Been a while. I decided it'd be nice to get my feet wet on updating again with my Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2017. I'll note right here at the top that I specifically say "favorite" and not "best," because (A) I am WAY underqualified to assess objective artistic merit in film, and (B) you can argue with me about what movies are the best, you can't argue with me about which are my favorites. So disagree all you like! But these are the movies that, to one degree or another really moved me this year.
10 - STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
I'd pretty much given up on loving STAR WARS movies. When I did my 100 Favorite Films list a couple years ago, I was shocked to find how high STAR WARS was on my list. I always new I loved the movies, but in sitting down and assessing what movies and storytelling mean to me, it was surprising to see how high STAR WARS ranked. Particularly after the prequels were so off-putting. And then THE FORCE AWAKENS came out and I...just...couldn't care. I connected to none of the characters, I thought the set pieces were uninteresting, and I wasn't sure what it wanted to do other than be the original movies. The only thing I found interesting was Kylo Ren, a villain particularly compelling in his weakness.
So when this new movie came out I was still excited because it was still STAR WARS, and I'm a rather huge Rian Johnson fan, so I went in expecting to like it, but I didn't expect to love it. But I did. LOVED it. The characters I'd felt no connection with in THE FORCE AWAKENS suddenly clicked. The action was compelling. The choices characters made were surprising but also well-motivated and revealing. As opposed to when a major character died in TFA, the death in this film meant something, it hit me hard. I loved it.
I can carve out a couple pieces of logic that don't pan out, and I agree that the gambling planet diversion goes on too long/isn't as well orchestrated as it could be. But still. But still. It also helps that the movie is centered around a theme I find endlessly compelling: how to deal with the fallout of failure, and where and how to find the will and the direction to go on.
I loved a STAR WARS movie again. In a year of continuous tumultuous uncertainty and disappointment, that was a wonderful experience.
9 - THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
I don't know how deep I want to get into the new "controversy" around this movie, but given that in some circles it's at the point now where liking the film is tantamount to saying you endorse racism, let me say this: I don't think the movie forgives any of its characters, and all of them have a lot to atone for. It's a movie in which anger has corrupted nearly everyone, and anyone who has escaped that overwhelming anger is left grappling with hopelessness and desperation. McDormand and Rockwell's characters are both dangerous and wrongheaded, and even though both characters do certainly receive grace at certain points--which is a far, FAR different thing than forgiveness or acceptance--neither of them actually do much to accept said grace. That leads to an ending that, in typical McDonagh fashion, is kinda funny, but also existentially horrifying. SPOILER, but anyone who watches Mildred and Dixon drive off to possibly kill someone innocent of the one crime they know to connect him with and thinks "boy, this movie sure does approve of these characters and their thoughts and actions" might want to reconsider.
McDonagh takes a hard look at difficult people and eschews easy answers. What is to be done with someone like Mildred or Dixon? Certainly Dixon should lose his job, which he does. He should also be in jail, which he is not, but certainly seems headed in that direction one way or another. But even in jail, what does one do with a man like Dixon? Do we just write him off? Is he too far gone? If he IS too far gone, how did he get there? Is there anything to be done there? And what does it mean to be too far gone? The same goes for Mildred, who at multiple points almost literally burns down what remains of her life because she cannot move past the tragedy in her past. Should she, too, be written off entirely? Put out to some kind of angry person pasture?
The movie isn't without its flaws. For a movie that has racism as a major component of its story (and being set in rural Missouri), it's dreadfully short on black characters of any actual substance. And not every scene works (that scene with Mildred and the deer, which could have potentially worked as a quick, silent beat, becomes dreadfully ham-fisted with dialogue). But a movie about the difficulty of people overwhelmed with a blinding anger, particularly in 2017, shoudn't be quickly dismissed. I liked it a lot, and have kept thinking about it since I saw it.
