Forgive me for the long hiatus from blogging. The past few months have been filled with the craziness of my first semester of grad school, which had me writing a ton for my courses and hence left little time for blog maintenance. Now that classes are done, however, I can turn to one of my favorite annual traditions: paying tribute to the films of the year that I loved most.
There’s not much else to say, so I’ll just dive right in. I hope you enjoy the post, and feel free to comment with your own Best of 2017 list. Most importantly, though, please check out some (if not all) of these films! In a movie year that I found to be overall pretty disappointing, these titles kept my faith in cinema strong.
25. The Girl Without Hands
Sébastien Laudenbach’s The Girl Without Hands doesn’t look like any film I’ve ever seen. Within the landscape of contemporary animation, its visual style could perhaps be compared to Don Hertzfeldt’s oeuvre and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but such comparisons would be reductive. Animated entirely by Laundenbach himself, The Girl Without Hands boasts a singular aesthetic that conveys a feeling of motion even when the film’s standing completely still, an effect that is achieved through the movie’s slapdash look, wherein most objects appear only half-drawn and the director’s brushstrokes remain acutely visible at all times. This incomplete quality lends the film a felt sense of facture, which, in turn, makes virtually every frame look like it’s either in the process of becoming or disintegrating; this impression unsurprisingly intensifies when the film is in actual animated motion. Clearly, the movie’s visuals alone make The Girl Without Hands worth seeing, but the film also enchants as a dark fairy tale of the sort that Guillermo del Toro might dream up and a feminist fable that treats the female body and its experiences in a refreshingly matter-of-fact, de-eroticized way.
I wrote on the film in more detail for the magazine Reverse Shot here.
24. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage
In 2011, Wesley Morris tagged the Fast and the Furious films as being “the most progressive force in Hollywood” given the offhand way in which they featured a multiethnic cast of characters; the films championed multiethnic representation without being “about” it. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage takes up the mantle of diversity wonderfully, enlisting a jaw-dropping lineup of Asian actors and badass women to fuel its hilariously over-the-top plot; though Vin Diesel leads, he is also the only white dude in the main cast. As the film scales up the action and intrigue while self-consciously embracing its own absurdity, becoming a glorious send-up of 90s action-movie cheese filled with peerless swagger, this casual ethos of inclusivity remains matter-of-factly in the background, seeming to suggest that the fun on display is the kind that knows no borders.
23. Song to Song
One may wonder whether Terrence Malick is getting lazy, given that the recent, meteoric rise in his directorial output has corresponded with an increasing invariance in the themes and aesthetics explored. Still, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Indeed, what may seem like repetitiveness to some may strike others as being auteurist consistency, especially when style and subject mesh as well as they do in Song to Song. A study of the vivid, existential present as a source of both agony and transcendence, the film uses Malick’s roving, panoramic camera to carve out a visual space of intense dimensionality and detail, orienting the viewer in the haptic, hedonistic reality of the characters, and the soundtrack is an experimental typhoon of inchoate feeling, working with the images’ ebb and flow to create a cinematic experience that evokes the lives led by the film’s lost souls.
22. Logan Lucky
A “hillbilly heist movie” in the best sense of the phrase, Soderbergh’s back-from-retirement debut reprises the laid-back aura of the Ocean’s films but brings a new set of big names to the table: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough. All are exceptional, but Craig steals the show as Joe Bang, a hardened criminal with a thick Southern drawl and mad chemistry skills. You won’t find a chiller movie in 2017, but watch out lest this easygoing caper blindsides you with its heart. Out of nowhere, a stirring rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” pops up to become one of the year’s loveliest movie moments.
An unofficial companion to Kubo and the Two Strings (which made it onto my Best of 2016 list), Pixar’s latest is, both literally and figuratively, brimming with soul. As one boy journeys into a visually incandescent afterlife in search of validation and belonging, the film morphs into a moving ode to music, family, and the communities that cohere around both. Bring your kids, bring your spouse, bring your parents, bring your siblings, and keep a box of tissues handy. You’ll want the whole family there for this one.
20. A Ghost Story
Even though I recognized the heaviness of the film’s melancholy, A Ghost Story, on first viewing, did not leave me an emotional wreck as it did some people. It had quite the opposite effect, actually: it alienated in the most fascinating of ways, drawing attention to its formal rigor and stylistic gimmicks. Watching the movie’s arresting time jumps (in which hard cuts, normally used to convey just seconds of story time, signal the passing of decades, even centuries) and wry sparseness (dude wearing a bed sheet = adequate protagonist for a cosmic exploration of time, legacy, and loss), I was struck not so much by the film’s pathos but director David Lowery’s singular blending of American indie and European art-house sensibilities, the way he experiments with both genre trappings and cinematic grammar. Post-viewing reflection and reading/hearing other people’s responses to the film have made me hopeful that a rewatch may produce a more profound emotional reaction, but till then, A Ghost Story will remain a distant yet intriguing object, not the best movie of 2017 in my book but definitely one of the most unique.
18. A Quiet Passion
This is only my second Terence Davies film (the first was the excellent The Long Day Closes), but between these two, his is shaping up to be one of the most elegiac oeuvres I’ve ever encountered. Here, it is Emily Dickinson who sits helpless against the march of time, which wrests loved ones and the paradise of youth from her arms and condemns her to a state of bitter loneliness and self-loathing. The bleakness is astounding, but it also cuts deep on account of its emotional truth and gutting honesty. And yet, the film isn’t entirely a tragedy. It is also an (often very funny) ode to female independence, art, and the beauty of family, and it does right by Dickinson by not reducing her to an airbrushed screen simulacrum. Rather, it looks long, hard, and empathetically at both her dreams and her demons, conveying a person that was flawed but also beautiful.
17. My Happy Family
Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß’s My Happy Family would make a good double bill with mother!, which narrowly missed making it onto this list. There are no public executions or sacrificial ceremonies, but there is a sense of a domestic environment turned hostile and of family (whom conventional wisdom deems to be a pillar of love and support; fortunately, this is my experience) as a suffocating force. From the Belgian siblings, the film borrows a handheld vérité aesthetic, naturalistic acting, and a keen eye for socioeconomic difference. In the lead role, Ia Shugliashvili gives a towering performance as a woman who’s weathered storms, using haggard expressions and a brisk, nervous, and uneven walk to communicate her existential exhaustion. This is an emotionally brutal film but also a lovely, sensitive work. It’s a tough watch that rewards those who press through to the end.
Christopher Nolan’s screenplay for this film may be his most audacious yet, which is saying quite a lot considering the guy’s penchant for bending narrative convention in radical ways. Even better is the fact that the storytelling acrobatics feed into Dunkirk’s larger goal of evoking the subjective, ground-level experience of war, an aim that’s further aided by Nolan’s 70mm shooting format. Seen in IMAX, the movie immerses the viewer in the panicked present-tense of the stranded soldiers, the civilian rescuers, and the pilots in the sky, becoming a film of overwhelming suspense and one of the year’s strongest arguments for the enduring value of seeing movies on the big screen.
I talk about the film in more depth here.
15. Five Came Back
The archival gold mine that is Five Came Back unveils heretofore hidden dimensions of five of our most beloved filmmaking icons—John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and John Ford, all of whom contributed their talents to the U.S. war effort in the 1940s—but the movie also does so much more. It interrogates cinema’s social responsibility and the ethics of documentary filmmaking; provides a snapshot of how WWII’s impact on industry extended to Hollywood; and offers an uneasy paean to the great filmmaking that went into producing wartime propaganda, a genre we often dissociate from “Art” on account of the blatantly ideological content. Featuring interviews from Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Francis Ford Coppola (the film is truly an instance of game recognizing game) Five Came Back is marvelously insightful and moving, a must-see for cinephiles.
14. Get Out
If Jordan Peele’s debut had pushed the envelope a bit more—leaning more into the eerieness of white liberal bourgeois hospitality and intensifying the bonkers savagery of the finale—it would have, hands down, been in the top five of the year. Its premise is that good: a social satire about cultural appropriation that trenchantly connects with the contemporary zeitgeist to a degree that much current American mainstream horror fails to do. And though the film could’ve benefited from being freakier, what we do get is still pretty darned creepy (and also hilarious). If, for some reason, you haven’t seen this landmark film yet, please do so as soon as possible with a large and raucous audience.
13. Girls Trip
It’s been a while since I’ve laughed this hard in theaters. With a powerhouse quartet of leading ladies and comedy that takes a wrecking ball to any semblance of restraint or decorum, Girls Trip follows in the footsteps of Bridesmaids but exceeds that film in sheer brazenness and the quantity of jokes that land. Moreover, the film is a deep dive into the African American community—one where whiteness exists refreshingly only on the fringes—and, despite the uproarious gags, concludes with a touching tribute to female friendship. Please give Tiffany Hadish an Oscar.
12. The Big Sick
The Big Sick is a hilarious rom-com (best line: “we lost 19 of our best men that day”) and a deft portrait of how children of immigrant parents straddle two cultures. It’s a film that feels like it features real people, drawing its laughs from awkward situations of the sort that anyone could imagine finding themselves in (and yet is at the same time highly specific) and brings on the waterworks through tragedy of a similar variety. Kumail Nanjiani nails the comedic sweet spot of being funny without seeming to try, and Holly Hunter gives one of the best performances of the year.
The visually resplendent Columbus is a moving, meditative study of form, of the ways in which we strive to make meaning out of a vast and unknowable existence and how art in particular fulfills that desire. Architecture is the art form that the film spotlights, and Columbus functions on one level as a paean to that under-championed craft. On another level, the film also examines how places can be transformed by its contact with people—the way an arch changes after pedestrians have passed beneath it, the way a house feels different after it has been lived in. Space, affect, and memory all come into play in Kogonada’s picture, and the beauty is that most of this is shown not through narrative exposition but the cinematic image—yet another medium, giving form to our experiences, revealing to us ourselves.
10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
The space opera of the year is not The Last Jedi (despite my ample admiration for that film) but Luc Besson’s latest, bonkers foray into sci-fi. Fresh off of the success of 2014’s Lucy, Besson turned to the French comic-book series Valérian and Laureline and concocted a screen vision that looks like The Fifth Element meets Hellboy 2 if both were on LSD. Whereas the latest Star Wars only intermittently punctuates its (admittedly sturdy) classical Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking with moments of radical invention, virtually every shot of Valerian feels like a brave new world; each scene bursts with more color, visual detail, and inspired character designs than Episode VIII contains in its entire runtime. Sure, the dialogue is often cringy and the acting wooden, but when your film features a chase scene that occurs across two dimensions simultaneously and Rihanna as a shape-shifting nightclub dancer, these flaws almost don’t register.
9. Brawl in Cell Block 99
All hail Vince Vaughn. The funny man of mid-aughts comedies (Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball, etc.) has fully shed his prior comedic persona. In his place is a fearsome juggernaut whose every sinew is stretched tight with rage and conviction. In his latest film, the actor gives one of the best performances I’ve seen this year in the way his muscles never release tension even when he’s at rest; the only performance I can recall that comes close to this level of perpetual intensity is Channing Tatum’s from Foxcatcher. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pure pulp nastiness that relishes in the snapping of bones and crushing of heads, but what takes it all to the next level is Vaughn’s troubled hero Bradley, whose penchant for violence is narratively framed as resulting from coercion but is also shown through Vaughn’s acting to be part and parcel of who he is, the flip side to the almost religious fervor with which the character stands by his principles and the ones he loves. Brawl works mighty well as trash, an exploitation cinema throwback filled with sadistic prison wardens, splattery practical effects, and even martial arts, but Vaughn also turns it all into a character study of the highest order.
8. After the Storm
After the Storm is a gentle and tender film that, nonetheless, looks without flinching upon the consequences of its characters’ actions. Director Hirokazu Koreeda, one of contemporary cinema’s reigning humanists, has a way of making both character relationships and spaces seem authentic and lived-in; we feel like we’re observing real people dealing with hurt and reconciliation, remembrance and moving on. After the Storm is darned close to being a melancholic masterpiece; repeat viewings may cement its position as such.
7. Rubber Coated Steel
6. John Wick: Chapter 2
Chapter 2 whips out the big guns both literally and figuratively, transposing the first movie’s brand of deftly choreographed, cleanly shot gun-fu onto a more epic, international stage. Subway tunnels, museum exhibits, and Roman catacombs all become canvases against which the action unfolds, giving shootouts the feel of performance art. The messiness of the altercations and the vivid sound design ensure that the film’s quixotic genre trappings remain rooted in bone-breaking realism, and director Chad Stahelski still manages to keep a thread of deadpan humor running through it all. Action cinema doesn’t get more stylish and gloriously elemental than this.
