Read Part 1, featuring Nos. 30-16, here. Now, without delay, the top 15 films of 2017:
15. “The Work” (directed by Jairus McCleary and Gethin Aldous)
What does it mean to be redeemed? Twice a year, violent offenders serving long prison sentences at Folsom Prison meet members of the public for a four-day group therapy session. Throughout the long weekend, each man goes into intimate detail about his life, his fears and his regrets. The road to redemption is long — and the cure for the toxic masculinity, egoism and crippling self-doubt that led both convicts and civilians alike to this retreat may not necessarily be within reach. But though it may be difficult, the work is worth doing. And this documentary that depicts this work, which gives its viewers a raw verité-style look at three civilian participants’ trials and breakthroughs, is the finest documentary of the year. Sensitive and powerful, “The Work” will shatter your preconceived notions and emotional barriers.
Standout scene: An inmate admits suicidal thoughts and is embraced by another; in a moment of raw feeling, pay attention to what is captured on microphone.
14. “Baby Driver” (directed by Edgar Wright)
Michael Mann meets Busby Berkeley in Edgar Wright’s ebullient, genre-defying musical mashup, in which a mostly silent getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) with a constant playlist pumping through his headphones finds himself in over his head when a robbery goes wrong. Part heist picture, part Hollywood musical, this year there was nothing quite as surprising on a technical level as “Baby Driver,” which showcases precisely choreographed and edited action sequences all set to an eclectic wall-to-wall soundtrack. With Lily James as Baby’s would-be girlfriend, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm as hair-trigger criminals and a certain recently disgraced actor as the criminal mastermind, Wright’s ensemble more than pulls off the snappy dialogue and stunt work. But the star of the show is Wright himself, executing his idiosyncratic vision and pulling off one of the most uniquely pleasurable action-comedy-musical-romance-thrillers you’ll ever see.
Standout performer: Hamm is so frequently the taciturn guy in charge that when his character Buddy is driven off the deep end into desperate territory, the subversion of Hamm’s typical persona is a genuine shock.
Standout scene: An opening getaway set to “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
13. “The Beguiled” (directed by Sofia Coppola)
Sofia Coppola’s moody thriller — in which a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) recuperates at a Southern all-girls school in 1864, inflaming the passions of the few remaining students and teachers alike to ruinous effect — examines the nuances and contradictions of longing and desire. Not even the no-nonsense headmistress (Nicole Kidman) is completely immune to the flattery of their male charge; her wistful, lonely teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and the imperious oldest student (Elle Fanning) all fall under the sway of the charming soldier, who delights in the newfound upheaval in power dynamics and the passive-aggressive sniping on his behalf. Things eventually get ugly, but Coppola keeps things restrained, dreamy and foreboding. Shot through the haze of humidity on location at a plantation, there were few films as beautiful as “The Beguiled” all year — or as smoldering.
Standout performer: Between this and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” Kidman has had a standout series of darkly witty performances this year.
Standout scene: A climactic dinner sequence, in which a side dish proves a necessary solution to a worrisome problem.
12. “Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi” (directed by Rian Johnson)
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” says the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in the latest film in the “Star Wars” saga — a line which turns out not only to be a key thematic point in “The Last Jedi,” but perhaps a prescription for the franchise’s future. Writer-director Rian Johnson steers this eighth big-budget film away from many of the series’ sacred cows and into stunning new territory in a consistently surprising, exciting entry, filled with thrilling action, great humor and top-notch special effects amid the mixture of old and new characters audiences love. As the Resistance faces imminent destruction from the evil First Order and Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, terrific) refuses the call to join the fight, “The Last Jedi” offers challenging ideas on the nature of heroism, the legacy of our idols and the value of failure, culminating in a breathlessly exciting climax that sets up “Star Wars” for an exciting future. How wonderful that the latest “Star Wars” film was satisfying on every level.
Standout performer: The porgs, cute puffin-like critters that easily win this year’s award for best supporting porgs.
Standout scene: After a shocking twist, two characters face the red-cloaked Praetorian Guard in an exceptional lightsaber duel.
