The following is an unranked list of the best films of the year, all of which – with the exception of one – are rated PG-13 or under. These films (for the most part) are appropriate for most of the family, although not all of them will likely hold much interest for kids under 10.
Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a war movie so relentlessly tense and entertaining that it immediately enters the pantheon of great combat films. The film depicts the various forces at work to save the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, who are retreating from the Nazis in 1940. More than anything, Nolan helps us experience an event fully and memorably. He has always been a master of momentum, world-building and big ideas, but he’s perhaps never achieved such a gut-wrenching evocation of time and place, of geography and perspective.
Jane. The exquisite new documentary about Jane Goodall, Jane, has some of the most extraordinary, cinematic archival footage I’ve ever seen. It’s a rich, beautiful portrayal – I teared up multiple times. The parallels between Goodall’s study of chimpanzee behavior and her own personal life are so well-done.
Logan Lucky. Steven Soderbergh’s welcome return to cinema, Logan Lucky, is one of the most delightful surprises of the year – the working class heist answer to Soderbergh’s own Ocean’s Eleven (2001) series. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver star as West Virginia brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan, both of whom are decidedly unlucky. Together, they devise an intricate plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. Logan Lucky has its own energy, completely separate from the whiz-bang style of the Ocean’s Eleven movies. It moves at the same relaxed speed as its characters – all of them vivid and rich enough to deserve their own movies. More than anything, this movie has soul. When Jimmy’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) starts singing an impromptu rendition of Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver at her talent show to honor her father, it’s a genuinely moving moment in which the film stops in its tracks and allows for something purely character-driven, almost unrelated to the robbery. It’s this kind of scene that elevates the film ever-so-slightly above the other great heist film from this summer, Baby Driver.
The Lost City of Z. The enormously talented writer and director James Gray is the rare filmmaker who still makes movies for adults, and The Lost City of Z is a mesmerizing adventure that ranks among his best films. There are so many movies here – a tale of madness and obsession, a rollicking journey down the Amazon River, a World War I battle movie, an investigation of British exploration and imperialism – and all of them add up to a hugely entertaining picture unlike anything else in cinemas. The movie tells the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British colonel who, shortly before World War I, is tasked by the Royal Geographic Society to travel into Bolivia and help map a border between that country and Brazil. During his journey, Fawcett finds evidence of what he believes to be a lost city in the jungle – and upon his return to England, he insists on returning to Amazonia to find the civilization. Gray’s film is a rich, classically made drama without a hint of irony. With The Immigrant (2014) and Two Lovers (2009), Gray made his reputation as one of the great filmmakers of our time, and The Lost City of Z is an achievement of the highest order. See it immediately.
Phantom Thread. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is astonishing – a study of two people in love, told mostly through glances and gestures, each of them trying to discern what the other is thinking. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps give two of the best performances of the year, and Anderson once again proves he is the most exciting filmmaker working in cinema today. Seeing this film in 70MM at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse at an early screening was one of the great film experiences of my life, no less impactful than my repeat viewings of Anderson’s The Master (2012) in the same format. Phantom Thread is supposedly Day-Lewis’s final performance as an actor, and if that’s the case, he is going out on a magnificent note.
Anderson and Day-Lewis previously collaborated on There Will Be Blood (2007), which is rightfully considered one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century. Their new film finds them in a very different – but equally thrilling – mode, with Day-Lewis playing Reynolds Woodcock, an unmarried dressmaker working at the top of the fashion scene in 1950s London. Notoriously particular and obsessive, Reynolds seems to rotate through women in a cycle assisted by his sister and fashion partner Cyril (Lesley Manville). He puts all of himself into a dress – and a relationship – at a time, and then burns out, having to retreat into solitude. During one of his escapes from London, he meets Alma (Krieps), a younger Polish woman, who is more strong-willed and forceful than we first suspect. There’s a scene midway through the film in which Alma and Reynolds steal back a dress he designed for a high society woman. In the midst of this woman’s wedding, she gets increasingly drunk and, in the minds of our two lead characters, proves herself unworthy of the dress. Alma and Reynolds storm into her hotel room and take it back, and then run out into the street, frolicking and laughing together. It’s a gloriously mischievous scene of pure, giddy love, in which Alma truly enters Reynolds’s world. And, in turn, it’s what convinces Reynolds that he loves Alma.
