Following in the footsteps of last year, 2017 proved to be yet another year of minimal film viewing. Part of this, like 2016, was due to the disappointingly short list of newly released films I hoped to see. But my TV screen remained black for a good portion of the year for another significant reason: my wife and I welcomed our first child into the world this past summer. Someday our little sweetheart will likely offer her own opinions on Ozu, Hou, and Malick, but alas, it was not this year.
As predicted, I spent the first few months of the year playing catch-up with 2016 releases. I was pleased with how much I enjoyed relative newcomer Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, a compelling near-thriller grounded by Sonia Braga’s explosive performance. Also impressive were Chantal Akerman’s final work, the non-film No Home Movie – an achingly personal tribute to her late mother – and Kelly Reichardt’s triptych Certain Women, which featured solid performances and a fresh take on her typically wandering theme of women in isolation but failed to reach the heights of earlier wonders Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff.
The two best 2016 releases I caught this year were easily Silence and Toni Erdmann. Martin Scorsese’s religiously complex epic is his best film in over twenty years and one of the greatest and most honest filmic explorations of Christianity that I’ve seen. And, Maren Ade’s outrageously beloved Toni Erdmann fortunately lived up to the hype. It was whip-smart, uncomfortably awkward, flat-out hilarious at times, and unexpectedly poignant in its denouement. Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek knocked it out of the park as the dysfunctional daughter and father at the film’s center.
On the other end of the spectrum, the two most disappointing 2016 releases I watched were The White Helmets and 13th, two socially conscious documentaries with subject matter close to this writer’s heart – especially the war in Syria that has led to the many refugees now living in my community. As someone who works in refugee resettlement, I cannot overstate how important it is to humanize the refugee crisis for the American masses. Unfortunately, The White Helmets misses the mark in its sheer blandness. Both films were of course well meaning, but completely inert in both style and narrative. This is particularly disappointing for 13th as director Ava DuVernay showed such promise with 2014’s Selma. But, the artistic failure yet almost complete critical acceptance of both films points to what was probably the most annoying trend I witnessed in 2017…
Thanks to a bitter election in 2016 that much of the U.S. is still reeling from, it seemed every bit of pop culture in 2017 – from film to music to late night TV – had to achieve some sort of political relevance to be considered worthy of attention. In this climate, then, it’s no wonder Jordan Peele’s satirical horror flick Get Out proved to be an inevitable sensation and impossible to ignore. Surely an unlikely contender for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Peele’s film has been saddled with the unfair burden as the one and only takedown of white liberal smugness and the Internet’s favorite topic of the year: microaggressions. It’s too bad because I actually quite enjoyed Get Out. Its cleverness and humor made up for its shortage of genuine scares, but any other year I wouldn’t even consider it a “best of” type of movie.
The same goes for Bong Joon-ho’s eco-terror monster movie Okja, which was fun but ultimately too silly to be taken seriously. It’s somewhat disheartening to see the director’s post-Mother career stoop to the goofball levels of Snowpiercer and this. Dee Rees’ Mudbound also courageously took on the problem of race in this country, but it was far more akin to the types of movies pitched for awards than Get Out. It tells a powerful story in a daringly novelistic fashion, allowing us access into multiple characters’ heads through consistent voiceover narration (much like a better Terrence Malick film), but ultimately Mudbound isn’t a movie I’d ever need to revisit.
The year’s two major arthouse films untethered to the current cultural moment that I saw were both unfortunately underwhelming. James Gray continues to prove that his strict adherence to outdated, mid-twentieth century melodrama isn’t for me, no matter how pretty his films are to look at. Save Marion Cotillard’s devastating performance in The Immigrant, his breakthrough didn’t do much for me. Similarly, his interpretation of the classic Hollywood adventure picture, The Lost City of Z, was gorgeously shot but ultimately forgettable. I saw it this past summer and don’t honestly remember a thing about it except that Charlie Hunnam was woefully miscast in the lead role. Speaking of lead roles, Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion featured this year’s best performance – a wholly lived-in portrayal of American poet Emily Dickinson by Cynthia Nixon. Like Davies’ best work, the cinematography is intoxicating and the lighting a wonder to behold, but aside from Nixon’s performance, the rest of the cast’s acting and the overall tone of the film were bafflingly off. As a writer, I recognize this as a poor descriptor, but I just can’t seem to put my finger on what exactly I didn’t connect with in the film. Accomplished to be sure, but not one I’m eager to revisit any time soon. The scene where Dickinson envisions a suitor coming to rescue her from her own private prison of a bedroom, however, is one of the best sequences Davies has ever composed.
While I didn’t have the displeasure of seeing anything I truly hated in 2017, the year’s worst cinematic moment occurred halfway through the newest Star Wars movie. During one of the film’s expected starship battles, the Resistance’s fearless leaders are blown out of their ship and into oblivion. This includes the beloved Leia Organa. Fortunately, however, the Force apparently now allows humans to survive the uninhabitable conditions of outer space and defy the void’s lack of gravity. In what is truly an uninspired and cringe-worthy moment, Leia flies herself back into the ship. Given the fact that Disney now owns two of the world’s most profitable cinematic franchises, I anticipate Super Leia will appear alongside the Mouse House’s other heroes in Avengers: Infinity War this summer. (Having only seen the first Avengers flick, I recognized about a quarter of the characters in the busy trailer anyway.) As a casual fan of the original trilogy and a firm believer that Attack of the Clones is the worst movie of all time, I welcomed J.J. Abrams’ nostalgic rehash and winsome new characters in the 2015 reboot. With the latest installment, however, Disney and director/writer Rian Johnson have assured me The Force Awakens was a one hit wonder.
If 2017 releases were unfortunately mostly disappointing, I found solace in cinema’s vast history. On my journey to see every performance of Maggie Cheung’s – my favorite actress – I saw both the mid-nineties Hong Kong hit Comrades: Almost a Love Story and last decade’s Clean. The former is a ridiculously melodramatic rom-com saved only by Cheung’s winsome screen presence, but the latter features one of her best performances to date. As a former groupie and recovering junkie, Cheung’s character struggles to get her life back on track following her husband’s death in order to gain custody of her son. Seamlessly switching between English, Cantonese, and French, Clean proves there isn’t much Cheung can’t do. It’s a real shame she’s since retired from acting.
Finally, 2017 was also the year of Yang. In addition to rewatching A Brighter Summer Day for the third or fourth time this past spring (what is sure to become an annual tradition since Criterion’s glorious transfer in 2016), I also saw the master’s eighties classics Taipei Story and The Terrorizers for the first time. Both films, while markedly different (and thrillingly so) in execution, add to a canon of untouchable films chronicling modern urban malaise. Edward Yang easily ranks amongst my very favorite filmmakers. And, that is hopefully how I’ll remember my year in film best.