Top 20 Films of 2017: Part II

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In a year that has consistently felt like an apocalyptic black comedy, albeit one that is no laughing matter, the greatest films have served as an anchor of sanity. I’m honestly unsure of how I could’ve gotten through 2017 without having these films to nourish my soul and affirm fundamental truths that our president routinely brands as fake news. Though Patty Jenkins’ enjoyable DC blockbuster, “Wonder Woman,” did not make the cut, it does represent the heroic spirit of women who have fought back against the misogyny and harassment enforced by men in power, including our Predator-In-Chief. This list is filled to the brim with wonder women (click here for Part I), and they have never ceased to inspire me, while in many cases providing me with some of the biggest laughs I’ve had in ages.

My coverage of the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, not to mention the DOC10 festival in Chicago, wildly increased the number of nonfiction contenders warranting my consideration (no less than 16 of the films listed below are documentaries). In addition to my usual section highlighting top runners-up, I have included 30 more honorable mentions, some of which received four stars from your’s truly at RogerEbert.com. But first, here are my Top 10 Films of 2017…

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10. A Quiet Passion

Is there anyone alive better equipped to explore the mind and soul of iconic poet Emily Dickinson on film than Terence Davies? His preoccupation with the impermanence of life has manifested itself in endlessly provocative ways throughout his career. Sustainable happiness is often within the reach of his characters, but it evades their grasp because of societal strictures or ill timing. Sexual repression has also played a key role in his work, from his autobiographical 1992 feature, “The Long Day Closes,” about the guilt caused by his homosexuality as a young boy, to his latest picture, “A Quiet Passion,” where Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) discusses how women who aren’t attracted to men “know how to starve.” So many of the poet’s observations in this film directly mirror the spirit of modern day American activists, particularly the women who marched on Washington (“If I can’t have equality, then I want nothing of love”) as well as those working to remedy our country’s “acute case of evangelism.” Yet Davies also remains true to the period and to Dickinson herself, who comes across not as a 21st century soul trapped in the 1800s, but a misunderstood woman unaware of her own genius. Though Nixon is still best known by people of my generation for her role on “Sex and the City,” her performance here—coupled with her portrayal of a mother battling cancer in Josh Mond’s “James White”—cements her status as one of the finest actors working today. The cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister often resembles a painting come to life, and when he regards the characters as they age before our eyes, it is a feat akin to magic.

Click here to read my interview with Terence Davies.

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9. Rat Film

Theo Anthony’s astonishing debut feature begins with its titular critter desperately attempting to escape a trash can, as a narrator informs us that rats can jump 32 inches in the air, while a Baltimore trash can is 34 inches tall, just high enough to keep the rodent in its place. The narration by Maureen Jones conveys the icy indifference of Baltimore toward its own citizens located in areas that were deemed in a 1937 residential security map to be high financial risks due to “racial homogeneity” and an “undesirable population.” 80 years later, these same neighborhoods still suffer from cyclical impoverishment and low life expectancy. When viewed on a satellite map, the communities bear a striking resemblance to a giant rat maze. One of Anthony’s masterstrokes is a sequence in which he switches the computerized map to a setting that approximates the photographic reality of the neighborhood. People can suddenly be glimpsed on the streets, but their faces are blurred, along with various inanimate objects that the computer mistakes for a face. Whenever the viewer attempts to push in for a closer look at the buildings, they break apart, a fitting metaphor for how the outside world relates to these communities, opting to view them in the other satellite setting, where they appear more comfortingly as abstract blocks. Like his hero, Werner Herzog, Anthony sports the sort of unslakable curiosity, keen eye for detail and razor-sharp intelligence that forms a great storyteller. “Rat Film” may be set in Baltimore, but it might as well take place in Ferguson. Or Chicago. Or any city structured to maintain segregation. So much for “post-racial society.”

Click here to read my interview with Theo Anthony.

