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. 


Jandy Hardesty said...

"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."

You are one of the few men who seems to get this. Well, there are other critics who do - Matt Zoller Seitz, etc - but it seems like many men don't get this distinction or what is so unique and powerful about Diana in this film. I think Black Widow does come close SOMETIMES, but Diana is a woman first and a superhero second (and her power is intimately tied up in her womanhood) and I don't think I've ever seen that before.

Groundskeeper Willie said...

>> Don't listen to Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting...


(I do still listen sometimes, mostly when Michael Phillips shows up.)

Nigel Druitt said...

A Ghost Story is one of the movies this year that DID briefly play at my local theater that I most regret missing.

Meanwhile, I think yours is the first positive comment I've read about The Emoji Movie. Which gives me a little hope, because I won't be able to avoid this one for much longer.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Jandy! I always love having me quoted back to me. It always sounds wiser when someone else presents it to me than when I wrote it. :-)

In all seriousness, though, I'm not sure how much I can take credit for this and how much of it came to me through absorbing others' writing about it. But I think one of the most delightful moments in the whole film is her reaction to seeing the baby in London. What other movie would dare to have its badass woman coo over a baby? It's just one of the many things that sets this movie apart and makes it great.

Groundskeeper, Michael Phillips is the best! I used to be a doubter, but not so much anymore. (Plus, he had A Ghost Story as his #2 movie of the year.)

Nigel, you should definitely grab A Ghost Story when you can -- I think it's one of those movies that will be just as good on a small screen, given the constraints it sets for itself (the aspect ratio is actually square, something I didn't get into). Also, yeah! Watch The Emoji Movie with the kids, and come back to tell me how tolerable you found it.

Thanks for the great comments!

Wendell Ottley said...

Loved your passage on Wonder Woman. She is this year's most iconic and important character. That said, I still hate the last 20 minutes of the movie. Thing is, I hate HOW it was done, not that it was done. A big, final battle is definitely what she deserves, I just didn't like how it went (too long, way too much talking, too many breaks in the action for that talking). Still love it as a whole, though.

Mudbound is terrific and devastating, yet somehow, least a tiny bit. Great call.

Also happy to see Kong: Skull Island so high. It's probably the most fun movie I saw all year. And yes to that octopus scene.

We'll just have to agree to disagree on Dunkirk. I loved it.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks for the support on Kong: Skull Island. When I posted this on Facebook, people were falling all over themselves talking about how awful they thought it was. Did they see the same movie we did? Such incredible visual innovation in that film. I'm still marveling at how it was made.

Yeah, Mudbound. Crazy good.

I must admit on my second viewing of Wonder Woman I found the ending especially tedious. But I refuse to punish the movie for it. The rest of it is too important for us to get distracted on that. You appear to agree.

Movie I am most likely to change my opinion on after a second viewing: Dunkirk.

Thanks for the comment!