And now, the main event: the Altie Awards for Filmmaking Excellence in the 2017 U.S. movie year. If you missed the 2016 awards, they’re right over here.
John Wick: Chapter 2
The one live-action film all year that truly seemed interested in showing me new images in new combinations; it’s close to an exercise in pure style, but the immense pleasure and potency of the style is as addictive as the most powerful drug to me.
1st Runner-Up: Personal Shopper
A combination of genre, moods, styles, all of it pointing ultimately in one direction, and that the most simple, devastating study of fear and grief lashing out.
First They Killed My Father
-For mixing an impulse towards Serious Message Filmmaking with deep insight about form and structure
The Girl Without Hands
-For creating something that feels both wholly cinematic and alien to any cinematic norms
In This Corner of the World
-For marrying the personal and the historical gracefully, and for the psychological depth of its visuals
Angelina Jolie, First They Killed My Father
After three well-meant but variably-ineffective movies, Jolie finally nails it: a combination of self-serious themes with fluid, subjective style and and a rich sense of her main character. Easily the most pleasant surprise I had all year was finding that Jolie did understand art cinema, after all.
1st Runner-Up: Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper
A lot of individually great bits and pieces go into Assayas’s best work of direction since the 1990s, but I could also just say “that cell phone scene”, and feel like I said all that needed saying.
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
-For controlling tone so tightly, creating a film felt in the belly as much as watched through the eyes
Sébastien Laudenbach, The Girl Without Hands
-For the heroic effort of creating almost an entire film solely with his own labor
Shinkai Makoto, Your Name.
-For grounding an astronomically heightened concept in simply character details, and being gorgeous in doing so
Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion
Emily Dickinson, as a role, suggests so many obvious approaches, and Nixon gloriously eschews all of them. This is a bright and witty take on the character, with a death obsession that lingers below the the surface as a kind of wiry terror, rather than the beatific, autumnal saintliness I had feared. I’ll remember this one for years.
1st Runner-Up: Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper
Without breaking out of the basic limitations of her screen persona, Stewart creates a remarkable full portrait of sadness, depression, and fantasy, all in the most subdued register.
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
-For drifting from innocent in a pit of vipers to canny manipulator so slowly you can’t even see it
Zuzana Mauréry, The Teacher
-For evoking the staring-eyed intensity of a True Believer, making a monster out of recognisable human parts
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
-For the flat, pragmatic approach she takes to the melodramatically heated scenario and dialogue
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
If he really does retire, he’s doing it on one of his best performances: tightly-coiled egotism and almost psychopathic desire to control, manifesting in tense body language and a high, lilting voice. The way he moves into the twists during the back half are equal parts surprise and the revelation of what was already there.
1st Runner-Up: Harry Dean Stanton, Lucky
A lifetime of character acting summed up in one devastating performance: all about small movements, carefully-judged scruffy line deliveries, and a profoundly rewarding slowness.
David Oyelowo, A United Kingdom
-For infusing a stock Historical Biopic with personality, enthusiasm, and even horniness
Robert Pattinson, Good Time
-For justifying the film’s extensive use of close-ups, with his open desperation and emotional rawness
Adrian Titieni, Graduation
-For letting paternal pride curdle into something morbid and bleak and self-loathing
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Elizabeth Marvel, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
One of the best things any “supporting” performer can do is to let us see, in just a few minutes, everything going on inside their character’s head and soul. Marvel goes beyond that, making the film’s most distinct, fully-fleshed out figure without ever being the center of attention. Blatant movie thievery of the best kind.
1st Runner-Up: Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Impeccable subtlety: the line deliveries are as subdued and calculated as a glacier inching across the landscape, and ultimately as devastating. The training of Mike Leigh and the dysfunction of Paul Thomas Anderson, together at last.
Maria Dragus, Graduation
-For evoking post-traumatic shock, and the frustration of not being able to find an outlet for that shock
Jennifer Ehle, A Quiet Passion
-For playing optimism and joy as quiet little things in counterpoint to the film’s sarcasm and morbidity
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
-For the quiet terror of a mother of a sick adult child, and the soft defensiveness of a mother meeting the boyfriend, all in Hunter’s typically sharp register
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The weirdest non-human of the film’s population of brittle robots. I cannot imagine the film working at all without a performance as fixated, obsessive, pathetic, and imbued with a sense of unknowable danger as this. A performance utterly without ego, to the enormous benefit of the film as a whole.
1st Runner-Up: Gil Birmingham, Wind River
In his handful of scenes, he doesn’t make the film about his character, so much as raise the question of why it isn’t: he has more quiet, internalised pain and suffering than both leads put together.
