It’s become a beloved tradition (don’t ask me by who), for me to list my favorite achievements in acting, directing, writing, and other crafts of cinema. This is all basically an indulgent fantasy of what I would pick, were I in charge of the Oscars, but a fun one. I hope. Anyway, below are my choices for 2017. And if that’s not enough for you, you can hear me talk more about my choices with my good friend Rachel Wagner both in Podcast form and on Youtube.
Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
“Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” The question, posed by Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) to Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is one of those lines that perfectly encapsulate the theme of the movie they’re in. What makes Lady Bird great, however, is that it is not content to say what it’s about, it wants to be what it’s about. Lady Bird shows attention to all its characters, to the details of their lives, to their stories. I can’t think of a more generous, tender, and profound moment than when Gerwig cuts from Lady Bird consoling her ex-boyfriend Danny to her mother, at work, doing the same for a depressed man. This movie is full of love.
This was a good year for movies. I wrote a whole post on my favorite movies of the year, which you can read right now if you click here.
Sean Baker (The Florida Project)
I like to spread the wealth, because why have a Best Director category if you’re just gonna give it to the one that directed the Best Picture? I want to single out Sean Baker as someone with an impossible task. A movie about a young girl living in poverty? Are you kidding me? This is a recipe for maudlin disaster. Instead, Baker goes into unexpected places. His young protagonist is loud, rude, and angry. She is an honest child in an honest situation. That extends to the loving but frustratingly angry mother, the kind but restrained hotel keeper, and almost every person that shows up in this gem of a film.
- Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird): For a most welcome kind of auteurism. Every single frame in the movie is confidently hers. No need to underline or bold.
- James Gray (The Lost City of Z): For classicism and patience, for searching for the sublime and not finding an answer. For a miraculous ending.
- David Lowery (A Ghost Story): For vision. For having a crazy idea, following it all the way to the end of the world, and pulling it off.
- Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie (Good Time): For crafting a flawless movie. Not an ounce of fat, not a misplaced hair, every cliche applies to this machine.
Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)
Lady Bird is great because it strikes the exact perfect balance in order to make the best movie possible out of Greta Gerwig’s screenplay. There simply wouldn’t be a right balance without Saoirse Ronan, who makes it all look effortless, as she casually gives the best performance of the year. Critic Tim Brayton describes it best: “When the script says that Lady Bird should be tugging on our sympathy, Ronan [makes] her hard and alienating; when the script wants her to be a witty quipster, Ronan [shows] the frantic work Lady Bird has to do in order to seem like she’s not collapsing from stress and fear all the time.” This is the work of a virtuoso at the top of her game. At 23 years old, who knows what the limit is for Ronan’s talent.
- Regina Hall (Girl’s Trip): For a performance that’s an argument for stardom. She laughs, she cries, she carries the film, and makes it all look effortless.
- Rebecca Spence (Princess Cyd): For warmth and depth, and such a felt woman. She deserves to break big and get offered every available script.
- Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper): For re-inventing herself (and her performance) in every line reading. The most unique actress of her generation.
- Meryl Streep (The Post): For a performance to rival her best work, for understated choices, for that glorious silence before she goes “let’s do it”.
Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
I’ve never been a big Robert Pattinson fan, not even in his artsier projects. This year, however, this was the year of Pattinson. First, he was totally affable and understated as a bearded explorer in The Lost City of Z, and then he delivered what might very well be the performance of his career in Good Time. My problems with Pattinson were always his insistence in intense, big acting. He leaves all of that behind in order to play a low-life whiteboy from Queens who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. His performance is unstoppable. It’s all about action first and thinking later. There’s no room for histrionics, and that’s exactly what the movie needs.
- Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread): For going out with a bang. An incredibly prickly man, full of line readings that will do down in history.
- Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out): For holding one of the best movies of the year together. The way he uses his eyes alone should make him a star.
- Adam Sandler (The Meyerowitz Stories): For loss, anger, sadness, all ingredients in the regular Sandler formula, re-mixed into outstanding work.
- Ben Stiller (Brad’s Status): For the best work of his career. He’s been playing white men in crisis lately, but never going as ugly and honest as here.
Best Supporting Actress
Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)
She plays the protagonist’s mother, and the performance is so layered there is really no simple way to describe the character. I’ve heard people refer to her as “overbearing”, “conflicted”, even as a “bad mother.” None of those descriptions -especially the last one- make the character, or the performance, any justice. There is so much going on behind Marion McPherson’s harsh façade, and Metcalf lets us in on it through a most graceful performance. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself”, she tells her daughter. “What if this is it?” asks the girl. The mother shoots her a look. And what a look it is. There are no words, yet Metcalf says more about her character she might as well have written a novel about her. With one look.
- Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip): For filthy hilarity and an earnest, warm heart. A masterful balancing act if there ever was one.
- Elizabeth Marvel (The Meyerowitz Stories): For a unique character. Doses of hilarity, innocence, and poignancy balanced in a way we haven’t seen before.
- Michelle Pfeiffer (Mother!): For understanding what kind of movie she’s in and hitting straight for the fences. La Pfeiffer reigns supreme!
- Taliah Lennice Webster (Good Time): For turning a one course meal into a banquet, giving us so much about her character through honest and detailed behavior.
Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)
Imagine having the range of Willem Dafoe? He’s played everyone from a murderous vampire to Jesus Christ. He has played villains, sidekicks, buffoons. But there is one thread that stretched through all of his performances. A sort of melancholy that hides behind his angular face and comes through his big blue eyes. It’s that soft pain of recognizing the dangers and injustices in the world, even when you can’t do much about it. In The Florida Project he plays a motel manager who is simultaneously an antagonist and a guardian to the poor people trying to scrape by in the outskirts of Orlando. He brings in so much humanity to the role it may very well the brightest moment of his career.
- O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ingrid Goes West): For being charming as fuck. A breath of fresh air and low-key empathy in a very frantic film.
- Jason Mitchell (Mudbound): For making dignity engaging, which is not easy to do. For a burning passion that earns him the heart of the movie.
- Ray Romano (The Big Sick): For a thoughtful and heartfelt performance, as loving and warm as the movie. Raymond can act y’all!
- Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name): For the power of kindness and softness, and the way he sells that flowery monologue like nobody’s business.
Best Ensemble Cast
(Jonathan Banks, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Rob Morgan, Carey Mulligan)
The great thing about Mudbound‘s structure is that every major character gets a spotlight shone on them at one point or another (especially during the first half). It can feel like a disjointed ensemble at first, since we’re bouncing off from one character’s perspective to another’s. Being inside someone’s head and then seeing them from the outside can be disorienting. However, once the table setting has been done, and we’ve learned who each of these players is… Well, that’s when the magic starts happening. Suddenly every glance, movement, comment says volumes about each character. It’s a worthy set-up, and this amazing cast relishes in the payoff.
- The Beguiled: For an incredible cast of veteran and young actresses, who give personality to even the smallest roles. And you can do worse than Colin Farrell as the sole male.
- Get Out: Because virtually every performance in this movie is memorable, everyone gets a chance to shine, and they take it.
- Lady Bird: Because how could a movie as generous as this one work without a masterful ensemble at both comedy and drama?
- The Meyerowitz Stories: Because through chaos, bounciness, and stillness, these people evoke all the frustrations of interacting as a family.
Best Original Screenplay
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
One cannot help but commend a movie that manages to capture the zeitgeist not just because of its topicality, but because it’s so damn good. Peele’s biggest accomplishment is being able to take a bunch of horror influences (Rosemary’s Baby, The People Under the Stairs) and remix them into something that functions like a perfect pop culture machine. It’s hard to find true originality and energy in the three-act template of mainstream Hollywood, but once in a while comes someone who can grab that template and take it to the bank.
- Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig): For a screenplay so fully committed to finding the point of entry into every characters’ humanity. A humanitarian effort, if you will.
- The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach): For giving into the comedy, diving into silliness in order to find pathos. And for juggling adventurous structures.
- Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson): For the most bizarre romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. For remaking Fifty Shades of Grey as a prestige picture.
- Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone): A wonderful script throughout, but I come back endlessly to Rebecca Spence’s monologue in the kitchen. What a piece of writing.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Mubound (Dee Rees, Virgil Williams)
My favorite thing about this screenplay is its use of narration, a device that is usually used a crutch, but is essential to the success of this movie. The proper plot doesn’t really kick in until halfway through the movie -when the two sons come home from the war. The entire first half is dedicated to get us to know every one of the main players intimately. Narration from six different characters is how this is achieved, by making us stand in their shoes, see the world from their perspective. That’s the only way we can truly understand the dynamics at play between these two conflicted families.
- The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola): For a remake that turns the focus from heinous revelations into one about observation and behavior.
- Frantz (François Ozon): Remixing Lubitsch, changing perspectives and diving right into the melancholic crevasses of the original.
- Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro): More inspiration than adaptation, but a movie with a unique and worthy vision of Shakespearean romance in the 21st century.
- The Lost City of Z (James Gray): An old-fashioned movie with a progressive heart, a way of talking all its own, and a mythical structure.
Best Animated Film
World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
The first World of Tomorrow -animator Don Hertzfeldt’s first foray into digital animation- is nothing short of a miracle. The brilliant short film takes the musings of a sedated futuristic clone and clashes them against the nonsensical freedom of her four year old past self. This second installment goes even further, looking not at how we might interact with the dehumanizing technologies of the future, but how we hold on to the fondness memories of the past. Equal parts hilarious and heart-breaking, this sequel is more experimental, more densely stuffed, and harder to grasp than the original. But none of that makes it any less rewarding.
- The Breadwinner: Beautifully animated drama, walks such a fine line between whimsy and horrific tragedy. Impressive in tone and theme.
- Your Name: Goes a bit too deep into science fiction for me, but a lovely body-swapping story about knowing the person you fall in love with.
The Lost City of Z (Darius Khondji)
Director James Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji have become great collaborators. Their first movie together, The Immigrant, culminated in one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful final shots of any film. Then, they decided to top themselves with The Lost City of Z. But it’s not just that the last image we see in this movie is incredible, the whole journey through the Amazon is a unique spectacle. It’s the kind of detailed, beautiful photography that takes into account the true majesty of the landscape. And the final section of the movie, before that wondrous last shot, in which the explorer’s last journey turns into a fire-lit dream is nothing if not magical.
- The Beguiled (Philippe Le Sourd): Life has left this house. Everything is dull, damp, humid. Women hiding in the shadows of a decrepit fortress.
- The Florida Project (Alexis Zabe): The ugliest buildings, in the most beautiful light. How can you find visual elegance without making poverty look fun?
- A Ghost Story (Andrew Droz Palermo): A movie of images. It’s all about placing a white sheet with two holes amid time and space.
- Good Time (Sean Price Williams): Close-up on the face. The protagonist isn’t stopping and neither are we. But don’t worry, wide shots tell the truth.
Best Production Design
Wonderstruck (Mark Friedberg)
I am still sad I couldn’t love Wonderstruck as much as I wanted. The movie can never fully rise past a disastrous screenplay, but every technical aspect of it shines bright in my memory. None of them more than the production design, which recreates New York in the roaring twenties and the run-down seventies. Both times are reproduced with intense love and care. And if that weren’t enough, Mark Friedberg tops himself with an unbelievable diorama-like montage toward the end of the film. One of the most purely beautiful sequences I saw all year.
- Atomic Blonde (David Scheunemann): For an East Berlin that feels decrepit, dull and yet excitedly dangerous. A sea of grey that pops with neon.
- Call Me By Your Name (Samuel Deshors): I heard that this basically shot in Guadagnino’s house. I’m just here to say the guy has great taste.
- A Cure for Wellness (Eve Stewart): The most art directed movie of the year, and boy am I glad about it. The Creepiest Beautiful Budapest Hotel.
- Downsizing (Stefania Cella): Because everything’s just a little off. A reminder that the scale of the world is not the one we know.
Best Costume Design
Phantom Thread (Mark Bridges)
This is a movie about a fashion designer, so of course the costumes are going to look great. But Phantom Thread is a cagey movie, about characters who aren’t willing to open up about themselves and their feelings. We learn a lot about them through their costuming choices. The outdated red dress Alma wears to her first date, the ridiculous vest-over-pajamas Reynolds wears to a frustrating dinner, and the incredible white collar shirt and black dress Alma wears in her final fantasy are all indicative of these hermetic characters’ inner lives.
- Atomic Blonde (Cindy Evans): Give me Charlize pulling up her turtleneck. Give me McAvoy’s giant coat. Give them to me every single day.
- The Beguiled (Stacey Battat): Dressed in their best clothes, impressing a man who is an enemy. Southern decadence perfectly reflected.
- Call Me By Your Name (Giulia Piersanti): It’s all about the shorts! And the big sneakers! And the colors! The eighties without screaming.
- The Post (Ann Roth): The golden caftan is the obvious standout, but it’s the most written about costume choice of the year for a reason. “caftan as superhero cape.”
Good Time (Ronald Bronstein, Ben Safdie)
How can one truly judge a movie’s editing without knowing what was left in the cutting room floor? One can only turns toward a movie’s rhythms, how it uses its pace and its length. It’s easy to be impressed with the editing in a movie as propulsive and tense as Good Time. The movie follows its problematic protagonist relentlessly through a night of bad mistakes. I am, however, also impressed by the times when the movie pumps the breaks. The beginning and the end, when we spend time with the other Nikas brother, and see how the rhythms of their lives are different, and affect each other.
