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!
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.
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 film—he 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.
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.
A Ghost Story
Blade Runner 2049
Call Me By Your Name
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.