I have the same reaction every time I see someone post their yearly top 10 list. I click on it almost instantly, see the first few entries, and think to myself, “What an idiot,” then shake my head ruefully about all the ignorance in the world and continue on with my day. I imagine most people read them this way. Thus yearly top 10 lists are mostly an act of trading credibility for clicks. “You guys need a reason to curse me? Here ya go!”
Despite all this, our compulsion to make semi-arbitrary rankings is almost as strong as our compulsion to read and judge others based on them. Not making one feels like an act of cowardice. At some point, you just have to shut up and put your name on it, regardless of what reservations you may have. “But I didn’t see every single movie! Maybe I only liked that one thing because I was in a good mood! Art isn’t meant to be quantified!”
Sure, sure, sure, but also QUIT YOUR SNIVELING! It’s the holidays! The holidays aren’t a time for logic and careful reasoning! The holidays are a time to just shut up and do that thing because mom says so! Now is the time for lists! Rank your opinions and defend staunchly! Now pull out your knives and fight your dad!
Okay, all that being said, I have a quick note on methodology. You might notice that some movies on this list might be higher or lower than the original review I gave them. That’s because part of the methodology for a year-end list is that you have a bit of distance from the viewing. You base the rankings in part not on your initial reaction, but on how much the film stayed with you.
There are some films I loved on the way out of the theater that I haven’t thought about since (Dunkirk comes to mind). Others I was initially a little lukewarm on, I found myself thinking about a lot (Raw). Staying power is an important consideration. And that doesn’t necessarily mean I had to see a film more than once. I saw Eternal Sunshine once and it stayed with me for a full decade. Though I did see a few of these more than once. Some benefit from multiple viewings (Raw, Brigsby Bear, Ingrid Goes West), others don’t (The Post).
Another consideration is that an initial review is fundamentally different from a year-end list. The first time I watch something, I’m trying my best to see the film the filmmakers wanted me to see. In a review, a film gets a certain amount of credit just for fulfilling whatever the initial promise seems to be. Whereas by the end of the year I’m trying to evaluate that promise itself. Which means films that tried to do something interesting and maybe didn’t quite succeed rank higher in my mind than the ones that were perfectly successful at being a thing that the world didn’t need as much.
Okay, okay, enough unnecessary prefacing (wasn’t I the one who said quit sniveling? Jesus.).
In America, we like our metaphors overt, where any film with allegorical overtones with subtext that doesn’t come with a transparent one-to-one translation gets deemed “messy.” In Europe you’re allowed a little more ambiguity, more freedom to say “it’s kind of like….”
Rarely has a filmmaker so taken that ball and run with it like Julia DuCournau in Raw. Raw uses the uncontrollable taste for human flesh as a sort of ambiguous analog for coming of age and burgeoning sexuality. It’s strange and over the top and a little abstract.
In fact, the first time I saw it I didn’t fully “get” it. But I saw it again, and it got a little better, and moreover, I found myself thinking about it afterwards a lot more than I did other movies that I initially thought were “better” (Dunkirk, Guardians 2, Lemon, Good Time, The Big Sick, Downsizing, Okja, Wonderstruck, Atomic Blonde, A Ghost Story, Mudbound, Call Me By Your Name — just to name a few that only narrowly didn’t make this list). That’s probably partly because it’s so bizarre. Who knew European veterinary colleges were such dens of sexual intrigue and vice? But bizarre and unforgettable are worthwhile qualities. I think the most French thing that happened in Raw was when the protagonist’s doctor lit up a cigarette in the examination room to smoke while she delivered a heart-to-heart.
Raw is, essentially, a body horror movie about body horror. It shares much with Thelma, in that they both deal with young female protagonists trying to come to terms with their peculiar powers and both use the fantastic as a metaphor for coming of age and alienation. But where Thelma is tasteful and mannered and intellectual and a little cold (“Norwegian,” in other words), Raw is schlocky and visceral and kind of gross. Guess which I prefer.
9) War Machine
Why hasn’t War Machine shown up on more year-end lists? Too goofy? Bad title? Netflix movies don’t count? For my money it was the year’s most insightful war movie, not to mention one of the best feature adaptations of narrative non-fiction (far more successful than tin-eared, inexplicable cult darling Lost City of Z, for instance).
Brad Pitt plays “Glen,” a stand-in for General Stanley McChrystal in Michael Hastings’ The Operators. Pitt’s portrayal is a little slapstick, sort of a cross between Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds and Chad Feldhiemer in Burn After Reading (and yes, I wish they would’ve used McChrystal’s real name). But War Machine’s Three Stooges/Foghorn Leghorn qualities are just the sugar to make its incisive critique go down.
Maybe it’s inevitable that we prefer war movies about heroes, like Finest Hour or Their Finest, but War Machine was a seething critique disguised as a comedic romp. It depicts Pitt’s Glen McMahon as a kind of tech CEO general, a guy whose irrepressible utopianism blinded him to some of the costs of trying to implement his “big ideas.” Best of all, David Michod doesn’t portray him as a villain or an outlier, but simply as the kind of guy a dysfunctional system tends to reward. It’s easy to just write a fire-breathing villain, but Michod is no hack; he has too much empathy. That makes his critique structural, not just something you could shunt aside as a wild story — just the way Hastings’ book intended. The fact that he managed to do it in the context of a comedy is nothing short of extraordinary.