Yeah, I know I’m a little late on what is considered the traditional timeframe for a yearly best of list, but I had a couple I needed to check off before I felt comfortable putting this list together. Following my co-host’s template, here are a few things you should know about my list:
- My list has 5 less superheros and 2 less monkeys. But I liked most of those movies just fine.
- My list is indeed lousy with social commentary, philosophy, and the metaphysical, but is composed of 3 horror, a sci-fi , and one lone drama.
- A list within a list is so meta, bro.
- Let’s just get to the list.
A surprise hit from funnyman, Jordan Peele of the TV show Key & Peele and the abysmal Keanu. While the movie has probably been retroactively assigned more self importance that it really deserves it is exactly the kind of story-telling a horror film should aim for. Good horror films usually stand in for whatever socio-political fears permeate our society in a given time and 2017 was ripe for this one. It plays like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but in this case the white girlfriend’s parents seem so totally hip to the times and are waaaay past all that racist hullabaloo, but of course they aren’t what they seem.
In place of the overtly racist redneck or bigoted antagonist is something more sinister. Instead of the old racism of 60’s segregation, this movie takes on the concept of faux-liberal post-racism in the wake of the Obama presidency, as if electing a black man to the highest office in U.S. politics somehow proves that left-thinking white citizens no longer have any sense of prejudice or supremacy. It’s damning of white society’s fetishization of black culture to the extreme that white folk want to BE black folk as a matter of fashion. It makes the point that slavery still exists in 2017, it just takes a more subversive form. Beyond all that, it’s a scary flick with a refreshing sense of self-awareness. When weird shit happens, characters express how weird they are out loud as if they are watching this all unfold in the movie theatre seat next to you.
This film blindsided me. Columbus got quite a lot of buzz here in Indiana because it takes place in real-life Columbus, IN. It still managed to skip my radar beyond a mild recognition that it was shot a mere hour away from Indy where I live in a town off I-65 just south of the outlet mall. That, and it has something to do with architecture. It turns out, as our male lead says, Columbus is “quite the mecca” for architecture. What I thought would surely be a romantic drama dripping with sap, melodrama, and cliche’ was instead a very thoughtful study of family, purpose, duty, and coming of age.
John Cho (Jin) and Haley Lu Richardson (Casey) are superb here as two lonely, lost souls who find each other at a pivotal moment in both of their lives. That seems conventional, and as a plot summary, it is, but it feels like these two people truly exist in this time and place. They express themselves like normal people in normal ways. They fall in love with one another, but not a romantic love. It’s a love of understanding, empathy, and gratitude, not one that needs or wants a physical embodiment or climax. They genuinely help each other but not with grandiose speeches and overtures, but by being present, listening, and caring. They learn things about themselves and perhaps about the kind of people they want in their lives. The town of Columbus is also a star here. It’s as much a character in this film as anyone. I’m not sure a town has played such a character role in a movie since the city of Savannah, Georgia in In the Garden of Good and Evil. I’m planning a trip. I may even take the architecture tour.
But let’s not spend all this time talking about good movies. Before we continue, let’s take a very quick look at my pick for worst of the year:
Fuck this movie and fuck Stephen King for endorsing it. The fact that King gives this movie a thumbs up and still talks trash about Kubrick’s The Shining is one of life’s most fucked up contradictions. I had low expectations of this from the first trailer, but I never expected it to be this awful. But don’t go expecting a rant on the casting of Idris Elba as Roland. I thought that was about as brilliant a piece of casting as we were ever going to get for that role. So what did I hate about The Dark Tower, then? Pretty much every other fucking thing. For starters, I’m not sure what movie I saw, but it sure as shit was NOT The Dark Tower. And please do not start on that bullshit it’s a continuation, not a re-telling, Ka is a wheel. It’s like someone made a crappy video game of The Dark Tower on NES and then someone made a movie adaptation of that. I can’t imagine that hack Nikolaj Arcel even read 4 pages of these books. Or maybe those Dutch translations are garbage.
