The Best Films of 2017

By Zeke Trautenberg

During this tumultuous year, the movie theater was a site of refuge, introspection, and conflict. The year began with Donald Trump’s travel ban, an executive order which represented a challenge to openness and freedom of exchange. In response, the filmmakers nominated for the Best Foreign-language Film at the Academy Awards released a defiant statement, in which they extolled film as a cosmopolitan remedy to the politics of nativism: “So we’ve asked ourselves: What can cinema do? Although we don’t want to overestimate the power of movies, we do believe that no other medium can offer such deep insight into other people’s circumstances and transform feelings of unfamiliarity into curiosity, empathy and compassion – even for those we have been told are our enemies.”

The second half of 2017 was no less tumultuous. The revelations of dozens of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, first revealed in The New York Times and The New Yorker, ushered in the most significant reshaping of the power dynamics of Hollywood in the industry’s history. Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra, Salma Hayek, and the hundreds of other brave women and men who have come forward with their stories of abuse at the hands of Weinstein and other men in Hollywood have brought about a sea change in the culture at large. Ultimately, reforming the film industry’s toxic workplace cultures and practices, will require fixing the longstanding discrimination against and lack of opportunities for women and minorities in Hollywood.

Amid the charged partisan atmosphere of the country and the fallout from the Weinstein scandal, the film industry continues to adapt to an increasingly digital world. The proposed merger of Disney and Fox is a response to the growing clout, budget, and subscriber base of Netflix. This mega merger may well as a sign of things to come as studios consolidate to stave off competition from Amazon, Apple, and Netflix.

The list that follows is the product of my year at the cinema (and in front of my TV). I did not have the chance to see every one of the acclaimed or terrible films (here’s looking at you Geostorm) released in American cinemas this year, but all the movies listed here are worthy of your time.

10. Endless Poetry

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Throughout his peripatetic career, Jodorowsky has returned time and again to his favorite subject: himself. Endless Poetry is a filmic memoir, which unfolds in nineteen-fifties Santiago, as a young Jodorowsky (played by the filmmaker’s son, Adán) comes of age as a poet. As occurs in The Dance of Reality (2013)—which is based on Jodorowsky’s youth in a small town in northern Chile—, Endless Poetry features repeat, direct interventions by Jodorowsky himself. In Endless Poetry Jodorowsky conjures imaginative sequences, production design, and characters amid his oppressive home life. One memorable sequence depicts the bedroom walls of fellow poet Enrique Lihn’s bedroom covered from floor to ceiling in scribbling. This three-dimensional page serves as a mirror to the film itself, in which present, past, and future intersect.

9. Ladybird

Director: Greta Gerwig

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Greta Gerwig’s first film is a coming-of-age story about a young woman in Sacramento in the early 2000s. The film follows Lady Bird (Saroise Ronan) during her senior year at Catholic school as she takes up theater, loses her virginity, and goes to prom. The film is laugh-out-loud funny and features a stellar cast, which includes Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, and Tracy Letts. In addition to portraying the pratfalls of young adulthood, the film depicts the frustrated pursuit of respectability and economic insecurity among middle-class Americans in the years leading up to the Great Recession.

8. I Am Not Your Negro

Director: Raoul Peck

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Raoul Peck’s documentary is based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House about the civil rights leaders Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Now (1965), another film about race in America by a director from the Caribbean, Peck’s film is a confrontational call to action. Peck juxtaposes the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence against African Americans with Baldwin’s searing analysis of race in twentieth-century America. The film underscores the connections these two periods by bookending the film with images of recent protests against police brutality, but leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about where the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter intersect. In his voice-over narration, Samuel L. Jackson channels the author’s stoicism and resolve and delivers one of the most potent performances of his career.

7. Icarus

Director: Bryan Fogel

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There is always a certain lack of control in documentary filmmaking. The limited control filmmakers have over the ways their narrative unfolds is part of what distinguishes documentaries from fiction films. Bryan Fogel’s Icarus is a wonderful example of the ways in which documentary filmmaking is an adaptive art form. What begins as a story about an amateur cyclist who subjects himself to a rigorous doping regimen, transforms mid-way into a geopolitical thriller about a Russian sports scientist at the heart of one of the biggest scandal of modern sports: the systematic, state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes across decades. The scientist in question, Grigory Rodchenkov, is the kind of colorful character— his wardrobe includes bright orange shorts—that documentary filmmakers dream of. As the danger for Rodchenkov increases, Fogel grapples with how to intervene and tell a story that is no longer his own.

6. After the Storm

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

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After the Storm tells the story of Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a divorced father and novelist as he grapples with how to be a father after his recent divorce. Ryota works as a private detective, while struggling to write a second novel. However, instead of paying his alimony, the gumshoe spends his salary on his gambling habit. Abe communicates the protagonist’s sense of perpetual exhaustion and weariness with his slouched shoulders and hangdog expression. Ryota loves his son, but struggles to be a good father. The distance between father and son is exemplified by a memorable scene in which the author and detective watches his child play baseball with binoculars while sitting in his car. The film climaxes during a nocturnal summer storm which traps Ryota, his ex-wife, and son in the same apartment. As the rain falls, the fractured family renews the terms of their relationship and Ryota forges a closer bond with his son by sharing memories of his own childhood.

5. Call Me By Your Name

Director: Luca Guadagnino

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Luca Gaudagnino is a master of the contemporary melodrama. His previous films I Am Love (2009) and A Bigger Splash (2015) unfold in settings heavy with symbolism—an old house, an island in the Mediterranean—and Call Me By Your Name is no exception. Guadagnino transforms a villa in Northern Italy into the site of first romance for Elio (Timothée Chalamet). The arrival of the handsome Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is there to assist Elio’s father with archaeological research, elicits a potent mixture of self-doubt, shame, and desire from the cosmopolitan teenager. Although the film depicts Elio’s emotional turmoil with an earnestness that may grate on some, its emphasis on naked feeling and passion is all part of its bittersweet fun. And if you need one reason to see Call Me By Your Name, stay for Michael Stuhlbarg’s monologue on life, love, and the loss, which is the single most memorable scene of the year.

4. Frantz

Director: François Ozon

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François Ozon’s Frantz follows Adrien (Pierre Niney) and Anna (Paula Beer), two characters who are bound together by the same man, the recently deceased Frantz. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the film is an allegory of Franco-German relations, but also an exploration of guilt and the horrors of war. Shoot in gorgeous black and white, the film’s visuals are a departure for Ozon, who uses color to great effect in Potiche (2010) and The New Girlfriend (2014). Like these earlier films, Frantz features magnificent costumes (designed by Pascaline Chavanne), and a healthy dose of melodrama. And, as in In the House (2012), Frantz revels in the slippery nature of fiction. Ozon challenges viewers to discern the reason for Frantz’s visit to Germany and the meaning of the sentimental stories the interloper tells Anna’s grieving family.

3. The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

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The Shape of Water had been swimming around in Guillermo Del Toro’s head for years, before he got the idea that made it all click: the story had to pass “through the service entrance.” Set in the 1960s, the film follows the mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a top-secret research facility—a recurring setting in Del Toro’s films—where scientists study a creature they captured from a river in the Amazon. Elisa falls in love with the creature, who like her cannot speak. Together with her gay artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and black co-worker (Octavia Spencer), Elisa sets out to free the creature from the lab and its vicious director of security (Michael Shannon). The film is an allegory of being different in a world built on the principles of order and knowing your place. Working with a budget of under twenty million dollars, Del Toro makes a film that looks many times more expensive. The production design incorporates art deco and modernism, with acute attention to detail. The special effects are also remarkable. For the underwater scenes, Del Toro used the dry-for-wet method, which involves suspending the actors and props on wires, pumping in smoke, using fans to create the illusion of movement, utilizing light caustics (projecting images of light in water), and shooting it all in slow motion.

2. Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

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A horror film and social satire, Get Out is an incisive depiction of race and racism in early-twenty-first century America. The film follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as they embark on a weekend visit to Rose’s parents. As Chris and viewers see more of this WASPy household, which is seemingly haunted by a silent black maid and gardener, the manicured lawn and colonial style house transform into a nightmarish prison. The hypnosis sessions with Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener), in which Chris travels to the “sunken place,” is a frightening and vivid metaphor for black experience in America. The allegorical qualities of the film are enhanced by its pitch-perfect incorporation of the horror genre, from the eerie drive through the woods to the hidden laboratory in the basement.

1. Wormwood

Director: Errol Morris

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The genre and medium-bending Wormwood is a film of the streaming age. This documentary-cum-series with a running-time of four hours was produced and released by Netflix in six parts and released in a limited run as a stand-alone film. Wormwood centers on the death of Frank Olson (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the fictional scenes), an Army doctor who died after falling to his death from his New York City hotel room in 1953. Errol Morris interviews Olson’s son, Eric who has dedicated much of his life to finding out what happened to his father. The Cold War, biological weapons, Hamlet, the Book of Revelation, and the misdeeds of the CIA intersect in this Russian Doll of a film. Morris offers a masterclass in the juxtaposition of sound and images, the use of split screen (the scenes with Eric Olson were shot with ten cameras), and, as A.O. Scott puts it, dogged cinematic sleuthing. The film’s use of fictional sequences alongside the talking head interviews and archival footage that are standards of the documentary genre, add depth to a film about the nature of truth and the pain of the search for truth. Towards the end of Wormwood, the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh tells Morris: “But don’t you know how wonderful it is not to have an ending?” In lieu of offering closure to the story of Frank Olson, Wormwood douses the viewer in a bitterness for which there is no salve.

Honorable Mentions

Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan

Graduation – Cristian Mungiu

It Comes at Night – Trey Edward Shults

Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev

Marjorie Prime – Michael Almereyda

Quest – Jonathan Olshefski

The Florida Project – Sean Baker

The Lost City of Z – James Gray

The Other Side of Hope – Aki Kaurismäki

The Unknown Girl - Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Photos: Warner Bros./ABCKO/A24/Magnolia/Netflix/Gaga/Sony Pictures Classics/Fox Searchlight/Universal/Netflix

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)

The Best Films of 2016

By Zeke Trautenberg

Like every year, 2016 was chock full of movies, some good, some bad, some starring Steven Seagal. My list of the ten best films of the year is an imperfect, unabashedly subjective look back at the year in film. It reflects my preference for art and genre cinema, as well the mundane need to balance my movie-going with work and life. Go watch these movies, and then see them again before the films of 2017 take over the marquee.

10. Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

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Like his previous film, the prison drama Starred Up (2013), Hell or High Water depicts masculinity at its most toxic and self-destructive. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play a pair of bank robbers in dusty West Texas amid the Great Recession of 2008. The film is a portrait of a depressed economic landscape: the robbers pass houses in foreclosure, vacant store fronts, and deserted main streets. The film plays its genre trope straights, while the film’s Janic point of view—following both the cops and the robbers—foments a slow-burning tension that erupts in violence. Mackenzie’s decision to withhold the outlaws’ motives until the second half of the film and instead let viewers unravel the pattern underlying their robberies makes for a smart and exhilarating ride.

9. The Treasure

Director: Corneliu Poromboiu

Economic precariousness is the impetus for the characters of Corneliu Poromboiu’s The Treasure, a black satire of bureaucracy, inequality, and austerity politics in contemporary Romania. The film is a tale of two neighbors, both members of the country’s vulnerable middle class, who search for treasure that is supposedly buried at an old house in the countryside. With the help of a hapless metal detector operator and armed with patient resignation, the neighbors dig up red earth deep into the night. The film’s sardonic epilogue culminates in a playground, where the banal pursuit of riches collides with children at play.

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Director: Taika Waititi

Like Taika Waititi’s previous films Eagle vs Shark (2007) and Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a coming-of-age film that trades in the earnest humor and self-awareness, and centers on the theme of family. The film follows Ricky Baker (the magnetic and charming Julian Dennison), an incorrigible orphan sent to live with foster parents in the New Zealand countryside. After tragedy befalls the household, Ricky flees to the woods and his foster father chases after him. The adolescent’s disappearance sets off a national manhunt led by an overzealous social worker, who fashions himself a kiwi Sarah Connor. The film plays with the action film genre, but keeps the action proportional to peaceful New Zealand—where Ricky quickly becomes a legend. The funniest film of 2016, it will leave you smiling for the lonely boy, who was “once rejected, now accepted.”

7. Demon

Director: Marcin Wrona

Demon is the final film of Polish director Marcin Wrona, who committed suicide shortly after the film’s premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival (the film was released theatrically in the U.S. in 2016). This posthumous work depicts twentieth and twenty-first century Poland through the genre of the horror film. Demon is set in an isolated farmhouse where the film’s expatriate protagonist celebrates his marriage. The festivities go awry before the wedding even begins, with fleeting apparitions and the unearthing of bones next to the long-abandoned house. As the wedding night unfolds, the ghosts of the past join the party. The drunken revelers struggle to take stock of the recent history that rolls in like a heavy fog. Memory, national identity, and family are unearthed in this muddy and gorgeous nightmare of a film.

