Aaron's Top Ten Movies of 2017
Every year, for at least the past four years, I’ve had trouble culling my year end list into a measly ten picks. I always feel like I’m leaving out some gem and I end up with an honorable mentions list that stretches to the floor and beyond. This year is no different. Do I cut out the absolutely sublime examination of the threshold between adolescence and early adulthood that is Lady Bird? How about Linklater’s melancholic study of grief and paternal love: Last Flag Flying? Or how about the film I sung the praises of out of SXSW, Edgar Wright’s extraordinarily punchy and invigorating musical-cum-heist thriller Baby Driver? Hong Sang-soo’s brilliant and quiet autobiographical masterwork On the Beach at Night Alone – a film that contains, for my money, perhaps the best performance of the year in Kim Min-hee’s Young-hee? Or maybe Jordan Peele’s barnstormer of a debut Get Out? The reality is, any other year, all these films and more would have made it into my top ten. But, 2017 hit me with three films, just in its last month alone, that made me not just rearrange my top ten, but usurped my #1 spot over and over and over. So, even though I’ve spent the last bloated paragraph highlighting films that touched me in some way or another, but which still didn’t make the cut, let me just briefly list some honorable mentions:
- Lady Macbeth
- A Cure for Wellness
- Personal Shopper
- Lost City of Z
- The Unknown Girl
- The Beguiled
And, without further ado, here are my picks for my top ten favorite films of 2017:
10. The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg)
It’s been a while since Spielberg really, truly impressed me. The man is an undeniable master of his craft. But, when I walk into a Spielberg film, I know what I’m signing up for. He’ll have a rousing moment or two. He’ll have A-listers pontificate about the value of some unassailable ideal and I’ll walk out feeling good, but never totally surprised. Sure, The Post has its moments of typically Spielberg-y cheesiness, but at its core, it is a film about the power of truth. It’s a film that manages to make printing presses look like a battalion of war machinery strong enough to take down the mightiest empire. But, most importantly, it reminds us through simple, subdued performance the core power of the principle of a free press. It reminds us that a handful of diligent, talented journalists can make the most powerful men in the world quake in their boots. And it does so in less than two hours.
9. Columbus (dir. Kogonada)
Kogonada’s directorial debut is something to behold. As formally impressive as an Ozu and as emotionally resonant as a chapter of Linklater’s extraordinary Before… trilogy, Columbus plumbs the regrets and the frustrations of its central duo – performed to utter perfection by the astonishing Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho – in exceptionally quiet fashion. Columbus is a film that is constructed from the melancholic emptiness of its compositions’ negative space. It’s a film that communicates feeling predominantly through performance and composition. And, though it’s almost entirely visual in its technique, it manages to communicate the feelings kept swirling in the bottled up space between Richardson’s Casey and Cho’s Jin utterly eloquently. This is one of the hidden gems of the year and it’s more than worth your time.
8. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
When revisiting Nolan’s masterpiece Dunkirk just last month, I was reminded of a quote Martin Scorsese said during a roundtable discussion after Kubrick’s death. He said of Kubrick, “He could create a rock solid image that has conviction. And that is the image. What stays in that frame is in. What isn’t in the frame is out. And that’s it. You have to compose within that frame.” Dunkirk is a film, like those of Kubrick, that is entirely composed of images with conviction. It’s a film that communicates the gnawing horror of anticipation and the sheer terror of the din of war through images. Mark Kermode wisely said of Dunkirk that it has more in common with Abel Gance’s mammoth silent epic Napoleon than Coppola’s masterwork – a progenitor of basically every modern war film in the last four decades – Apocalypse Now. Nolan’s World War II epic is basically dialogueless and it’s all the brighter for it.
7. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)
Raw is a film that has clung to my top 10 since I saw it back in April. When I went to the screening for it I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I saw a mysterious trailer and a vivid orange poster. But, other than the basic premise, I was utterly clueless. In reality, there is nothing that can truly prepare you for Julia Ducournau’s stomach-churning terror. It’s a film that chucks the axiom “what you don’t see is always scarier” right out the window and displays all manner of grotesqueries in its tight 99 minute runtime. Lead Garance Marillier is a star and I hope that her currently relatively miniscule filmography explodes in the wake of this horror masterwork because the energy she brings to Raw propels it into a stratosphere that few films in 2017 even remotely approached. This is some of the most confident, visually hypnotic, explosive cinema released in 2017 and it deserves every bit of praise that it has gotten.
6. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)
When I saw Sean Baker’s empathetic ode to childhood in October I left on cloud 9. I wrote of it, “It’s a story that starts out making you want to open your eyes wider, stand taller, and breathe deeper; as though new shades of the rainbow have been revealed.” Three months on and the statement rings as true as ever. Baker’s central characters certainly aren’t angels and, at times, it’s hard to truly sympathize with their plight. But Baker understands that the highest goal of cinema – and indeed any art form – isn’t to get people to sympathize with a character, that’s simple, it’s to allow an audience to empathize with a character. And, here, he soars. He conjures characters that are simultaneously deeply flawed, but entirely deserving of our empathy. Why? Because they’re human. They act, talk, and behave like humans do, even when it’s precisely their actions, speech, and behavior that makes it difficult to truly sympathize with them. In short, The Florida Project is a masterpiece.
