Sunday, January 28, 2018

2018 is Open for business

As I pick and choose my movies very carefully in the leadup to the 5,000-movie milestone, one thing I didn't expect to be doing was starting my 2018 list.

Not this way, anyway.

After last night's viewing, I am currently at 4,997 total movies. That means that if I choose one particular movie I've got in mind for my 5,000th, which necessitates watching two others first, I can watch no new movies other than those. And I'm still trying to fit two Audient Auteurs movies into January, though I'm rapidly realizing I may need to push the start of that series to February.

Of course, I can watch as many movies I've already seen as I want, and that was to be my plan last night. It being a three-day holiday weekend (Australia Day was on Friday), I was circling around a genre movie, and had two well-regarded movies from the last few years that I've seen only once -- Mad Max: Fury Road and Arrival -- in my sights. I've borrowed both from the library.

My wife had different sights. She told me she'd started a horror movie on Netflix the other night while sitting out in our garage, and in part due to the setting, isolated from our house, she got wigged out enough that she had to stop after 30 minutes. It looked promising so she sold me on continuing it with her. (I think we're both chasing the high of The Blackcoat's Daughter, which I showed her a few weeks back on my second viewing and which she loved.)

I guessed The Open House would likely be some 2017 Netflix release that I'd ideally try to avoid simply because I try to take a break from movies from the previous year right after I've finished my list. But nope, when I pulled it up on Netflix, planning to start it on my own before my wife joined me for the part she hadn't seen, I saw the 2018 release date.

So here I am, already off and running on a new list. No time like the present.

I had been thinking of getting the new list started as early as tonight anyway. A friend of mine and I are trying to go see Sweet Country, an Australian movie that's hitting theaters here now at the same time that it's playing Sundance in the U.S. The Sundance gig means it's likely to get a U.S. theatrical release, or at least that that's possible. So it exceeds one minimum threshold for inclusion on my 2018 year-end list (an Australian theatrical release) and might hit a much more satisfying one (a U.S. theatrical release, meaning other critics with whom I compare my lists will also be ranking it).

But Sweet Country ran into a bunch of logistical hurdles, as I first realized that we're planning to watch the final night of the Australian Open tonight (we've been watching some every night this week), and that tomorrow night I also have a commitment. My friend is busy the next three nights, and it turns out the following Sunday, when we thought we might to do it as a second backup plan, he's also tied up. So instead of being my first movie of 2018, Sweet Country could end up being my 60th or 70th -- or maybe I won't catch it at all. Sometimes that's how these things work.

As for my actual first movie of 2018 ... well, if it weren't the first, it would be even more forgettable. A true horror non-starter filled with red herrings, but not the good kind of red herrings that feel like they exist for a purpose. These are the type of red herrings that result from forgetting that there's a part of the script you wrote and never paid off. It's that kind of movie throughout.

I do have one observation about it worth sharing, though. The Open House stars -- or, I thought it starred -- Logan Lerman, playing a character named Logan. Which I thought was sort of funny.

Of course, when the credits rolled, I realized once again that it's not Logan Lerman, but Dylan Minnette, who is mistaken enough for Lerman that someone already got this side-by-side image (and about a dozen others) posted on the internet:

I'm not sure it's so much that they look exactly alike, but rather, that they are about the same age, appear in similar films, and have a similar function in those films.

Actually, Lerman has been around a lot longer and is five years older than Minnette, which is a significant age difference when the ages you're talking about are 21 and 26. I suppose it's obvious that Lerman has been around longer, otherwise I'd mistake Lerman for Minnette rather than Minnette for Lerman. Don't Breathe was the first time I mistook Minnette for Lerman, with last night being the second (though probably not the last). Hey, they were trying to get me to confuse them by calling the character Logan -- an inside joke if ever there was one. (Either that, or trying to subliminally capitalize on one of the most popular names at the movies in 2017. I wouldn't put subliminally capitalizing on something past Netflix with all its algorithms, especially not riding the coattails of Wolverine.)

And now that I'm poring around Wikipedia for some of these details, I'm questioning the status of The Open House as my first movie of 2018. In my ongoing struggle with how to incorporate Netflix into these year-end lists, even a nascent one like this one, I've said I try to see only the movies that I thought would definitely get a theatrical release in another era. Well, despite featuring Minnette, whose career is steadily gaining heat (he's also in the show 13 Reasons Why), the table on his Wikipedia page devoted to his career includes the following descriptor in the notes section for The Open House: "Direct-to-video film."


I suppose that's how we technically classify Netflix movies that were not given a theatrical release, which is most of them, but still -- do you have to remind me of it?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Which backs get lashed

Having kept my love for A Ghost Story entirely out of print -- though if you had listened to this podcast, you would have heard me rave about it -- I was somewhat taken aback when the first comment to greet my year-end list on Facebook was the following:

"Casey Affleck should BE a ghost. Fade into nothing. Scare people when he pops up so they run away."

As this comment came within five minutes of posting, when I was still in that delirious high of publishing the end result of "my year's work," I immediately felt a pit in my stomach.

Was I wrong to look past the involvement of Casey Affleck in this movie in giving it my highest honor for the year?

I knew this person was not trying to be funny, either, despite her at least somewhat playful use of the extended ghost metaphor. This is a woman I have consistently seen post about #MeToo, who does not consider this a laughing matter. (I mean, I'd hope no one would consider it a laughing matter, but this woman most certainly does not.)

So I had a momentary crisis about whether I had failed in my responsibility to an important social cause in completely disregarding Affleck's participation in the movie as a relevant factor in assessing it. Should I so actively promote something that has a genuine creep on screen for much of its running time, even if he is behind a sheet for most of it?

I've written a number of times in the past about my general philosophy -- I'm sure there are exceptions -- of separating the art from the artist. I mean, I've seen Woody Allen's films every year for five years running now, which is almost certainly my longest such streak in the man's entire career. I believe if a movie has something useful to add to the conversation, or may be doing something interesting, I should see it and grapple with it, even if the person who made it is not a very good person. There are a lot of not very good people making movies.

But I must admit I did not even have this internal debate when it came to Affleck and A Ghost Story. I know Affleck was guilty of some shady things, some awful things, on the set of I'm Still Here. Women are right to be skeeved out by him, and men should be sure he does not go near their daughters. Still, and maybe this is just because I did not pore over the details of the accusations against him, I didn't realize he was quite as worthy of being loathed as the level he is loathed. Especially as more and more names have come out of more and more people doing terrible things -- in many cases, worse things -- the accusations against Affleck have further receded in terms of how shocked I feel I should be by them.

And yet this woman came forward with an implicit scolding of me for supporting an Affleck project, reminding me just how angry people are at Affleck -- at how they have pulled him out of what has increasingly become an indistinguishable noise about sexual harassment, and targeted him specifically for their hatred and scorn.

I guess part of the disconnect for me is that he just won an Oscar last year, and I kind of feel like people already knew these things about him when Manchester by the Sea came out, though perhaps I am off on my chronology there. I feel like last year would have been the time to punish him, yet "we" did not. "We" awarded him with the year's highest acting honor, because he was just so damn good. (A textbook example of separating the art and the artist.)

In fact, I find myself wondering if Affleck will be allowed to hand out the best actress Oscar this year. I'm kind of suspecting no. Though maybe it would actually be a better punishment for him to throw him out there and see what kind of reception he gets than to keep him out of the show entirely.

So it seems especially strange to me that A Ghost Story should now be bearing the brunt of a delayed disgust with Affleck. Is it because people felt like they could dismiss A Ghost Story as a twee exercise, not a serious film, whereas Manchester by the Sea was something they should more obviously reckon with?

But I also know that this is not an unreasonable viewpoint, or one held by only a few people. My wife has so far boycotted A Ghost Story because of Affleck's involvement (though I hold out hope that I'll eventually get to show it to her). Another person said to me, regarding Ghost Story, "I also struggled with Casey Affleck in it in a way I wouldn't have if I'd liked the movie."

