There's one good thing that came out of the first year of the Trump presidency, just one: this realization that what we had always indulged in terms of masculine misbehaviour is dangerous and vile. The entertainment industry, the lowest arm of which gave us Trump, took the brunt of the new "wokeness," almost as though it were taking responsibility for birthing something like Trump by enacting a purge. It's not over. One can only hope the enablers are next--the ones who looked the other way or silently helped normalize a flesh tax for entrance into the realm. Change has to be more than lip-service and the now-familiar tone-deaf apology for narcissism and incomprehension. I could go deeper here about my personal dismay, sense of betrayal, rage, disgust...and I want to--but men have been talking over women about their experiences for long enough.
What could take is this trend of progressive films, and angry films, and self-conscious diversity in mainstream cinema that's begun to emerge as a product of either this administration or nostalgia for the last. I thought the Trump era would usher in a new age of great horror films (and it has), but what I didn't anticipate was the spate of great films focused on love and family. To paraphrase the biggest movie of the year, it's not just about what we hate, but about how we love, too.
Anyway, 2017 was the year I finished my book on Walter Hill's films. It's over 400 pages in its rough form and James Ellroy is writing the introduction for it. I'm in the middle of a deep edit on it with my editor Bill Chambers. Bill has been my steadfast friend for, lo, these last 18 years or so. This was one of those years where I realized how much I value and, indeed, need my friends. I started writing the book after a screening of The Warriors on 35mm at one of the two Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas I manage in Denver. I wanted to understand why I loved so many of Hill's films. I wanted to understand, too, why it is there's no longform examination of his pictures in English. Two years later, there still isn't--but we're close.
2017 is the year I additionally started work on a monograph about Robert Harmon and Eric Red's The Hitcher, a smaller, more intimate project I took on on not only because I love the film dearly, but also because I needed a walk-off after the two-year marathon of the Hill project. Yet I'm already getting the impression it's going to be a lot harder than I anticipated. Both should see publication in 2018, but you know what they say about best laid plans. Oh, by the end of 2018, I also hope to have made a dent in my book about Patrick McGoohan's TV series "The Prisoner".
2017 is the year I wrote about fewer films than ever before. The list that follows will have titles in groups of 5 to spare Bill, as much as it is possible at this point, from the extra headache. After so long doing these, I've found that, for me, 50 is the number I'm most comfortable with. 10 isn't enough. More than 50 isn't realistic.
What I saw in 2017 were more great films with female protagonists--including a Star Wars picture that features the first Asian-American lead in the franchise in all its 40-plus years. The Chinese and geologists appreciate that kind of patience; I wish it were patience that drives that kind of wait. 21 of my 50 feature women as the hero. I saw a year where even the worst movies--downsizing for one, The Greatest Showman for another--took stabs at diversity in their ham-handed, oddly-intended way. Notable pictures missing from this list are Lady Bird and Molly's Game, both of which I liked just fine. Ditto The Post and Darkest Hour, which are like "For Dummies" primers for the easily distracted. Dunkirk I did not like, and Three Billboards I loathed with an unusual intensity. I wonder if that's because Martin McDonagh is still given the "boys will be boys" pass for some reason, what with his appalling misogyny and continued "getting away with something" treatment of dwarf characters. Maybe it was just the scene where someone talks to a deer. Or maybe it was how it made me dislike Abbie Cornish for the first time in her career. Anyway, fuck that guy and fuck his preening, ugly movies. A note, too, about Matt Reeves's conclusion to the Planet of the Apes trilogy--an exceptional piece when taken as part of a three-film whole that couldn't quite stick the landing. Still, it's grim enough, nihilistic enough, to be a key product of this time regardless.
Anyway, the best films of 2017 are indicated by a winsome sort of grief, but there are signs of life, there's a particular feeling of resolve. There are poison mushrooms and fair warnings. Revolution is in the air. That scrape you hear is pitchforks sharpening. There wouldn't be this energy among the better of us if it weren't for the dedicated lizard activity of the worst of us. Yeats was only part right: Sometimes passionate intensity can inspire an equivalent reaction from the resistance. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. God, let's hope so. And hurry.
