Sunday, February 24, 2019

My Top 15 Films of 2018

            It has been awhile. 2018 was a great year for movies, not so much in finding the means to watch them all at once, admittedly. Some films I regret missing out include: Minding The Gap, Free Solo, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Capernaum, Madeline’s Madeline, The Tale, Vice, A Quiet Place, MI: Fallout, Mandy, Isle of Dogs, Suspiria, Blindspotting and Hale County This Morning, This Evening. The year was an embarrassment of riches, with too many to see, and too many that were just too good to ignore.
With this in mind, here are my Top 15 Films of 2018:

15. Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts
            In a year with a surprising number of films revising the western genre—from Lean on Pete to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts stands out as one of the most unique takes of the year. Part surrealist horror, deadpan comedy, and grisly murder drama set in the sun-scorched Sumba, Indonensia; the film is just as inspired by the post-modern genre twisting of Quentin Tarantino as it is with John Ford westerns. These stylized flourishes however reveal a cathartic feminist skewering of the kind of culture that normalizes rape and toxic masculinity that has gone for too long. It also has one of the most conflicting and stressful endings of the year.

14. Eighth Grade
            Speaking of stressful, ever try to ask your crush out on a date during a school shooting drill? Well in Eighth Grade, that is the least of these kids’ problems in this hell known as junior high. This is the directorial debut of comic Renaissance man Bo Burnham and the onscreen debut of Elsie Fischer, they synergize a telling image of modern adolescence that is hilarious, awkward, and sometimes genuinely horrific, without ever failing to lose the tone. While not as escapist as John Hughes best high school comedies, Eighth Grade is a sharper, more honest and compelling film about school life by a country mile.

13. Widows
            Forget Ocean’s 8, this is the only 2018 all-female heist film that matters. Maybe that’s too narrow of an appraisal, but one could count with one hand the number of thrillers made this year that had the level of intensity and cinematic richness that Widows provides, let alone such an unbeatable ensemble. From Daniel Kaluuya’s terrifyingly villainous gaze to the desperate wit of Elizabeth Debicki to the calming presence of Olivia the West Highland terrier, there is not a forgettable performance in this film. Also, lets not forget director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), who elevates what could have just been an exciting but minor genre exercise into a shotgun blast of every anxiety of living in America today.

12. Western
            As the title might suggest, Western is in fact another western, however it is far from typical genre fair. For one the film revolves around a German construction crew hired to build a hydroelectric plant for a Bulgarian town. Tensions flair up as one of the Germans, Meinard (played by first time actor Meinhard Neumann, who out-grits Clint Eastwood’s grittiness), befriends the locals over a horse that wanders into the construction site. If anything, Western is a slow burning bit of fly-on-the-wall realism that almost threatens to go guns blazing, but always remaining a ceasefire. While director Valeska Grisebach is disinterested in typical action, she shows clear understanding in the potential majesty of a western, providing sweeping landscape shots of Bulgarian wilderness—soon to fade away via modernization like the American prairie.  She is also rightly critical of colonialism as the German workers harass the town under a violently false sense of superiority, all because they are providing modern infrastructure. Western is a cold creeping allegory of modernism that is liable to make one mad and wistful.

11. Shoplifters
            Very few films can warm your heart whilst slowly tearing it in half, and even less can do it as elegantly as Shoplifters.  The story begins in a wintery Japan as with a father and son on their routine of stealing groceries, who pull off the discreet yet cool sleight of hand of an Ocean's 11 film—albeit without the clever gadgetry. As they return home, laughing over their successful bounty, they find a little girl locked outside her home. She is cold and hungry, so they take her with them. After that moment, we see them join the rest of the family for dinner, and at that moment it is too late, they take your heart as well. The rest is lovely, light, tragic, yet well earned drama about how, as Sakura Andô puts it, “sometimes it's better to choose your own family.”

10. The Death of Stalin
            “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”—Mel Brooks.
            By its stark title, one might wonder what is so funny about The Death of Stalin? Well, apart from witnessing Stalin lay dying on a puddle of his own urine, Armando Iannucci’s film is a layered and hysterical master class in political satire. Having flexed his comic muscles with Veep and In The Loop, Iannucci uses every trick he has learned in order to outright desecrate Stalin’s regime. The result is setting so violently oppressive and paranoid that one can’t laugh at the absurdity of it all. Add an all-star cast of the most bumbling, bewildering, and bug-eyed characters actors playing as Stalin’s cabinet and of course this would be a riotous good time. It is a shame, however, that only one man died in a puddle of his own urine.

