Top 18 movies of 2017

A list of favorites (as opposed to “bests”)

James Franco’s The Disaster Artist allowed director James Franco to get star James Franco to explore artist James Franco’s creative urge.
  • James Franco’s The Disaster Artist allowed director James Franco to get star James Franco to explore artist James Franco’s creative urge.

Looks back over the twisted landscape of 2017. Well, that was weird. Look, if lifelong cinephile Scott Marks can’t manage to put together a Top 10 List for this year, I don’t see why Matthew “Mr. Middlebrow” Lickona should be expected to come up with one. And really, how could I, what with Mr. Marks seeing at least half of what falls under the Reader’s critical eye? So instead, here’s a list of 18 favorites (as opposed to “bests”), helpfully gathered into groups of three.

1) Art Begins in a Wound

It was a good year for the notion that Happy People Don’t Make Art — because they don’t need to, you see.

James Franco’s The Disaster Artist allowed director James Franco to get star James Franco to explore artist James Franco’s creative urge stripped of all notions of commercial success or even aesthetic quality, and he didn’t even have to play James Franco to do it!

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear gave us a man-child who had a very good reason for his arrested development, and who entered the story that had defined his existence in an effort to deal with what had been done to him. A remarkably tender film.

Aisling Welsh’s Maudie refused to sentimentalize or sensationalize the twisted frame and constricted world of Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, and made a quiet case for suffering as the crucible of beauty.

2) Women Against the World

It will be interesting to see how the current Women’s Moment in Hollywood plays out in the coming years. In the meantime:

Maudie is already taken, so I’m going to include Darren Aronofsky’s mother! here, first because of the different sorts of feminine strength displayed by Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer, and second because it’s such a bold articulation of the director’s vision as seen through the dynamic of a woman’s relationship to her world. Third, because it’s kind of crazy.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has screenwriter Greta Gerwig’s smart take on mother-daughter relations (and other sorts of relations), is elegantly fashioned, and is sweet ’n’ sourly moving. Plus, it stars Saoirse Ronan!

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project pierced me by again (after Tangerine) finding something gorgeous in the gutter, and impressed me with its uncute but thoroughly loving presentation of a child being raised by a slightly older child in tenuous circumstances.

3) Is a documentarian someone who watches nothing but documentaries?

This was, by all accounts, an amazing year for documentary films. I have to say “by all accounts” because I seem to have missed most of them. Hoping to catch up this year and take in The Work, Faces Places, Rat Film, Last Men in Aleppo, Ex Libris, Dawson City: Frozen Time, and others. Three I did manage to see and enjoy:

Saul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy did the work and got the access required to present a properly complicated take on the surprisingly complicated issue of big-game hunting.

Vanessa Gould’s Obit made the business of documenting the recently deceased for the New York Times both fascinating and weirdly exciting. (Deadlines do have a way of adding drama.)

Ryan Suffern’s Finding Oscar was a powerful portrayal of the painful, protracted quest for justice (as opposed to revenge) in a brutal, unjust world.

4) Don’t Be Afraid of the Subtitles

I thought this year’s foreign slate was especially strong. Maybe the best stuff I saw this year.

Amat Escalante’s The Untamed was, in my view, a much sharper treatment of sexual desire than the much-lauded Call Me By Your Name. Of course, the latter didn’t have tentacles, so the ick factor was much reduced.

Speaking of sharp treatments of sexual desire, John Trengove’s The Wound has the cojones to set its gay love drama within the sort of traditional culture that still links manhood with virility — i.e., procreative force.

Martin Zandlivet’s Land of Mine reminded us that war may be hell, but it’s fought — hopefully — in the service of humanity. And it’s in the aftermath that that hope is either realized or abandoned. A bunch of teenaged German POWs are assigned to clear a beach of the mines their army planted there. Roland Møller is outstanding as the poor Danish officer put in charge of the poorer kids.

5) America, this is you

James Mangold’s Logan gave us a classic Western dressed up like a superhero movie.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out gave us white America vs. black America.

John Lee Hancock’s Ray Kroc biopic The Founder gave us capitalist America vs. corporate America.

6) Wow.

It does a middle-aged critic’s heart good to find that his jaw has dropped slightly because of what he’s just seen.

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja was five different film genres roped together and ridden with wild, gleeful abandon in the service of a genuine (if debatable) moral vision. It goes well over the top, but it carried me along with it.

Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident was a Swedish thriller set in Cairo and based on a true story about a corrupt cop who finds himself compelled to do the right thing for once. Structurally, it’s an absolute noir throwback, but the shift in setting and culture makes everything new.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk actually had me gripping my armrests during the dogfights between Tom Hardy’s Spitfire and the enemy’s Stuka. He also managed to pack in an impressive amount of felt life for a cerebral film about a multi-part military operation.

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"Lady Bird," set in Sacramento, was over-rated and unremarkable. Saoirse Ronan was fine, but I didn't like good old out-of-work dad secretly conspiring with his teenager to take out a second mortgage on the house to provide his rebel daughter's extortionate tuition for some private Ivy League college in a New York-like big city. I thought this was a terrible message for movie-going California families. Greta Gerwig was a better actress in "Frances Ha," a cautionary tale about finding one's 20-something self in NYC, than she is writer/director of "Lady Bird."

Also, "Maudie," filmed in Newfoundland and starring amazing Sally Hawkins, is about much more than "suffering as the crucible of beauty." Maudie is homely, physically deformed and very alone in the world, but she makes human connections, establishes a homestead and ultimately shares a devoted relationship with an eccentric, irritable isolate and she becomes a folk artist famous for drawing on the stunning beauty of her native landscape.

Agree on Lady BIrd. Hell, The Big Sick was funnier and Brigsby Bear more original.

My top Ten

Lost in Paris, Chasing Trane, Blade Runner 2049, The Disaster Artist, Colosal, Last Flag Flying, Lady Bird, The Other Side of Hope, Donald Cried, The Square

Yeah, Lick! BRIGSBY BEAR!!! I'm with ya on that one!

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I have to 2nd the mention of The Florida Project. I loved the choice to show the movie from the children's perspective; Very few moments in the movie are told from the perspective of the adults, even though it is the choices of the adults that leads to the circumstances of the children. It's almost a dark take on Charlie Brown, where the adults fade into the background in order to focus on the innocence of children. The kids in this movie aren't perfect or decent- but you can't blame them. Scamming strangers for ice cream or spitting on cars- This is the world that they, and so many unfortunate kids in the real world, know.

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