School of Rock was a formative movie for me. It came out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. I still think of it first when I hear “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. (Thor: Ragnarok second.)
The overarching theme of the year in film, to me, was Wonder Women. Not only was the Wonder Woman film good, but in a year when badly behaving men dominated the news, I’m grateful there were so many richly drawn female protagonists who ran the gamut of strong, vulnerable, funny, and complicated, and who made their movies better.
I mean, just consider Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, Elizabeth Olsen in Wind River, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project, Jenny Slate in Landline, Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus, Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, Meryl Streep in The Post, Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to name a few.
As with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, I hope #MeToo and the new Time’s Up campaign in Hollywood lead to positive change in cinema. (I just realized all the aforementioned actresses are white…) The world benefits from different kinds of stories being told in fresh ways by people who in a different time wouldn’t be able to tell them. More power—and funding!—to those people.
So many films from this year have stayed in my mind. Ranking them felt as arbitrary and borderline sadistic as ranking works of art actually is. I almost took the coward’s way out and listed them alphabetically. But in a bid for clarity and uniformity with my previous best-of lists, here are my favorite films from 2017:
1. The Florida Project
No joke: Brooklynn Prince for Best Actress. Her very real chops as a 6-year-old allowed Tangerine director Sean Baker to wrangle from her a well-rounded, film-carrying performance as Moonee, a wily, incorrigible kid tromping around unsupervised in a low-income motel community. The fragmentary, mosaic-like narrative structure might have dragged a bit here and there, but it also created images that pay off later in the film, like Moonee in the bath. Very well done, with an ending that slams like a motel room door.
2. A Ghost Story
“Casey Affleck in a bedsheet” is technically what most of the movie consists of, but that ain’t the half of it. Focus too much on that and you’ll miss a beautifully shot, melancholic, slyly funny, and mercifully concise meditation on the slipperiness of time and memory. How mesmerizing it is to follow a ghost that is unstuck in time. Pairs well with Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here.
It’s become a cliche to laud the technical advances in film animation, especially from Pixar. But damn: this is a resplendent piece of work, and one that elicited a rare theater-cry from me. With music, family, memory, and a young boy playing a stringed instrument at the center, this makes a great companion to 2016 favoriteKubo and the Two Strings. The soundtrack is available on Hoopla for free with your library card.
4. The Lego Batman Movie
Holy Joke Density, Batman! Like The Lego Movie, every moment is packed with something: action, humor, meta-humor, color, or heart. How is it that an animated superhero movie accomplishes this way better than most human ones? I suppose I should be annoyed by another [Insert Brand Name Here] Cinematic Universe, but I’ll revisit this one any day. After all, friends are family you can choose.
5. Get Out
I don’t like watching horror films, so I was planning on skipping this until the universal acclaim compelled me otherwise. So glad I did because there’s a lot more going on than cheap scares. Speaking of scary: if this is writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut work, what does he have in store for the future?
Another debut, from film essayist Kogonada, this gorgeous film calls enough attention to its subjects—the modernist architecture of Columbus, IN, and the two sudden companions who take it in—to captivate viewers, but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit. That’s usually a good formula for great cinema. Bonus points for the library references.
The only movie I saw twice in theaters this year. What I found powerful about the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land. Nevertheless, she persisted.
In a film that’s so short and efficient (by Christopher Nolan standards), Nolan still captures the full scope of war: from the smallest stories of individual soldiers trying to survive and do their duty to the haunting grandness of thousands of soldiers trapped on a beach awaiting their doom. The interweaving timelines from the air, land, and sea might confound at first, but a second viewing confirms they fit snugly together, and build dramatically towards (78-year spoiler alert) the successful evacuation, or Miracle On Sand as I’m calling it.
An eloquent, observant, and superbly crafted documentary by Vanessa Gould on the New York Times obituary writers and the people they cover. It’s the rare instance of the writing process being just as interesting as the writing itself. Now how about a documentary just on Jeff Roth and the Morgue (pictured above)?
Doug Nichol, a commercial and music video cinematographer, finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes in this documentary about the “People’s Machine” and the people who love them. Between talking heads of famous typers and a reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto, Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.
Just missed the cut: I, Tonya, Wind River, mother!, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Quiet Passion, The Shape of Water, and Lady Bird
Here’s an important question for the Christmas season: which is better, Angels with Filthy Souls or Angels with Even Filthier Souls?
