If you didn’t read my year-end overview, it adds a little context to this list (like, why does he have a TV show here?).
* Indicates a festival screening and the film had no other local 2017 theatrical run.
**A late 2016 release I ignored the calendar to include.
11. The Florida Project – Sean Baker puts a fresh spin on neorealist filmmaking in this vibrant view of life on the economic fringes, as seen within a cotton candy-colored residential hotel on the outskirts of Disney World. The chintzy Magic Castle hotel provides a unique backdrop where the six-year old girl at the center of the story (impressive wee one Brooklynn Prince) can be as playful and unpredictable as any kid, even as her irresponsible mother tries to skate by as an adult adolescent – living on scams and periodic descents into prostitution. The obvious compassion Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch have for all their characters is mirrored in the wonderful supporting performance of Willem Dafoe as the goodhearted hotel manager, looking out for his least stable resident in spite of his disapproval of her choices. A major conceptual misstep in its final scene is the only thing marring this portrait of a largely unseen side of America.
12. The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro’s best English-language film to date fuses fairytale wish fulfillment with institutional horror and just a touch of bizarre adult sensuality. Del Toro is up front with his narrative touchstones (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Beauty and the Beast) and his social message of outcasts uniting, but as with all his films, it’s the visual wonder here that really impresses. Lovingly designed, the movie’s tactile qualities are best represented by the amphibian man himself (del Toro regular Doug Jones), a creation of “old school” makeup effects in an overwhelmingly digital era. Compare this utterly convincing creature to something like the video game-quality Hulk of the recent Marvel films and you have to wonder if digital artistry – even at its highest level – can ever quite match handmade craftsmanship like this. Reportedly made for a remarkably modest $20 million, The Shape of Water boasts more stunning fantasy images than most franchise blockbusters budgeted at nearly ten times that.
13. Baby Driver – Edgar Wright reaches the peak of his pop culture “mix-and-match” concoctions with this irresistibly entertaining action film made like a movie musical. From Baby’s intricately choreographed stroll down the street, grooving to the tunes in his headphones, to some of the more deliriously fun chases in recent memory, this was that rare and most welcome summer movie spectacle that didn’t feel like it was born in a marketing department meeting.
14. The Bad Batch – Ana Lily Amirpour’s sophomore feature got a far more mixed reception than her much-lauded debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but I think it’s every bit as good in its own, very different way. Amirpour shows the same level of painterly visual composition and Jarmusch-style deadpan humor, but this time it’s in service to a Mad Max-meets-Hills Have Eyes-meets-Muscle Beach Party desert dystopia. Stylish, weird and sometimes downright mesmerizing, it’s good enough to overcome the casting of Keanu Reeves as a Hefner-meets-Jim Jones type (seriously, how does that guy keep getting work?).
15. Thelma* – This super-stylish Norwegian combo of coming-of-age drama and supernatural horror is filled with memorable shots and marks what deserves to be a star-making performance by Eili Harboe in the title role. Harboe plays a young woman raised in a strict religious environment during her first year of college, where her lesbian sexual awakening triggers long-suppressed and terrifying telekinetic powers. The story is intriguingly ambiguous about the positive or negative impact of Thelma’s religious background in relation to her eerie powers. Director Joachim Trier’s bag of cinematic tricks includes a pretty amazing wide shot that closes in on the main character after starting from a bird’s eye view.
16. Wind River – Taylor Sheridan doesn't show the same directorial finesse David Mackenzie brought to his script for Hell or High Water, but this is still a strong film in much the same vein: a potent mix of violent, modern western thriller and elegiac drama. Jeremy Renner's character is too much of a macho superhero, but Elizabeth Olsen is terrific and Gil Birmingham (Jeff Bridges' deputy in Hell or High Water) really gives the movie its soul, especially in his simple but profound explanation of his “death mask.” It has moments that are a little preachy and the climax is excessively brutal, but I think Sheridan is making a claim as a bold new voice in the kind of gritty, emotionally complex genre fare you don’t see enough of these days.
17. The Americans: Season 5 – I suspect I’ll hear some griping from cinephiles on this pick. Certainly, this FX series lacks an “auteur pedigree” (though the huge stable of directors has included such unexpected hands as Lodge Kerrigan) and has much more conventional TV aesthetics than something like Twin Peaks: The Return or even Top of the Lake: China Girl. But if the series isn’t inherently cinematic, its subtle realism is closer to latter-day Sidney Lumet films than an episode of Law & Order. And I’m happy to use my reconsideration of TV/film divisions to include a show that has grown from a skillful Cold War thriller with a novel premise (deep cover Russian agents living as an American couple with kids) to the most humane portrayal of active enemies of the U.S. one could imagine and a slow-burning condemnation of the eternal "spy state" on both sides. The caveat here is, yes, you need to see the previous four seasons to appreciate the risks the show takes and its shifts in tone. Those shifts allowed viewers to feel the same devastating emotional weight of an unjust assassination and a simple line of dialogue delivered by Soviet “handler” Gabriel (Frank Langella) that leaves all previous pretenses of ideological idealism in tatters.
