I can’t shut up about movies!
But especially this year.
It’s been said that 2017 is a great year for movies — and that’s true. It’s been one of the least predictable awards seasons of my lifetime, even though a lot of frontrunners seem settled on now. The Best Picture had to shut out films that easily would have been nominated most years.
I wouldn’t call 2017 a year of masterpieces; it’s a year in which the average quality of a movie was very, very good. Sure, I skipped a lot of bad movies — I only hate-watched one this year — but a lot of what I did see pleasantly surprised me, from Kong: Skull Island (a surprisingly enjoyable plane movie) to Rough Night (a “girls behaving badly” comedy I actually found funny) to Darkest Hour (a cut above most “does this really need to be nominated?” Oscar bait). None of these movies are in my Top 25, but they’re three examples of movies I expected to roll my eyes at that, instead, showed me a good time. (Come to think of it, same goes for Good Time.)
Several extra good films had to claw their way through other equally good films to make the last few slots on my Top 10 list. I had so much to say about those that didn’t make the cut that I had to create a whole other list. Here are 15 other 2017 films I found particularly worthwhile, even if they didn’t quite make my cut of “the greatest.”
25. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Yeah, yeah. It’s my list, okay?
Critics weren’t terribly kind to The Greatest Showman. My friends’ reactions are mixed. Like, really mixed — from one friend who has seen it 9 times in theaters to another who ranked it as #160 on the list of 160 movies he saw in 2017. I can’t claim to be objective, since I had early access to the story, music, and key visuals of The Greatest Showman a year ago. I spent many hours working on a presentation for 20th Century Fox about marketing this movie. (They didn’t listen.) Honestly, I expected to be disappointed, since the film didn’t lived up to its potential as an awards darling and crowdpleaser like Moulin Rouge or La La Land. I ended up enjoying The Greatest Showman more than I’ve enjoyed a movie musical in ages.
Maybe if I’d walked in with less familiarity, I would have liked it less. The characters are thin, their arcs half-earned. The Greatest Showman prioritizes show-stopping musical numbers over dramatic storytelling. But isn’t all that true of most Broadway shows, too? The stage has a wobbly reputation on the screen. Movies like Into The Woods, Rent, Phantom Of The Opera, Mamma Mia, and Rock Of Ages try to please two masters and have, at best, a couple numbers that work. The Greatest Showman, which is not a stage musical (yet), does a much better job of bottling up Broadway for the silver screen. The cinematography and choreography work together beautifully. The original music is moving and invigorating and very catchy, as all musicals should be. The Greatest Showman is color and movement and song with broad emotion that doesn’t reach for more than it can grasp.
There are plenty of larger-than-life showmen on our screens this year — in mother!, Phantom Thread, The Square, The Disaster Artist, and the White House. Most of them are horrible, but here’s one to have fun with. (The real P.T. Barnum is another story.) And if you still aren’t won over by my approval of this film, just pretend this slot went to my #26 pick, Logan, another Hugh Jackman joint from Fox (and the best film from a good year for superheroes).
24. A FANTASTIC WOMAN
I’m allowed to be a little biased. This year, any film set in South America had an advantage with me. A Fantastic Woman begins at the breathtaking Iguazú Falls, which I visited last summer. It also takes place in Santiago, where I also visited — in fact, I recognized several of its filming locations. So it’s possible I would have loved this film even if it was the Chilean equivalent of The Room.
But it isn’t. Daniela Vega stars as Marina, who lives happily with her older boyfriend, Orlando. After celebrating her birthday, Orlando grows ill and is later pronounced dead at the hospital. Marina is devastated, but given very little time to grieve — the police are suspicious of her, Orlando’s family hastily makes it clear she must vacate his apartment, and she is a persona non grata at the funeral. The sole reason for this is that Marina is a trans woman.
