2017 In Film-Top 10
After much hand-wringing, hard-thinking and mild drinking (just kidding, I don't drink unless it's included in the price of brunch) my 2017 top ten was concluded by January 1st. But clearly, my resolution to stop procrastinating was not as successful. But in the vein of forgiving myself my trespasses, I'm plugging along anyway. Perhaps, if there's something you haven't seen, you'll be inspired to catch up. Fair warning, the only one I haven't seen before close of year is Phantom Thread;so if PTA is your jam and you're about to get all savagely righteous, hold those horses and maybe even put them in the barn, because I'll definitely see it, it's just not in contention for this post.
I guess there's no point in building tension. I mean it's the end of January, just get to the point right?
1. Call Me By Your Name
Everything about this movie is both gorgeous and utterly cool, in that 80s definition of cool. The font on the title card, the score, the vague "somewhere in Northern, Italy" setting; it all lends itself to immediately placing you in the lazy days of summer in the last days of a time before computers changed everything for everyone. In an old estate (somewhere in Italy) a young boy, Elio (Timothee Chalamet) spends the summer after his senior year in high school with his parents, a professor, played by Michael Stuhlbarg and his sophisticated (read, classically cool) mother, played by Amira Casar. Soon, a grad student (Armie Hammer) joins the family for a work-study stint, infusing a little tension into the muggy, lounging days.
The quietness with which Luca Guadagnino navigates the tumultuous moods of young, new love is something I'm still in awe of. In a world where so many films seem to scream intentions at you, Call Me By Your Name presents its characters and their interactions devoid of judgment, almost in defiance of the audience. Several times, I had to brace myself, thinking something terrible would happen, in retribution for a characters' joy and to have that subverted brought tears to my eyes. Imagine if the only thing anyone ever had to worry about was heartbreak? That's the world that exists in Call Me By Your Name, and yet, during what slowly turns into a gut-wrenching monologue from Elio's father, Stuhlbarg's quiet, contained delivery presses home the reminder of the world outside of Italy. A reminder that not everything will be this carefree, nothing ever really is, but this moment might be, so hold those moments close.
The final shot, steadily focusing on Elio as it seems he begins to accept life's unfairness, what some may call growing pains, is a reminder of what all of us have gone through. There's no pain as deep as the time our teen heart breaks and it feels as if we're the only one that's ever happened to. And maybe growing out of that level of emotion is also equally sad, a thing to be fondly remembered, in time. A film about the choices we make and the moments we hold disguised as a hipster travelogue with dancing Armie Hammer? Yes, please, always.
Oh, you say you're tired of hearing about "race" in 2017? Well too goddamn bad, because it's what our country is built on and Mudbound faces it head on. Based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, the film by Dee Rees feels like an updated version of The Grapes of Wrath, a uniquely American film made about uniquely American problems and also the uniquely American perseverance that allows us to carry on. Set in rural Mississippi and focusing on two tenant farming families, one black and one white, Mudbound is about what the land actually means, what is the price we'd pay to keep it and the horrific reality of hatred and the reviving powers of love.
Yeah, it's a lot to take in and Dee Rees doesn't flinch from making you watch the truth of our history. And it is OUR history. A shared past that so many now are determined to re-write to fit a cuter, more appealing American narrative. But what the film also said to me was, if you follow this through, if you acknowledge history as it stands, we might also all have a better chance of surviving. Affecting, painful and also inspiring, Mudbound is a journey, but one we're hopefully all the better for taking.
3. Lady Bird
In 2002 I was a freshman in college. In 2002, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson is a senior in high school. Just due to this, Lady Bird is the movie of me. It is the closest thing I've come to seeing my story told onscreen. I was a middle-class white girl in the suburbs with dreams of moving to New York City. I had diaries with boys names in them, I was in Drama Club, I cried in my bedroom with Dave Matthews as my soundtrack. I didn't think my story was anything special because every girl I knew was going through it. But it turns out, maybe those boring every days during the time leading up to major life changes are worthy of stories.
Everything about this movie hurt and made me feel joy in equal measure. Perhaps slightly more sure of herself than I was, Lady Bird navigates the remainder of high school with the only emotional weapons any teenage girl has: angst, anticipation, optimism and cynicism. I've said it often, that one could never pay me enough to go back to high school, because I can't afford to pay that emotional toll ever again, so this film is the closest to catharsis I might come. Stuck in that horrible limbo that exists for so many high school seniors of needing to leave and secretly wanting nothing to change, relying on your parents to support you while at the same time becoming aware that they are very much people just like you is terrifying. Realizing that parents are people is usually the thing the pulls the rug out from under your world faster than anything. If they don't have everything figured out, how can you EVER have ANYTHING figured out. But figure it out we do, stumbling most steps of the way. And Lady Bird chronicles those stumbles with enough truth, naivete and dignity that it actually made me think maybe I wasn't as much of an absolute mess as I thought I was. But of course I was, it's just looking back, the mess turns into lessons.
