I had an idea for a story in college. Terrorists blow up the Academy Awards, killing off a generation of filmmakers. (The “In Memoriam” the following year would be three hours long, I so brilliantly quipped.) Our story picks up in the aftermath, following the son of a famous filmmaker who is asked to helm a large project in hopes of getting the movie business back on track. In my view, this could be a comedy, but I couldn’t figure out how to keep things light knowing that the deaths of a few hundred or thousand people move our plot forward, so it went abandoned.1
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about this story a great deal. Harvey Weinstein was the bomb that went off inside Hollywood. His transgressions and crimes have touched the entire industry. I’m no scholar of Hollywood history but this moment feels like nothing that has ever touched the industry.
The story I wrote in college, however morbid, was about making a space in the business for the voice of a young filmmaker. The Weinstein revelations are making that space. The movies are being forced to change, to infuse new voices. The show, inevitably, goes on. There is no easy fix for decades of harassment and abuse. There is no telling on how much work we’ve been deprived of because those with the pursestrings were preoccupied with abusive behavior. Hopefully we will finally get more original stories from the far flung corners of our own creative communities.
Every year we hope that Hollywood will recognize that it needn’t look far to find that infusion of talent from long held back communities. With all corners of the business running from scandal and the receipts2 to prove audiences want to hear from new voices, perhaps this is the time for real change. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
With that, here are my favorite films of 2017. I saw far too few new releases this year for this to be comprehensive to any degree. Last year I set a goal for myself to watch 50 new releases. I fell short, clocking in at only 29 and some of those are murky thanks to the strange ways films are released these days. As an example, that number includes Joe Swanberg’s Win it All, a film I saw in a crowded theater at SXSW but went straight to Netflix without a theatrical run. That number also includes Errol Morris’ Wormwood, a television series released in New York as a four hour film. I don’t quite understand how to parse that out, but since I have always gone by Mike D’Angelo’s invaluable NYC release list (which now includes streaming only lists), I’ll just include them in my year end consideration.
Enough chit-chat. Onto the movies.
Person to Person
As a fan of director Dustin Guy Defa’s 2011 debut, Bad Fever, my expectations were relatively high for the filmmaker’s second feature, the delightful Person to Person. As I said in my review, Defa’s New York City collage “approaches the scope of Robert Altman and the depth of Todd Solondz.” It features some of the best performances I’ve seen this year, with the standout being Bene Coopersmith as a record collector getting close to a big score. My love for this movie was instant, and I’m sure it will stick with me for years to come.
Anyone who has ever seen a Greta Gerwig performance knows that the heart of a writer-director beats within her. On screen she exudes an energy that almost shimmers; there is no ounce of her that isn’t committed the story she occupies. It is no surprise, then, that her debut directorial effort, Lady Bird, is one of the year’s great films.
And yet Lady Bird is a film that surprises nonetheless. Saoirse Ronan possesses a similar luminance to a Gerwig portrayal, controlling the screen wherever she goes while remaining aloof to the power she holds over the screen, its inhabitants and its audience. That this story is one of a woman coming to grips with the force of her own being requires such a presence. Ronan’s foil, Laurie Metcalf, wrecked me as Lady Bird’s mother, a woman discovering the exact opposite: that her power has waned enough that the she must learn to let go. Smart and affecting, funny and beautifully filmed, I hope this is a mere beginning to Gerwig’s directing days. Of course, selfishly, I hope it doesn’t keep her from stepping in front of the camera as well.
The form of the video essay has long both attracted and repelled me. My fear with any essay is that it provides a mere surface understanding of a film, a textual analysis devoid of whatever spark of life exists between the frames. The essays by kogonada have always allayed those fears. Instead of playing mortician, his have always breathed new life into the films he picks apart. Working with the films of others, it was clear he had a voice all his own and plenty to say. Columbus, kogonada’s first feature, is a lush coming of age tale that hews closely to the style of his favorite director, Yasujirō Ozu. Yet just as kogonada’s essays bring out his voice among the pieces of others, this film is much more than a surface-level homage.
I have seen precious little Ozu, but kogonada seems to have struck upon a rather useful confluence: that American independent cinema of the last decade and a half or so share a great deal with Ozu’s most well known stories. Namely they are tales of family life told simply but unsparingly, plumbing the emotional depths of their characters while, crucially, allowing that one’s surroundings are an extension of themselves. Columbus is a film about modernist architecture, but it is also about what modernism has wrought.
Haley Lu Richardson provides the standout performance here as Casey, a young woman who is skipping college to work in a library and help keep her mother sober. The role feels impossible. She is often in total control but wants to break free of herself. She skipped over teenage angst but longs for it. The performance, and the film itself, at times feels disjointed, which is part of what draws me in further. The film sometimes becomes too clean, too perfect and manicured like the landscaping amid the primly kept buildings; it is when it flails around for its footing that it becomes something more.
