15. I, TONYA- A movie that chronicles the first 25 years or so in the life of Tonya Harding could have really gone one of two ways: either the self-serious Lifetime Movie route, or embracing the story’s inherent ridiculousness. Having Margot Robbie, who is “Hollywood pretty” by any standard, portray Tonya Harding at age 15 by giving her a short haircut and some braces pretty much shows right off the bat that the film intends to go the second way. But in addition to the requisite goofiness one can expect for a figure skating film full of rednecks, assholes, half-wits, and dim-wits, the movie itself plays things pretty smart. It’s been simultaneously praised and derided for taking inspiration from the work of Martin Scorcese. Goodfellas in particular is name-dropped in the advertising. But in order to put together a tale in which not one, but multiple unreliable narrators regularly refute each other, sometimes even turning to the audience and breaking the fourth wall to dispute the action occurring onscreen, it likely couldn’t have worked as well any other way. Ultimately, the film’s view of Harding is a sympathetic one (her POV is understandably the most prevalent), but it never lets her off the hook, as she is represented as throwing regular tantrums, making constant excuses, and usually only taking minimal responsibility for her actions. The storytelling has pop sensibilities through and through; in fact, I would go so far as to say it’s technically brilliant. However, there’s always some sadness around the edges to remind you that, no matter how absurd the plot gets, these are real people. The end credits even show excerpts from archival footage to try to drill home how surprisingly unexaggerated this whole circus is.
14. COCO- It’s possible that Coco may seem better than it is by virtue of having a truly bad Frozen special programmed before it. However, even if we assume that’s the case, it still comes across as a total winner for Pixar. The story, which follows a music loving Mexican boy through the mythological underworld on Dia de los Muertos, may have some plot holes, but it’s hard to worry about them when it’s so much fun and has a lot of great touches that remind us how Pixar really cares about the details. So in a lot of ways it’s more or less par for the course for the Lamp, but even then, Coco manages to elbow its way into the higher tiers of their films thanks to the humor on display and the main character being pretty endearing. Beyond that though, there’s some really mystifying stuff for anyone who wants to really dig, like how it takes place in an afterlife where fame is an even more valuable commodity than in our own world. The music is catchy (and, since at least one tune is repeated ad naseum, that is very, very important. See also: That Thing You Do.) The visuals are full of a Halloween splendor, with a walking tour of the most unique setting they’ve put on the screen since Monstropolis. But even in a movie this visually striking, Mama Coco herself stands out, at once creepy, heartbreaking and… even almost cute on occasion; truly great character design. While I’m glad animation has slowly been evolving and there are seemingly more voices in the features game than ever before, there’s a reason Pixar continues to stand out in their field.
13. BLADE RUNNER 2049- It’s hard to believe that Denis Villenueve pulled off a sequel that not only managed to keep from sullying the lustre of its now-regarded-as-a-classic progenitor, but may even improve upon it, leaving its moral relativism and complex plotting while forgoing a lot of the overcooked dialogue and adding something that the original only flirted with: genuine pathos. Ryan Gosling makes a surprisingly good lead, channeling his leading man status to serve as part of his replicant nature. Harrison Ford keeps up his “greatest hits” tour, following up his fun turn as Han Solo with another return to form, this time as Rick Deckard, the runner that took off with Sean Young’s experimental Rachel model of the original. But the real MVP is Ana de Armas, who is heartbreakingly good as various forms of an artificial intelligence named, appropriately enough, Joi. The plot twists here are not small, and the risk they undertook is definitely rewarded. While the visuals overall may not be as idiosyncratic and downright awesome (in the truest sense of the word) as the original, there are some bits here and there that certainly come close, especially a visit to an abandoned city that looks like it was rezoned to Mars. Plus, I can’t think of a recent film with a scene which has sucker-punched me in the gut like this one has, outside of Pixar. As time goes by, I predict 2049 will find itself having a very long shelf-life, just as the first film did.
12. COLOSSAL- I’ve heard a lot about the controversy surrounding Colossal. Personally, I think it’s one of those movies where the biggest messages one interprets are ones you’re bringing into the screening with you. Which, if we’re being honest, is often a hallmark of interesting sci-fi and art in general. I didn’t see it as some huge statement of empowerment, or a screed for misandry, despite advertisers and critics telling me what to expect. I saw a movie about a terrible, manipulative person having to make better decisions, because she’s surrounded by other people who are also varying degrees of manipulative and/or terrible (or at the very least, allow that sort of behavior to continue.) So rather than focus on the controversy, or the politics, how about I point out that it’s an incredibly clever, and original movie. That it is genuinely funny and engaging. That Jason Sudeikis puts in the best performance of his career so far, at times seething under the surface with genuine menace that belies his usual charming demeanor. That Anne Hathaway continues to impress me and puts in a wonderful effort as the main character of this stealth genre film. (I’ll never understand the relatively small, but intense, cult of public disdain that follows her like a dark cloud.) That, even with a doofy explanation for why what’s happening is happening, I found it to be a wholly satisfying experience. Colossal is small, but mighty. It is thoughtful, provocative, and absolutely worthy of your time.
11. THE BIG SICK- Telling people something is “a _____ for people who don’t like _____” is not one of my preferred descriptors. It feels reductive in most respects, to both the film being recommended, and the genre which contains it. But I would definitely recommend The Big Sick to people, even if they typically don’t enjoy Hollywood romantic comedies, because it doesn’t feel like a typical, ridiculous romantic comedy. Not only that but, perhaps because it’s based on a true story, it avoids the common clichés of them while keeping the basic tenants. Yes, there’s a big secret that keeps them apart. No, that secret isn’t something ridiculous or something that makes the main character seem like a complete sociopath for piling lie upon lie. Star Kumail Nanjiani manages to come across as natural and charming, while Zoe Kazan manages to take what would usually be a thankless role, pumping the brakes when we’re rooting for them, and is actually allowed to be sympathetic. Most importantly, director (and The State alum) Michael Showalter make it feel like a character piece first, and it never loses sight of that second word in its descriptor. It’s a movie that is genuinely funny throughout, despite tackling some heavy topics. These heavy topics, like family friction created by breaking with tradition and a large dose of medical drama, even result in fully-formed character arcs. It never even feels exploitive the way a tear-jerker would, milking the hospital scenes for all their emotional worth, despite the title. See it with someone you care about (who doesn’t like to be bored.) You’ll be glad you did.