Last week, during the waning days of 2017, I recommended some of my favorite books of the year, and this week, during the first days of 2018, I am presenting a list of some of my favorite movies released during the past year. In doing this, I don’t want to encroach on the fine work being done by our own Ken Silvers and Andy Ross. As you know, in my pursuit of the ever-elusive world of pop culture, I often make mention of movies, but I do so not as reviews but as ways of reflecting on the cultural evocations made by these movies. And that is my intention this week as well.
As a fan of horror movies, I am very pleased to report the return of the “intelligent” horror film this past year. Although there was a plethora of movies out there to satisfy the legions of fans who prefer jump scares, gory special effects, and sadistic characters, there were also a handful of movies that appealed more to the head than the heart.
As I write this I am rewatching the controversial Olivier Assayas film, “Personal Shopper,” which is now available as an attractive Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition. This film has often been compared to Darren Aronofsky’s much-loved/much-hated movie “Mother” for its enigmatic ending, of which I can’t make a judgement, since I haven’t yet seen the Jennifer Lawrence movie, which I plan to stream this week. While I was watching “Personal Shopper,” which stars Kristin Stewart as a fashion assistant who believes the spirit of her deceased twin brother is still rattling around in his former house on the outskirts of Paris, I was reminded of two older movies, “The Uninvited,” the Ray Milland haunted house vehicle from the early 1940s and James Whale’s “Old Dark House,” released in the mid-1930s and starring Boris Karloff and a very young Gloria Stewart of “Titanic” fame (and now available at last in a restored version with two commentaries by Cohen Films). “Personal Shopper” is thus a type of old-fashioned haunted house thriller set in the age of texting; in this movie, Kristin Stewart spends more time texting than she does searching for her brother’s spirit inside his creepy house. In fact, some reviewers have suggested that Assayas’ real ghost is the one inside our smartphones rather than anything that might be haunting the corridors of a haunted house. If you are a fan of “Paranormal Activity” stuff or chainsaw-wielding maniacs, chances are you won’t like “Personal Shopper.” However, I do like found footage movies and chainsaws, so I might be the exception.
“Personal Shopper” should be seen as a double feature with David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story,” starring Casey Affleck as a very old-fashioned ghost that haunts the house he formerly shared in life with Rooney Mara, one of my favorite actresses (see below). Again, fans of maniac movies or yet another remake of “Friday The 13th” probably won’t like this movie either. It is all atmosphere and, although it is about a haunting, is more bittersweet than frightening. As the Blu-Ray package states, “A Ghost Story emerges ecstatic and surreal–a wholly unique experience that lingers long after the credits roll.”
Perhaps the most talked-about horror film of the year is Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” which pays homage to countless horror movies, most notably “The Stepford Wives” (the 1975 original, not the dismal remake), as well as to the controversial late-1960s Sidney Poitier classic, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” This clever serious-yet-funny movie works on many levels, from a truly frightening parable on American race relations to a satire on upper middle-class pretensions and posturing. This movie is destined to take its place alongside other milestones of its genre (whatever that may be). May I suggest it as a double-feature with another favorite of the year–Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure For Wellness” (released last February)? This modern reimagining of Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” is a visual treat and deals with many of the same issues as “Get Out.”
Speaking of Rooney Mara (see above), I was taken with Terrence Malick’s latest film, “Song To Song,” which plays like a sequel to his previous “Knight of Cups.” Malick, more than any other director with which I am familiar, has a love/hate relationship with his audience. They either hate him with a passion or passionately love his movies. Like most of his movies, “Song To Song” contrasts its human actors with the world of nature that forms the stage on which they act–a theme explored perhaps most fully in his 2005 reimagining of the seventeenth-century settling of Jamestown–“The New World.” Needless to say, I was attracted to the musical motifs of the movie and the way it placed its rather mundane human dramas inside the context of the Austin, Texas, music scene. And while we’re on the subject of music . . . . .
The last two films on my list are musicals. Although “La La Land” was released on Christmas Day 2016, it qualifies as a 2017 movie. Yes, this movie was panned by a lot of critics, but I found it a refreshing and tongue-in-cheek tribute to “old school” Hollywood musicals like “Singin’ In The Rain.” I know the love story is corny, like most every musical ever made, but the music and the sets (in this case, Hollywood back lots)–the real excuses to make musicals–are the stars of the show. And you can believe that Ryan Gosling became an accomplished pianist as a result of his role preparation if you want.
The other musical on my list is Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver.” While it might not be a musical like “La La Land,” try watching the movie with the volume turned down. Not the same movie, right? After all, this movie inverts the usual formula for an action movie–instead of music being used as background for the plot, in this one the plot functions as background for the musical soundtrack. And what a soundtrack it is. The only thing missing from this movie is Jason Statham. Maybe he will show up in the inevitable sequel. Mindlessness never was more fun.
Here’s wishing you a year of watching movies. I am already anticipating which ones will show up on my year-end list for this year.
See you next week.