2017: My Year in Film

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A Quiet Passion

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.

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Toni Erdmann

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…

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Get Out

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.

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Okja

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.

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A Quiet Passion

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.

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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.

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Clean

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.

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Taipei Story

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.

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2016: My Year in Film

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Cameraperson

Since I don’t see enough new movies each year to justify a top ten list, I thought it’d be more fitting to put together a diary entry of sorts to close out the year 2016.

2015-films

A lot happened in 2016 – personal and otherwise – but I didn’t sit down to watch many movies. At least, not as many as I did in 2015. And, that is perhaps my first observation about 2016. There just didn’t seem to be as many films that I wanted to see. Last year saw three of my favorite working directors release mid- to late-career masterpieces (The Assassin, Cemetery of Splendour, Taxi), which served as my favorite films of the year. I rediscovered the works of Tarkovsky and tracked down a lot of Hou films I had missed. Overall, in film at least, 2015 was greater than 2016.

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Thus, it would only stand to reason that some of the most exciting filmic moments happened outside the confines of the traditional theatrical release. The most unexpectedly cinematic film of the year wasn’t really a film at all, but rather a “visual album” from one of the music industry’s most enthralling artists. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is not only a great pop album, but its accompanying short film/extended music video/visual essay is great art indeed. A team of directors seemingly channeling Terrence Malick creates an arresting collage of images that serve Beyoncé’s overall themes of beautiful black femininity and personal redemption.

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The best film released in 2016 that I saw would have to be Kirsten Johnson’s staggering Cameraperson. With “leftover” footage culled from other documentaries that she worked on as cinematographer, Johnson crafts an unusually personal memoir with her camera pointed everywhere but on her. The film, then, is one of indelible images – two Bosnian children fiddling with an axe, a newborn baby taking its first breath and granting us relief, heart-wrenching shots of Johnson’s own mother suffering from dementia, and, of course, those fumbling hands of a young woman on the verge of a major life decision.

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The year’s most pleasant surprises came in the form of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and Albert Maysles’ final film In Transit. Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation ditched the hyper romance that previous filmic versions of her famous works have zeroed in on in favor of the author’s wit. The film, then, is quite hilarious with two head-turning performances by lead Kate Beckinsale and scene-stealing Tom Bennett as the ridiculous Sir James Martin.

Maysles’ surprisingly moving documentary In Transit chronicles the journeys of different passengers aboard the Empire Builder, one of America’s great train routes. Unfamiliar with Maysles’ work, I was struck by the light-hearted humor and tenderness with which he captures his subjects. The film is both a heart-warming portrait of everyday people and an ode to the great American landscape.

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The biggest head scratcher of the year was Hong Sang-soo’s lauded Right Now, Wrong Then. I caught it at the Milwaukee Film Festival a few months ago and was as equally bedfuddled as the impatient audience I watched it with. A lot of film critics and fans of the idiosyncratic, highly prolific director claimed Right Now was a good entry point into his work. If that’s the case, I won’t be quick to hunt down his other difficult-to-find films or queuing up for his latest. Apparently, boredom is a sin that cinephiles don’t like to talk about, but I will freely admit I am one not immune to it.

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For films released prior to 2016, my favorite discoveries of the year were Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage which surprisingly served as a gorgeous period drama, a self-reflexive exercise in debt to Kiarostami, and a vehicle for one of cinema’s finest performers to give her finest performance to date. Maggie Cheung was a magnetic presence throughout. I also explored Lubitsch further than Trouble in Paradise, which I already knew and loved. Both The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be were incredibly hilarious and winsome. I had the pleasure of watching Satyajit Ray’s final film The Stranger – another late-career delight. And, finally, I got around to exploring the Dardenne brothers’ catalogue having only seen The Son. While that film remains their opus in my mind, I was particularly struck by The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night.

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My favorite rediscovery of the year would most certainly have to be Syndromes and a Century. Before 2016, I would have placed it below Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives in some crude ranking of the filmmaker’s works, but after three (!) re-watches this year it’s skyrocketed to the top of my favorite Weerasethakul films. There’s so much nuance, subtle humor, and beautifully ambiguous metaphor that I think I could get something different out of it with each subsequent viewing. It’s a film I’ll never tire of.

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Exploring the canonized films of revered filmmakers Agnès Varda and Jim Jarmusch would sadly constitute the year’s biggest disappointment. Aside from the excellent Cléo from 5 to 7, I found nothing particularly remarkable in Le Bonheur or Vagabond. Unfortunately, it’s kept me from digging further. Someday I hope to get around to The Gleaners & I. The same can be said for Jarmusch’s classic output. His minimalist, proto-hipster take on what would become “indie” cinema truly aroused little to no feeling in this viewer. I don’t remember a single shot or memorable moment from either Stranger Than Paradise or Down by Law. The mid-90s cult hit Dead Man faired a bit better. I was at least interested from start to finish. This doesn’t bode well for my current interest in Paterson – what critics have been hailing as another non-urgent masterpiece.

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The year’s most interesting pairing would have to be seeing Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time followed by Damien Chazelle’s hyped La La Land only a few weeks later. While I certainly appreciated Demy’s subversion and fitting adaptation of the American musical, Umbrellas just wasn’t for me. Musicals are a hard sell for this cinephile to begin with, so an entirely sung film with few melodies and no eye-popping dance numbers wasn’t likely to win me over. Enter La La Land, a film unabashedly inspired by Demy’s classic. Chazelle is a determinedly competent filmmaker, but like Whiplash his latest future Oscar winner left me wanting more. As one critic put it, the stakes of the central relationship that pits romance against artistic integrity are shockingly low in comparison to the grown-up decisions the characters make in Umbrellas. It’s a valid point. One film, though bursting in Technicolor with each line sung, is more grounded in reality than the other. La La Land is just that: a trip through some imaginary land where things look and sound nice, but you’ll probably forget about them a day or two later.

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The film I am still processing months after my first viewing is Malick’s derided Knight of Cups. Most critics wrote him off as a self-parodying hack after the release of his seventh feature. And, while my loyalties remain with one of my favorite filmmakers, his latest did leave me a bit conflicted. How can one top The Thin Red Line or The Tree of Life? In short, he probably never will. But, To the Wonder showed promise with possible new directions for the visual storyteller. Knight of Cups does the same. Malick forces conventional narrative as far into the background as it will go, emphasizing his Lubezki-shot visuals and voiceover contemplation. There are moments of rapturous beauty throughout, but as a whole the verdict’s still out for the abstract Knight of Cups.

2016-unseen

In 2016, the limitations of my small-town cinephilia were felt more than ever before. I still haven’t seen Aquarius, Certain Women, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, No Home Movie, Silence, or Toni Erdmann. And, while it’s foolish to try to assign significance to any given film before one sees it, it’s difficult to reckon with the reality that most of my (likely) favorite films of 2016 will be viewed for the first time in 2017.

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And, finally, 2016 will sadly be remembered for the passing one of the medium’s greatest artists. Though he’s gone from this earth, his works will live on as long as people still care about cinema. RIP Abbas Kiarostami.