Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Best Movies of 2017: Part 2

I already discussed some of my favorite films of 2017 (you can read them here), but now we enter the cream of the crop. Here are my top ten films of the year.

#10: Call Me by Your Name

I've rarely seen a film as gloriously romantic as Call Me by Your Name. Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a movie that is both incredibly vital to today, but already has the feel like a classic. This is the sort of film that endures, and just feels essentially timeless. The relationship between young Elio (breakout star Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer, who perfectly channels an old-school Hollywood star vibe) is a touching one, and a beautiful depiction of what first love feels like.

Also, yeah, the speech Michael Stuhlbarg gives at the end will go down as one of the greatest film speeches of all time.

#9: Coco

Pixar's strengths as a film studio have always been strong storytelling, creative world-building, and an ability to shoot an arrow directly into your emotional core and make you weep far more than you've ever expected. All three of these strengths are on full display in Coco. The story is a bit predictable, but still wholly original and wonderfully told. The world-building is incredible, brought to life by the unique premise, the clear reverence for the traditions surrounding The Day of the Dead, and as always the gorgeous animation. But the reason Coco is on my list is because of the third strength--the emotional arrow thing. Other films this year have made me cry, and some have made me cry a lot, but no movie has made me sob the way Coco did. It's beautiful and a wonderful addition to Pixar's canon.

#8: Colossal

There is a theory that there exists in this universe an infinite number of realities. And of those realities, there must be one where the movie Colossal received the critical and audience recognition that it fucking deserved. Why does no one talk about this movie? Colossal had one of the most unique premises of any film in recent memory. AND it examines difficult subjects like alcoholism and depression in a wonderful way. AND it features really great work from Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. I want to talk about how great this movie is, and the wonderful, surprising turns that it takes. But rather than talk too much about it, I instead encourage everyone to watch this wonderful movie. Because it deserves to be seen and to talk about the best parts of it would in some ways spoil it. See this movie. Make this movie a cult classic. Tell your friends about Colossal. Please.

#7: Raw

There have been many great horror movies in the past few years, and Raw is one of the best. This French film about an uptight vet student who discovers latent cannibalistic urges is shocking and compelling. I often avoid gross-out horror movies, because I think that movies which rely on those types of scares tend to be lazy (a la the Saw franchise). But Raw also has really great characters and clever twists and superb tension, all of which is only helped by the innate reaction body horror can elicit. Full of symbolism and artistic merit, Raw might not appeal to more squeamish audiences, but I think anyone can recognize just how beautifully crafted this film is. I hope to see a lot more from first-time feature director Julia Ducournau, as well as her excellent stars Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

#6: Mudbound

Here's another movie that I feel has gone woefully unrecognized. Mudbound is a brilliant film, and the rare period piece that actually feels relevant to the modern day. Based off the novel of novel of the same name, Mudbound tells the story of the families of two World War II vets, one black and one white, recently returned to their homes in rural Mississippi. I do not understand why Netflix, which produced and is distributing the film, is not pushing it more. It's easily the service's best film in terms of quality, and should be a genuine Oscar contender. Mudbound is just so wonderfully made. Director Dee Rees has created a true marvel, which has a distinct look, excellent pacing, and most importantly, wonderful characters. The seven principal characters of this film fall on various places in the moral spectrum, but Rees and her brilliant cast treat all of seven with conviction and respect, making all clear portrayals. As far as I'm concerned, it's the best directed and best acted film of the year.

#5: Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Reading the title of this movie, you’re probably thinking, “Never heard of it.” Norman kind of came and went without much notice, and that’s a shame because it’s a fucking brilliant movie that deserves to be remembered. A problem I have with most political and financial thrillers, to me, is that the crimes portrayed tend to be glamorous. In movies like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short which claim to be criticisms of such crimes, the people committing them are still held up as perverse pictures of cool, and usually include some sort of speech where the despicable main character talks about how "people want to be" him. What makes Norman so fascinating to me is that it centers on a wannabe influential hot-shot, but shows how pathetic that world truly is. The titular character, Norman Oppenheimer, is played by Richard Gere in what is absolutely career-best work from him. Norman is unscrupulous—a liar who will say anything to get ahead. He often claims to know people he doesn’t, and when someone seems suspicious, he will claim that his dead wife knew them (and whether such a wife ever existed remains a mystery). But Norman doesn't shy away from the fact that its main character is a loser. Everyone in the movie hates him, and if you knew Norman in real life, you’d hate him too. And yet, in the movie, you love him for reasons you don’t quite understand. Perhaps it’s pity, perhaps it’s Gere’s enthralling performance, or perhaps it’s that we all see more of ourselves in Norman than we care to admit—the person who is so desperate to be a success whatever the cost, and can't admit when he's in way over his head.

As he did with his previous film Footnote (an Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and a personal favorite of mine), directed Joseph Cedar uses unexpected whimsy and fantasy to tell what could have been a more pedantic film. I would never have guessed that this movie would be as entertaining, and even magical as it is. The best example is probably a scene when Norman is at a party surrounded by more powerful people than he has ever been around in his life. Suddenly, in the film, time stops, and everyone except Norman freezes as he walks around and takes in the room around him. It's an AMAZING moment. It immediately shows us what Norman is feeling in that moment in a way that mere realism never could. And it's moments like that which make Norman so extraordinary, and a step above similar films. And, again, I cannot stress how amazing Richard Gere is in this film. He's almost unrecognizable.

#4: The Wound

To be fair, I haven't seen many acclaimed foreign language films from this year, but The Wound  is my favorite foreign language film of 2017 that I've seen so far, and I hope that it advances off of the shortlist to receive an Oscar nomination, and hopefully more recognition. This South African film follows Xolani (Nakhane Touré), who is in a closeted sexual relationship with Vija (Bongile Mantsai). Both serve as mentors in a modern-day Xhosa initiation ritual, where Xolani is mentoring a sensitive boy named Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini). From there, I'm tempted to say a love triangle develops, but this movie is not really about love. These men don't live in a culture that would support their relationship, so love is not allowed to exist. The relationships between these men are not as important as the suppression of those relationships, and how toxic that this repressed environment can be. Don't watch The Wound expecting a love story. Watch The Wound expecting a tense character-based thriller.

And given how few characters there are, the film succeeds on the strength of the central performances. Touré is unbelievably compelling, with so much more going on behind his eyes than he is allowed to show around others. This film would not work half as well if a lesser actor had played Xolani. As the increasingly violent Vija, Mantsai is both charismatic and volatile, exuding a power and command that translates to genuine menace. And Niza Jay Ncoyini is wonderful as Kwanda, the character who probably undergoes the biggest journey throughout the film. This trio is fantastic, and the story of these characters is riveting and a vital addition to 2017 cinema.

#3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This write-up includes some slight spoilers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been one of the more acclaimed films of the year, and perhaps because of that acclaim, it has become one of the most controversial. There are some valid criticisms to make of this film, such as the fact that the black characters in the film are pushed to the side and are far less developed than the white characters in the film. But the primary criticism of the film seems to revolve around the character Jason Dixon, played by awards contender Sam Rockwell. Dixon is a racist cop, who is known in the film to have tortured the black people in the town. The controversy comes from the fact that the character is portrayed sympathetically towards the end of the film, and is even given a redemption arc and allowed to be heroic by the end of the film. I can more than understand people being uncomfortable with such a portrayal of this type of character. But, as Three Billboards' placement on this list should imply, I don't agree with this criticism and I certainly don't think it ruins this fantastic movie.

Firstly, I think Martin McDonagh is one of the best writers working today. And a trademark of all of his works is his focus on the moral complexity of bad people. In his first film, the much beloved In Bruges, the two main characters are hitmen. Ray (played by Colin Farrell in a Golden Globe-winning performance) in particular is a whiny assassin who seems to insult everyone he meets and constantly uses slurs. He's incredibly unlikable. But he's also incredibly, surprisingly sympathetic. And while you don't necessarily like him, you do recognize him as human and can sympathize with the horrors he's going through. In McDonagh's follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, which also stars Rockwell, the entire premise of the film is that everyone is a horrible person. Even if we look at Three Billboards, the main character Mildred Hayes (played expertly by Frances McDormand) is not exactly a likable person. She's crude, she's mean, and she's violent. Some might say that in today's political climate, a racist cop is unforgivable territory to delve into, but for me Officer Dixon seemed rather par for the course for McDonagh, and I thought his character was handled in a surprising and wonderful way.

The big redeeming factor for the film, for me, is the fact that I don't think Dixon is likable. While some of his actions at the end of the film are heroic, the film also doesn't shy away from showing his awful behavior. His racism is at the forefront, and we see him commit some awful, violent, and unforgivable acts (a particular one-take sequence stands out as some of the most gripping filmmaking of the year). In the end of the film, the movie doesn't ask us to wipe Dixon's slate clean. As McDonagh is so good at doing, he subverts our expectations. Dixon doesn't end up finding the person Mildred has been looking for the entire film. When Sheriff Abercrombie (Clarke Peters), who had fired him earlier in the film, praises him for his recent work, that praise doesn't come with an invitation to be reinstated to the force. Dixon may have changed as a person, but the film doesn't ask us to absolve him of his past misdeeds. Nor should we.

And so if we can look past this controversy (which I feel is justified, and others may not) then we're left with a brilliantly told story, filled with vibrant characters. It's original, it's invigorating, and it's perfectly paced. It's the third best film of the year.

