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The 15 Best Films of 2017

The most important question that any film must ask itself and that any filmgoer must ask themselves is “Why?” Why tell this story in this way? Why did I leave my house to go see this specific story being told? Why did I like that, why did I find that important to my life, why did I keep thinking about it? Why this film, this year?

For 2017, I had a fairly simple criteria. The “why” had to be “Because no one else could tell this story.” I looked for films that felt unique and exceptional. I looked for films that went above and tried to reach beyond what is to what could be. I looked for escapism in fantastic worlds, intense thoughts, and deep emotions. I looked for films to transport me to another world, to another mind. I looked for films that took a swing to land among the stars. These 15 did that.

15) Brigsby Bear

Creativity can and should be an act of kindness. Sharing some part of ourselves with the world around us is both asking for empathy and attempting to provide it. It’s a way of understanding the world and trying to work out our part in it, it’s that core belief that undergirds Brigsby Bear and makes it such a wonderfully remarkable little achievement.

Your mileage will of course depend on how much of writer/star Kyle Mooney’s anti-comedy shtick you can bear. There’s an awkwardness that feels genuine to every part of his interaction, a knowledge of how those truly isolated from society feel trying to interact with it, but it can be painful to watch someone on screen going through those growing pains.

But that’s what works about the film. It understands those growing pains as universal and finds the specificity in its bizarre little alternate world. The titular Brigsby Bear is a work of surprising cleverness and its steady outward growth and development provides a constant delight. It’s also rare that a year can boast two great Mark Hamill performances, but that’s what this film is good enough to give us.

Brigsby Bear is for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere but want to show people where they do.

14) Your Name.

The next Miyazaki is kind of a reductive term in Japanese animation (like calling anyone the next Disney), but let’s just say that I think Makoto Shinkai at least deserves the chance to carve the same path that Miyazaki had.

While he’s well into his career by now (and has made many great piece of animation), Your Name is the first movie that really stands to prove the great future potential of Shinkai. A fully realized and gorgeous work that feels like an old genre (body swap) made wholly original (now that would be telling), you see clearly why this film was the smash in Japan that it was.

It’s a rare accomplishment to write a story that goes from the intimate to the truly epic without ever feeling like it’s taking a wrong step. A tale across space and time that never loses sight of what’s on the ground, the snapshot of a time in your life where every possibility lays before you and you have no idea, where you uncover a world that’s larger than you could ever imagine.

Your Name tells a story we all feel on a scale we could only imagine.

13) Personal Shopper

Grief is an ever-changing process. It is something that no one can move through the same way, that no one has the same experience, but it is something that we must move through.

Personal Shopper shows one process of grief. Yours may not involve texting with a hostile-ish ghost, beautiful designer dresses, or being a medium. But Olivier Assayas’ haunting meditation is deeply recognizable in raw experience, in trying to move past something that has its claws dug into you, how to understand a loss that you haven’t reconciled with.

It helps that it has an all-timer of a performance by Kristen Stewart at its core. It’s important to never forget how much she’s turned her career around since the awkward early-20 something years to develop into one of our finest actresses. There’s an envelopment of the character, an internalization that she moves through in her own specific way to create something dazzling. She’s not creating the character, she is the character.

Personal Shopper moves through grieving in a way that makes us all understand.

12) Logan

America is heading towards collapse. We imagine it’ll look like The Road or maybe Escape from New York, but I know we won’t be that lucky. It’s more horrifying to imagine a world where things get steadily worse, but history keeps moving on. Humanity gets replaced, things get more desperate, the tentacles of control seize us without us knowing, the marginalized are shoved off.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate darkness at the core of Logan that has made it so resonant. James Mangold’s sweaty, fever-dream send-off to Hugh Jackman’s defining character posits a future where technology has increased late-capitalist desperation and where our own prejudice ends up swallowing up society whole. Jackman wears the weight of all that and the decades of violence that he has committed into his best performance, every moment and motion is a new agony informed by old pains.

Yet despite all that sorrow, Logan is at its best in the moments where it slows down. The moments of family, where Logan and Stewart’s Xavier get to just talk or enjoy a moment with Laura, Logan’s ersatz daughter. It’s a movie of atmosphere, willing to wear the weight of generations on its sweat-soaked shoulders.

Logan is a look into a future that we can prevent and a goodbye to the past we can learn from.

11) Colossal

It’s kind of rare that a movie ages well within the year it comes out. But as Hollywood had its dark underbelly turned up, Colossal‘s story of male entitlement and putting the pieces back together loomed larger and larger, much like the monsters contained within its movie.

