My Year in Film: 2017

My favorite things in film in 2017

The Top Films of 2017

Yes, I know I’m late with my lists. So sue me.

Favorite Film of 2017: The Last Jedi

Favorite Movie of 2017 — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

14 Runners-Up: The Shape of Water

Fourteen Runners-Up

Yes, there were good movies released in 2017 whose titles did not involve the words Star and Wars.

  1. The Shape of Water
  2. Baby Driver
  3. Get Out
  4. It Comes at Night
  5. The Post
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It
  11. Colossal
  12. Marjorie Prime
  13. Dunkirk
  14. Super Dark Times

The Blackcoat's Daughter

Five Honorable Mentions

The Blackcoat’s Daughter worked the festival circuit in 2015 (when I saw it under its original title, February) and 2016, but A24 didn’t release it until early this year. I tried very hard to justify it as a 2017 film, but ultimately, I just couldn’t. If I could, these lists would look very different.

When I first wrote about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a couple of months ago, I declared it one of the best films of the year. Since then, I’ve given it some reconsideration and it turns out I don’t like it as much as I initially did. I’d hoped to do a full piece on it, but I never had time to write it. Oh well.

I wanted to rewatch Buster’s Mal Heartmother!, and Raw before finalizing this list, but ultimately couldn’t make the time.

Sicilian Ghost Story

The Five Best Non-Qualifying Films

I tend to find film festival programs work at odds with best-of-year lists. What’s the point of naming such-and-such a movie one of the best of the year if it played only a handful of film festivals? Here are the five best 2017 films I saw at festivals that didn’t see wider release.

  1. Sicilian Ghost Story (Chicago International Film Festival)
  2. Mohawk (Cinepocalypse)
  3. Trench 11 (Cinepocalypse)
  4. The Endless (CIFF)
  5. The Crescent (Cinepocalypse)

Individual Acheivements

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro

Best Director — Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Runners-Up:

  • Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Jordan Peele, Get Out
  • Trey Edward Schulte, It Comes At Night
  • Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049
  • Edgar Wright, Baby Driver

Best Leading Actress: Sally Hawkins

Best Actress in a Leading Role — Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Runners-Up:

  • Nicole Kidman as Dr. Anna Murphy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Noomi Rapace as Monday et alWhat Happened to Monday
  • Daisy Ridley as Rey, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, The Post

Best Supporting Actress: Carrie Fisher

Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Runners-Up:

  • Carmen Ejogo as Sarah, It Comes at Night
  • Marianna Palka as Jill Hart, Bitch
  • Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller, The Shape of Water
  • Lois Smith as Marjorie, Marjorie Prime
  • Allison Williams as Rose Armitage, Get Out

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya

Best Actor in a Leading Role — Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, Get Out

Runners-Up:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman, Call Me by Your Name
  • Adam Driver as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb et alSplit
  • Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour
  • Robert Pattinson as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Good Time

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Hamill

Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Runners-Up:

  • Armie Hammer as Oliver, Call Me by Your Name
  • Richard Jenkins as Giles, The Shape of Water
  • Patrick Stewart as Charles, Logan
  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman, Call Me by Your Name
  • Jason Sudeikis as Oscar, Colossal

Best Ensemble Cast: Get Out

Best Ensemble Cast: Get Out

(Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, LilRel Howery)

Runners-Up:

  • Call Me by Your Name (Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garell)
  • It (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton)
  • The Post (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracey Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross)
  • The Shape of Water (Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones)
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Frank Oz, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotamo, Jimmy Vee)

Best Screenplay: Jordan Peele

Best Screenplay — Get Out, written by Jordan Peele

Runners-Up:

  • Colossal, written by Nacho Vigalondo
  • Good Time, written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie
  • Marjorie Prime, screenplay by Michael Almereyda, based on the stage play by Jordan Harrison
  • The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
  • The Shape of Water, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo del Toro

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Best Cinematography — Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049

Runners-Up:

  • Drew Daniels, It Comes at Night
  • Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Call Me by Your Name
  • Andrew Droz Palermo, A Ghost Story
  • Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
  • Sean Price Williams, Good Time

Best Original Score — Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), Good Time

Runners-Up:

  • Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
  • Daniel Hart, A Ghost Story
  • Kira Fontana, Kedi
  • Brian McOmber, It Comes at Night
  • Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

Best Original Song — “Mystery of Love,” Call Me by Your Name (performed by Sufjan Stevens)

Runners-Up:

  • “I Get Overwhelmed,” A Ghost Story (performed by Dark Rooms)
  • “The Pure and the Damned,” Good Time (performed by Oneohtrix Point Never featuring Iggy Pop)
  • “To Be Human,” Wonder Woman (performed by Sia featuring Labrinth)