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
-For the minute decency, and his ability to work seamlessly with improvising non-actors
Jon Hamm, Marjorie Prime
-For playing a machine feigning human emotions, and not the much easier machine learning human emotions
O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Ingrid Goes West
-For creating a charming, loopy personality out of a collection of barely-there script notes
A pair of family dramas that relies on an incredible set of actors playing the families. It’s pretty much impossible to select a favorite, when everyone is so at evoking the tensions between people as well as developing their character’s own distinct place in the drama. The ensemble itself becomes the material of cinema.
1st Runner-Up: Logan Lucky
Warm and funny stereotypes based in deeply human impulses. The sense of place that comes up out of the performances and characters is perhaps the film’s single greatest strength.
-For creating an aura of ghostly placeness, need, fear, and desire, tapping into the film’s feeling of myth
-For evoking an age-old friendship that has started to go stale in some ways, while remaining necessary in others
-For capturing the rat-a-tat pace of a classic Hollywood newsroom, and the moral nerves of a more contemporary setting
BEST STUNTS – new category!
Atomic Blonde (coordinators: Sam Hargrave, Florian Holtz, Domonkos Pardanyi)
The staircase scene alone would argue in favor of this having the most well-designed and flawlessly-executed action of the year, but the whole film is full of wonderfully rough and tumble action scenes in which human movement, editing, and camera all spin together in dizzying merriment.
1st Runner-Up: Headshot (choreography: Team Uwais)
A perfect combination of group and individual setpieces, designed to showcase the range of skills of a number of great talents. A terrific showcase for action, even it’s not much else.
Baby Driver (coordinators: Robert Nagle, Darrin Prescott)
-For the militaristic precision of movement required to sell the film’s rhythmic conceit
John Wick: Chapter 2 (coordinators: Marc Désourdy, J.J. Perry, Darrin Prescott)
-For one-upping the original film’s balletic movement with an increasingly choreographed universe
The Villainess (coordinator: Kwon Gui-duck)
-For finding an apparently endless number of variations on a few basic action concepts
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
A Quiet Passion, by Terence Davies
Terrific dialogue in service to some characters too smart for their own good, using literary wit to stave off panic and desolation. The film captures both the artistry and the sense of mortality underneath all of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, all while letting the domestic tragedy of her life come up slowly through the material.
1st Runner-Up: Personal Shopper, by Olivier Assayas
The film’s apparent lack of construction is a perfect match for the main character, concepts swirling around an apparent vacuum in the middle. Reveals things so offhandedly it almost doesn’t register that they’ve been revealed.
Faces Places, by Agnès Varda & JR
-For a humanistic travelogue that through mischance turns into a referendum on Varda’s career
Okja, by Bong Joon-ho and John Ronson
-For a ludicrous, wildly imaginative cartoon satire that covers way too much ground with absolute commitment
Raw, by Julia Ducournau
-For a nasty-minded metaphor so perfect, I cannot fathom that it hasn’t been done before
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
In This Corner of the World, by Katabuchi Sunao
A simple domestic story whose details keep revealing the horrible world and collapsing society all around the main character’s coming of age. Then along comes the pulverising losses of the film’s back half, as Japan loses the war and collapses the rest of the way, and what remains is the most interesting wartime story in a long time.
1st Runner-Up: Mudbound, by Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
Captures the scope and pace of a novel, without sacrificing those things to a sense of cinematic structure; this somehow ends up working enormously well in constructing a grand story of race, culture, and the passage of years.
Call Me by Your Name, by James Ivory
-For the blurry, summery approach to memoir, erotica, and the overwhelming feeling of first love
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, by Nicholas Stoller
-For understanding what a goof it is to make this movie at all, while making some keen observations on humor
First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung & Angelina Jolie
-For moving through time and space elliptically, contrasting childhood perception with adult wisdom
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE not cited under Best Feature
A lovely, free-floating depiction of adolescent yearnings that turns into a breezy mindfuck. A collection of anime clichés done up with more spirit and specificity than you can imagine, resulting in an appealing depiction of a certain kind of youthful energy and melancholy, set against some goddamn beautiful backdrops.
1st Runner-Up: The Death of Louis XIV
An art film through and through: almost nothing happens, and it happens slowly, and nobody seems to care whether it happens or not. Pictorially magnificent, with a studied emotional flatness that serves it extremely well.