9. Happy as Lazzaro
            Huh. Sometimes a film can make people think that they have  it all figured out before the story even ends, only to blindside them in a way only a great film can, Happy as Lazzaro is one of those films. It is a bright, provocative, and beautiful slice of Italian neo-surrealism that is just indescribable. So lets leave it at a call to action: check it out.

8. First Reformed
            Whether one directs their faith towards a deity, the Earth, or just other people around them, 2018 was a trying year, and if the news is anything to go by, it is only going to get worse. If there was a film that truly captures that feeling, it is First Reformed, a story about a Reverend Ernst Toller whose faith in God is tested when humanity seems to have conspired against him and God’s creation. It has the kind of existential dread that one might expect from Paul Schrader—who cut his teeth by writing Taxi Driver—meaning it plunges in it further than any horror film this year could even muster. Something entirely unexpected however is Ethan Hawke, whose performance as Reverend Toller is so great, one could replace the brilliant austerity of the film with sheer incompetence and it would still be on this list.

7. The Favourite
            Speaking of great performances of the year, here is a great problem to have, how does one define the lead performance of The Favourite? It not only has Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone tearing up the palace (as Lady Sarah and Abigail respectively) in this glorious farce. They gloriously snipe and claw at each other, taking down every foppish man with them, in order to gain a little bit more power and do so with the sharp sardonic aplomb one expects from Yorgos Lanthimos film, and then some. However, Olivia Colman just comes out of nowhere as Queen Anne, the gouty, royally distressed royal caught in the center of their attention. It is not just that she plays Anne as a tragic-comic adult child but with a tired gaze she reveals weight of decades of pain, depression, and incalculable losses that only feels more gut wrenching with every passing thought. It is disgusting to see her eating cake until she vomits, but after witnessing the pressure, the power plays, and manipulations she deals with everyday, can we blame her? Like The Death of Stalin, The Favourite is morbidly brilliant farce that is fully aware for the despair caused by those more concerned about gaining power and the pineapples that come with it. Also, the duck race… it is just perfection.

6. Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse
            Just as super hero films and 3-D animation are fast tracking into the same creative dead-zone hosted by westerns and film noir—where familiarity is favored to the point of homogenization—Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse comes along and gives both the kick in the pants that they need. This film is more than hyper formal action spectacle but a mind-altering sensory assault that defies every idea of what it means to be both a super hero but also an animator. From mixing 2-D and 3-D characters together to something subtle as animating at 12 drawings per second, these filmmakers are just straight up rewriting the code of modern animation to create its incredible imagery. All this passion and intuition is utilized perfectly into to a simple tale about how not only can anyone be a superhero but also that giving those the means to have, and inspiration to use such power is a just cause.

5. Roma
            Memory films or semi-fictional biopics are a tricky to make with honesty, as nostalgia and specificity can easily become narrow-minded sentimental tripe. So it is easy to be skeptical about Roma, a black and white period drama loosely about director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood maid, yet this film defies every expectation. The lead character, Cleo (by first time player Yalitza Aparicio), is an indigenous woman who suffers against an inescapable number of indignities and attacks due to her race and social background—both inside and out of the house—whilst her well meaning but self-centered employers remain oblivious. The film portrays her turmoil with brutal honesty, never exploitative but never cutting away either, forcing the viewer to experience every second of it all with her. Cleo’s strife seemingly echoes back into Mexico City, which portrays moments like fires, riots, and a hospital haunted women in labor with the neo-realism and sweeping scale of a Luchino Visconti epic. Again, never cutting away from the simmer anger and unrest that 1970 Mexico City endured on a daily basis. If there is another thing Cuarón shares with Visconti is his sense of graceful empathy and respect for his subjects. Even at the worst of times, Cleo is never filmed like a punching bag, but as a human with desires and aspirations, trying to navigate life. Moments like when she is does a foot race or lays under the sun with one of the children are shot with a sense of elegance, innocence, and admiration, which is the most telling emotion of the film. Roma is the kind of film that is hardly ever greenlit anymore, let alone gain traction in North America, a maximalist art-house memory poem made with the personal and self-awareness storytelling that only Cuarón could provide. It is a cinematic apology at its most yearning.

