I guess you could say spending New Year’s Eve getting screened in the Middle East by United States Border Patrol officers is the perfect ending to the political experience of 2017. At least I got some champagne and dessert afterwards.
Part of the flight, I re-read one of my absolute favorite pieces of film criticism ever written; Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bela Tarr’s Satantango. It reassured me that the great cinema is not something that should be assumed to be lost on most people. That there is always an audience for a great film no matter how unwieldy, ambitious, or downright unappealing in appearance it may be. Rosenbaum is always great at scanning cinema and all its aspects of writing, directing, production, distribution, and consumption through the lens of a “power of the people” mantra. It’s a political philosophy which prioritizes access regardless of demographic models and it undoubtedly needs to be made more aware of because of the sectarian means by which cinema (and culture in general really) is showcased in America. So this too was a perfect capping of 2017.
This year, I continued my habit of the past couple years of just saying “fuck it” to trying to watch new releases just for the sake of watching them. Selectivism over volume, hurrah. Out of the dozens of remakes, sequels etc. that got churned out at the detriment of much more interesting material that could easily have taken it’s place, I saw but a few (War for the Planet of the Apes and BladeRunner 2049) and they were both rather underwhelming, especially in comparison to their own predecessors.
Looking at my Best of 2017 list, there is a dearth of American movies (also possibly due to the ambiguity of Hollywood vs. UK produced film). The three that end up on there are all, unsurprisingly, original films, one a major blockbuster by a well-known celebrity director, and the other two, small indie films by relatively new filmmakers. These movies are becoming rarer in a distribution cycle which is slowly and surely being overtaken by whatever sells in China, Hollywood’s largest market. Outside of Star Wars which remains quintessentially, an American-exclusive loved franchise entity, everything else from Marvel to DC to Fast & Furious to Monster Movies to whatever the hell James Cameron comes out with next is going to be seen by more Chinese paying customers more frequently than any other nationality of movie-goers on Earth.
But I consciously hoped to allow this list, like the ones I made in the past, be a representation of the diversity of cinema that is still existent in the nooks and crannies of cinema-halls in the U.S., if you care to search and look for them. Movies are always going to be there even with Netflix and Chinese-centric marketing models because there are always artists who are going to be making them. If not in the U.S, then elsewhere. It’s a huge world, and it’s connected closer and faster than ever. Fascism and nationalism are rising, but so is everyone’s desire to see things outside of their own box. Maybe 2018 will be about that.
Anyway, here’s the list of my Favorite Films of 2017. (click on the title of each film to be taken to a full review of the film) :
There’s nothing better than watching a film made by a director you absolutely love and have it meet every expectation. It becomes even more enjoyable when the tonal frequency of the filmmaker is compatible with yours. It’s a pure coincidence, of course – no great filmmaker remains great by catering to an audience – which is what makes it special.
Since his breakout film, Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos has been relentless in his personal translation of the world around us: The mundane attributes of a typical human society stretched to lengths and limits and turned upside down so that even the most vanilla of daily moments are revealed as absurdly ritualistic. The bare bones of this concept are not unique… David Lynch did it with American suburbia, Charlie Kauffman with industry and media, and Roy Andersson with middle-class Norwegians. What sets Lanthimos apart is that his characters are not mere pawns of a greater society, they are the society. While the other filmmakers play with characters in a world bigger and more comprehensive than they can really wrap their heads around (Blue Velvet, Being John Malkovich, andA Bird Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existenceall feature people who are naive and alien to the world they have entered), Lanthimos’s central characters build the world and make its rules themselves.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which can be considered Lanthimos’s first dive into genre cinema, plays on the same sort of premise set by James Wan’s Saw series. A sociopathic teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, who deserves every award for this) sets the rules for a game wherein the central character, a surgeon named Steven, (Colin Farrell) must make an unthinkable sacrifice to save himself and others. If he doesn’t play by these rules, then everyone dies. Unlike Jigsaw, Martin is not presented as a criminal mastermind, but as a timid, bumbling pubescent teen. His actions are motivated purely by isolated revenge and not some greater worldly moral postulate. As Martin says, “this is the only thing I can think of that comes close to justice.”
Martin is a world-builder and very much in charge of everything that happens in the film. Much like the Father in Dogtooth who raises his children on strange and false fears about the world, or the Hotel Employees in The Lobster who set a timer on single people finding a mate, everyone else is at his whim. The Greek mythological allegory going on in the film is Iphigenia in Aulis, which is a tale of events sparked by Agamemnon killing one of Artemis’s sacred deer. This God-like stature of Martin is prevalent in the film, by the fact that his methodologies for enacting this vengeance are never discussed, and how he gets around is never shown. His phantom presence, over time, clouds over Steven’s family to a suffocating degree.
