With 2017, I spent more time confused than not. It’s been a sufficiently un-astonishing year that often left my mind in a state of perpetual limbo, forced to reckon with the static of a butterscotch goblin every time I turned on the television. Turn off that antennae and I’m still confronted with the kind of shoddy humanity that makes me wonder if the planet’s growth spurt toward mature, complex, and rational thinking will ever come to pass.
For what it’s worth, it’s made the people that I value all the more important to me. People capable of thoughtfulness and empathy. If those traits were a deficiency of mine, they’re something that I actively work toward. I cannot resign myself to close-minded isolationism and intolerance. And it’s made the films of 2017, those that value tolerance as not vanity but virtue, all the more important to me. As 2017 comes to a close, it’s the films highlighted here that spoke to me most directly in this year of demolished sentiment - films that itch for solicitude, yearn for humanity, and resemble something unfashionably compassionate .
From being slotted as a token February release to certified cultural artifact, Jordan Peele’s Get Out really did require a gestation period to truly appreciate. While I may fixate on some of the film’s fumbles (which more or less comes down to an unnecessary comic performance from LilRel Howery), it’s hard not to be persuaded by the film’s polemic, particularly in how Peele utilizes familiar horror genre tropes as a foundation for broader cultural concerns. If Peele’s theoretical framework doesn’t seem entirely convincing, at the very least he found an ideal vessel in Daniel Kaluuya, whose quiet, reserved performance emerges out of a sunken place and into a spotlight.
Originally premiering at Toronto in 2015, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour didn’t screen in Chicago until earlier this year. The film opens with the picturesque image of four women ascending a mountaintop in Kobe, Japan where they eventually reach a cloudy stratosphere that dampens their intentions for a leisurely picnic. It’s a prophetic opening, as Hamaguchi’s five-hour opus details the tumultuous relationship and competing personalities of these women in the kind of effort that recalls some of Woody Allen’s earlier, better examinations of adult relationships.
A reworking of Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, funneled through Lindsay Burdge’s remarkable lead performance and Sean Price Williams’ photography of harsh neon and red. Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street is above all a meditation on grief as it delves into some rather unsavory clinical truths about femininity and the impossible expectations that confront women looking for a partner. Silver’s formalism has always favored an anxiety-ridden clinginess to his performers and such an effect has never felt more thematically appropriate and vital.
Person to Person
(Dustin Guy Defa)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, when citing Robert Altman’s use an Annie Ross track for Short Cuts, referred to the song as “the impressionistic clothesline on which to hang the movie’s images, feelings, and themes”. Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person may be missing a Ross track but in its place is something a little less tactile, something ephemeral and more directly tied to identity and the passage of time. The result is something close to an East Cost remix of Altman’s film. It more or less boils down to a series of two-handers, where numerous, fundamentally good characters experience a crisis of identity. Whether it be a rough first day of work, the disappointment of betraying a loved one, or reconciling that sort of anxious loneliness that comes with being the only person not in a relationship, Person to Person posits the frank and, nowadays, essential reminder that life is indeed worth enduring.
There’s an abundance of love in Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s They. It needs it. I needed it. In this film about a teen confronted with the decision to proceed with gender reassignment, there’s something almost cosmically out of sorts about the manner in which people communicate with each other. The notion that a gender-fluid teen is greeted with a modicum of respect and dignity is so contrary to modern American decorum, as Ghazvinizadeh warmly recognizes a sub-sect of humanity that hasn’t turned on each other. A student of Abbas Kiarostami, Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature aspires to capture tiny impernament moments that cumulatively snowball into something close to poetry.
Nothing about Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver really means anything. But the distinction between the mindless diversions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe™ and Baby Driver is all a matter of filmmaking. Wright moves his camera more percussively in the opening passages of Baby Driver than the collective of any other modern Marvel/DC comic book film. The action sequences have chutzpah; there’s a tactile sense of movement, where his rhythmic editing coincides with a distinct understanding of his aural and visual compositions. Wright’s filmmaking gives his images meaning, in what amounts to a superhero film about a skilled driver overcoming the villain and winning the girl. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated. Formalism and craft of this caliber is its own gift.
