Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Best Movies of 2017: Part 1

Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking. We're already halfway through January, 2018! What are you doing releasing an end-of-year list NOW, Miles? Well, as you may be aware, a lot of really great movies are only released at the end of the year so they're fresh in voters' minds come awards season, and it meant that I didn't want to release my list until I had seen certain titles. Like, I thought there was a good chance that Phantom Thread would make my list, so I didn't want to release it until I'd seen Phantom Thread. Then, I saw it, and absolutely hated Phantom Thread, so there you go. But I'm still glad I waited.

But, while I certainly saw enough movies this year to make one question my sanity, I sadly don't get to see everything. There might be some incredible movies that I didn't get around to seeing yet, or some great gems that I haven't even heard of.  In particular, this year, I wish I'd been able to see more of the foreign language films which are supposed to be wonderful but have either not been released in theaters in the States yet, or were only in theaters for two days and I missed them. I'm thinking of movies like Loveless, Foxtrot, and especially A Fantastic Woman which are supposed to be great and might have made this list if only I'd been able to see them. The same goes for the litany of fascinating-sounding films on the shortlist for Best Animated Feature which I also have not had a chance to see, such as Mary and the Witch's Flower. So of course bear in mind that this list can only take into account the films I've actually had a chance to watch.

Also, I should say that even though 30 seems like a lot of movies, this really is a rather select list, and there are plenty of movies that I liked quite a bit which still didn't quite make the cut here. And, as always, please look at this list with a grain of salt. This is not a definitive list, simply my personal preferences, which probably differ from yours. I don't mean to offend if your favorite movie of the year was left off of my list. Unless your favorite film of the year was the inexplicably popular Blade Runner 2049. Shots fired.

One final note before we continue: two years ago, an animated short film called World of Tomorrow was one of my favorites of the year, but I didn't include it because it wasn't a feature film. Well, the same animator, Don Hertzfeldt, has made a sequel to it called World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People's Thoughts and it is brilliant. So, much like its predecessor, I'm not including it in my list, but I still encourage everyone to watch it because it's amazing.

Okay, onto my picks! As is my tradition, I'm sharing my list of top 30 films, and to start we're going to go through films #30 through #11.

#30: The Lure

To be honest, when The Lure ended, I sat there for a second thinking "What on earth did I just watch?" The Lure is a Polish goth musical about singing, man-eating mermaids, and is every bit as wild as its description. I had to include it on my list simply because I haven't seen anything else quite like it. Plus the whole thing is gloriously low-budget, but still goes all out with all its design, with lots of bright colors. It feels like The Rocky Horror Picture Show but with Polish mermaids, and if you're not rushing out to watch it right now then I don't know what more I can say to convince you to watch this glorious oddity.

#29: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent made history as the first ever hand-painted feature-length animated film. I wanted to see it on the big screen just for that landmark achievement, and I'm so glad I did. This movie is simply stunning. The fact that it's painted is not a gimmick--it really does add to the look of the film and tells the story in a better way than it could have if the film had been animated any other way. Plus, I really liked the story. I didn't know much about the mystery surrounding Vincent Van Gogh's death, and the movie ended up being far more engaging than I had initially thought it might be. And seeing the actual Van Gogh portraits of all the characters in the film gave Loving Vincent my single favorite credits sequence of 2017. Come for the achievement in animation, stay for what is a really lovely film overall.

#28: Unrest

Documentaries still struggle to gain much audience recognition, but when they're done well they can provide some of the best film-viewing experiences of the year. In the film Unrest, filmmaker Jennifer Brea documents her experience living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and reaches out to others with the condition. CFS is woefully misunderstood by the public, and the documentary does a great job of educating the viewer about what it's like to live with what can often be a debilitating condition. It's often difficult to watch, especially when you realize how often the clear distress of those with CFS is dismissed by the medical community, but it's a rewarding and important film that's currently on the Oscars shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Which is no small feat given that it's the only film on that shortlist that was self-distributed, meaning that with no company advocating for its inclusion, it made the shortlist solely on its merits.