Song to Song
In the Fade
I remember feeling the gap between Terrence Malick films like a physical thing. When The Thin Red Line broke his 20-year hiatus from directing, my need for it was palpable. Then it was seven years until The New World, then six until The Tree of Life, and since then we've had a Malick film every couple of years. Look, I know things are bad, but one of the great filmmakers of all time has taken on issues of eternity and humanity, even to the point of loosely adapting Pilgrim's Progress with Knight of Cups and now Song to Song, and here I am in the front row bearing witness. It's an absolute privilege. Song to Song is of a piece with Knight of Cups: the same rumination, from split perspectives--the Pilgrim's and his wife's. There's a genuine curiosity here about essential questions circling identity, expressed, as is Malick's wont, through a series of dizzy, spiralling epiphanies.
One of the emergent trends of 2017 is this real wrestling with who the fuck we are. Who could we be when we elect someone this specifically hateful and moronic to be our representative here and to the world? This election was harder on my wife than it was on me. She's white, smart, beautiful. She didn't know that half the country wanted our mixed-race children and her Chinese husband back "where you came from," or dead. I went to Wheat Ridge High School, just outside Denver. We called it "white rich high school." By "we," I mean, me and my Native American friend and my half-Chinese friend and my Hispanic friend. I went to school with the sons and daughters of the Denver Broncos and the Coors family. For our class song, to be immortalized in our yearbook back in 1991, a majority voted for Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." The "Young Life" contingent in control of the student council vetoed that vote and substituted R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Trump voters were never a new idea to me. His victory was the worst kind of surprise in confirming a truth we'd suppressed.
Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime is a magnificent piece about how we edit our past to make our present tolerable. Personal and collective actions, modified to reflect things we should have thought and done: testimony of our experiences, rendered sanguine. Hanging over it all is this feeling of borrowed time. You can only bury something for a while. The theory of "behavioural sink" in the study of rats found that the 99% deprived of penthouses and rat harems became hermetic, listless, eventually cannibalistic. That's where we are. Marjorie Prime is about that. So is Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama, which is essentially Sofia Coppola's Battle of Algiers as a collection of feckless youth, rich and bored, carry off a series of coordinated terrorist attacks and spend the fallout in a deserted mall. It's a perfect updating of Dawn of the Dead where nothing happens, nothing matters, and we're all just counting time until the next thing blows up, taking people we love with it.
Fatih Akin's In the Fade is right there, too, with a year's-best performance from Diane Kruger as a white woman who loses her Turkish immigrant husband and her mixed son to a Nazi bomb only to find no recourse in the law. The worst kind of surprise. Which brings us to Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman, one of the top-three highest-grossing domestic films of the year, along with the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Oh, they also all had female leads. Anyway, I didn't connect with Wonder Woman until the stunning realization that here's this beautiful Israeli woman in a metal bikini who was somehow not for a moment sexualized despite the deplorable screenplay's attempts to do so. It's evidence of a lot. Reading testimonials by women who were deeply moved by the film, I was reminded of my own reaction to the Asian representation in last year's Rogue One and realized that the reason I thought Wonder Woman was "interesting" and not "transcendent" is because of my privilege. I don't think it's that great. I do think it's pretty important. This is going to be a tough road. I wonder if we'll make it to the end.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The Shape of Water
The Girl Without Hands (La jeune fille sans mains)
