Friday Flicks: Top 10 Movies of 2017

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird (2017)

Well, it’s been a year.

I can’t remember the last time that Hollywood was the driver of one of the most important and far-reaching news stories in American culture.

But with the takedown of Harvey Weinstein (and so many other predatory producers, directors, and actors) and the rise of the #MeToo moment, women in the movie industry have not only helped lay bare the rampant sexual abuse and toxicity baked into the power dynamics of America’s preeminent entertainment industry.

They’ve also helped galvanize public concern around systemic sexism in all aspects of American society in a way that celebrities, perhaps, are best suited to do. They are people with incredibly high public profiles, adept at telling stories, who are finding ways to use their media magnetism to make a dent in an unequal society. For that, I can’t help but feel grateful.

But this piece is not about #MeToo. Rather, it’s a list that every film critic, regardless of the year, most looks forward to and agonizes over: my top 10 movies of 2017.

While putting together my list, I found that a number of themes kept recurring across my favorite movies of the year. Many of these movies dealt with fraught mother-daughter relationships that were simultaneously untenable and unbreakable. Many dealt with the idea that patience and attentiveness are synonymous with love. For one reason or another, water came up again and again as a resonant visual metaphor for the mental, emotional and physical states of the characters… not quite sure how to read that one, but there it was!

But if I were to pick one overarching theme that applies to just about every movie on this list, it’s the unlikely and difficult and perversely inspiring idea of victory in defeat. At the nadir of their lives, hurled into depths of great sorrow and despair, characters in these movies (and the filmmakers who crafted them) found ways to escape the inescapable. Or, at least, to twist the conditions of their unhappiness, captivity, defeat into a more nuanced, and often life-affirming, portrait of resilience. Here’s to victory in defeat, 2017.

10. Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s WWII action blockbuster about the mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British troops from the beaches of a besieged French city in the early summer of 1940 is certainly an unusual war movie. The movie is about evacuation and assured defeat. It follows three different storylines that cut across land, sea, and air over the course of an hour, a day, and a week. And there are basically no recognizable characters. And yet, Dunkirk left me with some of the most unforgettable images I had seen in cinema all year: the endless expanse of the beach lined with soldiers staring at the empty water, waiting for something, anything, to come to their rescue; a lone pilot, marooned on the tip of a slowly sinking plane in the middle of the ocean; a huddle of anonymous young soldiers desperately trying to plug bullet holes in the side of a beached boat with their fingers before high tide. There is much confusion and despair and anonymity in this movie, but also great courage and empathy in these characters’ attempts to rescue themselves and their fellow man from the abyss that is war.

9. Columbus. What a perfect match of form and content. A story of a recent high school grad, tentatively approaching adulthood, drowning in an abusive family relationship, interpreting her life and feelings through art. Fortunately, she just so happens to live in a small midwestern city that doubles as a mecca of high modernist architecture. First time filmmaker Kogonada, a celebrated video essayist with a keen eye for the stylistic substance of world cinema titans like Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu, has crafted a fitting tribute to his predecessors as well as his own, unique meditation on art that requires a little patience.

8. Raw. The best premise of any movie I saw this year. A young, precocious, sheltered vegetarian enrolls in an elite French veterinarian school. During one of the sadistic bouts of upperclassmen hazing she is subjected to, she is forced to eat raw animal entrails of some sort. Much to her surprise, she develops a taste for meat. Not just deli counter meat, but… human flesh! A delightful, terrifying, hilarious movie about the insatiable appetite of youth. Filmmaker Julia Ducornau is someone that every genre film fan should pay attention to.

7. Call Me By Your Name. I’m a sucker for movies that simply put the world and pause and let the audience revel in a character dancing to a song he or she loves. I know, that can be a pretty easy mode of audience manipulation. But hey, is there truly anything better than watching Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet dance in the summer heat of early 1980s northern Italy to The Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way”? Probably. But I don’t want to know what that is.

6. mother! Heavy-handed, provocative, ambitious, virtuosic. Director Darron Aronofsky traps Jennifer Lawrence’s anonymous ur-mother character in an unbroken close-up for almost the entire movie. And Lawrence, an actress whose expressive courage and vulnerability can carry just about any movie, proves that she is worthy of the attention.

5. The Shape of Water. A loving homage to the creature features of the 1930s through 50s (most specifically, Creature from the Black Lagoon). Except this time, the white dude in the Cadillac is the monster, and the mute woman, black woman, gay man, and amphibian man from the deep are the heroes and romantic anchors of the story. Plus, courtship via hardboiled eggs! What could be better.

4. Get Out. The “sunken place” may be the most potent, relevant, and enduring metaphor offered by any movie this year. A perfect encapsulation of the terrifying, debilitating nature of structural racism. Rare to find a movie that makes you laugh, cringe, and cover your eyes all at once.

3. The Florida Project. Another movie from director Sean Baker about vibrant, incandescent outsiders living on the edges of society and on the brink of poverty. Brooklynn Prince, a 5-year-old, gives one of the best performances of the year, capturing both the boundless imaginative capacity of youth and the sorrow that comes with recognizing that childhood cannot last forever.

2. A Ghost Story. There is something pretty brazen about telling a ghost story with a man in a bedsheet and two droopy, cutout eyeholes. There is also something audacious about telling the entire history of time and space with two anonymous characters and one plot of ground. This movie, miraculously enough, does both.

1. Lady Bird. A simple movie about a high school senior who desperately wants to leave her hometown of Sacramento. Catherine “Lady Bird” McPherson, here’s to you.

Click on the audio player below to listen to Tom Breen talk with local movie blogger Dan Heaton and Madison Art Cinemas owner Arnold Gorlick about their top 10 movies of the year on a recent episode of WNHH's "Deep Focus".