Top Ten Movies: 2017

Phantom Thread

If you’ve ever watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, there’s a looming question that begins to dominate your every thought while the movie progresses: Why the hell doesn’t she just leave? Why does demure Joan Fontaine allow herself to endure her husband’s ambiguous temperament and, even more reasonably questioned, why does she put up with that damn maid’s psychotic obsession to humiliate her? Paul Thomas Anderson runs with this premise and sets it ablaze in Phantom Thread. His film begins like his protagonist, staid and orderly. Begins. So the joke’s on anyone expecting a BBC masterpiece classic. Vicky Krieps plays the Joan Fontaine to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Olivier-like enigma, attempting to decipher her own place inside of his world. When she can’t, conventionality curtails and that’s when things go off the rails in a refreshingly unsettling manner. It’s as if her character must break the mold of classic storytelling to achieve her own personal goal, for like the film strip melting away in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, character motivation breaks the fourth wall. And so a countryside stroll sharply detouring off course and heading straight for us shocks more than any foreign film I’ve watched this year, granting Phantom Thread high enough kudos in my book to position it at number one.

1. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. The Son of Joseph (Eugéne Green)
3. The Lost City of Z (James Gray)
4. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen)
5. Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
6. The Orinthologist (João Pedro Rodrigues)
7. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos) and Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
8. God’s Own Country (Frances Lee)
9. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
10. Happy End (Michael Haneke) and Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)

The main perk of working at a movie theater is the ability to watch a glutinous amount of films without, say, mortgaging your house – although there is a movie pass to ease this sorta thing now, I hear. But yeah, this list reflects a wonderful opportunity to catch just about everything possible. The Son of Joseph is small-scaled and imperfect, a topical French trope – see also Happy End and Slack Bay – that works gangbusters. Then there’s The Lost City of Z, which since I’ve already made a habit of comparing new titles to older films (my life, basically), is a lot like The Bridge on the River Kwai in its ability to exceed genre and tap into novel-like depth. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is honorable mention territory in other people’s lists that cuts deeper for me for no other reason than its energy and fun. And Nocturama is quite remarkable at being so damn original in its news-topic premise that American films would have patted down for Oscar attention.

I’ve mentioned Happy End and Slack Bay, two eccentric pictures that look homespun compared to The Orinthologist. But since Apichatpong Weerasethakul took the year off, it was João Pedro Rodrigues who pointed his camera towards the jungle. The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Graduation are wickedly funny and incisive, respectively, and God’s Own Country is a movie that is probably better known in the U.K. but got kinda shafted in the States over Call Me By Your Name. Seriously though, give the former a chance if you can. Josh O’Connor gets my ballot for best male performance in the awards show playing in my head.

And where are all those runner-ups, you say? Well, here. Those that could have made the list include Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (don’t even ask me how to pronounce it) Loveless, and Robin Campillo’s Beats Per Minute – BPM. Oh! And the first two-thirds of Escapes! It’s like watching Kenneth Anger film grammar with a gnarly segment on Teri Garr and another one on Flipper, amongst many.

Then there’s stuff like Ladybird, After the Storm, Get Out, Faces Places, Lady Macbeth, The Death of Louis the XIV, and Free Fire – which I just realized as I’m typing I liked more than Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri if we’re going that direction.

Things that I missed include Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, and Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone (did this even play in L.A.?), so I’ll be making the rounds for those in 2018. And speaking of 2018, here’s to hoping everyone has a great next year!

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Top Ten Movies: 1997

boogie-nights

The two at the top of my list for 1997 couldn’t be any more disparate. Boogie Nights is a three-hour race through the golden age of the porn industry. Picture the coke-induced drive at the end of Goodfellas with as many characters as there is depravity. Mother and Son is an hour long Russian piece on the meditation of death between, what else, a mother and her son. It sighs and whispers, with every subtle motion a rift on the screen. And while both exemplify the quality of great films, Boogie Nights has got the fumbled excitement of a child that proudly takes his or her erratic behavior on the chin. P.T. Anderson’s second feature can overwhelm itself in its own scope but its ambition is something to admire. It revels in the hedonistic binge of its content all the while taking a sobering look at the trappings of sterilizing insecurities. Sex isn’t sex but a business, with everybody soon finding out that you can’t even get away with that. Somehow, you end up leaving the movie with the solemnity of exiting an art house picture, getting at something much deeper than all the surface drama. So at number one no doubt it goes.

