Top 10 of 2017: Connections, Failed and Imagined

31 12 2017

Per New Year’s Eve tradition, it’s time to unveil my top 10 list for the year. 2017 was … an interesting year, to say the least. I’m writing this paragraph at the tail end of a screener binge trying to catch as many movies as possible before sitting down to bang out this piece. Funny how you can see 148 films and somehow feel like you’ve failed to get a sense of the year. That’s a far cry from the glut I consumed in 2015, a whopping 200 films in the calendar year.

Yet I feel good about that, somehow. This was a banner year for me keeping my New Year’s resolutions, one of which was to rewatch more movies to gain a greater appreciation of what I’ve already seen. Another was to immerse myself more in classic cinema to better understand the influences of my favorite filmmakers. (If, for some reason, you feel compelled to see my media consumption habits in detail, check out my Letterboxd page.) Still, I don’t think many of you are going to shake a finger at me for seeing as much as I did. From 148 films, there’s more than enough to make a top 10 list.

(Also, I moved to New York in November. I had a lot on my plate besides just watching movies.)

An odd thing to note about my favorites this year: the top 5 has stayed unchanged since late May. That’s in part because I went to Sundance (and made the correct film choices), but I think something larger is at play here. Expectations. Filmmakers whose latest works I was eagerly anticipating largely did not deliver on the promise of their prior films. On the list below, the only director who I would have considered myself a devotee of would be Noah Baumbach.

The upside here is that now I have many new projects to eagerly anticipate! Several of these directors were ones that had just never quite clicked for me. Heck, one of them directed a movie which garnered this site’s only F rating.

I always construct this list purely on merit and feeling, never trying to meet any kind of quota or make any particular statement. But 2017’s list naturally came together to paint a picture of the industry I’d like to see. 3 films are directed by women, 3 films are debut features, 2 films are by black directors and 2 films are by queer filmmakers. There are studio films, indies and Netflix releases. Quality work is coming from every area of the business, and we need to seek out and amplify it as well as its creators.

Before I do my rundown, I suppose I should offer a word about the connective fiber between these films and the year at large. I admit to looking at this group and not having anything jump out immediately. A contemplative walk around the block made me realize that these movies are mostly, to some degree, about people trying to connect. It might be with family members, the love of one’s life, someone’s physical surroundings, or with one’s self. It is likely in spite of some greater obstacle, be they systemic ills like racism and sexism or merely personal hurdles like insecurity and timidity.

This is simplistic to the point of mockery, and I scoff at myself for even being the kind of writer who’d hang an entire year on a concept so nebulously defined that it could come to encompass virtually anything. But in a year when it seemed tough to reconcile seemingly disparate realities and communicate deeply-held values, I’m willing to venture out a bit on this flimsy limb. (Also, some of these don’t really have much to do with “connection” at all! So what!)


“The Lovers”
Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs
Starring Debra Winger, Tracy Letts and Aidan Gillen

It’s so rare to see characters in middle-age with agency at all. They’re usually supporting characters meant to further someone else’s journey, usually by providing some kind of sage advice. The underlying message: people of this age are valuable for their past, not in their present. “The Lovers” gives us two indelible cinematic incarnations of empty nesters who have not so much fallen out of love so much as they have fallen into a routine. In Azazel Jacobs’ twisted take on the comedy of remarriage, the transactional dialogue becomes the tantric love language of Michael and Mary. As each prepares for a second life with their lover, they enter into a second affair within the confines of their own nuptials. “The Lovers” unfolds with the tension and stakes of a narrative normally reserved for people thirty years the junior of actors Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, making it an all the more exhilarating journey.


“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman

Can there be any doubt now that Noah Baumbach is cinema’s greatest writer of overlapping dialogue? He understands the way that people not only talk over each other – they talk past each other, particularly with their loved ones. In “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” so many conversations took my breath away on a level where I focused little on the actual words being said. Within the same exchange, Baumbach shows how people can be having completely different conversations. These are nominally conversing with the person across from them, yes, but they hint at something much deeper: they are talks with an imagined image of the person. Baumbach creates a deeply dysfunctional family spanning three generations to carry out these chats, and the result is a film that displays the messiness of blood ties with painstaking acuity.


“Good Time”
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
Written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein
Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie and Taliah Lennice Webster

I sometimes struggle to pinpoint what exactly about the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” makes it so great. By many accounts, it takes some standard elements of the heist and con man thriller and compresses them into one grimy, neon-soaked night of mayhem in the margins of New York City. Yet it’s stuck with me all year, in part because I can’t stop blasting the infectiously pulse-pounding Oneohtrix Point Never score that exerts a physiological effect of the highest order. But it also has something to do with Robert Pattinson’s impecabble performance work in creating the slimy, ingratiating Connie. On one hell of a night, he learns just how far he can exploit people’s trust for his own exploitative gain. Watching Pattinson feel those limits and bump up against them in Connie’s persona makes for some of the most riveting moments of 2017. (Unpopular opinion alert: his final close-up is the best shot of its kind this year.)


“Molly’s Game”
Written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner

When people say “they don’t make movies like this anymore,” they’re referring to something just like “Molly’s Game.” Made with the budget it deserves by a mini-major studio, Aaron Sorkin’s debut is an infectiously entertaining dramatic thriller for adults. It’s sophisticated and intelligent, featuring the writer’s impeccable ear for highly stylized dialogue. Sorkin has taken some heat over the years for misogyny in his male-dominated worlds, and a character like Molly Bloom is the first step towards recovery in the world of gender. He couldn’t have asked for a better performer to bring humanity to this tabloid figure than Jessica Chastain, who injects a steely resolve into the character. She has us rooting for Molly every step of the way in her journey to cash in on the follies of powerful men. I predict many years of rewatches on cable for this one.


