It’s that time at last: Time to offer reflections on the ten films released in 2017 that mean the most to me.

(I posted a countdown of #30–#11 earlier this month.)

It was a great year for women in film — both behind and in front of the camera. The DC Universe got its best film since The Dark Knight from director Patty Jenkins, with Gal Gadot superhumanly powering Wonder Woman to blockbuster success. Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees, earned an Oscar nomination for Mary J. Blige (Best Supporting Actress) and the first-ever nomination of a woman for Best Cinematographer (Rachel Morrison). We enjoyed empathetic portraits of woman seeking to defy the pressures of the patriarchy and live authentic lives in A Quiet Passion and Phantom Thread (although the latter could have shown more curiosity about its ‘heroine’). And even some of the films directed by men were powerful in exposing and grieving the sins of our power-mad, abusive, patriarchal society: Look no further than the film in second place on my list of favorites.

It was also a great year for endeavors in empathy for people of other cultures and religions, and for the poor: My favorite romantic comedy of the year asked us to consider the experiences of a modern family of American Muslims and the struggle of one young man to live in the tug-of-war between America’s cultural ideals and the standards of his family’s religion. My favorite horror film was about the racism of those who would congratulate themselves as being “progressive.” Another of my favorite films asked us to live with the poor and troubled families suffering at the edges of America’s toxic fantasyland in Florida, and portrayed that community with such compassion that they seemed more compelling, courageous, and beautiful than any glamorous archetypes, and their struggle was shown to be so much more visceral than any superhero’s. Any my favorite animated film was about a young woman trying to help her family survive under the cruel hand of the Taliban.

What a year!

And as I have seen so many of these films only once, I can only offer a “first draft” of this list. As time passes, my appreciation and understanding of these films will grow and change, and as I revisit them, I will see more strengths and, perhaps, some weaknesses. So this list is likely to change. Keep in mind that there are still several critically acclaimed films I have yet to see — case in point: Frederick Wiseman’s celebrated documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Also: The Work, Call Me By Your Name, Princess Cyd, and, most importantly, the final film by Abbas Kiarostami: 24 Frames.

And if you’re asking where popular favorites like Three Billboards and The Shape of Water are, well… suffice it to say that those movies didn’t work for me. At all. Sorry.

#10 and #9

Get Out — dir. Jordan Peele

mother! — dir. Darren Aronofsky

Both Get Out and mother! are powerfully directed.

Both films create suffocatingly grim environments for their lead characters, trapping them in nightmares where they slowly awaken to the fact that they are being exploited. Their humanity goes unrecognized by their community. Their endeavors for respect and love go unsatisfied. Their attempts to play meaningful roles in someone else’s world are taken for granted. Ultimately, these characters will realize that nothing they can do will save them from the manipulative, egomaniacal Supremacy that controls the game.

And in both cases, all of the elements of the ensemble and the environment work together beautifully, like pieces of some fiendishly designed clock, to increase our anxiety and to give us empathy for the sufferers. Considering just how outlandish both fantasies are, it’s unsettling just how true-to-life they feel, and how truthfully they reflect the state of democracy and false religion in America today. I shared these characters’ sense of anguish, in that I have felt much the same sense of despair looking around at the cruelty and greed dismantling democracy in America.

We need art like this: to confirm cries of conscience, to help strengthen the things that remain, and to help us grieve the destruction of good things that so many people spent so many decades — even centuries — trying to build for the good of the world.

Both of these films were ambitious, audacious, and could easily have fallen apart by losing their delicate tonal balance. Both manage to be terrifying and hilarious. Both succeed by just going for it and letting bombast and explosive panic serve as a good thing, without collapsing into recklessness or self-indulgence.

And both end up offering meaningful readings. In the case of mother!, we can find multiple meaningful interpretations. This was the year of #MeToo and the “Silence Breakers,” and mother! gave us a mythic story about the progress of this struggle since time immemorial in marriage, in art, and in religion. This was the year that #BlackLivesMatter took things to the next level, protesting Amerikkka’s rule by white supremacists, and Get Out refused to let anybody off the hook.

Both movies were meaningfully and masterfully directed. They may have been extremely unpleasant for many audiences, but I admired the risks taken, the wild visions pursued and achieved, and the conviction of the actors’ performances.

In Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya plays all the right notes to guide us steadily through the dissonant chord changes of the movie’s horror and comedy. I’m delighted that the Academy chose to honor him. For her work in mother!, Jennifer Lawrence deserved just as much recognition; she gives an extremely complicated performance, and her supporting cast (featuring Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and especially Michelle Pfeiffer) is extraordinary.

