2017 was bullshit. Americans watched white supremacy overtly establish itself as a political platform, thanks in large part to our stammering, moronic asshole of an administration and thanks in part to a general popular willingness to loudly stand behind unconscionable ideas in the name of “free speech.” Personally, I’ve lived through another year of a hellish chronic medical issue, and can look forward to more in years to come. I’ve had it with this stupid year.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that film is helping keep some of us going. Art is vivifying in the best of times; at the moment it’s an oxygen tank while we’re all under water. 2017 was a phenomenal year for the medium (and for television and video games). Building this list, I knocked off more faves than I kept – I’ll cap it with some honorable mentions. I also need to note that I have yet to see some films that I expect may later disrupt this, including Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, and The Shape of Water.
10: INGRID GOES WEST
Directed by Matt Spicer
Ingrid, an obsessive weirdo played by professional portrayer of obsessive weirdos Aubrey Plaza, has a history of stalking people who she perceives as embodying life well-lived. She gives herself wholly over to the lie of social media, failing entirely to understand that actual lives never literally correspond to Instagram feeds. She fixates on Elizabeth Olson’s California socialite Taylor, and moves to Los Angeles to force herself into Taylor’s orbit. It’s an original scenario, and is precisely as squirm-inducing as you would expect. What I didn’t expect is a gripping and ultimately moving psycho-drama. It’s a funny film, but it’s also intensely sad. Ingrid has no identity of her own, and her desperate attempt to move into an idol’s shadow is relatable and painful.
Aubrey Plaza has quickly outgrown April Ludgate; as iconic as her turn in Parks and Recreation is, she has begun to reveal a dramatic potency in much darker roles. She is absolutely stellar in the X-Men spinoff show Legion on FX, and she shines here in a role that could easily have been an empty caricature. I also really appreciate Elizabeth Olsen’s work as a public figure with a mundane, conflicted personal life. She deftly characterizes the fragility of public image.
Directed by Julia Ducournau
Raw follows young veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) as she navigates her social and sexual awakenings which manifest as a desperate need to eat raw meat and, eventually, people. It runs in the family; her big sister Alexia has already figured out the cannibal life and helps guide her through her gross self-discovery. The plot reads a bit goofily, but the film is a revelation, a moderately familiar horror scenario (Ginger Snaps comes to mind) but without any generic trappings. In its way, this deliriously gruesome and disturbing film is sweet, a comedic family drama shot through a particularly bloody lens. Its bratty intensity is tempered by high-minded panache; it is loud, jarring, upsetting, and gorgeous. I admire its leads’ commitment to such tonal complexity, to telling a severe and implausible story with familiarity, grounding it in the give and take of real relationships. Raw is surprisingly moving.
It also concerns itself with the boundaries of life and the measurement of worth when weighing the quality of species. Are humans and apes equal? If you are happy to eat one, can you not eat the other? Meat, in this film, is equal.
Ah, and yes. If you are squeamish in any way about anything, probably avoid it. It’s really gross.
8: THE BEGUILED
Directed by Sofia Coppola
If there were somehow a precise opposite of the Bechdel Test you might call it the Beguiled Test. That’s not a criticism, the whole point of this story is collective fixation on sex as a solvent for war-time loneliness. The panel of southern girls and women that house Collin Farrell’s northern deserter during the Civil War attaches what I suppose we could call a fierce hetero female gaze on him while also amplifying Americans’ bizarre sexual timidity. A house full of horny women and curious girls fighting to repress themselves to satisfy some irrelevant social mode – well, this is America. This is what we do.
There is also an explicit allegation here about the moral rot at the heart of whiteness and privilege. Coppola’s primary concern as a filmmaker is, perhaps arguably, justifying the soul of white American womanhood, particularly in the void created by the absence of diversity. Her characters are often spectacularly naive, and fail to grasp the reality of a world outside their view. A drama about sequestered white women of privilege in the deep heart of the South during the Civil War, a war specifically about protecting the illusion of white purity from the invasion of color—a drama about whites fighting to preserve black slavery, and there isn’t a single black person present. This is in part the film’s point; these women, well-meaning as many of them are, know nothing beyond their own skin.
