A couple of caveats: First, these are my favorite movies of the year, not a claim to rank the definitive best, so don’t write to tell me that your favorite should have made it. Put it on your list, bro. Second: I saw over 200 new-release movies in 2017, but the only way to have caught all of them would mean dissolving into a whiskery puddle of flesh and eyes. So, yes, I know I’m missing some things. Third: I made a list of 10 movies before seeing, in just a few days, the December releases from Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg. Then I added two of their titles, to come to 12.
Finally, none of the superhero movies made this list, though I did enjoy the light-touch myth-making of Wonder Woman’s first half, the ’70s fantasy paperback geeksplosions of Thor: Ragnarok and the local-hero comedy of Spider-Man: Homecoming, a movie that sometimes dares to push against our entertainment culture’s pathological insistence upon violent heroism as the solution to all problems. As for bloody, brooding Logan: C’mon, even in his dotage, Professor X would never let his crew endanger the lives of that poor farm family.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
The ultimate found-footage doc this side of his own Decasia (2002), Bill Morrison’s meditative beauty showcases long-lost silent films — features and newsreels — discovered buried beneath a swimming pool in a Yukon gold-rush town. Here are glimpses of the infamous 1919 White Sox, forgotten dramas with titles like The Unpardonable Sins and footage of the town itself, woven together to reveal (without spoken words) both the history of Dawson City and also what entertained the hardy folk who braved the elements to settle there — what they dreamed of.
Something of a prank, an art project, a buddy comedy, a tour of the French countryside and an inquiry into memory and images and what it means to reveal our eyes to the world, Faces Places finds the great documentarian and photographer Agnes Varda, 88 at the time of filming, teaming up with 33-year-old photographer JR to wander France, pasting photographed portraits of the people they meet on building walls and water towers and any surface that will take them. The film is light, funny, alert, alive, the work of a great and her inspired collaborator who are forever happy to be looking.
The Florida Project
Another on-a-shoestring study of American life on the margins, Sean Baker’s follow-up to Tangerine boasts a movie star (Willem Dafoe as an endearingly decent motel manager) but also, again, a cast of amateurs and newbies giving some of the year’s most vivid performances. In this case, the breakouts are the kids who dash about a touristy strip of Florida frontage road not far from Orlando’s Disney World. Near-homeless, holed up in a flophouse, these characters still lark through scenes of vibrant, playful, broke-ass joyousness, as Baker and his grown-up cast make sure we always know what the kiddos sometimes can overlook: the precariousness of their existence.
Outside of Wonder Woman, Jordan Peele’s Get Out is the only 2017 studio picture that truly seemed to matter to people who don’t live and breathe for movies. Much can be said about its courage and cleverness, its horror and hilarity, but I’ll leave it to this. In its first moments, Peele got American audiences to accept what white folks still have a hard time admitting: that no It clown house is as scary as the thought of being a black man walking alone at night through a strange white suburb.
God’s Own Country
My favorite of this year’s gay romances, Francis Lee’s lusty, muddy feature debut finds a brutish young farmer discovering tenderness amid the rough beauty of northern England. Lee and his cast dare a naturalistic frankness, never shying away from the practical realities of sex, livestock or the prickly confusion of young men who yearn for something different than what they’ve been raised to.
You’re right not to trust a film critic who calls a movie “stunning.” But Human Flow, the documentary surveying the scope of the global refugee crisis, from Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei, stunned in the truest sense of the word. Again and again, over 140 minutes, Ai overwhelms with visions of populations in flight, a new mass migration that most world governments refuse to respond to. Human Flow reveals the full breadth of a global catastrophe.
I Called Him Morgan
It’s fitting that one of the great films about jazz centers on the re-creation of a lost moment. Kasper Collin’s exquisitely haunted documentary meditation I Called Him Morgan, about the life and murder of the ’60s hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, is shrouded in shots of New York whited out with snow, the lightning of the Chrysler Building the one point of orientation. Pulsing and alive beneath it: The fascinating lives of the musicians interviewed here, a doomed romance and Morgan’s crisp, insistent trumpet. It’s on Netflix right now, people.
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Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age-weird comedy is rare not just in its brisk, buoyancy or its sharply observed understanding of how place and family and friends shape a young self. It’s also rare in its understanding and empathy, in its honoring of what every character would be feeling at the moments that we’re watching them. The year’s best scene partners: Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.
The studios wouldn’t touch Dee Rees’ raw and intimate epic of white and black families, both poor, scrabbling through the war years on a patch of Mississippi dirt. So, Netflix bought it, and that means you can savor its humanity, its clear-eyed honesty about power and economics under Jim Crow, its painful moments of hope, its vital performances and its can’t-look-away sweep toward inevitable tragedy tonight.
Exquisitely acted, staged, shot and conceived, the latest collaboration between writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis guts the familiar great man’s muse story that it at first seems to be telling. Vicky Krieps, as an old prick’s young inspiration, seizes the movie from the big names, just as her character seizes control of the quiet, controlled life said prick has groomed her for.
I believe it’s a good thing that Steven Spielberg is on the nose about the issues he's on the nose about in a movie that will be seen by America's dads and uncles. The dude collects Rockwells, believes in the sunny ol' American past, has made billions anticipating the national mood and suddenly has whipped up a movie about what it's like to be a woman in rooms full of powerful dudes at just the moment his country finally seems ready to think about that. Also: Meryl Streep goes subtle!
A Quiet Passion
“For those of us who lived minor lives and are deprived of a particular kind of love, we know best how to starve,” says Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson deep into Terence Davies’ soaring, despairing drama about achieving greatness without ever leaving one’s house. We see Dickinson starve: for love, for recognition of her genius, for any sense that humanity will not fail her.