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Yazdi’s Favorite Films of 2017

 

Hello everyone, Yazdi here.

I blame the holidays.

I maintain a list of favorite films on Letterboxd all year. They are films from the past year that have triggered introspection, impressed with their craft, or just made me giddy in my cinema seat. And then the end of the year approaches, the holidays arrive, and I get caught up in the spirit of the season. That is when I inevitably recalibrate the rankings on my list. When I think back upon the past twelve months, the films that register more than others now are those that have moved me the most. The word “movie” dates to the 1890s when it was first realized that projecting still images in quick succession approximated movement on the screen; this definition makes sense. But I like to think of movies, the good ones at least, as films that move us the most, those that emotionally register, often irreversibly. Come the end of the year, the more cerebral films tumble down the list and the ones that have altered something within my emotional circuitry, rise to the top. The list of films stays the same, but when it comes to the rankings, the heart has always trumped the mind. And so is the case with this year’s list too:

 

  1. STRONGER: Nominally, this is about a person overcoming physical disability, at this time already an exhausted genre in film. But director David Gordon Green makes this a film about all the other things that are impacted by sudden disability; the lives of those around the person; the sense of self as the ground has literally disappeared from under them. The perennially underappreciated Jake Gyllenhaal is supported by career-best performances from Miranda Richardson and Tatiana Maslany. The film has no interest in making heroes out of any of the characters, based on real life individuals. And by allowing them to be deeply flawed, ill-intentioned even, STRONGER became the most emotionally authentic film I saw this year.
  2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: Like BOYHOOD, this is a film that doggedly refuses to add up to much through most of its running time. Until the very end when it suddenly does, and it quietly breaks your heart. Director Luca Guadagnino, a master of surfaces rendered with impossible beauty, lets the film languor, letting the viewer soak into the locale and the characters. Its a deeply immersive experience. More than anything else CALL ME BY YOUR NAME gets the subtle, complex dance of first love just right: the initial tentative circling around each other, the mixed messages, the dubious reading of signals, and the alacrity with which those around are recklessly used as pawns. This is the rare film that understands the cruelty that goes hand in hand with the swoon of young love.
  3. THE BEGUILED: A wounded soldier during the American Civil War is rescued to a Girls School. This is your classic rooster-in-a-henhouse story. In her take on the 1971 Clint Eastwood film, Sofia Coppola has left much of the story intact, but chosen to tell it from the perspective of the hens instead of the rooster. What great fun to watch the psychosexual repression get pressure cooked into a delicious stew of moral ambiguities. With a constant backdrop of booming cannons, the Civil War era sexual politics feel fiercely relevant.
  4. THELMA: All those lamenting the death of good cinema should immediately get their hands on this Norwegian thriller. A young girl leaves her sheltered small town family life to attend university in a big city, and starts noticing strange things happening to and around her. Always holding its cards close to the chest, THELMA evolves into something utterly unexpected. You watch the film with incredulity, unsure at every minute where the story is headed. Is this is a coming-of-age film. Is it supernatural horror. Is it a character study about the perils of repressing sexuality. Is it a strident rebuke to religious fanaticism. As you think back on the film afterward, you realize it is not primarily any of those things, although it touches upon them all. And you recognize that the film’s ambitions are grander still, taking on nothing less than how the world at large looks at femininity.
  5. KAPOOR AND SONS: For a long time, the biggest enemy of mainstream Indian cinema had been a willful adherence to moral and cinematic tropes that were dated even decades ago. Which is what has made the Indian films from the last 5-7 years so utterly exciting, as experimentation in form, in structure, and in content have led to a new golden age, with exceptional films coming from young filmmakers eager to marry the aesthetic of independent cinema with quality of craft. KAPOOR AND SONS earns its place in this pantheon. It is blessed with superlative acting from an enviable ensemble cast and a director who knows precisely how to tap into their talent. But the thing that truly sets this film apart from others in the cadre is the script. The writing in this film refuses to find easy villains. It knows that family conflicts can spontaneously escalate to something not unlike between enemy lines during war. The writing seeks empathy, it seeks understanding in the face of long germinated prejudices, and it seeks space for everyone to breathe. This film made me glad to be alive.
