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The 10 Best Films of 2017

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Article by Mark Dujsik | December 22, 2017

Here are the ten best films of 2017:

10. Mudbound
Mudbound opens with the metaphorical burial of the past and a literal excavation of it. While burying their racist father, two brothers discover an unmarked grave for slaves. It may be a brief scene, but it reveals much about the story's characters and its thematic concerns. The rest of the film uncovers the past of the characters and the story that led them to this moment. Director Dee Rees and Virgil Williams' screenplay (based on Hillary Jordan's novel) is vast in its ambitions, featuring five major characters—living on a farm in rural Mississippi in the years before, during, and after World War II—whose lives, motives, and hopes are the central concern. We come to know them through their actions and a series of internal monologues, which provide a deeper sense of this place—one of hope, one of despair, or one of still-present prejudice. The story is most easily defined as melodrama, given its constant conflicts and ultimately tragic outcome, but that would simplify it too much. The result is a study of prejudice in all its forms, as well as a large-scale narrative that never feels as if it's spreading its focus thin.

9. Lady Bird
It's the little details that enrich Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig's first film on her own in the director's chair. We assume the film is at least semi-autobiographical, if only because of how precisely it understands its characters and their relationships. The relationships are key to the plot. Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who has given herself the name "Lady Bird," is at odds with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), is apple of her father Larry's (Tracy Letts) eye, and wavers on her feelings toward her peers. She's a rebel but in that teenage way—kind of awkward and coming across as a bit of a jerk every so often. We can sympathize with her, but Gerwig ensures that we connect to the other characters, too. Her camera sticks with Lady Bird's parents, for example, after their daughter's new boyfriend says that Lady Bird told him her family came from "the wrong side of the tracks." It's all about attention to detail, from the film's little moments to how seemingly every character here has an inner life that we can comprehend. The film is an act of love—for this time, this place, these people, and the pain and joy of being a teenage girl.

8. The Girl with All the Gifts
We don't realize it until the ironic, unexpected, and completely logical finale of The Girl with All the Gifts, but Mike Carey's screenplay (based on his own novel) is a prime example of great plot structure. Everything falls into place. Every character has some purpose, in terms of both moving the story forward and solidifying the story's ultimate point. Even the film's stated metaphors come to make a sort of twisted sense. In a way, this is a puzzle story, which begins with mysterious situations and characters, only to give us an even bigger puzzle—one that has us questioning humanity's role in an ever-declining role. It's a zombie movie, but Carey and director Colm McCarthy want us to dismiss our preconceptions. The story focuses on Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua, in a great performance of ambiguity and wisdom), who is a prisoner in a military facility. From this claustrophobic setting, the film's scope constantly expands. Three other characters (played by Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, and Paddy Considine) have specific roles to play in Melanie's life, and each of them presents a different way of looking at Melanie. It may be a zombie movie, but it's one that cares about the ideas those characters state and represent.

7. Graduation
If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then surely the possession of just enough power will corrupt just enough. That seems to be the view of writer/director Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, a morality tale about morally compromised people in a place that, itself, seems morally compromised. It's nothing big. The characters here essentially offer and/or agree to little favors. These favors aren't offered out of good will, though. They're all transactions, and everyone recognizes it. Every favor has to be repaid, either with another favor or cash. These deals are made without specific words being spoken. Everything is implied. Mungiu watches how all these favors—all of this corruption—spreads. It doesn't matter that Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is only trying to help his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), who is assaulted on her way to school one morning. As soon as he makes one deal, he has started a chain of transactions that, seen from a larger scale, point to a sort of corruption that is absolute. The film also dissects how Romeo's character is not as upstanding as he first claims. He lies. He cheats. He has now put his daughter in the exact position that he wants her to avoid. Is it hypocrisy, or is it just living a normal life?

6. Dunkirk
With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has made a film that attempts to communicate the experience of war. The setup is evacuation of the eponymous city in 1940. Nolan's screenplay sees the operation from the land—where hundreds of thousands of soldiers are trapped—the sea—where private boats are racing to rescue those soldiers—and the air—where fighter planes attempt to hold back German aircraft. We don't meet characters as much as we see mostly anonymous archetypes, who offer little dialogue and who, in certain action sequences, might as well be indistinguishable. The central focal points are the faces of these men—the fear and the determination to survive—in close-ups and as huddled masses awaiting salvation or doom. Each section—the land, the sea, and the sky—has its own, isolated timeline and its own sense of how that time moves forward. It's far from confusing, because Nolan and editor Lee Smith offer a sort of uniformity, as they intercut similar images and motifs, while providing a distinct look and momentum for each segment. Certain events may be happening in different places and at different times, but they might as well be happening at once. Time may be relative, but war is a constant.

5. Detroit
The riot, the uprising, or the rebellion began with a police raid on an unlicensed club on the West Side of Detroit. It was a private party. That's it. The only thing that seems to bring police attention to the club is the fact that all of the patrons are black. A protest erupts. Bottles and rocks are thrown in the direction of the cops. It escalates and would continue for five days. Detroit tells the story of the events in Detroit in 1967 with an eye toward history, a wide tapestry of the film's present, and an implicit understanding of how what happened then still happens now. The film comes from the pairing of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. It's not a work of journalism, although it's based on the testimony of people involved. It's not activism, although the film's outrage about the abuse of power at various levels is palpable. The majority of the narrative centers on a seemingly real-time recreation of an "incident" at the Algiers Motel. In less diplomatic terms, it's the story of how a few cops physically and psychologically tortured a group of people, while even more cops and military personnel allowed it and worse to happen. The film is tense, thoughtful, and uncompromising in its recognition that, while we may learn from the past, we still seem doomed to repeat it.

4. A Quiet Passion
In the big picture, not much happened in the 55 years of Emily Dickinson's life. Such a life seems antithetical to the typical requirements of a cinematic biography. Writer/director Terence Davies is keenly aware of both of these facts. Hers is a life of great stillness, especially as she becomes older and more reclusive, and Davies' camera reflects that—remaining mostly still or moving with barely perceptible subtlety. Since there few milestones in the life of one of the most important and influential of American poets, Davies' screenplay is concerned with ideas—about life, success, death, and faith. Most of the story's conflicts are internal, as Dickinson—played with intelligence, wit, and emotional honesty by Cynthia Nixon—is wracked with personal and existential doubts, fears, and insecurities. The film follows Dickinson in a life devoted to the pursuit of answers to questions that are, rather contradictorily, both beyond her and completely within control to answer. Her career as a writer is out of her control, given the times in which she lives, but the eternal questions are given the most weight by the end of the film. Her relationship with God, she asserts, is for her and her alone to determine, if such an entity exists at all. This is a literate and probing biography that explores the internal and the eternal with equal amounts of insight and sensitivity.

3. Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Here is a special film from writer/director Martin McDonagh, which taps into the sense of collective anger that has come to dominate our cultural landscape. Just about every character in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is angry. They have reasons—some good and some not. We understand the reasons, though, and in understanding the reasons, we can sympathize with these characters, even though they may be callous, cruel, and hardheaded. In this fictional Midwestern town, which seems like a fine place and a terrible place to live, there's some fuss over some billboards. Mildred (Frances McDormand, stubborn and intimidating yet thoroughly sympathetic) wants answers as to why the police haven't made any progress in the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. The billboards get the attention of the local police department, led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as well as the news and the rest of town, who are divided about Mildred's actions. On the less sympathetic side, we get Dixon (Sam Rockwell, in a daring, high-wire act of a performance), a patrol cop with accusations of race-based torture against him. Despite their obvious flaws, there is good in these people, and as trying and questionable as the search may seem, McDonagh wants to find that good. The film is quaint enough in its setting, quirky enough in its characterizations, and broad enough in its aims to serve as a parable about decency and forgiveness. Beyond that, it's an empathetic view of humanity at its best, its worst, and everything in between.

2. A Ghost Story
Writer/director David Lowery demands significant patience with A Ghost Story. One will figure that out before two shots in which a character eats a pie for five uninterrupted minutes, but there's a good reason for offering the film the required patience. It's the story of a ghost that haunts the house it lived in while it was alive. The ghost is represented by Casey Affleck wearing a bed sheet with holes cut out for eyes—akin to a child's Halloween costume. There's nothing human about the figure—no shape, no ability to display anything but broad motions, no way to determine if it feels anything. It's a mirror, really, for how we feel about this particular situation—a lonely, wordless existence, doomed to watch as life goes on even after one's death. Rooney Mara plays the formerly living man's wife, and other characters, including a philosopher who helpfully gives us some grounding in the film's intentions, come and go. It's an existentially terrifying vision of an afterlife.

Beyond that, though, it's also a film about time. Lowery gives us long takes of nothing happening, and it's clear that we're supposed to filling in the blanks with our own thoughts—not about what's happening on screen but how we feel about these passages of time. The film's pacing hastens as the story progresses, with a look into the future and how the definition of the ghost's house changes, and regresses, with a look at how lives lived long ago have been long forgotten. It's a boldly, unapologetically different and challenging film, demanding thorough and, at times, frightening introspection on the nature of existence.

1. The Florida Project
Out of a despairing situation, Sean Baker has made a surprisingly joyous film. The best film of 2017 shows a complete understanding of how children will play through, in, and with almost everything and just about anyone. The Florida Project is set in Orlando, Florida, where the streets are named after fairy tale characters. Outside of city's vacation-spot veneer, there is a series of hotels that fall outside the radar of tourists looking to enjoy the assorted and massive theme parks. In these places, people of the lower socioeconomic class, living in poverty and with uncertainty on the fringes of society, find rooms to call home at affordable monthly rates.

The main character is Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince, a revelation), a young and precocious girl who spends her summer days with friends, looking for adventures and ice cream. Her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) is between jobs. The hotel's manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, gradually revealing how much of a protector he is for these kids) runs a tight operation. While Moonee and her friends go on their expeditions, Halley scrambles and hustles to pay the rent.

The story is objectively depressing, but Baker is working from a subjective perspective. It's all told from Moonee's point of view, but even with this inherent innocence, Baker and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch don't sugarcoat what's happening. The exception is the divisive final sequence, which goes against the story's logic but comes as an almost necessary relief. It's as if Baker, who has such empathy for these characters, doesn't want the weight of reality to crush them. We know it's false, but we also feel grateful for that small, final act of kindness.

Honorable Mention:

Baby Driver, City of Ghosts, Coco, Human Flow, The LEGO Batman Movie, Logan, The Lovers, Lucky, Personal Shopper, Phantom Thread, Risk, The Shape of Water, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, Trophy, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonderstruck

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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