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The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2017

Written by on December 30, 2017 

30. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

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There’s a reason Martin McDonagh can write a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri despite being a British playwright: he’s not writing America. He’s writing mankind circa 2017 through America. We are the angry townspeople screaming. We’re the posturing cowards who don’t actually care enough to act until our lives are affected. Anger begets more anger because we’ve lost the ability to answer it with anything else. There’s no redemption here. No vengeance. McDonagh’s damning treatise on 21st-century rhetoric’s rejection of responsibility is the blood-spewed rage we wield to combat the numbing guilt and hopeless despair consuming us whole. – Jared M.

29. The Work (Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous)

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Moment to moment, scene to scene, there was no film this year as emotional or visceral as The Work, a documentary about group therapy in Folsom Prison. Taking place over the four days in the year when civilians are allowed to undergo this experience with inmates, it is a collection of startling, often violent experiences, where men undergo unbearable waves of catharses and emotional exorcisms. Co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous skillfully navigate this interplay between facilitator, prisoner, and outsider while constantly emphasizing the achingly transformative power of intimacy. – Ryan S.

28. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)

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The first text message movie. Kristen Stewart delivers a performance of masculinity and femininity within conflict as she works as a personal shopper for a movie star while she deals with the grief of her recently departed brother. Assayas camera lets Stewart control the frame with her entire body and injecting even her text message conversations with personality, like her dubious punctuation. Assayas choices to constantly reinvent the movie throughout from a fashion picture, to a ghost story and a murder mystery keeps viewers on their toes, but at the centre is Stewart who gives what is the best performance of her career to date in one of the best movies of the year. – Willow W.

27. Mudbound (Dee Rees)

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Someone told me Dee Rees’ gorgeous and profound Mudbound reminded him how crazy it is to think people treated others that way so close to his lifetime. He acknowledged the story’s historical significance while ignoring its mirrored glimpse at the present. This inherent naiveté reveals the film’s importance. At a time when Americans abuse patriotism as a weapon to divide, this blindness to what’s currently happening to minority populations only grows. Rees shows racism dissolving via empathy while the machismo of insecure men replenishes its fire to solidify oppression-rooted power. We watch humility save lives and privilege wrongly justify horror. Its brotherhood of men message transcends its “us versus them” narrative, exposing how blood is a symptom rather than cure. Enlightenment and salvation therefore arrive from escape—in recognizing your life as more than what’s in your veins. Greed moves beyond economics towards the psychological belief that your life matters more than a stranger, forgetting there’s a good chance a stranger will save it. Be that stranger because burying the past doesn’t negate today’s crucial battle. – Jared M.

26. The Square (Ruben Östlund)

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One of the year’s funniest films, Ruben Östlund’s The Square is a rare treat: a razor-sharp satire taking direct aim at populism, globalization, the art world, masculinity, experience, inexperience, race, high society, low society, and power dynamics. The film’s most famous scene–in which an ape-like performance artist turns on the museum’s high class donors is worth the price of admission alone–but only scratches the surface of this ambitious and soon to be infamous comedy that reflects the populist outrage it cooks up amongst the elites it take dead aim at. Claes Bang stars as Christian, the lead curator of a cutting-edge modern art museum in Stockholm who’s world suddenly gets turned upside down by both a missing smartphone and wallet and the opening a new exhibit whose central thesis is built on trust and individual rights. Östlund thrusts his lead into one absurd situation after another in a desperate act of self preservation after acting out – from idol threats to one night stands and poor marketing decisions. The Square may very well be what we use to explain to our kids how our new era of drive-it-like-you-stole-it populism came about. – John F.

25. Columbus (kogonada)

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A sure-handed debut if there ever was one and possibly the most beautiful film of the year. Directed by video essayist kogonada, the film concerns Jin (John Cho), a Korean-born man temporarily in Columbus, Indiana where his father lies in a coma. He befriends Casey (the superb Haley Lu Richardson), and the relationship that builds is complicated, kind and fascinating. Wrapped in the beautiful architecture of the town, Columbus quickly becomes transfixing, essential. – Dan M.

24. You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

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From today’s vantage it’s difficult not to see Lynne Ramsay’s scorching cri de cœur as a harbinger of the rage unleashed by the Weinstein revelations four months after the film’s Cannes premiere. And although prescience was a dubious cinematic asset even before the advent of click-bait headlines, if it actually gets people to watch this formidable film, then fuck it, here’s your headline: “You Were Never Really Here is the Most Prescient Film of 2017.” – Giovanni M.C.

23. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

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Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water is the elegant love story he was born to make. It is obviously his best film since Pan’s Labyrinth, but one can go further: Shape is his finest effort to date. Consider the swoon-worthy look of it all, from the design of the amphibious creature to the sight of a grinning Sally Hawkins on her nightly bus journey. Consider, too, the performances of Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlbarg. On paper, the plot — mute custodian falls for the aforementioned imprisoned creature during the Cold War — sounds stale and B-movie-ish. In del Toro’s hands, it is magical. Moment to moment, scene for scene, The Shape of Water is a glorious creation. Here is a film that reminds us why we so adore cinema in the first place. A remarkable achievement in all respects. – Chris S.

22. Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman)

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Frederick Wiseman’s latest masterful dissection Ex Libris couldn’t be more blunt in its intentions. Yet it repeatedly finds generous new ways to reaffirm its central thesis. Over a Wiseman-standard three-and-a-half hours, the genius octogenarian and a team of operators with exceptional instincts skim through a dizzying number of branches of the New York Public Library, touching on everything the system of libraries offer from expected civic resources (e.g. educational tools for unprivileged communities) to the wealth of authors, musicians, and artists who speak nearly daily at its nearly hundred parts. But true to Wiseman’s style, the genius is less in scope than a consistently rewarding patience. Sections are patience-testing — and become bizarrely funny when the camera moves to audience members falling asleep listening to the same speech — but they all accumulate into something larger than its parts. By the end, Ex Libris is less an argument for the library as a necessary public institution than an inherent reminder of its place as an essential hub for knowledge and human potential. – Mike S.

21. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)

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Is it a real dog? If it looks real and acts like a dog, does it matter? Why don’t you ask it? Blade Runner 2049 scrutinizes the line between performance of a self and the existence of it — and whether there is one. Ultimately, it wonders whether simply believing in ones own humanity in turn establishes it — from “I think, therefore I am” to “I insist that I am.” It posits an epic poem as a mantra of affirmation, and likewise works on a mesmerizing, deliberate rhythm, giving each scene space to breathe its idea and add its own piece to its greater mosaic. And what a beautiful picture it is, Roger Deakins continuing to ascend to more masterful control of color and light. It’s more William Gibson than Phillip K. Dick, but all the better for it. – Dan S.

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