  6. THE POST: At a time when the big studios are almost exclusively financing sequels and superhero franchise films, a resolutely cerebral film seems a minor miracle. Steven Spielberg has made an astute turn in his career with a recent trilogy of political films, LINCOLN, THE BRIDGE OF SPIES and now THE POST, that while superficially unrelated, all comment urgently on the state of contemporary politics in America, and the dangerous path we are currently treading. Kay Graham, the de-facto publisher of The Washington Post , in the early 1970s was faced with the choice of publishing the next of the Pentagon papers at the risk of having Nixon shut down the newspaper. THE POST is hermetically sealed within its times. But when you consider the issues at stake: the press versus a government bent on stifling its freedoms, a woman trying to exert her moral will in a predominantly male business, corporate imperatives directly abutting national security risks, you realize just how relevant this film is to the absolute now. THE POST is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, and for that alone it is an accomplishment.
  7. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER: The films of Yargos Lanthimos make you wonder if he is the person most urgently in need of a hug in the whole wide world, but By Jove, thank god for filmmakers like him. Demonstrating once again why he is a master of the disquiet, he is able to effortlessly conjure up unease and impending terror. The teenaged children of a celebrated cardiologist (Colin Farrell) and his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman) start to suddenly get sick with no medical explanation. Does any of it have to do with the young boy that the cardiologist has taken under his wing? Like all of his films, Lanthimos creates a world with its own absurd rules, and staunchly sees the film through based on those tenets. Isn’t it that evil is so frightening because it often hides in plain view amongst the banal. Part cold knuckled revenge thriller, part unforgiving moral treatise, and an altogether unpredictable and sinister experience, this movie may be too disturbing for some. But every lover of cinema needs to watch this film.
  8. COCO: This film nicely fits in with the best of Pixar films in its ability to create complex new world, and being unafraid to tackle darker ideas. This film owes a lot visually to Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY, and the influence of Pixar’s own MONSTERS INC is apparent. However the film’s place and sensibility is uniquely its own. The film uses the Mexican rites of Dias De Los Muertos (Day of The Dead) as its springboard; but those rites resonated strongly with the Indian customs I grew up with, speaking to the universality of our common traditions. COCO filled me up and then devastated me. Note to Pixar: please abandon all efforts with sequels, which save for TOY STORY have resulted in inferior efforts. Their recent original material (INSIDE OUT, THE GOOD DINOSAUR and now COCO) speaks for itself and doesn’t need to be diluted by mediocre sequels
  9. LOGAN LUCKY: Were this film made by another director and distributed by a major studio, it would have been a runaway hit. But we expect proficiency from someone like Steven Soderbergh, and to our great peril, take him for granted. The director of the OCEAN’S ELEVEN reboot (and the sequels) takes a stab at another heist story, this time set in the down South NASCAR racing circuit instead of the gleaming Vegas surfaces of the OCEAN’S films. Oh but what fun this film is, probably the most entertaining one I saw this year. Soderbergh walks a tight line between mocking his characters and demonstrating unequivocal fondness for them. I have no desire to live in a world in which Steven Soderbergh is no longer making films.
  10. A CURE FOR WELLNESS: This is a blindingly original film. A young man is sent to a hidden mountain resort to bring back an office colleague who has seemingly been retained there against his will. The man arrives there, and of course, nothing is what it seems, and from there things take on one twisted turn after another. With a commitment to its craziness that initially puzzles you and then outright wins you over, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is what happens when you allow a filmmaker with giddy vision (Gore Verbinsky) to go with his full creative intent and you get the hell out of his way. What an utter lunatic delight this film is.
  11. DUNKIRK: What is left to say about DUNKIRK at this point? That in spite of other incredible mainstream productions released this year, you will not find a film with better craft. That this is the film that Christopher Nolan has been working toward his entire career. In which he has found the right scale, placed hubris in check, and put to optimal use his penchant for time dilation. Many expected DUNKIRK to be the story of the exodus of the more than three hundred thousand Allied soldiers out of France from Nazi control. But Nolan wisely decided to focus on a handful of individuals-  in air, on land and on water – demonstrating yet again that his best work comes from smaller scale projects.
  12. GET OUT: Of all the films on this list, Jordan Peele’s debut directorial effort will likely be talked about most in ten years’ time. The premise is deceptively simple: invited to the family home of his Caucasian girlfriend, a Black man begins to sense that things may not be what they seem. The film works as a satisfying straight up thriller. But the film gives so much more upon introspection. Peele has mentioned that the inspiration for the film was a mash-up between THE STEPFORD WIVES and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. By adroitly approaching this as a genre horror film, Peele is able to have the viewer experience a gleefully amplified version of the African American experience in America. And therein lies its genius.
  13. MOTHER! There is something to be said for a film that will just not submit to a middling response.  Most have outright hatred – the seething, foaming at the mouth kind – for the film. And then there are others who have great admiration for it. Here is the key to the movie: it is the rarest of films which is aided by a little bit of prior knowledge before being seen. The film, from its look into an early marriage in the first act, then to a home invasion in the middle, and finally to the spectacularly deranged last act, is open to many interpretations. I saw the entire film as an allegory for what the conversation between a prideful Creator and his young creation might look like. Once you see the Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence characters as God and Mother Earth, respectively, the film makes absolute sense from first scene to last. The film has also, rightly, been seen as a statement on artistic creation, and the exacting, crippling demands it makes from the artist. Or simply as an age-old push and pull between a wanting masculinity and a giving female presence. No matter how you look at it, as insightful, or as overly obvious, you cannot deny that this is the work of a wily provocateur. And we are remiss to toss it aside based on literal interpretations of the film’s events.
  14. LADY BIRD: You come out of the theater having watched LADY BIRD, and you want to give the film a hug. Greta Gerwig has long been a double threat (an endearing screen actor and a sharply discerning screen-writer) and over the years there have been many (including me) who have wondered when Hollywood would wise up to her talents. Well, Hollywood was too busy bankrolling the next superhero film, and so Gerwig wrote and independently directed her first feature based on her experiences of growing up as a teenager in Sacramento. There is not a single innovative thing in this film, from the plot to the structure to the insights it provide. But a story well told, and with an abundance of respect for all its characters, is all it takes for a movie to hum with universal truths.
  15. THE LOST CITY OF Z / MUDBOUND: I am cheating and placing two films in the final spot because I cannot bear to let either one go unsung. Both are strikingly ambitious pieces of cinema, with wide breadth in scope, created by filmmakers relatively young in their careers.  In his sixth film as director, James Gray takes on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went deep into the Amazon to search for the mythic City of Z in the 1920s. He uses this premise to reflect on a multitude of themes: the heedless obsession that has driven the greatest explorers (and continues with extreme sportsmen in contemporary times), the tremendous and often irreversible toll this takes on families left behind at home, and the inherent danger in assuming ascendancy during the initial interaction with aborigines in a newly discovered land. This is a smart, grueling, meditative piece of cinema. MUDBOUND is only the third film from Dee Rees and it plays with the assured confidence of a filmmaker telling a story that must be told. Without sentimentalism or overt stridency, Rees follows a multitude of characters navigating the American South after the end of WWII.  They are all achingly human, victims of their time and their prejudices and the abject whims of fate. To Dees’ credit, there is equal compassion and an objective search for comprehension of the motivations of the Caucasian and Black characters alike. Some are monsters, yes, and the ugly cruelty of racism is a constancy, but there is also the haunting presence of an unsparing destiny that will not allow an unrealistic out for any of the characters.

As I wrap up this list, I realize that there were so many other fine films in 2017 that could have just as easily been on the list. So I had to get nit-picky in eliminating some movies.  Both I, TONYA and BABY DRIVER should have made this list, but I had to make some tough cuts and they were the most painful eliminations. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a bonafide great film, but I couldn’t buy into its conclusion. THE SHAPE OF WATER is visually, as wondrous a film as any Guillermo Del Toro has made, and Sally Hawkins breaks your heart, but its conclusion unfortunately succumbed to the one thing Del Toro has never indulged in: sentimentality. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI features crackerjack performances from a stellar ensemble, and is a rousing, provocative movie, but the film ultimately felt too mean-spirited to me. THE DISASTER ARTIST is good entertainment but seemed a bit of a piffle, an inside joke, a lets-do-this-for-fun enterprise. I have yet to watch ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN and PHANTOM THREAD.

I have also deliberately left out documentaries because there were so many compelling ones released this year (you must see FACES, PLACES) and I will put out a separate list for them. Likewise I will be soon be publishing a list of the best of commercial cinema in 2017, where ATOMIC BLONDE, JOHN WICK-2 and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI should find their rightful top perches. For an impenitent list maker like me, this should nicely feed my mania; watch this space for more.

 

 

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