So, as usual, I’ve waited a ridiculously long time to get to my Top/Worst films of last year (2017 for those reading a year from now), partially because of a health hiccup that has curtailed my writing output since mid-March (here’s a tip, never go to the E.R. on St. Patrick’s Day…NEVER). But, if I’m being honest, it’s mostly a result of what I considered a down year for film. 2016 had so much to choose from that it made picking the Best difficult. 2017, on the other hand, consisted mostly of meh. Lots of meh. Yes, Hollywood, in 2017, was simply a very large meh lab. The cream rises quickly to the top in comparison. As ever, click on the links to see my full reviews for each film.
TOP FIFTEEN FEATURES
15. Phantom Thread (U.S./U.K.)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
This gorgeous, claustrophobic, hypnotic and intense romance(?) would have been higher on my list if not for the last two and half minutes. Regardless, possessing THREE of the best acting performances, easily the prettiest photography and one of the top two or three scores of the year make this a must watch. Maybe even a must have, if simply to watch Lesley Manville’s expressions…and to show off that 4K TV. This is a film that will grow in reputation the further we get from it’s initial release…especially if Mr. Day-Lewis sticks to his retirement plans.
14. Princess Cyd (U.S.)
Directed by Stephen Cone
A refreshing Chicago-based summer-holiday-coming-of-age film, “Cyd” manages to work dozens of themes in to a very small story…sexual discovery (both in action and in identity), the nature of family (both living and in memory), career success vs. living of life, and most unusually, the value of the written word in a spoken word society. All that said, it’s the performance of our teenage hero, Jessie Pinnick (making her film debut) and longtime theater vet, Rebecca Spence that give this film its emotional heart. Another lovely film from Chicago’s own talented indie director, Stephen Cone.
13. Oh, Lucy! (Japan/U.S.)
Directed by Atsuko Hirinayagi
A fantastic little film based on a bizarre premise first examined in a short of the same name, “Oh, Lucy!” is all kinds of terrific. Reminiscent of Masayuki Suo’s 1996 Japanese version of “Shall We Dance” in its collection of characters with both oddities and a real sense of longing for love and belonging, Hiriniyagi’s first feature is worth the effort to find. Effortlessly balancing the very strange with heart-wrenching realism, this romance/fable utilizes its performers to perfection, especially, Shinobu Terajima (Lucy) and a brilliant Josh Hartnett. And then there’s one of Japanese cinema’s greatest character actors, Koji Yakusho who, while ultra-bizarre and fantastic in that production of “Shall We Dance”, acts as this film’s emotional grounding in a beautiful and subtle performance. Currently available o stream for 3 or 4 bucks, it’s totally worth it.
12. I, Tonya (U.S.)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Never got around to reviewing this film, but most of you saw it and know its brilliance. One of the great cinematic stabs at undermining the cult of personality, Gillespie’s direction combined with Margot Robbie’s tour de force performance, is note perfect. I personally thought Allison Janney’s “mom” was WAY over the top and not nearly as three-dimensional as she was given credit for, but, within the context of the film, her performance is spot on. Plus some of the best character casting of this (or any) year. The unscripted moments in front of the mirror by Robbie were so intimate and devastating, she should have been given an award just for that. This is a great film.
11. Get Out (U.S.)
Directed by Jordan Peele
I don’t want to attempt to rehash my initial review of this film. Just know it’s important, entertaining, scary as F, and hilarious. Worthy of all its accolades, most of you probably already own the disc. But, if you feel like it, read my review, because the film’s most lasting achievement may be the intersection of how white people and black people view the film in different ways. At least that’s what I came away with…I mean…just look at the poster…
10. Wonder Woman (U.S.)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
I have now watched this film six times. I NEVER re-watch superhero flicks. Hell, I can barely get through DC Comic films once! But this film…it’s fight scenes excepted…may be the quietest, most intimate and real superhero film ever made. This is a film about the nature of MAN versus the perpetually ignored inner-strength of WOMEN. It’s not a superhero film about a woman. Well, it is, but it is SO much more. Gadot and Pine have ACTUAL chemistry…the kind you might find in an indie…never the kind you see in a superhero film. So the whispering at the end is as emotionally affecting as anything that was released in 2017. AND it has one of my favorite scores of the year. How it was COMPLETELY ignored by the Academy in a year when the genius cinematic work by women was so highly celebrated is utterly beyond comprehension.
