10. “The Death of Louis XIV”
Albert Serra’s remarkable period piece about the final, grotesque days of the French monarch is the best window into the alienation of wealth since “Marie Antoinette.” The legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud delivers his most evocative performance since “The 400 Blows,” as a mass of labored breathing and somber expressions as the king slowly fades away, his minions scurrying about in vain attempts to find cures.
Originally envisioned as an installation piece, Serra’s evocative work is like a painting come to life, frayed at the edges and rich with unspoken feelings. It’s also a canny window into the corrosive effects of power, and why no amount of affluence or authority can shield a feeble body from falling apart.
The story of a lower-class father attempting to raise his young son may not sound like groundbreaking material, but “Menashe” puts that bittersweet formula into an exciting new context. Shot exclusively in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community in Borough Park with a script almost entirely spoken in Yiddish, the narrative debut of cinematographer and documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein has the precision of an ethnographic experiment. The movie’s setting is insular, and features a cast of real-life Hasidim riffing on the traditions that govern their everyday lives, but mines an emotional accessibility that extends far beyond the neighborhood’s borders.
Courtesy of Sundance
The title character is portrayed by Menashe Lustig, a gentle, portly figure whose circumstances inspired the melancholic plot. His performance is so heartbreaking in its authenticity that the movie often borders on documentary, and yet it maintains an engaging pace as it builds to a climax around the character’s attempt to salvage his failing personal life. More than a first-rate dose of neorealism, “Menashe” provides a moving look at the conflicts between personal values and traditional expectations of an unsympathetic society. While the media contemplates whether we’ve forgotten about middle America, “Menashe” is evidence that the country’s most misunderstood survivors are often hiding in plain sight.
8. “The Ornithologist”
Mind-blowing in the best possible way, “The Ornithologist” may not work for everyone, but those willing to embrace it will find confirmation of a genuine film artist. The fifth narrative feature of Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues continues the queer soul-searching of “To Die Like a Man,” but reaches for even more ambitious territory with equally confounding and enlightening results. A favorite in certain diehard cinephile sects, Rodrigues deserves to find some new fans with this remarkable oddity.
Locarno Film Festival
The movie depicts the Homeric voyage of a modern-day ornithologist named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who inexplicably transforms into a revered Catholic saint after getting lost in the woods. The details of his journey are difficult to describe and even stranger to experience, but this is a beautiful, haunting movie that will keep viewers talking as they search for meaning in its enigmatic depths. Rodrigues captures the saga of a man trapped between two identities, unsure how to reemerge from his deep funk in a strange new world, but the ending suggests that he’ll give it a shot anyway. It’s the ultimate survivor’s tale for an era steeped in confusion.
7. “The Florida Project”
Sean Baker makes charming, personal movies about neglected Americans, miraculously transforming grim neorealism into audacious crowdpleasers. “The Florida Project” crystalizing the formula he’s explored over the past decade with “Take Out,” “Prince of Broadway,” and “Tangerine,” all fascinating gambles in their own rights. Baker’s loose, endearing followup to “Tangerine” is another deep dive into impoverished America from the inside out, with the astonishing performance of a six-year-old girl (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) in a free-flowing narrative that largely inhabits the limitations of her perspective.
“The Florida Project”“The Florida Project” unfolds almost exclusively within the constraints of a budget motel on the outskirts of Orlando. The purple-hued Magic Castle Motel exists in Disney World’s decrepit backyard, and provides a very different sort of playground for the kids within its confines. The child’s mother (Bria Vinaite, another genuine discovery) is a 22-year-old single woman drifting through a reckless existence, living hand to mouth with only her defiant attitude and the paternal motel manager (Willem Dafoe at his warmest) to keep her going. This is Baker’s filmmaking ingenuity in a nutshell: He imports marginalized circumstances into breezy, entertaining formulas where you’d least expect them. “The Florida Project” spotlights the plight of the “hidden homeless,” but never caves to didacticism; it lives inside their world, allowing the child’s magical understanding of her circumstances to transform the struggle into a riveting adventure tale that Disney could never match.
6. “Good Time”
In the opening minutes of Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Good Time,” Robert Pattinson bursts into the room and it’s clear he’s trying something different. With his black hair tousled above an angry stare and one silvery earring, he’s a scruffy, irrepressible ball of fury, eager to fix a problem and on the verge of making it worse. He’s abrasive, clumsy and a little bit fearsome. In other words: He’s in a Safdie brothers movie.
Anyone familiar with the sibling directors from their NYC junkie drama “Heaven Knows What” or gritty urban comedy “Daddy Longlegs” knows how the brothers have assembled a universe of grimy characters enmeshed in bizarre, dangerous circumstances that can seem both naturalistic and surreal. With “Good Time,” they transform that focus into a Kafkaesque heist movie, populated by maniacal characters careening through Queens on a doom-laden quest over the course of a single tumultuous night. It’s a wild, twisty maze of misbegotten plans by desperate people, and exists within the confines of their aggressive desire to get the job done. As Niklas, Pattinson delivers his very best role, but Benny Safdie holds his own opposite the veteran actor as Niklas’ mentally challenged brother. (Any suggestion of a reductive or insensitive performance on the actor-director’s part is quickly assuaged by Safdie’s quiet, measured turn.) When Niklas bursts into a mental hospital to shelter his brother from a psychiatrist’s prying questions, Nick listens to his brother as they head for the exit and embrace. The jarring scene is filled with equal measures of chaos and affection. Again: It’s a Safdie brothers movie. More American genre movies should feel so alive.
5. “Phantom Thread”
Throughout one of the most exciting careers of any American artist to emerge in the past 20 years, Paul Thomas Anderson has typically operated in two modes: Beguiling riffs on history (“Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) and peculiar, intimate character studies that transform emotional experiences into haunting, dreamlike journeys. “Phantom Thread” fuses those tendencies into a satisfying whole. Daniel Day-Lewis’ obsessive dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock is a fussy creation for the ages, but he finds his match in a young would-be muse (Vicky Krieps) who’s savvier than he anticipated.
Marriage counselors will be studying this odd couple for decades. Anderson’s most accessible work in years is proof of a filmmaker operating at the height of his powers.
4. “A Fantastic Woman”
There are few breakthrough performances for trans women in the history of cinema, which makes Daniela Vega’s heartbreaking performance in “A Fantastic Woman” an essential piece of film history: As with “Gloria,” Chilean director Sebastian Lelio delivers a mesmerizing portrait of defiant femininity, this time with Vega as a transgender woman reeling from the death of her older male partner. While his family mostly rejects her, she maintains her independent spirit through a series of hardships while figuring out a way forward, single-handedly carrying the movie on her fierce gaze. The title does not lie: In “A Fantastic Woman,” Vega gives us just that in every scene. The movie creeps up on you: It’s a seemingly straightforward relationship drama until it takes a tragic turn, then lingers in her world as she attempts to stabilize herself as an outsider with no support system aside from her own confidence.
As she weathers transphobia from her lover’s grief-stricken relatives and attempts to find some form of solace in her music, this fantastic woman is an instant icon whose plight illustrates a society trapped between progressiveness and fear of change. She can’t resolve that conundrum, but the continuity of her experience suggests a way forward by simply soldiering on.
3. “Lady Bird”
In “Lady Bird,” an angst-riddled teen copes with her restrictive Catholic high school, bickers with her doting parents, endures her first heartbreak, and dreams of escaping to a far-off place. There’s nothing fresh about that premise, but writer-director Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical riff on her Sacramento upbringing elevates it to a new wavelength beaming with wit and insight. Anchored by Saoirse Ronan in a spunky lead role that registers as her very best, the movie confirms that Gerwig’s plucky screen presence translates into a richly confident filmmaking voice. “Lady Bird” is both snarky and sincere — a touching, markedly feminine ode to growing up that never takes its familiarity for granted. Gerwig earns the ability to make this rite-of-passage saga her own. Post-9/11 anxieties never felt so bittersweet.
“Foxtrot” spends its first half hour as a bleak drama about distraught parents mourning their dead son, and then it becomes something entirely different. Israeli director Samuel Maoz’s brilliant followup to his debut “Lebanon,” which took place within the confines of a tank, deals with a very different kind of confinement — being imprisoned by an ambivalent world, and forced to deal with whatever random tragedies it chooses to dish out. Despite those dreary overtones, Maoz pierces his milieu with flashes of perceptive satire, an animated interlude, and a touching, romantic finale, all of which adds up to a wonderfully unexpected hodgepodge of insights into intergenerational Israeli frustrations.
It starts with middle-aged couple Michael (the ever-reliable Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler, in a fiery turn) being visited by a pair of soldiers bearing the bad news that their son has been killed in the line of duty. But that’s only the first act of a story that later shifts to a remote Israeli outpost in which the malaise of daily military life sets the stage for a number of fascinating twists. By turns sad, funny, and profound, “Foxtrot” is above all one of the most unpredictable movies in recent memory.
1. “Get Out”
What’s left to be said about the year’s most exciting wakeup call? Writer-director Jordan Peele catapulted beyond his sketch-comedy roots for a category-defining work about race and privilege in American society that moviegoers had never truly wrestled with before. The outrageous premise — rich white liberals brainwashing black people to be their mind slaves — finds its match in the legitimate foundations of a psychological thriller, as well as the sobering portrait of a black man grappling with a troubled past and uncertain present.
The movie’s observations about awkward race relations are funny because they’re true (even as the plot takes its wildest turns) and terrifying for the same reasons, often leaving viewers uncertain if they should laugh or contemplate the scarier implications of the punchlines. That’s the zeitgeist in a nutshell. Any history book on the American mood in 2017 will forever take its cues from “Get Out.”