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Critic Steve Prokopy Names Best Narrative, Documentary Films of 2017

I’m the damn fool who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of… lists, and that’s because I’m often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last few weeks of December. Mostly, it’s stuff that others have told me is worth checking out, that I either missed when it came out in Chicago or the films simply never came out locally. I also tend to do a great deal of re-watching in that timeframe, primarily in an effort to solidify my top 10.

As of this writing, I saw 475 films in 2017 (within 10 titles of my personal best), either in a theater or via screener—from Monster Trucks to Father Figures (both of which, surprisingly, failed to make the list). This tally does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (often as restored prints, but not always). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn’t make the list.

Also as I do every year, I’ve separated the Best Documentaries list from narratives because I want an excuse to call extra attention to a whole other group of worthy films (20 this year) that might go unnoticed on my main list. Plus, it’s always seemed strange to me to mix docs and narratives; the same way you don’t usually see fiction and nonfiction books shelved together in a book store. I value them equally, however.

I was genuinely shocked at how many great movies didn’t make my Top 10, or even my Top 20, as I was assembling this list. I often feel that after the first 10, the numbers don’t mean as much, and that’s certainly true this year.

I say this every year, but I’ll say it again: If you think a list of 50 films is annoyingly excessive (last year, I listed 60, so I’m getting better), feel free to stop reading at 30, or 20, or 10. (For the record, I also believe 50 titles is indulgent.) But I have faith you’ll find ways of dealing with it.

I’ve included sections of my original reviews of my Top 10 films. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for purchases, streaming, rentals, or best of all, going to the theater and actually checking these films out the old-school way. Quite a few of these are still in theaters, and if they are, that’s where you should view them; there are also a couple of titles that will make their way to you in January.

2017 has been an interesting year for more reasons than I want to consider, and a great deal of the frustration, anxiety, fear, and outrage has been reflected in the movies we watched; that’s remarkable considering that most of the films were made before the world became a fiery pit of despair. Makes you wonder how 2018’s most memorable movies will make us feel.

Alright, enough preamble. Here is my humbly submitted Top 50 best narrative features and Top 20 best documentaries of 2017. Please enjoy, discuss, debate…

50 Best Narrative Features of 2017

Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre

10. The Disaster Artist

The question I’ve been asked the most of late has been a variation of “Will those unfamiliar with writer-director Tommy Wiseau’s bafflingly terrible, wholly entertaining film The Room be able enjoy and appreciate director-star James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of that cult classic?” And I feel confident that the answer is “Yes,” for the same reason I believe that those who have yet to see The Room would enjoy actor Greg Sestero’s endlessly informative memoir, “The Disaster Artist” (co-written by Tom Bissell). Both the book and the film are not simply an account/re-creation of the making of The Room. Instead, they tell the story of two Hollywood dreamers struggling to make it as actors and becoming the greatest of friends in the process. The Room was an extension of their friendship, which the rest of the world just happened to fall in love with…more or less. Like Wiseau, The Disaster Artist is something you experience and enjoy. If you’ve never seen The Room, don’t try to figure out the phenomenon; simply enjoy witnessing the creating of it. And if you are, in fact, a Room devotee, prepare to laugh harder than you have ever laughed in your life.

9. The Florida Project

In writer-director Sean Baker’s blazingly true-to-life work, he once again working with first-time actors, the movie is set in The Magic Castle, one of the many pastel-colored, roadside, budget motels in Kissimmee, Florida on the highway leading toward Disney World. It is there that six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince, both adorable and a true terror) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live day to day. The motel is managed by Bobby, in a next-level performance by Oscar frontrunner Willem Dafoe, an actor who has made a career of never repeating himself or avoiding an acting challenge, in this case surrounding himself with untrained actors who guide his performance far more than he steers them in certain directions. Baker has a true gift, not just for finding people and places who simply never appear on the big screen or have films made about their lives. He has the purest, most empathetic heart of any filmmaker I can think of when it comes to bringing fresh eyes to an age-old lifestyle: In this case, the hidden homeless that surround the family-friendly Disney paradise. Baker makes films like no one else, and they are as vital to understanding America as anything you’ll see in this or most other years. The Florida Project will win you with compassion and warmth, while simultaneously shaking you to your core.

8. mother!

