It was a sleepy year at the cinema in 2017. And since I made the decision to attempt a full year of sobriety it was a sleepy year at home as well. No film screenings – or a record low film screenings for me this last year. I think I went to eight studio screenings in twelve months. Other than that it was no libations of any kind. No hanging out in taverns discussing death, sex, politics, religion, or most importantly, movies. My social life has grown increasingly inanimate as a result. I watch films with the rest of you in the theater. I play Blizzard’s Overwatch on my Playstation 4 with a dedication only serious heroin fiends might begin to understand. I hang out with my daughter (8) and we watch The Office on Netflix on a daily basis. I collect and neglect my growing library of Criterion Blu-rays. (this year’s gems were Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Payne’s Election, and Melville’s Le Samourai) And I write when I feel like it.
And I guess I feel like it right now…
It was island living in 2017, just in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain range. Which was a good thing because, lets face it, movies were overwhelmingly mediocre this year. Summer was nearly a total write-off. (Alien Covenant, Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Baby Driver, and Dunkirk being the only highlights – and you read that right, Alien Covenant nearly made this Top 10 list) Fall and Winter were kind of stuffy, the quality of the critical darlings greatly exaggerated. Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri were both super OK – but not super by any stretch. While The Shape of Water (there can never be too much Christian-panic in this industry) and Downsizing were both reduced into caricatured overreactions to an election some (under normal circumstances) talented filmmakers didn’t agree with. While the beginning of the year started off with much promise. Split, Trainspotting 2, A Cure For Wellness, John Wick 2, and Logan were all up for consideration for this year’s Top 10 list.
The truth is being a film fan in 2017 – post Trump election – was about as fun as being an NFL fan in 2017. Escapism suddenly took on an aggressively pessimistic political tone. As a consequence theater attendance dropped as potential moviegoers listened to the demoralizing political platforming from Hollywood elitists only to discover that these same people molest and harass more innocents per capita than two-thousand years under the reign of the Catholic clergy. Things only grew more disappointing in the media – film media most of all. I felt the collapse of Aintitcoolnews on a personal level. Anyone under 40 who made their way through the jungle of movie message boards into semi-professional film criticism walked easily through the path trampled down by all three-tons of Harry Knowles.
As the true boots-on-the-ground writers in the media have now since vanished – the folks like Stephen King, Harry Knowles, and Roger Ebert – they’ve been systematically replaced by a cloying chorus of socially conscious posturing and in-group grousing over offensive content infractions. As a consequence we now receive Top 10 Lists that feel as if they were approved of by committees and less and less like they were authored by individuals. In the world of post-Trump entertainment the gap between commoner and media agent has only increased. It is my growing postulation that political partisanship and the barriers erected by progressive dogma will be the death of art and art appreciation. But I digress…
Here is the art I totally appreciated in 2017:
A CURE FOR WELLNESS, directed by GORE VERBINSKI
Ask anyone who crafts a Top 10 list at the end of every year and they’ll tell you that the last spot on the list is the toughest to fill. It has the most candidates vying for the position, and since to include ties in this endeavor is to give up all together there’s a very real feeling of agony once you decide on which film is the final piece of the puzzle. It’s also the one spot on the list that may offer the most insight into who the person is behind the title of critic, as it’s usually a choice made from the gut and not from the heart. So here we arrive at A Cure For Wellness. Gore Verbinski’s grim fairy tale exploring the binds between toxicology, pathology, and ultimately mythology. Which is, of course, a recipe seemingly constructed with my morbid predilections in mind. The same guy who just had to have The Hughes Brothers’ splattery From Hell in the fiftieth position of his Top 50 Films of Decade 2000 list, and saw Shutter Island twice in the theater back in 2010, and swooned over Stoker a few years later, is still very much alive and slithering around in the muck in 2017.
The tone here is that of the classic esoteric madhouse rock anthems of the sixties and seventies. Songs like The Eagles’ Hotel California or The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. Songs about grand lodges for the cosmically lost. Single-stay vortexes guests could check into and check out of, but could never, ever leave. With its commentary on the twin toxic appetites for wealth and health, to it’s folktale trappings about an ancient Thulian Baron – an Emperor of Eels if you will – and his clinical, quasi-pagan endeavors toward attaining immortality and an immaculate bloodline, A Cure For Wellness is the great Norwegian Black Metal album that never happened.
