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2017 Year in Review

My sixth straight self-indulgent, instantly forgettable Year in Review, and what a year it was — not in movies, but in American culture. And by “what a year,” I mean “what a godawful, miserable, scab-peeling, disgust-generator of a year.” From Trump to Paddock to Weinstein to Nassar, the monsters really came out from under the bed. And that’s just in the United States. In movies, well, you can take solace in the ones that reflected this tumultuous Time We Live In, but history isn’t kind to films that date themselves. So my list of favorite movies is less about this current time, and more about how the movies themselves contemplate the nature of time (especially my top two). Art isn’t supposed to be a list of moral rights and wrongs, so I don’t give something extra credit for being ethically superior. I like films that challenge me aesthetically, intellectually, philosophically, and emotionally. They’re discriminating and brave. They make us feel, they have empathy for their characters and they make us look at things through different eyes, hear through different ears, and contemplate through different points of view. All that said, here’s my Top Ten. Once again, with the caveats that a) it’s almost February 2018 so 2017 lists are *so* last month; b) I saw even fewer films (~75) than the paltry number I usually clock (~85), so this isn’t a comprehensive “best” — just my favorites of what I was fortunate enough to witness:

2017 TOP TEN

  1. A GHOST STORY — A last-minute iTunes-via-AppleTV experience that floored me so much it unseated everything else to take the top spot. David Lowery’s carefully modulated meditation on the elasticity of time (and the perception of it) aches with generations of pain, cries tears of emotion based on loss and love, and bleeds from every frame with the passion for what the juxtaposition of images can do in the cinematic form. Its protagonist is passive, the dialogue could fit on fewer pages than a Shake Shack menu, and the best performance exits the movie halfway through. But somehow it takes all these broken rules and glues together a thesis on humanity and history that you’ll never forget.
  2. DUNKIRK — Like A GHOST STORY, it takes history and stretches, pauses, speeds up, rewinds, twists, and molds time — in order to make a comment about community and human will to action that only a movie could make. It’s raw, elemental sound and image, and remains my favorite big-screen experience since FURY ROAD.
  3. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME — A tactile, effervescent coming-of-age love story featuring the furious eruption of talent that is Tim Chalamet (whose forthcoming probable loss at the Oscars to Gary Oldman will hopefully be just a temporary pause on his ascendance to movie royalty) and gentle, suggestive camera work from Guadagnino. The conversation Chalamet has with Stuhlbarg near the end stands proudly as the most touching scene of the year.
  4. OKJA — Bong Joon-ho follows up SNOWPIERCER with another bizarre, futuristic genre-mash (with a great Tilda Swinton performance) that managed to make us weep tears for the sacrifice of a CG super pig. Directed with admirable restraint and a crackerjack story, it’s another bizarre and singular work from an incomparable Korean master.
  5. GET OUT — Ahhh, so that’s why she didn’t want to cop to see his ID…
  6. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI — It has generated quite a feverish backlash, mainly from people who don’t like schematic writers using characters as tools in the service of a philosophical thesis (a fair enough criticism). But a more open-minded glance at this text yields a wealth of riches, not just from sparkling dialogue and performances (such as McDormand, Harrelson, and Dinklage), but in what questions it makes us ask ourselves about violence, revenge, and how rage (as ignited by economic, institutional, or physical factors) poisons the best and worst of us.
  7. PHANTOM THREAD — Whatever I didn’t say in my review is mostly because I need to see this again to get a handle on its grandstanding genius.
  8. LOGAN LUCKY — A beautiful return to the wheel from Soderbergh; it’s not just a sober reflection on the depressed Appalachian economy, but also a hilarious bit of caper entertainment featuring the most surprising performance of the year in Daniel Craig’s considerable comic chops.
  9. mother! — Split audiences to extremist poles stronger than the 2016 election did. Count me among those enraptured by the skill with which Aronofsky conducts this horrific symphony.
  10. THE BIG SICK — Generates such compassion and warmth due to just how real, relatable, and honest every frame feels. It’s very much a movie, but a piece of fiction that so obviously comes from two bold voices willing to lay bare their real lives.

Didn’t Quite Make the Cut: Wish I could have made room for Cannes-winner THE SQUARE and its prickly criticism of the nature of art; you’ll see NOCTURAMA on other Top 10 Lists, but you may remember it was #9 on my 2016 list; IT COMES AT NIGHT and THE LOST CITY OF Z were two early films that were sadly forgotten by many despite their smart and engaging charms. Also, don’t let Miguel Arteta’s quietly powerful BEATRIZ AT DINNER fall unnoticed.

And now, the requisite awards:

Best Director — David Lowery, A GHOST STORY

Best Actor — Timothée Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Best Actress — Michelle Williams, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Best Supporting Actor — Daniel Craig, LOGAN LUCKY

Best Supporting Actress — Lesley Manville, PHANTOM THREAD

Best Screenplay — Martin McDonagh, THREE BILLBOARDS

As usual, no Worst list. I may have found films like LADY BIRD, BLADE RUNNER 2049, and THE SALESMAN overrated or underwhelming, but they’re perfectly fine movies. I try to stay away from actual garbage, and even if I didn’t, I take no joy in giving them more grief. Feel free to comment below with anything you want to discuss, and thanks for reading.

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I, Tonya — 6/10

I, TONYA (2017, Craig Gillespie)

Superficially entertaining, but leaves a bit of a bad taste. For example, it spends two hours trying to turn Harding into the victim. But you know what, I can think of one other person involved in the Nancy Kerrigan attack incident that was maybe a little bit more of a victim, hmm?

Not that Gillespie doesn’t get a lot of good mileage out of exposing audiences to Harding’s monstrous mother (played with ferocious exactitude by Janney, who has earned the Oscar she’ll surely get), abusive husband (hard to believe this is the same Winter Soldier), and discriminating USFSA. But he also wants to have it both ways. If Harding wasn’t scored honestly, why did landing the triple give her victories? Was it her terrible appearance and lack of a wholesome image that kept her down, or was it her broken laces, mental anguish, domestic violence, and criminal convictions that ruined her career? There are a litany of excuses for Harding not achieving what she wanted in life, and everyone is to blame here except Harding herself. For a film that’s trying to put forth a feminist reading of a woman unfairly maligned by a society eager to turn her into a punchline, Gillespie sure doesn’t give her much responsibility.

Problems at the core aside, there’s still a lot to enjoy in a single watch of this: Robbie is fiercely dedicated, turning the fact that she was grossly miscast into a challenge she overcame with her volcanic talent. The laughs are explosive and come at surprising times (often at the gall Janney’s dialogue). And despite the on-the-nose lyrical needle drops, the soundtrack and editing give this movie-of-the-week story a rapid kick to keep everything moving smoothly. I just wonder if Gillespie’s version of THE DISASTER ARTIST (both movies end with brags about how close their recreations were to actual video) would argue for Wiseau being the real victim too.

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Molly’s Game — 7/10

MOLLY’S GAME (2017, Aaron Sorkin)

MOLLY’S GAME is not about poker, and don’t let anyone tell you it is. Not that Sorkin doesn’t get the poker accurate most of the time, but you can tell he’s putting it in there just for specificity. He doesn’t care about it. What he cares about is Molly, and telling a story about a woman who rose to power despite the men in her life, not because of them. Tabloids made us think Bloom was the Heidi Fleiss of underground gambling — but within 90 seconds of this film, Sorkin sets us straight.

Chastain boils Bloom down to a laser-focused drive, humor as dry as the Mojave, seemingly zero interest in romance, and a steely constitution that’s hard to crack. She could easily have played it sassy or sexy, but she’s too smart an actor for that — she underplays the drama, making everything more intense. This works well with Costner’s father role, one given cursory treatment for the first two acts, but then he delivers a slobber-knocker of a scene late in the movie that re-contextualizes his entire being and almost rips your heart out. It’s the best he’s been since at least TIN CUP, if not REVENGE.

Idris Elba gets his chance too, in a monologue that’s so impassioned he almost passes out exhausted on screen from delivering it. He plays his lawyer like a boxer who takes a while to decide when to put up a fight, but once he does, he leaves it all in the ring. Actors absolutely relish Sorkin roles, as they have for 25 years. Why wouldn’t you? He’s terrific. Hate his arrogance all you want, but he’s a musician with dialogue, and even Michael Cera as a loathsome, worm-like Tobey Maguire is unlike you’ve ever seen him.

The cast and dialogue are front and center here because this comes from a playwright. STEVE JOBS, Sorkin’s last effort, was even more of a stage play — but this definitely feels like it plays to the rafters and not the lens. His direction is functional but non-distinct. If you’d told me he handed it off to Danny Boyle I might have believed you, save for the lack of hyper editing choices. Also, and sorry for the poker pun, but Sorkin stacks the deck here with his villains (like he often did with Michael Douglas’s punching bag opponents in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT). And a little too much of the storytelling is voiceover-montage-set-to-techno-music, a gimmick that wears a bit thin over time. But overall, this is a sharp-eared love letter to dogged intelligence, determined hard work, and the populist ideals Sorkin has made dear to his heart over his long career. For a directing debut, it feels correctly like the work of a guy who’s done this for decades.