You don’t so much watch mother!, the latest from writer-director Darren Aronofsky, as you endure it, and I’m not saying that in an entirely negative fashion. It actually seems specifically made in such a way that there are different stages where you’ll either bail on the film entirely and hate it from that point forward, or you throw your shoulder into it and push your way to the end. And if you make it to the end relatively unscathed, you’ll have a hell of a story to tell your friends. I was positively riveted by the sensation of watching this film, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to many of you (how’s that for a review?).

I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it at home, if only because you’d have the ability to turn it on and off or take breaks. To fully appreciate the mother! experience, you must see it in a theater, where you are forced to commit. You either engage with it or you run screaming from the theater. There is no in between, and there are certainly no breaks. If you relish new sensations and a fresh supply of new fodder for anxiety-fueled dreams, then put your faith in Aronofsky (as you likely have many times before) and take this trip.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Every once in a while, we need a film that takes unfiltered, but finely focused rage and aims it directly at the heart of whatever it is that is scaring us as a people. Even if we can’t destroy what it is that terrifies us or inspires such anger, perhaps together we can make it a little less scary, in the hopes of defusing the intensity of unchecked emotions. There’s a part of me that isn’t a little bit surprised that it takes the perspective of an outsider—in this case, UK playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh—to show us America in all its foul-mouthed, prejudiced, faded glory and hopeful spirit.

The pain and suffering in the town of Ebbing, Missouri, runs deep, but there’s a wicked funny sense of humor that rises to the surface as a result. Frances McDormand exudes grieving and pitch-black humor in a single line of dialogue, and her work here is so skillful, finely tuned, and essential that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her, especially when she’s on the attack (an encounter at the local dentist’s office might be one of the greatest film moments of the year). Embrace Three Billboards, hold it tight, even if you feel like it’s trying to punch you in the face. And in the process, you might be able to share a fraction of the resonance at work in it.

6. Mudbound

It’s a real shame that people didn’t get a real chance to see festival-favorite Mudbound on the big screen in most places in America. It’s a deeply impactful work (written and adapted by Dee Rees) about two families who have so much in common they could be related, except for the fact that one family is white and the other black. Set in post-World War II 1940s, the sprawling film centers on the McAllan brothers—would-be farmer Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), and his veteran brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Henry owns the muddy Mississippi land that another family, the Jacksons, live on as tenant farmers. Patriarch Hap (Rob Morgan), wife Florence (a powerful, eye-opening performance by singer Mary J. Blige), and veteran son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) all share a rundown home and seem to be at Henry’s service whenever he needs extra help.

Easily one of the most impactful film of the year, Mudbound is an endless stream of emotions, grand performances, and the search to find common ground among people who have every reason to pull together—and only one shameful reason to be separated. This is an astonishing work that deserves a big-screen run alongside the best films of 2017. If you have the opportunity to catch it in theaters, do so with all haste.

Call Me By Your Name

5. Call Me By Your Name

One of the finest films you’ll see this year is the latest from Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) is a visually lush and emotionally burning story set in the summer of 1983 in a 17th century villa in northern Italy. The Perlman family is made up of intelligent, cultured and restless souls, including 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet, who also stars in Lady Bird and the upcoming Hostiles), son of a professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator (Amira Casar). And into this arrangement comes the professor’s summer intern (Armie Hammer) to change the life and outlook of young Elio forever. Call Me By Your Name never gets tawdry or salacious or silly; Guadagnino has certainly featured far more graphic sexual encounters in his films in the past. But the performances are rich and patient, while the story allows for unexpected revelations and attitudes to reveal themselves beautifully. The director’s use of location is almost too good to be true, and will likely make you want to book at trip to Italy immediately.

4. Phantom Thread

I’m beginning to suspect that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson can do no wrong, and while he’s certainly capable of creating works that are better or worse than each other, they are all quite alarmingly great on some level…usually on many. Again pairing with his There Will Be Blood star Daniel Day-Lewis, Anderson has created Phantom Thread, a delicate piece that combines emotional and visual elements that he’s rarely tackled prior. As the title implies, there is an invisible loose end that gets tugged a little bit at a time, until it begins to unravel toward complete destruction.

