Sarah’s Top Ten of 2017
I will admit that I have not seen my usual volume of new films in 2017. My project to watch the Battleship Pretension listener selected top 100 movies ate into a lot of the time I usually would have gone to the movies. I’m sure my list would be different if I had another three months to catch up, but here is where things are at, as of this moment in time. In looking over my list and reflecting on all the things that happened in 2017, there seems to be a connective thread through all of them about fear, specifically the of “the other”.
- Baby Driver
I am always eager to see what director Edgar Wright is doing next. Baby Driver might be one of the most energetic films of the year. While I think the opening sequence is the best the film has to offer it is a fun ride from start to finish. Pouty-lipped Ansel Elgort is sympathetic as Baby. I liked his relationship with deaf Joseph and his budding romance with Deborah made me want him to succeed in getting out of “the life” and find a new way forward. My new feelings about Kevin Spacey aside, he plays a fun villain and had some of the biggest laughs in the movie. Wright’s use of music and what I can best describe as ‘choreography’ gave the film momentum and kept some of the potentially slower scenes at a steady pace. Jamie Foxx is probably the stand out of the film. Bats is a truly terrible person and I loathed him throughout the film but Foxx fully commits to his character and never waivers. While I do think the end section with John Hamm goes a little overboard it was an exciting action scene in an exciting film.
- Haunters: The Art of the Scare
A direct line can be drawn from the 2012 documentary The American Scream to 2017’s Haunters: The Art of the Scare. American Scream focuses on three specific and very different home haunters, while Haunters: The Art of the Scare is more about the various types of home haunts out there and the relationship people have with fear. I didn’t expect to be as fascinated and repulsed by this documentary as I was. It was interesting to look at fear from the perspective of the people who build the haunting experiences and the people who work there. The film does broadly look at home haunters, but it also focuses on a few different specific people and their relationship to scaring. It examines the physical and monetary toll that home haunting takes on them. One group the film focuses on is called McKamey Manor, a haunt that looks like pure hell. People are literally tortured for hours and there is no safe word to escape. The owner is perversely obsessed with videoing each participant and then spends hours editing and sharing his “work”. The fears of other, less extreme haunters, is that McKamey Manor will get them shut down or regulated severely. Mostly the film looks at what scares us and why people either like to be scared and why people like to do the scaring. It is a film that has stuck with me and still makes me think.
- The Shape of Water
The fear of “the other” is front and center in The Shape of Water. In a year where Muslims were banned from flying to the US, when transgender children were denied the safety of a private restroom, and white supremacists were treated as equals to legal protesters, it makes sense that a movie where an Amphibian Man is bound, beaten, and terrorized exists. I was on board for The Shape of Water from the moment I heard the cast. Sally Hawkins brings so much life and complexity to a character that is incapable of speech. Richard Jenkins is delightful and adorable and sympathetic. Octavia Spencer is the epitome of a good friend and caregiver. Michael Stuhlbarg breaks free of his loyalties to do what he thinks is right. Doug Jones brings more humanity to his role as the Amphibian Man, than Michael Shannon brings his role as Richard Strickland. The cast brings this fantastical story to life and had me completely invested. The film is beautiful to look at but has director Guillermo Del Toro’s patented horror elements. I was moved by the passion that Elisa shows to save the Amphibian Man and I was equally moved by his devotion to her. They face their fears together and fight for what they found in each other.
- Murder on the Orient Express
I am a life-long fan of Agatha Christie’s mysteries and have read most of them. I still remember the first time I read Murder on the Orient Express and was thrilled to try and work out the mystery and delighted by the reveal. Kenneth Branagh’s version of this Hercule Poirot mystery lived up my expectations. Branagh is not a director of half measures but his flashy, theatrical directing style worked well for the telling of Murder on the Orient Express. His active camera moves around and within the stagnant train, showing the many sides of the people on board. One shot that he used a number of times was to shoot the person that Poirot is interviewing through a pane of cut glass creating the illusion of many versions of the person. Each person on the train has a secret or a lie or a hidden agenda and that shot illustrated the many sides they all have. Branagh himself plays an interesting version of Poirot. He put his stamp on the character probably most well-known from David Suchet’s performance on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery series. The rest of the cast (with the exception of Johnny Depp) bring complexity and secrecy to their roles, keeping the viewer guessing and the pointed finger moving as Poirot find clues and exercises his ‘little grey cells’.
- The Big Sick
I love a good love story and The Big Sick is definitely that. Kumail Nanjiani has been a favorite comedian of mine for a while so I was eager to see his latest project. The shockingly true story of how he met and fell in love with his wife was both sweet and sad. Nanjiani is a wonderful leading man. I loved all of the conflict with his family and their constant pressure to find and marry a Pakistani girl. I admit there were moments when Emily played by Zoe Kazan was a little irritating, but it is a character-type that I don’t always respond to. She was redeemed later in the film when we see a montage of her through Kumail’s eyes and you see what really attracted him to her. I also loved all the conflict with Emily’s parents, played wonderfully by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. They clearly have their own thing happening, but they put it aside to focus on Emily’s recovery. The little moments like Terry trying to write down all the terms and Beth constantly Googling made them feel very real. There were some brave moments that Kumail and Emily put in the story, but it was a very sweet film and deserving of all the praise it has been received.