#8 and #7

The Lost City of Z – dir. James Gray

A Quiet Passion – dir. Terence Davies

Both The Lost City of Z and A Quiet Passion are about brave explorers — one in realms of the imagination and spirit, the other in jungles of Bolivia.

Both of their lead characters are famous historical figures who were seen as eccentric and countercultural.

Both individuals were driven by something more than ego. Emily Dickinson wanted a life of authenticity, living without compromising or conforming to the expectations of her culture or religious tradition. Percy Fawcett wanted to prove himself a man of integrity, but that ambition was eventually overwritten by a stronger drive to find the truth about the origins of civilization — and that was influenced by a sort of spiritual awakening, a longing to rediscover a sort of Eden.

Both pioneers sacrificed a great deal to pursue their visions. Both tested the patience of their loved ones to a breaking point. Both were lost in suffering and troubling mysteries.

Both films give their lead actors their most complex and demanding roles yet: Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson gives the best performance by an actress I saw all year. Charlie Hunnam’s work as Percy Fawcett paints a portrait of a man losing himself in the momentum of his vision.

And both of these films are magnificent, mysterious, and sumptuously filmed. Davies’ film is more intimate and painterly; Gray’s film is an epic the scale of which we rarely see attempted, a film full of echoes of Apocalypse Now.


Columbus – dir. Koganada

When a touring architecture scholar collapses before a lecture in Columbus, Indiana, his fall brings together two unlikely seekers: the young and directionless Casey (a radiant Hayley Lu-Richardson), his admiring fan, and his resentful son Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American translator.

Casey’s days, darkened by vocational uncertainty and the cloud of her mother’s depression, are brightened by this chance to show a skeptical visitor around her neighborhood and share the beacons of architectural beauty that have kept her from drifting into despair. As they wander around the city and ponder the meaningful mysteries of asymmetry in Columbus’s public spaces and churches, their tenuous friendship transcends “Will they or won’t they?” routines.

Meanwhile, the scholar’s vigilant, harried assistant (Parker Posey) works to heal the prodigal’s family rift.

If you know me, you know that there is no idea closer to my heart than “Beauty will save the world.” Here’s a movie for a film festival on that subject. Beauty becomes the magnetic influence that draws broken people toward fulness — and toward one another (through which a greater fulness can be found).

First-time director Kogonada is an artist of admirable patience, vision, and subtlety. Recalling Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and (above all) Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours — which it resembles almost too much — Columbus is an exquisite, soft-spoken surprise about the reconciling and rejuvenating effect of (for lack of a better term) intelligent design. I can’t wait to see what he does next.


The Big Sick — dir. Michael Showalter

I won’t apologize for this pick. Yes, it’s a romcom formula right down to the Lines You Knew They Would Repeat at the End. Yes, it goes for big obvious laughs at times. No, there’s not a single image demonstrating anything like poetic composition.

This may drive some cinephiles nuts, but the fact is that a movie made with the production value of a typical TV sitcom might still be capable of inspiring, moving, and winning the heart of somebody like me — and that does not represent a failure of judgment.

I love this movie for qualities that are impossible to fake, and for very personal reasons.

I believe in these characters. I believe in the complexity of their relationships. I believe that formulas are formulas because they reflect something common and true, and that when you invest them with honesty and lived experience and imagination then the recipe serves the result rather than the result just filling in the blanks of the recipe.

I also saw this soon after spending the better part of a week in the hospital with the love of my life, who underwent emergency brain surgery and was on such heavy drugs for a week that she lost many days of her memory. During that time, I experienced some of the same anxieties experienced by Kumail here. I also experienced, with Anne, one of the key conversations that Kumail and Emily have here — the one about how my version of the story about her is not really her story because she was not exactly present to experience it — which leads to a profound disconnect in our emotions related to the crisis. This movie gets that strange and difficult conundrum.

But above all, I love how this becomes a love story between a young man and his girlfriend’s parents, who are themselves demonstrating, in their disputes and betrayals and failures, that love is a verb, and one that rewards long-suffering and resilience and forgiveness. The whole cast is extraordinary — Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan convince us that this is based on Nanjiani’s own true story — but Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are miraculous here. I would watch a spinoff TV series if it was about their characters’ marriage.

And yes, this movie is very, very funny.

And let’s not overlook that this movie celebrates the reality of peace-loving American Muslims. In 2017, it feels like a glorious blast of truth and love in an environment stormy with lies and hatred.

