Andrew Swafford: Top Films of 2017
10: The Work
Dir: Jarius McLeary and Gethin Aldous
For four days each year, Folsom Prison allows volunteer civilians to join its inmates in group therapy sessions. This documentary follows those civilians, offering an intimate look at the “work” of these sessions: heavy emotional labor. The film is an always intense, sometimes bone-rattling exorcism of toxic masculinity—a wrecking ball to the emotional concrete standing between hardened men and their tears. The Work is one of the only films of the year guaranteed to have you shaking.
9: (Tie) A Ghost Story
Dir: David Lowery
Dir: Olivier Assayas
Disclaimer: I cheat twice on this list, and in both cases it’s because two films succeed in such similar ways; picking just one would be unfair, but picking both might monopolize undue space on the list.
In this case, A Ghost Story and Personal Shopper succeed at defying expectations: they are both about hauntings without horror tropes, they both explore grief without sentimentality, and they both study character growth without traditional narrative arcs. Both movies wander: A Ghost Story follows the soul of a man trapped by space but not time, and Personal Shopper follows a young clairvoyant mourning her dead brother. Together, they are perhaps the most ethereal movies of the year.
8: (Tie) Get Out
Dir: Jordan Peele
Dir: Patty Jenkins
The previous two films on this list offer transportive experiences you’d never expect. These two operate firmly within familiar genres to tell urgent new stories. It has been said that popcorn cinema is the mythology of our era, and Get Out and Wonder Woman have already attained iconic status in that respect, finding broad appeal through bold images of hope and despair from artists whose voices shine through in every frame. These movies have staying power; they’re myths worth believing in.
7: The Beguiled
Dir: Sofia Coppola
A house full of lonely Confederate women grant safe harbor to a wounded Union soldier in this radical perspective-flip on a 1970s Clint Eastwood film. Just as she did in Marie Antoinette, Coppola pushes both politics and pulp to the margins—which has proven understandably controversial—to instead focus elliptically on her prime interest: the gaze of women in boxes. Perhaps her purest expression of that idea, The Beguiled is a quiet potboiler that sees through the eyes of the Southern belle to examine how natural playfulness gets stifled by airy hospitality and faux politeness.
6: The Show About The Show
Dir: Caveh Zahedi
Disclaimer: The Show About The Show is, by its own definition, a show. However, thanks to a theatrical run in New York City and a Public Cinema screening in Knoxville, this feature-length binge-watch qualifies for the list despite and because of its category-defying nature.
The first “episode” of The Show About The Show is a pitch for a show about its own creation; every subsequent episode dramatizes the construction of the previous one. It’s creator, Caveh Zahedi, is an experimental filmmaker living a life of radical honesty, constantly admitting his own selfishness and documenting it obsessively through a combination of vlogging and docudrama fakery, much to the embarrassment of his friends and family. His creation bares all to the point of absolute absurdity, making it one of the year’s most hilarious, unique, and undeniably human pieces of video art.
5: The Shape of Water
Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
Hollywood produces a lot of movies about the magic of movies, but only Guillermo Del Toro could make something like The Shape of Water, a bizarre 60s-era monster-romance that is both inspired by the craft of Golden Age cinema and aware of the normalized evil in which it was created. The Shape of Water is an amphibious beauty, with swoon-worthy aesthetics and biting intelligence; Guillermo Del Toro makes emotional resonance, and sociopolitical insight look completely effortless.
4: Before I Fall
Dir: Ry Russo-Young
The teen coming-of-age genre has been caught in a pretty tired loop for a while now, and Before I Fall knows that actual teenagers are too. The premise sounds gimmicky–Groundhog Day in high-school–but the central mechanic allows director Ry Russo-Young to empathetically observe the repetitive nature of teen life. And the film’s focus on the familiar “mean girl” archetype explores this idea to find cycles of socialized heartlessness and well-trodden paths of identity-formation. The aesthetic of the film–characterized by thumping beats, reflective surfaces, and sleek camerawork–make the whole thing feel like a perfect crystallization of modern teenage soul-seeking.
Framed within a town renowned for its natural beauty and architectural class, the characters of Columbus drift aimlessly, lost in thought and cerebral conversation about what, if anything, art is good for. For all their drifting, however, first-time director Kogonada frames and edits each shot with great purpose, composing some of the most beautiful moving images of the year (underscored by the sonorous drones of the band Hammock). Columbus is a slightly ineffable film of great patience, wisdom, and sensory pleasure–you really just need to experience it for yourself.
2: Your Name.
