Many of these films dramatize a struggle to connect while elaborating on the realms existing within one’s mind.
Cinema is an art of collaborative effort that speaks implicitly and often explicitly of the values of community, which often seemed in short supply this year. We live in an age in which articles are written daily on the need for “checking out” of online culture, so that we may disconnect from the bombardment of grotesqueries that keep us in an emotional tailspin. Both coincidentally and by pop-cultural osmosis, many of the year’s best films ask how deeply we may be permitted to check out and how far we should risk and extend ourselves for the prospect of personal and social rehabilitation.
The break-out horror film of the year suggests that outwardly tolerant sections of white America are driven by a hideous hypocrisy, confirming the worst nightmares that many African-Americans have about venturing outside their designated “places.” These nightmares are also elucidated by one of the year’s best documentaries, which merges personal poetry with a brief history of social atrocity. An indie sensation shows the impoverished hell—overseen by a man of astonishing kindness—that neighbors a global fantasy land right across the road, while a Portuguese mind-bender utilizes religious iconography to tell the story of a man who’s essentially alone, requiring direct authorial intervention to achieve transcendence.
Three of the year’s greatest films are neurotically charged chamber dramas in which artists struggle with their self-absorption and self-loathing to salve their fear and loneliness—a salve which is more readily available to them via their art. Many of these films dramatize a struggle to connect while elaborating on the realms existing within one’s mind, riffing on the at once freeing and imprisoning temptation to write off the outside world.
With this context in mind, French filmmaking legend Agnès Varda and street artist JR offered one of the most resonant metaphors in this year’s cinema. Emphasizing images of people’s faces, they turned their art into a rallying cry for unity between the self and the best and worst of society. With cinema, we can be alone together, but fulfillment is tethered to risk, which is reliant on submission to the chaos of unmediated life and the evolving curiosity, empathy, and courtesy that it requires. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for individual contributor ballots and a list of the films that ranked 26–50.
Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories is a rich conglomeration of autobiography, screwball comedy, and existentialist ennui. Think of the filmmaker’s latest as a spiritual sequel to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale if the principal characters of that film were 30 years older, with the grumbling patriarch (played here by Dustin Hoffman) still unsatisfied and unsuccessful in his artistic ambitions. Caught amid his stifling tyranny as an artist and father are his three grown children, whose festering resentments, which stem from a history of complex interpersonal relationships, rise to the surface with each new confrontation in the wake of their old man’s hospitalization. The film’s defining sequence involves Jean’s (Elizabeth Marvel) late revelation that she was sexually harassed by one of her father’s friends as a child, which prompts brothers Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller) to retaliate by vandalizing the now senile perpetrator’s car. Despite their satisfaction, Jean tells them: “I’m glad you guys feel better. Unfortunately, I’m still fucked up.” As in The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach’s work is most insightful when characters perform an ugly tightrope walk between fashioning themselves as triumphant rebels and having to confront their own abject state of being. Clayton Dillard
Like Hillary Jordan’s source novel, Dee Rees’s Mudbound feels like a summoning of William Faulkner, given how intensely focused it is on the generational legacy of hate. Its focal points are two families, one white and the other black, the McAllans arriving through hard luck and bad faith on the dismal land that the Jacksons had to struggle to earn. Split perspectives between and within the families illustrate mounting tensions as the McAllans treat the Jacksons as the help, if not unwelcome intruders. Rees deftly teases out various strains of white rage, from the freely aired bigotry of the decrepit grandfather (Jonathan Banks) to the subtler hostility of the patriarch (Jason Clarke), who has a habit of telling, not asking, the Jackson family to help out whenever he needs it. The filmmaker also pays careful attention to a white sharecropper who cannot psychologically cope with the thought of being on equal economic terms with black farmers and is driven to terrifying, violent madness. Only a cataclysmic event like World War II hints at the possibility of sparking change, but the system’s deeply entrenched protocols ensure that no bonds can be forged without vicious conflict. Jake Cole