So I guess Affleck can set you off on the wrong foot with the movie, or, if you aren't liking it, become "the lightning rod," to quote that friend again.

What I guess I wonder is why we're not hearing people go on rants about Baby Driver because Kevin Spacey was in it or rants about The Disaster Artist because James Franco was in it. Some of that may be out there, but I haven't seen it.

Granted, a lot of that has to do with the timing. Most people saw and formed their opinions of those movies before the person in question was revealed to be a creep, though I can't imagine people didn't have suspicions about Franco. Maybe the backlash for things can't come retroactively, any more than you can say "Ugh, you like American Beauty? How dare you, Kevin Spacey is in that." Though it does seem to be the case that the timing of the accusations against Franco played a role in why he was nominated for a Golden Globe but not an Oscar. (Not that nominations are actually done like this, but I like to imagine the Academy hastily switching in Denzel Washington, for his performance in a movie nobody saw and which is supposed to be bad, in place of Franco.)

Of course, I'm not the only one supporting A Ghost Story, so I have company in my failure to punish the movie for Affleck's transgressions. Two critics I like very much and listen to on podcasts regularly, Michael Phillips and Matt Singer, had it in their top three for the year, and in glancing at one of those websites that compiles best-of lists from around the world, I saw at least one other where it was at the tippy top, like it was for me. I suspect there are more.

Still, I can't imagine I can go into a new ranking year with the same blase attitude about whether the people I'm watching on screen are shitheads or not. #MeToo is too important to not pay it some heed. So maybe I'll just skip Woody Allen's movie this year. I'm sure I won't miss much.

More than anything, I hope this is no long-term blight on David Lowery's beautiful film, in which Rooney Mara is also a blameless participant deserving of much praise. A Ghost Story deserves to be a film for the ages, and I hope that the incidental toxicity Affleck brought to the project does not keep it from being one.

And I also hope one day I can show it to my wife.

Friday, January 26, 2018

2017 in portmanteaus

You asked for it (no you didn't), you got it (yes you did). It's the Bennifer or Brangelina of year-end movie parody posts! Forthwith, 2017 in portmanteaus:

SplIT - Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is Pennywise the Clown.

The Lost City of a Thousand Planets - In which the Bolivian jungle disguises even more advanced civilizations than we thought.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets of the Apes - Two adventurers encounter a conglomeration of space stations run entirely by, or perhaps overrun by, rhesus monkeys.

Emoji: The Musical - A bunch of emojis escape the phone in which they're trapped and start singing songs about being mopey and depressed.

Cocja - A bioengineered superpig crosses over and becomes a spirit animal in the land of the dead.

Thor: Ragnarokja - A bioengineered super pig gets stranded on a junk planet and does battle, gladiator-style, with Thor.

Fifty Shades Darkest Hour - Winston Churchill tries to decide whether he should negotiate with Hitler or engage in some kinky sex games.

A Ghost in the Shell Story - Scarlett Johansson is reborn as an assassin with a crazy disguise: a white sheet with two eye holes poked in the front.

The Space Between the Furious - A boy born on Mars passes his time drag racing over the red dunes ... because family comes first.

Transformer Wars: The Last Jedi Knight - And you thought Transformers appearing in the Middle Ages was weird.

Star Wars: The Last Kedi - The final cat in Instanbul sequesters himself on an island to live out his days drinking milk from the boobs of aliens.

Jim & Andy: The Great Wall - Jim Carrey, Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton team up to fight a horde of beasts trying to invade China.

Jumangeostorm - A bunch of kids get sucked into the Weather Channel to fight flash freezes in Afghanistan.

I Don't Feel at Home in This Corner of the World Anymore - An average woman gets fed up with the rudeness of society when an atomic bomb is dropped on her city.

It Comes at Rough Night - A family holed up in the post-apocalyptic woods finally learns what is tormenting them: the reanimated corpse of a male stripper.

The Dark Jeremiah Tower - A celebrity chef quits the business when the Man in Black rejects his fois gras.

Girls Trip to Spain - The Flossy Posse reunites in Spain to eat great food and do Michael Caine impersonations.

Logan Lucky - On his 90th birthday, Wolverine decides to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Boss Baby Driver - An infant synchronizes the timing of his bank jobs to songs by the Wiggles.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The sunken place of 2017

As a year in our culture, 2017 may not have been as bad as 2016, simply because there were no moments as gut-punchingly awful as Trump winning the presidency. However, there were a lot of close runners up (Las Vegas, Charlottesville, #MeToo), leading many of us to feel like we were in the sunken place in 2017, to go along with the year's most symbolic movie. And while as a white man, I certainly don't equate my struggles with those of African-Americans or women, as a Democratic, I did face down a silently moronic "majority" of fellow countrymen who at least had the decency to be 8,000 miles away from me.

It was a year when we tried to find sociopolitical relevance in nearly every movie we saw, some of which were clearly building on something real in the culture, and some of which just happened to come out this year. But times of great oppression by dictators yield great art, no matter where they fall on the chicken or egg spectrum, and there was surely some great art in 2017.

So today, the day after I posted my list of all 145 films I watched in 2017, I'll dive a bit more in depth into it, looking more closely at the things that elevated me from the sunken place ... and some things that kept me there.

To start us off: my completely idiosyncratic, not very zeitgeisty assessment of three people who did several useful things and three people who did several not-very-useful things in 2017, entirely ignoring all the people who did one very good thing or one very bad thing.

Three who had a good year

Gal Gadot - Normally, when you're in one of my favorite movies of the year (Wonder Woman, #2) and one of my least favorite movies of the year (Justice League, #136), that averages out to an average year at best. But Gal Gadot deserves this recognition on the basis of transforming from Nobody into Somebody. In the Fast and the Furious franchise, she was just a disposable pretty face, and I never had reason to believe that this model-cum-actress had anything more to offer than that. Boy was I wrong. Her turn as Diana Prince made her an instant icon, an instant role model for millions of little girls (and hopefully also for millions of little boys, and big girls, and big boys, like me). I now almost think of Gal Gadot as some kind of good will ambassador given to the world as a gift. Her performance in Wonder Woman filled me with inspiration and a kind of deep love that I hope I can separate from her obvious physical beauty, because it's so much more than that. Simply put, she rocks. And even though Zack Snyder didn't use her very well in Justice League, the fact that the movie does nothing to diminish her is proof of just what a wonder she truly is. As a cherry on top, Gadot took a stand in 2017's most important social movement, the #MeToo movement, vowing not to play Wonder Woman again if sleazeball Brett Ratner stands to profit from it in any way. It's what Diana Prince would do.

Tom Hiddleston - If you told Tom Hiddleston he would make the "three who had a good year" portion of the year-end wrap-up on The Audient, he'd say "What's The Audient?" Then if you explained that, he'd probably expect it to be in a year in which he played Hamlet and Oscar Wilde, not a mercenary tracking an oversized ape and the god of mischief. Yet it did indeed take Hiddelston abandoning some of his higher brow roles to really connect with me as he did in Kong: Skull Island (#6) and Thor: Ragnarok (#13). In fact, though I would hardly call Hiddleston limited in his range, 2017 has been a good way of demonstrating how much he really has. While Loki has kind of been in keeping with his more familiar brand of effete characters, he really whips out the macho as James Conrad in Kong, credibly working the biceps and the ability to kick an ass if needed. And though I never particularly liked Loki in either of the previous Thor films (something he shared in common with the films), Hiddleston was a standout as Loki this time out. I thought it was a smart decision to go full Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor with him, making him more more comic relief and less "guy who wants to destroy the world." Did I like either Kong or Thor significantly better because of Hiddleston? Probably not, but sometimes all you have to do is be in the right place at the right time. The choices you make can be just as important as how you comport yourself in those choices.

