1. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Last year, I thought that Todd Solondz’ Wiener Dog would end up taking my #1 spot. Then Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster came in an usurped it. This year, I was so enamored with what ended up taking my #2 spot that I didn’t expect another film to top it. Then I saw Lanthimos’ new film and, wouldn’t you know it, he did it again. Sacred Deer is a movie that ruins your day. For my taste, that is the highest praise. The production design is the most intricate and rich of his films and works wonderfully with his eye for jarring, sometimes clinical composition. The score is jolting and unnerving, recalling Krzysztof Penderecki’s string pieces used in The Shining. Each performance is magnificent, specifically newcomer Barry Keoghan’s, who is truly haunting and unnerving as Martin, displaying bizarre developmental challenges with an indeterminable air of menace and sadism which has never come across as so grossly maniacal yet so authentic and unintentional. The film is one long, puzzling, squirmy tale of inexplicable harm and downfall which just begs to be rewatched for all of its sneaky allusions and deeper meanings, if you can stomach another viewing.
- Good Time
Good Time is another brilliantly shot and performed film that focuses more on characters and empathy than morality. There is no question about right and wrong when it comes to protagonist Connie Nikas, who commits crime after crime ranging from impulsive and duplicitous to slimy and practically irredeemable. Robert Pattison’s tremendous skill lends itself to a character that is perfectly nuanced and specific, giving him the room to come across as human and compelling, and worthy of our understanding (not so much our respect, however). Co-director Ben Safdie may be even more admirable as Connie’s mentally challenged brother, Nick. His portrayal of a special needs character is just as strong and original as the one in Sacred Deer in that it strays from the cliché route of eloquent, angelic simpleton à la Forrest Gump. Instead, Safdie opts for emotionally damaged and flawed, and done in an equally restrained and genuine manner as Keoghan, resulting in one of the strongest and most watchable characters of the year. The cinematography is on the flashier side, full of strobes and neons, which is favorable for the fast-paced, After Hours type story which careens towards its own conclusion with alternating complications and improvised swindling.
- Casting JonBenét
I’m rather drawn to films about acting and reenactments, combining the artifice of filmmaking and drama with real life events. Some of my favorite documentaries, such as Symbiopsychotaxiplasm and The Act of Killing, are more like recorded acting experiments meant to elicit a higher truth than straightforward non-fiction films. Casting JonBenét takes the same approach, but also imposes a rigid, sequential order on the experiment. Several groups of actors interview and audition to play John and Patsy Ramsey, Burke Ramsey, false confessor John Mark Karr, the Boulder Police Chief, and even a temporarily suspected mall Santa in a film about the murder of JonBenét Ramsey that ultimately doesn’t exist and won’t be made. Repeated audition footage of the actors is intercut with their personal reactions and connections to the event and the characters they are meant to portray in a methodical dissection of each of the case’s possible truths. As speculation mounts speculation, patterns of societal attitudes form like recurring figures in a cloud of confusion. The participants’ different theories, insights, and instincts combine and point to the greatest discoveries of the JonBenét Ramsey case, which have little to do with the fate of one girl and everything to do with national fears and moral judgements.
- Get Out
Jordan Peele’s first film is one of the strongest first films in recent memory, as Get Out feels like the umpteenth film in a seasoned director’s oeuvre and not a debut. Every filmmaking element is properly attended to and excellently done, but in that humble, old fashioned way that doesn’t call attention to itself. Everything is so functional and methodical, from smart camera movements to its brilliant use of foreshadowing. Where Sacred Deer demands rewatches in order to digest some of its more complex themes, Get Out downright earns rewatches just to appreciate Peele’s skill and attention to detail. When people call films “instant classics”, I often feel they are exaggerating. That isn’t the case, here. The film is completely original but also totally accessible, so that it can genuinely treasured for artistic merits as well as being beloved by general audiences. Its themes regarding racism and exoticism cover ground that isn’t explored much in topical genre films, as well. Every year a few good horror movies come out, but not one as original as this, and with such potential for fan longevity.
- Twin Peaks: The Return
There were a number of films that I considered for this list. I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to count Twin Peaks: The Return for my purposes. Eventually, while perusing other year-end columns, I saw that both Cahiers du Cinema and Sight and Sound had it in their lists, allowing for an interpretation of the season as a 20-hour serial film (an assessment I would agree with). If it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me. I’ve been a Twin Peaks fan for some time, now. Among my favorite things about the franchise are the soap opera sendups that comprise the intricate human drama and the surreal and ambiguous but still digestible mythos. My love of The Return, therefore, might strike some as odd, as the lives of Twin Peaks residents is depicted the least and, while the mythos is expanded, it becomes way, way, waaaay less coherent and understandable. However, I felt that ended up being one of the strongest aspects of the series. I read in one internet user’s comments on the show something to the effect of, “it wasn’t anything like what I expected. I should have expected that, though”. While other audiences and I knew there would be some vagueness, twists, turns, and room for interpretation, we didn’t see the phantasmagoria of new locations, characters, special effects, storylines, and creatures coming. The accessibility of prior Twin Peaks media had led us into a false sense of security, making us forget that this would be a completely Lynch-driven vehicle. The Return does an amazing thing. It gives a followup to Twin Peaks that isn’t just satisfying, but requires you to revisit it if you want to even begin putting the pieces together. That, and it also just seems like a smorgasbord of Lynch’s amazing, unused ideas.