#2: Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig has made a name for herself starring in offbeat comedies with a “slice of life” feel to them. And most critics agree that Gerwig tends to be one of the best parts of those movies that she’s in. Seeing Lady Bird shows why: Gerwig understands the genre better than anybody. Lady Bird manages to check almost all of the typical coming-of-age story boxes, while still making those tropes feel original and true. And while I could go over why the story and the script and the humor are great, the real reason Lady Bird is my second favorite film of the year is because of the characters. Moreso than any other movie this year, the characters of Lady Bird feel like real people dealing with real stakes. It’s unsurprising that this film has become the best reviewed movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to love about Lady Bird, both the film and the titular character brought to life by Saoirse Ronan.

Lady Bird McPherson will, I think, be remembered as one of the greatest teenage film characters of all time. Seeing this character written and portrayed so well was a reminder of just how few well-written teenage characters there are in film. Lady Bird is portrayed as a flawed person--she's often selfish, and more frequently immature, and filled with the all-too-relatable attitude of a teenager. But then she's also portrayed as sympathetic. You like her, and you root for her, and she comes across as completely genuine. Part of this, of course, is Ronan, whose performance is great no matter what, but is even better considering what a departure this is from most roles Ronan has played. But part of this is also due to Gerwig, whose script and direction both treat Lady Bird with a respect filmmakers usually don't give to their teenage characters. Gerwig acknowledges Lady Bird's flaws, but more importantly celebrates her strengths. It is unknown just how much of the film is autobiographical, but the film still feels autobiographical because Lady Bird (and for that matter all the characters in the film) feel so personal and fully-realized. I left the movie feeling like I knew these characters intimately in a way that I didn't feel to the same extent for any other movie this year.

And, of course, Lady Bird is not the only great character here. While she's at the center of the film, I love how Gerwig gives us just enough details about all the other characters to hint at their complex and developed lives outside of Lady Bird's sphere of observation. I loved how we see Danny (Lucas Hedges) initially through Lady Bird's eyes, so that a certain plot twist involving him comes as much of a surprise to us as it does to Lady Bird. In one emotional scene where he speaks to her after he has become far more insignificant in her life than he once was, both we and Lady Bird suddenly understand that his story extends far beyond hers. Without having to go into much detail, in fact in just one short scene, Gerwig imbues Danny with remarkable depth. This is also true of characters like Lady Bird's best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, who is GREAT), her brother and father (Jordan Rodrigues and Tracy Letts), and even priest and theater director Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leaves a lasting impression even with little time on screen). Not to mention Bob Stephenson's Father Walther, who might have been the most underrated and hilarious character of the year. But most importantly, there's Lady Bird's mother Marion. Played wonderfully by Laurie Metcalf, who seems on track to pick up an Oscar for her work, the mother/daughter relationship between Marion and Lady Bird is very much the heart of the film, and what makes the film truly soar.

Soar like a bird. Cause it's called Lady Bird.

And now, my number one pick for best film of the year is...

#1: Get Out

Not only is Get Out the best movie of the year in terms of quality, it is also the movie of the year in that it sums up the state of film in 2017. And if Get Out is an indication of what film can do in the present day, then we’re in for some great movies going forward. Writer and director Jordan Peele, making his directorial debut, has mentioned that Get Out is the movie the always wanted to see, but never did, and in doing so succeeded in making something unlike anything that came before it. This is horror and sci-fi at its best—it puts a character in an unreal situation which allows the film to comment on reality in a stronger way than it could have if it were confined to the boundaries of normalcy. Disturbing and brilliant, Get Out is also instantly iconic. “The sunken place” has already entered the national consciousness, and the image of Daniel Kaluuya in a wide-eyed, hypnotized state is one of the standout images of film this year. 

Thanks to the Golden Globes, much has been made of how the film can be classified, and indeed, what exact genre to put the film in is up to debate. Parts of it are hilarious and satirical, and quite a good deal of it offers social commentary. But it is at its core a horror movie, and a great one at that. When I first watched it, what immediately came to mind was the horror masterpiece Rosemary's Baby, and I think Get Out comes closest to being that movie's spiritual successor than any other movie up until now. Like in Rosemary's Baby, there are plenty of standard horror tropes to satisfy those looking for a good scare. But Get Out uses those horror tropes to say something important. What's exciting about art is that art can speak to things in a far more emotional and visceral way than reality. If you want to look at the topic of racism, there are no shortage of statistics and speeches you can look at. But art can speak to the topic on a deeper level, and that's what Get Out does so effectively. I love it because it's an entertaining film that made me think and genuinely thrilled me. But it's the best film of the year because it stays with you far beyond when you leave the theater. It's essential viewing. It is not only the best film of the year, but one of the best horror thrillers ever made.

So, there you have it. These are my picks for the very best films that 2017 had to offer. What movies do you think that I missed? I'd love to know your lists, and your thoughts on mine!

***UPDATE: I recently had a chance to see a few more films from 2017, which I had not gotten to see before the list was published. Two standouts were The Insult and A Fantastic Woman, two of the foreign language film nominees at this year's Oscars. They were fantastic, and I would now place them as my #10 and #11 films of the year respectively. Which means that I'd place the two of them between Coco and Call Me by Your Name. Just wanted to make this edit for future prosperity!

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