11. “Nocturama” (directed by Bertrand Bonello)
Nine multicultural youths from different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds meet and over the course of an afternoon execute a multi-target terrorist attack on the city of Paris. Amid the confusion, at nightfall they hide out in a massive department store, laying low until their dawn escape. Who are these kids? We get glimpses of their largely privileged young adulthood and their disaffection and alienation. What do they want? “Nocturama” doesn’t try to answer the unanswerable. But over the course of more than two hours, director Bertrand Bonello shows the execution of their attack on the society, followed by the youths’ capitulation into the world of capitalism and materialism they purport to loathe. There’s really no reconciling the contradiction; that’s the point. But quite apart from its central provocations, “Nocturama” is as aesthetically exciting as any film from 2017, with flowing Steadicam shots, vivid colors and hedonistic soundtrack selections that add up to pure cinematic stimulation.
Standout performer: It’s difficult to single out a member of the ensemble, but Finnegan Oldfield’s David, the most strident and later most troubled terrorist, is haunting.
Standout scene: A lip-synced drag performance to Shirley Bassey’s rendition of “My Way.” Just because.
10. “The Florida Project” (directed by Sean Baker)
Set among the candy-colored budget hotels that dot the highways of Orlando, Florida, “The Florida Project” is a deeply empathetic glimpse into the lives of the “hidden homeless” — the permanent residents of these establishments who live on the marginalia of the most magical place on Earth. Director Sean Baker, shooting on vibrant film, follows 6-year-old Moonee (marvelous find Brooklynn Prince) and her defiant young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), two such week-to-week residents of the cheap motel The Magic Castle. Even as the vice of poverty tightens its grip on Halley, during the course of one summer Moonee continues to enjoy the oblivious delights of childhood — hustling ice cream cones from tourists, playing with her young friends and occasionally causing mischief for the gruff but warm motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Even filled as his film is with child-actor antics, Baker never gets sentimental. “The Florida Project” captures with nonjudgmental authenticity and bracing clarity how the innocence of youth can shield children from the harsh realities of the world around them, and how seeing both for what they are can break your heart.
Standout performer: Dafoe has never been better; the veteran actor’s weary, deeply invested Bobby fits perfectly among the cast of first-timers and non-actors.
Standout scene: The final moments, in which two characters make a magical escape from the unbearable weight of their lives. It takes your breath away.
9. “The Lost City of Z” (directed by James Gray)
James Gray’s personal epic of magnificent obsession in the Amazonian rainforest tells the story of a British explorer’s dogged search for proof of an advanced civilization deep in the wilderness, and the lengthy pursuit that will consume him. Charlie Hunnam stars as the status-hungry Percy Fawcett, seeking to restore his family’s good name by finding the titular mythic city he believes will prove his thesis that the Amazon once boasted a sophisticated society separate from the colonial influences of Western culture. Risking life and limb to explore the jungle for years, Fawcett’s obsession draws him deeper and deeper into the wilderness — both literally and metaphorically. How can one satisfy those incapable of being satisfied? Fawcett’s driving force remains teasingly ambiguous, but there is nothing unsatisfying about Gray’s deeply rewarding film. It’s as classically reserved as the stiff-upper-lip Brits at the film’s center, but more lushly and absorbingly realized than most of the classic exploration epics of old Hollywood — a journey just as deeply into the tangled brush of the male ego as into the “green desert” of the jungle.
Standout performer: Sienna Miller, whose role as Fawcett’s long-suffering wife is filled with pathos and heartbreak.
Standout scene: Again, the final moments, a teasing and ambiguous closing shot in which Fawcett’s wife is confronted with an obsession of her own.
8. “A Quiet Passion” (directed by Terence Davies)
Less a biopic about Emily Dickinson than an invocation of her spirit, director Terence Davies’ parlor drama seeps with poetry, breathes it in every breath. Detailing nearly four decades of the poet’s life, “A Quiet Passion” follows Dickinson (played in younger years by Emma Bell and for the bulk of the film by a remarkable Cynthia Nixon) as she struggles with religious, proper society, artistic recognition and encroaching death. Though structured as a series of conversations, Davies’ screenplay crackles with lively, witty banter and many of the poet’s own words, including full poems that serve as a running interior monologue via voiceover. “A Quiet Passion” is a full-on comedy of manners that delights in the power of language before, like its inspiration, it grows fully obsessed with death and more interior and reclusive. Though contemplative, you cannot turn your eyes away from the fierce intelligence of Nixon’s performance and the ardor of Davies’ filmmaking.
Standout performer: Nixon, obviously — an open heart wounded by society so frequently she is forced to turn away from it.
Standout scene: An early transition as a photograph is taken, in which the years settle on our characters seamlessly, gradually and breathtakingly.
7. “Dunkirk” (directed by Christopher Nolan)
An immersive and intense experience that unfolds across three temporalities with the storytelling dexterity of a magic trick, “Dunkirk” finds director Christopher Nolan brilliantly pulling off a large-scale war epic with a degree of difficulty most filmmakers wouldn’t dare approach. Detailing the day of Operation Dynamo — during which a civilian British fleet evacuated some 300,000 trapped soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France — would be tricky enough, particularly with Nolan’s old-fashioned analog style taking minimal advantage of computer-generated trickery. But “Dunkirk” takes to the beaches, the sea and the air above to cut among three stories in three different timelines non-chronologically in a way that ends up making perfect sense. We don’t grow too close to many of our unnamed or reasonably anonymous heroes — but through blunt-force filmmaking, “Dunkirk” becomes something existentially profound, in which defeat is assured, death is random and sudden and mere survival is cause enough for celebration. But what a feast for the senses is the gripping “Dunkirk,” engrossing and propulsive.
Standout performer: As a civilian captain sailing toward certain doom out of patriotic duty, Mark Rylance.
Standout scene: The deliverance offered by a large ship is snatched away brutally when the ship is torpedoed and horrifyingly sinks.
6. “Call Me By Your Name” (directed by Luca Guadagnino)
Perhaps no film was as alluringly sensual as “Call Me By Your Name,” detailing the sweet sting of first love during an Italian summer in 1983. Timothée Chalamet stars as the 17-year-old Elio, summering with his archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the Italian countryside; Armie Hammer features as the 24-year-old grad student assistant who moves into their villa, and who becomes Elio’s object of desire. The two gradually embark on a lush romance amid the sun-drenched gardens and grounds, during which Elio receives quite the education on the person he is growing into. “Call Me By Your Name” captures the fear and appeal of that first powerful attraction, the uncertainty and insecurity that can accompany it, and the uneasy and painful path toward becoming the person you will be. Director Luca Guadagnino has crafted a literate masterpiece of mood and unbridled feeling that by its devastating conclusion has amassed a considerable emotional power.
Standout performer: How incredible is the relative newcomer Chalamet, who embodies the tentative, aggressive, frightened and enraptured Elio wholeheartedly.
Standout scene: The unbroken final shot, in which Elio reflects on some news as his complicated feelings play silently on his face.
5. “Get Out” (directed by Jordan Peele)
One of the few bona fide cinematic sensations of 2017 was this massive hit thriller, reflecting the mood and temperament of the contemporary cultural climate and racial relations in ways director Jordan Peele could not possibly have anticipated when creating his film. “Get Out” is a compelling, crowd-pleasing horror satire that draws as much from “The Stepford Wives” as its director’s sketch comedy series “Key & Peele” to reflect on the insidious nature of contemporary racism, in which the ostensibly tolerant are outwardly accommodating but inwardly desire to control and commoditize black lives. A weekend getaway to his girlfriend’s family finds a young black man in over his head with her liberal parents and the secrets they possess, which spiral into hilarious, provocative territory as their racial microaggressions transform into more overt aggressions. Intending to puncture Obama-era white liberal “post-racial” life, Peele instead speaks to a more overt and horrifying open racism; he could not have anticipated his film would not only be the movie of the moment, but that the moment could be so horrifying.
Standout performer: As the haunted everyman protagonist, Daniel Kaluuya gives a brilliant star-making performance that should be destined for Oscar recognition.
Standout scene: So much about “Get Out” has already entered the pop culture vernacular, but despite being discussed and parodied for nearly a full year by now, the first descent into the Sunken Place is still powerful and terrifying.
4. “A Ghost Story” (directed by David Lowery)
A white-sheeted ghost silently watches the inhabitants of his former home, as the years tick by and the world around him marches ever onward. Why did this home speak to him so strongly in life? Did he always know he was destined to remain within its walls? Does he haunt this house, or is he haunted by it? “A Ghost Story” is David Lowery’s tone poem about mortality, the passage of time and the marks we make on the universe. Casey Affeck stars as a musician killed early in the film whose spirit returns to his home; Rooney Mara stars as the partner he can’t quite leave behind, but who over time must move on with her life. Shot in a boxy aspect ratio and permeated with Daniel Hart’s marvelous score, “A Ghost Story” mines considerable power from the simplest of premises. That “A Ghost Story” reclaims such obvious, childish imagery and imbues it with pathos is impressive enough; that it becomes a deeply beautiful and emotional treatise on impermanence and loss is almost miraculous.