The Last Jedi riffs on this theme of identity with the astonishing revelation that hero Rey is maybe the product of no great lineage. She, like the rat Remy in Ratatouille, is a genius who emerges from nothing despite any dynastic rationale. The best exchange in the film happens when disgraced mentor Luke Skywalker asks Rey who she is and where she's from. Turns out, she's no one from nowhere. It's a revolutionary idea that aggravated, predictably, mediocre white males who also think of themselves as geniuses and wonder why their lack of any actual knowledge, ambition, or ability has hindered their own elevation into legend. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The Shape of Water gives the remarkable Sally Hawkins a truer platform than Maudie. It's a problematic film, but it's beautiful and whatever you could say about Guillermo Del Toro, his love of and respect for movies is clear. Kudos at least for doing what Burton's Planet of the Apes should have done. Love is love. Amnesia casts the great Marthe Keller as a German expat in deep denial about the evils of her national reserve, rewriting her history to anyone who'll ask until the past comes a-calling. Her interactions with her new young friend's grandfather, played by Bruno Ganz (who of course played Hitler in Downfall), are among a great year's best exchanges. Sébastien Laudenbach's The Girl Without Hands is a stark, Belladonna of Sadness-feeling animated adaptation of a Brothers Grimm fairytale in which a father trades his daughter to the Devil for a river of gold. With her purity a danger to Satan, he stipulates that her hands be cut off. It's about identity and survival, gender politics/gender roles and the prison that they represent, and how salvation can be achieved regardless. William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth is also about a young woman imprisoned by her culture who discovers a certain freedom in her unwillingness to be bound. It's an ugly bit of business. Revolutions usually are.
Beatriz at Dinner
The Devil's Candy
BPM (120 battements par minute)
Hounds of Love
Breaking free is also what Beatriz at Dinner, BPM, and Hounds of Love are fundamentally about. They're manifestos for speaking truth to power, which became the One Good Thing in 2017. Hold onto this moment, because it's about to become corrupted by both sides: the list-makers and purity testers on the Left; the monsters on the Right. For a shining moment, however, we have these little pronouncements that things can't go on like they've been going. That there's a wave coming, never mind for the moment the undertow that comes with it. The Devil's Candy is an exceptional horror film that deals with how parents, fathers especially, can't protect their daughters from the men set to predate upon them. It deals, too, with art, and the Devil, the tragedy of growing up, and the strength of family in the face of it all. There's hope to it. To Hounds of Love as well, in the same ways. Extend it even to The Survivalist, featuring more powerful women, a mother and a daughter, trying to survive in a vague post-apocalypse that reinforces how we are only ever a thin line away from rape becoming the accepted lingua franca of this and every land. Maybe thinner in Alabama.
John Wick 2
It's impossible to talk about the travails of women without also getting into the tragedy of men. Each of Walter Hill's films grapples with this in some way. It's bad timing to bring it up, I know. The Work is a documentary centred on a Folsom Prison program that has hardened cons, plus a few volunteers from the outside, working through their betrayals and sufferings. It's about men being allowed to express their emotions in a culture that looks down on it--and what happens when a pinhole appears in their armour. Good Time, Logan Lucky, and John Wick 2 are interested in the same: a man who loves his brother so fucking much, a man who loves his daughter, a man who loves his tailor. John Denver appeared in a lot of movies this year (the same song was used in three of them, I think)--possibly because Denver represents a genuine, authentically-corny masculine emotionality. Makota Shinkai's Your Name is a singular teen romance with a mind-swap conceit married to a gentle science-fiction premise that wouldn't be out of place in Charlie Kaufman: A teen boy and teen girl swap places in their dreams and then conspire to meet. That's it. It's brilliant.
Blade Runner 2049
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Blade Runner 2049 is another film with a hero who is nobody from nowhere. He is a Rosencrantz or Guildenstern subsidiary: a mediocre white male who believes the story revolves around him instead of the little girl in the room dreaming other people's dreams and editing other people's memories. It's a work of exceptional poetry, where women have their images hijacked, objectified for consumer pleasure, even as their reproductive potential is idealized to the point of capitalist fetishism. They are simultaneously Madonna and Whore. So it is. Pair another adaptation of mythology for 2017, Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, with Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope: two formalist masterworks--Ionesco by way of Buñuel--that deal with gender again (sexuality for Lanthimos and the immigrant situation for Kaurismaki).