The whole world has a ways to go in accepting and understanding trans people as equal members of society. As shown in Sebastián Lelio’s drama, Chile has even farther to go than we do. Doctors and detectives treat Marina like a freak. Orlando’s family is particularly unkind. Orlando was married to a cisgender woman before he met Marina. Now none of these people can believe that his attraction to Marina was more than a perversion. Marina spots Orlando’s ghost at times, a common trope that has extra poignancy here — because not only has she lost her love, she’s lost one of very, very few people in the world who would defend her or support her. Daniela Vega’s central performance is luminescent. As Marina fights back against discrimination, she earns her place alongside the many other dynamic, defiant women of 2017.
23. MARJORIE PRIME
It’s hard to say why Marjorie Prime made my list without spoiling it, but I won’t do that, since I don’t think I know of anyone who’s seen it. (Perhaps because it has the word “prime” in the title, it is available for your streaming pleasure on Amazon.) Marjorie Prime is technically science fiction, but it doesn’t look or feel that way. Lois Smith, one of the most delightful actresses around, plays Marjorie, a widow kept company by an artificial replication of her late husband Walter, played by Jon Hamm. (It was her choice to bring him back looking like Jon Hamm, rather than at the age when he died. Who can blame her?)
It’s easy to imagine this plot spiraling into suspenseful sci-fi territory, but Marjorie Prime is only interested in character and conversation. Based on a play by Jordan Harrison, which Smith also starred in, Michael Almereyda’s film is about grief. Would the loss of a loved one be softened if we could keep talking to them — sharing old memories, saying things we wish we’d said? Or would these literal hauntings be too much for us to bear?
Geena Davis plays Marjorie’s daughter Tess, who is uncomfortable with having her dead father hanging around the house looking about the same age as she is now. Tim Robbins plays her husband Jon, who pushes the limits of how much artificial Walter can handle knowing about the real Walter. Which ghost does Marjorie want — the man he really was, or the man she’d like to remember? Marjorie Prime probes deeper than this setup might suggest, but even as the story grows sadder and more emotionally complex, it foregoes sci-fi tropes and sticks to its roots as a talky, heady chamber piece that just so happens to be set in the future. It’s not about the technology — it’s about us.
22. PERSONAL SHOPPER
Like a few of my other 2017 faves, Personal Shopper is an unconventional ghost story that refuses to “make sense” in traditional fashion. It follows an emotional logic, but anyone looking for an M. Night Shyamalan-style conclusion will leave in a huff.
Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper for a celebrity in Paris. She’s much more down-to-Earth than we expect someone in that job to be. She isn’t particularly impressed by the pricey dresses and jewelry, or Kyra’s fame. This might be because Maureen’s brother Lewis died recently of a heart attack. Maureen is grieving, of course, but there’s an added layer of menace — she has the same heart condition he had, so her mortality is also on the line. Maureen believes in spirits and tries to get in touch with Lewis. Instead, someone gets in touch with her — she receives alarming text messages from an unknown sender who seems to enjoy toying with her.
There’s a mystery to be solved in Personal Shopper, though it never feels like a thriller. There are ghosts, but it’s never a horror movie. For Maureen, these macabre touches are a part of life. They’re frightening, but they’re part of the fabric of her existence now that Lewis is gone. Olivier Assayas’ film blurs the line between inner turmoil and outside horror so we can never quite grasp what we’re seeing. He strands us in answerless confusion, just as life sometimes does when a loved one is lost.
What movie did I sandwich between an acclaimed international art film and the most prestigious picture of the year? Oh, you know — a shameless, underseen Alien knock-off with a title so generic most people would say “What’s that?” if you asked whether they’d seen it.
I had zero expectations going into Life. I probably wouldn’t have bothered, except that the cast (Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson) was strangely appealing for what otherwise appeared to be a B-movie. In fact, Life absolutely is a B-movie, with A+ cinematography and special effects. Daniel Espinosa’s film opens with a long take that impressively establishes an International Space Station manned by six astronauts. When a nearby spacecraft is damaged, the crew picks up its cargo — a soil sample that may contain the first evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. The “life” they find is very, very tiny — but as another movie about scientists playing with fire put it: “life finds a way.” The cute creature the crew dubs “Calvin” soon reveals itself as much smarter and stronger than anticipated, and… well, any set up of the plot is pointless, because we’ve seen this all before.
The most unlikely and unexpected film of 2017 to end up amongst my favorites, Life was the most purely “fun” movie I saw last year. It is shameless in its debt to Alien, but it never winks. The creature design is utterly convincing and spectacularly scary — it doesn’t look like an knock-off of Alien‘s xenomorph. Ridley Scott officially returned to the Alien franchise for the first time in 2017’s off-base Alien: Covenant, which unnecessarily complicates the series mythology and ends up making the entire franchise worse if you take it as canon. (So I don’t.) Life ends up being the xenomorph revamp we really craved, the best Alien movie since 1997, or maybe even James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens. I can’t promise more than guiltless pleasure.
20. THE POST
2017 was the last year that our recent political upheaval won’t be directly reflected in our movies. Most of 2017’s releases were underway well before November 2016, so even if current themes trickled in here and there, none of this was a direct response to Trump.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post is the exception. It’s a direct confrontation to the current administration, rushed through production and post-production in time for an awards season release. It’s the powerful story of a woman who takes a big risk in a male-dominated industry, standing up against a son of a bitch crook in the White House. It’s a reminder of a free press’ crucial role in any democracy, at a time when millions of these people need to hear it. (How many will hear it? That’s a less triumphant story.)
Steven Spielberg. Meryl Streep. Tom Hanks. An impressive roster of top-tier talent in front of and behind the camera at every level. It’s hard to argue that any other film of 2017 had this much prestige, and for a brief moment, it looked like this one was poised to dominate an uncertain awards seasons. Through little fault of its own, though, The Post turned out to be a little too relevant. This very drama is playing out every day — women against the White House, newspapers against the White House, the White House against America. The Post is right to call Katharine Graham brave, but she’s brave in a very privileged position, and her “I am woman, hear me roar” moment is more of a throat-clearing. Compare her to the truly rebellious leading ladies of I, Tonya, The Shape Of Water, Lady Bird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and it’s not too shocking that The Post didn’t catch fire this year.
The Post didn’t quite live up to its pedigree; that’s no reason to dismiss it. It’s a rousing ode to the freedoms America is currently forgetting, a call to action against the warped values of the current administration, and a comforting reminder that we got through this already once before, more or less. The Post reminded me of a truly exceptional piece of entertainment I saw in 2017. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” The man in charge of America’s narrative at this moment is spinning a toxic and dangerous web of lies for the rest of the world to read, and for future generations. It’s important for newspapers and entertainers and anyone else with a voice to provide a counter-narrative, something that proves the rest of us are still here and still opposed to so much of what’s happening. The Post is the first major movie to do that — the first of many, surely, that will prove history has its eye on us.
If I had to pick the best film title to describe 2017, Super Dark Times would be it. In its broadest strokes, the story is familiar — reckless high school kids toy with violence and learn a super dark lesson about why they should not. But the film probes deeper into teenage pathology than most such films do.
Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell) are best friends. They couldn’t be any more like the average teenage boy, as far as we can tell. They’re not the cool kids, but they’re not bullied. They’re not straight-A students, but they’re not failing. They’re horny, but they’re not jerks about it. Then, one day, out of boredom, they decide it would be fun to play with a samurai sword. Something super dark happens. The boys decide to bury the problem. It’s a super bad choice.
Super Dark Times is about teenage boys and their relationship with violence, which is topical right now and has been for quite a while. The same story could unfold just as easily, and perhaps more believably, if the samurai sword were replaced with a gun. But Super Dark Times avoids using firearms so as not to distract from everything else that goes into a deadly action. The film takes place in the early 1990s, before Columbine ushered in the modern day mass shooting, but ultimately brings to mind the mentality of young men taking out their rage on peers. A problematic friendship between two teen boys is at the center of it. Kevin Phillips’ film is messy and wildly uneven, but somehow that works when the same can be said of its teen protagonists. It unfolds with a touch of sweetness and nostalgia amidst the super darkness — Stranger Things hits puberty.
18. ALL THESE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
Like my #25 pick, The Greatest Showman, All These Sleepless Nights is a bit of a musical. Much of it is set to the EDM, and its characters dance along with the music, and the music tells us what they’re thinking and how they feel. But All These Sleepless Nights is also a documentary, in the sense that it features real people behaving as themselves without a script. In truth, it’s more like a Polish reality show about teenage hedonism than a tried-and-true doc, except that it’s feature film length and looks and sounds better than any “docudrama” you’ll see on TV.
Filmmaker Michał Marczak follows roughly a year in the life of his subject, Krzysztof Bagiński, and friends. They’re in their late teens or early 20s, born after the end of communism in Poland in 1989, the first generation to truly know the freedom of a democracy. Though filmed in Warsaw, All These Sleepless Night could easily be set in Los Angeles, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires, London… you get the idea.
The film opens with fireworks and a title card defining the “reminiscence bump,” which is our tendency to remember events that happened in late adolescence and early adulthood better than we remember anything else. All These Sleepless Nights has minimal drama and no plot, following its subjects through late night and early morning partying without consequence. Marczak’s camera bobs and weaves in and out of parties, down streets, with spectacular cinematography that makes us feel like part of the restless action. It’s a haze of drinks and drugs and hook-ups, but it’s a lot like the way we look back on our own reckless youth. Watching All These Sleepless Nights is like going back there for a couple of hours.
All These Sleepless Nights and Super Dark Times join Nocturama in a completely arbitrary trilogy I invented about aimless youths. (The titles sound great together, and I happened to watch them all in a row on Netflix.) Nocturama is about a bunch of French teenagers hanging out in a mall. They blast an eclectic mix of music, try on clothes — one even takes a bath right in the middle of the a department store. The mall is empty; they’ve snuck in at night.
If that sounds uneventful, you’re half-right — the midsection of Nocturama doesn’t have a lot going on in terms of drama. Personal conflicts are minimal and very little happens, for a while. What adds some intrigue is the fact that these kids belong to a terrorist cell. They’ve just set off a bunch of bombs in Paris, and now they’re being hunted by law enforcement. That adds a nice dose of gravity to an otherwise frivolous evening. Nocturama plays with time in interesting ways, showing us certain events out of order, depicting the same scene multiple times from other vantage points. Its teens are as casual about blowing up monuments as they are about shopping and hanging out. Bertrand Bonello never explores the ideology behind these kids’ involvement in some very adult crimes, because it doesn’t really matter why people kill and destroy. They think they have their reasons, but that doesn’t make it right. A few of the teen protagonists are justifiably frightened of potential consequences, but others act like it’s just another day at the mall. It’s rare to a subject as fraught as terrorism viewed with such a remove and lack of judgment.
Bonello brings a matter-of-fact pointlessness to the carnage in Nocturama, appearing indifferent to the lives and deaths of his characters, observing from a God-like distance. The finale is shockingly bleak, testing our sympathy for characters we’d consider “the bad guys” in virtually any other story. This pitch-black finale is a profoundly uncomfortable experience, the perfect counter-narrative to the evil of radicalization and the efficacy of justice. It doesn’t make terrorism sympathetic, but it does illuminate the other side a bit.
Heard of it? Almost exactly one year ago, Get Out emerged to rave reviews and audience cheers, and there was some talk about it might hang on until the following awards season for its original screenplay, at least. That seemed like a long shot at the time, but Get Out has remained one of the year’s most acclaimed films, nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture. It’s pretty fucking rare to even see a horror movie with African-American heroes, let alone see that movie become a major threat at the Academy Awards. That’s a treat in its own right, especially in this political moment.
The best visual to sum up 2017 might be Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris descending into the dark nothingness of the Sunken Place, while Catherine Keener’s hypnotherapist watches dispassionately from a comfortable, privileged place. A lot of us can relate to that right now.
Jordan Peele’s audacious debut leans heavily into comedy — it’s a bit more of a social satire than a thriller, but the horror elements work because the racism it depicts is some genuine, nasty business. Get Out contains a few of 2017’s most indelible screen moments, like Allison Williams drinking milk, dressed in white, and listening to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, or Betty Gabriel’s eerie, tearful delivery of a whole bunch of “no.” It may not win many Oscars, but it’ll still go down as the definitive movie of the year.
As bleak as its title suggests, Loveless is a story of separation. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are finalizing a bitter divorce. Neither wants custody of their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Their wish is granted when Alyosha disappears without a trace.
Zhenya and Boris aren’t happy that their son is missing. They search for him, cooperating with police. They seem genuinely concerned about his safety. But they also resent the way this thrusts them back together, and they don’t discuss where he’ll live if he comes back. Their marriage is loveless, their parenting is loveless — wherever Alyosha is, we can’t help wondering if he’s better off.
This Best Foreign Language Film nominee comes from Russia, without love. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film is a critique of the country’s leadership under Vladimir Putin, depicting it as a cold, capitalist place utterly devoid of human feeling. The only character we feel for is Alyosha, who seems too sensitive to survive in such a loveless place. (This blond boy vanishes while wearing a red coat, which makes me feel like my #6 film of the year, Rift, is a spiritual sequel.) Loveless centers on tragedy, but life goes on without Alyosha about the same as it would if he were still around. Its final scene suggests that Russia is stuck, unable to move forward or connect with its people. It’s no place for a hopeful child.
14. BRAD’S STATUS
Ben Stiller has played a neurotic middle-aged guy plenty of times — he did it in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected) this year. But Mike White’s writing might be the very best match for Stiller’s trademark blend of angst and outrage, providing a core of contemplative sadness that’s missing from most Stiller performances.
Brad’s Status is the grown-up version of the social media-drenched Ingrid Goes West. Lots of millennials have noticed their parents spend more time on Facebook than they do — our protagonist’s FOMO is even more pathetic coming from a middle-aged adult. Brad has a fulfilling career, a charming wife, and a smart, well-behaved, driven teenage son, so naturally he spends most of his time thinking about what he doesn’t have, including: his own private plane, sexy threesomes in an island paradise, a stylish spread in a lifestyle magazine, and the best table at the best restaurant (because he’s on TV). Brad is the “loser” amongst his college buddies, who are all extremely well-off — according to social media, at least. Brad’s Status dramatizes the Instagram-ready lives of Brad’s friends, played by Luke Wilson, Michael Sheen, Jermaine Clement, and Mike White himself, heightening the opulence and privilege to a comic pitch. In Brad’s voice over, White nails the sad stream of thoughts that run through our heads as we scroll idly through everyone else’s bliss.
Anyone with a Facebook profile will identify with Brad’s emotionally turbulent social media addiction. White has shrewd insights into fragile egos in the age of likes and follows. That stuff is great, but the moments Brad connects (or fails to connect) with people in the real world are where Brad’s Status really nails its humanity. Austin Abrams, as Brad’s son, is one of the most believable teenage characters to come along in ages, providing this film its heart. Stiller’s performance made me profoundly uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. I had to pause the movie several times due to the intensity of my wincing.
13. BEACH RATS
Call Me By Your Name was 2017’s big gay independent release, while Beach Rats flew under the radar. Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats could be Call Me By Your Name sour twin, which also centers on a young man grappling with his sexuality over the summer while still living at home.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) has no job and no direction. He’s content to spend his days and nights getting high with three buddies, all rough-and-tumble Brooklyn types. They commit petty crimes and play handball and joke around, and not one of them expresses a want or need to do something else. Frankie’s dad is terminally ill, his sister is starting to show an interest in boys, and his mom is getting fed up with her son’s freeloading. To escape, Frankie chats with men online and occasionally meets them for sex — on the abandoned beach or in a cheap motel room. Frankie claims he doesn’t know what he likes, sexually, but more likely he just doesn’t want to admit it.
Call Me By Your Name is absent of homophobia. In Beach Rats, Frankie’s homophobia is internalized. Needless to say, his friends aren’t the most enlightened crew out there, but Frankie too afraid to accept his sexuality himself, let alone see if anyone else could accept it. He doesn’t have anyone around to influence him in any other way.
While watching fireworks on the boardwalk, Frankie meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein). She thinks the fireworks are beautiful; he says they’re the same every night. Frankie’s futile attempt to commit to her is the only ongoing relationship in his life — he’s too ashamed to keep in touch with any male paramours. Like Call Me By Your Name, the heterosexual romance in Beach Rats is more than just a plot point. Simone is alluring, but Frankie’s too repressed not to fuck things up over and over. He’s not a bad guy underneath all that, but he behaves like one, so what’s the difference? If Frankie can’t take ownership of his feelings and admit who he is, he’ll be stuck in the same place day after day, watching the same fireworks.
12. THE DISASTER ARTIST
“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen.”
Here’s the thing — my Top 10 this year is really a Top 12, because my list doesn’t feel completely complete without these last two titles.
One of the year’s best films is the story of the worst film ever made. It’s easy to take cheap shots at The Room, a fascinatingly inane drama that has become one of the century’s most beloved comedies. Writer/director James Franco does take those cheap shots, enough to satisfy anyone who wants to watch The Room with a Hollywood-approved “isn’t this terrible?” wink at every turn.
I enjoy mocking The Room as much as the next guy, and I enjoyed revisiting the movie’s fantastically misguided moments as reenacted by comedians who are intentionally going for laughs this time around. But I could take or leave all that if the film didn’t bring Wiseau to life as more than just a punching bag for more fortunate and talented folk. What stuck with me since seeing The Disaster Artist is Wiseau himself, or at least the Wiseau James Franco brings to life. It might be an epically bad performance if we didn’t have documented evidence that there is a human being out there who is a lot like this. It’s way too ridiculous and way too over-the-top to believe an actual human behaves this way and believes what he does, yet Wiseau is such a unique oddball that it’s also impossible to imagine anyone making him up. These superficial aesthetics are beguiling — the way he talks, the way he laughs — but The Disaster Artist is only as good at it is because it makes the amateur filmmaker’s quest so relatable.
Wiseau is a weirdo, but everybody who’s lived in Los Angeles long enough has met someone like him. The entertainment industry is filled to the brim with oddballs who see themselves differently than anyone else. Some of them are legitimately famous; one is president. On the outskirts are people like Tommy, wannabes who are short on talent, craft, and experience, whose lust for stardom fights to outweigh all that. Greg, our protagonist, recognizes that in Tommy immediately; he’s drawn to him for reasons he can’t quite articulate. Most of us have enough shame to prevent us from truly going for it the way Tommy does. Tommy has none of it.
The Disaster Artist wouldn’t work if Greg was Daniel Day-Lewis or Brad Pitt, or even Jamie Dornan. But as played by Dave Franco, Greg is as generic as Hollywood pretty boys come, with no discerning talent or feature to make him more likely to “make it” than anyone else. That doesn’t stop him — it doesn’t stop any of them. The Room‘s cast and crew mock Wiseau behind his back (and sometimes to his face), but they’re desperate enough to take his money and make his movie because they aren’t exactly masters of the craft themselves. Who are they to judge Tommy Wiseau? Who are any of us? Is it more pathetic to be the writer, producer, director, and star of a uniquely terrible movie, or to be a bit player in it, making snarky remarks from the sidelines?
Every artist knows what it’s like to think they’re working on a masterpiece. And almost every artist knows the sting of falling short of these expectations, producing work that is misguided, misunderstood, or just plain embarrassing. I’m not sure if Wiseau actually does know that sting, or if he genuinely believes The Room‘s success as a failure was part of the plan all along. But I do know that despite his bizarre tics and outrageous proclamations, Franco’s Wiseau captures the raw yearning and naked ambition at the heart of every artist, disaster or master.
The Disaster Artist simplifies the moral of its story — entertainment is entertainment, whether it’s good or so bad it’s good. It’s easy to imagine it as a greater satire of the industry, or a more biting critique. Franco lets his characters (and the audience) off easy by hinting at, but never deeply engaging with, Wiseau’s deeper, darker turmoil. Maybe that’s just kindness. Wiseau hasn’t followed up The Room‘s unlikely success with more movies about rage, betrayal, and despair, airing his weird dirty laundry for all the world to see. He’s content to wallow in the fame The Room provided him with, which is what it was always meant to do.
A lot of people in Hollywood aren’t real storytellers. The story they’re interested in is how great they look rolling up to a red carpet in a limousine. The Disaster Artist explores this dark, doomed dream with lightness and levity, but Franco’s performance masterfully hints at stardom’s rotten core. If you’re laughing at Tommy Wiseau without recognizing yourself in his hopes and struggles, it’s because you haven’t taken a long enough look in the mirror. Go take another selfie. The Disaster Artist thrusts a piece of trash into the spotlight, and forces us to look at it from every angle until we can’t help but agree that it’s beautiful.
11. THE SQUARE
“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
Artists played a large role in many of my favorite films this year. The Square is not about one particular artist, but about the nature and function of art itself. (If that sounds awful, let me assure you upfront that it’s also hilarious.)
Museums are a place for quiet, respectful contemplation. Many characters in The Square act accordingly. Writer/director Ruben Östlund, however, is far from austere in his examination of the highfalutin art scene. An artist named Julian (played by Dominic West) has a Reynolds Woodcock-sized ego. He attempts to speak very seriously about his work, but is interrupted by a man with Tourette’s syndrome shouting profanities and nonsense. The audience, the moderator, and Julian himself are all too polite (more likely, too cowardly) to speak up, even though it’s completely ruining Julian’s interview. No one can decide whether removing him from the room is morally right or wrong, so nobody does anything.
The Square treats art with sober respect, but absurd things happen around each piece. Careless staffers ruin expensive-looking statues. A janitor accidentally sweeps up piles of gravel underneath a neon sign reading “You Have Nothing,” which is also meant to be art. A chimpanzee appears in an already-awkward seduction scene following an art party. A man and a woman have an argument next to a pile of desks that threatens to topple at any moment, with audio that contradicts what we see. An upcoming exhibition is unwisely promoted with a viral video entitled “Blonde Child Beggar Gets Blown Into Pieces,” the very opposite of what the piece itself stands for. The juxtaposition of life’s random chaos brushing up against this “very serious” artwork — much of which is totally ridiculous already — strikes a highly original comedic tone. It’s one of the most distinct comedies in years.
Claes Bang plays Christian, the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm. A new exhibition, titled “The Square,” seeks to challenge visitors’ indifference to the struggles of strangers. This is, of course, a lofty goal — both preposterous and fascinating. “The Square” asks patrons to be kinder to each other, without limits — anyone in “The Square” can ask anyone else for any favor, and they must agree. That’s nice in theory, but a nightmare in practice. Just by stepping into “The Square,” you could end up indebted to a stranger for life.
The degrees to which we do and do not help our fellow man connects otherwise episodic elements of The Square, which deftly shifts between mundane and surreal. Pedestrians callously ignore a donation request that could save a human life. (We’ve all done it.) Moments later, a woman screams, drawing only a few disinterested glances. In The Square, help is complicated, if not downright costly. Christian tries to aid the frightened woman, only to end up losing his phone and wallet in the process. Later, he reluctantly offers to buy a beggar something to eat; she insists on a chicken ciabatta, hold the onions, and complains when her order isn’t right. It’s lovely to bestow a random act of kindness on those in need, but those who do so know it isn’t often as easy to give as we’d like. We do it to feel good about ourselves, and maybe to make someone’s day a little brighter, but what we give is rarely enough. Some want time, in addition to money, and we don’t always think we can afford that. We want helping to be as swift and transactional as can be, but the problems we throw money at are infinitely more complicated than we’d like them to be. Nothing that’s meant to be simple is.
The Square is populated with smaller characters who need help, while our main characters have the means to offer it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Often, they do what seems like “the right thing,” but it doesn’t work out. Does that mean they’re obligated to take “the right thing” a step or two further, or can one half-hearted stab at charity be enough? The Square‘s characters seek deep meaning in the simplest objects — a square, a pile of dust — because that’s art. Meanwhile, they hope that complex societal problems can be solved by half-assed gestures of goodwill. Christian seeks justice for his stolen phone, because thieves are “bad” and he is “good. But he’s ignoring a much larger injustice — his cushy job will replace this pricey bauble. Christian is already so much better off than anyone who would steal his phone.
It’s easy to imagine an even more satirical version of The Square in which Christian and friends are nothing but pompous narcissists, but Östlund is capable of much more intricate shading (as he showed us in Force Majeur, too). Christian is genuinely passionate about his work and seems to truly love art — but in order to sell it to the masses, he must rely on total bullshit. He rehearses a speech that contains a “spontaneous” deviation from his notecards. He struggles to explain what the hell one of his own advertisements actually means. He hires a couple of “hip” young marketers bent on going viral, but they’re oblivious to how their approach clashes with the artist’s thoughtful, humanitarian intent. Christian even uses direct marketing to recover his stolen wallet and phone, but he doesn’t think through the consequences. His plan is technically a success, but it puts an actual poor child in a precarious position, comically mirrored by the exploding beggar girl. Maybe art isn’t the only thing we should take some time to think about.
As many laugh-out-loud jabs at the pretentious art world as there are, Östlund also displays genuine curiosity about art’s purpose in an economically divided society, suggesting art can be important and absurd all at once. Of course, there’s an inherent irony in “The Square” exhibition, a call for equality aimed squarely at the upper crust. How often do those in need visit a contemporary art museum? More likely, they’d be turned away at the door. A viral video depicting a fictional beggar’s absurd death causes an uproar on the internet. People are outraged at the insensitivity of this creative work. Meanwhile, they turn a blind eye to the real needs of real people all around them.
In addition to these moral ironies, The Square features a hilarious comedic turn from Elisabeth Moss and a great aural cameo from Justice that could easily be excised from the film and used as a Tesla commercial. I also have yet to mention The Square‘s most dynamic scene — practically a short film unto itself — which is terrifying, drily funny, smart, surreal, and almost entirely disconnected from the rest of this story. In it, an immersive work of “art” pushes the boundaries of spectators’ comfort zones. The artist, played by Terry Notary, impersonates a wild creature — and he nails its alarming unpredictability. The audience grows from amused to wary to stunned to deeply troubled, because no one knows the proper response when performance and pretense cross the borderline of reality. These well-off, sophisticated adults sit, cowed, like frightened children. The artist proceeds to violently attack a woman, seemingly with the intent of raping her. She screams as she’s being violated, but no one even dares to look, let alone respond to her cries for help, for a moment. They know that helping her comes with the risk of being attacked themselves, and they weigh the pros and cons of rescuing a vulnerable person longer than they should. The Square is 2017’s funniest comedy, but it leaves room for chilling reminders of how inhumane humankind can be.
Find the Top Ten of 2017 here.Here is every 2017 film I saw, ranked, starting with the very best.