by InRO Staff Feature Articles Film Year in Review

Top 10 Films of 2017 (So Far)

August 4, 2017

Deviating from protocol a bit with our timing (we swear we know when the halfway point of the year is), the following list is nonetheless our best approximation of a staff consensus for best films released from January to June of this year. Admittedly, the favorites skews toward auteurs, but few films bare much resemblance—a period biopic, a race-conscious horror film, a superhero deconstruction, and an intimate, maybe-ghost story (no, not that one) constitute a few of the movies we’ve championed.

Dawson City Frozen TimeBill Morrison’s latest found-footage opus excavates and revives a treasure trove of hundreds of nitrate silent-film reels discovered in northwest Canada in 1978. Dawson City: Frozen Time tells the story of how these reels ended up beneath an old community center in Dawson, a town that sprang up in the wake of the Yukon gold rush of the 19th century, and that soon became the terminus of an emerging film distribution route. Morrison reveals how film as a commercial medium (and the new century that it came to define) were both born in flames—literally, as the combustibility of nitrate film claimed human lives, movie houses, and storage facilities, resulting in the loss of much of the early history of cinema. Morrison brilliantly repurposes clips from damaged reels to illustrate his nested narratives (which illuminate an astonishing breadth of figures and events, from pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché to the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal). Yet he also makes time for the forgotten films, stirred to life by Alex Somers’s evocative ambient score, to beguile anew with their mysterious, expressive power. Far more than a cinephilic curio, Dawson City: Frozen Time is a masterpiece of revelatory editing and historical storytelling. Alex Engquist

getoutIf socially conscious criticism is now the norm, then from a distance, it’s difficult to not be skeptical of the critical and commercial success of Get OutJordan Peele’s horror-comedy about Chris, a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) who goes on a weekend trip to the family estate of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams). To be sure, Peele capitalizes on the current social climate—what satire doesn’t?—but that shouldn’t take away from what will stand as one of the sharpest and most assured directorial debuts of the year. Remarkably intelligent and wickedly hilarious, Get Out elegantly weaves together sociopolitical commentary and horror tropes, particularly in its airtight first half, which ably milks the premise for all it’s worth. Look no further than the improbably effective hypnotism scene for Kaluuya’s impressive lead performance and Peele’s sharp directorial instincts. Other pleasures abound: Betty Gabriel as a sinister, hilariously disturbed housekeeper; a horror-movie chamber that’s basically a fraternity-house room; the overall off-kilter mode and unnerving vibe. (Less appealing is the comic relief provided by Lil Rel Howley, which, apart from some obviousness, squanders some potentially incisive moments.) The horror-movie finale may strike some as muddled in its real-world resonance—and there are details one could nitpick—but it’s so viscerally effective that its abstract ideas gain potency. Is it any surprise, then, that the flash of a camera is used as a wake-up call? Lawrence Garcia

loganIf there’s one thing that singles out the average modern day superhero film, it’s how indistinct most feel. The cinematic (if you even can call it that) universes of Marvel and DC keep going back to the same insipid well: shot-reverse-shot grammar and drained color palettes highlighted by silver and gray. With the bar set that low, it’s a genuine surprise that Logan not only defies expectations of its genre, but manages a well-crafted character study, too. The plot is a familiar one: A hero—Wolverine a.k.a. James “Logan” Howlett ( Hugh Jackman)—must protect a mysterious adolescent (Dafne Keen) from scheming evildoers. But thanks to some great performances—especially Jackman and Patrick Stewart (as the aging Professor X), who dig in to explore the darkest impulses of characters they’ve played going back 17 years now—and director James Mangold‘s keen eye for capturing the humanist dimensions in the struggle of his “mutants,” the premise feels fleshed out enough to warrant audience investment beyond just our protagonists being “the good guys.” And though Logan is a gangbusters genre film, the best moments tend more to involve its small scale drama. The highlight of the whole thing may be an extended interlude at a farm house, which details the intricacies of regret and anxiety that have built-up in these characters, and that is most exciting before the action starts. Paul Attard

