It’s been an excruciating year. The regime of racism and gross incompetence currently infiltrating the highest office in the United States is a daily – no, hourly – irritation. Meanwhile, the seismic shift in dialogue around sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry (to name one of many affected industries) has been long overdue. Although some of the tyrannical have been disgraced, this movement will take years to reverse decades of institutional misogyny. The events of 2017 will, hopefully, lead to vital and powerful artistry in various media, influencing the kinds of stories that will speak truth to power in the popular culture and propel these conversations further.
But what about the stories on the big screen in 2017? Well, there were some triumphs; unfortunately, many of the most interesting titles languished at art-house cinemas. (Several of those have a home on this list.) As for the state of Hollywood blockbusters, there were a few idiosyncratic artistic statements (Dunkirk, Get Out, War for the Planet of the Apes) and sheer crowd-pleasers (Girls Trip, Baby Driver, Coco) sticking out from multiplex offerings that were, largely, forgettable to the point of disposability. Yet, as breaking news headlines dominated the cultural zeitgeist, it was the movies that were pressured to act as an equalizer of sorts, analyzing the state of things and trying to make sense of it all. (For more on that, I highly recommend K. Austin Collins’ terrific year-end essay.)
Oh, and the year also featured two prominent scenes of exotic fruits encountering male genitalia. There’s also that.
Ladies and gentlemen, here is my top 10 favourite films of 2017, in descending order. 10 honourable mentions will follow.
(A quick note: A Fantastic Woman and Foxtrot, set for Canadian release this winter, are ineligible for this list. I saw both films at TIFF and loved them, and there were brief releases of those titles in the United States last autumn. I have decided to save those films for consideration at the end of this year.)
My Happy Family
Mainstream cinema too seldom focuses on introverts, but this Georgian drama (available on Netflix, of all places) is an articulate character-study of a quiet, determined woman named Manana (Ia Shugliashvili). Bored by her husband, annoyed with her overbearing mother, and stifled by the constraints for working women in bustling Tbisili, Manana decides to move away from her family and get an apartment of her own. Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross have conceived an enriching feminist journey, amplified by Shugliashvili’s tour de force performance as a woman yearning to break from tradition but not quite able to cut all ties to her family. Through the bruised drama are numerous moments of beauty: when Manana gets a few minutes to listen to music or eat in silence, DP Oleg Mutu’s probing, oft-wandering camera becomes still, letting us bask in this leisure with her.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s latest sensitive portrait of a community on the periphery of pop culture enclaves, The Florida Project manages to be both emotionally astute and exuberant. Buoyantly bouncing through her own Magic Kingdom is six-year-old Moonee (the indefatigable Brooklynn Prince). She lives in a shabby $35-a-night motel with her mom (Bria Vinaite) and spends her summer bolting through the grounds with her pint-sized pals, making enough memories and mischief to worry the manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). But the film, like its spry protagonist, is not merely irreverent: as the summer goes on, Moonee becomes more aware of her circumstance in post-recession America. It culminates with a brilliant, freewheeling, powerful final shot that will keep flashing in my head for years to come.
Kristen Stewart may just be the coolest actor of her generation. Half a decade removed from Twilight schlock, her collaborations with art-house luminaries like Olivier Assayas have proved to be fruitful. His latest, the layered and strange Personal Shopper, makes superb use of the main star’s agonized, searching face. Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Paris who shops for a German model by day and searches for the spirit of her deceased twin brother at a creaky, abandoned house at night. This sometimes mystifying but thoroughly arresting ghost story expects you to keep thinking about its themes of human connection and, similarly, technological connectivity. (The film’s centerpiece is a weirdly spooky round of text messaging between Maureen and an unknown caller.) It’s a good thing this spare, hypnotic drama has, as its anchor, one of contemporary cinema’s most indelible personas.
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
I’ll never know how the Cannes jury picked the monotonous The Square for its top prize over the newest drama from Robin Campillo, which had to settle for runner-up honours – but I’m desperate for answers. This pulsating, poignant glimpse at a contingent of AIDS activists in Paris circa the early 1990s seemed destined for a huge theatrical audience, and sadly never found one. The ensemble drama finds its deepest emotional centre by following the relationship between vivacious HIV-positive radical Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and the shy, muscular HIV-negative Nathan (Arnaud Valois). BPM is a searing and festive document of a volatile period in modern French history, and Campillo’s attention to detail – the rhythms and procedures of weekly ACT UP meetings, for instance – made this film feel thrillingly lived-in.
Long Time Running
I saw this documentary about the Tragically Hip’s final, elegiac concert tour a week after frontman Gord Downie succumbed to terminal brain cancer. The emotions at the Bloor cinema were overwhelming. A couple of months removed, the documentary is still magnificent. Directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier find solemn intimacy with various interview subjects, including a grimly funny Downie, and they expertly bind the band’s rustic rock groove to spellbinding images of the Canadian wilderness. Long Time Running works as both a lament and celebration: its narrative energy throttles once the band adapts to performing amidst unfortunate circumstances. The doc’s main attraction is Downie’s unquenchable need to perform, to move, to create something amazing during the last years of his life. The filmmakers capture his will and determination with dynamism. His grace, too.
