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: The Lovers

4 06 2017

Azazel Jacobs often structures the narrative arc of his film “The Lovers” as a series of couplets. Husband and wife Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger) are each seeing other people, but our first glimpse of their affairs isn’t exactly of romantic enchantment. Still, we can sense the affection through non-verbal communication: the gestures, the body language, the glances.

Once Jacobs cuts to a domestic scene, we see why they find such a thrill in partners who can express themselves more surreptitiously. For Michael and Mary, words have become purely transactional. They are merely vessels for information that they need to maintain their measly, unhappy existence.

What we’re not picking up from them, we gather from Mandy Hoffman’s score. Her vibrant symphony of strings dramatically emphasizes each mundane moment, providing an ironic contrast to Jacobs’ pitch-perfect minimalism. It’s up to the music to span the chasm between our expectations for the romantic comedy and the reality of the miserabilist marital drama.

For a time, that distance closes as Michael and Mary rekindle their flame in the midst of escalating pressures from their romantic partners to disband their official union. Just as neither admits they see someone, neither is willing to engage in overtly romantic gestures. Instead, their coded spousal jargon becomes irresistibly tantric to each other. Consider “The Lovers” an art-house spin on Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated.”

Jacobs never lets us get too intimate with Michael and Mary; for example, a series of flirtatious texts they exchange are completely hidden from our view. Standard cinematic technique would normally dictate us seeing some glimpse of the screen. But it’s only fitting that we should not be privy to the kind of nuanced, internalized communication that can only be built after decades of matrimony. When the tiniest break occurs that might provide clue to their thoughts, such as the tiniest pulling back of Mary’s head by Winger, Jacobs is there to catch and convey it. This granularity, when juxtaposed with the grandiosity of the genre he insists on maintaining, makes for a uniquely delectable take on marital ennui. A-