Danny Baldwin’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Danny Baldwin's Top 10 Films of 2017

This is the sixteenth year I’ve written an annual Top 10 list, which means I’ve been compiling them for over half my life. While the exercise in some way feels more arbitrary than ever, in that I’m now able to look back on those initial lists from more than a decade ago and recognize how irrelevant certain choices seem, it also feels more vital as I’ve moved away from writing regular film criticism.

While I find myself discussing current movies more than ever, the process of composing this list reminds me that there’s something irreplaceable about reflecting on film in writing. Forcing oneself to put one’s thoughts down on paper prompts one to more fully interrogate why we like what we like, rather than to be content with the adjectives and interjections we so casually toss out in verbal reflection. I have to wonder: would this list be much different if I had written about every one of the 125-plus movies I saw in 2017? While I’m not sure my top favorites would change, I have a sneaking suspicion there would be some shuffling – and maybe even the entry of a film or two that I don’t currently think I liked.

As for making judgments on the year in cinema as a whole, I’ve learned to stay away from them. It’s been said before, but every year has its great movies, its good movies, and its bad movies – and maybe you didn’t do a good enough of a job as a viewer in finding the great ones if you felt there weren’t enough. Certainly, there are fewer excuses now in the streaming era, though I also wonder if our capacity for fully engaging with greatness has diminished as cinema-going has increasingly become reserved for a certain kind of “big event” movie and theaters themselves have become progressively indistinguishable from our living rooms.

The common wisdom is that good content has never been more available, but will there be a juncture at which we have taken good content for granted to such an extent that we no longer know what’s good content and what’s bad content? Perhaps the answer lies in curated content, in tastemakers and lists just like this one. But at the same time, nothing will replace the exuberant feeling of cinematic discovery, and the risks of limiting one’s field of view to the recommendations of others seem to be just as stifling as those of blind selection. After all, you’re about to find the critically-derided “The Great Wall” among my Honorable Mentions for the year.

All we can do, I figure, is keep going to the movies, keep talking about the movies, and (when time permits) keep writing about the movies. And now, what you came here for: my list.

Special Mention: It was another strong year for non-fiction, and three documentaries stood out, each thankfully attaining levels of theatrical success uncommon for the Netflix era. “Jane” and “Dawson City: Frozen Time” construct narratives from found-footage in inventive ways that are not only exhilarating to watch, but will undoubtedly become the basis of film studies curricula in the years to come. Meanwhile, “Faces Places” finds 89-year-old Agnès Varda’s essay form as spry as ever, and even revitalized in the company of a new buddy – her shades-donning co-director, the large format photographic artist JR.

Honorable Mention: “The Great Wall,” “I, Tonya,” “Lady Macbeth,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Logan,” “Molly’s Game,” “Personal Shopper,” “Phantom Thread,” “Split,” “War for the Planet of the Apes”

The Top 10:

Logan Lucky10. “Logan Lucky” – In the movies, characters usually come out of retirement to settle one last score, to accomplish what they always knew they were capable of but didn’t know they needed to achieve until after they got out of the game. But Steven Soderbergh knows that the movies are a fantasy and that’s why he can’t stop making them. “Logan Lucky” isn’t the kind of emotional tour de force that Hollywood lore would tell us necessitates “un-retiring”; instead, it’s regular exercise, with Soderbergh hopping back on the bike he rode every day for a quarter-century before hastily deciding to switch to swimming laps. His preference for aesthetic economy over messy, melodramatic grandiosity is likely why many critics and general audiences greeted the movie with a sort of ho-hum positivity, but for those open to Soderbergh’s continually-being-honed rhythms, “Logan Lucky” goes down like Coca-Cola. Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that the filmmaker selected the NASCAR race sponsored by America’s most dependable beverage as the setting this for tale of a pneumatic tube robbery, decadent and breezy in the same gulp.

