he must have seen some political importance to it. You can listen to it here:
I have somewhat of a deep fascination with presidential history, so I’ve come across a lot of weird stories about LBJ. Allegedly, he would take conversations with his adversaries into the restroom and force them to watch him defecate. He had a hydro-car that could turn into a boat, so he would take someone for a ride in the car and pretend the brakes were failing and sail right into a lake and laugh himself silly. I didn’t think that these were the kinds of details that the filmmakers would use for building their biopic around LBJ, but they use all of it, defecating and all. If a movie is trying to honor a president, how on earth do you honor such a president who forces his enemies to watch him poop? On the one hand, including it seems like a presidential smear, but not including this detail would be dishonest to the 36th President’s bowels.
LBJ is not remembered fondly in history mostly because of his later years and his involvement in Vietnam. All the Way focuses on the early years, around the same time as another biopic, Jackie, right after Kennedy’s assassination. It focuses on the demographic shift of the South from Democrat to Republican. It also includes the smaller historical footnote of J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with the sex life of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the larger historical footnote about the long passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it’s most essential quality is that it remains true to to the essence of LBJ, warts and all, or in his special case, bunghole and all. It is the first great movie about the greatly perverted man, and it recalls that in those early years before the long winter of the Vietnam years, there was a springtime, too. A springtime filled with politicians being forced to watch a president poop, but a springtime, nevertheless.
16.) The Nice Guys
dir. Shane Black
Shane Black is the preeminent champion of a very particular sub-genre that he created with Lethal Weapon. Since then, he has added new ingredients to his creation with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and now he brings his next fusion, The Nice Guys. It’s a buddy cop formula, but instead of arming these two with a plethora of bullets, they are instead armed with quick, rapid-fire one-liners. The comedic quips, comebacks, verbal assaults, and weird banter have almost a poetic rhythm to them. The insults seem to come from anywhere, like a barrage of beautifully-laced profanity representing the best-of comedy roasts. It is a gorgeously painted movie that uses insults as brushstrokes.
The Nice Guys takes the Lethal Weapon formula but applies it to a 1970’s case about missing porn-stars and crooked politicians. As it is with most of these kinds of movies, the convoluted plot is something for the characters get suffocated by. The goal isn’t so much to find out who-did-what-to-who but rather the goal is to see the characters rattle around in the plot like pinballs ramming into everything. It’s one of those films in which you don’t realize at the time of watching it just how horrifying some of the plot implications are, because you were laughing too hard all throughout. Arm-breaking shouldn’t be funny, but dammit, it is here.
Or to jump to a page:
Part II of the Countdown, films #15-11 can be viewed here.
Part III of the Countdown, films #10-6 can be viewed here.
Part IV of the Countdown, films #5-2 can be viewed here.
Part V of the Countdown, film #1 can be viewed here.