Cinema 2017: Best & Worst

Below are the ten most satisfying and memorable films I saw in 2017:

the landing 10. The Landing A-

Spoiler alert! The best documentary of the year turns out not to be a documentary at all -- and I was completely duped by it, thanks in large part to my having seen it at the Seattle International Film Festival based only on their synopsis -- which gives no indication of it being fake. Rather than being a "mockumentary," however, it's more like an elaborate trick, with some truly impressive production details to pull it off. Started as a silent short shot 25 years ago and set in 1973, presented as footage of astronauts wrecked in China after the Apollo 18 space capsule landed, it is here expanded to feature length, featuring the very same actors (now aged naturally the same amount) offering "interviews" set in 1998. They then offer reflections of their memories of what happened. It's difficult to say whether this movie would be as impressive to someone who already knows it's not real, but for me to say why I found it so impressive, that's a detail I have to reveal. I found it all so real, these people presenting their cases as to whether one of the three astronauts killed the other two out there in the Chinese desert or not, that I couldn't help to consider it one of the best films I saw this year.

What I said then: The Landing is an unusually absorbing film, both as a narrative story and as a supposed documentary. I really can't compliment the actors enough. One of them swears a lot, but even he comes across as just some regular guy. That's what makes it so believable, these talking heads who feel like any such person in a documentary film -- interesting people by varying degrees, but never overtly outlandish.

all the money in the world 9. All the Money in the World A-

A late-addition to my top 10 for the year, indeed, and fittingly so, given that Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer and then his many scenes were re-shot over the course of eight days, with the help of Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg over the Thanksgiving holiday week, all of one month before the film's scheduled release. It does beg the question: would this film have made it onto my top 10 without this amazing achievement? Had it remained with Kevin Spacey, all caked under old-age makeup -- and in spite of his acting talent, setting aside for the moment that he turned out to be weirdly douchey -- it almost certainly would not have. But, what if the part had been played by Christopher Plummer all along? He is superb as the monstrous J. Paul Getty, and his performance is more than matched by Michelle Williams as his ex-daughter-in-law, trying to get him to assist in rescuing her kidnapped son. The final result of this film is as one of the year's best, made all the more impressive by how seamlessly it was reconstructed.

What I said then: All the Money in the World is riveting from start to finish, filled with suspense and intrigue, stunningly well put together for something that had to be taken apart and put back together again in such short order.

saturday church 8. Saturday Church A-

The second of three films on this list from the year's film festivals, and one of two from Seattle's "TWIST" Queer Film Festival, Saturday Church is named after a real-life church program for LGBT youth, and here takes a rare look at the T part of queerness -- without ever naming it, specifically. We don't even know, necessarily, what the gender identity of young Ulysses (the excellent Luka Kain) is -- only that Ulysses has a budding interest in women's clothes, which is met with resistance from a family still grieving the loss of its father. These are all the elements of a heavy tragedy, but Saturday Church lightens the mood -- or, barring that, eases the burden -- with musical flourishes depicting Ulysses's fantasies, all the while presenting some lovely singing, especially from several of the real-life trans women of color cast in many supporting parts. Here is a movie that offers both timeliness and escape while still reflecting the world as it really is.

What I said then: This movie goes out of its way to reflect the stark realities of many trans women of color in particular, the wide range of attitudes toward sex work and the constraints on finding lasting relationships. What makes this movie truly stand apart is how it spends equal time on the unequivocal joys that can also be found along the journey of authentic self-discovery.

coco 7. Coco A-

If you don't cry during the last five minutes of Coco, you are perhaps not a human being. My husband cried at this movie, and I don't believe I had ever seen him cry at any movie! But don't worry -- it's a good kind of cry, the kind that is the result of something so moving that the waterworks just take over. And up until that point, Coco is somewhat uncharacteristically straightforward for a typical Pixar film, actually removing it slightly from the reasons I typically love that animation studio's output -- you won't find all that much cracklingly clever humor here. There is still humor, though, just of a more timeless nature, always tied to the bonds of family between generations, and the fond memories of loved ones who have passed on. Much of this story takes place in the Land of the Dead, and the animation is as spectacular as Pixar's history of excellence on that front would have you expect. A plethora of characters who are actually skeletons are also a lot more expressive than you might expect. In fact, Coco would easily qualify as the one film on this list liable to get an equal amount of love from people of all ages.

