by InRO Staff Features

Year in Review 2017 – Film

December 29, 2017
Film Feature

The finest films of 2017 simultaneously offered us a respite from, and a deeper reflection on, our fraught and fractured social and political realities. In sharp contrast to our unfortunate tendency to segregate ourselves with social media-fueled enclaves and ecosystems that do little more than reflect our own thoughts, opinions, and POVs back at us ad infinitum, these films cut through all that, artfully, and often provocatively, reminding us of the common humanity we share even with those who would seem to very little resemble ourselves. Our reflections on the year in cinema include coming-of-age stories featuring young women and gay men; an unconventional biopic on an equally unconventional great American poet; a thriller-horror with caustic commentary, both subversively funny and deadly serious, about the insidiousness of racism in America; and deep immersions in the worlds of small-time crooks in Queens, turn of the 20th century explorers of the Amazon, Florida motel denizens, Austin musicians, and haute couture fashion designers of 1950s London. Most provocatively of all, our number one film argues for, if not sympathy for our modern version of the devil, then at least acknowledgement that this devil may not be as far removed from us as we think. Christopher Bourne

15 - Dawson City15. “Film was born of an explosive” reads one of the title cards in Bill Morrison’s altogether remarkable found-footage fantasia, Dawson City: Frozen TimeAnd indeed, the highly flammable nitrate images resurrected from under the Klondike permafrost at the last stop on a turn-of-the-century silent film circuit, seem burned into the memory of time itself. These long-lost films, which Morrison has lovingly stitched together and repurposed, offer a window into another world, exploring the history not just of cinema, but of the era that brought them to life in the first place. At once a paean to film preservation and a unique work of art all its own, Dawson City is a bittersweet meditation on mortality and human fragility; part document, part fever-dream, wrapped in a celebration of the unique timelessness of the moving image. Luis Buñuel once said that “a film is like an involuntary imitation of a dream.” Never has that felt so hauntingly true. Matthew Lucas

14 - Princess Cyd14. Stephen Cone’s summertime tale of sexual and spiritual self-discovery is the fullest expression yet of the literary sense of interiority, theatrical sense of openness, and cinematic sense of place that have made the director’s voice so singular amongst this decade’s American independent filmmakers. There was no finer, nor more complementary, pair of lead performances in 2017 than those given by Rebecca Spence and Jessie Pinnick in Princess Cyd: Pinnick’s radiant intuition lends an aura of constant, near-subliminal feeling to the title role, while Spence locates every nuance between Miranda’s practiced self-possession and self-questioning, allowing her befuddlement at the things her niece says and does to play off of her perceptiveness in lovely, surprising ways. That the reverse could apply just as well speaks to how Cone develops Miranda and Cyd’s influence on each other with patience, a sense of mystery that approaches the metaphysical. Because Cone’s curious souls are always seeking a deeper understanding, every moment of Princess Cyd is charged with the potential for revelation, making for one of the purest cinematic joys of 2017. Alex Engquist

13 - Lady Bird13. An astoundingly confident debut feature from actress-turned-director Greta GerwigLady Bird chronicles an entire year in the life of its eponymous teenage protagonist in just ninety minutes, without ever feeling scant or vague. Gerwig’s generous and familiar approach to a coming-of-age tale takes us back to the relatable awkwardness of adolescence: the burgeoning sexuality, the way that we express our identity, and the naïve perception we have of what it really means to become an adult. Admirably unafraid of emotional messiness, Gerwig captures the angst and frustration of teen life, while making sardonic and savvy observations on early 21st Century cultural habits with razor-sharp wit. With a bold leading turn from Saoirse Ronan, and an internalized masterclass of a performance from the often underappreciated Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird is an honest comment on strained mother-daughter relationships, functioning as a sort-of companion piece to last year’s best coming-of-age film, The Edge of Seventeen. Calum Reed