 

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Happy End — 6/10

HAPPY END (2017, Michael Haneke)

The opening shot is a two- or three-minute vertical iPhone video, narrated via text by a daughter voyeuristically shooting her mom’s nighttime bathroom ritual. She predicts every behavior with 100% accuracy, and the result is a pre-credit summation of Haneke’s philosophy on film to date: when on camera, actions are pre-determined; actors have no free will. The unseen eye is God, dictating the fates of the helpless humans trapped inside its frame. It makes sense, then, that the final shot of the movie is also a vertical iPhone video shot by the same daughter, this time capturing a character trying to wrest control over life and death, taking into his own hands the ability to determine when he’s going to end it all. But try as he might (and as happens more than once throughout the movie), this attempt is folly, as the God-like director gets to decide who enters his frame and his film, and who leaves it.

Haneke is every bit the aesthetic philosopher in HAPPY END that he has always been, especially in his best films (FUNNY GAMES, CODE UNKNOWN, CACHE, etc.), but unfortunately the sickly dark comic tone he tries to employ fails to engage the audience in the game he wants to play. As usual, the formal control is iron-clad — his compositions are flawless and his editing is judicious; there are maybe 50-60 total cuts in here, with plenty of scenes consisting of only one shot. But as enjoyable as it is for a cinephile to watch a master at work, the dysfunctional family within it is made of half-hearted caricatures. Huppert and Trintignant subvert Haneke’s misanthropy by infusing their characters with humanity and dimensions, while precocious tween Fantine Harduin shoulders a lot of the point of view while remaining a cypher. The movie also isn’t as funny as Haneke perhaps thinks it is, maybe showing that he doesn’t have God-like control over tone after all; by using Trintignant and Huppert (and similar names to theirs or their character’s relatives) from AMOUR, there’s a little too much weight to the satire, and we end up wishing we were back in AMOUR’s delicate, honest universe — that, or at least the straight-up sadism of BENNY’S VIDEO. This is in between, and ends up feeling a little confused.

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All the Money In the World — 7/10

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (2017, Ridley Scott)

Having stepped away from the effects-heavy, baggage-laden franchise of ALIEN: COVENANT, Scott has loosened up considerably for his second film of 2017, the rip-roaring entertainment that is this (somewhat) true story of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s teenage grandson in 1973. Back in THE COUNSELLOR mode, he has fashioned a vicious, perky piece of crackerjack storytelling that feels expensive and polished, despite the fact that a huge chunk of it was filmed last Thursday.

Although a few of the green screen shots of Christopher Plummer keyed over Arabian deserts and the like are a little messy, you’d still think Plummer was always the Getty at the center. He’s a snake: oily and poisonous, but convincing enough when he turns on the charm that you want to buy what he’s selling. And although he isn’t the protagonist of this story (more on Michelle Williams in a minute), it’s his view on money that drives everything that this movie is about. People like to think that money is just some extrinsic tool and doesn’t really mean much when it comes to human relationships, but Scott’s film (credited to screenwriter David Scarpa) says the opposite: everything is negotiable, especially human beings. Money isn’t just a way to keep score, it’s why we keep score in the first place — we can say we don’t want it, but it moves mountains.

This is a cynical world view, but the world it inhabits is that of unchecked capitalism, meaning the communist kidnappers depicted here never stand a chance. That’s the real tragedy this movie is exploring: even if you don’t agree with Getty that there’s no such thing as “priceless” (only “invaluable”), what are you going to do about it? All the power is in the hands of people who think like he does. And with the unequal distribution of wealth currently at a nearly unprecedented level, at least in the last century, that makes this movie not only a grim tale, but a timely one.

The beating heart here, as she often is, is Williams as the hostage’s mother. Not content to play Abigail as merely distraught and unhinged, Williams finds notes of tenderness, cunning, resolve, and even romance. The look she gives Getty’s fixer “Fletcher Chase” (what a name), played by Mark Wahlberg, when he states his intention to move on to another job, has the heartbreakingly perfect proportion of desperation, adoration, and politeness. So while Scott ended ALIEN: COVENANT on one of the most misanthropic notes of his career, for ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD he finds in Williams a face of such deep-seated humanity that even the frostiest grinch will melt by the end.

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Phantom Thread — 8/10

PHANTOM THREAD (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson)

When Tarantino shot THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm, some people groused that he shouldn’t be wasting that format on a movie that takes place almost entirely inside one cabin. Similarly, I can see that complaint lodged against Anderson for this interior two-hander that isn’t even composed in a widescreen aspect ratio. Anderson shot PHANTOM THREAD on 35mm and blew it up to 70 for some rare prints (I was lucky enough to see one of them in Los Angeles), and the result is a grainy, brightly lit, contrast-free period piece that feels like one of Day-Lewis’s 1980s movies such as THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING or A ROOM WITH A VIEW. But what you really get out of this textured look is a film where the details are everything. You feel every fabric on your fingers, you smell every cup of coffee, and you can hear the pop of a pin pricking through silk or wool. And form meets content, as it always does in the case of great art: the character of Reynolds Woodcock is a prick through the fabric of this story, piercing every scene and dragging his plot thread through it.