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8. Lady Bird

Watching Greta Gerwig’s career blossom over the past decade has been one of the greatest thrills of my career as a critic. From the moment she appeared in the micro-budget relationship dramas of Joe Swanberg, I was struck by her uninhibited screen presence. She reminded me of “Annie Hall”-era Diane Keaton with a dash of Lucille Ball, as she dissected her characters’ wince-inducing neuroses with an effervescent charm. After being discovered by Noah Baumbach, the pair co-wrote 2013’s “Frances Ha,” an endearing film about a 27-year-old New Yorker (Gerwig) striving to achieve her dreams. The best sequence follows the heroine on her trip back to Sacramento (Gerwig’s actual birthplace) where she visits her family (played by Gerwig’s parents). Now, four years later, the actress-turned-filmmaker returns with her first solo directorial effort, “Lady Bird,” a perfect companion piece to “Frances Ha” that has quickly emerged as an Oscar front-runner. Saoirse Ronan delivers her best performance to date as Christine, a 17-year-old desperate to break out of her home in Sacramento. Her scenes with Steppenwolf legend Laurie Metcalf (finally granted a worthy big screen showcase) nail the volatile dynamic between a mother and an adolescent daughter—laughing together one minute, at war the next. I couldn’t help being reminded of my own mother and sister while watching this film, not to mention my own years in high school theatre (the rehearsal sequences are priceless). Even fellow colleagues who weren’t previous fans of Gerwig have “Lady Bird” on their top ten lists this year. It’s the sort of triumph that makes you want to dance down the streets to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” preferably in black and white.

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7. I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck’s portrait of author and poet James Baldwin was screened for critics last awards season prior to its U.S. release this past February. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and frankly should’ve won over Ezra Edelman’s towering ESPN series, “O.J.: Made in America,” which would no longer be eligible for consideration had it been released this year. Since “I Am Not Your Negro” slipped past my radar in 2016, there is no way this Top Ten list would be complete without Peck’s masterwork. It’s not just a film, it’s a lightning rod bound to electrify every member of the audience, and its timeliness couldn’t be more urgent. Every word in the picture belongs to Baldwin, one of America’s most invaluable social critics, whose unfinished novel, Remember This House, serves as Peck’s primary source material. Samuel L. Jackson’s narration is weaved seamlessly with Baldwin’s own voice, as Peck and his editor, Alexandra Strauss (“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”), craft a mesmerizing mosaic of American history, both real and imagined, illustrating how our myths tend to outlive our collective reality. Among the countless unforgettable moments is a rousing speech delivered by Baldwin during a 1965 debate in response to Bobby Kennedy’s correct prediction that in 40 years, America would elect its first black president. This excerpt of his debate with William F. Buckley, which can be viewed here, deserves to be as well-known as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. With his meticulous artistry, Peck has brought Baldwin back to life, enabling his words to speak directly to the present moment. And boy do we need him more than ever.

Click here to read my interview with Raoul Peck.

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6. Bobbi Jene

The boldest choice made by director Elvira Lind in her film about dancer Bobbi Jene Smith is to let her subject’s work speak for itself. So unobtrusive is the camera’s presence that there were long stretches in which I forgot I was watching a documentary. Bereft of narration or static talking heads, “Bobbi Jene” fully immerses us in Smith’s perspective—her desires, her fears, her evolving identity—with a bracing intimacy normally reserved for scripted narratives. Whenever the film centered on Smith performing her breathtakingly physical and audacious dances, I immediately got the sense that I was observing something rare and sacred. Her goal of arriving at a place where she has “no strength to hide anything” inspired her to perform an hour-long piece, “A Study on Effort,” in the nude. Obliterating every sexist stigma in its path, Smith’s performance is an electrifying reclamation of female power, culminating with the dancer pleasuring herself on a sandbag until she reaches her climax. When her mother worries about the distress that this nudity could have on her daughter, Smith assures her that “withholding and hiding” are much more harmful to one’s psyche. As a longtime member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, she was empowered by choreographer Ohad Naharin to flaunt her physicality without any regard to societal taboos. While preparing to move back to the U.S., Smith falls for Or Schraiber, a dancer ten years her junior who’s resistant to leaving his home in Tel Aviv. Through juxtaposing footage of Smith’s personal life with her rehearsals, Lind wordlessly illuminates how the dancer’s work emerges organically from her life. At its core, the film is a love story not just between two people, but between Smith and her own body. Lind reminds us that there is nothing selfish about self-love, and nothing shameful about embracing it on one’s own terms.

Click here to read my interview with Bobbi Jene Smith.

