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.


Wendell Ottley said...

Excellent post! And excellent title for it, as I'm a big fan of Get Out.

The section on Netflix is my favorite. I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. They're out here just putting out practically anything that gets filmed. It's great and terrible all at the same time. Actually, I agree with most of your musings, but this section struck me as particularly perfect.

Glad you got to see The Battle of Algiers, Infernal Affairs, and The Handmaiden this year. They are all wonderful, and for vastly different reasons.

Happy to see the love for Girls Trip and Tiffany Haddish's force-of-nature performance.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Wendell!

I was gaga for Girls Trip. Such a satisfying viewing experience. Haddish is great but I'm worried she will get typecast if she's not careful. What a performance.

Yeah, Netflix figures to leave us, especially traditional cinephiles, conflicted for the foreseeable future. Hopefully one day they will rein in their vision and become the best version of themselves, existing as a clear asset to the community in the way they were for something like Okja (though the Neflix logo got booed at Cannes).

I had some really fine non-2017 viewings ... had two honorable mentions in Brooklyn and Autumn Sonata.

Thanks as always for the comment!