Leave the cannoli, take the movies

Review Blog

Top 10 - 2017

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 18, 2018 at 5:40 PM

Last year, I introduced my Top 10 by enumerating some of the year's cinematic moments that left an indelible impression on me, those transcendent scenes that elicited in me sensations and perceptual states that exceeded language. I was in the midst of my cinema studies Master's program at UCLA and, about to take the concept on as one of my primary scholarly subjects, had affect on the mind.

As an affect-generating machine, film is uniquely bound up with our material and psychical existences, possessing the ability to shape and intensify ordinary life experience. The best films of 2017 were not only enriching and elating, but were able to cut through the mundanely representational to access the primal and the ineffable. Perhaps it is no coincidence that three of the films that appear on my list deal explicitly with memory - the province of affect.

Some notable films I have not yet seen at the time of this list-making: Lady Macbeth, A Fantastic Woman, Loveless, Darkest Hour.


10. mother! / Darren Aronofsky

A delirious, unhinged descent into ululating madness, mother! was the closest any film got to embodying the yawning, terrifying absurdity that was the state of the world in 2017. Aronofsky gleefully abandons whatever modicum of restraint he's shown himself capable of exercising here: his Grand Guignol vision is a suitably chaotic stew of humanity's most destructive impulses, manifest as the horde of uninvited, blithely presumptuous house guests who turn Jennifer Lawrence's Edenic abode into a desecrated hellscape. The invasion of these debauched revelers and the visceral anxieties Aronofsky evokes in their cavalcade of transgressions, rather than the fairly ham-handed biblical allegory, is what animates mother!'s horror and its mordant humor. This is a surreal comedy of very bad manners that might have made Buñuel giddy; rarely has a filmmaker transformed uncouth social behavior into such riotous theater, both cruel and absurd, exasperating and spectacular. And rarely has Aronofsky's craft been this impressive. Every snaking camera movement, disorienting cut, and warped sound effect (surely this is the most inventive sound design of 2017) works in concert to conjure a state of skittish unease and vexation perfectly aligned with Jennifer Lawrence's prodigiously embattled protagonist. That mother! frequently flies off the rails and gets flooded by its own grandiosity is less a demerit than a mark of its exhilarating audacity.

9. Coco / Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

Has there been a computer-animated film so visually sumptuous? Coco, Pixar's 19th feature film and first non-Anglocentric story, coruscates with an aesthetic plenitude derived from Mexican cultural tradition. The screen teems with the luminescence of life-size alebrijes, a bridge of cascading marigold petals, gleaming, palimpsestic buildings that reach into the perpetually night sky, and a vibrant populace of animate skeletons who celebrate the music of (after)life at town squares, concert arenas, and extravagant galas. The spirit of Día de los Muertos suffuses Coco visually and thematically, acting as the organizing principle of a film that honors its tradition and beliefs without reverting to exoticization. Like the holiday, it offers fulgent festivity that underscores the importance of cultural memory and heritage. Miguel's journey to fill the lacuna that exists in his genealogy is as much a mission to connect with his ancestors as it is a primal need to rediscover the mnemonic channels that are paramount to the sustenance of family and history. It is music, ultimately, that proves to be such an indispensible channel. Through an ebullient, eclectic soundtrack, which weaves Mexican folk with modern pop, music is foregrounded as a preeminent index of people, places, ideas, and sensations that can rekindle their memories. In everything and everyone it evokes, Coco finally becomes its own ravishing, virtual ofrenda.

