Chris Cabin’s Top Ten Movies of 2017
The best movies of the year seemed to fit perfectly in line with the volcanic first year under President Trump, speaking to the brutality and oddness of late capitalism as much as that thing that has come to be known as “The Resistance.” As the recent GOP tax bill came to its frenzied conclusion in the Senate, I found myself connecting to the confusion, horror, and madness of Good Time and mother!. There was also comfort to be found in Agnes Varda’s sublime Faces Places, which brought the quiet emotions of everyday people in rural France booming into the forefront. In another year, Varda’s film might have merely come off as a routine delight from a legendary director but as the stories of those living around the poverty line began to surface amidst debates over basic human rights, the 89-minute masterwork reiterated the importance of workers, neighbors, and friends, and their heartbreaking, often hilarious stories.
Another documentary, Frederick Wiseman’s majestic Ex Libris, more directly confronted and rebuked Trump’s baseless attacks on government institutions and the good of public works. In detailing the life of New York’s legendary library system, and those who utilize the myriad locations or use the space for lectures, interviews, and classes, Wiseman ingeniously highlighted the vast ocean of opportunities and knowledge that can be gained through state and governmental projects, while also studying how such a intricate institute functions day in and day out. Emerging from Wiseman’s three-hour-plus film, I felt rejuvenated and realigned, stunned and fully aware of what could be if the government was run by dedicated, fairly paid individuals with stake in the country rather than a legion of white old men looking to one-up each other and let children die for money.
As you may have picked up, the feeling I had after Ex Libris didn’t keep me warm into the winter, but the importance of ideas and emotional insight that the very best movies offer was never more clear than it was this year.
10) 'A Ghost Story'
An inexplicable and essential experience from David Lowery, who clearly didn’t lower his ambitions after working with Disney on his wonderful remake of Pete’s Dragon. There is a similar wonder to this, his fourth feature, in which Casey Affleck’s distant yet caring musician and husband to Rooney Mara’s homekeeper becomes a ghost who haunts his home as life rapidly goes on around him. Rather than focus on his ability to scare solely, Lowery, who also wrote the movie, plays with concepts of time, loss, and the liberating certainty of not just one’s death but of the death of Earth on the whole. Amidst the ghost’s cosmic travels, he finds a house party where a grizzly middle-aged man (Will Oldham) gives a rousing and hypnotic speech about the end times, suggesting that after the sun goes supernova, even if we’ve found another planet to inhabit and are able to save all our information from destruction, inevitably not only you but humankind will be forgotten. Four movies into what I hope is a very lengthy and prolific career, Lowery has already assured himself a place in film history with this miraculous movie, even if all of his and our work may not live long after
One of the best films ever made about stardom, specifically when that star happens to be a woman. It’s also a rather lacerating study of the director-actress relationship, compounded by the fact that the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, and star, Jennifer Lawrence, were in a relationship around the time the film was being made. Lawrence, playing an unnamed wife of an unnamed author (Javier Bardem) whose life becomes a living hell when a stranger (Ed Harris) arrives at their bucolic country home, goes all in on a treacherous performance and comes out thoroughly on top, seemingly unaffected by the risks of looking absurd or making light of her profession. For his part, Aronofsky creates a dazzling, scary, and beguiling tapestry out of a singular setting. He uses close-ups to stirring effect but also allows long shots, dim lighting, and his hand-held aesthetic to convey near-constant uncertainty. That’s not what’s memorable in the moment though. While watching mother! for the first time, the feeling is of panic, terror, unease, and disbelief, and it’s utterly spellbinding in its outlandishness.
8) 'Faces, Places'
Agnes Varda has always had a soft spot for workers. Decades ago, she traced the quotidian lives of the shop owners and tradesman on her street in the tremendously influential Daguerreotypes, and The Gleaners and I, her 2001 ode to those who live off the discarded food of others in France, highlighted the usefulness of what becomes food waste in helping working-class people and the poor survive. And with Faces Places, Varda goes one step further with help from the visual artist JR, who specializes in putting up large-scale photo-portraits of people, animals, and objects on buildings and large-scale vehicles, like how billboards are put up. The co-directors travel across rural France, interviewing farmers and townsfolk about their neighbors, family, and personal lives. What she culls from these conversations, and her ecstatically creative doings and exchanges with JR, is an overwhelming sense of the roiling tides of personal history and tragedy that shape everyday lives for those who rarely are represented or are allowed representation. Varda and JR turn that around by turning their good humor, their sadness, and their wonder into the stuff of thrilling, joyous art.
