Friday, December 29, 2017

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2017

In alphabetical order. Remember, these are the best the movies I saw for the first time this year, not necessarily the best movies that were new this year (though four of these were):

Dunkirk. This movie was superb in every way: visually, aurally, narratively, dramatically, the whole package. If forced to choose, I would have to call this the best movie I saw this year, and it stands, I think, with masterpieces like Paths of Glory, Das Boot, The Big Red One, and Apocalypse Now as one of the greatest movies ever made about war. I've never seen the chonologically-uneven-but-still-overlapping-storylines method work as cinematically well as it did here; through that means, Christopher Nolan could show us desperation and heroism, selfishness and sacrifice, in equal measure, with none of those messages every undermining the other. An exciting, sobering, thrilling, inspiring film.

Foxcatcher. There are a lot of ways in which I wonder if this movie might have been even better if this strange story of muscular connection, miscommunication, and mental illness had been kept more intimate, on a smaller scale. After all, far and away the best stuff in the movie were the close, loving scenes between Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as the wrestling Schultz brothers who found themselves caught in the creepy machinations of John du Pont (with a wonderfully weird performance by Steve Carrell). But then, you're dealing with a real-life story that involved the U.S. Olympic team and one of the richest men on the planet, so keeping is small-scale probably wasn't an option. Anyway, a captivating, tragic, strangely mis-sized story.

Locke. Now, talking about a mis-sized movie, here's the complete opposite: a film that, except for a few minutes at the very beginning and a final shot or two at the end, takes place entirely within the driver's seat of an automobile being driven by Tom Hardy over a period of several hours to London. Through it all, we're watching the face of Ivan Locke (up close, in profile, through the front windshield), as he makes and receives phone call after phone call, from his wife, his child, his co-worker, and from doctors and an old tryst of his, and as he tries to hold together a life that, thanks to both his own choices and the randomness of fate, is flying apart in desperate fashion. A fascinating movie, one that Tom Hardy did incredible work in.

Logan. I saw a half-dozen superhero movies this year; of them all, Spider-Man: Homecoming was without doubt the best. That movie was a perfect genre delight; it was exciting, affecting, funny, tragic, and outrageous in exactly the way a superhero movie should be. But it didn't make my list. Why not? I suppose because it simply, superbly, fulfilled my hopes and expectations--whereas the two superhero movies that did make list did so not only because they were good movies, but because they did something with the superhero genre that I found moving and thrilling in unexpected ways. Logan is one of those two. Anyone old enough to remember what a stunning revolution the character of Wolverine was in the American comic book world when Chris Claremont and John Byrne re-invented him in the early 1980s has probably been, at best, ambivalent about the way old Logan was been used and abused in the comics, on tv, and in the movies in the decades since. Hugh Jackman himself made it clear how tired he was getting of the character, and that he was hoping to walk away from Wolverine on a high note. Well, with Logan he got that. At least as much a dystopian Western as a superhero movie, with near-Tarantino levels of violence, but violence that was (with maybe only a couple of exceptions) never distracting or exploitative, but rather inherent to the ugly, emotionally draining story being told, this was a movie that transcended its genre, and deserves all the praise it received.

Mr. Turner. I'm not a huge fan of Mike Leigh's work--he is, as I think any movie-goer will admit, not the most audience-pleasing director out there--but I'm glad I gave this movie the time to work on me. His and Timothy Spall's depiction of the painter J.M.W. Turner was never in-your-face ugly, but neither was it prettified; rather Leigh and Spall and everyone else involved in the movie's set design and cinematography found a wonderful, subtle quality in how they presented this gross man, living in his dirty world, and drawing out of that personal and environmental ugliness a light and color which endures. There was a great, clever carefulness to how it was all put together, and probably not the sort of thing most movie-goers are looking for. I don't know how I would have responded to the film in the theater, but in the quiet of our living room, watching it slowly on Netflix, its magic, its pathos and occasional quiet wit, really worked on me.

Rififi. One of two movies on this list that I watched this year and kept hitting myself while doing so: "How could I have not seen this movie already?" Anyway, at some point this year Melissa and I rewatched Ocean's 11, and while it remains as fun as ever, I found myself mildly turned-off at just how smooth the whole story was; I felt like I needed to see a caper where the cleverness comes at a cost. So that led me back to the acknowledged classics, and when I saw this movie--with its brilliant, 33-minute-long, dead-silent, perfectly executed heist, which is then followed by an ever-more raucous and desperate collapse of their whole criminal conspiracy--I knew why it had always been included as one of the very best.

Run Silent, Run Deep. This was the other movie that I could have slapped myself for having missed for all these years. Yeah, it's a submarine war movie, with all the tropes we've become familiar with: diving deep, cutting the motors, running silent, trying to listen through the murky depths, hoping to fool the other submarine or the battleship above. Did those tropes originate with this film? Probably not, but man, did it hit every genre note and then surpass them. I've got to give credit to the wonderful alchemy of Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as the leads: you can't help (or at least I couldn't help) reading Gable's performance as stagey and melodramatic, while Lancaster's seemed to feature a hyped-up, ostentatious naturalism. Yet, in a way, they made that work for their characters: the old captain, holding on to his command, and the young officer, torn between duty and instinct. A great, fun, passionate film.

