2017 once again proved that, if you say there were no good films this year, then you clearly weren’t seeing the right films. Here are the best from this year:
I remember watching a film in one of my early film classes, titled Life of an American Fireman, which is arguably the first film to use editing to show different vantage points centered around one event. It was filmmaking at its earliest stages, when filmmakers were just starting to become much more dynamic with the camera.
The same elements are brought forth in Dunkirk. From air, land, and sea, Chris Nolan brings us back to the raw essentials of what makes cinema a powerful medium, using different vantage points to depict a war epic that never really shows any war at all. It’s filmmaking at its highest fashion, using editing and sound to establish the cinematic experience in the mind of the spectator. There are heaps of sounds all around the film, but we subconsciously choose what we want to hear, all accompanied by a single through-line: a ticking clock.
It’s a Chris Nolan at his most Hitchcockian, a master toying with filmmaking elements that he’s become all too familiar with.
Never have I wanted to wane away from eating meat after seeing a movie, but Okja provides an insight into how our food is brought to the table, and the special bonds that that animal makes along the way.
Like the creature in Shape of Water, Okja has the size of a pig, the behavior of a manatee, and the inflections of a dog. But what makes the creature so powerful are the moments it shares with the girl, Mija, such as when they’re napping in the forest with her resting on his belly, and Okja turns on his side in which Mija counters his movement. It’s an image that sticks with you and establishes a powerful connection, a bond between a human and another species.
This film was initially booed upon its premiere at Cannes, when it was projected in the wrong aspect ratio (not to help that it was a Netflix film). But as long as Netflix keeps making films like these, there should be no debate as to whether they should be considered a major awards contending studio. But above all else, it establishes an idea in your mind about how far our food travels before we consume it, a film that urges you to change perspective.
8. The Shape of Water
What starts out as a creature feature, slowly turns into a love story, set against a Cold War thriller backdrop. Guillermo Del Toro’s passion project slightly based off Creature from the Black Lagoon builds onto the same elements as he once demonstrated in his earlier films. Like Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, he blends a mix of fantasy slightly anchored in reality, all set against a political, multi-cultural world.
What comes from two mute characters results in an expressive communication that says more than words ever could. And what is communicated verbally comes from individuals who would’ve been suppressed during the 60s (a black woman and a closeted gay man.) What results is an air-tight script, one that introduces character elements and traits that are revisted by the end of the film with consequences. One can just see the layers of rewrites built onto the script and how much time Del Toro spent on it.
What’s a shame is that the film won’t be nominated for Hair and Make-up, because the creature suit itself is a craft of practical visual effect beauty, brought to life by frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones. It expresses the looks of a sea creature, the inflections of a kitten, and the feelings of a human.
But above all else, this is a film about stripping away identity, stripping away all politics and seeing people not as who they are or what they’re missing, but as what they’re capable of.
7. Ghost Story
Chantal Akerman once said something along the lines of, “I am not interested in real time and also not in the dramatic and codified time of cinema that manipulated duration. Let’s say I take ‘my time’.” That’s what David Lowery demonstrates in Ghost Story, a toying of time in which he stretches and shrinks the passing of it, playing with long takes and cutting into scenes that only depict the aftermath of certain events. Unlike with Aint Them Bodies Saints, which is all about naivety and life as a state-of-mind, Ghost Story plays with the aftermath of traumatic life events, only showing on screen the consequences of what follows them (we never really see Affleck’s character get into the crash that kills him, only the immediate aftermath of it.)
It also brings to mind all the supernatural occurrences and past inhabitants we convince ourselves still exist in our homes – the sudden wakes in the middle of the night when we feel someone standing over us, or the feeling of something sitting at the foot of our bed. It’s a subject that can stretch as far back in time as we could think, bringing to mind what truly happens when people move on: a change in home, a change in family, a change in life… are they truly gone? Or are they still there with us? Do they stay in place where they were laid to rest?
The film stretches forward and backward in time, making us ponder what or who our homes were originally home to, finally resolving on a final shot and practical visual effect more bone-chilling and striking than any other big budget film this year.
6. Good Time
Take Spring Breakers, mix it with classic heist films like Dog Day Afternoon or After Hours, and multiply it by the worst acid trip you’ve ever had, and it might come close to the experience of Good Time, the latest work by indie heroes Josh and Benny Safdie. It’s a paranoia trip that starts fast and finishes fast, all tied together by claustrophobic zoom-in close-ups. Rob Pattinson comes across as almost unrecognizable in what appears to be his most passionate role yet; one can just see how much he loses himself and how much he wanted to do this film. His behavioral antics are channeled through a score form Oneohtrix Point Never, whose loud, psychedelic, arpeggio-cascading score accompanies each twist and turn his character makes. (Seriously, I’ve never even heard war movies this loud.)
What makes it such an achievement is the guerilla, almost kitchen sink-like filmmaking techniques that were used to make this movie happen, coming across as a film that didn’t have the budget to get all the coverage or the permits it needed, requiring improvisation on the run. It’s a film that was made with an almost 19 year-old mentality where budget is only a state-of-mind. True, passionate filmmaking like this simply isn’t made often.