Dir: Makoto Shinkai
Your Name. is a familiar body-swap narrative–this time about a boy in Tokyo who wakes up as a girl in rural Japan and vice versa–but the film is elevated into the stratosphere by its creator. Makoto Shinkai is perhaps the greatest animator working today. He is virtuosic in his use of backgrounds, which he fills with a sense of cosmic grandeur only to throw each away in the blink of an eye with music-video-inspired rhythmic editing. But crucially, each frame is imbued with emotional resonance, thanks to the unabashed youthful sincerity that he consistently dedicates to exploring the emotional distance between people. In Your Name., he moves time and space itself for his characters to be together, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
1: Good Time
Dir: Josh and Benny Safdie
No film this year is more propulsive or electric than Good Time, a New York crime thriller that pulls the heist-gone-bad narrative into unprecedented territory of frenetic anxiety. There is no time for introspection or ponderance in Good Time, which fixes its camera to Robert Pattinson’s unsympathetic protagonist and does not let go, tracking his heart-rate with a pulsating electronic score as his character makes immoral choice after immoral choice in search of the upper hand against banks, hospitals, police, and other trusted American institutions. It’s a lean, mean, pulpy genre flick with no wasted moments that can be enjoyed both on a visceral level and a thematic one, as each exponentially escalating conflict deepens Good Time’s subtext about the intersections between race, privilege and power. The white devil gets his due in Good Time, and it’s a wild ride.
Twin Peaks: The Return
Dir: David Lynch
Throughout 2017’s endless black hole of bad news, one of the most reliable sources of comfort was Twin Peaks: The Return, a cinematic event like no other regardless of classification. Every week gave us a new, unpredictable hour of David Lynch that never failed to amuse or thrill. There are thousands of pages worth writing about Twin Peaks: The Return–regarding how it handles its aging character mythology, how it invents new narrative structures, how it makes digitized special effects feel like the magic-lanterns shows of old, how it pushes the boundaries of the prestige television audience, etc.–but I just want to briefly highlight one moment.
When Laura Palmer screams in the show’s final moments (accompanied by a hair-raising electric surge), Twin Peaks: The Return switched from comforting reassurance to a horrifying reality-check. Still shrieking after all these years, Laura’s facial contortion reminded me of my favorite novelty Twitter account, Infinite Scream–a bot that tweets an “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH” of varying length every ten minutes. Faced with unfathomable darkness all around us, it’s nice to know that screaming is a completely natural response–we can’t help it. Weirdly, there’s something comforting about that too.
Andrew Swafford’s Honorable Mentions for 2017
• Ghost in the Shell by Rupert Sanders (a solid futurist action film overshadowed by a wave of reductive thinkpieces)
• Antiporno by Sion Sono (a metafictive porn-set morphs into a surprisingly empathetic character study)
• Better Watch Out by Chris Peckover (Home Alone-inspired Christmas horror examining white suburban sadism)
• The Untamed by Amat Escalante (Spanish erotic horror with a symbolic tentacle-monster at its center)
• Lady Macbeth by William Oldroyd (a bold costume drama that takes full stock of history’s collateral damage)
Spencer Trent: Top Films of 2017
Dir: Ceyda Torun
One of the most surprisingly moving films I’ve seen in some time, Kedi is a documentary about the stray cats who populate the streets of Istanbul and the human beings who help to look after them. The premise is simple and its structure is as well; the movie alternates between sequences following the cats through their day-to-day routines and interviews with the people who enjoy their company. However, Kedi uses this simple idea to speak profoundly about some very important existential themes, like death, compassion, and the existence of God.
Dir: John Carrol Lynch
This year, we lost one of the greatest character actors in film history: Harry Dean Stanton. Fortunately, he left us with one more amazing movie to remember him by. Lucky tells the story of an aging atheist, played by Stanton, trying to come to terms with the life he has led as well as his impending death. If that’s not enough, Lucky also features David Lynch in a delightful supporting role as Lucky’s best friend, Howard, who spends the film trying to recover his lost 100-year-old tortoise, President Roosevelt.
In his directorial debut, Kogonada has already solidified himself as one of the finest aesthetic eyes working in cinema today. Columbus is impeccably shot and its characters complex and thoughtful, at times too much so for their own good. There are many stories within this one film, but one of the most important follows Korean-American translator Jin trying to escape the shadow of his successful architect father. Kogonada seems to be working through something similar in his first film, paying respects to cinematic giants while also striving to create his own path. In one scene, Jin reclines against a wall beneath his father’s hanging clothes, the characteristic white bucket hat and blazer of one of Kogonada’s self-professed idols and one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Yasujiro Ozu.