No orgy is complete without the participation of at least one person for whom the word “prophylactic” means “pocket protector.” João Pedro Rodrigues isn’t the only filmmaker contributing to our current and unmistakably pink-sploitation renaissance. But with all due deference to this, the year of the peach, Rodrigues is arguably the only one who consistently makes films without a safe word. Such is his dogged pursuit of culturally hyperconscious pleasure that he even inverts what would be typically thought of as text and subtext in arty rough trade. Rugged naturalist Fernando’s (Paul Hamy) picaresque river trip bears surface comparisons to the life of St. Anthony of Padua, patron saint of missed connections. But, long before the director himself emerges to add meta to his money shot, The Ornithologist is cruising the nooks and crannies of its creator-protagonist’s amygdala, from the rope burns of bondage to covert, subterranean piss play. If Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake transmogrified into Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World,” that would only begin to suggest the ways that The Ornithologist’s survivalism playfully distorts the earlier film’s death impulse. Eric Henderson
The shift of Terrence Malick’s stories toward more contemporary settings and his aesthetics toward increasingly experimental directions reaches new heights with Song to Song, a romantic drama of such spatial and temporal fluidity that it could accurately be described as Joycean. Career ambitions, romantic longing, and self-doubt—all common elements of the romantic drama—are fragmented and reconfigured in radical ways, filtered through a stream of consciousness where desires and feelings are in constant flux. Lovers crisscross the screen with fleeting intensity, leaving vapor trails of sense memories as markers of their presence. Guided by an erratic breadcrumb trail of such moments, Song to Song is a pointillist study of the interactions that shape its characters’ lives. There’s so much to process here, a reflection of the impossibility of understanding the significance of any given event or relationship as it happens in real time. As such, what wisdom and clarity there is to offer comes from the older rock stars who litter the film’s periphery, as in a scene of Iggy Pop speaking soberly about his experiences as the camera scans the latticework of scars on his chest that testify to a hard road taken toward peace of mind, or Patti Smith’s heart-wrenching odes to her late husband. This is Malick’s most radical feature to date and, as a nearly one-to-one match between image and feeling, the purest expression of the style he’s been chasing for more than a decade. Cole
Ostensibly a nonfiction tour through the seamy underbelly of contemporary China’s flagrant economic excesses, Zhao Liang’s staggering exposé gets extra juice from a few poetic touches threaded through its otherwise rigorous realism. With opening imagery paralleling that of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Behemoth introduces its nameless, Dante-quoting narrator prone and naked at the edge of a strip-mined wasteland, his pale body glimmering amid the dun-colored carnage of the quarry site. Where Rand’s farcical libertarian fantasy cast hero architect Howard Roark as a figure of pure predestination, his towering creations conceived as outgrowths of his perfectly sculpted form, here the human vessel is the canvas, a surface upon which the traumas of environmental abuse are painfully revivified. Mostly migrant laborers flung by the vagaries of modern economics from one side of the country to another, the workers who construct and inhabit these expressively conveyed nightmare zones are presented with empathetic reverence, some suffering so badly from black lung disease that they can only survive hooked up to breathing machines. As blast furnaces roar and the desolate, dystopian landscapes of vacant planned cities silently unspool, the film returns again and again to people, rendered tiny and irrelevant by comparison. Those profiled here never speak, but their deformed postures, soot-smeared faces, and framed photos of deceased relatives communicate the toll—the quiet horror of bodies broken to form the foundation for a luxurious modern lifestyle. Jesse Cataldo
As science fiction, Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime derives its haunting power as much from its speculative elements as from the cozy familiarity of its mise-en-scène. Exploiting a multi-generational beachfront family cottage designed in a warm midcentury modern style as its setting, as well as comforting splashes of Beethoven and the Band on its soundtrack, Almereyda’s spare restaging of Jordan Harrison’s talky play imagines a near future where holographic simulations of dead loved ones (also known as “primes”) have placed familial relations in peril, providing unprecedented grief-coping opportunities on the one hand but enabling an echo chamber of delusion and emotional confusion on the other. Starring Tim Robbins, Geena Davis, Lois Smith, and Jon Hamm as the corporeal and projected personae of a bourgeois family bound by a history of half-clarified emotional wounds, Marjorie Prime consists of a series of charged one-on-ones between humans and uncanny A.I. contraptions that progressively muddy the tenuous distinction between truth and selective memory—in addition to showcasing the ensemble’s dexterity. As with 2015’s Experimenter, Almereyda excels at running a tight ship (the film was shot in 13 days with limited resources) while still bringing out the best in his collaborators (cinematographer Sean Price Williams and composer Mica Levi both do daring career-highlight work here), and his elliptical treatment of the script’s central existential dilemma—the havoc wreaked in transcending the absolute finality of death—is enough to justify a sly visual nod to Last Year at Marienbad. Carson Lund