Thomas Hardy wrote that “God made the country and man made the town”, a comment that hints at Hardy’s disinterest with civilized society and preference for hermetic, natural living. I’ve tied a knot between that comment and Valeska Grisebach’s Western, a film I initially struggled to place but have since grown to admire in the days, weeks, and months since I’ve seen it. Western presents itself as an outsider story and compels its audience to keep up with rich historical text as a German construction crew colonizes a small Bulgarian community. Its narrative involving a quiet, freethinking, German nomad attempting to befriend the community serves as a stinging reminder of the inherent privilege and subsequent cultural indifference that a liberal ideology can demand. In Man’s colonial conquest comes a reckoning with certain unbending rules of Nature, with Grisebach exploring this with such cerebral subtlety and formal nuance. This one burrows into you and leaves such an indelible, unshakable impression.
(Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin)
We’ve reached a considerable distance from the early 90s to consider it analytically. Look no further than Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America to see a logical and thorough rendering of what the O.J. Simpson trial symbolized as a cultural and sociopolitical event. 2017 alone has seen films about the Oklahoma City bombing, Tonya Harding, and two films about the Los Angeles Riots. Composed entirely of archival footage, it’s Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s LA 92 that sticks out for many of the same reasons that O.J.: Made in America stood out: it grounds its argument clearly and presents its defenses in reasoned and frequently stirring passages. Opening with a notable remark from Frederick Douglas that demands our continued reappraisal of the past, Lindsay and Martin briefly peer into the L.A. riots of 1965 before proceeding with astonishing footage of the ’92 riots. One could glibly suggest that such a device imparts the lesson that the worst one’s past, the worse their future, but Lindsay and Martin thankfully avoid such a cynical reading, as their film concludes with a measure of hope: “we have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future”.
Brawl in Cell Block 99
(S. Craig Zahler)
Despite its two-hour plus runtime, there’s not a wasted movement in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. It’s an exercise in lean, muscular filmmaking of the Michael Mann variety that crescendos into B-movie aesthetics with the familiar sights of Don Johnson and Udo Kier. Whatever remnants of a philosophy or politic it espouses are more or less drowned out by a perplexingly humane desire for survival, legacy, and even love. I mean, this is a film that features a man tearing apart an automobile with his bare hands before having a civilized conversation with his wife about the future of their relationship as blood from his lacerated knuckles drips onto their living room couch. Humanity has its place even within Vince Vaughn’s bald, tattooed, and birdcage-shaped frame.
Song to Song
More steeped in swooning romance than his more pensive previous film Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick’s Song to Song continues the director’s active disinterest in traditional narrative filmmaking. It’s hard to notice the kind of images that you see everyday, but Malick’s cinema is loaded with imagery that imbues the mundane and earthly with a kind of spiritual grace, as his fragmented preference for ephemeral moments provides its own unique brand of sensory pleasures. Those who submit to the film’s cadence and rhythms will be rewarded; all of Song to Song’s fleeting gestures assemble themselves from an anonymous line of lights into a grand aurora. At his most romantic since at least The New World, Song to Song returns to Malick’s mode of filmmaking that embodies the spirit of the rapturous.
The Florida Project
The Magic Castle, the dilapidated purple budget motel adjacent to Disney World and HQ of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, joins an elite class of vivid constructs in the vein of the boarding house in Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man or the indomitable office building in Jacques Tati’s Playtime. And like those films, The Florida Project is laced in a comic irreverence and notable for the existential parallels that find men, women, and children frequently observed as diminutive to such large, formidable facades. Above all, Baker is a social dramatist and utilizes his milieu’s vibrant architecture to speak to a culture that opts to ignore its most destitute communities. As whirring helicopters hover overhead corralling wristband-wearing families to the Magical Kingdom, it’s Brooklynn Prince, the film’s precocious star that understands the cosmic imbalance of what she’s up against. In a film loaded with heartache and tragedy, you’ll have to excuse her for indulging in at least one succinct flight of fantasy.
If love yields to circumstance, then the women of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled find themselves in a most troubling predicament. Disturbed from their patterns and routines with the arrival of a Yankee soldier, a house built on hospitality and a spiritually auspicious constitution finds itself in the passionate throes of a smooth-talking stranger. What I found most provocative about Coppola’s reworking of Don Siegel’s original film stems from its shift in perspective, a gaze that aligns with its female characters. Coppola’s vision stresses an ambiguous reading throughout its runtime, where she emphasizes the male soldier’s charming bluster while implying (with the aid of Philippe Le Sourd’s exquisite cinematography) an aura of dread. In what would be a cultural harbinger to come, The Silence Breakers of The Beguiled indeed have their day.