6. The Lobster

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Quite a few patrons walked out of the screening of The Lobster I attended in May. What were they expecting? Anyone who has had the queasy pleasure of seeing or maybe just hearing about Lanthimos’s debut film Dogtooth (2009), should have been primed for weirdness. The Lobster continues Lanthimos’s exploration of people in enclosed environments subject to laws and pressures outside of their control. The premise of the film is that men and women have forty-five days to find a romantic partner. Should they fail to do so, they are turned into an animal of their choice. An esoteric exploration of marriage and friendship, with a talent show thrown in for good measure, The Lobster is the best date movie of 2016.

5. Neruda

Director: Pablo Larraín

Like Jackie, Larraín’s other 2016 biopic and an honorable mention, Neruda eschews the traditional tropes of the biopic. The film is a metacinematic portrayal of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) through the eyes of a fanatical detective (Gabriel García Bernal) tasked with hunting down the poet. The film is a playful fiction that weaves together detective novels, Cold War paranoia, and Neruda’s mythic stature in Chilean politics and culture. The film’s climactic final sequence unfolds amid the snow-capped Andes, where the hapless inspector calls out in vain for his poet. This snowy landscape, like the film itself, embodies the pensive lines from Neruda’s Canto General, in which myth and history intertwined: “Puede ser solo el viento/ Sobre la nieve/ Sobre la nieve, sí [. . .]”.

4. Elle

Director: Paul Verhoeven

The actress Isabelle Huppert has few peers. In 2016, she had memorable roles in both Elle and the honorable mention Things to Come. In Elle, Huppert plays a woman who is raped in her apartment by a masked assailant. In Huppert’s skilled hands and under Verhoeven’s campy sensibility (this is a Christmas movie after all), this original trauma set off a chain reaction of vengeance. The film is a sharp satire of Paris’s pleasure-seeking upper-middle class, video games, and melodrama. Verhoeven’s subversive humanism invites viewers to turn away, or better yet indulge in the madness.

3. The Handmaiden

Director: Chan-wook Park

In Chan-wook Park’s film, things are not as they appear. Like Elle and the next film on this list, The Handmaiden playfully subverts the conventions of cinematic narrative and genre. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea at the beginning of the twentieth century, the film is a madcap chamber piece featuring a small-time thief disguised as a chamber maid, a hysterical noblewoman haunted by ghosts, and a lecherous uncle who makes his living fabricating pornographic novels. The film’s screwball qualities are complemented by the ingenious use of multiple points of view. Things here are not what they seem.

2. The Love Witch

Director: Anna Biller

The Love Witch is the most fun film of 2016. Anna Biller’s film is the apotheosis of campy cinema. The saga of the love witch unfolds in forested cabins, a renaissance fair, and an all-women Victorian tearoom. Biller’s film is a subversive and sexy work of feminist cinema. Like its chameleonic protagonist, the film is a polyamorous cinematic experience, part late night movie, part cerebral art film, part technicolor explosion. The film’s extravagantly kinky costumes merit special mention and are far and away the best of 2016.

(As a side note, this critic kindly requests a midnight double feature of The Love Witch and Elle. Few films would make for a more twisted evening at the cinema).

1. Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is a coming-of-age story of limited choices and difficult circumstances. Barry Jenkins’ film is divided into three acts, each of which focuses on a different period in the life of Chiron, the film’s black and gay protagonist. The film depicts race, poverty, and sexuality with unflinching candor, and its humanist portrayal of its enigmatic protagonist erases cinematic clichés. Chiron’s on-screen transformation from a truculent child learning to swim to a hardened man sheathed in gold jewelry is a vital portrait of American life in the early-twenty-first century.

Honorable Mentions

Certain Women – Kelly Reichardt

Hail, Caesar! – Ethan and Joel Cohen

Jackie – Pablo Larraín

Manchester by the Sea –Kenneth Lonergan

The Measure of a Man – Stéphane Brizé

Morris From America – Chad Hartigan

Things to Come – Mia Hansen-Løve

Weiner – Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg


Photos: Film 44/OddLot Entertainment/Sidney Kimmel Entertainment; 42 Km Film/Les Films du Worso/Rouge International; Piki Films/Defender Films/Curious Film; Telewizja Polska; Film 4/Irish Film Board/Eurimages/Netherlands Film Fund/Greek Film Center/British Film Institute; AZ Films/Fábula/Funny Balloons/Participant Media/Reborn Production/Setembro Cine; SBS Productions/Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion/France 2 Cinéma/Entre Chien et Loup; Moho Film and Yong Film; Oscilloscope/Anna Biller Productions; A24/Plan B Entertainment.

(Published simultaneously in Párrafo 451)