Like any true fanatic, I have a penchant for lists. And even more than the act of listmaking, I have a certain predilection for proclaiming my favorites.
I’ve been known to say, “That’s one of the top five albums ever recorded” or “That’s easily my favorite documentary.” But it’s usually not that simple, right?
It’s usually something like “my favorite American documentary,” or “my favorite Lou Reed solo album” ... “the Best Eastern-European Animation” ... “Best scene in a 1940’s deco nightclub” ... “the funniest Coen Brothers Character” ... “the best dance number in a horror/comedy/jungle adventure.”
I don’t know why I feel the need to exclaim my affections, or why I need to narrow them down to the point that I do. I do know that the way I feel for the things that I love, is a feeling that goes deep enough that the act of claiming, listing, qualifying, places them in the realm of ownership. Therefore, I possess them.
Collecting — surprise, I am a collector of many things — solidifies that relationship. The next step in this progression of fanaticism/obsession/need-to-own, according to Salvador Dali, would be to eat the objects. I haven’t gone that far. Yet.
So, here, in that spirit, and in no particular order are my favorite films from 2017, the ones I own now in my weird heart and mind, my new family members, my endorsements or, if you prefer, my cinematic menu. Bon appétit.
(One qualifier: This list only consists of films that I have seen in 2017. There are a handful of eagerly anticipated releases that have not played in Missoula, that would likely make their way onto this list, i.e., Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," Guillermo del Toro’s "The Shape Of Water," Luca Guadagnino’s "Call Me By Your Name," etc. Ironically, the five favorites I chose were all unexpectedly wonderful, five films I had an interest in seeing, but never expected to enjoy as much as I did. Maybe I shouldn’t hold my breath for the upcoming crop?)
Without a doubt, my favorite movie from 2017, Jordan Peele’s strange, menacing and razor-sharp race/class satire is the most acerbic horror flick to come around in this or any year. Brimming with a kind of palpable discomfort that literally puts you on the edge of your seat waiting for the shocking inevitable, Peele’s film transcends the pitfalls of horror, avoiding the obvious psycho/slasher tropes that you might expect from a low budget genre pic. Moreover, it’s a great and important film about race and class in America; the true atrocity of racism is veiled beneath the supernatural cinematic terror of "Get Out."
The sweetest surprise from the end of the year, Greta Gerwig’s largely autobiographical coming-of-age story is warm and emotional and extremely funny. With great performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, the film appeals to a larger cross-section than you’d think. Gerwig’s directorial debut is a mature, poignant and decidedly feminine perspective on growing up. I don’t know what I expected, exactly, but I was delighted and moved by Gerwig’s simple and economical film. I never thought I could be nostalgic for 2002, but as Guy Lodge noted in his review for The Guardian, "Lady Bird" is “a film about how bad things were before we knew how bad they were going to get.”
In an early scene in Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s dark satire of high art and European culture, the protagonist tells a reporter that, essentially, the mere act of placing an object in a gallery makes it “art.” It’s a conviction that he seems to barely understand himself, as if voicing the idea has made even him struggle to comprehend the logic of the rules of his own world. This contradiction, and the sentiment of an unstable and an ungovernable culture is at the heart of Östlund’s Palme d'Or winner. Ostensibly an allegory for the decline of imperialist ruling-class Europe, "The Square" jabs and prods at the expanding distance between the edges of society, and the futility of our institutions, especially those of high culture, to resolve the riff. But more than the heady depth of the film, "The Square" satisfies for its downright weirdness and deadpan absurdity.
The Florida Project
The latest film from maverick indy director Sean Baker (the filmmaker whose previous unconventional offering "Tangerine," was the first feature shot entirely with iPhones) is a heartbreaking film set in a sad and beautiful transient hotel in Orlando, Florida, in the failing outskirts of the Magic Kingdom. With an exquisite eye for decaying Americana, and a concern for fringe characters, Baker’s film shines a light of humanity on the falling-down corners of the American Dream. Working almost exclusively with non-professional actors — the one exception in this case being a deeply felt performance by Willem Dafoe — Baker defies the traps of poverty porn, with his humanist portals of prostitutes, addicts and idlers and their restless kids, creating community and family in the mess of life.
Built from recently unearthed film footage tucked away in the National Geographic archives for over 50 years, Brett Morgen’s absorbing documentary is a captivating portrait of legendary primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist and UN Messenger of Peace Jane Goodall. The film centers on Dame Goodall’s seminal work with chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, where as a young woman in the field, she brazenly defied a male-dominated discipline. The newly discovered footage (more than 100 hours!) tells the visual story of her pioneering work and her awakening as a scientist. As we watch her professional evolution and her relationship with her subjects advance (paralleled here by her personal relationships: as a mother to her young child and as a wife to filmmaker Hugo van Lawick) the degree of Goodall’s brilliance begins to take hold. Further captivating is Goodall’s deeply spiritual worldview, a perspective that equates our role on the planet as stewards to a higher calling: a spiritual evolution. Together with Philip Glass’ mesmerizing score and some extraordinary wildlife photography, Morgen documents one of the most important figures in conservation, bringing us in direct contact with the greatness of humanity.