As this courtship goes on and Reynolds seemingly tires of the relationship, we find Alma isn’t going to let him go easily. Phantom Thread is partially a film about the way in which falling in love disrupts our daily routine and lifestyle. Alma convinces Cyril to have Reynolds’s staff of dressmakers vacate the house one evening so that she can prepare him dinner and enjoy his company alone. Reynolds sees this as an ambush, an attack on his way of living. But it’s clear that Alma is exactly what he needs. As my girlfriend eloquently stated, “As much as she needs to be needed, he needs to be weakened.” This proves especially true as the film goes on, leading to an ending as complicated as it is truly and oddly romantic. It’s worth noting that this film is R-rated, but outside of a few expletives, there isn’t much in the way of objectionable material here. For any young person looking for an opportunity to see a new work by one of our greatest filmmakers, Phantom Thread is an excellent place to start.
The Post. One of the great pleasures of the current stage of Steven Spielberg’s career is his commitment to making richly detailed historical dramas. I love Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as much as anyone, but beginning with Munich (2005), Spielberg has taken an interest in exhilarating and morally complex recreations of history. His latest, The Post, feels like the third in a trilogy of Spielberg political dramas (after the masterful Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), and it’s no less exceptional than those both of those movies. Acting titans Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star as Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee, the publisher and editor, respectively, of the Washington Post in the early 1970s. Richard Nixon is the President of the United States, and while Watergate is still on the horizon, there’s a different political scandal unfolding with the release of the Pentagon Papers. The Post concerns Graham and Bradlee’s efforts to release and report on information that the White House is trying to suppress. There’s no question that Spielberg intends this film to be viewed through the lens of today’s political climate and the recent attacks on a free press, but there’s something in The Post that feels timeless, too. Just as Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) was so good at conveying the specifics of its newsroom and how the Boston Globe’s reporting affected the community at large, The Post is equally good at exploring the impact a newspaper can have on a major American city, not to mention the complicated ethics of journalism.
Wonderstruck. I’ve never read any of author Brian Selznick’s literary work, but his talent as a storyteller has inspired two of my favorite children’s films of recent years, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) and now Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck. This film brilliantly intercuts between two stories in two different time periods. The first story concerns Ben (Oakes Fegley), a young boy grieving over the death of his mother (Michelle Williams) in 1977 Minnesota. When he attempts to call a bookstore in New York City that may lead to his father (whom he has never met), lightning strikes his house and electrocutes him – and in the process, he loses his hearing. More determined than ever to find his father, he escapes from the local hospital and takes a bus to New York, where he wanders the streets, searching for the bookstore.
In the second story, a young deaf-mute girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), spends her days in the cinema, entranced by the silent movie actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). She escapes her strict father’s house to travel to New York in an attempt to find Lillian – who may hold a deeper significance to Rose than we previously thought. Have I mentioned that this part of the film is entirely silent and shot in black-and-white? It’s an unabashed ode to the silent film era, but more importantly, it helps us experience the world through Rose’s perspective.
From the very beginning, Wonderstruck is a wondrous mystery. Both Ben and Rose venture to New York to find someone, and their stories parallel and overlap in interesting ways. In the film’s most memorable, extended sequence, they both roam about the Museum of Natural History, where even more mysteries – and possibly answers – lurk. The exuberance and childlike wonder in this sequence is exhilarating – Haynes and his production design team beautifully recreate the look of the museum from two completely different eras – and it calls to mind many of the scenes in Hugo in which the young protagonists roam the streets and libraries of Paris, discovering art and cinema together. The world would be a better place if there were more films for young people like this one, because these are the kinds of stories that cater to the imagination and wonder of children.
Wonder Wheel. Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel is the director’s best film since Blue Jasmine (2013), featuring some of the most imaginative staging and blocking in any of his movies. This is partially due to the beautiful cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now). The film concerns an unhappy clam bar waitress in 1950s Coney Island, Ginny (Kate Winslet), and her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi), who live in an apartment alongside Deno’s Wonder Wheel. The arrival of Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) and Ginny’s affair with a lifeguard (Justin Timberlake) further complicates the growing restlessness and despair in their lives.
Watch the stunning way in which Allen and Storaro use the lights from Coney Island attractions to illuminate Winslet’s face in sections of this film. I’m thinking of two scenes in particular – one underneath the Coney Island boardwalk, in which Winslet delivers a forlorn monologue while her past seemingly flashes across her face, and another in a bedroom between Winslet and Temple, in which the lights coming from outside attractions change drastically as Winslet goes through a wide range of emotions. They’re some of the most strikingly subjective choices in Allen’s career. But just remember, Woody – I shot at Deno’s Wonder Wheel first (they allowed me to shoot one of my student films at NYU, The Wheels, inside their park while they were closed in 2011).
Special Note: In case you’re curious, my absolute favorite film of the year is Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a dazzling comedy-drama for adults, but certainly not a family film in any sense of the word.
Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.