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Top 20 Films of 2017

For many, 2017 was a stressful and anxious year due to the person presently in the Oval Office and all the political divisions and frustrations this has both caused and brought into the light. I share those anxieties and frustrations, although I won’t allow myself to be consumed by them. Tom Hardy’s pilot from Dunkirk serves as an apt metaphor for the year that was: having survived the impossible and stood up to the enemy, he stands alone on a beach at sunset, moving forward into the unknown with a sense of principled resolve and a modicum of hope in spite of the circumstances.

This year, I graduated from Portland Seminary with my masters degree in theology; moved my family to Scotland to pursue PhD studies in theology, ethics, and film at the University of St Andrews; and joined the Online Film Critics Society. Thus, the themes I’ve discerned in film for 2017 are time and movement, a Deleuzian notion to be sure. This is true both for the films I viewed as well as my personal life over the past year.

Within cinema, movement focused on particular spaces and environments. The wandering camera follows characters around Austin, TX (Song to Song) and Kissimmee, FL (The Florida Project); country houses full of secrets (mother!, The Beguiled, Mudbound, Get Out), urban jungles and labyrinths (Good Time, Baby Driver, The Other Side of Hope), and intergalactic worlds (The Last Jedi, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant). These environments, and those who move in and out of them, are transformed by the experience. It’s been a year of change and transition, a year of movement.

Yet film (and life) is also defined by the passing of time, its ever-present grip on us as we glance nostalgically into the past even as we lean forward to see what’s coming around the bend in the future. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk wonderfully incarnated Andrey Tarkovsky’s descriptor of cinema as “sculpting in time” through the film’s trinitarian narrative framework. Films like A Quiet Passion, A Ghost Story, and Marjorie Prime all explored the passing of time in unique ways, singling out individuals’ reflection on time and mortality. The latter notion, that of death, also shone in Logan and Lucky (though not as much Logan Lucky), as well as films as diverse as BPM, The Unknown Girl, and Blade Runner 2049. It’s worth noting that two frequent commands in the Bible from God to humanity are “Don’t Fear” and “Remember,” both of which directly address time and movement, mortality and change.

As I now live in Scotland, my end-of-year lists will have to relocate too. While I’ve followed Mike D’Angelo’s NYC release date to determine whether or not a film was eligible to include here, I’m going to have to reconsider everything for the next few years of life in Europe. I was unable to see many of the most acclaimed films released in the US–Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and Coco will all arrive in the UK in 2018, and thus will be eligible for my year-end consideration in a year’s time. Films like Call Me By Your Name, Faces PlacesThe Disaster Artist, or The Big Sick just never made it to my corner of the world, so I’ve yet to see them. However, we’ve had Paddington 2 in theatres for weeks now, and I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi one day before my friends in North America. Such is life in St Andrews.

I’m sticking with 20 feature films for 2017, plus a special prize. Where I’ve written a review, I’ve included a link. Thanks for spending time with me through Cinemayward this past year.

20) The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola). Sofia Coppola explores “the male gauze,” the wounds inflicted by and upon women, as she embeds her characteristic atmospheric ennui in Civil War-era Virginia in The Beguiled, a wispy, moody melodrama with a steadily growing dis-ease and danger. Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes, and it’s well deserved. The design and art direction, the gauzy colors and lovely cinematography, the impeccable and timely sound design and score, the compelling performances from the entire cast–she’s truly made a work of art with The Beguiled.

19) Song to Song (Terrence Malick). If Knight of Cups was Terrence Malick’s filmic depiction of the book of Ecclesiastes, then Song to Song is his version of the Song of Songs, an elliptical, poetic meditation on romantic love and human sexuality. While its lack of narrative arc may prove problematic to some audiences, and Malick is bordering on self-parody, this is nonetheless uniquely cinematic and provocative. Val Kilmer runs around with a chainsaw and Patti Smith gives Rooney Mara romance advice. What’s not to love?

18) Paddington 2 (Paul King). Imagine the spirit of Amelie Poulain, the quirkiness of Wes Anderson, and the humor of Monsieur Hulot or Charlie Chaplin, all set in jolly ol’ England. The Paddington films paradoxically celebrate the best of contemporary British culture via nostalgia and tradition. Paddington 2 doesn’t release in the US until 2018, so it was a treat to view it here in the UK, which is its true home and audience–the Scottish audience laughed and cried, enraptured by this amiable bear and his love for his neighbor and marmalade.

17) Mudbound (Dee Rees). Dee Rees’ beautifully-shot film is the best Netflix has distributed yet. It wears its literary strengths on its sleeve through poetic narration and an emphasis on the dialogue. Yet its cinematography and color palette are equally striking; the greens, golds and browns of the WWII-era Mississippi farmland glow with vibrancy. I’m very eager to see what Rees creates next, as well as more amazing work from cinematographer Rachel Morrison.

16) War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves). A faithful retelling of the Exodus narrative, albeit one featuring CGI apes, this film revamps two of Charlton Heston’s most iconic films: Planet of the Apes and The Ten Commandments. Caesar (Andy Serkis) serves as both a Moses and a Christ figure, a troubled-yet-courageous civil rights leader leading his people towards liberation. This is an apocalyptic film; just like the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation in the Bible, War is highly political and subversive, calling out political and religious leaders to account for their actions and postures, and warning those who would be deceived into embracing the violent ethics of the empire.

15) Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve). The best sci-fi doesn’t just make us think about the future; it’s a mirror for the present, provoking us to consider our situation and our souls. Deliberately paced, with a strong sense of atmosphere and compelling visuals, this is a sequel which builds upon the original foundation without ever quite surpassing it. Roger Deakins’ exquisite cinematography will likely be the most celebrated aspect of BR2049, yet its philosophical and theological ideas are ripe for consideration.

14) Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). This is not only a great Star Wars chapter, it’s a great film, period. If J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is an experiment of expectancy, leaning into the future. It pushes the boundaries of its characters, its audience, and the franchise’s capacity, upending our expectations even as it fulfills ones we never knew we had. It’s the first of the new Star Wars films I can’t wait to revisit.

13) The Lost City of Z (James Gray). James Gray is the master of the final shot. The ending of The Immigrant is one of the more perfect cinematic endings I’ve witnessed; the final 20 minutes of The Lost City of Z continues this tradition. Through its river adventure into the jungles of South America, The Lost City of Z is an exploration of both exterior and interior worlds, both the created order and the human soul, where the lines of passion and obsession blur in a lush haze.

12) Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie). This film from the Safdie brothers fizzes with the frenetic energy of a shaken bottle of soda. Such a bottle is the film’s MacGuffin as Connie (Robert Pattinson) seeks to raise enough money to bail his brother out of jail after a bank heist goes horribly wrong. The neon lights, dark urban landscape, and near-constant electronica soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never makes the entire film feel like a fever dream. Yet the Safdies are doing something subversively political, pointing their camera at a corner of the populace we overlook and refusing to blink. A cinephile friend referred to it as like watching the Dardennes while on acid.

11) The Florida Project (Sean Baker)The Florida Project knocks down invisible dividing walls and tries to build empathetic connections between disparate human worlds in a way only cinema can. The film invites us to sense and experience–to truly feel–a small corner of human existence located in the shadow of Disney World. A sympathetic character study akin to filmmaker Sean Baker’s previous film, TangerineThe Florida Project feels like an episode of The Little Rascals by way of the Dardennes in its handheld humanism and heartfelt glimpse into urban poverty.

10) Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone). This is such a tender, inviting film, filled with life and light and patience and grace. Cone has the Altman-esque skill of balancing a variety of characters within a story, giving each of them interesting dialogue and bringing out nuanced performances within the actors. Cone makes films which are religious in the best sense–through richly developed characters, his cinema touches the transcendent by way of the immanent.

9) Get Out (Jordan Peele). More than ever, I am convinced that Peele’s critique is not with racism, per se, but with American cultural history as a whole–consumerism, militarism, slavery, the myth of “freedom” and the “free market.” On a second viewing, Daniel Kaluuya’s performance also stands out as he tries to uphold social proprieties–“It’s fine”–when everything is clearly not fine. I’m guilty of the same, overlooking or ignoring injustice or prejudice simply because I’m unsure I can change anyone. Get Out changed me. This is cinematic liberation theology.

8) Graduation (Cristian Mungiu). A relatively straightforward question–what does it mean to be good?–proves very difficult to answer in a system which is inherently broken. If every cultural normal behavior involves cheating, lying, under-the-table deals, and looking the other way, how is one to survive in such a place? Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu explores this essential ethical quandary in the grey world of Graduation. It’s a coming-of-age story, but from the perspective of helicopter parents living in a post-Soviet context.