9. Mudbound (U.S.)
Directed by Dee Rees
Speaking of women, Dee Rees and Rachel Morrison. Stylistically, picking up where 2016’s undervalued “Loving” left off, Rees and Morrison created a fully realized visual atmosphere out of…mud. Quite literally. Even if Rees’ chose to include an unnecessary love triangle into an otherwise painful and fully realized tale of how the black and white experience of “coming home” to the Deep South after serving in the “Good War”, this is brilliant film-making. I only wish I could have seen it on the big screen, as it was released to the general public solely on Netflix (causing a firestorm of reactionary rules for how films are nominated in its wake). Haunting and terrifying, yet beautiful and lyrical.
8. Darkest Hour (U.K.)
Directed by Joe Wright
Yes, I know, certain scenes are total fabrication (don’t read Antony Beevor’s critique in The Guardian if you don’t want to know where license and fact diverge). I don’t care. This is a taut historical drama that plays fast and loose with EXACT fact, but never strays from the emotional weight of those first days of WWII and what it meant for Winston Churchill. It’s a stunning film with a terrific score and one of the better performances of this burgeoning century. Oldman is everything…and his phone call with Roosevelt will stay with me as one of the best scenes of the year.
7. The Merciless (South Korea)
Directed by Sung-hyun Byun
The South Korean gangster genre is littered with gangster fighting and some sort of betrayal as a plot motif. And then there are the very few that are terrific films ABOUT relational betrayal that HAPPEN to take place in the gangland environs of South Korea. “The Merciless”, from the master, Sung-hyun Byun, is one of the leading contenders for best of the best of that delightful piece of the cinematic universe. It’s not yet available anywhere, but if you look for it on GooglePlay you can be notified when it does. Can’t recommend it highly enough!
6. Baby Driver (U.S.)
Directed by Edgar Wright
The best car film ever is the best not just because of the action (which is spectacular), or the editing/sound editing (which is even better), or even the performances (which almost matches “Reservoir Dogs” in that area). No, this is the best because all of the above happen in the same film. This is no “Fast’n’Furious 27”. This is a carefully crafted film about trust and loyalty, choreographed to the insanity of Jon Spencer and Focus. It’s also the last time we will ever see Kevin Spacey in a feature film.
5. The Line (Slovakia)
Directed by Peter Bebjak
This is an epic family “business” story about the smuggling trade on the border of Slovakia and Ukraine (hence, “The Line”). It was one of my two favorite films at this year’s Chicago Film Fest, which, given the extraordinary quality of the the twenty four films I screened there, is saying something. It covers so much ground that it would be pointless for me to describe it all here. Just click on the link above and read my review of it. And god help you finding it. I THINK it will have a limited art-house release at some point, but it’s not yet available for streaming.
4. Lady Bird (U.S.)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
EASILY my favorite American film of the year, “Lady Bird” was 2017’s best written, directed and acted Hollywood film…by quite a bit. This is as lovely a U.S.-made chamber piece as we’ve had in some time, and, if you haven’t already seen it, then here’s some good news..it’s now available on Amazon Prime. Take an hour plus and go in to a shockingly accurate portrayal of high school individuation in small-town America. And, of course, to act as a witness to Laurie Metcalf’s INCREDIBLE performance.
3. The Insult (Lebanon)
Directed by Ziad Doueiri
I didn’t much agree with some of the nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. “The Square” was simply too esoteric for its own good, “Loveless” was OH so dull. “On Body and Soul”, while terrific, wasn’t even the best film from Hungary in 2017, and while “A Fantastic Woman” was a well-made and lovely story, it was basically a not-as-good remake of Tom Ford’s soul-crushing “A Single Man”. But at least they got one right. Doueiri’s “The Insult,” while created around the simplest of stories, is mesmerizing from beginning to end. And you will change your mind about who is right and who is wrong at least three or four times. It also features a brilliant score from Eric Neveux.
