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Nick Newman’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Written by on January 4, 2018 

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It was the worst of times, it was the most underwhelming of times, etc. I, too, have noticed some startling quantity of voices decrying 2017 as a subpar year in cinema, and the standard instinct is to put oneself into that classic defensive posture: look harder, look deeper, treasures appear. And sure. Still: the millstone of fatigue nearly any right-thinking person’s wearing nowadays starts seeping into this most reflective of mediums. The going got tough, escapes got deferred.

I won’t use headline-making events to bind 2017’s cinematic and real-world paths because 1) cast a pebble across your Twitter feed and voila; 2) we have different eyes, so who could think we ever saw the same thing? Only with my particular year (long story; who doesn’t have one nowadays) in sharper focus do I now understand that almost everything contained herein was a conduit for further consideration, the individual and collective strengths sometimes measured on that ever-fluctuating metric of form as an afterthought or memory. And the TV-film debate is, I guess, stoked herein, but not purposefully — not when this is the exact wrong time to qualify pleasures with a microscope. I mean, come on, people. Haven’t you seen what’s happening out there?

Honorable Mentions

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10. Risk (Laura Poitras)

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Rare is the monster that reveals itself as such upon first brush; more easily perceived are the petty, vindictive, manipulative, fear-stricken. The grace of Laura Poitras’ once-maligned, since-reworked lens on Julian Assange lies, I think, in its lack of an identifiable center: to watch this is to see the world actively shift underneath a film’s feet, a creative team grasping for whatever they might value as north becomes south and gray zones start turning black-and-white. For all of the panic it might rightfully instill, Poitras seems to find Assange and his enterprise somewhat absurd even as she acknowledges the grief it’s wrought, breeding hilarity akin to prime Ricky Gervais. The one 2017 film for which I’ll accept a “what we need now” title, all the more so because it evinces little interest in conforming to any single worldview.

9. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

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A second look confirmed that this loses its perfect shape once Anderson decides the thing needs clear-cut conflict and tension, but what comes before, after, and often during that spell is downright dream-like in its distilled vision of a cloistered man, his hermetic world, and what happens when you tip those scales even a tad. (The answer, delightfully, is laughter — among Phantom Thread‘s greatest attributes is the reaffirmation of its writer-director as a master of social observation.) Bonus points for the year’s best driving sequences: aesthetically rapturous in their images, thematically fitting as flights of fancy carried by mechanical ingenuity. But don’t worry about the latter too greatly; I’m not sure Anderson does, and that’s when he’s at his best.

8. Trouble No More (Jennifer Lebeau)

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The confusion — which often comes down to a mere “why?” — that perpetually surrounds Bob Dylan’s brief, prolific foray into Christianity-themed music has, for decades, been a hotbed of debate, frustration, and misunderstanding. Trouble No More, the first picture explicitly focused on this era, cuts through the noise so we may latch upon the signal: the music in its (for the most part) glory and the power of its performers, curiously flipping perceptions and making its ostensibly straightforward companion — a series of sermons delivered by a preacher (Michael Shannon) who, one will quickly deduce, speaks to an empty church — the point of scrutiny and confusion. Yet the strength of its performance, images, and words (scripted by Dylan scholar Luc Sante) render any need to decode unnecessary. Two moments in time and two masters of their craft forever preserved, forever intertwined.

7. Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)

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On the surface (or just its horrible poster), another New York-set indie comedy; in practice, an exceptional example of what can be done with the genre-of-sort’s tenets. Shot on the now-fatigue-inducing 16mm, but with an autumnal, timeless quality rather than an attempt at grit and girt; concerns an ensemble that it doesn’t feel the need to neatly connect in an attempt at tapestry, if one could even be said to have been attempted; offers plentiful microscopic scenarios, possibly more than anybody could remember off the top of their head, none of which disservice something larger, more macroscopic — but maybe nothing as mysterious as the satisfaction of a vision into which we can revel rather than ponder. And it’s knee-slappingly funny. How nice when movies are so.

6. The Son of Joseph (Eugène Green)

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Not to boil something so particular down to a sly grin and “need I say more,” but: a Bressonian comedic parable for the life of Christ garnished by an in-his-element Mathieu Amalric and a great recurring gag about sperm donation. I’d watch this any day of the week, maybe for the sole purpose of helping others discover how Eugène Green’s inscrutability is precisely what leaves him so open for discovery and admiration.

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