-For the most interesting social and moral conundrums of any Romanian film in years
Lost in Paris
-For its giddy love affair with film history, with its title city, with color, and with the flexibility of the human body
-For being the year’s most visceral horror film and its most sympathetic adolescent drama
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
In This Corner of the World
The story of a frustrated painter, in which the form of the movie itself gives body to all of her artistic dreams. Looks mostly like anime, but a plusher, more painterly anime film you’ll rarely fine, with watercolor softness and oil richness infusing the cel animation.
1st Runner-Up: The Girl Without Hands
The soft, shapeless lines of ink wash painting are given a digital makeover and turned into the basis for this amazing fairy tale in amorphous colors. The most unique-looking film of the year.
-For the beautiful lines and colors accompanying a harsh, politically-minded children’s story
-For the most uncommonly ambitious and effective marriage of form and content you ever saw
-For pushing one particular branch of the medium as far as it can possibly go, technically and aesthetically
Agnès Varda can do no wrong in my eyes, and that continues with this apparently insubstantial little noodle about commemorating everyday people with epic art that transforms into a mood piece about aging, about cross-generational friendships, about nearsightedness, and about whatever else crosses the iconic director’s lovingly pack-rat mind.
1st Runner-Up: Starless Dreams
A remarkable portrait of several young lives that have gone wrong, mixed in with the documentarian’s increasing awareness of his responsibility to his subjects and his medium.
-For turning some of the year’s best stock footage into the year’s most engaging biopic
-For the unique angle into a city symphony, and the fact that kitties
-For the guttural emotions being dumped out by the basketful, almost more than can be withstood
The Beguiled (Philippe Le Sourd)
The smokey, foggy swamps of the American South have rarely if ever looked so looming in their grey-green oppression; the dark brown nighttime interiors are the stuff of scary bedtime stories as much as adult psycho thrillers; the mottled daytime interiors are just plain relaxing and beautiful. An impossible gorgeous film, and in so many different registers!
1st Runner-Up: The Death of Louis XIV (Jonathan Ricquebourg)
Has one trick to play, but plays it immaculately. The compositions, colors, and light balance of era-appropriate painting inform the creation of every frame, and the result is among the most painterly movies I have ever seen.
A Cure for Wellness (Bojan Bazelli)
-For the classy chilliness of the glum lighting and the relentless parallel compositions
A Ghost Story (Andrew Droz Palermo)
-For the drowsy, musty interiors, and the explosion of lights near the end
Good Time (Sean Price Williams)
-For the blaring, toxic neon washes of a city and a life in total disarray
Atomic Blonde (Elísabet Rónaldsdottir)
Nearly all good contemporary action cinema in the West is, ultimately, good action editing, and Rónaldsdottir (a John Wick veteran) has refined action editing to the point that barely a frame fails to serve the overall momentum, tension, violence, and ultimate doom of the piece. I’ve already taught portions of this film to my editing students, that’s how perfect a model I think it is.
1st Runner-Up: Kedi (Mo Stoebe)
Constructing discernible narratives out of the meanderings of feral cats isn’t even editing, it’s a goddamn magic trick, and Stoebe makes it look as easy as breathing.
Baby Driver (Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos)
-For the quantity of pre-planning that turned into the year’s most mechanically tight cutting
First They Killed My Father (Xavier Box, Patricia Rommel)
-For moving through footage subjectively and memoiristically, intuitively rather than logically
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Evan Schiff)
-For drawing from art cinema as much as action cinema in assembling movement through space
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Hugues Tissandier)
Fervid pulp bliss: money that should never have been spent so recklessly went to fuel an unbearably well-realised vision of the cult-favorite French comic books. Like a more unhinged version of whichever anglophone space opera comes to mind first, with more fully alien, intuitively organic spaces butting up against each other in an orgy of shapes.
1st Runner-Up: Ghost in the Shell (Jan Roelfs)
Pays tribute to the original, to Blade Runner, to God knows what else, in the creation of its cyberpunk world, but always seems to come back to its own sense of what the tech-poisoned future might look like.
Blade Runner 2049 (Dennis Gassner)
-For evolving the original film’s universe in plausible, even inevitable directions
A Cure for Wellness (Eve Stewart)
-For the pervasive feeling of European grandeur rotting and decaying into something psychically corroded
John Wick: Chapter 2 (Kevin Kavanaugh)
-For the way that subways look like museum galleries, and museum galleries look like video game levels
Phantom Thread (Mark Bridges)
A film so madly obsessed with the particularities of the texture, shade, and weave of fabric, and the solemn majesty of how that fabric is carefully assembled into dresses designed in the smallest way to accentuate the wearer’s body, could occupy no other spot on my list. It is a film about the orgasmic pleasure of wearing costumes.
