Top 50 of 2017

If there is a theme in my favourite viewings from 2017 it is that I filled in many blind-spots or gaps in my personal viewing within the largely recognized canon of the greatest films ever made. How had I not seen Rebel Without a Cause? or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? or Pretty in Pink? That last one is absolutely great and I’ll hear no lip from anyone. There’s also a recurring theme of melodrama which coincided with the Lincoln Center’s recent retrospective series “Emotion Pictures”, which was without a doubt the most cinematically fulfilling experience I’ve had this year with older movies. I don’t live in New York, but I took it upon myself to watch loads of the films that were playing there from home and eventually wrote an article on the series for The Film Stage. Finally, and on a much sadder note we lost Jonathan Demme. When I grieve I tend to engage with the art they made as a way of coping, and I took it upon myself to watch a handful of his films that I already loved and a few that I hadn’t seen before. It becomes exhausting characterising a year based on who we lost, but since Chantal Akerman passed away that’s exactly how things have been in my case. On this list you’ll see a lot of the canon, new experiences with old favourites like Jacques Rivette, and multiple films featuring Bob Dylan. So long 2017. May 2018 bring virtue and cinema.

*One note Films from 2016 and 2017 are not eligible. Everything else is fair game.

1. Up Down Fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995)

2. Dogfight (Nancy Savoca, 1991)

3. Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955)
4. Privilege (Yvonne Rainer, 1990)

5. Week-End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

6. Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985)
7. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)
8. The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

9. Shanghai Express (Josef Von Sternberg, 1932)
10. Scarlet Empress (Josef Von Sternberg, 1934)
11. When the Tenth Month Comes (Dang Nhat Minh, 1984)

`12. Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself!!! The Heist (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1995)

13. Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967)
14. Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1990)

15. Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

16. Ley Lines (Takashi Miike, 1999)
17. Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944)
18. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

19. Film About a Woman Who… (Yvonne Rainer, 1974)

20. The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1945)

21. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
22. Dishonoured (Josef Von Sternberg, 1931)
23. By the Sea (Angelina Jolie, 2015)
24. Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
25. Bride of Chucky (Ronny Yu, 1998)

26. Forget Me Not (Kei Horie, 2015)
27. Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980)

28. L’atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934)
29. Deep Cover (Bill Duke, 1992)
30. Graveyard of Honour (Kinji Fukasaku, 1975)
31. Rainy Dog (Takashi Miike, 1997)

32. The Tale of Zatoichi (Kenji Misumi, 1962)
33. Where Is My Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)
34. Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

35. The Blue Angel (Josef Von Sternberg, 1930)
36. Industrial Symphony #1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted (David Lynch, 1990)
37. Morocco (Josef Von Sternberg, 1930)
38. The Young Master (Jackie Chan, 1980)
39. Brides of Dracula (Terrence Fisher, 1960)
40. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
41. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)
42. A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy, 2009)
43. Desire Me (Various, 1947)
44. The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (Kazuo Maori, 1962)

45. Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
46. Renaldo and Clara (Bob Dylan, 1978)
47. Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986)
48. The New Tale of Zatoichi (Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963)
49. Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1988)
50. Gone With the Wind (Various, 1939)

Best Short Films
Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (Jim Henson, 1977)
The Clown’s Pup (Dave Fleischer, 1919)
Snow-White (Dave Fleischer, 1933)
Minnie the Moocher (Dave Fleischer, 1932)
Bimbo’s Initiation (Dave Fleischer, 1931)
Koko’s Earth Control (Dave Fleischer, 1928)

Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike, 2017)

“What are you?”
“…a monster”

In the opening moments of Takashi Miike’s newest film, Blade of the Immortal, Manji (Takuya Kimura) slaughters one hundred men in an act of revenge for having just seen his sister murdered at the hands of a nameless villain. It’s a beautiful sequence draped in a colour-palette that can only be described as black and cobalt with fluid fight choreography and excellent geographic mapping so the viewer is never lost in the cut or the location. But behind all the violence on screen are insert shots (scar-tissue on a wounded eye, a splash of blood across a bare chest) that make viewers never forget what they are watching is indeed a violent act. In an auto-critique of his own career Miike brandishes himself as the monster by personifying his 100 films with the 100 men that were killed in an act of revenge. Miike, himself, is known as a provocateur of abstract surrealism that frequently mingles with sex, drugs, and violence. The question remains however, drizzled in the machinations of his work asking viewers and himself alike, “What is violence for?”, and with Blade of the Immortal Takashi Miike once again gives suggestions, while letting the answer gracefully float away into the air.

After satisfying his bloodlust and his quest for revenge Manji is cursed with immortality. For each life he has taken he must live out that life-span giving weight to his violent actions. Each nameless, faceless unimportant character slaughtered in the opening comes with consequences. No act of violence exists in a nutshell. Violence extends and poisons beyond itself. This is why Manji is cursed and why Miike subtly condemns his viewers for taking part in the violent cinema he has created. Takashi Miike is an auteurist only in the sense that he is a moralist and within his cinema characters reckon with violence as an extension of their personalities, their job and their life. In Takashi Miike’s best film, Dead or Alive 2: Birds, a pair of yakuza hitmen (played by V-Cinema icons Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi) hole up in an elementary school while they are on the run. Despite their peaceful setting violence interjects, and tears at the fabric of their reality. In a sly scene of audience critique and on the nature of persistent violence; the yakuza hitmen perform a play for the elementary schoolchildren and throughout this play there are frequent edits between the audience laughing at the absurdities on stage mixed with violent attacks from the yakuza in real time who are hunting Show and Riki. We’re the audience. Does violence then exist because we lap it up like warm tea? Or is it something more elemental in the human psyche? These questions are unclear, but he’s been grappling with them throughout his entire career.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds

Dead or Alive 2: Birds

Takashi Miike’s interest in unraveling the ball of yarn on violent cinema can perhaps be traced to his interest in the films of the Japanese genre filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku from the 1970s. Fukasaku made his name directing yakuza pictures which depicted a post-war Japan’s crisis of masculinity in the wake of the atomic bomb. In the opening scene of the first Battles Without Honor or Humanity film American G.I.s are depicted in an act of rape on a young Japanese Woman, in an intended image to double as metaphor for the state of Japan after the atomic attack from the United States. What is first portrayed as a matter of regaining a national identity through Yakuza action against the evil American infantrymen quickly becomes a parable of a snake eating its own tail in the pursuit of not only a masculine position of power, but also monetary gain and control over the resources of Japanese cities. But these films unspool in a way that eventually shows the Yakuza not as an incendiary force for justice, but as a domino effect where each and every Japanese man is taking to an early grave, and the women who support these men are left to pick up the pieces. In these pictures, yakuza business is handled through economic pressure and violence inflicted upon rival gangs by other hitmen, but when powerful yakuza fall prey to death’s cool hand and eager young men take their place a blood debt has to be repaid so a cycle of revenge repeats itself and eats on Japanese men with no real sign of stoppage. Fukasaku argues with these films that the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki essentially opened a wound that would never stop bleeding.

With Blade of the Immortal, Takashi Miike is making a similar argument, but in the past tense of the edo period Samurai picture. This is before World War II, but the symptom where violence only begets more bloodshed is firmly in place. When Manji is eventually confronted by a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) to commit an act of violence on behalf of her murdered family Manji is hesitant, because with his new immortality he doesn’t take life lightly anymore and he doesn’t kill for any simple reason, but she gets to him. A family resemblance to his younger sister convinces him to take on the task of avenging Rin’s family, but not before discussing the logic behind killing someone to the poor girl. He wants her to understand that if she commits an act of revenge so too will someone do the same to her. If blood is spilled it must be paid back evenly. Manji carries with him the scars of grief and battle and they do not go away. Everyone dies eventually except the man who has killed so often he becomes a legend. A fairy tale. A god. A Demon.

In Blade of the Immortal, a frequently occurring technique is the insert shot of flesh torn in half, scarred, burned or mutilated in a way that it doesn’t look human any longer. Unlike the gutless invulnerability of superheros in Western Culture Manji heals slowly, and he carries the battle on his body by way of scars that are always there to remind him of the unjust murders he committed in the name of his fallen sister. These people Manji fights, now in the name of Rin, are equally torn apart by violence. One swordsman appears to have three heads, but he merely carries corpses on his back. A close-up is used to show his disfigured face, and much like Manji his body reflects violence. It’s a vessel for which life ends. Along their journey Manji and Rin confront many others, some with cleaner skin than others, but Manji wilts under the blood, viscous and ripped apart flesh of his body until there’s hardly anything left. Miike doesn’t pull any punches as things reach a climax (with a few bloated, unnecessary side plots here and there) frequently zeroing in on Manji’s immortal body as it falls apart, but impossibly perseveres. When Manji finally confronts the man who wronged Rin, Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), he’s barely a man anymore, more zombie than alive, and there is no elegant duel between sword wielding warriors. It is merely an act of execution, a job being completed, and a loss of life. It is with blunt honesty that Miike displays this final dance not as something worthwhile or justifiable, but another violent act in a long string of violent acts that Manji has committed during his lifetime, and some day Rin will die because of his actions. This is the parable of violence. This is man’s curse.

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Traditionally in comics Wonder Woman is an ambassador to the world of man to show humanity the Amazonian way & lead them to peace and prosperity. In an instance of meta commentary on the character Diana, Princess of Themyscira, has become a titanic figure & a beacon within Popular Culture who signifies humility & change. She has crossed worlds & become not only a heroic figure in comics, but in reality as well. Created in the 1940s by William Moulton Marstown for DC Comics, Wonder Woman, was intended to be a vision of Super-heroic Women that he hoped would one day rule the world in favour of man. Immediately Wonder Woman had ties to Feminism through her mere existence. Years later, outside of the realm of comic books, feminist organizations bought into her image as one of power, empathy & hope for a future where one day women could be seen as true equals to men. Wonder Woman famously showed up on the cover of first issue of Ms. Magazine with a headline that read “Wonder Woman for President”. If only. Even recently the image of Diana was used as an honorary figure for the empowerment of Women & Girls by the United Nations until protests forced the UN to change course. There is something within the nature of Diana that has stabilized her iconography throughout the years as a totem of feminism & with the persistence and inability to treat one another fairly and equally I don’t believe she’ll be going anywhere anytime soon. Patty Jenkins’s newly released film is the next chapter in the Diana’s life.
My heart soared in the opening images of Wonder Woman as a helicopter shot took us through Paradise Island. With lush cinematography from Matthew Jensen & wide framing from Jenkins, Themyscira is awash in pure awe. Untarnished by the hands of technological innovations the island seems to be symbiotic within the Amazons architecture and culture. They haven’t insisted the land is theirs and sculpted it into their vision, but merely rest within the island & are grateful for its luxuries. These initial touches are important to establishing the possibilities of the Amazonian culture as significantly more refined and empathetic towards nature than our own. As the camera tracks through the island we see Women, including many Women of colour, going about their daily tasks, but in the midst of all these beautiful, strong idealistic figures there is a girl running away from her teacher in hopes to see the Amazon’s training for a potential battle. Jenkins uses close up shots of the little girl’s face and she is eager, inquisitive, mischievous and ultimately full of wonder at all the Women she lives with that she can look toward for guidance, strength or love. I look to myself in these opening moments and consider how truly magical it must be to never want for role models or family.
The young Diana is captivated by her sisters on the island & likewise Jenkins shoots these Women with pure reverence frequently capturing them through slow motion in a mid air twist or aerial strike. Diana wants nothing more than to grow up like her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) & become a warrior, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), is wary of her daughters interest in swords and shields. Hippolyta shows nothing but compassion for her young daughter, and strives to make her learn that being bloodthirsty and craving the battlefield is not a romantic or righteous goal. It was essential in the creation of this movie to tap into Wonder Woman’s true empathy & sincere love for others & in these opening moments on Themyscira a guidebook is created for the character & within her origin her compassion is passed down from mother to daughter and from the creators of the film into the movie itself. This runs in direct contrast to the DC Comics more recent superhero fare which saw Superman break necks and Batman torture prisoners. Wonder Woman is a breath of fresh air and a closer companion to the sincerity of the Christopher Reeve Superman vehicle of the 1970s.
We jump forward a few years after these scenes & Diana (Gal Gadot) is now a young woman. She bears the traits we’ve come to associate with the character & her mother’s lessons of empathy have not gone to waste, and neither have Antiope’s abilities at molding soldiers in case of crisis. Perhaps the most important feature of Wonder Woman in terms of cinematic language is a consideration of patience towards delivering on the themes that make the character who she is & through images & moments Diana becomes whole as not only a demigoddess Warrior, but a helper of men, women and children everywhere. The first instance of this happening is when Diana is engaging in combat practice with Antiope. They duel with one another in close combat & when Diana gets the upper hand & wounds Antiope by mistake this moment is not met with gloating, pride or accommodation but, one of sincerest regret. Diana apologizes for hurting her Aunt & is shaken up about the small wound she created for many more scenes to come. Diana is genuinely affected by hurting people. She is not a bloodthirsty war dog, as she is sometimes foolishly portrayed in the comics.
When Diana is considering the accidental hurt she has caused her Aunt a plane rips through the idyllic blue skies of Themyscira & brings about a change that the Amazons never expected. Diana notices first & dives into action to save the fallen Steve Trevor (played by an always charming Chris Pine). Trevor thinks he’s seen an angel & to his credit she’s shot that way by Jenkins who employs a p.o.v shot while Diana is bathed in a shimmering white light. But Steve Trevor’s arrival brought with him the Germans who were following him as he had just stolen a book by their most prestigious chemical weapons officer (Elena Anaya), and when they land on the beach they take with them many lives, before the Amazons are able to beat back the march of war.
Diana sees the arrival of man as a calling & after Steve Trevor explains to the Amazons that the world at large is drowning in the blood of combat she takes it upon herself to go to the front-lines and destroy Ares, the god of war she assumes is the root cause of all this destruction. Hippolyta is adamant that her daughter not be swallowed up by the evil of man’s world, even going as far as saying “They don’t deserve you”, but Diana has felt a reckoning within herself and she is not made to simply look aside as tragedies take place. Her sheer will to help is too overpowering & in disobeying her mother she decides to ride with Trevor into battle and keep the world from capsizing. Hippolyta explains that her daughter’s departure is her greatest sorrow & as viewers we echo her sentiments as Themyscira is truly a magical place capable of an awe-inducing glory notably absent from today’s crop of Blockbuster cinema.
When they arrive in London it is very noticeably a shit hole & Steve Trevor proclaims “it’s an acquired taste”. Diana is a fish out of water in the middle portion of the film both wowed by the simple pleasures of the world like ice cream & outright offended by the sexism imposed upon her. Wonder Woman’s feminist edges are inherent within the character, but when faced with 1910s London she sees firsthand the ways in which she is underestimated, shackled and her desires kept at bay. Diana constantly has to prove herself in the eyes of her male colleagues, which both rings true as a commentary on the daily lives of women everywhere & with the idea of a Superhero movie about a woman, but she does so with grace, class & occasionally the wrath needed to actually get things done. In the film’s best sequence Trevor, Diana and their band of misfit soldiers who would rather be anything else, approach the front-lines. Diana insists upon driving ahead and freeing a small village from enslavement & torture, but is driven down by Trevor & the other men that it is impossible to change the course of war single-handedly. Diana doesn’t listen and marches forward. In beautiful slow motion, the best usage of it since probably Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise or even The Wachowskis sisters Matrix trilogy, she is captured repelling bullets, landing non-lethal blows and disrupting machine gun fire before entering the war ravaged community to free the people from the German rule. Slow motion is an important tool within this movie to capture heroics. Comparatively, modern action in movies about superheroes never capture the otherwordly abilities of their heroes in a satisfying way. Frequently, these action sequences are shot in drab surroundings and use mechanical fight choreography, close-ups, and editing influenced by Paul Greengrass’s now famous shakey-cam techniques established within his Jason Bourne films. Jenkins, however, shoots Diana with grace, constantly giving her the space to move freely while capturing her athleticism and her thought process within combat. Diana’s lasso is an added plus as it gives viewers a literal map to follow with its glowing presence and circular movement creating momentum as the hero moves forward. Jenkins also uses space well, shooting her action frequently in medium shots and never chopping the image up to obscure the movement of the character. If there is any complaint to be had here it is that the CGI is sometimes lacking, but this is not a dealbreaker.
Wonder Woman’s structural obligations could have gotten in the way of a a compelling, brisk, oftentimes moving first two acts, but in the final third when Diana confronts Ares and begins deliberating on the questions of war, humanity & her place as a demi-goddess within it the films virtues only deepen. Diana is convinced that if she were to destroy Ares that the hearts of men would be cured of their need for destruction, but the answers she finds awaken a newer understanding within her. One of choice & love. Ares is not merely the only focal point for War & questions of it cannot be solved with the dissolution of one man. In a metaphorical response that is possibly unintentional, but nevertheless striking, an explanation is given for our current national climate with Trump’s existence and his presidency as not an extension of only his evil, but the evil of man, much like the war is not merely a creation of the gods. The blame also belongs in the hands of humanity. The darkness and light colliding within ourselves is the lesson Diana must learn on Earth as an ambassador and as a guide for peace. War is above one single reasoning, but rests within us. Diana chooses to be her very best, but Steve Trevor and his men who also sacrifice show us we have to be loving as well. It is not merely the role of one person to save the world, but the duty of all of us. It is a moral obligation of such smouldering effervescent purity. That this statement can exist in a Hollywood production in 2017, and not only a film from a line of studio products that consistently undercut any artistic qualities or statements, but one that could have real cultural impact within the lives of folks, especially girls, everywhere is quite simply Wondrous.