Verbinski’s eye has never been more sure. This is a lavish, meticulously coordinated piece of visual cinema before it is anything else. (nods to Murnau’s silent-era vampire film Nosferatu included) It’s an elegant and confidently weird film one minute – inducing gasps and gag reflexes the next. A Cure For Wellness very well may be the best dressed B-movie ever made. There’s a commentary on greed just behind the occult drapery. One of ruthless power brokers being installed as biological filters for the ultimate broker in power – an immortal savage lustily siphoning their living essence out through their skin as they pay him for the pleasure. I left the theater last February with my equilibrium at odds with itself, fully aware of two, not necessarily mutually exclusive, facts:
I absolutely loved Gore Verbinski’s latest film. I am definitely not a well man.
GOOD TIME, directed by THE SAFDIE BROTHERS
It certainly feels like we’re witnessing the beginning of a compelling era in American cinema. Sean Baker’s Tangerine and The Florida Project (a candidate for this list) and the Safdie’s Heaven Knows What and Good Time are the celluloid heralds of the stripped-of-all-impurity, in-this-moment films that after a century of telling stories through the lens of a camera filter, feel legitimately material and organic. Feel legitimately tactile. American cinema hasn’t been this street level and this volatile since Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. New York isn’t as recognizable from the Safdie brothers’ perspective. The Big Apple of both Heaven Knows What and Good Time a vast subterranean labyrinth of lost villages, lost cultures, and lost languages. It’s a New York mostly unexplored in contemporary film. Which is to say it’s neither romantic or manufactured, instead it feels, sounds and looks like the world we exist in. Or considering economic standing, exist above. We are simply voyeurs squatting in a difficult, intimidating land.
As a film Good Time is as unpredictable and cagey as its lead character. Playing the lead, Connie Nikas, Robert Pattinson puts on a nearly invincible presentation. Nikas is a hot-wired narcissist willing to go to any length to get his mentally handicapped brother out of lockup for a botched bank job he orchestrated. In the New York social economy Connie’s an incredibly gifted bottom feeder. A human calculator insistently adding up the advantages and liabilities any stranger or friend can offer him. He’s the Artful Dodger, but somehow dodgier. And yet his quest is a noble one, even if it has absolutely no direction.
There’s a palpable science fiction vibe in Good Times, and I’m sure the 80’s Eastern Bloc sci-fi movie score helps compound the illusion of futurism in a story set in the right-exactly-now, (did I spy a Pepe the Frog comic getting drenched in blotter acid?) but you can’t escape the impression that on any one night in a city this enormous and this turbulent there’s a million different choices being made by a million different souls, with each choice leading to other choices and other encounters, each creating parallel universes with varying results and wildly different conclusions. The story in Good Time is simply a ride down through one series of turns and intersections and alternatives toward its own unique conclusion. You still can’t escape the feeling after first viewing the film that it if you walked back into the theater and sat down and started watching Good Time for a second run that it could somehow still be capable of jumping the rails to go careening down an entirely different chain of events toward a radically different finale and alternate reality. The reason why is the Safdie brothers have created a film where the possibilities seem absolutely endless. That’s virulent filmmaking right there. Absolutely deadly.
THE DISASTER ARTIST, directed by JAMES FRANCO
James Franco understands gonzo just about better than any other filmmaker working today. (I would also argue that he understands gonzo more than he understands Faulkner or McCarthy) Yet with Tommy Wiseau it feels like maybe this is a breed of gonzo both unknown and unknowable. The quadruple threat (actor/director/producer/writer) has been shrouded in a cloak of mystery as dark as his presence, (malevolent) and yet we can’t shake the feeling that Wiseau is exactly what he appears to be. A dead-eyed, mildly retarded Tarzan of the Apes who funded a vanity film project featuring self-imposed nude scenes through obscure means. And yet if he were to create just another bad romantic thriller, I doubt we’d all be here fifteen years later for The Disaster Artist.
The Room is only unusually terrible because Tommy Wiseau is unusually terrible in The Room – which already happened to be a bad movie by any standard. He scene steals from his own dreadful material. Tommy just being Tommy in everyday exchanges comes off as a bad performance. His instincts as an actor are backwards. As a filmmaker insolvent. He’s absolutely wrong for both parts, so in a way The Disaster Artist is an underdog story. Not as in an artist versus corporate interests, or an artist versus himself. Instead Franco’s viciously funny film is about one artist seemingly at odds with the entire universe.
Reflecting on Tim Burton’s Ed Wood we come to realize that Edward D. Wood Jr. had advantages Wiseau will never be able to attain. At least Ed was a coherent human being. One capable of love and of being loved. An attribute Tim Burton obviously leaped upon. Whereas James Franco – to his eternal credit – is unwilling to soft sell Tommy Wiseau in his biopic. Where Burton allowed his mustached muse to flee his Hollywood screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space before the audience of that era turned on the film, (Plan 9’s fans all arrived in the early 80’s, 21 years after the film’s release) James Franco forces Tommy – and along with Tommy, The Disaster Artist’s spectators – to confront the death of his dream in front of a live, public audience in real time. A humiliating experience for any romantic. And yet Wiseau gets through it. We get through it with him. His dreams of being a big name in Tinseltown are ultimately realized through a completely different avenue. Don’t you dare call it a shortcut.
WIND RIVER, directed by TAYLOR SHERIDAN
As we began watching Netflix’s series Godless (our headway into this series just a single episode, I can’t see us continuing) earlier this month I asked my wife what the attraction is to the western genre. Together we concluded that it was a blend of the pure freedom the era of open spaces allowed and the idealism of a country just getting through it’s only (fingers crossed) Civil War to begin its manifest destiny toward building the superstructure of modern America.
As I watched Wind River later that weekend I realized though Taylor Sheridan’s film is a modern western – a contemporary tale of cowboys and Indians – it is extremely regressive in its ideology. With the freedom of the west comes total vulnerability to the forces of the natural world. In this film we have two fathers mourning the loss of their teen daughters. Concerning raising children Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, warns us “Don’t even blink.” His attention to his beautiful daughter faltered for a single night and she vanished from this world as if she never existed at all. As for the idealism of building a new country and a new democracy? It’s 2017, and though that dream still exists in the urban centers in America – places where luck still has value as the film points out – on the Arapaho Reservation we find a group of people withdrawn from all of that. The tides of extraordinary change washed through Wyoming a century ago, never to return.
Taylor Sheridan’s first directorial effort also happens to be from his most melancholy script. (Sheridan wrote both Sicario and Hell Or High Water) In Wind River the filmmaker fully confronts the consequences of the unjust contest between mortal man and the immutability of death and violence. We’re reminded that the human heart is fabricated from the toughest muscle tissue in anatomy, capable of surviving both frostbite and hellfire. I believe Wind River is a hopeful film as well, with a natural beauty and nobility bordering on the paranormal. Feeling both mythical and fragile, as all great westerns do.
TRAINSPOTTING 2, directed by DANNY BOYLE
T2 is Danny Boyle’s way of making it whole with Ewan McGregor. Making amends while also having his onscreen surrogate Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson beat the guts out of him in their first onscreen reunion in over two decades. With the settling of scores follows the exultation of reunion. Which, with this crew, means crime and libation. And yet more crime and libation. Mark Renton’s tagline “Choose Life” (we learn its origins in this sequel) is now fully realized. Renton chose life at the end of the last film. This is it. It’s better clothes and exercise to keep the flab away. It is marriage, and a job, and divorce, and climbing rungs in a corporation, and erectile dysfunction disorder. It is also very, very dull – bent heavily toward rotting away at the end of it all, as he so eloquently put it in the original movie. It is here that Renton’s mind, and his new film, defaults to reminiscing over the days of heroin roulette. Of running, cheating, scamming, fragmenting, breaking away. In T2, by way of an amendment, he adds reconnecting and seeking out forgiveness for his treason against his company of criminal youth.
Which is, I believe, the actual motivation behind Danny Boyle’s return to this material seventeen years after dumping Ewan for Leo for the lead role in The Beach. He’s asking Ewan McGregor to forgive him, and to put the tabloid headlines of the past behind them both. To move forward. To choose life. We can only hope that because of Trainspotting 2 further future collaborations between these two talented artists are now on the table again.
The brilliance of 1997’s Trainspotting was in its economy and virility. It was a hyperkinetic mix of narcotic horrors and the small heroisms of recovery. The brilliance of 2017’s T2 is its desire to reconnect with the ancient electricity of youth when midlife malaise is just beginning to creep in. It hasn’t metastasized yet, but as Renton would say – it’s in the post. T2 is a retrospective piece. For fans like myself (I have had Trainspotting in my Top 10 All Time list for most of the 21st Century) it’s a rare (twenty years apart) chance to hang out with these characters we love so much. And still love very much as it turns out.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, directed by MICHAEL GRACEY
Pound for pound the most entertaining thing in theaters in 2017. (Patti Cake$ and American Made run a close second and third in this contest) The Greatest Showman is incredibly nimble when it comes to handling what the cult of criticism would deem ‘problematic material.’ The great irony being that we live in a culture that praises diversity above all else, but flogs this same diversity when it decides to turn a fast buck. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script is self-predictive in this respect. Heralding P.T. Barnum as the ultimate Cinderella story. Dressed up for the ball and aching to be taken seriously by polite society, but nonetheless considered an undesirable fraud. Which is exactly the reception The Greatest Showman is receiving. Garnering next to no praise. And what praise it does gather not without dire historical disclaimers tacked on to warn the easily triggered that this is a film that celebrates profiteering and freak shows. The well-heeled intellects didn’t accept P.T. Barnum back in the 1870’s and they certainly haven’t changed their tune in the 21st century. Of course they’re either forgetting, or are straight up ignoring, that the audience, historically, has flocked to freak shows. Otherwise Barnum would have died a pauper.
As would the Kardashians.
Now that the circus is all but extinct in this country, here’s a film that understands the original draw. And no, those gymnastic exhibitions slathered in mortician’s makeup down in Las Vegas aren’t the ‘circuses’ we’re talking about. We’re talking about circuses with elephants snorting peanuts from the hands of giggling children and clown car traffic jams. The Greatest Showman is genuine, but earnestly superficial as well. Bearing a cheap type of glamour that is still nonetheless glamour. Not as sophisticated as something like La-La Land, but never as bipolar as that film was about its identity either – and so much more fun. Sure we’re handing over our nickel to gain entrance into the tent, but once inside we’re included in The Greatest Showman’s mayhem. It turns out we’re the most important component in fact. In 2017 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus left town, perhaps indefinitely. The Greatest Showman is a bittersweet reminder of what we may have lost in our transition toward Utopian malaise.
This musical has the distinction of being the first film ever to coerce me into breaking one of my personal strictures for theater etiquette. I turned on my phone mid-movie. The Greatest Showman’s soundtrack is so infectious I left the theater with it on my iPhone. Had to.
PERSONAL SHOPPER, directed by OLIVIER ASSAYAS
Perhaps the most fashionable ghost story ever told. Certainly the most haughty. Not content with making the atypical paranormal thriller Olivier Assayas instead crafts something akin to an existential murder mystery. The quintessential haunted art film. Kristen Stewart’s Maureen is the personal shopper to a globetrotting celebrity fashionista, not that she’s presented at all as a partisan of high fashion herself. Her character in Personal Shopper is as Assayas presented her in The Clouds of Sils Maria – a frumpy waif awaiting autonomy. In this film she spends her afternoons shopping among the expensive Parisian boutiques in old tee shirts and ugly sweaters. At nights she patrols the grounds of an old French chateau looking to make contact with the ghost of her dead twin brother.
We realize as the film goes on that Maureen is something of a ghost herself. Barely visible to the socialites she finds her employ among, the girl only materializing when she’s finally goaded by texts on her iPhone from a menacing otherworldly unknown, to try on her spoiled ward’s expensive wardrobe. Assayas is obviously exploring his inner voyeur in these sequences, allowing the ugly swan subject of his paranormal thriller, Maureen, to bloom into Kirsten Stewart right in front of his camera. The transformation certainly feels like a corporealization of a lost spirit. This invisible girl, chained to a single gloomy location – both Paris and the mansion she explores after dark – manifests into the gorgeous starlet right in front of our eyes. Her brief escapades among the well-to-do of Paris painfully brief before she’s pulled back into her sneakers and jeans. A wandering specter searching for evidence of the afterlife again.
There are indeed fiends in Personal Shopper. Fiends made of flesh and blood and those that manifest out of thin air and vomit ectoplasm. We don’t know who is texting Maureen, only the hunch that even though they seem playful, they bear her grievous harm. The finale is an orchestrated puzzle box. The ghoul finally reveals himself/itself. A few phantoms do as well. But because of the admittedly smug, certainly clever, supernatural air to the film we can never fully trust what it is we’re seeing and hearing. Personal Shopper’s previous questions about life and afterlife are concentrated down into an unnecessarily ambiguous sequence of confrontations and miniature revelations. Like any of the few really interesting films that tackle mortality and immortality the interpretation is left completely up to cinema’s ultimate interpreter. The viewer. We are the closing arbiter where all these questions about the climax of this story circulate and percolate toward one final conclusion. We need to see this movie again. And soon.
BLADE RUNNER 2049, directed by DENIS VILLENEUVE
Blade Runner 2049 starts where all stories started. A man. A woman. A tree of forbidden knowledge. Wisely eschewing the urge to take his sequel into the Off-world colonies, Denis Villeneuve opens Blade Runner 2 on a protein farm on Earth. Like Ridley Scott he treats the Off-world as an unseen realm. Arcadia. A celestial endowment to the beholden much like Heaven, or Shangri-la, or Xanadu, or the Tannhauser Gate of Hauer’s celebrated speech. Earth is still Eden, (Niander Wallace refers to it this way later in the movie) the root of humanity and demihumanity. And so it is in Eden our story opens on a tree of secrets and the promise of the reveal leading to the most precious gift in creation, free will. But also to a radically shortened lifespan in the exchange.
Under Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) the Replicant species have finally been housebroken. Mass production has made them much less elegant than their Nexus ancestors, whose propensity toward rebellion may have been the final crumbling barrier between synthetic life and authentic life, but these new models do what they’re told. They behave. Unless, of course, they access the secret buried under Sapper Morton’s (Dave Bautista) tree. Then those genetic bonds to their human overlords begin to loosen until they slip away totally. Which is the crux of this drama as we follow two Replicants, K and Luv – male and female – down a path of deep spiritual crisis, freedom, and as a consequence, mutually assured destruction.
Forgoing tone and color pallet the first thing that Dennis Villeneuve understands about what made Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner the achievement it is thirty five years after the fact is that, pulling from its own mythology, his new movie understands longevity and incept-dates. Films that challenge the aristocracy of the zeitgeist live well on past their theatrical runs. Box office receipts be damned. As a (some would say, hysterical) fan of the original film, after thirty five years of wondering and six years of waiting and worrying over this new film, it’s a such a relief to finally get here, to the end of 2017, and realize that Blade Runner 2049 fully lives up to its name. 2049 is a tremendous achievement. One of the most spiritually sophisticated science fiction sequels – not to mention films – ever created. It has the additional advantage of being frame perfect. Which is an arty way of saying Blade Runner 2049 is a beautiful movie. Denis Villeneuve gives us a future so gorgeous, so rich, and so vast it feels like there’ll never be enough time to commit to enough viewings to explore it all.
LOGAN, directed by JAMES MANGOLD
Though Logan is set in the future Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine couldn’t be more of a product of history. At this point in his life he looks like an over-the-hill ex-Mennonite minister – with a grubby beard, a pickled tongue, and a dusty dress shirt and suit to cover a lifetime of callouses and scar tissue. He doesn’t choose to reflect on the glory days of the X-Men, or to even hold them to any high standard really. He reflects instead on his life right now, in 2029, and life isn’t good. So he drinks (too much) and swears (too much) and occasionally through provocation comes out of hiding to shred other bad men into bloody ribbons.
Logan is a film about age, about the inevitability of death, about new machines replacing old machines, (new Wolverines – some with beating hearts, some with them torn out of the model totally) and Mr. Mangold, uncommonly restrained with this film, can’t help himself – Logan is a movie totally about redemption. But not about redemption from anything trivial. From past misdeeds or estranged relationships or the typical graphic novel platitudes – though that stuff exists here as well. Logan is about redemption from the sins of comic consumerism. Redemption from being a key player in retailing the Marvel product line. Logan is about embracing the downhill slide of pop culture veneration.
See, sooner or later this wave of comic book films will ride itself out, and the culture will all move onto something new (new machines replacing old machines) and when we look back to the kitschy days of comic book chic, (exemplified in the film by the old X-Men comic books Logan labels a “big ******g lie”) there’s only going to be one or two of these movies that will survive the trip into the future whole, still maturing and appreciating in value – Logan is going to be at the top of that very small list. Not to snub the fan base entirely James Mangold adds something else to his antihero film, ignoring the right instincts that keep ninety percent of Logan grounded in raw, punishing reality, he delivers us Wolverine one more time in the final act of his movie. The infernally prickly anti-hero sloughs away and the superhero reemerges, and it’s only for a brief few minutes at the end of the movie but it’s a stunning reminder of why these characters – this character in particular – have been so enormously popular over the years. To use an ancient comic book chestnut, Wolverine’s final performance is nothing short of spectacular.
DUNKIRK, directed by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
It feels like both Christopher Nolan and his long term fan base needed this movie, at this time in the director’s career. I’d almost lost faith in Nolan – and honestly, after Interstellar, it felt like the man was beginning to lose a bit of faith in himself as well. I write this the morning after viewing Dunkirk – it’s Saturday July 27th, and I know, here right now, that this film will not just be on my Top 10 list next Winter, but near the top of it. (and would you look at that – top spot) Not being the biggest fan of The Dark Knight Rises, and no fan at all of Interstellar, Dunkirk was the best thing that could have happened to Christopher and I’s relationship.
Dunkirk’s also a terrific reminder of how easy it is to get swept up by images. Nolan employs music of course, a clever blend of propulsive orchestra against a ticking timepiece to remind us that time is being altered and danced with, but he also understands that, first and foremost, film is a primarily visual medium. That the theater of war makes for spectacular theater. And if every frame of celluloid is perfectly plotted and carefully captured the results are nothing short of transcendent.
There are two competing factions in Dunkirk – and not just the English and German forces engaged in deadly combat in the Straights of Dover – the faction of flight and the counter-faction of drowning. And Nolan expertly uses one faction to give the other that much more impact. You can barely breath in one sequence in the film, and then in the next instant be whisked up into the sky with nothing but all the oxygen in the world. Either from claustrophobia, aquaphobia, or from the cool adrenaline buzz of being in the cockpit of a Spitfire dogfighting German Luftwaffe, you’ll continually feel short of breath.
With a few visual cues, a black curl of smoke on the horizon, a single, vulture-esque Heinkel He 111 bomber, scattered ocean vessels in various stages of distress, Nolan deftly reminds his audience not just where they are in this battle of life and death, but when they are. The technique may seem simple enough, but it’s a stunning exercise in geography and temporal choreography as we connect these pieces together for ourselves. Few filmmakers believe in our ability to bridge these gaps between time and space as this filmmaker does. Time, perspective, self preservation, selflessness, life, death, the mythical channel between the two, and the abject panic of combat are all different pieces – not of a script with its rapacious speeches, passionate idealism, and coarse frankness, (you’ll find all that stuff in Joe Wright’s substantial Darkest Hour – required viewing for Dunkirk fans) but that of a finely tuned orchestra. The language employed here is the immediate sort. A few scattered thoughts verbalized seemingly for the character’s benefit and not ours.
Ultimately Dunkirk is an expedition through the great playing field of war. A stretch of water between France and England that we skim across, fly above, and dip under in a series of linked combat vignettes. An intensive and intense bout of incongruent victories – but never defeat. Christopher Nolan’s tenth major motion picture is nothing short of a masterpiece. A handsome and flawless brand of cinema we don’t see often enough for my taste.