2. Dunkirk (U.K.)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Many people I know shrugged after seeing this brilliant work. I totally understand. There isn’t really a “story”, the time-shift device of the film is confusing, and there is almost no dialogue that is actually audible. Okay, fine. I walked out of it literally shaking, amazed that it ran so much less than the three hours of anxiety I felt I had been put through. This is not a personal story, nor a hero story, nor even really a survival tale (although there is some of that in there). It IS a war story. It is the first fifteen minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” times seven – without the needless gore. In fact, there is no blood, no flying appendages, nor over-dramatic deaths in the entire film. It is a film about the constant overwhelming anxiety associated with the slow-motion feeling of waiting to be killed…knowing it is completely out of your control as to how and if it will happen. Every element, the photography, the subtle performances, and Zimmer’s brilliant score, come together to make a film for the ages. You can take “Interstellar”, “Dark Knight” or “Inception”. For my money, “Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece. It is a film that will grow and grow in our estimation of its value. In fact, I think it’s easily the best war film of the century thus far. Maybe even the best film in any genre. But my FAVORITE film of the year goes to…
1. 1945 (Hungary)
Directed by Ferenc Török
A film about an aspect of the Shoah I don’t believe I have ever seen explored in cinema, “1945” is one of the most original “Holocaust films I’ve ever seen, and regardless of genre, my favorite film of 2017. Shot in HIGH contrast black and white, and with an economy of words, its examination of the immediate aftermath of post-War and post-Liberation small-town Hungary is breathtaking. Using techniques that recall the famous opening train station scene of Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In the West”, Török is in total control of the empty spaces that flood the screen. Still making the art-house rounds as of this writing, it shouldn’t be too long before you can stream it. Without a doubt, the most affecting film of the year.
- The Ardennes (not sure how this qualified for Oscar consideration as a 2017 film…I saw it in 2015…great, though!)
- Big Sick
- Blade Runner 2049
- Budapest Noir
- The Confessions
- Detroit (uh…WHY NO NOMINATIONS?!?!)
- John Wick 2
- Maudie (the BETTER Sally Hawkins’ film)
- On Body and Soul
- T2: Trainspotting
- Their Finest
- Three Billboards
- Tom of Finland
- Trip To Spain
- Wind River
TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES
5. Big Time(Denmark)
Directed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder
Featuring a terrific score from Ali Helnwein and benefiting greatly from the eye and creativity of director, Schröder, this examination of one of the most original living architects is pretty damned good. One of the strengths of the film lies in its ability to overcome a subject who is not always very interesting. The film, however, always is. In the genre of docs that looks at the creative process within the context of a particular area, “Big Time” is right up there. Oh, and its available on Netflix!
4. A Moon Of Nickel and Ice (Canada/Russia)
Directed by Francois Jacob
I’ve compared this to the 2012 French fishing doc “Leviathan”, but only in so far as that this is less a tale told, than an environment explored. And what an environment! Taking place in a nickel mining town in Siberia, purposefully hidden/cut-off from the rest of the world, the photography is extraordinary. Most of all, it manages to pull feelings of utter loneliness from the viewer, not because of its remote beauty, but because of the remote mundacity inherent in the contrast of natural beauty and Soviet block-housing. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Turn out all the lights, sit back and walk in to a world like you’ve never seen before.
3. Shadowman (U.S.)
Directed by Oren Jacoby
Also on Amazon Prime is this examination of the final (and recent) years of Richard Hambleton, the contemporary (and artistic equal) of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. If you frequented NYC anywhere below 45th street in the Seventies and early Eighties, then his black shadow paintings scared the crap out of you (well they scared the hell out of me, anyway). While Haring made pretty pictures all over the city, Hambleton’s work actually accompanied you, creating an overall feeling of dread and fear that was ALREADY prevalent at that time in the city. However, Hambleton perpetrated the cardinal sin of living a long life. As a result, his work was never valued nearly as high as those two giants of the art collecting scene mentioned above. But this is not a rags to riches story…if anything it is a rags to rags to rags story, and a stunning look in to the mind of a mad genius.
