Let’s be real: this list is about me, not the movies, so it’s a favorites list by default, not a best of. I didn’t see enough 2017 movies to justify the hubris of a best of list. Only forty titles under the belt, and many of those were the requisite cultural flotsam of your typical, throw-away superhero stories, lumbering soulless franchises and heartwarming but completely interchangeable family flicks – the best of which, for me, was the formally adventurous and uncompromisingly sweet Wonder, even if it was just cause I got to see Owen Wilson portray the exact kind of dad I’d love to be for my forthcoming child. Again, quality as defined by the fullness of me. Anyway, it’s a list, not even a top ten, but a top several that I most felt like saying something about.
1. A GHOST STORY (dir. David Lowery)A Charlie Brown Halloween by way of Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. (Note the Nietzsche tome making a background cameo here and there.) The dialogue is scarce, the emotions are full – the world’s first and only mumblescare movie. Dry and tongue-in-cheek without once being sarcastic, nothing I’ve seen all year put me in a headspace so clean and pure and totally college-dorm conversational. It’s about grief, it’s about closure, it’s about true love and how its greatest expression might be letting go. It’s also about pie, and about your place in history and in the future, often at the same time – the movie says it’s okay to eat the entire circularity of time and space in one sitting, but it might not set well at first. And all in one of the fastest slow movies I’ve ever seen. Of all the films I got to this year, it’s honestly the only one that’s begged me to think about it later – kind of like being haunted by a movie.
2. THE LOST CITY OF Z (dir. James Gray)I’m sucked in immediately by the elegiac conspiracy of time and place, and gradually deeper by the slow immersion into a kind of mystical bath of old film style and pulpy Edgar Rice Burrows stories. Charlie Hunnam’s Maj. Percy Fawcett, based on the real guy and his real obsession, is all handsome avatar for our own feelings of underdog social status (no hero could ever be in the 1%) and our common flirtations with shiny objects at first just distraction before they become life’s folly. We follow that arc from start to finish with military man Fawcett and his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) as they face down killer natives and the treachery of their own men en route to an ancient fabled city. Inside of its enveloping cinematography (Darius Khondji), the movie considers with deep emotions the question of what sacrifice is worth the acquisition of elusive dreams.
3. LADY BIRD (dir. Greta Gerwig)There’s a lot that makes me embarrassed about putting this very girl-centric movie at my number three spot, but I can’t help it. I’ll admit that it makes me wish I was a girl so I could call it “my movie”. In the surface sense, it can never be my movie: it’s a young woman’s experience, one from a roundly dysfunctional family, one that produces a person who feels compelled to rebel in that way, none of which is me. But in a deeper sense, that portentous sense that writers of film love to point out, it’s about all of us who are privileged but discontent, smart but hung-up in a million different ways, above it but wanting desperately to connect to it anyway. But even better, if shallower, the movie flatters ones sense of knowing movies – it’s another in the line of Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Gerwig herself, who ride that Godardian wave of self-congratulation and film-reference directly into our movie-loving guts – it’s a frothy flip-book of Annie Hall, Francis Ha!, The 400 Blows, The Graduate, heck, Love Finds Andy Hardy – essentially another perfectly confected hodgepodge of bouncy youthful angst that may not necessarily reflect the truth of one young person’s actual life as much as it does the truth of our love for movies romanticizing such things.
4. GET OUT (dir. Jordan Peele)No movie since Elephant (2003) has made me feel so much like I’m still in it hours/days after I saw it. In Elephant, it’s the ever-following camera that rewires your “real life” POV as a camera moving through a frame. In Get Out, it’s the ever-revelatory roll-out of the myriad ways I, as a white man, see and treat people of color. I swear, in the days following the movie, I could feel my face squeeze up into that fake-friendly scrunch smile, and I don’t even think I was meanin’ no harm. Just imagine if I was. Never been on the receiving end of a satire before, so it wins on personal novelty, but it would’ve won anyway for being about the smartest comedy-that-wishes-it-could-just-be-a-comedy ever made. Get Out is a prime example of a comedy doing what the egg heads say comedy does – exorcising pain even as it’s inflicting it.
