Friday, February 2, 2018

My Favorite Films of 2017

Things were a bit different in 2017. I shot a feature-length film with a good friend and wrote and recorded the debut album of a new musical project, and both events considerably overshadowed my film viewing and writing, not to mention my dwindling participation in "film culture," which has been growing increasingly inane in the age of Twitter. Serendipitously, this relative lack of investment in theatrical filmgoing occurred in a particularly fecund year for non-theatrical forms of visual media (i.e. television and streaming stuff), so I've abandoned the rules I clung to in previous years regarding inclusion in this list. (With that said, I just couldn't bring myself to include Super Bowl LI or Game 5 of the World Series in this round-up despite being two of my most rapturous viewing experiences in 2017.) As always, this list is as much for my own records as it is for your perusal, but I'm not a wild self-promoter during the year so I hope it can also function belatedly as a helpful aggregator of the pieces I wrote that, however proud I was with them, nonetheless probably fell off into internet obscurity.

Also, it's worth noting that I (obviously) fell way behind on developing this post, and at this point with my top-of-year assignments and obligations piling up, I'm not in the mood to write new capsules for some of these films that I haven't seen in months. In the case of the eight films here that don't have accompanying text, I've just linked to my favorites pieces of writing on them. Hope that's cool with y'all. For films that do have copy attached, the titles link to my reviews.

20. A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski, USA/Germany)

"Verbinski excels at such disorienting crosscuts (the film’s literally hell-raising climax juxtaposes ghastly happenings in the spa’s basement with jubilant festivities in the ballroom above), and in a larger sense, A Cure for Wellness thrives on a collision of tones. The immaculate cosmetics of the wellness retreat itself, from the prudently manicured foliage to everyone’s spotless white uniforms, contrast with an alarming emphasis on creepy-crawly body horror. There’s enough sickly exposed white flesh on display throughout the film—often submerged in water filled with man-eating eels—to make Ulrich Seidl blush, while one bit of dental treatment/torture administered to Lockhart produces a retina-searing image worthy of early Cronenberg."

19. Autumn, Autumn (Jang, South Korea)

"If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that Jang’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place."

18. Song to Song (Malick, USA)

"In the end, Song to Song has next to nothing of consequence to say about the music scene in 2017, just as Knight of Cups’s gloss on Hollywood deal-making and networking was nothing if not incidental. Though the film features dozens of musical cues from artists ranging from Bob Marley to Sharon Van Etten to Julianna Barwick, its snapshots of big-venue machinations and backstage antics comprise only a fraction of its content. Instead, the music industry—as a combustible, always-moving collaborative enterprise in which nothing’s guaranteed—provides the textural backdrop for another long-form, free-associative investigation into the highs and low of romantic love, and one that arguably constitutes the most rewarding of Malick’s recent output."

17. The Challenge (Ancarani, Switzerland)

16. The Florida Project (Baker, USA)

15. Nathan for You: Season 4 (Fielder & Koman, USA)

14. Personal Shopper (Assayas, France)

13. Lady Bird (Gerwig, USA)

12. Hermia and Helena (Piñeiro, Argentina)

"It may be Piñeiro’s most inspired and thrilling work to date, exhaustive in its means of keeping the viewer off balance and yet rich in its emotional implications. The subject matter is derived at least tangentially from the director’s own recent tenure as a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard and as a Big Apple resident (Camila is twice redirected by an obliging local while walking the wrong way to a destination, which feels like potential self-portraiture on Piñeiro’s part), and this firsthand experience lends an added charge to the film’s inquiries into the nature of belonging, the difficulties of translation (and transition), and the coexistence of past and present."

11. Rat Film (Anthony, USA)

10. Good Time (Safdies, USA)

9. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (Kuosmanen, Finland)

"Exceptionally modest and unapologetically minor-key, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki homes in on the figure of the beta male who happens to excel at a sport he loves but increasingly finds himself at odds with the competitive mentality on which it operates. The small but seismic developmental stage that ensues—that is, the realization that personal fulfillment should be sought elsewhere, and that one’s engagement with the sport should be cut back—doesn’t necessarily resonate as screenwriting gold, and yet Juho Kuosmanen’s film commits wholeheartedly to this character study. In doing so, the pageantry and theatrics of the boxing world, the chosen arena of Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti), fall away as background noise."

8. I Love You, Daddy (C.K., USA)

"Louis C.K.’s first theatrical feature as a writer-director since 2001’s Pootie Tang wrestles relentlessly, in scene after discomfiting scene, with some of the entertainment industry’s most immediate and upsetting issues: the plague of sexual assault, the unsavory legacy of white male privilege, and the ongoing problem of enabling. And the film will, undoubtedly, be rejected by many as the unsolicited penance-seeking of a man around whom such discussions have recently circled. It’s also as exhilaratingly honest and unshackled a work as many have come to expect from this auteur of cringe comedy, one that foresees, absorbs, and responds to all possible bile that might be directed its way, knowing full well of the muck it dredges up. Certainly, more can be asked of C.K. as a man, but can more be asked of an artist?"

Note: This review was filed literally minutes before the New York Times broke a now-widely-circulated exposé on C.K.'s history of sexual assault, news which was already aired as "rumors" a few years ago. I regret my review being published in the midst of such turmoil, but I do stand by my appreciation for the film and the words I wrote. Louis is quite clearly a pig and reckons deeply with what it's like to be a pig in his work. Sometimes art that touches on ugly aspects of humanity can be as revealing as the inverse. By the same token, I hope that C.K. puts his money where his mouth is and takes a hike.

