There was much about 2017 that was unpleasant, harrowing at times, but boy was it a great year for cinema. For the first time since I began making these lists, I saw enough movies that moved me—emotionally, intellectually—or just entertained me, that I had to exclude as many movies that I’d really liked as I included just to keep my list at ten-ish. Probably the biggest disappointment for me this year was The Last Jedi. I enjoyed The Force Awakens and Rogue One, though in different ways, and think that Rogue One’s successful pilfering of the ragtag team of misfit soldiers wins the battle subgenre made it among my favorite of the Star Wars franchise.
But for all that The Last Jedi offered, including top-notch acting and some eye-popping visuals—like the showdown on the salt pan of planet Crait with clouds of red dust flaring into the sky, the trails left in the white desert floor by the rebel fleet looking like lacerations on a vast plain of alabaster flesh or the scene in which Rey seems to descend into the pupil of an immense stone eye, encountering in its subterranean chambers endless iterations of herself shimmering in and out of sync with one another—I thought it was a bit of a mess. It tried to include so much that it really couldn’t do most of it justice, and it lurched tonally with uncomfortable speed. The humor seemed especially misguided. One scene, featuring General Hux (Domhnhall Gleeson) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) in a standoff, with its simple “joke” repeated several times, guards sniggering as their evil master stammers “comically” with confusion and frustration, would have been more at home in Mel Brooks’ Space Balls than a Star Wars film.
But some of the other films this year! After a first viewing, I didn’t exactly know what to make of Blade Runner 2049. I know I liked it. Its visual invention alone makes it worth revisiting. But what about the rest of it? A second viewing revealed a solid, deliberate film, its plot carefully unfolding to reveal a dramatic irony that would have made Philip K. Dick proud. And when K (Ryan Gosling) finally meets Rick Deckard in the ruins of Las Vegas, a whole new landscape, internally and externally, opens. I have a feeling this movie will stick with me.
Finally, I’m not sure how to categorize the last item on my list, the eleventh item. I almost didn’t include it—not because I didn’t love it, but I wasn’t sure if it belonged here. I loved it so much, I decided to include it.
Here are my favorite ten movies (plus one) in the order that I saw them:
An impressionistic non-fiction film by Chinese director Zhao Liang, Behemoth is nothing less than a portrait of Hell, recalling the fearsome triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch with its delirious eye steeped in ruin and devastation and including a final sequence that evokes the abject meaninglessness reminiscent of the Theater of the Absurd. Set in Inner Mongolia, the film opens with wordless, sumptuous images of coal being strip-mined, heavy machinery devouring green pastures where shepherds tend their flocks grazing beneath hills from which a succession of trucks dump tons of earth. The film then moves to the inferno of mills, where the coal is shipped, with its molten steel and fire, smoke and sweat, sparks flying into the air, flames licking workers’ boots, before taking us to the humble dwelling of a pair of those workers, their bodies wracked by their labor, untended by doctors. It is the final act, the end product of these devastating labors, that brings the cruel absurdity of it all home. And the Behemoth, the beast described in the Book of Job for whom “Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play,” who “drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: [who] trusteth that he can draw up Jordan in his mouth”? There can be little doubt by the end of the film what this beast is—it strides among us, leaving in its wake death and destruction.
References to William Carlos Williams’ epic modernist poem are refracted throughout Jim Jarmusch’s quirky, charming, and funny paean to poetry and creativity. Set in Paterson, NJ, Paterson follows Paterson (Adam Driver), bus driver and poet, as he engages his daily ritual of waking up, going to work, writing poetry whenever he can, spending time with his creative wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and having a few beers at the local bar. Then, of course, there’s Marvin, his bulldog, with whom he has forged a kind of détente, at least temporarily. Through his interested attention to the world around him, Paterson embodies the creative impulse: to experience that world and then attempt to convey it through art. Laura, on the other hand, seems to channel in her imaginative pursuits the jouissance of creating art. Ron Padgett wrote most of Paterson’s poetry—some poems written especially for the movie—which is projected on the screen alongside a collage of images, the lines appearing and read aloud as Paterson records it into his notebook. Overall, Paterson is a bit of a fairy tale told with an intentionally repetitive, ritually quotidian structure. This may be Jarmusch’s most satisfying film since 1995’s Dead Man.