4. You Were Never Really Here
            On the surface Joe is another neo-noir protagonist, a depressed hitman seeking redemption over past failings by violently rescuing kidnapped girls. Of course, Lynne Ramsey is no ordinary filmmaker. A visual poet with an uncanny knowledge of montage as storytelling, she distills and twists every expectation of this anti-hero in the most intense thriller of the year. You Were Never Really Here is a 90-minute long panic-attack that—through concise editing and visceral sound design—intimately delves into the psyche of its protagonist that is too close for comfort. Almost immediately we see Joe (played perfectly by Joaquin Phoenix) covering his face in a plastic bag, haunted by images of himself as a child and the phrase “I must do better, sir.” It only gets cheerier from there as film alternates between Joe on a seemingly typical rescue mission and memories of violence against women that he witnessed, which haunt every moment of his life. A less elegant filmmaker would relish in the exploitation elements of this premise but Lynne Ramsey and editor Joe Dini deliberately take a sharply abstract approach, either setting the action at an alienating distance (like surveillance footage), silhouettes, or cut it out altogether but show the aftermath. You Were Never Really Here is not about delivering violence but about the consequences of violence. It hammers home how violence and misogyny destroys women’s lives, slowly destroys children surrounded by it, and about how society can easily conform to it. This film is one of the most, if not the most, vital and succinct tone poems of this modern era.

3. Paddington 2
            Okay, forget about the memes, the jokes, and the dogmatic chants of “I’d die for Paddington” that have infected this movie since last January; if one focuses on its own merits, Paddington 2 is still the best comedy of the year. Hands down. The film’s unbeatable slapstick comedy alone would make this film worthy; every gag is built upon classic physical sketches that would make Charlie Chaplin proud yet the have a modern sense of dynamism that keep them from being musty. However another element of Chaplin that director Paul King and crew borrow is his ability to elicit enriching contemporary themes with a sense of absolute sincerity. They make no qualms that not only is Paddington’s story is that of an immigrant, but also one that passionately states how immigrants only improve our society. The filmmaking is also just beautiful in its childlike charm, where moments as simple as opening a pop-up book or a birthday wish are played with such unexpected cinematic grace that they earn genuine tears. Yes it is absurd that a sequel to an animated bear is one of the best movies of the year; then again who thought that great feature length films could be made on an iPhone, or that the fourth Mad Max movie would be a decade defining masterwork? Art is absurd, and life is too short to ponder over what is proper cinema. Treat yourself to this cinematic jar of marmalade.

2. If Beale Street Could Talk
            How does one even follow up from a film as exceptional as Moonlight? For Barry Jenkins, it would be an ambitious, tragic, and enthrallingly romantic adaptation of James Baldwin’s story of Tish and Fonny, two young lovers separated by a false accusation. With If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins forgoes any traces of neo-realism of Moonlight and plunges deep into the kind of bold melodrama that made Douglas Sirk household name. It is no mistake that Fonny wears red plaid flannel like Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows. Visually it is highly formal as a classic Technicolor film, but Jenkins heightens it even further, using tricks like slow motion, subtle long takes, and a ton of smoke effect to perfection, just to emphasize every emotion. The film feels exactly like it looks, utterly timeless. Like a Sirk film, sadly, the lustrous sheen thinly veils sharp critique. The melodrama of Beale Street gently guides the viewer into the daily lives of its characters and as the inevitable reality of a racially biased justice system withers their hope dry. A scene where Fonny meets his old friend Daniel (played by the massively underrated Brian Tyree Henry) for a beer accumulates the themes in microcosm as their conversation slowly reveals the old friend horrific stay in prison. The light in his eyes fade, revealing a young man so scared that he trembles just thinking about it. The story could easily focus on this mode of near unbearable tragedy, but once Tish returns home and the light returns to Daniel, the film reveals it truest strength in its transcendent sense of love and empathy by the characters. The core cast of characters face these obstacles together; even as the inevitable happens, they do not break under pressure and face it all as family. If Beale Street Could Talk is a bittersweet film that does not mince words about what needs to be said but also finds the act of living the best life that one can in a systemically racist society as a pure form of rebellion.

1. The Rider
            The romantic dream of the western is defined by the image of a cowboy riding towards the sunset on his trusty horse. The Rider is about what happens when the cowboy can no longer climb on the saddle. The story of Brady Jandreau is a sad yet remarkable one, an aspiring bronco rider from South Dakota, fell into retirement after suffering a traumatic brain injury in 2016, no longer able to ride in the rodeo. This accident became an inspiration for film director Chloe Zhao, who met Jandreau a year before the accident whilst filming Songs My Brother Taught Me. The result is a film that blurs the line between documentary and fiction, where Brady Jandreau, his actual family, and local rodeo legends playing fictional versions of themselves as they re-enact their lives after his accident. This feat of using non-actors is not inherently special—as the actors of Western and Roma can attest—yet the Jandreau family strikes an astonishing and personal chord that is just unmatched. Their stern, raw, and nuanced approach to communicating with each other reveals an intense level of introspection, bonding and regrets that is utterly disarming. This film is less a group therapy session but cinematic prayer for growth.
            This is not even going into the filmmaking itself, which is just heavenly. The film could just be a montage of landscape shots and it would still be the best film of the year. Western film landscapes, even in contemporary ones like No Country For Old Men and The Revenant, tend to have a sense of polish that makes them look like a Norman Rockwell painting, but just as flat. Chloe Zhao takes a more Malick and Herzog approach, in that she does not just display the environment but allows the environment to breathe. Simple moments like the sun rising upon a field of dying grass swishing from the wind give The Rider a sense of life and majesty that is steadily fading from the western, which is very much the point. The Rider is a portrait of a man taking one last look at a fading dream and finding purpose after it. If the western went the way of the dodo, at least it went out on a fitting note. 

So that's that. Feel free to share this or comment below, but be kind, of course.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Whisky Galore! (1949)

            Whenever one is down with either an illness, stress, or if it is just raining outside, there is nothing like a good cozy movie to make time flow like water, the wind, or a nice glass of Scotch. The perfect comfort movie is almost the same as the perfect bedtime story: it is simple, relaxing, and fun until the very end, rather than lulling the viewer to sleep with deliberate pacing. Save the heavy slow cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky for the truly hopeless nights. In contrast, Whisky Galore! is the epitome of the cozy movie, a raucous and classic booze comedy that will please likes of Powell & Pessburger fans and fans of Edgar Wright. Whisky Galore! is a film that will make one laugh ever minute from the crassness of it all but also swoon by its gentle rebelliousness.
            The story begins almost like a bedtime story, as a narrator talks about the Scottish Isle of Todday, a delightfully pastoral place that thrives on the whisky at the local pub, until the Second World War caused the distilleries to run dry. The town’s ennui is so ridiculously bleak that some of the older townsfolk literally die from the news. More than just die, they die on their bed as they hear the unseen angel choir whisks them away, which somehow lures the camera into the heavens. This movie is so bombastic it is amazing. It is one thing for a film to have someone melodramatic say “I’ll literally die!” and Whisky Galore! just shows that happen, because why not commit to the hyperbole?! The film is loaded with imaginative comic bits like this, which are more than just absurd, they are simply epic. Sure it lacks the opulence of a Hollywood Musical or the tranquility of say A Canterbury Tale, but Whisky Galore! is a comedy that is far more dynamic than what the typical comic films were ever doing at the time. More than ahead of its time, it feels very at home in today’s film landscape.
            Back to the plot, this film is essentially a heist movie where the devilish crooks are awkward, polite, old Christian Scotsmen who just need a bloody drink who find salvation when a whisky freighter crashed on the rocks. Thus, they must rob the doomed ship and hide the whisky amongst the stuffy British Captain, either under their beds or in their gullets. It is easy to see why this film still resonates so much, as it places the scrappy and fun locals against the tragically sober British Navy. Even so, the fact that the film promotes the awesome powers of whisky is so delightfully wrong that it feels even more naughty. Even now, to watch this film feels like one is getting away with something devilish, a fun little indulgence.
            These silly old folks are the silly glue that keeps this film together, which is impressive in how inherently obscure the cast is on paper. Sure, Basil Radford and Joan Greenwood are delightful and deserve their top billing, but this film paid the angel’s share for a solid dramatic ensemble that tears it up for brilliant comedy. This includes James Robertson Justice as the blustering town doctor who could make Dr House nervous; Wylie Watson as the ringleader who can somehow plot and scheme whilst pounding shot after shot; but most of all Duncan Macrae, whose Angus MacCormac is so legendarily clueless that is a wonder he does not light the whole island on fire. This film has no classic comedy troupe but a perfect storm of character actors who create into distilled comic gold. They are the base spirit of a cocktail of that is good on every sip.
            Every moment of Whisky Galore! is a delight, even the bizarrely forced moment where the film warns the audience about the dangers of alcohol, as if it would or had ever stopped anyone from drinking. It is defiant without being cruel and grounded without ever being dull. The film is an experience that invites the viewer to sit back, relax, and laugh along with a drink, all the way to the end, which is what makes it so comforting. Whisky Galore! is like grandpa’s ‘medically prescribed’ Hot Toddies, it might not actually be healthy but it certainly warms up the soul. So whenever the chance is given, take a shot at this film, it will go down smooth.  

            This post is part of the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by Rick of the Classic Film and TV Café in celebration of National Classic Movie Day, which I just learned was a thing. So that’s cool. Anyway, check out his blog for more links to other cool bloggers who are writing about fun and laid back classic movies.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

My Top 10 of 2017

            Lets not beat around the bush; 2017 was a difficult year to be a cinema fan, in more ways than one. There were alarmingly few blockbusters that stood out this year, and for some reason it was harder than ever to find independent and foreign cinema that is worth a damn. Nevertheless, when a breakthrough ever occurs it was more than an insurmountable relief, it was an event. The best films of 2017 were like guiding lights in a sea of despair and bad taste. Even if this crop of films could not beat the high points of previous years—though not many can compete with Moonlight and Mad Max: Fury Road—the best of 2017 were revelatory, strange and exciting to watch. Anyone who felt unfulfilled by cinema this year needs to check these out, for they truly made 2017 worth all the trouble. But first some quick addendums; I am guilty of not seeing Good Time, Jane, Rat Film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Mudbound, Personal Shopper and The Lost City of Z.  I did see Phantom Thread, Fantastic Woman and Paddington 2 but since I could not see these films until late into January I am considering these films as 2018 releases. So good luck, other films of 2018, you all got your work cut out for ya!
            Now, on to the actual list:

10. Nocturama
            Possibly the most morally distressing film since A Clockwork Orange; Nocturama is a story about a group of multiracial teenage terrorists who pull off something horrifying, and then hide out in an abandoned mall contemplating their actions. This is a bleak, nihilistic yet hypnotic little movie that is impossible to resist watching. The scheme is told non-linearly like Tarantino’s early crime work but has a deathly cold detachment that recalls films like Sonatine. The film comes to full bloom in the mall as these characters lay low coming to their own existential realizations and dance to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” which oddly leads to what makes this film so compelling. Nocturama controversially never truly explains why they did what they did, which may be a legitimate point but this point overlooks the fact that, well, they are kids. They are just sad, dumb, lonely kids, too scared to face society and too proud to cry for help, until it is too late.

9. Columbus
            Columbus is directed by Kogonada, who is most known for creating these specific yet captivating video essays like Ozu // Passageways and Hands of Bresson, and with Columbus—his first feature filmhe practices what he preaches in the best way. The cinematography is on another level. Every scene is composed with a geometric level of precision that evolves this quiet drama about a man (John Cho) and a woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who meet and bond over a fondness for architecture to cope with family into a spellbinding complex portrait of love and friendship. Not a single shot is wasted in this film and every moment moves. Columbus is such a masterful showcase of classic art-house filmmaking that to call it a great debut only sells it short.

8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
             “The farmers have won. Not us.”—Takeshi Shimura, Seven Samurai,
            There is a lot to discuss about The Last Jedi; as there always seems to be for a Star Wars film, but this one was particularly special in the grand scheme of the franchise. It still has exciting action; it certainly is the only blockbuster of 2017 that does not slump into a CGI blob in the final act. Aesthetically speaking, this is first Star Wars since Empire Strikes Back that feels unashamedly inspired by Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks and Flash Gordon. However speaking of Kurosawa, this is the Star Wars that takes the lessons of his films to heart. Taking an idea from Seven Samurai, The Last Jedi quite literally throws out the vain “traditions” in order to examine what it truly means to be a hero, and does so with hilarious audacity. The fact that this is the first film of the franchise to have genuine empathy for characters that are outsiders—whether it is a rebel bomber that nobody in the audience ever knew or a girl who came from nowhere—is absolutely remarkable, and to see people intimidated or confused by this idea makes it all the more vital. The Last Jedi is an exciting reminder that a lineage does not make a great hero but how one faces great obstacles. Not bad for a film that has flying rodents called Porgs.

7. Dunkirk
            A semi-silent WW II film that not only interlocks three stories but in three specific areas within three varying lengths of time and is not about the Allies winning but surviving a retreat. How did this get greenlit? This is less an old-fashioned war epic than a maximalist art film, an exercise in how montage can both compress and reveal the importance every vital second of this crisis. The story of the airplanes is especially compelling in showcasing grace under pressure especially when the pilot leader (played by a masked Tom Hardy) must face enemy bombers and fighters alone, in a Spitfire with a broken a fuel gauge. One can just see the stress his eyes as he calculates what he can do before he safely lands, or whether landing is even an option. The film is not interested in back-stories or moral discussions of its characters but rather examining their instincts and pains faced by those who triumphed in this dire moment in history. It is a WWII film that distills everything to its bare essentials, revealing triumph through action; if nothing else, it makes for one the most relentless blockbusters of the decade.

6. The Shape of Water
            This is essentially the best adaptation to a best selling page-turning romance novel that never existed. The Shape of Water is chocolate box of cinematic tradition, a sprawl of elements stolen from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Amélie, even Fred and Ginger musicals, all gracefully interweaved into a gorgeous romantic spectacle, and it is so delicious.  Guillermo del Toro is an opulent director who brazenly flaunts his influences but more importantly is brilliant in his ability to contextualize these elements into vivid and clever storytelling. More than a love story between a fish-man and a mute woman, The Shape of Water is a beautiful story that is more than about seeing someone beyond any perceived faults, but rather in finding beauty in the faults.

5. Get Out
            Talk about film of the moment. Before this film premiered in January, all anyone knew about it was that insane trailer, which made it look like another horror film heading to theaters early for a Halloween home video release. It has been almost a year since then and people are still talking about Get Out like it premiered yesterday. Get Out is a film that so succinctly rips into the systemic racism that to say it is satire just puts it lightly, this film Jordan Peele diagnosing of America’s ills. Granted this is not just a case of “right place, right time” no this is an awesome showcase of classic sci-fi horror that is just unforgettable. The screenplay alone shows that writer/director Jordan Peele has a great instinct for thrills and allegory that recalls one of Rod Serling. Get Out is perhaps not quite as debonair as the continental breakfast that is The Twilight Zone, but the wit is just as sharp. 

4. Lady Bird
            The film begins with Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her mom on a road trip, crying over of an audio-book of The Grapes of Wrath; after the tape ends, they talk about college, which leads to them arguing so intensely that Lady Bird jumps out of the car. This side-splitting exercise in whiplash represents so much of what Lady Bird gets right as a comedy, a coming-of-age story, and more. Lady Bird is a hilarious and dynamic piece of cinema that keeps the viewer guessing over what will happen next. Every character will make one laugh, cry, and sometimes both in the same scene. It is also a testament to how exceptionally edited this film is because sweet Jesus it is. Forget Dunkirk, if there is a film in 2017 that perfectly uses editing as an expressive tool of portraying the fleetingness of time, it is Lady Bird. Not only does the film reduce all big and little moments of a kid’s last year in high school in about 90 minutes, it quietly reveals what can be missed. So many little threads unravel that expand to what seems like every person in Sacramento, engulfing the viewer into what makes these people and this town so vibrant. By the end, it makes one wish that they were still there, just to see how everyone has changed. More than just a comedy, Lady Bird is a celebratory poem about how so much can change in one person’s life, within and around them, and it did so in almost half the runtime as Boyhood.

