We’ve reached that time of the year when I enter a mad frantic dash to close out the year seeing as many movies released in 2017 as possible in order to take a stab out at Best-of-2017 list. Between that and catching up on seasonally appropriate fare, the fact is that I won’t be discovering any new movies that weren’t released in 2017 for the rest of the year which is a bit of a shame because most of the joy of home viewing revolution is the chance to see the movies I had otherwise missed.
Still such is the life of the (amateur) film critic. And I just thought that before I dive solely into 2017-movie-cram mode I’d take one post to highlight some of the best films from movie’s history that I discovered for the first time this year. Some of these I watched in conjunction with some of the “Best-of” lists I created, but most of these I watched because a combination of curiosity for the film or filmmakers and guilt for having put it off for so long coalesced to finally motivate me to take the plunge. In either case, these twenty films (in alphabetical order) were among the most rewarding films that I experienced as a (slightly) obsessive film geek. Hopefully some of these will occupy your own watchlists soon:
AFFLICTION (1997) dir. Paul Schrader
The most rewarding project that I did this year was without a doubt compiling the best movies of 1997 because it helped me realize that the year was a lot better than Batman & Robin and Anaconda would’ve led me to believe. And Affliction was the first movie to help turn that perception around. The movie begins like a Fargo-esque caper as Wade (Nick Nolte), a small town cop, tries to get to the bottom of a hunting accident gone wrong. But the movie turns into something much bleaker as his quest for the truth takes on a scorched earth mentality and threatens to consume anything that gets in his path.
Featured in: “Best Films of 1997”
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955) dir. Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk’s romance is as much a sweeping showcase of the lush melodramas of classic Hollywood as it is a stinging indictment to the hypocrisies of American domestic life. Jane Wyman plays an upper-class widow in New England who faces the unrelenting pressure of her peers and family to find a new companion lest she descend into spinsterhood. Yet her choice of the family gardener (Rock Hudson) who is not only of a different social class but also younger than her, sends shockwaves through her community and family leading to a movie that is every bit as piercing as it is gorgeous to look at.
Featured in: “Best Films for Fall”
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) dir. Sam Raimi
I have never been the biggest fan of Raimi’s Evil Dead series with Evil Dead II doing just about enough to redeem the series from the migraine-inducing original. What I hadn’t counted on however was that this would be the rare series that would get better as it went along and the idea of sending Ash away from his wooded surroundings and plunking him into the middle of medieval England was nothing short of a stroke of brilliance, turning Army of Darkness into a truly camp-tastic spectacular.
AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (1962) dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Yasujiro Ozu’s gentle and soothing style often lulls a viewer into relaxing before releasing either a moment of transcendent epiphany or a completely emotional gut-punch. An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu’s last feature, manages to do both as it follows a widower in the twilight of his life as he arranges a marriage for his daughter. This transition leaves him wistfully reflective as he tries to piece together some meaning in the life he lived and faces the increasingly real possibility of facing the rest of his life alone. It is quietly devastating and the perfect end to the career of one of cinema’s great.
Featured in: “Best Films for Fall”
BABETTE’S FEAST (1987) dir. Gabriel Axel
For most of the film’s runtime, it is an austere depiction of a community of Puritans who have eschewed pleasure in the name of piety. Their cook, who has worked decades for them, finds out that she has won the lottery and decides to spend that on preparing an elegant and decadent meal for the community. And so, much to the initial chagrin and hesitation of the congregation, the meal becomes an ode to art and a panacea to the ills that beset the community. It is also a reminder that the pursuit of the spiritual and material need not be mutually exclusive endeavours.
Featured in: “Best Meals in Movies”
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966) dir. Gillo Pontecorvo
The problem with most war movies is that they tend to portray the righteousness of one side over and against the vilification of the other. And in lesser hands, a depiction of the Algerian-French war could easily have romanticized one side over the other. But the strength of this movie and why it is so compelling is that it doesn’t. The Algerian freedom fighters are as heroic as they are monstrous while the French forces are equal parts cruel colonists and reluctant defenders. While the movie makes great pains to ensure realism is paramount, it doesn’t glorify war and for that reason it is admirable, astonishing, and timeless.
BLUE RUIN (2013) dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Blue Ruin is a thriller stripped down to its leanest essence as social outcast Dwight (Macon Blair) seeks revenge against his parents’ killer but as with most revenge quests things go south and quickly, prerequisite increasing body count included. A mix between the quirky off-beat humour of the Coen brothers and the brutal violence of Quentin Tarantino, this debut from Jeremy Saulnier shows poise and confidence in this hillbilly gothic noir of one man’s impulsive actions and the dire consequences it lands him in.
DON’T LOOK BACK (1967) dir. D. A. Pennebaker
Most rock documentaries tend to pull back the curtains in a superficial and controlled way, giving fans only as much access as the artist will allow. What makes Don’t Look Back so interesting is that D. A. Pennebaker was truly allowed to be a fly on the wall in a time when Bob Dylan found himself at a crossroads, getting to capture Dylan as he struggled between the success of his public persona and his aversion to what his success has taken away from him. It is raw and honest in a way that no modern artist (or publicist) would ever allow to be shown, and thus is all the more valuable for it.
HAPPY TOGETHER (1997) dir. Wong Kar Wai
On the one hand, this movie is decidedly second tier Wong Kar Wai after the incomparable highs of In The Mood for Love and Chungking Express. On the other hand, that still makes it better than about 90% of the movies I’ve ever seen. Wong paints a harrowing picture of a destructively poisonous romance of two men from Hong Kong trapped in Buenos Aires and seemingly unable to quit one another. Of course one might be forgiven for the bitterness at the heart of this tale because you’re too distracted by the gorgeous mise-en-scene on display here.
Featured in: “Best Films of 1997”
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Listen, when this movie first came out and all the talk was about Tarantino’s 70mm roadshow tour about a three-hour chamber piece movie, I rolled my eyes just like the rest of you. And while I still think it’s ridiculous that Tarantino put on the roadshow in the first place, that shouldn’t diminish the fact that this brutal, violent, and visceral movie is just really, really good buoyed by a phenomenal cast and a truly explosive ending.
KAGEMUSHA (1980) dir. Akira Kurosawa
There is a strong argument to be made that Akira Kurosawa’s best period was his late epics of the 80’s and Kagemusha is a compelling opening salvo to that argument. The sweeping epic tells the story of a common thief who is coerced into becoming a political decoy to Shingen, the daimyō or the Takeda clan. When Shingen dies in secret, the thief is forced to take his place and inhabit a role that he is ill-prepared for where failure might lead to catastrophic and tragic results.
MY WINNIPEG (2007) dir. Guy Maddin
Guy Maddin’s fever-dream of a movie is theoretically a documentary about Winnipeg, but it is less a cataloging of Winnipeg’s history and more of a deep dive into the mind of Maddin himself as he tries to reconstruct his own childhood and life in the city. And thus in the realm of memory he reconstructs a reality probably more fantastic than it actually was. Where memory fails, he reimagines it. Where history fails, he creates his own. And while this perhaps makes the movie less of a factual movie, it makes it no less true as the movie enfleshes the way we recall our own past lives. And as with most Maddin movies, talking about his movies is a pale substitute for actually experiencing it, ideally in a state of insomnia.
PARIS IS BURNING (1990) dir. Jennie Livingstone
This time-capsule of the drag movement in the late 80s is at one level an encouraging reminder that we have come so far in the West, as the racism, bigotry, and hatred the transgender community faced here from the rest of the world has faded somewhat in the intervening years and they have found themselves much more accepted in mainstream society. And yet on another level, the movie is still a reminder to us cisgendered people that we have so much farther to go before we can give even lip-service to the idea that equality has been achieved. And for both those reasons, this movie remains vital and essential viewing.
A SEPARATION (2011) dir. Asghar Farhadi
It should be expected that a movie which has divorce at its centre will not be much of an upper. What is surprising however it that Asghar Farhadi manages to create a central conflict so complex and psychologically compelling that it renders neither side heroic nor entirely demonized either. Farhadi is above all a humanist in his filmmaking and it should come as no surprise that his exploration into what might cause two people who love each other to fall apart is equal parts empathetic as it is utterly devastating.
STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (1928) dir. Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton
When I first ventured into the world of silent cinema I naturally gravitated towards its most famous comedian Charlie Chaplin. But slowly but surely I have found myself appreciating the more subtle and nuanced comedy of Buster Keaton and seeing Steamboat Bill Jr., which I had never gotten around to for some strange reason, simply solidified my feeling that the true crown of silent comedy belongs to Mr. Keaton (with all due respect to the brilliant Mr. Chaplin).
STROMBOLI (1950) dir. Roberto Rossellini
To my great shame I have to admit that I had not seen a single Roberto Rossellini film but fortunately Stromboli has left me desperately wanting more. This movie is a showcase first of all for why Ingrid Bergman is one of the best actresses ever as she plays a displaced immigrant who marries an Italian fisherman to get out of her internment camp, only to find herself trapped in the isolated village of Stromboli. But beyond Bergman’s performance the film is also a great showcase for Rossellini’s neorealism as he portrays a humanistic and realistic snapshot for the simple way of life in Stromboli.
THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997) dir. Atom Egoyan
The story is impossibly bleak: A school bus in a small town in British Columbia slips on black ice and falls into a lake, killing dozens of the towns children in the process. Some time later a lawyer shows up to try and build a class-action lawsuit against the town and bus company to offer some compensation to the grieving families. His promise for relief is as empty in real life as it sounds on paper, and he accomplishes little more than ripping open old wounds. And yet, astonishing and miraculously, this movie is hopeful because it chooses not to offer up cheap and easy panaceas. Instead it dares to look at grief, and to invite us all, who live in a society that runs away from introspection and grief to sit on the mourner’s bench, shut up, and listen. It dares suggest that grief may be the path to peace.
Featured in: “Best Films of 1997”
TRICK ‘R’ TREAT (2007) dir. Michael Dougherty
Unlike some of the headier movies on this list, Trick ‘r’ Treat’s pleasures are simple. It is a horror-anthology movie set on Halloween night that does so much to capture the very best that the season has to offer, as a sleepy town embraces their dark side in festive and nefarious ways. There is hardly anything going on beyond the surface-level, but boy is that surface-level fun.
Featured in: “Best Films to Watch on Halloween (Grown-Ups Edition)”
THE TRIP (2010) dir. Michael Winterbottom
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s gastronomical journey through the great restaurants of Northern England is the perfect showcase for dry British humour. What in the beginning inspired mirthless chuckles out of me left me laughing out loud by the end as the two comedians expertly build up jokes throughout the whole film and snipe one another insidiously throughout. The food may be incredibly sublime, but that may also be besides the point.
Featured in “Best Meals in Movies”
Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (2001) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Two infantile teenage boys (aren’t they all?) discover that their girlfriends are leaving them for other pursuits over the summer. As a result they decide to go on a road trip together and along the way an older woman joins them, beginning what is on the surface an erotic adventure but in reality is a brutal education on the difference between lust and love. Nothing short of a triumphant celebration of Mexican cinema.