3. I Am Not Your Negro
Director Raoul Peck centers his film—at once a portrait of James Baldwin, a look at the Civil Rights movement, and an essay on the current state of race in American employing Baldwin’s words—on excerpts from “Remember This House,” Baldwin’s unfinished book about his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all slain before the ‘60s came to an end. From Baldwin’s reminiscences, Peck moves outward, cutting from TV clips featuring Baldwin, to archival footage of the Civil Rights movement, to clips from Hollywood movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to footage of incidents of racial injustice tearing at our country today, all narrated by the words of James Baldwin as spoken by him or read by Samuel L. Jackson. The result is a powerfully insightful look at what’s happening with race in America today, tracing the history of some of today’s most trenchant insights to the flashpan moment of desegregation in the ‘60s. It’s an involving, illuminating film that stands testament to Baldwin’s piercing eloquence and captures the way the Black Lives Matter movement and contemporary African American intellectuals carry on his critique, bringing it to the streets to try and affect long-needed change.
The premise of Sieranevada, to me, is unpromising: the dysfunctional Mirica family gathers in a too-small flat to memorialize the recent death of Emil, the family patriarch. Too many mediocre films have been made of families falling together and then apart before finally really pulling themselves together as they gather to attend a funeral (often of the patriarch) or celebrate a holiday. But director Cristi Puiu, creator of the brilliant The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, is a master filmmaker, and what he makes of this premise is fantastic. The flat in which the action occurs induces claustrophobia, especially given the sparks that are flying: infidelity, conspiracy theories, Romanian politics, sibling rivalries, caddish behavior, and somebody who very well might be struggling with an overdose. The results are funny, fraught with conflict, and, when they need to be, devastatingly poignant. The focus of the film is Lary (Mimi Branescu), clearly the voice of sanity in all of the insanity exploding around him, though Lary is hardly a saint, as is revealed in the quiet scene between Lary and his wife, as they have an intimate conversation in their SUV. Still, other characters shine, especially Lary’s great-aunt Evelina (Tatiana Iekel), a wonderful comic creation, whose defense of Ceaușescu’s regime is brazen, even cruel, as it brings one of the young women of the family to tears. I’m surprised this film didn’t get more attention than it did.
The Aldeas live in a run-down part of an unnamed city (apparently in Transylvania)—the concrete buildings surrounding their flat are dilapidated, facing weedy lots and narrow, untended streets, and as the film opens a brick sails through their living room window. Worse, the evening before her exams, daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), who has an opportunity to leave Romania and study medicine at Oxford, is raped and assaulted, threatening her chances of passing the exam. And if she doesn’t pass, Oxford is out of the question. So Romeo (Adrian Titieni), her father, puts into motion a plan to rig the system to assure his daughter’s success. What plays out is a fairly gripping film that unveils, through this small act of corruption, the unfairness and corruption of the very system itself. Director Cristian Mungui, who along with Sieranevada’s Puiu is one of the stars of the Romanian New Wave, creates a bracing, taut film with inedible images, like the scene in which Romeo, believing he has hit an animal with his car, but unsure of what it was because it is night and it all happened so fast, walks into the woods to find out, his flashlight beam the only illumination as he gets tangled up in the brambles. And only gets further entangled in them as the movie progresses. Despite its seemingly humble scope, Graduation has its sights set on bigger game.
6. Get Out
Jordan Peeles’ directorial debut seems to be on everyone’s best of the year lists, and I’m guessing that’s because it is not only an excellent horror-comedy, but it expertly uses genre to comment on race, in particular on the black male body as a site of desire and fear, one that, when coaxed out into the open, risks being “disappeared.” Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an up and coming photographer in New York City, is invited by his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Alllison Williams) to join her and her family at their cottage in Connecticut. Chris is understandably uncomfortable, asking Rose, “They know I’m black right?” and is even more uncomfortable when it sounds like they don’t. While Chris is welcomed by Rose’s family, their hospitality is oddly detached, as if they were less speaking to him, than to some idea of him. The creepiness that detachment evokes is only the beginning. Soon, the strained air of his interactions with Rose’s family and their friends cracks open to reveal something stranger and scarier. Get Out uses horror the way the best horror filmmakers do, but Peele has a satirist’s flair for trenchant humor that makes Get Out quite funny while losing none of its bite.
7. The Death of Louis XIV
Like Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” there is no false advertising in the title of Albert Serra’s film. From beginning to end, we watch Louis XIV, the Sun King, Louis the Great, die from gangrene, and the results are imminently watchable. Played by French cinema legend Jean-Pierre Léaud (the lead boy in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows now frail and wrinkled), Louis XIV, one of the most important kings of French history, is shown at his most intimate and human. Whenever his kingly duties are evoked, as when he is expected to attend some gathering or another or when he’s asked to make a decision on the building of a bridge that is deemed essential to the survival of the monarchy, the trappings of worldly power are revealed to be threadbare, ridiculous even. The film is closely observed—we mainly remain by the King’s bedside, with a few notable exceptions, and see every tremble of the hand or eye, mote of dust, candle flicker, and hear the rustling of bed clothes, and each exasperated sigh of the dying monarch. And it is visually stunning. Each frame looks like it could have been painted by the great Dutch painters of the seventeenth century. It’s a slow film, but one that rewards viewers’ patience.
