My 2017 at the Movies: Unsettled Ground (An Overview)

My 2017 at the Movies: Unsettled Ground (An Overview)
Photo by Andrew E. Weber (Pexels royalty-free image).

Movie-wise and otherwise, 2017 was an unsettling year.

There may be a grim cosmic logic in Jonathan Demme dying the same year Donald Trump became President. Nothing stands in more direct opposition to the celebration of women, multiculturalism, social activism and free-spiritedness in Demme’s filmography than Cheetolini’s narcissistic rage and intolerance.

As a freelance film critic, the year was like a rickety rollercoaster that hopped off the tracks a few times. In February, a promising and initially congenial new critics’ group I had joined just the previous spring devolved into sudden, unnecessary acrimony. I took my leave, as did several others. That group still functions in some capacity and includes some good writers and knowledgeable cinephiles in its ranks, so I won’t dish the dirt (and different folks see that rift differently), but man, it was a bummer.

That bummer seemed trivial, though, when compared to the unexpected jolt in November when, without warning, Trump-backing billionaire Joe Ricketts closed shop on Chicagoist, where I had been a film critic and feature writer since May of 2014. For personal reasons, I scaled back my freelance output significantly last spring, well before Chicagoist shut down, but I remained on good terms with my editors and hoped to keep writing for the site periodically.

Whatever disappointment I felt in losing Chicagoist as an outlet pales next to that of the full-time staffers and longtime contributors who worked so hard to bring the site to prominence long before I came on board. Ricketts, who also closed the gates on the excellent DNAinfo news sites, claimed financial losses as his reason. Maybe that was true regarding DNAinfo…not so much for Chicagoist and its parent Gothamist network, which Ricketts acquired just last March.

Whether he purchased Gothamist simply to eliminate a potential DNAinfo competitor (though Gothamist never really had the reporting staff to compete in hard news) or just wanted to show his contempt for employees attempting to unionize, this is certain: eight months of ownership with no evident strategy is no commitment for a man of his wealth. His fawning blog post on Cheetolini, hilariously positioning both the Twitterer-in-Chief and himself as enemies of the “elites,” says everything about Ricketts’ dishonesty and low character.

Also unsettling for me as a critic – though not in the purely negative vein of the events mentioned above – was my very reluctant, long-gestating awakening to the fact that the dividing line between movies and much of modern television is now largely arbitrary.

At least in terms of mainstream culture, the erosion of the theatrical movie market (fewer non-blockbusters reaching fewer theater attendees; more and more interesting features skipping theatrical runs in favor of streaming and on-demand premieres) and the simultaneous rise of the new “golden age of television” have blurred previous lines of separation.

I’ve realized there is a hard-to-answer response to any argument that the difference between movies and top-tier television is obvious. Images composed for the big screen? Watch any number of recent films that played theaters but look like they were shot for mobile technology. Epics and fantasy don’t work on TV? Tell that to any Game of Thrones fan. The intrusion of commercials? Not an issue on premium channels and streaming services and not if you’re watching any show on DVD after its broadcast run is done. The episodic nature of most TV dramas versus stand-alone theatrical features? Well, aren’t the most popular current offerings at multiplexes – the Star Wars and superhero movies – episodes in a series? And if we’re excluding weekly, continuing narratives as movies, should all the old matinee serials now be rebranded as “television before television?”

I’m planning to write much more in depth on that question of redefining cinema, but I’m presenting the debate here as an explanation for including three television series in my year-end survey. And no, I’m not a small screen crusader. For me, “going to the movies” means going to a theater, and it will always be my preferred way to watch a movie. But in considering the role of film and TV critics, I am, like most critics, very late to the party in confronting how the shift in viewing habits has reshaped the art form. The ever expanding, now impossible-to-grasp field of what we might broadly call “moving pictures” demands a new look at old models of categorization. It makes no more sense for a film critic to ignore Twin Peaks: The Return because it ran on television than it does for a TV critic to have Twin Peaks, the nightly talk shows and a “reality” show like Survivor all on his or her beat because they all happen to play on the same box in the living room.

So, with all that to chew on, I beg your indulgence as I take advantage of the freedom ChicagoNow grants its bloggers to present my overextended thoughts on favorites, near-favorites and other movies I saw in 2017.

A few caveats I always try to include in these kinds of round-ups:

  • I call my top film choices “favorites” (despite knowing that “best of” is way more SEO-friendly) because they are exactly that. Even discounting countless domestic and foreign film releases I never saw (or that never even made it to these shores), proclaiming something “the best” signifies some scientific apples-versus-oranges points system that does not exist. My rankings are done merely for fun and only signify a preference of this moment. If a modestly crafted picture tickles my fancy more than a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (apologies to Dave Eggers), so be it. Scorecards are for sports, not art.
  • I include some late 2016 releases because, damn it, I would have mentioned them in the proper year had I seen them in time for this silly exercise. There are two notable exceptions to my “catch up” allowances this year:
    • Damien Chazelle’s musical masterpiece, La La Land was a December 2016 release, but press screenings and screener DVDs eluded me until it was too late to include it on my list last year for Chicagoist. For the record, it would have fought it out with A Bigger Splash for my top pick, but at this point – with the massive attention it received last year, from countless “best of” lists to the memorable Oscars fiasco – well, it doesn’t really need my wee bit of attention and it would seem out of place so late in the game. But it’s as wonderful as billed. Ignore the naysayers.
    • Tom Ford’s daring, style-strutting oddball Nocturnal Animals, which I loved, but which opened in November 2016. Even with my liberal calendar cut-offs, it seemed a stretch to include it here.
  • I include movies shown only at film festivals. Why a so-called “commercial run” defines yearly eligibility on any critic’s list has always seemed wrong to me, especially when so many worthy films never get beyond the festival circuit.
  • I include short films in the same grouping as features. Yep. Why should brevity disqualify a film from consideration as top dog? If narrative features and documentaries can duke it out in the same trivial ring, why not shorts?
  • I offer no list of least-favorite films this year, as I have done occasionally in the past. I saw some movies I didn’t like, but having stepped back a bit from the beat in the spring, most of the 127 releases considered for this list were movies that, to some degree, I wanted to see. And what I didn’t like either did not have enough public visibility or inspire enough vitriol in me to bother with bashing.

All right. Enough with the excessive definitions, justifications and ranting. Let’s get to the lists!

Click here to see my 10 favorite films of 2017.

Click here to see picks 11-25.

Click here to see my honorable mentions.

Click here to see my “odds and ends” lists.

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    Joel Wicklund

    Joel Wicklund has been writing about movies for over two decades now and, shockingly, he is still allowed to do so. He was a film critic for Chicagoist before its demise, among other outlets. He insists on claiming more online space here in the hope of indoctrinating more lost souls in his personal cult of cinephilia. Reviews, rants, interviews, features…you get the drift.

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