Some, including the American literary scholar James English, argue that artists shouldn’t care about awards like the Oscars. Author of “The Economy of Prestige,” an ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes, English posits that moviemaking should be its own reward, and that “cultural capital” – the concept originally introduced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, defined here as ‘status accrued through artistic achievement’ – should not depend on the crassness of gold statuettes.
Oscar-bashers have a point. But even though there are now more movie awards given out every year than there are new movies, the Oscars do matter – both to those who have gotten richer because they’ve received one … and to those who have consistently been excluded. Along with a few honorable mentions — Dunkirk, Ingrid Goes West, Jane, Three Billboards In Ebbing, Missouri, Personal Shopper, Last Flag Flying, Mudbound, Lady Bird, Brigsby Bear, The Big Sick, and Bodied — just in time for the Academy Awards, here’s an Oscars-abstinent list of my top 10 films of 2017: these films in particular resonated strongly with me, both emotionally and intellectually.
#10. I, Tonya – Craig Gillespie
Craig Gillespie, best known for his offbeat Lars and the Real Girl, surprised everyone with a Scorsese movie—and a good one, at that. I, Tonya possesses the kinetic energy, pop-rock soundtrack and unreliable narration that propels a Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street forward. In Tonya’s version of the truth, the odds were always stacked against her; she lives in a tragi-comedy. A classic story of how the American dream can chew you up and spit you back out.
#9. Baby Driver – Edgar Wright
Edgar Wright returns with his most mature installment to date: another can-you-top-this genre, this time a car-chase flick driven by a carefully curated playlist. (For those still gushing about La La Land’s choreography, pump the brakes.) From the riveting opening sequence straight through to curtain call, Baby Driver is all jubilant music video-kinesis. Leads Ansel Elgort and Lily James have magnetic chemistry; everyone else is perfectly cast, including the most minor roles.
This is a POV movie, a twisted caper seen through the lens of the improbably-named, hearing-impaired, music-as-buffer ace driver Baby. But the main star here is style. Attention to detail, careful storyboards and slick editing help build an intensity that is positively baroque. Baby Driver is in no way a slave to music (think Tarantino at his worst); instead, its audio-visual blend is more like an additional cast member. Beginning with the film’s opening credits, Baby’s music subtly influences his world and the people around him. Even background SFX are deliberately aligned with the beat. During an excellent foot chase through a Mall set to Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” diegetic hip hop songs spill from the stores, matching the rhythm of Baby’s ‘70s rock jam as he races past.
This film also goes beyond stylish—the opposite of a passive viewing experience. We actually care whether the heroes beat the villains, and not because of some cliché-driven inevitability. Here, the story and characters feel timeless: a full-course meal with just the right level of cartoonish camp as dessert. Truly worthy of repeat viewing, Baby Driver delivers its director’s fully-realized intent with unforgettable gusto.
#8. Faces, Places – Agnès Varda & JR
89-year old Agnès Varda has still got it. Her latest opus – a lyrical exploration of blue-collar France – is both funny and moving. Made in collaboration with 33-year old French ‘photo-graffitist’ JR, Faces Places is part-road movie, part-buddy comedy, at once down-to-earth and transcendent. Rich with real-life portraits of chemical workers, postmen and goat farmers, this film is a genre-bending refresher, a subversion of more serious, hyper-journalistic docs.
The collaboration behind it is brilliant: Varda seems to have met her match in JR, in terms of inventive storytelling, photography and installation. The two make a charming odd couple – physically disproportionate, prone to teasing each other– and an in-sync artistic duo.
Furthermore, in a twist of onscreen poetry, their film happens to focus on the same Normandy beach that is featured in BPM (France’s other best entry this year), where a discarded Nazi-era bunker protrudes from the shore like a Kubrick-ian monolith. While this beach plays a considerably more prominent role in Faces Places, its grey-blue austerity underscores the spiritual transience evoked by both films. As Varda and JR remind us so eloquently, films can approach topicality with emotion and imagination, telling us more about ourselves than we’ll ever learn from the news. Varda is a treasure; their film is a gift.
