The year in film

Female heroes rise to power on the big screen

While Netflix returned to the Upside Down universe in the second season of "Stranger Things" in 2017, the worlds of both politics and movies went topsy-turvy with their real-life versions of "stranger" things.

It was the kind of year in which the attitude of "everything goes" became public policy and a sociopolitical lightning rod. Our 45th president an erstwhile reality-TV star moved into the White House to begin an erratic term, and the Hollywood establishment of powerful males got called out, leading to never-before-seen upheaval.

As #metoo trended, women led the march on movies, with "Wonder Woman" out in front. The blockbuster was a much-needed win for Warner Brothers' DC Universe franchise and an American cineplex historically ruled by male-centric superhero movies.

Frances McDormand wouldn't sit down and shut up in "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri." Meanwhile, "I, Tonya" gave Tonya Harding her voice back, and Emily Dickinson came back to life in "A Quiet Passion."

Greta Gerwig reshaped her formative years in "Lady Bird," and a pint-sized star named Brooklynn Prince was born in "The Florida Project." "Star Wars" returned with its female "force," and the heroine of "The Shape of Water" even faced down workplace sexual harassment when not romancing the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

In 2017, lines also blurred and the industry shifted in ways that didn't involve Harvey Weinstein. Two of the biggest cinematic events of the year were "almost-films." David Lynch's breathtaking 18-hour revival of "Twin Peaks" for Showtime was conceived and shot like a giant-sized movie (and it plays theatrically this week at New York's MOMA), and "Wormwood," the latest "story" from documentarian Errol Morris, debuted a couple of weeks ago on Netflix as a six-part series that's also been booked into theaters as a four-hour film. Predictably making the Hollywood establishment pee itself, Netflix also upped its game this year getting into the blockbuster-franchise game in December with a Will Smith fantasy actioner called "Bright."

It's never easy winnowing down hundreds of movies to the supposed "Ten Best," especially when comparing apples to oranges (and cherries and peaches and pomegranates). As always, the movies that lived largest in my critic's imagination are the ones that took chances, made challenging statements of substance and style, or were simply ... French (yeah, for some reason, it was all about the French movies this year).

The bottom line? "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" doesn't need another boost, but these movies might to get your attention. Here's hoping you seek out these enlightening, illuminating, entertaining, soulful 10, and more.

The Top 10 films of 2017

10. 'Lady Bird'

Greta Gerwig's semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale, set in 2002 Sacramento, nails the sudden emotions and taps into the humor of a teenager's process of discovery (what disappointments guys can be, the indispensability of a true friend). Beyond the specificity of time and place (including Catholic schooling), "Lady Bird" is a prime mother-daughter love story, replete with the tribulations of painful individuation and beautifully acted by awards-season front-runners Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Long a respected comic actress and screenwriter, Gerwig moves to the front ranks of directors just as the movies need her most.

9. 'Nocturama'

This controversial, ice-cold drama of urban terrorism from Bertrand Bonello ("Saint Laurent") begins as a gripping study in sustained tension and morphs at the halfway point into a surreal satire, as the lithe, sadly deluded young terrorists hide out in a tony department store and begin playing dress up and fiddling with the toys on hand. The antiheroes seem more Bonnie-and-Clyde burn-the-world nihilists than the new revolutionaries they fancy themselves. As horrifying as their behavior is, the only thing worse is the political establishment's response. Bonello hauntingly employs smooth camera moves and popular music to create a fantasia of youthful disaffection and the callous, self-defensive tyranny of our social and cultural institutions.

8. 'Frantz'

Certainly among the top five greatest existential mysteries are the questions "Why are we here?," "Where do we go after we die?" and "What's going on in our heads?" Reality, memory and wishful thinking often blur, helped along by stormy emotions. With his post-WWI drama "Frantz," writer-director François Ozon plunges into these depths, playfully crafting a mystery with immediate practical questions as well as the eternal mysteries of the human heart and mind. Cannily visualizing the tale in black-and-white with splashes of color, Ozon teases romantic possibilities as younger and older generations reckon with the love and loss of wartime.

7. 'The Lost City of Z'

Like a lot of the best history-based films, writer-director James Gray's "The Lost City of Z" takes some liberties with its true story on the way to expressing deeper truths. Explorer Percy Fawcett is obsessed with finding the titular site somewhere deep in the Amazon rainforest. That obsession resides at the core of a story about yearning, fathers and sons, and the pressures and injustices of a class-stratified society, but Gray also arrives at an unexpected spirituality as a man. With his boy at his side, he stares into eternity and wonders what it all meant.

6. 'I, Tonya'

Think you know the story of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and the infamous clubbing of her teammate and rival Nancy Kerrigan? Think again. This savage, sad comedy-drama schools us on the ferocious social climb of Harding (a deeply committed Margot Robbie) under a terrifying stage mother (Alison Janney, never better), Harding's abusive relationship with Jeff Gillooly, and how a merciless media shot first and asked questions later. At a time when most Americans get their news filtered through social media and YouTube, we're not so removed from sleazy tabloid media as we'd like to think.

5. 'The Work'

Toxic masculinity continues to plague America, and Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous' astonishing documentary illuminates both the problem and a path to redemption. Within the gates of Folsom Prison, invited civilians sit among lifers and swiftly tear down the walls over an intensive four-day therapeutic workshop. Before your eyes, long-bottled demons emerge from these men, some of whom could be your friends and neighbors and others of whom society at large has tried to put out of sight and out of mind. Riveting from first to last, "The Work" redefines male strength as the bravery to face, and thereby begin to heal, the internally bleeding wounds that keep so many men angry and volatile.

