Each year at this time, the reading public is blessed by best-of movie lists emanating from every conceivable punditocracy, none of which seem to address the basic fallacy at hand: No one, not even the most dedicated critic, sees everything released in a given year. The current rate of releases makes it all but impossible, even if one forgoes sleep (and even then...). So what does any top-10 list mean? It means, “These are my favorite movies from the ones I’ve actually seen.”
For no other reason than to distinguish myself from the pack, this lineup includes nine films. All were released in calendar year 2017. All are films I have actually seen, and are the films I liked the most out of many films I liked. It was, overall, a pretty good year, and one that may prove a harbinger of better times to come in the movie industry, at least for women.
“Wonder Woman,” which is not listed below, was a terrific action film and will do great things for the director Patty Jenkins, even if in the end it had to make too many concessions to the DC aesthetic and commerce in general. Greta Gerwig’s direction of “Lady Bird,” which is listed below, may mark the beginning of a brilliant second career. “I, Tonya” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” featured formidable female performances by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in the former and Frances McDormand in the latter. If this were a Top-11 list, they would have been in it.
Nine films that raised our faith in humanity because, after all, humans made these movies.
To be frank, movies like “Blade Runner” and any new “Star Wars” entry are not going to appeal to me, no matter how technologically advanced they may be. The truth is, digital technology has made awe an obsolete concept at the cinema. They can do anything now, so who cares?
In the end, everyone has their own list, though some have seen more movies than others. I think it’s safe to say I have seen hundreds, and that the ones below satisfied my not-so-idiosyncratic list of demands: that they create a universe that is not only absorbing but makes sense; that they achieve something that makes one happy to be alive; and that they raised our faith in humanity because, after all, humans made these movies.
“The Phantom Thread.” “Seamless” is not a word one wants to use in describing Paul Thomas Anderson’s redemption tale, only because a pun seems unworthy of Anderson’s finely tailored period piece. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the in-demand couturier of post-war London, a man of decided tastes and habits, one with a tendency to treat women as disposable. His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) manages his life the way Colonel Parker managed Elvis. He sews messages and tokens into the clothes he makes for the rich and royal; his sense of line and luxury are unparalleled; and he has a rigid regard for order, which is shattered by the arrival in his life of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress of uncertain European origin and a demeanor that disguises both her strength and sense of destiny. Despite his often dismissive regard, and the priority he gives his art over her gestures of love, she is determined to make him happy, no matter how hard he resists.
We must pray it’s not really Day-Lewis’s final film, which he has said it is.
While the romantic story is absorbing and the acting unimpeachable—we must pray it’s not really Day-Lewis’s final film, which he has said it is—what makes it a masterpiece is Anderson’s sublime cinematic sense of texture, mood and flawed humanity.
“Get Out.” Is it a comedy or a horror movie? It’s both, its laughs being rooted in an exploration of the black American nightmare, with perhaps the best ending ever. It is a triumphant directorial debut by erstwhile comedian Jordan Peele, who told this writer he wanted to make a movie that represented the black-horror audience. “It wasn’t a mistake that the ‘sunken place’”—the otherworldly dimension where the film’s hero, played by Daniel Kaluuya, occasionally finds himself—“was like this darkened theater, where no matter how much he screams at the screen he can’t affect what’s going on—that, to me, is what it was like being in a horror theater in a black neighborhood. You can scream, ‘Get out of the house!’ as much as you want, but the lead character doesn’t hear you.”
Guillermo del Toro’s fabulist masterpiece is half Cold War thriller, half creature feature.
“The Shape of Water.” Guillermo del Toro’s fabulist masterpiece is half Cold War thriller, half creature feature, in which a mute girl with an open heart becomes involved with a sea creature of supernatural abilities and, yes, a soul. Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” has been on my all-time top 10 list since that Spanish Civil War parable debuted in 2006, and in some ways “The Shape of Water” is not just its equal but a kind of older version: There is an innocent young woman, a mysterious creature and an embodiment of evil—played in “Shape” by Michael Shannon, as the brutal government agent who has dragged the creature back from the jungle to be used as anti-Soviet weaponry. It’s worth noting that the performances of the supporting cast—Olivia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins and Doug Jones as “Amphibian Man”—are nothing short of exhilarating.
Lady Bird’s sense of self is rooted in her parents’ example of Christian charity.
“Lady Bird.” The actress Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this quasi-autobiographical comedy about growing up and attending Catholic school in Sacramento in the early 1990s, and did so with precocious aplomb. The story of Christine McPherson—who has rechristened herself “Lady Bird” (played by the gifted Saoirse Ronan)—is very much an original treatment of adolescent social adjustment, but is also largely about family ties. Lady Bird’s fractious relationship with her uptight mother (Laurie Metcalf), for instance, is incited by mutual love; Lady Bird’s sense of self is rooted in her parents’ example of Christian charity, understanding and selflessness. It is a wonderfully entertaining film, but never frivolous.
“The Florida Project” The kids are not all right in this sublimely scroungy comic drama set in a lavender-nightmare tourist hotel set on the margins of Disney World (and America). The veteran Willem Dafoe is terrific as Bobby, the long-suffering but reluctantly benevolent manager of a place that serves as pay-as-you-go housing for the drug-using mothers of a gang of delinquent cherubs who make his days long and his nights sleepless. But the director Sean Baker has also surrounded him with talented newcomers, among them Brooklynn Prince as Moonee, and Bria Vinaite as her mother, Halley.
“Ex Libris.” Frederick Wiseman is the very grand old man of American documentary, one whose epic-length, nonfiction movies pretend to a kind of supreme objectivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Few viewers will check out of “Ex Libris”—his three-and-a-half hour survey of the New York Public Library, its branches as well as its majestic central location—not understanding Wiseman’s theses: that ignorance is evil; that those who would deny knowledge and its dissemination are doing the handiwork of Satan; and that a hunger for learning is a unifying aspect of human existence.
“No Stone Unturned.” The director Alex Gibney, an Oscar winner (for the Afghanistan War/torture exposé “Taxi to the Dark Side”), is equal parts muckraker and stylist and here essentially solves the long-unsolved, so-called Loughinisland Massacre of June 18, 1994, in which six Catholic men were murdered in their tiny Northern Ireland pub (while watching the World Cup match between Ireland and Italy). Five more patrons were wounded. Families were torn apart. The investigation was stymied. Gibney, using deft recreations and a dogged sense of justice, tells us who did it and why.
Even if you’re not a Deadhead, this nearly four-hour documentary is a breathtaking piece of work.
“Long Strange Trip.” Even if you’re not a Deadhead, Amir Bar-Lev’s nearly four-hour chronicle of the Grateful Dead is a breathtaking piece of work, a warts-and-all bio of a band that was its own subculture and in many ways ate itself.
“Call Me by Your Name.” A nearly ethereal, tonally perfect film about sexual awakening and memory, directed by the Sicilian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet.
Correction, Dec. 25: “Wonder Woman” is character from DC Comics, not Marvel as originally stated.