The Secret in Their Eyes. It might be easy--and perhaps not inaccurate--for the mostly white, mostly upper-middle and upper-class, critical film audience in the U.S. to downgrade this movie slightly as stereotypically misogynistic and "Latin." To be sure, machismo plays a big role, one that the leading lady (the beautiful and compelling Soledad Villamil as Irene Menéndez, the American-trained judge returning the post-Dirty War Argentina) not only doesn't object to, but in fact happily employs in pursuit of her goals. But there's more than sexual stereotypes in this film; it is, besides an intriguing romance, a taut, politically realistic police procedural, one that begins with a shocking act of violence and ends with one of the psychologically creepiest scenes I can remember. This film deserved its Oscar, that's for sure.

Their Finest. Not many people saw this movie; I think it hardly played in any American theaters. I only knew about because someone online mentioned that Dunkirk wasn't the only movie about the drama of Dunkirk in 2017, and I only saw it because it showed up as an option while I was flying to (or maybe when I was flying back from?) Singapore. Anyway, it's sort of a romantic comedy, but it's also a scrappily un-American and un-Hollywood movie about movies--which becomes one of the great in-jokes in the film, when for political reasons the English film brass decide that the war-propaganda Dunkrik movie that the stars of this actual movie are making--titled "The Nancy Starling," the name of one of the little boats that assisted in the evacuation (though actually it didn't)--needs to have an American character show up for some reason. The movie is alternately quietly witty and an outright tear-jerker; sometimes manipulative and sloppy, with a couple of utterly out-of-place performances, it's nonetheless a wonderful movie about myths and their importance: the stories we tell ourselves when we're young and our plans aren't working out, and when we're old and need to be reminded of why we made the sacrifices we did. A charmer (and frankly, I'd watch "The Nancy Starling" in a heartbeat if it actually existed).

Wonder Woman. Of course, the other superhero movie which broke genre expectations was the wonderful Wonder Woman. Not as good a movie as either Logan or  Spider-Man: Homecoming, it had some real weakness (I'm looking at you, Steve "the Hollywood suits told director Patty Jenkins that she had to give Diana a love interest so here I am" Trevor), and some of its plot points just fell plain flat. So why is it here? For the obvious reason: this is a major studio, summer-blockbuster, superhero-genre release that starred a female character. And fault my feminist cred or attack my gender essentialism all you want: it is, I think, simply indisputable that there were scenes in this movie--narrative choices, dialogue, jokes and thrills and emoting all alike--that simply could not have been done with a male lead. The fact that the story was solid, the acting generally excellent, the special effects and visual style all engaging are important, but more important than any of that is that Wonder Woman carried this movie. That's not only important, it's good.


Matt said...

For various reasons, I watched almost no movies in the theater or even at home last year, so it's interesting to read the list. I'm glad to see Mr. Turner on it - I'm a bit Mike Leigh Fan, and like Timothy Spall very much, too. Have you seen Leigh's "All or Nothing?" Some interesting bits about taxi driving in London there, too.

I'd heard mixed things on Dunkirk. I'm interested to see The Thin Red Line not be on your war movie list. What do you think of it? It's by far my favorite "war" movie.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I haven't seen All or Nothing; there is a lot of Leigh's work that I haven't seen, in fact. As I mentioned in the post, he's not been easy for me to get into, though it's been rewarding. I'll put that film on my list.

I really can't understand serious fans of film not "getting" Dunkirk. Fine, there's not really any character development at all, but who cares? These characters were historical types, whose lifespans for the purposes of the film were reduced to days, hours, minutes. I found utterly brilliant filmaking, and a terribly effective invocation of war and survival.

I really ought to rewatch The Thin Red Line. I saw it years ago, and didn't like it. The cinematic stream-of-consciousness style that the later Malick movies employ hasn't always worked for me, but sometimes I've seen tremendous power in what he creates on the screen, and it may be that I just needed time to adjust to what Malick was doing with his camera (it was his first movie after his 20-year break, after all; no one knew what to expect).

Matt said...

I sort of fear that I don't have a bit enough screen to enjoy Dunkirk now. (I only have my computer screen, which is fairly big for a computer, but not so big for watching movies.) It looked like the sort of film that really benefits from the big screen. I'm not sure why I didn't see many movies this last year - just got a bit out of the habit.

All or Nothing is a hard film to watch, in a typical Mike Leigh way, but the performance by Spall in particular is excellent. (He's one of my favorite actors.)

I get your point about Malick. I think The Thin Red Line was his last movie that I _really_ liked. (I thought The New World was good, but it was already going off in the wrong direction.) The last few have been too much about Malick's inner world for my tastes. But I can see how you could draw that line earlier.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Yes, Dunkirk absolutely deserves--requires, perhaps--the big screen. As for Malick, your comment is interesting, because I'm kind of the opinion that he came back from his 20-year break (I think Badlands and Days of Heaven are both pretty much small masterpieces) filled with philosophy, and unsure of how to realize that on film, and it's only been with practice that he's gotten more control over his cinematic ambitions. I thought The Tree of Life was better than either A Thin Red Line or The New World, for example.