5. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI- I don’t care how loudly the geek chorus against this film howls; I loved it. While I am on record as being a fan of The Force Awakens, I definitely had some issues with it, finding it a bit of an exercise in gimcrack. Yes, it was well made, but any digging showed some big flaws in the plotting and there were forced edits to the story, existing only for the purpose of obscuring the last 30 years of the mythology, which were more than a little maddening. I was actually more of a fan of Rogue One’s more straightforward (and somehow more original) approach. For me, Disney’s time as caretaker for the Lucasfilm franchise has been a steady uptick as Last Jedi is my favorite of the three. While it doesn’t reveal enough that was set up based upon the previous film (though I’m ironically glad writer/director Rian Johnson wasn’t beholden to JJ Abrams’ stupid mystery box) there’s little chance to worry about it, as the story, despite admittedly being overlong, manages to book for most of its runtime. Can I understand and even appreciate the complaints? Yes. But I enjoyed myself immensely nonetheless and, in some cases, I even found the film’s flaws quaint. Luke’s arc feels like a natural extension of his warring nature we saw at the end of Return of the Jedi. Rey, Poe and Finn become much more fleshed out than the rough sketches they were in Episode VII. The humor worked for me. The way Johnson finds new angles to explore in the Star Wars universe leads me to be much more excited about his upcoming trilogy than I was when it was announced. In essence, it delivered almost everything I could have hoped for in a Star Wars movie, and does not leave JJ Abrams any impediments towards going back and answering his own questions in Episode XI. Like Empire Strikes Back, I’m hoping time will be kind to this one, allowing it to overcome some initial fan-backlash and become a classic.
4. KONG: SKULL ISLAND- Skull Island is pretty much everything I could hope for from the modern Hollywood blockbuster machine. It is pulp done right. Lean, and surprisingly mean (a Cannibal Holocaust reference?!), it gives the audience plenty of genuine thrills and a surprising amount of violence before its done. Let’s just say it’s edgy enough that kids will probably feel like they’ve gotten away with something after they’ve watched it. True, Brie Larson is completely extraneous, and Tom Hiddleston doesn’t have much to do either, but it’s the rare blockbuster that gives us a crazy exposition character who we really can enjoy (an incredible John C. Reilly) and a more complex than normal bad guy (Samuel L. Jackson). There’s great work from John Goodman and a bunch of other character actors to boot. A strange combination of giant monsters and Vietnam-war era tropes, it really makes every second count and puts every dollar of its budget on screen to its benefit, giving us everything many of us had hoped for in the pretty good, but sort-of disappointing, 2014 version of Godzilla that focused on humans who were largely uninteresting and didn’t give the Big-G a chance to be a real character. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, thankfully, gives Kong enough screentime and personality to shine, as a gruff ape that manages to beat the living tar out of some pretty crazy stuff. Even better, it gives us a more thorough look at Skull Island, the mythological locale that has fascinated movie goers since the 30s, with dinosaur skeletons, giant insects and most of the things we’ve come to expect thanks to the sequels and remakes over the years, but somehow feeling fresh thanks to the updated context. This is a world, and a film, I want to revisit again and again.
3. DUNKIRK- Dunkirk is where Christopher Nolan puts together most of his best attributes, while managing to drop many questionable habits, and because of that, it soars. In a lot of ways, it is almost the exact opposite of everything you’ve come to expect from both Nolan and war movies in general. Clocking in at under two hours long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome or lean on an inflated running time to seem epic. It has a mixed-up time structure, and it may be a bit extraneous, but it’s worth it, because it’s one of his rare recent films that manages to hold together in its final act. Its action is present in short, controlled bursts and it carries a PG-13 rating, but it doesn’t take away the trauma and the tension of the situation. Nor does the violence, which excites but is never glorified, even necessarily feel muted because of it. The sound design is also fantastic and feeds just as much into the effectiveness of the film as the visuals. The impressive sights on display are worth every extra cent you may have paid for the IMAX screenings which took advantage of the 70MM format it was filmed in. Is it stoic? Yes. Is it matter of fact? Yes. Is it even cold? Maybe some people feel that way. But to me, it feels like Nolan is capturing the feeling that pervades of how Britain, to steal from the ridiculously overused slogan that has permeated culture again 70 years later, faced forward with a stiff upper lip and carried on during a time when history could have easily gone another way.
2. WIND RIVER- In the middle of summer, I had chills going up my spine from Wind River. Dare I say that, between the plot and the way it is shot, Wind River may be the most effective film at making you wish you were wearing a coat since John Carpenter’s The Thing. However, it’s not just the landscape that’s cold. A tale of murder in the sparsely populated Wyoming Rockies, Jeremy Renner gives one of the best performances of his career as a Fish and Game officer teaming with a young FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and a tribal police chief (Graham Greene) to bring a girl’s killer to justice. In a refreshing change of pace, there are no pissing matches over jurisdiction here; and while none of them are perfect, our principles don’t waste time trying to tear each other down. They are professionals doing a job and, as the land get colder, the tale grows darker. The story is almost secondary to the rich characters, but that doesn’t mean it’s given short shrift. It is masterfully plotted and the ending is so visceral that I felt like it grabbed me by the shirt and shook me in my seat. In some ways, this feels like the greatest episode of Longmire never made, weaving between the survivalist nature of living in the mountains, the pride and desperation of an Indian reservation, and the isolation that invades when someone is so far removed from “society” at large (while avoiding the pitfalls of getting overdramatic and silly.) I feel no hesitation in calling this a great rural neo-noir, a fantastic modern Western, and one of the best crime films in recent memory.
1. BABY DRIVER- I have enjoyed a lot of trips to the theater in the last 12 months, but few can compare with the experience I had while Edgar Wright’s latest wonder unspooled. Complaining about Baby Driver’s plot is almost antithetical to the concept of Baby Driver, itself. Slick, musical and soulful, Baby Driver is a masterpiece of moving pictures. And while I’ve heard people complain about the thin plot, you may as well complain about the story mechanics of Singin’ in the Rain or Drunken Master 2. It’s about the rhythms of the filmmaking coming together with music and physicality to create something new. If George Lucas made American Graffiti to be a “musical without singing,” then Baby Driver would have to be the next step in that evolution, and if nothing else, it moves me because when I close my eyes and listen to music, this is the kind of experience that goes through me. Back in the 80s and 90s, the old guard shook their fists at the new generation of directors that were emerging, shouting that some films were turning into “feature length music videos.” Perhaps they wouldn’t have complained so loudly if they knew the kind of care and artistry could be brought to them that exists in Baby Driver. While many of the auteurs I follow started out with “Jukebox Musical” soundtracks, many of them have stepped back from the practice. Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, for example, may still season their films with a peppering of obscure oldies, but they’ve largely phased out of wallpapering their films with them. Wright has filled the void in their absence and charged full-bore in the other direction, almost throwing more deep cuts at the audience than they can handle, but always in service of the film at large. As important as they are, however, the film wouldn’t work if the rest of it wasn’t just as on board: the stunts, the cinematography, the actors… each of them firing on all cylinders. The only thing that doesn’t work here is the name. I recommend taking the Bard’s advice and remembering that it smells the same, regardless. Don’t let the “Baby” of the title fool you: Baby Driver is superlatively wonderful and my pick for film of the year.