You’d think that by having done these best film lists before that I’d be a pro at hand-picking ten movies. Truth is, this gets harder every year. It didn’t help that 2017 was such a mammoth year in film, though I suppose that’s a good thing because it was an excuse to be a shut-in (as if I needed an excuse) and indulge my obsession and in general just not step outside for a few weeks, which I wouldn’t recommend. I’m exhausted, frail, AND all caught up. Here’s a look back on the past year in film before I put 2017 in my rearview for good.
Disclaimer: The selection and placement of these films is not meant to spite anyone. It is, of course, my list of films arranged to suit my opinions of them. You are free to create a list of your own to spite me if you like. This is all subjective.
IT was remarkable to me for a number of reasons: Finn Wolfhard’s legendary banter as “Trashmouth” Richie (and I do mean LEGENDARY), a chilling interpretation of Pennywise with some inventive scares to boot (the projector scene is cinematically inspired). Many felt IT was light on horror, but that didn’t make it any less of a great movie. The film is an even better coming-of-age drama about the last days of innocence, and the looming terror of adulthood. The Losers’ only crime is that they’re teenagers seen as a nuisance by society. It’s summer, meaning they’ll be roaming the streets to occupy their boredom and thus more of a burden. If you can’t recall what their parents looked like, or if they had parents, that’s precisely the point. Stephen King chose an abstract pronoun as his title for a reason. Because the monster isn’t just Pennywise. “It” is the abject parents, the uncaring townsfolk, the creepy middle-aged men, the school bullies (their behavior a result of poor parenting & a society that enables their behavior). Pennywise’s return every 27 years speaks to an unsettling truth, that evil is generational. So even if the Losers don’t quite kill the clown, it’s hardly a bummer, rather a bold promise. “Swear,” Bill says, everyone joining hands, “if it ever comes back, we’ll come back too.” I swear.
Columbus tells the story of two wandering souls. Casey, a Columbus native and budding architecture nerd who gave up dreams of any kind to care for her mother, and Jin (yes, that’s John Cho) has flown in to see to his comatose father, a renowned architect scholar. Columbus, the town, is a Mecca of modern architecture. Through Casey and Jin’s ground-level perspective we ponder that contradiction, of a place emblematic of modernism and progression, and the false promises of efficiency and happiness. Because the town, for all of its splendor, cannot contain Casey’s dreams and aspirations, nor can it reconcile Jin’s estranged relationship with his father. Forgoing long scenes of dialogue, director Kogonada uses the lushly designed buildings to demonstrate how places shape people and vice-versa: the library where Casey works is framed in the same redundant manner, making stark use of the repetitive rows of books; Jin’s hotel, always framed from the hallway, feels forbidden and uninviting; and City Hall, marked by two cantilevered walls that approach but never meet, is symbolic of both Casey and Jin’s unreachable spiritual yearning. Columbus may isolate viewers given how quiet it is, (it doesn’t have subtitles, and removes sound at times) but for film geeks or anyone who knows the power of an expertly composed image, Columbus is a hypnotic, soft-spoken wonder to behold.
This Cowboys & Indians drama has either been unseen or unmentioned in the middle of all this awards talk, which feels like a cruel metaphor for the film’s very subject. Wind River presents an unforgiving frontier ravaged by the white man, inhabited by the poverty of Native Americans. It’s no wonder so many have turned to drugs, crime, and other nihilistic pursuits. Only a cowboy (played by a stoic Jeremy Renner) can navigate this harsh terrain, which in itself is justly poetic. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan never shies from the poetry, or the brutality: of Natives trudging through fields of unbearable white, of a pivotal Pocahontas love story that takes a devastating turn, and the battering blizzards symbolic of their torrential pain and suffering. This is Sheridan’s directing debut and an assured one (the tension that mounts as the central characters walk into a lion’s den is masterful). Still, there’s a lingering sadness at the end. Despite catching those responsible, the dead are still dead, and the thousands of missing Native American women remain buried in the snow. Wind River leaves you to deal with the cold, with a score so haunting you’d swear you could hear the chill of the wind, and beyond that, the cries of the dead.
