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J Don Birnam’s TOP TEN Films of 2017

J Don Birnam’s TOP TEN Films of 2017

The great critical/audience divide that I always speak of may have hit a snag in 2017. Superhero movies, popular movies, received high ratings from critics, with films like Get Out and Thor notching some of the top marks of 2017. Sure, indie darlings and Oscar contenders like Lady Bird also made hay in this area, but audiences seemed to agree more than ever before with snotty movie reviewers. And, when a movie was considered mediocre (think Justice League) audience dollars followed. The fusion may be temporary, or it could be that there is yet another increase in critics’ power. Enter my Top Ten Films of 2017 list.

Either way, making this top ten films of 2017 list is as usual a dreaded exercise required of critics. I have seen about half of the films eligible for the Best Picture Oscar (which is higher than in prior years) but still nowhere near the amount needed to speak competently here. It is more likely than not that I have missed a worthy piece of cinematic art. Still, these personally rewarding movies may be satisfying to others. A couple, I know, are quite difficult for many people, so take my dissension with a grain of salt.

10. Darkest Hour. Joe Wright’s carefully stylized Churchill drama seems “Oscar-baity” to many, and it is hard to deny how precisely calculated every inch of the film is. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and it is precisely because of the meticulous production that one may admire Wright’s direction. And, as much as others view it as overacting, Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill is admirable in that it succeeds to bring to life a well-known character, a thankless task. Ultimately, however, it is screenwriter-producer’s Anthony McCarten’s script that makes this a compelling film to watch, one that makes use of Churchill’s aphorisms without devolving into fortunetelling. Subway scene notwithstanding, his story, as we discovered when we interviewed him, brings to life a subtly relevant message for today.

9. Detroit. Kathryn Bigelow returned to the scene with what I would consider one of her best films to date, the historical, visceral drama about gruesome, racially-charged murders during riots in Detroit in 1967. The obviously sad part about this movie is how persistent some of the hatred it exhibits is. But what makes Detroit a good movie is Bigelow’s unforgiving narrative, her refusal to shy away from even the most grotesque or to gloss over detail. Punctuated by hair-tingly performances by John Boyega and Will Poulter, Detroit is a shocking, rewarding, and terrifying movie all at once. It took a certain level of guts to make it and pull it off, and an immeasurable amount of talent as well.

8. The Square. As I wrote during my initial review of the film, Sweden’s Oscar submission, The Square, is an accented commentary and incisive critique of modern European life. It skewers the self-absorbed, holier-than-thou believers in themselves, in their modernity, in perhaps their liberality. It exposes their hypocrisies, their inconsistencies, and perhaps their selfishness. A couple of absurd scenes involving monkeys (or men acting as primates, as the case may be) highlight rather than detract from the theatricality of it all. Life is sort of placed on a stage, with the eponymous Square being the center of it. It is a canvas on which different people may launch different perceptions and beliefs, and in which all are forced to live a somewhat unstable and uncomfortable existence.

7. The Shape of Water. If you were watching these ten movies in order and got to this spot hoping for a respite from the harshness of the real world depicted in the prior entries, you would only be partially relieved during Guillermo Del Toro’s aquatic love story. There are few artists out there who manage what he does with his most personal movie yet, to tell an admittedly conventional love tale and infuse it with some much more sentiment and originality. The Shape of Water may be pure fiction, unlike two of the prior entries, but it is no less important. The core message of the film is that the downtrodden should have a space in our collective minds, that the people we literally do not hear and some we refuse to see, have simply the same stories (and, many times, in much more compelling ways) than we are used to. Suffused with creative energy from score to cinematography and featuring one of the year’s best performances with Sally Hawkins, del Toro’s film confirms what most of us already knew, that he is truly a brilliant filmmaker.

6. Patti Cake$. If rough around the edges like its central character, the indie film Patti Cake$ is one of the most touching and creative films I saw this year. At the core of the story is a maligned fat girl, one who refuses to give up her dream no matter what comes her way. Unlike some of the other movies on this list, it stays away from places of despair it could easily go, and it insists instead on doubling down on its relentless optimism and joie de vivre. It is admirable in that and many other respects, none the least of which is the sincere and effective acting, comedic, dramatic, and everything in between, of its mostly unknown cast.

5. I, Tonya. Craig Gillespie’s satirical biographical dark comedy is one of the least expected and most surprising movies of the year. Bookended by Allison Janney’s and Margot Robbie’s performances as LaVona and Tanya Harding, the movie purports to be about a straightforward thing (Harding’s troubled relationship with the ice skating world) and really is about a whole lot more. Through a series of staged interviews and fourth-wall breaks, the film slowly reveals itself as a damning condemnation of our entire celebrity and gossip obsessed culture. It turns us with one fell swoop from viewers to accused, from observers to executioners. It makes you heave and haw in laughter along the way, and also feel incredible pity, anger, understanding, and admiration towards its protagonists. Few films this year hit so many emotional tones without ever going completely off the rails, and this is without a doubt one of the better-executed movies of the year.

4. The Post. Spielberg’s third American history film is perhaps the most understated of the three (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies). But it is not, or that reason, any less well-made. The Post is another timely film (this seems to be the unifying thread as I complete this list) that deals with the importance of a free press but, even more pressingly, with the individuals whose valor allowed us to reach the right outcome. It features one of Meryl Streep’s best ever performance as the Washington Post publisher at the center of difficult and history-altering decisions. Most importantly, it is united by the meticulous talents of a brilliant filmmaker that is entering a more contemplative and nostalgic episode of his career and, as a book nerd, is one of my favorite movies of the year.

3. Foxtrot. Israel’s Oscar submission is perhaps the most heart-wrenching of a pretty difficult group (except perhaps Detroit), but is not to be missed. Another searing self-critique (like the Square) of the society from whence it emanates, Foxtrot questions Israeli’s military policies while examining devastation and loss in profound and unapologetic ways. Each of the three parts has a unique style, with the initial set up being the most stressful, the middle, dreamlike sequence the most anxiety-inducing, and the third, devastating finally the most depressing. In a year punctuated with films that will not leave your heart and soul after it is all over, this is likely to be near the top of that list.

2. The Florida Project. Sean Baker’s latest offering, the gut-punch, docu-style drama about a group of people living in an Orland extended stay motel, is my second favorite movie of the year. Young Moonee and her friends have no reason to smile and jump up and down every day. Her young mother, Halley, is a troubled young girl who struggles to make ends meet and who shoots herself in the foot consistently, fueled by irrational rage and despondency. Yet Moonee IS somehow happy, as a child would be, living in a kingdom of her own fantasies, a beautiful escapism reality that underlies the movie. But The Florida Project, of course, is not about facile contentment, all the contrary. It is about the harsh reality that exists around us and that we do not see, and about the toll that poverty and other societal ills has on the individual level. Surrounded by creative energies that are apparent in cinematography and acting alike, The Florida Project stays with you long after the credits roll, and you may find yourself returning to it over and over again.

1. Dunkirk. But it is, for me, Christopher Nolan’s compelling World War II drama that represents the best that 2017 has to offer all in one tight package. His film, also told in three parts, combines limitless technical talent with a keen eye for the subtly dramatic, for the boundlessly consequential. Strong performances by Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy add an emotional punch to the already high-stakes film, one that is about heroism as much as it is about survival. Most of all, however, Nolan demonstrates the power of filmmaking to convey an idea in different ways. His life-long travails into the vicissitudes of time works here arguably better than ever before, confusing and then rewarding. If being talked about afterwards is a measure of a film’s quality, that quality alone makes Dunkirk a worthwhile trip to the Cineplex. Add to that the historical significance of the event it depicts, of the human toll and drama that the denouement signify, and the relentless sensorial attack that Nolan unleashes all combine to make my most memorable and undoubtedly favorite movie of the packed year.

What were your favorite movies of 2017?! Let us know in the comments

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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