I am fascinated that this film explores a relatively healthy imagination of manhood – Farrell isn’t toxic, to use the current term, though he is also clearly quite horny and this leads to his downfall. Coppola is largely sympathetic to him, choosing instead to use his safe brand of Irish otherness and his idealized body and voice as the launchpad for her women’s fantasies.
This is easily the most beautifully shot film I’ve seen this year.
Hazy tree-spoiled sunsets and candlelit brandies, trickling through some fat lenses onto true film, another reminder of the unique strengths of the older medium. I found myself constantly rewinding scenes just to take in the visuals a second and third time.
7: GET OUT
Directed by Jordan Peele
Sometimes hype is right. This film reminds me (deliberately?) of that classic Eddie Murphy bit about why the hell do white people in horror movies never get the fuck out when a ghost says GET OUT. The horrific scenario at the heart of the film is less interesting than the awful journey into the mystery. Chris, our protagonist whose white girlfriend submits him to a weekend with her wealthy neo-liberal family, is continually reminded of his otherness, cringing through seemingly well-meaning (the key word is seemingly) attempts to relate via painful deployment of half-understood black slang, comments on Barack Obama, and sports chit-chat. That there is an ominous underside to white privilege is a truism; the power of Get Out is its willingness to step right into a fundamentally conflicted racial dynamic and drive it home by subverting an old-school horror yarn. Peele doesn’t see much difference between the outrageous plotting here and the hard facts of suburban white sympathies. The horror metaphor is incisive and delightfully bold.
Get Out is a bit stagy and occasionally the production is flabby (I’m not crazy about the FX concepts or canned string patch score) but Peele pulls through with his energetic concept, deep knowledge of the genre, and deft handling of seriously tough satire. Get Out is comedic, but it’s not particularly funny. The white liberal racists in this film are pretty accurate representations, although unlike the real thing these fuckers know what monsters they are. For the most part.
Directed by Kogonada
These comments originally published here:
Haley Lu Richardson is a revelation in this film. John Cho is wonderful, he always is, but it is Richardson’s great expressive face, her voice that is at once both so controlled and yet so near the edge of losing control – she is a well of emotion, she wraps all of her tiers of pain up into this dramatic tightrope, laced with humor and intelligence and anger. She is remarkable.
Columbus is a moving film about family, the human despair for connection, and architecture. It approaches its visuals and narrative and tone with modernist precision and austerity; Kogonada more or less dissolves the lines between humans and our arts, one follows the other and forms repeat across bricks and linens and Final Cut files and words and expressions and kisses. It’s a densely designed project and it delivers its mission with a seriousness that seems at odds with its thematic simplicity, but we are a complex species and we need a lot of convincing to accept that the things we build are no less a part of our nature than the things we feel.
Relationships are accidents. Sometimes we leave them with irreparable injuries. Sometimes we leave them stronger than we were before. The central accident of this film, the unusual friendship between Cho’s and Richardson’s Jin and Casey, is profound in large part because it is ordinary.
5: BLADE RUNNER 2049
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
This is a terrific year for megabudget sci-fi bummers. Four remarkable, gargantuan studio films that put character and emotion before audience expectation, that lay bold tracks for the future of the genre. Shame that neither this nor Alien: Covenant made enough to justify their existences (financially) but their legacies will be long and storied. War for the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, on the other hand, were commercial powerhouses and hopefully inspire Disney (sigh) to continue to take creative risks.
I am surprised at the intimacy of this story. The love story in the first film is arguably its weakest component; however, an enduring part of that classic’s appeal, beyond its towering production design, is the powerful sense of created family among replicants. I did not expect this film to make this search for family – in the absence of corporeal history – the primary focus, and it works beautifully. Blade Runner 2049 delivers a quietly hopeful poetry after all the violence.
