Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Year in Review | The Best Films of 2017


2017 was a strange year indeed. As the world seemingly changed around us, social and political norms seemingly being thrown out the window every day, the movies were both a welcome respite and an antidote to the political climate. As usual, many filmmakers stepped up to comment on current events, tackling reality through art in ways that were both topical and entertaining.

This year gave us an embarrassment of cinematic riches, so much so that I had trouble narrowing down my selections for the best of the year. Just because a film doesn't appear on this list doesn't mean that I don't love it. But that is the nature of year-end list making, so after much deliberation, here are the films that have stuck with me the most in 2017.

1 | CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Luca Guadagnino, USA)

There was a moment in Call Me By Your Name when I realized my heart was full and I was deliriously in love with the rapturous magic of cinema. Luca Guadagnino’s magnificent film explores the mysteries, the ecstasies, and the heartbreak of first love through the eyes of a teenage boy (Timothée Chalamet, in one of the year’s most stunning performances) who falls in love with a grad student (Armie Hammer) working for his father, an American professor living in Italy.

Guadagnino has crafted a love story for the ages, a singularly breathtaking work of art that recalls the work of Bergman (Summer Interlude hangs heavy here), Bertolucci, and Visconti. I can't remember the last time I found a film so wholly enrapturing. It has a haunting timelessness to its story of first love, especially in the way it captures those fleeting moments of fiery, moon-eyed passion that come with it. As both an embodiment of the emotions of young love and an idealization of its innocence and beauty, it is a film that feels somehow recognizable and yet larger than life, as if some loves are too good and pure for this world. Call Me By Your Name is a masterpiece, a perfectly crafted romance that lingers and enchants, standing tall as one of the finest cinematic achievements in recent memory.

2 | THE FLORIDA PROJECT (Sean Baker, USA)

Named for Walt Disney's original designation for the Orlando theme park that would one day become Walt Disney World, The Florida Project follows the lives of a group of young children who live in a seedy hotel on the outskirts of the Disney parks called the Magic Castle. I can't remember the last time a film so indelibly captured the cycle of poverty and abuse that keeps so many in this country down.

With his shot-on-the-fly, cinéma vérité style, Baker treats each character with dignity, never condescending to them or the situations in which they find themselves. A clear-eyed portrait of abject poverty and the choices families must make in order to merely scrape by, Baker’s film is a heartbreaking and deeply moving portrait of those for whom the childlike wonder and happiness that Disney World represents is always in sight, but forever out of reach; a haunting reminder of the increasingly fading hope of the American dream in decline.

3 | DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (Bill Morrison, USA)

Bill Morrison is the ultimate "found footage" filmmaker, taking already existing footage and turning it into something completely new. Stitching together old silent films discovered beneath the permafrost in Dawson City, Canada, once the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City: Frozen Time is like peering through a window in the fog of time itself.

There's just something about these flickering images that is hard to shake; a magic that is almost indescribably beautiful, as if we are watching history come to life through film.Part historical document, part cinematic fever dream, Dawson City: Frozen Time is a film to be treasured, a living document of a bygone era whose influence continues to echo through history. It's a cinematic reverie that takes us on a mesmerizing and deeply moving journey through history, ultimately discovering a kind of immortality buried beneath the snow. Film was born of an explosive indeed; and here, to appropriate a quote by Woodrow Wilson, it's like history written by lightning.

4 | NOCTURAMA (Bertrand Bonello, France)

This stunning film about seven young radicals who execute a series of bombings in Paris, before holing up in a downtown department store, is one of the most devastating and haunting portraits of modern radicalism in recent memory. That the young terrorists choose to hide out in the ultimate symbol of hollow capitalistic success, a skyscraper shopping mall, is no coincidence. That they seem to revel in its excesses, seemingly oblivious to their own hypocrisy, is no coincidence either. While Bonello never clearly states why they pulled off such a massive terrorist attack, there are clues in their actions.

It's a rage against a machine seemingly has no time for them, and no desire to listen to what they have to say. Nocturama exists in a disquieting moral gray area. Angry young people with no outlet and a complete sense of disconnect from society seek to burn it all down with no regard for consequence or responsibility. The result is a chilling look at the cyclical nature of violence, and the failure of governments to listen to their people.

5 | FACES PLACES (Agnès Varda, JR, France)

Legendary filmmaker, Agnès Varda, and photographer, JR, head off on a journey through France in her latest film, Faces Places, documenting the people they meet and the places they explore by leaving behind giant photographs pasted to walls and buildings. Varda has always been fascinated by humanity, and never has that exuberant enthusiasm for human connection felt more vital than it does here. Faces Places is at once a joyous celebration of life and a poignant mediation on memory and mortality.

