7. Detroit – Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the 1967 Detroit riots is the most disappointing film of the year for me. Impressive sequences of filmmaking are hampered by choppy storytelling and bluntly forced politics that are more confused than intended. She’s attempting to recreate realistic moments of police brutality (obviously there’s modern parallels) but with such superficial characters it feels ugly and oddly immoral. A fascinatingly misguided film that so badly wants to be a documentary that, well, it should’ve been a documentary. Grade: (C) Skip it and rewatch literally any other Kathryn Bigelow movie. Point Break foreverrrrrrrrr
6. Columbus – Former video essayist Koganada writes and directs this carefully calibrated film that uses a well worn story (longing to leave a small town) but expresses its emotion through minimalist form and cinematography. Haley Lu Richardson emerges as an actor to watch playing Casey, a young woman who’s stuck in Columbus, Indiana for family reasons but dreams of becoming an architect. It’s a film fascinated with architecture and its central character’s emotional connection with architecture. I found this approach less of an intentionally elusive story and instead more cold and, to be honest, boringly one-note in its depiction of Casey’s identity being evoked through these designs. Still, it’s an interesting debut that’s obviously been thoughtfully put together. Grade: (C+) I admire it more than I enjoyed it, but it’s worth a rental if you’re interested in form and minimalism.
5. Wind River – Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) has emerged as one of the more interesting writers in recent years. He tells genre tales that exist on the outskirts of American soil. His newest film, set in the snowy mountains of Wyoming, is a whodunnit about a Native American teenager whose body is found on a reservation. Elizabeth Olson is the FBI agent who teams up with Jeremy Renner’s local frontiersman, Cory Lambert. It’s a film that intends to make us aware of Native American women who go missing, yet it doesn’t have a central female Native American character. I don’t know if that’s a totally fair critique but I noticed it while watching. As a piece of genre filmmaking it’s an icy slow-burn with a gut punching final act. While often engaging, Sheridan’s first directing effort ends up limiting his own material (it feels like a well done CSI episode), and is the weakest of his three films. It’s a solidly made/well acted thriller about humanity existing on the edge of society and in the heart of nature. (B-) Rent it for Thanksgiving. Just like Hell or High Water, it’s a helluva good “Dad movie”
4. Logan Lucky – Steven Soderbergh returns from retirement with the exact sort of film that you’d expect him to return with — that is to say it’s completely unexpected. This southern hick heist film stars Adam Driver, Channing Tatum, and Daniel Craig as rednecks who plan to steal from a Nascar racetrack. It’s a hoot! Soderbergh is an economic and efficient filmmaker. Here his talent is in service of a lively but hollow caper that spends all of its fuel on the parts of a heist you wouldn’t expect. A solid Ocean’s 11 sequel that wins the award for “most pretty good” film of the summer. Grade: (B-) Rent it with a few beers.
3. A Ghost Story (Technically a July release but I saw it in August) – Casey Affleck plays a husband and ghost who haunts his now widowed wife, played by Rooney Mara. A formally adventurous film about love, loss, and what happens after death. Few films this small are so ambitious and even fewer begin to evoke and answer such big questions. Almost like a silent film at times, David Lowery has crafted a near-great science fiction-esque tale about the places, moments, and people that bind us to eternity (La Jetée comes to mind). I found its focus on moving-on a bit too narrow (I wish it was almost entirely silent and more opaque), and there’s an extremely “sundancy” party scene that spells out the film’s themes, but this is often an emotionally stirring film. Grade: (B+) Rent it and have a discussion over wine.
2. The Trip to Spain – Superstar comedians, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, take a trip to Spain in this third film from their European adventures saga where they eat food and make jokes. If you’re unfamiliar, that literally is the premise of these movies. So, once again, Brydon and Coogan go to restaurants and talk to each other while director Michael Winterbottom films them. But that doesn’t articulate just how good this film is. There’s a James Bond joke that made me laugh so hard I thought I was gonna have to leave the theater. The tone of the film might make you think this is all just for laughs — and it is consistently funny — but throughout the comedic meals are moments of regret, reconciling with time, and the bitterness of life. Noel Harrison’s “The Windmills of Your Mind” is first heard as a joke sung by Brydon, but it quietly becomes the film’s anthem of inner identity. Comedy is rarely, if ever, this artfully made. The best comedy of the year will make you laugh and laugh and laugh while you begin to feel a lump in your throat. Grade: (B+) Buy it and eat fancy takeout while drinking wine and laughing your butt off.
1. Good Time – The summer’s second best film is a lightning rod of expressive genre filmmaking that signals the emergence of two filmmaking brothers: Josh and Benny Safdie (Heaven Knows What, 2014). Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a man who goes on an adventure through the New York underworld to try to get his brother out of jail after a bank robbery gone wrong. A sense of immediacy guides Connie from odd location to odder location. The Safdie brothers answers the question, “what if Michael Mann directed Of Mice and Men?” Pattinson is incredible, like 70’s Robert DeNiro incredible, in the role of a man stuck in an inescapable system polluted with oddballs, addicts, and New York creatures that lurk after midnight. The synth soundtrack pulses like the heartbeat of a man desperately trying to save his brother. Narratively its tied through some contrivances and works a bit too hard to gain your empathy, but the world the Safdies build is so dense, organic, and full of grime and energy that it earns a place among classic city underworld movies like Miami Blues, Thief and After Hours. Grade: (A-) See this caffeinated New York odyssey in theaters and then buy it and rewatch it every year while sipping on your favorite alcoholic beverage.