In honor of the Oscars, I’ve put together a list of my favorite flicks of last year.
10. The Bad Batch
I struggled a bit with this one. On the one hand, The Bad Batch is an uber-stylized concoction of violence, genre sensibilities and exciting imagery that together form a unique and engaging vision of arthouse cinema. I mean, in terms of sheer originality, there’s enough in the first half of The Bad Batch to propel it to number one on my list.
Suki Waterhouse plays Arlen, an “undesirable” who’s dropped within a fenced-off area at the Southern tip of North America where outcasts are forced to live out their lives away from normal society. While finding her way through this Escape From NYesq wasteland she is captured by a cannibal clan that make meals of her right-most appendages. After covering herself in fecal matter, a move that forces the clan to undo her shackles, she escapes via a skateboard. She eventually makes her way to a makeshift town called Comfort where she is provided a prosthetic leg. With her temporary appendage and a new sense of vigor, she heads out on a savaging mission, only to again run into a cannibal, her sun-bronzed monster of a husband and her daughter, a cherubic little one whose innocent eyes lay submerged behind a grease-covered face. All of this plays out with hardly a lick of dialogue and atop kooky soundtrack.
This is about the time we run into the other hand alluded to in the above paragraph. Comfort is overseen by a character called The Dream: Keanu Reeves doing his best Jim Jones. He offers campy monologues in hushed tones from behind a chevron mustache that besmirch the auteurist achievements of the first two-thirds of the picture. “The Dream…costs an arm and a leg.” The strength of the film’s socio-political statements are diminished via a few scenes of forced exposition. It’s like if a character entered the final act of Get Out to inform viewers that what they’ve been watching is a commentary on race relations in America.
Still, it is super cool for a large part of its running time. Its configuration of grandiose set pieces, vivid lighting and expressionist storytelling warrant its inclusion on any best-of list.
9. Lady Macbeth
2017 gave us a number of impressive debuts from young filmmakers. Lady Macbeth is among the cream of the cream. Pulling as much from Emily Bronte as Shakespeare, the movie presents us with the story of Katherine (Florence Pugh) and her arranged marriage to the callous and bitter Alexander (Paul Hilton). When Alexander and his malicious father (Boris, played by Christopher Fairbank) embark on a business venture, Katherine throws herself into an affair with a farmhand named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). The liaison invigorates her. When her husband returns, she is a changed woman poised to usurp him as head of the estate.
Lady Macbeth is heavy. It hangs like an anvil around your shoulders. It’s remarkable in that none of its characters are likable. We sympathize with Katherine early on. The chillingly proper Boris refers to her as property when he’s not shoveling food into his gaping hole with gruesome delight. Your insides curdle like milk with lemon as the Alexander orders her to get undressed and face the corner on their wedding night. We’re delighted when she sheds her subservient shell and enters into a bawdy affair with a poor worker. However, her rebellion soon gives way to repulsive cruelty. She mistreats her black handmaiden and forces Sebastian to perform abominable atrocities. Still, we’re drawn to her. We pity her lack of morality; her self-centered obsessions.
Pugh is key to the success of the picture. She chills you with the coldness of her character, a coldness that defends her against the violations of her husband and father-in-law but also hardens her moral center. She stares at her aggressors through callous eyes and you substitutionally endure the punishments they face. Hers is a period story, but her abusive experience is decidedly well-timed. As Oprah propagates “Time’s Up,” Lady Macbeth transcends the boundaries of its genre.
As Gen-xers and younger boomers enter middle age, there seems to be a desire to return to a former time; a sentimental yearning for youth and the energetic movies of the decade of decadence. The nostalgic design and familiar tropes of IT provide an exciting, frightening homage to classic blockbusters and vintage monster pics. IT evokes memories of Stand By Me, The Goonies and the recent love letter to all things 80s, Stranger Things. I’m not quite ready to categorize it along with some of those time-honored works, but it’s got enough thrills and emotional depth to excite fans of genre cinema.
Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) terrorized a pack of youths in the late 1950s in Stephen King’s classic novel, menaced teens in the 1960s in the ABC mini-series adaptation and now threatens a group of youngsters in the 1980s in New Line Cinema’s killer reworking of the material. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his friends are all plagued by personal horrors. Bill recently lost his brother, Beverly (Sophia Lillis) has an abusive father, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) has an overbearing mother and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is picked on at school. Together they form the losers club and must square off against a mythic creature threatening their town.
That’s what makes IT so good: its sturdy observations about coming of age. That confusing period between youth and adolescence is a horror story in and of itself. The supernatural elements in IT are metaphorically tied to what it means to be a kid. The losers club stand up to Pennywise and in doing so, confront the horrors of their real lives. It doesn’t take itself too seriously; there’s nothing overtly political at play, which is refreshing. It’s just great, old-fashion filmmaking with an affecting story and earnest performances.
Gracefully blending horror with humor and pathos, IT is a stellar fright flick in a year that witnessed an unusually high number of quality genre pics.
7. Blade of the Immortal
Blade of the Immortal is Takashi Miike’s one-hundredth credit as director. ONE HUNDRED! The dude is only fifty-seven. I have not seen the vast majority of his projects and to be honest, I wasn’t enamored by the few I did see. Sure Audition was super effective, but it was effective in the way nail biting treatment is effective. It’s not something I’m in a rush to return to. Blade of the Immortal however, has a surprising level of emotional depth. I actually felt for the murderous Samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his ward (Hana Sugisaki).
Make no mistake, Blade of the Immortal has its fair share of severed limbs and bodily goo, but at no time does it feel like a callous exercise in violence. There is a giddiness to the proceedings that crossed with the sincerity of its characters, makes the whole thing palatable.
The story: Manji kills a whole bunch of people and is thus cursed with eternal life (some sacred bloodworm things that sacrifice themselves to heal their host are injected into his body by an 800-year-old nun). Soon afterward, Manji meets an orphan named Rin who enlists him and his special talents to assist in tracking down and murdering the swordsmen that killed her parents. Manji then takes to killing a whole bunch more people.
Okay, the plot is pure pulp, but it benefits largely from the sincere and emotive performances of Hana Sugisaki and Takuya Kimura. They revel in the exceedingly goofy nature of the story yet remain empathetic. They weren’t cardboard cutouts of other B-action characters. I liked rooting for them.
Still, this movie belongs to Miike’s kinetic style and his fondness for the supremely disgusting. There is a grace and precision to the violence he creates that is enthralling. It is an opera of severed limbs and split torsos that forces your face to assume an expression of pure joy.
6. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Anthony Perkins will forever be celebrated by fans of horror cinema for his role as the benevolent creeper in Hitchcock’s ghastly thriller, Psycho. Now nearly sixty years after the release of that groundbreaking fright film, his son Osgood has bestowed the horror-viewing world a fresh work of macabre art.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter, starring Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton as Kat and Rose respectively, tells the story of two Catholic school girls who must square off against a demonic evil when they get left at their boarding school over winter break.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter doesn’t succumb to the familiar tropes and overwrought spectacles that plague most demonic-possession tales (a la The Conjuring). Nor does it emulate the nudie-cutie pics that likely ran through your mind upon reading the above synopsis. Instead, it uses its supernatural storyline to get under the skin of viewers while engaging them in an examination of sadness and grief.
Building slowly (very slowly) with a few sumptuously haunting set pieces here, a bit of eerie sound design there, The Blackcoat’s Daughter ultimately develops into a masterclass in expressionist horror. Taking its cue from Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now and other classics of the New Hollywood period, it relies on atmosphere, imagery and sound to build suspense. The subtle movements of actors, conscious use of space and calculated camera angles force us to look at things a bit harder. There’s something deeper brewing behind Osgood’s creepy thriller. As the infernal force closes in on the girls, the picture tightens its grip until you realize you’ve been forced to the edge of your seat. You feel the mental anguish of the characters. Its impression lingers for days. It is truly a masterstroke of cinematic horror.
Logan was the first best movie I saw in 2017. I wasn’t much a fan of superhero flicks before sitting down to James Mangold‘s Marvel adaptation and remained somewhat indifferent toward the genre upon its completion. That’s because Logan isn’t a superhero movie. At least not in the traditional sense. Sure there’s a guy with retractable, metal claws hidden beneath the skin of his forearms, but the movie owes more to the conventions of westerns and exploitation actioners than it does other films of the Marvel universe.
The Year is 2029. Logan (Hugh Jackman) charades as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas when he’s not taking care of the ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart). When a fare drops an 11-year-old mutant (Laura played by Dafne Keen) in his lap, he reluctantly agrees to transport her away from a nefarious government agency to a safe zone in North Dakota.
Challenging genre decorum while demystifying the Wolverine character, Logan is a gloomy but emotionally gripping movie. It opens with Logan alone, sleeping off a bender in the backseat of his limo, his hair gray, his posture frail. He wakes to five hoodlums stealing the vehicle’s chrome-plated hubcaps. Before he can stop them, they unload a shotgun at his chest. Right away we understand Mangold is dabbling in a world different from what we are accustomed to.
Jackman announced recently that he is hanging up the claws. He’s reached the end of his run as the Wolverine. His interpretation of the character has hit its denouement. Logan is much older than when he appeared in 2000. He’s weary and callous, but he’s willing to go on one last ride to safeguard Laura from suffering the same hardships he was forced to endure throughout his own life.
Logan is a mature piece that earns its R rating. It has a lot to say about humanity, violence and the pursuit of liberty. It is gritty, intelligent and surprisingly poignant.
4. Wind River
Wind River is a sleek, stylish and emotionally complex mystery thriller that’s as biting as a trek through the mountains of Wyoming at wintertime.
Jeremy Renner plays a local game tracker who teams up with a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to work a murder case on a secluded Native American Reservation that bears chilling similarities to the death of his own daughter.
Actor-turned screenwriter Taylor Sheridan gained critical acclaim with 2015’s Sicario, the tale of an ass-kicking female agent on a mission to stop Mexico’s narco war. His follow-up effort Hell or High Water came in at #2 on my list of favorite films last year. A throw back of sorts, it told the story of brothers from a Texas town robbing banks to save the family farm. For his third go-round as writer he decided to wear an additional hat: that of director. The results are emotionally arresting and irresistible.
Sheridan is in full command with Wind River. He understands his story, its characters, their motivation for acting and how their decisions will play out. What’s most impressive about his body of work is its understanding of location. Be it the streets of Juarez, Mexico, the dusty plains of Texas or the pristine and crisp coverings of Wyoming, his movies approach with a visual lyricism that whisks viewers from their cushion theater seats to austere and authentic settings. Wind River is a triumph of visual expressiveness. Filmed with a hypnotic authenticity, its dove-gray skies and ominous fields of white enrapture audiences. That paired with a rigid tone and subdued performances make for a near-perfect thriller.
3. Brawl in Cell Block 99
“Because of the shocking nature of many scenes in this film, it is definitely not recommended for the squeamish or easily offended.” Those words wrapped the promotional trailer for 1975’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS: apex of Nazi-exploitation cinema and staple of 42nd Street grindhouse theaters. As an 80s kid, I missed the crude and gruesome experience of Manhattan’s infamous movie strip. I came to know the lurid worlds of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Lucio Fulci via my home town’s trusty mom and pop video store. Their pictures, dubbed “video nasties” by various censor groups and religious organizations, are remembered fondly by fans of grindhouse cinema for their exploitation of sex and violence.
Two years ago, writer/director S. Craig Zahler unleashed the relentless cannibal horror show Bone Tomahawk on the world and revitalized the genre in the realm of popular entertainment. Now, he’s back with another window into the past, the gnarly and excessively violent Brawl in Cell Block 99.
The film stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, an unemployed tow-truck driver who turns to a life of crime to support his wife and unborn baby. When a drug deal goes bad, he’s handed a seven-year stretch. But that’s not the worst part. A nefarious gang leader has abducted his wife and threatened to do unthinkable things to her if Bradley doesn’t knock off a fellow inmate.
Similar to Bone Tomahawk, Brawl exhibits gumption in its opening scenes, which function to familiarize us with Bradley and his fundamentalist moral code before succumbing to an exuberant and incredibly violent second act. Some viewers will rebuff the picture’s slow pace, but they’ll come to realize long before Bradley smears an adversary’s face across a cement floor with the heel of his boot that Zahler doesn’t give a shit. His characters are developed with care and provided an abundance of meaningful dialogue.