Osgood Perkins - When isolating people for this list, it's usually more difficult to select a director, because chances are he or she has only made one film that year. Well, Osgood Perkins -- often known as Oz -- actually made zero films this year. However, his 2015 film The Blackcoat's Daughter (my #3) qualified for ranking this year as it wasn't released theatrically until March -- after his follow-up film, The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, which got a late 2016 Netflix release but which I saw in April. I guess I was not as big a fan of Pretty Thing as I'm remembering in the wake of loving Daughter, as my Letterboxd entry tells me I gave it only three stars. (I also think I watched it too late at night when I was falling asleep, so I don't remember much about it). But it's fair to say I may not have been on the same page as Perkins until I understood his extraordinary gifts for slow-burning horror in The Blackcoat's Daughter, which I have already seen twice and which I awarded the highest possible star rating. Needless to say, I'm eager to revisit Pretty Thing now. The 1-2 punch of these movies equates to a bold arrival on the scene for a man who cut his teeth as an actor (one of the first Google images that comes up for him has him in uniform from the 2009 Star Trek). He's got an innate sense of how to build fear through slow, drawn-out camera movements, a gradual introduction of creepy visual stimuli, and absolutely no jump scares. This is what I want the face of horror to look like going forward.

Honorable mentions: Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Detroit), Tracy Letts (The Post, The Lovers), Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Beguiled)

Three who had a bad year

Diane Lane - If you're going to be in two of my bottom ten movies of the year, you're going to show up here, no matter what role you play in making them bad. Diane Lane's contributions to Justice League (#136) were pretty minor, but she was front and center of the 90 minutes of self-indulgent romance for middle aged women known as Paris Can Wait (#140), which was in my bottom five until The Snowman came along and bumped it out. It's hard to believe that a film from the woman who directed Hearts of Darkness (which I haven't seen but must be great) could be so devoid of any value, but Eleanor Coppola's films is basically an hour-and-a-half of Lane traipsing through the French countryside eating quantities of cheese and other rich foods that would have her vomiting out the side of the convertible by the third of their 17 meals, with a man who is not her husband but is also not very charming. It's a wish fulfillment travelogue with absolutely no substance, which ends with Lane winking at the camera. In Justice League she was just one of a dozen elements that was shoehorned into the movie that never needed to be there, except that if you have a movie featuring Superman you've got to check in on his mother. She's involved with this weird subplot where she loses her home and looks like she's been digging in the dirt for three weeks without a bath, yet is in Gotham City (or is it Metropolis?), a complete visual disconnect from the rest of her environment, like she just rolled off the back of a farming truck. Superman flies Lois back to Kansas so they can have a romantic moment in the tall grass outside his childhood home ... but just leaves Martha back in the city (and never to appear on screen again if I remember correctly). Then again, Lane is as powerless to get out of these DC contracts as Ben Affleck or anyone else.

Scarlett Johansson - Oh Scarjo. A few years back she made my list of three who had had a good year, but 2017 was not that year. One of my favorite performers from recent years made only bad choices in 2017, from the one where she was the lead (Ghost in the Shell, #124) to the one where she was just part of an ensemble (Rough Night, #121). Being part of that ensemble in the first place seemed a bit beneath her, but I won't question choices made by actors that involve sublimating their own egos. I will question the decision to appear in a female remake of Very Bad Things with all kinds of script problems related both to basic logistics and to character arcs. Tone problems, too. That there was ever any debate about which was better, Girls Trip (#25) or this, is beyond me. I similarly won't blame Scarjo for getting involved in the whitewashing controversy that dominated the discussion of Ghost in the Shell, at least prior to its release -- after that, most of the discussion just revolved around how it was a bad movie. Whitewashing is a complicated subject that's perhaps not as black-and-white (pun intended) as one might originally think. But man, she should have seen that this project was DOA from miles away. Or maybe I just think that because her choices have been so comparatively good lately, she has made me forget that everyone is capable of a dud now and again. In most years she would have had at least one Marvel movie as a stabilizing force, but not this year.

Noah Baumbach - Like with Osgood Perkins, I'm choosing Noah Baumbach not just because of what he did in 2017, but as an accumulation of things leading up to what he did in 2017. Baumbach did make a movie released this year, but the failure of the most over-praised film of the year, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (#134), was just the most recent in a dispiriting trend by the guy I once considered completely beyond reproach. He began his decline with the second half of While We're Young and stepped on the pedal with Mistress America, ultimately landing with a giant thud with Meyerowitz. In the first ten minutes of the movie, something felt like it was off; with each ten minutes that succeeded it, the action felt more alien and inhuman until the point where I wanted to scream at the screen "PEOPLE DON'T TALK LIKE THAT!" Once his gift, dialogue was also the problem in Mistress America. Speaking of that movie, Baumbach also lands here as a point of contrast with his erstwhile collaborator. Greta Gerwig worked with her current boyfriend on both Frances Ha (which I liked) and Mistress America (which I did not like), but it seemed like she needed to free herself of him in order to make the most praised movie of the year. Without so much as giving him a "thank you" in the credits, or so I can assume from IMDB, Gerwig made Lady Bird, while without any help from Gerwig, Baumbach made ... this.

Dishonorable mentions: Michael Fassbender (Alien: Covenant, Song to SongThe Snowman), Abbie Cornish (Geostsorm, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Jason Momoa (The Bad Batch, Justice League*) - * though I liked Aquaman well enough

The year Netflix could no longer be ignored

Making one kind of splash or another has been Netflix's MO for the past few years, but it wasn't until 2017 that it became truly impossible to extricate them from our mainstream movie viewing habits. Netflix released a number of movies last year that you could not skip and still feel fully conversant on the year in cinema. Going forward, they'll feel as integrated as any other distributor, and if it weren't the case already, not owning a Netflix subscription won't even be an option. Which is, of course, the company's primary goal, one would assume.

It felt a bit like a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it was nice to just give in to the accumulated pressure and say "Okay, any movie released on Netflix is fair game for my year-end list." I basically put to bed the (largely academic) debate about what constitutes a qualifying release for me to rank, no longer even worried about whether Netflix had released the film theatrically in order to qualify for awards (which it still did in a couple cases).

On the other hand, though, there was no doubt that the Netflix movie still felt stigmatized in my mind. As the year went on, I'd see new titles crop up and increasingly decide to skip them. The exceptions seemed to be ones where the directors or stars were significant in some way -- so I was still clinging to the notion that in other eras with different prevailing distribution models, these movies would have still gotten released in theaters. Essentially, I felt like I was trying to avoid the Netflix movie that otherwise would have just gone straight to video.

But even as I started to view Netflix movies as a minefield, rather than a free and easy opportunity to add to my burgeoning total of 2017 films, I still watched a lot of Netflix original movies this year. And not only that, but some of them were quite good. In fact, three Netflix original films made my top 20: Mudbound (#10), Okja (#14) and I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (#15). I even considered rewatching the last two, as I watched them early enough in the year that I didn't want recency bias alone to keep them out of my top ten. Ultimately, I decided both more properly belonged in my #10 to #20 range, which is where they ended up. For the first half of Okja, though, I thought it was possible a Netflix movie might be a serious contender for my #1 movie of the year. That's saying something.

In addition to those three, I also watched Casting JonBenet (#32), Tramps (#35), One of Us (#52), Gerald's Game (#70), Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (#72), Little Evil (#87), Death Note (#97), The Babysitter (#102), El Camino Christmas (#112), The Bad Batch (#115), Bright (#119), Girlfriend's Day (#123), The Discovery (#128), War Machine (#132) and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (#134). That's 18 movies, or 12% of the total I saw this year. (And given how many mediocre Netflix originals I saw in 2017, it's crazy to me that the one directed by Noah Baumbach was the worst. See above.)

The unambiguously positive thing about Netflix establishing itself as such a big player in this game? Movies like Okja. Only because Netflix fancies itself as disrupting the industry does it seem like it would have taken a chance on a movie like this. (That, and the Holy Algorithm.) That may not always be their standard operating procedure, and getting burned a couple times could certainly lead to more prudence in the future. But given their inscrutable business model, what would seem like a failure for another company is actually deemed a success by Netflix. For example, Bright -- another weird mashup of tones and genres -- was universally panned by critics, but apparently it reached enough of a viewing threshold that it's full steam ahead on a sequel. Netflix can do that because, well, they're Netflix.

