Friday, February 2, 2018

My Favorite Films of 2017

Things were a bit different in 2017. I shot a feature-length film with a good friend and wrote and recorded the debut album of a new musical project, and both events considerably overshadowed my film viewing and writing, not to mention my dwindling participation in "film culture," which has been growing increasingly inane in the age of Twitter. Serendipitously, this relative lack of investment in theatrical filmgoing occurred in a particularly fecund year for non-theatrical forms of visual media (i.e. television and streaming stuff), so I've abandoned the rules I clung to in previous years regarding inclusion in this list. (With that said, I just couldn't bring myself to include Super Bowl LI or Game 5 of the World Series in this round-up despite being two of my most rapturous viewing experiences in 2017.) As always, this list is as much for my own records as it is for your perusal, but I'm not a wild self-promoter during the year so I hope it can also function belatedly as a helpful aggregator of the pieces I wrote that, however proud I was with them, nonetheless probably fell off into internet obscurity.

Also, it's worth noting that I (obviously) fell way behind on developing this post, and at this point with my top-of-year assignments and obligations piling up, I'm not in the mood to write new capsules for some of these films that I haven't seen in months. In the case of the eight films here that don't have accompanying text, I've just linked to my favorites pieces of writing on them. Hope that's cool with y'all. For films that do have copy attached, the titles link to my reviews.

20. A Cure for Wellness (Verbinski, USA/Germany)

"Verbinski excels at such disorienting crosscuts (the film’s literally hell-raising climax juxtaposes ghastly happenings in the spa’s basement with jubilant festivities in the ballroom above), and in a larger sense, A Cure for Wellness thrives on a collision of tones. The immaculate cosmetics of the wellness retreat itself, from the prudently manicured foliage to everyone’s spotless white uniforms, contrast with an alarming emphasis on creepy-crawly body horror. There’s enough sickly exposed white flesh on display throughout the film—often submerged in water filled with man-eating eels—to make Ulrich Seidl blush, while one bit of dental treatment/torture administered to Lockhart produces a retina-searing image worthy of early Cronenberg."

19. Autumn, Autumn (Jang, South Korea)

"If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that Jang’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place."

18. Song to Song (Malick, USA)

"In the end, Song to Song has next to nothing of consequence to say about the music scene in 2017, just as Knight of Cups’s gloss on Hollywood deal-making and networking was nothing if not incidental. Though the film features dozens of musical cues from artists ranging from Bob Marley to Sharon Van Etten to Julianna Barwick, its snapshots of big-venue machinations and backstage antics comprise only a fraction of its content. Instead, the music industry—as a combustible, always-moving collaborative enterprise in which nothing’s guaranteed—provides the textural backdrop for another long-form, free-associative investigation into the highs and low of romantic love, and one that arguably constitutes the most rewarding of Malick’s recent output."

17. The Challenge (Ancarani, Switzerland)

16. The Florida Project (Baker, USA)

15. Nathan for You: Season 4 (Fielder & Koman, USA)

14. Personal Shopper (Assayas, France)

13. Lady Bird (Gerwig, USA)

12. Hermia and Helena (Piñeiro, Argentina)

"It may be Piñeiro’s most inspired and thrilling work to date, exhaustive in its means of keeping the viewer off balance and yet rich in its emotional implications. The subject matter is derived at least tangentially from the director’s own recent tenure as a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard and as a Big Apple resident (Camila is twice redirected by an obliging local while walking the wrong way to a destination, which feels like potential self-portraiture on Piñeiro’s part), and this firsthand experience lends an added charge to the film’s inquiries into the nature of belonging, the difficulties of translation (and transition), and the coexistence of past and present."

11. Rat Film (Anthony, USA)

10. Good Time (Safdies, USA)

9. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (Kuosmanen, Finland)

"Exceptionally modest and unapologetically minor-key, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki homes in on the figure of the beta male who happens to excel at a sport he loves but increasingly finds himself at odds with the competitive mentality on which it operates. The small but seismic developmental stage that ensues—that is, the realization that personal fulfillment should be sought elsewhere, and that one’s engagement with the sport should be cut back—doesn’t necessarily resonate as screenwriting gold, and yet Juho Kuosmanen’s film commits wholeheartedly to this character study. In doing so, the pageantry and theatrics of the boxing world, the chosen arena of Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti), fall away as background noise."

