• Posted on: March 4, 2018 8:40 pm
  • by Greg O'Neil

Sinking Deeper: The Best Films of 2017

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“You can bail water 24/7, and no matter how good you are at not sinking, you still have a hole in your boat.”
― Kelli Jae Baeli

I will never grasp the logic behind writing an introduction to a list. No one cares about your selection process. They just want to get down to brass tacks and judge your picks as soon as possible. Here are my favorite films from last year:

10. “Blade Runner 2049”

Ryan Gosling has the same quality Harrison Ford does as an actor; he is compulsively watchable. A stare from him is an isolated experience that throttles you. I suspect that’s why he was chosen to follow in Ford’s footsteps as a Blade Runner, a noir-ish detective cloaked by intrigue and shadow, in a film that is superior to its monotonous predecessor in every conceivable way. I’ve seen the first “Blade Runner” a few times. Each viewing left me wanting for something more involving, less cold and impenetrable. The story is a mess. I couldn’t tell you what actually happens. Characters float in and out like patrons of the most futuristic hotel imaginable. The world was beautiful, but the humans, replicants and unknowable beings who populated it had no pulse. It felt robotic, which may have been the whole idea. What surprised me about the sequel was how it kept all of those elements in place (you can watch “2049” immediately after “Blade Runner” and feel right at home) yet very carefully and subtley explained their necessity through plot points in this new story.

The opening sequence, where Gosling’s K must apprehend a replicant played by Dave Bautista, contains more humanity than the entirety of Ridley Scott’s original. Much of the classic look is retained, only Gosling’s character is more of a curiosity than Ford’s was. As he flies through the ravaged Los Angeles of 2049, searching, he serves as the audiences’ conduit and travel companion, discovering new layers to his profession and a hole in his soul that must be filled. The nature of what an agent of death is assigned to do is shed under more light. And what light it is. I don’t know what we did to deserve Roger Deakins, who is arguably the greatest living cinematographer, but even by his standards, this thing is a sight to behold. The imagery of a once familiar environment is reinvigorated as a scorched hellscape. Deakins carves his trademark silhouettes around Gosling, swallowing him with color and decorating the bejesus out of everything else. Almost every shot can be blown up and framed on a wall. The runtime tested my endurance, so why couldn’t I shake what I had seen after it was over? While deliberately paced, the imagery has after effects and intrigue. Great movies have a visual language that tells a story parallel to what’s on the page. “Blade Runner 2049” is more adventurous. It fulfills the promise the first movie left soaking in the rain.

9. “The Florida Project”

One of the enduring traits that will make movies appealing until the end time is their elasticity. They can tell a story that couldn’t possibly be real or another that is so etched into the fabric of reality it can be liberating and disturbing at the same time. “The Florida Project” walks the tight rope of being almost too real without hammering the audience with a disheartening slog. It’s a sad story rejiggered to feel like a celebration of the human spirit. In many ways it is a fantasy film, because it’s shown from the perspective and emotional threshold of kids at play. The director, Sean Baker, captures the freewheeling nature of children who can’t be bothered by dire circumstances. Discovering something as insignificant as a hole in the wall is nirvana for them.

The leader of the ragtag group lives in a motel with her mother, Halley, a brash, blue-haired twenty-something who has the same level of maturity as her daughter. Halley sells beauty products out of grocery bags and has sex for money to get by. Observing the mother’s slow unraveling and the daughter’s mischievous ways from a grumpy uncle’s distance is the owner of the building, played with an unexpected but welcome supply of warmth by Willem Dafoe. He wrangles the little girl easily, makes sure she stays out of trouble with the locals, supplies her with wisdom that will keep her at bay for a few minutes at a time. Less easy is applying the same level of patience and understanding to her combative mother. And that’s all Sean Baker’s film is, really, a snapshot of lives rarely seen on screen, seemingly insignificant anecdotes that ask us to consider what it is we truly value. The plotlessness reminded me of some of the scenes in “Boyhood,” where a lot of what’s happening goes from mundane to powerful to true.


war for the planet of the apes

8. “War for the Planet of the Apes”

The secret sauce of the “Planet of the Apes” prequels is that all of the pathos comes from the apes, not the people. Usually retreads to old franchises serve as superfluous padding for what made the first films so vibrant. The opposite has happened here. These new movies have a green message. They posit what should already be assumed by all: Human beings are the worst. We ruin everything, including what we create. A planet of apes is our own comeuppance staring us in the face. When the series began in 1968, it was too concerned with the science fiction aspects to get a good reading on the psychological undercurrents of such a scenario. Matt Reeves’ last two “Apes” installments are actually breathing new life into a fairly two-dimensional idea, because they are turning the villains of yesteryear into the heroes of today. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was confined to a story that underlined what happens when science fails (or succeeds, depending on how you look at it). It needed a sequel so the real drama could begin. Caesar, the main beneficiary of the experiment gone awry, was a fully drawn, fascinating character stuck in a supporting role. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” had more bite and expanded his saga by honing in on the apes’ point of view, though it was the middle chapter in a clearly three-film saga. By default, “Dawn” couldn’t quite capture the grandeur and scope that comes so readily with a trilogy capper. There needed to be a more direct conflict between the species. Higher stakes.

“War for the Planet of the Apes,” the best of the three, begins by planting its feet firmly on the ground and committing to a true conflict, with a real antagonist (Woody Harrelson). He’s convincingly fearsome. Even more impressively, his motivations are comprehensible and steeped in an animalistic need for survival. Death comes swift and fast this time. Caesar continues to be a noble hero thrust into circumstances he did not chose. Andy Serkis’ continues to play the all-motion captured creation so convincingly than he is more alive with feeling than any of the live action actors. Give this guy a fucking Oscar already. I admired that a special effects driven movie was so preoccupied by warring ideas, not warring bodies and endless explosions. “War for the Planet of the Apes” has that, too, just without an exclamation point at the end. As for the rest, all I can say is it’s amazing what can happen when you put Steve Zahn playing an adorable monkey and a crackerjack prison break sequence together in one movie.

7. “Phantom Thread”

It’s a fool’s errand to cut together a trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film and sell it on shots alone. The pay off to the twisted  mental gymnastics performed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps does not come until almost three quarters of the way through. It’s a skin deep, low key twist that sews the rest of the movie together into a pretty fucked up tapestry of what we are prepared to endure in the name of love. Anderson’s last film, “Inherent Vice” was an abominable train wreck, and “The Master,” another pyschodrama, was too disjointed with peaks and valleys to work as a whole. Against a backdrop of the fashion industry of 1950’s London, Anderson scales way back and delivers his most basic film. Simple in execution but not in design. It has a haunted quality similar to “There Will Be Blood.” The House of Woodcock, like the oil fields of Plainview, are rich with success but empty of any and all feeling. What remains is only manipulation and the technique to accomplish it. “Phantom Thread” concerns itself with the role-play of master and mistress, not the clothes high society wears to mask the ugliness inside. The dresses of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) are only dressing that dangle from his oppressive, controlling persona. They are not chic, despite the mogul’s reputation, but that’s not what Anderson is getting at. They are a damaged-boy-masquerading-as-a-righteous-couturier’s idea of what an affluent person would rock. But it’s Woodcock who really wears them, not his clients. They are a projection of his need to be in control, never more so than as it relates to his own image. They unlock his lifestyle, his failings and his insecurities for Alma (Krieps) to navigate as delicately as possible. The two play off each other in subtly kinky ways. She is capable of disarming him, even as he tailors her every move with mundane routine.

Without a single frame of sexuality on display, Anderson achieves a heightened sensuality that is subconscious rather than literal. Adorning the seams is Johnny Greenwood’s lush, gorgeous score, which would not feel out of place in an adaptation of Danielle Steele’s worst novel, or as alternate musical cue for “Days of Our Lives.” And Lesley Manville, who plays his no-nonsense sister and facilitator, is a revelation. I’ve long thought that if any filmmaker were to take up Stanley Kubrick’s mantle, Anderson would be the likeliest candidate. Like Kubrick, he makes the kind of films that keep you at arms length but are engineered with an almost trancelike precision and craft. The perversions in “Phantom Thread” do not change the nature of its characters; they only make the couple at the center more talented at acting on their impulses, no matter how self-destructive.

6. “The LEGO Batman Movie”

  • Robin: What?
  • [Sees Batcave]
  • Robin: It’s the Batcave! Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygooo-!
  • [Bumps into Batman]
  • Robin: Batman, woah!
  • Batman: You’re darn right, woah!
  • Robin: Wait, does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement?
  • Batman: No, Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic.
  • Robin: “My name is Richard Grayson but all the kids at school call me Dick.”
  • Batman: “Well, children can be cruel.”

This movie fucks. Hard. It fucks on a level I was previously unaware could be fucked before. I was physically vibrating in the theater watching it, in awe of its artistry on the fuck scale. There were moments when I thought I was witnessing The Ultimate Batman Movie, for how effortlessly it intertwined every possible shred of mythology connected to the character in just 100 breathless minutes. Leave it to the team behind “The LEGO Movie,” one of the most imaginative animated movies ever made, to tackle a Batman story that is gut-bustlingly hilarious without skimping on a stark and mature understanding of why The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero. I don’t know if any cinematic incarnation of Batman has understood Batman as much as this one does. A minor miracle considering it’s like the 27th stab at the guy but REALLY incredible when it sinks in that this is a full blown farce.

Bruce Wayne is a irreparably broken person; “LEGO Batman,” via mockery, schlock and vaudevillian comedy actually manages to piece him back together. The emotional core of this movie is as vibrant as its scenery. Like the previous foray into the LEGO universe, this Gotham City is visually resplendent with detail on top of detail. It’s impossible to catch every joke and Easter egg crammed into this sucker upon first viewing. It may not even be possible after five. The entire voice cast is unbelievable (Michael Cera as Robin especially should be prescribed as an antidote to clinical depression), the writing is Batarang-sharp and it’s just fun. So much fun. Fun within fun within fun. I cannot oversell this movie enough to you. If you enjoy nice things, like smiling, watch “The LEGO Batman Movie.”

5. “Call Me By Your Name”

To get to the beginning, I must start with the end. A few minutes before “Call Me By Your Name” wraps up it’s sumptuous love story, there’s an intimate scene that redefines the entire movie. The father of Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is consoling his son. We know what must happen for any great romance to take on resonance. It happens on schedule with no less agony than is expected. Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue  comes at a time when his character has been nothing but a passing figure relegated to the background. What follows is one of the most well-acted and written scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. In his attempt to mend a broken heart, he brings his casual appearances throughout the film under a microscope and magnifies them. A character who was once believed to be oblivious to the throes of hidden passion is now a tragic figure resigned to a life he can’t rewind. He’s the relaxed dad, the static husband, the curious explorer who has settled into a marriage with a woman he may never truly love. Not a love like Elio and Oliver’s (Armie Hammer). The scene beefs up his part in arranging the pair who would be lovers, and also contextualizes just how deep of a trajectory their relationship had during the summer of 1983.

Suddenly, the leisurely pace of Luca Guadagnino’s very European film makes a shitload of sense. Guadagnino sets out to ease the audience into a sense of time and place, of warm days and hot nights, of The Psychedelic Furs and ripe peaches. Do not look for “Call Me By Your Name” for thrills-a-minute. It feels more like an Italian retreat, where only reading to music and going for swims in the river will do. I got lost in the vacation, charmed by the chemistry of the two leads and how they take their time to feel each other out. Their interactions never felt false and always organic, never inappropriate but always pretty cute. It’s a profoundly tender movie bookmarked by eroticism that practically sweats off the screen. When Elio is waiting on the steps for Oliver to return to him after a time away, and Sufjan Stevens’ heavily track “Futile Devices” starts to play, you forget about the concept of an endless summer. You want it to be now. You want the sunlight to cut through the trees like it had the day before. You want to them to be within inches of each other again. You want to live inside the time capsule they create for their affection, where it will not freeze in the coming winter.

4. “Logan”

The lasting power of “Logan” is sourced from Hugh Jackman’s nearly 20-year tenure playing Wolverine. That’s the start, an advantage James Mangold’s brutal western is packaged with before filming even began. Somehow, it doesn’t matter that some of the X-Men movies have been great and others have been disasters; Jackman’s age tells the truth. He’s been retracting the adamantium claws longer than most acting careers last. History injects this movie with a resonance no screenplay can provide. Wolverine is an intrinsically tragic figure. Despite the wise cracks and badass run-ins with various mutants over the years, there’s no escaping the profound loss Logan has experienced. The woman he loved died, then was resurrected, then died again. His companions at Xavier’s school are gone now, too. And so there’s an opportunity to finally tell his defining chapter the way it always ought to be told, with barren landscapes, shady figures, honor and blood. Lots and lots and LOTS of blood.

I don’t believe “Logan” would be the watershed moment in the superhero genre it is if the movie wasn’t rated R. If Fox didn’t remain dedicated to the harsh confines of the story it knew it needed to stab with no exit wounds. By embracing the inherently violent nature of the beast, Mangold is able to make a statement about violence and the consequences of its senselessness. In order to get there, though, harsh events need to come to pass. Rough terrain is charted thematically. The action sequences have a purpose and drive the narrative forward. For the first time in what has felt like eons, a movie based on a comic book is character-based and undeterred by box office expectations. Patrick Stewart is allowed to probe new depths as an irritable, dying and profanity-laced Professor X. Dafne Keene’s ferocious Laura goes toe to toe with Hugh Jackman in terms of raw charisma. And Jackman gives his best performance so far, period. The stakes are personal. There are many brutal goodbyes. The road goes ever on. When the credits roll, there is a sense that we’ve been guided through a elegy that began before we could collect ourselves.

3. “Lady Bird”

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut makes my heart sing. There’s no other way to put it. I adore this movie for its purity, for the richness of its characters, for how honest it is, for the way it invigorates token scenes of awkward adolescence with comedy that tip toes around being too clever for it’s own good. Because awards season is a vicious monster that requires many ritualistic sacrifices, “Lady Bird” has been offered up as The Hipster Indie That Redeems Whiny Millennials. This manufactured backlash not only makes zero sense (the story takes place in 2002, which would make Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson roughly 34 today), it insinuates that stories about that demographic shouldn’t be told at all. Which is a shame, given how joyous and full of life “Lady Bird” is.

Gerwig’s film would make a killer double feature with “The Edge of Seventeen,” another brilliant and insightful coming-of-age tale with a female protagonist that is just doing her. No compromises. Saoirse Ronan’s teenager is confident, entitled, unpredictable, full of verve and has no idea how to have a stable relationship with her mother. Their on-again-off-again volatility is a believable battle hard fought by every parent. The drama is aided by the frail compassion of Laurie Metcalf, whose role extends beyond being just the doting, micromanaging mom. She has texture underneath her rough edges, softness too easily punctured below her steel armor. “Lady Bird”s secret weapon is it’s screenplay, which radiates with authenticity in depicting scrappy teenagers. Gerwig managed to churn out an all-time classic about the high school experience without hitting the usual markers. Her special little debut is the only movie on this list I find impossible not to like.

2. “The Shape of Water”

You’d be hard pressed to find a piece of escapism last year that was more enraptured by itself than Guillermo Del Toro’s 10th feature, and I mean that in the fondest way possible. “The Shape of Water” is without question the best and most film the Mexican teddy bear has ever made (It’s not particularly close, either.) My biggest criticism of the auteur’s work in the past has been his over-reliance on the look of his movies at the expense of any authentic investment in character. His last film, “Crimson Peak,” taught just about every lesson in production design there is, until we were asked to care about literally anything Mia Wasikowska was doing. Even “Pan’s Labyrinth,” previously his most acclaimed work, functions almost exclusively as a gobsmacking feast of eye candy and not much else. Minutes into his underwater fairy tale, there’s the sense that Del Toro has been building towards this movie his entire career. This is what happens when an insatiable mind releases all the imagination it can muster onto the screen – every inspiration, monster movie influence, gross-out bit and allegory that formed Del Toro’s ethos as an artist is up there times ten in “The Shape of Water.”

The subversive love letter to “The Other” is one long hug of a movie. I was in full swoon by the end, impregnated with the warm and fuzzies. It flows like a composition of music, steadily and with rhythm from one expertly calibrated scene to the next. Nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake is hard to pull off, but Del Toro crams so many inverted riffs on old concepts, character arcs and beautiful excursions into one movie that by the end I simply didn’t care that all he really did was insert the Creature from the Black Lagoon into a love story. The entire cast is aces, but Sally Hawkins is the MVP, as an ode to silent film stars who can work wonders with just their face. Also a delight: how incredibly funny the script is. I’ve known Del Toro to have a sense of humor, but he’s never let it rip quite like this before. “The Shape of Water” is the result of a filmmaker who has achieved a righteous balance of all his strengths and a recalibration of his weaknesses. He knew exactly what he had to do to make entertainment worthy of the nickname “Grinding Nemo.”

1. “Get Out”

“Get Out” is a lot of things. The naysayers who deflect the acclaim and insist on whittling down Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller to it’s B-movie trappings would argue the film is trying to be too many things. They insist the third act succumbs to horror conventions when the first two-thirds showed the promise of a climax more complex. Where were they during the masterful opening sequence, which plays up a slasher destination the film has been hurtling towards all along? From my vantage point, “Get Out” is a truly original creation overflowing with invention. It’s bold. It poses discomforting truths and offers implications more valuable than basic scares. It became a phenomenon. It set off a national discourse on race relations. It has led to the creation of new film studies courses in schools. It depicts imagery so evocative so as not to be unseen. It will inspire the designs of countless memorabilia. It will be responsible for new detours during therapy sessions. It was the event of 2017, the one movie you can sit people down in front of in 25 years and they’ll still get it.

For a first time director, Peele has near-Hitchcockian technical sensibilities. He doesn’t succumb to any gimmicky camera tricks; slow pans and stills win out. An unsettling air takes center stage. The tone of “Get Out” is out of control, in a “That must have taken years to iron out,” high-wire-balancing-act sort of way (In fact, it did. Peele spent five years fine-tuning the script). It’s simultaneously creepy, funny and satirical, frequently all within the same scene. The outdoor party scene is a prime example of this, simple enough conversations heard all the time in reality that Peele laces with menace. It’s funny until you realize the prevalence of those exchanges just outside your doorstep. What they pinpoint about casual racism in 2018 and the normalization of white people trying to take ownership of black culture for their own devices.

One viewing hinges on the jumps and twists, but subsequent rewatches unlock an entirely different movie. “Get Out” manages to get better and reveals more intricacies the more you watch it. I’ve heard complaints about it’s simplicity and small scale, when that is one of its greatest assets. I’d argue the film throws its bloodied hands in the air and let’s all hell break those in its final minutes because a) It wants to adhere to the formula Peele so admires and b) There are no easy answers for the discomforting subtext it explorers in the first act. The point is, there is a point, and it’s a fearlessly clever one. “Get Out” feels new. Leave it to a comedian to lift up an old piece of furniture and find cockroaches crawling around underneath.