(My favorite poster of the year. I love the motion of Moonee, almost leaping out of frame.)
The Best Films of 2017
“There are only two places left that come with an excuse for being unreachable—the shower and the movies. “Sorry, I was in the shower” or “Sorry, I was in a movie.” USE THAT!!! Seeing Good Time in a room with strangers, with the lights down and a sound system way bigger than anything you could have in your home…is how it was meant to be seen. Be thrilled.” – Safdie Brother’s Open Letter
“It’s really easy to make a movie that five people understand. It’s really hard to make something that a lot of people understand, and yet is not obvious, still has subtlety and ambiguity, and leaves you with something to do as a viewer.” – Steven Soderbergh
“The Cable Guy was an awful movie. Every time I would pull up to a customer’s house, they would always yell “Cable Guy!” as if it were an original joke. Underneath my breath I would curse Jim Carrey for making that movie….but it’s the only movie we have.” – Tim Hess, former cable installer
2017: a year that will live in infamy. By any standard, 2017 was a brutal year. If the new paradigm of monster storms don’t get you, maybe it’ll be America’s insatiable worship of assault weapons. Yes, every time we thought this year couldn’t get any worse, somehow 2017 found a way. Looking back, the year felt equal parts relentless and quicksand slow. Because, much like 2016, every time we had some good news (Doug Jones wins, Dogs are smarter than Cats), it was immediately drowned out by our President reaching new lows. But alas, for every tragedy, there was redemption. For every Mitch McConell, there was a John McCain. For every Harvey Weinstein, there was America Ferrera.
In film, the big studios (and getting bigger) continued to gorge themselves on Jabba-style budgets and overseas grosses, but thankfully, at home, they were countered by a stable of smart, smaller producers spinning gold out of the low to mid-budget movie. A24 (The Disaster Artist, Lady Bird, The Florida Project) being the shining example of how to make a lifestyle brand out of self-serious long takes. In horror, it’s been Blumhouse’s incredible run (Get Out, Split, Insidious). Even Byron Allen, whose 2006 comedy show, Comic’s Unleashed is still in syndication (you know, where all the jokes are about how small the buttons on cellphones are) has his own production company…and it’s pretty good. Point being, great films got made. So before we worry too much about the theatrical model, let’s focus on print media or retail, you know, industries that are actually dying.
If one were looking for a thread to connect almost all the best films of 2017 (I was), it seems to have been children – and more specifically the mentor and the mentee, the young person inheriting a more complicated, more violent, world – the passing down of pain from one generation to next. Time and time again this year, films put us in the perspective of a child (usually a young girl) and followed their story as they slowly come to grips with the cruelty of adulthood. From the horrors of factory farms (Okja), the legacy of miserableness (The Meyerowitz Stories), to even fear itself (It), all year long Children v. Evil was the case before the court.
Whether it was the small films like The Florida Project, where Moonee’s lazy summer is shattered by the choices of her mother. Or massive blockbusters like Logan, where Laura has to take up the fight for mutant rights from a dying Logan – almost every movie this year seemed to say, the world is darker, and more complicated, and even though adults will try to provide some guidance, you have to grow up faster. You have to come to grips with the burdens we’ve left behind. In Dunkirk it was high-school-aged boys surviving in their parent’s war. In Lady Bird, it was Lady Bird overcoming the self-defeating attitude of her parents. Even in Star Wars: The Last Jedi it was a passing of the light saber from one defeated generation to the next.
And because everything is political, you can connect this to our larger cultural moment. Whether its looking for adults in the White House or the boardroom – there’s a feeling that we’ve been trapped in a perpetual child state – powerless to reign in big business, and big money, and big bluster of those at the top, while our social media, and our advertising, and our technology seem resigned to reinforcing that helplessness. You won’t have any social security, or healthcare, and maybe we’ll start WWIII, but at least you can turn your face into a talking poop emoji.
So we went to the movies, despondent, looking for redemption, and in 2017 the films turned the glare back on us. With children as our surrogate, films told us the old ways were dying, the eras of wonder and goodness are receding to a tide of mechanical forces and soulless bureaucracy, and they repeated the same message: We failed to stop this evil. Now, it’s up to you….and it’s never too early to start.
