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!)

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REVIEW: Casting JonBenet

29 04 2017

What are we talking about when we talk about true crime? It’s rarely the victims, and it’s seldom even the criminal act in question. So often, these cases that play out in the media and catch a foothold in American culture provide a convenient release valve for other societal anxieties. As two 2016 projects explored, the O.J. Simpson trial was about race, gender and class in American life, and the case was hardly an outlier. Recently, we’ve seen the Casey Anthony trial about negligent millennial parenting and the Travyon Martin/Eric Garner cases about race relations and implicit bias. History books are lined with mass public hysteria over legal disputes going back centuries.

Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet” contorts the conventions of documentary cinema to observe this phenomena at the granular level. Under the guise of filming a fictional piece about the mysteries surrounding the murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, Green interviews town locals of Boulder, CO (the site of the crime) who audition to play key figures in the story. Many of the amateur actors are not approaching the JonBenet case with remoteness or remove; most adults are within a degree of separation from the Ramsey family. Some even interacted with them directly.

With so many questions still remaining about the involvement of JonBenet’s mother Kitty, her father Jon and a costumed Santa Claus, each performer must bring a certain amount of judgement to the role. What do they believe about the case? Unheard and unseen, Green interrogates her coterie of aspiring actors about the biases and assumptions they bring to the part. Their answers, revealed plainly to the camera in front of them, reveal convictions based less on facts and more on personal experiences as well as cultural assumptions about the roles available to the person they are auditioning to play. The actors, like most of us who get drawn into crime stories, turn real people into fictional characters by projecting our own fears onto them.

Green has no interest in solving the JonBenet Ramsey murder, deliberately eschewing procedural or investigative tropes in favor of an open-ended lack of resolution. Was it the brother? The mother? The Santa? The father? Green answers, yes. “Casting JonBenet” allows for a radical coexistence of all these interpretations and theories. In the absence of evidence, all we’re left with to adjudicate the cases is our internal compass in an attempt to restore the balance of morality shattered by an immoral act. A- /