Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of 2017: The Top 10 Movies of the Year

On August 8, I went to a screening of Tulip Fever. This wasn't a particularly momentous occurrence. The movie had been long delayed, and the assumption was that, despite its Oscar-winning cast, the film was a dog. Plus, there was the fact that Tulip Fever's distributor, the Weinstein Company, was beset with financial issues. For months, rumors had circulated that the company was on its last legs. ("They can't even afford to promote their movies," someone told me, which perhaps explained why they'd been dumping their recent films without much publicity.) So when I went to the Weinstein offices, I wasn't expecting much.

When I got there, I decided I should probably use the restroom before the movie started. As I walked to the door of the men's room, though, I realized it had a code-lock on it. And then the second thing I realized was that a burly man had just come out of a side office at that exact same moment and was moving to the bathroom door just as I was.

This was how I met Harvey Weinstein.

Ordinarily, when two people are both reaching for the same bathroom door handle, it can be a little awkward. But when one of them is a major movie mogul and the other is some guy who's just there to review one of his movies, the awkwardness is more pronounced. Before I could do anything, however, he said in a rather friendly manner, "Oh, let me get that for you," punching in the code. I can't remember if I opened the door for him or vice versa. I can't remember if I walked in first. All I recall thinking is, "It's incredibly weird to be going into a small office bathroom with Harvey freaking Weinstein." And then I went into a stall and waited until he left to exit the bathroom.

For a month or so afterward, I would occasionally tell people this deeply benign anecdote. I had heard stories about what a monster Weinstein was — terrible on employees, bullying to his directors, and pretty sketchy when trying to seduce actresses into sleeping with him — but it always felt par-for-the-course for a Hollywood big shot. Basically, they're all awful, and seemingly nothing we could ever learn about their deplorable behavior would be surprising. If anything, running into Weinstein on the way to the bathroom kinda humanized him. Even nightmarish individuals have to use the facilities from time to time.

* * * * *

On October 5, The New York Times dropped its bombshell piece about Weinstein's history of sexual harassment and assault. It cannot be overstated how fundamentally different Hollywood was after that Times piece was published. It was all anyone could talk about at screenings or on Twitter. But the tone of these conversations wasn't euphoric or dishy, which is often the case with big celebrity exposés. There was no giddy schadenfreude. It was like the air had been sucked out of every room around town. The revelations were so horrendous and upsetting that people were shell-shocked. And it had been happening under our noses all along.

Then the wave started of accusations against other powerful men, the articles coming relentlessly one after another, each of them horrifying and depressing in their own way — including about artists I'd admired, like Louis C.K. After that came the personal stories from female friends and colleagues who, for years, had kept quiet about their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault — not at the hands of Harvey Weinstein himself, but of all the Weinsteins out there in the world. I knew Weinstein was a bad guy, but I had no idea just how horrible — or just how many other powerful people had behaved in similar ways. Likewise, I wasn't aware of all the pain that people around me had been silently carrying for so long.

2017 was always going to be a terrible year. Trump's election guaranteed that. But the Weinstein wave was blindsiding, prompting intense, difficult soul-searching. I've tried to live my life as a sensitive, caring, thoughtful person, but the Weinstein revelations fundamentally challenged my perception of myself. If I had been unaware of all this misery — or, in the case of the Louis C.K. allegations, hoped the years of rumors were magically somehow not true — how could I possibly consider myself enlightened or evolved? Every time I'd read a raw, emotional account from someone who had endured toxic masculinity — I highly recommend my MEL colleague Alana Hope Levinson's great recent essay — I would just feel so angry and ashamed all over again, upset that I hadn't been as helpful or compassionate or empathetic as I could have.

I have always believed that part of the job of being a critic is to do a regular inventory with myself, analyzing my reactions to the movies I see and write about. Why do I respond to this kind of film so profoundly? Why does that sort of storyline always leave me a bit cold? Is it morally justifiable to separate the art from the artist — a policy I've never questioned until this year? I think of all this as routine maintenance. I always find it funny when people tell me that they'd like to see me write more personal stuff. I feel like every review I write is something personal — it's my way of communicating with other people about what I feel and how I see the world. And so to understand if a movie is working or not, I need to understand myself and how I work — and be aware of my blind spots. That inventory was harder and more painful this year than any in memory. It's an ongoing process — not just at the movies but in real life.

* * * * *

So, with all that said, let's actually get to the movies. I didn't think 2017 was as strong a film year as the last couple, but these were its highlights...

1. Dunkirk
2. Call Me by Your Name
3. Personal Shopper
4. A Ghost Story
5. Loveless
6. Phantom Thread
7. Good Time
8. mother!
9. The Lost City of Z
10. Graduation

Will Leitch and I discussed our picks at length on this week's podcast. No documentaries made my Top 10, but that does nothing to diminish my affection for The Work (No. 12), Rat Film (No. 14) and In Transit (No. 18), all of which were little-seen and deserving of bigger audiences. And I ultimately decided not to include World of Tomorrow Episode Two, although it's absolutely astounding and a worthy sequel to what was an incredible first installment.

* * * * *

Professionally, 2017 had many bright spots. As usual, I had a blast writing for Rolling Stone, where my editors kept me busy with some fantastic assignments. I'm eternally grateful to Christopher R. Weingarten, who suggested I profile Adam Grandmaison, better known as Adam22, who has become a tastemaker in the world of underground hip-hop. Adam and I spent two days together, and out of it came this really fun piece. But my main man remains David Fear, who's a terrific writer and supportive soul who hooked me up with some of my most enjoyable interview subjects of 2017. I chatted with Spike Lee about his Netflix series She's Gotta Have It, spent some time with the team behind Call Me by Your Name, sat down with the Safdie brothers and Robert Pattinson for Good Time, chatted with Errol Morris (who also had questions for me) about Wormwood, talked to director Julia Ducournau about Raw, and interviewed Raoul Peck about his exceptional documentary I Am Not Your Negro. I write so many pieces for Rolling Stone that I'm proud of, so it's hard to narrow down my favorites. But I have to mention my appreciation of Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy, which was written the day of his passing. I also liked my essay on Wonder Woman and its heroine's battle against sexism. And Jonathan Demme's death in April gave me an excuse to herald him as the greatest concert filmmaker ever.

I've been reviewing for Screen International for 12 years now. I can't believe it, either. I'm so grateful to my editor Finn Halligan, who is a delightful presence in my life and a pleasure to hang out with at festivals. For Screen, I attend Sundance, Cannes and Toronto every year, becoming part of a community of writers and critics that feel a bit like a family of fellow travelers. And, of course, True/False is also such fun. In terms of pieces I most enjoy writing, my extensive rundown of True/False, which I always do for Paste, is a labor of love that means a lot to me. That was especially true in 2017 because I used the festival and its films as a way of grappling with what I was feeling in the wake of Trump's victory. It was no accident that my Paste missive was titled "Take Care of Each Other": With that cretin in power, it's a reminder we all need.

Speaking of Paste, Michael Burgin continues to be the film section's steady hand, and I so appreciate his careful eye. Will came aboard this year, so now we're both reviewing films for the site. And our weekly podcast recently reached its 100th episode. It is a wonderful excuse to talk to my dear old friend all the time. (And we have such fun writing for Vulture and SyFy together.)

In a couple months, my regular contribution to Popular Mechanics, steering their annual Incredibly Special Effects Awards issue, will be out on newsstands. This year, I have interviews with the creative teams behind Blade Runner 2049 (No. 16), A Ghost Story and Wonder Woman, among others. As always, the issue looks great, and my editor Peter Martin does a fabulous job putting it all together. 

And truly, I cannot say enough about the team at MEL and my editor Josh Schollmeyer. He and I have worked together since he was over at Playboy, brainstorming how to reinvent the idea of a men's magazine for the 21st century. MEL is the product of a lot of great writers and editors, but the vision is Josh's, and I'm incredibly proud to have been on that journey from the beginning. And I love all the strange avenues I travel down for stories that he or I think up. I got to interview brilliant baseball mind (and pop-culture maven) Keith Law, explore the history of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, put together an oral history of Wedding Crashers, and dig into how wonderful Chris Pine is in Wonder Woman. But among the things I'm proudest about with MEL is how we've really explored all corners of the cinematic map, especially focusing on documentaries and indies. Interviewing the directors of The Work, Casting JonBenet (No. 22) and The Force was a welcome opportunity to give smart filmmakers a chance to expound on their movies' themes in ways you don't often seen in entertainment journalism. I can't wait to see what MEL does in 2018.

In March, I was inducted into the National Society of Film Critics, an organization that I've long admired. Months later, I remain floored, honored and humbled to join its membership. My first vote takes place January 6. I couldn't be more excited.

* * * * *

On a personal level, 2017 was the year I underwent vocal-cord surgery. I can never remember if, technically, it was a polyp or a nodule that was removed. But the voice problems I'd been suffering since August 2016 were finally taken care of in March this year, requiring me to be on vocal rest for a few weeks. It is frightening to be unable to talk. My wife was even more loving than usual during the ordeal, but I never felt lonelier. However, it was also an opportunity to reconsider my "voice": how it interacts with the world, and how one's essence is not necessarily tied to the things we say. Maybe one's voice is something more than that. Regardless, I am forever indebted to Dr. Mani Zadeh, who took such good care of me. (Plus, he's a film buff, always eager to chat about what he or I had seen recently. Running into him at the Rogue One premiere is probably the most L.A. moment of my life.) And I'm grateful to my speech therapists, who coached me on how to use my voice better and, perhaps even more meaningfully, how to think about the act of communicating in ways I never had before.

This past year, I also did something I never have before: I participated in organized protests. I missed the Women's March because of Sundance, but after seeing the pictures from around the country of the event — and seeing how much it affected my wife, who was at the L.A. march — I decided I was going to push out of my comfort zone and start attending rallies. I wasn't sure what these marches would do for me, but I was amazed how much they lifted my spirits. Part of it was the physical exercise. Simply moving and chanting gets the blood pumping; it makes you feel like you're doing something productive. But it also made me feel less alone in my Trump misery. That might seem odd since I live in the liberal hotbed of Los Angeles, but being around a bunch of strangers who felt the same way about this president gave me hope.

I know some people scoff at rallies or find the whole thing too performative. All I can say is that it helped me enormously. It's OK to be fooled into the belief that a bunch of people joined in a demonstration of resistance can make a difference. Before actual change happens, you have to believe it's possible. As I look back on 2017 — the Weinstein revelations, movies, Trump, my own experiences — I'd like to think that I was engaged in life and trying my best to make sense of it all. I grew, and I know I have more growing to do. Actually, I can't imagine a more hopeful notion going into 2018: the belief that personal growth is important because there's still a better world out there worth fighting for.