7) The Son of Joseph (Eugène Green). A new Christmas movie? Perhaps, as Green’s soulfully formalistic film set in post-secular Paris certainly alludes to the Nativity story (it’s right there in the title). The biblical allusions are quite intentional, and characters openly ask questions about the nature and presence of the divine in human interactions and moral decisions. Produced by the Dardennes’ production company, the film’s themes include art, fatherhood, familial identity, adolescence, and God.

6) Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins). I watched Wonder Woman three times in theaters, more than any other film from 2017. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot crafted something beautifully unique with this film: a nuanced message of hope and mercy in a violent world; a superhero motivated by love and a desire for peace; and a visionary portrayal of femininity in all its beauty, complexity, and strength.

5) Columbus (Kogonada)Columbus is as if Japanese filmmaker Yashujiro Ozu remade Lost in Translation and set it in the Midwest. The lead performances from Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho are remarkable and affecting, as is the direction and script from filmmaker Kogonada. Glass and mirrors punctuate nearly every scene; the paradoxical wonder of glass is its ability to be transparent, emphasizing vulnerability, while at the same time creating invisible barriers and boundaries between people. A simple motif used perfectly in sync with this film’s meditation on the architecture of human relationships.

4) Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas). Spirituality and materiality, tradition and technology clash in this film with quiet energy. Kristen Stewart’s performance as a medium/personal shopper is vulnerable, complex, and stirring. I keep thinking back to individual scenes, how they spark new insights regarding our technology- and consumer-driven culture and what it’s doing to our spiritual lives. It may sound cliche, particularly for a film about ghosts lingering in dark houses and one’s conscience, but this film continues to haunt me.

3) The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi). From all I’ve seen, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has not made a poor film yet. The first time I saw this film, I was in a nearly empty theater, shared only with an Iranian family sitting a few rows behind me. They laughed during scenes and lines where the humor must have been culturally-driven. The second time I saw this film, I brought a seminary class to see The Salesman in theaters. We discussed narrative and themes in conjunction with Old Testament images and ethics in a pub afterwards. The conversation was deeply enriching as different classmates offered their own personal response and interpretation to Farhadi’s meditation about art, culture, honor and shame.

2) The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). The Dardennes are the focus of my PhD research, so having their latest film appear on this list feels appropriate. While some have called this a “minor” Dardenne film (just like The Salesman is a “minor” Farhadi), it is nevertheless a masterpiece in terms of direction, cinematography, acting, script, and ethical inquiry. It’s a movie which literally invites the audience to listen, to pay attention, to notice the people who might be easily overlooked. Adèle Haenel is remarkable in her performance as Jenny, the young doctor driven to solve the mystery in this detective tale. In my PhD thesis, I propose that the Dardennes craft cinematic parables, and The Unknown Girl is no exception.

1) Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan). The most religious and ethically complex film of 2017 doesn’t even mention religion or moral philosophy. It doesn’t need to–it’s all emotion, mise-en-scene, and spectacle. It raises questions of time, movement, space, and sound as it depicts the historical events that happened during the “miracle” at Dunkirk in WWII. Tom Hardy’s performance is extraordinary, given that his face is covered for much of the film. But let’s also recognize Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and the cadre of relatively-unknown young actors who try to survive the mole. The performances, while subtle and often overlooked, infuse the film with pathos and affect. I first watched Dunkirk in 70mm in a packed theater in Portland. Later, I watched it again in a near-empty indie theatre on the coast of Scotland. Both experiences were phenomenal and my favorite theatrical experiences of 2017. An art film, a summer blockbuster, an Oscar-yearning prestige picture, and a callback to the days of celluloid, Dunkirk is pure cinema.

Special Prize: Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch). The debate as to whether the third season of Twin Peaks is considered cinema or television only highlights the significance and singularity of this artwork. I watched all of Seasons 1 and 2 earlier this year, then saw Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in theaters in Portland during the summer. The line from FBI agent Gordon Cole (Lynch) in Season 3 telling his fellow agents to “fix their hearts or die” has lingered in my mind like a prayer, as has the entire series of enigmatic, nightmarish images. Part 8 from Season 3 is up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Tree of Life in terms of its images, ideas, and down-the-rabbit-hole aesthetic. Were it considered a film in the truest sense, it’d be my #1 from 2017.

What were your favorite films from 2017? Share them in the comments.

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