Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ed's Top 25 Films of 2017

mother!, a film which will definitely not be appearing on this list
Now that 2017 is over and done with, it's time to take stock, and figure out what kind of year it has been. As is often the case, I thought it was a pretty great year for cinema, and I found something to love in lots of films I saw this year, from huge blockbusters that found time to ruminate on the nature of mythmaking, to heartfelt coming of age stories that also managed to be utterly horrifying. It was a good year, and while there are still some blindspots here and there - for example: I have yet to see Call Me By Your Name, which definitely seems like a movie I would like - I'm very happy with this list of the 25 films that stuck with me over the last year.

25. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (dir. Joseph Cedar)

One of the more pleasant surprises of 2017. An oddly charming comedy of manners with the clockwork plotting of a thriller, which takes Richard Gere's mostly harmless grifter from harassing Dan Stevens on his morning jogs to the centre of an international conspiracy. Lior Ashkenazi is absolutely wonderful as an Israeli politician who Norman befriends at a low-ebb, and who then offers him a level of access and importance that he had previously only dreamed about.

24. Logan (dir. James Mangold)

A poignant and wrenching film about decay and death which also happens to feature roughly eleven million people having adamantium claws rammed through their faces. Mangold finally gives us a good X-Men movie for the first time since 2003, largely by ignoring the leaden continuity and most of the rules of superhero cinema that have grown up in the intervening years, while Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart get to say heartfelt goodbyes* to characters they've been playing for the better part of two decades.

23. Marjorie Prime (dir. Michael Almereyda)

A lo-fi sci-fi film which uses a quartet of fantastic performances to sell its central conceit; a near-future in which sophisticated AIs can be used to replicate the dead, but only through interaction with the living who are meant to help fill in the details of their lives and their behaviours. Lois Smith deservedly gets the most attention as Marjorie, the older woman who interacts with the recreation of her dead husband (Jon Hamm), but Geena Davis is also brilliant and heartbreaking as her daughter, whose uneasiness with the technology takes on an increasingly tragic resonance. The particular structure of the film, which makes a different character the lead in each act, means that everyone gets a chance to shine, and results in a final scene which is among the most haunting and strange things I've ever seen in a movie.

22. My Life as a Zucchini (dir. Claude Barras)

Deeply sad and incredibly moving stop-motion animation about children in a foster home. It treats the childrens' stories of abandonment, abuse and trauma seriously, but finds humour and warmth in their time together without ever becoming trite.

21. Landline (dir. Gillian Robespierre)

A much less focused film (or perhaps "less easily defined by a single plot point") than Obvious Child, but it may be better for it. A warm, enveloping and digressive comedy that explores the lives of its characters with wit and heart, and ends almost every scene on a great joke. Jenny Slate remains a punchy miracle of a human being.

20. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)

A bitingly funny, exquisitely sad film about creativity and loneliness. Davies' take on the life of Emily Dickinson sidesteps pretty much every pitfall of the biopic; it avoids easy efforts to psychoanalyse its subject in favour of letting Cynthia Nixon luxuriate in Dickinson's love for biting bon mots and slowly shrinking the scope and scale of her life until it is confined to a single room. A remarkable study of a remarkable woman.

19. Step (dir. Amanda Lipitz)

Filmed at a Baltimore high school against the backdrop of the Freddie Gray murder and its aftermath,  Step is a documentary which is finely attuned to the cultural moment, and displays a keen understanding of how the personal and political are so inextricably intertwined. It follows a year in the life of a step team at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, showing how the creation and performance of their routines offers focus and escape for young black women who are all too aware of how limited their options are, and the fragility of their lives in a society where "it could have been me". An ultimately uplifting film, but one which treats the inner lives of its subjects with tremendous weight and respect.

18. Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes)

I've read and heard a lot of withering criticism about Wonderstruck and I get it. Its bifurcated structure, with one storyline taking place in the 1920s and shot as a silent film, and the other taking place in the 1970s, is very bloody precious, as is the way Haynes runs the two strands in parallel and eventually brings them together. But, reader, I don't care about all that, because I cried pretty solidly for the last thirty minutes.

17. Lucky (dir. John Carroll Lynch)

A brilliant showcase for the late Harry Dean Stanton who takes to the character of Lucky, a brittle atheist forced to confront his own mortality, with customary gusto. It's a rambling film of funny, philosophical digressions which derives its greatest pleasures from seeing Stanton and longtime friend/collaborator David Lynch sitting at a bar, talking about a tortoise who wants to be free.

