Cinema Fanatic’s Favorite Fifteen Films of 2017

In 2017 I watched 72 new releases, mostly in movie theaters (I am a junkie) and while there were a few films I really hated, mostly I saw a lot of films I really enjoyed. I discovered a love for documentary cinema (I saw fourteen documentaries this year!). I watched 32 new release films directed by women (with my total new-to-me directed by women clocking in at 79 this year; more on that when I do my year-end review tomorrow). For the second year in a row my favorite film of the year was not directed by a woman, but as per tradition it was also a queer romance. I am pretty easy to please. As a final reminder, I am not a fan of the term best. Film is an art that allows the viewer to bring themselves in conversation with it, and therefore what each person sees in a film will be different from what anyone else sees. This is a list of favorites and why these films resonated so with me. There are some spoilers, so beware.

I saw 11 of these 15 films at the Midtown Art Theatre so I just want to give that place a big shout out in advance. I love that theater. Between that theater for new releases and Videodrome for video rentals, my rabid cinephilia is in a good place here in Atlanta.

15. First They Killed My Father (dir. Angelina Jolie)

I’m so grateful I got to see this Netflix film on the big screen as it had some of my favorite cinematography of the year and its sound design as a method of propelling the story forward was next level. Sreymoch Sareum as Loung Ung and Kompheak Phoeung as Pa Ung give particularly heartbreaking performances as father and daughter (as do all the actors playing the Ung family). This film exquisitely capture the sights and sounds of growing up from the perspective of a young child. The way Jolie positions the camera throughout most of the film puts you squarely in Loung’s place, experiencing what she experiences. I was breathless when the film ended.

14. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)

I love a good old-fashioned romantic comedy. The studios aren’t really making them anymore, but it’s almost a good thing because now we get these indie romantic comedies that push the boundaries of the genre. Enter this film, based on the true life romance of star Kumail Nanjiani and co-writer Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani manages to be both charming and obnoxious, which is a rare feat I think, and his chemistry with co-star Zoe Kazan sizzles. The film also features wonderful supporting turns from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano (it speaks volumes about this film that I didn’t hate Romano; a screen presence I usually cannot stand). I hope we get more rom-coms with this much life and heart for years to come.

13. Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi (My Happy Family) (dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß)

I’m so glad I squeezed this film in last-minute before the end of the year. I really loved this directing duo’s previous film In Bloom, and this film did not disappoint. It follows Manana (Ia Shughliashvili), a 50-year-old woman living in Georgia (the country) who decides to leave her large family and live in an apartment on her own for the first time in her life. The way the film allows Manana to relish in the things that bring her joy like cake and classical music and playing guitar is wondrous to behold.

12. Beach Rats (dir. Eliza Hittman)

Eliza Hittman is one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers. She’s got a great sense of geography, setting all her films in the same dilapidated beachfront part of New York. Her characters feel as real as her settings and her strong point of view, which hones in on the voracity of youth, as well as its oscillation between endless possibilities and utter hopelessness is absolutely captivating. Newcomer Harris Dickinson shines as Frankie, a young man who hasn’t quite figured out his sexuality as he explores both his lust for women and the world of online cruising and nighttime trysts with older men. The beauty of this film – it was shot by French cinematographer Hélène Louvart in 16mm – has stayed with me all year long. As has one particularly devastating haircut.

11. 120 battements par minute (dir. Robin Campillo)

Based on Robin Campillo’s real experience as part of ACT UP Paris in the 1990s, this film manages to make what is mostly activist meetings positively riveting from start to finish. While the film focuses on the group dynamics of activism, the heart of the film lies in the relationship between Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois). We see their relationship blossom from its initial spark, all the way through Sean’s death from AIDS. Campillo doesn’t shy away from anything, from intimate caresses to erotic and haunting sex and frank conversations about impending death. This film has it all: life, activism, romance, pain, joy, sex, and death.

10. Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele)

The first time I went to see this movie I had to wait for another screening because the one I had picked out was sold out. My screening was nearly sold out as well. I highly recommend seeing this film with an audience; part of its joy is hearing those around you react to it. I saw it again a second time with a different kind of crowd (first time was at the multiplex, second time was at the Midtown) and it was equally as satisfying, albeit a very different experience. Daniel Kaluuya gives a stunning lead performance in this ensemble psychological horror film that looks at American racism (even that oh so casual kind from well-meaning white liberals) square in the face and lays it all bare for us to view.

9. Lucky (dir. John Carroll Lynch)

I got to see this delightful directorial debut from actor John Carroll Lynch (not the Zodiac killer) at SXSW and I sure wish more people had been able to see it. It seems like it came in and out of theaters way too fast this fall. Featuring the final screen performance (and only his second lead ever) of national treasure Harry Dean Stanton (who actually inspired the story as well), it follows 90-year-old atheist Lucky as he comes to terms with his own life and mortality. The film also features a standout performance from David Lynch. We were lucky we had Harry Dean Stanton for as long as we did and this film is a fitting final tribute to this heavyweight of the craft.

8. Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (dir. Angela Robinson)

I didn’t really know what to expect with this film. Its teaser campaign certainly caught my eye and I will see pretty much anything for Rebecca Hall, so of course I went to see this. What I got was a wonderfully erotic, romantic, and decidedly queer love story. The chemistry between its three stars Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, and Bella Heathcote is off the charts. This film was a wide release and I delight in thinking many an average filmgoer went to what they thought was a run of the mill biopic of the creators of Wonder Woman and then left slightly queerer than when they entered the theater. While it may stray from the true story a bit (what biopic doesn’t?), its compassion for its characters and desire to portray a complex polyamorous relationship is aided by director Robinson’s strong, clear vision as a filmmaker.