7) 'The Lost City of Z'
A breakthrough work for one of America’s finest filmmakers, James Gray, who nevertheless returns to his favorite themes here. Most notable on that list would be the concept of legacy in the case of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), the real-life British war hero and explorer who disappeared, along with his son (Tom Holland), while trekking through the Amazon in the early 20th century. In his previous films, the crimes and traditions of older generations who immigrate to America both supported and warped, enthralled and destroyed their children, such as in Little Odessa and The Yards. Here, it’s the condescending British upper class and their dismissal of his family’s legitimacy and honor which sends him searching for irrefutable greatness and acceptance in the wilds of South America. Gray softens the character of Fawcett – in reality, he was a virulent racist – but this doesn’t undermine the haunting drama of Fawcett’s obsession with finding an unknown, influential civilization. On the surface, the director makes The Lost City of Z a classical adventure film, but he refuses to see only the heroic in Fawcett’s excursions. The man lost his family, alienated his friends, and likely lost his and his son’s life in the hopes of proving the blue-bloods wrong for good. Gray empathizes with his plight but also clearly conveys that Fawcett was as much searching for his own death as he was his ultimate glory.
6) 'Ex Libris: The New York Public Library'
Ta-Nehisi Coates has a conversation about the history and perspective of being black in America at one point in Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris. Later on, a teacher questions the ultimate value of capitalism and America’s not-so-subtle obsession with empire. Toward the end, a largely black community reckons with the value of libraries and their funding for their kids and neighbors. These are all snapshots from the intricate network of public libraries in New York City, and Wiseman doesn’t rush one of them. He investigates every corner of the library system’s generous world and finds a utopian ideal of local government and institutions in doing so. He includes poor families looking for free internet services, students getting turned loose on their photo collection, and galas where great artists like Norman Lear are honored in the hopes of adding some room to their budget. Three hours stuck in a library may sound boring from the outside but what Wiseman finds is a support system that benefits those that are looking for a little relief from an unexpected source as well as those who are financially stable and just need a good place to write, research, or read a good book. More than that, he finds the dream of a public institution run by dedicated teachers, day-workers, and specialists who seek nothing more than to offer services to their fellow man in return for a living wage.
Kogonada’s miraculous debut film radiates intimacy. It begins in a familiar place – a young, somewhat hardened man (John Cho) meets a brilliant but guarded young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) – but romance is not exactly the director’s game here. They never kiss on screen, but they do walk and talk architecture a whole lot. Within those exchanges and Kogonada’s breathtaking images, these two people begin to reveal themselves in small ways. A family member’s history with bad drugs and worse men comes out while they share a cigarette and talk about her discovery of not just architecture but her own taste in buildings, homes, hospitals, and banks. The distance between Cho’s workaholic and his famed father, whose sudden collapse brings him to the titular city in Indiana, can be felt in how he talks about the same buildings his dad admired, lectured on, and wrote about for years. It’s a romantic vision of two strangers meeting and becoming indispensible to one another in a short time, a magical yet unsentimental connection that never crests exactly the way you’d expect. It’s also a movie about the quotidian nature of art and design, its place in everyday life, and its ability to convey depths of sorrow, joy, and curiosity that could touch a low-level library worker as much as a polished businessperson.
4) 'Get Out'
What hasn’t been written about Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking debut thus far? One thing that has slipped threw the cracks is all the allusions to Luis Bunuel, the master provocateur of the bourgeoisie and upper classes. It’s first noticeable in the long shot when Chris and Rose first arrive at the Armitage house, framed to accent the idyllic aesthetic of the home and its lawn before it pulls out to reveal the black groundskeeper who made it so. Of course, as we’ll find out, the groundskeeper isn’t exactly the groundskeeper, and neither is the cordial yet uneasy maid. Though Get Out’s script follows the beats of horror, it’s really social commentary in the same fiery range as Bunuel’s ferocious class critiques. The humor is more distinctly American, and so is the anger, which can be felt rumbling beneath each frame of this masterpiece. As for Peele, he wouldn’t need to make another movie for his entire life after this, considering not only the runaway fiscal success of the movie but also its seemingly near-universal appeal. Even so, I hope he makes a 100 more movies before he gets tired.