In what is undoubtedly his most commercial film, Todd Haynes adapts Brian Selznick’s young adult novel about a boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley), and a girl, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), in the 1970s and 1920s respectively, who run away from home to New York City to find a missing parent. While a lot of the pleasure of Haynes’ film is formal—the scenes from the ‘20s are as if from a silent film and center on a girl who we learn is hearing impaired, those from the ‘70s are shot with a film stock that recalls cinema from that era, to give only two examples—and Selznick’s plotting is admittedly clockwork-like, in which everything seems to point to something else in his narrative, the movie still manages to evoke strong emotion. I choked back a sob at the question scribbled on a piece of paper that the older woman in a bookstore poses to Ben. At the heart of this movie is the pain in the keen desire to have a purpose while fearing one has none, and the need to be loved by someone, even if trying to elicit that love prompts one to behave unethically. The palpable desperation of Jamie (Jaden Michael) to be friends with Ben is heartbreaking. This is another success in Haynes ongoing project to create formally interesting melodrama.
9. The Florida Project
The title of the movie sounds like a science experiment, but that’s not the kind of project it has in mind. Set in a motel where those on the lower rungs of America’s socio-economic “ladder” dwell, The Florida Project follows the adventures of six-year-old Moonee (an incredible Brooklynn Prince) and her friends as they traverse a kitschy landscape of low rent motels and commercial enterprises that surround the burnished wholesomeness of Disney World and the downward trajectory of Moonee’s immature if loving mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Director Sean Baker shows great affection for the characters, even while putting them through the paces by the difficulty of their situation, and he has a great eye for the trashy vibrancy of their world. The children in this movie are amazing. Baker has done an excellent job capturing how children act—one of the first things we see them doing is having a spitting contest on a car that had the misfortune of being parked near them. What they do may be harrowing at times, but only because children live in a richer, more dangerous world than most adults. And the heart with which Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the overworked manager of The Magic Kingdom, the motel where Halley and Moonee live, which, if it possesses any magic might be “magic fingers,” is a welcome turn from the heavies that Dafoe is usually typecast as. He is as much social worker as building manager. The Florida Project is a vivacious film that reveals the life in those places where most of us usually don’t care to look.
10. The Shape of Water
Apparently, when director Guillermo del Toro first saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he thought it was going to be a romance between the female lead and the creature—after all, the movie intimated as much. He was so disappointed it didn’t turn out that way that he has finally made his own version of the story. Lavishly designed and directed, del Toro’s film takes the subtext of classic Universal horror films and makes it the text of his film: the drama of the persecution of the marginalized, how society makes them monstrous and punishes them for it, is made explicit as a mute woman, a gay man, an African American woman, and a Soviet scientist/spy more interested in truth than national interests, side with the “monster,” an amphibious humanoid whose mysteries, the Americans feel, could give them an edge over the Soviet Union in the thick of the Cold War (the film is set in 1962); and then, of course, there’s the eroticism between the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins). I don’t think it’s a perfect film—I think the Amphibian Man would have been more interesting had one sensed more deeply that he’s not human, which is addressed in one gory scene that is so offhandedly dismissed one senses as missed opportunity, and good and evil are too emphatically drawn, the good people were pure of heart and the evil character was literally rotten. But as a friend pointed out, the story was framed as a fairy tale, and in the end, I was swept off my feet.
11. Twin Peaks: The Return
Is this a movie or a TV show? It’s not a question I wrestle with much except when I was putting this list together. Director David Lynch said he envisioned Twin Peaks: The Return as an 18-hour film, but watching the show, I thought it felt structured enough like episodic television that I considered it a show. And yet I didn’t. I have never quite seen a show or movie like it, so I thought I would include it on my list. If it’s not clear already, I loved it. I didn’t expect to. In fact, I thought revisiting Twin Peaks was a bad idea. Worse, the recent revival of The X Files seemed to presage what Twin Peaks: The Return could be if it tried to rebottle the magic of the original series. But, of course, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had something else in mind, and they created a show that was wholly new, honoring the original series yet not bound by it. It was surreal, funny, and more often than I’d expected, touching. Each episode cast a spell that I didn’t want to break. Talking to friends, it’s clear this was a divisive show, with most of those on the “nay” side accusing Lynch of self-indulgence. To me, it was the late work of a major artist, drawing on motifs and themes from his entire career, from his paintings to his early experimental films to his better-known films and television, and weaving them into a new context. Best, the final two hours of Twin Peaks: The Return reframe the entire Twin Peaks narrative as a tragedy of Greek, though most definitely post-Euclidean, dimensions.