Most of my favorite films this year come from the indie arthouse world. I do not know if Wonder Woman would make the cut were it not for the voluminous baggage that comes with being a DC Comics film. Almost everything I like about this film must be put in context, and I’m not sure if I will still like it in five years or even next year. But for now: it floored me.
I can boil it down to one word: empathy. I can’t recall an empathetic superhero film since, probably, Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. The paradigm lately has been that of the sympathetic hero (if at all). The difference is simple: we feel for the sympathetic hero while the empathetic hero feels for, well, if not us than for something.
Wonder Woman’s centerpiece moment in “No Man’s Land” works not (just) because of the music and the reveal of Diana’s costume and the significant buildup to seeing something extraordinary; it works because our hero has the revelation that people are in trouble and she can do something about it. It is a selfless, heroic act committed in a world of cynics. This empathy oozes off the screen and it is a delight to watch.
The Big Sick
There are laughs in The Big Sick that come from places I can barely understand. Even when there is nothing funny happening, the laughs keep coming. I only watched it once and it had me laughing through tears. I’ll need to revisit again soon and write proper thoughts about the way it affects me.
It was my great pleasure to see a 35mm print of Gabe Klinger’s Porto at SXSW. It is a beautiful little novella of a film, and an unintentional elegy for its star, Anton Yelchin. He plays Jake, a loner wandering the streets of Porto, Portugal who meets Mati, played by Lucie Lucas. Revisiting my notes, I scribbled that Jake almost feels like Travis Bickle; Yelchin delivers a performance on that same level.
Porto’s run time is short, a mere 76 minutes, but it is a deep meditation on the concepts of lust and love. Its narrative is expertly crafted, and it makes the pain of losing Yelchin feel all the worse. Seek it out.
I was very happy to see Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan get a US release this year. It’s of a genre I call “fucked up Greek stuff” along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos’ work, though on a much more accessible end of the spectrum. The film follows Kostis, a doctor with a dark past who moves to a beach town. He becomes something of an aged mascot to a youthful group, but he thinks much more of the relationships he has forged than his counterparts.
What I loved about watching this film is I never knew where it was going to take me. There is a sense of violence beneath the surface of every scene, but you are strung along always wondering what will come next. The mysteriousness does not feel like a gimmick; more like a sort of raw power that pumps the story forward. By the end you will rethink what you have been feeling throughout.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi was enjoyable enough. I will remember it mostly for the bunk coverage of fan vs. critic reactions. Can we please once and for all never have another story based around Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic or whatever else scores? Another highlight along this storyline: the Tomatometer killed Baywatch or something.
I loved Get Out, which may well be one of the most written about films of the year. I can’t add much to the chorus, but I will say this: it’s been a delight to see both Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key break into movies since the end of their Comedy Central show. Key’s acting is always a wonderful addition to anything he’s been in, particularly Don’t Think Twice. And Peele has turned out to be the voice of a new generation of filmmakers. I’m very glad he’s not sticking to fare more akin to Keanu, which he co-wrote.
James Franco’s The Disaster Artist is a fun backstage comedy. I wrote about it back in March. One thing I forgot to mention is the cameo by Judd Apatow, who plays against type as a believable asshole. Acting!
mother! is insane and nowhere near as smart as it believes itself to be, but worthwhile viewing nonetheless. It’s the sort of film that belongs, perhaps, on a midnight movie circuit. If you can stomach it, it makes great conversation fodder. I wouldn’t be surprised if I revisit it in years to come and have completely new and different feelings about it. A surprise was Kristen Wiig’s role, which manages to eek out a bit of levity amid unrelenting cacophony.
A few negative thoughts: I did not understand the love affair everyone else seemed to have with Baby Driver. The opening car chase was thrilling and then nothing after approached its inventiveness. Narratively everything starts to fall apart towards the end when our bad guy turns out to be the wrong person. (And an adversary suddenly flips for no reason?) It didn’t do much for me.
I am not a huge fan of Christopher Nolan to begin with, but Dunkirk feels sterile and stunted. In trying to tell three stories well it feels as though we don’t even have a full thread to follow. Though the photography is impressive, it doesn’t all come together for me like the Swiss watch the film’s score would have you believe you it is. For my money, the tale of Mark Rylance at sea should have been the whole film.
Blade Runner 2049 felt like two movies, one of which I really enjoyed! The other, not so much. The photography is, naturally, stellar. Roger Deakins deserves all the awards, but perhaps he’ll get skipped over as is the annual tradition.
I think that covers just about everything I have to say about the movies this year. Next year will bring a new set of stories and, hopefully, a new class of storytellers. I’m looking forward to see what the future holds.