To see the entire list of my 100 top movies of last decade, or to find the landing page for the other years in this series, click here.
My recollections of the 2017 movie season—the first one I followed with any real interest since I was blindsided with the double abominations of The Artist and Argo—are almost entirely about Get Out. Whether or not Get Out could win Best Picture, where Get Out fit in compared to Moonlight from the year before, how Get Out was one of the most fascinating horror movies in living memory, how Get Out was a true indie success story, what Get Out said as social criticism about Obama’s America, what Get Out said as social criticism about Trump’s America, what had led a TV comedian to go in the opposite direction to make Get Out, and more. There’s always one movie that becomes the main character of these discussions, but Get Out was such an overwhelming darling that it’s still throwing a shadow on a good but not great year, a year that has a little bit of depth but on the whole doesn’t even have the top-heavy bona fides of 2012. Even more shadow is being thrown posthumously, as it were, by Phantom Thread. For one thing, the movie didn’t even come out in most places until 2018, and for another, it has gotten kinder reviews with every passing year. I recall that it was received warmly but not glowingly, and it has increasingly taken on more shine. For as much praise as The Master has has gotten this decade, Phantom Thread appears to be the one that people like more, and from a certain normie perspective, it is also getting some credit as the one of the thirty or so best movies of the decade. These are both great movies, but if they are the major standouts from the year, then that probably says more about the quality of 2017 than is strictly flattering.
Out of the eight movies from 2017 that have made my list, two of them are from long-time listeners, first-time callers, and to the best of my knowledge they make up half of the directorial debuts on my list. Peele’s debut is a historic one, though Kogonada’s is the one that I find absolutely spellbinding, the kind of independent movie that one rarely gets anymore. It’s not glib or twee at all, even though it almost certainly would be in another filmmaker’s hands. The rest of the movies here are the work of veterans, albeit somewhat unconventional ones. Lucrecia Martel’s fourth feature is sitting around here, as is Yorgos Lanthimos’ sixth; for moviemakers nowadays I suppose that’s not so uncommon (and in Martel’s case there are conditions outside her career which I think have kept her from working more rapidly), but compared to the giants of yesteryear it’s almost like those two are just getting started. As for the Brits, they were seasoned with television experience which still characterizes their cinematic work. An eclectic group for a year in which unusual scenarios or takes on normal situations are by and large the standout movies.
20) Zama, directed by Lucrecia Martel
I’m usually allergic to torpid comedies about bureaucracy (thus being lower on Brazil than I think everyone else I know), but maybe the problem I had was with the setting. Zama is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever come across, and in large part Martel is simply using what she has to work with. In 18th Century Argentina, living in a remote hamlet without niceties or luxuries, we can understand the boredom and shame that Zama must feel when he stands on the beach and looks onto the water. But in his despair he is missing a scene of rare beauty: the pink and gold interplay of water and sand and sky, the cliff overlooking the beach a little ways off. It is one of the best opening shots of the decade. The dissonance between what we see and what Zama is feeling is so plain, and it only furthers how strongly he is guided by his ennui. Or maybe it’s his midlife crisis; he spends a lot of effort trying to charm a local noblewoman whose husband is across the sea, and just absolutely whiffs with her every time. He has slightly more success spying on the native women slapping on mud while they sit on the beach, but they have his number just as much as Luciana does. Lying down on his back, he tries to sneak peeks over the edge of the outcropping he’s made his little spy headquarters, but almost immediately one of the women on the beach puts out the call: “Voyeur! Voyeur!” It raises the question of how this functionary expects to get anything right if he can’t even play the role of a peeping tom with any finesse. Perhaps Zama is a good little flunkie, and the movie suggests once or twice that Zama has accidentally made himself good enough at his job that it’s not worth it to move him from it. All the same he is hellbent on getting out and totally placid about how it might work out for him; in one scene, he speaks with a monk while the corpses of a boy and a sickly man are covered in lime. Zama is a little distracted in his conversation with the monk, presumably thinking about how long it’ll be before that’s him under a layer of white powder as some other bureaucrat discusses whether he should be cremated. Meanwhile, a boy tries to get his top to spin in the lime. In a movie which has dozens of indelible moments, perhaps that one is the strongest of all. In Zama’s world, everyone is spinning weakly before they too are covered with disinfectant.