Best Use of Non-Original Music: "Love My Way" from Call Me by Your Name

Best Use of Non-Original Music — “Love My Way,” Call Me by Your Name (performed by the Psychedelic Furs)

Runners-Up:

  • “Bellbottoms,” Baby Driver (performed by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion)
  • “Dear God,” It (performed by XTC)
  • “Hocus Pocus,” Baby Driver (performed by Focus)
  • “Mr. Blue Sky,” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (performed by the Electric Light Orchestra)
  • “Voices Carry,” Atomic Blonde (performed by ‘Til Tuesday)

PORG

Breakout Star of 2017 — The Porg in the co-pilot’s seat on the Millennium Falcon, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule Reviews: The Dinner; The Shape of Water; A Cure for Wellness; Death Note; It Comes at Night

Capsule reviews of The Shape of Water, It Comes at Night, and more

I’m planning on seeing a lot of movies in December, so instead of dropping 20 capsule reviews on you on New Year’s Day, I’ll break them up into more manageable groups.

The Dinner

The Dinner

United States. Directed by Oren Moverman. Starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny.

If esteemed actors screaming at each other for two hours is your idea of a good time, The Dinner should make for a satisfying experience. Gubernatorial candidate Richard Gere and his wife Rebecca Hall (sporting a bob causing her to uncannily resemble political strategist Liz Mair) invites his depressed brother Steve Coogan and sister-in-law Laura Linney out for the sort of meal which is more art than food. Theoretically, they’re there to discuss an important family issue—no spoilers, but let’s just say that awful parents make for awful children—but mainly they spend the first two acts sniping at each other, both at the restaurant and in many, many flashbacks.

Cut through the thick misanthropy, heavy-handed comparisons between family arguments and the American Civil War, and the awkward flashbacks—The Dinner has more “hey, remember the time when…” moments than an entire season of Family Guy—what you’re left with is a scathing portrait of the hypocrisy of white privilege, using the characters’ apparent liberalism to cut deeper. It speaks volumes that the politician turns out the most sympathetic of the lot (although I found Coogan easier to empathize with once I understood the depth of the character’s mental illness, which doesn’t mean he isn’t an ass). While the film undoubtedly focuses on the relationship between the two brothers, I would have liked to have a better understanding of the women of the story, especially Gere’s first wife (played by Chloë Sevigny) who turns up in a couple of flashbacks.

The format requires a main cast fit comfortably into their roles, and these four do. The performances impress, but you’re not likely to walk away from the film with a new respect for any of the actors unless you’ve somehow managed to miss every Richard Gere movie since the early ’00s. The closest anyone gets to “stretching” is Coogan, who does his reliably Steve Coogan thing in an understated New York accent instead of his regular northern English one.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

United States. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones.

“A Cold War fairy tale about a mute woman who falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a pitch only Guillermo del Toro would make, for a movie that only he could make. It’s my favorite film of the year (Baby Driver coming in a close second), and it might even be my favorite Del Toro, period—and considering that would put it above The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, that’s saying a lot.

It’s damn rare for me to find a film I can find nothing I dislike about—I think the only other films I can say that about are Audition and Oldboy—and I don’t like to gush endlessly, so this will be short. I’ll just say that Del Toro, his cast and crew have put together something that hits just about every sweet spot I have. Immersive world-building, gorgeous design, brilliant actors inhabiting fully-realized characters. If this doesn’t get Sally Hawkins her Oscar, there’s no justice in the world (sorry, Saorise; you’ve already got one, Frances). Nobody plays villainous like Michael Shannon, although among the supporting performances, it’s Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins who really steal the show.

What else? An awesome story about outsiders kicking against the pricks, and a dark, dreamy atmosphere. I even love the score, and I’m usually not a fan of Alexandre Desplat.

Seriously, go see this movie.

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness

United States. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Starring Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth.

Gore Verbinski scared the pants off a generation with The Ring; he parlayed that good will into what we hope was a lucrative career as the world’s second- or third-leading peddler of Johnny Depp vehicles. Now, he returns to the horror genre with A Cure for Wellness. When the founder of a major financial firm refuses to return from a sinister Swiss health spa to sign off on an important merger, do they hire a P.I. or bounty hunter to retrieve him? No, they do not. They blackmail Dane DeHaan, a sickly-looking junior executive, to bring the wayward founder back.

That’s just the first problem with this heavily flawed film, but it’s by no means the most important one. The three primary problems with Cure are first, that it’s too long; second, that it would be immeasurably improved by being cut by at least forty-five minutes; and third, that there’s no real reason for it to go on for two and a half damn hours. Especially since there’s not enough incident to fill the second act, and Verbinski doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring any of the major themes the plot brings up, such as “we’re all a bunch of brainwashed corporate clones.” Eventually the movie plows through at least three false endings before finally grinding to a halt.

