Top 10 Films of 2017
It has been such a strong year for movies. Narrowing my favorites-of-the-year list to only ten titles was an especially difficult task this year. Even with the inclusion of ten additional titles in the Honorable Mentions section, I could have continued on. In celebrating the remarkable variety that cinema offers today – voices from debut filmmakers like Greta Gerwig to master filmmakers like Olivier Assays – here are my ten favorite films of 2017:
The great Israeli drama, Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz is my choice for the best film of 2017. You’ll be able to seek this one out in Spring, 2018 – it had a brief awards-consideration run at the end of the year in New York City, so it qualifies for this year’s list. My main criteria for choosing the best film of the year is to award the film that attempts to push the boundaries of the cinematic language, or the film that changes me emotionally/physically. It is so hard for a film to do either. Foxtrot does both – here’s a movie that upends your expectations at every turn. Heartbreaking scenario: a middle-aged couple, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler), experience unspeakable grief when army officials show up at their home to inform them that their son has died in the line of duty. Once the terrible tragedy at the heart of the film has been established, the film becomes something entirely different. Maoz’s experimental meditation on fate and grief is laced with humour, satire, and warmth – it’s at once hilarious and devastating. The performances are pitch-perfect – Ashkenazi and Adler make every single whisper, word, glance, and movement count. The framing is meticulous, and there’s a mastery of tone– it swings beautifully from absurdist humour to brutal gut-punch sadness. It’s beautifully conceived with a visual audacity that serves the subject – its tripartite structure encompassing the threadlike frailty of life, the randomness and cruelty of tragedy, and the impermanent flashes of brightness in between. Foxtrot is the year’s greatest discovery – it’s a masterpiece. Foxtrot will open theatrically in limited release on March 16th, 2018.
You may not have heard of Nocturama. After all, it wasn’t even released theatrically in Toronto this year. It’s not difficult to figure out why Nocturama was relegated to Netflix Only status – it is a daring move for any distributor to release a film that unfolds from the perspective of teenage terrorists. We see them stage a series of attacks in Paris for no apparent reason, then seek refuge from the police in a luxury store for the night. The procedural aspects of the film give us an hour-by-hour construction of the events that took place, forcing us to focus on the simple material facts of what they do rather than why – the why would have asked us, on some level, to understand them and either agree or disagree with their (misguided) ideology. What a masterstroke in construction – a terrifying, brilliant, intoxicating film. I can’t recall a film in recent memory that used music in a more inventive way (and no, I haven’t forgotten about Baby Driver). Even if we spend the film’s entire runtime with these adolescent radicals, we never for a moment forget the horror of the situation. Now streaming on Netflix.
3) A Ghost Story
David Lowry’s A Ghost Story is a miniscule wonder of a movie with the ambition and reach of a spectacle like 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of its many virtues is how this modest little film evokes such feelings of profundity: love, loss, significance, time. A man (Casey Affleck) dies, but hangs around his true love (Rooney Mara) invisibly lingering in the house they used to live in, observing her grief but unable to console her. Only a plain bed-sheet with little eyeholes cut out camouflages Affleck. As the ghost remains trapped in his former home (and a thoughtful box 1.33 aspect ratio), the world soldiers onward without him. The film starts off as a study of grief, but as it jumps forward and backward in time, it turns into something unclassifiable – it’s both monumental and intimate. Oh, and the use of sound and music –*speechless*. We’ll be revisiting this one and talking about it for years to come. A Ghost Story is one of the year’s most transporting experiences. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
4) Call Me By Your Name
Luca Guadignino’s Call Me By Your Name is the most romantic film of the year. This story of first love in the summer of 1983 in Northern Italy is so poetically realized with perfectly measured performances. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old musical prodigy, and Oliver (Armie Hammer) is the older graduate student living with Elio’s family for the summer. The fabulous cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom captures the lush beauty of its Italian setting but not in a way that calls attention to details in the frame – the 35mm images are more poetic than bombastic. Guadignino masterfully engages all of our senses – we don’t merely see and hear Call Me By Your Name; this is an experience to be touched, felt, even smelled. The film’s secret weapon belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father – he delivers the film’s best moment in a monologue that’s unforgettable and quietly devastating. Sufjan Stevens’ supplies two songs that capture the feeling of recounted love. This movie wrecked me. Currently playing in theaters.
The masterful Christopher Nolan has engineered the rare war movie that is about surviving as opposed to winning. Nolan flings us into the air, the sea, and on the ground as the film recounts Operation Dynamo – one of the most heroic and important evacuations in modern history – in three interwoven sections that unfold over different time frames. This is a prime example of the big budget indie – a structurally complex picture with a $100 million budget. Dunkirk obliterates your notions of what a war film should look and feel like. In doing so, Nolan conveys the breathtaking scope of a seemingly insurmountable task. The cast includes Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance. I saw it twice: the first was a 70mm screening, and the second was on an IMAX screen – I was blown away both times. Dunkirk is a monumental achievement – a WWII epic of staggering beauty. Currently available on Blu-Ray/DVD.
6) The Florida Project
Sean Baker has a knack for finding people on the margins of American society and showing us their world. He did that with Tangerine and he’s done it again with The Florida Project, a beautiful portrait of life in the shadow of the happiest place on earth. The film takes place primarily at a cheap, purple motel called The Magic Castle – it is both alluringly close and unavailingly far from the Magic Kingdom. Half of the film unfolds from the perspective of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), the queen of mischief. The other half presents the privations of the girl’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), struggling to protect her daughter from the harsh realities of poverty. Baker draws strong performances from his cast, particularly Prince and a never-better Willem Dafoe as the manager of the motel. The Florida Project is simultaneously the most joyful and the most heartbreaking movie of the year. Current playing in theaters.
7) Personal Shopper
The most polarizing film on my Top 10 of 2017 list is Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. The film marks his second collaboration with Kristen Stewart. Maureen (Stewart) is an American in Paris trying to make contact with her dead twin brother, all while contending with mysterious text messages from an unknown source that seems to know her every move and location. You may ask yourself what it all means – that’s beside the point here. Personal Shopper is an eerie ghost story, a Hitchcockian murder mystery, and a mournful contemplation of grief and loss. A long section of the film consists of text exchanges and this movie offers up proof that a skilled filmmaker can turn text-messaging sequences into frighteningly exhilarating cinema. Personal Shopper offers contemplative ruminations on industry narcissism and mortality, features a number of genuinely terrifying set pieces, and has one of the best central performances in recent memory. Currently available on Criterion Blu-Ray/DVD and streaming on Netflix.
8) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonagh’s bleak, funny, and heartbreaking picture is very much a movie of the now – a statement about hot-button issues like sexual violence, racism, and police brutality and ineptitude. But it dodges Movies About Something conventions at every corner and remains as thorny, unforgiving, and as shrewd as the grieving mother at the center of the film, Mildred (Frances McDormand). There’s a rage in her that is exhilarating to witness. Perhaps it is because it’s a rage that isn’t available to everyone. There are plenty of laughs and an impressive amount of mayhem and gore on display but McDonagh’s script treats its dark subject matter seriously. He isn’t concerned with likability – he highlights his characters’ weaknesses, stubbornness, and faults. The film has career-best performances from McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was an unusually controversial choice for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF this year. Currently playing in theaters.
9) Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig makes her feature debut as solo writer-director and her semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is both deeply personal and universally relatable. Saoirse Ronan is at her absolute best as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high-school senior searching to find her place in the world. She longs to fly away from her hometown of Sacramento, California for New York City because that’s where culture is. One of the things I like best about Gerwig’s screenplay is that she doesn’t try to make Lady Bird all that likeable all the time, and the film derives its emotional power from her strained relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalfe, excellent). Everyone in Lady Bird’s world is sharply and affectionately drawn. One of the most observant and authentic voices in the movies today has just proven with Lady Bird that she has the directorial chops to match. I can’t wait to see what Gerwig does next. Currently playing in theaters.
10) The Shape of Water
The AGO has had an exhibition dedicated to the works of Guillermo del Toro and this exhibition is now entering its fourth month. It’s not difficult to understand why. The Shape of Water certifies del Toro as a world-class artist. This is the work of a creative master gleefully and completely unfettered. Here, he conjures up a dream-like fantasy of a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) at a Cold-war era research facility who falls for an amphibious creature. Where does he come from? What does the director of the facility (Michael Shannon) plan to do with him? Don’t analyze it too much. Just dive in. There’s magic to be found here. The Shape of Water is a hauntingly beautiful homage to everything that’s come out of Hollywood – monster movies, silent pictures, and musicals – but he transcends mere pastiche to deliver something so poignant and sweet without eschewing man’s ugliest impulses. What a breathtaking creature-feature romance! Currently playing in theaters.
Honorable Mentions: Blade Runner 2049, Dawson City: Frozen Time, Faces Places, Get Out, Logan Lucky, The Lost City of Z, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mudbound, A Quiet Passion, Star Wars: The Last Jedi