What I said then: Rarely is an animated film as textured in its storytelling as it is in its visual scope, and Coco delivers in spades on all fronts. The final fifteen minutes or so are particularly moving, and tie it all together in ways not easily predicted from the beginning of the story.

lady bird 6. Lady Bird A-

Maybe once in a generation does a movie come along that so perfectly captures both the joys and struggles of adolescence, and of working through relationships with sometimes difficult but always loving parents. Lady Bird also doubles as, of all things, a love letter to Sacramento, California -- "the Midwest of California," one of the best lines in any movie this year. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as the title character, going through pretty typical late-teen stuff and enduring a relatably loving yet contentious relationship with her mother (a fantastic Laurie Metcalf). There are no histrionics here, no overwrought melodrama, not even any particularly tragic moments -- just a finely tuned portrait of a young woman coming into her own with a little grace and a lot of humor.

What I said then: Greta Gerwig has a singularly open-hearted style, always a delight to see onscreen, and with Lady Bird we get to see how it translates when she’s behind the camera. This is a tale with a unique sincerity, completely lacking in judgment – for its characters, or even for the religion they follow.

get out 5. Get Out A-

Something just occurred to me about this movie, arguably the biggest box office surprise of the year ($175.4 million haul to date, for a movie with a budget of $4.5 million): its release in late February suggests, perhaps, it was not expected to be a huge success. A cult hit, maybe -- but late January and February releases are typically when studios dump the crap, the movies expected to make the least amount of money, after the Oscar-bait releases of the fall. Get Out is a clear example of that slowly changing, as to say this movie had lasting legs would be an understatement -- and rightfully so: the experience of it is enriched with multiple viewings, and it becomes more impressive upon further reflection. It easily falls into the category of horror comedy -- an effective example of both genres -- yet its sensibility is unique, at least in the realm of cinema. Honestly the less you know about the story before going in, the better. Just take my word for it and see this movie, like, yesterday. It's terrifying, it's hilarious, it features top-notch performances across the board, and it challenges viewers with its take on race in America in all the right ways -- likely in different ways depending on the background and real-life experience of the viewer. The power and cultural impact of Get Out cannot be understated.

What I said then: The more I think about Get Out, the more impressed I get. This isn't just a surprisingly solid horror movie. It's so well constructed that it successfully entices genre skeptics like myself. It's a great movie, period.

the salesman 4. The Salesman A

Here is a rightly constructed story pointedly presented with no easy answers. A childless Iranian couple playing parts in a local production of Death of a Salesman, face the possibility of their production being censored by the government. I'm certain there are parallels between the story of this movie and that of Death of a Salesman, although I have no real familiarity with that play -- which had no effect on how much this film impressed me. When this couple are forced to move into an apartment in the building managed by the play's director, the wife is attacked in the shower and cannot remember enough details about it. Certain details that are known -- right down to the fact that she left her front door open, expecting the husband -- leave the woman uniquely vulnerable in a society wrought with sexism revealed in this story in many subtle ways. It is no doubt such nuances that won The Salesman the Oscar for Best Foreign film in 2017, which was very much deserved -- and also indicates it was technically a 2016 movie. But, it goes on this year's list for me because it was not released in my local market until March 2017. It's too good a movie for me not to include it in this year's list.

What I said then: There are no clear-cut heroes or villains here, only gray areas that get even grayer the closer the characters get to the truth. It's mesmerizing from start to finish, all on the strength of its narrative force, its dialogue, and its performances. It's easily one of the best films of the year.

bpm 3. BPM (Beats Per Minute) A

So, yes, there's a lot of queerness in my top 10 this year -- three of the ten films are about gay or trans people. This reflects my own bias of interests, sure, but is also a good thing: 30% isn't that high (35% if you count a supporting character in Lady Bird who turns out to be gay), especially considering how few of the characters in all movies are in any way queer. BPM, for its part, looks at a truly specific part of history: the guerilla tactics of ACT UP activists in early-nineties Paris. Its gay characters who fall in love in the midst of barely controlled chaos, its tastefully frank depiction of gay sex, and even its predictably tragic end presented with a tenderness all its own all set this movie apart. It presents a very specific slice of history and European culture with a delicate balance.

What I said then: [F]rom the very start, BPM pulsates with tension and urgency; it crackles with excitement until it inevitably evolves into the dread of personal loss. You don't expect this kind of energy when the setting starts in a classroom of political activists discussing strategy.

the big sick 2. The Big Sick A

Until seeing Call Me By Your Name, I really thought The Big Sick would turn out to be my #1 movie of the year -- and they are still neck and neck, for different reasons. I really can't recommend The Big Sick enough, even though it can be a challenge to get people to give it a chance when they regard it as a mainstream romantic comedy -- and it is anything but typical. It does qualify as a romantic comedy, but within a wildly unique context: much of the story takes place while the couple in question have broken up; the woman is in an induced coma; and the man is getting to know the woman's parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both reasons alone to see this movie) in the meantime. The man also happens to be Pakistani-American, played by comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the script with wife Emily V. Gordon, loosely based on their own experience with the exact same scenario. Equal time is given to Kumail's family, with parents played by famous Indian actor Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, who are just as delightful as Romano and Hunter. We get plenty of culture-clashing humor on both sides, often truly hilarious and never played for cheap laughs -- this is a comedy with unusual depth, given the gravity of the situation they are all in. If nothing else, The Big Sick is a rare achievement as a great movie that is unlikely any other ever made.

What I said then: I want to stress how funny this movie is. I mean, it's not going to make you laugh until it hurts -- that wouldn't be appropriate for this movie. What it will do is regularly surprise you with its humor, with jokes coming at a steady clip, the humor rooted in real comedic skill, on both the parts of the actors and the writers.

call me by your name 1. Call Me By Your Name A

Here come the gays again! Truly though, this is just a great and timeless love story, full stop. Armie Hammer is the twentysomething college student doing research while staying with a professor's family in Northern Italy; Timothée Chalamet is the 17-year-old son who reluctantly befriends him, until they unwittingly fall in love with each other. The infamous "peach scene" notwithstanding, it's all pretty straightforward, and it takes a while for it to dawn on the viewer how great this movie truly is -- which is but one of its many delights. It's a story with no ulterior motives, except to make you invested in all of its characters -- including Elio's parents, and especially his dad, played with moving compassion by Michael Stuhlbarg. After months on the festival circuit, Call Me By Your Name has become a bit of a cultural flashpoint in the context of cinema, making it for many of us the same-sex love story we've all been waiting for -- and that includes audiences of all sexualities. Being about two young men does not keep this movie's themes from being universal; this is easily the most beautiful and moving love story of the year, and many other years as well.

What I said then: Call Me By Your Name contains no emotional cataclysms. It merely draws you in, slowly and confidently, until you just want to wrap yourself in its sweetness, its simple purity. There is a soothing steadiness to its overall tone, and there is sadness in just having the story end.

Five Worst -- or the worst of those I saw

the shape of water 5. The Shape of Water C+

Contrarian time! I gave ten movies this year a C+, and could only choose two of them to include in my list of the five that I responded to the most negatively. And my aversion to this film, in the face of widespread critical and audience acclaim, is largely what prompted me to include it -- I simply must make my case that this movie is wildly overrated. If they actually had any truth in advertising, this movie would indeed be called Elisa Fucks a Fish -- or an amphibian, anyway. A fish-man. A humanoid animal character listed in the credits as "Amphibian Man." Sure, Sally Hawkins -- as well as most of the rest of the cast -- is great, but I just can't get on the side of a childlike yet excessively horny woman (she masturbates to a timer every morning) who has actual intercourse with an amphibian man drudged up from a river in South America. Seriously, what the shit? Why do so few other people not seem to have any problem with this? The Shape of Water has plenty of redeeming elements to its production, but when it comes to the key aspect of its story, all I can say is: I just can't.