- Dawson City: Frozen Time
Bill Morrison makes documentary films out of forgotten, decaying film prints. I specialized in archives and preservation when I went to film school. That being said, I was heavily moved by his 2003 film Decasia which used decaying nitrate films and a discordant score (using out of tune pianos and string sections out of phase with one another). Morrison’s newest feature invoked a similar feeling while also containing a more solid story-structure. A wealth of old Nitrate prints were found in Dawson City beneath a dirt lot which used to house a rec center. These prints were of Hollywood films, news, ethnographic studies, and even local history. Morrison uses all of these different elements, constructed of the same cloth (highly combustible celluloid) to tell the story of Dawson City, early America, and film itself, specifically how flammable nitrate film resulted in the loss of much of early cinema. Recently I read a book called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, which, in one section, describes the fantasy of easy wealth that birthed the gold rush. I also read the poem, “Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day” by Delmore Schwartz, the refrain of which is “time is the fire in which we burn”. As Dawson City, a former gold rush hub, had many catastrophic fires, some caused by nitrate film and some not, Dawson City: Frozen Time felt like one of those films that found its way to me by some force of the universe.
- Personal Shopper
You don’t often see a film that incorporates several different genre tropes to the point that it becomes genreless entirely. This supernatural drama contains some of the creepy moments and shocks that come with horror, but it’s far from a horror film. Kristen Stewart plays a clairvoyant living in the home of her deceased twin brother in Paris while working as a personal assistant and shopper for a famous model. The atmosphere of otherworldliness works on several levels, creating isolation for the protagonist and uncertainty regarding the unfolding events, which includes texts from a mysterious number that could be a mischievous friend, a stalker, or the ghost that she has been searching for. Stewart gives a fantastic, subtle performance that is impossible to turn away from. The fashion world, here, is depicted just as gravely and mysteriously as the “other side” which her character has tapped into. Director Olivier Assayas uses these elements to create both a delicate and moving character study that mulls over grief, while also making brilliant insights into today’s modern world, specifically in regards to communication. The use of text messaging is especially clever. Instead of being an easy story device (a character delivering exposition in a message to a friend, for instance), it’s an active element of the film’s thematic framework, suggesting that the act of communicating non-verbally with others who are not truly there is akin to how spiritualists made attempts to communicate beyond the physical realm.
Almost every time I see a really good Pixar film, I’ll wonder if it will be one of my favorites of the year. Before now, that has never happened. I thought Coco would be good simply for the fact that it had such aesthetic potential, given its cultural setting. I did not expect just how luminous, colorful, vivid, and moving the film would be in visuals alone, not to mention story. The millions of lights, characters, and architecturally vibrant backgrounds were equalled only by the reverent and respectful treatment of Dia de los Muertos and Mexican traditions, culminating in one of Pixar’s most interesting films. The story held quite an emotional punch as well, and seemed much sadder and more mature than the others due to its treatment of lost family members, as well as memories (both in Bisabuela Coco’s apparent dementia and also the forgetting of loved ones as time goes on). Die-hard Pixar fans always say how sad the opening of Up is, but I found that the gradual story build up and character familiarity that Coco uses for its eventual emotional moments resulted in far more moving scenes. Not only did it become one of my favorite films of the year, but it also might just be my favorite Pixar film.
It’s rare for me to enjoy a musical success film. I don’t know if it’s because I find them all too similar to each other, or if I just don’t find the subject of struggling musicians that interesting unless I’m already a fan of the filmmaker (The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis being a good example) or if it has an interesting spin. The conceit of an overweight female rapper from New Jersey called Patti Cake$ had this rough, dirty, Harmony Korine ring that I couldn’t help but explore. The actual film turned out to be much happier than what I expected. This and Coco are the only feel-good movies on my list. While hitting most of the expected beats of a star-on-the-rise story, Patti Cake$ differentiated itself with a unique combination of styles that ranged from earnest to grittily morose to stylistic and surreal. Danielle McDonald faced down many challenges in order to make a character whose domestic struggles, unconventional aspirations, and estrangement from societal gender standards both hinder and contribute to her power.
- It Comes at Night
Before It Comes At Night, director Trey Edward Shults made a hit festival-circuit film called Krisha, which mostly used meticulously crafted long takes and featured a lot of members of his real family in the cast. His style clearly has influences of Kubrick, Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson among others, to the point that I almost felt that Krisha teetered on derivative (repeat viewing lightened that stance, however). I realized after watching his follow-up that the audacity of his first film had as much to do with the necessity of name-making as it did eagerness, acting as a necessary spark to ignite what looks to be a future career of striking and rendering cinematic gold. All of the elements are there, from the long takes, to the non-professional actors, and to the clear directorial influences. Yet It Comes At Night pulls it all back into something not only original and distinct, but just subtle enough to keep you searching for the source of that creeping dread, and also never letting your interest crumple in uncertainty. It’s a classic case of a horror film that achieves a lot with very little.
This year there has been a milieu (for lack of a better term) of issues, outrages, and surprises. Like last year, there hasn’t been a good word or phrase to sum up the cinema of 2017. However, there is a good survey of similarities between films: mental and moral faultiness, financial chaos, suspicion, and lethal misunderstandings. That’s the negative. The positive, which seems so scarce, pops up as well: celebration of diversity, the valuing of doubt, the empowerment of women, empathy. We hope to see a continuation of the latter in our society. As for cinema? Well, I’ll always love a good feel-bad movie. | Nic Champion