From ‘Get Out’ to ‘Phantom Thread’ to ‘Good Time,’ a celebration of movies that reminded us why we love movies
To read about what the films of the year meant to 2017, see K. Austin Collins’s accompanying year-end essay.
Any number of well-made, stylish indie movies can be full of gorgeous frames and scenic photography, and an even greater number of those movies can tell stirring stories of youth and self-discovery. But very few of those movies are concerned with self-discovery of the mind, not the body—and even fewer wield that beautiful cinematography like a vexed, imposing expression of the characters’ inner lives. You could say, then, that Kogonada’s feature-film debut is worthwhile if only for satisfying a much-needed gap in the genre. What’s memorable about Columbus, which stars Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho as people trying to make sense of themselves against the architecturally rich backdrop of Columbus, Indiana, is that it takes everything underwhelming about movies of its kind and imbues it all with a rich undertone of intellectual, and not only emotional, agony. Richardson, in particular, stands out as a young woman who has dreams of a future outside of Columbus, but whose sense of obligation to matters at home is a potential stumbling block. That’s the central drama, and Richardson, with the intelligently conflicted Cho at her side, becomes a beacon of feeling in a setting that risks stomping all of that feeling out of her. Isn’t that why she wants to escape? Watching her face is like watching the entire film ache. She becomes the movie.
I love Get Out for the same reasons as everyone else: the sense that Jordan Peele took black people’s common-sense understandings of race and morphed them into matters of genre; the hilarious sidebars of Lil Rel Howery; the meme of Daniel Kaluuya’s tear-streaked shock; and so much more. There’s a social critique at stake in all of this, but I’ll admit that part has always excited me less than how Peele, who both wrote and directed, gets us there. Only on a recent rewatch did I realize the extent to which Get Out is a film about faces—most especially Kaluuya’s, whose blank, skeptical, or horrified expressions, often caught in close-up, are seared into my brain; but also those of Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener, the devilishly two-faced Allison Williams, and the exceptional Betty Gabriel. Get Out is a movie we’ll undoubtedly remember for being a surprise phenomenon, and rightly so. But it also marks the start of a fascinating new director’s career.
Cute isn’t quite the word, because these kids are bad as hell: stealing food, burning down condemned houses, and the like. But there’s something manifestly adorable about Sean Baker’s modern Little Rascals, and there’s of course something more than a little dispiriting about their circumstances. The Florida Project is set in a budget motel in Kissimmee, Florida, deep in the shadow of Disney, and almost everything we see reflects as much. It’s a movie about a group of kids, led by the über-charismatic troublemaker Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who treat the hotel like their own magic kingdom as the adults, particularly Moonee’s mom (played by Bria Vinaite) and the motel manager (Willem Dafoe), watch over them. It’s as riveting as it is ultimately heartbreaking. Baker has one of the most sympathetic eyes working in American movies today, and this gloriously widescreen movie, which feels thoroughly steeped in a sense of community above all, is his richest to date.
On paper, Terence Davies’s account of the life and mind of Emily Dickinson seems like it’ll be your usual, talky costume drama—but if that were the case, it wouldn’t be a Terence Davies movie. A Quiet Passion is for anyone suspicious of the genre’s tendency to fold living, breathing figures into ornately cinematic “arcs.” Davies, who both wrote and directed the movie, gives you a portrait that is both jagged and strange, and his Dickinson—played with prodigious intelligence and personality by Cynthia Nixon—is as loving and spirited as she is self-loathing, desirous, and defensive. You finish the movie with not only a sense of the verbal jousting and private yearning that defined her everyday interactions, but you also leave more assured of how it is such a person might wield those experiences in her poems. Davies has made a movie about a true iconoclast, a woman who fascinates not only because of what she wrote, but because of how she lived.
