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: 2014

2014 Two Days, One Night

A lot of festival release dates for 2013 to challenge official release dates for the following year. So films such as Under the Skin, Only Lovers Left Alive, and The Immigrant will have to wait their turn even though I personally watched them in 2014. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Dardenne brothers’ latest project, Two Days, One Night, would top the list with or without the other title inclusions. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this working class drama. In fact, it could easily have fit the mold of say Italian neorealism sixty years ago or the British Kitchen Sink realism fifteen years after that. But the filmmaking duo simply did what it is they do best, tell a good story about rank and file proletariats, lower class families worried about making ends meet. In an era when either box office numbers and/or new technological feats appear to be the primary motivation for movie attendance, it’s refreshing to get back to the grass roots level of filmmaking, the elbow grease effort of telling a good ol’ fashioned story as plain and direct as possible and hope to hook audiences that way. You take a premise regarding a factory worker having only one weekend to ask her colleagues to give up their bonus or she’ll lose her job, and what do you get? A multi-layered film where every single character faces a moral dilemma. And so Two Days, One Night beats out a couple of other more formally complex efforts (Inherent Vice and The Grand Budapest Hotel) by directors that have attained a status of mastery in contemporary cinema.

1. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
2. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
4. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
5. ’71 (Yann Demange)
6. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
7. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
8. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
9. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
10. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)

Leviathan is a hell of a slow burn you come to realize is everything its acclaim lives up to days, possibly weeks after when you least expect it. At the other end of the spectrum, ’71 is a taut action driven war picture that runs at a machine gun pace once a shockingly graphic gun shot gets the chase going. Force Majeure takes the prize for the year’s most ingenious comedy (I could seriously watch this movie over and over and not once feel its humor fade). And Mr. Turner is as introspective and languid in its pacing as a walk in an art gallery, which isn’t necessarily a critique towards the film.

Those that got a lot of attention but didn’t make the cut include Damien Chazele’s Whiplash, which I think is brilliant in its hyped-up audacity but left me feeling like that was all it had going for it. Jean-Luc Godard had his 3-D extravaganza Goodbye to Language, and Dan Gilroy creeped the hell out of Los Angelenos with his seething and unstable protagonist in Nightcrawler. Add Tommy Lee Jones’ under the radar western The Homesman, David Michôd’s post-apocalyptic The Rover, and Ava DuVernay’s gorgeously photographed civil rights drama Selma, and you’ve got yourself a strong list of alternatives.

Then there are films like Birdman, Gone GirlTimbuktu, and Interstellar, which for one reason or another I couldn’t warm up to. And while we’re at it with Interstellar, some of the best summer blockbusters to come out of Hollywood in the year include the surprisingly stellar Edge of Tomorrow and James Gunn’s pop track sci-fi adventure Guardians of the Galaxy, with a role for Batista that beyond thrilled the inner WWE child in me. Sadly, no Batista bomb though.

Next Week (or whenever I can just get around to it): 1948. Where are your badges?