It’s been an annual tradition since the beginning of The Establishing Shot in 2011 to select my ten favorite images from films that year. Thus, as 2017 comes to a close, here is this year’s list. (NOTE: There are spoilers included, so be aware.)
The moment I remember and cherish most from any film this year occurred in WONDER WOMAN, directed by Patty Jenkins and written by Allan Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs. Diana (Gal Gadot) has gone to the front in WWI with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to battle the German army and is confounded that no one will venture out onto the field to engage in battle. Trevor tells her that it’s called “No Man’s Land” because no one has dared cross it due to the machine gun nests on each side. That may be a good excuse for such men, but not for a woman of her capabilities. Diana drops her cover, exposing her Amazonian war attire, and races out to confront the enemy. She is shot at with bombs and bullets but bats them away like so many annoying flies. In a year when women protested en masse and took back their power from misogynists in Hollywood, Washington D.C., and beyond, it could not have been a timelier or more stirring moment.
Pixar’s COCO may be the odds-on-favorite to take Oscar gold this March, but I’m hoping that LOVING VINCENT pulls a big upset. The film, written and directed by Dorota Kobeila and Hugh Welchman, is both an incredible feat of animation and storytelling. First, the animation consists of 65,000 hand-painted cells in the style of Vincent van Gogh. Second, the story is an amazing portrait of the artist whose death was as steeped in controversy as his life. As family friend Armand Roulin investigates the impressionist’s last days, Vincent’s world swirls around him like starry nights and cascading irises. It’s a serious work that still manages to be puckish at key moments. The best is when the animators toy with cinematic convention by having the reflection of a local village appear in Roulin’s train window. It’s an easy effect on film, but to achieve something like that in animation is genius.
My favorite movie of the year is writer/director Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD. And one of the adroitly observed coming-of-age film’s best moments occurs three minutes in. The mercurial Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has a complex relationship with her passive/aggressive mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). One minute they are warm and in synch, the next, bickering and contentious. As the two argue while driving home, mom lays on the insults a bit thick and her daughter decides she’s heard enough. In an act of questionable teen defiance, the bird flees the coop, literally and figuratively, by bailing from the passenger seat. It’s both shocking and hilarious. Of course, the girl recovers, albeit earning a broken arm from the act, but it sets the stage for an anything-can-happen vibe in this episodic dramedy.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
No film this year had as many stunning images as this sci-fi thriller. In this nihilistic thriller, the world created by director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Green, production designer Dennis Gassner, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, is one bleak dystopia. Yet, the decay and ugliness are often glossed over by the sheen of advertising and escapism. One of its most impressive images is that of the ginormous 3-D billboard that directly talks to main character K (Ryan Gosling). He is a replicant (a humanoid robot), undervalued and treated shabbily by his superiors, and here, he is mourning the death of his digital girlfriend whom he just got killed. Yet, she also happens to be the hologram from the ad pointing at him. At that moment, K realizes that his A.I. lover was a dime a dozen. It’s a cold, cruel world out there.
You’d expect the gowns in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about a fashion designer to be exquisite, but in PHANTOM THREAD, there is one knockout dress after another. Equally as gorgeous is how Anderson, as the uncredited cinematographer of the film, shoots them. He frames his images with an old fashion magazine sensibility from decades past, employing open spaces and a cool color palate. Is this story a period piece? It almost could be considering how “old school” his main character is in every way. Designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) loves control and he boxes in Alma (Vicki Krieps), his newest muse and model, throughout the story. He needs to direct every aspect of his world, and it’s one sumptuous cage, albeit, still a cage.
In writer/ director Byung-gil Jung’s THE VILLAINESS, he and fellow screenwriter Byeong-sik Jung contrive all sorts of ways for their female assassin character Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) to get into trouble. Starting with the film’s opening slaughter of an entire battalion of baddies, shot in the style of a first-person shooter, Sook-hee’s character arc plays like levels in a video game. Each new phase brings increased stakes filled with impossible odds. One of the greatest occurs right before her wedding late in the film. She’s ordered to commit an assassination in full bridal regalia. As she trains her scope on her target, Sook-hee is framed to show off the gown’s endless train, echoing her endless contract with her demanding employer. It’s a chilling moment in this visually imaginative South Korean import.
A GHOST STORY
Despite its title, this indie stand-out from writer/director David Lowery is not a horror film, but rather, a character study. Casey Affleck plays a musician simply known as “C” who dies in a car accident and then comes back to haunt his home and lover “M” (Rooney Mara) as a ghost. But he’s no spook or villain. Instead, he’s a reticent specter, draped in a rather dramatic if not silly sheet, who must watch mournfully as her life plays out in their house without his participation. It’s an elegy on loneliness, forcing us to relate to the POV of such a strange, remote and tragic figure. One of the greatest shots that Lowery and his cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo present this ghost tethered to his surroundings even when that humble home is bulldozed to make way for a glitzy high-rise. As the ghost contemplates his new world from a high floor, he is dwarfed by the enormity of it all. It’s beautiful, bold and tragic, much like the film itself.
The best horror movie of the year was from writer/director Jordan Peele. There were so many marvelous shots, from lead Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) falling through space into his sunken place to Bradley Whitford’s slyly sinister patriarch auctioning off the young man to the highest bidder amongst the 1%. For me, the best visuals were Peele’s cheekiest. He is an Emmy-award winning comic, after all, and one of his funniest was the reveal of villainous girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) scouring the internet for her next African-American victim. She does so with utter calm, eating individual Fruit Loops and washing them down with milk slurped from a straw. Is Peele suggesting she’s so racist that even in her snacking there’s a reticence to mix the multi-colored cereal with white milk in a bowl? Indeed, social satire doesn’t get much more stinging than that in this new era of the “Alt. Right” and a POTUS who defends Nazis as “some very nice people.”
ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
Ridley Scott recast the role of J. Paul Getty after the fallout from original star Kevin Spacey’s sex scandals, replacing him with veteran character actor Christopher Plummer. Plummer was his original choice for the part in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD anyway, and in order to save the film from a PR disaster, Scott simply filmed the Getty scenes (written by David Scarpa) anew with Plummer in the role. The director then worked them into the finished film in a matter of weeks. The gamble paid off as Plummer is more suited to Getty’s age and patrician ways. My favorite moment from the film is when Mark Wahlberg’s fixer questions the billionaire’s motives and grabs his arm to make his point. Getty is not used to being challenged, let alone being touched in such a manner, and the outrage Plummer gives the scene is palpable. Note too how cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s framing shoves both Plummer and Wahlberg over to the far left of the screen, further marginalizing the Getty character. It’s a great moment showing just how weak bullies are when they are bullied back.
This critical darling and worldwide financial juggernaut warrants a second favorite image here. This one is an extended close-up of Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. He’s just hijacked the plane carrying gas bombs destined to obliterate American forces and is overjoyed at his accomplishment. Yet, the more he thinks about it, his mood darkens. True, he’s saved thousands and thousands of lives, but now he will have to die mid-air when the bombs explode. He also frets whether or not Diana happened to hear his final exclamation of love during a noisy battle prior to stealing the plane. We see all of that play out on Pine’s face in an incredible moment of unedited bravura.
Those are my favorite film images from this year. What were yours?