Dear Fellow Critics,
Pardon the long preamble, but I think you’ll agree that choosing a “best film of the year” in 2017 is rather…complicated. It’s more than just our typical annual contribution to the time capsule of critical consensus. It feels like a mission statement.
Why? Because this was a year in which an entire decade’s worth of social and political (and, for some, personal) upheaval was joylessly crammed into twelve hyperkinetic and hellish months. And to choose a film as the best example of what the art of cinema can accomplish during a year like that is to place yourself at specific coordinates relative to that upheaval. Some chose the film that helped them survive. Some chose the film that they felt was most culturally on-point. Some chose the film that was a tonic in the Harvey Weinstein era.
So, where do I stand? What was my relationship with (and reaction to) the events of 2017, and how was it processed in the movie-watching part of my brain?
I was exhausted by it all, frankly. I was exhausted by the awkward attempts of big studios to build half-assed cinematic universes. I was exhausted by the misplaced sense of childish entitlement fans demonstrated towards their favourite franchises.
I was exhausted, too, by male protagonists. A movie like Blade Runner 2049 should have electrified me, what with its thumping synth score and introspective Baby Goose (aka. the best kind of Baby Goose). But I found myself far more interested in the hero’s ethereal AI girlfriend, and the mysterious memory-building bubble-girl than I was in the two macho leads (which means, sadly, that Denis Villeneuve’s hot streak comes to an end this year). And while there were films featuring female leads that I really enjoyed – Molly’s Game and I, Tonya in particular, I am remiss to note that my enjoyment of them is tempered by the fact that both movies were written and directed by men; their protagonists, despite being strong-willed and multidimensional, still danced to a beat played by men, and whatever agency they may have had in real life (both films are based on true stories) feels diminished by it.
I saw Wonder Woman three times in the theater, and each time enjoyed it more than the last. What seemed, at first, to be a sort of milquetoast superhero flick that just happened to feature a woman in the lead proved itself, upon multiple viewings, to be more important. But it would seem disingenuous for me to choose it as the best film simply because I have observed (and appreciated) the effect it has had on others.
To that end, there was a surprising diversity and verisimilitude to the superhero movies that came out this year. From Logan to Thor: Ragnarok, filmmakers seemed to figure out that the genre is much broader than many think; there’s room, within all the punching and world-saving, for improv comedy and gritty melodrama. This essay was very, very close to being all about Spider Man: Homecoming. It was the one movie this year that I immediately wanted to see again because it couldn’t possibly have been as good as it was. It captured something pure and jubilant that big movies in the last decade seem to have forgotten. It was an adventure. It was grounded. It was funny. It had stakes. No other blockbuster action movie, with their myriad world-ending threats, could match the tension of an anxious teenage boy riding to prom in the back of his girlfriend’s dad’s car.
But I’m not writing about Spider-Man, am I? I’m writing, instead, about a teenage-romance anime that was, technically, released in 2016. In a year full of surprises, Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) was the movie that surprised me the most.
I can’t even recall where I first heard of it. Maybe on an episode of Filmspotting? Maybe from my anime-addicted younger sister? And I can’t recall why, way back in July, I sought it out.
It was a rare Saturday night alone at home, the little one was in bed, and I had two free hours ahead of me. Instead of doing what I usually do, which is to find the most brainless flick available and feed my lizard brain a little cinematic junk food, I decided to do something else: watch that obscure* anime flick I’d heard about.
[*Obscure to me; it had already broken numerous box office records across East Asia.]
I was rewarded for my effort. Your Name was the only film I saw this year that felt like it came from some other place. And I don’t just mean another country or another culture. I mean another planet, another century, another dimension. It felt completely alien to me, and yet eerily familiar; utterly original, yet deeply rooted in the classic language of cinema. For days afterwards, the world appeared to me in colourful flat planes. I ran Airbnb searches for the rural countryside of Japan, just for fun. I winced through jaunty, roaring, assaultive J-Pop tunes. All of it, I suppose, an attempt to recreate the altered state I found myself in while watching the film. It is a strange experience, to be outside yourself and completely present at the same time; this movie worked that kind of magic on me. Which is fitting since this inside/outside sensation is the dilemma that sets the whole plot forward; the movie’s two heroes, Mitsuha and Taki, a country girl and city boy, find themselves randomly swapping bodies.
I can foresee this film becoming a comfort movie for me. You know, those films with which you share some inexplicable emotional connection – either because of the content, or the context in which you saw it, or, most likely, some combination of both – which you turn to when you’re feeling particularly low and need to be buoyed. They aren’t comfort movies because they’re great pieces of art (though many of them are), but because of how great they make you feel. Your Name made me feel great. It’s a film about great promise, and how that promise can be squandered. The third act involves a major natural disaster which should be depressing but it’s not. The world is redeemed, not by grand gestures, but by small acts of kindness and generosity and sacrifice. And what better truth to abide by in a year that revealed the fragility of the peace between us?
In its final moments, Your Name refuses to give us the satisfaction of a happy ending. But it does offer us hope for one. Maybe the coming year will do the same.