There are so many harrowing stories from World War II, so many stories where success was plucked from the grasp of defeat by a little bit of luck. To tell the story of a defeat and narrow escape to safety was an interesting choice for director Christopher Nolan. Nolan’s films are not always my cup of tea but to my surprise the film really worked for me. Dunkirk’s structure, seeing all the stories come together, made the film compelling and kept me engaged. The lack of dialogue also worked to the films advantage. The dialogue that is in the film isn’t distracting and does just enough to orient the audience and give them necessary information. Nolan managed to take a story that I knew the outcome of and make it thrilling and kept me at the edge of my seat. I saw a 70mm print of the film in the theater and it was a beautiful and visceral experience.
- The Beguiled
I know there was some controversy around The Beguiled and the African American character from the novel that was left out of the film but the story that Sofia Coppola was interested in telling was clearly about the relationships between men and women. The film is also about the relationships between women. One thing that makes Coppola standout as a filmmaker, in my opinion, is her ability to capture the complexity of women’s relationships without judgement. Whether the women in the film are being petty, kind, cruel, or nurturing Coppola just puts in the screen and doesn’t make excuses or condemn them. Th women at the school are in a very difficult position and it is only made more difficult by the arrival of a man who is also a Northern soldier. Each one of the women wants something from him; friendship, love, adoration, but he also wants something from them; and escape from the war. They all mutually use each other often to each other’s detriment. Colin Farrell holds his own acting against this group of talented women. As a side note, I don’t often pay that much attention to the most technical aspects of filmmaking, but I have to say the sound design in The Beguiled was amazing. I saw the film in the theater and often you would hear the cannons and guns fire off to side and you immediately were reminded that the war was close and that no one was ever really safe. There was a constant undercurrent of danger throughout the film whether it was the war happening around the women’s plantation, the women back stabbing each other, or from harboring Corporal McBurney that really worked for me.
- A Ghost Story
I was a little dubious going into A Ghost Story. I had only seen one trailer and it looked like it could be incredibly gimmicky and stupid. While the film is a little gimmicky with the premise, the aspect ratio, and the lack of dialogue… but somehow it all worked. I didn’t buy into the film right away but the longer it went on the more invested I became in the film and in the ghost’s need to move on. In the end I thought it was brilliant to have a ghost under a white sheet. You get to project all of your thoughts and feeling and emotions on to him. I was surprised by how frightening I found the ghostly figure in the film. He was also sympathetic and sad, but always creepy. I thought it would just be funny to see someone under a ghost-sheet, but it forced me to look around the room I was in and wonder. While I have issues with Casey Affleck as a person, I really like his performance as the husband first and then as a ghost. Even though he is just under a sheet he does give a physical performance that helped sell the premise. His stillness in conflict with the rare moments of action made for a compelling film. A Ghost Story also has one of the best scores of this year.
- Personal Shopper
I have not always been kind in my criticism of Kristen Stewart but between last year’s The Clouds of Sils Maria and this year’s Personal Shopper, I have reassessed my opinion of her. While I do not think she has a very great range, a role like Maureen in Personal Shopper taps into what she does best. Stuart has a natural nervous energy that works perfectly for the character of Maureen. She’s a young woman who has been shaken to her core by the loss of her twin brother. Additionally, the knowledge that the same heart deformity that killed her brother also beats in her chest. On top of that her boyfriend is in a different country, she is struggling to understand her skills as a medium, and she works for a difficult woman. Stuart plays all of those notes in harmony and grounds the film. I also like the contrast of how gaunt and shabby Maureen can be in her oversized sweaters and bomber jacket amongst beautiful people, clothes, and shoes. But director Olivier Assayas knows the moments when to play up Stuarts beauty. Much like The Beguiled there is always an undercurrent of danger or fear in the film. The mysterious texts Maureen receives, the ghosts see seeks out and who seek her out, then finally the threat of prison. I am eager to seek out more of Assayas work and a big fan of Personal Shopper.
- Get Out
Get Out was the most fun experience at the movie theater I had this year. I saw it first with a full audience and people had a lot of fun watching it together. But on subsequent viewings I got more and more out of the film each time I saw it. This was a fantastic directorial debut by Jordan Peele. Peele’s script is funny but pointed and exquisitely structured. He took the horror genre and put his own spin on it while also breaking free from some common troupes. Plus the film is beautiful to look at. Daniel Kaluuya gives his character Chris an interesting vibe. He is clearly uncomfortable and tries to fit in, but his head is always on a swivel. Alison Williams is convincing as the loving girlfriend Rose and makes her turn very eloquently. One of the stand out characters for me was LilRel Howery as Rod the best friend and TSA agent. Howery brings a lot of comedy to the film but also plays the stalwart friend and skeptic with equal measures. I also have to give a special call out to Betty Gabriel as Georgina. Gabriel has a small scene with Chris when they are upstairs that is bone chilling, but you don’t know why exactly. Peele fills the frame with her face and just lets you sits there and ponder why this woman is acting so strange and why she is so terrifying. Get Out rounds out the thread of fear that connected so many of the films on my list this year with Chris being afraid of not fitting in, then afraid that something bad is happening, and then being afraid that he will never escape. Get Out was as fun as it was scary and I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele does next.