8. I Love You, Daddy (C.K., USA)

"Louis C.K.’s first theatrical feature as a writer-director since 2001’s Pootie Tang wrestles relentlessly, in scene after discomfiting scene, with some of the entertainment industry’s most immediate and upsetting issues: the plague of sexual assault, the unsavory legacy of white male privilege, and the ongoing problem of enabling. And the film will, undoubtedly, be rejected by many as the unsolicited penance-seeking of a man around whom such discussions have recently circled. It’s also as exhilaratingly honest and unshackled a work as many have come to expect from this auteur of cringe comedy, one that foresees, absorbs, and responds to all possible bile that might be directed its way, knowing full well of the muck it dredges up. Certainly, more can be asked of C.K. as a man, but can more be asked of an artist?"

Note: This review was filed literally minutes before the New York Times broke a now-widely-circulated exposé on C.K.'s history of sexual assault, news which was already aired as "rumors" a few years ago. I regret my review being published in the midst of such turmoil, but I do stand by my appreciation for the film and the words I wrote. Louis is quite clearly a pig and reckons deeply with what it's like to be a pig in his work. Sometimes art that touches on ugly aspects of humanity can be as revealing as the inverse. By the same token, I hope that C.K. puts his money where his mouth is and takes a hike.

7. Marjorie Prime (Almereyda, USA)

(Capsule written for Slant's year-end coverage.) "As science fiction, Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime derives its haunting power as much from its speculative elements as from the cozy familiarity of its mise-en-scène. Exploiting a multi-generational beachfront family cottage designed in a warm midcentury modern style as its setting, as well as comforting splashes of Beethoven and the Band on its soundtrack, Almereyda’s spare restaging of Jordan Harrison’s talky play imagines a near future where holographic simulations of dead loved ones (also known as “primes”) have placed familial relations in peril, providing unprecedented grief-coping opportunities on the one hand but enabling an echo chamber of delusion and emotional confusion on the other. Starring Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, and Jon Hamm as the corporeal and projected personae of a bourgeois family bound by a history of half-clarified emotional wounds, Marjorie Prime consists of a series of charged one-on-ones between humans and uncanny A.I. contraptions that progressively muddy the tenuous distinction between truth and selective memory—in addition to showcasing the ensemble’s dexterity. As with 2015’s Experimenter, Almereyda excels at running a tight ship (the film was shot in 13 days with limited resources) while still bringing out the best in his collaborators (cinematographer Sean Price Williams and composer Mica Levi both do daring career-highlight work here), and his elliptical treatment of the script’s central existential dilemma—the havoc wreaked in transcending the absolute finality of death—is enough to justify a sly visual nod to Last Year at Marienbad."

6. Strong Island (Ford, USA)

I caught this only recently but was floored by it. Ford's raw exposé of her brother's decades-old murder case and its emotional aftermath doesn't feel like a debut work, and carries the force of a long-overdue unburdening. I imagine that the filmmaker's tenure as a producer at PBS's POV non-fiction series cultivated an allergy to convention and expository blandness in documentary, and that elevated insight shows in the film's patient, piecemeal delivery of information, its confrontational mode of address (accomplished across of number of rigorous formal devices), and its refusal to overstate its chilling topicality, preferring instead to simmer in the particular emotional wounds of its tale.

5. Slack Bay (Dumont, France)

4. On Cinema at the Cinema: Season 9 and the Apple Valley News broadcast of the "Electric Sun 20" trial (Heidecker & Turkington, USA)

Between going on a national tour, running a podcast, writing and performing in various Adult Swim shows, and releasing a steady stream of topical folk songs, Tim Heidecker's productivity this year was staggering. Still, at the top of the pile sits On the Cinema at the Cinema, originally a farcical YouTube-hosted movie-review show that has since ballooned into an alternate universe that bleeds into social media. There's no way to adequately summarize in a sentence the slow mutation that the show has taken over its nine seasons from clever satire to warped melodrama and evolving mirror of the stupidity of our online culture (this video helps though). Suffice to say that the latest ten-episode installment pushes the ongoing tension between its two hosts to new heights of passive-aggressive absurdity and further muddies the drama's tenuous separation from "real life," a gambit that culminates in Heidecker's most challenging and formally audacious experiment yet: the complete, interminably long, and aesthetically exacting mock-broadcast of a weeklong trial held against "Heidecker" for a crime committed by his character. Catch the season here and the court proceedings here. And don't sleep on the two seasons of Decker either, which, while not quite up to the standard of the first two web-only seasons, continue to provide another hilarious prism into this world.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA)