The film is awash with grindhouse aesthetic. From sensational displays of violence to familiar themes and motifs to an old-school soundtrack, Zahler fashions with an enthusiastically devoted hand. The fight scenes are impressively captured so that we see the effects of Bradley’s animosity in single takes. He adopts an admirable, “I’ll eat two or three of your punches so that I can get my 6’ 5” frame close enough to smash you” approach. Limbs are crushed, faces are splayed and brain matter is flung at the screen with artistic delight. If you’re a fan of exploitation fare, Brawl isn’t to be missed. Its sentimental nature harkens back to a bygone era.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Violent, quirky and darkly humorous, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the kind of movie bloggers exhaust characters discussing. It’s the type of film that scores loads of As and few Fs on critics’ scorecards and little in-between.
Distressed by the inability of the police to catch her daughter’s murderer, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) takes to advertising her displeasure on a series of billboards that run through town. The controversial move spurs hysteria among the insular town folk and vigilant police force resulting in a savage chain of events.
Combining a prudent irony and postmodern wit indicative of art house cinema with b-movie stylings, Three Billboards is consistently funny without undercutting the seriousness of the issues facing its characters. The small town of Ebbing and its colorful array of citizens provide a backdrop to explore topics of racism, police brutality and suicide. Many people will be put off by the playful tone of the piece, but that is partially the point. I’m often bothered by the top stories offered via our major news outlets. Perhaps the only way to enact change is to do something extreme. Of course, as one character notes, “All this anger man…it just begets greater anger.” We live in a world where power is abused and violent crime often goes unpunished. What’s the answer? Do we take a note from Mildred Hayes if we truly wish to “stop the cycle of violence” or do we trust in the system that is in place?
Frances McDormand gives her best in a long line of terrific performances. She paints a mean picture of rage that is sometimes abhorrent but always captivating. She’s part of a truly wonderful ensemble that includes Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, an official who can be soft or imposing, and Sam Rockwell as officer Dixon. It is a testament to Rockwell’s skill as an actor that he is able to take a racist turd like Dixon and make him somewhat sympathetic.
1. The Florida Project
Providing a piercing glimpse into a cinematically neglected microcosm of economic hardship, The Florida Project focuses on a mischievous six-year-old called Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her derelict mother (Bria Vinaite). The film opens on a dingy hotel a few miles up the road from the happiest place on Earth, Disney World. A ragtag group of adolescent misfits hock loogies from the upper floor balcony onto the hood of a tourist’s station wagon. Through a series of vignettes presented through the eyes of the hotel’s alienated inhabitants and their misguided children, too innocent to grasp the concept of poverty, the picture builds into an emotionally engaging tour de force.
Sean Baker is the director responsible for Tangerine, the 2015 dramedy about transgender sex workers in Hollywood, California. The Florida Project avowals him as a voice for the downtrodden, those people we pass en route to the amusement park then omit from our memory moments later. He’s so good at capturing places and people that you assume you’re looking at something autobiographical. “How was this guy tormenting tourists in Florida as a kid? I thought he grew up in West Hollywood.” Turns out he’s from New Jersey.
Brooklynn Prince is so genuine in her performance that you forget you’re watching a fiction. Moonee will never see the inside of Disney, so she’s transformed her gaudy hotel into her own pleasure ground. In one scene she remarks that a fallen tree is her favorite because despite being knocked down, it continues to grow. It is a perfect metaphor for Moonee herself.
Among her more whimsical adventures are powerful moments of verisimilitude that resonate empathy. She is a reminder of the emotional influence parents have on their children and an expression of what happens when they are deprived guidance. Her mother struggles to get by, often turning to prostitution to pay the rent. However, the movie never paints her as a bad person. She loves her daughter deeply and does what is necessary to keep a roof over her head.
Fanciful, fierce and heartbreaking, The Florida Project is filmic realism at its absolute best and was my favorite picture of 2017.
I also really liked A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, Phantom Thread and John Wick 2.