4. Logan Lucky
GOD DAMN I LOVED THIS MOVIE and if you don't I just feel sorry for you, but also, like don't need to actually speak to you about movies ever again. In what was practically a surprise release from Steven Soderbergh, Logan Lucky gave us Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough as a trio of siblings, Daniel Craig, Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson as another trio of siblings, all planning a heist that will cross the border from West Virginia into North Carolina. I mean that cast alone would be enough, but add in Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Katherine Waterston and Dwight Yokam, and well, for the audience, their giant theater-sized cups runneth over with the talent on the screen.
The script matches the cast's talent beat for beat. Written by Rebecca Blunt (a pseudonym, with many speculating that it belong's to Soderbergh's wife), it is whip smart, fast-paced and delightful in ways similar to Soderbergh's other heist series, the Ocean's movies. The twists and turns are only outdone by the simple moment when a heartfelt rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" rings out in a small-town gymnasium. In a year where that song was used what seems like 100 times, this is, hands down, the best use of it. Released towards the end of the summer, in the dog days of August, this was a welcomed breeze of a movie that was almost as much of a relief as the theater air conditioning on a 90 degree day.
5. The Disaster Artist
For years I refused to see The Room, the infamous terrible movie that lays the foundation for The Disaster Artist. By the time I'd heard of it, around 2009 or so, it had already been around for a while and a local theater was holding midnight showings. Several friends would attend with spoons and footballs, but I just could not bring myself to revel in any film regarded as so wholly terrible. Fast forward to late 2017 where it was decided I should probably watch it before The Disaster Artist was released. I paid attention for 20 minutes before pulling out my phone and only vaguely paying attention to what seemed like a rotating pattern of soft-core porn scenes with the worst 90s smooth R&B soundtrack and living room sequences that devolved in performance with each return to the couch.
But then, there I was watching James Franco star in and direct an amazing cast bring the story of the film to life and it was so entirely enjoyable and worthy of my attention that I couldn't help but see things in a different life. The Disaster Artist doesn't make The Room a better movie and it doesn't make Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic director and star of The Room, a better person, but the parallels of the two movies, along with the utterly relatable moments of people involved with the productions saying "WHAT THE F*** IS HAPPENING?!" does make for an interesting experience for people who like movies about movies, a genre I always have a soft spot for.
Franco's performance has now been overshadowed by accusations against his behind-the-camera actions, but it is the best performance of his I've ever seen, and that includes 127 Hours (it's just tough for me to go in for self-amputation). The supporting cast is perfect, but I think it's the fact that Franco's partner in crime is his brother, Dave Franco, that sets up a unique relationship that allows for more pathos than perhaps Wiseau deserves that pushes the film across the finish line. I'm serious, for all we know Wiseau is the leader of the Bilderbergs, but at least his horrible foray into film gave us this.
At the beginning of 2017 I remember being sure that the Stephen King adaptation I was most looking forward to was The Dark Tower. This was mostly because it meant I finally would be able to understand what everyone was talking about without having to read 150,000 pages. Just kidding. I had definitely audiobook'd the first three novels of the series and had been schooled on the rich tale that The Gunslinger lays the groundwork for. The first installment of IT ranked fairly low in terms of anticipation. But as May turned to June, word on streets (opinions online) started to turn. Rumblings were heard that Andy Muschietti's IT was the legit deal. I was, of course, familiar with the Tim Curry-led miniseries and the general outline of the story. I also knew my old, slow-reading brain wouldn't be able to get through the entire book before the movie came out, but I was so excited now that I did download the audiobook. All 43 hours of it, and tucked in for the ride.
After finally seeing IT, it's hard to imagine any better interpretation of the story. It harkens back to all of those stories that taught us life lessons through the eyes of children with a group of young actors that brings everything to the table. Impeccable casting and performances, fantastic makeup and production design, a solid script that is both eerie and emotional, it brings out the truth about Stephen King that his fans have known all along: He isn't a scare-master, he's a truth teller. He takes the true things in life that scare us and make us face them, deal with them, and hopefully, defeat them to come out on the other side, stronger and smarter. IT takes the best of everything from childhood and the worst and weaves a tale I'll revisit over and over until it's time for the second installment.
