Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The 10 Best Movies of 2017

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in "Phantom Thread"
As the world burns, the movies remain unfazed. Or maybe they remain properly fazed; many filmmakers, recognizing the eternal topicality of their art form, have cannily shifted their priorities to speak to today’s troubled times. That cinema can serve as a sounding board for social anxiety is nothing new, but in 2017, the reflective surface that is the movie screen bounced back particularly acute images of our reality, even if it also functioned as a temporary escape from it. Yet as I survey my favorite films of the past year, what strikes me is not consistency but variety. Movies can exist in a thrilling multiplicity of forms, and this year’s best—epic war films, slender family dramas, chilling domestic horror, a whopping three sequels—demonstrated the enduring versatility of the medium. As every day seems to bring with it new horrors, it’s no minor comfort to remember that artists will continue to tell their stories on the big screen, wielding their imagination and technique to create a sort of compass, a celestial roadmap that lights the way to our better selves.

Here are my 10 favorite movies of 2017:

(Honorable mention: Get Out; The Girl with All the Gifts; I, Tonya; It Comes at Night; Logan; Princess Cyd; Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Villainess.)

10. John Wick: Chapter 2. The first John Wick was an explosive hit, delighting audiences and critics alike with its balletic gunplay and ornate world-building. I didn’t much care for it, so imagine my surprise when I found Chad Stahelski’s extravagant follow-up downright intoxicating. Doubling down on the original’s black-cloaked aesthetic, Chapter 2 heightens this universe’s outsized surrealism, sending Keanu Reeves on a twisted journey of arrestingly bloody mayhem and death. The smoothly choreographed action sequences course with energy and panache, but the movie’s real selling point is its fabulously intricate mythology. It’s well worth the price of one gold coin. (Full review here; currently streaming on HBO Go.)

9. The Florida Project. A devastatingly clear-eyed look at a community ravaged by poverty but sustained by decency, Sean Baker’s achingly humane portrait takes awhile to develop momentum. But if you can muscle through the languid opening act, The Florida Project will reward you with its insight, intelligence, and empathy. As a gruff but compassionate motel manager, Willem Dafoe delivers one of his best performances, while Brooklynn Kimberly Prince astonishes as a big-hearted toddler who finds herself in wrenching circumstances. In its depiction of a marginalized socioeconomic class, The Florida Project can be merciless, but its honesty never feels punishing, and its final scene—a sudden swell of magical realism—is one of this decade’s most glorious endings. (Full review here.)

8. Phantom Thread. Immaculately crafted and impeccably acted, Paul Thomas Anderson’s spidery, ravishing tale of seduction and obsession is a feast for the eyes and ears. (Jonny Greenwood’s score is exquisite, and I say that as perhaps the only critic in the world who was put off by his renowned work on There Will Be Blood.) But Phantom Thread is more than another pretty period piece. The film burrows deep into its characters, revealing hidden truths with surprise and wit. A triad of meticulously intersecting performances—from Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville—give rich voice to Anderson’s long-simmering preoccupation with desire. This is a movie that dives headlong into the abyss of helpless adoration, and in so doing must be adored.

7. Lady Macbeth. The protagonist of Lady Macbeth is cold, smart, and ruthless, and the movie that surrounds her is much the same. Making his first feature, William Oldroyd employs a formal elegance that only amplifies the film’s chilly undertones, all Gothic atmosphere and harsh naturalism. But while Lady Macbeth is crisply calculating, it is not dispassionate, using rigorous technique to tell a sweeping story of fiery emotion. Relative newcomer Florence Pugh, in an expertly modulated performance, quietly transforms her pitiable housewife into a figure of fury and fascination. She’s a selfish monster who, in refusing to relinquish her agency, becomes something of a feminist heroine. In a movie full of vulgar men who dismissively regard women as property, the scariest thing of all is the watchful lass sitting placidly on the couch.

