The Bestest 2017: Filmmage
This year was a strange one for films. There were plenty of great ones, but it’s proving impossible for a truly small film to find a theatrical word of mouth success in the way that there used to be in the past. In the end it doesn’t really matter, all of these films will be available in your living room within a few months (if not weeks) of theatrical release anyway. Great TV continues steal to talent, economics, attention and audiences from the theaters, but in the end there will always be movies, even if they end up as an 8 hour film released directly to your favorite streaming services.
1. Brigsby Bear– Dir. Dave McCary (Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear)
Like most of my favorite Sundance Films (quirky black comedies, with homemade sets and lovably endearing characters) “Brigsby Bear” ticks all the right boxes. The film starts with a cringeworthy premise –a child (Kyle Mooney) is abducted as a young child and spends most of his first 25 years locked in an underground bunker with two seemingly loving parents. The couple make and allow him to watch a weird lo-fi looking educational TV show captured on VHS tapes starring an old-school Barney/Banana Splits character named Brigsby Bear.
At 25, Mooney is suddenly freed from the bunker (he didn’t even realize he was captive), and returned to his natural parents. The real world doesn’t resemble much of anything he had learned from Brigsby, but it is that naiveté and the wonderfully innocent optimism of an internet and pop-culture free human that makes you rethink everything. This film is pure joy, and strangely family friendly.
2. Dunkirk– Dir. Christopher Nolan (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance)
In that very long list of great directors who have made truly great war films or films about war, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” will go down as one of the greatest. The film is also yet another example of why some films need to be seen on a giant screen with incredible sound. “Dunkirk” is neither a character study, nor a reinterpretation of historical events, “Dunkirk” focuses on pushing the limits of what film can be.
We see the evacuation of Dunkirk by land, sea and air, immaculately stitched together and bound by the harrowing score that seems to be ebbing and flowing without ever stopping. All the performances are near perfect (Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branaugh) but there is no star, this film is all about mood and craft. War is always chaotic, disorienting and ultimately unnecessarily destructive, but Nolan puts you right in the middle of this one in a way you have never been before.
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Dir. Martin McDonagh (Frances McDormand
This is probably the timeliest and cynically piercing look at the racial and misogynistic violence that seems to be seeping out of every nook and cranny of America these days. Take police brutality, racial hate crimes, rape and harassment, and drop them into the beautiful black comedy mind of non-American Martin McDonagh and you get a violently funny stunner of a film.
If you didn’t know any better you’d assume this was another Coen bros masterpiece, informed in part by another Oscar quality performance by Coen regular (and wife) Frances McDormand as the angrily grieving mother and cancer-stricken police chief Woody Harrelson. This film plays out like an absurdist nightmare, but grounded in the kind of mid-bending headlines that we glaze over every day.
4. Mother! – Dir. Darren Aronofsky (Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence)
Unlike almost any film this year, ‘mother’ is a polarizing, hot mess of cinematic creativity, depravity, and allegories wrapped in obtuse enigmas. Aronofsky’s filmic “Garden of Earthly Delights” riff is a trip through a brief heaven into a long descent into hell. There is rarely a quiet moment, as the camera is a frenetically moving chronicler of the chaos and ambiguity that corners Jennifer Lawrence like a wounded animal.
But if you like films that furrow under your skin like a cuddly tick, where you find yourself half lost in a kind of waking dream this is one to grind out. The film, which is either a thinly veiled mediation on climate change, a more biblically derived narrative, or just a contrived but madly creative piece of pop art, it is an infuriating masterpiece that hangs around your head much longer than you’d expect.
5. Patti Cake$ – Dir. Geremy Jasper (Bridget Everett, Cathy Moriarty)
If a film this weird, creative and funny doesn’t have a chance to cross over and become widely seen, we need to continue mourning the end of the true independent film. I can all but guarantee you haven’t seen a film like “Patti Cake$” or a performance quite Danielle McDonald’s as the aspiring rapper Patti Dombrowski in quite a while.
Although the film pulls every emotional punch possible to support its underdog plotline, the story and its colorful cast of misfits and societal cast-offs, is far enough out there that the clichés just melt away quietly. Lacking exactly the kind of self-awareness that sometimes enables people to succeed, Patti Cake$ just tends to bounce off the massive walls of rejection, eyes set on a ludicrous prize because .. well .. why not.
6. Baby Driver – Dir. Edgar Wright (Ansel Elgort, John Hamm)
It is like watching a 100-minute music video of some of your favorite songs, seamlessly stitched together with a series of cameos from your favorites actors, and some of the best choreographed car chases of all time running throughout. It’s an adrenaline-soaked masterpiece that has more in common with the classic chase scene in “Bullet” than it does with “Fast and Furious.”