#7. The Florida Project – Sean Baker
With this film, the prolific Sean Baker—Take Out, Prince of Broadway, Starlet, Tangerine—solidifies his reputation as one of the most humanistic filmmakers today. Gut-wrenchingly honest, unexpectedly moving, Baker’s fifth feature is the bittersweet story of six-year-old Moonee, her single mother and the manager of their budget motel … ironically called The Magic Castle. Co-written with NYU classmate and three-time writing partner Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project is based on the oft-overlooked reality of the destitute population on the outskirts of Disney World. Its focus is childhood. Comedic adventures play against a backdrop of poverty; but despite echoes of The Little Rascals, this film is far from reductive.
The performances are lightning in a bottle. Willem Dafoe, a friendless motel manager, is empathetic beyond what most viewers would ever be willing to give. He finds hope in the film’s most hopeless characters, and then, so do we. Six-year-old Brooklyn Prince holds desperately onto childhood. “Do you know why this is my favorite tree,” she asks a friend in one scene. “Because it’s tipped over, and it’s still growing.” Layered with detail and specificity, the acting is so devoid of falsehood, the whole film feels like ‘hidden camera.’ According to Baker, improvisation informed much of the film’s content. “We were re-writing all the way up to post production,” he laughed. The result is profound, heartbreaking, and at times hard to watch. It’s also immensely funny.
#6. Call Me By Your Name – Luca Guadagnino
Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory’s translation from page-to-screen is both lyrical and evocative. An arthouse mainstay, Guadagnino brings an appropriately delicate touch: just as this sultry Italian summer leaves a mark on its characters, the film evokes a mood that is hard to shake.
It’s an age-old story, but told in fresh terms. Prose from the book is converted seamlessly into believable dialogue. And despite the fact that neither of the leads are LGBTQ in real life, their performances feel authentic. Their characters are given room to breathe. Their romance is a satisfyingly slow burn. In one haunting shot, Elio and Oliver circle one another around a fountain; they’ve been circling each other romantically for weeks, and their unspoken bond is about to reach fever pitch. Also worthy of note is the classical soundtrack. A key element in the book as well, the Bach score (performed convincingly onscreen by Timothée Chalamet, who took piano lessons just before filming) adds a quality of wonderment, a soaring parallel to the unfolding drama.
As a whole, Call Me By Your Name is a tour-de-force: visually assured and emotionally challenging. Like the Hellenistic sculptures that Guadagnino uses as a recurring motif – evoking an unrealistically perfect canon for beauty – this film captures the fleeting, godly perfection of an unexpected first love. The audience is left spellbound.
#5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Rian Johnson
This is the franchise movie to end all franchise movies—and if The Last Jedi weren’t perched on the shoulders of nostalgia, it might be even higher on my list. Writer/director Rian Johnson (in hibernation since 2013, waiting for the right project) swoops in with a next-level vision that embarrasses all other contenders.
Impressively light-footed, this 2.5-hour epic contains everything a moviegoer could ask for and then some: zany worlds and humanistic character beats; narrative grounded in slivers of real-world logic; some of the best sword-and-sandals action in years; plot twists we didn’t know we wanted; a rapturous score, stunning art direction + production design. Crafted with thoughtfulness worthy of a top-tier indie, it’s an intricate web spun on a massive budget. It plays beautifully off of George Lucas’s mythology, adding new layers of meaning and subtext to familiar characters and themes. In particular, traces of the Shinto/Animistic beliefs that originally inspired ‘The Force’ reinvigorate exhausted premises. It also plays with nostalgia: the ability to revisit fond memories without getting lost in them, to move forward without forgetting where you came from.
Serious fanboys have taken exception to certain ‘missing beats’—Snoke’s fate and Rey’s parentage among them—but we should be grateful that Johnson isn’t a company drone. Instead of inserting marketable moments and brand-approved memes, he jumps past all that, asking: ‘What if Star Wars were more like our own world? More imperfect, more Shakespearean in its human contradictions, more asymmetrical and unpredictable?’ The result is a film that offers hope. Students can outgrow their teachers; people (in fact, all creatures) can find common ground. As both a testament to our interconnectedness and a staggering achievement in mainstream entertainment, The Last Jedi is about potential, and fully lives up to its own.
#4. The Square – Ruben Östlund
The Square is Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s most ambitious attack on humanity yet … with a compellingly affectionate touch. Awarded the Palme d’Or by this year’s Cannes Jury, and now up for the Best Foreign Language Oscar – a notably ballsy selection on both counts – this is a film that inspires discussion. Here’s why: over the course of two-and-a-half hours, The Square manages to entertain, confound and subvert. A fitting follow-up to Östlund’s exceptional Force Majeure, this is an intellectual’s film. A thought-provoking critique of human instincts and behavior, a deft exploration of our attempts and failures to reach higher moral ground, and a big middle finger in the face of the contemporary art world. Even more impressive, The Square extends itself as far and wide as possible without losing focus. It pokes fun at the very culture that supports it; it turns respectable social norms into farcical satire; it cajoles us into laughing at our own worst frailties.
This laughter is key. Like the favorite high school teacher who never forgot what it was like to be a kid, Östlund knows how to relate to his audience. His observational skills are unsurpassed; his characters are laughably real; his dialogue is razor-sharp. The film is a feast of performances, including scrumptious supporting roles by American players: Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and, most unforgettably, Terry Notary. With this latest addition to an already-impressive body of work – even more so than his contemporaries Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann, 2016) and Yorgos Lanthimos (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017) – Östlund blends arthouse with entertainment. A gem.
#3. Get Out – Jordan Peele
According to first-time director / sketch comedian Jordan Peele, “Get Out is the African American experience though the lens of a horror film.” A mix of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) meets The Stepford Wives (1975) meets Rosemary’s Baby (1968), this homage is more deliberate than derivative – and Peele is eloquent about why.
“When any horror movie hits its stride, really resonates, … that’s because it’s playing to some real fear in the zeitgeist,” he explains. That’s how the torture-porn genre became big in the post 9/11 era [Saw, Hostel, The Human Centipede.] There, we were exorcising this demon within us—we were out for blood. And now, we’re facing new demons. This holds true for both horror and comedy: if they work, it’s because there’s some kind of social truth.”
In Get Out, racism is at the core of its scares and its humor. It’s the perfect Trojan horse for a pointed socio-political agenda. Despite reliance on a genre that often trips over clichés, it’s proof that horror films can be funny, smart, deeply-layered, and yes—scary! Stylistically, Peele’s film revitalizes the genre in ways we haven’t seen since the ‘60s; as a 21st-century parable, it turns levity, absurdity and actual fear into an exploration of deep cultural wounds. Peele himself describes the film as a documentary.
On many levels, Get Out is the Paul Revere of socially conscious horror-comedy: an artistic achievement so expansive, so relevant, that even the un-woke will be reached.
#2. Foxtrot – Samuel Maoz
Worthy of author Joseph Heller (Catch 22), Samuel Maoz’s mordant Foxtrot satirizes the futility of war with heart-wrenching authenticity. The film opens on a somber note: a father has just learned of his son’s death. Twenty minutes in, the tone shifts: an Israeli soldier dances a foxtrot at a military checkpoint. Contrasting parental grief with the ennui of guard duty, this scene is an iconic standout. Imagine Manchester by the Sea interrupted by La La Land. From there, the film continues to build toward tragi-comic lows and highs—a masterful balancing act of tonal shifts.
Foxtrot is penetrating, devastating, and hysterically funny. In many ways, it is Israel’s Catch 22, a portrait of humanity and its painful absurdities, all encapsulated in this lonely dance. Maoz holds the mirror to our failings with a sure hand.
#1. The Shape of Water – Guillermo Del Toro
This is the film we didn’t know we needed. A retelling of The Creature from the Black Lagoon with heart instead of kitsch, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a visual masterpiece with the weirdest logline: a mute janitor falls in love with a man-phibian government asset. Where lesser, more self-conscious filmmakers might have flinched, del Toro leans into symbolism, romanticism and unbridled creativity.
Born of his own teenage fantasies, this amazingly tender indie was 25 years in the making. For a paltry $19M, it mixes superlative practical effects with emotional tension—despite two leads who can’t speak. But it’s not just a romance. This is a Trump-era film, a queer film, part homage, part musical: a film that turns Cold War politics and 1950s conformity into a modern-day fable. Unlike most political movies of-the-moment—films that plumb the Zeitgeist, then fade—The Shape of Water is timeless. The plot flows, the soundtrack soars; Desplat’s score is the year’s best. From the moment that water trickles down-screen in the film’s opening, The Shape of Water goes beyond great art. It’s a magical out-of-body experience.
Sometimes a fable is just what we need: strip away the agenda, and the themes become lessons for forgetful adults.