16. Columbus (dir. Kogonada)

Set in the city of Columbus, Indiana, which boasts a surprisingly large number of buildings in the Modern architectural style, Kogonada's film is one of the most visually striking releases of the year. Nearly every shot makes use of the startling and unique setting for maximum aesthetic and dramatic impact, at times seeming to strand John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in an empty world in which they have no choice but to help each other cope with the problems caused, in one way or another, by their respective parents.

15. Faces Places (dirs. Agnès Varda and J.R.)

Agnès Varda has been one of the brightest lights of cinema for six decades now, and it's so wonderful getting to see her on such playful form as she approaches 90. A travelogue of sorts, Faces Places follows Varda as she travels around France in a van with the artist J.R., a kindred spirit despite being fifty-something years her junior. When they arrive in an interesting location, they set up a photo booth, take pictures of people, talk to them about their lives, then blow the pictures up to a massive scale and place them on nearby buildings. Their encounters with ordinary people (who are often more extraordinary than on first blush), and their often funny but occasional tense interactions with each other, make Varda and J.R.'s film one of the most sweetly and quietly moving documentaries of the year.

14. Logan Lucky (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh ended his retirement - which only lasted four years and saw him work on films and TV shows nearly constantly - with a bang. Joe Bang, that is. While Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough all give winning performances as the scheming Logan siblings, it was Daniel Craig's volatile explosive expert who ran away with this sprightly Southern heist movie. No one has ever eked so much joy out of the word "incarcerated".

13. The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Like his other recent "Soul of America" movies Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, Spielberg tackles a weighty historical subjects with tremendous deftness, turning the story of The Washington Post's friendly rivalry with The New York Times over who would be the first to publish The Pentagon Papers into a faintly giddy affair about professionals doing what they're best at, both because they believe in a Higher Truth and because they really, really enjoy the chase. That extends to the actors, too, with Tom Hanks relishing the chance to chew scenery as swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee, Meryl Streep offering one of her lighter performances as The Post's publisher Katherine Graham, while a litany of great character actors (including, but not limited to, Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford and Tracy Letts) all get a scene or two to shine.

Spielberg does lay it on a little thick at times, even to the point of undercutting the points he is trying to make.  The chief example being when Graham walks out of the Supreme Court past a crowd of awestruck women, which overstates a point he makes with an earlier, subtler scene in which she passes through an exclusively female crowd in order to enter the (formerly) male-only world of the New York Stock Exchange. However, it's hard to begrudge him such emphatic moments when the movie surrounding them is so much fun.

12. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)

The Force Awakens was a really fun movie, but it wasn't particularly demanding. It presented all the stuff that people like about Star Wars in an exciting and efficient way, but it didn't ask much of the audience. Rian Johnson's addition to the series is demanding. It doesn't just reuse the symbols that George Lucas created, but questions them. Is the battle between the New Order and the Resistance - and, by extension, the old conflict between the Empire and the Rebels - a Manichean conflict between good and evil, or are there people in the middle who don't much care either way? If that's the case, what is ultimately worth fighting for? Were the Jedi a force for good, or were they a bunch of musty zealots who let the Universe go to hell because their belief in what was proper got in the way of doing what was right? That Johnson delivers a hugely fun Star Wars movie - complete with thrilling space battles, new aliens, and probably the best lightsaber fight of the whole series - while constantly arguing that Star Wars needs to end, or at the very least needs to die and be reborn as something new, makes his interrogation of its myths all the more impressive.

11. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)

It's a tremendous shame that Netflix's most significant release to date has been all but forgotten in the awards season crush, especially since far more people have willingly subjected themselves to Bright instead. (I at least have watched both, so I'm only halfway awful.) Dee Rees' film is a haunting story of two families - one black, one white - living and working next to each other in Mississippi after World War II, and coming to terms with (or, in most cases, fighting against) the shifts that conflict caused when black soldiers who fought overseas and experienced a taste of life without Jim Crow returned to a system of brutal segregation. One of the few modern movies with a two hour plus running time which felt like it deserved to be longer.

10. Good Time (dirs. Benny and Josh Safdie)

Much like his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson has spent most of the time since that series ended reinventing himself as a compelling character actor, letting the wild energy that he hid for his most famous role burst forth for directors like David Cronenberg and David Michôd. The Safdie brothers get his best performance yet in this brilliant, darkly funny movie about a bank robbery gone awry. As Pattinson tears around New York trying to scrape together enough money to bail out his brother (Benny Safdie, on heartbreaking form), he lets us see every ounce of his character's intelligence as he runs through every possible scheme, while also letting us know that he's not so smart that he can avoid the consequences of his actions. Rarely has a journey into darkness been this fun or unnerving.