7. Marjorie Prime (Almereyda, USA)

(Capsule written for Slant's year-end coverage.) "As science fiction, Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime derives its haunting power as much from its speculative elements as from the cozy familiarity of its mise-en-scène. Exploiting a multi-generational beachfront family cottage designed in a warm midcentury modern style as its setting, as well as comforting splashes of Beethoven and the Band on its soundtrack, Almereyda’s spare restaging of Jordan Harrison’s talky play imagines a near future where holographic simulations of dead loved ones (also known as “primes”) have placed familial relations in peril, providing unprecedented grief-coping opportunities on the one hand but enabling an echo chamber of delusion and emotional confusion on the other. Starring Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, and Jon Hamm as the corporeal and projected personae of a bourgeois family bound by a history of half-clarified emotional wounds, Marjorie Prime consists of a series of charged one-on-ones between humans and uncanny A.I. contraptions that progressively muddy the tenuous distinction between truth and selective memory—in addition to showcasing the ensemble’s dexterity. As with 2015’s Experimenter, Almereyda excels at running a tight ship (the film was shot in 13 days with limited resources) while still bringing out the best in his collaborators (cinematographer Sean Price Williams and composer Mica Levi both do daring career-highlight work here), and his elliptical treatment of the script’s central existential dilemma—the havoc wreaked in transcending the absolute finality of death—is enough to justify a sly visual nod to Last Year at Marienbad."

6. Strong Island (Ford, USA)

I caught this only recently but was floored by it. Ford's raw exposé of her brother's decades-old murder case and its emotional aftermath doesn't feel like a debut work, and carries the force of a long-overdue unburdening. I imagine that the filmmaker's tenure as a producer at PBS's POV non-fiction series cultivated an allergy to convention and expository blandness in documentary, and that elevated insight shows in the film's patient, piecemeal delivery of information, its confrontational mode of address (accomplished across of number of rigorous formal devices), and its refusal to overstate its chilling topicality, preferring instead to simmer in the particular emotional wounds of its tale.

5. Slack Bay (Dumont, France)

4. On Cinema at the Cinema: Season 9 and the Apple Valley News broadcast of the "Electric Sun 20" trial (Heidecker & Turkington, USA)

Between going on a national tour, running a podcast, writing and performing in various Adult Swim shows, and releasing a steady stream of topical folk songs, Tim Heidecker's productivity this year was staggering. Still, at the top of the pile sits On the Cinema at the Cinema, originally a farcical YouTube-hosted movie-review show that has since ballooned into an alternate universe that bleeds into social media. There's no way to adequately summarize in a sentence the slow mutation that the show has taken over its nine seasons from clever satire to warped melodrama and evolving mirror of the stupidity of our online culture (this video helps though). Suffice to say that the latest ten-episode installment pushes the ongoing tension between its two hosts to new heights of passive-aggressive absurdity and further muddies the drama's tenuous separation from "real life," a gambit that culminates in Heidecker's most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the complete, interminably long, and aesthetically exacting mock-broadcast of a weeklong trial held against "Heidecker" for a crime committed by his character. Catch the season here and the court proceedings here. And don't sleep on the two seasons of Decker either, which, while not quite up to the standard of the first two web-only seasons, continue to provide another hilarious prism into this world.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA)

(Capsule written for In Review Online's year-end list.) "Romantic relationships have often existed on the periphery of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films—when not acting as outright structuring absences. Of Anderson’s many male protagonists, only Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice seems propelled by something other than naked greed, lust, or ambition, and the film’s sweet, wistful coda crystallized the benign yearning that grounded Doc’s persona. With Phantom Thread, Anderson has centered a story around romance—and particularly the work involved in sustaining it long-term—without abandoning the more selfish, abstract qualities that have long plagued his heroes’ thirsts for transcendence. The hybrid of competing instincts—towards the self and towards the companion; towards wealth and power; and towards domestic bliss—make for Anderson’s richest and thorniest character study yet, one set in a lavish, insular world of high fashion that’s no less a battleground than Freddie Quell’s alien home front or Daniel Plainview’s oil field. Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis, photographed in the soothing glow of a midcentury London mansion, give performances steeped in decorum that nonetheless seethe with rage, passion and libido. The same might be said for Anderson’s consummate formal control, which passes off incredibly tricky sewing-room sequences, interjections of dream logic, and ornamental flourishes like slow dissolves and artificial snowfall, with the casualness of a seasoned veteran."

2. A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK)

"Timeliness and contemporary relevance are such powerful influencers in the production of biopics that it’s rare to come across a specimen of the genre that fully respects the particulars of its era without indulging the temptation to editorialize from the vantage of modern-day frames of reference. Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion is one such rarity, refusing to over-account for the sensitivities or attention spans of today’s audiences in treating Emily Dickinson as a living, breathing human inextricable from her everyday reality. Dickinson may have been a proto-feminist, but the film is hardly a resurrection of the 19th-century poet as an icon of social justice—surely one market-friendly direction this project could have taken—but rather a hard look at the contours of her sequestered social universe, and how those sometimes limiting parameters nevertheless fueled her work."

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch & Frost, USA)

David Lynch finagled a remarkable amount of creative freedom to spearhead eighteen hours of material for a major television company, proceeded to deepen the lore of a beloved 25-year-old property while also shrewdly resisting the desires and expectations of fan culture, and wound up with a crowning achievement that synthesizes his past and present as an artist. Of course it's #1. I won't try to parse this behemoth in a short paragraph, but I will direct you to the two best pieces of critical engagement I experienced this year while consuming it: first, my friend Keith Uhlich's incredibly perceptive and astute week-by-week dissections at MUBI, and second, Kate Rennebohm and Simon Howell's relentlessly inquisitive podcast "The Lodgers."

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Columbus, The Death of Louis XIV, Decker: Mindwipe, Get Out, Logan Lucky, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mother!, The Ornithologist, Person to Person, Porto (piece one, piece two), The Son of Joseph, Split