Just like regular film fans, I peruse these lists, seeking to compare and contrast my tastes against those of my peers. But all too often I find myself envious of their early access to a greater number of arthouse selections or film festival titles that I won’t catch sight of until September, when I head up to the Toronto International Film Festival.
So, as a regional film scribe, I feel an obligation to level the playing field a bit. For a film to merit consideration in my “Best Of So Far” list, it must have had at least one week of theatrical screenings in our market and screened at some point after the Academy Awards on Feb. 26. Let’s be honest, the real new year of film kicks off the first Friday after the big dance, right?
The good news is that this list gives readers a chance to play catch-up before the second half of the year swings into high gear and brings the annual awards season onslaught of prestige titles. Here are my best so far, in no particular order:
• During the second half of It Comes At Night, Trey Edward Shults’ psychological thriller, I mused to myself that I was getting a sneak peek at my Top 10 for the year. With his steady hand at the helm and the presence of producer and star Joel Edgerton, It Comes At Night wrapped me in the warmest, creepiest embrace I’ve been in so far this year. I was completely mesmerized, despite the fact that the team of indie producers at A24 absolutely mismarketed the hell out of this movie, convincing audiences that they were entering a horror film marrying It Follows or The Witch with the zombie apocalypse thrills of The Walking Dead. No way, no how, people. This was infinitely better thanthat gimmicky idea.
• The consensus pick for most viewers would have to be director-writer Jordan Peele’s Get Out. With a global box office tally of over $200 million, the film certainly stands as a major exception to the rule that movies by and about people of color fail to export well. And everyone now seems thoroughly interested in doing business with Peele, who looks like he’s going to be far too busy to actually appear in front of the camera anytime soon. The real trick here is that Peele’s ultra-contemporary racial horror allegory was able to do so much more than merely push PC buttons; the film drew people into theaters and into conversations afterward about something other than our Tweeter-in-Chief.
• The premise of French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s Raw sounds like an intriguing lark from the Toronto festival’s Midnight Madness slate. A virginal young veterinary student named Justine (Garance Marillier) discovers a mysterious truth about herself during a hazing ritual — one that sends her on a quest to quench a new deadly hunger for flesh. Part of the delicious play here is how vegetarianism factors into the narrative, making Raw a fascinating, contemporary coming-of-age story that draws crafty and quite sensual parallels with Paul Schrader’s 1982 version of Cat People.
• Graduation from writer-director Cristian Mungiu — who shared Best Director honors at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival with Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper) — deserved a greater following. It’s a complex situational human drama about how far a father (Adrian Titieni) is willing to go to assist his daughter in her efforts to get into university and start off on a successful path for a life abroad. It explores tricky ethical territory with a degree of naked honesty that forces audiences to question the choices we all make versus the lessons we hope we are passing on to our children.
• What kind of list would this be if I didn’t shower some love on Personal Shopper? Assayas immediately reteamed with Kristen Stewart, who made an indelible impression in his 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria, which earned her the first Cèsar (the French Oscar) awarded to an American performer. In Personal Shopper, Stewart is front and center, anchoring this curious tale about a young woman in Paris anxiously awaiting a message from her recently deceased brother. Assayas and Stewart will make you believe that ghosts communicate through text messages.
• Debra Winger needs to act more. It feels good to get that off my chest, because since watching The Lovers, I’ve been waiting for the next opportunity to see her onscreen. Why is it that European directors are tripping over themselves to work with Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert but there’s no love for America’s version of these screen treasures? Indie filmmaker Azazel Jacobs instills his film with a persnickety temperament thanks largely to the pairing of Winger and Tracy Letts as a bickering married couple, each with lovers on the side, who rekindle their old flame one last time. The undeniable allure of Winger pierces my tough, cynical shell like a love letter from the heart.
• The Big Sick is a real anomaly. It is small and intimate, thanks largely to its screenwriter and star Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistan-born stand-up comic with a low-key presence that is akin to the magnetic appeal of silent screen stars of old. His reactions are easily tagged as deadpan, but there’s way too much life, intensity and intelligence behind his eyes and in his whispered asides. His wit lurks in the mix, underneath the laughs. And, when paired with performers like Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, he ironically shines even brighter, granting The Big Sick the kind of broad beats we expect from high-concept Judd Apatow productions.
• What is Baby Driver? Fast & Furious Baby? The Usual Suspect Driver? (500) Days of The Italian Job? La La Heat? Director Edgar Wright shows his love for all of these movies and more, creating a frenzied mash-up that shifts gears and threatens to spin wildly out of control — except it doesn’t because he’s got a firm and steady grip on the wheel. How about just calling it a hit and leaving it at that?
• The rise of our current fascination with food culture could be traced to one man: chef Jeremiah Tower. Director Lydia Tenaglia, an award-winning producer (four consecutive Prime Time Emmys for Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown), knows what a celebrity chef looks and acts like, and in her documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, she makes a strong case for Tower being the godfather of the kitchen.
• Can anyone ever live up to the “role” of a lifetime? That’s the question at the heart of The Hero, from Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) with Sam Elliott as the man behind an iconic Western character who stares down his own mortality and the harsh realities of bad personal choices. The Hero epitomizes what is best about indie storytelling. It is bracingly intimate and presents a performer like Elliott with the chance to fill the screen like we’ve always known he could.