8 - I, TONYA
Another difficult flick, another look at the anger and resentment run amok. Harding is a great anti-hero for our times, caught at the cultural crossroads of rising class resentment, the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle and celebrity/reality TV movement, and the focus on "Family Values." Harding and those in her orbit are all stuck in a gravity pull of lower class roots that they find it increasingly difficult to escape from, and it eventually leads them towards a path of doom and destruction.
Much like with certain political scandals, the question of Harding's guilt in the Kerrigan case is one of what did she know, and when did she know it. This movie is less concerned with Harding's guilt in the knee bashing than it is with her cultural guilt. Her guilt of being low class, crass, graceless, broken in home and in soul. Which certainly helps make Harding a compelling character, but does run the danger of letting the actual assault of another human being be a side story. Is the movie too kind to Harding? After years of mockery and humiliation, being barred from doing the one thing she'd spent her whole life working towards, if there is an overabundance of "kindness" here, what does that mean?
THREE BILLBOARDS makes us consider what could possibly be done about broken people like Mildred and Dixon. I, TONYA asks us not only what we could or should do about someone like Tonya Harding, but what role we ourselves have in creating someone like Tonya Harding. Having lived in a few places in my youth with some pretty extreme poverty, my class warrior instincts certainly got inflamed watching I, TONYA, but now living in fairly middle class comfort, if I'm going to say that Tonya Harding was a monster, she was a monster created trying to contort herself to fit the approval of someone like me. Both sides of that conundrum gave me pause while watching the movie, and I loved that it hit me from all those angles while still being a really engaging, exciting film to watch. I thought it was a real achievement, and I tip my hat to those involved.
7 - THE FLORIDA PROJECT
In the midst of a movie year filled with anger and despair, we got this little miracle of a movie. All things considered, the characters in this film have it worse than pretty much any of the others on this list, socioeconomic-wise, and yet this movie was so full of life and joy and wonder. It helps that the movie is anchored on that amazing performance from Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, a character whose infectious energy continuously caught me off-guard throughout the whole film. We're so trained to find the hopelessness and sadness in a story like this (or perhaps even worse, thoughtless schmaltz), that Moonee's sense of adventure and openness felt like a small, silly, human revolution on screen.
Willem Dafoe is getting all the attention for this movie, and while he is undeniably amazing, Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite are both so staggeringly good, so dynamic but also natural and believable, it's practically a crime people aren't throwing awards at them. And while movies this year had showier direction and editing, Sean Baker's ability to craft such an organic story that sneaks up on you quietly as the movie progresses is honestly stunning. He makes it look easy, as though these characters and this world and this story were just lying there waiting for someone to point a camera at them. The way he builds tension, keeping the many dangers of the world, the ever-present invitation to tragedy, consistently just on the outside of the story until it cannot help but break through, is masterful. There's such an elegant arc to Halley's ability to turn enemies and rivals into friends and accomplices until, suddenly and violently, she cannot, was one of the best pieces of dramatic construction I saw this year.
6 - LADYBIRD
It's difficult to talk about LADYBIRD because, as Rotten Tomatoes will apparently tell you, it's basically a perfect movie. What do you say about a movie that pretty consistently and pointedly just simply Gets It Right? Much like THE FLORIDA PROJECT it's an achingly humanistic look at a young woman whose perception of the world begins to grow faster than she's prepared for.
What's so beautiful about the movie is how perfectly it captures that horrible growing pain that bridges the gap from adolescence to adulthood: the realization that all of your pain and angst that feels so personal, that is so very much yours, is actually shared by everyone, always, everywhere. Those people you dismiss, or make fun of, or envy? They're all hurting and yearning and lonely and confused and frustrated, just like you are.
Pound for pound, I don't know that I've ever loved an entire cast of characters in a movie more than this one. I could go on and on about each individual performance of every supporting character. They were all glorious. I wanted to hug all of them. What a beautiful movie.
5 - MY COUSIN RACHEL
A common theme in a lot of movies this year was men's inability to see women wholly as people. No need to go into a lot of fairly self-evident mirroring of current events, I think. But one such movie that I feel was grossly underappreciated was MY COUSIN RACHEL. Adapted from a Daphne Du Maurier novel, the movie follows a young man's relationship with his late cousin's wife. At first suspicious of her, once she comes to live with him he finds himself enthralled. The cousin goes from feared and hated to the object of desire. For a brief moment all is bliss, until, slowly, the old suspicions begin to resurface. Who is this woman, really? What does she want? What sort of game is she playing?
There's so much to dig into with this movie, but to reveal too much would be to tip the movie's hand, and it's a pretty damn good hand, played extremely well. The performances are all spectacular, the movie's locations and design are brilliantly considered, and its tone and telling are perfectly balanced. After the movie my wife and I had a long conversation about how the movie reflects and comments upon the way men see women. We both had different takes on what certain aspects of the film meant, but it's the kind of movie that really courts that kind of discussion, and only grows all the more meaningful and interesting because of it.
4 - THE PHANTOM THREAD
I'm beginning to feel like Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten to that point where we just sort of expect him to make something brilliant, and so we're not all that impressed when he comes out with yet another masterpiece. This movie absolutely blew me away, and I'm shocked people aren't talking about it more. It's human, funny, compelling, and surprising. To me, Anderson has reached the point of artistry where he's almost a magician. I don't know how he makes this movie work. Most of the characters are unpleasant, it takes place in a world I have very little interest in, and its emotions are frequently reserved until they, on very rare occasions, burst forth in largely uncomfortable ways. And yet, I loved every minute. I smiled the whole time. I was swept up in it, and I don't even know how it happened.
This and the following movie make up a pretty intense double header of films about egomaniacal male artists and how the women in their lives deal with them. The strange sort of twist this movie comes to in the resolution of this relationship is something so strangely beautiful, something I found so oddly touching, I consider it a marvel.
Also, "The tea is leaving, but the interruption is staying right here with me" is a perfect moment that had me laughing out loud while also cringing inside at totally recognizing that horrible impulse. Which leads me to my next movie...
3 - ...mother!
On the way to seeing this movie my wife and I were having a slightly heated discussion about making plans. I'm very much an extrovert who loves having big parties with lots of friends coming over to the house and hanging out. My wife is an introvert, and while she loves seeing our friends, these kind of gatherings take a lot out of her. I am also a person with Artistic Aspirations, which, as anyone who has ever had to deal with another person with Artistic Aspirations knows, can be an extremely exhausting endeavor. I want to DO THINGS, I am hungry for ACCOMPLISHMENTS. My wife, if she had her druthers, would spend her days on the couch cuddling with cats, watching British mystery TV shows, and working on personal projects either artistic or design related.
So we put our discussion on pause and ducked into the theater to catch ...mother! When we left, it felt like we'd both gone through some sort of intense counseling session. We went back into our discussion about the party much more even-tempered and found some good, solid compromises. The movie was a vision of what could be, a nightmare vision of a worst possible outcome for two people of our temperaments. It tore into both of us and made us look at each other and ourselves, and reach out to each other. It was, honestly, a powerful experience.
I know the movie is outrageously over the top, I know its allegories are what some might call ham-fisted, but Heaven help me it was exactly how that silly little argument we were having before the movie felt, and that's what I really crave out of cinema. One of my favorite movies of all time is Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION. It's a movie about the crumbling of a relationship, but it has absolutely no claim to any sort of realism. Far from it, the movie looks to externalize how a serious breakup feels, with car crashes, murders, violent fits in subway tunnels, and a grotesque squid monster. I'd much rather watch that movie than a movie that just looks at a breakup in starkly realistic tones. ...mother! felt more like those arguments, to me, than, say, the much more realistic scene of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sitting around the dinner table in LA LA LAND. ...mother! was a straight up gut punch that really affected both Emily and I, and we talked about the movie for days afterwords.
It was also fairly fearless filmmaking. Once that movie lets itself off the leash and really goes for it, I was on the edge of my seat. It was audacious, surprising, difficult, and personal.