You’re either over it or you’re not when it comes to the late-career output of Terrence Malick, and you’re probably justified either way. If nothing else, he’s a master of the “Your mileage may vary” movie. But for those still sticking with him, Song to Song, the director’s elliptical account of three lovers wandering in and out of the Austin music scene, is his most sincere, romantic movie in years (especially compared with the cynical Knight of Cups). Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Fassbender star as a porous love triangle that expands and contracts across career highs and lows, a marriage, too many benders, and too much disappointment. It’s about falling in and out of love, which, for Malick, has all the sudden and unsparing weight of gravity. It’s also about people who find themselves terrified of who they’ve become—a good ole spiritual crisis movie. As per usual for Malick, these characters are a composite of the blink-and-you-miss-it moments, the forgotten gestures, and the quiet inner voices. It’s a movie that makes me feel like I’ve seen everything. Not everyone buys that. But Song to Song awaits you, if you do.
In a year chock full of good movies about the self-discoveries of charismatic youth, Beach Rats haunted and provoked me the most, perhaps because it made me feel certain of the least. Eliza Hittman’s grainy, intimate drama, about a masculine 17-year-old’s summer of sexual and romantic uncertainty, is set on the southern-shore boardwalks and beaches of Brooklyn. On its face, it’s about a guy living a double life, balancing late nights spent trolling gay hookup sites with days spent trying to date a girl and vaping with his boneheaded friends. But the real story of Hittman’s movie, and the reason it stands out from Call Me by Your Name and other good movies of its stripe, is one of images. Selfies live up to their name in this film, suffusing basic mirror poses of the kind young couples post on Instagram—and of the kind Frankie uses to attract men online—with a genuine sense of self-determination. You sense, as he stands there shirtless in the mirror, his face obscured by the camera flash, that Frankie is creating an image of himself to live up to, rather than a document of who he really is. Hittman anchors all of this in the dexterously blank, surprisingly moving lead performance of newcomer Harris Dickinson, who guides his character to a crisis of self that might break your heart.
I love jungle adventures, melodrama, and grandiose intellectual and spiritual revelations—so of course I love movies, and of course I especially love The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s rip-roaring account of real-life explorer Percy Fawcett’s professional obsession with uncovering the secrets of the Amazon. That’s the movie’s logline, at least. Gray finds a way to transform it into something bigger and more poignant: a search for the sublime, playing out against the backdrop of a stultifyingly modernized, war-torn Europe. The movie practically pushes you into the jungle, where, sure, you’ll find dysentery, piranhas, and cannibalism—but that’s the price of nature. And the benefit, which outweighs all of that, is the joyful shock of discovering that Europe’s was not the first civilization, and that there are secrets in the jungle that could reorient the course of history. Charlie Hunnam stars as the fated Fawcett, who—spoiler alert—never did come back from his last trip into the Amazon, joined by his oldest son, who likewise disappeared. Playing Fawcett’s independently minded and thoroughly modern wife, meanwhile, Sienna Miller embodies what the movie argues are the bitter ironies of the era. She, too, is an explorer—or she would be, but for her gender and the fact she and Fawcett have kids at home. It’s in part through her that Lost City of Z reveals what’s it’s been about all along: not only the journeys but also all the sacrifices, made by those who get left behind, supporting them.
On the surface, Paul Thomas Anderson’s sensuous, clever drama, about a 1950s fashion house thrown off its axis by love, is a wickedly funny riff on Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, and any number of other tales about artists remaking their muses in their image. Anderson kicks it up a notch with a dose of homegrown weird. We’ve got mommy issues, fashion snobbery, an orgiastic sense of food, fabric, and light, and a muse—played by phenomenal Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps—who’s much more sly and desirous than the archetype typically allows. Daniel Day-Lewis plays an obsessed, exacting artist-designer of the kind only he could come up with: brash but loving, self-involved but artistically generous, charismatic but volatile. It’s a riot to see his world get turned upside down—and from the verve and humor Anderson brings to the filmmaking, it’s clear he agrees. The movie is as pleasurable to watch as it is to think about. Really, I can think of only one word to sum it up: delicious.
