G Clark’s Top Films of 2017
A good year for movies? A bad year for movies? Let me put it this way: I saw ZERO (0) ★★★★★-movies, TWO (2) ★★★★½-movies, and the only ★★★★ ones I saw are in my Top Ten + Honourable mentions.
I’m not keen on wading into the Film vs TV debate, because the difference between the two is still painfully obvious to all but the most dishonest of critics. This is a list of films only.
I’m also not too keen on wading into the ‘are streaming movies real movies’ debate. For the purposes of this article of Best Films of 2017, I’m defining ‘film’ as ‘a cinematic work released commercially in the United States during the calendar year 2017 before availability on a home format such as a streaming service, Blu-ray, DVD, VHS, Laserdisc, or Betamax.’ This means that so-called ‘Netflix Original movies’ are ineligible, but that’s not really any great loss since neither of the two highest-profile releases bearing such an honour, Okja or Mudbound, were really all that good. (You can read what I have to say about Mudbound here.)
My #10 entry on this list earns its place as a result of having hypnotised me. I do not mean this metaphorically. The progression of music and images in this film literally hypnotised me. At some point, the world around me melted away and the only thing in my entire perception was the movie screen, as if my body had vanished. Somewhere towards the end, I had an experience I can only describe as my consciousness settling back into my body, reentering the physical world.
I must emphasise that I did not do any drugs before, during, or after my screening.
Pretty extraordinary for a documentary about the Gold Rush’s effect on burgeoning towns in the Yukon and the distribution of silent films in that era. Dawson City, Frozen Time is itself constructed like a silent film, featuring actual footage from newsreels and silent films of the era, accompanied by title cards and words on the screen. It is only at the very beginning and very end do we hear anyone’s voice, and it may be because of this that I was lulled into my comfortable little fugue state. Even if this subject matter doesn’t hold any intrinsic interest for you, believe me that the style of the movie makes it worth a watch on its own.
Unwanted guests interrupt the idyllic life of a great poet and his wife. At first these visitors merely inconvenience the wife, who manages, gradually, to lose control of the situation; things get worse as more people arrive. Many audiences flat out hated Darren Aronofsky’s delicious mother!, but that’s probably because they thought they were getting a standard-issue drama, or some kind of conventional horror film. (It’s hard for me to say, since I’ve purposefully never watched any of the trailers.) It’s better to go into mother! expecting to see a nightmare. I mean that as literally as possible: it is like watching a sleeping person’s nightmare in real time, in the sense that eventually, the dream will take illogical tangents and grow increasingly surreal and disturbing. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s certainly my idea of a GOOD TIME.
There have been many films made about the socioeconomically disadvantaged, but none that so expertly captures the sometimes literally second-to-second panic that can result from having no power and no options. Robert Pattinson plays such a person, in a mesmerising performance. Watching him navigate out of several frying pans into far too many fires was one of 2017’s most unexpected pleasures. It’s exhausting, yet riveting, watching him run as fast as he can just to keep his head above water. Good Time’s relentless pace is as dazzling as any action movie, as are the grainy Techniscope images married to Oneohtrix Point Never’s driving score. The title certainly doesn’t reflect the experiences of any of the characters, but it sums up this audience member’s sentiment quite succinctly. (The only exception is that minging song with Iggy Pop at the end. Time to hang up your hat, dude.)
Colin Farrell plays a cardiologist who, with his wife Nicole Kidman and their two children, lives in what is apparently an affluent Cincinnati suburb. He begins a very strange friendship with a teenage boy named Martin, whom we gradually come to learn is the son of one of his patients. Well, former patients, since a bit of probable malpractice on Farrell’s part may have had something to do with the death of the man. Farrell obviously feels guilty enough to spend time with the boy, inviting him over to dinners and whatnot, but what the boy wants from Farrell is unclear. A father figure? Revenge? Maybe a bit of both. When Farrell’s son falls victim to a mysterious illness, the possibility that Martin has some kind of supernatural hold over the family becomes impossible to ignore. It may seem like I’m describing some kind of thriller, and there are clear moments of suspense throughout The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But make no mistake—it’s frequently wickedly funny. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the journey, for me, made up for it.
The film on my list that most obviously goes for the cosmic. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are two lovers whose relationship ends when he dies in a car crash. Or… does it end? In the hospital, his body rises, still under a bedsheets, which now has big, black eyeholes. He returns to their house, and haunts the space for… ever, maybe, cycling and swirling through time. Here’s the thing you need to know about A Ghost Story before you see it: it’s not constructed like a normal movie. It’s more like a symphony, with Lowery the unseen conductor. It doesn’t have a ‘plot’ so much as refrains, motifs, progressions. David Lowery’s film is already famous in some circles for an unbroken, 4½ minute shot of Rooney Mara eating a whole pie in a fit of melancholy. But the best way to consider such a scene is that Mara is a featured soloist, who sustains a pitch-perfect note for longer than you may think possible. Like a symphony, its meaning is less important than how it makes you feel. A Ghost Story, for long stretches, made me feel infinite.
The most polarising film of the year (trigger warning for black comedy!) is also probably the most incredibly misinterpreted film of the year—not only by the film’s (very few, yet very vocal) detractors, but from several of its adherents as well. You can read my original review here. I think I initially underrated Martin McDonaugh’s third film (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), and it took reading a lot of negative reviews to understand why I think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was so effective.
You may have heard that Sam Rockwell’s character, a racist cop, has a ‘redemption arc.’ I think that this is provably untrue, and anyone making this claim is bringing a lot of baggage into the film. But this train of thought highlighted for me one of the most radical conventions of McDonaugh’s screenplay: pretty much none of the characters have an arc. Everyone at the end of the film is in more or less the same emotional state they were at the beginning. But audience perceptions of the characters may have changed as the running time is spent peeling back layers, withholding and revealing information, adding and reevaluating context.
I’m doing my level-best to avoid spoilers, but at the end, note this: both Mildred and Dixon are in the exact same headspace. Both have engaged in very immoral behaviour as a result of their unfocused pain and rage. The only difference is, the audience has been given clear context for Mildred’s pain (the rape and murder of her daughter) but not Dixon’s. In this way, Three Billboards serves as a bit of a litmus test for why you, personally, judge people. Consider that we judge ourselves by our intentions, but we rarely afford this leniency to others (including fictional characters), whom we judge by their actions. How do you judge the characters in Three Billboards? How do they judge each other? How do you judge the people in your own life? Or Martin McDonaugh for that matter?
Considering these questions, you might learn quite a bit about the type of person you are. For my own part, I’ve concluded that I’m a Pretty Swell Guy.
A film I underrated the first time I saw it, because I wasn’t sure what Christopher Nolan was up to. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Dunkirk follows three interlocking stories during the Dunkirk evacuation of May-June 1940. The twist is, though these stories are intercut all throughout the film: one takes place over the course of a week, one over the course of a day, and one over the course of just an hour, dovetailing at the end. At first I thought this was a pretty gimmicky way to tell a story, but a rewatch revealed that this is first and foremost a film about survival—and the vastly different methods it takes to survive for varying lengths of time during war. It is also one of the more experimental big-studio releases—even for Nolan, who is well-known for his narrative inventions. The relentless intercutting between time periods is a meta-study of how film editing compresses, mutates, and warps time. Don’t even think about watching this on a small screen.
It appears I have a fetish for stories about men leaving civilisation behind and plowing head first, Joseph Conrad-style, into the great void of unexplored nature. The Revenant and last year’s Silence superficially shared this trait, as does my choice for third-best film of this year. The Lost City of Z is the story of an Englishman at the beginning of the twentieth century tasked with surveying the border between two South American countries. During this escapade, he catches wind of a mysterious lost city, and it becomes his undying mission to find it. Finding the city consumes his life, straining his relationships with his wife and children. The Lost City eventually becomes a telling metaphor for finding one’s life purpose.
This film is the very definition of ‘they don’t make ‘em like this anymore’. It screams Old Hollywood, from its Errol Flynn-like sense of adventure, to its grand, epic scale, and its Powell/Pressburger-like magic. But its haunting and surreal closing passages eclipse the daring of any Old Hollywood film, and its final shot is in the running for Best Last Shot of 2017.
A brilliant film about the pettiness of people who live in the shadow of greatness. Those who do not feel needed, and cannot create greatness for themselves, can offer nothing but destruction.
Okay, that might be a bit flip, even if it isn’t untrue. Phantom Thread is a fascinating exploration of power dynamics, and it plays a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with hints of The Shining, distilled in the fascinating alembic that is the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson. Now I understand why Basil and Sybil Fawlty stayed together as long as they did.
I’m not even sure where to begin praising my choice for Best Film of 2017. I could say a lot of dry, critic-y things, like it’s surely the most impeccably crafted film of the year. From a performance standpoint, there’s not a single breath, glance, movement, or line reading wasted or out of place. It is the very definition of brilliantly directed, and I’d happily sit beside anyone and go through the film shot-by-shot, or indeed frame by frame, showing how the arrangement of all the elements is just as precise as any Kubrick film.