Wonder Woman9. “Wonder Woman” – Just as the wizards at Marvel decided to make a hard pivot to humor and pastiche to keep the superhero game fresh, Patty Jenkins seized an opening to breathe new life into the classical approach to the genre. And somehow, even without the nonstop wit of Marvel’s banner year – “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor: Ragnarok” – “Wonder Woman” managed to be the most surprising comic book movie of 2017.

In today’s politically charged climate, many will tell you that this sense of surprise emanates mostly from a sexist set of expectations, the preconceived notion that Jenkins – a woman without a film credit to her name since 2003’s “Monster” – couldn’t possibly make a better $150M blockbuster than her well-connected male colleagues. There’s likely something to this, but I think “Wonder Woman” surprised us most with an age-old reminder: that the most epic thing the camera has ever captured is the human face and form. Just as Marvel taps into humanity with relatable humor, Jenkins does so by perfectly leveraging the physicality and intimacy of her dare-I-say-wondrous leading lady, Gal Gadot. In Hollywood’s space race to pioneer the biggest, loudest visual effects, nothing felt more revolutionary in big-budget cinema this year than Gadot’s individual embodiment of what it means to be a hero.

Coco8. “Coco” – Nearly every American animated movie today is easily reducible to a high-concept, but it’s telling that when I think back on “Coco,” my mind first bypasses all the talking skeletons and Land of the Dead mythology in favor of a single image: a boy and his guitar. That’s a simple, easily articulatable notion, too, but it’s a construct, not a pitch. In other words, whereas so many other family animated properties – including some by the preeminent animation house that made this one – never manage to escape the clutches of marketability, the essence of “Coco” feels organic, true. This achievement has little to do with the profound risks that Disney and Pixar took in greenlighting the movie, whatever the “built-in” Latino audience may have been. Instead, it’s a testament to director Lee Unkrich and the animators’ ability to make protagonist Miguel speak to both the budding creativity and galvanizing disappointment in us all. That they so vividly capture a culture, a family, and a musical tradition in the process is icing.

Baby Driver7. “Baby Driver” – I’ve always felt there was a genius lurking inside of Edgar Wright, but that none of his films fully brought it to the fore (his last one, “The World’s End,” came the closest). But “Baby Driver” allows Wright to indulge and engage all of his cinematic influences from just the right proximity for the filmmaker to finally, wholly come into his own. Oh yes, the points of inspiration – Walter Hill, Quentin Tarantino, and Michael Mann among them – are about as transparent as they could be without a title nod à la “Shaun of the Dead” (unless you count Hill’s “The Driver”) or a diegetic callout à la “Bad Boys II” in “Hot Fuzz.” But in the originally choreographed rhythms (yes, there’s an actual choreographer credit) and the irresistible gazes between Baby (Ansel Elgort) and Debora (Lily James), “Baby Driver” reaches that special point of transcendence where a work born from homage transforms into something new. The core pleasures of the director’s work are largely the same as always, if a cut above – a bangin’ soundtrack, stunningly composed frames, endearing characters – but here they feel imbued with the kind of assured cohesion that a movie needs in order to exude effervescence.

The Shape of Water6. “The Shape of Water” – Guillermo del Toro’s latest fable is among his best. It’s a melting pot of cinematic styles and traditions that, unlike Wright’s similarly referential brand, feels less like overt pastiche than the concoction of a filmmaker trying to capture all of cinema’s history in a single movie made for a viewer who has never seen a movie before. That characterization could easily be the foundation of a scathing critique, not effusive praise, but to del Toro’s credit, he never loses sight of the humanity of his characters or the majesty of his images. How else could the story of a mute woman (Oscar-bound Sally Hawkins) falling in love with a magical Amazonian Amphibian Man being held captive in a Cold War R&D facility succeed as an absorbing, timeless romance, rather than merely top-shelf fodder for a future “SNL” skit? Sure, del Toro likes to paint in broad emotional stokes, with abundantly apparent metaphors, but if you can’t appreciate the man’s overindulgent love of cinematic syntax, perhaps you’re better suited to watching television, anyway.

