Jeff Mitchell’s Top 20 Films of 2017
No matter how one feels about 2017, from a movie-perspective, I think that the year has been a most eventful and enjoyable one! After seeing 247 new films over 12 months, 45 movies could have easily found their way on my Top 20 list. Well, after much hand-wringing and lots of careful consideration over a few late nights, here are the best 20 films that I have seen in 2017. (By the way, which film just missed the list? No. 21 is “Logan Lucky”, Steven Soderbergh’s comedy/heist film.)
20. “Colossal” – Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is just floating through life in New York City, and after her umpteenth, irresponsible episode, her boyfriend unceremoniously breaks up with her, so she moves back home to the small town that she gladly left behind years ago. If Gloria thought that her life could not be more turned around, she slowly realizes that she is linked to a Godzilla-like monster who is causing havoc and panic in Seoul. In his most unique and clever screenplay, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s quirky comedy also shifts tones in a sudden move that is almost as surprising as the aforementioned plot, as Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis artfully play in their characters’ unpredictable spaces.
19. “Call Me by Your Name” – Set in Italy during the summer of 1983, an American teenager, Elio (Timothee Chalamet), has an unforeseen love affair with his father’s graduate assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), in a film that director Luca Guadagnino gives the time and space to let their budding relationship breathe over a 2-hour 12-minute runtime. Elio and Oliver walk with nuanced chemistry, as often times their feelings go unsaid, and their actual spoken words deliver effective complementary impacts. Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) offers some words - in one key moment - that effectively tie the film together in an unexpected, breathtaking way.
18. “A Ghost Story” - Although writer/director David Lowery’s film contains one – arguably – scary moment, “A Ghost Story” is not a horror film. Not at all. Instead, it best resembles a 1-hour 32-minute lesson: to embrace, savor and enjoy the time that we have on this planet…while we are alive. Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play an unnamed couple who rent a three-bedroom rural ranch that is haunted by a ghost, one compelled to search for earthly answers from the past. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011) is the closest film-comparison in terms of mood, tone and narrative construction, and this polarizing film will effectively haunt those who embrace its eccentric, spiritual experience.
17. “Lady Bird” – Greta Gerwig’s picture appears autobiographical, as both her and her lead character, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), grew/grow up in Sacramento, attended/attend a Catholic high school and dreamed/dream of getting into an East Coast college. Gerwig, however, said at the 2017 New York Film Festival, “None of the things that happen in the movie literally happened to me, but they all rhyme with the truth.” Her comedy follows Lady Bird’s senior year with a collection of hilarious detours, mishaps and opportunities for growth, but the strength of the picture lies with the title character’s relationship with her mom, dad and brother (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts and Jordan Rodrigues) in the most honest family picture of the year. Chances are that “Lady Bird” will “rhyme with the truth” for many, many others.
16. “The Disaster Artist” – “The Room” (2003) is rightfully considered one of the worst movies in recent memory, but legions of fans have embraced it as a cult classic and continue to religiously watch this disaster (as an unintended comedy) at late-night screenings to this day. Director James Franco’s downright hilarious film – based upon actor Greg Sestero’s memoir - revisits the making of “The Room”, and he also offers a pitch-perfect performance of its unorthodox creator, Tommy Wiseau. Franco is simply brilliant as Wiseau, who sports 80s heavy metal hair, claims that he is from New Orleans (but carries a thick Eastern European accent) and enjoys an endless supply of money. “The Room” fans will immediately embrace this picture and probably watch it over and over and over. What if you have not seen “The Room”? Well, it is probably a prerequisite for “The Disaster Artist”.
15. “Wind River” – Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario” (2015), “Hell or High Water” (2016)) is no stranger to creating material that is soaked in bleak and somber tones, and with “Wind River”, he wrote and directed a picture dripping with a similar dark ambiance. During the coldest months of winter in Wind River, Wyo. (a Native American reservation), a game tracker (Jeremy Renner) finds a woman frozen to death, faced down in the snow and without her shoes, but the mystery deepens, because her (Kelsey Asbille) body is miles from anywhere. A green FBI agent from Las Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to help, but she feels somewhat emotionally frozen, like her new environment. The performances, including Gil Birmingham and Althea Sam, carry demonstrative sobrieties - save Graham Greene, who offers welcome humor in spots – that match this detective story which delves into backyard justice.
14. “What Will People Say” – Writer/director Iram Haq serves a haunting family conflict between modern-day freedoms and vigorous tradition, as Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) – a 16-year-old Pakistani girl living in Norway - clashes with her parents’ conservative ideals. Very early in the movie, her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain), misunderstands an awkward circumstance and takes his rage out on Nisha in extreme ways. Intolerance and inflexibility rule in Nisha’s household, and she suffers through an emotional rollercoaster that forces the audience hold its collective breath during displays of control and abuse. Nisha lives a nightmare that she cannot wake up from and with no allies in sight, the film yanks on our heartstrings and leaves a lingering mark. For those who embraced 2015’s “Mustang”, “What Will People Say” will resonate as well.
13. “Maudie” – Sally Hawkins delivers an Oscar-worthy performance with her heartbreaking and inspirational turn as Maud Lewis in a biopic about a sweet, immensely determined and talented artist from Nova Scotia. Lewis - a fragile woman, riddled with rheumatoid arthritis and no stranger to emotional and physical abuse - decided to move in with Everett (Ethan Hawke), a simple man who uses corrosive anger and blunt insults as his chief methods of communication. Director Aisling Walsh spends long, important and difficult minutes in the couple’s modest home to build towards an emotional payoff, when life bends in more positive directions through Maud’s cheerful paintings. Bring your tissues for tears of gloom, joy and revelations.
12. “Raw” – Justine’s (Garance Marillier) parents drop her off at veterinary school, and she feels a bit nervous about her new journey. Her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), already studies there and should be an obvious friendly face, but the college feels like a horror show, as the upper classmen constantly haze the younger students. Under a backdrop of very disturbing, organized teasing, a more gruesome horror show rises when Justine – a vegetarian – acquires her first taste of meat. Writer/director Julia Ducournau weaves an unseemly tale of twisted hunger in a supposed bastion of learning. Filmed in Belgium, this movie keeps the audience off-balance through a story of personal despair via uncontrollable primal urges that cross an extremely taboo human boundary. A highly effective and deeply disturbing horror movie.
11. “Thelma” – Although a bit shy, Thelma (Eili Harboe) seems like an ordinary 18-year-old heading off to college. She is an only child, so her folks – Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) – lean toward helicopter parent-tendencies. In between attempts to make friends and study in the library, Thelma falls ill, and the doctors cannot rationalize the reasons. In Joachim Trier’s slow-burning thriller, Thelma unknowingly carries more in her DNA than meets the eye, while she struggles to explain her present…and past. Trier paints an antiseptic, lonely world for Thelma, and then suddenly pulls five-bell fire alarms due to onscreen emergencies. Occasionally frightening imagery balances the steady narrative, as Harboe, Rafaelsen, Petersen, and Kaya Wilkins (who plays Thelma’s friend) offer strong, contemporary performances in Trier’s unpredictable world.
10. “The Square” – Writer/director Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure” (2014)) is back with an infinitely quirky and entertaining picture about an art curator’s (Claes Bang) experiences after an unusual incident during an ordinary morning in Stockholm. Ostlund fills his movie with many said incidents, odd visuals and strong comedic writing, as the eccentricities of the museum’s modern art sometimes reflect the lives of the everyday characters. Bang firmly anchors the picture, while the supporting players cinematically – and sometimes inexplicably - dart around him. Elisabeth Moss is hysterical as an American journalist, and Terry Notary contributes to the year’s most uncomfortable scene (in a comedy) with his portrayal of an unconventional performance artist.
9. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – Frances McDormand is destined for an Oscar nomination with her best performance since “Fargo” (1996) in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (“In Bruges” (2008), “Seven Psychopaths” (2012)) latest dark comedy. Mildred Hayes (McDormand) pays $5,000 to place a message on three billboards, and her actions cause an uproar in the small town of Ebbing and the surrounding areas. Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination too – by playing a bigoted deputy with terrible cases of arrested development and poor judgment - and Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes lead an outstanding supporting cast. Salty language, rough behavior and violence heavily pepper the snappy dialogue and big laughs in one of the year’s most quotable screenplays.
8. “Baby Driver” – Writer/director Edgar Wright literally and figuratively puts the pedal to the metal in his utterly spectacular and stylish heist picture, in which a 20-something named Baby (Ansel Elgort) drives getaway cars for a collection of felonious types (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, Jon Bernthal, Elza Gonzalez, and more). A nifty, hip soundtrack synchronizes with intricate robbery plans, burning rubber, squealing tires, and an abundance of gunplay in a movie that resonates a specific cinematic euphoria, not unlike two pictures in semi-recent memory, “48 Hours” (1982) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Along with the devilishly impressive, criminal choreography, Wright includes a sweet romance between Baby and a virginal waitress, Debora (Lily James), that grounds the movie with an emotional heartbeat.
7. “Dawson City: Frozen Time” – When “Talkies” arrived, silent films died, but who could possibly have guessed that they were buried in Dawson City, which sits in northwest Canada, near the Alaskan border. Director Bill Morrison recounts the mindboggling discovery of over 500 silent films in the one of the most remote areas in North America. Visually, Morrison constructs the vast majority of his documentary with found-stills and footage of this kinetic little town - that boomed during the gold rush at the turn of the 20th century - and also the previously-lost silent movies. As Dawson City’s history plays out, Morrison cleverly marries the city’s story with thoughtful edits from the stacks and stacks of silent pictures from the era. An absolute must-see for film and history buffs, as the ghosts from this bizarre story will sit with you long after the end-credits roll.
6. “Hounds of Love” – John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn (Emma Booth) kidnap teenage girls for - apparently - the “sport” of it, as writer/director Ben Young’s camera enters their home and documents the daily, grimy details of the couple’s sick escapades. The picture feels so raw and authentic, it captures a documentary-like feel that crawls into the darkest crevice of your brain and burrows itself into your permanent memory. Vicki’s (Ashleigh Cummings) memory is permanently scarred when John and Evelyn choose her as their latest teen prize and escape seems hopeless except for one psychological, longshot idea by playing the “lovebirds” against one another. Creepy, intense and unforgettable, this Australian thriller/nightmare truly is a frightening gem.
5. “A Quiet Passion” – Cynthia Nixon delivers one of the very best performances of 2017 with her affecting portrayal of Emily Dickinson in writer/director Terence Davies thoughtfully-crafted picture. Davies weaves Dickinson’s work into his script, as she fights uphill battles against 19th century sexism and her own demons. Although Dickinson carries substantial love for her family, she shows little regard for her own worth, as a happy young woman regresses toward isolation and self-doubt. Using his cinematic gifts, Davies works lighting, music and camera movement to reflect impactful swings of mood, humor, conflict, and duress in a simple setting - the Dickinson home - for a majority of the picture, while Nixon nurtures every nuanced second of her screen time. A heartbreaking treasure.
4. “Dunkirk” – With hundreds of thousands of Allied troops trapped on the French beaches of Dunkirk and time running out, only an extraordinary rescue can save these men and women. Writer/director Christopher Nolan plays with time and space – from three different perspectives - and amasses extraordinary on-location efforts to recreate this landmark event of World War II in, arguably, the most compelling war film since “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). The picture throws the audience into dire despair and then progresses within massive set pieces that connect in ways that are not always clear…at first. In fact, it may take more than one viewing to completely absorb the film’s intricate and enormous moving parts. A-list cast members - including Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy – effectively offer their characters’ small, individual pieces into this sweeping story commanded by Nolan’s bravado.
3. “Loveless” – Unfortunately, a significant portion of marriages fail, and this includes the nuptials of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin). They not only exist in a loveless marriage, but they absolutely despise each other and are not afraid to express their ire in the most vicious of terms. Zhenya and Boris do still live together but are in the process of selling their apartment and physically going their separate ways. The problem is that their son (about 10 years old) prematurely goes his separate way, and suddenly, this cheerless couple is coping with a missing child. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (“Leviathan” (2014)) dark picture purposely mires in misery and hopelessness, and the famous analogy finding needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the scope of the couple’s new struggle. Skillfully filmed and constructed under a gloomy atmosphere, “Loveless” is a stunner.
2. “I, Tonya” – The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway is mostly remembered (in the U.S., anyway) as the dramatic climax of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga. This duel between two very different figure skaters seized the nation’s attention, primarily due to the infamous attack on Kerrigan in Detroit, Mich. Twenty-three years later, director Craig Gillespie revisits the incident in the Motor City, but much, much more than that, his picture is a Tonya Harding biography with Margot Robbie starring in the title role. Robbie is mesmerizing as Tonya, as she dazzles on the ice and also conveys the consequences of the physical and emotional abuse that Ms. Harding endured by her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). “I, Tonya” simultaneously generates honest sympathy for Harding and wildly entertains with drama and heaps of unexpected humor, while also routinely breaking the fourth wall. The Academy should just hand Janney the Best Supporting Actress Oscar now and also give Robbie a Best Actress nomination.
1. “The Florida Project” – The Magic Castle – splashed in purple and yellow - sits in Orlando, Fla., but tourists from around the world do not target it as a specific destination. It is an extended stay motel that resides near a busy freeway and a concrete neighborhood of fast food joints and discount gift shops, but to 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), this is her playground! Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine” (2015)) organically captures Moonee’s daily adventures of mischief and laughter, as she and her friends find wonder and opportunity in ways that only children can. Baker’s film volleys between comedy and tragedy, because he presents – in full view – Moonee’s meager living conditions provided by her irresponsible, but loving, mother (Bria Vinaite). Willem Dafoe gives the best supporting actor performance of the year as The Magic Castle’s emotionally-weathered, sympathetic manager in a movie that offers a revealing, transparent view of America’s have-nots.