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42 Directors Pick Their Favorite Movies of 2017, Including Denis Villeneuve, Guillermo del Toro, and More

Films by del Toro, Luca Guadagnino, Sean Baker, Edgar Wright and Villeneuve are on most top tens, but who made their lists? From Almodovar to Zobel, 42 top directors write about what they loved in 2017.

Angela Robinson (“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”)

Everything Everything

“Everything, Everything”

My New Year’s resolution is 50/50 x 2020, an intersectional movement to create balance and equity in our workplaces – to this end, my list for 2017 contains the following AMAZING films

“Get Out,” directed by Jordan Peele
“Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins
“Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees
“Call Me By Your Name,” directed by Luca Guadagnino
“Girls Trip,” directed by Malcolm Lee
“The Shape of Water,” directed by Guillermo del Toro
“Everything Everything,” directed by Stella Meghie
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” directed by Rian Johnson
“Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig
“Step,” directed by Amanda Lipitz

Matt Ross (“Captain Fantastic”)

Thelma

“Thelma”

The Orchard

This year I’m only going to list films that moved me on a deep level. Not in any particular order:

“Phantom Thread”: Last year I mentioned in passing (when referencing his Radiohead music video, “Daydreaming”) that I think Paul Thomas Anderson is the most exciting American filmmaker working today. This film just re-confirms that. I’m still processing what this film is “about:” the mystery of love, the impossibility of understanding a relationship from the outside (that is – if one is not in it)? Regardless, it’s a sensorial delight, a beguiling story that hums with mystery (the human condition kind, not the narrative kind). It cast a spell that I don’t fully understand and that hasn’t left me for days after seeing it.

“Thelma”: I’m a fervent and longtime admirer of Joachim Trier. There is such beautiful rawness in all his work. This film is claustrophobic and haunting, delving into a world of the supernatural – new territory for him. It’s aching, painful and beautiful in equal measures. There is an image involving a child that I still can’t shake.

“Raw”: See “Thelma” above (As both these films are coming-of-age stories featuring the “awakening,” sexual and otherwise, of young women). This is among the boldest filmmaking I saw this year. Erotic, disturbing, and continuously surprising – I had no idea where it was going. It was also fantastically inspiring – Julia Ducournau reminded me of how audacious a film can be.

“The Shape of Water”: How rare to see a fairy tale for adults. Fairy tales, if they are films, are almost always morality tales for children. Pixar movies are brilliant and they frequently make me weep, but seeing this, a fully realized vision with extraordinary production, creature, and costume design, not to mention the work of Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael Shannon – and made for adults – is profound on another level. This is the work of an artist at the height of his powers. A humanist triumph. I bow down. All Hail Guillermo del Toro.

“A Ghost Story”: If there was a film this year with more soul – please show it to me. Such a quiet and simple meditation; it’s intimate and expansive, all at once. I’m not sure why exactly, but it also gave me hope in humanity. Exquisite filmmaking by David Lowery.

“The Square”: Ruben Östlund again builds complex, hilarious, true, and painful moments out of the quotidian interactions we all have many times a day. The scene in which the museum’s wealthy contributors are treated to a performance art piece is among the most provocative and complex I saw this year. Rather than focusing on the intimacy of a marriage (as in Force Majeure), this is an art world satire (though it also delves into contemporary culture in general). But I found it every bit as insightful and stimulating and wise.

“Lady Macbeth”: There is such an admirable austerity to the storytelling. Director William Oldroyd trusted the silences, trusted the audience to see (and feel) every moment of actress Florence Pugh’s slow transformation from victim/slave to master of her destiny. Ms. Pugh illuminated this journey masterfully – in turn transparent, opaque, vulnerable and psychopathic. What could have been nothing more than melodrama was, for me, an immensely satisfying exploration of empowerment and self-realization.

Benny Safdie (“Good Time”)

Nathan for You Finding Frances

“Nathan for You”

Comedy Central

I am just going to include a couple of moments of inspiration that really knocked my socks off (ones that are probably not on other top 10 lists):

Nathan Fielder’s show “Nathan for You” on Comedy Central has always been a source of inspiration, but two episodes in this fourth season reached heights I never thought possible. The first was “The Anecdote” and it is about an appearance Nathan has on Jimmy Kimmel. Nathan methodically research hours “celebrity” interviews as preparation for his upcoming appearance. He finds common themes and punchlines in many of them leading him to come up with the “perfect” anecdote. The only problem is it is completely fabricated. To fix this he methodically spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the story true. Step by step the whole thing needs to happen to Nathan in order for the anecdote to sound genuine. What this episode says about performance and its basis in reality is so inspiring. When you finally see the anecdote performed on live tv at the end, you can see the subtleties of acting that could only be achieved because of the preparation and “realism” of the events.”

The second episode in the season was its mind bending finale, “Finding Frances.” I could write so much about this specific episode, but it’s better for you to just watch it. Here Fielder switches the entire style of the show to a road/mystery documentary searching for one of the characters of his show’s long lost lover. It starts out as kind of lark, but the deeper Fielder dives into the life of this man; the deeper the show gets. We see humanity in the moments of frailty and we get to a place of understanding humanity that is truly new. If that weren’t enough Fielder goes into the nature of why even create something at all! He focus the camera on himself and questions his own existence and purpose. Finding Frances overall is around 80 minutes and it is something to be cherished. Thanks!

Also just watched “Stay Hungry” by Bob Rafelson … I know it’s from 1976 but its pretty incredible. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives such a touching performance and Jeff Bridges and Sally Field are top notch.

James Schamus (“Indignation”)

Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie in "Good Time"

Robert Pattinson and Benny Safdie in “Good Time”

2017. The state is that which claims a monopoly on violence. But at the same time the (white, male) citizen subject is that which has a right to bear arms – in resistance to state tyranny, and to defend itself against the depredations of those who would infringe upon the free enjoyment of its property. (The state’s monopoly on violence has become increasingly restricted to the public domain, a domain neoliberalism has shrunk to de facto non-existence, as that domain has been privatized, such that is it has become a space primarily constructed around property relations and the extraction of surplus value.) The (white) family is that which (tenuously) mediates these two regimes of violence; families, as purveyors of violent self-defense, are thus always technically “crime” families, para-state structures where state justice and private revenge comingle. The Trump family is a family, for example, but it is also the Trump Organization. It inhabits, also, now, the state. So we are confused about who justifiably wields authority, confused about where, in particular, the authority that justifies violence resides and from whence it derives. The state attacks the (deep) state; the “family” is a corporation, but one drenched in “blood” ties; the citizen subject is sole sovereign of itself, and thus a citizen of no state at all, with no rights to assert other than the ones it can personally kill for. Power now no longer seems to require ideological feints; it tells lies not to deceive but simply and brazenly to display its power to lie. It doesn’t deceive – it performs, triumphantly, its deceptions. No one suspends disbelief. Everyone is simply asked to applaud the performance. Art is thus no longer able to exercise its own unique authority over a separate aesthetic realm. It poses no alternative performative practices that undermine and might point to an alternative order to the dominant culture’s performing practices. It can now only provide a pale imitation of the subversions power itself now operates on the images and performances that once upon a time used to enforce a fake normalcy and civility as they covered up the ruling elite’s crimes.

Here, for example, a “performance” that exposes, subverts, parodies, and with grim hilarity demonstrates the ruling class’s enforcement of white supremacy as a structuring violence in support of its regime:

The “glitch” here in the seamless surface of Fox News (as racist hatemonger Jesse Watters flubs his show’s introduction), is no glitch at all. The fake, fictional authority of the news anchor (a fictional construct shared alike by CNN, MSNBC, and all the others) is interrupted when that authority is shown to be nothing but the effect of a competent reading off of the company’s teleprompter, the reader of which, when faced with no script, turns immediately into a clueless day-player, a free-agent Uber driver temporarily shorn of satellite contact with Google Maps. But then, the script returns, now shorn of its “authoritative” veneer – and the performance is now purely one of cynical, murderously hateful corporate-sponsored venom. A purely documentary moment.

This mix of fictional and documentary modalities is of course a notable feature of so much of what’s interesting in recent cinema, from all the big-budget films “based on a true story” to the more independent works that in a variety of ways tackle the breaks, cracks, and fissures of the “fictional” narrative structures that shape our actual existences (Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider,” Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet,” Craig Gillespie’s ‘I, Tonya,” James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist,” among many others). The first scene of the Safdie Brothers’ “Good Time” is exemplary in this light – no other scene I’ve watched in 2017 dealt so boldly with all these confusing and conflictual aesthetic and political conflicts. In it, a seething, developmentally disabled young man (Nick Nikas, played by the film’s co-director Benny Safdie) sits in the office of a psychiatrist (Peter Verby, in “real life” not a professional actor, but a criminal attorney), who is administering some kind of cognitive test meant to elicit from the young man some account of his own violent history and tendencies. Under the guise of soliciting therapeutic, healing self-knowledge, the psychiatrist cannot but help betray his performance to be in the service of the state and its institutional power. Shot primarily in extreme close ups, the scene first solicits our concern for the psychiatrist’s safety (Safdie’s performance is electrically on edge); but it is the state violence of the psychiatrist’s probing, and the intensity of that violence as it is revealed on Safdie’s tear-stained face, that alerts us to the film’s greater empathies, especially as the session is interrupted and the scene ended with the entrance of Nick’s brother Connie (played by Robert Pattinson), who, in the name of family, pulls his brother from the office (and into a woefully mis-executed crime). The Nikas family “organization,” brought to life in the hybrid documentary-fiction language of the Safdies, never had a chance against the powers serving the crime family currently in the White House, but the reality of their resistance, as evidenced in Benny Safdie’s tears, is an eloquent reminder of what’s at stake in the current battles waged within the images we circulate, and the battles hardly visible but no less real.

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