Each year, film critic David Ehrlich edits a film to present his choices for the top 25 movies of the year in the language of, well, film. It’s always kinetic, exciting: quick cuts from the films in question, linked thematically or visually, soundtracked with music written for or featured in films from the year in review. Ehrlich’s yearly films begin invariably with a prologue from the range of the year’s films, not all of which will appear in the subsequent list. These video lists always make their featured movies look spectacular, enticing. I watch his reviews at the end of the year and think to myself, “I want to see all of these movies.”
So this year, I’m working on seeing all of these movies.
Parenthood curtailed my movie-watching activity: I’ve had neither the stomach, the occasion, (the money,) or the stamina to watch most of the films I might have seen in my less responsible days. Lots of animation, not much else. I’ve pushed against that this year, using Erlich’s 25 Best of 2017 as my checklist. I’d already seen three of his 25 films: Get Out (#16), Okja (#12), and Dunkirk (#2), so I figured I had purchase on my chosen course and perhaps I could run this race and finish. I’m entering the final lap (The Beguiled, #15; Foxtrot, #19; A Fantastic Woman, #20) and thought I’d write a bit about what I’ve discovered along the way.
One, there’s a world of film beyond what’s at the multiplex, and it’s rewarding. Nothing new here, but these film critic best-of lists help curate some of the gems into a manageable roster for me. Many of the critics’ darlings will appear on multiple lists, so expanding my menu to two or three prominent critics didn’t cost me too many more viewings (A. O. Scott had only one or two titles on his Top 10 that didn’t also appear on Ehrlich’s Top 25). And lots of these films are on a streaming service I’m already paying for (of the 25 films on Ehrlich’s 2015 list, 15 are on either Netflix, Prime, Hulu or Kanopy).
Two, I feel I know something of Erlich’s preferences after seeing so many of his favorite films. He likes his cameras to capture dancing, especially dancing to an insistent, overwhelming beat. He likes kinetic action, movement. He likes the body, and he’s particular about LGBT themes. He likes the contemplative gaze. He likes films that go somewhere with obsessive intent. He likes his stakes really high. Some of these are and some aren’t my cup of tea, but it hasn’t decreased the value of the project as a whole for me.
Three, though I may have already planned to see some of the films on my chosen roster (I’m sure I would have eventually seen The Post, #9, and Phantom Thread, #10), I’ve found that submitting myself to someone else’s choices means I’m seeing many, many films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Some of these I didn’t particularly like (A Quite Passion, #11; Good Time, #14), and some I adore (Mother!, #22, Wonderstruck, #13), and both reactions were a complete surprise because I wouldn’t have considered these films of my own accord.
Finally, I’m zeroing in on a theory about film, which is that the director is always looking to create on film what I’ll call the “one unseen thing.” That is, one shot, one metaphor, one set piece, an image or scene or moment that’s never been seen before by the human eye (at least, not on film). This is the scale and scope of the canvas in Dunkirk; the frenetic apocalypse at the end of Mother!; the flight through the mall in Okja; the scenes of children’s autonomous rule in The Florida Project; the sunken place in Get Out. Look for it and you’ll have the beginnings of a handle on the heart of a film.
Having seen most of Ehrlich’s 2017 list, I’ve started taking a stab at 2016 as well (I’m a little more than halfway through at the moment). I’ve seen incredible films this year, films I’d have never entertained: Aranovsky’s Mother! is my favorite movie of 2017, a conclusion the reviews did not lead me to expect; A Ghost Story, Columbus, Jackie, Moonlight, Toni Erdmann, Hail, Caesar!, and the films of Luca Guadagnino were excellent surprises– I’d never have watched any of them. (I might have eventually watched Hail, Caesar!). But, and I guess this is the point of this post, I’m so glad I did. I like this strategy. I think I’ll keep it.
What a joy it is, to be surprised again by a film!