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5. Novitiate

When it comes to faith-based films, American cinema is currently in the midst of a very dark age. Numerous pictures carrying the label of “Christian entertainment” are solely interested in preaching to their right-wing choir while demonizing anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs. Margaret Betts’ “Novitiate” is not hateful propaganda, nor is it an insulting takedown of religion. It is, quite simply, one of the most perceptive films about people of faith I’ve ever seen, a worthy companion piece to Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story.” Utilizing the memoirs of various ex-nuns as her source material, Betts sets her tale in the 1960s, at the precise moment when the Second Vatican Council unleashed sweeping reforms on the Catholic church. Though hailed today for their progressive vision, these profound alterations blindsided women of the cloth whose very existence was defined by rigid tradition. Suggesting a hybrid of Rosalind Russell in “The Trouble with Angels” and Nurse Ratched, Melissa Leo is phenomenal as a Reverend Mother who attempts to delay the implementation of Vatican II reforms at her church as long as possible. Her behavior may be monstrous at times, but she is not a villain. My heart broke for her as she informed her fellow sisters of the changes, none of which took the views of women into account. Betts gives each member of her female ensemble a voice, detailing how the young novitiates training for a life in the convent channel their repressed sexuality into their worship, while using the church walls as a shield of protection against the chaos left at home. In her first lead role, Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) is utterly captivating as Sister Cathleen, and she’s well-matched by her splendid co-stars, particularly Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberato, Morgan Saylor and Maddie Hasson. By refusing to judge any of these women, Betts has succeeded in making an even-handed film about the universal search for spiritual fulfillment and how it can so often elude our grasp.

Click here to read my interview with Margaret Betts.

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4. Shingal, Where Are You?

No phone call in recent cinematic memory has shaken me to the core quite like the one made by Viyan, a woman kidnapped by ISIS, to her family. They are among the thousands of Yezidis who were displaced from their town of Shingal, where their ancestors had lived for centuries, after ISIS attacked it. Viyan’s family has found temporary refuge on the Turkish border as they huddle around a phone, listening to her voice as she articulates what is nothing less than a vision of hell. This is one of many unforgettable scenes in Angelos Rallis’ documentary, one of year’s most devastating films, which should be considered required viewing for every American citizen. The lack of music in the picture is appropriate, since there is no levity provided for the Yezidis’ alienation. Yet I could swear I heard traces of a mournful choir amidst the wind as Havind, Viyan’s father, walks with his son through the bombed-out remains of Shingal. The boy returns to his house, digging out a plant from a pile of rubble on the bed and placing it on the floor. He then takes a framed baby picture off the wall and cradles it like a newborn before smashing it to pieces in order to complete the damage. Rallis’ film is agonizingly powerful without ever going for a contrived effect. The camera hovers like a ghost floating amongst the characters, who occasionally acknowledge its presence as a good luck charm as they attempt to negotiate the return of their loved one through various intermediaries. The film concludes with a much different phone call, as Havind speaks with a member of his family as she heads to make a new life for herself in Europe. Though there has been a great deal of crying in the movie, Havind has maintained his composure. Yet as he speaks to his child while surrounded by the wreckage that was once his home, the weight of his despair seeps through his every movement and utterance. After Havind hangs up, we share in his prolonged silence as he sits, collecting his thoughts before getting up and walking out of frame.

Click here to read my interview with Angelos Rallis.

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3. Call Me by Your Name

I saw Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous romance at the beginning of a day in which I had four subsequent screenings scheduled, three of which were part of my jury duty for the Chicago International Film Festival. But when “Call Me by Your Name” ended, I realized to my dismay that I would need at least a few hours to recover before even giving the next picture a fair shot. This is the most liberating screen romance in many a moon, with a script by James Ivory (adapted from André Aciman’s novel) that is profoundly erotic without ever being explicit. As a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) retrieves submerged statues of sculpted male bodies off the coast of northern Italy, his 17-year-son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), experiences forbidden feelings that threaten to bubble to the surface. He’s become hopelessly smitten with Oliver (Armie Hammer, a decade older than Chalamet), the loose-limbed graduate student living with his family for the summer. Whereas Guadagnino’s 2009 film, “I Am Love,” was fueled by mounting excitement as its heroine broke out of a stifling trap, the director’s latest feature is set in a snug cocoon of safety where Elio and Oliver can explore their mutual infatuation, albeit in empty fields and behind closed doors. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”), deliberately obscures certain shots—either through blurred focus or overlapping color—causing us to focus on the emotion rather than the details in the frame, and what swooning emotions they are. Hammer hasn’t been this exuberant onscreen since “The Social Network,” but this is Chalamet’s film, first and foremost, and his performance—navigating the tenuous line between adolescence and adulthood—is one for the ages, culminating in a final shot that ranks among the all-time greatest. And though “Coco” probably has the Best Song competition all sewn up, I defy voters to find two original tunes more immaculate than Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon.”

