Aren's Top 10 Films of 2017
1. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
What It’s About: A retelling of the World War II British evacuation of Dunkirk, focusing on individual efforts by land, air, and sea.
Why It’s Good: No director working today is as skilled at wedding experimental artistic impulses with high entertainment as Christopher Nolan. His latest, Dunkirk, is the film of the year for how it deftly uses nonlinear storytelling and editing and IMAX cinematography to bring to life the monumental evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk in World War II. Thematically, Dunkirk reminds us of two fundamental aspects of humanity: our survival instinct and our inherent dignity—and how these two things can coexist in the midst of war and tragedy. Through its unique plotting, it helps us to comprehend how time expands or compresses depending on the stakes at hand and the chaos of the moment. But beyond its weighty themes and experimental structure, Dunkirk is a work of overwhelming visceral power. Every swoop of Supermarine Spitfires, every image of men on the beach hiding from the bombs of planes overhead, every quiet moment of diligence and desperation at sea, in the air, and on the land, is thrilling and terrifying. From the first explosive rifle shots in the quiet streets of Dunkirk to the film’s final images of a plane torched on an empty beach, Dunkirk commands your attention. Every moment of every frame is riveting.
2. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
What It’s About: A couture designer (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1950s London finds his meticulous habits and life upended when he begins a relationship with a young woman (Vicky Krieps) who refuses to be a pliant muse.
Why It’s Good: Paul Thomas Anderson’s foray into haute couture and 1950s London is the most beguiling film of the year, one that tricks you into assuming generic familiarity only to gobsmack you with how bizarre elements of it and its central relationship are. Combining the manners of a Merchant-Ivory picture with the thematic obsessions of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Vertigo, Anderson weaves a delicate pattern of artistic and romantic obsession, one that illuminates the power struggles at play in romantic relationships as well as the meticulous rigour required for great art. It’s an exceptional work of analog filmmaking with the splendid duo of Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps at its centre. It’s also a shockingly enjoyable picture, with a deep well of black humour and sensual texture that keeps it eminently watchable even in its strangest moments.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
What It’s About: A replicant Blade Runner (Ryan Gosling) gets involved in a conspiracy involving a replicant child and a former Blade Runner (Harrison Ford) who has been in hiding for decades.
Why It’s Good: Oh how this film could’ve gone awry. Instead of trying to recreate the hypnotic art film beats of Ridley Scott’s science-fiction classic, French-Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve expands the world in daring and visually audacious ways that achieve a similar brilliance without being a mere replication of what came before. Blade Runner 2049 weaves a Pinocchio-like tale about the quest to become human with a rumination on faith and how salvation is achieved in a broken world. It’s utterly brilliant as a visual work, with Roger Deakins’ neon-infused frames bringing to life one of the most stunning worlds ever put on screen. But it’s also overwhelmingly powerful in its exploration of what makes people human and how we assign meaning to our own lives. Like the best novels of Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner 2049 uses science-fiction to get at the heart of our own realities and our ways of engaging with the world around us.
4. T2 Trainspotting (dir. Danny Boyle)
What It’s About: 21 years after fleeing to Amsterdam, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh and re-inserts himself into the lives of Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and an incarcerated Begbie (Robert Carlyle).
Why It’s Good: This is another long-awaited sequel that outperformed all expectations. Instead of being a thoroughly unnecessary film that no one asked for, T2 Trainspotting manages to be the most essential exploration of nostalgia in recent years—one that has been bafflingly overlooked by critical circles. Instead of wallowing in the glories of the past, Danny Boyle and company weaponize the characters’ (and the viewer’s) nostalgia for the events of the original film, forcing them, and us, to reflect on the ravages of time and the human inability to escape past aspirations and misdeeds. It uses brilliant editing techniques and the energy of pop-art cinema to demonstrate the undeniable truth of Faulkner’s famous adage—”The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
5. After the Storm (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
What It’s About: A former writer and layabout dad (Hiroshe Abe) tries to reconnect with his son and ex-wife when they’re stuck inside his mother’s apartment during a tsunami.