Both share a template: character walks in, gets threatened/insulted by Johnny, gets blown away by Johnny, and gets a memorable kicker. Kevin McCallister also enjoys a smorgasbord while watching both of them, and gets scared by the violence (which is ironic given his casual sadism toward the Wet/Sticky Bandits later in the films). Let’s dig into them to decide:
Angels with Filthy Souls
From Home Alone, it features Johnny and Snakes, who wants his money for “the stuff”:
Johnny’s Threat/Insult: “I’m gonna give you to the count of 10, to get your ugly, yella, no-good keister off my property, before I pump your guts full of lead!”
Tagline: “Keep the change, ya filthy animal.”
Angels with Even Filthier Souls
From Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, it has Johnny confronting Carlotta, his two-timing smoocher of a gal:
Johnny’s Threat/Insult: “I’m gonna give ya ’til the count of 3 to get your lousy, lyin’, low-down, 4-flushin’ carcass out my door!”
Tagline: “Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal. And a Happy New Year.”
I gotta go with the original. While I like the seasonal application of the latter tagline and reference to four flushing, the threat/insult and tagline in Filthy are perfect ersatz gangster noir lines. I also like how Johnny jumps right from 2 to 10 and that he has a typewriter at his desk.
I was a good amount into a post celebrating the 1994 film Little Women when I discovered I was basically writing Alissa Wilkinson’s appreciation of the film at Vox from last year. It’s one of many movies I watched a lot with my sisters as a kid, in rotation with other female-focused ’90s films like Ever After, Never Been Kissed, Return to Me and You’ve Got Mail. (Also the Ace Ventura duology.)
In my mind it was a Christmas movie, but after my latest rewatch I realized it’s not. Its Christmas and winter scenes might be the best ones, but they are only part of the story that follows the passing seasons and growth of a Civil War-era New England family.
This time around I understood more historical context than I could have as a kid, context that grounds the story in its particular time. Jo mentioning the March family’s adherence to Transcendentalism, for instance, and the gravity of Beth contracting scarlet fever in a time of epidemics and poor medicine, which forces uninoculated Amy to be sent away. And despite living in what looks like a nice, big house, the March family is struggling through trying times. Writes Wilkinson:
The Civil War is still taking place when the story begins, Mr. March is away with the military, and money and rations are tight. Meg is embarrassed about her clothing, Amy doesn’t have the faddish pickled limes that her peers trade and eat at school, and things are actually quite difficult.
Navigating these challenges while cohering as a family is what makes the film a delight, and much more than just a Christmas movie. A big part of this is its soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who also scored The Shawshank Redemption in the same year and got Oscar nominations for both films. (The Lion King beat them and Forrest Gump.) The score even sounds like Christmas, writes Wilkinson, with Newman’s
strings, bells, oboes, and some joyful melodic patterns. There’s a hum of happiness to Newman’s soundtrack that reminds me of the season, a buoyancy that portends a new year, new surprises, new life.
In addition to capturing a nostalgic Christmas feeling, the score is exactly what it needs to be moment to moment, throughout the seasons and circumstances. Lush and triumphant at a climactic encounter, tender and dramatic when Jo sells her hair to pay for Marmie’s train ticket to visit their ailing father. (Sidenote: Susan Sarandon was nominated for Best Actress for The Client that year, along with Winona Ryder for Little Women, but she could have earned a nod for that scene alone:)
In one sense: Duh, a good soundtrack should appropriately underscore moments and moods. A great soundtrack like this one, however, makes its film better.
1) The Lives of Others (technically 2006, but released in the U.S. in 2007)
5) Michael Clayton
6) No Country for Old Men
7) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
10) 3:10 to Yuma
As you can see, There Will Be Blood did not make the list. I remember in the theater being impressed but bored, which was not the case for its Oscar “rival” that year, No Country for Old Men. Because of that I predicted Blood wouldn’t win Best Picture; compared to the tight plotting and propulsive thrills of No Country, its sprawling scope and tonal opacity would be a tough sell in a popularity contest.
I’d still give Best Picture to No Country. But a second viewing of Blood brought it way up in my estimation. What P.T. Anderson’s films lack in scrutability they more than make up for in production design, soundtrack, and acting prowess. What superlative could I use for Daniel Day-Lewis that hasn’t already been beaten to death with a bowling pin? The man is mesmerizing. In a 158-minute movie, I couldn’t take my eyes off him for one of them. He shares MVP with the cinematographer Robert Elswit, who similarly has earned the hyperbole around his work.
