Travis’ top films of 2017

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 12/29/2017

In a couple of weeks, the American film festival ecosystem will chug back to life with the Palm Springs International Film Festival, immediately followed by Sundance – a festival that, as always, is positioned on the front lines of virtually every aspect of the independent film world. I work at Sundance as a projectionist, and observe many looming issues related to technology, the role of film festivals, the importance of the physical cinema space, and of course programming. But in assembling my list for this year, I was surprised to find how many of my titles had played there, in part because I didn’t encounter several films until later in the year, at other festivals around the country.

As huge as Sundance is – possessing the near-mythical importance of attending, showing, launching a career from – it functions as only one part of a cinema ecosystem that thrives on diversity. Word spreads; titles are purchased (or not) and get release dates throughout the year; titles play at festivals throughout the country; films encounter audiences through curators who care about their communities and their role within them. A title that doesn’t fit in one locale fits perfectly somewhere else.

As in real life, that ecosystem is under pressure, in part from entities like Netflix, a company that’s openly hostile to cinemas and public film viewing. Films funded and purchased by Netflix at places like Sundance can be good, and seem to do well enough. But, to the frustration of filmgoers, festivals, and curators, films of interest can simply disappear for lack of public screenings. While streaming might be satisfactory for many filmmakers – and is a valid preference – other parts of the ecosystem suffer greatly. Word of mouth and interest in a title turns to frustration. Once titles of interest are unavailable to play at regional festivals and cinemas, those entities lose their importance, and must put resources and vision into simply maintaining or defining themselves.

Change, in technology as in nature, is constant. But the ties of community, family, and art can’t be replaced. Not by design, the films on my list are largely illustrations of the fortifying strength, trust, and joy of these things, and the perils of their inverses: anger, isolation, panic. And as usual, several of my year’s favorites entered my consciousness months before I saw them, with a trusted person telling me, It’s sooooooo gooooood.

As always, the list is in no particular order, and this year includes short films!

Thoroughbreds (Cory Finley) Finley’s feature film debut is based on his own play of the same name, in which two upper-class girls – a diagnosed psychopath and an insecure socialite played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke – influence each other in increasingly disturbing ways. This tense gem visually conveys the isolating oppressiveness of wealth: silent mansions and languid lawn afternoons are portrayed as breeding grounds for seething rage and disconnection. Anton Yelchin, in one of his final roles, is electric as a dangerous townie, the dark side of Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson from Dazed and Confused.

Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman) Directing her own screenplay, Hittman smartly articulates a very specific social milieu – sullen, homophobic New Jersey beach bros and their female equivalents – through the lens of the closeted Frankie, furtively exploring his sexuality and confirming what are basically his worst fears. With a hypnotic synth soundtrack and cinematographer Hélène Louvart shooting on glorious 16mm, Beach Rats precisely uses grain and haze to mirror Frankie’s moral fog as he desperately attempts to pass by ignoring and then destroying himself.

A Ghost Story (David Lowery) This film was almost unbearably powerful, moving through space and time in quietly audacious ways. Lowery’s sensibility is rooted in accessible themes, but he pushes them almost beyond recognition with masterful style that includes sweepingly lyrical camera work by Andrew Droz Palermo, memorable long takes featuring Rooney Mara’s gravitationally intense grief, and wickedly jagged diversions including a sprawling, haunting monologue by Will Oldham. The film’s vision lives up to its archetypal title.

I Am Another You (Nanfu Wang) One thing that intrigues me in Nanfu Wang’s documentary films is the way she participates in her stories. In Hooligan Sparrow, she films herself following a Chinese human-rights activist into increasingly hostile territory. In Another You, Wang – who is Chinese and lives and works in the U.S. –spends time living on the street with Dylan, a voluntarily homeless young searcher who’s charming, handsome, and beatific. She returns to his life after some years and uncovers deeply layered truths about the American sense of freedom and individuality that had initially fascinated her.

Downsizing (Alexander Payne) Downsizing is a brilliant mess, and I’m putting it on this list that will appear just before its theatrical release because I hope it inspires maximum contemplation of the deepest issues facing humanity: climate change, scarcity of resources, the consequences of overpopulation, and the quest for technological magic bullets. Payne’s accessible style is loaded with provocative ideas, and I’m still moved by considering the place (physical and otherwise) where the film ends in relation to where it had begun, as so much that had seemed important simply melts away. Also features the year’s most riveting performance, which I can only hope is justly rewarded when the time comes.

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki) The Finnish auteur has been galvanized by Europe’s migration crisis, using his well-known deadpan humor and sense of the absurd to spotlight the indignities that face migrants entering Europe. Working with Syrian-Finnish actor Sherwan Haji, Kaurismäki constructs a story of specific details that could apply to thousands of migrants, but grounds it in individual acts of kindness, hostility, and desperation from migrants and Finns alike. Shot on 35mm and featuring artificially staged mise-en-scène that yields some hilarious sight gags, this is a wickedly funny and gratifyingly generous comedy.

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach) A powerful appeal for common decency, as embodied by the titular character, an avuncular, late-middle-age working-class widower with lingering health problems. As he attempts to collect disability payments and return to work, he becomes mired in increasingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy. After befriending a desperate single mother, Daniel becomes consumed with the effort it takes to merely find his role in an increasingly indifferent society. A provocative and heroically nuanced story.

Spoor (Agnieszka Holland) Before its screening at the 2017 New Orleans Film Festival, the legendary and completely charming director introduced Spoor with a long and amusing list of hyphenated genre descriptors. Delightfully, the film is all of those things, but ultimately it’s a beautifully shot and delightfully subversive tale with a lot of creative ideas about justice. Personally, I would love for all of us to nurture the impulses of the protagonist of this film – if not the outcomes.

Stranger in Paradise (Guido Hendrikx) In only two locations and four sequences, Stranger in Paradise pretty much sums up the insurmountable complexity of Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis. In a provocative choice, Hendrikx has a white European actor play the role of a migrant advisor, who – group by group – is explaining their situation to migrants who wish to stay in Europe. Accessible, seemingly transparent, but extremely complex, it should be required viewing.

The Challenge (Yuri Ancarani) In its opening shot – and even before that, in the colors on its poster design – The Challenge announces itself as a work in which, as in the social circle it portrays, image is king. Memorable images and scenes pile up. A gang of gold-plated motorcycles in perfect formation pulls off the road to pray; a cheetah sits docile in the passenger seat of a Lamborghini; a falcon-mounted camera captures the bird’s absurd movements. The film’s narcotized, contextless flow, punctuated by beautiful images of coveted objects, perfectly mirrors the life of its subjects, Qatari sheiks whose wealth seems to seal off their humanity.


The Burden (Min Börda) (Niki Lindroth Von Bahr) An animated musical featuring high choreography by humanoid animals, this is the most exquisitely bizarre short I’ve seen in a long time.

Saint Bathans Repetitions (Alexandre LaRose) Brilliantly textured multiple-exposure 16mm sequences that perfectly balance technical mastery, conceptual form, and visual power.

Cilaos (Camilo Restrepo) An energetic, deeply coded story about a woman searching for her womanizing father on the island of Réunion.

The Rabbit Hunt (Patrick Bresnan) Illustrates more about the lives of young African-Americans in the South than could possibly be said with words.

The Last Honey Hunter (Ben Knight) An immersive social documentary about a dangerous and vanishing ritual, culminating in a jaw-dropping cliffside honey-retrieval sequence shot with drone cameras. (TB)

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