Standout performer: Mara, whose supporting turn as the grieving widow runs a full emotional gamut in relatively brief screen time.
Standout scene: In her grief, Mara consumes an entire pie on camera as the ghost watches silently; this moment manages to be both funny and deeply sad.
3. “Lady Bird” (directed by Greta Gerwig)
Some movies are so purely delightful, you don’t want them to end. Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” which follows the senior year of a precocious high schooler as she learns one life lesson after another, is one such rare case. As familiar as the coming-of-age comedy may seem, “Lady Bird” is filled with so many charming surprises and brilliant performances, most other films of its type feel even more mundane by comparison. Saoirse Ronan stars as the self-monikered Lady Bird, whose tempestuous relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), her resentment toward and dissatisfaction with her lower-middle class Sacramento provenance, and her up-and-down relationships with two very different boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet) give this special film its loose plot engine. But Gerwig is smart enough to structure her character study as a series of vignettes all driving Lady Bird toward a gradual understanding of herself and all the help she had in becoming the person she will be. Featuring a marvelous sense of specificity (set during the 2002-03 school year, it has an eye and ear attuned to that cultural moment) and sharp, observant, generous writing, “Lady Bird” is frank, funny and wise. It’s a film all teenagers should see, and so should, for that matter, everyone who used to be one.
Standout performer: Metcalf, as the exasperated and sniping helicopter mom whose frequent fights with her daughter only barely obscure her love and concern.
Standout scene: Lady Bird briefly reunites with an ex-boyfriend behind a coffee shop and agrees to keep a secret. It’s a moment that turns from hilarious to heart-wrenching on a dime.
2. “Personal Shopper” (directed by Olivier Assayas)
If “A Ghost Story” is about the tendency for places to linger within our hearts and minds, Olivier Assayas’s uncategorizably bizarre supernatural drama “Personal Shopper” is a metaphor about being stuck in place. The character at its center, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), is an American ex-pat in Paris who works as the personal shopper for a celebrity, a job she hates and resents. She’s also a medium, able to contact restless spirits but yearning to only communicate with one: the spirit of her twin brother, recently deceased, who made a pact with Maureen to make contact after death if he could. Instead of changing her life, Maureen continues to wait to hear from him — but her invitation may have been received by something darker. Assayas has composed a thrilling meditation on the imprisoning power of grief and on the double-edged sword of modern communication. As its plot enters unexpected and twisty territory, it grows ever more difficult to pin down, but the cumulative effect is one of the most indelibly haunting experiences in recent film — a vision powerful, bold and new.
Standout performer: Stewart has never been better as the haunted young Maureen; hers is clearly one of the year’s best performances.
Standout scene: Maureen begins to receive creepy text messages from an unknown source while on a train, and begins to fear their provenance may be from beyond the grave.
And the best film of 2017 is…
1. “Phantom Thread” (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
No film from 2017 was more entrancing, unexpected, deeply weird and masterfully made. Paul Thomas Anderson reteams with his “There Will Be Blood” star Daniel Day-Lewis (in what is reportedly the actor’s final role) for another strange tone poem, this focusing on the ego of the male creative genius, the inscrutability of relationships and the power dynamics that emerge between couples. Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, fashion designer and purveyor of haute couture in 1950s Britain. He meets a new muse in young waitress Alma (remarkable newcomer Vicky Krieps), who proves to be a disruptive presence in his strict routine, much to his dismay. As commanding as Woodcock can be — insisting the lives around him should be lived certain ways to accommodate his creative process, which is partially enforced by his severe sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) — he does not anticipate Alma’s force of will. Behind every genius man is a great woman, they say — but Anderson deconstructs this myth in startling, hilarious fashion, and “Phantom Thread” becomes something truly surprising from the great director: sweet, albeit in a subversive fashion. The filmmaking is next level incredible, the performances all sublime; needless to say, this is a film from several masters at the heights of their powers.
Standout performer: Day-Lewis, as is his wont, completely inhabits the central role of tormented genius and whiny baby Reynolds Woodcock.
Standout scene: A climactic dinner scene, which delivers the film’s satisfying punchline in an unexpected way.
A final note: The great filmmaker David Lynch returned this year after an 11-year hiatus with the 18-episode limited series “Twin Peaks: The Return.” With a surprise around every corner and some of the most exciting filmmaking and performances of the entire year, it would be at the very top of this list — if it were a movie and not a TV show. Cinema was bested this year by the small screen.