Varda, now 89 years old, doesn't see as well as she used to, and often finds herself reflecting on the end of her life. She takes photographs to remember everyone she meets, and collects this snippets of memory like one might collect coins or stamps. Varda trades in something more ephemeral, and buoyed by the energy of her young partner, JR, she explores the things that make us most humanIt is a wonderful film, full of verve and life, an essential work from a great artist in her twilight who refuses to go quietly into that good night. Her warmhearted curiosity remains as important and probing as ever, even as a would-be climactic showdown with legendary French iconoclast, Jean-Luc Godard, turns into one of the most heartbreaking moments in any film this year; and the result is one of the most personal and intimate works of her long and storied career.

6 | PERSONAL SHOPPER (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany)

Olivier Assayas deftly explores the way we communicate in Personal Shopper, taking something as un-cinematic as a text message and turning it into riveting cinema. One can't help but feel if cell phones had existed when Hitchcock was alive that he may have directed something like this. At once a haunting meditation on modern communication and a chilling supernatural thriller. Personal Shopper is an incredible achievement that opens up a window into a brave new world of communication and human connection.

"Are you there? Or is it just me?" As spoken by Kristen Stewart (in the performance of her career) to a empty room (or is it?), those words mark one of the most profound observations on modern communication ever put to film.
 

7 | 4 DAYS IN FRANCE (Jérôme Reybaud, France)

A man walks out on his boyfriend behind in Paris and heads off to the French countryside with only the gay hookup app, Grindr, for guidance in Jérôme Reybaud's captivating film, 4 Days in France. His anonymity fits in with his quest for anonymous sex. We really don't know who he is, and he remains an enigmatic figure until the very end. In that way, he's kind of an avatar for the audience, a silent guide through the small towns and hamlets of France that the screen rarely ever sees. His phone is at once a distraction and a lifeline, isolating and yet richly connecting.

Like Personal Shopper, 4 Days in France is a fascinating meditation on the interconnectivity of our lives, how social technology has the power to both increase and decrease the space between people. Life is a series of encounters, as we enter and exit from stories we're barely even aware of. 4 Days in France allows us to peek into those lives, if only for a moment, to tag along on a kind of spiritual journey that meditates on sex, love, friendship, and the mysterious vastness of life. It's the kind of film that has the power to change one's perception of the world, and we leave keenly aware of how our presence reverberates through the world around us. It manages to feel both strikingly modern and hauntingly timeless, a poignant, self-aware, and sometimes deeply funny exploration of the folly, the eccentricity, and the profound beauty of the human journey.

8 | DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, USA)

One of the most harrowing cinematic experiences in recent memory, Dunkirk is a no-holds-barred descent into the horrors of war; not so much in a graphic, realistic sense as in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, but in a raw, visceral, even impressionistic sense. Few films have so indelibly captured the utter chaos and disorientation of war. Dunkirk is an experience like no other; a haunting, almost otherworldly gut-punch of a movie that simply demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Accompanied by Hans Zimmer's brilliant score, which pulses with the rhythm of a ticking clock or a beating heart, Dunkirk becomes wholly immersive experience, a riveting, relentless, white-knuckle ride that never pauses to let the audience take a breath.

9 | ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)

Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo tackles his own affair with his lead actress, Kim Min-hee (which generated great tabloid buzz in their home country) in this stunning meta-cinematic reverie on desire and infidelity. Whether On the Beach at Night Alone is art imitating life or life imitating art is hard to say. That's part of what makes Hong's work so extraordinary. It's part confessional, part self-assessment, part fiction - and who's to say where one diverges from the other? It's a kind of cinematic fantasia through which Hong, and by extension, Kim, exorcise their own demons through their art.

To watch On the Beach at Night Alone is to bear witness to the souls of two artists being exposed for the world to see. It is both defiant and confessional, simultaneously seeking justification and absolution as a mea culpa and an apologia. Unlike Hong's 2000 film, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, this is Hong stripped bare by himself, and the results are a singular and poignant act of self-examination and personal catharsis that takes private pain and turns it into an anguished public atonement.

10 | GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (Francis Lee, UK)

The lonely landscape of the English countryside provides the backdrop for God’s Own Country, the directorial debut of British actor, Francis Lee. It also becomes the catalyst for a budding relationship between two men; Johnny, an inarticulate farmer predisposed to anonymous, casual sex, and Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant hired by Johnny's father facing prejudice and mistrust. Alone on the moors with their sheep, what begins as horseplay quickly turns sexual as carnal instincts take hold. Yet Gheorghe refuses to consent to Johnny's brand of quick and meaningless sex. Instead, he introduces him to intimacy, in the process teaching Johnny that there is more to love that just carnal pleasure.