There are many coming-of-age films set during senior years of high school, but a minuscule few are as witty, perceptive, and emotionally nuanced as Lady Bird. The preternaturally talented Saoirse Ronan is exceptional as Christine McPherson, a 17-year-old who dubs herself Lady Bird and dreams of flying away to East Coast colleges. However, stuck in Sacramento, she spars with her mom (a heartbreaking Laurie Metcalf), falls in love (with characters played by Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet) and tries to motivate her unemployed dad (Tracy Letts). Those who may mope about the familiar dramatic territory of adolescent ennui should be silenced by the sly dialogue and precise plotting, as writer/director Greta Gerwig manages to pack in a senior year’s worth of incidents and mayhem into a taut 90 minutes without sacrificing the needs and emotional changes of her characters. The result is a film loaded with as many endearing touches as a high school yearbook.
During a year of headline-grabbing political resistance and marches for social justice, it makes sense that 2017’s most galvanizing documentary was a rousing call to action. This compassionate chronicle of civil disobedience in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown managed to be both unflinching and inspiring. First-time filmmaker Sabaah Folayan, working with co-director Damon Davis, captures with candor and refreshing colour the unity and defiance of black activists – an image too easily spun or undermined by numerous media outlets. We get to know several of the fiery men and women marching proudly, as their humanity and heroism would soon groundswell into the Black Lives Matter movement. These electrifying acts of resistance become more vital when the activists are depicted as subjects with agency, not anonymous objects for press speculation.
A Quiet Passion
It turns out the three funniest films of 2017 were about Tommy Wiseau (The Disaster Artist), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), and… Emily Dickinson? Believe it. Terence Davies’ witty, poignant, unexpectedly cutting look at the life of the beloved American poet is fascinating for the ways it subverts and deepens, sometimes both at once, bio-pic conventions. Cynthia Nixon is staggeringly excellent as a wry, rarely weathered Dickinson. Just as often as the scribe bursts ahead with an act of independent, creative resolve, so does Davies. With a true artist’s zeal, the filmmaker moves outward, exuberantly capturing the verbosity and wordplay of the liberal-minded community where Dickinson thrived. In the latter half, he slowly zaps that energy as we burrow into the artist’s psychological state. In a year when tens of millions lamented the absence of an ambitious woman in the White House, this portrait of Dickinson reminded us of the sharp intelligence and the private anguish that distinguishes too many brilliant women ahead of her time.
The final collaboration between Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread is an exquisite gothic romance full of sly, sensual pleasures. The film follows Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a revered, stubbornly old-fashioned (pun intended) tailor in posh postwar London who falls in love with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a much younger waitress that soon becomes his muse. Just as the coupling between the perfectionist designer and his eager mistress seems to be going down a predictable route, Anderson sabotages our expectations. To spoil the games and power plays of the film’s second half would be like making you drink a foul-tasting milkshake, so I’ll leave you with this: Krieps is a wonder, Lesley Manville (as Reynolds’ dismissive sister Cyril) steals every scene with a curled lip, and Day-Lewis finds pockets of emotional longing we too seldom see from the three-time Oscar winner. Anderson’s direction and plotting is as stellar as one would expect from a story about artistic fastidiousness. But there is also a playful spirit to Phantom Thread: you can sense the director’s joy at being able to thread various genres together – the chamber drama, the romantic comedy – to form a story both beautiful and enigmatic.
Call Me By Your Name
The most ravishing romance to hit the screen in years, this new drama from screenwriter James Ivory and director Luca Guadagnino evokes the heat of a sun-dappled summer in picturesque Italy. There, 17-year-old Elio (Timotheé Chalamet, having a banner year), a professor’s son, spends his days transcribing music, reading the classics, and lounging around his family’s estate. He finds an instant, unspoken attraction to Oliver (Armie Hammer), the statuesque intellectual visiting from America to assist Elio’s father. Slowly, the two young men begin to realize their feelings for the other, and many sequences in the drama’s first half seem both choreographed and spontaneous, as Elio and Oliver try to court each other, teasing out details of the other’s desire through discretionary touches and double entendres. Ivory’s screenplay delights in the various ways Elio and Oliver emulate each other as their connection strengthens. Meanwhile, as the sexual tension grows, DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom blurs the image to create a steamy texture, a reflection of the characters’ emerging desires. Chalamet’s flushed curiosity is fascinating to observe, and each step of his path toward temptation feels so utterly familiar, one barely recognizes the skill of his acting. Hammer is just as luxuriant. But leave it to Michael Stuhlbarg, in a small but essential role as Elio’s father, who delivers a shattering speech that encapsulates the torrid feelings of young love with wit and tenderness. You’re left emotionally stirred, thrilled, even sunburned, by the best film of the year.
Two dazzling blockbuster entertainments from two of the most capable action filmmakers of the century: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Two clever, frightening directorial debuts that could be considered horror films if they didn’t transcend the trappings of genre: Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Julia Ducournau’s Raw.
Two documentaries that focus, either partly or wholeheartedly, on the artistic influence of two of the medium’s finest directors: Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52 and Agnès Varda & JR’s Faces Places.
Two disarmingly moving films that center on relationships between a grieving man and a spirited twenty-something: Kogonada’s Columbus and Asaph Polonsky’s One Week and a Day.
A riveting testimony of abuse and healing that also managed to be 2017’s most timely film: Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s A Better Man.
And, finally, a comedy with the single best 9/11 joke in history: Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.