You likely haven’t seen all the films on this Top Ten list so how can you possibly argue with this reviewer’s choices? This past year, in particular, the top four choices are so close to each other in quality that they are interchangeable…in one man’s opinion.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh is back to his old, perversely clever and multidimensional self. Finally, a film equal to the dark brilliance of In Bruges, with standout performances from Frances McDornand and Sam Rockwell, the latter likely to pick up some award hardware for his guilt-stricken loser cop role.
Nothing less than the most emotionally powerful documentary ever made about how prison life hardens convicts. Co-directors Gethin Aldous and Jarius McLeary capture a four-day intensive group therapy session inside Folsom Prison. This SXSW Best Documentary Feature winner sends chills down the spine as society’s most violent men shriek and lash out as they let down their defenses. A stunning achievement.
Margot Robbie as hardened figure skater Tonya Harding and Allison Janney as her colder than ice mother both deserve their Golden Globe noms, as does the film, though its no musical and the comedy is as subtle as it is bitter. But the real breakthrough is for screenwriter Steve Rogers, whose dialogue is a delight and teaches us that the Harding-Nancy Kerrigan insanity prior to the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships was even more bizarre than we understood at the time.
Speaking of screwy family dynamics, Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) directs a picture perfect look at the failure of 1970s open relationships. The Copenhagen house that provides the opportunity for partner swapping among good friends soon spirals out of control. Trine Dyrholm is absolutely mesmerizing as the wife, mother and newscaster who psychologically cannot handle free love, earning her Best Actress at Berlin.
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond--Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
This Netflix documentary is so layered with reality upon reality, that one’s head spins, but in the best possible way. Jim Carrey, playing comedian-cum-performance artist Andy Kaufman during the 1999 production of Man on the Moon, gets lost inside the character of a man lost inside his own alter ego. Director Chris Smith and his editor Barry Poltermann do a miraculous job of always going deeper inside the minds of two of our greatest—and strangest—comedy performers.
Writer-director John Butler won Best Irish Feature at the Dublin Film Festival with Handsome Devil, detailing a gay outcast at an all-boys school whose macho roommate is a rugby hero, hiding his own sexual identity from the team and community at large. There is a clever, compassionate tone that pulls you in from start to finish and the film gently tugs the rug of expectations out from under you as it works its magic.
Oscar winner Errol Morris (The Fog of War) blends documentary with scripted speculation, with this theatrical feature and six part series. Dr. Frank Olson was a CIA biochemist who worked on the use of LSD for interrogations. When he’s dosed by a superior, his mind fractures and he is either pushed or jumps out a New York hotel window. Morris powerfully explores Olson’s son’s pursuit of the truth and Peter Sarsgaard shines as Frank Olson in the narrative film section of this intriguing work.
A story of a New York fixer (Richard Gere) desperate to improve his lot, latching on to a down-on-his-luck Israeli diplomat (the tremendous Lior Ashkenazi), but becoming enmeshed in a political scandal. It’s Gere’s best work in years and writer-director Joseph Cedar has constructed a film with great humanity and flawless emotional intricacy. Look for Ashkenazi’s stellar work in the Israeli Oscar submission Foxtrot, in the future.
If Franz Kafka were making films today, The Teacher might have been his latest project. In 1983 Bratislava, a new teacher forces students to serve her as if they are slaves and the parents are reticent to complain, because of her connections to the Communist regime. Jan Hrebejk forcefully directs the work, causing us to alternately laugh at the absurdly corrupt, smug female autocrat and wince at the repression of decent people, too frightened to risk standing up for what is just.
It is amazing that director Peter Nicks got access to shoot The Force inside the Oakland Police Department, just as it was coming apart from sex and brutality scandals. Winner of the Sundance Film Festival award for Best Directing, Documentary, this is a terrific, timely examination of the difficulties both within law enforcement and local and federal government, to change a culture in which honest cops dare not turn on those who are corrupt.
Honorable Mentions: Cat Fight, I Am Not Your Negro, Get Out