6. Blade Runner 2049. Cinema this year offered its share of eye-catching productions—the bustling metropolises of Valerian, the diaphanous jungles of The Lost City of Z, the iridescent glow of Ghost in the Shell—but nothing else came close to the staggering triumph that is Blade Runner 2049, one of the most visually arresting pictures I’ve ever seen. Yet what makes Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel special is how it twins its jaw-dropping cityscapes and desolate vistas with a meditative story that grapples powerfully with themes of identity and humanity. This is a mystery film whose most intriguing enigma is its characters, and Villeneuve explores their metaphysical suffering with seriousness and gravity. The movie is replete with astonishing sights and sounds, but the most lasting image is that of two androids looking into one another’s eyes, pondering what lies behind them. (Full review here.)

5. The Post. Shamelessly political and effortlessly entertaining, Steven Spielberg’s gripping recreation of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers is unnervingly relevant. It is also a smashing drama, humming with lively writing, sharp acting, and invisible craft. As a self-righteous editor and his much-bullied publisher, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep complement one another marvelously, and they’re surrounded by a throng of gifted character actors. And while it articulates its message with unapologetic frankness, The Post never succumbs to shrill moralizing, instead consistently operating with cinematic verve and excitement. The printing press is not the only machine here that’s well-oiled. (Full review here.)

4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer. A grueling story of rage and retribution, Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest head-spinner is tense, terrifying, and somewhat sadistic. It is also morbidly funny and eminently watchable, Lanthimos wielding his estimable filmmaking skill with granular precision. Again disappearing into his role (as he did last year in Lanthimos’ The Lobster), Colin Farrell anchors the mayhem that engulfs the picture with intelligence and restraint, while the narrative builds to an agonizing, ingeniously staged reckoning. I’m terribly sorry about this, but if you don’t see this movie, everyone you love will die. (Full review here.)

3. War for the Planet of the Apes. Is it a political fusillade or a kickass action movie? Who needs to choose? The latest and greatest installment in the revitalized Planet of the Apes franchise, Matt Reeves’ mournful trilogy-capper is a thematically powerful document of corruptive power and ethnic conflict, relaying its concerns with solemnity and anger. It is also a thrilling production, roiling with robust battle sequences and hypnotic imagery. A master of balancing blockbuster imperatives with rich, humanitarian storytelling, Reeves threads an impossibly fine needle, delivering a rousing entertainment that is also provocative, gentle, and sad. It’s a riveting tale of a dystopian future that speaks all too plausibly to the here and now. (Full review here.)

2. Dunkirk. Run! Duck! Swim! In Christopher Nolan’s relentless war film, action is an imperative, the camera breathlessly following his ragtag soldiers as they cling helplessly to survival. The 70-millimeter format allows contemporary cinema’s biggest filmmaker to paint on his broadest canvas yet, and the sheer size of Dunkirk is overpowering. Yet for all his mighty talent, Nolan never allows his craft to overwhelm his characters, and as the movie presses ever forward, it accrues extraordinary detail and intimacy. The screenplay’s overlapping tripartite structure, a triumph of point-of-view storytelling, provides rich rewards, while Hans Zimmer’s booming score lifts the film’s unyielding intensity to vertiginous heights. Yet even as Dunkirk paralyzes you with its prodigious force, it also pulls you inward, trapping you in its characters’ frenzied, single-minded terror. Fly the plane. Sail the boat. Get off the beach. (Full review here.)

1. Lady Bird. Life is hard. We hate our parents, miss our children, screw up with our boyfriends, disappoint our best friends. Greta Gerwig’s film, in ways both thrillingly unexpected and gorgeously plain, conveys the persistent agony of being alive—more specifically, of being a teenager—which means it also communicates life’s beauty and wonder and joy. It vibrates with a core of deep humanity, chronicling a fraught year in its heroine’s life with humor, whimsy, honesty, and tenderness. As the tempestuous title character, Saoirse Ronan is spectacularly real—an open wound of heartbreak, acidity, and longing—while as her mother, Laurie Metcalf is gloriously complicated, loving her daughter while struggling to understand her. Lady Bird is a simple and graceful movie that tells a decidedly familiar story, yet it possesses such a rich complexity and tonal dexterity that it almost seems otherworldly. Or it would if it didn’t feel so authentic, so lived-in, so warm and jagged and funny and painful. As I said, life is hard. Movies like this make it a little easier. (Full review here.)

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