Tuesday, May 8, 2018

2017: Movies on the Hell Planet

Though it's obviously unacceptably late in the publication—one's self- and society-imposed deadline for the thing being, at the latest, the day of the Oscars, which passed by, let's see, over two damn months ago—I nevertheless did still have a top ten for last year.  The irony is that I didn't really need the extra time I gave myself!  It hasn't changed since that day, even though I've caught up on over a dozen movies that should (allow me to emphasize the modal language there, should) have been contenders, but usually didn't even really come all that close.  2017 was not a tremendously lousy film year, but it was more solid than good, and it was also one of those years where practically everything great arrived early, leaving you with little but disappointment in the winter.  This is true of life, generally.  I suppose it's also true of many Oscar seasons, though 2017's was remarkably wide-open, rather few of our Best Picture nominees appearing to actually belong there even on the Academy's own narrow terms (indeed, the winner arguably belonged there least of all, so at least 2017's Academy-sanctioned best film was a weird one).  In any event, I can't complain too hard: this is a top ten list that doesn't have any eight-out-of-tens on it, even if the number of ten-out-of-tens seems light, and even if I have some cause to question at least three of my nine-out-of-tens (surprise, surprise, they're the Marvel movies, as well as the artsiest-fartiest movie on the list, which I respected more before I knew how thoroughly it was indebted to Don Hertzfeldt's Such a Beautiful Day, a gen-u-ine masterpiece).  I even question one of my ten-out-of-tens, a little, but I cannot deny the power of that third-placed ten's theatrical presentation; I hate theaters, a lot, and am ready for them to die; but damned if they're not still good for something, after all.

Well, anyway, here's ten movies that are certainly noteworthy, if only occasionally of gemstone-quality.  But first some honorable mentions: for Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, which if I were more of a snob would definitely be on here, because I truly did love it despite it doing very little that movies "ought" to do; and for David Leitch's Atomic Blonde, which has one of the best-choregraphed action sequences in history, maybe the best ever in an American film, and isn't ever boring otherwise (though it is almost always befuddling); and for Darren Aronofsky's mother! and Terrence Malick's Song to Song, which, if the list had been even slightly less good (or if I were less of an easy lay for superheroics), might have shared the no. 10 spot as two very different (but each very pompous) allegorical takes on the same basic Bible story; and for Matt Reeves's War For the Planet of the Apes, the third best Planet of Apes film (which sounds backhanded, but absolutely isn't); and for Steven Spielberg's The Post, yet another Spielberg Chronicle, but this time, one that has no business whatsoever being as good in the telling as it is; and for Andy Muschietti's It, a picture with fundamental, insuperable flaws as a horror film, but which is remarkable nonetheless as such a great triumph of aesthetic and narrative nostalgia; and, finally, for Ken Branagh's Murder On the Orient Express, about which I have recently gushed long enough.

Oh well, no turning back now, even if this was the year I realized I'm probably overrating Marvel movies generally.  (It was the year, after all, of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, a movie that goes tediously out of its way to set up its most memorable scene with one that franchise's endless diegetic soundtrack choices, then... plays a remix of Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer"?  I mean, I even like the remix more, but... Mr. Gunn.  James.  Jim.  Jimmy.  We figured out that audiences will accept background music that the characters can't hear, like, ninety years ago.  It would honestly be okay if you did that more often.  This message also applies to David Leitch.)

"Best Peter Parker" equals "best Spider-Man movie," and since "Tom Holland" equals "best Peter Parker"... well, I'll let you do the math.  Everything else is just gilding the lily (Michael Keaton's Vulture; the great supporting cast; some of this particular franchise's best action sequences; superhero cinema's best super-chores montage since Superman, period), or more-or-less pleasant noise (Iron Dad).  I don't care if I am overrating them.  Good job, Jon Watts.  Good job, Marvel.

By far the most idiosyncratic film on this list, or perhaps of all 2017, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's long-time-in-the-coming Loving Vincent tells a story that does not necessarily recommend itself to be told, but it tells it in a revolutionary way, with literal moving paintings, and I really doubt any film made last year was more immediately arresting in the strangeness of its beauty.  Plus I got to put a movie on my top ten that features, as one half of its directing team, a woman.  And that probably shouldn't have taken five years, but I blame Hollywood sexism, rather than myself.

8. THOR: RAGNAROK (9/10)
Possibly the funniest Marvel movie, its second-best-looking, and its first-best-sounding, this is another hit to add to Taika Waititi's list, one of the few directors who've been able to actually cross that line between their independent and obviously-more-passionate work (Hunt for the fuckin' Wilderpeople, guys) and their blockbuster aspirations and make it work without losing themselves in the process.  Still, for some reason, the movie Ragnarok reminds me the most of is Big Trouble In Little China, another shaggy story about a blonde braggart going on a magic quest and finding himself way out of his depth.  Except Ragnarok is way, way bigger, for better and for worse: there've been movies that have wasted Cate Blanchett more thoroughly than this one does, but I can't name even one that's been this blithe about it.