I can tell you a hundred things that I love about cinema that this movie doesn’t seem to know exist. But I love this movie anyway, and expect I will love it just as much the fourth time I see it.

Thanks to my friend Josh Hornbeck for taking me to see this on opening night at the Seattle International Film Festival, where we also got to enjoy a post-screening interview with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, who deserve their Oscar screenwriting nomination.

The Breadwinner – dir. Nora Twomey

This marvel of animation and empathy is magnificent, timely, and true. I stand in awe that a studio invested so many resources, so much work, and so much love in a film so contrary to what our Disney-drunk audiences have come to expect from animation.

Caution: You will be moved. Gut-punched, possibly. I was. Nevertheless, I would recommend it for children — not small children, but ages seven and up perhaps — especially if parents and teachers talk with them about it. Cartoon Saloon is doing work as essential as any film studio I know.

You can read my full review here.

And now I will hand the mic to the great Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner:

Literature, painting, music — the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things.

Is it too much to say that Stop, Look, and Listen is also the most basic lesson that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us? Listen to history is the cry of the ancient prophets of Israel. Listen to social injustice, says Amos; to head-in-the-sand religiosity, says Jeremiah; to international treacheries and power-plays, says Isaiah; because it is precisely through them that God speaks his word of judgment and command.

And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”

(from Wishful Thinkinglater republished as Beyond Words)


Mudbound – dir. Dee Rees

Thirty minutes in, I pretty much gave up, thinking that Netflix’s original film Mudbound was taking on far too much: too many narrators, too many storylines, too many Big Issues, too much Condensed History. Plus, it was working like a full-cast audiobook with illustrations provided by the School of Malick Apprentices — and I like my movies when the images speak as much or more so than the script.

But illustrated narratives are a powerful medium, nevertheless.

And thank God I didn’t turn it off. 45 minutes in I was hooked. An hour in, my heart was breaking. And it would wring me out with its whole-hearted, whole-bodied performances, its vision (expansive enough to include the essential role of Gospel in its world), its unflinching acknowledgement of Amerikkka’s past and the implications of Amerikkka’s present, and its refusal to oversimplify any character into an uncomplicated hero. I don’t remember the last time I sat through end credits with tears streaming down my face.

This was America then. This is America now. Anything I might mention that feels slightly contrived in this film’s craftsmanship just isn’t worth getting worked up about when held up to the magnitude of this film’s Truth-telling, its astonishing cumulative power, and the importance of sharing it far and wide with our families and friends.

I admit, I thought it looked like too obvious a reach for prestige and awards and political point-scoring and Netflix Original territory marking. And I admit I also doubted due to the prominence of Hedlund, whose many high-profile roles so far haven’t done much for me. (Perhaps that had more to do with how they were written, I don’t know.)

But everything works here, including the cinematography and score. Carey Mulligan is in top form, Jonathan Banks is downright terrifying, Jason Clarke is perfectly complicated, Jason Mitchell is outstanding, and Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige are the film’s broken hearts that beat as one. And Garrett Hedlund, whose past performances have never quite worked for me — God bless him, this is a career high, a performance that leaves me grateful.

Dear director Dee Rees,

Your movie is a gale-force lament that I needed. I hope my country — and our leaders — will watch and take it to heart. I don’t expect that. But I don’t underestimate the power of art — even good old-fashioned multi-narrator storytelling like this. It shouldn’t have worked in such an efficiently directed feature film, but you made every one of these 134 minutes count. I am humbled and grateful.

Thanks also to Steven Greydanus for nudging me to see this before publishing my year-end list.

Lord, have mercy on this nation. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive us our convenient silences and inaction. Forgive us our ongoing failures to repent and to make amends and reparations. And deliver us — and all who suffer our injustices — from evil.


Phantom Thread — dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

In Phantom Thread, the extraordinarily talented but insufferably self-absorbed Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a renowned dress designer, goes to a bistro, falls under the spell of a beautiful waitress, and proceeds to order almost everything on the menu. He’s hungry. And when he’s hungry, that means he’s inspired. He’s an artist, and he’s ready to work.

His waitress is named Alma (Vicky Krieps) — which, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is also the name of the woman who married Alfred Hitchcock, and who suffered faithfully alongside him as he made masterpiece after masterpiece, his attention so caught up in his vision that he made a public embarrassment of himself by obsessing over the leading ladies of his films. Woodcock is the same way: He’s obsessed with what he decides is a sort of Platonic ideal of a woman, and keeps casting women who look like her, trying to capture a kind of magic so that he finds inspiration enough to continue his run of breathtakingly beautiful dress design.

