2017 was the year of fanboys and wonder women, as the former grew almost deafening in their zeal (permitting no dissent on the unquestioned genius of the DC, Marvel, Star Wars and Apes franchises, even when the movies themselves disappointed), while the latter found a common voice and courageous platform to take on the honchos in showbiz, politics and many other fields who had the nerve to ignore that famous superhero adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“The Reckoning” (my nickname for this essential, long-overdue upheaval) has finally brought accountability for the kind of sexual harassment and all-around misbehavior no one should have to face in the workplace, toppling some of the biggest titans of our industry in the process. My heart broke when I read the words of ex-Weinstein employee Lauren O’Connor’s internal memo: “The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.” But the movies have long given us a model for optimism in such situations, demonstrating that if you can add up enough “zeroes,” it’s possible to take on whatever villainy lies before you — a lesson beautifully illustrated by everything from “The Shape of Water” to the latest “Star Wars” movie.
And yet, there remains an enormous gap in on-screen representation, owing to the alarming deficit of women and off-white directors in Hollywood. The same goes for voices of color, who have already expanded cinema’s horizons in so many invaluable ways (as this year’s game-changing “Get Out” showed). While the studios continue to churn out generic movies that recycle the same old stories, a new crop of voices is changing the conversation. My favorite movie of the summer was “Girls Trip,” which featured the kind of empowerment many others saw in “Wonder Woman,” and while neither cracked my top 20, that just goes to show how high I consider the bar for the year’s very best movies.
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1. “The Rider”
Technically speaking, “The Rider” doesn’t open until April 2018, but I’ve already cried my way through Chinese-born writer-director Chloé Zhao’s deeply humanistic docu-fiction hybrid twice (it won top honors in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section and at the Reykjavik Film Festival) and was duly impressed when the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominated it for best picture. Like “Moonlight” last year, “The Rider” goes off the beaten path to find fascinating characters we might otherwise never have the privilege of meeting on-screen — in this case, a Native American cowboy whose near-death rodeo injury leaves him with a metal plate in his head and a doctor’s order never to ride again. Zhao discovered her movie-star-handsome leading man, Brady Jandreau, on the Lakota reservation where she researched and shot her first feature, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” and she built this film around his personal story, enlisting Jandreau’s father, sister and quadriplegic best friend (another real-life rodeo casualty) to play versions of themselves. The groundbreaking result reveals another side of contemporary red-state America, in which a young man not yet old enough to vote must decide what to do with himself after he’s stripped of his one true passion.
2. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Speaking of red-state portraiture, writer-director Martin McDonough takes more critical aim at a backwater American town where local police chief Woody Harrelson has allowed a grisly murder to go unsolved. Frances McDormand is terrific as the victim’s mother, who tries to shame local law enforcement into action by posting hostile accusations on a series of abandoned billboards outside town. Too multiloquent for 140-character limits, McDonough doesn’t use Twitter, and yet he’s delivered a darkly satirical zeitgeist movie that demonstrates how short, impulsive messages blasted out into the world can have real consequences. Behind all that anger lies a sincere case for forgiveness.
3. “Get Out”
An even more ruthless satire, Jordan Peele’s breakout hit isn’t so much a horror movie as a heightened allegory of race relations in America today — “a documentary,” as the writer-director slyly teased after the Golden Globes slotted “Get Out” in their comedy category. Rather than attacking the obvious bigots, Peele’s “I Am Not Your Negro” thriller goes after those who consider themselves liberal, launching a daring direct attack on so many cultural codes long enforced by Hollywood: the white male gaze, the mixed-race couple taboo, the hapless wide-eyed African-American stereotype and the myth that we are somehow living in a post-racial society.
4. “Call Me by Your Name”
Whereas most filmmakers are limited to two senses to convey their vision — sight and sound — Italian director Luca Guadagnino somehow manages to suggest all five: The taste of tree-ripened apricots, the smell of dinner being prepared downstairs, the feel of warm sun on bare flesh. Yes, this is a gay movie, but it carries hardly any of the cliches that same-sex love stories usually entail. The conflict here isn’t internalized shame or the fear of exposure, but the ticking clock. It’s the story of being lucky enough to connect with another soul, and the pain of knowing your time together is limited.
5. “The Distinguished Citizen”
Comedies don’t get nearly enough respect come awards time, which is one reason I was delighted to serve on the jury of this year’s Monte Carlo Comedy Film Festival, where we honored this brilliant send-up of a self-important expat author (Oscar Martínez, who won best actor in Venice). Operating in the Alexander Payne vein, co-directors Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn have crafted a perceptive human comedy about the insecurity/vanity that fuels creative personalities, and the disconnect between artists and their audience. Though selected as Argentina’s Oscar submission last year, the movie skipped U.S. theaters and is now available on Netflix.
6. “Blade Runner 2049”
This list may be light on big studio movies, but 2017 yielded plenty of reason to be encouraged, as releases such as “Blade Runner 2049,” “Dunkirk” and “mother!” demonstrated a willingness by the majors to gamble on bold visions from serious auteurs. While I’ve never quite understood the cult that surrounded Ridley Scott’s original, director Denis Villeneuve’s 35-years-later sequel ingeniously reinvents its central question: “What does it mean to be human?” And though I fear the costly production wasn’t enough of a hit to support the intended sequels (Haram Abbas’ and Jared Leto’s characters are left stranded), it provides some much-needed emotional closure.
7. “The Shape of Water”
Monster-movie maven Guillermo del Toro turns the genre on its head with this forbidden love story between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins, so expressive even without words) and the mysterious creature held captive in the government lab where she works. Though I’ve long admired del Toro’s vision, this is the first time all the pieces have come together perfectly, bound together by the poetic notion that powerless individuals are collectively stronger than the institutions that oppress them. To the extent that great cinema allows us to identify with the outsider, del Toro’s masterpiece celebrates voiceless and invisible people everywhere.
8. “The Square”
This was a peculiar year at the Cannes Film Festival, as a generation of filmmakers who follow in the footsteps of Michael Haneke and his austere brand of social critique managed to outshine the artist who inspired them: Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing a Sacred Deer,” Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless” and this sprawling Palme d’Or winner from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund were each fresh provocations, while Haneke’s “Happy End” felt like a worn-out greatest-hits record. An outrageous collection of socially awkward confrontations, Ostlund’s meaty art-world critique left me with the most to chew on afterward — especially in its wild performance-art sequence.
9. “I, Tonya”
At turns hilarious and heart-breaking, this gonzo retelling of the circumstances leading up to the 1994 attack on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan opens with the claim, “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” suggesting a toxic kind of irreverence toward the scandal it depicts. But “I, Tonya” doesn’t so much glamorize the perpetrator as it recontextualizes Harding as a different kind of victim, addressing the issue of domestic violence with a kind of urgency that can’t be ignored. It also features 10-point performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
10. “Lost in Paris”
If “La La Land” and “The Artist” taught us anything, it’s that a massive audience awaits movies that dare to resurrect old-fashioned cinematic forms, so long as they do it with romance and charm. While I’m admittedly partial to the city, “Lost in Paris” has abundant supplies of both, being an irresistible throwback to old-school burlesque, the kind of near-silent physical comedy once practiced by Charlie Chaplin and company. Circus-trained duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon co-direct and co-star in this delightful romantic romp, which also serves as a sweet farewell to French screen legend Emmanuelle Riva.
Nota bene: If you’re the sort of stickler who disapproves of my including 2018 release “The Rider,” feel free to substitute any of the following exceptional movies for the 10th slot on my list: “Brigsby Bear,” “Contemporary Color,” “The Florida Project,” “Heal the Living,” “Lady Macbeth,” “Land of Mine,” “mother!,” “Phantom Thread,” “Raw” or “Sweet Virginia.”