As magnetic a protagonist as he’s ever been, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock is not a likable person, but you can’t take your eyes off him. The actor has a superstar presence that storms onto screens every five years or so, then he disappears until you’ve almost forgotten just how explosive he is. And this performance stands up next to the likes of IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD as unimpeachable greatness. It takes quite a presence to fill the screen with him (even someone as terrific as DiCaprio almost got stomped trying to compete), and Luxembourgish newcomer Vicky Krieps can pretty much fit the bill. Although her performance doesn’t feel internalized (there’s a thinness revealing how “pretending” she is), it’s still assured and delightful, and you can *almost* see what the answer is when she asks herself “What am I doing here with you?” during one of Woodcock’s punishing rants. And don’t sleep on the third wheel in this story: Lesley Manville is fantastic as Cyril, Woodcock’s sister and right-hand woman, or as he calls her, his “old sew-and-sew.”

INHERENT VICE had plenty of comedic moments (think of Brolin eating that frozen banana) but PHANTOM THREAD is probably PTA’s funniest film since perhaps BOOGIE NIGHTS. There are a dozen laugh-out-loud jokes, and the best of them are barbed and mean. Take for example the brilliantly timed cut following the wedding vows to Alma once again loudly buttering her toast. Some of the sharp, efficient dialogue will make you laugh but much of the (dark) comedy is in just facial expressions, sound effects, and mannerisms. But the flipside of this is just how deeply disturbing the relationship is — both for how believable it is and how callous. Love is often about power dynamics, give-and-take, and forgiveness — and the poisonous bond that forms between Reynolds and Alma is one that, like a beautifully-tailored dress, covers up a misshapen, dying organism.

 

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The Post — 7/10

THE POST (2017, Steven Spielberg)

Should be required viewing for anyone who thought SPOTLIGHT was even remotely well-directed. They share a screenwriter (Josh Singer, bringing a heavy sledgehammer once again), but Spielberg puts an Armani suit on it, where McCarthy dressed it in Dockers. This is a huge, loud, gong-clanging siren-call for liberals to gather together, hold hands, and shout a massive “Fuck you” to Donald Trump, and I’ll be damned if I’m not signing up for that circle-jerk. Because it is very satisfying to feel that way, and Spielberg knows it, and he has fashioned (in the space of less than ten months from reading the script to green-lighting and releasing the finished film) a glorious work of pandering art, and few people know how to pander this elegantly.

This is a film where the freedom of the press is threatened by the “Nixon” administration, to which one journalist points out that the president “just took a shit on the First Amendment.” It takes place in 1971, you say? But what sells the message is what Spielberg brings to it. When the printing press fires up, he takes us upstairs to the newsroom, where a reporter reacts to the floor shaking from the activity. The presses running is both a figurative and literal earthquake, so we need to see it as one. It’s a beautiful — and wordless — moment.

Meryl Streep is having a blast as Kay Graham, channeling Hillary without too much bravado: merely the right hair, the right clothes, and a quiet knowledge that she’s smarter and braver than all the men in the room telling her what to think (and doubting that she knows). As her trusty editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, Tom Hanks has settled into the  charm of his 60s — an aging actor who doesn’t have to try, he just has to be wise. When one colleague snaps at him, Hanks does that move where he scratches his face with his middle finger as a subtle bird-flip, and it manages to be laugh-out-loud funny without calling attention to itself. (On the whole, the movie is funnier than you’d think; that’s one of its many pleasures).

Liz Hannah and Singer have delivered a somewhat sophomoric script that doesn’t give the characters much of a life beyond the true story it’s expositing (see something like ERIN BROCKOVICH for a much warmer and fleshed-out script with the same ambitions). All anyone talks about is the Pentagon Papers and whether we should publish the papers and where we got the papers and what’s going to happen if we publish the papers and what’s gonna happen if we don’t publish the papers and what it means to be a journalist and what it means to be a shareholder and what it mean to run a company. Doesn’t anyone also ask who won the Redskins game or how your kid is doing at college?

That said, Spielberg deftly smooths over the script’s single-minded focus with a handsome production where the camera is always in the right place. And his cast is a who’s-who of prestige TV (the stars of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, The West Wing, and Fargo fill out most of the supporting roles), all managing to make goofy wigs and heavy period makeup feel like part of great theater. Formal chops make up for a lot of writing mediocrities, and so does a message that lands in the right place at the right time. It’s hard not to feel an innate, primal swell of emotion when good people prove that the evil thumb of conservative fear-mongering doesn’t have to stamp us all out, even if we know in the back of our minds that it’s simplified and a little bit of wishful thinking. We know Watergate took down Nixon. We don’t know, yet, if the teflon plate of mashed potatoes occupying the Oval Office has any chance of going away, even if any heroes do still exist behind a keyboard.

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