While I was trying to narrow down my list of the best movies of 2017, Hollywood was on fire. The city that invented the movies was burning—as of this writing, it still is—and it wasn’t even a metaphor. Or rather, it was a real fire burning on top of a metaphorical one, since Hollywood as an industry and an idea has been visibly aflame for the past two months. The dream factory is going to be in need of a full gut renovation when this is over. And that’s assuming “this,” meaning both the environmental conditions that enabled the fire and the gender and power relations that helped make the film industry such a hotbed of exploitation and assault, ever ends.
Looking back over the movie landscape of 2017 feels like peering through the dense orange cloud of post-apocalyptic pollution that suffused Blade Runner 2049. That tangerine-dream haze was created by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose moody work is all that stays with me now from Ridley Scott’s grand-scale, thematically muddled sci-fi sequel. Just to pluck a random early release out of the toxic mist, James Gray’s (to me disappointing) period epic The Lost City of Z opened in April, the same week Donald Trump took it into his head to drop something called “the mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. Doesn’t that event, which felt like the end of the world at the time, now seem as distant as the mythic city of gold that movie’s explorer protagonist spent his life trying to find? There have been so many ends of the world since then, and almost as many movies. If you found one you loved this year, that started conversations and made you laugh or cry or think, you clung to it like a piece of balsa wood after a shipwreck. (Or a hurricane. Or a flood.) Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 most lifesaving pieces of flotsam.
BPM (Beats per Minute)
As alphabetical fate would have it, the film at the top of my list is perhaps (with wiggle room for mind-changing) my single favorite of the year. Set in Paris in the early ’90s, Robin Campillo’s chronicle of the early days of the ACT UP movement is a feat of filmmaking, profoundly moving and inspiring without ever for a second being schmaltzy. True to its title, this movie pulses with life, sex, humor, and cinematic invention. It’s also an astute and honest exploration of the power and the perils of collective action, at a time when the world acutely needs a manual. Read Slate’s review.
Call Me By Your Name
The backlash against Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous romantic drama is already gearing up: It’s too pretty, too bourgeois, too polite in its depiction of gay sex. In a year when we’re all talking about sexual exploitation and consent, it’s being given too easy of a moral pass in its depiction of a summer fling between a 17-year-old and his father’s 24-year-old research assistant. I’ll have those arguments if we must, but I’d rather go back inside this movie’s world, where the light on the water and the fuzz on the peaches and the slow buildup of mutual desire provide all the evidence we need of the young protagonist’s readiness to enter into the affair that breaks his heart, and ours. Read Slate’s review.
There are directorial debuts and then there are directorial debuts. The video essayist Kogonada’s first feature film is the latter, more emphatic version. Every frame of this quiet, meditative drama is exquisitely composed, yet there’s nothing inert about it. The story Columbus tells—of an encounter between two strangers in a small Indiana town famed for its modernist architecture—is both ordinary and somehow illuminated, like the light-filled public buildings the characters explore together. What’s that forever-misattributed quote about how “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”? Columbus manages to dance about architecture, as cinema. I hope Kogonada is hard at work on movie No. 2. Read Slate’s review. Listen to our interview with the writer-director. Stream it now.
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Some documentaries tell true stories that are so poetically charged they seem to prove God himself is a great filmmaker. At any rate, Bill Morrison is. His past work, including the 2002 found-footage masterpiece Decasia, often returns to the director’s fascination with celluloid film as a physical artifact, the ease with which, especially in the medium’s early days, it could burn, decompose, or disappear. Dawson City: Frozen Time recounts the discovery and restoration of a stash of discarded silent films buried under—I am not making this up—an ice rink in a remote frontier city in Canada.* The tale of how those reels got there, how Morrison came to know of them, and how the town responded to this newly exhumed part of its own history is one of the few instances this year of an “I can’t believe this is real” story that isn’t terrible.* Stream it now.
The best documentary filmmakers—Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Frederick Wiseman—are people who, after a lifetime spent trying to make sense of this confounding, inexhaustible world, still have things they want to understand. The 89-year-old French director Agnès Varda, whose career has spanned much more than documentary, is one of those rare people. Her imagination, curiosity, and energy are a gift to the world, and her road trip through the economically depressed small towns of provincial France in the company of the street artist J.R. is pure joy to watch, as playful as it is profound. Read Slate’s review.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker’s lyrical tribute to The Little Rascals takes place in the shadow of Disney World, but it’s the lavender hotel complex where the film’s 6-year-old heroine lives with her single mother that’s the movie’s magic kingdom. The magic can be dark: Poverty, prostitution, and the threat of violence are never far removed from the world of vacant lots and strip malls where Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her pack of mischief-making friends roam pretty much unsupervised. But kids find a way to be kids wherever they are, and Baker’s uncannily intuitive camerawork (in collaboration with cinematographer Alexis Zabe) and sparse, naturalistic dialogue draw us into Moonee’s world as she sees it, in all its beauty and danger. Read Slate’s review.
