Brandon’s Top Films of 2017

1. The Florida Project – Captures the rebellious punk spirit that laughs in the face of all authority & life obstacles among the children who run wild in the extended-stay slum motels just outside the Disney World amusement parks in Florida. The Florida Project doesn’t dwell on or exploit the less-than-ideal conditions its pint-sized punks grow up in, even when depicting their most dire consequences; it instead celebrates the kids’ anarchic energy and refusal to buckle under the false authority of adults. Although financially locked out of The Happiest Place on Earth, they defiantly turn the Magic Castle & Futureland Inn knockoffs they are allowed to occupy into a punk rock amusement park all of their own.

2. We Are the Flesh – Disorients the eye by making grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to thematically pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitalia, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores.

3. The Lure – Synths! Sequins! Sex! Gore! What more could you ask for? The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. A debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, the film somehow tackles themes as varied as love, greed, feminism, alcoholism, body dysmorphia, betrayal, revenge, camaraderie, and (forgive my phrasing here) fluid sexuality all while feeling like a nonstop party or an especially lively, glitterful nightmare. It’s astounding.

4. Tom of Finland – Depicting the adult life of Finnish illustrator/pornographer Touko Valio Laaksonen as he drew his way into queer culture infamy, Tom of Finland excels as a kind of filmmaking alchemy: it turns an unlikely tonal mashup of Cruising & Carol into the feel-good queer drama of the year. While its sexuality isn’t quite as transgressive as the leather daddy-inspiring art of its subject, it’s a passionate, celebratory work that sidesteps the typical pitfalls of queer misery porn dramas, yet still manages to feel truthful, dangerous, and at times genuinely erotic. It’s hard to believe the film is half as wonderful as it is, given the visual trappings of its subject & biopic genre, but its leather & disco lyricism lifts the spirit and defies expectation.

5. Your Name. – From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk/post-rock soundtrack (provided by the appropriately named Radwimps), Your Name. is the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s. It’s also the most beautifully animated and strikingly empathetic picture I can remember seeing on the big screen in a long while. Small town angst & romantic desperation, cornerstones of teenage inner life, dominate its early proceedings, but several monumental narrative shifts completely disrupt those concerns as the co-protagonists’ stories strive to intertwine in a shared, physical space. The film almost operates like Persona in reverse, where two jumbled identities slowly detangle and then have to desperately search for common ground.

6. Brigsby Bear – 2017 was the year Kyle Mooney made me cry in a comedy about an animatronic bear, a time I never knew to expect. Although a darkly funny film that builds its narrative around a fictional television show that stars said bear & adheres to an Everything Is Terrible VHS aesthetic, Brigsby Bear is remarkably earnest, with genuine emotional stakes. I never thought I’d see the best parts of Room & Gentlemen Broncos synthesized into a single picture, but what’s even more impressive is that this film manages to be both more emotionally devastating & substantially amusing than either individual work. My only real complaint is in the frustration of knowing that I can’t be locked in a room to watch a few hundred episodes of The Brigsby Bear Adventures myself.

7. The Shape of Water – Easily one of Guillermo del Toro’s best features, assuming that you’re just as much of a sucker for brutal, lushly shot fairy tales as I am. The Shape of Water rights the wrongs of old school monster movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon by paying attention to how their supposedly villainous beasts are spiritually in line with the oppressed & the marginalized, depicting their governmental enemies as the true monsters instead of the assumed heroes. It also functions as a love letter to the visual delicacies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (whether intentional or not), an aesthetic I never tire of. Behind The Lure, it’s only the second best film of 2017 about interspecies fish-fucking, but the competition was surprisingly stiff for that honor.

8. mother! – The most important major studio release of 2017. From the rapturous praise to the horror stories of angry, vocal walkouts during its violently bonkers third act, mother! demands discussion & analysis in the way crowdpleaser comedies, superhero action epics, and computer-animated cartoons about talking animals typically don’t. The important part of the discussion it sparks is not whether you were personally positive on the film’s absurdist handling of its Biblical & environmentalist allegories or the way it makes deliberately unpleasant choices in its sound design & cinematography to get them across in a never-ending house party from Hell. The important thing is recognizing the significance of its bottomless ambition in the 2010s Hollywood filmmaking landscape.  There aren’t nearly enough major player Hollywood studios taking chances like this.

9. Good Time – Essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime, Good Time filters an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth). That sounds like it could be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose than you’ll find in typical action movie entertainment. The film is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions and the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that film does so well.

10. My Life as a Zucchini – A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood & Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its coming of age plot is quietly simple. Its stop motion animation style is adorable, but unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely orphans in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. Still, it isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of My Life as a Zucchini is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult.

11. It Comes at Night – Distinctly captures the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Trey Edward Shults stirs up that same level of anxious terror in his debut, Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford until this better-funded follow-up: beauty. The film’s nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

12. Get Out – Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Jordan Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles); it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. It’s a staggeringly well-written work that has convincingly captured the current cultural zeitgeist, becoming instantly familiar & iconic in a way few movies have in our lifetime.

13. Split -A near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to villainously chew scenery. He does so admirably, fully committing to the film’s morally dodgy, but wickedly fun D.I.D. premise. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t at all deserve it. When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

14. Okja – Too much of an ever-shifting set of complexly self-contradictory tones & moods to be wholly described to the uninitiated. Okja is both a scathing satire of modern meat industry & a slapstick farce poking fun at the activists who attempt to dismantle it. It’ll stab you in the heart with onscreen displays of animal cruelty, but will just as often giggle at the production of farts & turds. I could describe the film as an action adventure version of Death to Smoochy or a more deliberately adult reimagining of Babe 2: Pig in the City, but neither comparison fully covers every weird impulse that distracts & delights Bong Joon-ho as he chases his narrative across multiple continents. It’s not something that can be readily understood or absorbed on even a scene to scene basis, but its overall effect is deliriously overwhelming and expectation-subverting enough that it feels nothing short of magnificent as a whole.

15. Raw – One of the more wonderfully gruesome horror films of 2017 is much more tonally & thematically delicate than what its press would lead you to believe. Early reports from the festival circuit sold Raw as a shock-a-minute gross-out that requires barf bags & potential trips in an ambulance. That reputation is definitely more a facet of its marketing than anything the film itself is attempting to accomplish. The heart of its story about a young woman discovering previously undetected . . . appetites in herself as she enters autonomous adulthood is actually pretty delicate & subtle, especially for a remnant of the New French Extremity horror movement.

True story: the first time I saw it in the theater, someone brought their tiny, tiny kids. They almost made it to the end credits too, despite the toddlers’ screams. Incredible.

16. Icaros: A Vision – Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death. She returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who treat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism.

17. The Untamed – Not quite as structurally sound or as thematically satisfying as We Are the Flesh, but employs a similar palette of sexual shock value tactics to jolt its audience into an extreme, unfamiliar headspace. It adopts the gradual reveals & sound design terrors common to “elevated horrors” of the 2010s, but finds a mode of scare delivery all unto its own, if not only in the depiction of its movie-defining monster: a space alien that sensually fucks human beings with its tentacles. The Untamed alternates between frustration & hypnotism as its story unfolds, but one truth remains constant throughout: you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

18. Nocturama – I’m not sure the world necessarily needed a movie that makes acts of terrorism look sexy & cool, but with so few transgressive places left for cinema to go you’ve got to respect Nocturama for finding a way to push buttons in the 2010s. Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel.

19. I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore -As cartoonishly silly as I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore often feels, director Macon Blair does his best to place it in the context of a real, relatable world. Light beer, country music, upper-deckers, meth, and sudden bursts of intense violence all sketch out a real world playing field where Melanie Lynskey’s unreal vigilante warpath can be staged. Her mission of principle— not in search of compensation, but for the simple demand that “people not be assholes”— boasts an absurd, intangible goal and the movie itself never shies away from matching that absurdity in its overall tone, but impressively still keeps its brutality believably authentic.

20. The Little Hours – Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, Jeff Baena shines at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. Although obviously informed by improv experimentation, the film is sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Kate Micucci to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates (Aubrey Plaza & Allison Brie). It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet.

-Brandon Ledet

Icaros: A Vision (2017)

It’s usually preferable to enter a movie devoid of background context & extratextual information, but the recent psychedelic drama Icaros: A Vision is one of those major exceptions that benefit greatly from knowing their production history. Upon recovery from a near-fatal bout with breast cancer, visual artist Leonor Caraballo traveled to Peru to seek therapeutic guidance from the country’s local ayahuasca clinics, specifically the infamous Anaconda Cosmica, to help emotionally process her unexpected confrontation with mortality. While participating in the religious ritual of ingesting the psychotropic plant with the guidance of shamans, Caraballo saw a vision of her own death and returned to her home in Argentina convinced of two things: 1) that she was going to die of the cancer’s soon-to-come aggressive return and 2) that she had to make a film about her experience with the ayahuasca plant. The result of these convictions, Icaros: A Vision, partly serves as a therapeutic processing of dread & grief personal to Caraballo’s story. However, the film also strives to capture the religious reverence Peruvian people find in plants like ayahuasca and to poke fun at outsiders who retreat the ritual that helped the filmmaker through her darkest hour like a colonialist act of tourism. Unfortunately, Caraballo did not live to see the completion of her own film; she guided much if its post-production decision making from her death bed with the help of her co-director Matteo Norzi. What she left behind, though, is a visually striking, peacefully meditative look at the culture surrounding ayahuasca rituals, something much more significant than the humorous take on the yuppie adoption of its use depicted in comedies like While We’re Young.

An American woman arrives at Anaconda Cosmica unsure of how ayahuasca rituals can help her process her fear of death and whether she even has the courage to find out. Other patients paying for the privilege of the retreat are addressing issues varying in severity from addiction & self harm to alleviating a stutter to improve an acting career. The mood of the retreat is decidedly peaceful, a tone commanded by the always-present sounds of the jungle. Invading thoughts of technology, particularly MRI scans of the American woman’s cancer, interrupt the reverie on occasion, but don’t fully elbow out the serenity of the jungle until the night time ayahuasca rituals start & end. During the routine ceremonies, a shaman-in-training peers into the various hallucinations of his patients (or “passengers,” in the movie’s parlance) as if he were literally switching channels on a television. The spiritual difference between natural & technological imagery could not be clearer, as the young shaman attempts (through the ritual of meditative breathing & song) to save the paying customers from invading dark thoughts that could spoil their trip. Early on, the film is about his efforts to save the protagonist from the crippling fear of death sparked by her cancer diagnosis. However, at some point that dynamic flips. The American woman, now strengthened by the psychedelic therapy sessions, helps the shaman face his own fears of an incurable medical diagnosis. It’s interesting to see the service industry aspect of their relationships subvert itself as they naturally become better acquainted through the deeply intimate ritual of ayahuasca ingestion, but more importantly the film uses their tender interactions as a purposefully humanist window into a culture that could be depicted as all meditative chants and visual hallucination if not treated with enough open-minded empathy.

Icaros: A Vision is a quiet, still, meditative piece that fully lives up to the visual focus indicated by its title. Everything from muscular river dolphins & the green of the Peruvian jungle to video game imagery & bright florescent piss shape the film’s all-encompassing meditations on life & death. Somehow, the overall effect is more hypnotic than it is showy or gimmicky. Leonor Caraballo’s background as a visual artist shows in the way she carefully frames each isolated hallucination, but her vulnerability & ultimate mortality as a human being is what affords the work a solemn, but rewarding purpose. Humor at the expense of “passengers” who treat the Anaconda Cosmica like a luxury hotel and its (non-actor) employees/residents like servants are slyly made fun of in a social politics-minded undercurrent of humor. That comedy is just one thread in a larger tapestry, though, and the overall picture includes a hypnotic, but encyclopedic catalog of plants that are important to Peruvian culture, an ethnographic documentation of ayahuasca rituals’ adoption as tourist industry fodder, visual attempts to capture the vivid hallucinations triggered by those rituals, etc. Caraballo clearly intended to encompass the entirety of ayahuasca’s cultural & (to her) personal significance in what ended up being her sole feature film. She was smart to tackle an idea that ambitious by centering the story on an intimate two-person partnership within that larger culture, an act of humility in what easily could have been a (justifiably) self-centered film about her her own internal dread & grief. Ayahuasca is a drug that directly invites humility. Those who trip hardest on it often experience immediate attacks of vomiting & diarrhea (the cleaning of which is addressed by the film’s service industry critique), which leaves little room for huffy self-importance. Maybe that humility & small-scale, intimate empathy that come through so strongly in Icaros is something Caraballo learned in her own therapeutic sessions of ayahuasca ingestion. It’s sad that she’s not around to answer questions like that, but the work she left behind is remarkably dense, complex stuff. I doubt we’ll ever see a better film on the subject.

-Brandon Ledet