I liked most of the movies I saw in 2017, so don’t take it too much to heart if your faves aren’t here. As usual, I’m trying to pull off a tricky balancing act between acknowledging the movies I liked the most and judging movies on their formal and thematic merits, all as part of my larger ongoing project of developing my critical taste and moral imagination. This year I saw enough new releases that for the first time in the 6 years I’ve been making these lists that I can meaningfully expand my list to 20. So here are 10 excellent films I would go to bat for in any year and 10 more that were very good but may grow or fall in my estimation depending on the day and my mood. To each their own, and to a better 2018 for all!
Honorable Mentions (20–11)
20. Personal Shopper
Directed by Olivier Assayas
Last year I introduced the You Tried! Award to recognize a film that I love despite the fact that it just doesn’t work. This year I’m thrilled to hand out the 2nd Annual You Tried! Award to Personal Shopper, a movie that valiantly commits to its premise of having Kristen Stewart play, with total sincerity, an American medium in Paris who may or may not be getting ghosted by an actual ghost. As I quipped on Facebook after I first saw it, Personal Shopper is full of big ideas, though so are most undergraduate research papers.
19. Princess Cyd
Directed by Stephen Cone
Stephen Cone continues to make movies that are uniquely generous to queer people and religious people alike. The premise of Princess Cyd—a sporty, horny teenager goes to spend a summer with her celibate Lutheran novelist aunt (who is somehow inspired by Marilynne Robinson despite having no coherent theological beliefs that I can discern? the one glaring flaw in this film)—yields a movie full of surprising and enlightening moments. It’s been heartening to see the film community really embrace Cone this year, and I hope he’s able to continue doing such good work—and working with actors as good as the cast he assembled for Cyd. (Keep your eyes on Rebecca Spence and Jessie Pinnick, is all I’m saying.)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Things I liked about Dunkirk, in no particular order:
- The jackets
- The absence of Nolan-brand expository logorrhea
- The sweaters
- The tones in the 70mm projection
- The gloves
- How immersed I was even though Hans Zimmer was at his most insufferably extra this go-round
17. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Even though it suffers the worst ending fatigue since Return of the King, Baumbach’s retreading of familiar New York dysfunctional family territory has plenty of moments of screwball genius to make up for it. Featuring the best unexpected Sigourney Weaver cameo since Finding Dory. It feels right to compare this movie to The Big Sick—which I also enjoyed a lot—to underscore how Baumbach’s writing and filmmaking reveals with so much greater depth the absurdity of modern hospitals and what’s it’s like to become a prisoner of one as the family member of an inpatient.
16. Call Me By Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
I’m neither as high on this movie as its biggest fans nor as down on it as its detractors—which feels like just about the right place to fall. Sure, Armie Hammer is miscast (he’s supposed to be playing 24…!) and some of the editing betrays a questionable understanding of film rhythm, but I can’t dismiss Call Me By Your Name so easily for its flaws because it hits so close to home. (I mean…a story about the first male love of a precocious only child of Mediterranean stock who’s good at music and languages and studies classics, gee, who does that sound like…)
15. Get Out
Directed by Jordan Peele
Get Out will forever be inseparable from my experience of watching Get Out as one of maybe only two dozen white viewers in a sold-out theater in downtown D.C. right before the word of mouth really took off and everyone and their grandmother was going to see it. The audience engagement level was through the roof; every beat landed, every joke and every scare carried their full meanings. For two thirds of its runtime Get Out was the best thing that had ever happened, and then the generically violent third act came along. But that last scene though! (Honestly my only real complaint about this movie is that Peele gives us a cutaway of something catching fire in the basement and then doesn’t follow up with a shot of the whole house burning down a few minutes later. I’ll attribute this oversight to financial constraints and assume that he’ll have all the tools he needs at his disposable to do right by his next film.)
14. The Salesman
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
I still don’t understand what the Death of a Salesman window-dressing is doing on this movie, but even a middle-of-the-road Asghar Farhadi screenplay will be better than most other screenplays produced in a given year. A young’un like me really gets what it must have been like to be alive during the golden age of, say, Kurosawa or Bergman whenever a new Farhadi flick comes to town.
