Dan Santelli’s Ten Best Films of 2017

 

“Movies do not change, but their viewers do,” Roger Ebert once remarked. I cite this quote at the top of this piece to highlight the fallacy behind year-end list-making. How can one determine, for once and all, what are the Best Films of a given year? Furthermore, what framework do we invoke when evaluating the “Best Films of the Year?”

As time passes by, it’s more than likely the following list will change. The ranking may shift and titles excluded might be included (and vice-versa). Thus, as always, take whatever dubious authority lurks behind this evaluation of the year in film with more than a few grains of salt. At the moment, however, I feel fairly strong about the ordering of the top three selections.

Before we begin, a few other films, as well as some odds-and-ends, which enlivened my year in movie-going: Columbus, A Dark Song, Get Out, A Ghost Story, Graduation, I Olga Hepnarová, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lost City of Z, My Happy Family, Raw, The Unknown Girl, The Untamed, the first 75 minutes of Super Dark Times, and the extended scene of Oleg intruding on the dinner party in The Square.

Finally, some heinous blind spots which need to be filled in: After the Storm, All the Money in the World, All These Sleepless Nights, BPM (Beats Per Minute), Coco, The Death of Louis XIV, Downsizing, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Faces Places, 4 Day in France, Girls Trip, Hermia & Helena, The Human Surge, I Am Not Your Negro, In the Fade, Kékszakállú, Last Flag Flying, Last Men in Aleppo, The Lovers, Marjorie Prime, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Molly’s Game, Mudbound, On the Beach at Night Alone, Roman J. Israel Esq., Slack Bay, The Son of Joseph, Strong Island, Thelma, Thirst Street, The Transfiguration, The Treasure, The Villainess, Wonder Wheel, Wonderstruck, Wormwood


10. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (dir. S. Craig Zahler, 2017) / The Salesman (dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2016) [tie]

As odd as it may seem, there’s a curious correlation between the year’s most brutal stab at genre filmmaking and last year’s Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film. (The Salesman didn’t receive its theatrical release till late January 2017, rendering it a qualifier for this list.) S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his smashing debut, Bone Tomahawk, lacks the previous picture’s willingness to reconfigure myth and interrogate ignorant manhood, with Zahler, instead, offering up a well-oiled, deftly structured tale of one man’s descent into both the corporeal and psychological realms of hell. 

Asghar Farhadi’s gripping Iranian drama-cum-thriller depicts the behavioral response Emad, a schoolteacher/actor, enacts following the brutal assault of his wife; she’s yearning to press on, whereas he’s obsessed on righting a wrong. While each picture presents characters operating in disparate sociopolitical and cultural spheres, both Brawl and The Salesman are fixated on men — Shahab Hosseini in The Salesman, Vince Vaughn in Brawl; each extraordinary — wracked with moral dilemmas, and the paths they trek, each tinged with the desire for revenge, in hopes of purging their respective ills.

Farhadi takes the route of a character study, juxtaposing Emad’s daytime pedagogy with his theatre troupe’s heavily censored rendition of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (a reminder of a more “traditional” attitude toward artistic expression), and ultimately dramatizes Emad’s selfish male instincts as extensions of greater societal misfortunes.

Zahler favors another form of traditionalism, that of the “disreputable” American B-movie, and there’s a humbling simplicity to the enterprise. He doesn’t invert the tropes as much as take them to their logical extremes, recounting his protagonist Bradley’s relapse into crime, subsequent excursion to lockup, and, further compounding his inner demons, the realization of shifty figures threatening the life of his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), and their unborn child. Zahler peppers his script with punchy, smart-ass dialogue, characterizing the assaultive wordplay as an extension of and alternative to Bradley’s violent potential — he’s literally a poetic brute. Ultimately, Bradley, like Emad, comes face to face with a form of finality he must reckon with, although Farhadi’s coda, while devastating in its own light, isn’t quite as decisive as Zahler’s. Pair these up and it ought to inspire some provocative post-movie discussion.

9. Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2017)

After the ornate slog that is A Bigger Splash, it’s almost a relief to find Luca Guadagnino fulfilling the promise of his lush, Tilda Swinton-starrer I Am Love; the latter exuded a certain formal elegance which elevated the rather rote emotional drama, whereas A Bigger Splash doubled-down on the baroque stylistics to the point at which the director embalmed his own movie. In Call Me By Your Name, director Guadagnino further develops his visual techniques, but he’s also discovered a sense of feeling. Textural sensations populate the previous work as they do here, but with Call, Guadagnino, aided by James Ivory’s screenplay, unlocks the emotional depths straightjacketed in his previous outings. (Granted, his pre-I Am Love work remains unseen by yours truly, so take this claim with a grain of salt.)

Even if Call doesn’t quite achieve overall greatness, the movie worms its way into your memory, both for the painterly tableaus and the emotional truths it summons. There’s as much beauty to be found in a shot which disembodies the legs of leads Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet (both terrific!) as there is in a more conventional composition of the lovers post-coitus while the blue moonlight gleams on their bodies. More impactful, however, is the seeming authenticity of its depiction of flowering erotic impulses; that moment in adolescence when one discovers the presence of sexual cravings and the longing for romantic connection, even when there’s little conscious comprehension. As the years pass, the specifics surrounding that first love may fade away into the ether, but you’ll forever be left with the memory of how it all felt. Such is the case with Call Me By Your Name.

8. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davis, 2016)

Terence Davies’ biopic of Emily Dickinson doesn’t play like your average biopic. It does dramatize her life from adolescence till ultimately succumbing to Bright’s disease at 55, but Davies is too smart to coast on hitting the major beats without crafting a through-line. It sports a rather hoary agenda, focusing primarily on Dickinson’s obstinate attitude toward fitting the life mold as imposed on her by others, but Davies, with his reflective tone and surveying eye (his camera longs to memorize spaces as much as portray drama) mines the specifics and relies on implication rather than grandstanding; Dickinson isn’t treated as a symbol for a cause, she’s simply Emily Dickinson, warts and all, and Cynthia Nixon’s quietly regal work is a perfect match for Davies’ understated style. A series of dolly-ins visualizing the Dickinson family posing for individual portraits and, respectively, age as the camera draws nearer is one of Davies’ most poetic gestures.

7. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker, 2017)

Sean Baker’s fifth feature sparkles with such vibrant, rainbow-like colors that it looks as if someone dumped a bag of Skittles across the screen; you might brand his cinema as a form of “stylized neo-realism”. Coming hot off the heels of Tangerine — which I admired sans enthusiasm — director Baker offers another ethnographic drama, this time zeroing in on the lower-class populace dwelling in motels adjacent to Disney World. The movie’s central focus falls on little Moonee (an extraordinary Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and her day-to-day habits, which vary from adventurous to destructive, all prompted by the desire for discovery and a need to cure boredom. The Florida Project‘s humanist gaze fizzles with empathy and spontaneity — Baker discovers more in a single close-up of Moonee’s face than most directors can in a whole feature –, unearthing the joie de vivre of a miserable situation, excusing neither the milieu’s hardships nor the potentially crippling effects of misguided parenting. Baker locates the portent behind a lightness of touch, ultimately transcending the ghetto of “poverty porn”, and isn’t above dropping a few chuckles along the way; the movie’s wittiest moment being Willem Dafoe, who here gives perhaps the most avuncular performance of his career, shooing away a flock of cranes with a pun.

6. Song to Song (dir. Terrence Malick, 2017)

Terrence Malick’s latest slice of drama-inflected impressionism, an Adam-and-Eve allegory about two couples making their way through the Austin music scene, was dumped into theaters mid-March and so apprehensively received that even some of his most ardent supporters jumped ship. Only time will tell if this puppy’s got legs, but, in the moment, even this Malick skeptic was thoroughly enraptured both times he saw it amid first-run. Song to Song continues in the poetic vein of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, probing the fragility of human connection and romance. Naturally, this is all funneled through Malick’s lens of, as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody deemed it, “romantic idealism”, which yields the trademark (and sometimes overly precious) visual stylistics (roaming Steadicam, short lenses, magic hour lighting, etc.) and characters tics (contemplative staring, twirling) that, in some circles, have become the subject of parody and ridicule. Yet I was taken with this diversion more so than even Malick’s much-loved The Tree of Life, perhaps because the impressionism was grounded in a concrete conceit, rather than a bonanza of abstract ideas. I’m eager to revisit this again in the near-future, something I should also do for Malick’s The New World.

5. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

What a strange case Blade Runner 2049 is: here’s a sequel to a nearly 35 year-old movie which didn’t require one (and is nonexistent on streaming platforms), was hardly requested by the original’s cult, sports a plot shrouded in secrecy upon release, and was greeted by a rather slim crowd marked with uncertainty. Furthermore, when was the last time a major American studio picture spent this much money (somewhere between $150m and $185m) on a sci-fi film that downplays action, thrives on a funereal tone, runs for minutes without dialogue, relegates a pivotal figure off-screen till the third-act, and clocks in at just under three hours? Of all the big-budget studio pictures released this year, Blade Runner 2049 seems most destined for rediscovery (and possible reappraisal) as time passes.

Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green mostly jettison the urge to explicate interim details — it doesn’t draw conclusions for the original’s ambiguities so much as utilize them to imbue 2049‘s world — instead taking the original’s ideas of manufactured life to the next logical step with a story hinged on the concept of replicant reproduction. If the original debated the existential nature of what it means to be human, 2049 reconfigures that notion and inquires about the formation of a new lifeform, as well as, through a pivotal female character’s role as a creator of replicant memories, the origins of empathy.

On the surface, 2049 continues the sci-fi noir trajectory mapped out in the original, invoking an even more traditional detective narrative that comes off as if Ross Macdonald ventured into dystopia. The film’s ambitious reach guaranteed imperfections — a third-act development, which seems like a stab at franchise-building, feels slightly tacked-on — but the vision of Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who may finally reap his Oscar), casting a omniscient, clinical gaze over the central quarrel festering amid a despoiled California, is one to be savored and disputed. This isn’t Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, but, box-office returns be damned, it’s one of the few American movies of 2017 that walked a high-wire act and never looked down.

4. John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, 2017)

The latest in the saga of Keanu Reeves’ laconic ronin one-ups the original with expansive world-building, gun-ballets galore, and hand-to-hand combat choreographed more in the flavor of Donald O’Connor’s “Make Em Laugh” number than Steven Seagal. Director Chad Stahelski’s direction is a model of expression and clarity, providing a firm understanding of scene geography by cleverly positioning his cameras to connect multiple lines of action once the bullets really start to fly. Furthermore, he knows that a gun ballet thrives as much, if not more, on the set-piece’s use of location as it does on the blocking of combat; there’s a very clever (and rather overt) re-staging of the funhouse sequence from Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai which takes on a life of its own when viewed in context.

Meanwhile, Reeves and scenarist Derek Kolstad seemingly draw from samurai mythology, not to mention an occasional nod to Delon in Le Samourai and the “Parker” novels of Richard Stark (pseudonymous for Donald E. Westlake), in further characterizing the eponymous bad-ass. Cinematographer Dan Lauststen doesn’t stand a chance come awards season, but his work here — utilizing contrasting color schemes, light shafts, and architecture to deftly subdivide frames — stands out from the pack; he’s less interested in flexing his muscles than inviting spectators to examine and immerse themselves in the sinewy inner workings of his craft. This is Termite Art par excellence.

3. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) 

The older Paul Thomas Anderson grows, the stranger his movies gets and the more singular his career seems. His last film, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s whatsit? Inherent Vice, with its twisty private-eye mystery and stoner philosophizing, drew the line in the sand between the casual viewers and the hardcore PTA-philes. (Also, like The Master, it confirmed the director’s subtle but acerbic sense of humor.) Phantom Thread is a different kind of outré and destined to split audiences, but whereas Vice registered as cold and calculated (in a good way), Thread is sensuous and inviting, all while maintaining a peculiar, straight-faced jocularity.