I spent a gondola ride with the great Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev once, regaling him with my admiration for his The Return until I realized too late that he didn't speak much English. My friend saved the day by finding a common term we shared: "selfie." I got one with him. It was worth it. In his newest film, Loveless, a married couple fights so much they almost don't notice that their young son has gone missing. It's a metaphor and an interesting companion piece to The Return, which deals with two young boys who need a father so badly that they conjure one, then murder him over a betrayal. Ruben Ostlund's The Square is another provocation, one that finds the right words for a proper apology delivered by a wealthy white man involved in the arts who needs to reckon public way with the extent and limits of his privilege. I think it's interesting that it played at Fantastic Fest; let's leave it at that. The near-rape scene in its middle is an unbearably real-feeling depiction of the horror of sexual assault--and the result of which, where men finally uncover the line that divides their bestiality from civilization, is deadly accurate in its truth.
Finally, Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time speaks to the ephemerality of existence in a parade of nitrate film clips rescued from the void, a celluloid grave in a Yukon town that thrived during the Gold Rush. Life is short, memory is uncertain, and a good cutter can make all the difference. When our internal editor goes on the fritz, we call it "anxiety" and "depression." (Maybe "melancholy," or "nostalgia.") When it's working, we're allowed to move forward. Memory is a dangerous thing. It's volatile and explosive and shouldn't be trusted.
Brawl in Cell Block 99
The Other Side of Hope
Faces Places (Visages, villages)
First They Killed My Father
Call Me By Your Name
S. Craig Zahler's follow-up to his brutal Bone Tomahawk is the brutal Brawl in Cell Block 99. Vince Vaughan is perfectly cast as a violent psychopath who loves his wife and unborn baby. People don't listen to him, he does the right things for himself and his people, and he inflicts an unbelievable amount of atrocity on folks who desperately deserve it. Udo Kier is here and evil as fuck as he details the single most unpleasant torture tactic I've ever heard. It's a film as dark as pitch that has a clear-eyed vision of what it means to be a man in this world...at least from the man's point of view. Exploitation writ large.
Agnes Varda's gentle Faces Places pairs with a film that didn't make this list (Pat Collins's Song of Granite)--but only just--as explorations of identity and the passage of time told obliquely, artfully, mournfully, hopefully. Angelina Jolie's First They Killed My Father is another biopic of unusual power and proof positive that Jolie can direct the fuck out of a film. And Call Me By Your Name is life-affirming cinema about that Summer of '69, when everything is possible and unfolding beneath you. There's a conversation between lovers I come back to a lot where they ask why they wasted so much time in the beginning and then tell their story to each other over and over. I do that with my wife sometimes. I start with "Remember when we met?" or, "Remember our first date, when..." I do it as a bulwark against the realities of the day-to-day. It makes me feel good. Another conversation, between father and son, is justifiably lauded as one of the great moments in 2017 cinema--maybe of any year. It's become a model for how I want to be as a parent: open enough to be able to be vulnerable with my children--to show them where I've been hurt, as well as where I'm strong.
Super Dark Times
The Florida Project
World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People's Thoughts
Two things about Coco: Disney put the fucking "Frozen Holiday Special" in front of it--a 22-minute TV show so abominable in its conception and execution that the only reason they could have possibly wanted to break with the Pixar tradition of opening with a Pixar short is that the studio feared Coco couldn't be a hit without a white protagonist. Do I know this for sure? I do not. I do know that it was a bad miscalculation from a company that isn't making a lot of bad decisions lately. Coco is beautiful. Simple, artful, heartfelt, and faithful to the culture it depicts. I loved it. I cried more in it than in any other movie this year, and I admit I cry a lot in movies. Super Dark Times is a different look at childhood; so is The Florida Project and so is World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People's Thoughts. Yet all of them share a real ear for how kids talk and a real empathy for the things they fear and how they experience joy. Get Out is a documentary. If you don't get it, it's your privilege.
