The year 2017 has been full of ups and downs. Mostly downs. If you read my reviews with any regularity, you might see my political views peeking through in my analysis of movies from time to time. I don't apologize for it, but I also never sit down to write a review with the express purpose of unleashing a political screed. My political leanings and beliefs inform so much of the rest of my existence that they are bound to bleed over into my film criticism. The three most blatant examples of this in the last year are in my reviews for Battle of the Sexes, The Post, and The Florida Project. The plot of Sexes lent itself to being interpreted as a thinly veiled metaphor for the 2016 presidential election. The Post (which I think has a better-than-average shot at winning the Best Picture Oscar this year) just is about our current political situation, in a certain way. Steven Spielberg has said as much when talking about why he made it. I'll get to The Florida Project in my top ten list (spoiler!).
That's all a round-about way of saying that I feel like my writing this year has brought certain things about me into a sharper focus than I've ever seen. When you look at my top ten this year, it's hard to miss that empathy plays a key role in most of the movies that spoke to me. Empathy is something that's in short supply right now, and the right movies put it on display in the best ways. Kurt Vonnegut said it best in his quote welcoming babies to the planet earth: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies– God damn it, you've got to be kind.” I find it maddening and depressing that the leader of our country doesn't seem to know that, or give a damn, and that his supporters don't either. The worst thing about all this isn't that we have such a callous person as president. It's that his callousness is leading to horrible, destructive policy that will harm millions of people.
But enough about that. As far as writing about film, 2017 has been pretty great. I'm celebrating three years of being a film critic today. I did my first interview this year. My subject was the gracious composer Craig Safan. That was a highlight. I collected a cool, funky theater on my trip to Boston. And now I've set what I think will be a great movie challenge for myself next year.
As of this writing, I've watched 166 movies for the year. That's getting close to respectable! As always, I'll be playing catch up over the next couple of months with movies I've missed, and some of those are bound to be ones that would have made it onto the below list. I still haven't seen The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, or Call Me By Your Name! I hang my head in shame. As a great artist once said, though, "The only way to do it is to do it."
As always, I want to thank my partner, Rachel, for putting up with all the movies I make her sit through. She is a source of strength, encouragement, and inspiration. And thanks to any and everybody out there who reads what I write. It's much appreciated.
Please see below for my top ten of 2017:
*Note: Each movie title above the picture is a link that will take you to my review of that movie, with one exception. I didn't write a review of my number six.
10. The Big Sick
It doesn't get much sweeter or more heartfelt than The Big Sick. This is also one of the funniest comedies of the year. It's a touching story about overcoming obstacles (physical, social, cultural) for love. Kumail Nanjiani is brilliant as a heightened version of himself.
9. Brigsby Bear
Please do me a favor. Seek this movie out. It's going to get lost in the shuffle forever. Brigsby Bear doesn't deserve that. This is a movie that is warm and kind. A little mawkish? Maybe. Do I care? Not even a little. It's also a movie about being obsessed with making movies. There's another movie this year that has the same preoccupation (see my honorable mentions) that was really hard for me to leave off my top ten. Brigsby Bear does a great job of representing that particular topic.
The tone and aesthetic of this movie flies in the face of everything I wrote about my previous two picks. But, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour. And believe me, this movie knows sour. Every frame of Sacred Deer is permeated with dread. It all leads to a climax that will shatter your soul. Not a movie for the faint of heart.
I'll be straight with you: The story is not riveting. That aspect of Loving Vincent probably would have worked better as a short film. The artistry behind the look of the movie is a stunning achievement, though. As a colleague put it while discussing Loving Vincent, what they did here is something that only comes along once in a generation. The first feature film oil-painted completely by hand is a feat that must be seen to be appreciated.
6. The Vietnam War
You might argue director Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 18-hour documentary, which aired on PBS in September, was a television show, not a movie. Burns, and now Novick, are such riveting documentary filmmakers with such a cinematic sensibility that I'm including their work here. There are shortcomings, to be sure. Others have talked about the film's soft pedaling of institutional problems in American government that lead to the conflict in Vietnam becoming as brutal as it did. My own biggest problem with The Vietnam War is that it never focused on corporations like Dow Chemical having a vested interest in keeping the war going for their own profit motive. All that aside, this film does go incredibly in-depth on a great number of issues. It is also effective at bringing that time and place to life; it makes this period in our history come vibrantly alive.
I often despair that humans don't feel empathy for each other, so hoping they will do the same for animals seems like a total waste of time. Director Bong Joon-ho proves there is honor in trying to make us care for every creature on earth. Okja is sickening, funny, and very moving. Bong also shows us that a genetically engineered super-pig might be more human than any of us.
This psychological horror movie is a meditation on grief. In my review, I mistakenly surmised that the it of the title referred to fear. I later learned in an interview with the director that it's actually grief. Keeping that in mind, the movie is bound to become an even sadder experience than the one I had upon first viewing. The climax pulverized me. I made a comment to the person who organized the screening as I left the theater. "You gotta warn somebody..." was all I could muster.
3. Lady Bird
This semi-autobiographical story from writer/director Greta Gerwig is about as perfect as they come. The protagonist, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, feels so real, it hurts. Our emotions are linked with hers throughout the movie, and we are desperate to see her succeed, often despite herself. The movie has a ton of heart, and it isn't afraid to break yours.
Much like It Comes at Night, A Ghost Story is also a meditation on grief, albeit one with a very different tone. In fact, this movie is all about tone, tone, tone. Mostly it's a contemplative and mournful one. This is a beautiful little movie about how hard it is to move on, even after we die. Along the way, it also explores ideas as big as our infinitesimal place in something as grand as the cosmos.
The Florida Project brings me back around to the theme of my introduction. This is a movie about the transformative power of empathy. I walked out of this movie thinking I had just seen this year's Moonlight. Where that movie focused on race and sexuality, this one focuses on crushing poverty (although, yes, poverty is a factor in Moonlight, as well). The political (but more accurately, human) message to take away is, we have a duty to look after each other. And yes, even when we don't agree with someone's life choices. Yes, even when we think they don't deserve it. No one deserves to live on the fringes of our society because they don't have enough of the only thing we seem to care about: money.
This was so hard to leave off of my top ten. A hilarious movie that I can't wait to revisit.
Aaron Sorkin knows how to write a movie. Now, he's proven he knows how to direct one, too. Quick paced and entertaining as hell.
Robert Pattinson is a revelation. So are the directors, the Safdie Brothers.
This movie is off-kilter, in the best way imaginable. Thrill as Aubrey Plaza loses her shit.