2. Dawson City: Frozen Time (U.S.)
Directed by Bill Morrison
If you’ve seen the last ten minutes of “Cinema Paradiso”, then you’ll have an idea of what makes “Dawson City” such an enjoyable watch…especially if you love cinema. A treasure trove of lost silent films was found recently, buried in Dawson City…a Yukon gold mining boom town long since gone bust. Shown using only photography, title cards, spools and spools of restored footage from those reels, and films from that era that depict the Yukon Gold Rush (with a terrific score from “Captain Fantastic” composer, Alex Somers), this is both an origin story and a tone-poem in the manner of Julien Temple’s “London: The Modern Babylon” (sans VO). Michael Gebert, on his NitrateVille Radio Podcast, perfectly described it as watching “memories in the act of being forgotten” – even if they have been found anew. While this may be an experience that cinephiles will enjoy most, it will be no less rapturous for anyone who would like to witness actual evidence of the lost times and places of the past. Available to stream on FilmStruck.
1. In the Intense Now (Brazil)
Directed by João Moreira Salles
Granted, a filmed personal essay, which, through the usage of found footage, explains how the changes going on all over the world during the turbulent days of 1968, is notoriously up my alley. But this film is only a teeny part academic. It is mostly a love letter to a mother who taught our central figure how to love in the face of such constant upheaval. This is creative documentary film-making of the highest order and easily climbs on to that small group of all-time favorite non-fiction films. Alas, no where to be screened at the moment, keep your eyes open for it. Was recently featured on MUBI.com, so it should be available to stream eventually.
- Citizen Jane: Battle for the City
- Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
- Last Men in Aleppo (the only Oscar nommed film to make my list)
- Long Strange Trip
- Score: A Film Music Documentary
- Two Trains Runnin’
BOTTOM TEN (err…twelve):
It’s important to note that my Bottom Ten doesn’t consist of the worst populist movies released this year, because I was never going to see “Geostorm” or “Fifty Shades Darker”, “Kidnap”, “The Snowman” or “The Emoji Movie” except on a drunken dare or world’s worst date. No, these are simply the worst films I DID see, many of which were highly respected and/or well reviewed. So, without further ado, here are my picks for the ten worst films released in 2017:
10. The Other Side of Hope (Finland/Germany)
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Listen, people were already angry at my review of this film, but I’m telling you, the irreverence that usually makes Kaurismaki’s films so enjoyable is utterly destroyed by the actual stakes of our hero. This is a subject that, if you’re going to go for black comedy (of which there’s plenty in the film), you probably ought to stay within that style. Kaurismaki tries to have his comedy AND have very serious moments of illumination about the plight of the immigrant. It doesn’t work. Sorry. Still, tenth worst is not so bad!
9. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (U.K) and…
9a. Golden Years (France)
Directed by Angela Robinson (Prof. Marsden) & Andre Techine (Golden Years)
I know “Marston” was written and directed by a woman, yet it sure felt like a misogynist fantasy throughout. I wonder how much of that is do to the STIFF acting by Luke Arnold, or the utterly unlikely situations Robinson asks Rebecca Hall to play. The whole thing seemed preposterous and not all that different than another film I hated, the French trans-journey catastrophe, “Golden Years” from fifty-year auteur, Andre Techine. We get it…our hero lives a different, truthful, and misunderstood lifestyle and they are dirt poor. But, for god’s sake, why must the wife bear the brunt of not only being SO UNDERSTANDING throughout the length of BOTH films, but also suffer the slings of being the henpecker instead of the henpeckee throughout?! Absurd and boring, both firmly deserve inclusion in this list.
8. The Meyerowitz Stories (U.S.)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Even if one puts aside what we now know about Mr. Hoffman’s heinous actions in the name of his status as a performer, this is a brutal watch. Let’s just say it makes the family in The Royal Tenenbaums seem like a joy to hang out with. It’s too bad, because Sandler really gives it his all and is mostly quite good. But, MAN I didn’t give a crap about this family from beginning to end. Walk away. There are better stories out there.