7: A Quiet Passion
Dir: Terence Davies
Terence Davies’s latest film, about the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, is not your conventional biopic. Davies brings a delicate touch to his subject matter that refrains from deifying Dickinson, opting instead to allow audiences to briefly inhabit her confined yet transcendent life. The viewer senses the strength of Dickinson’s soul through Cynthia Nixon’s stunningly nuanced performance, but also sympathizes with her family through the trying situations that Dickinson’s tenacity forces them into. A Quiet Passion is a simple film—at least on the surface—that continues to resonate long after the credits roll.
6: A Ghost Story
Dir: David Lowery
In A Ghost Story, writer/director David Lowery has crafted a haunting tale of loss and grief that bends the rules of cinema and time to express the ineffable. The film lingers on incredibly long takes—including one of a despondent Rooney Mara consuming an entire pie—that eloquently convey the isolation of losing the person closest to you in the world. Almost entirely devoid of dialogue, the film forces its audience to inhabit those meditative silent spaces where the weight of everything often begins to settle on one’s shoulders. Mara gives a notably restrained performance here that spotlights the more internal and abiding aspects of grief rather than the initial anguish that comes after the bad news breaks.
5: Lady Bird
Dir: Greta Gerwig
In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig succeeds where so many others have failed in recent years—she manages to breathe new life into the coming-of-age story, a genre that has become as stale in modern movies as it is ubiquitous. Gerwig demonstrates a remarkable affection for her characters here—perhaps attributable to the semi-autobiographical nature of the film—yet it never devolves into sentimentality as so many other similar films are wont to do. Lady Bird offers audiences a redemptive story that reminds us that we are not our mistakes, and that gives us permission to forgive ourselves.
4: Good Time
Dir: Josh and Benny Safdie
Good Time is a fever dream—rather, nightmare—set against the blurred neon lights of New York City and the relentless electronic soundscape of Big Ears Festival alum Oneohtrix Point Never. The world through the eyes of this film is a dark, gritty, desperate place where everyone is in it for themselves. At its core, this is a story about a man backed into a corner doing everything he can to fight his way back out, even though he (and we) already knows it’s hopeless.
3: The Florida Project
Dir: Sean Baker
Alongside The Shape of Water, The Florida Project stands out as one of this year’s most politically subversive films, although its commentary simmers further below the surface than Del Toro’s. Set against a background of fading pastel stucco and pulsating neon tourist traps, the story revolves around a mother and daughter struggling to survive in the rundown motels outside Disney World, long abandoned by pilgrims to the Magic Kingdom in favor of more modern—and pricey—accommodations. Willem DaFoe supports the emotional core of the film wonderfully as a concerned motel manager struggling to mitigate the chaos around him while still respecting the humanity of his often wearisome tenants.
2: The Shape of Water
Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
Guillermo Del Toro’s mid-century period piece about a supernatural fish creature is, surprisingly enough, one of the most politically relevant films of the year. The story is a heavily allegorical take on long-standing power disparities in America that feels just as pertinent to the modern US as it does to the era portrayed in the film. The Shape of Water sets itself up as a fable, much like Del Toro’s acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, and it succeeds in becoming one of the year’s most morally poignant films without ever slipping into didacticism.
1: The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos made a name for himself with The Lobster in 2015, and returned to cinemas this year with one of the most divisive films of 2017. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly a love-it-or-hate-it type of movie, but there’s no denying Lanthimos’s skill in bewildering and disturbing his audience. To my mind, he has created here one of the most legitimately unsettling horror films ever made, the kind of movie that latches onto you and bubbles to the surface of your thoughts days or weeks later to send a chill down your spine.
Spencer Trent’s Honorable Mentions for 2017
• Personal Shopper by Olivier Assayas (an ethereal drama about a clairvoyant reckoning with her brother’s death
• Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh (a dark comedy/drama about a mother’s efforts to see her daughter’s killer face justice)
• The Beguiled by Sofia Coppola (an eerie period piece about the tensions that ensue when a wounded Union soldiers finds refuge in a house of Confederate Southern belles)
• Blade Runner 2049 by Denis Villeneuve (a brooding sci-fi investigation/drama and the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s acclaimed Blade Runner)
• On the Beach at Night Alone by Hong Sang-soo (a muted South Korean drama about a woman who is having an affair with a famous film director)
• A24 (A Ghost Story, Good Time, Lady Bird, The Florida Project, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer)
• IFC Films (Personal Shopper)
• Universal Pictures (Get Out and Before I Fall)
• Warner Brothers (Wonder Woman)
• Focus Features (The Beguiled)
• BRIC TV (The Show About The Show)
• Fox Searchlight Pictures (The Shape of Water)
• Sundance Institute (Columbus)
• FUNimation Entertainment (Your Name.)
• Showtime Networks (Twin Peaks: The Return)
• Oscilliscope (Kedi)
• Magnolia Pictures (Lucky)
• Music Box Films (A Quiet Passion)