Day-Lewis stars as Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer to an elite clientele who is as talented at arranging fabrics as he is at captivating and controlling young, beautiful women, including waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who may finally prove a worthy match/opponent in the games of love in which Reynolds and his weirdly attached sister (the scene-stealing Lesley Manville) engage. The film gracefully maneuvers between cold refinement and heated bitterness—often in the same scene—and the result is Anderson’s most mature work and one of Day-Lewis’s most nuanced performance, showing Reynolds as both a gifted artist and an insufferable child. The film opens in Chicago on January 12, including an extended 70mm run at the Music Box Theatre.

3. Get Out

The surprise midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Get Out, wasn’t much of a surprise by the time it began rolling, but I think it shocked more that a few attendees at just how strong, topical and occasionally startling it was. First-time writer-director Jordan Peele (half of the great comedy team Key & Peele) has been talking for a couple of years about his horror-comedy script for a project. But when the details of the plot begin to reveal themselves, I’m not quite sure anyone will be prepared for how he dives headfirst into the deep waters of racism in America, told through a story that makes it quite clear that, while racism might seem more at bay than ever before (I’m talking about the pre-President Trump era in which the film was conceived and made), the real fear amongst African-Americans is that white people are just better at hiding it these days. Get Out is so damn smart, funny, and impressively directed by Peele, who embraces certain great horror tropes, but never forgetting that the best horror and sci-fi often includes clandestine messages and commentary on modern society. And the idea of using the monster of racism as the true villain here is handled beautifully.

2. The Shape of Water

There’s a sequence somewhere in the middle of director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water, in which the world turns black-and-white for just a couple of minutes. I won’t spoil what the moment in question involves, but upon seeing the film a second time recently, I had this desire to see it entirely in shades of gray because, in many way, Elisa Esposito (a mute cleaning woman played exquisitely by Sally Hawkins) lives—and hides in—a black-and-white world. There are so many ways to call a film beautiful, and The Shape of Water is certainly that. But it’s also a powerful treatise on loneliness, isolation, and the lengths that we will go to in order to combat both. Sometimes, this results in love; other times, it takes us down a dark path simply because there are people there who will relate to us and call us heroic or special. Still other times, it can lead to a miracle, and The Shape of Water is indeed something of a cinematic miracle—the kind that Del Toro has given us over the years to the point where I’m starting to feel spoiled.

A Ghost Story | Photograph courtesy of A24

1. A Ghost Story

My favorite film from Sundance, director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, brings together the filmmaker’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints co-stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a young couple, very much in love, living a quiet, isolated life, who have their entire world ripped out from under them and replaced with something…quite different. And that’s when things get interesting and a tad difficult to explain, which is of course just the kind of cinematic environment that sparks the conversations I love. A Ghost Story was a film I’m desperate to see again after that Sundance screening, if only to understand how and why it brought me such a great sense of comfort, as if Lowery knows something that the rest of us only suspect.

Mara gives an incredibly nuanced performance here, going through every emotion possible, and even finding a few new ones, especially in those moments when she dares to try to find happiness again, feels horribly guilty, and retreats back into her sorrowful well. And Affleck, having many of the tools of the acting trade taken away from him by a bed sheet, still finds ways to communicate and convey what’s going on in his ghostly form. It’s a performance that I believe will be studied in the future. For all of these reasons and undoubtedly more that I will discover upon my sixth or seventh viewing, I embrace A Ghost Story as an experimental film that is somehow also quite accessible and deeply moving. It’s a fragile, lovely thing about fragile, lovely people, and a work that requires patience, an open mind, and a love of the unconventional.

11. Lady Bird (Dir: Greta Gerwig)

12. Colossal (Dir: Nacho Vigalondo)

13. The Square (Dir: Ruben Östlund)

14. Logan (Dir: James Mangold)

15. War for the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Matt Reeves)

16. Baby Driver (Dir: Edgar Wright)

17. Personal Shopper (Dir: Olivier Assayas)

18. Blade Runner 2049 (Dir: Denis Villeneuve)

19. Dunkirk (Dir: Christopher Nolan)

20. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dir: Rian Johnson)

21. A Quiet Passion (Dir: Terence Davies)

22. I, Tonya (Dir: Craig Gillespie)

23. Raw (Dir: Julia Ducournau)

24. The Lost City of Z (Dir: James Gray)

25. Logan Lucky (Dir: Steven Soderbergh)

26. Detroit (Dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

27. The Big Sick (Dir: Michael Showalter)

28. Good Time (Dir: Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie)

29. BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Dir: Robin Campillo)

30. Columbus (Dir: Kogonada)

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho appear in Columbus.

