Aaron’s Top Ten of 2017
Putting together a top 10 is always more difficult and stress inducing than it should be and 2017 was especially so. Typically, a few films break from the pack and easily settle themselves in the top half of my list. Past films like Cloud Atlas, Under the Skin, The Look of Silence clearly rise above the other great films in their respective years as my number 1. This year, I truly feel like my #10 could be my #1. I think this happened because of a lack of *great* films as compared to *very good* films, which 2017 had many — it is as much a positive a thing. Similarly, it was also difficult to whittle down to only 10 picks, so here are a few others that deserve all the praise they’ve received: Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, Logan, LA 92, Faces Places, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Personal Shopper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I could go on. But for one reason or another, those films didn’t make my final cut. These ones did:
10. The LEGO Batman Movie
Back in 2014, The LEGO Movie was one of the biggest surprise hits, proving that under the right guidance, a movie about a child’s toy could be witty, gorgeous, and wholly original. I liked The LEGO Movie. Aside from the clever poignancy of its live-action scene, The LEGO Batman Movie, is better in basically every way. There wasn’t a movie stuffed with as many jokes and a majority of them landed. I didn’t laugh harder at any movie this year (no, not even Girls Trip, which is good despite the title’s lack of appropriate punctuation). On my second viewing, I was still picking up jokes as they went whizzing by. And a lot of the best humor is purely conceptual. For example, Batman’s computer is actually credited as played by Siri. Or that Ralph Fiennes doesn’t voice Voldemort (yes, Voldemort is a character in this, along with Gremlins and the Daleks) even though he voices another character in the movie. The cast list is full of absurdly funny people even if their character only has one line of dialogue. It is also a fully formed Batman movie, understanding the character better than most adaptations which gives it license to directly comment on those adaptations. In many ways, it is a celebration of the many twists and turns the character has gone through on screen over the years. The LEGO Batman Movie might be the 2nd best Batman movie ever made — if you want to quibble it down to #3, that’s fine.
9. Your Name
Maybe this is a bit of a cheat since Japanese anime Your Name was released theatrically in its home country in 2016, but it didn’t come to the U.S. until early this past year. A tremendous success in Japan (the most successful animated film in Japan of all time, in fact), it really didn’t make much of a cultural dent in America, which is a shame as Your Name is as beautiful, thematically resonant, entertaining, and emotionally impactful as anything made by western animation studios. To describe Your Name is a chore because of how crazy off-the-wall it is, but I’ll say it is part body swap, part time travel, part coming-of-age, part disaster movie. There is so much going on in the narrative, that I knew I had to see it a second time before making sure it belonged on my list. And it definitely holds up. Set to an unabashed J-Pop soundtrack, Your Name tells the story of two young people who, perhaps due to the cosmic circumstance of a comet directly passing by, begin alternating in each others’ bodies. This simple genre set-up is fantastic in its own right — the joys of these characters figuring out their bodies and correcting their lives are great. But the film quickly reveals to be about so much more and their growing love for each other becomes one of the most touching, albeit strange, romances of the year. Your Name has an incredibly broad appeal for any anime or sci-fi fan and I hope more of them see this bizarre delight.
8. BPM (Beats Per Minute)
I’ve seen many documentaries about the 1980s AIDS crisis and, more specifically, about activist group ACT UP. There’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, How to Survive a Plague, The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer: In Love & Anger, and possibly even more. The magic of Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) is that it looks at this well documented movement in a fresh way, while using all the advantages of a narrative form. Smartly, the film takes on a fly-on-the-wall approach as much as possible. The simmering violence underneath the protest demonstrations we see are matched by the political approach arguments that happen during organizational meetings. The immediacy of these scenes forces the viewer to judge the characters’ actions and take sides among the factions, at the same time always being sympathetic for how their government and medical industries have failed them. In the second half of the film, it shifts to focus more on how AIDS affects members of the group on a more personal level. We begin to see how certain characters’ life experiences have shaped their political views, whether vitriolic or compassionate, which gives their inter-organization dynamic more of a contextual punch. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who ostensibly is the film’s lead after establishing a core ensemble, gives the best performance that you won’t see on any end-of-year lists. He is equally infuriating and tragic, one of the most complex characters of the year.