#27: Slack Bay

There was no shortage of weird films this year, but one of the weirdest must have been the French comedy Slack Bay. The movie's plot, as it were, follows the wealthy Van Peteghem family as they vacation in their summer home on the beach, and find themselves in the midst of a murder investigation when a bunch of tourists go missing (spoiler alert: cannibals are involved). But the plot is not important here. It's really director Bruno Dumont's chance to showcase the broad comedic talents of the film's impressive cast. It's beautifully shot, delightfully clown-like, and an utterly bizarre wonder.

#26: Thelma

Following The Lure and Slack Bay, we have another great and strange foreign language film showing up on this list. The Norwegian film Thelma follows religious teenager Thelma (Eili Harboe) who realizes that she's falling in love with another woman, which in turn unleashes potent supernatural powers within her. Director Joachim Trier has a deft hand behind the camera and tells the story in a truly surprising way. Thelma is a lovely supernatural thriller, and deserves far more recognition than it has received.

#25: Icarus

Given that they're typically not as high-profile releases, I'm sure there are many great documentaries that I missed this year (I've heard wonderful things about Faces Places), but my favorite documentary from 2017 that I have seen is Icarus. Filmmaker Bryan Fogel initially set out to make a documentary about steroid usage in athletics, and enlisted Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov to help him out. But the documentary takes a turn when Rodchenkov ends up being implicated in the Russian Olympic doping scandal. The film becomes a tense thriller as Rodchenkov flees to the U.S. with Fogel's help. Fogel stumbled into an absolutely incredible and vital story, and it should be essential viewing. The good news is, it's on Netflix! Watch it. It's riveting.

#24: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

I love quirky slice-of-life drama/comedies. And one of the leading filmmakers in this genre is Noah Baumbach. And yet, I have typically not been a fan of Baumbach's movies, and have always felt like something is lacking when I view his films. But I think that The Meyerowitz Stories is easily his best film to date, and features some pretty incredible work from its ensemble cast. Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel are all great as siblings who must navigate their father and their family dynamic later in life. Sandler gives what might be the best performance of his career, and had received early Oscar buzz which unfortunately seems to have died down. While he hasn't received as much hype surrounding his performance, I also thought that Stiller was really strong, and the film reminded me what a good actor he is. But Marvel steals the film for me. She doesn't get as much screentime as her brothers, but the work Marvel does is really remarkable, and I'm sad that she's not been singled out for her excellent work. This movie is worth seeing for Baumbach's excellent screenplay and for these three nuanced performances.

#23: Columbus

One of the best movies of 2017 that you've never heard of is Columbus, about the relationship between the son of an esteemed architect and an intelligent young woman stuck in Columbus, Indiana. Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho do wonderful, quiet work here, and the movie manages to be incredibly affecting even though it's decidedly unflashy. But the real breakout here is first-time director Kogonada. This film is so artistically shot in a way that you don't typically see in indies like this. I feel like Kogonada's perspective is very similar to Wes Anderson's, but set in the real world. There's none of the cartoony whimsy, but Kogonada also emphasizes use of color and symmetry, and clearly loves architecture. Columbus is great, and makes me excited for Kogonada's future films.

#22: Logan Lucky

Steven Soderbergh has proven time and time again that he knows how to make really great movies. Logan Lucky is hardly essential viewing, but it's a wild ride and a lot of fun. I love the action and the brisk pace in this movie, but even more than that, I love the colorful characters that populate this film (with Daniel Craig especially a standout as explosives expert Joe Bang, which is such a departure for him). I just had a blast watching Logan Lucky, and I'm surprised it couldn't make my top 20.