Good Time5. “Good Time” – The most breathless movie of the year, which is just the way I like ’em. Josh and Benny Safdie’s 2015 film “Heaven Knows What” was an uncompromisingly real look at heroin addiction with some truly striking telephoto lensing, but in the end I questioned whether its relevance was self-fulfilling, whether the film was ultimately reducible to its success as an exercise. I may have walked out with a better understanding of addiction and a greater recognition that it was taking place in the urban city around me, but to what end? “Good Time,” while in ways more removed from reality (it’s a fictional story, as opposed to “Heaven Knows What,” which was based on the real experiences of its lead actress), ironically feels more immediate.

A big part of this success is the way the Safdies leverage familiar genre tropes to tell a story that gets at some of the same themes of class and social welfare as “Heaven Knows What,” but ultimately make the story of brothers who rob a bank (one of them mentally challenged) feel more accessible and therefore more relatable. The recognizable and engaging hallmarks of the heist-gone-wrong genre, in other words, put us in the shoes of characters we otherwise wouldn’t dare identify with (no matter how powerful Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie’s lead performances). Not only does this identification give life to the movie’s political consciousness, challenging the viewer to confront what we’d rather not confront, it in turn builds on the rich tradition of social commentary in genre filmmaking. And it’s just a damn cool chase movie, with a breakneck pace, surprising twists, and the most intense film score of the year.

The Square4. “The Square” – The most searing indictment of Western Europe’s socialist elites in recent memory could only come from within. Ruben Östlund’s examination of the leisure class at a modern art museum in Stockholm may at first feel cartoonish in its evisceration of the group’s hollow self-image of leftism; if you didn’t know anything about the production context or the filmmaker, you might assume him to be a reactionary. The opening scene, in which well-to-do museum curator Christian flounders in attempting to explain to an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) the significance of the museum’s latest exhibit, initially comes across like a freshman seminar critique of the value of abstract art.

But by the time a half-naked man-ape ravages a dinner party full of gallery donors and VIPs – a sequence that had an undoubtedly very similar crowd in Cannes buzzing right up to the movie’s Palme d’Or win – it’s become clear that the subject of Östlund’s satire isn’t the art that Christian fails to “justify,” it’s Christian’s desperation to justify the art in order to in turn justify himself. Christian doesn’t know where to begin in discussing the art because his engagement stops at mere association, for the purposes of bolstering self-image and perceived cultural capital. This façade begins to rapidly unravel at even the slightest bit of trauma – a stolen iPhone that Christian traces back to a housing project in a bad part of Stockholm he’d rather ignore – hoisting Christian’s conception of liberal tolerance into crisis. Only by entering this story through surface outrageousness and then approaching it with the utmost ideological and structural rigor under the hood can Östlund effectively expose the inherent deceitfulness of surfaces – and the idle corruption of those who cling to them.

Okja3. “Okja” – As countless children of the ’80s have grown into film directing, the “Spielberg tribute movie” has become a fixture of contemporary cinema (look no further than “It,” the sixth-highest grossing movie of 2017). But for as much as we describe certain new movies as “Spielbergian,” few succeed in attaining that perfect alchemy of “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Jaws” – that distinct blend of nostalgia and forward-thinking, childlike wonder and adult obliviousness, sentimentality and the harsh realities of the world. Even fewer reinvent or further it in some way. But leave it to South Korean director Bong Joon-ho to shoot the Spielberg movie that Spielberg himself never had the stomach to make. Bong takes the same thematic template to darker depths – Spielberg’s fractured-but-loving view of Americana replaced with a globalist horror-show, E.T. the alien who just wanted to phone home replaced with Okja the giant, genetically-engineered pig who could only dream of another planet to go home to.