This time out, Anderson infiltrates a house of high fashion in 1950s London and charts the relationship (beginning with one of the odder meet-cutes of late) between designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and muse Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), ultimately examining the treacherous push-pull dynamic between a closed-minded aesthete and his inspiration, as well as the desire for control and the need for compromise in their S&M-laced pas de deux. Anderson’s camera, with its pirouettes about the House of Woodcock and fetishistic macros of dressmaking, luxuriates in the extravagance of the setting, and Jonny Greenwood’s all-permeating score injects a sort-of rhythmic fluidity within the narrative, making scene transitions function as commas rather than periods. This is the closest Anderson has come to working in the mold of Max Ophüls, even recalling the opening of Le Plaisir with a mid-movie sojourn at a New Year’s Eve party, but P.T.’s quotations rarely come off as obsequious; he’s digested his influences, bypassing imitation so as to render them all his own.

2. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2016)

As much a ghost story as a meditation on loss and griefthe latest effort from Olivier Assayas, that playfully unpredictable Gallic master, features Kristen Stewart as Maureen, a gofer living in Paris, moonlighting as a channeler, and striving to spiritually contact her late brother. The specter of Death lurks throughout at the edge of the frame, most explicitly symbolized as the coronary defect Maureen shared with her brother and threatens to end her life at any moment, and the spooky vibe recalls the ghost stories of M.R. James and the gialli of Sergio Martino — you could potentially re-title this The Strange Vice of Miss Stewart — but director Assayas also seasons his world with diatribes about art (a possible life enhancer) and the pleasures/anxieties of modern tech; the latter can effectively retain a departed one’s spirit just as it can transfix the user to the point where they cease to exist in reality.

Movement is omnipresent in Personal Shopper: the ever-changing nature of the modern world is reflected in Maureen’s transient lifestyle (she’s almost always on the move) as much as in Assayas’ wandering camera and constantly shifting narrative (here, dramatic progression is expressed by the script’s wont of reinventing itself every few sequences), yet both artists never lose the thematic thread which binds the movie. Stewart, with her nimble figure and weathered eyes, imbues the enterprise with a beating heart and soul, evoking Maureen’s unacknowledged loneliness and need for catharsis with underplayed bravura. She utilizes her body in the manner of a dancer, finding stances which speak for what isn’t spoken, and proves to be a master at dramatizing thought; when she reacts to others, her contemplative stillness conveys more than most behavioral gestures. Was there a better performance in all of 2017?

1. Nocturama (dir. Bertrand Bonello, 2016)

Most assuredly the best new release I saw in all of 2017, Bertrand Bonello’s luxuriantly thorny thriller — seemingly influenced by classics such as Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 — failed to find an audience outside critics and hardcore cinephiles and lapsed into the purgatorial domain that is Netflix. There’s a bounty of pieces to be written on the film, depicting a cadre of Parisian youths committing terrorist atrocities before holing up in a shopping mall, and its inquiries into modern discontent and moral vacuity in society at large, but it’s also an unfiltered celebration of the power of the image and exhibits some of the most rigorously expressive filmmaking of recent years.

Fueled by prolonged visual sequences sans dialogue and experiments with cross-cutting and time shifting, the first hour alone establishes Bonello’s storytelling mastery, as he incrementally relinquishes narrative breadcrumbs that slowly form an understanding of what the youths are doing, if not necessarily explaining why; even the first sequence, starting in media res and providing no context for the individuals and their relationships, smacks of pure cinema, seducing you long before you even begin to pose the question “what is happening?” All this is not to say Nocturama lacks provocation, but, rather than proffer jejune moralizing, Bonello sidesteps the conclusive mumbo-jumbo and transparent typifying of character that bogs down most issue-tainment by allowing his protagonists’ specifics and eccentricities to speak for themselves and, thus, the audience to weave their own meaning.

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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