best film: Dunkirk  from Christopher Nolan

  • Dunkirk is a watershed film in the history of film editing. Nolan not only handles the three narratives in a completely distinctive and inventive way (here it may not be Rashomon or Pulp Fiction exactly but in the same class) but Dunkirk is also edited masterfully in-scene (with countless wonderful manipulations of space and time) as well as any film for maximum dramatic effect.  Throw in as a bonus that it is all handsomely mounted on gorgeous 70mm photography– resulting in a giant capital M- Masterpiece.

There is tangible impact of the large format 70mm/Imax photography

  • It is a walk-out-of-the-theater masterpiece – grand ambition and perfect execution.
  • Nolan is smart to fill many frames with extras—it not only helps add realism to the dire situation in the narrative but, visually it gives such an epic scope and multiple visual focal points to the large landscape, establishing shots, and 70mm/Imax longer lens.
  • For the beauty of the aerial shots the comparison might be the luminous work in Out of Africa and The English Patient (both of whom went on to win best picture and best cinematography in 1985 and 1996)- I kept thinking of the Howard Hughes line from Leo in The Aviator  about how the plane battles needed clouds for context and scope–wrong sir— undoubtedly, clouds are no match for the horizon and handsome open sea as a backdrop from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and Nolan.
  • The film’s straight narrative is really a series of deadlines and breathtaking manipulation of space and time through editing—this may bother some diehard Nolan fans who fell in love with him because of his clever ideas on memory and perception. This is a discussion of form versus content.
  • Brilliantly, Nolan chooses to go at this film from land, sea and air- and manipulates the time—it is such a calculated use of narrative structure (would you expect anything else from Nolan?)- very unlike other ingenious narrative restructuring efforts like Rashomon, Tarantino’s work or Iñárritu work.
  • It is much closer to a pure exercise in cinematic style then Nolan has ever been before (or since to this point). There is no story set-up here aside from the some tangential comments along the way and the opening title card preface—the entire film does not really need a exposition (sort of the opposite of poor Tenet) actually.
  • It could be Hans Zimmer’s greatest achievement with the musical score and he has done some astonishing work before Dunkirk with Inception, Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, Rain Man, The Lion King… and since Dunkirk with Dune – he belongs on the short list of the all-time greatest in this category now.
  • Nolan’s greatest strengths are (secondarily) his establishing shots and (mainly) his cross cutting (particularly with multi-threaded narratives) and this film is basically this for the entire running time instead of an elaborate and complicated story exposition set-up with some of this editing between and in a big finale.
  • There are many films to compare it to- the work of Leone (another great all-time montagist like Nolan) – the way the three threads start separate get progressively closer together has to be compared to Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—but, perhaps the main lineage goes back to Intolerance with how Griffith weaves his stories together slowly at first and then ramps up the pace—marvelous.
  • a clear masterpiece here that is not all about camera movement (a la Birdman, La La Land).
  • The performances are not the headline here but they are all very good. Kenneth Branagh comes off the best- his face and reaction is an example of the Kuleshov effect but he sticks the landing.

What can you make of Hardy here? Yet another top tier film where we do not see his face for basically the entire thing (The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road). His scene at the end with the plane on fire- being the face of the hero- is vital and not just any actor could pull that off- you need a big star and preferably a masculine one.

  • It is an all-time great war film but remains certainly true to Nolan as an auteur and stylist – in that regards it is reminiscent of The Thin Red Line in that way where the canvass of the war is just a launching point for Malick and Nolan’s unique expression of cinematic style.
  • The best edited film in years


most underrated: The closer we get to today’s date the more the consensus is going to struggle ranking films and that is normal. It takes time for critics to reevaluate– and sadly, it can be years if not decades before they start to correct themselves. Columbus from director Kogonada (a miracle of a debut) is the most egregiously underrated film from 2017 but it is not alone. The TSPDT consensus cannot find a spot for it amongst their 38 best films of 2017 (I am guessing many cinephiles still have not seen it).  Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is not far behind Columbus and The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Atomic Blonde are also big time misses from the consensus.


Columbus is the announcement of an incredible cinematic talent- easily one of the five best cinematic debuts this century from Kogonada. Shot on location in Columbus, Indiana and a major subject in the film is architecture itself so it will be interesting to see how Kogonada chooses to follow this up– two things though, I mean part of me just says “who cares if he never follows this up- just appreciate this for what it is” and another thing worth noting here is that the interiors in the film are just as beautiful as the exteriors using the local architecture here.

