Here is a list of my 50 favorite feature films to first play Chicago in 2017. Films that had press screenings here but won’t officially open ’til next year (e.g., Phantom Thread) aren’t eligible but may make my Best of 2018 list. I’m also disqualifying from inclusion Jennifer Reeder’s Signature Move and Gabe Klinger’s Porto, which I programmed at my Pop-Up Film Festival, and Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd because friends and colleagues worked on it; but I do recommend all of them highly. Next to each title below I’ve also linked to my original reviews where applicable. Enjoy!
The Top 10:
10. Félicité (Gomis, Senegal/Democratic Republic of Congo)
Félicité, the fourth feature film from French/Senegalese director Alain Gomis, would make an excellent double feature with the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, with which it shares an urgent deadline structure involving one character’s frantic search for quick cash; only where the Safdies offer a subtle and sly critique of white privilege in their depiction of Robert Pattinson’s charismatic, Greek-American punk — a con artist in Queens who plays the race card to his advantage at every opportunity — Gomis explores the tragedy of a black African woman who, through no fault of her own, cannot transcend the dire straits of the life she has always known in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nonetheless, the title character of Gomis’ film, a Kinshasa nightclub singer and single mother trying to hustle money to pay for an emergency operation for her son, comes across as resilient and even indomitable as incarnated by a force of nature named Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu. This woman’s radiant performance, along with the film’s sublime, borderline-surreal musical interludes featuring electrified, polyrhythmic Afropop, go a long way towards tempering the bleakness.
9. The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki, Finland)
The Other Side of Hope, the second film in Aki Kaurismaki’s proposed trilogy about the refugee crisis in Europe, improves upon its predecessor, the already formidable Le Havre. This is in large part because, even though the plots and character dynamics between the films are quite similar, the true protagonist in Hope is actually the outsider/refugee character instead of the good-hearted European man helping to provide him refuge (reversing the case in the earlier film). A critic friend recently speculated that the complete lack of empathy that characterizes the current President of the United States and his inane daily pronouncements on social media has made moviegoers hungrier than ever to see empathy portrayed onscreen. This gentle, minimalist comedy, made by a former-misanthrope-turned-humanist, is exhibit A for what he’s talking about. Plus it has a great dog performance.
8. Let the Sunshine In (Denis, France)
Some critics have treated this unexpected comedy from Claire Denis as if it were a mere divertissement as they await High Life, her ambitious, Robert Pattinson-starring sci-fi follow-up due out next year. But this warm and wise film is actually much better than that. I reviewed it for Cine-File Chicago here.
7. On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong, S. Korea)
This melancholy dramedy, the only one of the three features Hong Sang-soo made this year to reach Chicago so far, stars the mighty Kim Min-hee as a famous actress having an affair with a married film director, a situation clearly inspired by the notorious real-life affair between Hong and Kim during their previous collaboration, last year’s delightful Right Now, Wrong Then. The personal nature of this film, however, is evident not just in the details of the plot but in the fact that Kim’s character, Young-hee, is arguably Hong’s strongest and most complex female character to date; you can feel the closeness of their working relationship in Kim’s richly textured performance as the introspective Young-hee, reeling from the scandal of the affair, travels to Germany for some “me time” before returning to Korea and visiting her lover on the set of his new movie (where, this being a Hong Sang-soo joint, a soju-fueled argument provides an explosive climax). It is absolutely astonishing how much creativity and variation Hong has been able to continually wring from the same plot elements, character types, themes and narrative structures. He has now made 21 features in 21 years and I hope he doesn’t slow down anytime soon.
6. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie, USA)
100% pure cinema. Pattinson is amazing. I reviewed it on this blog here.
5. Nocturama (Bonello, France)
A group of attractive, ethnically diverse young people plan and execute a series of deadly bombings across Paris then seek refuge in a shopping mall for the night as a police dragnet closes in around them. Writer/director Bertrand Bonello synthesizes sundry cinematic influences (Alan Clarke, John Carpenter, Robert Bresson, George Romero) and applies them to prescient subject matter in a way that feels vital and new but the real masterstroke of this challenging, zeitgeist-capturing film is to illustrate what “terrorism” is by keeping discussions of ideological motivations by the protagonists almost entirely offscreen. Had these characters been explicitly portrayed as, say, Marxists or jihadists, the viewer would have been asked to “understand” them and, by extension, either agree or disagree with their point-of-view. But by keeping their motivations opaque, Bonello forces us to focus instead on the simple material facts of what they do — and the results are cold, terrifying and brilliant. When future generations want to know what the 2010s were like, I have a feeling that this is the movie that will provide them with the best global snapshot. Also, dude knows how to use a pop song.
4. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany) The film that made everyone’s best-of list last year didn’t receive its Chicago premiere until early 2017. Yep, I love it too and reviewed it on this blog at the beginning of the year here.
3. Faces Places (Varda/J.R., France)
I’ve heard more than a few intelligent critics remark that the ending of this masterful documentary is somehow conclusive proof that Jean-Luc Godard is a dick. Which seems like a superficial way to read an essay film that is clearly blending documentary and fiction techniques in the classic Varda tradition and thus inviting viewers to closely interrogate what exactly it is they’re watching. Is it not more probable, I would propose, that Godard and Varda concocted the ending of Faces Places together? Does anyone really think that Varda, who has been friends with the hermetic Godard since the 1950s, would actually plan on showing up at his home unannounced and bumrush him with a camera? And does not JLG’s supposed “refusal” to appear before said camera provide her film with an awfully convenient narrative and emotional climax? In other words, the structuring absence of Godard is what allows Varda to shed tears and subsequently be comforted by her acolyte J.R. (when he removes his dark sunglasses for the first time). An actual Godard cameo would have been a lesser gift to this movie. I reviewed it for Time Out here.
2. Happy Hour (Hamaguchi, Japan)
The single most important cinematic discovery of 2017 for me was seeing Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 5-hour-and-17-minute Japanese masterpiece for the first time. It tells the story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after spending the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a nearby town. This quiet, absorbing drama is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight: a lengthy scene depicting a workshop attended by the four protagonists about “unconventional communication” takes up much of the film’s first third; this sequence, reminiscent of the rehearsal scenes in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, not only foreshadows the drama that is to follow but also is elegantly mirrored by another lengthy scene involving an author talk/Q&A session in the film’s final third. I haven’t seen any of Hamaguchi’s other films yet but I plan on changing that very soon. I feel like I could have watched these women’s lives unfold onscreen indefinitely.
1. Twin Peaks (Lynch, USA)
Is it a movie? Is it T.V.? What year is this?! If Twin Peaks should be considered a film, it’s not because it “transcends” the medium of television (whatever that means) but rather because it was written, financed, shot and edited the way that movies are and serialized T.V. shows are not. But regardless of what you call it, the bottom line is that the newest iteration of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s magnum opus — a career-defining work (made on the largest canvas that he’s ever had to work with) that summarizes everything he’s done before while simultaneously also striking out in bold new directions. It’s a miracle that this thing got made at all and I spent a lot of time between May and September wondering why anyone was doing anything other than watching and talking about Twin Peaks. I wrote quite a bit about it this year — the most substantial piece being one where I discussed how Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost use western movie tropes to make some surprisingly trenchant political points about life in America today. You can read that piece on this blog here.
11. Slack Bay (Dumont, France). Capsule review here.
12. The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA). Interview with director James Gray here.
13. Lover for a Day (Garrel, France)
14. The Florida Project (Baker, USA)
15. The Ornithologist (Rodrigues, Portugal). Capsule review here.
16. Death in the Terminal (Shemesh/Sudry, Israel). Capsule review here.
17. The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France). Capsule review here.
18. The Lovers (Jacobs, USA)
19. My Happy Family (Ekvtimishvili/Groß, Georgia)
20. The Son of Joseph (Green, France). Capsule review here.
21. Detroit (Bigelow, USA)
22. Golden Years (Techine, France)
23. The Beguiled (Coppola, USA). Review here.
24. It’s Not the Time of My Life (Hajdu, Hungary)
25. Mudbound (Rees, USA)
26. Personal Shopper (Assayas, France). Capsule review here.
27. Get Out (Peele, USA)
28. BPM (Campillo, France)
29. The Human Surge (Williams, Argentina/Mozambique/Thailand)
30. The Shape of Water (Del Toro, USA)
31. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison, USA)
32. Western (Grisebach, Germany/Bulgaria)
33. Austerlitz (Loznitsa, Germany/Ukraine). Capsule review here.
34. Lady Bird (Gerwig, USA)
35. Lucky (Lynch, USA). Capsule review here.
36. Louise by the Shore (Laguionie, France)
37. Blade of the Immortal (Miike, Japan)
38. Mimosas (Laxe, Morocco)
39. Battle of the Sexes (Dayton/Faris, USA)
40. Ethel & Ernest (Mainwood, UK). Capsule review here.
41. El Mar la Mar (Bonnetta/Sniadecki, USA). Capsule review here.
42. Lost North (Lavanderos, Chile). Capsule review here.
43. Such is Life in the Tropics (Cordero, Ecuador). Capsule review here.
44. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Campion/Kleiman, Australia)
45. Have a Nice Day (Liu, China)
46. The Unknown Girl (Dardenne/Dardenne, Belgium)
47. Columbus (Kogonada, USA)
48. 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (Samadian, Iran)
49. Orders – (Stasiulis/Marsh, USA). Interview with directors Andrew Stasiulis and Eric Marsh here.
50. Kedi (Torun, Turkey/USA)
Finally, I don’t normally include short films on these lists but I’d like to give special mention to the delightful Take Me Home, the final film Abbas Kiarostami completed in his lifetime, which screened at the Siskel Center’s Annual Festival of Films from Iran in February (a final feature, 24 Frames, completed by others after Kiarostami’s death, premiered at Cannes last May and will almost certainly play Chicago at some point in 2018). You can read my review of Take Me Home at Time Out here.