*As with every year, this list is highly subjective. And like always, as of writing this, there are still a ton of films I haven’t seen (Phantom Thread, Zama, The Shape of Water, etc.). Regardless, here goes:
12) It – A lot of people compared It to Stranger Things. Fair enough. But It is more focused. More tactile. More horrific. That opening scene of a winsome little kid being lured into a storm drain, and devoured by a killer clown, well, you immediately know this film has more in mind than just retro set dressing.
It is somehow nostalgic without being condescending, an especially tough feat for a story about children. Stand By Me (also based on a Stephen King story) accomplished the same thing. It doesn’t mean treating the children like adults. It means treating their perspective as genuine.
And I love that the monster, Pennywise, manifests in sort of an undefined gray area. Sometimes all it takes to make him disappear is opening the garage door (in fact, that whole garage sequence might be my favorite editing of the year). At other points, a character can literally put a metal rod through his head and he keeps coming. The logic works because it’s the logic of fear. The threat is as real as you make it.
11) Get Out – Alison Williams, hair pulled back, glass of milk in hand, getting on her computer and typing “Top NCAA prospects” into Google was the single best joke of 2017. Also, one of the most energetic theater experiences of the year. I can’t even remember how many crummy, ra-ra superhero movies I saw in 2017, and yet, when Rod, the heroic TSA agent, shows up in the final moments of Get Out, that was the only time I saw people stand up and cheer.
10) The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – No one writes frustrated dudes like Noah Baumbach. From the foursome in Kicking and Screaming, to the brothers in Squid and the Whale, and now with the middle aged siblings of The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach has staked his claim as our foremost examiner of the spite and stuttering jealousy of the privileged. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are the perfect ciphers for his story. Not to mention, because the film was shot on super 16, the color in every frame is heart-achingly perfect.
9) The Square – I can’t say I loved every moment of The Square. The political parody occasionally felt half baked, the randomness sometimes bordered on haphazard. But after doing some reading, and thinking, and subway meditation on the film, I’ve come to realize that it’s much more accomplished than my initial reaction. Scenes that might seem ham-fisted in one moment take on a different light when taken as a whole. Its shagginess is almost a distraction from the real burrowing.
The Square mercilessly frustrates the idea that we can contain the ugly parts of the world. That we can live in our square and “they” can live in theirs. The film delights in crossing crass modernity with the old and polished. It’s a film where cellphones, and 7-11s, and viral ads smash up against refinement, and marble, and perfectly coifed hair.
There’s a fantastic scene when Christian (the director at the art museum where the film takes place) is rehearsing a speech to donors in front of a mirror. He’s moving along, hitting all the beats, and then suddenly, he stops. He puts down his paper and says he wants to speak from the heart. He rehearses a heartfelt moment. It was one of the most honest moments of the year. Because a professional doesn’t get to that level by being off the cuff. Even when you’re speaking from the heart, it’s always from the heart of someone who has practiced every day what his or her heart should say.
As Michael Koresky brilliantly points out in Film Comment, the talk around “the square” (a new installation at the museum, a single square of concrete, outlined, where anyone who enters is totally safe) is all that we see. That’s all anyone cares about. Talk. It’s the perfect indictment of our current moment. Everyone wants to have a conversation, to tweet their anger, to market their outrage. But no one wants to get in “the square”, no one wants to improve. They only want you to believe, that they believe, in improvement.
8) Call Me By Your Name – Seeing Call Me By Your Name in the middle of winter in NYC was like being stuck in a constantly refreshing, buzzing, honeyed hangover. Something about the film’s heavy warmth was debilitating in the best way. As a viewer you’re overwhelmed, stuck in your seat, throbbing. Every frame of the film radiates. Two bikes receding down a dirt lane. An ancient statue emerging from denim blue water. Swimming pools…and stone fruit will never be the same.
7) Personal Shopper – Kristen Stewart continues to defy the Twilight-era expectation that she was a one note teen star. Over the past few years she’s amassed an almost Amy Adams-level body of work (Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, Certain Women, On The Road). At the core of her reinvention is her partnership with Olivier Assayas. Together they’re like a navel gazing, haunting, gorgeous evolution of John Hughes and Molly Ringwald.
And Assyas might be the first director to truly understand how suspenseful present day technology can be. Not in a schlocky, Friend Request way, but unlike so many horror directors who shoe-horn technology into their plots, Assayas somehow heightens the terror of cellphones, and texts….and that feeling of choosing to be watched while fearing what everyone will see.