In Death of a Salesman, it isn’t difficult to sympathize with Willy Loman, who embodies America’s propensity for self-pity. Arthur Miller invites us to celebrate ourselves as the tragic figure of our lives. Asghar Farhadi, a tough, self-questioning, and unceasingly curious humanist, has no use for such narcissism, fashioning The Salesman’s Willy Loman figure into a peeper, an unglamorous outsider who challenges our self-glorification. The aging, overweight Naser (Farid Saijadi Hosseini) is so slumped, breathless, and poignantly defeated that we barely take him for a man let alone a sexual predator, thinking of him instead as a member of the de-sexed “elderly,” who exist primarily to scold us and to sit in rocking chairs. It’s this sort of perception, a prison, which drives Naser to commit violation, reaching out for the newness and now-ness of the youthful fling he had once before. When Naser weeps, out of guilt and panic, he seems to be doing so over the deep chasm of isolation and alienation that awaits us all, the chasm with which the protagonists must acquaint themselves if they are to inform their own production of Death of a Salesman with soul. Bowen
Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams relies largely on that most common of documentary techniques: the interview. Inside one of Tehran’s juvenile corrections facilities, teenage girls tell their stories to the camera with remarkable candor and a heartbreaking self-awareness of the injustices they’ve suffered. Oskouei understands that the most vital role he could play in his own film is a minimal one—so only his voice is heard, off-camera, gently prompting the young women’s broader considerations on the nature of happiness, forgiveness, and faith. His filmmaking offers poetic expressions of the thoughts and ideas expressed by his subjects: When one girl describes the corrections facility as a place where “pain drips from the walls,” Oskouei punctuates the lament with an image of thawing snow on a windowpane, suggesting not only the sadness of the girl’s reality, but also the hope for change that Oskouei has invested in her. These gestures deepen this concise, 75-minute film’s sense of artistry, but its depth comes from its humanist ambitions. Much like Edet Belzberg’s magnificent Children Underground, Starless Dreams transcendantly gives a platform to otherwise voiceless youths of boundless strength and character. Sam C. Mac
“Now that I see this film from a distance,” said director Tatiana Huezo in a 2015 interview, reflecting on her documentary Tempestad, “I realize that there’s an invisible war in Mexico; nobody recognizes it as such, but we’re like orphans from justice, from institutions, from authorities.” Interweaving the stories of two such “orphans”—Miriam, a young passport official thrown in a brutal prison on spurious charges of human trafficking, and Adela, an older circus performer whose daughter was mysteriously kidnapped by a drug cartel—Huezo’s film pulses with outrage at Mexico’s endemic corruption and criminal impunity. But Tempestad is no polemic. Rather, it’s an anguished, intensely intimate excavation of two lives scarred by trauma. Huezo hauntingly layers her subjects’ first-person retrospections over footage of vehicles slowly heading down highways, landscapes glimpsed out of bus windows, day laborers absorbed in their work, buildings decaying from neglect, and circus acrobats contorting their wiry frames. Tranquil yet foreboding—like an eerie calm in the midst of a raging storm—Huezo’s mix of sound and image seems to transport the viewer directly into Miriam and Adela’s bruised but resilient psyches. Tempestad also connects us to something larger: Enveloping us in an atmosphere of dread and disquiet, the film evokes nothing less than the fears and anxieties of an entire nation riven by violence. Keith Watson
Sean Baker spends much of The Florida Project charging in vigorously nimble fashion up and down the stairs of the Magic Castle, in and out of its rooms, investing the minutia of the down-and-out lives within this little ecosystem with a bittersweet energy and significance. And almost always the camera is yoked to six-year-old Moonee’s (Brooklynn Prince) present-tense point of view, which explains why the forces battering these lives from all sides remain largely outside the film’s purview: They’re not only too big for this little girl to both completely imagine and understand, but it’s outside her field of vision where the film’s adults are content to keep these forces. One take on the project of the film’s title is the unspoken social contract that binds these lives: the understanding that they’re in this life together, united in their love for their kids. A bitter irony here is that, when the shit hits the fan and Moonee’s eyes open in ways they never have before, she makes a heartbreaking, last-ditch effort to run toward the dream that adults have kept alive the her, fulfilling something that her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), could never give her. But I’d like to think, given this girl’s precociousness, that she’s also hell-bent on destroying this dream, if only to dream bigger: of a world not so small, after all, and as such not predicated on the self-containment that enables capitalism and turns us into its suckers. Ed Gonzalez
