If 2016 felt like a disastrous year for the human race, then 2017 was a political, societal, and planetary meltdown of epic proportions. Major American studio releases continued to chase reboot, rehash, and regurgitation culture; representing the nadir of a floundering business model. On the other hand, foreign films and documentaries flourished; showcasing a wide range of experiences reinforcing the daring artistic creativity human beings are capable of. The American films that did capture the zeitgeist; Jordan Peele's Get Out for example, were so steeped in political sentiment that the idea of post-Trump era cinema honestly felt like a rallying cry. Coupled with the "Me Too" movement, which saw Hollywood reeling as the swamp began to drain, and 2017 (as scary as it was) saw a significant shift in the culture. The list of films represented here showcases that glimmer of hope that can stir within us. That cinema can still move us. That the movies matter. Long live the films. May they never die.
The Human Surge
Argentinian director Eduardo Williams's debut feature, The Human Surge, is one of the year's most daring experiments, following the lives of various young people in Buenos Aries, Mozambique and the Phillipines by focusing on their aimless addiction to technology. The film casts a strange spell of documentary/fiction vérité, with one passage of time in particular representing one of the most formally audacious transitions ever put to film.
With Robert Altman-esque zoom lenses and a semi-improvised tone, Mike Ott and Nathan Silver's Actor Martinez emerges as either an exploitative stunt or simply a commentary on our need to exploit and be exploited. A struggling actor attempts to tap into his inner thespian...or something. Hilarious and oddly moving.
The brilliance of director Alain Guiraudie's Staying Vertical is that it never explicitly tells us what should be taken seriously or what is meant as a droll joke. A drifting screenwriter randomly marries a woman he meets on a farm, runs away with her young child, and gets into some truly bizarre sexual situations in a film which evokes late period Luis Buñuel. Absurdly comic and wildly provocative.
The Florida Project
If 2015's Tangerine was writer-director Sean Baker's lo-fi view of adult friendship, then The Florida Project is his Technicolor epic about childhood. The story of a precocious 6-year-old, her haphazard mother, and the kindly motel manager that watches after them is so lovingly realized that the effect is one of total immersion.
The basic plot of Oliver Laxe's Mimosas involves two nomads carrying a sheikh's remains across a perilous mountainside joined by a strange wanderer obsessed with the supernatural, but the bewilderingly gorgeous landscapes dwarf the human characters. The results are episodic, bewildering, and hypnotic; a cinematic experience which actively resists classification.
A dead-eyed satire about white upstate liberals who are obsessed with the idea of blackness as long as they can control it, Jordan Peele's Get Out was 2017's movie of the moment. Deftly balancing comedy, drama, satire, and horror elements without ever losing control of the tone, Peele's film proves to be an intellectually probing look at 21st-Century racism.
The pleasure of writer-director Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is the way it doesn't try to upend genre expectations. Instead, the film is an intelligently realized depiction of high school life told with a streak of welcome passive aggressiveness. The central prickly mother/daughter relationship is ultimately the heart of the film, proving Gerwig understands that paying attention and love are often the same thing.
Playing like an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a cast of grimacing buffoons, Bruno Dumont's Slack Bay mixes exacting formalism with absurdism to brilliant effect. The film's three central groups are basically on hand to symbolize exaggerated versions of class differences, with everyone's favorite French enfant terrible in a rib-tickling mood. Slow cinema as gonzo satire.
While superficially about a rat control problem in Baltimore, Theo Anthony's Rat Film is a vast, time-shifting study in racial oppression, residential segregation, and the quirky people inhabiting impoverished spaces. Surrealist imagery, chilly narration, and an electronic score by Dan Deacon capture the insidious nature of the powerful preying on the powerless in this strangely mesmerizing essay film.
The Lost City of Z
Writer-director James Gray's The Lost City of Z is a vision of two tales of obsession. The first concerns an archaeologist searching for a fabled civilization at the dawn of the 20th century, while the second is of a filmmaker searching for his own version of transcendence. Gray's marvelous-looking epic is ultimately more interested with the internal purgatory of the mind than the geographical space of the jungle.
I am Not Your Negro
Ingeniously meshing archival footage of James Baldwin with clips from old films, commercials, still photographs, and other mixed media, Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro presents a staggering collective vision of the United States as a nation drowning in self-delusion and hatred. Peck's towering achievement shows how Baldwin's mission to reflect our bigoted institutions became a microcosm for the moral emptiness of the human soul.
Zhao Liang's Behemoth is a work of stunning power and socioeconomic specificity examining the dehumanizing effects of industrialization in China. Structured around a naked wandering man (who becomes our Virgil-like guide in Dante's Divine Comedy mode) as he gazes out toward natural landscapes, Liang's film offers us a visual lesson in guerilla-style formalism and a reminder of how environmental decay aligns with human loss.
A man traversing the wilderness of northern Portugal in search of rare birds forms a stand-in for 13th-century Saint Anthony of Padua in João Pedro Rodrigues's The Ornithologist; a modernist queer narrative that's baffling, surreal, and yet completely cohesive. A major work from a major filmmaker.
On the Beach at Night Alone
Hong Sang-soo dives into his personal life with the revealing On the Beach at Night Alone, which gives Kim Min-hee the spotlight as an actress dealing with the aftermath of an affair. Autobiography and aesthetic distance combine in fascinating ways as Min-hee delivers a raw, sensitive, and masterful performance as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The Death of Louis XIV
Watching an overweight, gangrene-infested king slowly waste away might sound like an exercise in audience trolling, but Albert Serra's blackly funny The Death of Louis XIV remains a singular achievement. A perverse, immaculately designed period piece with a herculean turn by the great Jean-Pierre Léaud, Serra's obsession with minutiae, sound design, and the human body creates a study in bringing aristocratic royalty down to the realm of mere mortals.