18. The Whiskey Bandit* – This action-packed true crime drama from Hungary charts the long run of the nation’s most famous bank robber. Underrated genre craftsman Nimród Antal (Kontroll, Vacancy) gives us a glimpse of the psychological and sociopolitical background that shaped the outlaw, but he never forgets to put the pedal to the metal for the action scenes. A shot where the camera seems to move under a moving train (old school tracking shot magic) is just one of many moments that will put you on the proverbial edge of your seat.
19. Personal Shopper – Having largely faded into the backdrop acting alongside Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, her previous film with French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart fares much better in the lead of this intriguing tale of ghosts and very earthly insecurities. Clouds (a stronger film overall) was a high-drama affair and Stewart was a bit out of her element trying to keep up with one of the best actresses working. Here, she is perfectly cast as an introverted bundle of nerves navigating a job she hates (shopping gopher for a vain celebrity), trying to contact her dead brother with her talent as a medium, and dealing with a general fear of her own mortality. There are some strained moments, but Assayas makes a provocative link between ancient notions of connecting to the “other world” and the technological distancing of our device-driven time. Texting on a phone is usually utterly dull in a film, but Assayas succeeds in making the task highly cinematic.
20. My Cousin Rachel – This handsomely produced, superbly acted gothic melodrama (based on a Daphne du Maurier novel) offers plenty to chew on in terms of pondering its characters' true feelings and motivations long after the credits roll. It’s a period piece with contemporary relevance in terms of the expected emotional demeanor of men and women (also a theme explored in very different context in director Roger Michell’s last theatrical release, the underrated Le Week-End). A perfectly cast Rachel Weisz is at her best, underplaying the title woman of mystery with a vexing mix of aloof and alluring qualities.
21. Beatriz at Dinner – Some found this timely and discomforting black comedy too broad in its portrayal of divides among economic class, ethnicity and politics. I would argue you can’t be too broad in a nation where the president treats those divides with angry, globally destructive carnival barking. Very funny before it takes a grim turn, the movie ends on what may be the saddest and most honest reflection of the "two Americas" we live in and the seemingly irreparable nature of that state: our intensifying Civil War of values. Salma Hayek and John Lithgow are just fantastic.
22. King Cohen* – A well-deserved and darn entertaining documentary tribute to B-movie maverick Larry Cohen and really a tribute to a fading era of free-spirited filmmaking. The often-hilarious stories of Cohen shooting risky scenes without permits while making movies like Hell Up in Harlem and Q: The Winged Serpent could never happen in a post-9/11 world. Through savvy remarks from interview subjects like Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and others, King Cohen also reminds viewers that, like so many genre favorites, Cohen is as much a social critic as a purveyor of low-budget kicks. Still, the highlight of the film may be the crosscutting of conflicting versions of the same stories from Cohen and “blaxploitation” star Fred Williamson – two larger-than-life characters marking their territory.
23. Such Is Life in the Tropics* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the Chicago Latino Film Festival: “A hunting accident begins to unravel layers of corruption in this powerful political drama from Ecuador. Though it's an average-length film, it feels thematically epic in its portrait of a ruthless upper class wreaking havoc on the lives of the poor. There is a revolutionary fervor underneath a smart and cynical surface, but director and co-writer Sebastián Cordero doesn't let his message erase the shades of gray: sympathetic characters are on both sides of the economic divide.”
24. Obit – From my Chicagoist coverage of the DOC10 Festival: “Get up close and personal with the New York Times' obituary writers in this portrait…Far from the depressing arena it might appear to be, obituaries require both first-rate reporting and prose. Interviews with the writers, readings of some of the paper's most well-regarded death notices and archival footage of deceased subjects show how the best obits are highly skillful, sometimes beautiful, short-form biographies. Adding a mixture of quirkiness and melancholy to the film are segments featuring the lone overseer of the Times' ‘morgue’ — its seemingly infinite archive of its printed past...real history awaiting either digital rebirth or yellowing, crumbling demise.”
25. Silence** – It’s not as easy a movie to love as Shutter Island, Hugo or The Wolf of Wall Street, but I think Silence continues Martin Scorsese’s second great run – his best stretch of narrative features since the years from Mean Streets through GoodFellas. A draining tale of faith tested against physical and mental oppression, it’s obvious to compare this film to The Last Temptation of Christ, but I would argue it actually has more in common with Shutter Island. Both follow the protagonist on a traumatic journey in which he must decide what truth he will choose to accept, guided by forces trying to break what they see as his illusions and he sees as his salvation. I relate far less to the spiritual exploration of Silence than the Lewton-inspired psychological horror of Shutter Island, but that’s my limitation…not the film’s.
Click here to see my 10 favorite films of 2017.
Click here to see my honorable mentions.
Click here to see my “odds and ends” lists.