(Capsule written for In Review Online's year-end list.) "Romantic relationships have often existed on the periphery of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films—when not acting as outright structuring absences. Of Anderson’s many male protagonists, only Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice seems propelled by something other than naked greed, lust, or ambition, and the film’s sweet, wistful coda crystallized the benign yearning that grounded Doc’s persona. With Phantom Thread, Anderson has centered a story around romance—and particularly the work involved in sustaining it long-term—without abandoning the more selfish, abstract qualities that have long plagued his heroes’ thirsts for transcendence. The hybrid of competing instincts—towards the self and towards the companion; towards wealth and power; and towards domestic bliss—make for Anderson’s richest and thorniest character study yet, one set in a lavish, insular world of high fashion that’s no less a battleground than Freddie Quell’s alien home front or Daniel Plainview’s oil field. Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis, photographed in the soothing glow of a midcentury London mansion, give performances steeped in decorum that nonetheless seethe with rage, passion and libido. The same might be said for Anderson’s consummate formal control, which passes off incredibly tricky sewing-room sequences, interjections of dream logic, and ornamental flourishes like slow dissolves and artificial snowfall, with the casualness of a seasoned veteran."

2. A Quiet Passion (Davies, UK)

"Timeliness and contemporary relevance are such powerful influencers in the production of biopics that it’s rare to come across a specimen of the genre that fully respects the particulars of its era without indulging the temptation to editorialize from the vantage of modern-day frames of reference. Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion is one such rarity, refusing to over-account for the sensitivities or attention spans of today’s audiences in treating Emily Dickinson as a living, breathing human inextricable from her everyday reality. Dickinson may have been a proto-feminist, but the film is hardly a resurrection of the 19th-century poet as an icon of social justice—surely one market-friendly direction this project could have taken—but rather a hard look at the contours of her sequestered social universe, and how those sometimes limiting parameters nevertheless fueled her work."

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch & Frost, USA)

David Lynch finagled a remarkable amount of creative freedom to spearhead eighteen hours of material for a major television company, proceeded to deepen the lore of a beloved 25-year-old property while also shrewdly resisting the desires and expectations of fan culture, and wound up with a crowning achievement that synthesizes his past and present as an artist. Of course it's #1. I won't try to parse this behemoth in a short paragraph, but I will direct you to the two best pieces of critical engagement I experienced this year while consuming it: first, my friend Keith Uhlich's incredibly perceptive and astute week-by-week dissections at MUBI, and second, Kate Rennebohm and Simon Howell's relentlessly inquisitive podcast "The Lodgers."

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): Columbus, The Death of Louis XIV, Decker: Mindwipe, Get Out, Logan Lucky, The Lost City of Z, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Mother!, The Ornithologist, Person to Person, Porto (piece one, piece two), The Son of Joseph, Split

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

24 Frames (2017) A Film by Abbas Kiarostami

"The basis for the film, specified in an opening title card, is Kiarostami’s photography work. Looking over his stills archive, the filmmaker was apparently overcome with a desire to witness more than what his images could offer, and thus set about resurrecting, with some mixture of memory and projection, the 'scenes' leading up to and succeeding the click of the shutter—an undertaking that deflates Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous idea of 'the decisive moment.' If one 'decides' on immortalizing a single instant with photography, Kiarostami seems to posit, then one has robbed a moment of its life and complexity, qualities that can only be revived through cinema. It’s no accident that whenever a death occurs in 24 Frames, the vignette comes to an end; movement and progress are the organizing principles here."

