At the mid-way point of 2017, the usual cinematic trends continue, with the best theatrical offerings from January through June mostly festival circuit offerings from the year prior. In the following list of my favorite titles to date, most of these are festival titles (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes) from 2017 still awaiting general release.
20. The Wound – Dir. John Trengove (South Africa)
South African director John Trengove, who has been working in television for the past decade, unveils a brave and incredibly moving portrait of repressed sexuality amongst a group of men in a dwindling rural mountain community. The film features singer Nakhane Toure in an exceptional screen debut. After shoring up at Sundance, this will be released theatrically by Kino Lorber in August.
19. Good Time – Dir. Josh & Ben Safdie (US)
While it didn’t seem to wow the Cannes jury, Robert Pattinson gives a mightily impressive performance in this gritty cat and mouse number, eluding the police following a botched bank robbery through an undesirable NYC nightscape. This too is receiving a release next month.
18. A Fantastic Woman – Dir. Sebastian Lelio (Chile)
Lelio follows up 2013 crowd-pleaser Gloria with this tale of a trans woman who must pick up the pieces after the death of her older lover despite his family’s homophobic treatment. Lelio discovers the type of star in Daniela Vega in this Almodovar-esque tale which puts many high-profile English projects featuring trans characters (outside of Tangerine) to shame.
17. Have a Nice Day – Dir. Liu Jian (China)
Premiering in the Berlin competition, Liu Jian’s noir-ish animated film didn’t seem to make much of a mark, but rest assured this gangster thriller is destined to find a cult audience once it trickles into a theatrical release.
16. Where is Kyra? – Dir. Andrew Dosunmu (US)
Andrew Dosunmu reunites with DP Bradford Young on his third title, the strikingly photographed and acted Where is Kyra?, which features Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the most effective performances of her celebrated career. Lovers of alienation cinema should fall in love with this gloomy portrait of a decayed Brooklyn, where the borough absorbs these lost souls like shadows in the dark.
15. Closeness – Dir. Kantemir Balagov (Russia)
An impressive debut from Kantemir Balagov, this tense period piece set in late 90’s Russia examine virulent anti-Semitism and misogyny when a bride and her groom are abducted for ransom, putting considerable strain on the groom’s family and their community.
14. A Ghost Story – Dir. David Lowery (US)
When her husband dies, a bereaved wife is followed by his ghost in this quiet, existentialist film on loss and existence in a world defined only by constant ebb and flow. Being released at the top of the month.
13. On the Beach at Night Alone – Dir. Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
Of his three 2017 titles, Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone delivers one of his strongest films in a prolific filmography (it netted Kim Min-hee Best Actress out of Berlin), concerning a depressed actress struggling with the fallout of an adulterous affair with a famed director, a man not as profoundly affected by the ordeal as she was.
12. Bright Sunshine In – Dir. Claire Denis (France)
Claire Denis delivers her version of a romantic comedy with this stunning showcase for Juliette Binoche, which was inspired by Roland Barthes. Binoche plays an unlucky in love woman getting closer and closer to the verge of a nervous breakdown through her various interactions with men who use her satisfy their lust as she searches for love.
11. Get Out – Dir. Jordan Peele (US)
There may not be a better success story from 2017 than Jordan Peele’s daring debut, Get Out, which re-tools The Stepford Wives to examine contemporary racism. As creepy and disturbing as it is upsetting, Peele steers genre back into the subversive arena where it belongs.
10. Mudbound – Dir. Dee Rees (US)
Dee Rees returns with her second theatrical feature in Mudbound, an adaptation of a novel by Hillary Jordan concerning a neighboring white and black family in rural Mississippi as they both welcome the return of their sons from WWII. A stellar ensemble cast across the board with stand outs from Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige bodes well for awards potential, although this would mean considerable efforts on the part of US distributor Netflix—whatever the case, Rees has a fantastic, ambitious Faulknerian period piece on her hands which should elevate the Pariah and Bessie director to wider acclaim.
9. Manifesto – Dir. Julian Rosefeldt (Germany)
An art installation which morphed into one mightily entertaining showcase for the talents of Cate Blanchett, director Julian Rosefeldt performs thirteen monologues of famed manifestos, with snippets of Marx and Engels to Lars Von Trier and Jim Jarmusch. As smart as it is snarky, it’s accomplishment in serving Blanchett up in thirteen defined segments while still remaining as intelligent as it is entertaining should not go unnoticed.
8. Personal Shopper – Dir. Olivier Assayas (France)
Assayas snagged Best Director at 2016 Cannes for his second union with Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, another intriguing and existential ghost story about a titular American in Paris who refuses to leave the city until she can somehow contact her dead brother. As a mysterious presence reaches out to her via text message, she becomes consumed in an increasingly complicated game of cat and mouse which slowly materializes into the reality wherein modern technology has made ghosts of us all.
7. The Square – Dir. Ruben Ostlund (Denmark)
Ruben Ostlund took home the Palme d’Or for his latest satire on modern social mores and the moral decay underneath the veneer of affluent, polite society. With aggressive certainty and infectious humor, the effectiveness and necessity of a curator for an art history museum is put to the test in a darkly comedic harpooning of masculinity and altruism, among other false constructs.
6. The Ornithologist – Dir. Joao Pedro Rodrigues (Portugal)
Paul Hamy headlines this ambitious effort from Portugal’s Joao Pedro Rodrigues in what serves as the queer art-house De Palma treatment about a titular character who is accosted by two Chinese women deep in the heart of the jungle while searching for rare black storks. This preemed at the 2016 Locarno film fest and was just released last month.
5. The Other Side of Hope – Dir. Aki Kaurismaki (Finland)
Aki Kaurismaki uses his droll sense of humor to reflect on the current refugee crises when a Syrian man accidentally ends up in Finland and finds shelter with a slick restaurateur. As moving as it is outfitted with Kaurisamaki’s expected idiosyncrasies, the director took home Best Director out of Berlin 2017.
4. You Were Never Really Here – Dir. Lynne Ramsay (US)
Lynne Ramsay comes back with a vengeance in this adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novel which features Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled war veteran who rescues a young girl from a sex traffic ring. Like Travis Bickle by way of Laurence Block, Phoenix (who won Best Actor at Cannes 2017, while Ramsay took home Best Screenplay) is the compelling center of this poetic odyssey, which will haunt you with its use of “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals.
3. Happy End – Dir. Michael Haneke (France)
One of Haneke’s least well-received titles upon its premiere at Cannes 2017, the wizened misanthrope may be up to some of the same old tricks, but he remains a fine vintage nevertheless. Uniting for the fourth time with Isabelle Huppert, who plays the hardened matriarch of a privileged brood of entrepreneurs in Calais, this finds Haneke gilding his miserabilism with a grin.
2. A Quiet Passion – Dir. Terence Davies (UK)
As unfortunate as it was to have been ignored for her commanding performance in James White (2015), it will be a worse slight if no one campaigns for Cynthia Nixon playing Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ best film since his major early works with A Quiet Passion. Formidably performed (including supporting performances from Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine), it’s a powerful testament of Davies’ fastidiousness with a limited budget.
1. Paradise – Dir. Andrey Konchalovsky (Russia)
Premiering out of Venice 2016 (where it netted Best Director), enthusiasm has been nil for Andrey Konchalovsky’s black and white masterpiece Paradise, a harrowing WWII horror story of three lives united during the Holocaust. Featuring a wrenching performance from Julia Vysotskaya (who usually only appears in Konchalovsky’s films), her loss to Emma Stone, who secured the Best Actress Volpi Cup for La La Land, is nearly as disappointing as a similar outcome at the Academy Awards ceremony in the Best Actress category. In a landscape riddled with WWII and Holocaust reenactments, Konchalovsky proves to be as sharp as ever in this affecting drama which was thankfully purchased by Film Movement for US distribution.