Before I begin the list, note that these are the ten best non-documentary movies I saw this year (my list of the best documentaries will come later this week). My capsule reviews are below, but you can read my full reviews by clicking on the title of each movie. If you missed these in theaters, I recommend you catch up with them on DVD, Netflix, or Amazon Prime…
#1) “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” Quentin Tarantino’s paean to the city of his youth, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a has-been actor struggling to keep his career alive, Brad Pitt (in an Oscar-worthy performance) as his best friend/stunt double, and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate — plus Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Margaret Qualley, Rumer Willis, Mikey Madison, Clu Gulager, Brenda Vaccaro, Emile Hirsch, and kid actor Julia Butters (who almost steals the movie). Add in brilliant period production design, a soundtrack that features the real voices of the KHJ Boss Jocks, plus Tarantino’s willingness to bend history to his liking, and you’ve got a modern masterpiece.
#2) “Toy Story 4” Like each of the animated classics that precede it, the fourth entry in the series is visually stunning, as the hundreds upon hundreds of tech geniuses who work behind the scenes have yet again improved the state of the art. The lighting and detail are sharper, the sets more elaborate, and the humans more realistic, too. They’ve not only found new ways to showcase the recurring characters — Woody, Buzz, Hamm, Slinky, etc. — but added originals that fit in so naturally it’s like they’ve been part of this universe for a long time. A movie like “Toy Story 4” is so complex it took more than three years to make, and yet looks absolutely contemporary, particularly with the empowerment of female characters on both the hero and villain sides. That doesn’t diminish the male leads, although Woody (Tom Hanks) gets a lot more of a showcase than Buzz (Tim Allen) — and a love story, too.
#3) “The Report” Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones as a man on a mission, one that consumed him seven days (and nights) a week, determined to uncover the truth about the torture program undertaken by the CIA during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Watching a man reading documents or staring at a computer screen would have made for boring movie-making, but director Scott Z. Burns keeps things moving with flashbacks and paces the movie like a thriller as Jones battles with an intelligence community that has no desire to have light shone on its flaws. As his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Annette Bening gives one of her best performances in years. As Jones had to dig through the dirt, Feinstein had to maneuver through the political minefield, first during the Bush administration, and later Obama’s. “The Report” is a perfect companion piece for the recent Washington Post report on how we’ve been lied to about the war in Afghanistan for 18 years.
#4) “On The Basis Of Sex” A docudrama about the early career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which set her on a path as a legal warrior for women’s rights and gender equality. Felicity Jones is terrific as Ginsburg, from her Brooklyn accent to her determination and refusal to acquiesce to the status quo. She’s also quite good in her scenes with Armie Hammer (in the only performance of his that I’ve liked) as Martin, her husband. As for director Mimi Leder, it’s about time she was allowed back in the big-screen movie chair almost two decades after making “Pay It Forward” and “Deep Impact.” She shot “On The Basis Of Sex” beautifully and avoided making the Ginsburgs’ story too glossy, while giving Jones a showcase for a brilliant, strong-willed woman’s origin story.
#5) “Dolemite Is My Name” Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) desperately wants to be a star, but it’s not until he transforms himself into Dolemite, a brash reciter of raunchy poetry, full of ego and swagger, wearing flashy clothes and wielding a cane, that he’s a hit. He makes “party records,” goes on a tour of the Chitlin Circuit, then decides to make his own blaxploitation movie. Throughout, Murphy is perfect as Rudy, the brashest and meatiest persona he’s played since James “Thunder” Early in “Dreamgirls,” way back in 2006. The confidence and timing he displays are reminders of some of his earliest, classic characters (e.g. Reggie Hammond, Axel Foley, and Billy Ray Valentine).
#6) “Knives Out” A murder mystery with a wonderful cast, including Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, and Chris Evans. They’re just some of the family members who get together in the patriarch’s big, creaky Victorian house, where one of them doesn’t survive the night. Daniel Craig shows up as a detective trying to unravel the whodunit. Movies like this depend heavily on a cleverly written and executed plot, and “Knives Out” certainly has one, thanks to writer/director Rian Johnson, who was obviously inspired by — and paying tribute to — Agatha Christie’s classic whodunits, in which the detective usually gathers all the possible suspects together in the parlor for the final reveal.
#7) “Brittany Runs A Marathon” Yes, the title gives away the movie’s climax, but it’s Brittany’s journey from overweight sloth to motivated woman that makes the movie work. Jillian Bell is a revelation as the title character in a story that provides plenty of laughs and a few twists and turns, too. This could easily have been a syrupy Lifetime motivational movie, but it avoids those melodramatic potholes nicely by emphasizing Brittany’s mental changes as well as the physical. Yes, it’s inspirational, but it’s also very funny — one of the best comedies of the year.
#8) “Rocketman” The framing device is Elton John telling the narrative to others in a rehab center he’d entered voluntarily for his addiction to pills, booze, and sex. He makes his entrance in a typically over-the-top stage costume, then sheds pieces of it as he peels back the layers of his life story. Unlike last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you hear the real voice of the movie’s star in “Rocketman.” That would be Taron Edgerton, who not only resembles Elton visually — particularly in the later hair-loss years — but vocally, too. He nails the music so well that you don’t even think about it — he is Elton John in musical numbers which allow the characters to burst into song with big production set-pieces and fantasy sequences along the way.
#9) “Dark Waters” Like “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action,” “Deep Waters” is about a lawyer fighting for a poor plaintiff whose life has been irreparably damaged by a big corporation’s environmental pollution. In this case, the company was Dupont, the biggest employer in a small West Virginia town, which was also dumping a toxic “forever chemical” into the water table adjacent to one of its landfills. Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) was a lawyer who had spent years working on the other side of the table, for a firm that defended chemical companies. But when farmer Wilbur Tennant turned up at his office with a box of videotapes showing what had happened to the cows and other livestock on his property, Bilott switched sides and began to fight for Tennant and other victims in cases that lasted years.
#10) “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” This is a sequel to a show that didn’t need a sequel. The five original seasons were more than enough, and stand as one of the greatest TV dramas ever. So, when showrunner Vince Gilligan announced this new project, I was hopeful but skeptical. Could he and his team pull off another victory, and where might they take the story? Yes they can, by taking us on the road with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), beginning with the moment he escapes from the Nazis’ compound after Walter White killed them all. The movie is riddled with appearances from former “Breaking Bad” characters, and it’s good to see all of them again, though I won’t spoil anything by telling you who you’ll see. It all centers on Aaron Paul, who brings his usual intensity to Jesse, but adds a maturity that wasn’t present when we last saw him six years ago.
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