Despite premiering In Competition at Cannes in 2016, Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper encapsulates a lot of the despairing moments that come with living in 2017. Sold as a ghost story thriller involving Kristen Stewart, the film acknowledges a culture of grief as we see a young woman immobilized by sorrow and in search of an identity in the wake of her brother’s death. Assayas marries his concerns with the supernatural and mundane, in what’s more or less an exercise in inexplicable dichotomies - this is, after all, a film that involves the laborious onus of a personal shopper who also happens to moonlight as a medium. But the cumulative affect of these contradictions adds up to one of the director’s more cunning gambits: despair may be in vogue in our contemporary (political) culture, but it’s to Personal Shopper’s credit to proclaim that hopelessness is, indeed, not in fashion.
John Wick: Chapter 2
I fear this may sound too much like a Peter Travers’ pull quote but what the hell: John Wick: Chapter 2 is the best action film since Mad Max: Fury Road. It makes sense given that much like George Miller’s opus, Chad Stahelski is clearly indebted to a rich cinematic canon to frame his vision. For as much as Wick 2 may draw from John Woo’s 80s cinema with its carefully crafted action choreography, there are also glimpses of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. and even a hall of mirrors that recall Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai. Contrary to nearly every modern action film that demands gray and dingy set pieces, Stahelski values clarity within this neon-flushed fantasy. And as the world of Wick 2 comes together, we have a film that possesses a tangible architecture, where everything that goes on here and its predecessor amounts to “world-building” that lends itself to something genuinely dramatic. The anticipation machine of certain other cinematic universes have nothing on the leaner and more satisfying universe that Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have composed.
Un Beau Soleil Intérieur
Anchored by an astonishing performance from Juliette Binoche (can a performance of hers ever be otherwise described?), Claire Denis’ Un Beau Soleil Intérieur is her most flighty and comic film since at least Nénette et Boni. It’s a series of romantic interludes, each capturing a woman’s frustration with a rotating door of ineffectual males. Whether it’s those who overthink and intellectualize their emotions or the vapidly dull, Binoche and Denis wisely navigate the impossible position that women find themselves in when looking for love. And as Denis wisely posits, those feelings of inadequacy and imperfection may not be remedied with love for someone else, but for oneself. And of course, a properly deployed Etta James track could do the trick too.
Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Frederick Wiseman, the wise octogenarian who has produced some of the most astounding documentaries of the past fifty years, remains at the forefront of his craft. I dedicated part of my year to filling in the gaps of his filmography, curious to see his development as a filmmaker and particularly as an editor. His films have always been indomitably large, both in length and in their painstaking detail. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library continues his preoccupations with thorough institutional examinations. But in his careful study on the seemingly endless moving parts that make up the New York Public Library system, I saw glimpses of his other films at play. I saw the vivid humanity for the disenfranchised from Public Housing, the glimpses of concern for the handicapped from Deaf, and the incommodiousness of bureaucracy from Welfare. With his most recent films, dating back to At Berkeley, Wiseman’s maximalist tendencies are uniting all his previous thematic concerns. Ex Libris unites them in perhaps what will be remembered as his most hopeful note, where his cinema exhibits what Richard Dawkins describes as the “poetry of reality”.
On the Beach At Night Alone
Loneliness is the most prevalent feature of On the Beach At Night Alone's landscape, where a woman endures self-exile in the wake of a tabloid scandal. You won’t read anything about the film that doesn’t cite the publicized affair between director Hong Sang-soo and his lead actress Kim Min-hee, but it’s a vital piece of personal information that imbues this dense diptych narrative. Hong’s insistence on narrative echoes and the follies of masculine libido are largely absent here, instead replaced by a more symbolic rendering of a woman attempting to stave off her public demons within private, isolated spaces. Kim Min-hee is vital here, navigating this rich text with a measure of agency as Hong’s framing serves to enclose all around her. I wasn’t fortunate to encounter Hong’s companion piece to this, The Day After, but on its own terms, On the Beach At Night Alone serves as a different, and frankly terrifying, feminine portrait of all the personal anxieties shared by Hong and Kim. This kind of personal filmmaking with such collaborative preoccupations are rare. And few are this viscerally moving.
