Happy 2018! The title of this post is pretty self-explanatory, so let’s dive in!
Portraying real-life tragedy in film is always touchy. Let alone recent, heavily-reported real-life tragedy. But David Gordon Green’s Stronger presents a sensitive yet gritty take on the story of Jeff Bauman (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who lost both of his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Most films about a dramatic national news story focus on the ins and outs of the event itself (see: Peter Berg’s also quite-good movie about the same event, Patriots Day), but Stronger shines a spotlight on what happens AFTER the news cameras stop rolling, when the real work begins for the innocent people directly affected. Stronger does not sugar-coat the mental and physical struggles that Bauman faced, nor does it shy away from presenting Bauman’s less likeable personality traits. The result is an intimate and highly compelling character portrait that avoids exploiting the inherent drama of its inciting event.
9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Breaking Bad fans may recall an episode called “Fly” (season three, episode 10) a strange entry in the series where protagonists Walt and Jesse spend almost the entire episode alone together inside of a laboratory chasing down a pesky housefly. This “bottle episode” was one of three Breaking Bad episodes that Rian Johnson directed, and it’s among the most memorable and most divisive in the entire series run, mostly because it was so different than everything that came before or since. Now, Rian Johnson has entered the Star Wars franchise and shaken things up similarly with The Last Jedi, essentially creating the “Fly” of Star Wars. Some people love it, some people hate it. “Fly” was among my very favourite Breaking Bad episodes. And as much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Force Awakens and Rogue One? The Last Jedi is among my very favourite Star Wars installments.
The latest grim tale from notorious grim Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev, Loveless tells the story of a couple going through a bitter divorce whose 12-year-old son suddenly vanishes without a trace. Oh, and it’s also all a metaphor for Russia’s crumbling political landscape. So no, Loveless is not an uplifting time at the movies. But for all of the chilly gloom, I was actually surprised by how accessible and narratively compelling Loveless manages to be. Not having seen any of Zvyagintsev’s previous films, I was expecting it to be much more esoteric than was, but the camerawork is inviting and the plot – while not high-action – is quite engaging. Zvyagintsev and co-screenwriter Oleg Negin create complex characters who portray some of humankind’s worst instincts while still managing to be interesting and oddly sympathetic. It’s not an easy watch in terms of content, but as for craft and storytelling, there’s absolutely no doubt that Zvyagintsev is one of the masters.
7. Personal Shopper
Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart seem like an unlikely director/actor pairing, but between Clouds of Sils Maria and now Personal Shopper, they may actually be among the most perfectly matched cinematic collaborators of recent years. Assayas’ films and Stewart’s performances both have a chilly reserve that gives way to an emotionalism that is surprising simply because there seems to be no trace of it in any conventional sense. This especially applies to Personal Shopper, which left some viewers cold precisely because it is so opaque. Having seen the film, it’s still unclear to me whether the mood and the half-formed ideas about mortality and loss that Assayas sets up ever really amount to anything. Yet I found myself sucked into the liminal state that the film seems more than content to exist in. Don’t come to Personal Shopper looking for easy answers. Just settle in for the experience.
Speaking of films that kept some viewers at a distance, Dunkirk has received criticism for its lack of focus on character development. And I’ll admit that I too did struggle a bit with the film’s shunning of conventional emotional arcs. However, I don’t think that’s a weakness of the film. In terms of craft, it’s immersive, daring, and sometimes downright confrontational in the way it’s constructed. And though we may not get to know any of the characters thoroughly, many of them are still very interesting thanks to the film’s storytelling techniques and the performances the impeccably-chosen cast give in limited screentime. (Yes, that includes Harry Styles.) I found Dunkirk to be compelling and emotionally charged – just perhaps not in the way I expected.
5. The Square
A Palme d’Or winner that skewers the very type of audience that is often associated with the Cannes Film Festival. That perhaps speaks to just how smart and funny Ruben Ostlund’s latest film is. And while the satire is aimed at the modern art world and self-obsessed “intellectuals”, you don’t need much insider knowledge to appreciate the greater application of its statements about greed and narcissism. The Square is a strange, long film but it doesn’t wear out its welcome, thanks to Ostlund’s commitment to the sheer weirdness of it all. He’s not afraid to ~go there, as evidenced by the film’s much-discussed “monkey man” scene set at a banquet dinner. It’s not exactly “cringe comedy”, but The Square combines its satire with impeccable craft, making it one of the most memorable, uncomfortable, and fun viewing experiences I had all year.
4. Beach Rats
If you hear that a film is about a closeted gay teen, you might have a notion of what that it’ll be like. If you hear that a film is about a bunch of agro dudes hanging out at the Jersey shore, that probably conjures something very different in your mind. Beach Rats manages to be both of those things and neither of those things all at once. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) lives separate lives, trawling through gay hook-up sites during his downtime from hanging out with his bros on the boardwalk. It’s a film about what happens when two distinct sides of yourself will never fit together. Director Eliza Hittman explores this dilemma and its emotional toll on Frankie with the perfect balance of confrontation and delicacy. This film is gritty less in its content than its emotional heft. Hypnotic and grimy, Beach Rats lets us marinate in Frankie’s self-loathing in an alarmingly gorgeous way.
3. Call Me By Your Name
If Beach Rats is about the toxicity of the closet, Call Me By Your Name is about someone learning about the freedom in breaking out of it. Luca Guadagnino has crafted a stunning, opulent ode to autonomy (and also to the inherent risks associated with living one’s life fully). The love story between Ellio (Timothee Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) aches and pulses with emotional intensity through every stage of the story. Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory hit every narrative punch with such subtly that by the time the film reaches its fittingly understated conclusion, the true weight of it all has snuck up on you. And it should not be overlooked that the film is also truly is a feast for the eyes. I was totally swept up in Call Me By Your Name’s gorgeous atmosphere and emotional delicacy.
2. Good Time
If you look at the other films near the top spot of this list, you’ll see that I had a strong emotional response (of some kind) to all of them. The same can be said about Josh and Ben Safdie’s Good Time, though it may be more that my heart just realigned itself to match Good Time’s peculiar, breakneck rhythm. As we follow anti-hero Connie (Robert Pattinson) through an increasingly crazy night (brought on solely by his own fuckery) the stakes get higher and the tension ratchets up. This thing moves. And that’s thanks largely to the Safdies’ direction, which is truly stunning. They somehow create a film that feels highly stylized (in all the right ways) and also gritty, authentic, and intimate. It’s neo-verite on a Sprite bottle full of acid. I also have to recognize Pattinson’s performance, which is captivating and intense in a way that, frankly, I don’t think many people thought he was capable of. I can’t wait to see what the Safdies do next, and I can’t wait to watch this movie again.
Somehow, the film from 2017 that left the biggest impact on me was also one of its most unassuming. Kogonada’s debut feature, Columbus, is measured, kind, and profound in a way I simply did not expect. It’s about many things while outwardly appearing to be about very little. Set in the unlikely architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana, the film tracks the burgeoning friendship between local Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and involuntary visitor Jin (John Cho), who finds himself stranded there after his father has a heart attack while visiting and can’t be flown home. While Jin awaits his father’s fate, this deliberately paced film allows the pair to get to know each other organically, and it’s a true treat to watch play out. This likely has something to do with Richardson’s amazing openness as an actor. For my money, it’s the best performance of the year, which is fitting, since Columbus is the best film of the year. I suspect that this is a film that will quietly build a following, its emotional relevance to live on for years to come.