What follows is not a definitive list of the best films of 2017. How could it be?
It's compiled by a weary part-time cinephile who fits as many movies as she can in between the deadline pressures of her day job, family commitments, and other interests like choral singing, travelling and napping. It represents the highlights of her moviegoing year - a year in which she ran out of time and/or opportunities to see any of the following critical darlings: The Florida Project, Wonderstruck, Call Me By Your Name, The Darkest Hour, Mudbound, All the Money in the World, Novitiate and I, Tonya.
I could have run around from theater to theater this week, working like a woman obsessed to catch up on these films so I could publish a respectable 'year's best' list. But I've lost interest in respectability. And I simply don't have the energy or motivation to be a 2017 completist. Like most of my readers, I lead a distracted and fragmented life. I'm not an academic, nor am I a professional critic. This year I managed to see 96 films - which is a lot, but still only about a half of what a real critic sees in a year. (Rest assured however, I will likely manage to see every film mentioned above before the Oscars on March 4. Some habits die hard.)
More importantly, I find my tastes in film are changing and evolving as of late. Honestly the very best film I saw all last year was Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1991 classic The Double Life of Veronique. I loved it for its beauty, its haunting musical score, and the transcendent,/radiant/joyous screen presence of Irene Jacob in the title role. Her performance embodied the kind of humanity and wonder I want my 'year's best' list to celebrate. I'm all done with films that revel in darkness and brutality for shock value or uncomfortable laughs, regardless of how well-crafted they may be. So don't expect to see mother!, Killing of a Sacred Deer or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on this list. (And yes, I saw all of those.) But don't expect to see a roll call of mindless, escapist pleasures, either. The world we all live in is crazy and violent and scary enough; I don't want to live in denial of that exactly, but I want to celebrate the art that rises defiantly out of this muck and leads us back to the better angels of our nature.
One other thing: because this cinephile lives in the Chicago area, eligibility for this list is limited to films were first in general release here (whether in theaters or via home streaming) between 1/1/17 and 12/31/17 inclusive. What this means is:
- A number of films that are on 2017's awards slates and critic's lists - but which haven't yet opened in Chicago - will be considered for my 2018 list (including The Post, Phantom Thread, Maggie's Game, A Fantastic Woman, Hostiles and Loveless). By that criteria, this list also excludes two fine films I saw at this year's Chicago International Film Festival that have not yet opened in general release here: In the Fade and God's Own Country)
- Conversely, some films that were on 2016 awards slates/critic's lists were considered for my 2017 list (among them Silence, Paterson, Neruda, Hidden Figures, Things to Come, Toni Erdmann). SPOILER: Some of these made the list!
17. Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened (Lonny Price)
This documentary about the ill-fated 1981 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" would be worth it just for the audition and rehearsal footage, plus its behind-the-scenes insight into the shaping of a flawed but underappreciated musical. But it is elevated and made resonant by its poignancy. Sondheim and director Harold Prince cast the show entirely with teenagers and very young adults, playing jaded middle-aged showbiz types who age backward into their younger, starry-eyed selves over the course of the play. The concept was not successful, and the show flopped badly. Some successful careers were launched (Broadway director Lonny Price, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander), but much of the cast would eventually give up on performing to pursue other careers - some to public acclaim, others in obscurity. Much like the show it profiles, this film is as much a testament to the way life's realities transmute our youthful hopes and dreams as it is about musical theater.
16. Their Finest (Lone Scherfig)
Every so often, I need a film that is old-fashioned in the best possible way - romantic, funny and sad in just the right proportions. The kind of film you want to watch on a snowy Sunday afternoon, curled up under your favorite quilt with a cup of tea. (There's at least one such film on every one of my 'year's best' lists: Allied last year, Brooklyn in 2015). Their Finest is hardly groundbreaking, but its story of young woman finding her way in Britain's wartime propaganda film industry (and falling in love along the way) is engagingly and affectionately told. Bill Nighy's supporting turn as a once-celebrated actor seeking one, last great role is just the delicious icing on the teacake.
15. Brad's Status (Mike White)
Ben Stiller's Brad wrestles with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy during a long weekend of college visitations with his son. Friends from his own college days have largely eclipsed and abandoned him, caught up in their own successful, high-profile careers while Brad toils in the non-profit sector for little money and even less recognition. Here is fresh evidence of what a terrific and nuanced actor Stiller can be. We have access to his internal musings via voiceover, and no honest one among us will deny having struggled with these same kinds of tortured, often ugly and uncharitable thoughts. Writer/director Mike White manages to be both unsparing and compassionate towards his main character, and the finale offers a sweet moment of redemption.
14. Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)
How to explain the conceit at the heart of this film without causing my readers to roll their eyes and move on to the next review? Anne Hathaway plays a woman who's fast approaching rock bottom; whenever she has a wild, drunken night, a huge Godzilla-esque monster goes on the rampage halfway around the world in Seoul. This isn't coincidental, and the cause-effect relationship is more complex and dramatically satisfying than you'll ever expect. (Hint: monsters can be metaphors!) Even better is the film's welcome inversion of overused romantic comedy tropes when Hathaway returns to her hometown and reconnects with an old boyfriend (Jason Sudeikis). He seems like the sweet, adoring guy she's always needed, but it's so much more complicated than that.
13. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Griffin Dunne)
Probably no one but Griffin Dunne could have produced so intimate and revelatory a portrait of writer Joan Didion, who happens also to be his own beloved aunt. There's an ease and openness in their filmed conversations, yet they cut right to the heart of Didion's marriage (to writer John Gregory Dunne), motherhood and work - and all the challenges that came with them. There are just enough passages with Didion reading from her books in voiceover to tantalize you into reading more (exactly what any documentary about a writer should do.) And the film doesn't back off the grief that fueled Didion's most recent works ("The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights" about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively). It's generous and appreciative without descending into hagiography.
12. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
I am of two minds regarding British director Ken Loach's approach to this story. On the one hand, he's made a beautiful, compassionate film about the lives of ordinary, working class folks that eschews big emotional moments for quieter, more truthful ones. On the other hand, he's a cranky technophobe with some startlingly retrograde ideas about government social welfare programs and the underpaid, underappreciated people who work in them. Both sides of Ken Loach are very much on display here, but the film's quiet compassion ultimately triumphs over its sneering disregard for computers and petty bureaucrats. Dave Johns gives a particularly lovely performance as a man struggling to get either work or aid after he's felled by a heart attack, and Hayley Squires is sweetly sympathetic as the struggling single mother he befriends and tries to help. There are no happy endings here, only a reminder that every man and woman is entitled to dignity and a helping hand. That's a sorely needed message in these times.
11. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Scorsese wanted to make this film for over 20 years, since he first read the book on which it is based while traveling through Japan. I'm not sure how it plays to atheists or agnostics, but for people of faith it poses some challenging, important questions about the value of evangelization and martyrdom. A tale of 16th century Jesuit missionaries attempting to convert Japan and wrestling with the country's unspeakably cruel torture and murder of its Christian converts, it's alternately gorgeous and painful to watch, overwhelming in its scope. What, finally, is the more Christian thing to do - convert the people only to see them viciously killed? Or to give up the fight for the faith and allow them to live in peace? I watched this on Good Friday; I can't think of a more appropriate time to grapple with that kind of question. And I won't pretend I have the definitive answer for the situation depicted here - just as the priests played by Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson don't find entirely satisfying resolutions to their own spiritual struggles.
10. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) (Noah Baumbach)
Here's a sentence I absolutely never expected to write: Adam Sandler gives one of they year's best performances - every bit the equal of those turned in by his co-stars: Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel. (And Dustin Hoffman, too - but I'm probably not allowed to say that, because #timesup for him, right?) Noah Baumbach is a frequent chronicler of dysfunctional family dynamics, but here he's absolutely perfected his game. Hoffman plays the self-absorbed father of three adult children by three separate former wives. Each has a different kind of fractious relationship with their father, indicative of the kind of man he was in each of his marriages. There are several electrifying scenes of great acting here - the fact that some of them honestly belong to Sandler makes me wonder how much he's been holding back over the years. In fairness, both P.T. Anderson and James L. Brook have teased some decent work out of Sandler before (in Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, respectively). But after this triumph, he really can't go back to doing something like Grown Ups 3.
9. Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta)
In Beatriz at Dinner, director Arteta and screenwriter Mike White resurrect themes from their HBO series Enlightened, then hone and sharpen them into deadly satirical daggers. Selma Hayek plays the massage therapist - equal parts radiant Earth Mother and raging nutjob - who becomes an awkward, last-minute addition to a wealthy client's dinner party. She faces off with John Lithgow (superb as always) playing his ruthless corporate bigwig as an outwardly charming and sensible sparring partner to her earnest, cuckoo-bird do-gooder. Meanwhile Connie Britton hovers, soothes and attempts to put a good face on every exchange between them, as only a desperate-to-please-everyone hostess can. Some of the class conflict insights are a bit obvious, and the dinner guest played by Jay Duplass is a bit more of an asshole than was required for any dramatic purposes. But, as was true in Enlightened, even when the battle lines between spirituality and commerce are broadly drawn, the actors raging from behind those lines are positively riveting to watch.
8. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
This film might seem an odd choice for the list, given my preamble about celebrating the good and the noble... but come on, it's fun! Baby Driver was, in fact, the most fun I had at the movies all year (with the possible exception of Thor: Ragnarok). I normally hate action films (too loud, too overstimulating), but under Edgar Wright's direction, this had some of the most elegant and coherent action sequences I've seen in years, if ever. And I'm a sucker for any movie that can perfectly synchronize getaway drives to some insanely rockin' tunes. For pure, exhilarating fun and thrills, nothing matched this one - and I think that's something to celebrate, too.
7. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
There's a sweet simplicity to Paterson that is in direct contrast to just about any movie you've ever seen about a poet. Adam Driver's Paterson is no tortured, drug-addicted genius, but rather a New Jersey bus driver, living an outwardly unspectacular life while writing some truly lovely poems about it in his spare time. Director Jarmusch finds the poetry in Paterson's life too, from his delight in his wife's ditzy, dilettantish schemes for self-expression to the small dramas playing out in the neighborhood bar he frequents. Paterson celebrates the transcendent nature of life's simplest pleasures (a cold beer, a cupcake, new curtains, the thrill of mastering your first song on the guitar), and reminds us that poetry can be a part of everyone's life.
6. Columbus (Kogonada)
It takes place in Columbus, Indiana - which is both a mecca for devotees of modernist architecture and the hometown of vice-president Mike Pence. The latter fact has nothing to do with the film, but the town's architecture gives the film its soul. In his directorial debut, Kogonada finds a visual style that showcases and complements the town's architectural treasures. There's an elegance and understated beauty to this film that is oddly calming; it sneaks up on you with an answer to the question that its main characters ponder: Can architecture heal you? Turns out, it can. John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson give effectively understated performances as, respectively, a young man grappling with a long-standing estrangement from his critically ill father and a young woman who can't bear to leave her recovering addict mother behind for college. Rory Culkin really nails the role of a nerdy graduate student who awkwardly attempts to court Richardson. But the lovingly photographed buildings and interiors are Columbus's real stars.
5. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
Yes, this film has Casey Affleck playing the ghost of his deceased self in a white sheet with two eyeholes like Charlie Brown on Halloween. Silly as that sounds, this haunting (no pun intended) film is actually a profound and moving meditation on grief, offering the highly original theory that the deceased grieve, too. It's poetic and impressionistic, without a strictly linear narrative or much in the way of dialogue, but it's also kind of mesmerizing. There's an infamous scene in which Rooney Mara, playing Affleck's widow, eats an entire blueberry pie during one, uncomfortably long shot. If you've ever grieved for the sudden loss of someone you loved, you'll recognize the character's desperation to numb her emotional pain by any means available - even by gobbling a whole pie - as completely authentic.
4. BPM (Robin Campillo)
Pedro Almodovar, a judge at the Cannes Festival this year, reportedly wept when BPM was passed over for the Palme D'Or in favor of The Square. I've no doubt he's broken out in fresh, new tears of grief over its egregious exclusion from the Oscars' shortlist for Best Foreign Film, once again bested by Ruben Ostlund's vastly overrated art-world satire. I saw this at the Chicago International Film Festival in October; see my review here. This French-language drama about AIDS activists in early '90s Paris remains vividly in my memory for its ravishing, emotionally charged visual images and performances.
3. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)
2. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)
You could call Lady Bird a coming-of-age story or you call it a mother/daughter drama; either or both is true, but confining it to a neat category would reduce and misrepresent what it achieves. It's really a story about being human - about being young, unformed, hopeful and figuring life out - while at the same time, it's about the disappointments of adulthood and the anxieties and hopes that parents have for their children. Greta Gerwig imbues her directorial debut with a sweetness and humanity that brought me to tears more than once, each time during scenes that weren't particularly sad - just beautifully realized. The performances by Soirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf and Tracey Letts are pitch-perfect, sublime.
1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)
Guillermo del Toro's gorgeous fantasy film is a fairy-tale for grownups, embracing both the enchantment and the darkness that true fairy tales possess. Sally Hawkins is a mute cleaning woman at a government laboratory where a South American sea monster is being held and studied for mostly nefarious purposes. She befriends, then falls in love with the "monster," and Hawkins makes us believe in it all; she gives her character a grit and stubborn emotional urgency that prevent any Amelie-esque, cutsie-poo nonsense from diluting the story's power. The scene where she explains to a friend, via sign language, what the monster's love means to her is possibly the most emotionally intense moment in an entire year's worth of films. The film's dense, imaginative production design and its thematic inspirations (which include Cold War intrigue and classic movie musicals) combine to evoke our terror and wonder. (Also, there is inter-species sex . Like I said, this fairy tale is for grownups.) The Shape of Water ultimately celebrates love, goodness, tolerance, and the movies themselves, while dazzling us with its gorgeous visuals and heartfelt performances. I'm not sure what else I would ask of a film.