Over the past 11 years I’ve spent on the movie beat in Chicago, there have never been as many contenders for my annual “best of” list as there are in 2017. Is that indicative of this year being one of the strongest in history, or is it simply a result of the fact that I’ve seen more films than ever before? One of the greatest privileges of my job is the access it has provided me to pictures that may never receive the U.S. distribution they deserve. Though the very concept of ranking movies is inherently flawed, forcing one to pit apples against oranges, I regard this list as a summation of the year itself, providing readers with a comprehensive look at the works of cinema that moved me the most during the past twelve months. With more entertainment than ever vying for one’s attention, here are a handful of titles I can guarantee are well worth your time.
So plunk yourself down in your favorite recliner, grab your popcorn and the candy you smuggled in from the nearby Walgreen’s, and allow me to present the first half of my list ranking the Top 20 Films of 2017…
20. War for the Planet of the Apes
Computer animation in live-action films so rarely instills a sense of awe in me anymore. If it isn’t skillfully melded with practical effects, the all-too-fluid imagery fails to keep my disbelief suspended, no matter how much expensive detail has been grafted upon it. The sole exception to this principle is Weta Digital. Throughout the increasingly impressive “Planet of the Apes” prequel trilogy, the effects company has been breaking new ground in the degree of photorealism that can be achieved with motion capture technology. Replicating human beings is still too tall a task to convincingly pull off (“Rogue One” demonstrated this to disastrous effect), but when it comes to the simian protagonists in Matt Reeves’ third installment of the “Apes” reboot series, there are long stretches in which they are indistinguishable from their human co-stars. The closer the camera gets to them, the more convincing they are, as demonstrated by a stunning scene that cuts between the expressive faces of an orangutan (Karin Konoval) and an orphaned girl (Amiah Miller). As the apes become endowed with humanity, Caesar (an Oscar-worthy Andy Serkis) emerges as a hero reminiscent of Charlton Heston in biblical epics such as “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” Since Heston played the man enslaved by apes in the original 1968 classic, Caesar is bringing the saga full circle as he channels the actor while leading his species out of bondage. Reeves and his effects wizards haven’t just made a grand entertainment. They have made history.
As a lifelong Hitchcock fan, I have seen many documentaries about the Master of Suspense, and I can honestly say that this one from ace enthusiast Alexandre O. Philippe is the most rewarding and provocative of them all. It assembles an eclectic series of filmmakers to dissect the intricacies of the shower scene and its impact on cinema before examining it shot-for-shot. In many ways, this is the cinematic equivalent of Robert Kolker’s indispensable 2004 essay compilation, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook, spotlighting crucial perspectives on the picture and how they have evolved over time. Yet Philippe’s film makes perhaps the most convincing case to date of how the shower scene reflected the fragmentation of American identity, perched on the precipice of a decade defined by social upheaval, assassination and the loss of innocence. Marion Crane’s untimely fate has nothing to do with who she slept with or what money she stole. She is killed because her very presence aroused Norman Bates, whose last name might as well be a play on masturbation. The young man’s maternally imposed sexual shame leads him to penetrate the defenseless woman with a phallic weapon, a clear metaphor for rape. By sparing us of the violence, Hitchcock forces our imaginations to fill in the blanks, thus causing the suggested carnage to be all the more violating. His desire to revolt against the conventions of the period resulted in a portrait of female oppression and self-destructive puritanism that stands the test of time, and is regrettably timelier than ever.
Click here to read my interview with Alexandre O. Philippe.
18. The Post
When Steven Spielberg read the script of this “All the President’s Men” prequel ten months ago, he realized that it had to be made immediately. President Trump’s war on the media and championing of misinformation has reached such a fever pitch that it may make President Nixon’s transgressions from half a century ago look positively quaint by comparison. That being said, Nixon set the bar for impeachable conduct with his attempted censorship of the Pentagon Papers, classified documents detailing how four U.S. presidents lied to the public about the Vietnam War. After publication of The New York Times is suspended by the president, The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) must decide whether to go through with publishing the documents, a move that could send them to prison. This may sound like all-too-simple a premise, but the script co-authored by Liz Hannah and “Spotlight” Oscar-winner Josh Singer milks enormous suspense out of the journalists’ plight, as they are forced to make split-second choices on an ever-shrinking deadline. Spielberg’s undervalued genius as an actor’s director is on full display here, making exemplary use of a formidable ensemble while giving his leading lady her most satisfying showcase since 2008’s “Doubt.” There’s an exquisite moment when the camera pulls in to Streep’s face as she wordlessly weighs the options of her next move that had me on the edge of my seat. This is the sort of passion project in which the passion itself ups everyone’s game.
