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Categories: Features

There’s something for everyone as we count down the twenty best American films of 2017, from studio epics to online documentaries.

Welcome to a very belated and specific 2017 list, the reasons for both of these things being that it can actually take an incredibly long time to see every film that’s released in a year. The inherent implication of these lists being that what you’re reading is really a Best Films That I Got Around To Seeing list, which isn’t so bad because it’s subjective anyway. While I’ve narrowed it down to American films in an attempt to feel more honest (there are still some films that may be considered 2017 releases that I, and most other people, have not had the opportunity to see), I’m still very aware of the fact that this list is based more in opinion than fact, as should you be.

It’s also really important to note that, considering that film financing is not the most uniform thing in the world, the criteria for being on the list is not studio finance or subject matter but whether the film had an American director. I don’t think American directors are inherently better, or more noteworthy, than filmmakers from other countries. Again, it’s a way of accurately compiling thoughts on hundreds of titles that I saw from that year. Just because I didn’t include a film that meets the criteria and had a theatrical release in 2017, it doesn’t mean that I thought it was bad; it simply means that I didn’t think it was as good as any of the other films on the list. I like to think that the list is as honest as I can make it and that most people will be able to find at least one film on it that they’ll be able to enjoy. With all this in mind, thanks for reading and let’s begin.

 

#20. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond

Eighteen years later and director Chris Smith releases the ultimate companion piece to his cult legend, American Movie. Through a piercingly simple, confessional type, interview style (especially since Smith would have known that this film would mostly be viewed at home) Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond features Jim Carrey narrating his career as an actor and comedian, interspersed with corresponding archival footage, putting a particular focus on behind the scenes footage of the making of Carrey’s 1999 film (the year of American Movie) Man on the Moon. The production of Man on the Moon being of particular note because of Carrey’s decision to adopt a method style of acting, resulting in him playing both the characters of Andy Kaufman (the subject of the film) and Kaufman’s deliberately obnoxious alter-ego character, Tony Clifton, all day, every day, throughout the shoot.

The film is funny, fascinating (the footage had never been released until this point) and ultimately serves as the perfect companion piece to American Movie not just because of the time period or even the basic subject matter of the film. Jim & Andy chronicles life in the film industry on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, it’s about what happens when this compelling, passionate, unbalanced character does get everything he wants and does achieve “the dream” only to discover that it can’t change who you really are and it can’t make you well. One of the more shocking revelations within the film’s footage is just how much Hollywood enabled Carrey’s behaviour, despite it often bordering on a form of self-harm; with Carrey pushing his relationship with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler to absurd levels for the sake of a performance.

 

#19. A Cure For Wellness

2017 was the year of the villain in Hollywood and of all the biggest, loudest, and most overly theatrical splurges of rehashed ideas and predictable plots, Gore Verbinski’s fever dream fairytale/midnight monster movie is one of the most entertaining and memorable. A Cure For Wellness is a bizarre horror film in a tone and style akin to the Euro-horror boom in the 70s and 80s, with directors like Argento and Bava, but not tied down to the trappings of those films and their sub-genres; instead going for a more 20s and 30s theme of post-war anxiety, financial distress and shadowy old men in capes terrorizing the youth. The notes of fascism making the film very thematically entertaining, as well as Verbinski’s endearingly devout fixation on water.

“History is full of darkness”, as the film says. Jason Isaacs’ main baddie lying somewhere between Lon Chaney and Hitler’s vision of the ubermensch (a lesser director probably would have just cut out the middleman and made the villains literal Nazi scientists) but played with a perfect aplomb by Isaacs. Nonetheless this is a film that is, objectively, mostly eye candy (like all of Verbinski’s films, really) but it contains some great performances from the central trio. Mia Goth is absolutely terrific and Isaacs gives his second scene-stealing performance of 2017 that’s based around a gloriously over-the-top accent while Dane DeHaan is fittingly typecast, considering that this is a film that ends up feeling somewhat like the origin story of a supervillain.  

 

#18. The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Though listed as a 2015 release, Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter didn’t find its way to public screenings until early 2017 (you can find it on UK Netflix under its original title February) and you should believe whatever amount of hype that it’s been able to muster across the years. From the perspective of a general horror fan, who consumes most of the garbage Hollywood prints out at some point or another because good horror films are essentially like precious gems that you have to mine deep into the earth for years to find, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is one of the most genuinely disturbing films of a great many years. Kiernan Shipka, particularly, delivers a disquieting performance that can stick with you for weeks, maybe even months, after the film. Time jumps, minimal music and the film’s consciously slow burning pace make it a magnificently unsettling experience. I can’t remember the last time I felt such intense repulsion and pity, simultaneously, for a character. Perkins (son of Anthony, the original Psycho) is already proving to be one of the most exciting names in modern horror and a potential icon in his own right.

