Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Favorite Films of 2017

At last, in 2017 I have managed to see more films in cinemas than at home. But what used to be "normal" up until three years ago was now only possible because I saw a record 43 films/screenings at the festivals of Annecy, Locarno and Fantoche. So here is a roundup of films and tv shows that left a lasting impression or stood out to me for some other reason.

Color comparison from an introduction to MOONLIGHT

Favorite New Releases
Film of the year is definitely Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT (2016), a transcendent cinematic poem that engaged me on so many levels that it remains vividly present in my mind even after almost a year. 

My favorite dozen of 2017 (in alphabetical order)
Note: As usual, my list includes several 2016 films that did not come out in Switzerland until 2017. 
  • AMERICAN HONEY (Arnold 2016): A lens-flare-heavy first person account of a "mag crew" road trip with a stellar ensemble of mostly first-timers grounded in realism and keen observation. Even within a deliberately meandering plot, Andrea Arnold creates one tense scene after another. Besides, AMERICAN HONEY contains probably the most accurate depiction of what it feels like to travel in a minivan with a group of friends.
  • BABY DRIVER (Wright 2017): It may not be Edgar Wright's masterpiece - HOT FUZZ (2007) still occupies that spot - but it has sure got rhythm. And a distinctive rhythm - slow or fast, in dialogue, performance and/or editing, with or without music - is probably the one thing I intuitively value most in a film. So if someone succeeds in pulling off an intertextual plot full of practical car chases based on and choreographed to an ipod playlist, I cannot resist.
  • BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Villeneuve 2017): While further developing the themes of Ridley Scott's original film, Denis Villeneuve's belated sequel appeared more streamlined to me. Yet, with self-confident direction, audiovisual grandeur and perfect pacing BLADE RUNNER 2049 in Dolby 3D and Atmos completely blew me away.
  • CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (Guadagnino 2017): Had it not been for Michael Stuhlbarg's final speech, I would have written this off as another subtly acted but lighthearted summer romance full of beautiful people. However, in those last few minutes, Guadagnino's film reveals an emotional depth that resonates far beyond the love-affair.
  • HAPPY END (Haneke 2017): I seldom find myself chuckling in a film by Michael Haneke. But in his underrated family drama with a cellphone-filming protagonist that reminded me of BENNY'S VIDEO (1992) and a series of erratic set-pieces, there is a hint of humour (and warmth) beneath the well-meaning family members' devastating inability to do the right thing.
  • JACKIE (Larrain 2016): Thanks to the seamless integration of recreated and historical footage, grainy 16mm wide-angle closeups, Natalie Portman's masterful performance and Mica Levi's excellent music, I liked Pablo Larrain's complex, nonlinear, ambivalent portrait of a woman trying to shape her husband's legacy even more than his magical realist take on NERUDA (2016, they both came out within weeks in Switzerland).
  • LADY MACBETH (Oldroyd 2016): Suspense with almost no music and a commanding break-out performance by Florence Pugh dominate that short but concise and visually rigorous literary adaptation. In contrast to Sophia Coppola's equally atmospheric but bloodless THE BEGUILED, LADY MACBETH had me at the edge of my seat the whole time.
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Lonergan 2016): Told in organically flowing flashbacks partly built around elaborate pieces of extradiegetic music, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA variegates the highly conventional "overcoming a back-story wound" plot by gently revealing that there may not be a catharsis for everyone. Director Lonergan propels Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck to career highs (it certainly didn't need a Matthew Broderick cameo, but that's a very minor quibble).
  • PADDINGTON 2 (King 2017): Easily the most emotionally rewarding escapist fantasy of the year. I even liked it better than the first one. I particularly enjoyed the Chaplinesque sense of humour and sentimentality, the references to the original Paddington stories and the 1975 TV series, the performances (including the animated protagonist), the overall storybook feel and faux Wes Anderson setting, the camera twirls and the fantastic color design. (It just puzzles me why anyone would hire a great composer like Dario Marianelli if they wanted him to mechanically recompose the Desplat-Anderson tracks that were so obviously used as temp music?)
  • THE HANDMAIDEN (Park 2017): If somebody asked me what "sensual pleasure" meant, I'd just show them this Korean adaptation of a British novel. As usual with Park Chan-Wook's thrillers, nothing is what it seems, but this time, the ultra violence is kept to a minimum. Now, I'm looking forward to revel in the "Extended Cut".
  • THE SQUARE (Östlund 2017): A long anticipated elaboration on the complex moral themes of Östlund's provocative PLAY (2011), the less austere SQUARE also works as a hilarious satire on the art scene. Despite a running time of 145 minutes it never drags. 
MOONLIGHT in the context of Wong Kar-Wai.