31. The Post (Dir: Steven Spielberg)

32. Stronger (Dir: David Gordon Green)

33. The Little Hours (Dir: Jeff Baena)

34. Wonder Woman (Dir: Patty Jenkins)

35. Thelma (Dir: Joachim Trier)

36. The Lego Batman Movie (Dir: Chris McKay)

37. Lucky (Dir: John Carroll Lynch)

38. Molly’s Game (Dir: Aaron Sorkin)

39. Coco (Dir: Lee Unkrich, co-dir: Adrian Molina)

40. Thor: Ragnarok (Dir: Taika Waititi)

41. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos)

42. It Comes At Night (Dir: Trey Edward Shults)

43. Princess Cyd (Dir: Stephen Cone)

44. A Fantastic Woman (Dir: Sebastián Lelio)

45. The Lovers (Dir: Azazel Jacobs)

46. Beatriz at Dinner (Dir: Miguel Arteta)

47. Hostiles (Dir: Scott Cooper)

48. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Dir: Jon Watts)

49. Wind River (Dir: Taylor Sheridan)

50. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Dir: James Gunn)

20 Best Documentaries of 2017

As I do every year, I separate out documentaries, not because I feel they should be judged differently than feature films, but because I want to put as many great doc titles in front of you as I possibly can, and trying to do that and still limit my main list to 50 films is an impossibility. I get such a wonderfully unique charge from a great documentary, whether it’s on a subject I know a great deal about or if it covers ground I’d never even considered in terms of perspective, information, or sources of outrage.

Sometimes, the sheer beauty or tragedy of a subject moves us to tears; other times, it’s something quite ugly and worth despising that gets under the skin, takes root, and refuses to let go until we take action (often times, that action is the simple act of sharing the film with others). The experience I treasure the most when it comes to documentaries is when a genuinely well-made work doesn’t just examine a subject, but it also allows me to consider a way of thinking that I’d never considered.

Part of the thrill of being a living, thinking human being is taking in new things, taking part in new experiences, and allowing this newness to infect and inspire us with fresh ideas. That’s the standard to which I hold documentaries: don’t just move me or teach me, but change me in some way. Here are 20 titles I think do just that…

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

1. Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Every year, 87-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman releases another epic-length film (usually running three hours or more), and every year I become immersed and fascinated with whatever his subject matter is and am desperate to know more about the lives of the people working and existing in whatever the setting might be. With his latest, Ex Libris, the filmmaker tackles all that goes on inside the walls of the New York Public Library’s primary location on Fifth Avenue, as well as several of its 92 branches.

It’s impossible not to be moved and impressed, seeing the inner workings of an institution this vast, where so many ideas are both on display, hidden away for only the most inquisitive minds, and discussed in countless forums throughout the facility. In one of Wiseman’s finest modern works, we are reminded of the democratic nature of libraries, and how all religions, political ideas, races and classes are represented on equal footing within. The great filmmaker reminds us that while many of the films on my Best Documentary list represent a certain segment of the population or unique perspective, a library is meant to be represent every person and idea.

2. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Dir: Steve James)

3. City of Ghosts (Dir: Matthew Heineman)

4. Rat Film (Dir: Theo Anthony)

5. The Work (Dir: Jairus McLeary & Gethin Aldous)

6. Faces Places (Dir: JR & Agnès Varda)

7. Kedi (Dir: Ceyda Torun)

8. Whose Streets? (Dir: Sabaah Folayan & Damon Davis)

9. Human Flow (Dir: Ai Weiwei)

10. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (Dir: Errol Morris)

11. Obit. (Dir: Vanessa Gould)

12. Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two (Dir: Danny Clinch)

13. Trophy (Dir:  Christina Clusiau & Shaul Schwarz)

Image courtesy of National Geographic

14. Jane (Dir: Brett Morgen)

15. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Dir: Alexandra Dean)

16. Voyeur (Dir: Myles Kane & Josh Koury)

17. Step (Dir: Amanda Lipitz)

18. Gilbert (Dir: Neil Berkeley)

19. Rebels on Pointe (Dir: Bobbi Jo Hart)

20. California Typewriter (Dir: Doug Nichol)

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