 

#17. Wind River

Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut, about a murder on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, successfully transcends the adjective “dark” and moves squarely into the realm of “pitch-black”. As a detective story, it’s satisfyingly boilerplate. People are grizzly and the crimes are grizzlier but Sheridan makes sure that the actors are a match for his typically no-nonsense characters. As the film markets them, leads Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson were once two of the most interesting figures in the landscape of new independent American cinema who took jobs standing in the background of Marvel movies; so it’s nice to see them reminding people that they’re worth money because they’re actually really good at acting. Gil Birmingham and Graham Greene provide great supporting work in a story that focuses on one of the most overlooked worlds within America and it makes it all the more engaging, and enlightening, a thriller when the primary motivation behind almost every single character, all of the time, is just to stay alive.     

 

#16. Mudbound

Dee Rees’ post-war American literary epic was exactly what the doctor ordered in 2017, a year when Hollywood was desperate to show that women hadn’t been completely shut out from positions of authority behind the camera. Rachel Morrison’s photography, for which she became the first woman to ever be nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars (if you can believe that), brings to life a vision of a beautiful promise lying in the land itself that became a debt to the people that worked it which was never paid. The cast is terrific all around with due respect also being given to, an unrecognizably good, Mary J. Blige at the Oscars while Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund make for equally compelling leads. It’s very satisfying to see Rees unfurl Hillary Jordan’s original novel and to see Mitchell and Hedlund’s characters progressively take center stage in the story, even when that story reaches climaxes that will make your guts churn.  

 

#15. City of Ghosts

Following his hugely popular 2015 documentary about citizens taking action against a ruthless criminal organization, Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman shifts his gaze, and it is very much his own as both cinematographer and co-editor, to similar themes and the primary voices behind Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. One of Heineman’s most noticeably great qualities is his ability to understand which parts of human behaviour don’t lie. His subjects never really have to make a case for their side in the film, mostly because the moral simplicity of the situation is fairly clear but also because the truth doesn’t escape Heineman’s eye. Very good documentaries about social action are often marred by filmmakers becoming too enamoured with their subjects, they end up allowing key figures within the movement to effectively just use the film as a platform for a scripted message instead of the documentary being a genuine insight into their character. You know these people aren’t lying because no actor in the world could be as convincing as the subjects of City of Ghosts are. It’s a haunting portrait of people living under a constant shadow of death and in a world that is often only pretending to care about their plight.  

 

#14. Lady Bird

What writer and director Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age feature debut lacks in originality it makes up for in sheer honesty. The film’s crowning achievement is just how real Gerwig makes every single character of her semi-autobiographical, early 2000s, Sacramento ecosystem feel. Take, for example, Lucas Hedges’ character and how it becomes abundantly obvious that he’s gay within moments of him being introduced. Obvious to us, an audience, or anyone viewing the interactions from an objective standpoint but painfully beyond the understanding of a naive and enamoured teenager. Characters which are so often relegated to two-dimensional states of existence are allowed to have emotions, wants and desires that exist beyond the field of vision of the protagonist. It’s self-indulgent, for sure, but it’s also remarkably self-aware. A minor comedic treasure about the relationship between mothers and daughters, potential and reality.

 

#13. It Comes At Night

Trey Edward Shults’ second feature, after the highly praised and micro-budgeted Krisha in 2015, is a barebones horror tale, with an all too familiar set up, that ends up surprising you in horrifyingly unexpected ways. One of the most notable things about the film is its use of tension in relation to the revealing of information; information which may not even be, in the grand scheme of things, all that important yet still ends up having incredibly dark consequences. On the subject of “incredibly dark”, Shults and director of photography Drew Daniels do some remarkable things with light sources in this film which strengthens the aforementioned theme of information. In a time where it feels like every horror film has to give its threat a backstory and an eye-grabbing design, It Comes At Night is purely about the terror of the unknown. The entire cast, which is essentially five actors and a dog, is pretty flawless and neither them or the limited surroundings ever make the film feel small or repetitive. An uncanny recreation of a nightmare.  