lostcityofzJames Gray’s The Lost City of Z sometimes bears more resemblance to The Age of Innocence than the jungle adventure films its images call to mind. For Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), the adventuring equivalent of Newland Archer, the jungle represents an escape from the strictures of upper class society that have boxed him in since birth. His insistence that an advanced South American civilization predates Britain scans less like anachronistic progressivism than a rebuke of unearned English pride. But the costs of Fawcett’s obsession are borne on the backs of others: at home, his wife (Sienna Miller, never better) is repeatedly robbed of the family she has worked tirelessly to maintain; in the Amazon, the expeditions that Fawcett believes benign create more opportunity for imperialist exploitation, as armed colonizers occupy the film’s margins, waiting for their moment. Gray and Khondji shoot the jungle with the same steadiness that characterizes English pastures, resisting the condescension of handheld camerawork and portraying the Amazon as majestic and dignified, rather than dangerous. The search for the lost city, the film says, is not simply a descent into madness, but a quest for beauty and validation forever tarnished by familial ruin and the specter of colonialism. Chris Mello

PersonalShopper1With Personal ShopperOlivier Assayas returns to the techy, angsty modernity of Irma Vep and Boarding Gate with another hybrid thriller, a sort-of-but-maybe-not ghost story about a possibly clairvoyant young woman, Maureen (Kristen Stewart), trapped between worlds, both literally and figuratively. Her job as the, uh, personal shopper for a famous actress demands that she play-act as someone else (whom we rarely see) and separate herself from her own modes of expression (both economic and stylistic). Meanwhile, Maureen’s busy trying to commune with the spirit of her recently deceased brother. This stacking of identities and representations (as well as simultaneously sinister, playful, and deliberately oblique scenes featuring supernatural interference) bring to mind the layering of worlds so prominent in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, collapsing multiple times and spaces into one moment. And the centerpiece here, an extended, hilarious, and excruciatingly suspenseful sequence wherein Maureen texts frantically with what may or may not be a ghost, recalls the quotidian detail of Jacques Rivette’s thrillers (specifically Secret Defense). Through it all, Stewart proves herself to be maybe the most volatile modern American actress, someone who vibrates on her own frequency, here a tightly wound ball that radiates outward, firing little electrons of fear and doubt that pick at the bonds of everything around her. This one’s gonna be tough to beat this year. Matt Lynch

quietpassionWhen it was announced that Terence Davies had two films in the can barely a year apart, it was almost worrying considering the evident slow, painstaking care he put into the mere six films he made between 1988 and 2011. But neither 2015’s Sunset Song nor this have a trace of the slapdash. Both are labors of love, the earlier film an adaptation of a favorite Scottish novel and this an infatuated, sympathetic but clear-eyed tribute to his beloved Belle of Amherst. Both are visually remarkable—not simply “pretty” but mood-calibrated and emotionally considered. There is no filmmaker who can capture the feel of a room like Davies; aided by A Quiet Passions DP, Florian Hoffmeister, he makes lowly lit rooms in the Massachusetts home where Emily Dickinson lived her entire life, and died, feel both ensconcing/warm and suffocating. Davies’s film captures the limited geography that stifled the poet, but it’s also full of life and witty banter. Cynthia Nixon’s Dickinson springs to vibrant life when swapping badinage with her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), or verbally sparring with outmatched visitors. When death stops by for Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) and Emily herself, Davies addresses it with a head-on hardness as unblinking as in his brutal 1983 film Death and Transfiguration. Nixon is the coauthor here; the usually script-literal Davies has said it’s the first time he was moved to let an actor bounce their own ideas off of him. That mutual intelligence, engagement and passion results in a transcendent biopic. Justin Stewart

