Appropriately enough for one of the oddest years in recent memory, my favorite films from 2017 are a motley, often contradictory mix. They reflect something that can only be described a general malaise in the world cinema, which created many fine films but few standouts.
Moreso than in years past, even the films that quickened my heart usually did so in subtle, perplexing ways, and many of the most fascinating works, such as The Human Surge, By the Time It Gets Dark, and Kékzakállú, to name three magnificent whatsits that didn’t crack the upper echelon of my list, were also largely frustrating and confounding.
Perhaps this accounts for the unexpected presence of not just one, but three franchise films on the following list: the perfect balance of quality and genuine daring was often found in the oddest places this year. One exceedingly important and noteworthy exclusion: Twin Peaks: The Return, the finest work of art this year and which firmly belongs to the realms of both film and television, would easily be at number one were it not for my deference to the theatrical commercial release model.
10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)
Perhaps the most audacious series of gambits this year (certainly in franchise filmmaking) came late, in the form of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Jettisoning much of the established conventions and narrative structures, Rian Johnson orchestrated a daring four-part narrative, moving between intersecting, asynchronous tales of disappointment and the balance between hope and evil. It is a genuinely exciting and innovative new chapter in the closest thing modern society has to myth, while delivering some moments of levity and pain along the way.
9. BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo)
Some of the most vibrant, politically charged filmmaking of the year was found in BPM (Beats Per Minute), Robin Campillo’s lively account of ACT UP Paris activists in their fight to secure better treatments and recognition for AIDS victims. While the scenes of dialectical meetings discussing strategies are the most thrilling, the gradual shift from overt protesting to more quiet acts of subversion via an intense relationship is rendered with a strong vitality. Sex, politics, and partying all go hand in hand, while never eliding the reality and danger of its remarkable ensemble cast’s collective affliction and struggle.
8. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul W.S. Anderson)
The cause célèbre franchise of the vulgar auteurism movement took its curtain call with a return to the series’ horror roots on three fronts: the narrative, the setpiece, and the form. The most furiously edited film of the year, it moves and rushes with an inexorable kineticism buoyed by Anderson and Milla Jovovich’s singular drive and sense of purpose. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter overwhelms, but it does so with uncommon, awe-inspiring vigor and craft that earns an unexpected sense of transcendence, literalized in the finale to the finale.
7. The Post (Steven Spielberg)
Equal parts rousing and intelligent, Steven Spielberg’s continued late-period interest in historical procedurals manifested itself this year with The Post, an account of the Washington Post’s defiance of the Nixon Administration through its publishing of the Pentagon Papers. The modern-day parallels are impossible to ignore, but it is at its very best in its master auteur’s uncommonly vigorous direction, which delights in the thrill of the chase and investigation. It is perhaps fitting that what would conventionally be the climax – the court decision – is almost an after-thought: the act of publishing, of relaying information, is what matters.
6. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli)
Though it functions neatly as the second part to the 2015 blockbuster, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is in many ways a departure, almost entirely for the better. The non-stop insane action that defined its predecessor is eschewed for much of the first film, as S.S. Rajamouli crafts an utterly unexpected and exquisite royal tragedy that shifts through court politics, backstabbing, and even romantic comedy. The predominance of the flashback only renders the all-out war of the finale that much more awe-inspiring, and the assuredness of the whole film feels like witnessing a myth being made in the present tense.
5. Good Time (Josh & Benny Safdie)
Less a breakneck thrill ride than an incredibly intense slow burn, the Safdie brothers’ film establishes itself as something truly dangerous in its willingness to plumb the depths of society and human behavior. But Good Time is also a gorgeous, immensely emotional experience, with the brief moments of connection and brotherhood only throwing the rest into greater light. Having one of the most impressively harmonious combinations of direction, cinematography, and score this year certainly doesn’t hurt.
4. Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)
Full-hearted loveliness was in short supply this year, and perhaps its greatest provider came in the form of Princess Cyd, a film about a teenager visiting her aunt, which is equally about the ways they both change each other over the course of a few weeks. At once quotidian and lingering, immensely kind-hearted and sobering, it uses its balance of queerness and implied spirituality to invigorating effect. Its universal acceptance of all is rendered exquisitely and without a trace of obviousness: Stephen Cone’s film simply exists, and does so with an ineffable vitality.
3. Faces Places (Agnès Varda & JR)
An irrepressible, freewheeling collaboration, Faces Places uses a simple concept – following legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda and the pseudonymous street artist JR as they travel the French countryside and put up large-scale photographs of its inhabitants – in order to explore an extraordinary range of humanity and emotion. Light-hearted and substantial, its prosaic method of presentation only enlivens the pairing of the octogenarian and the young raconteur, culminating in a beautiful moment of pure emotion that reflects its central aims: revelation via documentation.
2. The Work (Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous)
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 moments, 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.
1. On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo)
The immensely prolific and consistent master Hong Sang-soo had a breakthrough year, premiering three features to wide acclaim. The only one of these released in the same year, On the Beach at Night Alone, is also as personal as his films have ever gotten. Featuring professional and personal partner Kim Min-hee as an actress in seclusion as a result of her affair with a well-known director, it is a simmering yet often gentle examination of the ways in which love can both unite and irreparably break. For someone that regards Hong as one of the great filmmakers of our time, it is gratifying, surprising, and immensely assured in so many undefinable, moving ways.
Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2017