Enough of this, on to #3…
In a total vacuum this movie has no business being made or being this good. The original Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies ever. It helped inform my early love and appreciation for thoughtful science fiction. When I heard that Denis Villenueve was directing and Roger Deakins was shooting, I was sure this sequel would hold its own and at least justify its existence. It far surpasses those modest expectations. Where the first film questions the idea of what it means to be human, the sequel redefines that label entirely. In events after the first film, replicants are banned, not because of questions of morality or ethics, but because they can’t be trusted to obey their makers. The Tyrell Corp is no more. Only when given assurances by a brilliant scientist, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), that his replicants can be made to obey are they made legal again. Now the new models of replicants hunt their own former, more willful selves. Harrison Ford is of course back as Rick Deckard. At times he does feel shoe-horned in with little to do, but his presence is crucial to making this story tick. The script is intelligent enough to let the ambiguity of his status as a replicant remain so (I’ve always deep down felt that we was not) and the story works either way. This is a bleak world with seemingly little hope. Humans are desperate and broken. But born out of the cruelty of their motivations, the replicants are a miracle. They are perhaps not “more human than human” but instead, our better selves.
Before I reveal the final 2 movies of the year, let’s give a little love to 3 that didn’t quite make the cut, but I still like a whole lot.
Mother! – I like movies that swing for the fences even if they miss or perhaps only foul one off. Mother! swings hard and gets good contact. In some stadiums it would be a homerun, but in others it gets caught at the warning track. What I’m trying to say through all of this figurative bullshit is that Mother! is not for everyone. Some will love it, some will hate it, and both sides will have really good reasons for doing so. But I don’t think that anyone can argue that this is not impressive and significant filmmaking. It starts quiet and small then continually swirls and builds into relentless chaos. Regardless of what it all means, the prevailing theory is biblical allegory, it’s an exhausting, yet thrilling experience.
The Shape of Water – I was surprised at how conventional this movie was for being about fish-monstery interspecies lovin’. It didn’t quite resonate with me as much as it did my co-host Geoff, but it has a touching ending and is beautiful in its simplicity. Of Del Toro’s fables, I still think that The Devil’s Backbone is my favorite. Most of the performances are wonderful here. Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Sally Hawkins really shine. It’s a surprisingly over-the-top and confusing showing from the usually great Michael Shannon. It’s like he took his Boardwalk Empire character and mixed in some of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. It’s weird.
Baby Driver – The most fun I had at the movies all year. It’s kind of a mash-up of Nicolas Wendig Refn’s Drive, Michael Mann’s Heat, and Moulin Rouge. In fact, it’s the best Baz Luhrmann film since, but directed of course by Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead. The opening sequence is one for the ages and plays about as close as it can to a musical number without it outright being one. The creative use of music here far surpasses anything you’ll see in a more traditional musical like La La Land.
Rooney Mara, cast only as “M”, and Casey Affleck as “C” are a married couple contemplating a move from their starter home when C is killed in a car accident on the street in front of their house. He comes back as a sheet clad ghost and haunts their home while M greives her loss. Director David Lowery has made his masterpiece with A Ghost Story. This is a movie so simple in its premise and delivery that at first it feels like the height of pretentiousness. Then a grieving M eats an entire pie for 10 minutes on screen with no cuts while the ghost of C looks on, and you are sure of it. But I promise if you stick with it magic will happen. This is indeed a ghost story, but told through the ghost’s point of view. Time is linear, but looped and increasingly less significant. C is a being that needs to move on to whatever is next beyond death but has tethered himself to his home in search of closure. When he achieves that final closure, I felt myself gasping for air. It’s a beautiful moment that dazes you in your chair as you contempate the last 90 minutes. Of note here as well is the equally haunting score by Daniel Hart. It’s a delicate balance of unsettling and peaceful calm. It’s the perfect soundtrack by which to comtemplate life and death.
Raw is the best movie I saw in 2017. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the directorial debut from instant up-and-comer Julia Ducournau. Cinematographer Ruben Impens was not on my radar before, but he is now. Jim Williams, long-time Ben Wheatley collaborator (Kill List, A Field in England), contributes the score of the year as well.
Raw follows 16 year old Justine as she begins veterinary school. Both of her parents are vegetarians and veterinarians as well. Her sister is also a year ahead at the same school. In a freshmen hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit’s kidney which kick-starts a new and bizzare craving for meat. Any meat. She tries to hide these cravings because of the profound shame she feels for giving in to them. Of course, the subtext here is sexual awakening and repression while coming of age. I like to imagine it’s what comes next when Ladybird goes to college.
2000’s Ginger Snaps is probably the easiest film to compare this to. I like that one plenty, but Raw is unsettlingly perfect in its execution where Ginger Snaps and even the very fine It Follows seem to check in every 20 minutes or so to make sure you understand what’s being said. Raw is careful not to strike just one note while also illustrating that empowerment, female or male, is a matter of how and what we control in our lives and coming to a reckoning with what we don’t.