SalesmanAlthough​ it was a late addition to last year’s (especially strong) Cannes Competition slate, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman eventually took home both the festival’s actor and screenplay prizes (not to mention the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar earlier this year). Given Farhadi’s reputation as a world-class dramatist, the screenplay win wasn’t​ exactly unexpected. Less predictable was precisely how Farhadi would incorporate Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—from which the film’s title is taken—into his trademark moral quagmires, which are largely set in contemporary Iran. (His last film, The Past, was set in Paris.) The answer, it turns out, would be by centering the story around married couple Emad and Rana (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti), who star in a local production of Miller’s classic play. That’s fitting given that the film so fluidly negotiates between its opposing poles: claustrophobic interiors and stark exteriors (physical and emotional); the public and private spheres of Iranian life; the appearance or reputation of something and its base reality. From the opening scene alone, in which we see the couple evacuate a crumbling building, Farhadi forces one assumption only to turn it on its head moments later. (A presumed earthquake turns out to be the side effect of a nearby construction site.) An inciting act of violence—Rana’s assault by a stranger in the couple’s new apartment—creates fissures that spread as the film goes along, building in pressure until the extended climax: a harrowing negotiation between personal injury and public shame. It’s riveting, if a touch schematic by Farhadi’s high standards, but lent a distinct force by his increasingly fluid (and under-appreciated) mise-en-scène. (Even a throwaway shot of a mirror being carried up an apartment building staircase is casually striking.) The film’s conclusion may ultimately be pyrrhic, but The Salesman itself is a triumph. Lawrence G

StarlessDreamsMehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams relies largely on that most common of doc techniques: the interview. Inside one of Tehran’s juvenile corrections facilities, a group of teenage girls tell their stories to the camera with a remarkable candor and heartbreaking self-awareness of the various injustices they’ve suffered. Oskouei understands that the most vital role he could play in their narratives is a minimal one, and so his voice is heard only off-camera, gently prompting broader considerations on the nature of happiness, forgiveness, and faith. Likewise, his filmmaking offers subtle expansions on 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. This image not only suggests the sadness of the girl’s reality, but also evokes the hope for change that Oskouei invests in her—one which pays off in the improving circumstances of at least some of the inmates by the end of Starless Dreams. These gestures from the director deepen his 75-minute feature’s sense of artistry, but its emotional capacity is reached through more humanist ambitions. Much like Edet Belzberg’s magnificent Children Underground, the true act of transcendence here is in giving a platform to otherwise voiceless souls of such boundless strength and character. Sam C Mac

SongtoSongWhat a difference a few wispy voiceovers make: 2011’s The Tree of Life, which marked the formerly reclusive filmmaker Terence Malick‘s return to theaters, was heralded by many as a major triumph and an impressive comeback, but today, after four films in the same approximate vein, Malick has become a punchline. Song to Song, his latest in what has been an uncharacteristic burst of creativity, has much in common with The Tree of Life, including its profound recognition of the sublime in everyday moments (represented, once again, by Emmanuel Lubezki’s beatific, gliding camerawork) and soul-searching characters. Perhaps it’s this sense of familiarity, or the fact that Malick’s settings are becoming a bit more superficial—Song to Song follows a bunch of pretty people (Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Michale Fassbender) involved in the trendy Austin music scene while Knight of Cups took place in Hollywood—in comparison to his ethereal, spiritualistic approach. And yet, it’s the approach that’s most important: Malick’s movies challenge stylistic assumptions and create unique expressions out of elemental forces, out of light, sound, and movement. These might be boring or unfashionable concepts in 2017, but Malick’s art, which uses human experience to consider the very notion of art itself, has never felt more vital. Drew Hunt

yournameIn Makoto Shinkai’s gorgeous Your Name. (the highest grossing anime of all time), country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki mysteriously begin to occasionally switch places; sometimes they wake up inhabiting each others’ bodies, and other times they don’t. At first bewildered, they eventually figure out the rhythms of the phenomenon and it turns out to be quite fun—and funny. (Taki’s teenaged-boy obsession with his own (sort of?) breasts is perhaps the film’s truest note.) But as a comet approaches, the body-switching ceases, sending each character in desperate search for each other, complicated by the fact that they both keep forgetting the other’s existence. Human connection is so difficult that truly achieving it here involves breaking the known laws of physics. Tragedy comes from loss of memory: brains are unreliable and fungible, while the machines we think make us more interconnected are even more fragile. Traditions unite our heroes with a past that they cannot quite comprehend: Mitsuha comes from a family of braided cord makers, performers of inexplicable rituals for a forgotten god, and when every other device of history and communication (cell phone, history book, museum photograph) fails her and Taki, the braided cord, explicitly a metaphor for the binding of space-time, persists. Sean Gilman