Jim’s Top Ten of 2017
For subconscious reasons that I’m sure are clearer to my therapist than they are to me, I feel that I should – like always – preface this list by severely undercutting my credibility as an expert and pre-empting your questions about why Title X or Film Y didn’t make it onto this top ten list by laying out first and foremost the titles I did not get around to seeing in 2017, thereby thoroughly preparing you that this list created by a guy who once hosted a podcast called “I Do Movies Badly” is by no means comprehensive and/or coherent.
Missing from this list: Patti Cake$, Good Time, The Square, Faces Places, Darkest Hour, Your Name, The Beguiled, Personal Shopper, I, Tonya, basically half of Scott Nye’s list
With my deficiencies clearly defined, let’s get on to the list!
Darren Aronofsky admits that the idea for Mother! was born out of rage and that the script came together in the matter of a few weeks, both of which are background facts that are abundantly clear from the legitimate mess of a film that it is. Mother! is an intimate story that speaks towards much more grandiose themes, but Aronofsky’s anger is so destabilizing that it casts such wide political, theological, and philosophical nets that no idea is given clear enough attention and focus for the film to be anything than a glorified student thesis. Having said that, I appreciate the hell out of Aronofsky’s ambition and desire to utilize cinema to create a modern-day parable. So many people focused on the grainy, somewhat gimmicky nature of shooting the film on Super 16 that I think not enough attention was paid to the claustrophobic nature of Matthew Libatique’s camerawork, which always kept lead Jennifer Lawrence in centered, tight framing that was subconsciously so effectively unnerving.
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I can absolutely appreciate the desire to see one of our most treasured cinematic properties espousing the hopeful parable of the black and white conflict between the forces of the light and the dark, a battle that, of course, will ultimately always see the dark vanquished by the light. But as an adult whose taste in and response to art has changed over time as the world itself changes, I also love seeing a re-examination of who our heroes are, why we consider them heroes, and what made them heroes in the first place. In a cinematic universe that had previously been so black and white, writer/director Rian Johnson dared to add complexity by introducing shades of grey, forcing us to explore truths we had taken for granted and declaring that status, power, and the right to be part of a legendary story is not – or should not – be available only to some, but is instead inherently available to anyone. What J.J. Abrams built as familiar with The Force Awakens, Johnson completely subverts with The Last Jedi, apparently making many people uncomfortable in what was previously familiarity in the process. I loved it.
If there’s one recurring criticism against Christopher Nolan, it’s that his films can often feel inadvertently cold, as though he inherited the meticulous directing stylings of Stanley Kubrick, but neglected the warmth out of a seeming inability to craft it rather than out of willfully casting it aside due to an inherent cynicism about human nature. While Nolan’s spectacle has always delivered, he’s always had trouble balancing the cerebral with the emotional, probably never more apparent than with his last film, Interstellar. Maybe it was returning to a story from his home country that finally made everything click, but Dunkirk is his most potently emotional film since Insomnia and, with its telling 3 different stories play out in 3 different chronological time periods, his most creatively ambitious since Memento. It’s hard to point out one plot that stood out above the others in Dunkirk, but that speaks more to all of them being remarkably effective than it does to any of them being forgettable. Hans Zimmer’s score, with its recurring motif of a ticking clock, works in tandem with Lee Smith’s editing to gradually wind the separate chronological and geographical threads together while injecting each of them with a sense of urgency and stakes. It’s hard these days to make a World War II story that is either relatively unknown or uniquely done – let alone both – and yet with Dunkirk, Nolan has done so.
- Lady Bird
For all intents and purposes, Lady Bird is one iteration of a film we’ve seen countless times before from independent cinema, that of the quirky youth who is coming of age in an environment – geographical, ideological, social, etc. – that he or she strives to rise above, ultimately achieving some form of individual liberty or achievement. Yet I include it on my list because writer/director Greta Gerwig takes that formula and puts in the effort to personalize and humanize it, turning the quirky youth into a complex human being and recognizing that that environment in which our protagonist (played phenomenally by Saoirse Ronin) comes of age should be equally respected and appreciated for its role in forming her as it should be criticized for the role it could potentially play in holding her back. Lady Bird is a welcoming three-dimensional look at the complex relationship between those of us who came from and strived to escape the insular nature of the suburbs, at some point realizing that the concept we had of “home” isn’t what we want to consider our homes anymore. Lady Bird, like many of us who transitioned/grew/matured into the people we eventually became, delights at times in the reliable nature of her Sacramento living, while at other times wants nothing more than to leave it behind as soon as possible. Lady Bird is a film that treats all of its characters as adults, which is to say complex people trying to live with other complex people and the fact that both the good and the bad co-exist so resonantly is due entirely to Gerwig’s direction.
- The Florida Project
Sean Baker has been making movies for longer than I realized – I initially began this paragraph by writing “with only two feature films under his belt” only to discover that The Florida Project is his sixth – but between this film and Tangerine, I am struggling to come up with another director (Andrea Arnold, perhaps) whose films approach a marginalized subculture with an empathy and subjectivity that would perhaps not be afforded by us in real life if we found ourselves driving through – rather than to – their neck of the woods. How this succeeds in The Florida Project is through Baker’s decision to tell the story through the eyes of 6-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who’s precocious enough to regularly get into trouble, but not old enough to realize that living in a hotel with a single mother who hustles perfume on tourists to pay the bills is anything other than normal. Taking the perspective of a girl who cannot comprehend the large shadow that nearby Disney World casts over their low-income lifestyle allows the tone of the film to pop with a certain vibrancy and jubilance, the light purple exterior of the hotel not only reflecting a narrative objectivity, but also a fantastical subjectivity to a protagonist whose life has almost exclusively played out within its confines. This dichotomy injects a potency into the film’s whimsical ending – the details of which I will not spoil here – that is, depending on your viewpoint, either hopeful, cynical, or both at the same time.