Except for some questions he’s asked by interviewers and a few puny would-be rebuttals by smug debaters, whom he swats away like so many intellectual gnats, James Baldwin’s diamantine words—sometimes spoken by the writer himself on video and sometimes read by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson—are the only ones heard in I Am Not Your Negro. Fueled by a perpetually simmering cauldron of grief and rage yet unfailingly compassionate and open-minded, the elegantly world-weary Baldwin traces the thick vein of racism that runs through the heart of U.S. history and culture, identifying it as the original sin the nation must come to terms with if it is ever going to become what it claims to be. “What white people have to do is find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place,” he says, just before uttering the phrase that gives the film its title—though he doesn’t use the word “negro.” Raoul Peck borrows his film’s structure from an unfinished work in which Baldwin had planned to compare the lives of three black civil rights leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The film sketches out the differing approaches adopted by the three leaders only broadly, but Baldwin’s analysis shines through with brilliant clarity. While Jackson reads from both published and unpublished texts, archival video bleeds into recent news footage about travesties like the Trayon Martin killing, making it clear how distressingly urgent Baldwin’s words still are. Elise Nakhnikian
Following up on Story of my Death, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV again works an old story into a phantasmagoric pageant of somberly extravagant decay, unearthing more murky modern parallels in the twisted sagas of the past. Sumptuous and slow-paced, the film depicts the Sun King’s gradual demise from a gangrenous leg wound. Around the failing body of this once-potent demigod assembles a coterie of vultures, concealing their eagerness to attend to the transition of authority beneath fawning expressions of concern. Attempts to save his life are rendered as liturgical rites, conducted largely by a panel of feckless, squabbling charlatans, pushing one another aside to gain greater proximity to the fading flame. In the end, the ruler shrivels into the trappings of the throne, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s deflated performance finding intense poignancy in the sad spectacle of a man realizing that he isn’t omnipotent, only the measly mortal icon for the ethereal specter of state power. When a person dies there’s devastation and mourning. When a king dies, there’s only the stifling cloak of ceremony, the ritualistic passing down of control from one ceremonial vessel to another. Cataldo
It isn’t hyperbole to say that Agnès Varda’s Faces Places, co-directed by street artist JR, is a road movie unlike any other: a documentary as journey through space (France’s countryside) and time (Varda’s past). Crammed into JR’s photo-booth truck, the filmmakers’ quaint aim to make life-sized portraits of working-class people across a nation rouses a surfeit of philosophical inquires. Varda and JR make their way across beaches, through fields, stopping at farms and small villages, their inviting personalities ensuring that every stop becomes a magnificent story. The lives of factory workers, a coalminer’s daughter, goats, even a mailman become not unlike fragments of parables depicted in a stained-glass window. In a register wholly and uniquely Vardan, the filmmaking straddles the line between the first, second, and third person. Humane is a word that’s batted around for just about every documentary, but how else can one describe a film whose subjects are simply, finely, connected by their shared sense of pride in their lives? Populist, though content not to invoke any particular brand of politics, Faces Places is a study in openness under the signs of a fire-hearted sense of personal dignity and glassy-eyed wonder. Peter Goldberg
Get Out’s central conceit, about a Stepford Wives-ish plot by blithely entitled suburban whites to colonize black people’s bodies, is a trenchant metaphor for white supremacy. The timing, character development, and gift for social satire that writer-director Jordan Peele honed as a sketch comedian all translate effortlessly to horror, allowing the first-time filmmaker to entrance his audience as deftly as Catherine Keener’s Missy mesmerizes Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris with that tapping teaspoon. The Sunken Place where Missy maroons Chris is the film’s most indelible image, a stomach-churning representation of how it feels to be stripped of your autonomy and personhood by a dominant culture that remains cruelly blind and deaf to your plight. In a world where almost no one is what they initially appear to be, Get Out anatomizes the evil lurking in the relatively benign-seeming prejudice that plays out as fetishization or envy, a form of racism that doesn’t see itself as racist at all. Elise Nakhnikian
Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library plays as a natural extension of the inclusive humanist vision that the filmmaker articulated in 2015’s In Jackson Heights. Just as the startlingly diverse Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights became, under Wiseman’s inquisitive eye, a microcosm of America at its best in its openness to different cultures, the New York Public Library system is portrayed here as a vast network with the power to unite people from all walks of life in the eternal search for knowledge and enlightenment. But Wiseman, as ever, is hardly simple-minded in his perspective. Through many backroom scenes with members of the library’s board, Ex Libris reveals the economic difficulties of maintaining such a system, with the survival of an institution meant to benefit the commonwealth placed ironically in the hands of the wealthy. And yet, through the generous sprawl of three-plus hours, as Wiseman presents us with scenes and shots of intellectuals holding court, students being taught by instructors, and individuals soaking up knowledge on their own, Ex Libris constantly reminds us of the necessity of keeping libraries alive, exulting in the democratic ideal they represent. Kenji Fujishima
Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name chronicles a moving and compassionate queer love story driven by universal representations of sensuality and erotic exploration. Desire is located mainly in furtive glances and brief, suggestive caresses but also in the oddest, most unexpected of places, be it a lustful handling of a pair of worn swim trunks or use of a juicy peach as a receptacle for an orgasm. Guadagnino fills the gaps between nascent longing and sexual gratification with tender, seductive scenes showing the two men striving to interpret and respond to codified postures, movements, and behaviors as they attempt to surreptitiously bridge a rift that societal norms and mores have placed between them. As Elio moves from admiring Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) statuesque physique and occasionally bumbling foreignness from the same calculated distance from which his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) reveres ancient Greco-Roman sculptures to embracing it in all its splendor, Call Me by Your Name creates an intoxicating atmosphere, with the aid of its gorgeous, pastoral setting, that fully embraces passion while remaining grounded in its scrupulously constructed, lived-in world. But even when things shift toward a nostalgic melancholy, Guadagnino retains traces of hope in his doomed romanticism through the poignant ways in which his film answers one of its central questions: “Should I speak or should I die?” Derek Smith
An elegy for lost cinematic treasures and a vanished way of life, Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time is a ghost story of sorts that reminds us of the fragility of film as a physical medium. Juxtaposing documentary footage of the gold rush in the Yukon Territory at the turn of the 19th century with clips from decayed silent film reels previously unknown to exist or thought to be totally destroyed, Dawson City: Frozen Time feels like cinema dreaming of its own faded, half-remembered childhood. Morrison provides an engrossing history lesson about the business of early film while telling the story of the dying Old West as personified in the boom and bust of Dawson City, a once thriving mining town that’s since faded into almost complete oblivion. As he’s done in his previous films, Morrison displays half-destroyed old nitrate film reels, which were notoriously unstable and flammable, as art objects in and of themselves, independent of the stories they once told. Taken out of their original context, the snapshots of life contained within these ghostly frames give us an unprecedented feeling for this time and place, with its Wild West melodrama and Gilded Age optimism. The film serves as an exquisite reminder that the cultural detritus of the past can become an artistic bonanza for future generations. Oleg Ivanov
The queer art of survival through debauchery and improbable alliances meets the French gift for conversational sparring in BPM (Beats Per Minute), which dramatizes the frantic lives of ACT UP activists in Paris in the early 1990s. The result is one gut-wrenching ode to joie de vivre—a political orgy of sorts where queer kinship is the only buffer zone keeping dying and desiring from becoming the exact same thing. An army of lovers debates without end, like cruising, as if trying to speak their way out of death, or into it, ultimately exacerbating human condition’s most basic tenet: brevity. The average heart rate indeed. BPM avoids archival, pedagogical, and sentimental approaches to its material by placing a believable love story at the very core of its militant bacchanalia, provoking precisely the type of identification, or recognition, that ACT UP’s theatrical activism aimed to forge. Derek Jarman took ACT UP’s slogan, “Stop looking at us, start listening to us,” to its most radical cinematic conclusion in Blue, stripping the frame from everything but a single color. Writer-director Robin Campillo has more graphic demands in mind: the ruby redness of fake blood staining corporate carpet, the melancholy lilac of Kaposi’s sarcoma dotting the bodies of lovers-cum-makeshift-immunologists, the gut-wrenching darkness of the wake in the final sequence where friends and lovers show up to smooth over the edges of departure—and the deceased boy’s mother lets out, matter of factly, “Already?” Diego Semerene
“I will help you, because you will make sure that nothing will change,” says a plantation owner and rubber baron (Franco Nero) dressed in a fine white suit and fanned by a native slave, to Major Percival “Percy” Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). The baron assumes that Fawcett’s mapmaking expedition in the Amazon is meant to maintain the constancy of early 20th-century colonialism—of occupations that mitigate conflict through control. But in actuality, like Marion Cotillard’s Ewa Cybulska in James Gray’s earlier The Immigrant, Fawcett exists outside of the strictures of his time—a deliberate anachronism. The man’s break from the era’s accepted social norms, his belief in exploration as more than a means of exploitation, and his dreams of the future as a corrective for the past reflect both his repentance for an “unfortunate” ancestry (his father was a gambler and a drunk) and broadly represent emergent 20th-century modernism. Gray’s opulent formalism channels Fawcett’s delusions of grandeur, making for an intoxicating adventure film. And the director’s typically bracing intelligence—employed here to examine the psychological toll of obsession, and the philosophical weight of understanding, and accepting, change—lends the narrative the scope and detail of a classical epic. Like The Immigrant, The Lost City of Z is about ideologies out of step from the present moment of the world they exist in, and is itself a film out of its own time. Mac
Kristin Stewart shops, Olivier Assayas buys, and cinephiles everywhere throw away the receipt. Assayas’s latest and potentially greatest indulgence in diva worship seems rigged to pin Stewart like a butterfly in cinematic isolation for as long as the apparatus can get away with it. Stewart stars (and rarely has the word “stars” felt so inadequate) as a spiritual medium moonlighting in Paris as a buyer for a hangry fashionista, and desperately trying to come into contact with her recently departed twin brother. Filmed in a sense like an exorcism of its leading player’s own fame-making turns in pop-horror blockbusters, the stages of grief embodied throughout Personal Shopper are at once redolent of funereal urban ennui and wrapped too tight. By the time Stewart is spending the film’s thrilling and entirely dialogue-free central act nervously trading texts with “Unknown Caller,” Assayas has encroached fully upon her space while depicting her, in every sense, alone. Not since Kyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse has a ghost story more closely replicated the anxiety of modern communication. And not since Vertigo has the act of dressing up felt so illicit. Henderson
Manny Farber’s conception of a film defined by “unkempt activity” often gets shortened to “termite art,” even though his full, original designation was “termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art.” The unwieldy term seems precisely the point: Wild and ferocious, such a film wants to worm and rip its way through your viscera with little concern for the damage incurred. In Good Time, directors Josh and Benny Safdie tailor a shredding electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never to energize the caustic, Christmas-set NYC tale of Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson), an anti-Santa Claus who leeches his victims, including Nick (Benny Safdie), his mentally challenged brother, of their possessions and trust. Right from the devastating opening, in which Connie snatches Nick from a therapy session as the latter is on the verge of a breakthrough, the Safdies convey Connie’s desperation not through backstory or exposition, but as a compulsory, breathless sprint toward destruction. A handful of African immigrants are caught in the crosshairs of Connie’s mad dash of a day, with their professions and lives routinely jeopardized by his sociopathic behavior. The systemic danger of white-male anger, especially as it’s informed by Connie’s vaguely defined sense of personal injustice and self-righteousness, has rarely been represented in American cinema as an urgent public health hazard, with its noxious effects no different than the choking, billowing haze of an exploded dye pack. Clayton Dillard
With her screenplays for Frances Ha and Mistress America, Greta Gerwig proved to be a formidable surveyor of the intricacies of female relationships, but her solo writing and directing debut, Lady Bird, while evincing her customary wit, articulates an even deeper and more profound humanism than her earlier work. The self-involved Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s (Saoirse Ronan) fraught relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), over the course of the former’s senior year in high school serves as the catalyst for Gerwig’s nuanced exploration of the tension between our youthful ego and the realization that we’re not the center of the world, merely minor individuals in a vast ensemble made of infinite narratives. As Lady Bird’s complicated and often revelatory confrontations with other characters spur the development of her sensitivity to the multifaceted lives of those around her, the empathy with which Gerwig has imbued her film shines through in the singular perspective of her protagonist, marked by a symphonically comedic rhythm of dialogue and gesture. Gerwig’s singularly offbeat vision of Sacramento contributes a specificity of place to this rare, unsentimental portrait of youth that feels unabashedly, bracingly alive. Wes Greene
A coterie of gangly young terrorists, frustrated with society, concoct a plan to synchronize attacks around Paris: from shootings to bombings to fires set to statues, all to interrupt the quotidian stagnation of modernity. Their motivations are somewhat nebulous, and their end goal unspecified, but they commit to the plan—if not any discernible purpose or impetus—and pull it off. Subways act as their underground tunnels, a shopping mall their eventual bastion. They seem edified, discussing Pinochet’s Chilean regime in cafés, the ethical quandaries of terrorism, the perils of consumerism, but also just as susceptible to the allure of stuff; inside the mall, they regress into emulations of the people they hate, of the mannequins on display. This is terrorism as pop-art. Behind Nocturama’s glistening surfaces and pretty faces is an emptiness, a dearth of conviction. This is, of course, by design. As depicted by Bertrand Bonnello, who has a penchant for voluptuous camera movements, Paris is decadent and vile. Even the idealists aren’t immune to the city’s sybaritic sickness. In a coruscating materialistic world, there’s a profusion of reflective surfaces and no self-awareness. For all the gazing the young characters do—at televisions, out windows, into mirrors—they never see what’s staring back at them. Greg Cwik
Like a certain American whisper-mongering auteur with whom he shares a first name, it appears that the drive for big questions has found Terence Davies upping his ante in terms of productivity. The filmmaker’s portrait of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, charts the poet’s course from a silver-tongued teenager (Emma Bell) to a sly recluse (Cynthia Nixon). The narrative is spindled around less than two dozen lines of Dickinson’s posthumously published words, and by the time they’ve run out, the pleasures of nonconformity within high Massachusetts society have given way to the creeping disappointment of a chaste middle age. Davies shows the agony of Dickinson’s kidney disease in unsparing long takes, anchoring her story, for all its high-mindedness, to the same mortal coil that unites us all. Call it transcendental pessimism. The film fits snugly among Davies’s (indeed, quiet) masterpieces for the way it wrings the sublime from the strained confines of everyday life, refusing the luxury of easy liberation on either side of the screen. By the time Dickinson asks her sister, Vinni (Jennifer Ehle), “Why has the world become so ugly?,” this tender and heartbreaking film has taught us better than to expect an answer. Steve Macfarlane
Imagine a version of Rebecca staged with the offbeat majesty of Barry Lyndon and you’ve just begun to limn the uncanny, gorgeously sustained tenor of Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about a megalomaniacal, self-obsessed artist and the women who love him unconditionally. The World War II-era couture fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an impeccably groomed British fussbucket, a man of elaborate routines whose freedom to create comes from the labors of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). Their traditions are disrupted after Woodcock discovers a muse in Alma (Vicky Krieps), an immigrant waitress who proves determined to earn and keep her position in Woodcock’s affections, along with his business. The vast majority of Phantom Thread is confined to the ivory-hued interiors of Woodcock’s home office, but the eccentric love triangle that ensues is a luxuriously expansive discourse on creation wrapped in a perfectly concise, endlessly surprising period drama. Assisted by Jonny Greenwood’s staggeringly dextrous score and a trio of beguiling lead performances, Anderson digs into his characters with exquisite sensitivity, lingering on flushing cheeks and a taxonomic array of moony, mischievous smiles. Even his more self-conscious flourishes—scenes that track and circle alterations and fittings with surgical quietude—espouse an intimate, love-drunk restraint (Anderson shot the film himself under a pseudonym), a sensibility matched by a screenplay that sneaks the coked-up syntax and repetition of the director’s early work into a reverent but chastely kinky period piece. (With its abundant plates of eggs, toast, and pastries, the film is at its most ravishing at the breakfast table.) Rhyming love’s fickle rhythms with the fundamental ephemerality of high fashion, Phantom Thread gradually becomes a singular musing on the artist’s legacy. To think any piece of clothing or unfettered emotion will last forever is a uniquely human folly, but each of Anderson’s unforgettable characters prove rapturously committed to the notion. Christopher Gray
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The 25 Best Films of 2017 – slantmagazine
Many of these films dramatize a struggle to connect while elaborating on the realms existing within one’s mind.