2 - RAW
In a year where people talked a lot about women in film and one of the most discussed movies of the year was a socially conscious horror movie, I felt like RAW got a bit of a...well, a raw deal, if you'll pardon the pun.
It's the story of a young vegeterian woman names Justine (in an incredible performance by Garance Marillier) who is going to veterinary school. On the first day of class she takes part in a hazing ritual that involves eating raw meat. That little taste of flesh sets off certain cravings in Justine that lead her down a path full of shocks and surprises that it would be an absolute sin to spoil.
The movie is one of the most gut-turning horror flicks I've seen in a long time, something the French seemed to have taken great pride in recently. But there's also a strange heart beating inside it, and there are a lot of things on its mind. It's a movie that hits on nearly every level, and its scenes of bravura horror and, sometimes at the same time, comedy, are pretty astounding. The audience I saw it with was gasping and cringing the whole time, it was a great communal horror movie experience, one that's stayed with me ever since.
There's maybe a longer blog post to write someday about how the future of horror lies with women and minorities, as they're the ones closest to actual horror in real life. I don't think it's mere happenstance that while most white guy horror movies have become rote scare machines, the horror of women and minorities out on the fringe are where people are finding deep, meaningful, lasting horror film experiences these days.
Julia Ducournau, the writer/director of RAW, is now at the top of my list to watch. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
1 - PERSONAL SHOPPER
One of the reasons I feel like this year was such a strong one for film is that so many of the movies I saw have stuck with me long after I saw them, but none moreso than PERSONAL SHOPPER. It's a movie that's incredibly self-assured, but oddly hard to define. Part thriller, part ghost story, part rumination on moving forward after the death of a loved one, part examination of contemporary distance and dehumanization through technology, there's a lot going on but still feels completely whole.
While the movie has a number of tricks up its sleeve, its greatest asset is Kristen Stewart, whose performance should have been showered with accolades and yet the movie seems to have quietly disappeared. There's an incredibly tense section in the middle of the film that's entirely focused around one side of a text conversation. It's a feat of editing and directing to make something that would seem incredibly static and dull on the page incredibly tense and emotional, but it couldn't have been done without Stewart's naturalistic performance that captures a quiet unraveling of safety and explosion of personal fear and doubt in the midst of a very public place. It's a hell of a performance, and one it's hard to imagine another actress being able to pull of nearly as well. Assayas seems to have found the perfect matching of subject and star, and Stewart absolutely kills in her role here.
The heart of the film, I think, is what we truly want out of our relationships with others. Stewart's character Maureen puts her entire life on hold to try and make contact, even for a moment, with her deceased twin brother, but what happens if she actually gets that chance? What does she want to say to him, what does she want him to say to her? The movie never makes it seem like Maureen is all that invested in the afterlife, she doesn't want to hear from her brother whether or not there's something on the other side. So what does she want? What actually goes missing when someone we love dies, and what does it mean to try and replace it? But even beyond death, how do we connect with those who are still with us? The central texting scene, Maureen's Skype sessions with her boyfriend, her boss who manages to be overbearing while also never actually being around all that much, there's a constant distance Maureen is grappling with throughout the film, sometimes trying to bridge it, sometimes trying to hold it steady. It's maybe the first movie I've seen to really address this modern problem in a way that didn't feel pat or reductive. It felt extremely personal.
Which all leads up to its absolutely pitch perfect ending, a quietly earth-shaking encounter that left me absolutely floored when I saw it and has played in my head over and over again ever since. In a movie that has this many moving parts and interweaving themes, sticking the landing can be incredibly difficult, and boy did they. One of my favorite film endings in a long time.
For a year that felt as fascinating and dynamic as 2017, a mere favorite 10 movies seems paltry. There's so much more I want to talk about, so if there's something from 2017 that particularly stands out to you, toss it in the comments and let's keep the conversation going.
HUZZAH FOR MOVIES!