12 - A Quiet Passion12. When it was announced that Terence Davies had two films in the can, with barely a year separating them, it was almost worrying considering the evident slow, painstaking care he put into the mere six films he made between 1988 and 2011. But neither 2015’s Sunset Song nor this year’s A Quiet Passion have a trace of the slapdash. Both, in fact, are labors of love: an adaptation of a pet favorite Scottish novel and an infatuated, sympathetic but clear-eyed tribute to the Belle of Amherst, respectively. Both are visually remarkable—not simply “pretty” but mood-calibrated and emotionally considered. There is no filmmaker who can capture the feel of a room like Davies, aided by A Quiet Passion’s DP Florian Hoffmeister. The lowly lit rooms in the Massachusetts home where Emily Dickinson lived her entire life and died feel both ensconcing/warm and suffocating. But though it captures the limited geography that stifled Dickinson, the film is also full of life and witty banter. Cynthia Nixon’s Dickinson springs to vibrant life when swapping badinage with her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), or verbally sparring with outmatched visitors. When death stops by for the girls’ father (Keith Carradine), and then for Emily herself, Davies addresses it with a head-on hardness as unblinking as in his brutal 1983 film Death and Transfiguration. Nixon is the coauthor here: the usually script-literal Davies has said it’s the first time he was moved to let an actor bounce their own ideas off of him. The mutual intelligence, engagement, and passion of this coupling results in a transcendent biopic, in name only. Justin Stewart

11 - On the Beach11. Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone centers on an actress, Young-hee (Kim Minhee), coping with the aftermath of an affair with a married director, which caused a scandal in her home country of South Korea. The first half of the film finds Young-hee in Germany, wandering through the cold with friends; the second takes place back in Korea, where a chance meeting with a film crew offers an opportunity for Young-hee to see her former fling again. Or maybe not—the line between dream and reality is never entirely clear in Hong’s films, and the line between fiction and autobiography has never been more porous. It’s impossible to say how much of Hong and Kim’s real-life affair made its way into this movie, but the portrayal of the director seems equal parts boast and self-critique—as if Kanye West were a Korean art film director. Kim, on the other hand, evokes the world-embracing soul of the Walt Whitman poem the film takes its title from. The actress portrays a woman haunted by phantom men, dreaming of her escape. Sean Gilman

10 - Marjorie Prime10. “We didn’t have the same taste in music,” says Geena Davis’s Tess at the outset of the best scene from Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime. Tess is speaking directly to a “prime” (a future-tech hologram linked to an A.I., and able to process the memories of a deceased person, creating a simulacrum of their personality). The prime responds by queueing-up The Band’s funereal Music from Big Pink closer “I Shall Be Released”—a song that begins with somber, ringing piano, likening it to the classical music that isn’t to Tess’s “taste.” Almereyda composes the scene with mostly close-ups of Tess, her expression at first partially hidden by the tilted angle of her head. While it’s happening, the moment feels like a beautiful, moving gesture. But what makes Almereyda’s film quietly brilliant is that the prime’s calculated strategy to illicit catharsis turns out to not really work in the way it was intended. This scene’s unexpected outcome (which I won’t give away) helps transform a hugely intelligent sci-fi allegory, exploring the science and psychology of memory, into a deeply spiritual film about the ineffability of the human spirit. Sam C. Mac

9 - Call Me9. If some faulted Luca Guadagnino‘s previous films for privileging sensation over character, Call Me by Your Name—adapted by screenwriter James Ivory from André Aciman’s novel of the same name—represents a dramatic leap forward, with the filmmaker grounding his ripe eye for sensuality in intimate character-based concerns, and without shortchanging the power of both impulses working in tandem with each other. But the film is more than just an impressive career stepping stone; it’s a moving queer romance, set in 1980s Italy, and charting the love that gradually blooms between young Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his archaeology professor father’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) new assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Call Me by Your Name is even more affecting through the lens of a coming-of-age tale: Elio slowly discovers his own sexual identity and, most importantly, opens himself up to a wider range of emotions. Elio’s maturation process will no doubt continue even after this film is over, as evidenced by a daringly extended, and heartbreaking, final shot that shows a newfound vulnerability. It’s a tribute to how sharply observed and beautifully acted Call Me by Your Name is that the viewer may find theirselves feeling as if they are taking premature leave of an old friend by the end. Kenji Fujishima