In Zama the dissatisfaction is polite for eighty percent or more of the movie. Over and over again he asks superiors to send letters on his behalf in order to get a transfer to some other place in Argentina. This supplication, phrased deferentially, is inevitably replied to with “What letter?” When the old governor tells him that he himself is being transferred, the camera cuts back to Zama, clearly angry. He cannot express this anger, though, and even if he could it would hardly be the fault of this governor who has his own garden to tend. Meanwhile, a llama wanders around in the background of the shot; we could be upset in solidarity with Zama, but it is much more enjoyable to laugh at the sudden presence of this llama, one of two witnesses to Zama’s humiliation, and for all we know the more sympathetic of them. (Martel makes a habit of cutting a shot a beat or two before it’s easy to react to it. We might laugh more at the llama if it were on screen a little longer, just as we might gasp when Zama is brought down by a trip wire, but in both of those representative cases there’s a cut that makes us wonder at it more than engage with it. It’s an incredibly smart decision; something I admire about someone like Kenneth Lonergan is that he is perfectly content to kill a scene without trying to round it out with extra dialogue, but Martel is doing the same kind of thing with images alone, a choice which is more cinematic.) The new governor, on the other hand, gives Zama a mission. Upon its completion (finding and writing up a report on a seditious book being written in Zama’s department? a Super Mario sidequest it is not), the new governor consents to write the “first letter.” Zama is confused, but it makes enough sense when the governor explains. The first letter is very important, he says, because the king pays absolutely no attention to first letters. Wait a year or two, we’ll write a second letter, and then he’ll think about it. Zama is so blown over—Daniel Gimenez Cacho is never better in this movie, looking like he hasn’t even slept for days—that he cannot even speak to the new governor despite multiple prompts being given to thank him. The next time we see Zama, he has joined a band of vigilantes and he’s grown a truly divorced beard. The last twenty minutes or so of the movie are so different from the first ninety, and the movie needs them. In lieu of this courtly abnegation, Zama is introduced to a far more brutal world, one where fear and mystery have much more sway than favoritism and chit-chat, and Zama proves to be just as inept in this world as he was in any of the others spheres he splattered himself upon.
22) Columbus, directed by Kogonada
Look no further than the title, or the opening scene (there I go again), or the concerns of the first half-hour of the movie: Columbus is about place, and it’s that laser-focus on place which makes this movie exceptional. On paper, this is an indie slog: two unlike people with parent problems (her druggie mom, his emotionally distant and physically ailing dad) come together and learn some stuff before going their separate ways. Nor do I think the movie is able to slough off all those tired Sundance warts; if we’re honest, Casey’s mom is always too much an obstacle and not enough a person. In practice, though, Columbus is sublime because it’s about two unlike people with parent problems who happen to live in a gorgeous monument to their problems. There can’t be more than a few places in America where you can soak up great architecture like Columbus, Indiana, and of course that’s the trouble that Casey and Jin have. Casey has grown up around it, ingested it the way other people have ingested the air of the town, and it’s why she wants to be an architect. When Jin asks her what she specifically loves about the Irwin Bank (presumably, in movie time, already the Irwin Conference Center), asking her for something more than just what the tour guides spout out about the buildings, the movie shifts. We don’t hear her explanation, or Jin’s questions about it. We watch her move her hands geometrically, and the movie replaces words with music. The modernist architecture of Columbus is appealing for its lines; even if things are off-center, there is purpose to them, but she keeps drawing out rectangles in the air that match the shapes of the buildings. If she lived a few towns over, or in the Columbus of Georgia or Kentucky or Ohio, maybe she would have reached out to something else to provide shape to her life. “Suddenly, the place I’d lived my whole life felt different, like I’d been transported somewhere else,” she tells Jin as they look at her third-favori building in town. That architecture can be part of her healing and that it is immediately available to her is good fortune, and a curse of its own: she wants to be part of the group of people who makes and talks about this stuff, not the people who just lead tours on it, and yet doing the former means leaving her unreliable mother to her fate. Every fact memorized, every trip back to a building she likes is a reminder that she’s going to be stuck with them because she is executing a labor of love for a parent. Richardson smiles a whole lot in this movie, and there are so few of those smiles that reach her eyes; it’s like watching someone taking school pictures over and over again. Even with Jin, who she seems to like immediately, that smile does not always get all the way into crinkling; with her mother, the smile is entirely genuine and not a little fearful.
“My dad would have loved you,” Jin tells Casey when she says she felt “transported” when she realized the trove around her. It’s a pointed statement, even though the way he says it passes pretty casually. There’s the suggestion in there that with a different parent Casey’s life would be fundamentally different, and of course the suggestion that his father, who Jin has come out from Seoul to see in this time of need, doesn’t love him. Jin is a professional and cosmopolitan adult; he can sway that conversation to a direction he’d prefer to see it, and he pushes Casey a little to admit that her mom was on meth where she never does turn that conversation back on him. It’s a day later before she can ask a question like, Why aren’t you at the hospital? His answers are more curt: nothing’s changed in his condition, I don’t want to talk to him, “he was never interested,” and even then he manages to turn the conversation into a question of expectations about grief or performative spirituality more than something about him. Neither one of them is good about talking about themselves; we can feel how fully they have gotten used to putting their focus on other people, or more accurately, how to change a conversation to put the focus on other people, so that they don’t ever have to be under anyone else’s microscope. The joke is that Kogonada relies on wide shots so frequently, loving the way modern architecture uses rectangles and squares as frames, so easily turning those frames into the little boxes like the ones we watch people in. Columbus is not a subtle movie, even if it’s by and large a quiet one. Kogonada puts a fence between Jin and Casey when they first start talking to each other. The conversations people have are a little more blunt than I think anyone’s real conversations are. Yet there is so much thought in each frame that one sacrifices a little subtlety for a lot of beauty.
45) Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
For months before this movie came out, I was overwhelmed with the thought of Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, the last hurrah for the poster child of screen acting excellence of the 21st Century. There’s a lesson in there about PR. About halfway through the movie I had not forgotten about him, precisely, but my focus was set on Vicky Krieps, an actress I had never heard of and who I had never seen in anything else. Alma was coy, stubborn, childish, manipulative—a list of things that nobody likes to watch—and yet I was fascinated by this woman anyway, amazed by her absolute sense of rightness, unable to be abashed into shame the way we are meant to understand that so many of Reynolds’ exes were. Phantom Thread has the misfortune of coming out when it seemed like everyone else in the world was making stories about people poisoning or manipulating their loved ones into being or seeming sick, and on a surface level, Alma poisoning Reynolds with mushrooms half out of frustration and half just to buck him off his high horse seems to fit into that fad. As is so often the case with Paul Thomas Anderson, I’m not sure it’s that simple. It’s not about needing Reynolds to be sick so she can take care of him, nor do I think Alma is struggling with some type of mental illness. Alma just doesn’t know how else to break him down, and mushrooms come to her with the swiftness and might of a sign from God. Krieps’ watchword for much of this movie is simplicity. There’s no big acting moment for her. Even when Day-Lewis yells, Krieps rarely raises her voice to match his for volume; she has a low murmur, and I suppose she enunciates enough for a normal human being, but compared to Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville there’s something sludgy in her speech. Nor is she rubber-faced, drawing from a cabinet of expressions for all possibilities. It’s the simplicity, the straightforwardness, that makes her fascinating. Even in real lives we are raised to believe that someone skin-deep is not interesting or thoughtful, and in cinema (for full effect, read “cinemaw” like some stuffy Brit at a conference is yakking about it) we are perhaps even more conditioned to believe that it’s what lies beneath our immediate observation that makes someone interesting. There is very little underneath in Alma, and Krieps makes that absolutely engrossing because of her willingness to see the why: Alma’s just kind of a kid. Contrarian (“Perhaps I’m looking for trouble”), petty, needy, stubborn, and none of it with some hamfisted explanation based on fake psychoanalysis to “explain” why that is. There’s that wonderful scene where Reynolds is imploding over asparagus, the one where he asks if she has a gun because she’s coming to kill him, and while we’re still laughing about that, she explains why she’s suffocated by this House of Woodcock stuff. It’s a game, she tells him, and in saying so she has suggested an arbitrary world of rules and winners and losers that she does not quite understand. There is a complexity without real meaning in what Reynolds’ life is; Alma, a blunt person, is able to see through what others would call complex and name it erratic.