8. Life and Nothing More / Antonio Méndez Esparza

Antonio Méndez Esparza's sensitive, docu-realist portrait of a working-poor black family in northern Florida did not receive a theatrical release in 2017 and, as far as I know, is still awaiting distribution. I include it on my list anyway because 1) I saw it at the Chicago International Film Festival this past year, 2) because its star, Regina Williams, earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her extraordinary performance, and 3) because it's an exceptional work and a vital film for our contemporary American moment. Life and Nothing More is exceptional, in part, because it accomplishes what so few films of its ilk are able to: observing and illuminating disenfranchised, under-represented communities without recourse to the usual dramaturgy or ethnographic distance. Méndez Esparza instead favors a granular focus on the lives of a family - comprised of single mother Regina, teenage son Andrew, little daughter Ry’Nesia, and eventual new father Robert - and the myriad socioeconomic forces that structure them. Yet even as we hear incidental radio coverage of the 2016 election, Life and Nothing More refuses polemics. Its style is patient, nonjudgmental, inductive; we glean through their behavior how economic struggle impinges on the characters' day-to-day experiences and encounters, how their apprehensions and hostilities are ripples of systemic inequities that have simply become habituated. Subverting aesthetic expectations, Méndez Esparza tends to film in long takes and obliquely composed wide shots, cutting on unusual beats and eliding seemingly crucial moments. It is an unorthodox formal scheme that indicates an empathic regard for lives that exist far beyond the screen.

7. Wonderstruck / Todd Haynes

At a pivotal moment in Todd Haynes's spellbinding Wonderstruck, a girl sits in a theater in 1927 Hoboken, New Jersey watching the latest Hollywood release. Fifty years later, in Gunflint, Minnesota, we see a boy dialing a number left in an old book given to him by his mother. Then, lightning strikes, literally - both in the movie playing on that 1927 cinema screen and over the 1977 house where the boy makes his call, the electricity traveling down his antenna and through the chord of the phone. Haynes's images flash, splinter, and swirl together; for several seconds, the black-and-white, silent film world of Hoboken and the placid Gunflint are molecularly fused, separate eras and aesthetic idioms temporally and spatially united in an elastic visual language that belongs only to cinema. Over the remainder of Wonderstruck, the two children - both hearing-impaired but galvanized by insatiable creative curiosity - will be drawn closer and closer together, the grammar of film not merely juxtaposing their eventually converging paths but facilitating them. Haynes, one of our essential champions of social others, adapts Brian Selznick's graphic novel into a robust, stirring paean to visual storytelling's ability to speak the language of difference. Despite their disabilities, neither child is stymied in their capacity to communicate. Haynes has created for them a powerful cinematic sign system which, like the American Museum of Natural History that serves as the story's locus, allows them to defy and conquer the distances imposed by time and space.

6. Phantom Thread / Paul Thomas Anderson

With its exacting formal rigor and obsessive, fetishistic craftsmanship, Phantom Thread is designed to mirror the uncompromising discipline of its creator-protagonist. Anderson, an at least semi-analogous master artisan, assumes Reynolds Woodcock’s unwavering precision and meticulousness, his epicurean self-indulgence as well as stubborn self-abnegation, crafting a film whose entwined aesthetics of opulence and austerity reflect the condition of an artist for whom devotion to process precludes a certain amount of sensual freedom. Woodcock is an icon of the (male) creative ego so invested in the ritual prowess of his work that any disruption counts not only as a distraction but as a primal violation of his self-possession. Routines must be slavishly observed; personal distance is imperative in allowing him to survey, objectify, and draw ego boundaries. The film, itself an exemplar of imperious classical style, moves rapturously along through sinuous tracking shots, delectably caustic dialogue, and supple mise-en-scène, every element as elegantly placed as Woodcock’s silver strands of hair. But Phantom Thread is also, improbably, a love story, and love cannot abide such a stringent regime. As the equally obstinate and possessive Alma finds darkly creative ways to seize control of the relationship, the film ripens into a romance of low-key psychosexual perversity, pathologies and fetishes covertly consummating under the protection of decorum. Without ceding his own self-discipline, Anderson slyly quirks his classicism so that reality shifts into the realm of the libido. His customary opacity, however, remains; a vexing but apt mode of engaging with the gnomic vagaries of desire.