Ansel Elgort is a revelation as Baby, the driver for a rotating cast of bank robbers assembled by the crime boss Kevin Spacey. For a film that spends at least half its time on brainlessly beautiful car chases, all of the characters are perfectly cast and the tightness of the story just sort of glides along of a sheet of icy cool.
7. Ladybird– Dir. Greta Gerwig (Saoirse Ronan, Tracy Letts)
The directorial debut from Greta Gerwig is very much the film equivalent of that ubiquitous autobiographical coming-of age-first novel. In it Sacramento high school senior “Lady Bird,” a wonderful artsy Saorise Ronan, wants nothing more than to escape her provincial hometown that she refers to as “the Midwest of California.”
Although it is littered with many of the high school outsider clichés (popular groups, wrong side of the tracks, etc.) Gerwig injects such consistently clever dialogue into every interaction that you can’t help devouring every moment of. This is the kind of remarkable small film that rarely gets made anymore, but I’m so happy she pulled it off.
8. The Big Sick –Dir. Michael Showalter (Zoe Kazan, Kumail Nanjiani)
Legitimately funny, laugh out loud romantic comedies seem to be harder to come by than ever before. In many ways this hugely politically correct recipe (interracial romance, serious illness) could have very easily become a cloying, trying-too-hard mess, but that was not meant to be.
The plot is fairly simple: Pakistani immigrant stand-up comic (played by Nanjiani), falls for cute girl (played by Zoe Kazan) who is one not one of the many arranged marriage prospects set up by his parents. He zigs and zags through the emotions that all humans antagonize about during those moments when you start thinking about “the rest of your life.” But the film is really about Nanjiani, who wrote and lived the role with his real-life wife, and Kazan who have one of the most natural chemistries of the year.
9. The Florida Project – Dir. Sean Baker (Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince)
In a year filled with incredible outsider films, featuring characters living on the fringes of society, “The Florida Project” captures the kind of scary zeitgeist that contextualizes America today: the disparity between the rich and the poor, the inevitability of societal downward spirals, and the superficiality of Internet America.
What’s both remarkable and ultimately hugely depressing about the film is how tragically resilient the children are. They move through the dilapidated unsupervised shambles of their lives with a kind of detached playfulness. But overall, the film is drenched in a kind of beautiful realism suspended between a colorful reality and an unimaginable abyss.
10. Long Strange Trip – Dir. Amir Bar-Lev (The Grateful Dead)
For people that aren’t fans of the music of the Grateful Dead, the idea of enduring 4.5 hours about the band probably seems cruel and unusual. But the beauty of “Long Strange Trip” is that on the surface the film is about the origin of the band and the evolution of both their music and fanbase. But that is really only the gateway to tell two different stories. The first was about the history of a powerful sub-culture that existed between 1960 and 1995, the second about one man who just wanted to play music but ended up becoming the accidental leader of a massive cultural movement and the large business employing over a hundred people.
I love documentaries. I love the Grateful Dead. I love American history. Director Bar-Lev has created a hugely compelling history of the late 20th century America, told through the eyes of yet another musician whose life was a causality of rock and roll
11. I Am Not Your Negro – Dir. Raoul Peck (James Baldwin)
Given the state of modern America – a hate and greed filled dystopia of link-bait, fake news, mass shootings, and violent iPhone videos posted to social media, Baldwin’s prophetic messages seem almost more relevant today than they were 50 years ago. This film, derived from 30 pages of an unfinished book called “Remember This House” that he was working on in 1979, is not only a timely political recast but also one of the most creative looking and sounding documentaries I have ever seen.
The book segments are narrated by Samuel Jackson, interspersed with interviews with Baldwin, and with modern footage of the same brand of racial crisis that existed during the Civil Rights era. You don’t see or hear from intellectuals like Baldwin anymore, instead we have bombastic cable news pundits, and reality TV stars turned politicians. This is the most important film I saw this year. You should too.
12. The Shape of Water – Dir. Guillermo del Toro (Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones)
Like “Delicatessen” or “Amelie,” “The Shape of Water” is one of those beautifully arty, visual feasts crafted by one of the most creative directors of our time. When del Toro creates one of his twisted fairy tales, they aren’t littered with rainbows and unicorns, instead there are bizarre monsters and creepy crawlies. In this case he has adapted a kind vintage beauty and the beast narrative against the backdrop of some vague Cold War threat.
The high style and exquisite cinematography, a deeply saturated palette of deep greens and heavy browns, further creates an aura of eerie bleakness and surreal curiosity. Sally Hawkins is a wonder as a lonely but lovely mute janitor who falls for the alien captive, while Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon deliver the kind of supporting roles that bring everything else into focus. This is a marvelous waking dream of a film!
13. Detroit – Dir. Katherine Bigelow (Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman)
American history is littered with unconscionable acts of racism, abuse and discrimination. What is so profound about watching these stories in a narrative form is that many of these acts are still happening today, and even stories like this one are really part of modern history.
Like the “Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow prefers substance over style, and lends the kind of cinematic grittiness and texture that makes this 1967 story feel even more authentic. The performance is largely delivered by a great but up and coming cast but allow us view to the film more as a reenactment of true events, than a vehicle for any one star.
14. Hounds of Love – Dir. Ben Young (Ashleigh Cumming. Stephen Curry)
There was no film as twisted and profoundly disturbing as the debut film from Ben Young. For some reason Aussie’s tend to do sleaze and depravity as well as anyone (“Animal Kingdom,” “The Proposition” and “Mad Max”) and this time around the dull 1987 Perth suburbs are shot with the kind of melancholy that almost explains the pervasive depravity. The cinematography features some of the most beautiful slow-motion sequences you have ever seen, as children play on playgrounds, men cut lawns and wash cars – a kind of surrealistic banality.
Based on the true story of serial killers David and Catherine Birnie who kidnaped, abused and killed 5 teenage girls in the 80’s, the harrowing story of the one that got away is perfectly executed acting tour de force. As much as this is a film for people who like to feel uneasy, it is also the story of fractured relationships and the admission of endless sorrow.
15. Phantom Thread – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (Daniel Day Lewis, Vicky Krieps)
Haven’t seen it yet, but fairly certain it will be somewhere on the list when I do.
A few more great ones …
16. The Meyerowitz Stories – Dir. Noah Baumbach (Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler) It’s official, Baumbach has mercifully taken over for Woody Allen. About time, and a worthy heir.
17. The Hero – Dir. Brett Haley (Sam Elliot, Laura Prepon) This small wonder of a film about a worn out Hollywood cowboy, dealing with a cancer diagnosis would be a dreadful affair, but Sam Elliot is a stud starring in a film built just for him.
18. Get Out – Dir. Jordan Peele (Allison Williams, Daniel Kaluuya) Although “Get Out” is no Shining, it’s frightening nonetheless, holding a giant mirror to the angry inhabitants of our modern times.
19. Good Time - Dir. Ben and Josh Safdie (Robert Pattison, Josh Safdie) This relentlessly gritty city film about an amazingly incompetent blown heist, carried by an incredible Pattison, is a like the sleazy bastard step-child of “Baby Driver.”
20. The Disaster Artist – Dir. James Franco (James Franco, Dave Franco) There aren’t very many good movies about bad movies, but “The Disaster Artist” is a bizarrely hilarious Franco excursion into the mind and body of Tommy Wiseau.
21. Darkest Hour – Dir. Joe Wright (Gary Oldman, Lily James) For the most part “Darkest Hour” is basically a showcase for Oldman’s inexplicably perfect Winston Churchill waddling, warbling and mumbling like the man himself.
22. Mudbound – Dir. Dee Rees (Cary Mulligan, Jason Mitchell) Like any film that acknowledges American slavery and post reconstruction southern racism, this is a hard film to watch. It explores both the black and white poverty of the rural south in a way that makes today’s American situation seem inevitable.
23. A Ghost Story – Dir. David Lowery (Mara Rooney, Casey Affleck) This film is as slight and delicate as anything you can find while still maintaining enough strangely compelling momentum to keep your eyes peeled to this odd ghost story about love, loss and not really ever letting go.
24. It Comes At Night – Dir. Trey Edward Shults (Joe Edgerton, Riley Keough) This sparsely satisfying post-apocalyptic thriller is about as terrifying as possible without spilling much actual blood.
25. The Lost City of Z – James Gray (Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller) It’s strange to see a sprawling big screen period film like this on a small screen, but this journey into a heart of darkness was a wonderful surprise and almost straight to Amazon Prime.
26. Lucky Logan – Dir. Stephen Soderbergh (Adam Driver, Channing Tatum)Who doesn’t like a film about affable losers trying to pull off an impossible heist. Soderbergh has always been a traveler darting between small budget weirdo movies and the ones that pay the bills. This one is right in the middle.
27. The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman) This is not necessarily a film one likes, but more one you appreciate, filled with beautiful cinematography, bleakly effective performances and layer upon layer of non-obvious metaphorical cruelty.
The Bestest TV
- Better Call Saul
- Halt and Catch Fire
- Ray Donovan
- The Deuce
- The Fall
- Vice Principals
- Big Little Lies
- Handmaids Tale