5. Lady Bird
Apparently, Greta Gerwig has been waiting her entire life to become a director. Not only that, but she’s pretty damn good at it, touching upon a moment in a teenager’s life where people come in and out without consequence. It’s a film that stretches your heart that much bigger to seriously empathize with a character.
But what stands out to me the most are the seamless transitions between scenes. Unlike most coming-of-age narratives, this film is not edited with major beat points in mind, but more of a random recollection of the most fond memories put together. There really is no “flash” in the film, because the character of Lady Bird isn’t like that. Life isn’t like that. People come in and out of your life like a revolving door. There are no major in and out points because life just goes on. It wouldn’t have gone along with Lady Bird’s attitude if there were gorgeous dolly shots following her every move.
A part of me still thinks about how Lady Bird’s life may have turned out, of how far she would have gone. Would she have become president? Would she have found a new calling in her life? The answer isn’t as important as the question, because the film assures you everything’s going to turn out okay. Life goes on.
4. Phantom Thread
“You look good, you feel good,” “Pain is beauty,” you remember your mother saying these phrases to you when you were younger? Everything that was once in fashion will eventually come back into fashion. There was once a time where there were actual functionalities on clothes – what tassels and beads on coats used to be have become just that, “fashion.” Well, all of those euphemisms are true, and never have they been tested more so than in Phantom Thread. It’s a character study with endless seams and pin-points, one with secrets buried far within its inner lining. One could possibly do an entire psychoanalysis on Reynolds Woodcock just by the particular clothes he chooses to wear and make, each specific choice pushing the narrative forward. Inspired by several historical fashion designers such as Charles James and Balenciaga, Daniel-Day loses himself in a character who’s all consumed by his craft and his products. It’s a film that bears the question, who is really in control? Is it that artist or the art?
But at the heart of this film is a love story, between Woodcock and Vicky Krieps’s Alma, a waitress turned muse for Woodcock whom she falls for, in which their relationship is then tested by Woodcock’s obsessive work methods. It’s the first time we see a projection of PTA into one of his films, channeled through Woodcock in a film more autobiographical than the rest of his repertoire, a film so specific down to the period costumes and dialogue, one can wonder how PTA himself struggles to juggle love and craft.
3. Call Me By Your Name
“Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spots,” said Michael Stuhlbarg’s character in a monologue that alone deserves awards attention. The statement rings true throughout the film. Is this a shameful act? Or is it just natural? Are we thrown into this, or is it innate from birth? This question is channeled through Timothee Chalamet’s performance, one that’s not merely on the surface but is fully embodied.
He might be the lead of the film, but the real star is Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography. The whole film resides in the spatial geometry between Chalamet and Hammer, whose chemistry echoes that of Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love or Happy Together, one that’s a repelled magnetic love but with bonds that are too strong, as shown by by the careful staging of the two actors and their subtle dialogue. It’s a relationship that feels more organic than any other love story this year, a secret that’s discovered by the both of them.
Little by little the actors grow closer together, both emotionally and physically, from a touch on the arm to an intimate moment with an apricot. Along with Sufjan Steven’s music, the film feels like a summer fantasy, one that probably only a select few have been lucky enough to experience: a secret love, a fleeting moment, a feeling we’ll never be able to truly cherish again for the first time.
2. Get Out
As soon as the Golden Globe nominations were announced this year, Jordan Peele took to Twitter and stated, “Get Out is a documentary.” And in all honesty, he probably couldn’t be closer to the truth. Get Out is the ideal corner stone film for not being able to be classified, a film that you can’t put in a box or categorize.
What came as a result was one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Part horror, part psychological thriller, part comedy, it’s a film that not only borrows, but totally makes its own genre.
But it bears the question: what are we truly laughing at? Are we laughing at our own societal norms? And how jaded we’ve become to them? Our indifference toward them? We know it wears comedy on its surface, but where is this humor stemming from?
The questions the film raise and how they’re presented make Get Out not only the film of the year, but the film of the moment, one that will continually evolve with repeated viewings time and time again.
You already knew it was going to be Mother! didn’t you? Even before you clicked on the link you knew it was going to be named number one. What else is left to say about it? That’s how the whole hype train got started was through word of mouth, which is how the best of anything comes about.
But the simplest reason as to why Mother! is number one is because of its enigmatic directorial approach: how the whole film was rehearsed in a warehouse for two months with the borders of the octagonal house taped to the floor, and how the camera was always kept subjective to J-Law’s character. If they screwed up a shot, they had no master shot to fall back on, so sometimes they had to go back three shots to fix their mistake. If it sounds like they were making it hard on themselves, they were. Films like these simply aren’t made this way very often, only coming about once a decade.
We can go into the allegories of the film – the biblical references, how it relates to mother nature, but that’s all they would be, just allegories. What sticks with you after watching it is the sheer ebb and flow of it, the slow burn into the boiling point just like all of Aronofsky’s works. It was the fact that you went in knowing very little about it, and came out knowing even less about it. But the force of the ride was still there. It’s a film that grabs you by the balls for two house and doesn’t let go.
Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of fantastic films this year, each one getting better as the year went on. But no other movie going experience sticks with you after the first viewing quite like Mother!