Grain of Salt: Matt's Top 10 Films of 2017


I’ve gotta be completely honest. I take this list very seriously. I obsess over it for months- curating, second-guessing, shuffling, re-shuffling, and shuffling again like an insecure blackjack dealer. And when I finally am satisfied enough to walk away from it and make it public I am immediately filled with that looming dread of the inevitable dissent coming my way for not including a film someone was passionate about (I’d hate to tell you how much flack I got last year when MOONLIGHT only ended up on my honorable mentions). But you know what? That’s okay. Lists representing individual opinions are merely a caveat for inciting discussion and a helpful tool for organizing one’s thoughts. I use my top 10 list as a way of taking my own temperature as a critic and examining patterns for the ways in which the industry winds are blowing in any given year. I watched 290 films in 2017 and 110 of those were in a movie theater. These were the ones that really rattled my molars. I hope you find it to be an interesting read as opposed to a reason to start a fight. There were plenty of things to get angry about in 2017 but, trust, me, movies weren’t one of them. Movies are the antidote. Movies are the cure for the common year.



An argument can be made that art is not only fleeting but perhaps even an exercise in futility. Sooner or later every film print will deteriorate and turn to dust, every painting in the Louvre will melt into abstraction when the Seine rises up to flood the museum, and every great musical recording will be as useless as the vinyl it’s grooved into when there is no one left to listen to it. Clinging to artistic legacy is fruitless and can lead to madness. But the positive impact of art on the living and the way in which we can use it to enrich each other’s lives can’t be overstated. That’s specifically what I gleaned from the pseudo-documentary FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES, if you will…) by the legendary, Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Agnès Varda and her unlikely cohort “JR”- the elusive, tragically hip photographer, 55 years her junior. On paper, an artsy, festival-ready “experiment” in which these May-December cronies gallivant through rural France on a mission to enrich the lives of the proletariat by photographing and wheat-pasting large format images of them onto the sides of buildings sounds positively galling. But, like all art, execution is everything and the journey becomes a celebration of the intangible possibilities inherent in creative expression. One woman is so moved by the sight of her own visage on the façade of the building in which she has lived for her entire life that she is reduced to tears. But Varda and JR, for all of their pretensions, are not in search of gratitude, financial gain, or legacy. JR in particular, deeply understands the fleeting nature of his chosen format. The impractical physics of his canvas and the punishing reality of the elements may render his work eradicated in less than the time it took for him to put it up. But what these artists and their film are really searching for and what they manage to locate successfully, is that positive human reaction to being truly moved by art. The woman sees her picture, is overcome by emotions that she can’t put into words, and collapses into the arms of Varda and JR who embrace her affectionately. This art will not last. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful.     



2017 will always be remembered as a watershed year for superhero films. Between the shattering success stories of esoteric sequels like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY vol. 2 and THOR: RAGNAROK, the triumphant return of the web-slinger himself in the refreshingly good-natured SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, the game-changing, record-breaking anointment of WONDER WOMAN, or her male counterpart’s inability to live up to her example in the commercially and artistically disappointing JUSTICE LEAGUE… a great many things came into sharp focus this year in terms of what we want from our superheroes. But, for me, the most unexpected genre film to come along in many years and one I will certainly continue to revisit has to be James Mangold’s somber, melancholy, bracingly-violent neo-western LOGAN. Who would have thought that a character who helped to initiate the modern age of comic book franchise filmmaking when Hugh Jackman first played him back in 2000’s X-MEN would still have such vitality, 17 years and 9 films later? The ace in the hole in this particular situation is, of course, Jackman himself, who never lost his fastball nor waned in his commitment to the character’s pathology even as the films around him coasted on autopilot for over a decade. Finally liberated from the neutered, bloodless bonds of the PG-13 mainstream, Jackman, Mangold, and writers Scott Frank (who further explored the western genre in 2017 with his Netflix series “Godless”) and Michael Green (who further pushed the boundaries of R-rated sequels in 2017 with BLADE RUNNER 2049) manage to craft the first successfully “adult” superhero film since THE DARK KNIGHT. But the film’s brilliance isn’t defined by its willingness to let the sinew and profanity fly (although both certainly do). Rather the R rating allows Mangold; who has long been one of the most-underrated purveyors of action filmmaking working at the studio level, to intellectually examine death, legacy and regret. Plus, it privileges him to give the titular hero the proper swan song rarely afforded to comic book characters on-screen. In a year in which we all had plenty to cry about inside and outside the theater, the final image of LOGAN cued my waterworks in the most unexpected way, causing me to re-examine what comic book films, when handled with such nuance, are truly capable of.     


8.  KEDI

Equal parts Turkish travelogue, spiritual meditation, and 80-minute “cute cat video” (no wonder that YouTube, the de-facto database for all things feline, purchased distribution rights for the film through its “Red” shingle), director Ceyda Torun’s deceptively simple “cat-alogue”, KEDI, is an unconventional documentary of surprising depth with a lot more to say than just “aww”. Shot primarily with GoPro cameras, the film transitions seamlessly between breathtaking drone photography and candid, ground-level (sometimes even lower) footage. We may be soaring between the buildings of urban Istanbul one moment, watching the sunset glisten off the Bosphorus, before descending into the cisterns of the city where one of our furry protagonists stalks the terrified local rodentia in grainy, subterranean night vision. Torun manages to paint a picture of Istanbul that suggests the feline population is perhaps even more dialed-into the existential identity of the city than the humans they share daily interactions with. For centuries, cats were a mainstay on nautical vessels for reasons of morale as well as pest-control. As one of the world’s great ports of call, Istanbul played host to varieties of international cat species who chose to disembark and make a home in the Eurasian capital. As such, the sheer abundance of the animals as well as the variety of breeds who roam the streets reinforces the international flavor of the city. Torun’s film is mostly episodic, focusing on the personality and daily trials of individual cats as narrated by their human “fans”. But the ways in which the human and feline interactions seem to enrich the life experience of both, forms the backbone of this beautiful meditation on life’s simple pleasures and the importance of loving one’s city unconditionally- cats and all.          



Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Early Period”, beginning with HARD EIGHT and ending roughly with PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, suggested that the filmmaker was shaping up to be the heir apparent to Altman or Scorsese. He always acknowledged these influences while also genuflecting at the altar of his heroes Johnathan Demme and Robert Downey Sr. (who even shows up in cameo near the halfway point of BOOGIE NIGHTS). But in the last 10 years, beginning with THERE WILL BE BLOOD and continuing through his recent artistic triumph PHANTOM THREAD (his best film since his 2007 masterpiece), something has been made abundantly clear that perhaps PTA intended all along- He’s not the “Generation X Altman”, he’s the “Generation X Kubrick”. Gone are the swish-pans, needle drops, and coked-up diatribes that defined his early work. Replaced instead by deliberate, manicured dialogue and staid, textured images that invoke not only Kubrick but perhaps even the mosaics of Peter Greenaway. A gorgeous, uncomfortable, and unexpectedly hilarious “Gothic Romantic Comedy”, PHANTOM THREAD is not only Anderson’s breeziest and shortest film since PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, it may also be his most personal. Born out of an interlude in which his wife’s doting on him while he was ill actually lead to an extended marital-blowout, the film is principally concerned with the kind of minutia (someone buttering toast too loudly, for example) that can snowball into a relationship rift. It’s easy to take Daniel Day-Lewis’ once-in-a-generation talents for granted, especially when paired with kindred spirit PTA (Day-Lewis’ most important collaborator since his Jim Sheridan days). But, unencumbered by the affectation of an accent or the mannered veneer of heavy facial hair that have defined his recent roles, Day-Lewis’ turn here is as vulnerable as anyone could ask from what may be his final performance. Day-Lewis and Anderson’s concordance is underscored so exquisitely by the work of composer Jonny Greenwood that it’s easy to imagine a world in which we have our first Oscar-winning member of Radiohead. And that’s a world I want to live in.      