Directed by Liang Zhao
Dante’s Inferno meets Edward Burtynsky meets Jia Zhangke at his most formally brilliant? I didn’t know such a what to expect out of that combination either, but when the subject is Mongolian coal miners and the ghost cities that the Chinese government is building at the cost of hundreds of thousands of those miners’ lives…well, everything about this documentary descent into hell just works, right down to and especially the more audacious long takes and sudden impositions of screen-filling primary colors.
12. Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
The best part about this movie is how Greta Gerwig transfigures a punchline about Lady Bird learning her obviously uncomfortably closeted boyfriend is gay into a moment of forgiveness and compassion. The second best part about this movie is everything else about this movie.
11. The Post
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Here is the simile I have closest at hand to describe this movie: The Post is like one of those chocolate bars from a specialty chocolatier with a real good marketing team behind their packaging that you want to just stare at for a while and not even buy when you’re standing in the express lane at Whole Foods, but the people ahead of you in line are taking so long that the cocoa craving kicks in and you splurge and buy the thing and open it up in the parking garage and then on the inside there’s all this copy on the back of the box about how by purchasing this specific brand of chocolate you’re supporting local craftsmen and you’re helping the environment or whatever and who cares because huh, maybe it’s just the psychology of advertising at work, but this is actually a really good chocolate bar.
The Post positively sings. Sometimes it’s so on-the-nose your nose starts itching, but it’s always a treat to watch Spielberg, working in high gear, show the lesser directors how it’s done.
Directed by Kogonada
Columbus started off much further down this list…and then it kept climbing in my estimation…and climbing…and now here it is. Thinking about this movie, an Ozu-inspired tale of a girl too smart for her Midwest hometown but too in love with all its peculiarities to want to leave, makes me so exquisitely warm and sad and grateful that it exists. It’s a vibrant new way of telling stories about the parts of America that don’t usually have stories told about them in film—certainly not this poetically, nor with this great a cast.
9. Your Name.
Directed by Makoto Shinkai
If I’m not allowed to acknowledge that a faintly ridiculous anime that played in Japanese theaters for over a year was one of the most entertaining and satisfying movies of the year, then what even is the point of having opinions on movies? Your Name., beyond being a visually lush comedic treat, truly snaps into gear in its second half, where you realize just how invested you’ve become in this body-switching tale of a big-city guy and a small-town girl. It’s so specific to the current Japanese demographic and cultural climate, but like all the best movies of this kind it’s oh-so-universal it hurts.
8. The Unknown Girl
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
As I quipped on Twitter back in September, I’m too deep in the pocket of Big Neorealism to think the Dardennes are capable of making anything that’s less than extraordinary, apparently. The Unknown Girl may not be their most gripping film, but it isn’t lacking for powerful insights about forgiveness and guilt. Adèle Haenel, who kept showing up everywhere this year, rocks this movie, as do all of the Dardennes’ usual regulars.
7. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
One observation that I couldn’t fashion into a coherent paragraph in time for my very long article about this movie in The Weekly Standard: in one scene of Ex Libris, we sit in on a class on, ostensibly, the concurrent histories of leftist economics and racism in Civil War-era America. The teacher is a young woman of color who’s breathlessly presenting all this biographical info about various contemporary Communist thinkers and, like a Pez dispenser with no stopper, glibly supplying pat historical explanations for everything. Her audience, so far as we can tell, is a cluster of maybe 6 senior citizens who are busy taking notes and only occasionally asking questions. This scene fascinates me because it really underscores for me how Wiseman is a much better teacher. Forget whether the history this woman is presenting is accurate or not: she seems to be so wrapped up in having The Knowledge that she can’t communicate it in a way that will help her students actually retain anything beyond a few sound bytes that will look good all written up in a notebook and stored away unthinkingly forever. Wiseman’s politics probably align very closely with her own, but his chosen method of instruction is infinitely more effective because it allows for the kind of surprise and self-discovery that make changes of heart and mind possible.
6. Good Time
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
The best time I had at a movie aesthetically rigged to make me hate it was at Good Time. New York heist movies are a dime a dozen, but this one’s just so perfectly sleazy and low-key perceptive about how the antics of New York heist movie protagonists ruin the lives of everyone they take advantage of on the way to maximizing audience entertainment. It also features the best use of a screen-filling primary color since…Behemoth. Great minds think alike! Robert Pattinson has never been better; between this and Kristen Stewart’s performance in Personal Shopper, I think we can retire all those Twilight jokes for good now.