Like a British answer to Brokeback Mountain, God's Own Country is a tale of two sheep-herders in love who can barely express their feelings in words. But like Ang Lee's 2005 masterpiece, it finds something deeply beautiful in the unspoken language shared between the two men. It is haunting, hushed, featuring a lovely score by A Winged Victory for the Sullen (AKA Dustin O'Halloran and Adam Wiltzie), and bathed in evocative and mysterious glow of the English farmlands. The performances by the two leads are both tinged with sadness and filled with a longing they can barely express in words, but can be seen in downturned eyes and furtive glances. It’s a lovely film, a heartfelt and moving exploration of the line between lust and love, where the sometimes erotic nature of masculine friendship spills over from one to the other.

11 | THE POST (Steven Spielberg, USA)

Leave it to Steven Spielberg to make a film about rampant corruption at the highest levels of American government that can still make you proud to be an American. The Post is a paean to good, old fashioned journalism, a celebration of the First Amendment and the free press that reminds us all about the things that really make America great. 

The Post quietly lauds good old fashioned American values. It's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for 2017, except this time, Mr. Smith is wearing a skirt and heels. It also gives us hope for a future, at a time when journalism is under constant attack, it reminds us of the power of the truth, and its calamitous affect on those in power who would attempt to keep it from the people. In that regard, The Post feels like the movie of the moment, taking a hard look at our own time through the lens of the past. It's one of Spielberg's most potent and pointed films in years.

12 | A QUIET PASSION (Terrence Davies, UK)

For his quietly stunning biopic of beloved poet, Emily Dickinson, Terrence Davies composes a world that seems drawn right from Dickinson's own mind. The film's staid veneer, borne out of societal expectations for women of the time, barely covering the simmering emotions beneath. 

It's as alienating as it is engrossing, a lovely and deeply felt evocation of an artist's innermost anguish. "My life closed twice before its close/It yet remains to see /If Immortality unveil /A third event to me." Dickinson's poem reflects her great yearning to be remembered, to be loved. Yet in her words, one can almost hear the same plea by Davies, here echoed through the work of an artist who never achieved her goals while she was alive. It is a heart-wrenching and deeply moving tribute to one artist by another who has walked a mile in her shoes, and the results are a wonder to behold.

13 | THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (Albert Serra, France)

In Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, the face of Jean-Pierre Léaud, as France's longest reigning monarch, Louis XIV, lies shrouded in a great dome of hair, his regal features dimmed but no less striking when lost in the giant pompadour wig. He is a monarch in decline, a dim shadow of a man about to be lost in time, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants whose bumbling attempts to affirm his every whim are in fact hastening his death rather than preventing it.

"We'll do better next time" the head physician says directly to the camera, almost as an apology; but will they? Or is this just how we react to the idea of power? The Death of Louis XIV strips away the mythic reverence for monarchs and shows us something else, a pitiable, helpless human being with no one to turn to when death finally comes to call. It's a heartbreaking film, made even more so when Louis implores his young heir to be a better king than he. It is a quietly powerful examination of power, wealth, and mortality that lingers and troubles, anchored by a truly magisterial performance by a lion in winter. It's a hushed and exhilarating stunner.

14 | GOOD TIME (Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, USA)

It's been a long time since we've seen a heist thriller as vibrant and full of life as Benny and Joshua Safdie's Good Time. It plays like a shot of adrenaline (or maybe something stronger) straight to the heart. But what makes this movie so special isn't its visceral energy or expertly crafted suspense; rather the fact that it is, at its core, a love story. Not a love story in the romantic sense, of course; no, Good Time is a story about how far we're willing to go for family, in this case, a brother.

The Safdies cleverly play with the audience's sympathies, much as they did in their bracing 2015 debut, Heaven Knows What, populating their film with flawed people in increasingly dire situations. It's a near perfect blend of colorful cinematography, frenetic editing, and pulsing score, creating a grungy, rave-like aesthetic that is like nothing else we've seen on screen this year. Pattinson commands the screen, giving perhaps the finest performance of his career as a man racing against the clock (and against his own human foibles) to save the only person he really, truly cares about. It's a rollicking, raucous thriller, masterfully composed by the Safdies in garish shades of neon and stark fluorescent light. Good Time is simply great filmmaking, an electrifying high-wire act without a net that hits hard, hits fast, and never lets up.

15 | COCO (Lee Unkrich, USA)

As with most Pixar films, a box of tissues is almost a requirement, but Coco might be one of their most heart-wrenching achievements, right up there with Up and Toy Story 3. By the time it reaches its quietly powerful denouement, even the most jaded of viewers will likely find themselves wiping away a tear. Such is the power and beauty of Pixar's craft, and their innate ability to understand the inner workings of the human heart. It's yet another crowning achievement from one of the finest names in animation, a soulful and timeless creation that strikes a universal chord. When all else fades away, family is all we have. Cherish them, and cherish Coco. Mainstream cinema is rarely this good, or this electrifying.


Honorable Mentions

LOVELESS (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

LADY BIRD (Greta Gerwig, USA)

THE ORNITHOLOGIST (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)

THE WORK (Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous, USA)

MARJORIE PRIME (Michael Almereyda, USA)

No comments: