You know, sometimes you’re just way the hell off-consensus, and that’s all there is to say about that. And that’s all I particularly want to say as a preamble to this summary of the 2017 movie year: it’s not much fun when everybody around you is oohing and ahhing over movies that you found deeply adequate and not much more, and that’s defined very nearly the entire movie year for me. Though I should probably count my blessings that I happen to live and work in what appears to be the only pocket of North America populated solely by people who disliked The Shape of Water, so cheers to the UW-Madison film graduate program.
Anyway, 2017: a year that was phenomenal in my personal and professional life (not least because of this wonderful new site and my excellent colleagues, Rob and Carrie), and was quite dogshit in pretty much all the other ways. Let’s talk about the movies that did the best job of impressing, transporting, and inspiring me, even so.
(A quick note: after some years of following “basically the official Oscar eligibility list, plus anything that could have been there if the distributor had bothered filling out the paperwork”, I’ve decided to officially switch to “exactly Mike D’Angelo’s list of NYC releases, plus anything that debuted on Netflix in lieu of a U.S. theatrical release”. This results in the film at my #10 slot, which would be a 2016 release according to the first rule).
The Ten Best Films of 2017
1. World of Tomorrow, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts
2. Faces Places
3. Starless Dreams
4. John Wick: Chapter 2
5. Personal Shopper
6. In This Corner of the World
7. The Girl Without Hands
8. First They Killed My Father
9. Atomic Blonde
10. Your Name.
1. World of Tomorrow, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Dreams
(Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
Following the sublime World of Tomorrow with another hyper-dense study of human perception would have been achievement enough. This time, the script is flipped: instead of looking outward to consider how we’re all barely hanging on in in the mania of the Information Age, Episode Two plumbs the depth of harmful coping mechanisms and the dangerous pleasure of burying oneself in a haze of memories (not even necessarily pleasant ones), brilliantly visualised in some of the most beautiful abstract computer animation I have ever seen. That’s enough to get it on the list. What rockets it to #1 is the steady build-up to the shocking and joyous reveal of Triangle Land, maybe the most perfect depiction of Heaven in all of cinema.
2. Faces Places
(Agnès Varda & JR, France)
Another film that gets here mostly because I was stunned by the perfection of the twist. Most of the film is a charming little essay by our beloved Agnès and her new street art friend explaining all about their not-terribly-amazing installation project across the small towns of rural France. It turns the corner into unbridled greatness right about the inevitable reveal that, yet again, Varda has made a documentary elliptically about her own increasing age. Not with a sense of fatalism – never with a sense of fatalism – but perhaps this is the most uplifting of her “I’m about to die” series, given its celebration of her rejuvenating collaboration with JR, and in a staggering final 15 minutes, her awareness of her place in cinema history.
3. Starless Dreams
(Mehrdad Oskouei, Iran)
Full disclosure: I’m not prepared to make this sliver of a film about a girls’ juvenile detention facility in Iran sound all pleasant to watch, because I frankly don’t think it can be done. Granting that, this is as emotionally powerful as nonfiction cinema gets: the filmmaker sinks into the lives of his subjects enough to allow them to take the reigns of the project, telling their own stories and letting us see, briefly, into their lives of hardship, cruelty, and well-earned, intractable anger. That these are all teenage girls lends the film both a sense of wary optimism that they might be able to rebound, and also serves as its final, darkest cruelty. The finest kind of emotional devastation movies can offer.
4. John Wick: Chapter 2
(Chad Stahelski, USA)
Yeah, I completely understand why you’re giving me that very suspicious look right now. But the beautiful thing is that there are so many reasons we might want to watch movies, and one that matters very much to me is that movies have the capacity to present all the ingredients of the other visual arts – color, texture, light, shape, compositional geometry – and add to that the gratifying complication of movement. And by that definition, nothing this year came close to this magnificent paean to violence taking place in a ridiculous fantasy world of urban spaces turned into art installations: the subways and tunnels just as much as the actual art installation near the end. A grand start to a great year for action film.