Outstanding feature films that were not released in Swiss cinemas
  • A QUIET PASSION (Davies 2016): With its highly stylized staging, crystal clear cinematography, atypically clean sets, an incredibly strong and witty script, a deeply moving performance by Cynthia Nixon and probably the first positive father figure in any Terence Davies film, this Emily Dickinson biopic is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in American poetry.
  • MUDBOUND (Rees 2017): Forsaking the color explosion of her first feature PARIAH (2011) in favor of dark and dreary earthtones, Dee Rees unhurriedly reveals the hardship of two families whose fate is deeply entwined in this multi-perspective Southern epic. Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan stand out in a strong ensemble. The ending felt a bit too uplifting for my taste.
  • FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER (Jolie 2017): Directed with a strong sense for visual consistency and the unassuming narrative point of view of a young Cambodian girl, Angelina Jolie's Netflix production never tries to infuse the girl's horrible odyssey with a fake purpose or pathetic sentimentality. And although everyone is beautiful and the cinematography rivals Malick's most vivid nature excesses, Jolie manages to disappear behind the story that - again - ends unexpectedly upbeat (maybe this is a staple of Netflix originals?).
MOONLIGHT: Different impact of production still (long lens, above water) vs film frame (short lens, sea level)

Realism, arthouse violence and killer soundtracks
Farhadi's FORUSHANDE (THE SALESMAN) did not make my list because although it is a tense and complex film it did not captivate me the way his earlier works did. Similarly, the social realism of GOD'S OWN COUNTRY (Francis Lee) and THE WOUND (INXEBA, John Trengove) felt rough and fresh, but neither of them stayed on my mind for too long. 

However, I tremendously liked Lynne Ramsay's YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Despite its flawless visual storytelling, it felt like it had been cut short by about half an hour of story material. The excellent music and sound design are certainly worth studying, though. The same goes for three much maligned supernatural arthouse thrillers that I enjoyed regardless of plotholes, absurd premises or heavy-handed symbolism: Lanthimos' Kubrickian take on "Iphigenia in Aulis" (THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER), Ozon's DePalma/Cronenberg inspired twins fantasy L'AMANT DOUBLE and, last but not least, Aronofsky's hilarious satire MOTHER! that came almost uncomfortably close to the way I perceive/remember nightmares.

Introduction to a children's screening of CARS 3
Artists and animation
Among the usual batch of artist/painter biopics (an mainstream arthouse staple now in the same way as superhero movies are for multiplexes: in-built audience, established brand, unsatisfying products), I have had a closer look at 1) the book-to-screen translation of Tucci's entertaining but mediocre FINAL PORTRAIT and 2) the fascinating if misguided rotoscoping experiment that is LOVING VINCENT (Kobiela/Welchman). In Annecy, I was also introduced to the universe of Masaaki Yuasa - a previous blindspot - in a screening of the strangely uneven but highly enjoyable LU OVER THE WALL

But Annecy 2017 also felt like a watershed moment for my excitement for Pixar films: for the first time, their highly anticipated presentations (this time COCO, LOU, CARS 3) left me completely unimpressed. While I liked the short film LOU, the COCO stuff felt so uninspired (KUBO, anyone?) and "clever" by the numbers, that I was only relieved when I saw the actual film months later and found it to have a more interesting emotional core than the hyperactive first half suggested (if only someone had pulled the plug on that FROZEN featurette that preceded it). 

