Another year, another slate of films. With superhero movies (even a good one from DC), sequels decades in the making (Blade Runner and another new Star Wars) and a ton of great documentaries (many already available on Netflix or Amazon), 2017 had a lot to offer any moviegoer. Though a few highly anticipated films have yet to hit Athens, Flagpole critics Jon Hogan and Drew Wheeler went ahead and hashed out some of the year’s most memorable cinema experiences.
Jon Hogan: It’s really tough to choose a favorite film, but this year boasted some surprisingly strong documentaries, like the David Byrne concert film Contemporary Color and One of Us, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s look at leaving the Hasidic culture. However, the clear winner of a strong batch, and my favorite film of the year, is Viktor Jakovleski's Brimstone & Glory, an exploration of the Mexican city of Tultepec and its yearly fireworks festival. While Jakovleski captures crisp, bright, one-of-a-kind imagery in the fireworks displays, he also offers potent frames that tell the stories of the people behind the pyrotechnics. A shot where a one-handed pyrotechnician uses the blunted end of his left arm to assemble a firework is almost impossible to watch without misting up.
Drew Wheeler: Wow! I really want to see Brimstone & Glory now. Not many documentaries opened wide in Athens this year, but of those that did, Step absolutely sucked me in. Any film that can so accurately capture a modern, inner-city high-school experience (I teach in a similar situation) is fascinating and necessary in a society so dominated by personal worldviews. I was concurrently horrified and fascinated by City of Ghosts. I’ve never seen so many executions, despite an extensive history with Faces of Death.
JH: I'm sure (I hope) most of the executions you've seen have come via genre films. What stood out to you?
DW: I think we got our best film of the year from a genre. Jordan Peele absolutely crushed it in his feature writing-directing debut, Get Out. I read a lot of Ira Levin in the months prior, and really think that flick is the heir apparent to The Stepford Wives. The performances were excellent—Bradley Whitford gave us an excessively memorable cringe-worthy dad—and the writing was strong, pointed and subtle, like Levin at his best. So many modern horror filmmakers strive to be John Carpenter—see the overuse of his Albertus Bold font—that it was nice to see other excellent inspirations noted. Horror has gotten a bit of a boost the last few years (e.g., It Follows, Don't Breathe), and Get Out sort of ices the cake with striking humor and absolute terror.
JH: I will always be thankful to Get Out for confirming that, regardless of the medium, Marnie is still the absolute worst.
DW: Ugh! She so is!
JH: S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99 might be my favorite genre picture of the year. While Vince Vaughn does a passable job ringing pathos out of incarceration, the true strength of the film comes in its fight choreography. Long takes of wide shots offer a detailed view of ass-kicking unseen in modern action films. The visceral impact of these melees stems from skin hitting skin and not quick, slick editing like in most superhero fare. All that, and Udo Kier playing a well-dressed creep!
DW: Udo Kier is always a plus!
So, Peele would be my top candidate for a breakthrough award for his writing and direction, but his strongest competition would be Greta Gerwig, whose Lady Bird was so fresh and funny. Saoirse Ronan would probably top my list of 2017 performances, closely followed by Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project. Laurie Metcalf finally found a role worthy of Aunt Jackie. I also loved Holly Hunter and Tiffany Haddish. Willem Dafoe was more human than I'd ever seen him in The Florida Project, though Barry Keoghan certainly earned any attention turned his way for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a film I want to like more in hindsight than I did due to its odd, unsympathetic characters. Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky was the top actor in my book; it may be time for another posthumous Oscar. James McAvoy deserves some attention for Split, though the movie itself is more memorable for Shyamalan's brilliant last-minute reveal—which is different from the twists for which he is famous—than McAvoy's brilliant performance(s). What performances stood out the most to you?
JH: Like you, I was completely floored by the performances in The Florida Project. Unless it's about Apu or Antoine Doinel, I typically dislike films about kids, but I added another film to that list of exceptions this year. Martin McDonagh has a crack ear for dialogue, but it takes the right performers to work well within his rhythms. Frances McDormand proves up to the challenge in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, adding resonance to each clipped utterance as a bereaved mother. The Palme d'Or-winning art-world satire The Square took a lot of cheap shots at easy targets, but acrobat Terry Notary is the most noteworthy part as a performance artist who takes a primal role-play a bit too seriously. And even though he is essentially playing himself, Buddy Duress steals the Safdie Brothers' Good Time with a monologue about a bender gone wrong.
With a couple weeks left, which films are you most anticipating?
DW: Though my review can be found here, at this moment I cannot wait for The Last Jedi. I've been waiting almost 40 years for more Luke Skywalker. What about you?
JH: Phantom Thread, my friend. A Paul Thomas Anderson/Daniel Day-Lewis collaboration will always have my attention. The fact that, with DDL's announced retirement, this may be their last makes me anticipate it even more.