With the Oscars approaching to distribute awards for the “best” movies of 2017, there are invariably many fine movies from the past year which have been excluded. Some of these movies were too weird for a mainstream awards gala; some were too small to get noticed; some were misunderstood or overshadowed. I call these kinds of movies “Screenflowers,” just like the shy or misfit kids that don’t get asked to dance. As usual, I took a few liberties by including a couple of movies that are getting a little bit of attention from the Oscars, but maybe not as much as I expected or as much as they deserved.
This is not a complaint about the movies from 2017 that are being lavished with praise during awards season. I like most of 2017’s heralded films, notably Get Out, Phantom Thread and Lady Bird. It was a strong year about which I have few complaints. The movies in this list, however, are the ones which I think also belong in the conversation about which movies mattered or tried something meaningful during 2017.
Here is my complete list of favorites from 2017, including all oif thoise movies you're already tired of hearing about:
- Get Out
- Phantom Thread
- On Body and Soul
- Lady Bird
- Blade Runner 2049
- The Lost City of Z
- Brad's Status
- I, Tonya
- The Lure
- A Ghost Story
- Wonder Wheel
- The Killing of a Sacred Deer
- Brigsby Bear
- The Shape of Water
- Good Time
- The Disaster Artist
- The Florida Project
The best Noah Baumbach movie of 2017 didn't come from Baumbach, who was piecemealing together his amusing but slight Netflix offering The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Instead, Brad’s Status, from writer/director Mike White, is an exactingly sensitive comedy-drama set in Baumbach's usual milieu — the neuroses of the over-educated and narcissistic white upper middle class (and often starring Ben Stiller) — and poignantly zeroing in on a very specific arena of first-world middle-aged angst: the empty spaces between loss and accomplishment that parents feel as children leave home to become adults and the self-imposed adult shame of failing to live up to one's own youthful ideals and the perceived successes of one's peers.
Stiller, who has settled into a ripe niche of seriocomic Yuppie 2.0 mid-life crises, once again perfectly captures the aching folly of addiction to self-awareness, and White's unassuming but insightful writing and directing find the right balance of empathy and critique to avoid both maudlin sentimentality and the groan-worthy self-indulgence of privileged self-pity.
As a man nearing Stiller's age and with children in and on the cusp of their teen years, and suffering from my own media life crisis, Brad's Status hits uncomfortably close to home, which is exactly what it should do, while mixing in nice performances and observant humor to make it go down with less direct agitation.
Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu has become one of the biggest stars of European arthouse cinema over the last two decades due to his incisive explorations of dysfunctional Eastern Bloc societies. In Graduation, his fifth film, Mungiu focuses with typical deftness on the dizzying carousel of civic corruption, and its casually cannibalistic rituals of graft, which even decent Romanians are forced to navigate to survive their broken system.
Adrian Titieni stars as a mostly honest but beleaguered doctor anxiously attempting to guarantee his teen daughter’s scholarship to a University in England, far away from their dangerous environment, after a traumatic incident threatens to affect her performance on her final exams. Mungiu delivers yet another sharply critical look at his native social culture, with its punishing system of shrugging masculine desperation, and leaves open every question that it asks of itself and the viewer.
There may have been no more chillingly timely movie released in the last year than Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama, which depicts a multicultural group of young people planning and executing a multi-target terrorist attack on Paris, and hiding out after hours in a shopping mall, awaiting the next stage.
The first half of Nocturama easily appealed to my taste for quiet, non-judgmental depictions of the nuts-and-bolts machinations of crime, especially terrorism and spycraft. Bonello gracefully tracks the myriad terrorists as they spread out across the city, mostly in silence, to complete their tasks with a pensive seriousness of purpose. While the detailed machinations of their plot are compelling enough, their stone-faced determination coupled with Bonello's effortless visual energy gives the first phase of Nocturama that rare electrical charge that comes from a convincing simulation of real-life danger.
It’s the second half of Nocturama, however, that transforms the clinically superb setup into mesmerizing social commentary and art. As the terrorists deal with the after effects of their actions — shock, detachment, relief, celebration, anti-climax, fear — all the while surrounded by the luxuries and symbols of capitalist society that both define this generation and mock its affected ideals, Bonello observes communal cognitive dissonance from the inside. Brooding, contemplative, stylish, pointed, and increasingly tense, Nocturama is a sharp look at the casual youthful embrace of destructive radical politics as a seemingly natural outlet for spiritual ennui and class self-abnegation — it's terrorism chic as a form of conspicuous consumerism, a frivolous youth fashion statement from a generation obsessed with its unexamined feelings —and with a detachment from consequences that aren't immediately personal.
Video essayist Kogonada graduates to feature films with Columbus, an exquisite, achingly sensitive little drama about two strangers who feel trapped within the legacies of their parents and cultures.
Haley Lu Richardson gives arguably the best pure acting performance of the year as Casey, a bright young architecture enthusiast who grew up in the modernist paradise of Columbus, Indiana, but feels unable to realize her own potential without sacrificing care for her mother, who is a recovering addict. She meets Jin (John Cho), who has flown from Korea to wait for his father, an influential Korean architecture scholar hospitalized while preparing to speak at the local college, to die.
In significant ways, Casey and Jin are opposites: she feels compelled to serve her mother, he wants little to do with his father; she loves and feels intimately tethered to her hometown, he feels anchorless and resents his culture as well his father's influence; she is open and engaged with everything, he is cynical and closed off. What they share, however, is profound: a yearning to bridge the gap between their restrictive pasts and uncertain futures and find a place in the disorder of their lives for structure, beauty, and to risk the vulnerability of establishing meaningful connections.
Columbus is a painstakingly careful piece of writing unerringly performed by Richardson and Cho, who bring a quiet vitality to every conversation about buildings, memories, fears and hopes. Richardson, in particular, is a real revelation, displaying a rare emotional openness that never threatens inauthenticity or preciousness. Elisha Christian's photography perfectly complements Kogonada's contemplative tone and pulls incredible emotional resonance out of the recurring architectural locations. It's a deeply special film, and a debut that will be hard to top.
Warning: this movie (but not this review) contains an unusually graphic scene of animal death.
Maybe it's cheating to include a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee near the top of a list of movies that I think have not received due attention, but many movies nominated in this category which do not come from countries with major film traditions (Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, etc.) remain obscure despite their quality, and, if the Academy Awards were less provincial when it comes to other categories, On Body and Soul may well have been up for awards across the board. It's one of my top 5 movies of the year and features wonderful performances from its two lead actors.
On Body and Soul (a.k.a. Teströl és lélekröl) is an engrossingly tactile movie about the need to be touched, in both the physical and emotional senses of the concept. Despite its cool, quiet, "slow" contemporary European art film style, Ildikó Enyedi's drama becomes quickly and emotionally personal thanks to two perfectly intimate performances by Géza Morcsányi and Alexandra Borbély. Playing co-workers at an industrial slaughterhouse, they discover a unique connection that threatens to change the defensive manner in which they each interact with the world at large.
While I may have preferred a different handling of or outcomes from a few moments or scenes in On Body and Soul, Enyedi's choices somehow always feel right and thoughtful despite those misgivings, and rarely have my feelings for characters snuck up on me so strongly and unexpectedly — The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is comparable in that regard. The aggregate of subtle and self-denied yearning in On Body and Soul is, ultimately, overwhelming, culminating in extremely special experience.
My Flickchart Rank: #1338
Global Flickchart Rank: #192
In the great Charlie Chaplin vs. Buster Keaton opinion wars, one of the primary attacks aimed at Chaplin is that he's too sentimental. While there's most definitely an inclination toward melodrama in the later Chaplin productions I've seen — The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times — I've always felt that it was elegant and effective sentiment, well-balanced with the comedy, and one of the bonuses that marginally elevated Chaplin's work over Keaton's for me. I hadn't seen his 1921 short The Kid, which is a big, juicy target for Chaplin critics, as it's almost 100% treacle with very little of the clever humor that has distinguished Chaplin as an early master moviemaker.
Playing his familiar Tramp character, Chaplin comes across an abandoned baby and, after briefly considering dropping him down a storm drain, takes him home and raises him as his own son. Five years later, the authorities find out about this unofficial adoption and attempt to claim the boy (Jackie Coogan) for the local orphan asylum. the boy's birth-mother, now a famous and wealthy singer, also comes looking.
While The Kid is well-produced, there's little sophistication at work in the simple plot, and only dim flashes of Chaplin's special comedic genius — and those mostly in a strange dream sequence near the very end. Instead, Chaplin gives us several shots of the cute kid, relishing the more heartbreaking moments of Coogan's performance. At less than an hour in length, The Kid doesn't overstay its welcome, but it's also so slight that I feel it doesn't even deserve mention alongside the inventive Chaplin classics that would follow.