My favorite animated features of 2017 were LE GRAND MÉCHANT RENARD (Renner/Imbert) and IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (Sunao Katabuchi) both of which I saw at Fantoche in Baden (CH). Unfortunately, they won't be released theatrically in the German part of Switzerland.

Comparison of characters by Claude Barras for an introduction to MA VIE DE COURGETTE.

Memorable events
At Fantoche I also attended a masterclass by Michael Dudok de Wit about the making of THE RED TURTLE. The three and a half fascinating hours flew by so quickly, though, that the filmmaker's insightful reflections on film making, animation and life had to be cut short because of the next screening. 

But the most important event for me this year was clearly the video essay roundtable at the Locarno International Festival where I got the opportunity to meet Catherine Grant, Kevin B. Lee, Chiara Grizzaffi and many other interesting video essayists and scholars. Thanks to Christopher Small I even got to shake hands with Todd Haynes who is not only one of my favorite filmmakers but also an articulate film scholar. In Locarno, I also attended a special screening of the academic project PER UNA CONTROSTORIA DEL CINEMA ITALIANO by filmidee, a compilation of lively video essays that aim to tell an alternative Italian film history. As much as I know, CONTROSTORIA is currently in the festival circuit but will probably become available online eventually.

Although cinema attendance is alarmingly waning (at least beyond tent pole franchises) I saw the opening of three expensive new cinema complexes this year (PalaCinema in Locarno, Kosmos in Zürich, Pathé in Ebikon). Kosmos is already one of my favorite cinemas and thanks to the (rather uninviting) Pathé, there is now an IMAX 3D with laser projection within half an hour of my home. Hence, that's where I went to see THE LAST JEDI which I enjoyed much more than I had expected. Rian Johnson seems to be the right guy in the right place: there were so many things this new film got right that I did not even mind the cg creatures or some clunky bits here and there. THE LAST JEDI and Soderbergh's LOGAN LUCKY also reminded me that Adam Driver is one of the best actors of his generation.
The "Edgar Wright Wipe" transition from an introduction to BABY DRIVER.

Ten favorite older films I have seen for the first time in 2017
(all of them highly recommended)
  • SUNRISE (W.F. Murnau 1927)
  • STALAG 17 (Billy Wilder 1953)
  • STAND BY ME (Rob Reiner 1986)
  • MALCOLM X (Spike Lee 1992)
  • LUNDI MATIN (Otar Iosseliani 2002)
  • PLAY (Ruben Östlund 2011)
  • HER (Spike Jonze 2013)
  • O MENINO E O MUNDO (Alé Abreu 2013)
  • BANDE DE FILLES (Céline Sciamma 2014)

Music scenes in films that inspired MOONLIGHT.
Private retrospectives
Research for introductions, articles or video essays always serves as a pretext for seeing or re-evaluating tons of films. In connection with MOONLIGHT, for example, I realized that both THREE TIMES (Hou 2005) and KILLER OF SHEEP (Burnett 1978) feature some of my favorite music scenes (I use "music scene" for sequences in which a song takes central stage while the characters merely react to it).

Not all of the films I try to see are "good" and I don't even have to like them as long as I find something interesting regarding the subject I am studying. There is the occasional disappointment, of course, like the one Jacques Demy musical I have been wanting to see for years - PEAU D'ANE - that turned out to be really awful. On the other hand, CLEO DE 5 A 7 by Demy's wife Agnes Varda was a lot more entertaining than I had imagined.

From a lecture on DUNKIRK.
Even without an external reason I prefer to see films within some sort of context (if I can't see them in a cinema, that is). Over the past months, I have looked at three Andrea Arnold features (I now wish she would make a full musical) and tried to catch up with a bunch of independent vampire and horror movies I had missed in theaters - basically everything from THIRST (Park 2009 [the strangest Emile Zola adaptation]) and THE BABADOOK (Kent 2014 [creepy and fresh]) to THE GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Amirpour 2014 [incredibly stylish but left me cold]) and IT FOLLOWS (Mitchell 2014 [I loved it]).