#21: Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck tells two stories of children wandering New York by themselves, each set fifty years apart. The film is far from perfect, and there are a lot of flaws I could point out, but I loved it because there are moments in this movie of genuine magic. As both of the film's storylines involve children, Wonderstruck does a great job of showing us a childlike sense of wonder, and succeeded in bringing me back to a childhood perspective. Also, the camerawork for both stories is beautiful, with the 1927 storyline featuring great black and white cinematography (not to mention a great performance from deaf actress Millicent Simmonds) and the 1977 storyline showcasing bright, judiciously used colors. Both Wonderstruck and the Scorsese film Hugo from years ago are based off of books by Brian Selznick. I was not a fan of Hugo, but I think director Todd Haynes handles the ambitious screenplay really well here, with a much more subtle hand that is needed to bring out the beauty in the story.

#20: Good Time

Good Time is a difficult film to watch, but there's one very good reason to watch it: Robert Pattinson. Pattinson has never before had such a great chance to showcase his considerable acting chops, and he is truly remarkable here, and gives one of the best performances of the year. The filmmaking here is unrelenting, and Good Time is as harrowing and memorable as its title is misleading.

#19: Last Flag Flying

Every year I see a film that has everything going for it to be a serious awards contender that then just kind of goes by unnoticed and I don't understand why. This year, that film is Last Flag Flying. No one is talking about the latest from prolific director Richard Linklater, but I think it's one of his best movies to date. Telling the story of three army buddies reunited later in life to attend a funeral, Last Flag Flying is a careful character study and reflection on grief and the past. The central trio of the film (Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne) are all incredible, and there's also great work from J. Quinton Johnson as a young soldier, and the legendary Cicely Tyson who steals the movie with one scene. The work is so strong and it's a shame that these performances seem to be forgotten. At the end of the film, I learned in the credits that Last Flag Flying is based off of a book, which honestly shocked me because these characters felt so lived in that I just assumed they were original creations. Carell in particular gives what might be the best performance of his career.

#18: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a brilliant movie. It's meticulously told and impeccably crafted. It's also incredibly disturbing and difficult to watch in one sitting. Many felt that director Yorgos Lanthimos' previous film The Lobster was a tough movie to watch, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer makes that one feel almost cheerful in comparison. But, as brutal as this movie is, it's powerful as long as you can stick with it. This revenge thriller is legitimately harrowing and succeeded in making me actually reconsider my thoughts about all the characters on the screen. Plus, the acting is amazing all around, with Barry Keoghan giving a truly powerhouse performance as a disturbed young man seeking revenge. It's not for everyone, and if you didn't like The Lobster then definitely stay away. But I'd actually say The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a better film than The Lobster. It's more cohesive, and while not for everyone's tastes, it's a bit of a storytelling marvel, and certainly one of the most memorable films of the year.

#17: Personal Shopper

Much like Robert Pattinson (whose great work in Good Time I've already discussed), Kristen Stewart became one of the most hated actors in the world after her work in the Twilight franchise. But she has proven time and time again that she's a really talented actress. Every time she turns in an amazing performance, I think that THIS is the one that's going to finally get her invited to awards shows. First, there was Still Alice, then there was Clouds of Sils Maria, and now there's Personal Shopper. From Olivier Assayas (who also did Clouds of Sils Maria), Personal Shopper tells the story of Maureen Cartwright (Stewart), an American woman living in Europe who is trying to connect with the spirit of her deceased brother Lewis. Anyone going into Personal Shopper expecting a traditional ghost story will be disappointed, but ghosts and the unknown are still a huge part of this film, which mostly utilizes a slow burn but can ramp up the tension beautifully when it needs to. Both is and Stewart deserve more recognition.

#16: Maudie

Sally Hawkins is expected to receive an Oscar nomination (and possibly the award itself) for her work in The Shape of Water this year. And she was great in that movie, but it was actually not her best performance of the year. She does even better work in Maudie, a biopic of arthritic Canadian artist Maud Lewis. I went into this film knowing very little about the life or work of Maud Lewis, and was quite taken with the sweet underdog story of the unlikely art sensation. Hawkins is incredibly endearing and plays the understated Lewis with a strength that could have easily been missing in the hands of a lesser actress.