8 - Song to Song8. All the hallmarks of a late Terrence Malick picture are in evidence throughout Song to Song: the nebulous configuration, the digressive bearing, the tendency to favor texture over shape. Dispassionate men and attractive women link hands, look at one another longingly, and of course twirl with inordinate frequency—all while that tireless camera roves and wanders, prods and noses. So why does Song to Song also seem so singular and new for Malick? A refreshed interest in performance may account for the distinction: for the first time since The New World, Malick defers to his cast, and indeed luxuriates in their virtues as actors rather than as merely figures to pose and mould. Michael Fassbender in particular relishes the opportunity to inhabit a second skin, and becomes as libertine record producer Cook, a kind of slick besuited Satan, seducing innocents from behind designer shades. Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling, meanwhile, are the young lovers tempted and ensnared, desperate to find some meaning amid the days and nights of bacchanalia. “It would be awful to have these good times and not have life itself,” one tells the other, harrowingly. Song to Song reminds us of the difference. Calum Marsh

7 - Florida Project7. The Florida Project is a film of gently profound juxtapositions. Six year-old Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live in one of many budget motels, each painted candied shades of lavender and turquoise—a cursory gesture at obfuscating the oppressive nature of the hardscrabble lives within. Mooney and her ragtag friends enjoy delinquency-tinged Our Gang adventures—spitting on strangers’ cars, hustling for cones at a local ice cream shack—backdropped by gimmick burger joints and mini golf courses. They use obscenities and misbehavior as armor, learned from adults but filtered through a child’s imperfect understanding. A not-quite surly property manager (Willem Dafoe) attempts a composed calm, but amidst the perpetual tempest, his tenants lives are consistently interrupted and affected by the disarray of circumstance. The brilliance of The Florida Project, then, is that the naturalistic director Sean Baker allows his characters to outshine any message, demanding that they be considered as more than mere ciphers, and making the film’s concluding shot—one more juxtaposition—all the more pummeling for it. Luke Gorham

6 - Get Out6. There’s been a lot of talk about whether Get Out is a horror film or a comedy or both, but really it’s just an exploitation film. Jordan Peele‘s film is an example of the kind of thing that, say, Larry Cohen might have made in the early 1980s; its genre elements let it cross pretty much any boundary it needs to in order to communicate its ideas. The mind control elements are right out of a Twilight Zone episode, the gruesome violence and tight Cinemascope frames wouldn’t be out of place in a John Carpenter film, and the politics (so blisteringly front and center) belong to a fiery outlier like Jamaa Fanaka. Welcome to the sunken place. Matt Lynch

5 - Lost City of Z5. With each successive film, James Gray has delved deeper into history, cataloguing the ebb of American social mores across the last century, most recently mapping pilgrimages from Europe to the Americas (and back) with his 2014 masterpiece The Immigrant and this year’s The Lost City of Z. Gray’s latest is the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a good-natured middle-class man who allows his ambition and fixation to engulf him while tasked with rebuilding his family name overseas in a vaguely patronizing geographical negotiation. There’s a transfixing way in which Gray’s films sketch and enliven an environment (before The Lost City of Z, this was always some corner of New York City), meticulously rendering its effects on an individual, and then depart from reality for reverie. The filmmaker has mastered the art of endings, especially those that edge toward too-cute but instead pack an emotional wallop while calling into question the veracity of our characters’ perspectives. The Lost City of Z is also Gray’s most physically propulsive work since 2007’s We Own the NightCharles Lyons-Burt

4 - Phantom Thread4. Romantic relationships have often existed on the periphery of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films—when not acting as outright structuring absences. Of Anderson’s many male protagonists, only Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice seems propelled by something other than naked greed, lust, or ambition, and the film’s sweet, wistful coda crystallized the benign yearning that grounded Doc’s persona. With Phantom Thread, Anderson has centered a story around romance—and particularly the work involved in sustaining it long-term—without abandoning the more selfish, abstract qualities that have long plagued his heroes’ thirsts for transcendence. The hybrid of competing instincts—towards the self and towards the companion; towards wealth and power; and towards domestic bliss—make for Anderson’s richest and thorniest character study yet, one set in a lavish, insular world of high fashion that’s no less a battleground than Freddie Quell’s alien home front or Daniel Plainview’s oil field. Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis, photographed in the soothing glow of a midcentury London mansion, give performances steeped in decorum that nonetheless seethe with rage, passion and libido. The same might be said for Anderson’s consummate formal control, which passes off incredibly tricky sewing-room sequences, interjections of dream logic, and ornamental flourishes like slow dissolves and artificial snowfall, with the casualness of a seasoned veteran. Carson Lund