The movie was distributed and co-produced by Netflix, which was a mixed blessing. On one hand, Bong has said he was granted complete creative freedom in making the movie, aside from being forced to shoot in 4K rather than on celluloid – and it shows. Okja’s globetrotting escape from slaughter makes for perhaps the most imaginatively off-the-wall, real-world-set adventure to ever be filmed at this budget-level ($50M). It’s also unabashedly political, with the movie’s pulpy melodrama better servicing Bong’s pop Marxism than the somber, wannabe-smarter-than-I-am tone of his overrated “Snowpiercer.” With Netflix’s deep pockets and appetite for content, we may finally be reaching a moment where true auteurs are entrusted with the kind of budgets we haven’t seen since “Heaven’s Gate.”

But on the other hand, the Netflix deal prevented most around the world from seeing “Okja” theatrically – a tremendous privilege I enjoyed at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema, which projected the sole 35mm release print. When a movie fires on all cylinders at this scale, with visual effects that match the richness of its characters (and in Okja’s case, are the character), it can’t help but feel like a minor tragedy that most will experience the action on a 65” TV at best. Which isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t, as “Okja” offers sights and sounds that you currently can’t get on the big screen.

Lady Bird2. “Lady Bird” – I’m usually quite skeptical of any movie that receives virtually unanimous praise, but Greta Gerwig’s wholly assured sophomore feature (following the little-seen “Nights and Weekends,” her 2008 mumblecore collab with Joe Swanberg) is deserving of its mountain of accolades. Early murmurs of backlash seem to be taking aim at the “Sundancey” coming-of-age premise and the familiar structure – but really, do these amount to much more than a blanket dismissal of the American dramedy as passé?

Two big achievements set “Lady Bird” apart from the other Sundance movies that aspire to capture the same phase of life (though for what it’s worth, the movie premiered in September at Telluride). First, the relationship between Saoirse Ronan’s eponymous protagonist and her parents. Much of the writing on the film has focused on Lady Bird’s fraught bond with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), which feels as authentic and lived-in as movie relationships get – the “Do you like me?” moment in the thrift store is one of the best scenes of the year – but the importance of her dad (Tracy Letts) is also worth singling out. How many bad festival movies have framed the father as absent, an alcoholic, or in some way diametrically opposed to the mother? Letts’ quiet, if somber supportiveness here not only feels truer, but also informs and underscores so much of the rich dynamic between mother and daughter.

Second, the sense of place. By which I don’t mean simply that “Lady Bird” was shot in Sacramento and the filmmakers do a nice job of photographing the Tower Bridge, the trees, and the homes (though they do). Rather, Gerwig’s screenplay and direction innately understand that where one grows up informs who they are for life — often to an extent that we don’t realize. There’s a scene in which Lady Bird’s advisor comments on how vividly she writes about Sacramento, a kind of vividness that only emanates from a deep love – an affection she had never confronted in her previous dismissals of the notorious “Midwest of California.” It’s perhaps as emotional a payoff as any of the more traditional “character moments.”

Then there are the little, perceptive details – like the just-a-few-sizes-too-big clothing of Lady Bird’s first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), undoubtedly hand-me-downs from his oversized Catholic family; the perfect period musical selections, which I found perhaps a bit too pleasurable given my proximity in age to Gerwig; the touches of humanity afforded even the high school characters who would typically be portrayed as villains, like popular rich girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush); and the authentic markers of class difference, like best friend Julie’s (Beanie Feldstein) prefab, suffocatingly white-walled family apartment.

I could go on praising the performances, especially Ronan in the lead; the uncommon crispness of the edit, which nails every transition; and the ending, which subverts expectation in all the right ways. But there are some great movies whose joys and resonant facets are so broadly accessible that they do not necessarily need elaboration, and “Lady Bird” is one such movie.

Call Me by Your Name1. “Call Me by Your Name” – Critics spend a lot of time touting the experiential value of blockbusters with stories and settings that can’t actually be experienced. While I’m always up for escapism, I’m even keener on movies that transport us to real places with the kind of detail and texture that only celluloid can provide, as Luca Guadagnino does for Northern Italy in “Call Me by Your Name.” Much as the filmmaker previously did for Sicily in last year’s “A Bigger Splash,” here he takes to rustic architecture and countryside of the North with the kind of exquisite aesthetic sensibility that makes you want to simply sit out on the patio with the characters for hours on end. Pictorially, the movie feels like a harkening back to a certain kind of Western European cinema that was still commonplace in the ’80s and ’90s but is rarefied today, especially in terms of what’s exported to U.S. arthouses.

Of course, I’ve said nothing of the characters or the narrative up to this point – and it will undoubtedly irk some readers on both the left and the right that I didn’t lead on the notion that this is the “gay movie” of the year. But ideally, a Top 10 list should provide some window into a critic’s viewing predilections, and if you’ve read me for any period of time, you know that while I ultimately have a deep appreciation for story and especially character, I seldom engage with them before taking in the sights.

But character is why I found my second viewing of “Call Me by Your Name” – which I admittedly entered to “take in the Mediterranean air” once more – so rewarding. I often struggle to find the connective tissue that unites a year in film, but it is not hard to see that the two crowning performances of 2017 were both coming-of-age arcs: Ronan in “Lady Bird” and Timothée Chalamet (who also coincidentally appeared in the Gerwig film) in “Call Me by Your Name.” In what could not be more well-trod cinematic ground – a first love in the summertime – Chalamet bucks the conventions of coming out onscreen and manages both relatability and tenderness, often in the same breath or gaze. As 17-year-old Elio, he achieves both the realistic awkwardness of a teenager and the poetry of a great performance.

In fact, much like Chalamet’s portrayal, “Call Me by Your Name” is a movie of dualities, of recognizing the beauty in opposites brushing up against one another, but not intersecting to the point of contradiction. You could say this of Elio’s budding relationship with the older, more confident grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer)—which seems fated from the beginning to only last for a fleeting second—or of Oliver’s character himself.

There are some who don’t think Hammer’s performance works in the movie, but I find it deceptively skillful in terms of how it crafts an object of affection both from Elio’s perspective and on a grander level, in service of the movie’s deeply retrospective view of first love. Donning period-appropriate white, elastic-waistbanded shorts, Hammer manages both a raw, masculine sexuality within the intoxicating bubble of the film, but also a silliness and lack of self-awareness that feel befitting the ’80s. It’s as if Guadagnino wants to afford the audience the pleasure of understanding and feeling Elio’s attraction for Oliver, but also the realization that even though heartbreak will likely befall this first love—as it has a tendency to do—Elio may one day be able to affectionately laugh at the thought of Oliver getting down to Giorgio Moroder and Joe Esposito’s “Lady, Lady, Lady” on the al fresco dancefloor, just as we do. Again, the beauty lies in duality.

And then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who as Elio’s father delivers a monologue for the ages, late in the movie. Taken mostly verbatim from the source novel by André Aciman, it’s a father-to-son speech of uncommon elegance for a film, though perhaps one can simply sense Stuhlbarg’s theater training in his impeccable, emotional delivery, which at once offers a punch to the gut and a sage glimmer of hope. Not only does the sequence speak to the strength of the actor’s performance, but also the way Guadagnino knows exactly where to place the movie’s strongest emotional beats. Given the luxurious, sleepy pace of the summer, the filmmaker’s masterfully deliberate pacing often goes unnoticed.

Making an annual top 10 list is sometimes a fool’s errand in that it’s impossible to know which films will stick with you most in a decade or two, let alone endure in the popular conscience. But when I think back on the year 2017 in film, “Call Me by Your Name” feels the most timeless, the most likely to be revisited repeatedly by cinephiles for both its form and its emotion. Maybe that assessment will turn out to be wildly incorrect, but I do know for certain that I’ll always want to go back for the Northern Italian sunshine and, yes, those succulent peaches.