Top 10 Films of 2017

 

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Columbus, Blade Runner 2049, Personal Shopper, The Lost City of Z, The Florida Project, The Beguiled

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10. BRIGSBY BEAR

With the Winter Olympics still fresh in memory, Dave McCary's Brigsby Bear brings to mind a bronze medal-worthy performance. There may be no thrilling surge to the finish line, no triple axel, no half-cab quadruple backflip, but what is done is distinctive and executed so admirably it deserves recognition. Saturday Night Live cast member Kyle Mooney stars as a man who discovers his entire life has been a lie and a con, including a beloved piece of pop culture around which he organized much of his existence; in an act of both desperation and celebration, he goes about trying to recreate this thing, with the help of some new friends. To be more specific would spoil the impressively weird premise, but Brigsby Bear can be seen as an ode to creativity and a nod to the ways our identities are fundamentally wrapped up with our favorite art. Brigsby Bear balances expertly between sweet and twee, and subverts "fish out of water" cliches by taking surprising and truthful turns. Mark Hamill is very good in a rare non-Luke Skywalker performance, and the film manages to end in just the right place. Brigsby Bear is unexpectedly moving and nails its moderate ambitions.

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9. I CALLED HIM MORGAN

Sometimes jazz frustrates me. I don't just mean jazz music, but the entire culture surrounding it. Jazz culture can feel like a self-mythologizing echo chamber, oblivious to those who haven't fully bought in. Even the most sordid corners of jazz history – the overdoses, the many varieties of abuse, the tragic car crashes and mental illness – are filtered through the seductive clink of martini glasses, the stylish crease of a felt hat, the romantic haze of tobacco smoke backlit by neon. Jazz greats are exalted as mystics and spiritual conduits; their improvisations are transcribed with holy reverence (I say this as a musician who has written, played and studied my fair share of jazz music). It's a joyful art form, but these trappings can feel like disingenuous and off-putting bullshit. Jazz documentaries, in particular, can come across as mythology porn, a stream of legend-affirming anecdotes and proselytizing talking heads (see this year's Chasing Trane). Kasper Collin's I Called Him Morgan is the first film I'm aware of that steps outside the mythology and fully grounds the classic jazz era. It feels like real life. How Collin managed this remains a mystery to me, but I'm thankful the film exists. Lee Morgan was a gifted trumpeter, perhaps most heard as a sideman on John Coltrane's popular album Blue Train, who also held tenure in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and pursued a fruitful solo career (his tune "The Sidewinder" is a jazz standard). In 1972 at age 33, Lee Morgan was murdered by his common-law wife Helen Moore at Slugs' Saloon, a jazz club in New York City's East Village. I Called Him Morgan is structured around an interview with Moore recorded shortly before her death; musicians and friends of Morgan's discuss the man and his life and the impact of his tragically early passing. It's only now, as I type this, that I realize I Called Him Morgan might also be considered a "true crime" documentary, but perhaps that's because it avoids the sleazy exploitation and guilty after-effects of that genre. In many ways I appreciate I Called Him Morgan for what it's not, but it also features one of the most haunting images of the year: 1960s home movie footage of snow falling at night, illuminated by a street lamp in a quiet New York City neighborhood. It's a simple and poignant reminder of the ordinary, sometimes sad reality beneath the myth.

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8. WORLD OF TOMORROW EPISODE TWO: THE BURDEN OF OTHER PEOPLE'S THOUGHTS

This may be seen as a cheat World of Tomorrow Episode Two is not a feature-length film. But this 23-minute animated short is undeniably one of the best things I saw last year. Animator Don Hertzfeldt, twice Oscar-nominated and famous for his artful use of stick figures, has made another thrilling, funny, and mind-blowing sci-fi short centered around little Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt's daughter Winona Mae) and her clones. Read my full review here.