As other studios double down on known commodities and make cinema less interesting on the whole, Netflix is out there in the wild wild west, firing its six shooter in all directions. I'll take it. 

The year of gender equality for women

In a year in which women were fighting for equal pay and not to be sexually harassed or assaulted by their co-workers, I noticed I had a very good gender representation among the directors of the films I saw. And, appropriately, they were represented equally among movies I loved and movies I did not love. While two movies directed by women appeared in my top ten (Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman and Dee Rees' Mudbound), three movies directed by women also appeared in my bottom ten (Ry Russo-Young's Before I Fall, Eleanor Coppola's Paris Can Wait and Cate Shortland's Berlin Syndrome). 

But women were directing films up and down my chart, as Eleanor was not even the only female Coppola to direct one of my 2017 films. Other 2017 films directed by women included Motherland (#24, Romana S. Diaz), The Beguiled (#31, Sofia Coppola), Casting JonBenet (#32, Kitty Green), Let the Sunshine In (#42, Claire Denis), Kedi (#43, Ceyda Torun), Detroit (#53, Kathryn Bigelow), Band Aid (#60, Zoe Lister-Jones), Raw (#67, Julia Ducournau), The Zookeeper's Wife (#92, Niki Caro), Jasper Jones (#94, Rachel Perkins), The Bad Batch (#115, Ana Lily Amirpour) and Rough Night (#121, Lucia Aniello). And Loving Vincent (#11, Dorota Kobiela) and Battle of the Sexes (#73, Valerie Faris) were both co-directed by women, while One of Us (#52) was directed by two women (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing). 

Which, of course, is not to suggest that women don't still have a long, long, long, long, long, long (breathe ...), long way to go in Hollywood. 

I did see two more movies directed by at least one woman than movies released by Netflix ... so there's that. 

2017 by the numbers

Breakdown of 2017 movies by star ratings: 5 stars (3), 4.5 stars (16), 4 stars (26), 3.5 stars (34), 3 stars (18), 2.5 stars (14), 2 stars (15), 1.5 stars (10), 1 star (5), .5 stars (3). That's only 144 so I missed one somewhere. Not a total bell curve as there were slightly more two-star movies than 2.5-star movies. I don't know what that means. Nothing, I'm sure. In total, that means I like 99 of the 145 movies I saw. About where it usually lands.
Total new movies watched in the calendar year: 242
Total rewatches: 71
2017 movies seen for the first time in the theater: 76
2017 movies seen for the first time on video: 69 (likely the first time this number has ever been lower than the previous number)
2017 movies seen twice: 4 (Wonder Woman, The Blackcoat's Daughter, Kong: Skull Island, Get Out)

My favorite non-2017 films of 2017

I also watched movies that came out in other years. These were the ten best, listed alphabetically:

The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo) - Whoa. The black-and-white, documentary-style movie about a political uprising that felt like it would be homework was perhaps my most enthralling home viewing experience of the year.

The Dirties (2013, Matt Johnson) - I can't explain it, but I just went with this high-concept found footage movie set in a post-Colombine high school, and loved every minute of it.

The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-Wook) - I heard the glowing praise for this in 2016 but never made time for it. It would have been easily in my top ten of that year.

Infernal Affairs (2002, Alan Mak & Andrew Lau) - I seriously questioned my love for The Departed after watching this stripped-down, plot-focused version of the story that gets huge points for originating that story.

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989, Hiyao Miyazaki) - When I gave one of the all-time anime greats, which I'll discuss in a moment, five stars, it was somewhat unsurprising. When I gave this one five stars, it made me realize how much I'd truly been missing by not watching anime.

Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) - Given my affection for Tokyo Story, I can't believe I sat on this one for so long. Similarly profound, thought-provoking and beautiful.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988, Hiyao Miyazaki) - The very face of anime royalty. Deserves every bit of praise that has ever been sung. Absolutely majestic.

Nocturnal Animals (2016, Tom Ford) - I really wasn't expecting to be as involved in this one as I was, seeing its trailers regularly the year before and never prioritizing a viewing. It burrowed, and haunted me.

Offside (2006, Jafar Panahi) - One of the greats from a country that produces many of them (Iran). Girls disguising themselves as boys to get into a soccer match felt like it resonated well with 2017, and the pure love of sports this movie celebrates is grand.

Vampire's Kiss (1988, Robert Bierman) - You can't fully appreciate the gonzo craziness of which Nicolas Cage is capable until you've seen this. Absolute lunacy.

This and that


Best mise-en-scene: The Beguiled vs. Columbus
Craziest movie to get funded: Okja vs. mother!
Non-traditional animation: Loving Vincent vs. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
Most awkward dinner: Beatriz at Dinner vs. The Dinner
Opening credits: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets vs. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Surprising ending: The Trip to Spain vs. The Florida Project
Fakeout ending: Beatriz at Dinner vs. 47 Meters Down


Let the Sunshine In, Darkest Hour
The Square, The Circle
Good Time, The Bad Batch
One of Us, The Foreigner


Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip
Haley Lu Richardson, Split & Columbus
Jason Mitchell, Mudbound & Detroit (and saw Straight Outta Compton this year as well)
Kiernan Shipka, The Blackcoat's Daughter
Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
Bridget Everett, Patti Cake$
Betty Gabriel, Get Out

Another name for ...

Only the Brave is ... Free Fire
Rupture is ... Split
The Cure for Wellness is ... The Big Sick
Personal Shopper is ... A Ghost Story
Before I Fall is ... Happy Death Day
mother! is ... I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
47 Meters Down is ... Breathe
Darkest Hour is ... Dunkirk
Life is ... Alien: Covenant

Lightning round

And we close with a bunch of miscellaneous quick hits:

Highest ranked best picture nominee: Darkest Hour (#12)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: Dunkirk (#101)
Best picture nominees I didn't see: Lady Bird, Phantom Thread
Best film I thought I would hate: The Emoji Movie (#51)
Worst film I thought I would like: Colossal (#141)
Movie I should have loved but didn't: The Big Sick (#89)
Movie I shouldn't have loved but did: Kong: Skull Island (#6)
Movie that got worse the more I thought about it: Baby Driver (#90)
Movie that got better the more I thought about it: Get Out (#22)
Most conflicted feelings about a movie: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (#45)
Director who may have lost me: David Michod, War Machine
Director who may have won me back: Joe Wright, Darkest Hour
Director I may finally like: Olivier Assayas, Personal Shopper
Talented director, bad movie: Ana Lily Amirpour, The Bad Batch
Untalented director, good movie: Joseph Kosinski, Only the Brave
Most surprising director: Jordan Peele, Get Out
Least surprising director: Michael Bay, Transformers: The Last Knight
Best remake: The Beguiled (#31)
Worst remake: Ghost in the Shell (#124)
Best reboot: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (#44)
Worst reboot: Jigsaw (#122)
Actor who should have gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: James Franco, The Disaster Artist (*with reservations)
Actor who shouldn't have gotten an Oscar nomination but did: Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Actress who should have gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Sienna Miller, The Lost City of Z
Actress who shouldn't have gotten an Oscar nomination but did: Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Longest title: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
Shortest title: It
Most similar titles: Logan, Lucky, Logan Lucky, Wonder, Wonderstruck, Wonder Woman, Wonder Wheel, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Least similar title: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Most John Denver music: Logan Lucky
Least John Denver music: Rat Film
Best hero: Diana Prince, Wonder Woman
Worst hero (tie): Batman & Superman, Justice League
Best villain: Hela, Thor: Ragnarok
Worst villain (tie): Steppenwolf, Justice League & Begbie, T2 Trainspotting
Most Trumpian character: Doug Strutt, Beatriz at Dinner
Least Trumpian character: Porg, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Biggest surprise: Girls Trip (#25)
Biggest disappointment: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (#134)

I'll put a final bow on 2017 with my annual post on portmanteaus tomorrow. You know you want to hear all the funny ways I have combined the titles of 2017 movies into glorious new entities. See you right back here.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

As 2017 vanishes into the ether

So here I am, rolling up to the end of another long and satisfying viewing year, giving you my year-end rankings on the morning the Oscar nominations are announced.

