The Oscar nominations were released today and among them are your usual Oscars-y movies, i.e. white indie films. Needless to say, I’m not excited about Lady Bird or Call Me By Your Name and I’m especially peeved that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri got nominated for anything. In my opinion, I think 2017 was not the greatest year for movies (I also just think nothing can top the genius that was Moonlight when it swooped 2016). Also, I’m a fresh-faced college grad with little money so I didn’t get to see nearly as many films as I wanted to this year, but of the ones I did get to see, here are my top five films of 2017 (aka, MY nominations for the Oscars):
— Spoilers Ahead —
#5 Gook (dir. Justin Chon)
I decided to include this film because it was one that simply stood out to me over the course of 2017 and for a plethora of reasons, both good and bad. I had anticipated Gook for a long time and I remember in 2016 when the crew was trying to just get funding for post-production through grassroots efforts on social media and to see the critical acclaim it has achieved is impressive. I’ve seen quite a bit of films and documentaries with the backdrop of the LA 1992 Uprising and not many have centered the particular distress that the Korean storeowners of the time faced. Aside from the 1993 documentary Sa-I-Gu, which focused on the lives of the Korean women in the aftermath of the riots, this is the first time I saw something like this. Despite being fictional, Gook tells an interesting story of two Korean American brothers (Eli and Daniel) and a friendly Black girl (Kamilla) and what happens with them when the uprising breaks out.
Gook is incredibly stunning in its cinematography and has this intoxicating smokiness that is consistent with the themes of the film. The film, as I saw it, was a throwback to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) both in its stylistic choices and story. Both are intentional in its use of black and white cinematography with racial tensions as its focal point. What I think Gook does well is use that style to draw attention to what I would consider a marginalized group in the discourse of the LA Uprising. I’m a firm believer that the LA Uprising very clearly was about the specific black and white tensions of Los Angeles and that the Korean immigrant storeowners should not be the sole focus when discussing that event, which is why I felt both a sense of relief but also absolute anguish when the story revealed that the Korean American brothers’ family was responsible for the many tragedies in Kamilla’s family. Where else do you see Asian Americans being held "accountable" for their violences against Black people?
At the same time, Gook, for all its pluses, has so many problematic negatives - including capitalizing on the deaths of Black women in particular, like so many other films and shows have done over and over in the past. It's old, not fair, and, coming from an Asian American filmmaker, inherently anti-black.
#4 A Taxi Driver (dir. Jang Hoon)
You know, I think A Taxi Driver was completely snubbed for Best Foreign Language Film. How could it not get even a nomination? This film had such a specific impact on me and is one I will gladly revisit over and over again. It is deeply personal, yet about such a terrible national (and frankly, international) event. A Taxi Driver is about, well, a taxi driver who blindly agrees to take a German reporter to Gwangju to discover the horrible tragedy that was occurring behind political walls.
Song Kang-ho as the protagonist and titular taxi driver is great in this role and is well supported by the ensemble cast (I love Ryu Jun-Yeol with all my heart). Despite being about such a tragic event, with plenty of tragic scenes in the film, A Taxi Driver starts out rather comedic and the dynamic between the two main characters was like that of a buddy cop film, with Thomas Kretschmann’s character clearly having the self-entitled upper hand in their relationship as the White foreign reporter. But as the film progresses, the two find they need to rely on each other for safety and survival. And by the end, their relationship and their inevitable separation is touching and depressing, knowing that the real life German reporter passed away in 2016 still looking to reunite with his taxi driver.
I went with my mom to see this film at our local indie theater and there were SO MANY Koreans in the audience with us! It was honestly such a memorable film viewing experience for me, especially as someone who constantly wants to feel more Korean. My mom was telling me about how even when she was in school and news about the Gwangju Massacre was coming out, it was a national news story because it blindsided the entire country. Knowing this history, to see that that knowledge of the massacre laid on the shoulders of these two men was extremely heavy. I think this film came out at the perfect time, following the historical impeachment of the ex-South Korean president, Park Geun Hye. A Taxi Driver speaks to the deeply wrought political history of South Korea (and its relationship with foreign nationalities) and to the protest history of its people. At the same time, it visually and narratively displays the deep sense of community and 한 that is embedded in the culture of the Korean people.
#3 Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich)
When I tell you I was ugly-sobbing in the theater, I’m not even exaggerating. I keep telling everyone that I'm rooting for The Boss Baby to win Best Animated Feature, but obviously I'm stanning for Coco to win. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around how astounding this film was. From its simply beautiful animation, to its magnificent attention to detail, to the heart-breaking story of Miguel, Héctor, and Coco, this film did so many things right.
In the beginning, there are slight similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), but I think Coco takes the general story of crossing to other worlds a step further by infusing it with an incredible sense of heart and heartbreak. A scene I will always remember is when Héctor (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal), tenderly sings Everyone Knows Juanita to his dying friend, and as the bones fade and sprinkle away into the night, Héctor somberly takes a final shot of tequila before moving on. And at the end when Miguel desperately tries to save Héctor by making Coco remember her father, the entire audience was thrown into a hysterical communal sob-fest. It is scenes like these that immediately make Coco not only stand out among Pixar’s repertoire of charming animated films, but also makes it an outstanding family film for decades to come.
The cultural specificity of the story is so important and is something I greatly appreciate about the film. The fact that the creators didn’t try to make a conflated “Latinx” film and instead made a specific story about Día de Muertos, a Mexican holiday, and focused on the Mexican people is great to see. (Although I won’t forget the fact that Disney tried to trademark the holiday). It is so interesting for me to see what kinds of films get released during particular social climates, and I think Coco’s debut (and positive reception) in 2017 says a lot about the changing society (albeit slow) that is emerging from this shitfest year.
I urge everyone to check out the eargasmic soundtrack as well.
#2 The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)
So… for about seven months, I worked at the happiest place on earth. Right at the crotch of Mickey Mouse. I lived and breathed the Floridian life, and I refuse to go back. So when I saw that this film was about to come out, I was really interested and decided to go in completely blind to the theater. And when I came out, all I could do was binge-listen to every film podcasts’ reviews of this film. The Florida Project is one of those films where, when you’re in the theater, it doesn’t seem like much, but afterwards, it just stays with you and lingers perpetually in your mind. (Like The Shining, but better).
The visuals for this film are stunning, and having actually seen many of these locations, I can tell how much work was put into the cinematography of this film alone. The Florida Project is set in the tourist crevices around Walt Disney World and follows six-year-old Moonee as her impoverished world spins around her. The story is really slow and seems rather plotless, until everything happens at once, and you start Realizing Things™ and then it gut-punches you. Brooklyn Prince as Moonee and Willem Dafoe as Bobby are really amazing, but it really was Bria Vinaite’s Halley that stole the film for me. Sean Baker pays so much attention to that characterization, and Bria’s portrayal is so believable and complex. Halley does everything wrong, but given her circumstances, each step she has taken is understandable. She’s not really likable, but you want to give her a hug in every scene because your heart goes out to her and Moonee.
What I think this film does really well is capture the audience with the adventurous spirit of the children protagonists and the breathtaking cinematography, and then draw your attention to how the hidden homeless are configured against an enormous corporation like Disney, which looms over most of Orlando, Florida (and the world). Sean Baker is particularly great at this empathetic perspective towards marginalized communities (as with his previous film, Tangerine), and he’s using that White Male privilege well to serve those who need it most.
#1 Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
Was this really a surprise? I knew that I would stan hard for this film the second I saw it in the theaters back in February. All I’m gonna say is, if this film doesn’t win every category it was nominated for, I’m gonna have a bitch fit.
Just like how The Stepford Wives (1975) displayed the social horrors of living as a woman in a man’s world, Jordan Peele’s Get Out thrillingly displays the horrors of living as a black person in a white person’s world. The genre of the social thriller, the way that Peele has made his film, is so innovative and poignant in our current sociopolitical climate and he really proved his chops of being able to swing between comedy and horror to create a fantastic film.
Nominated for Best Actor, Daniel Kaluuya has graduated well from Black Mirror to this film, and that shot of him being hypnotized will forever be enshrined in our cultural subconscious. I also think Betty Gabriel as Georgina was snubbed for Best Supporting Actress. I can see this film being played over and over for family movie nights, screened for college film classes, and recycled for midnight movie screenings. I mean, who can forget Marnie, ahem Allison Williams, eating her milk and cereal separately.
This film is so absolutely thrill-inducing and soul-capturing from the second you sit down. Peele managed to capture so perfectly, so humorously, and so terrifyingly the real life terrors that many Black Americans face to this day. The story is so utterly clever that I truly think nothing will top this film for years to come. I really don’t have more to say, because I pretty much word-vomited my thoughts on Get Out in this episode of the Very Important Playlist Podcast.
I hope you enjoyed my top five films list of 2017. I wanted to do a top ten list, but I really didn’t like many films this year ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Hopefully now that I’m on that MoviePass bandwagon, I’ll have a heftier list for 2018. (I’m already predicting Black Panther and The Incredibles 2 to top the list). Let me know your thoughts and what your top five of 2017 was!