7. Faces Places
Directed by JR, Agnès Varda
Winner of the most self-aggrandizing, least self-aware and most obnoxiously made documentary maybe ever, this film was LAUDED as a brilliant illumination of the hearts and minds of the two subjects…who just happen to be the writers, producers, stars and directors of the thing. A friend stated that he felt every scene was staged and/or pre-scribed, and he’s right…hence take the word “documentary” with a boulder-sized grain of salt when watching this OH so precious bit of backslapping. The art is fabulous. The presentation of the art? No, thanks.
6. California Typewriter (France/India/Canada/U.S.)
Directed by Doug Nichol
People went gaga for this film. I went to sleep in the middle. An exploration of the last typewriter repair shop in the country, it quickly becomes a star-f*cking Ambien wherein John Meyer, Tom Hanks and a cast of dozens talk about how much they love typing on a typewriter. I love quirky documentaries…but when there are docs like “Marwencol” out there, all the star-power in the world is not going to save a film this dull. If you collect or love old typewriters, you will at least empathize with the film’s goings-on. Otherwise, move along.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (U.S.)
Directed by James Gunn
So if you read my review of “Deadpool 2”, you’ll see why I thought this film was so disappointing. It comes down to the nature and style of the film’s comedy. You cannot simply rehash jokes that are solely about each character’s personality and their relatinship to one another. We’ve already laughed about that in the first one. No, there MUST be something more…otherwise, we’re stuck watching a not so funny comedy about super-hero gobbledygook – boring gobbledygook at that. Such a let down. Good news, though, these characters are much better written in “Infinity Wars”.
4. The Racer and the Jailbird (Belgium)
Directed by Michael R. Roskam
Roskam wrote and directed one of my favorite Oscar-nominated films ever, 2011’s “Bullhead.” That film (which you should absolutely see – it’s on Fandor), also introduced us to the BRILLIANT Matthias Schoennarts, who also stars in this film. So it is with no joy that I add it to this list. I mean, it’s a film about a gorgeous race car driver (“Blue Is the Warmest Color’s” Adele Exarchopoulos) and a high stakes thief (Schoennarts) and somehow its two hour running time feels at least twice that. I may have said “please get on with it,” out loud two or three times during the film’s final act. Ugh. Gotta work hard to ruin a film with two great actors, a terrific director and a GIANT production budget. #SAD
3. Reconciliation (Poland)
Directed by Maciej Sobieszczanski
Quite possibly the least interesting post-WWII film ever made. Dark (literally…you can’t see half the action), without any redeeming value, and not-so-vaguely anti-semetic, I’m shocked at this film’s success on the Festival circuit. Watch “1945” instead.
2. All the Money In the World (U.S./Italy)
Directed by Ridley Scott
I don’t care that Christopher Plummer came and saved the day, this film is simply awful…on ALL levels. The story is all over the place, the accents switch with the weather, the performances are wooden and rote, and worst of all, I had no sense of place throughout. How do you fuck up Italian countrysides? Well, “Call Me By Your Name” did a pretty good job of that, as well, so…maybe not so hard. And the Getty mansion seemed meh instead of intimidating and foreboding. Scott’s worst film by a mile.
1a. Downsizing (U.S.) and…
1b. Suburbicon (U.S.)
Directed by Alexander Payne (Downsizing) & Directed by George Clooney (Suburbicon)
Congratulations, Matt Damon! For the second year in a row you’re the star of my Worst Film of the Year. Okay, “Suburbicon” has its moments, but it’s not good. But seriously, “Downsizing”! Holy crap, this is a terrible film. How terrible? Well, there’s a (terrible) Woody Allen film called “Hollywood Ending” in which a director goes blind in the middle of filming a movie. He pretends to be able to see to get through it. Not until after it is completed does his eyesight come back. When the film is screened for marketing purposes, we hear some of the audience opinion card responses to the film:
- “An incoherent, stupid waste of celluloid.”
- “Would you recommend this film to a friend?” “Only if I was friendly with Hitler.”
- “How would you improve this movie?” “Arson.”
- “What would you call the genre?” “Early American garbage.”
I fully believe Alexander Payne went blind just as filming started.
So there you have it! On to 2018…which, while not off to the same flying start as ’17, is slowly getting better and better as summer begins.