A single large room deep in the heart of Folsom State Prison sets the stage for this confrontational, exceptionally raw verité documentary about a four-day group retreat attended by a mixed group of incarcerated and civilian men. You could call it group therapy, but whatever you think that phrase means, it’s undoubtedly something less shocking, full-bodied, and all-encompassing than what directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous have captured here. The Work takes incarcerated men of many stripes—including men from opposing gangs, like the Bloods and Crips, as well as white supremacist prison gangs—and an equally diverse set of men from the outside, locks them in a room on the condition that they’ll leave those affiliations at the door, and pushes them to bare their souls to each other. This is part of a program that occurs twice a year at Folsom, and it’s immediately clear that witnessing what unfolds here is an immense privilege. These men are working through untold realms of grief and anger, and coaxing it out of each other in front of the group, and the cameras, in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. It’s violent, vigorous, and often indescribable. This isn’t your politely inquisitive office therapy, with white noise machines and handy boxes of tissues. This is a primal scream.
One looking forward and the other back. Good Time, directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie and starring Benny alongside Robert Pattinson, is the movie 2017 deserves. As cinema, it’s a smooth gloss on the gritty crime movies of yore, embodying everything that’s good about the ongoing nostalgia trip currently afflicting movies and TV while falling prey to none of the usual bad habits. As pure entertainment, it’s as lively, weird, and unpredictable as any movie released this or any other year, not least because of how well the Safdies capture a sense of life on the ground in a neon-streaked New York City. As politics, well, Good Time is not political cinema, but there’s of course something to be learned from a movie that studies the calculated machinations of a white guy behaving badly, manipulating the system and the people around him as he sees fit. Good Time has unambiguously been my favorite movie of the year since it was released. The first time I saw it, I knew it was destined to become a classic, because it points to what I hope is a rich future for offbeat, dangerous, vibrant independent filmmaking.
When I first saw Dawson City: Frozen Time, meanwhile, I had to watch it twice, on consecutive nights, just to make sure I wasn’t merely caught up in its spellbinding rhythmic dreaminess. That’s the kind of web that the documentarian Bill Morrison weaves—and from a story that I don’t think I would have cared about otherwise. The movie tells the history of Dawson City, an old gold rush town in the Yukon territory of Canada, where, in 1978, 533 silent films dating back to the 1910s and ’20s were discovered to have been buried in the snow for decades. These films couldn’t be more ephemeral, printed on highly flammable nitrate stock that was responsible on more than one occasion, we learn, for the entire city of Dawson burning to ash. These were for the most part pictures that played once and were forgotten. They’re dangerous. And they’re exactly the material Morrison needs to make his own movie.
Aided by the mesmerizing music of Alex Somers, and drawing for the most part from only the warped, degraded, and eerily beautiful snippets of those previously buried silent films, Morrison tells a grand, surreal story of not only a place, but a medium. He narrates the ups and downs of Dawson City, from the initial nearby gold rush to the many fires and misfortunes that kept wiping it all out, climbing as far into the present as his material allows. He also tells the story of just how those 500-odd movies came to be buried in the snow, in the footprint of an old swimming pool at a recreational hall that no longer exists. There are no talking heads here, only brief bits of text walking us through each pivot in history. All we really see is image after warped image of long-dead actors whose names history has forgotten, but who start to come alive and feel present-tense for us, just as the gold rushers themselves come eerily alive.
It’s wild to think that we might understand the people of our shared past through the movies they were watching—but that’s the premise, and that’s why Dawson City feels so significant. Staring at all that ghostly decay has a way of clarifying what movies mean. Movies are, if nothing else, reproductions of our own lives, which is how you might understand our lives, and past lives, through an archive of movies—even the bad ones, and especially even the forgotten ones. It’s an incredibly romantic idea that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I first saw Morrison’s masterpiece. That’s why I love it.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler), Dark Night (Tim Sutton), Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR), A Ghost Story (David Lowery), John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig), Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh), The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach), mother! (Darren Aronofsky), On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo), Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas), Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes), Your Name (Makoto Shinkai)
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The 10 Best Films of 2017 – The Ringer