2017 [in films]

Sneaking this in both under the wire (I will get this post up on January 1!) and on a blog I bet you’ve forgotten about by now. Resolution in 2018: write, write, write.

This year marked a whole bunch of change for me, chief among them my leap into self-employment. It’s been a scary and exhilarating six months of working for myself, and I’m looking forward to what 2018 will bring professionally. Between working my own hours from home and stepping in as Film editor at Third Coast Review, I broke a personal record this year for films watched: 181. (My previous highest year was 160 in 2015.)

In case you’re curious, I track every new-to-me film that I watch. I don’t count series (though I may start in 2018) and I don’t count it if I’ve already seen it. Here’s a breakdown of those 181 films:

  • I saw 56 movies in theaters, or roughly one per week.
  • Forty-two of the 181 (or 23%) films I watched in 2017 were documentaries; 23 were foreign films (this number always seems low to me each year. Must improve that.)
  • I watched 23 movies in both May and September; in August, I somehow only watched two. I have no idea why.
  • The oldest movie I watched was Rebecca from 1940 (go watch it!), followed by The African Queen (1951), Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, on a freaking gorgeous, new 70mm print at Music Box Theatre).

Now, onto the good stuff: what I liked best.

With the caveat that as of writing this I haven’t yet seen Call Me By Your Name or Phantom Thread, I’m more than comfortable declaring Mudbound the best film of 2017…according to me.

Mudbound

A stunningly beautiful, remarkably devastating and surprisingly inspiring drama by Dee Rees (Pariah) based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is set in the deep south following World War II. Two veterans – one black and one white – return to their farming families, one share-croppers on the other’s land, and both men find themselves navigating very different homecoming experiences. With a gentle but very serious vision, Rees creates a world weighed down by racism, poverty and ignorance, where the wrong look or a misspoken word can literally get you killed.

Boasting a stellar cast (Carrie Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and one Jason Mitchell who should be at the top of every Best Supporting Actor list), the film weaves together two parallel but intensely different post-war stories, forcing us to come to terms with the disparate American dreams available to each of us, given our skin tone, education or income. The film is not always easy to watch (in fact, it may have one of the most difficult scenes of the year), but it is essential viewing, and Rees deftly guide us into a very, very dark place only to show us the way out of it, too.

Mudbound didn’t get the attention it deserved, as Netflix opted to give it a small theatrical release before dropping it on the streaming service. But that just means you can see this masterful film now, right this minute. I urge you to turn off your phone and set aside chores for a couple of hours and check out Mudbound, the best film of the year, from the comfort of your own living room.

Of course, I liked a whole bunch of the movies I saw this year, so here’s a quick rundown (and yes, these are in order from most liked on down):

Lady Bird – I’ve essentially given up on Greta Gerwig as an actress, but if she continues to deliver what she gifted us in Lady Bird, I may be won over to her as a writer/director. Spectacularly spot-on, the white, middle-class female coming-of-age story is one for the ages, and Saoirse Ronan further establishes herself as a leading actor of her generation. As I noted in my Third Coast reviewLady Bird is charming and clever and goofy and touching and honest and incredible. As films that resonate go, it’s less the arrow that makes the bullseye and more the arrow that splits that arrow in half to make another one.

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro is a modern cinema genius, and his ability to marry film nostalgia with contemporary sensibilities is unparalleled. The Shape of Water is an epic love story that just happens to have a sea monster as a leading man. This sepia-toned wonder follows Elisa (the always exceptional Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at a government research facility, who falls for the captive sea monster who, in so many ways, is just like her. With a dash of spy drama and wonderful supporting turns from both Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, it’ll go down as a classic.

Faces Places – If ever a movie could restore one’s faith in humanity, this is it. Octogenarian documentarian (how’s that for a title!) Agnes Varda pairs with installation artist JR for a cross-country trip through France’s small towns, farms and dockyards, meeting locals along the way and brightening their path as they go. My full review is on Third Coast here.

The Florida Project – If GDT makes sweeping dramas that evoke the big studio days, Sean Baker is his polar opposite, at least as far as productions go. But he’s just as adept at evoking emotions through universal truths expressed via breathtaking performances. The Florida Project follows a young mother and her daughter living in poverty on the fringes of privilege, where Disney World is within reach yet worlds away. Baker’s use of non-actors in key roles ensures an unmistakable connection with the story on screen; we can’t know them from anywhere else, so we’re riveted by their story here. (In fact, at a Q&A I attended, Baker confirmed he was hesitant to cast Willem Defoe for just this reason. Thank goodness he still did)

Dunkirk – Not universally loved, I absolutely adored Christopher Nolan’s latest. So much, I saw it in the theater twice and loved it both times. In true Nolan fashion, he plays with the timeline enough to keep audiences guessing about how it will all come together in the end. But even this approach can’t dampen the sheer humanity of the film, infused as it is in every scene. From a civilian sailor headed to save the troops to a fighter pilot fighting defense to a weary ground soldier just trying to get home, the film is as distilled a picture of the human experience as it gets. Mark Rylance, per usual, is exceptional.

Columbus – Kogonada is best known as a visual artist, and it shows in his first feature film, about a young professional who must return to the obscure but gorgeous town of Columbus, Indiana when his architect father falls ill. Every image on screen is framed as if in a painting, and it’s a credit to Kogonada that his actors (a criminally underrated John Cho, for one) don’t overwhelm the visuals. Their calm but poignant performances only elevate a picture that’s as pretty to look at as any painting in an art gallery.

A Ghost Story – Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star in this ethereal love story writer/director David Lowery. It’s no spoiler to say that the film revolves around a love that ends, at least in the physical world. What remains is a ghost of that love who stays in the house they shared, watching over the remaining partner and all her life brings from then on. From funny and odd to downright gut-wrenching, A Ghost Story will leave you marveling at the passage of time and how we all too often waste it.

The Post – What do you get when a first-time screenwriter (who wrote the dang thing on spec, no less) gets Steven Spielberg to direct with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in the leading roles? One of the best, most timely films of the year. Sure, it knows it’s important with marquee names like that, but it still delivers (no pun intended). In 1971, the female publisher of the Washington Post (very much out of place in the boys club of the newspaper business) had to decide whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers. The rest is first amendment rights history, and The Post, with all the above in its favor plus a seriously impressive ensemble cast, presents it very well indeed.

Their Finest – Here is a movie you likely won’t see on many Best of 2017 lists, but dammit, I loved it so here it is. Directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), it’s a World War II-set drama-slash-rom-com about the government-made war films that kept the boys on the front inspired and the country bolstered behind them. Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin star as two writers initially at odds who…well, you can probably see where this is going. It’s winning and heartwarming and just a fun watch.

I, Tonya – If you can remember watching the news coverage of the knee-capping heard ’round the world (and honestly, even if you can’t), you’ll want to watch I, Tonya, director Craig Gillespie’s (Lars and the Real Girl) biting take on the life of second-class-skater Tonya Harding. Despite her technical skill, Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks and never stood a chance in the squeaky clean, All-American skating world. Margot Robbie as Harding is much too tall, but other than that she nails both the triple axels (well, her double does) and the frustration and bitterness that comes with pulling the short stick in life. With clever docu-drama takes and a no-holds-barred sense of humor, I, Tonya actually becomes quite a sympathetic portrait of a woman we all loved to hate in the 1990s.

There’s so many more I liked this year; I’ll try to get in a write up when I can…but for now, add to my top twenty of the year the absurd and hilarious The Square; the expertly choreographed Baby Driver; Pixar’s latest Coco, about life, death, family and legacy; Kedi, a documentary about cats that beats any internet video any day; the uber-timely and bitingly satirical Ingrid Goes West; Patti Cake$ and its gumption and ambition; Yorgos Lanthimos’s gross and riveting The Killing of a Sacred Deer; and in the no-one’s-seen-it-but-everyone-should category, the splendidly charming The Incredible Jessica Jones.