Despite this, Lanthimos’s villains can never be too self-serious. They are still manifested as humans, and like all humans in Lanthimos’s world, they are also uncomfortably funny. One of the most terrifyingly giddy moments in the film is when Martin showcases how much he believes his own words as he bites off a chunk of Steven’s arm, and then proceeds to do the same to his own arm. In the most monotone voice possible, mouth full of blood, he drools out, “See? It’s metaphorical.” This can be expected from a filmmaker who revels in the fact that no moment can be completely normal, but is always a direct representation of how numb we are to the absurdity of societal norms and our own thought processes. Pushing this even further is that outside of the genre tropes of a typical horror film, everything else is filled with Lanthimos’s standard ingredients, namely his dialogues which make every phrase sound like its being recited by robots attempting to mimic human conversation.
The mix is discomfiting, and that’s really what it aims to be. In the end, all of Lanthimos’s films are about things humans feel often. His darker and more sadistic tone with this film doesn’t change the fact that it’s a movie about loss and our urge to get back at those who wronged us. But even in the face of death and murder his characters can’t help but dive into whimsy. When first confronted with his impossible situation, Steven bargains with his mistakes by saying “A surgeon can never kill a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can.” It’s a hopeless tactic of ill-conceived logic, but when we’re pushed to the brink of doom, we’ll say anything to keep ourselves going. In Lanthimos’s world, our fears and actions and words become parts of a Greek tragicomedy. In every character, we see something about ourselves laughing back at us. We can’t help but (uncomfortably) laugh along too.
From the opening shot of a group of young British soldiers walking through the streets of a battleground French town during World War II, Dunkirk ignites its time bomb narrative and makes you hold your breath for the duration of the film.
Nolan’s penchant for cutting between different points of action simultaneously and muddling our perception of time between events was first showcased in the tunnel sequence in The Dark Knight, repeated again in Inception’s final dream collapse, and now here in Dunkirk, it has finally been used to its fullest effect. The film structures itself in three intertwining parts: The Mole* (where the majority of stranded British soldiers remain), The Sea (where ships hope to carry them back home), and The Air (where British jets fight with the Luftwaffe).
Nolan even quickly spells out the background of the Dunkirk situation with title cards, where German forces had cornered British and French soldiers at The Mole and the British were waiting for ships to take them home and escape death at the hands of the Germans. Of course, the Luftwaffe was flying around trying to sink any naval rescue the British had in mind. Thus, the situation was dire and the clock was ticking as the Germans were closing in.
The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.
Adding to the technical innovations, the politics of the film, a topic which is almost impossible to not touch on in today’s climate, are in themselves unique in comparison to how Hollywood deals with war. Modeled more closely after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line rather than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan concentrates on time, survival and the impending fear of death rather than the blood-and-guts patriotism (there is no blood in this movie) most war films aim their eye on. Sure, the pride of Britain is on display especially in Mark Rylance’s character, who is fundamental about his duty to his countrymen, but even that is more often discussed in the film as a general act of “doing good” rather than a soapbox stance for national pride. He continually says he needs to save people, not necessarily Brits. The idea of the “nation” or “citizens” is actually missing from a lot of the movie. In fact, the Germans are identified only once or twice as the enemy. In this approach, the film posits that the bravery and will to fight on for these soldiers stems from the fear and desperation that compound with each minute. They are strictly fighting to live.
Within the film’s race-against-time narrative, there are several microcosms of the same theme peppered throughout, where two young soldiers try to carry an injured man to the boat before it sails off, a pilot crash lands in the ocean trying to get out of his cockpit before it fills up with water, soldiers try to escape from the ship’s kitchen before being trapped and drowned. All of these moments are handled with efficiency by Nolan, who lays all of his cards on the table and replaces his often critiqued overwritten dialogue with well directed and nerve-wracking action sequences beautifully captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Part of me thinks Nolan used this as an opportunity to shut all the critics up about his inability to direct action as well as Michael Bay or Michael Mann.
Dunkirk is exhausting, and it hits you like a machine gun. Every moment runs at fast-forward and every cut jumps from one tense moment to the next gripping us in with an ambiguous sense of time that leaves us hanging in the balance at each second. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s deafening score which features a relentless ticking of a clock in your ear, Christopher Nolan embarks on a 106-minute sprint of directorial showmanship in what may not be his best, but at least at first watch, I can say is easily his most technically accomplished film.