As I predicted, both last year and in recent weeks, I did not set a personal record for movies watched this year. I came six movies short of last year's record total of 151.

But you can't keep an obsessive list-maker down. The 145 movies I ranked this year do constitute my second highest total, eclipsing my 2015 total of 143. So I must be doing something right. Or, wrong, if you consider that I consciously tried to ease up a bit this year.

Although I probably say this every year, it was a bit of a strange year for movies, at least for me personally. My top ten will probably attest to that, with maybe as many as half the choices being movies I feel like I'd need to fight someone about. (Will you be that person? Please comment!)

I've felt myself a little out of sync with the popular consensus on movies this year, which can often be the case, but which feels especially so this year. Whereas each of my last three #1s were Oscar frontrunners in one category awarded to a feature length film, with two of them actually winning it, I expect to have one movie from my top ten at most nominated for best picture. Last year I had four. (As I'm typing this, the nominations are set to be announced in 30 minutes, so you'll probably know if my prediction was correct by the time you read this.)

Before I get to my top ten, bottom five and my top 145, I'll continue my tradition of listing my regrets. Once again this year I was denied access to some of the year's best films in my quest for completism. Here are the five that have not yet released in Australia that I most regret not seeing in time for this list:

5. Faces Places
4. Molly's Game
3. I, Tonya
2. Phantom Thread
1. Lady Bird

Four of those five were very late releasing even in the U.S, but Lady Bird opened on damn November 3rd. I guess there's one every year.

One other regret I should have been able to get: Your Name, which actually released cinematically in Australia in 2016, but not until 2017 in the U.S. I fully intended to see it in conjunction with my year of watching anime, but it's still not available on iTunes and I have no idea how to get my hands on it.

And now, the moment you've been waiting for ... drum roll please ... my top ten movies of 2017:

10. Mudbound - And Netflix breaks into my top ten. Mudbound was perhaps the best of a number of 2017 films that slow-burned their way into a mesmerizing (and in this case, rage-inducing) final act that made me realize how much I had invested myself in the characters. Don't listen to Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting, who considers the last 30 minutes of Dee Rees' movie its primary weakness. Rather, that section of the movie crystallizes the everpresent danger in the post-war south facing a black family that has the audacity to try to prosper despite their skin color, and the couple members of a neighboring white family who have the audacity to stand up to the members of their own family who want to lynch that other family. Rees draws two separate portraits, with equal finesse on both sides, that she begins to steadily overlap as the narrative goes on. As the war veterans at its center, Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund represent the optimistic look forward to a new America in which a shared worldview and experiences are more important common traits than cultural and ethnic history. Of course, the sobering side is that as we watch these characters' initial gestures of rebellion in 2017, we know anything close to racial harmony on a national level is far, far away. And according to most, not yet attained.

9. Ingrid Goes West - This film just kept on not falling out of my top ten. I must have felt some optimism about it as I selected it as part of my MIFF viewing lineup, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would laugh, not to mention feel an unbearable sense of tension, while watching Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen navigate their way through a vicious satire of social media, its many stars and its many more victims. “Full theater syndrome” likely had something to do with it, as this was definitely a communal experience enjoyed by our festival audience, but that couldn’t explain the entirety of my affection for Matt Spicer’s film – of which I had a sufficient quantity not to go back and watch it again to see if my initial assessment was hopelessly uninformed. Plaza fully redeems herself after being in a string of terrible movies – at least temporarily, as I saw The Little Hours later in the year – and the lead duo’s male co-stars were perfectly chosen to give the film its additional laughs, dimension and depth. I love O’Shea Jackson Jr. in Ingrid Goes West, and in my review, called Billy Magnussen “one of the more precisely realized shitheads in recent memory.” There’s a part of me concerned that this is not a very original or even very good movie, but the larger part of me had such a great time watching it that it deserves this spot in my top ten, even above films that may technically be “better.”

8. The Florida Project - They could have called this movie The Color Purple. The various lilacs that adorn the long-stay motels in Sean Baker's latest are a beautiful encapsulation of the film's attempt to find beauty in the everyday, despite convincing arguments that you're looking at something ugly. Baker makes it on to my top ten with his second straight film after Tangerine also landed at #8 in 2015. If it weren't for a moment I noticed myself thinking this movie was spinning its wheels and becoming a little redundant in the second half, it might have made my top five. Of course, then Baker's indescribably startling and moving final sequence, preceded by ten minutes that were heart-wrenching in a different way, brought the film back into the glorious focus that it had really never lost. Willem Dafoe shines, but so do the non-professionals. Baker just knows what to do with actors. He's now found two distinctly different ways to examine downtrodden lives that are graced with improbable joy, both visually dazzling despite the use of markedly dissimilar techniques, so I have to say he is both one of the most humanistic and one of the most visually talented directors going. If he hasn't yet made a #1 movie on my year-end chart, that is certainly coming.

7. The Lost City of Z - James Gray has sometimes been a big hit with me (Two Lovers) and sometimes been a big miss (The Immigrant). Since that big miss was both more recent and more similar in scope and time period to The Lost City of Z, I didn't have high expectations for Gray's latest ... which may have something to do with how swept up in it I became. If this were simply a story of one man's obsession about discovering a lost civilization in the Amazon jungle, that would likely be pretty interesting. But it's more like an anthology of stories that occur over several decades, each with a slightly different set of characters and concerns, and each with a palpable impact on a series of equally well-drawn characters back in England. In a way the person who impressed me most in this movie was Sienna Miller, who took the should-have-been-thankless role of Percy Fawcett's wife and gave it blood, agency and emotional depth. That she might have been on one of his missions, given her temperament and makeup, is believable in the hands of this movie; that she had to stay back in England, fretting about his safety yet powerless to do anything about it, was a reality of early 20th century gender politics. I think the thing that really sold me on this movie, though, is the middle portion with the guy who was supposedly much more fit for this type of thing than Mrs. Fawcett would have been, the boorish adventurer played by Angus McFadyen, and how his story plays out. The rich collection of lovingly created and beautifully shot narrative elevated this into my top ten.

6. Kong: Skull Island - This is how you make blockbuster entertainment: with just a little bit of quirk. When I think about Kong: Skull Island, I don't think about the awesome scene where the big ape goes to town on a bunch of military helicopters -- well, not first, anyway. No, I think about Richard Nixon's bobblehead doll in the helicopter cockpit as it emerges from the violent storm surrounding Skull Island. I think about Kong nonchalantly munching on a live octopus that's almost the size he is. I think about a plane nosediving into the desert as its pilot pluckishly parachutes into the foreground. I think about a man being impaled through the length of his body, down the throat, by the leg of a giant spider. Jordan Vogt-Roberts' follow-up to Kings of Summer (wha???) was a take-notice kind of experience, charged with thrills, goofy moments, WTF comedy and a genuine sense of awe and spectacle. I'm not sure how Vogt-Roberts did it, but his every decision feels like it's outside the box, a spaghetti-against-the-wall approach that should fail spectacularly. Instead, it bursts with life and soul. It was a year in which I had two movies in my top ten that would normally be written off as disposable popcorn entertainment, and Kong deserves to be here almost as much as my #2 does. (I watched it again just to be sure, and yep, it does.)