There is tremendous skill in how Kogonada frames every shot—nearly every one is a feat of art, photography and architecture—but they interact- both with each other visually (formally) and with the narrative and subject matter. Though it is his debut- cinephiles will recognize Kogonada from his video essays on Kubrick, Ozu, Bergman, Wes Anderson, Linklater and others. I see Ozu (both content and visuals), Antonioni, Zhangke Jia, Antonioni (both Zhangke Jia and Antonioni with architecture as character), Linklater the most. Kogonada took all this and creating something distinctive and symphonically tied together with the narrative and visuals. Kogonada takes his name from Ozu’s screenwriter. Straight lines and symmetry of frame—pillow shot cutaways and gorgeous montage image resets.

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled – the first thing to praise is the use of natural lighting and intermixed exterior shots of the garden and house- sublime photography from beginning to end.   Every scene is carefully naturally lit with candles and exteriors- it gives you pause at first just how different it is to almost every other film.

Sofia said after The Bling Ring in 2013 she wanted to make something more beautiful… mission accomplished

The Killing of a Sacred Deer works as both an excellent slow burn art house horror film and as a pitch black comedy- Lanthimos’ fifth feature has elements of Bunuel and elements of Kubrick but holds true to his sharp, unique voice. Gorgeous reoccurring visual—the walking down the corridor and hallways— Gus Van Sant’s Elephant married to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and The Shining. Lanthimos, like Kubrick (and Roy Andersson)- has a talent for shooting hallways—exacting—geometrical.

Lanthimos continues to experiment visually—love the wide angle shots used again and again to capture the entire room—one example is the big ballroom for Farrell’s speech. Lanthimos’ narrative construction here is not as strong as Dogtooth or The Lobster but he has not changed his colors by any stretch and seems to be getting bolder and more ambitious visually- he is a master of absurdism and discomfort.

Atomic Blonde-1980s Berlin chic, drenched in neon in almost every scene—nods to Refn’s Drive. Other homages- Tarkovsky’s Stalker playing in a theater,  the Hitchcock Rope-like tracking (oner) shot simulations with characters or objects blocking the camera—the car chase take is reminiscent of the car rolling down the hill action scene (though not on that level) in Children of Men.

Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel feels like a film that will be rediscovered in twenty years by cinephiles after Woody is dead and gone. Vittorio Storaro as cinematographer here and the results are inspired.


most overrated:  With only one viewing under my belt I hesitate to mention it but Zama as the #2 consensus film from TSPDT for 2017 feels unwarranted.

an impressive composition from Lucrecia Martel


trends and notables:

  • Christopher Nolan at the height of his powers is undeniably the headline in the world of cinema in 2017. It is as if in Dunkirk he crystalized what he excels at- isolated that- and cut out everything else. This is Nolan’s fifth top ten of the year quality film.
  • Denis Villeneuve is right there below Nolan and both directors make popular films on a massive scale. This is Villeneuve’s third top ten of the year film in the last five years.

Blade Runner 2049. There should be praise for Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Roger Deakins and Dennis Gassner (the production designer who worked on Road to Perdition, Skyfall, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but this is Villeneuve’s show and he is in total visual command of this superior film.

the film is one highlight after another including the sequence in Vegas

Paul Schrader delivering perhaps his finest work (along with Mishima) over the age of 70 is a storyline for 2017. Schrader’s First Reformed is a slow burn decent into madness (or gradual truth awakening depending on your point of view) that works so well alongside of Schrader’s own Light Sleeper (1992) and his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976). It has roots in Tarkovsky, Bergman’s Winter Light and Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.

  • If one was worried about the next generation of filmmakers- there is no need to be. This next generation seems poised for great things led by first time archiveable filmmakers like Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Jordan Peele (Get Out)  Kogonada (Columbus), Chloe Zhao (The Rider) and The Safdie Brothers (Good Time).  Good Time is drenched in style. The film features a penchant for close-ups (apparent right from the opening), features a hypnotic score that could be written by John Carpenter himself, fantastic editing, and a great use of neon light,  Time well tell but this crop of young filmmakers definitely looks promising.

Chloe Zhao’s breakthrough film- The Rider– born in Beijing and this story is authentically rural America- South Dakota and that location is a character in the film- sharp photography on location in the reservations of the Badlands.

Jordan’s Peele’s Get Out-past cinema influences galore here- Rosemary’s Baby , Being John Malkovich, Guess Who is Coming to Diner, They Live and The Invasion of Body Snatchers. It is almost always a good sign when a film can be its own unique work but remind you of so many great films from the past.  The achievement of Peele might be equaled by the achievement of the star Daniel Kaluuya in the lead.

each frame in Columbus seems storyboarded and meticulously arranged

Artistically rendered genre films are nothing new (forget Skyfall – though that film is certainly a direct influence on Atomic Blonde here from 2017)- going back to Point Blank, Michael Mann, Kurosawa and Melville.

  • Star Wars continues the box office dominance- and Disney increases its lead in this area with Beauty and the Beast coming in second in box office in 2017.

from Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi- a film that has some undeniable artistic ambition– not something Disney has had much of in the 2010s.

  • Also, although I am not one for getting too sentimental about stuff like this, I think it should be noted how enjoyable it was to see the great Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks acting together for the first time in The Post. They are both so justifiably revered- they are national treasures. It seems strange they have not worked together before 2017.


gems I want to spotlight: I, Tonya, A Fantastic Woman and Wind River are three films to seek out here from 2017 after the top ten. I, Tonya has a very entertaining storytelling style—clearly influenced by Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino) and late David O. Russell (American Hustle). In A Fantastic Woman there is enough here visually to put Chilean director Sebastian Lelio on the list of directors to keep an eye on- from the very outset the visual patterns are set with the heavy gorgeous colors during the massage scene- heavy purples, blues- a visual tone and form set early. As for Wind River, Taylor Sheridan has quickly become one of the greatest writers working in cinema today with Sicario, Hell or High Water and then this- which he directed. He is not nearly as good a director as Villeneuve or Mackenzie though so the film is in the archives based on that great screenplay and the performances—mainly—Jeremy Renner. Sheridan’s films are modern westerns and this is one I could easily watch once a year.


best performance male:  This category has quality depth in 2017. Ryan Gosling is right there at or near the top for his work in Blade Runner 2049. Gosling is on fire with this and La La Land in back to back years in 2016 and 2017 and his run going back to his work with Refn earlier in the decade and Blue Valentine in 2010 really makes him a candidate for actor of the decade. He has four mentions in eight years. It may not be quite on that level- but look back at Nicholson and Pacino in the early to mid 1970s.  Speaking of Pacino, Gosling gets his train whistle Pacino moment in The Godfather when he finds the horse at the orphanage in Blade Runner 2049. It is a spectacular moment for Gosling aided heavily by Villeneuve’s astute direction. Young Timothée Chalamet has to be next for his work in Call Me by Your Name. He gets the final long take close up as he stares into the fire– the devastation he feels comes across powerfully. Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement and said Phantom Thread would be his final film. If this is indeed his final role- he ends on a wonderous high note. His portrayal of Reynolds Woodcock is yet another feather in the cap for a storied career- rivaling cinema’s all-time greats. Ethan Hawke is getting closer to the Daniel Day-Lewis echelon than you may think. First Reformed is a major achievement for Hawke. He excels here even being cast against type and he excels working outside of the universe of Richard Linklater- both important for his resume. Gone is his flippant Generation X’er perfect-hair handsome looseness you often see in his Linklater films. He is gloomy here, severe- he has aged. There is a line down the middle of his forehead emphasizing the ware of a stressful life lived. He has Gunnar Björnstrand sternness and intelligence from Winter Light and even lights up his female admirer (Victoria Hill’s Esther looking just like Ingrid Thulin’s Marta with the glasses) by saying “I despise you.” Robert Pattinson does the best work of his career to date in 2017’s Good Time. He plays Connie-  a fascinating character- a pariah, a leech. Harrison Ford‘s achievement in Blade Runner 2049 is worth mention here as well. If this is indeed Ford’s walk off into the sunset after such a legendary career then what a fitting way to go out. In the film Ford has multiple scenes of silence that are very well acted- and one with Gosling when he is drinking– and then he gets the moment on the glass. Daniel Kaluuya is superb in both Get Out in 2017 and Widows in 2018 and his strongest of the two performances is in Get Out from 2017 so he is getting recognized here. Kogonada’s Columbus falls apart if John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson do not compel in the foreground action (or discussions- “action” might be misleading). Michael Stuhlbarg does not have much screen time in Call Me by Your Name but this category has to have room for performances such as his in one of the year’s best films. Stuhlbarg’s monologue at the end of the film may be his finest moment on screen.

Timothée Chalamet in the film’s transcendent winter epilogue– Luca Guadagnino does not freeze like Truffaut– but holds the shot.

First Reformed– at the 91-minute mark Hawke, in, profile, looking out the window with the large windows in curtains—there is a similar shot in Pasolini’s Salo (I think it is Caterina Boratto). This is another masterful composition- certainly one of the best of 2017. Aspect ratio 1.37 : 1—tight- it does seem to hone Schrader’s focus. Schrader says he was partially inspired by Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013).