5. Faces Places / Agnès Varda and JR

As spryly curious and jocular as ever, Agnès Varda fashions Faces Places as another characteristically delightful freewheeling collage, seamlessly weaving together memoir, social portraiture, and documentation of creative praxis in a celebration of living through art. Along with street artist JR, whose resemblance to Jean-Luc Godard is but one of the film’s many nodal points in a rhizomatic structure of memories and associations, Varda exploits the capacity of the photographic medium to extend, magnify, and elevate the human experience. For her cinema is a technology of memory that has and continues to profoundly inform her life, acting as an enduring source of inspiration and connection that provides nothing short of spiritual sustenance. Yet like her other documentaries, Faces Places doesn’t slip into solipsism. Varda refuses to let her deep introspection minimize or draw attention away from her subjects, for whom her reverence is evident in every scene. She manages not merely to evince the constitutive role of art in her own life, but demonstrate its binding, communal social function as well. Outsize portraits of workers and townsfolk plastered on buildings communicates an abiding empathy and egalitarian regard for ordinary people; their selfies in front of them are not derided but upheld as exemplary of each individual’s productive potential. Public art may enliven surroundings, but Varda and JR make it mean something more: to posit the inextricability of faces and places, to index human presence, to add value, color, and shape to life. Faces Places documents such creative ethos while embodying it itself, effortlessly.

4. Good Time / Josh and Ben Safdie

Pitched between a deliriously bad trip and a social welfare nightmare, the feverishly fluorescent-hued Good Time combines the hard-charging, monomaniacal energy of a crime thriller with the compassionate critique of urban realism. The Safdie brothers prove remarkably adept at synthesizing the two aspects in both sensibility and aesthetic: beginning and ending their film with the dejection of a man forced into submission by a society that doesn't know how to accommodate him, they produce a simultaneously propulsive and cyclical narrative in which heightened, nerve-jangling genre elements reinforce an atmosphere of inescapable anomie. Strategically employed as more than mere sensory overload, the film's searing black-light visuals and assaultive sound mix work to convey a trapped, panicked state both endemic to this kind of cinematic idiom and emblematic of characters terrorized by circumstance and bad choices. Robert Pattinson’s live-wire performance is entrained to this aesthetic, and not just because of his shock of bleached hair. The actor’s tetchy intensity rises and falls with the film’s mercurial current, riding its electric highs and underscoring the human costs of its most gut-wrenching lows. Through the events that seal his inevitable fate, and finally in the helpless inertia of his brother, the Safdies locate a morass where the follies of individuals and the failures of society appear nearly inseparable. Their quietly anguished coda, capping an adrenaline rush of movie-mad style, is all the more pained and powerful for arresting such impressive speed.

3. A Ghost Story / David Lowery

A Ghost Story is a gargantuan film in a small package. At just around 90 minutes, it spans hundreds if not thousands of years, granting us the ability to witness, via an ethereal figure moored to a single geographical location, the imponderable flux of existence. Lowery endeavors to capture not so much the vastness of the cosmos as the enormity of consciousness: through meticulous film form that ingeniously manipulates spectator perception, he makes visible and thematic the phenomenological processes that structure our relationship to the world. The house that the titular ghost haunts is not inert material but imbued with strata of memory, history, and existential knowledge that, in fact, also haunt the ghost; transcending both subject and object, he is a representation of the psychic attachments that bind us to places, people, and things. As Lowery contracts and expands time in hypnotic rhythms, positioning us as the ghost/spectator in a reorganized space-time, he dehabituates and recalibrates our everyday perception. Senses enhanced, we become simultaneously attuned to the transience of the material world and the eternal persistence of the affective bonds that exceed it. Uniquely, laconically sensuous in form, A Ghost Story finally prompts an awareness less of our smallness than of the sublimity of the existence that we are ineluctably and intentionally in – and of.

2. Lady Bird / Greta Gerwig

"Don't you think they're the same thing? Love and attention?" Rebutting Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's assertion that she doesn't love her hometown of Sacramento, she only writes about it reverently because she pays attention, the head sister of the Catholic school she attends offers these aphoristic words. One doesn't have to know the background of the film's writer-director Greta Gerwig, or recognize how Saoirse Ronan superbly channels her gawky charm, to understand that this scene, like every beautifully rendered one in the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird, is self-reflexive. Greta Gerwig pays attention. She pays attention to the formative characteristics of place, culture, and socioeconomic milieu, sensitive to how they shape behavior and reveal desires and insecurities; to, specifically, the colloquialisms and pieties of an early 21st-century liberal California suburb; to how teenagers aspire and compare, posture and despair, perform for themselves and each other as identities are nervously negotiated. As she did in her collaborations with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig brings to Lady Bird a perspicacity about the anxieties of fledgling adulthood that is leavened by inimitable warmth and wit. Yet the film refuses to narrow its focus to the kids exclusively, as many in the “coming-of-age” category are prone to do – rather, Gerwig’s deeply empathetic vision encompasses an ecosystem of mothers, fathers, and teachers who are all afforded equal dimensionality and, yes, attention. In its pithy writing and brilliantly economic formal construction, Lady Bird stands as a crystalline demonstration of Gerwig's canny artistic sensibility, fully formed.

1. A Quiet Passion / Terence Davies

In A Quiet Passion, words are everything. They articulate the 19th-century dogmas that dictate repressive social mores, but also the defiant declarations of an artist who challenges and resists them. They flow into poetic self-expression and convulse into angry argument, shimmer in effervescent badinage and sharpen into ripostes that cut like knives in fiery tête-à-têtes. They coalesce into rhetoric and produce and dismantle discourse. They carry wit, insight, catharsis, self-doubt, and despair. They liberate and they suffocate.

For A Quiet Passion's Emily Dickinson, portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in the year's single greatest performance, words are her bulwark against the stringent mandates of a society to which she refuses to submit. Deploying it like an unimpeachable armor, the English language becomes her veritable second skin. Indeed, Davies's verbose script and its performance by his extraordinary cast stress spoken language as a dense, physically impactful material, the actors' hyper-elocution emphasizing not merely the content of their words but the palpable textures of their cadences. While Dickinson is by no means shown to be the only one so immersed in the discursive realm, Davies suggests how her particular mo just indicates a heightened sensitivity to the world that leaves her more vulnerable to its vicissitudes. This especially attuned orientation is embodied by Nixon as a corporeal state that oscillates between headstrong pride and crushing despondency; the actress makes Dickinson a woman who feels words and their meanings so intensely they visibly alter her comportment and attitude, switching from her refuge to her prison on a dime. Davies, the foremost cinematic poet of melancholy, has found in this different but fellow poet his consummate surrogate. Both artists resist the status quo, choosing to stand obstinately by their convictions in rejection of an unjust social order, even if it results in their seclusion. Both understand the inescapability of language and the ideas it supports, but also how to use it to make an indelible, devastatingly beautiful statement.

The wonderful, (closest) runners-up:

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, by Luca Guadagnino, an exemplary portrait of erotic awakening charged by the astonishing, lissome physicality of Timothée Chalamet.

THE BEGUILED, by Sofia Coppola, with its taut, suspenseful build and sly negotation of audience identification. Also, for Phillipe Le Sourd's gauzy, lush cinematography.

THE SQUARE, by Ruben Östlund, a deliciously withering satire about First World hypocrisies, featuring some of the filmmaker's most bitingly uncomfortable and masterfully constructed comic set-pieces yet.

THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, by Sébastien Laudenbach, a gorgeous adaptation of the Grimm brothers fable with animation that flits mesmerizingly in and out of abstraction.

GET OUT, by Jordan Peele, which crafts a shrewd metaphor for white cultural hegemony within a horror-cum-social satire framework, trenchantly unraveling the pretenses of our only nominally post-racial era.

Categories: Yearly Top 10s

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