Why It’s Good: At this point, Hirokazu Kore-eda seems incapable of a misstep, crafting one brilliant, subtle masterwork about family and the challenges of living a normal life after another. He uses his restrained camerawork and exceptional rapport with actors to craft domestic scenes that imperceptibly shift between sadness and humour and capture the poignancy and moral challenges of everyday life. Kore-eda has made many great films since bursting onto the international arthouse scene with After Life, but nevertheless After the Storm is one of his very best.
6. The Lost City of Z (dir. James Gray)
What It’s About: A chronicling of explorer Percy Fawcett’s (Charlie Hunnam) journeys into the Amazon Rainforest in search of a lost civilization in the early 20th century.
Why It’s Good: James Gray is a filmmaker of restraint and old-world vision, one who makes melodramas that burn with a silent fervour that seems to imbue every frame of his films with an amber glow. His latest, The Lost City of Z, explores obsession in the most chaste manner imaginable, but because of that restrained vision, the few moments of ecstasy are all the more powerful. Whether it’s depicting a fateful palm reading in the trenches of World War I or an indigenous ritual procession in the jungles of the Amazon, The Lost City of Z captures the magnitude of the unknown and humankind’s desire to surmount the edge of the horizon.
7. mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
What It’s About: A biblical and environmental allegory about a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her artist husband (Javier Bardem) dealing with a series of strangers who arrive at their home and upset their paradisal harmony.
Why It’s Good: This is maybe the boldest studio picture of the new millennium, which is saying something coming from a filmmaker with no shortage of bold films to his credit. Darren Aronofsky’s biblical, environmental, and artistic allegory is like an arthouse theme park ride, where Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem shepherd us through a house of horrors that just so happens to work as an allegory for the totality of human existence and humanity’s relationship to the earth. The looseness of the allegory makes the film work on multiple thematic levels, while the sheer filmmaker verve on display, best exemplified in the remarkable final 20-minute stretch, is nightmarish and exhilarating. Few films are as thematically potent and visceral as mother!—exclamation point fully earned.
8. I, Daniel Blake (dir. Ken Loach)
What It’s About: An electrician (Dave Johns) befriends a young single mother (Hayley Squires) as he falls through the cracks of Britain’s welfare system.
Why It’s Good: I don’t usually go for politically-motivated works, but 2017 was a weird year and I, Daniel Blake was so moving and exceptionally-observed that I found myself rallying to the film’s anti-austerity, pro-social justice stance. That the film aligns with my burgeoning leftist politics explains part of my reaction to it, but more than that, the film showcases a deep sympathy for ordinary human beings and a righteous anger at injustices good people have to endure. You shouldn’t have to love Jeremy Corbyn to appreciate this film’s portrait of the life of the working poor.
9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (dir. Rian Johnson)
What It’s About: The ragtag Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), tries to escape the clutches of the First Order and live to fight another day while Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to convince the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to abandon his exile and help restore peace to the galaxy.
Why It’s Good: As you can see from our Roundtable Episodes, The Last Jedi is a divisive film, but there’s a lot to recommend it, even if (like me) you don’t embrace every aspect of its themes and have reservations about its treatment of Luke Skywalker. While it didn’t deliver what I wanted as a diehard Star Wars fan, it did deliver rousing entertainment, while also making me reconsider notions of heroism and the balance between Light and Dark. Few blockbusters have so surprised me with their turns of narrative or their flashes of visual imagination. As a Star Wars film, it may leave a little to be desired, but as a big Hollywood movie, it’s exceptional.
10. Good Time (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie)
What It’s About: A low-life criminal (Robert Pattinson) tries to rescue his mentally-challenged brother (Benny Safdie) from police custody after a bank job gone wrong.
Why It’s Good: Good Time is a rush of gritty verve with a heart as big as the Ritz. As another entry in the hallowed subgenre of “one crazy night” films, Good Time delivers spectacularly, while also providing some well-defined character drama along the way. It swerves from one narrative detour to another as Robert Pattinson’s desperate, manipulative Connie tries every possible avenue to save his brother. Along the way, it paints each person he meets with a brush of sympathy. Good Time is a rush, but it’s also deeply empathetic filmmaking. I’m probably underrating it by having it so low on this list.
The Next 10 (In Alphabetical Order)
Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott)
The Disaster Artist (dir. James Franco)
Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski)
Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)
Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)
The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (dir. Luc Besson)
Your Name (dir. Makoto Shinkai)