1st Runner-Up: Lost in Paris (Claire Dubien)
The simple, colorful approach to dressing the characters adds much to the film’s jubilant visual sensibility, while also speaking to the primal pleasure of visual art: bright, shiny things.
Atomic Blonde (Cindy Evans)
-For the gaudy post-punk evocation of Berlin at the end of the Cold War as a site of identity in turmoil
I, Tonya (Jennifer Johnson)
-For faultlessly capturing a period, a class, and the theatrical trashiness of the central milieu
Personal Shopper (Jürgen Doering)
-For underlining the film’s contrast between high fashion and everyday clothing as a source of erotic conflict
BEST HAIR & MAKEUP
The worn, brutal future the film depicts manifests primarily in the faces of its characters, especially Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine; really, just for making the gorgeous Jackman look so haggard, poisoned, and ugly, the film would deserve a spot on the list, but the way that the entire narrative springs from these points is what snags it the top spot.
1st Runner-Up: Bright
What can one say? Those were some incredibly persuasive prosthetics, that had to bear up to a tremendous amount of onscreen scrutiny in a wide array of lighting conditions. Something had to go right here.
A Cure for Wellness
-For the way it makes Dane DeHaan look even more gaunt and sickly than is natural to him
A Quiet Passion
-For the overdone, prim hairstyles of 19th Century New England, and the meaning of microscopic differences within them
-For the queasiest cannibalism scenes in an age, and then the whole waxing thing
Wind River (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis)
A lot of it is just standard – albeit very good – dramatic scoring, heavy in the strings, addicted to minor keys. Where this enters the realm of genius lies in the addition of wordless vocalisations, the droning, mourning voice of the winter itself soaring out of the air to alight on the characters.
1st Runner-Up: A Ghost Story (Daniel Hart)
Literally and figuratively haunting, the scraping strings draw on early modernism to better effect than almost any film score I can name in creating an unearthly, but still beautiful mood.
A Cure for Wellness (Benjamin Wallfisch)
-For the music box theme that shapes so much of the film’s tension, emotion, and plot
-For the aimless, tuneless notes, and the midcentury modernism they inject into this family drama
Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood)
-For the soaring, swooning Hollywood Romanticism that finishes off the sense of this as a Sirkian melodrama rediscovered after decades
BEST SOUND MIXING
There is a particular quality to sound in the dry winter air: an airy echo that muffles sound while also extending your hearing range by what feels like miles. I am not certain that I’ve ever heard that sound more perfectly evoked in a movie than in this film’s mix, which places dialogue just so, atop the crunching of snow, and the hiss of wind.
1st Runner-Up: Baby Driver
It’s kind of a gimme, I guess, but any film that foregrounds movie like this needs to foreground music, and this mix succeeds in doing that, without ever sacrificing the clarity of its action effects.
-For raising up the mess and chaos of combat, and squelching the things that might help us find our footing
-For the eruptions of noise from a steady low burble of tension that keep the film in a constant paranoid state
Song to Song
-For the way that music surrounds and blankets the characters and the world they move through
BEST SOUND EDITING
Three arenas of combat, each given its own distinctive sonic texture as dictated by the nearness of water, and all still required to contribute to the same building roar of battle that seems to come around on all sides. The fullness and complexity of the soundtrack is like no war movie in years, and war movies are a place where complex soundtracks are common.
1st Runner-Up: It
The evil in Derry manifests itself through small psychological cues as much as big jumps, of which the most pervasive may be the manipulation of sound in small metallic, echoing ways, creating a feeling that the air is humming with menace.
-For the clattering, metallic sounds of the streets and fights of spy-ridden Berlin
-For the choking, smothering harshness of the crowds, and the murky silence of the empty house
War for the Planet of the Apes
-For the small differences in the apes’ voices, and the impact of the fighting in the second half
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Again, sometimes they spend money for no good reason at all, and let us praise them for it. The virtual camera exhausts itself trying survey all the corners and crannies of this elaborate, fussily-rendered world. It’s a plunge into eye candy from the word go, and such vividly realistic eye candy!
1st Runner-Up: War for the Planet of the Apes
Each film adds more featured apes, and in each film they look better. What can one say, other than to nod in admiration to a series that never stopped topping itself.
Blade Runner 2049
-For the scale and complexity of the world, its bold colors, and its sheen of filthy air
Ghost in the Shell
-For the dreamy dampness, and the invisible lines between human and machine
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
-For the grandiosity of cinema’s best vision of Jack Kirby ever filmed