Jonny Greenwood’s gloriously angelic score accompanies it all in Phantom Thread. Phantom Thread makes for another bizarre love story between eccentric characters making an unofficial trilogy that now includes Punch-Drunk Love and Licorice Pizza.



best performance female:  It is not the strongest of years here in 2017. Haley Lu Richardson is a revelation in Columbus. Kogonada’s film requires Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke-like (from Linklater’s “Before” trilogy) work from Richardson and Cho- and they deliver. The Shape of Water has solid work from Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon– but it is Sally Hawkins who stands above the rest and deserves mention here.


top 10

  1. Dunkirk
  2. Columbus
  3. Blade Runner 2049
  4. Call Me by Your Name
  5. First Reformed
  6. Good Time
  7. The Shape of Water
  8. The Beguiled
  9. Phantom Thread
  10. The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Shape of Water is a cocktail  blend of many films and influences (del Toro is a notorious cinephile– Hawkins’ character’s apartment is even directly above a movie theater) but, clearly, a work that only del Toro could come up with. It, quite brilliantly, has his stamp all over it. There are archetypes and genre-blending but it’s never a copy or a genre film (aside from his own genre which almost all great auteurs create). Influences include 1950s sci-fi (Creature From the Black Lagoon), Tim Burton (sort of a modernized gothic expressionism), Wes Anderson (that décor and color pattern could almost be out of Grand Budapest), films like Dick Tracy, Amelie, from and Cocteau’s surrealist Beauty and the Beast (1946) .  The reason it is one of the best films of 2017 and will go down as such, is the production design. It is a visual feast in every single scene—incredibly detailed and painted almost.

It is hard to accomplish both but The Shape of Water is so clearly the work of an expert craftsman (it cuts on a dime, and it is impeccably detailed) and is eccentrically personal. There is a film in the foreground and another in the background for seasoned cinephiles-  lighting detail, pervading rain in the mise-en-scene, even something as small and minute as a salt and pepper shaker at the table is not white, or black, but a translucent teal color.

The Florida Project- Sean Baker more than succeeds in making the location, Orlando, and the hotel a living breathing character into the film.

Happy End– I am not the first person to mention it but it does play like a bit of a greatest hits album for Haneke—it has children desensitized (because of media, bad parenting)- like Benny’s Video, The White Ribbon or Funny Games. It has a sexually aggressive musician (The Piano Teacher), loathsome white privilege (Cache), a man who kills his wife to ease her pain (Amour). This is auteur cinema indeed.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver– the film starts with jaw-dropping sequences: the car chase and the Singin’ in the Rain– like tracking shot. This composition here is a wow as well.

From the great Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki.  Like Shadows in Paradise, 31 years before, this strong minimalist ironic comedy/drama has a transcendent shot (here)—but Kaurismäki does not surround it with enough to make it among his very best work. This is silent cinema, there are no words for the first seven minutes.

Darkest Hour – another resume builder for director Joe Wright and Gary Oldman

watch Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin the first time for the verbal sparring…

…watch it again for the underrated visuals

Sometimes sequels are superior to the original. Paul King’s Paddington 2 easily tops the 2014 original. Wes Anderson’s clear influence on King has to be mentioned and that is a compliment to both King and Wes Anderson.



Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Fantastic Woman – Lelio R/HR
A Ghost Story – Lowery R/HR
All the Money in the World – R. Scott R
Atomic Blonde – Leitch HR
Baby Driver – E. Wright R/HR
Battle of the Sexes – Dayton, Faris R
Beast – Pearce R
Blade Runner 2049 – Villeneuve MS/MP
BPM (Beats Per Minute) – Campillo R
Brawl in Cell Block 99 – Zahler R/HR
Call Me by Your Name – Guadagnino MS/MP
Columbus – Kogonada MS/MP
Darkest Hour – J. Wright R/HR
Dunkirk – Nolan MP
First Reformed – Schrader MS
Foxtrot – Maoz R
Get Out– Peele HR
Good Time – Safdie MS
Happy End – Haneke R
I, Tonya – Gillespie HR
It Comes at Night – Shults R
Lady Bird – Gerwig R/HR
Lean on Pete – Haigh R
Logan Lucky – Soderbergh R
Logan – Mangold R
Mother! – Aronofsky R/HR
Mudbound– Rees R
Okja – Bong R
On Body and Soul – Enyedi R
Paddington 2 – P. King R
Phantom Thread – P.T. Anderson HR/MS
Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Johnson R
Super Dark Times – Phillips R
Sweet Country – W. Thornton R
The Beguiled – S. Coppola HR/MS
The Big Sick -Showalter R
The Current War – Gomez-Rejon R
The Death of Stalin – Iannucci R/HR
The Florida Project – Baker R
The Guardians – Beauvois R
The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Lanthimos HR/MS
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Baumbach R/HR
The Other Side of Hope – Kaurismäki R/HR
The Post – Spielberg R
The Rider – Zhao R/HR
The Shape of Water – del Toro MS
The Square – Östlund R
The Wife – Runge R
Thor: Ragnarok – Waititi R
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – M. McDonagh R
War for the Planet of the Apes – Reeves R
Wind River – Sheridan R
Wonder Wheel – Allen R
You Were Never Really Here – Ramsay HR
Zama – Martel R


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives