Next Door to Prestige: My Top Films of 2017


Catharsis. That’s what this year needed—some goddamned catharsis. At a time when any news junkie might reasonably wonder if the decline of western civilization will—to use an inelegant phrase—shit or get off the pot, the reaction of pop culture (and the reaction to the reaction) was a document of its own. In our time, what do we need from media, and how do we get it? In the world of TV, whose merger with cinema is ongoing, it’s difficult to imagine The Handmaid’s Tale causing just as much of a sensation in a warmer political climate. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Wonder Woman as a big cultural moment were it not for a justified, long-building critical mass of desire to see better representation both on screen and behind the camera. And then, of course, there is the fact that Hollywood—our representation machine—is in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which is by no means about or limited to the movie business, but which has seen decades of the industry’s most grotesque skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. Something, as they say, has got to give.

Much can be made of the Oscars as an insular popularity contest, a closed election where a community gives prizes to itself. But the public-facing aspect of the Oscars fascinates me as well. It strikes me that the Academy is always hyper-aware that they are not just voting on what they liked most, but that they are effectively recommending movies (or an idea of what movies should be) on a massive scale. The Oscars are a brand, and as movies contend for them, narratives are built accordingly—even if, as is so often the case, saddling a film with a grandiose narrative does the film a disservice. So I must confess that a large part of my curiosity about the Oscars tonight is not just which movie will win, but how a celebration of the movie industry will unfold when no one could possibly ignore all the elephants in the room.

A note on which movie might win. Even as they upped the number of Best Picture nominees to nine or ten, the Oscars generally come down to only two—maybe three, in a competitive year. In this case, it’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri versus The Shape of Water. On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine a film more thematically suited to 2017 than Three Billboards, in which a tough-as-nails woman becomes an avenging angel in a plot that involves sexual assault, racism, and police misconduct, and then ends under a question mark of how anger and trauma should be processed. And yet for so many people I’ve talked to, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards didn’t register with them as cathartic, but as politically despicable, both in the perceived pleasure it takes in violence and in how it turns a racist cop into a redeemable hero. I saw no endorsement of racism or bigotry in the film, but I had problems with it: I found it to be a cartoonishly inauthentic version of the America’s sins, a film whose tonal mishmash and glibness towards pain undercuts how, in the second half and in particular the ending, it actually has something to say. And I have to wonder how much that issue with the film and the more politically charged objections spring from the same artistic source.

As for Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, its own politics can be summed up nicely in an early scene where Richard Jenkins sees a civil rights protest on TV and changes the channel to a musical. The Shape of Water will address political injustice and then magically replace it with something beautiful—which is, in a way, its own kind of catharsis. Del Toro has said that he can only approach history through the lens of fables or parables, but in his own films, the fable draws power from the historical context and not the other way around. And, of those two films, I’d easily prefer Del Toro’s, on the basis of both the craft and the purity of its conviction.

“Prefer” may be the operative word, because while there were no shortage of movies worth two hours this year, it wasn’t so easy to feel unequivocally enthusiastic about one, as if fatigue replaced that eternal cinephile desire for a film worthy of hyperbole. For a while, I thought this was a year without a masterpiece, before a few that at least come close slipped in at the last moment. Fatigue, in all things, should be shaken off; catch up on what you missed, because this was, like any year, a fine year for cinema. It was a year for feeling old—the goodbye to Harry Dean Stanton, Agnes Varda becoming an Oscar nominee at 89, David Lynch returning to Twin Peaks, Coco tackling death with optimism, and the fact that even the year’s best superhero movie, Logan, is about getting on in years. It was a year for the evacuation of Dunkirk (three times over), for resolved gazes towards the future, and for a trio of heroines who want to poison the man in their life with mushrooms. And it was a year where some of my favorite films—ones that grappled with Big Topics—ended on happier notes than their material would lead you to expect. For the sake of surprise, I won’t say which. The catharsis you’ll have to find on your own.

Without further ado, my top 10 favorite films of 2017. As always, blog rules apply: anything I got to see at a festival or that had its US theatrical premiere during the calendar year is eligible.


10. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, US)

A ceaselessly witty delight, Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut is head and shoulders above most teen comedies purely by having a feeling of remembrance: it flips through each rite of passage with the chipper speed of an adult who can look back fondly, even on conflict and humiliation. Saoirse Ronan as the spunky, mouthy heroine that Juno couldn’t be in her most ostentatious dreams, and the film lingers as a bittersweet farewell to the idea of a hometown: to hers, to mine, possibly to yours, and resonant for anyone who gets out only to realize that it will always be with you. For better or worse.


9. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

A slow-burn mystery couches an implosive portrait of institutional decay. That description sounds incendiary, and director Mungiu (who won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) certainly doesn’t hide his feelings about the state of Romania. But his film is also one of deep empathy for those living in a world where personal and political corruption feels like the only answer. No wasted scenes—just a potent hope that the problems of the last generation can be sorted by the next. Winner of Best Director at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, it slipped quietly into a few theaters last April (one was fortunately down the street from me) and is now hiding on Netflix for those who’ll seek it out. Do.


8. Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, France)

Thank god we still have Agnes Varda, because few people set such an inspiring example of how to keep on living and never losing the desire to explore. This documentary on a decidedly whimsical art project, without ever shedding its modest, casual appeal, manages to be movingly about so many things at once: how the world looks if you’re young or old, the relationship between the past and the present, shifting culture in the digital age, the importance and impermanence of what you create, and how anyone or anything can be turned into a work of art. Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always generous, it is a small gem that casts a large brightness.


7. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, US)

For much of its 18 hour runtime, David Lynch’s Showtime miniseries revival certainly didn’t feel like one of my favorites of the year. It forever and frustratingly balances between explanation and inscrutability, a string of unresolved threads that occasionally threaten to make perfect sense before diving down another rabbit hole. But for those who took the trip, few works of cinema—yes, cinema—were as fun to explore and debate this year. I’ve seen several theories about our new Twin Peaks, many compelling and none able to account for everything. But while it may be difficult to say precisely what on earth happened, it’s easy to say what Twin Peaks is about: an old-timer’s epic four-dimensional vision of a fraught America at a crisis point, with doubt about whether heroes like Special Agent Dale Cooper even exist.


6. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, US)

Rich in its atmosphere, intrigue, and mood, the new Blade Runner is a hard sci-fi triumph, the best any tentpole has done this decade in taking a nine-figure budget and an 80s franchise and truly doing something with it—even if it paid dearly at the box office. But its central metaphor is, fittingly, a seed of human emotion dropped into a mechanized system, and box office death or not, it earns the right to use it, if only as fantastic show business.


5. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, US)

Many American movies these days are long, and many aspire to the idea of being “epic”, which they sometimes treat as the same thing. But director James Gray is one of the few voices dedicated to sincere cinematic grandeur, and The Lost City of Z, the story of a lifelong quest for a place that may not even exist, is one of the few American films in recent years to so perceptively examine the passing of time. If it got largely overlooked—a fate that tends to befall Gray’s films—it’s because it seems to exist outside its own moment. But moments pass, and The Lost City of Z will still be there, its details rewarding attention, with a final shot that will stay with you.


4. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, US/UK)

Christopher Nolan’s first triumph after a decade of hyped messes either foregoes most of his weaknesses or turns them into strengths. You can’t trip over exposition if plot is hardly necessary. You can’t trip over characterizations if all your characters need to be are men who face death and fear it. You can’t drown in an editing stew if an editing stew is what the fog of war actually calls for. What that leaves you with is experiential cinema: a distilled version of Nolan’s superbly controlled physical craft, an evocative sea of actors’ faces, a gauntlet of perseverance through some very unheroic emotions, and an ending that’s the closest Nolan has come yet to making his balancing act of tones, ideas, and contradictions signify into something grand.


3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

If you were to ask me what I thought of Phantom Thread halfway through, I’d have declined to answer. If you asked me after it was over, I’d have praised it. If you asked me three days later, I’d have told you I was in love. P.T. Anderson’s forays into films built from texture and flow reach a peak in this glorious, surprisingly devious psychodrama. As the romance between a pathologically fussy, dominating artist and the never-to-be-dominated woman who might know how to break him, it is—perversely—the only love story this year worth a damn. Part Freudian, part Hawksian, it reveals what it’s about only gradually, while the luxuriant surface and score by Jonny Greenwood carry you away.


2. Get Out (Jordan Peele, US)

The emergence of Get Out as a major Oscar contender thrilled me for a simple reason: it is the kind of youth movie that the Academy has generally been so steadfast about ignoring. Genre films released during the February doldrums aren’t usually treated as the stuff Oscar dreams are made of—but then this funny, smart, shrewd, magnificently subversive B-movie caught on. It is a take on race in America for a generation that wants to move the public conversation beyond the normal cinematic cliches, so bless it when something so odd—and so much fun—gets bestowed with prestige.


1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US)

“I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” the young heroine says. The tragedy of The Florida Project strikes a raw nerve, all the more so because it mashes up tones and ideas in counterintuitive ways that the more Oscar-feted films did not. Director Sean Baker and his cast perfectly nail the balance between comic energy and tragic grime. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. This is a film about freedom, both its giddy thrills and its long drop to the bottom—and one of 2017’s true triumphs of on-the-fly filmmaking.


The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year…

After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, US)

Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/France/US)

Coco (Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina, US)

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France/Spain)

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, US)

Good Time (Joshua & Ben Safdie, US)

Logan (James Mangold, US)

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, US)

On the Beach At Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland)

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, UK)

The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, US)

The Square (Ruben Östlund, Sweden)

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, US)



As a general rule, children can’t act—and that’s to the great advantage of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, because I’d be surprised if even a quarter of what its young heroes do on screen was heavily scripted or controlled. They are loose and unbound. Living in a low-rent hotel outside Orlando, their characters hock loogies, hustle for ice cream, go exploring, and act loud in the way children do when they’re sugar-high for attention (from the adults? from each other? from the camera?). Like The Spirit of the Beehive, say, the authenticity of their performances lies in the sense of reaction. And the unforgettable potency of the film—its mixture of energy and sadness—comes from the fact that we understand what their characters do not: that they are in dire straits, living at the bottom rungs of the American ladder with scant opportunities and parent figures who are at best impoverished and at worst criminally irresponsible. But playtime goes on, for as long as it can.

Sean Baker was last seen with 2015’s Tangerine, a screwball dramedy about transgender Los Angeles sex workers that he famously shot on an iPhone. It was one of the indie-world darlings of its year, and it attempted quite a high-wire act: that is, if you’re trying to film a screwball setpiece where one of the characters is a bruised, drug-addicted prostitute, don’t be surprised if laughter gets squashed in your throat—and I have to say, I admired the chutzpah of the attempt more than I felt edified by the results. But with The Florida Project, Baker nails the tone between comedy and grime that was so shaky in Tangerine. The balance is superb. The already-stylized colors of Florida, and the way Baker and company frame them, allow the film to feel grounded without settling for the uninspired visual shorthands that make so much social realism blur into indistinction. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little details and vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. The only time, I think, it overplays its hand is with the ending, which makes the symbolic irony of story—that all this doomed innocence is happening just outside of Disney World—too jarringly telegraphed. But the film primes you for that final moment so well that it bothers me less and less. This is one of the best movies about post-Great Recession American life, a film that, with a dextrous emotional palette, both captures and embodies the freedom of living over a bottomless pit. And Willem Dafoe, as the manager of cheap hotel near a tourist trap, may be the most admirably heroic character in a year that included the entire goddamned Justice League.