7. Dawson City: Frozen Time (dir. Bill Morrison)

This wonderful documentary didn’t play in Atlanta and I missed it when it played at the TCMFF earlier this year, but thankfully I was able to catch up on it via FilmStruck (which also has a dozen more of director Morrison’s earlier films) and I am so grateful. It combines two of my favorite things: documentary cinema and silent film. In fact, a good deal of the film itself feels like a silent film. It tells the story of how nearly 500 films were discovered in Dawson City in 1978, tracing the history of Dawson City during the Yukon gold rush, as well as the town’s impact on film history itself. A love letter to silent film and the joys of discovery, this is a must watch for any film fan.

6. Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun)

I loved director Ceyda Torun’s cats in Intanbul documentary so much I saw it in theaters twice! Not only a love letter to cats, it’s also an incisive look at the changing makeup of Istanbul, as well as a hymn to the healing power of cats on the human soul. If you love cats, you’ll love this movie. If you want hope for humanity, this movie will give that to you. It’s got everything you could want in a film and then some.

5. Good Time (dir. Ben Safdie & Josh Safdie)

I hadn’t seen the previous films from the Safdie brothers, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into this film, but I am a not-so-secret die-hard fan of Robert Pattinson so I saw this film opening night. I loved every last minute of its wild, unpredictable ride. Besides Pattinson’s commanding and mesmerizing lead performance, what I loved so much about this film is that I could feel its roots in films like Drive and After Hours (favorites of mine). It took the style of those films and added an emotional complexity that is absent from them. This is a film deeply rooted in emotions and humanity, a world where both those things are the heart and soul of its protagonists not just despite their illegal activities, but actually the reason for them.

4. Their Finest (dir. Lone Scherfig)

This is the film that has stuck with me the longest throughout the year and resonated the deepest. I saw it in theaters and quite liked it, but as the weeks past I found myself returning to moments of it in my head over and over. I watched it for a second time on an airplane and everything I loved about it washed over me even deeper than it did on my first watch. It loves and respects women in a way we rarely see on film these days. It shows the importance of women in the workforce, women in the film industry, women telling women’s stories, women in history. Women. Women. Women. I’ve never been a huge fan of Gemma Arterton, but her plucky charm really won me over in this film and I must give a giant shout out to my fave big screen lesbian of the year Phyl Moore (Rachael Stirling). This is a work of fiction, so let’s take a page from this film and tell more real women’s story. History has so many untold stories of women. Let them shine.

3. Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins)

My favorite audience moment this year was definitely watching Wonder Woman on opening night in a crowded theater. I had broken my foot the day before but damn it all I was gonna make it to this movie and I am so glad I did, crutches and all. What a glorious movie-going experience! I saw this movie twice in theaters and once on a plane and I was enthralled and in love with it every time. I’m not gonna lie, I wish it were a little gayer (give me my beautiful, bisexual Diana already!), but there were so many moments in this film that left me exhilarated and frankly filled with wonder. When Diana first climbs the mountain and laughs at discovering her own strength, when she gushes over a baby and tastes the joy of ice cream for the first time, when she bursts out onto the battlefield and faces down all those damn bullets. Girl yes. Gal Gadot brings the exact inner light and joy and empathy to this character that she calls for and with it she brought a joy to big blockbuster superhero movies that so many of us had been longing for. Also, Chris Pine’s butt ain’t too shabby.

2. Mudbound (dir. Dee Rees)

Another Netflix film that I was lucky enough to experience on the big screen and again I am so glad I was able to do so. Dee Rees is a cinematic poet (go watch Pariah already!) and her vision coupled with cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s uncompromising eye gave us the most visually stunning film of the year. Not only is it a sumptuous film on the surface, it is also the most emotionally resonate and politically charged film of the year. It wants you to know what kind of nation we were and still are. It wants you to look at our most glorious triumph (how many WWII films are there now???) with new eyes. It wants you to pull off your shades and see the insidious nature of racism in this country that has kept us all trapped in the mud for hundreds of years. It does not let you look away from its horrors, but just when you think it can’t get any bleaker it gives you just enough room to breathe and shows you just enough beauty and compassion and love to hope for a better future for us all.

1. God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee)

They played this trailer a lot at the Midtown and I was sure I would enjoy this film, but I had no idea how it would wrap itself around my heart and never let go. It’s a magnificently rendered romance filled with raw emotions and startling beauty. Stars Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu burn up the screen, showing a rare kind of intimacy between actors. I was filled with a rapturous joy throughout this film and left the theater absolutely breathless. I saw it twice in one week to make sure it held up and what I found on my second viewing was even more little details to savor and cherish. Even in 2017 it’s rare for queer love stories to have a happy ending and when I first saw the film I wasn’t sure our lovers were going to get one – not because of homophobia, but because of an arrested emotional development. I was downright distraught for a full twenty minutes towards the end of the film. Thankfully, the characters get their happy ending but it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood ending, rather a natural progression for a character who resisted feeling anything for far too long and another who dared to feel everything as deeply as he can. Damn straight I cried.

You can see all of the 2017 films I watched this year here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on December 31, 2017, in Top List and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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