5. Personal Shopper
(Olivier Assayas, France / Germany / Czech Republic / Belgium)
Long-time readers will recall that I’m an easy mark for movies that can be readily defined as anti- things, and this is anti- as much as you could imagine: anti-thriller, anti-horror, anti-satire, anti-erotica, anti-art film. The one thing it actually is, is a dive into the complicated, morbid, scared mindset of a woman trying to deal with death – the death of a loved one, the promise that she’ll eventually die – with Kristen Stewart giving a performance for the ages as a character defined almost entirely in terms of the things she’s hiding from herself, others, and the camera itself. Also, the text message scene is simply the tensest scene I saw in a movie this year.
6. In This Corner of the World
Not the year’s most sumptuous, audacious animated film – look a little bit down – but the smartest and most humane. And for all that I might want to give more credit to the films that go apeshit with elaborate variations on animation aesthetics, I think you could easily argue that this is the one that uses its style most intelligently to augment its story and emotions. A coming-of-age story frustrated by the privations of life during wartime, a tale of an artist sublimating her creativity in the way she (and we) see the world, a very quiet love story, a very potent and harrowing domestic tragedy; there’s a little bit of everything here, and I look forward to a lifetime teasing out its subtleties.
7. The Girl Without Hands
(Sébastien Laudenbach, France)
A true auteurist masterwork – Laudenbach drew almost every frame himself, as I understand it – this is also the most unprecedented-looking animated film of the year (a year with Loving Vincent in it, no less). But as much as I’m intoxicated by the free-flowing artwork, drawing from the look of Asian ink painting, it’s not just as an exercise in bravura style that I love this. It’s also the film’s precise evocation of the logic, rhythm, and philosophy of European folklore that makes it impressive; the film is untouched by irony or modernity, and is thus able to achieve something of the deep primordial emotional power that a great fairy tale can achieve unlike any other narrative form.
8. First They Killed My Father
(Angelina Jolie, Cambodia / USA)
If it acts and talks like Oscarbait, yeah, I agree, it’s probably Oscarbait, particularly given Jolie’s great willingness till now to indulge in the most tedious kind of Respectable Message Movies. But you can go years without finding prestige cinema, or any other kind, that does this fine of a job expressing the subjective experience of its story through image, structure, and a remarkable performance by amateur child actor Sareum Srey Moch, magnificently directed to an unnerving edge of emotional intensity. Less a story about the Khmer Rouge killings than about carrying around the memory of the killings through the distortion filter of childhood perceptions, it’s as artistically accomplished as it is self-consciously Important, and it’s my pick for 2017’s most unfairly-received film.
9. Atomic Blonde
(David Leitch, USA)
You could, to be fair, copy-paste a lot of what I had to say about John Wick: Chapter 2, with the biggest twist that this film does with costumes what that film does with sets. So what, we were so uncommonly blessed as to receive two films that amazingly harness the visual expressiveness of cinema to outstandingly well-choreographed action. The stairwell scene is obviously a stand-out, both for purely spectacular reasons as for the incredible way it treats fighting as a narrative element; but the whole movie, a tribute to the squalor, exoticism, and energy of “Berlin” as that city stands in the pop culture of the Cold War, is a mighty exercise in style as an extension of mood, character, politics, sex, you name it.
10. Your Name.
(Shinkai Makoto, Japan)
It’s so lush and lavish-looking that it’s practically indecent; Shinkai’s strong suit is his lighting effects, and I’ll be damned if there’s been a more top-to-bottom beautiful demonstration of immaculate-looking sunsets bathing the world in golden shadows in the last 12 months. And the marraige of traditional animation technique with computers has only rarely paid off so well. It’s also a solid, if not very revolutionary story of teenage love and teenage identity-making; there’s a sweetness and niceness about the film that makes it all go down easily. Even the ridiculous visuals are, in a sense, nothing more than the extension of the awestruck romanticism with which its protagonists view the world.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which I’m sorry to say doesn’t cross the Rubicon separating “episodes, therefore television, regardless of cinematic vocabulary” from “cohesion, therefore cinema, regardless of length and delivery system” for me (it comes down to the Roadhouse scenes at the end of every episode). But it was the second best audio-visual experience I had in 2017.
So as not to be coy: “A Traditional Festival” in Super Mario Odyssey was the first best audio-visual experience I had in 2017, but only a madman would call it “cinema”.
10. Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, USA)
Heinous for brutalising the perfect structure of a nigh-flawless original, of course, but it’s even more galling for how poorly made it is: the grotesquely florid (and inexplicably Oscar-nominated) sets look like gilded hell, and there are far too many people in this musical who cannot sing even one little bit. The nastiest embodiment of Disney’s “fuck you, we know you’ll pay for this” mentality in a long time.
9. Birth of the Dragon (George Nolfi, USA / China)
It’s hard to remember the last shitty biopic that made more unforced errors than this nominal story of Bruce Lee that makes him, at best, the third-most-important character. The aimless, untethered story is bad, the flagrant impossibility of coming up with anyone alive who could make a good Lee surrogate is bad, the racial politics are bad, and the fact that a story of beating Chinatown gangsters with martial arts is this damn boring is very bad.
8. Amityville: The Awakening (Franck Khalfoun, USA)
Nothing with this many highly-visible release date shifts could be anything but awful, and if anything, this turned out substantially better than I anticipated. Given that I anticipated the worst film in the worst of the major horror franchises, that’s not saying much, and only the fact that this dull-as-dishwater movie looks like they at least spent money on it keeps it from drifting lower. Even finds a way to make Jennifer Jason Leigh seem bad.
7. Underworld: Blood Wars (Anna Foerster, USA)
Continues the franchise’s long, beautiful tradition of making “vampires versus werewolves” too complicated and besotted with in-universe politics to understand what the hell is going on. Kate Beckinsale has a sword now – or somebody has a sword, I forget who, it’s been twelve months – and that’s enough to separate it out slightly from the even worse films in this series, but this still so much sound and fury attempting to compensate for how strikingly idiotic the basic concept is.
6. Bright (David Ayer, USA)
There’s already a contingent of “oh, it’s not that bad!” quasi-defenders online, and maybe it isn’t, but for three things. First, this movie cost way too fucking much to be this shitty-looking (outside of the excellent makeup). Second, fantasy with such incompetent world-building deserves to be punished. Third, any film with such a horrendous attempt at satirising systemic racism in Los Angeles deserves to be set on fire in the public square.
5. The Book of Henry (Colin Trevorrow, USA)
Easily the best film here from a pure filmmaking standpoint. No, this one is all about that godforsaken screenplay. The unbelievably misjudged twist in the middle gets all the credit, and it fucking well deserves it, but it’s hardly wanting for company in a film with such tremendously bad character-building and grotesque morality and all-round tastelessness. A boundless compendium of ideas that any sensible person would have known to keep the hell out of a mainstream movie.
4. Rings (F. Javier Gutiérrez, USA)
What was that about multiple release-date shifts? In its own right, this is just another shoddy clone of The Ring, albeit one that’s years too late. But this isn’t a clone, it’s a sequel, and there’s something uniquely terrible about watching a sequel so effortfully replicate every beat of its predecessor, including all the twists. The worst-case scenario for an American J-horror film, a good nine years after the J-horror bubble popped.
3. Friend Request (Simon Verhoeven, Germany)
I would almost be tempted to call the worst use of social media in a major film in this decade, but “major film” would already be paying the movie a compliment. More barbarically clichéd than necessarily terrible, but this is the laziest and most insultingly non-scary kind of horror filmmaking, and given how clearly the filmmakers did not care, I left this one feeling unusually hostile.
2. The Emoji Movie (Anthony Leondis, USA)
This is a movie about talking emojis that live in your phone and have personality crises.
1. The Bye Bye Man (Stacy Title, USA)
Honestly, the sheer fucking inhumanity of The Emoji Movie almost bumped this one, but that movie at least was made with the barest modicum of technical competence. No such nice words for The Bye Bye Man, in which the year’s worst acting, hands down, meets its most slipshod, careless filmmaking. Utterly joyless, with one of the worst-looking horror film monsters in ages, and an extra dollop of rage for how crudely it bungles Madison, Wisconsin, at just about the exact the point that city was transitioning from “the place in which I currently reside” to “my beloved home”.
The previously-noted First They Killed My Father, which had to overcome not just my antipathy to films that want to Teach You A Lesson, but my moderate-to-severe dislike of every previous film directed by Angelina Jolie. I was putty in the movie’s hands by the ten-minute mark.
