The Best Movies of 2017 (So Far)

We are now halfway through the year and as has become an annual tradition here at The End, it’s time to look back at the best movies of the year so far. As I discussed in the 2013 halfway post, the consensus movie-dating system is nonsensical and posits New York as the center of the universe. Far more logical (and much easier to use) is a system reliant on imdb’s dating system, which locates a film in whatever year it first played for an audience. That’s what we use here for all Rankings & Awards as it’s the most fair to all eras and areas. (A dating system reliant on playing in a certain locality I think can be valuable for a publication that is geographically specific, like a local newspaper or website, which is what we use at Seattle Screen Scene. But here at The End, we have a global reach.)

A by-product of the system is that a number of films that first go into wide-release in any given year actually had their premiere in the year before. A number of the films on many critics’ halfway-point lists will include these films, films that find their proper home here on my 2016 list. And so here we have two lists: the Best Movies of 2017, following the strict imdb dating system, and the Best 2016 Movies of 2017, which includes those films from last year that you might find on a more chronologically-illogical list (and despite the title, also includes one film from 1985, which only premiered in New York this year). I also have a third list, Best Unreleased Movies of 2016, of last year’s films that have yet to see a New York release and therefore don’t (yet) exist by the standards of most critics. And a fourth list, a halfway version of my annual Best Older Movies list, counting the top movies I saw for the first time this year that are more than a few years old.

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Some Alternatives to SIFF’s Hong Kong Handover Anniversary Miniseries

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This Saturday, July 1, marks 20 years since the Handover of the British colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. To commemorate here in Seattle, SIFF has a five film miniseries of post-1997 film. Included are two established classics (Shaolin Soccer and Infernal Affairs) and three newer films (Cook Up a Storm, Mad World and Weeds on Fire), two of which are making their Seattle debut (Cook Up a Storm played here in February, and again at the Film Festival a few weeks ago). It’s a fine series, the older films are both great works and important milestones in 21st Century Hong Kong cinema, in box office, technological and artistic terms. And the new films are very much concerned with Hong Kong’s identity (versus globalist capitalism in Cook Up a Storm and looking backward at how a city of refugees built a sense of a new, unique Hong Kong) and social conditions (in Mad World the treatment of mental illness both in the community and in the family). They aren’t the films I would have picked, because the older ones are too familiar, and the newer ones just aren’t that great, but it’s definitely a worthy series and I’m very glad they’re doing it.

But since there are few things in life more fun than fantasizing about film programming, I thought I’d put together my own fake Handover Anniversary series. Well, a couple of them actually.

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Sticking to SIFF’s formula (two classics + three new films, two of which are local premieres) and all of which take Hong Kong as a key subject, more or less.

  1. The King of Comedy – Stephen Chow’s first great film as director and star, he plays a wanna-be actor trying to make it in the movie business. With Karen Mok in the best John Woo homage ever made.
  2. Election/Election 2 – Johnnie To’s Triad saga traces the ideological past of Hong Kong’s criminal societies through one bloody (yet firearm-free) succession struggle and looks toward a future of shadowy manipulation by the Mainland.
  3. Yellowing – Chan Tze-woon’s documentary about the Umbrella protests of 2014 is both intimate and immediate, capturing a generation fighting for what they know to be a lost cause.
  4. Trivisa – Three young directors combined for this crime saga set on the eve of the Handover, following three different career criminals who might get together for one last big score. Produced by the Milkyway Image studio, it played here at SIFF in 2016 but never got a theatrical release.
  5. Call of Heroes – We need a martial arts film, and this is the best I’ve seen since SPL 2. A variation on High Noon, with Lau Ching-wan locking up psychotic Louis Koo and awaiting the bad guys that are going to try to rescue him. With Eddie Peng and Wu Jing, and choreography by Sammo Hung, it’s an all-star kung fu fest harkening back to the early 90s golden age.

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Those are all films I’ve seen, but I’d at least be more excited if the series was packed with movies I haven’t had a chance to catch up with yet.

