From the Archives: Top Ten Films of 2017

From the Archives: Top Ten Films of 2017

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

I can’t believe it, but we made it to the end of 2017. And what a year it has been! At the halfway point I was a bit concerned. While I do tend to feel somewhat positively about most movies I see, I remember feeling like the first half of the year was lacking. Looking back on my list I see some legitimately great cinema, but few entries have proven to be very enduring. That said, I wanted my end of year list to function a little differently than usual. For instance, I have found that in the past I often made space for objective slots – meaning the big ‘masterworks’ and awards fodder which usually come out at this time of year. While that is all well and good, it occurred to me that seeking objectivity in a top ten list sort of defeats the purpose. Why would every critic in the world make a list if they’re all going to be the same anyway? Also, most movies can’t achieve true greatness with just a single viewing. Unfortunately, multiple viewings of new movies are a luxury that I cannot afford in just a year’s time. I did indeed see a bunch of first-run movies twice this year, and in each case it strengthened the film, but in an effort to give every film a fair shake I have ultimately decided to make my list based upon experience. I wanted to highlight moviegoing experiences which truly served the most basic function of film: to entertain. No, I’m not discounting substance, but I’m trying not to get too wrapped up in it. I am a child.

So let’s start the way I always do, with a list of caveats:

– Phantom Thread has not come out in Philly yet, leaving yet another PTA film in that weird between-year limbo. The Post, too.

– Raw was on my list last year, and Personal Shopper got stuck between years as well. Both are list worthy, but I ruined their chances by greedily including these film fest flicks prior to wide release just to show off. I have opted not to do that this year (sorry, Thoroughbreds). Still, HUGE love to both films. Raw might be the strongest debut I’ve seen in decades. Personal Shopper haunts me every day in the best of ways.

– I left MCU, DCEU, and Star Wars flicks out of the running. To be honest, out of the three, The Last Jedi is the only movie that stood a chance anyway.

– Lastly, this is just a list. It can change at any moment for any reason so relax. Don’t @ me.

Are you still reading? Okay then, count em down with me.

10. xXx: Return of Xander Cage (dir. D.J. Caruso)

I’m going to be honest with you. The Fate of the Furious was ass. It was a huge step down for one of my favorite franchises in just about every way. The action was edited to the point of incomprehension. The lack of cynicism that makes all of the previous entries feel fun and refreshing was replaced by heavy cynicism. The cars were almost entirely CGI, leading to many moments which, to quote Ryan, made it clear that we were “looking at nothing.” It broke my heart a little bit. So it was with little excitement that I plunked my tuchus into a seat for the third entry in a generally terrible Vin Diesel franchise. I sat there ready to find enjoyment in mocking what appeared to be an awful idea that somehow came to fruition (the embargo on this one was enforced to the point of ridiculousness, complete with printouts demanding that critics not even mention that they saw it, let alone speak to its quality). But then the movie began and it was everything I’ve been missing from action cinema for years now.

The action was – gasp – VISIBLE! The characters were colorful and fun. The plot somehow managed to play it straight while still poking fun at the insanity of the franchise on the whole. Vin Diesel looked happy to be there. Toni Collette chewed up the entire set. Donnie Yen rides a dirt bike on the ocean (rippin tubes, to quote Garrett). If a high-five were turned into a movie, it would be xXx: Return of Xander Cage.

It’s the closest thing to a Bollywood actioner that an American studio has put out, and I love Bollywood actioners. Not only is this the best xXx movie, but it’s the best movie that could be produced by the xXx formula.

9. Assholes (dir. Peter Vack)

I saw this movie at the 2017 Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival, and probably wouldn’t have even heard of it otherwise. It’s a small movie, made by a family of creatives, that delivers on its title in every way imaginable. The program claimed that this was a gross-out flick, but it wasn’t the Troma-esque gruesomeness that upset my tumbly. No, it’s much deeper than that. This movie is such an affront to good taste on a thematic level that it did what few things can do: it offended me. But here’s the thing: I was howling with laughter the entire time. Imagine if John Waters came up in the mumblecore era and pointed his brand of cinematic anarchy directly at the tight cummerbund which holds back the flabby gut of propriety, and you’ll get a bit of an idea of what Assholes is going for. I fear this movie. I hate certain aspects of this movie. I love this movie for doing what so many anarchist films fail to do: burn shit to the ground and then anonymously send unpaid-for pizzas to every house on the block.

What’s the movie about? Two people who decide to go on a poppers binge and embrace being assholes to anyone within spitting (shitting) distance. That’s it.

8. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)

This is the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan and it couldn’t be more different than the bulk of WWII cinema. Christopher Nolan has always been a filmmaker of technique over style, and despite a career full of incredible films, Dunkirk is the first time that his technique has been channeled so perfectly as to become a style of its own. Every level of production is impeccable. The entire filmmaking team is firing on all cylinders. The sound editing is the best I’ve ever heard in any movie EVER. Hans Zimmer’s score ranks amongst his best work. The atypical structure manufactures a breathless pace that doesn’t lean on schmaltz to get a reaction. Much like being in a battle zone, there is very little time for the audience to think. All they can do is hold on, hope for the best, and trust that previous experience will serve as preparedness.

Smartly, the film features little dialogue and not a single enemy face. This isn’t a film of good vs bad or “the bad guys are human too.” Nope. This is simply about survival against great odds, and how a sense of hope and duty are more powerful than any gun.

7. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

I don’t know if I actually enjoyed this movie in the moment. It’s a difficult watch. In fact, I’d say the word for it is “demented.” No, it’s not that it’s a bad movie, it’s that its MO is to make the viewer extremely uncomfortable, and it DOES. Writer/Director Yorgos Lanthimos appeared on my radar a few years back with the deeply disturbing Dogtooth, which he then followed up with the still dark, but much more absurd The Lobster. With Sacred Deer, the Greek auteur has found the perfect line between darkness and absurdity, and he walks it with a clinical confidence that drives home the film’s thematic weight, namely, a study of the true price of responsibility. Colin Farrell seems to have become Lanthimos’ muse, and it’s easy to see why. His is a character who seemingly has it all, but when the chips fall, his desperate flailing is both pathetic and tragic. Farrell’s performance is not without empathy or humor, however. You just gotta work through some insanity to find it. The real standout, however, is Barry Keoghan, whose villainous turn is hands down my favorite performance of the year. I left this movie feeling sick, scared, and unraveled. I’ve thought about it every day since. Awesome.

6. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Denis Villeneuve’s dip into franchise filmmaking did the impossible. Not only was it a wildly superior film to its predecessor, but its existence makes the original film even better. It does so by recontextualizing the content of Blade Runner without pulling any cheap retcons. And even those who aren’t familiar with Ridley Scott’s classic can still enjoy 2049. When I say that this is impossible, I mean it. I still can’t believe that Blade Runner 2049 was such a creative success.

Content aside, the film is a technical achievement as well. Hans Zimmer was brought in at the last minute to make his score, and he nailed it (props to Junkie XL as well. Roger Deakins put out the finest work in a career full of masterpieces (to misquote Andy, if Deakins doesn’t take home the cinematography Oscar, the award is meaningless). The effects work is next level, but the film doesn’t lean on the visuals for success. Harrison Ford, who has every opportunity and every right to phone in his performance and collect a check, brought his A game. Robin Wright created an unforgettable character in Lieutenant Joshi. Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv is an all-time great villain. Even Jared Leto, who tends to be a bother, fits perfectly. The screenwriters (Hampton Francher, who co-wrote the original, and Michael Green, who co-wrote Logan) were smart to close off the story while leaving enough elements ambiguous to keep it alive in the mind of the viewer for ages. And that’s the key to good sci-fi: it should capture the imagination AND inspire it to run wild.

Everything about Blade Runner 2049 works. It may have been a box office failure, but there’s no denying that this film is perfect in every way.

5. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Throughout the entirety of Guillermo del Toro’s career I’ve always found myself slightly detached from his work. For the record, he’s never made a film I disliked, but at best I typically only engage with about 85% of what’s on screen. I always thought that maybe it was my own resistance to fantasy that kept my adoration at bay, but lo and behold, The Shape of Water, arguably his most fantastical film of all, enraptured me. This brand of fantasy is a bit different, however. The surrealist touches are built into the narrative, which despite being a pastiche of influences (monster movies, Cold War thrillers, studio musicals) somehow manages to feel wholly original. It’s a romantic horror thriller musical that plays with so many excellent ideas. It’s about dismantling power structures. It’s about the dangers of repression; the dangers of ego. It’s about toxic masculinity. It’s about the value of going against a powerful machine fueled by evil or greed. It’s about a mute woman and a fish-man falling in love.

The Shape of Water is so adorable, touching, funny, horrifying, and warm that by the time the credits rolled I was an absolute wreck. It’s tough to cry when one’s breath has been ripped from one’s lungs, but it happened every few minutes. You wanna make the world a better place? The lessons of The Shape of Water are a good place to start.

4. Brawl in Cell Block 99 (dir. S. Craig Zahler)

I watched this at a time when I was feeling a bit misanthropic (it happens), and in the mood to burn the world down. Being a functioning member of society, I opted not to do such a thing, but I can’t deny the demons that S. Craig Zahler’s latest purged from my soul. Since 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, I’ve been waiting to see what the novelist/heavy metaler would cook up next and he did not disappoint.

