This was a year that, for me, found filmmakers, both new and veteran, pushing themselves to tremendous artistic heights heights, often taking well worn film styles and genres and injecting such powerfully vibrant new life into their respective films that it often felt as if I was seeing those aforementioned styles and genres for the first time, therefore making for cinema that was so often enthralling. Beyond the aesthetics and approaches, as I regard the films I loved the most in 2017, I have noticed common threads and themes that run through (nearly) all of the films: the themes of representation and resistance.
Let's get to the list and check it all out, shall we...
Steven Spielberg's best film in years arrived with a most impassioned roar as he utilized historical drama to again challenge us to see and make the crucial connections from the past and the present. In the case of "The Post," Spielberg takes us back to 1971 for the true story of how The Washington Post obtained and published "The Pentagon Papers," a collection of classified documents detailing the United States government's three decade involvement with the Vietnam War, thus revealing all of the lies told to the American populace about winning a war that was already known to be unwinnable.
Lean, taut, briskly paced and exceedingly well acted (as expected) by Tom Hanks, the film's MVP Bob Odenkirk and the powerfully subtle work of Meryl Streep, "The Post" succeeded greatly as a journalistic thriller which emphatically demonstrated the urgent necessity of having a free press, and backed by our First Amendment Rights to free speech, to always speak truth to power. Additionally, Spielberg also weaved in the equally urgent story of female empowerment, where the representation of even just one could possibly lead to a place where women would not only find a seat in the room where the biggest decisions are made, but one day OWN the room itself.
(Originally reviewed January 2018)
Guillermo del Toro returned with his very best film since the shattering "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006), a blissfully strange, oddly beautiful adult fable starring an otherworldly Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman for a secret government laboratory whose mundane existence is transformed by her connection with a captured amphibious humanoid creature.
In addition to the glorious visual presentation, the deliriously emotional leaps and peaks, and performances from the entire cast that range from dazzling, heartbreaking and terrifying (Hawkins is so effective that I often forgot that she never spoke one word, Richard Jenkins reminds us once again of what an acting treasure he is and Michael Shannon unearths a level of malevolence that was more than disturbing to behold but impossible to turn away from), del Toro utilizes his film to juxtapose our notions of what constitutes normalcy or monstrous. Even further, this story set during the 1950's certainly is forged as a mirror to life in the 21st century as a story of marginalized individuals straining to stake their respective claims, and ultimately survive, in a cruelly intolerant world.
(Originally reviewed December 2017)
In a genre that is more than over-represented, as well as one that I have shown considerable sings of fatigue with, Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman" was a flat-out winner. Not only the very best film by a clear mile in the building DC Comics cinematic universe, this film gave me emotions that I really have not felt in a superhero/comic book themed film since Richard Donner's "Superman-The Movie" (1978).
Yes, Patty Jenkins, is beautiful collaboration with a terrific, full, rich performance from Gal Godot right at the very center, helmed the first superhero epic in quite some time that was just plain fun, displayed a certain innocence and playfulness rather than one of mounting doom and CGI apocalyptic bombast and seamlessly merged elements of mythology, espionage and war films, and classic romantic comedy with the modern superhero epic.
Most importantly, representation means absolutely everything as "Wonder Woman" proved itself to being urgently inspirational as we witnessed the full, complete arc of our favorite Amazonian warrior with such joy and enriching purposefulness. For as when she is amazed with what she discovers of herself, we are amazed right along with her as we are therefore pushed to discover the wondrous abilities we all possess that could possibly help to change the world for the better. I also applaud Patty Jenkins for delivering the iconic comic book heroine with such purity, respect and clear eyed direction as Gal Godot is never objectified for even one moment, especially when a male director might otherwise have the camera linger gratuitously over areas that have nothing to do with the content of her character. The soul of Wonder Woman does not rest in her outfit, golden lasso of truth or those bracelets that can stop a bullet cold. It is found in her virtuousness, honor, duty, empathy and yeah...she can throw a tank with her bare hands too! I'd follow her anywhere and this film flies through the clouds.
(Originally reviewed June 2017)
7. "DIVIDED WE FALL" Directed by Katherine M. Acosta
This stunning, sobering documentary hit extremely close to home for me, especially as the film takes place within my city and I was indeed present for quite of a bit of the events as depicted within. Yet, aside from my personal connections to the material, Director Katherine M. Acosta's presentation of the rise and fall of the historic Wisconsin Uprising protests of 2011 not only performed the meticulous task of chronicling the movement through invigorating sequences of resistance to the divide and conquer policies of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker without any sense of manufactured hyperbole or feigned heroism, she also detailed precisely how grass roots movements are born as well as serving as a corrective document to the misrepresentations presented by the local and cable news media and most importantly, an urgently solemn warning against the politics of self-preservation from those who are fighting upon the same ideological sides, therefore causing the fight to be ultimately lost.
