Alex Rose: I’ve been seeing people post their top 10 movies of the year on Twitter for the last couple of weeks, and I’ve noticed that one particular reaction has become increasingly prevalent. People offer their take, and others simply go “close, but not quite” or “wrong, four of these are bad” as if personal taste was a form of gambling in which everyone cast their votes in the hopes of coming as close as possible to some particular, agreed-upon monolith of taste.
The two unavoidable, “objectively correct” picks this year are Get Out and Call Me by Your Name — they are the two unassailable, unproblematic, correctly woke choices to make. Get Out is even being bandied about as the only politically viable choice for Best Picture this year, which would both be incredibly out-of-left-field and yet on-the-nose. I think both of these movies are great, but they aren’t anywhere near my favourites.
Justine Smith: 2017 was a year that I saw fewer of the big-name films than I normally would. In many cases, I felt like, with an insider-outsider point of view, I was watching the reception of certain films turn over from being declared a masterpiece to heavy backlash back to masterpiece long before the film opened to any kind of general public. I’m not sure if this is just something I’ve noticed this year and has been going on for a while, or if the speed in which we spit out hot takes has accelerated to such a breakneck speed that I have lost faith the critical mass to thoughtfully reckon with the audiovisual image.
I can’t comment on Get Out, as I still have not watched it, but I’ve been pretty vocal about my frustration with Call Me by Your Name. I liked it even less than you did, but even in holding my opinion that it upholds a frustrating aspirational tone when it comes to the bourgeoisie, I also worry that my strong response is also just a cog in this masterpiece/backlash saga. If I am being honest with myself, it’s likely if it were not for the film’s overripe appreciation, I likely would not have thought about it with greater depth than I would a well-curated Pinterest board.
Call Me By Your Name
AR: I saw Call Me by Your Name at TIFF, and I have to admit that my reaction to it was cemented pretty quickly by all the fawning and cooing I saw coming from fellow critics — fawning and cooing that they’re obviously completely entitled to, but not feelings that I shared on my end. It’s true that the constant ingestion of film (sometimes several a day) followed by the necessity of a hot take will rarely lead to the most cogent argument possible. Last year I went from being very razzle-dazzled by La La Land to pretty over it before it even hit theatres. I haven’t had a similar experience this year — not yet, at least. I’ll cop to generally being more positive on a superhero movie or similarly blockbuster-sized event movie right after seeing it. Almost none of them have stayed with me much longer afterwards, even if the Marvel movies are generally the ones I am asked about the most.
One thing that did happen this year that had not in previous years was that I saw my favourite of the year before TIFF. Good Time screened at Fantasia, which generally marks the beginning of festival season. I always assume that my favourite film of the year is one I’ll see at TIFF or FNC, but nothing came close enough to beat the white-hot intensity of the Safdies’ crime thriller.
JS: Until FNC, Good Time was my number one of the year. I first saw it at Fantasia and loved it so much that I rewatched it in Locarno eating gelato as it screened on the piazza, the largest outdoor screening in Europe. I can easily see it sneak back higher on my list, too — I have a feeling it will only appreciate with time.
It has been such a pleasure to watch Fantasia blossom into a legit first tier festival. From my list, I had also watched Bad Genius at the festival, and it was a serious trip. It’s basically a mash-up of a social picture about class inequality surrounding Thailand’s academic exams with an Ocean’s 11 vibe. It’s a pure action film in the spirit of John Wick (John Wick 2 barely missed my top 10) but without the violence. If I didn’t push it to my 2016 list, Shin Godzilla, which I also saw at Fantasia, might have easily made my top 10 as well.
About 70 per cent of my list I first saw at festivals in Montreal. As filmgoers in the city, we are so lucky to have so many fantastic festivals to choose from. More than just the films, it is the atmosphere of cinephilic obsession and camaraderie that pushes them to the next level. While I can be naturally a little shy and introverted, I take so much pleasure in my post-film discussion with peers, friends and strangers. I’m not sure whether, as a city, we are naturally standoffish about praising our city’s virtues (maybe we are too often let down), but at least from the big three festivals, it is evident that Montreal has a thriving film culture ready to blossom.
AR: I’m honestly a little disappointed looking at my list and seeing only English-language films. Like you said, the festival scene is flourishing here, and all of those festivals are presenting films from all over the world, but this year, I gave in to my impulse of checking out hyped American movies before anyone else. It’s kind of a bad habit — you want to have a take on something before everyone else, and inevitably everyone wants to talk about the ones with big stars and master directors, and you end up passing over a smaller European or South American film in order to be part of the conversation.
The irony of all this is that these movies will come out, and I will have ample opportunity to see them anyway, while the smaller films are more likely to languish. I’m happy to have access to the streaming service MUBI for that — they often pick up films right after their festival run or showcase them on the one-year anniversary of their Berlin, Locarno, etc. premiere. It’s a pretty great way to catch all the movies that may have fallen through the cracks during festival season. That having been said, Robin Campillo’s 120 battements par minute could easily take the 10th spot on my list on any given day, and my list is likely to look pretty different this time next year once I’m done playing catch-up.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
JS: To a certain extent, it is the nature of the work you do though. Most new releases and films you write about lean towards American cinema because that is what screens and is what most people are curious about. The market for foreign language films (outside of a certain kind of comedy from France) is pretty limited, even in Montreal. Too often, critics fail to account for the wider audience and only end up writing for themselves and their peers. There is not anything necessarily wrong with that but the cultural reach of cinema means that doing that only caters to a very very small fraction of viewers.
Are there any films on your list that you are surprised you end up liking that much?
AR: I certainly didn’t think War for the Planet of the Apes was going to wind up in the top 10, even if I really like the way that franchise panned out. It’s definitely a commercial blockbuster that winds up being one link in a potentially never-ending chain, but it’s pretty much the ideal one. If only even half of the superhero movies that come out each year had this kind of weight and pathos. I also have to go to bat for The Lost City of Z — I’ve never been much of a James Gray fan, to the point where I’ve actively avoided seeing his films as if I knew I’d be setting myself up for disappointment. It’s a pretty classicist, down-the-middle film in many ways (another thing that tends to lose me), but it’s beautifully done. It’s too bad that it came and went without much fanfare.
One of the things that I’ve noticed this year is that way, way more movies hit right down the middle — movies that I had no particular love or hate for. It might have to do with the frequency with which these films come, but I wonder, do you think there’s a push towards mediocrity these days, or is it just easier and more comfortable to fall upon the mediocrities? (By mediocrities I mean any and all of the following, amongst many: Wonderstruck, Breathe, Their Finest, Gifted, The Glass Castle, etc. Not movies that I necessarily had too much hope for, necessarily, but ones that may have had potential.)
The Lost City of Z
JS: With a bit of distance, most years are mostly filled with right-down-the middle films. Maybe you are getting more cynical as the years pass on and they stand out a little more to you now. Or, for whatever reason, this brand of middle of the road films are especially not your thing. That being said, there are way more movies than ever before being produced and released. In theory, this should be a good thing, but realistically the market is not being flooded with amazing films but simply okay ones. Then again, I didn’t even see one of the films you have listed there! So maybe it was an especially rough year for potential-laden cinema.
Overall though, there is this impression that this was a weak year. Since I did not see as much as I normally would, my ratio skews much heavier towards films I wanted to watch rather than ones I had to. It was actually difficult to narrow it down to 10. There are also a lot of films I have not seen yet, including a number from your list! 2017 was really rough in a lot of ways, but I found a lot of comfort in how exciting and poetic so many of the movies I watched were.
AR: I find a lot of the conversations I have with more “casual” film fans (which, for lack of a better descriptor, pretty much encompasses everyone who doesn’t go to the movies three times a week) have pointed to a weak year as well. Conversely, these are also the kinds of people who will wait for a Call Me by Your Name or The Florida Project to hit Netflix, instead reserving theatre viewings for superhero movies and runners of the blade. I can’t possibly begin to tell people how to live their lives, but in my view, the last five years have pretty much all been at the same level of quality, but a lot of that revolves on seeing movies when they actually come out. People will be put off by the trailer for something that’s universally acclaimed and skip it in theatres, but they’ll go see some fucking superhero movie that they know they’ll run lukewarm on because the razzle-dazzle needs to be seen in theatres. It can’t really be surprising that “all movies are the same” after that.
That having been said, we are benefitting from a lot more access than ever before, and the fact that the entire world can watch a Noah Baumbach movie at the same time is actually pretty great. I remember how hard it was to track down lots of things I wanted to see when I was a kid, and even that was in an era of VHS tapes and DVDs. Though Netflix’s original programming slate is already so completely all over the map that it didn’t remain synonymous with quality too long, both The Meyerowitz Stories and Mudbound are serious contenders for the top 10. That these get such intense distribution right off the bat can only be a good thing — at least in the short run.
JS: How about the worst of the year? I didn’t see too many stinkers outside of the normal below-grade festival stuff. There IS an advantage of not working as a full-time critic sometimes. I don’t make a habit of digging on really small indie releases, so I will focus my worst on bigger films.
Two of the year’s biggest clunkers for me were Netflix releases: Girlfriend’s Day and Little Evil. Both feature actors I’m usually very keen on, but both suffer from very poor scripting and a major TV-movie feel. Girlfriend’s Day is likely the worst major release in my book, as it fails on nearly every level. It took me days to finish it, and I only got more annoyed as it went on. Little Evil is more of an innocuous failure, completely unexceptional and unfocused but not as offensively bad.
Worst of all, with Netflix’s increased commitment to making more films in the coming years, I believe that these are going to rise towards the top of the list. I think your tweet from earlier this year really summed it up: “Many people acting like Netflix is going to release 80 Okjas instead of 76 movies starring Vine stars.”
From Hollywoodland, the worst offender of the year for me was Fifty Shades Darker. Though it had some laughably bad moments (Kim Basinger camps it up with incredible glory), the second entry in the series was like twice as bad as the first… so, really really bad. I will still probably watch the third and final entry though because I’m a masochist and I love the idea of a major-blockbuster erotic trilogy, even if it fails so completely.
Otherwise, I would put Blackcoat’s Daughter and Pitch Perfect 3 near the bottom, but even they were not that bad.
The Book of Henry
AR: As far as I’m concerned, the most tragic result of everything being turned into a franchise is the death of the middling turd. The half-assed star vehicle has become more or less a low-rent, straight-to-VOD product; the relative death of the mid-budget feature has also killed the ill-advised programmer, which used to be my bread-and-butter. That having been said, the worst film of the year definitely ticks a few of those boxes. I watched The Book of Henry in preparation for a live taping of the Flop House Podcast that I was attending in Toronto, so I had a pretty good inkling that it would suck. I could not be prepared for exactly how much it would suck: an insane, cloying, tone-deaf mess so embarrassing that it got its director, Colin Trevorrow, fired off the next Star Wars movie.
I distinctly remember watching the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 2006 and thinking that this might be what it looks like if this whole franchise ever went off the rails. Now there are innumerable sequels, and 2017 hosted what perhaps stands as the nadir of the entire series: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. A waste of everyone’s talent (even Depp’s increasingly irrelevant and dwindling shtick), it’s remarkable in that it even winds up being slightly worse than the most recent Transformers movie.
Alex Rose’s Top 10
- Good Time
- Lady Bird
- The Florida Project
- A Ghost Story
- Logan Lucky
- The Lost City of Z
- The Killing of a Sacred Deer
- The Meyerowitz Stories
- War for the Planet of the Apes
Justine Smith’s Top 10
- The Killing of a Sacred Deer
- Good Time
- The Beguiled
- Paris Can Wait
- Bad Genius
- The Florida Project