1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov)
3. Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami)
4. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
5. The River (Tsai Ming-liang) and The Eel (Shohei Imamura)
6. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai)
7. Funny Games (Michael Haneke)
8. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
9. Lost Highway (David Lynch)
10. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute)

The once polarizing Taste of Cherry is still the poster child of 90’s Iranian cinema, that decade initiating – and still blazing – movement that’s produced some of the most outstanding narratively experimental social dramas, peeling away layer after layer of film grammar. Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential has tested far better than a lot of its contemporary crime peers by displaying its makers’ unabashed passion for everything the movie stood for. And Jackie Brown, a mutual screenwriter’s class darling, is strictly built upon that principle alone for Tarantino and the 70’s blaxploitation boom.

As for the rest, just look at all the bleakness! You have Tsai Ming-liang’s crumbling family drama desperately attempting to salvage its self-inflicting wounds. You have Michael Haneke perversely playing with the medium in his cool malevolence. You have David Lynch snatching a Luis Buñuel trope of replacing the lead midway in his bristling grumble of a shadowed world. The adjectives! Then there’s Chad from In the Company of Men, who could quite possibly be the most terrifyingly evil character on the screen in the ever most eerily of gratifying ways. A nod to LaBute for that, I guess…

Those that got pretty darn close include Robert Altaman’s Jazz ’34, which I ended up liking more than Kansas City. And I like Kansas City! Paul Verhoeven’s sly and subversive Starship Troopers, dating brilliantly because it never took itself serious… or did it? Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, inspiring in its first half but a bit of a let down once Jason Priestly’s character actually arrives on screen. John Woo’s Face/Off, because like Verhoeven, bonkers is the way to go! And Nil by Mouth, Gary Oldman’s directorial debut that I haven’t watched in a very long, and I mean LONG time. For that matter, there’s also Grosse Pointe Blank, Gummo, The Ice Storm, and The Sweet Hereafter. Oh, and Titanic. Yeah… Titanic.

Top Ten Movies: 2009

The White Ribbon It’s the second week in a row that a horror film nabs the top spot in my best of the year list. The third if you include my very first post in a project I’ve begun just a little over a month ago. To be honest, this recurrence comes as a bit of a surprise since I’m not particularly fixated on the genre, or at least not more so than any other. But there’s no denying the brilliance behind Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Every minute of the film is as unsettling as the mysterious crimes committed in this small village set during pre-WWI Germany. From the rigid Protestantism enforced by the townspeople down to the social gatherings of the children, who, you know, you’d think would act like children and stuff, something always appears to be lurking beyond the corners of the frame. Of course, this foreboding tension is never fully realized but why would you want it to when the dread of it all stays with you long after the credits roll. That Michael Haneke can continuously tread familiar territory (i.e. Funny GamesCode Unknown, Caché) and still manage to present a new and disturbing angle towards his philosophy is a merit to his talents as a true auteur, perhaps the best working in the industry today. And so The White Ribbon situates itself as my number one in a year that presents a mixed bag of movies that are as assuredly uncompromising in their vision as they are in their eclecticism.

1. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
2. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
3. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
4. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
5. Bright Star (Jane Campion) and An Education (Lone Scherfig)
6. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
7. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos)
8. White Material (Claire Denis)
9. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu) and The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
10. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)

Snuck a couple more in there that I just couldn’t ignore. An Education is another picturesque British period piece that, like Bright Star, tackles young love in a unique and vibrant way, not to mention bestowing the film world with a spunky Carey Mulligan whose as light and frothy in the role as a catchy French tune from the early 60’s. Then there’s The Hurt Locker and its well deserved accolades as a raw and relentless portrayal on a subject that all too often gets muddled in the cinema (and just about everywhere else). Tarantino delivers one of his most honed, and therefore one of his best, while the Coen Brothers indulge in what appears to be a passion-piece after the astounding success of their previous efforts in No Country for Old Men.

For those that didn’t make the ranks, 2009 was also a wonderful year for animation. Who would have thought that Disney could have delivered an even more idiosyncratic story in Up than Wes Anderson’s jab at stop-motion? But Fantastic Mr. Fox is indeed fantastic. And so is Avatar, that box office phenomenon which loses more than its scope when viewed on a small screen, especially when compared to the unwavering originality of Dogtooth or the complex moral gradations of Police, Adjective, big screen or not.

And the heavies? Andrea Arnold had Fish Tank, revitalizing the British kitchen sink realism from yonder years. Tom Ford had A Single Man, which is a gorgeously photographed drama that never attains the reach it originally sets it eyes on. And Martin Scorsese had Shutter Island, a film I wish I liked better than what I truthfully did. Add two foils from Soderbergh, The Informant and The Girlfriend Experience, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, and Pedro Almodóvar’s luscious Broken Embraces, and you’ve got yourself a year. Oh, and Antichrist too, whose first ten minutes gave me just enough of an inclination about the rest of the movie to not really want to finish it. And believe me, I’ve heard the stories.

Next Week: 1952. What a glorious feeling!