 

#12. One of Us

Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewig follow up what is probably their most well-known work, 2006’s similarly themed documentary Jesus Camp, with a portrait of three people going through the process of leaving Brooklyn’s famously large, famously insular, Hasidic Jewish community. Unlike Jesus Camp, which painted a picture of a pious faith that had never really even had the opportunity to be tested in any meaningful way, One of Us shows a deeply personal close-up of people in an immense state of flux; unsure of their own identity and struggling in the modern world but resolute in their decisions and confident in their belief in a community that exists outside the one they grew up in. Jesus Camp looked for cracks in the extreme religious psyche while One of Us is a far more heartening look at what holds human beings together in uncertain times. Further proof that, if you own a Netflix subscription, you have instant, and unlimited, access to some of the best documentaries being released in any given year.

 

#11. The Florida Project

Sean Baker follows up his beloved, incredibly entertaining, 2015 feature Tangerine with another refreshingly real take on an overlooked world lying on the outer rim of one of America’s most glossy bastions of money and fantasy. If the thought ever crossed your mind that Tangerine was a fluke and that the decision to shoot the entire film on iPhones was anything less than a fitting aesthetic choice then Alexis Zabe’s beautiful 35mm photography is here to prove you wrong. Recreating the unmistakable viewpoint of a child’s wonder (which anyone who’s ever seen that part of the world as a child will remember), the shots are low, wide and swimming with colour and energy. For what it’s worth, it’s one of the most enchanting films about poverty ever made.

What Baker and Zabe capture, that’s so unique for representations of poverty in Florida and America in general, isn’t just the surreal, orbiting, state that exists just outside of Disney World but Florida’s uniquely captivating mix of human-made structures and beautiful natural surroundings. The trio of core performances are so pitch perfect that the film often feels like a nature documentary, observing the reactions of these struggling Floridians to the changing of the season. Willem Dafoe offers the Hollywood star persona, infinitely fascinating when performing even the most mundane of tasks, while breakout newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince, as mother and daughter, are real in a way that seasoned award winners never could be.

Believable doesn’t quite do the performances justice. I don’t know what Baker did to elicit some of the emotional responses he got out of Prince, clearly a lot of the film’s dialogue is improvised, but she delivers one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen in my life. A common criticism is that the ending (which will be both familiar and underwhelming to anyone who’s seen Escape From Tomorrow) just doesn’t work and I sadly have to agree. Regardless, while it’s hard to know exactly what will become the institution of the future and what will become its cliches – The Florida Project has the potential to be a film that people will still be talking about sixty years from now, maybe in the same breath as Los Olvidados or Les Quatre Cents Coups.         

 

#10. Certain Women

Kelly Reichardt adapts three of Maile Meloy’s short stories about the lives of three, very loosely, connected women living in modern day Montana and while it’s certainly in the lower half of her work to date (for me, at least) the worst Kelly Reichardt film is (for me, at least) better than most filmmakers ever end up being. Laura Dern and long-time Reichardt cohort Michelle Williams deliver great performances of quite rich, albeit brief, characters in what are essentially shorts but it’s Lily Gladstone’s breakout turn as ranch hand Jamie that makes the film. Hers is by far the longest, and best, of the segments and, if the entire film had consisted of what was in that segment, it very probably would have been my favourite film of the year, period. A few of the characters, particularly in Dern’s segment, are a lot more animated than you’d typically find in a Reichardt film but overall it’s sincerely spiritual work from one of America’s best living directors.

 

#9. Song to Song

If you view American filmmaking as a university, with its rules and traditions and star athletes and teacher’s pets, then the Dean of that institution (or at least its most legendary, elusive and tenured lecturer) would be Terrence Malick. One of the very few examples of a figure within the American industry who has reached the stage where they can seemingly do whatever they want for the sake of research or artistic expression, the comprehension of others be damned.

His latest period of work inspiring alternating reactions of enwrapped wonder and seething frustration, these two emotions occurring intensely every ten minutes or so throughout the films and sometimes simultaneously. It’s made for a unique, and ultimately rewarding, experience but not exactly what you’d call an enjoyable one. Which is what makes Song to Song so wonderful.

On the surface, it’s the same as Malick’s other latter-half films (actors are given immense control over the scenes with days of footage being shot and the camera following the actors around various locations, laced with voice-over and stunning scenic photography). What really makes Song to Song the pinnacle of this movement in Malick’s career thus far, and the culmination of all of Malick’s enthralling and infuriating decisions within it, is Ryan Gosling’s performance.

Malick has always used the typically beautiful Hollywood acting elite in his own way but his recent films have often placed them in situations where they have to truly improvise, for perhaps the first time in a very long time, and they clearly often don’t know what to do. Gosling makes the style of the film work in a way it never quite has before because his screen presence is so naturally charismatic that he draws the attention of his acting partners to him at all times, as well as the audiences. He doesn’t let them off the hook, he insists, he compels.

Coupled with Emmanuel Lubezki’s trademark, beautifully flowing, cinematography and a plotline that’s just comprehensible enough to feel like you’re appreciating the best of each actor’s performance; Song to Song is one of Malick’s most enjoyable films in over a decade. It’s energetic, it’s lyrical and it’s a romantic drama unlike any other that you’ve ever seen.

 

#8. Good Time

Josh and Benny Safdie write, direct and star in this modern crime spree through the unrecognizably grimy streets of New York City with Robert Pattinson in the first of two brilliantly unrecognizable performances from him in films featured on this list (the second is in the #4 film on the list). Though not free from some of the minor niggles that stem from low-budget indie filmmaking, Good Time is a kinetic, uncanny and striking piece of cinema. The story moves with such ease between locations and problems that there’s virtually no way of knowing which direction things will go in next and it makes this incredibly well made film feel almost improvised. Pattinson’s character is essentially a human dog running throughout the city, motivated entirely by singular objectives and against the entire system that’s constantly crashing down on top of him. The urban sprawl, its broken technology and its sensory overload of artificial light becoming the toy chest of the main character, the directors and DOP Sean Price Williams. I’m ashamed to say that this is the first Safdie brothers film that I’ve seen, but it definitely won’t be the last.

 

#7. A Ghost Story

Writer and director David Lowery returns to a tiny tale of love and loss in the American gothic, romanticist, tradition of his 2013 feature (which is also, equally, recommended) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, reuniting him with the film’s leads Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck. Considering the breadth of success that each member of the trio had found since their last film together (the place that Lowery was returning from was his first big, effects driven, studio film for Disney) it’s very cathartic to see just how committed the film is to being as small as possible. You are inescapably bound to the main character’s journey through the extremely limited geography of the narrative and the near-claustrophobia of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio; Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography lending itself perfectly to Lowery’s editing and overall pensive aesthetic. The film is reported to have a production budget of only $100,000 which is a little, genuinely, unbelievable considering the cosmic scope of its melancholic meditations. The pacing may be too much for some (the pie eating scene was transcendent, next dimension, level stuff for me) but its inevitable sense of resolution is resounding, ethereal and perhaps even spiritually enriching.   

 

#6. Silence

Yes, Martin Scorsese’s Silence was indeed included in the 2016 Oscars race but, in order for this to happen, the film was released in four select cinemas in very late December with the rest of us normies only getting the chance to see it in 2017. It’s every bit as brutal and beautiful as you would come to expect from one of the greatest filmmakers America has ever produced. Andrew Garfield completely balances out his mawkish hokum from Hacksaw Ridge (if you’ve never seen it, think: Forrest Gump, only taken dead seriously) with total emotional immersion into the life of a psychologically tortured Jesuit priest. The climax of Hacksaw Ridge being a scene where Garfield heroically slo-mo mid-air karate kicks a grenade away from the generals and the climax of Silence being a moment where Garfield must portray a man whose very soul has broken.

The film is a relentless spiritual trial for the protagonist and the viewer. Faith is always tested in the most extreme ways, emphasizing that the face of God is not glamorous and that their voice is not clear. Screenwriter Jay Cocks, a frequent collaborator with Scorsese on his more difficult and painstakingly detailed period pieces, helps Scorsese to structure his long-gestating, poetic, thoughts on religion in one of the director’s few screenwriting credits. In a time where most of the Movie Brats have retired or died, and Spielberg seems stuck making inoffensive thrillers and kids’ movies, Scorsese is still reaching out and using cinema in one of its most fascinating applications: as a form of genuine religious expression. The tinges of Bergman and Tarkovsky reinforcing this as a film that, if not a magnum opus, is beyond the capabilities of most directors.    

 

#5. Dawson City: Frozen Time

I’d say I don’t want to give too much away but, in this instance, there really isn’t that much to give away. Dawson City: Frozen Time is more of an experience and one that can only be had as an individual. Bill Morrison’s documentary, about the history of some nitrate film discovered in an old swimming pool, definitely doesn’t sound like one of the most enveloping and captivating films of the year but it easily is. Through what is almost entirely still archival photographs and footage from the, over five hundred, silent film reels which were originally believed to have been completely lost to time, discovered in that old swimming pool, Morrison weaves a tale that reveals Dawson City as an epicenter of both film history and American history. The sheer level of detail and work which went into assembling this film, again – mostly made up of footage from films that were almost totally erased from history, creates an unparalleled experience. It is a soulful and regularly astounding exercise in assessing film as a form of social documentation.   

 

#4. The Lost City of Z

I think critic Brad Jones described it best when he called The Lost City of Z “a lost New Hollywood film, something that would have been made had Heaven’s Gate been a success”. Director James Gray proves to have a deft hand when it comes to sprawling early 20th century period epics, following his turn from mostly contemporary family drama films with 2013’s equally exquisite The Immigrant. The Lost City of Z sees Gray reteaming with the same cinematographer, Darius Khondji, for that similar look of 70s grain and rich, almost warm, sepia tint only this time it plays a more significant role in your appreciation of the film. The Lost City of Z conjures up memories of early Herzog, folly and mad dreams on the jungle rivers, but also the reframing of power that came from the volatility of 70s American cinema. The very structure of the world coming into question. What is human? What is freedom? What is meaning in life? You can read our full review here but this is something that demands to be seen and on as wide a screen as you can find, even if a big chunk of distribution rights were picked up by Amazon. It’s a film that’s truly worthy of a great home cinema system. Maybe this is the New New Hollywood.    

 

#3. Logan Lucky

Steven Soderbergh returned to cinema screens after a four year retirement as a feature film director with this sweet, funny and electrifying serenade to himself. The film, which is incredibly self-referential in almost every conceivable way, is hugely enjoyable on the surface level of being a stripped down, backwater, Ocean’s Eleven (as the film points out) and perhaps even more entertaining as a metaphorical, metacinematic, journey through Soderbergh’s current career. As the first words of John Denver’s cover of Some Days Are Diamonds ring out over the opening logos, “When you asked how I’ve been here without you, I’d like to say I’ve been fine and I do”, it feels like the director is a constant presence throughout the film, an unseen character, and it’s masterful. As Channing Tatum’s adorably folksy protagonist goes on to say “I like the song because of the song but I guess I also like it because there’s a story behind it”.

The whole cast is truly nothing short of world-beating. From Seth MacFarlane’s Dick Van Dyke tier Cockney accent to Daniel Craig’s yahoo Appalachian balancing it out, it’s as close to perfect as a Hollywood ensemble ever gets. Adam Driver and Riley Keough bring two genuinely unique kinds of energy to the whole film and really amplify Soderbergh’s fascination with patterns of speech and conversation. It’s not shocking that the frontrunner regarding the real identity of the author of the film’s absolutely airtight screenplay, Rebecca Blunt (whose existence has only ever been officially vouched for by Soderbergh and Driver, communicating with other members of the cast and crew exclusively via email), is Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner; making the astute references to Soderbergh all the funnier. After all, it’s a film about family and getting it all back together for one big score and Logan Lucky is one joyously big score. Welcome back, Steven. We’ve missed you.

 

#2. Split

Speaking of joyful returns. If I said I felt any greater sense of exhilaration during a film in 2017 than I did at the culmination of M. Night Shyamalan’s long-awaited return to both critical praise and audience satisfaction, Split, then I’d be a liar. In a world where anybody can gain a significant platform to unfairly trash harmless stuff that you like, you often find yourself having to bite your tongue and silently enjoy things. Everyone has guilty pleasures but it’s another thing entirely to see someone whose work you enjoy become a byword for failure. What gets you through is the belief that your taste is good enough to, one day, be vindicated. There’s a lot of things that I’ve probably got a long time left to wait on but I’m incapable of accurately expressing how much joy it gives me to know that Shyamalan proved that he wasn’t a flash in the pan.

With that expectation hanging over the film in mind, it’s important to emphasise just how wrong this could have gone and how impressive James McAvoy’s performance is in relation to this. He isn’t just convincing as each of the eight characters that he plays, a small child or a man with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he’s convincing simultaneously as those characters and as the character of a man playing those characters. Doubt over the validity of certain mental health issues is a big, underlying, part of the film and it’s McAvoy’s job to keep the audience guessing, and hypnotised, throughout. Split moves from being just entertaining to being truly great, for me, because the basic composition of the film makes the audience engage with those themes.

This is only the second wide-release feature film of DOP Michael Gioulakis’ career, following 2014’s other surprise horror hit It Follows, and it’s easy to see his creeping camera style becoming somewhat of a Hollywood norm in the future. He really seems to have captured a particular speed of camera movement and hue with lighting that evokes a genuine sense of unease. The motif of predator and prey, with the acts of hunting and stalking becoming like a kind of performance in themselves, is also a large part of the film which is reflected by both McAvoy’s and Anya Taylor-Joy’s performances and the cinematography. The fact that the film finds the space, in its under two hour running time, to fully explore and develop ideas about identity and fictional social personas with a political tinge to them (McAvoy’s shaved head and basement-dwelling are not without their meaning, conscious or otherwise) stands to its credit as a fully fleshed out thriller.

Shyamalan seems to have finally embraced himself as a filmmaker rather than trying to emulate others (thinking that you can be Steven Spielberg is a common pitfall) and, in so doing, he’s produced his first film in fifteen years that deserves to be favourably compared to that of a cinematic master. Split is thoroughly Hitchcockian in terms of tone and stylistic achievements which are achieved by a fundamental understanding of cinematic language. Shyamalan has said that working with Jason Blum’s production model has helped him because it makes reshoots easier to request but, whatever it is, it’s working because Shyamalan’s voice is clearer now than it has been for a very long time and his is a voice worth listening to.

 

#1. Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s exquisite period drama/post-war horror film stands not just as a testament to the possibility of flawlessly crafted cinema but also to the auteur theory. In a film that could have been so easily dwarfed by the magnitude of the performances of its three lead actors, sporting Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film performance before retirement (we’ll see how long that lasts), one of the most interesting and well-executed things about it is its cinematography.

It’s a facet made all the more impressive by the fact that the film has no credited director of photography. Anderson has downplayed his involvement as a replacement director of photography, branding it a more collaborative effort (which I don’t doubt), but the truth is that cinematography is very often more of a collaborative effort anyway and a director, or even a producer, can have a primary influence over it. One of the most frequently asked questions about film production, partially because it doesn’t have an absolutely concrete answer, is: what is a director and what do they do? The general answer being: it depends. In an objective sense, the term “director” is designed to assign responsibility and if there is no director of photography then the sole responsibility for the photography rests on the director. Paul Thomas Anderson is, by proxy and whether he likes it or not, also the director of photography for Phantom Thread.

The film’s 35mm photography is utterly spellbinding. The way the camera moves so fluidly in such tight, intimate, spaces, mixed with a combination of hazy lighting and push processing, makes for this almost eerie level of depth that runs throughout the film. It’s the buried secrets of the characters that make them equally frightening and magnetic with the whole look of the film evoking this sense of mystery. Anderson’s recreation of post-war Britain feels so tangible because it essentially is. Nothing about the sets or the props ever feels like a recreation and there is never a single solitary second in which you think of Daniel Day-Lewis as being anyone other than his character. Like a lot of the films on this list, there is a metacinematic quality to Phantom Thread but it’s far more conscious and far more overlying than in any of the others. The film effectively contains a character study of a director within its exploration of a codependent romance.

I think my favourite film news story of 2017, just beating the news that Scorsese showed Silence to the Pope, was that Christopher Nolan took his kids to see Phantom Thread and for weeks afterwards they kept referring to him as Day-Lewis’ character, Woodcock. It perfectly sums up the nature of the relationship that Anderson had as writer, director and cinematographer on the film. Whereas a lot of the most critically well-received films of 2017 contained a metacinematic element which was quite upbeat, Phantom Thread is a fairly unforgiving representation of the director figure as stubborn, cruel, controlling and often childish. In a way, it almost feels like Anderson giving a two hour long apology to his wife. A running theme throughout the film is care and what it means, exploring the care and precision involved in one’s work as being a manifestation of love. If that’s true then Phantom Thread is a pure act of love from a filmmaker.

Everything about the film is effectively perfect. Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville are more than a match for Daniel Day-Lewis at what must have been his most intimidating and Jonny Greenwood’s score is timelessly outstanding. The film’s main theme, particularly, feeling like something that could go on to become as classical as a Bernard Herrmann score. It’s disturbing, it’s transfixing and it never feels cheap. It’s about a trade becoming an art. It’s the essence of film.

 

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on Apr 12, 2018

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