Phantom Thread is the movie where Anderson starts to tap into his inner Max Ophuls, and it’s a direction that I’m here for if he continues to embrace it. The shots he takes up and down a long, twisty, multi-story staircase feel like a pretty frank nod to The Earrings of Madame de…, and there is a swirling and showy grace to some scenes that recall the camera of La ronde or Lola Montès. Think about the fashion show at the House of Woodcock where Alma is involved as a model, sashaying in an arc from one door to another; meanwhile, Reynolds sashays a little more brusquely, checking hats and faces and dresses and gloves before they head out to be admired. The New Year’s Eve party that Alma sneaks off to and Reynolds ultimately seeks her out at is pure Lola Montès circus, crowded with people, burgeoning with human movement and props. There is a Tintin-esque rocket in one corner of the room, a covered wagon bouncing about on the floor, balloons and confetti, spotlights flaring, people in ridiculous unwieldy costumes. Reynolds, all business, tries to cut through the crowd to pull Alma out, which he ultimately does after a curt conversation. Ophuls left the sorrow of seeing Lola in that crude circus act, more freak show than anything else, up to his viewer; seeing Lola kissed over and over again demands our pity. Anderson turns that scene into something much more focused, more like a single arrow than a great barrage. Our pity is for Alma as it was for Lola, but instead of an army of faceless men, it is an army of one, who bears an angry look for the crime of Alma choose independence and joy rather than Reynolds’ crusty idiosyncrasies.
54) The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci
Quietly, one of the bolder decisions of the movie year must have been to give so much time to the Stalinist reign of terror without making any jokes about it in this movie. Some of the best bits in the movie are about people being absolutely terrified of Stalinism, of Beria and his NKVD. Paddy Considine is tremendous in this movie as a man working in radio who realizes that a concert that Stalin was listening to wasn’t recorded. He desperately tries to get people to return to their seats, first by hook and then by crook. The seats are ultimately filled in by people taken off the streets who cut a very different image than the nicely dressed folks who were there before; a conductor has to be fished out of his bed and taken to the radio station, which he and his family certainly interpret as a death sentence. There’s a scene later on where the members of the Central Committee are having doctors rounded up; this guy, out walking his dog, isn’t dumb, and he tries to run away before he’s eventually brought back to their truck by force. How he tries to play it off like he’s not running away is incredibly funny, but we’ve already seen a bunch of people rounded up at this point in the movie, and none of that is funny at all. One scene takes place in what I have a hard time thinking of another term for than “dungeon,” where Beria keeps only God knows how many innocent people and has terrible things done to them for state security or whatever; there’s nothing funny about it at all, and Simon Russell Beale plays that scene where he talks to one of the prisoners with as much gusto as he does when he’s slinging insults at Steve Buscemi or Jeffrey Tambor. If there was anyone able to make this kind of movie, undoubtedly it is Iannucci, whose work is so funny and so incredibly nasty that I always feel like I need a pick-me-up (chocolate, a Disney movie, etc.) after watching anything he’s made. Just because what’s going on here is deadly serious, and just because it comes at the tail end of decades of mass death in the Soviet Union, doesn’t meant that Iannucci can’t make it funny, too. Everyone loves “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” and Iannucci is brassy enough to add in his own similarly themed quip to the canon: “I’m the peacemaker and I’ll fuck over anyone who gets in my way.” So says Khrushchev, and historically speaking he’s one of the better people in this company of villains. The same frequent one-liners that have built Iannucci a following over the preceding decades definitely put a new spin on “rapid-fire” when they’re put into this movie. But the climactic moment of this movie isn’t one of those, but a hastily arranged execution of one of the highest-ranking men in the Soviet Union, who screams for his life and is shouted over by men who seemed either agnostic or in favor of him hours before. In short, this is a movie which makes a bunch of jokes en route to a coup, and then after the coup it’s very strongly implied (and of course history does a little work here) that the master of that coup is not going to get to enjoy the fruits of it for very much longer. And just think, it all began with Khrushchev and Malenkov arguing over whether or not to begin making decisions as a committee while Stalin’s dying carcass lies in its own urine. (“Quorate? The room is only seventy-five percent conscious!”)
