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2017 Top 10

The Year's Best Films

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1. The Florida Project Sean Baker’s follow-up to the stylish, street-level Tangerine is the sort of film that sticks with you, whether you like it or not. In part a tribute to The Little RascalsThe Florida Project works on that level alone, with a low-pitched camera following incorrigible kids around a Florida motel in the shadow of Disney World. But Baker’s narrative collage pieces together much more: an image of sub-working-class America struggling to find its way up from the depths of drug addiction and cycles of abuse. Like Willem Dafoe’s observant motel manager, you’ll be challenged by a mother-daughter relationship that’s both sympathetic and deserving of judgment.

2. Call Me by Your Name  In its wistful pairing of a twentysomething and a teenager, director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory apply a soulful sophistication to the complexities of first love, even more troubling as "the love that dare not speak its name." As acted by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name was unmatched this year for lifelike rhythms and attention to human behavior. Since it’s also a travelogue filigreed with fragments of antique European art, literature, philosophy, and music, it’s also a gorgeous, reflective film that unfolds at a deceptively lazy pace: in point of fact, there’s not a moment in it that isn’t necessary.

3. A Quiet Passion Were you to judge A Quiet Passion merely as a straightforward biopic of the ever-enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson, it would already stand as one of the year’s biggest successes. Writer-director Terence Davies masterfully recreates Dickinson’s 19th-century upper-class Amherst, Massachusetts milieu, tapping into the verbal and emotional expression of the time (including the poet’s work repurposed as narration). But the film goes further, making the imaginative leap to understand what it meant to be an extraordinary woman who just wasn’t made for her times. Cynthia Nixon heartbreakingly embodies a woman straining against the strictures of society and her own body.

4. BPM: Beats Per Minute Few narrative films have as realistically portrayed the essence of activism as BPM: Beats Per Minute. Robin Campillo’s French drama plants itself square in the middle of a tight-knit community—that of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s—and details the group’s collective thought and action in protesting big pharma and the government’s misguided and lazily paced approaches to the AIDS crisis. Meanwhile, as AIDS stalks them, the men and women of ACT UP fight for their own lives, both in the conventional sense and by continuing to live loud, boldly expressing their love for each other on the streets and in the sheets.

5. The Work Toxic masculinity continues to plague America, and Jairus McLeary & Gethin Aldous’ astonishing documentary illuminates both the problem and a path to redemption. Within the gates of Folsom Prison, invited civilians sit among lifers and swiftly tear down the walls over an intensive four-day therapeutic workshop. Before your eyes, long-bottled demons emerge from these men, some of whom could be your friends and neighbors and others of whom society at large has tried to put out of sight and out of mind. Riveting from first to last, The Work redefines male strength as the bravery to face, and thereby begin to heal, the internally bleeding wounds that keep so many men angry and volatile.

6. I, Tonya Think you know the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and the infamous clubbing of her teammate and rival Nancy Kerrigan? Think again. This savage, sad comedy-drama schools us on the ferocious social climb of Harding (a deeply committed Margot Robbie) under a terrifying stage mother (Alison Janney, never better), Harding’s abusive relationship with Jeff Gillooly, and how a merciless media shot first and asked questions later. At a time when most Americans get their news filtered through social media and YouTube, we’re not so removed from sleazy tabloid media as we’d like to think.

7. The Lost City of Z Like a lot of the best history-based films, writer-director James Gray’s The Lost City of Z takes some liberties with its true story on the way to expressing deeper truths. Explorer Percy Fawcett obsessed with finding the titular site somewhere deep in the Amazon rainforest. That obsession resides at the core of a story about yearning, fathers and sons, and the pressures and injustices of a class-stratified society, but Gray also arrives at an unexpected spirituality as a man, his boy at his side, stares into eternity and wonders what it all meant.

8. Frantz  Certainly among the top five greatest existential mysteries are the questions "Why are we here?", "Where do we go after we die?" and "What's going on in our heads?" Reality, memory, and wishful thinking often blur, helped along by stormy emotions. With his post-WWI drama Frantz, writer-director François Ozon plunges into these depths, playfully crafting a mystery with immediate practical questions as well as the eternal mysteries of the human heart and mind. Cannily visualizing the tale in black-and-white with splashes of color, Ozon teases romantic possibilities as younger and older generations reckon with the love and loss of wartime.

9. Nocturama This controversial, ice-cold drama of urban terrorism from Bertrand Bonello (Saint Laurent) begins as a gripping study in sustained tension and morphs at the halfway point into a surreal satire, as the lithe, sadly deluded young terrorists hide out in a tony department store and begin playing dress-up and with the toys on hand. The antiheroes seem more Bonnie-and-Clyde burn-the-world nihilists than the new revolutionaries they fancy themselves. As horrifying as their behavior is, the only thing worse is the political establishment’s response. Bonello hauntingly employs smooth camera moves and popular music to create a fantasia of youthful disaffection and the callous, self-defensive tyranny of our social and cultural institutions.

10. Lady Bird  Greta Gerwig’s semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale set in 2002 Sacramento, California locates the humor and nails the sudden emotions inherent in a teenager’s process of discovery (what disappointments guys can be, the indispensability of a true friend) and self-discovery. Beyond the coming-of-age specificity of time and place (including Catholic schooling), Lady Bird is a prime mother-daughter love story, replete with the tribulations of painful individuation and beautifully acted by awards-season frontrunners Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Long a respected comic actress and screenwriter, Gerwig moves to the front ranks of directors just as the movies need her most.

Honorable mention: Twin Peaks, Wormwood.

Runners-up: Phantom Thread; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Human Flow; Personal Shopper; Ex Libris: The New York Public Library; The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); Dawson City: Frozen TimeGet Out; A Fantastic Woman, Midsummer in Newtown.

More top docs: Chasing Coral, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, Dolores, Jane, Long Strange Trip.

Animated winners: Loving Vincent, The Breadwinner, Coco, My Life as a Zucchini, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea.

The Year's Worst Films

1. American Assassin  Based on the bestselling superspy novel by the late Vince Flynn, this repulsive macho fantasy seemed expressly designed to appeal to the readers of Soldier of Fortune Magazine. American Assassin was downright irresponsible in stoking fear of terrorism and making a hero out of a revenge-minded raw nerve. Horribly clichéd and insipidly tone-deaf action nonsense.

2. Father Figures Mamma mia, here we go again: another “who’s your daddy?” movie. Ed Helms and Owen Wilson lament their mother’s sex-positive days as they stalk the men who could be their fathers. The way this ends up going proves uncomfortable and thoroughly unfunny. Not even a climax involving Christopher Walken talking about “kitties” could enliven this dead-on-arrival “comedy”.

3. Geostorm Dean Devlin, better known as the co-writer of Independence Day and 1998’s ill-fated Godzilla reboot made his directing debut with this shamelessly stupid global-climate-change-themed disaster flick. A decent budget and sort-of stars like Gerard Butler cannot hide the fact that this is roughly at the intellectual and artistic level of Sharknado. Bonus points: there’s no actual "geostorm" in Geostorm.

4. Unforgettable Katherine Heigl’s divorcée really could use therapy. Instead she plots to take apart her ex’s new life with Rosario Dawson. This tasteless thriller, complete with cheap child endangerment, isn’t artful enough to distract from the sexist stereotype of the batty woman scorned. It took this plot for Warner Brothers to greenlight a movie written and directed by women this year?

5. The Dark Tower In a year where Stephen King became popular again, this much-anticipated adaptation was the one that totally whiffed it. Abandoning everything that made the books special, Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation turned King’s elaborate epic into the world’s worst YA movie, with a boy going on a thrill-less and incoherent journey as Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey look on helplessly.

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