7. A GHOST STORY (9/10)
As noted, David Lowery's look at grief and life and all is basically an expanded (yet far more fettered) version of the last act of It's Such a Beautiful Day... but that doesn't mean it's not excellent on its own terms, and A Ghost Story sees Lowery taking on a far less whimsical and batshit tone, in service of his severe and slow and silent art film, than Hertzfeld does in his wacky one-man animation projects.  So it is melancholy, and punishing in its vision of the depths of time, and it is great.  You know what else was great?  Pete's Dragon, 2016's best E.T.  (Even better than Spielberg's 2016 E.T., The BFG, in fact.)  This Lowery guy turns out to be pretty flexible, even if I'm not sure he can do anything but remake other people's movies, though maybe I should actually see Ain't Them Bodies Saints before I call it Badlands 2: The Quickening.  But that's what I heard!

A slice-of-life period drama that could only be better than it is if it were more; and, guess what?  That's exactly what Sunao Katabuchi's doing, adding new scenes for a new edition of his film.  Combining great, sometimes-even-frivolous artistry with high-test historical horror, Corner is almost as good as animation got last year.

5. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 (9/10)
Chad Stahleski returns to the character he helped create with an even more intense exploration of the emptiness at the heart of grief than the first time, and John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of film's best takes on the trials of Orpheus.  That it is also 2017's best pure action film... well, that's why it's on this list, anyway.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts' Kong: Skull Island (another example of an indy darling crossing over into the popcorn-littered arena) should not be on a top ten list, I hear you say.  But why?  It was the most efferevescently, stupidly pleasurable first watch I had all last year, full of great monster designs and even more full of crazed, playful nonsense.  It's like Joe Dante willed himself out of the director's graveyard and made Warner Bros. give him a mountain of money, just one more time, to see what would happen, and this time it really, really worked.

3. DUNKIRK (10/10)
A strikingly collectivist (almost to the point of inhuman) take on the war machine called Great Britain, Dunkirk is an experience more than a film as such, but it is a shattering, exhausting one... but not so shattering or exhausting that you cannot feel the pangs of awe at the grandeur of a Spitfire, or the heroism of the little captains of the thousand little boats that saved the Expeditionary Force at Dunkerque.  Truly breathtaking cinema, and Chris Nolan is to be commended, once again.

2. BLADE RUNNER 2049 (10/10)
This film is the 21st century as we know it, reflecting our own uselessness, replaceability, and reproducibility right back at us.  It knows we're fake, and it knows we prefer it this way.  It knows we can't do a damn thing to change the world, and barely do anything that so much as affects anyone else.  It is blockbuster filmmaking as cold, sad, and clammy, and it's explicitly about dying alone.  (Did you know "Joi" is an acronym for a genre of pornography?  It stands for "jerk off instructions," and its signal quality is a simulation of intimacy that acknowledges that you've little choice but to take matters into your own hands.)  It is endlessly gorgeous, even so, and it finally got Roger Deakins his Oscar.  That's important.  It's also important that Denis Villeneuve finally made a movie worthy of his innate talents.  I had lost hope on that, too.  So maybe there is a little hope, after all.  And you know, I just might like it more than the original.  Fuck you; I might.

1. YOUR NAME. (10/10)
It's two sci-fi movies smashed together, but what Makoto Shinkai's movie really is, is the best romance of 2017.  If you said it was the best ever, I'd believe you believed it, and you might even be right.  I don't need to take your word for it.  I could ask one of the theatergoers in Japan who watched this five, ten, twenty times, so many times Shinkai had to tell them to stop.  I get it, now: there is something addictive about it.  Maybe it's just that it's 2017's most outright beautiful animated film, and it's most beautiful film, generally.  Maybe it's that it captures love and loss and longing better than anything I can think of offhand.  Maybe it's that if you keep watching it, all the enormous plot holes get filled in with your affection for everything the movie gets so incredibly right about doomed young love and the glimmers of hope it engenders surviving even a world designed to destroy them.  Maybe it's because it makes me cry like flipping a switch.  And it's not even Shinkai's best film ever?  Get out of town.  Well, it's his best feature, anyway.  His only genuinely good feature, also, yes; but, hey, a masterpiece is a masterpiece, dude.


  1. Dang, I've really got to catch up on Your Name. I know you're the populist here, but this list makes me feel DEEPLY mainstream.

    Kong: Skull Island is to you as Baby Driver is to me, though. I can't envision a world in an infinite universe where I enjoy that movie more than a 5/10, but I'm glad it touched you so.

  2. I guess I'm glad you and everybody else liked Baby Driver, but I'll never get that, either! (Skull Island has deeper and more believable characters, anyway. Hmph. Anyway, it was reduced from a 10/10 on a second watch, so there is that.)

    As for Your Name, yes you do, though truthfully it's incredibly mainstream, at least in East Asia. I say that as a point of recommendation; it's awfully pretty and an unimpeachable auteur vehicle for Shinkai, but it's every inch a crowdpleasing, populist endeavor, too. And it made half a billion bucks. That's kind of a good sign? (Ok, yeah, so let's not start looking at actual evidence on that one.) Even in terms of being friendly to an audience not used to weird anime crap (cough Miyazaki cough), it's pretty much beyond reproach. It's less than 10% weird anime crap by volume, in fact, though saliently so when it is (that one grating J-pop tune, the saki ritual, and some scenes of self-groping, though arguably less and definitely more pignant than you'd expect).

    Reminds me, I need to see that American movie about the body snatching rape ghost that came out this spring.