6) Lady Bird – Sneaky emotional. For better or worse, every coming of age, female-centric drama is judged against its predecessors. But for the record, Greta Gerwig was doing it first. Lady Bird is aspirational while Girls was confrontational. Less performative than Juno and more lived-in than Pretty in Pink.
Has anyone had a more perfect career than Greta Gerwig? From the small revolution that was Mumblecore, to the comic wonders of Frances Ha and Mistress America, Lady Bird is her coming full circle. Human almost to a fault, and genuinely surprising, the direction is never more than it needs to be. The film has the courage to let its characters do all the heavy lifting. Gah, and that final sequence….perfect.
5) Logan Lucky – The characters in Logan Lucky don’t bemoan their station in life, they find ingenious ways to use the limits of their class to pull off the impossible. Logan Lucky, like any great heist film, is a testament to human ingenuity. It’s the same reason I love reading about escaped convicts. No matter how hard societies try, no matter how unbreakable, or impenetrable, you can never totally quash the spirit of “send it.”
The stunning thing about Soderbergh is how he can infuse so much social commentary into a backwoods heist film. He did a similar thing with Magic Mike, mixing social critiques under the veneer of genre. Think about it, Daniel Craig takes for granted that he’ll get sick from drinking the tap water. The group’s entire plan hinges on a flaw in a basic social service.
And every detail is perfect. The way Katie Holmes’ husband tucks his polo into his shorts. The way Jimmy’s daughter hops onto his shoulders. There’s a small moment when Jimmy returns to alert his sister that their plan to send roaches through the pipes has succeeded – “we got a code pink”. She’s sitting on the couch and gives this incredible squeal of delight that’s so raw and genuine. I was floored.
4) Lost City of Z – How this wasn’t on more best lists, I have no idea. It’s old-school, epic, adventure storytelling. From the trenches of WW1 to jungles of Bolivia, Lost City of Z was the kind of movie that everyone wistfully says they don’t make anymore, and yet, they did.
3) Logan – Finally a “Marvel” movie with some real pain. Logan isn’t a superhero movie, it’s a Western about someone with super powers. It’s got more on its mind than snappy rejoinders and a 40 minute Putty fight. It’s about decency receding in the name of progress. The polish of the future erasing the humanity of the past. Logan replaces truck drivers with driverless cars, soldiers with lab grown children, our heroes with flawless digital simulacrum of those heroes.
You could write a book about the symbolism of a younger, completely digital Hugh Jackman coming back at the end to kill the actual flesh and blood Hugh Jackman. It’s a metaphor for everything: muddy digital cinema devouring film, Moviepass undermining the theatrical model, our digital lives destroying our real ones. In 2017, Frankestein’s monster wasn’t a stitched together body with bolts in his neck, it was an airbrushed projection, made sleek and soulless by twenty dudes in an open office.
(Side note: In twenty years will we even have movie stars? Or will they just be 4K avatars of old movie stars? Princess Leia, Wolverine, Jeff Bridges in Tron. Hollywood is so vain they literally built technology to make themselves perpetually young.)
2) Dunkirk – The sound of an incoming plane. It starts small. A slow whine, like air being let out of a tire, but it grows, rapidly, to a motorized, hungry, deafening drone. Nolan understands tension. He understands building to crescendo. It’s a fighter plane approaching and all the dread that comes with it. Every smaller story within Dunkirk is in the orbit of the core event, they eventually come back together and intersect. Nolan, as he always does, takes the ripe grapefruit of time and throws it against the wall, then reverses the footage, all the little pieces expanding and returning.
Dunkirk is pointedly post-politics. It’s unconcerned with the enemy, and the social context of the war, and almost every motivation except one: survival, the survival of oneself, the survival of your side, the survival of your country.
Oddly enough, I kept returning to Spielberg’s first film, Duel. I once heard Alexander Payne describe Duel as “pure cinema”. It’s a nebulous term, loosely defined as something so inherently cinematic, it just wouldn’t work any other way. That’s how I feel about Dunkirk. It’s a film, as I’ve said before about Nolan’s work, that is uniquely bound to the medium. Because watching Dunkirk, you know the experience of seeing Dunkirk in a theater was always the default. Some films are made for actors, or money, or story, or revenge, or vanity – but Nolan made this movie for movies.
1) The Florida Project: A bright red slurpee of a movie. The credits give special thanks to Hal Roach and Spanky from Our Gang. And that’s exactly the right lens for watching The Florida Project. It’s Little Rascals for the Great Recession, with Brazilian tourists taking the place of jeweled elites, Bobby (the motel manager) taking the place of the mansion butler, donated waffles standing in for boiled shoes. Sean Baker isn’t trying to wring tears out of some hardscrabble reality. He’s making a depression era comedy in the shadow of America’s second great economic collapse.
(Side note: Orlando, through films like Queen of Versailles, The Big Short, 99 Homes, and The Florida Project, has solidified itself as the go-to metaphor for the promise of the American Dream vs. the reality. The castle vs. the motel. The helicopter vs. the used car.)
The few criticisms of The Florida Project that I’ve seen, say that the drama and heartache are played too subtly – casual prostitution, violence, food scarcity – it’s presumed that these problems somehow require heavy handedness. The critique seems to be that filmmakers must make tough lives seem joyless. But I think there’s a greater truth in taking these realities as a given. We want film to tell us that it’s abnormal for children and families to be surrounded by poverty, when in fact, it’s how untold millions of Americans live.
There’s more courage and more power in allowing poor people delight and humanity and goodness than there is in melodramitizing their struggle. Near the end of the film when Moonee, our seven year old protagonist, takes her best friend out into the marsh and posts up on a tipped over tree, she says “I like this tree because it’s fallen over and it’s still growing.” That line, as on the nose as it is, goes straight to 4 chambers. There’s are worlds in every apartment, every motel, every exit off the highway. Gorgeous stories that rise and fall on the outskirts of the standard loops of history, on the periphery of the stories we typically tell. The Florida Project, rightly, has the patience to pull over and listen.
Sick-Com of the Year: The Big Sick. The Big Sick is perhaps the pinnacle of a new comedy subgenre, the Sick-Com. The recipe is simple: take a comedian and give them a sick friend/family member. This way the movie can have laughs and tears. 50/50 gave Seth Rogen a best friend with cancer. Trainwreck gave Amy Schumer a dad with MS. And now, The Big Sick wherein Kumail Nanjiani is a standup who falls for a girl right before she drops into a coma. It’s Apatow does Fault in our Stars. A great movie, an even better formula.
America’s Substitute History Teacher: Steven Spielberg. He’s spent the last decade assembling what I’m calling the Substitute Teacher Trilogy: Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post. All excellent films. All films that will someday be watched in AP Civics on a day when the teacher has a dentist appointment.
Butt Cut of the Year Award: Josh Huttcherson’s butt cut in The Disaster Artist. Every single time they cut to him, I lost it.
Worst Agent of the Year: Jon Hamm’s agent. What is Jon Hamm’s agent doing?!? First they put him in a string of cut-rate comedies, then a bunch of lame tax software ads, and now, with Baby Driver, they’re trying to turn him into a villain??? He should be playing a fucking astronaut, or an idealistic senator. His best film role to date, in The Town, was playing a determined cop. He can be a great actor, let’s treat him that way.
Best Couple in a Meh Movie: Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman. Stuffed between a generic 30 minute action scene and a Grecian lifestyle montage is a fantastic film. The middle hour of Wonder Woman deserves every bit of praise. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are perfect. Bottle their chemistry and sell it at Belk.
Rightful Heir to the Elaine Benes Crown: Jenny Slate. Tina Fey likes to compare herself to Julia Louis-Dreyfrus. But she’s always been too self-aware, too nerd rage to claim the crown. Jenny Slate though. Between, Bored to Death, Obvious Child, Joshey, and 2017’s Landline, hell, even those Gap ads with her and Paul Dano – Jenny Slate is the new Elaine.
Location, Location, Location Scouts of the Year Award: The team who did Wind River. Taylor Sheridan’s follow up to Hell or High Water is half fantastic, half C grade Law and Order episode. No other writer understands the omnipresence of weapons and their effects on human psychology like Sheridan. Jeremy Renner is the John Wayne of the assault rifle era. But the film suffers from an undercurrent of vicious cruelty, excessive trailer lines (“Welcome to Wyoming”) and a bizarre momentum shattering flashback. YET, the locations used for Wind River are far and away the best of the year. The grimy storefronts, the mismatched blankets – the frontier quality of every jacket, and door handle, and trailer hitch – excellent.
Best Title: Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature. Put this on my tombstone.
Well, there you have it. Another year for the record books. Thanks for reading. Stay safe in 2018.