3 - Personal Shopper3. Leave it to Olivier Assayas to make one of the most confounding movies of the year that’s also still quite a lot of fun. Personal Shopper is part ghost story, part murder mystery, part treatise on consumerism and modern alienation via smart phone. There’s something about the way Assayas uses his camera here, constantly moving and prowling, fluid yet also able to lock down on a moment’s notice and suggest all kinds of potent creepiness using negative space in the frame. And Kristen Stewart gives arguably her best performance here (save perhaps for a certain other Assayas picture) as Maureen a, yes, personal shopper by day, and amateur paranormal medium by night. One of the great scenes of the year is a prolonged texting back-and-forth between Maureen and an unknown, unseen entity (man, stalker, ghost?) that very gradually builds into a stunningly frightening punchline involving the iPhone’s ‘airplane mode.’ Assayas is on to something profoundly modern, contrasting the quotidian nature of texting and shopping and elaborate consumerism with the ethereal nature of death and the supernatural. Stewart has often been accused of aloofness and detachment, coldness even, but Assayas understands that she’s actually the perfect encapsulation of this very modern moment: mysteriously and tantalizingly unknowable. Daniel Gorman

2 - Good Time2. Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie‘s Heaven Knows What dramatized the experience of New Yorkers living with poverty and addiction, and did so while keeping a respectful distance: the actors often performed in long shots composed from the opposite side of a block, and the score (electronic pieces by Isao Tomita) granted something like grace or harmony to the chaotic lives being led onscreen. Despite taking place in a comparable milieu, and despite featuring contributions by some of the same collaborators, Good Time exhibits no such niceties: an unrelenting sprint of a crime picture, it utilizes aesthetics diametrically opposed to the very concepts of harmony or grace—close-ups that are composed from invasive proximities, and a synth score (by electronic artist Daniel Lopatin A.K.A. Oneohtrix Point Never) which throbs and pulsates over every foot chase and violent conflict, imbuing each desperate action with a high dose of sensory pleasure (the filmmakers themselves, perhaps aspirationally, cited the influence of “termite art” quite often). Good Time, then, finds a frenzied rhythm through unscrupulous form, and in a manner that feels inextricable from this exact historical moment—of the American films released commercially in 2017, it is perhaps the only one which reflects the surrealism of contemporary American life. Jake Mulligan

1 - Nocturama1. Put simply, Nocturama is the most radical film of the year. Conceived in 2011, produced post-Charlie Hebdo, and released just months after the Bataclan attacks, Bertrand Bonello’s film is uniquely enfolded into the present moment; it’s a zeitgeist film in the truest (and most productive) sense. Tracing the lead-up to simultaneous attacks across Paris, Nocturama’s first hour snakes across the French capital in a Rivettian maze of terse, temporally warped action. Bonello captures, with destabilizing acuity, the simultaneity and (literal) tunnel vision of modern engagement with reality. Terrorism is a pretext. In the attack’s aftermath, Nocturama transforms, moving into the terrain of the late George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But now the zombies are on the inside, holed up in a shopping mall, awaiting the apocalypse. That Bonello limns all this with pulsating, seductive energy makes Nocturama impressive; that he collapses the distance between psychology and action makes it great. “My Way” resounds at a crucial moment—at once ironic and anthemic, a hollow postmodern gesture and a desperate cry to the heavens. “It was bound to happen, right?” Lawrence Garcia

Top 10 Performances of the Year:

  1. Kristen Stewart – Personal Shopper

  2. Kim Min-hee – On the Beach at Night Alone

  3. Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out

  4. Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name

  5. Robert Pattinson – Good Time

  6. Cynthia Nixon – A Quiet Passion

  7. Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread

  8. Adam Sandler – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

  9. Rebecca Spence – Princess Cyd

  10. Lois Smith – Marjorie Prime

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