In the middle of that series, I saw GET OUT (Peele 2017) which I liked for its satirical content. Unfortunately, most of the horror scenes were ruined by a group of obnoxiously distracting audience members (if only Catherine Keener had hypnotized them!).

That certainly never happens during late night Netflix sessions where I caught Justin Simien's multi-perspective update of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE that was both hilariously funny and occasionally poignant (especially in chapter V directed by Barry Jenkins). My favorite among the few "cinematic/quality" sitcoms I have seen so far is Spike Lee's ten part reworking of SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, though. Like Aziz Ansari in the second season of MASTER OF NONE, Lee and his writing team use the long form storytelling format as a playground. Not everything works equally well, but thanks to DeWanda Wise's wonderful performance I was able to empathize with Nola Darling even when I didn't like a controversial or outright bad decision. Besides, I like to be challenged by Lee's often polemic but complex storytelling.
Stills from a video essay on the music of STRANGER THINGS
To be honest, I would not have seen any of those tv series had I not waited so long for a STRANGER THINGS blu-ray that I finally decided to renew my Netflix subscription (when it first came to Switzerland I paid for a whole year without finding one single film I was looking for, so I canceled it). That I liked the Duffer Brothers' sincere take on intertextual 1980s escapist nostalgia is a mere understatement. So although I came late to the party, waiting until Halloween for the "sequel" was quite an ordeal. Thankfully, Season 2 met and even exceeded my expectations. I especially liked the father-daughter relationship between Hopper and Eleven. What's more, seeing Dustin with Dart somehow enabled me to see the STAR WARS movies through the eyes of a twelve-year old boy again (maybe that's why I even liked - well, not the Ewoks, but - the Porgs). STRANGER THINGS is so far the only mini-series that felt like a movie to me (including the controversial "Darth Vader" chapter in the sequel). Nevertheless, because of the format it was devised for I do not include it into my list of favorite movies.

The abundance of young acting talents in MOONLIGHT and STRANGER THINGS prompted me to compile a list of breakout performances by young actors:
(titles alphabetically, some from 2016 that I could only see in 2017 because of distribution delays)
  • 13 REASONS WHY: Alisha Boe (Jessica), Kathrine Langston (Hannah)
  • AMERICAN HONEY: Sasha Lane (Star)
  • BLUE MY MIND*: Luna Wedler (Mia), Zoe Pastell Holthuisen (Gianna)
  • FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: Sareum Srey Moch (Loung)
  • IT: Jaeden Lieberher (Bill), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben), Sophia Lillis (Beverly)
  • LADY MACBETH: Florence Pugh (Katherine)
  • MOONLIGHT: Alex Hibbert / Ashton Sanders / Trevante Rhodes (Chiron)
  • PATTI CAKE$: Danielle Macdonald (Patti)
  • SAMI BLOOD: Lene Cecilia Sparrok (Elle Marja)
  • SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT: DeWanda Wise (Nola)
  • STRANGER THINGS 2**: Priah Ferguson (Lucas' scene stealing sister Erica!)
  • THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER / DUNKIRK: Barry Keoghan (Martin / George)
  • THE HANDMAIDEN: Tae-Ri Kim (Sook-Hee)
  • GRAVE/TIGER GIRL: Ella Rumpf*** (Alexia/Tiger)
  • WONDERSTRUCK: Millicent Simmonds (Rose)
* Lisa Brühlmann's BLUE MY MIND was my favorite Swiss film this year. It was not perfect, but fresh, emotionally sincere and managed to integrate its fantasy aspects organically into a coming-of-age story.
** Since Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard have already become household names after the first season I do not include them here.
*** within Switzerland, her breakout performance was in CHRIEG (Jaquemet, 2014).

The prize for most memorable love couple goes to Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Jeff Nichols' LOVING.

Complementary colors in the PADDINGTON movies.

Resolutions for 2018:
1) Make a list of every video essay I watch. It might come in handy one day... (with a field as vast as video essays I should have done that for years)
2) Complete at least half the video essays and blog posts I am working on. Find a way to make that video on color in PARIAH, at last.
3) Find a steady job in academia or some other sort of teaching environment.

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