Before we dive into my Top 15 Films of 2017, I want to say that the Greatest Achievement in Moving Pictures in 2017 was David Lynch's return to Twin Peaks. But, since there's disagreement on whether or not it qualifies as a movie, I've chosen to include a screen cap of posts by Lucky McKee and Peter Avellino on this subject and leave it at that.
A few more odds and ends: I've seen all nine of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Picture and have commented on each of them in one way or another throughout this post. I haven't seen The Florida Project yet. It opens in Korea on March 7th, and I'm holding out for the theatrical experience.
1. Brawl in Cell Block 99: I haven't loved a Vince Vaughn performance in as long as I can remember, which is another way of saying I can't remember the last time I wasn't completely annoyed by him. But the sheer intensity of his star presence in Brawl in Cell Block 99 will blow your head off. (Or pound your face in. Or rip your guts out. They're all appropriate when talking about this most violent movie.) Writer-director S. Craig Zahler is one of the most exciting genre filmmakers working today. After successfully staging a cannibal holocaust in the Old West with his debut feature, Bone Tomahawk, Zahler switches to Chuck Bronson in prison territory, and it's just about the craziest, twistiest, and most exhilarating thing you ever did see.
2. Phantom Thread: There are no frogs raining from the sky, but this is still one of PT Anderson's strangest works. It has three of his most eccentric characters, didn't-see-that-coming plot turns, and an offbeat romance. That's to be expected from the guy who matched Adam Sandler with Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love (and John C. Reilly with Melora Walters in Magnolia, for that matter), but, believe me, you've never met a pair quite like these two. The movie's immaculate surface details can hide the characters' messy emotions for only so long, and it's a thrill to watch them come bubbling up.
3. Call Me by Your Name: This is a Luca Guadagnino film, and so of course from the opening credits onward every aesthetic decision is spot-on (perfect font for the credits; "Hallelujah Junction" by John Adams, hinting that Elio is a musical prodigy; statues of godlike male beauty, anticipating the appearance of Armie Hammer). I'd bet Guadagnino's last three films (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and now CMBYN) have been a boon to the European tourism industry. The director's latest, set in sun-dappled northern Italy in 1983, is his ultimate achievement in travelogue porn. All of that natural beauty gives the characters lots of space to fall in love, pluck peaches and get their hearts broken. A movie of blissful highs with a melancholy finish, CMBYN is the one Best Picture nominee of 2017 that's likely to be a cherished work of art for years to come.
4. Get Out: Not as scary as the Make-a-Wish sketch on Key & Peele, but really, what is? Jordan Peele's horror/comedy/documentary phenomenon exhibited storytelling economy, quickly getting us to the spooky Armitage house and then pretty much staying put. That's to be expected from Blumhouse Productions and a first-time feature director, but what's remarkable is Peele's confidence and poise. After Chris is hypnotized by the real Mrs. Armitage (almost everyone he meets is a two-faced monster), the following day is an astonishing exercise in escalating tension, peaking with that super creepy bingo game / slave auction. On second thought, I lied; Georgina's laughing/crying fit is way more unsettling than "Make-a-Wish". While the movie's highlights come too early and it's ultimately too easy for Chris to "get out", I wouldn't change the crowd-pleasing finale for anything. It reassures us that, in an age when the rise of Trump has Americans giving each other the side-eye, some people really are who they seem to be.
5. Logan: Finally, an X-Men movie worthy of the talents of Hugh Jackman. (It only took 17 years!) Deadpool may have dropped f-bombs and displayed graphic violence a year before Logan, but what's really new here is the artistic integrity of James Mangold's vision. He's conceived the adventures of Old Man Logan as a modern Western about an aging anti-hero, and the result is every bit as thrilling as his remake of 3:10 to Yuma. It's also surprisingly heavy and thought-provoking, as Logan and a certain telekinetic professor accept their mortality on the road to Eden.
6. The Lost City of Z: The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave, and now The Lost City of Z - props to producer Brad Pitt for helping another major movie director get a financially risky project off the ground. Like Terrence Malick and Steve McQueen, writer-director James Gray reaches for the stars. Does his reach exceed his grasp? It's an interesting question because it's the same one posed by The Lost City of Z. Did the British explorer Percy Fawcett find his fabled Lost City in the jungles of Bolivia? In this impossible dream of a movie, the journey is its own reward, especially with the likes of Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller along for the ride.
