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.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Bill Morrison's extraordinary documentary tells the story of the 1978 discovery of over 500 nitrate film prints dating from 1910 to 1920, and links that discovery with the Klondike Gold Rush. Ambitiously mounted, painstakingly researched, and edited with delicate grace, Dawson City: Frozen Time is an act of preservation with the full knowledge that time decays all things, imploring us to look closer at the faces eroding from the edges of a burning reel.
Men serving heavy-duty time in Folsom Prison engage in an intensive four-day group therapy program in Jairus McLeary's astonishing documentary The Work. This is a film depicting toxic masculinity being drained from the inside out, with unexpected bursts of emotion, violence, and soul-bearing. Difficult to watch, but also an essential snapshot of the cyclical nature of fatherless sons.
Joshua and Ben Safdie's riff on Scorsese's After Hours sees the duo entering straightforward genre territory while still retaining their distinct aesthetic. Aided immensely by Robert Pattinson's scruffy charisma and a throbbing electronic score, Good Time emerges as a nightmarish trip through the city's grimy underbelly, shot through neon-lit signs and darkened corridors by the gifted cinematographer Sean Prince Williams. A breathless neo-noir ride.
The emotional complexity of Olivier Assayas's Personal Shopper doesn't rest on whether spirits exist or not, but on how human beings choose to deal with the living and remember the dead. Using striking compositions, deft camera movements suggesting things unseen, and a thoroughly distinctive central performance from Kristen Stewart, Assayas has crafted a striking meditation on identity.
A diptych showing acts of terrorism from a group of Paris youngsters, Bertrand Bonello’s latest is a seemingly political film which treats politics obliquely. A stunning work of aesthetic control and tone; jumping from planning, execution, to hanging out inside a decadent shopping mall, Nocturama uses the millennial obsession with technology as a jumping off point for a damning critique of post-modern culture.
A Quiet Passion
The historical specificity of poet Emily Dickinson as an elusive presence given to flights of fancy and crippling melancholy makes Terence Davies's A Quiet Passion that rare biopic which transcends the genre. Anchored by Cynthia Nixon's transformative performance, the film nails the essential element of why art is important and consequently, why someone like Dickinson was such a major figure worthy of adoration.
Asghar Farhadi doubles down on the symbolic nature of his film's title, drawing on not only Arthur Miller, but domestic melodrama and procedural thriller in The Salesman; the tale of a series of simple mistakes which splinter into a horrible event. A triumph of humanism which earns its sentiments by engaging with the ugliness of human nature rather than running from it.
Writer-director Kôji Fukada's Harmonium is startling in how emotional and psychological unraveling is tied into symmetrical framing and detail-oriented set design. Essentially a domestic drama about a family coming unglued after the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Fukada's devastating gut-punch of a film conjures the darkest depths of the human soul while still leaving you with more questions than answers.
South Korean-born writer-director Kogonada's remarkable debut feature charts the friendship between a young woman and an older man in a way which feels almost radical; with the mysterious pull of human interaction bracketed by the town's imposing architectural structures. Quietly unassuming, aesthetically beautiful, and unbearably moving; Columbus is the rare American film which takes the time to move at its own hushed rhythms.
For pure cinematic pleasure, Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of a couturier and his muse set in 1950s London is tough to overcome. The film is a subversion of the troubled male genius placating a woman who inspires his art, a 21st-century acknowledgment of female autonomy, a brittle black comedy of manners, and a visually ravishing love story. Above all else, Phantom Thread is Anderson's most mature and mysterious work; by turns haunting, strange, lovely, and neurotic. The year's greatest achievement by a long stretch, and possibly a masterpiece.
Other favorites that just missed the list:
Song to Song, I, Olga Hepnarova, The Untamed, I Called Him Morgan, Mudbound