9. Strong Island (dir. Yance Ford)

In a year of tough, uncompromising documentaries, Strong Island is easily one of the rawest and most vividly realised. Yance Ford explores the decades-old murder of his brother William, showing how the system failed to convict his killer despite overwhelming evidence, and how the pain of William's death continues to ripple out many years later. A powerful, personal and provocative work.

8. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)

I was not expecting this movie to be as unnerving and suspenseful as it is, mainly because I had purposefully avoided finding out too much about it. So much so that when people referred to it as a ghost story, I assumed they were being metaphorical, and not that there were actual apparitions in it. It's a film about haunting and being haunted, which manages to present great seriousness and silliness simultaneously, acknowledging the campy qualities of the supernatural while using them to explore grief and its ramifications in ways which I found shattering. Kristen Stewart's best performance in a run of really great work.

7. City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heineman)

A brutal movie whose flashes of hope and warmth only make its horrors more terrible (though the reverse is also true). Heineman's documentary follows the efforts of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a group of activists and citizen journalists who reported on the violence and oppression of ISIS when they captured Raqqa in 2014, as they risk their lives to tell the world about what was happening to their people. Beyond the undeniable heroism of the journalists themselves, the film shows the stress and strain of living life under constant threat of discovery, and the terrible toll that was exacted on them and their families as they were eventually forced to flee their homeland. A vital, overwhelming work.

6. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

I'm not sure if this is Guillermo del Toro's best film, though it certainly ranks pretty high for me, but it's probably the film which best embodies his sensibilities. At once gorgeously romantic and awash in fluids both bodily and otherwise, The Shape of Water reimagines the iconography of classic movie monsters like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and turns it into an achingly sweet story of outcasts finding love and escape through each other. Sally Hawkins is always great, but here she is especially great as a mute woman who discovers something wondrous and strange while working as a cleaner in a government testing facility at the height of the Cold War.

5. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)

Hella tight. Greta Gerwig gives us a great coming of age story, complete with a complicated, authentic mother-daughter relationship between Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and some of the funniest moments of the year (my personal highlight being the P.E. teacher having to take over the drama club at short notice). It's a richly detailed comedy that knows that specifics help make stories universal. Evoking Joan Didion in the opening of your film about Sacramento sets a high bar, but I think Lady Bird rose to meet it.

4. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)

Funny, horrifying, disgusting and insightful. An ingenious mix of body horror and coming of age story that is as invested in the sexual awakening of its central character and her fractious relationship with her older sister as it is in her gradually emerging cannibalism. Bonus points for using "Giddy Stratospheres" by The Long Blondes in one scene.

3. God's Own Country (dir. Francis Lee)

A bleak yet tender romance whose emotional brutality perfectly suits the Yorkshire Moors of its setting; it's at once lush and unforgiving. Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu are both fantastic physical performers, and are completely believable as men who spend all their time engaging in the back-breaking labour of running a farm, and as lovers who slowly, tentatively develop an emotional intimacy to match their physical one.

2. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)

Probably the most entertaining and disquieting film I've seen in years. Visually and tonally, Peele recalls everything from The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby to Under the Skin, but the humour and perspective are uniquely his own. It also features at least half a dozen of the best performances I saw in any film this year, but the MVPs are Marcus Henderson, Lakeith Stanfield and Betty Gabriel, who all give layered performances which only become more nuanced and horrifying the more times you rewatch the movie. And few films this year demanded to be rewatched more than Get Out.

1. Your Name. (dir. Makoto Shinkai)

This was a late, surprise winner, so much so that I only watched it a couple of weeks ago on a whim because people had said that it was pretty good, and I knew that it had been shockingly successful for an anime. Knowing so little about it going in was a blessing, since part of what's so brilliant about Makoto Shinkai's swooningly romantic film is how it manages a very tricky shift in tone. It starts out as a faintly goofy, likable body-swap comedy in which a teenage boy and girl keep switching lives, and find themselves having to stumble through unfamiliar locations with new friends and families, then having to navigate the aftermath of that when they switch back. Once the film starts to explore the nature of that swap in more detail, the movie becomes something very different, and by the end I was practically shouting at the screen, urging the characters to figure something out. The ability for a movie to take me from skeptical laughter to the verge of tears in a matter of hours is everything I love about cinema, and one of many reasons why this charming, exhilarating movie is my favourite of the year.