Watching children in emotional peril is a real trigger for me. This is not to say that Steven Spielberg tormenting kids with dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK bothers me necessarily. If it’s the threat of violence or even death I can tune out with the best of them. But a child in the throes of emotional trauma, like the sobbing adolescent clutching his bloody shoe in CITY OF GOD or Jackie Coogan reaching out for Charlie Chaplin in THE KID, can cause me to go to pieces in a matter of moments. Perhaps that’s why I was so deeply-affected by the climax of THE FLORIDA PROJECT. Sean Baker, one of the great modern realists, has made a career out of examining characters on the societal fringe. Here he turns his lens toward the “hidden homeless” of the Sunshine State- specifically, pint-sized firecracker “Moonee”, played by Brooklynn Prince (every bit as revelatory as the role requires). Moonee; along with fellow ragamuffins Scooty and Jancey, spends her days tear-assing across sun-baked parking lots and Floridian swampland- bumming ice cream money, spitting off balconies, even setting fire to the occasional foreclosure. Yet Baker adamantly, even stubbornly, refuses to judge or evangelize at his characters. His handling of Moonee’s neglectful mother Halley or put-upon motel manager Bobby (Willem Defoe in not just the role of his career but perhaps the performance of the year) never veers into poverty porn or saccharine sentimentality. This level of restraint is precisely what makes the film’s final moments hit so hard, when Moonee’s rose-colored twinkle gives way to a torrent of tears. This inevitable trauma, coupled with the justifiably controversial epilogue that follows (I fall squarely in the “pro” column when it comes to that crazy ending) cements the film as a particularly transgressive example of a cinematic code that Baker appears to have cracked.    



It takes a special kind of confidence to make a truly “contemplative” film. The idea of carefully-curated tableaus or scenes played out in extended, deliberate master shots might worry the insecure artist who has latched onto the destructive dogma that a movie is not a movie unless it moves. But Korean filmmaker Kogonada has the sort of bold, dynamic tenacity that can often only be found in the virginal snowdrift of debut features. COLUMBUS, his disarming, wonderfully accessible, 100-minute mediation on love lost and opportunities found, plays out like the late summer, gently-romantic walk and talk that makes you wish you spent more time walking and/or talking. Framing their story against the backdrop of the titular city that hosts a staggering selection of modernist architecture, writer/director Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian are just as considered and affectionate toward their locations as they are toward their characters. Entire conversations between leads Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho (both equally remarkable, heartbreaking, and soulful) are often allowed to play out in unbroken masters in which the actors appear to be in physical dialogue with an architectural structure that’s as carefully-constructed as their dialogue about it. At times the film almost recalls the best moments of Richard Linklater’s BEFORE trilogy, replacing the European travelogue element with a contemplative, considerate foray into the overlooked pleasures existing in our own Midwestern backyard. If talking about love is like dancing about architecture then talking about architecture in the lovely context of COLUMBUS is hopelessly, whimsically, contagiously romantic.  



It would be easy to dismiss a film as widely, universally acclaimed as LADY BIRD as soma for the masses or pick it apart as a flash-in-the-pan reflection of a specific kind of timely, cinematic antidote to social ennui. It would be easy to do that because on paper the film threatens to become the kind of twee, self-aware bauble that makes off with Oscars like a sneak thief in the night and fades from the cultural relevance before the plaques have even been engraved (looking at you, JUNO…). But Greta Gerwig’s miraculous, insta-classic, quasi-debut need lose no sleep over whether or not it’s as “good as everyone says”. Because it’s even better than that. Gerwig has been showered with affection and accolades for her emotionally complex yet uproariously comical look at a year in the life of an early millennial, already carrying the flag of alienation for her soon-to-be insufferable generation. But Gerwig’s true victory here and why I believe the film is destined to outlive its meteoric rise and inevitable backlash (it’s coming, mark my words…) to take its rightful place as one of the all-time great coming-of-age comedies is that practically everyone who sees it thinks it’s about them. Old, young, male, female, upperclass, middleclass, lowerclass... Everyone sees themselves in it. It’s the universal equalizer. The genius of Gerwig’s film is that in making a deeply personal, autobiographical story filled with painstakingly-curated details (it will be fun to pause and examine the decorations adorning Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s walls when the film finally comes out on DVD) she’s somehow managed to appeal to everyone and do so without pandering. The film is so universally beloved because, for all of its specifics, its themes are universal and its emotional compass is pinned at true north. Lady Bird, her family, and the extended ensemble of ringers that Gerwig has so deftly assembled and affectionately written-for represent a tapestry of authentic pathos that’s particularly elusive, even for seasoned filmmakers. As an audience, we yearn for it, we know it when we see it, and we’ll never stop thanking you for showing it to us if you nail it. Thanks, GG. You nailed it. 


3.  COCO

Pixar had such an unprecedented, creative winning-streak through its first 11 films that I think we were all quite taken-aback when they proved themselves fallible enough to make something besides a masterpiece. “How dare they be imperfect artists, capable of human error and creative miscalculation? We demand TOY STORY-level filmmaking every time!” How naïve and spoiled we were. But having watched Pixar finally reach, crest, descend, and survive the inevitable plateau, I had certainly taken the company for granted, presuming that perhaps its days of masterpiece-making might be in the rearview. How blindsided I was to discover, on a casual viewing of a film I had only the most superficial interest in, that not only is Pixar capable of making more masterpieces but their storytelling acumen is still in a category by itself. COCO is one of the best films in the Pixar canon, full stop. And its secret weapon, as usual, is in the writing. The film’s ability to distill pure, raw, organic emotion out of a relatively straight-forward familial melodrama is a testament to discipline, not manipulation. Screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich never cheat in their path from cultivated character-development and dramatic track-laying to the emotional wallop that defines the film’s climax (one that reduced sold-out houses of adults to audible weeping the two times I saw the film in theaters) and lifts it to the tear-jerking echelon of UP, INSIDE OUT, and TOY STORY 3. Because the central narrative is so strong and the storytelling is so clean, the ornamental flourishes feel like deeply-textured flavor as opposed to flashy distraction. The eye-popping, candy-colored, luminescent favelas of the underworld are as beautiful as any image Pixar has ever rendered and the show-stopping lullaby “Remember Me” by Oscar-winners Kristin and Robert Lopez is the best argument yet that it’s time for Pixar to take the plunge and finally embark on an out-and-out musical. If the song doesn’t cause you to leave the theater reaching for a handkerchief with one hand and a phone to call your grandmother with the other you may want to use both to check for a pulse. 



In time, writer/director David Lowery may in fact take his place as the spiritual successor to Terrence Malick. His sophomore feature AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS and forth film, A GHOST STORY, both speak to a clear stylistic kinship between he and his fellow Lone Star-gazer. But perhaps this comparison is reductive to what Lowery is truly capable of. Between those aforementioned films, he was also able to squeeze in a big-budget remake of PETE’S DRAGON for Disney which was a surprise critical and commercial success. It’s clear that the 37 year old director can’t be easily-pigeonholed. But to me the unprecedented achievement of A GHOST STORY, made for less than 6 figures, shot in the 1.33 aspect ratio, and encompassing about 200 years’ worth of history speaks resolutely to the fact that Lowery is the kind of filmmaker whose evolution we should all feel fortunate to be experiencing in real-time. The film is crucially simple in premise- a Dallas musician disagrees with his wife about whether or not to move from their starter-home and is killed in a car accident before they can reach an agreement about it. His ghost, draped in a bedsheet from the hospital where his wife identified his body, proceeds to haunt the house across space and time. The specter’s obsession with the residence and the flat circle through which he is able to observe the history of its inhabitants turns the film into some kind of metaphysical meditation not just on life and death but on time itself. Think Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE as filtered through the temporally-fluid prism of Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR but requiring only half the running time of either film. And yet for all of its highfalutin, cosmically-ambitious ideas, there is nothing pretentious about Lowery’s vision. There’s even a scene near the half-way point of the film in which a drunken townie delivers an impassioned monologue that essentially amounts to Cliff’s Notes on the film’s thesis. It’s as if the character has wandered in from Richard Linklater’s SLACKER or WAKING LIFE to cut the tension and re-center the narrative with a trippy homily. There must be something in the water down there in Texas… But through it all the film aches with a sublime, breathtaking beauty in its visual and sonic landscapes that reinforces how many levels the film successfully functions on. It’s a deeply-considered intellectual exercise to be sure but it’s equally effective as a poetic mood piece. The image of the ghostly apparition, silhouetted against the expanse of a futuristic Dallas cityscape by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo and punctuated by the swirling chorus of Daniel Hart’s nerve-rattling score (think Mica Levi channeling György Ligeti) contributed to one of the most moving, borderline spiritual cinematic experiences I had all year.     



There’s an inevitability to the choice of this film as my preferred cinematic time capsule for the year 2017 that speaks not only to my fascination and borderline-obsession with Christopher Nolan but also the high standard to which I hold him. Quite simply there has never been another filmmaker like him and I’m inclined to believe that there may never be another who shares the scope of his vision. If the doomsday forecasts of industry prognosticators are to be believed- if the sky is falling, the medium is dying, and the multiplex is soon to go the way of the drive-in theater, then who better to ride the atomic bomb of the cinema, Slim Pickens-style, all the way to IMAX ground zero than Nolan? Of course, cinema is not actually dying. But every time the editorials bellyache about the price of film stock, the migration of the audience to home theaters, or the lack of originality in studio filmmaking, Nolan just seems to get that much more empowered to expand his creative empire. Critics complained that his films were swelling to exorbitant running times, culminating in the nearly 3-hour long INTERSTELLAR. He responded by cutting away every shred of narrative fat, sanctioning all but the most crucial dialogue, and making DUNKIRK his shortest film since FOLLOWING. They complained that the female characters he wrote were always plot devices or ciphers meant to trigger his haunted male protagonists. He responded by focusing on a subject matter in which the consolidation of male characters was historically accurate and decided to deny them backstory, context, or, in many cases, even names (Cillian Murphy, one of the biggest “stars” in the cast is literally credited as “Shivering Soldier”). They complained that his obsession with temporal manipulation and non-linearity was detracting from the storytelling coherence. So he doubled… strike that, tripled down on his temporal experimentation- structuring the relatively simple trajectory of the evacuation of Dunkirk with the most ambitiously-stylistic gambit he had attempted yet. It’s not that I believe Nolan to be especially dismissive of his critics or that he has some kind of petulant urge to prove his detractors wrong in spectacular fashion. But I do think he has the creative confidence, professional juice, and ambitious fire in his belly to keep challenging the possibilities of the medium in ways he knows that no one but he has the stones (or the resources) to do. DUNKIRK is not necessarily Nolan’s greatest film nor is it my favorite in his oeuvre. But I think an argument can be made that it is the “purest” and most elegantly-realized example of what he’s capable of. The unprecedented device at the center of the narrative, in which multiple storytelling apertures, each originating at different diameters, begin to close down in unison, overlapping and complimenting one another, slowly and obliquely at first, then swiftly and sharply until they each line up into a pinhole of acute, narrative-focus, staggered me in a way I had never experienced in a movie theater before. By the time Tom Hardy cranked away at the manual landing gear of his fuel-sapped Spitfire and locked the wheels into place in time for them to make contact with the sand of Dunkirk Beach as Hans Zimmer’s Vangelis-channeling sonic soundscape grew to its crescendo I was overcome by the experience of being in the presence of pure cinema. The heroic transcendence of that moment moved me to tears of elation all 7 times I supported the film by seeing it in a movie theater, on the big screen, the way Nolan intended me to. I’d follow the man into battle anytime. He’s earned that kind of trust and that level of loyalty.

Honorable Mentions:


Pending (slipped through the cracks but they're in the queue!):


Oscar's Top 10: