10 for ’17: My Favorite Films from the Year of the Rooster
"A Ghost Story" is an off-beat, unconventional drama about a young loving couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) torn apart by tragedy—and the transition of Affleck’s character into a ghostly apparition left to observe the world as it moves forward without him. It’s an unusual premise, employing a simplistic, almost cartoonish specter of a man-under-a-bedsheet (large black eyes and all), and yet the story plays out as a surreal, often bittersweet examination of existence and the passage of time, replete with pathos, offbeat moments of levity (including an amazing party-scene soliloquy by Will Oldham), and ultimately buoyant transcendence. Remarkably slow-moving in its early goings, it’s the type of film you have to stick with through gradual acceleration and unexpected developments to earn the story’s ultimate payoff. Unlike anything you’ve ever seen before—writer/director David Lowery has crafted something excitingly original with this one. It really holds onto its own abstract logic and delivers something utterly refreshing and imaginative.
Coming on the heels of his breakout hit Tangerine (2015), writer/director Sean Baker shifts his focus from the sordid streets of LA to the seedy world on the periphery of Orlando’s Disney World, and captures one momentous summer in the life of 6-year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Precocious and mischievous, Monee leads a ragtag group of young friends in and around the tourist-trap motels adjacent to the world’s most famous amusement park, scaring up varying degrees of trouble while endlessly frustrating motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, in a wonderfully sympathetic performance). "The Florida Project" is an honest, unflinching and tender look at marginal lives struggling through day-to-day existences, contrasting the weight of adulthood with the unbridled enchantment of childhood. Young Brooklynn Prince is an absolute revelation as Moonee, delivering as stunningly assured a performance as you’ll see from any child actor anytime soon. She alone makes the film an absolute must-see.
"God's Own Country" is a British drama starring Josh O'Connor as Johnny, a young West Yorkshire roughneck forced to run his family farm after his father suffers a debilitating stroke. Embittered by his predicament, Johnny frequents local bars in the evenings, drinking heavily and engaging in furtive sexual encounters with other young men. Johnny’s life remains sordid and dour until the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), initiating a tense series of interchanges until Johny ultimately warms to the kind, compassionate Romanian. It's a beautiful and touching film about self-discovery and acceptance, highlighted by wonderful performances by both leads. Secareanu, in particular, plays Gheorghe as a highly humane and sympathetic individual with as a deft hand on the farm as in the arms of his newfound companion. Inevitable comparisons to Brokeback Mountain aside, "God's Own Country" is as gritty and realistic as it is alive and utterly unforgettable.
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is an angry, aggressive, often twistedly humorous story about a woman (Frances McDormand) so frustrated by her local police’s inability to identify her daughter’s killer that she posts three large billboards on the outskirts of town—calling out Sherriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his department’s failures. Her actions spark outrage in the community, inciting terse reactions from citizens and police officers alike—leading down a winding road of often startling confrontations and clashes. Written and directed by noted Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Three Billboards is a wonderfully original and wickedly enjoyable black comedy, bound to energize and galvanize you viscerally. McDonagh is at the top of his game crafting exhilarating, one-of-a-kind storylines that veer at nearly every turn from any form of expectation, leaving the viewer nearly breathless with surprise and emotional entanglement.
Based on the novel by André Aciman, "Call Me By Your Name" follows 17-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) as he vacations with his family in Northern Italy in the summer of 1983, and soon becomes enchanted by his father’s newly-arrived doctoral research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer). The film follows their languid summer days of relaxation, banter, family affairs and the pursuit of young Italian girls—all while their own mutual attraction to one another slowly builds. Call Me By Your Name captures that magical, mixed-up period of adolescent angst and discovery with an enchanting air of days-gone-by wistfulness that carries the film along the arc of Elio and Oliver’s friendship/relationship. It paints an evocative and touching picture of sexual awakening through the eyes of young Elio and delivers a fresh and insightful coming-of-age story devoid of cliché or contrivance. Big thumbs up for such a strikingly honest depiction of burgeoning sexuality rarely portrayed so compassionately in modern cinema.
After 35 years of anticipation, debate and trepidation for many fans, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) finally brought the sequel to Ridley Scott’s much-lauded sci-fi masterpiece to the screen in 2017, and it was with guarded optimism that I went into this one—only to be remarkably surprised by the final product. Truth be told, it took me two full viewings to come around fully to this story of a replicant android hunter (Ryan Gosling) discovering a long-buried secret within the replicant community, setting off a chain of cascading confrontations and larger-than-life action set pieces. Aside from Villeneuve’s masterful direction, stunning design and A+ cinematography by Roger Deakins, I really appreciated the intricate, existentially-oriented screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. That 2nd viewing really helped me to suss out all of the implications and plot mechanisms, and walk away convinced that Scott as producer couldn’t have selected a better director to carry on his legacy and extend his dark, dystopian vision of the future.
"Mother!", the latest cinematic invention of famed auteur Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) follows a lone couple (Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence) living an isolated rural existence, only to begin receiving unusual and obtrusive visitors to their home. Unnerving the wife, these interlopers quickly increase in number as they slowly take control of her house, creating a progressively surreal, frenzied scene. Soon the entire film is spiraling into a crazed maelstrom of delirium that goes so far beyond the expectation of the viewer that it will likely leave you stunned in bewilderment—and goddamn I loved every second of it. Crafted by Aronofsky as an allegory to God and Mother Nature (along with varying allusions to the bible), Mother! is so well done, it’s so perfectly imbalanced, and Jennifer Lawrence is so unbelievably good in her intensely distressed role, that I found the entire experience twistedly enjoyable and surprisingly thought-provoking.
Alternately titled “120 Beats Per Minute”, “120 BPM” a, this French drama focuses on members of the Paris chapter of the AIDS activism group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the 1990s, and their often radical efforts to improve the lives of those living with the disease through increased advocacy and protest. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Nathan, a newly joined member of the group, and follows his increased involvement in the ACT UP movement as well his burgeoning relationship with an outspoken group member named Sean. Ultimately the film plays out as a very personal human drama, as mortality becomes the inevitable yet heartbreaking fact-of-the-matter for these impassioned young radicals. It’s a lengthy, bittersweet and engrossing look at an important time in history, with real passion and earnestness for its characters and the mission of AIDS awareness. Rarely have I found political debate and activism so thoroughly engaging, revelatory and emotionally provocative on film.
9. Lady Bird
"Lady Bird" is actress Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical depiction of her own teenage years in Sacramento, CA, spotlighting that heightened period of maturation during the transition from high school onward toward college. Self-nicknamed “Lady Bird”, young Christine (Saoirse Ronan) bristles under the heavy-handed guidance of her mother (Laurie Metcalf) while performing in her school theater program, chasing boys, shifting allegiances and yearning for escape to an idealized East Coast university environment. As a refreshingly real coming-of-age story, Lady Bird captures many touching and amusing moments of adolescent angst and family discord, highlighted by both Ronan and Metcalf’s wonderfully authentic performances as a mother and daughter constantly at odds. I love the unique voice Gerwig brings to the genre, delivering a crisp, enjoyable and emotionally resonant story of personal evolution and the daunting reality of looming adulthood.
10. Darkest Hour
Set during the early days of World War II, "Darkest Hour" follows the controversial appointment of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as Prime Minister of England—and his fateful decision to ultimately battle Nazi Germany in lieu of acquiescing to the truce many urged him to accept. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), "Darkest Hour" is a brash, energetic recapitulation of one of the most dramatic points of the 20th Century—highlighted by Oldman’s absolutely mesmerizing depiction of Churchill in all of his pomp, passion and charisma. Oldman delivers the sort of career-highlight performance (and physical transformation) that come to define a film altogether, and yet Anthony McCarten’s screenplay works well to incorporate many of the dynamic interchanges between Churchill and his key emissaries, not the least of which being King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Their scenes together are as charged and fascinating as any throughout the course of the film. Overall a top-notch effort at nearly every level from beginning to end.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
"The Meyerowitz Stories" stars Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz, a successful sculptor and art professor preparing for a career retrospective at Bard College while juggling various family concerns with his three children Matthew (Ben Stiller), Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). It’s an often-times very funny, astutely observational comedy about familial dysfunction and estrangement, not without moments of poignancy and compassion. Sandler is particularly impressive in a rare semi-dramatic role, while Stiller delivers one of his finer humorously-neurotic performances in recent years. Nice work from writer/director Noah Baumbach, who hasn’t delivered a film this well-rounded and satisfying since The Squid & The Whale (2005).
"A Fantastic Woman" is a Chilean drama about a transgender singer and waitress named Marina (Daniela Vega) who loses her older lover and provider Orlando (Francisco Reyes) suddenly, leaving her heartbroken and struggling to hold her life together as she desperately battles to attend Orlando’s funeral. Facing suspicion and rancor from the police as well as Orlando’s extended family, Marina strives to maintain her dignity and composure while being repeatedly demeaned for her sexuality. It’s a jarring and emotionally galvanizing film that leads enormous empathy to the character of Marina, giving a piercing look into her life on the outside. An incredibly touching and empathetic human drama I highly recommend seeking out.
Cinematic maestro Christopher Nolan turned his attention in 2017 to the famed evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches of the titular French coastal city, and delivered a truly stunning cinematic experience in the process. "Dunkirk" oozes with technical craftsmanship and attention to detail, and masterfully captures the in-the-moment experiences of the many soldiers, pilots, boat captains and civilians involved in Operation Dynamo—the remarkable rescue of nearly 340,000 soldiers from the clutches of Nazi forces. Dunkirk is lengthy, terse, exciting, and yet oddly bereft of much genuine human emotion. Despite its lack of heart though, the sheer scale and spectacular filmmaking at hand are impossible to deny.
"Phantom Thread" stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a highly renowned dressmaker and proprietor of the esteemed “House of Woodcock” in 1950’s-era London, a man as esteemed and revered as he is prickly and fastidious. Reynolds yearns for a companion who will inspire his creator’s eye as well as match his refined sensibilities, and he believes that he has found his muse in the form of young waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). Phantom Thread is very much Paul Thomas Anderson’s homage to vintage melodrama, as it follows their complicated relationship down a path of intriguing turns and shades of ambivalence. Quite a showing from Day-Lewis as always—I desperately hope this is not truly his final film performance, as he has suggested.
Visiting Columbus, Indiana after his father falls ill, Korean-born Jin (John Cho) finds himself walking the streets of the “Midwestern Mecca of Architecture” pensively day after day, before encountering a young librarian named young Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), who is stuck at a crossroads in her own life. What ensues is a languid yet purposeful series of encounters that lead to a burgeoning friendship, while following a story-line reminiscent in ways of Lost in Translation and the “Before” films of Richard Linklater. The highlight of the film is its overall composition, featuring stunningly beautiful photography of striking architecture, all while playing out a touching narrative about life’s meaning and possibilities. A small gem of a film, just right for when you’re in just the right mood.
Faces Places, A Quiet Passion, Thelma, Arrhythmia, Novitiate, Molly's Game, Beach Rats, I, Tonya, Last Flag Flying, The Post, All The Money in the World, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Hostiles, In the Fade, Get Out, AlphaGo, Wind River, Their Finest, Stronger, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, In Syria, Detroit, Wonder, The Lost City of Z, Icarus, Good Time, Wonderstruck, The Farthest, Happy End, Kedi, Victoria and Abdul, Menashe, The Shape of Water, Baby Driver, Patti Cake$, City of Ghosts, Loveless, Mudbound, Lady Macbeth, The Disaster Artist, Una, Marjorie Prime, Beatriz at Dinner, Only the Brave, The Beguiled, The Big Sick, It Comes at Night, To the Bone, The Glass Castle, Sweet Virginia, Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Square, The Hero, The Lovers, Nocturama, Logan Lucky, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore