Monday, January 8, 2018

Alex's Favorite Movies of 2017

by Alex Lawson
We're not done with our favorites lists yet!

10. Win It All (dir. Joe Swanberg)

Movies about addiction usually go one of two ways: oppressively sad or saccharine moralizing. The worst ones do both, when you can feel the thing shaking you by the shoulders to say ‘LOOK at all this terrible shit that happens when you do these bad things!’ But Joe Swanberg’s latest for Netflix manages to mine a genuinely endearing addiction story that alludes to both of those platitudes without making them the essence of his story.

That’s due mostly to his willingness to let frequent collaborator and somehow-still-not-an-enormous-movie star Jake Johnson mostly play jazz as Eddie, a genuinely lovable schlub whose rehabilitation is peppered with enough humor and gravitas (his scenes with Joe Lo Truglio are some of the best two-handers of the year.) to keep it relatable. When the movie does veer into less-relatable territory (there’s a Chekhov’s inmate thing going on), Swanberg is able to keep us on the hook through some slick editing and scoring choices. It’s a really tender and funny movie that succeeds where so many others have fallen flat.

9. Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
About 20 minutes into Luca Guadagnino’s dreamy romance, I knew I was watching something good, even if I wasn’t quite getting it. The movie’s building of sexual tension between the two leads feels belabored at times, and more than that, you can’t help but shake the feeling that you’re watching the Very Important and Good Indie Film of the Moment. You know the type.

But when the time comes for the subtext to become text, the movie does not quit. Weeks later, I still think about this movie once or twice a day, which is helped in no small part by the one-two punch of a wrenching monologue from Michael Stuhlbarg as a wise and understanding father and the movie’s downright staggering end credits treatment.

There’s nothing too groundbreaking about the story being told here: the fleeting nature of summer love is nothing novel, but that doesn’t stop Guadagnino, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer from telling a story that set off a tuning fork in my sternum. The movie has this incredible way of nimbly shifting from joy to melancholy and back again within the span of a single scene or even a few lines of dialogue. It’s beautiful.

8. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)

I’ve been watching Star Wars for as long as I’ve been alive. My fanboy paperwork is all in order and up to date and all that. Many Bothans, things of that nature. But even at their best, these movies haven’t exactly been too intellectually challenging. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, motives are vague, we all get it.

But that was all bound to change when Disney tapped Rian Johnson to take the reins for the Episode VIII. The movie is by no means perfect, but given how hard it is to make a movie on this scale, with these kinds of corporate and cultural obligations and have that movie say anything of substance whatsoever is a minor miracle, and I’m so thankful it exists. It’s bold and deep and sad and nuanced. At the same time, it hews more toward the franchise’s orthodoxy than the internet lynch mob would have you believe, even if it’s path is unconventional.

That isn’t to say the thing is some philosophy lecture. The bombing raid, the throne room, the Holdo maneuver, the assault on Crait and the lightsaber battle-that-isn’t are among the most thrilling sequences I saw in a theater this year.

7. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
You’re sort of in or out with Yorgos Lanthimos at this point, right? If you watch these movies and see pretentious, boring gobbledygook, then I don’t suppose anything in this blurb is about to turn your world upside down. All I can say is that I’m here for it. I don’t know if Sacred Deer’s nihilism is just helping me laugh to keep from crying these days or what, but this movie fucked me way up.

A lot of movies on my list ended up here by mixing tones, and Sacred Deer might really pull off that stunt the best. While the movie is at turns farcical, disturbing and tragic, there is an incredible tension that lies below the surface the entire time. It’s the way the camera lingers on Colin Farrell’s indecisive bloated face, the way it creeps down hallways and lingers on awkward stares. It keeps you on the edge, guarding yourself through all of its fluctuations until it all comes to an absurd and mirthless plateau.

As an aside, the movie reminded me a lot of this tweet.

6. Raw (dir. Julia Ducournau)

Maybe we’re all suffering collective desensitization or something, but it’s just not that often you come across movies that really feel “dangerous” anymore. The answer to that quandary, as always, is to stop being such an ugly American and be better about consuming some weird French shit like Raw.

From its very first sequence, the movie is disarming in that unique way that makes you feel like you’re intruding on something merely by watching it. I’m not speaking only about the gross stuff here, and the movie certainly owes a debt to David Cronenberg’s early body horror entries. Even more intimate is the way that the movie uses these shocking sequences to color up a really poignant coming of age story. I was trying to decide whether Julia Ducournau’s cannibalism coming of age story works better as metaphor or literal text before I realized that the whole point is that all the parts play together in this whacked out sandbox.

5. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Because it’s a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, it’s so tempting to immediately jump to the broader societal implications of his latest period piece. PTA’s portrait of Daniel Day-Lewis as an obsessive 1950s London dressmaker and striking newcomer Vicky Krieps as his lover has already stirred conversations about what it means to be intimate with a Difficult Man, and how those lessons can be carried forward today, when the world is polluted with such men.

I’m not trying to be a Philistine here or anything, the movie is very much about that stuff, and it’s about it in a fascinating way. But in the few days since I saw Phantom Thread, I’ve been thinking about it more at face value, as a portrait of a couple whose dynamics we can’t realistically hope to understand and the beauty that comes from that intimacy.

Not too many people have seen it yet so I’ll keep talking in circles here, but all the usual late-period PTA elements are on display here, but the focus is narrowed in a way that moves it closer to my heart than his past few efforts. Forgive me for being reductive, but think about if Paul Thomas Anderson directed When Harry Met Sally.

4. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)

A friend once gave me a thumb drive full of music recommendations. For humorous effect, he put the music into a Russian nesting doll cascade of folders to communicate the full thematic weight of the sampling. It went: Sad Bastard Music→ But With Optimistic Undertones. This is, simply put, extremely my shit and is a good summation of why David Lowery’s quiet supernatural drama burrowed its way into my psyche this year.

The best ghost stories in literature traffic in ghosts-as-memories. Such is the case here, but with a twist, as we see the Casey Affleck’s titular ghost forced to sit, quietly, with his own memories throughout the relentless march of eternity. If you’ve avoided thinking about the afterlife because it makes you sad, this movie will basically force you to do just that through sheer force of will.

Put more plainly, I don’t think i’ve ever seen a movie do the things this movie does.

3. Ingrid Goes West (dir. Matt Spicer)
I’m on the older end of the millennial spectrum, and so I do tend to get a bit prickly when we fire from some obnoxious baby boomers who think that selfies are eating away at America’s moral and intellectual fiber. In that way, the anti-millennial police force is becoming even more insufferable than the (admittedly insufferable) youngsters they’re looking to knock down a peg.

All of which is to say that a movie about how Social Media Is Poisoning America’s Youth could have gone haywire in a lot of ways. But the debut from Matt Spicer succeeds in the way that all great satires do: by telling an interesting story first, with your message serving only as a some thematic scaffolding. The script is brave enough to follow its story to the bitter end, and just when I thought it was taking an easy way out, it takes a turn to even darker place.

Also, this is probably the best ensemble of actors in any movie this year. Aubrey Plaza stretches to make novel use of her typical weirdo outsider schtick, O’Shea Jackson Jr. is infectiously charismatic and Elizabeth Olsen finally breaks out of the withdrawn bookish mold to deliver a fully realized version of a girl we’ve all met.

2. The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo Del Toro) [really strained to not do the Benicio joke here]

I’m not going to lie to you and say it isn’t shitty out there in the world right now. It’s lousy. But I’ve not been the biggest fan of this new trend in criticism where any movie that strikes a positive note is hailed a Movie We Need Right Now. The intent is nice, but like any other cliche, the impact wears thin after you’ve read it in thinkpiece after thinkpiece.

Which brings us to The Shape of Water. It would be wrong to say it isn’t a political movie. It’s politics are unambiguous and righteous, and I am an ally of all its positions. But the thing that I took with me the most is something entirely apolitical: a complete and unvarnished lack of cynicism about finding love in the world, no matter where it lies.

I don’t have even a single nitpick of Guillermo del Toro’s latest, a return to the ultraviolent fairy tale territory after digressions to genre pictures that, while entertaining, only reached so far for me. It’s a marvelous experience.

1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
Debut features, even the well-executed ones from the most gifted of directors, very often suffer from the First Movie Disease. That need to stand out and declare your arrival on the Hollywood scene with some really splashy sequence or eye-catching stunt. It’s understandable: you got your shot, the business is fickle, might as well empty the chamber and show everyone your best moves.

Through that lens, Lady Bird is an even more impressive masterpiece than it appears to be at face value. Turns out Greta Gerwig’s “best move” is crafting a deep and emotionally resonant story out of considerably well-mined territory of the high school coming of age fable.

I should also note that I am squarely in the target demo for this movie, as the Lady Bird in the movie is one year older than me and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen my high school years depicted in a nostalgic fashion. But that “it’s for me!” thing cuts two ways, as those who shared that experience would be quick to call out Gerwig if she fucked something up or struck a false note somewhere along the way. But she doesn’t, not even close. The movie is also far more than a sheer nostalgia mashup of forgotten songs, clothes and political climate. Read up on the extensive color grading work that Gerwig and her team employed to make the entire thing feel like a lived-in memory.

I could yammer on and on, but the bottom line is that some years you kinda kick around a couple different contenders for the top spot on a list and some years a piece of work just up and takes it. Such was the case with Lady Bird.


  1. Really good list! What is Chekhov's Inmate? I googled it but nothing.

    1. Well I'm riffing on Chekhov's Gun, but in Win It All, it's a guy who goes to prison at the beginning of the movie but looms as a threat throughout the entire thing.

    2. Ooooooh! I was thinking it was a reference to Ward No. 6 and was going nuts trying to figure out how they related lol

    3. Thanks Alex. That was going to bother me :-) Win It All is awesome. Glad to see it show up on one of our lists.

  2. Hey, Alex. Great list. Only two of your picks appear in my Top 10 list for 2017, and "Phantom Thread" almost made it (#11). It's the best PTA movie since "Magnolia," and a rare pitch-perfect film that touches on the director's obsession with becoming a hybrid of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. Seeing it in 70mm at AMC's Lincoln 68th St. theater really makes a difference.

    Agree with you on "Call Me By Your Name," which does everything right that the overhyped gay romance flick "Beach Rats" (released in mid-'17) did wrong. I saw it a few days ago and though it only ranked in my Top 25 it's a breath of fresh air to have essentially "Brokeback Mountain" within an environment of acceptance and positivity toward the "forbidden" relationship between the leads. Michael Stuhlbarg's monologue to his son is as potent as that final credits moment, which was shot and performed masterfully. Though he only wrote the screenplay the influence of James Ivory ("Maurice") keep the film both grounded in reality while also beeing a dreamy, picture-perfect summer romance. It's Armie Hammer's best role since "The Lone Ranger," and a great flick to boot. Glad you liked it. "Raw" made my Top 40 but man, it's a rough pic to recommend or go back to. Hardcore stuff.

  3. Did it feel like the acting in The Killing of a Sacred Deer was haltingly stiff? It happens often enough that it feels like a directed choice.

    1. It did. I thought it was deliberate and oddly very funny.

    2. are you familiar with his other movies?