So where would I rank There Will Be Blood now? Making a new list without rewatching all the films I rated highly but haven’t seen since then, like Waitress and Michael Clayton, is a bit of a fool’s errand.But as it stands now, including the 2007 films I’ve seen since making the list, here’s what it looks like:
1) The Lives of Others
4) No Country for Old Men
7) There Will Be Blood
8) Michael Clayton
10) Into the Wild
Sorry, Juno, 3:10 to Yuma, and Sweeney Todd, but I had to make room for There Will Be Blood,Into the Wild, and Munyurangabo. Honorable mention goes to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Hairspray, and Enchanted. Pretty great year overall!
Home for Thanksgiving weekend and in the market for a Christmas movie to watch, my sister suggested Die Hard. A great choice for many reasons, one of which being I hadn’t seen it in a while and was due for a seasonal rewatch. Plus my wife hadn’t seen it. (Perish the thought!)
The problem was we didn’t have a copy of it, the library was closed, and it wasn’t on Amazon Prime or Netflix. Instead of picking another Christmas movie, we did something I haven’t done since high school: rented the DVD from Family Video.
Until about ten years ago this was commonplace. I have many fond memories browsing the shelves of Blockbuster, Family Video, Hollywood Video and the like, taking too much time to decide as the evening’s movie-watching time dwindled. Frankly I’m surprised Family Video is still around, but this weekend I was happy for it and for its continuing presence in the cultural landscape.
“O’er all there hung the shadow of a fear,
A sense of mystery the spirit daunted,
And said, as plain as whisper in the ear,
The place is haunted.”
– Thomas Hood, “The Haunted House”
I thought of that poem, used to great effect in Slow West, after seeing A Ghost Story,David Lowery’s breath of a film.
It’s best to know as little as possible about it. But know that it’s a haunting, beautifully shot, melancholic, slyly funny, and mercifully short meditation on the slipperiness of time and memory. Quiet, bathed in natural light, it shows how mesmerizing it is to follow a ghost that is unstuck in time. Pairs well with Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here.
It was even better than I remembered it. One aspect of the movie stood out in sharp relief: the way so very many people in Boston knew for years that there was something horrible going on with priests and children in the Archdiocese, but engaged in a conspiracy of silence. It wasn’t that they knew details; it’s that they didn’t want to know details. They wanted to look away because facing the truth was too difficult.
What I can’t get out of my mind now is thinking about all the women who have been sexually abused and assaulted by men who got away with it. Take Harvey Weinstein, for instance. Everybody in Hollywood knew what he was doing, or if they didn’t know specifically, they certainly had reason to know he was a lecherous bully. Nobody cared. To tell the truth about Harvey Weinstein would have brought down their world on their head, same as those victims in Boston. It was an informal conspiracy of silence.
Spotlight was my second-favorite film of 2015, and it totally did hold up on rewatching. There’s something mesmerizing about the atmosphere director Tom McCarthy creates, both in the specific time period and how the ensemble works together. Very lived-in and natural, which makes the story they are investigating all the more devastating and immediate.
Rod, author of The Benedict OptionandCrunchy Cons, covered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s, which eventually caused him to leave Catholicism for Orthodox Christianity. This has made his blog an excellent source of informed commentary on the intersection of religion and politics.
Stumbled upon this video explaining the groundbreaking visual effects in the Back to the Future trilogy. I knew ILM’s work on the films was innovative, but I didn’t understand specifically how the technology worked until seeing this. It’s cheesy and a little long, but worth the watch:
Whenever the punching started, Thor: Ragnarok felt like a Marvel movie. Once the punching stopped, it felt like a Taika Waititi movie. Luckily Waititi’s mark on the movie is strong enough to overwhelm the underwhelming elements.
The Thor movies are my least favorite of the MCU thus far—I dare you to tell me anything about The Dark World—and I think Marvel understood that, which explains the left-field choice of Waititi. The goofy, laid back, self-effacing style of comedy he brings to what’s otherwise standard superhero fare follows the trail blazed by Guardians of the Galaxy but also ends up on a planet of its own.
It’s a damn shame Cate Blanchett’s Hela—Thor’s banished sister and Goddess of Death—is relegated to the film’s B-story. Not only is she a way better villain than Loki, Blanchett looks like she was having a ball. Alternating between petulant narcissism and terrifying fury, she’s like if Galadriel took the One Ring when Frodo offered it and went on a Middle-earth killing spree, demon antlers in tow. She deserves to be in more Marvel movies.
Jeff Goldblum seems to have achieved a kind of Bill Murray status where he is effusively praised for repeatedly playing himself.
Move over, School of Rock. “Immigrant Song” has a new movie home.