Out of the 55 releases I had the chance to view either in the theater or at home, there are 10 films that I’ll watch the most in the coming years, or that have impacted me in a way that I found to be profound. As always, and with any art-form, there’s no such thing as “best” or “worst” – what matters most is what you personally respond to, and my hope is to spread my love for cinema to those who are interested.
When I viewed James Gray’s extraordinary exploration drama The Lost City of Z last April, I knew that it would be tough to beat as my favorite film from 2017. I mentally dared all other motion pictures to match its ambition, scope, and passion, and I found nothing else that came close. Gray is the most underrated filmmaker of his generation, interested only in adult dramas (The Immigrant, Two Lovers, We Own the Night, The Yards, and Little Odessa are his other works), and he crafted his most impressive and expansive film to date with The Lost City of Z. The performances by Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, and Sienna Miller are all outstanding, the visuals conjured up by legendary cinematography Darius Khondji are staggering (and frequently recall Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard for added measure, much as The Immigrant did), and the film works both as epic adventure and intimate drama, with more time spent in certain areas than might be expected from the grand narrative. Jungle adventure is something I’ve long been fascinated with, and this film’s final stretch is absolutely spine-tingling to contemplate, since poetic license was of course required to fill in the gaps to the ominous story. The film also contains my favorite individual scene of the year (when Hunnam lays it down for all to hear upon his return from his first expedition), and the musical score by Christopher Spelman is robust, romantic, and finally haunting. Special thanks to Amazon, Bleecker Street, and the various production companies who were all involved in coming to this film’s development rescue, and finally getting it made and released.
Wind River is a perfect movie. There’s literally zero wrong with it. Anyone saying otherwise is trying to sell you something. Don’t listen to that person; they are lying to you. If only we could get a dramatic thriller like this every single year. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan is the A-1 real-deal. If his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water weren’t enough for you – well – there’s no saving you. And now he’s a ridiculously confident director, with Wind River demonstrating a strong ear for darkly poetic dialogue, rational plotting, air-tight pacing, and marked with moments of unexpected directorial grace. The film is also a reservoir of emotion, while tackling themes of grief and loss, which is stuff that most people don’t like to think too hard about. Jeremy Renner has never been better, Elizabeth Olsen gets a part that channels Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, and the cold and desolate milieu is a perfect match for what’s at the heart of this angry and vital piece of filmmaking. There isn’t one false move to be found in this riveting piece of storytelling.
I’m absolutely DONE with superhero and comic books movies, outside of possibly one or two upcoming exceptions. But when done correct, this genre can be something special. Witness: James Mangold’s blistering comic-book feature Logan, which takes a decidedly R-rated approach to a character that was ALWAYS R-rated to begin with – see what happens when things aren’t neutered?! Jet-black serious with very little (if any…) tongue-in-cheek humor, Mangold sought to make a film for grown-ups, and he did. Working with scenarists Scott Frank and Michael Green, the story makes sense and borrows classic beats from Hollywood westerns, while Hugh Jackman finally was given the chance to go full-throttle with the character that has undoubtedly made him a famous face. I loved the brutality of this film, the unrelenting sense of drive and purpose that the narrative provided, and it’s remarkable how UN-CGI everything felt in this movie, especially when you consider how this type of material typically feels like it’s been generated from some sort of computer program.
A Ghost Story is a cosmic masterpiece, reaching for the infinite, while still be very content to explore what’s directly in front view. I wasn’t prepared for this film from writer/director David Lowery (A’int them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon), as I only knew of it as “that movie where Rooney Mara eats an entire pie in one-take,” or that movie where “Casey Affleck walks around playing a ghost dressed in a bed-sheet.” And yes, both of these elements figure into this devastating portrait of death (and rebirth…), but it’s so much more than that. Lowery paints a stunningly intimate portrait of one house in a small town and you see the effects of death and how that inevitability of life is part of what makes us all human. Deliberately slow-paced, deeply artsy, and mind-bending upon its final moments, A Ghost Story was the biggest surprise from 2017, and a film that I can’t wait to experience again in the future.
Speaking of surprises, I had been led to believe that Good Time, which was written and directed by the Safdie Brothers, was going to rock my world – and it did – most triumphantly. This is essentially 90 minutes of Tony Scott meets Michael Mann urban action, drenched in neon-style, speed, and visual pizzazz, with frantic performances from a greasy ensemble led by a career-best Robert Pattinson, who plays a desperate guy trying to break his brother out of police-protected custody at a hospital after a botched bank robbery. All forward momentum, packed with twists and turns, and shot and edited with tremendous verve, Good Time is one of the best “all in one night” thrillers I’ve seen in years, and would rank as a prime example of “pure cinema.”
The Lovers stings with a level of truth that not everyone will want to fess up to as a viewer. Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (HBO’s sly and unsung Doll & Em) is a smart satirist with a humanist’s touch, and the characters he created are all as prickly as they are interesting to observe. Tracy Letts and Debra Winger play a married couple who are on to each other’s infidelities, and yet they allow them to transpire, because they have a feeling that their extra-marital relationships might strengthen (or repair?) their own in some unique way. Make no mistake – this is a dark movie, truthful yet dark, and it’s an extremely liberal and socially progressive piece that might not play so well with more conservative viewers. Hilarious, insightful, sad, and oddly touching, The Lovers is a marvelous piece of work, and has, for my money, the best final scene in any movie that I saw in 2017.
David Gordon Green is one of the most eclectic and prolific filmmakers currently working, and he made possibly his most impressive film in his already-great career with the terrorism/rehabilitation drama Stronger, which features exceptional work from Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany. This film will make for a potent double bill with Peter Berg’s unjustly ignored procedural thriller Patriots Day, which looked at the Boston Marathon bombing in real time, showing all of the fire-fights and the extensive manhunt to catch the murderers. Stronger dials it down to the individual level, focusing on one man and the people who are in his orbit (family, friends, and significant other) and shows the resilience of the human spirit despite nearly insurmountable odds. This film won’t be for everyone; the bombing scene is vividly portrayed by cinematographer Sean Bobbit, as it should be, and the physical rigors experienced by Gyllenhaal’s character are never sugarcoated. I was overwhelmed with feelings while watching this movie – anger, love, hate, humor, and finally – acceptance, which I think is one of the strongest themes in John Pollono’s detailed and observant screenplay. And it must be said yet again, Jake Gyllenhaal is one of our finest working actors, etching another intense performance that feels honest and true to the material.
Detroit is the “strong medicine” pick of the year, with run-and-gun filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) crafting a film of enormous gravitas and overwhelming anguish. Focusing on the horrific events at the Algiers Motel in Detroit circa 1967, Bigelow and co-screenwriter Mark Boal devised an oddly structured tri-fold narrative, which curiously works to the film’s overall benefit. The first section is all slow-burn introduction and anxious build up; the film’s protracted mid-section is the murder and cover-up itself, presented in an unflinching and absolutely harrowing manner; the motion picture concludes in court which helps to solidify and justify all that has come before it. Barry Ackroyd’s jittery and unflinching camerawork is outstanding, as is the film’s evocative production design by Jeremy Hindle. A big-time financial flop and only coolly embraced by critics, Detroit might be one of those movies that’s tough to consistently return to for “entertainment value,” but like other scorching pieces of American history filtered through the prism of cinema, it’s an unforgettable document of an unspeakable tragedy, that sadly feels all too important in our current sociopolitical climate.
War for the Apes is how I like my $150 million CGI blockbusters to be fashioned – with intelligence, resonance, relevance, and artful expertise in every department of the filmmaking process. Matt Reeves is one of the only guys playing in this realm that I fully trust at this point; if it’s not integral to the narrative, he’s not interested in mucking up his films with unnecessary bloat or showmanship. I love the sense of purpose this trilogy has had, with each film besting the previous in overall quality. And miraculously, instead of the ideas running thin or feeling overly contrived, this trilogy capping installment is the best of the recent bunch, with the motion capture work being strong enough to inspire out-loud remarks of astonishment. Andy Serkis is Oscar-worthy as Caesar the Ape, Woody Harrelson is excellent as the baddie, the full-bodied action sequences are thrilling and beyond epic, with the human component still very much intact and holding everything together. This is Grade-A popcorn entertainment done on a grand scale that never sacrifices coherence for excess.
Atomic Blonde was the best straight-up action film I saw in 2017. It also features producer/star Charlize Theron FRENCH-KISSING OTHER BEAUTIFUL WOMEN while shooting lots of bad-guys in the head with double-pistols with a hypnotic 80’s soundtrack blasting away in the background. For these reasons alone you should have seen it in the theater. I wish this movie had done $100 million domestic, and not $50 million domestic, as it’s exactly the wild-ride that the bodacious trailers promised. Why didn’t more people show up? Sure, the plotting isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but when everyone is having this much FUN and the action is this DELIRIOUS, and Charlize is THAT HOT, well, you need to bow down and thank your lucky stars that THIS was her passion project and that she got it made. The hall-way fight sequence, all done in mostly one fluid take, is the adrenaline-fueled set-piece of the year, and worth the admission price alone.
Other notable films that I loved and look forward to seeing again are Dunkirk (staggering on a physical level and impeccably mounted), Only the Brave (heroic, grim, and powerful), Ingrid Goes West (oh-so-au-courant and scarily funny), Baby Driver (pure style, pure energy, pure fun, minus the Spacey factor…), The Meyerowitz Stories (painfully funny and sad in equal measure), War Machine (smart, stylish, and sadly overlooked), Okja (beguiling, nervy, and audacious), and Shot Caller (riveting from frame one).
And while I don’t like to dwell in negativity, the biggest disappointment for me from 2017 was easily Blade Runner 2049; a second viewing has done nothing to change my initial feelings that it’s simply inconsequential and not anywhere near the standards set by the first film, despite exemplary craft contributions from the entire production team. Justice League was easily the biggest waste of time I experienced all year; I wanted to gouge out my eye-balls after watching it. And Alien: Covenant pissed me off to no end – what a pointless piece of back-tracking and nonsensical plotting.
Written by Nick Clement