The tone is very different, however. It combines the languorousness of Linklater with the sensuousness of Bertolucci, taking place in a hermetically sealed universe that could only have been spoken into being by our lord Luca Guadagnino. I am of course referring to Call Me By Your Name, which is by several parsecs the best coming-of-age film of the year, or indeed since Boyhood. It follows teenager Elio, who lives with his parents in the beautiful Italian countryside. Elio spends his days swimming, reading, and generally enjoying his carefree youth. Every summer his father, an archaeology professor, invites a graduate student to stay and study with the family. This year, that graduate student is the statuesque Oliver, who makes Elio’s ears perk up almost instantly.
To be as absurdly reductionist as possible, the film follows their Summer Fling from beginning to end. But the plot, at least to me, doesn’t really matter so much. In the spirit of this podcast I recorded with Justin, allow me to explore the deeper meaning of this film, and why it is perhaps the most spiritual movie of the year (even more than the explicitly cosmic A Ghost Story). I cannot think of a film in recent memory that serves as such a paean to living in the present moment. For a start, this is probably the best depiction of the proverbial Halcyon Days of Youth since Calvin and Hobbes. When they finally connect Elio and Oliver don’t spend their time together thinking about what their connection means, or its societal implications, or what it ‘says’ about their identity, or any other banal, artificial intellectualisation of it. They simply accept what the universe presents to them, and use each of their present moments exploring such gifts fully and completely.
What really elevates the film into the stratospheric beyond are its closing passages. As anyone who has practiced mindfulness or ‘Present Moment Awareness’ knows, the present moment is an ephemeral chimera; ever evolving, ever departing, it is impossible to grasp, to contain. The Letting Go of this present moment to accept the next is the whole point. And in the film’s final shot, on Timothée Chalamet’s Ganymede-like visage, Luca Guadagnino gifts to us what may be the best cinematic depiction of the real time process of Letting Go. How fitting that this shot takes place over the closing credits, reminding us that a film is naught but a collection of present moments, destined to end and recede into our past. Unlike Elio, however, who will never again experience his Transformative Summer Fling, we (the audience) can always thread the film back through the projector and re-experience these wonderful images to our hearts’ content. And I certainly intend to.
The Beguiled – Somewhat inaccurately described as a ‘feminist update’ of Don Siegel’s 1971 pulpy drama, director Sofia Coppola keeps the male castration anxiety and adds a healthy dose of randy females with the vapours. She’s clearly having a grand time with the material, as does everyone on screen—especially the lusty pair of Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman, who should be in all the movies together. It’s raison d’être may be a bit of a mystery, but without spoiling too much, it does serve as another warning of the deadly dangers of false rape allegations.
Blade Runner 2049 – It kills me that this just doesn’t make my top ten. For my money, what Denis Villeneuve accomplishes here is greater than what Ridley Scott accomplished with the original Blade Runner. And the film also serves as another reason to be in awe of what Ryan Gosling can achieve when he’s *on*— how he imbues the slightest alteration in facial expression or posture with encyclopaedias of meaning. Well worth seeing even if you’ve never seen or liked the original.
John Wick 2 – Absolutely everything a great sequel should be. Take the characters we loved from the first film and expand their world, raise the stakes, and increase the excitement, all without straining. This is the kind of white-knuckle, non-stop action film (for ADULTS!) that used to be commonplace in the 1990s, but now is all-too-rare.
Lady MacBeth – Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially if she has easy access to deadly mushrooms. (Actually, this was quite a common theme in 2017 for some reason; I’m starting to believe in Jung’s notion of the Collective Unconscious.) Florence Pugh turns in one of the very best performances of the year, and her lack of appearance in at least the BAFTA’s Best Actress category is near-criminal.
Loveless – Grim yet gripping tale of a missing child’s effect on a couple. My original review here.
The Ornithologist – I still don’t know exactly what to make of João Pedro Rodrigues’s elliptical religious parable. But it held me in a quiet reverie I can still feel months after having seen it.
The Post – Steven Spielberg making an Oscar Bait™ period piece with two of the biggest movie stars ever supported by a veritable Who’s Who of the best TV actors currently working? Sign me right up, baby!
The Salesman – Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film is another home run for Iranian wizard Asghar Farhadi. My original review here.
Song to Song – I’ve made my peace with the thought that no one will like this movie but me. Regardless, my original review is here.
The Square – An art film about art, that has remained fascinating, at the forefront of my thoughts, since I saw it months ago. My original review here.
If you’re wondering about a film you don’t see here, the answer is Yes, I did see it, and no, I probably didn’t like it very much.