Best movies 2017

Every year my movie-watching regime becomes more rarefied owing to tighter schedules and diminished monetary inducement. Nowadays, however, I can often make up for the films I miss at press screenings by seeing them later at my local multiplex, on streaming services, or on the satellite channel WOWOW (though by then they’ve usually been out of theaters for a year). In actuality, I can only think of one film I saw in any of those situations that might have ended up on this list: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. I’ve always liked Baumbach, and this one, which I saw on Netflix, was better than most. I think I might have liked it even more if I had seen it in a setting with no cats or other domestic distractions. These are definitely the pitfalls of home viewing for anyone who takes their movies seriously. So are overly comfortable seats. I can definitely attest that I fell asleep during substantial portions of Ghost in the Shell and Despicable Me 3 because I saw them at night-time big press screenings held in movie palaces with those damn throne-like chairs. I can just as confidently say that regardless of where I saw them, I did not doze off during any of the following fifteen films, all of which I wouldn’t mind seeing again, as a matter of fact. As always, these films were all released in Japanese theaters during the 2017 calendar year. Oh yeah, and I loved Twin Peaks the Return, but I would never qualify it as a movie.

1. Taxi (Iran)
Banned from making films by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi has, by necessity, had to improvise, and apparently he makes ends meet by driving a cab. His latest clandestinely shot production is framed as a kind of reality show, with the filmmaker engaging fares in conversations he captures on cameras installed in his vehicle. Some know who he is and some don’t, but in either case Panahi’s celebrity is the central conceit, played for laughs and poignance, often at the same time. The situations are staged but not designed to fool anyone. He drives an accident victim to the hospital as his wife wails and the victim records his will on Panahi’s phone. He discusses his “sentence” with an acquaintance who used to be sympathetic but isn’t any more. The fact that Panahi doesn’t take himself seriously is the key point: the humor keeps nudging you in the ribs. (photo: Jafar Panahi Productions)

2. Toni Erdmann (Germany)
Another off-kilter comedy, Maren Ade’s curious movie chronicles the attempts made by a strangely unserious German man, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), to reinsert himself in the life of his estranged adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), as she brokers a multi-million-euro merger for her corporate client in Budapest. Winfried’s schemes involve costumes and impostures. “It’s just a joke,” he keeps telling Ines, but it was such jokes that drove her away in the first place. What makes Toni Erdmann so disarming is how these subterfuges work on the audience in much the same way as they work on Ines. We see through them to the basic neediness of an incomplete but caring individual. The movie also contains the funniest and most affecting nude scene ever filmed. (photo: Komplizen Film)

3. A Quiet Passion (UK)
Terence Davies’ biopic downplays Emily Dickinson’s (Cynthia Nixon) romantic reclusiveness in favor of her intellect, revealed through episodes that illustrate the 19th century poet’s unsentimental view of death and her resentment of “obviousness.” Kicked out of college due to her lack of faith, Dickinson places herself at the mercy of her tolerant, wise father (Keith Carradine) and tremulous mother (Joanna Bacon), while her siblings tread the conventional life path of family and career. Dickinson scorns both while desiring them, in the process becoming a scourge to acquaintances and God alike, and Davies shows how this attitude was translated into verse. The title is misleading. Dickinson’s moral fortitude was fierce, as was her literary passion. (photo: A Quiet Passion Ltd./Hurricane Films)

4. The Witch (USA)
Robert Eggers reimagines a tragedy that befell a family whose interpretation of Christianity was too apocalyptic even for their colony of Puritan refugees, who banished the family as a result. When life doesn’t turn out the way the gospel says, each member blames adolescent Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), whom they label a witch because that’s what puberty looks like to them. Unlike most period pieces, this feels like it’s taking place on a different planet, owing mainly to Eggers’ use of dialogue taken directly from accounts written in the 17th century. The only point of identification is Thomasin’s brand of youthful rebellion. As a horror movie, The Witch provides frights that are bred into the bone of the narrative. Thomasin might as well be a witch, since she was obviously borne and raised by devils. (photo: Witch Movie LLC)

5. The Handmaiden (Korea)
Though the plot is contrived, Park Chan-wook’s transubstantiation of a British novel to colonial-era Korea is a seamless cinematic work, rich in both historical and narrative detail. The titular Korean servant (Kim Tae-ri) infiltrates the home of a rich Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) to set up a scam on behalf of a con man (Ha Jung-woo) posing as a count. The erotic filigree that enlivens the action is prompted, but by no means carried out, by the heiress’s epicurean, dirty-minded uncle (Cho Jin-woong). Saying that things don’t turn out as planned is saying as little as possible, but Chan’s ability to make such a perversely complicated story both sensually stimulating and monumentally entertaining is no small feat. It may be too much of a good thing. (photo: Magnolia Pictures)

6. Tangerine (USA)
Sean Baker’s comedy centers on the misadventures of two transgender Los Angeles hookers (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor) and their straight lovers during the course of a single Christmas Eve. The action is relentless and multivalent, and the dialogue elevates trash-talking to an art form. Saying these two women embody an idea of femininity that transcends stereotypes does them no service because they embody these particular stereotypes with an aggressive sense of entitlement. Set in Hollywood, it’s the most Hollywood-conscious indie since Mulholland Drive, telling an old story (or three) in new, exciting ways. Literally, something for everyone. (photo: Tangerine Films LLC)