5. Blade Runner: 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
I’ve spilled pools of digital ink writing on Villeneuve’s sci-fi behemoth – Blade Runner: 2049 – I’ve written on its progression of the original’s ideas in thoughtful and substantial ways, I’ve written on the utterly stunning cinematography and set design which will – much like Scott’s 1982 masterpiece – most probably influence sci-fi cinema for decades to come, and I’ve written on the way 2049 mirrors the original’s focus on death with its own focus on birth. But, what I have come to realize is so special about 2049 – at least to me – is that it communicates beautifully, succinctly, albeit abstractly what it means to be a mixed race person. Being a mixed person has always, to me, meant being in a constant state of self-discovery and self-doubt. It means feeling like you are never truly in full ownership of any one of your identities – even when you should be able to lay claim to all of them; it is a maddening and, at times, suffocating experience. So, much to my surprise, despite my mixed feelings after a first viewing of 2049, I returned the day after and vomited all my thoughts on Letterboxd. I have since returned yet another time after its release digitally and I’m certain that Villeneuve has put to screen the most honest and substantial exploration of a mixed race experience as has ever been committed to film. And, that, more than its faithfulness to the spirit of the original or its bold trailblazing sci-fi filmmaking, means the most to me.
4. Good Time (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)
For almost a full quarter of the year the Safdie Brothers’ empathetic masterwork – a film that felt as boldly kind and compassionate as Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon – was my favorite film of 2017. It’s a film that asserts that no matter how awful its protagonist may be, no matter how scheming or manipulative or thieving he might get, no matter how deep this rabbit hole goes, Connie Nikas – played to heartbreaking perfection by Robert Pattinson in one of the very finest performances of the year – is a loving brother. As Iggy Pop’s weary and melancholic lyrics go, “The pure always act from love. The damned always act from love.” In the film’s final moments, the Safdie Bros. take the churning heartbreak and reverberating shock and materialize the finest scene of 2017. It’s an anxious, worried, frenetic film, but it ends with one of the quietest most resoundingly melancholic pieces of cinema of the entire year. This is an absolute must watch and a complete and utter masterpiece.
3. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
I’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest – Phantom Thread – twice now. And, despite not thinking it could get any better, on second watch it did. Phantom Thread is a devious, gorgeous, haunting film. It recalls Park Chan-wook’s sadistically brilliant The Handmaiden – one of my favorites of last year – as much as it does PTA’s own stunning, quiet, and cerebral period piece The Master. It’s equal parts darkly hilarious and seamlessly elegant. And, as I noted in my review of the film for the site Phantom Thread subverts its own trappings of wounded people refusing love by creating a film where what seems at first glance like cliché slowly reveals itself to be far more psychologically complex. I’m generally reticent to claim a film ‘only reveals itself on second viewing’, but it’s mostly true in the case of Phantom Thread. All Reynolds Woodcock’s neuroses and all Alma’s initial timidity snap into place in a behavioral and psychological patchwork far broader and deeper than seems present on initial viewing. Though I walked out first go around thinking this was impressive, yet nonetheless lesser PTA, second go around I’m ready to crown this one of PTA’s finest alongside There Will Be Blood and The Master. This is nothing less than one of the very finest films of 2017.
2. Call Me by Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name is one of the most sumptuously mounted productions of 2017 while simultaneously remaining utterly sparse. As I said in my review for the site, “Few films [in 2017] do so much with so few words.” Call Me by Your Name evokes texture – the coolness of a bubbling fountain, the warmth of a summer sun, the juiciness of a ripened peach – through its achingly gorgeous compositions. It’s a film that leaves you wallowing in the bittersweet pain of heartbreak as it gently nudges you out of its frame after two-plus hours of cinematic bliss. It’s a film that contains some of the finest dialogue and performances of 2017. But, most importantly it’s a film that manages to explore heartbreak and persecution while still refusing to ever forget that – at the end of the day – it’s not the struggle that truly matters, it’s the love.
1. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaker I’ve long admired for his ability to craft fairytales that bite; fairytales that allow us to see the fantastic while never denying the harsh realities of life. His latest The Shape of Water is a masterstroke of nostalgic Americana and compassionate character work. del Toro has long said that we need the fantastic to make sense of the awful banal. Constructing a film that reminds us of the horrors of xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, and ableism as it exists in our society can be numbing. But refracting these horrors through the story of a fishman captured by a secret government organization who falls in love with a mute janitor can help us come to terms with just how deep-rooted our society’s animosity toward people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, women, and people living with disabilities is. del Toro’s tale for troubled times reminds us that expressing hatred toward the ‘other’ decays our society while expressing love toward the ‘other’ heals it. And, perhaps, if we began to understand the world through this lens, we might find a little more beauty and a little more magic in the world.