3) 'Phantom Thread'
The title comes from a sewing trick. You make a small pocket within the seams of a dress or suit and put a small personal item or message in it, not unlike the notes Rooney Mara’s character leaves within her homes in A Ghost Story. It’s a great symbol for the art of adding personality to an industrial product, whether that be wardrobe or films. It’s also a great symbol for romantic love, which is at the center of Paul Thomas Anderson’s wicked ninth feature about royal designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps), the model who bewitches him one day at a diner and eventually becomes his wife. In what may be his final screen performance, Day-Lewis communicates through his eyes and body as much as his voice, teasing out the mad brilliance and foolishness of Woodcock at once. Krieps is his ideal counterpart, and similarly uses glances and gestures to convey Alma’s uncharitable inner world. They alone would make the movie one of the best of the year, but Anderson’s direction and script (and camerawork) are what elevates Phantom Thread. The set design, wardrobe, and production design are all convincing and ravishing but never overwhelm or tame the wild, nasty emotions that are at play between Alma and Woodcock. Like all Anderson movies, Phantom Thread is a strange and formidable beast.
2) 'Good Time'
After charting the lives of drug addicts and irresponsible dads in New York City, the Safdie brothers turned to full-blown criminality in Good Time. Robert Pattinson is frighteningly intense and occasionally hysterical in the role of Connie Nikas, who spends a night in the five boroughs trying to track down his brother (Benny Safdie) after he’s picked up for armed robbery. What begins with some sweet-talk with his wealthy quasi-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at the bondsman’s office ends with Connie trying to cash in on a Sprite bottle full of acid, and the lunacy of this journey is not lost on the film’s creative team. Working from a script by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, the directors see Connie as no less instinctual than a horny dog, doing anything to get what he needs done, no matter how stupid or unhelpful his actions may be. There are more than a few allusions to Trump in Nikas’ character – he doesn’t drink and is quick to see others as less intelligent or worthy of his time – but to make direct parallels would miss the point. Pattinson’s untamed idiot only lives off the abundant privileges that being white, male, and capable of convincing people they are inferior or owe him affords him and little else, a notion that many critics ludicrously accused the Safdies of not being aware of or criticizing to their distinct satisfaction. He’s not just Trump but every white man who paints himself as a victim in order to avoid facing just how empty and talentless they are when all is said and done. If there was a more timely movie in 2017, I didn’t see it.
1) 'A Quiet Passion'
Emily Dickinson thought about the matters of life and death an awful lot, but especially the latter. Mind you, this was long before she passed away from a disease of the kidneys. The fleetingness of life, the miracle of even one day of existence, is what gave much of Dickinson’s writing its flavor and depth, and it’s this part of her personality that Terence Davies so solidly grasps onto in A Quiet Passion.
Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of the American poet is the towering achievement of the year in acting, so elegantly delivering Davies’ sumptuous dialogue while keeping a distinct tempo to her speech and diction, both on screen and in voice over. Davies, returning to the Americas for the first time since his endearing adaptation of The Neon Bible, ensconces her with plenty of period detail, verbal sparring matches against her beloved sister (Jennifer Ehle) and father (the great Keith Carradine) hallucinatory sequences steeped in death and romance. When life ceases in this film, the full weight of the loss is felt without pressing the tragedy of the situation, and when an argument gets vicious, the blows dealt to fragile egos and relations aren’t softened. The fact that language, fragmented into blasts of imagery and imagination, is so powerful is not surprising, but it is surprising to finally see a film that conveys that truth so profoundly. Davies clearly sees a bit of himself in Dickinson and with this, his eighth and arguably greatest work to date, he can now be counted amongst her most insightful and evocative disciples.
In Order: On the Beach at Night Alone, Slack Bay, Lady Bird, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Hermia & Helena, Dawson City: Frozen Time, The Florida Project, Beach Rats, Song to Song, Rat Film, The Death of Louis XIV, BPM (Beats Per Minute), Strong Island, The Lovers, Logan Lucky, The Big Sick, Marjorie Prime, Person to Person, The Unknown Girl, Behemoth, Wonderstruck, The Bad Batch, Felicite, Thirst Street, The Shape of Water, Win It All, Raw, Afterimage, Super Dark Times, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Logan, The Final Master, The Beguiled, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi
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