After watching 121 of 2017's films, here is my fifth consecutive "Top 15 Films of the Year" list!
2017 has been a rough year. It seems like the world is on fire everywhere you look, thanks to a number of inextricable factors and iniquities converging into—ok, largely thanks to Donald Trump. I built myself a platform, I get to scream political things from it. Sue me. (Trump would.)
Anyway, contrary to popular belief, into a movie theater is actually the best place to run when the world is burning. Worthwhile art is capable of extinguishing the flames of dehumanization and closed-mindedness. Unfortunately, the Hollywood machine churned out more trash than usual this year, resulting in the worst summer box office in over a decade and an entire movie about emojis. But for every mainstream failure, the indie and arthouse scenes grow mightier. Find a niche theater and hide in it all of 2018.
Before we get to the best of the best, let's dive into the best of the rest!
The Big Sick- husband/wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon mine their real-life trauma in this intelligent, affecting romantic comedy.
Columbus- academic-turned-filmmaker Kogonada's serene ode to architecture, featuring a star-making turn from Haley Lu Richardson.
John Wick: Chapter 2- the Citizen Kane of action sequels. Stylish, slick, sick, saturated in blood and suffused with world building.
Menashe- a documentary-style narrative film that eyes a community of Hasidic Jews in order to explore the price of faith.
The Square- Swedish satire that takes aim at our tendency to not put our proverbial money where our altruistic mouths are.
And now, the Top 15 Films of 2017. If a film you expected to be on the list doesn't appear, it's probably not because I didn't see it. Hate mail can be sent to The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.
Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, directed by John Carroll Lynch
What is it? The musings of a 90-year-old atheist nearing his death, as portrayed by Harry Dean Stanton, a veteran actor and 90-year-old atheist who died the same month that the movie was released.
Why it made the list: Talk about a swan song. The film functions above all else as a sendoff for a legend of cinema's last century, Harry Dean Stanton. From Alien to Paris, Texas to the surreal corners of Twin Peaks, Stanton honed a performative soul that he spills forth in Lucky. The movie's closeness to death—both narratively and in the life of its lead actor—is palpable, and soothing in its gentle acceptance of inevitable nothingness. Stanton's longtime friend and collaborator David Lynch has a rare acting role, in which he delivers a moving monologue about losing his best friend (a tortoise named President Roosevelt). What else do you need?
Why it's not higher: There's no denying that Lucky wouldn't stand on its own without Harry Dean Stanton: there are too many clumsy lines spoken by amateurish supporting actors. But Lucky exists as a eulogy delivered by its subject, so the surrounding bit parts are easy to forgive. I haven't seen anything like the scene where David Lynch says a very real, on-camera goodbye to his old friend Stanton. Lucky blurs the lines between fiction and reality, and my eyes with tears.
14. PHANTOM THREAD
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
What is it? The movie that was so demanding on masterclass method actor Daniel Day-Lewis that he retired from acting. Renowned dressmaker and womanizer Reynolds Woodcock meets his match in the resolute Alma, who attempts to love him whilst taming him.
Why it made the list: Hopefully director Paul Thomas Anderson isn't too much like Woodcock, but they do share an affinity for immaculate artistic vision. After the misfires (depending on whom you ask) of The Master and Inherent Vice, this film is Anderson's true follow-up to There Will Be Blood: precise, delicate, sadistic, and Day-Lewis absolutely vanishing into his role. Phantom Thread's technical composition is as elegiac as a stained glass window; piano keys and meticulous cinematography glide over a romance bleeding with toxicity. It's like Hitchcock's Rebecca, were Hitchcock a less pulp and more deliberately artsy filmmaker.
Why it's not higher: Anderson indulges in his tendency to draw out, which works when it dramatizes the tedium of romantic conflict, but it does so to diminishing returns. The technical perfectionism creates a dissonance between form and function: a little more emotional closeness would've gone far.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau
What is it? A French horror film that uses cannibalism as an allegory for a young woman's burgeoning sexual appetite.