This is another one of those movies that really is made better by an ensemble cast, an ensemble cast of TV actors, theater transplants, and character men. In other words: no Oscar nominations in this group, everyone hitting marks, and a movie where Steve Buscemi is probably the most celebrated movie actor of the bunch. Dermot Crowley is in there hiding behind a mustache as Lazar Kaganovich, who has one of my absolute favorite lines of any movie because of how much I hate its relatability: “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this.” Rupert Friend’s first lines on screen are a reaction to how badly the Air Force hockey team is playing: “When we play Hungary, are we allowed to use guns?” It’s very possibly the most coherent and sensible thing that his Vasily Stalin has to say in any part of the movie. If it weren’t for Jason Isaacs, I think it would be fairly easy to anoint Friend as the biggest scene-stealer of the picture, playing a blithering, deluded drunk with a weakness for ursine analogies. But alas for him, Jason Isaacs is around, a Liverpudlian who has adopted an incredibly surprising and somehow very fitting Yorkshire accent to play Zhukov. (I love that everyone comes to this movie with whatever accent they felt like. If you want Eastern European accent work, go watch Sophie’s Choice and drown in the technique of it all.) Zhukov, the only major character here who is neither related to Stalin nor trying to succeed him, is the hero of the Great Patriotic War and acts like it. Based on what he’s wearing on his chest, Zhukov shot Michael Phelps on the way to Red Square and relieved him of his medals. He does not like Beria because Beria is the greatest affront to his authority, and when Khrushchev quietly suggests that they ought to take care of Beria in a rather permanent way, Zhukov agrees…slowly. “I’m going to have to report this conversation,” Zhukov says very seriously. “Threatening to do harm or obstruct any member of the Presidium in the process of,” and then his voice trails off, and there’s an enormous smile on his face as he watches Khrushchev lose all his color. “Look at your fucking face,” Zhukov says, and then kisses Khrushchev right on the mouth. I don’t know that I ever would have imagined Jason Isaacs in a movie like this, but of course after seeing it I don’t know how to imagine it without him.
58) Get Out, directed by Jordan Peele
I’ve compared this movie to an awful lot of other movies since I first saw it. I’ve written about it in the linked review above as a great-grandchild of Vampyr, using similar imagery for the Sunken Place that Dreyer used for an immobilized man in a coffin I’ve also written about it as a possible Easy Rider,or as a possible Grand Hotel. Two and a half years out from the original release, here’s another comparison that I hope will be fitting for longer, since neither one of my predictions has come true: Psycho. There can’t be that many people who think Psycho is the best American movie of the ’60s, or just the best movie period, but it has to be mentioned first among horror movies, and it’s an absolutely essential text for anyone who claims to care about movies. Relieved of the burden of having to be the year’s flagship movie about black people in entertainment media (sandwiched between Moonlight and Black Panther), Get Out can now claim that “instant classic” status, well-earned at that, because it does so many things so well. Daniel Kaluuya is already one of the most fascinating actors in Hollywood, and in Get Out he rolls through all of the qualities that make him so engaging. He’s got this terrific smile that adds to a genuinely infectious charm, as well as the relatability that one likes to see in a leading man; he’s not quite Tom Hanks, but I already don’t like seeing Kaluuya in danger any more than I liked seeing Hanks in tough situations in those ’90s movies. There’s also a seriousness he can tap into that we’ve seen in Black Panther and Widows, and that seriousness is what I hope will make him one of the most renowned actors of the ’20s. When he’s thinking through the mysteries and problems to solve in this movie (looking at the torn up chair he’s tied to, trying to keep his phone adequately charged, thinking about where he’s seen “Logan” before), he can settle us into that same mindful, sober state he’s playing, draining any kind of levity the movie might have had. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are stellar in this—Whitford hastened the death of “The West Wing is still good!” faster with this role than anything short of a Trump presidency could have—and as the kids, Allison Williams and Caleb Landry Jones are spot-on versions of college-educated white people walking the streets of D.C., Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles alike. One is pure Anthropologie and Barre classes, the other a CrossFit laxbro meathead, and in the end both of them are as much enemies of this nice black guy as the Colorado rubes of BlacKkKlansman are enemies of nice black guys in their own time.