Forget about prizes and awards for a second (or while we’re at it, forever?). Jordan Peele’s Get Out doesn’t need no stinkin’ badge to be the most important movie of the year, at least in America, where its release in February created the conditions for that rare thing: a movie that we all both needed and wanted to see right away, a movie that we couldn’t stop quoting in other contexts—“the sunken place,” “Where are those keys, Rose?”—not because it was full of clever catchphrases but because its dialogue told, in lapidary form, an American truth that could be boiled down no further. Get Out is a chilling horror film, a savage social comedy, and a frank exploration of the reality that we’re already living in both. Read Slate’s review. Stream it now.
A Ghost Story
The reception of David Lowery’s enigmatic philosophical fable seems to divide cleanly between two groups: There are those, like me, who found its eon-hopping time structure as entrancing as a well-told campfire story and found ourselves thinking about life and death and the passage of time in a different way for days after seeing it. Then there were those who could never get past the goofiness of the film’s central conceit: Casey Affleck dies, then stands around in a bedsheet with two holes cut out in it for centuries while the world changes around him. To me, the archetypal design and intentional wit of that costume was an integral part of this deceptively simple movie’s lasting fascination. Put me on Team Bedsheet. Read Slate’s review. Listen to our interview with the writer-director. Stream it now.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s eighth feature film—and according to star Daniel Day-Lewis, the actor’s last—takes place in a world of great luxury, and it is also itself a luxury. But not a luxury product; this unashamedly gorgeous confection is a handcrafted, one-of-a-kind object like the intricately boned and impossibly draped gowns created by Day-Lewis’ character. He’s a famous couturier in 1950s London who’s a composite of several real-life figures, but very much his own man: a maddeningly exacting artist, an insoluble emotional puzzle, and much of the time, a first-class prick with no regard for anything or anyone but his work. Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville as the designer’s controlled and controlling sister, and Vicky Krieps as the young woman who becomes first his muse and then, by degrees, his slyly avenging angel, constitute an acting power trio on the order of Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, and Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
In fact, Phantom Thread resembles Rebecca in a few ways, as the famously cinephilic director has acknowledged. It’s about a young woman who comes into a house with an oppressive history and proceeds to turn its inhabitants’ lives upside down. It’s impeccably crafted, with Anderson doing his own stunning cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s opulent score (which includes originally composed music and classical) serving as a sonic satin lining. Also—if I may put into play some of the troublesome aesthetic categories this wicked-smart film seeks to put in question—it’s a masterpiece, a collaboration among great artists at the top of their form. Read Slate’s full review closer to the film’s release on Dec. 25.
If you want to hear about a moment as unlikely as any I’ve had this year at the movies, picture me at a screening of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman in Melbourne, Australia, sitting next to a woman I’ve worked with and considered a friend for years, a powerful and successful woman who, like me, entered the theater feeling no particular need to see her gender represented on-screen in superhero form. The most we were hoping for was a competently produced, vaguely “empowering” franchise product. Now recall the scene where Gal Gadot as Diana, finally clad in full WW raiment, first unleashes her fury on a World War I battlefield, her wrath directed less at the enemy soldiers than at the (to her inconceivable) obscenity of war itself.
Now imagine me accidentally emitting an audible whimper as the tears started to flow, hoping against hope my esteemed colleague hadn’t heard me, and then discovering the next day, on a live stage in front of hundreds of people, that she too had surprised herself by crying during that scene. Nine months later, we—not just women but everyone—stand in ever-greater need of Diana’s righteous rage, not to mention her magic lasso of truth. Watching this lithe Amazonian smite injustice gave me a new understanding of why representation in pop culture matters, and I need her on my list. Read Slate’s review. Stream it now.
Honorable mentions: The Big Sick, The Disaster Artist, My Happy Family, Personal Shopper, Zama. To be discussed further, along with many others, in the Slate Movie Club, the first week of the new year.
*Correction, Dec. 8, 2017: This article originally misidentified Dawson City as a town in Alaska. Dawson City is in Canada. It also misstated that director Bill Morrison was a part of the recovery effort to dig up the lost films.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the best movies, TV, books, and music of 2017.