7. Blade of the Immortal: The latest samurai film from 13 Assassins director Takashi Miike opens with one guy taking on about 100 other guys. It's the sort of thing that, if you grew up watching Bruce Lee movies over and over like I did, can make you feel giddy. Giddiness isn't a feeling I'm accustomed to while watching Miike, whose movies tend to make audiences recoil in horror. But there's real heart in this one, a sort of supernatural spin on Seven Samurai crossed with Leon: The Professional.
8. Last Flag Flying: Richard Linklater's buddy movie / war drama received a fraction of the acclaim and attention that Boyhood got, but it's unmistakably the work of the same deeply humane artist. It's also another one of Linklater's great hang-out movies, capturing the camaraderie of old friends in scenes that are frequently funny and sometimes heartbreaking. The performances are across-the-board amazing, including the only performance by Bryan Cranston that I've loved since Breaking Bad.
10. After the Storm: Another powerful family drama by the Japanese humanist Hirokazu Koreeda, about a struggling writer and gambling addict who finds some hope for redemption while spending time with his elderly mother, his ex-wife and young son during a typhoon. Koreeda was my big discovery of 2017. This year I also watched Nobody Knows and Still Walking for the first time, and they're both all-timers in my book.
12. Beatriz at Dinner / Brad's Status: Two squirm-inducing, class-conscious dramedies written by Mike White (and, in the case of Brad's Status, directed by White as well). A welcome showcase for Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner feels like a continuation of Enlightened, the writer's acclaimed HBO show. It pits a passionate, possibly unstable massage therapist against a nefarious CEO (John Lithgow), and makes us wonder if she's not above a bit of murderous score-settling. Brad's Status gives Ben Stiller the chance to play another damaged, neurotic soul. The movie is wiser about selfishness and privilege than Greenberg was, and it gives outstanding supporting roles to Michael Sheen and Luke Wilson as two friends who, from Brad's point of view, have outshined him.
13. War for the Planet of the Apes: If Rise of the Planet of the Apes was an end-of-the-world, deadly-virus thriller a la Outbreak, and Dawn was a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic action movie about two rival factions, then War is the Vietnam War movie of this series. It even has a Colonel Kurtz-type villain (brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson, who had quite a year; see also LBJ and his Oscar-nominated turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Like the Star Wars prequels, Apes stretched the main character's arc over three movies, but the effect was even more powerful in this series, one of the great blockbuster trilogies of the modern era.
14. Split: The one moment when I truly geeked out at the movies this year happened at the end of Split. As the camera panned between two mirror images of James McAvoy, a very familiar and haunting piece of music by James Newton Howard began to swell on the soundtrack, and it slowly dawned on me that M. Night Shyamlan had finally returned to the world of Unbreakable. The last time we saw David Dunn and Mr. Glass on screen was 17 years ago, and I'd bet many moviegoers enjoyed Split without prior knowledge of Unbreakable. It holds up spectacularly well on its own, particularly the suspenseful second half when we wonder exactly what the nature of "The Beast" is.
15. Gerald's Game: Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Ouija: Origin of Evil) is one of the most talented filmmakers working in the horror genre today. He's taken a seemingly unadaptable Stephen King book and made it into one of the most gripping King adaptations ever. And he's given Carla Gugino the role of her career as Jessie, who finds herself chained to a bed and stranded after her husband's clumsy attempt at some marriage-reviving S&M goes south. Bonus points for the ultra-cool solar eclipse sequence, which ties in neatly with Dolores Claiborne, another first-rate King movie.
A Ghost Story, American Made, Personal Shopper, Song to Song, Lady Bird, The Devil's Candy, The Shape of Water, Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, Colossal, Free Fire, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Okja, Brigsby Bear, Dunkirk, It, Mudbound, Happy Death Day, The Post, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
David Cronenberg's Crash won the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival for what the jury called its "audacity, daring, and originality." I'd give the same prize this year to Darren Aronofsky's horrific, you've-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it mother! It often feels like an elaborate prank, and it should probably come with a trigger warning for people prone to depression, but that doesn't mean I'm not in awe of it. Aronofsky and his lead actress, a never-better Jennifer Lawrence, are so successful at making us sympathize with the heroine's predicament that when everything that could possibly go wrong does (in weirdly abridged sequences of events), we feel like our world is coming to an end, too. I wouldn't say it's fun to watch exactly, though Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, as the uninvited couple from hell, are an absolute riot.
Niftiest companion pieces:
Darkest Hour and Dunkirk
Kedi, Strong Island, I Am Not Your Negro
Baby Driver, The Greatest Showman
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Brigsby Bear and Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Carla Gugino, Gerald's Game
Geena Davis, Marjorie Prime
Best Original Screenplay:
S. Craig Zahler, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Mike Flanagan, Gerald's Game