7. War for the Planet of the Apes (USA)
As the human race declines, a soldier (Woody Harrelson) turns to the only solution he knows, all-out war against the species in ascendance. Working from this concept, Matt Reeves creates not only a fitting chapter in this epic vision of the end of the world as we know it, but one of the most stirring action films of recent memory. The outcome turns not on superior firepower or greater strategic intelligence, but on physical attributes and instinct. The apes are better suited to survive the destruction that attends war, a subtext of the original 1968 franchise and here described in a rousing and horrifying finale centered on one of the greatest movie heroes of all time, a character whose suffering in his quest to do what’s right is Christlike. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a complex, tortured being who expresses everything in no uncertain terms, erasing the viewer’s cognizance of special effects. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film)

8. Loving (USA)
The gist of Jeff Nichols true-life tale is the early 1960s case between an interracial couple and the state of Virginia, which forbade them to marry, but the heart of the film is its low-key portrayal of the union between Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga). Nichols doesn’t have to do anything to provoke indignation about bigotry, so he concentrates on the love story, which starts before Richard and Mildred married in a pocket of the South where blacks and poor whites intermingled naturally owing more to economic circumstances than to anything else. The film shows how the Lovings’ easygoing relationships with friends and relatives, as well as the rearing of their three children, gave them a normality most people would be envious of, even if most people would not want to be in their shoes. That the movie avoids excitement except where it’s absolutely necessary is what makes it so moving. (photo: Big Beach LLC)

9. Personal Shopper (France)
An American in Paris, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper to a high-flying celebrity who we glimpse only once, but Maureen’s attentions are mainly occupied by her vocation as a spiritual medium, a talent she shared with a twin brother who recently died. In fact, Maureen is dispatched to exorcise the house where he expired and which he is supposedly haunting. Director Olivier Assayas obviously believes in ghosts, but the spooky part is Maureen’s run-in with a man who stalks her over her iPhone, a different kind of disembodied spirit that really is malevolent. As Maureen’s actions become increasingly reckless, you begin to understand what brought her to this juncture in life, and may, in fact, wish you didn’t. Some things are way too personal. (photo: CG Cinema-Vortex Sutra-DetailFilm-Sirena Film-Arte France Cinema-Arte Deutschland/WDR)

10. Things to Come (France)
Mia Hansen-Love avoids the usual histrionics when depicting a woman, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), whose husband leaves her suddenly in late middle age. A philosophy teacher, Nathalie rekindles her acquaintance with a former student (Roman Kolinka) who has decided to forego his own promising academic career to live the life of a rural artisan, even if she finds his pronouncements on politics and social forms naive. “Revolution is not my goal,” she tells him, and you wonder if teaching younger people to think for themselves has been that fulfilling. The movie presents its protagonist’s growth through new experiences that aren’t earth-shattering. In particular, Hansen-Love plays down Nathalie’s romantic impulses and helps us see how readjustment can be liberating. You feel like a better person for having observed this short, though significant, period of her life. (photo: CG Cinema, Arte France Cinema, Detail Film, Rhone Alpes Cinema)

Honorable mentions

Get Out (USA)
Whites who voted for Obama “and probably would have a third time” are in no way let off the hook in this satire about the toxic endgame of white privilege. The outlandish sendup of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is only the start, and if Jordan Peele’s background in comedy gives the material its caustic edge, it’s his love of horror movies that brings the message home. Granted, the payoff is a bit of an aesthetic disappointment, but we’re talking about justice here. (photo: Universal Studios)

The Salesman (Iran)
A couple is forced to flee their structurally compromised Tehran apartment and move temporarily to lodgings whose previous tenant left under mysterious circumstances. When the wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) is attacked by a stranger in the apartment, her husband (Shahab Hosseini) becomes obsessed with finding the perpetrator, threatening to destroy his marriage in the process. As always, Asghar Farhadi illuminates Iranian society by shining a spotlight on its distinctive conjugal attributes. As a bonus he also illuminates the titular Arthur Miller play. (photo: Memento Films Prod., Asghar Farhadi Prod., Arte France Cinema)

Elle (France/Netherlands)
By opening with a brutal rape, Paul Verhoeven strives for the kind of controversy he once provoked in Hollywood with movies like Showgirls, but this is France, and the victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert), is no one’s idea of a victim. As with The Salesman, the plot involves the search for an unknown assailant, and every man in Michele’s life is a suspect. Unlike the husband in Farhadi’s movie, however, Michele has every man’s number. Huppert has Verhoeven’s, as well. She’s no Hitchcockian marionette. You take her as she is, and boy is she a handful. (photo: SBS Productions-SBS Films-Twenty Twenty Vision Filmproduktion-France 2 Cinema-Entre Chien et Loup)

The Innocents (France/Poland)
Anne Fontaine takes a doc-ready subject—the rape of nuns by Soviet troops during the liberation of Poland in 1945—and enriches it with melodrama. Several nuns in a remote convent have become pregnant, and one sister asks for medical assistance from a young female doctor (Lou De Laage) stationed at a French Red Cross outpost, thus setting up a conflict between the cloistered nuns and their abbess (Agata Kulesza), who would prefer the babies disappear. It’s a powerful, unique study of the way women turn to other women to relieve the trauma of existence in a world made by men. (photo: Mandarin Cinema, Aeroplan Film, Mars Films, France 2 Cinema, Scope Pictures)

20th Century Women (USA)
Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical look at post-60s feminism posits a trio of females who, in 1979, inadvertently conspire to raise a fatherless adolescent boy (Lucas Jade Zumann) into a man of the future. Annette Bening is morally robust as one of these females, the boy’s middle aged, confused mother, who absorbs wholesale every social movement she passes through. Mills continually demonstrates his ability at staging effective emotional epiphanies, and Bening demonstrates just as ably how to deliver them. (photo: Modern People LLC)

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