  1. Made in Hong Kong – The new restoration of Fruit Chan’s 1997 landmark of independent Hong Kong cinema has been making the rounds, but as yet it doens’t look like it’s coming to Seattle. My fingers remain crossed.
  2. Vulgaria – The ubiquitous Chapman To stars as a movie producer who gets hired to remake a classic porn film by a local gangster. Pang Ho-cheung is one of the best directors to emerge in Hong Kong in the post-Handover era, and if this is his Viva Erotica, it should be pretty great.
  3. Our Time Will Come – Ann Hui’s World War II film, about Hong Kong’s anti-Japanese resistance, opens here next week, but this minifestival would be an ideal place to premiere it.
  4. Shock Wave – I missed Herman Yau’s latest, starring Andy Lau as a bomb squad detective, when it played here for six days this spring. I’d like another shot at it.
  5. Duckweed – Han Han’s time travel comedy with Eddie Peng and Deng Chao looks like an update of Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, itself a variation on Back to the Future, where a young man journeys back in time and comes to a better understanding of his father and his generation. Except the past here is 1998. (*Having seen Duckweed now, I realize its not a Hong Kong film at all, but Chinese. Thus are the perils of assuming things in post-Handover Chinese language cinema. Good movie though.)

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If all restrictions were off, and I just had to program five films that captured the spirit of Hong Kong over the past 20 years, this is what I’d pick:

  1. Time and Tide – Tsui Hark’s return to Hong Kong after some years in Hollywood produced arguably the best action sequences of the past 20 years, with Nicholas Tse as a bodyguard caught up in a gang war.
  2. Golden Chicken/Golden Chicken 2 – Samson Chiu’s 2002 film filters 30 years of Hong Kong history through the eyes of Sandra Ng, a loony prostitute who finds herself licked in an ATM vestibule with Eric Tsang. The sequel continues the story through the SARS epidemic and other recent events from the perspective of Ng in the year 2046, the year Hong Kong will fully come under PRC control.
  3. Love in a Puff – Pang Ho-cheung’s romantic comedy received the equivalent of an X rating for its authentically profane dialogue, and no film better captures the feeling of city life in the 21st Century.
  4. Blind Detective – I could pick any number of Johnnie To films for this, of course. But while films like Sparrow, The Mission, Throw Down, Fat Choi Spirit, Life Without Principle, etc etc are readily available, this 2013 comic crime film with Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng has never been released in the US.
  5. The Midnight After – Fruit Chan’s apocalyptic 2014 adaptation of an unfinished internet novel by an entity known only as PIZZA is as perfect an expression of our present moment as you’re likely to find. And it only grows more prescient with time.

This Week in Rankings

The 2017 Seattle International Film Festival came to an end earlier this week, and that’s where most of my writing has been since the last update. Here’s an Index of all I wrote about the festival. Here at The End, I wrote about Michael Hui’s The Contract and Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung’s Once Upon a Time in China and America. At Seattle Screen Scene I wrote about Pang Ho-cheung’s Love Off the Cuff, Derek Hui’s This is Not What I Expected, and discussed Hong Sangsoo’s Claire’s Camera and The Day After. I also put together a list of The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century, because I guess that’s what we’re all doing this week.

These are the movies I’ve watched or rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Love and Duty (Bu Wancang) – 8, 1931
An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujiro Ozu) – 1, 1962
At Long Last Love (Peter Bogdanovich) – 4, 1975
The Contract (Michael Hui) – 5, 1978
Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping) – 11, 1978

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner) – 1, 1980
The Dead and the Deadly (Wu Ma) – 27, 1982
Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbell) – 29, 1983
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai) – 1, 1994
Heat (Michael Mann) – 4, 1995

Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai) – 6, 1995
Once Upon a Time in China and America (Sammo Hung) – 32, 1997
Frozen (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck) – 52, 2013
January (Jhon Hernandez) – 85, 2014
Blackhat (Michael Mann) – 6, 2015

Baahubali: The Beginning (SS Rajamouli) – 10, 2015
Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt) – 93, 2015
The Peanuts Movie (Steve Martino) – 96, 2015
The Beautiful Kokonor Lake (Shen Xinghao) – 138, 2015
Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo) – 4, 2016

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison) – 13, 2016
By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong) – 20, 2016
Bad Black (Nabwana IGG) – 36, 2016
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello) – 72, 2016
Godspeed (Chung Mong-hong) – 76, 2016
My Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier) – 80, 2016

The Girl Without Hands (Sébastien Laudenbach) – 89, 2016
Soul on a String (Zhang Yang) – 100, 2016
A Dragon Arrives! (Mani Haghighi) – 106, 2016
Baahubali: The Conclusion (SS Rajamouli) – 1, 2017
Columbus (Kogonada) – 4, 2017

Claire’s Camera (Hong Sangsoo) – 5, 2017
Landline (Gillian Robespierre) – 8, 2017
A Ghost Story (David Lowery) – 10, 2017
The Day After (Hong Sangsoo) – 11, 2017
This is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui) – 12, 2017
Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa) – 13, 2017

Love Off the Cuff (Pang Ho-cheung) – 14, 2017
Mr. Long (Sabu) – 15, 2017
The Little Hours (Jeff Baena) – 16, 2017
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian) – 17, 2017
Napping Princess (Kenji Kamiyama) – 18, 2017

God of War (Gordon Chan) – 20, 2017
Vampire Cleanup Department (Chiou Sin-hang & Yan Pak-wing) – 21, 2017
Pendular (Júlia Murat) – 22, 2017
The Reagan Show (Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez) – 23, 2017
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan) – 25, 2017
Cook Up a Storm (Raymond Yip) – 27, 2017

SIFF 2017 Index

This is an Index of my coverage of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. All the writing was at Seattle Screen Scene.

Full Reviews:

Cook Up a Storm (Raymond Yip, 2017)
Vampire Cleanup Department (Yan Pak-wing & Chiu Sin-hang, 2017)
Mr. Long (Sabu, 2017)

Capsule Reviews:

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)
My Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier, 2016)
Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt, 2015)
God of War (Gordon Chan, 2017)
Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)
The Little Hours (Jeff Baena, 2017)
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)
Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)

Podcasts:

The Frances Farmer Show #12: SIFF 2017 Part One

Previews:

SIFF 2017: Week One Preview
SIFF 2017: Week Two Preview
SIFF 2017: Week Three Preview
SIFF 2017: Week Four Preview 

List:

SIFF 2017 Rankings

The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century

The Times started this earlier this week, and like I’ve said, I’m unable to resist the call to list making. For the past few years, when one of these comes out I get annoyed that mainstream critics’ list don’t contain enough Chinese films, and that the ones they do list are the most boring, obvious choices. The Times list has three, which considering they only list 25 movies, isn’t a bad ratio, and only one of them is In the Mood for Love or Yi yi, which is nice. I haven’t done an actual best of the century list for awhile, so here it goes. One film per director, but with no more than three other titles by them I think are great listed as an aside.

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1. The New World (Terence Malick, 2005)
Also: The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups, Song to Song

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2. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
Also: Three Times, Flight of the Red Balloon, The Assassin

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3. Oki’s Movie (Hong Sangsoo, 2010)
Also: The Day He Arrives, Hill of Freedom, Yourself and Yours

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4. Running on Karma (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
Also: My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Exiled, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2

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5. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
Also: Blissfully Yours, Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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6. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
Also: Inland Empire

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7. La Commune (Paris 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)

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8. Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)
Also: Oxhide, 607

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9. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
Also: Like Someone in Love

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10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)

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11. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
Also: In the Mood for Love, My Blueberry Nights, The Grandmaster

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12. The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 2014)

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13. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

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14. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008)
Also: Suicide Club, Tokyo Tribe

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15. It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, 2009)
Also: The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap

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16. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)

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17. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)
Also: The Limits of Control, Only Lovers Left Alive

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18. Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2005)
Also: La La La at Rock Bottom

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19. Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Also: Ali, Public Enemies, Blackhat

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20. La danse (Frederick Wiseman, 2009)
Also: At Berkeley, National Gallery, In Jackson Heights

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21. Baahubali (SS Rajamouli, 2015 & 2017)

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22. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, 2015)
Also: Platform, Still Life, The Hedonists

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23. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)
Also: Get Out of the Car, The Thoughts that Once We Had

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24. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2008)
Also: Friday Night, L’Intrus, Bastards

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25. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
Also: What Time is it There? Stray Dogs, Journey to the West

The Contract (Michael Hui, 1978)

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I guess the BBC asked a bunch of people for their top ten comedy lists. They didn’t ask me, but as I’m completely incapable of resisting the siren call of list-making, I made one anyway and put this film in at the bottom, ahead of favorites like Trouble in Paradise, Annie Hall, The Princess Bride, The Awful Truth, City Lights, The Philadelphia Story, Wheels on Meals, Kung Fu Hustle, Ishtar, most of which I eliminated for generic purity reasons (romantic comedy vs comedy), and Airplane!, which I forgot and therefore invalidates the whole list. I wanted to include a Michael Hui movie purely for propagandistic reasons: he simply isn’t as well known in the West as he should be, and this is, I think, his best film. For about a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, Michael Hui almost single-handedly resurrected Cantonese cinema as it was about to be swamped by the Shaw Brothers’ Mandarin language productions, while at the same time adapting the vaudevillian traditions of American comedy to modern Hong Kong, paving the way on the one hand for the Hong Kong New Wave, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping and on the other for Stephen Chow and Wong Jing.

Michael stars with his brothers Ricky and Sam (himself a major Cantonese pop star). He works at a TV studio (MTV – the M is for “mouse”), trying to find a breakthrough role that will make him a star, but his clumsiness and general idiocy tend to make a mess of things whenever he gets to perform (as a background dancer, as an archery target). When a rival studio (TVC – the C is for “cat”) offers him a job as a game show host, he finds that he’s signed an awful eight-year contract with MTV which he then attempts to steal, eliciting Ricky’s help to crack the safe where it’s stored. The last half of the film is mostly an extended chase sequence, as Michael flees from the Bond-villain-esque henchmen of the studio head while also trying to free Ricky from inside the safe (it’s complicated). Sam gets involved as a magician aspiring to a TV contract whose assistant/sister is in love with Ricky and who is being tormented by an already-established TV magician.

The film is essentially a series of set-piece gags inspired by the classics: Harold Lloyd climbing a building, Charlie Chaplin trapped in an out-of-control machine, Buster Keaton having a wall fall on him, alongside Network-level satire on the nature of corporate television, biting, absurd and completely unpretentious. Before moving into films, Michael had worked on TV as both a game show host and the Hui Brothers’ extremely successful sketch comedy/variety show (imagine a Cantonese Laugh-In), and there’s a pure love of performance that leavens the film’s harder edges (the Let’s Make a Deal-inspired game show Michael hosts is Verhoevean in its cruelty, but Michael’s joy in finally being on center stage is irresistible nonetheless). His other films (Games Gamblers Play, The Private Eyes, Security Unlimited) are more anarchic, more misanthropic (while Chicken and Duck Talk on the other hand is much more conventional, with a warm mainstream heart), but The Contract captures best that lunatic balance the performer must maintain: the desperate desire to please an audience for which they have utter contempt.

Once Upon a Time in China and America (Sammo Hung, 1997)

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I will never not think it’s hilarious that Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark stole Jackie Chan’s dream project idea for a kung fu Western and used it to make a sixth Once Upon a Time in China movie. I bet he’s still mad about it. I haven’t seen Shanghai Noon, but I have no doubt it’s glossier, better acted, and much, much worse than this. That this was the last project for both Sammo and Tsui before they too arrived in America is surely no accident, and I suppose Jackie got his revenge by both inspiring the producers of Sammo’s TV series Martial Law to add Arsenio Hall to the cast in order to recreate the Rush Hour dynamic, and also by making a ton of money. But on the other hand: Sammo never had to work with Brett Ratner, so he’s probably still ahead.

Totally abandoning any kind of logical chronology, Wong Fei-hung (with Jet Li returning in the role), 13th Aunt and Clubfoot (now named “Seven”) are in America to visit Buck-Toothed So, who has opened an American branch of Po Chi Lam for Chinese workers in Fort Stockton, which might be a made up place, though there is a Fort Stockton in West Texas, I suspect it would take more than ten days to get there by stagecoach from San Francisco by OUATIC travel time (where it takes three days to get from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (it takes two hours today). The last film ended after the Boxer Rebellion failed, which would mean this one would take place more than a year after that (So was still in China in that film), so at least 1903. But the Fort Stockton we find is a relic from 30 to 40 years earlier, if for no other reason than that the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring immigration from China, was passed in 1882.

It’s clear that Wong hasn’t so much journeyed to America, as he’s journeyed into a Western. The characters and setting aren’t historical, they’re versions of cinematic history. It’s not real Indians he finds, but movie Indians: first attacking a stagecoach for no reason, then adopting the amnesiac Wong into their peace-loving tribe, Pocahontas-style. Throwing Wong Fei-hung into a Western completely destabilizes it, his moral vision reforming Billy the Kid into an upright pillar of the community, an immigrant-friendly mayor while his speeches do little for his own community, putting the laborers, led by Richard Ng and Patrick Lung Kong, to sleep. The villains in the film are the racist white establishment, led by the corrupt mayor, local law enforcement (the kindly sheriff) is sympathetic yet powerless in the face of greed and anti-Chinese sentiment. That the film’s final villain (a bank robber hired by the mayor) is ethnically ambiguous, sporting Fu Manchu eyebrows and beard and deadly ninja star spurs, is surely no accident: what Wong conquers is not so much racism as a version of Hollywood racism, the Yellow Peril monster of America’s id.

The final fight is striking: seven Chinese men set up to be legally lynched, incidentally rescued by the betrayed criminal gang in their quest for revenge on the mayor. Wong and his men defeat the villains of course. But after the fight is over: 13th Aunt arrives with the friendly Indians who had adopted Wong: a cavalry appearance too late to save anyone, but a nice gesture nonetheless. Wong though, refuses to recognize them: even Wong Fei-hung forgets the Indians.