One last highlight: The New Kids on The Block gag is so perfect and so entirely established the relationship between two characters in a way that, for me, no other single moment in film managed to do this year. Wordlessly emotional, the way all good film can be when it's being done well.
7. Get Out
Lots and lots and lots has already been said about this film and, all of the good stuff at least, is completely deserved. So I'll keep my say short and sweet. Directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is the story of Chris and Rose, an interracial couple preparing for a weekend getaway to Rose's parents' house in the suburbs. That deceptively simple plot leads to a terrifying journey told with perfect pacing, genuinely surprising twists and a modern-day parable that forces the audience to, once again, acknowledge the dark secrets of the past that are, shallowly-buried or hiding in plain sight depending on who you talk to. As we've often been told in films past, the scariest things are hiding behind the prettiest facades, Get Out is The Stepford Wives for the Instagram generation.
8. The Shape of Water
I truly do not know if there is a working director at the moment that has more sheer imagination than Gullermo Del Toro. Every one of his films contains more work by creature designers, costume designers, production designers and other people at the top of their fields to help bring his singularly unique visions to life. And he is always so willing to share the spotlight with his collaborators that he also seems like the hands-down nicest working director. The Shape of Water takes all of the seeds he's planted with previous films and turns them into a gorgeous, 60s- set secret garden to make a master-level fable. Any time a story asks us to examine who we truly are as humans, what makes us human, it's a story with paying attention to. You could argue, it's the foundation of all tales. And yet, this one, with its mix of characters, its attention to detail, and its genuine-heart-on-its-sleeve emotion, makes that question resonate even more. I don't know if it's just that it's been a dark couple of years and I'm tired of people rolling their eyes at honesty and re-branding it as "corny" or if it's just that Del Toro has put together a cast here that emanates each of their characters purely, but every piece of this moving puzzle fits perfectly.
And yes, she definitely f***s the fishman.
9. The Post
Very similar to the way that Logan Lucky seemed to drop out of nowhere, word about The Post seemed to not circulate until very late into 2017. For a Spielberg movie, that seems rare. I am always down for Surprise Spielberg, so in the relatively short amount of time between when I heard about The Post and when I was able to see it, I prepared myself to be amazed, as I usually am by Spielberg. On first viewing I was.... entirely underwhelmed? "How is that possible?!" I kept asking myself. Nearly berating myself for not seeming to feel the way so many did, that it was Spielberg's best in a while. And then I hit on my issue with it. The thing that I usually love about Spielberg, the optimism and belief in goodness in the world, no longer felt real for me in this Post-Trump world. The whole point of the movie, the freedom of the press, the support the press had from, seemingly, the world at large no longer felt like it spoke to the world I now know. I still feel that way, and it hurts every time, because so much of the rest of the film is wonderful.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep aren't just great in the "oh they're phoning it in" kind of way that they COULD so easily do, but they are genuinely invested in this story. The supporting cast is great and the script feels like a great 70s-throwback in the way that best serves the film. The direction is hands-down, Spielberg's best since Munich, in my opinion. It is fast-paced and sweeping all at once in a way that brings to mind David Fincher more than most recent Spielberg. It all works, except for the part where the film is telling me that this is an important story. And it's not because I disagree. I agree whole-heartedly that this is important. But what makes me sad is that, for the first time in a long time, I feel like Spielberg completely over-estimates the audience's belief in goodness and optimism. The thing that feels the most of out of place is that so many people would be moved by a news story that it would change the landscape of politics. Maybe I need to go re-watch E.T. to believe in the best of humanity again. None of my over-analyzed feelings stop this from being a film in which everyone involved is operating at the top of their game, nor does it stop it from being one of the best of the year.
10. Baby Driver
From the opening chords and shot of this film (for as you'll come to discover as you're watching, the two are indistinguishable here), the energy of this movie is palpable. And it doesn't let up. The title says it all. It's the story of Baby, and he's a Driver. But like all good stories about getaway drivers, he's on his last one, and then he's out. But is anyone ever really out of the heist game?
Not many people have given this film its due recognition as a musical, at least not in the way that people fell over backwards for La La Land THE MUSICAL, but a musical it is nonetheless. A film that is as reliant on the songs to tell the to story, in some scenes even choreograph the story, as it is reliant on the story to use the music, Baby Driver's rhythmic pulse sets it apart from the other films released this year. And in many ways it's Wright's most cohesive film to date. Usually delving into subverting genres with a dry wit, this film is less about genre and more about story and character melding into the perfect mix. A story that neither wastes its surprises nor telegraphs them, every beat of this one holds up on multiple viewings. Just practically perfect in every way.