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2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Rarely does my most anticipated film of the year live up to my loftiest expectations, but Martin McDonagh’s glorious third feature is a rare case indeed. The rage spawned by our KKK-empowering, p—sy-grabbing, morally bankrupt political era is embodied in the swagger and dagger-laden glare of a ferocious Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, an unapologetically “nasty woman” who could make Clint Eastwood tremble in his cowboy boots. When local police drag their heels on tracking down her daughter’s killer, Hayes sends them an outraged message in the form of three billboards, garnering the attention of the media and a disgruntled public. At the center of her crosshairs is Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a police chief well-respected by his neighbors, despite the acute racism of his officers. Sam Rockwell gives the performance of his career as Dixon, the slowest-witted doofus on the force, whose complex character arc requires him to be uproariously childish, scary as hell (during a destructive tantrum lensed in one masterful take by Ben Davis) and surprisingly touching once his conscience starts to awaken. McDonagh is a poet of the profane, crafting dialogue that never ceases to provoke an audible response from audiences. There is plenty to applaud here, such as Hayes’ monologue about how all members of gangs are culpable, a speech that is especially potent in light of the film industry’s multitudinous harassment scandals. What is most refreshing about this picture is that it is as sobering as it is hilarious. McDonagh’s script continuously subverts our expectations and assumptions about its characters, serving as a sharp critique of our knee-jerk culture’s mob mentality. Peter Dinklage is extraordinarily touching as a man who takes a liking to Hayes, but is put off by her own prejudices regarding his dwarfism. If Hayes were a character unblemished by fault, her crusade wouldn’t be nearly as exhilarating. Beyond its stark portrait of disillusionment and its brutal bursts of violence, this is the most affirmative film McDonagh has made, suggesting how we can come together as a divided nation during such uncertain times. Hayes’ search for justice may be a daunting one, but nevertheless, she persists.

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1. Twin Peaks: The Return

Declaring David Lynch’s limited Showtime series as the Best Film of 2017 sure sounds like an alternative fact. It’s not a normal choice by any stretch of the imagination, but it sure as hell ain’t been a normal year. As a deconstruction of our current addiction to nostalgia, indelibly examined by online critic Lindsay Ellis and epitomized by Han Solo’s now-immortal trailer line, “Chewie, we’re home,” Lynch’s 18-part opus is far and away the most thrilling cinematic achievement of the year. In many ways, it feels like the masterpiece Lynch has been building up to over the past four decades. Indeed, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the director’s debut picture, “Eraserhead,” and there’s a direct line that can be drawn between that film and this one, crystallizing in the form of Dougie Jones. This is the identity taken on by FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, in his best performance(s) to date) after he is freed from the “Lodge,” a parallel dimension where he remained trapped during the quarter-century since the finale of “Twin Peaks: Season 2.” For much of “The Return,” Dale remains Dougie, a 21st century Chauncey Gardiner who is perpetually bewildered and bemused by everything he encounters. The only dialogue he’s able to utter are fragments of whatever sentence happens to be fed to him, and the meaning that people read into his words is hilarious, touching and unsettlingly reminiscent of how Trump got elected. Unlike the two seasons of “Twin Peaks” that aired in the ’90s, “The Return” is directed in its entirety by Lynch and appears to be much closer to his original vision for the show, which he first put onscreen in 1992’s wrenching prequel, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Beneath all the folksy humor and surrealistic mystery, the story of “Twin Peaks” is ultimately a tragedy about a young woman, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), who is killed by her own father, Leland (Ray Wise).

Time paradoxes and alternate realities were concepts Lynch had always intended on exploring in “Twin Peaks,” and did incorporate to a degree in 2007’s “Inland Empire.” These parallel timelines are fueled by the characters’ need to escape certain truths of their existence, but it’s not long before the illusion collapses in on itself. The script written by Lynch and “Twin Peaks” co-creator Mark Frost brilliantly mirrors the disorientation brought about by our era in which roughly half of the American public appears to be living in a different realm of consciousness (the director’s trademark doppelgängers could themselves be dubbed “alternative facts”). Lynch and Frost even manage to reflect our paranoia of nuclear annihilation in the most visionary chapter of all, “Gotta Light?”, which accompanies Krzysztof Penderecki’s agelessly haunting composition, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” with the exact imagery it was meant to evoke—resulting in a horrifying inverse of the creation sequence in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (set to Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa”). The marvelous ensemble mixes “Twin Peaks” vets (such as Grace Zabriskie and the late Miguel Ferrer) with Lynch regulars (Laura Dern and Naomi Watts deliver some of their best work ever) and many new faces (Matthew Lillard and Michael Cera are major standouts). I still can’t stop thinking about the final hour, which pays homage to two Jimmy Stewart classics, Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” while leaving the door open to endless interpretations. In the midst of such bewildering days in our country, “Twin Peaks: The Return” illustrates how we’re bound to get lost if we fail to look at the details that would otherwise escape our gaze. For all of its disturbing elements, I found this extraordinary marvel to be therapeutic in how it forced me to slow down and savor the weirdness. If you ever find yourself hopelessly lost within its abstract labyrinth, just remember the advice Lynch once gave to a puzzled fan: “In order to follow my films, you must concentrate on the emotion. Because if you concentrate on the buttermilk, you’ll end up going to the dairy.”

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TOP HONORABLE MENTIONS

From Emily Dickinson to Mildred Hayes, 2017 has been jam-packed with kick-ass females, and the same can be said of my three top honorable mentions for the year. I’d argue that HBO’s Emmy-winning “Big Little Lies” also deserves to be judged as a movie, since it is the singular vision of its director, Jean-Marc Vallée (“Wild”), and creator/screenwriter David E. Kelley (“Boston Legal”). Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, this darkly funny drama interweaves the lives of three mothers (Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley) in the days leading up to a murder. The particulars of the crime are left ambiguous until the very final moments, which left me breathless and amazed. All three leads remind us of how great they can be when given strong material, while Laura Dern steals her scenes as a prime suspect. Yet my favorite performance of all was delivered by Robin Weigert as Kidman’s therapist, piercing through her client’s denial without ever having to raise her voice. Just as I included Ryan Murphy’s self-contained FX series, “American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” in my 2016 honorable mentions, the ace show runner’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” takes the same slot this year. To this TCM-binging classic movie devotee, “Feud” was the most sheerly pleasurable miniseries I’ve ever seen, relishing in the acid-tongued barbs of its two towering divas, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, a dead ringer) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), without diluting the tragedy of the studio-bred manipulation that kept them at odds. You won’t find better costumes than the ones worn by Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) or more mind-boggling production design than in the episode recreating the 1963 Oscars, where the camera follows Crawford in an unbroken take as she strolls backstage. Earning the highest supporting honors is Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita, Crawford’s devoted maid and spiritual cousin of Thelma Ritter. As much as I love all of the aforementioned titles, none of them made me laugh harder than Alex Huston Fischer and Rachel Wolther’s 40-minute gem, “Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone.” It’s a gleefully playful showcase for the choreographed dance-comedy act, Cocoon Central Dance Team, comprised of the uproarious Sunita Mani, Tallie Medel and Eleanore Pienta (star of Drew Tobia’s wonderful film, “See You Next Tuesday”). Sending up the absurd industry standards for women while thumbing their nose at the male gaze, this trio is as vital as they are entertaining. A sketch satirizing brainless post-screening Q&As is alone worth the price of admission, and lucky for you, the admission is free. You can watch the whole film on YouTube right now. Seriously, check it out here. It’s a gas.

30 MORE HONORABLE MENTIONS

“Baby Driver,” Edgar Wright

“Bronx Gothic,” Andrew Rossi

“Buster’s Mal Heart,” Sarah Adina Smith

“Columbus,” Kogonada

“Communion,” Anna Zamecka

“The Disaster Artist,” James Franco

“Ethel & Ernest,” Roger Mainwood

“Faces Places,” Agnès Varda & JR

“Family Film,” Olmo Omerzu

“Foxtrot,” Samuel Maoz

“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” Sebastian Junger & Nick Quested

“I Am Another You,” Nanfu Wang

“Killing Jesús,” Laura Ortega

“Lady Macbeth,” William Oldroyd

“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992,” John Ridley

“Lucky,” John Carroll Lynch

“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” Noah Baumbach

“Mr. Gaga,” Tomer Heymann

“My Happy Family,” Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß

“Obit,” Vanessa Gould

“The Other Side of the Wall,” Pau Ortiz

“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson

“The Square,” Ruben Östlund

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson

“Thelma,” Joachim Trier

“This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous,” Barbara Kopple

“Thoroughbreds,” Cory Finley

“Unarmed Verses,” Charles Officer

“Whose Streets?”, Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis

“Your Name,” Makoto Shinkai

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