Now, it is safe to say that no movie handled the Me Too moment (or pre-handled the moment) with more off-kilter wit or fun than Colossal did. Writer/Director Nacho Vigolando reamed a lot of bizarre humor out of Anne Hathaway’s exemplary performance and the increasingly strange situation she finds herself in. He manages to explore the actual sci-fi ramifications (she did technically kill people!) without ever feeling like it’s getting too lost in though, a deft handling of a difficult tone.

It’s that ability to handle tone that becomes more and more important as the film goes on, as Sudekis’ Oscar begins to become a more sinister presence and the film becomes a good v. evil story where one side is every dude who ever said the phrase “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Colossal is a story just a few months ahead of its time that’s funnier and weirder than it has any right to be.

10) Baby Driver

As a resident of Atlanta, I spend SO much time these days watching my city play anything but itself. It’s New York, it’s L.A., it’s Lagos. It’s hard to ignore that the Chinese restaurant that was down the street from me for 3 years has suddenly picked up and moved to Portland, Oregon. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you Edgar Wright for letting Atlanta be fucking Atlanta and showing the whole world why this is the coolest city.

Of course, it helps that the rest of Baby Driver is about as cool as movies get. Edgar Wright has carved a breathless blast of high-energy cinema, slick as a 70s Steve McQueen and singular as 60s French auteur. Baby Driver has every beat of film cut to a perfectly curated soundtrack, every bit of action designed like fine clockwork.

No film this year felt so alive and exciting and like a shot in the arm for popular cinema. Elgort’s Baby is gonna be in the heads of every young film fan getting behind the wheel for the first time.

Baby Driver is the kind of film that makes it a little more dangerous to drive down I-85, blasting “Bellbottoms” and trying not to get caught by the law.

9) The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro probably has done more for my love of film than anyone else. There’s a part of me that will always be the kid meeting him during the promotion for Hellboy in awe and just a little confusion.

But it’s the slow delve into his filmography and his love of monsters that pushed me forward. Del Toro is a filmmaker of supreme empathy, seeing the good and the beautiful in the grotesque. The Shape of Water is in someways the ultimate fulfillment of this, a movie where the outcast and the monster is the object of empathy and the beautiful lover and the man of society is the twisted murderer.

A film borne of a young boy wondering why Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t end up with the damsel ending up with the monster, The Shape of Water certainly makes some bold choices (including the one you’re wondering about). But the magic of the film is that it helps you understand all of those choices, believe in them, and become enveloped in them.

The Shape of Water believes in the good of monsters and the beauty of their love.

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The Worst and, more importantly, THE BEST of 2017, so far

So, as I am the grand arbiter of all things film, I’m officially calling the summer movie season at its close. Alas Logan Lucky, The Glass Castle, or Annabelle: Creation, you’re all part of the fall movie season. However will you survive?

And at the close of summer movie season, we’re essentially halfway through the movie year. I know we’re more than halfway through the calendar year, but trust me, that back half is always as packed as it gets. There’ll end up being things that are Oscar nominees that aren’t even on our radar right now. The worst movie of the year is likely still yet to come (though it’s hard to imagine right now).

But since I’m a fiend for lists, let’s make one, shall we? Let’s give a few check-ins and see where we are, starting with the worst (because it gets the attention) before taking a full celebration of the best.

Bottom 5 Films of 2017 So Far

5) The Dark Tower

Idris Elba

Ahh, The Dark Tower. The best franchise that will never quite be. Based on Stephen King’s series of epic fantasy western Lovecraftian meta-novels, some much smarter studio could have had a new Game of Thrones on its hands. Alas, it was in the hands of Sony and they instead produced a fall flat on its face. A mess of bad studio production, The Dark Tower wastes its actors, murders its pacing, and takes all the material and tosses it out the window for a mid-90s adaptation premise. Any film that features Matthew McConaughey saying “I see you’re still impervious to my magicks” with a straight face has an uphill battle. The Dark Tower doesn’t win it.

4) The Circle

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A bland mess of technophobia, I really just feel bad for the people involved here. The Circle is Black Mirror without the brains or heart, an aesthetic rip-off by a huge number of people who should be able to make some better stamp. Staring a pitch-perfect satire of late capitalism in the face, The Circle is content to shake its fist at social media and ultimately end up going nowhere.

3) Transformers: The Last Knight

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Look, who the living fuck expects anything out of this franchise at this point? The best Transformers has ever been able to aspire to is Bay’s weird hypercompetencies managing to shine through the material. But when they don’t, it’s the same thing that happens every goddamned time: A mess of story with awful design with a runtime that lasts for aeons.

2) Ghost in the Shell

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A pile-up of decisions so bad that you’re more baffled that it ever happened than mad that someone chose to do it. That all said, this is a film that was never going to be great and still manages to enrage far above its station. A messy script, terrible direction, and boring setpieces would sink any movie, but a movie that white-washes like this one does deserves all the ire that can be thrown. When your material is so fertile with intellect, you can’t be this fucking stupid in putting it together.