3. Faces Places
            A film that is as simple as its title suggests. This lovely and funny little performative documentary shows French New Wave legend Agnès Varda and mysterious street artist JR doing what they love, making pictures. Driving in what looks like a camera on four wheels, they take pictures of local people and plaster these gigantic photos on buildings, shipping containers, for the world to see. The reactions of the townsfolk range between amused and amazed to the point of tears. There is never a dull moment in Face Places; but as exhilarating as it is to just see Varda and JR deface these places, what makes this film so powerful are personal revelations of Varda and her friendly relationship with JR. Overtime, Varda quietly reveals that this creative project is as much about going for “one last ride,” blessing the artists of the future, and embracing the beautiful absurdities of life. Faces Places is a film clearly made by auteurs with heavy thoughts on their mind, but is a testament to their ability to express it with such delight and grace, which is surprisingly hard to find these days. 

2. The Florida Project
            When Sean Baker arrived into mainstream acclaim with his iPhone-shot barnburner Tangerine, he brought an empathic eye toward transgendered streetwalkers in LA with scorching colors that were simply unrivaled. With The Florida Project, Baker replaces the digital with 35 mm film but brings back that same eye for this vibrant and sensitive portrait of kids living in the motels/makeshift-projects of Kissimmee, right next to the Magic Kingdom. The result is a brilliant slice of poetic realism that vividly portrays the starry-eyed perspective of little kids living in American poverty. Every scene is lovingly shot, filled with scorching sunlight and all the colors of an old candy shop. The film even shows cranes that seemingly wander around the town like they own the place. That is the thing about Florida, for a child, even the land outside the happiest place on earth seems pretty magical.
             And what kids, they are an absolute riot to watch as they run unsupervised through the Magic Palace motel with adventure and mischief on their mind. There is nothing precious about them either, these little shits curse, burn stuff, and talk with their mouth full, but even at their worst, one cannot help but admire their audacity and fear for them. This is particularly true of Moonee (played with gusto by Brooklyn Prince) who has this crass drive and love for the motel she calls home that is disarmingly earnest and sweet. When she says a leprechaun with a pot of gold lives at the end of the rainbow, one could easily believe her. She is just a kid trying to live the best life that she can, which makes the film all the more heartbreaking.
            As playful as the film can be, the dire reality of these children is portrayed candidly and ever present. For every endearing moment there is undercut with violence, destitution, and more sinister fears that happen around these kids who do not know how much is at stake. The Florida Project is wild and can be hilarious, but is also a bleak and profound study of the most vulnerable people in the country.

1. Dawson City: Frozen Time
            The story of Dawson City is almost too absurd to be history. A gold mining town founded between the birth of film and the Klondike Gold Rush, it was also last in line for Hollywood film distribution. As talkies became the norm, the studios suggested that the city should destroy these silent films. Over 500 films were buried underneath the town and they were forgotten about; until by some comic miracle, they were rediscovered by a construction crew in the 1980s, hired to dig up dirt for a septic tank. Finally, filmmaker Bill Morrison then used those very reels and photos taken at Dawson to create Dawson City: Frozen Time, a sweeping biography of the town and its people. However, what could have merely been a beautiful slideshow evolves into an indescribable statement of humanity, art, and their place in history.
             Morrison seemingly performs reincarnation through appropriating these decaying strips like the artists of these films were finally given the recognition that they deserved after decades of rotting in obscurity. The decay of the reels instantly recognizable, often all but the very center of the frame is corroded away, but there is enough to convey genuine reality, like the games that surrounded the Black Sox Scandal, but also poetic truths. A scene of a lonesome man meeting a lover becomes a ghostly symbol when the lover is corroded out of the film. It is a devastating poetic documentary of how art can touch so many yet can be tarnished so quickly. Dawson City: Frozen Time is an extraordinary and unforgettable achievement of archaeology as poetry.

Honorable Mentions:
A Ghost Story
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Big Sick
Call Me By Your Name
The Ornithologist
The Square
Wonder Woman
Twin Peaks: The Return… ? I just don’t know what to do with this… experience. On one hand, it would easily be somewhere in the top five, but is this a film? Is this TV? It is certainly not HBO, but what is this?
            So now dear reader, what were some films of 2017 that you thought were amazing? What was overlooked? And more importantly, what the hell is Twin Peak: The Return? Seriously, it keeps me awake at night.