5. MARJORIE PRIME (dir. Michael Almereyda)A kind of companion movie to A Ghost Story, about the quantum mechanics of memory. Marjorie (the perfect Lois Smith) is an old woman with dementia. She’s got a companion she hangs out with in her home that’s a holographic replica of her dead husband, Walter – only it’s a younger version, played by John Hamm, who is a semi-blank slate waiting on Marjorie to fill in the blanks with conversation. Geena Davis and Tim Robbins are Marjorie’s daughter and son-in-law, burdened with her care and navigating their own aging marriage. What makes it compelling, beyond the Black Mirror-like, future-tech premise, is the quality of the conversation – it’s all memory-refreshing for the characters, each of whom get their turn at bat in the “talk to the hologram(s)” department, but for us it’s constant character building. And, like A Ghost Story, the tone of moody chamber drama provides the eerie gravitas that keeps us chained to the whole shebang like a lingering regret.
6. THE FLORIDA PROJECT (dir. Sean Baker)About subsisting Disney World-adjacent, standing Tantalus-like just out of reach of the dream. At an Orlando motel turned squatters’ haven, there’s hustlers trying to find a way to remain in their predicament, a surly but benevolent proprietor (Willem Dafoe) who runs the place with a caustic, velvet fist, and the repeated, haunting reminder of aircraft seeming to leave freely just beyond reach – if you squint hard enough, the whole thing plays like a colorful, ’90s-era independent film version of the anti-Casablanca. The movie’s plot, as it were, is entirely dependent on the actions of the irresponsible adults, but the movie’s heart is located in the eyes of the blithely funny children caught in the grip of a situation they have no vocabulary for. The last two minutes are a bizarro escapism that’s nearly ruinous tonally and stylistically, but the moments leading up to it are a truthful depiction of smart kids caught in a very dumb scenario.
7. MOTHER! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)Possibly the closest any movie has ever come to my own childhood nightmares of what adulthood must be like. The metaphoring from start to finish is so on-the-nose, from such a smart filmmaker, that there’s no room to deny it’s intentional. That said, what seems like a religious allegory with wallowing delusions of world-historical grandeur, the director calls an ode to the hubristic inclinations of man toward his natural home. Basically, he made an eco-movie that rankles instead as a religious screed or a paean to bloated artistic ego itself. It’s like Jurassic World touting itself as a satire of overblown commercialism while also being one of the planet’s highest grossing films, except here instead of dinosaurs, it’s burning flesh and infanticide. For many, it’s a repulsive abomination – somehow, for me, during the moments I watched it, I couldn’t help but applaud the unrelenting chutzpa.
I liked others quite a bit: Detroit, Mudbound, Wonderstruck, Last Flag Flying, Battle of the Sexes, The Post, but not enough to write about them here, while others fell so far short of what I’d hoped for that I’d just as soon put them away without mention, but here they are anyway: The Shape of Water, War for the Planet of the Apes, Phantom Thread, Downsizing, The Last Jedi, Baby Driver. Each of them have much to say and much to recommend them, but they each also have enough about them that just make me too let down to care, at least on first viewing. Here’s to future attempts!
TO MAKE UP FOR THOSE, and as one of the acting ZekeFilm “Classic Film Czars”, here’s a few older movies I enjoyed as first-time-views much or more than anything from 2017.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952, dir. Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen)I don’t think I’ve been more thoroughly entertained by a movie in years. It covers the moment when sound technology overtook silent filmmaking, arguably robbing us of the deep simplicity of stylized pantomime and replacing it with cheap, tinny vocabulary. The movie parodies the broadness of the old style even as it celebrates it by mocking the demands of the new way. I love a movie that has no shame in highlighting the cynical reliance on artifice to fool an audience into a good time, and this one does it in many ways: from the inflation of Don (Gene Kelly) and Cosmo’s (Donald O’Connor) humble performing history into a fan-mag-friendly tall tale, to the deeply dysfunctional way Don expresses his love for Cathy (Debbie Reynolds) by the only means he says an actor can, with the “proper setting” of a manufactured starry night on an empty soundstage, and to the fact that the movie is itself merely a rehashed flipbook of old Arthur Freed/MGM songs the audience already knew well. And the joke’s on us, because while the movie keeps telling us movies are fake, it’s in the costume of a movie so well-made that the very artifice it’s unmasking has sucker-punched us with glitz, glamour, charm, and relentless life.
