The changing definition of “film” is affecting what critics name in their year-end lists.
Small-screen viewing overshadowed the moviegoing year of 2017—Netflix put a sizeable dent in box-office returns and television began to stretch the qualification rules for end-of-year “best of” movie lists. The list of 25 films compiled for the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine features David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 18-part Twin Peaks: The Return at number two, behind Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Had I known it was eligible, I would have included Twin Peaks among the five films Sight & Sound requires critics to submit. I’d also have placed it high on my own list of 20, which is below, but I decided to stick to the convention and limit my choices to films released theatrically in the US, in 2017.
Does Sight & Sound’s inclusion of Twin Peaks change the rules for the future—and will streamed series and television series also be eligible for the magazine’s 10-yearly Greatest Films of All Time poll, which is the international benchmark? That might mean TV masterpieces such as Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness (1985), Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986), and David Chase’s The Sopranos (1999–2007) could duke it out with the likes of Citizen Kane (1941) and Vertigo (1958).
The Twin Peaks issue raises the question, too, whether it will rise above Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.—28th in the 2012 Greatest Films poll but likely to do much better when Sight & Sound publishes the 2022 list.
Certainly, Twin Peaks, which Lynch and Frost made for Showtime, was the closest thing we had to a cinematic event in 2017, no matter that it’s not cinema at all, but television.
Quality event movies were few and far between. Those that emerged—including the two big (and temporally interlocking) British World War II movies, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, were flawed. Dunkirk had the girth of Christopher Nolan’s vision on its side and was genuine spectacular, but the characterization was one-note. Joe Wright’s five-minute Dunkirk tracking shot in Atonement (2007) made a much more indelible—and damning—statement about the chaos on the beaches than all of Nolan’s epic.
Gary Oldman deserves the Best Actor Oscar for his uncanny impersonation of Winston Churchill in Wright’s Darkest Hour, but the film was weakened by its humor, sentimentality, and unfortunate appeal to populism in the ludicrous tube train sequence.
Oldman will likely compete for the top acting awards with his peer Daniel Day-Lewis, whose exquisite performance graces Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. It is a portrait of a 1950s British couturier, Reynolds Woodcock, who is burdened and distracted by romantic love. It is much less a film about fashion than a film about an artist with a Roderick Usher-like sensitivity. Intentionally or not, it’s also a Daniel Day-Lewis psychodrama, which may explain why it prompted Day-Lewis to retire from acting. A little fey, a lot sickly, Phantom Thread is also magnificent.
It contains a ghost. So does Olivier Assayas’s masterful Personal Shopper, and, unsurprisingly, there’s a lead ghost and a supporting ghost, disturbingly draped in sheets, in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. The hauntings in these films are very moving. Whereas Phantom Thread and Personal Shopper suggest that ghosts are the psychic projections of the grieving, it is the unmoored souls of the dead who are left behind to do the mourning in A Ghost Story; it parallels Alejandro Amenábar’s likeminded The Others (2001) as one of the century’s best supernatural films so far.
Reality’s grip is so strong on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) that she doesn’t allow her murdered daughter Angela to visit her in incorporeal form in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. She is nonetheless haunted by guilt about her passive-aggressive last remark to the girl on her last evening alive. (Similar guilt dawns slowly on the Jim Broadbent character in A Sense of an Ending, a fine British film that narrowly misses my top 20 but continues to nag at me.) McDomand’s performance is searing, and it’s complemented by terrific work by Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson.
Following the triumph of 2016’s Moonlight, it was imperative that films about the African-American experience continued to register in 2017. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Matt Ruskin’s Crown Heights, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Dee Rees’s Mudbound, and Nancy Buirski’s The Rape of Recy Taylor all had an impact. However, it was the where-did-that-come-from? shock of Get Out that did the most to make white liberals squirm. For my money, the movie falls apart once it becomes a psycho-chiller, but it’s still a great achievement.
The Trump era being the Trump era and 2017 being 2017, the sufferings of women at the hands of men was always going to be an issue in key films. Two series adapted from Margaret Atwood novels led the way: Hulu’s A Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller, and writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron’s Alias Grace, made for Netflix.
Wonder Woman wasn’t the only heroine with Amazonian integrity. The character played by Handmaid’s Elisabeth Moss in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square makes a furious stand against being sexually used. Florence Pugh’s Victorian bride sends the patriarchy—and a black maid—to hell in William Oldroyd’s blunt, bleak Lady Macbeth. Reynolds Woodcock’s live-in model, muse, and lover (Vicky Krieps) in Phantom Thread resorts to witchcraft.
In contrast, Personal Shopper’s title character, brilliantly played by Kristen Stewart, succumbs to her imagination and colludes with a murderer who plays cat and mouse with her via cellphone; she gets a little lucky. Luck and love desert the vulnerable 13-year-old psychopath (Fantine Harduin) in Happy End, Michael Haneke’s quasi-sequel to Amour; the six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) in Sean Baker’s pastel-hued realist drama The Florida Project; and tragicomic ice skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) in Craig Gillespie’s ebullient I, Tonya. God help them all, because their parents didn’t.
Here, from 20th to 1st, are the best films of 2017:
20. Slack Bay (directed by Bruno Dumont)
19. Foxtrot (dir. Samuel Maoz)
18. Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (dir. Maria Schrader)
17. A Quiet Passion (dir. Terence Davies)
16. Call Me By Your Name (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
15. A Ghost Story (dir. David Lowery)
14. Good Time (dir. Ben and Josh Safdie)
13. Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig)
12. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)
11. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (dir. Frederick Wiseman)
10. The Unknown Girl (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
9. Dawson City: Frozen Time (dir. Bill Morrison)
8. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)
7. Happy End (dir. Michael Haneke)
6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (dir. Martin McDonagh)
5. The Square (dir. Ruben Östlund)
4. The Florida Project (dir. Sean Baker)
3. Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd)
2. Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas)
1. Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)