At a time when the world is changing at an unquantifiable pace, when menacing world powers threaten everything we hold dear, we often look to the movies to bring the chaos into focus. In 2017, even the best escapism came with a dose of harsh truths about struggles facing civilization today, and the best movies went to places woefully ignored by the culture at large. When the mood of the moment is #resist and the future often looks more like a fake-news frenzy than the audacity of hope, the resilience of this art form is in sync with the zeitgeist.
I stand by the credo that anyone who thinks this was a bad year for the movies simply hasn’t seen enough of them. As the years progress, my own year-end tallies continue to grow. I offered 16 highlights at the end of 2016; here are 17 for 2017. Watch them all, try to make the case that movies are a dying art form, and embrace the opportunity to be wrong.
If Grumpy Cat is the blockbuster franchise of cat videos, “Kedi” is the genre’s “Citizen Kane.” Though technically a sophisticated, artful documentary from Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, “Kedi” will automatically find devout fans among anyone who delights at all things feline. (I’m an unapologetic member of that club.) Shot throughout the streets of Istanbul, the movie takes the inherent appeal of its subject and goes beyond the call of duty.
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Cat lovers may be content with a mashup of feline faces bounding around the city, but hell, YouTube’s got that covered. “Kedi” isolates the profound relationship between man and cat by exploring it across several adorable cases in a city dense with examples. The result is at once hypnotic and charming, a movie with the capacity to elicit both the OMG-level effusiveness of internet memes and existential insights. It’s a delicate reminder that even the simple pleasures of life stem from philosophical convictions.
16. “Personal Shopper”
In Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Kristen Stewart was a supporting character; in their latest collaboration, she’s the center of the show. As Maureen, a young American living in Paris and coping with the recent death of her twin brother, the actress carries every scene through a series of peculiar circumstances that may or may not involve supernatural phenomena. This is a measured, richly ambiguous work about the subjective process of grief — masquerading as a ghost story — that experiments with the minutiae of film language as only a master of the medium can do.
In one of the best suspense sequences in modern memory, Assayas uses the ephemera of modern communication to show just how much personal devices can become the stuff of solipsistic nightmares: “Alive or dead?” Stewart’s character texts back to her unknown stalker, riding a train in silence, and the ellipsis leading up to the reply is the essence of 21st-century terror. But the movie’s also an elegant embodiment of one woman’s attempt to move beyond her deepest sorrows, and it’s rich with ambiguous clues to her emotional state. Stewart’s inscrutable face is the engine that brings this enigmatic wonder to life.
15. “Faces Places”
The O.G. of the French New Wave delivers another wondrous late-period essay film, this time in collaboration with photographer J.R., a sunglasses-clad photographer whose style is such an obvious Jean-Luc Godard rip-off that Madame Varda calls him on it. But as “Faces Places” makes clear throughout, appearances can be deceiving. J.R.’s actually a brilliant photographer whose large-scale images bring marginalized faces to the foreground, a motif that has resonated for Varda ever since her working-class portrait “La Pointe Courte” in 1959. The duo’s collaborative project finds them roaming the French countryside, unearthing the lives of ordinary people and celebrating their virtues.
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It’s also an excuse for Varda to dance, sing, riff on mortality, and talk smack about Godard. Cinephiles will delight at seeing this legend more sprightly than ever, cane and dwindling eyesight be damned, but Varda’s creative drive should inspire even those unfamiliar with her work — and provides an ideal starting point for exploring it.
14. “A Ghost Story”
The main special effect in “A Ghost Story” is older than the movies: After a young Dallas musician (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash, he returns as a ghost to the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara), and he’s draped in a sheet with hastily cutout eyeholes, like some misbegotten Halloween costume. Yet writer-director David Lowery channels the absurdity of this setup into an extraordinary mood piece that amounts to his best movie yet. Lowery has quickly developed a filmography that mines for awe in solitude, and here delivers a cosmic variation on that theme, exploring the ineffable relationship between people and the meaning they give to the places that have value in their lives. From the horrors of gentrification and urban development to the pithy obsessions that distract from deeper truths, “A Ghost Story” offers bountiful themes. Both formally ambitious and emotionally accessible, the movie transforms its main stunt into a savvy dose of minimalism with existential possibilities that cut deep.
13. “Rat Film”
“Before the world became the world, it was an egg. Inside the egg was dark. The rat nibbled the egg and let the light in. And the world began.” That opening stanza in Theo Anthony’s remarkable nonfiction endeavor “Rat Film” sets the stage for a movie that brilliantly defies categorization. Anthony’s feature-length debut careens from scientific observation and historical overview to spiritual inquiry with a freewheeling approach that never ceases to surprise, even as it maintains a cogent thesis. Both a chronicle of the rat infestation plaguing the city of Baltimore and a broader assessment of the class problems plaguing its development, “Rat Film” manages to say something real and immediate in a fresh and inventive voice.
It’s a messy madhouse, an allegorical thriller about the destruction of the Earth, and a showcase for Jennifer Lawrence that dwarfs everything that came before it. Darren Aronofsky’s most audacious movie is at once utterly absurd and a bracing narrative feat, “The Exterminating Angel” with an apocalyptic twist. Seemingly engineered to divide audiences, Aronofsky’s pulsating story about a mysterious couple entertaining enigmatic house guests who won’t seem to go away is a claustrophobic rollercoaster, and all the more miraculous because it was produced by a Hollywood studio.
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Love it or hate it, “mother!” has an undeniable singularity of vision that signals the end of days with a naughty sense of play. It reaches for extremes rarely seen in American movies produced on this scale, and it’s easy to see why — Aronofsky never takes the easy route, and we’re all the better for it.
11. “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library”
At 87, Frederick Wiseman continues to deliver some of the most ambitious looks at American society today. It’s easy to imagine a 90-minute salute to the NYPL filled with worshipful talking heads and gentle music cues, but Wiseman has no interest in that. His nearly three-and-a-half hour feat is an epic rumination on educational enlightenment. The filmmaker — who also edited and did the camerawork — drops in on board meetings, intellectual public speaking engagements, inspiring musical performances, and classroom sessions, illustrating the extent to which the library system provides foundational elements that keep society’s brains in check.
As intelligence itself often seems like it’s under attack by the government, “Ex Libris” is a resounding illustration of the building blocks that made civilization worthy of existence in the first place.