My full review of Kiarostami's final, posthumously released film is live on Slant now. I anticipate this being at or near the top of my 2018 year-end list.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Commuter (2018) A Film by Jaume Collet-Serra

"For The Commuter, director Jaume Collet-Serra shrewdly casts longtime collaborator Liam Neeson, who recently announced (again) that he's retiring from action movies, as a middle-class man struggling through a sudden layoff. In what's surely no coincidence, the justification that Neeson cited for his retirement to reporters at last year's Toronto International Film Festival—'I'm sixty-fucking-five'—has found its way into The Commuter's dialogue almost verbatim. 'I'm 60 years of age,' pleads Michael MacCauley (Neeson) when given the axe by his boss at the Manhattan insurance firm where he's worked as a salesman for more than a decade, implying that he's not yet old enough to weather his remaining years without financial stability. Where the real Neeson appears to be resolute in his decision, MacCauley is a bundle of nerves as he's booted from the deceptive comfort of a high-rise office building to the grimy swarms of a New York gripped by recession-era anxiety."

Full review continues at Slant.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy End (2017) A Film by Michael Haneke

"With Happy End, Michael Haneke takes circuitous routes to arrive at rather simplistic observations—namely, that modern technology is a plague and that the rich are soul-sick and insulated from real-world troubles. He’s concocted a plot just busy enough to distract from these worn cynicisms and a set of characters too enigmatic to dismiss as mere chess pieces off the bat, but by the end, Happy End reveals itself as something vacuous and cold, a bizarrely seductive pseudo-thriller lacking a thoroughly worked-out payoff."

Review continues at Slant.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Voice of the Moon (1990) A Film by Federico Fellini

"Somewhere deep in the foggy Italian countryside, in an abandoned barn in the middle of the night, Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel' booms over a sound system for the dancing pleasure of a mob of leather-clad Gen X-ers. On the evidence of The Voice of the Moon, this was an aging Federico Fellini's vision of a world under the spell of globalized pop music and youth culture, where the new and the hip is a pervasive bug filling every crevice left by the old and the archaic. When this endearingly absurdist illusion manifests itself around the three-quarter mark of the film, however, it's a sense of euphoria, not cynicism, that prevails."

Full review of Fellini's swan song, now out on Blu-ray from Arrow Video, continues at Slant.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Kevin Jerome Everson: Cinema and the Practice of Everyday Life

"Rooted so firmly in African-American settings that any appearance of a white person comes as a surprise (in itself a substantial political act), Everson’s films obsessively fixate on the everyday, offering immersive depictions of people working, passing time in their neighborhoods, running errands, going to the doctor, fixing their cars, and enjoying brief respites of leisure. These slivers of quotidian activity stand on their own as “complete” cinematic subjects, not mere fragments of larger narrative scaffolding, and the plainly descriptive titles of Everson’s films speak to his unwavering conviction in the seemingly undramatic minutes and seconds that mainstream cinema—or, for that matter, even a wide swatch of documentary and avant-garde cinema—routinely passes over as unworthy of prolonged attention."

The Harvard Film Archive is hosting a formidable retrospective of the films of Kevin Jerome Everson this winter. I spent my September and October consuming and researching the man's work and contributed the entirety of the program notes for the series, which can be found here. Everson's a highly unique figure. I don't think there's anyone quite like him on the contemporary scene. He makes films that almost necessitate accompanying texts to make sense of, and I hope what I've done here suffices.

Monday, November 13, 2017

I Love You, Daddy (2017) A Film by Louis C.K.

"Fittingly, the perennial question of whether art and artist can possibly be detached from one another looms heavily over I Love You, Daddy, which finds C.K. alter ego Glen Topher tormented by the sudden involvement of his teenage daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz), with an illustrious film director, Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who also happens to be a rumored sexual predator—a simultaneously cerebral and ingratiating type who splits the difference between Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. A terrific Malkovich is fully at ease under a goatee and a sarong, investing every one of Leslie's highfalutin proclamations with a strange brew of sociopathic detachment and charitable curiosity. Slyly repelling any villainous narratives surrounding himself, Leslie is defined by an inscrutability that drives C.K.'s prosperous TV writer—and us—up the walls and fuels the film's anguished interrogation."

Full review of Louis C.K.'s new (and now not-to-be-released) film I Love You, Daddy is up at Slant Magazine. Note: I filed this piece shortly before a NY Times exposé was published outing C.K. as a sexual predator. I stand by my review, but there's certainly discomfort in having it out there, knowing that in some way pieces like this enable a Hollywood system that has historically supported men like C.K.