#15: Lucky
If you are unfamiliar with the work of the late, great Harry Dean Stanton, watching Lucky will make you understand just what a talent was lost this year. Stanton plays the titular character in Lucky, and while he couldn't have known this would be his final role, he couldn't have picked a more fitting one to go out on. Lucky is an aging atheist in the South, facing his own mortality. Not much of note happens in Lucky, but the character study of Lucky is a wonderful one and Stanton makes every frame worth watching. And prolific character actor John Carroll Lynch proves he's more than capable behind the camera, getting great performances out of the whole ensemble. A quiet and philosophical film, it's impossible not to love Lucky--the movie or the character.
#14: The Florida Project

One of the most acclaimed films of the year, it is a testament to how many good movies there were this year that The Florida Project can't make my top ten. Focusing on the lives of impoverished children in a project right outside Disneyworld, The Florida Project is incredibly emotional and frequently heartbreaking. The movie doesn't exactly portray young Moonie (Brooklynn Prince) or her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who was discovered through instagram) in a positive light, and yet you root for them and understand innately the impossible situation they're both in. The film is bleak, and at times unbearable, which is enhanced by the brilliant production design. Director Sean Baker uses a lot of pastel, "happy" colors and bright lights to jarringly contrast the dismal world the movie resides in. It's simultaneously volatile and quiet, and understandably one of the standout films of the year.

#13: Ingrid Goes West

I had no idea what to expect when I went into Ingrid Goes West. But given that it starred Aubrey Plaza, I thought it would be a comedy. I certainly did not expect such a tense drama which offered a rather blistering commentary on social media culture. Plaza stars as Ingrid Thorburn, a woman who seemingly conflates instagram with the real world, and believes the "social media influencers" she follows on instagram are her real life friends. When she schemes her way into the life of insta-star Taylor Sloane, Ingrid's deception leads her down an increasingly precarious path to both hide and discover her true self. Plaza has often been criticized for being a limited actress, and that all of the roles she plays are just versions of her breakout Parks and Recreation character April Ludgate. anyone who believes this needs to see this movie. Plaza is outstanding, and manages to make Ingrid far more sympathetic than one could ever expect, playing her with complete confidence and without pity. This is a really smart screenplay, and Plaza manages to elevate the already strong material she has to work with.

#12: The Shape of Water  

Masterful director Guillermo del Toro is known for his amazing visuals, and The Shape of Water has the gorgeous look we all expect from him (if you like this film's aesthetics, check out the wonderful film The City of Lost Children, which I think inspired a lot of this movie). But what really stands out to me here is the story, and The Shape of Water's place in del Toro's filmography. Guillermo del Toro's early work is frequently very dark, and his significant imagine runs wild, creating unparalleled works of ingenuity. But, once his talent was noticed in the States, he became a popular director who now had bigger budgets, but had to answer to studios. I really like all of Guillermo del Toro's films, but I do think that in his more recent works he's had to work against constraints placed on him by producers looking to market his films, and that his considerable vision has been perhaps limited due to this. In The Shape of Water, I think we see a polish that is missing from del Toro's more recent works, as if he has finally found the balance needed to make his own vision soar now that there are audiences he must answer to. It's an exciting new chapter in del Toro's filmography, and it's always exciting to see such vision and wonder on the big screen.

#11: The Big Sick

Given how insightful and hilarious Kumail Nanjiani's stand-up comedy is, it's no surprise that The Big Sick is as great as it is. Nanjiani co-wrote the screenplay for this rom-com with his wife Emily V. Gordon, and it tells the rather incredible story of the beginning of their relationship. The real life romance at the center (with Nanjiani playing himself and Zoe Kazan stepping in for Gordon) is wonderful, but this movie is really about family. Specifically about dysfunctional families. Specifically about the special variety of love that it takes to hold a dysfunctional family together. But perhaps what I love most about The Big Sick is that it depicts a relationship that we rarely see on film even today, but still manages to feel like a typical heartwarming romcom (albeit, several steps above most in quality). It shows that the cultural differences we perceive are in fact universal, and that's the type of message we need to see in American film during the current presidential administration.

This is a list of 20 amazing movies. So, which films did I like even more? You can read part 2 here!

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