- Faces, Places (Maxime Pozzi-Garcia, Agnes Varda): The magic of Varda’s movies lies in the editing bay. Bonus points for making JR so likable.
- Get Out (Gregory Plotkin): There is nothing more satisfying than a well-edited horror, especially one that puts unsettling moods over loud scares.
- Hermia & Helena (Sebastián Schjaer): Cutting back and forth from location and stories, creating confusion and play. Cinema becomes a game.
- The Meyerowitz Stories (Jennifer Lame): Her experiments with Baumbach are developing a structural and rhythmic style of their own. Unique work.
Best Original Score
A Ghost Story (Daniel Hart)
The key to a great movie score is a great theme. Daniel Hart’s main theme for A Ghost Story is simply perfect. During the course of this small budget epic through the afterlife, the score is re-interpreted as a melancholy tune, a romantic love song, and a rousing spiritual crescendo. The way in which Hart finds new depths and permutations to his music is ideal for a movie that keeps re-inventing itself, opening itself up bit by bit until it dares to try and capture a whole universe inside itself. The second half o this movie is guided by the score. That’s a feat.
- Good Time (Daniel Lopatin): Eighties high octane synths that keep up the tempo. After all, this movie can never stop.
- The Lost City of Z (Christopher Spelman): Appropriately mysterious and atmospheric, while still feeling like a classical score.
- Okja (Jaeil Jung): So expansive, from guitars idly strumming to a staccato horn section racing with itself. It’s big and adventurous.
- Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood): A new side of Greenwood, so sweeping and romantic. The opening section of the film is all his.
The Lost City of Z
In a movie about a British explorer searching for new life in the depths of the Amazon, the sounds of Victorian England and the most remote nature blend in unexpected ways. The movie opens with Amazonian drums that turn into the fanfare of a British hunting party. What are the sounds of this jungle? They’re not wholly realistic, they feel like a dream, or a fantasy. Everything is so quiet, and yet, there is a thin veneer of unsettling awareness. That is not the life the explorer used to know. That he might encounter whatever he is looking for at any moment.
- Get Out: Because there are no jump scares in this movie, just a constant build-up toward dread. That tea cup is the most memorable sound of the year.
- John Wick: Chapter 2: Because John Wick lives in a cartoonish world, and the sound effects reflect that with the most extreme -often funny- choices.
- Okja: Okja is one of the best virtual characters of the year, and everything she does is emphasized through sound choices. Sound sells reality.
- Phantom Thread: This movie sounds like no other, toying with us and the line between cruelty and romance. Buttering toast is second only to that teacup.
Best Makeup and Hair
Atomic Blonde is a movie of extremes. It doesn’t take place in late-eighties East Berlin as much as it takes place in the Platonic Ideal of late-eighties East Berlin. Everything is turned up to eleven, carefully designed to perfection. There are two basic things that make up should achieve in every movie: make its stars look good, and alter their look through seamless effects. Charlize Theron has never looked better than she does in this movie. And you will believe the woman is going through intense physical strain whenever she scratched, cut, or lands a punch in the face.
- Battle of the Sexes: Contemporary wigs lack the necessary frizziness to conjure the seventies. Not here. The styles might be obvious, but the texture was there.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: It’s just a bunch of painted faces, but boy am I in love with the color palette of this brightly colored skins.
- Phantom Thread: In a movie about a prickly trio playing games with each other, a single hair out of place says loads about the contender.
Best Visual Effects
It’s hard to truly judge the achievements of visual effects artists in a time when our effects-driven movies are inundated in oceans of computer generated imagery. It all starts to look the same after a while, which makes the creation of Okja -the genetically modified super-pig at the center of Bong Joon-ho’s movie- stand out as the great visual achievement of 2017. You’ll believe super-pigs exist! Not just because the thing looks very photorealistic, but because of the personality and detail that the animators put in making this creature come to life.
- Dunkirk: Practical effects forever. They wanted us to feel like we went to war, and I’m pretty sure we did.
- Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2: I still come back to that flying red pen scene, and let’s not forget about the all-color psychedelic look of this movie.
- Mother! Say what you want about the movie’s themes, but that last third of total chaos is nothing if not a feat of film making.
- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Best effects or most effects? One visual wonder after another is just one of this movie’s pleasures.