If the movie begins to sag a little with the weight of having to end once Rose betrays Chris (“You know I can’t give you the keys, right, babe?” is absolute perfection), that’s fine; Psycho is a little flabby itself with explanations and diagnoses. I’ve gone back and forth on the ending of this movie a bunch of times since I saw it. Part of me still thinks this is a better movie if the cops show up and bring Chris in, but that part of me is less noisy than he used to be. I think the movie is probably more successful when it’s giving Chris a relatively happy ending, rescued from a lifetime of a new and vicious form of slavery through his phone and Lil Rel Howery. I’m just not sure that we’re crying out for more stories where black men are killed by cops in the same way that we’re not necessarily crying out for more stories where LGBT people die when they can’t be together. And although it’s always going to feel a little cheap for Rod to roll up in a cruiser with the lights going, it’s a move which makes sense in the story itself. As much as there’s an obvious tome of social messages being blared out loud and clear at the Armitage house and a new chapter of the sci-fi lexicon being written, part of the genius of this movie is in giving it as much comic relief as it is. Rod’s attempt to convince law enforcement that there are white people trying to make black people “sex slaves and shit” is hilarious, but it’s also a hint at something we’ve all learned anew in the past few weeks: the cops aren’t there to help, anyway.
62) The Other Side of Hope, directed by Aki Kaurismäki
If this is really Aki Kaurismäki’s last movie, then first of all we are all the worse off for it. He also could hardly have made a movie which I think is more like him. It’s shot and blocked like we’ve come to expect from him: the rooms are mostly bare, and there is a Mondrian simplicity to some of the more beautiful shots. His people always seem weirdly bunched up in the shots, which is funny on one hand and somehow appropriate on the other, like the world inside the frame is a whole nation with pockets of dense population and stretches of nothingness. Of course, it would not be Kaurismäki if it were not humanistic, and The Other Side of Hope is at least partly a gripping refugee drama. Khaled, a Syrian refugee, arrives stowed away on a freighter, buried in coal and blackened with the dust. Our first image of him is strange, and he is a little frightening because he is so alien; covered in the soot he is more like the Bum from Mulholland Dr. than anyone else. When he disembarks, gets clean, and makes his way to a police station to claim asylum. His story for the immigration agent is a harrowing one, a transcontinental journey that began when all but one member of his family was killed, which becomes bleaker still when he is separated from his sister halfway through the journey, and which is frustrating: the immigration agent is ready to brand him some kind of radical Muslim terrorist, when Khaled has seen so much death and wickedness that he is beyond belief in God. The friend he makes at the homeless shelter advises him through all of this that he must be happy for the Finns. They get rid of people who seem too sad, he says. You must show them how happy you are to be here, even if, as the friend is, he is working a menial job that gives him far less than he is worth in his original country. Eventually, the Finnish government rules against Khaled: for whatever reason, he is not granted asylum, and instead of abiding by the decision Khaled breaks out of the shelter and runs for it. It’s a movie which does not rely on the words “illegal” or “undocumented” or anything like that, but in Khaled we see that “illegal” feels like adding insult to injury. He may not be there legally once he begins to scramble around Helsinki trying to survive, but the legal option is to send him back to unimaginable suffering in his homeland. Khaled, who is intelligent and sensitive and motivated, is a good man; The Other Side of Hope unequivocally puts its chips on the table and bets that its audience will feel more sympathy for someone who needs help than be swayed by some legalistic drivel.
Because this is Kaurismäki, The Other Side of Hope is also a screamingly funny movie, and it takes mild genius to combine the story of an immigrant on the run from the local authority with the story of a guy who’s broken up with his wife and is trying to give the restaurant business a go in his late middle age. Waldemar’s restaurant already is harboring a stray dog that no one at the restaurant has the heart to send away. (Waldemar walks into the kitchen and finds the cook and the waitress abreast in lockstep, blocking his path from seeing a very cute little stray…these are the kind of bad dance moves one does to accomplish the same thing on a sitcom, and they are done with a straight face and, naturally, a zero percent success rate.) When Waldemar finds Khaled, the restaurant adopts him and, better still, finds someone who can forge papers for him. They hide him in the bathroom with the dog when the inspectors come by to check on the cleanliness of the place; he gets put in there first, and the dog gets handed to him later without explanation. He participates with the rest of them when they decide to give up on Finnish cuisine in favor of becoming a sushi restaurant, tying a scarf around his head to look like Toshiro Mifune or something, who can say. That scene where they try to put together sushi for a busload of Japanese tourists is one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a movie. The head chef badly underestimated how much fish they would need, and so he and Waldemar are forced to look through the fridge to see what they can scrape together. The cook pulls out an enormous pail of brined fish. “I’ve been saving this for summer,” he tells the boss. Without missing a beat, the boss replies, “For how long?” In the end, they send out…well, you have to see it to believe it:
No one says a word.
79) Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright
A year after a young director captured the Oscar for Best Director for his musical in which neither of its principal performers could sing or dance, Edgar Wright released his own musical, Baby Driver, in which the title character’s several iPods are the score that everything moves to. People don’t love that early scene where Baby jukes to his music and little exclamations from the song appear in graffiti; the movements seemed were too closely aligned with the music for some folks. Maybe these people also have trouble with the “How Far I’ll Go” sequence in Moana, where she frequently marches to the beat of the song, where her gestures occur on downbeats, but I doubt it. Baby Driver is a genuine genre mashup, equally attuned to the needs of the musical and the needs of the action sequence, and Wright unites them beautifully; he’s made the entire plane out of needle drops. Wright gets me early in the movie, but I am absolutely in love with a scene in which he links up Blur’s “Intermission” to the tapping of windshield wipers, which are perpetually off the beat in real life but in this movie act like extra percussion. Music in the car is one of the rare experiences that most of us can share, and there are few things more American than having to drive everywhere to get anywhere. Putting this movie in Atlanta—and boy, if this movie can turn South Downtown into the Atlanta that people think about as opposed to whatever’s getting torched in Gone with the Wind, fine by me—is kind of perfect for it. Speaking as someone who commutes via 285 and 85 when there isn’t a pandemic on, it is blissful catharsis to watch Baby burn rubber through just about every highway inside and outside the perimeter. And while Baby is not listening to Outkast or Ludacris (the soundtrack is very much Edgar Wright’s taste and not what’s on 105.3), Atlanta is one of the essential musical cities of the United States. In music and car chases, timing is everything, and it is only proper that the two of them manage to come together in a movie that doesn’t need to be mixed together this well to work. Baby loves music because he loves music, but he also loves music because it reminds him of his dead mother, and he has headphones in constantly because of the tinnitis he picked up in the car wreck that killed his mom. This is a movie that doesn’t want us getting too comfortable with its cool as ice driver protagonist who warms up to a waitress with a heart of gold and a silver accent. Baby is definitely a sweetheart and kind of a dork, mixing little things people say in pre-crime briefings into samples, spreading peanut butter to the edge of the sandwiches he makes for his deaf, wheelchair-bound guardian. Bullitt could be cool. Baby is the kind of guy who could only be played by someone named Ansel Elgort.
Though he makes for a good anchor, it’s because of how low-key his performance is. Everyone else in this movie is chewing scenery with those plastic vampire fangs you see kids popping in at Halloween. It is something to listen to Surrey’s own Lily James give herself a drawl straight outta Newnan. Eiza Gonzalez is so loose that she may have escaped from a music video before she ended up in this. Jon Hamm’s haircut is doing an awful lot of work, but it’s also the first time I’ve seen him play a part that he’s actually got some chops for: charming, wild-eyed maniac. He’s really got something going in a scene where he bops to “Brighton Rock” with Baby, and he’s got something else going entirely when he’s in a stolen cop car and chasing Baby and Debora through a parking garage. The first time I watched this movie, I thought Jamie Foxx was doing too much even by its own standards. The second time I was blown away by him, which is appropriate given the murderous bent of his favorite hobby. Foxx is playing someone genuinely dangerous, and doing it so well that his character is making the point about how scarier he is than Hamm’s just because Foxx has that extra gear. With Foxx’s worst-kid-in-class charisma working this wildly, Bats brings endless possibility to the movie. On one hand, absolutely unhinged, robbing a convenience store and murdering the guy behind the counter just for the heck of it, fearlessly scraping out his territory as loco hurricane. On the other, completely canny. Bats sniffs out immediately that the weapons dealers he and the team have been sent to are all cops; that they’re crooked cops only comes out once all the cops are dead, most of them shot down by Bats himself. He prevents Baby from sneaking out before the last job, guessing correctly that he would bail. He is so studied that his pattern recognition could be mistaken by an amateur for intuition; he is a grandmaster of chess, guessing correctly that Buddy has a Wall Street background, that Baby not only knows the waitress at the diner but wants to keep getting to know her. The movie can only contain so much of that before it would combust, I think, but Foxx is very likely the best part of the picture, so cartoonishly over the top that it keeps Baby Driver from ever getting too saccharine or joyful.
