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.
1. Lady Bird – Immediately joining the ranks of Rushmore, Dazed and Confused and other top-tier coming-of-age films, the funny and deeply moving Lady Bird reinvigorates the form with smart dialogue, lively filmmaking choices and a rare spirit of generosity towards both its characters and its audience. The cast is first-rate down the line, with Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf deserving all the praise they have received and Beanie Feldstein’s breakout performance warranting a lot more attention. Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical script hits many coming-of-age staples (Catholic school, the ambitious but failing student, awkward early romances), but none seem clichéd. Clocking in at just 93 minutes, the movie feels fully rounded, not sacrificing any emotional weight or honesty with its brisk pacing. Gerwig’s skill in bringing rich characters and their dilemmas to life is so strong, that it’s understandable she’s getting more attention for her writing than directing. But this is an assured work stylistically, too. The scene transitions are particularly skillful, executed with expert comic and narrative timing through clever editing strategies. The widely-admired Frances Ha (co-written by Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach) left me kind of cold, so I was not expecting to adore Gerwig’s solo directorial debut as much as I did. Now, I can’t wait to see what she does next.
2. The Blackcoat’s Daughter – I see a lot of horror movies. Very few genuinely freak me out. This one did, in all the right ways. A slow-burning tale of ominous atmosphere builds to shudder-inducing levels of dread in what is simply one of the best and most disturbing horror films in years. I want to qualify “disturbing” too, as the so-called “torture porn” wave of unpleasant horror has made graphic depictions of physical cruelty a booming, low-rent business. This is not that. While there are some violent, gory moments, writer-director Oz Perkins (son of Anthony) knows that psychological cruelty can strike a harder blow than any bodily punishment. I won’t give it away, but I can’t recall a more chilling scene than when a character simply laughs with realization that a coincidental meeting will allow her to destroy the same family for a second time. And yet, in a truly daring final shot, Perkins manages to engender empathy for this same depraved trickster. A short plot synopsis would paint this as just another possession movie (though the possession could also just be a sign of madness), but in the artful hands of Perkins and his collaborators, The Blackcoat’s Daughter doesn’t play as anything remotely conventional or as genre “comfort food.” The film’s quietly nightmarish sound design and creepy musical score (by Oz’s brother Elvis) add immeasurably to this impressive debut feature.
3. The Dinner – I have not read Herman Koch’s acclaimed novel, nor have I seen the previous Dutch and Italian film adaptations (all three versions released in just four years), but Oren Moverman's adaptation is a gut-punch of a drama about social hypocrisy, class envy, “power couple” dynamics, and how people generally have a very unreliable moral compass when a malevolent act hits close to home. Provocative, smart and visually adventurous, the movie features one of the most inventive montage sequences I’ve seen in a traditional narrative structure. Everyone in the ensemble cast (including Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) excels in portraying the irreparable psychological fractures among the characters – all seeking the “proper” response to an unthinkable act – but the revelation is Steve Coogan. Best known for sardonic or self-aggrandizing comic roles, Coogan dives deep into an embodiment of personal torment here. First showing a very relatable rage at the state of the world, his brittle character's growing mental illness is illuminated in angst-ridden moments big and small. It’s a hell of a performance in a hell of film that deserved a far better reception from critics and a much bigger marketing push.
4. Marjorie Prime – Exquisitely sad, this intimate, science fiction-tinged drama is about loss, love and memories – real, fading, hidden and idealized. Based on Jordan Harrison’s play, the movie maintains an intimate scale with few locations and a small ensemble cast, but the nuanced performances rarely flirt with theatricality and writer-director Michael Almereyda’s subtly enveloping atmosphere never feels stagebound. Despite a gentle surface tone, a hard edge of long-held regrets, resentments and self-delusions among loved ones makes this anything but a sentimental view of family dynamics. Yet oddly, in its depiction of artificial intelligence with evolving empathy, Marjorie Prime posits a hopeful, if wistful, notion that love is much stronger than heartbreak…even if the flawed human design doesn’t often recognize that. Lois Smith, Jon Hamm and Tim Robbins are all excellent, and Geena Davis does some of the best work of her career.