Julia Ducournau’s amazing coming-of-age horror film is like if Lady Bird was set at a vet school and the main character had a taste for flesh. I’m only half joking. There is sexual awakening, feuds with parents, unconventional siblings, plenty of humor and emotional stakes. Both films are made by female directors on their first feature film. They are both great, but I want to give Raw a little shine for being one of the most electric genre films of the year. Garance Marillier gives a fascinating performance as the young woman learning about herself and her unconventional tastes. She is entirely fierce, even ravenous, which makes sense given the character is a budding cannibal. Raw’s setting is equally compelling. I don’t know if French veterinary schools are as chaotic or disturbing in real life, but it certainly is the perfect place to aid in driving our protagonist to her her limits. Even without the cannibalism, just the ubiquitous presence of dead animals is creepy enough. It is probably the strangest college I’ve ever seen in film. Put in this weird scenario and unpredictable characters, I never knew where Raw was going to take me. And when a horror film has me in that space, it is cinematic heaven for me. After seeing the film in a theater with a raucous crowd (and directly after seeing the pleasant cat documentary Kedi), it took a long time for me to shake its grotesqueness, its ambition, and its charm.
6. Phantom Thread
The last film I saw before finalizing my list, it was hard to decide where Phantom Thread should land but I knew it belonged on the list. Paul Thomas Anderson has already established himself as a complete filmmaking master and that is on full display once again. While I didn’t leave the theater with the same pop as the first time I saw The Master, Phantom Thread is an alluring mix of artistic design and character study, each informing the other as the film changes end-over-end multiple times. Daniel Day-Lewis is somewhere between the fiery Daniel Plainview and emblematic Abraham Lincoln as the possessive and strict couture dressmaker. He is met in full force by relative newcomer Vicky Krieps as his newest muse, though one who isn’t willing to be left on the side. Their back-and-forth verbal sniping is as tense as it is funny. Krieps, in particular, grows immensely from the start of the film, at first with a quiet shyness that is hard to read and then a powerful presence that is tough to fully understand. As her character changes, the film continues to shift the battle lines. Cruelty is met with cruelty. Ultimately, it reaches a boiling point. And then, with a simple line of dialogue, everything changes and the film comes to a new level of clarity. This creates what is my favorite ending of any film this year and it isn’t due to a big plot twist or dynamic moment, but a character beat. This is the kind of control Paul Thomas Anderson and these actors can have on a film — everything is set up strongly, slowly over time, and completely paid off.
5. Brigsby Bear
The most enjoyable thing about Saturday Night Live over the past fews seasons has been the weird humor of Kyle Mooney. His particular awkward style seems destined to be hated by a mainstream audience, which is probably why his sketches tend to come as close to the end of the live program as possible. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from his leading man debut. Similar films in the “anti-comedy” style are pretty hit or miss — I liked Entertainment, didn’t particularly care for The Comedy. The surprising thing is that Brigsby Bear couldn’t be farther from those caustic, antagonizing films. I didn’t expect to leave the film with a wonderful sense of melancholy, but that’s what the fish-out-of-water story provides. Brigsby Bear has heart, real characters, and a smartly written script that has a lot to say about fan service and cultural nostalgia. Mooney isn’t exactly the most polished actor but it is a role designed for his particular quirks. He’s also surrounded by great veteran actors like Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Jane Adams, Claire Danes, and possibly the best performance of Mark Hamill’s career. With an intriguing narrative set-up that quickly opens up to something actually profound, Brigsby Bear swings for much more than the glut of uninspired mainstream comedies. Unfortunately when I saw it in theaters, I was the only one there (though that certainly added a layer of isolation that helped with the film’s themes). Hopefully more will eventually catch up with it.
4. The Work
Jairus McLeary’s The Work is the most personal pick on my list. For those who don’t know, the documentary is set inside Folsom Prison during a multiple day intensive group therapy session. Twice a year, the prison opens its doors to a group of men from the public who sign up to participate side-by-side with violent criminals to excise their demons. It is a raw and intense experience to watch, I can’t imagine actually being there. One thread of the film looks at the non-inmates having initial difficulties opening up — a common reason for some is to dive into the deep end in a situation where one has no choice but to face their internal issues. I found myself relating to these men in their lack of satisfaction with the world and their place in it. I’m usually resistant against films that so heavily and obviously explore the concept of masculinity (that probably says more about me than the films), but through the specific setting I was forced to look within myself instead of simply dismissing. One minor, yet extraordinary, detail of the film is how we are focused on one particular small group and are constantly reminded that there are other things going on elsewhere in the room; there could have been a half dozen other, likely equally compelling films made if the camera was just placed in a different position. The Work isn’t a perfect documentary in a structural or filmmaking sense but I can’t imagine another documentary hitting me so hard, so personally.
3. Get Out
I honestly don’t know what I can saw about Get Out that hasn’t already been said; it is one of the most talked about films of the year because it is so incredibly audacious, truthful, and just plain good. What I like most about it is that it is so many things, so many tones and genres, while still feeling like the complete and singular vision from a film artist who clearly has something to say. It isn’t exactly a comedy, isn’t exactly a horror film, some may consider it a documentary, it’s really everything. And even as it goes to increasingly crazy places, it never pulled me out or made me think if it was going too far. I was completely along for the ride. We already knew Jordan Peele was capable of exploring social experience in hilarious and thought provoking ways. What was more of a surprise was how adept he was in crafting a full story and shooting it with interesting visual ideas. Think of all the SNL movies and modern comedies that feel they would have been better as a sketch than a 90+ minute movie. Peele gets stronger in long form. Get Out is the most culturally relevant film of the year, thankfully it is a good film, too. Personally, this was also my favorite movie-going experience of the year. Seeing it with a hungry crowd completely into the twists, turns, and messages of the film was a joyous event.
2. The Florida Project
Actually, this is more of a 1b pick and was slotted in at #1 until my final reshuffling of the list — and looking ahead, it has a lot of similarities with the final pick. I wasn’t as high on Sean Baker’s last film, Tangerine, as some but I appreciated it from a distance. It was a gorgeous, zany, unusual romp to which I just didn’t feel connected. His follow-up, The Florida Project, was all that while also completely hitting me with all the emotional highs and lows. Set on the fringes of society, its characters are more relatable than many would be willing to admit — especially Moonee, played by one of 2017’s breakout stars Brooklyn Prince. When her ragtag group of friends run around their community, knowingly getting into trouble (though nothing too bad), it takes me back to when I was their age, running around with my friends, throwing rocks at trees or staying out too late. It is the best example of nostalgia, eliciting a pure feeling rather than a connection with some tangible thing. On the other hand, there are moments in The Florida Project that are stunningly devastating. The film gets slack for its ending, which I can understand, but it hit the same magical realism feeling that I felt throughout Brooklyn’s journey. Without giving anything away, I loved its many references to The 400 Blows, one of my favorite films of all time, especially in that ending. It is a nice updating of a story of a troubled kid who still sees many of the wonders of the world.
1. Good Time
When I left the theater after seeing the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, I didn’t expect it to be my personal pick for best film of the year. I was overwhelmed by the shadowy New York City crime film, certainly, but it just wasn’t something that occured to me. As I’ve been shuffling around my list over the last few weeks, however, it just kept rising. Good Time is a harrowing experience. I understand the most common complaint that it is just too tough to spend this time with the low-life criminal played by Robert Pattinson, I just happened to find him magnetic. As he slithers his way throughout the night, using and disposing any poor soul who comes in his way, I was pulled further down into those depths. The neon glow of the city is bizarre and unreal and completely enthralling. The Safdie Brothers bring incredible realism to this underground world, despite having a legitimate movie star in the leading role. Pattinson delivers my favorite male performance of the year, an unflinching and uncompromising one. He manages to be charismatic and cunning while equally distasteful. Good Time, ironic title and all, is a fascinating and difficult experience, challenging in its themes and characters, melancholic in its pace and design, and radically unsafe in every way. When I look back at this list in five years, I’m not sure if Good Time would still be here. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch Good Time again. But right now, here it is.