5. Coco - Just when I was thinking this was a down year for animation, I end up having three in my top 20, led by Coco at #5. Making this my third straight year with an animated movie in my top ten (Inside Out was #1 of 2015 and Zootopia #3 of 2016). I didn't have particularly high expectations for this movie, given that I hadn't liked Pixar's last three movies and that I was worried this would seem like a retread of an animated movie we just got about Dia de Muertos, 2014's The Book of Life. Well, I don't remember much about that movie, but I can't imagine I'll have any trouble remembering Coco, even if its terrifically catchy centerpiece song ("Remember Me") weren't imploring me to do so. For the first half of the movie, I was along for the ride but in the realm of being entertained rather than entranced. But entrancement soon followed, and by the time it ended, I was blubbering like a baby as the very best of Pixar makes me do. But only the very best -- and I'm happy to say that I now count Coco in that group. It's not only an ecstatic artistic creation, with a colorful and fully realized depiction of the afterlife, but it's also a surprisingly mature contemplation of mortality. Crying was especially inopportune as my four-year-old son was sitting on my lap at the time. I'm glad he didn't specifically ask about his dad's wet cheeks, or why I was heaving uncontrollably for a couple minutes.

4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos sometimes gets it wrong for me. He got it very, very right in the film that has the most successful mixing of disparate tones among many others this year, when filmmakers had a habit of throwing tones into a cauldron, stirring them up and feeding them to their audiences. Lanthimos has always been a master at mixing black comedy with something genuinely discomfiting, but I don't think I've been more discomfited, or laughed harder, at any of his films. Even more miraculously, Sacred Deer reclaimed an actor I had just three weeks earlier decided I hated when I saw him Dunkirk: Barry Keogh, who makes one of the more unsettling psychotics of recent memory, burrowing into Colin Farrell's family the way he does. Kudos also to Farrell, who has thrived in his partnership with Lanthimos and brought himself all the way back from matinee idol to indie darling. And then you have Nicole Kidman, who makes my top ten in something each year. (Last year, it was Lion.) Some seriously bad things happen in this film, and even though I spent a lot of time laughing, I could make that transition to mourn the bad things when they surfaced. Lanthimos hasn't felt more like an heir to Kubrick than he does here.

3. The Blackcoat's Daughter - If I've ever ranked a horror movie this high, I don't remember it. But after my second viewing of Osgood Perkins' film -- which is also known by its lesser original title, February -- I was as convinced that it deserved this elevated position as I was that it deserved five stars on Letterboxd. That second viewing was just eight days later, and it confirmed my feelings. Those feelings? A dark, cold sense of ice traveling through my veins as the quiet horrors unfold at an upstate New York boarding school where all but two of the girls have left for a week's winter break. Two girls and ... well, something else. (The fact that I watched it mostly after 1 a.m. at a caravan park didn't hurt the viewing experience.) Kiernan Shipka (pictured), who was previously unknown to me, gives a performance I won't soon forget as the girl who ... well, I won't tell you that either. Not knowing what's going to happen in this film is as key as it is in any horror movie I've ever seen, and this is up there with the most memorable I've seen, drawing comparisons to such classics as ... now there you go again, trying to get it out of me. This film took a long time to get to us (it debuted at TIFF in 2015) and the name change suggests some uncertainty in how to market it, but both the wait and the uncertainty have been well worth it. Perkins also intrigued me with The Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, and I can't wait to see what he does next. It'll be hard to top this.

2. Wonder Woman - Not a lot of the year’s top social issues are reflected in my top ten, but here’s one that is both socially progressive and a heckuva good time. The people who complained about the third act of Wonder Woman – the most consistent complaint I heard about Patty Jenkins’ triumph – were missing the bigger picture. Just as Get Out was a satire on race relations fed to us in the palatable package of a horror movie, this is gender equality fed to us in the palatable package of a superhero movie – which doesn’t mean that the package isn’t there. Superhero movies have to climax with a big battle in which the stakes are unclear, but the stakes of the rest of this movie proved to be massive, as women and young girls were given for possibly the first time – the first time! – a superhero in their own image. Never mind your Black Widows, your Trinitys, your various other women who have kicked ass over the years, who were inevitably written as male characters in female bodies. Diana Prince is clearly a woman, a woman who values many of the traits traditionally ascribed to her sex (a maternal instinct, a clear-eyed vision of morality), and kicks ass almost as a byproduct of her unshakeable conviction. The “hero shots” of the inestimably great Gal Gadot sent shivers down many a spine, and even brought tears to many an eye – often both in the same scene (hello, No Man’s Land). That’s why this has become the highest I’ve ever ranked a superhero movie in the history of my list keeping. This is not just any superhero movie; this is the superhero movie we needed, and that we will always need.  

1. A Ghost Story - There are years when you wrestle with what will end up in your top spot for the year. And then there are years when you see your favorite movie in August and just drop the mic, as in "It can't get any better than this." A Ghost Story was that movie this year, taking a deceptively simple setup, which risked being mistaken for a joke, and turning it into a profound contemplation of ... everything. My favorite movies bite off more than they can chew, but then chew them beautifully, and that's David Lowery's experimental treatise on existence and the human experience, disguised as a movie about a dead person wearing a Halloween costume. It's a movie about the losses we all feel and how difficult it is to let go of them ... even the loss of your own personhood, or the loss of the idea that the world will remember you beyond your, or even perhaps beyond its, physical form. Of course, as the perfect tagline reads, at its core "it's all about time." It's an interesting study in contrasts with last year's #1, Toni Erdmann, which I think I loved as much as I did because I watched it in a packed, laughing audience. I saw A Ghost Story all by myself on a Saturday morning -- I was literally the only person in the theater -- and for this movie, that was just perfect. If I weren't imprisoned by my own sense of the dramatic, like Casey Affleck is imprisoned in that house, I would have written a half dozen blog posts singing the praises of what Lowery has accomplished here, and how he's managed to do it. But I like when my #1 movie is sort of a surprise, so I held back until today. And now that today has come, I wish I could write ten more paragraphs on my favorite movie of the year. Maybe next week.

With the good, there must come the bad. Here are my bottom five, with no pictures and considerably fewer words:

5. Colossal - A colossal waste of time, of a goofy-enough-to-work premise, and of a potentially valuable message about domestic violence. This movie is as mean-spirited as it is absurd, and it's a lot of both. But, you know, if you want a movie about a woman who makes kaiju appear halfway across the world by kicking around in a sandbox, it exists.

4. The Snowman - The ways in which this movie turned into such a disaster are becoming legendary, but I needed to see for myself. It's an extremely unusual experience to have watched an entire movie without feeling like you've had any idea what's going on. If that movie is in a popular genre like the detective movie, it's even stranger. Tomas Alfredsson (Let the Right One In) will come back from this.

3. Transformers: The Last Knight - The single-film embodiment of every awful tendency Michael Bay has been bludgeoning us with for 25 years now. If I hadn't been assigned to review it I never would have seen it. I'm glad I did, though, just to remember to remain vigilant in the quest to call out overripe garbage for what it is.

2. Berlin Syndrome - Australian Cate Shortland was narrowly saved from being the first woman to direct my worst movie of the year. This misogynistic movie in which a woman doesn't try very hard to escape the man keeping her captive, which asks us to follow the man as he checks in on his ailing father and lives his life, put something actively bad into the world. For which it should be shunned.

1. The Last Face - And we save the worst for Last. Sean Penn's hilariously inept, misguided and tone deaf film about a romance between aid workers (Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron) is refugee porn at its worst. Overtly liberal intentions have rarely been so self-indulgent or clueless about how they come across. Rightly laughed out of Cannes, and laughed to the bottom of my list.

And here is the whole list, from 1 to 145.