“Faces Places”
Directed by Agnes Varda and JR

Looking for hope that art can change the world in 2017? Look no further than “Faces Places,” the enchanting documentary by French New Wave icon Agnes Varda and upstart street artist JR. The two make a somewhat unlikely pairing, but their collective mission as artists brings them together for a moving road trip through France’s forgotten countryside. They take portraits of their fellow countrymen and women, blow them up to giant proportions and then paste them on the facades of crumbling buildings and industrial areas. Come for the artists, but stay for their subjects’ reactions. The way “Faces Places” demonstrates how art can reconnect people with the places where they live and work, making them feel deeply ingrained in the spirit of these structures might be the best case we have for the relevance of art to all the world’s citizens – not just the metropolitan elite.


Get Out
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams and Bradley Whitford

What is there to say about “Get Out” that hasn’t already been said? What truths are there left that haven’t been expressed in various memes throughout the year? Jordan Peele made what will likely be the time capsule movie of 2017, a distillation of racial anxieties both macro and micro. It’s more than the “movie of the moment,” a facile descriptor liberally tossed around to praise any movie that seems to speak directly to current social issues. Peele looks beyond the politics of race in the post-Obama world, digging deeper to find longer simmering tensions in American society. With an eye towards how these attitudes create systemic obstacles for minorities, Peele creates a thriller that will likely endure because it’s not tied directly to its time. If 241 years of American history is any indication, we’ll likely surmount our current hurdles – and replace them with other ones. More didactic movies will fall away as irrelevant. “Get Out” will endure.


Casting JonBenet
Directed by Kitty Green

I was intrigued by Robert Greene’s 2016 documentary “Kate Plays Christine,” a film that explored the nature of a true life and death through performance. I mention it here because as interesting as it was, I felt like that documentary was too self-contained of an artistic exercise to fully explore the genius of its concept. That promise is consummated in Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet,” a documentary that grasps the manifold social, psychological and societal implications of performance. We need fiction, we need genre and we need fantasy to wrap our heads around something as baffling and terrifying as the JonBenet Ramsey murder. By going to the victim’s hometown and involving the residents in a reenactment of her disappearance and death, Green reopens old wounds and lets the blood flow into the people – or are they characters? – involved in the case.


Baby Driver
Written and directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James and Jon Hamm

I don’t think I fully realized how much I had come to despise Hollywood action sequences until Edgar Wright knocked my socks off with “Baby Driver.” With actual attention to shots, editing and sound – as opposed to opting for sloppy sensory overload – Wright reminded me of the possibilities for engagement with the thrill of a chase, an escape or a due left on the table by virtually every filmmaker with a sizeable VFX budget. I’d been a little lukewarm on this beloved cult director, but “Baby Driver” made the Edgar Wright worshipping click for me. The visual styling, the cheeky humor, the music – gosh, that soundtrack! – all works in service of an entertaining and emotionally engaging story here, opening up the pleasure of his entire body of work.


Directed by Dee Rees
Written for the screen by Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
Starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke and Jason Mitchell

It’s a shame that most people will be experiencing Dee Rees’ sublime “Mudbound” at home, hopefully on a large television and not a phone screen. But now having seen the film in a theater and on my iPad, I can say that the grace and grandeur of Rees’ filmmaking transfers to the smaller screen. This is not your parents’ historical epic. The film encompasses the perspectives of both the white family who owns a muddy Mississippi farm and the black family who works it. We receive both the rich interiority of their personal narrations along with the sweeping scope of the Jim Crow South of the 1940s, both pre- and post-World War II. It’s rare to see a film working on both scales without missing a note or firing a blank. Rees manages that while also capturing an intangible, soaring spirit that cannot be achieved simply by checking all the boxes. (Also, quick humblebrag: I sat next to Ava DuVernay to see this movie at Sundance, and we got to give it a standing ovation together.)


“Call Me By Your Name”
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by James Ivory
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg

As a critic, I’m constantly on my guard emotionally while watching a film. Anyone can feel and have an emotional response to a movie. It’s my duty to take a step back and analyze how and why a film is trying to goad that reaction. But once in a while – and it’s not every year – a film comes along to sweep me off my feet, demanding not just aesthetic appreciation or stoic admiration. It asks for love. Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name” did just that for me in 2017. It’s hardly coincidental that the film itself is about the necessity of grappling with desires and feelings towards people that might otherwise terrify us into living a shell of a life. As Michael Stuhlbarg’s benevolent father figure puts it, “To feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!” My involvement with Timothée Chalamet’s virtuosic performance of Elio, a precocious teenager trying to sort out his attraction to Armie Hammer’s visiting student Oliver along with his relative indifference to life, dipped into some of the deepest reserves of passion I possess. “Call Me By Your Name” made my heart ache, yearn and swoon. Actually, change that verb tense – the film makes, because I still actively carry the experience with me. It’s a truly rare connection between reviewer and film, one to which I’m certainly glad I surrendered.



7 responses

31 12 2017

I’m so gutted that I didn’t get to see Call Me By Your Name!

31 12 2017
Marshall Shaffer

You can’t ever see everything! Although clearly I will say that missing CMBYN is a biggie.

31 12 2017

It had a very limited release, I’m hoping the award buzz around it might push more screenings.

31 12 2017
Marshall Shaffer

Certainly not blaming you! It’s tough to see everything even if you do live in a big metro area.

31 12 2017

I’ve just been trying to find screenings in London as I’m going down for a few days next week!

1 01 2018

“More didactic movies will fall away as irrelevant. ‘Get Out’ will endure.”

Absolutely. Well said.

1 01 2018
Marshall Shaffer

Thank you!

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