The best movies of 2017

Javier and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN
Javier Cámara and Ricardo Darin in TRUMAN

Every year, I keep a running list of the best movies I’ve seen this year. I usually end up with a Top Ten and another 5-15 mentions. Here’s last year’s list.

To get on my year-end list, a movie has to be one that thrills me while I’m watching it and one that I’m still thinking about a couple of days later.

I’m still looking forward to seeing films that are candidates for my final list, including Call Me By Your Name, Thelma, Phantom Thread, The Post and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.  You can see the current list complete with video availability at my Best Movies of 2017.  Here’s the year-end list:

  1. Truman
  2. The Big Sick
  3. The Shape of Water
  4. Wind River
  5. Dunkirk
  6. Coco
  7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  8. Lady Bird
  9. The Founder
  10. Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

And the rest: Lucky and The Sense of an Ending

Sally Hawkins in THE SHAPE OF WATER

I try not to tease you with movies that you can’t find, but I need to acknowledge two sure-fire crowd-pleasers from this year’s Cinequest: Quality Problems and For Grace. Both films are emotionally authentic, intelligent and funny, but neither has distribution so far. I will feature them if and when they become available on video.

And here’s a special mention. It’s not on my list, but The Lost City of Z deserves credit for reviving the genre of the historical adventure epic, with all the spectacle of a swashbuckler, while braiding in modern sensitivities and a psychological portrait.


Movies to See Right Now

Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

This weekend, I’m going to try to catch The Florida Project and Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House. Of the movies that I HAVE seen, I like the often funny and stealthily profound Lucky, starring the late Harry Dean Stanton.

My DVD/Stream choices of the week are Woody Harrelson’s overlooked gems. The best, Rampart, is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, YouTube and Google Play. But check out The Messenger, Zombieland and True Detective, Season 1, too.

As they say, life begins with fifty Gs.  On October 22, Turner Classic Movies presents Raw Deal (1948), with some of the best dialogue in all of film noir, a love triangle and the superb cinematography of John Alton.

Claire Trevor in RAW DEAL
Claire Trevor in RAW DEAL

Movies to See Right Now

The new PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, is one of the best documentaries of the century and a superb history lesson, crucial to understand the America of today. It’s a Must See for Baby Boomers. For different reasons, it’s a Must See for Americans of later generations. The ten episodes of The Vietnam War can be streamed from PBS through October 15.

Your best chance to see an Oscar-winner is at the Mill Valley Film Festival, now underway at several Marin locations. The MVFF always previews many of the most promising prestige films that are scheduled for release during Award Season.

In theaters now, there is the often funny and stealthily profound Lucky. Here’s my remembrance of its star, Harry Dean Stanton.

Sure to be near the end of its theatrical run, you can still catch the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, which has mystery, explosive action, wild scenery and some great acting, especially by Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham.

My DVD/Stream of the Week is the compelling and affecting Short Term 12, set in a foster care facility and starring Brie Larson as kind of a Troubled Kid Whisperer.  Short Term 12 is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix Instant, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, GooglePlay and Xbox Video. It was high on my Best Movies of 2013.

On October 15, Turner Classic Movies presents Diabolique. The headmaster of a provincial boarding school is so cruel, even sadistic, that everyone wants him dead, especially his wife and his mistress. When he goes missing, the police drain the murky pool where the killers dumped the body…and the killers get a big surprise. Now the suspense from director Henri-Georges Clouzot (often tagged as the French Hitchcock) really starts.

And TCM offers something completely different on October 16, the delightful Peter Bogdanovich screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? The nerdy academic Howard (Ryan O’Neal) and his continually aggrieved fiance Eunice (Madeline Kahn) travel to San Francisco to compete for a career-launching grant. The luggage with Howard’s great discovery (musical rocks) is mixed up with two identical suitcases, one containing valuable jewelry, the other with spy secrets, and soon we have juggling MacGuffins.

That’s all funny enough, but Howard bumps into Judy (Barbra Streisand), the kookiest serial college dropout in America, who determines that she must have him and utterly disrupts his life. Our hero’s ruthless rival for the grant is hilariously played by Kenneth Mars (the Nazi playwright in The Producers). Austin Pendleton is wonderful as the would-be benefactor.

The EXTENDED closing chase scene is among the very funniest in movie history – right up there with the best of Buster Keaton; Streisand and O’Neal lead an ever-growing cavalcade of pursuers through the hills of San Francisco, at one point crashing the Chinese New Year’s Day parade. I love What’s Up, Doc? and own the DVD, and I watch every time I stumble across it on TV. Boganovich’s hero Howard Hawkes, the master of the screwball comedy, would have been proud.



Harry Dean Stanton in PARIS, TEXAS

I’ve been traveling and haven’t had a chance until now to recognize the life and career of the actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died this month at the age of 91. Coincidentally, Harry Dean was on my mind because I had just watched his masterpiece Paris, Texas on the flight to my vacation destination, and I was preparing to watch the screener for his last film, Lucky, to be released in the Bay Area next weekend.

Once of the most noticeable of the prolific character actors, he improbably became a leading man at age 58 and, in his 80s, starred as the menacing leader of a polygamist cult in Big Love.  I’ll be writing about Lucky tomorrow.

Harry Dean was a great favorite of mine – and of many other cinephiles.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel once posited that a movie could not be entirely bad if Harry Dean Stanton were in it.  Harry Dean often seemed like that uncle/neighbor/mentor who had Lived A Life but would let you inside and let you learn from his journey.  He was ever accessible and always piqued the audience’s curiosity about his characters.

Harry Dean Stanton garnered 200 screen credits, including scores of 1960s TV shows.  He appeared on seemingly every TV Western:   Rawhide, Bonanza, The Big Valley, The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Laramie, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson and Stoney Burke.  Think how many times we Baby Boomers must have seen him in The Fugitive, Adam 12, Mannix, Combat!, The Untouchables, and even The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin.

In the early 1970s, I first really noticed Harry Dean for his quirkiness, singularity and forlorn humor in his sidekick roles in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Missouri Breaks. That’s when you had to sit through the end credits to find out who that actor was.

Along the way, he made three Monte Hellman cult films (Ride the Whirlwind, Cockfighter, Two-Lane Blacktop) and was friends with fellow Hollywood outlaws Warren Oates and Jack Nicholson.  He shared a house with Nicholson for a while (can you imagine?).

Also a fine musician, Harry Dean left us with touching vocal renditions of Just a Closer Walk with Thee in Cool Hand Luke and Volver, Volver in Lucky.

Natassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton in PARIS, TEXAS

In 1984, at the age of 58, Harry Dean Stanton broke through in two wonderful lead performances.  He played the old school mentor of the punk Emilio Estevez in the cult film Repo Man.  And he made his masterpiece, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

In Paris Texas, Harry Dean plays Travis, a man so traumatized that he has disappeared and is found wandering across the desert and mistaken for a mute.  As he is cared for by his brother (Dean Stockwell), he evolves from feral to erratic to troubled, but with a sense of tenderness and a determination to put things right.  We see Travis as a madman who gains extraordinary lucidity about what wrong in his life and his own responsibility for it.

At the film’s climax, Travis speaks to Jane (Natassja Kinski) through a one-way mirror (she can’t see him).  Spinning what at first seems like parable, Travis explains what happened to him – and to her – and why it happened.  It’s a 20-minute monologue so captivating and touching that it rises to be recognized as one of the very greatest screen performances.

Kinski, Stockwell and the child actor Hunter Carlson are also exceptional.  Paris, Texas is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes and FilmStruck.

We’ll miss you, Harry Dean.

Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures