Looking Back: Alex's Top 10 Favorite Films of 2017 - 'Call Me' Reigns
by Alex Billington
January 10, 2018
"If you only knew how little I really know about the things that matter…" It was a year of masterpieces, another outstanding year of films big and small, funny and serious, that I fell madly in love with. It's time to present my personal list of my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2017. Admittedly, it's always a challenge for me to put together a Top 10 list, just because there's never enough time to watch (and rewatch) everything. So I just have to go with what I feel in my gut. This year, my #1 film is one that could not be topped for the entire year - I first saw it at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it remained my #1 for the next 11 months. As for the rest of my picks, I've included two documentaries because they both made me unabashedly happy.
In addition to writing about these films, I recorded a podcast discussing my Top 10 with my friend Mike for our show The First Word. You can listen to that episode here and listen to more commentary on each one.
For last year's Top 10 of 2016 list, topped by Damien Chazelle's La La Land and Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, click here. You can also see Jeremy's list of his Top 10 of 2017 here or Adam's list of his Top 10 of 2017 here.
A few notes: this is a list of my favorite films, not the best films of the year, these are the ones that I love for my own reasons and I'll try to explain why with each one. As always, I wish I had so much more to time to watch/rewatch films, and see everything else that played in 2017, but that's impossible so this is just what I decided to run with. Also - my film selection is based on the date when I originally saw the film at a public event, including film festivals (Venice, Sundance) or public releases limited or otherwise. This is not based on only films released in 2017, but the ones I experienced in 2017, and is a good representation of the best cinema has given us, in my opinion. I'm admittedly a bit nervous to share, but these really are films I love.
Best Documentary: Chasing Coral directed by Jeff Orlowski
This is, hands down, the best documentary of the year. Not only does it have great filmmaking, fascinating people we follow around the world, extraordinary footage, but it also has the potential to change the world. Jeff Orlowski, the same filmmaker behind climate change doc Chasing Ice, this time dives under water to give us all a closer look at what's happening in the oceans - specifically how massive amounts of coral are dying due to changes in the water temperature. What I really love about this film is that it's not just passive filmmaking - Jeff Orlowski and his team get involved in the challenge to create/invent new camera systems necessary to document changes underwater. It even explains how he became an expert at scuba diving. This means that he's not only capturing the footage for the film itself, but also for science and research purposes, and building such an inspiring narrative around it. This is also one of the very few climate change docs that actually makes me feel hopeful and happy by the end, despite so much pessimism throughout. That's due in part to the impeccable filmmaking and storytelling and passion found within. It also has one of my favorite scores of the year, by Dan Rohmer & Saul Simon MacWilliams, which is part of what makes it so endearing.
Other Favorite Documentaries: Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (mind-blowing), Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (so so so good, could've watched another three hours), Errol Morris' The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography (she is so charming), Chris Smith's Jim & Andy, Bryan Fogel's Icarus, Firas Fayyad's Last Men in Aleppo, Brian Knappenberger's Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, Joe Piscatella's Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, plus Amanda Lipitz's Step.
#10. Thelma directed by Joachim Trier
An atmospheric sexual-awakening thriller that is part supernatural, part coming-of-age, fully exhilarating. It's a bit odd because I did not like Joachim Trier's second film Oslo, August 31st, but I think this is Trier's best work to date. It's such a gripping, deeply engaging story told so beautifully by a steady hand from a very talented filmmaker. Like many of the films of this list, I wasn't expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. But I loved it, and the film has been on my mind ever since. I wrote in my review from the Sitges Film Festival: "From the cinematography by Jakob Ihre, to the score by Ola Fløttum, to the costume design by Ellen Dæhli Ystehede, the rest of this film is pretty much perfect. Eili Harboe as Thelma is not only beautiful to watch, but enrapturing in each in every scene. She has the kind of presence where you can almost see what she is thinking, and understand what is going on in her mind, without her even needing to say a word. It's all in her eyes, and her body language, and her facial tics, the nuances of a deeply complex human being. It's so easy to say this film is one of the best of the year, because it will speak right to you, connect to your subconscious romantic emotions and desires, and remind you of the remarkable power that love has on us."
#9. You Were Never Really Here directed by Lynne Ramsay
One of a few near-perfect films on this list, where every scene and every aspect of the film works together in perfect harmony. There is no extra fat to be cut, nothing that is unnecessary or exaggerated. This isn't an action film by any means, but something else much more intensely dramatic, with refined filmmaking that makes it so original. Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin) directs Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here as a brutal, muscle-man protector hired to rescue young girls who have ended up helplessly stuck in the sex trade business. I saw this film twice at the Cannes Film Festival, because it's so damn good, and packs a punch in a nice and neat 85 minute package. I love the score by Jonny Greenwood, and the performance by Joaquin Phoenix, and the way it all plays out. This is one of those films that has so much to say without actually saying much, since there's limited dialogue, but every last scene includes considerations and conversations seared right into the celluloid. I actually prefer the version I saw in Cannes more than the final cut now being released, but it still deserves a spot on my list.
#8. Faces, Places directed by JR & Agnès Varda
"Each face tells a story." The most joyful, inspiring, heart-warming film of the year! No matter how many times I watch Faces Places, it always makes me happy. And not just normal happy, but effusive I-want-to-hug-everyone-everywhere happy. I smile non-stop from start to finish. I honestly wish there was more to it, I just want to keep following JR and Agnès Varda as they travel all over France (and the rest of the world, why not?) because no matter where they go or what they do, it's so wonderful. I admire the unconventional road trip structure of the film and the amusing ways it breaks the fourth-wall to engage the audience. I love all of the zany, but authentic moments between JR and Agnes. I'm inspired by how it shows the power of photography to connect and build communities, bring happiness to everyone, and reveal another side of people that is often overlooked. Yes, it's a documentary but it certainly belongs on my Top 10 as one of the best films of the year. Especially because it's endlessly rewatchable, and will always put me in a great mood.
#7. Foxtrot directed by Samuel Maoz
What a brilliant, brilliant film Foxtrot is. My goodness, it's something special. Foxtrot is a outstanding film from Israel with two distinct stories to tell about one family. One half of the film follows two parents, who have to deal with the shock that their son is killed while on duty in the military. The other half tells the story of their son, and what exactly happened to him while stationed at a remote outpost, which becomes a vicious criticism of Israel, its military, and its contemporary society. Samuel Maoz is a brilliant filmmaker, who has an immaculate eye for detail and deep sense of emotional intelligence. The film is designed perfectly to allow the audience to experience the story differently than the characters, and yet also gives us the chance to discover revelations in our own mind. In addition to the plot, everything else about Foxtrot is pretty much mind-blowingly perfect. The cinematography by Giora Bejach is some of the best you'll see, with elegant shots from all angles. The sound design is powerful, and enhances the storytelling in dramatic ways. The performances are all so genuine and heartrending, and they make it even more believable. Watch this film.
#6. Jane directed by Brett Morgen
Another documentary, but also yet another film that floored me. Jane, from documentarian Brett Morgen, tells the original story of animal activist and adventurer Jane Goodall and how she was hired to go study chimpanzees in the wild back in the 1960s. It brings her story to life in a way that truly epitomizes the glory of the big screen/cinema experience - with immersive sound design, an electrifying score by Philip Glass, and remarkable footage that is edited together to make us feel like we were all a part of her journey into the African jungle. This is what I really adore about Jane - it's not a documentary full of talking heads or stock footage, it's an experience that captures just how groundbreaking it was for this young woman to venture out on her own and learn as much as possible about chimpanzees. The original footage, filmed by Jane's ex-husband Hugo van Lawick, is stunning to see. But Morgen takes that and enhances it even further, making this a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience worthy of being recognized alongside all the other films on here.
#5. Dunkirk directed by Christopher Nolan
In Nolan We Trust. I'll fully admit that I wasn't expecting to love Dunkirk as much as I did (I'm not even sure why). It was my second viewing in IMAX that confirmed that it's a spectacular cinematic experience, as the full-frame IMAX footage is jaw-dropping. Christopher Nolan pulled off something very impressive with Dunkirk – making audiences feel the ferocious intensity, the hopelessness, relentlessness, the hellish brutality of war, without actually showing the real violence itself. He achieves this completely through visual storytelling and goes even further by intertwining the three land-sea-air narratives. The first time I watched this, I just wanted to jump up and start applauding when I realized the timelines would eventually converge together in the same moment. Watching it all connect, and play out with Churchill's message at the end, is such an invigorating experience. Dunkirk is an example of why the big screen is so special and why movies are not just purely about the script, the story, because it's also about the images we see on the screen, and how they draw us in, move us, make us feel, and take us away on a journey to another time, another place. The more I think about it, the more I love Dunkirk (though I will also say it's not my favorite Nolan movie).
#4. The Florida Project directed by Sean Baker
These kids! This filmmaking! Another one-of-a-kind film that exceeds especially in its execution, not just the concept. In fact, that's the craziest part about The Florida Project – it doesn't really have a "concept" or a conventional narrative. We mostly just follow these young kids, and a few other folks, around as they get into all kinds of trouble. Obviously director Sean Baker is telling a very human, very real story about how these impoverished people live their lives, and we should not consider them any less vibrant or imaginative or deeply human as people with more money. But there's also a refreshing sense of freedom that comes from such a loose narrative, reminding us of the limitless imaginations of children and the sense of wonder that comes from any/everything when you're growing up. I especially love the performance by Willem Dafoe, one of his best ever, because it's so warm and kind, and he is such a vital part of these kids' world even though it doesn't really seem like it (because of his regular job at the motel). I still remember seeing this in Cannes and being overwhelmed with emotions, which is the kind of experience that always sticks with me.
#3. The Shape of Water directed by Guillermo del Toro
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro's beautiful love story is one of his finest films yet, a remarkable creation from his masterful mind. The Shape of Water is essentially a love letter to love itself, but it's also a love letter to the magic of the movies, to monsters, and to the power of good friends. Sally Hawkins is so so so perfect as Elisa, and his eclectic ensemble cast is as good as she is. This is another film that I wasn't expecting to love as much as I did, but it really connected with my heart. I wrote in my review at the Venice Film Festival: "What unfolds before us is not just exciting to watch, but scary at times, and heartwarming, with moments of utter beauty and moments of brutal violence. This has all of the typical Guillermo del Toro touches, with gorgeously lavish dark, dingy sets, a wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat, an immense love for the art of cinema (she lives above a movie theater), not to mention a scaly fish creature (played of course by Doug Jones) who doesn't have any lines but does say plenty in his actions." Bravo, Guillermo.
#2. War for the Planet of the Apes directed by Matt Reeves
A potentially controversial choice, but I also think this movie deserves the recognition. War for the Planet of the Apes is a masterpiece – Matt Reeves really outdid himself. Subverting expectations, this isn't an all-out war movie with big battles, instead it's an intimate, personal story of the toll that war takes on individual people/apes. But it's also so much more than that – it's about our inner demons, the battles we fight inside our own minds; it's about leadership and what it takes to become a legendary leader; it's about integrity and fighting for what's right, and staying true to your heart; and it's about the follies and flaws and choices that lead to collapse and ruin, including ego and hatred and narrow-minded thinking. There are moments in this film that had me in tears. And it concludes this cinematic trilogy in exactly the perfect way, having shown just enough and given us more than enough battles. The performances from the entire cast are excellent, and the CGI that brings all the apes to life is phenomenal. It's amazing to think about how much went into making this movie and it still turned out this good – a tremendous, astonishing, unforgettable achievement.
#1. Call Me By Your Name directed by Luca Guadagnino
Nothing can top this film. Nothing. From the moment I saw this at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2017, I knew it was unbeatable. I've seen it many more times since then, and it still holds up. It still has the same effect on me, it still leaves me an emotional wreck, and it still blows me away every single time. The finest filmmaking, the finest performances, the finest soundtrack, the finest cinematography that I've been honored to experience all year. Call Me By Your Name is unquestionably my favorite film of 2017, telling a story of true love and connection that is so rare in this world. I can praise everything about this film, but in particular the Sufjan Stevens songs come in at just the right times and reach deep into my chest, making my heart beat in sync with the love seen on screen. All of the film's performances are flawless – Timothée Chalamet is a revelation. And of course, Michael Stuhlbarg's talk at the end with Elio is one of the best speeches in cinema history (yes, really, it is). Plus that final shot by the fire, perfection. I LOVE this film so much, even as a straight guy, and I am proud to proclaim that it is my #1 of the year. Luca Guadagnino has made his first bona fide masterpiece, and I expect more to come as he continues his illustrious career.
Runner Up Favorite Features: Pixar/Lee Unkrich's Coco, Ruben Östlund's The Square, Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya, Dave McCary's Brigsby Bear, Makoto Shinkai's Your Name, Taylor Sheridan's Wind River, plus Chloe Zhao's The Rider (honestly this may end up on my Top 10 of 2018 since it doesn't open until April).
That's it for now! Alas, I don't have time to get into my favorite performances or anything else, just this list. Listen to more commentary on The First Word Podcast. My favorite cinematography is Blade Runner 2049, from the master Roger Deakins, of course. There were a number of films that I did not like as much as many of my colleagues did, which usually happens, and those are The Post, Get Out, and Good Time. In addition, there were a few films I did not get the chance to see, including: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, Phantom Thread, Detroit, and First They Killed My Father. If you have any additional questions/thoughts about my Top 10 of 2017, please get in touch: @firstshowing. I'm always happy to discuss or argue about these films.