Phantom Thread is the story of what happens when one woman refuses to accept Woodcock’s ideal of a one-sided relationship, which is a model of exploitation. She wants intimacy. And she is willing to go to extremes to get it. The movie’s disturbing and yet absorbing tension comes from the possibility that the artist might, eventually, come to realize that he does need love, that he is deeply flawed and needy, that he — with his extreme opinions and fragile (read ‘easily aggravated’) sensibilities — is a terror to live with, and that he needs to surrender control on occasion in order to enjoy a real partnership.

It’s also the story of how a woman determines to teach her man that his idea of love is self-serving, and that something greater is possible.

This becomes a clash of titans — Vicky Krieps is, remarkably, a match for Daniel Day-Lewis in bringing these characters to life. And it also fails to escape a rather troubling and perverse picture of a marriage, in which intimacy only becomes possible by the establishment of some rather unhealthy routines. But altogether, it works on several levels: as a darkly comic caricature of the uneasy compromises and contracts that partners must strike in a marriage; as a portrait of the demanding and difficult relationship between an artist and his muse; as an analysis of the contradictions and sicknesses that characterize the careers of so many artistic geniuses (especially Hitchcock, whose style this movie celebrates); and of Paul Thomas Anderson’s own creative obsessions (this film plays with many of the same subjects and themes we saw in Punch-Drunk Love).

I don’t like throwing this word around prematurely, but I’m confident in saying that this movie is a masterpiece — and it achieves that status in ways I can only call “classical,” methods that most filmmakers don’t even attempt anymore.

I won’t indulge my questions and suspicions about what this film says about Anderson himself, because I honestly don’t think he meant this as a self-portrait so much as an exploration of timeless ironies about artists and muses. (Others can obsess about that if they want: the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast already has, in a conversation that interpreted the film far too narrowly.) I think these are distinct characters in a story all their own.

If you don’t take Phantom Thread as a comedy first and foremost, or if you think that it’s supposed to be romantic, then I think you will find the film frustrating. But if you see it as a satirical depiction of a kind of mutual madness that seems strangely recurrent in the world of artists, then I think you’ll find much to enjoy here. Watching Phantom Thread I had that rare experience of being so “caught up” in the mastery of the film’s artistry that I couldn’t think about anything else, much less what I wanted to say about it. And as someone who has learned over 30 years to “take notes” for a review while watching a movie, that’s a rare and exhilarating experience.

Suffice it to say that this film’s strength and its weakness is in its stylistic perfection. Every shot, every line, every flicker of light, every performance (Leslie Manville is a joy), every edit, every flourish of its sumptuous and extraordinary soundtrack — I can’t find anything I would change…

… except this: While I do think that Phantom Thread is a beautifully empathetic tribute to the women who often enable male artistic geniuses to do their best work, I also think it’s particularly meant as a tribute to Alma Hitchcock. Life must have been difficult for Alma, playing that difficult and even humiliating role at Alfred’s side, supporting him in his obsessions even when that included sexual preoccupations with Grace Kelly and others of that “type.”

But for all of this film’s evident empathy for its own Alma — in some ways, Leslie Manville’s character Cyril, Woodcock’s assistant, is the real “Alma” here — it never considers where its female characters come from, or who they are outside of their devotion to Woodcock. Yes, perhaps I’m slightly influenced by the political trends of this year, but that’s not a bad thing, because those trends are trending in the right direction. Alma is an admirable character in what she demands from Woodcock, and in her agency in the relationship. But Anderson, the male artistic genius behind the camera, still falls short in his lack of curiosity about the women of Phantom Thread, just as he fell short in Punch-drunk Love (which I still think to be his most perfectly realized masterpiece) in developing Emily Watson’s character.

Speaking of Punch-drunk Love, that film also had a sense of spontaneity, a sense that much of its magic happened before the camera without any forethought. I don’t feel that kind of magic in Phantom Thread.

But I do feel it in The Florida Project

…and that’s part of why The Florida Project is my #1 favorite film of 2017.


The Florida Project — dir. Sean Baker

The Florida Project is the Disney movie of the year.

You probably know what I mean: Taking place just outside the borders of Disney World, this movie tells the story of what America’s fantasies cost. It creates a divided world, in which the rich can come and go and indulge in pre-packaged make believe, while the poor struggle to survive day to day, kept conveniently out of sight. But where is the most impressive make believe taking place? In the imaginations of the children who, in their American poverty, are able to imagine their ways through living nightmares, even in the near-certainty of their pending ruination. This is the power of cinema, that a film like this can cultivate so many moments of explosive joy in the midst of so much misery and trouble.