4. 'BPM: Beats Per Minute'

Few narrative films have as realistically portrayed the essence of activism as "BPM: Beats Per Minute." Robin Campillo's French drama plants itself square in the middle of a tight-knit community -- that of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s -- and details the group's collective thought and action in protesting big pharma and the government's misguided and lazily paced approaches to the AIDS crisis. Meanwhile, as AIDS stalks them, the men and women of ACT UP fight for their own lives, both in the conventional sense and by continuing to live loud, boldly expressing their love for each other on the streets and in between the sheets.

3. 'A Quiet Passion'

Were you to judge "A Quiet Passion" merely as a straightforward biopic of the ever-enigmatic poet Emily Dickinson, it would already stand as one of the year's biggest successes. Writer-director Terence Davies masterfully recreates Dickinson's 19th-century upper-class Amherst, Massachusetts milieu, tapping into the verbal and emotional expression of the time (including the poet's work repurposed as narration). But the film goes further, making the imaginative leap to understand what it meant to be an extraordinary woman who just wasn't made for her times. Cynthia Nixon heartbreakingly embodies a woman straining against the strictures of society and her own body.

2. 'Call Me by Your Name'

In its wistful pairing of a twentysomething and a teenager, director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory apply a soulful sophistication to the complexities of first love, even more troubling as "the love that dare not speak its name." As acted by Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, "Call Me by Your Name" was unmatched this year for lifelike rhythms and attention to human behavior. Since it's also a travelogue filigreed with fragments of antique European art, literature, philosophy, and music, it's a gorgeous, reflective film that unfolds at a deceptively lazy pace: In point of fact, there's not a moment in it that isn't necessary.

1. 'The Florida Project'

Sean Baker's follow-up to the stylish, street-level "Tangerine" is the sort of film that sticks with you, whether you like it or not. In part a tribute to "The Little Rascals," the film works on that level alone, with a low-pitched camera following incorrigible kids around a Florida motel in the shadow of Disney World. But Baker's narrative collage pieces together much more: an image of the sub-working class struggling to find its way up from the depths of drug addiction and cycles of abuse. Like Willem Dafoe's observant motel manager, you'll be challenged by a mother-daughter relationship that's both sympathetic and deserving of judgment.


"Phantom Thread"; "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"; "Human Flow"; "Personal Shopper"; "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library"; "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)"; "Dawson City: Frozen Time"; "Get Out"; "A Fantastic Woman"; "Midsummer in Newtown"

Honorable Mention: "Twin Peaks," "Wormwood"

The bottom five films of 2017

5. 'The Dark Tower'

In a year when Stephen King became popular again, this much-anticipated adaptation was the one that totally whiffed it. Abandoning everything that made the books special, Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation turned King's elaborate epic into the world's worst Young Adult movie, with a boy going on a thrill-less and incoherent journey as Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey look on helplessly.

4. 'Unforgettable'

Katherine Heigl's divorcée really could use therapy. Instead she plots to take apart her ex's new life with Rosario Dawson. This tasteless thriller, complete with cheap child endangerment, isn't artful enough to distract from the sexist stereotype of the batty woman scorned. It took this plot for Warner Brothers to greenlight a movie written and directed by women this year?

3. 'Geostorm'

Dean Devlin, better known as the co-writer of "Independence Day" and 1998's ill-fated "Godzilla" reboot, made his directing debut with this shamelessly stupid global-climate-change-themed disaster flick. A decent budget and sort-of stars like Gerard Butler cannot hide the fact that this is roughly at the intellectual and artistic level of "Sharknado." Bonus points: There's no actual geostorm in this movie.

2. 'Father Figures'

Mamma mia, here we go again: another "Who's your daddy?" movie. Ed Helms and Owen Wilson lament their mother's sex-positive days as they stalk the men who could be their fathers. The way this ends up going proves uncomfortable and thoroughly unfunny. Not even a climax involving Christopher Walken talking about "kitties" could enliven this dead-on-arrival "comedy."

1. 'American Assassin'

Based on the best-selling superspy novel by the late Vince Flynn, this repulsive macho fantasy seemed expressly designed to appeal to the readers of "Soldier of Fortune" Magazine. "American Assassin" was downright irresponsible in stoking fear of terrorism and making a hero out of a revenge-minded raw nerve. Horribly clichéd and insipidly tone-deaf action nonsense.

Of course, there's plenty more to remember beyond 2017's highest highs and lowest lows. Read on for our take on the best good guys, the worst baddies, the top documentaries and the most magical animated movies.

The best heroes

5. Marina (Daniela Vega) in "A Fantastic Woman"

4. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) in "The Shape of Water"

3. Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) in "A Quiet Passion"

2. Beatriz (Salma Hayek) in "Beatriz at Dinner"

1. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in "Wonder Woman"

Honorable mention: Parvana (Saara Chaudry) in "The Breadwinner"

The worst villains

5. The Dream (Keanu Reeves) in "The Bad Batch"

4. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) in "The Shape of Water"

3. Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) in "I, Tonya"

2. Doug (John Lithgow) in "Beatriz at Dinner"

1. Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) in "It"

Honorable mention: Roger Stone ("Get Me Roger Stone")

More top documentaries

5. "Long Strange Trip"

4. "Jane"

3. "Dolores"

2. "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992"

1. "Chasing Coral"

The animated winners

5. "My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea"

4. "My Life as a Zucchini"

3. "Coco"

2. "The Breadwinner"

1. "Loving Vincent"

Peter Canavese is a freelance movie critic for the Palo Alto Weekly and author of the website Groucho Reviews. You can reach him at pcanavese@bcp.org.


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