Over 90 briskly paced yet voluminously detailed minutes, Acosta has created a vibrant, compulsively watchable experience designed to inspire as well as outrage as she greatly places her razor sharp focus upon a collective of everyday individuals who somehow found the impetus within themselves to rise, speak truth to power and in doing so, they have become Civil Rights heroes. May the stories and lessons contained within this film serve as a powerful guide and course of action as we move forwards in Wisconsin as well as our entire country. This film is a remarkably impassioned piece of journalism merged with an unmistakably powerful history lesson.
(Originally reviewed March 2017)
6. "DUNKIRK" Directed by Christopher Nolan
Leave it to Christopher Nolan to essentially re-invent the war film as "Dunkirk" was not only his tightest, tautest, and propulsive to the point of being near anxiety inducing, but it was possibly his most esoteric and experimental film to date as his WWII epic was not a film based within its characters, especially as it featured the least amount of actual dialogue in his filmography, making the film function almost as a silent movie.
What we were given was an exquisitely filmed visual feast that regarded the events of the Dunkirk evacuation on three fronts (the beach, the sea, and an aerial dogfight) and three distinct spans of time itself (one week, one day, and one hour, respectively), making the experience as a whole transcendent of its specific war to serve as a metaphor for all wars and the randomness of violence, resistance, survival and death from the primal to the existential. Furiously paced and filled with awe, terror, reverence and a stunning, often exhilarating and horrifying velocity, Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is a masterful achievement that cuts down to the bone artfully, skillfully and triumphantly.
(Originally reviewed July 2017)
5. "BABY DRIVER" Directed by Edgar Wright
Leave it to Edgar Wright to re-invent the car chase/heist film!! Trust me, I am one who absolutely never needs to see a car chase in a film ever again but with the extraordinary, ingenious "Baby Driver," Wright made me feel as if I was seeing car chases for the very first time with his delirious innovation and bottomless creativity.
Wright's action film dream of the young savant, ear bud wearing getaway driver dynamo as the music he listens to provides him with the ultimate driving soundtrack, allowed this film to simultaneously function as a lavish rock and roll musical, a ferocious action film and also as another entry in Wright's consistent theme of arrested development. Gloriously filmed and enriched with spectacular audio/visual aesthetics, performances from the entire cast and an unquestionably killer soundtrack, Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver" is essentially the cinematic love child of John Woo and Buzby Berkeley.
(Originally reviewed July 2017)
4. "THE BIG SICK" Directed by Michael Showalter
The romantic comedy genre was completely resuscitated with this film, co-written by real world married couple Emily V. Gordon and leading actor Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in the film as himself in a chronicle of his real life love story with Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), a Caucasian woman with whom Kumail, a Muslim-American whose family continues the tradition of arranged marriages, falls in love with only to nearly lose her as she falls ill and into a coma.
"The Big Sick" is precisely what romantic comedies, of the era of Woody Allen's' "Annie Hall" (1977) used to be: films about real people with real emotions living within a real world dealing with their romantic issues realistically, with the comedy and romance arriving from the persons with whom the story surrounds. What was delivered was not simply a good romantic comedy but a GREAT one, truly one of the most effective that I have ever seen. In addition to the love story itself, which was presented earnestly and urgently, this was the kind of film where every single character was deserving of their own film, from Kumail's parents (beautifully played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and Emily's parents (the great Holly Hunter and the heartbreakingly wonderful Ray Romano), to Kumail's brother (Adeel Akhtar) and his arranged marriage wife (Shenaz Treasury). And in turn, all of these characters beautifully served a breezy yet aching and complex narrative that also included explorations of the stand-up comedy world, existential issues of life and death plus the themes of inter-racial dating and perhaps most importantly, the matter-of-fact depiction of modern day, 21st century life of Muslim-American families.
The love story of Kumail and Emily is a rare cinematic pairing that we honestly root for and "The Big Sick," with all areas of its greatness, is a marvelous work of tremendous warmth, honest humor and sincerely earned poignancy.
(Originally reviewed July 2017)
3. "STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI" Directed by Rian Johnson
Who could have possibly known that the latest episode in the on-going "Star Wars" saga was prove to be it most controversial to the point of being polarizing? In many ways, I still cannot believe the excessive vitriol, as what filmmaker Rian Johnson delivered to me was the finest "Star Wars" feature that I have seen ever since George Lucas' original 1977 film.
For me, the especially exquisitely filmed "The Last Jedi" was the full culmination of all we have ever experienced with the story of the Skywalker family over these past 40 years and by the film's end, I wanted for absolutely nothing as Johnson's vision was as wholly enrapturing as it was complete. Taking Lucas' original aesthetic of discovering the sweet spot between Wagner and "Flash Gordon," Johnson honored everything that had been set before while also upending the proceedings, therefore making a "Star Wars" film that offered a level of surprise unlike any of the other films since perhaps "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980).