5. Twin Peaks: The Return (a.k.a. Twin Peaks: Season 3, a.k.a. Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series. Can we please agree on what to call this?) – Everything about this show was unexpected, from its very existence (coming more than 25 years after the original series) to the full creative investment of David Lynch (directing all 18 episodes, compared to just six of the 30 from the original 1990-91 run) to the abandonment of the soap opera pastiche tone and mystery cliffhangers that shaped the first two seasons. While beloved characters and quirky comic trademarks returned (yes, coffee and pie are prominent motifs), Lynch put narrative cohesion on the back burner to forge something wildly different. Arguably his most radical narrative work since Eraserhead and at times wholly experimental (see the bulk of the much-discussed eighth episode), the new series sometimes harkened back to Lynch’s early avant-garde shorts while also expanding on the hallucinatory vibe of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. The pacing could be challenging and the story is vastly overpopulated with new supporting characters and some subplots that go nowhere. But Lynch has always been, at heart, an experimental artist, so what might be crippling weaknesses in a traditional drama seem like trifles within the scope of his accomplishment here. Though dark and unsettling overall, the show also saw the 71-year-old auteur address the passage of time and loss of friends (several cast members passed before, during or just after production of the new series) with heartbreaking warmth. Indeed, while the apocalyptic refrain, “This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend,” is a new signature of the show, so too is Deputy Sheriff Hawk's final melancholy farewell to the Log Lady: “Goodnight Margaret. Goodbye Margaret.”
6. Paterson – From my ChicagoNow review: “A blend of naturalism and subtly lyrical visuals has marked his [Jim Jarmusch’s] work for years, so making a modestly poetic movie about a modest poet is a perfect fit for his sensibility…Jarmusch doesn’t give a shit about plot here (and never really has). Instead, like its lead character, the movie concentrates on the ordinary rituals of daily living. Concentrate is the wrong word. This is a mellow meditation on the comforts of the expected, the beauty in simple words and the meaning in the basic, seemingly mundane exchanges between people.”
7. The Levelling – In the wake of her brother’s suicide, a veterinary student returns to the crumbling dairy farm home overseen by her estranged father in this powerhouse British drama of grief and deep-seated family resentments. From my ChicagoNow review: “Movies this serious and sad are a hard sell, even for those who venture regularly outside of escapist cinema. But in its lean 84 minutes, The Levelling digs deep into the roots of family dysfunction and the deepest recesses of mourning for an experience that will stay with you. It is tough, real and rewarding.”
8. Great Choice* – A spot-on reproduction of a mid-‘90s Red Lobster commercial is repeated multiple times, but it changes with each replay, growing in surrealism and menace in this ingenious and hilarious short film. Flawless in its execution, Robin Comisar’s film is a virtuosic skewering of ad agency hyperbole and vacant consumerism. Some will bristle at including a seven-minute short on my list, seeing features and shorts as “apples and oranges.” But, if cinema as a field is impossible to have a grasp of today (as my introduction argues), then short films may be the most elusive and overlooked part of that torrent of production. Great Choice gave me more pure enjoyment than most of the features I saw last year, so I give it this ranking among longer works without apology.
9. Death in the Terminal* – From my Chicagoist coverage of the DOC10 Festival: “Security camera footage forms the core of this brief but powerful account of a 2015 terrorist attack at a bus station in Israel and the tragic and troubling way many people there responded. The remote nature of the surveillance footage becomes intensely personal when intercut with interviews of surviving witnesses. The disturbing fate of a man misidentified as part of the attack shows in stark and graphic fashion that crises are more likely to bring out the worst in people than the best. A riveting record of chaos and heartbreak.”
10. Before We Vanish* – Humanity gets a dark yet playful kick in the pants in this odd and funny invasion/apocalypse saga from Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I’m not exactly a student of the prolific Japanese director (having seen less than a third of his output and nothing since 2008’s Tokyo Sonata), but this movie seems both a big change of pace from the slow-burn eeriness of his best-known films (Cure, Bright Future, Seance) and very much in keeping with his existential notions of societal decay and the subdued weirdness in much of his work. This variation on the body snatchers theme is also surprisingly romantic – assuming you can share the view that an alien helping a mission to take over Earth might also be someone’s soul mate.
Click here to see picks 11-25.
Click here to see my honorable mentions.
Click here to see my “odds and ends” lists.