1. A Ghost Story
2. Wonder Woman
3. The Blackcoat's Daughter
4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
5. Coco
6. Kong: Skull Island
7. The Lost City of Z
8. The Florida Project
9. Ingrid Goes West
10. Mudbound
11. Loving Vincent
12. Darkest Hour
13. Thor: Ragnarok
14. Okja
15. I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
16. mother!
17. Quest
18. Columbus
19. In This Corner of the World
20. Beatriz at Dinner
21. The Post
22. Get Out
23. The Lovers
24. Motherland
25. Girls Trip
26. Golden Exits
27. The Disaster Artist
28. Personal Shopper
29. The Lego Batman Movie
30. Hounds of Love
31. The Beguiled
32. Casting JonBenet
33. Only the Brave
34. Patti Cake$
35. Tramps
36. Free Fire
37. It
38. Logan
39. The Dinner
40. It Comes at Night
41. Dawson City: Frozen Time
42. Let the Sunshine In
43. Kedi
44. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
45. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
46. Wilson
47. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
48. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea
49. The Fate of the Furious
50. All the Money in the World
51. The Emoji Movie
52. One of Us
53. Detroit
54. Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
55. The Square
56. The Trip to Spain
57. The Shape of Water
58. Emo: The Musical
59. Lucky
60. Band Aid
61. Spider-Man: Homecoming
62. Blade Runner 2049
63. Call Me by Your Name
64. Chuck
65. Good Time
66. Rupture
67. Raw
68. Split
69. Logan Lucky
70. Gerald's Game
71. The Space Between Us
72. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond - Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
73. Battle of the Sexes
74. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
75. The Great Wall
76. Daddy's Home 2
77. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
78. My Cousin Rachel
79. Wonder Wheel
80. The Greatest Showman
81. Wind River
82. Going in Style
83. Life
84. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
85. 47 Meters Down
86. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
87. Little Evil
88. Table 19
89. The Big Sick
90. Baby Driver
91. Beauty and the Beast
92. The Zookeeper's Wife
93. Lady Macbeth
94. Jasper Jones
95. Alien: Covenant
96. Brawl in Cell Block 99
97. Death Note
98. Atomic Blonde
99. Una
100. Downsizing
101. Dunkirk
102. The Babysitter
103. War for the Planet of the Apes
104. Aftermath
105. Snatched
106. The Girl With All the Gifts
107. The Lego Ninjago Movie
108. Cars 3
109. A Cure for Wellness
110. The Ornithologist
111. The Bye Bye Man
112. El Camino Christmas
113. The Book of Henry
114. This Beautiful Fantastic
115. The Bad Batch
116. American Made
117. T2 Trainspotting
118. Song to Song
119. Bright
120. Rat Film
121. Rough Night
122. Jigsaw
123. Girlfriend's Day
124. Ghost in the Shell
125. John Wick: Chapter 2
126. The Boss Baby
127. The House
128. The Discovery
129. Brigsby Bear
130. The Dark Tower
131. Headshot
132. War Machine
133. Geostorm
134. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
135. The Little Hours
136. Justice League
137. Before I Fall
138. Sleepless
139. Happy Death Day
140. Paris Can Wait
141. Colossal
142. The Snowman
143. Transformers: The Last Knight
144. Berlin Syndrome
145. The Last Face

Before I leave you, a quick, new feature: "Five controversial rankings that might need clarification."

22. Get Out - The movie of the year in some very real respects, but I had some concerns with it that I couldn't totally get past. At least a second viewing brought it up from somewhere in the 40s.

45. Star Wars: The Last Jedi - As generous as I could be given all the swirling unhappy emotions this created in me, and without the benefit of a second viewing.

51. The Emoji Movie - I had a fun time, alright? Movies below it are probably better, but so what. I'm done defending myself on this one!

89. The Big Sick - I feel cruel about this one but I just never connected with it, laughed at it, or felt moved by it.

101. Dunkirk - On technical merit alone this probably deserves to be higher, but I just did not enjoy watching it.

Whew! I'm done. Well, if you consider "done" to mean "two more 2017 recap posts in the next two days." Stayed tuned. And as always, LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS! I love them, even when you're wrong. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

And finishing -- almost -- with the foreign documentary

At the end of 2017 I bemoaned that the movie year had featured comparatively few documentaries or foreign films of note.

Fittingly, I (nearly) finished my viewing season with a foreign documentary.

I've actually got one final viewing on tap for later in the day in the theater, but my last home viewing was Kedi, the documentary about the loving interactions between Turks and a teeming population of street cats in Istanbul.

As an indication of how delirious and confused I am at this point, I found the movie perfectly pleasant, and awarded it a full four stars on Letterboxd. (It almost feels these days that a documentary has to have a major gaffe in it to get anything less than four stars from me.)

I won't say that my cram period was particularly successful in terms of foreign films, as this was the first I watched since that December 30th post. But I did hit the documentaries pretty hard, fitting in Dawson City: Frozen Time, Rat Film and Casting JonBenet in addition to Kedi. (Which may just mean there were enough documentaries this year, I just didn't get to them until late. Foreign films of note, and ones that are actually available to rent, are a different story.)

Interesting, it's the same note on which I started my viewing year. The first film I counted for 2017 when I watched it back on January 15th was a foreign language doco called Motherland, which looks at the crowded hospital conditions for expectant mothers in the Philippines. It played at Sundance and was presented for our consideration when I was still vetting films for the Human Rights & Arts Film Festival (HRAFF).

At the end of this long journey, I'm looking forward to seeing what the first of 2018 will be. I can say it probably won't be either a foreign film or a documentary ... but that I hope that the year gets more generous in those departments from there.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Listmakers of a feather

It’s a bit lonely having your year-end list shifted three weeks forward from everyone else’s. While others made their lists for the actual end of the year, I always give myself until the Oscar nominations are announced to clean up the stragglers among movies I haven’t seen. It’s a system that suits me, and most years I actually wish I had longer, given the movies that still haven’t opened here yet. (By the end, exhaustion takes care of that wish.) But it means by the time I get to publishing the results, others have already mentally moved on.

So I’ve felt a kind of kinship to see Australians – or at least, Australian DJs – geeking out over forming a different kind of top ten at the same time I’m forming mine. Obsessiveness loves company, amirite?

Today has been the deadline for the Hottest 100 for the Australian radio station called Triple J, which I guess is headquartered in Sydney but bills itself as a national radio station, as many of the stations do. It plays what I would have once called “alternative” music, but is now probably better described as “not pop” music, which covers a number of different subgenres that we may charitably characterize as mildly subversive.

And apparently, these guys are as psyched about music as I am about movies.

In time for Australian Day this weekend, they will count down the 100 best songs of 2017, according to the DJs themselves, the listeners, the prime minister and whatever kangaroos can be bothered submitting their picks. I'm only slightly exaggerating, as the DJs reported that 2.1 million votes had been cast -- not insignificant in a country of only 20 million people, many of whom presumably have no interesting in mildly subversive "not pop" music.

I scoffed at this a little bit at first, as one does when they think their own is the dominant pursuit. "What do individual songs possibly have on an entire movies?" I thought. I also caught myself wondering how release dates were determined, since some of these presumably would have come from albums that came out in 2016. Of course, I deal with a variation of that in terms of movie release dates, but because of my tunnel vision it still seemed scoff-worthy.

But then I realized: Obsessiveness is obsessiveness, and we see kindred spirits in one another.

So it was really fun listening to the DJs talk about agonizing over their top ten, or commiserating that they had to work on theirs, that it was a sacred duty made more difficult by the impossibility of choosing. They'd also play call-in messages from listeners, who described the exquisite pain of trying to cut one of their babies and bump it down into the 11th slot.

It's what I'm doing now, and the fact that it's songs instead of movies doesn't make it any less squirm-inducingly delightful.

The other thing I should mention is that this used to be me. When I was in my teenage years, I was super into Top 40 radio in the U.S. In fact, my list obsessiveness did not originate with movies, but rather, a monthly top 15 I used to record on a sketch pad where I otherwise did drawings. I had a very specific method for this. The #1 and #2 slot each month were reserved for my favorite two songs that had not yet charted. These were the cream of the crop of the new. Slots #3 and #4 were for the best two returning songs, and a great song could sometime entrench itself there for months. Slots #5 through whatever were for the best of the other new songs, and that whatever was left over through #15 were the returning songs that were losing steam. I did this for at least two or three years and I absolutely loved it. Hope those sketch pads are still out there somewhere, in fact.