93) The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
By a wide margin, the easiest of Lanthimos’ English-language movies of the decade to dislike, and it’s why I expect that this movie is also the least-represented of Lanthimos’ English-language movies on best of the decade lists. There’s not much opportunity to yas queen Nicole Kidman’s performance or to meme Colin Farrell’s; what Barry Keoghan is up to is disturbing and weird and offputting. It’s sort of like high school on a lot of those lists, I think, in that the kid who’s both weird and funny (The Lobster, The Favourite) can be accepted, but the kid who’s weird and a little creepy is not likely to win over a bunch of friends. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is primarily about where people put their faith, and how weak those vessels are. Martin, presumably, put faith in a surgeon to help save his father’s life when his father got into an accident all those years ago; that Steven failed to save his father, and it is suggested, was guilty of malpractice, is damaging to that faith we put in doctors. When Steven’s children fall ill just in the manner that Martin suggested they would, doctors and hospitals fail to either explain what is wrong with the children or how it can be treated. Faith in medicine, science, reason all falter. The only faith that can save one of Steven’s children is in something much less clean, something grimier and impossible to explain. (You can find the people who are missing the point in this movie by seeing which people are completely thrown by their need of an explanation for what Martin is doing; probably they got upset that passes signed by de Gaulle would hardly be of much use to anyone in Casablanca.) There is no proof for Steven that if he does kill one of his family members—wife Anna, daughter Kim, son Bob—the sickness will fall away from the survivors. All he has in front of him is the evidence of sickness and a teenager who has prophesied correctly all the way down the line. Steven tries to make the decisions as logically as possible, even going to the school principal to ask about which of his children seems more gifted; of course, the joke is that when it comes down to “Which of my children should I sacrifice?” we have already reached a point where all logic has to be tossed out the window anyway. Even Martin seems unable to control this incredible power which defies science and reason; when Steven kidnaps him and beats him, it’s a logical if savage choice. If he can make Martin change his mind about the “justice” he appears to be in control of meting out, then he can save his family. Martin takes the pain stoically. The film intimates that even if Martin were of a mind to stop what’s coming, he wouldn’t be able to do so. Something began rolling long before, something that cannot be beaten into submission or cast out by a prescription or disappeared by waking up. I don’t know that The Killing of a Sacred Deer qualifies easily as a religious movie, but it’s hard to deny that this movie is just as much about faith as something like Silence. How else would we explain that final scene, where the Murphys see Martin one final time, only with one Murphy fewer?
The performances in this movie are unusual, to say the least. There’s something déclassé about Martin and his mom, something uncouth. They’re oral people. Martin chews a lot, smacking loudly as he puts away spaghetti. He doesn’t seem particularly unkempt for a teenage boy, but he reads as a slob through his posture and his nasally voice. His mother takes a shine to Steven when he visits the house, and it does not take her nearly long enough to come on to Steven by putting his fingers in her mouth with the same relish that Martin has for putting forkfuls of spaghetti in his. On the other hand, Steven and Anna, highly educated, very well off, are almost robotic. They speak mechanically, without much feeling or volume. No one would question their posture. Steven has a big ol’ beard, but it’s neat and well-maintained. When they have sex, Anna pretends to be under anesthetic, which is definitely a choice for a surgeon to enjoy as much as he does; it goes without saying that this decreases the interaction within that particular scene. By the end of the movie, Anna has become more human than her husband, doing things that are easier to recognize as motherly. We can see it in the way she insists that her children come home from the hospital once it’s clear that the hospital has nothing to offer them, or in the way that in one scene she carries Bob, whose legs are shot, down a flight of stairs. She gives out sexual favors to another doctor to learn more about whether or not Steven was drunk when he was operating on Martin’s father, to figure out the truth of the situation that Steven has been fairly tight-lipped about. In other words, Anna gets to desperation first, and more thoroughly, than Steven ever does. It finally does come for him, when he stands blindfolded in the middle of the room and spins, aiming for his likewise blindfolded family members. He has given in to faith, unless he’s never really been converted; for most people, chance does nearly as well.