I thought 2017 was an overall OK year for movies (and another terrible year in general, at least in the political realm), but there were several films that I liked very much. Also, as always there were a few films I haven't yet seen: Lady Bird, The Square, The Florida Project, BPM are films that have been appearing on lots of top-ten lists. Here are my top ten plus a few extras at the end. (A quick note: a couple of the films below were technically released in 2016 but they didn't come to the Seattle area until 2017, so I consider them fair game).
Nocturama. A French film about a group of attractive young people who plan and execute a series of terrorist attacks in Paris and then hold out in a shopping mall. We never discover why they do this. We discover nothing of their political or religious or economic motivations, if they have any. The director, Bertrand Bonello, whose last film was an excellent biopic on the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, leaves everything frustratingly ambiguous. But all of this ambiguity is one of the main reasons the film excels. Too many screenwriters and directors spell everything out for the audience. The film has a cool and detached but hypnotic quality. There is also this amazing lip sync scene where a young man wearing lip stick performs Shirley Bassey's version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way." There are multiple levels of gender bending happening in that scene. One particular and subtle detail that stood out to me was that while the young people who execute the attacks are racially diverse and are composed of both men and women, those who seem to be in charge are white men. Again, this detail isn't emphasized, but it did seem significant. What this means exactly is left open for interpretation(s), but the implication is that some of the worst atrocities are due to white patriarchal power.
Get Out. More than just a standard horror/thriller, Get Out is a movie of ideas that rewards multiple viewings. Directed by Jordan Peele of Key and Peele fame, it's a kind of twisted sequel to Being John Malkovich that also comments on race and racism in America today. The music, acting, script, and pacing are all superb. And while it is genuinely scary, it's also quite funny in places, which is no surprise if you've seen Key and Peele.
Lost City of Z. A kind of Heart of Darkness story but in this case there is no Kurtz, only the obsessive pursuit for a lost city of the Amazon. It's a story that comments on the masculine urge to seek out and discover new worlds, even if that quest leads to the abandonment of family. And the final moments of the film achieve the kind of spiritual transcendence rare in cinema. I'm not a big fan of Charlie Hunnam, who plays the main character, but the film as a whole is complex and beautifully shot.
Raw. A French horror film about a young girl who goes to veterinary school as a vegan and quickly discovers she has a craving for human flesh.
Good Time. Directed by the Safdie brothers, Good Time tells the story of one brother's quest to help his hard-of-hearing and feeble-minded brother (played by Benny Safdie) escape from the police. It's a pulsing, hypnotic heist film with loads of bright florescent colors and colorful performances. I'm not sure why the director team used as many close-ups as they did, but it does give the film a unique look. It also boasts an amazing performance by Robert Pattinson.
Mother! This is one of those rare movie watching experiences where I did not enjoy the experience of watching but the film itself gave me lots to contemplate. This film is disturbing and joyless, but it needs to be both of those things to properly get its meaning across. Why would I put a movie like this on the list? Too many films are about nothing in particular. Not that there is anything wrong with a simple drama or comedy. But Mother! is a film that pushes boundaries and does something new. It tells the story of an unnamed husband and writer (played by an aloof Javier Bardem) and his unnamed wife (played with distressing emotional fragility by Jennifer Lawrence) who live alone in a very large house that Jennifer Lawrence's character is slowly fixing up. Fans of the poet begin showing up and begin to exploit the generosity of the writer and disrespect the house and the wife. There is a really shocking scene in there and supposedly people walked out of the theater during this scene when it premiered in Cannes. Mother! is an allegory. I thought it was about Artists in general and the way fans abuse and disrespect the artist in their severe fixation with the art and the artist. It's a film that could be compared to a story I teach by Kafka called "A Hunger Artist." Darren Aronofsky somewhat annoyingly spelled out what he intended the film to mean (I say annoyingly because it takes the fun out of interpretation when a writer or director tells us what something really means). Anyway, he says it was meant to be an allegory of Mother Earth and was intended to have an environmental message. It does make sense, and there are several Biblical details that reinforce this idea. Aside from what the director has side, the film still holds up to multiple interpretations. It could be read as an allegory for religion, for art, for the inherent cruelty of humans, or, like the director said, for the abuse of the environment.
The Red Turtle. A nearly wordless animated film about a shipwrecked man and a relationship he forms with a large turtle. Produced by Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, the mythic film says something about the potential for pure cinema. The gripping but simple film makes profound statements about love and loss and hope.
Blade Runner 2049. I'm still confused why this film didn't perform as well at the box office as most people thought that it would. And, as far as I can tell, it hasn't appeared on many best-of lists. It's true that it runs nearly three hours and compared to most mainstream films its pace is relatively glacial. But it is the most beautiful film I saw this year by far and it deals with several interesting philosophical ideas that left me thinking for days: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a replicant? What is love? What is reality? What does it mean to live a good life? And I could go on. On the whole, I liked 2049 more than the original and the original is a masterpiece. My twelve-year-old son like it, too.
Graduation. A Romanian film about a girl who is attacked before she takes her college-entrance exams and a father's attempt to ensure that she succeeds. The father and daughter's goals for the daughter's future begin to diverge, and the film begins to question not only who is right but also the veracity of the incident itself. It is both a powerful drama and a subtle puzzle film where neither the answers nor the questions are clear.