So there may not be a ton of others still working on their movie lists -- though I know of at least one other -- but I've got kindred spirits crunching the numbers and sweating it out and giving each of the songs that comprised the soundtrack of their last year one last listen.

I know the feeling. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Finishing 2017 before reaching 5,000

One of the reasons I haven't been that worried about setting a personal ranking record this year is my own sanity. It's a badge of honor, of sorts, not to push yourself and sacrifice sleep for an arbitrary personal milestone that continuing to try to break is unsustainable.

Another reason is that I've got another personal milestone to worry about.

With four full days remaining before I post my rankings for 2017, I have reached a lifetime total of 4,992 movies watched. I could have pushed myself and tried to break my record of 151 movies ranked last year, and I had an outside chance of doing it. But that would have meant that some random flotsam and jetsam from 2017 would have been my 5,000th movie ever watched, and that just won't do.

As it is, I figure to end up at either 4,996 or at worst 4,997 after completing my 2017 viewing, which gives me just enough wiggle room to position my 5,000th movie ... and just enough time to try to find something suitable to fill that honor.

I think I might have an 11th hour idea for that ... but I'll keep it under lock and key for the time being. I'll just say that sourcing the movie won't be a problem because I already own it. Which may seem mysterious ... but if this is what I choose, I'll explain it in detail at that point.

In the meantime, assuming you have forgotten this post, I'm asking for your input to see if you can think up something better for me for 5,000. I know it's a bit abstract as you don't know what I've seen and what I haven't. But even if you can think of something that involves the theme of 5,000 -- 5,000 somethings doing something, that kind of thing -- then that would help me out.

Most likely I'll just go with the thing I'm thinking of, but it's a pretty big milestone so I'd like to consider all options.

If you look at the date of that post I've linked to above, it was September 23rd, so I've been thinking about if for four months and haven't come up with anything that seemed like the clear-cut winner. Sometimes, a milestone is just another movie watched. (I even considered that as a way to do 5,000, just watching whatever struck my fancy on that particular night. And though I suppose that's still a possibility, I'm thinking I'm rejecting that idea.)

The one problem with the movie I'm most seriously considering is that I can't watch it in a vacuum -- I may have to watch two other movies before I can watch it. Plus I've still got to watch two movies this month for my new monthly viewing series, Audient Auteurs.

I'll figure it out. Wish I had a little more wiggle room, but them's the breaks.

So after I finish watching my 2017 movies, and after I finish watching my Audient Auteurs movies, and after I finish watching #5,000, then I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and just watch whatever I feel like again.

Strict viewing priorities can be a bitch sometimes.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The inability to form your own take

Although I try to avoid discussions of films before I’ve had a chance to see them, it’s not always possible. Especially when it’s a film from which there is a lot expected, and it opens in the U.S. three months before it opens in Australia.

That happened in 2017 probably with a number of films, but I’m thinking of two in particular it was hard to avoid, both of which relate to race relations. (I’ll try not to speculate on why movies about race relations are delayed three months in Australia.)

The first was, of course, Get Out. By the time it finally released in May, I knew a lot about the movie, even though I’d avoided watching the trailer and even though I didn’t have a clue about what the movie is actually “about.” (Which, ironically, led in part to my initial disappointment with it – I was expecting something more realistic than what the movie ultimately had in store for me. The movie was elevated significantly for me on a second viewing.)

The second was Detroit, which finally made its way to Australian theaters in November, after an August release in the U.S. A lot more was expected of this movie than Get Out before it was released, as Get Out was largely unheralded, becoming an instant word-of-mouth hit. After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, people were practically stalking Kathryn Bigelow’s next movie, having tabs on what was called “Untitled Detroit Project” for at least a year before its release.

By the time it did hit Australian theaters, I did not even prioritize seeing it in that format, given that I’d already heard it was a big disappointment to everybody. I also knew that with its August release date in the U.S., I’d be able to rent it from iTunes before my list closed.

Which is precisely what I did last night.

And you know what, I like this movie. I don’t love it, but I think it’s a good movie. I was gripped by the genuinely shocking material, and I felt like Bigelow gave it shades and nuances I would not necessarily have expected. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay it is that I started it after 9 p.m. and wasn’t really at any risk of falling asleep, despite its two hour and 20 minute run time. I was involved the whole way.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if my personal take on the movie was unduly hampered by knowing what the popular take on it was. Namely, that a) it documents a bunch of shocking/violent behavior without really drawing a message from it, and b) it’s a story that its director does not necessarily have the right to tell.

I may have reached these conclusions myself, but knowing that others had already reached them made it a lot more difficult to judge that in a vacuum. I came in knowing those things, so was looking for them every step of the way.

The issue of who has the right to tell a particular story is a thorny one. I’m against the notion that certain people simply cannot tell certain stories, because I think anything is possible if you approach it sensitively, having done your due diligence. That said, did you know that the person who was originally planning to make the biopic of Malclom X was Norman Jewison? That it ended up in Spike Lee’s hands – and that the resulting film was a masterpiece – was a relief for all involved, I imagine, including myself, to the extent that I’m “involved.” (Don’t worry, Mr. Jewison, you made one of my all-time favorites in Jesus Christ Superstar.)

Bigelow has established her bonafides by making films that ask difficult questions about our institutions, and she’s already credibly addressed the issue of racism in police departments in Strange Days. Of course, that was a small if important part of that film, which was essentially a genre movie. Detroit not only makes the movie all about that, but it purports to adopt the African American perspective, which is slightly more problematic.

Still, watching this film, I can’t identify a single moment that seems tone deaf in some way, or like the work of someone who is not black. I suppose that’s really what you want in a movie that tries to reckon with “The Black Experience,” that there’s no part of it that reads as clearly non-black. For some people, the fact that Bigelow is not black will be a stumbling block regardless of how deftly she does it.

I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but any time someone makes a movie where a significant percentage of its characters are from another race, you try to identify how successfully they’ve adopted the perspective of that other race. Get Out might be an interesting example in the opposite direction, or so I thought after my first viewing. While there was no doubt that Jordan Peele had an innate understanding of the characters who had a race in common with him, I must admit I wasn’t sure about his realistic grasp on the white characters. The second time, of course, I got that it was not supposed to be realistic. Different movie when you watch it that way.

A really interesting example of that in 2017 is Mudbound, directed by a black woman, Dee Rees. The story is split almost equally between black and white characters – almost. Interestingly, the balance is shifted in favor of the white characters in this one. At the center of that movie are characters played by Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund, one black and one white, and they have families of about equivalent size as supporting characters. However, there seems to be a lot more in the way of subplots for the white family than the black, which also creates the impression that Rees is a bit more in touch with those characters than the black ones. I’m not sure what to say about that and I think now I really am getting sidetracked.

Anyway, the second question – or, I guess, the first question, in terms of how I presented them above -- is also a tricky one. What lesson should we, can we, take from a movie like Detroit? Is it enough just to show awful, reprehensible racism at work, without giving us a specific nugget of truth we’re supposed to glean from it? I suppose the movie is meant to show us how far we have not come since then, but it doesn’t make either explicit or implicit connections to today in the text of the film, leaving it as something of a head scratcher as what our takeaway is supposed to be. This happened in Detroit then; this happens in Ferguson now. Is that really all the movie is supposed to be saying? It doesn’t feel like enough.

And yet I don’t know if that would have been my conclusion had the discussions I’d consumed of this movie not planted that thought in my brain. I was unable to form my own take on this material because it was already formed for me. I could have avoided discussions of this film for some time, if I’d tried, but probably not the five months between when it hit theaters and when I finally saw it. And practically speaking, I couldn't really have because I'd be dying to know why people were not considering this an Oscar frontrunner.

But maybe without that take, I would have thought of this as a lacerating portrait of an America that has not changed as much as we’d like to believe it has. Kathryn Bigelow does not sensationalize these portraits she makes. She just presents them and lets the outrageous details speak for themselves.

And in a country trying to grapple with, and heal from, its own racism, maybe that kind of hopeless factuality, without a silver lining, is not enough.