Scott’s Top Ten of 2017
2017 will not go down as a great year in many respects, and unfortunately I cannot assert that film will run contrary to that pattern. But much of what plagued me in the political sphere and dripped into the personal was, here and there, soothed by those efforts that gracefully and thoughtfully connected me closer with myself, my spirit, my loved ones, and everyone else trying to drudge onward towards a better tomorrow.
Those films, I should note before continuing, also included Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, and their omission from the following list is due only to its abundance in other circles and my lack of full comprehension, respectively. Following my top two picks below, the precise order between all above it, including the two aforementioned films, could have been declared nearly at random, and will I’m sure be reordered when I commit this list to posterity in Letterboxd this time next year.
But alas, we declare onward. Links to other writing I’ve done on the films are provided where available.
10. Ex Libris – The New York City Public Library
For those of us who believe that the government – of the people, by the people, for the people – can do some real good in this country, well, Frederick Wiseman seems to agree. The modern library is not simply a place to exchange books (though as a frequent user myself, I will say it’s a tad underrated in that respect), but a place to hear about job openings, use the internet, connect with the community, hear lectures by musicians and academics, and learn about the city, country, and world in which you live any way you can. Wiseman, as always, takes a full view of the establishment, from the upper-chamber board meetings to after-school programs in low-income neighborhoods, allowing us to make the connections between all of them, and see how they all influence one another, and the real substantial good that comes from pooling our resources together. It’s remarkable, and the most socially-uplifting film I’ve seen in some time.
I’m not doing honorable mentions, as I did the past two years, but I will here also mention Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s The Work, and Agnes Varda and J.R.’s Faces Places, two other documentaries intensely interested in the thin lines that separate us all.
On the other hand, if one wants to reckon with total self-made loneliness, look no further than David Lowery’s latest. Lowery’s first two features – Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon – had their heart in the right place, but were repeating directorial patterns others had established. Here, Lowery finds his own odd rhythms. Casey Affleck’s lonely spectre haunts first his still-living wife until she moves on, leaving him alone in their house, with everything (and everyone) to come. But he doesn’t want to share their world. Lowery explores how futile it is to only look back, and the fear of looking too far forward.
Rebecca Zlotowski’s (overly?) ambitious new film stars Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as a traveling sister seance act in the 1930s – Depp provides the medium, Portman the show. But when they land in Paris, showbiz comes calling, and with that a chance for the older sister to have a bit of fun for once. The film jets off in a thousand different directions at once, but rather than filled over-stuffed, it feels ever-inspired, and more than anything communicates how lost one can get in a flurry of activity until your life has passed you by and those you hold dear start to slip away.
7. On the Beach at Night Alone
Breaking up is hard to do, as Hong Sang-soo has explored time and time again. With last year’s Yourself and Yours, Hong showed he was interested in far more than the repetitive structures he’s utilized over (at least) a half-dozen previous films, and started to veer off into more esoteric, imaginative territory, a journey that nearly takes him over the edge here. Kim Min-hee stars as a young actress who recently ended an affair with a director and seems to almost be floating away. She falls asleep in public, potentially gets kidnapped, travels a lot, experiments with kissing girls, insults everyone she meets, and seems to be followed by an otherworldly presence who may only be interested in the time of day or in washing her windows, but may also be far more sinister. It’s as funny as Hong has ever been, but he’s less interested in the dramatic irony that captivated him so long; he seems more content to sit with the unknown and face it head-on.
6. Hermia & Helena
Matías Piñeiro dives into another semi-Shakespeare adaptation, this time using A Midsummer Night’s Dream as his launching point, though the actual text figures in considerably less than in Viola or The Princess of France. Here, Camila (Agustina Munoz) is enrolled in an international program in New York that sets her up to translate Midsummer into Spanish, though the most we tend to see her with that work is in preparing to work, or dreaming about it. Mostly she uneasily navigates New York (and American) society, which proves more transactional, purpose-driven, and reticent to find intimacy than the happy home she remembers in Argentina, and to which we routinely flashback as the film goes on. As with those previous films, Piñeiro is keen on post-collegiate restlessness, that feeling of innumerable possibilities and no goals.
As tends to be the case, most of the films in my top ten are about women, because in this male-director-driven industry, women are typically given more opportunities to simply exist onscreen, to let some of themselves shine through. There will always be a man eager to watch. Male actors have fewer chances, but that made Luca Guadagnino’s latest all the more refreshing, especially as the filmmaker has abandoned the pretense of forced drama that plagued I Am Love and especially A Bigger Splash, content to focus instead on what he does best – watch people have a good time. As the summer winds down and the realization of impermanence sets in, that good time starts to become bittersweet. Drama need not come from outer conflict. Often, life’s natural course provides heartache enough.
Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s directorial debut captivated me back in August, so much so that I saw it twice in its brief theatrical run, and hasn’t much left me since. Kirsten Dunst stars as Theresa, who at the start of the film provides her mother with a poisonous joint to assist her suicide, ending the pain of her unspecified terminal illness. This leaves Theresa wallowing in grief, experimenting with dangerous drugs herself and teetering on the edge of complete abandon. Unlike the vast majority of debut features, the Mulleavys don’t seem to be trying to make someone else’s film – their influences as disparate, and their motivations and modes of expression come purely from within. Better still, they are attuned to Dunst’s spectacular capacity to act for the camera, letting them challenge, inspire, and push one another forward.
Technology has made our lives haunted. We’re constantly in touch with beings we cannot see or hear or entirely rid ourselves of. Natural that Maureen (Kristen Stewart) should be unable to rid herself of spirits, and persistent text alerts. Stewart gives the performance of the year, drowning in anxiety yet almost instantly iconic. In his 60s, Assayas has made one of the very few truly thoughtful films about “how we live now.”
Paul Thomas Anderson trades California for London, abandons some of the more unusual outbursts of his characters, but leaves behind none of the chaotic drama rocking his characters. It’s just largely beneath the surface. What does peak, in the escalating tension between a dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his latest muse (Vicky Krieps), is the kind of unstoppable-force/immovable-object tension that Anderson has delighted in exploring over the last decade. He’s fascinated by relationships between people who in some way need each other, but can’t seem to reconcile. Lately, however, he seems most keen on the terms it would take for them to manage.
1. Song to Song
Terrence Malick’s best film in over a decade finds him at his most romantic. Far from abandoning the pain at the center of his stories about lost Edens, he turns here to ask, much like Paul Thomas Anderson, what it would take to find love when you’ve abandoned that possibility for yourself. It’s rare that a filmmaker has the interest to tackle a subject like self-forgiveness, let alone do so with the measure of beauty and grace Malick has become known for. He does so, as ever, with the interplay between expressive physicality and inner monologue. Nobody moves like people in Malick movies move, but like dance, their movements say something about themselves. We do all, however, ask constantly questions of ourselves like “I don’t know how to change…how do you?” or “Am I a good person? Even want to be? Or just seem like one, so people will like me?” These statements, which could be obtrusively blunt, are presented in the context of walks, boat rides, or cooking; everyday activities when our minds start to wander, and our demons rise.