Call Me By Your Name
I’ve struggled to identify with anything from Luca Guadagnino’s filmography, often finding the excessive stylism of his previous films (I Am Love and A Bigger Splash) to possess an impenetrable barrier. Something about the emotions they strive for seem too calculated and insincere. But Call Me By Your Name remedies those concerns, first with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s warm photography, the subtle intimacy of Samuel Deshors production design, and the familiar tenor of Sufjan Steven’s voice. Guadagnino’s formal indulgences are understated here with the director mostly interested in navigating his actors toward more complex performances. With Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, Guadagnino composes his most compelling film, one that sacrifices his penchant for broad histrionics for something more ephemeral and urgent. All of which lead up to a moment where Chalamet observes the embers of a fireplace on an Italian winter afternoon, in a scene that encapsulates all the film’s preoccupations and anxieties, leaving its audience to mull over the cinders as the closing credits scrawl over the screen. It’s obliterating.
(Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie)
Is there a more vital American cinematographer than Sean Price Williams? He’s been a key component to some of my favorite American independent films of the past few years, serving as DP for Ben and Joshua Safdie’s previous film, Heaven Knows What, Alex Ross Perry’s entire filmography, Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again, and Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street (an earlier entry on this list). There’s an exigency to his images, a particular knack to provide something comforting before vividly crashing into something resembling a panic attack. Robert Pattinson may provide a persuasively sleazy performance, the screenplay may be an exercise in white-knuckle tension, and Oneohtrix Point Never may provide one of the year’s best scores, but I can’t image these components coming together with such breathtaking fluidity without Williams’ vivid imagery.
Yes, this is a coming-of-age story about an American high school teenager. But what elevates Lady Bird from, say, John Hughes’ banal renditions of high school life, is in its vivid attention to detail. Set in 2002-2003, Greta Gerwig flatters you for your recognition of the familiar. I should know: I was an incoming freshman in high school during the time and can distinctly recall some of the film’s most fleeting gestures, whether it be a throwaway line about a senior’s academic disinterest (“I think we're done with the learning part of high school”) or that moment of crushing existential dread that comes with being on your own. Yet it’s to Gerwig’s credit that these recognizable qualities are brought together with such warmth and formal acuity – the rhythmic cadence of Nick Houy’s editing, Sam Levy’s crisp images, and Saoirse Ronan’s impressive lead performance all amount to something close to transcendental.
As ridicule and bellicosity has entered our culture as a preferred mode of social intercourse and an ideal expression of art (look no further than Martin McDonagh’s awards-primed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), a film as warm, generous, and compassionate as Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places seems out of place and out of orbit with the rest of the universe. But this documentary that sees Varda and JR travel throughout Europe in a photo-booth van as they create art installations and portraits of the various people they meet embodies a kind of humanism that, for its 90 minute runtime, will restore your faith in the world. Rather than letting the world’s angry polemic wither away at your spirit, Faces Places is a tonic; a beacon for the value of collaboration and incalculable importance of art. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace: I don’t believe in angels, but Agnès Varda may as well be one.
What’s our affinity with art? Is it offering us solace or escape? Both? Does it disconnect us from the world or imbue it with greater meaning? Kogonada’s Columbus presents these concerns with such subtlety and tact that, with all great films, will require multiple viewings to uncover. Borrowing from filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni, Yasujirō Ozu, and Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kogonada examines a kind of emotional anomie that finds its characters yearning for some measure of meaning, uncertain of the trajectory of their lives within the sharp, distinct order of their surroundings. The film begins with Casey (Haley Lu Richardson providing the year’s best performance) sacrificing her ambition in favor of tending to her recovering mother. This is contrasted with the arrival of Jin (John Cho), who returns to Columbus, Indiana to tend to his ailing father. In Casey’s case, there’s comfort in remaining in Columbus even if it proves to be an intellectually stifling option. For Jin, there’s an emotional hurdle associated with his return, where returning to Columbus and his father stirs up resentment and disconnect. As the film progresses, we experience Casey and Jin’s quaint and comforting friendship blossom as they rely on one another to better understand and come to grips with the anxieties of their lives, in what’s an all too relatable desire to find balance within the asymmetrical.
Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama begins as a gripping topographic examination of modern Parisian life: the interconnectedness of a city through a subway, the ghost-like movement of men, women, and children as they roam city streets, and the distinctions made between the upper and lower economic stratospheres. These are recognizable qualities that I see in my own city and the metropolises I’ve visited. All these details function in service for a profoundly complex statement on a culture that has seen its youth disenfranchised and aimless. Émile Durkheim may not be overtly mentioned but his spirit is woven into the fabric of Nocturama’s rich polemic. What follows is a confluence of sorts, where urbanity meets a suburban totem: a shopping mall. Names like Stanley Kubrick and George Romero certainly inform passages of this latter half sojourn but it’s the theories of Marx, Weber, and Marcuse that elevate Nocturama from cinematic text to cultural document. The image of a mannequin donning the clothes of one its characters is repeated numerous times throughout this second-half and each time it speaks to something different, whether it be a crisis of identity, class, or eventually, something entirely existential.
The Lost City of Z
Described by his superiors as having been “rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors”, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is the kind of figure that stands in for any outsider with the misfortune of having been bred out of orbit with the rest of privileged society. Perpetually passed for recognition and offered but only the most menial of tasks, he’s left to take on a map-making quest to the Amazon. And it is here where personal ambition – the desire for recognition among his peers, of etching out a legacy that lives beyond the here and now – is exposed for all its fleeting qualities. James Gray doesn’t necessarily subvert the qualities of films of its ilk like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but rather ignores the dramatic device of seeing its lead character succumb to insanity and megalomania. Instead, the film’s grand dramatic crescendo sees its lead character finally obtain the approval of his peers where he’s provided with a token of their admiration, and to see how insignificant that emblem happens to be when compared to the wealth of personal experience, sacrifice, and knowledge he has obtained through his travels. Despite what the film’s epic scale, globe-trotting qualities, and Gray’s formal breadth, The Lost City of Z serves as an encapsulation of the John Cassavetes’ mantra that reminds us all to "Say what you are. Not what you would like to be. Not what you have to be. Just say what you are. And what you are is good enough." No film in recent memory has expressed that thought with such beauty, sophistication, and rigor.
(Paul Thomas Anderson)
Referred to as “the most demanding man”, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) designs the sort of dresses that give women courage. Yet such courage remains inextricably linked and codependent to a garment of a limited shelf life. And so we track Paul Thomas Anderson’s transfixing examination on the ephemerality of love and the frequently illogical paths it takes us. While it’s Alma (Vicky Krieps) who opens the film, we don’t see her again until later, after we’ve had the opportunity to see Reynolds and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) go about their staggeringly precise rituals. Whether it be Reynolds’ exacting grooming procedure, his fussy breakfast decorum, or the lapidary fineness of his stitching, he’s insatiable, if not cursed, by his demands for perfection.
Yet it’s not until he meets Alma, an immigrant waitress, that Reynolds’ self-imposed blight relents, where he encounters his muse: the woman with the “ideal shape” and just a “little bit of belly”. But such things are fleeting with Alma’s entry into the Woodcock manor. But whereas the revolving door of women that have become involved with Reynolds have cast Alma in a long shadow, she serves Reynolds with his most intriguing challenge. A challenge that’s a rebuke of his tendencies and eccentricities. She asserts herself, refusing to wear away to insignificance and oblivion.
I love Phantom Thread for all its lush formal qualities, from Jonny Greenwood’s remarkable score to Paul Thomas Anderson’s exquisite photography and measured, peerless direction. But I cherish Phantom Thread for what it has to say about love and the relationships we find ourselves in. This is the best American film about what it means to be in an adult relationship since, at least, Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance. It understands the often-ravenous desire to fill in that missing interior jigsaw piece, and our irrational and insane desire to have that piece conform to fit some fleeting idea of perfection. An idea that requires frequent revisions and alterations. The curse of that hallow, missing feeling can only be lifted when one has the courage to recognize that an ideal shape is one that’s fluid and bending. Until then, the man or woman of your dreams will remain just that – a dream.