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7. THELMA

The past few years have seen a welcome uptick of smart, sensitive horror films which use troubling fantasy as a vehicle to explore real-world anxieties. The Babadook served as a satisfying metaphor for coming to terms with grief and unwanted responsibility, while being scary as hell in the process. It Follows and The Witch are both exemplary coming-of-age horror films, and in 2016 the Iranian film Under the Shadow, which uses a djinn to represent the demons of an oppressive Islamic society, made my list of favorites. And so Thelma's only crime may be timing, being seen as merely the latest in a string of thematically-strong horror films, when it's arguably one of the best. Thelma is a Norwegian teen who leaves her stifling religious household for college, and after developing feelings for another girl, discovers an inexplicable and devastating power within herself. Joachim Trier's Thelma feels like a Scandinavian indie film first, with supernatural, horror and erotic elements woven in, but occasionally its terrifying implications explode into reality. The coming-of-age metaphors are easy to suss out, but Thelma goes a few layers deeper while Trier exercises impressive directorial judgment. A couple of Thelma's scenes (one on a boat, in particular) will be seared into my memory for a long time to come.

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6. DUNKIRK

The most terrifying film image of 2017 may be that of a Messerschmidt fighter plane, as seen from the ground, banking and leveling off toward a group of huddled, helpless soldiers with the promise of machine gun fire. Dunkirk, about the rescue of almost 400,000 Allied soldiers trapped on a French beach by the Nazis, might be Christopher Nolan's best film; it's certainly his most mature. The conceit of multiple timelines unfolding in a week, a day, an hour is realized with just enough intricacy – a few events are seen in all three timelines, inviting multiple perspectives, but unlike Inception, for example, this doesn't feel like a gimmicky challenge to the intellect. It draws you in, adding dimension by placing you experientially inside the fog of war. The aerial dogfight sequences, filmed with real WWII-era planes, are probably the best ever made; Tom Hardy's taciturn pilot emerges as the soul of the film, and the ending scene of a plane gliding over the beach at sunset is breathtaking. I was fortunate enough to see Dunkirk projected on 70mm film – Nolan is one of only a few major filmmakers (Spielberg, Tarantino) still loyal to film – which emphasized that Dunkirk is first and foremost a magnificent moviegoing spectacle. The downside is that it simply can't have the same impact when viewed at home, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. This is one to watch on the biggest screen possible – turn out the lights, turn up the speakers and prepare yourself.

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5. Good Time

Robert Pattinson's post-Twilight career has turned away from mainstream Hollywood in favor of interesting character roles in smaller films (the same might be said of his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart; see honorable mention Personal Shopper) – his twitchy simpleton in The Rover and drunk geographer in honorable mention The Lost City of Z are just a few examples of his recent great work. Pattinson gets his first real leading role in Good Time, and he's electrifying as the charismatic, small-time New York City criminal Connie, who's on a desperate bid to bail his developmentally-disabled brother Nick out of jail after a botched bank robbery. Pattinson joked in an interview that the Safdie Brothers' Good Time might also be titled Panic: The Movie, and he's not wrong. We follow Connie as he makes a series of bold improvisations that brilliantly manipulate and exploit those he comes into contact with, buying him a little bit of time in the short term but making long-term consequences more and more dire. Some of the film's public-set scenes, such as when Connie and Nick burst into a Domino's Pizza to hide stolen cash, were filmed surreptitiously, lending the film an authentic live-wire quality. Connie's intentions toward his brother may be honorable but he's essentially a sociopath, so we're not exactly rooting for him, and the tension is built not around if he'll be caught, but when. But there's a thrill in seeing just how long he can keep this dark odyssey spinning. Good Time is often an uncomfortable watch, but the crackling energy and pacing and Pattinson's performance make it an unforgettably wild ride.

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4. PHANTOM THREAD

Phantom Thread might actually be the best film on this list, but like many Paul Thomas Anderson films (The Master, There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love) it seems to grow in hindsight and require repeated viewings – I suspect another viewing could easily raise my ranking of it. Phantom Thread begins like a Merchant Ivory film or an especially handsome Masterpiece Theater outing – an immaculate, character-driven period piece – and morphs into something much more rich and perverse than you could have predicted. By the time you realize this you're too bowled over, too wrapped up in the House of Woodcock's tactile world of hand stitching and tape measures and antique lace, to be bothered that you've been expertly hoodwinked. Daniel Day-Lewis and newcomer Vicky Krieps are oustanding, as is Lesley Manville in a deliciously steely supporting role. If there's a fourth standout, it's Jonny Greenwood's score, which ranges from beautifully sparse melancholy (familiar from his band Radiohead) to the blooming lushness of 19th-century parlor music (Schubert, Debussy, Fauré and Oscar Peterson also make notable appearances in the score). A heady, sensual tour through London's couture fashion scene and the dead ends and workarounds of romantic relationships.