Blade of the Immortal
Murder on the Orient Express
Pair Raw with Joachim Trier's Thelma (which we'll get to in a minute). The metaphor here is cannibalism again, dealt with in a fascinating way in Rat Film, the best documentary in a year rife with good ones, mainly because it revealed to me that "NIMH" is a real place where things were done with rats, and also because it clarified for me in no uncertain terms what happened in the last election. We're fucked. Rat Film is beautifully conceived and, like Get Out, has entire passages set in the liminal spaces, whether you call it the "Upside Down" or the "Sunken Place"; it's the cracks in reality that define our society, the 30% of people in the United States who manufacture their own truth and need to be shot into outer space, you know, to prove to them in their last moments that the Earth isn't a flat disc on the back of a giant turtle. It was never about economic anxiety--it was always about being so fucking stupid that they think you're stupid.
The Beguiled is a wonderful updating of Don Siegel's film and works in relation to its predecessor like Kimberly Peirce's Carrie does against Brian DePalma's original. It's about gender relationships, of course, but more importantly about the relationships women have with each other. Sofia Coppola is a singular American filmmaker in that she's a female director who has been allowed to construct a career composed entirely of the films she wants to make regardless of their commercial appeal. They are about who she is and her experience of the world. She is the curator of her own story and that's rare and valuable. A pity she's become a target for the Left's inchoate rage for exclusion.
Takashi Miike's 100th film, Blade of the Immortal, is an adaptation of Hiroaki Samura's gorgeous 219-chapter manga, and it's easily the second-best comic-book movie of the year. The world it creates for its deathless (though not unsuffering) hero is as lush and rapturous as the near-future James Mangold created for Logan and his deathless-but-sad hero. They share atrocities, though, and a relationship between the grizzled knight looking for a good cause to die on and a young woman just looking for someone who will protect her for a while: father figures in the apocalypse. It has the rhythms and deep, saturated colours of a Jarmusch film, if Jarmusch had made Ninja Scroll. It's so good, I don't even really know how to describe it. I guess you learn something over the course of 99 movies.
Then there's Kenneth Branagh's magnificent Murder on the Orient Express. It's not just a faithful adaptation, it's an interpretation of a well-trod literary figure, Agatha Christie's rotund Belgium detective Hercule Poirot, that rescues Poirot from camp, dusty bookshelves, and archaic star pieces. He confesses how painful it is for him, someone with a disorder, perhaps, who abhors disorder, to exist in a world that doesn't play by any rules, although this does happen to make him a good detective. Maybe the best. He's tortured by inequity, imbalance, injustice, and he's confronted by the murder of a bad person perpetrated by what by all accounts is probably a good person. There's a final tableau that Branagh is smart enough to exploit where he places all of the suspects on the titular train in the exact aspect of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper". The figure missing? Christ. Poirot is Christ. He's martyred to ambiguity: the grey, the space between good and bad--right and wrong. He gives himself to the void and the void rejects him. It's a fascinating, touching performance, shockingly timely. Who hasn't, these days, wished there was someone in power who cared about rules and morality? Not Trump, who is incapable, but every single person enabling his amorality to the dishonour and ruin of our country. Lots of blame to go around, but let's look at the evangelicals, Trump's strongest and most steadfast base. Not playing for "Comfortably Numb" anymore, but angling for "The End of the World as We Know It" in a literal Rapture. We've been overtaken by religious fundamentalists.