That’s the insult; the injury is that the project otherwise shows such promise. In a visual sense—both cinematography and design—it stands alongside Blade Runner 2049 and Shape of Water as one of the year’s most gorgeous films. Dane DeHaan has finally found a leading role he’s suited for (okay, maybe he’s suited to play the lead in Valerian but I doubt that for some reason), Jason Isaacs has rarely secreted such effective menace, and Mia Goth nails the “otherworldly waif” archetype so solidly I think she might actually be one in real life. And have I mentioned the design? I have? It’s stunning.

Sadly, it’s also stunningly broken, a great example of a film so determined to shoot itself in the foot. This should have been one of the year’s best, but I walked away from it only hoping that Verbinski does better with the Gambit movie (as long as Johnny Depp isn’t in it).

Death Note

Death Note

United States. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigam, Willem Dafoe.

Adam Wingard (You’re NextThe Guest) is the latest to take up the tale of the titular Death Note. Write a name in the Death Note and that person will die (conditions apply), courtesy the “death god” Ryuk. It falls into the hands of the improbably-named high school student Light Turner, who uses it to kill evildoers across the planet, attributing them to his vigilante alias “Kira.” Not only does this impress his girlfriend Mia, it also grabs the attention of “L,” an eccentric consulting detective who takes it upon himself to investigate these seemingly impossible murders.

From here, you’d expect a battle of wits to develop between Light and L, complicated by Mia’s own desire to possess the Note and Ryuk’s manipulations, and exploring complex themes such as watching the watchmen and playing God. Wingard subverts expectations by using the setup to present a series of elaborately staged and stylishly photographed death sequences. The various fanbases of the story’s previous iterations are like to get riled up by this, but I found them amusing in a shallow, “later Final Destination sequels” sort of way.

Other sources of fun in Death Note come from the performances of Lakeith Stanfield, who plays L as a combination of Sherlock Holmes, the kid from The Middle, and the sort of mumblecore characters who populated Wingard’s early films; and Willem Dafoe, who provides Ryuk’s face and voice. Sadly, the screenplay confuses plot complexity with quality, and several scenes don’t make sense even after the film goes to great lengths to explain how and why they happened. And whoever signed off on star Nat Wolff’s blond highlights should have been fired—they cause him to look too much like Milo Yiannopoulos, a person I prefer not to be reminded of, thank you very much.

It Comes at Night

It Comes at Night

United States. Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Joel Edgerton, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough.

When the trailer for It Comes at Night dropped in January (I think), it promised a cinematic experience so terrifying I could practically feel my bowels loosening in anticipation. Now, as the year draws to a close, it seems to me to be much more than a horror movie: it’s pure 2017, in concentrated cinematic form.

I’m not saying Trey Edward Schults had any political statements in mind when developing the film. (Mind you, the decision to make the central family multi-racial takes on a certain dimension when considered in Trump’s America.) But the two main themes I took away from it are “the gulfs between us, as people, are larger than ever” and “the real terror, as always, is within ourselves, not outside” and it’s a rare day when I don’t think those things about real life as well. And then of course there’s “grief over the loss of a loved one” which seems to be part of every damn film this year, an aspect shared by popcorn flix (It: Chapter One), prestige projects (Three Billboards), avant-garde exercises (The Crescent), and festival filler (In the Fade).

But that’s just cheddar on the burger. The real meat is the smallness of the characters, symbolized by Shults’ lantern-lit nighttime scenes and shots of people running through vast expanses of forest. Much has been made of It Comes‘ supposed ambiguity, but to me, the lesson is clear: the inevitable comes for us, though we knoweth not the day nor the hour—and yet, as biblical as that sounds, it comes with no real moral reckoning. It’s perhaps the finest recent expression of the smallness of humanity in the face of a cosmos that doesn’t revolve around us. What higher praise could there possibly be?

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part One

A waking nightmare and a tragic biopic

This is my first year attending the Chicago International Film Festival, hooray! I’m seeing a handful of movies, most of them part of the After Dark program.

My plans are to attend screenings in two “clumps,” the first consisting of this past weekend, covered in this article. I saw two films, the dark Mexican fantasy The Darkness (Spanish title Las tinieblas), and the biopic Christine. The second clump will be from next week Sunday to Wednesday, and will definitely feature Alice Lowe’s Prevenge and the Macedonian crime drama Amok, and hopefully a couple more.

The Darkness

The Darkness

Mexico, 2016. AKA Las tinieblasDirected by Daniel Castro Zimbrón. 94 minutes.