Wonder Woman had everything going against it. A meh DC universe, a genre dominated by men, and a sexist culture that a year before railed against the female Ghostbusters reboot. Wonder Woman can be enjoyed without these things in mind, but there’s no denying how it deftly tackles all of the above. WW forgoes the DCEU in favor of a vibrant origin story, subverts gender role politics (with an homage to Superman’s alleyway heroics), and features a show-stopping sequence where our heroine triumphs over the mouth-breathing and the mansplaining. Every step of the way Diana is relegated to society’s sexist views of women. Even Steve Trevor’s comical attempts to domesticate Diana are symptomatic of a bigger conflict. He more than anyone bears witness to her might, yet never misses a beat to step in front of her, stemming from an insecure masculinity having to constantly assert its dominance. In the end, it’s Diana’s identity as a woman and her innate capacity for empathy that paves the way for the kind of good-natured heroism that studios have lost touch with (especially as they scramble for more superhero crossovers). Wonder Woman adds to the how and why of the superhero ethos, proving we didn’t need Batman punching Superman or a supervillain team-up to change the landscape. What we needed, in the end, was a woman.
Jordan Peele proves himself a horror movie maestro with a script infused with influences such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Twilight Zone, but it’s Peele’s use of the camera that’s the most telling. Cameras themselves are pivotal tools in the film. Chris Washington is a photographer, a trained observer. He sees, and often the things he focuses on or doesn’t focus on will mean life or death, as it does for the countless African Americans subjected to the harrowing police violence caught on camera. Get Out sets its sights on an unseen but ever-present villain – the casual racism that passes itself off as “wokeness.” Borrowing slang, saying they’d vote for Obama again, and other social niceties ogling Chris’ race are meant to give the impression of being socially conscious, but are passive attempts at marginalization. Dean Armitage’s early anecdote about Jesse Owens clues us in on the big reveal, of white men’s obsession with the black body (and later done through Rose’s causal Googling of “Top NCAA prospects”). Which is why it’s ingeniously terrifying that Chris is reduced to nothing more, that the man who wants him is “colorblind,” and that Chris’ liberation in the end is a piece of cotton. Peele’s script provides so much cultural critique that I’m not even surprised there are college courses dedicated to studying this film. It hasn’t even been a full year and I’m not hesitating: Get Out is a masterpiece.
Last Jedi has become divisive to the point that its inclusion on these lists are enough to get disgruntled fans typing. I’m not trying to spite anyone. I loved this saga, how it implored us to rediscover this galaxy far, far away. Star Wars has always been the epitome of nostalgia – its mythology a constant source of referencing for other movies and TV shows. Therein lies the danger. Will it only be a waypoint for the original trilogy, or can it create anew? Last Jedi takes the sanctity of Luke and his lightsaber, along with fan expectations of Rey and Snoke and breaks them in half. The mystery of Snoke is abandoned in favor of a more complex villain in Kylo Ren; Luke gets to be a character (a very broken one) instead of an all-powerful figure; and Rey’s grasp of the Force doesn’t come from lineage but instead comes from the greatness she’s discovered within. Everything is given its own agency. Even the concept of hope, no longer restricted to Luke’s existence, is a baton extended to characters like Vice Admiral Holdo, Rose Tico (her sister Paige before her), and a child on Canto Bight whom is a stand-in for those of us whose childhood imaginations were sparked by A New Hope. I wish I could respond to the haters, but I suppose it was Rose who said it best: “It’s not about destroying the things we hate, but saving the things we love.” Last Jedi doesn’t need saving, but this film and this franchise has earned my affection.
Lady Bird comes off a line of impressive high school dramas: Juno, Spectacular Now, Edge of Seventeen. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut might be the best of the bunch – certainly the most unique. Set in California, (the lower-case version) everything feels refreshingly mundane, as high school itself turns out to be. We interpret the experience through the lens of others, especially movies, meaning our own experiences are doomed to feel ordinary. Lady Bird (real name Christine) aspires to be different. Her name is a plea for uniqueness that she feels she doesn’t have, and Lady Bird is hilariously and painfully re-christened again and again until she embraces everything about herself, even the bad parts. Lady Bird feels like a portrait of a teenage life rather than a clever imitation. Arguments with her mother Marion are as heated and spontaneous as youth actually is, how it can veer from love to sheer disdain and back again. The most heartbreaking moment is when Lady Bird offers every ounce of her being yet still feels inadequate in the eyes of her mother – a feeling so many of us go through like a right of passage: “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” Marion says, to which Lady Bird replies, “What if this is the best version?” Molly Ringwald and Rachael Leigh Cook, meet Saoirse Ronan.