1) The Book of Henry

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Colin Trevorrow is a rare sort of filmmaker, one who in a past era would have perhaps been run out of town after town after the people found out his snake oil elixirs just weren’t working. The Book of Henry is his raw nerve put on screen. Excessively manipulative, baffling in every plot point put on screen, and a masterpiece of inhuman behavior, seemingly put together by a man who’s never met a human but is fairly certain he knows how they work. Fuck this movie.

Personal Shopper is a ghost story haunted by moving on

In a more just world, Kristen Stewart would have started acting in Europe. If Kristen Stewart was the hottest French import in Hollywood, there would have never been questioning of her talent. Partially because she’s made for the quiet European arthouse, partially because there wouldn’t have been the expectations of teenage studio blockbusters on her.

But most importantly because it’s likely that she would have been able to work with Olivier Assayas earlier in her career, a French film director who’s so far managed to be uniquely capable of unlocking her best work. In Clouds of Sils Maria, her reserved and disconnected performance managed to hold its own alongside Juliette Binoche.

This time around, Stewart is given the lead in Assayas’ postmodern ghost story Personal Shopper. As I’ve alluded, it should be no surprise how incredibly Stewart acquits herself, but the undue focus I’ve given there could elide the wonderful film Assayas has made here, a film difficult and impossibly intriguing that still lingers on the edges of my brain.

Personal Shopper is about Maureen (Stewart), still lost in Paris after the death of her twin brother Lewis from a heart defect that Maureen shares. She spends most of her time as a personal shopper for model and fashonista Kyra (Nora van Waldstatten). It’s a holding pattern as she attempts to fulfill a promise her and her brother made to each other.

You see, her and Lewis are mediums. And the two made a pact that if one of them died, they would make contact from the other side. Maybe to confirm the afterlife, maybe just to give closure. Maureen waits and searches for signs of her brother, as she starts getting mysterious texts from something unknown.

That’s right, this is a movie where we see a lot of Kristen Stewart texting. Hold with me here, I swear to god it’s compelling. Assayas is telling a story about grief, but it’s not just the mourning, it’s the way we interact with it. Technology is key, something that no longer allows us to totally unhook from the world around us. You can’t withdraw into a grief isolation, everyone can contact you in the middle of mourning.

Assayas understands that, but more importantly, he understands the little nuances of filming technology better than anyone. Film has spent a lot of time dealing with how to show text messaging in the context of the movie, but Personal Shopper makes the best case for just showing it on the damn phone. That’s how we experience it, with that physical object in hand, just show it to us. Beyond that, it’s all the minor things. Assayas finds tension in those three dots that show you someone’s typing, the reconsidering of phrasing in conversation as a character grasping for the words.

That may seem relatively minor, but it adds up to a greater whole. It’s finding those little nuances in the processes that let us identify with the story being told. We know the motions we go through when we’re trying to move on, or we know how to put ourselves in those day-to-day grooves and empathize with the story being told.

Assayas knows how to find those remarkably physical ways to latch on to the way Maureen feels. Her connection with the clothing and the world of Paris is impersonal and scared, we have our distance. The warmth of 35mm filming only comes through in the house where she attempts to find her brother’s ghost and when we get up close as she deals with technology. Assayas is constantly pushing and pulling us into the world as Maureen experiences it, empathy through form.

Of course, there’s no better discussion than Maureen’s experience to talk about Stewart’s central performance, much of the talk of Personal Shopper. I discussed what makes Stewart such a great actress back in the (forgettable) Cafe Society. It’s important to understand that if Stewart isn’t your taste, my evangelism will do you no good. It’s also important to understand that she’s not necessarily an elevating actress, she very easily falls victim to material that isn’t worth her time.

But Personal Shopper is everything I really admire about Stewart as an actress. There’s a conscious naturalism to the way she performs. Her reservation through her movements always feels like it’s revealing as much as the actual motion. She wears the pain of loss in very subtle ways, little bits of reticence in her interaction and in the way she talks to people. Her tics as an actress are perfectly calibrated for Personal Shopper, they make her feel tired and aged far beyond the years she’s lived.

Plus, if I wasn’t already on board, I would be by the end of a late-film long take that would absolutely earn Stewart her fandom, a beautiful piece of acting that’s an absolutely enrapturing completion of the film’s arc.

Personal Shopper welds Assayas and Stewart’s strengths together as well as they ever have. Stewart’s stunning performance and Assayas’ conscious and deliberate performance weld to this wonderful piece of storytelling, something truly real and affecting. Like the ghosts of this story, this film just has yet to leave my brain.

Grade: A