I’m trying to watch as many movies from this year as I can before list season infects everything I touch. Here are five of them.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler, 2017)
“Brawl” is a bit of an undersell here, but I assume that Pulverization of Flesh in Cell Block 99 was too unwieldy a title for the distributors. In any case, this is a pure hit of arty dirtbag cinema. The purplest, most hard-boiled of dialogue, the grubbiest of politics, the gnarliest of skin-crawling violence (shout out to the SFX, sound, and makeup teams, A+ work). This is another one of Zahler’s pulp Infernos, a novelistic slow-burn descent into an unknowable Hell. In Bone Tomahawk, it was the frontier, where the leads reaped what their ancestors sowed. Here, it’s the prison system. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Zahler has a great eye for wide shots. He moves a bit like John Carpenter: his framing is perfect without being “perfect,” and he has the good sense to stage his fights in wides so that they’re perfectly legible, and thus perfectly brutal. He gets Vince Vaughn to put in his best work in, what, 15-20 years? And he co-wrote the movie’s songs and got the O’Jays and Butch Tavares to play them? To paraphrase a guy I follow on around the filmier parts of the internet, Zahler’s onto something here. But yeah, giant YMMV on this one. It’s not for the squeamish or faint of heart, but it’s a great grubby experience for those who can dance with it.
Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary, 2017)
Full disclosure: I am powerless against movies where people scrape together a movie. My one major gripe with this specific version of this story is that it doesn’t really lean into the potent darkness of the material. Not that these movies about dealing with trauma (or at the very least a paradigm-shattering personal experience) all have to be grim and serious, but a certain amount of gravitas gives more weight to the joy and optimism that is this movie’s bread and butter. Otherwise, it’s liable to become just a parade of quirks, or one of those faux-junky Xeroxes that crop up at genre film festivals. But there is so much warmth to this film that I can almost look past it not engaging with the heavier, thornier bits of the story; that Kyle Mooney’s James is rarely ever condescended to is kind of a minor miracle. Movies like this, where love and enthusiasm and support and closure are its pillars, are kind of at a premium, and thus worth celebrating, modest though they may be. You chip away at the darkness any way you can.
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Macon Blair, 2017)
Blair went from starring in a swampy white-knuckle neo-noir (Jeremy Saulnier’s excellent Blue Ruin) to making one of his own, only his is much warmer and much weirder. To wit: Melanie Lynskey, who is magnificent here as break-in victim Ruth, tears up when a children’s book gets cosmic. She also just up and decides to become a vigilante PI, but in a more endearing way than that connotes. She’s closer in spirit to a cozy mystery protagonist who accidentally wandered into one of the gnarlier Coen brothers joints (come to think of it, between the gore and the brush and the cheap thrills and the sweet needle drops, this almost feels like Rob Zombie doing nastier Coens). Co-star Elijah Wood, who is secretly one of the great actors of his generation, plays Tony, the human embodiment of the “When you were partying, I studied the blade” meme, complete with rat-tail, throwing stars, and busted old muscle car. I give this movie four Saxon ringer tees out of five.
Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)
Soderbergh just seems to be preternaturally gifted in the art of making great caper comedies. Case in point: this movie is effortlessly funny and charming and about the most fun I’ve had watching a movie this year. I’m really digging Soderbergh’s current run of movies with newfound muse Channing Tatum: three wonderful, unpretentious portraits of living in America in a period of financial anxiety (and yes, I know Soderbergh didn’t direct Magic Mike XXL, but he shot and edited it, so it counts). And I love these Hawksian team-job movies where everyone is hyper-competent and in lockstep, so there was no way I was going to dislike this. Also it’s just kind of refreshing to see people from Appalachia presented not as punchlines, but as the brains of the operation. This plays into the movie’s sly upending of accent connotation, and not just with Tatum, Driver, Keough and company: see Seth MacFarlane’s boorish, weaselly Richard Branson stand-in or the clipped flatness of Hilary Swank’s FBI agent. It all looks just too easy.
Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley, 2017)
From the deep dark depths of the Welsh arm of Remodernism (file under: No Wave, Tarr, Tarkovsky, Bresson) comes this ambient horror film where the majesty of nature curdles into an awesome, unknowable power that devours all in its path. It’s shot on an iPhone, but don’t get it twisted, it’s gorgeous, foreboding, apocalyptic. Your eyes scan the frame trying to populate it. A couple of animals show up, but usually, there’s nothing. Just the elements and a prevailing sense of doom (this movie makes a strong case that there’s no better special effect than a howling wind knocking a camera over). Remodernism as a movement aims for nothing short of lyricism and transcendence, and this one gets damn close to the ideal. Our very own Michelle, who recommended this to me and currently as anointed it the best film of 2017, compared the feeling she got watching the final shot to an ascent into heaven. But heathen that I am, I saw it as technology failing to make sense of a power so ancient and all-encompassing that it blurs perception and snuffs out life. When it comes for us, and you bet your ass it will, we will never see it coming. There’s no way we could have.