Christopher Nolan can make anything cinematic at this point. As a war film, Dunkirk is unreservedly cinema, yet Nolan does one better with his script’s fragmentation of time. Utilizing three perspectives – land, sea, and air, Nolan keeps us tethered to the immediacy and suspense with an assist from composer Hans Zimmer and his ticking time-bomb of a score. Dunkirk boasts a cavalcade of top-notch actors working at their subdued best: a stern Kenneth Branagh, a bold newcomer in Fionn Whitehead, and another masked Tom Hardy for good measure. The film is essentially one long cross-cutting sequence (see the final ten minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, or Inception’s final act). An hour of RAF dogfighting spliced within a day’s voyage to Dunkirk cut across a week of a soldier’s peril on the beach – three points of view made to feel like they’re happening all at once. Nolan’s compression of time is an ode to cinema itself, as movies are deliberate manipulations of time meant to impart emotion. Nolan maintains this to the very end. The soldiers have made it safely to England, but it’s Hardy’s character Farrier who’s stuck on the beach, now in the past. We know his fate when he lands beyond the Allied lines, and the larger World War that’s about to begin, yet the gorgeous cinematography, Zimmer’s cathedral of sound, and the burning of the Spitfire impart a cathartic moment of victory that resounds deep in the soul.
Blade Runner 2049 pondered questions that fried my brain. What are memories? What does it mean to exist? To be real? Officer K, a replicant, finds himself confronting an implanted childhood memory, that of an orphanage and a wooden toy horse tucked away in a furnace. He knows the memory isn’t real. But if real is defined by a thing we can physically grasp, how do we prove a memory’s existence? And what are memories really other than dreams of the past? This stains K’s artificial existence, further complicated by a relationship with his hologram girlfriend Joi – a character who is very broadly not real, yet K treats her as if she were (and so do we). 2049 is a beautiful complication of a movie where mysteries and conclusions aren’t clear cut, but instead interlink. K’s artificiality is put under the microscope when he’s sent spiraling down a very real orphanage, and later, walks through the ruins of a forgotten city starkly lit like a furnace. Joi’s programming, too, is compounded more and more as her actions indicate startling intelligence, or achieved autonomy. Denis Villeneuve took the unenviable task of following up a sci-fi classic and delivered one of his own, a success owed in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins. His compositions are so achingly rendered that the whole movie feels like a dream, or rather, a memory. Some complained that 2049 was too elusive, its runtime too long, but honestly, I could have stayed in that theater forever, braindead and all.
No other movie stunned me the way Logan did, a film that deconstructs our cinematic obsession of the moment. I’m a fan of superhero films, but as they expand in frequency, the novelty is at a greater risk of running itself into the ground. These movies are too often a hostage to their own source material, too concerned with fidelity. Logan is a validation of everything modern superhero movies have been nudging towards but have been too afraid of being: a genre of cinema. Director James Mangold achieves this by looking to another genre – the Western – for inspiration. It’s not about fidelity, but transcendence. Logan transcends the trappings of a comic book movie by ironically being selfish, (a very Logan-thing to do) neglecting its place in the canon. It bears an R-rating (the first line of the film is “fuck”), the villain turns out to be Logan himself, and along the way Logan cares for an ailing father figure while learning to be one to another. For all of Logan’s ambitions as a Western, a drama, a road-movie, the film retreats to something even more intimate: a love between a father and daughter. Logan’s whisper-quiet last words followed by Laura’s “No more guns in the valley” eulogy is an earth-shattering cinematic memory I’ll mourn and cherish. The superhero genre clearly isn’t slowing down, not with DC building their universe, certainly not Marvel Studios already looking beyond Infinity War. Sometimes even we need a breather from the crossovers, shared universes, and doomsday plots. Films like The Dark Knight and now Logan keep the superhero genre in check, make these larger-than-life stories and these characters painfully human again. They don’t come around that often, but that’s what makes them so pivotal when they do. Logan was my obsession of 2017. Logan was my cinema.
Honorable Mentions: Thor: Ragnarok, The Shape of Water, Baby Driver, Logan Lucky, The Big Sick