In 2017, I watched something like 131 films, short films and television series and miniseries. Of those, only 9 were viewed in the theater. Movie-going, as a general recreational activity, seems to be waning in this age of all-streaming-everything-everywhere. Everyone wants to hook up a vacuum tube to the contents of your wallet with their own, proprietary streaming service. For my part, I subscribe to Netflix, HBONow, FilmStruck, Mubi, and Prime Video. Sheesh. Of those, FilmStruck has got to be my favorite, if only for its wide array of hard-to-find, classic art-house cinema. Oh, and they’ve got Criterion, so there’s that!
2017 was also the year in which I finally watched James Cameron’s box-office shattering epic Titanic for the very first time. I sat though it twice. Subsequently, I watched Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, but that’s going to be fodder for a different piece of writing another day…
Without further ado, here are 15 of the best films I viewed for the very first time in 2017:
15. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
When, in 1962, Stanley Kramer set out to shoot this insane, star-studded, comedy-chase-caper with nearly every famous comedian alive, few people would’ve predicted that he could pull it off. The original cut of the film clocked in at somewhere around 5 hours… I viewed the Criterion Collection edition which is only a paltry 197 minutes long. Shot all over the place in Southern California, the film contains a collection of comedy and action set pieces that I defy any modern film maker to replicate without leaning heavily on CGI.
Unwisely, the film was remade in 2001 by Jerry Zucker as Rat Race. While the original shines with the brilliance of a thousand dying suns… when pitted against Zucker’s re-imagining, the later film winks like the power light of a VCR in standby mode.
I hope they screen it again in 70mm someday. Jonathan Winters’ scene at the gas station is the stuff of legend.
14. The Trip
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon “play” themselves on a cross-country trip to the north of England to review a number of local, high-end restaurants. With the framing of a documentary / film essay, the talents of Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon are put on full display as they get on each others nerves, chat about poetry and the dramatic arts, and compare career moves. Ultimately, the film seems to be a meditation on the idealistic fantasy of a poet, or so-called “romantic” person leading a lifestyle unfettered by trivial concerns, giving way to the realization that relationships are more important than professional accomplishment.
There are two sequels to this film, The Trip to Italy and The Trip to Spain. I also watched the former during this year and very much look forward to viewing the latter as soon as I can.
13. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The eighth entry in the ongoing commercial saga that is Star Wars is one of the best films in the entire franchise. Drawing obvious comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back, Rian Johnson’s singular foray into a galaxy far, far away as both writer and director is many things, but I fear the audience will likely be split on how “satisfying” the story is for all of the fans who imbue every corner of every frame with deep, speculative significance.
In many ways, the whole point of The Last Jedi seems to be to demystify The Force and wrest it from the grasp of the dualistic orders of the “Jedi” and the “Sith,” choosing to restore it to its original place: in the hands of everyone. Please note the broom. The Force isn’t some magical essence that you can ‘get’ or that some people are just ‘born with’ – The Force is a great equalizing force that anyone can wield, if they practice at it. Sure, there are wise old ‘masters’ with esoteric knowledge of the many powers granted by The Force, but that doesn’t mean they get to hold some kind of metaphysical monopoly over it. TLJ seems to be most concerned with removing all of the scaffolding supporting maniacal fanbase expectations so that the audience well and truly will have no idea what to expect next.
Perhaps people rely too much upon popular culture to give them an identity.
12. Phantom Thread [in 70mm]
In what is reported to be Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film, he reunited with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson to tell the fictional tale of a renowned designer of ladies dresses in Postwar London.
Reynolds Woodcock is the character Day-Lewis brings to life, and he may perhaps bear a mysterious curse, a spiritual mark left on him by his late mother, for whom he designed a wedding gown. Also starring Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps, this is a film of quiet power and a surprising quantity of amusing moments which never failed to elicit audible laughter from the audience I saw it (presented in 70mm) with in Los Angeles.
This may be Paul Thomas Anderson’s most straightforward narrative endeavor since Punch Drunk Love. There are many similarities between the two films, and cinematic homage is paid to Altman, Hitchcock and Kubrick.
11. La tortue rouge (The Red Turtle)
A remarkable animated film from the Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit. Produced by Studio Ghibli in Japan, this fairy-tale unfolds with almost no dialogue of any kind. A hypnotic experience.
A major restoration of this film was released by Criterion in 2017. Andrei Tarkovsky’s final Soviet film is a mesmerizing, deeply philosophical journey into the unknown… but perhaps not the unknowable. Stalker is a technically impressive feat, containing numerous inventive techniques. The film has been a major influence on cinema since its release.
The through-line of Stalker, we might surmise, is emblematic of a schism between East and West, yet at the heart, lies The Zone – a place of truth and revelation. Can anyone be willingly led to it? Or does the journey offer too many opportunities for self-aggrandization and despair?
This film is best watched alone. And uninterrupted. Cinema at its finest shows the audience themselves.
9. The Big Short
Films can bring to light issues in ways that newspaper articles, judicial inquiries, and Police investigations simply cannot. In the case of The Big Short, this amounts to encapsulating the nucleus of the recent financial crisis in the US and presenting it in a way that is all at once sardonic, hilarious, and sobering.
More than anything, though, this film underscores what happens when people PAY ATTENTION. There are constant happenings in day-to-day life which deserve our undivided attention, however, we allow ourselves to dismiss or ignore them and rationalize that no one person has the mental capacity to grasp every current event as it unfolds. The Big Short provides the welcome reminder that, for every 999,999 people going about their business in abject oblivion, there is 1 who has taken a moment to stop and PAY ATTENTION.
8. Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols’ 4th directorial effort is a heart-pounding sci-fi road-trip epic that culminates in a thought-provoking way… perhaps an allusion to the eternal nature of the human soul which is encased in the mortal flesh of the human body.
Nichols’ prowess as a filmmaker and storyteller is on full tilt as the story unfolds. This is what Hollywood needs more of: skilled filmmakers who are deft with their thematic elements and don’t beat the audience over the head with sentimentality and preachy, dogmatic suppositions. If you have a sensitive spirit, this film will touch you. And you won’t need it to validate your opinions or core values.
Having explored the nooks and crannies of childhood nostalgia with the Toy Story series of films, and shown us the post-human landscape of Wall-E and delved into the nature of memory and human emotions with Inside Out, Pixar has turned its attention to a new, kid-friendly subject matter: death.
Yes, death, that cold eventuality that will come to claim us all, Ebenezer Scrooge-style. Except, with Coco, we have the colorful, cultural veneer of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) ~ a distinctly Mexican holiday that may even trace it’s origins all the way back to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl (say that five times fast) ~ to stave off the macabre nature of the subject matter.
No, really, Coco, isn’t about death, per se. It’s about memory and the power of familial bonds (or lack of familial bonds). This film is impossible to view without shedding real tears. If you find that you can watch it without crying, then I think you may need to go see a psychiatrist or something, because you’re goofed up if this doesn’t get your water works flowing.
6. The Fugitive
This is a list of films I’ve never seen before, jeez. Stop saying, “I can’t believe you’ve never seen it!” and go get a dribble cup.
Yes, up until Anno Domini 2017, I hadn’t ever seen The Fugitive. Blame my parents. They were super restrictive and judgmental about what I could or couldn’t see growing up. And then… blame me for not bothering to pop this one in the old trusty DVD player for a solid 10 years after moving out of the house. It has Harrison Ford in it, for crying out loud! How could it NOT be incredible!?
5. A Face in the Crowd
Elia Kazan’s film, based on the screenplay by Budd Schulberg, is a riveting tour de force. Andy Griffith, yes, Sheriff Andy of Mayberry, in his first film role, plays Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, an Arkansas drifter who is propelled to the heights of national fame. As his fame and power expand exponentially, Rhodes is gradually revealed to be a narcissistic megalomaniac, drunk off his own celebrity. Believing he can do or say no wrong, he ascends higher and higher.
This film has obvious and bone-chilling parallels to our present circumstances in America. Yet, I don’t think even Budd Schulberg could have predicted the measure of the ambivalence and self-assured ignorance of large segments of the American public. Lonesome Rhodes may be a despicable, selfish, evil human being… but who in the American public ever truly cared about moral character or personal integrity? Surely there are other criteria which matter more, when assessing the value of a public figure? He’s popular and speaks out on what people want to hear, right?
I think he’d be right at home, here today.
4. Time Piece (1965)
Jim Henson made a short film in 1965 and it was nominated for an Academy Award. I had never even heard of it, until this year.
Time Piece is a Kafka-esque short film about being trapped in the mundane prison of daily life. Told in a series of syncopated edits, set to the rhythm of a ticking clock and sometimes the beating of a human heart, this is one of the most highly-creative, unique and unsettling short films I have ever seen. Jim Henson has long been one of my childhood heroes, but here, 52 years later, he has shown me his ingenuity and bravery as an adult. Inspiring.
3. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Elijah Wood & Melanie Lynskey reunited on-screen for the first time since Over the Garden Wall for Macon Blair’s directorial debut, a Netflix exclusive (yay, Netflix).
The premise is simple enough: a woman’s house is burglarized. The woman vows revenge upon the burglars. She enlists the help of her neighbor in finding and exacting justice upon them. Things don’t quite play out the way she has fantasized that they will, though.
With this film, Macon Blair has established himself as one of the filmmakers who may claim themselves to be heirs apparent to The Coen Brothers. Here, he tackles concepts of trespass, malcontent, violation and fear, all within a cinematic construct which is by turns humorous, quirky, melancholy and horrifying. Is this world merely a shadow realm through which we all must pass? Does anything we do here truly matter?
2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi’s third full-length feature, starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison, is a charming, offbeat tale of two fugitives on the run from the short, stubby arm of kiwi law. This is the kind of picture that pushes every button in seemingly random fashion, until the entire elevator panel is lit up like a Christmas tree. The cumulative effect is a heartwarming story of love, sacrifice, and unassailable machismo. I haven’t seen Waititi’s 4th film, yet… a little indie feature called Thor: Ragnarok, but I’m keen to do so.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
As the old adage goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” ~ often attributed to Edmund Burke, although it may be a paraphrase of various other famous persons from history…
Twin Peaks: The Return could be described with an inversion of that quote, something like this, “For evil to be defeated, all that is necessary is for good men to be unwavering in doing something about it.”
For anyone who was a fan of the 1990 television series that only ran for two seasons, spanning 30 episodes before it was canceled, the news that original series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had been given a truckload of money by Showtime to bring the series back to life was a huge surprise. Expectations certainly ran high. Lynch took more than 4 years to write, cast, shoot and edit the “third season,” as it came to be known, of a show that originally began airing more than 25 years ago.
Finally, the release was set for 2017. Many of the show’s original cast returned to reprise their roles in the new season. As Laura Palmer told Agent Cooper in backwards-speak in the Red Room, “I’ll see you in 25 years.”
Not less than three cast members who appear in the third season died before the first episode aired, including:
- Catherine E. Coulson (Margaret Lanterman, “The Log Lady”)
- Miguel Ferrer (Agent Albert Rosenfield)
- Warren Frost (Dr. Will Hayward)
Additionally, Harry Dean Stanton, who reprised his role as Carl Rodd, a character who appeared in the feature-film prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, died on September 15, 2017, less than two weeks after the last episode aired on September 3, 2017, at the age of 91.
The themes on parade over the 18 hour arc of Twin Peaks: The Return are varied and multi-faceted, and the show never loses its mystique or charm, nor its palpable sense of dread.
For me to describe anything in the show is really going to be a fool’s errand – you have to watch the original series, then watch Fire Walk with Me and The Missing Pieces (if you can), in order to be able to fully appreciate what Lynch has done with The Return.
Dozens of scenes occur over the course of the show which could be plucked out and showcased as vignettes or short films all their own. Mulholland Drive feels more like an extended side-story episode from Twin Peaks now, after seeing this.
Alright folks, those are my top 15 “films” of 2017. Here’s looking forward to unearthing more great gems from the past in 2018!
Full List of Joel’s 2017 viewing:
Regular = movie watched on a TV or other small screen device
BOLD = denotes theatrical viewing
Italic = denotes a “television series” or “mini series”
Underlined = denotes a short film (30 minutes or less)
- 7 Days in Hell
- Adventure Time: Seasons 8 & 9
- Alexander the Grape (1965)
- Anne with an E: Season 1
- Archer: Seasons 6 & 7
- Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Seasons 1, 2, 3
- The Big Short
- Black Mirror: Seasons 1, 3
- Blade Runner: 2036 Nexus Dawn
- Blade Runner: 2048 Nowhere to Run
- Blade Runner 2049
- Blade Runner: Blackout 2022
- Blood Simple.
- Carnal Knowledge
- Cat and Mouse (1960)
- Central Intelligence
- The Dark Knight
- David Lynch: The Art of Life
- Death of a Salesman (1985)
- Death Note (2017)
- The Discovery
- Doctor Strange
- Documentary Now: Season 51 (Season 2)
- Dog City (1989)
- A Face in the Crowd
- Fantastic Planet
- Five Came Back
- The Fugitive
- The Gang’s All Here
- Game of Thrones: Season 7
- Get Out
- Gravity Falls: Seasons 1 & 2
- The Great Dictator
- The Great Muppet Caper
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
- Heaven’s Gate
- Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)
- The Hudsucker Proxy
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Hymyilevä mies (The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki)
- I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore
- I’m Not There
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
- Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton
- The Keepers
- The Kid Stays in the Picture
- Kubo and the Two Strings
- The Last Man on Earth: Season 1
- The LEGO Batman Movie
- The Leftovers: Seasons 1, 2, and 3
- Lighthouse Island (1989)
- Living with Dinosaurs (1989)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition)
- The Man in the High Castle: Season 2
- The Man Who Knew Too Much
- Midnight Special
- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
- Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
- Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)
- Monster Maker (1989)
- Mr. Pickles: Seasons 1 & 2
- The Muppet Christmas Carol
- Muppets from Space
- The Nice Guys
- A Night to Remember
- No Country for Old Men
- Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog )
- Pete’s Dragon (2016)
- Phantom Thread [in 70mm]
- Porco Rosso
- The Prestige
- La tortue rouge (The Red Turtle)
- Rick and Morty: Season 3
- Ripples (1967)
- A Room with a View
- Run, Run (1965)
- Sausage Party
- The Secret of Kells
- A Series of Unfortunate Events: Season 1
- The Shape of Water
- Silicon Valley: Season 4
- Something Wild
- Song of the Sea
- Star Trek: Voyager: Seasons 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi
- The Station Agent
- Superjail: Seasons 1 & 2
- Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky)
- Time Bandits
- Time Piece (1965)
- Titanic (twice)
- Tour de Pharmacy
- The Trip
- The Trip to Italy
- Trollhunters: Season 1
- Twin Peaks: Seasons 1 & 2
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
- Twin Peaks: The Return
- U.S. Marshalls
- The Visitor
- Wedding Crashers
- Welcome to Collinwood
- Wheels That Go (1967)
- The Wind in the Willows (1987)
- Wonder Showzen: Season 1
- Wreck It Ralph
- Xavier: Renegade Angel: Seasons 1 & 2
- The X-Files: Season 6
- The Year Without Santa Claus
- Zero no Tsukaima: Season 1
- Zero no Tsukaima: Season 2
- Zoolander 2