Utterly unpredictable and unbearably intense as a result, this pointedly unfunny elaboration of a goofy premise uses its tonal subversiveness to critique media representations of alcoholism, and, at the same time, morphs into an acerbic takedown of the petty male ego. And the film keeps on morphing, transcending easy allegorical readings as it leads the viewer down paths both surprising and frightening. For your consideration: Jason Sudeikis, Best Supporting Actor.
I talk about the film in more depth here.
4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
There are large helpings of Kubrick and Haneke here, but The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a Lanthimosian beast all its own, spinning a tale of pitch-black absurdity that, miraculously, manages to be side-splittingly hilarious even as it descends into horrific violence. I relished every weird, awkward, off-kilter minute of this movie and gawked at how it made me laugh into the void. Bonus points for the film’s formal rigor and Colin Farrell’s perfectly calibrated performance, both of which are part and parcel of the comedy but nonetheless deserve to be singled out.
3. Blade Runner 2049
2. The Work
This film should be required viewing for every human being. Chronicling an intensive, four-day therapy session at New Folsom Prison in which convicted criminals work together with civilian volunteers to exorcise each other’s demons and pave the way to healing with the bedrock of mutual emotional support, The Work is one of the most emotionally devastating yet inspirational films I’ve ever seen. It suggests that prison isn’t merely a physical institution but an abstract, existential state that afflicts us all, and it shows how socially- and self-imposed shields of toxic masculinity can be broken through to reach the men underneath. Smartly employing a low-key, fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing the therapy, the film lets the alchemy of the group speak for itself and, in the process, forces the viewer to feel the energy that those on-site clearly experienced. And you will feel. The Work is the kind of film that overpowers all types of defenses and topples all sorts of barriers. In our age of division, it is the kind of film that we need to remind us of the reach that love can have.
1. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion
Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is a film whose hero has bulging biceps, hair worthy of a L’Oreal commercial, and a propensity for both bellowing war cries and whispering sweet nothings to his dream girl. It’s a film that’s aware of the guy’s outsized awesomeness by having every other shot of his Adonisian figure look like something from a photoshoot and voices on the soundtrack chant his praises. It’s a film whose action scenes merge the design-level scale of The Lord of the Rings with the slo-mo-saturated, WWE-style macho bravado of 300 and the gravity-defying grace of Zhang Yimou’s digital-age wuxia pian (think Hero or House of Flying Daggers). There are Bollywood music numbers, and the radiant visuals span the color spectrum, making most American blockbusters look like cinema vérité in comparison. Baahubali 2 goes big, in every possible respect beyond what is sensible, and yet it does so without irony. It commits to its hugeness, its excess, and in doing so, becomes a giddy, maximalist bonanza of the sort that Hollywood is too timid to make. This film takes the top spot of 2017 on account of how little it holds back, of how it hits viewers with wave after wave of romance, melodrama, court intrigue, visual splendor, and oh-so-awesome, earth-shaking battle sequences. This is mega-budget filmmaking done right. This is cinema.
The Shape of Water, The Lost City of Z, All These Sleepless Nights, First They Killed My Father, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Mudbound, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, mother!, The Beguiled, Call Me By Your Name.
Well, that’s a wrap! Thank you for reading.
Here are some films that I unfortunately didn’t get to watch before making this list, which I wanted to post before year’s end. Hopefully, I’ll be able to catch up on most if not all of them in the coming year: The Phantom Thread, The Post, In this Corner of the World, The Red Turtle, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Faces Places, Raw, Lady Macbeth, The Ornithologist, Kedi, Rat Film, Menashe, Last Flag Flying, Molly’s Game, Marjorie Prime, A Cure for Wellness, On the Beach Alone at Night, The Day After, Hermia & Helena, The Death of Louis XIV, The Other Side of Hope, Princess Cyd, Gerald’s Game, Thelma.
I didn’t include Twin Peaks: The Return on this list because I considered it to be TV, but Lynch’s masterpiece is far and away my favorite moving image work of 2017.