It’s absolutely my own fault that I had any expectations at all for Alien: Covenant, given the batting average of Ridley Scott’s career and every other Alien movie in the last quarter of a century. But I still managed to have them, and for it I got a movie that was too self-consciously classy to be good trash, and too trashy to be anything else.
Best Popcorn Movie
Wonder Woman, and I acknowledge that’s at least 50% for the No Man’s Land scene; but dear sweet Christ, what a scene it is.
I have some vague sense that it is not the Done Thing to love The Boss Baby, and yet this does not stop me from loving it; first for the intensely creative use of backgrounds and stylistic flexibility, second for its charming parable-like story of childhood jealousy (hint: the boss baby isn’t real, and none of the plot actually happens).
Only “worst” in context, really, but the big, totally useless flashback near the end of Wind River is very nearly the only reason the film didn’t make my top 25 of the year, particularly given the deeply artless way it starts.
Laura Dern, Downsizing
There were a lot of candidates this year, but I have to go with the final note of what has been a holy and magnificent year of Dern, as she manages in basically just three lines to evoke the brittle kitschiness of a faux-cheery informercial actress with the simmering impatience of a woman who really doesn’t want to do this corny shit with the oily slickness of a gifted huckster.
“So I told him that to condemn a novel he had not read would be like going to Sodom or Gomorrah, and being disappointed that neither were Philadelphia.”
-Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), A Quiet Passion. Screenplay by Terence Davies
The “therapy session” by the side of a skating rink in Molly’s Game is much too long to transcribe, but it’s a doozy, and argues that Aaron Sorkin has run out of nearly all his talent.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Worst Title, Standalone
The Bye Bye Man
Worst Title, Sequel
Boo 2! A Madea Halloween
It’s almost, literally, worshipful: the bright colors and playful signage of Coney Island is framed like a stained class window in chuch. And of course the interior of the room overlooking this beautiful sight is all drowned in grim noir shadows, and that intense backlight on Kate Winslet, who looks pensive and unhappy in just the right way to add a note of sourness to the image’s beauty. A perfect study in contrasts, all of them drop-dead beautiful
Best Teaser Poster
Simple and iconic. The movie’s entire poster campaign was terrific, but this was the one I couldn’t stop staring at: gorgeous, dramatic lighting, and a pose that perfectly combines readiness and tension with a moment of reflective quiet. It’s beautiful and a little sad, evoking the sober duty of a superhero with great elegance. And that wonderful, plain tagline “Wonder” is just so great.
No, I mean, I get it, we don’t need to keep making fun of this one, not here in January 2018. But isn’t it fun to look at it one more time and just bask in how amazing it is that not one solitary thing happening in the right half of this poster is even halfway acceptable, not even by accident?
Worst Poster for a Movie About Which I Know Nothing, Other Than That It Has a Shitty Poster
Mostly just generic, but look at Julie Delpy’s head on the top row… now look at her head in the bottom left… now look back up… now start crying… now hope that your tears will blind you to the additional facts that Car-Delpy is at least 10% too small, and also car seats don’t do that.
Atomic Blonde, Trailer #2
Adroitly captures all of the color and style of the film itself, particularly the way that music drives the energy and action. A perfectly little mini-narrative, and the year’s best marriage of music and cutting, with all due apologies to Baby Driver, and to Atomic Blonde itself.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Trailer #1
It’s almost like somebody is conducting an experiment in seeing how unappealing the ads for the sequel to a mega-sized blockbuster can be before it actively starts to chase people away. I think I have to go with the embalmed “banter” between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard as being the worst thing here, but it’s also impressive that they’ve pre-emptively taken every molecule of pleasure out of seeing Jeff Goldblum’s cameo, which here looks like it’s going to be the laziest, most inorganic bullshit possible.
The Ten Best Classic Films I Saw for the First Time in 2017
Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928)
Riley the Cop (John Ford, 1928)
Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson, 1943)
Floating Weeds (Ozu Yasujiro, 1959)
This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963)
Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)
Horrors of Malformed Men (Ishii Teruo, 1969)
Je tu il elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974)
Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)
Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991)