On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja)
Paul Thomas Anderson and Darren Aronofsky both created apologias for masculine creation in 2017, and the results were magnificent. The Phantom Thread deals with a genius-level dress designer who "discovers" a young woman in a diner, his muse. But she has agency--as does Jennifer Lawrence's poet's wife in mother!, who sacrifices herself for her husband's creation as the heart of the home they share and that she's in the midst of restoring and protecting. It's a metaphor, of course (both films are), and it's an indictment of the dangers of the male artist in his solipsistic, often-destructive, always-narcissistic wills to power. mother! and Phantom Thread are stories about God. A Christian one specifically. And they are stories of how gender roles are often more complicated, if no less abusive, than they would first appear. On the Beach at Night Alone is Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's self-laceration over his much-publicized (and getting ugly) affair with actress Kim Min-hee, who, in the film, plays a beautiful young actress whose life has been changed, irrevocably, by an affair with an older, legendary director. She vacillates between an aggressive playfulness and sudden explosions of outrage. These are the stories of muses and the men they inspire. They are all tragedies in action and they are all relationships that "work."
Danny Boyle's best film by a mile, T2 Trainspotting is sad and contemplative. It opens with one of the heroes of his Trainspotting having a coronary episode, and ends with that same hero playing Iggy Pop on his childhood record player in the room he grew up in. His mother is dead now, but we see her shadow hovering over her chair at the dinner table. All of his dreams, and the dreams of his friends, are dead, too. The bad guy can only get it up when he's trying to exact revenge. The world has passed them all by and their bad choices have come home to roost. And yet it's triumphant: a declaration of life in the midst of the withering indifference of time. It's smart. It's directed with fire. It's wise in the way only something moving into middle age can be wise: bloodied and bruised, but still a Stooge.
A Quiet Passion
The biggest surprise for me this year was just how exceptional a vehicle for nostalgia Andy Muschietti's It is. At its essence, it's about child abuse and its fallout, with the only adult in Stephen King's Derry remotely interested in its children being the monster. Brilliantly performed, brilliantly adapted (with all the right bits missing and all the right bits intact); not more than a day or two goes by that I don't think of young Bev and the boys, bicycling through the late afternoon of their innocence. I love that the monster is ridiculous-looking in the way that children would imagine the manifestation of their worst fears. I love that the solution is the downtrodden finding strength in each other and their morality. There's hope in this film.
Hope, too, for understanding through the products of our hand--in Terrence Davies's Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion and Kogonada's ode to architecture, Columbus--and through a sibling's private devotion in Personal Shopper. Columbus is about the impending death of a father and a young man, divorced from his culture and his dad, reintroduced to the connectivity of all things (like The Force, yes? Which is the energy between oppositions) by a young woman married to a place through its buildings and design. It's a spiritual companion to Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, my favourite movie from last year, contemplative and romantic as it proposes that an afterlife does exist--maybe not in the way that Personal Shopper believes it exists, but in the way that if you create something that's beautiful in the world, it will always be recognized by sympathetic hearts as the product of a sensitive hand. Whenever I read Keats, I'm struck by how this young man could speak to me conspiratorially over so great a gulf of time and experience. That's Columbus.
My favourite film of 2017 is Joachim Trier's Thelma. It's a coming-of-age piece wherein a cloistered young woman goes away for the first time, free from a suffocating mother and father and a fundamentalist religiosity that stifles her social interactions. It dawns on her that she's possibly a lesbian, and the thought is so unbearable that she seeks to scrub the memory of her inamorata from her brain. Trier flashes to scenes once populated, now empty. Thelma is different, it seems. She has seizures and learns that her grandmother, who's allegedly dead but is really just drugged in a nursing home, maybe used to have the same ones. Thelma suggests that men are always trying to control women--especially their sexuality--and never successful at it, or at least they "succeed" to disastrous effect. It's gorgeous, full of images I've never seen in a film, including one discovery of hair and glass that caused me to squirm in delight. It's frightening, but it's hopeful--a sister to Dark City, or just a summary of a year in which the impossible happened, revealing the absolute worst of us and exactly how far, or not, we thought we'd come. The world may be ending, but there's potential at least that it's not with a whimper.
I hope I'm right. I hope we have another act in us. And if we don't, at least we have these monuments to our resistance.