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3. A GHOST STORY

David Lowery's A Ghost Story presents an effective litmus test early in the film. Rooney Mara (playing an unnamed woman) is mourning the loss of her husband (Casey Affleck). In a long and mostly unbroken shot, she proceeds to eat an entire pie out of the tin, as her husband's ghost – a classic Charlie Brown-style white sheet with eye holes – looks on from the edge of the frame. During my screening, one couple got up and left at this point, the woman exclaiming incredulously, "She's just eating a pie!" But I, and surely much of the audience who remained, found the scene painfully poignant. A Ghost Story is not at all a horror film in the traditional sense, but the existential wounds it opens are uncomfortable to examine. The white-sheeted ghost seems ridiculous in concept, but this simple iconography might actually be the least distracting option – the ghost's expressionless sheet and eye holes are effectively a blank canvas onto which we can project. The film has very little dialogue, with the exception of a scene in which Will Oldham holds forth at a hipster party, giving a monologue about life and existence, man, that might be total bullshit or might be kind of profound (it's probably both). An exchange between Casey Affleck's ghost and another ghost seen through a window is troubling in a way I can't articulate or forget. A Ghost Story won't work for everyone, but remains one of the most affecting films of the year for me.

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2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

I've come to prescribe to the storytelling philosophy that highly specific stories are more relatable and compelling than those which actively try to be "universal." Last year's Best Picture-winning Moonlight is a strong example of this, and Call Me By Your Name is another. Few of us experienced our romantic and sexual awakening at a lazy, sun-dappled Italian villa in the 80s, whiling away the summer playing Bach on the guitar, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs and swimming in creeks and drifting between a gorgeous Italian girl and a handsome American man. Even fewer, probably, would have had a father as gentle, encouraging and understanding in these circumstances as Elio Perlman's father (Michael Stuhlbarg). But most of us have some similarly stirring period in our past that we recall wistfully, perhaps painfully, in a "Once upon a time..." sort of way. Call Me By Your Name embodies this feeling perfectly and universally. The romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), while understood by the characters to be potentially problematic, develops in a way that's largely free from the stigmatic restraints posed by Moonlight or Brokeback Mountain – it plays simply like a romance, not so much a Forbidden Gay Romance, and is all the more effective for it. All the performances are excellent, in particular Stuhlbarg, who delivers a wonderfully touching monologue (justifiably praised) near the end of the film. No film from 2017 felt more present on the screen, and no final image feels more lasting than Elio staring tearfully into a fire.

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1. GET OUT

At the moment, what more can be said about Get Out? Jordan Peele's social thriller sparked the biggest cultural conversation of the year, and for this white guy to attempt to add to the conversation at this stage would be folly (an observation not inconsistent with the film's message). Besides indicting the insidious racism of would-be allies, Get Out serves as a terrifically gripping and entertaining horror thriller. Peele sculpted Get Out from formative influences like The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, which represent one of my favorite sub-genres of horror – the "there's something strange and conspiratorial going on here and I'm the only one who sees it" movie. Daniel Kaluuya (familiar from Black Mirror and Sicario) is fantastic as Chris Washington, delivering an entirely convincing transformation from too polite to completely losing it; Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener and Stephen Root are unsurprisingly excellent as well. But even the smaller roles are wonderfully performed – a scene featuring Betty Gabriel as the strangely cold maid Georgina is one for the ages. Get Out may be a capital-I Important film ("the sunken place" is already firmly within the cultural lexicon), but even putting all that aside, it's simply the best time I had at the movies in 2017.