SHIN GODZILLA (2016, dir. Hideaki Anno/Shinji Higuchi)A goofily unexpected, and perfectly level-headed satire of disaster protocol, it’s government emergency response filtered through bureaucratic corporatese. Classic Godzilla movies have nearly always spent screen time explicating the response end of things, but never has the moment-by-moment, check-box reality of it all been so focused on, to the point that simple decision making becomes a kind of dark suspense, like placid futility gesturing in the face of the most uncontrollable force nature ever birthed. Meanwhile, out in the city, amongst the people, Godzilla himself is doing the Luke Skywalker thing a couple years before it was cool, surviving under a total body-consuming barrage of megaton explosives, but better, cause this is no astral projection, Godzilla takes it like a man and lives to stomp out his final point – it’s a “Godzilla vs.” movie but not in the classic sense…what he’s battling to the death is our naïve assumption of preparedness.
BEN HUR (1959, dir. William Wyler)The finest confection of every Technicolor Bible epic of the ’50s rolled into one, with the Earnest Knob cranked to XI, and pushing a faithfulness to the source material that’s been spoofed in everything from Life of Brian to Hail, Caesar!, but which here feels sacred enough to be respected without irony, and yet be-robed in its own grandiose bijou mythology enough to be cheered at a basic white-horse/black-horse level. The breadth of Christ’s cradle-to-grave and beyond is seen from the vantage of a popular Jewish prince, Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), as he tangles with the increasingly oppressive Roman government in Jerusalem, occasionally crossing paths with the divine in scenes that play like a biblical Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Heston, who was Moses only three years before, graduates into the New Testament and brings every bit of his big-toothed gravitas to bear as the de facto leader of the Jews against his own best friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd), a Roman tribune. Wyler guides the melodrama-heavy three-and-a-half hours toward an earned, heart-felt cinch-up of not only Judah’s friends-and-family plan, and not just the more general salvation of the world by the bit-part Savior, but nothing less than the raising of cash-strapped MGM from the dead.
UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)I noticed that many reviews for A Ghost Story title-checked this movie, one I saw before AGS, so in some ways I suppose I’ve come full circle from the top of this list, which is appropriate given both films’ themes of reincarnation, memory, and the never-dying repetition of familial love. But this one, even more so than the newer film, is for me a deeply immersive experience, perhaps owing to the familiarity of suburban American homes and sheets with eye holes versus this slow descent into the spiritual-alien environs of Thai forests and magical caves and red-eyed gorilla men and sex with fish. I’ve never seen such strange images onscreen treated with this manner of prayerful curiosity – sitting with it makes me reimagine the things around me as somehow imbued with a life of their own, and the people around me as more than just the bringers or barriers of my personal happiness, but as energies that pass through their bodies on the way to individual enlightenment. Part of me is hyper-writing for the benefit of those that have actually read this far. Another part of me is totes serious and very ready to call this movie the best one out of the 257 I saw in 2017. Let’s just go ahead and say that and let it be the end of this list, just in time to start fresh with a brand new zero, like a new life birthed from the old. Hello, 2018!
(Other great first-time-viewing of the year: Altered States, Army of Shadows, Foreign Correspondent, Life is Sweet, Sweet Bean, Planet of the Vampires, Spirited Away, Summer Hours, and A Time To Live, A Time To Die.)