Why it made the list: This movie was an indie legend before it hit theaters. Paramedics had to be called when viewers passed out during its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. A screening in Los Angeles handed out barf bags to everyone that sat down to see it. Raw is brazenly gruesome and at some points near impossible to keep your eyes on, but its cleverness has a sharper bite than its gore. Raw's usage of cannibalism and sisterhood (yes, it's an odd cocktail—a Bloody Mary, if you will) to delve into the depths of sexual awakening is perceptive and penetrating.
Why it's not higher: There are stretches of French cinema's distinctive meandering that contrast the film's otherwise taut pacing. The ending, while befitting the horror genre, dredges up thematic routes that would've been better off taken within the movie.
12. LADY MACBETH
Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, directed by William Oldroyd
What is it? A Victorian Era film in which a young woman is married off to a wealthy but cruel husband. After falling in love with one of his servants, she decides that murder and deceit is the best way out of her predicament.
Why it made the list: No one in the story is a Macbeth, but the movie encapsulates the coldness of the Shakespearean icon with audacious nastiness. Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth called out "unsex me here" before she committed her evil deeds, but Lady Macbeth peers into a femininity both powerful and vicious to convey commentary about race, gender, and class. It's simultaneously discreet and wont to shatter boundaries. Florence Pugh, who's barely 22 at time of writing, challenges our notions of a likable protagonist with heft beyond anyone's years. Sex and violence are rarely this smart.
Why it's not higher: Eventually, the exponential dares of how much we can connect with a protagonist while she enacts atrocities breaks past the Breaking Bad threshold. There are Victorian Era genre tropes that feel too familiar in a film that is decidedly different.
11. tHE SHAPE OF WATER
-Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro
What is it? A deaf woman working at a secret government facility falls in love with one of its test subjects: an amphibious, humanoid creature.
Why it made the list: Its primary characters are embodiments of "the Other": disabled, feminine, black, homosexual, isolated bodies, removed from the community of normalcy due to standards set by bodies powerful, masculine, white, heterosexual, Christian. The broad strokes of the film's villain, acted viciously into reality by Michael Shannon, synthesize these qualities of the oppressor into one being. The Shape of Water then finds truth in gazing longingly at partnerships in the face of power, which is embodied by Sally Hawkins' powerhouse wordless performance. An exquisite fairy tale.
Why it's not higher: The film's structure is a little lopsided: it spends less time developing the central romance than we want, and more time hashing out its fallout than we need. Some may be deterred by so obvious a heart on sleeve.
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, directed by Alexander Payne
What is it? In an attempt to shrink our carbon footprints, Norwegian scientists develop the technology to literally shrink people. Paul Safranek pursues the downsized life looking to start over, but discovers that the capitalist machine and oppression of the marginalized don't change in microcosm.
Why it made the list: After my initial screening, I thought it'd be misunderstood—critical and audience reception later confirmed my suspicion. Some are troubled by its lack of didacticism: Downsizing is a less a lesson, more a segment lifted out of human history's repeated loop. Others were turned off by its utter lack of a structured narrative: the sci-fi frame caused expectations of a scintillating story, but this is the kind of patient, quiet storytelling in which director Alexander Payne has always specialized. Some think the fable's moral is blatant and blithely altruistic: Downsizing is instead fatalistic and macabre; subtle in its impression that no one changed and selfish motives never dulled. Others call out Ngoc Lan Tran's accent as stereotypical: Vietnamese actress Hong Chau says she originated it based on her own experiences with broken English. I am an ardent Downsizing defender.
Why it's not higher: Pacing problems. Watching an Alexander Payne film is like listening to someone choose their words carefully, and that can lead to boredom. Choice moments of satire would have benefitted from bite rather than subtlety.
9. a GHOST STORY
Written and directed by David Lowery
What is it? A husband dies and then haunts his wife while she's still around. But time marches on (and back again).
Why it made the list: David Lowery's elegant little film wins the David Lynch Award for Best in Surrealism. With no describable plot and barely any spoken dialogue, A Ghost Story evokes the ebb and flow of the universe through mood, music, and milieu. Casey Affleck wanders throughout time with a sheet over his body (thankfully. We don't want to see him) and there's a scene where Rooney Mara grief-eats an entire pie in a single, unbroken take. The film gathers up sweet nothings such as these and swoons over the mournful, majestic mystery in which we all live and die.
Why it's not higher: At one point, a hipster explains the implicit meaning of the movie to a group of fascinated partygoers. It's on the nose; the rest of A Ghost Story is not.
8. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman's Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino
What is it? The romance between Elio, a young Jewish-Italian boy living in the Italian countryside, and Oliver, an older man studying with Elio's parents for one summer.
Why it made the list: What a beautiful, sensual, poignant love affair Call Me by Your Name lets us peek into. Without an ounce of pretension or judgment, the film arouses romanticism and eroticism in equal measure. Ivory's screenplay and Guadagnino's camera understand the inextricable nature of love and lust, and the hurt that arises from discordance between the two—whether brought on by time or social pressures. The idyllic Italian setting provides a backdrop to parallel Timothée Chalamet's performance: bursting at the seams with raw emotion and the lithe curves of connection.
Why it's not higher: The movie's midsection drags during a period when Elio and Oliver aren't interacting as much. This is because Guadagnino lets his actors do more heavy lifting than his direction—his style felt livelier and less overtly calculated in his 2016 film A Bigger Splash.
7. your name.
Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai
What is it? A teenage girl in the small town of Itomori and a teenage boy in the metropolis of Tokyo start intermittently switching bodies, for reasons unbeknownst to them. The phenomenon leads to not only a blossoming love, but a date with destiny as well.
Why it made the list: Yes, there are two excellent romance films from 2017 that have the words "your name" in their titles, but this one has the edge. Director Makoto Shinkai is being hailed as the successor to legendary anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and indeed, Your Name. overwhelmed me with a feeling that had not enveloped me since I saw Spirited Away as a kid. Its breathtaking animation, awareness of the relationship between affection and cultural empathy, and emphasis on the compatibilism of free will and fate are shining examples of cinematic imagination. It works as a companion piece to last year's Arrival, a gateway into Japanese animation, and a reason to boycott the American remake that's in production.
Why it's not higher: There are anime staples that might irk some (it has an opening theme song), and the ending's lasting impression is dulled by an overextension of resolved plot threads (there are two better endings in the preceding minutes).
6. WHOSE STREETS?
Directed by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis
What is it? A documentary that follows the Ferguson riots after the murder of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. It remains squarely from the perspective of the city's unjustly demonized black community.
Why it made the list: This is spitfire filmmaking that prompts clenched fists and tears of anger. It's not interested in exploring all "sides" of the Ferguson unrest: media outlets and systems of power presented the "violent protestors" narrative; Whose Streets? presents the real story from the ground. The Ferguson Police Department's misuse of power is heart-wrenching to watch; Black Lives Matter's first national protest is inspiring in its justified revolutionary tactics. The documentary is a deeply humanizing account of action and reaction, sure to incite open-minded viewers to action.
Why it's not higher: There are a couple jarring time jumps that interrupt the film's flow. On-the-ground journalism is often difficult to structure later on.
5. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Written Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves, directed by Matt Reeves
What is it? The final chapter in the story of Caesar the ape, and the close of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy.
Why it made the list: It's a surprisingly in-depth look into nationalism, species exceptionalism, religious tinges of ego and liberation, and the bonds that ideology cannot crack. Rise was great and Dawn was less than memorable, so I wasn't expecting a masterwork from War—but a masterwork is what we got. It handles ethical questions and difficult themes with heft, underpinned by soaring cinematography and score. Stunning action, special effects, and character work fit right into the simian philosophizing with little to no issue. Someone give Andy Serkis a damn Oscar: his motion capture performance has reached astounding levels of revelation.
Why it's not higher: A few moments of foreshadowing that show the film's hand too clearly, and one villain speech that unveils too much.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
What is it? The true story of the Dunkirk evacuation of World War II.
Why it made the list: From Dunkirk's opening moments, it's clear that the movie intentionally shares an ambivalence about individual identity with war itself. Characters die without ever enjoying their faces in the frame. It's the commencement of Nolan's mission statement: Dunkirk isn't here to shape the stories of specific people, but to bring history alive and evoke elements of the human spirit—valiant and vulgar alike—within that space rife with them. The organization of violent disorientation demands coherence, and Nolan's vernacular has never been clearer: he executes cinematography, score, and meticulous mise en scène that would make the greatest war directors blush. Nolan's experiments with time allow him to transcend barriers of narrative and fulfill the promise of his oeuvre: a tour de force of tension and action.
Why it's not higher: Though it's purposeful, the lack of character development has the capacity to leave viewers cold.
3. CITY OF GHOSTS
Directed by Matthew Heineman
What is it? A documentary about the media activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which consists of Syrians risking their lives to broadcast the atrocities that ISIS commits in the once thriving city of Raqqa.
Why it made the list: At one point in the film, one of the members of RBSS says of his contemporaries, "these are the people history should be written about". And he's right. The bravery of these Syrian activists is unprecedented. Watching their immense sacrifices in the face of unimaginable barbarity is all the more vital when one realizes how unknown they are to much of the world. City of Ghosts shines a spotlight on their courage, humanizes the people that some cruel figureheads would like to ban, and demonstrates how information is a weapon greater than any terrorism. The final shot is one of the most haunting in all of non-fiction cinema.
Why it's not higher: It does not shy away from showing ISIS' brutal propaganda. This may prove too sickening, depending on what you can stomach.
2. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
What is it? Mildred Hayes' daughter was raped and set on fire while walking alone one night. The police fail to properly address the murder, which doesn't sit well with Mildred—so she rents three billboards outside the town in order to spread awareness of her plight to anyone driving by.
Why it made the list: Even after the successes of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh delivers his darkest, funniest, and most morally ambiguous effort yet with Three Billboards. On one hand, it's an oppressive drama, exploring how the pursuit of justice will always beget injustice in a broken world. On the other, it’s a comedy, laughing fatalistically at the contradictory nature of it all. The combination of both hands forms a gesture that beckons us to identify with the film’s characters, as if that’s the only way out of the mire. The ache and agony of Three Billboards either necessitates divine intervention or strands humanity in the harshness of godless reality. We can’t be sure which, and as McDonagh reveals, that’s kind of funny—if you can see that through watery eyes.
Why it's not higher: It's not the next movie.
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
What is it? An environmentalist allegory for the story of a fallible Bible and a world that's been inexorably altered by it, told via an unhealthy marriage and a house of horrors.
Why it's the best film of 2017: There's so much profundity and thematic meat to study in mother! that I felt compelled to write a 5,232-word analysis of the film. It's built to be divisive: critics and audiences alike think it's either a masterpiece or a disaster. I strongly lean towards the former, as mother! obliterates expectations of what a single movie can express through metaphor and symbol. Once one catches wind of the central allegory, mother! is a wildly exhilarating, challenging, and deeply intelligent experience that demands dissection. Both hard to watch initially and deserving of repeated viewings, it's the kind of experience on which endless grad student papers could be written and infinite debates will be had. mother! is one of the greatest stories ever told, chopped up and turned against itself. What’s old has been retold and made bewilderingly effective again. See it to believe it, and then please discuss it with me. I'll never get it out of my head.
Well, that's it for the best movies of 2017. Hopefully I'll be around to rank whatever vestiges of cinema are left after the nuclear wars of 2018.