What I said then: "Forbidden love," a timeless trope, is one thing. In this case, all I can think of is how amphibian sex gives "slippery slope" new meaning. This isn't a boy and a girl from rival families. It's literal bestiality.

valerian and the city of a thousand planets 4. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets C+

Here is a movie that wastes far too much effort for an end result so relentlessly dull. It's a feast for the senses until the sensory overload just leaves you numb, with no hope of revival from a fundamentally uninspired script and lead actors with zero charisma or chemistry. Who the hell cast this movie, anyway? That casting director should be fired.

What I said then: A whole lot of this movie is indeed a feast for the eyes, arguably more so than any film Luc Besson has ever made. You could even argue he overdoes it, stuffing the frame with effect-laden set pieces in evident overcompensation for countless shortcomings. The thing is, nothing really makes up for a script that lands with a thud.

life 3. Life C

This movie can be summed up in one word: derivative. Of course, one could argue that by definition all stories are derivative, but Life is unusually overt about it. Why waste your time on this movie instead of getting far more out of re-watching the several far superior science fiction films that clearly inspired it? This is an attempt at turning diminishing returns into an art form -- a self-defeating prospect if there ever was one.

What I said then: This movie does not have a shred of originality any corner of any frame. It's as though Alien and Gravity had a baby, but the baby had to be given up for adoption, to be nurtured by caretakers who had only the most generalized ideas of its roots. It might as well have been named Gravien.

mother! 2. mother! C-

I genuinely hated the very experience of sitting through this movie, and the only reason it isn't ranked as the worst movie I saw all year is because Michelle Pfeiffer was its one redeeming value, and Geostorm is objectively worse, on pretty much all fronts. I mean, one thing I could say about mother! is that it isn't lazy -- on the contrary, it tries way too hard in its oppressively pretentious endeavor to be Biblical allegory, only to fall on the sword of its own hubris. As soon as the credits rolled I said out loud, "Fuck this movie!" -- and in spite of all the insights into its allegorical meanings I have gleaned from further reading after the fact, I firmly stand by that.

What I said then: The pretension seeping through every surface of mother! begins with its very title. What's with that exclamation point? To me, it punctuates the contempt I feel for this movie.

geostorm 1. Geostorm D+

Geostorm is holy-shit stupid. Not even seeing it in a "4DX" theatre, where the seats bounce around like an amusement park ride, could make it more fun or compelling. It's this year's 2012, and if you can believe it, is far worse than that movie was -- at least 2012 had a sense of awareness of how dumb it was. How many movies depicting tidal waves annihilating cityscapes do we need, anyway? Just throw this one on top of the pile, and rightfully forget about it.

What I said then: The thing with Geostorm ... is that it's like someone took the standard disaster-movie formula and willfully made it even dumber.

Complete 2017 film log:

1. 1/4 Jackie A (2nd viewing)
2. 1/7 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story B (2nd viewing)
3. 1/10 Silence B
4. 1/12 20th Century Women B+
5. 1/15 Paterson B-
6. 1/17 Lion A-
7. 1/22 The Founder B-
8. 1/23 Hidden Figures B+
9. 1/29 Julieta B
10. 2/5 I Am Not Your Negro B+
11. 2/11 The LEGO Batman Movie B
12. 2/15 John Wick Chapter 2 B
13. 2/18 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action A-
14. 2/19 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Animation B+
15. 2/23 The Red Turtle B+
16. 2/25 Get Out A-
17. 2/28 A United Kingdom B-
18. 3/1 The Boss Baby C+ **
19. 3/4 Kedi B (2nd viewing)
20. 3/5 The Brand New Testament B+
21. 3/6 The Salesman A
22. 3/8 The Sense of an Ending B **
23. 3/11 Kong: Skull Island B
24. 3/12 My Life as a Zucchini B
25. 3/20 Logan B+
26. 3/21 Raw B+ **
27. 3/22 Beauty and the Beast B+
28. 3/26 The Lure C+
29. 3/27 Life C
30. 3/31 T2 Trainspotting B
31. 4/2 Land of Mine B+
32. 4/3 Personal Shopper B
33. 4/11 Frantz B+
34. 4/19 Colossal B+
35. 4/24 Free Fire B-
36. 5/2 The Lost City of Z B
37. 5/5 Get Out A- (2nd viewing)
38. 5/7 A Quiet Passion A-
39. 5/9 Their Finest B
40. 5/11 Snatched B
41. 5/14 Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer B+
42. 5/17 The Fifth Element B+ *
43. 5/23 The Lovers C+
44. 5/25 Weirdos B ***
45. 5/27 Tom of Finland B ***
46. 5/27 A Date for Mad Mary B+ ***
47. 5/29 Endless Poetry C+ ***
48. 5/31 Alien Convenant B+
49. 6/1 Wonder Woman B
40. 6/3 Angkor Awakens: A Portrait of Cambodia B
41. 6/4 Chronicles of Hari C+ ***
42. 6/10 My Cousin Rachel B
43. 6/11 The Landing A- ***
44. 6/15 Megan Leavey B-
45. 6/22 Okja B+ **
46. 6/26 The Exception B
47. 6/29 The Wedding Plan B+
48. 7/1 The Beguiled B
49. 7/2 Baby Driver B+
50. 7/8 The Big Sick A
51. 7/9 The Little Hours B
52. 7/10 Maudie A-
53. 7/16 Our Time Will Come B
54. 7/18 War for the Planet of the Apes B
55. 7/23 A Ghost Story B
56. 7/25 Dunkirk B
57. 7/27 Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets C+
58. 7/29 Lady Macbeth B+
59. 7/30 Atomic Blonde B+
60. 8/1 Landline B+
61. 8/4 An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power B
62. 8/6 Detroit A-
63. 8/9 The Dark Tower C+
64. 8/13 Columbus B+
65. 8/14 Step B+
66. 8/23 Logan Lucky A-
67. 8/24 Wind River B+
68. 8/26 Girls Trip B
69. 8/28 Ingrid Goes West B+
70. 9/2 The Trip to Spain B
71. 9/4 Close Encounters of the Third Kind A *
72. 9/11 Home Again B-
73. 9/14 Beach Rats B+
74. 9/19 mother! C-
75. 9/23 The Tiger Hunter B
76. 9/26 Brad's Status B+
77. 10/1 Blade Runner A *
78. 10/3 Battle of the Sexes B+
79. 10/7 Blade Runner 2049 B+
80. 10/10 Victoria & Abdul B
81. 10/13 Blade Runner 2049 B+ (2nd viewing)
82. 10/14 The Foreigner B
83. 10/15 Saturday Church A- ****
84. 10/16 Lucky B+
85. 10/18 Apricot Groves B+ ****
86. 10/20 BPM (Beats Per Minute) A ****
87. 10/22 Geostorm D+
88. 10/23 The Florida Project B+
89. 10/25 Marshall B
90. 10/27 Suspiria C *
91. 10/29 Suburbicon C+
92. 10/30 The Killing of a Sacred Deer B
93. 11/7 Lady Bird A- **
94. 11/11 Loving Vincent B-
95. 11/12 Murder on the Orient Express C+
96. 11/13 My Friend Dahmer B+
97. 11/19 Last Flag Flying B+
98. 11/21 Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri B+
99. 11/26 Coco A-
100. 11/27 Roman J. Israel, Esq. B
101. 12/1 The Disaster Artist B+
102. 12/4 Jane B+
103. 12/13 Darkest Hour B+ **
104. 12/14 Star Wars: The Last Jedi A-
105. 12/16 The Shape of Water C+
104. 12/18 Star Wars: The Last Jedi A- (2nd viewing)
105. 12/22 Call Me By Your Name A
106. 12/23 Downsizing B- *****
107. 12/27 All the Money in the World A-
108. 12/29 Molly's Game B
109. 12/30 I, Tonya A- *****

*Re-issue (no review)
**Advance screening
***SIFF festival screening
****TWIST Seattle Queer Film Festival screening
*****Awards screener

[older best & worst posts]