Its pacing bothers some folks; it is slow and talky and positively drinks in its imagery. It feels at times like a Tarkovsky film. I don’t mind a bit. This is a breathtakingly beautiful film, and its pace enhances rather than drags on its suspense.
4: THE TRANSFIGURATION
Directed by Michael O’Shea
The Transfiguration is marketable as a horror film but fundamentally it is a talky drama about a pair of kids united by common grief. People do extraordinary things when they feel that they have lost their anchors; the lead boy Milo, after discovering his mother’s body, life escaping from her wrists, retreats into horror lore in disturbingly literal fashion. This is a vampire film, of sorts, but it’s so much more than that. The notion of taking emotional cover behind scary movies, embracing and internalizing fearsome mythology as a sort of psychological flooding therapy, is relatable to all of us who are attracted to extreme art. It is a brilliant observation, brilliantly observed; we can’t help but want to forgive Milo for the awful things he does once we understand the central role that pain plays in his life.
The lead performances are tremendous. Eric Ruffin’s Milo is both frightened and frightening, a boy adrift who wants the world to fear him. Chloe Levine, as Milo’s neighbor and girlfriend of sorts Sophie, broadcasts an unafraid despair for connection. Because she is acutely tuned to detect the potential for companionship in everyone she meets, she sees right into the warmth at Milo’s core.
The Transfiguration is a well written, beautifully shot and cut tale of people whose only way to regain the illusion of agency is to make themselves into monsters.
3: A GHOST STORY
Directed by David Lowry
There are scenes in this film that are among the rawest, truest portrayals of grief I have seen in years. The thing about grief, it’s not a moment or two with swollen music and family dispensing hard truths about the dead over drinks at a wake. Grief doesn’t end. Every second is eternal. Every time you think you’ve turned a corner, your grief follows and assaults you. Rooney Mara’s M is phenomenal in her role, absorbed as she is by the pain of her husband’s (Casey Affleck) death, unable to escape the clutches of time.
Her pain reverberates, literally and metaphorically. This film is a series of echoes of pain across time, narratively, visually, even in the gorgeously wrought soundstage. This is a love story, which means it is also a tale of suffering, as all love stories are. Once we decide to move on from surroundings that hold our pain, we hide it, and we hide from it. Following his death, Casey Affleck’s ghost is desperate to understand M’s love and her pain, and haunts their house until he does.
This film compresses and expands time brilliantly, collapsing many days and years into moments, traveling backward and forward through a plane that holds physical shape and location but that doesn’t care much for linear time. We see M cross single frames many times, we see the walls of the house crumble and reshape, we see other inhabitants, we see the ghost’s frustration breach the veil and wreak violence on the house and its residents. The ghost slows his traversing only to observe relevant moments, as though time itself, as a proxy for Lowry, has something to tell the ghost, a story it is meant to witness, to help it find its way to whatever afterlife waits. It’s a wonderful and strange device, and it adds up to a singularly emotional finale.
2: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
This hellish film grows on me the longer I sit with it. It is a vicious sort of situation comedy, a gorgeously shot, emotionally off-putting character-driven horror film. It is also unlike anything I’ve seen this year. I wrote at length on it here:
1: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Directed by Matt Reeves
I sort of can’t believe that this film exists.
The story of Moses by way of Apocalypse Now, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable film – ambitious, evocative, beautifully executed, and wildly original even in a franchise as storied as this one. The lead performances by Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson make the film. The two of them are electric, and when they share the screen it comes alive in an intimately violent way that’s uncommon in effects-heavy blockbusters. It’s a surprisingly powerful film, and if the series ends here, it’s the right place.
Given unlimited time and space, I’d also include Star Wars: The Last Jedi, It, Baby Driver, Gook, Alien: Covenant, Megan Leavey, Lady Macbeth, The Big Sick, John Wick: Chapter 2, Colossal, Logan, and even big dumb wonderful Fate of the Furious.