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
I won’t go into great detail here as I have a long forthcoming essay on Graduation due out on computer screens or in mailboxes near you later this month. For me one of the signs of a great filmmaker is being able to direct a scene of almost no consequence where essentially nothing happens in such a way that it makes you want to stress-vomit. (I’m referring here to a brief shot where the protagonist take a detour through the woods on his way home at night. There are lots of dogs barking. I sincerely felt ill watching it.) Though not as towering or innovative as his breakout 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu’s Graduation is as pristine and knotty a moral thriller as any you’ll find in any medium in 2017.
4. A Quiet Passion
Directed by Terence Davies
Nothing about A Quiet Passion “works” the way a movie is supposed to: the characters are so prickly you have to hold them at arm’s length, the dialogue is delivered as though being strained through a cheesecloth, there’s a actress in the cast who (as one friend put it) plays like a robot stuck in wisecrack mode, there’s a bizarre and haphazardly incorporated interlude of archival Civil War documents, Cynthia Nixon doesn’t sound like how you probably imagined Emily Dickinson’s voice in your head the last time you read one of her poems. All this may be so, however, what Terence Davies is doing with this movie if you accede to the rules it wants to play by is nothing short of extraordinary: exorcising his personal demons by co-suffering with America’s most beloved shut-in poet. I hate to use the word “lyrical” to describe movies, so instead I will just call a spade a spade. A Quiet Passion is an excellent film. Watch it.
3. The Work
Directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous
A four-day group therapy retreat for male prisoners and a couple of dudes from the outside is the subject of this short documentary that I only heard about because suddenly, in mid-December, it started showing up on everyone’s best movies of 2017 lists. For good reason! The Work is raw and upsetting and soul-stirring and deeply compassionate and I won’t tell you any more than what I knew going in, lest I color your expectations any further. (Rent it for $0.99 on Amazon or iTunes.)
2. Phantom Thread
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Most movies aren’t perfect so when you find one that doesn’t immediately present you with any flaws, you grab it and you don’t let go. I’m very excited for everyone to discover Phantom Thread when it opens nationwide later this month. It’s PTA working at his most cryptic (which isn’t to say the story is hard to follow; quite to the contrary). A strange and beautiful descendant of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and many a gothic romance, only where instead of keeping his deranged ex-wife in the attic Mr. Rochester keeps his own personal Mrs. Danvers on retainer in the form of his imperious and quietly vicious older sister, played by Lesley Manville in a Greatest of All Time supporting performance. The costumes are to die for, the score is the best original work for a film in ages; the movie’s lacking in PTA’s signature go-for-broke and instantly memeable moments, and the movie’s all the better for his restraint. But don’t just take my word for it.
Directed by Cristi Puiu
All of society descends upon a cramped Romanian apartment for 3 hours of warring ideologies, cross-generational misunderstandings, melodramatic confessions of inherited infidelity, and anxious anticipation for the arrival of a characteristically tardy Orthodox priest. It’s the world in microcosm, it’s an elaborate Aristocrats joke, it’s an astonishing feat of sustained, formally rigorous filmmaking, and despite what it sounds like it’s also immensely entertaining from moment to moment; it never had a formal U.S. theatrical release, but it played in D.C. on 3 separate occasions last year so I’m calling it the best new movie I saw in 2017.
In addition to the above, there were a lot of individual elements of these and other films that will stick with me as 2017 highlights. You’ll get the full rundown in an issue of my newsletter later this month.
Twin Peaks: The Return was obviously one of the best things I watched all year. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, I left it out of this list to keep the “What is Film? What is television?” pontificating to a minimum.
The Florida Project just did not register for me. Maybe it was the mouse that ran through my theater in the middle of the movie? At any rate I can acknowledge that the cinematography was among the best of the year, and I’m genuinely impressed by Sean Baker’s direction (and how much he seems to have matured since Tangerine). Someday I may revisit it in the comfort of my (hopefully rodentless) home and see how it plays on a rewatch.
Whoops! I missed: Wonderstruck, BPM, On the Beach at Night Alone, Girls Trip, Coco, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and others
2018 films I got to see early and will consider for next year’s list: Golden Exits, Let the Sun Shine In, Western
The We Need to Talk About Kevin “Self Care Looks Different for Everyone But Please Don’t Charge Me $15 Admission to Yours” Memorial Award: mother!