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The 25 Best Movie Moments of 2017, According to IndieWire Critic David Ehrlich

Our senior film critic picks his 25 favorite films of the year, and highlights their most memorable moments.

25 best films of 2017 david ehrlich

13. “Wonderstruck”

WonderStruck

“Wonderstruck”

Myles Aronowitz

Memorable Moment: Don’t be fooled that Todd Haynes’ latest feature is a hyper-faithful adaptation of a half-illustrated children’s novel by “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” author Brian Selznick — “Wonderstruck” is nothing if not a Todd Haynes movie. And it’s an exquisite one, at that. Fresh off the greatest triumph of his career (that would be “Carol”), he’s still operating near the peak of his powers, returning with an immaculately crafted fable about the ways in which people of all ages learn to break out of their bodies and connect with the world. The film’s standout sequence is a testament to that grand idea, as two deaf pre-teens wander through the streets of New York City, one in 1927 and the other in 1977.  Thanks to cinematographer Ed Lachman, each side of the story is stunning on its own, but the passage’s full power exists in the space between them — each of these kids follows the treasure maps of their personal histories in search of somewhere they might belong, only for them both to wind up in the same place.

12. “Okja”

Tilda Swinton, "Okja"

“Okja”

Netflix

Memorable Moment: The most memorable part of “Okja” was the thunderous booing of the Cannes press corp when they realized the film was being projected in the wrong aspect ratio. It’s a testament to Bong Joon-ho’s adorably devastating opus about a girl and her superpig that the movie was able to survive its rocky start and go on to be a major highlight at the festival. If anyone in that audience was holding a grudge, it went away for good during the ingeniously choreographed chase sequence that caps off the first act, Bong matching the emotional kinetics of peak Spielberg as his young heroine runs after her kidnapped pet. The scene has more to it than many entire movies (including a subplot about an apathetic driver, Paul Dano as a non-violent third party, a random girl whose passion for selfies trumps her own personal safety, etc.), and Bong ties it all together in a magnificent bow covered in Okja poop. If you didn’t already think he was one of the world’s best filmmakers, you probably do now.

11. “A Quiet Passion”

“A Quiet Passion”

Memorable Moment: It’s hard to believe that no one had ever made a movie about Emily Dickinson before. On the other hand, you try making an exciting biopic about a reclusive virgin who spent most of her life holed up in her family’s Amherst home (where she suffered from agonizing bouts of Bright’s disease and refused to greet anyone who came calling for her). For the great Terence Davies, however, the things that made Emily Dickinson so off-putting to other filmmakers are the things that made her utterly irresistible.

Where other people may have seen a story without any conflict, the “Distant Voices, Still Lives” filmmaker recognized Dickinson’s experience for all of its pleasure and all of its pain, for all of its outsized smallness, for all of its solitude and sensitivities. He recognized himself in her, and in doing so also recognized that her life would make the stuff of great cinema, because his life always had. “A Quiet Passion” is as autobiographical as anything Davies as ever made, and you can see him reflected through even the film’s tiniest details. In one scarring aside, Dickinson (a perfect Cynthia Nixon) learns that her bread has won second place in a local baking contest. “Second place…” she says, as though she’s just learned that an old friend has died. The pity disgusts her. She has a skin missing that should protect her from the world, and in this moment we realize just how sensitive she is. The same gift that made her one of our country’s most brilliant poets could also make her one of its most miserable people.

10. “Phantom Thread”

"Phantom Thread"

“Phantom Thread”

Memorable Moment: The highlight of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest joint comes at the very end, and the movie isn’t out yet, so we’ll have to leave it as a tease for now: A meal goes wrong, and then maybe it doesn’t. You’ll know it when you see it. Needless to say, if this is truly the end for Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s going out on a high note.

9. “The Post”

“The Post”

Memorable Moment: There are a handful of moments in “The Post” that are as perfect as anything that Steven Spielberg has ever dreamed up, in no small part because he shoots his journalistic drama about the Pentagon Papers with such propulsive energy that you half expect Indiana Jones to show up and whip President Nixon. But the film’s standout beat is a quiet one: As Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) sits down at his typewriter to change the world, the printing press groans to life in the basement below him and the whole building starts to heave. The power of journalism is literally causing the earth to move under his feet. Yeah, it sounds kinda hokey, but in the moment it feels so damn good.

8. “Faces Places”

“Faces Places”

Memorable Moment: Agnès Varda may not see as well as she used to, but her creative vision has never been clearer. If the magnificently moving, funny, life-affirming, and altogether wonderful “Faces Places” (or, in its original language, the much smoother “Visages Villages”) is to be the 88-year-old Belgian auteur’s last film, it will be because of her failing eyesight or the inexplicable difficulty she’s had with funding her work, and not because she’s run out of things to say or novel ways to say them.

But nothing lasts forever. Not people, not photographs, and certainly not friendships. That sense of ephemerality crystalizes in the film’s heartbreaking final sequence, which plunges into the depths of cinema history before eventually returning with the achingly bittersweet truth that life is often less fulfilling than what you see in the movies. All the same, Varda’s soul-stirring “Faces Places” is an essential reminder that it doesn’t always have to be.

7. “Lady Bird”

“Lady Bird”

A24

Memorable Moment: It can be headache-inducing to distill this 93-minute avalanche of perfect beats into a single moments that encapsulates why it’s so great. Then again, how do you top the scene where Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein are lying down in a car and crying their eyes out to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash?” But the ultimate takeaway belongs to none other than Tracy Letts, depressed but unfailingly gallant as the “good cop” among Lady Bird’s parents. A supporting character in his own life (and virtually a background character in this film), he tries to hold the family together, to keep everyone as happy as possible by filtering what they know about each other. It’s a full-time job, but somebody’s gotta do it. And then one of his daughter’s ex-boyfriends casually drops a bombshell bit of news, prompting Letts to reflexively utter an expletive, his delivery capturing the tone of the entire movie in just four short letters.

6. “Columbus”

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Kogonada's Columbus

“Columbus”

Memorable Moment: Set entirely in the overcast city of Columbus, Indiana, a small town that’s renowned as an unexpected mecca of modernist architecture, “Columbus” unfolds like a remake of “Garden State” as directed by Yasujirō Ozu. The gentle plot begins with the collapse of a famous architect, and the conflicted son who rushes to his bedside. Jin (Cho) isn’t in town long before he encounters Casey (“Edge of Seventeen” star Haley Lu Richardson), a smart and sensitive 19-year-old architecture nerd who’s deferred her dreams to stay with her addict mother. The local and the visitor spend much of their time together, strolling through parks and seeing the city’s attractions through the perspectives they provide one another.

Casey finds solace staring at the fluorescent rectangle that sits atop the Irwin Union Bank, while Jin sees James Stewart Polshek’s Columbus Regional Hospital as a monument to the relationship he never had with his father. “You grow up around something and it feels like nothing,” he observes. In a film about absence and modernity, it’s one of many powerful moments in which the film reflects what we have through the lens of what we’ve lost. We’re all surrounded by wonder, but few of us have the power to see it for ourselves.

5. “The Florida Project”

“The Florida Project”

Memorable Moment: The last few minutes of Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” are as striking and audacious as anything released this year. They’re also the perfect encapsulation of what makes Baker’s recent work so special. After a short lifetime spent living at a squalid Kissimmee motel in the shadow of Disney World, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is confronted with the reality that she’s going to be taken from her mother and placed into foster care. Confused and then desperate, the girl makes a break for the Magic Kingdom, sprinting into the theme park that she could never afford to visit. Baker chases Moonee with an iPhone, recalling “Tangerine” as he steals the final bits of footage for his crushing new film. A lo-fi concept executed with a master’s touch, the ending is a synecdoche for the movie as a whole: Blissful, tragic, and living in the moment like few of us ever will.

4. “Personal Shopper”

“Personal Shopper”

Memorable Moment: Reinventing the ghost story by approaching with radical directness and a singularly modern sense of self, Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” is among the most affecting depictions of the grieving process ever. And somehow, despite the fact that it includes a scene in which a phantom projectile scream-vomits hot white ectoplasm into the air above Kristen Stewart’s face, it’s also one of the most realistic. Bracingly direct one moment and stubbornly elliptical the next, “Personal Shopper” isn’t just a story about a young woman trying to connect with her brother across the beyond, it’s also a story about how technology shapes the way people remember the dead and process their absence.

Those ideas are indelibly brought to life in the film’s notorious centerpiece, in which Stewart’s character is peppered with aggressive, sexually charged SMS messages from an unknown number as she rides the Eurostar train from Paris to London and back again. Stretching between 20 minutes, two countries, and possibly into the afterlife, the episode assumes a sudden new shiver when Maureen begins to wonder if she’s texting with her brother’s ghost, or perhaps a more malevolent spirit. Mocked at Cannes when it first premiered, the sequence has already emerged as the 21st century’s purest expression of Hitchcockian suspense.

3. “A Ghost Story”

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

Memorable Moment: Far more than “that movie where Casey Affleck is under a sheet the whole time” David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” is a micro-budget movie that marries the sweep of “The Tree of Life” to the cosmic wonder of “2001: A Space Odyssey” while still making time for a Ke$ha cameo and a scene where Rooney Mara eats an entire pie in a single shot. The comically lo-fi saga of a man who dies in a car accident and then spends the rest of eternity haunting the house he once shared with his wife, “A Ghost Story” is an unforgettable exploration of time, transience, and the things that define our experience on Earth. Also, it’s an unforgettable exploration of Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in a single shot. She’s already scarfed down half of the thing before you realize what you’re witnessing, but it’s more than just a cheap stunt. In an abstract film that plays with time like it’s a busted accordion, the scene crucially shows us how long a few minutes can really feel, especially when you’re hungry or hurting.

2. “Dunkirk”

“Dunkirk”

Memorable Moment: “Virtual reality without the headset.” That’s what Nolan has called the experience of seeing this film’s aerial sequences in their proper glory, and he wasn’t kidding — “Dunkirk” is the ultimate fuck you to the idea of streaming a new movie to your phone. The director and his team customized an IMAX rig so the camera could squeeze into the cockpit of a WWII fighter plane, and the footage they captured from the sky is so transportive that every ticket should earn you frequent flier miles. One shot, in which we share a pilot’s POV as they make a crash landing on the water, singlehandedly justifies this entire portion of the film long before Nolan inevitably converges it with the other two for the rousing final act.

1. “Call Me By Your Name”

“Call Me by Your Name”

Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Memorable Moment: “Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.” It’s a crushing moment no matter how many times you watch it.

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