I honestly cannot believe that I am including a film from the “X-Men” franchise on my Top 20 list. I’ve never been a comic book fan, and though Marvel has made several strong pictures over the last decade, the obligation of exposition and interconnectivity causes the stories to lurch when they should soar. James Mangold’s pleasingly grisly western solves that problem by chucking out the comics altogether, and placing alpha male mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in a stark world that poses palpable threats to his survival. After his potential was clumsily squandered in picture upon picture, Wolverine is finally unleashed in all his hard-R glory, and it is a joy to behold. Apart from delivering the best blood-spattered action I’ve seen since “Kill Bill,” Mangold crafts an achingly poignant swan song for the beloved character. Paying spirited homage to George Stevens’ 1953 landmark, “Shane,” the picture presents Logan (Wolverine’s alias) as a grizzled limo driver desperate to escape his past until he becomes ensnared in a conflict that requires his claw-wielding abilities. The caregiver role he has taken on to assist his ailing mentor (Patrick Stewart) results in some startlingly beautiful moments between the two men, as they grapple with layers of vulnerability usually left on the cutting room floor. Stopping the show with her tireless physicality and tirades of uncensored Spanish is Dafne Keen, the girl possessed with Logan’s gifts who, in the end, becomes his heart. She’s like Chloë Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl—had Hit Girl been in a good movie.
16. The Florida Project
Great child performances are always tricky to pull off on a film set. The environment must be constructed in such a way that enables the kids to be wholly present in the scene without slipping into mannered self-consciousness. The work that director Sean Baker elicits from the youngest actors in his latest feature is nothing short of miraculous. So unaffected is their banter with one another that you’d swear the camera was merely eavesdropping on them—if the framing of Alexis Zabe’s cinematography weren’t so assured. As a group of kids led by six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, utterly revelatory) scurry through a parking lot toward their next misadventure, a man in a wheelchair moves in the opposite direction, providing a sharp counterpoint to the whimsy of youth. Though the film is chock-full of endearing moments (Baker has cited “The Little Rascals” as a key influence), there is an undercurrent of impending tragedy that surges to the foreground in the second half, as Moonee’s impoverished mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, discovered on Instagram), becomes increasingly abrasive, unable to stifle her rage at a society indifferent to her family’s needs. Looking out for her to the best of his ability is Bobby (Willem Dafoe at his warmest), a motel manager straining to keep the peace while perpetually in over his head. As Moonee and Halley traverse the streets located a stone’s throw away from Disney World, Baker creates an indelible ode to the scrappy souls barred from entering our country’s kingdom of privilege.
15. Princess Cyd
The rise of Stephen Cone may be one of the numerous ways in which Trump is inadvertently making America great again. Our president’s complete absence of empathy has made moviegoers hungrier than ever for it, and few filmmakers are as gifted in supplying it and inspiring it as Cone. Ever since I saw his breakout ensemble piece, “The Wise Kids,” five years ago, he has been one of my favorite directors. Cone’s pictures are timeless slices of life that also speak to the present moment, often juxtaposing the perspectives of people from different generations as they come of age, and his latest has become his most acclaimed to date. Like “The Post,” “Princess Cyd” was birthed from a sudden burst of creativity, and it is a triumph of richly intuitive filmmaking. The sublime Rebecca Spence stars as Miranda, a writer in the vein of Emily Dickinson. She is comfortable with being single, remaining in the home of her youth and embracing her spirituality without feeling bound by church law. Her niece, Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), is impulsive in ways people her age often are, bursting with hormones while falling for a local girl (a magnetic Malic White) during her summer at Miranda’s Chicago home. When Cyd makes a carelessly cruel observation about her aunt’s nonexistent sex life, Miranda counters with a firm but loving reply: “It’s not a handicap to be one way and not another.” Her deceptively simple wisdom serves as a healing remedy for our caustically divided culture, magnifying how our differences should be celebrated rather than shunned.
Click here to read my interview with Stephen Cone.
14. Human Flow
Though our president is never mentioned by name in all 140 minutes of this documentary by visionary muckraker Ai Weiwei, the picture is, quite simply, the most monumental cinematic middle finger aimed at his scandal-laden administration to date. In its staggering account of the global refugee crisis, this film is a scalding rebuke to Trump’s desired wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, his abandonment of immigrants protected under the now-defunct Dreamers program and his willful ignorance of climate change. As globalization continues to expand the interdependence of national economies, our world is shrinking at roughly the same rate as the polar ice caps. What makes “Human Flow” so urgent and unsettling is the indisputable proof it presents to affirm that the number of displaced people on our planet will be growing exponentially with every passing year. Rather than juxtapose the stories of a few key refugees from around the globe, Ai Weiwei hops freely from one continent to the next, surveying as many micro-vignettes as possible. It’s not long before all the diverse cultures start to blur together, as the endless stream of exiles find their fate to be as uncertain as that of Godot. Though the film has no shortage of talking heads, the majority of scenes work on the senses like pure visual poetry. The subject matter may be bleak, but the filmmaker’s call for unity is invigorating. In this picture, released in tandem with his NYC installation, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” Ai Weiwei is encouraging us to unite against the shared enemy of ignorance, while flipping it the bird in the process.
As movie theater attendance shrunk to record lows this year, it was invogirating to see Christopher Nolan’s 70mm film about the evacuation of Allied soldiers from a French beach in WWII receive a massive audience in the U.S., despite having no superhero or A-list star in the cast (of course, One Direction fans would disagree). Seeing the film as it was intended to be projected—on an IMAX screen—was one of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life. It was also one of the most nerve-racking. Had the film run over two hours, I may have needed an oxygen mask. Instead of spending time contextualizing the characters’ backgrounds, Nolan designs the picture as a relentless exercise in suspense. Borrowing the structure from the final act of his dream-fueled thriller, “Inception,” Nolan and his invaluable editor, Lee Smith, juxtapose three separate timelines—the week spent by stranded soldiers dodging bullets on the beach; the day ordinary citizens (such as the father played by Mark Rylance) sailed to their rescue; and the hour in which a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) tried taking down as many enemy planes as possible. These plot threads are intertwined to form a cohesive emotional experience, even as they jump back and forth in time. Hans Zimmer’s score ratchets up the tension tenfold, as Nolan stages the scariest plane attack sequences since “North by Northwest,” epitomized by the unforgettable shot of soldiers squeezed onto a narrow pier, glancing up at the sky in abject terror. When the danger finally subsides, the catharsis is euphoric.
12. Five Came Back
Long before I attended Columbia College in Chicago, Laurent Bouzereau was my film school. His making-of documentaries accompanying the DVD releases of films by Spielberg, Hitchcock and De Palma are still unmatched and remain an essential reference point for me to this day. Yet apart from being hugely informative and entertaining, they were also a master class in the art of editing. The intro to his featurette on Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” condenses the two-hour film’s dramatic arc into a couple of minutes, and it gives me chills every time I see it. With “Five Came Back,” the three-part documentary available for streaming on Netflix, Bouzereau must condense the wartime experiences of five major Hollywood directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Steven and John Huston—into three hours. Each of them was tasked with making propaganda films during WWII, and the horrors that they witnessed forever altered their approach to cinema. Based on Mark Harris’ book of the same name, this documentary does a spectacular job of chronicling each man’s journey, honoring their achievements without indulging in a hagiography. This is Bouzereau’s crowning achievement, aided immeasurably by editor Will Znidaric (“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”), and like any of the director’s other works, it’ll make you want to seek out the films it highlights. My first recommendation: 1944’s “The Negro Soldier,” a groundbreaking picture all the more relevant in light of this year’s Charlottesville demonstration, not to mention the next film on this list…
If there is any justice this awards season, and lord knows justice is rarely served by the Academy, Jason Mitchell will receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His heartrending portrayal of Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” not to mention his harrowing cameo in “Detroit,” already demonstrated that he’s an actor of major promise, but it is his role in Dee Rees’ magnificent period drama that should make him a full-fledged star. He plays Ronsel Jackson, a WWII vet returning to his hometown in Mississippi, where the color of skin prevents him from leaving through the front door of a convenience store. When a crusty old klansman (Jonathan Banks) attempts to enforce the Jim Crow law, Ronsel firmly stands his ground, speaking of the acceptance he found overseas. This refusal to comply will eventually cost him dearly, yet for all of its brutality (which explodes during an especially gruesome yet non-exploitative scene), the film is infused with hard-won hope. Adapting Hillary Jordan’s novel, Rees and co-screenwriter Virgil Williams weave a tapestry of voices that are impeccably balanced, shedding light not just on Ronsel’s family (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige excel as his parents), but on that of fellow vet Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund). When the two men strike up a friendship, their mutual understanding of one another’s struggles cuts through the social barriers of the era, much to the outrage of Jamie’s father, the aforementioned klansman. Watching Rees’ film is like sinking into a great book, one that dares us to look racism in the eye and acknowledge its unwavering presence. If any film distributed by Netflix deserves to snag a Best Picture nod, it is most surely “Mudbound.”
Stay tuned for #10-1 in Part II…