This is a career best for Vince Vaughn, whose Vaughnaissance has been anticipated since season two of True Detective fell flat (I, for one, loved it). This new Vaughn vehicle will likely be his Taken, rebranding him as a middle-aged tough guy, albeit with a much better script – one designed to coax incredible performances from its players. Brawl in Cell Block 99 has such strong dialogue that it’s easy to get lost in the fun and forget Zahler’s über-violent proclivities, which manifest in the most hardcore third act I’ve seen in years. If you thought “the scene” in Bone Tomahawk was gut wrenching, I can only say this: SCRRRRRRRRAPE!

Not only did Zahler write and direct this grungy grindhouse throwback, but he wrote all of the music. He did not play it, however. Instead, he passed the musical duties off to other artists such as The O’Jays. Cool.

Zahler has officially entered the “never miss a movie” club.

3. Okja (dir. Bong Joon Ho)

I never, ever, ever press play on “animal in trouble” movies because I know there’s going to be a sad moment that I just don’t want to stomach. So had I not caught a one-off screening of Okja at our local theater, I may never have seen it at all. What a tragedy that would’ve been! Okja is everything I love about movies wrapped into one exciting adventure flick from the inimitable Bong Joon Ho (SnowpiercerMemories of Murder).

From the oddball dual performance from Tilda Swinton to the villainous (and hilarious) Jake Gyllenhaal, to the ethically dubious Paul Dano, all the way to the fiery little girl who fights for Okja’s freedom (Seo-hyun Ahn), every character is thoroughly motivated, creating a level of nuance that doesn’t seem to exist in movies anymore. Ok, I’m being unfair, but still. What makes Okja so compelling is that every character can be understood, even if not agreed with, which makes this thrilling adventure one of substance.

Speaking of substance, Okja the super pig, an inherently cartoonish creature, ends up feeling tangible, a notion which is absent from so many similarly built fantasy creations. It adds weight to her plight, and keeps even the most colorful characters grounded by comparison. Okja is an incredible flick, and if the movie gods are good, it will bring forth some of the awards recognition that Netflix is so aggressively seeking.

And yes, there are sad parts, and I’m glad I toughed my way through them. Okja rules.

2. Good Time (dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)

If I didn’t know Robert Pattinson was in this movie, I wouldn’t know that Robert Pattinson was in this movie. The Twilight star disappears into his role as Connie Nikas, a troubled bank robber trying to raise enough money to bail his mentally disabled brother out of prison before he’s transferred to Riker’s Island. It’s like a darker version of After Hours in that we have to sit back and watch as a man digs deeper and deeper into a hole that he’s never getting out of. The difference here is that Good Time, while still quite funny, feels more tragic. Connie is a victim of his own poor and selfish decision making, yet somehow he maintains his role as protagonist. Perhaps this is due to the fact that his intentions are so noble. It’s his own damn fault that his brother is in trouble, and he’s determined to fix it.

The Safdie Brothers (one of whom plays the unfortunate brother – beautifully, I might add) have created a pulse-pounding heist thriller unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s raw, exciting, and deeply unnerving. The entire cast puts on a powerhouse performance, and the score by Oneohtrix Point Never is THE best of the year. When this movie ended, the bulk of the audience stood in the theater lobby, dazed and upset. I’ve never in my life spoken with so many strangers about a film, and everyone was in agreement that we’d just seen something truly special. I can’t wait to watch this again … when I’m ready.

1. mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

This is the single greatest moviegoing experience I’ve had all year, hands down. It’s best to go into this one with as blank a slate as possible so you can just bask in the batshit insanity of it. mother! is Darren Aronofsky at his most punk rock. This movie is designed to induce anxiety, and as Andy and I sat cramped up in the tiny Roxy theater, my toes were curled, my fists were balled, and my brow was dripping with sweat.

This is a film about relationship tensions, gender warfare, the personality of “the artist,” agency over one’s home, and even the environment. It’s all crammed into an explosive biblical parable that would be too fucked up to make its way into any actual religious text. But never does the film feel overstuffed. There are clear intentions here, but there’s plenty of room to project one’s own interpretations of the material. But that’s not why it tops my list. What this comes down to is what it felt like to watch. On an experiential level, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

mother! is a studio picture with a sturdy budget, and as such, it’s a huge risk for all involved. We should be thanking the powers that be for taking a chance on something so outwardly divisive. Even if you hate this movie – and I suspect plenty of you do – you can’t deny the sheer originality of it; the commitment to its own exponentially upsetting tone; the breathless experience of taking it all in.

This movie has pissed off and will piss off a lot of people, and that makes me love it even more. Rock and roll.

Happy New Year everyone! Thanks for reading!

Honorable mentions: LoganI, TonyaYour NameThelmaGet OutThe Florida ProjectA Cure for Wellness, A Ghost Story.

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