Set on a world of eternal twilight, in a fog-shrouded forest, where a family of four hides from an unseen beast, The Darkness feels more like a morbid fairy tale than a horror movie. The average literate filmgoer should be able to draw comparisons to at least two or three Guillermo del Toro movies by the end of the first act. Just to drive the point home, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son Brontis plays the father. Director/co-writer Daniel Castro Zimbrón offers up enough enigma, atmosphere, and enchantment to slake the thirst of any fan of enigmatic dark fantasy, with a few twists into the genuinely unexpected and a looming, menacing forest that nearly becomes a character in its own right.

Hell, you might even suss out what’s actually happening; I think I may have, but I’m keeping my mouth shut, for the time being.

Just in case.

Christine

Christine

United States, 2016. Directed by Antonio Campos. 120 minutes.

One of two films released this year centered on the story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota-based news reporter who shot herself on live television in 1974 (the other being the “documentary” Kate Plays Christine, not playing CIFF as far as I know). Star Rebecca Hall, director Antonio Campos, and screenwriter Craig Shilowich paint a complex portrait, positioning Chubbuck between the pressures of personal and professional disillusion on the one side and a struggle with mental illness on the other. The cultural turmoil of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s fall from grace serve as the background. (As someone who faces a few of the same issues as the film’s version of Christine, its portrayal of coping with severe depression and loneliness in a world growing increasingly madder rang particularly true to me.)

It’s not all doom and gloom, thanks to endearingly eccentric performances from Hall and her supporting cast, led by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Rectify’s J. Smith-Cameron, and playwright Tracy Letts. But ultimately, the message is a downbeat one: we as humans don’t have to be alone, the film seems to say, but it also offers no easy answers for those who find it difficult to find and reach out to others.

Crimson Peak

Del Toro goes Gothic, with enchanting results

United States/Canada, 2015. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasilkowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope. 119 minutes. 8/10

Like any storyteller, visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a set of themes and ideas that recur throughout his body of work. Children, lacking at least one biological parent if not both, forced to confront dangerous circumstances intertwined with secrets from a past not wholly dead. It’s easy to see how these fit into del Toro’s masterpieces Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, but they even make themselves clear in less “arty” works (Pacific RimThe Mimic) and his production work (MamaDon’t Be Afraid of the Dark). These themes are also the hallmarks of the Gothic genre; it was, perhaps, inevitable that he would eventually make a film like Crimson Peak.

Granted, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) may not be a child, but she possesses a certain naïveté at odds with her inner strength and willfulness. An aspiring author and daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist (Jim Beaver of DeadwoodSupernatural, and Justified), she meets the dashing but destitute British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, Wasikowka’s Only Lovers Left Alive co-star), and the two quickly fall in love. The elder Cushing doesn’t approve, but his sudden death leaves the two to pursue their romance; they soon marry and move into the Sharpe estate (nicknamed “Crimson Peak”) with Thomas’s elder sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). But life is not happy at Crimson Peak, and Edith soon takes ill and begins seeing what could be ghosts. Back in New York, Edith’s former suitor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), comes across information uncovered by Edith’s father shortly before his death…information that sheds suspicion on Sir Thomas’s real motives…

Those familiar with del Toro’s work will not find themselves surprised at Crimson Peak’s lush beauty. Crimson Peak is a place where the walls can literally run red–not with blood, admittedly, but with mud (Sir Thomas tells us his forebears built his ancestral home upon clay), but the symbolism is clear, as are the visual possibilities. The most obvious aesthetic influences come from The Shining and the ’60s Technicolor Hammer Gothics (you did notice the heroine’s surname, right?) along with more understated classics such as The Innocents and The Haunting. The special effects are marvelous, with del Toro staple Doug Jones providing fine motion-capture performances for some of the ghosts.

However, del Toro hasn’t fallen so far down the CGI/SFX rabbit-hole that he’s forgotten how to tell a human story, something that distinguishes him from other filmmakers in his niche such as Jackson, Cameron and the Wachowskis. Crimson Peak’s world-building relies as much on its characters and storyline than its visual and technical aspects. While it is, unabashedly, a work of formula, the characters are more archetypes than clichés. Wasikowska and Chastain dominate the film with fierce performances, but the rest of the cast–Hiddleston, the endearingly gruff Beaver, Hunnam, and character actors Leslie Hope (as Alan’s snobbish mother) and Burn Gorman (as a slimy private investigator)–get enough room to do what they do best.

The result is a multilayered film that attempts a lot–mystery, love story, ghost story, horror, big-budget spectacular–and succeeds at all of it. Dark, lovely, atmospheric, and creepy, it’s the perfect film for the Hallowe’en season.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.