In 2017, a pretty great year for cinema if you ask me, I watched around 115 new releases, some of them originally from 2016 due to the always conflicting Mexican distribution system. On the other hand, I was able to watch several films that are yet to be released, at such festivals as Fantastic Fest, Morelia, Mórbido and Guanajuato. The following list is composed of my personal favorites, those movies that I will be revisiting sooner rather than later.
But before, I will give a special mention to the worst films I had to sit through in 2017 (in no particular order): Emiliano Rocha Minter’s We Are the Flesh, the horror anthologies XX and México Bárbaro II, Going in Style starring Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, How to Be a Latin Lover with Eugenio Derbez and Salma Hayek, Paco Arango’s The Healer, the remake of The Mummy with Tom Cruise, the cheaply-made genre efforts The Gracefield Incident and Escape Room, The Circle with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, and the Mexican comedies Me gusta, pero me asusta, Como matar a un esposo muerto and Cuando los hijos regresan.
Here’s to a 2018 full of great movies!
78/52 by Alexandre O. Philippe
Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest is a wonderful documentary that analyzes in a profound way the influential shower scene from Psycho, one of the essential films by the master Alfred Hitchcock. The concept of the doc is, to a certain extent, quite simple: Philippe reunited several film personalities - from Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, to editors and sound engineers - and made them watch those important few minutes of Psycho. However, from this exercise we have a truly rich piece of film analysis that tackles the meaning of the scene, its context, making-of, relation with Hitchcock’s obsessions, and of course its immense legacy. A must-see.
A GHOST STORY by David Lowery
An atypical and highly personal low-budget American production, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story has a simple premise: after his sudden death because of a car accident, Casey Affleck’s character returns home as a ghost to witness his partner’s (Rooney Mara) grief. With few elements - pretty much the entire film happens in one space (though in different times) and there’s no dialog in a good portion of the length - Lowery delves into intimate themes, like mourning, and eventually expands his own universe to the point of contemplating humanity’s insignificance in the brutal and inevitable passage of time. Special, touching and fascinating.
BAAHUBALI 2: THE CONCLUSION by S.S. Rajamouli
After a truly great cliffhanger, the last part of Baahubali takes its time to further explore the origin of our young protagonist and the past of the Mahishmati kingdom. Most of the sequel is actually set in former times, which only makes more exciting and tragic the context of said cliffhanger and, certainly, the final battle that brings together many years of history. With its Shakespearean drama and its majestic production (from the romance, the pain, to the action sequences, everything here is larger-than-life), Baahubali 2: The Conclusion was easily the most epic blockbuster I watched in the entire year.
BABY DRIVER by Edgar Wright
Leaving behind the Ant-Man debacle, writer/director Edgar Wright triumphantly returned to what he does best: distinctive and personal genre cinema, in which the style is part of the substance. Here we have the most complex action sequences Wright has ever filmed, as well as an eclectic and tasty soundtrack brilliantly adapted to every bit of the movie. Baby Driver, though, is not a mere stylish exercise as it’s actually one of the warmest films by Wright, with a juvenile love story that, unlike Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, develops in a rough, violent and greedy world. In consequence, Baby Driver has more soul, and certainly better action, than countless films of the genre.
BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL by Miike Takashi
Miike Takashi’s 100th film continues with what the director has been offering to samurai cinema since previous works like 13 Assassins: a peculiar sense of humor and a good dose of violence from a classic samurai tale full of tragic moments. This time it’s simply delirious to watch the immortal protagonist constantly suffering letal attacks from his rivals, as the violence is deliberately excessive. The enjoyable spectacle - sometimes with non-stop action like the last part of 13 Assassins - comes together with the emotive relationship of the main characters, the immortal samurai and an adorable little girl who becomes his protégée. 100 movies and more than 20 years later, Miike keeps delighting with his inherent madness and undeniable humanity.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 by Denis Villeneuve
When I watched the great Arrival I immediately felt that the surprising Blade Runner sequel was in good hands, and fortunately Denis Villeneuve didn’t disappoint at all. On the contrary: Blade Runner 2049 is that rare second part that’s not a clon of the original and that manages to bring together new and classic characters in a rich way; the connection between the past and the present is the core of everything here. It explores and even takes to unexplored - and quite fascinating - territories the existential themes that initially put the Ridley Scott directed film in another level of science fiction.
BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 by S. Craig Zahler
Feeling close to old school exploitation filmmaking, Brawl in Cell Block 99 understands perfectly that meaningless violence has not the same effect that something with a humane background, but it also builds a storyline that’s not afraid to land into a glorious, fun and violent universe in which the protagonist (a man sentenced to seven years in prison, brutally portrayed by Vince Vaughn) has to complete an extreme, video game-like mission: in order to keep his pregnant wife safe, he must go to a maximum security prison and kill one of the prisoners of its dangerous block 99. If John Wick and its sequel are particularly memorable within violent cinema for the headshots, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is due to those painful sequences in which bones and skulls are destroyed mercilessly. S. Craig Zahler is definitely the real deal as a genre writer/director.
BRIMSTONE by Martin Koolhoven
A strange hybrid of genres that goes from western to horror, in which young actress Dakota Fanning - in her best performance yet - plays a unique character: Liz, a mute woman who, with the help of her little daughter, assists women in labor in the Old American West. The English-language debut of Dutch director Martin Koolhoven exposes, without any restraint, the most brutal side of patriarchy from a feminine point of view, once a mysterious character, the new reverend in town (played by a fearsome Guy Pearce), returns to Liz’s life and, little by little through a nonlinear narrative, brings to the table such themes as religion, prostitution and revenge.
DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE by Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes and Jon Nguyen
While I have yet to catch up with the latest season of Twin Peaks, in 2017 I was able to finally check out this documentary via the Criterion DVD. In the last few years, David Lynch has been enjoying the art life: “you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, you paint, and that’s it.” This doc functions as a door to his recent creative process and, at the same time, as an exploration of Lynch’s early life, since he was a little boy until he - against many odds - managed to complete his first feature length film (Eraserhead). Essential not just for Lynch fans but really for anyone who seeks some sort of inspiration in cinema.
DEVIL'S FREEDOM by Everardo González
Everardo González’s latest documentary, aka La libertad del diablo, tackles the consequences of the Mexican Drug War from the personal perspective of several individuals. There are testimonies of victims who lost their familiars or have been kidnapped and tortured, offenders who pulled the trigger for money, policemen who have decided to do justice by their own hand due the impunity, and soldiers who followed orders from organized crime. The film is minimalist, as González only shows us the faces of the interviewees covered by a mask, while each shares their reality. There’s no need for more in order to achieve one of the most brutal and powerful Mexican films in recent memory.
ELLE by Paul Verhoeven
In this film by veteran Paul Verhoeven, Isabelle Huppert offers one of the best recent performances as Michèle Leblanc, a woman who has tried all of her life to detach herself from an obscure past, product of her father’s actions (he’s a convicted killer). For this same reason, Michèle won’t go to the authorities when she is raped in her own place by a mysterious, masked man. The fact that even with a story like this one the film has a great dose of humor - as we watch our protagonist dealing with her mother, son, ex husband, lover, best friend and employees - is indication of an atypical piece of work, hard to classify, that only Verhoeven and Huppert dared to film.
GET OUT by Jordan Peele
A movie that gets better with a second viewing, Get Out brings together a really classic genre setting and development - the protagonist gradually discovering and facing a conspiracy that will put his life in danger - with the falseness of the so-called “post-racial America” utopia. On that note, Barack Obama voters, fans of Tiger Woods and admirers of the black physicality, end up being the villains in an scenario that adapts the times of slavery and plantations to modern suburban America and to the horror genre. Daniel Kaluuya is phenomenal as Chris, the young black guy who visits for the first time the plantation-like place of his white girlfriend’s parents, while Lil Rel Howery (as Chris' heroic best friend) deserves a special mention for the film’s funniest moments.
GOOD TIME by Josh and Benny Safdie
“If you have a leading character, make sure they’re in a hurry”, advised the legendary Robert Downey Sr. during his visit to the Criterion closet. It seems that the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, took this notion to write their latest film Good Time, which hardly gives its protagonist, the criminal Connie (Robert Pattinson at the top of his game), a break. With a frenetic rhythm, the evident influence of Martin Scorsese, dark scenes with neon colors, a synth score, constant close-ups and peculiar aerial shots, the stylish Good Time has at its core the bond between two brothers (Benny Safdie is amazing as Connie’s sick brother) and it’s one of those energetic movies that happen in the course of a single night, becoming something totally unpredictable and at times hilarious.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 by James Gunn / THOR:
RAGNAROK by Taika Waititi
Both James Gunn and Taika Waititi’s newest productions gave me, undoubtedly, some of the most fun times I had at the movies in 2017. Aside of keeping fresh the charisma of the characters and the overall style, the emotive Guardians of the Galaxy sequel gives bigger meaning to some of the stuff from the previous adventure, especially the relationship between Star-Lord (Chris Pine) and Yondu (the great Michael Rooker), something that not many sequels can achieve. On the other hand, the extremely funny Thor: Ragnarok finally features a relevant storyline about the Asgardians, and makes the most of the interaction between Thor (Chirs Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the new girl Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). If Gunn’s voice is always present in his Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Waititi’s is all over the place in his first Hollywood effort, figuratively and literally since he voices the peculiar and memorable Korg!
HELL OR HIGH WATER by David Mackenzie / WIND RIVER by Taylor Sheridan
Due to our slow distribution system, Mexican cinemas played in 2017 the two latest films in which Taylor Sheridan was involved: Hell or High Water, which he wrote, and his directorial debut Wind River. The first one is a modern western about two brothers (incredible performances by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who try to put an end to their family's poverty by committing a series of bank robberies in different West Texas towns; the second one, a murder mystery with a touch of western, take us to a snowy Indian reservation in Wyoming and tackles the missing Native American women problem through an unlikely pair of “detectives” (Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are also fantastic). Both films make for a perfect double-feature as great, tense and current stories set in the forgotten side of America, and reveal Sheridan as one of the most interesting new voices in cinema.
LOGAN LUCKY by Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s return to the heist film go deep into the southeastern region of the United States, where the Logan brothers (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough) try to execute the ambitious plan of stealing the money from a NASCAR complex during an important race. The Logan family has a long history of bad luck and, as you would expect, the plan’s execution will have more than one setback, which makes the film a true comedic gem with so many memorable characters. Aside of the greats Tatum, Driver and Keough, an unrecognizable Daniel Craig, Jack Quaid, Sam Gleason and even Seth MacFarlane, all give terrific performances. Logan Lucky is certainly one of 2017’s underrated treasures.
OKJA by Joon-ho Bong
The second international production directed by Joon-ho Bong is, at simple sight, his most accesible work so far. The main plot has to do with this initial lecture, as it follows the charming relationship between a little Korean girl and an abnormal beast (the titular super pig), threatened by the agenda of a huge American corporation. While in the bittersweet Okja there’s some Steven Spielberg influence, the combination of many other elements and the director’s signature makes it really weird and unique. There’s action, humor and colorful characters, but the defining sequences remind us the brutality of Blood of the Beasts, that short documentary on slaughterhouses. Bong is a proven master who knows how to mix diverse tones and by taking the heartfelt bond between beings of different species to the cruelty of the real world, he achieves his most moving film to date.
PATERSON by Jim Jarmusch
Just like its protagonist Paterson, a working class bus driver (Adam Driver, magnificent) who writes poetry and finds beauty in such apparently insignificant things as a box of matches, Jim Jarmusch’s love letter to American poet William Carlos Williams and the city of Paterson focuses on capturing those little moments that bring life to the daily routine. The beauty is precisely there, in interacting with other people, going to the movies with your significant other (that Island of Lost Souls scene is up there with the most beautiful ones about going to the cinema I’ve ever seen), or simply in repeating what you did the day before. Only a unique master like Jarmusch could make a film with rich characters and unforgettable moments from a - in his own words - “poetic structure” that see the titular character during the weekly, and quite simple, routine: wake up, go to work, write some poetry when nothing else is happening, return home, share some time with the girlfriend (the lovely Golshifteh Parahani), take the dog out for a walk, go to the local bar, and finally return home again.
SHIN GODZILLA by Anno Hideaki and Higuchi Shinji
The latest Japanese movie about the mighty Godzilla is an excelent critique to the always tedious bureaucratic processes, while it also adapts in a brilliant way the origins of this iconic monster, as a response to the nuclear catastrophes, to the modern world. Shin Godzilla works as a visual spectacle with a monster that evolves little by little, and action sequences with an always changing style and color palette. I definitely enjoyed the American Godzilla by Gareth Edwards, and look forward to its sequel, but Anno Hideaki and Higuchi Shinji’s is the current effort to beat.
TEMPESTAD by Tatiana Huezo
Director Tatiana Huezo decided to raise her voice in the land of impunity, aka Mexico, and share with the audience the stories of two Mexican women who were directly affected by the corrupt authorities: Miriam, incarcerated without evidence - at a place operated by a drug cartel - for the alleged crime of human trafficking; and Adela, who has been looking for his missing daughter Mónica for over 10 years, after she disappeared due to a kidnapping orchestrated with the involvement of the police. Just like Devil’s Freedom, Tempestad is a necessary documentary for the present of Mexico.
THE BIG SICK by Michael Showalter
The boy meets girl formula is interesting again not only due to the interracial context of the story, but also because for a good amount of screen time, the American girl (Zoe Kazan) is in an induced coma after a sudden illness. Thus, the Pakistani boy (a stand-up comedian inspired and played by Kumail Nanjiani) must deal with his ex girlfriend’s complex situation together with the "parents-in-law" (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter giving magnificent performances), while he secretly refuses to follow his Muslim family’s traditions. This leads to a series of awkward and therefore hilarious situations, and to the previsible but nevertheless sweet resolution. Arguably the best - and funniest - romantic comedy since Judd Apatow's Knocked Up.
THE DEATH OF STALIN by Armando Iannucci
2017’s most hilarious and extravagant comedy follows the process that came after the death in 1953 of the former leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin; thus, the protagonists of the film are the rest of the communist committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Armando Iannucci’s political satire is always daring; hell, it has an ensemble of American and British actors who never try to act like Soviets! The film is completely bonkers since its first minute and, at the same time, explicitly reveals the brutal way in which the dictatorship operated. Equally ridiculous and dark, The Death of Stalin was the finest satire I watched in the past 12 months.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER by Yorgos Lanthimos
Yorgos Lanthimos’ second English-language film is closer to horror, though unlike many conventional movies of the genre, the director’s boldness translates into real madness that echoes something like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is almost an exercise that establishes a unique escenario in order to explore some of the most sordid sides of humanity. A man (Colin Farrell) must kill a member of his family, either his wife (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two kids, if not a mysterious young boy (Barry Keoghan, memorable) has a very specific, painful and disconcerting plan for them. Don’t take any of this as a spoiler, since the picture is all about the execution of the premise and witnessing Lanthimos taking the family to the extreme.
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) by Noah Baumbach
Divorce is clearly one of biggest themes in Noah Baumbach’s filmography, for obvious personal reasons. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is in the vein of The Squid and the Whale, however in this Netflix movie the protagonists are not kids facing their parents’ imminent divorce, but rather adults in their late forties and early fifties (portrayed by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel) who are still dealing with everything that preceded and that comes together with the fact that their old - and eventually ill - father (Dustin Hoffman in his best role in years) currently lives with his third wife. Like Woody Allen or his friend Wes Anderson, Baumbach can deliver, almost effortlessly, an exploration of a dysfunctional family that is truly humane and also quite funny. The ensamble cast is, by the way, phenomenal.
THE PRINCE OF NOTHINGWOOD by Sonia Kronlund
Sonia Kronlund traveled to Afghanistan and witnessed something beyond the war and the endless violence: the story of Salim Shaheen, a popular and eccentric guerrilla filmmaker that has made over 110 films despite the harsh reality of his country. This inspiring, fascinating and extravagant documentary is a real triumph of a female director who had to face a country where women have no freedom and there’s always a sense of insecurity. Kronlund never judges the personal life of Shaheen and respects the limits, while always highlighting the importance of a filmmaker, literally willing to die for his art, that connects with the regular folk and has given them something different from the horror of war.