Ian’s Top Ten of 2017
10. War for the Planet of the Apes
The third film of Fox’s new Apes films is the brilliant culmination of what this series has been driving toward. For the first time in the franchise a film is entirely told from the apes’ POV, proving that Andy Serkis can anchor a film in a mo-cap performance. The story is part-war story and part-revenge film. Director Matt Reeves goes for the epic feeling of films like The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. By exploring the inner turmoil of Serkis’ Caesar, caught between war and peace, the film lives up to those ambitions in a way that’s true to the very essence of the original Apes films.
9. Brigsby Bear
A film that asks, “What would happen if the kid in Room was rescued in his thirties…and watched a strange mash-up of Doctor Who and Teddy Ruxpin in the meantime?” While most of the film’s cast may come from comedy – it stars Kyle Mooney from Saturday Night Live and co-stars Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, and Andy Samberg – the film does not play its premise as either an absurd comedy or a dramatic tragedy. Instead it’s something in between and director Dave McCary strikes the right tone by being empathetic towards all the characters while never wallowing in sentimentality. Since James’ quest is to complete the Brigsby Bear story, the film becomes a celebration of niche fandom, one that is sweet without denying the gravity of what has occurred. Between his work here and his triumphant return in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Mark Hammill is proving that he is one of our greatest character actors.
Previous Christopher Nolan films have been marred by overexplaining the premise. This film breaks free of such cumbersomeness, with many moments being sparse of dialogue. Dunkirk is all about the visceral experience of being alongside these soldiers as they are caught between the Nazis and the Atlantic Ocean. Nolan and his crew muster up all their abilities to place you in these situations, with scenes such as the torpedo attack on a British ship come to life in stark reality thanks to possibly hundreds of intricate camera and sound choices. The result feels like a pure expression of what cinema can do.
7. The Shape of Water
It feels great to declare that the best Guillermo Del Toro film in years is also the most Guillermo Del Toro film in years. It’s a fairy tale from a filmmaker that has never forgotten that many fairy tales often have horrific elements. The film turns early-60’s Baltimore into its own world of vivid colors and dwindling sunlight. A secret government lab is both antiseptic and strangely fascinating. That last part may be due to Doug Jones’ performance as the amphibian/humanoid “asset” and his romance with Sally Hawkins’ mute Elisa. Many have written about how this is a romance between a woman and a fish, but it’s also a romance between two characters who never speak which means Del Toro must depict their love only in visuals. This leads to many beautiful cinematic scenes, including one of the most unique, and but wonderful, sex scenes in recent years.
6. Blade Runner 2049
The fact that there even is a Blade Runner sequel that’s good is noteworthy since the entire endeavor sounded like a bad idea. The fact that it is a triumph, and in some ways better than the original, is cause for celebration. Unlike the original film, where the “romance” feels like a product of Deckard’s dehumanized relationship with Replicants, the romance between Ryan Gosling’s K and Ana de Armas’ Joi, both machines, feels real and keeps the film intriguing. Combined with director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ brilliant visuals, and what good have been a cringeworthy failure is instead a masterpiece.
5. Call Me by Your Name
Within a story that may seem too placid and calm at first glance, director Luca Guadagnino captures the great unknowingness of young queer love. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer deliver two of the best performances of the year with Chalamet displaying all the awkwardness and self-loathing that can come from such new and powerful feelings. Because the film’s era, the story has a “trap door” under it the entire time. What the film does with that, thanks to the performance by 2017 all-star Michael Stuhlbarg, is surprising and life-affirming.
4. Personal Shopper
2017 was a year that showed audiences the many ways horror films can be done. This includes The Shape of Water and Get Out, as well as It, Split, and It Comes at Night. Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper may be the most austere of all these films, which is befitting for how lonely its main character is. Kristen Stewart’s Maureen go through life inside someone else’s wealthy lifestyle, she is the personal shopper for an absentee celebrity boss. At the same time, she is devoted to someone else’s death, contacting the spirit of her late twin brother. It isn’t until the film’s brilliant last line do we see how much agency she has, and it makes everything, especially the long text message with a stranger, seen in a whole new light. This is a film that deeply hides its secrets, even when you think it’s giving you everything. When it reveals itself, it is a stunner.
3. Get Out
Have you ever seen a so-so horror movie with a great concept and you said to yourself, “I wish this concept was in a better movie”? Get Out is the better movie. The brilliant concept that the film pivots on isn’t fully revealed until the third act and truth be told, there are not a lot of scares for most of the film. The true “horror” that makes up much of the film is in the soul-cringing faux-pas, one after another, that Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris must bear. When that real-life horror flows into the film’s fantastical premise, it’s revealed how well first-time director Jordan Peele threaded the needle. Not just that, his visualization of “The Sunken Place” may be the best way of depicting what marginalization feels like.
2. Phantom Thread
When we saw that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film was an English period drama, it must have left some scratching their heads. Much of the San Fernando Valley’s own Anderson’s best work is about the life and history of Southern California. But Phantom Thread proves to be a worth addition to Anderson’s canon as it is another exploration of another of his pet themes: the lives of misfits. Reteaming with Daniel Day-Lewis, Thread tells the story of the romance between Day-Lewis’ successful dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and Vicky Krieps’ Alma. Woodcock is a man who can only express himself in his work, and it does not seem to have a place for love. While Alma is a waitress thrown into the world of high-fashion in 1950s London, she never shrinks or demurs against Reynolds’ world. In a year where we had many sweet romances (Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name) this is a film where the romance is like two generals fighting a battle on the field of war. Anderson’s masterful craftsmanship makes clear that is where the passion is found, making the climactic moment of this film one of the strangest yet most romantic moments in a year of strange romances.
1. Lady Bird
Lady Bird’s specialness isn’t found in its most inventive scenes but the most clichéd ones. A teen girl decides to ditch her popular friends to see her old best friend. An emotional drive to an airport. A gay teen admitting he’s afraid to come out. We may have seen such things a hundred times before but director Greta Gerwig clearly loves all her characters so the spark of humanity is never lost in those moments. This is seen most vividly in the relationship between Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird and her mother Marion. Both characters’ points of view are treated with sympathy and empathy, so every scene between them become some of the best-acted and moving scenes in cinema of the year. There are many films that try to remind older audience members how it feels to be young, albeit in a superficial way. This film reminds us of the real struggles of adolescence while at the same time providing great insight into the challenges parents face, often in silence.