- The Shape of Water
Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to make a fantastical world feel grounded in reality and to make the real world feel like it exists in some fantasy realm. Though The Shape of Water takes place in Baltimore in the 1960s, the production design of Paul D. Austerberry, score of Alexandre Desplat, cinematography of Dan Laustsen, and direction of del Toro all combine to create a world that seems to exist outside of time or reality, a modern-day fairytale that we recognize because of how it reflects the constructs of our reality – people have jobs, they drive cars, they report to figures/bodies of authority – but only in an effort to provide a relatable groundwork that can be transcended for the sake of pursuing higher truths and beauty. Ever since he was a child del Toro has been fascinated with monsters, admitting that he finds them more relatable than people because they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, their inherent nature often bringing about scorn and hatred by humans because they’re unapologetically different. The Shape of Water’s constant is the Fish Man (Doug Jones), whose very existence is a litmus test to those around him, with Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland representing the fundamentalist philosophy that wants the world to be shaped by it and Sally Hawkins’s Elisa Esposito representing the progressive philosophy that allows itself to be shaped by the world. As the closing lines of the film state, “Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.”
- Get Out
Ever since Get Out came out over a year ago, I’ve heard a lot of the same criticism, something to the effect of “if the racial roles were reversed, everyone would be in an uproar.” This criticism has never sat well with me for two reasons: 1) it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why Jordan Peele told it from a specific perspective, and 2) it usurps all other discussion one could have about Get Out being a remarkably effective genre film. I was amazed at how confident and cohesive the tone was for last year’s The Witch, the directorial debut of Robert Eggers, and I find myself again amazed at how confident and cohesive the tone is for Get Out, the directorial debut of a man who, up until February 24, 2017, was exclusively known for comedy. Though largely devoid of jump scares, Get Out is truly horrifying, unnerving and unsettling the audience not just with the visceral situation that Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has to survive, but also with the psychological implications of his survival standing in as a microcosm for what an entire culture has had to survive for generations. Criticisms of “it’s not that scary” signal to me that Peele has created a cinematic litmus test for his audience with whether you agree with the statement or not signaling if there are other horror stories that you’ve neglected to hear.
- A Ghost Story
Rarely has such an intimate film attempted to address such epic existential themes as effectively as David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Spending significant time with only two characters, C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), and featuring very little dialogue, A Ghost Story nonetheless tackles the enormity of time and raises questions about how long legacy and memory last by killing off C early on and having him return to his home as a sheet-wearing ghost where he imminently sees his lover move on, new tenants move in, and gradually, his house decay, collapse, and be replaced with industry. With so little dialogue, Lowery has to rely on sights and sounds to convey the nebulous concepts he’s trying to tackle and is aided in that task by the cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo and the score of Daniel Hart, both of which lend an ethereal and intangible quality to the existential enigma being explored. A Ghost Story is a film that recognizes how easily our individual stories can be lost in the great ether that exists outside of our mortality, but focuses our attention on the individual meaning and significance that we create for ourselves.
If Mudbound were just a film that looked at America’s racist past to shed a sobering and revelatory light on its alleged post-racial present, that alone would make it worth watching but it’s the dimension and complexity that co-writer/director Dee Rees gives to the individuals within a supposed unified group that makes it stand out. Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound focuses on two rural families in post-World War II Mississippi: the white McAllans, who purchase a farm, and the black Jacksons, who had been working it long before the McAllans came around. Each family has members that strive for more than their lot in life and each see a family member return from fighting overseas – Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsell Jackson (Jason Mitchell) – to vastly different welcomes. Both sons have shed blood, lost friends, and returned home changed men, but while one is celebrated as a hero, another is still expected to enter and exit stores through the back door. Each major character is given their own separate expository voiceover, which rather than muddle and splinter the story, instead lends individual perspectives to a shared world being experienced differently across races and generations, all of whom laboring under the sunbaked hues crafted masterfully by DP Rachel Morrison.
- The Big Sick
Sometimes you just encounter a film at the right time and the right place where, without being able to cite anything tangible or relatable to other people, it ends up as the best you saw in a given year because your emotional response to it was so complete that you can’t watch the film without remembering the exact context surrounding its viewing. That’s The Big Sick for me. Sure, it’s been nominated for a boat load of end of the year awards, but aside from a few token awards that it’s won for being a comedy (always with a qualifier), The Big Sick isn’t being talked about in the same vein as Three Billboards or Call Me By Your Name or Get Out, which everyone seems to agree are the films that transcend their genre. And yet I loved it. So much. When I saw it, I was ready to have my heart warmed by a true story of a love that for cultural and medical reasons seemed like it was doomed to fail. I was ready to be blown away by the subtly complex performances of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. I was ready to be impressed by a screenplay in which one of the protagonists disappears for basically half the film. I was ready for The Big Sick. I hope I’ll always be ready for such a genuine and emotionally uplifting story.