The Florida Project is the most groundbreaking work of filmmaking I saw this year. It tells an extraordinary story, and yet it seems documentary-like in its authenticity: The soaring cinematography, the musical colors, the exhilarating editing, and the poetic resonances that accumulate over the course of the film seem to defy explanation.

How did writer/director Sean Baker (and co-writer Chris Bergoch) make this movie?

How did he outline such a complex story arc when so much seems to have unfolded spontaneously?

It’s as though the Almighty commanded a crack team of guardian angels from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire to descend upon these rundown Florida hotels just outside of Disney World to choreograph incredible moments of children at play, of helicopters hauling tourists back and forth in the background, of dangerous activity on the streets, of unpredictable weather. In reality, those angels are Baker and his team: They bring a spirit of patient observation, compassion, and empathy to this film that seems, well, divine.

Moment to moment, as we follow the unsupervised and sugar-high children who call the Futureland hotel — and other nearby hotels — home, their interaction seems entirely unplanned. They have unexpected outbursts. They seize upon, and riff on, the most unlikely conversational accidents. Their mischief is so original that it seems impossible that it was scripted — except, perhaps, the one bit of mischief that causes an emotional transformation of key relationships. Whether they’re tormenting Bobbie the Futureland Manager, or climbing all over the motel as if it’s made of playground equipment, begging for money to go get “free ice cream” from a soft-serv stand, breaking into motel utility rooms, spying on a topless woman at the motel pool, exploring abandoned housing projects (and playing in the crumbling asbestos, which they call “ghost poop”)… they are completely convincing. I’m not sure how much of this is authentic play and how much is rehearsed, but whatever they case, these kids seem completely unaware of the presence of a camera.

Brooklyn Prince, playing Moonee — who eventually emerges as the film’s central character, her arc bending toward heartbreak — gives a performance of such irrepressible energy that it’s hard to believe any acting is involved at all.

I can think of very few films in which poor, desperate people are portrayed so truthfully, without any attempt to sentimentalize them or exploit their pain, and yet filmed with such a loving and respectful gaze. Bria Vinaite’s performance as Moonee’s mother is a thing of furious and fearless beauty. Her character, Hailey, could so easily have been detestable, but Baker wisely captures moments that reveal the devastating influence of absent fathers and mothers, so that Hailey  is revealed to be resourceful and even generous in spite of her complete lack of education in adulthood, responsibility, or grace.

Hailey is so extreme that she threatens to overwhelm the movie whenever she’s onscreen — but balance is provided by Willem Dafoe in his most surprising and endearing performance. As Bobby, the Futureland manager, he’s almost reprising his role as Jesus, suffering for the sins of the world as he tries to keep the building from collapsing under the weight of its inhabitants’ broken dreams. He’s magnificent.

I found Sean Baker’s breakthrough film Tangerine to be every bit as unique and rewarding as the film-festival hype had promised. But The Florida Project is a miracle.

And, like Phantom Thread, it has a scene in which an immature and emotionally unhealthy character orders one item after another off the menu, more food than any human stomach should hold. In Phantom Thread, Woodcock orders fine food beautifully prepared. In The Florida Project, Moonee orders everything off the greasy diner menu. The two orders perfectly capture the contrast in the two films’ styles. Paul Thomas Anderson was aiming for gourmet, and he achieved it. But Baker was improvising, experimenting, and weaving together accidents with unknown actors in much the way that Terrence Malick does with celebrities in glamorous settings. And Baker cooked up a greasy mess that is every bit as meaningful and nourishing, if not more so, than Anderson or Malick could have made with the same material. I prefer the greasy mess. It’s constantly, relentlessly surprising.

At one point, Moonee takes her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto, also astonishing) to one of the wild edges of her neighborhood and climbs up onto a massive, distorted tree trunk. This, she announces, is her favorite tree — because it tipped over, but it keeps on growing. It may be the only moment in the film that feels scripted. But it’s also a perfect summation of the film’s unlikely beauty: Each one of these characters has been knocked down, and clings to a fragile existence in an overlooked corner of a country in decline. And yet each one keeps growing, in ways wondrous and strange, right before our eyes.

For me, the experience of visiting The Florida Project is an exercise in learning to love our neighbors: It’s awe-inspiring, humbling, and holy.

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