Thankfully and rightfully, Johnson also paid no attention to the desires of the fan base and their internet theories because once the fans are catered to, there is no reason to watch these films anymore. Where revelations about Rey's (Daisy Ridley) lineage, the fate Supreme Leader Snoke's (Andy Serkis) and the trajectory of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill in his career best performance), disappointed and angered fans, I found the creative risks completely invigorating. Where a side story to a casino planet felt superfluous to some viewers, I was enraptured as again, I was surprised and given sights within that galaxy far, far away that I had never seen before--therefore making that galaxy far, far away open itself up even wider. Even the nature of The Force itself evolved in ways we hadn't seen before...and why not? Had we learned everything about The Force in prior installments? Of course not. Essentially, Johnson's "The Last Jedi" is a film about resistance, survival and the audacity of hope within a brutal universe and it gave me a a journey to the "Star Wars" universe so unexpected and filled with so many dazzling sights and emotions so rapturous that the film brought me to tears, raising the bar to a level where the this story's final installment of "Episode IX" feels as if ANYTHING could happen...and THAT makes for exciting cinema.
Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" is the "Star Wars" film that serves as its own world of self-reflection. Will these stories advance or will they just continue to mine the original trilogy ad infinitum. If they are going to be worth watching at all, they have to evolve and to me, Rian Johnson gave the series the enormous push that it needed with this masterful achievement.
(Originally reviewed December 2017)
2. "CALL ME BY YOUR NAME" Directed by Luco Guadagnino
This lyrical, poetic ode to summer's long gone, with an urgent, illicit romance at the core between a 24-year-old grad student (a wonderful Armie Hammer) and the 17-year-old son of a Professor (Timothee Chalamet) vacationing with his family somewhere in Northern Italy, is essential, sublime, transportive viewing.
Guadagnino has created a languid, beautiful film that serves as a coming-of-age tale certainly but it is furthermore an experience that celebrates memory, meticulously delves into the romantic/sexual themes of repression, confusion, exuberance, concealment, self-denial and self-acceptance and anxiety, all the while burrowing into the existential themes of discovering the truth of oneself and whether to live by that truth or sacrifice onself to the lie that is contained within a level of socio-political tolerance.
Addition ally, Guadagnino's film serves as a tribute to spoken and unspoken language in the more analog era of 1983 as he delivers a world where cellphones and computers are nowhere to be seen, television is rarely viewed and even cars are barely visible. This world is a timeless locale so luxuriously presented that you can practically smell the freshness of the summer season and the slowness of time itself emanate from the screen while we gradually dive deeper into the central romance, all the way to the film's quietly devastating monologue given by a fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg which snaps all of the seemingly disparate moments contained in the film into sharp focus.
One of the year's highest achievements unquestionably.
(Originally reviewed January 2018)
1. "GET OUT" Directed by Jordan Peele
The best film of 2017 was one of the very first I saw and looking back, it feels as if its audaciousness set the stage for all of the great films to follow within the year. But this film was indeed the cinematic BIG BANG!!!
Writer/Director Jordan Peele's "Get Out," the story of Black Photographer Chris Washington (a beautifully haunted Daniel Kaluuya) and his nightmarishly fateful weekend trip to his White girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents home was precisely the film that I have NEVER seen before within my entire lifetime of watching movies. Utilizing and then upending and transcending the horror film genre, Peele unapologetically explored 21st century American race relations, most especially, the lie of "post-racial America," with a depth and skill that has made me repeatedly question just how many times did Peele write and re-write his story to ensure all of his points and conceptual multi-layers were expressed as brilliantly and as ingeniously as they were. I have seen the film over five times now and still, I am amazed with Peele's superlative focus, in his filmmaking debut feature no less, as "Get Out" works brilliantly as a horror film in which the audience cannot only yell at the screen but also fully understand exactly why our hero remains in this house of horrors in the first place.
That aspect of the film is the true nightmare, the nightmare that all African-Americans live day-by-day to varying degrees within White society, especially within liberal White society where micro-aggressions are subtly prevalent to always create the sense of paranoia, as well as the rise of overt and rampant racism and the realities of police brutality to the open season styled murders of Black people by Whites who "feel threatened" that truly exacerbate the fear, inciting the necessity for resistance and survival, whether by fighting or succumbing into "The Sunken Place."
Even when the film flies into the surreal in its viscious climax, the subject of race remains the engine propelling all of the material and characters, all the way to the film's final frames. With the concepts of White privilege, cultural appropriation, enslavement, eradication and emancipation, Jordan Peele's "Get Out" is an honest, unmercifully creative work of supreme moral outrage and catharsis that in ferociously inventive, rapaciously satirical, often laugh out loud funny while sending chills up and down my spine that are uncomfortably familiar to just living life in the real world.
(Originally reviewed March 2017)
And there you have it...my favorite films of 2017. And now, bring on the movies of 2018!!!!